Friday, July 28, 2017

Interview with Lisa Wingate - Part 2 - Writing Tips

 Today is Part 2 of Lisa Wingate's interview regarding her new book, Before We Were Yours. This part is all about writing!

9.   Who gave you your first big break as a writer, and how long did it take you to “get discovered?”

I was fairly fortunate in getting started, although mine is not one of those magical Cinderella stories. I spent about a year writing Tending Roses, my first mainstream novel, mostly while my little ones were napping or playing. When it was finished, I edited it repeatedly and then sought agents for it. I did that in the typical way — researched, used Writer’s Market, and sent queries to the agents.

While I was trying to sell, I wrote a second novel called Texas Cooking. Lisa Hagan of Paraview Literary Agency called me out of the blue one day, having read the partial of Tending Roses. She said she was crying and couldn’t wait to read the rest. I sent it. A couple weeks later, her rejection came via email. I was crushed. Weeks after that, she called and told me she couldn’t stop thinking about the book and, if I wasn’t mad at her, she felt she was meant to agent it. I wasn’t and she did. She sold both books to Penguin Putnam six or eight months later. I completely forgave her for having rejected me in the first place.

1    10.    How has publishing changed since you started?

I predate the days of electronic submissions, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and writer’s “platforms.” When I started, success was all about the in-store placement of physical books. I still remember my first editor telling me, “Oh, Lisa, don’t bother looking at your Amazon rating. That’s such a small percentage of the market. It means nothing.”

My, how times have changed! Now entire careers are built on e-books and Amazon. Many authors have chosen to publish their own works. Life is faster. Authors are hit with more marketing demands, in terms of online platforms and so forth. People are busier and more fractured.
The upside of this change is that there’s more opportunity for new authors to step into the business and it’s easier for authors to maintain relationships with readers. I’m not sure that I prefer one age of publishing over the other; they’re just different. There’s good and bad in everything.

11.   What advice would you give aspiring authors?

            First, remember that everyone starts out as a yet-to-be-published author. I know it sounds elementary, but don’t attempt to set out into the publishing world until you’re fully ready. In other words, begin by finishing a novel. It’s almost impossible to sell a partial manuscript or idea if you’re unpublished. Polish it and send it out, because as much as we’d like them to, editors won’t come looking in your desk drawer.
            Yes, showing your work to the world involves some risk.

            If there is a particular area of your writing that seems to be holding you back (action scenes, dialog, description, characterization, etc.) devote extensive study to this area. Seek out conference sessions and online workshops devoted to the topic. Study other authors’ techniques in this area. Don’t just read and admire—dissect, break down, take notes.

            Lastly, never marry yourself to one project. Keep creating new material—that’s where the joy is, and if you keep the joy in this business, you keep the magic of it.

12.   I loved reading that your first novel, Tending Roses, was inspired by your grandmother, “who was a survivor, a woman ahead of her time, and a wonderful storyteller.” Tell us more about this inspiring woman.

            I never really understood my grandmother until my first child was born. Grandma came to stay with us for a visit when the baby was still tiny.  Together, Grandma and I planted the flowerbeds around the sterile starter house my husband and I had just purchased.  As we worked, Grandma talked about simple things, like how to wind the roots around an iris bulb, or how to prune the roses.  

            When the baby grew fussy, we had to quit working and go into the house.  I was frustrated because we couldn’t finish the flowerbeds and things weren't happening on my timetable.  Grandma took the baby and settled into my rocking chair and told me to hush. When my grandmother told you to hush, believe me, you did.  Bundling my tiny son on her shoulder, she used the "grandma magic" and soon the colicky baby I could never quiet was calmly drifting off to sleep.  Closing her eyes, she rocked slowly back and forth and began telling me about her life.  She spoke of the rose garden she had planted as a new bride, and how it withered and grew wild when she became a young mother, her time occupied with caring for a family. As she finished the story, she looked at me through tears and said, “I can tend the roses from dawn until dusk now, but the best times of my life, the times that passed by me the most quickly, were the times when the roses grew wild.” 

            Something profound happened to me when my grandmother told me that story.  I had a sense of life not being just a trip from here to there, but a journey with lots of good stuff, maybe the best stuff, in the middle.  I realized I was so focused on goals down the road that I was missing the value of where I was right then, as a young mother with a beautiful new baby.  

            I also understood, for the first time, the power of an ordinary life story to change the trajectory of another person. My grandmother's story changed me. It altered my thinking. It shifted my focus. That story eventually became the basis for my first mainstream novel, Tending Roses, in which a grandmother has a profound effect on the life of her granddaughter, a young mother, through life lessons written in her handmade journal.   

13.  Writing isn’t only an art, it’s a business. How to you balance both the art and the business of writing?

            I think, in order to develop and maintain a writing career, you have to be constantly reaching — reaching for new ideas, new thoughts, new inspirations, new stories. Writing is a business of invention and reinvention, and not only on the practical side of things. The book market is constantly changing, yes, but writing itself is about inventing new worlds, new characters, and new lives. Some ideas will work out better than others and while it's hard to give up on an idea when it's not working (or when it's not selling), sometimes that's exactly what's necessary. Sometimes old ideas have to be released or left to simmer to make room for new ideas. In my own writing career, I'm always seeking a balance of what's working in the market and what speaks to me as a writer.

