Mer Haskell is the author of The Princess Curse, one of the best middle grade novels to hit in years, as well as author of Handbook for Dragon Slayers, coming out summer, 2013. She was kind enough to talk to us about her writing process.
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?
Mer: For the most part, my natural process is that I sit down and see what comes out. That makes me a pantser, I guess. The penalty to that is that pantsers are obligate rewriters, and since I hate rewriting, I have been trying to “fix” my process for a while now. (And learning the lesson that not everything needs to be fixed, but that’s a different issue.) Problematically, I’ve always been very secretive in the midst of my process. I don’t want to talk about the book. I don’t want to brainstorm. I don’t want to even breathe an iota of energy elsewhere than the draft itself.
This secretiveness, combined with pantsing, worked just fine before I had contracts to fulfill. The last book I finished (Handbook for Dragon Slayers) was my first book written to deadline, and dealing with the inevitable process change was like trying to restructure my brain. My editor was very, very kind and didn’t require me to do more than send a few sample pages her way to see if we agreed on the book I was working on, but the mere existence of the contract messed up my mojo in a big way. Part of the problem of not talking about my books while in process also meant not really talking ABOUT my process, and thereby I didn’t really know my process, and everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
I never realized, for example, that I sit on a book like a broody chicken for about a year before anything comes out onto the page. So this last book, it got maybe a month, possibly two, of brooding, and it came out a very malformed egg indeed. With most of my books: my drafting process includes a lot of brain work time, upwards of a year or two, and then I write it very speedily, usually in 3-4 months. That was how The Princess Curse went, and all my trunk novels. And then… this other book. It just… well, I wrote it in about 8 months, and then I rewrote for all the time I should have been brooding on it.
Tamago: How do you know when a draft is working?
Mer: By my output. If I can sit down and doodle happily along every day for a month, I know it’s going okay. If I start sputtering on my productivity before then, I know that I’m doing something wrong. About once a month in the first draft process, though, I have to take a weekend and write *anything* else. Usually a short story. And this reinvigorates me and I get back on track easily.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft?
Mer: Well, left to my own devices, I would write about two. But I’ve never met any YA/MG author who has been able to get away with that few drafts. So far, 8 seems to be my average. Yep. Eight. There’s the first draft–the massive erp onto paper (well, into a computer); then there’s my second draft, the Shame Draft, where I try to get the grossly bad bits out before anyone else sees it. Then there’s the draft I do with the advice of Trusted Betas, who tell me if I’ve gone off my rocker anywhere–number 3. Then I seem to at that point do a draft or two with my agent, before it goes into high gear with my editor. The common denominator in all drafts is that I am spending my time smoothing, clarifying, checking plot and emotional continuity, and so forth. I might be cutting or combining characters as late as draft 6, or reworking theme even, so nothing is off the table. Though, it is often hard to tell where one draft begins and another ends, and I have only done this twice for publication, which is not a true statistical sample, so the best I can say is that I’m still learning how I generally do this.
Tamago: Where do you get feedback regarding your drafts? First readers? A writing group? Editors? Agents? Your own intuition?
Mer: Nearly all of the above–but generally not writing group, just because I cannot functionally receive critique chapter by chapter. All those neuroses mentioned back in question 1 do not play nicely with a standard writing group. I did take a third of a novel to a workshop once with some other writers whose opinions I trust–Dave Klecha, Steve Buchheit, Elizabeth Shack, and Kelly Swails; I think I can get back to that novel, some day, but I’ll be starting over with it anyway. (What interrupted that was selling my first book, not my neurosis. I think.)
Tamago: Do you discuss your initial ideas and drafts with others? Why or why not?
Mer: Very, very, very rarely–again, I point to the neuroses I let on about in question 1. Once in a very great while I will mention a germ of an idea to a friend, and will be very strange and off-putting about how much I want to talk about it–seriously! I am sure I am a trial to my friends. And recently I went so far as to get some feedback on half a synopsis I couldn’t get to gel. Yep. That happened exactly once.
Tamago: What do you think are the differences, if any, in writing middle grade fiction, as opposed to young adult or fiction for older readers?
Mer: Well, the age of your protagonists has to be lower in MG. And that, as much as anything, dictates a lot of what goes into MG fiction. You have to be aware of certain aspects of what the market will bear–I certainly would be sent back to the drawing board if I had too much romance, sex, or violence in one of my books. But other things are sort of wide open: I write very long books for MG fiction–65,000-word books, which is a solid YA length. I can’t really go over that, but it’s a pretty generous length, so there’s lots of room for the emotional complexity and historical detail and character moments that are, for me, the meat and bones of why I write.
