Friday, January 29, 2016

My Thoughts About Writing, Revising, and Finding Your Genre

One of my guided writing mentees recently sent me a list of terrific interview questions, and she gave me permission to share them, and my answers, with you! I hope these thoughts might be useful or motivating. I would love to hear your comments and answers to these questions below! 

You can also read my thoughts on teaching creative writing here.

My writing desk

When you are writing, do you think about the age differences of your readers? If so, do you have to change anything to make it more age appropriate? 

Usually, I do not think about the age differences of my readers when I am writing the first draft of my story. I prefer to let the story flow out of me as it feels most natural, and not to think too much about ANYBODY reading it -- that sometimes causes me to worry and freeze up and get writers' block. Revising is when I think about my intended audience and the possible ages of my readers. Since I do not write horror or crime novels, I have never really had to worry about inappropriate violence or anything like that. In my latest novel, I did go back through and scale back some of the adult language and sexuality, since the book is intended for a teenage audience.

Was there a teacher in the past that inspired/pushed you to write, or did writing just come naturally? 

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful teachers who have been SO supportive of my writing over the years! I would say my answer to your question is both -- I was inspired by teachers, AND writing came naturally to me. It’s funny, but looking back it’s difficult for me to remember a time before I loved to write! I learned to read when I was four years old, and I gobbled up books. Like many kids, I made up stories; I was compelled to write my stories down. I think this was largely due to my dad being a writer. Every night, my parents would read me bedtime stories, and every morning I would come downstairs and see my dad writing. As a result, I was very aware that someone had written the books I so loved to read. And I decided that I wanted to be someone who writes books for other people to enjoy.

My dad remains the first person who reads my work. His feedback and encouragement are invaluable. I remember when I was little, he would let me type out stories on his computer once he had filed his column for the day -- how special that was! Also, when I was in the first and second grade I was lucky to have an amazing teacher, Diane Sather, who encouraged my love for writing. I remember she had me read one of my stories to the class. I got such a burst of joy from sharing what I had written with others. It never crossed my mind to just write for myself.

How long does it usually take for you to revise your writing or do you just write it and send it off? 

I ALWAYS revise my writing! I think writing without revising would be like trying to play a sport with your shoes untied. You should use every tool in your writers toolbox to make your writing the best it can be! I like to set aside my rough drafts for a few weeks or even a month, so then I can come back and read it with "fresh eyes" and an open perspective. Often I immediately find changes I wish to make, on the word level and on the bigger plot level -- phrasing that sounds awkward, scenes that need to be further developed, actions that don't make much sense. And just one round of revision is never enough. For example, with my most recent novel, I revised it at least seven or eight times -- all 300 pages! -- and it morphed into a whole new book compared to the rough draft. I spent about one year writing the first draft and two years revising it. Sometimes writers start off not liking the revision process very much, but revising has become something I truly enjoy! It is your chance to make your work better and better, to see the world and characters really come alive. I think rough drafts are when you (or, I should say, when I, because all writers are different and I am just drawing from my own experience) sketch out my ideas with rough lines, and the revising process is when everything gets filled in and becomes real.

Do you write in more than one genre? 

Yes, I write both fiction and nonfiction. I would say my "home genre" (where I feel most comfortable and gravitate to most often) is realistic fiction, and more specifically YA realistic fiction. I write short stories for adults as well, and sometimes my fiction crosses over into the magical/fantastical realm. For nonfiction, I most often write short essays about personal experiences I have had, and I also write journalistic articles for magazines and websites. This might entail interviewing people and doing research, which can be a fun break from exploring my own mind and thoughts. When I was younger, I used to write poetry, but I do not write in that genre much anymore.

How did you discover what genre you are best at writing? 

