# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
I’m the award-winning author of two short story collections: Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories and Peripheral Visions and Other Stories—both published by Unsolicited Press, and three non-fiction books: the inspirational/motivational book, The Gifts of Change (Atria/Beyond Words) and two books for writers: Rut-Busting Book for Writers and Rut-Busting Book for Authors (both by Mill City Press).
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
I’ll start with The Gifts of Change. I had started journaling when my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, and gradually the entries became more like essays, several of which were published in magazines. Ultimately, I collected many of them into one book with the theme of making the most of the changes that come into your life even if you don’t want them, started pitching it to agents and publishers, and was fortunate to be published by Beyond Words, and now through Atria.
As for my two short story collections, some stories were inspired by personal experiences, some by dreams and others by—who knows?
My two books for writers were the result of the workshops that I gave on writing. I would do handouts, and attendees would ask if I also had a book and, well, if enough people ask you, then it seems like writing a book might be a good idea!
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
Having quiet time for reflection—such as when I go for a walk or mow the grass or even go on a long drive. Ideas or lines of dialogue just pop into my head because I’m not busy thinking about client work or bills or whatever.
Also, having a regular writing time. Don’t wait for the muse to show up. Be so busy writing that if she does appear, she has to get your attention!
# How do you deal with creative block?
Sometimes I can write through it, sometimes I have to step away from the project and give it time to breathe on its own. If I have it really bad and can’t move forward, I’ll do something that requires little more than physical effort: go for a walk, run the sweeper, mow the lawn, weed the garden, shovel snow. Inevitably, when I am physically distant from the work, my mind is able to figure out a way forward, sometimes necessitating me to stop the task I’m doing and get back to the computer!
But I don’t let my time away go on for too long. Years ago, when I was going through a lot of personal challenges, I stopped writing any fiction. The longer I went without writing, the more convinced I was that I would never write fiction again. And since that is my passion, you can imagine what a really ugly experience that was! Eventually, I had an idea, started writing and found my writing voice again! That taught me to always make time—even if just 30 minutes—for fiction. Writing something every day keeps the gears well-oiled and lubricated.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
1. Not doing solid research. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, do your research. If your character lives in San Francisco, in a house where her bedroom window faces the ocean, odds are pretty good she isn’t going to see the sunrise from her bed. If you’re writing a book about sleep disorders, make sure you know the correct technical terms and use primary, not secondary sources. If your book is set in a historical time period, know what words were in common usage back them.
2. Not getting outside input. Having good beta readers can really improve your work because they will spot issues such as a lack of clarity or poorly developed characters or unrealistic situations and outcomes. That’s not to say that all beta reader input should be treated as gospel but be open to ideas and suggestions.
3. Not using an editor. We are our own worst editors. We don’t see what is there but what we think is there. Even when we read our work aloud, we’ll still miss things! I use at least two editors for my books, ideally neither of whom has read any parts of it before. That way, they are coming at it fresh and can spot problems.
4. Not understanding that publishing is a business. Writing is an act of creativity. But when we transition from being a writer to being an author, we need to look at it from a business perspective. How well do we know the market? How much research on complementary titles did we do? How much effort have we put into building our platform? What do we know about marketing?
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Not really, except that it should in some way give the reader an idea of what the book is about. Certainly, when it comes to cover design, if your book fits in a specific genre, you want it to look more or less like its companions on the shelf (i.e., complementary titles). That includes not only images but colors, typeface, the whole ball of wax.
Perhaps the most important tip is don’t save money by using stock images. They look cheap. And they may show up on someone else’s book. Also, they don’t create a positive impression for your book. We’d like to think that our prose is what enticed readers to flip through the pages but what captures their attention first is the cover: the look of it, the title, the images, the colors. One survey said that 52% of people choose books based on the jacket artwork, while another one put it even higher at 79%.
From my perspective as an author, if I’m searching for a publisher, I’ll look not only at the types of books they are publishing but also at the covers. If the covers look cheap, I take them off my list. As a reader, if the cover looks bargain-basement, I won’t waste my time, since my assumption is the author has also gone the cheap route on editing as well. I’m not saying that a bad cover equals a badly written or edited book. But I am saying that gives it the perception.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
I’ve been lucky in that I have received very few negative reviews for any of my books. I look at all my reviews and try to be objective. I also look for the specific comments. Are they critiquing the stories or the production? In other words, did they not care for the story or did they feel the book itself was badly produced: poor design, poor editing, etc.? It’s okay if you don’t like my stories. But if I would see a lot of comments about spelling or grammar issues, I would be upset and immediately take steps to fix it. (Luckily, that hasn’t happened!)
