Twenty-three pages into the book, I slam it shut and throw it onto the pile to be returned to the library. This has become the story of my life lately. Is it age? Diminishing attention span? Maybe. For some reason, I have grown increasingly intolerant not only of bad writing, but also of merely good writing. Good is not enough. I want the exquisite. I crave beauty—beautiful language, beautiful story-telling, and beautiful ideas—and all in one book.
This is hard to find. There are books where the language sings, but the story-telling is weak. There are books where the story enthralls, but the language is plebian. And there are books where the language and story-telling delight, but the ideas are warmed over soup. So who does it all? Four children’s authors spring to mind—Kate DiCamillo, Karen Hesse, Juliette Marillier, and sometimes Patricia McKillip. (Her language is always beautiful, but the story is not always compelling. Although in Od Magic she combines both brilliantly.) These authors have become my guiding stars.
I need the guidance. I came to writing through a love of language. In the early days the language was more important to me than the story and the idea—though I didn’t realize this at the time. I wrote my novels by plunging in and seeing what happened next. It took years before I learned the importance of idea and story. Now I play with ideas and story line before I begin a novel. I know my premise, inciting incident, crisis and climax, story arc. But nothing is set in stone—no rigid outline—ideas develop and change when I do begin writing, in response to the writing. This I think is the key: Language affects story, and story affects language. For example, finding a specific detail that makes a scene come alive can alter, enhance, or illuminate the story itself. The trick is to be alive to this interplay. That keeps the writing process fresh and spontaneous, and lets the all important sub-conscious to become my ally.
I wrote my forthcoming two middle grade novels—Eva of the Farm (Atheneum, Summer 2012) and its as yet untitled companion (Atheneum, Summer 2013) in this way. I love these books. I hope that they will cast some small light worthy of my guiding stars, and that the reader will read past the twenty-third page.