My friend Aud has some exciting news: the cover of her upcoming book, Frama-12, has been revealed! Go check it out on her blog. I’m so excited to see Frama-12’s progress toward coming out into the big wide world. Aud shared the YA novel with our critique group in short sections over many months, and I got to know and love the characters and the predicaments they got into. I guess I kind of feel like a proud aunt or something, and my niece or nephew has just shown me their costume for when they make their debut on stage!
Aud’s blogpost is also about the moment before pushing the “send” button. I think Aud nailed it. That’s a fraught moment that a lot of us can really relate to, especially writers.
I recently hit the “send” button for something less momentous than cover art, but still with a tingle of excitement: the Pennwriters Annual Writing Contest. I’ve entered different pieces over a number of years, and for me the great part is getting honest feedback from writing professionals. I’ve always gotten useful, thoughtful, thought-provoking insights. (The prizes I’ve won twice were quite a thrill, too.)
This year I submitted the first ten pages of my fantasy novel in progress. I followed the advice given by Nancy Springer at a Pennwriters Conference years ago, to start a novel as late as possible, when your character is in the thick of things. Aud gave me similar advice in our critique group, as we chatted about in our joint blog about last year’s Pennwriters Conference. To be honest, when Aud said, “This would be a great place to start your novel,” I listened and took notes for future reference, while inside I thought, “Egads! That sounds hard!”
But this past fall, a great opportunity came up to put Nancy’s and Aud’s advice into practice: a Pennwriters online course on Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, taught by Babs Mountjoy. Babs’ course was fun, useful, and informative, and the feedback from her and fellow students really helped me. So did the feedback from my two critique groups when I shared the new first chapters this fall.
So when the Annual Writing Contest opened this January, I gave the new start another readthrough and polish. And then I hit “send.”
Now I’m going forward in my novel to write new chapters. I hope to finish the first draft this year. The climax is in sight!
GEMMA: So Aud, did you have any specific ideas or suggestions from these conferences that were especially helpful for your writing?
AUD: Yes. This was from PennWriters. I really needed that reminder about word counts and other characteristics distinguishing a Middle Grade novel from a Young Adult. I was pleasantly surprised to hear about the in-between category, although it’s not accepted by many publishers yet. I also thought the pre-conference workshops from the Christian Writer Conference were helpful. They were about creating a one-sheet and how to boil a novel to the essence of the story in 20 words or less. Those exercises were so agonizing I wrote a blog post about them. But doing all that work before going into a pitch session certainly lowered stress levels. That happened after the PennWriters conference. Oh man, the day before my appointments at the PennWriters conference, I was panic-stricken because I couldn’t think of a novel I could compare to my novel, Frama-12. They call them “comps” and I didn’t have one!
GEMMA: That would stress me out, too!
AUD: Fortunately, it came to me the morning of the session: Alice in Wonderland on steroids. And, to complicate things, I went in there, still thinking my novel was Middle Grade and the company only published YA and above. The workshop by Heidi Ruby Miller that described Middle Grade and YA novels didn’t go on until the very last day of the conference. Anyway, I went in there and said, “I know you don’t publish Middle Grade fiction. Can I just practice my pitch on you?” She asked for a sample! It made me think agents and editors ask for samples from anybody who goes to a pitch session at a conference.
GEMMA: I just want to interject – in some conferences I’ve attended in the past, not everyone got asked for samples! That may have changed, I suppose. But I still think it says good things about your stories and pitches!
AUD: Thanks. Both the agent and the editor that I spoke to told me to send sample chapters. The editor was so nice about it. When I said I wasn’t sure if my novel was YA or Middle Grade, she said, “Don’t worry about it. Send the sample. I’ll give it to the fantasy department and let them figure it out.” That was quite a relief, especially considering the comments I got at the critiquing night. That was another thing I liked about PennWriters, having a critique night, even though the feedback was weird. The agent who read my piece said, “That’s not middle grade!” He never said what he thought it was. The published author who commented on it said it sounded like literary fiction. And the publisher at critique night said my sample reminded her of the opening to a movie.
GEMMA: Frama-12 would make a great movie. And it sounds like literary fiction? Woo hoo!
AUD: Well, here’s the thing, and I cut it out before I submitted it to the agent and the editor. The opening was a description of the rising time-tear on the beach.
GEMMA: Oh yeah. I remember that.
AUD: It was kind of literary the way I described it. I cut that altogether. Now nobody will think it’s literary fiction. I emailed a synopsis and the first three chapters of Frama-12 to the editor. She wrote back and said, “I got it. You’ll probably hear from us in 60 days.” The exciting news is it wasn’t a week before I got an email from the fantasy editor asking for the whole manuscript.
