Guest Post: Sofie Darling, 2016 Manuscript Contest Winner (Romance Category), On Her Publishing Success Story

“The path toward publication is going to look different for every writer, and my journey won’t be the right fit for everyone. But, in retrospect, it’s clear that taking the initiative and entering the WLT’s Manuscript Contest was the jumpstart my career needed.”

-Sofie Darling

Editor’s Note: We’re thrilled to have debut romance novelist Sofie Darling write this guest blog post for us about the success she experienced after winning the 2016 Manuscript Contest in the Romance Category. You can purchase her book Three Lessons in Seduction hereThe 2017 Manuscript Contest is now open for submissions! Click here for more details. For the first time, the winners in each category will receive a complimentary registration to our annual Agents & Editors Conference.

Funny enough, my journey to publication started when my friend and critique partner, Kate Ramirez, won WLT’s Manuscript Contest in the romance category in 2015. Her win gave me good incentive to finish the book I was working on and enter the contest the following year, even though I was somewhat hesitant to do so.

I’d entered a contest before—that’s right, one contest—and it didn’t go anywhere. I took this “failure” as confirmation of my deepest fear that my writing wasn’t connecting with anyone, even though my critique partners were telling me differently. But they liked me. What did they know?

Still, I entered the WLT’s Manuscript Contest, and I won . . . to my utter and complete surprise.

In addition to the WLT win, I received a pitch session with the agent who selected my entry as the winner. We had a good chat, and she requested the full manuscript. Ultimately, she passed on it, but she did give me some good advice. In regards to getting the manuscript ready to send to her, she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Be ruthless.”

Buoyed with a bit more confidence after the WLT win and full request, I moved past my fear of contests and entered two more. I finaled in both, and in two categories in one. While this led to conversations with editors, I was still having no agent luck. I made it pretty far down the road with another agent, but she, too, passed.

The process of querying agents and either getting rejected or never responded to led me toward a bold decision: I researched every single romance publisher who accepted direct submissions from authors and submitted to all of them. Out of the twelve publishers I queried, I received five requests for more material. Within five months, I had a signed contract with a boutique romance publisher.

I still think about the agent’s words, “Be ruthless.” It applies to the writing, of course—adverbs can be pesky little irritants—but it also applies to the career of the writer. It wasn’t until I decided to take my fate as a writer into my own hands and stop waiting for an agent—any agent, please!—to accept me as a client that I was able to forge the beginnings of a career. Entering contests and submitting directly to publishers was my way of doing this.

The path toward publication is going to look different for every writer, and my journey won’t be the right fit for everyone. But, in retrospect, it’s clear that taking the initiative and entering the WLT’s Manuscript Contest was the jumpstart my career needed. My debut novel, Three Lessons in Seduction, was published on September 27, 2017, just fifteen months after that inspiring win.

Visit Sofie’s website here.

Click here for more information about how to enter the 2017 Manuscript Contest.

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Hey Texans, Let’s Read Diverse Books!

“To read stories and hear voices that represent all the richness of the human experience is simply a matter of seeing our world truthfully, seeing our truths in it, and having others see them, too.”

—Natalia Sylvester

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Every year, the Texas Book Festival (Nov 5-6, 2016—this weekend!) brings more than 40,000 book lovers of all ages to the State Capitol grounds in Austin for a full weekend of programming with over 250 authors, including author readings and presentations, panel discussions, book signings, cooking demonstrations, live music, local food, YA authors, children’s activities, and exhibiting vendors from across the state.

Since the Festival‘s beginnings, the Writers’ League of Texas has participated as an exhibitor. Each year we look forward to this wonderful opportunity to support Texas authors and meet members, readers, and writers from across the state and nation. At our booth, visitors can meet our staff and volunteers, learn about membership, raise a glass to toast our book award honorees, and buy books from members who are signing their books (view the signing schedule here).

This year, we wanted to do a little something extra to highlight the diversity of Texas authors and their work. In partnership with Austin SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), we’re having a special diversity-focused book signing and giveaway at 4 pm on Saturday. Drop by to meet three incredible Texas authors — Chris Barton, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Natalia Sylvester — and get a free signed copy of one of their books while supplies last.

