Diana Greenwood was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a Canadian born abroad and held dual citizenship until the age of 21. She spent her young years in Winnipeg, Manitoba and has fond memories of snow forts, snowball fights with neighborhood kids, and ski races on the hills that formed when snow plows cleared the street. Long winters meant plenty of time indoors, too, and Diana devoured book after book while always craving more. She grew up playing with the Bobbsey Twins, Laura Ingalls, Huck and Tom, the Hardy Boys, Jo, Francie Nolan, and Oliver Twist. She tried to duplicate the adventures of her favorite characters by writing poems, stories, and scripts for summer performances in her backyard. Today, she still has those childhood editions on her bookshelf and spends her days writing stories of young people embarking on life-changing journeys. Diana makes her home in the Napa Valley, where she watches college football, volunteers at her church, and continues to devour books. Insight is her debut novel. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
What’s one rule you’re dying to break?
The run-on sentence. Writers are often told that a run-on sentence is bad writing, hard for a reader to grasp and meaning is lost. All of which may be true, but sometimes a character just talks like that. Dickens did it with some success. Faulkner ran on and even John Steinbeck had a tendency to ramble. Voice is sometimes about the mood, personality, and speaking style of the main character. One of my favorite illustrations of this is in HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff, a hauntingly lovely story told in first person present with glorious sentences that go on and on. So if that’s how a character needs to speak, run-on, I say.
If this was your last day on Earth, what would you do?
I would curl up under a quilt with my daughter who is also my best friend. We’d drink tea and have raspberry scones with lemon curd and listen to marching band music. I would spend my last 24 hours writing down everything I admire and love about her and I expect that my time would expire before I could complete that list.
From idea to completion, how long does it take you to write a book?
The length of time it takes is such a personal thing. It’s different for every writer and probably for each book. I believe that writers put too much pressure on themselves to complete a novel when they hear that you “should” be able to complete a novel in a year to a year and a half. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, my mom would say, her way of reminding that hindsight helps naught. Rushing a book means more revising. Rushing revision means sending out too early. Sending out too early means starting over when it’s rejected and although rejection is part of the publishing world, you increase your chances of selling a story when the work is really ready. So I would say it takes what it takes.
As a divorced, full-time single mom, I know all about life getting in the way of writing. I wrote in the car while I waited for my daughter at music lessons or in the parking lot before the school bell rang. I wrote in the laundry room and at my desk after she was asleep, and I scribbled notes everywhere including while working at my other two jobs (which I still have). You write because you must but you write when you can.
It took about two years to complete a first draft of INSIGHT, three or so years to revise it cover to cover five times, and about another year to sell it after the final revision was sent out. I received good feedback along the way and the support of my fabulous agent, Jen Rofé at Andrea Brown Literary Agency, Inc. Only two editors saw that final revision and the right editor bought it. In my opinion, we only have control over the quality of the writing. The timing is up to God.
What advice would you give young writers?
I ran a fiction club for middle school writers and there are two things that I think really stuck with them. The first is that when writing fiction, let go of your internal censor. Sometimes this imagined censor is a well-meaning teacher who stresses the importance of spelling and grammar, which can hang up the flow of a first draft. Young people are so accustomed to producing for a grade that it takes time to see writing as pleasure rather than an “assignment.” Sometimes the censor is an adult of authority whose voice is in your head, making you think that if you write dark, you are a bad person. Sometimes the censor is yourself, your lack of confidence in attempting to tell a story. I told my kids to shut the censors down, write what you feel, and remember that the characters on the page are not you in real life.
The second thing I advise young writers to do is learn how to accept and offer critiques. We introduced the concept of feedback by reading work aloud in the class, a fear each had to conquer, and then students partnered to practice finding positive elements in each other’s work while also pointing out flaws. Learning how to critique the story, not the person, and staying open-minded when peers have opinions about your work is great practice for the future.
I am still in touch with most of my students and they are all still writing, one of them published in an anthology and another, a published poet. Can you tell I’m proud of them?
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
From Jane Yolen, paraphrased: “Don’t agonize over manuscripts you’ll never complete.” This statement is, in a way, freeing; permission to move on. Some stories deserve to live in the dust under the bed. Some ideas will never come to fruition. Don’t waste time on something that is a ball and chain to your creative energy.
Having said that, I am of the mindset that you need to write a novel or two before you really write a novel. Not everything you write is publishable but realizing that you’ve done the work, finished a first draft, learned along the way, and become a better writer because of the process is a huge step in a writer’s growth. Even if that manuscript never crosses an editor’s desk.
What element would you add to your writing space if money wasn’t an issue?
Floor to ceiling built-in bookshelves so all my books could live in one place, organized by genre and alphabetized by author, of course, and the bookshelf would have a spot for a mini fridge so I wouldn’t have to get up. On the other hand, if money were not an issue, I’d design and build an entirely new house wrapped around the perfect writing room. In the south ofFrance.
What’s the first item on your bucket list?
I want to ski Whistler before my knees give out.
Do you begin with character or plot?
For me, the characters always come first and it’s usually with a snippet of dialogue or a situation the character is smack in the middle of and must confront. I *think* for a long time before I start writing and in that thinking time I get to know the person who will lead the story. From there I “what if” and begin notes. Setting is huge for me, one of the reasons I adore historical fiction, so I imagine the world in which my character lives as whole and real and alive. Three dimensional. Vibrating.
Story evolves as the conflict and main character’s reactions are revealed in that world and from there, the main character leads the story. I am not a plotter but I do outline once a draft is underway. By outline I mean that I roughly sketch potential events in each chapter so the main character has a goal to work toward. I do not do step by step outlines as I feel too confined by them. I work scene by scene and usually only have a glimpse of the ending but if I understand my theme, I will be able to get my character through his or her journey.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
I’m currently working on two projects; another historical fiction called Three-Penny Poet where the main character in the untamed Chicagoof 1933 is forced to confront mental illness in his family, and a futuristic YA that explores faith in a skeptical world. In the future I’d like to switch gears and work on contemporary humor for middle grade, which I expect will appeal to my sarcastic side.
Six months in a French chateau with Lois Lowry, Sharon Creech, Gennifer Choldenko, Marcus Zusak, Jennifer Donnelly, Libba Bray, Karen Cushman, John Green, Holly Black, Deborah Wiles, Katherine Paterson, and Neil Gaiman. (John would cook) I would spend the entire vacation listening.