Welcome to the five hundred and third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with YA author Karen Coombs. 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, Karen. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Karen: Born in Wisconsin to an American father and a Canadian mother, I grew up in the Northern Alberta town of Grande Prairie, where the Aurora Borealis flickered and shimmered across the night sky. The winters were long and cold, so cold my nostrils stuck together when I breathed too deeply, so cold my legs turned blue if I were foolish enough to go outside without plenty of layers, so cold I could hear the ice on the slough snapping as I lay in bed at night. Winter days were short. It was dark when I left for school in the morning and dark when I came home. No matter how cold the weather, I ice skated and played hockey, often by moonlight. In high school and college, I ice curled, my favorite winter sport, which, miraculously, I am again able to play, since there is an ice curling league in San Diego.
In the summer, the prairie sun of my youth rose very early and darkness didn’t arrive until nearly midnight. Days seemed endless, wonderful for a child who loved to wander the countryside, either on foot or by horseback. And both the long nights of winter and the long days of summer were perfect for a child addicted to reading. And I read everything. I’d check out as many library books as the librarian would allow, wake up early in the morning to read, and read under the covers with a flashlight at night. I’d even read while I walked somewhere. In those days there weren’t as many books for children and young adults as there are today, so I was soon reading adult books.
After graduating from high school in Grande Prairie, I attended the University of Alberta, first in Calgary and later in Edmonton. I taught first grade for a few years, then studied journalism at the University of Utah. There, a class in writing for children unearthed my passion and I have been writing for children ever since
I was living in Alberta when I vacationed in Tahiti, where I met my husband. We lived for a time in Palos Verdes, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; then returned to California, where we now live near San Diego.
Morgen: Wow, what a wonderful setting you grew up in, so atmospheric. I blame Stephen King for me wearing glasses; I’d read his books with a torch under the duvet. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Karen: Editors probably don’t like the fact that I write across genres, although all my work has been for young readers. The beauty of being a writer is that you’re free to follow any path or passion. If that means working on a picture book today, a middle grade historical fiction tomorrow, and a young adult contemporary next week, so be it. I’ve written all of these, including YA historical fiction, children’s biographies, and early elementary nonfiction.
Morgen: I write varying genres, although mostly for adults, and the good thing is these days there’s less emphasis on it, especially when self-publishing. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Karen: I write under the name Karen Mueller Coombs, no pseudonym, although sometimes publishers have messed up, so I have books under Karen Coombs and Karen M. Coombs as well. I’ve had nine books published—eight by traditional publishers and one eBook.
My published books include:
Middle Grade Fiction:
Samantha Gill, Belly Dancer
Beating Bully O=Brien
Bully At Ambush Corner (eBook and paperback 2012)
Young Adult Historical Fiction:
Sarah On Her Own
Middle Grade Nonfiction:
Flush! Treating Wastewater
Children of the Dust Days
Jackie Robinson, Baseball’s Civil Rights Legend
Woody Guthrie, America’s Folksinger
Morgen: Great titles. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Karen: Loads of rejections! They come with the territory. I’ve always said you need a thick skin if you want to be a writer, because it’s one of those professions where rejection is a way of life. Fortunately, I have that thick skin and I’m adept at shaking off rejections. I say to myself, “Their loss,” whenever one arrives, then pick myself up, do another revision, and send the manuscript off again. After all, if I didn’t have any manuscripts flying home unwanted, it would mean I’m not doing my job and sending them out into the world. I’ll confess, however, that I sometimes get lazy and allow a work I love to sit in a drawer too long.
Morgen: So do I, I’m dreadful although having a blog means I get my shorter pieces out. I’m working on three of my novels and hope to have them out by Christmas. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Karen: No major competitions, although I’ve won state awards, local writing awards, had books named a Children’s Choice selection, a Top Title for Adult Readers award, and an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children.
Morgen: Congratulations. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Karen: I don’t have an agent. When I first started writing and getting published, an agent didn’t seem necessary. Today, however, with more houses closed to unsolicited submissions or accepting manuscripts only through agents, I’m starting to look for one to represent me. It would be great to have an agent backing me up.
