The Writing Process and Amber Sistla

Amber Sistla runs a full series of interviews over at her own website, and when she was kind enough to interview me, I suggested a trade. I have been doing a little reading of Amber’s work. Most of her work is available online, and I find it insightful and perceptive particularly in the territory of character interiors. Her writing is delicate and precise. Go take a look.


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.)

Amber: For books, I use a spreadsheet that I’ve cobbled together from bits and pieces of that I’ve liked from other writers’ processes. On one worksheet I keep track of the characters and any character information about them (e.g., how they are related to each other, what quirks/fears/ambitions they have, etc.). On another worksheet I have a numbered list with one sentence descriptions of the chapters, the POV character for the chapter, the “time” in the novel that it happens, and whether is mostly action or talking occurs in the chapter. Another worksheet keeps track of wordcount (overall, per chapter, and per day).

Then I have numbered word documents that correspond to each chapter, and I complete them each on a chapter by chapter basis, but I don’t complete them all in numerical order. When I write a chapter, I like to go straight through with as little chance for distractions as possible. If I need to research something, I use [] a lot to indicate what I need to research…later. If I need to go back to another chapter to put foreshadowing, or change hair color, or change anything, I use [] to leave notes to myself of what I need to do…later, and I simply move on with the story as if those changes had already been made.

Tamago: How do you find time to write in your schedule?

Amber: I try do it before the kids are awake or after they sleep; although, I am trying to institute a “quiet time.”

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

Amber: I like revising best because the story is already finished and now I’m just going to make it better! But I’ve noticed critiquing other people’s works also helps me immensely; after critiquing, I’m always better able to see the flaws in my own stories.

Tamago: You write both short stories and longer fiction. Do you find that your writing process varies depending on the length of the story?

Amber: Absolutely. Flash, short story, and novelette length (depending on the length) can be first drafted in a few sittings. I never use the spreadsheet to track those lengths or summarize the sections. However, I do make use of the handy [] angled brackets.

For novellas and novels, it just takes so much longer, that I like to have the higher level summaries and other things tracked in the spreadsheet to make sure everything flows well and that I don’t forget anything.

Tamago: How do you know when something is working in your writing?

Amber: When everything seems to click together, when I realize things I wrote in the beginning foreshadow things that happen later, when I am so excited to get word after word on the page.

Tamago: What is the longest time it’s taken you to complete a project? The shortest time?

Amber: You mean besides getting this interview back to you? J The longest time was with my first novel with started life as a short story in early 2007 and grew to a novel by the end of 2008. Shortest time is a few hours for a flash which sort of burst into my head full-fledged and I typed it as quickly as I could.

Tamago: Do you work alone, or do you participate in a critique group? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages to your approach?

Amber: I participate in an online writer’s forum that has a critique area which I don’t use nearly enough. I think it’s always good to get an unbiased set of eyes to look at your work, and as I said before, I always find that I am a better self-critiquer right after I’ve just critiqued someone else.

Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?

Amber: It depends on the project. The flash I mentioned above sold on the first draft. But I have a hard time giving up on stories. I have one story that sold after 22 tries to a pro-paying venue, and I’m pretty sure that story had at least 22 drafts…

First pass through a draft will be to resolves any [] that I left myself. Second pass through will be to resolve any reader comments.

Tamago: Besides the big firsts (getting an agent, publishing your first novel), what moments have you had that made you think, “hey, I’m actually a writer?”

Amber: Seeing reviews, both good and bad.

Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date?

Amber: That’s like asking me which child is my favorite J I like every project, and I don’t really give up on any of them. That’s what makes writing so much fun.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.