Make the First Move

When I meet people for the first time, they typically ask me about my career. I think this is a standard question for most social situations and a common icebreaker. When I disclose that I’m a writer, I’m often surprised by how many people confess that they, too, have dreamed of writing something. Invariably, they ask me how I got started. My answer is always the same. I just started writing.

I don’t know about you, but I had a strong inkling that I wanted to be a writer many years before I actually wrote anything. Specifically, I knew that I wanted to write fiction. I assumed that an idea for a story would magically appear in my head one day and then I would begin the writing process, but that never occurred. The older I got, the more I began to worry, fearing that my dream of writing fiction would never come to fruition. The years passed, but no book ideas fluttered across my imagination. Finally, I realized that the ideas were waiting for me to make the first move. I think they wanted to see how much I actually wanted to fulfill my dream and test my determination a little. So, I began to write. I kept a journal at first, capturing my impressions of people, situations, and life in general. I wrote about my feelings and memories. I worked my way up to some creative writing exercises and then took a writing class that was taught by a published author. Finally, almost six months after I began writing, an idea for a story came to me.

It showed up in a moment when I was doing nothing more than enjoying the beauty of the world around me. The idea began to unravel in my mind like a flag unfurling, and I fell in love with it. I thought to myself that it would make a great story and that someone really ought to write it down, and then I realized I was the person who was meant to write it. The ideas and characters had been there waiting for me all along. Since that day, I have written several stories for young children, and I’m currently working on a YA novel. They have all been equal parts joy, surprise, wonder, and yes, even sometimes frustration. But they have all been worth the wait.

So, if you’ve always wanted to write something, I don’t think it really matters where you begin. The important thing is to start writing.

Interview with Jennifer Mathieu

_pdg6191-crop-u8487devoted_cvr_reveal Jennifer Mathieu is an English teacher and the author of two YA novels, The Truth About Alice and Devoted. She was recently recognized as the 2015 Children’s Book Choice Teen Choice debut author. Jennifer’s compassionate, yet powerful voice makes her stories all the more compelling. Jennifer was kind enough to share what she learned from writing Devoted, the research process for her latest project, and her thoughts on why so many adults enjoy reading YA fiction. To learn more about Jennifer and her work, please visit

Devoted is the story of a young woman named Rachel who leaves her religious community in search of her soul’s calling. Has the character of Rachel taught you anything about your own life and your own callings?

What a lovely question.  Personally, for me it has reaffirmed for me the importance of listening to your heart and following it as best you can – not just on matters of faith but life in general.  Of course, that’s often easier said than done.  We have needs – like paying the rent – and outside influences – like what our parents or friends or partners expect from us – and we have to balance all of that with what makes us happy, fulfilled, and productive.  Right now, I feel like I am in a really good place and I think and hope it’s because I listened to my heart over the years.  I was a journalism major in college and when I worked as a journalist, my heart was telling me, “This is not for you.  You aren’t happy.”  It was terrifying to give up on a career that I thought I’d have my whole life, but the first day I spent in the classroom as an English teacher and the first night I sat down at my computer and tried to write young adult fiction, I felt it on a soul-level.  This is what I’m good at!  Keep doing this!  I’ve had similar feelings about my marriage and becoming a mom.  I hope Rachel’s story inspires readers – especially younger readers who are just starting out – to listen to their hearts as best as they can.

Devoted features a protagonist who is a strong, yet compassionate woman. The story could have gone in a much different direction without the presence of compassion. What caused you to lean in favor of this response?

Well, I think most people I know – even people who were raised in abusive homes – want to feel love and compassion for their parents and families.  Even if the feelings are complicated or the families are totally dysfunctional.  I don’t think it would have been realistic for Rachel to hate her family.  Despite all of her misgivings and troubles early in the novel, she did care about them and loved them, especially her little sister Ruth.  And her family loves her even though they don’t agree with anything Rachel does.  I think it creates more believable characters and much more interesting tension to explore to have Rachel still feel compassion for her family even after she knows she can no longer continue to live and worship as they do.  I like the gray areas and the complicated parts of human relationships.  In my first novel THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE, I try to paint bullies with compassion because most bullies I know have been hurt in some way.  I just try to create real people in my books.

Will you briefly describe your writing process, including the incubation period for an idea and the time you take to research a book’s subject matter? I know that you are an English teacher by day. Do you find it’s easier to write during the summer when school isn’t in session?

It’s funny, because it’s summer vacation as I type this, and oddly, I am finding it harder to get writing done now than in the school year.  I’m the mother of a young son who’s home with me during the summers, and the days are full of pool visits and visiting friends and big summer projects like cleaning out closets and so on.  The school year feels much more scheduled for me, for obvious reasons, and I’m able to stick to my dedicated schedule of school time, family time, and then writing time (from about 8:30 until 10:00 pm or so, give or take).  I honestly think I might become less productive if I wrote full-time.  Teaching keeps me on a schedule!  As for my process, I do love the term “incubation period”!  I usually let an idea marinate in my mind for a month or two – sometimes longer depending on deadlines – and then I start researching.  I love research and can spend way too much time on that if I’m not careful.  For my third book, I spent months reading about trauma bonds, Stockholm Syndrome and the like, and I kept finding just one more therapist or expert to speak to!  Honestly, the writing is the fastest for me.  The drafting usually happens quickly.  I can finish a 60,000 to 70,000 word novel in about three months just writing at night and then with some time on the weekend.  Of course that is just the first draft, so it’s nowhere near perfect!

