On Monday mornings, I work in my son’s high school media center. Since the media specialist knows I’m an avid reader and published writer, she recently tasked me with helping her weed the school’s book collection.
“It’s the job no librarian wants to do,” she said. Then she sent me into the Fiction stacks, rows and rows of books that have been added to but not pared down since the 1980s.
My instructions — and I swear she winced when she gave them to me – were to look at each book, evaluate when it was last checked out, determine if the content is intriguing or appropriate for high schoolers, and look at the cover to decide if it’s too boring or outdated to be picked up by today’s teen.
The second I started, I completely understood why she runs away and hides in her office while I yank books from the shelves. Some of these books look brand new and have never been checked out despite being decades old. Some just haven’t been touched in the past three years, which often meets the weeding criteria for keeping library collections useful and fresh. Some titles chosen before YA/teen literature came into its own in the 1990s have content that is more middle grade and just too young for today’s high schooler. Some have covers so bland you can’t even determine the genre, or the cover is so old and outdated (think ‘80s hair and clothing) that today’s teen would be embarrassed to be seen with it.
I know these books have to go to make room for newer titles … and still, when I pull each one off the shelf, knowing how much time and effort and care went into it, it is gut-wrenching to put it on the “DELETE” cart. I’ve had to “delete” books that were signed by authors and given personally to the library. MY book’s in that library, and I’m sad to think about how it will fare during a future weeding process. **sigh**
But “the classics” stay, along with more modern books from many genres that continue to be checked out despite the publication date or even a more antiquated cover. As long as it’s still circulating, it stays. So what gives a book staying power on library shelves? What makes a book timeless and checked out by readers who love it year after year? And how do we, as writers, to tap into that so we can keep our books loved for ages?
Back in 2012, the SCBWI summer conference in L.A. explored what makes a story timeless. The writers, editors, and agents who presented said it boiled down to emotional truth. Writing with an intensity, an honesty, and an authenticity that creates what author and publishing guru Arthur Levine said at that conference — “love and connection with another human being.”
Yet, emotional truth is simple to say but much harder to translate on the page. You have to crawl into the character, feel what they feel, explore that feeling, whatever it is – anger, fear, disappointment, love – and then lay it down for the reader. This requires you as a writer to dig deep into yourself and ask the questions that are hard for anyone to ask: What inspires you? What terrifies you? What secrets do you not want anyone to know? What do you hide the most? What do you want more than anything? These questions for yourself build your best characters — those that are genuine and clear in a way that the reader can truly relate to.
I reached out to Mary Kole, who has worked with Chronicle Books and Andrea Brown Literary Agency and who is now a sought-after independent editor with her own editorial/consulting company. With an MFA in creative writing and years of experience helping writers achieve their goals, she echoed the importance of emotional truth and connection as a way to make writing timeless.
It’s my belief that the purpose of fiction is to foster connection between character and reader. After all, our own experiences drive us to write, and a reader’s experiences drive them to read. They want to live vicariously through new things or find solidarity about familiar things, or both. So when a writer asks me about trends or genres or whatever, I wonder if they’re asking the right question. No matter what kind of “wrapper” you have on your project, if it’s set in outer space or under the sea, no matter if it’s a board book or a dark YA, if you’re not approaching it from the perspective of being as honest as you can be, and as in tune with your character as possible, your focus might be misplaced.
I recently had the opportunity to immerse myself deeply in the work and wisdom of a legendary children’s and adult author who boasts several lifetime achievement awards. I can’t reveal yet who or why, but I emerged incredibly inspired. What kept her going throughout was a deep connection to who she was as a child, how she felt, what she wanted to know, and her need to belong. By channeling this into her characters, she was able to connect on a very deep level to readers who had the same universal yearnings and experiences. For her, this is what it all comes down to: connection.
Like the writer that Kole mentions, at the 2012 SCBWI summer conference author Ruta Sepetys told the audience, “In writing the truth, what’s the price for admission? How much of yourself are you willing to give?” She relayed how she put herself through the very uncomfortable simulation of what it would feel like to be in a work camp in Siberia for her novel, BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. She wanted to feel and experience her characters as much as possible in order to effectively and emotionally write their harrowing tale. “You have to be willing to turn yourself inside-out to reach a reader and bring them peace,” she said.