We interviewed these three authors about the importance of diversity in literature and events like the Texas Book Festival.

Scribe: Why is it important for readers—regardless of their age—to read about diverse characters and their experiences?

Chris Barton: The more that we read stories unlike our own, and the more that we learn about people whose experiences have been fundamentally different in some significant way from the lives we’ve lived, the less likely we are to see ourselves as the norm, the default. That opens us up to new information, new points of view, new arguments, new hopes, new dreams, new ideas. And that’s how we grow as individuals and move forward as a society.

Cynthia Leitich Smith: Anyone can be a hero that everybody cheers! We all need to see ourselves reflected in the pages of books, and our society is dependent on the empathy that diverse characters can foster. But beyond that, we need diverse characters and stories because they’re entertaining, informative, and inspirational. They grow us as people. And many of the best writers are from diverse communities, offering insider insights through fiction (and nonfiction) that illuminate us all.

Natalia Sylvester: There are so many reasons, but for me what it essentially boils down to is this: We exist, we are part of this world, too, and all we’re asking for is to not be erased. To read stories and hear voices that represent all the richness of the human experience is simply a matter of seeing our world truthfully, seeing our truths in it, and having others see them, too.

Scribe: What do you love most about the Texas Book Festival?

CB: I love the sense of optimism I always have by the end of the weekend. Nothing makes me more hopeful about the future of our state than two days spent among a multitude of Texans seeking out and celebrating and getting inspired by the written word.

CLS: Honestly, I love that we started the entire book festival movement. I love that when it came to connecting books to readers through community, the Texas Book Festival was the groundbreaker. The leader. I feel about it the way a lot of Texans felt when—in a journey spanning from the dawn of time to humanity’s trek in the stars—the first word spoken from outer space was “Houston.”

NS: I love getting to know the authors behind each book. As readers, we fall in love with an author’s words and ideas, but we don’t often get to see who they are, off the page. Hearing them speak about their work, their influences, and their processes is fascinating to me, as both a writer and a reader.

Scribe: We love giving book recommendations at the Writers’ League! What is one diversity-related book that you’d recommend? Bonus points if it’s Texas-related!

CB: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by former (and future, I hope) Texas Book Festival author Isabel Wilkerson. It’s a diversity-related book in the sense that if your family did not participate in that migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the rest of the United States, you’re going to learn a lot about a foundational shift in the histories of millions of American families — families whose experiences were possibly extremely different from your own. As for the Texas connection, when reading about that latter journey, I was stunned to realize that Jim Crow extended all the way out to El Paso. I had never considered far West Texas to be part of the South, but in that sense, it certainly was — and this was just one of the many ways in which Wilkerson’s book was an eye-opener for me.

CLS: Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, a novel mining the struggle between Tejanos and white Texans during the Mexican Revolution. Informative, gripping, and empowering—a must-read for every Texan.

NS: It might feel like an obvious pick, but for good reason: Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands should be read by everyone, especially Texans. If we’re ever to truly understand our history and our present, we need to see it from all sides and perspectives. Anzaldua challenges the notion that there are two sides to everything and a border between them. Our world is far more complex, and only when we’re able to see past the invisible borders we put up do we begin to truly embrace one another and coexist.

chris-bartonChris Barton‘s most recent books for young readers include THE AMAZING AGE OF JOHN ROY LYNCH (currently on the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List), WHOOSH!, and 88 INSTRUMENTS. He’s also the author of THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS (winner, Sibert Honor) and SHARK VS. TRAIN (a New York Times bestseller). You can visit him at www.chrisbarton.info.

clsCynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and PublishersWeekly best-selling YA author of the TANTALIZE series and FERAL series. Her award-winning books for younger children include JINGLE DANCER, INDIAN SHOES, and RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME. She is also well published in children’s-YA short fiction and nonfiction. Her website at www.cynthialeitichsmith.com was named one of the top 10 Writer Sites on the Internet by Writer’s Digest and an ALA Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog at cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com was listed as among the top two read by the children’s/YA publishing community in the SCBWI “To Market” column.

natalia sylvesterBorn in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester came to the U.S. at age four. As a child she spent time in South Florida, Central Florida, and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas before her family set roots once again in Miami. In 2006, Natalia received a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University. Her articles have appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and NBCLatino.com. CHASING THE SUN is her first novel. It was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad, and was chosen as a Book of the Month by the National Latino Book Club. Her second novel, EVERYONE CARRIES THEIR OWN WATER, is forthcoming from Little A in 2018.

