This is the third in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this enlightening children’s book writing event.

continued from previous post

Explaining the second contradiction—write only for others; write only for yourself—Kate quoted the phrase “What aileth thee?” A writer must ask this question and then answer it. She must ask others what ails them, then reach for the “heart of humanity”, the universal emotions that bond us all.

She repeated a story about Kafka walking in the park and encountering a little girl who was crying. He asked “what aileth thee” and discovered she had lost her doll. Kafka told the little girl not to worry, that her doll was fine. “How do you know?” the girl asked. “Because I have a letter from her telling me so.” Kafka promised the girl he’d return the next day with the letter, which he went home to write. In fact, he wrote an entire series of letters for the girl. The letters explained that the doll appreciated all the girl had done for her, but it was time for the doll to be on her own.

A writer’s purpose is to deliver the truth, yet make the truth bearable. The little girl was never to reunite with her doll, but at least she knew the doll was having a good time on her journey and was doing well without the girl.

At the same time the writer is comforting humanity, the writer must not write to anyone else’s whims. Not write to the market trends. Not write to please anyone else. In order to grab the truth, the writer must write what is in his or her heart. In doing so, the joy and love of the words will flow honestly, truthfully, genuinely.

But when writing the truth, the writer can be pained, digging into their own dark vault of emotions. The writer must be naked to the world. And this is when the third contradiction is borne: you must encase yourself in armor to survive the raw emotions, but you must take the armor off in order to write.

You must expose yourself—“here is my heart”—but never let the reader know you are writing about yourself.

Kate’s friend in the theatre said that you must “allow 50% of the audience to hate you”, for that is when you can reveal the hard truths.

When speaking about compromising yet never compromising, Kate said that the story in your head is always better than the one you actually create. Therefore, the very first words you write are already a contradiction. They will never be as good as you imagine.

But as you move on and submit your work, there will be people who ask you to change things—your critique group, your agent, your editor. You have to bend but you also have to know when it’s not time to compromise.

Kate told a story about a picture book manuscript that was due to be published. She wanted to leave the last two spreads wordless, but her editor did not agree. The editor had her write some final words to go with the spreads. Meanwhile, as they were waiting for the illustrator, her editor left and a new one was assigned. Three years had passed. Kate looked at the manuscript again and hated it. The words at the end were all wrong. She told her agent they had to pull the deal. She eventually discussed her displeasure with the editor. The editor didn’t like the last lines either. The outcome was that the final spread was left wordless.

This is why you have to bend but know when not to. It’s a fine line, but “if your heart, soul and mind are in it then you’ll know where the line is.”

continue to the final part