International Author Sails in With Some Fabulous Writing Insights

I first met extraordinary author Mina Witteman at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference where she was also the representative of SCBWI Netherlands through her role as Regional Advisor.
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By a strange coincidence, we both successfully applied for the SCBWI Nevada Mentorship Program and here we are pictured above.

As well as being a much-loved writer, Mina is also a huge advocate for children’s and young adult creators and the publishing industry.

In 2015 I was lucky to be invited by Mina to present a writing workshop at the second SCBWI Europolitan Conference she organised in Amsterdam. She is one of the three founding members of this bi-annual conference that offers a great opportunity for children’s book creators to connect with each other and with publishing professionals from all over the world.

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My Amsterdam writing workshop

Mina was Regional Advisor for SCBWI Netherlands for more than five years from 2011 to 2016, and as well as organising amazing events in that part of the world she was also responsible for member communications. The Dutch chapter of the SCBWI is one of the nominating bodies of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s most prestigious children’s book award.

Mina is a member of the EU Planning Committee of Undiscovered Voices anthology whose aim is to discover new talent in Children’s and YA lit. In addition to this she spent four years as the Chairman of the Working Group Children’s Books of the Dutch Authors Guild in the Netherlands.

She is still a Jury member of the Young Authors Fiction Festival organised by the American Library in Paris. dsc_4667

In between doing all this amazing advocacy work for the children’s book industry, Mina still finds time to create her wonderful stories for children, and that’s what she’s here to talk to us about today. She writes across all genre and age groups from picture book to young adult.

She currently divides her time between her hometown Amsterdam and San Francisco, where she is researching for a number of new works.

MINA DRAWS ON HER OWN ADVENTURES TO WRITE HER BOREAS SERIES

  1. Mina, your latest very popular series follows the adventures of Boreas, a young boy who circumnavigates the world with his parents on a sailboat. Can you tell us where the character of Boreas came from?

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My favorite childhood book was Margaret Wise Brown’s
THE SAILOR DOG, a Little Golden Book about a dog that sailed around the world, and another one of my favorites was GIDEONS REIZEN (Gideon’s Travels), a book by famous Dutch children’s book author An Rutgers van der Loeff. Both books opened new and excitingly unknown worlds. From the first time my mother read me THE SAILOR DOG, I wanted to sail with Scupper on his ship. I wanted to hang my hat on a hook next to his, my spyglass on a hook next to his and have a bunk for a bed. I wanted to explore new worlds with him. Just like I wanted to travel with Gideon and his father to the mesmerizing new worlds they traveled to. With the Boreas series I hope to open new worlds to my readers, too.

2. You have mentioned to me before that these books come from your own personal experiences? Can you elaborate on this?
Sailing is in my blood, too. Thanks to my father, a sailor in heart and soul, we could sail before we could ride a bike, and that is something extraordinary in a country, where people are basically born bicycling.

We sailed a lot, first in a small open boat on a nearby lake and later on my father’s yacht out on the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. When we kids had all left home, my father left his firm – he was an architect – and his house, bought a bigger yacht and whisked my mother away on a sailing trip that would last twelve years. Every chance we had we would fly to wherever on the globe they were and sail along for a month or so. My mother was the storyteller of the family – I might have inherited some genes here too – and all those years at sea she kept a journal in which she wrote her daily adventures. When she passed away she left me her journals. They are my inspiration, together with all my own sailing memories. 

Mina sailing in France as a child with one of her sisters.

Mina sailing in France as a child with one of her sisters.

  1. boreas-en-de-vier-windstrekenHow important do you think it is for an author to bring their own personal experiences to their work as a children’s book writer? Do you have any tips for other writers aiming to do this?

I believe an author bringing personal experiences to the table is what makes the heart of a story beat.

And this is also where the hard work starts. On whatever experience or memory an author draws, it should never end up in a story just like it was. The art of writing is to transpose the beating heart from your memory to your story. You call up the feeling, the emotion behind the memory or experience and slip that into your protagonist’s skin. You disconnect the personal memory from what you need for your story.

You throw out the truth—what really happened to you—and invite fiction—what happens to your characters.

It’s easier with the middle grade adventure novels, but decidedly harder with my young adult novels. My young adult novels rely more heavily on my emotional life and I have to actively curb my truth, as it were, to prevent it from polluting my protagonist’s story or, worse, taking over and morphing it into a memoir.

  1. Do you think that it’s this personal connection to your work that makes these books so popular with readers? If so, why?

Reviewers and readers alike often describe that it is as if they are part of the story, as if they are physically present and sense everything the protagonist senses.

Readers of the Boreas books mention that they can feel the wind in their hair, they hear the tingling of the halyards and stays, the flapping of the sails.

I believe this feeling of first-hand experience is brought about by how I peel the me from the memories and shape them into emotions the reader can project onto himself.

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Mina tumbling down a waterfall

Maybe also, because I tend go even further than only using my past; I create new experiences, too. If the protagonist of my middle grade adventure books tumbles down a waterfall in a kayak, I want to know how that feels. I need to know what happens when you go under, how the current pulls your hair and clothes, how the water pressure pushes the air out of your lungs, how it feels when you want open your mouth to breathe but you can’t because all you’ll pull in is water, how you panic and lose track of what’s up and what’s down. So… I make sure I tumble down a waterfall too. Just like I hike icy mountains or scorching deserts or spend weeks alone at sea.

Just like I roam the streets of San Francisco and Amsterdam for my Young Adult novels. All to find out how my protagonist will see, hear, smell but above all how he or she will feel: the happiness, the sadness, the terror, the desperation, the boredom, the excitement.

