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

Author Valerie Frankel Shares Where Her Book Ideas Come From And What Happens When You’re Lukewarm About Your Own Story

Whenever I find a new-to-me author who’s not really new — I am happy as well as a little embarrassed. I mean, really. How could I have missed Valerie Frankel? She now has sixteen novels to her name — she writes memoir, women’s fiction, chick-lit, YA and she’s a ghost writer for some really high profile celebrities. I’m not sure how she does it all, I can barely edit, write and get the dishwasher emptied on the same day.  Did I just write that and hit publish? Yes, yes I did. (My goal, as always, is to make you all feel incredibly capable in the face of your own writerly adversity!) 

Please welcome the busy, funny, talented, Valerie Frankel to Women’s Fiction Writers! 

Author Valerie Frankel Shares Where Her Book Ideas Come From And What Happens When You’re Lukewarm About Your Own Story

Amy: FOUR OF A KIND (FOAK) is your latest novel.  Before we get into any more details about that — it is your 15th novel. Sweet!  And impressive. (I need to breathe, I’m just editing my first!) Can you share a little about FOAK and where the idea came from?

Valerie: Thanks, and congrats on your novel!

FOAK started with the idea of unexpected friendship. Friendship is something I think about a lot, in particular, how women with busy lives, family, jobs, can make new friends. It seems nearly impossible. But, since we do what they can for our kids, I thought harried Moms would carve out some time to attend a Diversity Committee meeting to support a good cause at their kids’ school. That got my characters—four completely different women—in the same room. Then I needed a way to get them to open up about their personal lives with complete strangers. That’s when the idea of having them play poker for secrets instead of money came in. It’s always easier to talk when your hands are busy. Cooking, quilting, whatever. As soon as the characters started shuffling, dealing, and sharing secrets, the plot just spooled out.

Amy: Now down to the the nitty gritty. How do you come up with ideas for so many books?  Is it a character that sparks you? A plot? A dream? Inquiring minds of aspiring authors want to know!

Valerie: Sometimes, it starts with an idea, like unexpected friendship. Othert times, a concept. The Girlfriend Curse came from the concept of being the last girlfriend, or the woman men date immediately before they marry. My teen series, Fringe Girl, came purely from the desire to write stories that my own daughters could read (my other books are too racy). In The Accidental Virgin, it began with a character who was so busy, she forgot to have sex for a year. When you get fixed on an idea, relationship, character or concept, and find that a plot start to unfold, run with it.

Amy: What tells you if the idea is a keeper?  

Valerie: Ha! Good question. I have four half-written novels on my computer that seemed like great ideas at the time, but always felt forced. I’ve had light bulb moments walking down the street and thought I’ve come up with a genius idea, only to realize that it’s just a scene in book, or a single line. What’s worth continuing (“keeper” as something you can keep writing until it’s done), is a story that holds my own interest and stays fun and surprising. If I’m lukewarm about writing it, who the hell is going to want to read it?

Amy: On your website I read that you are also a ghostwriter. Do you live in an alternate universe where there are more than 24 hours in a day?  Can I come in?  Seriously, do you have a set routine for writing different kinds of books or working on different projects? 

Valerie: I do a lot of ghostwriting—fiction and nonfiction—and love it. It’s a welcome break from being inside my own head and telling my own stories. It’s almost like journalism, which is how I got my start in publishing. I do different kinds of writing (memoirs, magazine articles, novels and ghostwriting) because they all inform and inspire each other. Magazine essays turn into chapters in memoirs. Memoirs reveal insights that I can use and play with in novels. Ghostwriting novels is a place to put all the lines and jokes that I couldn’t work into my own books. I have a short attention span, too. I’m amazed when people spend ten years writing one book. I’d get tired of it.

As far as scheduling goes, I like to alternate nonfiction and  fiction to stay limber. Ghostwriting projects are usually on very tight deadline, so I work on that that exclusively until it’s done. The timing can be fortuitous. My summer job for the last two years was writing beach novels for Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, literally, at the beach.

Amy: When it comes to fiction are you a plotter or do you just let your muse have her way with you? 

Valerie: Both. Depends on the book. That said, I think you have to have some idea where you want to go, even if you don’t know how you’ll get there.

Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?  Do you feel pigeonholed? And if so, does that bother you?

Valerie: Women’s fiction just means stories that women want to read. I place no value judgment on that. I love Christopher Moore. I’m a woman. That would make his stuff women’s fiction. Publishers have to categorize because booksellers need to put the product on a shelf, and marketers have to figure out a way to sell it. I’ve never felt pigeonholed, even when I wrote chick lit. Readers don’t care. Why should I? If I ever find myself placed in the category of Writers Who Suck, I’ll care.

