Sandra Hutchison interviews published women’s fiction novelist and writing retreat leader Kathryn Craft about that moment when you’ve seen all your book babies published and have to start from the very beginning.
Kathryn, you’ve told me that your first two novels, THE ART OF FALLING and THE FAR END OF HAPPY (which I found riveting), were projects you’d had cooking for a long time, and then you faced some challenges getting to the next one. Can you elaborate on that?
Sure, elaboration is my jam, lol. Thank you for your kind words about THE FAR END OF HAPPY!
Some writers claim to have a spigot of ideas they just can’t turn off. Not me.
No doubt this is due to the long gestation for my first two novels. It took me eight years to learn how to tell my debut, THE ART OF FALLING, which was built on my platform as a dance critic and choreographer. THE FAR END OF HAPPY then sold quickly on proposal. Although I only had ten contracted months to write, I’d been drafting the memoir material it is based on—my first husband’s suicide standoff against police—on and off for seventeen years. Once that work was turned in, I had no idea where to head next with my writing.
Still, selling on proposal is an act of faith on the part of the publisher (mine was Sourcebooks), and with an open option, I would not squander a repeated opportunity to submit one. My agent had always loved my practice novel, about a renowned horse therapist whose ten-year career is brought into question when the boy who inspired it is jailed for his mother’s murder and retreats into mutism, so first we spiffed its opening 85 pages and synopsis and submitted. The sales and marketing team did not see a great sales hook. Onward.
Next I combined an ancient myth and an original fable with a Yangtze River cruise disaster and came up with another proposal. My agent was excited about it, but the feedback from the publisher was that it wouldn’t reach the same market as my other books—it seemed part women’s fiction and part thriller. My editor’s exact words: “It doesn’t feel like a step up in brand.”
“Excuse me, but I have a brand? What is it, and how do I step it up?” - Kathryn Craft Click To TweetAt this point I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but I have a brand? What is it, and how do I step it up?” My agent was willing to go out on wide submission with the Chinese cruise novel, but what my editor said resonated with me. I felt my “step up” had slipped sideways. I’d worked too hard to achieve the readership I had and I did not want to abandon them. It was time to figure out who I was as a novelist and how to step up my game.
As someone long involved in local writers’ organizations, the Tall Poppy Writers, and Women’s Fiction Writers Association, as well as leading your own workshops and retreats, were you surprised to hit this moment in your career, or had you expected it? Did having writing pals and an agent help you resolve it, or do you think this is something a writer pretty much has to solve for herself?
If it took me by surprise it was because I hadn’t thought about it for a moment. I was driven to share the story about my husband’s suicide with the fervor of a calling, and was so focused on achieving its publication that once I emerged from my tunnel vision into my current reality, I could only blink as I realized that after seventeen years, I’d done it!
I did ask my agent, Katie Shea Boutillier at Donald Maass Agency, what she thought my brand was. Her thoughts: high stakes that are immediately apparent, psychological tension throughout, and the use of back story threads to add depth and mystery. While Amazon can get a lot wrong—for some reason they had listed THE FAR END OF HAPPY as #1 in American Literary anthologies for many weeks, lol—even they helped, because for the most part, they categorized my novels as “psychological women’s fiction.” That resonated with me as well, as I am endlessly fascinated by what makes people do the things they do. When I added in my own desire to continue to explore issues like body image and suicide, which are rich with possibility for further thought, discussion, or debate, the notion of a brand started to form.
But how to step it up? I mean, I already had three women facing shameful secrets as they tried to cling to hope during a loved one’s suicide standoff—did I now have to hold an entire country hostage? One of my writing friends suggested that instead of thinking of “stepping it up” as a linear progression, I could think of it in terms of new challenges that would help stretch my growth as a writer.
Upon being moved to tears in answering a question from my weekly writers group about things I feel deeply about, I realized I wanted to write about the sense of belonging to a specific geographic place. Combining that with questions always asked at book clubs about how my sons and I healed after my husband’s suicide, a piece of my own story not yet addressed in my fiction, I came up with a new idea, which I soon titled THE ONLY HOME I KNOW.
I believe I stepped up my game with a romantic element, which I hadn’t previously done; with a recurring structural element that will keep readers guessing; and by putting one major character on scene only in the opening and the ending, yet having her drive the action throughout.
A problem, though: I lost faith in my ability to write a proposal. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like a plotter, not a writer. I wanted to do what I knew how to do—go write a novel, fleshing it out and adding depth over many drafts. With my agent’s blessing, over the past year-and-a-half, that’s what I have done. It’s now finished, and she is planning to read it mid-September.
So how are these for high stakes? I have no idea if Katie will like it. Have I wasted my time? Even if she loves it and a sale goes through immediately, when it releases, I will have been out of the market for a possible career-ending four years. Will my readers even remember me? I am sixty and my parents both had dementia. Who knows how long I have to continue working at this.
