A belated sharing of my recent Collegeville essay. I hope everyone is staying smart and staying safe. As we move towards a holiday season that promises to be like no other, remember: different doesn’t have to be less than. Unexpected blessings may unfold….and soon…
I came across the loveliest quote today that I want to share with all my writer friends who are toiling away over manuscripts, many of them in some form of lock-down. Ironies abound there, but we’ll set them aside.
I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers or theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil, either natural or moral. But we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image and simple narrative, there is both healing and illumination.
Take heart, friends. Keep writing to and for each other. It’s a great thing we do, even if it doesn’t always seem so.
Okay, truth in advertising: My publisher sponsors the Possibilities Publishing Conference, held each year at the lovely historic Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia. So yeah, I’m not unbiased. I attended the kickoff conference last year and was super impressed with the sessions, the media room, the photographer and video offerings, and so much more.
This year I honestly went expecting it not to live up to the previous one. I mean, seriously, I felt like there was no way this little event—focused less on writing itself and more on getting your writing seen and read—could pack such power again.
I was SO wrong. Starting with the first session, Maggy Sterner, part branding maven, part life coach, part therapist, all business-savvy bulldog, handed participants a shovel (you know, metaphorically) and taught them to dig deep to find out what they and their writing are truly about. They dug, and unearthed what they didn’t even know they had, or needed, to build a distinct brand. There were tears, people. I mean it was that powerful and that effective.
Do you know the difference between an Instagram post, story, or highlight? Do you know how to best use Pinterest to promote your book—how to get the most from Facebook and Twitter, and how LinkedIn fits into it all? Children’s book author Lindsay Barry knows, and she has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers to prove it. Now Poss Pub’s biggest-selling author, Lindsay led attendees on an edge-of-their seats journey into all things social media. And man does she know how to sell. Her session ran long. Because questions. So many. And discussions, and aha moments, and all of it in breathless huffs because people were so fired up about this topic they couldn’t get enough. It could have gone on for days.
“The Truth Behind the Media” offered another deep dive into an author’s work and how it can be promoted through television, magazines, newspapers, and radio. Media booker Katie Riess took participants into the minds of journalists who can either choose to spotlight a writer’s work or not give it a second glance. What an author is thinking vs. what a media person is thinking are worlds apart, and she was able to map out the differences to help attendees pinpoint best practices for pitching their stories.
And more besides, including author Laura Di Franco, who led an inspiring workshop on building your author platform through blogging, and writer and publisher Keith Shovlin, who helped attendees learn to share their work with the world through podcasting.
The “Author Marketing Mastermind” session gave authors the chance to brainstorm marketing ideas with several of the above experts in a lively, yet intimate group setting. Participants received one-on-one attention and support to meet their goals, and were even provided with a second video meeting a month later to check in on their progress and receive additional feedback.
Between sessions, authors were encouraged to take selfies of themselves and their books in the Instagram Inspiration Room, which offered a lightbox and an abundance of props and decorations. And new this year was a podcast offering, where authors were interviewed about themselves and their work and walked away with professional podcasts for their own use.
Oh, and here are a couple of new resources I learned about while I was there. And you’re very welcome:
HARO, a.k.a., Help a Reporter Out, is a massive database that connects journalists with media sources and helps them pitch their stories.
Autocrit is an editing tool that helps you fine-tune your manuscript by analyzing your words and pointing out flaws, like poor dialogue, use of adverbs, repetitive words and phrases, and clichés. At only $10 for one month’s use, I can’t wait to try this one out.
At the day’s end, I heard so many people commenting on how much they’d gotten from this event, and every one of them said something to the effect of :
“You have GOT to tell more people about this.”
So—you’ve been told. Mark it down for next year (likely in early May), and tell your fellow writers. You won’t be disappointed!
Hannah Grieco is an education and disability advocate and writer in Arlington, Virginia. Her essays and short stories have been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Motherwell, First for Women, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, Barren Magazine, Arlington Magazine, and others. She is the founder and director for ‘Readings on the Pike,’ a series that highlights a diverse array of local writers in the Washington, DC area. She can be found at www.hgrieco.com and on Twitter @writesloud.
Please welcome Hannah to Write Despite!
Can you tell us about your background? Where you went to school, your major, your early work experience?
