On Second Chances and Permission: Author Interview with Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Nadine Kenney Johnstone
Nadine Kenney Johnstone

Of This Much I’m Sure by Nadine Kenney Johnstone

I met Nadine Kenney Johnstone almost two years ago when I attended my first Writers Conference. I put it in caps because it was a BIG DEAL. I’d finally started calling myself a writer, and showing up physically with other writers seemed like a good idea.

The first day, I attended a workshop taught by a fancy MFA professor. The degree wasn’t the only intimidating thing about her. Nadine was thin and blond and, well, incredibly talented. Turns out, she was also incredibly encouraging, funny, and kind.

This was why I was so excited to run into her again last summer at a writing retreat. Here’s the most fascinating thing about her:  she’s also human and like all of us struggling through life, she had an incredible story to tell.  Unlike 90% of the human population, though, she put a portion of her story down on paper and just released her first book,  Of This Much I’m Sure (She Writes Press, 2017).

Of This Much I'm Sure by Nadine Kenney Johnstone

A few weeks ago, we chatted by phone about her new book, National Infertility Awareness Week, her family, and the writing life. I’m thrilled she agreed to be interviewed and excited to feature her as my first subject in the return to the blog.

How are you doing with all the activity surrounding the release of the memoir?

It’s exciting and overwhelming – most of the hard work is done now, it’s just about showing up and trying to give it my all. I feel better than I did a few months ago when I was just working like a mad woman. Authors have to take on so much responsibility even if you have a publicist.

What would readers be most surprised to know after having read the book?

I think they’d be surprised to learn as much about my marriage, my struggles with anxiety, and my relationship with my mom. I go pretty in depth. I was turning in the final manuscript and I was like, “Oh, crap!”  But that’s one of the positives of having publication happen so long after you’ve written. It tells the story of my life from ages 22 to 30. This most significantly focuses on 28-30. That’s a version of me and a character, but it’s not necessarily all of me.

What are some of your biggest personal changes since the end of the story?

At the end of the book we were making the decision to leave Massachusetts and come to Chicago, and I had no idea if it would work out. It was a really big leap for my husband. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve moved out of the city into a suburb, and we have roots there now. This is where we want to stay.

We decided that Geo will be our only child. The book talks so much about chaos, always in this frantic state. The lack of changes is the biggest thing. We’re trying to ground ourselves and remain steady and not have the chaos that we had in the book.

Let’s go back a bit. How did you get started writing?

I’d always written, kept a journal. I was a really big reader, a total book nerd. I watched Little Women every Christmas, and wanted to be like Jo. I was nutrition major, and switched to English. Most of time at University of Illinois, I just studied literature, but I wasn’t writing anything.

Little Women 1994 Movie

One day, my sophomore year, I sat down in my sorority house and just wrote a story. I had been a camp counselor for mentally and physically disabled kids, and I wrote a story about one of the autistic kids I worked with. I sent it into this submission opening, and it got published.  It was a total fluke, and I’ve had so many rejections since then.

That first initial acceptance was a boost for me. I took a creative writing class that was good and then one that was awful. Then a professor said, “Did you know you could get an MFA?” I submitted to so many programs and got many rejections but got accepted at Columbia. That definitely made me serious about my work. Being around Eric May, Patty McNair, and the Chicago literary community, that’s what taught me to be serious about writing.

What can you share about your current project?

I’m writing an essay collection tentatively titled Try Again, Politely. We always say to Geo, “Try again, politely.” He’ll say, “I want milk.” We reply, “Try again, politely.” Then he says, “Mama, may I please have some milk?”

I was saying it a million times a day, and I started thinking about second chances, either me giving them or me receiving them. Moving back to Chicago, my second chance at that, second chances in my marriage, with my mom. We’ve really tried hard to repair our relationship. All these moments of starting again or repairing things that have gone wrong in a way.

That sounds like a universal topic. Is there a common thread that runs through your work?

I think it’s just me trying to work out some emotional kink. That seems to be my go-to. This was an issue or is an issue and I’m trying to work it, make sense of it, see it from different perspectives, what I’ve learned it, how it’s affected me.

Do you see yourself staying with  essay and nonfiction?

Right now, I don’t have any pieces that feel like fiction. Back when I was writing fiction at Columbia, it was very thinly disguised autobiography. I didn’t know I had a good enough story to tell. I thought the people writing nonfiction had extraordinary lives.

I had to grant myself permission to say my story mattered. I think I’ve always been a nonfiction writer who was using fiction as a way to skirt around some issues. I have a great love of fiction, and I wouldn’t write it off because who knows what story might come into my head that might be better served as fiction?

N K Johnstone by Suzanne Brazil

Do you think you’ll go with a hybrid publisher again?

I really don’t know. I had a great experience with She Writes, I would definitely go with them again.

I want to concentrate on the writing for now and get there eventually. I loved that I had input on the cover design, the internal pages. I felt like I was in complete control. We followed a timeline. I knew I wanted it to be published in April because of National Infertility Awareness Week at the end of the month. With the traditional route, none of that is within your control, and that’s the downside.

Who are your first readers?

I didn’t workshop much of the memoir. I was in a flow, and I didn’t want to show anyone at first because I didn’t want opinions and revisions to stop the flow. I hadn’t experienced a flow like that. I just wanted to go, so I went and created this draft. Really only a handful of people saw it. My agent has a great editing brain. I just felt very clear about my vision, and she gave me feedback and I revised. I was totally open to what was and wasn’t working.

I have good writing friends, Steph and Kate, who read my stuff. But I feel like I want to take a class again and just get inspired. I want to seek out people who I know will challenge me, inspire me and not create an experience where I’ll be halted. That’s what my biggest challenge is. Sometimes I care so much about other people’s opinions and revising that it can really interrupt the process.

What’s one piece writing advice new writers should consider ignoring?

I don’t necessarily believe that “you have to write every day” thing. You do have to exercise this muscle. I think it’s honestly kind of like exercising or a diet. If you have goals that are too large, they become unattainable, and as soon as you mess up you feel like you have failed, and then you don’t get back on the horse.

