Author Lisa Mangum ~ Interviewed

Lisa Mangum has loved and worked with books ever since elementary school, when she volunteered at the school library during recess. Her first paying job was shelving books at the Sandy Library. She worked for five years at Waldenbooks while she attended the University of Utah, graduating with honors with a degree in English. An avid reader of all genres, she has worked in the publishing department for Deseret Book since 1997.

Besides books, Lisa loves movies, sunsets, spending time with her family, trips to Disneyland, and vanilla ice cream topped with fresh raspberries. She lives in Taylorsville, Utah, with her husband, Tracy. She is the author of The Hourglass Door (which was named the 2009 YA Book of the Year by ForeWord Reviews) and The Golden Spiral.

What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?

I’ve heard a lot of writing advice (and given out my fair share, I suppose), but there have been a few bits of wisdom that I have either taken to heart—or wished I had. Probably the best advice that I have followed was this: “It’s okay to write your story out of order.” I had always tried to write my stories sequentially: chapter 1, paragraph 1, word 1. But there would always come a point where I didn’t exactly know what should happen next, and instead of skipping the trouble spot and moving on, I’d stop. Completely. And it seemed like I never went back and picked up those stories to finish them. Giving myself permission to skip around in a story and write the scene I was feeling at the moment was liberating. I wrote—and finished—The Hourglass Door that way. When I was all done writing the scenes I needed for the book, I stitched them together with some transitions and to my surprise, I had 400 pages written.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

I’m currently working on The Forgotten Locket. It is the last book in my trilogy that started with The Hourglass Door. I’ve never written a trilogy before, so this is a new experience for me. The story continues the romance between Abby and Dante, as well as increasing the danger they face from Zo. Will he achieve his goal of controlling all of time? Will Abby ever see her family again, or will they be lost forever in the river of time? Will Valerie regain her sanity? The questions abound. I hope the answers are satisfying—and surprising.

After I finish this book, I have a couple other ones that are not-so-patiently waiting their turn. A contemporary YA novel about the transformative power of love as well as a YA fairy tale.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I think self-doubt is part of the job description of being a writer. I worry all the time that what I’m writing isn’t good enough, that no one will ever like it (not even my mom), that my characters/plot/dialogue/descriptions are lame, that I’ll miss my deadline, that the readers will revolt and storm my house with pitchforks and torches. Well, maybe not that last one, but I certainly have felt the paralyzing fear of “It’s not good enough” deep in my gut.

What works for me is to confront that fear head on and say, “Yeah, so what if it’s not good enough right now? I can always fix it later.” Somehow giving myself permission to write something bad is the easiest way to get to the point where I can write something good. And when I do, I just go back to the bad parts and toss them out the window.

I also often tell myself, “Write it for you. Don’t think about anyone else—not your publisher, not your first draft reviewers—just write a story you would like to read.” That is usually enough to get the juices flowing again and keep me excited about the process of writing. After all, if I don’t want to read my book, who else will? : )

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

I think there are ideas all around, so if anything, I probably have too many ideas for stories. One source of inspiration for Hourglass Door was the epic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante. I had read the poem in college and when I decided I wanted to write a YA novel, I knew I wanted it to be a love story and I wanted its roots to be in the classic story of Dante and Beatrice. I also drew inspiration from Much Ado about Nothing—one of my favorite Shakespeare plays—and from Virgil’s Aeneid.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)

Though I still remember a particularly fine limerick I wrote in the 5th grade, one of my favorite bits of writing that I have done has to be the prologue to Hourglass Door. It wasn’t the first thing I wrote for the book; I was probably more than halfway through with the writing process before I tackled that part. I knew early on that the prologue was going to be an important part of the story, but I didn’t know exactly what it should say.

One day, while I was waiting for the train to take me home from work, the first line popped into my head. And I knew I had it. I could feel it buzzing in my brain. I jumped on the train and grabbed my notebook. For the next 25 minutes I wrote out by hand the prologue in one nonstop session. I finished it just as the train pulled up to my stop. At home, I reread what I had written and I knew it was one of the best things I’d done. The finished, printed prologue in the book is 90% exactly the same as I wrote it in that little notebook.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot.