Morgen: Smaller publishers are very receptive although it’s undoubtedly useful to have, as you say, back up. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Karen: Bully At Ambush Corner is my only eBook to date. Although I had some help converting the manuscript to digital and some help with the cover art, I did choose the original illustration and the also tweaked the cover myself to get it the way I wanted. I’m behind the times, though, in that I don’t have an eBook reader, although I can download Kindle books to my cell phone. I love a “real” book: to hold it and smell it and flip back and forth through the pages to see how much I’ve read and how far I have to go. Although I know I’ll end up getting a reader, I’m not in a huge hurry.
Morgen: It took me ages to get a Kindle (I now read on an iPad, which took me even longer to buy) but I still love read paper. It’s great these days to have a choice. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Karen: When I published my first books, I did very little marketing; book signings at book stores, presentations to schools and interested adult groups. Now, authors have to market their own work and it’s almost a fulltime job in itself. So, although it’s my least favorite part of being a writer, I’ve become a social media presence. I try to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Goodreads, LinkedIn, my blog, www.bullyatambushcorner, and my website, www.karencoombs.com. I’ve been interviewed by local newspapers and am working to connect to bloggers such as yourself, who are so generous to writers trying to get publicity for our work.
Morgen: Most of the authors I’ve spoken to have said marketing is their least favourite aspect. I know I’m biased but I do think appearing on other blogs is a great way to go, as the emphasis is on you, and I know quite a few of my guests have sold books having been spotted here. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Karen: I can’t say I have favorite books as much as I have favorite characters. I love Sarah in Sarah on Her Own and would like to think I’d be as brave if ever faced with the same challenges. I especially love Cat, also known as Queen Cat or Catastrophe, the main character in my new upper middle grade historical fiction, The Misadventure of Wild Cat Thomson. She’s feisty and rebellious and funny and isn’t afraid of a challenge, even though, in her words, she forgets to inspect the landing muck before jumping into the pigpen, and that gets her into a heap of trouble.
Morgen: Feisty characters are great. No character should be ordinary (unless it’s to make a point) and flawless is dull. You mentioned your eBook, did you have any say in the titles / covers of all your books? How important do you think they are?
Karen: Beginning writers often have the misperception that they have more say in the covers and titles than they actually do. Usually it’s only bestselling authors who have that kind of pull, because apparently it’s actually the marketing department that makes the final decision, based on whether or not they believe the cover and title will draw in buyers.
I do have a funny anecdote about the title of one of my books. Samantha Gill, Belly Dancer was originally called The Navel Career of Samantha Gill, with its play on the word navel. The title was changed, the editor told me, because both the children’s department and the military history department thought it was their book. The military history people thought I had written a biography about the naval career of some woman. (Perhaps they forgot how to spell.) Looking back, the change was most likely a wise one.
Cover art itself is, of course, very important, more so for young readers than adults, I think. Most of my covers I like. The cover of Bully At Ambush Corner turned out exactly as I’d hoped and I believe it’s very appealing. The cover of Sarah On Her Own, historical fiction set in 1620 Virginia, was attractive, but I was disappointed that it was designed to look like a romance, which it wasn’t. The details on the cover weren’t authentic to the time and situation and it also didn’t appeal to boys, which the story itself does, since there is a boy as a main character in the story, as well as a massacre. Despite the cover, boys ended up reading and enjoying the book, because fifth grade teachers in some California schools used it in their classes. I think it might be my next eBook, since the rights have reverted to me.
Morgen: You do have to hope that the marketing department knows what they’re doing although I’ve seen some terrible covers of even mainstream books. I still bought James Patterson’s The Quickie (dreadful title too) but only because Michael Ledwidge co-wrote it and their Step on a Crack was so good (I’ve heard that James come up with the idea, the co-author writes it then James tweaks it to his voice). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Karen: I’m currently marketing The Misadventures of Wild Cat Thomson and also revising a contemporary young adult novel called U Sho Me Yrs, Il Sho U Myn. In between, I pull out a picture book manuscript and do a bit of revising, then read it to my critique group or send it out again. I’ll admit that most of my time is spent trying to promote Bully At Ambush Corner, since sales of that book will be determined by how much publicity I can get for it. That’s why I’m so grateful for sites such as yours that are instrumental in making this happen.
