Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is College Required for Writers?

I've just completed the last of my school talks this spring, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was speaking to single class groups, and the terrific thing about that is that I'm able to answer so many more questions from each student. I closed this speaking season talking with elementary school students, but I've spoken with a great many high school students and middle school students this spring, and many of these older students ask me about college.

Some of these enterprising students want to know what they should major in if they want to become writers. Some of them ask me whether they should go to college at all. These are important questions, and I try to answer them honestly.

I tell them:
Don't take creative writing in college. Their teacher will teach students the way he or she writes, not the special way of writing that each student has within him or her. Instead, take classes analyzing great writers - I took classes in Shakespeare, Dickens, Kafka, Milton, and groups of novelists (18th c. American writers, for example, and an overview course in "the novel"). Seeing how other writers have created powerful literature will give students ideas about how they can come up with their own ways of writing moving stories or books.

Write for their college newspaper, because the discipline of meeting deadlines with good copy will stand them in good stead in writing regularly for the rest of their lives.

Don't go to college expecting that a degree will help get a job as a writer upon graduation, because there are no magic courses that will help them sell their Great American Novel. However, if they take as many different types of courses as they can, and open their minds and hearts to the information they can take away from those courses, from the professors they talk with outside the classrooms, from the students they meet and with whom they discuss life, then they'll develop their own unique ways of thinking. If they can think creatively and critically and for themselves, then that will become the soul of their writing. College is useful to broaden minds for writers; it's not a punchcard that will guarantee profitable work.

I never took a creative writing course at Rice University. I majored in English, Political Science and History. I wrote for the student newspaper (Rice had no journalism department) and also wrote four novels before I graduated. College is for studying the world around you and beginning to apply what you've seen, before you have to make a living at it. Three of those books were, well, terrible. They were practice novels, I suppose. But the fourth one had real promise. I kept working on it as I learned more about writing as a published author and finally, 25 years after I completed the first draft in college, Harcourt published SIMON SAYS. To this day, I get more passionate emails from teen readers about that book than any other.

College will give a future writer a handsome degree to hang on your wall, terrific friends you'll never forget, and the experience and intellectual background to see the world around you in a unique way that will forever inspire your future writing. Just don't expect a paying job to greet you on your graduation.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sleep Writing - Part 2

The last piece of sleep advice that conference speakers like to give writers is: "Record your dreams - you may find wonderful stories in them." I resisted this advice for years.

Perhaps I was hampered by a story my mother used to tell me. She had a recurring dream in which she would get out of bed, sit down at a desk, and begin writing by hand. She would write through the long hours of the night and finally stop at dawn, with a stack of manuscript pages to show for her efforts.

At that point my mother would wake up. She always remembered the dream in detail, and she knew she had written a bestseller. The only catch was - she couldn't remember a word of what she had written.This might be an understandable dream for a writer, but my mother wasn't one. In fact, she tried to discourage me from becoming a writer. "Be a doctor," she advised, "and write in your spare time."

I, however, couldn't imagine writing in my spare time any more than I could imagine creating stories from my dreams. They made perfect sense while I was asleep, but they lacked coherence in the light of my computer monitor, and faded into wisps of insubstantial plot and character. So I was astounded to wake one morning from a vivid dream that would not let me go.

I'd dreamed of a boy in a dark, smelly cellar. The boy stood in a small room, in front of the open drawer of a file cabinet, reading through a file of news clippings. And I knew exactly what he was doing. His name was Cameron, and he was the son of a serial killer. His father locked him in the cellar while he tortured and murdered the young boys who were his victims. Then the man made Cameron help him bury the boys in the cellar, but the smell never completely went away.

Serial killers always keep souvenirs from their victims, and Cameron's father kept news clippings about the search for the missing boys in a file cabinet in his cellar. But his son had found them and read them until he knew the dead boys almost better than he knew himself. And when his father was killed in an attempted arrest, Cameron decided to take on the identity of one of the murdered boys, and try to begin a new life with a real family, as an impostor.

That morning, with the dream still fresh in my mind, I wrote what would become the prologue of COUNTERFEIT SON. Six months of research and writing later, the novel was finished. When the book was published, it was chosen immediately for the YALSA Quick Picks list and went on to win an Edgar for Best Young Adult mystery and quite a few other honors.

Do I keep a pad at my bedside these days so I can write down my dreams? You bet I do. Lightning doesn't usually strike twice, but I've since had another vivid dream that I turned into a story called "Gatekeeper" available from iPulp. Who knows what I'll dream tonight? I'm now a believer in making my sleep work for me.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sleep Writing - Part 1

I love attending writing conferences. I particularly love listening to writers share their techniques for maximizing their writing time. Much of this has to do with sleep. As Snoopy, the world-famous author, often said, "Sleep is life" and we writers often sleep when we could be writing. In fact, speakers frequently advise attendees to get up early and write while their family sleeps. That's probably terrific advice, if you're conscious in the early morning hours.

At 5 AM I'm incoherent. I'm doing amazingly well if I can find the keys to pick out: "I am a writer. I am writing now." But progress on a book at that hour? Forget it. I used to write after my husband went to sleep, since I'm more conscious at night and better able to wake my characters up at late hours. While working on my latest book, however, I've been waking up around 7:30 or 8 (or 8:30 or...), lying in bed and thinking about the book, and getting immediately to work on it without any distractions (do not pass the kitchen, do not eat breakfast, do not watch the morning news).

This is more in keeping with another suggestion conference speakers like to make: "Keep a notepad by your bed. Inspiration can strike while you're sleeping." When I'm deeply in the world of a book, I always try to think about it just as I'm falling asleep. And I'll often wake up with terrific ideas that came to my subconscious while my conscious brain was sleeping.

I rely on this technique when I'm working through a problem with a book. When I was writing Ghost Soldier, I realized I'd done such a good job in the first part of the book of making Alexander frightened of a Civil War ghost and determined not to help him, that I had no idea how Alexander would end up making friends with the ghost so they could work together in the remainder of the book. So I slept on it.

I woke up with the melody of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" running through my head.

I already knew that Alexander spent his evenings sitting on the back porch playing his alto recorder to annoy his father. I realized he was going to start playing "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" one evening, deliberately playing it angrily, to hurt the ghost because he never got to march home to his family. But as Alexander plays it, he hears an eerie, reedy harmony weaving itself around his mellow recorder melody. When he looks around, he sees that the ghost has joined him, playing his own ghostly harmonica. It's a song the ghost knew well because it was popular when he was alive, and it doesn't hurt him at all. Instead, his harmony calms Alexander. Somehow it's hard to be angry at someone after you've made music together. The song opens Alexander up to listen to the ghost, befriend him and agree to help him.

Where did the idea come from? Somewhere in my subconscious as I slept. And sometimes the subconscious can be even more generous in your sleep - but I'll cover that in Part 2.