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

Valerie: Get a cat. Don’t smoke. Invest in a quality trench coat. Call your mother. Have your taxes prepared by a professional. And be nice to people, unless they don’t deserve it. In that case, feel free to be a raging bitch.

VALERIE FRANKEL received critical acclaim for her bestselling memoir, Thin is the New Happy. She was Joan River’s co-writer on Men Are Stupid…and They Like Big Boobs and she collaborated with Nicole “Snookie” Polizzi on the New York Times bestselling novel A Shore Thing. Val is the author of fifteen novels, including The Accidental Virgin, and is a journalist much in demand. Her writing has appeared in O Magazine, Allure, Self, and The New York Times, among other publications. Her Q&A Love column in Mademoiselle was a popular favorite for many readers. She lives in Brooklyn Heights with her two daughters and husband, opera singer Stephen Quint.

You can visit Valerie’s website here.

Author Anne Clinard Barnhill on Writer’s Rejection, Otherwise Known As ‘A Sure Thing’

I met Anne Clinard Barnhill because we’re both pregnant — BOOK PREGNANT, that is.  We’re members of a small group of debut authors who yammer on and on all day in a undisclosed location and then post publicly on the Book Pregnant Blog, which you can find here. Anne’s such a diverse and talented author with published short stories, poetry, a memoir and a novel — I’m thrilled she is willing to spend time with us here today! 

Please give Anne a hearty WFW welcome — I’m sure in no time you’ll feel like she’s a good friend too!

Author Anne Clinard Barnhill on Writer’s Rejection, Otherwise Known As ‘A Sure Thing’

I’ve been writing professionally for over twenty years. During that time, believe me, I’ve had my share of rejections–none of them were pretty but some hurt less than others. Those with hand-written notes to ‘send us something else’ or a quickly scribbled ‘love this story but it doesn’t fit our current needs’ feel a lot better than the usual form rejections that say ‘Never, and I do mean NEVER send to us again.’ Okay, I didn’t really get any that said that, but it feels just that lousy when those big ‘NO’s arrive. In twenty years, I’ve never met a rejection I actually liked.

But as every writer knows, rejections are part of the writing world. I want to share a couple of my favorite rejection stories–then, maybe you won’t feel so bad when you see that familiar-looking envelop plopped in your mailbox.

The first story takes place about ten years ago when I had an agent who loved my first novel (still in a box under the bed) and wanted to represent me. I eagerly signed the contract, expecting her to keep her promise–to make me a famous writer. I figured I would hear something from her fairly quickly.

No so. I waited And waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

Finally, the Christmas season was upon us and I was decorating the house in preparation for my children to come home for the holiday. About four days before Christmas, I saw a big UPS truck pull into our driveway and carry a fairly large box to the front door. He rang the bell, then retreated to his truck. I wondered who would be sending me a Christmas present. My parents always gave us money so it couldn’t be from them. My kids were coming home; it made no sense for them to have mailed anything. Who could have sent it and what in the world could it be?

I hurried down the steps and opened the front door, grabbed the box and took it into the kitchen where I quickly took a knife and opened it up. I had seen my agent’s name in the return address and was certain this box contained a publishing contract or something along those lines. It would be the happiest Christmas ever. Oh, innocence! Oh, youth!

On the top of a stack of manuscripts was a brief letter. It said, “I’ve tried to sell this to fifteen places. Here are all the rejection letters. Since I can’t sell this book and I don’t like your second one, I am no longer willing to represent you.” Then, stacked all in a row, fifteen rejection letters.

I won’t tell you how I curled into a fetal ball on the kitchen floor and cried for at least an hour. I won’t tell you put that manuscript away for at least five years. Nor will I mention what a lousy holiday we had. What I will say is that was the worst rejection I’ve faced and it took me a good long while to recover from it. Merry damn Christmas!

The second story starts off even worse. I sent a short story to a literary magazine and received my cover letter with “I HATE THIS STORY” scrawled in very black ink across the top. I was so furious, I immediately wrote the editor, thanking him for his no-pulled-punches approach, that every writer deserved that sort of response and some other stuff I fail to remember. I then printed out another story, stuffed it and the letter into an envelope and mailed it that very same day.