Morgen: I hope it helps. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Karen: I try to write nearly every day, although it might be writing for my blog as opposed to working on a manuscript. I’ve encountered writer’s block only once. I got stuck on a plot. I had an idea where the book was going, but didn’t write it down. Then I had a number of months where life intervened and I couldn’t get to my writing. When I went back to my manuscript, I couldn’t remember where I was going with the story. I had told my critique group what was going to happen next, but they didn’t remember either. It took me a while before the words started flowing again. Now I try to take more notes. Often I spend more time working on my website posts than on my manuscripts.
Morgen: Life does have a habit of intervening doesn’t it. When I started writing, I was working full-time and it’s only just this March that I was able (by getting two lodgers) to give up the day job and I do wonder now how I had time to work, even in the more recent years when it was only 2-3 days a week, but then as you say, I spend more time on blog-related emails / content than writing. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Karen: I’m not a plotter. I know how the book starts and where I want it to end, but then I jump in and see where the characters take me. Sometimes those characters wander around and get so lost it astounds me. I’m beginning to think my work might go more smoothly if I took the time to lay it out beforehand. For U Sho Me, I actually wrote each scene on a sticky note and made a flow chart—after I finished the second draft. The book has two main characters and I was checking to make certain the characters’ scenes were balanced. It also meant I could move scenes around if I needed to. So now I’m thinking I might give Scrivener a try to see if I can finish a first draft more quickly—and not forget where the plot is going.
Morgen: Scrivener is supposed to be brilliant. I have a Mac (which it was originally written for) and should buy it, especially as sometimes Word drives me mad). I thing I love about fiction is that you never know where the story is going to go and most authors I’ve spoken to either don’t plot or only do a sketch. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Karen: I’m amazed, when looking at some of my earlier work, how much my writing has improved. I love revising, so I do a lot of editing, revising extensively as I go, which I know slows me down. But I enjoy the challenge of finding the perfect word, moving phrases, sentences, or paragraphs around, and tightening until I’m satisfied, before moving on to the next scene. Perhaps if I plotted, I wouldn’t do that, because I’d know where I was headed and would get there faster.
Morgen: I often compare writing to painting and playing the piano. No-one would sit you in front of a piano and expect you to play a concerto. It’s all about practice. Plotting might take some of the fun out of it but you could try it with your next project. Do you have to do much research?
Karen: I do quite a bit of research when I find it necessary. For example, for Wild Cat I spent a lot of time checking my dialogue to make certain a word was actually used in1895. I had to take out a few that sounded perfect, because they weren’t in use until five years or so later. The most research I did was for Sarah On Her Own, since it was set in 1620 Virginia. Of course, I also did a lot of research for my nonfiction books, even visiting a wastewater treatment plant while working on Flush! Treating Wastewater.
Morgen: Some members of my writing groups write historical and I’m always on the lookout for phrases. History was my word subject at school but English my best. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Karen: I switch point of view depending on the book. For some, particularly my early books, I was comfortable using third person. Recently, I switched to first person for U Sho Me and for Wild Cat, because I find first person gets me more into the character’s head. Wild Cat actually started out as a journal, so it was very much from Cat’s point of view. Then I switched to part journal, part narrative. In subsequent revisions I went straight first person narrative and I think it works better, although I believe going with the journal first helped me figure out Cat’s personality and get that across to the reader. I’ve never tried second person, although it might be fun. I’m not certain I could sustain it for a novel, though. Perhaps a short story.
Morgen: I wouldn’t (and haven’t) try it for a novel but it does work (in my opinion, I love second person) for shorter pieces. I have Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ which is one of the few second person novels (more of a novella actually) and it’s so dark (which I usually like) that I’ve never reached the end. I should try. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Karen: Of course, but I don’t like to think about them. They seem like children I’ve abandoned, although children who helped me become a better “parent”.
Morgen: That sounds so sad, but now you’re a better parent you could go back and nurture them? What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Karen: My least favorite part of writing is doing my own promotion, because it takes me away from my writing. Had I wanted to sell books, I’d have gone into marketing. I chose writing because I enjoy working in solitude and WRITING. There’s nothing that feels better than getting into that creative space where the words flow and time passes unnoticed.
In the beginning, I was surprised at how little money most children’s writers make. Everyone hears about those who make millions, like J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins, but there are many who might earn only a few hundred dollars a year and who work just as hard.
Recently I’ve been surprised at how much more difficult it has become, compared to when I was first published, to get my work in front of an editor—and at how many young writers are finding success.
