Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The Juggler Interviews, #12: Diana Renn
Diana Renn and I have been in the same fiction writer's group since 2005. She's a prolific writer and reviser, and will tear a story or novel apart and rebuild it from bottom up and make it seem all so easy. She's also a mother of a young, son, now 5 years old. Her debut novel, Tokyo Heist, a YA mystery, will hit the shelves this week. We saw many drafts of it in our group, and it's a thrill to see it finally published and have a chance to reach a well-deserved broad audience. For those of you in the Boston area, she'll have her book launch this Saturday, June 16, at 2pm at Newtonville Book.
She took some time to answer questions in the midst of all the book launch preparations:
It feels like you started bringing in pieces of Tokyo Heist to our writers group quite a while ago (perhaps before I was even a member), how long have you been working on it?
I started writing Tokyo Heist (with a different title, and as an adult novel) in the fall of 2004. From first word to publication, the journey has taken almost eight years!
One thing I’ve always admired about you as a writer is your ability to rewrite, and rewrite some more, and fearlessly tackle anything that wasn’t working. Did this talent come in handy in the process of working with your agent to find a publisher, and then working with an editor?
Thanks! This book was revised extensively, including three times starting over almost from scratch. Revision doesn’t scare me; drafting does. When I’m revising, I have something to work with. I love the feeling of making something stronger.
I actually didn’t do too much revising for my agent. I did revise extensively for my editor. When I got my first edit later (several single-spaced pages of notes!), I admit I was daunted, but then I threw myself into the job. I was glad I’d had so much revision experience; I knew I’d get through it and the book would come out better. Also, I’ve worked as an editor and a writer in educational publishing, and I’m sure that experience trained me to be a good reviser, especially with deadlines in mind.
You had your son when you were in the thick of writing the main drafts of Tokyo Heist, and then were busy being the parent of a pre-schooler during the sale and subsequent editing. How did you manage to get it all done? What’s your writing schedule like? Do you have a certain routine?
I pushed to finish my first complete draft in the months before my son was born; I finished with just a couple days to spare. I was terrified that once he was born I would never write a complete novel. (I’d written two other attempts at novels, but with many missing scenes – they didn’t feel “complete” to me). At one point I didn’t even care about selling this book. I just wanted to see the words “the end.”
For the first few months after my son was born, in 2007, I set the novel aside. I worked on short stories and essays. One night, in a sleep-deprived haze, I looked at that “finished” novel manuscript of what would become Tokyo Heist. I realized much of what I’d written – 80% of it – really wasn’t working. I’d reached “the end,” but in the wrong way. I nearly trashed it, but I still loved the premise, and some characters, so I started over.
I was fortunate to have some babysitting help, and a son who loved to nap. I worked those naps. Sometimes he only slept in the car, though, so I’d drive to a remote location and work on the novel in the car, on my laptop. I think that’s how I pushed through the next draft. Feedback from my wonderful writing group also kept me going. Some people like to wait to show a complete draft to beta readers, but honesty, if I’d had no sense of audience, I’m not sure I could have pressed on. I was very isolated in those early months of being a mother, and isolated as a writer; I’d given up my teaching job by then. Writing group feedback was a huge motivator and got me banging out more pages.
By 2009 I felt the novel was ready for querying agents. I did that for the better part of a year, with no luck – lots of partial and full requests, but no takers. I got two fresh sets of eyes on the manuscript and some good advice. I revised YET AGAIN. My tireless writing group read the novel YET AGAIN. I queried YET AGAIN. Now my son was napping less, and my babysitting help was less reliable. He wasn’t adjusting well to an attempt at daycare. I had fewer hours to work with but kept querying, spending any available time researching agents and sending the thing out. Finally I got my agent in April 2010. I revised a little for him and he sold the book to Viking in July 2010.
Revising for the editor, which happened in waves over 2011 (mostly last spring and summer) felt harder, time-wise, than drafting. My son was in preschool, which should have given me more time, but he had some health issues and other things going on, and missed a lot of school. It was scary to have real deadlines hanging over my head and a kid who needed to be out of school, or needed to be ferried to various appointments, or just needed attention. I switched to the night shift a lot as I revised.
I don’t remember sleeping much in 2011.
Two of my biggest deadlines happened to hit on two separate weeks when we’d scheduled family vacations last year. This meant our Cape Cod summer rental turned into an office and my husband took on more of the childcare. This meant our family reunion in Seattle was spent with me working in a hotel room a lot while other people entertained our son. In retrospect, I feel lucky these deadlines hit at vacations because I had family around to help and didn’t have to hire sitters.
