My guest this week is Chrysa Smith, one of those very special people who write books for children.
by Chrysa Smith
You never know where writing is going to take you. This is what I tell students during my elementary school author visits. It might sound like some vague, empty-worded statement. But I can honestly say that it’s been tried and true for me, as I’ve spent the better part of the past three decades just ‘going’ where the road has taken me. And it’s all been due to a series of seemingly unrelated events that had something to do with writing.
The love for stringing words together came early. An essay contest in 8th grade won me some nice accolades, and I think it was then, that the light bulb went off and it may have been the first time I realized that I was really pretty good at something, other than kick ball and jumping rope. And it continued, through those blue book essay tests, a stint as my high school newspaper editor and some well-written college papers. Yet I never fancied myself a writer.
So, I majored in business; the thing to do in the 80′s. And I did learn some very useful skills–time management, marketing which as most writers know, is invaluable. And a little about finance, which I’m sure should have come with a minor in chutzpah, since I always want to be ‘nice’ when discussing my fees (ok, Catholic school girl guilt, but that’s another story altogether).
The jobs came in marketing and sales promotion. But my first gig landed me right back in a communications role as layoffs benefitted me in picking up the role of one of those less fortunate. And again, accolades came from my peers where writing was concerned. Yet again, I never fancied myself a writer. But the next gig was at a magazine, but back in a marketing role. Yet once more, I benefitted from my writing skills and was eventually promoted to Business Editor. But I still didn’t fancy myself a writer.
So I wound up in another sales promotional role in a very corporate environment, but was drawn to writing copy. And it was then that my second light bulb went off, and I realized that I might really desire a career in writing. It’s good that I was such a quick study, huh? So I left for a freelance writing career, but it was once more on the corporate side. And I can honestly say that I had little interest in the topics, even if the money was pretty good. So an entry into the magazine biz finally afforded me some very interesting assignments—speaking to international chefs, trips to resorts, fashion showrooms, ice cream parlors, trade shows. The pay wasn’t great, but I should have been more gracious when I look at today’s ridiculously insulting pay rates for a skill not shared by a large portion of the population.
So with technology, for me, there went the magazine business and I was left to figure out what the next trick would be. And it was then, with not much on my plate, that I began observing my dogs—-taking me back to my opening statement. When I looked around, there were some pretty funny events happening in my house, but I never really noticed. My pets always gave me joy, but they began to tickle me. So, hey, what about capturing their antics on paper? It would be fun to finally try a hand at fiction. But mostly, it was just for my own jollies.
I now knew I was a writer, but not a fiction writer. So I took some classes and was encouraged. I showed my work to some elementary school teachers and librarians and was encouraged. I got a further lesson in the rules that applied to children’s writing (loosely) and I went off on my own, having all that corporate marketing and sale promotion experience behind me, to go out on my own and take a ride with The Adventures of the Poodle Posse. That decision has led to a four book series, with over 8000 books sold (ok, not setting the world on fire, but not bad for a self-published, self-marketed set of juvenile fiction). But more importantly, I’ve found my calling.
As much, if not more than writing itself, I love the teaching–the visits. I love it when kids are mesmerized by my presentations, when the lightbulb goes off in their head, when they start furiously writing their own stories. I’m a writer. And finally, I can say it with my head held high. My life has let me tell the stories all around me. And even if my pockets aren’t as nourished as my sense of accomplishment and internal reward, know what? That’s my story.
And a great story it is. Thanks for sharing, Chrysa. I can’t think of a calling more noble than inspiring kids to express themselves with words.
You finished your book. It’s been edited and revised. It’s time to let it go. Easier said than done. It’s like sending your baby off to kindergarten – or to college. It never gets any easier. As parents/creators, we’re never 100% sure we’ve done all we can. Yet, from the moment books and babies are conceived, we know sooner or later we’re going to have to push them out of the nest. So … deep breath … you push the appropriate buttons and release your book.
