Writing is a craft I’ve been playing with recently. I say playing because a “writer” isn’t something I’ve ever considered myself though I’d been writing professionally for many years. Television stories, that is. Non-fiction ones, both short form and longer pieces. It’s a skill I acquired, though never really a talent. Talent is a gift that can be refined and made stronger. I think I’m gifted in some things, but not really writing. Sometimes I’m proficient, but I don’t consider myself as having a way with words. I can describe what I see and what I think. Mostly it’s because I’m talking on paper – and talking is something I’m pretty good at. Articulating, to be specific. (And when you talk, you can end with prepositions.)
Now that I’m not making television shows I’m playing with the craft of writing to see if I can get better and to discover a voice that fits me. So the idea of learning to write well is a creative pursuit that’s intriguing and offers a challenge that I’m up for tackling. But I’m under no delusion that it’s something at which I can become talented. The book I recently finished by Stephen King titled “On Writing” reinforces the same thought. He says good writers can become better, but not great.
The notion of writing a book is as fascinating to me as it is daunting. So when I read, I find myself deconstructing its form: studying how something is said, the way it’s developed and the style within which it unfolds. It’s within that context that I recently spoke with Lynne Spreen about her first novel, “Dakota Blues,” which she also self-published.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and its evolution of story and thought process of protagonist Karen. She’s a middle-aged (read boomer) who is so deeply consumed by her HR career that she considers herself indispensible, until one day she’s blindsided by its fiction. Brutally. Spreen expertly weaves narration that winds you through countryside, nature, settings and Karen’s mind. You feel, see and taste everything. Chapters move quickly as they weave you through story until you can’t put down the book.
Let’s start with her trailer which sets the mood well and teases it even better.
Now on to our conversation …
The book unfolds effortlessly – at least to the reader, which constantly makes me wonder how effortless was it for you to write?
I have to confess: not effortless. I’m thrilled it ended up looking that way, but this book took a lot of years to write. Picture a potter’s wheel, and a grey lump of clay getting fat, then skinny, then fat again as the wheel spins. That was DB.
How much did you write each day and how much of the story did you know before writing?
I write as many days in sequence as I can, because if I skip a day or two, I forget details! But I had to find that out the hard way.
That’s why it took me ten years (gasp!) In the early years, I’d get distracted or upset about how it was going, or my job would wring me out, and I’d stop writing for months at a time.
Did you keep notes of the details?
Oh, I did! I had notes here and lists there, notebooks and computer files and everything. I was learning to write as I wrote. Problem was, as I learned, the details had to change. The notes would become obsolete, so I’d throw them away. Doesn’t this sound like fun?
After a lifetime as a corporate suit, I was finally able to downscale to part-time, which allowed me to write, but I discovered I knew almost nothing about constructing a novel. So I spent years learning – attending classes, conferences, reading Writer’s Digest, and later, blogs and articles on the Internet.
Did you map out the sequences in advance, complete with the narrative scenes provided?
No, I didn’t. But now that I know better, I will! Originally the whole story was set in Newport Beach, but I didn’t love it there. Then, when I went back to N. Dakota with Mom in 2008, my first visit back since childhood, I fell in love with the area and knew my story had to be based in the Midwest. Does that give you an idea of all the revising?
As we drove from Denver to Dickinson and back again, and during the visit, I kept recording my observations into a video recorder. Mom and I still talk about that trip – it was the trip of a lifetime.
What were the different phases you went through with the book – ie: did you write from an outline, had you written notes for yourself along the way? Was there a skeleton that you filled in as the story grew?
I think it would be better not to tell you how I did it, because it’s exactly wrong! My so-called method was trial-and-error, which ate up a lot of time: I did not have a good idea of how a novel should be structured, or how to outline it. I went through about 3 systems and ended up using the one by Larry Brooks (StoryFix.com). So my next book should only take about a year to write, now that I know what is supposed to go where. (She said hopefully.)
So if you weren’t sure how a novel should be structured, how were you able to start writing it? Did you have to restructure the story to accommodate the structure?
I wrote a hundred pages of first chapters. It was excruciating. Yes, I had to rewrite everything, multiple times.
Stephen King says in his book “On Writing” that you first write with the door closed and then with the door open – meaning (I think) that the first phase is almost stream of consciousness writing – letting the story spill out of you. Then you re-write it with readers in mind. Does that define your process – or was yours different?
I loved that book, but I think my future process (after the crucible of this first experience) will be this: I’ll first create a logline or one-line. Then a short synopsis, then a longer synopsis, then a form of outline, and finally, the novel.
What was your writing regimen to prepare for tackling a novel?
I lit a candle, drank lots of wine and started typing. Just kidding. Now that I’m 58, my stomach hates alcohol, which makes me so mad.
That sounds like a plan for me, actually! But I was thinking more along the lines of “practice” pieces. Were there such things? For example, now you have many writing venues in your life: book reviews, a blog, articles on different websites, maybe more. Did those outlets serve as practice pieces, of sorts? Or just other avenues of expression?
I started the nugget of what would become Dakota Blues about ten years ago. At the time, I was freelance writing (newspaper and magazine) which helped me hone my skills. I also joined a critique group which I consider critical to getting better at the craft. Then, as I began blogging, doing book reviews, etc., that helped me even more, because your writing gets tighter. You find yourself asking, “What’s my point?” or “What the hell does that have to do with anything?” It’s better to ask yourself that before the reader does it for you!
How did you determine when the story was winding down and coming to its rightful end?
