The author of many, many books for kids (all ages) Donna Jo Napoli is currently a research fellow at the Long Room Hub, TCD, and gave a presentation on Monday, June 18th, on writing for young adults and in particular her novel The Wager, based on a Sicilian fairytale and set in the twelfth century. There was a lot covered, but some of the useful points for writerly types here:
- She is a big advocate of making stories out of stories. She likes taking stories that are ‘brief’ (maybe only a page or two) and have ‘lots of odd things’ in them – like fairytales or myths – and then figuring out a way of making those events historically and psychologically plausible, while still respecting the story points of the original text.
- She does a huge amount of research before she starts writing her first draft, immersing herself in the time/place/world she wants to write about. In her research notes, she pays particular attention to anything she encountered when researching that fascinated her – anything weird or unusual or engaging, something that provoked an emotional response – and tries to fit that into her first draft.
- She writes her first drafts in a ‘white heat’, very very quickly, over summer or winter break (in her day job she’s a professor of linguistics). Second drafts get written along with the rest of life, after feedback from her (now-grown) kids, and take much longer, and usually are much longer. Her third draft gets written after she’s got feedback from kids or teens at schools, and this is the point that it goes to editors and editorial revisions start.
- She believes in being kind to yourself when you write and rewarding yourself for reaching certain targets – end of the page, end of a chapter, end of a draft.
- The most drafts of a novel she’s ever done is thirteen. For picture books she’s done many more – she finds picture books harder. [Almost everyone who writes both novels and picture books says this. It really is worth keeping in mind - so many people think they're easy. Madness!]
- She notes that for plots, it’s not so much about making something brand-new as it is about making the plot matter to the reader. Sometimes this can be achieved by changing the setting or the time – other times it might just be about taking the source story really seriously and seeing what happens, making the reader care.
- For accuracy in historical fiction – despite the research, you’ll always be wrong. The question isn’t ‘are you right?’ but ‘does this ring true?’