Don’t Forget to Build that Bridge

Saturday, May 21, 2016
“Don’t send us what we’ve already seen. We want something new. New settings. New situations.  New stories. We want true diversity.” 

Editors, agents and publishers are singing this refrain or something much like it which makes sense.  They want to publish work that is new.  They want to publish work that represents the diversity of readers they hope to reach. They are also coming to recognize that diverse reading leads to greater empathy.  If you have seen Grace Lin’s Ted Talk on this subject, it is well worth the time. 

Duchess Harris and I are working on our second book together. Our first book was Black Lives Matter.  Our second is African-American women at NASA. Yet again, we are discovering how tough it is to write diversely. It isn’t the partnership that’s difficult although that can be challenging. 

What we are rediscovering is the need to build bridges for our readers.  It doesn’t matter if this reader is your agent, your editor or the person you hope will curl up with your book, if the subject matter is new to them, they will need a bridge. They will need a way to cross from what is familiar to what is not. 

In our case, we have to build a bridge between the dominant culture and the realities of racism and civil rights. Although we are familiar with the topic and often discuss race, we live in a society that has long sidestepped race. We can’t just plunk our subject down in front of someone and expect them to read long with us. It just feels too foreign, too extreme. To get them from where they are to where we want them to be, we build a bridge of facts, laying these details out one beside the other like the stones in a bridge.

But this problem isn’t ours alone. One author I know had written about both her native West Indies and her current Midwestern home.  In both cases, she was questioned by her coastal editors about details in her stories.  “Surely people don’t live like this?” “I’ve never seen a town with an empty street corner?” “Is the New Madrid fault a real thing?” She too had to build a bridge using sensory details and facts drawn from her own experience. It was the only way to make her settings real and accessible to big city readers who were more accustomed to skyscrapers than gravel roads.

Whether your story is set among the Ancient Maya, a futuristic Wild West culture or a fantasy world of elves and magic, you will need to create a bridge for your reader.  Lead them step by step, fact by fact, detail by detail, from the world that they know to the world of your story. No matter how much they want the experience, they need the bridge to get there.


Sue is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins on June 6, 2016.


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