Morgen: It’s a lot of luck and determination. They do say a successful writer is one who didn’t give up. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Karen: Grow a heavy hide, because you’ll probably get a lot of rejection. If writing is all you aspire to do, read in the field you hope to write in, take classes and attend conferences to learn how to be the best writer you can be, join writing organizations such as SCBWI, or RWA, write your heart out, accept criticism and learn from it, and don’t give up. This is a profession where persistence does pay off, because with persistence comes improvement and, occasionally, bits and pieces of near perfection.
Morgen: Absolutely. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Karen: On my bulletin board is a quote from Emerson: May the work that you do be the play that you love. It’s a perfect statement of the way I feel about writing: at times, it seems more like play than like work.
Morgen: Just how I feel. I’m at my computer pretty much from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed (minus refreshment breaks and dog walks) and it doesn’t seem like ‘work’ to me. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Karen: Although I started my blog www.bullyatambushcorner.com as a means to promote my book, which came out in print last week. It has become an anti-bullying site, where I feature interesting people, such as the lead singer in a rock and roll band, and discuss anything related to the goal of ending bullying.
Morgen: Your site sounds so positive. Even these days with so much knowledge about bullying, there still seems to be so much of it, especially over something as shallow as possessions.
Karen: I’m a member of SCBWI and also belong to a brilliant, talented critique group. We’ve been together for twenty-five years and together have dozens of published books. Our oldest member recently turned 96 and still comes to an occasional meeting. She published her first book for children when she was 80 and is an inspiration to the rest of us.
Morgen: Wow. I run or belong to four groups (two and a half of which are critique – the half being every other session) and whilst most are over retirement age we’re so supportive of each other, although we are firm (but fair) which you need when giving / getting feedback. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Karen: I love to read, of course, but don’t have as much time for it as I’d like. I do some needlework—knitting and cross-stitch. I used to sew all my own clothes, but haven’t for a while. I enjoy travel, but haven’t had as much time for that as I’d like either. So these days I entertain myself with doing Wii Fit and walking to try to stay in shape, golfing occasionally, and ice curling whenever I can.
Morgen: We have so many charity shops here in the UK (and so few haberdasheries) that it’s far cheaper and easier to buy than make clothes. Time does seem to be an issue for most people too. Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Karen: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is always close to hand so I can remind myself to “omit needless words.” When I need help with grammar, I turn to Nitty-Gritty Grammar or More Nitty-Gritty Grammar by Edith Fine and Judith Josephson. A friend recently gave me The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson and I know it will be a help when I actually start to plot my books instead of winging it. Although www.urbandictionary.com is useful for slang, I usually turn first to The Thesaurus of Slang by Esther and Albert Lewin. English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh assured me I could use “nope” in Wild Cat, since it came into use in 1895. Books on writing clutter my shelves, but I never get as much time as I’d like to absorb their wisdom: Stephen King’s On Writing. Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Deborah Halverson’s Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies.
I subscribe to many writing blogs: blogs by and about agents, publishers, and editors. Blogs about self-publishing, instruction, etc. One of the most thorough is Cynsations by Cynthia Leitich Smith, which offers a weekly roundup of the industry. Also http://www.rachellegardner.com/2012/04/6-reasons-authors-self-publish.
My guilty secret is checking in on People of Walmart. It’s a great source if you’re seeking to create or describe a unique character. I used to follow DamnYou Autocorrect, but now that I have a phone that tries to be smarter than I am, I don’t think that site is as funny as I once did.
Morgen: <laughs> I love the sound of ‘People of Walmart’ (http://www.peopleofwalmart.com) so checked it out. It’s addictive viewing and they don’t hold back, do they. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Karen: I believe we’re in a time of great transition for writers. With the advent of self-publishing, writers are taking some power into their own hands, although this power has to be handled carefully. I’d much prefer to have my work published by a traditional publisher with all their editorial support and marketing expertise, but there is no denying the appeal to an author of self-publishing with its higher pay and more control. The drawback, of course, is having no marketing machine behind you.
The power to self-publish can lead to a watering down of quality, however. Traditional publishers have always been the gatekeepers to what is worthy of being published. While I won’t deny plenty of drivel has been published even by them, the market is being flooded by self-published works filled with poor illustrations, spelling, grammar, characterization, and plot. If you’re going to do it yourself, it’s important to be willing to spend the money for professional editing and illustration. (Says she who did much of the work on her own eBook cover!)
