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It's All About the Story

by Joan Bauer
 | Apr 04, 2013

squashed2It's a great thing to live in a storyteller's mindset and terribly useful since I write novels for a living: Hope Was Here, Rules Of The Road, Close To Famous, Almost Home, Peeled, Stand Tall, and Squashed, to name a few. It springs from my grandmother's DNA—she was a teller, a pro, quite famous in her day, even offered her own radio show (my grandfather said, “No wife of mine!”). 

My grandmother told stories to explain the world, all of the world. As a kid I struggled with the term fiction being defined as "untrue"—not my grandmother's stories! They were wondrously, gloriously true. They were in many ways the truest part of my life. 

When stories are your roadmap, the trip is a circuitous path; getting lost and found and flummoxed is part of the journey. When a writer creates a world, it's a crazy ecosystem where characters rise and fall and sometimes tell us what to do—the nerve! All day we're dealing with characters who need to mature, words that need umpteen adjustments, locations that don't always work. It can be plain annoying to try to arm wrestle a strong-willed bad guy, or to lie on a couch curled up in a blanket, pondering your subplot, and then have to convince your husband that yes, I am curled up in this blanket, but I am actually working. 

My first YA novel, Squashed, came out 20 years ago. In the two decades I've been in this business, so much has changed, including me.

But what hasn't changed is the point of writing, the focus and the fuel of it. At the end of the day, here's what it's about: Did you leave your heart on the page? Did you find something new to say? Did you squeeze your theme until all the possibilities oozed out? Did you argue with your main character, and if so, who won? 

Writing novels is about asking a zillion questions. How many times can you remember being scared, and how has that changed you and challenged you and deepened you? Where do you discover humor, and how do you let yourself laugh in the dark times? What's in your heart and what's in the hearts of your readers that will connect like super glue? Why are you doing this? Why are they reading you? Where is the you in your work and how does it change and shake and alter the landscape? How are you going to delve into that real scary truth you know needs to go in this story? Is it too much? Not enough? How could your editor not get that joke? How could she possibly suggest that chapter 12, all of chapter 12, be deleted? 

This is why being wrapped in a blanket is so useful at times. 

I try to write about issues that kids need to think about: homelessness, domestic violence, alcoholism, obsessive love, yellow journalism, fear, divorce, war, bullying, dishonor in politics. I try to show what happens when a kid finds his or her voice and begins using it in this complicated world. I try to laugh along the way, and for that reason, I don't like the box "humorous novel," because in the course of most weeks, we laugh, we cry, we shout, we're in despair, we mess up, we rise triumphant from the madness, we break open the emergency chocolate, and we get on with it. 

No adult novelist will ever hear these words blaring across a school loudspeaker: "The assembly will begin at 9:35, and I remind every student to listen and be respectful to our speaker. Let none of us forget what happened with last month's speaker." And you realize that you are the speaker, possibly in peril. You are no longer just a writer; you now wear the mantel of an entire assembly. No one ever thinks of being an assembly in career planning, but here you are. 

I'm the YA luncheon speaker at IRA this year. I will not eat much at that lunch, but I will try to provide some food for thought, some good bites of humor and truth, and I plan to be particularly insightful about my novels. Again and again I will come back to story, that glorious, frustrating, living, breathing structure that is a mirror to our lives, a friend when we are lonely, a kick in the butt when we need to pay attention. 

Decisions and choices—that's what makes a story great and what keeps it alive. And when it's alive, well, we're in for it. The moving van pulls up, out comes the furniture and the clothes, the knick knacks, out jumps the pet and that story moves inside our hearts with everything it's got, and refuses to leave. 

joan bauerJoan Bauer wrote her first YA novel, Squashed, during a long recovery from a major car accident. "The laughter," she writes on her website, "helped me heal." Ten books and 20 years later, Joan continues to craft books that make readers smile. Her critically acclaimed body of work includes Hope Was Here, a Newbery Honor Medal winner, and Rules of the Road, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her latest novel, Almost Home, was released in September 2012.



Leave a comment
  1. Millicent Ziekah | Oct 28, 2015
    I find it intriguing where Joan said in writing  novels you have to ask a zillion questions.
  2. M. Lawnick | Oct 27, 2015
    I was lifted up just by the words Joan used to describe writing with all of it's truth and turmoil.

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