Welcome to Creative Conversations –real-time discussions about the creative process. Today Janet talks with Dori Hillestad Butler, Edgar Award-winning author of 50 books for children.
Janet: Hi Dori. What’s on your mind today?
Dori: New projects! I just finished up book 10 in my Haunted Library series a couple of weeks ago.
That’s the last book in the series, so now I’m working something new. It’s kind of an exciting time of brave beginnings. Except I’m torn between two new projects.
Janet: I’m in a similar place. I’m revising a middle-grade magic tale to send to my agent, but once it’s out the door (or through the internet) I have another YA fantasy book pulling at me that’s so very different. I’m not sure I can hold them both in my head or heart at the same time.
Dori: Well, to tell you the truth, I have a hard time holding both of my projects in my head or my heart (I like that!) at the same time, too. I always think I should be able to do it, especially at the beginning before I’ve actually committed to one project or the other. But it’s hard to zip from one story world into another when I still feel like a “visitor” to both worlds. I don’t really become a “resident” of the story world until I get beyond the proposal stage. And at that point, it may be even harder to hold two story worlds in my head. Or my heart.
Janet: I like your distinction between “visitor” and “resident,” Dori! How do you end up deciding where to put your energy? Sometimes I’m afraid if I leave a book alone too long, it will walk away from me.
Dori: Oh, I know! I have the same fear! That’s why I have a notebook. It’s a day planner sort of notebook with tabs, and you can add and subtract pages as needed. I have a tab for both projects. For the last month, I’ve just been writing by hand on both projects in my notebook. Eventually, I was clear enough on one of the projects that I had to get out of the notebook and start working at the computer. That’s how I decided where to put my energy. Well, that and I also told myself I haven’t really chosen one project over the other. I just chose which proposal to write first. I’d like to write up both proposals and send them to my agent at the same time and let her, or the editors she sends them to, choose for me which one I’m going to work on next. Haha! But I’m not really that patient. I know that as soon as I finish the first proposal, I’ll send it off. Then I’ll write up the other one (assuming it’s “ready” to move to the computer) while I wait for comments on the first one. And then we’ll see.
Janet: Yeah. I need to play on paper. My storymind needs creative space. Especially during brave beginnings, while the “What If’s” are coming on fast! I call that scribble space my StoryJournal and use it all through the writing process. Beginnings are always the hardest part for me. I’ve come to know the “real beginning” won’t appear until the work is complete. So sometimes I just have to bluster my way through in the early drafts. Beginnings and endings are deeply connected. Given that, how does it feel to be finishing a series? Are you elated or sad or . . . ?
Dori: Both. A lot of people maybe don’t realize that sometimes an author decides when to end a series, but I think more often that’s a publisher decision. With my Haunted Library series, I was told book 8 (the one that just came out last month) was going to be the end, so I truly ended the series when I wrote that book. And I was pretty proud of that ending. There were a lot of ties back to previous books. But then when we got into the revision stage, the publisher decided to do two more books, which was exciting. And unexpected. I had to quick rewrite the ending, so it WASN’T “the end” after all.
After that, I was ready to keep going indefinitely, but this is the end for sure. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t sad. I am a little sad. It’s hard to say goodbye to those characters. But I got two more books out of the series than I expected to. Ten books is a great run for a series. And I wouldn’t want to keep writing a series after I’m tired of it. So…mission accomplished! And at the same time, I’m excited to move into something new, too.
Janet: This story makes me think that writers and contortionists have some things in common
I know what you mean about missing your characters. I live with my characters so long, that once I’ve finished the book, there is a big missing piece inside of me. I think that’s why I sometimes rush in to fill that hole with a new story so quickly. The hole the character left behind hurts. I cannot spend that much time with my characters without loving them.
Dori: Oh, that’s interesting! Huh. I keep hearing from friends and/or family members, “don’t you want to take a break now that you’re done with your series?” Why in the world would I want to take a break? I’m a writer. I’m anxious to get on to the next thing. But now that you say that, maybe I’m anxious to fill the hole that those characters left when I walked out of their story world for the last time, too. Maybe that’s why don’t want to take a break. I never really thought about that before.
Janet: It makes me anxious Not to have a story I’m working on. Am I sick, or what?
Dori: Well, if you are, then I am, too, because I feel the same way. One thing about writing series under contract is you always know what you’re going to be working on next. I like that. I like having a contract and a deadline. And I like knowing I have a story to write, work to do.
Dori: I’ve heard that quote before, but I always took it to mean we need stories as READERS. But you know what? I think we need them as writers, too.
Janet: I know I do. You began this whole discussion talking about Brave Beginnings, but it’s interesting that we both backed up and took a breath and looked into the void that happens Before a beginning. That time when we are uncertain where we are going or what we will create next. That time of emptiness. That time of no story which is a time of loss.
