Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Journalism to Fiction - The Work of Angels?

Today, I interview Lynn Voedisch, who started her career in journalism and who now writes both fiction and non-fiction. She talks about the pitfalls of writing a book agents and editors considered a fad - and of the joys - and not of marketing her own work.

Tell us about yourself.
I am a long-time journalist who worked for many years at metropolitan dailies. My last job was at the Chicago Sun-Times, where I worked for 17 years. However, during my 20+ years of reporting and editing, I really wanted to write fiction. Since I was a single mother for most of my time at the Sun-Times, there simply was no way I had any spare time for fiction writing. When I re-married, my husband said it would be fine if I quit and freelanced (which I did successfully for several years). Then, freed from a "real job," I wrote several novel manuscripts. I was making up for lost time. I studied at the University of Iowa's Summer Writing Festival and also with a professor at Northwestern University. My experience with my first literary agent didn't go too well, so my first novel, "Excited Light" didn't sell. I now have a new agent who is shopping around one of my later manuscripts. It's a long, exhausting process and you have to learn to deal with rejection letters. But I simply won't give up and I hope to get a traditional New York publisher soon.

Tell us about your new book, "Excited Light."
It was written ten years ago when I first left my newspaper job. I had wanted to write something about the single-parent experience, both from the parent's and child's perspecitive. I decided to make the mother an alcoholic to add to the crisis. One thing led to another and I had the whole novel mapped out in my head. When I finally had the chance to write, the novel poured out of me in nine months. Then I went back over it for a year to refine and re-write parts of it. It has an angels them, since the young boy seems to commune with the divine realm (I leave that up to the reader to decide) , and it definitely is a magical realism or contemporary fantasy book. All of my work has magic in it.
At the time I wrote it, angels were a big fad. By the time my agent submitted it to publishers, they said "the angel fad is over!" So, we never got anywhere with it. It sat in mothballs (on my hard drive) for a long time, until I had the chance to publish it with ASJA Press (American Society of Journalists and Authors) via iUniverse. I decided to publish it as a test to see what it's like to market a book. I also felt I still had something to say with that book, and the response has shown that it's been inspirational to many people. However, marketing has turned out to be a much harder job that I expected and it's been cutting into my writing time quite a bit. Sometimes you have to make the choice if you are going to write or work on selling. You can buy "Excited Light" at Amazon.com or any online bookstore or by visiting my web site: http://www.lynnvoedisch.com/ .

You began your career as a journalist and now do both fiction and non-fiction. How do you switch from one to the other.
I thought that was going to be the easy part. Not true! Although I have always written clean copy and have a straight-forward expository style, I tended to skip descriptions and long bits of backstory. This was because I had been trained to leave that sort of "extra" material out of my copy. Copy editors would always aim straight for the description and cut it out. So, I figured that's what fiction writers would do also. And I must admit that I do tend to skip over long descriptive passages when I read, so I was guilty of thinking none of it mattered.
I found out it matters quite a bit. All my critiquers would say, "Where did so-and-so come from? What does the town look like? Tell me more, more, more." One writer, who has gone on to find success told me "You're writing a novel, not a news report. You can take your time."
So, that's when I took the classes and started to change the way I wrote. I also learned that passive voice, which is quite fine for journalism, is a huge no-no in literature. I just hadn't paid attention. So, I purged that.

After a few years of rewriting things four or five times, I started writing like a novelist instead of a panicky reporter. But it's no problem for me to switch back to journalism. I can do that in a heartbeat. You really never forget.

You told me you had to basically relearn the writing process for fiction. Tell us how you do that?
I should add that going from the AP Stylebook to the Chicago Manual of Style still remains an editing conundrum for me. I was weaned on the AP Stylebook and there are certain things in the CMP that I just can't seem to get down. This is why I have my work looked at by a professional editor (and, thankfully, I know a lot of them).

