Cynsations Intern: Stephani Eaton on The Joy of Writing

Stephani Eaton, photo by Tanya Odom

By Stephani Eaton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was in second grade, I wrote a poem about an impending storm that pleased my dad so much that he hung it in his office. It stayed there for years.

I recently asked if he remembered what it said and he rattled off: “This dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I had to laugh at the melodrama of my seven-year-old self. Laughed and said, “What on earth does that mean?”

He defended my first “serious” writing attempt as the start of my writing journey.

Second grade was a pivotal year, one in which words came alive for me. I remember bringing a story to Mrs. Giannone’s desk and in the middle of reading it she put her head on her desk and fell asleep!

Well, she didn’t really fall asleep, but I had used the word “nice” and she was showing me how boring that was for a reader. Her reaction amused me to no end. It lit up my brain and made me want to write, write, write.

Young Stephani at the keyboard

Yet, I learned later that too much pizazz in the writing just gets in the way of meaning. My dad would harp on me to “say what I mean” and not to embellish too much. In a book report on Ivanhoe, I had cooked up some flowery sentences. He asked what they meant and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. Finally, after much back and forth and lots of frustration, I told him that I was just trying to say that the book made me think.

“Say that!” he said.
He taught me not only the importance of clarity but precision. That’s what you get when your dad has a PhD in biochemistry but loves to read literature and history. The copy he gave me of Ernest Hemingway’s On Writing (Grafton Books, 1986) is still on my shelf.

In sixth grade, Mrs. Siltman told me I was good at reading and writing only after she told me I needed to stay in for recess because I talked too much. This is probably the year that I discovered Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabitha (Crowell, 1977) and Gilly Hopkins (Crowell, 1978). And it was one year before I met Anne of Green Gables (by L.M. Montgomery, L.C. Page & Co., 1908).

I wore those books out.
All the while I was writing, writing, writing at home. We had gotten a new Apple IIc computer and it had Print Shop software on it. I obsessively made newspapers filled with stories of our family life to send to my out-of-state-grandparents. Grandparents are the best audience. 

In high school, the boy who sat in front of me in AP English frustrated me to no end. He aced all the timed writings and our teacher frequently used his work as the model to which to aspire. I was a good student, but no standout.

The same was true of my undergrad experience. I earned a BA in English and secondary education with a journalism add-on, but not with stellar grades. After graduation, I taught middle school and loved it. I had a whole crop of kids to introduce to books and writing. An added bonus, I got to teach my beloved Gilly Hopkins.

I needed to get a Master’s to continue teaching, so I decided I would pursue my first love and what I felt I never had time for in undergrad: creative writing. I worked and worked on a manuscript. I had no idea what I was doing.

I was promptly rejected.
Several years and two babies later, I sat back down to write. It felt familiar. It felt right. But it was hard. I realized quickly that I needed and wanted to learn more. I wanted to take all those creative writing courses that I never took in undergrad, that I wanted to take in graduate school. So, I applied to four MFA writing programs.

I was promptly rejected.

It would have been wise for me to remember what I knew as a second grader, that: “this dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I boxed up my seventeen drafts that weren’t getting me into school.

And I started over.

I did what I could. I joined a critique group, went to some conferences, and listened to webinars. I read craft books such as A Sense of Wonder by Paterson (Plume Books, 1995) which fueled my purpose to write. I read blogs like this one (but few as good).

About eighteen months later, I had something that looked more like a story. A friend invited me to go with her to an SCBWI conference in New York.

By chance, we met some Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni, who were gracious when I confessed I had been rejected from their program. Later, one of them came to find me and introduced me to VCFA’s recruiter. They both sincerely encouraged me to apply again.

I texted my husband in a flurry of eagerness.

Seconds later he texted, “Do it!”

I did.

Even though I didn’t get in on the first try, when I did get to VCFA it provided me with everything my seven-year-old self could have dreamed of: encouraging mentors, a community of writers, a place to grow and experiment.