My background is a bit of a wild ride. I was raised in the Washington, DC area. I went to the Oberlin Conservatory for clarinet, but switched to the college my second year. I tried out a series of majors, and ended up with a BA in Geology. It took slightly longer than four years to complete that journey. (Seven. It took seven years, with two year-long breaks in the middle.) But by the end, I realized I would not be able to rock climb for a living, which was depressing and triggered yet another life tangent. So I went to New York City to study acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse. (See? My poor mother!) I was overwhelmed by the reality of attempting to become a professional actress, and ran back to the DC area a year later, where I taught drama and dance to preschoolers. That sparked something new inside me, a focus (finally) outside of myself. I decided to get an M.Ed from Marymount University and became an elementary school teacher. But wait! We’re not done! After eight years, I got married and had kids. I decided to stay at home temporarily, which extended to “for the foreseeable future” when one of my children started to struggle with some pretty significant disabilities. As I dove into the very challenging world of advocacy, out of necessity, I began to share what I was learning with other parents. This led to more formal work in the area, and then writing as well.
Did you ever formally study writing? If not, how did you begin to write?
I wrote a ton of academic papers in undergrad and grad school, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. Then in early 2018, I really wanted to encourage my autistic son to read fiction. He was an advanced reader, but only wanted to read nonfiction. So I wrote a short story for him, hoping it would hook his interest, and it did! He wanted to know what happened next, and so I kept writing, then writing even more. It developed into a (very poorly-written) chunk of a middle-grade novel. An editor encouraged me to write an essay about *why* I was writing this novel, and so I did. That experience was profound, a totally different style of writing than I had ever done – and the piece sold! I got paid to write! So…I began writing more essays, which also sold, and decided to focus on the craft of writing. Both nonfiction and fiction. I’ve taken a couple of classes, but most of my learning has happened from working with amazing editors and sharing with peers in critique groups.
Your website says you’ve gone from teacher, to mother, to parenting advocate. How does writing fit into all these things?
I use my essays, and even some short stories, as a form of advocacy. Most of my published nonfiction is specifically focused on disability, education, and mental health in kids. Many of my stories are about families and relationships, and the role of disability and/or mental health issues within that context.
You’ve published fiction and non-fiction pieces in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and a number of magazines and journals. What are you most proud of?
My Washington Post piece was scary to share and seemed to have a big impact, based on the emails I received. But I am most proud of the piece about my son and his love for Eminem (in HuffPo), because autistic people are often so poorly and stereotypically represented in the media. My son is a human being, not the subject of inspiration porn, and he is one of my favorite people! I hope to elevate and inform in my work, to bring autism to the reader as something to learn about and respect, rather than perpetuate the more common narratives that usually accompany the subject.
Who are your favorite authors?
Oh this is so hard! It depends on the genre and my mood that day. For short stories, probably Meg Pillow Davis and Tyrese Coleman right now. David Sedaris and Flannery O’Connor, in terms of influence over time. I could give you a long list of brilliant authors I read and love, both in short-form and long-form, but I’m also crazy about Stephen King. I like to read about people and he is the master of that! For essays: I just read whatever is being published and try to soak it all up!
I wanted to read my work, to have an audience and learn from that experience. But I live in Arlington, and all the readings were always in DC. It can be hard to get to events regularly with three kids clinging to you! So I asked a few friends if they’d be willing to read with me if I planned a one-time event. They graciously agreed, and we ended up with a big crowd that night! Then more writers contacted me, wanting to read as well, and it took off from there, quickly becoming a monthly series. Writers want to share their words! And I love it, everything about it. I meet the most amazing, talented people and get to watch and listen as they offer us their beating hearts.
Hannah Grieco at Readings on the Pike
Do you have advice for new or struggling writers?
I think we’re all struggling, right? And I am certainly new myself! The key for me has been to connect with other writers, to find my community. I read their work, ask them questions, and save money to work with local editors. I regularly swap work with other writers and we critique each other, which is hard! It’s brutal to hear when your words don’t work! But that’s the only way to learn, to just dissolve the pride that prevents you from polishing your work into something really moving and impactful.
What are you writing or working on now?
I am constantly working on essays and short stories. I write every day in those two genres. But I am also working on a book related to special needs parenting and advocacy!
Panelists gave attendees all the tools they need to create a brand, give great interviews, effectively launch a book, and market themselves on social media. It even featured a media lounge where authors could take head shots with a professional photographer and create a video focusing on themselves and their work.
