Two successful authors with very different approaches to writing engaged in a lively discussion of craft, creativity, and business at the May Write Brain workshop. Barbara Samuel (aka Barbara O’Neal), the author of over 38 books, considers herself a right brain writer. Laura DiSilverio, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who writes the Swift Justice and Mall Cop mystery series, spoke about left brain writing. As I listened to the first half of the Write Brain, I felt as though I was eavesdropping on a lively and honest coffee shop discussion of the writing life. Then the second half opened to audience questions, and I felt we had been invited to join the authors at their table.
Attitudes and Habits of the Successful Writer
Laura DiSilverio opened the discussion with the statement that every writer she knows who makes money regularly at writing has discipline. She sets a goal of writing 2,000 words a day. Monday through Friday, she starts writing at 7:30 am.
“Some days it’s just painful,” Laura said, but she needs to exercise rigid discipline. A contract and deadlines are very motivational, but she used this same discipline for the 4½ years before she sold anything. Her routine is to write 2,000 words a day when writing, and to work 4-5 hours a day when revising. Laura writes a book in two months, then spends two to four months revising.
Although Barbara Samuel writes from the right brain, she exercises a similar discipline. She told us that although she has been writing for a long time, it still takes mental fortitude to put words on the page. Like Laura, she writes five days a week – sometime six if she doesn’t hit her page count goal. Barbara needs down time, and reserves Sundays for family and church.
Barbara’s goal is to write 1,000 to 2,000 words a day. She works three to four hours. Using an “organic process,” Barbara calls her muses “the girls in the basement.” These muses require color and time in the garden to keep them happy. Writing “should be a joyful process,” Barbara said. “Even when it’s hard, it’s a lot of fun to make things up. And they pay you for it?”
Outliners versus Pantsers
Writers tend to fall into the category of an Outliner or a Pantser, or seat of the pants writer. Outliners develop their stories with anything from basic timelines to outlines so extensive they only have to flesh them out to complete the book. Pantsers tend to jump right into the story and follow where it leads. I would have thought Outliners were left brainers and Pantsers right brainers, but Barbara and Laura surprised me.
Barbara said she is somewhat of an outliner, while Laura will use whichever technique works for the story. When writing her first novels, Laura was drawn to the structure of outlines, but does better now as a Pantser.
Laura’s advice? Don’t hold yourself to a process that worked for one book. Treat each book as an individual.
Laura defined promotion as what happens after you sell the book. Networking occurs before you sell, and includes connections you make with other writers at events like the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. These are the folks you will ask to write blurbs for your novel. If you are writing a historical, get on blogs for that time period. Go places where you are truly interested in being. Laura recommended forming relationships with people before you sell your novel. This is not about using people. You will be returning the favor.
“Sincerity is everything,” Barbara said. There are levels to networking. People who are on the same level as you are your “graduating class.” These are the writers who will be in your corner forever. You can exercise reciprocity with established authors, and with new people, by mentioning their books on your blog, and writing blurbs for them.
Barbara dislikes the business part of writing. As an introvert, she finds it exhausting. Her publisher expects her to do certain things to promote her work. Barbara felt she was drowning, and so she hired a publicist. “You are required to do be somewhat public,” she said, but she is just not going to do it all.
Laura told us that as soon as you’re done with the bottle of champagne, the promotion starts. With her first book, she did a little bit of everything, and not very well. It was a steep learning curve, and she ran herself into the ground. While your agent and editor will suggest how much time to spend on what type of promotion, Laura recommended charting out how much time you plan to spend.
“You can’t do it all,” Laura said. Know where your talents lie, and how much money you have to spend on promotion. She said it is difficult to gauge results as far as book sales. There is lack of cause and effect traceability, so do the promotional things you like.
Barbara does not turn on the Internet before noon, ever. When her actual writing work is done, she will do promotion. While she is required to have a presence, she does not believe Facebook actually sells books.
“The Golden Egg we can lay is our books,” Barbara said. “Focus on that.”
“Do what you say you’ll do,” Barbara advised, “show up when you say you’ll show up, and be nice to people.” Do not bad mouth people, particularly other writers.
