Scribe to Scribes: Author T.A. Barron Meets with Aspiring Owl Writers

November 19, 2013

Academics, English, Hyde Library

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After Mr. T. A. Barron collected 32 rejection letters for his first novel, he turned to business, becoming president of a venture capital company in New York City. But he couldn’t stop writing.

“I would get up very early in the morning to write, duck out of dinner meetings and write, do character sketches of people in board meetings. Those characters gave me great material for some of the goblins and trolls in my books,” he told 30 aspiring writers at Memphis University School November 1.

The author, who also delivered a chapel presentation, was on campus in celebration of national Teen Read Week (see story here).

Barron eventually quit his job, moved to Colorado, and authored 25 books, including fantasy novels for children and young adults such as The Merlin Saga series (Penguin), which tells the story of the legendary character’s youth. However, he did not abandon the organization and discipline he learned from business.

Discussing his craft with the students, he shared a message from his experience – first, that writers should follow their passion, and second, that they need to use both sides of their brains to create a story.

“You need the side that is very organized and rational to know where you’re going, what materials you need, what the arc of each character is. You have to know where to plant surprises, you have to know how to build suspense, how to cross-cut terror and struggle with humor,” he said.

“At the same time with all that organized thinking, you have to leave room for those characters to get up and walk off the page and tell you who they are. That requires the side of the brain that is open to metaphor and dreaming. It’s only when the two mesh that truly creative work happens. You have to find your own way to access those two sides,” he said.

Barron opened the floor up for questions, and the students were ready with a series of insightful queries. Following are excerpts from the conversation.

Who is your favorite fantasy author? – Junior Zack Whicker

No. 1 is Tolkien. No. 2 is whoever wrote the Greek myths – the original ones. No. 3 is Madeleine L’Engle.

Have you considered writing science fiction? – Eighth grader Omkar Hosad

The answer is yes. Science fiction and fantasy are brothers. If you take realistic fiction, you are holding up a mirror to reality. It’s a very realistic image. Sci-fi and fantasy share a key quality: They take that mirror and bend it. They take the world and emphasize certain qualities and withdraw others. Instead of looking into the mirror and seeing a reflection of our exact reality, we get to see a bent version. The result is it’s a lot more fun because you have this alternate reality. Here’s the trick: It still has to be a mirror that pulls everything together. It has to have its own rules and have a logic that feels true. So yes, I have. I just have too much fun in fantasy to write sci-fi, but maybe someday.

Have you ever written yourself into a story? – Eighth Grader Witt Miesse

There are two parts to that answer. Everything you write, no matter how distant from yourself, is autobiographical in some way. You’re drawing from your own best source of material, which is your own life experience, the things you’ve seen, the struggles you’ve had. The problems, the challenges, the adventures, the longed-for experiences, the drama, the romance, the nightmares, the triumphs – all are an extension of your life. So in a way I have written a lot about myself. The second part of that answer is there’s really only one character I truly identified with and that’s the boy who washed ashore, [Merlin]. I could feel his struggle, and at the same time, I’ve been celebrating his adventures and his heroism as he gained more mastery over his amazing powers.

How far do you go with the backstory to figure out what your character will do? – Senior Travis Floyd

I start out with the obvious stuff – what a character looks like, what’s their rank in society, if they have any unusual mannerisms, the way they speak, the way they move, the way they talk, gesture. Does the character walk with a limp? Does that character have a secret brand on his chest? When you get a physical fix that’s more visual, then you go deeper. You try to imagine what motivates this character. What does he fear? What does he hope for so much he doesn’t dare admit it even to himself? What does his voice sound like? What are the qualities inside him? Who really hurt him in the past?  Who really helped him in the past? Answer these questions in the character’s voice – imagine he is sitting right next to you. Then you have to listen to the character. You’ve got to respect him so he becomes real enough to you that you can tell his story. But he is the driving force. You have to honor the person that you’ve created, whatever his character flaws – and he’ll tell you.

In English class we studied the myth of the hero [the monomyth or hero’s journey]. How much does this factor into your stories, or do you use guidelines such as that? – Senior William Lamb

I always have that pattern in my mind because I think it’s often true. But I usually vary from it because it wouldn’t feel surprising to the reader. I don’t want my books to be predictable. [The hero’s journey] is an important thing to understand, so you know what people are expecting, and then it’s really fun to break it apart.

[Barron recommended reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (2008, New World Library) about the journey of the archetypal hero in world mythologies.]

You guys are terrific, I rarely have so much fun with a group, and I’ve much enjoyed being here. I hope you guys will continue to create your own stories. … Wherever you go in the world of imagination, have fun.

T.A. Barron’s latest book is Atlantis Rising (2013, Philomel). To read his “Special Essay for Writers,” as well as other resources, visit his website,


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  1. Students Read, Write, and Win During Teen Read Week | InsideMUS - November 19, 2013

    […] November 1, signed his books, and met with about 30 students interested in writing. (See story here.) The annual Reading Contest went online this year, with students entering the title, author, and […]

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