Guestober: Heather Vogel Frederick
I had asked Heather Vogel Frederick, author of the Mother-Daughter Book Club series and others to be part of Guestober, and while she was unable to create a new post for this October event, I was able to root up an old post she did for me a few years ago that was stuffed full of writer tips. She also has a blog where she posts things from her daily life and little bookish tidbits, so check it out sometime!
Here's to the final Guestober post, guest post #6!
1.) What do you do when you hit writer's block?
First of all, I try not to think of it as writer's block -- I just think of it as writer's "slow." Block sounds too permanent, and it's a temporary condition! I find that it helps to get up from my desk and do something physical. Bake something. Clean something. Take the dogs for a walk. Often, the simple act of engaging one's body instead of one's mind allows an adjustment to take place, and suddenly I'll feel inspired again, or the tangle in the story will untangle itself.
Another strategy is to simply shift to writing something else on that particular day. Maybe I'll jump ahead and write a different scene, or go back and edit something I've written the day before. By keeping the flow going, eventually a new idea will emerge that allows me to unstick the stuck part. Above all, don't panic. Tell yourself it's just temporary, and it will be.
2.) What would you tell someone who wants to get a book published?
Sign up for a writing conference. They're a fantastic resource! For those interested in writing for young readers, SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) offers conferences year-round, in nearly every part of the country. You can meet with agents and editors and established writers, and learn both the nuts and bolts of the business as well as gain inspiration on the craft of writing. For those interested in writing for adults, there are other conferences in abundance as well.
Aspiring writers should also check out the Writers' Market, an annual publication with information on every aspect of the publishing industry, from how to submit to who to submit to, etc. It's another invaluable resource.
3.) How do you make the characters come to life in your stories and get people to love (or hate) them?
Good question. Most characters start off as a glimmer in my mind, and I gradually embellish them over time (and many drafts), fleshing them out as I get to know them. Once in a while someone marches onto the page fully-formed (Mrs. Chadwick appeared this way in THE MOTHER-DAUGHTER BOOK CLUB), but more often it's an incremental process. My wonderful writer friend Jennifer Jacobsen says she keeps asking herself "Is it true yet?" as she writes, and I think this is excellent advice. If a character feels true to you the writer, he or she will likely feel true to the reader.
4.) When inspiration strikes for a new novel, how do you go about creating the plot and characters?
Again, it's a gradual process. I don't do a lot of plotting ahead of time, as I'm more of a "pantster" (someone who likes to write by the seat of their pants). I love the surprises of that initial draft, the unexpected twists and turns as I sit down at my laptop and tell myself more of the story each day.
That being said, once the story is underway, I do start noodling around dreaming up things that could happen and details about the characters. I tend to keep a notebook handy and jot these things down, because once a story starts developing it tends to develop in a rush.
5.) How do you fit in backstories of characters, without distracting the readers from the main plot?
Don't do it all at once. Feed it to your reader bit by bit. You don't need to reveal everything in one fell swoop, and it's much less distracting and clumsy (and fun for both reader and writer, I believe) to learn about a character over time.
6.) Editing is very hard sometimes. What would you recommend as a good strategy for revising and editing a story, while being aware that there could be a chain reaction to a change you make?
I absolutely LOVE editing! Even though I love the surprises they bring, first drafts are like pulling teeth for me, but once I have something down on paper and can mess around with it, I'm in my happy place. What works for me is to print out my day's pages at the end of each writing session and put them in a three-ring binder. There's something about that visual "it's starting to look like a book!" cue that I find encouraging. I do some editing as I go along, looking over what I've written the previous day, for instance, before I start in again. For me, this can be an effective way to give myself a running start.
The risk with this is that you can get bogged down in trying to edit yourself before you've managed to get the whole story down on paper. You need to keep the momentum going, even if the only thing coming out the end of your pen is ink. Almost ALL first drafts are complete bilgewater! (Mine are, at least.) Try to keep the inner critic gagged and allow yourself to tell the story.
Then, once I've finished the first draft, I give myself a few days off, sometimes longer, before I go back and re-read what I've written, pen in hand. This gives me a little distance from it, which is vital. I'll make notes in the margin, do a little line editing, slash and burn some parts, rearrange others, etc. Once I've gone through it once to get an overview, I'll roll up my sleeves and dive into the intense but satisfying job of making the story sing.
7.) How do you add humor to your stories, without making it over-the-top or cheesy?
I really wish I knew how to explain how to do this, but for me it's instinctive. It just bubbles up from within and spills onto the page, which is odd because I don't think of myself as a funny person. As far as keeping it from being over-the-top or too cheesy, again, it has to feel true. Is it true to the character? The situation? Some situations demand over-the-top and cheesy, after all.
8.) What should a writer do to make their readers really feel for the characters and feel like they're either in the book or watching the action up close? To get them immersed in the plot?
I know for myself, and perhaps for most writers, in a way you become the character you're writing about. And you have to be willing to give them a bit of your heart. Robert Frost said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." Be willing to invest your character with emotional truth. We all know what it feels like to be scared, or mortified, or on pins and needles of anticipation. Tap into those emotions, and you'll make your reader feel what your characters are feeling.
As for the plot, again, a lot of what I do is instinctive. But I do think that if you can engage a reader's senses, make them see, hear, feel, smell, and in some cases taste what's going on, they're going to feel that they've stepped into the world you've created. You don't need to overdo this, I'm not talking scratch and sniff here, but done well, it puts the reader right into the book. Learn from the masters - we all have bookshelves full of mentors at home! Check out the bottom of page 33 in Charlotte's Web, for instance, the paragraph beginning "About half an hour before dawn," and see how E. B. White chooses words that makes us hear the quiet. It's tangible. Read the beginning paragraphs of chapter eleven (p. 77), and how he does the same thing, engaging the mind's eye this time around.
9.) When you pick a title for your books, how do you go about doing it? Write the book first, then title? Or title first, then book? Somewhere in between?
It's happened both ways, and sometimes my brilliant editor Alexandra Cooper is the one who comes up with the title! She's the genius behind WISH YOU WERE EYRE, in fact. In most cases, the title comes to me first, before I start to write. It's like an official seal of approval from my muse: behold, I've given you a title, therefore a book must follow!
10.) And finally, to keep vocab diverse through the book, how would you do this without accidentally making a character sound like they're from the Medieval time period or like they've just swallowed and regurgitated a Thesaurus?
Haha, yes, it's important to avoid thesaurusitis! I actually DO use a thesaurus at times ("The Synonym Finder" by J. L. Rodale is a wonderful reference book that deserves a place on every writer's shelf), but again I suppose the trick is not to overdo it. All things in moderation.