Guest Post: Author Claire Dyer On Managing Multiple Points Of View In Your Novel

TPA ebookI’m a one POV writer. At least so far. I love multi-POV novels but it’s not something I’ve tackled in my own book-writing journey. Today, author Claire Dyer shares with us some thoughts on writing a novel with multiple points of view. What are your thoughts? How do you do it? Do you stay far away from it? In the past, I’ve used short stories to experiment with POV and different literary devices and techniques. When I was reading Claire’s post I remembered I’d had a short story published that used two points of view…and I went back and read it. It was published a year before The Glass Wives (May 2013) — and I’ll be honest, it took me about a year and a half to find it a home! (So yes, I’ve always been persistent) 😉 Here’s a link if you want to read Minding Joe

But first — share your many thoughts on managing multiple points of view in the comments. 

And please welcome Claire Dyer to WFW!

Amy xo

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This Is My Brain On Index Cards

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I could not remember the dead friend’s last name.

I realize this is a problem likely reserved for novelists, because if I had a dead friend, I’d probably recall her last name.

At that point I hadn’t written many pages of my third novel yet, but I had an outline and a short synopsis for my agent, and ideas jotted down on paper just for me. I rifled through all of it.

Cooper.

The last name was Cooper.

I intentionally choose simple last names but obviously THAT memory trick didn’t work this time. I was going to have to figure out something so that this story, the new one, didn’t have me scrolling through pages to remember every name and every eye color.

So you know what this meant. A trip to the corner Walgreens.

There is not a plethora of index cards in Walgreens, but when I’m on a writing roll I am not prone to a shopping trip. So I worked with what I had. I chose the large, white cards because in a moment of stark realism, I know the small ones would not give me enough space because my ideas come out sideways and in large loopy letters, not neatly, and not on little blue lines.

I must say I was disappointed with the quality of the cards. They were more like paper than cards, but I was determined. I wrote each character’s name at the top, and anything I knew about him or her. Boys in blue. Girls in pink. I didn’t have check list or a method, I just jotted down what I knew about the character, mostly things like all their names (middle, maiden, nick—you get the idea), eye color, hair color and style, short or tall, thin or fat, and maybe his or her relationship to another character. I wrote the things that needed to remain consistent through the story, the things that wouldn’t change. Maybe for this novel’s first draft I wouldn’t have to type “find out what color Celia’s eyes were” on page 86, because I’d have a card that told me what i needed to know. I would limit my scrolling backwards and increase my moving forward. And in story writing, that is a good thing.

But I had more cards. What to do?

I don’t use the common novel-writing lingo because it doesn’t work for me. I’m a rebel that way. I find the words CONFLICT and TENSION empty. I look at them and think HUH? But, I do understand WORRY and ANGRY and SCARED and WONDER and SECRET and WANT and NEED.  So I wrote those out on cards for each character. Not in any order. Not the same for each one. Just what I knew to be important. Just what I knew at that time. That’s the great thing about index cards. There are always more.

I also put the major story points on cards. And—I wrote words you’re not supposed to write. AND THEN. That works for me. I wrote each major and minor event (you say plot point, I say event) on an index card followed by the words AND THEN…. This allowed me to consider the flow, and what was happening when and to move things around without major cutting and pasting in my Word doc.

I also wrote themes of the story on cards, and I’ll likely transfer those to—you guessed it—Post It Notes, when it’s time for me to revise. Those will stick all over my computer reminding me of what needs to float beneath the story to give it buoyancy.

For a few weeks I had each stack neatly paper-clipped together and tucked into an adorable little case I could carry around and look all writerly. Then one day I was chatting with my lovely agent and she asked, “What’s the last name of the dead friend again?” (No joke, she really did. She was writing up little blurb for the new book.)

“Oh my god,” I said. “I forget.”

“Well, call me when you remember.”

And then I did remember.

“I have index cards!”

And yes, the last name was still Cooper.

That’s when I realized index cards do not belong in pretty pouches. I wanted the cards out and around me whether I’m on the sofa or in bed (rules out the desk, but I don’t write there anyway).

The cards are like a little pat on the back to myself. I’ve thought it through, I have a plan, there is sense and order where I often feel there’s none. Even on days I get no writing done, I can read a card or two and have a good sense of story, remember something old, think of something new, and add a card to the pile.

