Writing Podcast Episode 116 Meet Kimberly McCreight, bestselling author of ‘The Outliers’

podcast-artwork In Episode 116 of So you want to be a writer: A book of tweets from writers who should be working on their novels and a history of wordprocessing! Discover some commonly misused words. We ask why do romance authors get a bad rap? Meet Kimberly McCreight, bestselling author of The Outliers. The app Cold Turkey Writer which will not quit until you’re done, like, literally will not quit. Find out if writer regression is a thing and why you need to be working on your NEXT book now.

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Show Notes
Working On My Novel

How to Write a History of Writing Software

Quiz: Commonly misused or misspelled words

Why Are We So Quick To Dismiss Romance Novels As Rubbish?

Smart Bitches Trashy Books

Writer in Residence

Kimberly McCreight

KimberlyMcCreightKimberly McCreight is the New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia, which was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best First Novel as well as an Alex Award. McCreight’s second novel, Where They Found Her, was published by Harper in April 2015. A USA Today bestseller, it is due out in paperback in April of 2016.

McCreight’s teen trilogy The Outliers, to be published by Harper Teen in 2016, has been optioned for film by Lionsgate, Mandeville, and Reese Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

Follow Kimberly on Twitter


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Interview Transcript


Kimberly, thanks for joining us today.



Thanks so much for having me.



For readers who haven't read your book yet, your latest book, The Outliers, can you tell us what it's about?



First of all it's in present day Boston. It's a trilogy, it's the first book in a trilogy. It's centers on a teenage girl named Wiley, who has struggled with anxiety. When the book opens she's in a particularly bad spot because she's lost her mother recently in a car accident. And further complicated matters she's called upon by her ex-best friend, Casey, to come help her. And, Wiley ends up following Casey's cryptic text messages and they lead her and Casey's boyfriend Jasper into the dark woods of Maine. On the road things quickly go from bad to worse and they finally find Casey, what's waiting there for them is not at all what they expected.


The book first and foremost is just really a page-turning mystery about friendship and betrayal. But, it also has this speculative twist, and that is about the untapped power of intuition.



How did the idea for the book form? What was your lightbulb moment? Or was it something that had been brewing over a period of time?



I think it was really inspired — it did brew over a period of time, that's definitely true. But it was initially inspired by my own experiences. I have always struggled with anxiety myself, and have always felt really emotionally sensitive to people. My daughter is the same way and she was from a very young age, like, three or four. I think it was looking at her and we kind of share that connection. I started contemplating the fact that a lot of my female friends seem the same. What if there was something more to all of this? So, that was really the initial spark for it.



Did you always know from the start that it was going to be a trilogy?






I conceived of it that way, in three chapters. You know, just kind of going back to something like the Hero's Journey, or something like Star Wars, which, again, is an odd example, because those are very high sci-fi, which is not what this is.


But, if you look at something like that, how it has three chapters, kind of the beginning of the journey, somebody kind of starts that, and then a hero rising at the end. It always has that kind of flow to me.



But, did you sort of think of the story idea first, and then think, “Oh, it would suit a trilogy,” or did you think, “I'm going to write a trilogy next, what kind of story could fit into that.”?



No, it was a story first and then seeing how that story really fit into three chapters.



When did you know that you wanted to be a writer and what were your steps to get you there?



I think it was something that I always wanted to do. From high school I was not one of those children who had eight years old had written four books, you know, in notebooks. Sometimes writers are, but that was not true for me. I didn't write my first short story until I was in high school, and I had stumbled upon… because I couldn't find a way to respond to an essay assignment, so I wrote a short story in hopes the teacher would accept it. It was A Tale of Two Cities, and I wrote a story from the perception of a young French girl. So, even then I was writing from the perspective of a teenager, when I was a teenager.


So, that was really kind of the start of it.


But, I didn't have the courage to pursue it for a really long time. When I arrived at college people were — I went to a really creative college where people had already published things when I arrived at college. So, my fellow freshmen… so… that was… I didn't pursue it in college. It also just didn't seem like a really viable way, for me, to make a living. I know I was going to have to support myself, which is very true, it isn't a really viable or secure career path.


So, I pursued other things. I ended up in law school. And it wasn't… I was a practicing lawyer for a few years. It occurred to me if I didn't make a really drastic change that was going to be my life and it wasn't making me happy.


