Four Reasons Writers Need to Read This Book

Every so often I read I book that I end up recommending to everyone I encounter, regardless of state of life, occupation, or literary interests. This spring, thanks to my husband, I came across Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, which falls swiftly into this category.

 

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I was first intrigued by Grant’s introductory TED talk, which inspired a piece I wrote for Verily on the merits of moderate procrastination. The book arrived from the library the day my piece was due. I was bummed not to have a chance to use it for the article, but once I began to dig in, I realized what I was learning was useful beyond a single article.

 

Grant argues that unconventional thought is not something you either have or don’t have. Rather, it’s something to which you can cultivate openness—once you discount common opinion on how brilliant minds and creative geniuses function.

 

Here’s why Originals appeals to writers (and humans in general).

 

  1. Moderate procrastination, as I mentioned above, is a tool, not a vice. Our first solution to a problem will usually be the most conventional. When we allow ourselves more time to consider the issue, the other experiences we encounter in the meantime can suggest connections we otherwise wouldn’t have made. Thus, a more creative final product. This is not license to wait until the last minute. Not having enough time to put a good idea into action renders it useless.

 

  1. Good ideas do not happen in a vacuum. Innovations that have changed culture are typically among heaps and heaps of failed ideas. Often the ones that take off are not what the creator expected to succeed. Basically, we can’t put all our eggs in one creative basket. Fear of failure can prevent the creation of what could be the next big thing. Translation for writers? Write, write, write. Submit, submit, submit.

 

  1. The writing is compelling. Research is used to present a focused narrative in a unique and engaging voice. If you normally write fiction, stretch your muscles with this. Broadening the scope of what you take in will deepen the resonance of what you produce.

 

  1. Grant proves that the best feedback you will get is from fellow creators. I’ve said it many times before, but a quality critique group is key to growing as a writer. You need to approach the craft from all sides—reading, writing, editing, discussing—to make progress. Accountability and encouragement don’t hurt the process, either.

 

I could go on, but this is a blog post, not a full-length manuscript. I recommend this book whole-heartedly! I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

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What Lisa Ann Sandell Learned While Writing a Novel

Today I’m excited to share an interview with the talented Lisa Ann Sandell, executive editor at Scholastic Press and author of The Weight of the Sky, Song of the Sparrow, A Map of the Known World, and contributor to the collection, 21 Proms. Lisa writes for young readers in both prose and verse, and has generously offered to share her wisdom on writing and publishing.

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Here we go!

You were an editor before you were a published author. How did your day job prepare you for being on the other end of a project for the first time?

I think I was an associate editor, assisting two more senior editors, when my first novel sold to Viking. I was incredibly excited. I wanted to be as professional as possible and wanted to deliver the cleanest manuscript I could. I just wanted to do my best to make the process as smooth as I could. As a writer, I tend to agonize over the most minute details – I can scrutinize a comma for hours. I’m not sure whether that stems from the ingrained habit of poring over details like this in my day job, or whether it’s just my personality!

Now that you have published three novels of your own, what has changed about the way you work as an editor?

As an editor I always try to be highly sensitive to the authors’ feelings and needs, and above all to their sense of a book’s integrity. A book is an author’s baby, and I make sure to keep that at the fore of all my work. I love editing; I love working with authors – it is always an adventure, always an amazing and rewarding collaboration. Working with an author on a book I love and that resonates with me and speaks to me and moves me is just the most wonderful gift.

What are the challenges of performing both roles simultaneously? What are the benefits? 

The primary challenge of doing both jobs at once is finding enough time in the day to do everything I want to do. So much of my editing work gets done at night and on weekends. When I was working on my own novels, that time was split between my editing and reading responsibilities and carving out some pockets of time to focus on my own writing. It’s a juggling act. But now that I’m a mom, I have to say, it all seems so easy in retrospect – ha! The greatest benefit of working as both an editor and a writer is that I just feel more mindful overall – of text, of story, of what it means to deliver a book into the world.

Your sculpture played a large role in A Map of the Known World. How does engaging in other creative activities influence your writing?

I think creativity begets creativity. Letting my imagination and my mind and my hands play in one medium simply allows for everything to feel more free and opened-up when I turn to the next medium.

Your work is largely influenced by personal experiences—living in Jerusalem, the artistic legacy your grandparents left you, etc.—and yet the stories are not autobiographical. Do you find yourself more compelled by the idea of “writing what you know” or of discovering something new?

I very much wrote of what I knew in my first book, The Weight of the Sky, and once I was done with that story, I went on to write something that I knew about only academically. Song of the Sparrow was probably the most enjoyable writing project I’ve ever embarked upon. I loved diving into the research, and I loved writing about a world that I mostly got to imagine from scratch. But I do love research, digging through old texts, looking up random facts, like what sorts of vegetation would have grown in the time and place where the story is set. I think, for me, the most ideal sort of story to tell is one that contains some measure of context by which I can connect to the world I have to build, but that also has a very wide field in which I can play and learn.

You write beautifully in both free verse and prose. What advice would you give to an author interested in playing with structure and form?