I like small, manageable goals, and that is what works for me. Like working out–I tell myself you have to be active four or five days a week, not a certain amount of workouts for a certain amount of time. Or you can never have sweets again…well that doesn’t work!

Describe the physical process for you. What was it like writing the memoir?

I wrote in various spots, revising at this Starbucks in Ravenswood.  I write standing up. Starbucks used to have two areas with a standing level bar area. I would drink almond milk with mocha syrup, basically chocolate milk! I put in my headphones, get all jacked up! I would listen to Eric Church and Fleetwood Mac albums over and over and over again, because I couldn’t listen to any songs that were new, or I would start paying attention to the words.

Now that I teach at Loyola, most of this second book has happened in my office. I never thought I would be an office writer,  thought I’d always be a coffee shop writer.

Now for the fun stuff. Think of it as the speed round.

Favorite book or author growing up:  Mary Downing Hahn’s ghost stories, Wait Till Helen Comes, so much suspense and mystery. Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley Twins, too.

Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn

Last great book you read, other than your own:  At Columbia, I was exposed to a lot of great fiction writers like Dorothy Allison and Edward P. Jones.  Right now in nonfiction, Abigail Thomas, Mary Karr, and Cheryl Strayed are great.

A piece of advice or something you’d wished you’d known starting out: Follow your instinct and attention. What I loved about Columbia, we worked on developing our themes. Even with a totally random image, the professor would tell us to go deeper dive deeper. To our logical brain, that doesn’t make sense. But if we followed our attention and intuition, scenes would develop that I never thought I’d write about.

When I sit down, I do some brainstorming, even if I’d planned to write about something else, I don’t discard what pops up. This is taking my attention for some reason, and I am going to follow it. It’s giving yourself permission to write those things. To write your story even if you think, “Oh it’s nothing crazy or big.” There’s something there. There’s some element of truth or emotion in what you have to say. If you’re thinking it, it deserves to be put on paper.

You can read more about Nadine’s writing and coaching services by checking out her website at www.NadineKenneyJohnstone.com.

 

 

 

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How Do You Do Character?: Scientific Poll Results

Inside your main character
Inside your main character

Flickr: State Library Queensland Creative Commons

Do you become your characters, or do you observe them from outside?

I posed this question to writers in a very special Facebook group back in February and promised to report on my findings.

And no, I wasn’t just being nosy. I was reacting to all the craft books overflowing my bookshelves.

You know how it goes—you read a piece of writing advice and then immediately fall into a Ho-Ho binge because you’re not doing something the right way.

Once again, turns out there is no right way.

A few writers weren’t even aware that they favored one method over another until they tried to answer the question.

Ho_hos

In case you’ve forgotten or never met a Ho Ho.

Here’s my original query and some of the fantastic responses shared by writers with a wide range of experience and styles.

When writing your scenes, are you IN the body of your main character trying to feel/see/hear what she does, OR are you watching her to see what she feels/sees/hears? Curious!

“A bit of both, really. I usually first see the scene like a movie in my head, then I describe it while trying to feel like my character.” ~ Kelly M.

“Listening. Sometimes watching. And then, empathizing.” ~ Wendy G.R.

“I never realized it but yes I become my characters and write their story and feelings.” ~ Wendy T.

“In their body, usually. But it also depends on whether I’m in first person, close third, or omniscient. And what psychological distance I’m trying to convey.” ~Tamara L.

“I am the observer and write down what I see, what comes to me.” ~ Esther L.F.

“I think more in . . . ” ~ Lynne L.

“If writing in first person, I’m in, if writing in third, I’m observing and in.” ~ Dorothy R.

“Great question! Actually both . . . sometimes I feel what she feels and sometimes I try to look how she has to look, feeling it.” ~ Miranda M.

“Inside his or her head. More immediate, more fun to write.” ~ Nikki C.

“Both, but not at the same time. Usually as I write the story/scene that is there I’m in. Then I’ll do another pass from the outside.” ~ Jennifer B.

“Living it as much as I can.” ~ Julie H.

“In. Usually so in I find it difficult to use my character’s name even though it’s third person POV.” ~ Rachel V.

“I don’t even think about it. It’s whatever I wrote.” ~ Linda A.

Woman playing with Barbie dolls

Creative Commons http://www.odditycentral.com/tag/barbie-collection

“I just finished a piece yesterday and was in tears, absolutely as devastated as my MC, feeling what she felt. Sometimes I think they channel through us. Sometimes, though less often, it’s like I’m hanging out with the characters—this is especially true for dialogue—and kind of just transcribe what I hear when they’re talking.” ~ Cristel G.O.

“Depends on which POV I’m writing from, which I never fully realized before. Interesting question!” ~ Cathy M.

“In the room with her which makes writing sex scenes awkward, because then I feel like a voyeur.” ~ Gill R.

“All in.” ~ Sherry Anne

“Totally in. So deep I don’t realize I was in until the scene is complete.” ~ Kiarra T.

“Watching. Definitely watching.” ~ Lisa C.B.

“I try to feel what she feels! I often play music that I feel she would like. That helps.” ~ Maire F.

“My friend calls me a Method Writer. I am IN the body of ALL my characters the entire time while writing, which can get really weird, uncomfortable, and straight-up physically and emotionally exhausting since I write hybrid horror/Sci-Fi/fantasy/speculative fiction, among other things. My husband has even come home and told me I wasn’t speaking like myself, and I’d realize later I was actually speaking in the voice of a character.” ~ Sezin G.K.

“I’m sitting on their shoulder so I have POV and can hear them speaking the words I give them to say.” ~ Sally W.

Scientific Poll Results

Of course I’m a writer so the science behind this is based on pretty fonts:

Inside the character – 46.6%

Both inside and observing the character – 34.9%

Observing the character – 13.9%

Two responders could not confirm their own method (writers!).

And there is no statistical margin of error (see pretty fonts).

My goal was to figure out if I was doing it all wrong. I found myself more of the observer type, but with most everything in this novel writing process, I’m learning as I go.

