This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Janet Gilsdorf, author of Ten Days, recently answered a few questions for our Novelicious readers. Here's Jennifer Joyce's review from last week's Alternative Thursday.
I don’t have a writing routine, as I must wedge it into my otherwise busy life. Evenings, when I’m low on creative energy, I usually focus on revisions. My best new writing comes on the weekends and on vacation from work, when I have longer stretches of time to, first, settle myself into my “writing head” and, then, actually get something accomplished. Surprisingly, I can sometimes do a lot of new writing, with a pencil and a legal pad, while on long haul airplane trips or waiting in airports. There’s something about the hum of the engines, the absence of easy distractions, and the anonymity of the people around me that stirs my creative juices.
That said I’m actually subconsciously writing all the time, such as while driving. I keep a notebook in my car to jot down, while stopped at red lights, ideas that come at the wheel, because I’m likely to forget them by the time I get home or to my office. Likewise, I jot down notes (sometimes on those “fly away” advertisement cards inserted into magazines) while knitting or reading in my favorite easy chair. There is something about the action of knitting that nurtures good ideas for me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of the needles or the merging of the colors of the yarn, stitch by stitch, row by row. I even keep a little note pad on my bedside table, alongside a pen with a built-in light so I don’t bother my husband, to keep track of nighttime thoughts, as they will surely disappear by morning.
When you are writing, do you use any celebrities or people you know as inspiration?
I imagine the characters but, since those imaginings come from my head, they are sometimes built on things I know or have observed about friends or acquaintances or even family members. Thus my characters are often composites of many people, as I mix and match appearances, personalities, quirks, interests, talents, and flaws of those around me.
My writing inspiration comes from reading the works of outstanding authors. Sometimes I open their books to random pages and read several paragraphs, examining how they make transitions, use words to build powerful images, create effective dialogue.
What is your favorite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
Hard question. There are so many I enjoy. One of my favorite women authors is Lorrie Moore and her story collection, Birds of America, is superb. The story, “Dance in America”, is, in my view, a perfect short story, perfect pace, perfect narration, perfect poignant theme. The beginning is the best I have ever read, soaring, compelling, funny. The ending is a satisfying cap to the complex tale as it seizes the energy of the moment while cast against the backdrop of a bleak future. Lorrie writes in a raw, real-to-the-bone way, with breathtaking, but sometimes subtle, emotional honesty. She digs into the hearts of her characters and exposes everything there, the light matter and the dark.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
I start with a nubbin of an idea, usually about the characters and their interactions. For Ten Days, the characters and the general situation of the novel were well established in my mind from the beginning, but, of course, they evolved as I began to understand them better during the course of writing. Early into the process of writing Ten Days, I had a mental image, an aural image actually, of the ending, with the intertwining of the notes from the violin and oboe that reached ever upward. I construct character sketches to keep me true to them as I go (I have a crummy memory) and, as they evolve and I make an iterative chapter-by-chapter outline, to remind myself what happened, when and where. Drafts? Many, many. Scene drafts, chapter drafts, whole manuscript drafts. Then I put it aside to “dwell” and when I pick it up again and revise some more. Many, many drafts before I feel it’s complete.
What was your journey to being a published author?
It was a journey along the road of serendipity. First I joined a writing group, before I’d written anything, other than scientific papers and grant applications. Then I spent years writing bad short stories, incomplete character sketches, and somewhat less bad personal essays and I attended summer writing conferences and read books of craft. One of the essays I published in JAMA caught the eye of a colleague who asked if I would turn the essay into a memoir for publication in a medical humanism book series. So, I had a contract for Inside/Outside: A Physician’s Journey with Breast Cancer before I’d written anything more than a detailed chapter outline for the book proposal. I spent years, before and after writing Inside/Outside, on Ten Days and was connected to my agent through the recommendation of the former publicist of Inside/Outside. The agent applied her excellent agenting skills and identified the perfect publisher. Very lucky. Very magical.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
The biggest myth about writing (by that I mean good writing), is that it’s easy. Yes, it’s fun and rewarding but not easy. The uninitiated think that, because they can talk, they can write something worth reading. Not so.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
Learn the basics of good writing, good narrative, and good dialogue. Learn the craft of fiction and master the fundamentals. Stay humble. Revise, revise, revise.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I’m working on a novel about three scientists (one is a physician-scientist) and their quest to solve the mystery of why children in Brazil died of a strange infection. It’s very roughly based on a cluster of real infections that occurred near São Paulo during the 1980’s. As the characters strive to unravel the mystery, their lives intersect in, hopefully, compelling ways. They compete, love, fight, admire, defend, attack, support, and undermine. Bacteria offer alluring metaphors for human behaviour as they communicate with each other, form communities, engage in different roles within the communities, protect each other, attack each other, and have sex (at least they exchange DNA, which is a lovely. intriguing form of sex).