Ellen Wittlinger is familiar with the pain of rejection. The award-winning writer had been writing for many years before her first YA novel, Lombardo’s Law, was discovered in the slush pile by an editor at Houghton Mifflin and published in 1993.
“You have to learn to steel yourself against
taking it personally,” says Wittlinger, now the author of more than a
dozen books and the winner of numerous awards, including the Lambda
Literary Award and the Michael L. Printz Honor Award.
was growing up in Belleville, Illinois, Wittlinger had her heart set on
becoming a painter, but she always kept diaries and wrote poems. It was
during college that she began to take her writing more seriously “mostly
because I was a much better writer than I was a painter,” she says. “I
loved using the materials. It's the one thing I miss. As a writer it's
just you and the blank page.”
These days Wittlinger, who writes
in a small room overcrowded with books and papers, spends most mornings
on email, business, and promotion before taking a late lunch.
“Afternoons are for writing,” says Wittlinger, “and if I'm working well
I'll sometimes go back and work again after dinner, but not usually.”
she likes making notes in longhand and sometimes writes a poem or other
short piece in longhand, she writes her novels on the computer, saving
drafts as she works through revisions. “In fact, I use up way too many
trees because I like to print everything out and see it as I'm revising.
I revise in longhand before going back to the computer.”
says Wittlinger, are the easiest part of writing. “I know people don’t
always understand that, but once you open yourself up to them, ideas are
everywhere—newspaper and magazine articles, in stories my friends tell
me, in snippets of conversations I overhear at the mall or the
As soon as she gets a character or
two, she has to name them before she can write about them. “They have to
become full people to me before I have any idea what they might do.
Theme isn't usually difficult, but it's a less rational procedure--it
happens as I go along.”
She can find the ending for many of her
novels in the beginning, but sometimes she just has a faint idea of how
her books will end. “I would say usually I have a vague idea where I'm
going, but I don't know exactly how I'm going to get there. Which makes
the writing more fun for me. When I'm just working toward an ending I've
already decided on, it's not as magical.”
Her advice to writers?
“Read everything you can get your hands on, all sorts of different
things—fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry, newspapers, the toothpaste
tube. And then, write. If possible, write every day. This keeps your
writing flowing and makes it easier to face the blank page. Don’t worry
about publishing anything for a long time. You wouldn’t expect to play
at Carnegie Hall the first year you took piano lessons--writing is no
Wittlinger lives in a Victorian house in western
Massachusetts with her husband, David, a rescue dog and a
cat. She was kind enough to take a few minutes from her current
work-in-progress to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer:
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming...how do you get into the water each day?
Slowly, very slowly. I start with all the time-wasting procrastinations
available except for housecleaning: morning news, email, Facebook,
Etsy, Solitaire, etc. But when I finally push myself off the diving
board, I remember what it is I enjoy about writing—the mystery of it,
the unpredictability of my characters and of my own mind, the way words
carry you places you never expected to go.
Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?
Most of my work is long work, novels. Very helpful to me is the
knowledge that I have two wonderful supportive writing groups to turn to
if I feel I’m in over my head. They’ll listen to the whining for awhile
and then say, “Okay, we heard you. Now get back to work.” Snacks help
too, Twizzlers, pretzels, and when all else fails, my fingernails.
Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?
Swimming through dry spells is tough. I read a lot, research new ideas,
pour through baby name books, go to the movies, walk the dog, and
listen to singer-songwriters like Greg Brown, Cheryl Wheeler or Dar
Williams. I try to bribe the muses with other art. But, of course, you
have to prime the pump if you want to get water, so I make myself write,
even if it’s goofy, gloppy crap. One word leads to another leads to
Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?
The hardest part of swimming is jumping into the water. Doesn’t
everybody say that? It’s both terrifying and thrilling. You never know
how deep the water is or if you’ll remember how to do the strokes. You
have no idea how big the lake is or if you’ll have the stamina to get
across it. Even if you can see the far shore, you know there could be
some big fish-monster out there in the middle just waiting to pull you
under. As I’m writing this, I’m wondering how any of us ever has the
nerve to jump in!
Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?
I don’t usually feel I’m swimming alone. Even though it’s only me in
front of the computer screen, I’m surrounded with great writer-friends
with whom I can share the vicissitudes of the occupation.
Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?
The best thing about swimming/writing is finding that secret inlet that
leads to another heretofore unknown body of water, one you never even
imagined existed, the moment when you surprise yourself with your own
ability to cut through the wild water and see clearly the path ahead.
For more information about Wittlinger and her work, visit her website:
And for more interviews with her, visit: