Wendelin Van Draanen, author of Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life, wrote one of my favorite YA novels, The Running Dream. (I wrote a review of The Running Dream here. Check it out–and check out the book!) She’s also the author of the perennial teen favorite Flipped as well as the super popular middle school mystery series Sammy Keyes. I was delighted to see that she’d written a book about writing–Hope in the Mail: Reflections on Writing and Life.
Hope in the Mail: Focus Topics
I’ve read a variety of books for the emerging writer, and each focuses on different topics. Van Draanen is very good at showing how ordinary life experiences build the sort of character it takes to weather the writing life (think tough experiences that build grit or tenancy). Although she does discuss her experiences in the publishing industry (more on that below), this is not a book about the business of writing. If you are interested in that as the main topic, see my review of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Writing and Kristen Lamb’s Rise of the Machines.
Van Draanen grew up in a large Dutch-American family, one that suffered major tragedies when she was young: the loss of the family business to arson and the death of her father. She began to write after the burning of the family business because she “needed to kill off some bad guys.” She has an “unshakable belief that writing saved [her] life.” I know many writers feel this. If you are a young writer, particularly one who is interested in writing for tweens and teens, you many find some good advice in these pages. “No matter how young you are, you have experience. You have knowledge. You have feelings and observations and thoughts that are worthy of exploration. . . . It’s often the small stories with universal messages that touch us most deeply.”
Some of the topics the author covers include developing the things that readers notice and will evaluate when they discuss the book: author voice; characters modeled on the people around you; looking at the world through the eyes of the characters; developing setting; being clear on backstory including that of villains; building your world; and allowing weird events (and dreams) to open up writing possibilities.
Writing Advice: Underlying Issues
Van Draanen also helps the new writer to understand underlying issues in writing that may be less evident to the reader: hidden architecture; just what theme is in a novel (and how much young people hate overt ‘message’ books); the need for both great plots and beautiful language. A major issue that a new writer may not have considered is how hard it is to finish a novel in what can seem like an endless ‘revise, rinse, repeat’ cycle. She also cautions the writer about research: “A novel is not a how-to manual or a dumping ground for information. It’s a story. If your research contributes to the believability of the story or adds to its texture, use it. Once your reader senses that they’re being ‘educated’ you’ve gone too far.”
Advice particular to authors of chapter books (ratio of illustrations to text), authors of series and sequels is especially helpful to those writing for young people. By showing the specific influences of the writing of each of her own novels, both stand-alone and those in a series, Van Draanen give wonderful examples of how her ideas/suggestions/advice work in real life.
The Experience of Being a Published Author
Lastly, Van Draanen discusses what it’s like to be a published author. Again, she doesn’t tell you how to publish and promote yourself, but rather narrates her experiences with agents, editors, book titles and covers and more.
“Putting hope in the mail means putting yourself–your work, your wishes–out there however you can. It means actively creating the possibility for good things to happen.”
Hope in the Mail: Writing Advice for Young Writers
High School Housekeeping: If you are a teen writer looking for advice, this is a great book to start with.
Note: I wrote this post for my blog on writers and writing. Since Hope in the Mail seems to be the perfect book for teens hoping to write novels–and is written by a favorite YA author–I decided to add it here as well.