Today I’m kicking off a new occasional series on writers — how and why they write, what inspires them and how they overcome challenges like writer’s block and rejection. Since I wrote a guest post for Lara earlier this week, it seems only appropriate that she would lead off the new project.
On deck are Jim Tobin, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his biography “Ernie Pyle’s War,” and Jim Ottaviani, who writes graphic novels about complex scientific concepts like the space race and the development of the atomic bomb. They’ll each take a crack at a baker’s dozen questions to give us a peek into how they do what they do.
First up: Lara Zielin, who scored a deal with Putnam for her first novel, Donut Days, and now appears on track to become a book-a-year author with them. The Implosion of Aggie Winchester is next up and Lara’s got another goodie up her sleeve after that, too, so stay tuned.
1. What have you written?
I am the author of the young-adult novel DONUT DAYS (Penguin/Putnam), which came out in 2009, and THE IMPLOSION OF AGGIE WINCHESTER (Penguin/Putnam), which is due out in June of 2011. I am also the author of the nonfiction book MAKE THINGS HAPPEN: THE KEY TO NETWORKING FOR TEENS (Lobster Press, 2003).
2. What do you wish you’d written?
Oh jeez, where to start? Well, the book that really changed the way I saw young-adult novels was THE PRINCESS DIARIES by Meg Cabot. Now, granted, I realize it’s no heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but before it landed on bookshelves there was nothing out there like it. It just had this voice that wouldn’t quit, and I absolutely fell head-over-heels for princess Mia who’d been unwittingly thrust into the public spotlight. I tried for years and years to write something as funny, engaging, and purely charming as that. When I finally stopped trying to be Meg Cabot (who I’ve met and, okay, there are still totally days when I still want to totally life swap with her) I was able to make some headway into my own book(s).
3. Who or what inspires you?
Certainly travel always inspires me. Once I get out of my routine and visit someplace new, I can’t help but think, “Oh, I should fold this into a novel.” My husband and I laugh because every new place we visit, we say how much we want to live there. Not permanently, but for a while, just to absorb it.
Other things I get inspired by are nature, Lord of the Rings (the movie, not the book, with apologies to any purists reading), and people who live their lives simply and selflessly.
4. How do you answer when someone asks you, “What do you do?”
I always default to the day job. I am the editor of an alumni publication at the University of Michigan, and I’m happy to say I really enjoy my work. I’m lucky that way.
In addition to being an editor and author, I’m also the founder of Help for Writers (www.help4writers.com), which is dedicated to helping authors get their works noticed by editors and agents. I wear a lot of hats so this can actually be a hard question.
5. When do you most enjoy writing? When do you enjoy it least?
I am a morning person, so I love to get up early and knock out a few chapters before the day really gets going. One time I worked at a bakery and my hours were from 4 a.m. to 12 p.m. and that was really my ideal work schedule. People look at me cross-eyed when I tell them this, but it’s true. Of course, that also means I’m in bed by 9 p.m. Heh.
After a long day at work, one of the hardest things to do is pull out the laptop and tackle some pages. When I’m in the editing process, I’m usually forced to do this and it’s brutal. Thank god for my husband who plies me with chocolate and cheese to get me through. He’s awesome like that.
6. Describe your favorite writing environment.
I have an office in my house that is totally me. One hundred percent Laratastic. It’s green and pink and sparkly and I love it. There is a big, comfy chair and ottoman that I sink into and that’s where I usually make my manuscripts happen. Sometimes the kitty lies there so I have to use my desk. But still. I’m in my room and it feels like me and looks like me and I adore the space.
Here’s Lara showing off her office on her laptop video camera
7. How do you budget your time for the creative part of writing versus the business side – marketing, communicating with your agent or editor, tracking finances, etc.?
Like many writers, I really struggle with all these aspects of the craft. Writing is no longer the solitary occupation it once was. And your publisher is no longer the one promoting you, managing you, getting you into your local paper. It’s on you to do it all—Twitter, Facebook, website stuff, promotional stuff, communications, on and on.
So, I have to say, I’m still working to figure this out. Ideally, I’d love to write for a few hours in the morning and then get on the internet and check email, Twitter, etc. It’s all too tempting, though, to sit down and get sucked into the interwebs and then realize half the day is gone.
