Writing for yourself…

There are plenty of moments– in drafting or revision– when an author thinks of her readers.  She must.

I’ve wrestled with this a lot over the years, in making the transition from thinking of myself as a poet first, to thinking of myself as a children’s author. There’s some vague sense, in poetry-land, that one should NOT think overmuch about one’s readers.  As a poet, I felt like I was supposed to be inventing new ways of playing with language.  Communication was not the primary goal.  Certainly not in any clear way. I was not supposed to be concerned with people “relating” to me.

Or I felt this way, in any case. Maybe it wasn’t true. But it felt true.

Obviously, one does not write a book for five year olds in an attempt to confuse.  This is not to say one cannot offer complexity, multiple readings, surreal images, odd twists.  But on a very surface level, a book for kids has to appeal in some basic way–if not in narrative, than in sound or image or character. Maybe I can say that there needs to be at least a veneer of simplicity.

But oh, reader: DO NOT MISTAKE SIMPLICITY WITH EASE! They aren’t the same at all. Simplicity can be difficult to execute. And often difficulty is easy. This is something I wish I’d learned sooner, accepted sooner.

I digress!

Point is– I think more now about how my readers will approach my work. I respect my readers deeply, and while I hope to challenge them in ways, for reasons that may or may not always be clear–I’m not looking to arbitrarily confuse them.  As I write, I think first about what I want to write/say. Then I think about whether that will actually come through, and about whether it’s what I should say.

So usually, the book I end up with is mostly the book I intend for you to read.

But part of what’s so hard about this book I’m now finishing, Seven Stories Up, is that there’s a goal for this book that nobody but me will ever care about.

Is that weird?  I want to talk about that, for some reason…

You see, my previous book, Bigger than a Bread Box, is set in 2012. Rebecca, the main character, is struggling with her mom, Annie.  And in this book, set in 1987, the main character  is Annie!

Now, the plots are largely unconnected.  Obviously, you don’t have to read one to understand the other. They don’t link up directly– any more than one summer in your mom’s childhood would link directly to your childhood. Readers of the first book will see things new readers don’t. Small details, objects, references.  But the books don’t share a clear narrative.

Still, there is all this other stuff– all of these tiny things that have to make sense, that pertain to character, that I’m wrestling to make right.  Because I know so much about Annie as an adult, and am working backwards.

What kind of kid might grow up to leave her husband suddenly–in terms of childhood personality traits? What kind of events might contribute to a southern-born but agnostic Christian marrying a Jewish man?  Becoming a nurse? What would Annie’s relationship with Ruby (her own mom, Gran in the first book) have looked like in the “past” knowing what I know about the “future.”  There are a million of these details, and I’m forever dodging or interrogating them.

Time travel is HARD, it turns out.  Getting all the details right, the back and forth, the “past changing the future” stuff.  It’s the hardest writing I’ve ever ever ever done.  I’m years behind schedule with this book, and I just did a full rewrite.  I hereby challenge any writer to try it.

But for me, the hardest  part is the personality stuff.  Annie-as-a-kid has to turn into Annie-as-an-adult, and Ruby-as-a-mom has to become Ruby-as-Gran, and the personality of the family has to change too, as a whole, because I’m making a major shift in that family’s fabric. And yet, I can’t let the family change so much that Rebecca wouldn’t be Rebecca in the “future.” Nature/nurture, and all that…

I’ve trapped myself between time travel and a distant sequel.  It’s nuts!

So that’s the work I’m doing. The work I can’t expect anyone else to notice or appreciate. The work they WILL NOT notice, if I do my work right.

But it’s critical to me, because I believe so much that this is how families are. A mother affects a daughter. A change in a mother, at a young age, would affect the daughter she grew up to raise. A major shift in the life of a grandmother, fifty years back???  You see where this leads?

So I thought I’d ask you guys– is there any writing you’ve done that you JUST HAD to do, knowing full well nobody would ever care, but you?


9 Responses to “Writing for yourself…”

  1. Wendy Says:

    This isn’t answering your question at all, because I’m not a writer. But I’m going to protest that this DOES matter. It’s what’s going to provide the emotional truth to the book. (Or at least part of it.) You remember the complex sequence in Edward Eager between the parents and children in Magic By the Lake and The Time Garden? I went over it umpteen times as a child (and probably a couple as an adult. As I recall, he didn’t make a single misstep in that whole messy situation. I demanded ACCURACY from authors as a kid–I’m only a little more forgiving as an adult–and Eager would have lost a lot of face with me if there had been errors or places where he chose to ignore what had been written before. The whole thing is a work of beauty. But even beyond that one chapter, Eager had to wrestle with the same questions you are, because he wrote one set of children and then wrote them as parents with children of their own, and then wrote them as children again. He had to maintain the things you talk about–how would a child like Katharine be as a mother? what would Katharine’s children be like? and then what would a mother like Katharine be like as a child?

