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 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? I write everything by hand, then type it all. I can’t think with a keyboard. I stop to make corrections, the cursor flies around, idiot things pop up. All of these break my concentration. With a pen, I just let my mind go. I see and hear the characters and record what’s there. How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters? For every page that is published I have as many pages in outlines and charts about people, places, plot. I try to get photos of the major characters so I can look at them when I’m writing. I also use a lot of floorplans. I go to Savills UK website and find houses and use them. With everything I do beforehand, I’m thinking about the characters and the plot. After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? The first sentence is important to me so I work on that. Mainly, I want to set the tone with the first chapter, so I do a lot of pre-work on that. And no matter how much work I do beforehand, until I actually hear the characters talking, I don’t know what I have. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? I spend my life trying to get out of things other than writing. Errands, appointments, emails, calls, etc, make me crazy. In the last few years I have done two around-the-world cruises. I have four wonderful months of internet so bad it might as well not exist. I get to tell people I can’t do whatever because I’m on a ship docked outside Tahiti. It is glorious! I write and write, then write some more. On my last cruise I wrote 102,000 words and outlined my next novel — and I saw some great places. Heaven! Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I never in my life thought about being a writer. I thought they were people who lived on pink clouds, not real. But I had a story in my head that wouldn’t go away, so I thought maybe if I wrote it down it would stop pestering me. When it was done, I paid my next door neighbor’s daughter to type it and sent it to a publishing house that had pretty covers. They wrote back asking if they could send me a bunch of money and would I please write some more books. I haven’t stopped since then. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? After I turned in my second book, I spent three months waiting for my editor to read it. During that time I was eaten up with stories I wanted to write, but I thought I had to wait to get the okay to go ahead. I vowed to never again wait for a publishing person for anything. I go ahead and write at my pace and let them move at theirs. It’s a decision that has helped me stay sane. What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Not to fall in love with your own writing. Over my many years in publishing, what I’ve seen kill more careers than anything else is ego. “How dare they do that to my work?!” That attitude has no place in publishing. In this business you need to have a thick skin and be ready to take criticism that would cripple most people. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Good stories. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? Yes and no. Fiction characters are never as complex as real people. In real life, you might have a mild mannered friend and one day receive a call saying he/she killed someone. But you canNOT do that in a novel. You have to lead up to it, hint at it. Sometimes I see a character trait in a person and I blow that up to be one entire person. As for villains, I have relatives. ’Nuff said. Read about Jude Deveraux’s newest book, Ever After.
Kara Cesare, Vice President & Executive Editor, Random House Group, offers insights into her work with debut novelist Bethany Chase and the newly released The One That Got Away. Full of both humor and heartbreak, this book tells the story of one woman’s discovery that, sometimes, life is what happens when you leave the blueprints behind. Having been the editor of a broad range of bestselling, award-winning authors, from Janet Evanovich to Lisa See, what was it about Bethany Chase and The One That Got Away that captured your interest and made you want to acquire and edit her novel? I fell into The One That Got Away immediately, and I didn’t stop reading until I turned the last page, which speaks to Bethany’s storytelling talent. I appreciated her gift for creating relatable, winning characters looking for love, but also searching for their place in the world. I missed the characters as soon as I finished the novel—that’s how vivid they were to me, and that’s when I knew I wanted to acquire such an impressive, emotional, and romantic debut. I was also very inspired by Bethany’s strong aesthetics in the novel—she’s an interior designer by trade and her descriptions of architecture and design are so mesmerizing. How would you describe the editor/author process of working with Bethany and what was involved in the evolution of this title from initial manuscript to finished book? Bethany is an incredible partner in publishing. We connected the first time we spoke about the novel, and she was open and receptive to the editorial notes I shared with her. She was very engaged in the editorial dialogue we had and was sincerely invested in making the novel as strong as it could possibly be. Who do you feel will be most attracted to The One That Got Away and what elements of the characters and the story will resonate most powerfully with readers? I think the premise—What would happen if you got a second chance at a love that almost was?—is really intriguing. Her opening is enticing: “Every woman has one. That name you Google at two o’clock in the morning. The intoxicating connection that somehow never solidified into anything real; that particular memory you still visit every now and then, for that guaranteed hit of pure, sugar-packed dopamine.” There’s an irresistible love story at the center of the novel, but there are also wonderful and poignant themes running through it about family, grief, resilience, and of creating a sense of home for yourself that I think will resonate. My hope is that the heart, wisdom, and humor that pervades this novel will appeal to readers looking for a great new voice in fiction, and that their discovery of this new talent will be one they can’t wait to share with their friends! Read more about The One That Got Away here.