# How has your creation process improved over time?
It’s not so much that it has improved as it is that I am less worried when I hit a slump. After so many years, I know it’s just a temporary condition, so I just keep going and trust the process. The most challenging aspect is when I think my manuscript is as good as it can be and in tune with what the market is looking for, and then I can’t find a publisher or agent who agrees with me! That sets off a whole chain of self-doubt and fear and “this book will never see the light of day!” type thoughts.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
The best part hands down was for my three traditionally published books, and it was having a publisher believe in my books and me enough to invest cold hard cash in the projects.
The worst was with my first book, The Gifts of Change, when I realized I needed to find the sources for all the quotes I had used. Since I wrote the pieces without thinking at the time they would be published, I used quotes from various books and never tracked them in any way. I had to go back and find all the sources and make sure I had permission to use them. Lesson learned: now I get all my source and attribution info from the start, even if I’m not sure I’ll use it in the final project.
The surprising thing was again for my first book. So many people would tell me how the book helped them or inspired them or gave them insights. I was just writing what I thought and felt and realized. I certainly wasn’t a psychologist or counselor or expert in life changes. So finding out that what I wrote resonated with others was a big surprise.
Finally, the marketing aspect of publishing can be challenging. It’s time consuming and you never feel like you are doing it right. Or doing enough of it. And that is frustrating. When my first book came out in 2004, there weren’t as many avenues for marketing: no social media to speak of, and all events were in person. Now we need to be experts at social media and video interviews and making book trailers and a host of other things. No matter what we learn, there is something new we have to figure out.
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
First, I need to be satisfied with what I wrote. My writing, especially my fiction, comes from deep inside, and so if I’m not happy with it, then it doesn’t go any further. Then I want to, well, “serve my readers” might not be the phrase I am looking for, but I want to entertain, enlighten, inspire—I want people to read my stories and either say “I have felt like that!” or “I never thought of that being the case.” Or at the very least, think “Hmm, not bad. That was a nice break in what is otherwise a dull/frustrating/depressing day.”
My two books for writers are more in the “serve the readers” vein, although again I had to be happy with the content before it went out to the public. But I want to give my readers useful information, doable ideas, and actionable tips—along with a dose of reality about being in the writing biz!
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
A lot, I think. There are times when you can be sad or frightened or lonely, and the writing gives you a place to release those emotions, either through journaling or by inflicting them on one of your characters! Then, when you watch them struggle through, you might figure out how you can feel better yourself.
But it can also work in the opposite way. Sometimes, if the emotion is too overwhelming, it can either stop you from writing entirely or at a minimum, keep you from writing about what triggered that emotion. It took me a long time before I could write about losing my mother because the grief was so overwhelming. But during that time following her death, I did write a lot of fiction dealing with loss and grief.
And then there is fear. If we are afraid of writing—either because we think we are no good or we think we have nothing to write about—then it can totally block us up. I call this “creative constipation.” The only solution is to write with no expectations. Just write for 30 minutes a day for 30 days—my 30-in-30 technique. No judging. No sharing. Just write. Eventually, you’ll get past the fear.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
Oddly enough, one thing that does occasionally work is when I am doing my Weekend Writing Prompt for my Focus on Fiction blog. I start with a picture or an idea, write the beginning of the story—enough to give my followers a jump-start—and stop there. And if what I end up with intrigues me, I copy it to a Word document and save in my WIP (Work in progress) Short Stories file. There have been times when a prompt has ended up leading to a short story, and in a few cases, gotten published!
Sometimes too I’ll pick an object from my collection of miscellaneous stuff (keys, stones, shells, etc.) and write about it for 30 minutes. In one instance, an old key and padlock led to the story “Lost and Found” which is in Peripheral Visions and Other Stories.
# What are your plans for future books?
Right now, I am pitching my first novel while revising my second. Both are women’s fiction, and although standalone novels, are part of my series called Midlife Moxie. My goal is to find an agent. Or publisher. Or both.
I’m also working on a holiday collection for release in 2022. (I didn’t get enough written for this year… sigh…) But they are fun to work on and I don’t have a deadline, so the pressure is minimal.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
I never planned on being an author. I just liked to read a lot as a child, and reading led to making up stories and that was what I did. But I never thought about having any of them published, either individually or as a book. Other people were published writers. Not me.
Speaking of being a child, one of my favorite forms of entertainment was playing “Let’s pretend.” And I still engage in a fair bit of “let’s pretend” but the only difference now is that when I play “let’s pretend,” it’s my way of developing my stories: who the characters are, where they are and what is happening to them.
If I hadn’t become a writer, I would have liked to be an archeologist. Even as a child, the idea of uncovering past lives—of finding people long dead and learning how they lived—fascinated me. I suppose in a way that’s what my fiction does: it reveals the lives of people that no one knew about and tells their stories: what motivated them, what they feared, whom they loved.
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