Oh, and my favorite part? The Instagram Photo Booth that offered up a professional light box and a supply of backgrounds and props so you could take social media pictures of your book. As you can see, I had some fun with this one.
Why has no one come up with these grand ideas before?
Well, maybe they have, but not that I’ve heard of.
There were also a couple of sessions on getting published—tips on self-publishing, and advice from independent publishers on what they look for when considering a manuscript.
Just for fun, the Improv Imps led a group of introverted writers through an interactive workshop to help them loosen up in front of an audience.
And check this out: Penguin Bean Designs. Oh man, I love this company. They will reproduce, even create, pretty much any design you like on a t-shirt, hoodie, tote bag, wine sack, tea towel, pillowcase, you name it. I’m getting my book cover reproduced on a tote bag for a mere $25 (based on author Lindsay Barry’s cool tote here).
All of it took place at the gorgeous Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia, and included a pancake breakfast, lunch, two snacks (we’re talking cookies fresh from the oven, you guys), and a “sip and swap” wine and cheese closeout reception where attendees could mingle and trade books.
Next year’s conference is sure to be bigger, better, and even more innovative. Keep an eye out for it by following Possibilities Publishing online. Until then, here are the best tips and quotes I collected while I was there:
On launching your book:
Create a book launch team. Strive to recruit at least 100 people who will support you in your launch by reading, reviewing, and promoting your book. This can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes a week, and in return they get advance copies of your book, return reviews for their book, etc. And the results? Session presenter Jen Hemphil, author of Her Money Matters, saw 1863 copies of her book downloaded and sold in her first month (compared to about 200 for most self-pubbed books.)
Why do we connect with a brand? Brand strategist Rebecca Gunter says it’s largely trust, quality, an inviting feel. Why do we not connect? It doesn’t align with our values, it feels yucky or false. Branding is all about feelings. How do you want readers to feel when they see your brand?
Author and holistic healer Laura Di Franco suggests you write down five reasons you don’t promote your book. Then ask, if there were no one on earth to disappoint, how would you promote it? Give five endings to the statement “My story matters because ______.”
If you do nothing else, create a signature with your book info for use on Amazon, so that when you review things, others will see your book title pop up. (Well, duh. Why am I not doing this?)
On social media:
Jennifer Crawford is owner of Social Media Rescue and Write On Social, which cater specifically to the needs of indie authors. She coached us on how to use Facebook Live as a marketing tool to reach existing fans faster and interact with readers in real time. Nifty tip: Three times more people are watching Facebook Live videos and those that aren’t live.
Use Instagram Live too. These videos last only 24 hours and are great for time-sensitive promotions, sneak peaks, and book “secrets.” And since few people are using this feature for now, it’s a less crowded area that gives you tons of room to be creative with your author brand and narrative. Instagram users in general tend to be highly engaged!
Check out these other presenters and sponsors from the Possibilities Publishing Conference!
Vijal Nathan – Washington Post’s Date Lab writer, stand-up comedienne, interview coach
Ally Machate – book collaborator, editor, publishing consultant
Meredith Maslich – CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company, Thumbkin Prints, Eaton Press
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.
Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir (Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)
“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”
“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”
Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.
We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good (Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.) (Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)
“Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”
“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”
“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”
“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”
Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald
“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”
“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”
You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.
A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges (Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)
Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.
Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”
Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.
On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng
Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.
Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen (Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)
Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.
“In a movie, action is always character.”
One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.
A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”
NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!
By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.
“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler
Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.
Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”
“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”
Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?
“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”
Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.
Foremothers: Southern Women Writers (Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)
A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.
One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”
Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.
The Ten-Year Novel: On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)
“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”
“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”
Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty: Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips
“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts
“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle
“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle
On unlikeable characters:
By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.
Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips
So I’m neck-deep in the third rewrite of my new novel. How’s it going? Slowly, occasionally painfully, and all I want is to be done with it. I’m fighting my usual impulse to speed ahead, and instead slow down and stay in the scene. I’m winning the battle—some of the time.
Ever been there? It’s not that I don’t like the story. I do, very much., I’m just not convinced that my skills aren’t doing it justice. And then there’s the old “Just because I like it, doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
At times like this, I like to hop onto the Facebook feed of my old MFA writing professor Richard Bausch. A master himself, Dick is also honest about how hard this is, and he doesn’t mince words. He sets you straight, in the best possible way. All these years later, I want to say, “Thank you, Dick. Your influence is still resonating and more important than ever.”