Gemma: That is so exciting!
Aud: Thanks. When she wrote, acknowledging she got it, she said it could be a 90-day wait to hear back. It probably will take that long because if she likes it, she’ll have to talk to the bean counters to see if they’re interested in paying for it. The other thing is, this publisher specializes in romance. When the fantasy editor wrote back acknowledging receipt of the manuscript, she asked, “Is there romance in this?” I wrote back that there was, but it was very subtle in the first book. In the second book, I’ll punch up the part about Winnie having crushes on Kip and the boy they meet in the alternate world.
GEMMA: I think, having read both, out of order, I would say there is a hint in the first book, but it grows. The romance definitely heightens.
AUD: By book three, it’s really going to heighten. I’ve been working on that in the back of my head, and I’m writing notes.
GEMMA: I love both books, and I can’t wait to read the third! I’m sure you told the publisher this is part of a series.
AUD: Oh yeah, they know it’s a trilogy.
GEMMA: Because that’s a selling point. Publishers want to know that you’re good for more than just one book.
AUD: In PennWriters, an editor, Lawrence, said that too. They don’t want a writer who doesn’t have more than one book in them. If readers like how you write, they’re going to want to read more stuff that you’ve written.
GEMMA: And a publisher doesn’t want to invest all that time and money for the author to say, “Well, that’s it, I’m a one-book author.”
AUD: It turned out that way for me with I Almost Love You, Eddie Clegg, and Peachtree. After they published “Eddie,” all I had was Frama-12, and they don’t publish fantasy. Now I’m glad they didn’t take “Frama.” It’s so much better now, and that’s thanks to our critiquing group. PennWriters mentioned that quite a bit in the different workshops, encouraging writers to get in a writer’s group.
GEMMA: I absolutely agree – critique groups have made my writing so much better. And this is where I’m going to segue into one of the things that really struck me and was helpful with my own writing. One of my favorite authors, Nancy Springer, presented “The Muddle in the Middle.”
AUD: I liked that one, too.
GEMMA: One of the things Nancy said was to forget about “the middle.” Just keep having beginnings all the way through. Which made sense to me. I mean, you’re not starting from square one, but you’re doing new things all along the way. Keep that excitement going for you, as the author, and for the reader. She also said, start the novel as late in the plot as you can. This advice ties directly into what you told me. You said, “I think it would be awesome if you start your novel when Perylan’s trying out to join the Roving Guard.” I sat in our critique group thinking, “Uh-huh…Yeah, I’m not gonna do that.” [Laughter] And later, I realized, “Wow, I should do that.”
AUD: I love your Perylan fantasy! In Nancy’s workshop, she also said sprinkle the story with little things about your character. Don’t give the reader everything at once, and I love that. In our critique group, sometimes somebody will say, “Wait. What’s that mean?” Good, I’m glad you’re asking! You’re supposed to be asking, but I’m not going to tell you yet. You have to keep reading to find out. [Laughter]
GEMMA: Yes, and you’re good at that! This is a big challenge for me, but it is a good challenge to think, okay, a little bit here and a little bit there. It’s a little challenging with “Perylan,” but I see how I can do that. Don’t reveal all the secrets too soon.
AUD: I love the idea that we won’t know certain things from your Perylan novel until later. They should stay a secret. Then when it’s all revealed, the reader will go, “Holy crap!” We don’t have to know right away why certain things are important to your character. I love not knowing. It keeps the curiosity factor going.
GEMMA: What Nancy said struck home with me. It’s changing how I’m going about things now. That was a big concrete challenge. How about you, Aud? What was challenging?
AUD: Like I said, it was challenging to boil down my story into a nugget.
GEMMA: Oh my gosh, yes.
AUD: Yeah, it’s like you’re taking a piece of coal and turning it into a diamond. Or, maybe it was more like being an oyster and making a pearl. The process felt gritty and irritating, but in the end, I really loved how it finally came together.
GEMMA: [Laughter] Good analogy! I’m still struggling with how I would begin to do that. One of the workshops was how to write a query and the exercise: “When your character first discovers “X,” they know they must do “Y” within a specific time period or else.”
AUD: Yeah, when I heard that I worried because my “Nickie” novel doesn’t follow that formula.
GEMMA: Well, no, I would agree, it doesn’t work for “Nickie,” but it does for Frama-12.
AUD: I guess that’s true.
