Guiding Principles

Ultra-fabulous editor, Cheryl Klein (whom I could gush about for pages and pages if I'm not very controlled and careful...) made a great point on her blog yesterday about the fact that writers of childrens' and YA literature are rarely asked about their principles for writing because they generally are not given the same literary respect as adult fiction writers. She wants to hear from kid lit authors on the subject - "What principles, large or small, guide your storytelling? What are your ten rules for writers?"

Here is my way. It more personal than say, the wise advice of someone like Elizabeth Gilbert. But it is the only way I know, and the only way I keep going.

1.) Make sacrifices. Don't give up the essentials - food, water, clean children, adequate sleep. But determine how much time is spent on "need" and on "want." And of those "want" hours, carve out a daily window of writing time. Get up before dawn. Consoldate email/internet interaction to one time a day.  Set knitting aside for a few years. Keep a check on volunteer activities. Turn off the TV. Turn off the cell phone. Go to bed on time. (Sounds schoolmarmish, I know, but if you get up at 4:44 am, it makes all the difference). Be disciplined now, and you will thank yourself in a few years when that daily window is something you will NEVER give up.

2.) Reward yourself. My reward for obeying the alarm? Tea. Assam or some other strong black brew amended the way I adopted during our year abroad in Scotland - good milk and plenty of sugar. I also make sure I eat a slice of homemade bread with cream cheese so that my brain has some fuel too. Not rocket-science...but the older and busier I get, the easier it is to forget or forgo the basics.

3.) Prepare for the muse. One of my writing friends does morning pages. Another reflects on a poem a day. My way is prayer. Stillness. Listening. Speaking my heart. Why? So that I remember the tiny part of the process that I control and the much larger one that is in the hands of the Divine.

4.) Write. Actually put words on the page. Even when it feels like extricating a weed with a taproot that reaches all the way to middle earth.

5. ) Keep writing. Even when it feels like jumping onto the hang-glider you didn't know was waiting in mid-air and soaring with indescribable wonder over all you have created. Even after you crash and find yourself scraping your face off the deepest, darkest cave floor. Write as though you are the reader. Write as though you HAVE TO KNOW what will come next. Praise yourself. Bully yourself. Talk to yourself as though you are the coach of an unruly soccer team. Rein in the parts of yourself that would rather be slide-tackled by an opponent than chase after that ball for one more minute. Practice. Practice. Practice. And when you lose, replay the game in order to spot what you did right and what you did wrong. Move on and try again with renewed purpose. Because the more you play, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the greater your finesse. And the greater your finesse, the better your chances of, not just scoring a goal, but winning the game.

6.) Read. Listen. Watch. Of course I am talking about books here - read the authors of the past and the ones here-and-now. Know where the literary imagination has been so that you know where you might go. But listen to music too - the wordless variety and the kind so full of words that you think for days on its true meaning. And watch, both the stories of real life (those that happen right under your nose and those that come to you by hearsay) and those portrayed through film, opera, movies, ballet. Fill your mind with stories and eventually you will come to intuit things like tension, irony, suspense, innuendo, tragedy, triumph. When I'm feeling blocked, I jump on one of these three things, and inevitably...eventually...something will shift and I'll see my way again.

7.) Use your internal compass to forge your own path north. Measure critiques by it. Be open to switchbacks and gullies and the occasional swinging vine or leg-up. Use falls to sit still and listen and wonder. But watch that arrow. It may indicate a different summit than the one you originally set out to conquer. But it is likely to be one with a view you - with your crazy-wild imagination - could not have dreamed up on your own. And soak up the gift like rain.

8.) Meet your goals. Especially with first drafts. Word-counts. A page a day. A certain number of scenes. Or something more open-ended like getting MC through this tangle and on to the next. End your session with something you want to return to next time.

9.) Think in scenes, rather than chapters. Discover what each character wants or needs on each page. Remember that if you worry your protagonist, you are likely to worry your reader. And that should keep them turning the page.

10.) Revise for as many years as it takes. Because it probably will take far longer than you hoped (but who's counting?) Don't just tinker with words and sentences (as I did for far too long at the beginning of my writing journey). Re-vision. See the entire scope from a different angle. Journal from a different character's p.o.v. Choose a different setting for that scene that's bogged down. Question if you have begun the scene in the right place. Make sure you love your MC enough to torture her, and torture her, and provide - by degrees- a way out. Step into the room of your story through a different door and notice what you missed the last time you were here. Pay attention to the niggling questions - the things that bother you, the things you can't seem to be satisfied with. Keep knocking (or banging your head) until the door opens.

....and most importantly...

11.) Love. People over projects. Yes, showing up for work (BIC) is absolutely essential and important and should be done consistently, with fervor, and with dogged determination. But your loved ones deserve FAR MORE than what is left over. They deserve the best of your passion and compassion. So learn to corral the clamor of the imagination and be present to the people, especially the children, in your life. Be with them and for them. Pour yourself out in the hours away from your desk and trust that THAT work is the best way to refill the creative well.

What do you do? Yoga? Jump rope? Eat Cheetos or chocolate? What does your compass tell you? What is your manifesto? I'd love to hear it.


  1. Nice post, Bethany. One thing I have found that works for me as I'm revising my historical novel, is to read SOMETHING related to my period or the dialect or the place-- just to help me jump back into 60 years ago in Charlotte.

  2. Great advice!

    I'm headed for my blog to link to this post. Thanks.

    Jean Hall

  3. Great post! Number 10 spoke to me as if telling me that it's OKAY that the umpteenth revision of my novel will delay it perhaps another year. I can see that revision is making my novel better and better, but as unrealistic as I know it is, I keep thinking that other writers would get it right the first time. Thanks for your list. Now, back to the keyboard.

  4. Dear Bethany,
    Thanks for sharing your guidelines. Great ideas to ponder. Do something good for yourself today.
    Joan Y. Edwards

  5. Carol - I love the idea of reading something from the time period you are writing - I'll have to add THAT to my writing stew!

    Sandra - wouldn't it be interesting to know how many times our draft pages (laid end to end) would circle the world? If we printed out each one, that is. I'm glad for the digital age where we don't have to create that much waste...

    Joan and Jean - thanks for your encouraging words! It means a lot.

  6. Bethany,

    I enjoyed your post and I love your blog layout too. You've obviously done a great deal of thinking about the writing process and defined what works best for you. Reading your thoughts makes me re-evalutate my own. Thanks!

    Linda A.

  7. Bethany,
    Thanks for sharing your guidelines.
    Jean Matthews did share your blog with a link from her blog. She is really a gem.
    Jan Parys

  8. Great, Bethany! Very inspirational. thank you.

  9. Very nice! I like the idea to "end your session with something you want to return to next time." That's a powerful idea. (And motivating . . .)