Have you heard of Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner Love Connection? It’s this wonderful initiative organised by the New York Times bestselling author of the Mercy Falls trilogy, where she gathers writers who are looking for critique partners (CPs) and feedback on their work, and allows them to match up based on their interests. It’s very much like a third-party dating app, hence the name.
That’s how I’ve met some of my kindest, most supportive and talented writer friends. Becky is one of them. I only just started connecting with her a few months ago, but we hit it off really well, probably because we write in the same genres (and even the same topic! hint: Backstage).
So here’s Becky’s story (prepare to be blown away by her talent):
Becky Donahue is a former editor and current project manager for an academic publisher, but she dreams of becoming a full-time author and artist. She’s been writing novels since she was thirteen and doing art since she could hold a crayon and reach the walls of her parents’ house. She has a delightful green-cheeked conure, Carmie, that keeps her company while she’s writing or drawing.
1. Let’s start from the beginning: what were your childhood aspirations?
My earliest memories are of drawing – in sketchbooks, on my parents’ walls, on my relatives’ walls – but I always had stories in my head. I’d entertain myself on the bus to school by telling myself stories, and it’s something I still do today whenever I’m walking or driving somewhere. But it wasn’t until I met Sarah Dessen when I was about twelve or thirteen that I realized writing books could be a real job.
(Joyce: I don’t usually interrupt, but YOU MET SARAH DESSEN?! She’s like my YA superhero. One of them, anyway. But she’s definitely up there in the ranks.)
2. What is one thing many people don’t know about you?
I don’t keep my old books. I know a lot of people do, but I find it ties me down. I threw away a dozen manuscripts this past summer that hadn’t worked for one reason or another. Also, I can only draw upside down.
3. When and how did you realise that you are a writer/artist?
When I was in my first year in college, my creative writing teacher told me I’d never be good enough to write a novel. And you know what? She was right – I’d never be able to really write the kind of novels I was trying to write back then, because those novels were what I thought I should be writing, what I thought people wanted to read – and not what I really wanted to write. It took me awhile to realize that, of course. But what mattered, was that I kept writing anyway, and even though I haven’t published yet, when I look back at that, the fact that I could’ve quit right then and didn’t, that made me realize that I was truly in this for the long haul, no matter what it took. Plus, if I had quit, I never would’ve discovered the kinds of novels that I love to write, the ones that are completely and totally me!
Art’s always been a bit different. I started selling my work when I was fifteen, but it never really clicked that I was an artist because of that. I took a good ten years away from it because I didn’t really know how to be an artist or what it meant to be one. But then I got laid off from my job this past February and I had a whole month where I could do anything – so I taught myself how to use colored pencils, the one medium that had always terrified me. And I loved it.
4. What and/or who inspire you?
Everything inspires me! I feel like so many people say that, but it’s true. The texture of the sky on a misty morning, a song that I’ll listen to on repeat for weeks, a conversation overheard on the train, a particularly good novel where the story and the words are just so perfect. I think it’s important to always be paying attention to everything, both because it keeps me present and also because I never know how the world around me will add to whatever story or art piece I have brewing in my head.
5. How do you recharge?
I once told my boyfriend that I was like a smart phone battery. Sometimes, I have to go sit in the corner of a room, by myself, with nothing but a book or a sketchbook to keep me company. I get overwhelmed easily when I’m around people for too long, so I try to have some alone time every day. Though, I have been known to do crazy things, like fly helicopters, when I get truly stuck on either writing or art work. Sometimes, I’ll journal or free-write for a bit, and my bird, Carmie, loves to hang out with me while I do that.
6. Have you experienced anything truly surprising or unexpected, writing-wise, between your first novel and your current book?
My first book was a long, rambling mess that was based on a spin-off of superman and it was so, so bad. I had no plot or character development. I also tried to write too much like other authors I liked. With my current book, I have a much better understanding of who I want to be as a writer, and that definitely helps focus me.
With art work (even though this wasn’t what you asked, I’m going to answer it anyway!), when I first started drawing, I would draw things as I thought they were supposed to look. Here’s a nose, I’ll draw a nose, and it never wound up looking like a nose.
