Author Barbara Claypole White Discusses Her Debut Novel, Retail Therapy, OCD, And Fuzzy Slippers

I was lucky to receive an ARC of Barbara Claypole White’s debut novel, The Unfinished Garden. I’m also lucky to say that Barbara is a friend. TUG is a beautifully written love story, the kind you want to read slowly but can’t, because you need to know what happens next. It’s also the kind of book that’s so vivid, you can pretty much smell the gardens Barbara describes.

With insight and honesty Barbara shares with us how she came up with the idea for The Unfinished Garden, and how she is handling becoming a published author. Oh, and did I mention, her book launches TODAY? So happy book birthday to Barbara Claypole White — please welcome her to Women’s Fiction Writers!!

Amy xo

Author Barbara Claypole White Discusses Her Debut Novel, Retail Therapy, OCD, And Fuzzy Slippers

Amy: How did you come up with the idea for The Unfinished Garden?

Barbara: The Unfinished Garden, like my favorite flowerbed, evolved over a decade. There are many echoes of my life in the novel, but two what if moments really birthed the story.

Twelve years ago I was working on another manuscript—an incredibly bad one—when my father died and I found myself back in my childhood home in rural England. I watched my mother navigate life as a new widow and thought, “Suppose that were me?”

I was a stay-at-home parent in rural North Carolina with no income and no citizenship of the country I called home. When I first met my husband at JFK Airport, I was working for a London fashion designer and he was a tenured professor at the University of Illinois. How’s that for a random act of fate?

My morbid dilemma—what would I do if something happened to my husband—became my heroine’s story. (He loves to tell people I killed him off in my novel.) I knew my heroine would be a gardener, because gardening is my therapy, but to understand the layers of her grief, I spent a summer interviewing a group of young widows. Before long, I had found Tilly.

The second what if moment came several years later. James was not my original hero, but as I sought escape from my young son’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, my mind veered off on another dark tangent: What if, once my son grew up, no one could deal with his quirky behavior and obsessive thoughts? What if no one could ever love him the way I loved my husband?

I didn’t set out to make a statement about OCD. I just wanted to create a believable character. Popular culture is littered with stereotypes of obsessive-compulsives. I love Criminal Minds—the television show—but if you pay attention, the words obsessive or compulsive often creep into the profiling of serial killers. And then there’s Monk, the brilliant television detective with the wipes-carrying assistant. Did anyone see the episode set in a classroom, when kids were laughing at him? Man, that one kicked me in the gut.

Imagine your darkest fears. Now imagine living with them every moment of every day. That’s what it means to be obsessive-compulsive. To fight back demands incredible emotional strength and courage. That’s what I wanted to bring to James. He’s neither a victim nor a psycho. He’s a successful and compassionate entrepreneur who happens to be terrified of everything except for snakes. Which gives him one up on Indiana Jones.

Amy: Your website says, “Love stories about damaged people.” Can you tell us about the kinds of stories you write—and how this theme evolved?

Barbara: A few years back, I was fortunate enough to hear Irene Goodman speak at a conference. The topic was platform, and I spent the next month agonizing over what this meant for a fiction writer. How could I create an author brand if I didn’t have an angle? What was ‘my thing’? What kind of stories did I write? Those thoughts stayed with me until I was ready to query, and then the answers became obvious. OCD is an unusual hook for women’s fiction, and my second novel circles depression, dementia, and bipolar disorder. Seriously.

But there was no master plan. I write emotional relationship stories about damaged people because that’s what I love as a reader. I’ve always been fascinated by mental illness—my aunt was schizophrenic—and I read lots of dark memoirs. Plus I’m a diehard romantic drawn to the idea that people who need each other, find each other. After all, I’m not far off my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a guy who picked me up at an airport.

Amy: When you write your novels (and I know you’re working on # 2) what’s your process? Do you outline? Plot? Or just write by the seat of your pants?

Barbara: Confession time: I didn’t think I had a process until I started book two, which is technically book three, if you count the first manuscript, hidden at the bottom of my closet. I’m not a plotter, but I am a researcher. Once I have an idea, I interview people and follow my instinct. At some point I start writing—normally while still researching—and then throw everything on the page.

I did create goal/motivation/conflict charts and an outline for my work-in-progress, but they were merely brainstorming exercises. The act of writing things down gets ideas circulating in my head. I’m always scribbling character notes on colored stick-ums, which I plaster to my wall. And never look at again.

I’m all about voice, so I have to keep excavating and rewriting until I hear the characters. No one sees my first draft because it’s crap, but valued readers see my second draft (which isn’t much cleaner than the first). By the third draft, I feel as if I’m pulling everything together. And then the fun begins: deep point of view. Yay.

Amy: What has been the most surprising part of the publishing process?

Barbara: When I started chasing this dream, it was because I wanted to write. And write. And write. But writing is only part of becoming an author, and these days I feel as if I’m guarding my writing time with a pitchfork.

Initially, I dashed from project to project with the attention span of an anxious kid force-fed caffeine. There’s so much juggling involved: the day job, promoting novel one, and trying to establish a career as an author while writing number two and dreading the moment someone says, “What about number three?”

Living with OCD has helped. I’ve always encouraged my son to think small when he’s overwhelmed, so I break life into manageable chunks: Take my son to school (fifty-mile round trip), come home, check email, write, pick up from school (another fifty-mile round trip), be Ms Mom/chauffeur/house elf until after supper when I do promo and author stuff. Of course, my garden is now the neglected garden and my house is never clean. My big plan for Labor Day weekend? Scrub my bathrooms and kitchen.

I’ve also realized that I need my friends more than ever. My gut reaction to all the craziness was to retreat, to shut everyone out. Big mistake. It takes a village to publish a novel and a community to keep you sane throughout the process. Your writer friends are the only people who can empathize with the madness; your non-writer friends will buoy you along with their excitement. Three friends are throwing a launch party for me next weekend, which includes a girls-only sleepover. Fuzzy slippers, wine, and jammies. Can you think of a better way to stay grounded during a book launch?

Amy: What is your definition of women’s fiction?

Barbara: I don’t really have one. How’s that for a lame answer? I’m not a fan of labels in fiction, but if you forced me, at gunpoint, to identify two authors I feel most embodied women’s fiction, I would chose Jodi Picoult and Marian Keyes. Why? Because of the emotional reaction I have—as a wife, mother, daughter, sister—to their subject matter and their styles of writing. Both deal with relationships and darker issues but one uses hope, the other uses humor. They both hold the power to make me laugh, cry, or rush to the phone to tell my girlfriend, “We need to talk about this.”

But remember, there’s no separate category for women’s fiction on the bookstore shelves. Labels don’t matter. Only the story does, and the story has to have heart. Which makes me sound like Gene Hackman’s character in The Replacements. Now that was a fabulous chick flick—about football and male bonding. The feminist in me approves.

Amy: What’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Barbara: Persevere. Write, rewrite, repeat as necessary—and never give up. Accept that your path to publication will be littered with rejections, and let each no be a badge of your commitment to succeed.

Rejection is the ugly step-sister of writing. Even after you’ve married the prince—or signed the pub. deal—it’s still coming to dinner once a week. I had to dump 90% of my work-in-progress before it became my second contracted novel. And thank God, because it was total rubbish.

I have yet to receive my first one-star review, but when that happens, I’m going to treat myself to serious retail therapy. And write my heart out.

Barbara Claypole White grew up in rural England with dreams of being a writer. So, armed with a degree in history, she became a publicist for London fashion. Passing through JFK one day, she fell in love with an American professor. Eighteen months later, she was a marketing director and a freelance journalist in the Midwest cornfields. But she had a secret: she was writing a novel. A really bad one.

