Perhaps because I am nosey by nature, one of my favorite elements of writing is the interviewing process. I have no formal training in this arena, but my natural curiosity and talkativeness has helped me out, as have my roles as English teacher, yearbook advisor, freelance writer, blogger, newsroom receptionist, and college-level writing instructor. For the last year in my role as a contributor for The Village News, I have conducted interviews on a regular basis–and love it. If you’re about to embark on an interview, here are four tried-and-true tips for you.
1. Be Prepared
Come with a few questions prepared and an angle in mind, but also be prepared for the story to reveal itself as the interview unfolds. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions that weren’t part of your original plan, or abandon some questions altogether. I typically end up asking all the questions I came with–and then some. In some rare instances, I didn’t prepare questions at all. Instead, I was prepared to let the conversation unfold completely organically. Usually, I find the theme of the story reveals itself as I interview my subject. By the end of my interviews with several students in and a sensei of a special needs karate class, I knew my theme would be smiling despite trials and tribulations, but I did not start the interview with this message in mind. See what threads you notice, and follow them.
This spring, I interviewed the sensei of a special needs karate class before observing the class itself. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.
This spring, I interviewed participants in a special needs karate class and observed their class. Photo Credit: Radiant Snapshots.
2. Get the Basics
Sometimes, I get so lost in the stories my subjects are telling me, I forget to note down the fundamental facts of those stories. Make sure you get the basics–dates, job titles, full names, ages, spellings, locations–whatever might be relevant to the subject matter. I’ve learned to do this up front. I begin by asking as many basic, formulaic questions as I can think of, and when my subject tells me about something that happened, I have learned to immediately follow up with whatever who, what, when, where, why, or how I might need when I sit down later to write the story.
3. Respect the Silence
Sometimes, you’re going to ask a question that your subject isn’t going to answer right away. It may feel awkward, but if someone is silent for a long time after you ask a question, respect the silence. Let them be silent. Sit in it. Let them think. It may be you’ve dredged up an emotionally charged memory and your subject needs a moment to compose himself before he can answer. It may be you’ve asked a question that requires your subject to delve deep into the recesses of memory, retracing facts and dates, before she can respond adequately. Wait. Be patient. The silence will yield to conversation again in due time, and the answer you get after a prolonged silence is likely to be a better one than an answer you prodded for.
4. Be Clear
Always be clear with your subjects about what is on the record and off the record. If a subject says something that you’re not sure they want published, ask. If you want to ask a question you know isn’t relevant to your story, let your subject know you’re asking “off the record.” If a subject precedes a statement with “not for the story” or “don’t print this,” don’t even take notes about it. This will help you avoid inadvertently including it, having forgotten your subject told you in confidence.
No matter how strong a writer you are, to write journalistically, you must also be a strong interviewer. In fact, over the course of the last year writing for my local paper, I’ve learned that if I conduct a good interview, the person I’m talking to essentially writes the story for me. I just have to put it all in the right order to convey the theme I need to communicate.
Though Jill Breugem works full-time as a Learning Specialist, finding training solutions for internal business partners and facilitating and designing training, and is the mother of two children, she somehow manages to find time to write books on the side. Her debut novel, Read Between the Lines, launches on January 24, followed by a February 11 launch party at Blue Heron Books. What follows is my interview with this delightful debut indie novelist.
Jill Breugem: I always wanted to write a book and the inspiration came while having a chat with a friend. He talked about making sure that beyond our families, careers, and regular day to day, we find time every day to do something that we really love. If we are lucky, that is also our career. I do love my career; I also love writing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.
The idea for my first novel literally woke me up in the middle of the night. I got out of bed, walked across the room and wrote some notes down.
I squeeze writing in when I can. Sometimes with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.
MTD: How long did it take you to write it? What was your process like?
JB: It took me 15 months to write the book and an additional four months to complete edits, book cover, etc.
There were times I went weeks and didn’t touch it–I wanted to; I wanted to write so badly, but I just couldn’t. There were times I would write several chapters in only a couple hours and then other times that I would stare at the same sentence for hours, only to delete it. I created an outline of the story and mapped out the chapters. I set up goals in the program Nozbe to stay on track and organized.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
JB: Once I set out to write the book, it became a goal of mine to finish it. Many times I had started to write something and would stop. So, just the fact I finished the book was a major accomplishment for me. I always thought I would self-publish and admired a couple authors who self-published and were very successful. Bella Andre and Marie Force are two that quickly come to mind. They have been extremely successful with self-publishing ebooks in the last five years. Marie Force’s first novel, Maid for Love, was originally turned down by ALL publishers. She went on to sell 2.5 million books of her Gansett Island Series.
Getting published the traditional way was something that if it happened and the timing was right, the royalties reasonable, then that would be a cherry on top.
JB: I squeeze it in when I can. I work full-time and am a busy mom of two kids, a dog, a husband… Sometimes I write with everyone running around the house around me, sometimes in the late hours of the day when everyone was in bed and other times very early on the weekend before anyone got up. My favorite time is at 6am on a Sunday when everyone is fast asleep, the house is dark, and I have a hot cup of tea beside me.
Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone.
MTD: What do you wish I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?
I have a soft spot for romance. I love the anticipation and the happy ending. Like books, my movie choice is always a romantic comedy, too.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
JB: Go for it! Write because you want to, because you need to, because you have to – – for you, and for you alone. Think positive and whatever happens from there…happens.
Social media is very important. Most authors will tell you that connecting with fans and other writers on social media has been key to their success.
Surround yourself with like-minded people. Follow (through social media!) authors that inspire you, authors you aspire to be, and people you can connect with.
Inventory is key. You need to have the next book ready for the readers. Once you have several published, offer the first for free or major discount through something like Book Bub. This will build up your fan base and hopefully inspire fans to buy your other books.
MTD: Have you already begun your second book, The Distance Between Us?
JB: YES! So excited! It is coming together so nicely. It is about two characters that you meet in the first book, Read Between the Lines. These will turn into a series. I have the next four books planned.
JB: My daughter designed my covers – I absolutely love them. You will see branding of the stripes on the next four books, as well–in different colors.
MTD: You mention that a portion of the profits from Read Between the Lines will benefit families touched by Autism. Tell me a little more about that.
