Monday, September 30, 2013

The Truth About Introverts

 I recently read an article titled Ten Myths About Introverts by Carl King. You can read it here. If you're an introvert, it might explain a few things, like why you may sound eloquent on the written page but babble like an idiot in a radio interview, or send awkward (even standoffish) body language at a book signing. A lot of unfortunate, misunderstood signals going on here.

 I’m an introvert and a writer, and I’m in good company.

Carl’s list had several points that resonated with me, like providing insight as to why I squirm at the phrase ‘self-promotion.’  Social media tools like Twitter or Facebook are pretty non-threatening in their brevity. Blog interviews let you blaze past all the chit-chat and small talk, and send the answers in an email. Words like ‘media interview’ and ‘book signing,’ on the other hand, can both excite and strike fear in your little introverted heart, or at least drain your energy and leave you craving solitude before it’s over.

 Don't misunderstand - we enjoy signing books and meeting readers, no matter what our body language may say.  We're just experiencing a big learning curve.

Writer-introverts greatly value privacy, even if it’s on the edge of the social universe. While we don’t mind the distant drone of the coffee shop crowd, we prefer to stake out our own little orbits.   It’s not that we don’t like people - we just like them one at a time and not when we’re on the verge of solving a plot point.  Making chit chat is trying for some of us, but get us started about something we love (our books!) and we’ll give you TMI about our characters.

So, what’s the problem? This is what we wanted when we became writers, isn't it? We have a work of art that we’ve labored over for years and we’re excited to spread the word.  I’m not saying we aren’t willing and able to follow through on what’s necessary to promote our work and build a career.  We just have to work harder at it than extroverts.  It doesn’t come naturally.   We really have to want it.

Extroverts just don’t get us. Some may not even like us.  Some think we could change if we really want to. But being introverts tempers us into the kinds of writers we are, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to give that up.

I’m an introvert and a writer, and I’m in good company. 

What about you?  Do you suffer the challenges of the introvert writer or are you an extrovert who believes we should just hitch up our pants and get over it?

Friday, September 27, 2013

Lessons from the Cheap Seats

Last weekend my hometown hosted a Word on the Street event downtown. I’ve never attended, being the shy, socially reserved type that I am. Then, my long-time friend, Lesley Livingston called and said, “I’m coming to town for Word on the Street!” Thus, I attended her reading/signing event. (FYI: Lesley will be interviewed on our blog October 28. She’s brilliant, funny, and short.)


Much shenanigans occurred during her all to brief sojourn, but I’ll restrict myself to the relevant bits. Okay, just this one irrelevant bit: writers, dinner, a near sword fight over mimes—had we but possessed swords, and I used the Force to cause Arthur Slade to change his dinner order. (Art will also be on Novel Matters later in October. Just know he’s sensitive about mimes.) Oh, oh, just one more: I’m still geeking out because Guy Gavriel Kay and I split dessert (he paid)! Oh, and Lesley is hysterical and short. And we used to call her Fluffy in high school.
Back to the relevant bits.

Lesley writes YA novels. (She has a MG book coming out soon, but that will not preoccupy us at this juncture. But it’s called How to Curse in Hieroglyphics and it’s smart and funny and smart and funny.) For her reading, she chose to read from the opening of the second book of her Starling trilogy, Descendant.

My family and I sat near the front. In front of us were two girls I’d peg at around sixteen years old. They clutched a stack of Lesley’s books, whispered fervently to each other, and had—very much—the look of two girls about ready to burst from excitement. Like Rock Star excited.

Lesley took the microphone, cracked wise and funny, then read from Descendant. She’s also an actress, so her reading was stellar. (Word to writers who do readings or hope to do readings—study acting.) I was fascinated to watch the two girls in front of me. Every time Lesley mentioned a character’s name the girls would—and this is the only way I can describe it—squeeze together in a fit of restrained hysteria. Put their heads together and mime a frantic concert scream. (One character in particular had this effect: handsome half-dead fellow named Fennrys.)

What happened next is the bit that matters.

Finished with the reading, Lesley took questions. There were several, and the two girls had their hands up immediately. They couldn’t have cared less about Lesley’s writing process, how she came up with ideas, or what inspired her. All the cared about were the characters in her books.

They loved Lesley inasmuch as she was the only conduit to which they could gain additional access to the characters they loved.

I talked to Lesley about this at dinner that evening and she agreed, the people who love her books couldn’t care less about her—the author—they care only about the books. (Except, of course, they care about her. Because she writes the books.)
It’s all about the book.

In redesigning my website recently, I put this knowledge to good use. The home page features my novel—not me. Sure, you can read my bio by clicking on a link, but the part that matters, the novel, is front and center. I chopped out all the extra stuff. When a new book hits shelves (are you listening, God?) that cover will be on the home page.

Because when someone has heard great things about you, they go to your website and look for the book they heard about. When they see the book on the front page, they know they are in the right place.

