A Peek at the Creative Space of Julie Anne Peters

Julie Anne Peters is the award-winning and critically acclaimed author of 16 published books including National Book Award Finalist Luna, Define “Normal”, Between Mom and Jo, Far From Xanadu, Keeping You a Secret, GRL2GRL: Short Fictions, and Rage: A Love Story. Her most recent title, By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead, was published earlier this year. An altered version of this interview originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Kite Tales for the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the SCBWI, available for download on their website. (It’s worthwhile to read both, especially the typical workday section to see a comparison of what she was working on two years ago versus today.)

Describe your work space.

Physically, I work in the dining room. Or living room. Or back porch. Kitten room, bedroom, car. The real work takes place in my head, and you don’t want to open that door.

Describe a typical workday.

No day is the same, really. My favorite part about being self-employed is that I get to decide how every minute of my time is spent. I do have short- and long-term goals for my writing, and self-imposed deadlines to keep me disciplined. Here’s what today looks like.

I have three novels in progress. One is under contract and I hope the second will be soon. The third is a middle grade novel, and I haven’t written for 9- to 12-year-olds in a while, so it’s challenging to return to my roots. The YA novel under contract is at the second revision stage with my editor, which means I’m waiting for line edits. If I’m working on a new book, the first draft, then all my focus is on that manuscript, that story and the characters. But I’ve always been able to switch between manuscripts easily, the way I can read more than one book in a sitting.

Most of my writing time is spent in revision, either my own revisions, those suggested by my critique group, or the ones from my editor. A major revision (as opposed to line edits) requires at least two months, since I need to read through the entire story several times to pick up on everything. With my editor, I never feel I have enough time to revise as thoroughly as I’d like, and I always feel anxiety about the nuancing aspects of my main character’s journey. I try to channel my editor’s vision for the book, and it doesn’t always come with clarity.

I do all my book writing in the morning while my mind is sharp. So much of writing is just thinking and if I’m consumed by a book, I may be “writing” most of the night, which means scrawling notes in the dark on the tablet I keep at my bedside. While conscious, I can only maintain the deep concentration required for transporting into a story for about three hours. In that time I can write or revise up to fifty pages. If I’m struggling to stay in the story, though, maybe ten pages get churned out. Hate those days.

Around lunch I have to get up and exercise. I always exercise in the morning, too, before I sit down to write. Also, if I have foster kittens, which is most of the time, they need to be fed and cuddled for a while. (My foster kittens are on a very strict nap, eat, play schedule while I’m writing.)

In the afternoon I turn on my computer. Sigh. I’ll spend two to three hours answering fan mail. (I do the fun stuff first.) Since my books are being translated, I get mail from all over the world—Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Taiwan, England, Japan, South America, Indonesia, France, Canada, Australia. Recently, readers from foreign countries have been writing to ask for autographed photos. Apparently collecting autographs is big in Europe. Young readers from 12- to 20-somethings write, but so do older readers and parents (eek), teachers, and librarians, booksellers and other professionals in the field. I answer everyone who writes, even if it’s to say, “I’ll get back to you soon on that.” I hope to always find time to engage with my readers.

I usually have business to attend to via e-mail. My agent or editors may write. Either individually or through my publicist, people send requests for interviews or book donations or personal appearances. My goal every day is to empty my e-mail inbox.

I’ve lost count of how many interviews I need to complete. It’s hard to say no to interviews when they’re free promotion for my work. I have one ongoing interview with Don Gallo, an anthologist and educator, that’s been going on for six months now. The questions cover my entire career and we’re finally up to my most current book. Don is kind, or savvy enough, to send only a few questions at a time so I don’t go completely bonkers.

Social networking is next. MySpace, Facebook and Twitter are time sinks, but again, connecting with readers is empowering. It’s pathetic, but I need all the confidence and ego massaging I can get.

I try to make time for reading every day. There’s usually a mountain of library books on the coffee table, and now editors and agents send me manuscripts or ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to blurb. A book has to blow me away before I’ll recommend it.

By evening my eyes are dead and my brain is mush, so TV is a balm. Since I write contemporary realistic fiction, I attempt to stay in touch with pop culture. The sappy CW shows, not so much, but I’m a reality TV addict.

Then I’m off to bed, scratching notes on the story I’m living and breathing, or dreaming of my next work or the one after.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

I’m not particularly attached to objects. I have five cats who sit on my manuscripts or claw my leg to be fed or paw the paper as it comes out of the printer. I’m quite fond of them. Do they count?

Do you have any writing rituals? If so, describe them.

Not really. I just sit down and do what needs to be done.

What do you listen to while you write?

