Harry Potter fans, take note: I hope lots of people out there are reading AkataWitch by Nnedi Okorafor.I have been reading kid lit books like crazy for my VCFA MFA writing program, and this is one of my favorites so far. How many books? At least 100 books per year for the past two years. Phew!
When they call Akata Witch the Nigerian Harry Potter, they are right. Except I like it even better than Harry Potter.
Why will the Harry Potter fan Enjoy Akata Witch?
a fascinating and fully realized magical system
a brilliantly portrayed magical world for you to escape into
vivid curmudgeonly mentor characters with great quirks
tons of action and excitement
a strong sport-related theme
fun scary-but-not-too-scary villains
friendship between strong characters
middle school characters who learn how to do magic together and have to pass many tests along the way
a fast and engaging read, therefore, wonderful for reluctant readers
What makes me like Akata Witch better than Harry Potter?
It’s set in Nigeria, a place I want to learn more about. It’s got the transporting fun of a travel book.
The magical world of Akata Witch is just as rich as Rowling’s, and it is a fresh magical system, treated with creative, yet cozy whimsy.
There’s almost a video game feel to some parts of the magic. Bonus!
The main character has real internal flaws to overcome in order to master her magic, and herself. She has to struggle, which means the stakes are high.
Akata Witch has humor that arises from character.
The heroine is bicultural, having grown up in America, and being NIgerian by blood. This gives her yet another difference to overcome.
The action happens onstage rather than being discussed second-hand, or overheard by spying younglings. Overall, a masterful handling of exposition.
The protagonist is female. (Being female, I like that. I’m ready at any moment for Rowling to write a whole new set of adventures starring Hermione. She can have more of my cash for that!).
The protagonist’s albinism gives her an extra dose of difference, and injustice to battle.
Characters’ mistakes lead to real consequences.
We need diverse books—boy, do we ever right now, and this is a great one!
Seriously, everyone who loves middle grade and fantasy, no, actually, just everybody who enjoys good stuff needs to check out this book.
The sequel, Akata Warrior comes out October 3, 2017, so happy birthday to me, in advance!
Have you read Akata Witch? What do you think? What other books fit in that Harry Potter sweet spot for you? Please comment below!
Myth: You Need Talent to Be Great Truth: Deliberate Practice is the Only Path to Greatness
Common Sense and the Talent to Be a Great Writer
Recently, when I shared the title of Colvin’s book with an art student of mine, he made a “You crazy!” face at me. He was sure the only thing he needed as an artist was talent, and without it, he was sunk. I don’t think he is alone. It seems to be common sense that only talented people succeed as artists, as writers, as cyclists, as chess masters, as business moguls, as great leaders, as anything. So many people believe this. Maybe you had a teacher who told you to give up on your dream because you didn’t have the talent. Everyone knows getting good takes talent.
Turns Out, Everyone is Wrong
Don’t you wish people trusted science more than they trust common sense? I do. Look around. Watch the news. I really wish… but, anyways….
In Talent is Overrated, Colvin, building on the work of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, debunks the role of talent. He says that even Mozart, that poster child for the power of talent and divine inspiration, got great through something called “Deliberate Practice.” After all, Mozart started making music at the age of three, and his father was not only a highly respected musician and composer in his own right, but a taskmaster with crazy high standards, and an astute teacher.
In the world of psychology and business, there is a field of study called the “Science of Expertise.” It has already upended the eminence of inborn talent. Experts in this field have studied not only sports figures and chess masters, but musicians, artists, and writers. What they found is that early ability did not yield greatness.
What did? Deliberate Practice.
What is Deliberate Practice?
People say “Practice makes perfect,” but it’s not just practice that yields great work. (Plus, there’s no such thing as perfection, and I think it is a damaging concept for artists. I’ll probably do a future post on this.)
Art teachers like me say you have to make a thousand bad drawings before you can start making good ones. But it isn’t just making a ton of crappy work, or playing the same set of scales every day that does the trick. It’s a particular kind of practice. Colvin describes these key characteristics of Deliberate Practice:
It is focused specifically on improving performance. This means working on the stuff you don’t do well. You need feedback to figure out your particular weak spots . If you’re playing tennis, you may already know the forecourt backhand is your Kryptonite. But as a writer, you need a critique from a trusted source to know that dialogue or character development, or plotting, or sentence structure is not your strong suit. Designing your practice to improve your performance also means breaking down skills into their component parts. Only by breaking it down can you improve. For example, if my main characters are weak, I have to go micro to figure out what isn’t working. Is it my POV voice that doesn’t feel specific enough? Is it that my character is always reacting instead of taking action? Does their dialogue sound wishy washy, or like every other’s dialogue? Does my word choice make the reader feel patronized, or is my tone too distant, creating a big psychic gap between protagonist and reader? Do I have the real sense of what the character is feeling, all of it, in all its complexity? Once I know what isn’t working, I have to design a repeatable practice that improves those skills. More on that below.