“Writing is a craft,” Laura said, “but promotion is a business.” Laura takes her deadlines seriously. You must understand your publisher’s expectations, and promotion is part of the publishing business.
Barbara said that the Internet asks us to master the art of appearing to be intimate. She advises that you do not share too much.
Laura agreed, saying that she does not put anything about her children online, especially photos. Once on the Internet, it is there forever.
Question and Answer
The Write Brain paused for a break. If you can attend in person, instead of just reading our recaps, this break offers the valuable networking time both Barbara and Laura recommended. The second half of the session opened to audience questions.
What Keeps You from Writing?
The difference between the right and left brain writer was more apparent in the responses to this question. Laura said that she doesn’t let anything keep her from writing. “This is my job.” If she needs a day off, she does an extra day’s work earlier in the week. Barbara said that her friend Heather can drag her away from writing, as do her camera and her garden, and taking photos of her flowers.
Barbara used a critique group once, briefly. If you leave a critique and feel bad, or start to doubt yourself, leave. You require nurturing. She does have beta readers. Laura uses an online critique group where members submit and critique on their own schedules.
How Many Books Did You Write Before Selling?
Laura’s first novel was never published, but provided valuable “proof of completion.” She wrote a police procedural completely unfettered by knowledge of police procedure, and a regency that did not sell. She acquired her agent with a book about an air force intelligence officer. That story did not sell, and she got her first contract on a proposal, not a completed book.
Barbara quoted John McDonald, who said you need to write a million words before you get good. Her writing journey started at the age of 12, and continued as a journalism student, and then as a reporter. She wrote short stories, and a romance that didn’t sell. After writing for 12 years, she sold a romance. “Good work is what matters,” Barbara said.
The audience was riveted as both authors went on a tangent about their writing process.
When Barbara first gets the idea for a book, it is perfect. Fabulous. Fun. Then the actual writing begins. The first hundred pages are agonizing. She writes the last hundred pages in “a white hot heat.” The revision process is difficult. The editor’s and agent’s comments are correct, but she’s mad at them anyway. She hates the galley stage, and is “in terror” before the book comes out. Writing a book is not a smooth or happy process, but she is compelled to write.
Laura is the opposite. The first hundred pages fly. Then she starts hating the book and the process. Laura called it a “crisis of confidence.” In spite of this, she has got to sit down at the desk and write. Keep the story moving. When she is within “shooting distance” of the end, it is exhilarating.
Laura had one hundred rejections before finding an agent. She recommends that if you blanketed the “agentsphere” that you don’t “leap at the fly” of the first offer to represent you. This is an important relationship. Get references from writers who have worked with the agent.
Barbara warned that anyone can hang up a shingle and say they’re an agent. It is better to have no agent than a bad agent, but it is almost impossible to sell a book without an agent. Barbara said that now is a good time to get an agent, as so many writers are self-publishing. You need to have a good fit with your agent. Her agent “runs interference” for her.
Both authors agreed that some readers just won’t like their books. Laura does not read reviews. She said that she has no control over the cover art, release date, or sales, so she tries to shut it all out and concentrate on the writing.
Finding Time for Writing?
This was my question, perhaps a veiled attempt to justify my less than aggressive writing schedule. How did you find time to write when you had a day job? I received no sympathy.
When Laura still worked full-time, she had a five page a day goal. Find the time to do it, she said. Barbara suggested finding your best, most productive times. If it works for you, burst write once or twice a week. Reward yourself for meeting your goals.
I expected that two authors, one a self-defined right brain and the other a left brain writer, would have differences in the realm of creativity. What surprised me was that they shared a devotion to discipline. Daily page and/or word count goals, a writing routine, meeting deadlines, and maintaining professionalism were credited by Barbara and Laura as elements of their success. Happily, these are work habits we can all adopt.
About the Writer: Cathy Dilts recently sold a story to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Her day job as an environmental scientist provides fodder for fiction by the shovelful. In addition to short stories, she also writes cozy murder mystery, environmentally-themed stories, and apocalyptic inspirational fiction. In her spare time, she enjoys raised bed gardening, which her husband claims look the perfect size for burying bodies, while reminding her that you can’t get rid of the bones.