From there I took a leave of absence, wrote my first book. The good news about having a regular job was I could take a leave of absence. But, that first book didn't get published, and I ended up giving myself a different deadline, which was a decade. And then that decade I wrote three more unpublished books, I wrote a total of four unpublished books. I published a couple of short stories, took a bunch of classes.


But, really when I sat down to write Reconstructing Amelia, which was my fifth book. It was the first book that ended up getting published, it was my fifth completed book. I really was thinking I was going to find another job. But, it was the fact that I didn't find a job that led me to actually finish Reconstructing Amelia. So, I was one of those lucky people who got lucky by not finding a job.



So, in that decade did you work as a lawyer during that time? Or did you concentrate on your writing?



No, I only wrote — the really lucky thing for me, and I think this is important for people who are trying to write, there's lots of ways to make writing work having a day job, being a teacher having summers off. There's all sorts of ways. I was lucky enough that I… my husband was willing to support me, so that's also another way. Find somebody who is willing to support you financially. Again, we went from… also have hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of debt from being a lawyer. So, it was a very generous thing to support me.


We didn't have children at that point. I did in that decade, we did have two children. So, I took the lead in taking care of them, which to be honest wouldn't have been what I normally would have done, to kind of take care of them. We did have childcare, in later days we supported… we got more childcare so I would have more time to write. In the very early days I wrote when they were newborns and they were napping, I got up at four o'clock in the morning. I would fit it around that.


For me, that actually was kind of a bit of a compromise, taking that role of leading, taking care of them so that I could write.



During that decade you wrote four novels, which were unpublished. What kept you going for a decade?



I mean there were definitely really, really dark times. I would say I got in that first year, when I took a leave of absence and wrote a book in a year, I got an agent in that first year. I think that was extremely fortunate, because that was extremely encouraging. So, not only did I get an agent, I came very close to selling that first book. And I think as most writers know you can live on rejections for years. You know, so I got a lot of, “She's incredibly talented.” “Can't wait to see what she does next…” kind of thing, from editors.


So, you know, how much of that was right, and how much of that was actual. But, I really held onto that.


I held on because I got an agent. I thought, “OK, well, I haven't…” writing is so much a craft that I think we all get better at it over time, the more we work it, the more we practice. I think my theory was, “OK, I haven't done this, really, ever. And so if I got this close on the first go around, you know, I would hopefully get better and get closer next time.” That was really my theory.


It wasn't a bad theory. I just had no idea how long the road would actually be.



So, Reconstructing Amelia, which was a success, and it was a big success, can you tell us about the break you got in that one? How did you find out that was being published and what did you think at the time?



Reconstructing Amelia that was the book that I started working, and I think at the time, again, I was deep into trying to find a job. So, I was really focused on that, and just kind of completing it. And she said, “I think we might actually…” she kind of goes out in a very… I had another agent… so, that first agent and I parted ways after I wrote a second book for him. He didn't want to represent. It was a really bad book. So, we parted ways. And I had another agent representing, I guess, book three. And she… and I ended up with agent number three, who is now my agent, Marly Rusoff. She then tried to sell my fourth book and could not.


But, when book five came around she was like, “I really… I think we have something here,” she had a lot of… along the way, et cetera, that we had worked on. But, she said, “This is it.” I was very, very skeptical, because I felt like I had kind of heard that before. She sent it out and, again, I was still pursuing these jobs and I was actively interviewing… actually 48 hours before Reconstructing Amelia went to auction I finally got a job offer. So, I said, “Can I have 48 hours, because I think actually my book is going to sell.”


But, she said, “I think…” you know, when you have an auction you have interest from multiple publishing houses, but you really don't know at auction, I'm sure as you know, your agent kind of sits in a room, no one turns up, she just sits there and she receives phone calls or emails that offer… the book goes to auction because there's more than one offer. So then she'll say, “All right, everybody give me your best offer,” whatever, as a way of kind of figuring out… you don't necessarily go with the publishing house that offers you the most money, it's a combination of things.


So, anyway, she had strong indications from a couple of places that they were going to make an offer, but you really don't know until that day. I mean they can say they're going to make an offer and then not call.

