It’s always a pleasure to meet debut novelists — what books and conferences are influencing the next generation of writers? Tara Ross is here today to tell you all about her writing journey, including her mentors and tips for other newbies.
Thanks for being here Let’s start with: what do you write? How/why did you pick your genre?
I write contemporary and inspirational young adult (YA) fiction. I have always loved reading about first loves, coming of age stories, and fierce young women conquering their fears. So, writing a book that included some of my favorite story elements made sense. I have also worked with teenagers for over ten years now and felt like there were important stories that needed sharing from our current point in history.
I do have a real itch to extend my writing to new adult and women’s fiction, however, many agents and publishers will ask that you stay within a particular genre to help establish your brand. I’ve intentionally tucked away these other genre ideas for now, but have a feeling they will need to be heard at some point.
If you’ve written multiple books, which was harder: the first book or the following books?
I’m still a newbie to the publishing world, but given that my first novel took me five years to brainstorm, draft, revise and edit, and then my second novel poured out in less than two years, I’d say it’s getting easier.
I liken it the quarantine trend of making bread. First you salivate over other people’s bread (books), tasting from a variety of recipes (genres). Then you begin to research recipes (craft books) and what ingredients you will need. It takes a few attempts before you get a result that is edible (i.e. that never to be seen first story), and even then, the steps are new and require you to look back to the recipe and YouTube videos. But finally, after the fourth or fifth attempt, the steps have become more automatic, and you need fewer references along the way. I feel like I’m somewhere in between. I can make a decent loaf of bread with guidance, but the more complicated recipes, like sourdough, I have yet to master.
What’s your favorite book on writing? What do you like about it?
The Emotional Craft of Fiction, by Donald Maass has been stationed on my bedside book pile, and my writing desk, and my Good Reads TBR list for the past six months. This book is thick with guidance, despite its average page count. Each chapter asks you to look deep into your story elements, then Maass gives you takeaway assignments for your own work. It goes beyond structure and character arcs to the underlying heartbeat of your story. Maass also gives you a mini literary foray by including masterful examples from across time and genre to illustrate each new principal. I’d suggest picking up this book once you have a rough draft in place.
What writing book do you want to read next?
I’ve heard fantastic things about Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Shawn Smucker and Maile Silva, hosts of The Stories Between Us, read it as part of their podcast book club. They shared some fantastic highlights during their review episode. I also feel that after my debut novel comes out, I will be needing the encouragement this book offers.
What conference do you most want to attend?
I’d love to attend the ACFW conference or Mount Hermon. There is something transformational about being in the same space as authors you have read and admired for years. To hear them speak about the craft of writing adds extra level of splendor. From research I’ve done in the past, these conferences also offer mentorship tracks and opportunities to talk face to face with literary greats. I wouldn’t have wanted to attend these conferences earlier than now, however. I think if you are going to make the investment of traveling to a national conference, you want to have a firm grasp of your writing gaps, a plan for the future and a manuscript or two ready to share.
If you’ve ever worked with a freelance editor, how did you find that editor? How would you describe the experience?
If not for my first freelance editor experience, I honestly don’t think I would be a published author today. I met my editor, Sara Davison, through a writing contest I entered and won. She was one of the judges and shared in her feedback that I had a great start and that with a little bit of assistance I could make my story into something special. I chose to hire her to work with me in a mentorship style relationship to not only edit Fade to White but also teach me about my mistakes as I continued to grow as a writer. We worked slowly, a few chapters at a time, and with each new chapter, I applied the lessons learned to make the next chapter just a little bit cleaner. It was the best education in writing.
What does your revision process look like?
I think it’s important to understand how someone writes as a starting point, because revising as a planner versus a pantser may look very different.
I start with a fairly detailed outline. I have a spread sheet that I use to track my progress through each new scene and chapter. I veer from this as the story unfolds, but it helps me to check that I am reaching the big plot points at a reasonable pace. From the outline, I write a messy first draft. Once I have all the words down, I go back through and read the entire manuscript without changing anything. I make notes for each chapter about big picture changes or pacing issues. I then take those notes and write my synopsis based on chapter summaries from my spread sheet.
Once I have the synopsis, I consider what themes have emerged, and a lot of the time they are different from what I had intended to explore. With this in mind, I begin to flesh out character voices and motivations more heavily to represent their respective story arcs.
At this point, I am exploring the idea of sharing a rough draft with beta readers. Then, I go back to the beginning and begin to edit with their suggestions in mind and begin to add setting details, richer prose, and those small details that really peel a story off the page. I then allow someone else to read through for the overall flow and all the grammatical and punctuation errors I’ve have missed … and there are many. I finally send it off to my agent.
What advice do you have for new authors?
This is not a race. Writing is something I came to later in life, and it has been so therapeutic for me to share words at my own pace. Sometimes in the writing community, there is this sense of urgency to get your story out there, but I think there is something special about waiting for the right moment when you know you have put your best effort forward. I am a perfectionist and likely take longer than I should, but if I had rushed that first book and tried to query it before my masterclass with Sara, I never would have had a chance to reach this point.
Tara K. Ross lives with her husband, two daughters and rescued fur-baby in a field of cookie-cutter homes near Toronto, Canada. She works as a school speech-language pathologist and mentors with local youth programs. When Tara is not writing or reading all things young adult fiction, you can find her rock climbing the Ontario escarpment, planning her family’s next jungle trek or podcasting/blogging at www.tarakross.com.
Fade to White is her debut novel.
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