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.
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.