Book Event Recap: Rebecca Fjelland Davis on “Prarie-Dogging” Your Way Through Writing
Recently I had the pleasure of seeing Rebecca Fjelland Davis, author of Chasing AllieCat and several other YA novels, speak at my library. She gave two presentations: a writing workshop for teens and a presentation for all ages. I attended both presentations but this recap is only for the 2nd event. (there’s more to report on)
The 2nd event was called “Prarie-Dogging Your Way to a Story”. The event was fairly busy, but not crowded, and there seemed to be many dedicated people interested in writing. Most people had brought notepads, and one man had brought his computer, so I didn’t feel out of place taking (pages) of notes.
Becky, as she asked us to call her, started her presentation by talking about the 5 rules to be an author. These rules are:
- Pay Attention
- Put the Seat of Your Pants to the Seat of Your Chair (in other words, think Nora Roberts’s famous quote “Butt in Chair”)
She stated that you need to read everything – from the books found at the grocery store to the classics, from Shakespeare to pulp novels, to understand different writing styles, different stories, and different kinds of books.
Another interesting comment – Fjelland Davis dislikes most books about the craft of writing (she finds them mundane) and the only writing book she has ever been able to finish is On Writing by Stephen King, which she recommends.
She also said that you need to live, and do more besides just writing – you need other activities and passions – and that you need to pay attention, observe the world around you, and describe the world around you.
Regarding the last 2 things you need to know, she says that you can’t be a writer unless you sit down, stop everything else, and just write. Of course, the last comment is that if you need to be a writer, you simply need to write.
The second part of her presentation was called the ZOO, which used animals to describe writers. (metaphors!) Each slide was accompanied by a gorgeous drawing that one of Fjelland Davis’s students created.
The first animal was HORSE. She describes these as being writers that are very organized, know exactly where everything is going, outline all of their stories, and always know what comes next. Becky stated that she is not this type of writer, personally, and the one book she attempted to outline will forever remain in the drawer. (there was an agreement from the audience on this)
The next animal was FIREFLY. These are writers that have a great idea, and then simply go off on the idea, not sure what will happen next. Fjelland Davis said that she wrote her debut novel, Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged, this way, having only the idea of some kids chasing fireflies. She did note that this method of writing may need more revising, as you don’t know what will happen next.
After that was SNAKES, or writers that know how the story starts and how the story ends, but not the middle. Becky’s ex-husband wrote one of his novels like this, knowing only the first and last sentence.
The next animal was PANTHER, or someone who has an idea and then just keeps adding on and on to the idea. Fjelland Davis said that she wrote her short story “Mars at Night” from the anthology Girl Meets Boy, this way: wanting to write about family farms, and then making the main character a farm girl and giving her a boyfriend who couldn’t eat pork to add more conflict.
Finally, we reached PRARIE DOGS, or the animal that the title of the talk was focused around. This is when you have various, unrelated ideas that you think would make a good story, and you tie them all together. The ideas are the prairie dogs that just keep popping up and appearing and then you weave a “tunnel” to tie the ideas together.
Becky wrote her novel Chasing AllieCat in this form. She used five unrelated ideas to come up with the story, and shared them:
- She had some friends who had a cannon from the Civil War era. They filled it with gunpowder and shot it off, and the first cannon landed about 15 feet away. They decided they wanted to add more gunpowder and shot it off again. This time, the cannon exploded and blew up the neighbor’s garage (no one was hurt)
- Mountain biking – Fjelland Davis is a big mountain biker and bikes near her home in Mankato, Minnesota. She came up with the idea of writing a story about a mountain biker girl and wrote two paragraphs. These paragraphs are still in the book and were the only paragraphs not changed.
- She has a friend named Scout, who she describes as looking “like Hagrid from Harry Potter” – he’s tall with a huge beard and curly black hair, and wanted to include him in her story.
- While mountain biking, she found an area of trailers that had been abandoned and deserted, a graveyard of trailers.
- Also while mountain biking, she rode through some very deep forests.
To try and figure out how to solve these issues, Fjelland Davis answered her questions by asking, “What If?”
What If her heroine lived by the junk graveyard & lived with Scout? What If she was mountain biker? What If someone hid a dead body in the forest?
She suggests using “What If” to try and answer your questions. Try and come up with different connections and ideas, and try something that you might normally not try. Fjelland Davis says to keep your ideas in mind, as you never know where you might come up with an idea, and ask yourself questions about the ideas.
The final animal was GROUNDHOG. This happens to every writer at some point: they get stuck and don’t know where to go next. She suggests trying a different method or idea – try outlining or ploting differently, etc – and take a break from your story if you need to.
There was a short Q & A after her talk. The questions were:
How often do you reread before submitting [to be a publisher, magazine, etc]?
She has an absolute minimum of 3 drafts for every book that she writes. 3 drafts is just the bare minimum, and she always writes more than 3 as she adds on and changes things about the story. In regards to what she changed, Fjelland Davis wrote Jake Riley: Inreparrably Damaged in past tense first and then changed it to present tense. In Chasing AllieCat, she was unsure about whether the book should be 1st person or 3rd person (ultimately it was 3rd person).
While writing her first drafts, she rereads and reads the book out loud. For her, everything needs to sound satisfactory out loud and sound realistic.
Has she ever had anyone read to her?
No, but she would be interested! A few times, when she has presented a talk, someone has introduced her and read aloud an excerpt from one of her books, which she said was an interesting experience, hearing someone else’s interpretation. Becky also jokingly asked if anyone would be willing to be her reading buddy.
Does she have an editor or agent?
She has an agent, which she got for Jake, and she has had several editors. Fjelland Davis recommends getting an agent, as they know the business and can submit to publishers instead of you doing all the work. Agents can also help you with drafts and questions. Her agent usually reads a manuscript, asks for some edits, and then gives her a deadline for the edits.
Have you ever disliked what people have suggested to edit?
Usually no. If she strongly disagrees with the person, Fjelland Davis will give the reason and explain why. No one has ever insisted upon her changing something.
She is also a big editor and has cut a lot of her beloved scenes and ideas, and she is open to people’s suggestions.
Why do you write?
Becky laughed, and said, “I don’t know” when this question was asked. To her, writing is like breathing.
When she was younger, she would play with dolls and narrate the stories she created with the dolls. Her mother read to her and she knew language well and loved creating things.
A few more miscellaneous tidbits gleaned from the event:
- She carries around a notebook with her everywhere that she goes to write down ideas.
- A writing teacher of hers once told her that when you get stuck, put the characters in a new situation and then write them out of it.
- She keeps a shelf of notebooks that she has used over the years.
- She is a creative writing teacher at Mankato State University in Mankato, Minnesota (which is also where she lives).