Spotlight: Betsy Streeter

If you’ve been a part of Flash! Friday for any particular length of time, you already know Betsy Streeter‘s name and reputation. Not only did she serve as a judge in Year Two, but she is one of only FOUR people to have won FF four times (along with Maggie Duncan, Phil Coltrane, and Karl Russell), and beyond that she’s accumulated so many mentions and runners up awards here (including second runner up this very week for her story “The Verdict”), there’s no point in counting. There’s something about her writing that clearly resonates time and again across the FF community, and when she announced the pending publication of Silverwood, I just knew we had to grill her about it.

Couple of things before we dive in:

1) We’re giving away a signed (paper) copy of Silverwood to a randomly chosen commenter. So… be sure to comment!

2) We’re also opening up this Spotlight feature to the FF community. Do you have a new book coming out? Contact me here if you’d like to chat about it. Every published book’s deserving of a party, and what better place to throw that party than here among friends and adoring fans??? 

And now… it’s my great privilege to turn the mic over to Betsy Streeter. WE LOVE YOU, BETSY!!!! Congratulations on the publication of this totally awesome book. -Is the sequel done yet??

Betsy Streeter Silverwood

You’ve already published about a million books. Please tell us about your publishing journey: what made you decide to package your awesome cartoon work in book form? What’s that experience been like? 

I’ve been publishing work for an awfully long time, since right after college. This once involved manila envelopes and SASEs and paper rejection slips. I’ve published in so many forms: Submitting individual cartoons, putting up a daily feature on GoComics (at one point I was responsible for panels seven days a week), creating stuff for a particular website. I’ve got cartoons in a lot of psychology textbooks, so there’s that. One cartoon travels around with the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory’s exhibit on black holes. One of my drawings is tattooed on a person. So I guess you’d say my notion of “publishing” is rather broad. I’d say it’s anything that connects you/your work to an audience and someone enjoys it.

For books that I do myself, I use Lightning Source, because it’s great quality, they provide a lot of guidance, and they distribute through Ingram which means your stuff can go up on Amazon or be ordered by a book store. I’ve used them a long time. Silverwood is traditionally published so it’s got an online and a hard copy distributor and they do their thing.

You’re a cartoonist, but you’re also a writer. Have you always been both, even since childhood? Has one side ever tried smothering the other?

I have always done both. Little secret: Cartooning is first and foremost about writing. Good writing can save a cartoon. But a great drawing with lousy writing – nobody is going to read that.

Silverwood’s your first novel. For an artist who lives her life in brevity (cartoons and flash fiction!), what was writing an entire NOVEL like???! 

The thing about a book is, it is the sum total of many scenes and encounters among the characters and their issues. So I break it down. I think in scenes like a screenwriter, like, such-and-such needs to happen between these characters so how do I get this to happen. If you do this for long enough, you get a novel.

I had been wanting to do MUCH bigger projects for a long time. I had messed with bigger comic projects, loads of short fiction, and drawing series 200+ long. In fact that’s how Helen Silverwood came into focus for me – I drew her. Didn’t even know her name at that point. I just called her “The Lost Queen” even though I don’t think she’s queen of anything.

What was the publishing process like for Silverwood? Do you have an agent? How did you choose a publisher? 

I had shopped the book for some time, which is LOADS of fun – it makes it a few rounds, someone likes it, they sit on it, then six months later they go, “nah” – anyway, then I had TWO publishers come back at once wanting it because these things are never simple.

I do not have an agent, and don’t feel I need one right now (I am married to an attorney so that really helps). I did a couple rounds of revisions with my publisher before we signed; it was like we were seeing if we could work together. It was clear to me that she “got” the book, and was making it WAY better. That’s how I made the decision. I knew they would take care with it and wanted it to be fully what it was, not something else.

A good editor is an absolute MUST.

I also recommend having a crapload of stuff in the hopper, out being looked at, etc. – so much so that you need a spreadsheet. For a while my goal was to have 10 to 15 things submitted at a time. That way you can’t obsess over one thing. Your work is looking for homes. You’ll notice who responds and seems to like you, who blows you off. You start to find your peeps.

Book trailer!!!! How fun was THAT?! (watch it here)

I know! I gave input on what it might be about, they sent me a rough cut that was really good, we messed with some music, and then I just said maybe cut it together tighter to match the fast pace of the book, and they did. Again, the publisher really gets the book and the story. I felt the same way about the cover design. It is evocative of so many things.

