How thrilled I am to bring Sonja Yoerg back to Women’s Fiction Writers! Over the past year I’ve gotten to know Sonja as we’re both members of Tall Poppy Writers (check out Tall Poppy Writer here). Sonja is wicked smart, a devoted friend, and real adventurer! Oh — and how could I forget? She writes a kick ass novel!
You’ll not only learn about Sonja’s real and writerly journeys below, but get some great tips on kicking writer doubt out of your day!
Please welcome Sonja Yoerg back to WFW!
Sonja Yoerg Shares Tips For Kicking Out Your Writer Doubt
Amy: Congratulations on the release of THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE, your second novel! Without any spoilers, what was one of your favorite scenes to write, and did it come easily or did you REALLY have to work for it?
Sonja: Thanks, Amy! I’m delighted to be here to chat with you again.
The main character, Liz, has two phone conversations with her absentee father, Russ. During one, she invites him to her wedding. He has another family Liz has never met, and he makes little effort to stay in her life. He’s not sure how old she is and didn’t realize she had finished college. Liz is fiercely independent, tragically so, and is used to her father’s selfishness and disinterest. But being used to something is not the same as being unaffected by it, and although Liz makes quips during the conversation, and takes Russ’s alarming callousness in stride, her frustration and sense of loss is there, underneath her words.
It was a fun scene to write, because Russ is a jerk and Liz is sharp and witty, and an emotional scene, too, because of the undercurrent of pain. Russ and Liz talk on the phone again near the end of the story, so I got to do it again, except, of course, Liz had now changed. If you hadn’t read the whole book, the two conversations might sound the same, even though what’s going on in them is very different. This sort of phenomenon is what fascinates me about writing, and reading.
Amy: How much, if any, of TMOS is based on your own experiences? And if it is, how did you parlay those truths into fiction?
Sonja: The day after our youngest daughter left for college, my husband and I set off on the John Muir Trail, a 220-mile trek through the California Sierra, beginning in Yosemite Valley and ending on the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental U.S. What a fantastic time we had! Just the two of us, with everything we needed on our backs, walking through the wilderness for eighteen days. At some point during the hike, I realized what a rich setting the trail would make, and began to develop the basis for the story. The idea for my debut began with a character, but this book began with a place.
My husband and I kept a journal on the trip, taking turns each evening to write about the day’s events. Exhausted from the strenuous hiking, we struggled to stay awake to complete the task! I used details from the journal in the novel and also relied heavily on my husband’s photographs—800 of them—to remind me of the landscape, the weather, the footing, the atmosphere. The story is as true to the actual John Muir Trail as I could manage; no mountains or rivers were relocated for convenience. I’m not sure why I insisted on this; perhaps out of respect for the journey we made.
Most of the John Muir Trail is remote and not heavily travelled. There are strict quotas for the number of hikers. But because the high passes are about a day’s walk apart, hikers tend to congregate at whichever lake is just shy of the pass, with the intention of tackling the climb in the morning when their legs are rested. As a consequence, we encountered the same people again and again, and welcomed their company. But it occurred to me how difficult it would be to get away from someone whose company you did not want. That idea became the main subplot in Middle of Somewhere. The wilderness may be vast but, as one of the characters says, “the trail is just a skinny little thing.” *cue creepy music*
Amy: What’s the hardest part of novel writing for you — and how do you get around it (or knock it down)?
Sonja: The hardest part? Dealing with doubt. There are days I cannot fathom why I ever thought I could write, when I question not only my ability, but my sanity. What was I thinking? The words swim on the page and I cannot make sense of the character, the scene, the plot, the entire first half of the damn book. I cannot make sense of me, because I was the one who thought I could do this. I even signed a contract saying I could, which in those moments feels more like a contract that has been taken out on someone—me.
How do I locate my bootstraps? I read something I’ve written that doesn’t stink. I pick a scene from a brighter day, or from a different work entirely. It doesn’t have to be writing that sold. It can be a favorite blog post, or a random scene scribbled in a notebook. It can be anything, as long as it helps push the monkey off my back. I read it and think, “Hmm. That’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read. Maybe I’ll look at what I wrote yesterday and see how it goes.”
Another trick I have is to play with mechanics. I’ll search for “that,” and see how many I can get rid of, or read a random chapter out loud to catch echoes. In doing this, I end up reading a passage that reads okay but needs tweaking. I’m a writer again.
Amy: Voice is a topic writers love to discuss, and it’s often accompanied by “how do I find mine?” Any tips for writers who are still “finding their voice?”
Sonja: I doubt there are tricks to finding voice. In my view, voice is the by-product of confidence. When I read the first few pages of a book, I either get the feeling I am in very good hands, or I don’t. For some writers, voice comes naturally. For the rest, I suspect that the best way to gain the confidence that engenders strong voice is to write more. Studying voice probably won’t help because it’s not a matter of technique. It’s more a case of getting out of your own way, and examining what you are doing will interfere with that. But, really, I’m just guessing here. I never studied writing so it could just be my bias.
Amy: The more writers I meet, the more I learn how people have different ways of deciding what to write about. How do you decide that a story is worthy of your time and energy?
Sonja: I’d love to hear about how other writers pick their stories, Amy. So far, the idea for the next book gels in my mind around the time I finish the previous one. My ideas are like puzzles to me. How can I make this more interesting for me to write? That’s what keeps me motivated and I hope it’s also what keeps the reader locked into the story. In a way, it’s more of a challenge for me to take a simple idea and build the complexity into it as I go. I suspect most writers work like that. So, I believe my answer is that it’s up to me to make the story worthy of my time and energy; that’s my goal as a writer.
Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring author of women’s fiction?
Sonja: Read outside your genre. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with women’s fiction—it’s what I write—but there’s much to be learned from reading broadly. Try some science fiction and fantasy, some thrillers and mysteries, biographies and travel writing. Go back and rediscover the stuff you had to read in high school, and a few favorites from your childhood. You don’t have to study other books; reading them will suffice. You’ll absorb the lessons subconsciously and knowledge will appear, without direct invitation, in your writing.
Thanks so much for having me here, Amy. I can’t wait until THE GOOD NEIGHBOR comes out next month. Best of luck with it!
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and published a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001). Her novels, House Broken (January 2015) and Middle of Somewhere (September 2015) are published by Penguin/NAL. Sonja lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.