Write Well, Live Fully: An essay for aspiring writers by T.A. Barron

Happy Friday everyone! We got an unexpected blast of snow in much of our region – hope you all are warm and safe.

Can you believe it’s February?? Now we can officially say that our conference is not only around the corner, it’s next month! I trust you all are getting your critiques and portfolios polished or have already submitted them. Whether or not you’re getting a critique, please do yourself a HUGE favor and use these next few weeks to prepare by doing our weekly Conference Challenges. After the conference you will be so inspired that you will want to get going and create. Trust me, it’s no fun trying to dance with your muse on a cold keyboard or drawing pad.

Speaking of inspiration, we have a fantastic one for you today. One of our featured speakers, the amazing T.A. Barron, sent us an essay from his website that is filled with incredibly sage advice and encouragement for writers.

ta barron

Mr. Barron grew up in Colorado ranch country and traveled widely as a Rhodes Scholar.  He is the winner of the 2011 de Grummond USM Medallion for “lifetime contribution to the field of children’s and young adult literature.”  His highly acclaimed, internationally bestselling books include The Lost Years of Merlin (now being developed into a film), The Great Tree of Avalon (a New York Times bestseller), The Ancient One, and The Hero’s Trail, plus nature books about Colorado wilderness.  Founder of a national prize for heroic kids, he loves to write and hike in Colorado.

With that introduction, I give you the writing wisdom of  T.A. Barron:

(From: The T. A. Barron Official Website www.tabarron.com)

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Write Well, Live Fully: An essay for aspiring writers

by T. A. Barron

The wise and wonderful writer, Madeleine L’Engle, once told me: “There are three essential rules for writing a novel.” She paused, then added, “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

That sums up the situation! But after more than twenty years of writing books, I can also add these thoughts:

Writing is the most joyous — and also the most agonizing — labor that I know. And it is by far the best way to travel — in our world or any other. Every author has an individual approach to the creative process, and every author’s experience is different — except for the essential elements of hard work, InkQuill_0inspiration…and magic.

Whenever people (of whatever age) ask me about the writing process, I start by telling them how much I still have to learn. This is, after all, a craft — and no matter how much someone knows, there is always more to learn and explore. That’s one of my favorite qualities of the writer’s craft: The horizon of excellence is ever receding. We can always improve, which means we can always grow as people.

Before I give you my best advice on writing … here is a bit of wisdom from that well-known sage, Snoopy:

SnoopyA

SnoopyB

My own advice to new writers boils down to three words:

Observe.

Practice.

Believe.

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Let’s look at them one at a time:

Observe. Notice the world around you, in deep detail. How do different people speak, with their voices, faces, hands, and posture? How do different types of trees’ leaves fall to the ground, each with a singular sort of flight? How do different ideas stir your passions, fears, hopes, and dreams? And don’t just notice the surface of things, the sights and sounds that first strike your senses. Go deeper. Ask yourself how something would feel; wonder what is that person’s deepest, darkest secret.

If you truly observe the world … it becomes a fruitful source of writing ideas and elements. Then just add a little drop of your imagination, bend the rules of reality, and anything is possible!

On top of helping your writing, observing the world closely has one more advantage. And it’s a big one. This is a good way to live, to be more wholly alive. Being a writer encourages you to live more fully.

Practice. Write every chance you can. Keep a journal. Write poems, whether you prefer haiku poetry, sonnets, or enormous epics. Write letters, plays, short stories, blogs, novels — whatever gets you excited. Writing is hard, full of struggle, and greatly demanding … but it is also deeply rewarding. And practice makes you better, just as practice makes you more skillful at everything from baking a pie to piloting a spacecraft.

OnceUponaTimeA lot of this comes down to discipline. Sometimes the last thing I want to do on a particular day is sit at my desk at home in Colorado and write. I’d rather be playing with my kids, baking bread, or hiking on a mountain trail. But I stay with my writing because I know that’s the only way it will ever happen.

