An Interview with Dana Reinhardt

Novelist Dana Reinhardt talks about why she rarely uses her notebook, how her first book may have been the easiest to write, and getting a sixteen-year-old to translate dialog into IM.

Dana Reinhardt

Photo credit: Chelsea Hadley.

Do you have a writing routine you hold to?

I do. I try my best to stick to writing every workday. It’s a bonus if I do any writing on a weekend. I try to write Monday through Friday as if I had a real job. My goal for each day can change but in general, my rule is that my workday’s not done until I have three pages, which is roughly 1,000 words, maybe a little less. So it’s somewhere in there. I generally don’t let myself off the hook until I’ve done that. And sometimes I can do that in 40 minutes, and sometimes it takes me ten hours. But I try to have that done every single day.

Is there an outline you work off?

I don’t work with outlines. I know a lot of people do, but I don’t. I mean, I know where I’m headed, usually. Before each book so far that I’ve written, I know generally the arc of the story and how I want it to end. And sometimes I’ll have certain things I have an idea that I want to have happen halfway through. But in general, for me, the fun about writing is finding out what happens between the beginning and the end of the story.

Do you try to get a first draft out and then go back and revise? Or do you tend to polish as you go?

I do a little bit of very minor polishing as I go. Generally, in the morning before I start my new pages, I’ll read the pages I’ve written the day before and fix that up a bit. Sometimes I’ll go back a little farther. But I try to just keep moving forward and get to the end.

I think inspiration only comes in the middle of writing. I think thinking about writing doesn’t work; writing works. And the act of writing is when the inspired moments come…

Are there any tricks that help you be productive on those days when you’re not feeling particularly inspired?

Well, I wouldn’t say tricks, but I think that the reason I put myself on the schedule I do is so that I can’t not produce on the days I don’t feel inspired. I guess I don’t really believe so much in the idea of waiting for inspiration. I think that that doesn’t come until you’re in the act of writing.


Dana Reinhardt is the author of three novels for young adults. Her most recent book, How to Build a House (Random/Lamb, 2008), tells the story of a resilient teen who leaves her split family and life on the coast for a summer in Tennessee. Reinhardt’s pre-novel-writing experience includes working in the foster care system, fact-checking for a movie magazine, working for PBS’ Frontline, and time spent as a reader for a young adult line at a mass-market paperback house.

On the web:

So it’s about getting yourself into the process?

Yeah — I think inspiration only comes in the middle of writing. I think thinking about writing doesn’t work; writing works. And the act of writing is when the inspired moments come, I believe.

I’ve had a similar experience with scripts. Once you’re ‘in script,’ things happen. Sitting outside the script, not so much.


How do you power your way through when it’s hard to get something going?

There are days that are like that for whatever reason. Moments that are like that. Usually what I’ll do is stop and take a walk. I have a dog, so that helps. And I’ll take a walk around the block and try to think about how to get back in. There are moments in writing where you aren’t quite sure what happens next, and sometimes you have to step away. But usually I won’t let myself step away much more than one or two blocks. Then you just have to get back and do something.

Are there any tools you rely on to capture ideas?

Not really. I have a notebook, but I’d say for each of my books I barely even take notes. Sometimes I’ll think of something — a turn of a phrase or an idea that I’m not ready for yet, that feels like it should come later, and I’ll jot that down. But there’s very, very, very little that I write down like that. I have this kind of crazy theory, which probably is crazy, but — and I guess this applies more to ideas for books I haven’t written yet — sometimes I’ll have an idea and I’ll think, “Wow, that’s a great idea,” but I don’t write it down on the theory that if I don’t remember it, it wasn’t a good enough idea.

That’s living on the edge.

Yeah, I don’t know — maybe that’s just an excuse for the ultimate laziness, that I don’t even want to write the idea down. But if I’m thinking about big book ideas, if it’s good enough, it sticks around, and if it’s not, that means I don’t go back to it again mentally.

Do you ever worry about getting burned out?

I think everybody’s got to feel that way with anything they do.

What do you do to keep things fresh?

I just try something that I think I can’t do. I’m in a place right now with that. You know, the ultimate experience is sitting down to write your first book because [you think], “I don’t know how to write a book. I can’t do this.” I found the experience of writing my first novel to be so exciting. It was the most fun time I’ve had writing so far. And I think a lot of that was just jumping into something that felt so undoable.

