Writing Girls and Writing Emotional Truth: SCBWI Highlights

At the Summer SCBWI conference, I attended Sara Shepard’s workshop on Issues Writing Girls. One of the most interesting points she raised had to deal with dating your books. And not in the going out for coffee sense. But rather by making too many allusions to brands like Abercrombie or J. Crew or Iphone.

This was one of those lesson she learned from writing Pretty Little Liars. The first book has lots of brands and labels that help establish who the characters are.

She said it’s very tempting to drop a modern reference, but that what is hot in 2012 may not be in 2013, 2014, 0r 2015 when the book is published. She suggested finding other ways to define characters without using those references.

She also cautioned against the use of slang like “frenemy” and using music to define a character. Both define, but date quickly.

Ruta Sepetys’s Keynote address was my favorite key note of the entire conference. She is a fantastic speaker. Every word/sentence she spoke built on her central premise. She moved me to tears with her honesty.

Her talk “You Can’t Break the Broken: Writing Emotional Truth” is why I go to conferences.
Her debut novel, Shades of Gray, is the story of a Lithuanian girl sent to Siberia during Stalin’s regime in Lithuania. The novel explores what it takes to bear the unbearable.

It’s next on my to read list.

Ruta grew up in America, knowing her father and his parents fled Lithuania under Stalin because Stalin forced everyone he deemed “anti-soviets” in Lithuania (including all writers, teachers, librarians, landowners, musicians, military) to go to Siberia.

Her dad grew up in a refugee camp before they came to the U.S. That was all she really knew of her story.

Until she went back to Lithuania and found out that 12 of her relatives were taken in place of her father’s family. 11 of them died in Siberia.

She decided to tell the emotional truth of what happened to the people of Lithuania under Stalin. She fictionalized it so she could speak for the people who never spoke of what happened to them.

When she decided to write the truth, she had to decide how much she was willing to pay and give of herself–her emotional self. She explained that you have to be willing to turn yourself inside out and expose your deepest deepest feelings.

She encouraged us to “write the novel only you can write.” She reminded us that for the things we feel “there is a reader out there who feels it too.”

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21 Responses to Writing Girls and Writing Emotional Truth: SCBWI Highlights

  1. Cat Forsley says:

    well written ——- amazing stuff ……..Kudos …
    xx
    C

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    More wonderful advice. I had a song reference in my manuscript that I subsequently omitted to avoid the risk of “dating” and including a reference that might not make sense later. And that “Shades of Gray” book sounds like a great, albeit emotional, read.

    • LOL. I had references to two bands and realized er, they might not be relevant in a couple years. So out they went. ๐Ÿ™‚ I read the first chapter and it blew me away. Can’t wait to read it. I know it may be a hard book to read but emotionally worth it in the end. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. amazing post, Kourtney. the speaker had an amazing story …wow

  4. winsomebella says:

    Really like the thought that “there is a reader out there who feels it too.”. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. jmmcdowell says:

    I also had some “current” references in one WIP that got removed. I suppose if we’re presenting a flashback or setting a book in the past, we can get away with it more easily. Like the scene in The Time Traveler’s Wife where they’re dancing in the ’80s to the Violent Femmes.

    If I can bring myself to bear it, I should read Shades of Gray. Although nothing of that intensity happened, my mother’s parents couldn’t go back home to then-Yugoslavia once the Communists took over.

    • Jay Asher did it a lot in his The Future of Us book because it was set in the 1990s. The references work when you want something grounded in a specific time and that period is locked away and always associated with those things, but there is a danger when trying to write something set in “the current time” because that will shift with each year. ๐Ÿ™‚ Great example, with The Time Traveler’s Wife!

      It’s going to be a hard read, but I think how lucky am I not to have lived through it. We each have a story that is at the root of us. Some are more earth shattering that others. But all valid. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Elliot says:

    Interesting advice. I can understand removing references that are too much “in the moment”, unless you are wanting it to be a specific time. Some other references, e.g. song titles etc could stay in most instances, I reckon. The reader having to look the odd thing up (if they want to) is no big deal so long as it is only a few times.

    • I think it depends on how you want your book to be perceived. If it is something that references a Justin Bieber song or a Britney Spears song, that will tie it to a certain time. If you want that, it’s cool, but if you wanted a book that could take place at any time, that will date it. If you read Pretty Little Liars, you’ll have a good example of how to date a book. The book is not set in a specific year or time, but she described characters by what brand they bought in clothes and accessories, but a few years later it sound dated. Because what was cool in 2006 was not cool in 2008 so people are left with lots of references that aren’t doing their original intention–signalling how cool and in style the characters are.

      I’ve gotten this advice from agents as well about not using pop culture references unless I am setting the book in a definitive time or era.

  7. Ottabelle says:

    Shades of Gray sounds very hard to read. I’ve been really careful about dating my book. i want it to be something that can be read for a long time and understood.

    • I think of Twilight–no pop culture references. It could happen at any time. It could take place 15 years ago or today. It does sound like a hard book to read, but I think it’s worth reading. We are so lucky to not have lived through something like that. I want to read it and feel for the people who had to endure such treatment.

  8. She sounds like a fascinating woman. Thanks for sharing her inspiring tips. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Fascinating woman, phenomenal speaker, thought-provoking keynote. ๐Ÿ™‚ Her idea of telling your emotional truth resonated through the conference and was something I really took to heart. : )

  9. So well written, as always…and some valuable points to boot!

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