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What advice do you have for writers of a similar ilk?

I would say I am something of a hybrid. I tend to have a loose structure or series of events (“Ethan and Caroline hang out”  “Ethan visits his doctor”  “Caroline quits her job”) but I don’t really know what those scenes are going to look like and sometimes they change as I’m writing them.  Or I end up moving scenes around.  I work sort of in chunks, I guess, moving the chunks around as need be.  Sometimes I will skip ahead and write a scene I’m excited about first, but I usually write in order.  Typically, I know the end of the novel before I begin, and it’s my truth north as I write the book.  I don’t really have any advice for writers on this other than there are a million ways to approach writing and as long as your method is working for you, don’t worry!

Why do you think so many adults enjoy reading YA novels?

I think because adolescence is a time where everything is so heightened and so important.  Actually, it is So Important, capital S, capital I.  Everything is new – and that can be terrifying or wonderful, depending on what it is!  As adults, we can sometimes fall into the humdrum rhythm of life – it can feel like a carousel of grocery store visits and oil changes and doctor’s appointments.  But teenagers approach life with such intensity.  When we read YA we’re reminded of those feelings, and I think it’s not only a source of nostalgia, but reading YA can help adults appreciate life a bit more, wake up a bit more and notice.  Really notice.  Reading YA can be a way to connect with teenagers in your life as well, and it can be a useful way to reflect and connect with your own teenage experiences and on how they shaped the adult version of who you are.  I’d like to take this time to say that if you want to make me madder than anything, suggest to me that adults shouldn’t read YA.  Adults who shame other adults for reading YA are some of my least favorite people on the planet.  Actually, anyone who shames anyone for reading anything makes me so furious.  42% of college graduates never read another book again after graduating from college.  Think about that.  If we create a culture of shaming readers, that number isn’t going to get any smaller.  The irony is that most adults I know who read YA are voracious readers of every category and genre, myself included.  I read YA, obviously, but I’m currently reading THE GOLDFINCH and I subscribe to The New Yorker.  Reading begets more reading.

What’s your best memory of an interaction with a fan?

I was at a book festival in Texas and, speaking of adult readers, an adult woman came up to me and asked me to sign her copy of THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE.  In that novel, a young woman is humiliated and ostracized by her small Texas town after rumors flourish about her sexual behavior.  Students dedicate a bathroom stall to writing horrible graffiti about her.  Anyway, this woman approached me and said, “I was a girl on the bathroom stall wall,” and she continued to tell me that she really deserved it because she had stolen another girl’s boyfriend.  I told her that no woman deserves to be humiliated in such a way, no matter what she’s done.  She made a joke of it at first but I looked her right in the eye and told her she hadn’t deserved it.  I think she was looking for some sort of validation or something from me, and I was glad to be able to offer it in some small way.  It was emotional for me and I think for her as well.

Do you have any other fiction projects currently in the works that you’d like to discuss?

I’m revising my third novel for Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan, the aforementioned book about trauma bonds and Stockholm Syndrome.  I still don’t have a title and I really need to come up with one!  In the book, a teenage boy named Ethan is released from his kidnapper after being held for four years and he finds a starts an unlikely friendship with a teenage girl named Caroline, who is connected to the crime.  It’s not a romance, but it’s about guilt, secrets, hope, and recovery – and about finding that deep, soul-saving friendship in a place where you least expected it.  It’s out in the fall of 2016.  I’ve just started drafting a fourth book but it’s too early to talk about it – but I can tell you that I’m incredibly excited about it!

Thank you, Jennifer!

Interview with Densie Webb

Densie Webb_2013cover_largeDensie Webb is a freelance nonfiction writer and editor, and the author of several books about health and nutrition. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times and Prevention magazine. Densie and I discussed the inspiration for her fiction debut, You’ll Be Thinking of Me, her publishing process, the benefits of a critique group, and the unique challenges of writing fiction. To learn more about Densie and her work, please visit

Will you summarize You’ll Be Thinking of Me in a couple of sentences and describe the genre?

You’ll Be Thinking of Me is the story of a young woman who has a serendipitous encounter with a celebrity and, as the result of an innocent video of the two of them posted on the Internet, becomes the target of a crazed stalker. (With a capital “C,” as one reviewer put it.) And, of course, it’s about the relationship that develops between the young woman and the celebrity. I struggled with identifying the genre and finally settled on Romantic Suspense. I hesitated putting the term “romance” in there, because of the derision of the genre—something I wrote about here. I’m learning to embrace it.