This feels particularly freeing to me after years and years of believing I had to market myself as a sort of uber-product. It’s not about me. It’s about my books. Put them front and center.

Do I still have to be fabulous?

Yes. I have to be online. I have to give stellar book readings, and be nice at book signings. But I also have to remember: it’s not about me. It’s about the book.


I learned a great deal more from my weekend with these gobsmacking writers. I'll share more in future posts.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pen Pal

I have a pen pal. More about that later.

When I began writing back in the 80s, I wrote by hand, using a mechanical pencil --- which always kept a sharp point --- and college-ruled binder paper --- because regular-ruled looked so fat. Loose sheets, not a notepad. Those were my pre-computer days, the days when penmanship and punctuation mattered.

My writing habits didn’t change overnight with the purchase of my first computer. I found that blank screen --- which was less than half the size of my current monitor --- daunting, intimidating … lineless. It glared at me, daring me to fill up a page.

So I continued to write with my mechanical pencil on loose-leaf, college-ruled binder paper, and when I had a chapter the way I wanted it I’d type it into my word processing program, which was always and only Word Perfect as opposed to Word. Don’t get me started.

Eventually I got to where I could type the rough draft into my computer and do my edits on the screen. And perhaps a year, maybe two later, I began to actually compose while sitting at my keyboard. Oh, how that revolutionized my writing. I’d never go back.

In the last two or three decades, life has been computerized, mostly for the good. But we’ve lost something in the process. In this futuristic reality in which we live, we send birthday greetings to friends via Facebook --- thank you, Facebook, for those weekly birthday reminders! --- rather than sending physical cards as we used to, in which we might even write a little note with our very own hand. We text our family and friends, when we used to pick up the phone and have a real live conversation. We punch our grocery lists into our i-Phones. And worst of all, we email rather than write honest-to-goodness letters.

My sister visited this past Christmas, and after the initial busyness died down, she said, “Let’s go someplace quiet.” So we stole away to my bedroom, and in a hushed moment shared by two sisters, she brought out a stack of letters she had run across after a recent move. Half were from our father, who had died 33 years before; the other half from our big brother, Johnny, written while he was serving in the Army, in Germany, in 1969-70, who died tragically in 1972, two short years after his discharge and marriage.

What a treasure, letters written in a hand as familiar as the faces we still miss.

And now we send e-mails, e-cards, e-everything, and our hands are e-empty.

But now, I have a pen pal, a fellow writer whose age is nearly the same as my own two daughters, and who lives in Australia! Yes, my pen pal is our own Megan Sayer. I even got to see her a couple of weeks ago, and meet her delightful family! When I received that first letter from her a few months ago I was beyond delighted, and was reminded how important real correspondence can be. It’s been years, literally, since I received a hand-written letter. And it got me thinking about all that we miss, thanks to our technology.

The amazing and talented Ken Burns did a documentary series a number of years ago on the Civil War. It’s truly a work of art, revolutionizing the whole concept of “documentary.” In it he used passages from a multitude of historical letters, citing everyone from President Abraham Lincoln to the lonely private away from home for the first time, people from all walks of life, including slaves, and even those written from the battlefield were beautiful in their language and sentiment. Even the grammar and punctuation were perfect.

And so help me, there wasn’t an LOL in a single passage.

Technology is wonderful. I wouldn’t want to write another book the way I used to. But between the letters my sister found, and the letters that now arrive from Australia on a regular basis, I’ve determined to pick up a pencil from time to time and write real words, on real paper, and do my part to retain a lost and dying art. I want someone, somewhere in the future, to pick up a letter and see a certain style of penmanship, and be reminded that I lived and that I loved them.

When was the last time you received a letter? Or wrote one? Does it even matter?

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Carpe Annum Interviews: Julie Cantrell

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Julie Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. She is the author of two children’s books as well as Into the Free, which received Christy Awards for Best Debut Novel and Book of the Year 2013 as well as the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award. Cantrell and her family live in Mississippi where they operate Valley House Farm. Her second novel, When Mountains Move, released September 2013.

Novel Matters: Julie, you wrote the bestselling novel Into the Free, now you’ve followed it up with a sequel that I’m certain everyone is dying to get their hands on. What made you decide to revisit the characters from Into the Free?

Julie Cantrell: When I wrote Into the Free, the original ending was more complete. During the edits, we trimmed a lot of the conclusion and left the story in a place that might be able to support a sequel. I always wanted to tell more of Millie’s story. I was grateful David C. Cook did give me an entire second book to explore the next phase of Millie’s life, and I hope readers will enjoy seeing what happens next as she tries to deal with her broken past.

NM: Some authors write one book a year and others write a handful over a lifetime. In the beginning, did you consciously choose one of these paths over the other, and are you happy with that choice today? 