GEMMA: Without giving anything away, there definitely is a catalyst/revelation in Frama-12, oh yeah! And stakes and a time limit. I think for “Perylan,” that format works really well, and I would mention that in a synopsis for an agent or an editor.
AUD: Exactly. And it’s time-consuming to create a query and a synopsis. That’s why it took almost a month between the conference and submitting Frama-12 to the editor I met at PennWriters. Now, I’m freaking out about the “Nickie” submission for the editor I met at the Christian Writer Conference. I’m still rewriting the novel. Oh, man! I got it down to 69,144 words! It was 77K.
AUD: I want to get it down to 63. The publisher wants between 50 and 60 thousand words. If it’s 63, I don’t know if they’ll ask me to cut the extra three or let it go because it’s not that much over.
GEMMA: You can do it.
AUD: A lot of exciting things are happening with the edits to the “Nickie” story. At the FGC conference, I told them the story feels spiritually inspired. I can’t even take credit for it because it’s like these ideas are coming out of the air, and they’re so beautiful. I’ll be walking outside, writing notes on a little notepad, and start to cry. It’s so touching. The story also makes me laugh. But I don’t have a big enough platform. I worry nobody’s ever going to read this book. That’s so heartbreaking to me.
GEMMA: Don’t think about it that way. Your passion will come through, and that’ll help you find people to get it out there.
AUD: I’m still struggling over the synopsis. It’s hard to figure out what to put in there.
GEMMA: Oh yeah. I suggest you get it down on paper, do the whole thing. Don’t defeat yourself before you finish it. Then say, okay, what are the crucial parts? What are the parts that I really want to get across? It’s hard for me, too.
AUD: And getting help with that is one of the reasons we go to writer conferences.
GEMMA: Absolutely! Another workshop I remember was Hilary Hauck’s on “The All is Lost Moment.” That moment is critical for our characters because it leads to the next big change. Hilary was very sweet and compassionate when she said, “It’s very hard for us to do this to our characters because we care about them. I want you to write down the five worst things that could happen to your character and then choose the worst. I know what you’re thinking, ‘I’ll choose the second-worst.’ Really, choose the very worst.”
AUD: Hilary’s right. It’s hard to throw metaphorical rocks at characters we love. Have you tried that exercise yet?
GEMMA: I have not, per se. But I’ve decided if I’m going to write “Perylan” as two books, it can’t just be sliced in half. The first book has to have an arc, and it has to have the worst thing. And I know that’s what I’ve got to do. It’s not the climax. It’s the “Oh no!” moment.
AUD: I’m thinking about that for the third book in my “Frama” trilogy. A lot of crap is hitting the fan in book three! It’s exciting to have these things in the back of my mind while working on “Nickie.”
GEMMA: Oh yeah! I will also say I was excited by that last workshop about Middle Grade, Young Adult, or In-Betweener books. I remember thinking, “In-Betweener is what Aud’s writing!”
AUD: I am! I totally am! I also think I’m writing kid books for adults. That’s why, when that agent for kid books looks at my stuff and says, “No. This is not a kid book.” He’s partially correct. But why can’t we have a genre for the young at heart? Like they said at the conference, a lot of adults are reading YA.
GEMMA: Yeah. Absolutely!
AUD: Gemma, something you had in your notes scared me to pieces. It said, 14-year-olds today aren’t the same as how 14-year-olds were when we were that age. But I’m still writing like they are.
GEMMA: You have to write the truth as you know it.
AUD: And hope it’s authentic enough to speak to the reader.
GEMMA: I think you just have to go with writing to the truth of the story, not to the trends. Because trends change.
GEMMA: I understand that the world that 14-year-olds are in now is not the world it was when we were that age.
AUD: That’s why everybody’s writing fantasies! Then you don’t have to worry about Instagram and cell phones being in the plot. [Laughter]
GEMMA: This is a quote* which I love and applies to this situation. C. S. Lewis, possibly my favorite author of all time, said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally or far more worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.” Ta-da! You can write it with multiple layers. Some layers will appeal to the kids, and some will appeal to the young at heart.
AUD: I love that quote, and that’s my hope.
GEMMA: It appeals to kids going through these times of change but also to older people who can go, “Oh man, I remember going through that.”
AUD: In another pre-conference thing for the Christian Writer Conference, we got to practice our pitch with a published author. In my practice, I called the “Nickie” story YA. When I mentioned the main character was 14, the author suggested I change her age to 16 to appeal to a wider audience since kids read “up.” I can see Nickie doing the things she’s doing as a 14-year-old, but not 16. I almost tried to justify her age but ended up saying, “I’ll think about that.” The author said, “That’s all I’m asking.” Okay, I thought about it. She’s 14.
