How Hannah Orenstein Sits Down & Writes
Hannah Orenstein's third novel 'Head Over Heels' is a charming, whimsical, rom-com set in the world of elite gymnastics in an alternate 2020.
The past seven years have been hard on Avery Abrams: After training her entire life to make the Olympic gymnastics team, a disastrous performance ended her athletic career for good. Her best friend and teammate, Jasmine, went on to become an Olympic champion, then committed the ultimate betrayal by marrying their emotionally abusive coach, Dimitri.
Now, reeling from a breakup with her football star boyfriend, Avery returns to her Massachusetts hometown, where new coach Ryan asks her to help him train a promising young gymnast with Olympic aspirations. Despite her misgivings and worries about the memories it will evoke, Avery agrees. Back in the gym, she’s surprised to find sparks flying with Ryan. But when a shocking scandal in the gymnastics world breaks, it has shattering effects not only for the sport but also for Avery and her old friend Jasmine.
Head Over Heels is perfect for fans of Emily Giffin and Jasmine Guillory.
We got to chat with Hannah about creativity in difficult times, drafting vs. revising, and finding story inspiration in careers.
Q: Where do you like to write the most?
I do almost all of my writing on my couch or at my kitchen table, usually with one or two coffee cups within reach.
Q: When do you like to write the most?
Since I work full-time during the week, I do most of my writing on weekend mornings or afternoons. My routine is to wake up, walk a few blocks to pick up a cup of coffee and get some fresh air, and then head home to write.
Q: When it comes to drafting, do you prefer writing on a computer or freehand?
Definitely on a computer! In college, I had a professor who insisted we write all assignments longhand because he believed we could be less inhibited and more creative that way, but that felt like too much effort to me. My hand would cramp. I'd lose track of pages. I wouldn't be able to read half the words I write. On a computer, it's easier to tinker around with sentences or whole paragraphs.
Q: Are you more of a plotter or pantser?
I'm 100% a plotter. Before I dive into a draft, I spend days or weeks putting together a chapter outline and blurbs about each character. I find it's so much easier to write that way because there's no pressure to come up with plot points or character details on the fly — almost everything I need is already in my notes. And selfishly, I'd rather hammer down my plot ahead of time so that I don't write 50 or 100 pages in what I later realize is the wrong direction.
Q: Stephen King has a great line in ‘On Writing’ that says “the scariest moment is always right before you start. After that, things can only get better.” That scary pre-start moment often inspires procrastination in writers. Suddenly, you have to clean your entire house, do the laundry and play Candy Crush for an hour before you can actually start writing. Is there anything you need to do before you can actually sit down and work?
I feel exactly the opposite. I love the first few days of working on a new project. For me, that's the most fun and exciting time to dream up what this book will turn into!
Q: Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what music? Is your choice of music inspired by the project you’re working on?
I wish I could, but I get distracted by most music with lyrics. Instead, I'll put on a classical, jazz, or sort of soothing electronic playlist. I get a lot of mileage out of the Lush Lofi playlist on Spotify.
Q: Some writers believe you have to write every single day. Is that true of your process? How often do you write/how long for each session?
I don't write every day, but when I'm actively working on a novel (and on deadline), I try to write a few times a week. I actually track my word count in a huge nerdy spreadsheet, so I have data on all of this. I wrote the first draft of Head Over Heels over the course of 69 writing sessions between March 5 and October 26 of 2019. My least productive day produced just 70 words, and my most productive day was also my last — a marathon writing session that produced 5,859 words.
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give an aspiring author?
Set a reasonable deadline for yourself to finish your first draft, and do your best to stick to it. (Not sure how far in advance to set a deadline? I'd bet you can probably set aside two or three days a week to write 500 words, and you can find standard word counts for different genres online. My books tend to be 80-85,000 words.) I know this sounds obvious, but I say it because it's absolutely worth pushing yourself to finish a draft, no matter how rough it may be. You can always edit your draft into something better down the road, but you can't edit what doesn't exist.
Q: Where do you normally find story inspiration?
Careers are often my jumping-off point. My first novel, Playing with Matches, was inspired by my stint working as a matchmaker at a luxury dating service in New York when I was 21. For my second novel, Love at First Like, my protagonist is a jewelry designer with a significant following on Instagram. I got the idea for that book after discovering mega-popular jewelers on Instagram. (Actually, Instagram is an amazing tool for finding inspiration. There are countless fascinating worlds to explore on that platform.) Head Over Heels is my third novel, and it comes from my lifelong love of gymnastics. I was a gymnast for 15 years and always knew I wanted to write about the sport. Gymnasts are mostly teens, but I don't write YA, so it made sense for an adult protagonist's connection to the sport to come through a coaching job.
Q: You've published three books in three years and your day job is writing! How do you find the time to be creative in your novel drafting? Do you have any rituals for separating the writing for novels vs. writing for work?
If only I could schedule "be creative" into my calendar from 7 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday nights... Kidding. If I have to write on a weekday, I like to do it after some post-work activity, like dinner with a friend. That lets me clear my head and relax a little before diving into more work. I prefer to write on weekends, when I can devote my full attention to writing during my most productive period of the day (usually late mornings). My background is in journalism and I spent the first two years of my career churning out six or eight stories a day. That experience was enormously helpful training for writing novels. I know that when it's crunch time, I can sit down and just power through whatever I need to write until it's done.
Q: Do you prefer drafting or revising? Why?
Drafting is infinitely more fun for me! It feels more exciting and creative.
Q: Head Over Heels is entrenched in the world of elite gymnastics. What kind of research did you have to do in drafting the book?
I grew up as a gymnast and I still follow the sport today, so I didn't have to do much research into that world. I was never at the elite level, though, so I did some research into technical details, like the Code of Points and the scoring system.
Q: I love what you said on Instagram about how in writing Head Over Heels (set leading up to the 2020 Olympics) you thought you'd knew how this year would play out and now the book is offering an alternate timeline (which we all need!). How do you think your characters would have faired in the real 2020 timeline?
Thank you! I hope Head Over Heels can help readers escape into a lighter world in which the coronavirus pandemic never occurred. Hallie would be devastated by the postponement of the Olympics, and Avery would want to comfort Hallie — after all, she knows exactly how it feels to watch your Olympic dreams crumble. Like most of us these days, Avery would be cooking up a storm. Ryan would cope by throwing himself into a terribly intense workout routine in his living room, while Sara would be teaching yoga classes live online. Jasmine would be organizing a fundraiser to offer relief for those affected by the pandemic.
Q: On that note, how do you stay creative in difficult times?
Everyone handles stress differently, but personally, I've learned that it can be helpful to take a break when you need one. Your creative projects will always be there for you, but you have to take care of yourself first.
Q: What's the last book that kept you up until past your bedtime?
The Idea of You by Robinne Lee. Friends told me I would be reading way into the night, and I was!
To order Head Over Heels, Hannah’s newest rom-com set in the high-stakes world of elite gymnastics, please click here.
Photo: Slyvie Rosokoff ©