Anna Shinoda devoted several years to her debut young adult novel, Learning Not to Drown. The story was influenced by Shinoda’s personal experiences with having an incarcerated sibling. We spoke with Shinoda to learn her thoughts on research, crafting realistic characters, and more. Here are the highlights…
Q: How did you land your book deal?
A: During SCBWI’s annual summer conference, I had manuscripts nominated for their Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award in both 2004 and 2006. While those nominations did not directly get me a book deal, they did lead to a connection with Jennie Dunham of Dunham Literary, who became my agent in 2006. In late 2008, after several rejections, Jennie called with the news that Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum was interested. I signed the contract and somewhere between my agent’s office and Caitlyn’s office, the contract got lost. Fortunately, when the mistake was caught a few months later, Caitlyn was still very much wanting to acquire the book.
Q: Can you describe your research process for this book?
A: I grew up with a brother in and out of prison, and have also had several relationships with addicts, so experience was the seed of the inspiration for writing this book. Out of respect for my family, I didn’t want to write a memoir, so I started doing research to understand the different ways people deal with a family member being incarcerated. I watched documentaries and going to online support message boards for people who have loved ones incarcerated. When I told friends of mine what I was working on, they opened up with their own stories and introduced me to others who had stories to share. I gave all of my emotions to a fictional girl named Clare and used my research to create a family for her that dealt with incarceration in the ways that I had found to be most common.
Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: Time away from a manuscript always gives me a better perspective for editing. It’s easier to come back and be brutally honest after a week or two away, when the words hasn’t been actively running in my mind. I’m also a huge believer in critique groups. I feel like I can get a manuscript only so far on my own, but it can continue to improve with suggestions by critique partners, even if it is as simple as “this section is boring.” Revising then becomes a game of sorts, trying to figure out how to make it better, what to take out, how to crack the code of the safe that is holding the story.
Q: How do you tackle writer’s block?
A: I am a slow writer. Part of that is because I write when I’m inspired to put down on paper all of the sounds and smells and feeling and sights that have been roaming around in my head as a complete scene. A lot of my working time is spent day dreaming, and if the story isn’t coming, I typically won’t try to force it. That said, if I am on deadline, I will sit down and make it happen. That usually involves a good amount of pre-writing ritual: lighting a candle, putting on some music, making tea, reading what is already there and trying to find inspiration in where to go next. If I’m not on deadline but I don’t want to work on my current project, I still need to write or I become a grumpy monster. So I’ll do something that comes easy in that moment, whether that is a blog post or some scribbles in a notebook or a writing prompt.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Another realistic fiction young adult novel. At this point it’s an incredibly rough mess of scenes that is slowly starting to resemble a book.