I had no roadmap at all for The Glass Wives. When I wrote my debut novel I outlined the Chapter 3 when I finished Chapter 2. Yep, that book took four years to write. Not happening again. Ever. When I wrote The Good Neighbor I started with a (take a deep breath) twenty page synopsis. That synopsis served only as a loose tether to the story, because 1) stories always change as you write them, and 2) who is going through twenty pages to remember what’s just happened, what’s happening now, and what happens next? Not me.

The index cards are manageable size bites of the story and the characters, They’re snippets of time and place, fragments of intention and emotion. And on those days all writers have when the gifts of the writing life are elusive, when the rewards seem improbable and the words are fuzzy, these index cards are tangible rectangular reminders that many thoughts have been already been thought, and much of the work has already been done.

Cooper.

 

 

 

 

Self-Editing for Authors—Getting Rid of the Aww and the Awe

I often question my writing, judge my prose, belittle my word choices, and doubt my plot points. Some days I love what I’ve written.

The “disbelieving me” is in awe of the time and effort it will take to get from first draft to final draft. The “believing me” might think, “Aww, this is so good it doesn’t need to be changed.

No! To both.

I must self-edit.

I also must strike a balance where I am confident in my work but know it needs work.

Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time, self-editing can be daunting. At least it can be for me. I stare at the monitor and all this little black shapes stare back at me. Just looking at them is exhausting.

I know myself. I self-edit differently than I write. I’m a binge writer, but a bit-by-bit editor. Not that I can’t, or haven’t, edited for hours, but I can also edit a paragraph, then leave for an appointment or to do the dishes.

Oh, who am I kidding? I do not stop editing to do the dishes.

But I do stop if I’m overwhelmed.

The key here is not to get overwhelmed.

First Drafts

My first drafts are embarrassing. I write in sentence fragments and run-ons. But what I have when I’m finished, I hope, is the beginning, middle, and end of a chapter, the right idea to build upon. I write light in first drafts. That means I know I’m going to go in again to flesh out ideas. Many of my friends write 125, 000 word first drafts they edit down to 90,000 words. My finished first drafts are about 50,000 words. I edit up. No matter how you work, some of these tips might work for you to take the sting out of first draft editing.

  1. Do it quickly. Later I’ll advocate stepping away, but with a first draft I want to capitalize on my momentum. I’ll write a scene or chapter and go back and self-edit the same day. Sometimes, same hour.
  2. Don’t look back. For this draft I just go back in and change things with no mind to what was there before. I don’t want to remember the dreck, I want to revise it.
  3. Dump what doesn’t work. I elaborate on my sentence fragments and cull my run-ons. I specific “something like purple but not” and write lavender or periwinkle.
  4. Decide what does works. Or what doesn’t. This is usually the time I get a gut feeling at this time if the names I’m using really works for me. I also get a feeling about characters and if I need them. I want to move forward writing about what’s necessary.
  5. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. This is where I clean it up. No one’s cursing (well, maybe a little), but in a first draft I type so fast I don’t always use proper formatting. I want to GET IT OUT. So I go back and tidy up. Appearances are everything (you’ll see why later).
  6. Define the path. Is there a beginning, middle, and end of the chapter? If something’s missing I don’t write it, I make a note that it’s missing. Does the chapter ending leave a question or cliffhanger? If not, I consider how to make the chapter end so that the reader must turn the page. Have I buried anything in overwriting exuberance? (Who, me?)

My first draft isn’t really finished until it’s self-edited. Until I know someone else could read it and make sense of it, even with the weaknesses and holes. I call it my finished first draft. Before that, you don’t want to know what I call it.

Second Drafts (Or, to Infinity—And Beyond)

I have never counted drafts. Let’s say that with each of my novels (published, soon-to-be published, and under-the-bed) I’ve written more than two drafts and fewer than a hundred.

This, for me, is where fine-tuning begins and where I remember the best advice/joke I ever told my daughter.

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

If I looked at a whole manuscript and imagined editing the whole thing on my own, I’d crawl under this bed I call an office and that would be that. But because I write, and edit, my novels a chapter at a time, at first, it’s more manageable to me. For the time being I pretend that’s all I need to worry about, which allows me to focus (ie: which eliminates panic).

