Published author Jessica McCann spoke online with high school students about her writing and research process. The students were awesome and asked several great questions. In the coming weeks, this blog will feature video segments from the class. In this first post, McCann talks about how technological advances during her career has made book research much easier; yet, she stresses how also getting offline and away from technology can improve your writing in different ways.
When I was in the fourth grade, a couple of the moms made several visits to our class to teach us “life skills.” They addressed topics like how to make new friends, to be kind to others and so on. During one visit they announced the final week would include a cupcake party, and we were each to place an advance order so they would know how many to bake. Most kids ordered chocolate. A handful of us ordered vanilla, and we were promptly derided. That’s boring, the chocolate-eaters said. Vanilla isn’t even a real flavor.
The next week, the moms arrived bearing their tasty treats. The vanilla cupcakes had whipped cream frosting and rainbow sprinkles. The chocolate cupcakes were plain. And the rumblings soon began. What? No fair! How come you got frosting? Trade with me.
No trades, we vanilla-eaters gloated. That’s what you get for ordering stupid-old chocolate. We have frosting, and you don’t.
The adults let us grumble and gloat for a bit, then put an end to it. Quiet down and eat your cupcakes, they said. So we did. And a funny thing happened. The chocolate-eaters soon discovered a delicious surprise. The moms had baked M&M candies into the bottoms of their cupcakes. A rich, colorful, chocolate bonus. Huzzah! Chocolate was the best choice after all, or so the complainers said.
That’s when the moms explained their little experiment to us. Explained how important it is to be grateful for what we receive, even when we might feel someone else has something better. Explained that sometimes, even when life seems most unfair, we could discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted.
Blah, blah, blah.
At the time, the message was lost on us kids. We mostly felt manipulated, used, a bit like lab rats. Yet, their lesson seeped into my subconscious and stayed with me. They were right, of course. It’s not always easy advice to follow, but they were 100 percent spot on.
As adults, too often, we’re not a whole lot more mature than that group of fourth graders — criticizing, teasing and judging others for their choices. I’ve most recently experienced this phenomenon during discussions about books and the differences between commercial and literary fiction. People are quick to condemn others’ reading preferences. You like literary fiction? That’s so boring. Oh, you read chick lit. Those books are trashy. Is that sci-fi? Why waste your time reading about something that could never really happen?
Why can’t we just say, Hey! You’re reading a book. Cool. How is it?
With the explosion of audiobooks, e-books, and print-on-demand publishing technology, books have become much more accessible than they once were. There are literally millions of books out there. Far too many for one person to ever read. So why not celebrate the variety? Maybe that so-called boring literary novel, if you take the time to savor it, just might have a delicious, satisfying surprise in the end. And perhaps the chick lit that seems to be all whipped cream and sprinkles just might satisfy your craving for a happy ending.
Those of us who write for a living, or aspire to, would be especially wise to heed this advice.
For one thing, reading a wide range of genres expands our minds, introduces us to new ideas and teaches us about good writing (or, sometimes, about not-so-good writing, but that’s also a beneficial thing). A voracious reading appetite just might lead us to discover something unexpected, something wonderful, something better than what we thought we wanted from a book. That makes us stronger writers.
For another thing, having respect for all kinds of readers empowers us to break barriers and attract fans to our stories that we might not have anticipated. My debut historical novel, for example, was marketed as women’s fiction. Yet, I’ve received several amazing, thoughtful reviews from male readers who were moved by the book’s multiple perspectives on slavery and freedom, and its universal themes of self-reliance, perseverance and hope.
It’s just like those bakeries that have sprung up all over the place that serve only cupcakes. You know the ones. Dozens of flavors and combinations. Red velvet, pumpkin, peanut butter chocolate, lemon-ginger, you name it. It blows my fourth-grade mind.
Eat whatever cupcake you want, and read whatever book you like. Don’t judge others for their choices. And don’t be afraid to sample something different once in a while. Have a chai latte cupcake with your historical fiction, or try a rocky road cupcake with your paranormal thriller. It’s all good.
p.s. A shout-out and long-overdue thank you to my fourth grade teacher at Madison Park Elementary School, Mrs. Kuzmanoff, and the moms, Mrs. Free and Mrs. Lawson, who took the time to share their talents and insights (and cupcakes) with us kids.
Daddy, what if the bridge breaks and the alligators eat me? My dad, brother and me at the Phoenix Zoo alligator exhibit, 1973. (Mom stayed on solid land and snapped the picture.)
All throughout my childhood, my parents had a mantra they’d
say to me when I’d get worked up and worried about the future. “Nothing
happens until it does.” It’s ironic, because they worried about things all
the time and still do. It’s sound wisdom, though, and I make a daily effort to
embrace it. It’s especially salient for fiction writers when it comes to the
“life” portion of “the writing life.”
As writers, we love to play the “what if?” game.
We’re relaxing at the coffee shop or waiting in line at the post office or pulling
into the parking lot at the day job. Then it strikes. What if that guy who just
bought a vanilla latte is secretly in love with the barista? What if the woman
in line ahead of me is about to learn she has an incurable disease? What if the
people sitting in that parked car are plotting to overthrow the government?
It’s how good ideas and compelling fiction are born.
We writers get so practiced at playing this game, that it often
invades our writing pursuits in less-fun ways, too. What if I spend years
writing this novel and nobody reads it? What if I pour my heart into this book
and then somebody else publishes one just like it before mine is complete? What
if my writing sucks?
Sure, all those things could happen. Absolutely. Or not. Nothing happens until it does. Don’t let
the fear of failure paralyze you or even slow you down when it comes to chasing
your dreams. Just write. Write the best damn novel or short story or magazine
article or poem or (insert your dream here) that you can. Study the craft.
Enjoy the process. And see what happens when it does.
Start asking yourself more positive questions. What if I
spend years writing this novel and everybody loves it? What if I work hard on
this novel and people say it’s one of a kind? What if my writing shines?
One of my favorite quotes is from prolific
writer and New York Times bestselling
author Laurence Shames. He said, “Success and failure. We think of them as
opposites, but they’re really not. They’re companions.” He’s spot on. Every
day, I write something. Every day, I fail at it. And, every day, I improve as a
writer. I see my shortcomings. I revise my prose. I succeed.
Here’s a “what if” question for you, one you can
print off and pin on your wall. “What if I work hard on this novel and I learn
something important about writing, about myself and about life?”