Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How did you start writing?
A: O moon, moon,
Way up in the sky,
I love you though
You have but one eye.
That was my first poem. I was very young and my grandfather’s secretary typed it on an orange index card, giving it great legitimacy. I always did well at creative writing in school and had a vague idea that I would like to be a writer—preferably of amazing, insightful novels that critics would discuss in hushed and reverential tones, as well as poems and short stories that would set the folks at The New Yorker all a-clamor. I took one creative writing class in college and produced a truly awful short story called (blush) “Too Late the Snow.” Then I got married and taught English for nine years and then we moved to the farm and ‘life its ownself’ just overwhelmed me. Occasionally I would write a poem, or a little story, but mainly for my own enjoyment. During the years my younger son was playing soccer, I would pass the time during his practice (yes, I was a soccer mom) writing down everything interesting I could remember about my family and childhood.
But my idea of getting published was The New Yorker. And—I can’t remember—I think I sent them a poem—30 or 40 years ago. And, oddly enough, they turned it down. So if I couldn’t be published there, I guess I just decided to hell with it.
Then in 1999 a friend and I wrote Community Quilts—a how-to book featuring the forty plus quilts that the women of our community had made over the past twenty five years. A publisher bought our book and we had the great joy of seeing our work in print. This was fun.
So when Karol, my co-author, said she was signing up for a writing class at our local community college, I signed up too. The class “Writing Fiction That Sells” was taught by Bill Brooks, who writes westerns as well as, recently, more literary novels (Stone Garden, Pretty Boy, Bonnie and Clyde; A Love Story). This was in September of 2000. The class met one night a week for six weeks and Bill covered fundamentals of plot, setting, characters, dialogue, etc.
Most importantly, I learned that you have to have an agent. Bill told us how to query agents and discussed various things such as the importance of the first sentence, paragraph, page of the book. He also encouraged us to start a novel, rather than just do unrelated pieces.
That’s when I began Elizabeth Goodweather. Bill suggested that we write what we know and write what we read. I read lots of things but I have always been a fan of mysteries. I felt that I had a pretty good idea of how they work and I also felt that, as a first time author, I would have a better chance of being published with a series rather than a stand alone type book.
At the last class, I asked Bill to tell me what he thought was my greatest strength and what was my greatest weakness. He snorted and said “You don’t have the passion it takes to write.” (He didn’t tell me what my strength was.) I guess I took that as a challenge.
Four of us from the class (there had been only 6 or 8) decided to keep meeting and read to each other what we were working on. We did and I tried to do a chapter a week. But life kept intervening and it was over a year before I actually finished my first novel and started trying to find an agent.
I worked very hard on my query letter and sent them out in batches. The rejections slips started coming back and it was pretty disheartening but every once in a while there would be a personal note of encouragement which kept me going. Finally, after what seemed like years but was actually three months, I received an offer of representation from Ann Collette of the Rees Literary Agency
Now the novel I had written was about Elizabeth Goodweather but she was not at her farm in the mountains; instead she was on vacation at the coast. (This for the simple reason that I had been at the coast just before the class began and had been intrigued by the Blackbeard legend.) My agent showed this manuscriptl to several editors and each time she got a response something like “Well written—an engaging character. But a series needs to begin in the main character’s home surroundings so that readers will fall in love with the setting as well as the character”.
“Well,” said my agent, (God bless her.) “Let’s put this aside. Write another one with Elizabeth in the mountains and I’ll sell that. And maybe later on you can redo the first one and let it come third or fourth in the series.”
Disappointing—but I knew I could do it and I knew the next one would be better. So I wrote Signs in the Blood. And I was fortunate enough to end up with a two book contract with Bantam Dell and the incredible Kate Miciak as an editor. Yippee!
Signs came out in 2005. Under the Skin, which will be out in 2011, is the completion of my third two-book contract, still with the same editor and agent.
Q: Do you wish you’d gotten serious about writing a little sooner?
A: One of my friends, when I told him about my contract with Bantam, called me a late bloomer. I told him I was just blooming in a different field. I haven’t been a frustrated writer, seething with thwarted ambition—I’ve been very happy with my life on the farm. And I’m not really sure that I had that much to say early on.
Q: Elizabeth Goodweather lives on a farm in the mountains as do you. Is she you?
A: Elizabeth is younger, thinner, and generally better looking than I am. She sometimes makes choices that I would not. She is also a widow with two daughters. I, on the other hand, have a perfectly good husband and two sons and a daughter-in-law. Plus a daughter-out-law—my younger son’s partner. Obviously, there are similarities—one has to write what one knows—but this is fiction.
Q: Why is there so much about religion in Signs in the Blood?
A: It’s partially because I, like Elizabeth, live in a place where religion is extremely important and defining, to many people. It’s also probably the result of having a son with a degree in philosophy and a husband who did graduate work in comparative religion. Our dinner table discussions can be lively to the point of yelling at times.
