The answer to your questions

The answer to your questions

When is a book finished?

I like to know where I’m heading when I write, so I have an ending in mind before I begin. As a matter of fact, when I wrote my first book, “The Lyric of Memory”, the concept started with the last thought my heroine, Maddie had! The story appeared to me fully formed with her hand on the door knob of her home, so I most certainly knew when I got to that point, I was done. And once I’m finished with a project, I generally take a few well-earned days off before beginning anew. But I don’t wait too long — I have an entire file of story ideas just waiting to be written!

How do you select the names of your characters?

I don’t! They tell me their names.

That might sound strange, but my particular process involves a lot of listening to the story in my head as it unfolds. I begin to “hear” snippets of conversation between the people who eventually become the protagonists in my books. Eventually, they tell me who they are and I just write it all down like a scribe!

 

Did you always want to be a writer?

I always dreamed of being a writer. I guess that’s partially why I ended up as a book editor when I graduated from college. I had a few essays published here and there but never really allowed myself the chance to explore the idea of writing a full-length novel until my children were grown and living on their own. Once I had the time to devote to the one thing I’d always dreamed I’d do, it was like the floodgates opened and I couldn’t stop — I’m having too much fun to give up now, anyway! As challenging as writing is, and as impossibly difficult the book business has become, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s my dream, come true.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I have been a member of a writer’s group for close to thirty years. This group of women, all of whom published works before I ever did, have been my guides, my mentors and my friends. They have always offered their honest critiques of my work as well as been my biggest cheerleaders. They are my first readers; I absolutely rely on them to let me know what mistakes I’ve made along the way. I could not live without them!

Favorite book?

One of my all-time favorite books, the one I’ve re-read countless times, is Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind”. It was the very first historical romance novel I’d ever gotten my hands on, and there was a lavish film to accompany it as well — my idea of heaven! I think it resonated with me for many reasons. I’ve always been fascinated by the history, the clothing and the language of the civil war era. The character of Scarlett was so vivid and such a survivor that I thought about her long after I finished the last page. I also became enthralled with the legend that is Margaret Mitchell, and how she never wrote anything after that one book, and how the manuscript was so big and heavy that she used it as a doorstop in her home! It’s still the one book that I can pick up and can’t put down.

Do you think someone can be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?

I think it would be very hard to write true-to-life characters if you don’t know what your protagonists are feeling. The whole experience for the reader relies on connection – between each of the people in your story and then between those fictional characters and the reader. Although I don’t think you need to have actually faced the same conflict as your heroine or hero, I think that the writer needs empathy for whatever situation you’ve put them through so that the reader can identify with your characters in order to be fully immersed in your story.

 

Writing ritual

Writing is a challenging career, so I’ve adopted some rituals to make sure that I keep myself honest and on track when I start a new project.

 

First of all, even though I work at home, I get dressed in real clothes every morning before sitting down at my desk — no pajamas for me! I try my best to write 2500 words a day, or at least four pages. I use Anna Quindlen’s method of stopping mid-sentence or mid-paragraph, never at the end of a chapter. This way, I’m forced to come back and pick up where I left off. And I fully subscribe to Anne Lamott’s belief in crappy first drafts. I write full out until the very last word of my last chapter, and then I go back and fill in the holes.

 

Recently I’ve started taking yoga. It really helps at the end of a long day of sitting in front of my computer, not only with the physical movement it requires, but as a meditation, freeing my mind of all extraneous thoughts and worries, making the next writing session even more productive. I highly recommend it, even if you aren’t a writer. The stretching and core strengthening have made me a happier person!

When did I first realize that I wanted to be a writer?

I don’t think you ever realize that you want to be a writer.  I think you’re born knowing it’s something you can’t help but do.  I might have pushed down the urge to actually test myself, might have come up with a million reasons why I wasn’t writing, but the truth is, I could not deny that my most secret desire was to write a novel.  It took years to have the courage of my conviction, but knowing what I do now about how it’s all turned out, I ‘m thrilled that I finally took the plunge!

How long does it take me to write a book?

I have often been asked how long it took to write one of my novels.  The truth is, I never know when I sit down and start a book just how long it will take me to finish.  I write a steady four pages a day or approximately 2,000 words, but the story dictates the length. It took me six months to write my first book and five months to write the second, but I’m already doing research for a historical saga that I plan to write after I finish the novel I’m working on right now.  Do you count the research time? I guess you do, so when I’m done, that fourth book might be in the works for as long as two years before it’s published. Writing is a creative outlet, so for me, time becomes irrelevant to my process. And as for those writers who are able to write four or six books a year, I say WOW!  I am impressed…

What is my work schedule when I’m writing?

I am most certainly a morning person.  I like to get up early, plant my butt in the chair (as Anne Lamott says!) and write.  I don’t stop until I have four pages done. Sometimes that takes two hours, sometimes six.  It’s variable, and there’s no scientific formula. I never end on a complete thought, either, a la Anna Quindlen.  That forces me to re-read what I’ve written the next day, make some small changes and move forward. And that’s just the first draft…

What is my interesting writing quirk?

Working at home has its multiple benefits and deficits.  I used to tell myself that my time for writing should be without distraction, but then I realized that I write better with some background noise — I like to write when my clothes dryer is going!  Somehow the rhythmic sound of wet clothing being tossed around that heated drum helps me concentrate. I have been known to wash clean clothes whenever I feel that I’m not focused, just so that I can turn on the dryer!

Where do I get ideas?

Ideas for my books sometimes swirl around me.  It’s interesting, really, but for as long as I can remember, I would overhear something in a restaurant or theater and think, wow, that would make a great story if I only expounded on it. I recently was out to dinner with my husband when a couple at a nearby table were having a hushed argument which quickly escalated.  The woman stormed out, leaving her cashless husband to try to figure out how he was going to pay the bill. Now there’s a story idea if I ever heard one, don’t you agree?

How old was I when I wrote my first book

I am living proof that it’s never too late to live your dream.  On the morning of my fifty-seventh birthday, I woke up and decided to try to write a novel.  I’d always written short stories and essays, but never published a one. I have always considered the numbers five and seven to be lucky for me, so on that day I figured I’d give it a go. At first, the idea that I had so many blank pages in front of me was frightening, but I kept at it.  I told no one, because I didn’t want to feel as though I had failed if I wasn’t up to the task; it wasn’t until I had over two hundred pages of my first novel, “The Lyric of Memory” written that I told my husband what I was doing, and lucky for me, he became my biggest cheerleader! The moral of this story:  do the thing that scares you the most, a little bit every day. It can be the greatest thing you’ll ever accomplish — or at least it was for me!

What do I like to do when I’m not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m reading!  I love to get lost in a great book, to fall in love with characters and to think about them well after the time that I’ve turned the last page.  I find so many other writers inspiring — Anne Lamott, Anna Quindlen, Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Weiner to name a few. What or who inspires you?

What does my family think about my writing?

I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating — my husband is my biggest cheerleader and tells everyone he meets about his wife and her books, handing out my card and telling people to leave me a review!  He always pushed me to follow my dream and he does his best to give me the space and time I need to do what makes me happy.

We have two grown sons, and I’m pretty sure they’re proud of me, even if they like to remind me that I don’t write to their demographic!  What does give me joy, however, is when I hear them tell someone that their mom is a published writer. My family means everything to me, and I absolutely could not do what I do without their support.  I’m grateful for them, each and every day!

New York

hilari@hilaritcohen.com