Marilyn is a fourth generation Californian who lives in East Highlands, California, not far from where her great-grandfather planted the first orange trees in that area. She says, “I had a wonderful childhood and grew up thinking that everyone had grandparents with big, soft beds and great stories to tell.”
She graduated from Pomona College, married the boy next door, and had four children, about whose misadventures she has often written. She has eight grandchildren, who keep her up to date about what’s going on in teen life today. To date, she has published 30 books, over 500 articles and short stories, and seven juvenile plays.
She has been a career advisor for Pomona College and enjoys speaking at writing workshops, conferences, schools, libraries, and historical societies. She has conducted over 200 seminars on writing. Marilyn teaches a class in memoir writing and classes in CAHSEE prep writing. In her spare time, she enjoys, bird watching, cooking, and working in her garden.
What inspires you to write?
Inspiration comes in surprising ways: a melody, a memory, a smell, reading a good book. I am often inspired by memories of childhood, or of stories I heard as a child. I begin to create settings – sketching on large sheets of paper – until I have a sense of place. I think memories, and the places those memories spring from, are what get me started. I have this urge to preserve them. I think that’s a kind of inspiration. At this point, I have no idea what the story will be about. I just know that I have these bits and pieces that need to be preserved.
When an idea strikes, I am careful to jot it down and file it in a big, three-ring notebook that I keep for just that purpose. Some ideas never develop; others nag at me until I pull them out and take another look. Each idea has a separate section in my notebook, with plenty of room for more notes and potential character sketches. Sometimes I find that several ideas come together and begin to form the skeleton of a plot. This is exciting!
Tell us about your writing process.
I seldom outline in the beginning. To me, this is restrictive. I love the process of free writing (NaNoWriMo style) in which I can create a setting, drop a character or two into it, and watch what happens. The results, for me at least, have almost always been surprising and rewarding. Of course, I may have had these characters and this setting meandering around in my brain for months, maybe even longer. But once they hit the paper, they become real for me. The setting expands and becomes the place where my characters will interact, grow, and change. The characters talk to each other, form friendships or become enemies. I listen. I wait for the plot to grow out of character relationships. At this point, I try not to interfere. If something doesn’t work, I can fix it later. But in the beginning, I need this freedom – this letting the characters tell their own stories. Sometimes a twist of plot will come as a complete surprise to me. This is when I know that I am on the right track.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
Yes, I often talk to my characters. But mostly I listen, and I do this through interviewing each character. I have a list of basic questions. Even a simple question like “How old are you?” can produce a surprising answer. One of my characters in THE VALLEY IN BETWEEN told me, “I’m 15, and I wish people would stop asking!” That told me quite a bit about how that character was feeling. Then I have a second list of questions that refers to things that are happening in the book. “How do you feel about the way Tawny Crawford is going around town pretending he is somebody?” is an example. If I ask several characters this same question, I’ll get a variety of answers. This, in turn, gives me important information about the observers – as well as Tawny Crawford.
What advice would you give other writers?
When I was in school, teachers advised us to write about what we knew. I thought this was foolish because I didn’t think I was old enough or wise enough to know a great deal. Perhaps it would have been better to say, “Write about what you are familiar with – the things that matter to you.” Everyone – no matter the age – can write about how he/she feels.
I often give my students a short list of “musts” for being a writer. (1) Educate yourself. Become familiar with English grammar and punctuation. (2) Surround yourself with good books and read them. Particularly read a lot of books in the genre in which you want to write. (3) Don’t be afraid to take a risk. If you feel strongly about your subject, write about it! (4) Try a variety of genres. Write poetry, even if you think you can’t. It is the absolutely most perfect way to express yourself. (5) Write short pieces, being sure you have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Write longer pieces, and follow the same rule. (6) Edit your writing, then put it away for a few weeks before you read it again. (7) Don’t put it in a drawer. It will never get published that way!
How did you decide how to publish your books?
Before I wrote books, I wrote a weekly newspaper column titled “Coffee Break.” This was my first experience with being published. Then I attended a SCBWI conference – then held in Santa Monica. I met the editor of David C. Cook, who was actively looking for writers. I got up my nerve and approached her with an idea. It was the story of two MG kids who had to spend the summer with an eccentric aunt (a writer) at a beach house. She asked me to meet with her and began to ask me questions. Honestly, I had no idea how to answer them because I had not yet spent much time developing plot. She began to ask questions, and I had to dig up answers on the spur of the moment. Miraculously, her questions were just what I needed to pull my thoughts together. The upshot was that I was asked to submit several chapters and a plot outline. I got a contract, and the book, THE CROOKED GATE won the Chariot Award for David C. Cook’s new line of children’s books. I would advise new writers to be better prepared than I was when approaching an editor. However, I wrote several more books for that publishing house, both MG and YA.
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
The publishing world is changing. I think quality books will always find a home with traditional publishers, but the day is gone when traditional publishing was the only option a writer had. Many out-of-print books are seeing new life by being digitized, and this is good. Opportunities are available for self publishing without spending a fortune. But, I think any writer who is considering self publishing his/her book must be especially careful that the book is edited in a professional manner. And writers who self publish must take the responsibility of the quality of writing in their books. It is not always as good as it should be, and this is due to the lack of the professional editing that a traditional publishing house can offer. We are living in a digital world, and books can be downloaded to a digital device, such as Kindle, in seconds. What will be the effect on libraries and bookstores? Time will tell.
What genres do you write?
MG, YA, Adult Devotional
What formats are your books in?
Both eBook and Print
Your Social Media Links