SCBWI Summer Conference, Part 2: Karen Cushman and “Court Surprise”

There were some excellent speakers at the conference, but my favorite was Karen Cushman, author of several historical novels for children including The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy. I’ve enjoyed her work, and I liked her even more after she shared this anecdote in her keynote speech:

She was speaking to a reader (presumably an adult), about The Midwife’s Apprentice . At some point, this person began to rave about the numerous birth motifs in the story – the main character coming out of the dung heap, the cat coming out the bag, etc., etc., etc.

To which Cushman responded, “What birth motif?”

I loved that.

Joking aside, her keynote speech, entitled “Court Surprise” was wonderful. In it, she mentioned that when she reads rough drafts, she’ll do one of three things:

  1. Simply read
  2. Edit
  3. Look for surprises

That gave me food for thought. When I read, I either do #1 or #2. Actually, when I start out doing #1, I often end up doing #2. That’s just my tendency, I guess. But I’ve never tried #3 (at least intentionally). According to Cushman, looking for the surprises is not so much about work or entertainment but about being playful with your drafts. To look for the connections and implications you’ve left yourself and move them to the surface. To not just write creatively but to read creatively.

When it comes to creative writing, I am an outliner, not a pantster. I like to know exactly what’s going to happen to my characters from beginning to end before I go about hammering out the text. It’s probably that control-freak part of me, the part that doesn’t want my characters getting stuck and screaming to me about what’s next. But Cushman’s suggestion intrigued me, that there’s the possibility of discovering something precious I’ve unwittingly left in my own writing just by changing the way I read.

I think I’ll give it a try.


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