Janet Fitch, the bestselling author of White Oleander and Paint it Black, is joining us this summer to take some questions from the Figment community! Last week, she answered Figgies’ questions about the writing craft, and this week she took questions about her life as a writer. Read her fascinating answers below.
She particularly loved Pooja and Emma’s questions, so they’ve won the legendary Figment tote bag!
This week, head over to the forums to ask Janet about the topic of … dum dum dum … writer’s block.
What are you feeling when your writing has been rejected by a publisher once again, and you just want to give up and throw your pen down? You don’t want to risk getting rejected again, and you don’t see the point of doing this anymore. Well, obviously you didn’t give up! So, what is that spark that tells you to keep writing, and to never give up? Is it your fans, friends, or just willpower? (Pooja Kini)
No, rejection is the world’s reality check. If you’re going to be a writer in a public way, as opposed to writing for yourself and your friends, you have to be willing to sustain the world’s reaction to what you’re doing. It sure is a motive force for improving your work, if you can stand the ouch factor. You have to risk getting rejected again and again to do creative work in this world, if you want to move into the public arena, whether you’re an actor or a singer or a writer or a sculptor or a ballet dancer or a DJ or a politician or a baseball player. It’s a big world, but its also a bit push and shovey–you have to be able to get in there and get shoved around a little.
It’s the hardest thing about being a starting-up writer. You don’t know what you did wrong, only that they’re saying “thanks but no thanks.” The worst day is a day you go to the mailbox and see those rejections. You keep trying and still, more rejections! From journals nobody’s even heard of. From agents. (I started with short stories, so let’s say journals). It should spur your combativeness. I would say, “the hell with them! Someday they’ll be begging me for work!”
But also, it takes embracing the fact that you may have further to go in the quality of the actual work. So you take classes, you exchange work with other struggling writers, you listen to what they say, you learn who to listen to and who not to. You want to listen to the people who don’t just say “It’s great!” (though nothing wrong with that) but the people who are smart enough to notice what’s wrong with it: “Well, it starts off slow.” “Well, your verbs aren’t very interesting.” ” Your sentences are all the same length.” “There’s too much yackety yack.” “I can’t really SEE the place this is supposedly set in.” “Vince is kind of a stereotype.”
Eventually, you go from getting form rejections to the personal rejections, to the “gee, almost, do you have anything else” to the, “yes, we’d like to publish your story.” But a lot of the writer’s life is holding that faith that you will get published if you just keep learning, working and growing as a writer. I teach creative writing, and I can usually tell who will become a professional, and who will drop out or just be a hobbyist. It’s not the most talented person. It’s the one who wants it the most. He or she will hang in through everything–for years and years if need be–until something happens for them. My family’s nickname (one of them) for me when I was a kid was “bulldog.”
So it’s not exactly willpower, which suggests doing something, it’s more a factor of personality–just how dogged a person you are. When you get your jaws into something, you don’t let go, for love or money. Not being able to do anything else particularly well helps. Knowing that people I respect think I’m good is extremely encouraging. But at bottom, writing is the way I process the world. I don’t know what I really think until I write. It’s a way of thinking I can’t do if I’m just sitting there, thinking. I never take it far enough.
Also, I love words. Why would I ever stop?
But a lot of it is understanding that there’s something you have to give the world that only you can give it. There might be better writers than you (there are always people who are better than you–even James Joyce had Shakespeare to contend with. Even Tolstoy had Pushkin.) but only YOU can write your story. If you stopped, it would be lost to the world. You have to be the best writer of YOUR stories you can be. That knocks out the jealousy part.
Do you think it would be any better with another job, like a cook or a businessperson? Or do you think the writer’s life is the best there is? (Emma A.)
Having lived it for a long time now, through the bad times and the good, I don’t know if I can say the writer’s life is the best–only that it suits me. I don’t like to work with other people, I like to be in my fantasy world, I like to play with words, I like to create worlds. But writing isn’t a job like being a lawyer or a cook. It’s an art form. You do your art form, whether or not you support yourself with it. An art form is like your child, not so much like a job. You don’t expect your child to support you. You support it. So you write, but you also have a job or jobs, you write and you also might work as a cook or a businessperson. The writer’s life has nothing to do with one’s money job. It’s the life of the mind, all the reading and thinking and note-taking and observing and crafting of sentences, talking about literature and thinking about it, and exposing yourself to the other arts. But the writing life, the removing yourself from the give and take of life with other people, to sit at a table and be alone with your thoughts, day after day, year after year, it’s not for everyone.
