Monday, April 7, 2008

Author/Editor Interview Series #1: R.A. Nelson Guest Author of Writing Away Retreats October 2008

Hey guys! Happy Weekend!

I am beginning a blog with a series of interviews to promote the staff of Writing Away Retreats. I’ll be posting this blog on Saturday in addition to my usual blog on Tuesday. I hope you learn something and enjoy it as much as I did. I’m kicking this series off with our brilliant and kind guest author for October 2008, R.A. Nelson.

Staying Positive in a Negative World:
An Interview with R.A. Nelson:
Guest Author for Writing Away Retreats October Session.

Author of two award winning YA novels, Teach Me and Breathe My Name, RA Nelson, will be the guest author for the October 2008 Writing Away Retreat Session. His writing is provocative, evocative and most of all, well-crafted and his advice weighs heavy with years of experience in many areas inside and out of literature. But what makes him more unique to the literary world is his glowing and very real optimism. His words are spot on, but it is this buoyancy that he hopes to provide writers starting out on their journeys or looking to complete their journey to becoming published. His writing may be dark and thrilling, but his advice has glints of a bright and fresh look at the pessimistic world of publishing.

To give our potential retreat goers an idea of exactly who R. A. Nelson is as a writer and more importantly as a person, I have taken the liberty to gather up the information you need. Actually, its information we ALL need as writers.

CJ: Tell me about yourself, your typical writing day etc…

RN: I’ve always heard about writers setting aside a certain time to write or an amount of time each day, but because I work full time, I go with a word count for each day. in Which means I write whenever I can, even if it’s just 15 minutes here, an hour there, you’ve got to make do with the time you have. Usually, when I’m really into a project, I a minimum of 500, but I shoot for 1,000 and average around 1,200 when I’m really chugging along. These days I do a better job of keeping my internal editor in check, and so I’m able to put out more words. I don’t want to kill the forward momentum of the story. . On the other hand I’ve never been a fan of the proverbial ‘crappy first draft.’ I have to feel good about a book I’m writing, even during the first draft. I know some writers hate the actual process, but I love it. But only if I know what I am putting out is not junk. But for the most part, my routine is to keep doing what I’m doing day after day. It slowly piles up.

Life goes by too fast, let this work to your advantage as a writer…I like to tell people to hitch their writing to the wagon of time and let it pull their book along. Let the work build on its own by working at it each day.

CJ: How long does it typically take for you to finish a project?

RN: It really depends on what’s going on at the moment. I wrote two or three books, all of which remain unpublished, before breaking into the published world with my novel, Teach Me. One of those books took me three years to write because I was working a lot of overtime at NASA. But Teach Me took seven months. The first draft of Breath My Name took about six months. Revisions, other parts of the writing processes, including publishing issues, turn over at Razorbill etc, delayed it for much longer. But really books take longer than that. After completing a first draft, I like to put it aside for a month or so to give my brain a rest and be able to come back to the work with a fresh eye. However, a lot of times I begin to think of my next project while I’m working on the current one, and I have to watch myself, or I’ll want to keep going and finish the first one quickly, so I can get started on the next. I read an article where Norman Mailer said you have to let your imagination rest, otherwise it will temporarily burn itself out. If that happens to somebody as prolific as Mailer, imagine what happens to the rest of us!. The year before I wrote Teach Me, I wrote 150K words. I had to take a couple of months off from writing. But when I started working again, I found the voice for the main character in my first published book. You need to live a little too, spend more time with family or friends, coach some basketball, whatever it is you need to do to bring you back to life and ready to write again.

CJ: Have you ever formally taught writing before?

RN: I’ve coached a few workshops here and there at writing conferences, and I’m doing more of that now that I have two books out, and I’m becoming better known. Invitations are coming in.. But I’ve helped writers across all genres with critiques and MS edits for a number of years.

CJ: Why do you write? What makes you write on the subjects you write on?

RN: I’ve always loved telling stories. I think I kind of live life according to stories. Just about everything I see makes me think in narrative terms. Like when we took a trip down to Florida, I remember stopping to get gas and seeing an old pen lying next to the pumps. Immediately my mind started churning: who did the pen belong to? Why was it left behind? Did they leave it behind on purpose? Or was it lost by accident? Maybe there was a fight in the car, causing the pen to be thrown, or maybe someone wanted to leave it behind as a kind of clue? Or did they use it to write amazing love letters? Blah blah blah…..see, it’s really like an autonomic function. I can’t help it. Don’t even realize I’m doing it. Everything seems to be interpreted in the form of a story. And that’s just a pen. Imagine what goes through my head when I pass a strange looking house. An abandoned barn. A swollen creek. Etc. As to subject, I like to write books that scare me. By this I mean, books that challenge me, or push the envelope in some way. Each book should have an idea that really excites me, challenges me in some way. Some writers say they hate to write, they hate the process etc, but I usually love the process. I really enjoy it. But I can only enjoy it if I’m really excited about the idea I’m working on. I want to write books that wake me up in the middle of the night, books that cause insomnia. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth it. If an idea seems too scary, to big, that’s the one you should be working on. That’s the one that will give you the most satisfaction as a writer.

