Newbery Award winning author, Gail Carson Levine, talked to TweenParent.com about her experiences as a young adult novelist and shared advice for aspiring writers. As well as penning Ella Enchanted, Fairest, Dave at Night, The Wish, The Two Princesses of Bamarre and the Princess Tales among others, Gail also wrote Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly to help young authors avoid writer’s block and develop a process. If your tween is interested in creative writing or is a fan of Gail’s books, we highly recommend sharing this article with them.
How did you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I wrote as a kid, but I never wanted to be a writer particularly. I had been drawing and painting for years and loved that. And, I meditate. One time when I was meditating, I started thinking, “Gee, Gail, you love stories – you read all the time. How come you never tell yourself a story?” While I should have been saying my mantra to myself, I started telling myself a story. It turned out to be an art appreciation book for kids with reproductions of famous artworks and pencil drawings that I did. I tried to get it published and was rejected wholesale.
That book led me to a class on writing and illustrating for kids, and when I went into it I thought that I would be more interested in illustrating. But I found that I was much more interested in writing and that I didn’t like the illustrating at all. I had always been the hardest on myself when I drew and painted. I am not hard on myself when I write. I like what I write, so it is a much happier process.
That’s how I got started. And then everything I wrote was rejected for nine years.
Wow, that must have been difficult. What was the process of rejection like? Were you able to glean any positive lessons from rejection?
I belonged to critique groups and took classes, and my teachers and fellow students liked my work. It was a happy time for me – I felt supported, so rejections didn’t sting as much as they might have in other circumstances. Some of the rejections were actually quite encouraging, when editors would write little notes to me that they liked my work. Form rejection letters give you no help and are just discouraging, but if an editor writes you a note, it means they believe in you even if they happen to be rejecting that specific piece of yours.
Is rejection something you still have to deal with today?
I just got rejected from an adult poetry class! Getting rejected is not easy no matter when it happens or what circumstance it is.
What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I love it all. I love having written. Sometimes I love writing. I love to revise. Revising is my favorite part of writing. I love working with kids and seeing kids over a real span of time. I am very interested in seeing who they turn into. Getting to know these great kids has been a joy.
Is there anything that the kids you work with have taught you, or ways that working with kids has enriched your writing life?
One of the things that has helped me a lot, and that kind of stunned me when I started teaching kids is how they just leap into writing. I give the kids a writing prompt and they just start. They don’t agonize over it. I find this very freeing.
Some of the kids I’ve known for ten years. I’ve gotten to watch them grow up and fulfill themselves, which is very rewarding. Besides, working with kids is just fun!
What is your most important piece of advice for young writers?
Save everything you write. I think kids abandon stories all the time. They start stories and get frustrated or get a different, better idea. I think that it is more worthwhile to stick with a story and revise it and try to finish it than to abandon ship. Revision, for any writer, is the name of the game.
On your blog you said that revision is your favorite part of the writing process. Do you revise as you go along, or do you write the first draft straight through and then revise later?
My method isn’t methodical. Many, many, many, and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way; it’s just my method.
What is your daily writing routine like?
I don’t have much of a daily schedule, to be honest. I have a computer on the kitchen table and I always write while I eat breakfast. But my daily schedule varies depending on what I’m working on at the time. Today, for example, I worked on a speech I am giving in a couple weeks. I am also taking physical therapy because I strained my neck, so I did those exercises. Then I ate lunch, and then I revised my latest manuscript, a fantasy mystery for kids, until I started talking to you! So it varies every day. The point for me is I have to get the work done, and so I get it done.
Your books are so imaginative. How do you come up with your ideas?
I don’t think of myself as someone who has a lot of ideas. I have to work for them. When I get to a point in the story where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I list all the possibilities that I can think of. Eventually, something pops up. I write a lot of notes – through writing notes, ideas come. When I’m really in the grove, I’m thinking about what I’m doing a great deal. Taking a shower is a good place to get ideas; doing something very repetitive and boring is a good place to get ideas. Your mind is freed through repetition, so new ideas tend to pop up.
What are some of your favorite books for tweens?
The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
The Birthday Room by Kevin Henkes
The Ear, The Eye and The Arm by Nancy Farmer
What was it like to see Ella Enchanted made into a movie?
It was great! It brought the book to a lot of new readers, which was very fun. I also got to go to Ireland to watch three days of the shooting! The movie is very different from the book. I had very little to do with making of the movie, though they did talk to me a bit and listened to things I said, about the dialogue for example.
What are some of your favorite moments in your books?
In The Wish, I loved the parts with the dogs – I am especially proud of the dialogue. In Ella Enchanted, I loved the letters between Prince Char and Ella. In Princess Tales, the humor – I always am delighted when I write something funny. And Dave at Night is a very important book to me. The character of Solly in Dave at Night is one of my favorite characters. (Editor’s note: Dave at Night is based upon the childhood experiences of Gail’s father spent in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City; it was named an ALA Notable Book and Best Book for Young Adults.)
Thank you, Gail! It was a pleasure to speak with you.
For more advice from Gail Carson Levine about creative writing, you can visit her blog or you can contact Tony Hirt at HarperCollins Children’s Books (firstname.lastname@example.org) to arrange for her to speak at an event.