Welcome to the five hundred and twenty-first of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Michelle Bellon. 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, Michelle. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Michelle: I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I currently live in WA with my husband and four children- ages ranging from four to seventeen. I received my degree in nursing in 2005 but found myself back in the home when we decided to have our fourth child. That is when I decided to take the “idea” of writing a book to the next level.
Morgen: A few of the authors I’ve spoken to have said they’ve started writing when having children, some writing for their children. I’ve introduced you as a ‘multi-genre’ author, is there a genre you generally write?
Michelle: I tend to break the rule of picking a genre and sticking to it. I write whatever story is haunting me at night. Otherwise, there would be no sleep and no sanity in my home. Well, there isn’t much of that anyway, but you know what I mean.
Morgen: Oh yes, I do. My dog knows I lost my sanity some time ago (I’m often waving my arms around replicating whatever my characters are doing). What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Michelle: My first published novel, His Salvation, is a romance / suspense that has been receiving excellent reviews.
My second novel is The Complexity of a Soldier. It’s mainstream commercial fiction. I’m very proud of that story and its message. My singular goal with that story is to maybe, just maybe, inspire a different perspective, a different way of looking at two very important, though sensitive social issues in our current society.
My third novel was released May 7th via Fingerpress, a small press out of London. It’s a Young Adult coming of age story set in the 90’s titled Embracing You, Embracing Me.
Morgen: Definitely a mixture. Isn’t it great that we can do that more now. Genres used to be so binding but either self-publishing or going with small presses gives us more flexibility. Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Michelle: My books are available on both the Kindle and the Nook, as well as paperback.
So far, I have yet to make the transition from the real and tangible book, to the e-version myself, but I’m sure to make that leap soon. I still love sifting through the bookstore, holding a book in my hand, reading the back cover, and thinking “yeah, this is the one”.
Morgen: 🙂 It’s lovely to hear that you enjoy going to a bookstore. They’re closing rapidly here in the UK (I live in a town of over 200,000 people and we only have Waterstones left. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Michelle: Ooh, this is a hard question; it’s like asking which of my children I like best.
Morgen: It is, which just goes to show how much our characters mean to us.
Michelle: I love them all- they are part of me. Though Embracing You, Embracing Me is fiction the characters are based on some very important people in my life, so they hold a very dear place in my heart. Rory, in The Complexity of a Soldier, is in my mind, what a real man should be; brave, loving, and full of integrity. I really love him and hope that my readers connect with him and route for him till the end.
As far as film goes, His Salvation is perfect for film with lots of action and love scenes, very cinematic in nature. In fact, I pictured it as a movie as I wrote it. The Complexity of a Soldier would also make a good drama. In the last chapter, there is a courtroom scene that reminds me of that scene in A Time to Kill where Matthew McConaughey addresses the court and makes them see the entire crime through a different perspective. Very intense.
Morgen: He’s a great actor, and of course the fact that he’s handsome helps. 🙂 Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Michelle: I had full creative discretion when it came to naming the books. I’m very pleased with the titles because naming anything, even my own children, is something that I tend to over-analyze and fret over. Sometimes I’m shocked that I managed to settle on names for the kids at all.
For the books, I tried not to think of it too much, hoping that it would just come to me and that’s what happened for most of them. I’d be going about my day and suddenly a title would pop into my mind. I had the title of The Complexity of a Soldier before I had written a single bit of text. The story sprung from those few key words and I was off and running.
This isn’t the case with the story I’m currently working on. I can’t name this manuscript to save my life. I’ve actually thought of having a survey of some sort to help me name it. Argh!
As for the covers, thankfully, I had lots of help from the publisher and his team. They would ask if I had any ideas or if there were any key scenes in the book that I felt represented the story. From there, they would take their incredible talent and vision and pull together different proofs to send my way for approval. It was a fun process.
Morgen: I write more short stories than anything else (one a day for the 5pm Fiction slot) and often find that I get the title after I’ve written it; a line will leap out at me, or a theme will come. Very occasionally I’ll get the title first but for those I work from a prompt so it’s invariably later. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Michelle: Right now I’m working on another romance / suspense. I think I’ll wrap up the first draft within the next few weeks and then I’ll focus on the gruelling edit phase. I also have a literary novel that is finished and just sitting here collecting dust. I actually feel like that story is my best writing to date. Those characters are very real to me and I think of them often. I don’t know why, but I’m holding onto that one, poised and ready for what? I’m not sure. But I’ll know it when I see it.
