I started writing my first novel, The Tree Tattoo, after I dropped out of school and moved back into my parents’ basement. It wasn’t exactly the high point of my life, but I labored away at it for about five years, never thinking anyone would want to publish it. Then when I was done, instead of trying to sell it, I wrote my second novel, Dream Water. Then I sold Dream Water and only THEN did I try to sell my first book. It was all a bit mixed up.
Somewhere along the line I signed with an agent and after that I just started writing and writing more and more and more until I was able to quit my crummy job and write full-time, which, as it turns out, is my dream job. I highly recommend finding your dream job, even if you stumble along the way and then it turns out that your dream job does not always come with a dream salary. It’s worth it in the end. To learn more about me, check out my blog.
Let the conversation begin!
Was it easier to write before or after you were published?
Before I was published, I wrote in a very verrrry verrrrrry leisurely way. Looking back on it, it seems very luxurious and silly. I could spend six weeks making a single sentence sing! I could take months off to simply think! La la la! Look! Something shiny! There was no pressure to complete anything because no one knew I was writing and if they had, they wouldn’t have cared.
It took me five years to write my first novel in this way, thirty minutes here, an hour there. I played a lot of minesweeper and solitaire and spent colossal amounts of time in AOL chatrooms.
When my book sold, I immediately felt internal pressure to do MORE and FASTER, because I suddenly realized that THIS could be my career. It felt like a miracle. However, I’d have to produce a lot more or I’d starve. It’s hard to say if it then became easier, it certainly began to feel more like a job and less like an idle fantasy, which was very motivating. I started to feel like it mattered, like my voice mattered, I suppose like I mattered. And I do loves me some validation.
Are your characters completely fictional?
I name horrible characters after people who have wronged me in real life. I make no secret of it! The characters don’t have anything to do with the people themselves, they are just bad guys. With bad guy names. MELODY, for example. I love doing this. It makes me happy. It rights the wrongs. Well, almost.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’ve never had a hard time coming up with ideas, honestly. I have the opposite problem. In a lot of ways, I think fiction writing is a type of mania. I always have a swirling morass of ideas, I picture it like a big swamp with huge green plants growing out of it and giant bubbles of ideas lifting into the sky. I have SO many things that I’m desperate to start writing as soon as I’ve finished this or that. I cannot wait to get to the next one.
What advice would you give young writers?
I would tell them not to listen to advice as though “advice” can be interpreted as a set of rules. Writing is a completely unique, entirely personal, and slightly crazy process. If you start thinking it should be done in a particular way, you’ll begin to feel like you are doing it wrong. And that is the worst, most hobbling, most terrifying thing.
There is no right or wrong way to apply YOUR voice to the page. You have to quiet your mind, stop worrying about how someone else would tackle the same subject, and listen. To yourself. It is not always helpful to know that so-and-so writes 1000 words per day no matter what, because then when you are working on your novel, you may feel like you are failing if you do it differently. That feeling of failure can seep into your subconscious and stop you from moving forward. Period.
Separate out what is useful to you, but always understand that there is no right or wrong. Nothing is black and white when it comes to writing, except literally for the words on the page.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
There are two particular things that I read in Bird By Bird that stuck with me. One was to hang a small picture frame over your desk, empty, and write only what you can “see” through the frame. This helped me to manage scenes that otherwise just seemed to large to ever boil down into words. The other was to take your parents’ voices and put them in a jar on your desk, and then to shut the jar. Particularly when you are young, it is hard to not imagine how shocked your mother might be by what you’ve just written. Will she think it’s about you? (My mum always did, to be honest.) If you worry about it too much, it can stop you from really letting your characters be themselves. Quiet the voices! I’m a big believer in SILENCE. Shhhh, little voices.
Daily word count?
Some days I’ll write 10,000 words, other days I’ll write nothing. I don’t think it matters. (Forcing myself to write 1000 words a day — and I did try this for a while — made me produce some of the most awful 1000 word chunks in history.) I once wrote an entire first draft of a novel in three days.
Some days I do nothing but start at the beginning and pick my way through until I feel like I’m in the story again, and then I run out of time. The next day I do it again. Sometimes it takes me weeks to get past that and move forward. I try not to count words. To me, that’s like counting calories. It sets me up for failure, and when I focus on that instead of focusing on how much I love what I’m doing or on simply what the characters have to say, it becomes all negative instead of positive.
Outliner or seat-of-the-pants writer?
Seat-of-the-pants! Recently, my editor (Cheryl Klein at AA Levine) made me reverse outline a book, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a writer. That said, I can see how it is also genius in terms of the editing process. It made me see the book in an entirely different way and made it much, much, much stronger.
