What My Characters Get From Me

I often get asked where my characters come from. To be honest, I’m not always completely sure. In my first book, Casey Quinn leapt (or jetéd) out of nowhere when I was doing a writing prompt. Alice Jones came from my desire to write a detective story, but almost all of my characters have a little bit of me in them-things I like, bad habits, interests, fears, and other odd quirks.

Here are a few examples of the things I share with some of the characters from my latest book.


 

Alice Jones: My hardboiled detective gets her love of math from me. I was no genius, but I found geometry and algebra so satisfying. I especially loved factoring equations. Alice’s interests have given me an excuse to brush up on my math skills.

Kevin Jordan: Charming enough to get out of most of the trouble he makes for himself, I have very little in common with Kevin (I was the good kid with a guilty conscience, even though I never did anything wrong). But he has a sensible streak I’m happy to take credit for.

Sammy Delgado Jr: Sammy gets his relentless optimism from me, but I hope I manage to keep mine from being quite so annoying.

Arthur Jones: Alice’s Dad and a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. He likes to chug water from a sports bottle while he writes, like he’s running a marathon. My friends used to tease me about this in college, and I still do it today.

Delores Jones (AKA Della Lynn): Alice’s twin sister and rising theater star. Alice might not share Della’s love of the stage, but I did! I was an active drama club member in elementary and high school. Alice Jones:Book 2 is set in a theater and I’m having so much fun writing all about life backstage.

Dr. Adrian Learner: The scientist who disappears is based on my time interning at The Jackson Laboratory when I was 17.

Virginia Lynn: Alice’s mom. We don’t see much of her in The Impossible Clue but we do know she’s a costume designer. She gets that from me. I love sewing big elaborate dresses. I once went dumpster diving at a hardware store so I could get the metal strapping they use to tie planks of wood together so I could make my own hoop skirts and bustles.

 

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Writers Live in the Future

One of the weird things about being a writer is how long everything takes. Publishing is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue comes out this month (actually, it’s been seen out in bookshops already!) but I finished writing it long ago. In fact, I’ve already finished the first draft of Alice Jones: Book 2 and am in the process of outlining Alice Jones: Book 3 in the hopes that it gets picked up as well.

So how long is long? I’m sure it differs from house to house and book to book, but for me I started writing Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue at the beginning of 2014 and signed a contract with Chicken House in the Autumn. Then there were layers of rewriting and editing, title changes and cover design until it was done (August-ish 2015) and ready for release.

Of course, books don’t just get released when they’re done. Releases are scheduled to fit into the publisher’s calendar, to make sure all of their books don’t come out at once. Mine is officially out months later on 4 February 2016. That’s about a year and a half from when Chicken House bought the manuscript* and over two years from when I started writing the first draft.

On the one hand, it can be frustrating to wait so long to see your work make it to print. On the other, it gives you time to work on your next book. I started writing Alice Jones Book 2 (about the mysterious, perhaps ghostly, problems plaguing The Beryl Theater) while my editors were busy working on Book 1. And when I got stuck working on Book 2, I’d daydream about ideas for Book 3.

Seeing The Impossible Clue in a bookshop for the first time (yesterday!) was thrilling, but it was also like traveling back in time to visit an earlier version of myself. I remembered where I was when I started writing, and all of the fun and frustrating times I had helping Alice solve the mystery of the invisible scientist, and then it was time to go back to the future where Book 2 and 3 are waiting to be finished.


*This was an extra long incubation period, probably because I had a baby in the middle of things and Chicken House scheduled in some buffer time just in case. I believe one year from purchase to publication is more average.

Writing, with Children

Recently Girls Heart Books had a great blog post by Sophia Bennett on the best writer’s rooms and sheds. I had a serious case of shed envy. Or tower envy. (Seriously, check out the tower!) I do dream that one day, I’ll have a little room of my own to write in, but for now I do not.

