photo by Grace Kasu, Kasu Photography
I'm here with Carmen Rodrigues, the super talented and super cool author of 34 Pieces of You (out September 4), to talk about the writing process and her new book. Carmen's not just answered a few of y'all's great questions -- she's answered ALL of them! Read on.
You changed your first chapter to 34 Pieces of You at the absolute last minute (and it's way better, BTW). Tell us about that choice and how it went down.
It’s always hard to settle on a first chapter, at least for me it is. I must have rewritten the intro to 34 Pieces of You at least two dozen times before the ARC was printed. And even then, after I read that first chapter, now in bound form, I felt less than satisfied. The chapter—told from Jessie’s POV—contained solid writing but lacked the necessary energy to propel readers into the next chapter.
I didn’t know how to solve the problem, so I put it aside and focused on proofing the rest of the novel. By the last third of the book, I ran into a similar chapter from Jessie’s POV. Basically, the context was the same but instead of talking about the night Ellie died in vague, reflective terms, this chapter was completely in-scene. Because of that, it contained that tense energy I wanted for the opening, the kind that makes your heart palpitate a bit. I knew when I read through it that I had found my opener.
I called my sister, my biggest fan and critic, and read the chapter to her aloud. She said, “Oh, yes. That is it.” I confessed I was afraid to ask my editor to change it. The ARCs had already been printed. My sister said, “But you have to.” So I gathered my courage and emailed my editor, Jen Klonsky, at Simon Pulse. I explained my reasoning behind the change, and she agreed to the revision.
Since then, I’ve seen the book in its final form and remain confident that I made the right decision. Yes, the original introduction was “good enough” but it wasn’t everything it could be. Now, it is.
Which of the characters in 34 Pieces spoke to you first? Who did you start with, and how did you decide to tell from multiple POV?
I filmed a short video at Simon Pulse, which answers this exact question. You can view that video here:
From Jenny Bird: How did you handle writing from different perspectives to keep the voices unique?
Writing from different POVs is extremely difficult. I try to establish a rhythm for each character early on. For example, Jake isn’t very communicative, so his chapters and sentences tend to be very short, while Jessie, who is much more introspective, has longer, more detailed sentences. Sarah is in lot of emotional pain throughout the novel, so I kept her chapters filled with tension. I suppose each of these choices helped to define and differentiate the characters’ voices.
From Mixie: How do you know whether your revisions are making things worse or better?
I always have trusted readers that I can reach out to during the revision process to make sure that I’m not going revision-crazy. If they say to stop, I do.
From Kimridesabike: Hmmm, do you follow the 'write for one person in mind' tip, and if so is it a real person? How fully fleshed out is your idea before you start putting pen to paper? How do you stop yourself getting stuck on re-working one idea or section endlessly (maybe this doesn't happen to other people...)?
I’ve actually never heard this advice. I write for my characters. I try to stay true to their voices and let their stories take me where they want me to go. Because of this,
I tend to keep my storylines loose at first.
As for the revision part of this question, I try to get a solid first draft completed before I revise any sections. During revisions, I rewrite a chapter until I get it right. That means that sometimes I am “stuck.” But I guess to combat that “stuck-ness,” I work on other parts of the novel while my subconscious figures things out. Trust your subconscious. It knows things you do not.
From Lydia Schoch: I'm curious to know how much you draw on your teenage experiences when writing YA fiction.
It's impossible not to draw on my teen experiences when writing YA. In fact, I always say that I began writing YA in my twenties because it was the only time in my life that I really had the emotional distance to process and understand. In terms of 34 PIECES OF YOU, I drew on my experiences with toxic friendships, particularly how those toxic friendships develop in neighborhoods due to proximity and change the entire dynamic of the teen population within that small geographic area. I can certainly tell you that my life and my sisters' lives were changed for better and worse simply because of our proximity to certain teenagers within our three block neighborhood.
From Kristina: How did you actually get started (both the writing and eventual publishing)? It seems like such an insurmountable task...
I started writing at eleven, mostly to help me process my feelings. At the time, I wrote about failed love, which seems odd for an eleven year old, but I was also living in a house that was pretty broken. My parents' marriage was an unending disaster, and I needed some way to let go of that grief. I never stopped writing. It became an outlet for me. Whenever I'm having a stressful day, it's often because I haven't written yet. To tie your question into this project, I began writing 34 PIECES OF YOU as a writing exercise. (Coincidentally, this is also how I wrote my first novel, NOT ANYTHING.) I asked myself a what if question and went from there.
Once the project was completed, I sent it out to agents. (I had amicably ended my relationship with my first agent by then.) I found my agent, Steven Chudney, through his slush pile. The task of finding an agent didn't feel overwhelming or insurmountable to me. That's probably because I tried to approach it as a game. I think a few things are important to remember during the querying process.
1. If no one is asking to see your pages, you should really consider revising your query letter. That might be the problem.
2. Handle all agent rejection with grace and take everything that agents say very seriously. It's our nature to respond to rejection with indignation. You might think, "What does this person know about my project!" But believe me, agent advice is gold. Agents are awesome, wise, and generally very helpful. If they throw you a feedback bone, devour it and really reconsider what you're doing and how it might not be working.
3. Don't take agent rejection as, "You'll never be a writer." Take it as, "Your project is not a good fit for me." Or, "Your book is not ready to go out into the world yet. You have more work to do, but you can do it."
4. Have fun with it. Really find a way to make it a game to you. For me, I went into the querying process with the same mentality I have when I play a video game. It's like, "Okay, I AM going to beat this, no matter how long it takes me."
The querying process does require a lot of persistence and belief in your project, but so does everything else that is important in life. There is always a lot of rejection in publishing, but I think if you're meant to be a writer for a living, the process will not deter you. You'll just keep writing and sending things out until something hits.
From Susan Tattle: Did the editing process take longer than the writing? Which was more challenging? Did you have a agent?
The editing process took double the writing time and was, indeed, more challenging. I completed most of my editing with the help of my beloved MFA-ers and professors at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Their advice and encouragement was invaluable. I cannot stress how important it is to become involved with a positive writing community. Look for writers who are talented, honest, and kind. They will help you see your work through fresh eyes. They will let you know what is and isn't working. Stay away from writers who are prone to giving harsh feedback or want to personally solve your writing dilemmas. There is always a way to offer gentle but honest criticism. There are also ways to say what isn't working, while allowing you, the writer, to find your own path to the solution.
From Other Meredith: How do you motivate yourself to write? For example, my sister and I used to have writing workshops with each other, where we would eat biscotti, which was pretty helpful, but now that I live far away, I lack motivation.
Writing is a lot like going to the gym. If you set a schedule, show up, and commit to it, even on bad days, you will see results. That being said, I've noticed that if I get into the habit of going to the gym with another person and that person stops, I stop going too. That's why I don't have a gym buddy.
Most of the time it's hard for me to get going, but if I get up early and write first thing in the morning when the rest of the world is still asleep and my own sleepiness makes me less self conscious about my prose, I maintain my momentum. But if you want the community of other writers to give your work process a boost, set a weekly goal with your partner(s). Every Sunday exchange one chapter of a certain length. This will keep you on task for producing new work.
From Leigh: Are you a plotter or pantser?
I'm an in-betweener. I plot vaguely. I have the tiniest inkling of the storyline in my head or on paper, but then I let the characters take me where they want to go. That's just my style. Many readers have said my novels are hard to predict. I think that's because I don't even know what's going to happen until it does.
Thanks, Carmen, for sharing your insight and awesomeness! I'll be reviewing 34 Pieces of You soon, but I'll go ahead and spoil my review -- it's a GREAT book.