Frequently Asked Questions from presentations, letters, email, combined with the online interview sent by Lenae Nofziger of the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators.
The short answer is ever since I could hold a pencil between my stubby little fingers. But the longer answer is I began writing poetry in grade 8. That’s when I fell in love with the music of the language. Poetry and journal writing eventually led to novel writing in my late twenties. Since that time, I’ve never turned back. And no I’m not going to tell you how many years it’s been since my late twenties. I’ll let you figure that out. Of course my first two novels were “learn as you go” novels and they’ve never seen the light of day thank goodness.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’m inspired by dreams, songs (sometimes a song can awaken an entire novel) childhood memories, joys, and fears. I loved the glass doorknobs in my childhood home in Mill Valley (check out the glass doorknob scenes in The Double Life of Zoe Flynn).I tried to make the neighborhood dogs pull me on my roller-skates when I was a kid (total disaster! see Wenny Has Wings) I’ve always been terrified of tarantulas. They give me the creeps! It’s important to go where the gold is, so I decided Wenny would have a pet tarantula – thus Igor was born.
Janet with tarantula exoskeleton! Don’t worry it’s not alive. A female tarantula will shed her exoskeleton once a year to allow her to grow. It’s called molting. See more about this in Wenny Has Wings.
More ways to get story ideas: Long walks in the woods also help to free up story ideas. Growing up in the redwoods has a lot to do with my writing life now. Trees tell wonderful secret stories. Go outside on a windy day and listen.I think most of the stories wait down inside a person, like a secret storyteller. Things that happen in the outside world awaken the storyteller, and suddenly she begins to speak. So it’s not so much a matter of making the stories up, as learning how to sit very still, and listen. If you want to learn more about the magic of story and its origins, read Jane Yolen’s wonderful book Touch Magic.
Name a couple of favorite children’s books and/or authors.
I loved to read fantasy when I was a child. Books like Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, and of course, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved these authors because they all created believable child characters I could relate to and because they took me on wonderful adventures. I also think their stories touched me because these authors weren’t afraid to go down deep and tell thoughtful stories that respected me as a reader. Who can read about Ged’s shadow self in The Wizard of Earthsea and not sense something important is being said? Who can read about Aslan’s sacrifice on the stone table in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and not see how the “Deep Magic” as C.S. Lewis puts it, is based on an all-forgiving love?
What was your favorite story when you were a child?
It’s a close call between A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Wizard of Earthsea, and Wet Magic by E. Nesbit. I loved E. Nesbit’s undersea story because I secretly wanted to become a mermaid and live under the sea as a child. I kept hoping I’d grow gills.
What do you do when you just don’t want to write?
If I were good I’d say I worked in the yard, but I’m not all that good and the weeds in my garden attest to it. Usually when I don’t want to write I do light housework, check my email, make phone calls and procrastinate in a hundred different ways. I always end up feeling terribly guilty until I plunk down in my chair and work the keys.
Once I’m into the story I have the opposite problem. I don’t want to stop for anything! I hunch over the clicking keys for hours without taking a moment to get a glass of water. I can see the headlines “Writer dies of thirst only ten feet from her sink.” Come to think of it, I just realized I’m thirsty right now, but I’m having too much fun answering these questions to hop up and fill a glass.
Do you write in your jammies or do you take the time to get fully dressed?
I’m not a “jammie” writer. I like to get dressed, then sit cross-legged on my chair with a blanket over my shoulders. I think I look rather monkish when I’m writing.
What beverage do you drink while writing, or do you go with the “lost in the desert” approach?
Oh! This is so funny considering that I already answered this above. Goes to show that I didn’t read all the questions ahead of time before diving right into the answers!
It’s true though that on days when I’m organized, I bring a teapot with me to my writing space and sip the strong black tea as I work.
Do you have animals that pester you when you are writing? (Cat walking on the keyboard or dog dropping his ball at your feet?)
Yes we have a cat named Uke. Of course she’s beautiful and demanding and gets very annoyed when I try to reach over her head to type on the keyboard. (I happen to be reaching over her head just now). If I truly understood my place in the world, I would reserve my fingers for the sole purpose of scratching her behind the ear, but humans are very hard to train.