JB: My amazing eight-year-old son lives with Autism. He has developmental delays and is non-verbal. Therapy, although VERY expensive, has been VERY important to his progress and growth. His learning center has been very good to us, and I want to make sure that I pay it forward and help other children like my son get the therapy they need.
MTD: What can attendees at your book launch party on February 11 at Blue Heron Books expect?
JB: My book launches on January 24th, but the launch party is on Feb 11th at Blue Heron Books. The party is for friends, family, and readers/potential fans to come and celebrate the launch of the book with me! I will sign books and there will be cake!
MTD: How did you go about setting up your book launch?
JB: I approached the bookstore and told them all about my book and asked if I could have the party there. They were happy to! It’s a quaint bookstore that draws you in; it’s an older building, with beautiful wood floors and shelves. It is a bookstore that just makes you want to stay…
By day, Luke P. Narlee works for the government, doing transportation security in the intelligence field. By night, he writes and publishes his own novels. His first novel, Guest Bed, explores the complex issues couples face after years of marriage. His second novel, The Appointment, which he hopes to release within the next two months, imagines a future world devoid of all enjoyments and meaning, a world in which depression runs rampant due to a collective sense of hopelessness and purposelessness–until Jacob Johansen agrees to attend a mysterious appointment. Below, read Narlee’s take on the writing life, including indie publishing.
Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for your first novel, Guest Bed?
Luke P. Narlee: The inspiration for this story stemmed mostly just from being married myself. There are a lot of emotional ups and downs associated with marriage, and it’s no different with the couple in Guest Bed. Of course, being that it is fiction, my first priority was to entertain and keep readers guessing. But I also wanted to explore some of the deeper issues that tend to occur between couples when they’ve been married for several years. For example, when couples are struggling to make the relationship work, what is it that’s truly causing the arguments? What is it they’re yearning for when they decide to separate or commit adultery? I also wanted a lot of the focus to be on communication. In the story, the two central characters, Ron and Kate, have an abundance of communication issues, which is the cause of the majority of their arguments. I think that the characters in the book say what a lot of couples only think or keep internalized. My hope is that people will find their issues to be relatable.
An Excerpt from Narlee’s Novel, Guest Bed
She narrows her eyes. “You still don’t get it, do you?”
I sit up so that our eyes are level, trying to keep things as even as possible. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“I need more from you, Ron. I want to know what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. You don’t share yourself with me anymore. Yes, we had fun downstairs, catching up on our days and exchanging witty banter. I enjoyed it. But that’s not what I need from you.”
I stare at her, breathing heavily.
“It’s not enough!” she says.
MTD: How long did it take you to write Guest Bed? What was your process like?
LPN: It started out as a short story that I wrote just for fun at least a decade ago. It took me a month or so to write it and set it aside. Then, within the last five years, I found a way to incorporate it into my soon-to-be published novel, The Appointment. Within The Appointment, there are a few chapters that read like short stories, and I thought Guest Bedwould be a perfect fit for that, but eventually my editor at the time convinced me that the story was too good to stay merely a chapter in a novel, and that it should stand on its own, somehow. I had no idea at the time that it would eventually become my first published novel.
Overall, I’d say it took me six months to write Guest Bed, and be fully satisfied with it, and about ten months all together from start to publish.It was relatively quick, considering I’ve been working on the The Appointment for five years.
MTD: Why do you think your progress with The Appointment has been slower in comparison to Guest Bed?
LPN: It’s a much larger book, with a more expansive story. Many more characters and things going on. It has taken me a long time to make sure everything fits together and aligns correctly in order to make a cohesive story.
MTD: How did you find or select your editor? Describe your relationship with your editor.
LPN: I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories. I’ve worked with many different editors over the years, some better than others, but this year, in 2016, I’ve definitely found one or two new favorites that I hope I can continue to work with for many years to come.
MTD: What about a specific editor or group of editors appeals to you? What do you look for in an editor?
LPN: For me, it’s all about chemistry. You have to have good chemistry with your editor, meaning they understand your writing and the way you write and are able to help you improve it without ever changing your style. You have to find someone you click with and are comfortable with. It definitely becomes a relationship of sorts because there is so much back and forth communication. You have to have chemistry. It can’t just feel like a forced exchange between two people, where the editor is just doing a job and waiting to get paid. Also, a good editor is very thorough and will go the extra mile to make sure you are fully satisfied with the results.
I personally have always hired freelance editors to work on my book, the majority of them on Upwork.com. It’s a great website, full of fantastic people who are very enthusiastic about helping people with their stories.
MTD: What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to going the traditional route?
LPN: A couple reasons, actually. For one, I don’t generally have a lot of extra money or free time to spend searching for agents, and mailing out my manuscript, and begging publishing companies to accept my book as their own… The whole process felt overwhelming. I’d rather spend that time writing. Also, I don’t really like the idea of being forced to let the editors of the publishing companies have the final say in what is written in my books. I prefer to have full control over the content. Of course, this means more work on my part once it’s actually published, but so far it’s been worth it to me.
MTD: You mention that self-publishing means more work on your part once a book is actually published. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
LPN: When you self-publish a book, promoting it and marketing it are your responsibility. Some people just publish a book themselves and leave it at that, apart from telling close family and friends about it. But I’m definitely motivated to spread the word to as many people as possible because I love talking to people about it and hearing their thoughts on the story after they’ve finished reading it. I’ve been putting a lot of time and effort into marketing it on social media, particularly Instagram, Twitter, and Goodreads. I hope to be able to do more in the near future, as well, such as schedule a book signing at a few local bookstores. The reviews have been wonderful so far. The story has already touched a few people in profound way, and to me, that is more important than anything else. That alone makes all the hard work worth it.
