There are only a few occasions in my life where I’ve said an immediate YES! without hesitation. Two that stand out: when Hubby asked me to marry him, and when my writer friend Chersti asked if I wanted a ticket to go hear Markus Zusak speak in Provo last Saturday.
My list of all-time favorite young adult authors fits on one hand. They are authors who don’t just write; they craft. They tackle new and challenging directions with each novel, refusing to limit themselves to one type of story. They take risks, they write for the sake of writing, for the sake of story. They are, in my mind, the gods of YA lit.
Markus Zusak is one of them.
And he lives in Australia, so that might also explain my lack of hesitation. This wasn’t an opportunity likely to come around again.
(Me gushing about just 101 of his words here, though in retrospect I didn’t gush nearly enough . . . and it’s also possible that someone on his publishing team wrote the cover blurb. But still.)
To hear him speak, I abandoned my six-month-old baby, my three-year-old, my six-year-old, my stressed-out-in-the-middle-of-tax-season (accountant) hubby, rearranged the previous commitment I had that night, drove forty-five minutes south, and spent an hour and a half driving home thanks to a freeway closure. (Not to mention the five hours I waited in the book signing line in between.) Worth it? Yep.
For one thing, hearing him speak was the perfect motivation to jump back into writing again. This week I’ve worked on my manuscript again for the first time in six months.
But for another, I loved the advice he gave. It went something like this:
1. Mine Your Life
He told us about his first book signing and how the smart bookseller brought a box of beer that made the event an instant success with the rugby team Zusak had talked into showing up as his audience. If you’ve read I Am the Messenger, maybe you remember how Father O’Reilly does the same thing to make the church service a success: he advertises and provides free beer.
I needed this tip. (Not providing free beer; the other tip.) So often I think that everything in my novels has to come out of thin air, out of my imagination, or else it’s cheating. But experience can be such a mentor that it would be a shame to let it go to waste.
2. Use Details So They’ll Believe You
Next he told us a long story about his older brother who tormented him all the time and who always packed his lunch — two hard-boiled eggs — in a red cooler. The brother loved to crack them on his head, and he did so Saturday after Saturday as they helped their dad paint houses. One time during the week, Markus left his toast unattended while using the bathroom, and his brother folded it in fourths and took a huge bite right out of the center. To get revenge, Markus waited until his brother set the red cooler with the hard-boiled eggs by the front door Saturday morning and then swapped them for raw eggs. (As he told the story, he made no secret about where this was going.)
After finishing the story (which I will in a minute), Zusak asked, “Why did it matter that my brother’s cooler was red? Why did I tell you that? I did it so you’ll believe me.”
Brilliant! I’ve heard other advice about details, like not pointing out the gun unless someone’s going to use it, but I like this better. He went on to explain that it’s like losing your coat: to reclaim it, the first thing someone wants you to do is describe it, and the more details you give — like color, fabric, brand name, and the folded paper you left in the pocket — the more they’ll believe it’s really your coat.
So one of the main things I’ve started working on this week is making my story more real through details. Google Earth has been a big help since I’m not in a position to travel my characters’ road trip myself right now, and I keep thinking of Stephen King’s tip in On Writing about adding that touch of “verisimilitude” to your story as well as the magic of setting that Katherine Paterson suggests is necessary. Now I’ll knit Zusak’s advice in with theirs and keep it in mind when I write.
3. Take the Unexpected Route
The whole time he was telling the egg story, as I said, he made no secret of where it was going: the older brother was going to crack a raw egg on his head. And in the Q&A afterward, one audience member pointed out that he does that in The Book Thief, too, giving away the ending way in advance. “Why?” she asked.
During the egg story, he had me hooked despite the obvious conclusion. The real secret is that since he’d given away the prank, I was waiting for a different twist.
It’s genius! Like giving your audience a red herring. As he built up toward the expected climax of the story, an interesting thing happened. He got cold feet, wasn’t sure about going through with the prank, and confessed it to his dad. What did the dad do? Laughed and said, “That’s brilliant!” And when Zusak got to the part where the brother actually cracks the egg, it’s the dad’s laughter that again steals the scene. As an audience, those are the parts where we laughed — maybe because you expect the dad to be gruff or sympathetic rather than laughing out loud.
With The Book Thief, Zusak talked about how when he began writing from Death’s point of view, it was awful at first because Death was everything you’d expect him to be. The story didn’t actually become alive until he took Death’s character in an unexpected direction: making him haunted by humans.
I’ve had similar experiences with unlocking my characters only once I broke free of stereotypes, but I love this advice on every level. As a reader, I want the unexpected reaction from a character, but also unexpected events, settings, dialogue, etc. I’m so excited to look for more places to utilize this in my manuscript.
4. Tell Your Story Over and Over to Get It Right
He claimed he’d told the egg story over 500 times, and that the story evolved with each telling to become the masterpiece it is now with the emphasis on the dad’s reaction, etc. He said he rewrote the first 80 pages of The Book Thief probably between 150 and 200 times. Stories get better the more you tell them.
I think this is absolutely what makes him so masterful. This is what it means to craft. You don’t settle for the way the story came out the first time, or the second, or the third. You keep trying. You write it over and over and perfect it.
So that’s what I’m working on now. I jumped back into revisions this week by first opening my synopsis and revising that yet again (easily my 20th time), using it to figure out what story I’m trying to tell. Now I’m back in the draft, scrawling notes on every page about how to tell it better next time.
Thank goodness I said YES! to Chersti’s ticket offer. Sometimes hearing an author speak — especially a brilliant one like Zusak — is exactly what a budding writer like me needs.
What about you? Heard any amazing authors speak? Been to any great events lately? What advice have you gleaned from other geniuses recently?