Sunday, September 10, 2006

One Writer's Process: Paul Acampora

Paul Acampora's first novel, Defining Dulcie, which earned starred reviews in Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist, has been described as quirky, heart-warming, hilarious, and well-crafted. It’s all of that... and more.

My own admiration for Acampora's work began when I found his story, "No More Birds Will Die Today," in the short story collection, Every Man For Himself. It’s a story that he has described as the "runt of the litter" because it makes its appearance with stories written by winners of the kind of prestigious awards (Newbury, Michael L. Printz, Coretta Scott King, etc.) that no doubt Acampora's work will be nominated for one day.

Not only is Paul a remarkable writer, but he's a thoughtful and generous person who was kind enough to take the time to share some of his insights into the mystery of the writing process with Wordswimmer.

My writing process probably looks terribly disjointed looking from the outside in. With work, family, etc, I’m rarely able to follow the same regimen two days in a row. For that reason, I set a lot of small goals. I always try to produce 2 pages of something every day. This week I hope to spend at least 4 hours working on my current manuscript. During that time, I need to complete one new chapter and also smooth out transitions between a couple scenes that are bugging me. I think my writing process looks like the work plan of someone who is very quietly trying to build a house at night without a flashlight.

In between the times that I actually sit in a chair with a manuscript in front of me, I take a lot of notes on index cards and scraps as well as in my trusty composition book. In this way, I’m sort of writing all the time. Also, when I have time to actually focus on story writing, I don’t have to come to the page empty-headed. That said, a sense of empty-headedness is not necessarily a bad thing. From there, in a sort of beginner’s mind – which is a very easy place for me to be at this stage of my writing career – there’s freedom to do almost anything.

My favorite thing to write is dialogue. The rhythm of language – especially during the telling of a good story – tells so much about a person and about a situation. Later I go back and fill in physical details. I try to follow the “show, don’t tell rule.” For me, that means writing scenes of characters talking and acting in some interesting way. I’d much rather write scenes like those than write long passages describing thoughts and emotions. Later, I’ll string these rough scenes together in different patterns and arrangements, sort of like beads on a string. Once again, I go back later and try to build natural transitions between scenes.

I used to think that I was supposed to write stories according to a chart I recall from high school. In the correct order, I thought I should write exposition, then introduce an inciting incident, define some conflict, bring in complications and obstacles, throw in some discoveries & reversals, have a nice big epiphany/climax, ride down the slope of falling action and land inside a believable resolution and satisfying denouement. Also, I thought I was supposed to write page 1, then page 2, then page 3, etc… finally I’d type THE END in all caps. But that’s not what I do at all. Instead, I think I write all the fun stuff first and then go back and try to make it look like a story later. It’s not until the final rewrites and revisions that I want to really think hard about that chart.

I really enjoy revisions. It gives me a chance to discover what’s at the heart of things. In my early drafts, I think that all I’m really trying to do is create a certain quantity of worthwhile material so that I can get to the real, more rewarding work of rewriting, revising and reshaping things into some sensible order. While writing the first draft of Defining Dulcie, I discovered that 100 pages is about the minimum acceptable length for a YA novel. One hundred pages became my goal. (Since it takes up more room on a page than long prose, I realized that I could get to 100 pages even more quickly if I wrote a lot of dialogue. So I did that.) I actually told myself that I was not trying to write a good novel. All I wanted to do was write a very bad novel that was exactly 100 pages long. And that is exactly – and I mean exactly – what I did. When I got to the bottom of page 100, I simply put a period at the end of the last line, wrote THE END just below, and then patted myself on the back for writing my first novel. A few minutes later, I turned back to the beginning and started rewriting.

In a lot of ways, I think of stories as big balls of energy created by the relationships between
characters. Inside a story, I want to turn all that energy inward, back toward the characters and the small world defined by the story. Even the longest novel is a pretty small world compared to real life. In any case, I’m always looking to simplify things, to eliminate possibilities and choices for my characters so that all the energy they’re generating sort of propels them down an almost inevitable path. At the end of that path, I think my job is to give them some way out or maybe crush them. Typing this, I just realized that I’ve pretty much described how I figure out plot. I don’t follow a formal outline. For me, the best-ever advice about plotting comes from my editor, Nancy Mercado at Dial, who tells me to “pretend there’s a plot and just keep going.” Another friend, Leann Heywood, who worked as an editor at HarperCollins (before moving to Michigan and opening her own editorial service, Heywood Editorial) , told me once that good editors know how to fix plots but only writers can create a great character and a great voice. So I work especially hard at making lively characters with voices that are as loud and clear and true as possible.

An important part of my writing process is my reading process. I read all the time, and I read pretty voraciously. When I teach creative writing I tell students to “read like writers” and “write like readers.” To me, reading like a writer means keeping an eye on the mechanics of a story. Of course it’s almost impossible to stay focused on setting, dialogue, transitions, etc. when a story is really good. I always get carried away. For that reason, I tend to read books that I like 3 or 4 times. I listen to them on tape too. I want to see how talented people do this job. I guarantee that reading Because of Winn Dixie a dozen or more times won’t enable you to write like Kate DiCamillo, but you’ll sure be a lot better writer than you were the first time you read it.

As far as writing like a reader… reading is such a magical thing to me. In my own work, I want to have the same sensation of being “carried away” in writing that I get from reading. Like reading, I find that if I try too hard, I just won’t get into it. So I try to relax, get into the flow of things, look around a bit inside my head so I might see stuff I wouldn’t notice otherwise, and generally enjoy the ride. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes I do need to just slog forward. But if writing becomes more struggle than anything else, I’ll usually put the work aside for awhile and then go spend time with a good book.

For more information about Paul Acampora and his work, check out his website at


reniebob said...

What excellent advice! I (though unpublished as of yet in the children's market) would add, "not only read books you love more than once, read them out loud to children." I read The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson to myself then to my kids, and it was so clear to me when the story was really really working and when they weren't as interested. Paul makes a great point about dialogue being the engine of the story -- that was certainly evident when I was reading to my kids.
Great tips - I always enjoy this site. Thanks.

jo'r said...

I enjoyed Paul's discussion. After an earlier discussion by Wordswimmer on Paul's book, "Defining Dulcie," I was motivated to read it and wasn't disappointed. It was a strong story, and thinking about Paul's discussion here on his insights and approaches to writing, I can almost envision how he might have approached that story. Perhaps he didn't see the dramatic climax and the shape of his resolution until he'd written many pages of dialog between interesting characters and at some point--maybe even during revision of an inconclusive draft--he noticed various hints his supporting character, Roxanne, had let slip, and where that could lead. I like Paul's open-ended idea of moving ahead with characters and interesting dialog between them and discovering the shape of a work. I hope Paul visits here again in the future.