Why do you think you got through it?

It was in some ways the easiest experience I’ve had writing a book. And I think that’s because I never really knew if anybody would ever read it, and that gave me a lot of freedom. I didn’t second-guess things. I didn’t wonder, “What’s my editor going to think about that? What is one of my readers going to think?” I just wrote it, and I had no idea what the rules were about writing a book, and that was incredibly liberating. I’ll never have that experience again because so far all the books I’ve written I’ve been under contract, so they now feel — there’s a different relationship.

When you’re not writing, what do you do to help feed your creative side?

I feel my powers of observation now are — I’m sort of in tune with them a lot more. Before I was spending my time writing novels, I wouldn’t necessarily stop and really look at the person who caught my eye walking by me on the street. Now sometimes, if somebody catches my eye walking by me down the street, I might take something away from that moment that I use in a character I’m writing about. So I pick things up: a lyric from a song, the way something looks in a certain light, whatever it is. I feel like my time not spent writing is often just spent collecting images or bits and pieces of things that might work their way into a book.

And that helps keep that part of your brain vibrating?

It does.

I’ve read that you worked in the foster care system. Did that play a role in the kind of books you write?

I think every choice you make and everything you do influences your writing when you sit down to write. I love teenagers, I really do. I loved working with them, and I find everything they go through, everything they think sort of endlessly fascinating. Writing about that experience is something that I really enjoy. I haven’t written about a kid in the foster care system, no, but, you know, it was just more exposure to the people I write for.

How do you stay in touch with today’s young adults and how they view the world?

Well, I think that writing from the point of view of a teenager is — there’s nothing current, necessarily, about doing that. It’s a universal experience. We’ve all been teenagers. I think growing up and coming of age is sort of timeless.

That said, kids, as readers, have no tolerance for inauthenticity, and they can smell [inauthentic] moments a mile away. So if you write about a piece of technology or music and you get it wrong, it’s going to ruin the book for them. Those things I definitely have vetted with kids I know who will pick up details. You know, “Kids don’t wear Doc Martens anymore” or, “That kind of guy wouldn’t listen to that kind of music.” Something happened in my second book where there are two characters who communicate only through instant messaging. It happened only a few times in the book. One of them is only a secondary character. But, you know, I’ve never in my life sent or received an instant message, so I literally didn’t have the language to write that. So I wrote [the messages] and I gave them a friend who’s sixteen, and she translated them for me.

That’s great.

It was if I needed somebody to translate it into French. It was that different. But as far as the emotional side — getting in the head of a character and the emotional reality, there’s nothing that you need to stay current on for that.

Your work gets a lot of praise for the strength of your character’s voices; how do you approach dialog?

I generally read out loud what I’m writing. That helps a lot, with dialog especially. When you hear yourself read it out loud, you can catch things that don’t sound natural.

Are you reading aloud as you’re writing those three pages a day?

No, I’ll go back. I usually don’t read out loud until a little bit later; maybe the next day or maybe even in the second draft. Most conversation I read out loud, or if I’m stuck writing something and it’s a thorny paragraph or page.

Is there any advice you’ve gotten over the years that stands out, in terms of how to live a creative life and be creatively productive?

I have a friend — this is a piece of advice I really like that really helps sometimes, especially in those moments where I’m thinking that what I’m writing is just crap — he says what he tries to do is what he calls “a jewel on every page” — just one moment, one turn of phrase, something on each page that makes him proud.

And, you know, my biggest goal is to do that. It’s not easy because there are a lot of pages in a book. But one small thing can make the whole chapter feel worthy of being there. And I just try to work on those moments.

4 comments on “An Interview with Dana Reinhardt

  1. Really enjoyed this interview, Cecil — thanks! “Inspiration only comes in the middle of writing. I think thinking about writing doesn’t work; writing works.” That’s the truth…

  2. Hearing about the process of other writers is always fascinating…very inspired by her discipline. If she can do it, so can I! Thanks for the article…

  3. another great interview. she is so honest in her responses. really enjoyed her thoughts on process.

  4. Thanks for sharing~

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