Catherine Linka, author of the A Girl Called Fearless series, joins this year’s LA SCBWI Working Writer’s Retreat faculty. She is a world traveler, former buyer for an independent book store, and was almost thrown out of boarding school for being “too verbal.” She spoke with me about her work, your work, Wonder Woman, and the kid lit community’s place in the world.
Linka first became involved in SCBWI “forever ago.” It was the first time she’d found people interested in the same kid lit things as her. Later, she added her Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA community and then the debut author community. “Everyone was so generous and warm and inclusive.” That’s why she believes it’s so important to give back. “It costs me nothing but time to help someone else out, really, so why not?”
True to that ideal, Linka is a huge supporter of SCBWI and an active SCBWI mentor and member. She knows every writer needs a supportive community. “It can take years to develop your craft, and you need people to cheer you on, point out opportunities, open doors, celebrate successes and mourn defeats. We really can’t do this alone, and it is so much more fun and satisfying to do it together.”
Linka acknowledges that writers who are often introverted, herself included, may feel overwhelmed in social situations, even when taking advantage of SCBWI’s group activities and professional development opportunities. This can also make it harder when we eventually have to do our own marketing. Her biggest advice: volunteer. “Because I’m shy in a lot of ways, I’ve always used volunteering as a way to force myself to get out there and meet people. Volunteers have a job to do, and reason to be there, and people are so nice to volunteers!” And as volunteering helps to forge community ties, the community is there to help with outreach on book launch days, sharing your books, and getting the word out so we don’t have to do it all on our own.
Linka has also participated in more than 300 hours of critique groups, including our last Critiquenic this past June, and will add even more at the LA SCBWI’s Working Writer’s Retreat. She believes critique groups, partners, and mentors are so valuable because “…there is an unavoidable gap between what’s in our heads as writers and what we put on the page. We don’t always realize when our prose is confusing, unconvincing, or biased because in our own minds everything is perfectly clear…Getting feedback can alert us to what we need to clarify or rethink.” And she practices what she preaches! Linka uses beta readers who are familiar with her story’s subject matter to help her figure out what works and what details or scenarios might be incorrect or suspect.
Critiques can still be difficult to sit through for our sensitive writers’ hearts. Often writers, especially writers new to the process, may feel inclined to defend their work when they should be listening. “Any writer who’s being critiqued should say nothing,” Linka says. Instead, she urges us to write down everything that’s said. The minute we start to defend, we’ll miss out on what’s being said. “If one person says something, it may be their opinion. If two people say something, you need to listen.” But in the end, writers must make their own choices and find a good balance between accepting constructive criticism and being true to themselves. “Someone else’s solution may not be your solution, [so] try to identify what they as a reader are struggling with and find your solution.”
Linka also reminds us that critiquing is a two-way-street. “I think the biggest mistake that writers make during a critique session is being so focused on the feedback they hope to receive about their [work-in-progress] that they don’t fully engage when someone else’s work is under discussion.” And that means a missed opportunity to better your own writing. “Being present as all the work is discussed, learning how to identify what is working in other’s work and how to diagnose what isn’t working–honing those work habits and skills will continue to help a writer improve long after they’ve fixed the glitches in the few pages they have brought to share.”
Here are some of her VIP tips for keeping a critique’s two-way street open and moving well:
- Take the time to say what is right about the work before you leap into what isn’t working. Figuring out why something is working is a skill you can take back to your own work.
- If you find there are multiple ways to interpret something in a story, show the writer where you’re confused. They may not realize there is another way to interpret something.
- “Where people often go wrong is when they make judgements.” You’re really not there to judge the quality of someone else’s work. You’re there to help them move the work forward. Comments should be something the writer can act on, actionable items, and not blanket “this just isn’t good” type comments.
- Don’t take critiques personally. “The job of the critique group isn’t to tell you that your work is perfect. You’re there to do the work. Everyone is there to do the work. It is so rare that you’ll find a piece that needs no improvement.”
- And if you’re at a critique event with editors and agents, like the Working Writer’s Retreat? Remember you are being judged just as much as your work is being judged. “Their behavior in the group, the way they treat others, that is what’s being observed. Agents and editors share notes. They will let their peers know if they run into people who make them feel uncomfortable. So be nice to people around you.” In other words, kid lit is a small community; don’t alienate people.
