Cynthia Chapman Willis is the author of Dog Gone, a middle grade novel for ages 8 to 13 (Square Fish, a division of Macmillan), and Buck Fever, a middle grade novel for ages 9 to 14, (Feiwel & Friends, a division of Macmillan). In addition to writing novels, Cynthia has worked as an editor of educational books and materials for children. During her time as a textbook editor with Macmillan, Scholastic, and McGraw-Hill school publishing groups, she wrote books, articles, as well as pupil edition and teacher edition copy. Most recently, Cynthia is working full time on her next novel while promoting Dog Gone and Buck Fever. For more info, visit her blog.
Let the conversation begin!
Are your characters completely fictional?
My characters are fictional, but I often spend time thinking about real people I know or have encountered as I build my characters. If, for example, I am writing about a really mean antagonist, I will probably consider the behavior of a real-life person or people who are or have been nasty. I’ll recall how someone being mean looks and acts. I’ll mull over where a person’s nastiness might come from, and how this trait affects or affected others. Hopefully I’ll even connect or reconnect with the feelings associated with dealing with someone mean. In summary, considering real life people gives me some of the clay I need to mold the fictional characters in my stories.
Where do you get your ideas?
From anywhere and everywhere. Snippets of ideas pop into my head all the time. The other day, I was driving through a wooded area with lots of lakes, all draped in this eerie fog that seemed to be crawling between the trees and over the road. I was on my way to visit a school and had my presentation in my head, but still, a story idea pushed in and took over.
What advice would you give young writers?
My advice is always the same: Read as much as possible, write as much as possible, and if you truly believe in what you are doing, be persistent and do not give up on your dreams.
Outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?
I outline in great detail. In fact, I find that I am writing more intricate outlines with each novel that I put together. This might be because I really enjoy the outlining process. It’s full of fun surprises and opportunities. Somehow, as I organize the plot and setting, figure out the mechanics of a story, and get to know the characters, I discover insights that don’t come to me when I am writing the first draft. Also, when I outline, I am less likely to tangle plot elements or overlook important points that should not be missed. I will add, though, that I always allow myself the freedom to break away from the outline when I’m writing the first draft, if that’s what the muse calls for. When this happens, my outline becomes a sort of safety net in case I drift too far off track.
What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?
More room! My writing space is a spare bedroom, which has lots of advantages. For example, my three cats and the family dog love to hang out on and around the bed while I am working. This is great, but the down side of a guest room/office is that I get kicked out when friends and relatives visit. And, because the room is small and cozy, it’s a bit overcrowded with books and manuscripts and office supplies and presentation stuff. Don’t even think about going into the closet—it’s scary-overcrowded.
Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress?
I am lucky enough to have a group of trusted writer-friends that I rely on to read my novels once each is done—or, I think that it is done. Also, my agent reads my work and offers wonderful advice.
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
I find that exercising or doing something that gets me moving is a great way to boost creative energy. I love yoga. So, if those creative batteries are running low on juice, a good yoga class can revive me, clear my head, and calm many writing frustrations. If there isn’t a class available when I need it, I’ll go for a walk or a run. Somehow getting physically tired boosts my mental energy. Even meandering around the house doing a few chores can revive me if I start lagging.
Do you write with music playing?
Sometimes. When I listen to music depends on where I am with the novel that I am working on. During the blood, sweat, and tears of writing a first draft or hacking away at major revisions, I rarely listen to anything. For me, it is too distracting. However, if I’m brainstorming, outlining, or working away at minor revisions, the subject matter of the novel dictates the type of music that I listen to.
Do you begin with character or plot?
I always begin with plot. It is not until I start to carve out what happens in the story that the characters begin to take shape in my head. However, I do pause often while working on the story events to write about the characters. Usually, by the time I have figured out the plot, the characters are fairly well developed and ready to run free in the first draft.