  1. Print out pages. Whether I’ve written the whole book or not, I print out one chapter. If you’re not a paper person, this is where I’d use track changes.
  2. Get your hands dirty. Yes, I use multicolored markers. Yes, they end up on my hands. When I do Track Changes, I go into the options and make all the different kinds of changes different colors. Makes it fun.
  3. One Bite At A Time. I go paragraph by paragraph and polish so that what’s going on there makes sense to me, and is tightly written, but I don’t go overboard. This is where I’d rather have too much than too little. This is where I start my editing up.
  4. Read aloud. Especially dialogue. I tend to use characters’ names in dialogue until I edit it. I also use a lot of “Well.” Because, well, I just do.
  5. Lay it out. I look at chapters by laying the pages side by side on my dining room table. I look for visual cues. Do the paragraphs all start with the same word? (A no-no) Are the sentences and paragraphs the same lengths page after page? How long are your dialogue runs? These are things you can consider when revising, because variations make stories more interesting.

Final Drafts

Final drafts take many forms. I have final drafts for my critique partner, then for agent, and then final drafts for my editor. If you’re not hiring an editor (silent scream) and you’re self-publishing then your final draft is for your reader.

For me, this is the detail and danger zone. This is where I nit-pick and where I usually am convinced that all my time and effort and energy has resulted in a big pile of poo. Luckily, this is normal. And that’s why I start with the hardest thing of all.

  1. Step away. Unless I’m right up against a deadline, I leave the manuscript untouched for days or weeks if possible. This provides perspective. If I have an epiphany (in the shower or while driving, ‘natch) I write it down but don’t open the Word doc.
  2. Go slow. When it’s time to get back to work, I start again by tackling one chapter at a time. I read for content and clarity. I circle or highlight what I need to come back to.
  3. Be honest. I note overused words and clichés. No one is above using them. Now is the time to get rid of them. Then, I do a search for any crutch words. Every writer has them. I use “and” more times than should be legal. I also make note of lingo and colloquialisms that might not work if the publication of the book was delayed, or if someone reads the book in five years. With backlists readily available as ebooks for both traditionally and self-published authors, this is a real concern. Here’s a list of “banished words” from Lake Superior University. This is a list of overused words and phrases at Write Divas. I’m not affiliated with either site, but these lists are comprehensive and helpful (and fun to read).

The best thing about self-editing, is that it’s not the end – it’s just the beginning. This is how I get my writing ready for others to critique and edit it. Yes, at some point, it’s finished, but you shouldn’t be the only person editing your work if you want it read by others. If you want people to pay to read it.

Beta readers and critique partners, agents, and editors will not only help your story, but their feedback will bolster your ability to self-edit in the future. Self-editing is the gift that keeps on giving.

By that I mean giving us headaches, some heartache—as well as the opportunity to be the best writers we can be.

This article was first published in Write On, the magazine of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (not affiliated with my WFW blog, although I am a founding member of the WFWA organization.)  You’re not a member of WFWA? Check it out here

Have you read the early praise for THE GOOD NEIGHBOR? Click here!

How to Write When You Don’t Have Time (or have had too much egg nog—or Hanukkah gelt)

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? It’s cold, wet, gets dark at 4:30, and most of us have no time or energy to write.

Let me explain. We’re entranced during this season. I don’t even celebrate Christmas, and Hanukkah/Chanukah/Hanukah is technically classified as a festival, and while important, it does not, in any way, have the heft of, let’s say, Passover or Yom Kippur, yet it gets all the good press. I digress. There are lights, food, and happy faces. People want to chat. They want to know your plans, about your kids, about your life (which has given way to those Xmas letters). What’s not to feel good about? Don’t forget Christmas decorations. Because lights. Need I say more?

What’s not to feel good about is falling behind on a deadline or a work-in-progress. It’s not bad to take a break. At one point while writing The Glass Wives (which seems like a lifetime ago) I stopped for six months for some life-tending. But if you don’t want to take a break, but feel like it’s time to spend your time on other things, remember that you can’t really write without living your life.

So go live it!

