To be honest, though, most ideas come from sitting down, putting my fingers on the keyboard, and just letting them flow. I usually end my writing day with the thought, “Where did THAT come from?”
Jody: Speaking of BSK, you’ve written a ton of these books with your friend Debbie, which makes me wonder how the writing process works when you’re co-authoring. A friend and I tried to write a novel together and it sort of fizzled it out in the middle and we both lost interest. Did this ever happen to you and Debbie? What are the challenges to writing with a partner? And were there challenges when you switched to writing books on your own?
Marcia: Debbie and I figured out this whole business of writing together. I think that made a huge difference. When we first started we sat side-by-side and basically ‘told’ the story; typing it in as we ‘spoke’ the character parts. That fast back-and-forth led to very natural dialogue and plot-driven stories.
After Debbie and her family moved from Lexington we had to develop a new system. We call it the hot-potato style of writing. Everyone knows that if you get caught with the hot potato you lose. Well, our manuscript becomes the hot potato to us. When working together we develop a loose outline and then take turns writing a couple chapters at a time with the understanding that we are free to make any changes in what the other person has written. We pass it back and forth via e-mail. Knowing that the other writer is waiting for it keeps us motivated and disciplined. This ‘hot potato’ method of writing with someone is both a benefit and a challenge. A benefit because it keeps me disciplined. A challenge because I have to put everything else on the back burner, especially since Debbie is a very fast writer!
Many people think that since we’ve been so successful as a team that we must have similar writing styles. We’re actually very different writers, but together we formed a third writing style and voice.
When I work independently, my process is much slower because I delve more deeply into character development and theme. Writing, to me, is like sculpting. First I start with a big chunk of raw material; those vague ideas, characters, images, and snippets of words. Then I begin to add more to shape its form and provide support through structure. Usually I do too much and have to shave off pieces or lop off big chunks. Sometimes I have to mush it all together and start over from scratch because it ‘just isn’t right’.
The entire time I’m focused on molding the raw material, supported with a stable structure, into something both meaningful and aesthetic. I’m also thinking of the intended readers. I want them to feel a connection to the character and an understanding of the character’s predicaments. Above all, I want them to have fun--to enjoy spending time in the world of my characters!
Jody: I love that sculpting idea. Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as digging up a fossil, but your metaphor shows that the writer has a little more control. Not that I feel that way about the process all the time…. Something I always wonder about successful writers is the up and down stuff that happens on the way to success. Like, I’ve heard stories of JK Rowling getting a bunch of rejections before hitting it big with Harry Potter, and every writer I know has at least one forever-to-be-unpublished novel hidden in a drawer somewhere. Did BSK rack up any rejections before Scholastic snapped it up? Do you have a book or two that has never sold? Any advice for us “pre”-published writers out here who are still plugging away?
Marcia: I have enough rejections to wallpaper my walls. BSK was sold to the third publisher, and we collected quite a collection on other stories before selling VAMPIRES.
I continue to be a ‘collector’ of rejections (can they be sold on e-bay?). I have no secret words of wisdom other than to develop a thick-skin, always have chocolate on hand, and to remember that there is power in persistence. I live by the motto that the only true failure is to never try at all. With that in mind, I view my hefty pile of rejection letters as a symbol of my success because each letter means I did what so many people only talk about doing--I completed a story and sent it out into the world.
Jody: So true. That's what we have to hold onto. But those rejections... Bleh! I know you write full-time now, but you’ve had a “day job” in the past (teaching, and when you were my awesome boss!) and you have lots of speaking engagements/school visits taking up your time, so how do you balance out your writing with your other commitments?
Marcia: Balance, discipline, and confidence are three things I constantly struggle with. Sometimes I do pretty well. Other times, well, other times I do really well at napping, reading, and watching TV!
Something that works for me is to set goals. By setting goals, I mean I write them down, review them everyday, and then check them off. That helps keep me focused.
