Fixing a Novel That’s On Shaky Ground
Describe one time when the foundation of your novel was on shaky ground. What happened? How did you end up fixing the problem(s)?
K.L.: When I originally wrote King of the Screwups, I had been reading a ton of Nick Hornsby novels and I loved his voice. Of course, that passion ended up influencing how I wrote the novel I was simultaneously creating, and the end result was a mish-mash of my authentic voice and me trying to sound like Nick Hornsby. Ugh. Staying true to your own voice is tough!
I ended up switching the whole novel from third person (Hornsby) to first person (me). That was tedious and time consuming, but it allowed the main character to come into his own and it gave me a chance to get back to my real writing voice.
Clara: My early attempts at writing novels were quite hideous, actually. I’d been a voracious reader from the time I was six and thought I should know something about writing books once I decided that was what I wanted to do. I studied books. Deconstructed first chapters. Understood how stories began and I did, write beginnings, that is. In truth, I knew nothing except how to start a story. Yes, I knew there needed to be a problem but once the first blush on the rose of my story–i.e. the beginning–faded, I had no idea what to do or how to carry on. Moving forward was paralyzing and more daunting than a simple trek up Mt. Everest.
It was quite a jolt to learn from my New School Professor, Margaret Gabel, how to move past the beginning–“Story,” she told me “is about solving the problem.That’s what creates the drama.” Away went all those side journeys where I literally had my characters sitting on a park bench and talking about things that had nothing to do with the problem. I’m cringing as I write this, because I’m pretty sure that most writers don’t come to the page as completely ignorant and uninformed as I was. I think of myself as a bumblebee. You know, they really shouldn’t be able to fly, and yet they do. There’s something in that of true persistence, something I’d learned from playing the violin. But that’s another story for another time.
If Only…You Could Change Your Novel’s Ending
If you could go back in time and re-do something in one of your books, what would it be?
K.L.: I would age the character of Tia up and make Pieces of Why into a YA novel. This book was on the cusp of middle grade and YA–a true tween novel. Honestly, I think tween novels are important, but the reality is that most people just ended up confused as to where to place the book. Some reviews came in as YA, while others came in as middle grade, and I’ve seen the novel on the shelf at libraries and bookstores in both locations.
Clara: My first published novel was based on my mother’s childhood. I honestly believed that no one where I’d grown up would care to read my book nor would any of them even know I’d written it. So I took certain liberties with characters and situations that I wish I hadn’t done, and I wish I’d used my mother’s real name and the real name of where she lived. To my great surprise and chagrin, it seems almost everyone I knew read the book and most of them loved it (but not all!)
If Only…You Could Start Your Career Over Again
If you could go back in time and re-do something in your writing career, what would it be?
K.L.: Why, oh why, didn’t I foresee the importance of maintaining my mailing list? Oh, the bitter taste of regret. Had I put emphasis on developing a mailing list right from the start I would have a wonderful tool available to promote new work.
Clara: My first attempts at writing books for children were early readers. I was inspired by Frog and Toad and used those books as models for my own. I learned something about language and a little about story and even how to punctuate dialogue. I received some nice personal letters (rejections) from those early attempts, but stopped writing them when someone suggested I should really write novels. Oh, I never could, I thought. I was so comfortable with those short sentences and fun stories. But, always believing that others knew more than I did and not listening to my gut, I decided that of course I should write novels; and in the long run that turned out to be true, but it was a very long and painful journey to publication and learning the craft with no outside guidance. But I often wonder if I should have stuck to writing early readers until I succeeded with that form. Now, of course, I’m completely hooked on writing novels that take me years and years to complete!
Every Novelist Has Those Embarrassing Moments!
Time for brutal honesty! Share one embarrassing story from your career as an author.
K.L.: Embarrassing to myself? Bawling my eyes out every time I get an editorial letter. My rational brain knows better! The book will be stronger in the end; this isn’t personal, it’s part of the business…My emotional brain? She refuses to see reason.
Embarrassing to others? Honestly, most teen author visits make me feel old, like someone’s slightly embarrassing mom. (Oh, wait. I AM someone’s slightly embarrassing mom!)
Clara: This isn’t about writing, but what comes after the glorious and glamorous time when your first book is published and you’re out on the road promoting it. I was doing a series of book tours for Walden Books, back in the 1990s when they still existed, and I was out in Western PA at a strip mall–K-Mart was the anchor store. Walden’s had set me up by the entrance to the store–a table and tablecloth with stacks of my books displayed and big freestanding sign close by announcing the AUTHOR SIGNING. Some times these book signings really buoyed my ego with newspaper articles with photos of me and my book. People came, excited to meet me and to get an autographed book. (This was usually not the case!) But THIS time, business was a little slow. It was morning, not the best time for traffic, and I was working hard to look unruffled by the lack of interest. All at once, a woman in a shabby housedress, curlers still in her hair, pushed a shopping cart up to the table. “Watch my cart, would ja?” Very politely, I told her this was a book signing and THIS was my book.” With a big eye roll and a one-shoulder shrug, she said, “Well, you’re just sittin’ there, aren’t cha?” So I watched her cart while she trotted into K-mart. When she came back, she zipped away without a backwards glance. Glamorous me, indeed!
Some Advice for Avoiding Writing Regrets
Best advice for avoiding Writing Regrets?
K.L.: Get limited, very selective advice early on so that you can talk out issues before you’ve written your entire book. Clara and I chose fifty pages for our critiques because that’s far enough along that the plot of your book should be launched, the voice should be clear, and your own vision should be solid. If any of those things aren’t quite working, it’s a great time to self-correct. We’ve had writers at our workshops decide to switch their POV, their intended audience, and even their genre! Know before you go! Trust me…as someone who has written an entire book ALL over again, you want to avoid that fate.
Clara: Regrets? We should not regret anything. Mistakes are to be learned from not regretted. Take whatever can be learned from past mistakes and move on. Look forward, not back. Our writing attempts are not failures, but building blocks. Like everything else we’ve ever learned, writing is a process. No one, at least no one I’ve ever known, was skipped through all their school grades and enrolled in high school at the age of five. The more we learn, the more we’re able to learn–building blocks.