LPN: The Appointment is quite a bit different from Guest Bed, which is a much smaller, personal mystery involving only two or three characters. The story in The Appointment affects an entire country and is more dystopian in nature. It involves a government that has become overly controlling due to recent terrorist attacks, and they’ve been forced to put the whole country on lockdown for a year. Nobody in and nobody out. Meanwhile, unexpectedly, all the citizens of the country begin to lose both their memories, and their ability to feel emotions. The main character, Jacob, is one of the last remaining people who still feels something, and is able to conjure little bits from his memory here and there. Then one day he gets invited to a secret facility to act as a guinea pig for a few experiments that may or may not fix everyone. If he agrees, he will be given the ability to relive old memories, enter parallel universes, and also live the lives of other people for a day, all in hopes of fully regaining his emotions. But the real question is… is that truly what he wants? Or is life easier when you don’t have to feel anything? To say that I’m very excited to publish this book would be an understatement.
MTD: How do you make time in your day to write?
LPN: I basically write whenever I have a chance. I don’t have a good, consistent schedule for writing yet, so if I have time between work at my office, I will do some quick writing. And when I’m home, particularly on the weekends, I make a habit of trying to carve an hour or two out of my day to sit with my laptop and write. But I don’t have a specific location or room that I do all my writing. Someday, I hope…
MTD: What do you enjoy most about writing?
LPN: I love the process of creating an entirely new world in my head and putting it down on paper for others to read and enjoy. The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. The story and the dialogue will just flow out of my brain without any forethought. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them. That may sound weird, but most writers have experienced this at one point or another. It’s a beautiful thing.
The characters have a way of taking on a life of their own once you get into a groove. Sometimes I’ll be typing, and the characters will surprise me with what they’re saying, like they’ve come alive and I’m just translating for them.
I’m also a big fan of writing stories that are not only entertaining, but also make you think about your own life as well. I want my books to linger in people’s heads for a while after they’re done. There’s almost always a bit of ambiguity to my writing because I don’t like to make things too easy for people. I believe in leaving certain things open for interpretation, so the reader can decide certain elements for themselves. I think that makes for a more interactive experience between the reader and the book.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
LPN: First, write for yourself. If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you. It can feel impossible at times because it’s so time consuming, but it isn’t. You just have to set realistic goals for yourself and stick with them, such as scheduling blocks of time to accomplish each step along the way and planning how long it will take you to accomplish each of these steps. For example, maybe you need a few months to write a first draft. Then another month to do your first round of self-edits. Then eventually you hire a professional editor to go through it for you. Then you have to do more rewrites. You can’t expect any of it to happen too fast. If you want to write something that looks professional, and will stand out amongst the millions of other authors in the world, it takes a lot of time and patience. But it’s worth it. Whenever I hear someone on social media comment that they are losing hope on finishing their first novel, I immediately try to motivate them to think differently. I believe anyone can do it if they set their mind to it and plan accordingly.
If you want writing to be a truly meaningful experience, write a story that you love and want to exist in the world. Next, don’t ever give up on your dream of becoming an author if that’s what you want to do. If I can do it, then so can you.
It also helps to know the ins and outs of the process and when and how to make wise choices, particularly when it comes to publishing. I’m currently trying to get a list together of everything I’ve learned about writing and publishing in the last few years, so I can help others reach their dream of being a published author without breaking the bank or their minds. I haven’t had time to set up an official website or a blog yet, but I plant to, and in the meantime, I may self-publish a small self-help book about indie publishing as well. I’m all about helping people with this. In the world of writing, I feel that it’s absolutely essential that writers look out for one another, share their experiences with others, and act as mentors for those who are just starting out. It’s a team effort, for sure. Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
Writing is a gift–your book is a gift, but it’s a gift that no one will want to open if you don’t do your homework and make smart choices.
I found Romance author and loving mom Brandi Kennedy on Instagram, her posts about nearing the final draft of a book intriguing to me. Upon contacting her, I learned she is actually approaching the end of three different series, not just a single book. According to Kennedy, The Kingsley Series, made up of four books so far and destined to consist of six, is a Classic Contemporary Romance. The Selkie Series touches the Fantasy realm. The third series, The Freedom Series, Kennedy defines as Contemporary-Romance-meets-Women’s Fiction. The first book in that series, Fighting For Freedom, is live now, and the second book is underway. Without further adieu, here is my interview with author Brandi Kennedy.
Mind the Dog: How long have you known you wanted to be an author? Is this how you are able to make your living?
Brandi Kennedy: I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a kid. I even had a bet with a classmate in fifth grade; I swore I’d be published by the end of the summer. Obviously I lost that bet, but it was the seed of my determination to do it, and I’m proud of where I am now as an author. As for making a living with it – I make a regular small income, so I’m happy with my progress. I still want to keep going, though, so I’m just focusing on following the advice of those who came before me. Liliana Hart says, “The best way to sell the last book is to write the next one,” and I’ve found that to be true.
MTD: Do you work with an agent, publishing the traditional way, or do you self-publish?
BK: I’m independently published. I like that it gives me creative control over my work, my hours, my deadlines, my covers. I get to retain full rights over what goes on the covers, as well as what stays between them. I also like that as I learn more about this business and the best ways to do certain things, I’m free to tweak or adjust what I no longer feel is working – and the only approval I need is my own.
Liliana Hart says, “The best way to sell the last book is to write the next one,” and I’ve found that to be true.
MTD: Are most of your books online?
BK: All of my currently released books are available for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo. Each book page on my website is complete with blurbs, cover images, and market links.
MTD: How long did each one take you to write?
BK: They varied. My shortest book (to write) was either Courageous or Fat Chance (Kingsley Series, book 1). Both took around a month. The longest (to write) is probably More Than Friends. Something held me back from that one for a long time, and the words just wouldn’t come. I started and stopped that book twice, throwing everything out before it finally just seemed to click on that third try. In all, that book took me a little over two years to write.
MTD: On Instagram, you sometimes post how many parts you have left to write before you have finished with The Selkie Series. Would you consider yourself a planner or a pantster (or a planster!), and why?
BK: Ooh, I love the term planster! I’m a hybrid, honestly. With Selkie, I literally just sat down and wrote it. I had a general idea of where I was going in the next few scenes, but that was it. Fat Chance and most of the other Kingsley books were the same. I sat down and just let the words pour out. I generally keep notes as I go, including at least a small outline of where the next few scenes are probably going. I think Selkie II is my most planned/plotted book – I’ve had a beginning to end outline the entire time, with certain main ideas lined out and various scenes being added or planned as I wrote to get me from point to point. That has been by far the most relaxing way to write a book, in that I already knew where I was going. I never got writer’s block (once I had the outline done), because literally all I had to do was write from Point A to Point B. But do I like that better than when the story just bleeds out unplanned? I can’t say. Both sides have great value and both points of action impact the writing process in different ways.
