Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Diana Kathryn Plopa

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Every other Monday, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

Today’s featured guest is the multitalented novelist, memoirist, short-story writer, editor, publicist, publisher, writing coach, and television host Diana Kathryn Plopa. She holds a degree in English, with a concentration on creative composition, as well as a certification in early childhood development.  In addition to her published books described below, she has also edited several anthologies. She has worked as a features writer for a Detroit newspaper, wrote copy for several websites and blogs, and wrote copy for a popular Detroit radio program. She currently directs Pages Promotions, LLC, a Michigan-based marketing and publicity advocate working with independent authors to promote and present their books to the public. She also hosts Indie Reads TV, a new community access television program for southeastern Michigan.

 

Recently I posed some questions to Diana. Here’s what she told me.

DL: Diana, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

DKP: I’m a wife, mother, dog mom, and passionate person of the book.  I love the written word more than almost anything else. My muse is a small, invisible mallard duck named Drake, who has been with me since about age seven. Hot cocoa is my secret weapon, and snow is my kryptonite. I gain tremendous personal satisfaction from helping other Indie Authors reach a wider audience and I host a weekly television program just for that purpose. I’m an editor, Indie Publisher, and mentor to writers of nearly every age, stage, and genre, from school-age children to senior citizens. I believe cheese is a major food group. I encourage everyone to go on a hot air balloon ride, and go indoor skydiving at least once in their lifetime, because controlled chaos is a thing everyone should experience so they can write about it with acumen. I support building libraries in all towns with a population greater than one (if you live alone on a desert island, or in the middle of the woods, you should have a library of at least twenty books in your home at all times). When I’m not writing or reading, I love kayaking, playing with the dogs, bonfires, music, hiking in forests, swimming, and impromptu storytelling.

DL: Please tell us about your latest books and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

DKP: It’s interesting to contemplate answering that question. The first thing that comes to mind is Neil Gaiman’s answer (YouTube it here, it’s priceless). And yet, I won’t dodge . . . for me, ideas come at me from every direction, and in nearly every moment of my day. No kidding. I once walked down a street with a friend in a part of East Lansing I’d never encountered. As we were walking, I saw a narrow blue door that led to an upstairs flat. It had a glass window that, because of the way the sun was hitting it, seemed to be opaque. I went home that afternoon and wrote a short story about that door and where it might lead and who or what might be on the other side. (I’m still waiting to figure out what to do with that piece, but I wrote it.) Truly, story ideas come from everywhere, at any moment.

Free Will 3D cover

My book, Free Will, came from a very serious religious conversation about the Old Testament and the concept of free will on Earth, yet preordained destiny in the afterlife. That lead me down a “what if” path that ended with a giggle-fest. That story begged me to write it.

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A Tryst of Fate began as a collection of short stories that I thought might simply be a collection with perhaps a few of them working into a novella one day. Drake pointed out that they all followed a similar theme. Once I accepted that, Drake then suggested that I weave them together with a backstory, and TADA! A novel was born.

The novel I’m working on right now, Splinters, is a western; a genre that I thought would be outside of my reach, until you, Don, suggested that I take a crack at it anyway. See what happens when you plant a seed? It began as a thought experiment in your memoir writing workshop, and now it’s about thirty thousand words into a western adventure which I hope to release in December of this year. Who knew? Certainly not me!

Also in the works are a political thriller which Drake outlined late one night after several weary hours of the evening news and has accumulated about sixty-five thousand words already; a science fiction story that noodled its way into my imagination after a conversation with a psychologist about the concept of what might happen if a society implemented a program of extreme-anger management; an “alternative” historical piece that Drake insisted I outline while we were watching a National Geographic special in a hotel room in Muskegon the night before a book festival; and a children’s book about elephants that keeps needling at me since my mother’s death several years ago.