When her husband was offered a distinguished professorship at UNC Chapel Hill, they moved to the North Carolina forest, where she became a woodland gardener and a stay-at-home mom. Gradually, she carved out time to write each day, but it wasn’t until their young son developed obsessive-compulsive disorder that she started writing relationship stories about damaged people. She had found her calling.

Barbara’s debut novel, The Unfinished Garden (Harlequin MIRA, 2012), is a love story about grief, OCD and dirt. Her second novel, with another cast of gloriously messed-up characters, follows in late 2013. She has an essay on raising a child with an invisible disability in Easy to Love but Hard to Raise (DRT Press, 2012). She also blogs through the highs and lows of OCD at www.easytolovebut.com and the rollercoaster of the writing life at http://bookpregnant.blogspot.com/

You can find Barbara Claypole White on Facebook or at www.barbaraclaypolewhite.com

What Happened When My Daughter Read My Novel

My final edits for The Glass Wives were accepted – which means the manuscript goes into queue for copyediting, and for all intents and purposes, big changes have been completed.  Cue ominous music. Then, when my editor sent me the finished, digital document, I had an instantaneous flash of an idea – the kind that comes from nowhere and then seems obvious – almost like I’d been daft not to think of it before.

“Do you want to read the book?” I asked my 16-year-old daughter.

Her eyes widened – and if you know Chloe, this is quite a sight.  Eyes big and round and bright blue, accented by immaculately plucked eyebrows, lined most days into a modified Cleopatra, with sometimes delicate, yet always deliberate, swipes of not-tested-on-animals mascara. Or false lashes, depending on the occasion.

She nodded and smiled wide.

As I emailed the word doc to her hand-me-down Kindle, I had two thoughts. First, coupled with her mama-love bias would be her AP English analytical skills. Second, with the springboard for the novel being an event in our real lives, I wanted to know if she had any misgivings about the plot or characters.

“Let me know if anything bothers you,” I said. “I’m not changing it, but I still want to know.”

She just rolled her eyes and chuckled, as if none of that surprised her.  Humor and robust candor are the cornerstones of our relationship. I reminded her it’s not her usual reading fare, and she understood.  When she’s not entrenched in her normal school year, she reads a book or more per week, but she’s not reading book club books, or up-market women’s fiction. She’s reading epic YA, sweet romances and classics.  But she was game.  Then I told her the most important part.

“There’s no sex in it.”

Her shoulders relaxed.  She was visibly relieved. My friends are usually visibly disappointed.

Chloe decided to read The Glass Wives on her daily trek to the gym.  Now I don’t want to include any spoilers, but she texted me in dismay and delight over the story every day for over a week as she read.  And I caught her reading at home as well.  She told me what she liked, where and she was annoyed with the characters, when the happenings and twists made her sad, glad, happy, heart-warmed and relieved.   Her favorite parts are my favorite parts.  They’re my editor’s favorite parts.  They are some of my critique partners’ favorite parts.  Chloe said it was believable – and best of all she laughed when I asked if saw how it was fiction.

“Well it’s obvious where you got the idea,” she said, almost gloating, like she was part of a big secret that isn’t one.  It’s not a secret that my kids’ dad died in 2004.  It’s not a secret that The Glass Wives is about a woman whose ex-husband dies suddenly. “But other than that,” Chloe said.  And again, more eye-rolling.

She did call me on something she did once that I attributed to my main character’s ten-year-old daughter, but it was more like Chloe was honored to be sprinkled into fiction than anything else. She laughed with me about all the people who will be sorely disappointed not to find themselves within the pages, what the characters look like to her, what the house looks like, what she thinks happened after The End.

Speaking of The End – she was satisfied. It’s not tied neatly with a bow and she appreciated that the reader is left to discern what’s next.  Chloe liked that there was ample resolution, and that throughout the book things weren’t always what they seemed, but by the end, all fit together and made perfect sense.

And as she well knows, that only happens in fiction.

Amy xo

And yes, I have two kids.  My son, Zachary, is 20 and not a reader of fiction, he’s a reader of sports. He’s a writer too, about sports.  He was pleased Chloe read it, and more pleased I didn’t expect him to do the same. 

If you want to see a compilation of photos I attribute to The Glass Wives, check out my Pinterest board by clicking here

Women’s Fiction Author Brenda Janowitz Says: Use Editing As Your Path To An Elegant Story

We’re only half way through 2012 and I keep meeting other author publishing in 2013!  Today’s Women’s Fiction Writers author is Brenda Janowitz, who’s my St. Martin’s publishing cousin.  Brenda’s third novel comes out next year and it was fun to talk to her about the changes in publishing, her life, and her writing.  (I’m always in awe of multi-published authors…because of course, I want to be one!)

I hope Brenda will join us again when it’s time to launch Recipe For A Happy Life, but in the meantime she’s sharing great insights and advice.  Please welcome her to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Women’s Fiction Author Brenda Janowitz Says: Use Editing As Your Path To An Elegant Story

Amy: In 2013, Recipe For A Happy Life, will be published. In 2007 and 2008, Scot On The Rocks and Jack With A Twist were published.  Can you take us on a brief journey of your road to publication — the first time around and now?

Brenda: The publishing industry has changed so much since my first novel!  It all started when I was invited to my ex-boyfriend’s wedding.  My real life started to resemble some of my favorite books, and I said to myself: I’ve gotta write this stuff down.  My friends signed me up for a writing class for my birthday, and the rest, as they say, is history.  I had no idea how to get a novel published.  I just figured that if I wrote one, I’d just get an agent and publishers would be knocking down my door.  Ha!  If I knew then what I know now…  But I didn’t, so I wrote the novel in the tiny pockets of spare time that I had when I wasn’t practicing law and then edited until I had the whole book practically memorized.  I sent it out to agents, and there was a lot of rejection.  It was the first time I said to myself: Hey! Publishing a book might not be as easy as I initially thought!  But then, luckily, my amazing agent, Mollie Glick, rescued me from the slush pile.  She was able to sell it to Red Dress Ink in a two book deal and that was it– I was officially a published author!

For my third novel, I was hoping to write my “big” novel.  Something a little different from what I’d done before, something more sophisticated.  It took me years to write RECIPE–I was trying to write a more ambitious book, and it took me longer to really figure out what I was trying to say with it.  Once I (finally!) finished it, Mollie sold it to St. Martin’s in a two book deal.  Everything about this experience is different.  New publishing house, new editor, and I’ve been having a wonderful time.  The book will come out next spring, and I can barely wait!

Amy: Is RECIPE similar to your first two books? And, can you tell us a little bit about RFAHL and where you got your inspiration? 

Brenda: RECIPE isn’t at all like my first two novels!  I’d like to say that it’s a bit more grown up than my first two novels, more sophisticated.  But the readers will be the judge of that!

The book is about three generations of women and the grand dame who rules over them from her Hamptons estate.  I was inspired by so many things!  My grandmothers, my mother, becoming a mom myself– that’s all in there.

Amy: When it comes to the actually writing of the story — are you a plotter, or do you write by the seat of your pants?  Do you have any writing rituals?  

Brenda: I don’t have any rituals.  I just write when I can, for as long as I can.  With two small children, I don’t have the luxury of a schedule.  And I wrote my first novel when I was practicing law full time, so I guess I never did!

As for whether I plot or write by the seat of my pants, I usually do a little of both. For RECIPE, I did a lot of free writing, where I just sort of wrote and wrote and wrote, only editing after I’d written around 100 pages.  But I also did a lot of outlining– figuring out how to make my story flow and fall into a three act, eight sequence structure.

