With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer and blogger Katie Flanagan will be introducing a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
Interview with Jennie Shortridge
Seattle author Jennie Shortridge has published four bestselling novels: When She Flew, Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe, Eating Heaven, and Riding with the Queen. When not writing, teaching writers workshops, or volunteering with kids at 826 Seattle, Jennie stays busy as a founding member ofSeattle7Writers.org, a collective of Northwest authors devoted both to raising funds for community literacy projects and to raising awareness of Northwest literature. In her previous lives she has been a magazine freelancer, a traditional businesswoman, a plumber, a cook, and a working musician. For her personal website, go to http://jennieshortridge.com; for more information about the Seattle7, go to http://seattle7writers.org/.
1. Many authors say the sophomore book is the hardest to write. You’ve now written four books; which was the most difficult for you and why?
My second book was quick and easy to write, because it was the first novel I’d ever written (although not very well the first time around). My third book was much harder because I didn’t have a ready-made idea to run with, and I discovered that story as I wrote it. I learned my lesson about going into the writing process better prepared (especially once deadlines enter the picture!), I’ve studied structure more and more with each book, and like the idea of having this road map to refer to, even though I may take side-trips or change course all together. It has made subsequent books more satisfying to write.
2. In all of your books, one of the things that stands out is your expert use of voice. In Eating Heaven your characters come across as real and relatable. Can you give us some insights on how you get your characters to jump off the page?
Well, thank you! That is the highest compliment for me, because it’s what I truly strive to do when writing. It’s also the most fun part of the process for me. Before I begin a novel, I write pages and pages about the characters—their histories, backgrounds, peculiarities, strengths, traits. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what drives them and what scares them most. I want to know how they’ve been hurt, and by whom. Then, when I’m ready to write the story, I employ a really closely held viewpoint, whether in first or third person. I like to be right inside each character as I write, and see, hear, feel, touch, taste, and smell what they do, both physically and emotionally.
3. Many writers have trouble getting an outstanding first page and hooking the reader early. Your books accomplish this with ease. Is there any advice you can share with writers on how to capture the audience’s attention from the very beginning?
Again, thank you for the vote of confidence! The “ease” comes with rewriting those openings over and over and over, constantly distilling it down and down, and pulling the ending of the book back to the beginning, and vice versa, to create the sense of a full circle. What is promised in the opening sentence must be delivered by the end, so I want to make sure it all correlates. But more than that, that beginning has to compel the reader on, to create a mystery right out of the starting gate. “Why?” I want the reader to ask, and then feed her just enough of the answer to pull her into another why, and then another. As most writers will say, the beginning pages take the most work of the entire book.
4. You’ve had plenty of day jobs, but right now you’re a full-time writer. What do recommend for someone planning their career knowing they want to be a novelist?
Win the lottery. Marry someone who loves his or her job. Have a sizable trust fund. Truly, it’s impossible to say with any certainty whether you will make enough to live on as a novelist, especially in the beginning. And these days, even if you’ve published successfully but have sales slip on one title, you may go backward in pay, or lose the ability to get published all together. It’s a tough damn world. I am very lucky to have the emotional and financial support of a patron, my husband, who feels that the work I do is important in the world. Some years I do okay. Other years are lean because I won’t be getting an advance for a while, and teaching doesn’t pay very well. I don’t believe anyone should venture into it without some other means of financial support.
5. Your novel, When She Flew, took a lot of research to produce an authentic story. Do you have any suggestions for authors who are looking to incorporate research into their writing?
Here is what I’ve found, first through my magazine and newspaper freelancing, and now with fiction writing: People love to be asked to talk about themselves or about what they know. Especially by a writer! I’ve asked all kinds of people to either let me interview them, or to read certain pages to check for accuracy and veracity (a psychologist reads everything for me, for instance, and four different police officers helped me with When She Flew). I’ve never paid anyone except for in thank yous, coffees, lunches, and copies of the books they helped with.
6. Hotel Angeline has 36 voices throughout the novel. What was it like writing this novel with so many people? How did it affect your writing process knowing that this novel had to tell a cohesive story?
