Sunday, December 02, 2007

One Writer's Process: Sherry Garland

Sherry Garland, a fifth-generation Texan, was born in the Rio Grande Valley, and moved with her family more than twelve times in her first fourteen years.

For a while she lived on a dairy farm in central Texas with her eight siblings (she was the youngest of nine children) and had her own pet pig and calf, as well as chickens, dogs, and twenty--twenty!--cats.

Too busy climbing trees to write much during those years, she spent most of her time alone, preferring to play in the woods by herself rather than with other children.

"Most of the characters in my novels are like that child," writes Garland, "loners who love nature, who are shy or different, and who don't fit in."

She started writing in high school, and her words first appeared in print in 1982. Since then Garland has written more than two dozen books and received more awards--from the ABC Children's Bookseller's Choice Award to the Western Writers of America Spur Award--than the number of cats she could fit in her lap as a child on her family's farm.

It was a painting of William Travis at the Alamo, which Garland saw every morning as she entered the William B. Travis Elementary School, that she credits with inspiring her life-long interest in the Alamo. Eventually, the Alamo served as the subject for three of her books, A Line in the Sand, Voices of the Alamo, and In the Shadow of the Alamo.

Indeed, many of her stories are set in Texas. Indio, the story of a Native American girl confronting the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500's, is set in the rugged Big Bend region of Texas. Letters from the Mountain is set on a hilltop in central Texas where Garland lived in her pre-teen years. And Shadow of the Dragon, about a Vietnamese teen trying to fit into American society, is set in Houston, where Garland lived for twenty-two years before moving with her husband to two wooded acres in central Texas.

But a handful of her stories are set in Vietnam, or touch on Vietnamese culture, which Garland first discovered when she befriended Vietnamese families while living in Houston. Song of the Buffalo Boy, about a 17-year-old Amerasian girl seeking the truth about her American father, is set in the mountains of central Vietnam. And her picture books, The Lotus Seed and Children of the Dragon, have given Garland a chance to share her love of Vietnam and Vietnamese culture with young readers.

Recently, Garland was kind enough to take time from her work to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

If writing is like swimming…..

Garland: Well….if swimming is like writing, then I’m in big trouble. I have been terrified of water since I was five years old. That was when one of my six older brothers decided to put me on his shoulders, then drape a wool Army blanket on top of us. I was supposed to wave my arms, shriek and scare the neighbors. The problem was, my brother could not see where he was going. He stumbled around and stepped right into what we affectionately called “the frog pond,” a body of water a few feet deep, covered with moss and wild spearmint. Not only did I not know how to swim, there was also a heavy blanket over my head. Somehow I managed to crawl to the shore, but that feeling of suffocation never left my memory. My mother, who was afraid I would drown because I didn’t know how to swim, would tie a rope around my waist when we went to the cow tank to play in the water – another bad swimming experience. In fact, I didn’t learn how to swim until I was in my 30s. To this day I cannot bear to put my head under water. But I digress. Just wanted to explain why I prefer not to use the swimming metaphor.

Wordswimmer: Well, how do you get into the water each day?

Garland: Very cautiously. In fact, getting started is the hardest thing about writing for me. I am a terrible procrastinator. I wake up each morning with the greatest of intentions and enthusiasm for working on a specific project. Then life happens. I check e-mails, do some research, cook, feed the animals, take a nap, watch TV, eat, pay bills, read the mail, wash the dishes, clean the house, read, write e-mails, eat. On and on until the day is almost over. Of course, by 10 PM I feel terribly guilty and know that I really should do some writing, so I have a burst of manic-like activity. However, there is one exception to this bad behavior -- see my response to your next question.

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

Garland: The number one thing that keeps me going on a novel is a signed contract. I have sold all my novels, both adult and YA, on a proposal consisting of a synopsis and three sample chapters. I have to get the manuscript completed by the agreed upon deadline or I won’t get paid, and worse still, the editor will think I am a lazy, procrastinating slob. Before I start the project I type up a detailed daily schedule and stick to it, no matter how grueling.

The best thing I have found for keeping on track when writing a longer work is to outline the story. Some authors say they let the characters tell the story and do not know what is going to happen next. I tried that once and my characters led me on a multi-generational family saga goose-chase. After a thousand pages, I finally quit writing. I think the characters are on their twentieth generation by now, but I’m afraid to check in on them to find out.

