How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?
When I come up with a book idea I usually start by taking down some notes about why I want to write this particular book and what the general focus will be. Underneath this general overview I’ll jot down any prospective titles that I may have in mind, colors or themes I want to stick with and why those appeal to me, and topic points that I want to make sure and cover. I try to figure out who the reader might be and how I will go about reaching them with the message. That is really the beginning point for me when it comes to manuscript development. The real work comes later. For short stories however I tend to write most of the story out and then it will sit in one of my file folders waiting for me to have the time to process it and fine tune it.
Did you do any research for the book(s)? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)
Oh, yes – tons and tons of research went into each book I have published. I currently have 5 non-fiction books… the first one took a few years to develop because it started out as a column and through writing that column I read books, listened to interviews, watched pertinent TV programs and online videos. Later, when writing the book I started to ask people around me specific questions such as “What would you want to know about paper recycling?” and found that people often volunteered different questions then I had thought of. I read lots of books in the genre and from that found gaps in the information they provided that I could address. Whenever I’m stuck on a non-fiction topic I find it very easy to pick up the phone or send off an email to someone in the know, and most of the time people are very willing to share a half hour of their time with you.
Do you have specific techniques you use to develop the plot and stay on track?
I like to write a general outline based on the initial information I mentioned in your first question. Meaning after I have a general idea on who the audience will be and the topics I will cover, I’ll write a general map of sorts that lists what each chapter will talk about. It is not a detailed map, more like bullet notes – this keeps me from jumping around and being disorganized.
How (or when) do you decide that you are finished writing a story?
That is probably the hardest thing to do – stop writing a book. Finding that perfect stopping point where you’ve covered enough information without overwhelming the reader or becoming repetitive is very important. I think that is one of my pet peeves, actually, writers who are repetitive. I mean a chapter recap is fine, but leave it at that. I’ve seen a lot of non-fiction writers produce very unorganized work so they cover a topic several times in different places, instead of working that topic on one chapter and moving on from there. Another thing I’ve seen that sort of turns me off is when there is too much white space in the book, making it seem like a larger number of pages then there really are if the white space was eliminated. Some white space is good, but over use of it sort of seems like cheating to me. Anyway I suppose the trick to ending a book is to find that moment where you feel satisfied and can let go of the project. A lot of writers struggle with letting go, and we have to – like parents – let go and step aside and watch to see what happens. It is important to remember that the life of the book is really up to us. We aren’t locked in to a single year of production, when it comes out of contract we can release a new edition with rewrites and additional content, a changed cover design, or whatever we feel is necessary. We can also look at the potential for creating one book into a series – covering additional content and topics in the next book.
Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?
The main focus of everything I do is to empower and inspire others to realize that they can have a positive impact, that what they do really does matter, that they can grow beyond the present chains that bind them today. I need to feel like I am making a difference, that my life matters, that I am leaving a legacy behind… a positive ripple in that pond.
What has changed for you personally since you wrote your first book?
The fear. Initially I had a huge amount of fear. Fear of not being good enough, that no one would want to read what I had produced, that no one would want to publish it, of what people would think once it was published, and fear of marketing too. As each experience came into my life though the fears became less and less, and I was soon able to see each challenge or nervous energy as an opportunity for growth. But it took time for this to happen. It is kind of like hiking a mountain – when you first start out it seems so huge, too much, and you’ll never make it to the top. As you take the steps along the path, your legs ache, your breathing hard, sweat streams down your back… and yet you feel exhilarated. Half way up there is this moment of defeatism – you have a lot of negative self talk telling you that you’ve done enough, you don’t have to go on, it is time to give up… and finally you reach the top – and you realize it wasn’t so bad… in fact you may just do this again next weekend. So that is kind of what the journey through fear is.
How has your background influenced your writing?
My background is really why I write… I was brought up in an unstable, sometimes violent and definitely abusive home and was on my own at just over 13 years old. During the late teens and early 20’s I went back to school and got a university level of high school completed (advanced classes) and took several business management courses prior to running a business for 6 years. Then I was involved in a 3-car pile up and I hit bottom, real bottom – I was in chronic depression, developed an anxiety disorder, lost my business and just didn’t want to go on in life. At that time I realized that something had to change and that a lot of the grief I felt was due to all the struggles I went through to get to that point only to have it ripped away from me. I was tired. Defeated. I wanted to feel like my life had some kind of value, that there was a reason for my existence. After rehabilitation and over a year in full time physiotherapy I realized I wasn’t going to have the physical abilities I once knew – and I was going to have to choose a different career. So I took a lot of evaluation courses and “writing” kept popping up in the list. It struck me because in school I had brought teachers to tears with my stories, and they entered me in contests occasionally or read my work in class. Later I had used poetry as a way to crawl out of the emotional hell my family life infused in me. So once I realized that, there was this little “ah-ha” moment and I started to look into writing courses that focused not on how to write, but how to be a writer – you know, the business side such as how to set up the office, how to do the taxes, what querying involved, etc.