If you were offered a high-paying, beneficial job that would support you, your family, a mansion, and more, but it didn’t involve writing, would you take it and give up writing for good? (Emma A.)
I’m not a greedy person. All I need is the peace of mind that living within my means can give me. I’m not interested in a ‘big’ lifestyle. I’m interested in time. Having time to live, to think, to write. Money is freedom and time–that’s it. I would never give up writing for anything. Not for love, not for money. It’s my deepest self.
Does your writing create problems within the rest of your life? Maybe stop you from doing something else you love? (Emma A.)
Sure, anything you do for yourself, for your deepest self, requires you to say no to other people. I’m not a hermit, i’m a very gregarious person. It’s hard for me to say no, I can’t have lunch, no, I can’t go on vacation, no, I can’t commit to an out-of-town offer. No, I can’t teach another class. No, I can’t write a review. No, I can’t review your book. I say yes to the things that either help my work, or that will genuinely feed me as a person.
How has becoming and author changed your life? (Zina)
An author… the difference between a writer and an author… If you write, you’re a writer, but you have to get published to be an author. Being an author, publishing my work, has been an incredible experience, an incredible privilege. People listen to me now, people who never ever ever listened to a word I said before. It’s nice to be recognized, it’s nice to have readers, it’s nice to be invited to things. But it’s not necessary. What’s necessary is to love to write. Being a writer, thinking like a writer, looking at the world like a writer.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? (Rachel H.)
I was 21 and living in England for a year on a student exchange.
Have all of the things you’ve done so far been consciously geared towards being a writer? (Sanaya P.)
No, they’re things in which I have some skill. I like working with words, I’m curious, I’m persistent, I like art, I write well.
How do you find your opportunities? (Sanaya P.)
I read Poets and Writers’ magazine and learned about the field.
When you started out as a writer, were you ever worried about supporting yourself financially? Did you ever think that the passion wasn’t worth it if you couldn’t sustain yourself? (Sanaya P.)
It’s like having children. You don’t have children so they’ll support you, you don’t put them on the street at three or four and say, okay kid, you’re on. You support them, nourish them, teach them, love them. And you work a regular job to pay the bills. I never had the slightest, merest, most fleeting illusion that my fiction would pay my bills. What happened to me was completely out of left field.
How long did it take you from idea to last edited line did it take you to write your first novel? (Rachel H.)
Writing can obviously be very time-consuming, yet one cannot live on writing alone. How many and what sort of compromises have you had to make to ballance your family, friends, household, other ambitions, leisure time, etc., and your writing? (Meredith Hilton)
Writing is time. Funny, people never ask baseball players how they balance family, friends, home, leisure time and baseball. You make it your top priority, along with close family, and the rest can go hang.
Are you jealous of any authors? (be honest please) (Cassy Blue)
People who are struggling with books and it’s not going well will always be envious of people who have finished their books, especially if the books are doing well adn praised and lauded. You sometimes can be jealous of people whose books you don’t think are that good but are being praised and lauded. But when people are genuinely better than you, are doing something really good–you don’t envy them, you admire them, and are inspired.
Do you write in your pajamas? (Zara Olympia)
How many hours do you write? (Zara Olympia)
No more than four at a stretch. it’s pretty intense work. After four I’m mostly played. But I might come back for a second round at night. For me, night writing is different than morning writing, it’s easier to blot out the world.
Do you like to listen to music while you write? (Zara Olympia)
Generally not, unless I want it for something specific, some specific mood.
Do you dream about your stories? Do your characters come from dreams? (Zara Olympia)
Very, very rarely.
I am wondering what books you would suggest young writers to read? (Zara Olympia)
Read everything, but make sure to read books that are hard enough for you. If you don’t have to look up any words, you’re reading books that are too easy.
Do you ever get so behind in housework, because you are writing, that you are afraid to have company over? (Cassy Blue)
Yes and no. Yes, things get to be a terrible mess, but no, I”m never afraid to have my friends over. I just tidy up.