When people would ask me if the characters in The Glass Wives were based on real people, I answered honestly. Yes and no. Did I know people exactly like the characters? No. But were they snippets or truth stirred with pure imagination? Yes. But one of my favorite stories to tell is how one day I was waiting for my daughter to come out of junior high (she’s a college sophomore now) and I saw another pick-up lane mom get out of her car. She was dressed just the way I’d imagined my character, Laney, to dress. So I watched her. I watched the way she walked in her books and the way her coat swayed. I watched her push her long curly hair off her shoulders then scoop it back again. And, creepy as it may sound, every time I wrote about Laney I thought of this woman, this scene. But at that moment, I wasn’t writing a thing. Nor did I take a note, or record a voice memo. I simply had the experience and used it later.

You know, in my writing.

Nowadays I’m working part-time at a friend’s restaurant. Every day I talk to a hundred people if not more. Most are friendly, some are not. A few are rude. Some are in clothes that tell me what their jobs are, like a policeman or road worker (it’s the fluorescent vest that gives it away). Some are in clothes that tell me nothing except that the person cares about style, or doesn’t. I also know that I don’t know much about any of them but that it doesn’t matter because I write fiction. And when it’s time for me to write about something icky — I’ll likely remember the guy who handed me his credit card after holding it in his mouth.

When I want to write about confusion I’ll write about people who don’t leave a tip (I don’t waitress, but please, if someone is cooking your food, delivering it to you, and cleaning it up, leave a dollar on the table).

When I want to write about entitlement I’ll likely try to channel the woman who is never satisfied, never has enough crackers, or pickles, or mustard, and always wants something free to make up for it.

Maybe if I want a little angst, I’ll write about the bathroom lock that gets stuck every time I’m in there.

Perhaps one of my characters will wear a lovely hat with a purple flower, like a woman I met yesterday. Or maybe I’ll describe the reaction to someone having matzah ball soup for the first time. Or kreplach.

So, in the season of parties and shopping and family gatherings lies your opportunity to gather up all of the goodness and save it for a time when you do have time to write. When you have a character who requires a joyous demeanor, or an overstuffed belly, or even a Grinchy mood. Or a fancy hat. Or food on his face.

The best part is, no one knows what you’re doing. And you won’t be writing about these people, just your experience of them.

Don’t forget about the feeling you get when you wait in line for an hour, or get caught in a two-for-one sweater frenzy. Don’t forget the excitement of seeing someone you haven’t seen all year—or maybe that’s worry.

Whoever you see and whatever you do, if you need to, just pack away the pen and the smart phone and enjoy the season. Take it all in, but don’t take notes.  It will all be there when you need it, ready to be retrieved, and when your belly is filled with food, your calendar is filled with plans, your closets are filled with hidden gifts—hopefully your head will be filling with ideas!

 

 

 

Author Keith Cronin Shares His Publishing Journey From Hard Cover To E-Book

Keith Cronin is a true writer-advocate in addition to being the author of ME AGAIN and a professional drummer!  Keith’s road to publication has been long and arduous and wonderful — and we are so lucky to have him back on Women’s Fiction Writers. I met Keith on Backspace, probably in 2007! (OMG, that’s like 27 years in online years!) Keith was one of the very first guests on WFW!  A link to that interview, and to my review of ME AGAIN, his re-released novel now available on Kindle, are listed below.

Please welcome Keith Cronin back to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Author Keith Cronin Shares His Publishing Journey From Hard Cover To E-Book

Amy: Welcome back to Women’s Fiction Writers, Keith! Congratulations on the Kindle release of your novel Me Again, a year after its original hardcover release. Can you explain to us why there was a year in between these releases?

Keith: Thanks, Amy – it’s great to be invited back! The one-year wait was a contractual thing. Five Star is a very specialized publishing house, focused primarily on selling hardcover fiction to public library systems. In fact, when they bought my book, they were not doing any digital publishing at all. They’ve finally begun to enter the ebook market, but the terms of my contract give me all non-hardcover publishing rights one year after the hardcover release.

This arrangement didn’t sound too bad back in 2010 when I signed the book deal, but that one year ended up feeling like an eternity, given that my book came out right when ebooks started really taking off. So I’m thrilled to finally be able to offer the book to a wider audience – and at a much lower price.

Amy: How was your experience as a debut author? Was it different from your expectations?

