Tuesday, April 12, 2016

New Voice: Melanie Conklin on Counting Thyme

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie Conklin is the first-time author of Counting Thyme (Putnam, 2016). From the promotional copy:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. 

The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. 

All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision? 

I’m a serious student of revision techniques. Because of my background as a product designer, I’m a very visual thinker, and I’m constantly looking for new ways to approach revision because there are always new challenges to encounter!

Prior to going through the editorial process with Counting Thyme, I had figured out a few things about revision: first, that I thought better on paper. I printed out my manuscript and used different colored post-it flags to track different elements through the document, so that I could find them and also so I could see their distribution and revise to where needed. I had also learned to make an outline of my manuscript before revising, so that I could “see” the whole thing at once.

After I survived the gauntlet of revision-under-deadline, my process had changed in small but significant ways. My editor also works on paper, so I learned to take her pages, punch holes in them, and put them in a binder. This may seem like common sense, but it seriously hadn’t occurred to me to make it easier to flip through the book!

I also learned to note the changes I was confident about directly on the manuscript, and to use full-sized Post-its to write every single guess, question, and thought to myself about anything I hadn’t figured out yet.

Basically, I would distill my editor’s letter, then read through my manuscript while noting any possible solutions on hundreds of Post-its.

Why Post-its? Well, I stick them on the bottom edge of the paper so that they hang off the edge of the manuscript pages, which makes it easy to find the notes again, whereas notes on the paper can get lost.

My outlines evolved, too. Now I outline on note cards, one for each scene, and pin them to a tri-fold board (the greatest invention ever). I generally organize the cards into three acts that form a road map for the manuscript. Again, this makes it easier to visualize the book and its major elements as I work through the planning pass for a revision.

Usually, by the time I’ve read all the way through my manuscript, the best solutions have risen to the surface, and I’ve answered all of my Post-it questions, leaving a bunch of notes ready and waiting. Then it’s just a matter of opening the Word doc and making the actual changes!

Doing a planning pass on the manuscript does add time to your revision, but I’ve found that it saves time overall because you have the freedom to think, explore, and choose, so when you open your Word doc you are full of confidence and can work more quickly.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

Obviously, I’m super into the creative process, which applies not just to the act of revision, but to writing in general. I studied English Literature back in college, but it did not occur to me to write books myself until I had quit my job to stay home with my young children for the time being.

I found writing offered the same creative outlet that I’d savored in design, and in many ways my writing process have evolved to mirror my design process.

In product design, the end goal is to get one product on the shelf. To get there, you may throw away hundreds of ideas. But remember, the end goal is one success. I think that mindset has made my approach to writing more flexible, especially when I’m developing a new character or voice.

When I first think of a character, I really explore them. I keep a notebook for each book idea, and in that notebook I let my thoughts run wild. I blab for pages about backstory, then change my mind and cross it out. I turn to a new page and draw the character’s house. I write about their family. About where they live and the hurts they carry. What has changed in their life? What wound keeps them from moving forward? What lesson do they need to learn? How must they grow?

Often, I write the opening chapter of a book quite early in the process, but then I always pause and take this time to expand my ideas before I decide anything. Doing this can help you avoid making boring choices. Generally, the very first idea you have may not be the most original idea possible, depending on how much time you spend brainstorming.

To generate more interesting and original ideas, I like to use lateral thinking techniques—in a nutshell, it’s the idea of picking seemingly disparate ideas and pairing them to gain a new perspective.

For example, you might flip through the dictionary (or any book) and randomly pick a word like “apple.” Then you ask yourself, how is my character like an apple? Are they shiny on the outside, but rotten at the core? Have they weathered storms and survived? Maybe they see the world in slices and are trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the full picture. In this way, introducing a new connection point can lead to some very creative character development.

But the bottom line for me is to trust your writing process. Develop your routines. Nurture your mind by reading widely. Try new techniques, and gather them as your arsenal against deadlines.

Too often, we are rushed and panicking, but cutting corners usually just leads to a big old meltdown.

In my experience, your process will get you there every time—even if that involves writing with a cabbage leaf on your head, which I have done.

Writing is that hard, I know. But if you trust your process, the answers will come.

Cynsational Notes

 See more insights from Melanie on:

"Read nonfiction. Seriously, the weirdest stuff happens in the real world. Sometimes it’s super helpful to step away from your fictional world and flip through a non-fiction book (or watch an hour of NatGeo. Did you know that a blue whale’s heart weighs a thousand pounds?)."

1 comment:

Maria Gianferrari said...

So looking forward to reading this book! I loved seeing Melanie's revision process up close. Thanks for sharing, Cynthia!

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