Today I welcome Ellen Plotkin Mulholland, author of Birds on a Wire and This Girl Climbs Trees. I love the titles and if you haven’t checked out the covers, they’re great!
IDI – Good morning, Ellen. Thank you so much for agreeing to appear with me today.
EPM – It’s my pleasure.
IDI – Knowing the answer to my first question before my readers, I wanted to start off with this one because I love your answer. It is probably the most detailed answer I’ve ever received to this question, which to me shows your level of discipline and organization. (And, I’m a Scrivener proponent myself). What works for you? Give us a rundown of your ‘writing process’ from beginning to finished product.
EPM – Well, right now, I’m starting a new project. It will be my first series. Basically, this is how I flesh out a story:
Months of ruminating, daydreaming, envisioning, jotting notes, random ideas and lines in a variety of notebooks.
- Talk to someone about my idea (usually my 17-year-old daughter). This gives me a chance to clearly state the premise and characters’ root needs because she will ask ‘what’s it about? Who’s that? What are they going to do about xyz? Why don’t they do abc?’ She’s getting a bit old for my target audience, but she’s a very discriminating reader. This is an extremely helpful step.
- Start a new Scrivener project with the story’s tentative title. Craft character sketches, settings, chapter events. Scrivener has many features. One of my favorites is the Scratch Pad and the Notes. I enter lots of ideas here. I’ve shared my love of Scrivener on my blog. Find my latest blog here.
- My story is now forming, so I begin a Beat Sheet using Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT.
- Once I’ve crafted a skeleton of beats and have a nice thread going, I write scenes.
- From this point, anything can happen. With ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, I actually have two other Scriveners with different titles and slightly different plot lines because at one point the story really changed for me. This is what I love about digital tools. I know authors who write longhand. I can’t. For one, I have the worst writing (I can’t even read my own handwritten notes!). In addition, writing’s messy.
- After about three-six months, my first draft is complete. I will work on two revisions where I focus on plot and character development. Then I will work through one or two more on filter words and awkward phrasing (plus plot and character again). Finally, I’ll share with Beta readers and my critique partners.
- Lastly, after the initial draft has seen five or more revisions, I will send it to my amazing editor, Jane MacKay, who will comb through for fluidity, structure, and form (and maybe a few line edits – if she’s not overwhelmed with any big issues in the piece J).
- After Jane and I go back and forth a few times, and I’ve done what I can with Beta and CP notes, I ready it for querying.
- MARTY MCFLY is at Step 9. STARS is at Step 8. My new series is at Step 4.
IDI – A tried and true process is key. What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing? How has this helped you as a writer?
EPM – Life’s a journey. We don’t know where we’re headed or what’s out there when it ends. We spend so much of our lives
trying to figure out our purpose, who we are, and why we’re here. I can’t think of a more valuable way to spend my days than reflecting on this world and the people in it. There’s a story in everything: that dented white truck across the street; the little boy zipping along on his scooter; the airplane flying low overhead.
By telling these stories that begin out there and take form in my head, I connect to my world, to you, to myself.
Writing is about connecting and telling stories. When I remember that, I can write my best story.
IDI – We all draw from within and I believe there is an element of ‘us’ in everything we write. How much of you will a reader find in any given book?
EPM – A lot. However, the devil’s in the details, and so it is in writing. I am not the character, but I may be the way she sees herself. I am not the story, but my heart might be its theme. They say, write what you know. I know love. I know broken hearts. I know getting up in the middle of the night because someone is crying or hurt or scared. I know sacrifice, joy, pride, and shame. What I think and how I see the world – that’s what the reader will find of me. That’s where we will connect.
IDI – I also believe it’s that ‘personal feel’ that connects us to our readers. How has your writing evolved from when you began as a writer to now?
EPM – I remember reading an essay I’d written in seventh or eighth grade. My teacher gave me an A+ and commented, “Such a gift. Be a writer.” That was the spark that jumpstarted my journey. However, reading that essay now, yikes! Thank god I’ve learned a few things along the way.
My first novel, THIS GIRL CLIMBS TREES, is a bit autobiographical and a lot not. Because I wanted it in a kind of diary form, the plot got a little lost. I focused so much on voice. In my second book, BIRDS ON A WIRE, I captured the plot, crafted memorable characters, but I think I could have tailored the voice better for my YA audience. Both books have received good reviews from readers.
My current completed manuscripts are light-years better than my first two. I attribute much of my improvement to: practice, discipline, a willingness to hear criticism, partnerships, workshops, and reading. I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If you write for young people, join this group. Best $80 you will spend in a year. That’s less than a quarter a day. SCBWI sponsors workshops and conferences with brilliant authors and industry people, and it hosts monthly meetings throughout the country. Go to their website and find them. They also put out a magazine with tips and writing from member-authors. SCBWI promotes, supports and nurtures its writers.
IDI – Who, in your opinion, was the best written character of all time, and why?
EPM – To me, a great story means a well-crafted, fallible, self-deprecating, awkward, and mildly lovable character. My YA favorites of all time: Mick Kelly (THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER), Holden Caulfield (CATCHER IN THE RYE), Scout Finch (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). My fave book and character ever: Florentino Ariza (LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA). I know I will think of ten more in an hour, but these four pop to the front.