Q: Have you ever handled snakes?
A: Good grief! Not poisonous ones. Just the occasional blacksnake that’s gotten into the chicken house, or our house, for that matter.
Q: Who do you read?
A: Lots of people. In mysteries, I like classic British ones, especially Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie, as well as Elizabeth George and P.D James. I like regional mysteries—Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series is a favorite. Closer to home are Sharyn McCrumb and Sallie Bissell, two writers whose love of the Appalachians is inspiring. Recently I’ve become enmoured of the mysteries of Harlan Coben, Deborah Crombie, and Laurie R. King.
Writers I reread: All the above plus: Jane Austen, E.F. Benson, Robertson Davies, Tony Earley, Barbara Kingsolver, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Patrick O’Brian, Lee Smith, Angela Thirkell, Anne Tyler, P.G.Wodehouse, among others.
Q: What are some of the special problems in plotting a series with ongoing characters? How do you keep from getting confused?
A: There are, indeed, things to watch out for in a series. The following are some things I’ve learned:
- Keep a list of characters and places mentioned. With each addition to the series I add any changes to characters e.g.. hair grayer, cut off dreads, house burned, etc.
- For ongoing characters, I’ve found it useful to construct family trees. You never know when the odd uncle or cousin will come in handy.
- Keep a time line—I put events in real time (Vietnam War, Great flood of 1916), in bold; events in fictional (Miss Birdie born, Sam dies) time in regular.
- Remember with each new book you have to reintroduce everyone all over again—without boring faithful readers. I keep a small check list—describe Elizabeth, her house and farm, her family, her dogs, her back-story.
- Be careful about how many ongoing characters you have—it can begin to feel like you’re pulling a heavy load, working everyone into every book—or at least accounting for their absence. (Lee Child avoids this by having Jack Reacher constantly on the move—new places, new faces in every book.)
- Make sure your protagonist continues to evolve, to learn new things and reveal more and more of him or herself in every book. (My editor is really big on this one.)
Q: When writing, how do you find the time? Do you schedule blocks of writing hours in your day, or always write for a certain amount of time in the morning, etc.?
A: This frequent question always makes me feel really inadequate and unprofessional. I know I should have a schedule and really stick to it —maybe if I did, I wouldn’t miss another deadline. But the truth is, I use the morning for housekeeping/garden stuff and sometimes the afternoon as well. Most of my writing, unless it’s wintertime or I’m seriously overdue, is done after supper— say, from 8 till midnight.
Q: You are a very busy lady by all accounts, how do you find the time and energy to do everything you do? What makes it possible? What is your secret?
A: Well, I probably don’t do as much as you think I do. For example, when I take pictures of our garden, I don’t show the areas of overgrown wilderness I haven’t gotten to yet. And I’m fortunate to have family who help in everything—John has more or less taken over all dealings with the chickens, as well as making wonderful pizza once a week. Justin and John between them do the weed eating (string trimmer work) I once did.
My only secret is that I don’t watch television—at least, not when I have a book in progress. Just now, on hiatus, I’ve really been enjoying Foyle’s War on DVDs. But normally, after supper, I do the dishes and go upstairs to my workroom and ignore the sound of car crashes, gun shots, and dramatic music from below.
Q: When do you do your blog/photos?
A: I carry my camera with me almost all the time. And I’m fortunate to live in a place where there’s always something I want to take a picture of. I generally do my blog posts before I begin my writing. Or after I check my email. I try not to let them take up too much of my time. But the daily blog is lots of fun for me.
Q: Diana Gabladon in her blog talks about her nonlinear writing style, writing unconnected ‘kernels’ that then group into ‘chunks’ and finally she sees the ‘continents rising’ and the overall shape of the book. How do you “shape” your books? Outline? Write snippets and then connect them? Chapter by chapter or is it more random?
A: My process is mostly linear. I begin at the beginning and chug along to the end. Occasionally I get an idea for a scene that will come later and go on and write it— for example, I wrote the end of Day of Small Things when I was only about a quarter of the way through the book. The same is true of Under the Skin.
My editor requires that I give her a one or two page synopsis of the book I plan to write before she okays an advance. This requirement forces me to have an idea of where the book is going and what some of the stops will be on the journey. I’m not required to adhere strictly to this outline, thank goodness. But even with my first two books, when I was writing without a contract, on spec, as it were, I tended to the linear mode, always building on what had gone before.
That said, I do keep a file on my computer of ‘good bits’—interesting little conversations I’ve overheard and want to work into my story somewhere.
Q: How /why did you shop for/find/employ an agent? And what did the first two “misses” cost?
A: The why is easy. If one wishes to be published by one of the big NY names like Random House, one must have an agent. Gone are the days when you could send your manuscript directly to the Big Name Editor at the Big Name House and hope that some one would read it.
And why a Big Name House? Because they have the distribution network in place that will get your book into bookstores all over the country—sometimes all over the world.