Dori: Yes! But that time of no story can be an exciting time, too, because anything and everything is possible. If you’re ready for a new story. But do you know what? I think maybe sometimes we’re not ready for a new story. Or not as ready as we think we are. I wasn’t ready for a new story or new story world when my Buddy Files series ended, but I didn’t really know that at the time. I just knew I was having a hard time moving on, even though I had a contract for a whole new series. I think maybe at that point my head, and heart wasn’t big enough for two story worlds. Not when my heart was so full of grief. I had to go through a full 5-stage grief process; I think before I could do my best work on Haunted Library.
Janet: Grief seems to be an integral part of the creative process, but artists don’t tend to talk about that part.
Dori: No one talks about grief. Even when we lose someone we’re close to, we know we’re going to experience grief, but we don’t really understand what that means until we go through it. People don’t talk about it. Or when they do talk about it, they talk about it as something to “get through.” But it’s not like you work your way through it, and you’re “better.” Grief isn’t like that. It’s a process. And it changes you.
Janet: I agree. “Grief changes you. ” As writers, we’re asked to help the reader feel the character’s emotions. That puts demands on us. It means we need to be intimate with our own emotional range– as intimate as musicians are with musical range. That requires courage. I love all the research Brene Brown has done on vulnerability. How the most courageous people are also willing to be vulnerable. So thanks for bringing this part of the creative process up, Dori. I think our culture wants to skip endings and loss and just go from Beginning to Beginning to Beginning. But life isn’t like that. Our stories can give readers the chance to live through the fullness of their experiences and not think of any particular emotion as “bad” or something that should be “gotten through” or even “skipped.”
Dori: “Courage is born of vulnerability, not strength?” Isn’t that what Brown says? I read her GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION and DARING GREATLY right around the time my Buddy Files series ended. I should also mention that at that time I was dealing with grief from a couple of other sources, too. My dad died right around that same time. And my youngest son went off to college across the country, so as a mom I was dealing with the empty nest. Brown’s books got me through some of that, as did Pema Chodron. Are you familiar with her WHEN THINGS FALL APART?
Janet: Yes. I’ve been there too, sliding down to the bottom when the losses come together like that. Losing parents hit me hard, too. It takes time to grieve. I haven’t read WHEN THINGS FALL APART — but it sounds like life in general right now. Hey, I love it how as writers we turn to books written by other writers to help us name or translate our grief. The tail end of grief is that moment when I’m willing to get up and try again, but to get there, I need a lot of help. Sometimes the right book comes along at just the right time. I’ve been deeply grateful to those authors. I’ve also been grateful to readers who let me know one of my books came along at the right time for them. We are all giving each other stories.
Dori: Yes. We “feed” each other. As authors, as readers, and as friends. Sometimes the right book (and the right friend) comes along at just the right moment. You remind me of a friend I had in Iowa, Janet. She’s the one who introduced me to the writings of Pema Chodron. I believe Chodron was the first American woman to be fully ordained as a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition. This other friend and I used to take these long walks together right after my Buddy Files series ended and right after my dad died. She used to say to me over and over again, “Way will open.” And she was right! The way did open. It took a while (longer than I expected), but it happened.
Janet: “Way will open!” Yes! I love that. It embraces that unknown but looks out with faith instead of fear. It also feels just like that as I’m beginning a new story. I’ve learned that if I stay inside my character, stay in the moment, and if I’m brave enough to step out, “Way will open!” The story reveals itself as I move into it. It’s often the way I write. It’s a huge life lesson to actually try and live that way. I’m trying.
Dori: So am I. It’s not always easy. But it helps to understand that it’s an ongoing process. Things fall apart, then come together again in a different way, then fall apart again. It’s all part of the process. And the “falling apart” stage can be a time of great discovery and creativity. I think every new project I begin is a result of every project that’s come before it and everything I’ve experienced up to that point. Hey, you know what? That takes us back to the beginning of this conversation. How do I know where to put my energy? Or how do I know which project to work on when I’m pulled between two different projects? I think the project decides. It comes forward when it’s ready…as a result of everything I’ve written and/or experienced up to that point. Like you said, “the story reveals itself as we move into it.”
Janet: Yes! My characters don’t know what’s ahead as they step out. Yet I expect them to keep moving. I owe it to myself to try to be as brave in my life as my characters are in their stories. I’m not there yet, but it helps to remember we are not alone in this journey. I’m glad we are walking through this together, Dori.
Dori: Me too, Janet. Me too!
This was a wonderful interview, thank you for sharing. I love that you both play on paper, I discovered that as part of my process earlier this year. And Janet’s comment, that we as a society/culture want to skip endings and loss is so true–we are often unwilling to sit with things that are uncomfortable. Beginnings are full of thrill and promise, they’re fun to be around, endings and loss not so much, yet they are integral to who we are as human beings, and of course essential to story.
Thanks again for the food for thought.
Yes, Kathy, I agree about endings being integral to who we are as human beings. Well said. Also good to hear that you also play on paper. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share in the ongoing conversation.