Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Interview with Michelle Izmaylov

When my sister Michelle Izmaylov was little, she always wanted to be a food taster. Sadly, this dream did not come true, and so instead she became a literature taster—that is, a writer, an illustrator, and an editor. Her voyages into the literary world were varied and exciting, and as she has not only had freelancing editing work but also high positions at two different publishing companies, Michelle truly knows the meaning of procrastination . . . because, ladies and gentleman, without that fine tool, you can get absolutely nowhere in this business—and that is pronounced busyness.
How did you develop your love of writing? – I’ve been writing (and doodling) ever since I could hold a pencil. No, seriously. My first stories were kept locked up in my head because, back then, I didn’t know how to write . . . but the minute I learned my first language (Russian), I started to channel my thoughts into words. I like to think of writing as a way to color paper with the substance of your soul.
What was the first story you ever remember writing? – I only remember the very first story I wrote because my grandmother kept it for many years. She loved to show it off to all our relatives and read it out loud, and when she did, I would hide in the closest closet . . . because that story was terrible! But we all start somewhere, and wanting to improve my work was one of my motives for continuing to write. (My grandmother is still the keeper of all my stories, good and bad alike.)
How did you discipline yourself enough to write a whole novel at such a young age? – I think the right question is how I disciplined myself to stop writing. For me, the idea of a novel is much more natural than a short story. I find the most difficult aspect of writing to be detaching yourself from your characters after you have completed a story. When you write a shorter work, you lose the people you come to love so much more quickly. So the longer the work, the longer you get to explore all the details of your characters’ lives . . . and that’s the most interesting and exciting part for me!
How did you get publishers to take notice of you? – Filed away are at least 250 reasons why I could have given up trying to get publishers to take notice of me. They are rejection letters from agents (that’s not even counting the publishers) who refused to consider my second book, Dream Saver. But because the key to success is stubbornness and refusing to quit even in the face of seemingly inevitable defeat, I kept on searching for a way to get my work into publishers’ hands. Eventually, I won a short story contest sponsored by a traditional publisher. I then asked if they would be interested in taking a look at my longer work—and they did! That company became the publisher of my second and third novel.  
Why did you decide to write your first book, The Pocket Watch? – My first book was a gift to my younger sister, who is also my best friend (forever!). She loved fantasy and so did I, so I wrote a story for her about a magical pocket watch that could teleport a girl to alien planets.
Why did you decide to get it published? – Once my first manuscript was complete, it wasn’t long before it was gathering dust on a lonely shelf in my room. It would have probably stayed that way forever if it wasn’t for my seventh grade language arts teacher, who gave us a fateful assignment: compose a story, type it up, print it out, and bring it to class. Make it two pages. Maybe three, if you’re particularly daring. Always the overachiever, I brushed off my dust collection and brought the entire fifty-page manuscript of The Pocket Watch to class. My teacher was shocked but read the story, enjoyed it, and suggested I get the book published. Like in the movie Inception (which I love!), the idea planted itself in my brain and grew.
Why do you love fantasy so much? What’s special about that genre? – I have always, ever since I was a kid, loved to read fantasy. Unlike most other genres, fantasy taps into our deepest desires—including those that can never really, truly be fulfilled. For instance, romantic comedies can happen in real life when you meet your own (goofy) Prince Charming. Murder mysteries are the daily work of police squads. But where are you going to get your own dragon? Where can you learn how to manipulate water, earth, fire, and air for use as weapons? How else will you travel to alien planets? Only through fantasy books (and movies)!
What is your favorite of your three books – and why? – In deciding my favorite, I’m divided between my most recent published novel (The Galacteran Legacy: Galaxy Watch) and the manuscript I just finished (tentatively titled Zpeed). Galaxy Watch enchants me because it taps into my wildest childhood dreams—flying on a dragon, fighting in grand battles, and saving the world! However, Zpeed is a reflecting of my shifting desires for more realistic adventure. Without giving away too much, this latest book chronicles the story of a teen growing up in a post-apocalyptic world—and the car racer with whom (she thinks) she falls in love with.  
What is your technique for writing a novel? – Before I go on a completely wild tangent, I like to set up about ten major scenes in the story. That keeps me roughly on track, but I mostly just come up with characters and then write to find out how the chemistry plays out between them (and watch how they untangle themselves from the wacky messes they get caught up with!).  
What do you come up with first – the plot or the characters? – Characters. Depending on whether or not you believe in fate, the “plots” of our real lives aren’t set out for us in advance. It’s how we face the problems we encounter in life that determines how our lives evolve. In my books, I aim for the same approach. I create characters who work their way through the ten major scenes I plan around their personalities, but all the space in between those scenes is filled with the results of the characters’ actions. Plus, sometimes the nature of those major scenes will change based on my characters’ decisions in earlier scenes.
Do you plan each chapter and scene or just start writing and see where the story goes? – A bit of both. For the most part, I let my characters write their own story. Then, once they have had their say, I go back and edit to make sure everything makes sense.
