Tricia Fressola Idrobo, a children’s writer from New Jersey interviewed Meredith Sue Willis about her new book Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel, recently published by Montemayor Press (For her first interview of Meredith in May, see her blog post.) Meredith Sue Willis, also from New Jersey, teaches novel writing at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and is the author of over fifteen books, including novels, collections of short stories and books about the writing process. Out of the Mountains, a collection of short stories depicting contemporary life in Appalachia, was just published by Ohio University Press.
Here is Tricia’s interview of Meredith Sue Willis:
Q: First of all, I loved your book. I think it is a great resource for both beginners that seek a solid foundation, and those like me, who are writing their second or third novel. Was there any certain type of writer you had in mind as you wrote the book?
A: Thank you! I suppose I started with the people who take my novel writing classes at NYU– Novel I: Beginning Your Novel and Novel II: Advanced Novel Workshop. I also do a one day class for NYU called Jump Start Your Novel, so maybe the book was especially for those people whose specific needs I don’t get to know.
As I revised, I imagined perhaps people in a creative writing class with a teacher, and I imagined individuals working on their own. Underlying that audience I was addressing was my own need to figure out and explain things for myself.
Q: You emphasize the difference between the process and the product. In other words, some of the writing we do may not find itself in the final draft, (the product) but the act of writing it, of thinking it through (the process) is what’s needed to create such a complicated work as is a novel. What made you come to this realization?
A: About twenty years ago process versus product was a big topic in the teaching of writing to children. The thought was that you want to separate fluency from worrying about correctness. It’s not about whether one thing is important and the other thing is not, it’s about the order in which you do things.
Thinking about process and product assumes revision. This is very important with children– where I did almost all of my early teaching– the idea that what you write can be played with and changed. So process versus product, like so many good ideas, has been in the air for a while. It really resonated with me, too, because for so long I’d had a view of Art as a kind of religious experience– as a possession by the gods in which you are struck by inspiration and then wrote down undying and unchangeable words (or painted images or musical notes). In real life, writing didn’t feel like that to me, by the way. Well, occasionally I’d get filled with the spirit and write something wonderful in a single burst. But sometimes I get filled with the spirit and write trash. And sometimes I work and work and work and get something good after much effort and struggle and not a lot of inspiration.
Q: Your book offers a lot of exercises to try out various techniques and to get to know intimately your setting and characters—the world of your novel. (See my previous interview for a discussion of using sensory details, common objects and memories to inspire new ideas.) Do you recommend such exercises for those writing a sequel or series—where the setting and characters are pretty much the same? Is there always something new to learn about your characters and settings, or do you reach a point where you know enough?
A: It seems to me that if there were nothing new to learn about my characters and setting, I’d be pretty bored. Of course, in a sequel or second book, you have something to build on. You can refer to things or summarize things. Your characters can be a little older (the second year at Hogwarts!) or in a new setting, or a new kid can move into the neighborhood. Gramps can die. The dog had puppies. Whatever. Change disrupts– and enriches our writing.
Q: I love your “archipelago” concept of writing: write the main scenes of your entire novel—the ones that engage you—then go back and fill in what comes in-between. You say, “Never write the boring stuff. If it bores you, it will surely bore other people, and furthermore, if you get bogged down in writing things you feel are a chore, you many never get to the things you want to write.” That advice couldn’t have come at a better time for me, as I’m drafting my second novel. But don’t you have to sometimes write scenes that don’t particularly inspire you in order to complete a draft? (You could always go back and revise when you get the inspiration.)
A: I didn’t mean to be rigid or doctrinaire. I was just making a point, which is that we shouldn’t obsess over what we think we SHOULD be writing rather than what we really want to write.
Q: Actually, what I liked about your book was that it wasn’t rigid or doctrinaire, how it outlined different approaches to writing.
A: Thanks. As far as not writing what doesn’t engage you, you can always summarize or even have characters summarize in dialogue or monologue. If the character went to summer camp but that’s not what you want to write about, you can always say, “Maisey came back from camp with sun freckles and a lot of mosquito bites, but she had finally mastered the butterfly stroke in swimming. The first week of school she tried out for the swim team….” Or, alternatively, have her go to tea at her grandmother’s and tell her grandmother about camp. The more important thing is to write what engages you– or maybe better, to engage yourself in what you write.
Q: In your teaching experience, which of these ten strategies tend to give your students the most challenge?
A: Interesting question. Of course, the real answer is that it’s different for different people: some people feel they can’t write dialogue to save their souls, others thrive on dialogue and hate description. I tried in the book to offer exercises that could get a writer going in an area they were hesitant about.
In novel classes, though, I would have to say I get more people anxious about structure than anything else. Or, maybe I should say, structure is the big issue for a certain kind of writer. People who start with characters or maybe a setting or a powerful sense memory often find structure and plot the hardest thing to do. They write happily for endless hours, and then, when they come up for air, don’t know what to do with all the material they’ve written.
On the other hand, another kind of writer, the kind of writer who starts with a plot or an idea or concept, often has trouble with the quotidian business of world building– they sometimes find all kinds of description a challenge.
Q: What challenges you, personally, the most?
A: Finding the story. I’m the kind of writer who starts with something other than story, and I find events come gradually, as I write my way through my material. The way I deal with structure and story line is usually to lay the book aside, sometimes for a couple of years, and when I come back, I often see its shape and direction much more clearly.
Thanks, Meredith Sue! I know your book will be a great help for many aspiring writers.
And thank you Tricia for sharing your interview with all of us.