Amy: What was your biggest obstacle, either internal or external, in writing this novel?  

Brenda: Life!  Over the course of writing this novel, I got married, moved out to the burbs, and had two kids.  So, I’ve been a little busy.  But I think that the themes I was working with (life, death, family, who we are and what we really want) also really challenged me and forced me to think through what I was trying to say with this novel in a way I never had before.

Amy: How do you define women’s fiction? Does the label bother you? 

Brenda: I think women’s fiction is all about smart stories that women can relate to.  It’s the stuff I love to read, and the stuff that my friends read, too.  I don’t mind any label that helps readers find great books.  It can be disappointing when people take the label and use it to make negative assumptions about you and your work, but I choose to look at the positive in everything, so I like that readers have a way to find the books they love reading.

Amy: What is your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction? 

Brenda: Keep writing! It’s so easy to get discouraged or feel like you don’t have the time to write. But like anything else that is important in life, you have to work at it and make the time for it.

Edit! Editing your work is almost as important as the writing itself. Sure, you’re telling your story, but it’s also important to consider the way that you tell it. You want your writing to be tight, elegant and polished. It can only get to be that way through careful and thorough editing.

Develop a very thick skin. You’re putting yourself out there when you write and not everyone is going to love what you do. But that’s okay! You’re not writing to please everyone out there. You’re writing because you have a story that you want to tell. So start getting used to criticism and then see tip #1—keep writing!

A native New Yorker, Brenda Janowitz has had a flair for all things dramatic since she played the title role in her third grade production of Really Rosie. When asked by her grandmother if the experience made her want to be an actress when she grew up, Brenda responded, “An actress? No. A writer, maybe.”

Brenda attended Cornell University, earning a Bachelor of Science in Human Service Studies, with a Concentration in Race and Discrimination. After graduating from Cornell, she attended Hofstra Law School, where she was a member of the Law Review and won the Law Review Writing Competition. Upon graduation from Hofstra, she went to work for the law firm Kaye Scholer, LLP, where she was an associate in the Intellectual Property group, handling cases in the areas of trademark, anti-trust, internet, and false advertising. Brenda later left Kaye Scholer to pursue a federal clerkship with the Honorable Marilyn Dolan Go, United States Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York.

Brenda is the author of JACK WITH A TWIST and SCOT ON THE ROCKS. Her third novel, RECIPE FOR A HAPPY LIFE, will be published by St. Martin’s in 2013. Her work has also appeared in Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Post.

You can find Brenda at her website, on Twitter @BrendaJanowitz, and on Facebook.

Author Sandra Kring Says Put Away All Your Anxieties And Write Your Story

WFW friends, prepare to be wowed. Sandra Kring is honest and inspiring and humble — even after writing and publishing five novels.  It’s my honor to share this interview with all of you. 

Amy xo

“My mother often told me, ‘You’re so bullheaded, you won’t listen to anybody!’ So I didn’t. I didn’t listen to myself, when my negativity said I’d never fulfill my writing dream because the odds were too stacked against me, and I didn’t listen to her when she said I would never amount to anything. And to think: Once I believed she’d never given me even one positive message!” ~ Sandra Kring

Author Sandra Kring Says Put Away All Your Anxieties And Write Your Story

Amy: A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS is your fifth novel! Can you share with us a little (or a lot) of your personal author history? We’d love to know how you started writing novels and — and how you’ve continued to come up with your own “bright ideas”.

Sandra: I sold my first novel, Carry Me Home in ’03.  I wrote the book in six weeks, found an agent two weeks after I started looking, and got my first contract from Random House two months after that.  Sounds like a writer’s dream come true, right? Well, it was—eventually. But as you all know, over-night successes don’t happen overnight.

I grew up in a violent home and had dumb and worthless literally pounded into my head by my mentally ill mother. I had no books growing up (but wanted them), barely got through high school, and married at seventeen and hurried to have babies.  Growing up, I believed that all the good things in life were reserved for those more deserving than I, and I might never have picked up a book if my 18-year-old husband hadn’t been addicted to the news.  He’d started college and couldn’t afford to buy newspapers, so we started hiking to the library every day so he could read them.  I don’t know how many days I sat there staring into the silence before he mentioned that I was going to get awfully bored if I didn’t find something to read. So I got my first library card and started in the fiction section.  In no time at all, I was reading 4-6 novels per week.

Years later, with two of my children grown, and the third not all that far behind, I realized that my marriage was in trouble, and so was I. I’d been through years of therapy and had my PTSD under control, but my role as full-time mother and wife were coming to an end, and I felt old and worn and useless.  Also, around this time, I was watching my depressed father suffer a slow death. He had eyes just like mine, and in them, I saw my future if I didn’t find a way to make the second half of my life more joyful than the first half of my life had been. But I had no idea how to turn things around.  That is, until I came across a quote by psychologist James Hillman that turned my life around: To heal the person, we must first heal the story they imagine themselves to be in. 

So I looked at my life as if it were a novel, and I, the protagonist.  And I asked myself, If I were the author, what could I make happen in this story to give it a satisfying ending? Suddenly, the answer became clear. The protagonist would take the best of what a bad beginning had taught her—tenacity, a sense of humor, an in-depth understanding of human nature, a knack for noticing detail, a curiosity about how stories will end—and she would apply these attributes to her love of fiction, and become a novelist!  And through her writing, she would find her voice and be set free from the tragic script her mother had written for her. She would make a new role for herself, so that when her last child left home and her marriage ended, she’d have a means to support herself and a new, exciting beginning already underway.

So that’s what I set out to do.  But first, I had to learn how to write.

I used novels as my textbooks, and identified the facets of writing I needed to learn. Then I worked on those things systematically, writing pages of dialogue, description, metaphors and similes, and 3-dimensional characters.  Only when I felt I’d aptly learned the basics skills, did I attempt my first novel.  My characters were rich, the writing mediocre, and the story itself, only slightly better than pitiful.  But I was hooked!  I went back to the drawing board for more practice, and some months later, woke at 5:00 a.m. armed with a single question—I wonder what it’s like to send a loved one off to war, and have them come back broken? All I knew when I sat down at my computer, was that the story would have a mother, a father, a hero son, and his sibling as the narrator. Five minutes later, the voice of Earwig appeared to answer my question.  And one paragraph into the story, I thought, This is it—this is the book I’m going to sell! 

And I did.

For me, learning to write was the easy part. The hard part was holding onto the belief that I could make my writing dream come true.  I think that’s every writer’s challenge, no matter where we come from.  For what aspiring writer wouldn’t be willing to work as hard and long as she needed to, if only she knew for certain that in the end she’d get published?  But there are no guarantees in this business.  In my case, ignorance was bliss. I had no idea that the stats that said it was far more likely I’d fail, than succeed.  I simply decided that getting published couldn’t really be any different than setting a grueling goal like walking across the country from the east coast to the west.  Without a map to guide me, I might zigzag, walk in circles, or need to pause and rest at times, but if I kept my putting one foot in front of the other, I’d eventually have to reach my destination, wouldn’t I?

Amy: A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS is a sequel to THE BOOK OF BRIGHT IDEAS. Did you know while you were writing the first book that the story wouldn’t really before with The End?

Sandra: I knew that ending The Book of Bright Ideas with little Button and Winnalee being separated would sadden readers, yet there was no other way to end the story—it’s what would have happened. But at the same time, I didn’t want readers to feel worse when they closed the book, than they did before they opened it.  So I let the story end with Button’s hope that she’d find Winnalee one day.

Amy: What about the characters made you want to get to know them in their future — and in yours?

