By Cynthia Leitich Smith
Joe Lawlor is the first-time author of Bully.com (Eerdmans, 2013). From the promotional copy:
Jun never wanted to be a detective. He’s a shy kid, better at interfacing with PCs than people.
But his world turns upside down when the principal accuses him of posting pictures on the school’s website that expose the eating disorder of one of his classmates.
To prove his innocence, Jun has seven days to track down the true cyber bully.
Jun’s investigation will bring him face-to face with computer hackers, a jealous boyfriend, and more than one student who has been a victim of bullying.
He discovers along the way that everyone’s story is more complicated than it seems — and that the people he meets have more in common than they think.
How do you psyche yourself up to write, to keep writing, and to do the revision necessary to bring your manuscript to a competitive level?
I wake up every weekday morning at five, take a shower, and then write for at least one hour. This has been my habit for nearly ten years. Sounds torturous, I know, but I’m a morning person and my brain is at its creative best before the pressures of the day intrude.
I have tried to psyche myself up for additional writing throughout the day, but much like planned trips to the gym, these good intentions often get rescheduled, bumped, or more likely, canceled. The 5 a.m. writing time is sacred. It is not a conscious choice; it is merely a part of my daily routine.
I would not go to bed without brushing my teeth and I would not wake up without writing for at least an hour.
An hour is not really enough, and yet I have found that the cumulative effect of writing every morning yields better results than waiting for that miraculous day when I have an extended block of free time. To be fair, on the weekends, I do write for several hours. Often, I look up from my screen to discover that it’s lunch time and I’m still in my pajamas.
However, I strongly believe that it is the rigidness of my weekday writing that allows me to indulge on the weekends. Monday through Friday is my bread and butter. Weekends are dessert.
What, for you, are the special challenges in achieving this goal? What techniques have worked best and why?
Two challenges encroach on successful writing sessions. First, I’m
less of a writer and more of a rewriter. Beautiful, electric, engaging
prose does not flow freely from my brain. It’s a long, labored process
of rewriting, reshaping, re-everything.
First drafts are messy and
often incoherent. And yet, I continue to plow ahead because each
morning I give myself permission to write badly.
disappointing writing session, I am often reminded of the Tim Burton
movie, Ed Wood. Mr. Wood is widely considered the worst movie director
of all time. In one scene, he is speaking on the phone with Mr. Feldman
at Warner Brothers studios. Ed Wood says, “So – we gonna be working
together [pauses to listen] Really? Worst movie you ever saw. Well, my
next one will be better.”
It’s probably not a good idea to
derive inspiration from the infamous director of Plan 9 from Outer
Space, and yet, this quote shows Mr. Wood’s relentlessly optimistic
belief in the creative process. This is my mantra as well. Every
morning, when I stare down at prose that feels flat or derivative or
simply uninspired, I tell myself, that tomorrow will be better. And
usually it is.
The second major challenge is my 18-month-old son, Sam. Like his father, Sam is an early riser. Not that I don’t cherish every moment with my beautiful son, but the mornings are mine, mine, mine! At least, they used to be.
Now I must share my writing time with my son. When I should be creating, I find myself cradling. When I should be composing prose, I find myself singing silly songs.
These days, when I sit in front of my computer, I have no idea how much time I will have before I hear his waking wails.
Because of this, I am an efficient solider in the mornings. No time for dozing on my palm. No time for gazing out the window, searching for inspiration. I get right to work, feeling blessed for every extra minute Sam allows.
As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?
I have worked as a sixth grade Language Arts teacher for over ten years and I’m proud to say I love the job. Sixth graders are energetic, silly, and sharper than one might expect.
The job also allows me an opportunity to spy on my target audience. I am the constant observer, making mental notes about dialogue, mannerisms, clothing, and actions.
To say that my job is a well of inspiration is not accurate. It’s more like Old Faithful, gushing with ideas on a regular and repeating basis.
Just under a hundred kids pass through my classroom daily and they’re all toting independent reading books. This provides me with a window into what’s popular with my target age group without ever having to step inside a bookstore.
Often, while I’m winding my way around the desks, I’ll stop to browse a book lying beside a student’s elbow. Each new class brings a fresh set of books to explore. It’s like a library that rotates inventory every 42 minutes! And you should hear the recommendations.
My students are often bursting with enthusiastic praise.
Student: Mr. Lawlor, you have to read this. It’s the best book I ever read.
Me: You said that last week about another book.
Student: Yes, but this time I really, really mean it.
Me: (examining the cover) More post-apocalyptic fiction?
Student: But there’s no vampires this time. You’re gonna love it!
As illustrated above, the current trend for kids is end-of-the-world fiction. However, the important thing to remember is that at this age level, emotions are heightened. I see this happen daily in the hallways and the cafeteria. A nasty text from a friend is the end of the world for a thirteen-year-old. The real challenge as an author is to accurately recreate those feelings on the page. Only when I pluck the correct emotional strings, do the characters truly resonate with this age group.
My best advice for aspiring authors is to hang around kids. Drink in their insecurities, their energy, and their silly sense of humor. More often than not, you’ll walk away with a great deal of new ideas and a big, goofy grin on your face.
Finally, don’t underestimate your audience. Kids today are surrounded by stories, whether they encounter them through video games, TV shows, graphic novels, web series, or on their e-readers. They may not be able to accurately name the stages of a plot map, but they know a good story when they read one. They can grasp sophisticated plotlines and grapple with complex character emotions.
Often when I write, I ask myself—is this idea too advanced for my audience? Once I picture the kids I teach, and the books they love, I realize the answer is no. They can handle the tough stuff. They like it. They gravitate toward it. Kids would rather stretch to understand a new concept than read a book that talks down to them.
Overall, kids are a surprisingly sharp audience that appreciates a well-told story just as much as the adults who write them.