You must write with reckless abandon! This was the first sentiment author, Libba Bray, shared at the SCBWI New York Conference in January. Her most recent novel Going Bovine indeed pushes the limits of narrative storytelling when a teenage boy gets mad cow disease and goes on a road trip with a dwarf and talking garden gnome in order to save the universe from black matter. Sound like a crazy adventure? Well it is, but it is also this year’s Printz Winner. “It is our duty as writers to explore fears, grudges, hopes, dreams, and oddities. We must explore the things that we hide, and craft them into our characters.” Bray says.
The following is Libba Bray’s Four Rules on Risk Taking and Writing:
1) Be the Giraffe!
- Push your work! Look for the unexpected! “Be the giraffe” is a reference to a conversation Bray had with her son. She asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said a giraffe. He was too young to understand one can’t grow up to be a giraffe, of course, but it forced her to think about what we take for granted.
- Explore what we don’t know! We write to open up a whole new conversation with ourselves and the world. Don’t have the same conversation as you’ve heard before, push the conversation to new places.
- Avoid your first instinct. Inevitably your first instinct is what everyone else would do too. Don’t force your work down the conventional track. Let your characters surprise you. Look to the book How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Sandiford as an example of pushing the boundaries and doing the unexpected. In this book, the author doesn’t let sexual tension stand in for under developed characters.
- People are frustrating. Let them be!
2) Find the Cracks and Let in the Light.
- This topic is based on the song lyrics: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light comes in.”
- Make your characters fully human. Humans make mistakes. We need the nitty-gritty bits!
- Put your characters in the way of painful truth – that is what allows for growth and transformation.
- Find an authentic beating heart.
- Sit at the kitchen table with your characters. See what they would say. See how they would hold a spoon, or fold their napkin. Don’t just stop at the dermis. Perform your due diligence and get to know your characters.
- Keep asking yourself “Is it true yet?”
- Don’t fall in love with your characters. You will miss out on who they can really be.
3) Pterodactyl Boyfriend
- The pterodactyl is the super beautiful and good-looking boyfriend who is flawless (as in she’s taken out the word vampire and replaced it with pterodactyl). These characters are not interesting, and they are too easy a stereotype to fall into. Get rid of them!
- Beware the thought “Should I….” (As in, ‘Should I bring in the beautiful boyfriend now?’) Follow yourself and not what you think others may want you to be doing, or even what the industry may want you to be doing. When in doubt, follow your own instincts.
- There is no sure thing other than writing the thing you want to write the most.
- “I write for myself.” That’s all you can do. Don’t think about teen voice. Make it true for you!
- Write with no one looking over your shoulder. “Find out what you want to say, it is all you have to offer.” – B. Kingsolver
4) We Made it!
- “Jump off the cliff, then build the wings.” – Ray Bradbury. There is nothing without the leap of faith.
- Libba’s book “Going Bovine” was a huge departure from her previous work which was historical/magic. But this was the story she wanted to tell.
- Experience the weightlessness, feel the fear. (Reference back to the R. Bradbury quote above). If it is not scary then there are no stakes. And if there are no stakes then it is not worth writing.
- Put your marrow on the page.
- Make this year the year of writing dangerously. Write with your heart and soul.
- “Never avert your eyes.”
- Start building your wings – lace them with courage and vulnerability.
Libba Bray is the author books for Young Adults, including Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Series: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. In 2010 she was awarded the Michael L. Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.