An author interview on the craft of writing.
Featured Writer: Anne Tibbets
Book: Shut Up, contemporary YA fiction (more info below)
Intro, from Heidi:
As a new writer, one of the best how-to-be-a-writer sources I found is a fabulous series of author interviews by Steve Bertrand from WGN radio in Chicago. The podcast, Meet the Writers, is sponsored by Barnes & Noble and is available as a free download on iTunes. There is a hefty archive and if you are curious about the art of writing, I highly recommend a listen.
Inspired by Steve, and by my writer friends who are newly published, I thought I’d offer a “New Author” interview platform. Most of the authors that get on Steve’s show have already done pretty well for themselves, but what about the newbies? The writers that have been dog-earing copies of The Writer’s Market, attending conferences, furiously editing and revising, and telling their critique partners, “I owe you one”?
And then, after all of the hard work, time, and countless pots of coffee, these writers finally nab that agent or editor. Something clicked! They got a YES! How exciting!!! Now the real work begins. They have to sell. This is quite possibly the hardest part, and why, if you know anyone who’s ever written a book, you should buy a copy, if only to be supportive.
Because I see firsthand how tough it is to get started, and because there are still so many of us trying to reach that first step into publication, I want to give my friends the opportunity to tell their stories. I’m being selfish, too, because this is also a way for me to learn all of their secrets…Muah ha ha ha!!
So, for our very first Meet the New Writer, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Anne Tibbets. If you are a regular reader, you’ve heard me mention her before (we go back). She’s an amazing writer, and—take note—has done an amazing job of using blogging, book bloggers, and social media to self-market her books.
How old were you when you started writing?
I started writing professionally in my twenties, although my earliest memory of writing was back in elementary school. After I had graduated college with a degree in Theater, which is pretty useless in the “real world,” I decided I had done enough starving in college and had no desire to be a “starving artist,” so I moved to Los Angeles with the intent on becoming a screenwriter. From what I’d heard, they actually made money. I took odd jobs as secretaries and assistants, even a Page on The Price is Right at one point, and read books on screenwriting, took classes at UCLA Extension, and wrote and wrote and wrote. Nothing I wrote on spec sold. Not a one. Eventually, after years of working in “the biz” I was hired as a writer’s assistant on a syndicated action hour and through the contacts I made there I sold a few scripts. Soon thereafter I had children, and with their arrival I put my screenwriting career on permanent hold and after suffering through the first few years of toddler-hood, I tried my hat at writing children’s books, and through a lot of trial and error, eventually settled on Young Adult.
Where do you write?
I have a desk in a downstairs bedroom in my house that we have deemed “The Office.” I’ve tried writing elsewhere but it doesn’t work well. I am determined to learn how to write while in public. But, it takes practice.
When do you write?
I do the bulk of my writing during the months of September through June while my kids are in school. From 9 am until I can’t take it anymore, or 2:45 pm, whichever comes first. During the summer months I work when the kids are at day camp and even hire a babysitter once a week to give me just a few hours of writing time, but they aren’t in camp every week so it’s very sporadic – I find if I don’t write, however, I go batty. Summer is a very cranky time for me.
What helps you write – music, pictures, maps, journals, etc, – what gets you into that mindset?
I wish I had a magic formula that works every time that would put me into the mindset to write, but I don’t. I have Attention Deficit Disorder so the moment I find one thing that works I tend to get bored of it pretty quickly, so I’m forever trying new ways to creatively stimulate my mind. I read a lot. Almost constantly. I listen to various kinds of music and will search for a “theme song” for each of the books I write. I find it helps to keep me grounded in the emotional tone of the piece.
For Fantasy books I create maps and write out battle plans using chess pieces to signify characters so I can keep track of where they are during the battle, and I blog quite a bit about the process, as I am always trying to learn from my numerous mistakes. I’ve tried just about everything, but the #1 thing that keeps me focused is coffee. Lots of coffee, with flavored creamer and about a bucket full of sugar.
What are some things that stand in your way? Logistically as well as creatively?
This is going to sound horrible, so I apologize in advance to my offspring, but my kids are my #1 obstacle to writing. They sap my energy, they try my patience, they interrupt me every 6 minutes (I actually timed it one summer), and they demand my attention – it’s their job and they’re doing a bang up job of it. However, if I didn’t have my kids I can’t say I would feel as powerfully as I do about my work, so it balances out. A lack of time is my primary nemesis, and my secondary nemesis is my own distracted self. I lack focus at times and this bites me in the butt constantly.
What do you do when you “hit a wall?”
There are many writers out there that insist that in order to be at your peak you must write every day, even if it’s only a few words. In my mind, writing every day is a recipe for burnout. When I hit a wall, I take a few days off. Sometimes, I’ll even take a week off. I live life, I catch up on housework, I pay attention to my family, I regroup – and then, in a week or few days (depending), I start to feel recharged and I’m ready to go back to writing. It works for me. Forcing myself to write when I am so over it only leads to crappy writing and a lot of revision later, so it’s really best for me just to walk away and come back when I’m ready.
