We know readers tend to be writers too, in this feature, we’ll share writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I believe that story comes from character; I have to know my characters inside and out in order to write a novel that’s halfway worth reading. That said, I’m also a big fan of trusting my gut. When I was starting my novel Bittersweet, Mabel Dagmar began speaking to me very early in the game, long before I knew how untrustworthy she is or exactly what had happened over the course of the summer in which the book takes place. I took dictation for about fifty pages, until I knew she had a hold on me; then I went back to the drawing board and really got to know her by thinking about her all the time, filling out a character sheet on her, and imagining who and what she would come in contact with that would challenge her. Once I know a character well, I’m able to ask what she wants, deep down, in her core. Everyone wants something. A novelist’s trick is to write a story that aligns many wants to support a thematic idea, without it looking like that’s what I’m doing. As plot grows, it’s valuable to understand whether a character’s desires align with that central idea; if they don’t, out she goes. Bittersweet is the story of Mabel getting what she wants, plain and simple, but it took me a long time to understand what that was and how the book would tell that story. I’m also a big believer in casting (in my mind) a real actor (preferably someone I’ve seen on screen in a number of different roles) to play each of my main characters. That way, when I’m stumped about how a character would drink a cup of coffee or walk down the street, it’s easy to see her with my own eyes (plus, then I get to call watching a movie “research,” which is just one of the thousand reasons I love my job). And revision is my best friend, because I can stretch the limits of my characters and then pull back in the next draft after I’ve learned how they would or wouldn’t react. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I need to write about fifty pages in order to understand whether the story I’ve imagined actually has legs; if I can’t make fifty pages work, then there’s no way I’ll be able to compose four hundred. In these first fifty I’m looking for moments that crack me up, that make me afraid, that feel risky, that open my up to questions about the book I didn’t know I had when I first started it. If I don’t discover something new in those early weeks of work, then I know I haven’t found my next book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I used to be much more precious about my writing rituals; becoming a mother definitely cured me of that! But strangely (or maybe not so strangely) my most productive two years of creative work to date came right after giving birth: I wrote a novel and two screenplays, and produced a short film. I think the secret lies in the preciousness of childcare; if I only have two hours to work in a day, I’m not going to squander it, whereas in the unscheduled days before my son was born, it was easy to while away the hours. I’m lucky to have both a home office and a great local café (where I wrote most of Bittersweet). But if I’m alone at home, I’m just as likely to spread out on the dining room table as I am on my son’s bottom bunk. I’m currently in the final push on a novel called June. I’m writing from a pretty strict chapter outline that I’ve developed over the course of the past year. When I sit down to write on a given day, I use this outline as a roadmap. Its signposts and landmarks are the actions and beats I know need to be accomplished in the scene at hand, even if I don’t know exactly how I’ll get from A to B. The fun lies in discovering. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? As a kid I loved theater. In my childhood out in Oregon, I went to this amazing camp where we did Shakespeare every summer. As a result, without trying to ingrain the five-act structure inside myself, it is. Also, I grew up advocating for the characters I was inhabiting, as actors are wont to do. Both traits have served me well as a writer. Of course, I thought I wanted to be an actor, but in college I realized I’d have a lot more power (and probably be just as poor) in the writing life. I wrote a creative thesis in college. It was the first time I’d written anything longer than twenty pages, and I just fell in love. I realized I had it in me to create whole worlds. But I didn’t know if this could actually be my job until I was working at the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y and met people like Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and José Saramago and Saul Bellow, and saw a more direct connection between the books I loved and the people who made them. While I was at the Y, I wrote The Effects of Light, which was to become my first published novel; got an agent; and then revised it for her for a year before we sold it. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? My parents were great believers in my sister and me pursuing creative fields. What they gave us wasn’t advice as much as it was philosophy. In my sister’s forthcoming documentary, my mom says “You know who you are by what you make,” and this idea still very much drives who I am. I’ve learned that I’m a lot happier when I’m working on a novel than when I’m not, mainly because when I’m writing a novel, I’m my most “me”—I recognize myself. I see this in my six-year-old too; he’s a lot happier when he’s engaged in a big, sweeping art project. Maybe that’s just him/us? Maybe that’s a trait many of us have as children, and we’re taught not to value it (because it’s not quantifiable or easily applied to a business model), so when we grow up, we leave it behind? A few months ago I was with my family up in the cabin in Vermont that inspired Bittersweet, and I looked around the main room: my father was transcribing his field notes from West Africa for use in the book he’s writing; my mother was working on her book series; my sister was working on her screenplay; my son was meticulously decorating a tall stack of valentines; and I was writing June. I often meet fellow parents who tell me they’re concerned because their child wants to become a writer or an artist. Yes, it can be a bumpy path, but it’s incredibly rewarding in some pretty fundamental ways that we don’t always honor culturally. I wish for the children of those parents to get to be given the gift I was, of belief and support. For all its hardship, I wouldn’t give up my career for anything! Read more about Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s book, Bittersweet.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? For me, learning different ways to structure a story was crucial, and still is! I’m always on the lookout for great structuring tips. While outlining, in order to ensure causal plotting, I use the phrase “WHICH CAUSED” between scenes. For example: “The queen caught a cold. The queen died. The king died.” This isn’t causal plotting. But “The queen caught a cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The queen to die of that cold.” WHICH CAUSED “The king to die of heartbreak.” This helps me to make sure that one moment causes the next moment. How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I have a background in journalism, so I recommend reporting — even for fiction. For Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes, I called a slew of Sex and Gender professors (not unlike my main character Ally) and interviewed them, asking questions about anything and everything including their jobs, daily schedules, likes and dislikes, opinions on current events, etc. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I actually do everything at once: I start writing scenes that I’m 90 percent sure will end up in the story, I start researching, and I start outlining. And most importantly, I start imagining the ending so that I can start planning the beginning. My outline is fluid and evolving — I go back and make changes to my outline throughout the writing process so that I complete the outline only a short while before I finish the book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Yes! I work in cafes mostly, where I have endless access to coffee and WiFi, and if I have serious, important writing to do, I plug into my earphones and listen to the Dave Matthews Band! Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? No. I wanted to be an actress. I actually still do, but I’m too chicken. But everything I know about writing came from years and years of studying acting. I studied everywhere, with everyone; learned how to break down a scene, how to create and motivate character, how to write dialogue, etc. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? That you should try to write every day, even if it’s just for ten or twenty minutes. I don’t do this — but every writer I admire gives this advice and says they heed it! What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? My worst habit is not writing daily, for sure. I’m pretty good about not using adverbs. Adverbs are deadly, unless you’re J.K. Rowling, who uses them all the time, so go figure… Read more about Ally Hughes Has Sex Sometimes here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? Usually when I sit down (or often, stand up) to write, I start by re-reading and editing the previous day’s work. That gets me back into the world of the book. Then I just carry on with the story from where I left off. I am a somewhat disorganized writer. I don’t write outlines or think too far ahead when writing a first draft. I write fast first drafts that I finish in three to ten months, and then spend a couple of years editing. I often think of scenes as puzzle pieces or quilting squares, shuffling them around until they make sense. I do, however, often write a basic timeline so I can remember when pivotal events happen and how old everyone is. But the story itself emerges only when I am actually writing. Often I have no idea where the plot is heading until it emerges from my fingers. For this reason, I am a serious rewriter. I write at least a dozen drafts of each book. Much of the structure, plotting, and pacing emerges in later drafts. I think of my first drafts as skeletons, and each successive draft as layering on muscle, veins, fat, skin, hair, etc. Until it is a fully living book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? One thing I learned fairly early on is that I cannot afford to wait to be in the right mood. For me, writing needs to be a daily discipline, like exercise. I do it no matter what mood I am in. The hardest part is getting myself to the computer and shutting off the Internet. Once I open the document and start working, I am suddenly in the mood. Work inspires work. Also, when you have a small child and the various diplomatic obligations that come along with being an ambassador’s wife, you write in every unscheduled moment, whenever those moments are. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I have kept a journal since the day I learned how to write, but I never thought of myself as a writer until graduate school. I majored in theater in college and worked for several years as an actor. But eventually I became frustrated with the limited roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astrophysicists but ended up playing ingénues and prostitutes. It got old. I began writing some of the things I wished my characters would say and decided to go back to school. After getting an MFA in fiction writing and an MS in journalism, I worked in newspapers and magazines for years before finally writing my first book. I don’t think that first book would have happened, however, had I not taken an enormous risk by moving to Yemen to take over a newspaper. From the moment I accepted that job, I think I knew I was going to have a lot to write about! What’s the best piece of advice you have received? One evening in 1992 I was sitting in a bar in Bainbridge Island, Washington with a friend who is a brilliant and prolific composer. I was going on and on about various ideas I had for short stories, and he said, “You know, there comes a time when you have to stop talking about what you are going to do and start doing it.” I went straight home that night and wrote a short story. I still think about that conversation twenty years later. It gets me into the chair (or standing in front of the computer—I often write standing up). What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Don’t wait to feel inspired. If you’re serious about writing you should be writing every day. Treat it like any other job. Schedule time for it, even if you only have a half hour a day. Turn off the Internet. Check Twitter and Facebook after you write, not before. I indulge in this bad habit too often. I write best when I schedule specific times of day to check social media. If you need to do research online, make notes in your draft of things to look up later, when you are done writing. Don’t ever send out a first draft. While there are a few writers out there who produce genius first drafts, most of us do not. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite your story until you feel you have absolutely taken it as far as you can. Then get a writer you trust to edit it. Rewrite some more. Take at least a day between drafts so that you can approach your work with fresh eyes. Do you ever base characters on people you know? Why or why not? Yes. But though real people often provide the initial spark or inspiration, the characters swiftly take on a life of their own. Ultimately I don’t think any of the characters I create resemble the people who originally inspired them except in the most superficial of ways. I observe the people around me with the eyes of a journalist, noting quirks and interesting phrases. There is so much rich material just floating around. The imagination takes off from there. Read more about The Ambassador’s Wife here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What’s the best piece of advice you have received? At a talk at Columbia, Philip Roth said something that has stayed with me since; I’m not sure it counts as advice as much as a description of his writing process. He said that he lets himself write freely for some time and then rereads the material, pen in hand, and circles whatever feels alive. This idea, of live material, is what I take to be essential to good literary writing. I’ve come to believe most anything wrong with a first draft can be fixed later—plot can be focused and adjusted, endings changed, themes emphasized, characters and sentences refined, and so on—but what cannot be accomplished later is breathing life into something flat or false. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I came to fiction writing later than most writers I know: not until my mid-twenties. Before then the writing I’d done was almost entirely academic; for a while I’d seriously considered a career in philosophy. When I think about my first attempts at fiction, they seem to me very much influenced by philosophy: back then I started every story or novel with a concept, and developed it pretty linearly. Readers of Bradstreet Gate might be surprised to hear this; that book proceeds so differently, following characters in often unpredictable directions. That improvisational feeling took me a lot of work and time to achieve. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? The best way to get into a writing mood really is to just start writing—if not writing in the most ambitious sense (new scenes, preciously crafted sentences) then just sketching, thinking through ideas on paper. I often do start writing on paper, developing thoughts in notebooks, until I have some material to work with and sufficient momentum to get back to a scene. What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? I do a terrific amount of exploratory writing; that is, writing that probably won’t make it into the final book but that allows me to play with my characters and their situations until the material shapes and reshapes itself into a form I like. Often, I continue to do this even later in the process: once I’ve worked up one scene or one idea, I’ll make myself do another version or two—an altered course of events, a new reaction from my character—just to see if something more interesting happens. That way I have a means to evaluate my choices, and it’s a good way to avoid crutches and clichés. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I’d say my characters contain some elements of people I know, but often several people in combination, and I still try to leave most of my characters’ biographies and sensibilities to invention. For me, sticking too closely to real people would be confining, and possibly prevent me from the important work of having to think through the experience of my characters myself. Maybe it’s that I understand those around me less well than I like to imagine, but copying actual people hasn’t proven as useful in my writing as it seems to be for others—or worth risking the consequence of terrifying family and friends. Learn more about Bradstreet Gate here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? In the early morning, I consume coffee, turn on my computer, plant my butt in my desk chair in my home office, and let my cats get settled into their usual spots. I quickly check email and look at the headlines on a news site to see if the world has blown up outside my bubble. If I don’t need to duck for cover, I start working. I stay off social media until noon (that’s my plan, anyway). Each of my books has its own digital journal: it’s for stream of consciousness stuff, whatever’s on my mind. I open the journal for my current book and type like mad for a few minutes. It helps me discharge anything that’s weighing on me so I can move on. Then I open my manuscript and revise the last few pages I wrote the prior day, which leads into the new day’s work. For those days when the work just isn’t happening, I make deals with myself. Write for 45 minutes and get up and do something else for 15. Write until lunchtime and then do something else. Oddly, times of personal crisis are excellent writing periods for me because what better escape is there than to immerse yourself in a good book? How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I start by naming them. By going through that process, I think through their history, circumstances, and personalities. When was she born? What’s her ethnicity? What’s her birth order in the family? Was she raised in a traditional two-parent family or something else? Would her parents have selected a popular name of the era or something unique? Does she come from a modest background or is she well heeled? Does she later change her name or go by a nickname? Is her name evocative of who she is? The protagonist of my current series of suspense novels is Nan Vining. She’s rooted in tradition and family, so I named after her grandmother, Nanette. But she’s tough, so her nickname, “Nan,” is clipped and direct. I liked the surname Vining because it’s uncommon and has a lot of consonants, which for me makes a tougher sounding name than one with many vowels. Also, it evokes a vine, which is appropriate for Nan who’s tenacious and steady. Her name is a great fit for her, but I’ve changed names when a character has evolved and the name no longer works. Thank goodness for “Find and Replace.” Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I fell in love with writing and reading before I really learned how to do either one. When I was about four years old, I could write my name, with the Ns backward, and three words: yes, no, zoo. My mom was a reader and I was fascinated with her books. I’d look through the pages and pick out the few words I could read. When I got to the white area after a chapter break, I thought that space was there for me to finish the story. I’d take a crayon and have at it, writing, “yes, no, zoo,” and signing my name with backward Ns. It didn’t make my mom too happy to find me scribbling in her books. After I truly learned how to read and write, I wrote compulsively—letters, diaries, stories—but didn’t attempt to publish anything. I didn’t feel I was good enough. Many years later, I took a creative writing class at UCLA, where I started my first novel. After three years, while working fulltime at a day job, I finished that book and got it published. I’ve been writing and publishing fiction ever since. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Finish that first draft, even if it’s a big, flawed mess. And then the next best piece of advice I’ve received comes into play: Writing is about rewriting. What are the perks and challenges of writing a come-back character? Five years passed between my last Detective Nan Vining thriller and my latest one, Killing Secrets. During that time, I wrote a standalone, The Night Visitor, and several short stories. The challenge in returning to the Nan Vining series came from reconnecting with the four earlier books and wondering whether I could still channel the writer who had created that vibrant world. I was afraid I’d somehow lost my feel for Nan, her daughter Emily, her work partner and lover Jim Kissick, and the other characters as well as the dark thread that runs through the series. My doubts disappeared when I started Killing Secrets and it felt entirely natural, as if I’d come home. It felt great to return to this familiar tableau, but also to break new ground. I’ve just signed a contract with Alibi to write the sixth and seventh in the Nan Vining series and I’m excited to see where the journey takes the characters and me. Read More about Killing Secrets here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? Reading out loud. As soon as I finish a chapter, I read it to my victim … ahem … husband. As a writer, I find when I read/write a chapter a few times over, my brain begins to to skim it. And reading out loud helps me to catch any mistakes I might have made. See? I used the word “to” twice in this question. It also helps with the rhythm. Writing should have rhythm. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? The very first thing I do is write the ending. If I start right at the beginning, I tend to veer off course and before I know it, I’m writing a completely different story (I have too many ideas and a short attention span). Writing the last scene first helps me have something to aim for, so I can get from point A to point B without hitting too many traffic cones. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I have “a zone.” When the headphones are on, I’m in the zone and should not be bothered, lest I throw the closest object on my desk across the room. I spend about half an hour to an hour (depending on the intensity of the narrative) with music blasting in my head, one that usually matches the scene. I always have to see it like a movie in my head before it reaches paper, so a soundtrack is pivotal. Then I do my damned best to think like that person, completely immerse myself (which can be hard, especially when writing a dark narrative). Then I need a proper half hour with music to ease myself out, I can’t be ripped away; it messes me up. That’s a lot of my creative process … some just call it madness. Oh, and caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? No, I didn’t. Writing came to me when I was at a period in my life of trying to save myself and clean up my life. It started for me while I was seeing a counselor. I’d go in, guns blazing, F this and F that and F this again. The therapist was a very conservative man who’d cringe every time I cursed or told a colorful story from my past. So he told me to write (I believe he said it hoping he wouldn’t have to hear me anymore). It was supposed to be a journal kind of thing, but I hated journaling. Writing about things I wanted to forget never helped me—it just ticked me off. So I wrote something fake (it’s still an existing chapter in my unpublished/first novel, The Assassin’s Keeper). He read it in silence and I waited, wondering if there were men outside with butterfly nets. When finished, he looked me right in my eyes and said, “That was the best ****ing thing I ever read.” After that, I wrote more and more, writing a good chunk of my first novel in his office. I haven’t stopped since. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Ellipses … I put them everywhere. The truth is, I don’t even know how to properly use them. I just put them in when the page looks a little sad … What’s the best piece of advice you have received? I’m a girl who goes to the beat of her own drum. A lot of the advice from the greats just don’t work for me: I can’t write every day, I DO wait until I’m in the mood, I don’t read while writing … To quote Lillian Hellman: “If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.” Read more about Freedom’s Child here.
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. I recently had the very good fortune of watching Annie Barrows sign her newest adult novel, The Truth According to Us, in the PRH booth at BEA (Book Expo of America). Not only did I get to observe how fans responded to seeing Annie, but I got to speak with them as they were waiting patiently in line. I met so many fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society —the novel she wrote seven years ago with her beloved aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, who has since passed away—and heard how it embedded itself in readers’ hearts and minds and is as treasured now as it was so many years ago. I also met so many fans of Ivy and Bean —the iconic children’s book series Annie has been writing for years and has touched so many lives—old and new. What was clear to me was that Annie has the ability to intimately connect to you through her work, no matter what she writes and no matter who her intended audience is—whether it’s an adult novel or one for children. And what’s truly remarkable to me is how organic it was for her to blend elements of both those worlds into her new novel, The Truth According to Us. Annie feels at her best when she’s writing from the perspective of a young narrator, which is why twelve- year-old Willa Romeyn shines as one of the powerful and endearing voices in The Truth According to Us. She’s been compared quite a bit, by reviewers and readers alike, to having shades of Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Willa’s voice is joined by those of two adult characters, her beloved Aunt Jottie (beloved aunts seem to be a theme here!) and Layla Beck, a senator’s daughter who is assigned to write the first official history of Macedonia, West Virginia, and is taking the small town by storm. This union of youth and wisdom is exactly what makes The Truth According to Us, and Annie, so special. I think it’s Annie’s love for her characters that inspires us to love them as well—no matter their age. And I think it’s the wisdom and charm she infuses in every book she writes that makes you feel connected to her world—and yours—just a little bit more. Aunt Jottie advises Willa: “What you need is some of that Macedonian virtue. Ferocious and devoted folks are just hell on a stick when it comes to digging up secrets. You just try keeping a secret from a virtuous Macedonian.” That thought came to me often in the line at BEA, because as devoted as Macedonians are to figuring out the truth, we as readers are as devoted to Annie for bringing it all to light for us. Read more about The Truth According to Us here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? As an editor, I always asked writers (of novels and even of picture books): “Who is this character in your head? Is he/she based on someone you know? Can you