Karol Ruth Silverstein on Drawing From Personal Experiences for Fiction

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Karol Ruth Silverstein, author of Cursed, releasing 6/25/19, which  is loosely drawn from her experiences following being diagnosed with a chronic illness at the age of thirteen.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

I did. It all started with a suggestion from a screenwriting mentor, Holly Goldberg Sloan, way back in the early 90s. I have an obvious/visible disability, so it’s very natural for people to wonder about that when they meet me. As Holly and I were first getting to know each other, I told her about being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at thirteen and what a struggle it was to navigate that drastic shift in my reality, especially in the beginning. She encouraged me to write about that experience, but I was resistant for a variety of reasons—the most significant of which was that I wasn’t sure how to tell the story in a way that was authentic to my experience. Much of what I’d seen and read involving sick kids seemed to adhere to some unwritten rule that said these characters needed to be indefatigable little soldiers whose bravery and pluck inspired everyone around them. That definitely wasn’t me!

It wasn’t until years later, while doing an exercise in a writing workshop, that I discovered the voice of my main character Ricky (short for Erica). She was snarky, self-absorbed, terrified and pissed off—which was basically how I felt when I was first diagnosed. With Ricky, I’d finally found my way in.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I must confess: despite being a total “plotser,” with Cursed I just wrote whatever scene came to my mind, whatever needed or wanted to be written at that moment. I wrote the whole novel out of sequence, with no outline/treatment beyond knowing who my main character was, what had happened to her and how she felt about it and that the story took place during the school year. It was utter and complete MADNESS! Plus, it took FOREVER. My advice: don’t do this! Unless you must, unless you’re writing something that demands to written this way for whatever reasons. Then—have at it.

After I’d written hundreds of scenes, I figured I’d better start thinking about plot. Coming from a screenwriting background, I had a basic sense of how my character’s journey should proceed. I looked at all of my scenes and began rearranging them so that the story slowly started to make sense and then I made notes in the manuscript where bridges were needed between scenes. Eventually I had a linear plot, but I still had a lot of work to do!


Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

I’ve definitely experienced this between drafts in many other projects, if not between head and computer. In one of my screenplays, I decided to add a completely new, surprise/twist ending a few drafts in. Suddenly, I was writing The Sixth Sense and had to go back through the script and put in little clues and Easter eggs—without tipping my hat too much—so that when the twist came at the end, it made sense.

In Cursed, lots of plot points changed after I got my first editorial letter, if not the overall plot itself. For one, my editor had me age my main character up, from thirteen to fourteen. That ended up having a ripple effect on the whole story—and actually changed what my character ultimately wanted and needed too. Many scenes were rearranged, consolidated, trimmed or deleted. New scenes were added. I ended up being really happy with many of the changes.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Yes and no. Some stories have popped into my head nearly fully formed, particularly ideas for picture book manuscripts. (Perfecting a picture book manuscript is a whole different story though). But in addition to being a “ploster,” I’m also a reviser. So while I have some writer friends who have dozens of first drafts sitting on their computers, I tend to have a smaller volume of projects but they’ve all been revised numerous times. Does that indicate a lack of new ideas or a dedication to my works-already-in-progress? I’m not sure. I do remember doing a writing exercise once where the task was to write down fifty story ideas. I think I used every story idea I’d ever had, however vague, and still only got about half way there!

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

There are always lots of stories percolating in my brain, and I generally work on multiple projects at once. It’s just how I roll. If I get stuck or feel uninspired on one, I can shift focus to another while a few of my brain cells continue to work on the issue with the first project.

Now that my novel has moved onto the copyediting phase, what I work on next has to do with my goal of being on submission with one or two projects by the end of the year. I discussed this goal with my agent, and we decided I should focus on a picture book of mine that needs a little polishing. So I’ll be working on that manuscript and then will move on to revising another novel (that, alas, need a good bit more that a polish). But I love revising, remember? Writing a screenplay adaptation of my novel is also in my near future—in case Hollywood comes calling!

I usually have at least one or two cats snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I wish I could convince my cats to snuggle with me while I write! They only seem interested in lying near or on my keyboard so that I’ll pet them instead of typing. Sigh.

Much of my writing time is spent in blissful solitude, though I currently get together with a small group of children’s book authors every Monday and write all day at a bakery/coffee shop. We do a good job of keeping our noses to the grindstone, with minimal chatting except for when we break for lunch. Mondays are always very productive! I also have had lots of critique buddies over the years. Running everything I write by another writer—whether for significant feedback or a just few polishing notes—is an absolute necessity for me. My current/long-time go-to critique buddy (we are each other’s “secret weapon”) will even be reading my answers here!