One of the things I wanted to do with my blog was interview unpublished writers to find about their journeys to publication. I’d wanted to do several a month, but after the first interview with Deb Waite a few months ago, I’ve only received a few interviews back. So now I’ve decided to do one a month. Then with the work and release on my two children’s books, “Uncle Bill’s Farm” and “The Hat Peddler,” I haven’t had time to write and post the interviews. Well, it’s time to get started.
This month I’m featuring Julia Lightbody, writing as Ava Black. Julia is a fellow member of the Wisconsin Romance Writers of America. Unfortunately we’ve never met, but I hope to remedy that at our next conference in April. After reading this interview, I believe you’ll learn how to persevere in whatever you do.
Julia, who or what inspired you to write? Lust, pain, victory and release beg me to write. So often, the daily monotony of ‘average’ weighs heavy on my brain, and I can’t help but crave something more than scooping dog poop from the neighbor’s yard and washing endless loads of laundry, something that frees creativity and chains boredom. Writing is that ‘something more.’ Its escapism, fantasy, perfection, and the only endeavor I can get away with while working full-time and raising kids (Olympic Gold Medal Figure Skater is too time consuming). As for who inspired me to write, Alfred Noyes wins the honor. In second grade, Mrs. Corrigan assigned us to write or copy our favorite poem and read it to the class. That night after school I ran home and dug Childcraft Volume Two from the living room bookshelf and copied The Highway Man. While scribbling away with a dull Number Two, something in my brain clicked. Since that day, I’ve always written—poems, short stories, diaries, novels. I haven’t read that poem in a long time and looked it up. I forgot what a tragic love story it is.
How long have you been writing? Did you stop and start, or write continuously during that time? Writing is like breathing, it never stops, well, unless you have babies and are working full-time and going to night school, then it stops. But it picks up once the babies are off to elementary land and the degrees are earned. My most productive writing years are now, midlife, because I have the desire, skill and time, and money to hone the craft. Writing ain’t cheap. Purchasing computers, attending conferences, hiring editors, all comes at an unaffordable price for a young family paying daycare and vet bills. But the time and dedication necessary to complete a manuscript are free, and something anyone who wants to write can afford.
Have you submitted a manuscript? I’ve submitted three, all have been rejected…over two-hundred times. The first rejection letter I received crushed my spirit for days, but not my will to write. I remember heading to the mailbox after work, wondering if today was the day I’d receive my SASE from Writer’s House (a top NY literary agency who represents clients like J.D. Robb and Lisa Jackson ), complete with contract inside. What waited was a three sentence ‘thanks but no thanks’ dis that sent me into a tailspin. How could they reject such art? How could they not offer critique? How could they slaughter my dream? Easily. Most agents get hundreds of submission monthly and are looking for strong voices, characters and plots. My art had none of those and although I loved writing, I didn’t love continuity, rhythm, and cohesiveness. Since that rejection letter, I’ve learned to love them. I admire your commitment to our craft. Many—if not all—other writers would have given up long ago, yet you keep persevering. I know someday I’ll be doing an update saying you are published.
How do you handle those rejections? Rejections is raw and painful and personal, or at least it was until I researched rejection and learned it’s the first step to success. Stephen King’s first four novels were rejected, but his fifth sold. The name of that novel was Carrie. Rejection can’t define your skill or dream, it can only force you to hone craft and reevaluate details. In the beginning, after I opened rejection emails and snail mails, I’d crawl into bed and cry while swearing to burn my manuscript, but once I wiped the tears and studied models of winning query letters and synopses, I threw on the big-girl panties and broke out the editing pen. As cliché as it sounds, failure helped me succeed. This past year, I’ve received 10 full reads and 10 more rejections, however the rejections now come with critique and commentary such as “The writing is wonderful, but not for our audience,” or “The premise and characters are compelling, but my new-client list is full.” Rejection still stings, but now the sting is from a honey bee, not a box jellyfish. It’s part of the business, and something all writers need to accept. YOU WILL BE REJECTED. Last month I received a rejection letter, promptly threw it out, turned on the computer and kept writing. You have such a wonderful outlook on this topic. I like to tell students I talk to that rejection only makes you a better writer. I’m proud of my rejection file. The day I received an actual rejection letter that wasn’t a form letter, I knew I was improving.
What do you do to keep yourself from giving up? Every day I want to stop writing, but the truth is, I can’t. Last weekend at Mystery University, a Mystery Writers of America educational seminar, a friend spoke a great quote that sums up quitting writing, “Without writing, there’s just life” That’s about it. I agree. I believe non-writers don’t understand how necessary it is for us to write.
