Interview with Dallas Woodburn: “My routine is now about seizing opportunities to write.”

Dallas Woodburn is an award-winning writer of fiction, nonfiction, and plays; an in-demand book coach; and host of the Thriving Authors Podcast. Her debut YA novel, The Best Week That Never Happened, was the Grand Prize Winner of the Dante Rossetti Book Award for Young Adult Fiction. 

She is also the author of the YA novel Thanks, Carissa, For Ruining My Life and the short story collections Woman, Running Late, in a Dress and How to Make Paper When the World is Ending. Her novel Before & After You & Me and nonfiction book 1,001 Ways to be Kind are both forthcoming in 2023. 

A former John Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, Dallas has received the Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award, the international Glass Woman Prize, and four Pushcart Prize nominations. 

Her short stories have appeared in ZYZZYVA, The Nashville Review, Louisiana Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, and many other journals, and her nonfiction has been published in Family Circle, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, The Los Angeles Times, Modern Loss, and more than two dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul series books. Her plays have been produced in New York City, Los Angeles, South Lake Tahoe, and Maryland.

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Hi Dallas, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Yes, thank you so much for having me here! I am often asked if I was named after the city in Texas, but I was actually named after my Gramps, whose middle name is Dallas. But I did visit Dallas one time and the local diner gave me a free breakfast when I showed them my driver’s license.

I’m the author of five books of fiction – novels and short story collections for teens and adults – and my first nonfiction book is due out later this year. After falling in love with teaching as part of my MFA degree, I have also built my own business as a book coach helping women birth their books, and I host a podcast where I interview writers in a similar fashion to this wonderful Famous Writing Routines. I live in the California Bay Area with my husband of seven years and our two young daughters, a four-year-old and a one-month-old. 

How did your background in writing fiction, nonfiction, and plays shape your approach to writing and publishing your debut YA novel, The Best Week That Never Happened?

While The Best Week That Never Happened was my first published novel, it was actually my fourth completed novel manuscript. Over my many prior years of writing and revising book drafts and plays, I learned a lot about story structure, world building, creating complex characters, and using dynamic scenes to propel a story forward.

In particular, playwriting taught me a lot about three-act structure and dialogue – an awareness of what our characters say on the page, and perhaps equally important, what they do not say. I believe all forms of writing can teach us about other forms, and that no writing is ever wasted.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned during that time was writing to please myself rather than trying to write something that I believed other people, or the market, wanted. The Best Week That Never Happened is in many ways my most personal novel, stemming from my own grief over the death of a dear friend, and it was the book I really needed to read myself. 

The book was a #1 New Release on Amazon and a Featured Bestseller on Apple Books. How did it feel to have your debut novel receive such recognition and success?

As I mentioned above, this novel was one that I drafted primarily for myself – following my own curiosities, emotions, and revelations as I made my way through the story, rather than thinking about the readers I hoped it would one day reach. I am an “under-writer” whose first drafts tend to be lean; every time I go back through the draft, I add additional layers and details and descriptions to bring the story more vividly to life.

Of course, after the early drafts, I brought in outside readers to give me feedback, and also worked back-and-forth with editors at my publisher to help make it the best it could be. But my innermost heart remained at the core of the novel.

So it was especially moving and gratifying when the book was published and received such a wonderful response. I often tell my book-coaching clients, “If you are in love with your book, other people will fall in love with it too.” And I believe it is a counterintuitive truth about fiction that the universal is found not in generalities, but in specifics and details – in our own individual perspectives and ways of seeing the world. When I wrote from the depths of my own emotions and experiences, others resonated deeply with my book as well. 

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Can you walk us through a typical day in your writing routine?

My writing routine has just gone through a major upheaval, because I just gave birth to my second child a few weeks ago! So currently, my writing routine looks like jotting down ideas and notes on my phone during nursing sessions, and letting my mind wander as I stare out the window thinking about my current novel-in-progress.