Sandra: I knew that if I wrote a sequel, Button and Winnalee would be older. Mainly, because I’d said all I had to say about them at the tender age of nine. Yet in growing them up, I faced a challenge:  How to mature these characters, yet keep the essence of who they were as children intact.  Making them eighteen seemed like the perfect option, since at eighteen we’re still wobbling between childhood and womanhood.

As for why I finally chose to write the sequel, the answer is simple. Five years after the release of The Book of Bright Ideas, readers were still writing to ask me, Where did Freeda and Winnalee go? Did Freeda ever straighten her life out? Did the girls ever reunite? I found it endearing that they asked as though Button, Winnalee, Aunt Verdella and the others were living, breathing relatives or friends of mine, rather than fictitious characters crafted for the purpose of telling a story. Eventually, I decided it was time to fulfill my readers’ wishes for a sequel. And I’m really glad I did, because I had a blast revisiting these characters.

Amy: Obviously, with five novels notched into your desk, you have found a way of writing that works for you, your publisher(s) and your readers. Do you outline and plan or sit down and see where the wind takes your story?

Sandra: When I sat down to write Carry Me Home, the opening poured out, and with it, a clear image of the final scene—even the last line.  But I had no idea what would happen in between.  I thought I’d always write with the same freedom, but after getting my editor’s comment back on my sophomore novel, I realized that my free-writing method hadn’t worked out as well the second time around.

With Carry Me Home, history itself dictated my plot, and all I needed to do was to have my characters react to those events.  But I was on my own with The Book of Bright Ideas. My editor pointed out that all the events were crammed into the last two-thirds of the book.  She suggested I create a graph and break the story into thirds, listing the events within each.  In doing this, she claimed, I would not only see how sparse the events were in the first third, but I could more easily see how I might redistribute them. She was right.

Through trial and error, I have learned that if I dive into a book with no idea of where the story is going, I end up with a bunch of characters meandering around the first few chapters like actors waiting for a script.  Yet on the other hand, if I construct a rigid outline, I end up feeling like I’m writing out thank-you notes, using a prearranged message. So I had to find a happy medium. Today, I write out a vague synopsis that includes the key events, and then let spontaneity fill in the spaces between them.  Now my characters can move with purpose from the first page onward, yet they have enough wiggle room to create the surprises I seem to need in order to keep the writing process fun.

Amy: What have you learned about readers of women’s fiction over the course of your career? We know publishing has changed. Have readers?

Sandra: I don’t think readers of women’s fiction have changed (they still want characters they can relate to and care about, and engaging plots. They still want to be prompted to think, and more so to feel), but I do believe that their buying habits have altered.  Not only are readers busier than ever, but they also have less money than they had before. So they pick and choose what they’ll give their time and money to more carefully. And with an ever-growing array of books to choose from via e-readers (many books free, or at far lower costs than paper books), they have more reading options than ever. With so many options, and less time to browse book stores, many readers seem to be doing what publishers themselves are doing—giving their attention to the blockbusting novels.

Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?

Sandra: I define women’s fiction as stories that deal mostly with themes that are exclusive to being female. You know, the topics that, when you bring them up to men, cause their eyes to glaze over.

Amy: As someone about to embark on the whole “published author” experience, I have to ask: what is your best advice for debut authors of women’s fiction in today’s publishing and reading climate? Also, what’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

Sandra: Whether you’re an aspiring writer, a debut author, or a seasoned novelist, the publishing end of a writer’s life is stressful.  If you’re an aspiring author, you worry about creating a story and query that will wow prospective agents.  If you’re a debut novelist, you agonize over how best to promote your book, and you worry that no one past family and friends will buy it. And when you’re a seasoned writer, you fret over if you’ll be able to keep your stories new enough, yet familiar enough to appease your readers, your agent, your editor, and your publisher.  Yet at any stage of the writer’s journey, you must learn how to keep these anxieties from crawling onto your lap when you sit down to write. That is, if you want to keep your sanity intact and your creativity flowing.  If you don’t, you’ll be observing everything you write through the eyes of would-be readers, and putting a choke-hold on your writer’s voice.  How long, then, before writing feels like a daunting chore?

So deal with your anxieties the best you can during your non-writing hours. If you’re an aspiring author, work on your writing skills until you master them, and research how to write an irresistible query. If you’re a debut author, rely on seasoned authors to tell you what marketing methods worked best for them, and which ones they believe were time-wasters. If you’re a seasoned writer, listen closely to your fans so you’ll know what elements of your writing appealed to them, and find creative ways to deliver them more of what they want, but in stories that are fresh and exciting. But when you sit down to write, forget about everything but your story. See it, breathe it, believe it, and love the story you’re in, so that readers will do the same.  Yes, the choices we make on the publishing end matter, but when all is said and done, it’s the stories themselves that will matter most.

Speaking of stories, I’ll end my time here as a guest blogger for WFW with a true story for those of you still dreaming of living the published author’s life:

One January morning, after a string of miserable circumstances that had me convinced that I was a fool to believe that anything good could ever happen to me, much less my biggest dream, I woke to a blizzard raging outside. Unable to face the day, I told my husband and son to eat left-overs, and crawled back into bed with a bag of Oreo cookies, a jug of diet soda, a pack of cigarettes, and a stack of library books.  I chose to start with Tawni O’Dell’s debut novel, Back Roads, for one reason, and one reason only—I thought reading a bleaker story than the one I was living might remind me that things could be worse.

Imagine how surreal it would have been, had someone stepped into my room on that hopeless Sunday back in 2000 and told me that in two years’ time, the very author whose book I was holding in my hands would be blurbing my first novel.  I hope you’ll remember this story on your stormiest days.

My thanks to WFW for including me on your wonderful blog.  I wish you all a productive and fun writing day.  May you all write a successful publishing story for yourselves.

~ Sandra Kring

Sandra Kring lives in central Wisconsin.  Her debut novel, Carry Me Home, was a Book Sense Notable Pick and a 2005 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award nominee.  The Book of Bright Ideas was Target’s Bookmarked pick for the summer of ’06, and named to the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list as a cross-over book in 2007. Thank You for All Things was All You magazine’s first book club selection.  How High the Moon, was a Midwest Booksellers Association’s Connections Pick, and a Target Breakout Book. Kring’s latest book, A Life of Bright Ideas, was released this past February and featured in Target’s Emerging Author’s section.

Women’s Fiction Author Amy Stolls Talks About Point of View (POV) and Chronology In Fiction

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Before I met author Amy Stolls in early March we’d emailed about a gazillion (or a dozen) times and had bonded over being Amy-authors.  We also bonded because I simply adored her book, THE NINTH WIFE, so much so that I invited Amy back to Women’s Fiction Writers to talk about POV and the non-linear structure of her book.  Amy Stolls is insightful and funny — and even more so in person.  We could have talked all day, I’m sure of it, and I can’t wait for her next trip to Chicago, where luckily she has family (and now me)!  

Please welcome back, my friend, Amy Stolls, to Women’s Fiction Writers!  

Amy xo

Women’s Fiction Author Amy Stolls Talks About Point of View (POV) and Chronology In Fiction

Amy: Welcome back to Women’s Fiction Writers, Amy!  You know how I feel about The Ninth Wife. I was intrigued by the premise and when I read it I was really captivated by Bess and Rory’s story together — and their separate stories.  Certainly I could remind the readers here about it — but you’re a great storyteller (on paper and in person). So would you do the honors? 

Amy Stolls: Thanks, Amy One. (I’ll be Amy Two.)  And thanks for having me back.  It’s great to be here.  (I always wanted to say those lines.  Makes me feel all TV-talk-showy.)  I love your blog.