Thanks, everyone! See you at the Festival!

Author Interview Series with Sara Kocek

In celebration of Sara Kocek’s debut YA novel Promise Me Something, we managed to grab a couple of minutes with her to do a short interview about her novel and her writing process.

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Promise Me Something is considered a young adult novel. It seems most debut novelists with your level of credentials immediately attempt the Great American Novel (aka literary fiction). What was your motivation for writing in this genre?

Sara Kocek: I think high school makes for an incredibly compelling backdrop on which to project all sorts of stories of human struggle and triumph. Recently, I was shopping at a grocery store when I heard a woman say into her cell phone, “I knew a girl in high school who was absolutely perfect. Perfect grades. Perfect hair. Everybody loved her. But this one day—” and then the woman disappeared around the corner. Without a second thought, I followed her around the corner to eavesdrop on her conversation. I pretended to be picking out bananas just so I could get close enough to listen. Looking back, I know what hooked me. It was the words “I knew this girl in high school…” I guess I’m just a YA author at heart.

How long did you spend writing and editing Promise Me Something?

SK: I have been writing this book—or little pieces of it, anyway—since I was in high school. For a long time, Olive and Reyna were just wisps of characters in my head. I would jot down lines of dialogue whenever they spoke to me, but that didn’t amount to much of a plot. It wasn’t until 2009 that I began drafting in earnest and figuring out the real story I wanted to tell. From there, it took about two years to draft the book and another year to edit it. That said, I tend to do a lot of editing and revising while I draft, so there wasn’t necessarily a clear-cut line between the drafting process and the editing process.

Could you share some information about your process? Do you outline? How many hours a day do you write?   Do you have a particular space you write in?

SK: I write anywhere and everywhere, as long as there’s an outlet for my laptop. It also helps to have a heaping pile of Hershey’s kisses next to me. I’d like to say I get up every morning and write five pages before breakfast, but in truth, my output varies enormously from week to week depending how heavily booked I am with freelance editing projects (and also whether my 18-month-old daughter lets me sleep in past 6 AM). As for plotting and outlining, I have learned to embrace the plan-ahead method. (I didn’t always. I used to think outlining was for boring people.) But when my plots started getting too complicated to hold in my head at once, I realized I needed to create a map of the key events if I wanted any prayer of finishing the manuscript. That outline became my lifeline.

What advice can you give to aspiring authors?

SK: Be the most you that you can possibly be. Listen to the songs that make you feel alive. Read the books that make you feel less alone. Observe yourself from afar. Go to parties and pretend that you are floating above the room, looking down at yourself as you talk to people. What do you see? That is your material.

Describe how you felt on release day and did it go as planned?

SK: Release day was a bit anti-climactic, to tell you the truth! My publisher actually released the book about a week early, before the official launch date of September 1. I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common practice, but it came as a surprise to me. During the last week of August, friends who had pre-ordered the book started posting pictures and tagging me on Facebook with notes like, “Look what arrived in the mail today!” By the time September 1st rolled around, almost all of my close friends had already gotten their hands on a copy. Still, that didn’t stop me from buying myself a celebratory cupcake on launch day!

I understand you are an independent editor by day, writer by night. How does editing others’ work influence your own writing?

SK: In my work as an independent editor, I get to help people see their book with a fresh set of eyes. It absolutely makes me a better writer myself. The same flaws pop up again and again, in many different forms. Now I’m able to recognize those same flaws in my own writing, and I’m faster about fixing them. The act of editing also forces me to articulate what’s wrong with a piece of writing in a way that I wouldn’t have to when editing my own work.  That process—the process of articulating a complex idea—actually helps me understand the idea better in the first place. I’m then able to take those principles and apply them to my own stories.