GEMMA: [Laughter] I’d like to finish with a quote* from Stephanie Keyes. She said, “I’m creating characters that are confused about what they want and where they’re going next.” That appeals to me. Those are the characters I want to read: characters in transition. That’s why I like reading YA books: coming of age books. But not only young adults are going through transitions.
AUD: So true. When you really think about it, every phase of life is a transition. That’s probably why I write: to make sense out of those phases.
GEMMA: Well put, Aud! Thanks for joining me to talk about conferences and writing. To read more about our experiences with these conferences, be sure to check out Aud’s blog!
*I encountered these great quotes in Heidi Ruby Miller’s workshop.
As much as I enjoyed the movie – the books are some of my favorite books ever. They are mysteries with clever, riveting plots, great atmosphere, codes the readers can work on, and the deeply appealing Enola herself.
I thought the series was complete, with the very satisfying (and more than a little moving) The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye. So my surprise at another book is exceeded only by my delight.
On top of all this, last weekend I had the great pleasure to attend an online workshop with Nancy Springer as part of the online Pennwriters Conference. She was such fun! And had so much good advice for writing. I intend to share some highlights of the conference and what Nancy had to say.
Meanwhile, I have seven projects I’m working on, only one of which is my fantasy novel in progress, so it may be a while before I emerge. Back into my Cave of Projects! (Ok, it’s sunlit and infused with fresh spring air, but still – I’m trying to work on several of these things at once, so it’s a little hectic in here…)
One of the things I’ve found most helpful in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic is to learn something new. So I was very glad and grateful to participate in Kathy Otten’s online writing course hosted by Pennwriters, which frequently offers such courses. Kathy’s class, “Weaving History into the Historical Novel,” was of particular interest to me as I write some historical fiction. Her class was very interesting, practical, and helpful, and I got a lot of enjoyment from it.
Now I’m pleased to invite Kathy to join me on my blog for an interview.
Gemma: Tell me a little about your writing, and how you came to write historical fiction.
Kathy: Hi Gemma, Thanks for having me. I write mostly historical romance; a mix of short stories, novellas, and novels. My dad loved the old westerns from when he was a kid, so when they were popular in the seventies, we went to see every John Wayne picture that was released.
Gemma: Ah, the classic westerns! I’d like to refer you to VT Dorchester’s blog — VT posts reviews of westerns, both movies and books (along with writing western stories). Pardon my digression – please tell me more.
Kathy: My mom loved old houses and antiques. Our house was full of them, and each one had a story related to some passed family member.
Gemma: Oh, that’s wonderful. Is there any antique with a particular story that really stays with you?
Kathy: The house was filled with things like Limoges china, a spinning wheel, yarn winder, antique sewing table, dressers, hundred-year-old steamer trunks, cooking utensils, furniture, etc. However, it was the more personal things that were passed down, which to me have a deeper connection. I have a recipe book from my great, great grandfather who had come from Sweden to NYC, and all the recipes are in his handwriting. I had thought it would be fun to have his handwriting analyzed to find out about his personality. My mother gave me an old leather purse which had belonged to my great-grand mother and it still had old coins from the 1800’s in it, along with some old fractional currency, which was issued in the mid 1800’s in lieu of coins because of a coin shortage. Old money is cool to think about anyway, but she would have been the last one to handle it and it might even have her fingerprints on it.
Gemma: Those are some amazing family heirlooms. And the thought of having currency with your great-grandmother’s actual touch on it is enough to give me chills.
Kathy: Together Mom and Dad instilled a love of history for both my brothers and me. My writing melds the happily-ever-after of romance with the romantic myth of the old west and my personal love of exploring different eras and stories from history.
Gemma: What are some other eras you’ve written about?
Kathy: Contemporary is not my usual time period, though I did write a short contemporary romance years ago. Mostly I write out west during the open range cowboy era. I did write a middle-grade historical short story which took place in the 1850’s and I have a soon to be released World War I short story. Since my characters come to me first, I tend to write whatever time period they drop me into.
Gemma: That’s cool to follow the characters to their time period! Do you write in other genres?
Kathy: I’ve written some contemporary romance and a YA novel yet to be published.
Gemma: Tell us a bit more about the YA novel.
Kathy: The YA book is a contemporary story about a teenage boy dealing with past trauma and self-doubt. I’ve submitted it to over twenty agents and editors, but it has been rejected every time. For now, it’s on the back burner. I may go back and rewrite parts of it and try the process again someday when I have the time.
