What’s your writing process?
For fun, I sketch out ideas and inspiration in my notebooks. Eventually, over the course of a year or more, I have enough material to start putting together a flexible outline and embark on a draft. For first drafts, I try to let everything gush onto the page, uncensored. Then I go back and tweak the outline, trim extra things, add details, develop characters, improve the dialogue, and smooth out the language. Then my writing group reads it and gives me feedback. Then I do another draft. Then they read it again. Then I do another draft. . . and, well, you get the idea! Oh, and this whole time I’m drinking lots of tea or hot chocolate.
When did you start writing?
In elementary school, I wrote a series of stories about 'Bottlebugs' - creatures that lived in our world (in bottles) and encountered a 'mean old witch' who put a spell on them. My friends and I developed a song and dance routine representing the Bottlebug creation myth. I also wrote fantastical choose-your-own-adventure stories that branched into a number of possible pathways and endings. In middle and high school I occasionally wrote in journals and relished the creative writing opportunities my teachers offered. College is when I started writing seriously, for hours every day, journaling and writing short stories and trying my hand at a novel about dragons (which fizzled.) Traveling and living in Europe and Latin America has given me heaps of fascinating material to write about.
Why did you decide to be a writer?
For me, the only thing better than getting lost in reading a great story is getting lost in writing a great story. I've loved reading and writing stories since I was a little kid. I 've also always loved learning about different cultures and languages, and exploring new places, which is why I decided to get my Bachelors and Masters degrees in cultural anthropology. I guess I didn't really think it was possible to actually make a living as an author-it seemed way too fun and easy to get paid for something I wanted to spend most of my time doing anyway. But after getting my graduate degree in Anthropology, I realized that creative writing was my true passion, and I committed to completing and publishing my first book… then the next and the next…
What teacher influenced your writing the most?
In France, during my junior year abroad, I took a course entitled something like "Fantastical Nineteenth Century French Literature." The class took place in "La cave" - the cave-like basement of a seventeenth century convent - and the teacher was a sprightly French man with a neat, triangular white beard. He bounced around the room excitedly, parlay-ing about Maupassant, and gave us interesting writing exercises based on the stories we read. For one assignment, we had to come up with an alternative ending (yes, in French) for one of the stories. I let my imagination have fun, and scribbled page after page. His comment scrawled on my paper was, "Laura! Tu devrais être écrivaine!" You should be a writer! That little man's words come to my head when I'm doubting myself. It amazes me that four words can have such a big effect on someone's life. Remember that!
How long does it take you to write a book?
It's hard to say exactly, because I'm usually working at several books simultaneously, with each book at a different stage (from brain-storming the idea to page-proofing the final revision). My earlier books took longer to write, in part because I was learning a lot about writing as I went. Also, while I wrote those books, I was working at other jobs (teaching, translating, getting my Masters degree, etc.), which meant I had very limited time to write every day. And since neither of those books was under contract as I wrote them, I switched back and a lot between those books and other writing projects. Sooo... after that long-winded build-up, I'll estimate that my average time to create a book, from idea-sketching to page-proofing, is about three years. Of course, it depends on the book…. Star in the Forest took about a year, while The Queen of Water took about six or seven years.
What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
For me, it's always been dealing with the many insecurities that come with being a writer. At first the insecurities took the form of: Will I ever get a book published? Am I wasting my time? Now the insecurities have morphed into: What if I can never write another good book? What if no one likes my next book? etcetera... Basically, I've learned that I need to ignore those doubts as much as possible and just focus on writing-not to please anyone-but simply because writing puts me in a blissful state when I just let it happen.
What do you like best about being a writer?
I love when I'm writing and I get completely absorbed in the alternate world I've created. It's an amazing feeling.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read a lot of good books. Write a lot. Write because you love it-not to please anyone. Don't expect perfection. Know that it will take many drafts before your written story comes close to matching the wonderful vision in your head. If you feel stuck or frustrated, imagine that the story exists out there already somewhere-and all you have to do is write, write, write, and revise, revise, revise, and eventually, that story will appear, intact and dazzling. Trust that a deeper part of yourself knows what the story is, and give the story a chance to come to the conscious part of your self. Find an insightful and upbeat group of writers to form a writing group, or find a trusted writing partner.
I've done a few blog posts with advice for writers. You can read a writing pep talk here. You can read about the parallels I see between writing and shamanism here. Here you can read strategies for finishing your novel. You can read my tips on revising your novel here.
Where do you write?
If I’m at my computer, I’m usually at the big, old oak desk my dad gave to me, which is in my writing studio on the second floor of my house with a view of spruce branches and squirrel antics out my window. If I’m at later revision stages, involving hard copies, I’m often lounging in one of my two vintage trailers—Winnie or Peachy. They serve as cozy creative spaces. (You can read more about them if you click on “vintage trailers” on the top bar of my blog. ;-) I also bring notebooks on my travels and love scribbling notes in far-off cafes and villages.
What was your path to publication?
I sent What the Moon Saw in to about twelve different editors and agents (very, very, very randomly, which I don't recommend...) I got rejections over the period of a few years. In the mean time, I kept revising the manuscript and making it better (well, after I cried and felt crappy over each rejection).