I’m also really trying to choose my book events wisely. I was just asked to an event this July, but I’m waiting until the soft-cover of DONUT DAYS comes out (this September) to really make a publicity push. In the same way an author can get burned out on stuff, so can audiences.
Which brings me to my last point, which is that often, to do all this, authors need help. I have my agent (thank god for my awesome agent!) but I think next time around I’m going to hire some help. I told a friend recently that I definitely have it in me to write another book, but I’m not sure I have it in me to promote another book. Getting assistance to staff my weaknesses makes tons of sense and I think can keep me from book fatigue.
8. How do you deal with writer’s block?
We live in a society that loves to focus on how we feel. From political candidates to entertainment to our jobs, how we feel has become the barometer for everything. While I think that being in tune with our feelings is certainly a good thing, being led by them all the time isn’t. Why? Because, let me tell you, I don’t always feel like writing. Oh no I don’t. If I let myself just wallow in how I felt about tackling my books, I’d never get anything done. So, I pull out my laptop and I boot up my document and I do what I can—even if my gut is screaming for me to go watch Top Chef instead. Which, I admit, sometimes I do. But not every time.
The thing is, good writing is hard. And in my case, it usually comes from a really personal place. The last thing I usually want to do is pull out all those hard memories and look at that motivated me to want to write about a topic to begin with. But I have to do it because if I don’t, I won’t write at all. And that’s just not an option.
9. How do you deal with rejection?
The worst rejection letter I ever received was a scrap of paper — a strip, really — with two sentences on it. “Thank you for submitting your work to XYZ agency. Unfortunately, it’s not a fit for us at this time.”
No signature. No personalization. No nothing.
I hated that rejection letter. I still do. But I keep it around to remind me that they didn’t have the last word. I managed to get some books published without them. And I’m not alone in that way. A lot of good — nay, great — writers fielded some awful rejections.
For example, John Grisham’s novel, A TIME TO KILL, was rejected by a dozen publishers and sixteen agents before it became a success. Sylvia Plath was called “nothing special,” and Stephen King had so many rejection letters he had a spike under his bed upon which he impaled them.
When I’m rejected, at least I can say I’m in good company.
I advise keeping your rejection letters and showing them off like battle scars. I do. It’s proof I got a little bruised in the fight but that ultimately I won the creative war.
10. Do you outline a structure before you start writing or do you just let the story unfold?
For my book THE IMPLOSION OF AGGIE WINCHESTER, I really learned the importance of outlining. It is a complex book, plot-wise, and I didn’t start outlining until I was knee-deep into the revisions. When I finally pulled out a huge sheet of butcher paper, taped it to the wall, and magic-markered my way to a structure, it was almost too late. I wish I’d done it at the get-go, and so I’ve started doing it at the outset with any new project.
11. Do you know immediately when you’ve written something good?
I am the queen of thinking everything I write is uh-maze-ing, and then I’ll show it to someone and they’re like, um, not so much.
I think we as writers – heck, as people – are inclined to think what we do is awesome. That’s why we need people around us who will tell us like it is. I am lucky to have really wonderful writing partners who tell me when my stuff is crap – and because they’re awesome, they help me make it better. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for my writing support gang.
Here’s a YouTube video Lara made about the process of revising-revising-revising before publication — Editing Letter got nearly 11,000 views!
12. Did anything about your approach to writing change after you were first published?
I think I gave myself permission to take my writing seriously and to make it more of a priority. I’m sorry it took a contract from a publishing house to do that, but I’m not sure I would have ever adjusted my career trajectory or started my own writing business without it. These days, I’m looking to make writing and working with writers what I do, full time—not just a side endeavor.
13. Why do you write?
A long time ago, I figured out that I had things to say. The problem was, I didn’t always have people around me who were listening. Writing is the vehicle through which I say what I need to. It’s not always elegant, or even that profound, but it’s what’s in my heart and I have to put it out there, somehow.
More specifically, I write young-adult fiction because it had such a big impact on me when I was a tween and teen. My favorite book to this day remains WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS by Wilson Rawls. I wanted so much to be like the main character, Billy, who had a tremendous work ethic and who formed an incredible bond with his dogs, Dan and Ann. When you’re a kid and you’re thinking about the kind of person you want to be, it’s so wonderful to have people like Billy to emulate.