So, I guess, to answer your question, I find wayward ideas lingering in empty alleys, in philosophical conversations, in thought experiments, and in abandoned emotional warehouses in unspecified locations. Drake and I collect them, treat them gently, and sometimes they become stories that eventually grow into novels. I have neither control nor influence . . . although Drake tells me he can get me a great deal on a bestselling plot —if only I settle down and ignore everything else. I tell him, thanks, but just not yet. It’s too much fun to write lots of stories simultaneously. I can wait for stardom. But that doesn’t keep me from buying the occasional lottery ticket and dreaming about my lonely writer’s garret on an island off the coast of Greece with a plate of flaming cheese, a puppy at my feet, and a new novel in the works.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

DKP: I have a shirt that says, “I write for the same reason that I breathe; because if I didn’t, I would die.” That kind of sums up why I write. I think that if I ignored the ideas, shut Drake out of my head, and put down the pen and keyboard, I’d be an excruciatingly depressed person. This writing thing is what gives my life meaning and makes me feel whole.

As for what I want to accomplish, well, that answer has three parts. First, I write so I can turn off my brain at night and sleep. It sounds wacky, but it’s true. If I don’t get it on paper, it just nags at me and I don’t sleep. I’m sure there’s some psychotic diagnosis for that, but it has yet to be revealed. Second, I write to satiate a curious fascination with what genre might actually be my favorite. You see, I don’t know yet, what I like best of all. So, I’m on a quest to write one book in all thirty-three major genres. I think writing is a little like eating ice cream, you have to try all the flavors before you can declare a favorite. Finally, aside from sleeping, remaining sane, and feeding my own weird curiosity, I’d like to think that my writing contributes something positive to the lives of those who read my work. Perhaps it helps them fall asleep; maybe it tickles their brain with a thought they haven’t had before; maybe it inspires them to take a stab at writing themselves; or perhaps it just simply makes someone happy. I don’t really have any grandiose expectations for what my writing should do.However, above all else, I want to contribute something to the world library—be it good, or mediocre. I think there’s always room for more stories.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

DKP: I love the outline stage. That feeling of crafting something new, feeling out all the pieces, and putting them together to form a story is quite exhilarating for me. I love the actual writing part, too, because my brain goes to places sometimes that surprises me. I like that a lot. It’s a nifty thing to watch what appears on the screen and think to myself, “Wow, I’ve never had that thought before, that’s interesting.” The act of creation is fun beyond description.

As for my least favorite part?  I’m not a fan of implementing a new marketing program for each book. Yes, I write in several genres, so each book needs to be presented to readers differently. But that would be true even if I were to stick with only one genre. Books aren’t widgets, and they require different approaches to reach different readers. I understand that, but I’d much rather have a magic script that would entice people of every background and interest to buy every one of my books equally. That is a fantasy, of course. So, I have to do the work of marketing. Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely enjoy meeting readers; that’s not the tough part. The tough part is figuring out things like what tagline is going to be enticing, how should I write the back-cover blurb, what festival table display will catch the most interest, and what social media memes are going to draw the most attention. It’s an elusive magic formula that’s impossible to get right every time. Yeah, I’d much rather only work on writing or outlining the next book. But just like the “terrible twos” are part of raising children, and housebreaking is part of inviting a puppy into your life, marketing is part of writing books. You’ve got to do it. But it’s not my favorite part of the process.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

DKP: When I was a kid, we didn’t have a television in the houses for several years. It broke and my parents took their time replacing it. So we read—a lot. I fell madly in love with books. They were so much more exciting for me than television. I liked being able to imagine through the words, putting my own spin on it all. As I got older, I discovered that words were so much more powerful than anyone had ever let on. In elementary school, words were the only way I could understand math. I had a modicum of success with story problems. In middle school, my attention to detail and a large vocabulary rewarded me with good grades on research papers and lots of passes to the library, which is far better than sitting in a classroom, any day. In high school, I was part of the theatre program. Storytelling helped me fit in when I felt mostly awkward. I cultivated a boat load of friends. They all “got” it.  Storytellers . . . I’d found my tribe.