I thought it would be fun to share the other side of the writing-space coin, so here is where I write: On the couch, in our living room, amidst a sea of chaos and usually with a baby somewhere on my person. And now for the glamour shots


Writing with Baby2 Here you can see I’ve got my coffee in easy reach, and tissues (for me or the baby or both? I don’t remember). There’s an old pillow that my son has used as a landing pad one too many times and a toy horse sitting on top of the page proofs Chicken House sent me in the background. BUT the baby is sleeping! Glorious, glorious day.


Writing with Baby3

In this photo you can see me trying to give my daughter her own computer to ‘write’ on. She is far too smart for that. You can also see my hoover sitting where I left it to ‘remind’ me I need to use it. I am very good at ignoring it. In the far background, you can see the pile of coats, scarves and notes from school that gather by our front door.


Writing with Baby1And finally, I’ve given in. The baby is ‘helping’ me write. Any typos are hers, all the brilliant bits are mine.

I’ll be honest, I don’t get a lot done some days.

But I think that’s the life of a writer whether you’ve got a shed or not. I’m always looking for that one gadget that’s going to make writing a breeze (a wireless keyboard, fancy writing software, a dictaphone) but in my heart I know I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist. No matter how many helpful tools you have, you still need to do the hard part. The most important thing isn’t where you write, or what you write with, it’s that you sit down and do it!

(…but I still want that tower.)


What I’ve learned from National Novel Writing Month

NaNo-2015-Participant-Banner

Happy NaNoWriMo everyone!

For anyone who doesn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month. A month when writers across the world sit down at their computers and challenge themselves to write a novel (minimum 50,000) in 30 days. You are allowed to bring notes and outlines to the table, but all of your actual writing starts on November 1st.

To some people, this might sound like a horrible idea. But to me, it’s one of the best motivational months of the year. As a writer, I am great at editing and rewriting, but first drafts are like pulling teeth. It’s so hard to fill those endless blank pages without fretting and going back to fix all of my (real and imagined) mistakes. NaNoWriMo gives me permission (or rather, it forces me) to ignore my inner critic, get my butt in my chair, fingers on the keyboard and write.

After participating for many years (sometimes officially, sometimes playing along by myself at home), here are four of the things I’ve learned doing NaNo that I use the rest of my writing year as well.

  1. Make time for your writing. This may seem obvious, but it’s so important. You’re never going to write anything if you keep waiting until all of your other chores are done. Make writing a priority. Set a timer, kick everyone else out of your room, leave the dishes in the sink, turn off the internet (I’m looking at you twitter) and write.
  2. Set mini goals. 50,000 words in 30 days is daunting. Break it down to achievable chunks. You need to write about 1,667 words a day (or 2334 if you want to take the weekends off). That sounds like a lot, and on the first few days it feels like a lot. But by week 2, 1667 words a day is a breeze. The rest of the year, I do my best to write 500-1000 words a day. It adds up fast and, even if the word are awful, I know I’m making progress. Writing is a muscle, exercise it!
  3. Disable your delete key. Stop judging yourself. First drafts are awful. Sure there may be moments of brilliance, but for the most part they are like trudging uphill through a stinking bog of clunky dialogue, typos, wrong plot turns and characters who flipflop all over the place. The most important thing about a first draft is getting it out of your head and onto the page, and if you keep hitting delete every time you make a mistake you’ll be stuck in that swamp for years.
  4. Put it away. Just because you gave yourself permission to write an awful first draft DOES NOT mean you should send it out into the world as soon as you type The End. Take a break, write something else and then come back to edit and rewrite with fresh eyes.

If you are interested in joining NaNoWriMo check out their website! It’s a lot of fun, with a great community of fellow writers to give you support and encouragement. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Voice

Different authors have different ways of tackling voice. Me? I come from a theater background, so a lot my writing techniques come from improv classes. I like to interview my characters by asking them a lot of questions and seeing what answers come up, sometimes I just ask them to write me a letter. The first rule of improv is ‘never say no’ you’ve got to take whatever comes out and run with it (anything that’s awful gets fixed later on when I edit-thank goodness for edits).