Morgen: It’s interesting you call editing “gruelling”, that’s pretty much how I find it. I’ve done NaNoWriMo four times (and doing it again this year) and writing the 50,000+ words in the month (or in my case 51K, 117K, 52K, 51K) is the easy bit. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day?
Michelle: My goal is to write at least a little everyday. The reality is that I write whenever life allows it.
When I first decided to commit to writing a book, I sat down and asked myself how I was actually going to achieve that goal. I really didn’t want it to be something I talked about doing but never manifested. So I treated it as if it weren’t an option. Everyday, after I laid the baby down for her nap, I would sit at the laptop and make myself write, with the rule that I at least had to write for twenty minutes. Well, twenty minutes often segued into the full two hours that the baby slept. Time is non-existent while the spirit is tuned into that creative outlet. Needless to say, I wrote that first novel in about six months.
I have a lot less time to write now days. I have a busy four year-old, a daughter in ballet lessons, a son with baseball practice, and I home-school one of my children who needs a little extra help with academics. Then there is the business of writing. Since I’ve published a few titles, I’ve learned how much time, effort, and energy it takes to promote, market, and sell those books. It’s a full time job in and of itself. I honestly had no idea how much work I was going to have to invest into building a platform, social-networking, and reaching out to readers. Sometimes it’s overwhelming and I question the entire endeavour.
Morgen: I only recently worked out that 300 words a day is a 100,000 novel in a year. In theory that’s achievable even for the busiest of people, but life does have a habit of getting in the way. Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Michelle: Yes, I experience it but only in short spurts, so far. Usually it happens when I’ve been so busy that I haven’t even looked at my manuscript in a few weeks. I’ll sit down and stare at the words like I have no idea what they mean or where to go from there. At that point, I usually trace back a chapter or two to remind myself of the ebb and flow of the emotions. That usually triggers my creative side and then I don’t think anymore. I just write. I’ve learned that you don’t always have keep what you write. Sometimes you go back and delete it all. The exercise alone is what counts. That can be tough for anyone in the arts; to let go of a creation, but it’s an important piece too.
Morgen: I have deleted pieces in the past but then when I went back to earlier works planning to delete them I realised that they weren’t as bad as I thought and then wondered if the pieces I deleted were worth revising. I do think that experience shows us where the ‘holes’ are. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Michelle: Most of my stories have unfolded very organically; no outline or chapter layout. Sometimes all I have is a strong sense of the characters’ personalities and maybe a few key scenes then I’ll build the story around that.
That was not the case for this last book that I’m working on. After flailing about for weeks, starting and restarting, and getting nowhere fast, I finally realized that I was going to have to have a completely different approach. That’s when I sat down and did a basic outline.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Michelle: My characters usually present themselves as whole beings, with pasts, grudges, quirks, fears, and strengths. Krista and Seth of His Salvation came to me in a dream. Their affection toward one another, that love and loyalty, based on a childhood friendship, was what came first. The story came the following day as the characters continued to reveal themselves to me. It’s funny, but it’s often the characters who write the books. I’ve had entire scenes laid out in my mind and then by the time its time to write it I realize that there is no way that character would behave that way and have to revise. That is one of the best parts of writing; discovering the story as you go.
There was one character it took me awhile to pinpoint, Emily, Rory’s wife in The Complexity of a Soldier. I couldn’t put my finger on her emotions and motivations for awhile and it stunted the process. Then one day, I discovered her; the quintessential good-girl, who wants nothing more than to have a family and be a mother. Bad things don’t just happened to bad people. They happen to anyone, everyone. You and me.
What makes the characters believable is their emotions and their reactions to any given situation. It’s like life; it’s not always the circumstance but the way in which we conduct ourselves that really makes an impact on our own path and even those around us. For me, this is revealed through engaging, solid dialogue.
But what I really think makes a character believable is when you see all their little imperfections. I can’t stand to read a story that has the perfect guy and the perfect girl and they never make life-altering, decisions and mistakes. You can almost feel the author’s fear of crossing that boundary. Cross the boundary. Make the mistake. And then watch them learn from it, or not. That’s what I want to read.
Morgen: My favourite aspect of writing is when something comes from nothing and as you say, when the characters take over it. It sounds loopy and I think only writers and readers would understand this (and how thrilling it is). You mentioned the dreading editing, do you have to do a lot or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Michelle: My first two novels were a complete mess. I mean really hideous. Thank god Matt Stephens of Fingerpress publishing has been so gracious and guided me along the way. I probably wrote and rewrote Embracing You, Embracing Me six or seven times. At first, the novel was actually in third person. Then after painful contemplation, I emailed Matt and asked if I could rewrite the entire thing in first person. His response was, “It will set us back quite a bit, but sure. I think in the long run it will be best.” What an amazing thing, to have that kind of support from a publisher. I’m truly blessed. With help from his editor, we have turned a mess with potential, into a novel that will hopefully be remembered as one of the great love stories.
