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Lessons from Paula

In July of 2004, the book world lost one of its most unique and colorful members, the irreplaceable Paula Danziger. Paula would have been amused by that word, lost, used as if she’d merely wandered from the group while shopping for another pair of purple-sequined Doc Martens. I imagine Paula reading this article up in Children’s Writer Heaven and listening for an announcement: “Attention shoppers! Would the party who “lost” Paula Danziger please report to the service desk?”

In her books and in her life, Paula always maintained a healthy sense of fun. Her humor ranged from the puns in the Amber Brown books to seasonal gifts of plastic reindeer that “pooped” jellybeans. Her snot jokes were infamous. “Why is snot better than broccoli? Because little kids won’t eat broccoli!”

But as silly as she could be, she was always serious about writing.

Paula was my friend and mentor, and one of the people I admired most. She was a teacher whose lessons beg to be spread. Here are as many of them as I can cram into an article plus a couple more.

LESSON #1: SHARE YOUR PASSION

I met Paula Danziger in a chat room. That sounds like a joke, but it’s not.

It was Verla Kay’s chat room for children’s writers, and Paula spoke to us as she often spoke to groups of writers, educators, librarians, and children. She spoke to us by keyboard even as she recovered from a life-threatening physical assault in her hotel during a reading association conference. Not even such a traumatic incident could dampen her enthusiasm for reaching out to people.

Conference planners loved Paula. I once saw somebody ask Paula if she would be the keynote speaker at an event for writers and illustrators. Not only did Paula agree to speak, she pulled out her cell phone and within ten minutes got a picture book illustrator, a children’s editor, and a literary agent to join her.

Paula’s primary life lesson was about sharing. All writers are driven to share words and stories, but Paula shared her enthusiasm, her knowledge, and her passion as well.

LESSON #2: JOIN A COMMUNITY

During the first week I knew her, Paula pointed me toward the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She did the same with every aspiring writer or illustrator she met. At the time I worried whether it would be worth the cost, but I’ve come to believe, as Paula did, in the importance of community.

Writing a book is a solitary process, and publishing that book can be a difficult journey. Many people only get so far before giving up, unless they have a network of likeminded friends to provide support, encouragement, and commiseration.

In addition to SCBWI, there are other organizations dedicated to romance (Romance Writers of America), speculative fiction (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association), horror (Horror Writers Association), and other genres. Joining is no guarantee of publication, but the conferences, workshops, newsletters, and critique groups of SCBWI have been as helpful to me as Paula promised they would be.

LESSON #3: KEEP CURRENT

Another thing Paula taught me was how important it is for children’s writers to know and understand the children of today. Paula was so in tune with children that she could guess the age and grade of just about any child she came across, but she never stopped researching what kids were playing with, eating, or wearing. Paula even “adopted” a second grade class in Texas when she was researching her young Amber Brown books.

At one point, I told Paula that I preferred to draw upon personal experiences for my writing. After all, I wasn’t so long out of school that I couldn’t remember how it felt.

“That’s important,” she said, “but keep in mind how quickly the culture changes. Four years is a high school generation. By the time you’re twelve years out of high school, your own experiences are three generations removed.”

That made me feel old, but it put the problem into a proper context. Even if you know exactly how today’s children and teens act, speak, and think, you still need to keep up with the trends because a new generation is only four years away.

This is also why Paula didn’t write much about computers, with the notable exception of Snail Mail No More, co-authored with Ann M. Martin. Even though Paula was plugged into the world of email, chat rooms, and instant messaging, the technology was changing too fast for her to comfortably include in her books.

LESSON #4: BUILD CHARACTER

I used to struggle with characterization. Fortunately, Paula taught me an exercise for developing characters. She would put the character’s name in the center of a page and extend a web of facts around the name. Then she would add more facts around those first facts and connect them into a web.

If a character loved horses, that fact would be added to the web, but it also raised a question. Why did she love horses so much? If it was from summer visits to her aunt’s farm in the country, that fact was also added. And if her love of horses led her to read books about horses, that fact was added as well. Each new insight made the character more dimensional, more interesting, and more realistic.

For expressing the inner lives of her characters, Paula drew inspiration from acting. One of the books she recommended to me was Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen, a proponent of the Stanislavsky Method. I was skeptical about whether acting lessons could apply to characters on a written page, but once again Paula was right. By thinking about my characters as if I were portraying them in a play, I could focus better on their motivations and mannerisms.

