In celebration of Independence week, let’s get to know two women who are livin’ their dream. If you’ve ever wanted to write novels and wonder how the process works and how two busy moms get it done, meet Dianne and Jessica. Dianne has several books published and Jessica’s first novel is being released today!
1. How do you find time to write? What are your habits?
Diane: I write whenever I can squeeze it in, and I’m lucky, because my family is VERY supportive. It helps that my daughters, at 14 and 17, are self-sufficient and have been for a long time. They’ve been packing their own lunches since they were in elementary school, and they’ve helped clean up the kitchen since they were old enough to reach the sink. They also do their own laundry. (Let’s clarify. I have to TELL them to do it, REMIND them to move it from the washer to the dryer, and NAG them to fold it and put it away … but they can perform those functions without my assistance.) When they were younger and needed me more, the best thing I did was establish ONE weekly writing block that was supposed to be untouchable. Every Monday night, from 7:30– 9:00, I went to a room by myself and was granted an uninterrupted writing block. Then at 9:00, there was an online chat at The Practice Room with other writers who also used that time to be productive. (Nowadays, I run the Practice Room session every Monday. Anyone who’s interested in joining, let me know!)
Jess: It’s definitely hard to develop concrete habits with small children around all the time (I have a one-year-old, a five-year-old, and two teenage stepchildren). I write “in the cracks.” I tend to make a lot of random notes on post-its and scraps of paper I find in my purse and then, when I get a good chunk of computer time, I just go after it, having a pretty good idea of what I want from a character/scene/chapter.
Unfortunately, I’m not a night person at all—my creative energy wanes after 3 o’clock in the afternoon and most days I’m in bed by 9:00. I’ve tried staying up, but the writing is never productive. So I get up at 4:00 in the morning some days, to thwart the pitter-patter of the wee ones. But in terms of my current habits? The only consistent one I can think of is that when I draft something new, I set weekly word count goals rather than daily, because you never really know when Life will intervene to either give you extra writing time or none. And I keep my goals low, so that there’s always a chance that I’ll exceed them, which always gives me a nice little boost.
2. How have you gotten past all the rejections? And has failure been a good thing?
Dianne: Failure never feels like a good thing, but sometimes it is. Two unsuccessful R&R’s inspired revisions that helped me land a different agent. Two devastating rejections from my first publisher opened the door to a deal with a bigger publisher. And two rejections from a respected editor were followed almost immediately by the biggest deal of my career so far – with someone else. Every writer has to learn to live with rejection. Even after you get a publishing deal, you’ll have future manuscripts turned down. You’ll see other authors getting more attention. You’ll be told you’re not wanted at your publisher’s BEA booth. You’ll be overlooked in a PW article or – this happened to a friend – your book title will be mentioned and your main character will be listed as the author! Let’s not even talk about what people will say about your books on Goodreads!
Jess: If people had told me when I started my first manuscript that I’d have to write eight more before finding a literary agent and getting published, would I have continued writing? Sure, why not. Because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the thrill of sending something out there and getting emails back (or physical letters, back when agents asked for those) despite them saying, “nope, sorry, not for me.” And there was always a chance that the email would be a request, which brightened up my stay-at-home-mom day like crazy. That’s a big reason I never gave up on querying—there was a constant sense of possibility.
I guess I didn’t really think of all of those rejections as “failure.” This may sound like a bad attitude, but I was kind of expecting them—anything that wasn’t a rejection was a great surprise. Sure, there was a feeling of, “Aw, man, that’s the third rejection today. Boo on Wednesdays,” but I didn’t let it get me down because the whole thing was a learning process. I knew going into it that there was a whole lot about writing that I needed (and still need) to learn, so I tried to think of it as a “hobby” (which goes against lots of advice that says you should think of it as a career from the get-go). My husband had golf as a hobby, which he’s constantly trying to get better at, and I had writing/querying. He’s always trying to improve his swing and lower his golf score and he has good days and bad days. He comes home excited when he’s found a new swing and says, “I think I’ve got it!” only to come home dejected a few days later. But does he give up golf? No way. Because he enjoys it and he wants to get better.
