You’re just in time for another scintillating discussion of a writer’s process. Please help yourself to a bagel as we begin.
If you’re the kind of writer who works on more than one project at a time, this discussion has your name all over it. It certainly has mine! With me is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA—the awesome and wonderful Lori Steel!
El Space: Welcome, Lori. Please tell the folks out there about yourself.
Lori: Well, let’s see. Most don’t know that I’ve worked as a: dishwasher, waitress, bartender, sub-delivery girl, secretary, hotel room service supervisor, nanny, egg-picker and deer-checker (yes, you read the last two right). I eventually ended up as a teacher and children’s library specialist. I “retired” from the classroom last year after completing my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
El Space: Woot!
Lori: Now I teach creative writing classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore and online for Johns Hopkins University. And, of course, I write.
The UK was home for about seven years. It started as a one-year study-abroad stint at Liverpool University. There, I joined the rowing team, went clubbing, sometimes studied. (My teenagers won’t read this, will they?) and met my husband. We eventually married, moved to Oxford, raised two children, and bought our first home. I continued rowing for Wolfson College—even won the “bumps” race when three months pregnant. Rather apt, don’t you think? Here’s a picture of my oar to prove it. Oh, and I took my first writing class. The rest is history.
El Space: Impressive! So, what projects are you working on now?
Lori: I’ve recently completed a middle grade historical novel, Finding Lost River. Set in 1960s Appalachia, it’s about 13-year-old Catherine O’Flynn who channels her idol, Johnny Cash, by wearing black to bring some music and light into the dreary town of Dowstan.
She never expects her Easter break to start with a secret. Instead, Cat finds River, a runaway boy, squatting in her chicken house. She soon becomes caught in the undertow of his story—one of abuse and survival—as River seeps into her skin. Cat’s story is about recognizing the redemptive power of truth and the comfort of family.
At the moment I’m writing a YA verse novel, still untitled. I chose the free-verse structure for this project, because it’s a story that deals with difficult themes. But I’m keeping mum about that one for the time being. It’s still marinating . . . too many cooks, and all that!
I’ve also just finished revisions on two picture books. In Murmur, a starling alights on the bow of a rowboat during a paddle on the loch before flying skyward—and turning into something quite extraordinary.
The bossy Sergeant in my concept picture book, Sandpiper School, gives orders to his Fledges until the GBC (Giant Blue Crab) arrives unexpectedly and his Fledges need to use their newfound skills to save him. I’m also wrapping up revisions for a picture book poetry collection titled Me, Tree, where the varying forms of poetry are all told from a tree’s perspective.
El Space: Sounds great! What do you find helpful as you juggle projects?
Lori: For me, writing picture books, early readers, and poetry is more akin to solving a puzzle. Working at the micro-level needed for these forms—where efficiency of language is paramount—helps me appreciate the value of each syllable, each word, each line. It’s not unusual for me to unlock issues I’m having in my larger WiP when I’m puzzling out a poem or a line of picture book text. Often when I’ve finished one set of novel revisions or find myself at an impasse, I switch gears and pull out smaller pieces. Having said all that, once I’m in the story, that’s it. It’s chocolate fueled, sleepless weeks of drafting and revising . . . until the next impasse!
El Space: I’m always chocolate fueled, even when I’m not at an impasse! So, what authors inspire you? Why?
Lori: I always find this a tough question! Each author I read inspires me in different ways. But since we’re talking about writing in various forms and genres, how about Katherine Paterson? Her ability to craft picture books, early readers, and middle grade stories with finesse, honesty, and heart is remarkable. Jacob I Have Loved is one of my all-time favorites.
Kate DiCamillo for sure—every time I reread Because of Winn-Dixie, I glean something new. And just to throw an adult author out there, Ian McEwan because his prose makes my brain tingle.
El Space: What advice do you have for someone working on more than one book project?
Lori: I’ve recently converted to Scrivener to keep track of my writing projects, and wonder how I ever managed without it! The program allows me to go in and out of projects at the scene level, so it’s easy to find where I’ve left off.
