If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.
– Somerset Maugham
posted by Jean Foster Akin
Photo by JFA, 2007
*by Jean Foster Akin*
I had always written for adults and never had any desire to write for middle readers. It never even occurred to me to write for middle readers until I took a course in college wherein I read and reviewed five children-to-young-adult books a week, and developed an enrichment plan for teachers using those books in their classes. And now my own book has been read in classrooms, and I’ve received letters from parents who’ve said they had to read my book “just one more time to the kids before bed last night.” I’ve met the most delightful young people due to that book, children not much older than toddlers whose parents read to them, kids in grammar school, teen girls, and adults who’ve stopped by my signing tables to say they loved the book too.
When I first began writing The Filigree Slippers, it wasn’t The Filigree Slippers. It wasn’t about silver or about slippers at all. It was something very different. It was a fantasy for middle readers about a man who created a magical toy rabbit that healed broken things: such as broken hearts, strained friendships, and people enduring illness. I recall that the main character, the creator of the rabbit, had no idea what the rabbit was capable of until he began carrying it on his travels. It’s kind of fuzzy now.
What isn’t fuzzy is that I put aside (for a bit) the novel-length manuscript for adults that I’d written and which I had yet to edit for the umpteenth and final time. I pulled back from the two other manuscripts I was writing for adults, and started writing a story for middle readers about a man who’d created a magical toy rabbit. It was good to take a rest from the other writing so I could approach those manuscripts “fresh” a little later. Plus I was excited about writing something for an audience for whom I’d never considered writing.
What I ended up writing was the story of a shy young man named Hubert who was a master at his craft (designing exquisite jewelry from silver filigree; jewelry that people from far away places would come to see and to own), who falls in love with a young violinist named Fiona. Fiona doesn’t notice Hubert at all. Fiona’s basically a starving artist, a violinist who plays in the park where townspeople toss coins into her hat, and she is focused–solely–on being discovered. She wants to travel the world, playing her music for wealthy, perfumed audiences in great halls, and when a talent agent agrees to represent her, she’s on her way.
Hubert finds out quite by accident that Fiona is leaving town to travel the globe with her little dog, and he devotes himself to making for her an extraordinary gift. A gift she could never afford to give herself. He doesn’t try to stop her, he doesn’t screw up the courage to tell her he loves her, he doesn’t beg her to stay. He offers her no reason to question her leaving. He, instead, pours all his longing and pain and adoration into this gift, and in the darkness before dawn, he carries his boxed gift to her tiny apartment and leaves it at her door. An anonymous token of his love, with no indication of the anguish he feels at losing her. Because when you love deeply, you’ll sacrifice beyond the point of pain.
The story began as a story about Hubert. Hubert’s sacrifice. Hubert’s pain. And yet, it was a story for middle-readers, so while there could be pain, there also had to be something purchased with that pain, something glorious.
In the end, lovely Fiona steals the book’s front cover: onstage, raising her violin to her shoulder, wearing her ruby gown and her exquisite filigree slippers. There’s a lot more, but that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
We don’t always know where a story’s going until we begin writing it. What we thought would be a good plot twist ends up changing the story into something unrecognizable to the original vision. Suddenly the hero shares the stage with a heroine and her little dog, and a magic rabbit becomes glittering filigree slippers.
There’s one sure thing every writer knows: you never know what your story will become… until you start writing it.
The Filigree Slippers, by Jean Foster Akin
Images above are copyrighted. From the book, The Filigree Slippers. Artist: Rebecca Riffey. Sorry, permission to copy images in any form NOT granted.
“We all love a good story. We all love a tantalizing mystery. We all love the underdog pressing onward against seemingly insurmountable odds. We all, in one form or another, are trying to make sense of the world around us. And all of these elements lie at the core of modern physics.”
[Brian Greene, THE ELEGANT UNIVERSE, Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory]
Yeah. Physics. Did you think for a moment the guy was talking about physics? I picked up this book because of my interest in String Theory, or: the study of vibrating ultramicroscopic loops of energy—from which Professor Greene believes all matter comes. And there he was, in the Preface, page X, explaining the magnetism of a good story, the importance and love of words, the pleasure in the telling, that so beguiles the human race.
