Over the past seven years, Sherri L. Smith has managed to produce award-winning novels for young adults while juggling a full-time job as well as making time for her family.
“Writing for me is catch-as-catch-can,” writes Smith, whose first novel, Lucy the Giant, was selected for the 2003 Best Books for Young Adults list by the young adult division of the American Library Association.
“This year, I’m back to doing morning pages,” she says, “so I try to write three random pages every morning.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s done with writing for the day.
“My book work usually comes at the end of the day, after dinner and family time,” she says. “If I’m lucky, it’s an hour or so after 10pm. Otherwise, it’s as the spirit --or the deadline-- moves me.
And if she finds herself without time to write?
“My dark days come when I’m not writing,” she explains. “When I deny myself the act—through procrastination, other obligations, or doubt on where to take the story next—I tend to get angry.”
And then watch out.
“I’m growly towards everyone and fantastically surly. I eat too much, and I do it savagely. And I fold my arms across my chest and glare. It’s really stupid. Especially since I know how to stop it.”
How? The way most authors manage to stop it.
“Just sit down and write,” she explains.
And, eventually, when Smith sits down to write, she finds herself with the most wonderful stories emerging from her pen.
After writing Lucy the Giant, Smith penned Sparrow, which was voted a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age in 2006 and nominated in 2009 for a Louisiana Young Readers Choice Award. And then came Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, a 2008 release soon to come out in paperback, which has been described by Kirkus as a “funny, entertaining gumbo of cultural collisions and discoveries.” Her newest novel, Flygirl, received a starred review in Booklist and was named a Spring 2009 Indie Next List pick for Teen Readers.
Smith, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband (and his cat), took a few minutes from her work-in-progress to talk about her writing process with Wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
Smith: If the water’s cold, the best thing to do is just jump right in. I admit I’ll dip my toes first with a little journaling. Three pages of free writing tends to warm me up. When I sit down to work on a project, I’ve usually worked out the kinks in my journal and I’m ready to go the distance.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat... for short work? For longer work?
Smith: For short pieces, usually it’s the initial inspiration that keeps me going. Poems and short stories tend to appear in my mind, and I find myself sprinting to catch them. On a long project, I will write down the initial spark that made me excited to do the novel in the first place, and I will revisit it, read it over if I find myself flagging. I also have a system to pace myself—a certain number of laps I must do to call the day successful.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Smith: That system I mentioned above of pacing myself gets me through the tough spots. I tend to write from an outline for my books, so I just keep going, point by point and hope that inspiration kicks in while I’m going through the paces. It usually does. You just have to keep swimming along.
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
Smith: Finding the time to do it! There’s nothing worse than sitting in your car or at your day job with your swimsuit on under your clothes, just waiting for the time when you can dive in. I’ll stay up late if I have to, and risk exhaustion in the morning to get those laps in.
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
Smith: You can’t write a book in a vacuum, so I talk to my coaches—my husband and a couple of other trusted readers. When I’m really stuck sometimes it helps to discuss it in detail, or more often in a vague, hypothetical kind of way (to keep my secrets—don’t want to ruin the surprise of reading a full draft later on!). Usually one of my coaches can unlock a good idea. Otherwise, I read and daydream and eventually an answer comes to me.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
Smith: When you get into a flow—it’s like surfing more than swimming. A wave picks you up and you are zooming along and for a minute the energy of the entire ocean is your energy. The story just flows through you instead of from you and it’s exhilarating. I love it!
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