In college were you an english major? Or did you just stumble into writing? Did you go to college? Where did you go to college? (Cassy Blue)
I went to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where I was a history major. I thought I wanted to be an historian–but what is history but stories? A big whacking epic, with huge, dramatic characters and amazing conflict. Writing history, you learn to draw people into your world, you learn how to make it real. It was great training for fiction. I think I was always a secret novelist, but didn’t know that until I was 21.
Did you get rejected from different publishers? If so how many?If so how’d you get over it and continue on? (Cassy Blue)
When I sold my first book, a young adult novel called Kicks, I had a party and I put my rejections on the walls of my living room. Including the hundreds of short story rejections I’d gotten over the yeas, and those from a book that never sold, as well as the book that did, they reached from the floorboards to up over my head on all four walls. I look at rejections as a badge of honor. Until you have your first hundred, you’re not even a real writer.
Is it ever hard to tear yourself away from a book and live in the real world? How do you make that jump? (Ali Renee)
Very hard. I’m always late and often distracted. My daughter has learned to identify that certain tone of my voice that tells her I’m listening but not listening. She’ll say, “Mom, can I jump off a cliff?”
What is your day like? Do you get up early or late and so on. Do you play a sport for fun or have a hobby? Does your hobby help you come up with story ideas? (Cassy Blue)
Get up seven-ish. Take a good long time to get started, coffee, breakfast, read a while. Then I clear out e-mails and start writing. Often I’ll read poetry out loud for a while so I can get that music in my ears. I start the day by rewriting what I wrote the day before, and then continue until I have a stopping place–and if i’m lucky, an idea of what I’m going to write next. I like to walk, I take dance classes. But I never get ideas unless I’m actually sitting at my computer working. Even if I do, they’re no good.
What books do you think would inspire young writers? (Zara Olympia)
What books are an example of good writing? (Zara Olympia)
Look at the offerings of a ‘Great Books’ course. Check out a paragraph of Melville.
What is your favorite dessert? (Zara Olympia)
A coffee ice cream hot fudge sundae in a meringue cup with butterscotch sprinkles.
Do you write about characters the same age as you? (Hannah ED)
Sure. But also young people and old people. I like young people because they’re most apt to make important mistakes in their lives and then have to figure out what they think and what’s true and fight their way through.
When you get an idea for a book, how do you start out writing it? (Kennedy Lang)
I don’t write from ideas. A book might take four or five years out of my life. I would never just start out writing a novel. My books start from short stories. If I get an idea, I’ll write a short story and see what it’s all about. And very occasionally, I’ll have a short story with more energy and substance, that it hasn’t been exhausted by the story, there’s more to tell. That’s a good sign of a novel wanting to be written.
How terrifying was it for you, honestly? To write that first novel and send it in to the editor? (Kareena Oner)
Not as terrifying as being rejected over and over again and thinking I’ll never publish anything as long as I lived. The second novel, in some ways, was scarier than the first.
Do you ever travel for references or inspiration when writing? (Charlotte Donaghue)
Not for writing inspiration per se, but just to refresh me as a person, change the oxygen in the fishtank. To see something new, to clean my eyes, to wake my senses. All input, all life experience, is good for writing. But travel is also disruptive if you’re working on a long project, it’s harder to keep that vision steady over long periods of time when you keep breaking it up to go traveling. I don’t write–at least not my novels–when I’m traveling, so it’s all time off.
When you walk into a bookstore, do you look for your book on the shelves and then grin hugely at the sight of it? (Aea Varfis-van Warmelo)
Absolutely. Worse is when it’s not there. Which is what usually happens if you’re looking for it. Like a kick in the stomach. You learn not to look.
If you don’t find it do you tell the owner about the “great new book that came out” and that they need to get? (Aea Varfis-van Warmelo)
No–you slink out of the store feeling like slime.
After you’ve found it do you stand there and tell every single person that crosses your path “That’s my book!” and force them to buy it? (Aea Varfis-van Warmelo)
No–though sometimes you turn it face outwards. Or you might bring it to the counter and sign the copies for the store.
