She recently spoke to the Jackson County Spilling Ink Writers’ Group about what inspires her to write and discussed her two dystopian young adult thrillers, “XVI” and its sequel, “Truth.”
During her presentation, Karr, who now lives in Bloomington, also provided local writers with tips and advice for getting that next project started or finishing one in the works.
Reading is the backbone of writing, Karr said.
“I firmly believe that you cannot be a writer unless you are a reader,” she said. “And I think most readers who don’t think they can be writers really are writers, they just haven’t found the book they want to write yet.”
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That idea is right in line with famous author Maya Angelou’s philosophy on writing, too.
“She said if you can’t find the book you want to read, write it,” Karr said.
But as a young child, Karr said she had no trouble finding books she wanted to read.
“I started reading here at this library, even had my picture on the front page of the paper when I was 6 years old for being the youngest person to go through the summer reading program and finish it without being in school yet,” she said.
She said she even remembers her favorite books were called Cubby Bear.
“I doubt they still have them in the library, but that’s OK because I don’t remember them in the least,” she said.
She started reading at age 3 because her older sister could read.
“It aggravated the heck out of me that I couldn’t read, too, so she taught me how,” Karr said.
A longtime friend, Sonja Guffey of Seymour, said she remembers when she and Karr were in the fifth grade together and Karr always was better at reading and writing than the other kids.
“I remember we would do some kind of reading exercise, and she always had an incredible grasp of vocabulary,” Guffey said. “It just amazed me the words she knew, and I didn’t have a clue.”
Guffey later found out that Karr liked to read the dictionary at night for fun.
Karr said she still enjoys the dictionary to this day and prefers her giant Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary over an online version.
“There is nothing like just sitting there and looking through the dictionary and going, ‘Oh, what does that word mean? Really? How can I use that word in a sentence?’” Karr said.
She recommends all writers improve their vocabulary by picking out a word from the dictionary every day that they don’t know, learning it and then trying to use it in a sentence.
“It’s fun, and I think all of our vocabulary could stand to improve,” she said.
Karr said when she first started writing she wanted to be a poet and an artist. But art was dismissed soon after she was criticized for a “really bad picture of a reindeer” that she drew.
She never graduated from high school, having moved from Seymour to Chicago, but she did get her GED and has taken college classes.
“I decided I was just too smart for school and dropped out,” she said. “I personally feel that formal education is not mandatory to be a writer. But continual self-education is really important. You have to keep reading. You have to work at your craft, read books about your craft.”
She also said it’s important for writers to be interested in everything.
“Because you never know where an idea is going to come from,” she said.
In her 20s, she found herself with time on her hands, so she wrote a musical.
“It’s never gone anywhere, but I can tell you, write whatever it is that’s in your head,” she said.
Later, she began writing stories for her children, and it wasn’t until her 40s that she said she began writing more seriously.
“I did start writing poetry and essays and things like that,” she said. “I had a few things published in the Bloomington newspaper. I had a couple of poems published in the Christian Science Sentinel.”
But it wasn’t until her 50s that she got the idea that maybe she could write a book.
“I was in Borders, the now defunct Borders in Bloomington, and I was buying the last book in one of the mystery series I had been reading,” she said. “I love cozy mysteries. I eat them like candy.”
When she told the guy at the counter that she was disappointed it was the last one in the series, he told her that she should write her own series.
“And I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I could,’” she said. “My daughter said, ‘One page a day mom.’ In a year, you’re going to have 365 pages, so I sat down with a notebook and started writing.”
She never finished that book, but it sits quietly waiting with all of her other “drawer novels.”
“That’s just a fancy way of saying these are all the ones I started but never got around to finishing,” she said. “And I’ve got a lot of them, in drawers, on my computer, in notebooks, they’re everywhere.”
Her debut novel, the dystopian young adult thriller, “XVI” or “16,” came out in 2011.
She got the idea for the main character quite suddenly, she said.
“I had this picture in my head one day,” she said. “It just popped out of nowhere. This kind of punk girl with spiky hair walking down a slummy street in New York, and she had earbuds in and was listening to music to try to block out the noise of the city, and she accidentally steps over a homeless guy. She turns around and looks at him and feels like she can’t leave without doing something for him.”
At the time she got the idea, she was working on a historical contemporary middle-grade book and didn’t have time to do much with her new character.
“But I liked her, so I tucked her in the back of my mind and said, ‘OK, there’s this person there,’” she said. “I would assume a lot of people here, writers, have these kinds of images that just pop into your head. You get them, and you’re kind of like, ‘Where did that come from?’”
She knew that the National Novel Writing Month challenge was coming up where authors get 30 days to write 50,000 words.
“No plot, no problem,” she said. “All you need is a character and a location, and you just start writing.”
When the national writing month rolled around, she wondered what she was going to write about.
“And this girl popped into my head again, and I said, ‘I guess I’ll write about her,’” she said.
She changed the location to Chicago, instead of New York, since she had lived there and just started writing.
“I spent 30 days with this gal and just wrote and wrote and wrote,” she said. “And the rest is history.”
But first drafts are never going to be the final product, she added.
“All first drafts are crap,” she said. “There is not a writer on this planet who can write a good first draft. All writing is rewriting.”
After working with her critique group to do some revisions, she submitted query letters, drafts and finally full manuscripts, and was able to land an agent to represent her and the book.
“It’s hard to get into traditional publishing without an agent,” she said.
That agent, however, wanted Karr to add about 10,000 more words to the story.
So she did, and together they went through a couple of rounds of submissions with the book. Karr ended up having to do more revisions for Speak, which is a division of Penguin Publishing House.
“The editor really liked it and said she wanted to take it to acquisitions,” Karr said.
Acquisitions is where the publishing company decides if it wants to buy, market and sell a book.
It never made it through, so Karr did some more rewriting.
Her agent sent the book out again and got an offer to publish from Flux Publishing. However, the editor at Speak didn’t want to let the book go and upped the ante.
So Speak ended up publishing “XVI.”
When it came time to write the sequel, Karr said she really didn’t have any idea of what it was going to be except a continuation of the first one.
She sent her ideas to her editor, who said it was simply the first book with some things changed around, so she would have to do better.
“I had about two weeks to get her a manuscript,” Karr said. “I went to do the dishes because that’s what I do when I get stressed. And all of a sudden, the idea came to me. You’re going to put her in this situation instead because she’s already been in that situation.”
In about two weeks, she finished the manuscript for “Truth,” submitted it to the editor and Speak bought it and published it.
She now has a third book in the series coming out and is currently revising it.
“Chances are good that it will come out as an eBook,” she said.
Based on her writing of speculative fiction, she also was contacted by the editors of a project called “Divergent Thinking,” who asked her to write an essay for that book, which she did.
After her two books were published, she was contacted by Random House Publishing in Germany, which wanted to buy the stories and publish them as “The Sign.”
“I can’t read a word in them,” she said.
Whether she’s actively working on a project or not, Karr said she writes every day and advises those interested in becoming a writer to do the same.
“I journal every day,” she said. “And you should, too. Get up every day and write three pages longhand. Let everything come out.”