#LA11SCBWI – Day 2 Judy Blume!

The bad news is that John Green had to have emergency gall bladder surgery and couldn’t be here for his workshop. The good news is we got Judy Blume instead.

The surprise interview with Judy Blume was so fabulous, it deserves a blog post of its own. I took notes on my netbook during the interview, which was kind of stream of consciousness, but just perfect. There’s not a lot of organization to the following; it’s pretty much as it went down this morning.

Judy likes the intimacy of writing with pencil. From the start, her approach was to just get through a draft, which worked when she used carbon paper on a typewriter. But with the advent of computers, there’s a lot of temptation to go back and edit before moving forward in the manuscript. She admits she’s a terrible first draft writer.

She prints out her manuscript several times and scribbles on it (still has to edit on hardcopy), her security for the next draft. She’ll do 5 drafts herself, maybe 5 more as she works with an editor. Summer Sisters required 23 drafts.

Her inspiration for Summer Sisters: She was at a pond in a kayak, and heard a loud noise like a gunshot. A whole group of people came down the hill and jumped into the pond in all their clothes (Lin Oliver joked it was a gunshot wedding). After she got home she started conceiving the book. She knew there would be two girls, that one would marry the other’s boyfriend and the book would start with a wedding.

She’s not necessarily plot person, in fact is sucky at plot. Plot is not how a book comes to her. She will have an idea. She’s never really understood the creative process. Her son says she’s the least analytical person he’s ever known. A basic idea lives in her head and percolates.

She gave the advice to start the book/story on the day when something different happens. Sometimes you have to write pages and pages before you get to that different day (and then you’ll discard those pages). When she writes a book, she knows where it’s starting and where it’s going, but she doesn’t know where it’s happening along the way. As she writes, she’ll laugh aloud, cry a lot, be turned on by a sexy scene.

She said what’s going to matter to your readers should come from deep inside you, the writer. Lin commented that Judy seems to channel directly from kids to her. Judy has no idea where that comes from. She can meet a 4 year old and have an instant connection. She identifies with kids, which as she wryly noted doesn’t make you the best mother.

She mentioned that at the moment, kid’s writers are hot—that we’re the money makers. We write them (kid’s books) because it comes naturally to us, not because we want to do good.

She was supposed to be conventional mom/wife but it didn’t fit for her. At first, she wanted to be Dr. Suess, and she wrote terrible picture books & sent them out (they were rejected). With the first rejection, she went into the closet and cried. She said determination rather than talent will get you through

She took a writing class in the ‘60s. The teacher was an older lady (at least from Judy’s perspective) who had last published 20 year earlier. The teacher had rules, that children could never eavesdrop, that the book should tie up everything at the end. Judy didn’t follow the rules. Even though she  didn’t learn anything in the class, she took it again just to keep writing.

Judy’s first book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, was shocking when it was first published.

Judy had an idea how to write because she read books. You should write the kind of book you like to read. Get over writing like Dostoyevsky and Robaire.

She wishes there were an answer to finding your voice. It never gets easier, after 40 years there’s still the anxiety. She at least knows how to do the process (although there’s no guarantee she’ll do it well)

She scribbles everything into a notebook, so she always has something written down and never has to face a blank screen. In the beginning, her writing came out faster & more spontaneously because it was new. She keeps a binder with each book.

By writing electronically, she still has same work product, but it’s harder because she can go back and revise, revise. Doing a first draft is a method, a puzzle. Finding the pieces is the first draft, putting them together is the next draft. The creative part is so much fun when you’re thinking about it, not so much when you’re doing it.

Why do you come to a conference? For inspiration (although it can be overwhelming). Inspiration will be inside you without you thinking specifically about what was said.

For instance, at the Key West literary seminar, which has an audience of readers, the theme this year was new writers. A woman was talking about her new book. While she was talking, a light bulb came on in Judy’s head and she knew what she wanted to write next, about something that happened in the 50s in the town she grew up. She started right away, did research for the first time (news stories of the time). She had to take 2 years off because of the movie she was working on (Tiger Eyes which she and her son co-wrote, her husband executive produced), but now she’s back to the book. It’s the first time she knows everything that’s going to happen, previously she’d write to find out what’s going to happen.

Don’t listen to advice that says “Don’t do this particular thing” if that’s what you’re prompted to write. Don’t worry about the audience if you’re excited about the book. There’s no one way, find what works for you.

She doesn’t like series. She gets bored too easily. Beverly Horowitz is her editor/publisher.

How to keep motivated—writing changed her life. She was very prolific at first. She wasn’t happy in her marriage, when her marriage improved and she got happy, she jokingly accused her husband of ruining her career.

Her mother used to make bargains with God—you can’t take me in the middle of knitting this sweater. In Judy’s case, it’s You gotta let me finish this book.

She asked the question, why can’t a writer just write, why do we have to be a public speaker? But nowadays we have to. A writer should remember we’re acting out all our characters’ roles and use that when we have to speak.

She discovered that while a book is very emotional, a movie is even more so. In working on the script for her movie, she had to write in pictures. The movie comes together in post production.

Dialogue is the only thing she likes to write. She’s not good at descriptive writing or metaphors. She’s good at creating characters and putting them together. She likes contemplating what they’re thinking vs. what they’re saying. Dialogue writing is what comes to her naturally, spontaneously. She hears them talking. Everybody has to listen to write. It’s not a good idea to write, for example, what kids in California are saying, then 2 years later when the book is read in New Jersey, it won’t match (kids in NJ speak differently).

What is YA? (there was no YA when she was writing). Forever was first thought to be adult, but it was released as children’s. Her daughter had asked couldn’t there be a book where a girl gets pregnant and nobody dies?.

She didn’t censor herself in the ‘70s, many authors were coming of age then. It’s cyclical, and YA is back to that time (less censored). If it’s important to the character or story, it should be there.

Judy commented that the infamous WSJ article used her as an example of a good girl, a writer who described the happy days of our youth. The WSJ writer obviously didn’t know the history there. Judy said the WSJ writer made a terrible mistake using the mother in the bookstore. Why did nobody tell her about the many alternatives which are not dark? And there are wonderful authors who are dark.

Judy said she would have killed for an SCBWI 40 years ago, for a community, to not feel alone. She had nothing like SCBWI. She thanked Lin for that alone. Judy was one of the first people to join the organization.

Judy had not a clue about how to write at the beginning—and that’s good. We shouldn’t expect to know.

An audience member asked what was her spiritual place when wrote Margaret. Judy said she was questioning. She came from a mixed religion family, kind of choose your own religion. Her brother married a non-jew who didn’t belong to any religion. At that time, Judy was ready to cut loose and write her 6th grade story.

Telling a story is a quest which involves questioning. But question your characters, not yourself.

When asked what did she dream that her legacy would be for herself/her daughter/others, she said she doesn’t dream of a legacy. If she thought of her audience, she wouldn’t be able to write, she’d be too afraid of disappointing them.

As a last note, she said she’d like her tombstone to read “Are you there God? It’s me.”

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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