Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Great Advice for Writers: Interview with Courtney Alameda

Courtney is a friend and former fellow assistant with the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference. We met in Alane Ferguson's workshop several years ago. At the 2012 Conference, Courtney met her agent, John C. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary. She says he's a fabulous agent. Courtney now has an equally fabulous book contract. 
The following interview was originally posted at www.wifyr.com/blog
Those of us who know and love Courtney can't forget her enthusiasm for all things related to books. When she assisted in Holly Black's workshop, Courtney dressed as characters from Holly's books, including this unicorn.
Q. As writers, we spend a lot of time working toward the goal of being agented/getting a book contract, and very little time thinking beyond that point. What do you wish you’d known before you got your agent and book deal?
I could fill a tome with the things I wish I'd known, but the most important thing I've learned since the book deal is why I write. Previously, I thought I sat down at my computer each and every day because it was good for my career -- which wasn't necessarily untrue. But I found the book deal didn't make me any happier than I'd been before, no more validated in my work, no more secure. Shocking, I know!

So why do I write? For love, of course. Because nothing thrills me more than the moment of discovery, when I stumble into a scene that will tie the multiple threads of plot, character arc, and theme together; nothing is more tantalizing than my first glimpse of a new character, or the way a new voice feels as it slips out of me and onto the page. There is nothing more triumphant than weaving messy bits of a scene into a tight, coherent whole, word by word, line by line. Writing is an alchemical sort of magic, and it brings me great joy.

Q. What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best writing advice I've ever heard isn't writing advice at all, as it actually comes from psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth's TED talk about success. Duckworth says, "In all [the] very different contexts [we studied], one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success, and it wasn't social intelligence, it wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ; it was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality." (The Key to Success, TED 2013)
I want to repeat one part of Duckworth's statement: Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Most writers work, on average, 7 - 10 years before signing with an agent or landing a book deal. Your passion for your work must be unflagging if you are to succeed. Don't expect to be an outlier, expect to work hard. 

Q. What top three writing tips would you give aspiring writers? 
1. Creativity's force isn't constrained by the laws of physics -- the more you use, the more you have. With that said, it isn't always on tap, either. Learn how to write when the muse is silent. Learn to write when you're exhausted. Learn to write when you're sick, stressed, or sad. You will do all these things on deadline. Learn how to do it now.
2. Be unique, be you. We already have a John Green, a Veronica Roth, and a Markus Zusak -- but we don't have you. Not yet. 
3. And most importantly: Play! Like Albert Einstein said, "Creativity is intelligence having fun." Write every day. Read every day. If you stop having fun doing these things at least a little of the time, reevaluate your goals for your work.  

Q. Do you make writing goals?  Are there one or two you could share with us?
My goals for the year are fairly simple: write well every day, finish a new novel by summer, and apply to a few MFA programs for fall 2015. Goals are a large part of success in any field -- goals, and grit.

Q. How do you balance a daytime job with writing? Do you have a set writing time or daily plan such as writing for at least an hour or a certain number of words?
I once heard Markus Zusak say (and I paraphrase greatly here), "If you are to succeed, writing should be your first priority. If it cannot be your first, then it must be your second." Balancing a writing life with one's day-to-day activities does not happen spontaneously -- you must create a writing/life balance that works for you.
My writing life is messy. I find my creative mind is most active late at night and early in the morning -- perhaps 10 PM to 4 AM -- and so I ensure that I get a significant amount of time each week to write inside that time slot. However, I carry my laptop and notebook with me wherever I go, so I can fill up the cracks in my day with writing. 

Also, I've started to use Victoria Schwab's calendar trick, which I have found to be surprisingly motivational. You may view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDtCIA-_dk

Q. Can you tell us some of your favorite authors or favorite books? What books or authors have inspired you?
There are too many authors and titles to name here, but I'll certainly point to Neil Gaiman. While working on the revisions for Shutter, I kept a copy of his Make Good Art speech on my desk. One page got particularly water-stained and worn, and it read: "The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right."
That line got me through a lot of hard, late nights -- not because the revision wasn't going well, or because my editor was snarky with my work (she's brilliant and kind, I adore her), but because I knew this book would go out into the world with too much of me in it, and that in and of itself is a frightening thing. Looking back, I needed those nights so that I could learn how to let go. The time is fast approaching that my characters won't belong to me anymore -- they will belong to my readers. Every day, that fact gets a little easier to bear.

Q. For those of us who feel like we could edit forever, how do you know when a book is ready to submit?
I'm calling on Mr. Gaiman again to answer this question, because he is far wiser than me: "Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving."

 Q. What do you do when you receive advice on your manuscript from several different beta readers, and they all give you conflicting ideas?
Good feedback will resonate with you. Part of maturing as a writer and an artist is developing a strong sense of self on the page, and knowing what your intentions are for each manuscript, each scene, each sentence. Eventually, you will get so good at analyzing your beta readers' feedback that you will know, almost immediately, whether or not their feedback will take your work closer to your goal or farther from it. Above all things, stay honest with yourself, true to your work, and gracious to all your beta readers. 

Courtney Alameda’s career has been spent in and around books. She holds a B.A. in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University, spent seven years working for Barnes & Noble, and currently works as an Adult & Teen Services librarian at the Provo City Library. Her forthcoming novel, Shutter (Winter 2015, Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), is a tale spawned in part by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in part by her experiences both paranormal and not-so-paranormal, and features a cast of monsters inspired by everything from Japanese folklore to survival horror video games.

Courtney is represented by John M. Cusick of Greenhouse Literary. A Northern California native, she now resides in Utah.

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