Do you use an outline – do you know exactly how the arc will play out – or do you just let the story develop as you write? If so, how do you outline? (notecards, etc.)
I always outline. Always. If I didn’t, I would have a hard time keeping on track, and that’s the truth. I rather admire writers who can just sit down and let the story unfold but I need more focus than that to keep me grounded. I usually use bullet points – this happens, then this happens, then this happens – I keep track of plot and character arcs. But it occurs quite a few times while I’m writing that I realize there’s a “hole” in the outline where something is supposed to happen and there isn’t enough build up to it, or as I’m writing I realize it needs to go in a different direction, or that the character is supposed to be a nervous wreck by now and she’s only slightly bothered. In that case, I’ll go back to the outline and rework it to see if the change fits with my original intention. If it doesn’t, then I tend to stick to the outline. It’s my lifeline, but it’s bendable.
How do you draft/revise? (ie. Do you just get it out in one big “dump,” then revise, revise, revise, or do you revise and edit as you go?)
I’ve tried this both ways. I’ve dumped an entire book out in one draft, and spent the next year revising it. Others I have written a scene, revised, written another scene, revised both scenes, and then on and on. I have yet to determine a solid structure with this. It honestly depends on how it’s flowing. First thing I do when I have time to write is I will try to work on new scenes, but if I find I’m stuck with the “dumping” process I’ll spend my writing time revising what I’ve got. That’s just how I roll.
What are some tools that you use? (reference guides, manuals, websites – a favorite pen/notebook/computer?)
On my desk sit my favorite computer, an old Mac laptop that overheats if I don’t use my cooling tray, my thesaurus, a dictionary, and a “word” book that lists every word in the English language. (Psst, there are times when I’m like – “What’s that word, it starts with a ‘ste’…?” and I have to look it up!). I Google a lot, I search the internet, I watch video clips on YouTube and I cruise book stores and Amazon.com for reference material. And lately I’ve been trying a recording of a waterfall turned up so loud I can’t hear anything else, but the jury is still out on that particular tool.
Do you use critique groups? How did you find them?
I have two YA writer buddies that are kind enough to read my work, when they have time. They give awesome notes, and I try to do the same for them. Although that is technically a “Writers Group,” we are not organized, have no regular meeting times, or “rules,” so we don’t call ourselves a “group.” We meet socially every now and then to shoot the breeze, and attend writer’s events together. We met through SCBWI, which, if you are a children’s writer, you MUST join, it’s completely invaluable.
On your current project:
What was your inspiration for this book?
Shut Up came to me while I was working on a YA Fantasy. There was a crisis in my family and it called to mind several unpleasant memories that I had buried in the back of my brain from my childhood. They haunted me for days. In an effort to purge them, I wrote them down and put them away, but my mind would not let them go. So I wrote down a few more, then a few more, then a whole lot of them. Then I realized I had the outline of a book, but the memories by themselves were not solid enough to be an entire book, so I tweaked, twisted, warped and fictionalized it, and from that I ended up with the manuscript for Shut Up.
What kind of research did you do for this book? And, were you surprised by something that you learned in your research?
Since Shut Up was based on my childhood, there wasn’t much in the way of research that I had to do. I was there, and I knew most of what happened. What I didn’t know, I would call my mother and ask her about. However, after I had changed the book significantly I came to realize the characters had lives of their own and the main character was deeply depressed and suicidal, so I researched childhood depression, the treatment of it, and how the symptoms manifested. If I was surprised by anything it was the fact that even though my mother knew I was writing a book about my childhood, she still answered my questions.
How did it feel to write that last line?
I had a horrible time working on this book. I wish I could say it wasn’t, but the subject matter of depression, is well, depressing. I’d work for three weeks, stop a few weeks, and work again. My emotions were all over the place and I often needed alone time to remind myself that I wasn’t Mary, the main character. So, when I wrote that last line on the last revision on that last day, I cried with relief.
On the business of publishing:
How did you find your agent/editor?
I found my agent the old fashioned way. I wrote a book and I researched agents, and then I queried her. She did not respond right away, but several months later, at which point she sent me a list of her notes on my manuscript and an offer of representation. I loved her notes so much, and we got along so well on the phone, I accepted. I am lucky to have her, her name is Bree Ogden and she’s at D4EO Literary, and she’s an absolute doll.
Has self-publishing shaped your career as a writer? What is your opinion of self-publishing?
This is a double-edged sword. I know that if I hadn’t published Shut Up and my YA Fantasy The Beast Call with Premier Digital Publishing, which is in essence, a company that assists authors with self-publication, those books never would have gotten published at all otherwise, given that I had broken so many industry rules. So, I wouldn’t have a career at all if I hadn’t done that. However, getting the recognition in self-publishing is very, very difficult, especially now that anyone can self-publish.
