Today’s featured author, Olivia Boler, is a fellow freelancer who has made the leap back into fiction writing. Olivia published her first book in 2000 with a small press, and her latest novel, The Flower Bowl Spell, represents her first self-publishing endeavor. I’m thrilled to have her share her experiences with us today.
Name of book: The Flower Bowl Spell
Book genre: Fiction with paranormal and romantic elements
Date published: January 25, 2012
Publisher: Self-published on Smashwords.com and Amazon.com
What is your day job? I’m a freelance writer. These days, I write marketing web content, book reviews, and articles, mostly for The Noe Valley Voice, my neighborhood newspaper. I’m also the editor of that paper’s creative writing section called “Other Voices.”
What is your book about? It’s about a 23-year-old entertainment journalist/dog-walker named Memphis Zhang who grew up in San Francisco, raised by a Wiccan coven. Most of the members don’t have supernatural powers, but Memphis does. She can see fairies, communicate with inanimate objects and animals, read auras. After one of her spells results in the death of a friend, she gives up magic, but out of the blue, she starts seeing fairies again. Also, a coven member she hasn’t talked to in ages shows up mysteriously and so does the sexy rock star brother of Memphis’s friend who died. To top it all off, Memphis gets the distinct impression that she’s in danger, and she has to figure out why.
Why did you want to write this book? Oh, so many reasons! I have an MA from the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, and we were pretty much told by our professors that genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, isn’t real literature. Yet at the time, there was all this magical realism we were reading – Like Water for Chocolate, for example. A few years later, Michael Chabon started doing things with different genres, discussing all the genre fiction he himself loves to read, and he’s a very smart, very respected writer. So I thought, he’s really opening the door here. He’s making genre highbrow! I had that in mind as I began to write short stories that had elements of magic in them, probably a bit influenced by fairy tales and Aimee Bender’s The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Plus I love smart, funny writing in TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (can you tell I’m a Joss Whedon fan?) that deal with everyday issues of identity, self-acceptance, bullies, love, etc. (themes that crop up in my writing a lot), through the prism of quirky, other-world settings with strong female protagonists.
Also, I had read an article years ago in The New Yorker profiling a teenage author who said she was a Wiccan and had published a novel about a vampire. I became intrigued with Wicca, did all this research into the religious aspects of it and its Celtic roots, and even made my husband attend a Samhain celebration with me where we knew no one. I’m mixed race, half-Chinese and half-Caucasian, and I’ve always been fascinated with the ways racial identity works, particularly in the “melting pot” of San Francisco, my hometown. So anyway, at this Wiccan feast, most of the attendees were white, but then I spotted this one Asian woman. And I thought, wait a minute: Is she a witch? An Asian witch following Celtic customs? I thought that was a great premise for a novel, since I don’t find many Asian American, particularly mixed raced, heroes and heroines in fiction. So that’s how Memphis Zhang came to be. And I didn’t want it to be a YA novel. I wanted it to be something adults would enjoy reading, although I think it has crossover appeal with a YA audience.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? These days, finding the time to do it. I have two young children, I have my freelance work, I have volunteer work, I have to run errands, chores to do…It’s all important, and it all needs my attention. When I finally get the time to write, the Internet, Facebook, my blog, Twitter, emails – they all grab for my attention too. So the second challenge, after finding the time, is using the time wisely without giving in to distractions. I have a cup of tea, take a deep breath, still my thoughts… and I’m good to go.
Was the research you had done on Wicca the only research you conducted in order to write this book? While writing, I would refer to that research as well as the memories of a road trip to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, where some of the novel’s action takes place. But most of the ideas come from my imagination.
What motivates you to write? If I don’t write creatively – because I write every day for work – I start to get cranky. Itchy. I’ve tried to give up creative writing many times over the years. It’s too much trouble, too much heartache, I tell myself. And sometimes months go by without one fictional thought. Then an idea for a story or a turn of phrase or sentence will creep into my head, and I’ll have to write it down somewhere.
Did you experience writer’s block? My father is retired, but he was a teacher and a fiction writer too. He once told me, “If you can’t figure out how to solve a problem, right before you go to sleep, think about it and ask yourself what to do. You’ll probably have the answer in the morning.” Sometimes that works. Along the same lines, if I get stuck on some point in a story, I take the dog for a walk. You’d probably see me mumbling to myself, trying to work out the problem.
How long did it take you to write this book? I’m not sure. I started it in 2004 as my first NaNoWriMo challenge. Then I shared it with my writing group, Kill Your Darlings. We meet every two weeks, and there are six of us who take turns critiquing our work, so it was a slow process. I finally started shopping it around to agents and publishers in 2009. In 2010, I gave up and put it away for almost a year. Finally, with the encouragement of my writing group and writing friends like Heidi Ayarbe, a talented YA author, and Siobhan Fallon, an amazing writer whose debut story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone was published last year, I took it out of the so-called drawer and did another round of rewriting.
