How many times have your stories been rejected?

Again–many, many, MANY, many, many.  Hundreds.  Probably more.  Many young writers tally their rejections as a matter of pride–“I’ve gotten THIS many and I’m still going.”  I think that’s as helpful a way as any to look at it; though, honestly, rejections ALWAYS sting, and I suspect they always will.

 

Are the names of the characters in your stories important?

When I first started writing, I’d spend HOURS scouring baby name books and dictionaries of names and their meanings, searching for PRECISELY the right one.  But I learned quickly that if you get too attached to a name’s origin, you wind up with some really goofy stuff.  Say you’ve got a traitor in a story.  You go to your name dictionary, and find that the name Yankel is Yiddish for “one who supplants.”  Appropriate?  Of course.  A fine name?  In the right context, I’m sure it is.  But if you also give your leading lady the Thai name that means “heavenly beauty,” her love interest the Zimbabwe name that means “courageous; lion-like,” and her mentor the Slavic name that means “wise”–you can see how fast it’ll get unbelievable, and therefore distracting to a reader.

In recent years, I’ve tried to let characters take the time they need to name themselves.  I let my imagination run with the story instead of focusing on details like names, and pretty soon, I’m calling them something in my head (and, often, in my notes) without even knowing where it came from.

 

What about the titles?

Titles are probably the most difficult part of writing, for me.  I once wrote a story called “Shore Lunch,” available on this site.  When it was originally accepted for publication, the editor said he loved the whole thing EXCEPT for the title.  I completely agreed, and had to pitch him three, four, five more before we finally landed on “Shore Lunch.”  (I’m actually not going to say what the original title was, because 1. it’s kind of a giveaway, and 2. the final title really is better).

 

Have you ever written or seen yourself as a character in a story?

What’s fun about writing is getting to “be” people whose real-life experiences you can’t share.  Roald Dahl was not an abusive headmistress who force-fed cake to children and locked them in a Chokey–but he got to PLAY one for 40,000 words.  There was a time, early in my development, when I WAS the main character in all my stories.  But in casting someone whose life experience simply matches his own, a writer robs himself of one of the greatest joys of his art.  Each of my characters has a LITTLE of me in him or her–but they’re all mostly invented.

 

Who are your most important creative influences?

My wife Michelle introduced me to the life and work of Walt Disney.  All I have learned about this remarkable genius and the gifted artists who gravitated toward him fundamentally changed the way I work.  Michelle also introduced me to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese filmmaker who is, in his country and culture, what Walt is to Americans.  If they’re numbers one and two on my list, number three would have to be John Lasseter, the first creative talent at Pixar.

I have learned more–concretely–about storytelling from filmmakers than I have from novelists.  Filmmakers are bound by financial concerns and the limits of a highly collaborative process at every stage; writers, not so much.  I could sit here and do 10,000 words, and it won’t have “cost” me more than 500, as far as quantifiable resources go.  But moviemakers have to be VERY deliberate, VERY careful, VERY conscientious; they’re vigilant about their resources, and they remain so throughout the entire creative process.  If more writers “spent” their words with the care that artists like Disney, Miyazaki, and Lasseter focused on their resources… well, I just wish more of us did.

Among writers I love, who have influenced me:  Neil Gaiman, Cormac McCarthy, Louis Sachar, Garrison Keillor, Chuck Palahniuk, Jerry Spinelli, RL Stine, Bruce Coville, Roald Dahl, Alvin Schwartz (where do I STOP).

 

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

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