When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I think I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t know I knew. As a girl, I’d check out collections of poetry from the school library. I didn’t understand what I was reading, but I knew I liked the feel of checking out those books and reading them, even if they didn’t always make sense to me. When we were assigned book reports in elementary school, I’d read books like War and Peace, and hand-write 30 page synopses. (My ever-patient mother would then type these for me, asking me if I could, perhaps, shorten my summaries.)
As a kid, I struggled with shyness—big time. (My school nurse sent me to a speech therapist who asked me why I didn’t like to talk. I shrugged my shoulders in response.) Writing was my outlet. It should come as no surprise that my earliest stories featured me as an outgoing protagonist, accomplishing all of these amazing feats—saving lives, conquering outer space, traveling in time, and meeting world leaders.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Something exceedingly embarrassing. I think it was a science-fiction story about traveling forward in time, only to coincidentally meet my family in the future who, of course, sent me home with messages and warnings for everyone. However, the logistics of the story didn’t make complete sense. For example, when I leapt forward in time, my brother and sisters, well into their 30s/40s by then, were all still living at home with my parents. In the illustrations, the “future” family all wore matching one piece jump suits that looked right out of Mork and Mindy.
What do you think readers will gain from 90 Days to Your Novel?
90 Days to Your Novel is a line in the sand with a challenge to cross it. It’s the kick in the pants, or the deadline, or the schedule, or the impetus for those who require such things. It’s not important what motivates you to write (passion, inspiration, guilt, catharsis, praise from your fourth-grade teacher, an outlet from your cubicle-confining day job, etc.), it matters that you write. The book asks its readers to put away clichéd notions of the Muse of Inspiration and, instead, focus on creating good writing habits—and on looking at a work of fiction as a reader would.
Many other books out there offer up get-in-touch-with- the-beautiful-inner-you advice that really keeps writers focused on the elements of writing that are too abstract for anyone’s good. When writers read these books, they say: Okay, I’m in touch with my inner me. Now what? Now how the heck do I get this thing down on the page? These exercises often cause more frustration for a writer who doesn’t know how to even begin creating fictional worlds on the page. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s an excellent idea to get in touch with yourself—but for beginning writers, it’s more useful to talk about the less abstract, more concrete elements of fiction: characters, plot, structure, organization, etc.
However, I recognized, too, that an instructional book can only take a reader so far. Part of novel writing—or of any art, in fact—involves a little bit of magic, too. But you can’t have magic without the magician’s tools: a top hat with a recessed bottom, a rabbit, a wand, etc. My books tries to offer up these tools in order to guide readers into the magic of storytelling.
Who do you think would benefit from the book?
Really, I think almost anyone could benefit from the book. First, those who’ve said they always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t have the________ (fill in blank with excuse: time, energy, know-how, deadline).
Second, those who are about someone who has expressed their desire to write, but can’t (or won’t) yet.
This past summer some of my (gracious, talented) writer friends and I formed a 90 Days writing group, the inverse of the typical reading group, to support each other as we worked on our independent projects. A little bit of writerly commiseration and accountability are amazing catalysts for productivity, I learned. If you can find a writing buddy, or group of buddies, your odds of finishing the 90-Day writing challenge will likely increase. I’d love to see some book clubs morph into writing clubs with the help of my book.
What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
I received one of my best bits of advice in a graduate writing workshop: Some people will love your fiction, and some people will hate it. Write the kind of stories you want to write. Be mindful of your audience, but don’t obsess.
Secondly, if your writing feels too easy, it probably is. Easy writing doesn’t equal good writing. Writing never get easier with practice, but it can get better.
And, finally, my personal mantra: Stop talking, start writing.
What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?
Writing is every bit as much about habit as it is about inspiration. 90 Days to Your Novel repeats this message throughout its pages. By following a set schedule, and dedicating two to three hours to writing per day, you can easily complete a draft of a novel in three months. Inspiration won’t get you that far. If you sit around waiting for inspiration to hit, you’ll likely be sitting around forever.
(I’ve always liked William Faulkner’s take on inspiration: “I only write when I feel the inspiration. Fortunately, inspiration strikes at 10 o’clock every day.”)
As both a teacher and a writer, I’m always interested in dispelling the myth of the “creative writer” as someone who privileges messiness and chaos over logic and order. Many people still hold egregious misconceptions about writers and the writing life.
Writers sharply observe the world, dissect it, and put it back together again, bit by bit, in authentic, surprising ways. In fact, good writers make order out of chaos, out of unlikely connections, and out of events, moments, and images taken out of context from their real lives. Writers require specialized skills of observation and logic, and a clear understanding of how experience is ordered.
Most of the writers I know are structured, disciplined, hard-working people who have a keen sensitivity to the world around them. There’s no such thing as a writer type, except to say it’s one who writes.
What’s the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?
Not setting priorities. If you have a day job, or a family, or other obligations, it’s easy to put writing off for those things that require immediate attention. I struggle with this on a daily basis. Should I write or do my laundry? Should I write or meet my friends for a drink?
Also, being too in love with your writing is fatal. Be open to criticism and be honest with yourself when you assess your own work. Not every sentence you write will be worthy of someone else’s time.
But the worst mistake of all, without a doubt, is quitting.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Atypical. But it always involves coffee and writing.
What’s in your writing life that you can’t live without?
1.) My day job. Though some days I gripe that I don’t have enough time to write due to my teaching responsibilities, I’ve been lucky to teach in both English and Writing departments where every day I’m surrounded by intelligent, sensitive people who are truly passionate about art, literature, and writing. On a regular basis, I have the luxury of thinking and talking about writing.
Writing can be an isolating, frustrating, lonely profession. Once you’re in a writing fugue, making good progress, you may spend hour after hour, night after night, alone. The reality of the writer is really much less sexy than the myth. If you’re a serious writer, you probably spend a lot of time alone.
I’m lucky enough to be able to engage with a community of writers on a regular basis. These individuals know first-hand about the highs and lows of being a writer.
2.) My books. If not for big bookshelves lining my rooms, my walls may be completely bare. I like to think of my books as inspiration + decoration.
Do you have any advice for new writers on building an audience?
Your audience doesn’t care about you. Not one bit. They care about your story. Make them care about you through your story. Or better yet: Don’t worry what that think about you at all.
Any final thoughts?
I recently moved to the South from the Midwest, and this new experience almost immediately filtered itself into my writing. When I moved here, I was mid-way through working on a novel set in a boarding school in a rather non-descript (though probably Midwestern) town. The second half of the novel feels different from the first half, something I’m working on reconciling. But it’s made me think about how geography—topography—demography can shape writing.
For instance, I now have a new repertoire of experiences from which to draw. I know what a scuppernong tastes like; I’ve seen the sides of back-country roads lined with remnant cotton balls during the cotton harvest; I’ve had pine straw get stuck in my shoes when I’m not careful; and I’ve listened to political stump speeches given by candidates atop bales of hay stacked on one side of a weekend farmers’ market, just like “in the olden days,” or, around here, like 6 weeks ago. That’s great stuff…
While I don’t advocate that writers pick up and move across the country, I do think exposing yourself to new experiences will strengthen your writing by providing a broader range of experiences, details, and images that give texture to one’s writing.
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