Interview and an Excerpt is a weekly feature that explores the process of writing and indie publishing through interviews with self published authors. The aim is to demystify the process for those who are aspiring to become indie publishers themselves. This week’s guest is Tara Benwell.
1.) How long have you been an indie author?
I had an agent for a number of years, but decided at the end of 2010 to take things into my own hands. I had received yet another "we just don’t have enough room on our list" note from an interested editor (see attached image), and I was beginning to feel tied down to a story that I had spent almost a decade working on. I was ready to concentrate on book #2 and #3 and I knew that if I didn’t let my first novel go, I’d never get on with the life of being a writer. I let my agent go, hired a professional editor, and worked with a professional photographer to create the perfect cover design (one of the bonuses of self-publishing). Seth Godin’s blog and Gene C. Hayden’s book, "The Follow-Through Factor," helped me come to my decision to brave it alone. I published "The Proper Order of Things" on CreateSpace first. I wanted a few friends and family members to be able to buy the print version, but I knew that an eBook would be the best way to get the story out there to an international audience, so I’ve also made it available for Kindle and Kindle app users (making it available to most people who have a smart phone or mobile device).
2.) How many books have you self published?
The Proper Order of Things is my first novel, but I have two others that are in second draft form (one novel and one memoir). I don’t think it will take me ten years to publish the next one, but I certainly won’t rush it. Even though anyone can publish a book these days, I don’t think I fall into that category. My agent still believed we would place The Proper Order of Things with a good Canadian literary press, and she discouraged me from self-publishing. I respected her advice, but ultimately I got tired of waiting. Life’s not perfect, and you can’t always wait for everything to fall into place. Besides, I have more twitter followers and social media know-how than most of the little guys. Why settle?
3.) Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I was definitely a pantser with my first book, at least for the first few years of writing it. I’ve always kept a journal, and this is what feels most natural for me. On the other hand, I would never publish or even post a blog until I’ve had plenty of time to work out which details deserve to remain in a piece of writing. My second novel was plotted out much more formally, and I think I learned from my amateur mistakes. But sometimes polished writing drives me a bit crazy. There’s nothing better than writing that comes out right the first time.
4.) Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Feel free to be as detailed as you like, this stuff is fascinating.
My writing notebook is my most important tool. The inside covers are full of quotes from the books I’m reading. On the last page of each notebook I have a list of all of the books I’ve read during that writing period. I love brainstorming. Whenever I’m feeling blocked or confused I always do as my elementary teachers taught me to do. I make a little bubble with the scene or character’s name and write out all of my related thoughts. I also use this method for work-based writing and blog writing. My biggest problem as a writer (and human) is that I have too many ideas. Brainstorming helps me to sort through which ones are worthy. I read tons of books, though when I’m working on fiction I find it hard to read novels. For the past few years I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction, including memoirs, biographies, self-help, and books on writing and parenting.
5.) What is the best writing advice you’ve ever come across?
Julia Cameron’s advice about writing morning pages helped me when I was first discovering that my passion for writing was going to turn into a career. She advises writers to write three longhand pages of random writing before doing anything else each morning. I’ll never forget the notebook I used when I was studying the Artist’s Way. I highly recommend her classic book for any writer who is starting out. It’s also a great way to dive back in (though I have to admit I often did my morning pages in the evening). I think there are plenty of writers like me who have completed a project and need a nudge to throw themselves into something new. A good writing book, like John Gardner’s "On Becoming a Novelist" always helps.
6.) If you were going to mentor a new writer through the publishing process, what pitfalls would you warn them against?
I’d warn writers not to get so wrapped up in the finding an agent thing. Yes, it was very difficult to find a good agent, and I celebrated like crazy when I finally signed the contract with the agent that offered to represent me. My agent took me on with enthusiasm, but warned me that I shouldn’t think that this was going to change my life. It was her gentle way of telling me not to quit my day job, and she was right and I didn’t (‘nor did I want to). For me, the most important thing about getting an agent was the confidence it gave me that my writing was worth reading by "book people" standards. But in the end, I think it slowed me down.
7.) Are you currently earning a living with your writing?