If I were writing for an older audience, I would certainly relish the chance to see what I could do with older characters, but then I’d be writing different books, really. There is a general feeling that MG fiction focuses on the main character’s place in a small world: their family, their neighborhood, their school–and YA focuses on the main character’s place in a bigger world, such as all of society. But it all intertwines, in the end. I also “get away” with how I write MG in part because of historical aspect to my work. People are vaguely aware that adolescents in the Middle Ages had more responsibility than adolescents today, though it usually comes down to some erroneous hand waving of the “they all got married at 14, so yeah” variety. Which, generally, “they” did not, particularly the peasantry, but it suits my purposes not to argue about it, since childhood as we know it was certainly off the table, and adolescents had a great deal of training, duty, responsibility, purpose, and independence by 13. As much as I am a deep fan of vaccinations and iPods, I think the Middle Ages had something going on there.
As far as the writing goes: I’ve received veiled criticism about my word choices–meaning, high level vocabulary words–but not from my editor, and not from any kids, so I would say that the general feeling that you have to write more simply or even simplistically for MG than YA or adult is basically an urban legend.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Mer: I love first drafts. The sense of endless possibility is nearly divine. Rewriting is painful for me by comparison, though I’m a much better rewriter than I am a writer, so I tend to at least get some happiness from knowing that I’m doing good and useful work. But getting critique from others–oh, by far the hardest thing. It’s very difficult to hear how you’ve failed in communicating the vision of the book you had in your head.
Tamago: The Princess Curse is a novel that blends two folk tales. How do you write a folk tale so that it is fresh and new?
Mer: I have to laugh here, because so many people (including my marketing materials) all mention “Twelve Dancing Princesses” and “Beauty and the Beast” as those folk tales, when in fact, I never meant to include “Beauty and the Beast” at all. To me, the whole book from start to finish is “Twelve Dancing Princesses” carried to a logical conclusion, and with a great deal of reference to Hades and Persephone–but is not meant to be a retelling of Hades and Persephone at all, but an exploration of how their story affects the world, archetypally-speaking. I think my only conscious nod to “Beauty and the Beast” is the question the zmeu asks of the princesses each night: “Will you marry me or will you dance?”
Anyway, I have no idea how to answer the actual question here. I have been a retold fairy tale junkie since I was twelve or so–Robin McKinley’s Beauty was my first one. I know when I read retold fairy tales, I’m looking for that same spark that’s in Beauty. Something about how the characterization elevates the tale and makes it feel real–I think that’s what I look for? I recently read Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and I was struck during the reading of how well that worked for me was not because of the pumpkin-colored car or the equivalent of the glass slipper, though those were nice grace notes, but rather, in how the stepmother/stepsisters were characterized in a way that felt authentic. Now, mind you, I think The Princess Curse would be nearly unrecognizable in some ways to an avid “Twelve Dancing Princesses” fan, and I sometimes wonder if I really accomplished what I meant to. On the other hand, the spark in “Twelve Dancing Princesses” for me was the intrepidness of the main character. And while many of the details of said main character are hugely different in TPC, the intrepidness remains.
Tamago: What’s been your favorite project so far? Why?
Mer: Maybe ask me again in ten years? I don’t think I have any clue–I have two books under my belt, but they’re like comparing apples and oranges. And weighing them against any of my short stories seems deeply unfair. I passionately love everything in the broody stage, love things quite a lot while I’m writing them, hate them to bits while I’m rewriting, love intensely again on publication, and become distantly fond as time passes. So, my favorite project is always my next one.
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?
Mer: Gutting out the first edit letter of a book. The first read through of that letter feels like an act of courage. So do the second through eighth readings. That’s the belly of the whale. I have asked around; I am not alone in this, though I feel like a whiner even mentioning it–I mean, getting an edit letter means you’ve sold a book, so complaining about it is very much in the “my diamond shoes are too tight” vein. Still, it is nightmare fuel–it’s every single “I’m late to school and forgot about the algebra test and also I’m not wearing pants” dream made real. Even with the best editor who totally gets you, even when you agree with every single sentence of the letter, it’s hard–and thus also defining.
When you sell a book, unless you are in a very small subcategory of writer who probably wouldn’t bother reading an interview about another person’s process, there’s a feeling of unreality to that. I think any time you achieve a dream it’s like that. And as arduous as the agent-getting/book-selling journey can be, you always know people who’ve tried harder and worked longer, and plus–you don’t have any literal blisters or scars here. None of us were in labor for 36 hours. Early on, rejections bothered me; I’m sure rejections will always bother me. But at a certain point, you realize the rejection is over, and you can move on, and it wasn’t personal. But the edit letter: you’ve got to read that, internalize it, and respond. You can’t run away from it. You can’t dismiss it out of hand. It’s there.