So, it really wasn't until it had actually… we actually had, I think, one offer in hand that I was like, “Oh my god, this is actually… we have an offer. It's official, because we could go with that one.”






There ended up being five or six publishing houses — I don't remember. Yeah, I went with Harper Collins.



Reconstructing Amelia, I'll just correct myself there, and the second book, Where They Found Her, which starts with the body of an infant found in the woods, both start quite darkly, and of course Reconstructing Amelia is about a mother who goes to her child's school to find that the child has jumped from the building, but then gets a text saying she didn't jump. Have you always been fascinated with mystery and sort of the darker side of things, crime?



I think so. I think I write books to kind of answer a question for myself. I would say the question that started with Amelia was I have daughters, and it was kind of like, “How are we going to make it through this in one piece?” Getting them to adulthood.


Particularly, that book is about cyber bullying and technology, and for me that's really a secondary issue, that's like a plot issue. For me, the heart of it is how you can be so close to your daughter, the reality is they are supposed to be keeping secrets and they're trying to figure themselves out, and it's a lot more complicated than just make sure they tell you everything, because they don't tell you everything and that's correct, that's part of life.


That was what I was curious about there.


And Where They Found Her is about the weight of history and how we go on to deal with our own history, our history with our own parents, how we process that and go onto have children of our own.


So, you can see kind of I don't start from a place, like, “Let me write about a crime.” I think the mysteries of the way I explore those really kind of emotionally layered questions. But, I am for sure kind of fascinated… I really love the domestic suspense, I don't know the term you guys use, but…







Why people do things to people they love? Do and don't do things. And how they justify those things for themselves and I guess the ‘why.' That's really interesting to me.



So Reconstructing Amelia is being made into a movie, I believe with Nicole Kidman.






Did you ever think that would happen?



No. You always dream of that, I guess. I learned a long time ago not to think or expect anything in the world of writing, but it's obviously a fantastic, exciting thing. I'm thrilled about it. I definitely wouldn't say it was something I expected.



Let's move onto The Outliers, why did you decide to write for a different age group this time?



That also wasn't really a decision I made. I just kind of had the book I wanted to write. With Where They Found Her, and Reconstructing Amelia there are adult narrators in the book. And with my very little knowledge of genres and YA versus adult, there was a point in which kind of people… there was wonder whether or not Reconstructing Amelia was YA, people sometimes think it is. But, my agent and I have been told that since there was an adult narrator it's not YA.


Now, I don't even know if that's really true. But, that was our thinking. And my agent doesn't represent YA, doesn't really do that. That seemed like, “OK…”


So, when I went to write a book that didn't have an adult narrator, I thought, “OK, well, then this one is YA.”






To me… and there's also nothing in it that is on its face inappropriate for even younger ages. There's nothing really graphic, it's the way the story is. That isn't something that I set out, “Let me write to not include a lot of things…” because I check myself on the language occasionally. There are some bad words, not nearly as many as there are in my adult books.


I just really made myself be more vigilant and being sure that those words were necessary when they were used.


That was the only way in which I kind of altered anything.


To me, the stories that are written young adult are some of the best that are written of any kind. They're compelling and layered. So, to me, and obviously some adults read YA. And so many teenagers read adult books. So, there's a lot of fluidity there. I did have that thought, “OK, no adults. So, this is YA.” But, that was really… I mean, again, it was just kind of a little bit arbitrary. But, I do love that it is published into YA, because I think it gives you kind of immediate access to a teen audience in a way when you have an adult book sometimes I think it has to find its way to teenagers, in a less direct way. So, I think that can take longer.



You said that you had mapped it out in your head, the three chapters so to speak. Does that mean you, with your other books as well, that you plot out your stories before you start writing? Or, do you at any point just see what happens?



No, I don’t outline anything. And when I say map out the three, I mean I said to myself, “Book one is about this… book two is about this… book three is about this…” That is the kind of mapping out. Then I wrote that on a piece of paper.


It was not very detailed. It's a more conceptual mapping out. I do not outline anything in advance. I never have. I wouldn't know how to do that. I wish I did. There have been times where I thought, “I should outline this.” But, I can't… it would save me time. I think both approaches work equally well, it just depends on what resonates for you.


And for me I don't know how to sit in a room and figure out my story without writing scenes.



Aren't you ever scared that, you know, it's not going to find its way in a good direction?