Likewise, I never gave up writing because I SO wanted to get better, and I wanted some sort of evidence that maybe I was getting better—at both the pages I included with submissions and the query itself. I found that when my concentration shifted wholeheartedly from “I really want an agent and a book deal!” to “I really just want to be able to tell a good story,” I started to improve. It happened gradually, with personalized rejections preceding requests, and many request rejections preceding an offer. I’m so grateful for my process. Personally, I would have been ill-equipped if I’d struck gold and got a book offer with my first effort.
3. What advice would you give to moms who want to write but feel so much resistance from all the demands placed on them?
Dianne: Do what I suggested above: Sit down with your family and work out at least ONE dedicated writing time per week that’s promised to you. You might be surprised to find how eagerly your family conspires to help make that happen. (“Shhhh … Mommy’s writing tonight.”)
Jess: Moms are, by necessity, queens of multitasking and sometimes our families just thinks that’s the way we are, instead of knowing what a huge mental effort it can be to keep up with schedules, driving, snacks, birthdays, games, yardwork, meals, toilet paper supplies, family cards, laundry, creative-activities, discipline, all while being a supportive wife, friend, and community member. It’s easy to have these demands all over the place and think that you can’t say “no” to anything, because people are used to you just taking care of everything. And it’s easy to be exhausted by the time you do find a smidgeon of time for yourself and not have the energy to actually write because creativity and motivation don’t always show up during your one hour of free time on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Start with ideas. Play with ideas in your head and develop them there (I know, there’s already so much going on there based on other people’s needs, but carve out a corner for yourself). I’ve heard some people say that a person who truly wants to be a writer would just sacrifice sleep and stay up to write, but getting sleep is so essential to me being able to function as a mom that I would never endorse that. I really think that brainstorming in your head—plots, characters, twists—and then making quick notes that you can use later is a great way for busy moms to be super productive during their actual writing time. And try telling your kids and significant other, “Hey, I really need your help. Can you please help me work toward my dream by giving me one hour a day?”
But I’m a mom, first and foremost and there are always times when I have to give up and push away from the computer at the tug of little hands and say, “Dang it, I’m just not going to get any writing done today.” Or, like this morning when I got up at 4:30 to start working on these questions and my five-year-old came running out of her room saying, “Mommy, I had a bad dream!” You have to be okay with children interrupting your stuff, even if you’re not happy about it. And when overwhelmed being belief and frustrated, listen to Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVy4w6vq8y8&feature=kp) while thinking of your kids and family and have yourself a nice warm feeling about how you wouldn’t have it any other way J
4. Self-published or agent?
Dianne: I self-published back in 2007 before it was as accepted as it is now. Then, in 2009, I signed a traditional publishing contract un-agented. There were good points and bad points about both experiences, but I can definitely say that I would never have landed a 3-book deal with HarperCollins without my agent – and that has been the high point of my writing career so far.
That said, traditional publishing is s-l-o-w moving and full of disappointments. I sympathize with the desire to move more quickly with self-publishing. However, for anyone taking that route, I strongly urge you to research everything first and make sure your book is really ready to publish. (Once you think it’s ready, put it away for a couple months, work on something else, then take it out again and send it to more beta readers.)
Recently, I weeded an overgrown flower bed. I had spread wildflower seeds there, and among the more common plants I discovered beautiful, delicate poppies. Wanting to encourage their growth, I painstakingly pulled out the other plants that were choking them.
To my surprise, the poppies fell over flat on their faces. To compete with the other plants, they had grown too fast and too thin. They couldn’t stand up on their own. I have read a fair share of self-published books that felt the same way – full of beautiful promise, but published too soon because the author was in a hurry to compete with other books and other authors.
Jess: I have an agent, but both are great ways to go, especially these days when online marketing is possible. As a mom and somewhat shy person, I don’t have lots of extra time or natural skill with the task of marketing. For that reason, as well as the fact that I wasn’t in any particular hurry to get my work published, seeking an agent was the way to go for me. I never considered self-publishing because I know that doing it well takes a lot of time and marketing savvy that I just don’t have. I have a friend who LOVES marketing and she’s got a wonderful manuscript that I encouraged her to query, but she’s very excited to get her story into the world, so self-publishing is the way to go for her. I think a career can be forged with both paths.
5. What’s more important – hard work or talent?
Dianne: I think you need both to succeed – in writing and in almost any other profession. You need to be good at what you do and willing to work hard for a long time, even if the reward is deferred.