On a different topic—who are your favorite authors? Favorite authors include Maegan Beaumont (Carved in Darkness), Jennifer Hillier (Freak, Creep), and Gillian Flynn (Dark Places, Sharp Objects). Female writers penning gritty tales of flawed heroines battling insurmountable odds and inner darkness trip my trigger because the characters embody life’s hell and humanity while slicing through bullshit with grace. They’re goddesses on a mission to kill, maim, and avenge, and who doesn’t love a good ass-kicking goddess? I love this questions because I always learn the names of new authors to seek out–but so many books, so little time.
Do you enter contests? Have you won any? Every spring the Romance Writers of America and Mystery Writers of America feature a national writing competitions for unpublished authors. I’ve entered both and lost both. I’ve also entered and lost state writing competitions sponsored by regional RWA chapters. The key to not finding a tall bridge and jumping after being eliminated from round one is to remember that results are subjective. After the ms was read, judges mailed score sheets explaining elimination and what one judge scored as nearly perfect, the other scored as deeply flawed. Feedback as explicit as what a contestant receives in competition critique is invaluable and well worth the minimal entry fees. Competitions are a great way to connect with other writers and hone craft. I remember entering a contest with a time travel. One judge’s comment: “This could never happen.” Well, duh! I wanted to tell her how much I loved going back to 1862 the last time I went.
Can you share your work-in-progress? My WIP, Maladapted Behavior, is a psychological thriller featuring a flawed female shrink who enlists her lovers to unravel her patient’s murder. Okay, I just keyed onto the word “lovers.” I think I like this woman already.
How did you choose the genre you write? I paid attention to the types of book, movies, music, and TV shows I love.
Are there any genres you wouldn’t write? Why? Sci-fi scares the bejeepers out of me. Technology, molecules, time travel and the vocabulary that accompanies those pieces, along with incredibly high word count requirements, are way beyond my skill level. Kudos to Sci-fi writers. Boy, I agree with you on that.
Do you go to conferences and workshops? Conferences and workshops enable blind writers to see. When I started writing, I penned on intuition and emotion, not skill. Conferences and workshops detail methods, techniques, formulas and even worksheets to make the process of finding rhythm, continuity, character arcs and editing feel intuitive instead of learned. Besides serving as an invaluable tool to hone craft, they’re a smokin’ hot opportunity to meet other writers experiencing the same rejections, insecurities, and frustrations as you. There’s no place that I feel more at home (unless I’m actually at home) than at a writing conference. Where else can you have an hour-long discussion about new and creative ways to skin someone you’ve kidnapped? Conferences and conventions are the place to be! They may be expensive, but are worth every cent. Well said. I’ve been attending them for years and learn something each time. Where else can you brainstorm about how to kill someone off and not be looked at like you were a psycho—wait, maybe we are for doing what we do.
Do you have a critique partner or group? Are they helpful? How? For the first two years I wrote, I didn’t have a critique partner and wasn’t in a group. I wish I had. Sharing work with strangers is scary, but you can only bug your FB friends and close family to read a chapter so many times before they start unfriending you. Currently I’m in a critique group that offers honest advice and support. The most valuable critique unveils aspects of your writing that you didn’t know needed improvement. For example, a fifteen page sex-scene may not be the best way to keep readers’ attention, or a character can’t start a murder investigation on a Monday, go on a Caribbean cruise on Tuesday, and be back with evidence to solve the crime on Wednesday. Timelines are tough to follow if they’re not plotted, and critique partners catch that. They also remind you that you’re not alone in your little world of rejection and failure, you’re in good company and there are people out there that care about that. Next to editing, receiving critique is the most helpful way to grow. I find I learn a lot by critiquing others’ work, too.
Tell us about your writing space: My writing space is a twelve-year-old factory warehouse liquidation special, green corduroy loveseat. It’s covered in dog fur (of the yellow Labrador variety) and has a few rips in it from the dog’s nails. Generally, I lay on the loveseat, with my feet propped over the arm, laptop placed on my belly atop a pillow and write. Since I work full time and have a six and nine-year-old, I usually write after seven p.m. I get home from work around four, do homework with the kids, cook dinner, clean up after dinner, walk the dog, then write. On the weekends, I cook breakfast, clean the house, wash four or five loads of laundry, then settle in to write. If the kids are too loud, I leave the living room love seat and head upstairs, where I crawl into bed and write in bed. Shutting the door usually doesn’t drown out the noise, but it helps. I write every day. The only days I don’t write are after I’ve finished a manuscript, or if I’m on vacation. If I’ve finished a manuscript, then I give myself about a week of downtime. Writing isn’t a chore, it’s a release, and I look forward to it daily. You certainly are good example to those “writers” who say they would love to write a book—if only they had the time. With your busy, busy schedule, I don’t know how you stay awake on the couch or in bed. I’d be asleep in a matter of minutes.
Thank you Julia for your spending your time with me today. I look forward to meeting you at a conference. Good luck with your writing.