During the MWW Super mini-conference hands-on Friday morning session, Barb will teach “YA: Think Like a Teenager.” When asked for advice about writing for children, Maurice Sendak responded, “I don’t write for children; I write as a child.” This workshop will bring out your inner-adolescent to help you identify and explore universal issues and events of adolescence that still resonate for you and offer strategies for shaping them into novels that appeal to kids today. Participants may send the first two pages (double-spaced/12 font) of their YA novel, and Barb will comment generally on what works and what…doesn’t. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Barbara Shoup YA submission” in subject line, postmarked by July 2 (or at least by the first week of July).
Barb will also teach a session “Writing Your Life.” Maybe you want to tell the stories of your life for your family, maybe you want to write them as a way of understanding the aspects of your life that shaped you and brought you to this moment. Maybe you want to explore the stories of your life for fiction. “No matter why you want to write about your life,” Barb explains, “this workshop will teach you how to identify the memories worth writing about and offer both exercises and inspiration guaranteed to help you write them down.”
Former MWW intern Caroline Delk asked Barb a few interview questions for some advice to the attendees and to help us learn a bit more about her as a writer and faculty member.
MWW: A lot of famous writers–Hemingway and Michener–always wrote in the morning because they said they were most creative before noon. How about you? When do you write? How long is a typical writing session? Do you take breaks? Are you a M-F writer or does your work spill over into the weekend, wee hours, Christmas, etc.
I write in the morning, before I do anything else. I usually get a couple of hours in before I have to start paying attention to the real world. I write most days, even weekends and holidays. Occasionally, I get lucky and can get away for a few days of nothing but writing, which is heaven. I’ve also done two-week residencies at Ragdale, which is super-heaven. A cozy room, the energy of fellow artists, and a fabulous meal every evening. It can spoil you! On these retreats, I might work as many as fourteen hours a day. The opportunity to work like that for a number of days in a row is especially helpful to a novelist because you live in the book, feel its rhythms, and have these moments when you hold the whole thing in your head and know exactly what you’re supposed to do. It’s amazing!
Part of becoming a writer, though, is figuring out what kind of writer you are and learning to work within the perimeters your life allows. Some people write best at night, some in the afternoon. Some people have obligations that dictate when they can write. Some write in spurts, some every day. Some set a timer and write until it goes off. Some set a word count for each day and write until they meet it. Whatever works is what you should do.
MWW: When you hit the wall and nothing is working on your computer screen, how do you clear your head and refresh? Do you power down and go to a movie, or do you just keep pounding the keys? Advice?
I tend to try to power through, even when my sensible side tells me that I’m past the point of productivity. I’m not good at relaxation. Balance is not my strong suit. A story is a series of problems to solve, and I get so obsessed that I can’t rest until I’ve solved whatever problem I happen to be facing. I cluster, I freewrite. I make timelines and calendars and maps to help me see whatever I’m missing. I write at the top of the page: Who are you and what are you doing in my story–and let my character answer. I break down a scene I see in my mind’s eye but can’t seem to write into who/what/when/where/why and write about each one of those elements until I write “one true sentence” that finally sets the scene moving.
MWW: Novelist Sidney Sheldon once said he never had a character sit down at a restaurant and order dinner unless he (Sheldon) had eaten at that restaurant and ordered the same meal; he wouldn’t have a character wander the streets of a city unless he (Sheldon again) had roamed those same streets. Talk about research. How do you create a sense of place? Do you go on site, take notes, etc., or do you leave it to your imagination?
I think you owe it to your readers to make sure that everything about the world of your novel is as authentic as it can be. So I read everything I can get my hands on about whatever I need to know to make the story real. I watch movies; look at catalogues, photos, newspapers, and recipes; listen to music from the time.
These days, with the wonder of the internet, you can do the research for a novel without visiting the places you’re writing about. But it is a great gift to be able immerse yourself in your characters’ world–and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that with my work. Standing where my characters stand, seeing what they see, I understand the boundaries of their existence in a visceral way. Being in the real world of a novel-in-progress enriches my imagination, and brings deeper, more sympathetic understanding of my characters’ struggles.
MWW: We’ve heard that a writer shouldn’t ask friends, family, and colleagues to read and make suggestions on a manuscript-in-progress. But we’ve also heard that a lot of successful writers have “beta readers.” What are they; what do they do; do you have one; and how can I find one?
My only rule for when and how to ask for feedback about your work is to be sure that you ask someone who is capable of understanding what you are trying to accomplish, capable of being objective, and knows enough about how stories work to be able to make useful observations. (This usually, but not always, excludes your mother and/or your best friend.) That’s all a beta reader is, really. I have several–some writers, some serious readers. I might ask them to read a novel-in-progress if I’m stuck and feel like I can’t see the novel clearly any more. More often, I wait until I finish a draft.
I also belong to a small writers’ group that meets every other week. Each of us brings whatever we’ve been working on since we last met–a story, an essay, a chapter of a novel. The regular meetings provide a kind of discipline: I don’t want to waste the opportunity for their input by not having something to bring. Ongoing critique of a work in progress often offers insights that shortcuts the process.
It’s important to develop your own personal community of writers, whether you communicate with them online or in person. Go to writers’ conferences, take classes, attend readings and other literary events, and keep an eye out for people who seem to be on your same wavelength. Invite them for coffee, talk about writing. In time, you’ll find the readers you need to help you see where your manuscript is working and where it needs improvement.