Beverly Cleary (born in 1916) is the author of such acclaimed classics as Beezus and Ramona and The Mouse and the Motorcycle. She’s currently 103 years young and worth celebrating as often as possible!
Here are six wonderful quotes from Cleary that will help you in your writing life!
1. Quite often somebody will say, What year do your books take place? and the only answer I can give is, In childhood.
Beverly Cleary always knew she wanted to write for children, and it’s something that any writer of fiction for young adults and younger feel in their bones every day. I’ve tried writing a couple of adult novels and some short stories about adults throughout the years, but my greatest joy has always been writing books for younger readers.There’s something about returning to that time and finding a new story idea that will entertain, thrill, and surprise readers of a certain age that is always worth pursuing.
What you should be thinking about when it comes to your fiction writing is what kind of books you love to write the most. Never write something you think you should be writing. I’ve tried that too, and doing so doesn’t get me anywhere. Write what you love. Write what your heart tells you to write! And good things will follow.
2. My favorite books are a constantly changing list, but one favorite has remained constant: the dictionary. Is the word I want to use spelled practice or practise? The dictionary knows. The dictionary also slows down my writing because it is such interesting reading that I am distracted.
The hardcover dictionary used to be a staple in every household in the twentieth century, but now the dictionary is a quick Google search away, so we don’t really think about it anymore. But I’ve always loved the dictionary ever since I was a kid, and I remember reading through various pages of it at my grandparents’ house. It was fun to discover a new word and try to memorize its meaning and potentially use it in a sentence.
Even today there is nothing wrong for a writer to spend a few minutes here and there perusing an old dictionary, or clicking through an online dictionary, and learning a few new words. The more words you learn as a writer the better, so why has the dictionary become such old news as of late? The dictionary can bring you tons of success, especially when it comes to your description and imagery.
3. I write in longhand on yellow legal pads.
This is an old-school way of writing too, but there’s something kind of magical about writing your story out in longhand rather than type it onto the screen. I remember writing my first few stories in longhand as a kid, and I loved every minute of it. Lately I of course type everything, but I will jot down notes about my novels and stories in longhand in one of my journals, and often it’s really helpful to get your thoughts straight by writing something that way.
Writing an entire novel is really, really hard to do in longhand. I would never even attempt to try it, unless something happened to me where for whatever reason longhand was my only option. It’s so much easier to write on my laptop than on a piece of paper. But maybe once a year, just for fun, you should try writing a flash fiction story in longhand over the course of a few days. Doing so might give you a new burst of creativity!
4. I don’t necessarily start with the beginning of the book. I just start with the part of the story that’s most vivid in my imagination and work forward and backward from there.
This is a really interesting perspective. I’ve heard of writers who start with the end of their story and then work backward, but I’ve never really heard of someone just starting with a key scene that’s vivid in the imagination, and then working forward or backward from there. I definitely wouldn’t be able to write something like this. The only way I know how to write a story is from the beginning to the end, and then later in revisions I decide if maybe I started too early in the story or too late, if the ending needs a few more scenes, things like that.
But if you don’t start writing from the middle of the story, at least take into account the moments of your piece that are most vivid in your imagination. If you start from the beginning like I do, keep those later scenes in your mind every time you sit down to write, even if the scenes themselves won’t be appearing for many days to come. I’m currently drafting my twentieth novel, and there’s a scene I simply can’t wait to write toward the end, that’s super vivid in my imagination, but it’s still three weeks away, and you know what? That’s fine. The vividness from that upcoming scene is actually adding to the energy of the earlier scenes I’m currently writing.
5. I wrote books to entertain. I’m not trying to teach anything! If I suspected the author was trying to show me how to be a better behaved girl, I shut the book.
This is one of the best things you can learn as a writer, particularly if you write stories and books for younger readers. The worst thing you can do is try to teach the reader something in your writing. What you should care about instead is telling a compelling story that entertains and offers three-dimensional characters that the reader wants to learn more about.
Can you imagine if John Green had simply tried to teach teenagers about cancer with The Fault in Our Stars? What Green did instead was tell a beautiful, life-affirming love story with two of the most memorable YA characters in recent years. Cleary is right: write to entertain. Write to dazzle the reader. And keep any teaching off the page.
6. I enjoy writing for third and fourth graders most of all.
The sooner you figure out what age range you like to write for the better. This goes even beyond, say, the middle grade readers and the young adult readers. What exact ages do you feel like your stories are meant for and that you like writing for? Cleary enjoyed writing her stories for third and fourth graders. That’s a whole lot different than fifth or sixth graders, or middle school ages, or high school ages. Third and fourth grades? That’s super specific.
And you would be best served to decide what specific ages you like to write for yourself. I’ve always had a wide net in terms of my fiction. I’ve written young adult and middle grade. My fiction is kind of aimed at anybody, in a sense, which doesn’t always serve me well. You should definitely learn the difference between middle grade and young adult, and figure out what the expectations of each are, but if you really want to be successful, you should learn what the nine-year-old readers are looking for, and what the twelve-year-old readers are looking for, and what the fifteen-year-old readers are looking for, and decide what age group out there you most want to write for.
Cleary did it, and she did it well. So can you!