But what makes a story good in the first place? And how do you interest the market without selling out? Addressing the political unrest and prejudice in the current world climate is not only popular right now, but it feels like a good thing to do. Are we somehow doing a disservice to our readers if we don’t write about these types of things?
As someone who’s studied international economics and politics and is an outspoken feminist, Linka is well aware of the darkness that can exist in our world and the stories of those who bring light into it. MissHeard Magazine said A Girl Undone “…will leave you feeling like change is possible even in the darkest of circumstances and that champions of the world don’t have to be perfect.” But Linka didn’t write it with an ideology in mind and doesn’t think you should approach storytelling from a “what sells” or “what’s the moral” angle. “Unless you’re writing non-fiction, your primary responsibility is to tell a great story. And frankly, no matter whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, your work must be engaging or entertaining–even if the themes or issues your work addresses are serious–in order for the reader to keep reading. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to begin with a mission to teach a child a great truth, because those ‘good for you’ stories are usually boring and flat.”
That doesn’t mean we should shy away from stories that deal with hard truths and seek to broaden our readers’ perspectives. I asked Linka for examples of work she feels strikes that balance well so we can learn a thing or four from them. “I think when we are talking about emotional truths, there are people who really communicate those well…who offer us really thought-provoking books.” A.S. King’s Still Life with Tornado is one. King is an “…unusual writer, the writing can be a little surrealistic…” and this book, about a talented artist whose life is falling apart due to lies that have been told in her family, is “…remarkable prose [that] examines the question about how lies inform and undercut life.”
Crazy Messy Beautiful by Carrie Arcos is another of Linka’s current favorites. It’s a love story that doesn’t work out perfectly–a reflection of how complicated love truly is. “A great read!”
Linka’s books, and so many other YA’s, include romance and love triangles. Romance and relationships are such a key part of growing up, and so naturally find a place in YA, whether they are sci-fi/fantasy stories, historical, literary, you name it. I wondered if we should take this as a requirement when writing our own stories.
Linka’s take: “Romance is often a prerequisite for getting a teen reader engaged, because we all want to love and be loved. But that doesn’t mean that every story must be romantic or that romance has to be the central drama of a heroine’s story. Look at Wonder Woman. She’s amazing and we love her and the romance in that story does not overshadow her.” Romance is also something publishers look for. “If you want to be commercially published, then you want to write a book which editors think can sell. Romance sells…. If you offer zero romance, you may not find many readers. Romance opens up a larger market. It’s a part of life and adds richness, drama, stakes to the story.” But she reminds us that the amount of romance you put in a story has a lot to do with who you are as a person and a writer. There are writers who put it in because they know it’s expected but focus most on the adventure they’re telling and there are writers who want to write a romance but choose to sell it as an adventure.
Does she worry too much hetero-normative romance will dampen a female protagonist’s strength or ability to survive without a man? “Do I want my female characters to be saved by men? No. And they are not. They are aided, but they are not saved.” Her editor wanted a love triangle in Fearless, something she hadn’t even thought of. “I put it in. She hated it. I took it out. She asked for a ‘person of interest’ at the end…I really liked the person of interest and what happened in book two…It added a level of tension and uncertainty that brought in the opportunity to add new problems and made it more fun as a writer.” It wasn’t her calculated choice, but it turned out to be really fun to write and she’s glad she did it.
So what’s next for Linka? She’s finishing her first draft of a contemporary YA about an art student, desperate to hold on to her scholarship, who becomes an unwitting partner in forgery and art theft. “Bad choices lead to bad things,” Linka laughs.
I could’ve chatted all day with the delightful and insightful Catherine Linka, but my cat began “murdering” a toy ball and his battle cries reminded Linka she promised her dog a walk. So, if you want to read more about Linka, check out this great HuffPo interview, her website, her MacMillan author page, or find her on Twitter.
You can also hear from her in person at the LA SCBWI’s Working Writer’s Retreat. Registration opens July 16th at 6am and the retreat takes place September 15th-17th and there is a waiting list if you don’t grab one of the 40 available spots at first. If you are not an SCBWI member but would like to learn more: www.scbwi.org/about/membership-benefits.
For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.
Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Photos provided by Catherine Linka, book covers courtesy of MacMillan and Wattpad, Wonder Woman still courtesy of Warner Bros.