But something happened this past year that gooses me forward: I fell in love with the characters in this new novel with a depth of attachment that surprised me, and their specific situation opened my mind to a new way of thinking about something I’d thought I was very clear on. The power of story is still strong within me. I’m not done yet.
I’ve heard some published authors say they wish they’d realized how quickly they’d need to produce the next book. As a self-published author, I’m also conscious of the clock ticking on the next pub date. You managed to put that aside for this project. What’s your best advice for handling that pressure?
- Be proactive. If you want to avoid this type of career hiccup, before you even start querying, come up with at least a half-dozen story ideas you believe are strong enough to pursue.
- As I wrote in my Writers in the Storm post, Managing Deadline Stress, your challenge is not acclimating to high levels of stress. We need to become more sensitive to it so we see its ill effects before succumbing to its undertow.
- Self-acceptance. Our main stressor is feeling we can’t live up to expectations, whether others’ or our own. We have to accept that we are biological beings who can break down, that it’s only feasible to work so many hours in a day, and that we must tend to other details of life. These are tough realities for the type of addictive personality that tends to succeed in such a competitive business, who’d much rather swipe everything else off the desk, dig in, and get ’er done. In the final weeks of a project, that’s what you might have to do—I got up at 4 a.m. and wrote until 8 pm every day during the final three weeks of revising THE FAR END OF HAPPY—but that’s no way to live on a daily basis.
- When dividing the days until deadline into a daily word count, build in a couple weeks for things to go wrong. Note “biological beings” in #3 above—and chances are, there are other biological beings depending on you who might break down, as well.
Given all that involvement, do you have any advice for writers on striking a balance between networking with other writers, writing, and the demands of daily life?
The balance will be different for everyone, so I guess my advice is to know yourself. Watch what does and doesn’t work. For example, I am both an introvert and extrovert by nature. My volunteer activities in the writing world, on boards, etc., have helped me span long periods of career disappointment, especially during the querying years. It helped that I believe I am playing a bit part in a much larger story, and did not believe the Great Creator would save me from the suicide action only to fail. I thrive on being around other writers, but after several days of being “on,” such as presenting at a conference, I need to hole up and recharge. Yet as one of five children I am socially motivated, often to the point of doing things for others that I won’t do for myself, so leading groups for other writers helps me achieve my own goals, send good karma into the world, all while supporting the industry I hope will support me. Win-win-win.
Time is at a premium. Always try to come up with scenarios that offer at least a triple win.
Try to come up with scenarios that offer at least a triple win. - Kathryn Craft #amwriting Click To TweetYou mentioned your column, “Turning Whine into Gold” for the Writers in the Storm blog, which focuses on finding positive solutions as a writer. If you had to distill your top three pieces of advice for writers, what would they be?
Most of these are contained within my first post there, “10 Writer Affirmations to Bolster Optimism.”
- Have faith that the process will hold rewards beyond those you seek.
- Use your writing to create a life you love. Love is the only reason to choose such an uncertain pursuit.
- Cast the word “rejection” from your life. No one is rejecting you, or even your ideas. They just aren’t suited to be your best advocate—and why wouldn’t you want to keep looking until you found your work’s best advocate?
Tell us about your writing for Writer’s Digest.
I love the way life happens sometimes. While I was floundering around for my next novel idea, Therese Walsh asked me to come on board at Writer UnBoxed (you can find me there on the second Thursday of each month with my craft column, “Mad Skills.”) Very quickly she also asked me to contribute a chapter to a book she was compiling for Writers Digest Books, AUTHOR IN PROGRESS. My chapter, “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters,” was a lot of fun to write. At the same time, another friend, Janice Gable Bashman, had pitched an interview with me for the 2017 NOVEL & SHORT STORY MARKET on how structure supports meaning in my novels. The interview was accepted, published, and then reprinted earlier this year, bundled with essays by writing luminaries such as Khaled Hosseini, Donald Maass, and Jodi Picoult, in THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING. That was a real thrill, and a boost as I sorted out my fiction writing.
About Kathryn Craft
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, THE ART OF FALLING and THE FAR END OF HAPPY, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter, “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters,” was included in the writing guide AUTHOR IN PROGRESS, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, has been reprinted in THE COMPLETE HANDBOOK OF NOVEL WRITING, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
Ronnie’s husband is supposed to move out today. But when Jeff pulls into the driveway drunk, with a shotgun in the front seat, she realizes nothing about the day will go as planned. The next few hours spiral down in a flash, unlike the slow disintegration of their marriage—and whatever part of that painful unraveling is Ronnie’s fault, not much else matters now but these moments. Her family’s lives depend on the choices she will make—but is what’s best for her best for everyone? Based on a real event from the author’s life, The Far End of Happy is a chilling story of one troubled man, the family that loves him, and the suicide standoff that will change all of them forever. You can arrange to get a signed copy by calling in your order to the Doylestown Bookshop. All other buy links are at Kathryn’s website.