How many drafts do you write? – Oh, don’t get me started here. Galaxy Watch is, in essence, a new “draft” of my first novel, The Pocket Watch. I had the great (and wicked) pleasure of highlighting all of my first book in Microsoft Word, hitting “backspace” on my keyboard, and starting completely from scratch. Granted, that’s an extreme example, but usually parts of each of my books go through major rewrites. That’s the one downside of not having a complete plot planned in advance. It’s more fun to write along the way without a full plot, but it’s more work to edit later.
Do you edit as you write or later? – Depends on the level of editing. As I write, I watch for spelling and grammar mistakes. However, I don’t start looking for major revisions until I have completely finished the first draft. That way, I have more time to come up with better ideas that I can incorporate into the story at once at a later point.
When and where do you write? In what kind of environment – one particular place or a variety of places, with background noise or not? – Some of my author friends prefer grabbing their computers and writing in comfort of coffee shops, libraries, and parks. I will sometimes drift outside to absorb nature and jot notes, but my real writing happens in a small corner of my room. It’s easy to focus, and I have two desk lamps to cheer me on!
Do you write every day or just when the mood takes you? – I do write every day, but that usually just means emails to friends or notes about future stories. I only write my books when my emotional state mimics that of my characters at a certain point in the story. Sometimes I’ll even skip entire scenes until later in the novel; otherwise, a deeply emotional moment might feel artificial and forced.   
Do you set yourself a target word count per day or spend a certain amount of time working on your novel? – It completely varies. Some days I’ll plop down in front of the screen, have a sizzle of inspiration, and forget to eat and/or stand for five hours. Other days I’ll sit, stare at the Word document, and not be able to churn out one word. So while I aim to write about 1,000 quality words per day, the actual number is completely random.
What is the most important / exciting / rewarding part of the process? Imagining your story and characters into life, writing the scenes, editing what you’ve written??? – There’s a key reason why I usually can’t write anything shorter than huge, fat manuscripts that top 100k words, and that’s simply because the most rewarding part of writing is building your way up to a major, epic scene and finally seeing your characters work through it. This is especially the case when a serious decision has to be made, mostly because I’ve got no clue what my characters are going to choose to do!
Does your story change as it develops or turn out pretty much as you expected it to? – Hmm . . . actually, I don’t think there was a single time when the story turned out how I thought it would! That’s the best part of writing. I know how my books are going to begin, and I want to write on to find out how it’s going to end.  
Where do your ideas come from? – Ideas come from many places. They can come from daydreaming when you’re bored. They can start as forbidden desires that bubble out of your soul. They come from asking yourself questions about the world. I’ll ask myself “What if . . .?” and go from there. They can be questions like “What if my sister and I found a flying bison?” or “What if, in a post-apocalyptic city, the economy depends on racing?” (The latter is, in fact, the question explored in my latest finished manuscript, Zpeed.) 
What’s the secret to a great novel? – One sentence: Write for yourself, edit for your readers.  
What’s the secret to a great character? – There are a few factors, the most important being that your character must represent a quintessence of some characteristic. Your character must be the “greatest” or “most” something. For example, take Harry Potter. Being a wizard is pretty special, but Harry isn’t just a young wizard. He’s the most famous (and, arguably, most powerful) young wizard of all time. That makes him memorable.   
Why do you think young readers find your books so appealing? – When I write, I first and foremost do so for myself. I channel all my passion, anger, disappointment, sadness, and every other emotion roaring inside me into words. Relatable emotion is what readers connect to. Readers will care about characters who share similar feelings to what they once or currently are experiencing. And since I’m young, I still remember those feelings quite well. 
What is the biggest challenge that you have had to overcome? – When I showed up to my first day of Kindergarten, I didn’t even know English was a language (I only knew Russian). I sat in the front desk, ready to learn. When the teacher opened her mouth, some tangled garble came out. I didn’t understand one word of that alien language! The school wanted to put me into an ESOL program, but my mom convinced me to just stay in the regular class. For one full month, I barely understood anything. Then, slowly, I started to pick up the language. In a few months, I could actually fully learn with the other students. It was all a matter of not taking the traditional route!
How did you balance writing with homework and other school activities as a teenager? – For me, the key was to set a schedule and follow it. I always did my homework as soon as I got home from school and also during lunch, leaving me with time in the evening to write. Also, too many teens involve themselves in many more things than they can handle. I picked a few activities I really loved, including writing, and stuck with them!
Can you tell us about your work with FutureWord Publishing? Is that a full-time job now? How many novels do you edit (per week, month, etc.) How do you balance that work with writing novels? – Because I’m a full-time college student, editing with FutureWord is only a part-time job. Being a traditional publisher, they only accept a limited number of books each year. When they take on a new project in science fiction or fantasy, they send it over and I work on it. However, I am also now an illustrator with World Castle Publications (as you can see here: http://www.worldcastlepublishing.com/michelleizmaylov.htm).  
