How did you become a writer?
I used to be an animator. And after that, I worked as a film editor. But when I became a mother, I quit. Editors worked very long hours, and I didn’t want to be away from my baby twelve hours a day. Instead, I started a hand-painted baby clothes company, which was quite successful. But after a while I wasn’t finding it creatively challenging. I looked around at my life and thought about what to do next. I loved reading to my kids more than anything else, and so I decided to try to write and illustrate books for kids. Turns out I was better at writing than illustrating, so I became a novelist. And by the time I was good enough to be published, my daughter was a teenager, and I was immersed in that world, and in memories of my own teenage years. So, I began writing novels in verse for teens.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I learned everything I know about writing poetry from Myra Cohn Livingston. I studied with her at UCLA Extension. She set me on the path to writing my first novel in verse, Stop Pretending. Sadly, Myra passed away before it came out. But she left behind a terrific book that you can still find online: Poem-Making: Ways to Begin Writing Poetry. It’s almost as good as being a student in her class.
When and where do you write?
I write in a lovely spot I call “my secret office”— a public place with an ocean view, comfortable chairs, shade, and a plug. I write in the mornings, and sometimes all through the day, depending on deadlines. But three or four hours a day, four or five days a week is my sweet spot. After that, I’m usually less productive.
What are you working on now?
I am switching gears entirely, but I don’t want to talk about it yet.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Nope. I bypass it by not worrying about how good what I write is going to be. I simply assume that what I write will really stink. And the first drafts of my poems always do. But I’ve learned that I have to write that awful version first, so that I have something that I can work on and eventually make better. I remind myself that even if what I write is terrible, I can revise it and keep on revising it, until what I’ve written is good. And it’s this attitude that helps me keep writer’s block at bay.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Show, don’t tell.” My poetry teacher, Myra Cohn Livingston, told me that. But for the longest time, I just couldn’t get it through my head. I felt like an idiot because it was just those three simple words…
What’s your advice to new writers?
Show, don’t tell.
I’ve finally figured out what Myra meant! Don’t tell us your character is happy, by having her say, “I’m happy.” Show us, by having her say something like: “It’s lucky I’m holding onto to his hand, or I’d float right up into the air like a balloon.” Don’t tell us your character is scared, by having her say, “I’m scared.” Show us, by having her say something like,” My heart is fluttering in my throat like a trapped bird.” Similes work great for this.
Also, don’t be afraid to write about the worst thing that ever happened to you. Don’t be afraid to be honest. And be very afraid of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t say, “She lived in a cute little house by the sea.” Say, “She lived in a cottage by the sea.” “He ran quickly down the street.” Say, “He zoomed down the street.” This will make your writing richer. Oh, and avoid clichés like the plague.
Sonya Sones has been writing young adult novels in verse for nearly twenty years. Her books have received many honors, including a Christopher Award, the Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination. Her novel entitled One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies earned her a Cuffie Award from Publisher’s Weekly for Best Book Title of the Year. Her novel for adults, The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus, was optioned by Michelle Pfeiffer. But the coolest honor she ever received was when her novel What My Mother Doesn’t Know landed her a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the Most Frequently Banned Authors of the 21st Century. (To find out why, see page 46.) Her latest novel, The Opposite of Innocent, was published in September, 2018, by HarperCollins, and is a Junior Library Guild selection.