The Ninth Wife is the story of Bess — a single woman in DC, folklorist, amateur martial artist –and Rory, an Irish fiddler and storyteller in his own right.  They fall in love and he asks her to marry him (cue violins).  Minutes later, he confesses he’s been married eight times before (smash violins, cue loud warning siren.)  She then takes off across the country in a minivan in part to find the ex-wives and figure out what to do.  Along for the ride are her bickering grandparents who’ve been married 65 years, her secretive friend Cricket, a Shar Pei named Stella, and a mannequin named Peace (intermingle siren with cuckoo clock, maniacal laughter and Yiddish insults).

Amy: Now that everyone is reacquainted with The Ninth Wife, I’ll share that I am a very linear thinker. I’m convinced it comes from being bad at math and puzzles.  (FYI, Amy Two is short for Amy 2.64 minus the square root of negative 43.)  I like things in straight lines.  But, when I read or write – and something is not chronological (not linear) and the points of view are what I’d think of as asymmetrical (not all the same all the time), I’m challenged and interested – and I like that.  Without giving away too much, part of your novel works on two timelines simultaneously – and the points of view shift throughout the book.  Was this how the story came to you or did it evolve over time?  

Amy Stolls: It evolved, absolutely.  Let me tackle the point-of-view question first.  I almost always start in 3rd person.  It’s how we frame our stories in real life (unless we’re actors) so that seems most natural to me.  But the nice thing about a novel is there’s room to experiment.  So I put in a few emails and a drunken voicemail, and I also dabbled in 1st person, which I kind of enjoyed so I kept doing it.  The thing with 1st person, though, is that I had to think hard about which characters should speak directly to the reader and why.  Which is to say, which ones should speak and help clarify things (Bess; Cricket; Bess’s grandmother), which ones should speak and muddle things by speaking (Rory often), and which ones should remain silent and muddle things with their silence (Bess’s grandfather; Stella, the dog).  The question keeps coming up in the book: what can we truly know about what’s happened in the past?  So Point of View is important.  The mannequin Peace is a young African American beauty whose silent presence can say a lot given what Bess discovers about her grandparents.

With regard to the shape and chronology of the story, I did begin with a linear telling of Bess and Rory’s courtship.  But then things got messy, as they often do.  I don’t work with an outline, more like a general idea of the story and where it might go, knowing it probably will take me in surprising directions.  I think it was E.L. Doctorow who explained it once like driving on a country road at night.  You can see most clearly right in front of you, then it gets a little hazier at the edge of the headlights and then it’s dark beyond that but you have faith that all that darkness will come into the light eventually.  That’s what it was like for me with this book.

By the time I reached the proposal scene, however, I came to a screeching halt.  I knew I needed to explain how a 46-year-old man got to be married so many times.  And I had to make his story believable.  So I switched to 1st person and let him tell it.  Fifty pages later I stepped back and thought, yikes!  What have I done?  I can’t take the reader out of the present for this long!  That’s when someone in my writer’s group suggested I alternate the current-day courtship chapters with chapters that go back in time and bring the ex-wives to life so that by the time Rory proposes, the reader has the back story and is well aware of what’s at stake.  Part two of the novel stays in the present but alternates Bess and Rory’s points of view, which helps with the book’s symmetry and the near misses and miscommunications that unfold. 

So you see, I start out easy and then I just keep making things more difficult for myself.  Story of my life.

Amy: I know this story was born out of some old family secrets.  How did you decide it was ok to mine your own life for fiction?  And where did you draw the line? Or didn’t you? 

Amy Stolls: That’s a tough one.  As a writer, I think it’s a good idea to get to that place where you feel raw and exposed.  Discoveries bubble up, creativity flows, all that.  Characters will have depth if you dig under the many surfaces, including your own, and expose secrets.  But to me it’s important to balance that with the effect that can have on loved ones.  Some writers don’t think that should stand in your way, and I get that, but I don’t just write in the here and now, I live in the here and now.  If it’s not my secret to tell, I won’t tell it (without permission).  But thankfully, I have enough issues and neuroses of my own to explore.  I was single a long time and it wasn’t easy, thus a novel asking questions about marriage.  (My grandparents were married 65 years and fought a lot, too, but they’re both gone.)  I had trouble getting pregnant and wouldn’t be surprised if that seeps into my next novel.  At some point I’ll probably feel the need to write about my addiction to scented chapstick.  It’s not normal, I know that.

Amy: You’re married, you work full-time and you have two sons – ages three and under.  Did you just hear a collective gasp?  How do you do it all?  Do you have a writing schedule/routine/extensive system of locks on an office door?

Amy Stolls: Locks!  Why didn’t I think of that?!  I sold my novel before my first son was born, so the truth is I really don’t have time to work on my next novel just yet (though I have an idea and am jotting down notes).  So … no schedule, no routine.  Just a dream and the occasional one-liner on Facebook and Twitter.  Unlike working on a novel – hairy beast that it is – FB and Twitter are great because I can write something silly and get an immediate response.  May I share with you one of my favorite exchanges?  I tweeted this: “You know how it’s cool to read Seventeen Magazine when you’re 12?  I’m going to start subscribing to AARP Magazine.”  And AARP wrote me back: “We’d love to have you!”  Of course they would, but still … how cool is that?

Amy: You’ve been to a few festivals and conferences lately, how did you find those experiences? I know they were family trips, but I also know you had time to yourself and with other writers.  On the whole was it a good combination?

Amy Stolls: Of course!  I met you, didn’t I?  Months ago you asked me how I might define women’s fiction.  It stumped me at the time.  But I’ve had the pleasure recently of meeting up and/or sharing the stage with awesome women writers at festivals and conferences around the country and now I get it (even though I can’t articulate it any better).  Writers like Eleanor Brown, Joshilyn Jackson, Tayari Jones, Eugenia Kim, Tiffany Baker.  They’re all smart and insightful and funny and honest.  Their voices are as varied as the American landscape, and yet I felt from them a real sense of community.  I did travel with my family, but they’re all boys.  What do they know.

Amy: What’s your favorite thing about The Ninth Wife? Don’t be shy (oh, right, I forgot who I’m talking to) because we all love something about our own work, even when we’re in the dregs of it.  Or hopefully we do!  

Amy Stolls: I love that it’s finished.  There, I said it.  I can’t obsess anymore about this change or that.  When Bess meets Rory he’s wearing Tevas.  What’s wrong with Tevas?  It takes place in 2005!  My editor would have none of it.  “I can’t be attracted to a man in Tevas,” she wrote in the margin.   (Oh yes, it got down to that level.  She didn’t like his Velcro watch, either.)  For days I obsessed about what shoes he’d be wearing.  I can’t even remember what I ended up with, I’ll have to go look.  

But okay, I’ll say this, too: a reader wrote me to say she loved that the novel was both funny and tender.  THAT made me smile.  It’s often my favorite thing about good books, how they can make me laugh, but also make me think and feel (good or bad).  I worked hard to try and do that with The Ninth Wife.

Amy: I can’t wait until it’s time for you to come back to Chicago.  I felt like we could’ve talked and walked all day — and maybe next time we will!

Amy Stolls: Indeed!  I would love that.  Along with the new lock on my office door I need to put up a sign that says, “Gone talkin’.”

Amy Stolls is the author of the novel The Ninth Wife, published by HarperCollins in May 2011, and the young adult novel Palms to the Ground (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), published in 2005 to critical acclaim and a Parents’ Choice Gold Award. She spent years as a journalist covering the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska before she received an MFA in creative writing from American University. Currently, she is the literature program officer for the National Endowment for the Arts, where she has worked since 1998, collaborating with thousands of writers, translators, editors, booksellers, publishers, educators, and presenters nationwide to keep literature a vital part of American society. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and their two sons.

