Don’t imitate. Interpret. Today’s writing tip comes from Peter Beston, an East Quoque, New York-based artist I had the pleasure of meeting during a recent taping for The Writer’s Dream. “Don’t imitate. Interpret.” It’s the advice Peter gives to aspiring painters, but of course his words can apply to any creative artist. When you imitate, you aim to replicate what another person has done; you essential take yourself out of the creative process. When you interpret, you embed your own viewpoint into your creation — you make sense of, add to, depict, question. When I think of “imitating,” I think of an assembly line, the mindless act of placing images on a canvas or sentences into a Word document — an act of the body rather than of the mind. When I think of “intepreting,” I think of a collaboration, a synergy between the mind and body. Although I’m sure there are those who believe that the act of trying to imitate alone will yield an interpretation, my feeling is that if the intention is only to duplicate what is already there, then the artist is not utilizing her most important asset: her point of view. And a well-developed point of view is what separates a beautiful work from a singular work.
Today’s featured debut author is Jessica McCann, a professional freelance writer and novelist who lives with her family in Phoenix, Arizona. Her debut historical novel, All Different Kinds of Free, was awarded the Freedom in Fiction Prize and is available in trade paperback, ebook and audiobook, which is what we chat about today.
Name of audiobook: All Different Kinds of Free
Audiobook genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction
Date published: Audio, June 2012; paperback/eBook, April 2011
What is your book about? The novel is inspired by the true story of Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color in 1830s Pennsylvania, who was kidnapped with her children and sold into slavery in the South. She fought hard to regain her freedom, and she endured tremendous loss and hardship. Her ordeal led to one of the most pivotal Supreme Court cases in America’s history, Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The history books will have you believe the story of Prigg v. Pennsylvania is important because it ended in controversy and fanned the early embers of the Civil War. This book will have you believe the story is important because it began with Margaret.
Why did you want to create an audiobook for your historical fiction? The novel had been well-received in trade paperback and ebook, and audio seemed like a logical next step. My publisher and I wanted to share Margaret’s story with as wide an audience as possible.
Last night, I had my first book signing for Baby Grand at Book Revue in Huntington, N.Y. — the go-to place for book signings on Long Island (Nelson DeMille will be there tonight, Valerie Bertinelli tomorrow night). More than 100 people came out to support me, braving the rain and the parking. I was completely overwhelmed. A truly great evening. For photos from the event, you can visit the Making ‘Baby Grand’ Facebook page. And here is a video snippet of my presentation where I talk about the inspiration behind Don Bailino, the villain of Baby Grand.
Got Oxford comma? Style is in the eye of the beholder. Just when I thought I had a firm grasp of spelling and punctuation, I started working with a London-based magazine that called into question all that I knew to be right and true.
As an American writer, I like my closing quotation marks outside my periods, my “organizations” spelled with a “z” and not an “s,” and my “percents” written as one word, not two. However, I had to make all kinds of concessions as I edited the UK pub, since, as one UK writer reminded me, I should stick to “using US style in US magazines and British style in British magazines.”
But style differences are not only found across the pond. When I submitted Baby Grand for copy editing, the American copy editor stuck in all the serial, or Oxford, commas that I tend to eschew and replaced all my spaced en dashes with em dashes firmly planted, space free, next to the neighboring words (apparently, my preference for spaced en dashes is quite British — go figure).
Style is not really etched in stone. It can be fluid, depending upon your audience. Therefore, as I continue to edit the UK pub, I will keep the magazine’s style guide next to my laptop to keep me from spelling “program” without an extra “m” and an “e” at the end (“programme”). And while I’ll probably continue to use spaced en dashes and leave out the Oxford commas as I write the early drafts of my next novel — since that’s the way I write comfortably — for my final draft, I will add those commas and do a “find and replace” on those en dashes and convert them to em dashes if that is what the American literary world wants.
I’ve always been a big proponent of proper grammar, and I think it’s important that we all strive for correctness. But sometimes there is no “correct,” just “preference.” And in those cases I think you should adhere to the rules of whatever audience you’re writing for. In the end, punctuation and spelling are just structure, guideposts that help readers navigate and understand your words. Your words are what REALLY matter.
