It’s Week 4 of National Novel Writing Month. The home stretch at last! To celebrate and inspire, here’s more from my conversation with my friend and novelist, Ellen Airgood. Ellen is the author of the adult novel, South of Superior, and a middle grade novel, Prairie Evers. She lives on Lake Superior in Michgan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula, where she and her husband run a diner.
In the excerpts below, Ellen talks more about the process of writing, as well as her tips for anyone participating in NaNoWriMo.
On writing tools
Robyn: I read [in another inteview] about notebooks that you used for Prairie. Where you would cut out pictures of things that Prairie liked and you had pictures, of what you thought Prairie looked like. What other things were in the notebook? And do you do that for all of the novels?
Ellen: I did it for Prairie just because it seemed like a fun thing to do and like something she might do. When I tried to do it for other books it wasn’t nearly as fun or as useful. So even though I’ve done it for a couple other books, I’d say it was only a natural fit for this one.
I like looking through it still now. There’s a picture of a grilled cheese sandwich. A black and white picture of a very old woman with not very many teeth who seemed like her grandma to me. Another black and white photo of girl on a tire swing that seemed like Prairie. A picture of really deep woods, which seemed like where Prairie had come from. It was just play to me. It was so many years ago. It was–what?– thirteen years ago now–but I still remember the happiness with which I put that notebook together.
I didn’t have any real expectation that the book would be published, but I always believed in the story. I strongly considered self-publishing, because I believed in it so much. I looked into it, but things were different then. If you didn’t get 3,000 copies, it didn’t make any sense as far as what you’d have to charge per book. And I had this vision of how much physical space 3,000 copies would be. I live in a pretty small house–I love my house–and I didn’t want to be tripping over boxes of books. And being in the retail business and running a diner– I’ve sold books for years and I know how hard it is to sell them. 3,000 is a lot of books. It’s a lot of anything, you know? T-shirts, donuts. So, I didn’t end up doing it. But the writing–it was an unburdened thing. [Something] I was just doing between me and Prairie. It was fantastic.
On the editing process
R: So, did you have to impose a lot of plot in the editing process [for Prairie Evers]? How different is the prose poem thing from what eventually got published.
E: Good question. It’s hard for me to say. But as I went through the editing process with my editor at Penguin she really did help turn it into something that a middle grade kid would want to read. She’d ask me questions, just put questions in the margins–Don’t you think that Prairie might wonder this? Don’t you think that a reader might want to see this happen? She never told me what to do, but she’d ask leading questions that helped shape it.
When I look at the overall structure and what is there, the main points of the book are all identical, even down to the sentences. But, originally the book was written like you were reading Prairie’s journal. My editor didn’t think that that was going to work very well. So now it’s written in a much more typical third person transparent narrator point of view. And I think that helped change it a lot. Things like that are a little hard for me to unravel now. It’s been so long since I looked at the original. I honestly don’t go back and read my own work very much. I think that most writers don’t. Also there were some skips in the story that the editor was like, um, I really feel like we need to fill this hole. I was like, yeah, I can see that. Sure. I’ll try. And it was hard. It was hard work. I was like, I don’t want to fill that hole. That’s just plain old work!
On getting published
R: Did you query for Prairie at all?
E: I did. Again, it’s all kind of murky in my memory, but I think I did some querying after the retired editor who was doing me the favor of reading some of my work and commenting on it told me she loved it. She wasn’t sure it was a novel. She certainly never used the words “middle grade novel.” But after she told me that she did [love it] I started to query. I’d had some luck on a previous novel I’d written, a young adult novel called Thunder Moon that was about a girl whose father was Chippewa and whose mother was white who was having a search for identity. Anyway, I was having luck with Scholastic on my own. Because, again, kind of like writing a novel where I didn’t know you couldn’t really do that in just a few months, I tried. I didn’t know that you couldn’t get read at a big publisher without an agent. I should’ve known, because I did a lot of research on the business. But I thought, well, heck. I’m just gonna try. So I was querying agents and publishers with these manuscripts. An editor at Scholastic books was reading Tin Camp Road [another young adult novel written by Ellen] and was intrigued, but wanted changes. She had read Thunder Moon and had told me that they were considering it for their fall/winter list one year. But they ultimately decided, no, which was heart-breaking.