As the organizer of the event, along with Garth Stein, we convened an editorial board the week before to create a story idea and arc. I then took the input from that meeting (which included wonderful plotters Elizabeth George, Robert Dugoni, and Maria Semple) and created a story map, showing each participating author what her or his chapter must accomplish, who was on stage, etc. They then had the freedom to write what they wanted, as long as they met their chapter goals, and everyone was really awesome about doing just that. I wrote the very first chapter, so I actually had it the easiest! (For more information about Hotel Angeline, go to http://www.openroadmedia.com/authors/the-novel-live-authors.aspx.)
7. You have started doing book discussions on Skype. How do you find working with book groups online? What are some of the issues that have come about from using Skype instead of one-on-one contact? What are some of the benefits?
Skype and other online video chat forums are just so much better than the old speaker phone meetings (which I still do, too). Seeing faces, communicating directly with readers who are in another state or on the opposite coast, is just wonderful. Of course, the technology has a long way to go to be perfect, and there can be issues of dropouts and bad sound quality, but we always muddle through, and bond more for the experience.
8. What is the most important thing you have learned for successfully promoting your books?
You need to be a valuable partner with your publisher when the time comes to get the word out about your book. You shouldn’t have to go it alone, but often end up doing that anyway, especially early in your career. Find ways that you enjoy promoting, whether it’s guest blogging for online book blogs, or getting out to all of the bookstores you can to meet and greet the booksellers. Work to your strengths. And remember, you are the best advocate for your book, and no one cares more than you do about its success.
9. As a co-founder of Seattle7 Writers, can you tell us more about what this wonderful organization does to help support the written word and the Northwest Writer?
Our mission is really to connect writers, readers, booksellers, librarians and anyone who feels a part of this wonderful community. We plan events that bring people together around writing and reading; we bring authors out of their little writing holes to spend time with other writers and readers; and we advocate for literacy in the community by raising money for such organizations as Writers in the Schools, 826 Seattle, and Powerful Schools. This year we’ve added Path With Art, which provides art and writing classes to adults in transition from homelessness, addiction, and hardship.
10. As a novelist you have a very effective author blog. What are your tips for other authors who are trying to create their own presence online?
When I heard what Jonathan Evison does to create his online presence (which is phenomenal) I finally understood: I must spend time online, everyday, to keep those lines of communication open with readers. And so I devote probably an hour or so most days to doing just that, either writing blog posts or posting great resources or advocating for wonderful writers and books. It’s actually fun for me because I’m a pretty social person, and sitting behind a computer all day can be lonely!
11. Can you give us a sneak peek into the next book you are writing?
As with When She Flew, I’ve chosen a story from the news that compelled me, but this time I’m fictionalizing it even more. It’s the story of a couple who are about to be married when the woman runs away, having experienced a condition called dissociative fugue, a type of amnesia caused by emotional trauma. The story begins as she waits in a San Francisco psyche ward for her fiancé to come pick her up and take her home to Seattle. She doesn’t know him, she doesn’t know herself, and she becomes almost an amateur sleuth in trying to figure out who she is and what happened to her. It’s nearly complete, actually! I’m really enjoying writing this one, which I’m doing from both the man’s and woman’s perspective. With any luck, it might be out in fall 2012, or early spring the following year.
12. Do you have any special events coming up where writers can hear you speak or a book signing that writers can attend?
Seattle7Writers will be having a Weenie Roast/Cookout at Queen Anne Books on August 11 at 5:30pm. Many, many authors will be there! Come hang out with us! You can see more details at http://seattle7writers.org/events. I often teach at area conferences and workshops, and you can find details on my website, www.jennieshortridge.com.
Thank you for interviewing with our blog series.
Thanks so much for the fun interview!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Katie Flanagan is a fiction major at Northwestern University. She is currently an editor with Booktrope and a reader for Pink Fish Press. In the past, she has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her favorite genre is women’s fiction, but she reads any fiction put in front of her. Check out her blog about the writing life at katieflanagan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @K_Flanagan.