Then one day a kind and wise editor at the small press, Cricket Books, gave me insightful, specific revision suggestions for the manuscript. I made the changes, which hugely improved the manuscript, but she ended up not taking it because of changes in her company. I noticed in my SCBWI (Societ for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) bulletin that a new editor at Delacorte, Stephanie Lane (Elliott) was interested in acquiring manuscripts, and at that time was willing to suspend the publishing company's policy of no unagented manuscripts. In the bulletin's blurb, she gave a description of what kinds of books she wanted. It sounded to me like What the Moon Saw would be a good fit. She offered me a contract- and that was one of the happiest days of my life! I worked with Stephanie on my next several books, too, which was a joy. After that first contract, an awesome author friend (Lauren Myracle) helped me find my agent, the fantastic Erin Murphy, who I’ve been with for over a decade!
Were you ever embarrassed to show your writing to other people?
Yes. At one point in my life, I kept my writing in an old, locked wooden box (yep, kinda like Angel's in Red Glass) and wore the key around my neck. That's how paranoid I was that someone might read my stuff. It took me many years to become confident enough to share my writing with others. In my mid-twenties, I started sharing my short stories and essays with my mom, various writing groups, a creative writing class, writing conference attendees, etc. With every piece of positive feedback, I gained more and more confidence.
Can you share your thoughts on writing?
Many years ago, one evening at dusk, I was alone in the woods and it started to snow. I tilted my head back and chose a distant snowflake and followed its path down onto my tongue.
That's how I like to think about writing. There are zillions of snowflakes, zillions of stories to tell, each of them falling right at you. All you have to do is pick one and concentrate as it comes to you. Just stand there patiently, ready to receive. There are so many stories out there, that it's kind of overwhelming to pick one and tell it. For me, writing has always been a matter of having the confidence to follow through on a particular story, convincing my doubting self that it's a worthwhile way to spend my time when there are so many mundane tasks to do.
A few years ago, I co-founded a local writer's group which has been incredibly supportive and confidence-boosting for me. When I'm doubting myself, and even the wise old-lady part of me isn't piping up with encouragement, sometimes I need fellow writers to gush enthusiasm for my work. And of course, I do the same for them, and when they have successes I feel (almost) as happy for them as I would for myself. I think it's important to surround yourself with people who believe that anything is possible if you truly want it and make a focused effort.
I have a kind of blessing-curse - if I go a few days without writing, I get very grumpy and head-achey. When I don't write, life feels bland. Writing is a sort of preventative medicine for me; it helps me create meaning out of my world. I've never had writers' block exactly, but sometimes I feel I have nothing fresh to say, or if I do, that it's not coming out in a beautiful way, that the words feel clunky and heavy.
What I do then is take a walk to get my blood flowing. (I enjoy alleys since they often have forgotten treasures). Sometimes I find a stream to sit by, alone, and listen to the messages it murmurs. Or I read some poetry to remind myself how good it feels to express experiences with beautiful language. (Pablo Neruda is my favorite). Sometimes I look at prints of paintings I like and write stream of consciousness about them. Sometimes I play loud cumbia or salsa or merengue music and dance for a while. Sometimes I take a book, any book, and close my eyes and put my finger on ten random words and then, very fast, without thinking too much, write a poem using all of the words. Sometimes I impulsively plan a trip somewhere, which always reminds me that the world is a wide, deep, rich place just bubbling over with stories. One way or another, I figure out a way to tap into the river of creativity that is always flowing inside us.
What do you do in your writing group?
We (Old Town Writing Group) meet for two or three hours every two weeks. We talk and laugh and eat and drink and update each other on what's been happening lately in our writing lives. We celebrate each other's successes and commiserate with each other over rejections. We tell each other about conferences, workshops, readings, contests, and other things we might be interested in. For the second half of the meeting, we discuss a member’s piece—sometimes a short essay, sometimes a few chapters, sometimes an entire book-length manuscript. (We read it in advance-the members up for critique submit their pieces a week before the meeting via email.) Each member critiques the piece, going around in a circle, starting with the person on the submitter's right. We always focus on the positive stuff first- specific things we loved about the piece-and then move into specific things that weren't working for us. The overall atmosphere is fun, productive, creative, warm, and uplifting.
What advice do you have for young writers?
- Read a lot of good books and think about what the author did that made the book so good. Try doing something similar in your own writing.
- Don't expect your first draft to be perfect. Just let your ideas flow onto the page, and later go back and decide what to keep and what to change or cut.
- Keep a journal and write about anything you want-- observations, stories, feelings, dreams-- so that you get comfortable transforming your thoughts into words on paper.
- Have fun and have confidence! Turn off any critical voices in your head and remind yourself that the act of creating is valuable and thrilling.
- Share your writing with other writers when you feel ready. Read each other's work and give each other feedback and support. Make sure to focus on the positive things!
- Make writing a priority. Set aside time every day or a few times a week to write. Don't let yourself make excuses. Just write!
Didn’t find an answer to your question here?
If it's a question about a specific book, go to the book's webpage and read about my inspiration for it, and follow the links for more info. (There’s a ton!) If it's a question about me, try the About Laura page of this website. If it’s about my travels, try the Extras page of the website. You can also go to the right sidebar of my blog and check out the post labels—you might find a blog post addressing your question. The top menu bar of my blog has links to book-specific interviews and reviews. If you can't find the answer anywhere on the website or blog, please feel free to contact me!