I attended my very first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) workshop last Tuesday night and what an experience. I was a bit overwhelmed and wasn’t sure what to expect, at first, but it turned out to be as harmless as going to a movie theater (minus the darkness and the popcorn, of course).
“Magic and World Building” was the main topic or how to incorporate magical elements into your story. The format was a traditional panel discussion hosted by one of SCBWI New York Chapter’s organizers with guest editor Susan Dobinick of Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers and author Edith Cohn, who has just released her debut novel, Spirit’s Key–a middle grade novel about a young girl named Spirit and the ghost of her dog, Sky, who seek to unravel the secrets of her [Spirit’s] inherited powers and a mysterious illness that has plagued the island’s inhabitants–both dogs and humans alike.
The guest speakers both referred to Cohn’s book as magical realism (or magic realism) or light magic. I think it’s really just fantasy fiction, but that’s just my opinion. Although it has a solid setting based on reality, it employs a little bit of magic, while keeping the suspension of disbelief in place. It’s not high fantasy, but it still crosses that paranormal realm, the fantasy aspect that many of us enjoy reading.
I learned a few things from the workshop and would like to summarize a few of those items below, some of which I agree completely, while some I think should be left to the writer’s own discretion…with great caution of course.
Develop your characters. Make use of the five senses.
According to both guests, fantasy should be intrinsic to the story. However, if you rely too much on fantasy, it can be a crutch especially without developing your characters. It is crucial to make the story feel real. So they both suggested incorporating elements that involve the use of your senses such as food (taste), drinks (taste), and scents (smell).
Don’t go overboard with too many made-up words.
Avada kedavra. Sectumsempra. Dingbatters (Spirit’s Key). Baldies (Spirit’s Key). Gargantuan. Nerd. Bump. Swagger. Obscene. Selfie. Hakuna matata (Although this one is not made-up. It’s Swahili for “no worries.”). But you get the point.
They said, “Don’t go overboard.” The reader might stumble or get confused.
I, on the other hand, disagree. There are many words that were invented that have made it to the English dictionary. Some were invented by famous authors from way back when. Shakespeare, himself, invented over 1700 words (i.e. academe, equivocal, fashionable, mimic, radiance, savagery, etc.), many of which are important and still in use in today’s world.
Yes, a writer should use caution, but a writer should also have fun. So I say, “Keep inventing!” It’s how a writer influences. It’s how the deepest and most emotional of feelings are expressed. But, at the same time, use common sense. Then again, there are many things and words in the writing world that do not make any sense.
Take the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” for example. A word that I love and remember as a child from watching one of my favorite Disney films, was a made-up word, but it has made its way into the dictionary.
Come to think of it, every word is made-up and invented, so do not be afraid.
What is your character’s special power/s?
A source of power is needed in the world you’re building. Who holds it? What type of power is it? It could be anything–psychic abilities, invisibility, the ability to fly, to move things, etc. A signature ability or talent or power can define the character/s within the story and make them more interesting. Does he/she need a special object to use like a wand or broomstick or an amulet or a ring? These can give more definition to the character/s that hold/s these special powers.
What is the landscape like, the weather, ways of communication, language?
The world you create (the weather, the topography, how they talk to each other, their language) should only enrich the story. It should serve the story, but it shouldn’t be the focal point. “It should always be a reflection of the story you want to tell. Story first. World second,” according to Cohn.
What interests me the most was that she said she’s been writing for 13 years before being published. A lucky number I suppose and a dream come true. That in itself is magical.
I left with two SCBWI buttons and an inspiration to write more…more magic.