WFW friends, prepare to be wowed. Sandra Kring is honest and inspiring and humble — even after writing and publishing five novels. It’s my honor to share this interview with all of you.
~ Amy xo
“My mother often told me, ‘You’re so bullheaded, you won’t listen to anybody!’ So I didn’t. I didn’t listen to myself, when my negativity said I’d never fulfill my writing dream because the odds were too stacked against me, and I didn’t listen to her when she said I would never amount to anything. And to think: Once I believed she’d never given me even one positive message!” ~ Sandra Kring
Author Sandra Kring Says Put Away All Your Anxieties And Write Your Story
Amy: A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS is your fifth novel! Can you share with us a little (or a lot) of your personal author history? We’d love to know how you started writing novels and — and how you’ve continued to come up with your own “bright ideas”.
Sandra: I sold my first novel, Carry Me Home in ’03. I wrote the book in six weeks, found an agent two weeks after I started looking, and got my first contract from Random House two months after that. Sounds like a writer’s dream come true, right? Well, it was—eventually. But as you all know, over-night successes don’t happen overnight.
I grew up in a violent home and had dumb and worthless literally pounded into my head by my mentally ill mother. I had no books growing up (but wanted them), barely got through high school, and married at seventeen and hurried to have babies. Growing up, I believed that all the good things in life were reserved for those more deserving than I, and I might never have picked up a book if my 18-year-old husband hadn’t been addicted to the news. He’d started college and couldn’t afford to buy newspapers, so we started hiking to the library every day so he could read them. I don’t know how many days I sat there staring into the silence before he mentioned that I was going to get awfully bored if I didn’t find something to read. So I got my first library card and started in the fiction section. In no time at all, I was reading 4-6 novels per week.
Years later, with two of my children grown, and the third not all that far behind, I realized that my marriage was in trouble, and so was I. I’d been through years of therapy and had my PTSD under control, but my role as full-time mother and wife were coming to an end, and I felt old and worn and useless. Also, around this time, I was watching my depressed father suffer a slow death. He had eyes just like mine, and in them, I saw my future if I didn’t find a way to make the second half of my life more joyful than the first half of my life had been. But I had no idea how to turn things around. That is, until I came across a quote by psychologist James Hillman that turned my life around: To heal the person, we must first heal the story they imagine themselves to be in.
So I looked at my life as if it were a novel, and I, the protagonist. And I asked myself, If I were the author, what could I make happen in this story to give it a satisfying ending? Suddenly, the answer became clear. The protagonist would take the best of what a bad beginning had taught her—tenacity, a sense of humor, an in-depth understanding of human nature, a knack for noticing detail, a curiosity about how stories will end—and she would apply these attributes to her love of fiction, and become a novelist! And through her writing, she would find her voice and be set free from the tragic script her mother had written for her. She would make a new role for herself, so that when her last child left home and her marriage ended, she’d have a means to support herself and a new, exciting beginning already underway.
So that’s what I set out to do. But first, I had to learn how to write.
I used novels as my textbooks, and identified the facets of writing I needed to learn. Then I worked on those things systematically, writing pages of dialogue, description, metaphors and similes, and 3-dimensional characters. Only when I felt I’d aptly learned the basics skills, did I attempt my first novel. My characters were rich, the writing mediocre, and the story itself, only slightly better than pitiful. But I was hooked! I went back to the drawing board for more practice, and some months later, woke at 5:00 a.m. armed with a single question—I wonder what it’s like to send a loved one off to war, and have them come back broken? All I knew when I sat down at my computer, was that the story would have a mother, a father, a hero son, and his sibling as the narrator. Five minutes later, the voice of Earwig appeared to answer my question. And one paragraph into the story, I thought, This is it—this is the book I’m going to sell!
And I did.
For me, learning to write was the easy part. The hard part was holding onto the belief that I could make my writing dream come true. I think that’s every writer’s challenge, no matter where we come from. For what aspiring writer wouldn’t be willing to work as hard and long as she needed to, if only she knew for certain that in the end she’d get published? But there are no guarantees in this business. In my case, ignorance was bliss. I had no idea that the stats that said it was far more likely I’d fail, than succeed. I simply decided that getting published couldn’t really be any different than setting a grueling goal like walking across the country from the east coast to the west. Without a map to guide me, I might zigzag, walk in circles, or need to pause and rest at times, but if I kept my putting one foot in front of the other, I’d eventually have to reach my destination, wouldn’t I?
