Laura Whitcomb Q&A

Novelist Laura Whitcomb Shares Her Secrets to Success
Publish date:

Laura Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California, in a mildly haunted house. She received her English degree at California State University at Northridge in 1993. She has taught Language Arts in California and Hawaii. She has won three Kay Snow Awards and was once runner up in the Bulwer-Lytton writing contest for the best first sentence of the worst Science Fiction novel never written. She is the author of the novels A Certain Slant of Light (2005) and The Fetch (2009), both for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She also co-authored Your First Novel(2006) with literary agent Ann Rittenberg for Writer’s Digest Books. In her spare time, she sings madrigals with the Sherwood Renaissance Singers and is the props mistress for the Portland Christmas Revels. She plays the harp and is an ex-wench who once performed with the pirate reenactment group B.O.O.M. (Brotherhood of Oceanic Mercenaries.) She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her dog, Maximus.

As a successful novelist, how do you get your ideas?
People ask that question a lot, and the real answer is, they just come to me. But the more playful, and more useful, answer is that I read what I love and I write a lot and I remember my dreams and I enjoy discussing stories (plays, movies, books, life) with my friends and family. If you demonstrate to the universe that you treasure storytelling, I believe ideas are more likely to be attracted to you. When I get a good idea, I take notes and see what develops.

How did you get an agent?

I read Donald Maass’s book The Career Novelist to find out what kind of agents were out there and to decide which kind I wanted. For me a career-builder rather than a trend-setter, east coast rather than west coast, medium-sized agency rather than too small (where they may not have enough clout) or too big (where I might get lost in the shuffle). Then I read Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents and listed all the agencies that represented my kind of novel on 3x5 cards. I put those agent cards in order of preference with my favorites on top. Next I wrote a query letter and had my sister (who is also a writer) help me tweak it. When I thought it was good enough, I took the top ten cards off the stack and sent those agencies simultaneous queries. Only one wanted to read the manuscript, but that was okay because she signed me, my fabulous agent Ann Rittenberg. One “yes” is all you need if it’s the right one.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered while you were writing your first novel, A Certain Slant of Light?

I kept worrying about things: Should I give up and start learning to write screenplays? Will anyone else like this book? Will I be able to make any money as a novelist? How will I meet the right agent? But some voice inside me kept saying, “Don’t worry about anything else but writing this story the best way you can.” So I kept going back to the manuscript and tried not to worry.

In what ways was your writing process different on your second novel, The Fetch?

Firstly, I had a deadline. With A Certain Slant of Light I was writing on spec, but my agent sold The Fetch based on the first 30 pages or so and a short synopsis. Which was great. But then I had about 9 months to write the rest of the book! That took a little getting used to. It was often unnerving, but it was often inspiring, too. Secondly, my first book had done really well, so I felt a certain amount of anxiety about living up to my own reputation. I definitely didn’t want to disappoint my publishing house or fans with my sophomore book. Again, that was stressful at moments, but also exciting.

Your new book, Novel Shortcuts, is filled with tips on how to write a fast but strong first draft. What would you say the key is to accomplishing this?
The exercise that was the most helpful to me while writing my second novel is the one I call “Shortcut to the Scene” in which I prepare the left brain stuff (action, dialogue) and the right brain stuff (poetry, emotion, metaphor, simile) into a one page model from which to work. When I started using this method I found I was not only writing better first drafts of scenes, but I was doing it about three times faster.

This is your second writing reference book-what do you enjoy most about writing this type of book?
I enjoy those passages where I feel so comfortable that it seems like the reader and I are chatting in our own little writers support group. And I love finding the perfect examples to demonstrate my techniques. With this book I also loved thinking up the “fun stuff” at the end of each chapter where I suggest out-of-the-box activities that tie into the topics.

You co-authored your first writing reference, Your First Novel, with your agent, Ann Rittenberg. What was the co-authoring process like?
We spent a delightful week together at her summer home in Maine talking about what we wanted to include, what we wanted readers to come away with, and the style we were shooting for, but we actually wrote our sections separately. I was in Oregon; Ann was in New York. Then we read each others’ chapters and talked on the phone. It was a wonderful process for me. I got to know Ann better than most writers probably get to know their agents after being represented by them for only a couple of years. I’m thrilled Ann asked me to write Your First Novelwith her. And she did a fantastic job on her section. My friends are always commenting on that. I love it.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
The writing is in the rewriting. Can’t remember where I first heard that. But when you’re twenty and you come up with a good piece of writing that seemed like it was magically delivered to you, you sometimes think that reworking it will break the spell and ruin the manuscript. By the time you’re forty you know that perfecting a piece of writing is even more thrilling that accidentally stumbling into a good first draft.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Read a lot, read the kinds of books you want to write, write a lot, rewrite a lot, and don’t give up.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers, freelancers, or book authors can make?

Sending something out into the world during that first rush of creation without giving yourself time to change your mind or revise.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
I was going to say my music (I create soundtracks for each of my projects and playing them while I write makes a huge difference to me), but in truth it’s probably my laptop. I write first drafts on the computer and then rewrite longhand. I type very fast considering I use only about four fingers, but I’ve been typing incorrectly for so many years that I can type almost as fast as I can talk. It sure helps to be able to create at that speed. If I tried to write longhand that fast I’d never be able to decipher my scrawl afterward.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Take out the dog, check the email, make breakfast, do magic with my sister (positive visualizations and prayers), write from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, walk the dog to the cemetery and back (nice mile and a half round-trip), take care of mundane yada, and the evenings range from choir practice (I sing in a madrigal group) and movies to book club and having tea parties. But when I’m nearing a deadline, I write in the evenings, as well. I’m about to adopt a baby which will mean a reorganization in my daily activities, but in my youth I was a nanny, so at least I have some experience at juggling a baby with “the rest of life.”

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?
Woe. That’s an unusual question! No one’s ever asked me that before. I was going to say that I’d love it if the advance and royalties checks came faster, but I don’t want to whine, so, ummm, no comment.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past five years?
My first book wasn’t published until about three and a half years ago, so I don’t think I’ve had enough years under my belt yet to read the industry trends, but as for writing … now it’s my job instead of a hobby. I love being a full-time novelist. It’s my dream career. I’m very grateful. Whenever I am exhausted while working toward a deadline, I remind myself that I used to have a 9 to 5 job and then I say a prayer of gratitude and get on with the writing!

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?

It’s easy for me to say these things because my editors have all been great, but here goes: “Sleep on” all editorial notes before you comment on them, say yes to their suggestions whenever you can and only say no when you have to, be friendly and easy to communicate with, remember to compliment them and thank them in your acknowledgments (we all like to be told when we’ve done a good job), and remember that they are probably over-worked. Kindness is a wonderful gift to give everyone you deal with in your career.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

A Certain Slant of Light is published, or about to be published, in six foreign languages: Italian, Korean, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and German. It thrills me that people around the world are reading my story.

About the Book

For more tips on developing crosshairs moments, check out Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb.

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