As an adult, working in the corporate environment, learning to weave words helped me land better jobs, make more money in those jobs, and garner more appreciation from my boss and coworkers. Working in journalism taught me the value of story and how story impacts lives. I’d found my calling. Now, helping others experience the same joy found in words and world creation, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today, Diana. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

DKP: My author website is www.DKPWriter.com, and there’s a page there where people can read about my books, and order them in both print and ebook formats. For those die-hard Prime members, I also have an author page on Amazon.

My professional author website shares space with my Author Advocate and Publishing company website, www.PagesPromotions.com. There’s a lot going on in my little cyberspace, with tons of opportunities for readers to discover authors, and writers to discover literary services, including an episode schedule for Indie Reads TV, writing contests, community service projects, writer’s support groups, and so much more. I’ve even got a Blog Thingy page where I talk about writing craft things, post book reviews, and a host of other creative thoughts.

I’m a little exuberant with my level of engagement when it comes to bookish things, so don’t be too surprised at all the content. I welcome any and all contacts. I always give quarter, and never take prisoners.

Thank you for your kind invitation to share my story with you and your blog readers, Don. I genuinely appreciate it!

Six Sure-Fire Ways to Kill Your Writers’ Group

I rarely take part in writers’ groups anymore. I totally get their usefulness—writers need support from peers, they need responses to their work from actual readers who won’t just say they loved it, a sharp reader can point something out that a writer might not have thought of, and so on. A good writers’ group can be beneficial, no doubt.

In large part, I don’t do it because it’s not how I work best. When I came of age as a writer, I learned to do most of my work alone. I wrote projects to order and under pressure of deadline; there wasn’t the time or the opportunity—or the expectation—to get other writers’ perspectives on what I was doing. My boss—or the client—had the final say.

In larger part, though, my avoidance of writers’ groups comes from my having run or taken part in so many of them over my careers as a writing teacher and writer. The other day, I  estimated how many writers’ groups I’ve been part of over the years. I came up with the semi-astonishing figure of roughly 1,200 groups over twenty-plus years, both inside and outside the classroom.

That’s 1,200 groups of writers, ranging in number from three to thirty, where people responded to each other’s stories, poems, novel drafts, or essays. I was either an active participant or a facilitator helping the writers themselves carry the conversations.

I was deep into collaborative writing, see. The whole being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” thing, to use one of the more ridiculous clichés of education that still makes me gag.

I thought a lot about the subject. I took courses in how to run writers’ groups. I attended workshops in how to do it. I even gave workshops for my colleagues and others in the benefits of writing groups and how to work with them.

In all that time, I saw how and why groups could be valuable. But I also saw what could go very wrong. In particular, I came to learn that certain behaviors will kill a writers’ group dead. If you’re a member of a writers’ group and you want to make your partners miserable, try some of these out:

Screen-Shot-2016-08-28-at-6.07.19-PM1. Everybody’s a Critic.

Interpret “critique” to mean “criticize mercilessly” (instead of, say, “offer careful judgment about”), and criticize the hell out of the workshopper (the one who reads or presents a piece for discussion). Pick every single nit you can find, from structure to grammar, regardless of what stage the draft is in. Find fault, instead of reflecting your responses to the piece back to the author, who can then make decisions about how well she/he framed the writing in preparation for revising.

It also helps if you gang up on the writer with other members of the group.

2. Do As I Say, Not As I Do.

Understand that your other main job as participant (besides telling authors what they did wrong) is to tell the writers what they need to do to improve the work. Regardless of your own experience of literature and writing, don’t be shy about telling the author what to do with a particular work. The wronger the advice, the louder you should insist on it.

3.Tu Casa Es Mi Casa.

Take over the author’s writing completely. Pay no attention to an author’s intentions, but respond to a piece of writing based on how you would have written it yourself. Don’t give the author any chance to make decisions about what to do or change based on how well you got what she/he was saying. This works especially well if you’ve never written anything like what the author is sharing.

4. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 1.

Don’t mention any of the strengths of the piece, and don’t bother telling the author what you liked or appreciated about the work, or thought the author did well. Your job is to focus on the bad parts. The good parts are already good, aren’t they? Why talk about them?

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Besides, agents and editors aren’t going to go easy on a writer, so why should you? You’re helping to toughen up the workshopper. Writing group as WWF Smackdown!

5. If You Can’t Say Something Bad, Don’t Say Anything, Part 2.

Never mind articulating any questions you have about the piece, or points of confusion you wonder about, or interesting places where you’d like to hear more details; these might be too helpful. Your criticisms are enough.

6. I Object!

When you’re the workshopper, defend your draft loudly and vociferously. Don’t bother trying to learn from your partners’ responses and get ideas for revision, but instead show them how wrong they are in their appraisals of your work. If you have to explain or defend what you said, it just shows how little your responders get you (and how much smarter you are).

If you try all these strategies in your next writers’ group, I promise your group mates will develop some very special feelings for you.

If, on the other hand, you find yourself doing any of these, you might try to back off from them and maybe—just maybe—your writers’ group will be more enjoyable, and a whole lot more useful.

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Wendy Thomson

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Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Each week, I’ll feature other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Wendy Thomson. Wendy is the author of two books, Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, a novel, and as she will discuss, has several other projects in the works.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Wendy. Here’s what she told me.

DLWendy, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

WST: I grew up here in Michigan—Birmingham, to be precise—but spent nearly ten years away, living in Florida and Chicago. I got to Florida by jumping ship, literally. My father had purchased an old Dutch freighter and outfitted it for a two-year journey around the world. That adventure didn’t go exactly as planned, so I got off, found a job, got an apartment, and was on my own.

I had dropped out of Michigan State, where I was pursuing a degree in Linguistics, to join the ship. When I did go back to school to finish my undergrad degree, it was at University of Miami, and it was in Business. I moved to Tallahassee for a man . . . that was a bust, but I did end up going back to school at Florida State for a Master’s degree. I was working full time and going to school at night. When my company transferred me to Chicago, I finished that degree at University of Chicago. I moved back to where I grew up forty years ago—again, for a man (again a bust.) I have spent those forty years working full time, raising a couple of sons, and occasionally performing classical music around town, in addition to performing a concert tour in Italy.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

WST: My most recent published work is The Third Order, which came out in 2018. The plot was the last thing that fell into place. My first book, Summon the Tiger (2016), was a memoir, a reflection on how my values and determination have taken me to extraordinary destinations, and given me the strength and grit to face any hardships that came my way. I wanted to write a second book, and I felt most comfortable writing about things and places I know. Well, I know Italy fairly well, and I especially fell in love with Assisi. I also know Scotland fairly well, since my father was born there. Those were my two major constraints: I needed a way to tie those two places together. I started looking into St. Francis, and details of his life started shaping the plot. I then looked for a tie to Scotland, which I found in the Third Crusade. The rest started to fall into place. It was a fun romp.

Thomson book 3I currently have two works underway: the first is The Man from Burntisland—a saga of a hard-scrabble Scot born in 1899 who emigrates to the US, enduring both World Wars and the Great Depression. I am very excited about this work, as I feel it demonstrates the strength of determination and tenacity in the face of great odds. Life was comparatively so much more difficult for folks like him. I am basing this historical fiction on snippets of what I know of my grandfather’s life.

The other work underway is Silo Six. It is a sci-fi/dystopia novella about the end of humanity on earth. I was asked to contribute this for an anthology as one of three authors. The other two authors are amazing, and I am honored to have been asked.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

WST: I sometimes ask myself that very question. I write because it is a generally enjoyable activity, especially during long winter evenings. I write because people keep telling me they like to read what I write. What do I hope to accomplish? That varies by book. In Summon the Tiger, my goal was to tell a story of determination and grit. One of my sons suggested I write it. I realized that my sons had no idea of the forces that helped shape who I became. I hope that as they grow older, they will come to appreciate the events detailed in the book more and more.