How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
My mother, while married 4 times, also spent a lot of time as a single mother and as such she had to learn a lot of frugal living techniques that involved reuse and repurpose and gardening. I believe that growing up with this happening around me played a huge role in the topics I have written on and continue to write in today. While my mother and I were very distant for most of my teenage and young adult years, as I headed into mid-twenties I learned how to see beyond the past and become a member of the “walking wounded” family group. In the end, my mother and I were good friends. While I had written 3 books already, after she and her husband committed suicide a couple years ago, my life changed. I felt this real drive to complete the legacy I wanted to leave behind including family history, and family recipes and gardening knowledge for future generations and also for other readers as well. This is the driving force behind two of the manuscripts I currently have on my to-do list.
What’s your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain amount of words each day?
My writing is sporadic – because I regularly appear in the media, manage a daily blog and host a talk radio show, I’m constantly creating content, which keeps me very busy. I find that I am spending a good 5 hours a week on the blog and 5 hours go into each radio episode… so 20 hours per week on average just to provide content, market and manage those two things. I tend to write at least one article a week for a blog or other publication just to gain the exposure to their readership. In between this I’ll find a few days here or there that I can really get into one of the manuscripts or poetry that I’m working on. I prefer to work on projects when I am inspired because that is when I generate the most work. If I am tired, preoccupied or not in the mood – I just don’t get much done. I found this out particularly when I was working mostly as a staff writer and was assigned projects along with deadlines. I didn’t mind the deadlines, but certainly couldn’t appreciate writing about topics that were not in line with my passions.
Do you prefer to write at a particular time of day?
I’m definitely a morning person. I love to get up early if the family and household duties allow it, and just disappear in the realm of creation. By mid afternoon I hit a lull and then by 3 or 4 PM I’m pretty much useless… I’ll start making mistakes, taking too long to research something, get distracted. So I try to leave the afternoon for household duties and get office work done in the morning. I have difficulty doing anything for long periods, including sitting, as the body starts to sieze up. So I get up, walk around, let the dogs out to play in the yard, groom the animals, and take a couple hours in the mid morning and early afternoon for my work out, walking the dogs, and those kinds of things. But if I really get into a topic, I forget – time disappears, and I suffer from not giving myself the breaks I need.
What are you working on right now?
I’m glad you asked! Just last year we gradually put out all 5 of our books in new revised editions. This cleared up my schedule to be able to get the poetry I’d written since 2005 together and this next book of poetry will be out before this winter. In fact, Dave (husband and business partner) will be contributing about 15 poems. It is only waiting now for Dave to have the time to contribute his poems and work on the formatting and cover design, etc. In the meantime I’m working on our cookbook (a manuscript that has been in the works for some 15 years) which has about 100 family/friend recipes as well as our own. It will serve as a garden harvest cookbook for people who buy locally produced foods, or garden themselves. So I’m doing the final double-checking of the recipes before fine-tuning the manuscript and taking a lot of photos of the finished dishes as well. I hope to have this book out in late 2014/early ’15. Followed by a garden book that was started from random notes and garden journals my late mother had and evolved in ’98 to a rough catalogue of information with lots of contributions and collaboration from mom. Since then we’ve been developing it with personal experiences of running market gardens and a spa, and our own backyard gardens in varying microclimates and elevations. We hope to have this project completed sometime in 2016/’17. Both the cookbook and the garden book are a way of honoring family and friends who are no longer with us and passing along their information to others, but are mostly of our own creation, research, interviewing, etc. I feel like by having those two projects released to the public I will have fulfilled my own self-imposed obligations and personal legacy dreams – which will give me wings taking me to new adventures and a sense of light-hearted freedom.
What was the first story you remember writing?
The very first story I remember writing was in elementary school in the US (Elko, Nevada) when I brought a teacher to tears the first time. It was a short story about an older woman who took a lot of time to chose bright and gaudy clothing and make up. People would turn their heads to stare and make faces or quiet comments as she passed, thinking she had lost her mind. But in fact the older lady was doing this intentionally to bring a sense of color, a sense of happiness from gardens and spring seasons she once enjoyed. She was trying to battle depression and a sense of terrible loneliness. Anyway the teacher cried and this really freaked me out! I’d not made an adult cry before and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I tried to brush it off as nothing and ignore the experience, as if doing so would erase what happened.
Who gave you the best writing advice you ever received and what was it?
The best writing advice I ever received was during the first writer’s course I took – when I learned that to succeed in any relationship or encounter, writers had to understand what that person needed and how they could benefit that person or make their job easier. By keeping this in mind I do a lot of research and preparation prior to reaching out to a contact.
What advice you would give to an aspiring author?
Do your research. No matter who you are going to contact, or what stage you are at with any project – research it. That is the key to success.
What are your current writing goals and how do you juggle the promotional aspects with the actual writing?
Being a writer means you are self-employed and that means you will be doing marketing or promotional activities all the time. I tend to produce at least 5 queries to members of the media every week, distribute bookmarks in dozens of communities around my city and during any traveling I might do, and keep active online via social networking, article production, my blog, my radio show… etc. I actually have grown to enjoy the promotional aspects of this career. But you are right; the hard part is finding the time to actually write. Setting appointments for writing in the schedule, having goals and a plan to reach those goals, and learning how to be very organized are key aspects to a successful writing career.