So how will you turn yourself inside-out? How will you capture this emotional truth on the page so you can deliver it to your readers? This is what helps books maintain their staying power and readability.
Kole says: If you want to write timeless fiction, from picture book to YA, and maybe rack up a lifetime achievement award or three yourself, I encourage you to connect to who you are, connect to what you want to say, then say it as honestly and fearlessly as you can. Again, it doesn’t matter if the plot takes you to outer space or under the sea. The important thing is to have something universal and human and brave and true to say, and to connect your readers to that via the strongest, most vulnerable character you’re capable of writing.
So when you sit down to write today, dig deep for that emotional truth. And once you’re done, Mary Kole is available to take a look and offer her invaluable advice. She can be found at:
www.kidlit.com (blog about writing and publishing)
www.marykole.com (editorial and consulting services)
Her book is also another great resource!
- CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries. http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/ld/pubs/crew Texas State Library and Archives Commission https://www.tsl.texas.gov/sites/default/files/public/tslac/ld/pubs/crew/crewmethod08.pdf
Heather Smith Meloche’s work has appeared in Spider and Young Adult Review Network (YARN). She has placed twice in the children’s/YA category of the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition and won first place for Hunger Mountain’s Katherine Paterson Prize in 2011 for a short story in verse. A wild fan of dark chocolate as well as kickboxing and running (to be able to eat all that chocolate!), she lives in Michigan with her family. Penguin Putnam released her debut novel, Ripple, a contemporary young adult novel, in September 2016.
SPECIAL PAL ANNOUNCEMENT!
Novel Mentorship for PAL Writers
SCBWI-MI is delighted to announce a new mentorship for PAL writers who live in Michigan. This mentorship is for members who gained their PAL status through picture books or magazine articles and would like to try writing a novel, and for published novelists who wish to hone their craft.
Our mentor is the fabulous Leslie Connor. Leslie is the author of three MG novels, two YA novels and a picture book. Leslie’s books are written with so much heart that they’re likely to break the reader’s heart as well.
The submission window will be in April 2018. Details and instructions will be posted on the SCBWI-MI website early in 2018.
You will need a complete draft of a novel to enter this competition, so the time to write/revise is now!
For questions, contact Ann Finkelstein.
- Interested in doing author visits? A team of fabulous folks have put together a directory that will make it easier for schools and librarians to connect with you. This list is available on our SCBWI-MI website and it will also be available at the MRA conference in March. Please help us help you by distributing it to your local library and schools.
- It’s update time! Make sure your information is up to date on the SCBWI website and the Michigan Library Association website.
- Check out this awesomely funny and definitely important blog post from one of our SCBWI-MI authors, Vicky Lorencen:
- MERRY MITTEN HOLIDAY!! The book signing events for the Merry Mitten Holiday will be here before you know it! Stop by one near you to support your fellow PAL.
Pages BookShop: Nov. 11th 2:00-4:00 19560 Grand River Ave. Detroit
- Gin Price
- Lisa Rose
- Jean Alicia Elster
- Sarah Tregay
Literati: Nov. 18th 11:00-1:00 124 East Washington St. Ann Arbor
- Supriya Kelkar
- Amy Nielander
- Deb Pilutti
Nicola’s: Dec. 2nd 1:00-3:00 2513 Jackson Ave. Ann Arbor
- Jeff Jantz
- Nancy Shaw
- Jodi McKay
- Leslie Helakoski
- Janet Ruth Heller
- Kathryn Madeline Allen
BookBeat: Dec. 3rd 12:00-3:00 26010 Greenfield Rd. Oak Park
- Patrick Flores-Scott
- Jack Cheng
- Deborah Aronson
Bookman: Dec. 9th 10:30-12:30 715 Washington Ave. Grand Haven
- Wendy BooydeGraaff
- Erica Chapman
- Heather Meloche
- Kenneth Kraegel
Kazoo Books: Dec. 9th 2413 Parkview Ave. Kalamazoo
- Buffy Silverman
- Monica Harris
- Kathy Higgs-Coulthard
- Kim Childress
- Leslie Helakoski