Consider joining critique groups that vary in focus. I belong to two different critique groups—one for picture books and one geared more towards MG and YA. Both keep me on regular deadlines, challenging me to produce more work than if I were going it alone. They also force me to write for different audiences. Choose colleagues who will encourage you to break outside your comfort barriers.
Finally, the great thing about working on more than one book project is that it allows you to experiment. Give yourself a challenge: Write a small piece in a genre you’ve never tried before. If you normally write YA, craft a picture book. Read widely and deeply across audiences and genres. Be fearless. The worst that can happen is that you to write something completely unexpected—and that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
Thanks, Lori! Great advice! Now it’s your turn to ask Lori questions about her books and process by commenting below. Thanks for stopping by!
Juggling image from honorcraft.com. Jacob Have I Loved cover from Wikipedia. Starling from cruciality.wordpress.com.
Finding Lost River appeals to me as a Cash fan, and also the ‘comfort of family’ as my time as a foster carer. Also this is the second mention I have heard in these discussions of Scrivener. I will have to check this out! Thank you.
It is a helpful program, Andy. I might try it with the next novel. So, um, does this mean you’re going to write a novel?
at some future point perhaps. I know at the moment having a blog is helping because it is making me become a little more disciplined-having to write regularly as opposed to the odd poem every now and then.
I have a feeling you are going to become a constant prompter too. In a good way!
Good. Glad you recognize that, Andy. Yes. I enjoy nagging people to write. 🙂
Me too, about working on different projects concurrently and how solving one piece’s issues can help with another as well. Also, puzzles–yes!
I hear you, Carol. That’s this week for me too! I’m hoping at least some puzzles are solved! Thanks for coming by!
Puzzling one out this morning, Carol! (ps. LOVE the new photo:)
Thanks for your comments! It’s hard to not be a fan of Johnny Cash, isn’t it? And I admire anyone that takes on the role of foster carer. Have you read Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff? A beautiful book with similar themes to FLR, with the topic of foster caring front and center. And yes! Do try Scrivener if you’re game. I resisted for several years and wish I hadn’t. It’s revolutionized the way I work and how I approach writing at the scene level. Less daunting and user friendly than the long novel scroll through Word. Good luck!
Not heard of that book, I shall seek it out. And do let us know when your FLR is out. Thanks again, and best of luck with your future projects.
Cheers, Andy. You too!
Multiple projects! I am in awe of each of you–and so very, very impressed by what you are working on, Lori! Each of your projects sounds fascinating.
Thanks, Sandra.That means a lot coming from a fellow Gardener and brilliant writer!
I never can do multiple projects either, because my mind thinks in straight lines. When I try to do too much at once, I end up doing nothing. But you’ve inspired me to give it another try.
Do try it, Lyn! But don’t think of it as juggling multi-projects. Rather think of having a project to tinker with on the side between scenes/chapters/revisions of your primary project. This other piece can become a primary down the road or when you hit that great white wall in your WIP. And, really, you’re already doing it with your many blogging, editing/critiquing, social media and writing projects. Perhaps it’s all about mindset?
Lori, I think that’s it. Mindset. I feel overwhelmed sometimes at the thought of more than one project I need to plow through.
Always with the multiple projects. You make it look good.
Many writers worry about getting away from their WIP when picking up a smaller project, but I find it gives me distance and needed perspective – especially for revision. Looks like you have a similar writing process with multiple projects.
I do, but mostly with me I think it is a clear lack of ability to concentrate on just one thing.
Ionia, I admire anyone who can juggle multiple projects. I don’t do that well, though I have to do it now. I have trouble with multitasking. I’m the type of person who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time!
Great interview. I will be interested to read a book set in Appalachia.
Thanks, Andra. I actually lived there for a short time during middle and high school. Beautiful and remote. Hard being a city-girl in the country but learned so much (and talk about fodder later on!).
Lori, you have such an incredible range of experience!!!
Thanks, Andra. Lori’s book is the kind of book I love: pure, character-driven goodness! Thanks for stopping by!
