by Margo Sorenson
Editor’s Note: Award-winning author Margo Sorenson, who has published more than 30 books for young readers and has been an SCBWI member for over 30 years, will be available to chat with you on Twitter this Friday (March 20) from 12 pm to 1 pm (Pacific Time). Keep on reading for her tips on how to write what you know without oversharing, and get your questions ready for this Friday’s live Twitter chat!
We’ve all heard the maxim, “write what you know,” but how can we leverage our true-life personal experiences in our writing without making our manuscripts shameless (blush!) tell-alls? In our upcoming live Twitter chat this Friday, March 20, we’ll explore some ways to use our past histories without incurring the possible wrath of family and friends or the excruciating embarrassment of having all our “deepest secrets” aired to (gasp!) young readers—but still keep our artistic integrity and creativity intact.
Acclaimed author Virginia Hamilton once wrote, “Writing is what you know, what you remember, and what you imagine.” Feelings and emotions are integral in writing, and when we stop and reflect, we really do know our emotions. Creating a main character that will resonate with young readers is often jump-started by tapping into these feelings. Those emotions we remember as kids—joy, fear, shame, love, and betrayal, among many others—will make our characters seem real and true to readers. However, it is key to separate “our real selves” from those strong, self-revelatory feelings that make us so vulnerable. That way, we can avoid turning our manuscripts into cringe-worthy “oversharing.”
How do we do that?
One idea is to dramatically change the character’s age. For my young adult/crossover adult novel, Secrets in Translation (Fitzroy Books, 2018), the main character Alessandra is seventeen, not the seven-year-old I was when I moved to the U.S. for the first time, after having grown up in Spain and Italy, and discovering that I was so, so clueless about American life. Alessandra’s strong feelings of dislocation, of not fitting in, of being a fish out of water were absolutely true for me, but at the age of seven, I definitely couldn’t have been the summer nanny in Italy for the American tween from hell, or helped the handsome (oh, be still, my heart!) Italian university student to discover the organized crime syndicate threatening his family’s limoncello factory. My friends and family and young readers thus “knew” that I wasn’t really writing about myself.
Another method to “disguise” the real self, is to change the gender. In one of my tween novels, Danger Canyon, (Perfection Learning, 1996), teenagers Calvin and Rob feel the same fear and helplessness that I did when, at age 16, I thought a friend and I could hike a canyon trail without a trail map. We thought we knew everything, of course. Those feelings were so vivid in my memory, I almost scared myself again during the writing process. No readers would think I was that reckless, right? Besides, that was about a teenage guy, not about me.
A third way to prevent “oversharing” our own life experiences is to take those feelings we had about a problem and its non-resolution, and turn the true-life (sad!) scenario into a victory. In my forthcoming picture book, Calvin Gets The Last Word (Tilbury House, Fall 2020), Calvin’s feelings of frustration with his rascally brother’s pranks end satisfactorily in a surprising, giggle-inducing (I hope!) way. Because I’m so definitely not the type to solve a problem in the manner he did, it’s not my “true confession,” although I secretly wish I had mustered up the courage to do the crazy thing Calvin did. This way, however, family and friends “know” it’s not really me!
Here’s a little assignment for you: What alternative characters can you think of? A rock? An engine? A dinosaur? Think outside the box and get ready to share these ideas with me and SCBWI-Los Angeles on Twitter on Friday, March 20, from 12 pm – 1 pm Pacific Time!
We can also share some of our real-life feelings that we’re writing about or thinking about using in our writing and see if we can help each other come up with methods that we can use to distance our real selves from our imaginative stories. Maybe a feeling of anxiety about going to a new school can be transformed by changing the main character from a little student to the teacher. So, bring on those real-life feelings for the chat and feel free to ask all kinds of writing questions.
To chat with us: Log into your Twitter account anytime during our chat hour and use the hashtag #KTChat or @mention Margo (@ipapaverison)! If you aren’t on Twitter, leave your questions in the comments below before the chat begins. Find SCBWI-LA on Twitter here: @SCBWISOCALLA.
If you’d like to learn more about writing an article for #KTChat, you can find the info here.
For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.
Author of 31 traditionally published books for young readers and SCBWI member for over 30 years, Margo Sorenson has won recognition and awards for her books, including ALA nominations and finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in YA Fiction. To learn more about Margo’s kids’ books, including two new picture books in 2020, visit Margo at www.margosorenson.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ipapaverison, Instagram: @margosorensonwriter, and Facebook: ItaliaYA.
Images provided by Margo Sorenson.