Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?
I’m a quote hoarder, so picking one is almost physically painful, but I keep a quote from Neil Gaiman pinned above my desk, and it comes closest to describing my ongoing desires for my own life and for those I love (and like):
“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you're wonderful, and don't forget to make some art -- write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.” ― Neil Gaiman
Everyone in the industry raves about your keen eye and editing skills! What piece of advice do you find yourself offering the most to writers?
Too often, I find that writers take an externalized, cinematic approach to their characters. They SEE them on the page, move them about like chess pieces as dictated by the mechanical constructs of the plot they’ve created. But they don’t truly live and breathe their characters; they don’t become their characters to the extent that they understand them on an instinctive, visceral level. This can result in episodic novels with oddly inert characters.
So, I urge folks to truly get inside their characters, to understand their motivations, their goals and desires. Understand, in as organic a way as possible, what DRIVES your protagonist forward in life. That desire should be something practical and observable (with a subset emotional desire, as well), and it should serve as the propulsive force of your novel. Without that driving force, that fire in a character’s belly, it’s really tough to create a dynamic, satisfying tale.
In your career as a writer and editor, who’s had the biggest influence on you? What did they do to inspire you?
Putting aside all of the absolutely amazing authors who’ve taught me so, so, SO much and made me a fiend for the written word, AND putting aside my clients who impress and inspire me each and every day, I’d have to give a ton of credit to the late Gary Provost. (With props to the incomparable Don Maass who is a master instructor, as well.)
Gary was known as “the writer’s writer.” He wrote phenomenal books on craft (some of which are still available), and he was also a warm, inspiring, funny, and brilliant teacher. When in my twenties, I sought out a workshop and a mentor, he was the first I found, and he absolutely changed the course of my writing and professional life. And my personal life, too, as I’ve made some of the best friends of my life through workshops and editing!
Not only did he inspire me via a fantastic education in the nuts and bolts of fiction craft, but he and his wife Gail taught me so much about how to treat writers, how to help and inspire, not demean or bully. His accessibility, his breadth of knowledge, his warmth: all really inspired me, and still inspire me, to do what I can to support writers at all stages of their careers.
If you could send your younger self one tweet, what would you say?
Risk more, sooner.
If at all possible, could you pick one book that has deeply affected you? If so, what was it that moved you about it?
Ack! That is like the Sophie’s Choice of questions for a writer! I already regret any answer I’ll give because I know I’ll want about forty-six “do-overs.”
BUT…I’m going to go way, way, back and pick the children’s book THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, by Norton Juster. I love everything about the story—its wit and wordplay; its characters; its wonderful illustrations by Jules Feiffer; and most of all its themes, which have everything to do with imagination and limitless possibilities.
I’m mumble-mumble years old, and I STILL try to read it at least once a year. (Also, if anyone wants to bribe me for any reason, I still don’t have the special 50th anniversary edition. Hint, hint.)
When you are having moments when nothing seems to fit, how do you find what you are looking for and make a story come to life?
I try to drill down to two questions: What made me love this story in the first place, and where is the awesome?
Where the first one is concerned, that means getting in touch with what inspired the novel: Was it the world? Was it the character? Some thematic element? The voice? Some inherent mystery I wanted to solve for myself?
Then I take a look at the scene I’m writing and compare it to that original inspiration. I ask how I’m serving that kernel element. Have I gone too far afield? Or, conversely, am I serving that original element too slavishly when what I need to do is thank it for the inspiration and then jet off in new directions? I try to find some way to fan that initial flame and see what catches fire in the current scene.
The second idea is a complementary one, of course. It has to do with looking at a scene or a section of the book and challenging myself to really BRING THE AWESOME!
This means daring myself to go further, dramatically, to push a character beyond his or her limits, to push the plot beyond my original, safe ideas for it. It means having my protagonist kick butt in some way or sink to absolutely terrible (but awesome) depths. It means having an antagonist force be absolutely AWESOME at being absolutely terrible.
Again, awesome can be a broad term, and it can apply to any aspect of a scene: character, action, setting, voice, etc. Awesome can mean awful; it can mean deep or fearless or wretched; it can mean astonishing or sexy or bizarre. But it has to create an excitement in me, an internal giddiness that tells me that the character, the writing, or the story is risking SOMETHING.
If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?