Friday, May 15, 2009

Lael on Writing for Young Readers: How to Get There

After spending the last few months getting two creaky knees replaced, I'm excited to be teaching at the BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop from June 8th to the 12th. For more info, click here.  

I will be teaching the principles I learned from the best writing teacher in the world, Helen Hinckley Jones, who taught an ongoing extended day classs at Pasadena City College, and after retirement a class in her home for a chosen few. I studied with her for over twenty-years, until her death. After that, a group of twelve of her students continued to meet twice a week. Out of this group has come over 600 books for children and young people (as well as a few women’s novels).

One of the wisest things Helen, whom we called our ‘literary mama,’ ever said was, “Remember in writing for kids that they don’t want to look at the forest. They want to meet the bear.” She said that in writing for kids you get to the action immediately. Forget about beautiful descriptions. Bring on the bear!

Whenever one of us started a new book, Helen insisted that we be able to state the story question in one sentence. Why is Carlene having memories of a town where she has never lived? Will Robin discover the secret of the haunted dress? Will Selene be able to choose between her two families, the one that raised her and the one she was kidnapped from thirteen years before? “The story question is your roadmap to where you are going on your journey through the book,” Helen said. “It keeps you focused.”

Some rules were made to be broken if you write well enough, Helen admitted. But one of her inflexible rules was that the character must solve his/her own problem. The stakes must be high. What is the dreadful alternative if the character can’t solve the problem?

We, her students, came week after week after week, learning from her. She was hard on us and didn’t let us get away with being lazy about our writing. But we loved her classes. I told my brother once that her class was the highlight of my week. His face bunched up with sympathy. “You poor thing,” he said. And my husband said, “You women get together at least twice a week. Don’t you ever run out of things to talk about?” No. Any writer worth his/her salt will understand that.

We all went through hard times. An astute writer named L. Rust Mills has said, “The sinister thing about writing is that it starts off seeming so easy and ends up being so hard.” But Helen never let us give us during the hard time. “Persist,” she said. “That’s the secret.”

We persisted. And succeeded. Over 600 books attest to that fact. 

And so I hope to encourage my class in June to persist. Learning the rules, as taught by Helen, will help. Although Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”           

But we will have fun talking about what is a passion with all of us writers -- writing.