I am thrilled to be a part of N.D. Wilson’s blog tour for the final book in his exciting series, The 100 Cupboards. The first book, 100 Cupboards: Book 1 (The 100 Cupboards), is the current book club selection for Al Roker’s Book Club for Kids. The final book in the series, The Chestnut King: Book 3 of the 100 Cupboards, was released last month. The whole series is great and N.D. Wilson is a phenomenal writer. I absolutely loved Leepike Ridge, which I read a few years ago. (Check out my review for more thoughts.)
Today, N.D. Wilson stops by TheReadingZone to share some of his thoughts on writing. I can’t wait to share this with my students! (And anyone who knows me is aware that I love metaphors that deal with insects and metamorphosis!)
Writers are like insects. We hatch in kindergarten—learning to read. And as our reading level climbs, we enter into some form of larval stage, consuming everything in front of us. Place a stack of fresh leaves in front of a globulous caterpillar and you have the perfect picture of the young writer. A young writer is a young reader—someone who will devour virtually anything. At this point, gatekeepers are necessary. It’s up to teachers, librarians, and parents to make sure that the books consumed are actually healthy (and helpful). Like any other form of consumption, not everything is good for you. A lot of kids with appetites for stories end up stuck in some form of literary junk food, a place with a never ending supply, where it’s easy to grow lazy and narrow in their tastes. Of course, when teachers are dealing with kids who hate eating at all, junk food is a great place to start. The flavors are simple and appealing. But those are different kids and different problem. We’re talking about young hungry, hungry caterpillars. The devourers. Bottomless pits. Throw anything at them and they’ll bring it back tomorrow, finished. (The first time I ever stayed up all night, I think I was in sixth grade, reading a book. And it was a terrible book, too.)
The first great change finally comes. The young writer’s belly is bulging. They become picky. Or they should. We are corpulent. We are full, and our parents and teachers and librarians panic. What happened to the appetite? Where has it gone? Has the reader died? Lazing bloated on the sofa, we complain of our boredom, we push books away untasted. We’ve seen this little thing with the dragon before. Funke did it first. Or at least second. This happens at different ages. I started doing this in the fifth grade. For others, it comes sooner. And I know people who didn’t get picky until college.
We have become pupae. Wrap us in a cocoon of old favorites. Actually, bring me mere selections of my old favorites. Give us some space—a little breather. And then make us work again, but differently. At this point, the young writer’s greatest strength—that which needs to be developed—is distaste. They need the ability to loath a character, a plot, a concept. If they are ever going to be left completely in the driver’s seat of a narrative, they need to develop a connoisseur’s palate for literary finesse and a quick sneer for literary folly. Make them read, but encourage them when they throw a paperback across the room. Question them. Force them to develop. Make them justify their own dislike. Help them learn to tear down stories. And, of course, in that context, the discovery of a story that pleases is sweet relief. But don’t let it sail by untested either. What was better about that book? Why did it resonate? What was more believable about it than the poor hurled paperback? The boredom fades. Sitting in judgment, the discovery of talent and failure, and the contrast of characters is interesting. Until it too, becomes easy.
And now it’s time for a dose of humility.
Make them fix stories. You don’t like My Side of the Mountain? The Egypt Game? Fine. Fix them. Make them better. Force the young writer out of the destructive phase and into positive construction. And don’t just pat them on the back and smile at every proposal. Turn their critical eyes onto their own ideas. Self-regulating creativity is a must. Judge them by their own finicky judgments.
Of course, throughout all of this, the hope is that these kids are learning the basics of craft as well. The mechanics of a sentence, a paragraph, metaphor, simile, etc. But those do not make a writer. Those are tools in a builder’s hands, and they’re terrific. But the builder needs visions. The builder needs imagination, creativity, sharp critical teeth, and the ability to weigh (and discard) ideas.
For me, the critical process kicked off as a result of my father. He pushed me when I moaned about my school reading. He was fine with my constant return to favorite passages from Lewis and Tolkien, but at that phase, it was just as important to read things that I hated—so long as the hatred could be justified.
My entrance into high school brought new desires. Forget fixing other people’s stories. I wanted my own. Prose craft became the order of the day, and lots of parental encouragement (and red ink criticism). I had sharp enough eyes to know that I wasn’t any good (when compared to my favorite authors—and I truly couldn’t think of any way to describe firelight without using the word dancing). That struggle to communicate kept me going. I read more poetry. I disciplined myself by writing (bad) poetry. I focused on many, many short exercises, especially sketching real scenes and events, and trying to reproduce conversations I stole in public. (The beauty of sketching the real is that it’s easier to tell when you’ve gotten it wrong.) I read more and more broadly. All the way through college and then grad school, I focused on short, refined prose. Finally, having popped out the other end of my formal education, I began tackling novels. And here I am.
All of this is autobiographical. I have no way of asserting this as the universal path to becoming a writer. But I have a nagging belief that my own experience is hardly unique, and many’s the time that I’ve listened to the grief of parents who believe their middle school reader has passed on—bored, listless, critical . . . pupating.
I’m no beautiful butterfly. A lunar moth, maybe (if I flatter myself). But I’d like to be a dragon fly. I want mosquitoes to fear me.
The book trailer for The Chestnut King: Book 3 of the 100 Cupboards:
Be sure to check out N.D. Wilson on the rest of his blog tour!
2/8 Shadow Hunters
2/11 Eva’s Book Addiction
2/12 Becky’s Book Reviews
2/12 Fireside Musings
N.D. Wilson’s website is great- be sure to check it out!