Some of my readers have become personal friends, and I find that many of them have enriched my life in ways that go much deeper than even my love of books.
MTD: What have been some of your career highs and lows?
BK: It’s always a high to have someone reach out to me and tell me that my books touched them in some way. When Fat Chance went live, I received a slew of emails and messages from people who read and related to Cassaundra’s struggles, and one woman told me that reading how real and relatable Cass was would change the way she allowed herself to see her own body for rest of her life. As for the lows, truly the only thing I can think of as a low or a downside to writing as a career is how over-saturated the market is. Success in such a popular market is truly hard to come by, so it can be a little discouraging at times.
MTD: What do you love about writing?
BK: Everything. Writing is art for me, it’s sculpting and painting with words and imagery. I love the intricacies of the English language, the powerful use of analogy and narrative prose, the flow of one word into the next. It makes me think, makes me grow, makes me feel. I can only hope my own writing lives up to what I love so much in the writing of others.
MTD: What is your favorite work of literature and why?
BK: Hard question! Old literature – the lasting kind? Maybe it’s A Little Princess. Such a beautiful story of resilience and determination, kindness and heart. It’s inspiring, it’s poetic. But I also still love several of my other childhood favorites, like Black Beauty, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and To Kill a Mockingbird. New literature, though – the kind that you just know will last forever? Harry Potter, hands down. Also, I am a pretty rabid Outlander fan.
MTD: Who is your favorite writer and why?
BK: I usually answer this question easily, and it’s almost always Diana Gabaldon, the author behind the Outlander Series. Now and then it’s JK Rowling. Both have an amazing power of molding the smallest detail into something incredibly meaningful. They both have beautiful, flowing prose, and neither is afraid to touch on the darker issues of the world we live in, regardless of what time period they’re using. Their character development is strong, their plots are intricate. I must include Johanna Lindsey, as well, whose embossed name on a drugstore romance cover was the first seed of a dream I’ve been nurturing almost all my life.
MTD: Describe your average work day.
BK: It’s busy and often interrupted. I work from home, so writing is interspersed between the rigors of laundry and dish washing, bathroom cleaning, floor vacuuming, and animal care. I get distracted easily, too, so I rarely work more than an hour or two at a time without breaking to accomplish other, non-writing tasks. This pays off, though, in that it allows my ideas to simmer a bit, while giving my hands a break from the keyboard. And then in the after-school hours, there are my daughters to care for, and they take precedent even over writing – most of the time.
MTD: You mentioned you have two daughters. Do they ever read your work, or do you ever read it to them?
BK: They have read very small bits of some of my work, and are both generally upset with me on some level because they aren’t allowed to read my novels. My girls are currently twelve and seven, and my books do have adult content in them, so I don’t let them read that yet. They have begged me for a long time to write something they can read, but I haven’t been able to do it just yet. However, they have been allowed to peek at certain novel’s scenes/passages or bits of poetry now and then, and I suppose if my oldest took an interest in reading my blog, she’d be allowed.
MTD: In a recent Instagram post, you mentioned that you are proud of how you interact with your readers. Can you tell me more about that?
BK: Well, it’s just like this, what we’re doing in this interview. I’m on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter several days a week. I blog once a week, and that blog autofeeds to a newsletter – I like that this allows my readers the freedom of not having to remember to check my site. I love interviews, guest spots, and guest posts, and I rarely ever turn down opportunities to appear anywhere in that way. Beyond those things, and on a much more interactive level, I try to answer every message, email, and/or comment when I can, and I always make sure I’m putting myself out there. Actually, some of my readers have become personal friends through this level of interaction, and I find that many of them have enriched my life in ways that go much deeper than even my love of books.
Mind the Dog would like to thank Brandi Kennedy for taking the time to participate in this interview.
Real Characters. Honest Love. Brandi Kennedy Books.
There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.
2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg
I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.
3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.
4. 642 Things to Write About
As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.
5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.
6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)
This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter. The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:
Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject
The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.
7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer
This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.
8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman
This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.
9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway
This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.
My first impression of Mary-Chris Escobar came in the fall of 2015, when I attended a presentation she helped lead at the James River WritersAnnual Conference. A few months later, as a co-worker and I labored to revive our school’s creative writing club and literary magazine, and I began to wonder what help might further motivate our teenage writers, I thought of Mary-Chris. How excited would these kids be to meet and talk to a real, live author–especially one as young, approachable, and encouraging as Ms. Escobar seemed to me? I sent her a quick e-mail, and was thrilled when she quickly responded and accepted my invitation. This past February, her presentation was a huge hit at one of our creative writing club meetings; we even had several non-members attend. Below is my recent interview with Richmond-based, self-published chick lit author, Mary-Chris Escobar.
Mind The Dog: Tell me about your genre, chick lit, and how you became interested in writing it.
Mary-Chris Escobar: Ah! I said that next time I got asked this question, I was just going to quote Phoebe Fox’s answer in this interview, because it’s basically perfect. I became interested in chick lit in the early 2000s, which was sort of the height of it’s popularity. At the time where there were a lot of books being written about women who seemed to be in sole pursuit of a husband, while loathing their jobs, living in New York and obsessing over really expensive shoes. However, while those stories seemed to become synonymous with the term “chick lit,” they were never the books I was drawn to. I like the first-person narrated books that shared a woman’s journey to finding her own strength and sense-of-self, independent of a romantic relationship. Sure there were relationships, but they weren’t the sole focus. There was also humor and wit to the stories– a certain, lightness, if you will. This is what drew me to the genre, and how I still define it today.
MTD: Where do you typically find inspiration for your novels?
MCE: For me, stories always seem to grow out of a “what if” question. My first novel, Neverending Beginnings, opens with the main character giving a terrible, drunken toast at her best friend’s wedding (think admitting to dating the groom and then passing out). I wrote a version of this opening scene years ago in a writing class. I had given a lackluster and way-too-short toast at a wedding once, so I used that as a jumping off point to write a scene based around “what if that had gone terribly wrong.” Later I did a significant rewrite of the novel to include the structure of the main character repeating the same week over and over (like the movie Groundhog Day), and it was the same idea: what if you got stuck in a time loop and had to repeat the same week over and over with no idea why it was happening or how to stop it.
MTD: Of your novels, which are you proudest of/most satisfied with and why?
MCE: I think I’m always most satisfied with whatever I wrote most recently. I originally released Neverending Beginnings as an ebook only. Last year I released the paperback. I’m still very proud of the novel, and love the characters and story, but when I was re-reading parts of it during that process, I can certainly see how I’ve grown and changed as a writer. That being said, I’m probably most proud of my current work in progress.
MTD: So you have a book in the works? Tell me about it.
MCE: I do! I’m currently working on my third novel. The working title is Forty Days Of Forgetting. It’s an “after the happily ever after” story about a couple whose relationship is strained by their very huge, very different dreams. He’s a struggling musician and she’s working on her Ph.D. They break up at the beginning of the story and she develops this elaborate plan to forget him. Which doesn’t work so well.
MTD: How long does a novel usually take you to write, from initial idea to publication?
MCE: My experience with my two novels was really, really different. I wrote Neverending Beginnings very, very slowly (over the course of several years) for fun when I was in grad school. I then did a significant rewrite, submitted to an agent, and then completed another significant rewrite (adding in the repeating week structure). She pitched the novel to editors and was unable to find a home for it. I self-published it some years later in 2012. All in, that book was probably six or seven years from idea to publication.
I had written a super rough draft of How To Be Alive when Neverending Beginnings was being shopped to editors. I significantly rewrote it, and it took about a year and a half from that rewrite though critique and multiple rounds of editing to publication.
I’m a little more consistent with the novellas. They both took about six to nine months from idea through editing to publication. However, they are not published in paperback, and are about characters from my novels; the character development is already done and the publishing is less time intensive.
MTD: What do you enjoy (or not!) about the writing and self-publishing process?
MCE: I love creating characters and learning about their stories. I’m a “pants-er,” meaning I “fly by the seat of my pants” and don’t plot out my novels. I have a question/problem/scenario that sparks the story and then a general idea where I think it may go, but I don’t plan every twist and turn. As a result I learn all these things about my character as I go and often all these other fun things start to appear: the sarcastic and wise retired English professor, the two friends who are in love with each other and don’t know it yet. As a child, I loved “playing pretend” and in so many ways I view writing as doing exactly the same thing, in a more socially- acceptable-for-adults format.
As for publishing. I think I like the artistry of it. The concept of actually laying out pages and creating a book. I like the control to chose my covers and what fonts I’d like to use for section breaks. The business side of publishing, the actual selling and marketing of my books, is basically continual education. There is always something new, always something else to try. It’s easy to get bogged down in all this. For me it’s been really healthy to look at it as an experiment: what works, what doesn’t, what used to work- but not so much anymore. Rinse and repeat.
MTD: You have a full-time job. How do you make sure to find time to write, publish, keep up with social media, etc.?
MCE: I’m not great at it. In fact sometimes, I’m actually pretty terrible. How long did it take to get this interview done? I always wish I had a really pretty answer to this question– something about schedules and planners and morning pages. But I don’t. I make a commitment to writing every week and I typically write in the evenings after work or on weekends. When I’m nearing the end of the story and can see the finish line, I’ll often pull some late nights–eager to get the words out, but all other times, I’ll prioritize sleep over staying up to make sure I hit a certain word count or something like that.
As for the business/promotion stuff: I’ve been blogging weekly for a long time now, and that’s just something that’s integrated into my weekly schedule. I’ll work on it a bit in the morning and typically finish it on Tuesday nights. Sometimes I’ll try to carve out some weekend time when I have a more in-depth post like my monthly book and beer pairing (Books & Brews). And sometimes I slog it out on a Wednesday night at midnight, if I’m being really honest.
I try to use my lunch break and other natural down time for other social media. This isn’t a perfect science. And I’ll admit to sometimes going pretty silent. I am a big believer in picking social media that you’re comfortable with and not feeling the need to try every new thing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram a little. No plans to Snapchat and I refuse to join Pinterest –because I know I would just always, always fall down a rabbit hole of pretty food pictures.
All that to say, I really believe there is no one right way to do this. There will be seasons for everything. Seasons when you are an amazing writer. Seasons when you are an amazing other-job-that-pays-the bills person. Seasons where you are an amazing spouse/child/parent/caregiver. I think we have to give up the expectation of always being amazing at all of them simultaneously. It’s too much.
MTD: What do you like about writing, and how did you discover your love for writing?
MCE: As I mentioned before, writing feels like “playing pretend” as an adult — so I really think my love of it started as a child running around my house making up stories with my stuffed animals. That being said, I wandered through a number of creative outlets before realizing writing was the best match. I’ve got a bunch of theater and studio art credits on my college transcript to prove this. I was always told I was a good writer, and in high school I wrote really dramatic poetry–but it wasn’t until I took a class in fiction writing at a local arts center (Visual Arts Center, in Richmond, Virginia) in my late twenties that I really discovered that writing was my thing.
MTD: Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book? Why?
MCE: There are so many wonderful, wonderful, books–it’s always completely impossible for me to pick one, so here are a few: Megan Crane’s English As A Second Language was the book that kicked off my love of lighthearted women’s fiction. I related to the main character in a way that made me wonder if I might have a story to tell and if the “right” way for me to tell it might be in first person narrative. Meg Cabot’s Queen Of Babble series are the books I’ve re-read the most. They are my go-to “comfort” reads–the oatmeal raisin cookies of books. On the nonfiction side, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic fell into my hands at exactly the right time and has been really inspiring, as did Amanda Palmer’s The Art Of Asking (because the Fraud Police are real, folks).
MTD: What is your favorite literary device?
MCE: I don’t know if it’s technically considered a literary device– but I love a little twist of magical realism in a book. Allison Winn Scotch’s Time Of My Life is one of my favorite books of all time (see, I told you I would forget something in that last question about favorite books). The main character is thrust back in time and finds out how her life would have turned out had she made different decisions. Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke’s books also always have great examples of this, like The Status Of All Things, where the main character’s Facebook posts start to come true–so great!