Could you tease us with a preview of your next project?

SK: I’m working on a contemporary YA mystery tentatively titled THE CHESHIRE CHRONICLE. It’s about girl named Jude who wants to be Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper. Every month, with each new issue of the paper, an article is published sabotaging one of the newspaper staffers in a very public and humiliating way. The saboteur is someone on staff—someone who wants to destroy the reputation of the newspaper and everyone involved. Jude has to solve the mystery and expose the saboteur—otherwise she’s next in line.

SaraKocek_blueshirt_verysmall2Sara Kocek is the author of Promise Me Something (Albert Whitman & Co., 2013). She received her BA in English from Yale University and her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, where she taught fiction and poetry to undergraduates. A freelance editor and college essay coach, Sara has served as the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, a literary nonprofit. She is also the founder of Yellow Bird Editors, a team of freelance editors and writing coaches based in Austin, Texas. For more information about Sara and her work, visit www.sarakocek.com

Featured WLT 2013 Agents and Editors Conference Blog

An Interview with Keynote Speaker Chuck Sambuchino

 

The Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Agents and Editors Conference is only a couple months away. This year, WLT managed to nab Chuck Sambuchino, everything extraordinaire, for the Keynote Luncheon. He’s done it all folks — writing, editing, publishing, agents. He’s the go-to guy on tips for success, and I don’t think there’s a question about the business that he couldn’t answer. He’s attending a handful of conferences this spring and summer, so here is your chance to meet him right here in Austin. His presentation, How to Be a Successful Writer in Today’s Marketplace, will be held Saturday, June 22 from 12:15 to 1:30 PM in the Texas Ballroom at Hyatt Regency. Here is a short description about his presentation:

Writer’s Digest Books editor Chuck Sambuchino (Guide to Literary Agents) shares his best advice for writers of all ages and levels of expertise. In this keynote, Sambuchino will discuss how writers can create more stories and content easier than they think, be successful in a changing digital marketplace, avoid the three most common reasons that submissions get rejected, and more.

Registration for the Keynote Luncheon ends June 19th, and you must be a conference registrant to purchase a ticket. These tickets sell out quickly and may not be available during the conference due to limited seating. Don’t be left out!  I can personally vouch for the food on its’ deliciousness and convenience too.  Without further adieu, here are Chuck’s answers to my own questions below!

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First of all, describe yourself in four words.

Chuck Sambuchino: In no order: Writer, musician, husband, sleep-deprived-new-father.

You post in your blog, Guide to Literary Agents, every day. What all do you blog about, and how do you keep this constant flow of information going?

CS: The Guide to Literary Agents Blog is all about agents, submissions, query & synopsis writing, promotion and platform. It covers a fairly broad range of writing topics.

The best way I’ve learned to keep a large flow of content going is simply to let other people provide the content. (This is a fundamental principle of writer platform: “You don’t have to go it alone.”) I invite novelists to guest post on my site and new agents to receive a spotlight. This means that most of the content on my site is actually created by others. All I do is format it and make it look nice.

What do you enjoy about exploring different kinds of writing – humor, playwright, journalist. Is there a particular area you’ve always wanted to try?

CS: I guess this all comes down to the fact that I probably have ADD and am probably the most impatient person I know. That leads me to try different things to challenge & entertain myself. In terms of what I HAVEN’T done, I know that screenwriting is an area I would love to tackle. I have a manager out in LA now, though we have yet to get our first assignment or sale. Perhaps one of these days…

The interesting thing here is that we live in a time of specialization. You’re most valuable if you are “the go-to person on [topic].” That leaves a jack-of-all-trades like myself in a bad spot. But being versed in a broad spectrum of writing does have one good advantage: It makes me a better teacher, and is probably why I get invited to speak at so many conferences. I rarely get asked a question about writing that I cannot answer, and that comes simply from being a generalist.

You tweet, a lot. Why is Twitter and other social media outlets important for what your do?

CS: Social media provides an effective and easy way to reach our followers and readers. When I write a blog post, for example, Twitter is invaluable in letting lots of people know that the post is now live.