see that person doing what you have your character do?” As an author, I ask myself the same thing. Of course, all of one’s characters have a little bit of oneself in them, but I do find that having a specific image—of a friend, an acquaintance, a child, a person glimpsed on the subway—really helps me focus and be specific. Specificity is the skeleton key that unlocks the doors of good writing. When a character speaks, the language must be specific to her; she must not be able to speak any other way. When a character makes a choice of beer or shaving cream, he must own those choices; they must come from everything else I know about the character. I think hard about what a character would reach for in the fridge, and why. None of that reasoning, of course, should show on the page (unless it’s a plot point). But as a writer you need to know if it’s boxers or briefs, sports bra or push-up, for every character. You have to know where the hidden tattoos are, and the scars. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? I write copy! That’s the first thing I do. I write what you would find on a jacket flap, or the back cover of a paperback. When I was an editor, and especially an assistant, writing copy was always the most enjoyable part of the job. The better written the book, the easier it is to write copy, even when the book has a challenging structure or tackles difficult ideas. I write copy to see where the story is going. Usually I can eke out a whole first “act” for a book by pretending I’m writing the flap for the finished draft. If a first act emerges and I’m interested in seeing where the story goes, I’ll give it a try as a book. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? While writing Enchanted August, I almost always wore headphones and played birdsong or “nature sounds.” Those soundtracks let me believe that I was in Maine. I would go to YouTube and find videos with hours of recorded sounds of the outdoors. You have to be careful not to play the same one too many times or you get to know what nuthatch is going to start calling out after which rumble of thunder, but other than that, it’s a great way (for me) to escape city sounds or household sounds or sounds at the café where I usually write. And a shout-out to that café: It’s The Hungarian Pastry Shop on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I started going there when I first came to New York in 1981 and basically never stopped. The Pastry Shop is located just a few blocks from Columbia University, so it’s filled with people studying or reading or writing. It’s almost like a library. There’s no internet service and there are no electrical outlets, so you can only write as long as your computer charge lasts and you can’t get distracted by going online. If you go to the Pastry Shop for a visit, don’t be disappointed that the coffee isn’t great, but do order an ishler. Two hazelnut cookies filled with chocolate mousse and covered in dark chocolate. A sumptuous reward for a good afternoon’s writing. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I never thought I wanted to write but I have been writing since I was very young. I used to write Regency romances when I was about eleven or twelve, about characters named Charles and Caroline who bore a marked resemblance to Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. (I read Pride and Prejudice in one sitting when I was eleven years old. My mother thought I had been out at the neighbor’s all day, when actually I was upstairs reading through lunch and dinner. I came down to the kitchen in a daze and have essentially never recovered.) I began working as an editorial assistant at a publishing company right after college. I wanted nothing more than to be an editor, and I was, for many years. After a while, editors, especially of children’s books, tend to take on the writing mantle. I helped artists write their picture books. I turned out quickie celebrity bios. I wrote a couple of Pokemon chapter books. (“I choose you!”) Then in 2004 or so, I wrote two early readers under a pen name, Margaret McNamara. Too Many Valentines and 100 Days (Plus One) were set at Robin Hill School, and over ten years the stories stretched into a thirty-book series. Then, I began to write more picture books about things like pumpkins, apples, George Washington, poetry, and a heavenly library. (If you’re interested, you can find out more on my website.) Just a few years ago, I so wanted an author of mine to write a book from Tinker Bell’s point of view that I stole my own idea and wrote a six-book series called the Fairy Bell Sisters, about Tinker Bell’s little sisters, who live on an island in what many would recognize to be Maine. Their success (and I mean the fact that I finished them all, on time, and they were beautifully published) led me to be emboldened enough to write Enchanted August. Describe your writing style in five words or less. If you mean how I write in terms of process: Must. Not. Edit. While. Writing. Read more about Enchanted August here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? The trick that probably has served me more than any other is to always stop and write down a promising idea or line when I think of it no matter what else I’m doing. If I’m on my way out the door or even falling asleep and something good pops into my head—some missing piece of information or crucial development in the story I’m working on, or perhaps an idea for a new story—I’ll stop and take the time to write it down even if it makes me late or means I’ll be tired in the morning. So many times in the past I’ve thought, Oh, I’ll remember that, or, Oh, I’ll sleep on it and write it down in the morning, but then when I return to it it’s gone. So now I always make a note of any idea, even if it’s just an indirect reference or a half-baked thought. So many projects that I’ve gone on to develop or see all the way through came from a scribble in a margin of a book or a text I sent myself at two in the morning. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Reading great books always inspires me. There’s nothing like turning the last page of an incredibly satisfying story and just kind of letting the feeling it left you with soak in. Once I’m done processing that feeling, I’m almost always, like, I want to do that. I want to leave someone feeling that way. Even if the book is very different than my own work. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? At Bennington College, where I studied for my MFA, professors often encouraged us to focus not on publishing our work but on getting it as good as it could possibly be. To focus on what was on the page and not who was going to read it or in what format. At the time, I was frustrated by that. I thought, I didn’t come here to journal—I want to write for readers, but now I see the wisdom in that advice. Once something is published, it’s out there forever and your name will always be attached to it. I look back at stories I wrote in college, and even in my twenties, and I thank God no one is going to read them. There’s no rush to get published. And the reading public has no expiration date. Just write, and polish what you have written until it’s as good as it can be, and then worry about everything else. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? I have a list of things I try to avoid, but clichés, verbs of utterance, and exclamation points are right up there. A few of each inevitably sneak into my work, especially in the first draft, but I do try to troll for them in the revisions that follow. I’ll give myself a few exclamation points for every hundred pages or so, but verbs of utterance I try to keep out altogether. As one professor at Bennington told me, “‘F*** you!’ he shouted angrily,” is redundant. It’s clear from what the speaker is saying that he’s angry. Let the words speak for themselves. If the line is really strong, “he said” should suffice. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? I definitely pull individual characteristics—sayings, speech patterns, mannerisms, quirks—from people I know, but it’s rare that any given person is the perfect complex combination of factors for the story I want to tell. And there just aren’t that many people I know as well as I know my characters. To write convincing characters, you need to know things about them that aren’t even on the page. You need to be keyed into how they would react to a given situation, what motivates them in that context, and the gap between what they say about it and how they actually feel—even if they’re not aware of the disparity. You need to get inside their heads in a way I don’t think we often do with people in our own lives. We approach people we know from our own perspectives, not theirs. Of course, by borrowing an isolated characteristic from someone you know and endowing your character with it, there’s the danger that the person you borrowed it from thinking the entire character is based on her. It’s, like, yes, you both wear yellow nail polish, but, no, I don’t think you secretly hate your mother! Read more about Local Girls here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so twice a month, we’ll feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? I start by keeping a “dossier” on each character: the usual basics like their age, hometown, birth order, the contents of their fridge. I snoop around—showing up at their tenth birthday parties (then their sixteenth and their fortieth). I write diary entries in their voice. Later in the process I’ll write the same scene from each character’s point of view—a tip I learned from hearing an interview with Jonathan Lethem. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Running helps my writing—both require a lot of endurance. My favorite runs cross both bridges and bodies of water. I find that after a long run, I’m just too physically exhausted to be overly self-critical when I sit down to work, which then makes the writing flow more easily. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I’ve known pretty much since I first learned to write. My first (unpublished) manuscript was called Messy Bessy—an illustrated series about an unkempt schoolgirl who grows up and has twenty kids. In elementary school I wanted to be a writer slash nun, but I was afraid the church would make me censor my writing. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? Daydream about your characters. That way, you’re still doing work on your novel even when you’re waiting for the subway, at the gym, on line at the grocery store…. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? I try not to write about an experience until after I’ve been away from it for a few days (or years). Otherwise you gain no perspective on it because it’s so immediate. Also, you tend to sound whiny. So I’ll write down the facts of what happened immediately in my diary, but then I file them away, and later—much later—I can reflect on that experience in the context of a larger narrative. Describe your writing style in five words or less. A chocolate-covered broccoli. (Wait, what?) Read more about Re Jane here.