Hmmm... good question! I'm not exactly sure how I knew what I was "best" at writing; I think I simply focused on what genre I enjoyed the most and felt most natural to me. I wrote in that genre the most, and the more you write, the better you become! I also think each idea you have or project you embark on has its own form and genre that feels most natural to the idea itself. For example, sometimes I do not realize I am writing a fantasy story until something magical enters the page -- and it feels like a surprise to me as much as to the reader, but it also feels RIGHT, like it just fits, and I realize that story wants to be magical/fantasy. I just need to listen to the genre of each project instead of trying to force it into a box of my own design. One final thing I would say about this is not to worry about forcing YOURSELF into a "genre box" either -- you are free to write in all different genres and all varieties of projects! Write what you feel excited and passionate about. That is the most important thing.

Do you enjoy teaching other people how to write? 

Oh, yes! It is one of my favorite things. I especially enjoy teaching writing camp and working with talented young writers like you who have a passion for writing and really love writing to begin with. That is my favorite environment to teach in. I have also taught writing to students (for example, as a guest speaker/teacher, a private tutor, and a college writing instructor at Purdue University) who don't really care about writing or want to write. In that arena, my goal as a teacher is to help them see the profound importance of writing and how becoming a better communicator will help them in any field they choose to go into. With all my students, my ultimate aim is to increase their confidence and joy as writers. Teaching writing helps me remember the magic and wonder of the creative process, and my students often inspire me with their enthusiasm and hard work! Also, teaching keeps me honest with my own writing practices. If I am telling students to find at least fifteen minutes to write every day, then I had better be practicing the same advice myself and writing every day, too! :)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Opening Your Eyes to the Newness in the Familiar

"Hey, can we go for a walk now? I'm ready!"

One thing I love about going home for the holidays to visit my parents is that it feels, in a way, like I get to briefly remove myself from time. Many things about my usual routine are shaken up in the best way possible. Instead of feeling pressured by my typical to-do list and errands, I woke up in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by cozy and comforting knick-knacks. Instead of driving around town to tutor students in the afternoons, I lounged on the couch with a thick novel, chatted with my parents, and visited my grandfather who lives down the street. I helped my mother cook dinner, played board games with my brother, went out to the downtown Irish pub with my dad, and met up with old friends at the local coffee shop we used to frequent in high school. I spent time reflecting on the year that had passed, and dreaming about the year to come.

Perhaps my favorite “vacation routine” when I am home visiting my parents is taking our boxer dog Murray for his morning and evening walks around the neighborhood. Every day we would walk the same loop, yet every day I would notice new, startling details:
  • A small bird strutting jauntily across the street, like a band leader in a parade.
  • Sprinklers watering a front yard of dead grass.
  • A toddler shrieking with glee, running in circles in a driveway as her mother watched with a tired smile, raising a hand to us in greeting as we walked by.
  • Bushes laden with bright red berries.
  • A father and son playing catch in the park.

So many rich and beautiful details that it would be so easy to miss, if you were not paying attention and looking for them. And indeed, we would pass many other morning walkers on their phones or listening to music, rushing ahead with a glazed look in their eyes.

Meanwhile, every single day, Murray exuberantly sniffed at plants and lampposts and studied the sidewalk like it was a brand-new territory to explore -- even though it was the exact same path he had taken the day before, and the month before that, and the year before that. Perhaps he is on to what it means to be a writer: mining the same inner territory, day after day after day, for new sparks of joy and wonder.

Now, when I feel creatively blocked or when I am out of ideas or when the writing just doesn't seem to be going anywhere fruitful, I think of Murray's excited daily exploration. He is a reminder for me that being a writer is not so much about coming up with some totally new, never-before-seen-or-done IDEA. Rather, I like to follow acclaimed author Pam Houston's advice (from a wonderful talk I was fortunate to attend at a writers conference) and think of myself more as an observer, seeking out the extraordinary in the ordinary.


As Lera Auerbach writes in her wise, magical book of aphorisms and musings Excess of Being: "These thoughts have occurred to many people and for a very long time. I just happened to write them down."

Here's to a sparkling new year filled with open eyes, even -- perhaps most importantly -- in our familiar, everyday surroundings and routines. Here's to being world-class observers. Here's to writing it down.

And, Murray would like to add: here's to lots and lots and walks.

All tuckered out after a long walk.