The agent is the filter—saving the publishing house from having to wade through a lot of Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time stuff. The agent also knows the editors at various houses and has some idea of what sort of thing they are likely to be interested in. The agent may act as a sort of editor (mine did), suggesting improvements to your work before shopping it arounf to the editors who might be interested. The agent can help to negotiate a better contract for you and, should you fail to meet a deadline, your agent will venture into the tiger’s den to inform your editor of the fact.
So, once I realized I needed an agent, I bought the current edition of Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and went through the extensive listings of agents who were open to new clients. The listings include what sorts of books certain agents specialize in so I marked all the agents who dealt in mystery.
Then I wrote my one page query letter. The WD Guide had example of what this should include—and there are lots of on-line sources now that do the same. But this was back in 2002, the Dark Ages of the Internet, at least as far as I was concerned.
I sent letters to over 60 agents (patience is required) before getting an offer of representation from the lovely woman who is my agent—Ann Collette of the Rees Literary Agency.
You ask what this cost. The ONLY answer is, and should be, NOTHING. An agent takes you on, reads and edits your work, schleps it from publisher to publisher, and does not charge you a cent. It’s all on spec. The agent gets nothing till you sign a contract and get your first advance. Then and thereafter the agent gets a percentage—usually 15%.
And one more thing. Don’t query unless your novel is complete and as polished as you can make it.
Q: I think were it not for you, I would have imagined that my age alone would have been a serious impediment to my being able to market a novel. I think—because you are close to me in age, (I believe)—it has given me encouragement that a potential publisher or agent would not turn me down simply because I am “older.”
A: Well, that wasn’t a question, as such, but it needs a comment. When you send out a query letter, there is no reason whatsoever to mention your age—and it’s probably illegal for an agent or publisher to ask.
Q: I need to set some deadlines for myself. It’s a little harder for me to maintain a writing schedule in the summer.
A: Here’s another non-question that needs a comment. I struggle with this myself—trying to do a garden and put up food, etc., etc., during the summer. And I’ve missed some deadlines.
But here’s the thing that you need to consider when you’ve finished that first novel and are starting to market it. Agents (and publishers as well) will want to know what you’re working on next. Of course this is true if you’re writing a series—but even if you’re not, the publishers and agents won’t be as interested in investing time/money in a single book. And generally, they’d like a book a year—before the readers have time to forget you.
So if you’ve spent 18 years writing your novel and at last it finds a publisher—how long will it take to do the next one? Just saying. It does make sense to set those deadlines for yourself and keep them, even if you’re not under contract.
Q: Isn’t it impossible to break into the literary world if you have never been published or do not have the right connections?
A: I am proof that it’s possible—I had NO connections and the only publication to my credit was the book on quilting that a friend and I had co-authored. (This sort of publication credit means less than nothing to agents and publishers of novels.)
Q: So your first novel didn’t sell…what has happened to it? How long did it take to find out it wasn’t going to sell. What help were you given AFTER it “didn’t find a publisher?” What was “wrong” with it? It feels like a doubly abandoned orphan! And I’d like to know how you felt and reacted to this rejection…as in, (I hope) you immediately went to work on book number two.
A: That first novel is on a floppy disk gathering dust somewhere—also in manuscript, gathering dust somewhere else. My agent shopped it around for about three months. When all the editors had the same reaction—’great protagonist, good writing—but if this is a series about a mountain woman, what’s she doing at the beach? You can’t start a series on vacation because series readers want to fall in love with a place, as well as a person’—my agent suggested I put it aside and write another with Elizabeth back home in the mountains. Which I did and which—about a year later, my agent sold.
The rejection of that first book felt bad, of course, but in a way I was glad because I already had my doubts about it. There were soap opera—like bits in it that I was beginning to be embarrassed by. And having gotten this far, I knew I could write another novel and a better one.
Q: After the rejection of that first book, you must have had some kind of outline for books two and three already in the tube? Correct? So, I’m looking here at time frames: book one is offered for contract (but declined); at the same time, you are working on book two already. Book Three is still an idea, but has an outline/synopsis…all of which must have been offered up by you at the outset of your relationship with your agent? Or what?
A: In my query letter to my agent, I gave the plot of my completed book and mentioned very briefly some ideas I had for continuing the series. (Most of which I have since abandoned.) While my agent was shopping Signs in the Blood around, I began Art’s Blood. When Kate Miciak at Bantam Dell liked Signs, one of the things she asked before offering me a contract was if I was working on another book. I was able to say yes and give her a few chapters, as well as a brief synopsis of Art’s Blood.
Q: I never could quite grasp the concept of having an editor ( book-wise )…I self-edit as I see fit…then again, I write mainly obscure poetry, anyway…er…
A: As other questioners have put it, “How can you put up with an editor messing with what you’ve written and wanting you to make changes? Have you no Integrity, Madam?”
Or words to that effect. The short answer is No.
