Ask an Author: Debbie Urbanski
Debbie Urbanski’s fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Sun, The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, The Southern Review, and Nature. Her stories have also been selected for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and were named notable stories of the year for The Best American Mysteries and The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies. She lives with her husband and two small kids in Syracuse, New York, and is currently at work on a linked story collection concerning aliens and cults.
Visit her website here: debbieurbanski.com
1. What is your process for finding and choosing a good story to tell?
It depends on who I’m writing for. For teens, I knew early on that I wanted my stories to be a counterpoint to all the teen romance and love triangle YA stories out there, and I also wanted to bring some visibility to asexuality and aromanticsm, to break the whole “something must be wrong with me if I’m not romantic” cycle. So in that case, I was intentionally writing to fill a gap I saw.
For younger kids: often I think of my own children in some way mixed with ideas and themes of genre fiction. I think of the stories that my kids would love to read along with the stories I would love to read to them or with them. A specific example: my daughter really loves dragons and she really wants them to be real (and maybe they are real for all I know and I just can’t see them). So I decided to write a dragon story for her, and around the same time our house was being invaded by stinkbugs. I started thinking: What if our house was invaded by little dragons instead? Would we get tired of them? Would we be, like, please, not another dragon? I wondered about how hard it is sometimes to appreciate what we have right in front of us (stinkbugs are pretty cool if you look at them close up). Out of all that came “Too Many Dragons,” which was my first story for Spider.
2. Do you use any outside help to find ideas (like dreams or kids you know)?
I keep a document where I’ve written down some of the interesting things my kids say—a lot of their dialogue would make the start of a great story. Such as, my daughter was telling me one day about some seeds she said she found. She said, “They were anything seeds so I planted them in the ground. I thought it was a tree but it ended up growing a pegasus.” I loved that idea of anything seeds. I still love that idea, and someday I hope to write a story about them.
I also read a lot of nonfiction that filters into my work. I’ve been reading lately about climate change and extinction (and de-extinction) and writing about it in my adult stories. I’d like to write a kids’s story about climate change as well, an upbeat but aware one, as both of my children seem so concerned about the planet. Their awareness is both hopeful and heartbreaking to me.
And, since you asked, I have been keeping track of my dreams for about 2 years now! I personally would love to include my dreams in a story. I find them fascinating, but I’m not sure anyone else would. My dreams are so strange and so obvious at the same time (how many times can I be traveling to another country with the wrong guidebooks and no shoes?!).
3. How do you determine the age of your audience?
My default writing is adult fiction, so when I write for children or teens, usually I’m taking an intentional break, or I have a specific story idea I want to try out. It’s always a pleasure to move from writing for adults to writing for kids—it forces me to be more optimistic and playful than I would usually be in my writing. I tend to write really long as well, so it’s been a great constraint to try and keep my stories for younger kids under 1,000 words.
As for changing a story for older kids into a story for younger readers, I’d begin by looking at the point of view and who’s telling the story, and switching out the narrator or main character to that of a younger character. And then I’d probably streamline the language, description, and maybe the plot.
4. How do you know when a story is “done”?
I write initial drafts quickly but then revise and revise and revise and revise and revise. I started out as a poet, that’s what I went to grad school for, so it’s easy for me to get fixated by the language of a story. That can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on how much time I have. When I’m revising, I print the story out (it’s hard for me to do intense editing on the screen) and I read the work out loud to myself.
If the story is for kids, I read the story aloud over dinner and get feedback from my family, which is an amazing experience. I started writing for younger kids somewhat recently, so for a long time my kids knew I was a writer, but they didn’t know what exactly I wrote. I love them being able to participate in my writing process.
For longer and more complicated pieces, I often print the story out, cut up the various sections, and rearrange the parts on my writing room floor. I keep reading the story out loud, and editing, then reading the story out loud again, and editing, until I read the story through and get this strange feeling like I didn’t write the words at all, that these words have always been this way. That’s my signal the story is finished.
5. What is your favorite subject, genre, and/or medium in the kid lit world, and why do you think kids love it?
Oh man, it’s hard for me to name favorites, because really I just love books of every kind. Historical, fantasy, science fiction, realistic, graphic novels, picture books, choose your own adventure, non-fiction, reference books, scary stories. I grew up reading practically everything in the library as a kid and have kept up that kind of reading habit as an adult.
At the moment I am really grateful for graphic novels. My daughter was a reluctant reader when she was learning to read, she would cry and sob and wonder why reading had to be so hard, it was heartbreaking—but graphic novels gave her an in to books and gave her confidence in her ability to read. I think it’s great that graphic novels can make such a wide variety of topics accessible to such a wide variety of readers. There are such amazing non-fiction graphic novels out there (Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Biruté Galdikas, or March), and fantasy graphic novels (Hilda and the Troll or Nimona), and science fiction graphic novels (Zita the Space Girl or Space Battle Lunchtime).
6. If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself as a brand new writer?
I would say the following: “Please remember how you feel when you’re writing right now. Remember how much you love writing. Remember how amazing it feels when you’re creating something without judgement and putting words on the page. Bottle up all that love of writing for later, so you can access it whenever you get discouraged or distracted by the business side of writing.”
7. What websites, blogs, or books would you recommend to a new writer?
In terms of finding places to submit: a writer named Erica Driefus has a blog called Practicing Writer, and every Monday she posts no fee submission calls that also pay. I always find the list interesting. I also find Duotrope useful for keeping track of submissions. Every Wednesday they send out an email newsletter to subscribers with new paying markets (they do charge an annual subscription fee). The Submissions Grinder is a similar but free service, especially good for genre writing but they do list children’s magazines and literary magazines on there, too.
I’m not all that into social media, but I do have a Twitter account (@debbieurbanski) because I think Twitter is a great place for writers of any level. You can follow the writers you look up to and find out what they’re thinking and reading, but you can also find writers who are at the same stage as you to get some encouragement. I’ve even found that famous big-name writers are likely to be responsive if you tweet them a question or comment about their books.
As for books, I’d recommend reading and rereading and studying what you love. Figure out why you love those books or stories and how you can learn from them. Read what you love slowly. Take notes and study the writing. I find it exhausting to read like that, but it’s also been a useful tool to help me grow as a writer. Also I’d suggest reading older books/classics or books outside of the genre in which you’re writing. And even read some writing you don’t love, so you can figure out why you don’t love it and how that might impact your own writing. Lastly, make sure to keep reading for fun! I love watching my children read books because it reminds me of the joy that’s at the heart of reading (and hopefully writing, too).
I went through a useful phase a while back when I read non-fiction essays/books about writing. I remember On Writing by Stephen King being fascinating (I think his advice would apply to any sort of writer), and also Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood. I will always keep returning to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Annie Lemont when I need some encouragement.
Oh, and I’ll mention Pinterest, which I find to be an amazing tool for writers. When I’m working on a story, I like to have visuals of characters and the places they inhabit. So I make Pinterest boards for various stories. I also have boards where I save pictures of people with interesting expressions, or places I want to write about in future stories.
8. You’re a shapeshifter now! If you could turn into any animal, what would it be and why?
The Dodo Bird! I first fell in love with dodo birds in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it pains me that these birds are extinct—they seem like such kind birds. So I would love to help bring the dodo back by turning myself into one.