So many of your books seem inspired by the people, places and animals around you. What could you say to young writers that could encourage them to reflect on the world around them, to help them with their own writing?
Places, people, and things we’ve known and experienced may seem little to us, but they hold honest emotion and real truth. It’s that honest emotion we relate to in each other, more than the big, showy moments in our lives.
When you add details you know or write based on things you have experienced, you are able to step past what everyone could imagine or research. You go beyond the “tourist” view to the real heart and complicated truth of something. Everything has contrasts. For example, important moments are never only one emotion. There’s the emotion you (and readers) expect, and then there’s another, contrasting emotion that surprises you. The unexpected humor in a tragic moment. The fear or sadness in a happy moment. Those things don’t get talked about as often, because they are sometimes hard to admit to. But if you’ve experienced it, you know it, and readers recognize it as truth in a story.
What are some habits or routines that you have established to support you as a writer?
I treat writing as a job, and I schedule my writing time to be sure it happens. Writing takes practice, just like playing an instrument or becoming good at sports. The more you do it, the better you become at it. So I don’t wait to feel inspired. Often it takes getting down to work to feel that inspiration.
On the days I truly don’t feel like writing, I have a little kitchen timer. I set the timer for 15 minutes and promise myself when the bell rings, I can stop if I want to. But most times, getting started is the hardest part. When the bell rings, I’m usually into the work and just keep going.
I often start my writing session by reading a poem. Poetry encourages me to stretch myself with language and creates a transition from my regular world to my writing world.
Can you talk a little about your revision process? What are you looking for or listening for when you reread and reflect on your writing?
All of my books are revised many, many times. In the early revisions, I’m looking at big things. Does the character solve her own problem? Does the conflict increase in the story because of something the main character is doing? It will be more compelling if the story happens because of the main character, instead of it happening to her. Is there character development? Does the main character make a choice at the end of the book that she couldn’t have made in Chapter One?
Then in the middle revisions, I’m looking at chapters and paragraphs. What changes for the main character in this chapter? Are there scenes that don’t move the story ahead? Have I described this too much or not enough?
Finally it’s about editing. I look at sentences and words. Can I cut this “she said?” Does that chapter end with a compelling hook? Are the details consistent (the house is yellow in Chapter 3 and brown in Chapter 9). I often use tools at this point: maps, charts, calendars, etc. to make sure all my details are consistent.
Even after writing so many wonderful books, are there still some parts of writing that are difficult for you? How do you handle those difficulties?
Yes! There are still many hard parts and moments. For me, the hardest part is the first draft. Writing a first draft can be full of scary and defeating thoughts. What if I can’t do this? What if this book is never as good as I want it to be? What if readers are disappointed with this book? I have to work to turn those thoughts off in a first draft. The truth is that nobody’s first draft is good! Revision is where you’ll make it good. First drafts are just to create something to start with.
What writers would you consider to be mentor authors? How has their work or their process inspired you?
E.B.White would be one of mine. His writing inspires me on a sentence level, but also, I love how brave he was in his writing. He was unafraid to show darkness, as well as light. It encourages me to do the same. He also allowed himself to be amazed by ordinary things. In looking closely, he saw they weren’t ordinary at all. “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” he said, and I try to do that in my writing, too.