What was the inspiration for the novel?

Several years ago I saw an interview with a wildly popular young actor, whom I shall not name for fear of being labeled a cougar, and the interviewer asked him something to the effect, “Where do think it can go from here?” He was referring to all the screaming girls wherever he went. His response triggered the idea. He casually said that someone could always come out of the crowd and stab him and that would be it. For the first time, it registered with me how vulnerable celebrities are and how there are crazies out there who fantasize and obsess over them.

You’ll Be Thinking of Me is your fiction debut; even though, you’ve spent many years writing nonfiction. Which type of writing do you prefer? Why?

I’ve spent almost my whole career as a freelance writer/editor of nonfiction articles for magazines, newspapers, newsletters and books on health and nutrition. I’ve written for everything from The New York Times to Prevention Magazine, as well as writing several non-fiction books on the same topics. While I’m still doing that full time (gotta pay the bills), I prefer fiction writing. I have a thing about being in control of my time; that’s why I’ve been a freelancer all these years. But as a freelancer, you’re required to write to assignment, delivering whatever the client needs. Fiction writing gives me so much more control over what I write and how I spend my time writing. Sure, it involves deadlines, but I like the feeling that I created these characters and their lives out of nothing but a spark of an idea.

In the process of writing the book, did you discover any challenges that are unique to writing fiction? If so, how did you overcome them?  

Because it is my first novel, my challenges were finding my writing voice and learning the basics of fiction writing, which is nothing like writing nonfiction. Knowing how to use words, grammar and punctuation helps, but fiction writing is completely different than writing nonfiction. One thing about my nonfiction writing that helped me with my fiction was the ability to research topics. I spend more time researching for my day job than I do actually writing. The reverse was true for fiction, but that skill set helped tremendously as I researched celebrity stalkers.

I read that you’re part of a critique group. How has the group helped to improve your writing practice? What should a new writer consider before joining a critique group?

I’ve belonged to several critique groups. The main piece of advice is that you have to be prepared to hear criticism without getting defensive. It’s not easy, but I’ve been attending critique groups for about 3 or 4 years and, while I eventually used the services of a professional developmental editor, I wouldn’t have gotten the story fully developed without them. I found my original critique group from From there I’ve had 2 other offshoot critique groups. You have to find a group of people who you’re compatible with and who “get” what you’re writing and who are willing to give you more detailed feedback than “this sucks” or “this is great.”

Tell me a little about your publishing process. What’s the most important thing you learned from the experience?

Patience and perseverance! Writing and publishing, for most of us, is an agonizingly slow process. A small publisher, like I have, is faster than one of the big five publishers, but either way, it’s not an overnight event. Same goes for having an audiobook produced; mine just went live on The first time I thought I was “done” with my book, I queried and got a few nibbles, but nothing came of it. I spent another couple of years revising and I hired a wonderful development editor, Tiffany Yates Martin, who provided me with the final guidance I needed. I waited maybe 2 months after I received her comments before I felt ready to dig in and do what was needed. After that, I queried agents and publishers again and this time I got several requests for partials and fulls from agents, and received some “rave rejections,” but no takers. That’s when Soul Mate Publishing stepped up and said they loved it. Right after I signed the contract, I got an email from another small publisher, who expressed interest. I’m very pleased with my publisher so far.

Do you have any other fiction projects currently in the works? 

I’m actually working on 2, though I’m focusing on one more than the other right now. One is a paranormal romance with what I hope is a unique twist. It’s not erotic; I can’t do erotic. I do try to make it sensual and romantic. I can take the reader right up to edge, but sex happens behind closed doors. The other WIP is women’s fiction, a family drama with the underlying theme of motherhood—how it means different things to different women and the choices they make about whether or not to be mothers. I’m hoping to finish one by the end of the year, if not before.

Thank you, Densie!

Interview with Paul Aertker

fd88b0_9cd1bec984b0428881caf1a5bf9dc70d.jpg_srz_p_162_263_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzPaul Aertker ifd88b0_107ba02ed156486593e0437675d40640.jpg_srz_p_163_263_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzfd88b0_361ed23b75c24f78814c53f93f47b1f1.jpg_srz_p_348_364_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzs a multilingual teacher, international traveler, and man of the world. He built a children’s library in Africa, worked as an au pair in France, and even took the CIA exam. The second book in his middle grade series, Crime Travelers, was released earlier this month. Paul and I discussed the fun of writing for kids, what’s working for his author platform, and his writing practice. More importantly, Paul shared the incredible news that he’s just received a movie offer for his series, so we may be able to see Crime Travelers on the big screen in the future. To learn more about Paul and his work, visit

Congratulations on the release of your second book in the Crime Travelers series, “Diamonds Are For Never.” The series is for middle school readers. What do you enjoy most about writing for this age group, and what do you hope kids will take away from your books?

Most people who know me, know that I act like a child. :) No but seriously, I do. I like being around kids because they laugh more and it makes me laugh more and I end up seeing funny things everywhere. Behind the humor and action-adventure stories, there is also the teacher in me that wants kids to exercise their imaginations and to open their minds through travel and world exploration.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone who wants to write books for a young audience?