I was furious at this man who wrote so cavalierly about my work, as if I, the writer, had no feelings or investment in the story at all. I was surprised and a little frightened when, a week later, I got another missive from him. Only this time, there was a big ‘Yes’ written across the envelope and a check for $65.00. Who knew?

Bottom line, rejections happen and continue to happen. But then, suddenly, someone sees your work and gets it. Love blooms like daffodils in spring and before you can say ‘the hell with rejections’, your first baby is born and out in the world. And that is worth any rejection I’ve ever had.

Anne Cli­nard Barn­hill has been writ­ing or dream­ing of writ­ing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has pub­lished arti­cles, book and the­ater reviews, poetry, and short sto­ries. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like grow­ing up with an autis­tic sis­ter. Her work has won var­i­ous awards and grants. Barn­hill holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina at Wilm­ing­ton. Besides writ­ing, Barn­hill also enjoys teach­ing, con­duct­ing writ­ing work­shops, and facil­i­tat­ing sem­i­nars to enhance cre­ativ­ity. She loves spend­ing time with her three grown sons and their fam­i­lies. For fun, she and her hus­band of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance. www.anneclinardbarnhill.com

AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, St. Martin’s Press, January, 2012.

COAL, BABY, poetry chapbook forthcoming from Finishing Line Press

AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: AUTISM, MY SISTER AND ME , a memoir, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007

WHAT YOU LONG FORshort story collection, Main Street Rag,  2009

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.

Debut Women’s Fiction Author Meg Donohue Writes About Friendship And Food And Says To Hunt Down And Read The Type Of Book You Want To Write

Please welcome author and fellow Philly-girl Meg Donohue to Women’s Fiction Writers! Her debut novel, HOW TO EAT A CUPCAKE, launches TODAY!  I’m honored Meg is spending her book’s birthday with us!  

Now, let’s celebrate!  

~ Amy

Debut Women’s Fiction Author Meg Donohue Writes About Friendship And Food And Says To Hunt Down And Read The Type Of Book You Want To Write

Amy: Meg, it’s your BOOK’S BIRTHDAY!! In honor of the launch of your debut, can you tell us a little about your deliciously titled book, HOW TO EAT A CUPCAKE, and how you came up with the idea and characters?  

Meg: Thank you for having me! As you might imagine, I plan to have many cupcakes today.

I really wanted to write about friendship and food—two of my favorite things. I was going to so many parties for both children and adults that offered cupcakes and I was pregnant with our second daughter, so I was craving and eating a lot of sweets. At that time, we also had a part-time nanny who would occasionally bring her young daughter with her when she took care of my daughter and I loved watching the two little girls interact. They made me think about the relationship between an employer’s daughter and an employee’s daughter—how those titles or roles mean nothing to young girls but might start to mean something as the girls grew up. Cupcakes seem so nostalgic to me and I started thinking about how two women who had a falling out might be brought back together over their mutual love of something that reminds them of their childhood—a less complicated time. Those were the seeds of How to Eat a Cupcake!

Amy: Because writers are an introspective lot, can you share with the writer-readers here some of the trials and tribulations on your road to publication, as well as your triumphs? 

Meg: I took a rare, and fairly bump-free, path to publication because I am in the enviable position of being friends with my editor, Jeanette Perez of HarperCollins. We became friends through our husbands (who went to college together) and she has been kind enough to read some of my writing over the years. I sent Jeanette a summary of the novel, a very detailed outline, and the first two chapters, and was thrilled that she fell in love with the story. I signed a contract with her and then continued writing!

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

Meg: I have been surprised by just how much time I have spent marketing myself and the book. I want to do everything in my power to get as many people as possible interested in reading my book, and, for me, that involves a lot of tweeting, Facebooking, guest posting on blogs, and doing interviews. I’m actually both surprised by how much time I have devoted to these endeavors and by how much I have enjoyed doing so! Though, in the back of my head, I am always thinking, “Hmmm…now when exactly am I going to find time today to work on book 2?”

Amy: Ooh, that was a great lead-in! Can you tell us about Book Two?  And how writing it is different from writing Book One?

Meg: I’m working on my second book, entitled ALL THE SUMMER GIRLS. It’s about three childhood friends whose lives are unraveling in three separate cities. They escape to the beach town where they spent the summers of their youth and end up confronting secrets about one fateful summer night seven years earlier.

