Laura Maylene Walter is the author of the short story collection Living Arrangements (BkMk Press 2011) and the novel Body of Stars (Dutton 2021). Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, the Sun, Ninth Letter, the Masters Review, the Horse Girls anthology (Harper Perennial 2021) and many other publications. She has been a Tin House Scholar, a recipient of the Ohioana Library Association’s Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant, and a writer-in-residence at Yaddo, the Chautauqua Institution, and Art Omi: Writers. Laura is editor-in-chief of Literary Cleveland’s Gordon Square Review and is the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow at Cleveland Public Library. She received her B.A. in English with a minor in creative writing from Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, and received her MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University where she taught creative writing and composition. Laura considers herself fortunate to be able to live a writer’s life in a city where the literary community is vibrant and the cost of living is affordable.
On Saturday, November 27, Laura (and Cirrus the cat) joined us for our final Come Write-In Online for NaNoWriMo 2021. We discussed her journey to becoming an award-winning writer, her writing process, influences, and advice to aspiring authors.
Laura grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and began writing in elementary school. She loved books, reading, and writing. Laura also had a love of horses and combined all of her passions to create books using her family’s old manual typewriter. The books Laura created were modeled (complete with the cover art) after the old Saddle Club books by American author Barbara B. Hiller who wrote the series under the pseudonym Bonnie Bryant. One day in class, her fourth grade teacher commented that she should be a writer. It was like a revelation to Laura who said to her 9-year-old self, “I should be a writer.” Since that time of giving herself permission to become a writer, Laura never stopped writing and has earned many accolades beginning with Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, the most prestigious recognition for creative teens, and the Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award. When asked if she ever felt dispirited by the academic process in regards to her fiction writing, Laura responded with a resounding “No” and fondly recalled a very nurturing environment at Washington College where she was allowed to write at the Literary House, a reading and reception center with garret rooms for student writers. When asked if she currently has a particular writing space, routine, or ritual, Laura said she doesn’t have a writing ritual and concedes that rituals can serve to get you into a certain mindset; however, one must be flexible because such dependence has the potential to become a distraction and can also hold you back. Laura does have a space to write in her home, what she calls the “guest room/writing room/cat room.” She was joining us from that very room, lovely with artwork suspended from lilac-painted walls, and, of course, shelves filled with books.
Laura has spent “years and years reading, writing and working.” She is a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, publishing in literary journals, getting rejections, but remaining persistent even as she held other jobs. It has all served to help her “grow into who she is as a writer.” Some might perceive having to work other job(s) while pursuing a writing career as an impediment. Laura advises, “Learn how to write around the job. Find time to write after work or write in the early morning hours. You must really want it, to put in the time to write—embrace the process.” Laura enjoys sharing the knowledge gained from a writing career she so clearly loves and respects. (See When You’re Drafting a Novel: Tips from Author Laura Maylene Walter at the end of this article.) And, it seems, Laura loves to give back in support of writers. She helps aspiring writers by teaching writing workshops for Literary Cleveland, by blogging for Kenyon Review from 2016-2021, and for years providing editorial services as a freelance writer and editor. When asked if serving as an editor for other people’s work affects her own writing, Laura said that it does “on a micro level,” that seeing what others are writing is helpful to one’s own writing.
Laura has been a NaNoWriMo participant in the past and found the challenge stimulating. For her own process, Laura likes to write during the morning hours. When she is working on a special project, she likes to write 1,000 words a day. She doesn’t outline but keeps notes using the Notes app and a idea list spreadsheet. Aspiring writers might feel surprised to learn that even now the most difficult part of Laura’s writing process is “getting past the negative self-talk, the self-doubt, and [she adds facetiously] the self-loathing. But once you get a clear idea of the work, you know you can do it.” In 2011, her award-winning short stories were published in the collection Living Arrangements. Laura says that she is a literary writer at heart. Books that have influenced her have dark themes combined with, the unusual, the magical, and beautiful prose: Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Evening by Susan Minot, and Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith. Laura enjoys writing stories about strong women setting out to live on their own terms. She admires many writers including Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Aimee Bender, and Octavia Butler. What she enjoys most about the process is doing the research that ultimately helps her transform an idea into a fully fleshed-out story. When asked if there was ever a time, before she began researching and writing, that she had conceptualized in her mind a story and knew where she would go with it, Laura said that it has only happened once—for what would become her latest book, Body of Stars.
Body of Stars is a work of speculative fiction, “an exploration of fate and female agency in a world similar to our own, except that the markings on women’s bodies reveal the future.” The idea came to Laura in a response to a speculative writing prompt in a writing workshop she took in August 2012. While looking at a couple of moles on her own arm, she wondered what if she could connect those moles to foretell the future. When the idea came to her, Laura said, “I knew immediately there was something about it that interested me and I didn’t want to let it go.” Almost instantly, she knew what would become the first few paragraphs and the name of the protagonist, “Celeste.” After you have the premise and the main character, then, Laura says, you must do the research. “Research is huge!”
When asked about where she finds ideas for stories and how she knows when to put energy into an idea, she said that “story ideas are found everywhere.” She suggested that writers struggling to find ideas might look for inspiration in news stories or nonfiction or even explore collaborative storytelling platforms like Quill Kickers.
Before the pandemic, Laura found inspiration to help generate ideas in libraries, visiting art museums, and taking long walks. “Knowing which story idea to go with, the sense of knowing if it’s going to be a bigger story, is totally intuitive.” When starting a new project, Laura reads “good nonfiction” widely and does her research. “Eight months into writing the novel was just the tip of the iceberg.” She enjoys “dreaming it up and getting lost in the weeds of it. I wrote to the end of this imaginative world I’ve created.” Whether it’s the completion of a first draft or the final draft, Laura is always thrilled by the process of writing.
As we come to the end of the conversation and another National Novel Writing Month, Laura offered these parting words for aspiring writers: “Pay attention to the good things about writing. It can be the best experience—enjoy it!”
When You’re Drafting a Novel: Tips from Author Laura Maylene Walter
- Your job at this stage is to write, not to worry about publication or agents. This is a time to imagine and create.
- Embrace the reality that you won’t know what you’re doing—and that’s okay.
- Experiencing self-doubt during the writing process is natural and to be expected.
- Remember that novel writing is an act of endurance. Keep going.
- Have fun. You might sometimes hate what you write, but don’t take it too seriously.
- Focus, above all, on finishing a complete first draft. You can’t improve the work as a whole until you have it all down on the page, no matter how messy it might be.
- Be a little selfish. Take time for your writing when possible. Make it a priority.
- Find your writing support community. The writing life can be a lonely one, and having friends in the trenches with you can make all the difference.