Tap into your inner child. I think most adults had their emotional development arrested at a certain age. For some of us, it’s sixteen; others it’s six. For me, it’s straight up eleven, which is why I find eleven year olds funny. (Seventeen year olds are way too old for me.) That’s in part true. I think the best thing—for me to remember when writing for or speaking to younger people—is to be honest. Kids know when you’re full of baloney and they appreciate it when you are real with them.

I’ve read that you love to travel. How have your journeys inspired your imagination & creativity?

To me opening page one in a book is like going on vacation. Or at least it should be. I tell kids all the time that they can travel by bike, by boat, or by book. All books or stories are journeys of some kind with the most important trip being that of the reader.

How has your writing practice evolved over time?

I used to be more of a morning writer, but I’ve noticed that my internal critic is more censorious, even vituperative in the early part of the day. (Big words Alert!) I always write a first draft knowing full well that it is going to be re-written, but the flow of words onto the page, at least the first time, have to be uninhibited. And the critic can kill that flow. So I often wake up in the middle of the night and write for a couple of hours while the critic in my head is still asleep. I go back to bed and wake up in the morning and find that someone has miraculously written several chapters! Now the internal critic has something to work on.

What’s been the most helpful thing you’ve done to establish your platform as an author?

I speak and Skype at schools all over the world. Just this month, I’ve Skyped with kids in Vietnam, Mexico, South Carolina, Oregon, Texas, and Nigeria. I also work on my relationship with teachers. If teachers like my books, then they are more likely to recommend them. I often give teachers copies of my books for free.

What has the character of Lucas Benes taught you? Does he have a few more adventures in his future?

Lucas is a great guy and he really is focused on doing what is right even if it means breaking the rules. His next adventure? Now this is interesting! Lucas just may very well be headed to Hollywood since a production company now wants to option the Crime Travelers series for a major motion picture!

Thanks, Paul!

Not Quite Famous

Sometimes I have the opportunity to read I Know My Name Is Love to a kindergarten or first grade class, and it’s always a treat, because the children ask so many cute questions. While I was reading to a kindergarten class recently, a little girl raised her hand and asked me how I got to be so famous. Needless to say, this wasn’t a question I was anticipating. I panicked for a second, fearing she would be unimpressed if she knew the real truth about me. Finally, I decided to come clean, and I gently explained that I wasn’t famous. She looked confused, and I decided that I needed to say something more to soften the blow. I told her that, while I wasn’t famous, I had gotten where I was – perched on a rocking chair in the midst of a sea of 5-year-olds – through hard work and by following my dreams. I thought this advice could at least serve her well in future endeavors, since I had all but stolen her chance of telling family and friends that she had had a near brush with fame.

Her simple question prompted me to think of my own definition of famous people. I came to the conclusion that they’re usually not typical celebrities, at least not in my own life. Instead, they’re the people who’ve shown me patience, kindness, and forgiveness, even when I didn’t deserve it. They’ve cheered the loudest at the smallest of my victories, and they’re also the ones who’ve made me laugh out loud…usually at myself. They’ve overcome life’s obstacles with grace, and helped me to face my own challenges. Lastly, their exceptional example has inspired me to get the polishing cloth out after my own character, and has caused me to see that more improvements are needed. I’m always happy when I encounter one of the famous people in my life, but not because I want an autograph or a photo with them, and not because of their outward trappings of celebrity. It’s because they remind me of what I can become on the inside.

Interview with Amy Impellizzeri


LemongrassCOVER.medium lawyerinterruptedphotoAmy Impellizzeri is a reformed corporate litigator turned writer. Her first novel, Lemongrass Hope, was named a Foreward Reviews’ 2014 INDIEFAB Finalist for Romance. She is also the author of a non-fiction book, Lawyer Interrupted, which is due to be published this year (ABA Publishing). Additionally, her articles and essays have appeared on The Huffington PostThe Glass HammerABA’s Law Practice Today, and Yahoo Shine. Amy was kind enough to share the inspiration for her debut novel, what she enjoys most about life as a writer, and her thoughts on destiny. She also gave me a sneak peak at her next fiction project. To learn more about Amy and her work, visit

Will you describe your novel, Lemongrass Hope, in a few sentences? What type of reader might enjoy it?

Lemongrass Hope is the story of Kate Monroe Sutton and her complicated relationships with her family, friends, and especially two men: her husband, Rob, and her first love, Ian – both of whom she met on the same fateful night. Through some surprising twists – and a bit of magical realism woven into the story – Kate gets a true second chance to explore roads not taken, and the result is a confirmation of her greatest hopes, and also her greatest fears. It’s a story that – I hope – will have you looking at the “What If’s” in your life in a unique way.