It must be done repeatedly. This is the part where the Carnegie Hall cliché is correct. Where it’s about putting in the work and stacking up the hours. O, Grit, why is there no substitute for you? There just isn’t. We know it instinctively as storytelling creatures. A tale with a hero who doesn’t have to learn, to try repeatedly and fail, well, that story doesn’t feel real to us; it lacks gravitas. We know anything worth getting takes work.
It requires continuously-available feedback. Feedback can come from a teacher, or from a source that is easy to interpret. Benjamin Franklin, seeking to improve his essay writing, studied a publication called “The Spectator. ” He read an essay from it, then put it aside, summarized the main points, rewrote them in his own style, then compared his version to the essay, noticing specific aspects of his writing that needed improvement. Franklin used “The Spectator” as his master teacher, and his own well-honed objectivity. Not all writers, I find, have that objectivity. Franklin was also a scientist. Personally, I love having a mentor. I also love having feedback from other writers whose work and opinions I respect. And there are particular craft books that I keep rereading.
It is highly challenging mentally. Learning builds new neural connections in your little gray cells, which means it is mentally taxing. Therefore, most people can’t do Deliberate Practice for more than 5 hours per day. Often, they do it in sessions around an hour to ninety minutes, say the scientists. For writers, who often need day jobs to stay solvent, this is good news. Five hours per day is a lot, but it’s doable with a day job, or with a family (probably not both).
It isn’t fun. This is the bad news, but it’s an important point, because if a skill is fun for you to practice, it means you are in your comfort zone. And you don’t learn in your comfort zone. You also don’t learn in the panic zone, where the task is hard enough to strike fear. You learn in a special zone where the task is difficult, but still doable, with a bit of work and grit. This is called the Learning Zone by Professor Noel Tichy. I’ve heard it called the Growth Zone, but whatever you call it, you know you’re there when you are more satisfied having done it than you were while you did it.
Nobody Said it Was Easy
Maybe the reason people persist in believing in the myth of talent is because hard work is hard. If getting great were really all about talent, then you either got it or you ain’t. Done and done. Go watch Game of Thrones and pop a cold one.
Deliberate practice is difficult. But the hugely good news is, it can be done. And, since it is hard to do Deliberate Practice, not everyone will do it. That gives those willing to do it a competitive edge.
Deliberate Practice for Writers
So what would deliberate practice look like for a fiction writer? Veteran writing teacher Barbara Baig has an incredible set of lessons on her blog. She has based them on the precepts of expert performance studies like Ericsson’s. Definitely check out her lessons, and her books. They can help you build your own writing Deliberate Practice regimen.
Here is my brief summary of the Deliberate Practice steps I am testing out as a writer. Try them for yourself, and see what you think:
What do you need to improve? Get feedback on your work from a trusted source: a mentor, an editor or author who is willing to read your work critically and give you details. I don’t think there is any substitute for experience here. Find a master, if you can. It’s worth it. That is part A. Part B is being able to take that sage advice. Taking feedback is a special skill in and of itself, and it’s worth a post on its own. For now make a list of the skills you want to improve.
Design your practice. My practice has a warm-up, which I do every day, and when do it, I put a sparkly sticker on that day in my wall calendar. I kid you not. Rewards are important, and my Inner Child enjoys sparkly stuff. The warm-up is the morning pages, which is 3 pages of free-writing. Morning Pages come from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be creative. After the warmup, I work on exercises focused on improving my character development. I do side writing, in which I speak directly with my characters. I ask them pointed questions. I ask them about what I need to do next. I brainstorm ideas with them. I also hang out and ask them about the meaning of life. Really. I have this one vampire character who is so wise about many things. I do all this in addition to getting words on the page that are meant for my draft. Cool things can happen. Sometimes I’m writing scenes in my morning pages. I let it happen. I type them into my side writing in Scrivener. Or they might even end up in my draft. Why not?
Make a schedule, commit to it, set up rewards, and do it! Since talent doesn’t matter, why should inspiration? Life is unpredictable, so I get my writing done first thing in the morning. Every day, with very few exceptions. I get up, grab coffee, and start my morning pages.
Get feedback. I review my work critically a few days after I have drafted it. I know my weaknesses by now because I’m getting expert feedback in my MFA program. Once I graduate, I will be in a weekly critique group. I take the feedback, cry if I need to, give myself a bit of time to recover, then try again.
This is how I do it. How do you make sure you are improving? Comment and share below.