So yeah, those first few books had many, many revisions as I learned a lot about the craft of writing itself. I was the queen of the run-on sentence. Now, I really like the effect of a clean, punchy sentence. I’m finding that the more I write, the easier it is for me to have a crisp first draft. I still go over my work over and over again, ad nauseum, but I don’t think that will change, nor should it. I don’t want to just tell a good story. I want to tell it well.
Morgen: You want to put out a book you’re proud of, don’t you? I’ve been working on the 117K novel (which is now 102K and hope to get it out in the next few weeks (with another non-NaNo novel) and after about seven edits I’m finding I’m tweaking a word or two here and there (which I’m sure improves it) but I’m going to have to say “enough” and let it go. Do you have to do much research?
Michelle: It depends on the story. For His Salvation I did a lot of research on mind control programs, media propaganda, the effects of television and how it’s related to ADD in children, and some facts about the structure of the military. I find all of that stuff very interesting anyway and have my own beliefs concerning the effects of television in current society.
For The Complexity of a Soldier, I spent a lot of time doing research. I talked to soldiers about their experiences serving in the military, particularly in regards to the Iraq war and some of the traumas they were exposed to. I know a few military wives and see the daily struggles they face as their men serve our country. I researched the key battles and how they were implemented. I researched military weaponry, helicopters, tanks, vehicles, ranking, and anything else I could about soldiering. There was a lot to sift through and try to understand, especially as an outsider. I knew that there would be a time when someone would question, why I, a stay-at-home mother, would think I had the right or ability to speak on these things. The last thing I wanted to do was invalidate our troops by getting it wrong. I’m sure there are things that I didn’t get completely right, especially since there are so many real experiences out there and they vary so drastically, but I did the best I could.
Morgen: We’re so lucky being authors now, with all the information we have to hand on the internet. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Michelle: Point of view is so hard for me to choose in the beginning. There are things I like best about both first and third. First is very personal and the reader is, hopefully, immediately engaged. Third, for some reason, feels a bit more emotionally distant so I feel like I have to work harder to get the reader to truly care about the character. But there is a certain amount of freedom writing in third person too. It really depends on the story. I stay away from second person altogether.
Morgen: That’s a shame (because it’s fun) but probably wise for longer pieces as it’s hard to maintain, and wearing on the readers (unless their masochists like me :)). Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Michelle: No. I have great appreciation for anyone who can write poetry. It is a talent that takes the craft of writing to a whole other level of depth and creativity. It is not a skill I possess.
I can imagine writing short stories later on.
Morgen: I feel the same with poetry. I only tend to write it for competitions (rarely these days) or writing group homework but I don’t read it and have never been taught it so, as you say, have great appreciation for those who do. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Michelle: (laughs) Yeah, the one I’m working on right now. It is taking me forever to put it all together.
Morgen: Oh dear.
Michelle: I feel like I crossed a boundary with parts of it. Usually, in a romance, the characters don’t have that many flaws, and when they do, they aren’t all that damaging. Well, both the hero and the heroine in this story are badly wounded, hugely flawed, human beings, whom the reader may not always like. I know I’m not supposed to do that within the genre, but it was the characters who demanded it. They’re raw, and they’ve done things that are not always pretty. I’ve read the story where the protagonist is just kind of sad or angry over an old wound, but they still always manage to do the right thing. This isn’t that story. I wouldn’t say it’s hardcore. But it’s not your typical romance either. It may never see the light of day.
Morgen: I do think there’s a market out there for everything (as long as it’s well-written of course, but then there are some really successful books that writers say aren’t well-written, but that’s another conversation), perhaps you could eBook it yourself. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Michelle: Never in my life would I have ever imagined how good I would have to be at accepting rejection. I’ve sent out hundreds of query letters. I’m still without an agent. But honestly, as we are in the midst of a huge shift of dynamics within the industry, I can’t say that I’m upset about that. I’ve had great experiences thus far with the small presses I’ve worked with. From what I’ve seen, I’d be working just as hard with an agent as I am without one. I used to be devastated with every single rejection. It wasn’t until I’d heard the umpteenth story of a writer finally making it big after twelve years of rejection, that I finally realized this was how it was. It’s like a right of passage.
