The Writing Process and Greg Van Eekhout

Greg Van Eekhout is the rock star of middle school writing. My first experience with Greg was when I met him at World Fantasy in 2009. As fate would have it, the book I had finally advanced to in my big stack o’ to reads was Greg’s first book, Norse Code. Norse Code‘s cover made it look like any other urban fantasy. But that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because of buzz about Greg from Sarah Prineas.

And this book was awesome! I met Greg when I’d only gotten to page 60, and asked him for an autograph. He dutifully wrote, “Don’t read past page 60. Greg Van Eekhout.” But on Saturday night, I needed some me time, and I sat in the bar with the book, reading, trying to exude friendly, but really wanting alone. After a short time it didn’t matter, because I was only thinking about the story. And then it was suddenly midnight.

So, I started paying attention to what Greg might be publishing, reading his blog. And next was Kid Vs Squid The title was so awesome. Couldn’t say no to that. So…I read the first few pages. And I knew that this was one of those books Bryon and I would have to read to each other on the commute to work. It struck as as very much like those Scholastic adventure books we bought from a flier in school. It was a lot of fun. The Boy at the End of the World wasn’t as much fun, but it was still good, and the hubs and I still talk about Protein as a suitable name for mammoths every time we see a walking with pre-historic beasts program.

So, I’m a fan, and I get a little shy around Greg because I am a fan. His wonderful humor keeps me reading, but at the same time he can contrast humor and drama really well. Another writer I’m a fan of, Jim Hines, does the same thing in a different ways. A writer could have worse role models for humor.

Thanks, Greg, for the interview.

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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.)

Greg: My drafting process is totally stupid. First I outline. Then I start writing. Then I decide my outline is stupid and I start ignoring it. Then I regret ignoring my outline and I dump a bunch of words and go back to adhering to my outline. Then I decide the entire enterprise of writing a novel is pointless and stupid and the only thing keeping me going is the fact that I’ve already spent my advance and can’t afford to give my publisher their money back. Eventually I stumble my way to the end of the book and I brag on Twitter about how awesome I am for having written another book. I do not recommend my process to anyone. It’s completely inefficient, frustrating, and ridiculous. The only thing I can say for it is that, eventually, the books get written, and I haven’t missed a deadline yet.

Tamago: Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Greg: It always feels slow while it’s happening, but I’m probably about average. What I am is a steady writer. I usually get 1000 – 1500 words a day, and I write most every day.

Tamago: In general, how many drafts does it take before you are satisfied with a novel?

Greg: I’m not sure satisfaction ever comes into it. I submit a final draft when I’m convinced that further work isn’t going to make it any better, or I’m out of time. It usually takes somewhere between three and five drafts. And, of course, there’s always another draft after my editor’s read it and given me notes.

Tamago: Almost all of your novels I’ve had the opportunity to read have elements of humor. Does this come naturally to you, or do you have to work at it? How hard is it to write humor? When do you know if your humor works?

Greg: I don’t set out to write humor, per se, in the vein of Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, but my books do tend to include characters who engage the world with humor. I like characters who face horror and hardship with a sardonic outlook. I like humor as a manifestation of defiance against villainy and misfortune. I like smart asses. In my current novel in progress, I wrote three chapters that were all strife and violence, and the lack of humor in those chapters told me that the book wasn’t working. It was monotone, it was dreary, it was just no fun to write or to read. I much prefer chiaroscuro to simple light or dark.

I do recognize that humor can be a defense mechanism. It can serve to distance, both in fiction and in real life. So, in Kid vs. Squid, I tried to deal with that directly. The protagonist is conscious that, when he’s beleaguered, he resorts to jokes, and even when he’s being funny, he’s not always being likable. Learning how to deal with that is part of his journey over the course of the book.

You only know humor works when people laugh, but since I seldom watch someone read my work, all you can truly know is that it works for you. That’s true of just about everything in writing.

Tamago: Are there any differences for you between writing a middle-grade book and writing a book for adults?

Greg: Not really. Every book has a different voice, a different set of problems, a different approach. The differences among my books probably have to do more with the fact that they’re different stories about different people and they’re slightly different genres. It has less to do with them being marketed at different ages.

I think, both in the case of books for adults and books for kids, I’m employing what I call the grown-up brain and the kid brain. The kid brain is responsible for fun and for sense of wonder. The grown-up brain is responsible for complexity and ambiguity. I try to use both brains in every book. When those two brains are working in collaboration, the writing seems most natural to me.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Greg: The best part is brainstorming ideas and sort of planning out a book in broad strokes. At this point, it’s all pristine, shiny fun. Once drafting starts, it becomes work and things get messy and ruined. Work is stupid.

Tamago: Do you discuss your initial ideas or drafts with others? Why or why not?

Greg: I do. I have a lot of brilliant, talented, generous friends who let me talk out ideas with them. When you have access to awesome friends, it seems foolish not to exploit them.

Tamago: Are you involved with a writing group, or do you get feedback on your drafts in another way?

Greg: Once a year I go to the Blue Heaven workshop. I haven’t written a novel that hasn’t been critiqued by Blue Heaven. They’ve been an important part of my evolution from a short-story writer trying to transition to novels, to a working novelist. I also have a smaller group of friends who are even more involved in my work and help me along the way. It’s entirely possible to write a novel in isolation, and I understand why some writers prefer to work that way, but get a lot of benefit about being in the kind of writing community where I don’t have to go it alone. Also, my agent is a former editor, and she plays an important role in helping me shape my books before my editors see them.

Tamago: What’s been your favorite project so far? Why?

Greg: Kid vs. Squid was the most fun to write. More often than not, I felt I was in my comfort zone and that I knew what I was doing. Although, actually, even with Kid vs. Squid, there was a lot of messy drafting and chucking of words and re-writing. But my recollection of that book is mostly a lot of fun days at the keyboard.

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?

Greg: Sending off a finished draft is always extraordinarily satisfying. First time seeing my book on a library shelf. First fan letter. First school visit, when kids treat you like a rock star even though you are nobody. Actually, I try to suck as much joy out of every good thing as possible. Any time I realize a story I told touched a reader in some small way, it’s a total rocket engine. That may be corny, but it’s true. More than particular moments or accomplishments, what defines me a writer is the daily, constant work. I define myself as a writer because, more days than not, I spend hours writing.

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