I popped onto your site Andra – great blog! And I see some connection to Loretta Lynn there, too! Very cool.
“The worst that can happen is that you to write something completely unexpected—and that’s not such a bad thing, is it?” Not at all.I think it’s… wonderful. 🙂
I think so too! By the way, you have a very cool blog! I just finished reading the post about the Mad Hatter! Lovely! Thanks for popping by!
I echo L. Marie – you’re blog is very interesting. And I see that you’ve pulled a quote even from this blog post! That, itself, was…unexpected! 🙂
I saw this yesterday but didn’t have time to stop by and comment. (“Chocolate fueled.” Teeheehee.) I’m really glad I read this. I do both adult and children’s stories, but tend to focus on one or the other. I never thought of how working on the kids’ stories for a bit might help me move past a clunker in my grown-up stories.
I’m hoping to get chocolate fueled with a big bowl of ice cream. But maybe I’ll wait till after dinner. Oh who am I kidding? I’ll probably eat it now.
Oh dear. Now you have me thinking about chocolate AND ice cream.
Good. My work here is done then.
Yes, chocolate tends to be front and center when I’m zooming along in a project but stash has been found by teens and must replace the lot of it! I do think movement between projects – not jumping, just moving when you get to an impasse or between revisions – really does help unknot brain blocks in other WIPs, whether that’s across genre or audience. And, good on you for writing for both children and adults. One day, I hope to give that a try myself!
Oh dear! I hadn’t thought of what would happen when my kids hit their teens and there aren’t any more high places to hide my chocolate. I may need to buy a safe with fingerprint security…
A safe is a good investment. And when your kids look at you with those puppy eyes and promise to support you later in life, don’t give in. They’re only trying to get you to give them access to the safe.
Yet another mention for Scrivener! I seem to read more and more raving reviews about it these days. I totally agree with Lori on working on more than one project—not only because of the challenge, but I also find it a good way to keep the “creative juice” flowing, if you know what I mean. And yes, how often have I thought up something completely unexpected by doing so.
You both make a good case for multitasking. But this will play havoc with my plan to be lazy.
I resisted Scrivener for so long simply because it meant learning a whole new way of approaching story. I still don’t know all the ins and outs of the system yet, but most writers use a very small percentage of what there is on offer. Also, watch sites like Amazon and Apple who also sell it. I bought directly from literatureandlatte.com, but a few weeks later the program was half price for both PC and Mac users a week later on Amazon. With or without, good luck with the writing!
I like your puzzle reference because that’s exactly what I consider my picture books to be–puzzles! As one of the pb authors in my critique group said, “Each word must fit with the words before and after it to complete the whole.” I work hard on each word of my pb’s so that in them the characters are explored, the plot moves forward and the “theme” or “hook” is carried through.
That’s great, Naomi! Whenever I read picture books, I appreciate the craft that goes into them. I tried writing one, but so far, I don’t have an ending to it. Not a good sign.
Puzzling out words in PBs can be incredibly rewarding. As you say, although picture books are but 32 pages and often under 500 words, the characters, themes, plot lines must make sense and carry through to a satisfying ending. Working out how to craft just the right word to convey story with efficiency is the magic of PBs – just like fitting together that last piece in the middle of the puzzle!
I’m so excited about all of these projects, Lori! And equally impressed at your ability to juggle multiple genres and projects. I try to do this, but I’m not sure I do it very well yet. Also, excited to hear you’re teaching writing 🙂
Aw, thanks Shawna! And teaching writing definitely keeps my head in the game which help keep ideas flowing. But, then again, I’ve always been an educator. Not sure what it would be like not to have students – I gain as much from them as they do from me. It’s truly a symbiotic relationship.
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Thanks for the shout-out! 🙂
Great interview! As a native Appalachian, I’m very interested in Finding Lost River!
Thank you! Good to know. 🙂
Ah, lucky you! Appalachia is such a magical place. Wish I appreciated it more as a teen transplant…but trying, through my writing, to do that now! 🙂