I once read a book on confidence. The author spoke of goals for life, and she said to take these goals and divide them up into two piles: the goals that scare you and the safer, smaller ones, the ones that don’t. Then you go and do the pile of things that scares you. That’s where you’ll find satisfaction in life. It is in the challenges of your life where you will experience the most growth. Ignore the formulaic life.

CJ: What’s the most important tip you can give a new writer or one who has been writing for a while, but has yet to become published?

RN: My thinking on this often runs counter or backwards to a lot of the advice you might hear. I‘ve never liked the idea of wallpapering your bathroom with rejection slips, for example. Getting published is not like winning the lottery. I really feel if you work hard enough at it, compare yourself to the best writing you see out there, that you can substantially increase your odds. Don’t compare your work to the worst writing you see, compare it to the best. You always hear people say, “I can write a better book than that.” Well, if it’s a bad book, so can thousands of other people. Do the best writing you are capable of doing, and then when you submit your work, you will be competing against dozens of submissions rather than thousands. Then the odds work much more in your favor.

Also, there are plenty of writers who are perfectly competent at their craft, but they don’t have enough at stake in their books. A genius can take any subject, any conflict, and stand a solid chance of making it a terrific read, but for most of us, we need to have a lot at stake for the protagonist. Now I’m not saying every book has to be full of explosions or world-saving heroics. Not at all. I’m saying you have to make the book’s central conflict truly matter to the reader, whatever it is. Always remember that most readers simply want to be entertained. They are looking for story, first and foremost. This doesn’t mean you should give them books that are formulaic and riddled with clichés and easy, “first draft” writing, but it does mean they are expecting a great story, no matter what your style or genre. Your competition is fierce. These days you need something that can hook the reader and keep them hooked. I always want to take the time to choose the kind of idea that keeps me excited about what I’m doing. Because usually that means the reader will be excited as well. For me its the excitement generated by great ideas that helps you do it every day, that makes you work hard and keep improving until what you are doing is good enough to send out into the world. Writing is very hard work, some of the hardest work you’ll ever do. A lot of writers compare writing a book to running a marathon…you can’t do it all in one crazy burst. You’ve got to keep at it, day after day, even on those days when you don’t feel one bit creative or your exhausted or your life outside of writing is driving you nuts. So it’s best if you don’t worry about what’s hot, the latest trends, but write what really lights your fire. That’s the kind of writing that will keep you going through the rough days.

I didn’t submit my work for a really long time because I wanted to submit the very best work I could. Sometimes writers get desperate to publish, and they will do just about anything to see their name on the cover of a book. Writing what you love, writing books you can be proud of, that’s what’s important to me. Sometimes this takes a little longer, but in the long run, this is the kind of thinking that I believe will build a career with a solid foundation.

CJ: You’ve been touted as writing racy, thrilling novels….what do you think about those who are out there, trying to succeed with a quiet novel?

RN: The people who call my books racy probably haven’t read them. They are just going on what they’ve heard, what the story is about. And they assume it’s going to be sensationalistic or titillating. But I work very hard to right books with a lot of depth to them, stories that resonate with the reader emotionally. I almost didn’t want to right Teach Me, because I knew that’s what some people would think about my book before they ever read the first word. But a friend of mine convinced me to write it – she said I would do a good job of it for that very reason, knowing that that was a concern of mine. And that I would take my subject seriously and would not write a shallow, racy novel. There are enough ‘junk’ books out there already. I don’t intend to ever write one. Which brings us back to your question. It’s not that you can’t write a quiet novel, it’s just that it is up to you to build enough power behind the story to turn it into a memorable experience for the reader. How do you do that? It usually takes an extraordinary writer. But if that is the kind of book that thrills you, that is the kind you should be writing. I feel that any good book has lots of “quiet” moments – moments of character development, reflection, growth. That’s why I don’t think in terms of writing books that are character driven or plot driven. My goal is always to write a book that is the best combination of both—what I call “story driven” books. It all begins with two things for me: a great idea and great characters. There is no need to sacrifice one for the other. Some of the most famous novels and stories out there are quiet, but powerful tales. I once read a James Joyce story where the turning point for the protagonist was when she sat down and said, I’m tired. But at that point in the story, hearing this from her was enough to break your heart. If you have a really good story to tell, then tell it. Give your story authority no matter what the subject is.

CJ: What do you think is the biggest stumbling block for new writers?

