Bett Norris


20 QUESTIONS IN THE HOT SEAT

1. Why do you write?

This is a good question, and one I’m not sure I can answer. I write because I love it, because I feel compelled to put things down on paper, because it’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. I write because I think about things too much, maybe. I write because it’s simply what I do. There are ideas or characters, certain phrases and images that I can’t get out of my head, and so I write about them.

2. What genre do you feel most comfortable working in?

When I sit down to write, I don’t think about genre. I think about what’s in my head that I want to pin down on paper and examine. In the end, when a thing is finished, someone else decides, the editor, publisher, bookstore, reviewer, or the reader, what genre the finished book fits. Miss McGhee is a good example. This is a love story, so it could be called a romance, but it contains a lot of factual information about the civil rights movement in the South, so maybe it could be called historical fiction.

3. What was the first thing you remember writing?

This is embarrassing, but I am here to serve. The first thing I remember writing is my own autobiography, when I was eleven years old, and I wrote it on the back of a Liberty Insurance calendar page that had hung on the wall for so long the paper had turned yellow. It was wider and longer than notebook paper, so I felt like I was writing on very old parchment or something. You, know, I kept that thing for a long time.

4. How do you work? That is, how do you approach a new project? Do you write different scenes and put them all together or do you just go from point A to point B and you’re done?

This is very important: I write down everything, from a few disconnected sentences, to simple phrases to rants about this or that. When an idea has fermented long enough in its own juices, I write the rough draft, and here is where I apply a hard rule: I write from beginning to end without stopping for editing or proofing or corrections. I get the whole thing down on paper first. “Rewrite in process is an excuse for not finishing.” That’s a quote from John Steinbeck. It’s posted on my wall.

Then comes the second draft, when I might look to flesh out hasty or sketchy ideas or scenes, and look to break the thing into chapters or some format. Then comes the third draft, the fourth, ad infinitum. Usually, after the end of each draft, I’ll set the project aside for a good length of time. Without reading through it or pulling up that file, I’ll just think about it, let my mind wander through, and let scenes pop into my head. These I’ll write and polish and really work on, and with the next draft, I’ll see where these separate and disparate scenes fit into the whole, and drop them in. I call them drop-ins, because they just drop into my head and I just shove them or drop them into the draft.

5. Do you talk to your characters?

No, but they talk to me. I can hear some of them in my head so clearly sometimes. And, I dream about them.

6. If you could have an afternoon with any one of your characters, who would it be and why?

That’s a tough one. Mary McGhee is special to me, one of the most demanding characters I’ve ever created. She just demanded that her story be told. And her personality is so unique, I feel like I know her, so it might be fun to talk to her. Mary is a rigid personality, there’s not much give in her. But actually, I’d probably learn more about her by talking to Lila, or Jane.

7. What’s your favorite story that you’ve written?

Miss McGhee was the first to get published (though not the first novel I wrote) so that whole experience remains close to my heart, because it carried with it so many first-time events. I’ll add this: I can’t write unless I feel it viscerally, in my gut, unless I am burning, itching, to tell that story. So at the time I’m writing each book, even each scene, I have to feel that close, that connected to it, to make it real.

8. A new fiction writer approaches you at an event and asks you for advice. What do you tell him or her?

Write, and keep writing. Don’t stop. Getting published is a chancy and sometimes very difficult process, and even when your work gets accepted (Oh, happy day!) the process is so long, filled with waiting and waiting, that you must always keep writing, and have another ongoing project to keep yourself busy. A writer is a person who writes. So write. Every day, write. The only other advice I can assure will help a new writer is to read. Be a reader. If you don’t love fiction, you wouldn’t be a writer in the first place, but don’t forget to read. You can read about the craft if you want, or read history, because it may come in handy, read biographies or anything at all, but read.

9. What’s the hardest thing for you about writing?

Again, this is embarrassing to admit. I am the least imaginative person I know. I am not good at thinking up plots and stories. I usually start from a character and let that pull me along through, but I often tell people that my books are about nothing at all. Two people sitting in a room, reading, a shaft of afternoon sunlight slanting through the window, catching dust motes in the air, the clock on the wall ticks, they turn pages, glance up at each other, one of them stretches, the other one nods in silent agreement with something she’s reading, that’s about it.

Actually, that is a scene that got stuck in my head, like a snap shot, and wouldn’t go away, for years and years. That became What’s Best for Jane, my second novel. You won’t find that scene anywhere in the finished book, but that’s what started the whole thing.

10. If you couldn’t write, what would you do?

Oh, I’m sure I’d be crazy by now if I couldn’t write. Let’s see, I might still be teaching high school. I’ve secretly harbored a fantasy about singing country music, but there’s a big drawback to pursuing that dream. My official bio states that I like to read, and I write, and I have no other skills or hobbies.

