November 14, 2009
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe is the author of THIRSTY. She is also a happy mom, an engaging teacher who believes in “telling the best story you can…believing in your writing…and working your arse off,” a fierce advocate for the end of domestic violence, and a writer who spends as much time as possible in “writerhead.”
WordHustler sat down with Kristin to get her advice about making sure your draft is ready to be sent out, the double-duty authors have to pull in order to get their books out there, and why chocolate + keyboard = no good. Read on to discover how to quench your own thirst for publishing success, with advice from an ingenious writer who knows how to slake (and make) it!
WordHustler: You have a varied writing background, including being published in Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, The Gettysburg Review…what do you consider your first big break, writing-wise?
Kristin Bair O’Keeffe: I’m a not a big break kind of writer; I’m of the slow-grow variety. I’ve been nurturing my career poem by poem, story by story, since I was eight years old. With each piece I’ve published (and the many I’ve written but haven’t published), I’ve learned a little more about writing, my voice, what I like to write about, what I believe in, the world…and the business of selling my work. The wonderful, amazing, cumulative effect of all this is my debut novel THIRSTY.
WH: An early draft of your novel, THIRSTY, was actually your graduate thesis, correct? Had you planned on trying to get it published as a novel while still working on it as a thesis? Had you published any fiction previously?
KBO: I started writing THIRSTY in 1992 while working on my MFA at Columbia College Chicago. As soon as I wrote the first scene (the one in which a here-to-be-unnamed-character-so-I-don’t-give-anything-away dies in a steel mill accident), I knew THIRSTY was a novel and I knew that (eventually) it would be published.
Before THIRSTY, I hadn’t written a whole lot of fiction. A few stories here and there, but mostly I wrote poetry. That’s how I started my writing life when I was eight, and I studied poetry as an undergraduate at Indiana University (Bloomington). Fiction was a new animal for me, and I loved it! I still do.
WH: How did you end up getting published through Swallow Press? Did you have a literary agent send your book out for you, or did you approach them directly?
KBO: I did not have an agent when I made the deal with Swallow Press (Ironically I got an agent within weeks of the deal for another project I’m working on). For the publication of THIRSTY, I owe a big thanks to my good friend and writing colleague Christina Katz (a.k.a. the Writer Mama). She has been one of THIRSTY’s greatest cheerleaders since we were in grad school together at Columbia. (She was also one of THIRSTY’s first readers.)
In early 2008, Christina was at a writers’ conference in the United States. As always, she was talking up THIRSTY to fiction folks, and on this particular day, the timing was right. Someone said, “Ooh, Kristin should send the manuscript to Swallow Press. Sounds like a good fit.” I did. And voilà! A short time later I had a book deal.
A bit of advice for readers: Venture out into the writing world. Go to conferences. Take classes. Join online groups. Twitter. Schmooze. Chat. Get to know as many people as you can. Let people get to know you. Relationships with writers and editors provide a wonderful support group, and you just never know where they may lead.
WH: Valuable advice, Kristin. So how much time passed between selling THIRSTY to publication? Was it hard revising with an editor’s input?
KBO: It took a little over a year to move THIRSTY from manuscript to book, and I loved working with David Sanders, my editor at Swallow Press. He “got” THIRSTY from the very beginning so working with him was a pleasure. He made great suggestions that strengthened the novel, one in particular. When I first sent the manuscript to David, THIRSTY had a short prologue. One of the questions he asked me during the editing process was, “Do you need this?” Now, keep in mind that I’d written drafts of THIRSTY with and without the prologue, so I’d already questioned the necessity of it. Having David-a fresh, wise eye-confirm my suspicion that THIRSTY didn’t need the prologue was terrific. I cut it.
It’s important for aspiring writers and writers who have not yet published a book to realize how much of a partnership the editor/author relationship is. Yes, you wrote the book, but it is amazing to have a new eye on it when you get to the publishing stage; it truly takes the book to a new level.
WH: Many aspiring writers may think the work is over once the book is sold. Can you illuminate the post-selling, publishing and marketing process for us (the abridged version, of course. The full version could fill a whole book!)?
KBO: Today your job as an author is two-fold. Your first responsibility is writing the best story you can, polishing it, and getting it to publishable quality. Once that’s done and the manuscript is sold, your second responsibility begins: marketing. This includes everything from creating a cool website for the book to blogging to connecting with readers via both in-person and virtual events, and lots more. (Ideally you’ve been sowing the seeds for your marketing efforts while writing your book-blogging, reading and commenting on other writing blogs, freelancing, etc. A little work along the way makes the post-publishing marketing work a lot easier.)