I’ve spent more time trying to see my book world through my main character’s eyes and that’s made a difference. There is no one right way.

How do you get inside your characters? Are you a biography maker? A note taker? Do you have a favorite worksheet or method you care to share? Would love to hear about what works for you!

 

 

2 Thoughts on “How Do You Do Character?: Scientific Poll Results

  1. Such a great question Suzanne. I found out these past few months that I did both. It was an interesting psychological experiment on myself that was observed during therapy treatments called EMDR (Eye Motioning, Desensitization and Reprocessing). I noticed that when I wrote “outside” watching my character (me–I write memoir), it was in the form of a disassociated state caused by trauma. After treatment I no longer am able to write “outside” me, only inside. It has brought about a complete change of perspective, tone, and quality to my writing.

    • That’s fascinating, Deb! Thanks for sharing – I noticed I was having trouble getting to the heart of my character in an opening scene because I was observing from the outside. This prompted my original question. It’s still not a default state for me but I’m learning so much from going “inside.”

On Cat Butlers, Regency Romance, and Murder Mysteries: Author Interview with Catherine Lloyd

Death Comes to the Village

Catherine Lloyd Author

On a lucky trip to the library a few months ago, I pulled Death Comes to the Village off the shelf and quickly hunted down the next two novels in The Kurland St. Mary Mysteries series (Kensington Books).

There’s nothing like writing your own first novel to give you an appreciation for all authors. One of my goals this year is to reach out and thank those writers whose books I’ve enjoyed. That’s how I “met” New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author, Catherine Lloyd. She was kind enough to answer a few questions about her books and her writing process.

Death Comes to the Village        Death Comes to London      Death Comes to Kurland Hall

Congratulations on the success of The Kurland St. Mary Mysteries. You write under a pseudonym (Kate Pearce) as well. Do you have a preference for one genre over another?

Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to write something different. I also write romance, but they are very different entities. With romance it’s more about the love story and the character’s romantic arc. With the mystery, the plot is more front and center, and the characters don’t have to be quite so romantic.

I don’t really have a preference for one genre. They speak to different sides of my brain and my writing process. I’m lucky to get the opportunity to do both.

You’ve previously said it took you five years to get your first novel published. Can you describe those five years; the successes and setbacks?

Yes, that was back in the days before self-publishing in its present form existed, so the process was literally to send off lots of submission letters with a stamped addressed envelope and wait for the reply in your mail box. It took me a while to find my first agent, who then immediately died, and a little longer to find my second agent. The third one was the charm. Once I’d sold a couple of my romance novels things did start to get easier, but it took me 5 complete manuscripts and almost five years to get there.

Sometimes it was difficult to keep going. At one point I almost gave up, but decided instead to be braver with my writing and really write what I wanted to rather than what I thought was the popular thing. That proved to be the right decision for me. I also learned how to deal with rejections in a more private way than anyone who self-publishes these days and has to deal with reviews on amazon etc.

With the mystery series things happened a bit differently in that my current editor asked me if I’d like to write something else for the same publishing house. I went home to think about it, and submitted a proposal for the cozy historical mystery series. It combines my knowledge of the Regency period with my love of Agatha Christie in a perfect way.

How did you develop a knowledge of the Regency Period?

Well, I grew up in London with a mother who did her teaching qualification in history, and always talked about places we were visiting, which inspired a great love of the past in me. I also did my degree in history, so I know how to research a time period. I read voraciously and loved Rosemary Sutcliff, Dorothy Dunnett, Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. I gained a sense of what I wanted to write from there, and the rest I just research as I go. It really does help having been born in England with the history all around you.

You say you went with what you wanted to write rather than what you thought was popular. What did you think was popular? What were you trying to write?

I was originally trying to be Jane Austen or write more cookie cutter romance.  I couldn’t really be Jane, and I’ve always had something of a subversive nature, which meant that my historical romances always pushed at the boundaries of what was acceptable. (I was more interested in writing gritty dark romances with multifaceted heroes with questionable sexual proclivities than the standard Alpha male. LOL.)

For my mysteries I wanted to write something that wasn’t centered in the city of London with a strong male protagonist. I wanted to write a cozy mystery set in the English countryside where the hero and heroine are unconventional in a different way. I researched what was published in Regency mysteries, and I found a nice little niche for myself.

What was your mindset during those years? What made you persist?

I think I just wanted to communicate. I knew that writing was the piece that made sense of who I was, and I was determined that I’d eventually get published. I couldn’t not persist if that makes sense, but I had to give myself permission to be brave, and think outside the box. Getting angry at all the rejections helped sometimes as well.

What does the physical process of “thinking outside the box” entail? Do you make lists, brainstorm, try scenes from different angles, etc.?

No, I just write and let my brain noodle away at what will happen next. Sometimes if I’m aware there is a problem my unconscious will happily provide me with a solution when I wake up. Sometimes I can see a scene is wrong, and I’ll go back, try it in a different point of view or look for where the problem starts, and write on from there.

For me thinking outside the box means more that I look at my strengths as a writer and I commit to using those strengths and not compromising when I write by worrying about the market too much or what I ‘should be writing.” You have to be aware of what is popular, but you can’t follow trends, and make yourself miserable writing things that don’t work with your writing style.

How does penning your own books affect you as a reader? Are you able to read and get lost in stories?

It depends on the story. A fantastic author who can pull me in, and not let go makes me very happy. I do have a tendency to work out the plots ahead these days though, which sometimes even annoys me.

What books are on your to-be-read pile now? Favorite type of story to get lost in?

I have eclectic tastes. I currently have:

Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes.

Look Me In The Eye by John Elder Robison.

Get A Clue by Jill Shalvis

The Roads of Taryn McTavish by R. Lee Smith

Dark Angels by Karleen Koen

I’ll try anything, I like to see how other authors do things especially in literary fiction.

Being a full-time author is a dream for many writers. What is one thing about the reality that would surprise most people?