For The Third Order, my main goal is to entertain my audience. If they learn a little bit about history while doing so, then that is an extra added bonus. Just fun.

My hope for The Man from Burntisland is to both educate readers on life in the early 1900’s and to describe a man of particular tenacity and pragmatism. It’s not all pretty, and he is in no way a saint. I hope that readers will see the complexity of a driven man whose life circumstances caused him to make uncomfortable choices.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

WST: I have a rather fluid writing process. Topics seem to bubble up from my sub-conscious—I call that part of my brain my Co-Processor. I never force myself to write on any particular day, but I do set very generalized goals . . . for instance, I would like to get The Man from Burntisland published this year. That might be too lofty a goal, given the work I need to do for Silo Six. I tried to set a daily word goal once, but life has a way of being a great disruptor. I do get antsy to write if I’ve been away from it for a couple of days.

I never outline. The most I have ever done is to jot down notes on character’s back stories and to create cheat sheets on characters and specifics (who they are married to, what jobs they have, etc.) so I don’t need to scroll back and find what I may have said before. My little Co-Processor seems to think about plot lines and required prose all on its own while I am busy doing life. When I pull out my laptop, the words and story direction are developed and only require being committed to paper.

My very favorite part of the process is finding logical solutions to the issues the plot hands me. Case in point is in The Third Order. How in the world can I wrap a story around Assisi and Scotland? So I started researching, and I found one Alan FitzWalter, second Steward of Scotland, who returned from the Third Crusade in 1192. That’s fact. Then I found an old Italian farce of a movie à la Monty Python, and I learned that, many times, soldiers would travel to the boot of Italy and sail for the Holy Land instead of trudging around the Mediterranean. Then I learned that St. Francis became a soldier as a young man. Taking small snippets and crafting them into a woven fabric of logic is my very, very favorite part.

My least favorite part of writing? Trying to make sure I have perfect copy. It is So. Damn. Difficult to publish a flawless work. Even with a professional editor, things get through. And while it’s not difficult to correct the found error in the next printed copy, it irritates me that there are different versions out and about.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

WST: I spent the vast majority of my life in quantitative fields. My highest tested aptitude in school was mechanical engineering. And while I was often told that I developed creative solutions in processes and analyses, I never considered myself particularly creative, and definitely not particularly emotional. And now comes Kirkus, which announces to the world at large that The Third Order “taps into the powerful emotional satisfaction that comes with solving a puzzle,” and that the book is “a satisfying synthesis of mystery, history, and emotion.” “Me” and “emotion” have rarely been seen in close company.

That is probably a long way of saying that writing has brought out a side of me that, apparently, has been quite latent. I am a writer. I can create, and I can imagine.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

WST: The Amazon page for Summon the Tiger is https://www.amazon.com/dp/1537137441/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1.

The Amazon page for The Third Order is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HP9GX59/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1537997744&sr=1-4&keywords=wendy+sura+thomson.

My Goodreads page is https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15801291.Wendy_Sura_Thomson.

My website is www.quittandquinn.com, which also contains my writing blog.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Wendy Thomson.

 

 

Why I Stopped Writing

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for most people who want to write, the urge begins early in life.

So it was with me. I can’t remember a time when I was young when I didn’t want to be a writer, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I just knew I loved reading, and the natural partner to that was making up my own stories. I’m not sure where that came from. My parents weren’t readers; the only books we had in our house when I was growing up were the ones in my room. But I was a voracious reader in our library at Bagley Elementary School (my favorite books were the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series) (yes, I am that old), and lying in bed at night I used to pretend my hands were the characters and I would act out stories with them (most of which ended in finger/thumb fistfights accompanied by much tongue-clucking sound effects). 