The truth is that I don’t tweet much from my personal Twitter @chucksambuchino. I just tweet perhaps 1-3 times a day. But the Writer’s Digest account @writersdigest has so many things to share and promote on any given day that it’s constantly producing tweets.

How did you write over seven hundred articles in ten years? Do your ideas just pop out of nowhere in the middle of the night?

CS: A lot of those published articles came when I was a newspaper reporter, and we had to write about 7 stories a week. Besides that, I also freelanced a lot for magazines and even wrote some articles for instructional books. It all adds up.

For anyone interested in freelancing, I can tell you this bit of good news: Once you hook up with a publication and produce 1-2 good articles for them, then they will likely keep you on as a contributor and farm articles out to you. In other words, once you get going, it’s very likely for you to write 10-20 articles for a magazine or newspaper. You won’t need to generate ideas anymore because editors will do that for you.

Which agency – writing, publishing, editing, writers’ resource – do you think is your ultimate calling?

CS: Writer. I don’t know if it’s what I do best, but it’s what I enjoy most.

How did the idea of Red Dog/Blue Dog come about, and how was it working with your wife, and puppy dog, Graham?

Photo Credit: The Official Red Dog/Blue Dog Blog

CS: I used to dislike dogs. But then a flabby poodle mix, Graham, came into my life and warmed my heart. It was my wife’s idea to “mix dogs and politics” — humorously combining two of my favorite topics. That’s how the book idea was born. The final product is a photo collection of doings doing stereotypical liberal and conservative things. It was very exciting when it came out last summer (2012) and I got to show Graham how I dedicated the book to him. (I think he fell asleep during the explanation.)

The best part about writing that book was being in touch with random people all over the country who wanted to help simply because they, like me, loved dogs. I was amazed at how people I didn’t even know spread the word about the book and helped promote it.

Has anyone ever butchered your name?

CS: A thousand times, yes.

And technically speaking, I myself butcher my name. Its true Italian pronunciation is Sahm-Boo-KEY-Noh. The letters “CH” in Italian make a “hard K” sound. There are still the hardliners in my family that pronounce it correctly and the ones like me who kind of Americanized it and pronounce it phonetically. It’s best to just not get me or any family members started on this topic, especially after some wine…

What is the most important advice you’ve received as a writer?

CS: I’ve sat here at the computer for five minutes now trying to pick the absolute BEST piece of advice, but I can’t quite choose one. So let me just offer up a random good one that I heard a while back. A screenwriter once said “If you’re writing a spec and you’re not having fun, then something’s wrong.” What he meant by this is that, as a writer, you will take on plenty of boring assignments strictly for paychecks. But there will always be that fiction you write for fun, without any guaranteed financial payoff. And when you’re writing that fiction or poetry simply for the love of it, try to have fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Alright, I couldn’t resist! I read that you were a cover band guitarist. Which songs have you always wanted to learn, and what are your favorites to play? Any Beatles?

CS: I can play “Let it Be” and “Eleanor Rigby” on the piano and often do. I remember speaking at your conference in 2008 and playing piano at 2 a.m. in the hotel lobby one night while people kept stumbling in after a long night.

If I had to pick my favorite songs to play, I would say “Mr. Brightside” was always a blast with the band, and that “Livin’ on a Prayer” always gets a crowd going bananas.

As far as songs I’ve always wanted to learn how to play, I’d say “Sweet Caroline” simply because everyone wants to hear that song, and perhaps “Cliffs of Dover” on guitar by Eric Johnson because it’s possibly the most beautiful instrumental rock song of all time.

What do you want writers to take away from your Keynote Luncheon?

CS: That anything is possible if you set your mind to it and work hard. If you have the passion and make the time, you can write anything. I also want to show people that there are simple things they could be doing every day to be smarter, more effective writers.

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Chuck Sambuchino is an editor and a writer. He works for Writer’s Digest Books and edits the Guide to Literary Agents as well as the 2013 Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing. He was recently included in a FORBES Top 10 list of Social Media Influencers in Book Publishing.

