By way of introduction, I'd like to tell you all that Lisa Klein is a fantastic writing teacher and I am lucky to have had the chance to learn about YA lit and writing with her. A former English Lit professor, Lisa is now writing full time and cranking out fantastic historical fiction. Here is an interview with her on the eve of the publication of her fourth novel, Cate of the Lost Colony. (Go pre-order a copy!)
Carpe Keyboard: We first met when I attended a class you were teaching about writing for young adults. You asked us to read Uglies by Scott Westerfeld as one of the class texts, and I remember talking about how dialog gives life to the story setting. Your historical characters in Lady MacBeth’s Daughter and Ophelia sound just like they stepped out of their time period. How do you do that?
Lisa Klein: Thanks, I consider that a great compliment! A testimony to my psychic channeling powers…Seriously, how I do that is by reading lots of Shakespeare. He writes terrific dialog. It’s ALL dialog, in fact! From him I try to pick up the rhythms of speech and some particular idioms—though it’s important to choose the ones that still make sense today. But you’ll notice I don’t use “thee” or “thou” or “asketh” etc. Shakespeare himself was using very contemporary language, and I want to make his “old” language still sound contemporary, alive.
I’ve recently learned (the hard way!) that the editing process is where a huge part of the art of writing happens. I think some writers would argue the magic is in the act of writing the first draft. What do you think?
I agree with your distinction—there is more magic in the first draft, more of the inspiration that pours out uncontrolled. So drafts are necessarily messy. The art, the shaping of raw nature (to use a very Renaissance-y idea!) comes in the revision and editing. To me, pruning that wild tree, giving it a shape, is very satisfying. There’s very little magic in it, just hard work and the ability to detach yourself from all those wonderful pages you wrote, half of which should probably be deleted!
I happen to know you don’t like to read books about “how to write books,” yet you have a knack for choosing great examples of literature to teach your students about craft. I’ve written some posts on Carpe Keyboard discussing how I’ve learned about voice by reading John Green, for example, or learned about pacing from Cassandra Clare. Do you have any authors or books you’d recommend reading to learn about specific story elements or aspects of craft?
You know, now and then I do read those “how to write” books, if only to learn how to talk about writing or to help make me aware of the process and the choices I make often without realizing it. But it is far more useful to me to learn by reading the fiction of others. John Green is great for voice, so is Laurie Halse Anderson. Robert Cormier’s “The Chocolate Wars” helped me learn 3rd person narration. Michael Grant (the “Gone” series) is great at juggling many characters and perspectives while keeping the plot rolling forward. And don’t forget those authors who just do wonders with language, either as masters of tone (Edith Wharton, believe it or not) or description, because attention to language enriches any story, raises it to the next level.
When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?
Whenever I’m not delightedly carpe-ing chocolate or a book, or more reluctantly carpe-ing a vacuum cleaner or steering wheel…I write during the day when the kids are in school, from about 9 to 3, and even then with frequent interruptions. I’m a rather slow writer. So much of the process occurs “offstage” so to speak. I’m lucky, very lucky, to write 3 pages a day!
Your next book, Cate of the Lost Colony, is coming out soon, right? What’s the hook? And what’s your next project?
The hook, ah yes! The agent/editor’s favorite question. If you don’t have a hook, you don’t have a book. Cate of the Lost Colony imagines an answer to that great question of history: What really happened to the English colonists who landed on Roanoke Island in 1587, and were never seen again? It’s an adventure, a romance, and not a tragedy after all.
What’s next is another Shakespeare-themed book, a comedy this time, though not based on a particular play. That’s all I can really say about it, because this one I’m writing by the seat of my pants—after carefully planning out the other ones. Let’s see how long this takes me! And who knows where it will end up, because my Will Shakespeare character has a mind of his own already.
Good luck, Lisa, with Cate and the work you are doing on the new Shakespeare novel. Can't wait to read them both! Here's to big sales, inspired prose, and continuing with the writer's life.