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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Interview with Judith Redline Coopey

There is nothing more delightful than discovering a book with a page-turning plot, memorable characters and a setting that transports you to another time and place.  Judith Redline Coopey's Redfield Farm is such a book.  We are lucky to have her answering a few questions for us about writing compelling historical fiction and her journey as a writer.
Your book, Redfield Farm, is page-turning historical fiction - not an easy feat.  How do you incorporate historical facts from your research into a readable work that doesn't feel contrived?  How do you keep a plot going along a trajectory when the time period is set in the past and the author must also think about this during the plot progression?  Many authors find this a real challenge and find the plot becoming a slave to the setting.

I do exhaustive research into my topic (the Underground Railroad, Quaker religious beliefs, practices and customs).  I choose these topics because they are interesting to me, so that I won't get tired of reading about them, and that the information will become a part of me, not something I have to refer to all the time.  As for plotting, I try to ask myself 'what if' questions, like: what if a young woman helping with the Underground Railroad were to fall in love with or establish an intimate relationship with one of the fugitives. That question in the back of my mind guides my research.  It is always there, making me keep it on mind as I learn about the times and events.  If my question doesn't seem plausible, I'll know it not very far into the research

My plot for Redfield Farm was basically a chronology of a life.  I found that easy to follow, and, since it was my first novel, I felt comfortable with that approach.  I find that my plots are derived from the research.  They grow out of my study of the times and events, and they almost form themselves.  Certain things are inevitable, given certain circumstances.  I don't outline my plot ahead of time.  I have a general idea of where things are going, and I write a chapter at a time without looking back so that my story grows out of itself.

I don't take notes on my research.  I just read and read and read about my topic until I feel very familiar with it and the times and places where it occurred.  That way I think my writing feels more natural, not contrived. I'm sure you've heard writers say that their characters can take over the story and lead the writer in the direction he/she should go.  I believe this.  Ann Redfield wrote the story.  I was just the conduit.

What is your process for writing historical fiction?  How do you take all the research about a time and place and create a plot-driven book?  In other words, do you research for months and then throw much of that research out to write something from a more natural place?  Or do you meticulously outline how your book will proceed?
My second book, Waterproof, a Novel of the Johnstown Flood, is a good example for this question.  I read about 25 books on the Johnstown Flood, to the point that all of the accounts were starting to sound the same.  By then, I thought I knew how people would feel after such a disaster -- in a huge variety of ways.  I knew there would be bitterness, depression, the desire to get on with one's life, the need to talk endlessly about it.  I tried to incorporate many ways of coping into my story. Once again the story grew out of the research.  Once I had done the research, I put it away in my mind and started to write, and the story came to me through the characters.  I think I start to know my characters very early in the process and I can let them lead the way.

I don't outline anything.  Not that I have any aversion to outlining, planning or organization.  It's just not the way it happens for me, and I just let the process happen with a general idea of where the story is going and a vague idea of who my characters are.

When you were mothering small children, how did you find the time to write?  If you didn't write, then how did you manage to keep that part of yourself open for future writing?  In other words, did you prepare by being a critical reader, did you write shorter stories, etc.?

When my children were very small I barely wrote at all.  When they were in elementary school I tried my hand at magazine articles with  some success.  Then when they were in junior high I collaborated on a non-fiction book and wrote a local history at the behest of a patron.  Just little bits here and there, but the flame never went out.  I am a very linear kind of person.  One thing at a time and one focus at a time.  So when I was a teacher, teaching took all of my energy, but the need to write was always there.  I thought I would write for young adults, and did two books for them before I realized that it was adults I wanted to write for (with, hopefully, a crossover here and there).  I retired from teaching at 62 so that I could devote myself to writing full time, and it has certainly paid off.  So don't despair if you can't find time to write.  Keep the flame alive.  Your time will come.

What is next for you?

What is next is very exciting:  a three volume family saga about the iron industry in 19th century Pennsylvania.  That may sound boring, but trust me.  It'll curl your hair!  I have so many projects in the fire, I just hope my brain keeps functioning long enough to get them all written.  This is the most exciting time of my life, and I am enjoying it to the fullest.

