Liesl Shurtliff

You talk about the idea for RUMP coming to you when you were out running.  What advice do you have for young authors to help them come up with ideas for their writing

Ideas are a strange creative concept to me, because I think everyone has good ideas and encounters new ideas every day, and it’s not so much a matter of “getting” ideas as paying attention to our thoughts and surroundings and knowing which ideas are worth pursuing and what’s the most effective way to execute them. I think practice and experimentation are key. The more you write your ideas down and put them in action, even if you don’t think they’re all that great, your creative genius will reward you with more ideas and you’ll get better and better and picking out the best ideas to pursue.

What routines or habits for writing have you developed which have helped you as a writer?

I don’t have the luxury of having any elaborate routine or writing rituals. With three young kids involved in various activities my time is extremely limited, so the habit that has helped me most is to never waste a quiet hour. I turn off the phone and wi-fi. I sit and I write, whether I’m feeling the muse or not, but I feel that the muse is generous with me when I take myself seriously and don’t waste time.

There are a lot of students who excited by writing fan fiction.  They love creating their own stories with characters and settings that are familiar to them.  RUMP and JACK could be seen as fan fiction.  Can you talk about how you can stay true to the original stories, while creating your own unique tale?

I think if you’re going to write a retelling of a classic story it’s important to learn as much as you can about the original tale, its meaning and cultural/historical context. Even if you’re going to switch things up, this knowledge will help you. I then read and research as many other retellings as possible, both in books and film, to avoid repeating a lot of what’s already been done. There’s a risk in retelling classic tales of thinking you have a very unique idea, only to realize it’s been done a dozen times already. For RUMP I was committed to keeping the events in the original tales the same, but I wanted to expose them from a radically different point-of-view with a unique voice. I expanded things quite a bit, drawing out characters more fully than they’re portrayed in the original tales and placing my own interpretations on them. So while I keep in line with all the major plot points of the original tale, I was always searching for ways to develop a unique narrative with fresh reasons as to why those events occurred. The first answer that comes to me usually isn’t the best one. In fact, with ideas in general, assume that the first idea is a cliche. They’re easy and accessible. Often I have to go through a dozen ideas before I land on a truly unique idea for any given situation.

When you go back and reread your writing to reflect or revise, what are you listening or looking for?

First, after I complete a draft, I try to give myself as much distance as I can from the project (at least a month) before I come back to it. We tend to get too close to our work and lose objectivity, so it’s important to give yourself time to get some fresh perspective. My revision process is much like a funnel. I start with a wide opening, looking mostly at the major plot points and pacing of the story, then gradually narrowing down to aspects of character, setting, dialogue, theme, etc. I do read it out loud to myself during each revision stage, and this definitely brings out areas that are slow or confusing. Though I have a background in theater and it’s definitely tempting to act it out with funny voices, I actually try to read it almost monotone. In a revision stage I think it’s important to focus on the text and I don’t want to layer on my own dramatic interpretations where others might find none. If something is delightful, funny, or dramatic without adding dramatic flair, I can be confident that it’s the writing that’s good, and not my theatrical performance.

What authors have inspired you or have you considered mentor authors? What did you learn from them or some piece of their work that has helped you?

Certainly any book that I’ve loved has been a mentor to my writing. Reading and studying these books in depth has taught me a great deal about the craft, but I have had writing mentors who have helped me tremendously. When I first began writing I was fortunate to work with Kirby Larson, author of the Newbery Honor Book Hattie Big Sky. She had the pleasure of watching me make some of my first writing attempts, which were undoubtedly awful, but she was so encouraging and showed me the ropes in many ways, both in craft and business. She taught me what pitfalls to avoid, too much exposition, or showing vs. telling. Several years later, after I had written Rump, I studied privately for a semester with Franny Billingsley, author of Chime, which was a National Book Award Finalist. Since I had a little more experience under my belt, Franny really dug into my writing in a very deep way, sharing more insight as to how character and plot are developed simultaneously. I discovered that my creative processes is very similar to Franny’s, which really helped me develop confidence in my work. I always felt a little insecure about my process because it’s so messy, not much rhyme or reason as to how I go about things, but as I studied with Franny I realized that this is simply the way my creativity works. She taught me to trust myself and the organic nature of my writing process.