Keith: It’s been both a roller-coaster ride and a huge learning experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Probably the toughest thing when launching a book is the ongoing choice you’re faced with, of when to just let things happen, and when to try to insert yourself into the process. On one hand, working with a publisher who’s been around, you need to give them credit for knowing how to do their part. But on the other, you can’t forget that yours is just one of many books they are publishing, so you need to stay on top of some of the details just in case they don’t – all without becoming a nightmarishly high-maintenance pain in the ass (or, NHMPITA). That’s always a balancing act, and I’m not sure I always stayed on the correct side of the NHMPITA line. But I’m fortunate to have many friends who are authors, and their experiences provided a much-needed reality check, and made me realize that most authors hit some occasional speed-bumps and woulda-coulda-shoulda’s with every book they publish.

I will say, the validation that comes with publishing a book has been very powerful – it makes you feel like all that hard work really meant something. And it’s incredibly gratifying when a reader speaks up to let me know they enjoyed my story. Whether they tell me face-to-face, send me an email, post a review, or comment on Twitter or Facebook, it never fails to lift me up and make my day. That stuff just never gets old.

But one of the coolest things I’ve found is that having a book out puts me in a position to help even more writers. I’m a huge believer in the power of writers as a community – my favorite being the Backspace online forum, where you and I met. When I speak at conferences and other events, or post my thoughts online about writing, it’s both rewarding and humbling to see how people respond. Just last week I did a reading and panel discussion down in South Beach, at the LitChat Literary Salon at the Betsy Hotel. One of the people in the audience was a high school kid, who came up to talk to me afterward. He said something that really struck me: “I’m not the best writer in my creative writing class. In fact, I’m kind of surprised that nobody else from my class showed up for this, after our teacher told us about it.”

I told him it’s not just a matter of who has the most talent, but more about who wants it the most, and the fact that he showed up indicated he had more of a hunger than the other students. By the way his eyes lit up, I could tell he was really encouraged. When you see that fire in another writer’s eyes, and know that you helped keep that flame going, it’s a really powerful experience.

Amy: I know you’re a regular contributor to Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite daily reads — but are you also working on a new novel? If so, will it be back under the broad umbrella of women’s fiction?

Keith: Yes, I’m in the brainstorm stage of my next project, and I think it will fit into that admittedly broad category, in that it will explore some pretty deep emotional territory. But I’ll be honest – I’ve really begun to think “women’s fiction” is a category that exists mostly in the minds of people who work in publishing, but not in the minds of most readers. I almost never hear the term unless I’m talking to somebody who is involved in the business. Even at literary conferences I keep encountering people in the audience questioning what women’s fiction is, particularly when they see a guy who looks like me claiming that he writes it.

That said, I definitely write with a female audience in mind. I’ve always related well to women – as a youth I was perpetually stuck being that nice guy whom so many girls liked “only as a friend” – oh, the agony! And I’m certainly not cut out to write testosterone-dripping Cussler-esque thrillers (in part because I don’t feel cardboard is a satisfactory material from which to build a character – oops, did I say that out loud?). So yeah, I’m sticking with this direction, because I think it lets me tap into what I’ve got, in a way that seems to resonate most with readers.

Amy: What’s your best advice for debut authors?

Keith: Well, this is definitely a piece of “do as I say, not as I do” advice, but here it is: Take advantage of any time you have to start writing the next freaking book.

I know, everybody says it. But it’s so true, and it needs to be reiterated. When you’re a debut author, your whole world becomes about this one book. And since it’s your first book (we’ll ignore any “trunk novels” for the moment), it’s easy to look at this one book as the sum total of all your literary energy. You’ve poured everything you had into this book, and there’s simply nothing left.

Sorry, but that only worked for Harper Lee. You wanna be an author? You gotta keep writing more books. And they sure as hell don’t write themselves.

Amy, with the publication date of The Glass Wives approaching (yay!), I’m sure you’ll agree that there is a LOT of waiting in this game. In fact, this advice isn’t just for debut authors. These bouts of waiting occur at all stages of your development and career, whether you’re submitting short stories to journals, or querying agents, or waiting while your agent pitches your book to editors, or all the stuff that happens after you sell, when you’re waiting on copy edits, cover art, author blurbs, ARCs, you name it. Bottom line, there is a huge amount of thumb-twiddling time in this business, during which your thumbs (and the rest of your fingers) would be put to better use typing away at your next book.

