R. J. (Rebecca) Anderson is leading a workshop at Write! Canada for individuals interested in writing for Tweens and Teens. As a bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction for 10-to-18-year-olds, she has a clear understanding of what interests these readers. She is the author of Knife (UK) also known as Spellhunter (US), Rebel (UK) also known as Wayfarer (US), Arrow, and Ultraviolet, with other books to be released in 2012 and 2013.
R. J., what helped you determine that you were a young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) author?
I grew up reading the classic “juvenile” fantasy stories – Narnia, The Hobbit, George MacDonald’s Curdie books. Even as an adult, I found myself coming back to those stories again and again because they held more depth and resonance for me than most of the epic “adult” fantasy I was reading.
But when it came to my own writing, I assumed that the kinds of issues and content I’d included in my first novel were too mature for a younger audience – particularly the romantic angle, since I’d been told you couldn’t have a bona fide romance in a book for children. So I spent years approaching adult fantasy publishers without success.
But then an editor friend asked me if I’d ever considered shopping Knife around as a YA novel, and after thinking about it some more and reading a few modern MG and YA books I realized that children’s literature was where I belonged after all.
I read MG and YA almost exclusively now, not just to keep up with what’s being done in my field, but for the sheer pleasure of it. There are some amazing writers and stories for younger readers that match or even exceed the best so-called “adult” literature.
After you finished high school, did you attend college or university?
I attended Laurentian University on a full-tuition scholarship for a year after I graduated from high school. I enjoyed my courses – the ones on English literature and science fiction in particular. But since I wanted to write rather than teach, I did not pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree. After all, writing fiction is one of the few careers left where you’re judged solely on the quality of your writing and not on your educational background.
So I ended up taking the skills I’d learned from my Introductory Computing for Arts course (ironically, the one course I hadn’t wanted to take!) and working first as a secretary and then as a graphic designer to support myself while I continued to write in my spare time.
After I was married and expecting my first child, I left the workplace to focus on raising my family. I’ve been writing from home ever since.
You wrote the first draft of Knife (a.k.a. Spellhunter) at the age of 23, but it was 15 more years before your first book found a publisher. During that time, what helped keep you going in your pursuit of a writing career?
It wasn’t that I had any certainty I’d ever be published; it was more that I couldn’t bear the thought of not writing, whether I got published or not. I did get quite discouraged by each rejection I received, and I’d end up putting the book away for a few months or a year before hauling it out and tweaking it again. That’s probably why it took so long to get it published!
But I was also writing a lot of shorter fiction, with a wider variety of characters and subjects, during that time. I was also posting many of those stories to the Internet and getting feedback from readers on what I did well, and what aspects of my writing needed work. That was definitely a growth experience for me. It prepared me in a lot of ways for the kind of criticism I’d be getting from a professional editor.
Reading, mostly. I read books that don’t quite satisfy me in some way, and I start thinking of how I would have handled that idea or situation differently. Or I read books that do some aspect of storytelling really well, and that inspires me to want to try a similar approach in my own writing.
Many times my ideas come out of realizing that nobody has written the particular type of story or created a character that I want to see in fiction (or at least, nobody that I know about): I find myself itching to fill that gap, so eventually I do.
Do you have a specific way of organizing your story ideas?
I’ve used the Scrivener writing software for my past three novels and find it very helpful, particularly because I’m not that organized. When I’m working on a book I end up with a million little dribs and drabs of ideas, as well as pictures that remind me of my characters, or photographs of locations mentioned in the book – it’s nice to be able to keep all of those things in one place.
I also keep a notebook by my bedside to jot down ideas as they come to me, so I’m not always rushing to the computer in the middle of the night!
Is there a limit to the number of plot twists that can be present in a book for YA or MG readers?
Too many plot twists can make a book seem shallow and contrived, or downright confusing. I remember reading a quite popular MG fantasy book to my son, who likes plenty of action and excitement in his stories, but we gave up about halfway through because there was so much happening that we were both getting numb and rather bored by it all.
Even a young reader needs time to breathe and think about what’s going on, and children are often more patient than we think with those quieter moments in the story.
You attended high school in Sudbury, Ontario, and also decided to set your novel, Ultraviolet, a psychological sci-fi thriller, in that city. You made a return trip to Sudbury as you were working on Ultraviolet. How did that trip aid your writing?
I spent nine years in Sudbury, so I had a pretty good feel for what it was like. But this particular trip helped to refresh my memory on specific, telling details about the city and its surroundings that I could add into the story. I took pictures and made notes of things Alison (my heroine) might see and experience, and tried to imagine how they would look through her eyes.
Have you attended any conferences or taken any workshops that have helped you to grow as a writer/author/speaker?
I went to a couple of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences in 2007 and 2008, which I found very encouraging – it was great to meet other children’s book authors, both aspiring and published, and learn that they had been through or were going through many of the same struggles as myself.
I wouldn’t say those conferences made a fundamental difference to my writing career as I’d already found an agent and got my first publishing contract by then. But I did find some of the information helpful in developing discipline and managing my time as a professional writer. I would definitely recommend SCBWI membership to anyone interested in writing for children.
What would you like to say to aspiring writers of MG and YA stories?
I’d like to encourage fellow believers in Christ who write for children and teens to consider taking up the challenge of writing for the general market. If a writer’s philosophy comes through naturally and inevitably in everything they write—and it should—then I’d love to see more stories written by people who love Christ, reflecting Biblical truths in a way that is real and relatable and appealing even to readers who don’t know Him.
Interview conducted by Jenny Burr.