The book has resonated with women who enjoy women’s fiction, and what I call “book club fiction” – that is, stories that are not formulaic, and that surprise you and give you something to talk about long after the book is finished. It has also resonated with young adults who have been swept up in the love story, and then are surprised by the twists. But Lemongrass Hope is not just for women! After all, everyone wonders about second chances, don’t they? Some of my best Amazon reviews and favorite email messages have been from male readers.

What inspired the story?

I started the book at a time when I had just taken (what was supposed to be) a year-long sabbatical from a thirteen-year corporate law career. It was a time in my life when I was having a lot of second thoughts about paths taken and not taken – primarily in my professional life. This “What If” question is as close to a universal thought as I have found – and so I decided to explore it in the context of a unique love story.

How long did it take to complete the book?

Technically years, but not really.

I worked on the book in fits and starts from about 2009 to 2013. I’d leave it and come back to it and every time I’d fall in love with the idea and the characters all over again. Then in the beginning of 2013, I was tired of hearing myself say I was “working on a novel.” I wanted to finish it. I committed to finishing the manuscript that year and set myself on a tight schedule. I also starting workshopping the book that year for peer review/critique, and worked with a wonderful professional editor that year. So, all told, it really took a year of focused work to finally complete the book.

I understand that you left your career as a corporate litigator to write. What’s been the best part of the transition to life as a writer?

I did! Although I didn’t transition immediately to full-time writer, and truth be told, I did not originally leave my corporate law gig to write fiction.   When I first left the law, I was writing non-fiction and business articles, and I began working with a wonderful start-up company that helped promote and market women entrepreneurs. I spent over four years on the executive team of that start-up, including as VP, Community & Designer Relations, before stepping down in October 2014 to become a full-time writer.

There are so many “best parts” – working in my never-actually-been-to-yoga pants tops the list for certain. But truly what I love about this life is how connected I feel. When I was a corporate litigator working every day alongside brilliant litigation teams, in a Manhattan office building filled with hundreds of attorneys, I never felt as connected as I do when I receive a note from someone I’ve never met who reads something I’ve written in solitude and lets me know how it affected them – how it resonated with them. It’s a special feeling, and it’s one that more than makes up for the – ahem – fairly dramatic salary adjustment I’ve made in leaving the law! 

Lemongrass Hope touches on the theme of destiny. Do you believe there are some events in life that are destined to occur? If so, have you seen destiny at work in your own life?

Well, I’m probably a little like Kate’s dad in Lemongrass Hope who says destiny is “just a fancy word for making the right choice.”

I do believe we have choices and a primary role in shaping our own lives, but I also recognize that some answers keep presenting themselves to us again and again for a reason. And I believe in connections between and among people – especially the kind of powerful, extraordinary connections that transcend time. So, if destiny is the intersection between those extraordinary connections and those answers that keep showing up in our lives – then yes, I certainly do believe in destiny.

My writing career feels like “destiny” in many ways. It was something I said “no” to many years ago – a decision that I do not regret for a moment – and something that I finally circled back to in my 40’s – a decision I also do not regret for a moment.

And of course, my children. That a 17-year old girl from a small town in Pennsylvania who had never really been anywhere else – could somehow cross paths with an Italian boy from Brooklyn, then let him talk her into falling in love with him, and eventually create these three creatures who so clearly were meant to exist … baffles my mind nearly every day!

What genre do you most enjoy reading for pleasure?

I love compelling women’s fiction and also historical fiction. I love everything that Jojo Moyes and Liane Moriarty write. I love can’t-put-the-book-down suspense and mysteries like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train.

Honestly, I love any book that helps me get lost for a little while. Beautiful Ruins is one of my all time favorites in contemporary fiction.

Do you have any other fiction projects in the works that you’d like to discuss?

I do! Thanks for asking. I’m working on my next novel that is – right now – titled “Secrets of Worry Dolls.” It’s about complicated family relationships – which I’m hoping is just as universal an idea as the “What If” idea explored in Lemongrass Hope!

Secrets of Worry Dolls is about sisters, mothers, courageous love, and fear. It will likely incorporate a bit of mysticism and magical realism as well, and it will – like Lemongrass Hope – have an international setting, in addition to the storyline in the United Sates. It will take place partly in Guatemala.

Thanks, Amy!

How My Grandmother’s Character Has Influenced My Characters

I recently saw the musical Annie for the second time in my life. The first time was the day my grandmother died. I was nine years old.

I was supposed to see the musical with my parents, but they ended up sending me with a friend and her mom, so they could begin making the funeral arrangements without me underfoot. That day was, and still remains, one of the most grief-filled days of my life, mainly because I considered my grandmother to be one of my best friends. She was really the only grandparent that I ever knew, and oddly enough, we had many of the same likes and interests. As a result, she and I were very close. She was a good friend, a loyal listener, and loads of fun. Her house was a magical place where I got to stay up late, eat my favorite foods, and where a make-believe mouse deposited a piece of candy on the nightstand while I slept.