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One day my father brought home an old monster manual typewriter from his office. As soon as I started playing with it, I realized from the letters that appeared through its raucous clacking that I had found my instrument, the same way a pianist is moved by the note made by the first touch of cool ivory on a keyboard. At one point, somebody gave me a toy printing press—surely an act of almost psychic precognition—and I started printing up my little stories.

My reading habits were helped along by my painful, almost pathological shyness while growing up. It seriously curtailed my social development, but gave me all the time I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. While other kids were out playing sports or going on dates, I was the quintessential bookworm, holed up at home discovering new authors and plowing through as much of their work as I could find.

As I grew older and life took shape for me with more clarity, I followed the well-trodden path of young writers everywhere. (I hate the term “aspiring writer” . . . to paraphrase a certain short green Jedi master: write or do not write, there is no aspire.) I wrote my stories and sent them out, got my rejections, revised the stories, and sent them out again. Occasionally I wrote a poem that was also rejected, but for me, fiction was where the heavy lifting of literature took place, so that’s what I concentrated on, with the aim of working my way up to writing novels.

I sent stuff out; I got it back. Once in a blue moon, I placed a story with some small journal or other, and that was enough to keep me going for a while. But for the most part, I sent work out; I got work back. This was pre-internet, so there were no online publication opportunities. There was no online, no internet, no word processing, just a typewriter and the US mail.

I kept at it despite the rejections, which is what people tell you to do. It goes out, it comes back. Sooner or later, I believed, if something was good enough, it would find a home.

Stories went out, they came back.

Then novel drafts went out, and they came back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Finally, one day, when I was in my thirties, I thought all my hard work had paid off. I had written a mystery novel (The Ramp of the Chinese Dog), and after making the rounds of agents, I found one who accepted me. He was the real deal, the guy who sold a pair of books that became the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno. I thought I was in.

I went to meet him in New York City, taking the bus down from Binghamton, where I was living at the time. He told me he was “cautiously optimistic”; I remember the words to this day, as well as his soothing voice. He believed in the book. He believed in me. My spirits soared. Success was in sight.

Except now he was the one sending the manuscript out and getting it back. Periodically he would send me the pile of rejection notes he got from publishers, and they were not helpful (but were, gallingly, peppered with typos, grammatical errors, and misinformation about the book).

Finally, after three years of this, he returned the manuscript to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the book, but I just can’t do anything more with it.”

I sent him another manuscript that I had written in the meantime. He sent that one back, too. “Sorry, no.”

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I was crushed.

After trying to break into publication for all of my twenties and most of my thirties, experiencing virtual nonstop rejection, I was back where I started. Cynthia Ozick writes about the little holy light like a pilot light that keeps a writer going. Mine went out.

This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.

Failure: a terrible word for someone in love with words.

But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already worked several public relations jobs. In what I now understand was despair-fueled self-flagellation in penance for my failure, I joined a small advertising agency as a copywriter. If I can’t publish the stuff I want, I thought, I’ll become a hack. I turned away from literature; I turned away from reading. I turned away from writing about important subjects and instead churned out dreck like copy for rebate ads for Masonite paneling, and news releases for small town jewelry stores.

And yet I did well in that world. Working freelance after getting fired from the ad agency for having a bad attitude (big surprise), I wrote reports and proposals and video scripts for companies like General Electric and IBM. I once wrote a video program promoting military attack helicopters for two wild-eyed crazies at IBM who ranted about the joys of “killing tanks” like a couple of tweakers playing video games.

When my wife and I moved to New York City so she could take a job teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I found more work there. I wrote grant proposals and project summaries and donor appreciation letters for the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center Fund in upper Manhattan. I took a job as speechwriter for the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and wrote literally hundreds of speeches, articles, testimonies, and newspaper editorials on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, window falls, pit bulls, child-care centers, and restaurant inspection scandals, among other public health issues. I wrote op-eds on needle-exchange programs for the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The commissioner was delivering my speeches in Washington to Congressional committees; the mayor of New York was using my speeches to promote anti-smoking legislation at Sloan-Kettering.