What is your advice for writers looking to write compelling historical fiction?  Should they be aware of upcoming trends and trends on the decline?  For example, many agents now state they are not looking for historical fiction set during the Depression, because this area is saturated.  Should an author pay attention to this or write what they need to write?

I think the best writing comes from the heart and a sincere interest in one's topic.  Trends come and go, and agents and editors hope they can predict them but I think a writer is best advised to follow her heart and write what interests her.  I've been told many times that historical fiction doesn't sell, but Redfield Farm has put that to rest, and I hope my readers continue to find my writing interesting and compelling.  Write what you know!

Judith Redline Coopey's, Redfield Farm, as well as her other books, can be found on Amazon.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Advice from a Professional Editor

How is it possible that three months have gone by since my last post?  Life is busy, but my goal is to have a new post at the end of each month moving forward.  Balancing children, summer holidays, writing, editing, and life is a constant struggle, as all Mother Freakin' Writers know.  But, I think this post was worth the wait.  

Thursa, from Electric Reads Book Promotion & Literary Services has answered some questions for us about hiring a professional editor.  Thursa is described as a keen-eyed editor who has worked for a number of well-known publishing houses and holds a degree in English and Creative Writing.

1.  When should an author hire an outside editor for their work?  In other words, how does an author know it's time to invest money in an editor?  It's quite an investment so what would be your best advice to writers?
A writer should feel 100% comfortable with what they have produced before sending it to an editor. If a writer is in too much of a hurry to get their work out there, it will usually show in the quality, and the more work an editor has to do, the more likely a second set of revisions (i.e. a proofread, and thus further expense) would be necessary to make the work the best it can be. I'd suggest a writer leave their work for a time once they've finished it and then read it through themselves with fresh eyes - it can be amazing the things that get missed the first time around. Do this a couple of times if necessary, and only send the work out when you feel you know it inside-out and are proud of it. It's part of an editor's job to uncover plot holes and confront why a particular name was chosen, etc., so you need to be ready to either clarify your choices or come around to new ideas. And when choosing an editor, don't be afraid to ask questions before you decide.
2.  What are expectations writers should have working with an editor?
A writer should expect to have an open and on-going dialogue with their editor and be happy to answer any questions the editor bring up as the edit progresses - and to try not be offended if they don't like something the editor suggests! The editor should be able to assess the quality of the work and what is needed; i.e. whether the edits should have more to do grammar or word choice, or whether the narrative itself needs a bit more time spent on it. The editor shouldn't change a writer's personal style, but they should refine what is there and iron out any inconsistencies. Don't expect an editor to undertake major rewrites though - that should be addressed by the writer beforehand, as above.
3.  How would you describe the editor/writer relationship?
I think it's a fairly personal one, as a good editor should be aware of and sensitive to the fact that they are often holding a person's dreams in their hands. Both the editor and the writer should feel that they are able to be honest, but tact and compromise can be required from both sides in order to attain the best result for the work.

Thanks, Thursa for your insights.  It's so important that a writer feels comfortable communicating with the editor, that a writer researches the editor's qualifications and experience, before paying for their services.  Don't just go on a good feeling alone or on a stellar background - it's the fine balance between the two that makes a successful editor/writer relationship.

Electric Reads website is and their phone number is 01344 203 086.  They offer services to support authors from early editing through publication (print or e-) and into marketing and organising events to promote the author and their work.

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Professionals

Since my last post, a lot has gone on in Mother Freakin' Writer land.  I've become a certified yoga teacher trainee.  (yay!)  I highly recommend stepping away from writing and really diving in to something physical, and by stepping away, I mean really stepping away.  No writing letters to agents, no thinking about your story, tweaking your story, no looking up publishing success stories.  For me, yoga is a perfect way to get all those angsty writer blues out of the body and focus on something else.  Stepping away offers a much-needed perspective shift when you're tangled up in the publication journey.  It clears the slate for other writing projects.

So, once you've stepped away, and let your baby go, you may be surprised to hear back from an agent, a publisher, or a trusted friend who has read your work, because you've created some space to let things come back to you.

