Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
With many “hats” to her name, Deborah Halverson could open a boutique. Most recently, she has authored two Delacorte/Random House novels: Honk If You Hate Me (YA), and Big Mouth (mid-grade). She’s also immersed in an as-yet-untitled third novel. While not writing fiction—or simultaneously—she’s mothering male triplet toddlers.
Deborah’s resumé also includes a range of publishing experience. As a Harcourt Children’s Book editor for 10 years, she worked with renowned authors Norma Fox Mazer, Gary Soto and Eve Bunting. Besides acquiring and editing at Harcourt, Deborah wrote flap copy, positioned and marketed books, and appeared on writing panels.
Another feather in her metaphorical hat: Deborah is a teacher. She taught fiction writing at the University of California-San Diego Extension; she currently participates in school Author Visits and other events for young people—as well as for enthusiastic adults.
At the 2008 Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop, you’ll meet Deborah in a seminar setting. Dive into her hands-on focus session, designed to help you polish and publish your story. Below, in our interview, enjoy a glimpse of what else awaits you: Deborah’s editor-author-teacher tips that illumine a novelist’s frequently (and not so frequently) asked questions.
There are many approaches to learning about one’s story characters, such as profiling them before writing. How do your story people reveal themselves to you?
I fear knowing too much about my characters when I start a novel. If I know too much about them, I may slip into the common trap of giving each character’s full background to readers the moment that character appears in the story—which in the case of key characters is in the opening pages. That would kill the pacing of the book. Instead, I prefer to be like my readers and learn about the characters as they talk and behave, scene by scene. So, I just write the first scene and see who shows up, then move on to the next scene, then the next, with one eye on the story’s door to see who’ll walk in.
For example, in an early scene of Honk If You Hate Me, I was writing about a nephew who came to Mona’s house as a lackey for his cameraman uncle. I thought I’d invited a 16-year-old guy to show up, intending him to be Mona’s love interest. But every time Mona opened her door, a 13-year-old boy stood there. Almost indignant, I kept deleting and rewriting, deleting and rewriting, until finally I just gave in and let the 13-year-old run amok in her house. He tripped over cables, flipped switches he wasn’t supposed to flip, and completely annoyed his hardworking uncle. Once I gave the boy a name—Burt —he was there to stay. I didn’t know Burt’s whole background until about three-quarters of the way into the story, by which time he’d become a key foil for Mona. No planning. No profiling. I just opened the door and said, “Welcome.”
Do you outline plot before you begin, or proceed mostly intuitively—or both?
I proceed intuitively, knowing where I want to start the story, where I want to end it, and understanding what key landmarks must be hit in between. I leave the details of how I’ll actually reach each landmark to work themselves out as I write. This can be scary, especially to someone who is a planner by nature. You should see the “To Do” lists in my home!
For Novel #3, I tried outlining—and found myself spending more time revising the master outline than writing the story itself. Each scene I wrote brought up unexpected (and usually desired) details that required me to revise the outline, taking into account the new twist. It stalled me greatly. For experience’s sake, I’m glad I tried outlining. But I’m even more glad that I finally chucked that outline and started the story from scratch, using the approach that had worked so well for my first two books: Write by the seat of my pants. Novel #3 is now flying along. I’m more productive when I’m afraid, I guess!
How do you track subplots, symbols, motifs? Do you use charts and index cards?
While I write, I organize in my head. But to ensure that the subplots and themes are handled consistently—don’t want to drop a plot thread for too long!—I do a separate pass of revision for each theme and subplot after the first draft is done.
That said, I’ve been known to make a chart or two. In my upcoming novel Big Mouth, the astrology theme of a secondary character got too complicated for me, a newbie to astrology concepts. So I made lists (such as the characters’ birthdates, signs and symbols). In this case, the lists freed me, so I didn’t have to burden my memory. Much like a mother who bends her parental philosophies to fit the unique personalities of each of her children, I try to be flexible with the unique needs of each story.
Do you write straight through to the end of a novel, or edit heavily as you go along?
Sometimes I edit heavily as I go, usually because I’m putting off a decision on another part of the book. I love revising, and when I’m feeling anxious about a decision, I tinker with a scene I already know is working. It makes me feel good, but it’s not productive to do this a lot. It’s fine to go back and add in something you’ve learned will be needed, but don’t keep rewriting those first pages ad nauseam. You’ll get bogged down for eternity in them, I promise. I’ve witnessed that countless times from the editorial side of the desk. Allow yourself to write the crappy draft first, going back occasionally to tack in things as you learn them, and only when the first draft is done do you go back and revise.
Other first-hand experiences with revision?
As an editor, I’ve recommended to countless writers that they change their manuscripts substantially. Now as a writer, I’ve taken big, bloody axes to my own manuscripts. Check out the blog posts I wrote when I hacked at Novel #2, Big Mouth (“Writing Without Training Wheels”), and again when I eviscerated Novel #3 (“Another Manuscript”). I even rewrote my Novel #1, Honk If You Hate Me, in first person after I’d finished the entire book in third person. My advice? Experiment. If it doesn’t work, you’ll fix it. My goal is to have something to fix. I’ll take broken over a safe blank page, any day.
For an edifying, entertaining look at Deborah’s behind-the-scenes, decision-making process in creating Honk If You Hate Me, visit her blog. For juicy tips about “Epiphanies and Endings” (our 2008 workshop theme), see Deborah’s exercise on our Summer Homework page.
II. ON A PERSONAL NOTE
What do you like best about writing youth novels?
What started me writing, and what keeps me writing, is the fact that it’s fun. Oh, there are moments—say, when I’m stuck or afraid to make a decision—that writing isn’t so enjoyable, but overall, it’s a hoot. It’s a tangible, physical rush to read something I’ve just written and say, “Hey, that’s pretty funny. I came up with a good angle on that puppy. Not so awful, Deborah Jean!” and then chuck myself on the chin. Maybe that’s why I liken writing to physical exercise, and why I like to “write” while I exercise—the rush of writing is just as real to me as the adrenaline rush I get on a jog.
I adore books for kids, especially teen novels. They are a potent mix of excitement and fear, curiosity and dread, sarcasm and sincerity, all with a foundation in innocence and wonderment about life. What could be more enticing? I enjoy entertaining kids; but most importantly, having been the child who never stopped asking “Why? Why? Why?”, I relish nudging kids to question the world around them.
An editor points things out, questions and suggests. She shapes and moulds and positions and markets. She doesn’t spend hours teaching the writer how to make his dialogue sound more natural. A manuscript with unnatural dialogue won’t be a part of her day; she’ll reject it. Acquiring editors see countless strong manuscripts; they sign up the great ones and then develop those for the marketplace. That’s why writers attend in-depth seminars like The Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop, and may hire freelance editors before submitting to acquiring editors, to raise their manuscript to the “great” level.
In contrast, as a writing coach I now get to help writers master natural dialogue. I get to teach. And boy, is it fun to be the one who sparks the light bulb over a writer’s head: “Oh! So that’s what’s meant by narrative voice! I can do that.” And, as an author in the trenches, I can take writers beyond understanding a concept to actually applying it.
What I adore most about teaching is the idea of coaching someone along, swing by swing if needed, until he or she is confident and capable enough to take cuts with the big kids. It’s very satisfying to see your hitter make solid contact. As for home runs, well, every home run king had a first hit, didn’t he? I guarantee you that when his bat hit that ball, his coach cheered louder than anyone.