Welcome to the four hundred and nineteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with humorous romance author Barbara Schnell. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Barbara. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Barbara: I’m married and living in Los Angeles. I’ve worked as an actress (still a member of SAG) and started writing to keep myself occupied as I waited by the phone. I found that I prefer writing to acting—and as a middle-aged woman that’s a fortunate discovery to make—so I’m focusing on that.
Morgen: I’ve never acted (unless you count two lines in a school play and a dress rehearsal stand-in in May this year) but do imagine there’s a lot of hanging around so an ideal scenario for writing. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Barbara: I consider my novel to be literary mainstream but it’s also romantic and humorous. I’ve decided to push the romance because I read that 70% of book buyers are women and women like romance (I know I do). But it’s more of a serio-comedy, slice-of-life novel. The fact that it’s hard to pigeon-hole makes it difficult to market but let’s face it; in life as in literature, one size does not fit all. It’s my niche and I’m happy with it. I thought of trying science fiction but it’s not a good fit. My raucous sense of humor doesn’t lend itself to alien invasions.
Morgen: I don’t read sci-fi so I tend not to write it although one of my Story a Day May 2011 pieces was sci-fi and one reader said it was their favourite story, and another said the same about my one and only western so maybe I should broaden my scope. What have you had published to-date?
Barbara: I’ve had one short story, Grandma’s Straw Hat, published in an anthology. And I’ve just put my first novel, First Year, in eBook format (available on Kindle, Nook, iTunes). First Year is also available in soft-cover hard-copy.
Morgen: I love the title of your story, it sounds really sweet. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Barbara: Oh Lord, have I had rejections. With a first novel that’s pretty much to be expected. But I worked as an actress so rejection was a way of life. It’s not meant personally (usually a rubber stamp saying “Sorry. Not for me”) so I don’t take it that way. Just chalk it up to experience and move on.
Morgen: Exactly – right thing for the wrong person. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Barbara: I’ve won 6 “Will Write for Food” flash fiction competitions sponsored by the Southern California Writers’ Association and had my stories published in the SCWA collection.
Morgen: Well done. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Barbara: I had an agent. She was supposed to be the biggest West Coast agent and people were surprised when she took me because she didn’t accept first-time novelists. She told me she’d never heard her top reader talk about a book like he talked about mine. He was “over the moon!” So she shipped my novel off to the big five publishers in New York. Then she told me Creative Artists wanted to represent the movie rights. There was much excitement. Well, it’s a first novel, nobody had ever heard of me, so all the New York people ‘passed’. Then the agent fired most of her staff (including my White Knights), told me she’d never really been behind my project, and dumped me. Now I’m gun-shy about agents. I self-published (because I had to), got myself some great reviews, and have been selling First Year myself with some success. The advantage of not having an agent is you don’t have to pay someone 15% of your earnings. Plus you keep the rights. The disadvantage is being unable to submit to a publisher (agents still serve as gatekeepers). And if you don’t have an established publisher it’s hard to get reviews from respectable sources. It can be done but it’s hard. The internet and birth of eBooks have turned publishing on its head which is interesting. I just attended a seminar where the lunch speaker was an agent. He said that agents were a dying breed but he wasn’t surprised; agents and publishers had been abusing writers for years. He felt that writers should be nurtured not insulted and ripped off. Another agent attending the meeting wasn’t too happy to hear that. He got all red in the face and raised his hand to argue but was ignored.
Morgen: I love that. As eBooking isn’t as scary as it seems, so many authors (including myself) are going that way. So your book’s available as an eBook… do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Barbara: It is and I loved being involved in the process from start to finish—great if you’re a control freak. I do read eBooks. I find them convenient. But I love hard copy too–especially with a glass of wine in a comfy chair.
Morgen: I agree with you on the control thing. Apart from first readers / my editor, I have full say, and of course I do overrule them on some thing if their suggestions will change the work too much. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Barbara: I do everything. Maybe not well but I’m learning.
Morgen: I think every writer, regardless of their support team, has to. Most hate it (OK, hate’s perhaps a strong word) but see it as a necessary evil. The worst thing is that it takes so much time away from the writing, and we’re writers after all. Do you have a favourite of your characters, who would you have playing him / her as the leading actor/s?
Barbara: I like my lead character, Stevie. I can see Jessica Alba playing her.
Morgen: Please tell us a little about the cover of your book.
Barbara: I have a friend, a political cartoonist in Phoenix, draw the cover based on my suggestions. He picked more vivid colours than I would have but I think his choice of colour is more impressive.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Barbara: I’m working on a two-part novel tentatively titled I was a June Bride. It’s the story of a young woman’s search for independence from her mother while she plans a wedding that she isn’t sure she wants to go through with, can’t afford, attended by feuding relatives…you know, reality. The sequel is a continuation.
Morgen: Happens all the time, I’m sure. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Barbara: I’ve been on hiatus dealing with life issues but intend to get serious soon—like tomorrow. I’ve done the chapter breakdowns so it’s just a matter of fleshing things out. I find I have to write daily to be productive. It’s like exercise; you have to do it regularly to get any benefit.
Morgen: Absolutely, a pianist would, athletes do. I write a short story (mostly flash fiction) for my 5PM Fiction slot and it’s easy to find the time when I have to (usually scribbling on my morning dog walk). Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Barbara: I start out with a beginning and an end. Then I break it down into three acts (theatre training), then break it down more into chapters. I do character back-stories then start writing. Things usually take on a life of their own and I have to throw a lot out the window but at least I have a framework to start with.