Yes, I’ve been earning a living from my writing for about ten years now. I write materials for the English language teaching industry, and teach writing to online English learners. I’ve always imagined myself sitting on a hilltop patio writing books for a living, and hopefully one day this vision will come true. For now, I’ll be thankful that I earn an income (and support a family) on my writing.
8.) What are your writing must haves? Music? A quiet table at a coffee shop?
I love writing in coffee shops. This is where I feel most inspired. Since having children, I’ve had to adapt. The stolen hour here or there to get out of the house just doesn’t cut it. I have learned to write with kids’ movies on in the background, with a husband practising his golf swing in the sunroom, and with the noise of the modern conveniences of a dishwasher, a dryer and the next door neighbour’s central vac. A Room of Mom’s own would be a dream come true, but at this point in my life, it’s not a priority.
9.) What tools or software do you use to write?
I switched to a Mac last year, and would never think of writing on any other machine. First drafts of scenes and a lot of my brainstorming (the most important part of my writing process) usually happens in my notebooks. It’s the one thing I’m picky about. When I get close to the end of a notebook I begin hunting for the next one. I don’t buy expensive wine or jeans, but I rarely look at the price of notebooks. It has to feel right, and if that means paying $40 for a notebook that I fall in love with, I’ll do it. I’ve found that I need books/blog posts on the craft of writing close at hand to keep me on task.
10.) What kind of promotion have you tried? What do you find to be the most effective?
I only published my book a few weeks ago, and I’m just learning about promotion. I am the social media director for my main clients, so I am very aware of the power of twitter and Facebook and blogging, and I do these things from my own personal accounts as well. I’ve just signed up for a page on IDOLVine, and have been publishing short videos on self-publishing tips that I’m learning along the way. So far Facebook has been the most effective for me, and I belong to a group called Fellow Writers that is very useful. As far as gaining a readership, I’m ready to move beyond friends and family. BookCrossing is a fun way to get started! http://tinyurl.com/3vatrzs
11.) About how long from start to finish did it take you to finish your book? About how many hours a day do you spend writing/editing?
I spent about a decade working on this book. This may sound like a lot of time, but I also gave birth to two children and started my own freelance writing career during this time. I wrote two other books as well, but they are both in rough draft form. I am blown away by stories of writers who complete a novel in a year or two. Maybe one day I’ll have more time to devote to my craft without some of the other distractions. I spend about 6 hours a day doing writing that I get paid for and a few more on whichever personal project I’m involved with (blogging, recording, editing, social media etc.).
12.) How much of the process did you do yourself and what did you pay someone else to do?
As I mentioned in a previous question, I had an agent for quite a few years. Many of the revisions I worked on came from suggestions and tips from editors at various publishers, including an extensive one that I did for an editor at HarperCollins. When I found out that the editor was on maternity leave and my agent was not going to resubmit my book there, I began to think about how to take back the control of this project. I did quite a bit of research before hiring an editor. Hiring an editor cost me more than a bay window, but I know it was worth the money, and hopefully I can build up a relationship with this editor for future projects. I bartered with a photographer for my cover design. I chose the image myself after viewing her work and she did all of the formatting and touch ups needed to get it the right size for CreateSpace. She also blended the front cover photo with another photo to make a wicked back cover related to the theme of my novel. In exchange for a week of her services, I proofread her website. You’d never guess that she is a wedding photographer! Yes, I got the better deal, but I’ve promised to make up for it in babysitting services. I was very close to hiring someone to format my book to Kindle, but I pushed through and got the job done on my own, thanks to many writers who have struggled before me. (http://tinyurl.com/3tsvrpn)
13.) Can you tell us a little bit about your book?
The Proper Order of Things-A Novel
My novel was inspired by a circus fire that took place in Connecticut in 1944. It’s about a young family that starts out in a remote region of Ontario. The narrator (Caroline) and her many siblings are named after Neil Diamond songs. The mother has obsessive compulsive disorder. Despite being pregnant at all times, Caroline’s mother longs to adopt a nearby neighbor when his parents abandon him. The family divides itself in half and Caroline moves with her dad to Kitchener, where she attempts to cover up an embarrassing family secret. My writing voice was compared to Miriam Toews, and I’m ashamed to say I had to look her up and read her books. If you haven’t read "A Complicated Kindness," go buy it today!