Luckily, I love the marketing end of the business. Although I live in Shanghai, China, I traveled to the United States for the launch of THIRSTY at the end of September. I spent almost seven weeks traveling to various cities on the East Coast, reading to groups in bookstores, signing copies of THIRSTY, chatting up potential readers, doing radio interviews, Tweeting on Twitter, and blogging. I had a blast! Now I’m back in Shanghai doing everything I can online and in Asia to continue getting THIRSTY to more readers. I’m talking to reading groups in Shanghai, giving a talk at the Shanghai International Literary Festival in March, and showing up as a guest on great blogs like WordHustler.
WH: One of your other passions (besides writing, your adopted hometown of Shanghai, and your daughter, of course) is teaching. What is a common mistake you see inexperienced writers making when first starting out?
KBO: You’re absolutely right…I love to teach writing. Over the years I’ve noted a couple of common missteps:
a. Writers sometimes talk about writing way more than they actually write; one of my mantras is “Writing begets writing.” (Repeat after me, “Writing begets writing.”) Now sshhh…and put the pen to the page!
b. Inexperienced writers often don’t realize how many drafts it takes to produce a polished, well-written piece. They want to get it done quickly and send it out to publishers before it’s ready. My advice? Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. And then? Rewrite.
WH: What are a few of your favorite books out there today (besides your own, of course 😉 )?
KBO: I love novels that change me in some significant (but often invisible) way…ones that make me consider the world a little differently. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss does that for me. So does Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Right now I’m reading Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and even though I’m only on page 40, I suspect I’m going to be adding it to my favorites list.
WH: What is your preferred writing method? Do you have a certain writing spot/technique?
KBO: Here’s my ideal writing morning:
It’s 5:00 a.m. A bit of fuzzy light squeezes through the curtains. My husband doesn’t wake as I roll out of bed, still carrying the morning’s dream with me. I stumble to the kitchen, pour a glass of grapefruit juice and a glass of water, and stumble back to my office. I sit down at my desk, content to be in the creative state I call “Writerhead.” I open my journal, write by hand for a while, then turn on my computer and start clicking away at the keys. A few hours later with a few thousand words under my belt, I open my office door and join the rest of the world.
Of course, as a mom to an energetic, chatty, absolutely hilarious 21-month-old, my ideal writing morning doesn’t happen all that often anymore. Instead I squeeze the writing in where I can: while my daughter naps, while I have a few hours of childcare in the afternoons, in the evenings after she goes to bed.
WH: How do you best balance your fiction writing with your family life/teaching/blogging responsibilities?
KBO: Hhhhmm. Considering the fact that I…
a. just returned home to Shanghai after almost seven weeks in the U.S.
b. am wildly jetlagged
c. am doing everything I can to help my toddler through her jetlag
d. lost my childcare helper while I was in the U.S.
e. and haven’t yet unpacked our suitcases
…I’m not so sure I’m very good at balancing much of anything at all. BUT during a normal week, I think I do all right. Family, of course, comes first. Then the writing.
WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to do?
KBO: a. Write the best story you can.
b. Believe in your work.
c. Work your arse off.
WH: What are three things you’d advise aspiring writers to NEVER do?
KBO: a. Never rush a piece of writing. (As I said before, it takes A LOT of work and many rewrites to get a piece of writing to publishable quality.)
b. Never give up. (Remember: I’m a writer of the slow-grow variety. If I’d given up, I wouldn’t be chatting with you today.)
c. Never leave an unwrapped chocolate bar on your keyboard in the summertime.
WH: Do you think WordHustler is a valuable resource in helping writers successfully get their work out there, professionally and effectively?
KBO: Heck, yeah! All that vital publishing information in one place, interesting authors sharing inspirational stories, and a submission service? What more can a writer ask for?
She’s a teacher, she’s a writer, she’s a blogger, and she’s RIGHT, folks. Kristin’s advice about plugging yourself while you write is valuable- so what are you waiting for? Set up your blog, get to Tweeting, and participate in some great online writing forums. Twitter is actually a very valuable tool because it gives you direct access to agents, editors, and other writers going through exactly what you struggle with (and triumph over) every day.
Also, if you’ve been working on and revising that future award-winning novel, maybe it’s time to take opportunity by the horns and submit it to the Literary Storm Novel Contest so you can be in the running to win a FREE manuscript critique AND a chance to be published by Flatmancrooked! Who knows, maybe the future is now!