I’ve been prepping for the first Writer-in-Residence workshop this week, an experience which has been truly eye-opening. I am a self-taught writer, in a sense. My degrees are in English Lit and in Composition-Rhetoric, both of which are about words but neither of which center on writing as a craft. I’ve taken a few creative writing classes and I certainly learned how do graduate-level research (thank you, Miami University!) but I’ve never, let’s say, been through an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program where you learn on a high level HOW.TO.WRITE.
Mostly, I’ve learned to write intuitively by being a lifelong reader and lover of words, people, images and ideas. But all of this to say that I’ve rarely before had to break down the writing process, think about it, put it into words and powerpoint slides and prepare to articulate those thoughts in front of a roomful of highly-educated adults.
One might find that task a touch daunting, perhaps.
But I have had to think through how-you-do-the-things-you-always-do in writing. Research, for instance. As I’m prepping the research section of my talk, I’m thinking about all the ways I do fiction research. I write books for kids, and on assigned topics, and often on short deadlines. So my research might differ somewhat from other fiction writers’. I spend as much time as I can getting to know the world I’m writing about. For instance, I’m getting ready to start a four-book series about a girl who solves mysteries at a dolphin sanctuary. I’ve never seen a dolphin sanctuary. I actually don’t know what one looks like. My experience with dolphins consists of Free Willy and whatever dolphin story is on NPR that day.
But apparently, I’m going to be writing about dolphins until July so I sure as heck better know what I’m saying. Since this is a book for kids, I started out by watching all of the kids dolphin movies I could find Netflix: the aforementioned Free Willy, Free Willy 2 (mind-blowing, I know), Dolphin Tale, Free Wily 116, you get the picture. Some Nova episodes about rescuing marine life. Videos of vets working with sick dolphins in sanctuaries. Recordings of dolphin sounds. And when I’m doing this, I’m trying to absorb in general what sanctuaries look like, how people hold dolphins, how the touch them, what dolphin faces look like, what their bodies must feel like, what kind of equipment people use when they work with dolphins.
I’d like to have a year to do research on dolphins and visit sanctuaries and interact with dolphins myself, but because I’m a commissioned writer—well, I do what I can. Work fast, work efficient and inject as much humanity and life into a manuscript as possible. Then move on to the next project.