The one thing you cannot do is rest. If no one hears about your book, no one will read it. So you tell all your friends about it – and hope they’ll tell their friends. You tweet, twitter, peep – and hope someone is paying attention. You blog and you brag (just a little) – and hope you’re not being obnoxious. That’s where I am with Lethal Journal. It’s out there – available in e and print format. I’ve done all I can for this book.
Uh… maybe there is one more thing: here’s a link - http://www.amazon.com/dp/1497460050
Time to start a new book. Every time I get to this place, I think of Charles Dickens’s great line about the “…best of times, the worst of times” because, for me, that’s what every beginning is. The task is daunting, but the possibilities are limitless. How can I pick one idea out of the jumble of stories in my head that are begging to be told? This time, it’s a bit easier than usual. There’s a book that I started a year or so ago, an idea that I really liked, but somehow the story got ahead of me. It took an unexpected turn and I didn’t know how to follow it. I put it aside, but all the time I was working on Lethal Journal, that story was percolating in another corner of my mind – and now I’m ready to write it. I think I have a solution to the problem that eluded me a year ago.
Ultimately, that’s what next. More writing. More hope. Plus, discipline, persistence, and (hopefully) inspiration.
My guest this week is JENNIFER SKUTELSKY. JENNIFER is an author, editor and writing coach. She’s written two books of nonfiction, BREATHING THROUGH BUTTONHOLES, the ghostwritten autobiography of a Jewish woman who survived Nazi-occupied Belgium, and TIN CAN SHRAPNEL, a memoir exploring the aftermath of xenophobic violence that broke out in South Africa in 2008. Her novel, GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS, a gothic mystery set in the Andean highlands, won the Clark Gross Novel Award at San Francisco State University in 2011. Also a ballet teacher and visual artist, Jennifer lives with her daughter in San Francisco. She has a soft spot for elephants and rhinos.
The Tussle between Fiction and Nonfiction: The Novel vs The Memoir
At times there’s a struggle between these two mammoths. While there are similarities between the two, they are different, and the writer must carefully consider which will best serve the story s/he has to tell. This isn’t as clear-cut a choice as it might seem.
What the novel and the memoir share are distinct qualities of craft and storytelling, and oddly enough, the author’s concept of truth, however slanted, distorted, real or imaginary. World building lies at the heart of the novel and the memoir, together with all its associated facets: conflict, relationships, setting, and challenges that characters take on, succumb to or overcome.
As an editor and writer of both, I’ve encountered the limitations and demands of fiction and nonfiction, exploring the boundaries of perception and subjective nature of truth. Assuming to come to a conclusion is tricky because it seems so final and rigid, but my own deduction has yielded the belief that truth is more easily captured in fiction.
It took me a while to figure that out. Even creative nonfiction, which at first seemed like an oxymoron to me, is rooted in authentic experience, and who better to reveal, expose, share, and relate than someone who has lived the story they’re telling? The reader who plucks a memoir off the shelf assumes the story is true, the characters are real, and events a faithful reproduction of the past. Readers accept that they’re exploring a writer’s personal history and sensibilities.
In fiction, writers can eliminate ‘truth,’ toss it aside for fantastical landscapes, imaginary characters and outlandish events, taking the reader on an unlikely journey as far from real as it’s possible to get. The writer can in a sense play God, reinvent, innovate, offer something fresh and unpredictable to a reader who wants to get lost in a narrative with no or little bearing on immediate experience. But the novel can also take the reader deep into realities that reverberate with truth’s mercurial qualities.
Truth can be stranger than fiction; real life incidents can defy our notions of the world and humanity; and actual conflict can test the margins of credibility. Conversely, the skillful fiction writer can craft a story that draws the reader into a fabricated world no less authentic because it’s imagined.
In deciding whether to write a novel or memoir, one of the most important elements to consider, one that will probably tip the scales, is intention or motivation.
This is easier for the fiction writer to grapple with. You have a story to tell. That’s it. Lots going on in your head that belongs in a book.
It’s not nearly so simple for the writer who takes on a memoir. True, there’s a story to tell, but why tell it? Who cares?
