Author Crush Month: Karen Cushman

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Today’s author crush is special partly because she is someone I have already stalked met. Last spring Karen Cushman spoke at the Tucson Festival of Books and I was thrilled to get my picture taken with her. If you haven’t read her Newbery Award winning historical books, you need to try them out. These are historicals with a lot of oomph to them. For example, here is the opening to Karen’s first book, Catherine, Called Birdy:

12th day of September. I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.

Her characters really do live large,  jump off the page, and steal your heart. I’ve enjoyed every one of her books and am looking forward to reading Alchemy and Meggy Swann when it hits stores in April.

Here is what Karen Cushman has to say about writing routines:

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My husband laughed when he heard I was to write about my writing routine.  After 40 years of watching me work at one thing or another, he knows me pretty well, and routine is one word he would never use about my process.  I do have what might be called procrastination routines:  I read the newspaper (in print.  I am loyal and old fashioned that way), emails, writing blogs, and Google News. I eat breakfast, shower, do a load of laundry, think about dinner.  I answer emails, play computer solitaire, and talk baby talk to my cat.  Finally I am impatient enough with myself to sit down and work.

I don’t outline or make 3×5 cards, or storyboards, but I do have a story pretty well developed in my head before I start to write it.  I hate facing the blank page and find writing the first draft by far the hardest part of the job, pulling words out of me like, Katherine Paterson says, a spider spinning a web out of her own guts .  Revision is much easier.  So with my work in progress, Will Sparrow’s Road, I tried something different.  I set up a vague outline of chapters, typed notes and ideas in each chapter, added a few sentences, a character description, an action, some dialogue, whatever occurred to me, until the book was laid out on the computer.  Then when I went back, writing that first draft was more like editing and revising, not writing.  Much easier.

As I write my first draft, I go back and polish those pages and chapters that came before.  Over and over.  This is how I start working each day–reading over and polishing what I have already written.  It gives me a running start on the day’s work–like an Olympic long jumper.   From a dead stop, she might leap a couple of inches.  But if she gets a running start, she’ll go 20 feet–easy.

It’s those early chapters that establish mood and voice and I like to know these as I write on.  Is the voice humorous and ironic, like Birdy?  Naive but wise like Alyce?  Sad and angry like Rodzina?  Complaining and confrontational as are Lucy and Matilda?

What little plot I have in my books grows from character.  I have to know as much as possible about my characters before I know what they’ll do or say.  Exercises don’t work.  I have to write them into situations, say “aha, that’s what she’d do or he’d say”, and then build on that.

If I get stuck or blocked when I’m writing a new scene or passage,  I go back to page 17 or 13 or 1, read what I’ve written, and get myself back into the story.  But I must say I am always aware of writing versus editing.  It’s important that I don’t write and edit at the same time.  I have to know which hat I have on.

I don’t write every day and I don’t always write in a chair.  I don’t have a set number of words or pages to do before I stop.  I don’t follow anyone’s rules, and I don’t have rules of my own.

Writing can be difficult and a struggle but sometimes the words flow, from my brain and my heart to the page and even I don’t know how.  And oh the joy when a book or a sentence or even a word is just right.  I have an overwhelming sense of well-being, what Lee Stringer says is like shaking hands with God.

I once despaired of my lack of routine to my editor, Dinah Stevenson, and she said, “Your process is your process.  Honor it.”  And it does work for me.  So I recommend you discover your own routine, even if it is lack of routine, and honor it.  There are no rules.

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Alchemy and Meggy SwannTo read more about Karen Cushman and her books:

Here is her website: http://www.karencushmanbooks.com/

Here is a sample of Alchemy and Meggy Swann due out in April:
http://www.karencushmanbooks.com/pdfs/Meggy_excerpt.pdf

5 thoughts on “Author Crush Month: Karen Cushman”

  1. I feel more at ease about my lack of routine now 🙂 I personally prefer getting typing freely an “outline” of the story (more like a synopsis, really) and making the rest up as I go along. Thank you for the post!

  2. Ms. Cushman: Thank you! I feel so much better about my (lack of) routine now! Much like you, I generally write the story in my head first, then spend the entire first draft discovering new things about my characters. I have such a chaotic life at home with the kids, plus everything else life brings us, my “routine” is to write whenever I actually have a chance 🙂 Knowing that can lead to publication will keep me going this week at least. I have always been a huge historical fiction fan and must say Matilda Bone is one of my favorite characters! I still have my copy to eventually pass to my now 4 y.o. daughter 🙂

  3. Thanks, Karen, for blogging with us. I love it! No routine. You give me permission to not beat myself up for that. 🙂 Actually, it is something that I’m learning the past few months. My process is my process and trying to force myself into some other process just doesn’t work. Thanks for the affirmation and reminder!

  4. For some reason I can’t leave a comment from my myTouch Reader app. But thanks be to God again for reminder that we are all unique and our process is us. loved this guest blog. Many of my students read Karen and their girls are reading her.

  5. What a great blog, Karen! Thanks so much for joining us! After reading the first line of your first book here, I really have to go read some more. Very much my type of voice! I’ve given in to the fact that even though I don’t have kids, the kid in me still likes those “kids” books. LOL! So I’m giving myself permission to read one of yours… as soon as I finish my current first draft. LOL!

    Welcome, and thanks again for joining us!

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