Thoughts On Editing My Debut Novel

“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”  ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

 

I am steeped in editing. My eyes and brain are fried by day’s end, which, as writers, you know is a fabulous feeling.  I think the thing that has surprised me most about this time around, is not just the expertise of my editor Brenda Copeland (my agent, Jason Yarn, also has an adept editing hand) but the mindset that goes along with this round of revisions.

This is the final frontier — the changes I make are the ones that will end up on the shelf and in the e-readers. This version of my novel will determine how I am perceived, the first impression that I’ll make on the public as a published author of a debut novel.  It’s daunting, and it should be.  I feel a responsibility to readers to deliver a well-written, engaging, heartwarming and entertaining story.  I feel a responsibility to myself to make the book better than I ever thought I could.  I feel a responsibility to my editor and agent to do them proud because they put themselves on the line — for me.  As overwhelming as it all can be, it’s also exhilarating and I’m just at the forefront of what’s to come. And I am so totally up for every last bit of it.

The chance to publish traditionally has not only allowed me to reach a lifetime goal, but the whole experience has gently pushed me to new goals.

To pull from Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote above, I’ve been in enough hot water in my life to know how strong I am, and that would be — very.  But this hot water of publishing — is different.  It’s soothing.  I’m not being tested against my will or without my consent, the hot water is validating.  That in itself is motivating — and makes me stronger.  A different kind of stronger.

Thanks for sticking around for all the author-goodness here at Women’s Fiction Writers and for sharing my journey so far.

I think I need to go rest my eyes, and have a cup of tea. Oh hell, I don’t like tea. I’m having ice cream.

Amy xo

PS The blog is booked through September 2012 but if you ever want to throw names my way or offer a guest post, just email me!  The more Women’s Fiction Writers in one place, the merrier! 

PPS If you claimed your Mega-Giveaway prize by the deadline, it’s being mailed this week from either me or the author — or both — depending on the prize. They’ve been chosen randomly so no pouting. If you’ve read what you receive, be a mensch* and pass it on. 

*mensch = really good guy/gal

The Kitchen Daughter Author, Jael McHenry, Talks About Books, Babies, and Balancing It All To The Best Of Our Abilities

I met Jael McHenry on Backspace and she was the first author to guest post on Women’s Fiction Writers almost a year ago (find that post here)!  Now, as we are ready to celebrate the One Year Blogiversary (big party starts Tuesday), Jael is back to share with us the breadth of her experience along with her passion for writing and books.  I have found that most authors have a generous spirit, and Jael is at the front of the pack, always willing to answer questions and cheer on others.  She is the author of THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER (loved it!) now out in paperback with a gorgeous new cover. 

Please welcome back Jael McHenry!  (Maybe we can make this an annual event!!) And of course I have to say — MAZEL TOV! 

~ Amy

The Kitchen Daughter Author, Jael McHenry, Talks About Books, Babies, and Balancing It All To The Best Of Our Abilities

Amy: Welcome back to Women’s Fiction Writers, Jael, and congratulations on the paperback release of THE KITCHEN DAUGHTER! How did the paperback release differ from the hardcover release?

Jael: Thanks, I’m happy to be back! And I could go on for pages about how different the hardcover release experience and paperback release experience were. I was SO nervous about the hardcover — it was my debut! it was only happening once! — and I went crazy overpreparing and overplanning, scheduling myself to do dozens of blog appearances and guest posts, so focused on not missing my chance to touch every single reader I could get my hands on. And I have to say, that’s not a bad way to approach your debut hardcover release, because it doesn’t leave much room for regret. But by the time the paperback came around, I’d gotten to a much calmer place. Also, my paperback launch was originally scheduled in January and then got moved up to December, just a few days before Christmas and a few days after I was moving house. So I really had to pick and choose what I wanted to do at launch time, and what could wait until a little later. It was a much healthier experience, for sure.

Amy: You know that I’m editing my first novel, so that brings up a lot of thoughts about balance. How have you managed your job(s) and your family and your friends through your first year of being a published author? This applies to aspiring authors too — because getting IT ALL done can be an issue for everyone.

Jael: It’s been crazy, but all in a good way. We do all struggle with balancing writing as a craft, writing as a business, our personal lives and obligations, all those things. What has worked for me is just getting okay with the idea of ebb and flow. Around the hardcover launch, like I said, I was going absolutely nuts with promotion-type obligations, and I let some other things slide during that period — I didn’t even try to work on the next book, I didn’t cook (even though I love to cook), I just set a bunch of things aside. And then a few weeks later, I could pick them up again. The hardcover of The Kitchen Daughter came out last April, and this April will be even crazier — this year instead of having a book, I’m having a baby. My first. Eek! So that “ebb and flow” idea is really going to be central. A lot of other things will get set aside for the first few months, and then I’ll find a new balance as I add them back in. The difference is that if I intentionally say to myself “I’m just not going to write for a month”, then I’m okay with it, as opposed to telling myself every day “Well, I really should be writing” and not necessarily doing it, then beating myself up for not being able to do it all. And if I intentionally set it aside I never worry about thinking “Oh, I never write anymore.” I always know I’ll pick it up again.

Amy: When you’re writing are you a plotter or a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants)? Do you have any writing rituals or things that just work for you when you’re writing? (I need to sit by a window, for example, which means I cannot cordon myself off in my basement.)

Jael: Oh, I have tried so many times to be a plotter, and it just never works for me. I have to write the book in order to see whether it makes sense. I discover so much of it as I write, in a way I can’t just by outlining. And this means that I do a ton of revision, and I have to delete a lot of scenes — I probably took as many words out of The Kitchen Daughter as I left in — but none of that effort is wasted, because it all gets me closer to the final product. Other than that I’m pretty inconsistent on where and when I write, though there’s something I particularly love about being surrounded by other people who don’t know who I am or what I’m doing while I’m writing. Coffee shops are key. And I like to edit in hard copy while sitting at a bar with a glass of wine. (When I’m not pregnant, that is.) Too much silence doesn’t work for me.

Amy: Are you working on a new novel? Can you tell us about it?

Jael: Yes, and… a little. It’s set in 1905, so it has taken a ton of research and is going slowly because of that. Plus, as I mentioned, with a new baby on the way, I know I’m about to get pretty seriously derailed. Which is a blessing, actually, in a way. I think every book benefits from being set aside and then viewed with fresh eyes — when I’m under a tight deadline I can have other readers take a fresh look and tell me what they see, but it’s even better if I can take a month or two away from a manuscript in progress and then re-approach it, almost as if I’m appraising someone else’s writing and not my own. Which is a great way to edit. So I’ve definitely got something in the works, and I’m super-excited about the premise and the characters, but it’s going to be in the works for a while before you’ll see it on the shelves.

Amy: So much advice about reading widely has been offered here on Women’s Fiction Writers. Can you share with us a book or two (or three) that you’ve loved recently or long ago — that are NOT women’s fiction?

Jael: How about a whole series? In college I discovered Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer series of detective fiction and absolutely fell in love. He has this brilliant hard-boiled voice, this hard narrative drive, that I just find compulsively readable. Whenever I’m tempted to let my sentence-level writing run away with my book, I re-read him, and it’s just so helpful. You can never let your words get in the way of your characters and plot. He makes every word count, absolutely, and that’s a real skill that writers should develop, regardless of genre. I own every book in the series, but the two I recommend most often are The Blue Hammer and The Galton Case.