A quick addendum to yesterday’s post: I am now reading a New York Times Magazine article on Haruki Murakami from last fall (as you can see, I’m behind on my reading…). Murakami’s latest, 1Q84, is on my reading list, and I have read a few of his short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, which he was kind enough to sign for me during his recent reading at Hofstra University. His stuff has been called “supernaturally entertaining” and “strange fun” and “literary fantasy.” Imagine… literary fantasy. Looks like vampires and boogeymen aren’t just fodder for commercial fiction, after all — not that there’s anything wrong with commercial fiction. (I’m not a big fan of the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I mean, I like a Big Mac just as much as I like a steak, and which one I eat is dependent on my mood.) I hope that somewhere out there my fellow grad student and writer — the one who penned a ill-received fantasy novel and left our little fiction class forever — is smiling.
Hey, it’s Tuesday! Time for another installment of Debut Author Q&A! Today, my guest is author Sarah McCoy, who discusses her unique journey to publication and explains a misconception that aspiring writers often have that she likes to call “James Patterson Syndrome.”
Name of book: The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico
Book genre: Adult Fiction
Date Published: August 2009
Publisher: Random House
What is your day job? Like most writers, I do a little bit of everything to make ends meet. I’ve taught English writing courses at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. I work as a freelance writer when time permits: a family health column for Your Health Monthly magazine; features for El Paso Magazine; essays for The Millions online literary magazine, etc.
What is your book about? It’s about a spirited 11-year-old girl named Verdita growing up on a small farm in 1961 Puerto Rico, a time when the island experienced a notable surge in American influence. The changes in the country mirror Verdita’s own development into an adult. It’s about the tug-of-war between childhood and tradition, and the responsibilities of the unknown. Verdita’s choices shape her destiny and her identity.
What would you say is the most challenging part of writing a book? There are so many challenges to writing a book, but for me the biggest one is remembering that I am merely the conduit. The story and the characters run the show. Sometimes the creative writing workshop devil gets on my shoulder, whispers in my ear, and makes me anxious to write the most elegant, perfect prose ever penned in history. A tall order to fill. My perfectionism makes me obsess over every line, word, and turn of phrase. Then my inner muse kicks the workshop devil in the hiney and reminds me: You are simply the storyteller. Neither Sarah McCoy nor the loveliest syntax are the heart of the work and never will be. Like most writers, I’m incredibly self-critical, so remembering my role is both a challenge and a great relief.
What motivates you to write? Storytelling. Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved sharing good stories. They connect our imaginations and emotions in ways reality sometimes cannot. I remember once being in the kitchen with my momma after a day in kindergarten, and she asked me how my afternoon had been. We’d read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury and Michael Rosen. Instead of simply saying that, I used it as my story template and concocted an epic tale of a nefarious classroom mouse that we raced around attempting to capture — across the reading rug, under the art easels, over the desks, and through the playhouse. My momma had clapped her hands and said, “What a wonderful story!” Winded and electrified by my imagined adventure, I confessed, “That didn’t really happen, but it felt like it did.”
I’m motivated to write because it’s my way of better understanding the world around me. Fiction allows us to explore people, places, events and complex emotions while safely shielded by book covers.
So true! Did you experience writer’s block along the way? When I feel like I can’t write, it’s usually a sign that my characters need to develop and grow in my imagination. They aren’t ready to be harvested. If I cut them off too green and try to make a pie, it’ll be sour, small, and not very good. I know this about my creative process so I hold off writing until my creative tree is bursting — the fruits about to fall on their own if I don’t run out to collect them. I try not to pressure myself into writing. The handful of times I have, the stories have felt forced and lacking in natural ripeness. I had to pitch them in the garbage and that’s never fun. So I’ve learned to be patient and allow my stories to arrive in their seasons.
How long did it take you to find a publisher? After I connected with my literary agent, it took two months to find my publisher.
Do you think it’s vital for first-timers to have an agent? Yes, I believe it’s important to have a literary agent. They’re your cheerleader in the publishing world. You, the author, can’t walk into a publishing house, knock on an editor’s door and say, “I’m a complete stranger, and I’ve never been published, but will you read and possibly pay me for this wad of papers I call a book?” However, an agent can go to that same person and say, “We know each other. I have a new author and I like her work. I think you will too. Here’s something you should read.” Like most occupations, the book business is a community of people and friends. A good agent is a wonderful first friend to a debut author.
What is the biggest misconception about writing a book? What I like to call the “James Patterson Syndrome.” I have many students tell me that they aim to be the next James Patterson and put out a bazillion New York Times bestsellers. I don’t like to be a bubble-burster, but for most writers, that’s not how it happens. In my experience, the publishing process is meticulously slow. The story and writing is double triple checked; the book’s layout and packaging is considered; you must market yourself and be your own publicist, setting up weeks of on-the-road and online events. Each book requires a huge investment of time, years of work. And that’s all after you’ve completed the actual creative writing endeavor. There’s little instant gratification in this business. Patience and perseverance: it’s the tortoise’s race, for sure.
