Welcome to the one hundred and twenty-sixth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with Young Adult novelist Shelley Workinger. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello Shelley. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Shelley: I grew up in a very small town in Maine, then moved to New Orleans as soon as I graduated just to try something new! I graduated Magna Cum Laude from Loyola University New Orleans with a double major in Writing and Sociology, but ironically thrived in a management / accounting position for several years until life brought me to the Northeast US. I didn’t venture until professional writing until the idea for “Solid” hit me like a virus I couldn’t fight off; its hold on me not just the intriguing concept, but also my concern for reluctant readers. So many kids (myself included) reach an age when they get so overwhelmed by required school reading that they are in danger of losing the love for leisure reading entirely. My new concept was such a perfect premise for a fun, fast read that could engage even non-readers that I had to develop it; “Solid” was my chance to write the story that I wish someone had written for me at that age.
Morgen: I love that, having a viral idea. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Shelley: My first series is Young Adult, although I didn’t really choose to write YA as much as the idea that really stuck with me that I had to write (“Solid”) revolved around teens. Then the more schools I visited and the more students I met, the more I convinced I became that I was writing exactly what I was supposed to for just the right readers.
Morgen: It’s funny, one of my Monday nighters said she started writing and out came sci-fi / fantasy and she’s still never read a word of it – I guess it’s the subconscious taking over, as it so often does with writing. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Shelley: The first two books of my “Solid” series are out:
“Solid” (Book 1) July 2010
“Settling” (Book 2) July 2011
The third (and probably final) installment, “Sound,” is planned for release July 2012.
Morgen: Intriguing titles. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Shelley: It’s funny – I didn’t see my work as a “brand” in the beginning, especially since I originally wrote “Solid” as a stand-alone novel. It wasn’t until I decided to roll out the story into a series that I saw the need for consistency and I got lucky that I didn’t set odd or hard-to-meet standards with book #1! I fell in love with the image of Chromosome 9 for the cover of “Solid,” but readers told me that they needed people on the cover to keep it from looking like a science textbook, which is where the silhouettes came in. Moving forward to books 2 and 3, I knew I wanted to stick with one bright central image and continue adding silhouettes. I also built off the bluish color of “Solid” to go reddish for “Settling” and light gold for “Sound” so that the threesome together are almost red, white, and blue – a nod to the military backdrop of the story. And I always knew book #3 had to be named “Sound,” which meant that book #2 also needed an “S” title, so “Settling” just kind of “settled” into the middle. 🙂
Morgen: 🙂 Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Shelley: I haven’t entered any official competitions, but “Solid” has received a few awards that I am particularly proud of. It was chosen as a Reader’s Choice novel by Flamingnet – a book review site for teens, by teens. Reading Teen and Litland both also gave “Solid” accolades for being an exciting, yet clean read – i.e., no drugs, cursing, sex, or gratuitous violence. As a parent of young children, that’s the best kind of recognition.
Morgen: A “yay” indeed. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Shelley: Yes, my books are available for Kindle on Amazon, for Nook on Barnes & Noble, and for Sony eReaders on Smashwords. I formatted each electronic edition myself and found the process very tedious!
Morgen: Oh dear.
Shelley: Every time you wipe your document clean to build a new format, you have to rebuild every piece. Literally. As in, go back word-by-word and put back the italics, chapter headers, etc. I also have little graphics around my page numbers and chapter headers that e-formats don’t handle well, but that I worked too hard on to let go of, so that was another battle that I won on every front except the epub for Sony. I know they say “you can win ‘em all,” but if I ever get a spare moment, I’m going back to fight that beast again. 🙂
Morgen: All good practice I guess. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Shelley: I’m trying to get through the final “launch phase” of “Settling,” which recently came out, so that I can work full-time on “Sound.” After that, I have two very different ideas (from the “Solid” series and from each other) – a futuristic dystopian YA novel and a football-related horror for adults – but I can’t put any time into those until “Solid” is complete.
Morgen: You sound very busy, do you manage to write every day?
