New Voice: Deborah Lytton on Jane in Bloom

Deborah Lytton is the first-time author of Jane in Bloom (Dutton, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Jane’s big sister, Lizzie, has always been the center of attention. No one ever pays attention to boring, plain Jane.

But when Jane’s twelfth birthday marks the beginning of Lizzie’s final descent into a fatal eating disorder, Jane discovers that the only thing harder than living in her big sister’s shadow is living without her.

In the wake of tragedy, Jane learns to look through her camera lens and frame life differently, embracing her broken family and understanding that every girl has her season to blossom.

Spare and vulnerable prose marks this beautiful debut that is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters?

I get to know my main characters by writing. I start with an idea about who the character is and what she needs to say. Then I write a few pages from her point of view so I can begin to hear her voice. This usually happens with a pen and paper rather than the computer. My imagination tends to have more freedom when I touch the pen to paper.

Next, I delve more fully into her character by creating a diary for my main character–her birthday, her favorite color, the things she likes to eat, her favorite movies and music. I might add tear-outs from magazines, if I find something that resonates with me. I spend a lot of time thinking about the character until I have a visual of her to go with her voice.

With Jane, I used works of art and music to help enhance the connection with her. I listened to Michelle Branch, “The Spirit Room,” because her voice and lyrics sounded like Jane to me. And the painting, “Girl Before a Mirror” by Pablo Picasso was a visual representation for me of Jane’s view of herself, with the bright colors reflecting the chaos around her.

As I worked on my first draft of Jane, I discovered more about her, and this connection allowed me to further develop her character during the revision process.

I also use my background as an actress to become one with the character emotionally, almost as if I am preparing to play the role. I speak the dialogue out loud and visualize the manuscript as if it is a film.

When I was writing Jane in Bloom, I cried with her. My tears are in the manuscript because, as I wrote Jane’s story, I experienced her pain.

I use a similar method to discover my secondary characters. Again, I use the process of putting words on the page to allow the character to breathe and come alive. But my secondary characters sometimes necessitate a bit more research. They tend to be more removed from me. And that leads me to reading first-person accounts or talking to people in similar situations. I need to feel their emotions and their perspectives to connect with them.

In Jane in Bloom, there is a secondary character who is an older woman, Ethel. And she has a passion for growing roses. I know next to nothing about flowers, so I did a lot of research on the subject. Ethel’s passion for the art of growing roses flowed into an approach to life that is so optimistic. And Ethel allows Jane to bloom.

When I discovered Ethel, I also found the heart of my novel.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

I work as an attorney by day, and I am also a single mother of two young daughters. I long for the day when I can devote myself to writing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But for now, I have to fit my writing schedule around the rest of my life. And that means I mostly write when my daughters are sleeping, either late at night or in the very early morning. I find this works well for me, because when I am tired, I am less critical and more creative. The next day, I begin writing by reading through my work from the previous night and revising.

I have also learned to write without being next to the computer. I write while I am sitting in traffic, by going over my story in my head and finding and discarding ideas as I drive. When I find one I like, I jot it down on a scrap of paper while stopped at a red light.

I also think about the story before I go to sleep.

Another thing I have learned is to click into my creative mode quickly. I do this by listening to music that connects me to the story, and I also use a bulletin board or book of visuals such as art or photographs to set the scene.

I’m sure that my schedule makes me slower to complete a manuscript, but I also know that taking more time forces me to let the manuscript breathe. And in that creative space, amazing ideas are born.

On the publicity side, I have learned to be especially organized. I make lists of things I need to accomplish and try to do a few things every week. My BlackBerry has been instrumental in this. I can respond to emails quickly and easily that way, and reserve non-writing computer time for blogging and promotion on Jane in Bloom. I wish I could say I have accomplished every single goal on my lists. But I just try to do the best I can.

For others like me who are trying to work and begin a career as a writer, I want to say this–you can do it. Believe in yourself and your talent. Set realistic goals for yourself, and find creative ways to write even when you are not at the computer.

The key to this life is balance. Be fair to yourself, and play to your strengths. If you work best in the daytime, set aside every Saturday morning to write. If you are a night owl, work for a few nights in a row and then get some sleep. Remember to keep pads of paper in your car and next to your bed for those moments when brilliance strikes. And never ever give up.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. Note: interviews with the debut authors of 2010 are scheduled to begin soon.

A video interview with Deborah about Jane in Bloom from Stellar Media Group. Note: 9 minutes, 26 seconds.