But at least I had a contact. And she did really have good things to say about Prairie, also. But in the end she wanted major changes to the very heart of the story. I think she wanted it to be a much more, maybe, lighthearted story. I understood why, but I couldn’t change that aspect of it–it was the very core. So I’d queried but I hadn’t really revised.
On National Novel Writing Month
R: This month is National Novel Writing Month.
E: No! I had lost track of that. That’s awesome.
R: So do you have any tips for people trying to write their novel in November. Don’t do it in a month? (laughs).
E: No. I don’t know. I have very mixed feeling about it, I honestly do. There’s a part of me that’s like, yeah, let her rip, man! Do it! There’s almost no other way to do it. Just get it over with. Get that awful, horrible first draft done. Do it.
And then another part of me is like, Don’t do it: Do not do this without a plan, I don’t care what they tell you. Because you end up not making the wisest use of your time. Or end up lost. I’ve done that. Ended up lost inside a manuscript, and it’s not a pleasant experience. At all.
R: So, have a plan. Anything else?
E: Have a plan. Don’t– Don’t get too serious about it, I guess. At the same time as you stay completely serious about it. But it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out. There’s more to you than that novel.
But if you want to do it, then you absolutely, definitely–it’s well worth doing it.
Every book needs a hobby
E: …The other thing I ended up thinking is that a book needs a hobby. The chickens were a fun hobby in Prairie Evers. In South of Superior, I think the hotel that Madeline restores was the hobby. It surprises me how much, in both cases, readers respond to that. And in some ways it seems to be what they–not all readers–but the hobby is what they like most about the book. And I certainly sympathize with that. A lot of times that’s what sticks with me about a book I really like. What the character did. What they learned.
The next book
R: Okay, so I have to ask this, Ellen. What are you working on now?
E: Right now I’m working on a middle grade novel that’s a companion to Prairie Evers. It’s Ivy’s story. I found myself really intrigued by what would happen next for Ivy. And what it might be like to hang out with her as a primary story teller. So, yeah, I’d say I’m about 2/3 of the way through a draft. And now that you’ve told me that it’s National Write Your Novel Month, I’m absolutely inspired to finish that first draft this month.
On loving your characters
R: Did you ever get bogged down in [writing Prairie Evers]?
E: No! It was just completely fun. I think because I had no goal for it other than following Prairie’s voice, I had no anxiety whatsoever. I was never concerned that things were going wrong. It all just seemed to be going right. But there wasn’t any right or wrong. It was like, I don’t know, knitting a scarf, or a sweater. There was work to do, but it was very clear to me what I was aiming for. And I was very happy with the materials that I had. It was just a pleasurable endeavor.
R: It makes you think that we should write all our novels that way. Convince ourselves that really nothing’s at stake.
E: It would be nice if you could. I’m not sure that’s really possible, but it would be great if it was. I certainly have tried to. My agent gave me good advice this spring when I was really concerned about everything that was going wrong with my works in progress. And she told me, just love your character.
It’s very simple advice. On the surface it doesn’t seem like it means much. But when I really think about it and now that I’m working on Ivy’s story–regardless of what happens in the big picture: whether my editor likes it or not, or accepts the manuscript or not–I really love Ivy. She’s turned into a real person for me every much as bit as Prairie did. I know I’ll finish the book, because I like her so much and it’s her book. How could I not do that for her? I could never abandon her. I’ve tried to take that as my guiding principle as I work. To love your character. I can see where that would guide you through a lot of bad times. If you worry more about loving your character more than you do about anything else about the project, maybe the anxiety could go away.