What was your favorite aspect of the writing process for this book? Listening to my family members tell stories of Puerto Rico, going back to our family farm in Aibonito for visits, and reconstructing that world in Verdita’s fictitious Florilla.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? For my debut novel, I was somewhat unaware of all the available avenues of promotion. I’ve been schooled over the years and now understand that Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book blogs and independent bookstores are the bastions of the literary community. It has been my pleasure to form relationships with amazing people in these places. I can’t sing their praises enough.
I understand your second novel comes out in January 2012. Tell me about it. I’d love to! It’s called The Baker’s Daughter, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone on January 24, 2012.
And now my favorite last question: Oprah has 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? I’m a believer in destiny. I think our daily life choices shape our futures. I agree with Miss O for the most part. Lady Luck is a bit like the tooth fairy in my book. She requires you to yank out a tooth, put it under your pillow, and go to sleep to get a trifling prize. I’m not a big fan of pain and passivity for candy quarters. Fate, however, asks us to vigilantly watch the horizon for rising opportunities — to expect them like the sun and moon — and be ready to walk our lighted paths.
Little does he know, but I have very vivid memories of Richard Rose, today’s featured debut author. When my oldest son, who turns 14 this Saturday, was only a few months old, he became fascinated by game shows (the bright lights, the sounds), particularly Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, which airs back-to-back every weeknight on Channel 55 on Long Island. At some point during the hour, I’d see Richard giving a preview of the upcoming nightly broadcast, which meant my little reprieve would soon be over and my infant son would once again demand my undivided attention. :) It was a pleasure to meet Richard personally recently at the Farmingdale Public Library, and I look forward to reading his new thriller.
Name of book: Release the Butterfly
Date published: March 2011
Publisher: Authorhouse (self-published)
What is your day job? I’m the anchor of The News at 11 on WLNY-TV 10/55 (10 on cable, 55 over the air). I am also the news director and the host of a weekly public affairs show FOCUS seen on Sundays.
What is your book about? Release the Butterfly is about the unintended consequences of cutting edge scientific research that often lead to the development of major new weapons of mass destruction. My research into particle accelerators at Long Island’s Brookhaven National Lab and at Geneva, Switzerland’s CERN lab started me thinking about the potential to stumble on a planet-killing weapon.
What did you find to be the most challenging part of the writing process? For me, the greatest challenge was in making the science not only plausible, but interesting to the reader.
How long did it take you to write this book? It took me six months to write the book, but I first wanted to write a book 30 years ago, so I suppose I could truly answer almost my entire adult life.
Why did you decide to self-publish? The literary market collapsed just as I finished the book, and, so far, I haev been unable to find a literary agent. Meanwhile, I have completed the screenplay version, because everyone tells me it should be a movie, and I am actively trying to market this as well.
Did you experience writer’s block? I never experienced writer’s block once I decided this was the topic, but it also took me 30 years to decide this would be the topic of my first book. So that would be a new record for writer’s block, I suppose.
What was your favorite part of writing this book? Trying to visualize possible applications for theoretical concepts, like the DNA Tracker-Neutron Transformer. I actually feel I predicted what are now current events – a stealth fighter for China (just unveiled) and an aircraft carrier (now in the works). And I loved working in some military hardware for the U.S. and China that is still on their drawing board or just being deployed. My hope was to channel H.G. Wells, Tom Clancy and Dan Brown. Now, there’s a challenge.
Is there another novel on the horizon? I am considering a second book to be called “Manila Highway” about a Filipino woman who comes to the U.S. hoping for opportunity and winds up being a long-distance trucker in Texas and the deep south. It’s based on a real person.
What tools/methods have you employed to promote your book? What advice would you give to writers regarding promotion? I am signing books at libraries and, hopefully, bookstores, and I’m working on a launch party for this summer. I’m working with a publicist.
Oprah has 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? I would agree with Oprah, and the advice I would give other writers is to believe in yourself and your idea and follow it through. Whether it becomes a hit or not, you followed your vision. I once read that O’Reilly, the great 19th century American writer, didn’t write his first book until he was in his sixties and in prison for bankruptcy (debtors’ prison). So good luck to all of us!