A Q&A with Disney Writer-for-Hire, MFA Student
Alexandra Z. Lazar likes to say she’s been a Disney fan before she was even born. Perhaps anticipating her future as a Disney writer-for-hire, Lazar’s parents purchased a full set of Disney VHS tapes while they were pregnant with her. Today, she’s taking her love of these fairytale movies and adapting them into children’s books.
When she’s not living out this dream, she’s completing her MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). She’s also working on her first novel – a re-imagining of the Fairy Godmother’s sister.
Between terms, she did an interview about her writing strategy and influences.
Have you always written?
Yes, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember! I’ve always loved reading; I taught myself to read when I was just two years old. Since I have a big imagination, making up my own stories was the natural next step. There’s something incredible about taking ideas that only exist in your mind and then—through the simple act of stringing words together—turning them into something tangible that other people can experience and enjoy.
I’ve always been partial to fantasy, because I love imagining a world full of magic, where characters go on adventures that we can’t have in real life. Reading allows me to experience those adventures... but writing allows me to create my own!
And kids, middle schoolers and young adults have always been my favorite audiences because I know how much my favorite books impacted me when I was that age: they entertained me, taught me important lessons and helped me understand myself and the world around me. It’s an honor to think that readers might have a similar experience with my books someday. Plus, to be honest, I think that I’ll always feel more like a kid than an adult, so this is the audience I relate to the most!
What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
Some authors tend to start with plot or character, but I usually start out with a bit of both—an idea about a character in a unique situation—and then develop it outward from there. The seed might come from a question I want to answer, something I’ve experienced, or a glimpse of a character in my mind’s eye.
I’m especially drawn to characters who are unusual or quirky: Since I’m proud to stand out from the crowd, it’s fulfilling to write about characters who learn to embrace the things that make them different… especially because it lets me show young readers why it’s important to be true to yourself and speak up for what you believe in.
Once I find an idea that intrigues me, I spend a lot of time going over it in my head before I put pen to paper (or more often, fingers to keyboard). It gives me a chance to get to know the characters and flesh out the story. That way, when I am ready to sit down and write, I’m already familiar with the concept. It’s like the difference between wearing stiff, brand-new shoes and comfortable, broken-in ones.
That being said, the process is different for my writer-for-hire projects: In those cases, an editor at Disney Publishing approaches me with a concept, and then it’s my job to adapt the movie’s existing storyline in an interesting way.
What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
For me, the biggest challenge is finding the motivation to write when I don’t have a course or a job that obligates me to do it. Ideas come to me easily, but actually sitting down and writing about them—not so much.
Procrastination is awfully tempting, especially because I’m a perfectionist. The notorious ‘fear of the blank page’ makes it difficult to get started, and once I do, I’m my own harshest critic: It’s hard to achieve a level of excellence that satisfies me, so sometimes I end up going over and over and over the same sentence, nitpicking words instead of making progress.
I’m still working on ways to motivate myself; I’ve heard that having a consistent writing routine helps, so I’m going to implement that soon. But I’ve already found some strategies that help me silence my internal editor.
The key is to force myself to keep going. If a sentence sounds wrong, I can fool around with it for a little while… but if I start to get sucked into the vortex, I have to move on. When I return with fresh eyes, the solution is often easier to find. And even if it isn’t, getting more words on the page ensures that I’m moving forward. I can always go back to refine it later!
What has the road to publication been like for you?
My road to becoming a writer-for-hire for Disney Publishing was a combination of persistence, talent and being in the right place at the right time. My favorite book series is “Kingdom Keepers” by Ridley Pearson: A MG/YA series about a group of teenagers who protect the Disney theme parks from villains.
When he was writing the final book in the original series, Ridley rewarded fans by giving them the opportunity to help create it. Participants voted on plot points, entered fan fiction contests and submitted writing in response to prompts. Winners’ names—and, in some cases, their writing —were included in the actual book. I entered every contest… and it paid off because I won repeatedly!
The quality of my writing impressed an important editor at Disney Publishing, and when I worked up the courage to reach out to her about non-Kingdom-Keepers-related projects, she put me in touch with some other Disney editors. I continued to correspond with them, which ultimately led to my position as a writer-for-hire. The whole thing is a dream come true, because Disney and writing are two of my favorite things in the world!
As for my own writing… I’m just starting out there. I just sent out my first query for a picture book manuscript, and once I graduate from SNHU’s MFA program, I’ll start the querying process for my thesis novel. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!
What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Hmmm, that’s a tough one! I guess I’d want to know that I don’t have to be perfect, but that there’s also always room for improvement—and that’s not a bad thing. I remember being devastated in elementary school when it felt like my writing wasn’t good enough. I was awful at accepting criticism, even when it was well-intended… and if someone actually had something mean to say about my work, I was distraught.
Now, I know that constructive criticism is an integral part of making my work the best it can be. But I’ve also realized that you can’t please everyone: Every piece of feedback should be considered, but it doesn’t all have to be implemented, and it certainly shouldn’t be taken personally.
As the author, it’s my job to stay true to my vision for the piece, and I don’t have to let negative feedback get to me. If I’ve done my best, I should be proud of my work, and that’s all that matters! (From a personal perspective, anyway… from a publishing perspective, the opinions of editors and publishers matter quite a bit too!)
Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
It’s hard to narrow it down; there are so many!
- The first is Louisa May Alcott: “Little Women” has been one of my favorite books since I was little, and I’ve always aspired to be like her. Jo March is basically my literary alter ego!
- Beatrix Potter is another: “Peter Rabbit” is a sentimental favorite of mine, and I’d love to write stories like that because I’m a big animal lover (in fact, I have twelve pets right now).
- Ridley Pearson is an inspiration as well—not only because he gave me my start, but because I admire his descriptive writing style and the way that he creates new stories about classic Disney characters.
- My thesis novel is a YA fairytale mash-up/reimagining, so I’m also inspired by the authors of MG and YA fairytale retellings that I’ve enjoyed, like Soman Chainani’s “School for Good and Evil,” Chris Colfer’s “Land of Stories” and Liesl Shurtliff’s “(Fairly) True Tales.”
- And I can’t forget to mention J. M. Barrie: “Peter Pan” is my all-time favorite book! Most of my original stories feature young protagonists who have magical adventures, so even if I’d never put myself in the same league as him, I’m at least in the same genre.
If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” Ridley Pearson’s “Kingdom Keepers I: Disney After Dark” and Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” I could read those books a thousand times and never get bored.
Although if I approach this question from a more selfish perspective, I’d have to say the “Big Hero 6 Read-Along Storybook and CD,” “Aladdin: Beyond the Palace Walls” and Ridley Pearson’s “Kingdom Keepers VII: The Insider,” because it’s just so thrilling to see my name in print!
For more about Alexandra Z. Lazar, check out her website.
Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.