I will never have Paula’s instincts for well-drawn characters, but with my webs of facts and modified Stanislavsky Method, I’ve improved quite a bit.

Paula once even created a character web based on my sister and used it to help me choose a perfect birthday gift. There really was no limit to her skills!

LESSON #5: CONNECT WITH READERS

I went with Paula on classroom visits and book signings, hoping to get an idea of how a successful author worked. Paula’s method was to make a big impression, which was easy enough with her outrageous clothes, big glasses, and chunky amber jewelry. Yet somehow, she still managed to connect with her audience and remain accessible.

The secret, she told me, was to always, always, always make eye-contact. She also drew out shy people with her easy smile and interested conversation. As a result, nobody who had a book signed by Paula ever forgot the experience.

Also it didn’t hurt that she could also sign her name backward or upside down as easily as forward and right side up.

LESSON #6: HOPEFULLY EVER AFTER

Another of Paula’s favorite lessons used John Frederick Nims’s “Love Poem.” Paula would underline each funny line in red, including the entire first stanza. Then she would underline each sad line in blue, including the entire second stanza. By the end of the poem, the blocks of blue and red came together in a blend of purple, sad and funny at the same time.

Many of Paula’s books also come together in a blend of sad and funny. Paula didn’t believe in happy endings. She believed in hopeful endings. From what I understand, life in a hopeful ending is a little better than yesterday but not quite as good as tomorrow. I like that, and a legion of Paula’s readers seem to agree.

Paula also didn’t believe in writing a “series” of books, although she had respect for authors who did. She always insisted that her Amber Brown books were not a series, nor were they sequels. Paula used the term “sequelizer” because each was written without relying on previous or upcoming books.

UNLEARNED LESSONS:

There were lots of other things I learned from Paula, but one thing Paula couldn’t teach me was how to follow rules. For her, most rules did not seem to apply.

For example, I met her for lunch once and we each brought manuscripts. I was very proud of my manuscript because it looked like all my writing manuals said it should: double-spaced with a proportional font and one-inch margins on bright 24-pound white paper.

Paula’s manuscript was printed in a sans-serif font on screaming neon red paper.

When Paula looked at my pages she seemed surprised to see that my name was on every page. “What a great idea,” she said. “Does everyone do that?”

From this I learned that rules are merely guidelines to be followed with common sense. They can be safely disregarded once you’ve earned enough knowledge, or enough of a reputation.

Another thing Paula couldn’t teach me was how to deal with rejection. When I got my first rejection letter I called Paula for advice. She was very interested in what the letter said, what I was going to do, and what it felt like to get such a note.

Paula had never received a single rejection letter in her entire career, so she had to learn what that was like from me.

WHAT OTHERS LEARNED FROM PAULA:

What I learned from Paula…
By Elizabeth Levy

Well, for one thing, I’ve learned what it’s like to miss someone every day, and how hard it is to write without our daily phone calls and jokes about “now we really must write….”

But the lesson that I most wanted to keep close was Paula’s hatred of bullies and meanness. She was so funny that jokes came rolling out of her, but she had a deep passion for kindness. When I would read her something I wrote, she would be quick to tell me if she thought someone was being too mean. I hope to keep her voice in my head, steering me away from the joke that has cruelty in it.

And then, of course, I can always use a snot joke. Snot jokes aren’t cruel, they’re just disgusting, and Paula loved funny snot jokes.

What I learned from Paula…
By Gordon Korman

Like many in our field, I can’t say enough good things about Paula, and what she meant to me personally and professionally.

I first met Paula when I was in college. At that time, I was known primarily as a Canadian author; I was just breaking into the U.S. kids’ book field. Paula took me under her wing, and — I later learned — “talked me up” at every single school visit she did. She never took credit for this. Paula wasn’t looking to be patted on the back. The truth only sunk in over years of appearances, when I realized how many recommendations had come from her.

The most important literary lesson I took and continue to take from Paula was when NOT to be funny — don’t try to blow the doors off with every paragraph. “Be yourself and be honest,” she told me, “and the humor will come.” It was natural for her, but I started writing as a kid, when overkill is a virtue. I still remind myself of that almost daily.

What I learned from Paula…
By Verla Kay

Be generous with your time, and always remember to be considerate of people who help you in any way.

Paula was so great about writing thank you notes, and just plain “caring” about the people she worked with that did things to help her in her career. Her example will always shine brightly in my mind. Thank you, Paula!

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