My grandmother left me with many sweet memories, but some of her own childhood remembrances weren’t as good. Like Annie, she almost became an orphan at a very young age, because both of her parents had died by the time she was ten years old. Fortunately, her maternal grandmother intervened and volunteered to raise her, so she didn’t have to go to an orphanage. Her grandmother had a profoundly positive influence on her life, just as she had on mine.

Despite her early losses, I never heard my grandmother complain. Instead, she was usually thinking about other people. What I still appreciate most was her compassion for those around her. Happily, I was often the recipient of her good nature. This example of compassion has inspired a character in a book that I’m currently writing. It’s also inspired me to have more compassion for my other characters, especially when I question their actions and motives, and it’s prevented me from always insisting that they do what I think is best. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s inspired me to have compassion for myself as a writer, knowing that things will not be perfect on the first draft, or even on the tenth. But, perhaps the gift is in the message and not in every nuanced imperfection of the tale.

How I wish I could share my stories with my grandmother today. I will certainly always treasure the ones that we lived together so many years ago.

Interview with David Hicks

hicks_davidDavid Hicks is a professor of English at Regis University. He is also the author of several published short stories, a novel-in-stories called White Plains, and a debut novel called The Ruins. David is a Pushcart nominee, and a Colorado Council on the Arts Fiction Award winner. His work has been recognized as a finalist in multiple well-known contests. David shared that he is also co-directing a new low-res MFA program in Denver, the Mile-High MFA:

He was gracious enough to find the time to provide some information about his work, his inspiration, and how teaching literature informs his own writing. David also offered some helpful advice about getting a literary agent. Please visit to learn more about David and his work.

As an English professor, you’ve been teaching literature for many years. What was the catalyst that prompted you to begin writing your own stories?

Well, I’d been teaching at the college level since I was twenty-two years old, and my PhD is in American literature, so for a long time I gave papers at academic conferences and published academic writing; but I always wanted to be a writer. The catalyst for my big switch was the same catalyst for all the big changes in my life: I got a divorce, quit my job, and moved to Colorado. Every single aspect of my life changed then, including what I pursued as intellectual labor. Also, for my first two years in the West, I lived with a writer, so I had a firsthand look at what the writing life was like, and I admired it. I began writing then–short stories. A few years later, in 2001, I was fortunate to find work at Regis University in Denver, a school that actually values creative work in addition to academic scholarship. (At most universities, creative work doesn’t count toward tenure or promotion.) So now I have the good fortune of working at a school that doesn’t just tolerate, but actually values, my creative work. That helps a lot. In other words, I don’t have to “sneak in” my creative writing; instead, it’s what I do, and my colleagues respect it.

How does teaching literature help to inform or improve your own writing process? 

Oddly enough, I’ve never been asked that question. I think it both informs and improves my writing, both on a conscious and unconscious level. The act of reading–especially, I’d say, reading literary fiction–has no doubt embedded many stylistic, structural, and linguistic “templates” in my brain, and that has probably helped me to be a good writer. And teaching literature means I’m constantly reading and re-reading great works, so all those templates are constantly being reinforced and improved. And when I read, I quite consciously “read as a writer,” noting not just the what but the how of the work I’m reading. So I’m not only thinking thematically, as a professor does–or structurally, linguistically, generically, symbolically–but my writer self is thinking, Damn, my eyes just welled up–how did she do that? and I’ll go back through the passage and try to learn from it. So what this means is that I can re-read a canonical work like Moby-Dick (which I just did, a few weeks ago) and mark passages I want to be sure to go over in class, because they speak to a particular theme or represent a particular stylistic move I want the students to learn, and at the same time know that it’s good for me as a writer because I’m (unconsciously) hard-wiring some of that gorgeous style in my brain and I might (consciously) mimic something of that style, or that theme, in my own work-in-progress.

In your experience as a professor and writing coach, what are some common mistakes that authors make in the initial drafts of their manuscripts?

They make a lot of mistakes in their initial drafts, just as you and I do, but the problem is that they don’t stay with the draft long enough–like fifty or sixty times through from start to finish–to correct those mistakes. But to answer your question more directly, they typically “tell” too much  and don’t “show” enough. They don’t have the confidence to give us the tip of the iceberg; they want to make sure the reader “gets it”–“gets” what they’re trying to say about the character and action and “gets” how eloquent their writing is. So there’s typically a lot of heavy-handed stuff in first drafts, too much explaining and not enough describing, and typically (this was certainly true of me, when I started writing) a great deal of overwriting, writing that draws too much attention to itself.

What was your inspiration for The Ruins, your debut novel? 

Two inspirations: First, I was teaching a short-story workshop for adults and I asked my students to describe a character doing something in a place they (the students) knew very well. I started doing the exercise with them, describing a character (myself as a teenager) walking down the street in Italy where my aunt lives–her house is across the street from the Mediterranean, and there are great smells and sounds there. I continued writing that draft when I got home, and when I got to page 28 and the poor kid was still walking, I knew it was probably not another story I was writing, but a novel.

