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Doors of imagination

"Doors of imagination" Continued...

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

CHEANEY: I loved biography, historical and realistic fiction, fairy tales. Since my books are all realistic and historical (except the last one, which isn't historical-whether it's realistic or not is up to the reader), I would have gobbled them up as a kid.

WORLD: Describe your writing process?

CHEANEY: I start with a setting (time and place), a handful of characters, and a very vague idea of where I want to end up. The first draft is excruciating; it's like bulldozing a field of rocks uphill. Once the story is in place, I can look back and see a loamy plowed slope, ready to revise. Oh, joy! It's all downhill from there.

WILSON: I have an idea. I chew on it a lot (picture a cow with its cud), mentally changing action or characters, flavor or setting. Then I mess around with a first chapter, trying to match what's in my head. Once that feels right, writing becomes a sprint. I start pounding, usually at night, until I have scratched my own itchy story-grip and a first draft is born. Then the grind begins-editing, slashing, burning, reworking.

WORLD: Kids always ask me how I get my ideas. So what inspired your stories?

CHEANEY: I like to say that I don't get ideas; ideas get me. Which is a cute turn of phrase, but also mostly true.

WILSON: They start with anything-a phrase, a character, a texture. The opening line for Leepike came while I was brushing my teeth. I wrote it down and it brought a paragraph along to keep it company. And then a page. And then a chapter. The content is often shaped by reading I did as a kid. I really enjoy borrowing (stealing) from the classics. The Odyssey and Tom Sawyer both contributed heavily to Leepike.

WORLD: What's the most frustrating thing about being a writer?

WILSON: Not being able to turn the page to find out what happens next. That and the long wait between finishing the book and having it hit shelves.

CHEANEY: Once that idea gets me, I have to decide what to do with it. This world just teems with plot elements, characters, and themes; I'm terrified I'll pick the wrong ones, or head off in the wrong direction. My five unpublished manuscripts testify that this is no idle fear.

WORLD: What about writing brings you the most satisfaction?

CHEANEY: The final page.

WILSON: I think the best part is watching readers fall in love with characters and then take them away from me, making them part of their own imaginations. Once the book is out there, I have no ownership. The characters are wandering around in the minds of readers and I get left behind. I love that.

WORLD: If you had to give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

CHEANEY: Writers tend to be passive observers, so take advantage of that rather unappealing trait. Look around you. Take notes. Incorporate real people, real details, real stuff into your stories. I tell conference attendees that they can't improve on God. His teeming creation, that frustrates and delights me so much, far exceeds anything I could make up.

WILSON: How about one package of advice? Love words. Love people and life. Read. Write (you'd think that would be obvious, but it's not). Copy what you see. And remember that it's not about you. You're trying to make something for other people to taste and own and enjoy. It's like cooking for a crowd.

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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