11. Anne McCaffrey writes to music and occasionally, she includes the music she was listening to during her writing in the acknowledgments. Do you write to music? Or do you have certain writing rituals that you do before/during/after your writing sessions?

Yes, yes, and yes! I do often write to music! I am so relieved to find that many others do too. I think writing requires a certain rhythm, it requires pacing, it requires so many of the elements you find in music. Besides, I just love music. The first draft of Miss McGhee was written while I played certain songs from different CD’s over and over. In particular, one song, written by Cheryl Wheeler called “Further and Further Away”—I must have played that song a hundred times. The version I have is performed by Kathy Mattea, with Suzy Boggus singing harmony. Anyway, yes, music is very important to me, it lets me free up my brain somehow. I used to have this ritual, on Fridays after work, I’d line up all my favorite CD’s and play DJ for myself. I’d play each cut, making comments, singing along, in my socks, pacing around in my office where I write, just looking at the papers on my desk. I sang every song I knew and loved, and offered critical interpretations of what I thought the songwriter wanted us to get from the song. Sometimes I would actually get hoarse, talking, singing, explaining, postulating, inventing metaphors where none were intended, creating different meanings. I’d fall asleep with my mind so far away from my own writing that when I waked, whatever I was trying to find and get on paper just popped cleanly and clearly into my head. I’d write with half my mind on those song lyrics.

12. Do you share your writing with others as you’re working? Or do you wait until something’s complete? What are the benefits to either approach?

I use my partner Sandy quite mercilessly when I’m writing. I prodded her from a sound sleep, shoved a few pages hot off the printer, handed her her glasses, and demanded her to tell me what she thinks. I can’t imagine she enjoys this, but Sandy is an artist in her own right, and so completely understands the creative process, that she has never said, go away. She reads it, and then we’ll sit and she’ll give me feedback, and if I don’t like what she’s saying, I’ll sit with pen and paper and quiz her. Now that I think about it, I bet she really dislikes this! It must be like taking a pop quiz. Seriously, she has a good eye and very sound judgment. And I’ll test her on rough drafts, polished, finished scenes, and the whole draft of a novel. Sometimes she makes notes in the margins or sometimes we sit and talk as she finishes each chapter.

Benefits: if you use someone who is ruthless, you’ll know early on whether you way off track on plot points or characters. It really helps to hear, “I liked this part, but I can’t stand this other thing.”

Drawbacks: if you only use friends or other people close to you, you may wind up with a lot of, “That’s just brilliant,” and not get a true rendering.

13. Sometimes writers work internal issues out through their narratives. Have you ever written a scene or character that “hit too close to home” for you? How did you handle that?

Yes, I have, and not very well. There are some parts of some characters in What’s Best for Jane that are very close to home for me. I found it very difficult to write that close to the bone. It cuts. It hurts. But that’s the best thing about writing, you know? You can make all these horrible or wonderful things happen to fictional characters and you get to straighten out the mess that happens sometimes in real life. You get to decide how it gets resolved, when in life, sometimes there is no easy resolution, no happy ending.

14. What are some of the things you do to improve on your craft? Do you attend conferences? Take workshops? What works best for you to improve how and what you write?

I go to conferences whenever I can, time, money and distance being the operative factors. I love the Saints and Sinners conference held in New Orleans every May as a fund raiser for NOAIDS. They have some great panels and workshops, and if you want, you can stalk the famous authors who show up. This year, I plan to shadow Dorothy Allison. Conferences are a great chance to meet other writers, other editors and publishers, and a great place to network. I’ve learned a lot from the writers’ workshops.

15. Let’s talk a little bit about the business end of writing from an author’s perspective. What do you look for in a publisher?

Again, you need to develop some of those stalking instincts. You need to research the publishers you’re interested in, find out what they publish, read their books. Do you like what they’ve done with the covers? Do you like the quality of the writing? Is it the kind of books you want to produce? No sense querying a publisher who only accepts murder mysteries if you only write science fiction. Go look in the bookstores. Are their books in stock? Look them up online, learn everything you can about them.

In my case, I attended a conference, sat and listened to editors from different publishing houses talk about their philosophies on editing, and liked what I heard from a few, and submitted to them. I stalked Bywater Books from its inception, to tell you the truth. I liked what publisher and editor Kelly Smith had to say about editing, I liked the fact that Bywater at that time was new and looking for new writers, I liked that they were holding a writing contest each year to discover new talent. That said to me that they would have the patience it might take to work with an unknown and unproven writer who might not be familiar with the editing process.

16. What, from your perspective, are some of the most common mistakes beginning authors make with regard to approaching a publisher?

