Way back in an ancient time now commonly referred to as October, we posed questions to a host of beloved and prestigious authors as part of our celebration of the National Day on Writing. After asking our burning questions of these great minds, we opened to floor to you, dear Figs, to submit your own queries. Below are the responses to your questions on plotting, comic books, and digital publishing from Anna Quindlen, Barry Lyga, Ashley Hope Perez, and Leslie Goetsch.
Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist
What is the best way to formulate a valid, interesting plot?
AQ: The best way to formulate a valid, interesting plot is to formulate valid, interesting characters. Plot is secondary. It develops because you put a group of interesting people together in the house. Plot is what happens as they talk, fight, remember, and generally rub up against one another. Gerrybuilt books rely primarily on plot; you can feel the wheels turning. Books that have the sense of real life invariably have it because the characters feel as though they’re actually living inside your head.
What is one book that you can never read too many times?
AQ: There are two, actually. I reread one big Dickens novel every summer, but the one that I’ve learned the most from is undoubtedly Bleak House, which is perhaps the zenith of Dickens’s ability to combine satire, social welfare concerns, and a riproaring story with indelible characters. I’ve also read Pride and Prejudice more times than I can count. Restraint is an important part of the writer’s craft, and no one does it better than Jane Austen.
Do you think that female authors still have a hard time being taken seriously in the literature world?
AQ: I think we tend to be stereotyped and dismissed more easily than our male counterparts by critics. There is a sense that the big muscular subjects and treatments are what counts, and that so-called domestic concerns are somehow less important. Of course I disagree. I believe the family is the laboratory in which all learning, and all themes, can be explored. What is Anna Karenina if not a family story? Ditto Portnoy’s Complaint and The Sound and the Fury. Most of the great war novels are about family created from fellowship in the trenches.
Luckily a disproportionate number of book buyers, and readers, are female, so women writers continue to prosper, now more than ever. Don’t forget that Jane Austen wrote under the name “A Lady” because being a novelist was considered unseemly for a woman in her time.
Barry Lyga, author of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl
Do you draw inspiration for your stories from real life issues or are they mostly products of your imagination?
BL: You know, they end up being a combination of both. Here’s the best way I can describe it: Have you ever been listening to a song and singing along to it…and then one day you realize that you had the words all wrong? Only―and here’s the twist―you realize that you like YOUR version better than the real one? That’s sort of how I develop stories. I see or remember or read something in real life and I think, “Oh, that probably happened because of X.” Or, “I bet that person thinks Y.” And even though I’m wrong, I decide that my version is pretty cool, so I write it!
How big is your comic book collection? I’ve been told mine is much too big. And why do people think comics are so nerdy?! They’re not!! *pushes thick rimmed glasses further onto nose* 😉 And can I gush about how epic I think you are? *begins to gush*
BL: My comic book collection is actually REALLY SMALL these days! I live in New York now, and I just don’t have room for a lot of comics. So I have eight short boxes (geeks know what I mean by “short boxes . . .”) and that’s it! In my heyday, I had something like 15 long boxes and twice as many short boxes. Insane!
People think comics are nerdy because it’s easy to pick on people who read comics. I mean, I think watching football is about as nerdy as it gets, but there are a lot more of them than there are of us. But that’s okay―we’re cooler. 🙂
And you can gush all you want, but really―I don’t feel all that epic. I feel like in order to epic, I would need to have this long, flowing beard and a weird pet (like an ocelot) and a big battleaxe. (Hmm . . . Note to self: Buy a battleaxe. They’re kinda cool . . .)
If you could live in any fictional land, where would it be?
BL: I would probably live in the DC Universe because I’m a big ol’ nerd. But it would have to be the DC Universe of my childhood, like in the early-to-mid-’80s. Not that weird reboot thing they have going on now. I don’t know what the deal is there. But living in the DCU would be cool―Superman would always save the day, you could hang out in Gotham because Batman would beat the snot out of the bad guys, and the odds are that an alien or an explosion or a time travel experiment gone awry would end up giving you super-powers!
What was your biggest mistake when you first started writing?
BL: Hmm… Probably thinking I was ready long before I was. It’s easy to crank out a story. It’s even easier to submit it. What’s tough is looking at the story and saying, “Nah, you know what? I’m not there yet. I’m gonna give myself a few more tries before I send this off to an editor or an agent.”
Ashley Hope Perez, YA novelist and writing teacher
What do you do about writer’s block? How do you combat it?