I think it can be quite lonely, and that you have to establish boundaries to either protect your writing time, or not let your writing time take over your real life. For me, it’s also my job. I sit down five days a week and write. That’s what I do.

Aspiring writers have a fascination with the writing process of a published author. Do you care to share any special aspects of your process or your opinion on this fascination?

I plot my mysteries quite extensively, and talk them through with my editor. The end product sometimes doesn’t have a lot to do with that initial synopsis, but the basics are there. I like to be surprised when I’m writing, and I like to follow off down trails that appear and use them to make the book better.

For my romances I’m even more vague because I really enjoy writing in the moment and discovering the emotion along the way.

My husband sometimes taps me on the head and says, “Where does all that stuff come from?”

Answer: I have no idea.

How much of real characters in your life make it into your books?

None in the sense that you’d recognize anyone. I do, however notice small things about people, their body language, the way they accent certain words etc. etc., and those things sometimes creep into my writing. I am fairly famous for eavesdropping in restaurants.

What’s the best or worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

The best? Write the book. Repeat.

The worst? Write what you know.

Why was “write what you know” not good advice for you. Can you elaborate?

I meant it in the sense that most of us live fairly unremarkable lives, and can’t time travel back to the Regency or out into the future. To me my imagination was my escape from the everyday, and it’s where all my best ideas come from.

Something readers would be surprised to learn about you? Any hidden talents or obsessions?

I’m British, but I currently live in Hawaii. That’s fairly unusual I think. I love to knit. I make hats and scarves and Outlander cowls and send them overseas to the cold people in my life.

If time and money were no object, describe an ideal day for you:

I’m pretty lucky actually. I get to live on the Big Island of Hawaii, with my lovely husband and daughter, three cats and fluffy little dog. I can get to the ocean in ten minutes. I love my job. I can’t really think of anything else I’d want except if I were a billionaire, I’d have a cat butler to let the cats in and out because they drive me nuts.

Lastly, if you could get newer writers to understand one thing about writing a book, it would be:

It’s hard work, but if you get it done you will learn so much along the way that even if it sucks, (and first books often do), the next one will be better.

A big thank you to Catherine for her time and generosity! Look for Book #4 Death Comes to the Fair, set to be released November 29, 2016.

Visit my #BooksByTheBed page for my take on the first three books in The Kurland St. Mary series.

For more information about Catherine and her books, check out her website. If you enjoy edgy romance, check out her Kate Pearce Novels.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Thoughts on “On Cat Butlers, Regency Romance, and Murder Mysteries: Author Interview with Catherine Lloyd

  1. Just finished today the third of the Kurland St. Mary mysteries and loved all three – it’s a long wait until the next one

Exploring the Writing Animal: An Interview with Abby Geni, Author of The Lightkeepers

Abby Geni

abby geni

Abby Geni lives, writes and teaches in Chicago while her imagination wanders the globe. She has impressive credentials that would crash my site if I attempted to list them all. A small sampling: Graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of The Iowa Fellowship; First place, Glimmer Train Fiction Open, “Captivity”; Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers 2016 selection, The Lightkeepers; Illinois Arts Council Agency Award, “In the Spirit Room”; 2014 Friends of American Writers Literary Award, The Last Animal.

I first met Abby at StoryStudio Chicago where she teaches the popular Novel in a Year class. I had the pleasure of reviewing The Lightkeepers for Blogcritics earlier this year. The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press, 2016) is Abby’s first novel and has met with rave reviews and garnered attention from People, O Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times, among others. Both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly gave starred reviews.

In my ongoing quest to figure out “this writing thing,” Abby was kind enough to answer a few questions about novels, short stories, and when it’s okay to call yourself a writer.

The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni      The Last Animal by Abby Geni

Congratulations on the success of The Lightkeepers. What has been the most surprising aspect of bringing the book to publication?

Novels create more splash than short story collections.  After publishing The Last Animal, I thought I knew what to expect when The Lightkeepers came out, but the novel garnered much more attention than the short stories had.  I definitely did not anticipate that The Lightkeepers would be reviewed by the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times Review of Books and People Magazine and O Magazine.  It’s been a nice surprise, but it’s a surprise nonetheless.

Much has been made of your use of and connection to the natural world in your writing. Where do you think this connection stems from? Has the literary world made too much of this distinction in your opinion?

Not at all!  Much has been made of my connection to nature because nature is vital to my work. I can’t imagine writing something that didn’t link to animals or climate or oceans or plants, something entirely separate from the natural world.  This theme was central to The Last Animal, and I had a wonderful time exploring new aspects of marine fauna and island life in The Lightkeepers.  I hope to be able to continue to integrate nature into my work in unexpected and unfamiliar ways.

Is it the story idea that chooses the form (i.e. short story or novel) or do you think most ideas can be executed in either form?

One of my dear mentors, Dan Chaon, told me that a majority of novels could have been written as short stories, and that if you, as an author, have the ability to tell a narrative as a short story, then you have no business telling it in novel form.  I have to agree.  If an idea can fit inside a short story, then it should be told that way.  Stretching it out into novel form will just weaken and dilute it.  Only those rare ideas that are too big and wide and deep for short fiction should become novels.

Do you write with a specific reader in mind or more for yourself?

I’m going to quote the master here.  Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”  I never know who my writing will reach or touch or influence, and I don’t have an ideal reader in mind; I just write the kind of stories I would like to find on the shelf.

Which writers have had the most influence on your own work?

Mainly nonfiction authors—Susan Casey and David Quammen and Craig Childs and Mary Roach.  I love to read about science and the natural world, and I love when talented, enthusiastic, inquisitive authors teach me new things.  Their passions become my characters’ passions.  Much of my fiction is born that way.

Aspiring writers have a fascination with the writing process of a published author. Do you care to share any special aspects of your process or your opinion on this fascination?

Anyone can write.  Many people can put a sentence together fairly well, many wrote stories when they were kids, and many secretly believe that they could write a novel one day if they just had the time.  It can be hard to delineate a “real author” from an amateur or a wannabe or a daydreamer.

