Friday, August 04, 2006

One Writer's Process: Barbara O'Connor

Barbara O'Connor lives in the North now, but she's an author with deep Southern roots and her novels--Beethoven in Paradise, Moonpie and Ivy, Me and Rupert Goody, and Fame and Glory in Freedom, GA--still retain strong echoes of her childhood home in Greenville, SC.

You can hear these echoes in her voice as soon as you open the pages of one of her books. Her voice contains a magical, easy-flowing smoothness, sweet as molasses, but deeper and richer, full of life's pain and loneliness, yet tinged with a touch of Southern humor, too.

O'Connor, who recently finished the draft of a new novel ("I've finally written those two glorious words: The End!"), was kind enough to share some of her thoughts on writing before beginning revisions ("I know there will be rewrites, but for me the first draft is the biggest hurdle.")

Wordswimmer: How do you get into the water each day?

O'Connor: While I'd rather just jump right in, I usually find it most helpful to wade in--down the steps and through the shallow end and then gliding on into the deep end. In other words, I find it helpful to read through at least a portion of what I've written the day before. This refreshes my memory about where I left off, but also gets me into the rhythm, tone, and voice of the piece--elements that are particularly critical for me.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

O'Connor: For me, "short work" means a chapter and "longer work" means the whole book. I tend to treat each chapter as an individual unit with a "life" of its own--primarily with regard to structure and pacing. I use chapters to help me pick up the pace of the whole piece by moving along in large chunks of time or by creating tension to spur the reader along. I also structure the chapter with a beginning, middle, and end, similar to the whole piece.

[In terms of structure,]
I find that studying scriptwriting is very beneficial. Scripts have very tight structure. They must pull the reader in immediately and must have quick pacing. One book I particularly like is Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger. Her explanation of the three-part story structure, the use and placement of backstory, the necessity of turning points and the placement of the climax have taught me a lot about the overall structure of my books. In fact, I used her book to set up the structure of Me And Rupert Goody.

I think what keeps me afloat with a piece of short work is being 150% inside the character's head. Since my books are, for the most part, character driven (as opposed to plot driven), the character is the critical element for success.

As far as the longer work (i.e., the whole book), I'd like to say what keeps me afloat is knowing where I'm going. But, alas, that doesn't always happen. So I guess I'd say, then, at least having hope that the ending will reveal itself to me eventually.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

O'Connor: I get frustrated when I hear people say to just keep writing and push your way through a dry spell. When I've hit a block or am not feeling inspired, if I try to write anyway, I invariably get frustrated and, worse than that, usually produce some pretty crappy stuff. Those situations, for me, are almost never productive. I find that I'm better off getting a little distance from my work--either by a nice long walk (or two or three) or even by reading authors who inspire me. It might sound a tad strange, but, since I write Southern fiction, I sometimes take a break and listen to country music--and often get a nice kickstart back into my work.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

O'Connor: The hardest part, for me, is getting through those dry spells mentioned above. I'm lucky in that I think I've found my own distinctive writing voice and, fortunately, have learned when I'm on track with it and when I'm not. So when I write and start getting that "this-is-not-my-voice" feeling, well, I hate that.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

O'Connor: I try not to swim alone. I really think that all writers need someone to help in the critique process. Sometimes we need someone to confirm a doubt, to point out an inconsistency, etc. Sometimes we need someone to validate a storyline or who "gets" (or doesn't "get") a character. But, with that said, I also think that writers need to trust their own instincts in many situations, even if others disagree. While it's hard, and I sometimes fail, I really try to figure out what advice/critique to take and what to leave. I think doing that well just comes with experience.

As far as who I turn to for critique, I belong to a fabulous writers group. They are my first line of fire. I also have a friend, whose opinion I value, who reads the final first draft. And then, of course, my brilliant editor.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

O'Connor: When characters take on a life of their own and pull you along with them through the story. I love that. And I love that rush of a feeling when everything just clicks into place--the voice, the character, the story--and you know where you're going and you can hardly get the words down fast enough. I wish I could say that happens a lot, but alas, it doesn't. But when it makes up for all those icky staring-at-a-blank-piece-of-paper-with-no-ideas times.

Wordswimmer: Thanks, Barbara.

O'Connor: I've enjoyed chatting with you and really admire what you are doing. It's a wonderful resource for all levels of writers.

For more information about Barbara O'Connor and her work, visit her website at Her next book, How to Steal a Dog, is due out in Spring, 2007.

(P.S. - Wordswimmer's next post will appear on Aug. 20th.)

1 comment:

jo'r said...

I like Barbara’s practice of reading through a portion of what was written the day before. I hadn’t thought much about why it was necessary for me to do the same thing, but I think she has it when she says it helps to recover the rhythm, tone, and voice of the piece. Hopefully that is going to be something very unique to the story I’m working on, and so it makes sense to take some daily time with it. I’ve just got to watch out that it’s not goofing off and sitting there simply admiring the previous day’s work. It’s also interesting that Barbara finds studying scriptwriting to be beneficial to the structure of novels. This reminds me of our friend Chuck’s essay on “Motion Picture Story Structure Techniques in Middle-Grade Novels,” which was a very interesting work. He cited references that included Syd Field’s “The Screenwriter’s Workbook.” I’m also glad to see that Barbara’s one of those writers who don’t always know where they’re going; I’d certainly like to get good at that open-ended approach. It seems to be the most organic and creative way to respond to the needs and desires of characters you’ve set in motion at the beginning of the story, versus the fully realized outline-before-beginning approach. It certainly creates author anxiety, though. Thanks for the references to Barbara's books. I’ve got some new reading material to add to my list.