Working on a new series of interviews here at the Tamago. I will be writing to various authors occasionally and asking them to share aspects about their writing process with us. Caroline Stevermer was the first author to graciously accept my author to be interviewed. It’s my hope that these interviews will engender some discussion about the writing process itself.
For those of you not familiar with the works of Caroline Stevermer, you’re in for a treat. Caroline’s writing inspires young readers to be strong, independent women. A personal favorite set of books are the Sorcery and Celia books, which she wrote with Pat Wrede. These books are fantasies set in the Regency of England. She is truly a master of YA and Middle Grade.
Here we go!
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? (If it varies, please keep one project in mind as you answer these questions.)
Caroline: I do an extremely rough draft (which seems to take forever) and then rewrite at least twice, more often three or four times. This is not a method I would recommend to anyone.
One thing I know for sure: I figure out a work routine and sooner or later, it stops working and I have to adjust or invent another.
At the moment, I write first thing in the morning (even before checking email — a real test of character for me), but when I was working full-time, at least during the baseball season, I would put the radio on softly during the pre-game show and write through the game. It didn’t matter if it was a blow-out or a nail biter. Whether they sent in a relief pitcher or not, I had to work the full nine innings. (West Coast night games just wore me out.)
Tamago: Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
Caroline: Experience suggests I am extremely slow, but when I know what I’m doing, I can be fast. It seems fast to me, anyway. But I tend to under-write, so speed is not always the best thing for me in the rough draft stage. During editorial revisions and copy-editing, I can be downright swift.
Tamago: How long is a writing session for you? How many words do you write? Are you likely to keep most of those words?
Caroline: I lose focus after an hour, so I take lots of breaks. I try to write 500 words a day, and I tend to keep most of the words. When things aren’t going well, I lower the goal for the day. Sometimes just logging into the file and staring at it balefully is all I get done in a day.
Tamago: Do you discuss your initial drafts with other writers? Why or why not?
Caroline: I don’t because I am one of those people whose brain misinterprets a discussion of the book as writing the book. All urgency and most of the ideas simply evaporate. I learned this through bitter experience. Now I try never to discuss what I’m writing unless I have actually written it down.
Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date? Why?
Caroline: This is a really good question. I have a terrible time choosing one. I guess WHEN THE KING COMES HOME. Delia Sherman was my editor, and she really made me work to reach my best. She’s a brilliant writer, but wow, is she a brilliant editor too.
Tamago: How do you know when something you’re writing isn’t working?
Caroline: There isn’t anything beyond it. Nothing leads me farther into the story. When it’s really bad, the words in my head take on a neener-neener quality.
Tamago: What’s the longest time it’s taken you to complete a project, from concept to publication? The shortest?
Caroline: Hands down, A COLLEGE OF MAGICS took the longest. I got the idea in 1982 and it appeared in print in 1994. The shortest was SORCERY AND CECELIA, which Patricia C. Wrede and I wrote thinking we were playing a letter game. We wrote it in a summer and it appeared in print the following year.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Caroline: Each has its charms. When a rough draft is going well, there is no greater pleasure. Revising something into the shape it is supposed to be is very satisfying. Critique from someone who really understands what the book could be is wondrous. Each can be a slog, no doubt about that. If I had to pick one stage as least favorite, it would be critique.
Tamago: When (if ever) have you felt comfortable in your writer skin?
Caroline: It’s a process, no doubt about it. If I felt utterly comfortable, I would worry that I wasn’t improving.
Somewhere in the past ten years, I stopped worrying about whether or not I was really a writer. But I started doing this more than thirty years ago. So it took me at least twenty years before I felt confident that I was actually really and truly a writer.
I’m still not an author though, because I believe the axiom: writers write and authors have lunch.
Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer.
In general benchmarks, I derived deep satisfaction from the first hardcover (RIVER RATS, edited by Jane Yolen — Jane freakin’ Yolen, Cath!) and the first foreign translation subrights deal. The first royalty check was a cause for wild celebration. It took forever for me to get a book to stay in print long enough to earn out.
I still get a thrill out of seeing my work in the wild. My very first book was out of print so fast, I never found a store that had it in stock. On the other hand, SORCERY AND CECELIA went out of print quickly too, but it gathered such an audience over the years that Harcourt published it in hardcover (along with two sequels) and it is in print to this day. It just goes to show that you can never guess what’s going to happen. I tell that to first book writers who are discouraged when the book goes out of print. You never know. You just never know.
Thank you, Caroline. Sometimes what writers do is glossed over by what happens on the surface, so it’s great to get a glimpse inside the process. As much as I am a fan of yours, I am really amused that a name in writing can still make you squee as well. 🙂