Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Holly: Five Books That Made This Writer

When I first read this book I was the same age as the main character, 12-year-old Claudia, and I had a brother the same age as her 9-year-old brother Jamie. One of my favorite daydreams at the time concerned secretly living inside the mall, so it was tremendous fun to live vicariously through Claudia and Jamie as they ran away and slept inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I decided that I wanted to write for teens and pre-teens, Konigsburg's novel is one of the first I went back and re-read. It was everything a great MG novel needs--a strong, smart main character, adventure, and heart.

THE STAND by Stephen King
Stephen King is tremendously underrated. He's not just a horror writer; he's a master of characterization. At over 800 pages, THE STAND was by far the largest novel I'd ever read (and now that I think back, there were some terribly inappropriate passages for an 11-year-old!). I dragged the enormous hardcover book with me everywhere for three months and read a few pages whenever I could. I remember breaking down in tears one day, over my pancakes in Denny's, when my favorite character suddenly died. By then I'd already known for several years that I would be a writer, and it excited me to think that one day I might be able to affect strangers the way Stephen King had affected me.

WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones is my creative writing Bible. I first read it in ninth grade, while attending an arts school and majoring in creative writing. I rolled my eyes at the sonnets and terza rimas the teacher expected us to write, but I loved the 20 or 30 minutes for journal writing we were given every morning, and I loved the emphasis on Natalie Goldberg's approach to writing. The book is filled with advice that is simple and practical, but easily forgotten ("Show, Don't Tell;" "Writing is Not a McDonald's Hamburger"). I go back to the book often, when I'm feeling bored or uninspired or even lonely, because the chapters feel like old friends. Natalie Goldberg is a poet, and it comes through even in her non-fiction. I know all writers are different, but I can't imagine anyone reading Writing Down the Bones and not taking something away from it.

In my heart I always knew I would be a writer, but sometimes my rational mind wondered if that would really work out the way I wanted it to. I knew "regular" people and I knew of writers, but I didn't know any regular people who had become writers...until 2003 when Pamela Ribon's first novel was published. Okay, so I didn't personally know Pamie, but I'd followed her online journal for several years and she was very much a real person to me. Pamie's success renewed my faith in my own writing. Reading the book also gave me insight into the process of writing a novel. Like Pamie, her main character kept an online journal. The majority of the plot was clearly fiction, but some of Pamie's actual journal entries made their way into the novel, and it fascinated me to see firsthand how an author used her own experiences in her fiction.

Maureen Johnson's first novel was my gateway drug into the world of YA literature. I'd called my first novel "literary fiction" because I had no idea what it really was, but I knew it wasn't working, until I woke up one day with the brilliant idea to completely rewrite it (again!) from the perspective of a 16-year-old character, and call it Young Adult. Since I didn't know anything about young adult literature, I headed to the library and found Johnson's book. Right away, it felt like home. I related so strongly to the characters and the situation. I thought about all the novels and short stories I'd written, or started, or thought about over the last few years, and I realized they'd all work as YA. I think it was fortuitous that I blindly selected something as excellent as The Key to the Golden Firebird as my first YA read in years. If I'd picked something less stellar, I may have dismissed the entire genre, and then where would I be today?


  1. Great post, Holly. I too have been wanting to read Mr. King. Thanks for the nudge. THE KEY TO THE GOLDEN FIREBIRD sounds terrific too. I'm glad you read it and am excited to read your book.

  2. I enjoyed this post tremendously. I wish that I had had the experience of knowing someone who became an author when I was growing up. Instead I had to push forward on my own, being told by most people that I should find a dream that would lead to money making. Ignoring this retarded advice, I pursued my dream anyway. Although I am not making much money at the moment, I do not care. Money is not everything, I have my family, friends, God, and I am doing what I love. Now I do book readings in schools to encourage children to not only read, but to write. I hope I can give them that same experience you had through reading Pamela's journals.

    Tony Peters
    Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

  3. Re: WRITING DOWN THE BONES: I love how you say you "go back to the book often, when I'm feeling bored or uninspired or even lonely, because the chapters feel like old friends." I'm going to dig up my old copy because I feel that way, too! Thanks for posting.

  4. Great post! Thanks!
    Beth Fehlbaum, author
    Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
    Ch. 1 is online!
    **Visit my site for info on how to win a free copy of my book! Deadline is Sat. 12/20!

  5. Oooh, I *loved* FROM THE MIXED UP FILES. It's just one of those classics.

  6. Nice variety! FIREBIRD is fantastic. Maureen Johnson never fails to impress.