This can be difficult for aspiring writers.  They may feel that they aren’t allowed to use the word “writer” to describe themselves.  They may be unsure about how their passion and creativity fit into their identity.  Many believe that publication is the bright line—with “real authors” on one side and wannabes on the other.

I disagree.  I was a real author for years before I ever published anything.  Publication is an achievement, not the mark of a new identity.  Aspiring writers are real authors too. My writing process should not be the model for anyone else, because every author is different.  I recommend that all aspiring writers look inward for a sense of what their writing process should be: what works for them, what aids their creativity, what they need in terms of discipline and structure, what they hope to achieve.

What’s the best or worst piece of writing advice you ever received?

The worst piece of writing I ever received was that I should write every day.  This idea is everywhere, and it causes aspiring writers a lot of stress.  I’ve been a writer since I was six, and I’ve never written every day.  Usually I write four or five days a week and take the rest off to recharge.  It bothers me when people make rules for what real writers should do.  Each writer should find his or her own rhythm and structure for effective work and joyful creation.  No rules apply to all writers.

What books are on your to-be-read pile now? Favorite type of story to get lost in?

My favorite stories right now are mysteries. I’m working my way through the Golden Age of Mysteries, tackling the canon of Georgette Heyer and loving every minute of it.

Something readers would be surprised to learn about you?

I hate to travel.  Though many of my stories take place in far-flung places, like the Farallon Islands or the Nigerian delta or an ostrich farm in Arizona, I have never been to any of those spots, and I don’t intend to go.  I’m a Midwestern girl, born and bred in Chicago, currently living in the same neighborhood where I grew up.  I like to research and explore as I write, but more than anything, I love to be home.

If time and money were no object, describe an ideal day for you:

Up at sunrise, black tea, meditation, more black tea, a few hours of passionate and focused writing, more black tea, a few hours of desultory and daydreamy writing, lunch, a long walk with my dog, pick up my son from school, play outside and talk about toddler things, bedtime for my son, a few hours with my husband doing and talking about grownup things, early bedtime for me, deep and unworried sleep.

 

A big thanks to Abby for her time and her original, intriguing stories. Check out her website for more information about Abby, her teaching and her books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Thoughts on “Exploring the Writing Animal: An Interview with Abby Geni, Author of The Lightkeepers

  1. Great interview.A great book evidently inspired it.

  2. Enjoyed the interview Suzanne, loved reading another person’s insight on writing.

  3. Great interview, Suzanne! I’m looking forward to checking out Abby’s books. And I like her advice on ignoring the usual advice. 🙂

The Forrest Gump Effect: Is Your Stubbornness Making You Miss Good Stuff?

Ignoring Advice

The Forrest Gump Effect

“OMG, OMG, you have to see this movie.” Friends, family, the media . . . everyone wanted me to go see Tom Hanks in THE BEST MOVIE EVER!

Of course, when I finally bought my ticket and popcorn, I was disappointed. With all the hype there was no way the film could have lived up to the push. It had been oversold.

This happens with motivational sayings and life hacks, too. When someone oversells the latest self-help book or when a piece of advice is repeated ad nauseam, it becomes background noise. We resist.

I made this mistake recently trying to get my son to read a book that I’d found beneficial. I tried giving him a synopsis. I quoted from it every other day. I shared examples of how it had helped me overcome a bad habit.

As he resisted, I started leaving it “accidentally” where he might stumble on it, as if finding it in his car would make him more likely to give it a try.

Stubborn Kid Won't Read Book

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He is now convinced it is THE WORST BOOK OF ALL TIME. I blew it, and he’s missing out on some good stuff because of his stubborn refusal to give in to his mom.

Anytime we dismiss the too-often quoted or ignore advice with a “yeah, yeah, yeah,” we could be missing a life-altering nugget of truth.

There’s no shortage of advice out there for writers, either. We’re faced with never ending truisms about craft or the creative process and we often become conditioned to ignore the most common.

After this post about learning in layers, I had an epiphany on the idea behind “truth is stranger than fiction.”

In the popular book Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver reminds his students that fiction is heightened, concentrated reality.

. . . you think there’s nothing to it, that writing a story is just like life. Like life, yes. But not life itself. Creating stories is a special craft—a special way of capturing reality on the page. It feels real, but it isn’t. You can’t just break off a piece of reality and stick it on the page. It won’t work. It won’t work because fiction is concentrated, heightened, intensified reality. It’s the essence of reality. All reality doesn’t contain such essence or truth, but all fiction must. You, the author, must create it.”

That’s a gold standard of writing advice but no less true for being familiar.

I’d read this excerpt at least five times and highlighted almost every other section of the book except this one.

It wasn’t until several drafts into my current project that a light bulb went off. Readers don’t care how long it took your main character to get to the bank, or the route he followed. They care that he was robbed at the ATM. Eventually, I was able to use this in my manuscript, cutting extraneous conversations and flabby descriptions.

Look around your shelves, you probably have how-to writing books galore. Try looking at an old one a new way. As your skills improve and experience grows, an old has-been could become the new go-to.

As for the book my son steadfastly refuses to read, I’m ordering the audio version for him. I’m hoping that in a weakened state he’ll accidentally hit play and absorb the information via osmosis.

Ignoring Advice

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Don’t dismiss an overused motivational quote or the latest popular self-help trend just because they’ve been done to death. Practice looking at things in the revised context of your most up-to-date self.

Give resources another read. Reconsider tips or advice based on your new level of experience or different life circumstances. You may absorb useful information and find yourself able to apply it in meaningful ways.

As for “Gumping” something myself, I learned my lesson with my son. There’s this book I think would be great for my daughter who is just starting out in her career. But this time, I controlled myself and only mentioned it once about a month ago.

To paraphrase Forrest, Christmas is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. The CD version arrived yesterday and is already wrapped and under the tree with my daughter’s name on it. She can listen to it passively on her way to work. Something’s bound to rub off.

 

 

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How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

The Drift - Writing Advice Suzanne Brazil

You know the feeling. You’re in the middle of a project (a book, an essay, a short story) and then you’re not. You’re on the edges of it or miles away. It shimmers in the distance like a mirage and you’re losing it.

