Ah, writing conferences. How I miss them! Spending a day … sometimes two … learning and listening to amazing speakers along with other kindred spirits? Yes, please, sign me up!

Back when I wrote mostly young adult novels, in what now feels like a lifetime ago, my favorite conference was the annual one put on by the Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, (SCBWI.) I loved it so much that I eventually became a volunteer and also wrote for their regional blog, As the Eraser Burns.

SIDEBAR TIP: If you write for kids, I can’t recommend joining enough! Through SCBWI, I learned a ton, met several writing mentors and friends, found my agent, and eventually sold two young adult novels.

Our region hosted amazing conferences that gave us the opportunity to learn from so many amazing writers, illustrators, editors, and agents. One that stands out the most for me is a lesson learned from the oh-so-amazing Chris Crutcher, a brilliant young adult author, and dynamic personality. But his lesson didn’t come from his keynote presentation or breakout session.

It was at a bar.

See, there was always a base hotel for guests, volunteers, and presenters. For several years, it was the Hilton Garden Inn in Frederick, Maryland that had a lovely restaurant and bar area. After long conference days, guests would either go to their rooms to rest … or go to the bar.

Any guesses where I went?

Conversations there often got interesting and fun, thanks to the aid of alcohol and jovial spirit. Firmly #1 on my list of Best Bar Author Chat is the one late-nighters had with the one and only Chris Crutcher, author and loudmouth, (his words, not mine.)

Have you ever been around someone who is so dynamic, so mesmerizing and so vibrant that you just hang on to their every word, completely transfixed by their energy and knowing?

Yeah. That’s what he’s like.

Chris had us absolutely rolling with hilarious writing stories and his literary escapades. Some of us would often ask him for advice which he gladly dispensed with brilliant perception. He was so open and trusting that by my third beer, I found myself confessing a huge problem I was having with what I had hoped would be my second published novel, Six Graves.

FORESHADOW: Six Graves was never published and never will be.

See, in this novel, I had decided to start opening up with my long history of eating disorders and body dysmorphia by creating a character named Jordan who also suffered from bulimia. Problem is, I found myself tap-dancing around the topic, peppering it in occasionally like a toe dipped in ice water, and then immediately pulled it back out.

I also felt this huge responsibility to offer some kind of positive resolution by the end of the novel, solving all of Jordan’s problems and leaving her in a better place. But how could I solve Jordan’s issues in a mere 300 pages when it had taken over 20 years to solve mine? And truth be told … at that point, I still wasn’t fully recovered.

So I asked Chris: How do I solve Jordan’s problems?

The instant the words left my mouth, my body stiffened with shocked fear because I hadn’t told anybody about my eating disorders. Holy shit. Did I just share my deepest darkest secret in front of Chris Crutcher and a bunch of other writers?

Chris, however, didn’t miss a beat.

With complete compassion, he leaned forward on his elbows, looking me straight in the eyes as though I were the only person he cared about at that moment. My mind went blank in an outer-body kind of way, leaving me unable to focus on Chris’s response at first, something that—to this day—annoys the crap out of me because I desperately wanted to soak in his every word and tattoo it on my soul. But the most important part did sink in and has stuck with me ever since:

“It’s not your job to solve your character’s problems. It’s your job to simply tell their story.”


I’m going to repeat that:

“It’s not your job to solve your character’s problems. It’s your job to simply tell their story.”

As a writer, I always want to end my novels in complete positivity, leaving my characters in a much better place and tying all loose ends up with pretty pink ribbons. I want my readers to sigh with complete contentment after finishing the final page, feeling inspired and motivated to improve their own lives.

But is contentment only possible by solving problems? And these characters that we create … breathing life into them with their own history and flaws and complexities … they don’t like to be told what to do.

They just want their story told.

So when I got back home, I gave Six Graves a good hard look. As much as I loved it, I made the painful decision to walk away, sending it to the grave despite spending two long years on it, which explains why there’s a huge gap between my first and second published novels. I wasn’t ready to tell Jordan’s story because, at the time, I wasn’t ready to tell mine. Maybe one day I will, maybe I won’t. Until then, I’m telling other stories, ones that are ready to be told. Why?

Because that’s my job.

Leave a Reply