Morgen: Apparently Dean Koontz had over 500, and of course Harry Potter was rejected over a dozen times (14 or 16 depending on where you read the statistic). You mentioned your search for an agent. Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Michelle: I used to think it was absolutely necessary, but as many of us have witnessed, that really is no longer the case. Here is what matters: marketing. That’s it. Creating a buzz, something that makes the reader go, “Hey, I’ve got to read that book.” And with today’s technology, social networking, free press releases, bloggers, and the gamut of other resources out there, we can do most of the legwork ourselves.
Is an agent a huge plus? Sure, they’re professionals and have connections that most of us only wish for. Unfortunately, they just aren’t taking on many new clients. And Amazon has completely democratized the entire process, which also has its pros and cons.
Morgen: They aren’t. Apparently it’s harder to get an agent (I’ve approached over a dozen) than a publisher and in my experience, it’s true. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Michelle: With the first small press I worked with it was all me. This next novel though, the YA, is published via Fingerpress and I know that he works as hard as his authors do to get a manuscript off the ground. But all authors have to work really hard at the promotional aspect of this business, regardless of who they publish with.
Morgen: We do. I’ve only had one author say that the (her) publisher does all the marketing but she’s still very active on Facebook and Twitter. It is part of the parcel these days. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
First- I’m surprised I have these stories inside of me and that I’ve figured out how to get the ideas out of my brain and on to paper in a coherent manner. I’ve never thought of myself as creative.
Morgen: I came to writing quite recently (late 30s) and nor had I particularly but my mum and aunt are artists, my father and uncle photographers and brother web designer so it was inevitable really that I’d end up in the ‘arts’.
Michelle: Second- Another aspect of writing that surprised me and also happens to be my least favourite aspect is the self-promotion. Most of us writers would be perfectly content to just hide away and write until our eyes fell out of our heads.
You can’t do that though. You have to tap into this whole other side of the writing business which has to do with being a sales person and understanding how to market a product to the consumer. And you aren’t just selling your book. You’re selling you. Readers are invested in the author as much as they are in the book. So writers have to come out of their shells and promote themselves. What? Are you kidding me? I’m dragging my feet on this and it may be what makes or breaks me but there is only so much I can do. I do as much online promotion as I can. But as for going to multiple conferences, putting together power-point presentations, and speaking at as many functions as possible, I just can’t do that. My family comes first and foremost. I will not forsake my time with them. Later down the line, if I’m blessed with success and high sales then I’m sure I will have to pay my dues and make appearances when necessary, but for now, I’m home with those little faces.
Morgen: “write until our eyes fell out of our heads” what an image. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Michelle: Examine the reason why you want to write. If it’s for fame and fortune then you may want to rethink that goal. If it’s something inside of you that needs an outlet, or you have a point to make, or just a story to tell, then go for it. Most importantly write for you, not for them. And keep writing, writing, writing. The written word is precious.
Morgen: It is, and you can’t edit a blank page. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Michelle: I have a few that I like:
1) The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.- Albert Einstein.
2) The next phrase is my own. I recently posted it on my author Facebook page- Believing in the ability to manifest my destiny I have decided to create pure awesomeness.
I like that last one because after a few weeks of feeling in the dumps about my writing, I decided to change my attitude. I posted that message that night as if making a declaration to the universe and the very next morning I woke up to an email notifying me that a Top Amazon reviewer had just posted a 5 star review for The Complexity of a Soldier. Over the course of the weekend I received another three 5 star reviews for my other novel. It was epic! Again, the power of the written word astounds me. It was written, so it shall be.
Morgen: Congratulations. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Michelle: I’m an awesome mom. Really. I love being a mother of these four intelligent and funny children. I take it very seriously; everything from their education, to the food they eat, to the experiences they have and the people they are exposed to. My husband is the best father and husband I’ve ever seen, so I try everyday to make sure I’m keeping up with him. They are the whole point. I don’t really understand the point otherwise.
Morgen: It’s really important, as a writer, to have that support behind you. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Michelle: Wow, the web is incredible. It’s so hard to imagine a time not-so-long-ago when we didn’t have access to so much information at our fingertips. Probably the most common phrase I use, is “Google it.”
I would have to say, any site where I learned the actual craft of writing better was the best use of my time and effort. For instance, Youwriteon.com is a website that I found early on and cannot express the value I found in utilizing it. It’s a forum where writers can upload chapters and have them read, critiqued, and reviewed by other writers. The hitch is that in order to get a review, you have to do one. For each review you do, you get one credit to have your own work reviewed in return. The learning is two-fold because not only do you get a plethora of feedback with each review you receive, allowing you to clean-up and edit your work as you go, but you also get exposure to so many other styles of writing. That exposure trains you to have a sharper eye on content, structure, voice, grammar, continuity, you name it. Your own writing naturally improves with that process. It’s like anything else in life; practice makes perfect.