JC: I first signed to publish two books in two years, which has now been done. Then I signed to publish two more. The pace proved to be a little too brisk for me with my hectic life, and I’ve asked for more time for the third one. I hope I can somehow find the balance between publishing consistently and taking the time needed to brew a good story.

NM: Tell us about your newest novel. (Please include a short synopsis, one link where people can purchase the book, and the date of release. Also, include one personal anecdote about the writing of the book.)  
JC: The sequel to INTO THE FREE was released Sept. 1. It’s called WHEN MOUNTAINS
MOVE and so far, readers are responding with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. It was a little intimidating to try to offer readers a sequel that would connect with them as deeply as Into the Free. I’m relieved to hear many readers say they like the second book even better than the first.

Here’s the scoop:

It is the spring of 1943. With a wedding and a cross-country move, Millie’s world is about to change forever.If only her past could change with it.

Soon after the break of day, Bump will become Millie’s husband. And then, if all goes as planned, they will leave the rain-soaked fields of Mississippi and head for the wilds of the Colorado Rockies. As Millie tries to forget a dark secret, she hasn’t yet realized how drastically those past experiences will impact the coming days.

For most of Millie’s life, being free felt about as unlikely as the mountains moving. But she’s about to discover that sometimes in life, we are given second chances, and that the only thing bigger than her past … is her future.

NM: Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?

JC: You are absolutely spot on with your assessment of the writing life. And that’s the thing about sales figures, awards, reviews, etc. It’s all out of our hands, as authors. We really have no control over how well our book will be received. We can only do our best to share stories that come from our hearts and offer them to the world to use as needed.

I have written only two novels to date, and both were given to me, I believe, because they needed to be told. I hope the third book flows the same way, and I hope, as with the first two, the story finds the right reader at the right time and offers words that heal, inspire, or help in some way.
NM: If tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

JC: You can’t do everything. Pace yourself. Learn to say, “No thanks,” and set healthy boundaries.

The thing about this job is that it never ends. People have no idea how hard authors work behind the scenes. It’s so much more than just writing. And that leaves very little time to do what it is we really need to do...write the book. So, I’m learning now to go a little easier on myself and accept that sometimes it’s okay to admit I don’t have time for some things.

NM: Writers debate whether to write a novel using a detailed outline vs. no outline, just go with the gut. Which do you prefer? What role does epiphany play while planning or writing?

JC: For me, no outline. I’ve tried. It doesn’t matter how much I try to plan it out, in the end, when I sit down to entirely different story and character set come to the page. I just have to give in to that creative flow and see where it takes me. It’s fun for me that way. But, I admit, it does result in heavy edits on the back end.

NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?

JC: My laptop.
NM: Who, besides the obvious agent and editor, do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey?

JC: I have several friends who are also authors, and we kind of cheer and coach each other as needed. I guess the ones I turn to most are my fellow southern belles, who blog with me each week at http://www.southernbelleviewdaily.comThey are Lisa Wingate, Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, Rachel Hauck, and Beth Webb Hart.

NM: What advice do you give to writers who are looking to seize the year and take control of their writing career?

JC: Have no fear. Write as if no one will ever read a word of it, and allow yourself to be completely honest. Go to that emotional level that is impossible to reach when you’re worried about how readers might react. Don’t worry about how readers will react. Just write.
NM: What are you working on now, and when will it be in reader’s hot little hands?

JC: I’m not sure of the publication date for Book Three, but I’ve started it and I’m keeping the details very secret right now. I will say this...I’m very excited to see where this book takes me. It’s not a continuation of Millie’s story, so this is a brand new adventure with a colorful cast of characters. I’m enjoying the process very much and can’t wait to see what develops.

NM: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?

I guess it might be a moment in publishing When Mountains Move, when I had been struggling with the ending of the book. I rewrote it 6 or 7 times and just didn’t feel like it was perfect. I met with a dear friend who had served as an early reader. She helped me sort my thoughts. The next morning, I woke up knowing what I wanted to do with the ending, but the book had already gone through edits. I was terrified to ask my publisher to let me change the ending again, and I knew it would inconvenience lots of folks. I couldn’t sleep for a few nights, just feeling that tug. Finally, I got the courage to ask, and of course my sweet, supportive publishing team at David C. Cook gave me a few days to toy with the ending. It was a moment when I realized that yes, this is my story, and ultimately it is my name on the book, and that I do need to voice my thoughts about edits, etc. throughout the process. I think, particularly as a first time author, it’s very intimidating to challenge the folks who know more than I do about publishing. I still feel very green and just feel very appreciative that they’re even giving my stories a chance. That moment encouraged me to at least ask. They can always say “no,” but I’m so glad I asked. Today, the ending is how I want it to be, and if I hadn’t had the courage to ask...I’m not sure I’d be very happy with the final draft.

Bonnie, I appreciate you inviting me here today. I’ve enjoyed this interview and am grateful for anyone who gives this stories a chance. Happy reading!