I call it “the drift.”

You suddenly realize it’s been three days, then a week, then a month since you’ve made any progress.

It feels stale. You find yourself bored by the characters. You think it’s a sign you need a new project. A fresh start. So you let more time go by.

The foundation of your sand castle has blown away. One day at a time. One missed writing session at a time.

How does this happen? It happens grain by grain.

How do you stop it? The same way.

Famous authors all have recommendations to write every day or develop a routine. I like Jerry Seinfeld‘s advice: Don’t Break The Chain. Just grab a calendar and for every day you work on your number one project, mark a big red “X” – then just make it your goal not to break the chain.

Girl-Writing-ruifernandes-flickr-creative-commons-375x395

Drop in on your project whenever you can. You’ve got a day job, your dog has diarrhea or  your kid has a science project due. You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.

So do what you can. Drop in on your characters. Reread a page or a paragraph, or jot down some ideas for a scene. I think of it as being less precious about the whole thing. Conditions don’t have to be perfect, you just want to keep in touch with your story.

“Drop in on your project whenever you can.” 

Steal time. Think of it as something you GET to do instead of another task to check off your list. Print out a couple of pages, stuff them in your purse or briefcase. Pull them out on your lunch hour, or on an extra long bathroom break during that interminable staff meeting.

Don’t fall for the allure of the new project because you’ve lost sight of the old. It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice, it’s about action. Whatever you can do, do that. But do something.

sand-castle

“It’s not about rigid routines and perfect practice. It’s about action.” 

Stay tethered to the world you’ve built, the characters you’re developing and the story you’re telling. You’ll save time by not having to reorient yourself each writing session. Best of all? You’ll finish stuff.

 

4 Thoughts on “How to Finish Your Stuff: Avoid The Drift

  1. I love this, Suzanne! Especially this line: “You don’t have time to brew a perfect pot of tea, don your favorite sweater and light your literary pipe.” I need to remember it’s okay to just plop down at my computer any chance I get, and not wait for the so-called perfect conditions.

    …Similar to Seinfeld’s calendar chain, I always glance at the “date modified” for whatever Word document I’m working on. If I at least check in on my project every day, then that date stays current. If not, then it becomes obvious I’m starting to “drift.”

    • Thanks for reading, Jennifer – and what a great idea on the “date modified” as a reminder! That’s how I make sure I’m on the correct version but it’s a great visual aid, too. Thanks for sharing!

  2. CathyShouse on November 1, 2015 at 6:41 am said:

    I read these tips a few days ago and have since gotten some momentum going on a project I had drifted from. 1. Once I get started, I find myself stealing more time to keep going. 2. It’s surprising how much I get done when I keep in regular touch with the world I’ve created. Thanks!

    • That’s great news, Cathy! I think it’s physics and most writers are not in love with physics. Still, an object at rest tends to stay at rest, which is why it can be so hard to get going once we stop. Planned days off are ok as long as we’ve planned a re-entry strategy. Thanks for reading!!

Interview: Lene Fogelberg, Author of ‘Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir’

Lene Fogelberg

Lene Fogelberg

I met debut author Lene Fogelberg on Twitter. If you’re an emerging writer and you haven’t found Twitter yet, I recommend checking it out. I’m thrilled to host Lene on her publication day! Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir (She Writes Press, September 2015) is available through all major outlets.

Lene Fogelberg grew up surrounded by the natural beauty of her native Sweden. She lived a fragile physical existence with an undetected, and therefore untreated, fatal congenital heart condition. A dangerous and daring move to the United States takes its toll on her health but also provides the keys to her survival. Beautiful Affliction is a lyrical blend of literal heartache, love, and perseverance. The full review of Fogelberg’s debut memoir can be found here. She currently lives in Indonesia with her husband and daughters, and is working on a novel.

Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir by Lene Fogelberg

Congratulations on the success with your first book! How did you decide to take on the project and can you share your experience looking for an agent/publisher? What’s surprised you the most about the road to publication?

Thank you! I am very excited to see my story in print and to share it with the world. It was a difficult decision to come to, but I am happy I have reached this place of my journey. I think my story is unique in that many people who have experienced something similar did not live to tell their story, so I feel some sort of responsibility to speak up.

Being a Swede, living in Asia, the whole American system with agents seemed like a crazy jungle to me. Nevertheless I dove into it and made some great connections. I sent letters all over the place and contacted everyone who seemed nice. That is how, four months into it, I had three contracts from publishers in my inbox, and two agents considering my manuscript. But Brooke Warner and She Writes Press blew me away, with their gorgeous books and professionalism, and as soon as Brooke sent me an e-mail telling me that she wanted to move forward with my book for publication, I did my happy dance and accepted.

I have been surprised many times, by different aspects of the road to publication. Now I feel like I really didn’t know much when I started out! But I am happy I persevered and I have been trying to learn and adapt along the way.

How did you decide on the title and who designed the beautiful cover?

Originally I wrote the book with the working title The Cicadas, but my publisher wanted to change it. We came up with at least fifty titles before I spent a whole weekend soul searching to find the core of my story. And suddenly it came to me: Beautiful Affliction, which captures the two sides of my story; the struggle, the fear and the pain, and also the beauty, the unbending love and the miracle of it.

Cover designer Julie Metz, who is also an author, designed the cover and I am tremendously happy with it. I think the cover captures my story perfectly, although I have to confess I was a little shocked initially. I love the torn paper heart, the stitches and the random letters in italics, reminiscent of an irregular heartbeat. The irregular letters are featured throughout the book, which ties it all together wonderfully I think.

What was the most difficult aspect of writing the book for you? Do you love outlining, revising, or is the first draft your sweet spot?