His first humor book, How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack, was released in Sept. 2010 and has been featured by Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and AOL News. The film rights were recently optioned by Sony and director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future). His second humor book, Red Dog/Blue Dog: When Pooches Get Political, is a humorous photo collection of dogs doing stereotypical liberal and conservative things. It has been featured by Political Wire, USA Today, and the Huffington Post.

In addition, Chuck has also written two other writing-related titles: the third edition of Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript, and Create Your Writer Platform.

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About the Blogger

Hannah Bowman

Hannah Bowman was an intern for the Writers’ League of Texas from June 2012 through December 2012. Currently, she’s featuring writing instructors and literary agents for the Writers’ League blog, Scribe. She enjoys playing piano, writing stories, playing tricks on her mother, and dancing. She will be graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and English. Hannah’s hoping to build her short story collection in the coming months, and start a career in nonprofits after a couple years of service work.

Interview with Writer and Instructor, Brian Yansky

In anticipation of our workshop, Building Character and Building Plot Through Character, we’ve managed to snag our wonderful instructor Brian Yansky for a quick Q&A about himself. Brian’s class is on March 9th from 9 am to 12 pm on the St. Edward’s campus. You can register for this fun and informative class here.

What is it about fiction that interests you? And how did you get interested in writing specifically for young adults?
Brian Yansky: I’ve always been interested in good stories whether they’re in books, in movies, on TV or told by someone good at telling stories. I started to love fiction in high school. I love language and characters and how a good story can seem as intense and powerful as a life event. I stumbled on YA novels after some friends and my wife said they thought my work could be YA. There is a tremendous number of great YA novels.

What makes a fictional character interesting in a story?
BY: People read fiction for many reasons, but they must respond to the characters or they won’t be involved in the story. What would Harry Potter be without, say, Harry Potter? Interesting characters like interesting people in real life have depth. In a story they will be involved in something crucial to their life. The stakes need to be high, emotionally and/or physically, in order for the reader to be transported to the character’s world.

What are some of your favorite books?
BY: I don’t have three or four favorite books. Any list would change with time. I have authors who mean a lot to me: I love Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books, Michael Chabon’s books. I love Francisco Stork’s MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD, Marcus Zusak’s books, Ann Tyler’s, Gabrielle Zevin’s ELSEWHERE. But these are just the tip of the iceberg of books. There are so many great ones out there.

You said you hitch-hiked when you were younger. What was your most interesting encounter?
BY: I don’t have one most interesting encounter (there were many), but I did learn something that changed my life when I was hitch hiking. Most people are kind. There are a lot of bad people in the world and you meet them on the road. But there are more people who will go out of their way, even put themselves in harm’s way, to help someone in need of help. That was enlightening, meeting those people.

What do you love about being a writer? Do you have a second career?
BY: Getting to work in my pajamas. Yes. And I love making worlds and the difficult and profound challenges of creating story and characters with depth and all that goes into writing. I love what I do and that is an amazing thing.
I do have a second career as a teacher of, not surprisingly, writing. I ‘m lucky that I love doing this, too. Writing is my first love but teaching is something that I feel very strongly about. I like getting to know the students ,and I like how engaging the challenge of teaching them the basics of something as complex as writing. Sometimes we go beyond the basics—that is I have talented students—and that is also fun.

Brian Yansky writes both Young Adult and adult fiction. He is the author of three YA novels: My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World, winner of the Texas Institute of Letters Best YA Novel, 2003, Wonders of the World, and Alien Invasion & Other Inconveniences. Candlewick Press will publish a sequel to that novel, Homicidal Aliens & Other Disappointments, in fall, 2013. Another YA novel, Utopia, Iowa, will be published in fall, 2014, also by Candlewick. His stories have appeared in Literal Latte, The Crescent Review and other magazines. He has and MFA in Writing from Vermont College and is an associate professor at Austin Community College where he teaches writing. Learn more Brian at BrianYansky.com.

Interview with Miles Arceneaux

Miles Arceneaux is the creative collaboration between Texas writers Brent Douglass, John T. Davis, James R. Dennis. Miles was born out of a group of old friends vacationing on the Texas Gulf Coast with diverse backgrounds. Brent is the principal owner of KBC Networks, John has years of experience writing about the Southwest and its different facets, and James practices law in San Antonio and across Texas. Visit Miles at http://www.milesarceneaux.com/

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How did the authors decide how the book was going to be written?