Your book’s got some scary stuff in it (more on that in a minute). But speaking of scary — let’s talk marketing for a minute! How’d you nab that Kirkus review?? What’s your strategy, and how’s it going? Any surprises?

You know, all credit there goes to the publisher for getting Silverwood in [Kirkus]. I was surprised. They came back and said that was HUGE for a new author. So I feel like that was just a magical thing. It touched off attention from iBooks, reviewers, GoodReads… that early attention is so important and impactful.

For me marketing is connecting with people. I go to comic cons because that’s where my peeps are. I have found bookstores to be hit and miss, to be honest (sharing this because look, we’re all writers and honesty is needed). Some stores are super supportive, like Borderlands in San Francisco, others blow you off. I had one lady treat me like I was stupid. And then she sold out of all her copies. I just don’t get it. I think Amazon might not be the only reason some of these stores are struggling. I want to support, but that support has to be mutual. I will keep searching out those good eggs. Meantime, geek-fests are my thing. And I LOVE giving talks and interviews. To me that’s part of the point. This makes it much easier.

All right, the moment’s here. Silverwood. I’ve heard it called scifi, fantasy, even paranormal. It’s shelved YA but, like the plot, the POV space and time jumps between 14-year-old Helen, her younger brother, her kick-butt mother and father, and even the slimy, awesomely creepy baddies. The book would seem to defy description in a lot of ways: it’s sooo unlike a lot of stuff that’s “out there.” How was this story born? Did you start with an image, a concept, a particular character?

Helen Silverwood had been with me for years – different names/faces, but there. As I mentioned earlier, I started by drawing her. First in a chair, then getting up and walking out, and just saw what happened. I needed to follow her around and see what her deal was. About 200-some drawings later, I felt I knew her. This is when the other characters asserted themselves – first Kate, then Henry, Gabriel, Christopher.

I am fascinated by shape-shifting, and basing creatures on the natural world. So the Tromindox are octopi, they are cuttlefish, they are Star Trek Cardassians, they are everything and nothing and that’s what makes them scary.

I am extremely proud that the book defies categorization. As a sci fi author this is a very high compliment. Sci fi being the literature of ideas and what-if and going beyond reality. Sci fi has changed the world by getting us to expand our notion of what is possible.

What made you decide to attack several points of view in the novel, rather than just following Helen’s? Was that challenging?

I’ve had people love and hate the head-hopping. For me it was a necessity. I wanted everyone in the book, including (especially) the Tromindox, to have their point of view and reasons and motivation and I wanted the reader to connect with these directly. Also, in world-building, if you funnel all that through one character, it’s gonna take 800 pages and I fear be really boring.

It came naturally because I felt it was what the story needed. I am refining my technique, however.

How about structure? 

I write like a screenwriter (many have pointed this out). I write for imagery, tension and release. I need to get to a place and I have as much fun as possible getting there. Hence the weirdos living in Brokeneck. What fun they are.

I also spend a lot of time asking myself, “what is the reader dying to know right now?” I have to spend the right time with the right characters/situations in order for the story to satisfy. It’s a LOT like music. There’s buildup, there’s a language and rhythm to it. I use my ear a lot as well as my eyes.

YA is a massively popular genre. Did you worry at all about your book being “different” than the others? What makes a story stand out? What makes Silverwood unique?

I didn’t worry about it – I wrote what I loved and I knew it would be crazy different. That’s kind of the story of my whole career and something I value and go after. I do think the lack of dystopia, werewolves or vampires helped. I did feel a certain frustration with Hunger Games and Twilight. I felt they are too simplistic and young people (and all generations) can handle complex, meaty plots and mysteries and characters. It’s like mind-candy. So I set out to write some really good mind-candy, that by definition has to be unique in order to challenge you.

My family geek out together, so I wrote a story I felt multiple generations could read at the same time. I think of YA as an inclusive label, YA-and-up.

My target readers are people who love new and different and unprecedented.

I’m trying to avoid plot spoilers, but HELLO. Helen’s got these crazy dreams with monsters, her brother Henry draws stuff that comes true, their mom is out all hours of the night and comes home battle-scarred. And then, once they reach the Wild West-style town of Brokeneck, there’s that freakish lake where strange things happen. And that’s not even mentioning all the scenes in space or the monster community. So. Much. Craziness. How did you keep everything straight, down to the details for each person, the overall timeline, the various places–are you a chart person, or do you have a strong memory? Truth, now: did you base any of the characters or communities on any person/place in real life?