14.) Do you mind sharing a little bit about what you’re working on right now?
Right now I’m working on a memoir about losing my mother to leukemia. She died on Christmas Day almost ten years ago. This book may always be a work-in-progress, though I’m feeling more drawn to it now that my novel is finally out in the world. No thanks to cancer, being a motherless mother is a reality I think many women are faced with. I’m also busy recording an audio version of Peter Pan for my children and English learners. Peter Pan (one of my favourite stories) is in the public domain now, but I couldn’t find a good audio version online, so I decided to make it myself.
You can find Tara online here:
Website and blog: http://www.tarabenwell.com
Enjoy this excerpt from The Proper Order of Things (You can also listen to the first two chapters on iTunes: http://tinyurl.com/4axo9dg):
THE PROPER ORDER OF THINGS
By Tara Benwell
Mother always said there was nothing special about being called a sweetie pie. All pies are sweet, she would say, and not one of us would disagree. It wasn’t that we didn’t know about the chicken pot or mincemeat kinds. We had seen them in the grocery store flyers that lined the ditch along Whirl Creek. It’s just that we weren’t allowed to talk about things like trash in our family, so we didn’t.
Mother didn’t like names like honey or pumpkin either. She said those were for people who didn’t put enough thought into their own babies’ names—either that or men who didn’t even have babies of their own. The worst thing a man could do around Mother was to call her child a babycake. Mother didn’t sit around for hours sorting through Neil Diamond lyrics to find the perfect names for us just so some stranger could call us whatever he damn well pleased.
Dad said my name came from the song about the good times. Sweet Caroline. I knew when he said it that the good times came before I was born.
"Just tell me one thing, Mother. Why do I get to pick and the others get to do as they’re told?" I asked.
"It’s just that you’re special, Caroline," Mother told me from the floor inside her bedroom closet. We looked like freaks, Mother and I, sprawled among the shoeboxes eating strawberries and fake cream. Whipped Dream. The kind that squirts out in waves and never goes bad for seven more years.
Mother had called me to her bedroom, hissing my name from the wedge in her half opened door, jiggling the coiled stopper until I looked up. All I could see through the crack of light were the red treats and her index finger motioning me away from my favourite episode of Family Feud. September Baby. The one where the host asked, "During what month of pregnancy does a woman begin to look pregnant?" and the contestant answered, "September." I don’t think any of us kids got why it was funny back then, seeing as those were the days when Mother looked pregnant almost every month of the year. Just watching the game show host crack up that much got us every time, though. Besides, there was nothing better than seeing a grown-up laugh harder than a kid.
You’re gonna miss it! Desiree had said as I got up off the floor and walked towards Mother and Dad’s room. We all knew the baby question was coming up right after the commercial. I told her it wasn’t even funny anymore, but Neil shushed us and waved me away, meaning that everyone better laugh as hard as usual even without me in the room. When I got closer to the bedroom I knew I had to wash my hands because Mother was doing that thing where she wiggled her fingers in front of her chin as if there was something hot in her mouth.
"How do you mean special?" I asked. I knew the others would never let me forget about this day. This wasn’t about getting to pick what flavour of frosting Mother used for some movie star’s birthday cake. This was about how I wanted to grow up, or more importantly, who I wanted to grow up with.
I licked the red fuzz from my front teeth, careful to collect any evidence of seeds while I waited for her answer Why me? I wished she’d use the word small instead of special, or even petite like Chester’s mom had called me the time she braided my hair right from the top of my head, pulling small bits from each side as she worked her way down. Mother had ripped out the braid the moment I got home, saying it hurt her eyes the way it went all crooked like a broken bone. It was true that the braid went off to the left almost right from the start. Chester’s mom had shown me how to look at the back of my head using two mirrors. She said if I kept the braid in all night I would have waves in the morning, like her. I never got the chance to tell her that your hair goes crinkly like French fries if you only leave it in for a few minutes.
Mother showed me her teeth, and I nodded to say there were no strawberry seeds showing.