Thank you so much – that is very kind of you! I think the best advice I can give is to just read as widely and deeply as possible. Reading the works of one’s predecessors and understanding the craft will give younger writers the tools to explore and experiment and invent on their own. Then, go play!

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thank you so much for this fabulous opportunity!

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

I am on twitter (@lisaannsandell), goodreads, and facebook, but here’s my embarrassing confession: With two little toddlers at home and a lot of books to edit, I’m not online nearly enough. Readers can also visit my website: www.lisaannsandell.com

Thank you, Lisa, for your time and thoughtfulness. Now, back to writing . . . or whatever creative venture is speaking to you today!

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.

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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!

Mr. Scieszka and the Coffee Shop

The first Saturday morning I left our apartment to dedicate a block of time to writing, I simply hoped to find a seat at the coffee shop near an electrical outlet.

 

I arrived at the Starbucks on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, some time around ten am. All week, I’d been looking forward to this time to make some progress on the novel I’d been working on here and there. I stayed at home with our then-toddler, so being out in the world without a diaper bad was something to get excited about in itself.

 

As I waited in line to order my latte, I thought I recognized a man a customer or two behind me, from work. He wouldn’t remember a lowly editorial assistant who had left eighteen months before. I wanted to be certain it was really him before I approached him.

 

The Red Wings hat was my first clue. His Midwestern accent was number two. And finally, for ultimate confirmation, he gave the barista his first name, as common as it is: Jon.

 

Jon Scieszka. Oh my goodness.

 

Why was no one else fawning like I was? Had they not grown up with The Stinky Cheese Man? Did they have any idea what they were missing? The man is pure genius.

 

I figured I had nothing to lose, apart from my poise. I waited somewhat patiently until his transaction was complete.

 

“Excuse me,” I said. “I think we met briefly when I worked at Simon & Schuster.” It was a bunch of us having pizza I would never forget and Scieszka would probably never remember.

 

He didn’t pretend to remember my name, but he spoke with me as if he’d run into an old friend. Somehow we got to talking about what I was doing there. I downplayed my work in progress, because, hello, former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature here. But he was nothing but encouraging. He told me how he and Mo Willems were recently talking about how hard their work was. Then they realized, wait a minute, this work is awesome. And I don’t think he was talking about the fame or the millions of copies his books have sold. He just meant he gets to write every day, and that is such a gift.

 

His attitude was contagious, and I got the sense that he believed in me simply because I was out there, giving it a shot.

 

I had a productive session that morning (I found an electrical outlet to boot), and I went home on a creative high.

 

The memory of that morning continues to bring me up when I get discouraged. Scieszka’s joy was in the act of writing, of telling a story, and he welcomed me with a camaraderie I would not have dared to suggest myself.

 

So if I didn’t say it then—and I may have been too starstruck—thank you, Mr. Scieszka for helping me be the writer I want to be.

Get Thee to a Reading

Part of what I love about writing is how isolated it can be. I am, in a lot of ways, an introvert and a homebody. I like being in my own place, both mentally and physically. But that isn’t the whole story.

 

Without the balance of the community aspect of writing—whether it’s reading someone else’s work, having someone read my work, discussing published books with friends, working through critiques with my writing group—the endeavor isn’t meaningful; it doesn’t have purpose, to me.

 

Living in or near a major city—New York, in my case—means there are almost constant opportunities to get out and engage in the writing community at large. This weekend, I attended a launch party for Amanda Maciel’s debut novel, Tease, which has been mentioned on this blog before.

 

It was great to see in person the members of my writing group I’ve only seen virtually since my family’s out-of-state move last year. I also had the opportunity to meet another writer—a freelancer who works from home and writes in the time she can manage, just like I do. Though I know Amanda personally, it was wonderful to hear her answer questions on how she came to write this book, her process, and reactions the book has received thus far.

 

Attending a signing means supporting the author, the bookstore, and the writing community in general. Showing up means showing that books have a place of value in the world. (Buying the book is important, too!) It means encouraging each other and finding inspiration when I’m stuck.

 

Public readings are an easy form of what I like to think of as writerly cross-training. What better way to celebrate books? To celebrate our fellow authors?

A Gift Well Received: Why We Write

For Christmas last year, a close friend gave me a copy of Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do edited by Meredith Maran. I just finished it, and I’m so grateful my friend Alex put it in my hands. It’s inspirational, encouraging, challenging, honest, and relatable. A must-read for writers, I think.

 

I should be working on a short story right now, but I just watched this instead. As a result of my chronic procrastination, this post is continuing in bullet points.

 

Reasons to read this book:

 

1. Each author gets his or her own chapter, so it’s easy to read in fits and starts, even while reading other books. It’s probably better that way, since there’s so much good stuff to take in.

2. The diversity of the writers means that one your favorites is probably in here, but there are also likely some authors you’ve never read before.

3. Every kind of background, process, and technique is represented, but none is hailed as “the” way to go about writing.

4. What does become clear is the thing these authors have in common is how seriously they take their work. That’s a takeaway anyone can relate to.

5. A portion of the editor’s royalties go to 826 National.

 

My copy is highlighted through and through. It has a place on my shelf as a pick-me-up next time I get discouraged!