AHP: My best strategy for beating writer’s block is preventing it. I try to set myself up for success by being very casual about what I’m going to do. Instead of letting myself think, “Today I must write the brilliant opening scene of this novel, the one that will make the world stop and take notice,” I say things to myself like, “Today I’m going to play around with some openers, see if anything clicks.” This no-stakes writing is what I call zero-drafting. Zero pressure, zero expectations; infinite possibilities.
If a scene isn’t working out, I just skip the parts I’m getting stuck on and write in brackets what I’m going to go back and do later. For example, I might write: [put in killer description of Lexi here]. Or, to borrow Tayari Jones’s analogy, I give myself permission to “eat the marshmallows first” and skip to the good stuff I feel like writing.
How did you get yourself noticed and your work out there? Did you ever feel like your writing wasn’t good enough?
AHP: All writers feel like their writing is not good enough. If they didn’t, they’d never slave over it to make it better. To make it great, even.
At the same time, obsessing too much can be paralyzing. Hemingway wrote that every writer needs “a built-in, shock-proof shit detector,” which is true, but you need to make sure that shit detector has an off switch. (I write about this particularly important off switch here).
If I couldn’t turn off my inner (psycho) editor, I’d never be able to write out the pages of crap that, sometimes inexplicably, lead to something special. Don’t settle for mediocre writing in your final drafts; don’t worry about it in your drafts.
As for getting noticed, my best advice is to find other writers whose opinion you respect and to share your work with them. I do this “live” with my writers group, but a website like Figment is a great way to connect to other aspiring writers.
How do you push yourself to improve as a writer? Do you have any tips for us writers who are just starting out?
AHP: Read. Everything. Seriously, reading a ton of fiction is a fiction writer’s number one job, besides writing. You should read two ways:
(1) just going along, sort of soaking up awesome writing even if it’s completely different from what you want to do. This is how I read Haruki Murakami’s work.
(2) very deliberately paying attention to a writer’s moves. I tend to struggle more with plot than character development, so I tend to obsessively chart the plot development in books that build tension and effectively weave together many threads. Then I try to see how and when I can make their moves work in my own fiction. This usually happens in revision.
Leslie Goetsch, author of Back Creek
How do you work writing into your lives? I often find myself without any time to write, or if I do have the time, I am not in the “zone”. I am tired, or worn, and so I end up going for months on end without writing. That makes it hard to get better and hard to get anything done. How do you manage this? Any tips or advice?
LG: I should first say that I feel your pain. And I have felt your frustration—often! I have found that you can’t wait around for the right time or the right place or the right zone; you have to do what so many writers say you have to do—establish a daily routine and just do it. For me, that daily routine has to happen first thing in the morning—usually between 5-6 (a.m., that is). My mind isn’t cluttered yet with all the worries of the day (which usually hit me after my second cup of coffee). I find that even when I haven’t the foggiest idea of what might happen in whatever I am working on, if I sit down every day and write on it, something does happen. And those one or two pages a day add up. Revision is a bit trickier to accomplish in daily one hour sessions, but you can focus on smaller bits of your text with consistency and that, too, can add up. I should say, also, that with a dedicated daily time, there is no writer’s block, because you know for that one or two hours, you’re going to be writing something, and, more likely than not, that something will lead you to some progress in whatever you’re working on.
What are your thoughts on the new digital book revolution?
LG: Like many book lovers, I rebelled (in my heart) against the idea of digital books, at first. Surely, I thought, reading something on a screen could never duplicate those autumn afternoons lying on the sofa, eating apples, and sinking into my stained and wrinkled paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird or Rebecca. You couldn’t turn down the pages in a Kindle, or underline those great passages you wanted to remember forever. I was certain that resorting to a digital book would completely change my reading experience, and I have never been crazy about change.
However, I am coming around to accept the reality of digital books because the entire publishing industry is changing, which I know is a massive understatement. While I hope desperately that there will always be hard copies of books to read and cherish, I see that virtual books may ultimately be the salvation of fiction writers. Although I can’t quite get my thick head around the idea, I think that publishing as we know it, with agents and editors and presses and book stores, is quite possibly giving way to a completely different process of making stories available to the readers of the world. This new process will involve more digital books, more self-publishing, more virtual editing, more presses dedicated to a self-serve kind of publishing. And I’ve come around to thinking this is not all bad, because it will mean greater access, for writers and readers.