Sunday, July 22, 2012

One Writer’s Process: Ellen Wittlinger

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.

When she 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.”

Although 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.”

Ideas, 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 supermarket.”
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 different.”

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 do you get into the water each day?

EW: 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?

EW: 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?

EW: 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 another.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

EW: 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?

EW: 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?

EW: 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:


Jeannine Atkins said...

I love that secret inlet..

Bruce Black said...

Me, too, Jeannine. Isn't that a wonderful image?

Dianne Ochiltree said...

I love that secret inlet idea, too. That is what a lot of the writing life is all about: swimming in search of the passageway to new understanding, new worlds, new visions.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Dianne, for stopping by. It's a treat to find you in the water, searching for secret inlets only a few yards down the beach.

Thomas Derry said...

'The hardest part of swimming is jumping into the water'. So glad to read that more-experienced writers go through this as well. Thanks for a wonderful interview.