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.
In his essay “Why Soldiers Won’t Talk,” John Steinbeck surmises that one reason a soldier can return to battle despite the traumas of war, and a woman can bear more than one child despite the ravages of labor and delivery, is simply because neither can
remember what the experience was like, rendering both incapable of experiencing the fear that might prevent them from entering into a similar experience again. “Perhaps,” he writes, “all experience which is beyond bearing is that way–the system provides the shield and removes the memory.” I think there is some validity to Steinbeck’s hypothesis. I see it evidenced in my own life, in at least two areas. The first is my husband’s willingness–eagerness, even–to engage in DIY home projects over and over again, despite the stress and anxiety they inevitably cause him. Not long after completing one painful project, he starts to get antsy for another–to the extent that we just purchased a second home, in part to help satisfy his craving for projects (and he is now completely embroiled in the pangs of a plethora of home projects). The second is my own experience with writing conferences, my favorite and the most accessible one to me being the James River WritersAnnual Conference. I look forward to this three-day event with an enthusiasm approaching that of a young child’s at Christmas. But some years, I leave feeling defeated and discouraged: There are so many writers out there with so many stellar ideas, and we are all in competition for an agent, a publisher, a paycheck. I look around at the sheer number of writers in attendance at the conference and think: How can I possibly stand a chance against so many competitors? Frankly, it’s deflating.
We come together as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community.
But at Friday’s pre-conference Master Class, “How to Hook an Agent–From the Query Letter Through the Opening Pages,” literary agent Michael Carr said something that helped me realize at least one reason (there are many) I look forward to the conference every year: “It’s important to get motivation from events like this.” He went on to explain that so much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together. We are among people who take us seriously as writers. We convene as a community of writers to support each other, encourage each other, help each other. We have not gathered in the spirit of competition; we have gathered in the spirit of community. And it is in that spirit of the writer’s community that I share with you just a handful of highlights and takeaways from this weekend’s James River Writers Annual Conference.
For reference and in an effort to give credit where credit is due, here is a list of the sessions I attended:
Be sure to vary your sentence structure. Reusing the same sentence structure can pull the reader out of your narrative, or, as Michael Carr explains it, can “wake him up from the fictive dream.” Two structures that Carr says are frequently overused, particularly by amateur writers are: 1) “Doing this, she did this” or 2) its inverse: “She did this, doing this.”
So much of a writer’s work is done in isolation. And when we finish a piece we are really proud of, we send it off–most of the time only to face rejection after rejection. And yes, of course, that is a very defeating experience. But at a writing conference, we crawl out of our writing caves and come together.
Each scene of a novel needs tension to hold a reader’s interest. Some ways to introduce tension can include giving the character a goal–and creating a character who actively engages in reaching this goal, as opposed to passively waiting for things to happen to him. Secondly, there must be some opposition regarding the goal. Something must impede the character’s achieving the goal he has set. Another tool in the writer’s belt is dramatic irony. The reader’s experience of knowing more than the characters about which she is reading is a powerful means of creating tension. Finally, be sure to ask yourself if there is enough at stake. What will the consequences be if the character achieves his goal versus if he does not achieve his goal?
The Opening Lines
At least three different experts at the conference exaggerated the importance of starting in the right place, which could be as simple as deleting the first line or first paragraph, or as complicated as rearranging the order in which your chapters appear–as was the case with my novel. Initially, Goodbye For Now opened with Marissa Donnoway working at The Beanery, serving a difficult customer. Several people mentioned that the book started a bit too slowly. In response, I wrote a new scene, one in which two brothers are looking out over Lake Huron. Still too slow. I deleted that scene, and opened the book with the emergency room scene. That didn’t work logistically, and the book currently begins with Scott Wilder’s suicide.
If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another.
Keep in mind that when beta readers, critique partners, critique groups, or other readers offer feedback, you are not obligated to take it–but deciding when and if you should follow someone’s advice can be tricky, and sometimes, so can not getting our feelings hurt. I thought Michael Carr’s comments regarding this issue were an insightful reframing of how to look at criticism. He essentially suggested that when someone responds critically to your work, it simply means he woke up from the fictive dream and didn’t “believe you.” It is not personal. It means you might want to revisit that part of your piece and consider how you can strengthen it. Sometimes, a reader might suggest a specific change to improve a piece–a change you disagree with. It’s important to keep in mind that you do not have to act on specific advice, but you would likely be wise to address the issue in some way, even if it is not the way your critic suggested. Carr also advised, “If the feedback resonates with you, address it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” Specific feedback itself might not be worth following, but reexamining each part about which a reader makes suggestions is worthwhile. In my case, the people who told me my book started too slowly only confirmed what I had suspected all along–so I addressed that issue (many times…).
I also appreciated what Natasha Sass of Busstop Press said about feedback: If your published book receives a bad review, it’s not because your book was bad; it’s because the reader expected one thing, but got another. More on this, in the context of tropes, below.
On Writing to Market and Finding Your Audience
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it, but until attending Friday’s Master Class,
“Writing Smarter, Faster, and to Market: Game-Changing Tips for Indie Authors (and Writers who Want to Up Their Game NOW!”, I was unfamiliar with the term “trope.” Now I know a trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre. The tricky part is that tropes change over time, so reading within your genre and subgenre can be an important way to keep up with what tropes are currently desirable in your area.
What does your audience want? What do they expect?
A trope is essentially an expected element of a genre or subgenre. Tropes can include point of view, format, character types, themes, settings, plot devices, pacing, etc. In order to engage your audience, your writing has to deliver the promised tropes of your genre.
Two important notions occurred to me as I sat in a session today, the final day of this year’s Annual Conference. The first was that this year was quite possibly my favorite Annual Conference thus far (though they have all been wonderful). The second was that I would likely have never finished my novel, Goodbye For Now, had it not been for the 2014 James River Writers Annual Conference. The idea for my novel was born in 2006, when I was studying abroad in Germany–an ocean away from my then-fiance (now, husband). I began actually writing the novel in 2010 (I think) in a black-and-white Composition book. After a few weeks, I got busy and just stopped writing. I even lost the Composition book. Four years later, at a Master Class that was part of the 2014 Annual Conference, I read aloud the synopsis I composed in the workshop that day. The response I got from the instructor and my fellow attendees was so supportive, I came home and dug through my attic space until I found the Composition book. My desire to write the novel was reinvigorated, but it would likely have remained dormant, safely stored away in my mental attic, had I never attended the conference. Now, two years later, the sixth draft of my novel is complete, and I feel equally excited, motivated, inspired, and encouraged. And I already can’t wait until next year’s conference.
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.
Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.
My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.
They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.
They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.
In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.
And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.
It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.
A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.
At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.
But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.
An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.
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.