RN: If you are serious about getting published, your writing has to read like it has already been published. By this I mean, it has to be polished, professional these days to catch someone’s eye. For the most part, the days are gone where an editor will buy a raw manuscript with a lot of flaws, with the idea of nurturing a new writer’s career through several poor books to get to a breakout book. To stand out, your writing needs to be the very best work you can produce, as measured against the very best writing you see in your chosen genre. And when I talk about polish, I’m talking about structure even more than sentence and word choice. Your story has to be very solid. Editors simply don’t have the time these days to shepherd new writers through a major rewrite of their first novel. It’s too big a gamble, unless the writer shows incredible promise. Some editors will work with a writer on an unpublished book to a degree, but they usually will do this ‘on spec,’ meaning the writer has to spend months, even years, of work without any guarantee of a contract. I’ve known a number of writers who spent months or years revising books on spec, only to see the final work rejected. Or, in some cases, the editor who was working with the book has moved to another publishing house, and the new editor has no interest in the project, no matter how much work the writer has put into it. So you want your first offering to be the very best, most professional manuscript you can possibly turn out.

Thomas Wolfe used to send his editor manuscripts that arrived in crates and were several feet tall. Then Maxwell Perkins would spend months cutting and rewriting the story to get it into publishable form. Those days are long gone. Editors expect to see something sharp, as if it’s already shelf ready. Even query letters need to be tight, well written, with a solid, concise hook and maybe give a little taste of the writer’s style. As a new writer, you don’t get much of an audition. A first reader can literally read a few paragraphs and toss your manuscript aside. And it’s important to remember that your writing not only has to please an editor, but also a committee of sales and marketing people, accounting types, design specialists, etc., and even other editors. Meetings are usually held to attempt to determine just how many copies of your book it will be possible to sell before it’s ever bought. These people can kill the idea if they don’t think it will sell. First novels are bought because they feel ready to be published. And even after you are published, your books will be judged on their sales figures, and if they aren’t meeting expectations, a publisher will give you one or two books at the most to see if your career will start blossoming. It’s very much a bottom line business.

CJ: What do you feel is the main thing you can offer writers who come to this retreat?

RN: Writers I have worked with in the past say that I am very good at critiquing and editing. I think I have a good sense of what works in a story and what doesn’t, and I can rapidly put my finger on what needs to be corrected and offer suggestions on how to fix what is not working. A critique is much better if you can offer suggestions on how to fix problems rather than just point out the problem.

I feel writing can always use a new set of eyes, especially eyes that are . I very experienced. I can offer a different approach to a manuscript if needed, giving different ways to address the issues the author is having. Also I have worked with a lot of different genres. Fiction, fantasy, non-fiction, children’s picture books etc…

Plus, I like to find what’s good about a manuscript and go from there. I have an immense amount of respect for other writers, particularly if you can complete a story, no matter what the end product is. Completing a book takes a lot of endurance, willpower etc. I’m not one who will pounce on people. I believe it’s counterproductive to ‘punish’ writers for their work. . To me, it’s all about being constructive and helping them make their end product better. That’s always the goal. Serve the book. Whatever you can do to improve it, that’s what you need to do.. I get no thrill out of tearing something down for the sake of it. I get real joy out of seeing others succeed. I’m an optimist. When I see others succeed, it’s inspiring. If they can do it, then so can I. . Inspiration is the key, not jealousy.

CJ: What would you hope for our attendees to walk away with?

RN: A more solid sense of what is required to break through in this business. An insider’s sense of what publishers are really looking for and suggestions on how to approach them, the editors/agents etc. Plus, I hope to demystify the experience, help them to learn how to deal with the isolation every writer goes through, especially when they think that there’s nobody out there who cares. Sharing what it’s really like to work with editors and agents. They’re people too. I also want to share my evolution as a writer, how I worked towards my career as a published writer and how I really got serious about it, buckled down, and the strategies that made the difference for me.

CJ: What excites you about attending this retreat?

RN: For years I was isolated, as many writers are. I never knew anyone who was a writer, especially a published writer. I had no other writers to talk to. I went to writers groups, but the other people treated it more like a hobby than a possible profession. They weren’t really serious about getting better. I think a lot of writers groups treat writing the same they would treat growing orchids or building model train sets or maybe as a kind of therapy. I wanted to be read, I wanted readers.

It’s wonderful to meet people who are writers and want to write. Whether they are published or not doesn’t matter. Getting to talk ’shop’ is rare and exciting. Unless you’re a writer, it’s odd to talk about writing. It’s hard for the general public to imagine what it is we do as writers. Being around a group of like minded individuals is an energizing experience. Being able to talk about the craft without making everyone nod off is exhilarating. To meet other writers, who think about writing as the center of themselves, their ‘right livelihood,’ is thrilling. To meet up with a group of people like this, where the sum is always greater than the whole, the energy that comes from this is exponential in its return. It’s all about that human connection, the drive to have others share in your experience.

R.A. Nelson’s full bio can be viewed on his website at or you can join him on MySpace at

He looks forward to working with you this fall!

Hope you guys enjoyed this! I’ll have a few more in the coming weeks in order to promote the retreat and give you ONE more reason why you should attend the retreat in October or make plans to attend one in the future.

Have a great week and my usual blog will still be posted on Tuesday.

Yours in Thrilling Writers, Telling it Like it is and Taking Some But Giving More,


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the wonderful questions, Cicily! It was fun answering them and talking shop with you.

Can't wait to do the same with the retreat guests!

R.A. Nelson