For the last six months or so, I’ve been reading Becky Levine’s blog about writing, publishing and critiquing. I highly recommend it; it’s informative and funny, and you feel like you’re conversing with a friend in every entry.
In January, 2010, her book “The Writing & Critique Survival Guide” published by Writers Digest Books is scheduled to be released.
I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I did.
1. First, tell us a little about yourself:
I’m a writer and a speaker, and hoping to stretch into some teaching in the next couple of years, as well. I’m a native Californian–grew up near Pismo Beach, lived in Southern California for a few years off and on, then settled happily into the bay area, where I’ve been for–oh, man–20 years! I live in an old (for California!) house in the Santa Cruz mountains with my husband and son, a cat and a cockatiel.
2. Did you always know you would be a writer, or did a specific event urge you to hone your craft?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write, although I can connect most of my young writing with the second house my family lived in, so that would have happened after I was 9 or 10 probably. The first time I remember really thinking, "THIS is what I want to do," was when I read Phyllis A. Whitney’s young mysteries. She wrote about girls like me and pushed them out to their limits to do things I probably wouldn’t have dared. I think that’s when I saw how much you could do with words. I asked for all Whitney’s writing books for birthday and Christmas presents.
3. Tell us a bit about the process you went through to pitch "The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide" to Writer’s Digest books.
I had a pretty lucky path. I was doing freelance manuscript editing, and a writing friend–Lee Lofland got me invited to speak at the Mad Anthony Writer’s conference in Ohio. I was on a panel with an editor from Writer’s Digest, discussing what makes us stop reading. (I’m also a book reviewer.) We all kept going back to how a critique group is such a wonderful tool for working through all these weaknesses. Finally, someone in the audience asked, "So how do we do that? Is there a book?" The editor said they didn’t have one. Afterward, I pitched the idea to her, we talked about the fact that the book would have to be a how-to, something really useful, and she said I could send her a Table of Contents. After that, I did a sample chapter and worked with an acquisitions editor a bit. Writer’s Digest even ran a survey with their readers to see if there was enough interest in the book. It was all very exciting–especially when I got the "Yes." 🙂
4. Who or what are your biggest encouragers?
I am so surrounded by family and friends who give me so much support. My husband thinks it’s "cool" being married to a writer, and my son tells me how good I am. He reads everything I write (okay, sometimes I have to bribe him, but not often!). I have friends who listen to me in the good times and the bad, and I have the best circle of writing friends anyone could ask for. I have been critiquing with several writers in my area for over 10 years, and–since I started blogging–have met so many incredible writers online. One of my friends talks about finding her tribe, and I think it is SO important. Nobody else really knows what this writing thing feels like.
5. Who are your biggest influencers?
The critique "thing" started over 20 years ago for me when I went to UCIrvine for college and took writing classes from Oakley Hall. He taught his workshops like critique groups, and I discovered the huge benefit of writing within a community, where a critiquer’s job was to help a writer make THEIR book the best they could, and a writer’s job was to listen carefully and respectfully, then filter out the ideas they needed to revise their project. The other influencers are my critique partners–who take the time and thought to dig deeply into my work and help me make it better, who exchange ideas with an energy that can create sparks–to help each other grow our writing skills.
6. You’re also writing an historical YA novel. How did you come up with the idea?
In the past, I read very little nonfiction. Then my sister gave me a nonfiction book that looked intriguing, and I dug in. There were a couple of stories about the suffragette movement in the early part of the last century and–in particular–the march on Washington, D.C. in 1913 that hooked me, and I saw a picture of my hero having a very specific role in that march. Then I started reading about the period and fell in love with the Settlement House movement, especially Jane Addams’ Hull-House in Chicago. The story started developing from there, and is turning into a much different book than I
‘ve ever written before. M
y hero’s life gets very grim, and she has some incredibly tough choices to make.
7. What are your other writing goals in the near future?
I want to start stretching myself a bit in the different children’s genres. I have completed a Middle-Grade mystery, and am working on the YA novel. I also have a couple of ideas for picture books–one fiction and one nonfiction–and for a young chapter book. I’m not sure where I’m going to find the time to work on everything, but it’s a wonderful change from how I used to work–with only one idea ever coming to me at a time! And, of course, if I get the chance to do more nonfiction–like the Survival Guide, I’d love to do that.
8. How long have you been blogging, and why did you start?
I’ve probably been blogging for almost three years now. I first started blogging at my LiveJournal blog for the fun of it, and to connect with other writers–mostly kids’ writers. LiveJournal has a great community of children’s and YA writers, and I’d been reading their blogs for a while. Some of my comments were starting to get a little long, and I thought–well, time to set up my own blog & put my thoughts out there. Then, when I got the contract for the Survival Guide, I decided to do a new website, with another blog–one that would, hopefully, offer writing thoughts and tips that would help other writers, and to talk more about critiquing and critique groups.
9. Has its original purpose remained the same, or evolved over time?
Oh, I think I answered that above. I’d say that I started the second blog so that my first COULD stay the same. I tend to share more about my own writing worries on the LiveJournal blog and also just chat about life stuff there, and I didn’t want to give that up–but I wasn’t sure it was appropriate for the writing blog I wanted to start.
10. Do you have a favorite place to write and/or come up with new ideas? Describe it and anything else such as the music you play to encourage creativity.
This is another place I am incredibly lucky. When my husband and I went house shopping–about 15 years ago, we found this incredible house in the mountains. The original owner had been a carpenter and had built it himself with, I think, all the leftover wood he got from his other projects! It had a huge dining room upstairs (who needs a dining room?!) and an enclosed area under the house that might have been a canning room–you have to walk outside the house, around, and down some stairs to get there. My husband said, "Can I have the canning room?" I looked at the dining room and pictured all the bookshelves I could put in it, and said, "Um…you bet!" I have two big windows that look out into our courtyard and at the oak and eucalyptus and bay trees (and a couple of redwoods!) Every now and then a deer wanders by. My music varies. I can’t really have lyrics on when I write, but I’m not a big fan of classical or jazz, so I don’t have a lot of options. At the same time, music really does get me going. I tend to listen to Yo Yo Ma a lot, and some folk singers who kind of mumble or sing in French, so I can’t understand what they’re saying! When I’m revising or doing marketing work, I listen to a lot of electric blues and Motown!
11. If you were to change any aspect of writing, what would it be?
Oh, gosh, I’d probably like to have my fiction published! 🙂 Other than that, I can’t think of much. I guess I’d like to be more confident and sure of what I’m doing, but I don’t think that’s really a possibility. I think writing IS putting ourselves out there and doing as much thinking and planning as we can, then just writing and hoping/believing that we will be able to say what we want in a way that will make others want to read it.
12. Other than writing, what’s your passion?
Someday, I’m going to have to think of a good answer to this question–then I’ll have something to put in the Hobbies section at the doctor’s office, too! I really do one thing in life, and that is words–either writing or reading or critiquing. Other than that, I think the most important thing is balancing all this word stuff out with making sure I’m doing the best job "raising" my son as I can, being there for my husband, and supporting my family and friends–writing and otherwise–as they look around and try to figure out what they want from their own lives. Sappy, I know, but that seems to be the right place for me!