Katherine Patterson and Stephani in Oxford

I added to the champions in my corner a hundredfold. I even traveled for a week with, Katherine Paterson (the author of those books I wore out), during a VCFA writing residency in Bath.

But most importantly, VCFA gave me an excuse and a reason to don my favorite hoodie and sit down at the keyboard and write.

Stephani and family on a research trip
to the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina

Writing has become a family activity. My husband loves to write. My kids write. We share our writing with each other. We go on research trips together.

It has become part of the fabric of our family life.

The writing life is full of refusals, rejections, and revisions. No writer’s life is free of those storms, those “dark and rainy noons.” But those pass.

And even amidst those storms there is joy.

Joy in creation, joy in community, joy in those moments alone with the blank page and the promise of what’s possible.

Oh, and that boy who frustrated me to no end in AP English?

Reader, I married him.

Guest Post: Lara Herrington Watson on Analyze This: A Grammatical Breakdown of Favorite First Chapters

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By Lara Herrington Watson
@lashwatson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

As I finished writing my second YA novel, I worried that my writing was getting stagnant.

What if I was learning bad habits that I would repeat through all of my future novels?

In order to glean some knowledge about my writing, I completed grammatical analyses on the first chapters of works by some of my favorite authors (Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Barbara Kingsolver, David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell, and J.K. Rowling), and on my own novel.

I calculated percentages of sentences that begin with a subject, adverb, etc. I also looked at percentages of sentence type used: fragments, complex sentences, etc.

Here’s what I learned:



When reading your manuscript straight through for errors, highlighting different parts of speech individually (nouns, verbs, adverbs…) is an excellent editing method. This is how I started the project, and while it didn’t teach me much about my writing, scanning it piecemeal made the text pop in a different way. I discovered a dozen small errors and typos that I and my writing group had not yet found (in the first 50 pages alone).

Simplicity is okay. Forty-five percent of all my sentences are simple. I start 63 percent of my sentences with subjects. At first I was sure this was too high. But these numbers are actually pretty average compared to my favorite authors.

Levithan had the highest percentages of simple sentences and of sentences beginning with subjects (65%), but his writing is still some of the most poetic, jazzy, and prismatic writing I’ve read. Maybe this is because of the many gorgeous participial phrases in the middle or at the end of his sentences.

Similarly, Rowell’s writing gets more interesting (lots of fragments composed of participial phrases) whenever the protagonist waxes nostalgic about his girlfriend. Much like Levithan, her fragments make seemingly small, subtle emotional steps that work.

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Austen had the second highest percentage of fragments (Blame Mrs. Bennet’s blathering about Bingley.). Austen also uses the smallest range of tools for sentence starters, yet she scores fairly high in her use of complex sentences.

Complexity is also okay. One myth among young writers is that long sentences are always run-on sentences. This is untrue.

Take Hemingway, who is surprisingly complex. Because of his reputation as a straightforward, clear writer, I expected him to score high in fragments, but he had the least of anyone: only 2.2%.

His complex sentences were also the most complex of any I analyzed. Compared to writers like Levithan and Rowell, Hemingway often covers more ground (years, literally) with longer, more complex, and exceptionally clear sentences.

Use a range of tools. As far as sentence starters, Rowling definitely uses the widest range of tools. It’s probably not a coincidence that her varied writing has captivated children and adults alike.

Don’t focus too much on statistics. Initially, I thought that the best writing would have the greatest variation. But some sentence starters and structures work better depending on the author’s voice and the novel’s contents; Hemingway and Kingsolver, for example, punctuate their long, complex sentences with short, punchy ones. This may not make the most interesting graph, but it sets their voices apart and makes for great fiction.

My sample size is admittedly small. I’m only looking at first chapters, and there’s plenty more to learn. But my brain hurts from too much data entry, and the boarding school from my third novel beckons.

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