So … if you can find the discipline to practice, the magic of language will become more present and familiar over time. And your powers as a writer will surely grow.

Believe. This is, perhaps, the most challenging part about writing. To succeed, you must truly believe in your story — in each of its characters, in its place, and in its underlying ideas. And then, even more difficult, you must believe in yourself.

What can I say to encourage you? Just this: Know that you have valuable things to say, and the skills to say them. Know that your song is unique, that your voice matters.

Think of writing as growing a tree. In the soil of your writer’s heart, you have an idea—a seed. But it will need plenty of sunlight, air, and nourishing soil to grow.

How does this happen? I can only tell you how it works for me, but for every writer the process is different. When I sit down to start a novel, a process that will take between one and three years, I begin with that seed. It helps me to sketch it out, in longhand, just to get to know it better. In time, I will write an outline of its growth, though I’m always aware that outlines are only a beginning, a rough concept. As the seed sprouts into a sapling during the first draft of the manuscript (which, old fashioned that I am, I also write longhand), the outline is abandoned. For by now the tree itself is guiding my work. I believe in it, and listen closely to its inner voice — to its soul.

Several more rewrites help me shape the growing tree. I try to develop characters, places (which are much more than merely backdrops to the story, deserving all the depth and subtlety of characters), plot lines, and the story’s underlying ideas. When at last I feel satisfied that it is truly formed, I show a manuscript to my editor. Her comments and questions are sometimes not what I’d hoped to hear, but they are always valuable. After all, she is my ally, my fellow gardener.

Now come more rewrites. People often ask me how much rewriting I do. The answer is, quite simply, as much as it takes to get it right. You see, Aspiring-Writersthere is no substitute for the integrating and deepening that happens in a thorough rewrite. Quite often, I am also doing research at this stage, to make the story’s characters and places feel true.

That, indeed, is the ultimate test. Paradoxical as it may sound, good fiction is true on many levels. That’s right! Fiction must feel true. On the levels of the senses, the emotions, the intellect, and the soul, a story ought to win the reader’s belief.

Characters, if well developed, become so real
that they can walk right off the page — for both
writer and reader. That is true regardless of
whether the character is a man, woman, child,
tree, mountain, or magical snow crystal. Sometimes I stop writing the story I am crafting and write a brief biographical sketch of one character — just to get to know that character better.

How do I know when a character is fully formed? When I can, at last, hear his or her voice. No aspect of a character’s description is as revealing as the voice. And then, if that voice is true, the newly-created character will lean over to me and whisper his or her deepest secret.

Now, at last, the book is a thriving young tree, though it has yet to bear fruit. I still need to do more revising – but at this point the work is quite delicate, just trimming a few branches.

Neuroscience is just beginning to illuminate how our brains work. But we do know this about writing: Connecting with both the left and right halves of the brain is crucial, for the creative process is both rational and metaphorical, logical and mysterious.

Finally, the tree stands fully grown. It reaches high and has surprisingly deep roots. Maybe it also holds a wondrous crop of fruit. And perhaps, when the wind whistles through its branches, it brings to mind some secret, half-remembered song.

Best wishes from your fellow writer,

T.A. Barron

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About Susan Mannix

Susan worked as a biomedical research editor for the Department of the Navy for fourteen years and has been a member of SCBWI since 2007. She writes young adult and middle grade novels. When she isn’t writing, she spends her time doing all things horses, including attending her teenaged daughters’ many competitions. Susan lives in Maryland on a small farm with her husband, two children, an adorable black lab, two cats, and three horses.
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3 Responses to Write Well, Live Fully: An essay for aspiring writers by T.A. Barron

  1. Great post, Susan! And thanks to T.A. Barron for a beautiful essay. Can’t wait to hear him speak at the conference!

  2. Pingback: Coffee & Conversation with editor Sylvie Frank! « As the Eraser Burns

  3. Pingback: Conference Challenge #8: Preparing for a successful conference! | As the Eraser Burns

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