Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Barnstorming small libraries with Texas Writes

There were maybe a dozen of us along the sides of the long tables at Lindale’s Lillie Russell Memorial Library, with eager pens and notebooks at the ready. There were two of them on the other side of the tables – Jeramey Kraatz  (author of The Cloaked Society trilogy and the upcoming Space Runners series) and Liz Garton Scanlon (author of Caldecott Honor book All the World, as well as Bob, not Bob!, A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes, and more). Make that three, counting Jo Virgil, in Lindale to represent Texas Writes, a program of The Writers’ League of Texas that brings accomplished authors to rural Texas libraries for a series of free presentations and discussions.

Scanlon (l) & Kraatz
Kraatz writes middle grade fiction (see him also at the North Texas Teen Book Festival March 4), and Scanlon writes picture books, but in many ways their discussions have broader implications for all genres. Starting with that impetus for all stories, conflict. Or as Kraatz terms it, “Trouble Talk.”

No matter how much we try to avoid it in our lives, “trouble is interesting in story,” Kraatz told our audience. Conflict is a way to guide readers through a story. And for writers, it provides a means for working through a project when we’re stuck, and as a key to self-assessing our writing.

“How do you look at your writing objectively? How do you tell if it’s working?” One way to answer both questions is to ask: “how is the overall conflict of the story being addressed in this particular section.”

“We want our characters to have something to overcome, the more (conflict they face) the more satisfaction we feel (as readers).” And although each story has an overarching conflict, some form of conflict – sometimes described as tension – should be evident on every page.

It’s not all fists and guns. For starters, Kraatz named four broad categories of conflict. Three are external: (man vs. nature), man vs. man, man vs. society. But the fourth type of conflict – and most important in his view – is internal, the struggles all human beings have within their own nature.

In children’s literature, there’s no such thing as one size fits all readers. It’s vital for writers to understand who their readers are and where the story is going in order to determine an age-appropriate level and kind of conflict.

Middle grade (MG) books are aimed at readers approximately 8-12 years of age, with subdivisions of lower middle grade (8-9 years) and upper middle grade (10-13 years). Young adult (YA) books are written for ages 13-17. Although because kids prefer to read up, younger children are more likely to pick up books for the next older group, while older readers seldom (if ever) look at books aimed at younger readers. The age group aimed at is also a guide to a book’s length – typically 65,000 words for upper middle grade; 85,000 for young adult.

“Don’t worry about dumbing down writing,” he said. “The key is the core conflict – how much of their world do the characters understand? It’s the conflict that decides the appropriate age group. What is your audience familiar with? What is the world they know?”

For 12-year-olds, the world is most typically limited to home, school and sports. For 17-year-olds, it’s much broader. After all, they have Internet access. Middle grade books tend to emphasize internal conflict as the characters try to determine their place in their world of school and family. For teen readers with a broader idea of who they are, story conflict ends to become external.

Each adult fiction genre also has its own conflict. Whichever genre – or age group – a writer aims for, “conflict allows us to reveal a broader depth of character.”

***

I first heard about Texas Writes in 2016, when The Writers’ League visited Dallas to discuss, among other issues, the program. I was excited enough to put Texas Writes on my list of events, and pick one of the closest, in Lindale, for a visit. The program, supported by a grant from the Tocker Foundation, began in 2013 with visits to five small libraries in Central Texas. It’s expanded this year to 15 libraries across the state.

Check the current list (additions are made as needed) at the site . Librarians interested in participating may email wit@writersleague.org or call the Writers League at (512) 499-8914. The next Texas Writes visit will be this Saturday, February 25, to the Hood County Library, 222 N. Travis St., Granbury, from 1-4 p.m. It’s free, but to be sure there are enough tables, chairs (and refreshments), please pre-register with the library at (817) 573-3569.

And stay tuned for the next installment of Texas Writes from Lindale, as Liz Garton Scanlon discusses the curious, deceptively simple secrets of writing picture books.