I recently had the honor of interviewing Livia Blackburne, the author of one of my favorite novels: Midnight Thief. Before I get into the interview, here is a little bit about her: New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne wrote her first novel while researching the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into people’s heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner. Her books include Midnight Thief (An Indies Introduce New Voices selection), Feather and Flame, and Clementine and Danny Save the World (And Each other), as well as the picture book I Dream of Popo, which received three starred reviews and was on numerous Best of Year lists.
Some key takeaways:
You don’t need to major in writing or study creative writing in school to become a successful writer.
If you receive critique you disagree with, be open to the possibility that it may signal an underlying issue, even if the solution suggested is not the right one.
Writer’s block often means you are leading your story in the wrong direction.
The entire interview is below:
You started writing Midnight Thief in high school and then came back to it after studying science for almost a decade. So, I was wondering: if you could go back to when you were selecting your college major or anything else, would you change any decisions you made? Would you start focusing on writing earlier?
I think I definitely would have started writing earlier, but I don’t think I would have changed my college major. Just knowing what I know about the writing industry, I don’t think you need to major in anything writing-related. Creative writing for publication is very different from taking English classes or even taking creative writing classes in college because a lot of them are very literary.
So, there’s some careers where the degree really matters. For example, science: you need that PhD. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. You still need that. If you’re going to be a doctor, you need that MD.
Writing is completely opposite, where—unless you want to teach at an MFA program or something, in which case you need a degree—it’s all about the quality of your work, and it’s really learning by doing. I learned my craft just by working with a critique group in grad school.
I think majoring in something else besides writing, it kind of opens me up and gives me more experiences and things to write about, but I definitely would have started writing earlier.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part is when I’ve written something, and I’ve given it to my critique partners, and I get to experience them reading it: getting their feedback and just seeing what I put out there.
How do you deal with critique that you disagree with?
So, my thought about critique is that you should listen to the ones that resonate with you, and you should also listen to the ones that might not necessarily resonate with you but come up really often. For those, I might not take the suggestion for improving, but it often signals a problem that maybe I should solve a different way. It helps to get a lot of opinions because then you can see what’s a common opinion and what’s a rare one.
For the most part, are your critique partners very similar to you or very different in terms of their writing style, etc.?
I was with the same critique group pretty much since I started writing the second version of Midnight Thief, so from 2009, until fairly recently (last year). And we all wrote kid lit: young adult, middle grade, some picture books, so it helped that we were kind of writing in the same genre, and we only just stopped because everybody got busy.
How do you keep track of your ideas as they come?
I’m not the type of writer that gets lots and lots of ideas. I very rarely get an idea that I think is really cool, so I don’t have that much trouble keeping track of them. I do keep a document, and when I walk my daughter to school and back, I will dictate and brainstorm into my phone. I keep all of that just in a document, categorized by different things.
Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?
I’m usually only working on one novel at the same time, but I’m often working on, say, a novel and a picture book or a novel and an interactive story or a short story. I usually do it by day, so one project per day. And I’m usually at different parts of the process, so that helps with organizing it. I’ll be launching one and writing another and maybe brainstorming something else.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
Writer’s block is sometimes a signal that your story is kind of going in the wrong direction. You’re trying to force it into a direction that’s not natural for it, so sometimes you just have to step back and think about what is wrong here and where is that block coming from.
Other than that, brainstorming a lot. So, if I’m stuck, a lot of times I will just start making lists. I’ll brainstorm some ideas. Usually the first five ideas are really cliché ideas. Ideas six through ten are slightly more unique, and usually I’ll hit on one that I’ll know is it.
Besides that, taking a shower really helps, and taking walks. I also find that sometimes if I have just woken up or I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, just laying there and daydreaming… There’s something about the brain state that gives me really good ideas.
Do your characters come from people you know?
For my first book, Midnight Thief, some of those characters came from my high school classmates, although they changed a lot. Tristam was based on one classmate, and Flick was based on someone else. Kyra was kind of based on me. Since then, the characters have become more of mixtures of the people I know or just things I brainstorm.
What advice do you have for young writers?
For young writers, just write a lot, read a lot. People say that a lot, but it really is important. Write a lot, and then get writing partners that you trust. And usually, those would be people who enjoy the type of writing that you do, and get feedback from them. And then, just rinse and repeat.
I really enjoyed getting to speak with Livia, and I hope you found her responses helpful. Hearing about others’ writing experiences and strategies can really help you develop your own, and Livia has amazing advice. Learn more about her and her works at: https://liviablackburne.com/.