John T. Davis: We took turns drafting chapters, then editing one another’s work, and finally passing around the finished draft among the three of us. It was a process of churning the manuscript until the plot points were coherent and one consistent voice emerged.
James R. Dennis: As with most everything we do, the process was evolutionary, by which I mean bordering on random. We began trading chapters initially, and only years later did someone (I’m ashamed to say it was probably Brent) come up with the startling and innovative idea that we actually create an outline. Obviously, we began writing Thin Slice of Life without any idea that it would be published, mostly as an amusement for ourselves. As time went on, it was clear that we each had particular affinities for certain story lines or characters, and that worked itself out over time.
Brent Douglass: What they said. By the time the novel was finished, it was hard to find a paragraph that didn’t somehow include a contribution from all three of us.

What role did each author play in creating Miles Arceneaux as a whole?

JTD: When we began creating Miles, the Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the Earth…No, seriously, we wanted to imagine a guy a little smarter, funnier and cooler than any of the three of us. Since you (Miles, that is) have to write what you know, we imagined Miles lived by the water and has a colorful, if largely unspoken, past. He’s a little like that Dos Equis guy in that way.
JD: We each brought certain things to the table: Brent, a knowledge of the coast and coastal culture, John T., lots of experience in the music business and years working as a professional writer. I brought a pronounced inclination toward sloth, an understanding of legal affairs, and some experience with Texas lawmen. Miles had all of those skills, and a devil-may-care charm that each of us only finds in our dreams or in James Bond movies.
BD: Collaboration is a tricky thing, especially on something as fundamentally creative as a novel. But I’ve found that to be the case in any start-up venture (in my case a couple of start-up technology companies) where creative, even audacious partners are essential to success. At Miles Arceneaux Inc., we fell into our roles pretty naturally and developed a rhythm that worked well for all of us. It helped that we’ve known each other for longer than I care to divulge.

What is some advice you’d give writers who want to write in a partnership?

JTD: Flee. Seriously, this is no way to commit literature. That being said, if you must, everyone has to check their ego at Page One. If you’re going to serve the reader and the story, you and your co-author(s) have to be fair but unsparing with one another. Even ruthless. It can sting sometimes, but it’s the only way to collaborate effectively. We came out of the process still friends (more or less); It helped that we wrote in large part to entertain one another. Now we’re all famous authors.
JD: If one is, for whatever reason (paying off a gambling debt or doing penance for past sins, for example), really going to write in partnership, I’d echo John T’s advice about setting aside one’s ego. I also think a clear understanding of the flow of the story and where it is going will ease a lot of heartache later on. Finally, in such a work, the real trick lies more in the editing than in the writing. Presenting the reader with a consistent narrative voice has to be a paramount objective.
BD: Do it for fun. If you start the venture with grand expectations, you’re just putting pressure on yourselves. If the project starts to produce something really worthwhile as it progresses, everybody involved will recognize that and it will feed the process.

What are your goals for the future with Miles Arceneaux? Do you plan on writing more novels together?

BD: Look for the next Miles Arceneaux book this fall. We’ll continue to write them until it’s not fun anymore.
JTD: The second novel by Miles, a sequel of sorts, is being edited as we speak for publication in 2013. A third novel, a prequel, is in draft stage. As long as Miles keeps buying rounds, we’ll keep chronicling his tales.
JD: It’s an interesting question, one which requires a level of planning that I’m not sure we’re familiar with or really even capable of. But where ever there’s a truth that needs a good stretch, or a Cuba Libre that needs guzzling, or a pretty woman who needs to be dazzled (okay, mildly amused), Miles will be there.

Thin Slice of Life is available for purchase online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. You can also purchase Thin Slice of Life at your local bookstore. For more information about Thin Slice of Life, visit http://www.thinsliceoflifebook.com/

Guest Blog – Suzy Spencer

An Interview with Writer and Instructor, Suzy Spencer

I’m sure you remember Suzy Spencer’s successful memoir, Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. Well, we’ve snagged her for one of our classes this spring! Suzy took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about creative nonfiction and her class,  Creative Nonfiction: An Interactive Class, which is this Saturday, February 2, from 9 AM to 4 PM. Registration ends January 30th, so make sure you get your spot before they run out, and don’t forget to bring your questions!