How did I manage to get it all done? I don’t really know. I think I just scavenged for time whenever I could, and sacrificed some other time-consuming things, like watching TV. Like sleep.
I no longer have a routine. I feel like any time I set a schedule, the rug gets pulled out from under me. Something will go awry in the house, or a school vacation will hit. (Why are there so many school vacation weeks?) In general, though, I have gone back to that night shift, drafting new material from roughly 9 pm to midnight, and using any daytime hours I have to edit/revise that work, catch up on email, and work on promotional activities, including keeping up with my mystery writers blog. The night shift works for me for drafting; it’s the only uninterrupted time I can absolutely count on these days.
You’ve completely leaped into the world of YA publishing and YA mysteries over the past year or so, with your blog, Sleuths, Spies, and Alibis, and Apocalypsies, plus your own personal blog. Plus rewrites. Plus being a mom. And writing new stuff. How are you juggling all of it?
Honestly, I’m in awe to be included in your “Juggler” interview series because when I read about the other people you’ve featured, they seem to get SO much done, juggling SO much more than I do. But then I have to remind myself not to make comparisons, and to remember that some days and weeks are more productive than others. And even if I took something out of the equation – motherhood, rewrites, my mystery blog, whatever – I’d still be juggling, because I’ve always had too much on my plate. I think that’s just how I am. I take on a lot.
I’ve learned to put different weight on different activities and forgive myself if some things slide. My personal blog gets updated weekly, if I’m lucky, and I’m fine with that. I’m involved in an amazing debut author group, the Apocalypsies, with 160 authors, and I try to support this group and participating as much as I can, while accepting that I simply can’t respond to every email or post, or wish every single person a happy birthday, or some weeks I’m on Twitter and some weeks I’m not. I’m starting to pull back on social media (even though with a book launch I know I shouldn’t) so that I can focus more energy on writing the next book. A few years ago I used to try to work harder to get more things done. Now I’m feeling a shift of energy, like I’d rather get less done, but do less better, and not feel so scattered.
I used to set weekly or daily goals for productivity. Now I don’t. I inevitably fail to make those goals – often due to circumstances beyond my control – and then I just feel bad. I make modest lists of morning and afternoon goals.
I’ve seen the book since its early forms. When you started out, you weren’t really writing a lot of YA material During the editing process, how have you and your editor worked to shape the book to make sure it would be a book that met the expectations of young adult readers?
I made the conscious decision to make the novel a YA novel back in 2006. But I didn’t actually read a lot of YA until a couple of years ago – until after the novel sold. In a way that’s a good thing. People say the book is “original” and “unique” in the YA market, and I think it’s because I had no idea what was out there. My editor and I did do some work to add more exciting scenes that would appeal to YA readers. We changed the title from the original one to have more teen appeal and to allow us to use an edgy cover.
Now I read almost exclusively YA novels – partly because I love the genre, partly because I know many YA authors now, and partly because I love participating in the community of children’s fiction, and keeping up with current and classic YA books helps me to do that.
Now that you’re a mother, did you find that some of your sympathies towards your characters shifted a little? Or was it a good escape from being a mother to inhabit the character of Violet for a while every day?
It was easy tapping into my inner teen and getting into Violet’s head. And refreshing. An escape. My daily life is filled with responsibilities, so it was fun to hang out with Violet in her world -- getting into trouble, sneaking around, outrunning mobsters, etc. However, being a parent does enable me to sympathize with the parent characters. I can’t think about them too much. Sometimes I’d read over a scene where Violet’s grousing about her dad, and I’d think, “Hey, he’s just doing the best he can! Nobody told ever told him how to parent!” But it’s Violet’s book, not her dad’s, and so she gets to grouse.
What’s next? I love the character of Violet—any chance we’ll get to see her in another book someday?
I’m currently working on another YA mystery, with very different characters and a different setting. Tokyo Heist sold as a standalone, but I’d love to write another Violet mystery someday, and have lots of ideas, so we shall see!
Thanks, Diana! And good luck with the release!
Thanks for the interview; it’s great to be in the company of such amazing jugglers!
Here's new book trailer for the Tokyo Heist:
You can visit Diana's web site at: www.dianarenn.net. You can also follower on Twitter at @dianarenn or on Facebook.