My second inspiration was my sister. She died when I was young, and for a long time I thought I had caused her death. I wasn’t able to talk about her at home, because it upset my parents so much; so as I was writing about myself as a teenager in Italy, surrounded by so many physical manifestations of upheaval and death (earthquakes, bradyseisms, the constant threat of volcanic eruption, and Roman ruins on every block), it struck me that to give this kid the burden of longing for his lost sister would be just the thing to drive the story, both forward and backward.

Your works include both short stories and novels. Which do you prefer writing? Why? 

I don’t have a preference. Some stories feel short to me, and others feel long. I’m better at the short story–I feel like I can crank out one of those, revise it fifty times or so, and find a home for it–but they’re almost always rather long, and therefore difficult to get published. The novel right now feels more exciting and troublesome to me, so that’s what I’ve been working on lately, and it both frustrates the hell out of me and turns me on–which pretty much describes the creative process for almost any artist.

I read that you are represented by Victoria Skurnick of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency. What was your process for getting an agent? Do you have any advice for debut authors who wish to begin the query process?

My process was laborious, but totally worth it–and I’m saying that even though she hasn’t yet sold my book, which is a novel-in-stories called White Plains. I queried over a hundred agents for my first book. The Ruins, and I couldn’t get one, even though it was a finalist in three renowned novel contests. About twenty asked for full manuscripts, and all of them wound up saying no, so what that told me was that the book wasn’t doing its job. Somewhere about a third of the way through, it wasn’t sustaining the reader’s attention. So I decided to put that book aside for the time being–a very difficult decision after having worked on it for eight years. For White Plains, I had better luck, no doubt because it’s a better book. I queried the agents I most respected, and who represented books that were somewhat like mine, and Victoria really liked it. I feel very lucky to have her, because she’s not like me at all: she’s forthright, connected, experienced, and confident in my work. She clearly didn’t take me on because I’m an “easy sell.” I’m not. There are no guns, vampires, werewolves, zombies, kinky sex acts, car chases, intense murder trials, typhoons, or apocalyptic devastations in my work. Just a lot of troubled characters.

Here now, my advice for debut authors who wish to begin the querying process:

  1. Make sure your book is as good as it can be, which probably means wait a little longer before querying and revise your book a few (dozen) more times.
  2. Once your book is truly as good as it can be, then go after an agent and be persistent, which means don’t quit after ten, twenty, or fifty rejections.
  3. Learn from any feedback they give you, because they typically know what they’re talking about, whereas you don’t, simply because it’s your book and you have no objectivity about it.

What fictional character would you most like to meet? Why?

I just asked my wife this question and she said, “I’d like to meet [Dostoyevsky’s] Underground Man, mainly to get his coat.” That’s as good an answer as I’ve heard to this question. For me, right now I’ll say Ahab, since, as I mentioned, I’ve just reread Moby-Dick, and an obsessed and god-defying monomaniacal whale-chaser is about as far removed from my own character as I can get. He’s as compelling a character in all of American literature–you can hate him all you want, but he dominates every scene he’s in, and Melville’s writing goes through the roof whenever he talks or thinks.  But a close second would be Janie from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God–the opposite of Ahab, full of yearning and open to new experiences, but a character I find lovable and compelling.

Thank you, David!

Interview with Amanda Mininger


Touch-cover1 Amanda Mininger-closeup






Amanda Mininger is a Colorado native, and the author of Touch. Her short story, “Lessons in Greek,” was just published in KNOT magazine. Amanda was kind enough to share some tidbits about Touch, mountain climbing, her latest project, and her writing process with me. More importantly, she shared what she’s learned about herself from the experience of writing a novel.

Please describe your novel in a couple of sentences and the type of reader who might enjoy it.

Well, this is where I flunk self-promotion, because describing my work has always been the hardest thing for me. But I’ll try.

It’s about a woman, Ava, who’s dying and thinking about a former flame, Theo, who challenged her in important ways. They’re no longer together—he’s with someone else—but she knows as her final days draw near that she needs to see him again and make things right. Theo isn’t a very happy guy and is struggling in his marriage. When he finds out that Ava is sick and dying, he starts visiting the hospital where she’s staying, but can never quite make it to her room.

I won’t tell you how it ends, but it basically explores how relationships change us forever, how they create meaning and circumstances and bring people together in ways we can never imagine.

Readers who are not opposed to a little contemporary romance, and who also like to look below the surface of things, seem to respond well to it.

There’s an important scene in Touch that involves the main characters climbing a mountain. Have you climbed any mountains, literally or figuratively?

Yes, both. Living in Colorado, I’ve hiked my fair share of mountains, and even a few fourteeners, which is what Colorado is famous for. In fact, the hiking scene in Touch almost exactly described my experience hiking Mt. Yale several years ago. It was my first fourteener, and mentally and physically grueling. Something about that hike stayed with me. Little did I know that it would come out in my writing later.

And writing a novel is a lot like climbing a mountain. It’s a long, slow, sometimes miserable process, but when you get to the top—or the end, in a novel’s case—you look around and the whole world is at your feet, your head is in the clouds, and no matter how out of breath you may be, it doesn’t detract from the miracle of it all.

