What a pleasure and honor to welcome Lisa Crayton to the Spotlight mic. She’s a multi-published author and co-author, freelance writer, writing mentor, editor, conference and workshop speaker, former publisher of a two-time Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers winning site, contest judge, business writer, ghostwriter… I’d say it would be quicker to list the sorts of writing she hasn’t done, except I can’t think of any!
She’s generously set aside a few minutes (okay, a lot of minutes! I had loads of questions and could easily listen to her all day) to chat with us at Flash! Friday, and share some of what she’s learned along the way. Lisa, welcome to Flash! Friday! Let’s dive right in.
Every romance starts somewhere: tell us the story of your relationship with writing!
Way, way back, I first fell in love with writing in my 8th grade journalism class, after reading Joseph Pulitzer: Front Page Pioneer. Then I attended a high school in New York City with a journalism concentration, where I became the editor of the school newspaper. From there I chose Utica College for its journalism major – very few New York State colleges at that time offered journalism degrees – and graduated with a dual major in public relations and journalism. I also worked in Manhattan for an entrepreneur, which gave me a love for business and business writing. For there, I moved on to corporate writing and editing. Eventually, I freelanced fulltime, but later supplemented my income with other part-time positions.
Fast forward to 2002: following my heart in what I believed God wanted me to do, I launched Spirit-Led Writer (“SLW”) online magazine, which I ran for five years. I saw a great need for support for Christian writers, for both information and inspiration, as my goal was – and has always been – to help other writers. During the lifetime of SLW my columnists and writers came from all different walks of writing life, and in its very first year SLW received the Writer’s Digest Best 101 Web Sites for Writers designation. I began getting invitations to speak at conferences.
Today I still work fulltime and I freelance on the side. I work for both Christian and secular publications. Almost any type of article you can imagine, I’ve written, including features, profiles, how-tos, devotionals, etc. On the book side, I’ve written two books, contributed chapters to others. This year I updated a series of six economics books for kids. I reworked and updated my book on Toni Morrison that’s coming out in 2016 (to be retitled Reading and Understanding the Works of Toni Morrison), which is part biography and part analysis, intended to help students understand her novels.
Is it MAGIC? How do all these editors and writing jobs find you??
It isn’t magic! It’s all the work you put in when nobody’s watching, like you fiction writers who often write for years before anybody notices. It’s maintaining an online presence. For me, I belonged to a couple Yahoo Groups discussion forums that were a mix of editors (book and magazine), writers, and agents. I served as a co-moderator. You have to be where the editors are. Maintain a website, even if it’s just a one-page resume. Writers need to be connected to other writers, readers, publishers, and agents. Stay in tune, for example on social media, commenting on their Facebook posts, tweets, etc., – not just to be seen, but to stay current on industry trends.
Word of mouth also helps. Industry professionals will recommend you for projects when your work meets specifications, and you are easy to work with.
It’s not as difficult as people make it seem.
One of the things I believe is: anyone can write. It takes time and effort. It may take hours, maybe even years, but you can learn it. Anyone who’s willing to take that time and effort, can learn. Some in the publishing industry tend to make it such a mystery, and writers get discouraged because they start believing they can’t do it. Or they stop putting in as much time and effort. They listen to the comments of others to the point where they lose their faith in themselves and their dreams. It doesn’t have to be that way. If they keep up the time and effort, their dreams can come true.
You’ve been active at writers conferences and workshops for a while now. What changes have you seen in publishing? What have we gained? What have we lost?
There have been so many changes. I recommend that writers follow agent blogs like Steve Laube’s to stay current on the state of the industry, and follow publications like Publishers Weekly. I also recommend reading variety of resources, like Writer’s Digest.
Fifteen years ago, it was all about print – print magazines, print publishing. Christian fiction wasn’t taken seriously by some people in the industry. In some markets, speculative fiction wasn’t even really considered. Back then everybody was building author websites. Self-publishing was not considered real publishing. Many publishing representatives looked down at self-published authors; unless you were Oprah Winfrey (who would not have needed to self-publish), they wouldn’t even look at your book.
However, I need to make the point that in the African American church community, self-publishing was always a way of doing things, since we were shut out of many mainstream publishing houses – or didn’t know how to get a nonfiction book published by royalty-paying publishers. Churches would fundraise to publish thousands of copies. It was very common. Many of today’s bestsellers started out self-publishing.
It’s only been in the past 5-6 years that we’ve really seen things change. We call it indie publishing now. Some publishers are more willing to work with indie authors, and agents are willing to look at authors who have self-published, if you’ve sold a certain number of copies. And now everything is electronic. Now we have so many websites, and video programs and products to get our name, get our projects out there. There are blog tours, and many other ways for writers to showcase their writing. It’s a different world.
In my opinion I don’t think it’s a matter of it being easier or harder to get noticed, but a question of being where the editors and publishers are.
At times, you need to wait for the market to be ready for your work, or choose to write for the market and what’s hot now. I know a writer who had a book but couldn’t get interest in it. She tried again three or four years later, and publishers were all over her trying to get that book. Sometimes the book’s theme may be the issue; the market may not be ready for it, and writers aren’t always willing to wait.
What are writers today doing right? What could they do better?
It always comes down to, Is your writing up to par?