First off, what do you think it is about creative nonfiction that appeals to readers and writers?

Suzy Spencer: The humanity combined with storytelling. It’s one thing to read a great novel about someone battling cancer and fighting back. It’s another thing – a teaching thing and an inspiring thing – to read about a real person battling cancer and fighting back. The reader can say, yes, I understand, I’ve been there myself. Or, yes, I’m going through the same thing and you’re giving me hope and you’re helping my family understand my feelings. It’s real life.

Is there a different feeling you get after closing a book based on real-life events?

SS: I think reading a book about real-life events can often have the same effect as one that is 100 percent fiction – strong emotion, tears, joy, empathy, sadness. But as I said above, I think inspiration, hope, and education come through more profoundly in creative or narrative nonfiction.

Think about The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. If that book had been written as fiction, one might close it and think, wow, great story. But since it’s nonfiction, one closes it and thinks, wow, what an inspiring story – it’s about loving and respecting family no matter how dysfunctional they are; it’s about finding the good in the bad and building on that good; it’s about rising above poverty and one’s circumstances to find success financially, professionally, and emotionally; it’s about not turning one’s back on family, even though sometimes it may be more convenient. For me, The Glass Castle’s messages and impact are so much more powerful as nonfiction than they ever could have been as fiction.

What do you think is the most difficult element of creative nonfiction that fiction writers tend to struggle with?

SS: Honesty. Sometimes, it’s easier to write honestly about one’s thoughts and feelings when putting those thoughts and feelings into a fictional character than it is to write them into a nonfictional character.

For example, it can be easier to write about mother-daughter dynamics in a novel than it is to write about one’s own mother-daughter dynamics in a memoir … or … in a book about sex. For that matter, I think it’s easier to write about sex and religion in a novel than it is in nonfiction. In a novel, one can always say that those thoughts, feelings,actions are those of the character, not the author – the character just took the author there. But in memoir, one can’t do that.

To what degree do you think tweaking real-life details to fit a particular plot and structure affect the overall reception of story?

SS: Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist, but for me, I believe it’s an absolute no-no to tweak real-life details to fit a particular plot and structure. Not only do I believe it’s ethically wrong, but I believe it opens one up to shame, ridicule, embarrassment (remember Oprah and James Frey?), and the killing of one’s reputation and career, especially in this age lawsuits and publishers being so fearful of lawsuits. And if one isn’t going to tell the truth, why write nonfiction? Write it as fiction and tweak away. Leave the tweaking and manipulation to the movies. Write the absolute truth in books. Indeed, absolute truth is the beauty of nonfiction.

How do you know what experiences are “nonfiction” worthy, and what is your process in getting that experience on paper?

SS: Is there a great plotline and story arc? Is the storyline riveting? Are there great characters? Strong personalities? A protagonist? Antagonists? Is something at stake? Are there plot complications for the lead character? Is there a turning point? A resolution? A lesson learned? A reason for the book? I could go on and on. Instead, I say take the class and we’ll discuss this in depth.

What do you want writers to take away from your workshop?

SS: I want writers to take away what they need – just like they would from a great book. That’s why I ask writers to come to the class with three questions that they want answered. That’s why I ask them to send me those questions prior to the class so that I can be prepared to meet their needs. And I specifically want them to tell me what they what they want to take away from the class. That way, we’ll all walk away with a lesson learned.

Suzy Spencer is the author of five nonfiction books, including Wasted, a New York Times bestseller; Breaking Point, a Doubleday Book Club, Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Guild, and Mystery Guild selection; and Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality, a memoir that was named a Barnes & Noble Editor’s Recommendation, Publishers Weekly Fall Pick 2012, and was featured on Katie Couric’s talk show, “Katie.”

Suzy holds a Master of Professional Writing in fiction, a Master of Business Administration in marketing and finance, both from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Baylor University.