"You know, like the special that means a good kind of different," Mother said. She picked out one of the larger berries and filled her mouth with it. As she chewed, she took all the green strawberry tops and arranged them in perfect rows in the lid of a shoebox. Her tongue licked her whole mouth clean before she spoke. Then she told me I had a few hours to decide where I wanted to do the rest of my growing up. I could stay in my own home with her and the little ones, or move with Dad and the others to a flat in stinkin’ Waterloo.
"Kitchener," I said. "Waterloo is where Chester moved, Mother. You keep mixing them up. Maybe you need to say it over a bunch of times or something. Kitch-en-er. Just remember kitchen. Not water."
"Same difference. They’re both the city, Caroline."
I knew it was a divorce even though Mother and Dad never gave it a name. Divorce was one of those invisible words that didn’t exist until it suddenly mattered. It popped up everywhere the summer before it happened. You had to turn the page or hum a loud tune to get rid of it. Sometimes even the clouds looked like a divorce.
The others had been assigned a home the night before. In the morning, Desiree had pulled me up into the kids’ room and asked me which envelope had been on my pillow.
"What do you mean which envelope?"
"Mother’s or Dad’s?" she wrote on her palm with her finger. She always whispered her secrets in finger writing. Even though it looked like it was only us in the room, you could feel at least one other kid hiding nearby, and you could never tell for sure who was siding with Neil.
"I didn’t get any envelope," I told her, but she didn’t believe me.
I sat on the floor by the book tower Rosie had made before breakfast and watched Desiree hunting through all seven beds, pulling off the pillows and sheets and then putting them back, smoothing the creases and wrinkles as best she could.
"I told you, I didn’t get an envelope," I said again after Desiree wrote Neil in capital letters on the ticklish part of my back. We both knew the book tower would come toppling down if she called Neil in. If the sound woke up Melinda, we’d have to scrub walls in wide circles to help put her back to sleep.
"Come on, Caroline. Even the baby got one," Desiree said out loud.
Desiree took me into Mother and Dad’s room to show me the mini envelope that was still inside Melinda’s crib. Inside was a tiny slip of paper that said in Dad’s handwriting: You’ll live with Mother. Desiree had already told me that her note was written by Mother.
"I’m sure Neil is playing a stupid joke. What’d you do to him this time?" she asked, shaking her finger up and down as if she were older than me. Desiree was a year and a half younger than me, but people thought she was the older one. She was only an inch or so taller for most of grade school, but Neil always made us compare our hand sizes. The top joints on Desiree’s finger curled right over mine even when our palms were lined up perfectly. Mother said there would come a day when I would be thankful that I looked younger than my age. The queen still hasn’t lost her baby face, Mother always said. If you took me out of the family, the others all lined up properly, tallest to shortest, oldest to youngest, according to their birth month. When the midwife had trouble remembering who came first, Mother reminded her how to use her knuckles and count out the months, like teachers taught us to do to find out which months had thirty-one days. Start with the knuckle on your left pinkie and work your way across.
"Don’t use the thumbs," Neil liked to remind Marie. "And don’t include Carolswine. She screwed everything up by coming in July."
January. February. March. Whenever she introduced us to someone, Mother would nod for us all to hold out our knuckles before she went through our names, showing how we came out like a magazine subscription. Neil. The twins. Desiree. Simon is my April baby. Rosie, Magdelene, and Melinda are May, June, July. I never saw her do it that way after Melinda was born, even though Shilo came along in August, just as Mother would have planned for her youngest. I was the only one who didn’t fit into Mother’s birthday plan. Whenever Neil commented about how I messed things up, Mother jumped in and blamed the twins. She said Les and Lee were more work than one baby, and she needed extra time between them and Desiree. Especially for a special baby like Caroline, she liked to say. During the introductions, she always skipped me and then came back to my hands at the end. She’d say my whole birthday while holding her own fists close to her heart. Let’s not forget our Sweet Caroline. July sixth. Whenever she said my birthday, Neil would automatically whisper Sith to one of the twins. She’s from the dark side.
"I hate when you say that, Mother."
"Well you are, Caroline."
