For Writers

Once in a while I’ve heard people in my profession claim, with the back of a hand thrown across their foreheads, that it’s a curse to be a writer. I am inclined to tell them: Get real. Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson.

I teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. If you’re considering an MFA, here are some opinions and resources.

If you’re new to this game and your find yourself tripping over writers’ jargon, here’s a list with definitions. (Thanks to Barbara Lincoln and also to Anna and her mom!)

20 writing tips I wish I’d heard 20 years ago

  1. You can never be a fair judge of your own work.
  2. Drafts are meant to be drafty.
  3. It doesn’t matter where you want the story to go: Where does the story want to go?
  4. Writing takes time.
  5. The beginning is often not what you think it is.
  6. In order to write you need to read.
  7. In order to write well, you need to write a lot and throw away most of it.
  8. If you’re writing for children, send problem-solving adult characters into exile.
  9. Ideas are cheap. What matters is how you bring them to the page.
  10. Take your character to a cliff; then push her off.
  11. Dialogue must serve more than one purpose.
  12. Narrative must carry its weight.
  13. You must serve the story.
  14. You can’t afford to waste valuable critique time looking only for praise.
  15. Don’t depend on adjectives and adverbs to pull weak nouns and verbs out of a jam.
  16. Don’t make your readers work so hard that they lose interest.
  17. But don’t connect all the dots either: Trust your reader.
  18. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s going to make a good story.
  19. Read generously so you have lots to give in turn when you write.
  20. Don’t banish your inner critic: Make her work for you.

Craft-related books on my shelf

Caution: Don’t get hooked on craft books! They can be addictive, and you might forget that the point is to write and write better.

* specific to children’s books

Ruskin Bond, Scenes From a Writer’s Life: A Memoir. 1997, Penguin (India)

Connie C. Epstein, The Art of Writing for Children. 1991, Archon/The Shoe String Press* David Michael Kaplan, Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction. 1997, Story Press

David Jauss, ed. Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight From the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A. Program. 2009, Writer’s Digest Books.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. 2000, Scribner.

Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never. 1995, HarperCollins

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 1994, Anchor/Doubleday

Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. 1998, The Eighth Mountain Press

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. 2004, Shambhala.

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. 2000, Riverhead/Putnam

Leonard Marcus, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. HarperCollins*

Leonard Marcus, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon. 1992, Beacon Press*

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry. 1994, Harcourt Brace.

Katherine Paterson, A Sense of Wonder: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. 1995, Plume/Penguin*

Philip Pullman, Daemon Voices. 2018, Knopf. *

Maurice Sendak, Caldecott & Co. 1988, Farrar Straus & Giroux*

Jane Yolen, Take Joy. 2003, The Writer, Inc.*

William Zinsser (Editor), Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children. 1998, Mariner/Houghton Mifflin *

Rejection is part of the deal

Not everything you write will get published. That’s just as well! (I’m thinking of all the junk I once thought was fit for submission–I ought to write thank-you letters to those editors who wisely rejected them). Still, back in 1996, I received a spate of rejection letters that I felt were completely undeserved. I dreamed up this response, and the SCBWI Bulletin published it in their April 1996 issue. I’ve seen several like it floating around the Internet over the years, but this one’s my very own. These days, with submission portals and emails only upon interest, the days of envelopes and letters seem quaint and old-fashioned, but the sentiments haven’t changed that much.

With Regret…by Uma Krishnaswami

Dear Editorial Staff, Children’s Books: Thank you for your careful review of my manuscript, and for your considered rejection of it. Although your accompanying letter seemed to be intended for someone by the name of “Contributor,” the envelope was addressed to me, so I have taken the liberty of appropriating the entire contents. Your rejection letter was very thoroughly reviewed, and it is with regret that I find myself unable to accept it. It is just not right for my collection. You must understand that I receive dozens of such letters in my weekly correspondence, and it is very difficult to accept every single one. I therefore return it herewith. I wish you the best of luck with any future rejection letters you send out. Not all authors think alike, and perhaps you will have better luck elsewhere.

Best wishes, Anne E. Author