It came to pass that working at such a high level of productivity and visibility, the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives.

The other thing that happened around this time was the birth of my grandson Jamie, whom I’ve mentioned before and whose presence had profound effects on me and everyone around him.

Except as soon as I thought, Man, I’d really to like do some imaginative writing again, the equal and opposite thought arose: Why? Do you really want to enter that world of rejection again? Seriously?

The answer, of course, was no. As much as I wanted to write fiction again, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending my work out and getting back into the cycle of rejection, especially after working so hard to wrestle back my confidence. So I resisted the urge, and instead retreated to private journal entries that alternately (1) agonized over my need to write fiction, and (2) scolded myself for even thinking about giving in to it.

But here was the problem: that little pilot light? It was on again. And the pressure to write fiction continued to build, along with my conflicted feelings about what that would mean.

When I started to have angry thoughts about pushing people off of subway platforms, I knew I had to do something.

So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started another novel. Not a mystery, but a mainstream book about a group of people who lived together in one house in an effort to create a new type of family. I learned to put out of my mind any thoughts about what I would do with the manuscript once I finished it—and once I started, I knew I would finish. I brought to this new project all the disciplined work habits and writing skills that I had honed over the years I spent writing other people’s stuff. It took a few years, but the result was a novel, The House of Grins.

A1325325-BC74-488F-AC22-29C390E02462But what to do with it?

A friend put me in touch with an editor he knew at one of the big NYC publishing houses. When I called the editor, she told me to send her the manuscript, and if she “really loved it” she would recommend publishing it. Her tone of voice dripped with the kind of derisive smarm very few can match outside NYC publishing; it told me the chances of her “loving it” were somewhere between zero and fuhgedaboudit. To spite her, I decided not to send anything (I showed her!).

In the interregnum between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten-year gap—a new development had begun in publishing. Prompted by advances in technology, the self-publishing movement was just starting to take off in the ‘90s, apart from the dreaded “vanity press” industry. I discovered that I could take back the means of production, like independent filmmakers and almost every other artist. 

But more: in those ten years, I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.

I came through that decade of despair by learning that—yes—the writing and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the faux approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I fantasized pushing people off subway platforms, I’ve published seven novels (six in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.

That voice shouting in your ear, the voice my friend Jerry van Rossum personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.

And in the end, that’s really all that matters. 

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Joan H. Young

Joan Young

Periodically I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Joan H. Young. Joan is the prolific author of essays, nonfiction, and fiction. Her works include the award-winning North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail; the six-book Anastasia Raven cozy mystery series: News from Dead Mule Swamp, The Hollow Tree at Dead Mule Swamp, Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp, Bury the Hatchet in Dead Mule Swamp, Dead Mule Swamp Druggist, and Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe; and the four-volume Dubois Files series, a series of mysteries for readers aged 6 to 12 years, including The Secret Cellar, The Hitchhiker, The ABZ Affair, and The Bigg Boss.

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Recently I posed some questions to Joan. Here’s what she told me.

DL: Joan, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JHY: I grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York State, but have now lived in Michigan for almost fifty years. I love the outdoors, and have had the privilege of participating in a number of adventures. Some of the highlights are a 10-day canoe trip in high school with the Girl Scouts, riding a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986, and being the first woman to complete hiking the entire 4600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail on foot.

As a result of that hike, I wrote a book about my experiences called North Country Cache. A few years later, I decided I wanted to write fiction and began the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries. There are now six stories in that series, and a mystery series for children spun off from that. This currently includes four books known collectively as The Dubois Files. These books are suitable for grades 3-6, and good readers who are younger.  

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JHY: North Country Cache was published in 2005, before I finished hiking the North Country Trail. It includes tales from about half the hike. I’m working on the sequel, North Country Quest, which will tell the rest of the story. It will be available this year. (Pre-order discounts available.) 