The thing is, I’m writing books that I hope will sell. If I only had to please myself, I wouldn’t need an editor. And, hey, folks, I’m not writing The Great American Novel—I’m not even writing Literary Fiction. These are paperback mysteries—no need for me to get all huffy about “My Art.”
The truth is that my editor has made me a better writer. She brings a fresh eye to the work. Sometime I know what I’m trying to convey but I’m not the best judge of how well I’ve done it. If writing is about communicating with others, that fresh eye is all-important. She can show me when I’ve gone too far in one direction and thrown the story out of balance. She can suggest when I’m under- or overplaying a scene or when I need to draw out the action to build more tension.
Of course, I’m fortunate in my editor—she’s one of the great ones. I learn new things about the craft of writing every time I get back a manuscript with her precise notes in the margin.
Q: Who is your agent? I’d like to query her.
A: Ann Collette. She’s with The Rees Literary Agency. She’s wonderful and she had the good taste to see a future for Elizabeth Goodweather. Ann likes literary, mystery, thrillers, suspense, vampire, and women’s fiction; in non-fiction, she prefers true crime, narrative non-fiction, military & war, work to do with race & class, and work set in or about Southeast Asia. No high fantasy, sci-fi, YA or children’s.
Ann prefers email queries. Send a terse query and the first 10 pages of your book in the body of the email; like most agents, she doesn’t open attachments from people she doesn’t know.
Ann can be reached at Agent10702@aol.com.
And it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway—NEVER QUERY AN AGENT WITHOUT A FINISHED MANUSCRIPT—PROOFREAD AND READY TO SEND IN FULL.
Q: Could you talk a little about “re-writing” and your relationship with your editor. How do you gather the strength to plow back into your completed story and revamp/review/rewrite as “suggested” or “commanded” by your editor? This may seem obvious, but there’s got to be a psychological process for doing this. I think it must be difficult to plunge back in.
A: When I send in my completed manuscript, I am thoroughly sick of it and feel as if I will throw up if I have to look at it again. But the passage of time—and it’s never less than a month, sometimes more—works its miracle and by the time the line-edited and copy-edited stack of pages returns to me, I’ve forgotten how sick of it I was and leap in eagerly. I zip though the pages, looking for the comments—good and bad—and then go back to proof read and, at the same time, try to fix what my editor has found wanting.
On two occasions (Art’s Blood and The Day of Small Things,) Herself has received my manuscript and felt that it needed a fairly major rewrite (a different villain in the first case and dropping a too-strong secondary character and subplot—alas for Myrna Lou and the Do-Good girl—in the second.) This is harder to deal with but, as I’ve indicated previously, I have great confidence in my editor’s suggestions. So I just do it. A little bitching and moaning occurs but as I get into the rewrite, I always feel like I’ve been given a second chance and the book is getting better.
Q: Does the editor leave it to you as to how to change the story, (saying something just doesn’t work…) or does the editor tell you HOW it needs changing, point you in the direction and expect you to carry out the change as she has directed?
A: Except in the case of changing the villain, when Herself hinted who she thought the villain should be, and the occasional suggestion of a different word, in general I am told things like ‘more tension needed’ or ‘milk it!’ (ie, stretch out a scene,) or ‘flat ending,’ and I alone am left to figure out how to fix it.
I would welcome more concrete suggestions from my editor but that’s not how Herself works—at least, not with me.
Q: What is Voice? You mentioned ‘finding your voice and being solidly in it.’ How did you ‘find’ yours? Is it consistent in your novels?
A: Ahh. That’s what I get for tossing about terms, the meaning of which I have only a hazy idea. I know what I mean by voice. But I went looking round the web for a more official definition.
About.com had this to say:
- Voice is the author’s style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author’s attitude, personality, and character; or
- Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona. Because voice has so much to do with the reader’s experience of a work of literature, it is one of the most important elements of a piece of writing.
Okay. Keeping those definitions in mind, where does voice come from?
The first sort of voice—the style of the author—I believe comes from the experiences of the author. In my case, that experience includes years of reading all sorts of things from Jane Austen and Thackery to Mark Twain and Wodehouse—with a hefty dose of Douglas Adams, Lee Smith, Rumer Goden and, as they say, many, many more.
My style includes a slight tendency to be pedantic (yes, I was an English major and a teacher and I love big words,) as well as a touch of playfulness. There’s also a Southern childhood, my particular generation (will I ever get beyond saying that things are ‘neat’ or ‘cool’?) and my thirty-plus years absorbing the culture of rural Appalachia. All of these things contribute to a multi-layered effect. (I suspect that my answers here are a fair example of my natural voice. )
The second definition—the voice of a first person character—is what I was talking about when I spoke of ‘finding my voice.’ What I really meant was finding Elizabeth’s voice.