But for me, the first time out of the gate, if I try to write to an outline I can’t make my characters move around the page. I am too busy making them follow my plan that they come off flat and lifeless. It doesn’t work for me. I wish I COULD work to an outline sometimes because it seems much tidier and cleaner somehow. I admire people who do it, much the way I admire people who have highly organized homes or ridiculously clean cars or absurdly good hair.
When are you the most productive?
Night. I am a single mother for all intents and purposes, with really young kids and no childcare. So I write after they are asleep. The trouble with this is that sometimes I fall asleep with them. I have to remind myself that this part of their lives is so short, soon they won’t care if I’m with them all the time or not, and THEN I’ll have the luxury of daytime writing. (And then I’ll miss them and their constant need for attention!) For now, it’s late at night, lying in my bad, laptop balanced on my legs.
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
I recently got a dog and we go for really long walks. The walking has been a huge revelation to me. I used to not allow myself to do ANYTHING but write if I was on a deadline or under pressure to finish for some other reason. Now I’ve found I actually write MORE, the less I’m at the computer. Being outside has saved me from myself a little bit. I also garden. Gardening and writing are very similar. Sometimes you plant seeds and nothing comes up. Sometimes things grow in spite of you and change the way the whole landscape looks.
What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?
The easiest book I wrote was THE HEALING TIME OF HICKEYS. I wrote it almost as a lark. I’d written a bunch of books that had dark subject matter and my mum kept saying, “Oh, write something funny already, I’m tired of all this sadness. You’re FUNNY! People are going to think you’re so depressing!” So I took a bunch of ridiculous things that had happened to me that I knew would make her laugh, inside jokes really, and jumbled them up into a novel. The character was based on a version of myself that I wish I was more like as a teen. I laughed more during the writing that book than any other, because I knew that everyone who knew me would know exactly which things had happened in real life.
The hardest book I wrote was my latest, WHAT IS REAL. It was an arduous edit, more than doubling the length of the book. During the edit, the book entirely changed. Of all the books that I’ve written, it felt like it wanted to be written a certain way, a really strange, unusual way. For a while, I fought it because I wanted it to be more mainstream. For the first time in my life, I’d sat down and thought, “I will write a mainstream YA novel!” And of course it went the opposite way, as things do when you try to plan them.
It IS a very unique book and I’m really proud of it now that it’s done, but while I was writing it, I spent a lot of time worrying that I was doing it wrong. In the end, I wrote it the only way that I could and I love its inherent philosophy and the way it forces readers to question the difference between reality and perception. Does it really matter if something happens or if you only believe that it happened? That sort of thing.
Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress?
Never! Except in the case of WHAT IS REAL which was bought by the publisher after only a first draft.
If there is one genre you’d never write, what is it?
I wrote an adult literary novel based on real life events once. I would never do that again. The research was so intense. Around the time I finished the novel, I read in PW that someone else had sold a novel based on the EXACT same event and people to a major publisher, rendering mine virtually unsellable. It was devastating. The event and the people involved were so obscure, I couldn’t imagine how there came to be two of us writing the same story from the same perspective at the same time. I wouldn’t take that chance again, it took three years to write and now will likely never see the light of day.
Would you rather publish a string of mainstream books or one classic?
I’d like a bigger audience, of course. I think everyone would. The reality is that it is hard to make a living doing this job and we all hope (I’m supposing) for at least one smash hit to buy freedom and time. Both mainstream books and classics have huge audiences, so I’m not fussy! I do want to write something that makes people say, “Wow. I LOVED that.”
In order to become a classic, I actually think a book first does also become mainstream. But that doesn’t mean the book itself has to be in any way mundane, just something that captures the imagination of the world, something that says something unique, in a way that readers embrace. I’m thinking of TWILIGHT, specifically. It’s not exactly what we think of as a “classic” and as writers, I think we’re meant to roll our eyes at it, but it will become a classic because it had such a huge impact on this generation of readers. It has its own brilliance.
Do you write with music?
No! Too distracting!
If you could only write one more book, what would it be about?
I get panicky thinking about the answer to that question. I’m working on two books concurrently. Sometimes I get to a certain stage of writing and I start thinking, “What if I get hit by a bus before I finish this book? Or get a brain tumor! AM I GOING TO DIE?” I can make myself hyperventilate worrying about my poor little unfinished manuscript, languishing on my sad lonely laptop after my untimely demise.
Is there a genre you avoid?
What initially drew you to writing?
I was always a reader. Books were always a huge part of my life, more so than any other single thing. I can’t imagine not writing. It never occurred to me NOT to do it. For a long time, I thought it was necessary to also do something else, be a doctor or a lawyer. But I never imagined that I wouldn’t also be a writer.