  1. You are currently spending some time in San Francisco, immersing yourself in that world for your writing. How important do you think it is for an author to do actual research as opposed to virtually through the internet? What do you think this adds to a writer’s work?

As said before, my work is known to pull readers deep into such a vivid world that it feels as if they are actually there, walking alongside the protagonist, or even living in the protagonist’s head, seeing the world through her eyes. I would not be able to pull that off without walking where my protagonist walks, without seeing what she sees, without experiencing the light and the dark of this city. The Internet is a great help, but it gives you the technicalities of a location only, the street plan, the houses, the hills, the landmarks. I know with Street View you can ‘walk’ the streets, but what it doesn’t provide are any other sensory details. It doesn’t give you that distinct change in smell when you stray from the Financial District into The Tenderloin when crisp winter air morphs into the fetor of human waste. It doesn’t give you the nocturnal wailing and crying of the homeless that haunt you well through the day. It doesn’t brush the salty tang of the ocean past your lips. For that you have to be there. I have to be there. It not only breathes life into my writing, it’s also imperative to the development of the story, because it influences the actions of my characters, it has an impact on my protagonist’s state of mind. Imagine how different her responses will be if she ends up in a clean and bright city that is entirely plucked from the virtual reality of the Internet instead of being plunged into the grim truth of San Francisco… 

'The salty tang of the ocean'. Mina sails the Mediterranean.

The salty tang of the ocean sailing the Mediterranean.

MINA’S LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK

  1. You have also written a Little Golden Book, Mia’s Nest. How did it feel to have your work selected for this classic series? What do you think makes Mia’s story so special?

el-nido-de-miaMia’s Nest…

My first favorite book was the Little Golden Book I mentioned earlier and to be included in that legendary collection is an immense honor.

Angela Pelaez Vargas and I were delighted when we got the call from the publisher. What makes Mia’s Nest a Little Golden Book? I guess it’s the universal theme—a little girl with tangles in her hair—combined with the unexpected twist and Angela’s enchanting pencil drawings, which give the illustrations that classic feel, that, at least I think, fits this much-lauded series.

  1. You have the ability to write in more than one language, what do you think this brings to your work as a children’s book author?

I am not sure if it adds to my work as a children’s book author per se. What I do know is that I never translate: when I write in Dutch I live, think and dream in Dutch and when I work on an English manuscript I live, think and dream in English and because of that it’s easier to write my Dutch novels in Amsterdam and my English novels in the US.

How I choose in which language I write a story? I don’t know. It doesn’t fees like I have a choice. Somehow the language is an intrinsic part of the story I need to tell. The idea comes in Dutch or in English and that decides in which language it needs to be written. So far, I mostly write my middle grade stories, which are adventurous and humorous, in Dutch, whereas my young adult stories that are decidedly raw and dark come in English. It may be that English creates just that little more distance between the darkness of those stories and me to not slip into despair myself. Or maybe my voice is just funnier and more light-hearted in Dutch. I don’t question my gut here. I just go for it. In English or in Dutch.

Picture books and short stories come in Dutch and in English. In between my longer work, I love writing short pieces. My études. I use them to sharpen my pen, to force myself to be concise and trim skin, fat and muscles from a story to unravel its bare bones. Or I use them to just whip my brain in gear and keep the writing going. I need that in both languages and it’s always a conscious decision, composing an étude in Dutch or English.  403137

MINA’S WRITING TIPS

  1. As a highly successful children’s book author, what tips do you have for up and coming writers?

Don’t give up on your dream would be the obvious one, right? And you shouldn’t. You should never give up on your dream.

But not giving up on your dream comes with an obligation: you will need to work hard to make it happen.

Not just because it isn’t an easy business (and trust me on this one: it isn’t!), but first and foremost because we owe it the children who will read our stories. Our books are the ones they first encounter on their path to literacy, the earliest guidance in growing up, toward compassion and to critical thinking. We have to give it our best shot. You have to invest in your tuition. You have to continue to hone your craft every step of the way. Learn from others. Read the authors you love, but the ones you don’t love, too.

Gaining insight in story and in what works and what doesn’t will help you find your own strength in writing, your unique voice.

  1. Can you share one lesson you’ve learned in your journey from aspiring writer to an author whose books are loved by so many?

Writing is a wicked awesome métier but a solitary one. Don’t get lost in silence. Don’t get lost in your own head. Find the people out there who know what it is to be a writer, people that have experienced what you experience, the joys of that perfect story idea, the satisfaction of overcoming blocks and other hindrances, the despair that washes over you when you get rejection after rejection, the self-doubt that creeps in when words won’t work, the thrill of selling a story, the sheer ecstasy of holding your first book in your hands. You will need your tribe and you can find them by joining organizations like the SCBWI and local authors guilds. Find your tribe!

Mina, thank you so much for visiting and for your wonderful insights into your world and how you create your amazing books.

You can find out more about Mina and her wonderful work here.

If you have questions for Mina about anything writing related, feel free to leave them in the comments section of this post. It could be about her work, about being a bilingual author, about writing stories for an international readership … anything.

Hope you’ve had a great start to 2017 and may it bring you much happiness.

I have a big year ahead with two new books coming which I’m so excited about. I’ll be posting about them here. I’ll also be sharing lots more writing tips, author interviews and the story of how I came to sign with  my fabulous US agent, Jill Corcoran. (I was so lucky to have wonderful people supporting and encouraging me along the way. That’s why as Mina says, it’s so important to connect with other writers.

Till next time …

Happy writing 🙂

Dee