Homework Helper - Project Basics

General Questions

1. How long have you been writing?

Tears of a Tiger, my first book, was released in 1994.

2. How did you get your first book published??

I had been working on a novel for young people, so I decided to see if I could get it published. Tears of a Tiger is written for high school students--on their level, in their style, about their world. The book does not deal with drugs or gangs or sex. It does, however, deal with parents, girlfriends, and homework. It also discusses the problems of drinking and driving, racism and teen suicide. I sent it to 25 publishing companies and got 24 rejection notices. The very last letter I almost threw away (rejection can be depressing!), but I opened it and enclosed was a letter of acceptance from Simon and Schuster. My students walked with me through the entire publication process--the edits and rewrites and corrections. We learned together how a book gets from idea to draft to bookstore. It was a monumental experience for all of us.

3. When did you first discover that you had writing talent??

I'm not sure. I was always a good writer in school. I have always gotten good grades in writing classes; I have always gotten As in English. But it never occurred to me to be a writer, to try to write something for other people to read. It just never occurred to me. I had a husband, four children, two dogs, a cat, several hamsters, rabbits -- I didn't have time to write. I got started when I had a student said to me, "Why don't you write something sometime?" He gave me an application for a short story contest, and I wrote the story, and I won first prize. I got my picture on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer, and I got a letter from Alex Haley that said, "Dear Mrs. Draper, I think you're a wonderful writer." I will always treasure that letter. It really hurt me when Mr. Haley passed away because he was the only one who said I could be a writer, but he didn't get to see it.

4. What inspired you to write then? What inspires you to write now??

My students, some of whom didn't like to read the assigned texts, were my inspirations. I wanted to write something that young people could read that would be contemporary and exciting, yet have a solid literacy base for teachers to use. I'm still trying to write for that generation of readers who are thirsty for a good story!

5. Are the characters based on real people? Did the stories really happen to people you know or did you just make the stories up??

No, I made them up. Sometimes fictional characters can seem so real that the reader might think they are real people, because good fiction is based on reality, but the characters in my books are just that--fictional. I start with a character who grows and develops as the book progresses, so that even to me he or she seems real by the end of the story. But they only exist in the pages of the book.

6. Do you write about past experiences from your life? Did any of this stuff happen to you??

Everything that one experiences in life, whether it is something minor like a visit to a mall or something serious like a car accident, becomes part of one's history and memories. It is impossible to exclude real life experiences from writing because they make up the fabric of what you are and how you express yourself. The other part of writing is research. If I have not been to New York, for example, and I want to write a story about a girl who lives in New York, I have to either visit the city or read lots of books on the city so the story seems real. When I write I use a combination of real experiences and research. Mostly I write from observation of and empathy for others. And no, I was never abused as a child.

7. Do you write with a particular audience in mind? If so how does this affect your narrative??

I write for young people --teenagers--all of them. I try to deal with topics that are both current and topical. I also hope that by reading it young people can perhaps apply some of the messages to their own lives. I visit dozens of school every year and the joy on the faces of the students I meet, their fascination with the characters and their lives, and their excitement about reading more is what keeps me going. I'm writing as fast as I can--trying to write stories that young people can enjoy. My mind is always buzzing with new ideas for stories.

8. Where do you get your ideas from??

Everywhere! Sometimes ideas just find me. It might be an obscure newspaper article, a quirky report I hear on a TV news show. Sometimes I get ideas from real people. I once saw a delightful husband and wife in an airport. They were both ninety and dressed in identical outfits, right down to their decorated canes. I keep a notebook with me, and I jot them down. I haven't actually used them yet, but they might show up one day. They were just so cute. Ideas also sometimes come from real teenagers I meet as I travel-they have good ideas and often make suggestions as to what I should write about next. There are thousands of teenagers in schools today. Each one of them has a story. Ideas are there. It is up to the writer to find them, write them down, and make them believable for the reader.

9. How do you develop your stories? Where do you get the material for them??

I was always a reader, and I read hundreds, maybe thousands of books from childhood to adulthood. All of that information is now blended into ideas from which I make up stories. I tell young people, "If you want to be a writer, first be a reader." A lover of books can easily become a master of words.

10. Do you make titles before or after you write a storybook? ?

Sometimes the story comes first and sometimes the title. I knew the title of Tears of a Tiger long before I finished it. Copper Sun, however, was originally, called Sun, Storm, and Stars. I'm so glad we changed it!