In a lot of ways, this book feels “closer to home” than How to Eat a Cupcake. The characters attended a Quaker high school in Philadelphia—as I did—and spent time each summer in the beach town of Avalon, New Jersey—as I did. The autobiographical aspect of the story really does end there, but the experience of writing it has had far more of a time-travel feel to it than writing Cupcake ever did. I’m sitting in San Francisco writing about these places that were so important to me when I was growing up…Cupcake is set in my new town, and Summer Girls lets me return to my old haunts.

Amy: Do you have any writing rituals?  Are you a plotter or a “pantser” — someone who writes by the seat of her pants?  

Meg: I am a major plotter. I created a chapter-by-chapter outline for How to Eat a Cupcake and have done the same for All the Summer Girls. I find the whole process so much less daunting when I know where I am headed and how I plan to get there.

Amy: How do you (and do you?) define women’s fiction? 

Meg: I honestly don’t really think very much about fiction categories, but I understand how they’re an important part of book marketing and helping your book find the right audience. I would say women’s fiction addresses issues and themes that are important to women—friendship, family, love, careers. Novels that fall under the women’s fiction umbrella offer an escape because they’re about someone else’s life, but the themes usually still resonate closely with women living in contemporary American society. They often cover those things you discuss with your partner late at night. Or the things you chat about with your friends over coffee—or martinis.

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

Meg: Hunt down the sort of books you aspire to write and then read them not for pleasure but for professional enlightenment. Take notes on every chapter and study how the author created the arc of plot and how she brought the characters to life. Don’t just read—study!

Meg Donohue has an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Dartmouth College. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughters, dog, and a weakness for salted caramel cupcakes. How to Eat a Cupcake is her first novel.

Visit Meg on Facebook, Twitter (@megdonohue), and her website, MegDonohue.com.

Writer’s Epiphany #1: If You Don’t Write It, No One Else Will – or – Strip the Wallpaper Yourself if You Want to Paint Before Labor Day

My son is home from college and as of yet without a summer job. The local, transferable class he is scheduled to take starts in two weeks.  So, while he lies on the couch with his laptop and iPhone, watching DVR’ed episodes of every TNT show he can remember to record, I look at him and wonder how long he can sit there, staring at two screens, composing amusing Facebook statuses, watching YouTube videos and texting his friends.

Uh oh.  (At least I know where he gets his proclivity for technological multitasking.)

Except — I have things I have to do.  In my professional life I write, I edit, I read.  In my personal life I have two teenagers and two dogs. Yet, sometimes, I just stare at my laptop like it is going to erupt in song (which it can, as you know) and the way I can also stare into the refrigerator waiting to Guy Fieri to pop out and take me to Flavortown. (Yes, I watch a bit too much TV sometimes.)

Lucky for my kid, I have a list of chores and household projects just waiting for an able-bodied nineteen year old to do them.

Lucky for me, staring at him made me realize that I wasn’t doing enough either.

So I handed him the tools necessary for removing wallpaper — and I sat down to revise my novel at a faster pace. For him, I pointed to the directions of the back of the packages.  For me, I made a cumulative list of changes to make in my book.  He’s working on the wall in strips.  I’m tackling my manuscript ten pages at a time.

The difference between stripping wallpaper and revising a manuscript?  As with most tasks or chores, anyone can do them.  You can do it yourself, with a friend, with your kids or you can pay someone to do it for you (my personal preference when the budget allows). Ordinarily, I am not a Do-It-Myself  kinda gal.  But when it comes to writing my own unique story in my own unique voice with the characters and twists and turns and emotions and endings that originated in my imagination, well, I’m out of options.

Do-it-myself, I must.

And even if I had a gazillion dollars, I wouldn’t pay someone to Snookie a book for me.  I’m a writer, I love to write. But the logistics of the how-to’s get in the way and there’s no instruction manual. Not even in another language. So, I do-it-myself.  I realized recently that if I don’t revise these pages — stop the presses — they are not going to get revised!

And that, my women’s fiction writer friends, is not an option.

Is it an option for you?  Could someone else write the book you’re writing?  Could someone else tweak and tone your book better than you?

Probably not. It’s very motivating – at least it was to me – to realize that the story I was picking at and wading through was one only I could tell.  And while I asked writers how they tackled revisions and fixed their manuscripts, the answers really didn’t matter because the real solution was in my own head waiting at the door for me to let it out and onto the page.

The plan was to have my revisions back to my agent by the end of May.  Um, uh, well, that’s now.  To get my novel as close to literary gorgeousness as I can, I’m looking at finishing by the end of June. But, considering the backlog of DVR’ed episodes of House and King of Queens, that’ll still be weeks before the wallpaper stripping is done.