14.  Tell us about some of your favorite authors and how have they influenced         you?

In terms of classics, I have so many. I love the rhythm of the prose and the wisdom of Eudora Welty and Zora Neal Hurston. I love the sense of place and the intermingling of both the humorous and the profound that is so present in Mark Twain's works. What I have learned, sitting at the knee of these and other timeless writers, is exactly this — the stories that drive deepest into us are those that tell us things we already knew, that crystallize truths we’ve felt but not yet framed into words in our own minds. When a story pulls something from within the reader, it is a kidnapping, in a way. A piece of personal truth is forever tied to that story.

I think that's what we all want as writers. It’s what we seek to create on the deepest levels beyond just entertainment.  The best stories both draw on life experience and expand it to deliver meaning.

15.  Have you had help along the way in your writing career?  Who were your  mentors?

A special first grade teacher, Mrs. Krackhardt, put the idea if being a real writer into my head.  She found me writing a story one day at indoor recess, and she took the time to stop and read it.  When she was finished, she tapped the pages on the desk to straighten them, looked at me over the top and said, “You are a wonderful writer!”  From that moment, in my mind, I was a writer. When your first grade teacher tells you that you can do something, you believe it.

I was only in her class for a few months before we moved again, but during that time, she left an indelible mark on my life.  It’s funny how we have defining moments in our lives, and that time in Mrs. Krackhardt’s class was one of mine.  For years, I couldn’t have told you what she looked like, or whether she was a young teacher or an old teacher, but I could have told you that she said I was a wonderful writer.  When I left her class, she wrote on my report card, “Keep that pencil working with that wonderful imagination, Lisa!” and  “I expect to open a magazine and see her name listed among the contributors.”  I still have that report card, and I never forgot those words, or the way her confidence in me gave me confidence.  Publishing is a difficult business, but I always believed I could do it, because my first grade teacher told me so.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family of great storytellers. I classify them among my writing mentors, as well. Nights gathered around the outdoor fire pit on my grandparents’ farm were a lesson in weaving together stories in a way that could hold an audience breathless until the final line. Some of those stories were funny, and some were sentimental, but the older folks in our family could hold an audience hostage with a tale about going to the grocery store, or getting a haircut. Even from a very young age, I remember being, not only enamored with their stories, but fascinated by their skill. Reality and fiction were seamlessly intertwined to create a weave that was flawless.

16.  What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Probably the most beneficial thing I ever learn about the craft of writing came completely by accident. I stumbled into the wrong room at a conference ten years ago or so, and ended up in a class on Three Act Story Structure, as it applies to screenwriting. I had already wandered my way through the writing of my first few novels by then, one of which got that editorial letter – the you never want to get. The book ended up being a total rewrite.

When I attended that first course on Three Act Structure, and then began to study various outlines, it helped to gel so many things that I knew from reading, hearing, and watching stories all my life, even those oral stories and jokes told among family members at the old farm.  Almost every successful story follows Three Act, which was first identified by Aristotle.  I'm still a very organic type of writer, but understanding the outline of story structure gives me just enough bones to hang the flesh of the story on. 

Since then, I’ve taught the course many times, and it's always amazing to watch that light turn on for other people the way it did for me. There are various forms of the Three Act Structure outline. I think people often make it more complicated than it needs to be, in terms of novel writing. The simple version I use is on my website under the writers tips for anyone who is curious. Using the outline and analyzing some movies is a great way to begin to understand the arrangement of the story bones.

17.  What’s the worst writing advice you have ever been given?

This might seem to contradict my “best advice” answer, but probably the worst advice I’ve received was advice that trended more toward analytical and prescriptive. Do A, B, C, and D, and you’ll create a best seller. While there are certainly technical things to be learned, I don't think there is any certain way to put a novel together or to assure bestseller status. So many factors, including some amount of luck and timing determine the eventual sales of a book.
Aside from that, every writer’s process is different. There is no wrong way to go about building a novel.  What’s right is what works for you, and every writer’s process is different. I think you can get so caught up in following every new method out there that you can lose the magic of your own innate style. Ultimately, great writing is about living your story as you write, finding your own voice, and letting it seep into your story.  It's hard to do that if you have too much mental algebra going on in your head.

18.  Please explain The Sisterhood of the Traveling Books!

 In the last months leading up to the June release of Before We Were Yours, we decided to resurrect The Sisterhood of the Traveling Books, which we had done for previous books. We sent out 21 early copies to the Big Sister in each sisterhood of 4 members. The books traveled from sister to sister, on journeys all over the country.  The participants read, they jotted their thoughts right in the pages when they found passages that struck a chord or triggered a memory, they snapped a photo or two, and then they send the book on to the next sister. Many posted photos and comments on their special Facebook page, but no spoilers, of course.

The results were amazing, inspiring, and from an author’s point of view, truly heartwarming. The Sisters enjoyed the book in a whole new way because they were reading it together, forming connections, sharing memories, building friendships, linking in their own life experiences by leaving comments in the book. It’s proof of what we all know intuitively. Even those experiences we only live in the pages of a book actually mean more when we share them. The project took on a life of its own in ways we never anticipated, and it has been, without a doubt, the most fun and rewarding thing we’ve ever done in advance of a book.

Again, the experience was both fun and heartwarming. Books form such amazing connections between us.  Others who’d like to get a sense of the journey can find out more on The Sisterhood of the Traveling Books Facebook page or Pinterest board
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