Check out some of Richard Bausch’s rewrite advice:
“In revision, try not to think of the long outcome much. Just concentrate on this morning’s work. Just be faithful to that. Try to be as good as you can be without straining it: “This morning, I’m just going to mess with this scene. See if I can get it right, or clearer, or sharper. I’m only going to think about that. And when I’ve put in my two hours, I’m going to forget about it and enjoy things without reference to the work. The work’s done for the day. And tomorrow, I’ll come at it fresh. I don’t have to write the whole thing in one morning, so I won’t think about the whole thing. Just this. This here, this morning’s work.”
“About the heavy doubt: it’s normal; it’s the territory, the province, the wallpaper in what Jim Dickey called the cave of making. It is your talent itself that produces it. So write through it. Do the work. If you let it stop you, if you let it make you hesitate, you’re making the first and most elemental mistake, and you’re acting like a dabbler, an amateur. This day’s work. Each day.”
“Be patient, yes, and how hard that is, especially when it’s yourself with whom you have to be patient. It’s very hard, of course. But nobody ever said it would be easy. And one of the traps we fall into is thinking too much about the result–whatever we imagine or hope that might be. The real thing happening is that you are using your time in a way that answers you deep, no matter what fits it gives you, and it always feels better to have worked in a given day, no matter how badly the work seemed to go or how hard it was. To engage in the activity at all is to do something sustaining; and in fact it gives meaning to everything else. That’s why I keep repeating the mantra: this day’s work. Just this day’s work. Did I work today. If the answer’s yes, no other questions. It’s enough. Try to forget about it and go have fun–enjoy that most delicious feeling of wasting time when you have used it well earlier.”
“Someone told you somewhere, or inadvertently communicated to you sometime, that it would get easier? It gets harder, because you know more. Instead of putting down the first or second line that occurs to you IN REVISION, you think of fifty-five others that each have their advantages and disadvantages, and you start really getting down into the deeps of it, including what it is you are seeking in terms that have nothing to do with the STORY: you want others to know how deeply sympathetic you are to human troubles; you want others to have a sense of the sorrows you carry around like everyone else; you want others to know how much you know; you want others–even this–to see what you can do with a sentence, with your extensive vocabulary and your gift for metaphorical speech–and all of that has to be subordinated to the demands of the STORY that you are not even, quite yet, sure of. No, it will not get easier–its complications will change away from the ones you had when you were new; but these complications multiply, and exacerbate themselves as you grow. What you can do, simply, is accept this, and do the work. Even when it seems completely closed to you. Accept it as your destiny as an artist and go on with it. You’re not experiencing anything that everyone else hasn’t also experienced. Remember Joseph Conrad, having his wife lock him in a room and then shouting “Let me out. I’m a fraud. I never could do this.” And he was working on his twelfth novel.”
“I think that no matter how hard it is and no matter how difficult the subject, and no matter how dark your vision, writing a novel is always an act of optimism, even of faith–a generous expansion of one’s being toward something outside the self, and by definition, then, a giving forth for others of your kind. Inherently beautiful and valuable as an occupation, even if it takes years, and, yes, even if no one ever sees it. And, too, even if it is destined to be forgotten, to disappear. Wright Morris: two National Book Awards, one as a photographer, sixteen novels. Gone. Vance Bourjaily, Thomas Williams, William Goyen, George Garrett–one can’t find the books. And they were such wonderful writers. So, do the work for itself. And fuck all else. Make the record, and stop worrying about your place in the scheme of things literary.”
“I used to have terrible anxiety before I’d start a session of work–this was after Iowa, and I was thirty and should have known better. I’d pace and sigh and get a stomach ache, afraid it wouldn’t go well. Such a waste of energy, and what a lot of hell I put myself through, like some atavist cowering at a shape in the clouds. I should’ve been saying prayers of gratitude for the chance to fail my way toward something beyond me. Just for the happy fact that I had this work to do, and a place to pursue it, the need to try. I should’ve been celebrating that.”
Summertime and the reading is good this year. We’ve selected our seasonal picks, and will surely be spotted toting them on vacation and to neighborhood parks. Here’s what we’ve chosen:
My extremely well read sister has shamed me into reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Okay, there are a few holes in my education. This is one I’m going to fill.
Then I’m onto two new novels that I can’t want to get my hands on. They’re from two of my favorite contemporary authors.
My book group never fails to steer me toward books I certainly wouldn’t choose for myself, and usually end up glad to have read. The one I’m reading now is no exception. Even though I’m not much of a nonfiction reader, Missing Man, about a spy who disappeared in Iran, grabbed me from the start. I’ll pass it along to the hubby too.
After that somber read, I’ll need a pick-me-up. And my all-time favorite, Anne Tyler, is just the ticket with her latest–a modern-day version of Taming of the Shrew, coming out on June 21:
What are YOU reading on the deck, at the pool, by the ocean? We need more ideas. Please leave us a comment and share your summer reading picks! (By the way, no need to insert your name or email address when you comment. Just type and hit Post.)
P. J. Devlin tells stories about relationships. Whether writing of a witch, a dwarf, an elderly woman, teenagers, or indentured servants, her characters exist in the Philadelphia of her birth and share her love of the Wissahickon Creek. She is currently working on her third book with Possibilities Publishing Company.
Wissahickon Souls is Devlin’s historical novel set in the early 19th century, which follows the life of a free black woman born to free black parents in Philadelphia.
Becoming Jonika is her coming-of-age novel set during the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s.
Please welcome P.J. Devlin to Write Despite!
What is your writing process like?
The genesis of each of my stories, including my novels, comes from an image. Most of these images have bounced around my mind for years before they emerge and announce themselves as ready to write. For example, the short story titled “Original Sins” (which will appear in my short story collection to be published summer 2016), developed from a visit I made as a teenager to a house where statues of saints appeared in every nook and cranny. That image stayed with me for more than 40 years before becoming a story (unrelated to that household except for the statues).
Once I have a story idea, I need to visualize the last scene. I think of my writing process as being a journey and I want to know where I’m going before I start. I’ve come to realize my best work results from thinking through the entire story by way of structure—especially the three-act structure.
When I know the story ending, I go to my white board and note the story’s theme, characters, plot, and initiating incident. Then I make three columns and label them: Act I, Act II, Act III. In Act I and Act II columns, I list scenes and turning points. In Act III I list the final complication scene and the resolution. For a novel, I make a list of chapter titles as points of reference to help with the forward momentum of the story. Then I start to write. While my initial thoughts about story scenes change as the story progresses (the value of the white board is that it’s easy to erase), I find the time I spend before I get going to be my most valuable investment in the finished product.
Do you write every day?
A writer whose name I don’t remember was asked that question in an interview I happened to hear. He said his practice was to write 5 hours a day 5 days a week. That’s the model I try to follow, although many weeks I write every day, especially when I’m working on a deadline – self imposed or for publication. I work best in the morning, but those mornings when something interferes—a doctor’s appointment, a household repair, it doesn’t take much—I know I won’t be able to focus later on. Those days I read instead of writing. I read craft books as well as fiction and nonfiction.
Favorite five authors or books?
I love Stephen King, especially 11-22-63, The Stand, and It.
I’ve read most of Jodi Picoult’s novels. She’s a great storyteller.
Donna Leon writes wonderful, rich mystery novels set in Venice, Italy.
Octavia Butler, the first black woman to write sci-fi novels, is one of my favorite authors. Kindred is an important novel, in my opinion.
And George Mason University’s Susan Shreve is a brilliant writer—Daughters of the New World, A Student of Living Things, Warm Springs, and A Country of Strangers are my favorites.
It seems you came to be a writer later in life. Why, and how did you accomplish it?
I’ve been a writer from the moment I learned the alphabet and put pencil to paper. My mother saved a little notebook in which I wrote stories in a baby scrawl when I was five years old. I’ve always known my destiny is to write stories. I wrote stories throughout grade school, high school, and college. But I’m a practical person and before I started my junior year in college, I decided what was most important was to be independent with the ability to support myself and my family whether or not I was married. I changed my major to economics then and studied to earn a BA, MA, and PhD. While my husband and I raised our four children, I worked for Fairfax (Virginia) County Government as a financial analyst and for five of those years, also taught Economics at Northern Virginia Community College. But I never lost sight of my goal to write fiction. As soon as I put in enough years to earn my pension, in 2008, I retired from Fairfax County and entered the George Mason University Creative Writing Program. I knew I had some talent but I was well aware I lacked skill and craft. To the extent I’m now a published author, the Mason faculty and the writers I attended classes with have been instrumental in helping me find my path.
