Laney Nielson On Being Given the Who & What... Then Coming Up With the How & Why

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 Laney Nielson author of Peppermint Cocoa Crushes, the second novel in the new Swirl line for tweens from Sky Pony. Laney is a writer of middle grade stories and lots of to-do lists. She is a former classroom teacher with her masters in education. As a teacher, Laney loved teaching reading and writing (surprise, surprise) and nothing makes her happier than a student falling in love with a book or finding their voice.

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?

Unlike other stories I’ve worked on, the seeds (maybe I should say, the ingredients!) for Peppermint Cocoa Crushes were given to me. Becky Herrick, an editor at Sky Pony approached me about writing a novel for their new line for tween readers. I was super excited about her initial idea. She gave me the who (Sasha and her two best friends) and the what (they want to win the school talent show) and I needed to come up with the how and the why. Fun!

Figuring out why winning was important to Sasha was the first step. I also wanted to explore how Sasha who is a high achiever handles change. As we know, middle school is all about change—shifts in friendships, interests, and family dynamics. Not to mention physical and hormonal changes! Plus Sasha has experienced a number of recent upsets (her parents’ divorce, moving, her older sister going to college). That’s a lot! She copes by trying to take control. But she ends up not seeing every situation clearly. So there are mishaps and a major disappointment. As I developed the initial idea, I kept asking the questions we, writers ask: what if and so what. 

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

As I developed the synopsis, ideas for specific scenes kept popping into my head. I’d decided most of the story was going to take place between Thanksgiving and right before winter vacation. So I printed out the month of December from the calendar and filled in the events I knew I wanted. There were a couple of critical scenes I built the story up around. Then I began to break everything into chapters. 

This is the point in the process when I’m spreading index cards out on my dining room table and doing a lot of arranging and rearranging. I love my index cards! A few years ago I attended a Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop where Alan Gratz showed us how he uses index cards to plan his stories. It was a light bulb moment— a great lesson for someone like me who previously wrote without a plan. I’m not too meticulous about it, but my index cards definitely give me a roadmap. Anyway like a lot of writers (and teachers) I believe in office supplies. If you’ve got a problem, there’s an office supply that can fix it! Plotting isssues? Grab a stack of index card! Okay, if only it was that easy, but you never know, a field trip to your local office supply store might just help. 

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

Yes, all the time, but with this project I needed to stay focused. (The deadline loomed large!) So the story didn’t change that much. After the first draft, my editor (the fabulous Becky Herrick) highlighted the areas that needed addressing. And then those changes were made but they were adjustments not a major plot overhaul. 

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

Ideas come to me all the time! For me, the hard part is figuring out how to grow the idea into a cohesive story readers will care about. Writing a pitch and a synopsis before I begin working on a story can help me see where the holes might be or if there isn’t enough there beyond the hook. Other times, I will get an idea that seems interesting but then I realize I’m not the person to write that story. Having an idea is only the beginning! I think for a story to work it needs to tap into an emotional truth that is personal to me.

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

I try to write the one that’s been percolating the longest. That being said, I’ve recently stepped away from a manuscript I’ve been working on for a couple of years. It was a hard decision to make because I’d spent so much time with these characters but ultimately I didn’t have a clear enough vision for the story. I’m hoping a little time in the virtual drawer will help that one! I love it when I’m living inside a story. It’s hardest for me when I’m starting a new project (so many decisions to make!) or when I’m in between stories. 

I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

Eight cats! I’m impressed. I also have a writing buddy (just one): my sweet dog, Olivia, but she likes her space. We both move from room to room. She’s looking for the perfect place to nap and I tend to set up in different spots depending on where I am in the process. When I’m working on the overall story which involves laying out index cards, I’m at the dining room table and when I’m writing a tough scene, I might sit on the sofa next to Olivia, hoping some of her serenity will rub off on me. The best thing about my writing buddy is that she is also my walking buddy! While she sniffs and does her thing on our walks, I often try to unknot a story tangle I’ve created or think through the next scene. 

Do you struggle finding inspiration to write when you are on deadline, or do you find that perspiration beats inspiration?

Writing Peppermint Cocoa Crushes was the first time I’d ever written a novel on a deadline. And it was a tight one! I wrote the first draft in six weeks. This required perspiration (and extra strength deodorant)! It also required daily writing goals. Rather than focusing on word count, I set goals for what scenes I was going to write each day. I keep an old school weekly planner for my writing life and when I finished my work for the day, I’d write down what I needed to do next. That allowed me to stay focused and it kept the story alive as I moved through the rest of my day. As for inspiration, most days it showed up. 

Writing Peppermint Cocoa Crushes was a lot of fun. I hope tween readers will curl up with all the Swirl novels! From pumpkin spice to peppermint cocoa to cinnamon bun to salted caramel, each one is great flavor!