Sunday, October 11, 2009

One Writer’s Process: Sarah Beth Durst

Ever since deciding to become a writer at age ten, Sarah Beth Durst has found herself drawn to worlds of fantasy.

“I love fairy tales,” says Durst, whose award-winning first novel, Into the Wild, and its sequel, Out of the Wild, grew out of that love. “The words 'Once upon a time...' can freeze me in my tracks faster than Elmo’s Song can mesmerize a toddler.”

Just as her understanding and love of fairy tales has deepened over time, so, too, has her understanding of her own writing process. Mostly, she says, she just tries to write what rings true, and wades through “about a billion” drafts. “I start with a very skeletal first draft and then gradually add the story's muscles and tissue and skin and facial features in subsequent drafts.”

The many drafts bring Durst a rare kind of pleasure because writing, she says, is the only thing that she has ever wanted to do with her life. That’s why the publication of her novels, including her most recent, Ice, which is due out this month, is like a fantasy dream turned into reality.

It wasn't an overnight dream-come-true, says Durst, who began pursuing publication after graduating from college. She read how-to books and magazines, attended conventions, asked plenty of questions, and wrote a lot and then sent out her work.

“And then wrote more and sent it out,” she says. “And then wrote more... .”

Finally, she signed with Andrea Somberg of the Harvey Klinger Agency, and six weeks after that found herself with multiple offers for Into the Wild.

These days Durst pursues her love of fantasy in Stony Brook, NY, where she lives with her husband and children. She was kind enough to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: How do you get into the water each day?

Durst: I need to write every day. If I don't, I'm grumpier than a Care Bear who has lost her Care Bear stare. Seriously, if I don't write, I feel out-of-balance. It affects my entire worldview.

In practical terms... like any writer, I have a few techniques that I like to help with the jump into the water. One is to make sure that I don't stop when I'm stuck. I stop when things are going well so that I'm excited to write when I sit down for the next session.

I also work off an outline so that I can divide up the work into manageable chunks. It's much easier to start writing if you tell yourself that you only need to write one scene or even one paragraph. Kind of like telling yourself that you only need to dip your feet into the water at first. Later, you can convince yourself to walk in up to your knees. And then up to your stomach and then your neck until you're swimming along just fine.

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

Durst: Raisinets. It is the perfect food: the healthiness of the fruit inside counteracts the unhealthiness of the chocolate outside so, calorie-wise, it's a wash, right?

But the thing that truly keeps me afloat is knowing that this is my dream. I have wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old. It's the only thing I've ever wanted to be. The idea of not staying afloat, of quitting, is anathema. It would be turning my back on a piece of myself.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

I keep a journal. It's not one of those deep, meaningful writer's journals filled with poetic descriptions or snippets of brilliance or whatever. My journal is boring. I use it purely to pour out whatever random thoughts are in my head -- clear out the cobwebs so that I can write without distraction.

Durst: What's the hardest part of swimming?

I find writing the first draft to be the hardest part. The first draft is the stage where the novel is the farthest it can be from the story that you imagine. I try to write the first draft as quickly as humanly possible so that I can get to the fun part: revising, bringing the story to life!

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

Durst: I think the key to overcoming any writing problem is to stick with it. Keep writing, even if it means that all you have for the scene is "and then something cool happens." I think if you trust yourself (and get your inner pessimist to shut up -- perhaps by drowning it out with loud music or feeding it chocolate), then eventually a solution will present itself through the act of writing.

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

Durst: I love creating something that didn't exist before, something that (I hope!) will make someone smile or make someone dream for however long it takes them to read. I love creating imaginary friends and visiting places that I'll never really see. To me, it's all a kind of magic.

For more information about Durst and her work, visit her website:

Or check out her blog, Sarah’s Journal:

And to read about her newest book, Ice, check out:

If you’d like to read additional interviews with her, check out:

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