Now, I’ve learned to look specifically at shapes and shades, and I shut off the part of my brain that tries to tell me what I’m drawing is a nose. It helps me get it right, if that makes sense. Drawing upside helps too.
7. Have you changed your mind about any part of the process over the years?
When I first started writing, I refused to outline or even plan out any part of my novel. I didn’t read any writing guides either. I thought it would somehow stunt my creativity. Which, of course, is silly. Now I read all of the writing guides I can find (my favorite are by Lisa Cron), and I outline and plan (and plan and plan). I won’t start a novel until I’ve built a solid foundation for it, so it doesn’t wander off and get tangled up in loose plot threads. Also, I like to know the end before I begin, so I have a place to head towards.
8. Have you received any advice along the way that was particularly valuable or pertinent?
The best bit of advice I’ve received is if you want to do something, find someone who already does it and learn from them. Learn from authors who are successful – read their blogs. How many books did they write and how? More importantly, how many books did they write that didn’t work and how did they overcome that? Victoria Schwab has a fantastic post about this. It’s the same for art. How do artists make a living today and how can I learn from their experience?
9. What do you struggle with the most these days and what do you consider to be your greatest strength as a writer?
Doubt has always been my biggest weakness. I took years off of art because I doubted I was good enough. I stopped sharing my writing for ages, because I doubted it was good enough. I’m slowly getting past that, but it’s always in the back of my head. I think my greatest strength is that I refuse to give up. If one novel doesn’t work, I’ll start another one. I try not to get hung up on things that aren’t working and move on as quickly as possible to something that is.
10. As a fantasy writer, how do you go about building a world?
I find that when I’m building a world – any world, fantasy or not, – the bits I focus on are the ones that will have the most meaning for my protagonist. If something doesn’t mean something to her or him, if it doesn’t impact the way they see the world or tell me something about them or affect how they’ll change later in the story, then I usually won’t include it. This also means that whether my story is contemporary or fantasy usually depends on what my protagonist needs out of the story, and from there, I start creating a world that will force him or her to change. By the end of my story, my goal is for my main character to see the world differently than she did at the beginning.
11. Tell us about your creative process.
I used to listen to a lot of music when I wrote. Now, I tend to write in quiet, alone, and often on my couch. I get a surprising amount done in libraries or coffee shops (but only if there’s no one sitting near me). Though, I find if I’m out in public, I can’t write without headphones. I’m currently working my way through Lisa Cron’s latest Story Genius, and I’m already finding it’s helping me develop my story better. Setting myself realistic goals is key, and so is having a way to hold myself accountable, whether it’s with a critique partner or through a calendar/sticker system. I have to write early though. If I wait until I get home from work, my brain is too crowded from the day to filter through to my story. I also tend to work with paper and pen a lot, rather than a computer, especially towards the beginning of a story or when I get stuck in the middle.
12. Who are your favourite writers, artists, musicians, or books?
I have too many to list! I adore Naomi Novik, Victoria Schwab, Maggie Stiefvater, Laini Taylor, and Neil Gaiman. For art, I’m a massive Norman Rockwell fan – I love the way he uses art to tell a story. Heather Rooney’s gorgeous drawings inspired me to get into colored pencils. I also love the Atlas of Beauty photos and would love to draw them someday. Music I am all over the place. I’ll listen to country, rock, sometimes even rap or classical. I am a bit obsessed with Ed Sheeran.
13. Where can people buy your works?
I don’t have a store set up yet, but I’m looking at joining some local galleries for my art, and possibly Etsy or Society6. I have dreams about what publishers I’d love to work with, so hopefully that will happen in the next couple of years!
14. What’s in the pipeline for you?
I’m working on a novel right now about dangerous art and faeries and growing up in a spotlight.
For art, I’m working on a couple pieces – some with chalk paint, another colored-pencil portrait, and a couple new fun portraits with acrylic paint.
If you have any questions for Becky, drop them in the Comments section below! Feel free to get in touch too, if you’d like to share YOUR story here (contact details in bio on the right).