Shelley: I do write every day, but lately most of it is not for my current manuscript! I wrote 27 different pieces for my “Settling” blog tour, then had almost as many more guest posts and interviews to catch up on once the tour wrapped up, plus my blog. I finally had to set a drop-deadline for myself of August 1st, meaning that from that point forward I would not take on more than 1 guest post or interview per week so that I can finally focus on “Sound.”
Morgen: Yep, definitely busy. What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Shelley: I personally am never blocked as far as ideas are concerned. I can stop at any moment in the day and “launch” a scene in my mind and have it readily unfold. That’s how I get all the pieces of my books; then I go back and arrange the timeline and fill-in the transitions and support stuff. For me, it’s really everything else in my life that blocks me from writing – the daily chores, errands, and pop-up crises – and that I’m ignoring more and more of lately in favor of writing. 🙂
Morgen: And don’t ‘pop-up’s happen just as you think you’ve caught up with everything else… you mentioned launching scenes, do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Shelley: I started the whole series with one idea / one scene (the romantic scene that eventually became chapter 12 of “Solid”); the rest of the story sort of spider-webbed out from there. Before I started “Settling” (book 2), I had a general sense of where the storyline was going, and I had a clear plan for some of the characters, but others seemed to take on a life of their own. So I went from a free-for-all first book, to a lightly-guided second book and wound up at a very-planned third one because it is the finale and all those loose ends need to be tied up!
Morgen: About your characters, do you have a method for creating them, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Shelley: Rather than starting with creating characters, I first built the abilities the kids were going to develop, which I did by exploring different directions I thought our bodies could evolve if people could be just one level more or less than what they are now. I imagined the human form sort of one-shot Darwin-ing to become either more buoyant or more dense – the solid self able to brighten or disappear. As the possibilities settled in my mind, I quickly saw how similar the polar evolutions were to stereotypical high school groups: lighter muscles would mean super-agility that could create super “jocks;” conversely, becoming physically heavier could coincide with introversion and introspection – artistic, musical, “indie” souls. The kids who could vanish into the crowd would be the crowd – the “general population” – and the shining ones the elite. Since I knew I wanted my “stars” to be as diverse as possible (to connect with as many reading personalities as possible), I then found a way to pull one kid from each group to form the core cast of the series.
In regard to names, I definitely wanted to give some “shout-outs” to friends and family members, but I tried to limit those to bit parts so that no one could take the flaws of his or her fictional “Solid” counterpart as a personal insult. Of course, you know what they say happens when you try to make plans! Some of those “cameos” took on lives of their own and are about to blow up into larger roles, so I can only hope my friends will still be my friends after their like-named characters start to, well, drift. 🙂 As for the main characters, instead of being named for someone, their names stand for something. For example, “Jack” just suits Jack – it’s the most obvious, because he’s a jack of all trades, but master of none. He says himself how he tries to learn a little about everything, but he’s the only one on campus to have no super ability – yet. And his last name speaks of his soul: Vallard is a combination of valiant and bard, as he’s Clio’s knightly poet.
Morgen: I can see why children would love your stories; such an imagination. 🙂 Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Shelley: I have a group of girls – my “circle of trust” – that I showed my first manuscript to before I “announced” to anyone that I was writing full-time. Those are still my go-to readers when I come out with anything new, along with another person I met somewhere between books 1 and 2 who had a sharp eye for finer details and some outstanding feedback. So I’m very fortunate that now, right out of the gate, I have 5 great minds to tell me what’s working or not – what’s missing or unclear and why – before I’ve gone too far in the wrong direction and have to fight my way back. 🙂
Morgen: That’s great to have so many people, in theory you always have someone available. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Shelley: Once the plot has been “vetted” by my first-level readers and I think through all of their suggestions, I don’t do a lot of story editing. When I get to the final draft, though, I do order 4 proof copies because I have 3 different women who go through line-by-line (as I do myself at the same time) finding strictly technical fixes. What’s crazy is that each of us almost always finds one error that none of the others do! And yes, I’m very conscious of every tiny detail because I had an unfortunate experience with my first book where the wrong file was printed and sent out to customers (the last draft instead of the first edition). I had no idea it’d even happened until a reviewer commented on excessive typos; I knew that 1 or 2 may’ve snuck past, but certainly not a significant number. When I looked into it further and figured out where the system had broken down, I issued a new edition that was actually a different size (8.5×5.5 vs. 8×5) so that I could be sure all future printings would be the correct version. I’ve tried to track down as many erroneous copies as I can and replace them, and now I know to be super-vigilant throughout the entire process.