The general idea for my mysteries was born from a desire to write fiction. I read more mystery/true crime books than any other genre. I read mysteries of all styles from hard-boiled thrillers to light reads, but decided that the style I would be able to write best is the cozy. In these books the violence and sex are kept “off-stage.” The main character is often a woman, and the setting is often a small town. 

Unless you plan to do a significant amount of research, it’s good to write what you know. I know small towns and rural settings. I’ve lived in places like this all my life, and felt I could capture the atmosphere and worldviews of people who live in such places. 

CoverMistletoeEbookMy most recently published book is the sixth Anastasia Raven mystery, Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe.  This book is an attempt to capture the classic British sub-genre of the closed-suspect-pool mystery. It is certainly a cozy, but will appeal to those who like traditional mysteries. 

The idea for this book came directly from a challenge thrown down in a work about British country-house murder mysteries, in which the author states that there is no successful American counterpart. I’ve managed to incorporate thirteen out of fourteen points that author considered essential. The only one I missed is that it takes place in the mythical Forest County, somewhere in the upper Midwest of the United States, rather than in England. Readers will have to decide if I succeeded in meeting the standard.

The children’s mysteries happened because I was continually being asked if I had books for younger readers. One day, I realized that there was a perfect backstory in the Anastasia Raven mysteries to spin off a series told by Cora, one of Ana’s friends. 

Thus, The Dubois Files are set in the 1950s, in the same location as the Anastasia Raven books. So far, the only character that appears in both series is Cora Dubois Baker Caulfield. However, the grandfather of young Jimmie Mosher, also named Jimmie, is Cora’s best friend as a child.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JHY: When I write non-fiction, I sincerely hope to prod readers to see something in a slightly different way, to gain a new perspective on whatever the topic is.

In fiction, I primarily want to entertain. But I try to create a realistic enough setting and story that people can visualize the story without too big a stretch of the imagination. There is humor in my books, but it is subtle.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JHY: Well, the process in fiction is, for me, much different from non-fiction. 

For non-fiction, I need to have a pretty solid outline. Books about my hikes need to conform to notes made and journals recorded, maps, guides, and other historical/cultural information. This is a long process to collect and assimilate that information before I write each chapter. Once I have the basics of each segment in my head, then the writing is easy.

With fiction, I try to have a general sense of the plot, the characters and their interactions laid out before I begin. But since it’s all made up, if something seems to move in a different direction part way through, I can change it. In one book, the guilty person changed quite late in the writing process.

I spend a lot of time crafting things in my head for fiction. I’ve been experimenting with recording with speech to text to get the ideas down. Thinking up the stories and the characters is probably the part I like best. Starting and ending the book is also fun— sometimes I think up a couple of alternate endings in case the characters develop minds of their own. The hardest part seems to be from about two-thirds of the way in till the ending begins to play out. Sometimes my great ideas leave gaps of how we get from point B to C, and then I must work hard to make the connections and present them credibly to readers.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JHY: I have been writing since I was a child. But I’ve also been doing a score of other things. Lack of focus has always been my nemesis. However, once I began writing the mysteries (I now have over a dozen titles altogether), I decided to try to concentrate on being a writer. A year ago, I quit my job to write and sell books (I’m self-published, so marketing is a big piece of what I do). In some ways, this is nothing like retirement—it’s a big job to bring books to completion and to constantly be trying to make sales. However, I do get to do most of this on my own terms and in my own time frames. Since I like being my own boss and having creative control over my works, this has been a good move for me. 

It’s been rewarding to be recognized as an author. I no longer feel sort of red-faced about attempting to be a writer—isn’t everyone trying to write a book? I AM a writer, and have received several awards for books and articles. One always needs to perfect the skills given, and I’m constantly working at this, but the awards give me a real sense of credibility.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JHY: My website is www.booksleavingfootprints.com

I have a personal blog at www.myqualityday.blogspot.com

Writing blog at joanofshark.com

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Joan H. Young.