There are two places where I do the majority of my writing. One is on the couch in my family room. I love stretching out with my laptop, plugging in my iPod, and diving into the story. It helps that my cat loves to sleep on my legs while I’m working, which is surprisingly good motivation to continuing working. After all, I don’t want to disturb my cat; she’s sound asleep and looks so comfortable. Maybe I’ll just write a little more instead . . .

The other place I do a lot of writing is on the train during my commute to and from work. I work on my laptop so I have approximately 25 minutes each way of uninterrupted time to edit, rewrite, polish, or start up a new scene. I wrote pages and pages of Golden Spiral on the train, which has convinced me that yes, you can write a book in 15-minute increments. It’s not about having time to write; it’s about finding time to write. And once you start looking for time, you’ll find it.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I love charts and graphs and lists. I love to track my progress on a project. So I try to break up my book into smaller sections. If I want a 300 page book (which is a pretty good size for a YA novel), then I plan to write 30 chapters of 10 pages each. Not only does that simple equation help me with the pacing of my plot, but it helps me make sure I have enough action and information in each chapter. If my chapter is only 5 or 6 pages, then maybe I’m rushing through the dialogue too much, or maybe I need to describe the setting a little more, or maybe it’s time to add another scene with another character.

I also set myself a daily word goal. As my husband constantly reminds me, “You can’t change it if you don’t have it.” Even if sometimes half of the words I write in a day don’t make it into the final draft, the other half do. And however you look at it, that’s progress.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

A little bit of both. For Hourglass Door I outlined obsessively: here’s what happens in chapter 1, chapter 2, chapter 3. Because I had a good outline, I was able to skip around and write the scenes out of order. But for Golden Spiral, the story didn’t seem to want to play by the same rules. I still outlined the book, but in a different method than before. I took different colored index cards, assigned each one to a character, and wrote on the cards the scenes I knew I needed in the book. Then I sat on the floor and played cards until I had the whole plot divided out by chapter. Doing it that way helped me see at a glance which characters were active in which chapter and how the pacing of my plot was shaping up. And unlike for Hourglass Door, I did write Golden Spiral in order, from chapter 1 straight through to the end.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

As I new author, I guess I wasn’t entirely prepared for the amount of feedback I’d get from readers—both bad and good. I’ve been thrilled to receive emails or read notes from enthusiastic fans who have loved the story of Abby and Dante. One girl in New York told me she stayed up all night to finish Hourglass Door—and then she couldn’t fall asleep, so she read it again!

I also am touched and humbled by the number of readers who have written to me to tell me that my books have, in some small way, inspired them to start writing their own stories. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. As a kid, I, too, wrote to some of my favorite authors—Jane Yolen, Anne McCaffery—and their letters back to me were a source of inspiration to me while I was dreaming of being an author. (I still have those letters, by the way.) To know that I can pay back the kindness shown to me by other authors by encouraging new authors is beyond words.

As far as honors go—well, I am delighted to say that in New York this May, Hourglass Door was named the 2009 YA Book of the Year by ForeWord Reviews. It is an incredible honor, and I’m still on Cloud 9 thinking about it.

Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?

Since I work full-time as an editor, it’s sometimes hard for me to find the time for a lot of marketing or promotion. When my book first came out, I set a goal to do a thing a week—either a book signing or a library/school visit or a writer’s conference or a blog interview. I was surprised at how many different venues were available for authors to talk about/promote a book. I think being willing to accept any kind of marketing invitation—even if it is just for a neighborhood book club meeting—is a strategy that has worked for me.

I also seem to have found a good groove handing out bookmarks at my book signings. It helps me engage the customer with something small and easy to hand out. I can usually deliver my “elevator pitch” summary of the story (“It’s a love story with a mystery that dates back to Leonardo da Vinci”) along with the bookmark, which is often enough to convince someone to stop and visit with me.

Read a review of The Hourglass Door at Novel Reviews.