I always have some kind of talisman for my story and if it’s not too large, I’ll place it next to the computer. Zoe Flynn takes the glass doorknob from the house she has to leave behind and carries it everywhere she goes – a way of bringing her past with her. The entire time I was working on The Double Life of Zoe Flynn, I carried a glass doorknob in my purse (kind of an embarrassing thing to run through baggage check at the airport I discovered). I have a “magic troll glass” I found at the Goodwill for the adventure in The Beast of Noor, a tiny clay hut made in Africa for Stealing Death, and a dragon’s egg by my keyboard for Dragon’s Keep and its sequel Dragonswood. The egg might hatch at some point. Then I’ll have more than my cat, Uke, to contend with. I hope baby dragons like cat food.
Why and how did you begin writing?
I started writing songs and poetry when I was young because I could never fully express what I wanted to say. I take everything so personally, and by the time I’ve processed an incident in my life, everyone else has already moved on. I also love the creative process of discovering a story on paper.
What is your workday really like?
On a good workday, I’m at my desk at about 9 a.m. with a cup of tea and I work until about one o’clock. Then I get up and scrounge a bit of food. After that I take a quick walk. If I’m lucky, I put in two more hours in the afternoon after picking up the kids at school. Then I rush madly around the house trying to cook, clean, make phone calls, etc.On most days I’m unable to get back to novel writing after one o’clock. I end up writing lectures, checking email, making family appointments, preparing workshops & presentations, and, of course, running in circles doing the business of daily life we all have to deal with.I always feel like I’m behind with something. I know if I stopped writing, I could catch up (and the pile of laundry in my laundry room would look less like Everest) but I refuse to stop writing!
Describe your writing & revision process? How many times do you rewrite a story?
I do a lot of journaling about my story and characters to get a sense of the tale, then I dive into the deep end and write the entire novel. When I run into blocks, I go back to my journal and play “what if” Then I throw myself back into the book again. It’s sink or swim until the moment of “Land Ho!” when the end is in site.As to how many revisions I do, the mathematical answer to your question is somewhere between 5 times and a bazillion!I belong to a great critique group and we meet weekly to critique one another’s work. Their feedback is invaluable. I revise chapters from their critique. Once I’ve completed the first draft, I do a “structural read” checking out the overall storyline and looking for things to cut or change. After the structural revision, I go over each chapter again to refine and polish. I keep reading and revising (see # of times above) until I think it’s ready to send out.
IF the book’s accepted, I do a happy dance. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! THEN I’m into another major revision from the editorial letter.
I had to do numerous revisions for my editor on my first novel, Molly’s Fire, but with Wenny Has Wings and my latest YA fantasy Stealing Death, I only needed to do one big revision before it was ready to go to the copyeditor. I was quite happy about that, but it’s not always that way. The Beast of Noor went through a number of intense revisions; Dragon’s Keep went through a few as well. Every book has its own demands. I don’t send the manuscript back until I’ve addressed all of the editor’s concerns.
What motivates you to write? Do you have any personal goals? Can you describe any writing pitfalls that other writers should avoid?
Hey that’s a lot of questions! Okay, what motivates me to write? Reading. When I pick up a good book and get lost in a wonderful story or taste the sweetness of the language, I’m motivated to go back to my writing desk. The other thing that motivates me is a kind of pain in my chest – not that I have a heart problem – It’s more like that sweet/sad feeling you get when you hear a beautiful song. Perhaps it’s the seed of the story struggling to grow. Whatever it is, the feeling is there until the story is done.
Personal goals? To be kind. To be a good parent, wife, friend and, of course, to write stories that matter.
As to pitfalls, avoid the pits they’re deep and dangerous and very hard to climb out of once you’re in. My advice is to walk around them and continue on the journey.
Do you have any advice for the aspiring writer?
Don’t let rejection stop you from writing the story you really want to write. Rejection doesn’t mean your work’s not good enough. Keep writing, and keep revising. Listen to the story hidden deep inside you and write that. When you’ve polished your work, send it out. Make friends with other writers and encourage one another. The single word my former editor, Jon Lanman, sent to me when he left Atheneum was persevere. I remember that when I’m feeling overwhelmed or hopeless over a rejection or a bad review.
What is your latest project?
Right now I’m celebrating the third book of my Wilde island Trilogy In The Time of Dragon Moon (Kathy Dawson Books). Celebrating includes a launch party, three blog tours, some new school visits and skype visits, and making a book trailer. I’m working on a brand new YA fantasy that’s quite secret, but if you read above about my childhood wish to become a mermaid and live under the sea then that’s a clue. I’m also writing a new middle-grade book loaded with humor and a touch of magic, and a few picture books. Happy and busy. I need to take the time to scratch the cat under her chin.