My amazing agent, John M. Cusick from the Greenhouse Literary Agency, tagged me in a blog tour where writers talk about their process. (Read his post here). By the way, John is not only an agent extraordinaire, but he’s also a very talented writer. His latest is CHERRY MONEY BABY, which you need to read as soon as possible if you haven’t already. It’s so, so good. I almost didn’t query John because I was intimidated by his fabulous prose. I mean, how could I compete with this description from his debut novel GIRL PARTS:
There were mansions along the west bank, trees along the east. The biggest mansion belonged to the Suns. It was a four-story glass palace, split down the middle like a dollhouse so that the family inside was always visible.
I’m sure glad I overcame my timidity and sent him A MAD, WICKED FOLLY.
Anyway, on to the topic at hand… The writing process is a subject that is dear to my heart because I’m always looking for a better way to write. I’m positive there is no one right way; that everyone has his or her own method. I’m always adapting my own process, but I’ll share what’s been working for me for the past couple of years.
- What am I working on?
Right now my work-in-progress is a swashbuckling, romantic YA historical based in the mid-Victorian era, around 1860. It’s the story of a teen who straddles two worlds: her mother’s very religious life in Kent, England; and her father’s Darwin-inspired, explorer/adventurist life. The setting is a small market town in the southeast of England and the southwestern wilderness of China, namely the temperate forests of the Hengduan Mountains. It’s an adventure story with lots of action, which is a new thing for me. It’s also a big story, as is my wont. I don’t really set out to write big books, but once I get started I can’t seem to stop. There’s just so much to say.
The story explores themes of obsession and responsibility, ecological preservation, family and (of course, because it’s my favorite theme), female emancipation. I’ve been thinking about this story for a long time, and with FOLLY on the shelves I can fully turn my attention to it.
- How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m a huge fan of setting, and I really strive to bring a place and time to life so that readers feel as though they’ve time-traveled to the era. I don’t want to get anything wrong or pull the reader out of the story with an anachronistic detail; therefore I have to do a lot of research! I think every paragraph in A MAD, WICKED FOLLY has some sort of research attached to it. There’s a section in FOLLY where Will teaches Vicky to ride the Underground. I lived in England for six years and I took the Tube everywhere. I was never intimidated by it and whenever people would visit I would teach them the Tube map right away. However I didn’t know what the Underground was like in 1909. I think it took me a week or so to find out, and I ended up locating a video of an Underground ride from 1908.
I also make sure that every character on the page is developed. Even if she doesn’t say a word or doesn’t appear more than once in the book, she should be original and memorable, and not a character out of central casting. Of course, she shouldn’t upstage the main character, but she should intrigue a reader. I really love writing secondary characters. I love pitting them against the main character just to see what she’ll do.
- Why do I write what I do?
I love living in my character’s world and falling in love with the setting and the people through her eyes. Writing these exotic worlds makes me see things differently. For instance I’ve always loved the Waterhouse painting A Mermaid but I never really saw it fully until I saw it through Vicky’s eyes. Because of my character, that painting has so much more meaning to me. I like to immerse myself in my characters’ lives, almost like method acting, so that I can find out what makes them tick. So I try to go where they live or I try my hand at their craft, such as the drawing and painting in FOLLY. I’d never really wanted to go to China before, but now I’m itching to go, especially to the Hengduan Mountains. I suppose writing ignites passion for new things, and I love that. I also choose to write historical novels because my imagination springs to live in these settings.
I also love writing for young adults because they have such a zest for life. I think it’s the newness of their adult world that intrigues me. They want to grab hold of life, and there’s so much story in that mindset\.
- How does your writing process work?
A story starts when something sparks my interest. It can be an object or a historical event or an occupation during a certain time. I start to think what would happen if…? Then I imagine the main character and her name, how she lives and what she wants. I make notes in a hardback spiral notebook (I hoard these!) and start sketching out the plot. I don’t write a formal outline, but I write down ideas for scenes and where they should go. I make sure I have a general idea of the beginning, middle, and end before I dig in. I have to know the story before I begin writing. During the day, I’ll have ideas for scenes, description, and themes, and I’ll jot those down in my notebook. Everything goes in there, even the goofy ideas because the out-of-the-ordinary options often lead to something better, so I don’t discriminate in this early stage. I try to write in a linear fashion but it’s not a hard and fast rule. If I think up a good scene I’ll write it and save it for later. Cause and effect can be an issue later on, however, if you write out of synch. A scene just can’t be tacked on; you have to lead up to it. It’s not a problem, per se, just something to be aware of as you write. Sometimes a dangling scene can be helpful. You know you have this thing up ahead, so how are you going to get there?
I write in the morning for at least two hours. I read and edit what I wrote the day before and then write fresh. When I’m done writing I take the dogs for a walk on a wooded path near my house. I mull over the story while listening to a WIP soundtrack I’ve put together. I think up new ideas or details and then jot them down into my notebook when I get home. In the afternoon I do my research.
Once I get my rough draft down I use Martha Alderson’s plot planner. I lay out my entire plot on butcher’s paper using sticky notes on the plot line. This way I can move scenes around and see if they’ll work in different places. I can see where the story would drag or where I need to slow it down. It’s a great way to get a bird’s eye view of your story. Then I revise, revise, revise!
So that is my process. Of course I’ve left out all the angst and self-loathing that happens when I’m writing. That is for another time!
Okay, over to two stellar writers who also happen to be good friends of mine. Jennifer Salvato Doktorski who released not one, but two novels in one year: FAMOUS LAST WORDS and HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES. She writes fabulous contemporary teen reads, funny and heartfelt. And Christa Desir, rape counselor and author, who released the heartbreaking FAULT LINE last fall. FAULT LINE kept me reading way past my bedtime, and made me think about how we view rape in this country and how we treat victims. A definite must read.