Even a professor of physics and mathematics gets it, as my opening author’s quote proves. Brian Greene deals with numbers, symbols, and mind-bending theories related to quantum mechanics, supersymmetric quantum field theory, and particle physics. Yet, he gets the sublimity of stories, of words, written or spoken.
And he didn’t think he’d ever see his work published for a general audience because his proposal was rejected by his first agent due to the subject matter being “too specialized to attract a mainstream publisher.” But the audiences that gathered to listen to his general lectures on relativity and superstring theory were enthusiastic, so Professor Greene soldiered on.
As should you.
Everyone enjoys stories, some even enjoy crummy stories told poorly. Think of those people who live for the latest bit of gossip: they’ll squeeze the last drop from a juicy story. I’ve known people who don’t even like to read but who still love stories. They’re usually the type who rarely turn off their television sets, and who you don’t want to sit next to at parties if you have a secret.
But you get my point. You can get wrapped up in all the ways this story you’re writing won’t be something anyone will want to read.
So write your story. Whatever your plot for fiction, whatever your subject for non-fiction, take your time and write it well. Don’t be cynical about this, thinking that whatever you vomit onto a page is valuable and will be read. Instead, write your very best for the people who love stories worth reading.
Whatever story you’re incubating inside you, just write it and see what happens. You may be surprised by how many people want to read it, whether it’s the story of cosmology, your forebears’ Atlantic passage, or a fun summer beach-read. You’ll never know unless you try.
[Jean Foster Akin]
PHOTOS: #1. Pleiades. Fienberg, 2016.
#2. True color mosaic of Jupiter, constructed from images taken by the narrow angle camera onboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on December 29, 2000.
#3. Photo I took a few years ago in Manhattan of one of many lovely patisseries in that city.
*Jean Foster Akin*
This is wonderful, this 65 degree breeze, this burning sun.
My face feels like it’s crisping. My hair is hot. Flashes of color swim across my closed eyelids.
Late February, New England. Melting snow drawing dark lines as it streams down the driveway into the street where children screech as they chase a ball.
Inside, the old record spins on the turntable. Not a scratch. Johann Pachelbel, long dead, offers the solace of his inner voice; it wafts out the front windows into the sunlight and cool breeze and birdsong and childscreech. Swirls about me as I bake in the February sunshine on the front porch …Canon and Gigue in D Major…
I feel too old for the chill and the ice. But it glints and sparkles like tiny diamonds in the snow still smothering the grass on my lawn. That frost and this intense reassuring fire heating my bones.
I want the Sun. I hear the violins. The cardinals sing. I want the heat. I want the crisping. I want to feel my bare feet sizzling on the hot planks of the front porch. I hear the cardinals. I understand why they worship the Sun. I understand why they worship the Sun.
Photos taken by Jean Foster Akin c. 2011, 2016.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
[The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams]
I love this. I absolutely love this. I’ve loved it from the first moment I read it many years ago.
Some have asked: “Is the red wheelbarrow really a sunset? Are the white chickens really clouds?”
Why would the red wheelbarrow or the chickens have to be anything other than a red wheelbarrow and white chickens?
The simplicity is the draw here. The image so peaceful. The gentle cluck-cluck-cluck of the chickens as they bob and weave along the grass, dipping their funny little heads in their search for grain. The reflection of sky on the rain-slick barrow. The scent of moist earth that smells like nothing else in the world and fills the head and chest with Life itself.
Oh those tedious English classes debating whether the rain was really rain, whether the wheelbarrow was a metaphor. “What does the author really mean? What was he really trying to say?”
The rain is the rain. The chickens are chickens. The wheelbarrow is a wheelbarrow…and everything depends on it. Why? Because the author says it does.
Be in the moment. Embrace it. Own it. Don’t over-think it. Write about it in all its elegance or ugliness. Tell us what your gut feels when you’re there, in the Now.
Jean Foster Akin
[Photo by Dean Akin. Do not use except by express permission.]
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