How is researching a fictional account different from non-fiction?
Actually, research is research and I don't see much difference. You don't have to get exact quotations from authorities, but you still have to get the facts correct, otherwise you end up looking silly to the reader. Right now, I am doing a book on an elite group of women who lived in ancient Egypt. This is a subject that most Egyptologists don't know a lot about. I interviewed a professor at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (one of the country's leading Egyptology schools) and gained a lot of insight, plus I've read everything I can get my hands on about the subject. What's interesting is that so much is not known about this group of women that I had the professor's blessing to just use creative license when I came up against an area that is not well documented. Talk about a gift!
Still, that makes me nervous to write blindly. Even though I am 14 chapters into the book, I'm still looking every day for more information on this subject. I just joined two new Egyptology mailing lists for more information.
Actually, I can get so caught up in the research process that I'll put off writing, and I have to watch that. I recently finished a book about the real-life search for Atlantis (which is tied thematically to another story line) and I must have joined every Atlantis mailing list in existence, and read every Atlantis book published. There's an incredible amount of rubbish on the Internet and whenever aliens came up, I'd ignore it. However, there are some intensely serious people out there right now, searching the coasts of several continents, looking for remains of an ancient civilization. I could have researched this for years.
7). What is your best writing time and do you need to be in a specific place?
I'm not a morning writer and I keep wondering about all those people who say you have to get up at dawn to do this. My best writing time is the afternoon, although I've been known to write until late at night. I admit to being a night person who is allergic to mornings. I actually don't need to be in a specific place, but I prefer to be alone. I was invited to a place here in Chicago that gives space to writers and I couldn't imagine working there with all those other writers around. I also can't do it in the library. However, for some odd reason, if I take notebook or laptop out to a cafe, I'm fine. Plus, I worked around other writers for years in the newsroom. But there just is something different about fiction and I need to be in a another mindset. I just have my quirks. Another quirk is that I do my first draft by hand.

You worked for 17 years at the Chicago Sun Times, what was it about being a staff writer that you liked and what is it that you like about the freelance life?
We had about five different owners when I was there and things changed dramatically with each one. It may sound incredible, but when Rupert Murdoch owned the paper, those of us who worked in the entertainment department were delighted. He had deep pockets and we were flying all over the country for interviews with top movie stars. I even interviewed one of my heroes, Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek" fame. i interviewed him twice, as a matter of fact. So, those were heady times. Cher, Nick Nolte, Rodney Dangerfield, Mikhail Baryshnikov...the list goes on and on. As the money dwindled and the bean counters had more influence, the job became more of a daily grind. I could see the handwriting on the wall when I started getting the same old assignments at the same time of the year. "Not this again!" I'd think. I truly loved all the reviewing I did, even when it took me to scary neighborhoods, and I loved doing the Sunday features. However, repetitive interviews with the same old people bored me to tears. Plus, I didn't see a column in my future, and I didn't want to be relegated to the same old thing until I retired.
I was able to escape for one year to our brand-new Internet division and was part of the team that helped create the online version of the paper. However, they tossed me back into my old job and I couldn't see anything good happening from there.
Freelancing has one huge advantage: you can wake up late in the morning and realize you don't have to commute anywhere. It's incredibly freeing. I'm not the write-in-your-pajamas type of person, but I loved the flexibility of the hours. It was fantastic when my son was in middle school and was too old for day care and too young to be left alone. I'd just get my work done by 3 p.m. and pick him up.
The down side of freelancing is losing editors (which happened all too often as they found new jobs). Then you have to try to cozy up to a whole new bunch of them, and finding new work can be utterly exhausting and depressing.

Is there a quirky writing habit that people don't know about you?
I spend a lot of time just thinking out my work and I never outline. It all is stored in my brain. Then, when the mood is right, I slam out a 2,000-word chapter in a short amount of time. I've never been a 500-words-a-day person. I think my newspaper experience, with all the deadlines, taught me all the discipline I needed.
So, when I'm watering the flowers, I'm often working. You just can't see that.

What's next for you?
As I explained, I'm deep into the first draft of the Egyptian novel, which I hope would have the same appeal as "The Red Tent." Women love to read about influential women of the past, and this could be big if my agent sells it the right way. Then again...well, I won't think about the negatives.
After that, I'd like to do some short stories. I'm not a natural short story writer, because I like to imagine a huge complex world when I write. But I'd like to master this form of fiction. I've had one short story published and I'd like to add more to my CV.
As far as non-fiction goes, I may teach and I may even ghost write. I'm in a bit of a transition period on that, but it's nice to have the freedom to keep my options open


Blogger chrisd said...

Kerri, you did a wonderful job on your interview. I expect great work from Lynn.

9:42 PM CDT  

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