Strangely enough for one so scattered, I had an idea of how I wanted Karen’s journey to unfold. I had learned enough to understand and treasure the concept of story arc, but also, I have always been eager (which is not a strong enough word – passionate? Yes, passionate.) about women breaking free in midlife or later. Realizing they actually hold the keys to their jail cells.
When and how did you determine who the support characters would be for Karen and what their back-stories might be?
They came and went. I would learn something critical about supporting characters and realize one of mine had to go, so I’d edit her out. Now I understand that each character exists for a reason, to carry water for the story. She or he can’t just be there because you want to get revenge on your coworker or boyfriend. They exist to perform a function for the story. In the case of Frieda, she served as guide to old age, someone who could tell Karen what to expect and how to be happy and independent when older. Frieda also served as a mother-replacement for Karen, who felt guilty for having “abandoned” her own mom.
That’s interesting because Frieda’s relationship with her own daughter didn’t feel like a role-model sort of relationship. What was your reason for that?
I wanted to show an old woman who, even though she was really old, still grappled with the same issues we all do (family discord) and some we all don’t, at least not yet (mortality.) What must it feel like to be 90?
So even though Frieda is fiercely independent, she caves (with the inducement of the baby) and decides to go see Sandy and maybe live with her. However, the crisis in Wyoming causes not just Karen but Frieda, as old as she is, to change her mind and keep on fighting. Which I think is interesting, because it shows a VERY elderly woman who is just like us, only wiser. And she has a lot to teach Karen. The troubled relationship with Sandy is a metaphor for any difficult situation in our lives.
Locations are so real they can’t possibly be fictional. Are they?
The locations are definitely not fictional, but I wrote about Dickinson before the oil boom landed like Godzilla. That lovely small town now exists only in my book. I’m glad that North Dakotans are finally getting economic benefit, but there’s a cost.
Many writers suggest to “write what you know.” How closely does Dakota Blues resemble your life?
There’s a lot of me and my ancestors in it. I worked in HR, like Karen (Karen is the name of my elder sister; I used it to honor her). And the theme of the story – breaking free, rediscovering your authentic self, and finding empowerment in the second half of life – is my passion. I believe it can happen if we take a more active role in our own destiny.
How would you say fiction differs from non-fiction?
As an HR exec, I wrote non-fiction every day, along these lines: “You were observed at 8:45 a.m. on Tuesday, October 15, exiting the Pussy Cat Gentlemen’s Club in (city). You opened the door of your work truck (plate # xxxxx), started the vehicle and in approximately ten seconds, collided with a telephone pole.” After thirty years of that kind of writing, I was artistically constipated. But little by little, I learned to make stuff up. Fiction is so fun and freeing.
But you also write “real” pieces, articles and book reviews. I consider those non-fiction. Do you consider there to be a difference?
That’s an interesting question, because although obviously fiction is “unreal” as opposed to non, which is “real,” at the same time, if I’m writing fiction, I have to deal with facts, too. Like with Dakota Blues, I did a lot of research, such as contacting an ornithologist about bird life on the northern plains. (Specifically: if trees only arrived with the settlers, where did birds live before that? Were species limited to those that lived in burrows, like some owls?)
And with my newspaper column or other works, I had to paint dramatic pictures with my words, and construct the articles in such a way as to pull the reader in and keep them hooked. So although I’ve never EVER thought about this before, the two forms do have a lot in common. Good question, Joyce.
The book looks as professionally packaged (font, art, weight of paper, number of pages) as all the books I have from big publishing houses. Please explain the process of self-publishing and why you chose Amazon.
Thank you! I actually had the cover made independently by www.Damonza.com. I’ll tell him you said so.
Why I chose Amazon: an indie publisher wanted to publish Dakota Blues, and in preparation for the contract negotiations (did I mention I used to negotiate union contracts?) I researched Amazon (actually, CreateSpace, an entirely separate company) because I knew they listed their a la carte publishing services and costs right on the website. So I’m thinking, okay, I’ll tell Mr. Indie I want this, and this, and this…and then I realized I could do it without him! This is the beauty of self-publishing (although at this point, I have about six people on my team, so the label is inaccurate.)
What’s a cost range for self-publishers?
Nobody will give you a straight answer to this because it’s all over the place, depending on what services you want to buy and how techy you are. But I would say if you spend more than $2500, you’re nuts. My own services (including a $600 book trailer done by my cover artist) probably totaled $1500. But a person can spend way less. If you just want to sell it as an ebook, you can upload your manuscript to Smashwords for free. Then tell everybody about it and rake in the cash. Or coin, depending.
What are you working on now?
Oh, this is so fun! It’s a collection of short stories about the experience of being older. It’s called “The New Country – Stories of Midlife and Beyond.” I’ve got my critique group laughing and crying and begging for more. There’s quite a bit of humor in it.
Any final nuggets you’d like to share about your discovery process?
Lots of people ask authors where we get ideas. Here’s my best suggestion: coffee and the morning paper (or in my case, the morning laptop). One of my best sources of ideas for characters and scenes is from reading advice columns (I really like Carolyn Hax at the Washington Post). Also, I get Google Alerts when the word “boomer” turns up in an article online. Sometimes you find out about a trend (like the largest group of people seeking divorce is women over 50, and the most common reason given is she wants to move, now that the kids are raised, and he doesn’t. So she goes without him.) Then you ask “what if?” Because that’s the magic of writing fiction: dreaming up your own questions, and supplying your own answers.
Thanks for asking me to join you in this discussion, Joyce. I had a blast!
That’s from Lynne Spreen, author of her first novel, Dakota Blues” found on Amazon. Pick up your copy and enjoy it as much as I have.