Jess: I think they’re both very helpful in getting published, but I have to go with hard work on a personal level. I got a similar question recently about whether writers are born or made and said this: There are writers out there who were born to write—the people who seem to innately live the written word and it pours out of them compulsively, whether they want it to or not. As for me, it feels like a return to something that always fit me well, but that never really registered as a possibility for a career. I’ve put a lot of effort into learning more about writing in recent years, but I still feel like a raw scrapper—more of a Rudy-type, who got really lucky with publication because of persistence, practice, love of books/writing, and the ability to take a lot of rejection without giving up, rather than because of a pure, natural skill.
6. What’s more important – “platform” or concentrating on just writing?
Dianne: If by “platform” you mean branding yourself to one audience or genre, forget about it. Many successful authors write across audiences and genres these days. If by “platform” you mean participating in social media like blogging and Twitter, then it depends on what you do with it. If a writer is using social media only for promoting themselves – sending out 30 “Buy My Book” tweets a day – they’re wasting their time.
However, if you use social media to make connections with other people, it is invaluable. Your writing can only improve by interacting with others, learning from them, getting ideas and inspiration from those crazy things that cross your feed … But to make it work, you have to give at least as much as you hope to gain.
Jess: For fiction writers, particularly children’s fiction writers, I think writing is always more important. An agent will never fall in love with a manuscript and then decide not to offer representation just because you have no social media presence. They may ask you to get a little more involved once they sign you (aka, have you start a blog, get on Twitter/Facebook/Goodreads), but they might not. One of my agent’s clients still has no blog, no Facebook, no Twitter, and that’s absolutely fine because she writes beautiful, wonderful books. I don’t have a Goodreads account or a personal Facebook account, and neither agent nor publisher has told me I need to remedy that. THAT SAID, keeping a blog and getting involved in the blogging community through contest involvement (like Miss Snark’s First Victim, Pitch Wars, etc.) and things like AbsoluteWrite (the Query Letter Hell and Kid Lit forums are supportive and full of learning opportunities) was integral to my becoming published. Not only did I learn so much craft-wise, but I found friends and submission opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise found.
Following blogs, following agents on Twitter, and attending WriteOnCon, a free online conference that’s held each August (make sure you sign up this year), are all things that I consider to be part of my education process. Kind of a Stay-At-Home-Mom MFA. I also think having a blog or trying to get some sort of story/article/post published online is helpful because it’s great for an agent to be able to find out something about you with an internet search. When my agent sent me an “offer of representation” email, she mentioned that she’d been around the internet checking me out. I was very glad that I’d sent an open editorial letter to the Denver Post that got published, because she saw and agreed with it and it gave us an immediate point of bonding.
BUT AGAIN, it’s all about the writing. Don’t get sucked into spending all of your precious writing minutes on social media, which is very easy to do.
7. What is your definition of success?
Dianne: Well, it would be awfully cool to make the New York Times best seller list! But in the meantime, I’ll have to be content with defining success by emails such as this one: I wanted to let you know that my daughter Mia has been reading “The Eighth Day.” She says it’s the best book she has ever read (she’s 9).
Thanks for having me here today, Amy! I hope this was helpful! (it was!)
Jess: I think about this a lot, mostly because I feel very lucky in my life. Life comes in seasons, and the last year has been an extended autumn for me (my favorite season). I think, for me, success in life comes from feeling as though I have goals that I’ve accomplished as well as goals that I want to pursue. There’s nothing more invigorating than having a goal and trying hard to accomplish it. A quest, if you will. And part of that quest for me is finding contentment and happiness within the life that I have, rather than saying, “if we only had __, ___, and ___, then life would be great!” It sounds like a simple, almost boring word, but contentment is something that I think can get overlooked in the frenzy to be “successful.” Success is finding that contentment by embracing the blessings that your current life offers while also pursuing a passion.
Dianne Salerni is a mother of two, retiring after 25 years of teaching, and is the author of We Hear the Dead, The Caged Graves, and The Eighth Day Series. You can find her on her Website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Jessica Lawson is a mother of two young children and the stepmom to two teens. She writes a great personal/writing blog Here. You can find her first novel, The Actual and Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher at Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or your local indie bookstore. Here’s the LINK! Release date is TODAY! Jessica’s official author website is Here.
Congratulations, Dianne and Jess. Thank you for being here today – I’m really excited for you both!
Looking for more author interviews? Check out this popular interview with mom and writer Katrina Kenison.