Before I became a mother, my routine was more structured and each writing session was lengthier. I am a natural night owl and enjoy staying up late writing, and I also would get in a daily writing session in the morning before leaping into my other work – coaching, editing, and freelance writing projects.

After becoming a parent, I learned to be flexible and give myself plenty of grace. My routine is now about seizing opportunities to write whenever they arise! Typically, I write during naptime – even just fifteen minutes a day adds up. On days when I am able to get in an hour of writing, I appreciate the block of time so much more than I used to. And I’ve learned that it’s possible to be very productive in twenty minutes!

The time crunch motivates me to focus on my writing, without allowing myself to be swept away by distraction. As extra motivation, I also have a favorite citrus green tea that I only allow myself to drink while I am writing.

What do you consider to be the most essential elements of a productive writing session?

For me, the most important elements are to be intentional and present. I need to turn off my phone, close out my email and other distractions, and sit with the blank page, even – especially! – when it feels uncomfortable.

If I approach my writing time with that fully present mindset, I truly believe that every writing session is productive, even those times we don’t get many words down, or when we feel like everything we write is garbage.

Even those days I spend staring out the window thinking about my book count as “productive” to me. Those germinating days are a necessary part of the process that fuel the wildly productive days when my fingers are flying across the keyboard.

So I celebrate every day that I carve out the time to check in with my book-in-progress. Instead of word count goals, I feel less pressure and more motivation when I set a time goal. In this season of parenthood, my time goal is at least fifteen minutes a day – and some days I am able to sneak in multiple fifteen- or twenty-minute writing sprints.

How do you balance your writing with your other responsibilities such as being a book coach and hosting the Thriving Authors Podcast?

For me, the key to balancing various endeavors is to genuinely enjoy them all – and I do! As a teenager, when I imagined a career as a writer, I envisioned myself locked away at my desk, by myself, writing all day long. But in graduate school, I learned that I am my best and happiest self when I am part of a community.

My work as a book coach and hosting the Thriving Authors Podcast are both ways I aim to create and contribute to a nurturing, supportive community of writers. When I feel connected to other creative people, I am more excited for that introspective, introverted time that I spend just me and the blank page. My own writing projects feed my book coaching and podcast, and visa versa. 

How do you handle writer’s block or creative roadblocks in your writing process?

When I experience writer’s block or feel creatively sluggish, it is normally a sign that I am struggling with a fear or doubt or feeling in some way not “good enough.” Often, my inner critic is hijacking the drafting phase with too much editorial advice or worries about how my writing will be perceived by others.

I need to get back to basics and remind myself why I fell in love with the story idea in the first place. Some ways I do this are to get out of my typical routine – go write in a coffee shop, at a friend’s house, outside in a park. Another trick I use is to open an email draft and begin typing out the story there – it feels like less pressure to compose in that framework than in my actual document.

Or I will turn down the brightness of my computer screen so I can’t actually see what I am writing, and therefore can’t judge or edit as I go. For me, these tricks are usually enough to get myself back into the project and reignite my excitement about the story, and regain my trust in myself that the answers will come in time. 

What does your writing workspace look like?

I have a simple desk tucked away in a nook in our guest bedroom. Above the desk is a shelf where I keep copies of my published books and my clients’ published books – it’s inspiring to see the shelf grow more and more full – as well as photographs of my husband and daughters.

Hanging on the wall are book award certificates, a painting a friend made of the beach that was inspired by my debut novel, and a painting my dad gave me that depicts my great-grandfather’s Underwood No. 5 typewriter. When I was in kindergarten, my dad generously let me type out my stories on the Underwood, first sparking my love of writing.

My desktop is dominated by my computer, and the remaining space is normally covered by papers and post-it notes with reminders and to-do lists related to my various projects. I also have a little sticker chart where I give myself a star sticker after each writing session, and it is ridiculously satisfying to see the rows of stickers grow and grow. I recently hung up some white twinkle lights and I turn them on when I sit down to write – it may seem silly, but the sparkly lights make my writing time feel special.

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