The most difficult aspect was living it. And after that I was just so grateful to be alive, I didn’t think for a second I would write my story, or that I could write it. Not until three years after my heart surgeries, and after we had moved back to Sweden from the US, did the thought take hold, that maybe I should try to write it down. But when I started writing, it all sort of came out, and once I started it just had to be written. We moved to Indonesia in the middle of the writing process and a big portion of the book was written in hotel rooms and temporary housing in Jakarta, when all our things were shipped in a container and we lived out of suitcases. I had my family, my laptop and some clothes, but that was all I needed. I wrote and cried and figured out something to eat for my family, basically, for weeks and weeks. It was like a writing retreat!

We know once you release a story into the world, the reader makes it their own. What would you most hope readers take away from Beautiful Affliction?

I hope to share a sense of awe for life, for the miracle that it really is, and the beauty that can be found in unlikely places, as well as the beautiful pattern our lives can shape, even though when we are in the middle of it, it might seem like a huge mess.

Life of Pi

What well-known author would you choose as a mentor if you could? Along the same lines, what book (fiction or non-fiction) has most greatly influenced your life?

I would love to discuss writing with Yann Martel. I found his book Life of Pi in a corner of a bookshop, only its spine visible on the shelf, and two or three copies of it. This was before it was everywhere, and long before the movie. I pulled it out, read the book description and knew immediately it would be magical. I just fell in love with it and it’s one of the books I have given most thought to, even long after I finished reading it.

Do you have a regular writing practice?  How do you fit writing into your life as a parent, wife, etc.? Any writing rituals, favorite pen, chair, or beverage . . .

I usually write when my girls are in school. If I am in the middle of something and get hit by an idea, I can be seen running back to the laptop for the rest of the day, but mostly I try to fit my writing into the school day schedule so I can be there for my family in the afternoons and evenings.  I always write directly into a document on my laptop and I listen to music, from classical piano, to Coldplay, and everything in between. My girls are great at suggesting new music.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel that takes place here in Jakarta. It is a hilarious and heart-breaking story where I combine the ancient myths of Java with modern society and where East meets West. The first draft is basically finished.

Any favorite reads you’re looking forward to or have enjoyed this year?

I am looking forward to fellow She Writes Press authors getting published this fall; I have a huge pile of books to read!

As a debut author, what is the best advice you received? Any advice you didn’t act on?

At some point I heard about a study, where they tried to get to the bottom of why certain people were successful, and what they supposedly found out was that successful people had a common habit of actively seeking out advice from people who were ahead of them in their profession. This has stuck with me, and I have sought advice from coaches and editors, and it has made a world of difference to me. I have learned so much and I love that feeling; of growing, of learning. So the best advice I got was from that study, to not merely accept advice, but to seek it out from people you admire and to act on it.

Get to know Lene:

Favorite scent?

Lavender, Frangipani flowers and Balinese incense.

Favorite indulgence food?

Swedish cinnamon rolls that remind me of my childhood, and apple pie, for the same reason.

What’s your go-to splurge item?

Handbags, beautiful coffee table books, and handicrafts such as Indonesian carved wood elephants (I have five).

Favorite song to sing out loud?

“Human” by The Killers: “…my sign is vital, my hands are cold, and I’m on my knees, looking for the answer, are we human, or are we dancer…”

A celebrity you’re dying to meet?

Oprah of course!

Most important holiday tradition?

The traditional Swedish way of holding hands, singing Christmas carols and dancing around the Christmas tree has been expanded in our family to dancing through the whole house. Our kids make sure we dance through every room, before we are done.

Divulge one: bad habit or secret phobia

I have a secret spider phobia, well perhaps not so secret to my husband, who has to catch the spiders! Here in Indonesia we have spiders as big as the palm of my hand. Within seconds of entering a room I have scanned the floor and every wall for spiders.

If you could go pro in any field (other than writing), what would you choose?

Artist. I loved to paint big paintings and even sold some through a gallery. But eventually I got breathless and exhausted while painting and I had to give it up. It became too hard to hold up the brush to the canvas, it sounds crazy, but that’s how weak I was because of my undetected congenital heart disease.

Lene’s Top 3 Commandments for a happy life?

Things will work out (and if they don’t, you’ll be ok anyway)

Communicate! (People can’t read your mind)

Show kindness (everyone is fighting a hard battle)

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Last but not least, any tips for beginning writers?

Seek advice and feedback on your writing from the best sources you can find and read a lot of different books. There is always something to be learned from every kind of book, just as there is always something you can learn from every person you meet.

You can find out all about Lene on her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Check out this wise and inspiring interview from award-winning author Marly Youmans.

 

3 Thoughts on “Interview: Lene Fogelberg, Author of ‘Beautiful Affliction: A Memoir’

  1. Yes! That was great advices for all of us, not just authors/writers! …”to seek it out”…. I especially liked that one. Very interesting interview, thank you!

  2. Pingback: Publication Day! - Lene Fogelberg

11 Things Writers Should Never Say (to other writers or humans, in person or on social media)

11 Things Writers Should Never Say

11 Things Writers Should Never Say

(1)  Writing is hard

Yes, but to misquote Cheryl Strayed, it’s not coal mining, it’s not sewer repair, it’s not wrangling live tigers (though sometimes you want to claw your own face off).

(2)  Buy my book

Ugh. Just ugh.

(3)  I don’t have enough time to finish my ___ (insert work in progress)

Yes. Yes you do. Single mothers with three jobs have written books. Medical students who haven’t slept in 137 days have written novels. Stop lying and finish already.

(4) I self-publish and do all my own editing

Why would you do that? Why? WHY? Unless your best friend from childhood is an editor willing to review your work for free, do not self-publish a thing if you do not secure the services of a professional editor. You will embarrass your mother, you will waste your time, you will ruin your credibility.

(5)  I don’t read – or any variation of this statement

Imagine an actor who doesn’t have time to watch movies, plays, or TV. Imagine an oceanographer who refuses to leave Kansas, or a trail guide with agoraphobia. Ridiculous, right? You have time to read. You make time to read. You read. Go to the library right now, for God’s sake.

(6)  Review me on Amazon, even if you haven’t read my book

No, no I will not.

11 Things Writers Should Never Say

(7) Buy my book

See #2

(8) I dream of being published (while not submitting)

Good luck with that.

