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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