In addition to her writing career as a middle grade, young adult, and picture book author, Denise Vega is the co-regional adviser for the Rocky Mountain chapter of the SCBWI. When I moved to Colorado five years ago she was one of the first local writers I met. I had been nervous about moving away from the thriving children’s literature community of the Bay Area and the friendships I’d formed there, worried I wouldn’t be able to find anything similar, but upon meeting Denise my worries were instantly put at ease. She and her co-advisor at the time, Chris Liu Perkins, couldn’t have been more friendly and knowledgeable about the children’s literature community out here by the Rockies and kindly welcomed me into the fold.
Denise is the author of the middle grade novels Click Here (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade) and its sequel Access Denied (And Other Eighth Grade Error Messages), the young adult novel Fact of Life #31, and the picture books Build a Burrito and Grandmother Have the Angels Come? You can learn more about her and her books at her website.
Now let’s step into Denise’s writing space and learn a little bit about how she works. (Random trivia–can you spot an item in her workspace that is the creation of another very well known writer in the children’s literature community?)
Depending on what stage of the writing process I’m in, I may be in my office—which I try to call my writer’s studio because it sounds much more creative and fabulous than “office,” but I keep saying “office”—very annoying. It’s a lovely space we added when we did our house renovation in 2007, connected to my yoga and meditation room (yes, I’m very spoiled). If I’m doing some pre-planning for a book or revising on paper, I will usually sit outside if it’s nice or in my comfy chair in my office—er studio—or in another part of the house so that becomes my workspace. I’ve also been going to Daz Bog in Aurora on Tuesdays after I drop my carpool off at Regis. I’ve been amazed at how much I get done in another location, even with wireless Internet access (online being the enemy of my productivity—okay, it’s really ME procrastinating with email and surfing, but it sounds better to blame the technology).
Describe a typical workday.
If I’m being especially disciplined, I’ll start in my meditation room and try to quiet my mind, then pick up where I’ve left off on whatever book I’m working on before accessing my email and other Black Hole–type things. This happens maybe 2–3 times/month because I’m not disciplined, though I’ve been better in 2010—the resolution hasn’t worn off yet. Most days I head to my computer, deal with business (including SCBWI email and planning), respond to fan mail for my Blab-o-Rama page on my website, do some type of marketing thing (get on one of the many social networking sites I’m on, create an ad or flyer, work on my quarterly e-newsletter, prep for one of the classes I teach, etc) or other busy work that keeps me from working on my books. Once I get started writing, I usually go for 2–3 hours before one or more kids gets home from school or I need to go pick someone up.
See that picture of me with that stack of paper? Even though it was staged, that’s what it looks like when I’m going through all of the comments on a manuscript from my critique group!
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1. The art on my walls was created by my brother John—one is of a goddess image that I commissioned and had input on during the design. He does graphic art on the computer that is absolutely stunning and I find it soothing and inspiring at the same time.
2. A postcard of Click Here stuck in a clip that has a black high top sneaker as its base—because that was my first published book and it reminds me that I’ve done it before so I can do it again.
3. A writing fairy that hangs near my computer given to me by the lovely and talented Jolene Gutierrez. On it is a quote by James Michener that says “I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” I love that Jolene took the time to find something so perfect for me and I love that it’s so perfect because the very best stories go to the depths and heights of human emotion and take readers with them.
Do you have any rituals? If so, describe them.
I jump over a lit candle three times and whisper affirmations to the writing gods while wishing for a huge plate of French fries. Kidding. But maybe I should (except for the fries, which will surely be the death of me, along with potato chips and chocolate). The aforementioned meditation/mind-clearing thing is a wannabe ritual since I don’t do it regularly. I think if I did, things would flow more easily when I begin to write.
What do you listen to while you work?
When the days are nice I open my window and let in the sounds of nature. That’s the best! I often work in silence, though when I was writing my latest novel about a guy in a rock band, I played a lot of my rock music to get in the groove. If a scene is really intense or I need to focus, I can’t have any distractions, though, so quiet is good.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
How much space do you have? Just kidding. Water is what I drink most because I’m not a coffee or tea drinker. Though I think I may take up tea as it sounds rather classy and romantic to have a cup of tea. When it’s really cold I’ll have a hot chocolate. Snacks range from “love it but bad for me” stuff like chocolate and other candy, to healthy stuff like air-popped plain popcorn and nuts.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
A good scene and also a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
I do my “pre-writing” long hand—jotting down ideas, snippets of dialogue, what the end of book is—but I do most of my writing on the computer and on my Dana AlphaSmart.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
You’ve asked this at an interesting time. I’m in the midst of what I’m calling my Grand Experiment. I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer, which for me means I have an idea I’m excited about, I write the first pages or chapters and then I stall. Then it takes me 18-24 months to complete a book as I follow tangents, change my mind, don’t focus on what the story is about, and so on. I moved from that to at least knowing the ending and a few key scenes, but it was still taking me a long time to write because I lacked true focus. But with the book I’m about to start, I’m being more thorough ahead of time. I wouldn’t call it an outline—shudder—but it’s a worksheet I developed based on classes I’ve taken, craft books I’ve read, and other writers’ processes. It forces me to identify the turning points in my novel and the climax and resolution, among other key markers. I’m hopeful that I will be more focused this way and not take so long to complete a book, while still able to be open to where the muse may lead once I begin the actual writing. But we shall see. It is, after all, an experiment that may fail miserably. ☺
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
My husband. He is very busy and can get involved in his own work and not interrupt me. I do NOT like to be interrupted, except when it’s vital. My family is very sensitive to this (I trained them well).
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard or received?
Wow. That’s hard because I’ve received or heard so many great pieces of advice—both general and specific. If I have to pick one, though, I’d probably say to find a process that feels right to you and trust it. What works for others may not work for you—though you can certainly try out other methods. Ultimately it has to be effective for you, whether it’s how you write, how you process and incorporate feedback, or how you balance your writing and personal life.
PS. I’ll be announcing the winner of the giveaway for Rachel’s book later this week. I’ve been away on vacation where the internet connection is slooooow and the sun and ocean have been calling me out to play, so I haven’t had the chance to do the drawing, but I will soon. Stay tuned!