11. Who does the covers for your books??

The publishing company chooses the cover. I have very little say-so in that decision. Most of my covers I like.

12. What is the favorite book out of the books you have written??

I have no favorite. Each one is like one of my children, and I love them all. I'm always excited about a new one, however. It's like giving birth to a new child!

13. Who is your favorite author??

I don't have one. I read too many books. I read three hundred books a year-mostly on airplanes and waiting in airports. Mystery novels. Biographies. Historical fiction. Poetry. Each one shapes me in some way. I learn from all I read and I that I do. I like authors who understand the "groove." Authors who make the magic with words. I won't waste time on a poorly-written book. I'll leave it on an airplane. Good books I treasure.

14. What's the most fun thing about being a writer??

Absolutely everything! I love the solitude, the concentration, the magic feeling that overtakes me when the words come tumbling out, sometimes faster than I can type them. I love watching the manuscript grow from one page to five chapters to twenty chapters to a whole book. I love watching the characters develop and become like real people to me. Then there's the delicious anticipation of waiting for the finished manuscript to become a book, and when the finished book arrives at my house I celebrate. Then, like dessert, after the book is a reality I get to talk to people about it, and sign it, and visit schools, and talk to teachers at conferences. Then I start on another one. I love it.

15. Do any of the characters in your books have a similar in personality to you??

Probably. We are what we write.

16. What is the first book you remember reading? ?

I could read long before I started school. I was the little girl who checked out ten books every week from our local library. I was the child who read late at night with a flashlight. I can't remember NOT reading, or being read to. It's the rhythms and the cadences of the words that stay with me.

17. Which is harder for you - writing a first draft of a novel or cooking Thanksgiving dinner??

Cooking. Although I love to cook, I'm no gourmet. Writing is easy. Words flow.

18. Have you based a character on someone who would be horrified to know it's them??

No, but I did have a lady once tell me, with a very insulted tone, "I didn't like how you portrayed me in your book! I told her I didn't like her well enough to put her in a book. Well, I wanted to say that. I just assured her that any resemblance to herself was purely coincidental. And it was.

19. Which is your favorite part of the writing process? Least favorite??

The best part is being "in the groove" when the words flow, and my fingers dance, and thoughts bounce around like lightning flashes. It's like magic. The least favorite is line edits. Fixing tiny details. Who cares that her dress was blue on page 75 and green on page 76? Maybe she changed clothes! Copyeditors are unique and skilled individuals. They miss nothing.

20. Are there certain topics that authors for young adults should avoid because their audience might not be mature enough to deal with??

No, but I think that difficult or controversial subjects should be handed with skill and delicacy. It is possible to describe a horrible situation, such as child abuse, without using graphic details. Such subjects dealt with in this manner can then discussed intelligently because it is the ideas and thoughts we want young readers to share, not the experience itself. We are all attracted to tragedy. That's why soap operas and sad movies are so popular. I think there's something within each of us that wants to look at tragedy from the outside so that we don't have to experience it personally. The other difficult issues or social problems I deal with are very real in the lives of many readers. We don't live in a world of sugar plum fairies and happily ever after. Perhaps reading about the difficulties of others will act like armor and protect my readers from the personal tragedies in their own lives.

21. What is your writing process like? ?

On writing days, that's what I do all day long--I write. I get up at four AM! I sit at a computer and type until the words start sounding funny to me. That means my bring is turning to mush. Then I stop and rest until the next day. A typical writing day starts early in the morning--maybe around five or six. I must have absolute silence--no music, no telephone, not even a fan can be blowing. Then I find my "zone" and enter it. It's a magic flow of thoughts and words. Sometimes the thoughts come faster than I can type them. It's exciting, exhilarating, and wonderful. And it is truly a blessing.

22. Where do you do your writing??

I have an office in my house where I have hundreds of books, a computer, a printer, and a lovely window that looks out over my back yard. That gives me inspiration whether it is raining or sunny or snowing.

23. How do you create such memorable characters??

The characters come and they create themselves. They become like real people to me--living, breathing young people who share the same fears and frustrations that all teenagers experience. I start with an idea, or a problem or a conflict, or even a situation that might be pertinent to the lives of young people, then the characters grow from that point. I try to make strong characters that change and develop and learn from their mistakes. I try to make characters so real that young people believe they are real people, and many do.