Do your friends get bored when you talk to them about your writing? (Aea Varfis-van Warmelo)
No, I mostly talk to other writers about my writing, and spare my other friends.
Do you hate your friends that get bored when you talk to them about your writing? (Aea Varfis-van Warmelo)
This is why I only talk to other writers about my writing. If civilians ask, I just give a very brief summary. It’s like someone asks you “how’re you doing?” they don’t want a blow by blow of all the problems in your life and what you ate yesterday.
Were you encouraged? (Sam, King of Fiction)
No. Nobody cares whether you write or not.
Do you take breaks while writing or do you write for a block of time and rest when you are done? (Julliah Randolph)
I take a lot of breaks when it’s not going well. I work like the demon when it’s moving.
If you do take breaks, what do you do? (Julliah Randolph)
Look in the fridge. Read a bit of someone else’s book. Check email. Make some more coffee. If it’s going really badly, I might even take a nap.
What is the best thing to do when you get a new story idea? (Zara Olympia)
Write a short short.
If you have reached the ending of the story you’re writing, but you don’t know how to end it, what do you do?
I keep trying different things until I get the one that feels right.
Do you ever feel bad if you kill off a character? Do you give them a funeral? (Zara Olympia)
Of course I feel bad, if I liked them. I only give them a funeral if it’s important to the story.
Do you like Star Trek, if so who do you like better Kirk or Picard? Sorry, had to slip in the nerd question. (Cassy Blue)
Picard. WAY Picard.
Do you think writing YA fiction is like being in high school again, but you can control it? (Cassy Blue)
Hmm. Not sure. With YA fiction, you can take things to their logical conclusion. In high school you tried not to.
How much research goes into your stories? (Cassy Blue)
I research after I write to make sure I got it right and pick up details.
Which genre are you best with? Which is the easiest to blend in and create a story with? (For me it’s fantasy.) (The Real Tibor Haskett)
When you write a character, do you put a little bit of yourself into them? (Cassy Blue)
More than a little, but only certain aspects of myself.
Do you prefer editing a chapter after it’s been finished or waiting for the whole story to be done first? (Jaxx Capta)
No, I edit every day, I start working in the morning by rewriting what I wrote the day before. So, I may have edited the same piece ten or twenty times before I get to the end, and then I start over–maybe 3 complete drafts.
How many books do you read per week? Do you know your librarians well? (Cassy Blue)
One, usually, but often I have more than one going at a time. And yes, I know the librarians very well. I was even an LA City Library Commissioner for a time. My whole family are library nuts.
How do you get agents for your books you actually want to publish? (Maria L. Henderson)
This is a long process. The best piece ever written on the subject is in Poet’s and Writer’s book The Practical Writer.
Do you think that your writings represent you as a person? If I am not a very efficient speller then should I just use easier words? I have trouble finishing books- any advice? (Amy Rose Azeltine)
My writing is the inner me. If you’re a bad speller, challenge yourself. Trouble finishing books? Meaning writing them or reading them? If it’s the latter, get some librarian help in finding books you may like better. If it’s the former, maybe try short stories instead.
What do you think of e-books? (Jullia Randolph)
I think they’re the future, but I don’t use them yet because I want to buy all my books from my local independent bookstore. When I can buy e-books from my fantastic local bookstore, then I might consider it.
What do you do when your characters don’t do what you want them to? I don’t mean writers block, but like if your character is supposed to run away, but you know s/he would never do something like that, but it’s essential to the story. It would change the character and be an OOC move for them, but it has to be done and your character is already established with a personality and if you change that, it changes the whole book. (LilyFire)
OOC–don’t we all do things that are out of character for ourselves from time to time? If it’s essential to your story that you have a character that has to run away, you have to create a character who will do that, under pressure. Under certain circumstances. I would never kill anyone, for example. But put me in a war, with training and a gun in my hands, I guess I would. Put me in a scary situation, armed, and I might do just that. It’s about the pressure you put them under.
What do you do when your editor wants you to completely turn the story around? (Joshua LF Mitchell)
My editor is personally someone I trust a great deal and respect and admire. If he felt I needed to completely turn the story around, I’d think long and hard about it.
A few of you asked questions that we’re saving for next week on writer’s block, or the following, on the purpose of art. Thanks and stay tuned!