author interviews

Kate Di Camillo on Writing Routines, Process, and Craft

Exciting! I’m starting a new series of interviews with writers about their process, craft, and routines. And who better to kick it off than the marvelous, effervescent, wonder-full Kate Di Camillo. Kate’s new book, Raymie Nightingale, comes out on April 12th (it’s delightful, funny, sad, thoughtful, and charming– but more on that next week), and I caught up with her via email to talk about all things writing.

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(Kate at her writing desk. Photo credit Ben Garvin, New York Times)

What does your writing routine look like?

Like this: the automatic coffee maker (heaven) is set to go off at 5:30.  i come downstairs, pour a cup of coffee, and boot up the computer.  i write two pages, and then i go back upstairs and write in my journal and read some poetry.  if i am working on a later draft (4th, 5th, etc.) of a novel, i will do multiple two page sessions in a day.

Where do you find inspiration for your stories? (Related: Have you started the story about the elf door yet? I loved that Facebook post!)

oh, inspiration is everywhere.  i carry a notebook (always).  sometimes things pop into my head (names, images).  sometimes i see something or hear something that i think might work.  it all gets written down.  (alas, no elf door story.  yet.)

Elf Door post via Facebook

Do you ever get writer’s block—and if so what do you do?

i don’t call it writer’s block.  i call it a bad writing day.  sometimes there are many, many, many bad writing days.  but i just keep showing up and writing.

Do you outline?

i do not.  i can’t, in fact.  i find out what is going to happen by writing the story.

How do you flesh out your characters?

i listen to them.  so much of what i learn about characters is gleaned through listening to them talk.  to each other.  and to me.

Because of Winn-Dixie characters

Any hints on climbing inside the Middle Grade mind?

i am, at heart, a 10 year old. so i never have to think about it.  i’m just *there,* i guess.

How does you stay current on trends/slang/school norms? Or do you not worry about this?

acck.  i don’t think about this at all.  it would distract me too much.

What are some of your favorite books about writing and/or books you’d recommend for others writers?

*art and fear* by bayles and orland.

and *bird by bird* of course.

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Do you revise just 2 pages a day? Do you draft one book while revising another at the same time?

yes.  just multiple sessions of 2 pages in a day for the revising. in the down-time between rewrites, i will work on another story.

If you’re on a roll and want to go past 2 pages, do you?

i don’t. i always have those words from hemingway in my head: be kind to the writer you will be tomorrow.

if i’m on a roll, it will be easier to start the next day.

I read this tidbit below about Anthony Trollope’s writing habits (in the New Yorker article “Blocked”),  and it reminded me a bit of your routines. Any thoughts on how this relates to the writing routine you’ve set for yourself?

  • Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

i read this, too!  i loved it.  i’m not that disciplined. but it resonates with me. and i love trollope.

I read on your Facebook page that you usually have eight or nine drafts of a project, how do you know when it’s finished and you’ve hit upon what the story is supposed to be?

it’s the same feeling that you get at 3 am in college–when you know that if you keep studying, you are just going to undo everything you have crammed in there.  i get the feeling with a story that if i keep working on it, it will become lesser.  then i know it is time to let it go–imperfections and all.

You have quite a wide range of styles & books. Which is your favorite? 

oh, i just love writing middle grade novels.  but i love the shorter things, too.  they are kind of like sorbet in between courses–a place to relax.

Any other parts of the process you’d like to share?

maybe this:  i have been writing for 21 years now.  and it is still hard and scary.  but also joyful. that seems like a good thing to me.

Any other advice for writers?

be kind to yourself.  listen to people when they talk. to paraphrase flannery [o’connor]: there is nothing that does not require your attention.

What are you reading right now? Do you read a lot in your genre or widely?

i am reading jane smiley’s second novel in her trilogy about america.  i read mostly adult literary fiction.

and i would be lost without a book.

Kate on Books via Facebook

Many thanks to Kate for taking the time to chat, and thanks also to my fellow Middle Grade writers in the Pitch Wars Facebook group who contributed some of these questions. More soon!  -J