Morgen: That sounds like hard work but at least you’ll be pleased with the end result. What is your creative process like? What happens before sitting down to write?
Shelley: I write in what I know most people see as a very unique way; essentially, I let the characters write the story. I “launch” a scene in my head, then take notes as they run with it. It’s like planning a dream (which I also do); I imagine a setting, then close my eyes to watch as it develops on its own. The characters of “Solid” just exist so clearly in my imagination that for me to “direct” them would almost be unnatural. They may be fictional, but they are strong, distinct personalities who can really only react one way to the situations I’ve created for them in order to stay consistent and believable. So I may know where the story’s going and how to roll out the plot, but I have to let them talk amongst themselves to pick up their dialogue along the way. Unfortunately, also like dreaming, this method works best late at night, so I’m often up until the wee hours scribbling notes in the dark!
Morgen: When I first started writing, I used to send out Morse code messages by switching my bedroom light on and off as I was coming up with so many ideas; these days I go bed later so am too tired. 😦 Apart from the ‘wee hour notes’ do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Shelley: I have to write out my thoughts longhand, because I can’t think and type at the same time. Before you start thinking, “Wow, can she not walk and chew gum at the same time, either?” (which I can’t, actually, because I’m totally against gum-chewing) let me explain: I learned to type in high school from a teacher who used a by-the-letter technique, which means that you don’t even see words on the page; you only see one letter at a time. It actually enables you to type faster, because you’re in a robotic-like zone; if I just flat-out type, I clock in around 100 words a minute, but if I’m trying to thoughtfully choose words or plot scenes, forget it. So I handwrite everything first, then type it up afterward for readability to workshop with my girls. And yes, I make all my notes and corrections in longhand, then type them up again. It works for me!
Morgen: Apparently we use different parts of our brain with paper vs computer, paper being the more creative / artistic so technically that’s a better way but I’m a computer creator because it’s faster, I hadn’t realised how slowly I write until I started doing http://nanowrimo.org and had to write 1667 words a day. 🙂 What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Shelley: I built my own station on Jango (“Solid”: http://www.jango.com/profiles/40775483?l=0) that plays the type of music I like, but none of my favorite songs because they’re too distracting; I’m very lyric-focused, so if a too-good tune comes on, I end up lost in the songwriters’ thoughts instead of my own!
Morgen: Me too, so I stick to classical. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Shelley: I prefer to write (and read) first person narratives because I feel that best enables readers to put themselves into the story. That same reasoning is why my “Solid” series has such a diverse cast of major characters; I want every person who picks up my book to be able to see herself in a central role.
Morgen: Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Shelley: Funny you should ask! I added a prologue to “Solid” because the adult pre-readers begged for it… and it’s the biggest thing my teen readers complain about.
Morgen: That’s really interesting.
Shelley: I think the main problem is that it’s back-story about the rogue scientist who experimented on the kids, so it’s not about the “stars” of the book, or even kids at all, and it’s not in the first person, so they just don’t relate to or need it. I’d like to add a disclaimer now that says: If you’re under 20, skip right to Chapter One. (Book 2 does not have a prologue and neither will book 3, but book 3 may end up having an epilogue to bookend the series.)
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Shelley: Yes, I wrote a formulaic romance novel when I was 19, just to see if I could. “Building Tomorrows” was not great, but it was finished!