If you are lucky enough to get feedback from more than one source, start looking for echoing sentiments.  Are these sentiments you agree with or are they fundamentally contrary to the story you want to tell?  Is your ego getting in the way from hearing prevailing opinions on how to make your work better?  (If your ego is getting in the way, start looking at this and how it can deter from your becoming a better writer)  If you are the reader, would you be on the side of these sentiments? 

Which brings me to the subject of this post.  How do you know when to take the leap and hire, yes hire, (and this does not include your Mom or best friend - unless they are professional editors) someone to give you some good old editorial feedback?  Have you looked at your own work so much that you just can't see the flaws anymore?  Do you feel unsure how to incorporate the feedback into your story?  Are you really and truly ready to hear constructive criticism of your work?  In fact, are you longing for it more than a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey before those lady days?  If you've answered yes, you may want to take the leap and research professional freelance editors.  It's not an easy decision as it's one thing to invest emotionally, as we all do, in our work.  And it's another thing to invest financially in our work.  Combining the two can feel like a lot of pressure. 

Before jumping in with glee, as is so tempting when reaching an epiphany, it's so important to network with other writers for recommendations and find someone who specializes in your genre.  It's equally important to look for warning signs like shady editors with no real track record, interest in the world of publishing, or those promising to hook you up with a publisher or agent if you go with them.  (Because nobody, even the best editors, can guarantee publication)

Next time, I'll be asking a freelance editor some questions for those of us considering investing in professional feedback.  If approached in a well-informed, realistic way, it's a big step that can offer returns on so many levels.

Until next time, keep on writing!  (or step away from the keyboard--especially if you're feeling that specific eye twitch that comes with working too hard)

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Writing Blind Side

Recently I watched the movie, The Blind Side.  I had seen it before, but I was homesick and wanted to hear a familiar twang.  And I cried (again) through the entire dang movie.  I cried like a baby, willingly and shamelessly.  At one point I was crying and I didn't even know why!

Leigh Anne Tuohy loved her son, and was going to mother him no matter what, but when it was time to let him go, she did.  This boy who looked nothing like her, and who didn't even come to her until he was sixteen, had been wandering the world waiting to be mothered by her.  He had been in and out of foster homes his entire life and any rational thinking person would have abandoned the idea of taking him in, much less adopting him.  But Tuohy was uncynical, and that I think was the winning quality that ensured her devotion to her adopted son.

I couldn't help but think about the parallels between the film and all us Mother Freakin' Writers.  We all love our children, without cynicism, without doubt.  And likewise, when we devote ourselves to a story, we have to believe it is the right thing to do.  We have to put our cynicism aside.  We have to forget the odds of publication are against us.  We have to do that because we love writing.  We have to believe it will turn out okay.  To some extent, we have to let go of an end-game and just love.  And when we've poured our hearts and souls out, we also have to learn when to let a story go, which can be so, so difficult to do.

I recently read a great article on creatives and letting go.  Mothering, like writing, requires it.  I've had to do this with a short story and with a novel and both were equally hard to do.  As the article states:
"At some point in the process of creation you have to let it go. Otherwise it’s not creation, it’s babysitting."

Have a look and see if you can relate or learn from these words of wisdom.

And if you aren't close to letting your baby go, maybe this article on women being the top earning authors will spur you on:

Until next time...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Interview with Karen Brown, author of Little Sinners

I am so delighted to have Karen Brown with us to answer questions about her writing journey.  Mother, writer, professor, she is truly accomplished.  Her book, Pins and Needles, won the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction and Little Sinners, won the 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.  If you are a short story lover, you will love her work. 

Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer. Also, how did you manage your writing life with having children and a family? How has this evolved as your children have grown? 

Like many writers, I started as a child writing plays, poems and stories. I was lucky enough to have plenty of siblings and neighborhood friends who would perform the plays, a poet uncle who read my work out loud at holiday gatherings, and teachers at school who encouraged me. Being a writer was an accepted part of who I was from an early age. Of course, I went through phases in which my writing took on other forms. In high school my family moved out of the small Connecticut town where I’d grown up. I wrote twenty page letters to friends, creating an imaginary world in which all of us had a part. When I worked in a department store after high school I scribbled things on the back of used register tape. In college I thought I should study a profession, but I learned that Creative Writing was a major I could pursue, that I might teach in a university, and continue to write, so I chose that.

