On March 15, I will celebrate 10 years as a published author! I have a few things planned to celebrate this accomplishment, including this post today. I am a fan of the “By the Book” series on the New York Times, as they ask authors a bunch of fun bookish and non-bookish questions that reveal an insider’s look to their lives. So, I thought it would be fun to conduct my own “By the Book” interview. 25 things is a lot, I know, but I hope you will find it somewhat fascinating as you learn more about my writing life.
1. How long have you been writing or when did you start?
A very, very long time! I wrote my first story in First Grade, and have been in love with writing ever since. Every year, I wrote stories for my family as Christmas and birthday presents. My sister and I shared a room, and at night I would tell her stories after lights out. I’ve been creative writing throughout the years, but didn’t complete my first novel until about fifteen years ago. This year, I am celebrating ten years of publishing with twelve books so far.
2. What is your writing process like? Are you more of a plotter or a pantser?
I am mostly a plotter. An idea will hit me, and I will start writing down a mess of notes that describe everything I “know” about the story as it comes to me. It’s very important to get this down as soon as inspiration strikes, because if I wait, I will lose it. After I’ve written the whole synopsis, I start to add more detail. I create character bios, assign them actors so I remember what they look like, and give them a back story that may or may not end up in the novel, but makes them feel more real as I understand WHY they may act a certain way. I split up my notes into scenes and chapters, and add more detail. But even in all this, I also give the novel room for spur of the moment inspiration, because sometimes the story takes on a life of its own, and strays from my plan. If it goes too far off track, I have to stop, reassess and rein it in. But as writing goes, the story evolves as I learn more and more about my characters. Breathing space in my story plans is a must.
3. How do you process and deal with negative book reviews?
My very first bad review, the person said it “was not their cup of tea,” then described all the things they hated about my debut novel. I was convinced I had just written the best book of all time, with an audience of EVERYONE, so her review crushed me. But time has also taught me that not everyone will like my books. We all have vastly different preferences, and that’s okay! Not only that, but I’m still a student in writing, and will be for the rest of my life. There are things I’ve written in the past that make me cringe, and each book teaches me something new about writing. I have learned to skim reviews, good and bad, and not wear them on my skin. If there’s something I can learn for my future books, I’ll make a mental note. But I’m constantly working at letting my books go when I release them, and moving on.
4. What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
Imposter syndrome. This little sickness infects me the most when I’ve been away from my writing for a while. I become convinced that what I’m writing is shit, that I’m wasting my time even thinking I can write a book, and that there are so many great books out there, why do I insist on contributing my garbage.
5. What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book?
First, take a class on writing. Take several classes. And then take what worked for you in those classes and throw away the rest. I don’t believe creative writing courses provide everything you need to know about writing, but I do believe they offer a great baseline and an introduction to receiving critique about your writing. Second, read. A lot. Read all the time. Read good books. Read bad books. Read books inside and outside your genre. And as you read, pay attention to the things that make you lean forward, and the things that don’t. I have heard some writers say they don’t read because they’re afraid of copying someone else’s work. That’s stupid. If you’re going to write books, you have to understand the art of storytelling. How can you understand storytelling if you don’t read books?
6. What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?
You have to use your senses when writing. How does a place smell when you walk in? How does the coat feel against your skin? How does her hair look in the sunshine? And to make it even stronger, tie it to a memory. Don’t just say you smelled cookies, but the empty kitchen still held the scent of oats and chocolate, mixed with a hint of your mother’s lilac perfume, the one she used to wear on Thursdays when your father came home early from work.
7. What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
It’s a mixture of the two. Generally, the story will be triggered by a “what if” moment. But it’s usually just one tiny thing that can’t hold a whole story. But as I start fleshing it out, the characters start coming to me, and then their backstories, and that starts feeding the rest of the story. For exampleI once witnessed a child falling from a shopping cart. The mom stopped everything and cradled her kid, and all these questions started coming at me. How would it feel to bear the weight of people’s judgment as you consoled your screaming kid? What if the kid were seriously hurt? What if he didn’t make it? What would happen next? These questions led to my book, The Road to Hope, which became a 3-book series.
8. What’s your favorite and least favorite part of publishing?
My favorite part is the creativity involved in producing a book. It’s not just the writing, though that’s a really big part. It’s also adding magic as you edit, formatting it, giving it a title and a cover… There’s so much about it that can be special and unique, and is such a mystery when you first start out. You have this chance of expressing yourself in beautiful ways. My least favorite part? Fitting your creativity into a neat little box so the most people will find it appealing. It’s really easy to get swept into the business part of producing a book and only seeing it as a business. But writing and publishing a book is art, and creative expression should never be squished. So you have to find this fine line of expressing your unique creativity, but not being so unique that no one is interested. I’m not sure I’ll ever master this, and sometimes it feels like I’m walking a tightrope between burnout and conformity.