Gemma: It sounds like you have the persistence so vital to being an author. Do you remember when you realized or decided that you wanted to be a writer?
Kathy: I’ve always made up stories in my head, so I don’t really remember when I decided I wanted to be a writer. My mom tells the story that when we went grocery shopping, if she had enough money she’d by each of us one of those Little Golden Books. One day I wanted one, but she didn’t have enough money. When I became upset she told me to write my own and that’s when I started putting stories on paper.
Gemma: Oh, the Little Golden Books – I have some fond memories. What a great response from your mother – and from you, to take her up on it. Can you trace some of your writing history?
Kathy: I’m guessing when I say I must have been in about second grade when I remember writing “Lucky the Dog.” I wrote simple sentences on the lower half of the paper and colored pictures on the top half. The book had a paper cover and I had tied it together with yarn. My mother kept it, that’s why I remember it. I went on to write “The Lost Uranium Mine” and “The Mystery of the Old Yellow House.” When I was sixteen, I wrote “The Letter” for a contest and it won and was published in a Christian magazine for teens called The Young Ambassador. That was the first time I saw my name and my story in print. That really hooked me and I’ve been writing steadily ever since.
Gemma: That first time of seeing yourself in print is so exciting! What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
Kathy: Aside from that first short story in print, I’ve been happy with each story I’ve written. There are aspects to each one I’m proud of.
Gemma: That is excellent. What’s the hardest part of writing for you?
Kathy: Not procrastinating. Sitting my butt in the chair and doing the work. There are some days cleaning the bathroom seems preferable.
Gemma: You know the procrastination bug is bad when cleaning the bathroom looks better! I know the feeling well; and even when my butt is in the chair, I often feel compelled to straighten my pens and notebooks, and then wonder if I should dust the desk…What’s the best part of writing for you?
Kathy: Sometimes going back and reading a sentence or paragraph from an older work, and I read it and think, Wow, I can’t believe I wrote that.
Gemma: Oh, that is a wonderful feeling! Where does your writing fall on the plot-driven vs. character-driven spectrum?
Kathy: I used to say my stories were character driven, until I read something that James Scott Bell wrote in one of his books on writing. That without a good strong plot the characters have nothing to react to, and without that reaction there is no catalyst for change. I’ve read a lot of romance where the characters are flat and boring. Stepping back, now I can see that it’s the weak plot and lack of conflict that keep the characters, flat and one dimensional.
Gemma: That is an excellent insight; I’ve never thought of it, and it rings very true. What books and authors did you love growing up? Did any particularly influence you?
Kathy: I used to read a lot of books by naturalists, then I fell into the westerns of Louis L’Amour. I love his historical detail and sense of place. Elmore Leonard is another, either his westerns or contemporary police dramas. I love his characters and dialogue.
Gemma: What are you reading presently?
Kathy: I read mostly history on whatever topic I’m researching. If I ever have time I’ll read historical romance or some contemporary.
Gemma: What are you working on now?
Kathy: I’m working on another historical romance novel that touches a bit on the views of sexuality in the Victorian period.
Gemma: That sounds intriguing. I remember being surprised when I realized that the Old West and the Victorian Age overlapped – they seem so different. What is your next project you hope to do?
Kathy: Ideas and characters constantly tumble around in my head, who know which one will jump out at me next. I’m trying to stay focused on one project at a time. No more three novels at once.
Gemma: Wow! Three at once sounds daunting, to say the least. What were the three novels, and what brought you to write them at the same time?
Kathy: In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend doing it. Because writing and researching one book is time consuming, doing multiple stories takes that much more time. It created a gap of years between release dates which in this day and age of search engine optimization and readers who binge read backlists, keeping a steady stream of product is important if you want people to remember your name. At the time I was working on the YA novel, my Civil War novel, A Place in Your Heart, and the rough draft for the novel I’m currently rewriting. I’m having to learn not to listen to the muse and work on the story I might feel like working on and focus on keeping in the zone and sticking to one story at a time.
Gemma: I’ve felt challenged by that, too, and it’s resulted in some stories left unfinished for long periods. For readers who want to see what you’ve been up to, how can they connect with you?
I have exciting news – my next publication is coming out soon! My fiction is included in Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3, due on or around Sept. 15th, 2019. My contribution is a bit of flash fiction, “The One that Got Away,” which won an award at a recent Pennwriters Conference. It’s about a bunch of fisherman swapping stories and the tale that tops them all.
My story joins Aud Supplee’s “Monkey in the Middle.” I’ve read a lot of Aud’s fine fiction, but not this one and I’m excited to read it.