I was recently introduced to a young (well, younger than me by a bit) man who is interested in writing. We started exchanging emails about writing, and he began asking me a series of questions. I thought that this interesting collection of questions would make for a good blog, so I’ve compiled some of them here, along with my answers.
Do you remember any defining moment where your wish to write books came to life?
Third grade. We had to pick a book from the library, read it, then write a book report. I had either already read the books on the shelf that the librarian said we could choose from, or they were “boy” books – ewww. So I went home, wrote my own book, then wrote a book report. The book was called “A Pony of My Own” and I made up the pen name Pearl Vanderman. I don’t know where the name came from, but the book was clearly wishful thinking. I turned in the report, and of course I was busted immediately. However, I had the world’s coolest 3rd grade teacher (still a family friend to this day), and she suggested that I let her read my book. I did. She then told me I should consider being a writer when I grew up. Those words never left me. Of course, she made me find another book in the library and do another book report, but at least I wasn’t penalized.
When you write, what is your ultimate goal?
To make the voices in my head shut up by giving them their own voice in a story. Really. The characters show up, start telling me what’s going on, and until I download that information from my brain to the computer, there is no rest. I write because I love words and I love stories, so there is sheer pleasure in just the act of creating something meaningful from a collection of parts of speech.
When you are writing, is there anyone in specific to whom, in your imagination, you are writing for?
Truthfully, the characters and the story tell me who I’m writing for. “My Brother the Dog” had a 14-year-old girl as the main character, so the audience was pretty clear right away. Kid audiences read up – meaning that kids like to read about kids their own age or a few years older. Sometimes it’s not so clear. My novel “The Deepest Blue” – currently sitting on an editor’s desk awaiting some sort of decision – has a 15-year-old boy as the main character, but the story line is clearly young adult – geared for older teens. I try not to focus on the audience so much as I focus on the story. If I’m telling the emotional truth in a story, it seems to shape itself for the audience.
How long did it take for you to write your novel?
“My Brother the Dog” took six months for the rough draft and initial revisions. Then after a year of collecting rejections, I spent another three months on revisions. HOWEVER – this is when I was able to write full-time and work part-time. Now those roles are reversed. When I wrote “The Deepest Blue” it took six months to write the first draft, three months for initial revisions, and another three months on deep revisions (after it sat for almost a year with a publisher). I wrote a picture book called “Tilly’s Ship” about a girl who wins a pirate ship in a drawing. The initial text took four months to fine tune. It, too, is sitting on a different editor’s desk awaiting a decision. “The Deepest Blue” took longer for several reasons. First, it was deeply personal and that made it much harder to get through. Second, it was a longer and more challenging book. Third, my dad passed away right before writing the book, and issues related to that (boring, complicated stuff), kept getting in the way. Each book is its own experience for me. I know some very prolific writers who can pump out a novel in a month or two, but that isn’t me. Everyone has their own way, and so I can’t really tell you what’s right for you. You have to figure that one out on your own. Sorry.
What is your writing schedule like? Do you have specific times of specific days that you sit down and write?
Even when I had the luxury of writing full-time, I didn’t really have a set schedule. I think I’m actually more efficient at writing now than when I was doing it full-time. I usually spend about five hours a week on different week nights working on writing, and then I spend another three or four hours on the weekend, depending on what I can get away with. There are a lot of people who say you have to spend some time writing every single day. I disagree. I think you have to spend some time every day doing something related to writing, but there are a lot of things that qualify for that in my opinion. For example, I watched a flurry of instant messages being exchanged between teenagers last night. That’s character research to me. A few days ago I had the pleasure of eating an amazing dinner (my mom is this outrageously good cook!), and when I got home, I spent almost an hour writing descriptions of the tastes, the smells, the textures of the food so I could warehouse them for later use. I keep notebooks with me at all times (even my cell phone has a notebook feature) so that if a good idea falls from the sky and lands in my brain, I have a place to catalog it for later.
There is no one way to be a writer. It’s important to find your own system that works for you, for your lifestyle, for your needs. Don’t let anyone tell you that their way is best. It’s only best for them. God bless Julia Cameron and “The Artist’s Way” but I think she causes bigger problems than she solves in that book.
What is the hardest part about writing for you?
Time – always, always, always. Even when I wrote full-time, I didn’t have enough time to do as much as I wanted. I did develop a nasty little case of carpal tunnel, though. Actually, the hardest part is the business side of things. The creative side is always easier. But once you’ve created this great story, you’ve got to put on the business hat and look for editors or agents to submit to. Then you’ve got to find out what their submission policies are and be sure you’re following them. Then you’ve got to submit your work and wait – and wait – and wait – and wait. Sometimes you have to deal with rejection. Actually, a lot of times you have to deal with rejection: it’s just part of the process. Then you start over with researching, submitting, and waiting. If you’re lucky, you get a contract. Then you have to research contracts and find out what is good, what isn’t good, what kind of rights you’re being asked to give up or to accept, or whatever. Writing is the easy part of all of this.
What are your favorite books of all time?
I don’t think there is enough room here, but I’ll give you a partial list of my favorite writers:
Shakespeare – I love anything by Shakespeare because regardless of who he really was (most scholars think he was the 17th Earl of Oxford – I tend to agree) – the man was a genius.
Hemingway – jerk of a person, amazing writer. His ability to present detail in a clear and evocative way is unrivaled.
Paul Zindel – he passed away just a few years ago. This guy wrote young adult novels that helped to shape my idea of story. “My Darling, My Hamburger” is a classic, and a personal favorite
Joyce Carol Oates – especially her young adult stories. “Freaky Green Eyes” is about as intense as it gets. Her short story “The Artist” is amazingly creepy in the tradition of Poe.
Edgar Allen Poe – his short story “The Black Cat” gives a compelling description of the evolution of a serial killer before the advent of modern psychology.
Christopher Moore – if you want to laugh, read anything this guy has written. Particular favorites include “Lamb” which is an accounting of the missing years of Christ’s life (slightly irreverent without going into full-blown blasphemy), or “A Dirty Job” – who knew you could kill with just a word, and that the word would be “kitty”? His vampire series is hysterical – “Blood Sucking Fiends”, “You Suck: A Love Story”, and “Bite Me: A Love Story”. Forget the “Twilight” stuff, these are far better.
Peirs Anthony – for fantasy, he’s one of the best
Douglas Adams – “Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” – need I say more.
Terry Pratchet – If you like Douglas Adams, you’ll like Terry Pratchet – fantasy with a twist of dry, British humor.
M.T. Anderson – intellectual middle grade and young adult stories with a wicked sense of humor. “Burger Wuss” is a good one, “Thirsty” is a very dark, young adult vampire story, and “Feed” is the scariest future you could ever imagine.
Tim Wynn-Jones – middle grade and young adult novelist whose elegant use of language is surpassed only by his amazing ability to develop scenes so realistic you truly feel you are present with the characters.
Carol Lynch Williams – a local writer (and personal friend) who writes some of the finest middle grade stories in the world. She is so gifted with creating plot and developing characters you think you would know if you met them on the street.
Ann Dee Ellis – another gifted local writer who writes middle grade and young adult. Ann Dee has such a unique voice, and her writing style is so smooth that you’ll get through 50 pages and think you’ve only read 5.
This is one of our exchanges – I’ll post more. He’s an incredibly insightful young man, and I have enjoyed our exchanges. If he gives me permission, I’ll post some of his writing here.