Nothing. I can’t listen to music because I want to sing along. Music changes my moods, and my moods need to be manipulated by my story. While I’m writing, the world could explode around me and I wouldn’t choke on the dust.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I try to remember to fill a glass of water before I start to keep my brain lubricated. I can go all day without eating or drinking, and I hate having to come out of a story just to pee.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

The necessity of production. If I don’t produce, I don’t publish. If I don’t publish, I don’t get paid. If I don’t get paid, I don’t eat, plus I feel crappy about myself and the lack of purpose in my life. It’s vicious, the cycle.

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be and why?

Writing is a singular obsession and solitary endeavor. I don’t play well with others.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

Vary the sentence length in every paragraph. It seems simplistic, but it speaks to the heart of pacing, rhythm, cadence, word choice and readability.

***FREE BOOK GIVEAWAY REMINDER*** Comment on any post this week to be entered to win an autographed copy of By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters.

Sweetening the Pot

So that free book giveaway contest I just mentioned? I let author Julie Anne Peters know I was planning to do that and, kind and generous person that she is, she offered to autograph the book as well! So now it’s a free SIGNED book giveaway.

To win an autographed copy of her latest novel, By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead, simply comment on any post from this week (March 1-March 5). I’ll draw a name out of a hat for the winner.

By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead is a young adult novel that is a beautifully written, powerful story about suicide and bullying. Julie Anne Peters isn’t one to shy away from controversial topics or difficult material, and she certainly doesn’t do that here. This is a book I think people should be talking about this year, and I highly recommend it.

Creative Spaces Interview Series and a Free Book Giveaway!

Years ago, I attended a conference where Christopher Paul Curtis spoke. I remember him saying he spent every Saturday morning writing at his local library (I believe in the children’s section) working on what would become The Watsons Go to Birmingham. He left me with a mental image of this big man huddled over a small table at the library, scribbling away on a pad of paper. Most Harry Potter fans have heard the story of J.K. Rowling beginning to write the series in a London cafe with her baby napping in a stroller next to her. I once read that Philip Pullman used to work in a writing shed in his garden where he wrote every morning until he’d met his daily quota.

Not Philip Pullman’s Writing Shed

I love these sorts of tidbits, the small window they offer for imagining how a beloved book or characters came into existence. I see Christopher Paul Curtis drafting a scene while a toddler has a tantrum in the nearby picture book section. J.K. Rowling is brainstorming the rules to quidditch while a barista grinds coffee beans and an espresso machine hisses steam. The squish of dewey grass under Philip Pullman’s feet as he crosses the lawn to his writing shed, notebooks tucked under one arm. I also like the insight they give into each individual’s process and routine of writing.

I love to learn about where and how illustrators work as well. For a while I subscribed to Home Companion magazine and they regularly featured a variety of artists in their studio or workspace. Children’s book illustrators Eric Carle, Etienne Delessert, and Tony DiTerlizzi were featured in different issues, and it was fascinating to get a little insight into how they spent their working hours. I loved studying those photos, seeing what they surrounded themselves with, how they organized their supplies (or didn’t), learning that Eric Carle kept his handpainted tissue paper sorted by color in flat drawers, or seeing that Etienne Delessert works in an attic studio with tall angled walls framed in wooden beams, or reading this insight to Tony DiTerlizzi’s process: “My work is more than just creating cool characters–it’s about the world they live in, the tools and artifacts. What’s the architecture look like? What does this character’s bicycle look like? Some of the detail makes its way into the book and some of it doesn’t, but if you truly understand the character’s world, it makes your job much more enjoyable.”

As a creative person, I find it inspiring and often informative to learn about others’ creative process and what they surround themselves with while they work. My interest in these things is what gave me the idea for a column in Kite Tales, the Rocky Mountain chapter of SCBWI newsletter I previously worked on. That column was one of my favorite things from the newsletter and I miss working on it, which brings me to the fun project I mentioned yesterday.

This week I’m starting an interview series with writers and illustrators about their creative work spaces and how they work. Kind of like a virtual Take Your Child to Work day (for children of all ages and no guardianship required). In the next four days we’ll be hearing how young adult writers Julie Anne Peters and Amy Kathleen Ryan and illustrators Danlyn Iantorno and Roberta Collier-Morales spend their working hours. They’re sharing photos and a little insight into their creative process. To kick off the series, I’m posting an interview every day this week starting tomorrow and–just to spice things up a little more–I’m also giving away a brand new copy of Julie Anne Peters latest novel By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead. To participate in the giveaway, all you have to do is comment on any post from this week and your name will be entered in a raffle. The cut off time for entering the giveaway will be Sunday at noon, mountain standard time, and I’ll announce the winner sometime soon thereafter.

Great cover, even better book

I plan to continue this interview series throughout the year by posting one new interview each week on Mondays. (If you are an author or illustrator interested in participating, please contact me at the email listed in my sidebar. I’d love to feature people from all genres of children’s literature.)

I’m looking forward to getting a peek at the creative process of various writers and illustrators, and I hope you will be too!

