Tag Archives: megan shepherd

Signed Books Motivate Me to Keep Writing

I buy oodles of books. They pile up on shelves, and on a wide windowsill beside my writing desk. They collect dust in stacks on a braided blue rug, and from time to time I clean them off. Every year we donate one or two boxes worth to a library sale, clearing space for new reads. But I can’t bear to part with any of the books that authors have signed to me. To me.

 

These pictures show only some of the many signed YA and middle grade titles in my collection. I also have a slew written for adults—nonfiction, poetry, memoir, mystery, thrillers, and literary fiction. I’d like to say I’ve read them all, but the truth is that some sit in my to-be-read stack (which got three books taller after last week’s RVA Lit Crawl. Richmond, VA, is a great town in which to be a writer. Have I said that before? Yeah.)

 

It takes a long time to draft a novel, and even longer to revise it, and in my case we’re talking years. I’m currently in a stage of deep and messy revision on two novels, and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get them out into the world. Sometimes I feel discouraged.

 

 

Then I pick up a signed book, feel its weight, turn a few pages, and run a finger across the inscription. I picture the author who signed it. I try to recall the conversation we had on the day I got the signature. I remember getting tongue-tied when I met Lois Lowry because The Giver is one of my all time favorites and I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting the author. We were in Richmond in the bookstore formerly known as Narnia (now bbgb books), and for Lois it had been a long day. I think she’d done some school visits, and by late afternoon was probably ready for a nap, but there I was, eager and tongue-tied, and as I recall, I mumbled that I was writing a book for young readers. “Good luck,” I think she said. Or maybe, “It’s a rewarding job.” Or maybe I’ve forgotten her exact words, but I haven’t forgotten her encouragement, her warmth, her smile.

 

Sometimes when I look at my name handwritten in a book, I imagine the author writing a new novel, hunched over a desk or leaning back in an overstuffed chair with a laptop, sipping coffee, typing away. I always picture these authors smiling, but who knows? Maybe they cry while they write. (Nah. Don’t tell me that. And actually, come to think of it, one of these authors has passed away, so I have to picture her smiling from heaven.) In any case, the image of most of these authors hard at work on another book motives me to get back to my manuscript.

Every morning when I slip into my backless chair, the shelves above my desk like telephone wires full of birds chatting and singing, ready to take flight, I feel the authors smiling. I imagine they’re smiling at me. At me! And I pick up my gel pen and begin to write…

 

On Plots

Plots. So hard to conceive. So necessary to craft well. You’ll often hear writers talk about the struggle to tease the plot out of the characters, but when I asked YA author Megan Shepherd about her process, she reflected more on the joy than the struggle. She wrote:

The Madman's Daughter“One of the trickiest parts of writing for me is also one of the most fun: plot twists. I adore books with surprising twists in them, and so I always try to add unexpected turns in my own. However, it’s a fine balance to plant enough clues so that readers don’t feel cheated when the twist hits them, but not too many so that they guess the twist way in advance. My rule of thumb is to set up a situation where there are two possible outcomes, Outcome A or Outcome B, and you try to make readers guess which one it will be, and then bam! You hit them with Outcome C.”

Okay, that paragraph alone made me want to read Megan’s debut, The Madman’s Daughter, just out from Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. Megan made it sound tricky, but … easy… when I know it’s not at all. I turned to another YA writer, Lenore Applehans, and asked about her plot-process. (Lenore’s debut, Level 2, has just been released from Simon & Schuster.) I wanted to know whether her approach was similar to Megan’s. But do any two writers have the same process? Of course not. Lenore told me:

Level 2“When I got the idea for Level 2, the main plot twists and characters kinda showed up at the same time. I worked hard with my editor to make sure that the plot made sense within the context of character motivations and choices. While I wrote with a minimal outline, I did have a vision for the story—so that everything I wrote was in service of the ultimate character arcs and I didn’t have to go back and cut a lot of filler.  In fact, my first draft was very spare, so revision was about adding instead of subtracting.”

So Megan and Lenore came at their stories from very different angles, but both crafted plots that made sense and didn’t make the reader feel cheated. What I find interesting is the notion that if writers do their jobs well, they become transparent; readers don’t see or feel the writer’s presence on the page. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? The writer puts in all the work, but in the end, it’s not about the writer. It’s about the story. The characters. The surprising twists. The vicarious experience of another world… And just thinking about it makes me want to curl up in an overstuffed chair with a good book. Okay, I’m done here…