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
It’s really, really, easy to get caught up in the publication talk. Do you indie publish or traditionally publish? How do you write the best query letter/back-cover copy? Which agents are looking for what, and who’s the best match for you and your book? How do I get featured on BookBub? Does that even matter?
There are thousands of questions about the business stuff. There always will be. But here’s the thing–none of them matter until you have something to sell. So please, write your book. Not someone else’s book. Not the book your parents wish you’d write. Not the trendy thing you know would sell. Not the one that would get you into an MFA program. Write YOUR book. The one you aren’t sure anyone wants to read, but that you must write. The one that wakes you up at night, and won’t let you peacefully enjoy that long car ride/walk to work until you tell it. Write that. Then worry about the rest.
Mind the Dog Writing Blog thanks Mary-Chris Escobar for being so generous with her time and participating in this interview.
Vernon Wildy, Jr. is a Richmond, Virginia-based, self-published author who has managed to complete two novels and begin a third while juggling a full-time job, along with many other obligations. His first novel is entitledNice Guys Finish Last, and his most-recently completed work, which is not yet published, is entitled Reunion at McBryde Hall. It takes place with a backdrop of Virginia Tech. He also recently began working on a third novel, a sequel to Nice Guys Finish Last. On a recent Saturday morning, Mr. Wildy and I spent a leisurely hour and a half soaking up the sun on the patio of Urban Farmhouse, talking craft, creativity, and community. Below is our conversation.
Mind the Dog: Where did you get your inspiration and idea for Nice Guys Finish Last?
Vernon Wildy, Jr.: Hanging out with my friends. A lot of the material came from things I saw or heard when we went out to clubs and get-togethers. I heard a lot of things that made me think, “Where did that come from? I’ve got to write this down!”
MTD: How long did it take you to write it? To self-publish it?
VW: I worked on it off and on for about six years. In the interim, I went back to college for my MBA and changed jobs. Once I got all of that together, it freed up time to finish it and pursue its publication. Since I’d earned my degrees, I thought, “Let’s chase after some other goals.” Publishing took over a year. It was a matter of finding a publisher, having it edited, getting all the information together. Getting the cover designed was a nightmare. The first version looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement, which isn’t my vibe. My painter friend came up with the cover art and my editor agreed that it fit. I am looking to eventually, by the end of year or the start of next year, get it to paperback.
MTD: What did you enjoy (or not!) about the writing and self-publishing process?
VW: I should have gotten more information and found out about more places to go. Looking back, I so wanted it done, that I made the decision too quickly. If I had been more patient, I might have gotten a better product and better marketing opportunities. I didn’t know about Amazon doing their own publishing, or about self-publishing through Ingram-Spark.
MTD: How many edits/drafts did the book go through before publication, and what was the editing process like?
VW: Three different drafts. I could’ve done more, but I got to the point where I was tired of looking at my own story. Lulu offered editing, but it was expensive. Then I met Kris Spisak, through James River Writers, who did the edits.
MTD: What did you learn that will help you with your next novel?
VW: I am in the final stages of my second novel and just stated my third. My main
take-away is to take care of your characters. Keep them consistent and give them space. I don’t like stories where characters fit right into stereotypes. I don’t want cookie-cutter characters. Treat them as real people with real emotions. Give them conflicts and choices.
MTD: Tell me about your next novel.
VW: The second one is Reunion at McBryde Hall. I used Virginia Tech as my backdrop. It’s a story I’ve been playing with for quite some time. It’s a reunion of two people who have not seen each other since they graduated twenty years ago. It takes them back to their relationship to each other, and with the university. It describes how they split apart and the lives they lead and what got them to that point. Romance plays a part, as does race. There is an interracial component in their relationship, as well as a discussion of the dynamic of expectations of the communities that they come from. At college, you learn there are other ways of viewing the world, and other expectations.
MTD: How did you become interested in writing romance novels?
VW: I didn’t. My real goal was to create a new men’s fiction genre, but I ran into a lot of road blocks. When I pitched Reunion at a one-on-one session with an agent at the James River WritersAnnual Conference, she labeled it contemporary romance. I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around it. I re-pitched it at Pitch-a-Palooza at the conference and the crowd went nuts. It took me about a year to finally embrace writing contemporary romance. I don’t like the way the genre is stereotyped. There are very few men there and the stories are catered towards women. My characters are male-centric. They talk like men. They have feelings like men. They pursue women like men.
MTD: You have a full-time job in sales. How do you make sure to find time to write?
VW: Time management is key. My job requires a lot of time. It’s not an 8-5 job. I work early mornings and late evenings. What’s important for me is to make sure that I set enough time aside to write. I tell myself, “At this time I am going to write.” I do that every morning. I get up around 5:00 every morning and I write for about an hour and half, get ready for work, and go to work. On weekends, I try to get better at telling people no.
MTD: What do you like about writing, and how did you discover your love for writing?
VW: I have been writing since high school. It started out with discovering hip-hop and journalism at the same time. I then wrote for my high school newspaper. The ability to tell stories and use them to tell how you feel about things appealed to me. When I was working on my Bachelor’s degree in engineering in college, writing was a break from my coursework. After college, I thought, “Oh, I’m just gonna work and be successful.” But then I got laid off. Writing helped me figure out what the heck just happened, and what to do next.
MTD: Who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book? Why?
VW: Walter Mosley is my favorite author. I love several of his works. I love the pace of his stories. I love how there is conflict within the male protagonists. There are things they must discover about themselves. He does that through mystery, erotica, and science-fiction.
MTD: What do you wish I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?
VW: I would have liked if you had asked me about my relationship with other writers. Having other writer-relationships has really helped me because I don’t have an English and writing background. When I’m with other writers, they throw out authors and devices and tools and it has been quite a learning experience. I was not a part of that world until I joined James River Writers. I’ve been science-based. My sales job has nothing to do with creating writing. It’s technology-based. Networking with other writers has helped me gain exposure to people who are in that world.
MTD: What advice would you give to aspiring novelists?