My protagonist Elizabeth not only lives on a farm that is very much like where I live, she also shares my Southern past and the English major thing. She’s ten years younger than I and she doesn’t (or shouldn’t) say ‘neat’ and ‘cool.’ In fact, she shares so much of my world view that for the first four books, I chose to write her in third person point of view—not wanting to have her quite so identified with me.
But by the time I got to the fifth Elizabeth book, my protagonist had become a fully-realized character—a bit like me still, but with a whole set of experiences that were uniquely her own. So at last I began to write Elizabeth in first person. And her voice as a character is substantially different from my own—at least, I think it is.
When I write my novels, the overall style is pretty much similar to my natural voice butI try to suppress or let free various elements as seems appropriate. The pedantic voice had a field day with the character of The Professor in In a Dark Season. The Appalachian culture is, of course, the basis for many of my characters—Miss Birdie, of course, and Cletus and Bib and quite a few others.
Very often I have an idea for a character and I think to myself—this person is going to be a lot like ____. Sometimes I fill in the blank with the name of a friend or acquaintance; sometimes it’s a character in a book. And as I write this character, I’m always thinking, What would ___ do in this situation? What would they say? How would they say it?
I keep a file on my computer of interesting scraps of conversation or descriptions. And I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting characters
As for that last question—Is the voice consistent in my novels?—I think so—but one day I may surprise myself and write something very different.
Q: Do you or your husband have any advice for other husbands and/or their author-wives, on how to live with a novelist or —perhaps more important—a budding novelist?
A: This is a hard one as, I suspect, every relationship is going to be different. Certainly a supportive spouse is an asset—but the type of support desired or offered is probably going to be different in every case.
When I began working on my first novel, I fitted my writing in around my ordinary schedule— usually working late at night. It was my aim not to let this new and untested obsession interfere with my normal day-to-day life. The only support I needed at this point was to be more or less ignored. I didn’t actually want to be asked how things were going—especially if they weren’t going well.
I had a small critique group reading my work in progress, chapter by chapter. I sought advice from my husband on various technical aspects (guns, cars, sailing) that I was using in my book but never asked him to read it as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be his cup of tea.
Once I was under contract and writing to meet a deadline, John began taking over bits of my day to day work on the farm and in the house, freeing up several hours in my day. He is now the bread maker; he makes pizza on Monday nights; he has taken over the twice-daily visit to the chicken house. All this is in addition to the myriad other things he does on the farm. That’s supportive!
Q: Does your husband listen to you read your work in progress aloud? Do you dare let him hear you?! Does he read your books-in-the-works? Offer comments?
A: No, no, no, and no. John reads (and says he enjoys) my books once they’re in print. But he’s not the audience I’m writing for. He’s not a fan of woo -woo—the paranormal elements that continue to slip into my books; indeed, he’s not a fan of mysteries—he reads mainly non-fiction.
In working on one book I did read a bit to him to check if it sounded sufficiently ‘guy-like.’ And I always check with him when I bring guns into the story as he’s quite knowledgeable on the subject. But now that I’ve been with the same editor for six books, no one reads the manuscripts before she does. It’s Herself I’m trying to please.
Q: Does your husband understand when you are having conversations when it appears there’s nobody around (except your character with whom you are having a discussion)?
A: Well, I don’t actually do this. I do tend sometimes to stare into space at the dinner table and not always respond to questions because I’m working out a plot point.
As I said, everyone is different. Some writers like for their spouses to be an active partner—accompanying them to events, proofreading their work, setting up events, handling publicity. That wouldn’t work for us—John has a farm to deal with. And even if he didn’t, trundling round after me to book fairs and libraries and bookstores to hear me do the same presentation again and again…well, that would get pretty boring for him.
I deeply appreciate all John does to allow me more time to write. And even more, I appreciate his not asking why I can’t get advances like Janet Evanovich.
Q: How do you keep yourself moving AHEAD, rather than “backing and filling” —editing—rather than creating?
A: As I said earlier, I tend to write in a pretty linear fashion—start at chapter one and keep going. Sometimes I have an inspiration for a scene pretty far ahead—or even the ending—and I’ll write it down and file it away till time to use it.
I edit as I go—reading what I wrote the day before and fixing what needs fixing before beginning the next bit. This has the virtue of getting me well back int the story before I write something new.
If, as sometimes happens, events prevent me from writing for a week or more, I may go back and skim through everything before continuing on. And I always make some changes. But I try to keep moving forward.
If I’m stuck or out of steam for the main story, I can always go to the secondary, historical subplot—which also proceeds along in a linear motion. Here too, I read and edit the previous work in this story before laying down new stuff.
Some people swear by writing a first extremely rough draft very, very quickly and only after reaching the end do they go back and flesh it out with description and such. It sounds good but I don’t think it would work for me as my ideas are developed at a leisurely pace. I may be fifty pages from the end and still not be sure who the villain is.
Q: Do you have a daily page/word count goal?
