You have talked about when you start out on a project you do some free writing to discover the character’s voice and the story. Can you talk more about your discovery drafts?
For me, a new project almost always begins with a seed. That seed might be a captivating idea (a princess asks her father for a tiny country of her own … which became Princess Juniper of the Hourglass), or a character (a girl who has grown up in a Thai prison, then has to venture out in the world … which became Nowhere Girl), or even a title (Paradox was part concept and part title that sparked my imagination). To move beyond that seed, the first thing I do is start writing the early chapters. This is where I explore the character’s voice and find my way into the story.
To be honest, I don’t do much in the way of extra free writing for my books. My writing time is limited, so I do like to feel that I am working toward a concrete goal. Where free writing does come in handy, though, is when I’m stuck on a scene or section. For example, with my book Rules for Ghosting, there came a point in my revision process where I knew the first chapter wasn’t working—the opening pages, in particular, felt clunky and awkward. There were so many elements that needed to be clearly established, and I just couldn’t figure it out. So I opened a new Word document, and I titled it “Bad Beginnings.” That title gave me the freedom to just brainstorm. I started with #1 and, keeping the basic story in my mind, wrote an all-new beginning. I wrote a few paragraphs, then typed #2… and began again, this time from a slightly different angle. I didn’t worry about whether what I was writing was usable or even any good. I just wrote.
By the end I had 8-10 openings. And after reading through them all, one of them felt just right for what I needed to start my book. Of course, there was some additional revising and polishing involved, but that free writing session definitely helped to pull the right material loose.
Have you developed any writing habits or routines that have been helpful for you?
This may seem like a small, mundane thing, but I’ve learned to save my writing frequently and have a backup system in place. There’s nothing that dampens the creative spirit like working really hard on a story and then losing it all when your computer crashes!
Your book Rules for Ghosting took you nearly ten years to publish. You have said sticking with something, putting it away and coming back to it can give you a fresh perspective. How could that approach work with student authors?
Giving your work time to rest is a very important part of the writing process. When I first finish writing a story, a picture book, or a novel, there is so much relief and excitement going on that it’s pretty much all I can think about! At this time, though, I think my mind is accustomed to the ideas and words in a way that makes it harder to judge and evaluate for strengths and weaknesses. So, setting aside a piece of writing—whether it’s for a day or a week or even more—is a way of starting fresh. When that piece of writing comes back out, you will be reading it with new eyes, and will have a better gauge of its weaknesses—and its strengths!
When you go back and reread your work, what are you listening for or looking for? How does closely reading your work help you to be a better writer?
Once I’ve finished writing the draft of a novel, that’s when the real work begins: revising. The first thing I do once I am ready to begin the revising process is to make a list of all the things I know still need work. For example, while working on revising Princess Juniper of the Hourglass, my to-revise list included:
* Clarify Juniper’s character arc.
* Check on friendship/character progression between Juniper and Erick.
* Give more information on the history of the region. …
Those were just a few of the many, many things on my list. But the easiest way for me to tackle each one is go back into the story with that particular problem in mind. So when I’m evaluating the relationship between two of the main character, Princess Juniper and her best friend Erick, I started at the beginning and read through every section that included those two characters. For certain threads, I made a brief list in a separate document, showing how they interacted together and what was the primary emotion of the scene. By looking at my list, and by skimming through and reading just that aspect of the story, I was better able to give a clear, smooth progression of events that would feel natural to the eventual reader of the finished book.
What writers do you consider to be mentor authors to you? How have they influenced or inspired you?
One of my true inspirations is Kate Messner—she has so much drive and energy, and is always coming up with new projects and ideas. Most importantly, though, she’s the type of person that draws others in: She’s not just out there thinking about her own success, but she’s always looking for ways to lift others up alongside her. She’s definitely a role model for me!