The market is flooded with tons of manuscripts and no matter how good, or bad, no one can voice an opinion about your work if they don’t even know it’s there. Self-publishing isn’t hard, it’s getting the word out that’s hard. And despite my 2,000+ followers on Facebook, and my 1,200+ followers on Twitter and my 13,000 hits on my blog – my sales figures continue to barely exist. So, I’m a little bitter sweet when it comes to self-publishing, at the moment. As of now, I have not made back my investment, but there are a number of self-published authors who have.
What can you share with our readers about marketing? (ie. What, if any, support did you have from your publisher? Costs involved? Things that worked best/weren’t worth it, etc.)
When I published The Beast Call and later Shut Up with Premier Digital Publishing, the most marketing support I received was a blog post on the publisher website announcing the book release, and a Tweet. That was all. Every expense, every free copy sent to bloggers and reviewers, my PR firm, my press release, my blog hops, my giveaways, my advertisements on Facebook, JacketFlap and GoodReads, I paid for completely myself. For a small digital and Print-on-Demand publisher, this is not abnormal.
The best things that worked (for me) were the blog hops. If you are an author and you are invited to participate in a blog hop – do! Make the time. GoodReads ads are also cheap and effective, whereas Facebook ads will get you ‘Liked’ but does not generate sales. Twitter is fun but not an effective marketing tool unless you are attempting to drum up attention amongst the book blogging community. The only thing I haven’t tried is purchasing print ads in newspapers and magazines, and only because it is very expensive.
What is a trick that you’ve learned along the way that has made the writing process easier?
There’s a trick to make it easier? Ha! When you figure it out will you tell me? The only “trick” I can think of is to write something you love. If you are only writing a certain story because you think it will be popular and sell lots of books then you will get creatively blocked and have a hard time writing the book. Write a story you love, and it flows easier. At least, it does for me.
What writers inspire you?
This is going to sound smug and a little stuck up, but my answer is, “not many.” I’m not the kind of person who buys into the ‘celebrity’ aspect of the business. Yes, I loved the Harry Potter series and I think J.K. Rowling is an awesome writer, and would I like to sit with her and have a conversation about process, absolutely! But, would I ask for her autograph and take my picture with her? Probably not. It seems like an awful invasion of her personal space and she’s just a human being, like the rest of us. I positively LOVED The Book Thief, but if I met Markus Zusak, I don’t think I’d turn to jelly. I love his work, not him.
So, I guess what my answer is, the books I find inspiring are Persuasion by Jane Austen, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, and The Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. If I can’t find a good book to read, I revert back to these, because they are just so incredibly crafted, I aspire to write something half as good.
What do you like to read for enjoyment?
I go on genre benders. For a while, I was reading only Sci-Fi, then I moved on to Historical Mysteries, then I would hit all the YA Dystopians, and then move on to High Fantasy. I read almost anything, although I must admit, I don’t find biographies or military books that interesting.
We all know learning from our mistakes is part of the process of becoming who we are as a writer. What’s one lesson you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to others?
I have been fortunate enough to have received this advice before it could have backfired on me, so I’m passing it along to you in the hopes it will prevent a great catastrophe in yours. The advice: Don’t respond to reviews. A good one, or a bad one. Say no more than ‘thank you’ (unless you are personally friends with the reviewer, and even then I don’t advise it). Don’t do it. You’ll want to. Believe me. But it does nothing but fuel bad publicity and creates terrible author backlash, and no matter if the reviewer was unprofessional, totally missed the plot of your book, or was just a raving a-hole, the one who comes out dirty on the other end is ALWAYS the author.
There are a group of penguins in the movie ‘Madagascar’ who are trying to escape the zoo, but they must make the appearance before the zoo crowd and when they do, the Captain penguin always tells his crew, “Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.” And I expect the same from you. “Smile, and wave.” So zip your lip, I mean it!
What’s next for you?
I have a Social Sci-Fi awaiting approval from my agent and will soon be submitted to traditional publishing editors. I hope to have news within six months. We will see. In the meantime I am working on a YA Horror and having a great time scaring my own pants off.
and finally…What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen online lately?
Mary’s older sister, Gwen, has royally screwed up her life. Not only is Gwen pregnant at seventeen, but she’s also decided to marry The Creep who knocked her up.
Now Mary is powerless to stop her family from imploding. Her parents are freaking out, and to top it off The Creep has a gross fascination with Mary while Gwen enjoys teasing her to tears for sport.
Despite her brother’s advice to shut up, Mary can’t keep her trap closed and manages to piss off Mom so much it comes to blows.
Mary doesn’t know what to do, and all her attempts to get help are rejected. When she finally plans her escape, she fails to consider how it could destroy them all.
Anne Tibbets Online:
- blog: Will Write for Coffee
- twitter: @writeforcoffee
- A post Anne wrote on how she got her agent, including a look at her successful query letter. Great info!
Fell free to keep the conversation going in the comment box below. Thanks for reading.