Often a character strikes you because of where you are in your life at the time you read the book. Each of the above characters holds meaning to me and reminds me of important life moments in my own journey. I would love to create a character that speaks to a young person in this same way. This is why I write, to help readers see their story in print and feel validated for the zillions of mixed up feelings that create a traffic jam in their hearts.
IDI – Agreed. A book that struck a chord with me was Joan Anderson’s A Year by the Sea. I was going through very heavy marital issues and I found myself highlighting passages while saying EXACTLY!
What are you working on now?
EPM – I have two completed manuscripts, both YA. STARS IN MY POCKET today sits with my editor. I won’t share any of it until I get her feedback, blessings, and fixes. I love this book. It’s about a boy’s struggles to deal with his parents’ death and enjoy life again.
My other YA, ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY, seeks an agent. Click on the title for a peak at my first 250 words. There’s a link there, too, for the full first chapter. I’ve been pitching MCFLY without luck so far. The story follows 14-year-old Kathryn Clark on her compulsive search for her absent dad. At the heart, the story’s about teen battles with bullying and mental illness. (Oh, and there’s kind of a thing with Back to the Future; hence, the title.)
IDI – When did you know you were born to be a writer?
EPM – I have always known writing was my future. I read nonstop as a child. The minute I discovered Judy Blume and the Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew series, I knew I wanted to be these people. My imagination runs 24/7. There are so many stories in my head. I have to share!
IDI – How important are your reading habits to your writing habits?
EPM – I typically have about six books open. As a teacher, I’m reading one or two with my students and another YA with them during independent reading time. I have an adult book at home, and I usually have a professional book or two open.
Reading is like breathing. When I was a girl, I used to ride my bike to the library. The librarian knew my name. I’d check out the maximum number of books – eight, I think – and exchange them for another stack in two weeks.
Stephen King says, if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. True.
I read for pleasure, knowledge and edification. If I don’t read popular YA, I won’t know my readers’ tastes and worlds.
IDI – How much time/effort do you give to social media as a means of self-promotion?
EPM – Social Media is a sticky, slushy, quicksand-y world. I’m sure I spend way too much time there. However, that said, I’ve connected with so many amazing writers and artists (hence, my interview with you today).
Facebook – a great place to connect and learn. I participate in a few groups there. Ten Minute Novelists, PitchSlam, Sub it Club. They’re closed groups, but I think you can request to join. Other than that, I haven’t found FB a great place for promotion; probably because I write for teens, and they aren’t really on FB anymore.
Twitter – this is my current focus. In the beginning, I joined in numerous chats. #K8chat, #Litchat, #storydam. So many great ones. Participating in chats helps you find other writers, and sometimes it helps you find new readers. Promoting yourself as a writer means connecting and sharing in your community. Thanks to the Internet, our community has no fences and requires no planes, trains or automobiles to get there.
Goodreads – Love, love this place! As a reader and an author. I have a group with my students here, and they have found books recommended by other teens that they might never have found otherwise.
My Website – I post a weekly blog of tips for writers. Mostly, I’m trying to share with new writers, young people just beginning. Writing is a pay-it-forward profession. We learn, we share, we grow, we learn, we share, we grow. I love to connect with writers and readers and talk about stories! Yes, I’m a geek that way.
I need to discipline myself with Twitter and other black holes of time-sucking candy-store kind of places. When I am seriously working, I close my browser, or leave only a search engine window open for research … a tiny window …
IDI – And what an easy hole it is to get sucked into. There is always one more email, one more FB reply… When I’m feeling a bit lazy, I struggle with it. It’s an easy out for a lazy mind.
One more question, Ellen. This is more of the marketing/sale end of things rather than the writing end. There is a lot of commotion about the effect eBooks are having on brick and mortar booksellers. Do you think eBooks have reached their climax or do you believe they still have room to expand in the market?
EPM – Great question. I teach middle school. I see a collaboration of the two platforms. Most of my students want a real live book in their hands. I’m kind of old school this way as well. However, some kids love to read their book on their phone (so convenient, as this means not carrying one more thing – number one goal of teenagers!). I have a Kindle, and I read some books on it for the same reason as my students. It’s great when you travel. You can take four books without even packing them.
My two books, THIS GIRL CLIMBS TREES and BIRDS ON A WIRE, are available in print, at bookstores, online and as eBooks. I want people to read them; why wouldn’t I want to make it easy?
That said, I also adore my local bookstore. They are never without customers.
Consider a multi-level department store – elevators, escalators, stairs – all living side by side in peace. We take the path that works at the time, or we take the path we are most comfortable with. A paperback never runs out of batteries. An eBook never gets lost.
IDI – Well said! Thank you so much for joining me today. Best of luck with all of your upcoming projects.
EPM – Thank you for having me.
k.e. garvey (formerly and regrettably known as Kathy Reinhart) is the award-winning author of Lily White Lies and other titles within the women’s fiction genre.