Apr 12, 2021

SIDEWRITING TAKEOVER: Writing for Emotional Power with Sarah S. Davis

interview by Anne-Marie Strohman

Sidewriting Takeover brings together writers of picture books, middle grade, and young adult to explore how writing outside of a draft can help deepen your drafts and revisions. Each writer shares an exercise that they’ve found helpful. If you missed our initial post: START HERE.

One of the first times KidLit Craft Contributor Sarah S. Davis and I had coffee, she pitched me three novels she was working on, all with compelling hooks, interesting characters, and exciting conflicts. Since then, I’ve seen her explore playful poetry, novels-in-verse, and stories of mental illness. She also writes for Book Riot and publishes inspirational books for readers and writers (Book Quotes, Literature Trivia, and Brave Brain, among others). Keep reading for a peek inside Sarah’s writing process–you’ll want to sit down to have coffee with her yourself. –Anne-Marie

KidLit Craft: How has sidewriting become a part of your writing process? Were you always a sidewriter?

Cover of Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Sarah Davis: I was introduced to sidewriting in my first semester of my MFA program. My advisor offered helpful exercises to get me thinking outside the box and outside my manuscript. Over the years, I’ve read some excellent craft books with sidewriting. I found the sidewriting exercise in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius to be especially useful for nailing down formative scenes in the life of the protagonist. [Editor’s note: see our post on Story Genius for Middle Grade Writers.] Another great book packed with great sidewriting exercises is Donald Maaas’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Basically, the point of sidewriting in both of these books is to build up your character’s past so what they experience now has significance and relevance unique to their story.

KLC: At what points in the process of writing a novel do you sidewrite most?

SD: For me, sidewriting is most helpful when I’m looking a way into the writing. For example, sidewriting is a great way to learn more about your character and their secret hopes and motivation. We don’t want to always come right out and state a motivation that seems obvious and lived-in for the character, so it’s useful to understand where those dreams and hangups originate.

KLC: How does sidewriting help you?

Cover of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass

SD: Sidewriting gives me ammo in a story to write a more deeply felt and developed emotional story.  For instance, one of my main characters now is living life post-mental illness diagnosis. I found it important to sketch out the scene where she has the epiphany that she’s sick even though the scene will likely not make it into the book. If the reader doesn’t see it, I know that backstory is there, and it leads to a more complete character because I know a pivotal moment in her history that radically affects the “now” story.

Sidewriting Challenge: Misbelief Scene and Character Diary

  • From Cron’s Story Genius, write the scene where your character’s misbelief originates.
  • Assign your character the task of writing a diary for a week. Give them space to be as boring and mundane as they wish (e.g. without an agenda). What themes emerge during the week?

Sarah S. Davis lives among cats and piles of books outside Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared on Book Riot, Electric Literature, and Kirkus Reviews.  Sarah is currently an MFA student in Vermont College of Fine Arts’ program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She writes middle grade, YA, and verse.

Sarah blogs at Broke By Books.

For more of our Sidewriting Takeover series, check out these posts:

Interviewing Your Character with Karen Krossing

Time-Traveling with Jennifer Ziegler

Side-thinking and Personality with Aimee Lucido

Gossip Your Way Through the Story with Mary Winn Heider

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