This week we're chatting with author Cynthia Chapman Willis about her writing space. Cynthia is the author of the middle grade novels Dog Gone and Buck Fever. Dog Gone, her first novel, was reviewed by Kirkus as follows:
Willis’s debut novel skillfully navigates the subject of parental loss. Twelve-year-old Dill Macgregor has been hurting since her mother died. She tries to keep her sorrow hidden away, but her grief-stricken daddy, Lyon, and granddad, GD, keep at her to talk about her feelings. Then Lyon goes and gives away all of Mom’s animals except one, Dead End the dog. Now that Mom’s gone, Dead End has started roaming; Dill and GD believe he’s looking for her. When farmers report dogs killing their livestock, Dill fears Dead End is involved. If so, then he’ll be shot and there will be one less thing to remind her of her mother. Set on a Southern farm, the author peppers her story with homey turns of phrases and strong secondary characters, such as Cub, Dill’s best friend. Willis, an author, to watch, keeps the narrative tightly focused on Dill and her resistance to facing her grief. This well-told story, spiced with humor and facts on animal care, has a satisfying, appealing conclusion.
Buck Fever was published in fall of last year. It's the story of Joey MacTagert, a twelve-year-old boy who is struggling between continuing his family's tradition of hunting and his personal aversion to killing animals. Literary agent Mary Kole (not Cynthia's agent) included it on her list of book recommendations last year for her Holiday Gift Guide. She gave her reasons for recommending it for both readers and writers, and I especially liked why she recommended Buck Fever to other writers: "If you’re writing more literary or more old-fashioned middle-grade, pick up BUCK FEVER because it puts to bed the myth that these kinds of books have to be slow and boring. There’s a lot going on and the pacing moves briskly. There’s also a great mix here of internal conflict, of the main character and his struggles to define himself and to live up to his father’s expectations, and external conflict, with a local hunting family and the deer that he’s supposed to kill."
I know many writers who are working on books that could be considered literary or old-fashioned, and there is often a fear that a manuscript has to be commercial in order to break into publishing. That something literary or old-fashioned would be given the dreaded label of "too quiet". So I think it is refreshing to see success stories like Cynthia Chapman Willis, and to have confirmation that there is absolutely a place for these stories, they can be published, and they can be well-received.
If you'd like to know more about Cynthia Chapman Willis, you can visit her website and her blog.
Describe your workspace.
My workspace is an office by day and a guest bedroom by night (when we have guests). This actually works out pretty well because my three cats and the family dog love to hang out on and around the bed while I am working.
Describe a typical workday.
At about 7:30 a.m. I warm up by answering emails and checking in with Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and other sites. On some mornings, I will also write a blog entry. Once I’ve caught up with the outside world, I’ll start on my work-in-progress. Sometimes I’ll leave home and take my laptop to a café or the library for a change of scenery, but I am usually home by 4 p.m. to feed the animals. After that, I return to my office to either work on presentations for upcoming events, answer more emails, write, revise, or read until about 7 p.m. After dinner, I will often do some sort of promotional work, research, or I will visit message boards and Twitter chats. My family suspects that I have an unhealthy attachment to my laptop (and they may be right).
List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
My books (especially those sitting on my desk, within reach), my great grandfather’s pocket watch, and a pen with Dog Gone, the title of my first novel, engraved on it. The pen was a gift from my fabulous stepdaughters.
Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
Crawling out of bed to get house stuff done so that I can be working by 7:30 is my not-to-be-messed-with ritual. And, out of habit, I usually start my day working at the kitchen table for the first hour or so before I head up the stairs to my office or out to a café or a library to work.
What do you listen to while you work?
What I listen to depends on where I am with the novel that I am working on. During the blood, sweat, and (sometimes) tears of writing a first draft or hacking away at major revisions, I rarely listen to music. For me, this is too distracting. However, if I’m brainstorming, outlining, or in the process of minor revisions, my mood and the subject matter dictate the type of music that I listen to. And I listen to just about everything.
What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
The largest chai latte available as well as water with a slice of lemon. I don’t usually snack when I write, which is a good thing.
What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Whatever story that I am working on. If I am not really into the plot that I am writing or revising, then I know there is a big problem with it. In the past, I’ve scrapped manuscripts that I have not been able to focus on. If I’m not into the story, how can I expect readers to be?
Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
The majority of my writing is on my beloved laptop—a Mac. However, at some point in the process of revising, I print out my manuscript and edit it longhand. For some reason, I find issues on hardcopy that I don’t find on a computer screen. Doesn’t that seem kind of bizarre?
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?
Boy, do I outline. In fact, I find that I am writing more detailed outlines with each novel that I put together. Somehow, as I organize the plot and setting and figure out the mechanics of a story, I get to know the characters and discover insights that don’t come to me when I just start writing. For me, outlining before writing my first draft allows me to concentrate on different aspects of the novel without tangling them or overlooking important points that ought not be missed. And, having an outline to revisit when necessary frees my mind when the time arrives to carve out that first draft.
If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?
This will sound awful, but I’d prefer to share my office with someone who travels a lot. Okay, I think I just dodged the question. Let me try again. I couldn’t share my office space with most of the people that I adore, even writers, because it would be impossible for me not to chat. And when I’m writing, I need to be all about the writing. While working, I don’t answer the phone unless I am expecting the call (please don’t tell my mother).
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?
Read, read, read—fiction as well as books about writing and perfecting craft. And, if you truly believe in what you are doing, be persistent and do not give up on your dreams.