Morgen: So maybe, giving your experience since, you could ‘great’ it? 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Shelley: I most love that I don’t have to go into an office to do my job, but can write wherever I choose and whenever inspiration strikes; I couldn’t do it any other way. That lack of structure also leads to my least favorite aspect, however, which is there’s no clocking out! You can’t just turn off a train of thought at the end of the day and pick up where you left off the next morning, so I have a lot of sleepless nights that run into groggy days. For that reason, I look forward to the day when the “Solid” series is finished; I need the brain-action to catch up on my sleep deficit!
Morgen: That sounds so familiar. If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Shelley: How much I love going into classes and book clubs to talk about the series! I’m not a speaker, and I admit that to schools and libraries in the first breath of my response to their requests for me to give presentations to students. However, despite being a bit shy, particularly around new people, I’ve discovered that I truly love sitting in a group of kids and talking with them (not at them) about books, writing, and pretty much anything else they’re interested in. I now even *meet* with clubs and classes via Skype so that I’m not limited by that little arbitrary issue of geography.
Morgen: I think I’d be the same; I used to get really self-conscious reading my stories out at open-mic nights but it got easier. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Shelley: Believe in yourself. From the moment you declare yourself a writer, there will be people who say, “Isn’t that cute?” (And when you hand those same people a printed copy of your complete novel, they’ll probably also say, “Wow, it’s like a real book.”) Don’t let anyone belittle your effort, or you!
Morgen: Absolutely. If you want to write you’ll do it despite anything thrown at you. What do you like to read?
Shelley: Currently, I read almost exclusively YA, and not just to know my market; I find series like “The Hunger Games” some of the most exciting works out there right now.
Morgen: Ah yes, I’ve not read but have heard of the Hunger Games.
Shelley: But I’m a very random reader and often walk out of the library with more books than I can carry. 🙂 I’ve been known to pick up a book because of its color (“The Toss of a Lemon” – Padma Viswanathan), a subject matter I know nothing about (“So, You Want To Join the Peace Corps: What To Know Before You Go”), or because the author’s name started with my two favorite letters: Q and X (Qui Xiaolong). I just like books!
Morgen: 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Morgen: In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Shelley: I live in the USA, but I don’t think that’s really relevant in this day and age. My writing contacts and reviewers are wildly geographically diverse, from New York to Australia, with fans that’ve contacted me from Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, India, South Africa, and more. Socially, the world has seriously shrunk and I love how minds open as we morph from millions of individual local communities into one massive global society.
Morgen: Isn’t that great. 🙂 Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Shelley: I actually had to limit the number of groups I was joining because I was connecting with so many fantastic writers that my email was filling up with literally hundreds of messages a day. There were just too many interesting and helpful people to *meet*! But to get the full value of any group, you have to stay actively involved, so I eventually had to narrow my focus to (mainly the same ones I listed above): SheWrites, Book Blogs, Book-A-Licious, and several Linked-In groups.
Morgen: I’d like to get more involved online (and know I will have to when my books come out) but for now am just on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and just about keep up. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Shelley: I’m everywhere from SheWrites to Book Blogs, like I just mentioned, by my main contact points are: Official Website, Facebook Fan Page, Twitter and my Blog (I blog about food in fiction, mostly YA; other people’s books, not mine, and bring in guest authors regularly to talk about their work).
Morgen: A busy lady. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Shelley: In what has become a very DIY world, self-publishing now looks to be the way of the future. It’s a natural evolution of the American philosophy, at least – make things happen for yourself; build your own dream. That very much appeals to me because I’ve never had the patience to wait for everyone else to catch up with my bullet-train of ideas!
Morgen: Me too. And you, under guidance from your first readers, can do whatever you like whenever you like. 🙂 Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Shelley: Just that I know every reader has a T-B-R mountain at home, and I am so appreciative for everyone who pulls my books from the stack. 🙂
Morgen: 🙂 Thank you Shelley.
Shelley Workinger grew up in Maine, graduated from Loyola University New Orleans, currently resides in New Jersey, and considers all of them home. “Solid” is her first YA series and she’d be thrilled to hear your thoughts on the story at http://shelleyworkinger.com. An excerpts from her books can be found on her Goodreads page.
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