What Lauren Oliver Learned While Writing a Novel

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Oliver on her experiences as an editor, a writer, and the founder of literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.

 

In October of last year, I heard Ms. Oliver speak on a panel at the Boston Book Festival. She discussed her writing honestly and humbly, and I left inspired, encouraged, and wanting to know more. I’m excited to share our conversation here, as the newest installment of this publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series. Grab a pen, because you’re going to want to take notes.

New Author Photo

 

Before you were a published author, you were an editorial assistant at a YA imprint. What did you learn there that fueled or challenged your own path to publication?

Before I worked as an editor, I was writing long and structure-less books tedious in their description and characterizations. Working for a commercial YA imprint actually taught me about story for the first time—about the need for tension and resolution, about the way that the components of narrative work.

 

You still work with authors as one of the founders of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. How does working with other writers’ work encourage your own writing? 

I just like being immersed in the field. I have a great macro sense of the industry because working at PLL requires it, which helps, I think, to keep my antennae up. And working with creative people inspires creativity. As humans, we’re emulators and sponges: we absorb the attitudes of the people around us.

 

PLL develops ideas and then pairs them with talented writers to craft manuscripts. How does this method relate to the way you write? Do you always have an outline first?

I don’t. I very rarely begin with an outline, although I always do develop some kind of outline to work from or within ultimately. Otherwise I end up reverting to kind of meandering ruminations about the nature of people. Nobody wants to read that.

 

I was fortunate to hear you speak on a panel titled “Fiction with a Twist” at the Boston Book Festival in October 2014. There, you remarked that you’ve gotten tangled up in reactions and sales of your books, and you intend to spend time becoming a better writer. Part of that will entail becoming a student again, enrolling in graduate classes. What in particular are you looking to retrain in yourself, and how?

I just want to get better. I want to get better, and I want to be able to separate what I’m doing from my expectations of its commercial success in order to take more risks and push my boundaries.

 

You said at the festival that you read very broadly. Are there certain genres or titles you intend to study as part of the “retraining” process?

No, although there are books I’ve been meaning to read or re-read—Chris Adrian’s short stories, for example; Love In the Time of Cholera; Wolf Hall—so I’ll tackle those. But I’m always reading so widely and with such voraciousness, it’s not so much a question of my reading habits as it is my writing habits.

 

Do you have a single writing process or a different procedure for each of your audiences (middle-grade, young adult, and adult)? What did you try to figure out what works for you? Are you satisfied with your process, or do you intend to change things as you “retrain” yourself?

My writing process is the same, roughly, in that I always write my way in to the world and the characters before thinking overall about structure. I am trying to get even more granular on a sentence level, to read everything out loud in revisions, to be merciless about what I cut. And I’m trying to get smarter about research and the way I use it.

 

At the festival, you said you always feel you are attempting to do something you’re not quite qualified to do. Do expect that to change? What aspect of writing will always be a challenge, and what do you think you are capable of mastering, or at least improving upon?

I hope it doesn’t change, honestly. I hope I’m always stretching myself and trying to be ambitious when it comes to my work. If you’re not attempting to grow, what’s the point, really? I think that progress probably looks like punctuated equilibrium—I might “master” an element of storytelling for a period of years only to have a completely and revolutionary new feeling or response or reaction subsequently that leads me to become a neophyte again.

 

It was encouraging to hear you say that writing is a calling—you simply have to do it—and that you are looking to restore the joy for yourself in that. In which part of the journey of writing a novel do you find the greatest joy? 

I mean, there is a joy embedded in the daily practice itself. There is joy in getting a sentence right, in getting a character right, in nailing down a detail. The joy and the difficulty are intertwined, I think.

 

I can’t wait to read your next novel, Vanishing Girls, due out March 10, 2015. It will be your tenth full-length book published. What did the experience of writing and publishing the other nine contribute to making this one what it is?

I think it’s obvious from the evolution of my books that over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly interested in things I tended to dismiss at the start, like detailed world-building and the way structure informs story and vice versa. I’ve tried to refine and distinguish the characters’ voices in Vanishing Girls, and that preoccupation is even more evident in my next book.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for having me!

 

Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)

All of the above! All of my info is on www.laurenoliverbooks.com, including information that directs you to my social media.

 

Thank you, Lauren!

How to Know You Married into the Right Family

At the start of the season, there was a special on PBS after Downton Abbey called The Manners of Downton Abbey. For those of us borderline obsessed with the show and hungry—after nine months—for as much of the Grantham/Crawley/everyone else world as we can get, it was magical. The historical expert for the show explained life in that time—how to eat, how to dress, and how to marry. As a millennial, I do almost nothing the way the people of that era did, but I remain fascinated by the rules by which they lived.

 

You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that I did not marry for status or land. And so, clearly, I’ve had to establish my own rules for determining whether I’d married well.

 

My husband and I have a whole lot in common: our values, our faith, our love for avocados, bacon, and ice cream. But while I spend my happy time in Word, he spends his in Excel.

 

This year, at Christmas, one of the writers among his five siblings—the screenwriter, as opposed to the songwriter—gave me this lovely card:

 

IMG_1827

and with it, a puzzle whose image was of bestselling book jackets. It was spot on, and so appreciated. But the gift was more than those two items: it was a show of encouragement, of motivation, of confidence that what I’m working on is worthwhile.

 

It wasn’t a tract of land or inherited artwork, but for me, it was proof enough that I sure did marry into the right family.

 

Who inspires you? Is there a creative person in your life who could use a burst of confidence? The little things make a big difference!

 

New Year’s and All That

Here we are, at the dawn of 2015. I must be intimidated by multiples of five, because that number feels so much more dramatic than 2014 did. It sounds like a Year Something Happens. And maybe it will be. Or maybe I need to take the significance of dates less seriously.

My family is young yet, and we are still establishing our traditions. On New Year’s Eve, I brought up the topic of resolutions, and was surprised to find that not only my husband, but also our four-year-old had something in mind. My husband has a plan to get more sleep, which I am totally behind. My son has resolved to play every day, but also to work . . . hard. Our two-year-old was on board for the playing part, but didn’t mention the work. Good goals all around.

My goals are more plentiful and strongly influenced by the nesting impulse of the third trimester of a pregnancy. I intend to complete a revision on my first novel in the next two months, before our next child is due. In September or October, I’d like to run another half marathon. And in November, I want to win NaNoWriMo again, this time with a middle-grade or young adult novel. In the meantime, I’ve compiled a sizable reading list, which prompted a satisfying bookshelf reorganization (see nesting, above). I want to edit my NaNo novel as well, but haven’t set a solid goal for that work.

I would love to see something I’ve written get published this year. But having experienced the process of submission and rejection last year, I am more comfortable with the time it will take to produce writing of real, honest quality. I am getting close; I am on the way. I hope that with more experience, my writing and editing will become more efficient, but I realize that will only happen with practice.

So this year is about continuing the journey I’ve been on for the last four years. Or perhaps better, the journey I’ve been on my whole life.

This year, I will read. I will write fiction. I will write cards to friends. I will edit. I will participate in my writers’ group. I will continue blogging here. I will keep building my freelance business. I will do what comes naturally and I will challenge myself. I will keep moving forward.

I will be a writer.