The most common mistake is not to treat yourself as a professional and be prepared. If you want to be taken seriously, then you must first take yourself seriously as a writer, learn your craft, learn as much as you can about the business of publishing, and respond professionally. Most importantly, read and follow the submission guidelines to the letter. If it says New Times Roman, 12 point, one inch margins, double-spaced, then do that. And, this is the big requirement: read your own work on paper before you send it in. You have no idea what a difference it makes.

17. Talk a bit about marketing. Publishers can’t do everything for you in that regard. So what are some of the things you do to drum up audiences for your work? What do you think are some of the most effective things (and cheap!) an author can do, besides write good material?

Whether you’re with a small niche company or a big or mid-sized publisher, none of them have much of a budget for promoting their books. Luckily, most writers are: egotistical, self-absorbed, self-interested, and most of all, self-starting. They are desperate for someone, anyone, to read their books, so they will do almost anything it takes. Even me, and I am very shy, will put myself out there, do readings, promote myself to bookstores near and far. Create a web site. Make a press release and send it out for each book, to every bookstore and library you can find. Offer to come and do a reading, sign books, give a talk, whatever. And here’s what works best for me, find other writers who have done a great job marketing their books, and steal ideas from them. Mari SanGiovanni, one of the funniest people on the planet, also just happens to be something of a whiz at promoting and marketing, and so I wrote to her and asked questions.

I think the web site has been the biggest help in spreading the word. I am functionally illiterate when it comes to computers, but even I created a web site. Sometimes I feel like the wizard when the hot air balloon was drifting away from the Emerald City: “I can’t come back, I don’t know how the thing works!”

18. Do you make some of your writing available online? How do you feel about e-publishing and e-books? Would you go that route? Why or why not?

I will post synopses and short excerpts of each book; and when we have the cover and the back cover blurb, I’ll post that on my web site. And I talk about the process of how I came up with the idea, tell visitors something about it as we go along, hopefully building interest.

I think e-books and audio books are great advances. I think we should use every means available to get people reading and to get our books in their hands. I don’t think the traditional publishing business will go away, though. Too many people love books, love having them on their shelves, holding them, thumbing through them. Too many people love libraries and looking information up for themselves. Personally, I love bookstores. So in my mind it’s not either/or, that new technology will completely do away with traditional print publishing. We can have both.

19. What were your best and worst experiences with an editor?

Honestly, I haven’t had a bad experience with an editor. You have to remember that I’m new, and only my first novel is out as yet. I paid a free-lance editor to work on the draft of Miss McGhee, years before I submitted it. I had never worked with an editor before, and imagined all kinds of horrible things, like pages just bleeding red ink and dripping with snarky, caustic, cutting suggestions. That did not happen. Editors, if they are good and really know what they’re doing, are supportive and encouraging and inspire the writer to dig deeper and get better. Good editors sharpen the writer’s viewpoint, help the writer define and clarify what they want to say, and changes suggested by good editors only improve the work and make the finished thing a better book, a readable book, a book that will grab and hold a reader’s interest.

Editing is still a mysterious process to me. I think editors are born, not made. An editor, at least my editor, bridges the gulf between what an author wants to accomplish and how the reader will see it.

20. And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a writer? What, for you, totally sucks about it?

My favorite thing? I love that feeling that comes, only sometimes, when you fall into a certain rhythm with the words, and they just seem to flow of their own will, springing free from a deep recess inside that I don’t even know about, some cavernous well of cool water that actually soothes me. I like when I get up at 3 am and start writing and look up and it’s late afternoon, and I don’t know where the time went. I like when I get it exactly right, exactly what I wanted to say, exactly how I wanted to say it.

This sucks: staring at the keyboard or a blank page and getting nothing. Absolutely nothing, no spark, no inkling, not one single word will come. That awful feeling of forcing it out, just trying to put words on the page.

Our thanks to Bett, for taking time to hang out in the hot seat with us here at Kissed By Venus. Good luck with the up and coming new release.


Author Profile:

Bett Norris states, in her own words: “I wrote my autobiography when I was eleven years old, on the back of a Liberty Insurance wall calendar. Not much has changed since then.”

Indeed, I would beg to differ. Bett Norris is one of the most interesting, thoughtful, intelligent writers I’ve had the pleasure of talking to, even though it is by e-mail, in a long time. Bett Norris is, if you haven’t already discovered, a very talented story-teller.

For more about Bett, take a moment to visit her web site, BETT NORRIS, and maybe read an excerpt from her recently published novel: MISS McGHEE, a novel I can well recommend reading!

Also, you might like to check out Bett’s latest release, “WHAT’S BEST FOR JANE,” coming this Spring:
Bywater Books
Amazon.com

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