FAQs about Writing
You have written novels for both young adults and adults. At what point in the writing process do you decide on the audience?
My first young adult book I wrote not knowing it was going to be a young adult book. But since then, I have known at the start of the book which audience it is going to be for. The way I can tell… well, the answer to that is in the next question.
Is your writing process any different for the two audiences?
The only difference for me in writing a young adult novel is the age of the protagonist. My favorite books are the ones where the feelings underneath are universal—the books where it doesn’t matter whether the main character is 18 or 80. So that’s what I shoot for in writing.
How do you get your ideas? Do you have a particular place or method that you use for inspiration?
This is the million dollar question. I think how you get ideas for books is very personal. Some people start with an image. Some people start with a character. Some people start with a question. It may sound strange, but most of my books have started out with a sort of philosophical question that I wanted to investigate and a story grew out of that... with one exception (see next question).
How did you get the idea to write JUDE?
I’ve gotten this question often, and I always wish I had a better answer. With all my other books, I could say exactly how I first came up with the idea. For almost all of them, it was either something I read, or something someone else said which made me ask myself a question—and the book was the answer to that question (or rather not exactly the answer, but the exploration of that question). But JUDE is the only book that this didn’t happen with. In fact, when I first started writing it, it was a different book altogether. And for the life of me, I can’t remember how or when or why it morphed into this story. It started out as a story about a private investigator-- but how it became a story about a teenage boy who was kidnapped by his father, I have no memory. It happened while I was writing and rewriting and rewriting some more. One of these days I would like to try to unearth my old computer and look up the old versions to see if I could maybe trace back how it happened.
How do you come up with your characters?
They grow out of the story as I start writing. There's a Stephen King quote that I love. He says, "I never see novels as built things. I have a tendency to see them as found things. I always feel a little bit like an archeologist who's working to get some fragile fossil out of the ground. The more you get out unbroken, the better you succeed." It more like I discover the characters rather than develop them. I get in trouble when I have too many ideas about them before I start writing. That's when I break the fossil.
Do you ever get writer's block?
I have what I call “sticking points”. Those are those unfortunately unavoidable places in the writing where it starts to get tough. It’s like the difference between running on the sand (which if you’ve tried it, is hard and tiring, but still running) and running through water (which feels unnatural and as if you’re not getting anywhere). But I’ve found that even though it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere, keep at it and eventually you reach the beach and your back on the sand again.
If so, do you have any tricks to helping get past writers block?
I once came across a quote from Norman Mailer that made me feel better about getting stuck. He said, “There is a little bit of writers block in every day.” I loved that because I think it’s true. So what is the solution? I think the answer is in another quote, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Which is the just sit there until something comes approach. It doesn’t feel so good, but I promise if you sit there long enough, something will come.
Do you have any writing tips for people who would like to try to become published authors?
The biggest thing is that in order to get published, you need to write a book. I know that sounds silly, but it really is the most important part of the process. And if you write a good book (my definition of a good book is something that evokes emotion in the reader and that they have a hard time putting down) it will get published. It might not be an easy road, but once you have written that book, you will get there. The writing is the hard part. And there is no short cut. My old advisor, Toni Morrison, said you can’t write a truly good book in under six. So that should give an idea of the kind of time you need to invest in that first step of the process. Writing books isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.
Then, once you write it, I suggest putting it away for a at least a few months, then taking it out, reading it over, and rewriting. Then, for the next step, you have to really steel yourself. Give it to close friends and family-- people who you trust to be honest but gentle. And get feedback. And rewrite again. And again. When you feel like you've gotten it in the best shape you possibly can (and often the rewriting takes as long--or longer--than the actual writing of the book) write a great query letter, include a chapter, and send it out to a list of agents. How do you chose the agents? Find other books that have been published that you think are similar to the one you wrote, and then find out who the agents are for those books. Often they have the agent listed on Amazon. It's easy to find the addresses for the agents on the internet. Then sit back and wait for who requests to see the full manuscript, and who writes back nice rejections, and who sends a form letter. The whole process requires a lot of determination and strength because it almost always involves a lot of criticism and rejection.