Welcome to the two hundred and fifteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with children’s fiction and business non-fiction author Glen Strathy. 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, Glen. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Glen: Well, Morgen, I’ve been writing for most of my life, in one form or another. Around the age of 10 or 11, I started writing science fiction stories (because that was all I read). I taught myself to type on my father’s old manual typewriter and decided then that I would be a professional writer. As I teenager and young adult, my ambitions got a little sidetracked. I did a lot of amateur and professional non-union theatre (acting, directing). I finished a Master’s degree in English. I even taught high school English for a brief time. Eventually I started writing professionally. I wrote advertising copy and co-authored two non-fiction books on economics and investment (one of which, The Coming Economic Collapse, became a New York Times Bestselling Business book). But my secret ambition was to return to fiction writing. Now, with the release of my first children’s novel, Dancing on the Inside, I feel as though I am finally realizing my life’s ambition.
Morgen: That’s a lovely think to hear, especially as I love writing so much and you have plenty of experience to draw on by the sound of it. Where do you get your inspiration from?
Glen: In the case of Dancing on the Inside the inspiration came from my daughter. When she was four years old, she wanted to take dance lessons. She was too shy to participate in the class, but she insisted on going each week. That struck me as an interesting idea. So took that premise and exaggerated it, creating the character of Jenny Spark: a girl with a great talent for dance, but who suffers from such social anxiety that she can’t dance in front of people or take a ballet class. I also made Jenny old enough to do some amazing things that a four-year-old couldn’t realistically do.
Morgen: Which you can do in fiction. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Glen: These days, most authors have to do most of their own marketing. It’s a big stretch for me, since I have always been more comfortable promoting other people than myself. (I’m shy by nature – like my heroine.) Plus, because I have written in two completely different genres (children’s fiction and business non-fiction) my brand is a little confused.
Morgen: Me too, I write allsorts. Having written the variety, do you ever used a pseudonym?
Glen: Most of my commercial work is anonymous. I considered using a pseudonym for Dancing on the Inside or replacing my first name with an initial because I thought people would be surprised to see a girl’s book about ballet written by a man. (Many female writers have used the same trick when writing “boys’ books.”) But decided in the end that I would rather be upfront with my readers.
Morgen: JK Rowling is a perfect example although Harry Potter is read by everyone. Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Glen: Personally, I still prefer paper books. They are easier to flip through and annotate, and you don’t have to worry about their format becoming discontinued the way vinyl records, floppy disks, or beta max videos have. Nonetheless, every book these days must be available in eBook format. EBooks have caught on much faster than anyone expected. Dancing on the Inside is available for kindle, nook, and other major readers. I’m not sure yet how many kids 9-12 own these devices yet, but in a couple of years I’m sure most of them will, especially if they are avid readers, simply because eBooks are less expensive.
Morgen: In the main, especially for debut authors, but I’m surprised (and annoyed, if I’m honest) at how similar the prices are of some mainstream authors’ books. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Glen: To be a writer is to face constant rejection. It’s like being the nerd at the supermodel party. Actually, it’s better to think of it as playing the lottery, because you don’t expect to win often.
Morgen: Although when you do it probably feels the same. Nerd at a supermodel party, I like that image. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Glen: I have several projects on the go, including other middle-grade novels, a sequel to Dancing on the Inside, and some non-fiction books as well.
Morgen: You sound so busy, do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Glen: I write every day, but not always fiction. I have participated in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) for several years. It’s a contest in which you challenge yourself to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November, which works out to a little less than 2,000 words a day. I’ve always succeeded, but I don’t think I would want to push myself any faster than that. My fingers get sore enough from keyboarding.
Morgen: I love NaNo, this year was my fourth and I’ve got there each time although this year, with the blog and working full-time for part of it, I did the last 47K in the last 8 days… not to be recommended and I won’t be leaving it so late next time. Yes, once you do one, you get hooked (you sound the same, Glen). What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Glen: The only time I get writer’s block is when I am under pressure – when I have a deadline or I’m writing for a very demanding client. Some people thrive under pressure, but I freeze. The best cures are things that take away the pressure. I have to give myself permission write something badly, knowing I can fix it later. Taking a little time off helps too.
Morgen: Exactly, you can’t edit a blank page (a fellow Script Frenzy-er, sister organisation of NaNoWriMo, said that the one time I did it – April 2010). Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Glen: I’m very much a plotter. I like to start with a basic idea, perhaps write a scene, but then I spend a lot of time creating a detailed outline. I work out most of my plot problems in the outline stage, whereas some writers will do it in their second draft, or third draft, etc.
Morgen: Or fourth (guilty as charged)… which is part of the reason why I’ve gone back to my first love; short stories. As a planner, do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Glen: I usually start with the dramatic function I need a character to fill. Then I think about people I have met who might fit the role and mix and match traits until I have someone unique. I also like to get photographs of strangers who look like the character I have in mind. Focusing on a photograph helps me imagine how the character would speak or behave.
Morgen: It’s a technique I give my Monday night writers and we often come out with some wonderful characters. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Glen: I have a website, www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com, where I provide tips and techniques for aspiring authors. Occasionally I answer questions from readers. Much of the help I offer has to do with story structure, because that was one of the learnings that helped me tremendously. I also give workshops on story structure and creating outlines for fiction.
Morgen: You seem very organised and thorough, how much research do you have to do for your writing?
Glen: With Dancing on the Inside, I had to do research on the subject of ballet. I took a few dance lessons when I was in university and interested in performing, but I needed to refresh my knowledge. Ballet is a dance form that has a very technical language and it is taught differently depending on which tradition a school follows (French, Russian, Italian, RAD, etc.). My big fear is that a ballet expert will discover I got something wrong, which happens sometimes, no matter how careful a writer is.