Oh, there is a ton of stuff in there that is based on real things, sometimes mashups. “Gifted Florence” was a sign I used to see on the way to visit my grandmother in Sacramento as a kid. My other grandmother lived alone in Willits, California and I’m pretty sure the population of Brokeneck could be found at the Willits Safeway.

It’s a lot of craziness, but I am in love with it all so it’s easy to remember. I’m in love with remote California, and with the Tromindox, and with Henry, and all of it.

The first book I wrote in pieces which I placed in individual folders with names that were descriptions and then I numbered them to put them in an order and moved them around/filled in in-between them. So a file structure was my outline. On the second book I have used synopsis, hand-written notes, a board with stickies, and an enormous color-coded Excel file. I blast out a lot of stuff and then I know I’m going the right direction when it starts to simplify and I lose a lot of the noise. But I need the noise at first to sort what is important. This is where stickies are handy.

 The characters to me are people without bodies and I feel I know them, so they are easy to keep straight. I do want to flesh them out a lot more in further stories.

Also it is necessary to treat things and elements like characters and track them. Like, the portals. And the Book of the Future and the Book of Regrets. And that one portal that Mrs. Woods special-orders. And the video camera. I think of them as characters.

Rumor is you’re hard at work on Book 2. Is this a trilogy? Do you have other novels simmering in your brain?

I’m not sure how far the Silverwood books will go, at least three. I will look to my publisher for guidance. However the thing is infinitely expandable. I’ve fallen in love in the second book with a group called the Watchmakers, who could spin off into their own stories. I’ve talked with the publisher about writing short fiction and comics to come out between books as well. And there’s the Guild and its history. And of course there’s the critical moment when Kate and Gabriel jumped forward with Helen, which Mrs. Woods explains a little in the first book. There’s a whole clan history there that is convoluted and difficult. We learn a LOT more about that in the second book. But there could be Guild novels, and Watchmaker novels, and all of this. I will need the readers to tell me where they want to dig in. ‘Cause it could go a lot of places.

And of course I write the serial Neptune Road, which I put out on Wattpad and have done one book compilation so far. That one has legs and could expand as well. I mean, it’s a planet. So that could go on a while. I do that project to keep me writing and drawing every day. It harkens back to my cartoonist days, having three deadlines a week. It’s a rhythm I understand. I will be looking to the fans there to guide its future as well. I believe these things are built in conjunction with readers and fans. In fact that’s one of the things I love most.

Betsy, thank you so much for graciously answering these questions; it’s a true pleasure having you as such a big part of the FF family, and I’m sure I can speak for the entire community in congratulating you on Silverwood, and wishing you the very best for its wild success. 

***And now, to you, FF dragons! Do you have any comments/questions about Betsy’s experience? Have you read Silverwood yet, and can you add anything to what she’s said about it? Here’s your chance! Thank you for joining us today!
A reminder one commenter will receive an autographed copy of the book.***

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30 thoughts on “Spotlight: Betsy Streeter

  1. I am really excited about this book. Wonderful author, a list of book dynamics that reads like it was taken from my wish list, and it’s all packaged up in that gorgeous cover.
    I have a question, for Betsy, if that’s okay.
    You’ve mentioned sending out work into double digits. Not having done this yet it scares me. Writing a book could take me years (seriously), so what advice would you give me if I can only cope with one novel and it’s going to take a while?
    Many thanks – Mark

    • Hi Mark! Well, obviously all your great work with #flashdogs counts, and I think everybody has their mix of work and submitting that fits their tolerance. For me, I need to feel like I’m reaching readers on a pretty frequent basis. Perhaps this is an attention span issue. However, if your novel is the love of your life, and you feel like writing it is making you a better person, it is worth it regardless. I do think the flash fiction community and the terrific stuff you do there is a wonderful way to keep yourself challenged and moving – so never fear!!

  2. I like your ideas with the expanding universe. I think we’re living in a world now where stories don’t just run from A-Z. Things like the Marvel universe with its movies and TV all crossing over show that people love investing in large worlds with character cameos and cross over plots.

    For someone like yourself, this must be a little more exciting when your able to not just write filler short stories or spin off novels but also switch to another media, perhaps attracting a different crowd.

    Congratulations on the novel. Will be interesting to come back in five, ten, fifteen years time and see how the universe has grown.