As for shorter works, to me a picture book is like a poem. I think about it for weeks, months, even years. The story and words bounce around in my head until one day the finished story emerges from my fingertips and it literally only takes me moments to get it on paper. Of course, then I spend weeks or months tweaking it here and there, but the bulk of the story is written in an inspirational burst. Occasionally, an individual scene in a novel will also arrive in a burst of inspiration. These bursts seem to always come to me in the middle of the night when I am trying to get to sleep.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Garland: Ah-ha, good old Writer’s Block. When I hear someone say “writer’s block,” I imagine an author sitting in front of a blank page unable to think of anything to say. I have never had that kind of traditional writer’s block. I’m not sure it even exists. What I find is that I have plenty of ideas, plots, works-in-progress that I honestly want to work on, but I get distracted by so many daily obligations that I do not write. As a children’s author, I speak at schools and conferences many times a year. Speaking engagements take a tremendous amount of time from my schedule. It takes several hours to prepare for the visit, then time to travel there, then the visit itself, and finally traveling back home. Then I collapse from exhaustion! During the school year my writing suffers tremendously. Add to this the demands of promoting new books and shopping unsold manuscripts, schmoozing with other authors, book signings, volunteer work, and all the business aspects of being an author. Not to mention day-to-day non-business living demands. Being pulled in several directions at once can lead to a feeling of helplessness and depression which in turn can block the desire to write.

When I have a deadline, there is no time for writer’s block; I trudge through the muck and mire no matter how awful the experience. I ignore all my other duties and the house is declared a disaster area until I finish the manuscript. Sometimes just getting away to a quiet location can help. One year I had so many distractions that I visited a relative for two weeks and wrote the entire rough draft of a short novel. I knew one author who rented a cabin on the Gulf Coast for his distraction-free writing. If you truly do stare at a blank page, perhaps one way to get over the problem is to give yourself permission to work on something just for fun, something that you don’t care if you sell or not, something that only you will read. Also, give yourself permission to write garbage on the first draft.

Wordswimmer: What’s the hardest part of swimming?

Garland: And now for the dark side of children’s publishing. Let’s start with reviews. A negative review, or even a good review with just one teeny negative sentence, can devastate or infuriate me. I either get depressed and cry, or I get very angry and rant. Then there are manuscript rejections; editors leaving to (a) have a baby and/or (b) become a children’s author, causing a book to become “orphaned”; publishers going out of business; books going out of print too soon; books getting remaindered or pulped; not finding my books on the shelves; jealousy when awards go to books I don’t like; small advances and small royalty checks. Also, add to the list celebrity authors and people who say “Anybody can write a children’s book” or “When are you going to write a real book.”

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

Garland: I have no problem working alone. I was a very shy, weird youth who was known to climb up a tree and hide when a strange car came down the road. But, today, with e-mails and the Internet, you are just a keystroke away from another miserable author. There is always some writer out there with problems similar to yours and knowing it keeps you from feeling so totally weird. And, of course, the characters in your books keep you company, but maybe that sounds a bit too psychotic, a la Johnny Depp in The Secret Window.

Sometimes when I hit a glitch in the plot, where the characters refuse to do what I think they should do, or when I work myself into a corner, I put the manuscript up a little while and work on something else. Or I do some more research on the subject matter of the book. Eventually, the solution makes itself known. I also discuss plot problems with my number one advisor, my husband of 36 years, usually in the evening during our daily walk. After I’ve written the manuscript, he reads it and points out my lack of logic. (The neighborhood kids used to call him Mr. Spock.)

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

Garland: Well, there is the freedom and independence that comes with being my own boss. And I love whiling away the day doing research, especially in exotic, yet tax deductible, places. But I guess the most rewarding thing about being a writer is the joy of creating something unique. I marvel every time I hold the newly “born” book in my hands for the first time and realize that people all over the world will be reading about characters and places that I created, many of which reflect people, incidents and places from my own childhood. To know that readers will cry when I cried, laugh when I laughed, and (hopefully) sigh with satisfaction when the story ends -- that makes it all worthwhile.

For more information about Sherry Garland and her work, visit her website:

And to read another interview with her, check out:


Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute.

Bruce said...

Thanks for the kind words... and for stopping by.

Jack said...

Liberating to note Sherry's ability to use characters from several different ethnic cultures, and she has an interesting array of MG/YA titles to demonstrate this. Also, chalk up another one for writers who find an initial outline the preferred way to go on longer works.

Bruce said...

I have to admit that I've had my share of wild goose chases (though never as long as 1000 pages).

Still, I prefer letting the characters tell the story. There's something about not knowing what's going to happen that pulls me back to the story day after day.

Preparing an outline... even a minimal one... has the same effect as popping a balloon with a pin. All my excitement for a project leaks out if I know too much too soon.

Jennifer said...

I really enjoy these Writer's Process posts. There's always something to relate to- the procrastination, the frustration and of course, the joy.

I've tagged you for a meme, if you'd like to take part:


Bruce said...

Sometimes it's easy to forget... because our work is so solitary... how much we share in common. That's why I enjoy the interviews, too.

I'll pass on the meme, but thanks for thinking of me. Maybe another time.