"It sounds like Special Ed." I switched hands before dipping another
berry into the cream. It felt awkward eating with my left, but I was sure Mother had noticed me lick one of the fingers on my right by accident. The berry dissolved under my tongue while I played with the pen that hung from a plastic spring on the knob of the closet door. It wasn’t a normal pen for a house. It was the kind you see in banks, only the words were scratched off from old age. Mother once said that the pen was one of those things that came with the house, like the fireplace Dad had wallpapered over, or the fence that once had pigs in it. It was one of those pens that never ran out of ink no matter how many letters you wrote. I wondered if other people’s closets had pens inside.
"I told you, it’s a good special. Not that kind you kids think of. I want to tell you why," she said, taking the pen away from me and watching it snap back, trapped with us on the inside.
"Just promise you won’t tell your dad."
The your dad and your mother were new since the d-word.
I held my pinky out for her to lock onto, but she was too busy fiddling with the fruit. It was left at that until the berries were gone and there was nothing left to occupy our mouths. Mother hugged her knees and rocked against the indoor shoes for a minute before the story came spewing out.
"You were baptized, Caroline. The day you were born. The very hour. You are the lucky one."
"Lucky? Why? What’s baptized?"
Mother bit her lip with one of her pointy teeth. She despised it when people asked more than one question at once. She felt that if the first question wasn’t important then there wasn’t a point in asking it. Mother hated pointless things. I waited for her other teeth to show.
"Blessed by God," she said. Her eyes crossed as she stared too hard at the pen.
I wished she’d say that I was so small I could sneak into heaven without anyone seeing me, but I knew that wasn’t it. Simon said God probably had some kind of equalizer, anyway. Some machine he dropped dead people into so we’d all be the same size when we passed through the gates.
"I mean to tell you everything, just not all at once. You’re too young to know everything, Caroline."
"I’m nearly thirteen."
Mother winced when I said that number. She told me to shut up. She’d wash my mouth out. She spoke quickly, in a whisper that was vicious like a scream. She said life wasn’t going to suddenly get easier by moving to the city, if that’s what I thought. Then her voice got different again. It was like a fairy godmum. She said it would make God happy if I picked her. She called me Sweet Caroline, like when I got perfect on windows or mirrors, like she did when she looked into my eyes and sang her favourite Neil Diamond song between sips of fizz from the neck of Dad’s too-warm beer.
I sucked hard on my empty mouth a few times and then whispered that I didn’t know God had feelings.
Mother took my right hand and forced me to rub her head. Front to back, back to front. Her naked scalp was sweating, and my fingers, stained with strawberry juice, left faint pink trails as they walked. I counted up to two minutes until she pushed my hand away and began to part my hair instead, tucking it behind my ears again and again. The way it was supposed to be. The mother-daughter way. I counted in my head another minute before Mother stood up and put the empty fruit bowl in my hands. Mother had once caught Chester and I putting peanut shells in the fruit bowl and she had made us wash and dry it seven times. Which one of you is allergic? Chester had asked while he waited to dry the fruit bowl the final time. I told him Mother was allergic to peanuts and Dad was allergic to popcorn, which was why we weren’t allowed things like Cracker Jacks in the house. Allergic was the only way I knew how to say it, and I hoped he never saw Mother dip chocolate chips in the peanut butter jar.
Mother balanced the shoebox lid with the green stems under her palms like a serving tray, and wiggled the closet door open with her feet.
"Do the right thing, Caroline Quartz," Mother said. She took one hand away from the shoebox and pinched the skin on her left knuckles with her teeth as she finished her instructions. "Feel what’s in your bones. That’s when you know you’re following God’s plan."
"And remember, you can’t have a swing at an apartment. There are other rules than just no pets, you know. You can’t take your thinking chair to the city, Caroline. I don’t know where you’ll do your thinking with no trees around. You’ll disappear in the crowd, you know. The damn city’ll stunt your growth even more. Besides, your dad’s never even baked a stinkin’ birthday cake."
The last thing she told me was to leave an envelope with my decision under one of their pillows by five o’ clock that day.
"You know which pillow is which," she reminded me, pointing to herself as she said it.
I did. We all did. Mother’s was the only pillow in the house without any brown circle stains underneath the case.