Here’s a letter my character Casey Quinn* wrote to me before I started writing Dreamer Ballerina. It was the first time her voice popped off the page, and that’s how I knew I’d finally found her voice.


Dear Sarah,

My name is Casey Quinn, and this may be the last thing I ever write, because Mrs. Hoover is starting to look like she might cut my head off if I make her stay after school one more day.

I am stuck here until I write a letter of apology to one Miss Priss-Ann Lee. I’m supposed to say I’m-ever-so-sorry I pushed you down and got your precious pink ballet slippers dirty. But I’m not, so any apology I wrote would be one-hundred-percent hooey—a big old lie, fatter than Uncle Albert.

And I ain’t gonna lie. That’s not my style.

You can’t make grown-ups understand, no matter what you do. And no matter what a teacher says about liking all her students the same, you can be well sure that she has a favorite. And you can be well sure that that favorite ain’t me.

That favorite is Miss Ann Lee. Pretty pink and pirouetting, with ribbons and bows, but certainly not sugar or spice or anything nice. Miss Ann Lee is nothing but nasty. But I’m the only one who knows that.

I am not her favorite, because I have a skinned knee, runny nose and shoes a size and a half too big. They used to be two sizes too big, but I’m growing. So my feet go slap slap slap when I walk across the room and slap slap slap when I walk back, and no one but me hears the rhythm.

Because no one but me is a true blue, natural born sky dancer.

I dance everywhere and everything. My feet twitch-twitch me awake in the morning and shuffle-toe-step their way through my day. I dance when I’m happy, and I dance when I’m bluer than huckleberries. My feet can even dance a smile out of my old mama’s tired face. And one day my feet are gonna dance me right out of no-good, nothing-ever-happens Raleigh.

I’ve been dancing to New York City since the day I was born, and my feet won’t quit til I get them there.

Mamma says I might as well dream of dancing on the stars, but you gotta have a dream. And you can’t let no one, not even no Miss Priss Ann Lee, step on it.


*Fun fact: Casey Quinn was originally named Spiney Babler after a Nepalese songbird.

How many drafts?

“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

A few years ago, I was giving a talk at my old elementary school. The students had so many great questions about the book and about being a writer. And it was fun to see Mrs. Tripp, my fourth grade teacher, trying not to cry when I talked about how much I loved writing choose your own adventure stories in her class. One student asked me how many drafts I wrote of Dreamer Ballerina. When I answered him, the entire auditorium gasped. Seriously, if there was a video, you’d see the collective intake of breath make my hair move.

Can you guess what the answer was?

20.

From the first handwritten draft I scribbled down in a notebook, to the final published book, I wrote twenty drafts.

It sounds like a lot. The student’s looked horrified. But hey, writing is hard work, and it’s good to know that up front. I think it’s also good to know that first drafts are almost always rubbish. My first drafts are so full of mistakes, cliches, bad ideas, clunky dialogue and wrong-plot-turns, that it scares me to think about someone reading them.*  Thank goodness I get a chance to rewrite!

So, to the wonderful students at Mt. Desert Elementary School, don’t let the 20 drafts put you off. Don’t stop writing because your first draft doesn’t work, or your second, or your third, or your twentieth. If you love to write, keep on writing!

*Seriously, I have nightmares.

IT’S v. ITS

My own personal Waterloo.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things I struggle with when I write. I could fill a book. The reason this one issue irks me so much is that I should know better. In fact, I do know better.

I know it’s is a contraction of it is and its is a possessive. But when I type at speed, my fingers refuse to leave out the apostrophe. I have resorted to using the Find All feature to check each one before I send out a draft.

I wish I’d figured that trick out in college. I had one professor who delighted in red-penning this particular mistake. He didn’t hate me. He thought it was funny. When I was a senior and he asked me to proofread his own book, I was ready for payback.

I poured over each page of his manuscript looking for a similar mistake. I bought my own red pen just for the occasion. Did I find one? Nope, not a single incorrect it’s or its in the whole 300 pages. Ten years later and I’m still disappointed.