Random Q&A: Nina Nelson

This week, The 5 Randoms interviews Nina Nelson, author of her newest book, Bringing the Boy Home (HarperCollins, 2008). Nina’s lived in a mansion, had pet peacocks, and worked the Wendy’s drive-thru window. Now, she talks to us about Power Fifties and, as an unpublished writer, hearing caller ID announce a HarperCollins editor was on the phone.

1) Bringing the Boy Home is set in the Amazon rainforest; how did you come up with the idea?

Well, originally, I wanted to write a story about five kids who each had a special “sense” talent. For example, one kid would be able to see what happened in a photo fifteen seconds before and after the picture was taken, and another kid would be able to smell what happened in the photo fifteen seconds before and after, and another kid could hear, and another could taste, and another could touch what happened, and then they would join forces and solve mysteries. But when I told my critique group about this “novel” idea, one of the members said, “There’s already a book out where a boy can see photos move,” and I thought, “Hmmm, I don’t want to write a book that’s already been written,” so I tried to incorporate the five senses into a story that didn’t involve magic, which led me to thinking about the Amazon jungle people and how they use their senses every day to survive and the book just formed from there. I had visited the Amazon back in February 2001, so it was very easy for me to recall the sights, sounds, smells and feelings I had when I was there.

2) What is the part of the writing process you hate, and what coping mechanisms do you employ to get through it?

Wow! The part I hate? “Hate” is such a strong word, isn’t it? Hmmm. I guess it would be showing up at the computer and not knowing what’s going to happen. I’m a “pantser” not a “plotter,” so when I have no idea where the story is going, I’m a little reluctant to open the laptop. I deal with it a few ways:

1) I make myself write every day–at least fifteen minutes. Both Linda Sue Park and Laurie Halse Anderson said to do this and I’m certainly not going to argue with their success.

2) I make sure I’ve completed other things on my to-do list before I write. If I’ve gone grocery shopping or cleaned or been to the post office, at least I know something was accomplished that day and that relaxes my mind.

3) I forgive myself for bad writing days. I’m a runner and I’ve had to remind myself that writing is like running–not every run is easy or rewarding or enjoyable, yet I still lace up my shoes and do it. The same is with writing…not every day is going to be a “knock ‘em out of the ballpark” day. I’ve learned—let me re-phrase, I’m learning—to be okay with that.

3) One of the number one things writers hate to do is revise, and they’re looking for an “easy answer.” That said, what is your revision process like?

LOL. Okay, now we can use the word “hate.” My first revision attempt for Bringing the Boy Home was—to put it kindly—tough. The main hurdle for me was that I didn’t know how I worked best as a reviser; I didn’t know what I needed from the editor to give her what she wanted. Let me put it this way: I work best with very specific suggestions. Some writers prefer general suggestions, like “Develop this secondary character more” because it gives them a lot of freedom, but I do better if someone points to a specific paragraph or page or even chapter and says, “What would your secondary character be thinking/doing/wearing here?” Now, that I know that about myself, I hope revisions for my next book will be…hmmm, shall we say bearable?

4) Authors talk about “the call.” Usually, it has to deal with getting an agent or getting published or getting an accolade. What was the best “call” you ever received in terms of your writing, and how did it go down?

My call came back in June 2005. I was working on the computer in the study when the phone rang. I decided to let the answering machine get it and then I heard the caller ID, in her robotic voice say, “Call from HarperCollins Publishers.” Well, of course I jumped up and ran to the kitchen, but the phone was not in the cradle where it should have been, so after looking around frantically, I hit the SPEAKER button and said “Hello.” And I heard, “This is Leann Heywood with HarperCollins publishers. Can I speak with Nina Nelson?” To which I replied (as my children giggled and screeched in the background completely oblivious that this was Mama’s “big call’”) “Yes, this is she. Would you hold on one minute while I find the phone” And then once I found the phone, I answered breathlessly “Okay, sorry about that” and the calm woman on the other end of the line said, “That’s alright. I’m assuming those were your children I heard, unless you’re running a daycare center out of your home.” We both laughed—me probably a little too loudly and then she continued with, “I’m just calling to congratulate you; your manuscript, Bringing the Boy Home, was chosen as the winner of this year’s Ursula Nordstrom Fiction Contest.” To which I screamed “Really?” and started jumping around. The babysitter was staring at me with wide eyes, mouthing “What?” and I wrote on a post-it “I WON THE CONTEST!” And then, thank God, I took notes because I don’t remember a word of what Leann said after that. That “I WON THE CONTEST” post-it is now taped into my scrapbook along with the label of the champagne my husband and I drank to celebrate.

5) What is your typical writing day like?

Well, seeing as how I’m still working out the magic formula of how to make “the typical writing day” into “the perfect writing day” (which I will then repeat until I die), I don’t really have one. BUT this is what seems to work best for me right now: I list the things I need to get done, divide my day into 50 minute increments of time (my husband taught me this from the business world—they are called Power Fifties) and then I stick to that schedule. I’m a pretty laid-back person, so being so regimented is unusual for me, but this routine has produced results. So this is what my day might look like:

9-9:50 answer emails
10-10:50 work out
11-11:50 shower and eat lunch,
12-12:50 work on Amanda’s interview
1-1:50 call Rolla bookstore, cancel Townhouse for Dogs, make dentist appt for kids, call insurance company, send poster and bookmarks to The Written Word
2-3:00 speak at the Bookworms book club at Fairfield Public Library
3:30-3:50 have snack and look through mail
4-4:50 more email and check Amazon reviews and worldcat.org
5-5:50 Abby for a walk
6-8 dinner and kids to bed
8-??? Write

Sometimes I write during the day, but with my book having just launched, I seem to do better at night after everyone’s in bed and all the fires of the day have been put out. Oh, and those ten minutes right between one task and another—yeah, those are for potty breaks.

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