Sunday, January 15, 2012

One Writer's Process: Cynthia Lord

As a way of learning more about her characters, Cynthia Lord keeps a list of questions that she likes to ask herself.

“What does she want, and why hasn't she achieved that before the first chapter?” says Lord, whose first novel, Rules, won a slew of awards, including the Newbery Honor Award, and who relied on these questions to help her find out more about her characters in her second novel, Touch Blue, another award-winner.

But mostly, Lord admits, she discovers her characters through writing about them.

Lord starting writing in elementary school--book reports, biographies of famous people, and essays about what she did on her summer vacations–but didn’t start writing fiction until she entered high school.

“One of my first attempts was a ghost story,” she says. “After a few chapters, I was giving myself nightmares! I remember lying in bed, staring at the dark ceiling shadows, afraid to move, saying to myself: ‘This is so stupid! You wrote the story! You KNOW it’s not real.’”

In college, some of her short stories were published, and she remembers that one of those stories even won a contest. “The prize was a whopping $25 and publication in the magazine that had sponsored the contest.”

Years later, with children of her own, Lord still loves watching words jump onto the page and making people laugh and cry and shiver with her writing.

She rises from bed long before dawn, tiptoes through her dark kitchen so she won’t wake her family, turns on the coffeemaker, and sits down at her desk to work.

“That's my own time, the just-me time to open my heart and spill it across white pages,” she says.

On her desk she keeps displayed a quote by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The quote reminds her to keep writing every day, she explains, even when she doesn’t feel motivated.

“In fact, sometimes my best writing comes on days I’m not feeling especially inspired,” she says.

When children ask her for advice, she suggests they “read, write, learn, and dream,” the things that help her move forward as a writer.

And she suggests that they learn to revise their work and to recognize that “just because it's true doesn't mean it belongs.”

Recently, Lord, who lives in Brunswick, ME with her husband and children, took some time from her work-in-progress to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer’s readers:

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming, how do you get into the water each day?

Lord: I show up ready. That sounds simple, but there are always a million reasons not to do something. So I treat it as a job. I don't ask myself whether I feel inspired or not --I simply show up ready to write each day, and I write.

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

Lord: I try to set daily reasonable goals, and I keep working until I've met them. Also having partners (family, critique partners, publishing professionals) who will encourage me and push me is really helpful, especially on a longer goal. Any long project has those fun times when it's flowing easily and other times when it feels like you're walking miles in baby steps. Surrounding yourself with positive people who understand your struggles is really helpful getting through those rough times.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Lord: When my writing isn't going well, I always promise myself that I'll write for 15 minutes. I show up ready to work, open the file, and set the timer for 15 minutes. At the end of that 15 minutes, I can quit if I want or do other writing jobs (answering mail, etc.). But I don't usually stop when the timer sounds, because by then I've crossed the threshold of getting started. Sometimes opening the file and getting started is the hardest part!

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Lord: The hardest part for me is a first draft. Once the excitement of starting a new story has worn off (around page 40 for me), fear creeps in. What if I can't do this? What if the story will never be as good as I imagine it? What if I can't make this work? Will readers who loved my other books be disappointed by this one?

But it all does come down to something I learned about swimming! I grew up on a lake and I swam all the way across that lake several times when I was a teenager. It's a long, hard swim. Whenever I'd stop in the middle and look at all those waves still between me and the opposite shore, I would feel overwhelmed by how far I still had to go. But when I only thought about the next stroke, it was easier. Not worrying about the entire journey helped me to get all the way across the lake. So when I'm writing a first draft, I do that, too. I focus on one chapter at a time all the way through the first draft.

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

Lord: I have many friends who are writers. They're always ready to listen and give me advice. Being a writer can be lonely and having support and community with other writers is important to me.

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

Lord: I love when I send a book out into the world and it comes back to me, wrapped in a reader's own experiences. Knowing a book that I wrote has mattered in the life of a reader--nothing beats that.

For more information about Cynthia Lord, visit her website:

Or her blog:

And for more interviews with her, visit:


Augusta Scattergood said...

My favorite sentence: " I love when I send a book out into the world and it comes back to me, wrapped in a reader's own experiences."
Reminds me that books really are owned by the reader, if just for a moment in time!
Inspirational interview, Bruce. Thanks for this.

Bruce Black said...

Glad you enjoyed it! Hope your writing's going well.

Bill Kirk said...

Terrific interview. Very inciteful answers to some great questions. The whole swimming thing works well.