I think it is very helpful to find out how a person got into a particular career path because not every career has a one-size-fits-all pathway to success. What I mean is: it isn’t always as clear-cut as taking four years of science or history at college. You can take a major in drama and double that with a literature or English major, but that won’t guarantee you a staring role on Broadway. Writing isn’t like taking a nursing degree, passing national licensing boards and having employers beat a path to your door, offering you signing bonuses. On the other hand, almost every job out there, if you read the wish list of requirements, asks for “strong writing skills.” Writing influences and attracts people to you in whatever job you take—even engineering. Words aren’t just how we communicate with each other. Words form our thoughts; words influence people.
When I went back to college to build my writing skills, Hiram College had just introduced a writing major. On the other hand, most people in that program were double majors, combining it with something like journalism, English, information technology, etc. This was to protect students with an optional path that would get them that 9 to 5 job/paycheck while they write their books.
What originally interested me in writing a book?
From the time I could read, and I didn’t learn till age 6 because Mother felt the school should teach me, I loved reading and I loved books. I walked to the library daily and took out as many books as they would give me at a time, read them that night, and returned them for more. Actually, once the school taught me to read I saw no real reason for school at all—they never once asked what I wanted to learn, and, being a child, I saw little use in what is called Core Curriculum. The library put me in charge of my own education, and, in my defense, Thomas Jefferson was self-educated as I was with a small amount of mentoring. Almost immediately I sat down and wrote twelve tall tales of my own childhood, my own book of fairy tales. I told my mother I wanted to write books for a living.
I find this early desire to write is fairly common amongst professional writers. When I told that story to the head of the English department at Kent State University, she rolled her eyes at me and said: “You’re an English major.”
My mother told me that writing wasn’t a practical way to make a living. She knew that because she was an English major, a history major, and qualified to teach French, German, and Latin as well. Well . . . jobs were scarce in the Great Depression. On the other hand, she was wise to turn down Kent State College’s advice that she major in poetry. People rarely hire poets. (KSU was Kent State College in 1930, and, yes, writing runs in the family.) The thing is, being a writer is who I am and what I do. So I shut up about it, but I went on writing—just a little more quietly.
What is this career really like?
Frustrating and lonely.
You live in your own mind and largely you work alone. My mind is too active and engaged to endure having others tell me what to do all day. I’ve got so many interests. Joining a local writer’s critique group, attending conferences where you meet editors and publishers and other writers can be important emotionally and from a business aspect. Still, nothing happens unless you spend time alone with your writing. Remember: books that can be written any time don’t get written. People will try to drag you away from your work, saying you can do that anytime. The trouble with writing is people think you are just sitting there reading and on the computer. If you don’t have a stack of contracts to fulfill, aren’t yet making money, they figure you’re not working. Don’t listen. Write daily; make it a habit that isn’t dependent on “being in the mood.” You won’t believe how much you can accomplish.
Then, you send out your work, your babies, and rejection slips are mostly what you receive. It hurts. It feels like somebody trampled all over your heart—unless a miracle happens and you are discovered early. The life of an artist is romantic on the outside, but tough on the inside. The people who stick with it are like me—you do it because that’s who you are. To be successful, you also need good business/networking skills/marketing skills. You’re a one-man/woman-band.
On the other hand, when a nice fat contract arrives, it’s a huge high. The first three won’t make much money, if any. BUT THEY ARE CREDENTIALS.
Read VERY carefully . . .. If you belong to a national writer’s organization like AWP or SCBWI, they have resources you can call on for advice. Sign nothing until you understand EVERYTHING.
What is the easiest or hardest part about writing a book?
As a teen, one of my mother’s friends asked where I got my ideas. Lots of people think to take some of your profits, should there be any, if they can say they gave you the idea.
Know this: ideas are on every bush.
Ideas are everywhere. If you sit for half an hour and brainstorm ideas, you may well have 50 to 100 of them. The work comes in developing the idea into a viable publish-worthy novel.
Most people, even if you gave them a ready written published novel to type, would quit by the time they had typed two or three chapters. (By the way, learn to type. You’ll be doing a lot of it.)
For me, the easiest part is editing a finished first, etc. draft. It’s like working and reworking a puzzle. The hardest part is getting that first draft down.
By the way: never mistake that first draft, no matter how polished, for the final draft. Lay it aside, let it breathe. Write something else. Go back to it in a few weeks or months. Think about it deeply. When you do that, I recommend you read and reread 179 Ways to Save a Novel by Peter Selgin. It’s a series of short essays. It’s best to read one essay before bed and let “the boys in the attic” mull it over in your sleep. In the morning you may have some great insights about your work.
Good writing is rewriting.
By the way, some people just sit down and write whatever comes to mind. Some do careful outlines. I’ve done a bit of both. The outliners take more time outlining and less time writing and rewriting. The people who just sit down and write do a horrendous amount of rewriting, piecing, and pasting. Neither is wrong, it’s about what works for you.
Non-fiction is easier to place with a publisher and easier to use the outlining method. Once you’ve done your research, you can piece the thing together and plow through the draft fairly easily. It took me about six months to research and write Abolitionists, Copperheads, and Colonizers in Hudson and the Western Reserve—which, by the way, is on the shelf at the Martin Luther King Library, the University of Virginia, Harvard, and has been given library binding at Oberlin College. Warning: it is a subject I’d read about for thirty years.