Morgen: I agree (and I’ve done all my own eBook covers so far). There was a chap a while back in one of the LinkedIn writing groups who said he’d just finished writing his novel and was going to eBook it without anyone else looking at it – they didn’t need to, he said. Needless to say no-one agreed with him. He was so determined I’m pretty sure he’d have done it anyway. Unfortunately I can’t remember his name or I’d go and check him out.
Karen: It’s certainly a challenging time for writers. It’s as difficult to get an agent as it is to get a publisher, even for those of us who have already been published. So more and more writers will likely turn to self-publishing. If they go about it correctly, they’ll hire editors and illustrators and marketing people to do the job the publishing houses do. And perhaps they’ll earn more than they might have with a traditional publisher. It’s going to be an interesting time in the world of writing. Hang onto your hat. Err . . . your pen? Err . . . your mouse?
Morgen: Absolutely. Self-publishing no longer is frowned upon and is a wonderful opportunity but yes, it should be done properly. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Karen: You can learn all about me at www.karencoombs.com and on my blog, www.bullyatambushcorner.com. In the blog I mention incidents from my childhood when I was bullied, even though I was one of the “popular” kids.
Morgen: I wasn’t bullied but I wasn’t particularly popular either, quite a loner (prefect for writing!) although I did make two friends on my first day of secondary school who were sadly both in a different class. I’m still in contact with one of them (we’ve not yet managed to track down the other). Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Karen: As of Monday, I am running a contest for a free copy of Bully at Ambush Corner. If readers go to the Monday post (9/24) they can read how to enter.
Morgen: Excellent, thank you, Karen. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Karen: “Can you please order a million people to buy my book?” she asked, hopefully.
Morgen: I could ask them… I’ve had nearly 90,000 hits to this blog since March last year so I’ll need a bit longer to reach that many if you’re not in a hurry. Thank you, Karen.
I then invited Karen to include an extract of her writing and this is from ‘The Misadventures of Wild Cat Thomson’ (Wild Cat is set in the northwest corner of Colorado in 1895. In this excerpt, Cat has run away from home and is holed up in a cave.)
Storm clouds piled up while I snoozed, and when I woke, lightning bucked across the black sky and thunder cracked a whip. The sun was setting below the thunderheads, rimming the clouds with red and gold, and I watched the spectacle with new meaning for the word heartache.
I looked around my empty cave, longing for my mother—and for my father, my sister, my brother, even for Slippery Jim, who had been a part of my life all my days. It grew dark as I sat and grieved for all the lonely, motherless critters in the world, of which I was, surely, the loneliest.
Then lightning danced and I saw in the flashes, near the edge of the woods across from my hideout, a figure mounted on a large black stallion and dressed in blue. The gusting wind lifted long strands of the figure’s hair, which fluttered around its head, then drifted down, then rose again. Jolted out of my woe, I dashed away the tears and waited, heart pounding in my throat. The rain came then, pouring out of the sky like a waterfall over a canyon wall. With the next flash of lightning, I knew my eye had not tricked me. The horse was Mop’s horse, Chess, and its rider was wearing Mop’s riding habit—the blue one she wore when we buried her!
I then invited Karen to include a synopsis of ‘Bully at Ambush Corner’…
Every day after school, Tink is waiting at Ambush Corner to use 11-year-old Rocky for a punching bag. He can’t tell his parents. His father will encourage him to stand up for himself and fight back. His mother, worried that Rocky will break a finger and not be able to play his viola in the upcoming music competition, will forbid him to fight at all. What neither parent knows is that Rocky thinks fighting is stupid and has decided to become a pacifist, a secret Rocky is keeping even from his best friend, who might not approve of Rocky’s wish to be peaceable.
Rocky tries all sorts of plans to end the bullying without success, even recruiting his older sister, who steps in, only to make the situation worse. Eventually, Rocky’s music teacher helps him understand Tink’s behavior, which gives Rocky a new idea to try. Will he be able to end the daily bullying, gain his father’s approval, win the music competition, and still practice being a pacifist?
A book about a serious subject told with a touch of humor, Bully at Ambush Corner includes a discussion guide, as well as links to Internet sites that deal with bullying.
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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The full details of the new online writing groups, and their associated Facebook groups, are:
Morgen’s Online Non-Fiction Writing Group
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