(9) “Chick-lit”   or    “Women’s fiction”

Or any other gender-damning, soul-skewering, pigeon-holing phrase when used in the context of literary snobbery, including but not limited to: I only read literary fiction; Memoir is just journaling; Uttering the word romance with your nostrils flared as if sniffing dog poop. It’s not nice.

(10) Rejection is so hard

Yep. And? Stop being a baby.

(11) I don’t drink coffee

While this may be true, it’s enough to get you kicked out of the tribe or at least ostracized. Lie. Carry around a Starbucks cup filled with water if you have to. You’re ruining the mystique! Tea is acceptable, if you’re British, but just barely.

(12) Buy my book

*Bonus reminder, no charge, you’re welcome.

14 Thoughts on “11 Things Writers Should Never Say (to other writers or humans, in person or on social media)

  1. Very amusing, and a timely reminder, Suzy B! I also hate the ‘Chick-lit’ label, and absolutely refuse to use it. Good fiction is good fiction, and that’s all. Men aren’t banned from reading works from women authors, so why pidgeon hole it as ‘women’s fiction?’ We’ll be having ‘Menopausal fiction’, and ‘Mummy fiction’ next! And I for one, will be reading THAT!! Lol.

    P.S. How many copies shall I put you down for?? 😉

    Hedgey x

  2. Damn! Thought I was posting from Hedgeblog Times. Whoops! I just may have blown my cover! Shhhh…. 😉

  3. HaHAHA! I loved this and soooo true except you could never embarrass your mother!!!!

  4. I have writer’s block. Really? What if your plumber said “gaaah, I have plumber’s block.” Suck it up, buttercup.

  5. GREAT LIST 🙂

  6. Yep yep and yep 🙂

  7. I still hate coffee! 😉

Counting Thinking as Writing – Guest Post on The Procrastiwriter

The Procrastiwriter - Home of Shanan Haislip

 

The Procrastiwriter - Home of Shanan Haislip

Update: Part 2 of my guest post with The Procrastiwriter goes live today. Be sure and check out this site, a valuable source of information and inspiration for all writers!

 

Big day today! I’m excited to be featured on Shanan Haislip’s The Procrastiwriter. Part 1 of my guest post “Counting Thinking as Writing” can be found here. Part 2 is scheduled to run next Friday, September 11.

The Procrastiwriter is one of  The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites for Writers.

The Write Life Best 100 sites for writers

The mentor who inspired the post is none other than award-winning author Abby Geni. I met Abby in my Novel in a Year class at Story Studio Chicago.

Please stop by Shanan’s site and check out her other articles. Plenty of good stuff here to get you from procrastiwriting to actual writing!

Postive Writer named The Procrastiwriter one of its Top 50 Writing Blogs!

Best Writing Blogs from The Positive Writer

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When Bad is Good: A New View on Your Inner Critic

Choose Your Thoughts

Several years ago, I won a free consultation from a professional home organizer. Embarrassed but desperate, I revealed the clutter in my disorganized kitchen wondering what, if anything, could be accomplished in one 30-minute session.

This domestic genius took one look around and said “Why don’t we just put this here, closer to where you use it.”

She said it about three times—it sounded more like Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo to me—and soon, papers piled on the table, spices jumbled in a crowded cabinet, and CDs splattered with orange juice, miraculously migrated to their new, logical locations.

I watched in awe and could only think Of course that belongs there. It seemed so obvious once she pointed it out.

Bibbity Bobbity Boo

So what was my problem? Why did this expert instantly see a solution where I saw only frustration and mess?

Perspective. Her view was new and different from mine.

Perspective is everything. This became crystal clear to me recently, during a discussion with a writing mentor.

Rehashing my goals one day, I confessed that I loved the attention that came with publication. How needy and pathetic, right? I even told her my best friend had once called me an attention whore.

My mentor’s reaction changed the way I react to the negative thoughts that come with writing, or any pursuit of passion in life.

“What if your craving for attention is what’s allowing you to do what you feel called to do? What if it’s that drive for affirmation that wakes you up at 5am to work on your rough draft?”

It happened again when I told her I sometimes found myself jealous of the talent of other writers. I didn’t begrudge them their success, I just coveted a smidgen of the talent I witnessed in other, more accomplished writers.

Her response: “Excellent! When we’re jealous, it shows us we’re on the right track. We know what we’re shooting for. So many people don’t have a goal in life. Congratulations, your jealousy is pointing you in the right direction.”

Hmmm . . . maybe there’s something to this. Maybe I had been looking at my negative thoughts and labels the wrong way. As long as my thoughts weren’t manifesting in undesirable actions, maybe they weren’t so bad.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

~ David Foster Wallace

I decided to test my theory. In a post in one of my favorite Facebook groups, a member asked if any other writers sat down to work on their manuscripts each day, riddled with fear.

My response was “Fear is good!” Fear sent a message that what you attempted carried weight and importance in your life. When I mentioned the interaction to my mentor, she practically jumped for joy. “Yes! That’s exactly what it means.”

Of course, fear is also a life-saving emotion pointing human beings to safety and survival. But we’re talking writing here folks, not hiking in the Alps.

This is more than a lame “think positive” mantra. Changing your position and perspective takes practice. Maybe it’s all B.S. but I don’t think so. It’s worked for me.

Time and energy spent doubting abilities or fretting over perceived character defects keeps us from giving 100% to our creative projects.

Next time you’re ready to label yourself, take a minute and question the label. What are the benefits of being afraid, jealous, attention-seeking? Make a list.

Domestic Goddess Kitchen

My organized kitchen (I wish)

Fifteen years later, my spices, CDs and papers are still stored where the expert suggested, I still like attention, and I’m still not-so-secretly jealous of favorite writers. I’ve learned to question my negative thoughts and labels when they pop up.

Rethinking them has made all the difference.

Don’t be so quick to beat yourself up. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Don’t waste time fretting over imagined inadequacies, and instead, get down to what’s guaranteed to make us all better, no matter the endeavor: practice and hard work.

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