24. How long does it take to finish a book? ?

Quite a long time. Months, sometimes years. I can write about a chapter a day if I have no interruptions, but usually there are interruptions-the dog has to go out, I have to go the post office, etc. When I come back to it, I revise it or expand it and change it, each time making it better and stronger. When I finish the whole book, usually in two to three months, I go back and edit it. I fix, change, and rearrange. Then I do it again. Then one more time. That may take several more months. Then I send it in to my editor who fixes and changes it even more. It may go through three or four or even five edits with her. Then, it goes through a final edit with the copy editor. That may take another six to eight months. Writing is easy. Editing is very tedious and painful. When a book is finally done, it may have taken more than a year to get it just right, and even then, I'm never really satisfied with it. I still wish I had perfected it just a little more.

25. Do you have to do a lot of research for your writing, or do you write mostly about topics that you already know about??

Research is essential in every single book, regardless of the subject. I did research on child abuse, hazing, gangs, slavery, etc., in great detail before I began each book.

26. About how many hours a week do you put into writing??

All of them. When I'm not writing, I'm THINKING about what I'll be writing later that day.

27. What about writer's block??

There's no such thing as writer's block. If you really believe that, just write without thinking at first. Write words/phrases/colors/tastes/smells/memories. You'll be surprised how sensory thoughts lead to real ideas. Our senses control our thoughts. Play music. Suck on a orange. Stick your hand in a pile of dirt. Sensory imagery brings forth ideas. Try it.

28. How do you deal with criticism? How do you feel when people don't like what you wrote? ?

Criticism is always disappointing, but to me, it's never a deterrent. Sometimes criticism is good because it challenges me to do better. But one can never please everybody, so I don't worry about it. I get way more compliments than criticism, so I feel surrounded by appreciation most of the time.

29. Will you ever write any stories using your family as characters??

Probably not. I write fiction and my family members are real. I like to keep personal and family things just that--personal. I make up all my characters.

30. Where do you get the names for the characters??

People I know, friends, students, names in the telephone book--wherever I find them. Once I even used a book that listed possible names for new babies. I feel like my characters are my own creation, so I name them what I think fits them best.

31. Who or what are your inspirations??

My inspirations are my readers--old and new. Those who say, "Hey, that was a good book. What else do you have?" Those who come back for more. Those who tell me the books changed them in some way. My inspirations are you--all of you. Thanks.

32. Are any of your books going to be made into movies? Would you want one to be a movie??

I would absolutely LOVE to have one of my books made into a movie! I think about it every single day, and I really feel that it will happen one day. But so far, I have not yet met a producer or director or anyone from Hollywood who can make it happen. If anyone knows someone like that, please let me know. I'll take you to the Academy awards with me when the movie wins that award!

33. Do you try to teach a lesson to your readers??

If you find a lesson in one of the books, that's good. If not, that's OK too. I think a good book should speak to each reader personally, and if each person can possibly find something different from reading it, then that's great. I do not write books so teens can learn a lesson. I offer a story about fictional characters who have problems. As they solve those problems the reader has the option of sharing the experience with them. If the reader gains something from the experience, I think that's pretty cool.

34. Is it true that you are not allowed to autograph anything except for copies of your books? ?

Not really. But I won't sign pieces of paper or tee shirts or body parts or notebooks because things would get out of hand if I did. If I sign one piece of paper, I'd have to sign a piece of paper for everyone. It would take too much time, and I have to protect my hands so I can write. I love signing books, however.

35. If there was one thing you could do to improve reading what would it be??

I'd hope that all children could easily find the joy of reading, of discovering the magic of words.

36. Why do you write the way you do? ?

I try really hard to write material that young readers can "feel." I do my best not to talk down to teen readers, but to take their lives and thoughts quite seriously. Hundreds of readers write to me and tell me that somehow I've managed to capture what it's like to be young and vulnerable. They tell me I write the way it really is for them. That makes me feel good.

37. How many more books do you plan to write??

As many as I can!

38. What do you do for fun??

I write! Honest. It makes me happy. I also like hanging with my grandkids. They keep me young.

39. What is the best question you've ever been asked??

Where do you find your joy? Asked by an eleven year old. Still working on the answer to that one.

40. Every time I start reading one of your books, I can't put it down until I read the whole thing! How do you do that?!!?

I really don't know. It's a gift, a blessing. I'm thankful I'm able to do it, and I hope I can write a million more books!

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