And here it is—the final installment of writerly conversation between Linda Urban and myself. Today is all about character development and debut year. If you missed any of the first three posts, click the day you’d like to view: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
Me: In The Center of Everything, Ruby is superstitious and wonders if one choice could alter her future. This quote is from your website:
"On New Year's Eve, I write down all the things I want to happen in the year upcoming and then stick the list behind my mirror. And guess what? For the past few years most of those things have happened.
Now, my rational side says that this is because every time I look in the mirror, my subconscious is reminded of what it is I want and encourages me to work all the harder to get it. But the other part of my brain knows it is magic."
This, to me, is a Ruby rationale. I love it. What other parts of yourself have permeated your characters?
Linda: I don’t know that I can write a character without understanding that character in myself. Some of those bits are small. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but I do remember days when I felt “chosen” by them and how momentarily powerful that felt. That feeling is in Crooked’s Emma Dent. I wasn’t desperately shy, but there have been times when I’ve walked into a room and felt both invisible and painfully examined at the same time. That’s Mattie Breen in Hound Dog True. I’m not sure how you could write a character who didn’t have some connection to yourself, to things you’ve felt, to emotions you’ve known. Can you do it?
Me: No. Not with my main characters. But my secondary characters often mirror specific types of people that I’ve known—people I’ve observed acting one way or another, people that I have formed opinions or made assumptions about in much the same way my main characters observe the secondary characters and form opinions and make assumptions of their own. As I revise, I’ll add backstory and layers to each character. It’s a process.
Are your characters fully formed before you type the first word, or do you get to know them as you write?
Linda: Oh lordy, no. I know almost NOTHING about my characters, or even my story, when I start. They show up and walk around and talk – mostly talk – and I learn who they are. Actually, that description might be misleading. It sounds like they are external things and I’m watching them and taking notes. It’s not that at all. I’m inhabiting them and writing with them. Sort of.
Me: As a debut author, and for all other debut authors, I would love some sage advice. How did you deal with the distractions of debut year? By distractions I am referring to nervously awaiting the arrival of professional reviews, wondering if anyone out there would connect with your book, worrying that you’d never finish another (and knowing full well you wouldn’t if you didn’t stop worrying!). How did you turn off all that noise in your head and get back to writing another book? Or were you the picture of serenity?
Linda: How did I deal with those distractions? Poorly. I was an incessant self-googler. I knew the advice to get working on something else and I tried that, but the book I had been attempting wasn’t working and even though I had an open contract, my editor and I agreed that book was not really to be the next published one. And I had no other ideas. So for several months I just googled and panicked and googled and worried and googled and tried to convince myself that if I just calmed down, something would come. It did – but it took a very long time.
So, by way of advice I say this: Try to work on something else. If you don’t know what that something else is, give yourself a learning project that you don’t intend to publish. Tell yourself you will write a six line poem a day. Or that you’ll write a monologue a week, each from the perspective of a kid you see at the mall or at your son’s preschool or in the background of your favorite show. Whatever it takes to balance your author self with your writer self.
Oh, and don’t look at GoodReads if you can help it.
Me: I am sorry, Linda, but I’m relieved to know this. I pictured you serene and laid back. I guess the truth of the matter is, all authors struggle with distractions. Thank you for your honesty.
Linda: Here’s a question for you: What do you think people in the business forget or don’t even know about what it is to be a debut author? What do you wish they knew or remembered?
Me: I think perhaps people forget how overwhelming the whole experience can be. You feel like a microscopic minnow in this massive sea of talented authors and seasoned professionals. It’s rather intimidating to try and keep pace with that. Publishers don’t have the time to usher us through the process, and so it can feel like you’re wading out into the waters alone, and you don’t even know how to swim. You’re just crossing your fingers that someone will at least toss you a pair of water wings.
Being a debut author can be scary and that causes lots of worry. At the end of the day, I put tons of pressure on myself to do everything right. Sounds a bit like Ruby Pepperdine and Lizzie Hawkins. Everything comes full circle.
And that’s it, folks. Linda and I hope you enjoyed this long peek into our even longer email chat. It has been a pleasure chatting with Linda, and it was fascinating to learn that our journeys into the world of kidlit were quite similar. You can keep up with Linda by following her on Twitter and through her blog.
Last, but in no way least, a sincere thank you to Linda for taking the time to talk with me. I am honored and eternally grateful.