This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? Here is YA author Joëlle Anthony revealing hers…
Guest post by Joëlle Anthony
I’ve had so many turning points in my writing life that I think I might actually be going in circles, but this is a blog post about a big one. Almost from the start, editors responded to my voice, but I couldn’t seem to land that book deal. After ten years of interest but no book sales, I decided I needed to make some sort of change. I contemplated things for a while and came to the conclusion that many of the successful writers I knew had a lot more education than I did, so I immediately determined that’s what I needed—someone to tell me how to do this writing stuff. After all, my degree was in theatre, not literature or English.
Not surprisingly, all the writers I asked chimed in about the merits of Vermont College’s MFA in writing for kids. I decided that’s what I needed. Unfortunately, what I also needed was the twenty grand to make it happen. When I realized the money wasn’t going to miraculously show up in my savings account, I knew I’d have to move on to Plan B: I’d get all those Vermont College graduates to simply tell me what they learned and it would be almost like going myself.
Yeah…not so much.
However, when I asked for more information about the program, one writer answered me in specifics that changed my life. She told me about the coursework, which sounded interesting, and the guest writers who came in to lecture, which I really wanted to hear, but then she offhandedly mentioned that they also “require participants to read 200 books in their genre.”
Read a lot of books? That’s it? That’s all I had to do? I loved to read!
I could do that.
Now, you might think someone in my position would already be reading a lot—I didn’t have a real job, my husband was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, I have no kids, and I already said I love to read. But if you thought that, you would be sadly mistaken. You see…I rarely read at all!
I was a voracious reader as a kid, but then my interests turned to acting, and the theatre ate up all my time. After university, I had to do that grown-up thing…get a job (or two or three) and what little time I had to myself I wanted to spend writing. Reading used up precious writing time. Or so I thought. By my mid-thirties, I’d been pursuing a writing career for a decade, but had read only a handful of books in all that time.
I made a simple plan. Since the MFA was out, I would hit the library and read 3-5 novels per week, in my genre (YA), preferably published in the last three years. I kept a card file with the title, author, and publisher’s info on one side, and my reaction to it on the back. Most importantly, I counted all of this reading as “writing” time, so I didn’t have to try to justify it (if only to myself). And I started a book review blog (no one was really doing that back then).
Over the next three years, I read more than 450 books, most of them YA, almost all contemporary and recently published. The first thing that happened was I began to see patterns in books—things that show up over and over in YA writing. Not surprisingly, most of these things were in the manuscripts I’d been submitting to publishers. This reading led to my most famous writing achievement so far—The SCBWI article, Red Hair is Not as Uncommon as You Think – 25 of the most overused things in MG and YA. And also the follow-up piece a few years later. Now if I could just write a book that gets me that much attention…but I digress.
The next thing that happened was I began to use what I was learning about pacing, plotting, and structure in my own writing. My voice was always my strong point, but my plots were either convoluted or boring. And pacing? What was that exactly? I’d like to say reading magically fixed all my problems, and while it did help tremendously, most of what I know about those things I ended up learning from my editor, Stacey Barney, when we worked on Restoring Harmony. Still, I strongly believe I never would’ve gotten to the point of having an agent, or an editor, without reading all those books. Today, my reading is more varied and not quite so voracious. I get through 100–125 books a year, and I’ve mixed in a lot more nonfiction and adult novels. But as Chris Crutcher says: If I don’t read, I don’t write.
I couldn’t agree more.
What are you reading?
Joëlle Anthony currently lives on a tiny island in British Columbia with her musician husband, Victor Anthony, and two cats, Sophie & Marley. As for the future, their only plan is to avoid real jobs, write and play guitar in front of the woodstove, and live happily ever after. Her debut young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, was published in the spring of 2010, and her latest release, The Right & the Real is available now, both from Putnam.
Visit Joëlle online at joelleanthony.com.
GIVEAWAY WINNER ANNOUNCED…
Congratulations to the giveaway winner of a *signed* copy of Joëlle Anthony’s new YA novel The Right & The Real! The winner is…
Congrats, Rachel! I will email for your mailing address. Thank you to everyone who entered—and to the author for the prize.