A: When I’m in full writing mode—not just dabbling around at the beginning, around 1,500 words or five pages (double-spaced, of course) is what I shoot for. That’s about half a chapter—at least in the first two-thirds of the book (the chapters get shorter toward the end in an attempt at picking up the pace.) And it’s pretty polished.
Sometimes I do better than this; I have done 5 thousand words in a day (once or twice)—sometimes it’s a struggle to get 200 words down. The muse is fickle.
And sometimes there are days when Life interferes with my plans for writing. Stephen King famously writes every day of the year. I can’t even imagine that kind of dedication. But then, I’m not Stephen King.
Q: Could you talk a bit about what you read during the time you are writing your novel. (Assuming you do read!) If so, do you read fiction or non-fiction or both?
A: Oh, yes, I read, even when I’m in the midst of writing a novel. Mostly while I’m drinking coffee after lunch or just before going to sleep. But I’m careful not to read authors whose style or subject matter is similar to mine for fear of unconscious plagiarism.
This means that I have to avoid two of my favorite authors—Lee Smith and Sharyn McCrumb, along with any number of Southern and Appalachian writers.
And I almost never start a new novel for fear of not being able to put it down and get back to my own work. So I reread old favorites—ones that I almost know by heart—Elizabeth Goudge, P.G. Wodehouse, Angela Thirkell—all Brits and all set in the first half of the last century.
Q: HOW do you read? (analytically, critically, or merely for relaxation)?
A: I almost never read critically or analytically (except for my own stuff or students’ work in my writing classes.) I read very, very fast and for fun. But I have noticed that when I listen to a book, I pay closer attention to its structure—particularly if it’s one I’ve listened to before.
All the Aubrey/Maturin books ( by Patrick O’Brian and read by Patrick Tull) are wonderful examples of the sort of writing I’d like to do. Though I’m listening while driving…or ironing or working in the kitchen, I’m always learning something new about good writing.
Q: What about books on technique? Any titles you’d particularly recommend?
A: Chris Roerden’s book is the textbook I use in my writing classes and as a check list for my own work. I think it’s the most helpful book I’ve encountered for a nuts and bolts approach to fiction. I don’t always agree with Chris—she hates prologues and I like them—but I skim through this little book at least once a year.
Stephen King’s On Writing and Elizabeth George’s Write Away! come to mind as writing books I’ve read and enjoyed. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg are especially good for inspiration.
But I haven’t found the book that can substitute for just sitting down and writing, day after day. That’s how you learn—in the end.
Q: How do you deal with distractions when you’re writing?
A: Oh, boy, I’m not sure I’ve got a good answer for this. I’m surrounded by distractions and to some extent they feed my creativity. In summertime, the distractions are many and pressing and it’s hard to get a lot done when the garden is demanding my attention. I don’t have the luxury of someone to cook and clean (though my husband helps out here) so that I can do nothing but write. And, frankly, I’m not sure I’d want to spend all my waking hours writing.
The best I can say is that I attempt to find some chunks of time—usually late at night because I am not good at getting up before daybreak—and make the most of that time. Generally, once I’m well into my story, I don’t want to stop.
The Internet, of course, is another distraction, right there at your fingertips, even late at night. One could and probably should, turn off email and stay away from Facebook, Mr. Google, and blogging. But Google is a great research tool and Facebook and blogging have, I know, brought me new readers. It’s a problem for which I haven’t got a good answer beyond attempting to limit my time on line.
Q: How are manuscripts submitted anymore? Surely not on paper?
A: If you are submitting to an agent, you find out what their preference is. Ditto, an editor or publisher.
My first 3 or 4 books were submitted as printed out manuscripts and a disk copy. Recently I’ve emailed the whole thing as an attachment and the publisher has printed it out for my editor and then the copy editor to make their marks on.
I think a lot of people still prefer the hard copy—it’s up to you to make sure you’re doing your submission in the preferred form.
Q: How long are your novels? Is there a particular stopping point for you, or is the word count important?
A: My books tend to be around 110,000 words. I’ve tried to make them shorter but it just doesn’t happen. In general, for fiction and for a debut novel, something around 70-80 thousand words would be a good ball park figure to keep in mind.
Yes, word count is important. See Fiction Factor, an online magazine with good advice for writers. They have a fuller discussion and explanation of why editors like a certain word count HERE.
Q: I am presenting my book, chapter by chapter, on my web page, mainly to see if it is enjoyed and what comments I can benefit from where my reader’s feedback is concerned.
Is this a good idea? Now I’m worrying about the need for a copyrighted blog, and if there IS such a thing.
A: I referred this question to my agent and this is what she said:
“The author doesn’t need to worry about copyright because the minute you create something it is automatically copyrighted. As for an agent or editor being interested, well, if the author could claim she had 10,000 followers, that would create interest. But if she has less than a few thousands, that’s nothing to either an agent or an editor. Is it a wise idea? I don’t think so—why would anyone pay for a book they could read for free? Why would an agent try to sell a book that had already been read for free? But if you had over 10,000 readers, that would show people liked what they were reading and would indicate a wider audience could be reached.