VW: Tell your story. Don’t get caught up with what’s in the market. Don’t get caught up with what people say is popular. If you have a story, go with it. Don’t be afraid to tell it or journey with your characters. I heard a great thing recently: The key to getting published is to write something good. If you have a good story, someone will want to read it.
Mind the Dog would like to sincerely thank Vernon Wildy, Jr. for taking time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview.
In her book The Halfway House for Writers, Valley writes about learning to “transform my self-talk…into gentle, soft, loving words, the same words I would give to anyone else” (116). This statement is so telling of the kind of person and writing teacher Valley Haggard is. She is an ally of the “writing scared” (121), an advocate for the writer who doesn’t yet know she is one, and a champion of all who are willing to risk themselves through the written word. Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutesonline literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.I am absolutely honored to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, writing teacher, and founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard.
Mind the Dog: You are the founder of Richmond Young Writers. Tell us a little bit about this organization. Where did the idea come from? What is its mission? What are some of its programs? How can people get involved?
Valley Haggard: Our mission at Richmond Young Writers is to share the joy and craft of creative writing with young people. We started out with a few kids and a few classes in the summer of 2009 in the art gallery of Chop Suey Books and now we are a year-round program in our own space- The Writing Room- right next door to Chop Suey Books in Carytown. All of our teachers are also writers and our classes are lively, interactive, crazy-fun, and out of the box. We do everything we can to bring storytelling, poetry, fiction, movie-making, surrealism, and all types writing to life for kids outside of deadlines, grades, and all the pressure of perfectionism. We are always trying to spread the word about the awesome things we do and raise money for our scholarship program so every kid in this city who wants to participate can. Here’s a link to our scholarships page! http://www.richmondyoungwriters.com/scholarships/
MTD:The Halfway House for Writersis dedicated to your students, in particular, “wounded writers.” What do you mean by that? What particular wounds are writers susceptible to?
VH: I have found that 99.9% of the writers who come to my classes have some sort of hang-up around writing…and by hang-up I mean everything from crushing insecurity, neurosis, and paralysis, to simply questioning whether or not we are actually real writers. Somewhere along the way someone told us we weren’t good enough or that to be a real writer you have to look and act and talk and think a certain way. We think our lives are too boring, our words aren’t big enough, no one wants to hear what we have to say. These are our writing wounds. I think writers are sensitive people who feel things with a certain intensity. We crave a safe place to experiment, to play, to share our words without being shot down. The Halfway House encourages people to find or create that safe place, a place to cultivate confidence, to take creative risks and to heal.
MTD: In your book, you thank the writers who helped build “a writing world you actually want to live in.” What does that world look like?
VH: Ah, yes! The writing world I want to live in is a world where we can be honest about who we really are without being shamed, ridiculed, or stared at like we have three heads. Where we can find points of connection and overlap through our words and stories. Where we can break the isolation of hiding our true thoughts and feelings and experiences and put them down on paper in our own words from our unique points of view. I have found the connection, the safety and the freedom of expression I always craved in my classes. As a group this is what we create together. And for me, this is truly writing heaven, writing nirvana.
Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutesonline literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.
MTD: There are seven “Rules of the Halfway House” (7-11). How did you come up with them, and do you have one that you believe is your favorite, or the most important?
VH: I came up with the seven Rules of the Halfway House by making a list of all the things I found myself saying most frequently at the beginning of each new class. Surrender your weapons, seek shelter, free write, hand-write, skip the small talk, listen, and don’t apologize. Having put these rules to the test for some time now, I have found them solid, sound, and truly effective. The writing that pours out of students in my class when they have this structure in place has been mind-blowing, deeply beautiful, and profound. Loose structure gives us the freedom to run wild, experiment, be honest, and create. It’s hard to suss out one favorite over all the others, but perhaps I’ll choose the first because it’s also the hardest: Surrender your weapons. This is where we stop following the dictate of the voice in our head that tells us we suck, we should stop writing, that we’re wasting our time. Without this I don’t think we really have a chance at the rest.
MTD: You have written ad copy and product descriptions in the past. How did you make the move from that type of work, to writing your own magazine column and teaching writing classes?
VH: This was an overlapping, intertwined, and long transition without clear demarcation lines! Young and hungry for absolutely any kind of paid writing that came my way, I was still writing ad copy and product descriptions for the first few years that I had my own column. And then, when I had my column and was still writing ad copy, I started teaching first kids and eventually adults. My plate got so full something had to go and luckily that something was the tedious, laborious work of ad copy. Not that I regret doing that for a minute…it taught me so much! But writing a first-person column and helping people access their own story and voice and find themselves staring back from the page has been so exciting and so gratifying, I feel insanely lucky that I was eventually able to let everything else go.
MTD: In “Publication,” you write in part about a generous editor who, having accepted a story you wrote for publication, essentially rewrote it, but who was also willing to, as you put it, walk “me through the most egregious of my errors” (88), giving you the chance to write a second article. I’m sure other writers could learn from your experience and avoid the same errors at the outset. What were these errors?
VH: My basic errors were ignorance and hubris. I had not made myself familiar enough with the format of the essays and articles this publication already published. I thought I could invent a whole new style of writing and storytelling for an established magazine that already had a very particular style. Inventing new styles and voices and formats is great for creative writing, but when you are trying to submit to a publication that already knows who it is, you have to get to know them rather than expect them to get to know you. After the editor rewrote my article, I studied the changes she made, the format and style she wanted, and then imitated her basic structure after that. Each publication is different, so my best advice is to make yourself intimately familiar with what they have already done in the past so you can fall in line with what they want to do in the future.
Mind the Dog would like to thank Ms. Haggard for her generously giving of her time to answer these questions.
I first met author, editor, and blogger Kris Spisak at the 2015 James River WritersAnnual Conference in downtown Richmond, Virginia, when I attended her Friday Master Class, “Nuts and Bolts: Editing your Work like a Pro.” She was an energetic, dynamic, and knowledgeable presenter, and I found the information she conveyed so helpful that the following day, instead of eating alone, I overcame the introverted tendency so stereotypical of writers and attended her Lunch and Learn, “Ask an Editor,” an informal, conversational lunch meeting during which writers could ask Ms. Spisak questions about the writing, revising, and publishing process (or sundry other topics).