Morgen: I was on YouWriteOn (and Authonomy) for a while but couldn’t keep up with the workload so pulled my content. Like playing the piano or painting, or life(!), everything is about practice, we’re continuously learning, and I’ve heard household authors say the same. And of course we gain confidence in ourselves (hopefully) as we grow. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Michelle: I’m on Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook, but the absolute must for a writer is a website using whatever name you write under so that readers can find you easily.
Morgen: It is. We’re a brand, aren’t we. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Michelle: MichelleBellon.com, Michelle Bellon’s Author Page on facebook and my linkedin profile. I also have a profile on Amazon.
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Michelle: I want to thank you for this opportunity. This is the meat and potatoes of what it takes to get out there and get your name noticed. It’s important that we not only seek opportunities such as this, but that we help create opportunities to support others as well. I want writers to take care of one another and promote each other’s work. I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine. I decided a long time ago, that I was going to be the type of writer that another writer could ask questions of and seek advice from. I want to help others and I haven’t even made something of myself in this business yet. But already, I’m envisioning how I can help others achieve their dream of writing.
Morgen: “meat and potatoes” I love it. 🙂 Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Michelle: Is there anything I can do to help you or promote your business?
Morgen: It’s very kind of you to ask, thank you. Just spread the word really. Although I’m currently booked up with interviews until next May (and possibly beyond, I have 148 emails sitting in my Inbox and many of those are replies) it’s all ongoing so feel free to send them in my direction. I do have some some eBooks available but they’re mostly free short stories and I’ve hung fire promoting them as I have loads more to put up (more short story collections, workbooks and at least two novels by Christmas), so if you know anyone who likes eBooks… or who needs a blog building / tweaking 🙂 Also you’d be welcome to guest blog for me. There have been loads of topics already written about (from over 100 guest writers) but everyone’s opinion is different. Thank you, Michelle.
I then invited Michelle to tell us more about her books…
Embracing You, Embracing Me
The 90s – home of boy bands, individualism, teenage angst, ultra skinny models, and “Whatever!”…
In a decade when image matters, when the so-called Generation X is swelling with ‘future perfect’ hopes and pride, 16-year-old Roshell McRady dances her way through High School, never quite admitting that she’s ashamed of her trailer park family home. Meanwhile she listens to Madonna while conjuring creative Top Ramen recipes to feed her younger cousins; she empties enough hairspray until her bangs are feathered and vertical like a lethal weapon; and she agonises over how to convince Gabriel Harrison, the new Mystery Guy in town, to invite her to the prom – a night which threatens to turn into a disaster.
But then life takes a dramatic turn for Roshell, and her life changes forever.
A love story emerges from the anguish of Roshell’s life, and when she leaves school and finds work at a casino, things don’t get any less complicated for her – until one night a powerful dream marks out the exact path that she must take.
The Complexity of a Soldier
No one knows the heart and mind of a Soldier. Every day they must face scenarios and life choices that most of us will never even imagine.
When Rory Nichols joins the Army, this hard lesson hits hard and fast. After 911, he is deployed to Iraq. He and his wife, Emily, face sacrifice and strife which they fear their young marriage may not survive. Pushed to his limits, Rory begins to ask questions.
Then one day, he receives a fateful phone call relaying the most wicked of betrayals. He rushes home to face an enemy he had not predicted. In this penultimate moment he will right a wrong and stand for what he believes at all costs; making a statement to his country, to his family, and to all victims of this seething crime.
It is a story of life, love, and rising above the acts of war and abuse.
Ten years have passed since that hot July night, when Seth McCullough walked away from Krista Chancellor, his high school sweetheart; determined to keep his dark, tumultuous past from tainting her beautiful light.
He thought he had buried his demons forever when he cut ties and joined the military, but when he begins to suffer debilitating headaches, displacement of time, and horrifying nightmares, he starts to fear for his sanity.
Desperate for relief and seeking solace, he takes off for Mexico only to awake one morning confused, bloody, and linked to multiple high profile murders. Suspicion grows as he realizes he is submerged in an agenda too terrifying to comprehend. Determined to find answers, Seth reaches out to the only person he has ever trusted, his old flame Krista, and together they find His Salvation.
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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