School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters was the title of author Rachel Vail’s keynote speech at the SCBWI LA 2010 Conference. In it she shared her process, writing for middle grade readers, and how to get inside your characters head. Notes from her speech are as follows:
Why Do We Read?
- A book is more than a story well told. It needs to have humor and heart.
- The theme of my writing career has been: What does love require of us?
My Writing Day…
- Making Tea
- Wandering around and imagining
- Making more tea
Books That Really Influenced Vail:
- Of Mice and Men
- Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing
What is Middle Grade?
- Middle grade is the age group of 3rd through 7th graders.
- Most middle grade books are structured like a one-act play.
What is the Middle Grade Dilemma?
- Middle grade is the moment you emerge into the world and you discover that your family is weird.
- It’s when you wonder if there are others out there like you.
- Life or death moments are a dime a dozen in middle grade. Those feeling knock you down. Your bones ache you are growing so fast.
- Little kids harbor secrets and worries that adults are not privy to.
- Being brave is not the same as being fearless.
- Remember that one somebody who took you seriously when you were a child? (Vail shared a story about her uncle who was the only one who wanted to know the rain cycle, which she had just learned in school and was excited to share with someone).
The Impossible Task of Writing…
- Writing a book opens a window.
- Writing a book is like building a sky scraper from the top down. You build, and then tear it down. You build again, and tear it down again.
Getting Inside the Head of Your Character…
- How do we become someone else? We aren’t all memoirists.
- Start with what you know. J.K.Rowling probably didn’t live in a cupboard as a child, but she may have lived in a metaphorical one. I’m sure she knew the loneliness and dreamed of more.
- Mine and re-purpose. I write for a girl who is like me but not like me.
- Try speed writing. Write for ten minutes on your dad’s car. Go!
- Voice sometimes comes later, after many drafts.
- We have to listen to our characters as much as we do our own kids. It’s just as hard.
Finding Your Story…
- Michelangelo once said that when he was sculpting he was “chipping away at the stone to find the sculpture inside.” It’s the same thing for writing only we have to barf out our first draft to get a stone.
Great Notes from Rachel Vail’s Breakout Sessions:
Rachel Vail has written over 30 books for kids through teens. Her most recent include her trilogy for teens: Lucky, Gorgeous and Brilliant; and her novel for kids Justin Case: School, Drool, and Other Daily Disasters.