9. How do you use social media as an author?
Like an addict. Okay, I don’t hate social media, but I definitely feel like I would be happier if I didn’t need to depend on it, or felt like I was always behind. For the past several years, I have really worked on my brand and stressed about producing content that would lead people to my books. I consumed other people’s posts, and was swept away in an ugly game of comparison. And I felt like I had to constantly post, post, post on all platforms to ensure no one forgot me. Then I burnt out. In November of last year, I took a break from marketing through social media as I pivoted my attention to my writing. And now, I don’t want to go back. At least not in the same way. I will always need social media to reach the masses, because that’s where they are. But I am also not stressing about the ratio of non-book to book posts I’m posting. I post without a schedule, but on a whim. The way I see it, social media is so oversaturated by everyone posting, it doesn’t really matter if I post every day or once a week, or less. As for comparison, I am trying to limit the time I am scrolling, recognizing when I feel like I’m spiraling down into a dark place. Plus, I am working at making my writing time exceed the time I spend on social media.
10. Which of your characters do you relate to the most and why?
Each of my characters has a little piece of me in them. I mean, you write what you know, and I know how me the best. But the character that probably holds the most parts of me would have to be Maddie in my Hope series. She’s a young mom, struggling to make it in California’s rich Wine Country, which is my story, too. I was never homeless like her, but I did live in poverty, fell in love with an abusive man, and dated as a single mom. So many of my emotions and experiences were spun into Maddie, and she holds a special place in my heart. Her stories felt kind of like a love letter to my younger self, and I was thrilled to give her a happy ending to a very hard story, much like I have also reached happiness after hardship.
11. What was your hardest scene to write, and why?
There’s this one point in The Road to Hope when Maddie has to make the hardest decision of her life. After she does, she completely breaks down, falling to the ground, her heart shattering. The person who took her in, a father figure of sorts, finds her like this. He picks her up and brings her back home where he and his wife care for her. They know what she did, and they accept her anyway. I cried writing this scene. I’m crying now as I write this.
12. If you were to write a spin-off about a side character, which would you pick?
In my latest book, For the Birds, the main character has a twin sister named Meadow who is a world traveling social media influencer. She’s super fun and always ready for an adventure. I gave Meadow a very satisfying happy ending, but if I ever decide to write more to this story, hers is the one I want to tell.
13. What is your schedule like when you’re writing a book?
Let’s just say that everything is in the way when I’m immersed in a book project. I work full-time, so I have to write around my work schedule. This used to mean writing for two hours in the morning, continuing on lunch, then writing into the evening, plus writing for hours over the weekend. But ten years into this publishing career, my writing schedule has slowed down immensely. First, I no longer write in the morning. I’ve adopted slow mornings, where I wake up early so I can meditate, sip my coffee, and read a little before I need to get ready for work. After work, I eat dinner with the family, do a light exercise like yoga or dumbbell training, and then, I spend an hour writing before I wind down for bed. And sometimes, I am so tired I do none of that, and just chill watching TV with my husband until bedtime. If anything, I still make time to sit with my book over the weekend. If I only have weekends to write, it’s fine. All I know is that when I spend too much time away from my work, imposter syndrome starts to creep in. So if I only have 20 minutes to write, I take it.
14. Have you ever traveled as research for your book?
I am so proud to say YES! A few years ago, my husband and I went camping in Joshua Tree as research for For the Birds. It was so fun, and I felt like a real author because I had actually planned a trip to write about. And heck yes that trip was a tax writeoff. My next bookish trip will be to Mauna Kea in Hawaii, which I have already written about in my first book, A Symphony of Cicadas, and I have always wanted to see because it was in that book.
15. How do you celebrate when you finish your book?
This is going to sound sad, but I don’t. I mean, I might pop some champagne, and my husband may treat me to flowers. But that’s the extent of it. There’s no launch party. No fireworks. No parade. The honest truth is, I’m so exhausted once the launch date has passed that I kind of crawl into a hole that almost looks a lot like depression. Too real? It’s true. I have spent so much energy preparing for this big day, that once it’s over, my whole system shuts down. I stop writing. I stop showing up on social media. I disappear until I can function again. And then, once I hit the spring of my post-launch life, I start dabbling in writing again and restart the whole process.
16. What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
Write every day. And I don’t follow this. I have even argued against this. But writing is a practice, and the less I practice the weaker I become. I forget how to fit writing into my schedule. I tell myself terrible and untrue stories about the piece I’m working on or my ability as a writer. I start to doubt I ever want to write again. But then, when I do give myself time to write, I remember how much it fills my soul, how I am unaware of time passing because I’m so immersed in what I’m writing. How can I deny myself this? If you’re a writer, write every day. Make time for it. Protect and cherish that time. Let this be your gift to yourself.
