No writing during the week = no fun on the weekend. That's how author Ashley Woodfolk gets it done.
Woodfolk's first book, the YA novel The Beauty That Remains, releases on March 6 and she has two more books in progress. At the start of each week, she sets a writing goal. Because she works full time for a children's book publisher, she has to wake up early early early if she wants to write. She's not fond of early early early, but she is fond of hanging out with her friends. So she bribes herself. Get up early. Do the writing. Enjoy the weekend.
"It's an incentive to get up. If you want to have a social life, you have to get up," she told Spine. Woodfolk's sweetened the deal for herself by finding a soothing writing space: a hotel in the Flatiron district, near where she works. "It has this beautiful lobby. It's really quiet in the morning and has all these tables."
Sounds systematic, Woodfolk's approach to getting words on (virtual) paper, and is not at all the method by which she wrote The Beauty That Remains. Back in 2014, Woodfolk was one of the 325,000 writers who took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual event each November encouraging writers to hunker down and produce.
She produced 15,000 words that November. They weren't everything, but they were a serious something. "Knocking out 15,000 words – it's not 50,000 but it's a big chunk to get you firmly rooted in the story you're trying to tell," she said.
The story she was trying to tell, the narrative that would become The Beauty That Remains, was not one story, but three stories intertwined. Three grieving teenagers — Autumn, Logan and Shay — struggle in the wake of three losses, three very different deaths. Each teenager carries their own story, and is surrounded by their own universe of friends and family.
Writing their stories, Woodfolk had to master the technical act of balancing multiple storylines in a way that gave each primary character a voice, and that kept readers connected to all three without confusing them, or losing them.
Woodfolk said managing the initial cast – the three grieving teenagers, each with a close friend – was easy. Initially, each represented one of the stages of grief: "I wanted Autumn to represent depression, Logan anger, and Shay acceptance." This initial concept allowed Woodfolk a means to understand each character as they moved forward. "It was very easy to lay out what their emotional journeys were," she said.
Then — to mash months and months of hard work into a paragraph — Woodfolk found an agent (Beth Phelan). The agent found a publisher (Penguin Random House). The publisher gave Woodfolk an editor (Kate Sullivan). The editor wanted more friends. Not more friends for her; more friends for Autumn, and Logan, and Shay. "I think giving these characters a richer world to inhabit will make the story ring more true," Woodfolk recalls Sullivan saying. "Not only do they have to deal with their own feelings, but they have to deal with all these other people's feelings too."
"Revise" often signifies shaving, cutting, and pulling in, but for Woodfolk a notable portion of revising involved adding, expanding and pushing out. She likens the process to building an artificial Christmas tree. "I was adding in the branches: how someone was going to get from A to B. Figuring out where the different characters went — they have different climaxes, and their climaxes happen at different times. … Figuring that stuff out was putting in the branches." Tree! Bare tree. She kept writing.
"When I started examining these people's worlds … that was adding the lights and the tinsel. Throwing these additional side characters into the mix was the final touches." Hard work, but the protagonists' emotional journeys provided the core — the tree trunk — and anchored her throughout.
Talking about her two current YA projects, Woodfolk notes that she loves structurally challenging storytelling. "Sometimes I get the idea for the structure before I get the idea for the book."
One of her new titles centers on a friendship, before and after it dissolves. "In the after you know that they're not friends anymore, but in the before you're seeing how they fell apart," Woodfolk explained.
Her other project is a love story, and features her most complicated structure to date. "It's going to be told in a mixture of therapy sessions, journal entries, letters, and regular third-person chapters," she said. "It's from the boy's and the girl's point of view. There are also going to be chapters where the girl's texting with her best friend."
For the foreseeable future, Woodfolk will be spending her hotel lobby mornings figuring out how best to weave the book together. Whatever form it ultimately takes, Woodfolk is confident in her characters, and their ability to take her forward. "I hear them very clearly," she said.
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.