Because I do historical fiction, I also do a lot of research for that as well. Both my parents were history majors, so it does run in the family.
What tips would you offer to budding authors and writers?
Join a writer’s organization and local critique group.
Read books about writing and keep doing that. You can always learn something new.
I do recommend James Scott Bell’s How to Make a Living as a Writer. He has a lot of great craft books with simple clear advice. I can recommend also his book: Writing your Novel from the Middle because it simplifies novel structure and talks about the 14 scenes every novel must have.
Keep a diary. It’s good for ideas and starts the juices flowing.
Experiment composing while typing or using paper and pencil. See what works for you, but don’t get too attached to either. You should be able to write anywhere anytime.
Try writing on the porch, in your room, in a quiet place at the library, at Starbucks
Observe people, listen to how they talk. Look at how they dress and move.
Experience life. If you don’t do that your stories won’t ring true.
Never compare your work with someone else, but study their work to see what makes it tick. You can learn from them
Read the first couple of chapters of a book and try to write your own story in the ”style” of that writer. It may spark a whole new story.
Don’t be afraid of what people think of your work. A writer must be fearless and free to express themselves.
Fear of being yourself is where writers lose their voice. Having trouble finding your voice? Ditch the fear. Be brave.
Read your work over and over again—aloud. A book should read well in you head and flow off your tongue without tripping. If your reader trips, and has to go back and reread a paragraph several times, they may lay your book down, go make a cheese sandwich, and never return. (A purchasing editor/agent may do the same thing.) So read, read, read. Let it rest a couple of months and go back to read again. Use the speech software on the computer and have it read to you. You may find grammatical errors, you may find awkwardness you need to smooth out. Have a friend read it to you. (Warning: very few friends will do this.) Then let your critique group have it. They’ll find more that needs to be trimmed and polished.
Read what other people in your genre are writing.
Read great classic literature.
Read great poets.
Use spell checker, but remember it won’t find correctly spelled words that are in the wrong place.
Learn to accept criticism, but politely. If your whole critique group agrees, take note. If you disagree, remember: you are the artist; you own the work. In return: when you critique someone else’s work, start with what worked for you in the piece. That makes it easier for the person to hear what didn’t work for you.
Beg your parents to get you Scribner (writing software) for your computer to keep your projects together whether you are working on fiction or non-fiction. It will also help you with novel structure.
Don’t discount working with small publishers. They may not pay as much, but if your book really sells, all that matters is that the publisher has the capacity to make more to sell. They also may be more willing to give you a chance.
What do you enjoy the most about being a writer? Dislike the most?
I love printing out my manuscript and holding all those pages in my hand.
I dislike packaging them up and mailing them. It’s a chore. Wish I had a secretary to do it.
Could you describe the book writing, editing, and publishing process you went through?
Abolitionists, Copperheads, and Colonizers in Hudson and the Western Reserve was published by the History Press and has PAL status from SCBWI. That means it is appropriate reading level for young adults, grades 9-12.
My title was: The Passions of Emancipation, just so you know, and I like mine better because people didn’t ignore the emancipation of slaves here in America. From the beginning, as the constitution was being written, the matter was passionately argued and discussed.
Anyway, non-fiction can be easier to get published. You can sell a non-fiction book before you write it by putting in a book proposal to publishers. A writer friend of mine with the reputation to do it just picks up a phone to call editors he has worked with when he has something he wants to develop. In the beginning, however, you need to put in a proposal package. The requirements vary, but The History Press has an online form they ask you to fill out which makes everything easier.
Then you wait.
Months later I got a nice thick contract in the mail, which I signed and scribbled up where I disagreed. It may be appropriate to consult an attorney specializing in these things. You must completely understand the contract.
They pretty well accepted the manuscript (once I had it written) as it was because we’re dealing with facts and if you saw my bibliography, you’d understand why they trusted my scholarship. I was also in the groove fresh from college in regards to use of footnotes and formatting skills, and The History Press puts out an online guide as to house formatting preferences.
Pictures were another matter since I’m no photographer. My husband helped with that because the scanner my writer friend uses may work for him, but not for my work. (Photography classes in high school or college might also be useful.)
Once the photos were submitted with the manuscript the copy editor set up an appointment with me to spend a week on the editing. I had a good education at Hiram, and things went smoothly there.
Then publication: IKE! Public relations came into play.
Writers are actually shy people or crashing egotists. My more successful friend is an egotist and a great pr artist. That works because speaking engagements, giving seminars for money or grata is part of this game. Imagine how it felt to have my photo (I took it myself on my computer’s photo booth) on the cover of Hudson Life and The Hudson Hub! Think that’s exciting? I found it freaky. What if people thought I looked stupid?
Then I had to do a two-hour gig at the library about my book . . . waiting for some Ph.D. to complain about how I got the contract in the first place.
Have you any experience in public speaking? Using a microphone? I got some of that at church. Classes are available at college. Consider including this in your education electives. Drama classes may help not just your writing, but your public performance skills. People like to be entertained. Yes, and even engineers need to learn to use Powerpoint. Good writing/communication skills are essential to many professions. On the other hand, many of my professors at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I got my M.F.A. were uncomfortable with these tools and some of them have won Newberry Awards.
Above all, keep writing, say “yes” to your dreams.