Morgen: I’ve heard two authors say they’ve been corrected by their readers; one was Alexander McCall Smith who conceded to the reader’s wisdom but the other was Simon Scarrow (who I met when I volunteered at the Oundle Literature Festival this March) who took great pleasure in pointing out that he was in fact correct but then I guess you have to be particularly so when writing about the Romans!). Another method question: do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Glen: I seldom write with a pen because my handwriting is so poor that even I have trouble reading it sometimes. Also, writing by hand is much slower. I prefer a keyboard because I can type as fast as I think (though, to be honest, my typing is not as good as it once was either). My favourite writing device, for speed is an AlphaSmart Neo, which is a lightweight portable device that just does word processing. I can take it anywhere. It never runs out of battery power. I can type faster on it than anything. Best of all, it has no internet connection to distract me. However, I also use a computer.
Morgen: My handwriting’s not too bad but as you said, it’s slower so a laptop for me but the AlphaSmart sounds good. One of my Monday night writers and I are going to be decamping to a local café in the New Year to (a) keep our heating bills low and (b) to avoid the email ‘ping’ for a while. Speaking of cafés, some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Glen: I cannot write with anything in the background that has words (except perhaps for café conversation). Music or television slows me down and distracts me. I’ve tried instrumental music, but silence really is the best.
Morgen: It’s classical music for me so it’ll be interesting to see how the café plan goes. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Glen: I find first person best if you want the main character to speak directly to the reader. It’s handy if you have a main character who is difficult to sympathize with (for instance, if he’s not a nice person), because then he can make his case directly to the reader. Of course, he can also lie, misinterpret, or twist the facts as well, which a third person narrator cannot. Second person works best in epistolary novels, where the main character is writing the whole thing as a letter to another character. But to be honest, I prefer a limited third-person narrator, especially for children’s fiction. It lets you tell the story from the main character’s point of view without being too restrictive.
Morgen: And I’ve often heard that children enjoy reading stories about other children a little older than themselves so third person would be better in that respect. Do you ever use prologues / epilogues?
Glen: I’m not keen on prologues in children’s fiction because I think it’s important for younger readers to latch onto the main character’s viewpoint right away and prologues often concern events before the main character enters the story. That said, I cannot deny that it works sometimes. For example, the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book begins from the point of view of Harry’s Uncle Vernon. As for epilogues, I think readers need to know what life is like for the characters after the climax – whether things are better or worse. Whether you do so in an epilogue or simply the last chapter doesn’t really matter.
Morgen: Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Glen: Yes. I also have some that might see the light of day, but only after an awful lot of re-writing…maybe.
Morgen: Ah yes, my third NaNoWriMo falls into that category. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Glen: The best part is being able to work anywhere – at home, in cafés, etc. The worst part is that you are by yourself when working. You have to make an effort to find colleagues you can socialize with.
Morgen: Being a hermit doesn’t suit everyone (thankfully it does me) but then I’m only just about to embark on true solitude so maybe I should let you know if I still feel that way in six months’ time. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Glen: Read a lot. Write a lot. And learn about story structure, not so that it becomes a straitjacket on your creativity, but because it helps you to see the big picture.
Morgen: In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Glen: I live in Canada, which is a disadvantage because it is a small market. On the plus side, the free, universal healthcare is a real advantage for a writer.
Morgen: I’m sure it takes the pressure off financially. We have the National Health Service (NHS) here which is also free, although we pay for it through our wages but I get the impression nowhere near as much as the US. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Glen: The challenge for writers going forward is the same as it has always been: how to earn a living from writing so you can afford the time to write the next book. In Charles Dickens’ day, he was paid a flat fee for his books with no royalties. So, even though he was as popular as J.K. Rowling is today, he never got rich. Today the challenge with new publishing media – which makes it very easy to copy works – is still to make sure the writer gets a fair share of the profits. The other thing that will remain true is that writers are essential creators and contributors to society. I can list many books that have had a profound affect on my life, stimulating my imagination, providing a source of ideas, inspiration, and wisdom, and enriching my emotional side. Life would be pretty dull without books, films, or other products writers create.
Morgen: Oh it would absolutely – I hammer a cinema season ticket I have (6-8 films a month minimum). If you could have your life over again, is there anything you’d have done differently (writing-related or otherwise)?
Glen: I would have set better goals and worked to them. I also would have sought out better mentors who could have pointed me towards some shortcuts.
Morgen: It certainly sounds like you’re on the right track now. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Glen: My website: www.glen-c-strathy.com, My Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Glen.C.Strathy.author. You can follow me on twitter: @glencstrathy. I’m also on Goodreads, Jacketflap, and Librarything.
Morgen: A busy man, indeed. Thank you Glen.
Glen C. Strathy started writing stories when he was 11 years old and too shy to have a life. He eventually found a life when he started acting in community theatre and met other writers, actors, dancers, and artists. He discovered that the best thing about performing arts (and other arts too) is that they give people more freedom to be who they want to be. After spending time as an actor, teacher, and freelance writer, he returned to his first love, fiction and wrote Dancing on the Inside, a novel for ages 9-12.
Glen earned an M.A. in English from the University of Western Ontario, and graduated from the Artist in Community Education program at Queen’s University, Kingston. He co-authored two non-fiction books, one of which (The Coming Economic Collapse, Warner Business Books, 2006) became a New York Times Bestselling Business Book. He belongs to the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). His website www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com provides advice to budding authors.
Glen lives with his wife, fellow writer Kaitlin Rainey, and their daughter in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
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