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YWP Pep Talk Interview with Rebecca Stead

photo of Rebecca SteadQ: Tell us about yourself!

A: Greetings, strong writers! I’m Rebecca Stead, and I’ve written four books for kids: When You Reach Me, First Light, Liar & Spy, and Goodbye Stranger. (I’ve also co-written a book, Bob, with the truly lovely writer Wendy Mass.) I live in New York City, where I grew up, and now my own two kids are getting close to grown-up. (Luckily, we have a cat, Oscar, who still likes to snuggle.)

I like parentheses.

Q: What were you like as a kid or teen? How did you feel about writing, or what kinds of things did you write? 

A: When I was a kid, I loved to read, but I didn’t love to talk about the books I read. I hated “breaking the spell” of a book by having to answer questions or summarize plot. You have probably already guessed that I was not a fan of book reports. For me, reading felt private. When I read, it was like a secret world was created between me and my book. I loved stories about kids like me (kids who lived in apartments, had divorced parents, or were only children), and I also loved stories about kids who were nothing like me (kids who lived on Mars, had eleven sisters, or could do magic). I especially liked reading about kids who could do magic. I didn’t write a lot when I was young, but when someone forced me to write (usually a teacher), I kind of liked it. But I didn’t write “for myself” until much later. 

Q: What’re one or two important lessons about writing you’ve learned since then?

A: So many things!

First, your weirdness is your strength. Be willing to let some of your truly strange ideas, your nerdiest observations, and your truest emotions into your story. Writing well usually requires that you make yourself vulnerable, which can be hard to do. Most of us have an instinct to protect ourselves. But you probably can’t protect yourself and write a great story at the same time. You may feel uncomfortable, but you will have lots of company, including me.

Second, your readers are smart. You can leave a LOT of information out of your story and your readers will not get lost. When I started writing, I thought I had to explain everything, including how my characters got in and out of rooms. They almost always used the door! My readers did not need to be told this.

Third, don’t make writing impossible by expecting your first draft to be terrific. Nobody’s first draft is terrific. Just keep going! I think many people who really want to write become discouraged by their first drafts. They look at those first drafts and think, “This doesn’t read like a real book! Forget it.” They should be thinking, “I’m writing! I feel brave. Later, I will shape this material into a terrific book.” Key word: LATER. The shaping of the material comes LATER. If you judge your work before you have had a chance to revise it, you are beating yourself up for no reason. And you will probably want to quit. Don’t!

Q: Do you have a favorite inspirational quote?

A: “Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up.” —Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird.

Visit Rebecca's website.

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