Jael McHenry is the author of The Kitchen Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2011), now available in hardcover, e-book & paperback, and is also a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog, http://simmerblog.com. She is a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, a member of Backspace, and a monthly pop culture columnist at Intrepid Media. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. Learn more about Jael’s work at jaelmchenry.com or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry. She lives in New York City.

Author Sarah Jio Says: When You’re Excited About Your Novel, Others Will Be Excited Too!

Last week I read Sarah Jio’s THE VIOLETS OF MARCH. In one day. Of course I knew that her second novel, THE BUNGALOW, was on its way, but considering I abandoned all my maternal responsibilities that day in order to suck down the book, I figured I better wait until everyone is situated back in school to read it.  So, what I’m saying is…don’t be looking for me next Monday.  Not kidding.  😉

The title of today’s interview, part of Sarah’s advice to writers, is so incredibly accurate. Sarah’s enthusiasm for her stories is obvious — on her website, on Twitter, and in our email exchanges before, during and after our interview.  We all get wrapped up in the business of writing at some point, but I get the feeling that the spirit of writing is never far from Sarah’s grasp.  That’s a lesson in itself. 

Please welcome Sarah Jio to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Author Sarah Jio Says: When You’re Excited About Your Novel, Others Will Be Excited Too!

ASN: Your second novel, The Bungalow, was released on December 27th. How did writing Book Two differ from writing Book One (The Violets of March)?

SJ: It was different in many ways. Since I already had an agent (and an editor), I had the luxury of making sure my idea was spot on (ie, saleable!) before digging in on the writing. After I got the thumbs up from them both, I began writing confidently. My editor read it in chunks along the way and made an offer on the book shortly after reading the final installment.

I found that while it took a good two years of writing an editing before I sold The Violets of March, my second novel, the second book (The Bungalow, which came out last week!) came to me with ease. I had learned a lot from my editor at Penguin and I put these things into practice while working on my second novel. Writing novels is just like anything else, the more you work at it, the better (hopefully) you get!

ASN: You mentioned to me in our email exchanges that coming up with tons of novel ideas is a chronic disease. Do these novel ideas just come to you or do you go looking for them. And, can we please bottle that disease and sell it?

SJ: Ha! Yes, it is true. I come up with more novel ideas than I can ever use. It IS a chronic disease! But, it’s a very fun disease to have. Truthfully, I love the idea-development process, which is why I find that I think of new novel ideas when I’m stuck on a plot point in my current project. It’s my writerly way of procrastinating.

In my life, I see stories everywhere. The Violets of March was inspired by a song. The Bungalow was partially inspired by my honeymoon in Tahiti, but also by a wartime journal my great uncle kept while in the South Pacific that mysteriously surfaced one day at my mom’s house. Blackberry Winter, my third novel (out in September) was also inspired by a song, of the same name. And The Last Camellia, in progress, and out in 2013, came to me while I was on a jog, admiring a neighbor’s bright pink camellia bush! I’m always looking out for my next idea. (

ASN: What are the key elements you include in your novels? (while published novels equals two — I believe sold novels equal six.)

SJ: I’m drawn to a variety of novels, but the ones that haunt me and hook me the most incorporate some angle of mystery and romance, if there’s a bit of history in there, even better! In my writing, I’ve naturally gravitated to a mix of mystery, romance and history, and it’s a combo that works well for me. I have two novels in print, two more sold and on the way, and three more in progress at the idea-development stage, and they all include some mix of these themes.

ASN: We talk a lot on WFW about not giving up the dream of being traditionally published — but we both know that’s not always easy. I read on your blog that you had an agent before you current agent, Elisabeth Weed. How did you stop yourself from becoming discouraged when things that had been going right started going wrong? (Obviously things have worked out wonderfully!)

SJ: Yes, I had a terrific agent, before Elisabeth, who ended up leaving the agency I was with and decided to pursue an entirely different career. This left me at a crossroads: work with her replacement or start over and find a new agent. I decided to take a big risk and take my new project (which was a very fledgling draft of The Violets of March) and find a new agency. It was scary to leave such a well-regarded literary agency, but in the end, it made sense for me to find an agent that was excited about my career in fiction, someone who would be a true parter with me. What everyone says about literary agents needing to be the right “fit” is so true. It’s really like a friendship or dating relationship in many ways—you absolutely must be compatible!

So I guess, for me, it was less about being discouraged and more about taking hold of the steering wheel of my career and driving it in the direction it needed to go.

ASN: What’s your writing process? Do you outline and synopsize or do write by the seat of your pants? Because whatever you do, it definitely works and you had two novels in 2011, you have one in 2012 and one in 2013. I think they call that prolific! 🙂

SJ: Thank you! I can tell you that my process drives my very logical, scientific-brained husband bonkers. But, he’s gotten used to my odd-ball approach to novel writing. First off, I write in bits and pieces of time when my children (three boys under the age of 5) are either napping or in bed at night (or out on a zoo adventure with daddy!).

When I sit down to start a story, I usually have a good idea of what’s happening in the novel—most of the major plot points are clear, the symbolic elements, and usually the ending (because I love to write the ending first!). Then, I just write and see where the characters take me. I check in with my notebook now and then to see if I’m sticking to the roadmap (usually close enough), but I find that I have the most fun and create the best chapters and characters when I just let them do the talking. Each time I open up the draft, new possibilities await, and I never really know what they’ll be!

ASN: What is your definition of women’s fiction?

SJ: Stories that matter to women, with strong female characters that we can relate to and discuss with our friends, sisters, and mothers.

ASN: What is your best advice to aspiring authors of women’s fiction?

SJ: My best advice is this: Only put effort into a story that you are truly interested in and haunted by. I hear of people plugging along at novels for years and years only to admit that they can’t stand their dreaded manuscript. To get an agent and an editor excited about your story, YOU have to be excited about your story. So the best thing you might do for your career is set your story aside, and think of another that truly grabs you.

I’ve given up on several starts to new novels because they didn’t captivate me. I figure, if I’m going to devote months of my life writing something, it better be entertaining for me. Sure, there are always times in the writing process where it is not blissful, but, in general, my rule is that my works-in-progress must keep me up at night. I have to feel semi-obsessed with them to know they’re going to be good. P.S. I’m currently obsessed with my work-in-progress, The Last Camellia, which sold to Penguin in the fall an will be out next year after my fourth novel, Blackberry Winter, is published!

Thank you for having me on the blog Amy Sue!

Sarah Jio is a veteran magazine writer and the health and fitness blogger for Glamour magazine. She has written hundreds of articles for national magazines and top newspapers including Redbook, O, The Oprah Magazine, Cooking Light, Glamour, SELF, Real Simple, Fitness, Marie Claire, Hallmark magazine, Seventeen, The Nest, Health, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, The Seattle Times, Parents, Woman’s Day, American Baby, Parenting, and Kiwi. She has also appeared as a commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Sarah has a degree in journalism and writes about topics that include food, nutrition, health, entertaining, travel, diet/weight loss, beauty, fitness, shopping, psychology, parenting and beyond. She frequently tests and develops recipes for major magazines.

Her first novel, The Violets of March, was published by Penguin (Plume) on April 26, 2011 and was chosen as a Best Book of 2011 by Library Journal. Her second novel, The Bungalow, will be published on December 27, 2011, also from Penguin (Plume). Her third novel is in progress.

Sarah lives in Seattle with her husband, Jason, and three young sons.

