Every year, YA author Heather Mackey commits to writing an entire novel...in just one month. As a seasoned NaNoWriMo-er, we couldn’t think of anyone better to judge our Novel Writing Competition. In our interview with Heather, we got some useful tips on choosing an excerpt from a larger work to best represent your piece (especially for those of you participating in NaNoWriMo!) and how letting go and embracing constructive feedback will make you a stronger writer.
Final submissions for our Novel Writing competition are due November 17th.
It's National Novel Writing Month! Have you participated in NaNoWriMo's challenge to write an entire novel in one month? What did you think of the process and what did you learn about yourself as a writer?
I always sign up for NaNoWriMo – it’s incredibly exciting and fun to be thinking “this month, I’m going to write a novel!” But 50,000 words is a lot for me in a month. I’m a fairly slow writer, and I usually have a ton of other things going on this time of year. So I don’t beat myself up if I don’t make the word count. Instead I focus on the spirit of the challenge—for one month can I move relentlessly forward without going back and tinkering? Can I push through parts where I don’t know what’s going to happen and find new ways around obstacles instead of giving up? What I’ve learned from NaNo is, it’s always better to get the story out of your head and onto the page. However you do that is the right way for you.
What are your tips to students in best representing a larger work within a limited word count?
Pick something that shows your main character front and center, in a scene where they can do something that shows who they are. For instance, show them having an interaction with someone who’s important in the story.
Try to give a sense of who the character is and what matters to them. Even in an excerpt, a reader should be able to form an idea of what kind of story this is, whose story it is, and what matters.
There are some excerpts from literature that capture something so perfectly, we want to return to them again and again. Is there a section from a novel that resonates with you in this way?
I always find myself re-reading Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.” Chandler is such an economical writer—there’s rarely a word too much. But every sentence hooks you along, while also managing to convey character, place, the society and its mores. He’s not of this era, so some of his views (particularly on race, gender, sexuality) feel outdated and are sometimes offensive—so be warned! But on the level of craft I feel like there’s a lot to learn from him.
From your own experience from working with an editor, do you have any tips on how best to receive feedback?
I used to be incredibly sensitive and touchy about my work. If someone didn’t like something or gave a critique, I took it personally. After a while I realized that attitude was not helping me. I guess I was just afraid that if someone pointed out something that wasn’t working, I wouldn’t be able to fix it because I already tried so hard the first time around. But that’s just not true. Writing is like anything else—you work hard and you practice, and you get better.
As a professional writer, you’re constantly getting feedback. Sometimes that feedback won’t feel good. Any time you put something creative and personal into the world you’re being brave, and there’s risk. But the thing to remember is that people giving you feedback are trying to help. You can listen and see if what they’re saying actually furthers what you’re trying to do. If a reader points out a weakness, that can be a good thing. A weakness isn’t the end of the world, it’s just something to work on and maybe turn into a strength.
If I ever get sensitive these days, I try to think of myself as an athlete: someone who may have ability and drive, but who still needs a coach.
What are you looking for in a strong competition entry?
I’m looking for things like specificity, voice, and the sense that there’s a story there that needs to be told. I guess that boils down to: Do I believe in this character and do I think they’re about to go through something I have to read about?