The number one best piece of advice I have comes from Jeff Davis in his book THE JOURNEY FROM THE CENTER TO THE PAGE. Davis challenges writers to make writing appointments…and keep them. “If you keep appointments with your hairstylist or with that friend who hounds you to have lunch each Wednesday, then why not keep regular weekly, if not daily, appointments with your muse? (She’s probably more fun and less gossipy. Maybe)” (page 16)
Davis’s whole idea of giving your time ‘shape’ led me back to doing what I did as a teacher. Like most teachers, I completed weekly lesson plans. I always started by putting in the non-negotiables (like recess and lunch J ). Then I blocked in times for specific lessons. By doing this, time had a definite shape. There was that big block for math and one for reading and music and art, etc..
Now I do the same thing for writing. I give my time shape by starting with a weekly blank schedule and then blocking in the non-negotiables (like appointments and family responsibilities). After that, I start filling in exactly when and how I’m going to complete my stated writing goals. I do all this in a Word document, and I use different colors to highlight categories of activities. By the end of the week, I have a visual that shows definite shape to how I spent all my time. I always strive to have more ‘writing shapes’ then anything else.
I don’t always do this, though if I did I would be much more productive. I definitely fall back to ‘shaping my time’ when I find myself drifting away from writing for whatever reason.
Jody: Love these ideas and will definitely need to check out Davis’s book. I’m always searching for ways to be more productive! Okay, lastly, you and I both know the publishing industry is changing—with e-books and publishers expecting more from their authors in terms of promotion and use of social media. What’s your take on that?
Marcia: The publishing world is changing so fast that I think everyone is scrambling for a foothold. One thing that worries me is how easy it is for people to self-publish in the e-world. Reader beware on this one since self-publishing makes it more and more difficult to find quality literature. Many people (both readers and writers) don’t truly understand the value of the editing process. That’s when many mediocre stories are made to shine.
Another problem that needs to be addressed is ethical publishing practices. There needs to be a system in place that protects writers and readers from various forms of piracy.
However, I can see where e-publishing is tempting considering legendary publishers can take years to publish a book; or even years to reject a book. That’s pretty hard, as a writer trying to make a living, to accept. So I think the process of legendary publishing will need to adapt in order to compete.
I understand that using social media can be beneficial. I have a Web site; I’m on Facebook, but let me be honest. I write for kids. I really don’t think social media reaches my audience, and it shouldn’t, should it? I feel very uncomfortable when an elementary-aged student contacts me using social media, and for liability purposes, I do not engage in online conversations with them.
I truly enjoy traveling to schools, bookstores, and conferences to sign books and to speak about writing in workshops and teacher professional development sessions. But I have to be honest, those types of promotional tours are GREAT for getting reader and writing conversations, but they don’t usually result in sales spikes. The ones I see that can truly make a difference in the sales of traditionally published books are the publishers. They’re big enough to reach readers all over the world, especially young readers.
Not to say it can’t happen. I would love for some of my writing to ‘go viral’. If you can make that happen, please do! But in reality, the chances of that are similar to my chances of winning a mega-lottery. Yeah, It could happen…
I’ve also known writers who do a tremendous amount of promotions. They spend hours of their time on it. While few have seen a difference in their sales numbers (unless their work has been offered as a free e-book or at a very low rate), they HAVE commented that they’ve spent so much time on their promotions that they haven’t had a chance to, um, actually write anything.
I think it all goes back to your question on balance and purpose. I’m a writer, and I’m trying to be the best writer I can be. I know part of that is to connect with my young readers, and the best way for me to do that right now is through personal interactions during school visits, conference appearances, workshops and signings. That…and by sitting in front of my computer, putting my fingers on the keyboard, and letting the words flow!
Which reminds me...I left one of my characters locked in a room after being kidnapped by goons while visiting the grave of her mother...I better go figure out a way to get her out of there!
Jody: Uh oh, Marcia, then I'll let you get back to work! Thanks so much for talking with me. You were a great first interview specimen and I know my blog readers learned a lot!