Sarah’s website: http://www.sarahjio.com/

Follow Sarah on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/sarahjio

Like Sarah on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sarahjioauthor

Moms, Writing, and Guilt – A Year’s End Guest Post With A Message To Take Forward

One of the best things about this blog, for me, is making it work for myself and all of you.  As you have probably realized, this blog focuses on the authors, business and craft of traditionally published women’s fiction. I’ve declined many requests from self-published writers because I’m steeped in the publishing machine and that’s my focus.  But I’m also not stoopid.  (no emails please, the error is for emphasis, it’s a blog, not a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, although if it could be, I’ll fix the spelling). When a fabulous writer/reader offers me a gem-of-a-post I don’t say no even when she doesn’t fit neatly into the WFW box.  

Just read Holly Robinson’s post and you’ll see what I mean. And if you’re not a mom — or a dad — or a step-parent — I believe it still applies.  Because the overriding message is — you must make time for what’s important to you.  Seems obvious, but it’s not always so simple, as we know.

Please welcome Holly Robinson to Women’s Fiction Writers.  

And…see you next year! (couldn’t help it, sorry)

Moms, Writing, and Guilt:  Do You Get In Your Own Way?

by Holly Robinson 

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked at book signings or when I teach writing classes is this one:  “When do you write?”

The aspiring writers who ask this questions are searching for a recipe to follow.  They want me to say something like:  “If you sit at your desk from six to nine every morning, you will become a writer.”  Or maybe:  “If you set a goal of writing just 500 words every day, you’ll have a novel in a year!  Easy as ABC!”

Even people who aren’t aspiring writers ask me this question.  Maybe it’s because they struggle to imagine what writers actually do.  They imagine us on safari or having affairs like the characters in  novels, or maybe kicking back with a brandy at noon.

“It must be so exciting to be a writer!” people often tell me.  “When do you write?”

Writing, alas, is not that exciting, seen from the outside, and there’s no simple recipe for getting it done—especially if you’re a mother.  Because mothers get so little time to actually put words on paper, we often look like we’re doing something else when we’re writing.  We’re burning dinner because we’re working out a plot line, or furtively jotting notes during a school concert, or suddenly walking the dog when the dog is tired and acting like a cement block at the end of the leash.

In my early years as a writer, I, too, was looking for the secret to success.  I had already become a mother by the time I was seriously trying to publish, and I was juggling a paying job as a public relations consultant besides.  I was so exhausted when my kids were little that I just wanted to lie down at the end of the day with a pillow over my face.

My question at book signings therefore had a slightly different flavor.  Instead of asking writers when they wrote, I would ask, “How do you find enough time to write?”  I couldn’t imagine it, you see, because I already had more tasks than hours in a day.

Most male authors gave very prescriptive answers to this question.  They had set hours for writing—even if they had regular jobs and kids.  “I get up early and write for two hours before my job,” they might say, or, “When I come home from work, I go straight to my study and write until bed.”

As a mother, I couldn’t crack this secret code.  How could I write early in the morning, if I had to find gym clothes or pack lunches before school?  How could I write at night, if the baby got up every hour with colic, or if I had to help with one of those dreadful fourth grade dioramas, the kind where you have to fashion little ears of corn out of Play-doh and ladders out of twigs?

Finally, a famous male mystery novelist shed some light on how many male authors were finding the time.  I knew that he had small children as well, so when I heard him speak at our local library, I said, “How do you find time to write?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the famous novelist said.  “I have a wife.”

I swear to you that this is true, but I won’t divulge this man’s name.  His wife would surely kill him if she heard this, or leave him, if she hasn’t already.

Finally, though, someone gave me a recipe that I could actually use:  the now-deceased short story writer and political activist, Grace Paley.  When I approached Ms. Paley at the Boston Public Library to ask how she got any writing done when she had small children at home, she grinned and said, “Day care.”

Day care!  I mulled this over in my mind.  I had day care for the hours I worked as a public relations consultant, of course, but did I dare pay for babysitting if I was just writing?  How could I justify such a debutante expense?

I couldn’t.  There was no rational reason on earth that I could give to support the idea of spending solid cash on a babysitter.  How could I, when my efforts at writing short stories, novels, and essays were being rejected, one after the other?

For a couple of years after that comment by Paley, I kept trying to fit writing around the edges of my life:  while the kids watched videos or played in the yard, or after everyone was in bed, before I fell into a coma.  I had a ritual, where I’d make a cup of tea and allow myself two squares of chocolate, essentially bribing myself to sit in front of the computer.

Finally I started running away from home, abandoning my family to go on occasional weekend writers’ retreats—typically to Wellspring House in the Berkshires, but sometimes just holing up in a cheap hotel to write for ten hours a day.  Not everyone’s idea of fun, but for me it was bliss.

Going away for even a weekend was tough at first, because I felt so guilty.  I’d abandoned my family!  I was missing that Girl Scout camping trip, that track meet, that night of video and pizzas with my children!

Plus, once I was at the retreat, it was hard not to mother everyone around me.  I’d feel compelled to do all of the dishes in the communal kitchen at first.  Once I even moved a glass out of the way, so that another writer (a young guy) wouldn’t knock it off the table with his elbow with his wild gestures.

Once I got over the guilt, though, these retreats were amazing.  It was absolutely liberating to just get up in the morning and go right back to the sentence or chapter I had been working on the day before, with nobody demanding that I make breakfast or tie shoes.

The downside was that sometimes it was more difficult to write when I got home.  I’d face the same fractured work schedule and house chores as before, and I’d despair again because I wasn’t making any progress as a writer.  I needed more hours to myself if I was ever going to focus on ideas long enough to put words on paper.

My husband, luckily, was supportive.  He urged me to essentially buy those hours.  “If this is what you really want to do, then get extra day care,” he said.  “We’ll get by somehow.”

God bless him.  I lined up extra day care hours.  Guilt drove me to become assiduous about dividing my time:  day care hours two days a week were for writing my own essays and fiction, and three days a week I would use day care for paid work.

Amazingly, it wasn’t long after that when my previously unpaid writing efforts started to pay.  I didn’t sell any fiction, but I sold one essay to Ladies’ Home Journal magazine, and then another.  An editor from Parents magazine saw one of my essays and asked if I’d like to write an article for them.  From there, I was able to use my clips to convince editors at many other magazines to buy my pitches for articles and essays.

It wasn’t long before those day care hours where I was writing my “own” stuff were actually paying more than my per-hour PR work.  I flip-flopped my schedule and started using day care three days a week to write and two days a week for public relations.  I finally sold my first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, to Crown, and from there, I started taking on contracts as a ghost writer and book doctor.

Best of all, because I had those long, uninterrupted hours to think and write, I was less frustrated, and more able to enjoy the days when I wasn’t writing.  Even more surprisingly, I found that I was more creative on my “off” writing days.  Thoughts bloomed at odd times, like when I was grocery shopping or yelling, “Good job, honey!” on the playground.

When I visualize why this happened, I see it like this:  the whole top of my head opened up and let ideas flow out like water on the days I had day care, as I poured the words out and arranged them.  On days I didn’t have day care hours designated for writing, that well in my head was able to fill with new ideas from some secret area in my brain that I’d never been able to tap into before.

Okay.  I need to work on that metaphor.  But you get the idea.  Now, when people ask, “When do you write?” I answer, “There’s never a time that I’m not writing, even if it looks like I’m doing something else.”

And, if the person asking me the question is a young mother, I add, “You’ll write best if you pay for day care.  Run away from home sometimes, too.  Your children will survive.  They might even be proud of you.”

Holly Robinson is a writer and comic whose articles appear regularly in national publications such as  Family Circle, Ladies’ Home Journal,  More, and Parents.  She is the author of the novel Sleeping Tigers and The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter:  A Memoir.  To learn more about Holly Robinson, visit www.authorhollyrobinson.com.