You need to be in critique groups for your genre. It’s important to let people critique your work, and be willing to learn from them and revise. Be sure your work is evaluated by people in your own genre, those who are an authority on your specific kind of writing. Above all, you have to be teachable. It’s not enough to come to an editor and say, “My mama liked it, my friends liked it, my friend’s brother wanted to put it on a t-shirt….” Regarding interest in your work, it’s a different story when you can tell editors or agents your work has been through a critique group and you have rewritten it a number of times.
You have to be brave enough to hear constructive criticism. To improve your writing, take free online classes, or low-cost classes at your local community college, where you have people telling you the truth about your writing.
Speaking as a contest judge, a writing mentor and editor, as well as a former online magazine publisher, here are some specific areas I think writers might want to think about.
* Openings. These are probably the biggest weakness in new writers’ manuscripts. Your opening has to catch the reader’s attention. In fiction, readers need to know the character, what’s going on.
* Themes. Undeveloped themes are a major issue. If you were asked, “What’s your novel about?” you should be able to answer in a word or phrase. Is it fear? Love? Jealousy? –What’s that one word? If you can’t describe it, your theme is probably undeveloped in your book.
* Characters. Undeveloped or one-dimensional characters are common in work by many beginning writers. We have so many different roles we play in life, and that should be reflected in our characters’ lives also.
* Setting. We need to see, feel, experience that setting, that it is its own place compared to everywhere else. When readers are in love with that setting, they will read as much as they can to stay in that setting.
A lot of these things you learn from writing groups, from writing craft books, from reading other books in your genre. How did that scifi story end and leave you craving the next book? You felt like you ate the meal and you were full – the meal was totally complete – but you’re already hungry for the next one. How do writers do that?
If you don’t have money to spend on writing? Ask for specific, writing-related birthday presents —magazine subscriptions, the latest Writer’s Market, a gift card to a bookstore. Doing this also means you’re inviting people into your writing life, getting them excited about and invested in your writing. Also remember that now with the web, there are so many things that are free. Attend book signings, where authors often give talks as well. A lot of critique groups are free.
You speak regularly about multiculturalism. How can writers of all backgrounds grow in this area? Where to start?
When writing for multicultural audiences: you need to know what the hot-button issues are. You need to know or learn what is considered stereotypical for a group and shy away from that, unless you are highlighting those stereotypes for a reason, for example, if a character is racist you may use that trait to advance your theme or character development (that person’s or another character’s). Then it’s the character and not the author who has the problem. The distinction needs to be obvious at some point. Ask yourself, “Why did I include that?”
When we do it right, the message that readers hear and see is, “That author cares about me.” Your writing fosters acceptance.
When we get it wrong, we foster rejection.
Use multicultural or multinational beta readers. Get them to read your work, especially if they’re in the culture you’re writing about. Get more than one representative, make sure you’ve got a mix of people. Get radical people, readers on both sides with strong views, to read your work, and you’ll end up with some really good feedback. Look and you’ll find these readers in online writing groups, writing forums; ask your friends, or friends of your friends, or the parents of your kids’ friends….
Something to think about: if your world is so small, meaning that you only know your own culture, how can you write for other cultures effectively? You’re not around people of other cultures — so what do you have to say to them? Why do you want to “speak” to them? Why should they listen? It’s important for you to listen to other people, to hear their thoughts, their ideas. Good, effective research will help you bring that out well. But it’s not enough: usually you also need to have personal connections, even if online relationships, people who can help you see their culture better.
What about the person who says, “Isn’t my writing already diverse — I’ve got dwarves and elves?”
No; even there, it’s not truly diverse, because within those groups, do we see different races, different abilities, characters of both sexes? If you’re writing in America, we look at diversity in terms of race, physical ability, gender, among other factors. If a book goes to the big screen, people will be looking at all of those things, race, skin tones, height, ability, gender.
What about the person who says, “I’m afraid to try writing a diverse book.”
You don’t have to write a diverse book! Don’t worry about it. Whatever you write, there is a market for your work.
BUT if you have a heart for diversity and you want to write a diverse book, get involved in those cultures! Go out and volunteer, get to know people. If you’re really fascinated by a particular culture, that’s a great start, because you’re going to want to do the research, and you’ll feel compelled to make these characters authentic. For example, remember not every black person comes from the ’hood. In other words, don’t perpetuate stereotypes.
Get a variety of beta readers. Connect with your audience. Do serious, effective research. Read books by authors from that culture, and books by authors who are not in that culture but who are attempting it. Look at online discussions; pay attention to Twitter (and other social media) and what’s making people go wild. Readers will respond the same way. Above all, check your motives. Why do you want to write about this culture? There has to be some underlying desire or interest in this particular culture that will fuel your desire to research and write authentically.
Keep in mind, readers want avenues of communication that open up understanding. Effective multi-cultural prose does just that.
If writing is your passion, follow it. Invest the time and money. Connect with other writers. Learn to accept feedback and constructive criticism. Work on your craft. Write, revise, and revise again. Know that the best writing comes from a deep well of revision. Never be so proud that you can’t accept help, won’t revise your work, or brush off the wisdom of professionals who successfully write for publication. Finally… know that hard work pays off, patience has its rewards, and writing dreams can come true!