When you’re a mother, a college instructor, and a writer, the “writer” part is always relegated to third place. On the surface. To your family and friends writing is something you do on the side. It doesn’t bring in any negligible money so it’s seen as a hobby. But if you’re really a writer (and that means you’ve decided that you cannot separate the writer-person from who you are) then you become shifty, secretive, and resourceful. You cancel class every-so-often and tell students it’s a free “Writing Day!” You awaken before everyone in your household—sometimes hours before school lunches need to be made, and children dropped off—so that you can revisit the story you’re writing, and add a page or two. You streamline your work for classes so that all available time to write is maximized. Rote household chores are perfect occasions to invent scenes, to listen to characters speaking to each other. At night, before sleep, you run through it all again so that in the morning you can put it all down. For years, when my children were young, this is how it went. Now that they are older, and now that publication has provided validation for my role as a writer, I find I have as much time as I’d like. But, I find too, that when writing isn’t comprised of stolen moments, when it’s a job, it’s more difficult to write.

Your female characters are often at critical junctures in their lives or on the precipice of choosing another life. How do you think motherhood has informed your ability to create these vivid female characters? How do you ‘grow’ a character, especially one unlike yourself? 

As a mother you don’t usually imagine ever being without your children, or not being the person who satisfies their every need—preparing their meals, washing their clothes, doing things for them exactly the way they’re used to having them done. I’m always interested in characters who chose to do things I haven’t—it’s a little like making the choice myself—living vicariously through them, suffering their regret, their loss. Motherhood is a complex mix of turmoil and joy, but it’s been a very grounding experience for me. I like the unexpected, and I suppose I savor the unsteadiness—the surprises. You have control, but in the end, you have so little control over who these people will turn out to be—and I’m referring to children, and to characters!

This is a slightly self-interested question, but, have you ever struggled with where to go with a story or how to end a story? What is your way of dealing with a story you feel wants to be told, but gets a bit stuck? Do you completely abandon it, take space for a certain time or seek critical feedback? 

I’ve always finished everything I begin. I find that even if I’ve been away from a story there’s a point in it—maybe a bit of description of the setting, or a character’s actions—that reminds me why I started it, and I can work my way through to the end. Recently, though, I began a story and took a very long break to revise a novel, and now I find I am truly stuck. It’s not the sort of story I usually write—the setting is surreal, and it’s hard to ground the characters in it. In this case, I feel that sitting down to work every day, confronting the choices I’ve set up, and reminding myself why I began it (it started with a scene in a dream I had) I’ll be able to finish it.

I enjoy your writing voice very much. In what ways have you honed your voice to create one that is authentic, realistic and compelling?

In the beginning, like many writers, I practiced the voices of writers I loved. For a while I sounded like Hemingway, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Faulkner. I like to think that eventually what emerged was my own voice—but I imagine we are all a combination of the voices we’ve practiced. And I also feel that a writer’s voice changes, even if only in subtle ways, the longer she writes. We read a lot of Alice Munro, for example, and that goes into the mix.

Tell us how you have dealt with rejection in the past.

For a brief time I read manuscripts for the literary magazine Epoch, out of Cornell University. The submissions arrived in plastic crates, and the piles we waded through were stacked a foot high at a time. I realized that magazines are inundated with manuscripts, and that the readers who see your work first may often be tired, hungry, or irritated. They may be preoccupied, and sitting in a room that is too hot, or too cold. They may be eager to find a new voice to bring to the editors attention. They may simply be struggling to get through the stack. Rejection is to be expected, and never a personal indictment. It means only what you tell yourself it means. For me, it was always: It’s good, but not good enough. Rejection challenged me to make the next story better.

Tell us what is next for you and what we can look forward to seeing from you in the future.

I’m thrilled to report that my debut novel, THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS will be published in July 2013 by Atria/Simon & Schuster. Until then, I’ll be starting another novel, and hopefully, finishing up that stalled short story.

Thank you so much, Karen, for sharing your insights with the Mother Freakin' Writers!