Character Creation with Award-winning Author Sherri L. Smith

Whether you want to write the next Twilight or the next Great American Novel, there is an art to creating multi-faceted characters that will draw your readers in from page 1, and Writing Pad has just the author to teach you how.
Sherri L. Smith is the author of five YA novels. The latest, Orleans, hit shelves in early 2013. She is also the author of the award-winning novels Lucy the Giant, Sparrow, Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet, and the California Book Awards Gold Medalist Flygirl, which the Washington Post named best book of the year. Flygirl is also a selection on 14 state reading lists. Lucy the Giant won the ALA Best Books for Young People, the ALA Amelia Bloomer Selection, NY Public Library Book For the Teen Age, Junior Library Guild Selection, Cleveland Public Library Celebrate with Books Selection, Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year, and was a Book Sense 76 pick. Sparrow was a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age selection and a 2009 Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award Nominee. Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet was a Florida Sunshine State Young Reader Award nominee. Sherri has also written for Bart Simpsons Comics and The Simpsons London Times Sunday Strip.
We sat down with Sherri to get the 411 on how she spins such successful yarns.
 
You’re the author of five novels. Tell us how your process has been refined from book #1 to #5. 
That’s a great question. I’d say my process is mostly the same, except I’ve come to accept it over the course of several books and years. When I started my first novel, I really hadn’t grasped the idea of multiple themes fitting into one story. I was still in a short story mentality. Thankfully, writing that first book taught me much of what I needed to know in order to finish it. After the second book, I recognized my methodology—including the bits of down time that some might call writer’s block. For me it’s a period of germination, when ideas take root and start to grow. The biggest challenge has been learning what to do “in the meantime.” And not beat myself up about the dramatic pause that sometimes crops up between ideas and drafts. Usually something great is waiting on the other end.
Where did you get the inspiration for your new book Orleans, set in post-apocalyptic New Orleans?
The idea for Orleans came from my experience evacuating my mother from New Orleans after Katrina. It was a harrowing time and it took a week to finally get her out. At some point during that week, I read an article about local gangs protecting their neighborhoods when law enforcement had fled the city, which lead me to the idea of tribes. There was a lot of talk of racism in the way the storm was handled––remember Mayor Nagin’s “Chocolate City” comment?––which led me to think of other ways a society could be segregated. In the case of Orleans, it’s by blood type for medical reasons. With all these ideas stewing, one day the main character, Fen, started speaking to me, telling her story. And Orleans was officially born. . .
What would you say is the common thread in your books?
All of my books are about identity and family. From Lucy the Giant to Orleans, my protagonists are struggling to come into their own and find their place in the world. You might call it a coming of age, but that implies a very youth-centric focus. In my experience, we are always continually coming of age, learning to go from infant to child to young adult to adult, spouse, parent, grandparent, senior citizen. Life takes constant adjustment and it’s a lonely journey without loved ones to share it with. That’s the core I always come back to when I write.
Give us a little preview of your upcoming Writing Pad class on drawing story from character and crafting strong heroines. Where do you start when you sit down to work on a new book?
I think it’s going to be an interesting class. I’m hoping we can play with characters, bringing them into the real world. I plan on doing a little character dating, creating online profiles. I also hope to rummage around in the characters’ attics and have students bring in a prized possession, or a guilty pleasure. You can learn a lot from a person’s favorite blanket/pillow/outfit/photo. Why should character building be any different?
When I start to work on a new book, I usually have an image in mind. I’m an outline-based writer (some people just put pen to paper and go). I like to plan my road trip before I start driving. So, with that inciting image as a destination point, I’ll write an outline that gets me there and past it. I’ll check my outline for proper rising action, turning points and climax, and then I start writing.
You have a BFA in Film and Broadcast Journalism and an MS in Business Administration. What brought you to writing?
I’ve been a writer since I was a little kid. The film degree actually came out of my love of writing. I wanted to learn how to tell a story visually. The MSBA was intended to bolster my film degree. At the time, I wanted to be a producer. I saw that as the best way to make stories happen in the film world. As a result, I worked in film and then animation for several years before cutting out all of the middle men and getting back to basics—just me, an idea, and a blank page.
When you get writer’s block, how do you bust out of a slump?
I really hate the term writer’s block. I don’t think it’s possible to simply run out of ideas. It’s more a matter of getting in the way of the best idea. So, when I hit that “dramatic pause” as I said earlier, I take a break. I sleep. Dreaming is a great way to unlock the ideas. I also keep writing, even if it’s junk. And I read a lot. Grab a book, a comicbook, go see movies. Watch TV. Listen to music. Listen to the radio. Somewhere, someone will say the thing you need to hear. I firmly believe the Universe wants you to tell the story. The story wants to be told. It will find a way to come through you. You just have to be open to it, and kind to yourself in the meantime.
Being kind to yourself––so simple, yet so hard for us writers. Thank you so much for sharing your time and wisdom with us, Sherri.
If you want to learn how to craft compelling characters from a pro, the Writing Pad is hosting YA Character Collage: Crafting Your Story from the Outside In with Sherri on May 4th. Sign up today and you’ll have your characters singing in no time!