Well, everyone of course, because we’re motivated by:
- Altruism. We want to expose unfairness, injustice, pain or abuse, and feel that others in a similar position will benefit from our revelations. Unwrap the sore, and begin the healing process. Here the memoir comes into its own. People relate to people, and seek to identify with each other through common suffering, ailments, emotional distress and various other life challenges. You want to punish someone, isolate her. You want to inspire or comfort her, convey that she’s not alone. The memoir can bridge tremendous gaps in knowledge, experience, emotional engagement and compassion.
- Spite. You’re a good writer, and a memoir provides the perfect platform to get even with errant siblings, parents, friends, bosses, exes, spouses. Um…no. Avoid a lawsuit and look to the novel for this kind of satisfaction. Fiction offers virtually limitless potential to exact wicked, literary revenge on anyone you choose, although this might be one instance where a pseudonym will come in handy.
- Catharsis. While hammering away at a laptop and giving voice to all our pent-up emotions can be cathartic, some secrets belong in a therapist’s office or a support group–safer forums than the mass, critical, somewhat anonymous publishing industry. Catharsis can be found off the published page, and we’re often too close to our personal injuries to withstand an assault or barrage of rejection. It’s a difficult line to draw, because the memoir’s essence lies in honesty and vulnerability. Here too, characterization in a novel offers a fertile base for rich emotional detail and observation. It also allows for redemption that may be elusive in real life. Maybe there’s something cathartic in that.
- Celebrity. You’re famous and have already made millions. Now you want to sell lots of books. People find you entertaining/smart/funny/interesting, and they’ll be drawn to your personal story because you’re gorgeous and talented and have your own reality show. If that’s it, then maybe wait a while before tackling the novel. The memoir is your baby.
- Connection. You have something to share, a fresh angle and insight to offer and feel a generous urge to reach out and connect with a readership. You may not change the world, but you’re valuable and want to leave a tangible legacy behind. Perhaps for your family and friends, or a broader circle who will find value in your story. Write a memoir. It could lead you to a novel.
Navigating the challenges of writing long form fiction or nonfiction can be exhilarating and deeply fulfilling. Our ancestors were storytellers, whether they chose to smear pigment on cave walls, carve symbols in wood, tell tales around a communal fire, or write. We have a natural inclination to create, and language is one of the best tools at our disposal to do so. If you have a story to tell, go ahead, choose your medium and tell it.
Thanks, Jennifer, for taking time to share your passion for storytelling with us.
A final word from me: I’ve read TIN CAN SCRAPNEL and recommend it without hesitation. It’s the true story of a woman who became involved when she didn’t have to. Reading it, I learned about a tragic situation that I didn’t even know existed and was reminded how many-faceted are the problems in our world.
If you’d like to learn more, here’s a link to Jennifer’s website: http://www.jskutelsky.com
TIN CAN SHRAPNEL on Amazon: http://amzn.to/1qekvFr
When I first published Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, I bowed to the traditional publishing view that a novel should not be more than 70,000 to 80,000 words.
Although, in the process of editing a manuscript that became a typescript in time, I cut thousands of words and scenes from the original in much the same way as the film editor cuts celluloid from the movie. Some scenes were no longer relevant to the story as a whole. Some took the story in a vastly different direction. Some were melodramatic in the extreme. And some were simply too much of a good thing.
Since I had started the work at the end of the 20th Century, it isn’t surprising that some scenes were irrelevant. At the time, I was involved with domestic violence as a volunteer with a women’s refuge organization. These concerns became part of the book as well but were a radical tangent from the story I intended to tell.
This is all a part of the process of creation, what Michaelangelo called “freeing the statue from the marble.”
I had a lot of marble to work with! First of all, because I had not written anything at all in nearly fifteen years, there was a lot of pressure built up in the brain volcano. Second, I’m a free-flow writer, what some call ‘organic’ others call ‘pantser.’ As you’d expect, I prefer ‘organic’ under these circumstances.
Once again, I stopped writing. Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls (then untitled and a motley collection of various types of paper and notebooks) returned to the shelf for another ten years. But the desire to write this particular story remained. In the final six years before Salsa Dancing‘s first publication, I grasped the dream of writing and claimed it.