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

Keith: Don’t succumb to the temptation to treat self-publishing as a shortcut. Now, please read that sentence carefully. I’m not going all Sue Grafton on you here. I’m not saying “don’t self-publish.” I’m not saying “self-publishing is a shortcut.” What I’m trying to say – with any luck, more accurately and diplomatically than Grafton did – is that there can definitely be a temptation to treat self-publishing as a shortcut. I mean, your book can be live on Amazon within hours of you typing “the end” in your Word document. Just knowing this is heady stuff, and the temptation is palpable.

What do I advocate instead? Before jumping on that bandwagon, try to get a sense of whether your stuff is ready. And I’m “old school” in this respect: I think you need somebody else to help determine that. An editor at a literary journal choosing to publish one of your stories. A reputable agent offering to represent you. Failing that, some serious interest and “near misses” with several reputable agents and/or editors. Some positive reviews and comments from professional writers with whom you interact, either in online groups or at conferences, workshops, or meetings with established groups or associations (RWA, MWA, etc.).

All this may make me sound dreadfully old-fashioned, but I just think it’s so hard to be objective about your own work. And while your mom or your spouse might think your writing is fabulous, I really think you need a second opinion, ideally from others with some firmly established expertise. In my experience, most of us just don’t get good enough to write fiction worthy of publication without paying some pretty substantial dues – and getting our butts kicked by people who know more about writing than we do.

So that’s all I’m advocating: do the hard work necessary to get your writing up to par. Then, by all means explore whatever publishing options are available, and make a choice that best suits your priorities.

Amy: What is one thing you would do as a debut author– if you had it to do all over again? Or did you check everything off your list?

This question brought back a memory, and sent me digging through my Facebook statuses (or is it stati?) from a year ago, and I soon found the post I was looking for:

“When I put out the recycling bins tonight, the amount of empty wine bottles in the glass/metal/plastic bin reminded me that yes, this was the week I published my first novel.”

So I’m thinking next time around, I’ll look into trying to get a volume discount at the local wine shop!

(I’m making a note of this one, Keith. CHEERS, my friend!)

Author of the novel ME AGAIN, Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. He is also becoming informally known as “the title guy,” having provided the title for Sara Gruen’s blockbuster Water for Elephants, as well as Susan Henderson’s HarperCollins debut Up from the Blue.

Keith is a regular contributor at the literary blog Writer Unboxed, named one of Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for the past five years. His fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Indiana University, and earned his MBA at Florida Atlantic University. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele. Visit him online at keithcronin.com or facebook.com/keithcronin.

Find out more about ME AGAIN, and get your own copy, by clicking here.

You can read Keith’s first WFW interview, When A Man Writes Women’s Fiction, by clicking here.

You can read my review of ME AGAIN, here.

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.

How Reading A Historical Thriller About A Nun Helped Me Write Women’s Fiction About A Jewish Family

We’ve talked a lot about reading widely, which is probably the most prevalent advice given by the published authors who’ve graced this blog.  I think one thing that makes it easier to go outside outside our (eh hem, my) comfort zone when reading is the fact that most of us are part of one or more writing communities.  When you know the author of a book that might not be your usual thang, you have another reason to read it.  I’m not saying you should read everything everyone you know writes, I know that’s impossible.  Delightful-sounding, but ambitious, considering most of us have, well, lives.

I digress.

In January I found myself compelled to read THE CROWN, written my fellow debut author Nancy Bilyeau, even though never in my 40-cough-cough (ok, maybe one more – cough) years, had I ever read — or had I ever considered reading — a historical thriller set in Tudor England.  That’s the 1500’s, folks.  Way before the olden days even.

I met Nancy Bilyeau in a debut author group called Book Pregnant.  She’s a social media lackey like me, so we had a lot in common.  Her book came out in January, it was one of the first Book Pregnant books to be published (our books are all being published in 2012 or 2013).  Since I’d just unofficially resolved to read books unlike those I’d read before, Nancy’s was the place to start.  Slowly.  I downloaded the sample.  I was hooked.  I finished the book in two days. I did not analyze the book while I read it (it’s a page-turner, breath-holder, nail-biter) but I realized afterward that not only did I want to read widely for pleasure, but for improving my own writing craft.