  2. laurel Says:

    Wendy, as always, you’re the kind of reader I want to be writing for. Yes, exactly. As always, Eager was part of the inspiration for this. Mine also has a Johns Hopkins reference, and is in Baltimore for the overlap. Beyond that the books are very different, but yes, exactly. Thank you for reminding me that kids do read WITH CARE.

  3. Jenny Says:

    Ahhh… This is why I stalk you – online only, in a purely admirable sort of wish-I-was-as-cool-as-Laurel-Snyder way. I love your blog and your books. These details you worry about are what make them so special. And as fate would have it, I just finished putting the final touches on a little novella prequel I wrote to be released as a teaser before my book comes out.

    It’s also a mother/daughter story. The prequel deals with the mother as a girl, but I too wrote the book about the daughter first. The mother actually DIES in the first chapter of the book. Ouch eh?

    I found myself thinking about the same things you describe, only no where near your level of clarity and organization. (Yah, my work is probably a hot mess compared to yours. But that’s ok.) I tried to carefully weave the dead mother’s dreams for her daughter through out the book, showing why the main character was making her choices. Our mothers influence every part of our lives, living or dead, whether we want them to or not. In the prequel I tried to show more of who the mother was as a girl and where her desires for her daughter came from. You are right. It’s a beautiful thread that I will probably be the only one to appreciate.

    Can’t wait to read 7 Stories Up :)

  4. laurel Says:

    AHHH! I want to sit over coffee and talk about our books. What an amazing coincidence! I agree entirely, and your project sounds amazing. Don’t be so hard on yourself. This is impossible stuff!!!

    Mine also has death elements, but I don’t want to give that away just yet…

  5. Rebecca Says:


    I can feel your frustration and joy with what you’re doing, and I think it’s exciting. I think it could yield the kind of reader moments that are amazing priceless astonishing. I experienced this in The Magician’s Nephew and in The Neverending Story and in Asimov’s Foundation/Robot novels. My spine unraveled in these moments. They are precious to me. You very well may be doing that very thing for some reader somewhere.

  6. Lynne Barrett Says:


    When I did this with a story, I found it challenging. Had written one in which a couple were married, with a child. The couple was not the center of the story (the woman’s family was), but I kept wondering after the story was published how they had ever gotten together, because of their different backgrounds, and something the wife thought about her single days kept reverberating. So I set myself the task of writing a story that centered on one night, when they were new lovers, when they could have gone forward, or not–as far as they knew–though I knew that somehow they had to end up the people in the first (in time, the second) story. Oh, and also, the story had to be able to be published on its own, and free-stand. It was an odd experience. I do usually have at least aspects of the ending in mind when I start a story, but of course these are always subject to discovery and change, so I don’t feel constrained. At one point I told myself that if the people in the new story turned out not to be able to get to that future, I could just change their names and call them different characters. (It probably helped to imagine this escape hatch, but since the guy had a particular history that mattered, I really couldn’t do it.) Anyway, I did write the story, and a third, set later. All three (in chronological order, rather than order of writing) are spaced through my collection Magpies (the one you heard me read from, at Sanibel). No one seems to have found any disjunction, but when I’ve explained to book groups and other readers how I wrote them, it’s been hard to explain what a test it was. I have always been obsessed with time, and how we resee experience through time, and I like inventing forms for presenting time, in my stories. (One of the first I published was about a couple who broke up on the night of the time change in Spring, and how different it would have been if the hour hadn’t been lost.) But thinking of it as a relationship between a completed work and another set earlier was a whole new thing. Enjoy the challenge!

  7. Lynne Barrett Says:

    Sorry that got so long!

  8. Sheila Welch Says:

    Hi, Lurel,

    I’m participating in the discussion with you on Goodreads about BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX, so I decided to check out your other books and blog. I’m so glad I did!

    Your description of working on the book about Rebecca’s mother is fascinating. I, too, obsess about getting things right even though many readers won’t notice. I’ve been working on a novel with a time slip element. The great grandmother in the story has Alzheimer’s, and I am trying to decide whether to have the slip be real or part of the confusion with time that can be part of the illness. Now that I’m a grandmother myself, time has become such an issue in my life. Anyhow, I loved BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX and now look forward to reading more of your books.

    I’ve had an idea for a sequel to a fantasy novel that I wrote many years ago

  9. Sheila Welch Says:

    Whoops! Thought I deleted that last line. But since I didn’t — In the sequel, I’m thinking about having the children of the original characters be the main characters. At this point, the idea is just beginning to form. Time will tell if I ever get past the idea stage.

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