Also, next time your inner critic tells you you don’t have the talent to do this, tell them that Barbara Baig, Anders Ericsson, Geoff Colvin, and I said they’re full of it. Because you don’t need talent to do this, or anything, with excellence!
Top 5 Writing Craft Books, because who doesn’t live a good top 5 list?
I am hard at work on a middle grade novel set in Bermuda, and my graduate lecture for VCFA on The Alchemy of Radical Self-Belief, and it’s fun! And tough. And fun!
For my lecture, I’m reading a particularly eye-opening book. Although not a writing craft book, it has powerful info on how to be a high performer in any field. It involves something called “deliberate practice.” Check it out by clicking below:
The List of Top 5 Writing Craft Books
Now that you have the bonus recommendation, right up front, here is my list of great writing craft books, in no particular order:
Straightforward and usable. Brings clarity to the revision process. Many aha! moments lie within these pages. Think you understand show don’t tell? Read this and you may be in for a surprise. Great stuff on leaving space for the reader to collaborate with the story.
Especially helpful when you are mulling your story over before getting it on paper or into the computer. Says it’s for kids, and it’s great for adults, too. Simplest and clearest description of plot and conflict I have ever seen.
This is the most intuitive approach to plot structure I’ve found. Plus it includes the writer herself in the hero’s journey. Stories, Alderson believes, are about the writer going on their own hero’s journey. How else can we bring the reader along?
How to take your favorite books and learn exactly how the author did a particular thing, then do it yourself in your own work. You can learn to write crowd scenes like Tolstoy, or Omniscient POV like Rowling.
If you don’t feel close to your characters, you can’t expect your readers to.
When you think of a friend, you don’t imagine what makes them like everyone else, do you? No, you remember their quirks, their contradictions, their particular turns of phrase, their noble traits, their flaws. These are the things that make you laugh, wonder, and bring you close.
But as a writer, how do you discover vivid character traits that ring true?
Creating Strong Characters
I’m reading a wonderful craft book that is helping me get in touch with my characters from an unusual creative source—acting.
Many writers find they can build strong characters through side writing. Side writing is anything you do as a writer that isn’t designed to go into your final draft. It’s the study, the inner exploration that helps you build your story world, the psyche of your characters, and the relationships between them that drive the conflict.
Side writing for a novelist is akin to an artist’s sketchbook. An artist tries out all kinds of techniques in their sketchbook. They draw studies of their subjects, they doodle, mess around, use pencils, or ink, or whatever medium they like, they tape in ideas. Sketchbook work doesn’t have to be good. It’s all fodder and inspiration for the final polished art pieces.
Your side writing should be your playground, where you flesh out and test your ideas.
Try this: Main Character Interview
Set aside at least a half hour to try this exercise.
Do a brief meditation in which you try to picture your main character. Close your eyes and visualize them sitting in front of you. Just take a few minutes and focus your energy on your protagonist. When you start to feel a little ridiculous, and like, wow, we writers sure are eccentric, then open your eyes and start writing.
You can try writing by hand, or typing into your writing software of choice. If you are having trouble feeling in touch with your main character, I recommend trying doing this by hand, at least at first. It makes you slow down and pay attention.
Start by greeting your main character like he or she is a real person. (This is a game of let’s pretend for grown-ups.)
Then start having a conversation in which your goal is to chat and get to know each other.
As you go along, get to the heart of what you really want to know about your character. Why are they so bent on revenge? Why are they so mad at their best friend? Whatever unanswered questions you have, ask them. You may not always get answers. Deflection is interesting, and you may want to ask again later.
Get more specific and pointed as you go. Ask questions that will help you know the character’s big sticking points, their big terrors, their deepest most secret yearnings.
Here are some suggested questions for after you are past the small talk: What would you die for? What do you live for? What is your biggest fear? If you won a billion dollars tax free, what would you do first? If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? (Big questions like these can help you see what matters most to your main character.)
What to Do with the Interview Text
Once you are done with your interview, you may find you like the process. You may want to begin each writing session with one of these, to warm up, to get into your character’s voice. Great!
Keep everything and refer to it later, before you write scenes from this character’s point of view. You can start a writing session by asking a character what they want in this upcoming scene. You can even ask them advice on how to write future scenes.
This side writing exercise has a distinct advantage over the commonly recommended character questionnaire. In this exercise you are talking to your character directly, so you get to speak and hear their voice. And you are answering as your character, so you will get new information about how they feel. They may even share new secrets with you.
Your novel’s world and people begin to live inside your imagination long before the plot swings into action. Side writing exercises the one above can be a terrific way to start sketching out that world and those people, so that your main character starts off vivid and strong.
This January I will graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. If you are considering this program, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Unfortunately, my work there has kept me from blogging here.
Until today, that is. Look for a new post with a fun writing exercise tomorrow around noon!