Maggie de Vries, born in 1961 in Ontario, Canada is a writer for children, teens and adults and creative writing instructor. Her 2010 book, Hunger Journeys and her 2015 book Rabbit Ears both won the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize.
I am doubly excited to be presenting Maggie’s words for you guys because she was my thesis supervisor and I always found her advice to be spot-on and helpful. Maggie is also a part of the creative writing faculty at UBC and MACL students have often benefited from her wisdom and her classes.
1. Do you find yourself writing chronologically (in terms of your story) or bits and pieces as they come to you? Any advice in this regard?
At the start of a project, I usually write all over the place, whichever bit most wants to be written. A moment comes when it feels like time to put all those pieces in the right order and to start from the filling in the gaps. At that point, I might also make a sort of outline, just to see if I can grasp the overall shape of the piece. My advice would be to follow the path that feels right for you. Don’t get caught up in ideas of right ways and wrong ways to write a book. We are all different, and every project is different too.
2. . When worldbuilding, how do you decide how much detail is enough?
When I’m worldbuilding, I try to include what is needed when it’s needed. I don’t worry too much about whether I’m getting it right or not because I know that others will guide me with their questions and comments when I seek feedback. I think it’s important to remember that some readers want a lot of information and others want to get on with things, so all we can do is stay true to ourselves and open to feedback, without being tossed hither and yon when that feedback is not consistent.
3. At which point in your writing process do you start giving attention to the overall structure of your novel?
Like I said above, I start thinking about structure when I reach the point where I want to put it all in order, though I always have some notions of structure even before that. I return to thoughts of structure many times throughout the process, as I get closer and closer to what the book wants to be.
4. Do you plot ahead or do you let your characters guide you where they want to go?
I let my characters guide me. If I try to plot ahead, I find I just switch to writing after a few minutes. My enthusiasm gets dampened if I try to spend too much time planning before I start writing.
5. Is there a specific way you individuate your characters?
I hope that they individuate themselves, but I do keep track of characteristics, turns of phrase, ways emotions are felt etc, so I can reinforce them. If one character feels everything in her gut, for example, I might let the other feel things elsewhere…
6. Do you have tricks for increasing or slowing down the narrative pace? Is there a way to make the story flow faster or conversely slower?
I might slow down by lingering over a scene and perhaps spending more time in my protagonist’s head, observing, feeling, slipping in a bit of backstory. Conversely, sticking with the action of a scene and stripping away a lot of thought, backstory etc, can pick up the pace. Spending more time on action can make the pace feel faster even though a lot of text is being devoted to something that doesn’t take a long time to happen.
7. Do you hold off on writing until your characters emerge, fully (or almost fully) formed? or do they develop over successive drafts as you discover who they really are and what is going on? (This question is way too wordy but you get what I’m asking.)
My characters emerge on the page. I can get to know them better by writing material that won’t go in the book, like dreams, journal entries or letters, but I find it difficult to get to know them without writing.
8. Most useful writing habit or practice?
For me, the most useful writing habit is regular writing. I do this in fits and starts, but I’m happier and things go more smoothly when I do.
9. How do you get past the midpoint – when the story suddenly seems to lose direction/you lose interest in the story/you don’t know what other characters need to be introduced?
I keep writing. I might leave the story’s chronology to get myself to do more work. I might write around the story. I experiment. I see what emerges. I remind myself that none of it is set in stone.
10. How do you silence the censor/critic in your head?
I name that critic. I picture him. And I’m kind to him. I imagine patting him on his little head, giving him a small snack, a grape, perhaps, and sending him off for his nap.