After Avalon Books acquired and published Wait a Lonely Lifetime, I felt free to pursue my writing on a professional basis. Like many of my colleagues, I had discovered the entrepreneur within. In years past, I had established several successful businesses and felt the same urge to do so as an author.
Therefore, bowing to convention, I split Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls into two books – a Dickensian method. Part I was published in January 2013 and Part II in March of the same year. After a while, I realized my mistake. Following a discussion with a number of my colleagues and taking their good advice, I withdrew the two volumes from the market and went to work to revise the novel to its original intended condition.
With a redesigned cover and months of careful attention to detail, Salsa Dancing with Pterodactyls, 2nd Edition, hit the cyber regions on March 23, 2014 and its paperback edition on March 30th. I still consider this my magnum opus because I touch on so many of the important truths of my own life and philosophy. Such a book is hard to categorize but Salsa has a happy ending.
Thank goodness. I’m glad that I can look forward to a happy ending to what sounds like a delightful read. Thanks so much for sharing your experience writing Salsa Dancing with us, Leigh. Good luck with all your books.
Here’s what one reviewer, identified on Amazon as a ‘Proud Tennessean” said about it:
“Loreen Thigpen certainly had no idea where life would take her, and how others’ lives would also be changed, when she chose to steal country music star Josh Montgomery’s tour bus, in order to make her way from a Texas prison to the little town of Red Boiling Springs, TN, in an attempt to see her dying mother. This novel is hard to put down, once you start reading it. It is exciting, sad and sometimes fun, all of the above. Good job, Marielena. Well written! I highly recommend “Loreen on the Lam: A Tennessee Mystery.”
|I hope you’ll forgive me for a bit (okay, a lot) of BSP today. I have a new baby and, like most new mothers, I can’t resist telling everyone I meet all about her. It’s a new Jennie Connors mystery. Here’s a little bit about her:||
Jennie has been promoted out of the job she loves. But there’s one thing she wants to do before she moves into her new position: Jake Appleton, known throughout Riverview as Sour Appleton, needs to be integrated into the retirement community’s social life. It won’t be easy.
Jake spends his days alone, staring out the window and mumbling that the world is full of crooks. Has he witnessed wrongdoing in the construction project going on outside his window? Or is he looking back over his own life. Jake’s not telling. He shares his thoughts only in his journal.
Jennie doesn’t give up – and, finally, one morning Jake surprises her. He taps the journal, says “it’s all in here” and agrees to talk to her later that afternoon.
But someone else gets there first. Jennie finds Jake with a bullet in his head. The journal is gone – and Jennie is determined to find it and solve the puzzle of a lonely old man and restore peace of mind to the residents she loves.
If you’ve read any of the other Jennie Connors/Riverview Manor books, you won’t be surprised to know that the residents insist on helping, especially the not-so-sweet tea ladies and Nate, an old actor who takes the world’s a stage seriously.
Populated with likeable, quirky characters, Lethal Journal is, by turns, funny, sweet and sad. Most of all, I hope it’s entertaining.
Here’s a link – http://amzn.to/1j7cXnW
If you’d like to know more about the Jennie Connors series, please click on the “About Sandra Carey Cody” page of this blog or check out the Jennie Connors page of my website – http://www.sandracareycody.com
A special treat in honor of the day: Loretta C. Rogers talks about the research necessary for the writing of The Witching Moon, a novel that has roots in Ireland and is filled with magic. Loretta is the best-selling author of historical westerns with an unexpected twist. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys reading and traveling; especially with her husband on their motorcycle. Loretta enjoys hearing from readers and encourages them to visit her website: www.lorettacrogersbooks.com
Loretta C. Rogers
Just because we authors write fiction doesn’t give us license to make everything up. Well, okay, so maybe it does. It’s our story, we can write whatever we want. Right? Not exactly. My personal mantra is to create a story that that draws the readers in–to keep them turning the pages, to see what happens next. I’m talking about writing realistic fiction or fiction that is at least entertaining enough that readers are willing to suspend disbelief.