What was your inspiration for the bits of magical realism that you included in the story?

I’ve been a fan of Alice Hoffman for years. If you’re familiar with her books, nearly everything she writes is touched with the mystical. I’ve always admired how her characters understand that they are not separate from the magical happenings of nature or the unseen forces around them. They live with them, contemplate them, accept them, even work against them sometimes, but never question them. It echoes my own worldview. So when I wrote Touch, I knew that I wanted it to have a similar feel, to go beyond the pedestrian and the practical-minded, so to speak.

What have you learned about yourself, either from the process of writing Touch or from the story/characters?

The obvious answer is that I learned I could actually finish a novel.

When I was younger, it seemed unfathomable to me. How do people do that? How do they actually sit down and write something from start to finish and then put it out there? I was cursed with starting a lot of stories but never finishing them, and then always cringing and being embarrassed at what I’d written.

But then something happened and a story came to me that I couldn’t ignore. When I sat down to write it, it flowed out of me; I couldn’t have stopped it if I’d tried. So despite all the false starts and insecurities, eventually a true creative door opened and it was like a secret had finally been revealed to me. Touch showed me, through its steady unfolding, who I was and what I was capable of.

If you want to know more about that creative flow and unfolding, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, as he describes it infinitely better than I can.

Do you have any advice for someone who’d like to write a novel?

Sit down and do it. See how far you get. If you finish it and you’re happy with it—if even just 10% of it makes you smile—go back and rework it. A novel is never done, so know that part of the process is revising a lot. But eventually it will be done enough.

Then get a trusted opinion. I strongly advise against friends and family, unless your uncle is Ian McEwan or something. No matter what they say, or how much you love or value them, they cannot provide the kind of constructive criticism you need. I’m also not a fan of writing groups and workshops. They may be very helpful to some people, but I’m not sure how productive they are to serious writers.

If possible, find a professional editor who can point out the holes and weak spots. Then consider this advice (some of the best I’ve ever gotten): “If a suggestion doesn’t intuitively make sense to you, let it go.”

The thing is, as writers, we give permission to other people to tell us what’s wrong with our work, and as a result, we stop listening to our inner voices. Don’t do that. Never stop listening to your inner voice. You will know when a suggestion is dead-on accurate, no matter how painful or hard it is to implement. They call it “killing your darlings.” But you will also know when it’s not. Be secure in that knowledge.

What’s the most helpful thing you’ve done to evolve your writing process over the past few years?

I started owning it. For years I said I “wanted to be writer.” Then one day I just started calling myself a writer. Once I wasn’t afraid to say it anymore, I became it. That meant actually sitting down and trying to write something every day. It doesn’t always happen; even now I go through stretches where I put aside my writing for days or weeks on end because I’ve let other things get in the way. But it’s never out of my mind. It’s never not with me. When you identify yourself as a writer, you take steps to keep that reality alive and expanding.

Those steps will be different for everyone and vary in their levels of intensity and professionalism. But for me, it’s finding as many outlets as I can that make sense to my writing. Obviously I write novels. I have a blog. I’ve also been dabbling a lot more in short stories and personal essays. I educate and re-educate myself. I read books on writing, blogs on writing, as well as a variety of fiction, memoir, current affairs, and a couple of literary magazines that I love. I do some writing exercises from time to time, and even did the whole morning pages thing from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I didn’t stick with it. Much like meditation, it’s easy to walk away from it with the slightest distraction.

But most importantly, and consistently, I stay open to information in whatever form it takes that makes me say, “So that’s how that works. That’s what I can do better or differently.”

Is there any information you’d like to share about your latest project?

My second novel, Beacon’s Fires, is a pretty big departure from Touch. It’s centered in a small farm town around a group of high school kids, a teacher, and the principal—all who have very specific issues, you could say. It’s darker, weirder, maybe a little controversial—yet it’s also very real, I hope, to the human experience. I grew up in a small town, and in fact I point this out in all my query letters to agents, in case they think I’m approximating the truth of what it’s like, or something.

I love it, though. I love that it’s different from Touch. And gosh darn it, I’ve been writing and revising and fiddling with this thing for years now, so I’m really ready for it to be done. Or at least done enough.

Thanks, Amanda!

The Beginning

I’m starting a blog! I must admit that I never imagined myself uttering these words, primarily because I don’t consider myself an expert on any one subject. But, then I thought if I could learn something, and others could learn something through the contents of a blog, then it might be a worthwhile endeavor.

I’ve always loved stories, both writing them and reading them. I particularly enjoy fiction, and the way imagination can transport us on an adventure of the mind and a journey of the emotions. I’ve decided to use my blog to explore the writing process, the life of a writer, the inspiration behind a good story, and of course, the tellers of these stories. In addition to my own musings, I hope to interview authors, primarily those who are drawn to writing fiction, to better understand the imaginative journey behind their books, and all of the other inputs that go into creating such magical outputs. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I hope you’ll be entertained and perhaps even learn something about your own story.