Personally, I don’t see any benefit in what she’s doing—a few chapters, okay, maybe create some interest. But a whole book? I don’t see why it’s worth doing.”
Which was what I suspected. But, you say you’re hoping for useful feedback? What you want is a small critique group, made up of knowledgeable folks interested in the genre you’re writing.
Q: Would you read/take a look at/critique/edit my work in progress?
Unless you’re in one of the classes I teach, I really have to decline. And here’s why.
I’m overwhelmed with stuff to do already—writing, teaching, promotion, not to mention the laundry and other details of daily life. Furthermore, there’s always the danger that if I might look at an unpublished manuscript and later on write something that you or your lawyer might think I’d based on your work. Law suits could ensue.
There’s another reason I’m reluctant to read your work. There are many kinds of writing—and some just leave me cold—not my cup of tea is one of the politest ways of saying it. And not my cup of tea includes many a blockbuster New York Times bestseller.
So I really wouldn’t want to discourage a writer by responding negatively. Who know, you may be the next Mary Higgins Clark or Dan Brown!
That said, here’s a few quick thoughts for you would-be novelists—stuff I would tell you if you were in one of my classes.
- If you’re writing a novel you need a sense of where it’s going, an initial problem that sets things in motion—leading, after many twists and turns, achievements and setbacks, to a resolution.
- You need a protagonist readers will care about. This is why readers keep reading—to find out what happened to this person who has captured their attention.
- And you need to catch your reader’s attention at once—on the first page. (It’s a constant battle to keep the reader’s attention with all the distractions available in modern life.)
- Show, don’t tell. Get comfortable with dialogue. Learn how to skip over tedious bits that don’t contribute to the story. Put in the weather. Give your characters something to do while they talk to each other (and don’t overdo the drinking coffee, eating meals thing.)
- Read your stuff aloud. You’d be amazed at how this helps you to avoid stilted language.
- You should have an idea of what sort of book you’re writing (what would you compare it too?) and who your protagonist is and what she/he wants. What stands in his/her way and how will she/he overcome it?
- If you’re serious, you’ll keep going.
Q: Many readers come to your books with preconceived notions of what life/people are like in the south. Do you feel you have to spend more time with character development to move away from these stereotypes, especially those held about Appalachia? Or do you feel you must include characters that meet these stereotypes, such as Cletus and Miss Birdie or the snake-handlers?
A: First of all, I think most stereotypes exist because there really are people like that, at first glance any way. My job as a writer is to make sure that I am faithful to all of the people and places I’m depicting and that I help the reader to see the person beyond the stereotype.
I include characters like Cletus because there are people like Cletus (and people named Cletus, and Odus and Philetus and Plato and his daughter Treasure and would you believe I’ve known two people named Cleophas?) Birdie, as I’ve mentioned before, is an amalgam of many women I’ve known here in the mountains (the Birdie of the first four books, anyway—the Birdie in The Day of Small Things has some things going on that are the products of my imagination.)
In the course of my books, I’m trying to make it clear that there are all sorts of folks in Appalachia and very few meet the stereotype of the lazy, illiterate, ignorant, moonshine-stillin’ mountaineer. Cletus, for example, may be “simple” but he’s a hard worker and a genius in the woods.
But here’s the insidious thing: In writing minor characters, stereotypes are an easy shortcut for the writer and offer a comforting familiarity to the reader. Sweet little old lady…corrupt politician…bigoted bully of a small town sheriff…effeminate homosexual…sulky teen…dumb blonde…the list is endless. Just say that small town sheriff has a belly hanging over his gunbelt and has piggy eyes behind his mirrored sunglasses and we all have an idea of who he is. But he’s basically a stereotype.
The fun thing is to play with the stereotypes by giving that character an unexpected trait. Maybe this sheriff stops to take a box turtle out of the road and put it safely in the grass at the side of the road. Maybe he hums arias from grand opera. Maybe, in the dead of night, he leaves a bag of groceries for a poor black family. Now that sheriff is no longer a stereotype.
I do try to develop even minor characters beyond stereotypes—and the bigger a part the character plays in the book, the more I try to show various sides of their personality. Look what happened to Birdie when she had a book all to herself! There was a lot more to her than meets the eye. I suspect that the same could be true for any of my so-called minor characters.
Stories waiting to be told…
Q: How do authors decide on names for characters? For example, in OLD WOUNDS, where did the names “Bib” and “Moon” come from? Are names meant to symbolize the character and if so how?
A: Basically, for me the name just needs to be believable. It may or may not carry symbolic weight. (I’m not writing Literature-just popular fiction.)
I chose my protag’s name rather quickly (when I took the one and only class that got me into writing mysteries) since I’ve always liked Elizabeth as a woman’s name because of its many permutations. My Elizabeth is also called Liz, Lizzy, Lizzie Beth, ‘Lizbeth, etc, depending on who’s talking to her.