Do you ever get lost in the plot, lose faith in your story or get writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome these obstacles? – Yes. Goodness, yes. The single biggest writer’s block of my life came close to the end of my most recent manuscript. The whole story was a romantic comedy between a girl and a racer she thought she loved, but just as things were finally going to go right between them in the story, I lost faith in the racer’s real-world counterpart (Side-note: No, not my boyfriend. I don’t date. Just a person I thought was a really good friend.). And because I had based the racer off the real guy I knew, I couldn’t think about him the same way again. It killed the romance of the story for me. So I finally decided to switch gears and start illustrating to get my creative juices flowing again! Now, I am working on my second professional published novel as an illustrator.  
What do you think are your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a writer? – My strengths include my plots and characters—I’m not satisfied until the words on the page evoke living, breathing people with whom I can have conversations in my mind. On the other hand, that whole ‘insatiable’ bit can be a problem; I’m never satisfied with my work, and sometimes I find myself rewriting parts that are perfectly fine as they are.
Do you think the fact that your bilingual has had any impact on the type of language you use when you write? – It did initially. One of my biggest struggles in my earliest work, including somewhat in Dream Saver, was my lack of colloquialisms. My writing was very formal, mostly because English was my second language and I had to teach myself the idioms most Americans use easily in their speech. But I have improved recently . . . and maybe even gone a bit overboard in Zpeed (but, thankfully, that’s what editing is for)!
What would you say to other teens who dream of being a writer? What should they do? What should they know? How can they make it? – Stubbornness is the secret of success. As I mentioned earlier, I received over 250 rejection letters just for Dream Saver. Now, I’m a bestselling author and a professional illustrator. If I had given up, as many young people feel they should upon rejection, I would never have seen even a glimmer of success. I still have much to learn, but that’s the other secret. You have to move forward through life while keeping your mind open to learning and improving your craft. One of these days, you’ll break through.
Do you think it’s easier or harder for a teen author to be published – easier because you’re more of a novelty or harder because you’re not taken seriously? – Unfortunately, the latter. Many publishers I have contacted over the years refuse to even consider work by authors younger than eighteen for legal issues. However, it’s not impossible. I’m living proof!
What is the most common mistake that young writers make? – The single biggest recurring mistake is telling, not showing. This was a problem in my early work, too. Another is that young writers try to imitate the style of their favorite authors. The trick to being a true author is finding your unique voice.  Learn to write the way you speak and think.
What practical tip can you share with young writers? – Harsh as this might sound, if you plan to pursue a career in writing, always plan a second career to support yourself financially. Why is this sound advice? Even if your first or second novel sells well, and the truth is that very few actually do, it will be a while before you get your big break and can comfortably support yourself with only income earned from writing. That’s why I, in addition to writing, also edit at one publishing company and illustrate for another. Writing feeds your soul, but you also have to feed your pocketbook.   
What do you think of self-publishing versus traditional publishing? Which one would you recommend – and why? – This is a tricky question, and one I would need to write a book about to answer properly. The major difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing is how much time and money you are ready to invest in marketing your own book. With the self-publishing route, you will need to pay to have your book published—that means funding designing, editing, printing, advertising, and distribution. Self-publishing works best for people who are great at marketing themselves, whereas traditional publishers take care of everything for you. On the plus side of self-publishing, you have control over everything. A traditional publisher may accept your manuscript only to edit it down to an unrecognizable work. It also takes a lot longer to get published traditionally. Larger publishers often have a six-month delay period before even reviewing your manuscript, and then there’s a huge chance that the book will be rejected. And even if your manuscript is accepted, it’s about another year before the actual finished book is ready to be released. 
What are your favorite authors and books? – I have so many favorites that it’s really tough to pick. However, if I had to narrow down my list, I would definitely say Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Angelique by Sergeanne Golon, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and anything by Sholem Aleichem. Pretty much, though, I love anything deeply emotional, psychological, or really funny!
What book do you wish you had written? – Have you ever heard of the Avatar: The Last Airbender television show series created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko? Yeah. I pretty much wish I had come up with that and wrote a book about it. And if you haven’t seen it yet, watch it. All sixty-one episodes. Best. Show. Ever.
What are you reading now? – MCAT review books. I am planning to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) this August, so the next few weeks are going to be nothing but reading up on physics, chemistry, and biology.  
What did you read as a child? – So far as English books are concerned, my most memorable reads are the entire Harry Potter saga and the Warriors series (yes, the one about the cats). However, I also read many amazing Russian books (that are, unfortunately, not translated into English yet). Perhaps I should make translation a future project?  

What kind of books would you like to write in the future? Do you think you might write in other genres too? – I think I’m going to work on middle grade and picture books for a while. I love, love drawing, and I want to improve the skills I more or less taught myself.
What are you working on now? – I’m actually co-authoring a middle grade novel with my sister at the moment, and we’re hoping to be done by the end of this summer! However, a huge chunk of my time is dedicated to studying for the MCAT (which I take this coming August) and volunteering at local hospitals. I am also leading free library seminars and writers’ workshops for children, teens, and adults all summer!
What are your future plans? – I hope to become a pediatric cardiologist and, of course, to continue to write and illustrate on an increasingly more professional basis. Oh, and I also want to invent a device that lets you have more than 24 hours in a day (anyone got a Time-Turner I can borrow?).

Pirates or ninjas? – Pirates.

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