Today it is an honor to welcome S.G. Redling. Sheila is a wonderful author with a new book out that's rising to the top of the charts. Flowertown is scary, funny and a very human story. If you know Sheila, you'll hear her true voice loudly and clearly. I can picture her reading each page to me as I zipped though.
Sheila and I belong to a great group of writers who have met for the last two years in Matera, Italy to brainstorm our work. This is also the spot of the Women's Fiction Festival, a conference I also have attended twice. It's a fantastic venue and always has an incredible line-up for the program.
I do need to warn you, dear readers, that Sheila is one of the funniest and irreverent people I know. All the more reason I love her. I asked Sheila for a short bio. And, her response:
Sheila: How can I beat an introduction like that? And seriously, is there anything more cringe-inducing than writing your own bio? I wanted to post mine as "An optimistic hillbilly with a foul mouth and a Viking liver" but my publisher didn't go for it. So, let's just say a Georgetown University graduate and proud West Virginian. (It's kind of the same thing.)
Cassy: Sheila, you have had a long career in radio. Granted that took communicating in a careful and considered manner. Just like writing. But the translation of your stories from the spoken word to the written one is, well, a transition. First, why? What drew you to the keyboard from the microphone? I'll ask the next question in a moment.
Sheila: I think my years in morning radio gave me an advantage in the transition to writing. An important skill I honed was a keen ear for speech. Often you only had ten to fifteen seconds to determine if a caller was going to be funny, boring or crazy and adjust accordingly. The ability to pick up unique tags and clues in the spoken word has been a real asset to my writing. Also, you learn quickly the skill of keeping the ball rolling - no dead air allowed! - so those inevitable lulls when writing a story don't frighten me too much. I just keep on talking (on the keyboard, of course.) And finally and probably most importantly, radio helped me become very well versed in poverty - an incredibly important skill for anyone trying to make a living as a writer. Ramen noodles, anyone?
Cassy: The second part of the question is: Why writing? And why the genre you write?
Sheila: Writing and radio really aren't that different in a lot of ways. For one thing, you can do both in your pajamas. (When my guidance counselor asked me what color my parachute was, I said 'flannel.') But all kidding aside, both are about communicating, connecting with people and drawing them in. A big part of radio is actually listening and oddly the same is true with writing. You need to listen to your characters, listen to their world, and somehow convey that scene to the strangers reading your story. You need to make everyone - characters and readers - feel like they know each other, like you're somehow the host of this surreal imaginary party that you hope everyone wants to attend.
Cassy: Tell us about Flowertown. It's a pretty rough story in spots. I'm talking about the plot--not your writing style! How did you visualize this tale? Can you give us a quick synopsis so folks understand the depth of this plot?
Sheila: Some people have been surprised that my writing tends to be on the darker side. As I said, I'm an optimist and I love to laugh and generally have a very high opinion of people. But I am fascinated by what compels people, what frightens them, what makes them fight and what makes them forgive. In Flowertown, the main character, Ellie, has lost everything. By horrible chance, she happened to be in rural Iowa when an experimental pesticide was spilled. Seven years later, she's still quarantined, still contaminated, and still fighting an ever-simmering rage. There seems to be no hope, no escape, no relief from the tedium of containment.
The story is rough. The idea of chemical contamination scares me deeply. I grew up down river from Chemical Valley in WV, a stretch of land crowded with the world's chemical heavy-hitters and I don't have a great deal of faith in corporate oversight. (We'll just leave it at that.) Ellie is slovenly, sarcastic, and foul mouthed but let's face it - she's contaminated and trapped in a quarantine zone with no hope of release. She's going to be a little grumpy. She doesn't think she's brave; she's no superhero. She's just human and circumstances beyond her control force her to dig deep to decide what she's willing to fight for. Who hasn't felt trapped at some point in their life? Who hasn't felt that crispy feeling of burnout? In Flowertown, I take those emotions to an extreme. (And for the record, I have never bashed anyone over the head with a two-by-four although I have been sorely tempted.)
Cassy: As I said, your voice is strong in your writing. Having spent a few hours (ha!) with you and heard you critique others’ work, I hear you so clearly in your writing. That’s a gift.
Cassy: You have gone to the top of the charts with Flowertown. Kudos and handclapping from this end! What strategies have you used for marketing? There is so much buzz about social media, personal attention to appearances, book signings, and the list goes on. Your thoughts on how to do it right?
Sheila: Believe me, if I had any idea what I did right, I would tell you. This entire experience has been a whirlwind of surprises. You and I and the rest of the Matera Brainstormers have gone around and around discussing the pros and cons of social media. If I had to declare a verdict right now, I'd say 'do what you enjoy.' We've all seen people grinding it out on Facebook and Twitter and blogs, half-heartedly throwing themselves onto the world. It's awkward at best, more often embarrassing and annoying. I happen to love Facebook and Twitter and, God help me, Pinterest is sucking me in. But I decided early on to be on these sites as myself, not as a product to be sold. I've made connections with people and groups with whom I share interests. I'm a fan of the projects I follow. I interact with enthusiasm and most people have responded accordingly. In this aspect too, radio has been a huge learning tool. People are smart. People are clever and observant and they can sense insincerity from a mile away. If I tried to pull off a blog like M&M (of which I am a HUGE fan!) it would sink like a stone.