You also have a book that was traditionally published by a small press in 2000. Why did you decide to self-publish this time around? I like the term “indie publishing,” don’t you? It’s so rock-n-roll. But to your question, I have three reasons. First, the world of self-publishing has changed dramatically since 2009, which is when I last attended the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. Panelists were talking about ebooks, sure, but not so much about self-publishing. Self-publishing had always been a big no-no if you want to be a respected writer – a “real” writer – but less so these days. The Kindle, the Nook, the iPad – they’ve made reading ebooks easy and even the preferred method of reading for some. Couple that with the ease and low cost of publishing in that ebook format, and the low cost of ebooks themselves, and you’ve got a formula for simplicity of choice for readers in the marketplace. Granted, there are still many, many terribly written or edited books being independently published. But readers are able to freely sample books online and thus figure out if they want to spend that $0.99 or not.
Second reason: I’ve grown tired of waiting. I know The Flower Bowl Spell is a good book. It’s received really encouraging feedback from agents and book editors who just didn’t know how they would sell it because it doesn’t quite fit in one particular genre, and the marketing of books is genre driven. But I set myself a deadline: if I didn’t get an agent by the time I turned 40, I’d give myself a birthday gift and publish the book myself.
Third reason: Rejection. If a traditional publisher had offered me a book deal, would I have taken it instead of indie publishing? You bet. Editing, promotion, designing a cover, getting an author photo—that all takes time and money. A small press published my first book, but I had to do all the promotion – and much of the editing and design – myself. I would have liked to put that on a big publishing house’s PR department, but alas, it was not meant to be.
Was the self-publishing process easier or more difficult than you thought it would be? It was about as difficult/easy as I thought it would be. The formatting of ebooks isn’t daunting, but it is time-consuming. Smashwords has a great Style Guide that I read over several times. And the Kindle Boards and Kindle Direct Publishing community forums are an excellent way to get questions answered.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about writing a book? Ann Patchett, one of my favorite writers, is fond of saying how it annoys her when people come up to her at parties and say, “I’m thinking of writing a novel in my free time.” And she usually replies, “And I’m thinking of becoming a surgeon in my free time.” Writing is work. It’s that 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in Outliers. Granted, some writers have a certain something they were born with – a talent for putting words together that cannot be taught – but I do believe if you put in the hours writing and reading the kinds of stories you love, your writing will improve.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Those ah-ha moments when a scene would make me laugh or get teary or angry, which means the writing is working. I’m kind of a timid person, so Memphis gets to say and do the things I wish I could. It’s so fun! I really like editing, too. That’s the layering process, the part where a story and characters become richer, have more depth. A lot of those ah-ha moments come during the editing.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a website with a blog. I sent out an email blast to all my friends and family announcing the book’s launch, and I hope they help spread the word – and buy the book, of course. My next step is to research book bloggers, review sites, etc. Occasionally, I write book reviews for Clarion Review, so I might check that out.
I advise writers promoting their books to ask all of their friends to buy the book or at least borrow it from the library and read it. Then those friends need to write reviews of the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, Powells.com, their blogs, Facebook, etc. Generate interest and buzz, because potential readers do scan those reviews and star ratings seriously. Get the word out! If you’ve published an old-fashioned paperback or hardcover copy, call your local independent bookstore and ask about doing a reading/book-signing party there. If you have a friend with a gallery or café, have another party there. Or even try your local library – they usually have community rooms where you could do a reading.
Also, it can’t hurt to make a nice poster of your book cover and author photo to take to these events. Talk to your local newspaper or neighborhood publication about running a story and excerpt of your book. There’s nothing like free promotion from the press! If you really have the time and energy, set up a mini-book tour, calling bookstores or cafes in the places where friends will allow you to couch surf. Contact the alumni magazine of your high school and/or college to print an announcement about your fantastic achievement. If you’re an expert on some topic or have a really unusual novel premise, contact radio stations to pitch your book. You can do the same with local TV talk shows. Offer to give all of these non-friend/professional reviewers free copies of your book. Your friends should buy it. No freebies for friends! Have bookmarks made with the book’s information and cover. They’re useful for readers, unlike business cards and postcards, which are more likely to get tossed in the recycling. You can leave the bookmarks in your local library, café, etc.
How has life changed for you since the publication of your book? Really, not much. I still have to pick up the kids from school, attend PTA meetings, do my work. But it’s early days!
Do you find yourself obsessively checking sales stats? That’s so funny, because I read about this phenomenon in one of these Making ‘Baby Grand’ interviews before I had published The Flower Bowl Spell. So, of course I am!
Do you plan on writing another book? Yes. I have many options, many crummy, partial first drafts that need my attention. One is a sequel about Memphis. Another is a YA prequel about Memphis. Another is what I believe is called up-market women’s fiction, and it’s a 21st century, loose retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. And another is a collection of my short stories. That’s probably the easiest one to do since most of the stories are pretty polished. Perhaps I should take a reader poll to figure out what to work on next, because I really have no idea at the moment.
My favorite last question: Oprah once famously said that there is no such thing as luck, without preparation and a moment of opportunity. Would you agree or disagree with regard to your own success as a writer? Ah, Oprah. I guess I’m still trying to figure out my own personal definition of “success.” One of my advisers at UC Davis was Gary Snyder, and we used to have nice chats about luck. He believed luck had played a part in his career success. I think he was trying to tell me that pursuing writing would be a long, hard road (but one that’s pretty scenic along the way). That’s the preparation part. Opportunity is the luck part, the part the writer can’t necessarily control. In the case of my latest book, I made the opportunity happen. That’s what indie publishing gives writers – the opportunity to showcase all of that preparation.