I am delighted to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, editor, and blogger, Kris Spisak.
Mind the Dog: I’d like to begin by asking you a few questions pertaining to your two books. What was the inspiration for each one? Where did you get your ideas?
Kris Spisak: As an independent professional editor, I found myself addressing the same grammar flaws and incorrect word usage issues again and again, and because of this, I started my weekly writing tips blog in 2012. It started as a collection of notes for my clients and writing peers, and then it began to grow. Everyone writes, whether you consider yourself a “writer” or not, and I suppose that’s why my blog—which transformed into Alright? Not All Right—has found a surprisingly wide audience. Grammar jargon is intimidating. My goal has always been to simplify the answers and to interject some humor into the conversation.
My novel started as a work of literary fiction with a male protagonist battling mental health issues, their stigmas, and their effects on his life. It began as an idea over a decade ago that I just didn’t know what to do with. Of course, through the writing and rewriting process, my literary fiction turned into a literary thriller, and my protagonist declared she was female. Who knew? Certainly not me! The author might have the initial ideas, but sometimes the characters take control and decide to tell a different story. (The full manuscript of this book, tentatively titled We’re All Mad Here, is presently out with a number of literary agents, so fingers crossed!)
MTD: How long did each one take you to write?
KS: My writing process has been interrupted by births of children and births of businesses, but the short answer is that I wrote Alright? Not All Right from 2012 to 2015 and We’re All Mad Here from 2009 to 2015—though the “finished” date is rather loose on the latter since it hasn’t found a publishing home yet.
MTD: How many edits and/or drafts did each work go through before it was finished?
KS: It’s hard to definitively say a number of drafts, because I’m continually tweaking: changing a word here or there, cutting lines or adding depth to a moment, and shifting small details for maximum impact. I cannot count how many times I’ve gone through my manuscripts. But wasn’t it Da Vinci who said “Art is never finished, only abandoned”? I connect with that sentiment deeply. (Maybe it’s the editor in me.)
MTD: You’re an editor. I imagine letting others critique your work could be humbling and enlightening. Did your own errors surprise you? What did you learn from the process?
KS: I definitely have to swallow my pride a bit when other people read my early manuscripts, but the truth is, as writers, sometimes we know our stories so well in our heads that we can’t see what has actually translated onto the page. No matter who you are, having other eyes on your writing can make it better.
I might turn red-faced when my critique partner points out that I slipped up on one of my own grammatical pet-peeves, but it happens. That’s why there are early drafts. Story has to come first for me. Clean-up comes later.
MTD: Would you consider yourself a planner or a panster (or a planster!), and why?
KS: I am a planner, but I allow some liberties with that. In fiction, I outline plot-points, not full chapters. How my characters get from point A to point B isn’t always clear to me, but the fact that they will get from A to B usually is.
MTD: This is really interesting, as I would have guessed pantster based on the fact that you didn’t realize the protagonist in your novel was female. Could you say more about that?
KS: My liberties come with my characters. When different people are thrown into the exact same situation, they are going to react differently. While I might plan for ten major points across the arc of a story, my protagonist is the driving force of the plot. Sometimes, as I’m writing, my characters surprise me, rebelling against my plot structure or moving in the same direction I had planned but in a completely unpredictable manner. And where my characters lead, I have to follow. When I force a character to do something or be something against his or her will, the total story falls flat. If my very long process with We’re All Mad Herehas taught me nothing else, it has taught me that.
MTD: I’d like to switch gears a little bit here and ask a few questions regarding Alright? Not All Right!, your e-mail newsletter, and your blog. What are your top-three grammar/mechanic pet peeves?
MTD: Your quarterly email newsletter includes a plethora of tips each time it goes out. How do you come up with ideas for tips to include in your regular newsletter—errors in works you edit?
KS: Errors in client work, bad writing on social media, confusing store signage, caught typos of my own—as anyone who pays attention knows, there are a lot of mistakes out there.
And because my blog has been steadily gaining a wider audience, I’ve started getting a lot of reader suggestions, too.
MTD: How can readers of this post make suggestions regarding writing errors they’d like to see addressed on your blog and/or in your newsletter?
KS: Dropping me a line via my website contact form would be fabulous. Thanks for asking!
MTD: I am always amazed at the amount of errors you address and all the information you know. How do you know all this?!
KS: Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, and I guess that has rubbed off a bit into my work as an editor. Sometimes I remember things I was taught, but I always have to double-check myself before I publish a post. There’s usually a rabbit hole of research behind each brief tip, and I’ve taught myself a lot of subtleties along the way.
MTD: I’d like to wrap up with some more general questions. What is your take on the Oxford comma?
KS: I’m an Oxford comma groupie.
MTD: What have been some of your career highs and lows, as both a writer and an editor?
KS: As an editor, some of my favorite moments have been hearing client success stories—agents acquired and Amazon bestseller lists achieved. As a writer, I’ve had a blast with my blog and writing tip book, but I’m personally hoping the best is yet to come with my fiction.
The lows can hit a writer hard through the different stages of this process—questioning whether you can do justice to the story you want to tell, whether an agent or publisher will ever want it, wondering how readers will respond, etc. We just have to have faith, keep writing, keep editing, and remember that this is a business of endurance as much as it is passion.
MTD: What do you love about writing? About editing?
KS: Both in my writing and my editing, my favorite place to work is where the right brain and left brain meet, where the craft and beauty of language meet the finite rules of grammar, where the creative process is entwined with research so little known you get to touch documents no one has given a second thought to for a hundred years.
MTD: What is your favorite work of literature and why?
KS: Anna Karenina for its complexities and its powerful inquiries into the nature of humanity; The Alchemist for its simplicity and motivational spirit.
MTD: Who is your favorite writer and why?
KS: You’d think this would be an easy question, but it really isn’t. Dorothy Parker, Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Katherine Mansfield, Margaret Mitchell… oh, and I do love Shakespeare.
My favorite writers are full of more than stories. They’re full of language that can drip with beauty and/or wit and can still hit you to the core. I know my list is terribly incomplete. I need more time with this one!
Mind the Dog Writing Blog would like to express gratitude to Ms. Spisak for the time she took to answer the questions in such detail.