17. What are common traps for new authors?
I see a lot of authors trying to figure out the best way to write a bestseller, make tons of money, and let books save them from a full time job. The hard truth is, most authors will not earn out the expenses of their books. And if you’re seeing your author career as a way to save you from your job, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. You will end up hating the job that pays you, and hating the author career that is failing you. And you will never experience the full joy of writing because you are so wrapped up in becoming a success that you forget it’s about sharing your stories. I know this because I’ve been this. It is absolutely okay to want your author career to be a business, but never at the stake of putting profits above passion. For authors who also work, my advice is to see your job as a companion to your author career. Your job takes the financial pressure off your books, allowing you to focus on telling the story instead of figuring out how you’re going to eat or pay your rent. Then give it time. Don’t shoot for overnight success, but work at improving your craft, learning the business, and creating a community of readers who can’t wait to read your next book.
18. What’s your writing software of choice?
Scrivener! This software makes it easy to keep my scenes straight, refer to my notes, and move things around. I use it exclusively for my first draft. Then I transfer it to Word when I am ready for copyediting.
19. Do you read one book at a time, or are you a poly-reader?
I am a total poly-reader. If you look at my Goodreads, it looks like I’m in the middle of 20 books. But generally I’m reading 2-3 books at a time—an audiobook for my commute or walks, a non-fiction book in the morning, and a fiction book in the evening. My evening book is usually smutty, sorry Mom. Some books I’ve recently read and loved were The Thorne Princess by LJ Shen, Dust by Hugh Howie, The Stolen Heir by Holly Black, The Bodyguard by Katherine Center, and Book Lovers by Emily Henry.
20. Are there any books or authors that inspired you to become a writer?
There are several. The first one I can think of is Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. The book is a coming of age story about a girl who has lived her life in the shadow of her much loved twin sister. This book broke me in so many ways, especially in all the ways I resonated with this character. This book taught me the importance of emotion and connection in a story. The next book is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. The gorgeous descriptions, even with such a dark and heartbreaking story, made me want to live in the heavens of this story. Finally, and most prominently, The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington, which I will describe in the next question.
21. Name an underappreciated novel and/or author that you love.
The Monk Downstairs, by Tim Farrington. Years ago, my cousin told me about this book, which I had never heard of. But it was on the bestsellers list and it looked good, so I picked it up. I was soon transported into a world where prose was poetry and the imagery was so vivid, I could lift it off the page. Tim Farrington’s way with words was like nothing I’d ever experienced, and I became obsessed. I read every book he wrote, and I researched the author himself. I even friended him on Facebook…and he accepted! A few years ago, he invited me to be a part of a writing group on Facebook, where we all discussed and celebrated all things writing. He followed my blog, and has written me a few encouraging notes in times when I struggled. And we’ve shared a video chat on writing. He has since left social media, and has kind of disappeared altogether. I think of him often, hoping he’s okay. And even as I now see him more as a human than a god, I still consider him to be one of the greatest inspirations to my writing life.
22. Do you prefer ebooks, printed books, or audiobooks most of the time?
I think they all have their place, and that there is no such format that is superior than the rest. That said, I prefer my Kindle most of all because of how compact it is (I can carry my whole library in my purse!) and I can adjust the font for my old and tired eyes. My fondness for audiobooks is growing, especially because my commute is 45 minutes each way, and it’s also a great way to get me out walking. As for print books, these have now become collector’s items to me. When I love the book, I want a copy of it on my bookshelf. Other than that, oftentimes the font hurts my eyes and I have to go back to reading on my Kindle.
23. Do you have other writers in the family?
My husband, Shawn Langwell, just published his second book this year, a motivational guide titled, Ten Seconds of Boldness. His first book was a memoir titled Beyond Recovery. You should see our shambles of a house when we are both in book writing mode! My daughter, Summer Raine McLerran, inherited my love of writing and is getting ready to publish her first novel, a young adult fantasy titled, A Drop of Faerie’s Blood. A few year’s back, she also published a history and legends book for our summer camp titled Horror Stories of Las Posadas.
24. If you could invite any three people for dinner, whom would you invite?
Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach, and Amanda Doyle (sister) so we can talk about human stuff on a real level. Seriously, if you haven’t listened to their podcast, you’re missing something huge.
25. Would you share something about yourself that your readers don’t know (yet)?
I am really good at sleeping. Like, really good. I have mastered the art of two-minute naps on my lunch break, where I don’t set an alarm but can fall into a deep sleep in minutes, then wake up fully rested just a few minutes later. And at night, I just put my head on my pillow and fall asleep. Of course, now that I’ve shared this, I have probably jinxed myself for life.
P.S. One of my favorite sleep accessories is this headband with speakers. It allows me to listen to sleepcasts or music while I’m drifting off without bothering (or hearing) my husband. Plus, it doubles as a sleep mask when needed.