Goodweather was chosen partly to denote Elizabeth’s generally optimistic attitude and partly because I liked the sound of it. (I considered Merriweather but that seemed a little too sweety-sweet.) But in general I don’t use names that are symbolic for fear of sounding ridiculous. Phillip Hawkins sounds strong to me (Phillip of Macedonia, Hawkins, the Elizabethan privateer come to mind) but no way would I have given him a name like Manly Armstrong or Peter Steele.
Bib—this is funny. I was going to call the guy Big Something or other and the first time I typed it, I hit b instead of g. Liked the looks of it and that’s where Bib came from. If I had to defend it as a believable choice, I could spin a tale about it being a childhood nickname and having something to do with bib overalls. There’s a guy living near us who’s known as Slab, I think from a nickname.
The book OLD WOUNDS grew out of my seeing the name Maythorn somewhere and immediately wanting a character named Maythorn. One could make an English-major kind of argument for the name Maythorn containing both a gentle (May) and harsh (thorn) element, but this one won’t; I just liked the name.
The idea of pairing the lovely name Maythorn with a kind of pedestrian-sounding name like Mullins also appealed to me. Then Mr. Mullins needed a first name. Many of you are undoubtedly far too young to remember this but there was once a comic strip called “Moon Mullins.” It seemed reasonable to me that this fella might have picked up Moon as a nickname when he was very young. No symbolism intended.
Back to Maythorn: A student once pointed out the Rosemary Maythorn connection (rose thorn) which is a good call on her part—even though it was inadvertent on my part. Someone else pointed out a thing I did do on purpose. Maythorn’s real name is Mary Thorn: hence Rosemary/Mary Thorn which strengthens the girls’ blood sister bond in that they share a name.
But many of my names, probably most of them—Asheley, Krystalle, Jared, for example—are just representative of what seem to be popular names at a particular time, in a particular place. I have spent time in the Records office of our county, writing down names from various time periods that caught my fancy. I also pay attention to obituaries and note down interesting names.
And some names are there because their owners won a raffle or something where I promised to use the name they asked me to. Ronnie Winemiller, James Suttles, Lee Palatt are three that come to mind.
Q: Are there things you won’t do in your writing or things you just won’t write about?
A: Some readers vow that they won’t read a book if the writer: harms a dog, kills a cat, abuses a child, writes a prologue, puts in too much back story, ends on a cliff-hanger, leaves out the back story, writes about violence to women, gets preachy and pushes a cause, uses adverbs, deploys the F-word, engages in stereotyping, writes dialect, uses italics, kills off an on-going character, uses the past perfect, writes in a character (human or animal) just for the sake of killing it, puts in/leaves out sex scenes…I’m sure there are more. And I’ve been guilty of many of them.
As a writer of mystery, I’m fascinated by how strongly some folks feel about so many things in the mystery genre. If I followed all these proscriptions, would I gain more readers?
Every writer has heard such warnings— “People won’t buy books that ______.” And if you want to hear readers express themselves passionately on any of these subjects, just spend a little time at Dorothy L. This online discussion group for mystery fans is an interesting glimpse into the thoughts and opinions of some of mystery’s most ardent and vocal fans.
Take prologues. There are more than a few Dorothy L-ers who declare that they always skip the prologue and begin at the first chapter. Always. As if it were a point of honor. Puzzling. I had prologues in my second and third books (Art’s Blood and Old Wounds) but by my fourth book I was beginning to wonder if I was making a Big Mistake. So I took the prologue I’d written for In a Dark Season and called it Chapter One. Hardly hurt at all.
It’s not so easy to adhere to some of the other requirements various readers have. Early on, I promised a friend that I would never harm a dog in any of my books. That was easy to do—especially since my protagonist’s dogs are based on mine. But then, after I’d mentioned this promise here, a reader made a plea that I would extend the same courtesy to cats.
Oh dear, where will it end, I thought, and in my post What About the Cats? I explained why I couldn’t make any more promises of this kind. Bunnies aren’t safe either. Or people. These are murder mysteries, after all.
The thing is, I finally realized that I have to tell the story and write the book the best way I can—the way the story unfolds as I tap away at my laptop—not paying attention to polls or writing manuals or even fervent pleas from cat lovers because, in the end, if you tell the story well, you can break the so-called rules.
No, you can’t please everybody. Somewhere, some day, some affronted reader is going to hurl your book against a wall and vow never to read another. So be it.
“You have to shatter the reader,” was one of the first things my editor told me—before she offered me a contract. So sometimes I write up to the edge of that fine line between engaging readers and turning them off—and thank heavens, there are no promises to keep.
Except for the one about the dogs—they’re still untouchable.
I try to post and answer a FAQ every Tuesday on my daily blog. If you have a question not covered above, leave a comment on the blog or email me and I’ll try to answer it.