That said, I'm also lucky enough to be published with Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon Publishing, and they sort of have the hang of this marketing thing. So you'll understand if I don't take too much credit for this!
Cassy: You have another book nearly finished. Spill, girl. Are you willing to tell us the general plot? Title (I happen to know it but won't say until you do)? Release date?
Sheila: I'm just putting the finishing polish on a new sci-fi novel that has taken me places I've never been as a writer. You asked earlier, why writing? At this point in a project, when you've really stretched yourself and pushed yourself and felt that unbelievable charge of being plugged into that universal groove of creativity, you can't imagine ever doing anything else but writing. The working title is THRUM. The last time you heard about it, Cassy, was in Italy when we were brainstorming, remember? I think my description went something like "It's, um, these people...and space...and then they talk...and stuff..." Happily, it's come along quite a bit since then. Without giving too much away, it's about two very different branches of humanity who meet before either side is prepared for contact. It's less a story about science, more about humanity and language and how we reach out to each other. I'm in that post-first-draft-mushy-love stage of writing and I have to resist the urge to actually cuddle the pages to me when I sleep. No date set yet for release but I'll keep you posted!
Cassy: Having colleagues who really understand the business is so critical. Would you like to put a plug in for the wonderful agent we both know so well?
Sheila: There is absolutely no substitute for a solid support system. I'm lucky enough to have as my agent the human tsunami who is Christine Witthohn. She's a tireless cheerleader, whip-cracker and workaholic and, ahem, a fellow West Virginian! She's the one who gave me my favorite piece of advice back when I was making the rookie mistake of trying to write to please the market rather than myself. "Sheila, do what you do best. Kill people." (I'm assuming she meant on the page.) This is a tough industry. It's important that writers surround themselves with supportive but honest people. The eve of submitting your manuscript is no time to count on someone who's going to blow smoke up your skirt.
Cassy: I totally agree about Christine. I can’t think of anyone more encouraging, supportive, and serious about getting her writers out there. Christine also is a leader in our Matera Brainstorming sessions. She adds a huge component to the discussions, both on industry and on book content.
Cassy: Okay, I've asked a few questions. But, I now open the forum to you. Imagine a brand new writer, someone who wishes to get a product out the door. Could you list three or four things (knowing you, Sheila, I shouldn't put a number on that) that would be helpful to someone who wants to make writing a full-time job?
Sheila: Ah, the freeform advice segment! You know what? I'll assume M&M readers are well aware of the most basic and hard core tenets of writing. Read a lot, write a lot, discipline, etc. We've all got the craft books. Here are some other bits of advice. To quote the great Dorothy Parker "Four be the things I am wiser to know."
1. Write what you would want to read. If you have a secret but overwhelming desire to write about cape-wearing chipmunks who fight crime, write it. Write it as well as you can. Write a story that you would run through fire to read. If you love to love, write romance. Everyone tells writers to study their genre and learn its rules but don't let those rules cripple you. Let the story thrill you. Believe me, if you're bored writing it, the audience will be bored reading it.
2. Finish! I am a firm believer that you learn more from finishing one craptastic manuscript than you do starting and not finishing a thousand masterpieces. On my favorite TV show, Supernatural, a writer character says "Endings are hard. Any chapped ass monkey with a keyboard can poop out a beginning but endings are hard." Truer words were never spoken. Endings are hard but they're worth it and I don't believe anything separates writers from wanna-be's more than this.
3. Don't just let writers read your stuff. My first readers are my book club, the terrifying and intimidating Book Thugs. These women are voracious readers and, shall we say, exceptionally candid. They're not interested in technical details. They don't want to know about the process. They demand solid storytelling. It's tempting as a beginning writer to crave the empathy of other writers but what often happens is writers inflict their own style and process on each other and the results can be mediocre. Originality can be lost. Readers may not be able to explain why your middle is saggy or that your story arc is vague but they can tell you what worked for them and what didn't. After all, you're writing for readers, not grades. And finally...
4. Go there. Go further in your story than you ever dreamed. If you imagine a building blowing up in Chapter Ten, blow that puppy in Chapter One. Write at the very, very top of your game. I don't mean write fancy or complicated or overblown but be daring in your writing. Scare yourself with how hard you're going to have to dig to get to that thing that makes your story unique. I've yet to finish a manuscript that didn't cause at least one significant crisis of confidence halfway through. You only get better when you push yourself. Like I said, this is a tough business. Why not go too far? Exceed your expectations. Blow the walls off your story. Write like your life depends upon it because, as far as I know, once you've touched that place where the story lives, where worlds erupt from your fingertips, it kind of does.
Oh, and one more thing, never never never try to write without chocolate. You're just setting yourself up for failure.
Cassy: Sheila, as always, I love spending time with you. Folks, you’d be never disappointed by checking in with her at www.SGRedling.com or on Twitter and Facebook as SGRedling.
On another note, Blogger has been fighting me about posting photos. Sheila generously sent me shots of book covers. My ineptitude or whatever has not let me post them here. I will try again. So there could be an additional posting today. BUT, if it doesn’t happen, you can find Sheila’s work on Amazon.