  3. Okay, I feel like a suck-up, but since the content of my post has no impact on whether I get the book, I’m not going to worry about that. I cannot even tell you how much I loved this interview. I’ve been teaching writing for several years now, but have focused on informational pieces with my students (because that’s what the state requires…). The problem is, there’s this fiction/fantasy/sci-fi fiend inside of me that’s been poking me for years and now is finally at the point of wanting to rip through the informational veneer and explode fantastical beasts across my classroom. So, I started working with flash fiction, because I thought it would be less messy. 🙂

    Because I’m just starting, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by how much I don’t yet understand.This peek into your mind was so encouraging and gave structure for my constantly swirling thoughts. As one who used to act (before teaching consumed my life,) the explanation you gave about viewing a novel as a bunch of individual scenes sewn together helped my overwhelmed little brain to have a starting point. Thank you!

    I would love to see how your screenwriter’s mind plays out in the novel!

    • Oh gosh, I could go on and on (and have at a recent event) about how impactful sci fi and fantasy are on our thinking as a human race, and how it illuminates the human condition, gets us to think beyond what we see which is how ALL progress happens (like, how do we see beyond what is happening in Baltimore right now?) so I think it would be fabulous for your mind to get to formulate thoughts in this way.
      I come from a family of actors and musicians (my daughter is a singer/actor/dancer who just played Lady Macbeth and my son plays bass/cello/guitar – we are a little nuts) so between that and voracious consumption of sci fi/fantasy movies and TV I’m sure that’s where that comes from. The notion of “beats” is something that I’m sure you relate to! I am always looking for those beats.

  4. Congrats, Betsy! This book sounds like a wild ride! I am fascinated by your perspective of going where your fans want and letting them direct where you develop next. I look forward to reading this. More YA SciFi is always a good thing. 🙂

  5. “A good editor is an absolute MUST.” – How very true! (Here’s looking at YOU, Emily June Street)… 😉 Betsy, this sounds fantastic! Maybe we can do some cross-promotion in the very near future? 😉

  6. Congratulations on the book. It sounds brilliant. Really interesting interview. The point you made about not obsessing over one thing resonates with me. I always love reading your flash fiction here. Good luck with it all.

  7. What a fabulous interview! Congratulations on the book, Betsy, and thank you so much for sharing all of these details about your process, both in writing and in publishing. I loved the book trailer – I think I have to go order Silverwood right now!

  8. I’d also like to give a shout out to Light Messages Publishing, and to Elizabeth Turnbull in particular, who edited the book. They picked it up, made it better, and are doing a great job getting it out there – in front of Kirkus, iBooks, Goodreads, the whole shebang. So I’ve got to throw a pile of love their way.

  9. I think the idea of a book trailer is really quite fascinating – and a great way to incorporate our image-driven technology. Thank you, Rebekah, for a great interview to read!

  10. Congratulations Betsy on your new book. It sounds wonderful and I love how you labelled it YA and up.

    Really interesting interview (bow also to Rebekah) & very honest of you to say the bookshop/author relationship needs to be mutually supportive. They (and many authors) are so embattled that sometimes we romanticise them. It was refreshing to hear you say it is a two-way street.

    Look forward to reading you, Nillu

    • Thanks Nillu! Yes, it’s a business, and sometimes it seems like that gets lost. I also think that stores and authors alike have gotten burned (stores not selling anything, or not having copies to sell, authors not showing or being ill-prepared) and so there’s trepidation. I’ve found that like publishers, you have to find your just-right folks and kind of say “no thanks” to those who just make it too difficult or don’t communicate. It’s like anything, I suppose.

  11. “I felt they are too simplistic and young people (and all generations) can handle complex, meaty plots and mysteries and characters. It’s like mind-candy.”
    THIS. I’ve felt for years that we are dumbing down our stories so as not to confuse, offend, mix-genres etc. and it’s hurting our collective imagination. As adults we forget that children can grasp way more than we’d like to believe (WE did, why wouldn’t they?). The goal is to challenge and stretch what’s possible through books, not put out tidy tales that are sure never to confuse, offend, or stray outside their genres. It sounds like you’re leading this charge and I’ll happily support. 🙂

    • Yeah, marketing has a lot to do with this. Those big-money decisions are made so much on tried and true formulas, or demographics – that lag behind the times. Young people are not a crop to harvest but sometimes it seems they are treated that way. Charge!!!

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