Taking myself away from a contemporary, literary-light, realistic work of character-driven fiction (which is what I most often read) allowed my mind to wander (when I was finished reading) the way it does when we’re doing something mindless like the dishes or when I forget my glasses at the gym and can’t read or watch TV.  The fact is — in this case — I was so removed from my own writing that I was actually able to see it more clearly.

So, while a young nun was chasing secrets all over England, and I was learning things about the Catholic Church, kings and nuns and monks, I was also internalizing a deft hand for setting, conflict, mystery and even a little bit of romantic tension.

I think we store our own work in pockets in our brain where we know they fit — and when we read something just like it — we tuck those other stories into the same pockets without paying much attention because the comparisons, lessons, conclusions are obvious. They’re important, those lessons are crucial, but they don’t stretch us in every direction.

When I read something that is nothing like The Glass Wives, my lessons are almost epiphanies. Reading about the monastery and abbey in Tudor England prompted me to enhance some of the setting descriptions in my book.  I loved the visual nature of Nancy’s book, and while my main character, Evie, is driving a mini-van in the suburbs, I was so taken with the images I saw in my head that I wanted to make sure that effect could happen for my readers too.  Nancy’s main character, Joanna, is a strong, driven 26-year-old woman with a strong head and a (mostly) sure heart.  Hey — sounds like Evie, although she’s 45. THE CROWN is steeped in history and the Catholic religion.  The Glass Wives is peppered with Jewish customs, holidays and Yiddish words and phrases.  It’s not the same as Catholic Tudor England, but the weight of its effect on the reader needs to be the same.

Even though I knew nothing about this time period, I easily fell into the rhythm of the cadence.  Context allowed me to derive meaning.  The writing enabled me to learn things without removing me from the story. All good, relatable, universal tools for writers.

There are 30 of us in Book Pregnant (it’s an invisible/secret/private FB group, but we also have a very public blog), and my plan is to read all the books eventually, but this experience has also opened my eyes to more great books out there that I normally might have — no, would have — ignored.  It’s true that the fact that I know Nancy made this even more fun.  I mean, really, what’s not fun about seeing your friend in your local paper — and then realizing it’s written by one of your neighbors, who has been a Chicago Trib reporter for years and also, you guessed it — knows Nancy!

Me in the Chicago suburbs holding The Chicago Tribune with an article about Nancy Bilyeau, my author-friend in NY, and the article was written by my neighbor and friend, Bonnie Miller Rubin. Say that ten-times, fast, I dare you.

This, my friends, is three degrees of writer-separation!  (Better than being Kevin Bacon I tell you.)

The point of all this is…give other writers a chance because you are going to want them to give YOU a chance and because you can and will learn from them.  Don’t know other writers?  Yes you do, you know me!  Just check out the comments section, follow folks on Twitter, leave a note on a thread on one of your favorite author’s FB pages.  I feel fortunate (as you know) to connect here at WFW with women’s fiction writers.  It’s what I do. I write stories and novels about families and friendships that revolve around women.  But — since January, in addition to the literary/women’s fiction that’s usually on my reading menu, I’ve read historical fiction, memoir, humor, Southern fiction and a paranormal romance. I have also read the lauded and laughed-at 50 Shades, but purely in the name of research about grey eyes.  And elevators.  We will not discuss the fact that there are neither grey eyes nor elevators in The Glass Wives.

And let’s just say I am glad my dining room is no longer painted red.

Consider those your spoilers for the day. 😉

Amy xo

PS My opinion of that 50 Shades is that the writing is lackadaisical at best – but this isn’t a review blog – and I get the lure. A friend told me Ryan Gosseling is going to play Christian Grey in the movie. I’m more of a George Clooney gal, but whatever.  I may just have to see the movie too. You know.  For research.

I urge you to learn more about Nancy Bilyeau and THE CROWN by visiting Nancy’s website and by reading the interviews and articles listed here.  THE CHALICE, the much anticipated sequel to THE CROWN, will be published in the UK and Germany.  You can read about Nancy in the Chicago Tribune, the same article that I’m holding and subsequently mailed to Nancy.  Then it will be like zero degrees of separation for all of us!  Click here!  If you’d like to read a review of THE CROWN, click here.  Want an in-depth interview with Nancy? You’ll find that here

Top photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ladymixy-uk/

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.

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.