What to do with Your Inner Critic(s)

Since I last posted I’ve been working on something fun that will be taking place in this spot starting next week. If you’re interested in creative people and hearing more about how they work, especially children’s book writers and illustrators, make sure to check back here on Monday.

I’ve also been chipping away at my revisions. I have to say, one of the biggest challenges in writing for me is stifling that inner critic. Critics plural, really. I imagine them all up there in my brain, squished together on a couch (a large couch, there are a lot of them) watching my creative process like it’s their own personal reality show. Chomping chips and spraying crumbs all over the place as they talk, wet rings from their beverage glasses marking up the furniture. Jumping all over each other’s words to point things out:

“How many times do you think she’ll rewrite that sentence?”
“She’s going with that version? The way she had the sentence two versions ago was way better.”
“Pass the chips, Stan.”
“The screen’s not magic, honey. Staring at it like that doesn’t make the words appear.”
“Could this scene be any more boring? Where’s the tension?”
“Stop hogging the dip, Hilde. And don’t think we didn’t notice that double dip.”
“For pete’s sake! What does the character want? Cheesecake, world peace, give me something here.”
“Maybe the character wants boring dialogue. That’s what they’re getting anyway.”

Like that. They’re a fun bunch, aren’t they? So what do you do with these inner critics. I’ll tell you up front, I don’t have an ironclad solution here. But I’ve gathered this much:

The worst thing to do is let them win. You always have to come back to the writing. You can’t walk away forever. If it matters to you, you have to come back to the writing.

You can try to fight them. Sometimes I argue back. Or I imagine gagging them with a bandana and duct tape and locking them in a mental closet so their chatter becomes more like a mumbling hum of bees. But it can be mentally draining to fight these critics, and eventually they work themselves free and resume their spots on the couch.

You could set up a nice bar and try to appease them with booze. But that road can easily lead to a louder and unruly environment, with the critics coming to blows over your excessive use of adverbs. And it’s pretty much inevitable that someone in the mix will end up being an emotional, crying drunk and someone else will be retching in the toilet. By the time they all pass out you’ll be too exhausted and the stench will be too unbearable to get any writing done.

The thing is, as annoying as they are, there is some benefit to having these critics around. Sometimes they offer something worth listening to. Maybe the dialogue could be sharper or maybe that scene is lacking tension. Maybe you do need to knock it off with the adverbs already. I don’t think the answer is to plow forward stubbornly, ignoring everything they have to say, anymore than it’s to run away.

The key for me has been to learn to work with them. What I know about these inner critics:

1) They want me to succeed. Deep down at least. Because they know if I do, they can claim a part of that. The criticism is their know-it-all way of trying to point me down the path they think will work best.
2) You can never please them all. You will never write something that every single one is excited about or interested in. (Especially Stan and Hilde. Those two never agree on anything.)

So I continue to chip away and try my best to tune out my mental characters and tune in my novel characters. Occasionally I have to shout at them to pipe down, or they bait me into an argument. I might stuff them in a closet so I can finally get some peace and quiet. Often times it’s in the peace and quiet that their words resonate most. The relevant ones rise to the top and I might even get excited as I see their point and understand how I can improve a scene. And crazily enough, if the peace and quiet lingers too long, I might even start to miss their constant chatter and bickering. Ring marks, crumbs, and all.

A Couple Cool Kid Lit Things

1. If you’re interested in children’s literature and not already following New York Public Librarian Elizabeth Bird’s Top 100 Children’s Novels countdown, I highly recommend you head on over there and check it out. She recently conducted a poll with her readers of their top 10 middle grade books of all time (I submitted mine–prioritizing ten was no easy feat and I immediately changed my mind after I clicked send. But oh well.) This week she’s begun revealing the results, #100-91 were revealed on Monday, and then she dropped to doing five a day bringing us down to #76 today. So far the list looks to be shaping up to be a great overview of chapter books spanning titles published as far back as the 1930s and as current as one of this year’s Newbery Honor winners, a mix of both silly and serious stories, fantastical and realistic. But this isn’t your average “here’s the title and author and maybe a link to where you can buy it, now go on your merry way” countdown list. Oh no. What makes this countdown really excellent (if you’re interested in this sort of thing) is all the historical tidbits and odd trivia Elizabeth Bird has offered up about each title, along with a description and personal reflections from those who recommend the book. If you would get a kick out of learning that The Graveyard Book has inspired a perfume collection, finding out the connection between Doctor Who and The Children of Green Knowe, or seeing the range of cover art for each title, then this countdown is the place for you.

2. Do you ever wonder what goes on behind closed doors as the committees decide the winners of the ALA awards? So do I. And I don’t have any answers for you. But! One of my listservs recently directed me to this letter from the chair of the 2009 Caldecott committee to the incoming 2011 committee. It illuminates some of the hard work and preparation that goes into that final discussion. I can only imagine the heated debates that follow.