Often readers ask how do I write stories where the characters and/or the situations seem real? I don’t mean to over-simplify the answer, but it’s called: “Research” coupled with a vivid imagination.
My mother used to say she would hear me having conversations that sounded so real she would look to see to whom I was talking. I probably was as young as three years old, and conversing with imaginary friends. But, I digress.
While writing The Witching Moon, I had a working knowledge about the Salem Witch trials, and throughout the centuries the United Kingdom was fraught with superstition and witchcraft. However, I wanted my heroine to be from Ireland. This begged the question–did witches exist in Ireland?
Before I give you the answer, let me share that one well-meaning reader posted a review stating that everyone knew there were no witches in Ireland. Hmmm, my research revealed that while witches/witchcraft wasn’t as widely spread in Ireland and Scotland, it did, indeed, exist, and as in the opening chapter of The Witching Moon there were incidents of certain Irish women who were burned at the stake as witches, and usually by order of the papacy.
When creating the heroine, Sheen O’Reilly, I didn’t want her to be an ordinary witch, nor did I want her to be someone who conjured up hexes and spells to cast on people. It was my desire to make Sheen unusual, but likable; a heroine readers wanted to know more about, but could also, feel her depths of emotional anguish and uncertainty about a gift she considered a curse. Again, through research, I discovered that every one hundred years, it was believed, that a female child (in Ireland) was born with the gift to communicate with animals, the ability to heal, and under certain circumstances might turn a human into an animal. These women were known as faery doctors.
To make Sheen even more unique, I gave her the gift of ‘second-sight.’ This way, she not only could communicate with animals and spirits, she was able to read the hero’s (Guthrie Tanner) thoughts.
Every good story needs a villain worthy of the heroine and hero. The Witching Moon pairs the rich history of the old west with the mysticism of Ireland. Again, research played an important role in authenticating the historical aspects of the story. What Native American tribes were predominate in 1868 Montana? I also needed the names of mountain ranges, towns and their proximity to a military fort, and weaponry for this time period.
Sheen used specific herbs for healing, reducing pain, and inducing sleep. Once I found these herbs, the question was–which ones were native to Montana? More research.
I did a search of boy names in the Native American culture. “Otaktay” is a baby boy name, and the Native American interpretation is “Kills Many”. Using the name and its meaning gave me the perfect vehicle for creating a ‘bad-to-the-bone’ antagonist.
I have to be careful with internet explorations so it doesn’t become a source of procrastination. After all, books don’t write themselves. I like to put in enough detail so that it doesn’t sound like an encyclopedic regurgitation, or like a destination travelogue, but provides readers with several ‘aha’ moments, and has them emailing to ask if I visited Montana or Ireland.
A final word. Some readers won’t give a hoot about research. They read to be entertained, and don’t let inaccuracies bother them. However, if you, as a writer, don’t care about historical accuracy, you may not continue to reach those pickier readers, and they are the more rewarding audience; the ones who can’t wait for your next story to release.
Tagline for The Witching Moon: When a Native American renegade, a cowboy and a witch are the main characters, readers get a plot that offers unexpected and unique twists of paranormal and western romance.
Blurb: Sheen O’Reilly considers her gift of second sight a curse. Branded a witch, she wears a rope burn around her neck as a reminder of what happens to people who are considered different. Now settled in a remote homestead where she tends her animals and concocts herbal remedies, she knows “he” is coming but is powerless to stop him.
“He” is Guthrie Tanner, who blames himself for the murder of his wife and the kidnapping of his young daughter. After an unsuccessful year of tracking his enemies, he has heard about a witch who lives alone on the prairie. While he doesn’t believe in supernatural nonsense, he is willing to do whatever it takes to hind his daughter. What he doesn’t count on is the effect Sheen will have on his heart.How to find Loretta: * Twitter – Loretta C. Rogers@BooksbyLoretta *Website link: http://www.lorettacrogersbooks.com *Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/2993355.Loretta_C_Rogers * Facebook: Author, Loretta C. Rogers aka L. W. Rogers | Facebook https://www.facebook.com/…Loretta-C-Rogers…Rogers/1515247149186…