Oh, well, yeah. That happens all the time. I think it doesn't really find its way, not fully. I will go down a path of writing, I never look back as I write the first draft, I just keep going. So… I'm like, “Wow, that was the wrong direction.” Like, I know at the end of the day that was just… “That's not going to make it into the book.”


Sometimes when you go back to those places where you took a wrong turn, and you knew you were taking a wrong turn, you'll find something in there that ends up critical to the book.


So, I find that it's a really careful balance between putting on your editorial hat and being really vigilant and whatever, and also just trusting in this kind of unconscious part of yourself for some reason you went down that wrong path and why?


And you can sometimes find — not always, sometimes it all just goes in the garbage. But, sometimes you'll find something in it that becomes a critical… an answer to a critical question for the book.


So, as a result, if you do this method without outlining, the book you have, the draft you have at the end is a mess. Like, that's the thing, you have to be able to tolerate and have a lot of faith that you can turn that kind of mess into something beautiful through a process of revising.


So, for me, like the first draft takes three months, but the revising will take nine. It's much more — it's the revising for me.


At least you have the whole book to work with. You've got the whole thing there. To me, that's… to me the finishing is more terrifying than writing something back. You know? So, I think it's kind of your choices.



When you are writing what is your typical day like? Do you have a routine? And does it differ if you are revising?



I write every day from 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM. I write like a job five days a week. And then if there is — I often have to extend that and write… again, the same process I'm describing isn't extremely fast, because you go down wrong paths, et cetera. So, I'm not… particularly compared to a lot of YA writers, I'm not fast. I think, compared to adult writers, I'm average. There's people that write a lot faster than me, there's obviously people who write a lot slower. So, despite working all of those hours every day, that's how long it takes me.


I do end up having to work on weekends and early mornings, when I'm really crunched up against deadlines I've had to do that.


I've always treated it that way, even before I sold a book and we had to pay for childcare for me to write books that were not getting sold. I always kind of treated it like a job. You go during these hours, you sit down and you write. Again, when you write by my method, I just keep writing and it's fine, even if I get into… somedays I write at my assigned time. I write to a page count, to a word count, and even if it may be bad, I always still write. I always write something, I might just know it's not going where I want it to go.





What's next for you? What are you working on now? What are you writing now?



Well, it's the second book in the trilogy. Of course, because that's due now. That comes out a year from now. So, it's that book. Then I will have to write the third book.



You've got your life mapped out for the next couple of years, then?



Yeah, so I'm a little busy, and I'm under contract to write another adult book for Harper Collins. So, that would be after that. I would really like to write a screen play of some kind. So, I certainly have enough work to keep me busy at this point.



I reckon.


Finally, what's your advice to aspiring writers who hope to do what you're doing one day?



I would say, first of all, obviously just keep writing. What I said at the beginning, it's a craft. And my own thought that if I kept doing it I would get better I think is 1,000 percent true. I still find that for myself, I feel like I'm getting better and more adapted to issues in my own work as time goes by. So, just keep writing.


I would say that outlining works for you, great. I think if you have trouble with things like finishing things or writer's block… I was talking to somebody at an event over the weekend, she says, “What do you do if you can't finish something?” And I just said, “You just finish it.” I mean you have to allow yourself to write badly. I think that often people have such high standards for themselves, they compare their work to their favorite author. Like, I don't even want to put it on the page when it's bad. The reality is all these published books you're reading started out bad. I mean everybody… the early drafts of books have been worse than when they are finished.


I think it's lower your standards for yourself, so you can get something finished, and then like no one is going to read that. That's between you and your computer. Just get it finished and then you can worry about turning it into something great.


I would also say that people should really get great critique partners or feedback groups. And, I think that's critical. I also think it's critical to pick the right people and make sure that they're honest and supportive and that they need to give constructive criticism rather than just ripping your work apart. Because I think you can — getting good feedback is an art form, and not everybody is good at it. Like, you have to be able to support writers in being the writer they are rather than putting yourself in there and trying to either show how smart you are, or change the kind of writer people are. You know? So, I think that's really critical. I've had great feedback and I've had kind of reckless feedback.


So, I think you've got to make sure you've got the right kind.



Wonderful. On that note, thank you so much for your time today, Kimberly.



Oh, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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