by G.M. Malliet
Welcome back from the holidays! The following is a continuation of my interview with Donna Andrews about the writing life. You can read the first part of the interview here.
Q: Which actors would you choose to portray Meg and her fiancé on film or TV?
A: I wouldn't. If anyone ever buys the film or TV rights, I will brace myself to see who they choose and will try not to do what Anne Rice did when she denounced the casting of Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire. Though to her credit, after she saw the movie, she made a great effort to be just as public with her apology to Pitt and her praise or his performance as she had been with her disappointment when he was chosen. But I hope one day to have a chance to follow the advice of whoever said that if a movie studio or a TV network options your book, smile and cash the checks.
I know a lot of people really enjoy the whole game of trying to cast the characters in their favorite books--including some writers with their own books. I just don't get it, so that's probably my least favorite question to have lobbed at me on a panel or at a signing. And I cringe when I say that, because I know some people really love doing it, but trying to get me to join in is like asking a tone deaf person to join the choir. No doubt a profound character flaw. When the huge debates rage over casting characters in popular book—the Harry Potter books, for example, or Lord of the Rings--I'm the one in the corner muttering that maybe we could just wait till we see it before we get up in arms about the casting. Loved Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, but I could probably have lived with Stuart Townsend. Heck, whoever Peter Jackson chose would probably have been just fine with me. Clearly I have no future as a casting director.
So when people ask me whether so-and-so wouldn't be perfect casting for Meg or have I ever considered using what's-his-name to play Michael, half the time I won't recognize the name--especially if it's someone famous mainly from sitcoms, which I rarely watch. And if readers do suggest someone I've heard of, very often it's someone that no, I can't imagine them playing Meg or Michael. But that doesn't mean I would hate it if it came to pass. If they're good actors chosen by a good director who will make a successful movie, fine by me.
This is probably related to the fact that I've never been able to see the point of writing fan fic. I know some very talented writers who have done it to learn their craft, or who continue to do it for their own amusement. Once or twice I tried my hand at it, but I just don't get it. There's only so much fun I can have playing in someone else's fictional world before I feel compelled to go off to play in my own.
Which, until and unless I make an unexpected career change, is the printed word, not film. So I've accepted the fact that if a movie or TV series is made based on one of my books, it will be the director's vision of the characters, not mine. And I'm cool with that.
Q: What are your writing habits? Do you aim for a set number of pages a day, or hours at the desk?
A: Writing habits? I'm sure I have a lot of bad ones, like my tendency to--oh, wait, we're talking about how I write, not what. Whew!
For me, writing a book falls into three phases. The researching and outlining phase is difficult, because it's hard to tell when you've actually accomplished something and when you've been running down rabbit trails chasing stuff that won't ever make it into the book. Though it's dangerous not to let yourself run down those trails, because until you reach the end of them, you have no idea which ones are dead ends and which ones open up great vistas of information that you need for the book. I always feel relieved when I can declare myself in the draft stage--which occurs either when I have a working outline that I'm happy with or when I reach my self-assigned drop dead date for starting the draft.
In the draft phrase, I go by word count. I know myself well enough to predict that if I scheduled myself to write for a certain number of hours, I would quickly find a way to fritter some large portion of them away with less critical writing-related tasks, like pondering just the right word for the sentence I'm writing, revising and reworking a page that already works perfectly well for a first draft, or researching some minute bit of information I need to make a scene more accurate. And most of the time, the right word, the fifth or sixth revision, the tiny fact--they're not essential when you're in the draft phase. In draft phase, I know I need to keep moving forward--like sharks that are supposed to die if they're not swimming.
So at the beginning of the draft phase, I do a spreadsheet that shows how many days I have till my self-imposed deadline, which days I'm going to be working--I try to be realistic and not schedule myself on days when I'm traveling, for example, or on Christmas day--and how many words I'm supposed to write each day. And then I sit down every day and try to meet my quota. The rotten thing about being in the draft phase is that every morning I have that quota staring me in the face. And the great thing about being in the draft phase is that as long as I complete that quota, I allow myself to call that day a success, no matter what else went wrong or how many other things I blew off. It's very comforting, knowing that if I just do my quota, day after day, I will emerge at the end of the draft phase with a decent draft that I can begin polishing into a solid book.
The third phase is the revisions and polishing phase. I usually cool the book, read it through and fix anything I see wrong with it, and then get a few trusted friends to read it and beat me up about anything that doesn't work for them, so I can fix it by the time I need to turn the book in. There are two challenges in the draft phase. The first is figuring out a way to see the book I've been working on for months with fresh eyes--every writer is familiar with how easy it is to overlook the most glaring mistakes because you've seen the book too often and see what you expect to see, not what's there. And the second is making yourself think of it not as a finished book but as a draft, so you won't hesitate to open it up, put everything on the table, and do the work that needs to be done to make it better. I'm always looking out for techniques for doing that more effectively.
Q: Do you have a special time or place where you write?
A: The place is on a computer, preferably my regular computer at my desk, though I have written on my laptop in various places during my travels--including in airports while waiting for planes; in hotels at the end of the day during a convention or signing tour; even in a McDonald's while taking a break in a driving trip. When I'm in draft mode, I like to settle down at my desk around 9, 10, or 11 a.m.--and work till I finish my quota. Not without a break--I'll break for meals and snacks (though I'm just as likely to fix them and eat them at the computer--I go through a lot of keyboards). And I'll come up for air to read email or take care of small household tasks. But the more I can just focus on working until I finish my quota, the better it goes. If I finish in a few hours, maybe I'll keep going and built in a cushion against a day when life interrupts my plans. If it takes me till midnight to finish the day's quota, I try to keep coming back to it until I finish. I try to build some wiggle room into my schedule for a book, so I can renegotiate my self-assigned deadline and quotas if life throws me a curve, like an illness or a family crisis. Note that there's a difference between my self-assigned deadline--when I want to finish a solid draft so my critiquers can read it--and the publisher's deadline, which is when the manuscript has to be in New York. Ideally, I want to have that good draft finished six to eight weeks before I need to turn it in.
Q: What is next for Meg and Michael?
A: It's not a big secret that they've been creeping toward matrimony. (Anyone who doesn't like spoilers should stop reading now.) At the beginning of Penguins, Meg and Michael are planning to elope, so one of the mysteries in the book is whether anything will happen to derail their plans. I imagine eventually I'll be giving them kids, but in the meantime, I'm inflicting a random two-year-old on them. In /Cockatiels at Seven/, the book that will come out in 2008, a friend of Meg's drops off her son, Timmy, asking Meg to take care of him “just for a little while.” I'm not sure what most people's definition of “just for a little while” would be--when it comes to babysitting a two-year-old, I think somewhere between five minutes and a few hours. So the next morning, when Meg's friend has not returned to collect Timmy, Meg goes looking for her--and stumbles across several possible crimes that could account for her friend's disappearance.
I confess, this idea came directly from my own experience with my nephews, who turn four in December. I am the original doting aunt, but I can't imagine how the parents of small children actually get anything done. So one day while I was watching the boys, it suddenly occurred to me that I wanted to do this to Meg. That's how a lot of my books start. I see or hear about something bizarre and exclaim, “Oh, I've got to do that to Meg!” Writers are sadists sometimes.