In many ways my ability to live the writing life now results from my youthful decision to live the earning life. I’m awed and impressed by my young colleagues who manage to write while raising their families and paying the bills.
Why did you choose to go the nontraditional publishing route and not through an agent?
At writers’ conferences, I always attended sessions with agent panels and those about finding an agent. (I casually spoke to a few agents and found them to be lovely people). I also attended sessions with newly published writers who’d found agents and who spoke about their experiences. Each of these authors told of years-long (eight years or more from novel completion to publication) struggles to find an agent, for the agent to sell their book, and for the publishing company to include the book on its publication list for an upcoming year. A Caldecott Award-winning author reported that for a number of years (five perhaps?), the publishing house that owned the rights to her book dropped it from annual lists until she despaired of it ever being published. It eventually was published and won awards. I’ve spoken with other authors and learned of similar time-consuming and soul-stealing experiences with traditional publishing.
With my background in economics and lifetime of financial analysis, I spent some time considering the benefits and costs of pursuing the traditional publishing model versus self-publishing versus small press publishing and decided the small press publishing model offered the optimal solution for me. Time was and is my most precious resource and traditional publishing, even in the best-case scenario, requires more time from book completion to publication than I’m willing to accept. Furthermore, all publishing models, including traditional, require the author to engage significantly in the advertising and marketing of her book. For me, the reward-risk ratio excluded the traditional publishing model.
Fortunately, I met my publisher, Meredith Maslich, CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company (PPC), at the 2013 Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. I liked her business model and I respected her vision. Furthermore, PPC is a local publisher. PPC is hands-on and author-centric. Within one year of signing a contract, my first novel, Wissahickon Souls, was published. A little over a year later, my second novel, Becoming Jonika, was published. In July 2016, a collection of short stories, Wishes, Sins and the WissahickonCreek, is scheduled for publication. It’s inconceivable that my work would be published so expeditiously following a traditional model.
What have been the best and worst parts of your publishing journey?
The best part of my journey is the respect, integrity, and commitment of Meredith Maslich, my publisher. In addition, Kirsten Clodfelter, a Mason MFA grad, has edited my novels and is a joy to work with.
I don’t know that I’d call it the worst, but certainly the hardest part of this journey is advertising and marketing. I’m no good at it. And since my publisher, PPC, is a young company, we’re struggling together to figure out how to get my work and other PPC authors’ work noticed by a wide audience. I admit that I don’t have the knowledge, skill, or even inclination to utilize social media as a means of reaching a wider audience.
What are you working on now?
I’m completing the final requirements for the upcoming short story collection—Wishes, Sins and the Wissahickon Creek. As soon as I can, I’m returning to the magical realism novel I’ve been working on. I can’t wait to get back to it.
What advice do you have for others (publishing, writing tips, inspiration, etc.)?
Writing is work. It’s often joyful, fulfilling, and gratifying. But it’s work. Some days each sentence is a struggle. But if writing is the work you love and the life you desire, then you have to go for it. I advise writers to study the craft—through books, conferences, and other writers. My breakthrough came after I studied story structure. One craft book I often refer to is Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works. I believe a writer has to find her or his own inspiration. Mine is the little memo book with stories I wrote at age five, which my mother saved all her life.
My advice on publishing is that I don’t have any advice. My decision to go with a small publisher was based on a concept I learned in economics—optimizing my personal objective function. If you can stomach considering that concept, then figure out what’s your most important objective for your finished work and what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to reach that objective. Then go forth.
Call me crazy, but I’m planning to sort of do double-duty in 2015. From a writing perspective, that is. I’m pushing ahead on my second novel, while also working on a short story collection that’s just really calling to me right now.
Biting off more than I can chew? Maybe. It’s all up to the gods of time and energy in the end. But I’m going to see how much progress I can make.
I’m also continuing to promote my debut, Homing Instincts. Please pick up a copy if you haven’t, and honor me with a review on Amazon or Goodreads?
What are your writing goals in the new year? Drop us a line. And if you’re looking for some inspiration, check out this story wherein a nice writer gets a big, and much deserved, break!