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Jacquelyn Mitchard Believes Plotting Is Paramount to A Good Novel

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Still Summer
Still Summer
(Grand Central Publishing)

by Jacqueline Mitchard
Buy this book
via Amazon.com

 

An Exclusive Authorlink Interview With Novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard
Author of Still Summer 


by Ellen Birkett Morris

October 2007

 

Novelist, syndicated columnist, essayist and children/YA author all describe writer Jacquelyn Mitchard.

While Mitchard is perhaps best known as the author of The Deep End of the Ocean, which became a run away bestseller after being selected as the first book in Oprah’s Book Club, her writing life is rich and varied.

“I started writing when I learned to write, though I never thought I would do it as a job. . .”
—MITCHARD

“I started writing when I learned to write, though I never thought I would do it as a job,” said Mitchard. As a child she wrote “horrendous stories about dead dogs and virgins falling into volcanoes.”

These days her stories, including her eighth novel Still Summer, are grounded in the complexities of human relationships put to the test.

Mitchard started as a journalist in 1976. That training has helped her to explore topics of interest, including yachting and modern day piracy, which serve as the foundation for Still Summer.

“My dad was a plumber. I grew up on the west side of Chicago. . .”
—MITCHARD

The book took nine months to write. Mitchard spent four of those months doing research. “My dad was a plumber. I grew up on the west side of Chicago and knew nothing about yachting. Everything that would lend authenticity to this book had to be learned from how a motor on a yacht could be fouled to what kind of people would be modern day pirates,” said Mitchard. To write this adventure/survival story she journeyed to St. John and Tortola where she took a four-day voyage on the real Opus. She taped hours of interviews with the co-captains of Opus and consulted with friends who sail.

"The challenge of this book was rendering these characters real emotionally. . ."
—MITCHARD

 

 

“The challenge of this book was rendering these characters real emotionally in an action-based narrative that revealed their history in a way that didn’t slow down the action,” said Mitchard.

The story follows three lifelong friends as they reunite for a trip on a luxury sailboat crossing the Caribbean, accompanied by two crewmen and the college-age daughter of one of the women, which takes an unexpected turn.

“Plot – what happened—is what a story is.”
—MITCHARD

“I enjoyed showing how these women were capable of feats of strategy and strength,” she noted.

For Mitchard, plot is paramount. “Plot – what happened—is what a story is. I eschew character driven fiction unless it is done by a master,” she explained.

She tracks plot twist wither on paper or in her head, occasionally sending herself e-mail messages about what should happen at certain points in the novel.

“Digression from the primary story is one of the biggest obstacles in finishing a book. I have a pretty strict map in my mind and I try not to go further from the story but to go deeper into it. I think writers can be seduced by their own digressions,” said Mitchard.

“All the choices have to be earned . . .”
—MITCHARD

 

One rule of thumb she uses is that if a minor character won’t appear again the character has no place in the narrative. “All the choices have to be earned,” observed Mitchard.

“Writing is a dance. Until the reader takes my hand, I am dancing alone and in the dark.”
—MITCHARD

After much success and numerous publications, Mitchard said she still doesn’t know that being a novelist is what she is meant to do.

“I know I am able to do it and that I like it, but I’m not sure the world is better for my stories. Writing is a dance. Until the reader takes my hand, I am dancing alone and in the dark,” said Mitchard.

Her early success proved to be stifling, at first. “At first it seemed necessary that every book I write be like The Deep End of the Ocean. That was crippling, as was the anxiety over whether every book would succeed. It set a very high bar, not just in my min but in fact, that I had to jump with critics and readers,” said Mitchard.

Despite her fear, her second book has proven to be among the most well liked of her books among readers. After writing two more books she began to let herself relax.

“One advantage of growing up in a newsroom is that you develop a tolerance for noise.”
—MITCHARD

Mitchard writes in the midst of a busy life that includes seven children.

“One advantage of growing up in a newsroom is that you develop a tolerance for noise,” said Mitchard. She sets few boundaries for herself except for the fact that she rarely works on fiction and nonfiction in the same day.

She compares writing for children to writing poetry. “Your word choice has to be pristine. There is not a lot of room to work with.”

She is in the middle of writing a trilogy of mystery novels for young adults and is enjoying tapping into the single-mindedness and passion that are the hallmarks of the teen years.

Mitchard will have another novel out in 2008 and is already at work on her next release.

All of her books are agented by her longtime agent and friend Jane Gelfman of Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents. Her editor on Still Summer was Jamie Raab. Mitchard has grown to enjoy the editing process as an opportunity to make the work better.

For new writers hoping to hone their skills, Mitchard suggests reading the right thing. “Don’t read a whole mess of books about writing. Read a whole mess of books that are really well written.”

 

Jacqueline Mitchard is the author of several bestselling novels. She lives on a farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin with her husband Chris Brent and seven children.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.