Jean Ferris has garnered awards and fans with her nineteen novels for young readers, including the beloved off-beat fairy-tale adventure trilogy beginning with Once Upon a Marigold, the delightfully quirky Love Among the Walnuts and Much Ado About Grubstake, and the riveting Eight Seconds and Bad. Flip to the back covers of Jean’s books and you’ll find lists of awards, like ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Junior Library Guild Selection, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, ALA Notable Children’s Book, New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, and a Smithsonian Magazine Notable Book for Children. I had the pleasure of working with Jean during my time with Harcourt Children’s Books and was privileged to witness this master storyteller’s process first-hand. I’m happy to share a glimpse with you today.
*Jean’s interview follows the Rafflecopter form for today’s Free Partial Edit Giveaway. Scroll down for her full interview.
How many drafts does it typically take before you feel confident about the character and story choices you made?
I know John Steinbeck supposedly wrote only one draft…because he had written the story over and over in his mind before he put anything on paper. And I have heard about stories writing themselves. Unfortunately, neither of these things has happened to me. Different books need different numbers of drafts, and there are parts of each book that need more drafts than others, so it’s hard to nail down a typical number of drafts…but always at least five. I tend to write what amounts to an expanded outline for the first draft, and each draft gets longer as I understand more and more what the book and its characters are about.
You write your initial drafts longhand, then type them into a computer. Does putting your story through two different media impact your creative process?
I know it is very antiquated…I might as well be writing with a quill pen…but every book begins as a hand-written draft on yellow legal pads. I believe it has been proven by neurologists that a different section of the brain lights up when writing by hand than when typing on the computer. And if it hasn’t been proven yet, I think it will be! All I know is, I feel that I have a different kind of access to my imagination when I am writing by hand than when I’m at the computer…a more thorough, deeper access. Also, I like to see the mess…the strike-outs, the rewrites on top of old work. It makes it seem more like mine alone. When I see a typed draft, it looks as if it could have been done by anybody. Hand-writing just seems more personal and gets me started in an easier way. But I do put the first, hand-written draft into the computer and revise from that.
Do you use critique partners or advance readers?
I never use advance readers or critique groups. Not anymore, that is. I have belonged to several such groups and, while I enjoyed the other members of the group, I got too confused by the critiques…which were seldom in agreement. And I discovered that, as I learned the preferences of the group members, I began trying to write things that I knew would please them, whether or not it was something congruent with what I’d originally had in mind. I also learned that, in critiquing the work of others, I would start adapting their ideas to how I would write it…until it became my work and not theirs. Apparently I’m not a good collaborator, so I sit and stew over my work by myself. I do, however, welcome title suggestions. I am terrible at titles. [Editor’s Note: Ah, but brainstorming titles with Jean is super fun. I think the results of our COLLABORATIVE efforts with titles speak for themselves, Jean!]
Which draft typically gets shown to your editor? How much revising happens after the editor sees that draft?
I would say the fourth or fifth draft gets shown to an editor. And I always know that there will be more revising ahead, though I always hope there won’t be! I usually think I’m pretty well finished by the time I show the work to an editor but there is usually a lot more to be done. I have taken out or added characters, added or subtracted subplots, scenes, whole chapters…and these revisions have always improved something I thought was just fine the way it was. Editing and writing are completely different skills. Some people are lucky enough to be good at both, but I need a good editor who isn’t me.
Can you share an experience of having a story problem you didn’t think you could solve but eventually did?
I can’t think of a particular incident but, while I know I often have trouble with transitions and with the reactions of characters to incidents, I still keep making the same mistakes. Almost every editor I’ve had has pointed this out to me, but I still need it pointed with each new project. Slow learner, I guess.
How do you know you’ve got the final draft?
I think I’ve got the final draft when I’m just sick of the story, and any changes I’m making to it seem to be making it different without making it better. I let it sit for a while and look at it again, and if I can then see ways to make it different AND better, I do that. If I can’t, I (mistakenly) think I’m finished.
Thank you so much, Jean. Talking to you about writing led me to talking about your stories with my nine-year-old sons. They’ve all enjoyed the Marigold books, and one now has Much Ado About Grubstake in his backpack to start at school tomorrow. There’s a dog on the cover, of course, and what little boy can resist that? I know he’ll love the story as much as I do.