On Writing Subplots, Minor Characters And Feeding Kitty Cats. Or…Ways To Weave It All Together In Your Novel

Welcome to post #101! Can you believe it? Had I realized that before now, I’d have made sure to finish one of the twenty drafts I have on hand.  But I didn’t so this is a revised yet recycled post from an old blog. At least I didn’t recycle the mommy blog posts and at least I’m environmentally friendly. Right? 🙂

A few summers ago we found a mother cat and three kittens on the patio in front of our house.  One of the dogs discovered them when she decided to jump up on back legs to look outside through the dining room window because she was finished looking out the other seven thousand windows in the house.  Of course it was the middle of the night and of course I was awake from then on, as she/we watched the kittens play in the dark amidst the withering flowers and plants succumbing to the fact that I stopped watering the week before (I’m a May-June gardener — after that, it’s too dang hot).  The next day dog #2 and mama cat had a staring match through the window.  I then decided those tiny, wobbly kittens must be hungry and although feeding them would endear me to them for life, I was sure, I used my favorite plastic platter and spread a can of tuna near the rim so the kittens could reach it easily.  That would have been great if the mama cat would have then let them have any.  Which she did not.  When I saw the tiny kitties licking an empty plate, well, what was I supposed to do?  More tuna.  More plates.  I pushed the plates to the two spots where the kittens were hiding and then when I hid, they ate the tuna.

Later that day I rigged the dining room curtain so dog #2 could not wiggle through where the two sides meet. I left the outside lights off so the cats would be harder to see.

Good story, right? I wish. But POOF — the cat and kittens were gone.  I thought mama cat would come back.  My daughter and I decided on a place to feed them where the dog wouldn’t see them.  I researched feral cats and called the local humane society.  Heck, we even named all four of them.  There was no way I was taking in four cats but we decided if one came back — well then our hand might be forced.  No need for all the planning.  The cats were gone for good.  Gone, yes. But not forgotten.

You know, like a dropped subplot.

Dropped characters who have no graceful or dramatic exits and dropped subplots with no imaginable or actual ending are probably my biggest pet peeve in reading and writing.  Everything in literature needn’t be tied up neatly with a bow, but I think there should be a reasonable explanation or an understanding of a character’s departure.  If there’s a subplot we don’t need to read “the end” but we do need to know (or think we know) where something is headed.

A writer friend of my uses spreadsheets to do this.  I’m not quite as organized.  OK, I am no way nearly as organized.  I have scribblings on paper that say “Don’t forget about so-and-so” which is the writerly string on my finger.  Throughout my novel and works in progress I tried to weave different storylines that have beginnings, middles and endings that do not coincide with the beginning, middle and end of the novel.  Some of those secondary endings leave the reason without question and some point to possibilities and allow the reader to surmise, wonder and think.  I relied on my betas  to help discover nuances missed and threads that have detangled.  Since I know what happens in my stories, what doesn’t happen — I’m often too close to it all (shout-out to betas – you know who you are).

With more recent experience I’ve come to realize that if I know that each character has a purpose other than simply to support another character, it’s much easier to imagine a story for that character. It needn’t all be in the book, but if I know it all I can have that character’s arc complete, no matter how short or shallow. Does every character need a full story? No. But if you’ve woven a subplot into the book in Chapter 1 and don’t mention it again, oh, til the middle of the book, I’m just going to itch.  If supposedly vital relationships show up now and again, it makes me twitch.  In real life we may be able to pick up the phone after six months to talk with a friend and it’s like no time has passed, but a reader has only 300-500 pages (typically) to get into the world of your characters, to belt themselves in for the ride.  I know now that for the stories I like to read – and write – weaving is the perfect metaphor.  Sometimes you see the threads, sometimes you don’t, but they are always there ready to poke back out and make themselves know, add to the colorful schema, the artwork, the tapestry — you know — the plot.

I have shelved authors who drop subplots.  It disappointments me so much that I don’t read them again.  No second chances with me – there’s too much out there to read.

I can only imagine it was that way with the cats.  A big wide world to explore and without the lure of more than a can of tuna (it was albacore!) they were not sticking around for more. And just like a book with elusive subplots – I kept hoping they’d come back so I could learn the rest of their story.

How do you keep track of threads and subplots in your writing? Is it scientific? Secret? Simple? Do tell! Have you dropped a character or subplot and gone back to fix it?