Morgen: I found that with my first novel (a lad lit – still to be honed and eBooked) that regardless of what I plotted, it would go off at a tangent… usually for the better. You mentioned Stevie earlier, do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Barbara: I look in phone books of the areas the characters are from to get names. And my characters are all amalgams of people I know.
Morgen: It sounds like you’re very thorough, although you did say that you throw a lot away (which is a shame), do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Barbara: I had 1,000 pages of First Year that I edited down to around 450. The manuscript looked bloody by the time I got done with it. Now I self-edit as I go along. Saves a lot of time.
Morgen: Ouch. Do you have to do much research?
Barbara: My books are contemporary romantic comedies so I use places I’ve lived for settings. I just have to get dates correct.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Barbara: I like writing in first person—my first three books will be first person. The book after that will be third person. I’m told it’s easier. We’ll see.
Morgen: Without wishing to state the obvious, you’re not limited to one person’s point of view. In first person your protagonist can only recount what he or she thinks someone else is doing, not what they’re thinking. Some novels are first / third alternate chapters so that could be an option. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Barbara: A science fiction story. Just can’t seem to get it to work. Maybe after this book I’ll look at it again.
Morgen: The more practice you do the more (in theory) you’ll see holes in that story. I have LOADS (100+) of stories I’ve not done anything with so I hope that when I go back to them I can do something with them all. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Barbara: The discipline is my least favourite part of writing. You have to put pants to chair and plug along. Sometimes my mind takes flight and it’s pure joy but until the first draft is done it’s pretty much slogging for me. I’m surprised sometimes at the finished product. I think, “Damn, that’s good. Did I really do that?” I guess that’s what we call the muse inspiring us.
Morgen: I love that. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Barbara: There are a lot of negative people out there. Ignore them. They’ll sneer and tell you that you need an agent and that you have to have an established publisher. What they don’t say is that while agents and publishers make life easier, you have to have a proven sales record before they’ll take you on—very much of a Catch-22. Writers are like actors; you have to be in the union before you can be cast and you have to be cast to get in the union. Just keep plugging away. Have lots of product so when someone finds you, you’ll have lots to sell. Until then pursue writing as a hobby. You won’t drive yourself to drink that way.
Morgen: Some authors are being ‘found’ online so it’s definitely changing… hopefully for the better for us authors. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Barbara: Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and Patrick Rothfuss. We’d have three centuries to discuss. I hope they like lasagne.
Morgen: I’d say most people would. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Barbara: That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But didn’t Nietzsche die in an insane asylum?
Morgen: Almost, according to Wikipedia. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Barbara: I belong to GLAWS (Greater Los Angeles Writers’ Society).
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Barbara: I sing (mezzo), I play flute, I’m learning ballroom dance. I have a 1921 CA bungalow that needs a lot of work so that keeps me busy.
Morgen: I love D.I.Y. but have little time to do any (she says looking out on to her jungle of a garden). Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Barbara: Check out the GLAWS website (www.glaws.org). Tony did a lot of work on it.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Barbara: I’m on LinkedIn, twitter, Facebook–just starting to explore them so I don’t know how helpful they are.
Morgen: I love them all for different reasons. LinkedIn helped me tremendously earlier this year when I was running out of interviewees… and still helps (mostly via their Published Authors Network group), I’m now in eight months in hand. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Barbara: I think we’ll always need writers. The nuts and bolts of book publishing will change but they’ll always need the people who dream up new worlds and write about the human condition. Entire industries depend on the imaginations of storytellers. The movie people made the Potter books memorable but they needed Ms. Rowling to give them a world to interpret artistically.
Morgen: Absolutely. Stories started in caves so I can’t see people losing interest any time soon. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Barbara: Go to my website at www.bagmlit.com. I’ve included two sample chapters as well as reviews and links to online merchants.
Morgen: Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Barbara: What do you write?
Morgen: I say I write ‘dark and light’ (crime and humour) but it tends to be more of the former, although recently I was asked to write a love story and had fun with that, although I still managed to have a dead body in it. Thank you, Barbara.
I then invited Barbara to include an extract of her writing and following is a “Will Write For Food” winner. Writers were given a picture and asked to write a 250-word story about it. I can’t show the cartoon presented due to copyright issues but imagine a depressed skunk in a bed complete with floral-decorated linens (you can see it here).
It all started with that damn deer, Flower thought mournfully as he surveyed the horticultural wreckage his life had become.
He’d been a lonely little fellow. Nobody would play with him because he tended to expel nasty gases when he got excited. He’d been hiding in a flowerbed, enviously watching the other kids play, when Bambi caught sight of him and mistakenly called him ‘Flower’. So, to make himself acceptable to herbivores he’d adopted the name and buried himself in all things floral to mask his natural scent. He finally had friends. Unfortunately, none of them were skunks.
The friends grew up, as friends do, and gravitated to others of their kind. Except for Flower. Other skunks thought his fixation with plants (for decorating, not eating) was odd. Some whispered that he was gay.
Now Bambi had a mate and Flower had pansy-motif bed linens.
He was an adult skunk, dammit! It was time to accept what he was, find a mate, and get on with life. He released long pent-up flatulence with a sigh of relief. What freedom it was to be able to quit worrying about personal odor! He looked at his bedroom critically. Tomorrow he’d lose the foliage and get striped sheets and a leather daybed. He rubbed his paws together in anticipation. Little skunky odors escaped from under the covers and he inhaled them in appreciation.
But first he’d change his name to Stinky.
Barbara Schnell has dedicated her life to full-time employment avoidance. She’s been an actress, renovated a 1921 California Bungalow, set a cash-winning record on $25,000 Pyramid, and came in last on Jeopardy. Barbara lives in Los Angeles with her patient husband and two cats.
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