Amy: A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS is a sequel to THE BOOK OF BRIGHT IDEAS. Did you know while you were writing the first book that the story wouldn’t really before with The End?
Sandra: I knew that ending The Book of Bright Ideas with little Button and Winnalee being separated would sadden readers, yet there was no other way to end the story—it’s what would have happened. But at the same time, I didn’t want readers to feel worse when they closed the book, than they did before they opened it. So I let the story end with Button’s hope that she’d find Winnalee one day.
Amy: What about the characters made you want to get to know them in their future — and in yours?
Sandra: I knew that if I wrote a sequel, Button and Winnalee would be older. Mainly, because I’d said all I had to say about them at the tender age of nine. Yet in growing them up, I faced a challenge: How to mature these characters, yet keep the essence of who they were as children intact. Making them eighteen seemed like the perfect option, since at eighteen we’re still wobbling between childhood and womanhood.
As for why I finally chose to write the sequel, the answer is simple. Five years after the release of The Book of Bright Ideas, readers were still writing to ask me, Where did Freeda and Winnalee go? Did Freeda ever straighten her life out? Did the girls ever reunite? I found it endearing that they asked as though Button, Winnalee, Aunt Verdella and the others were living, breathing relatives or friends of mine, rather than fictitious characters crafted for the purpose of telling a story. Eventually, I decided it was time to fulfill my readers’ wishes for a sequel. And I’m really glad I did, because I had a blast revisiting these characters.
Amy: Obviously, with five novels notched into your desk, you have found a way of writing that works for you, your publisher(s) and your readers. Do you outline and plan or sit down and see where the wind takes your story?
Sandra: When I sat down to write Carry Me Home, the opening poured out, and with it, a clear image of the final scene—even the last line. But I had no idea what would happen in between. I thought I’d always write with the same freedom, but after getting my editor’s comment back on my sophomore novel, I realized that my free-writing method hadn’t worked out as well the second time around.
With Carry Me Home, history itself dictated my plot, and all I needed to do was to have my characters react to those events. But I was on my own with The Book of Bright Ideas. My editor pointed out that all the events were crammed into the last two-thirds of the book. She suggested I create a graph and break the story into thirds, listing the events within each. In doing this, she claimed, I would not only see how sparse the events were in the first third, but I could more easily see how I might redistribute them. She was right.
Through trial and error, I have learned that if I dive into a book with no idea of where the story is going, I end up with a bunch of characters meandering around the first few chapters like actors waiting for a script. Yet on the other hand, if I construct a rigid outline, I end up feeling like I’m writing out thank-you notes, using a prearranged message. So I had to find a happy medium. Today, I write out a vague synopsis that includes the key events, and then let spontaneity fill in the spaces between them. Now my characters can move with purpose from the first page onward, yet they have enough wiggle room to create the surprises I seem to need in order to keep the writing process fun.
Amy: What have you learned about readers of women’s fiction over the course of your career? We know publishing has changed. Have readers?
Sandra: I don’t think readers of women’s fiction have changed (they still want characters they can relate to and care about, and engaging plots. They still want to be prompted to think, and more so to feel), but I do believe that their buying habits have altered. Not only are readers busier than ever, but they also have less money than they had before. So they pick and choose what they’ll give their time and money to more carefully. And with an ever-growing array of books to choose from via e-readers (many books free, or at far lower costs than paper books), they have more reading options than ever. With so many options, and less time to browse book stores, many readers seem to be doing what publishers themselves are doing—giving their attention to the blockbusting novels.
Amy: How do you define women’s fiction?
Sandra: I define women’s fiction as stories that deal mostly with themes that are exclusive to being female. You know, the topics that, when you bring them up to men, cause their eyes to glaze over.
Amy: As someone about to embark on the whole “published author” experience, I have to ask: what is your best advice for debut authors of women’s fiction in today’s publishing and reading climate? Also, what’s your best advice for aspiring authors of women’s fiction?
Sandra: Whether you’re an aspiring writer, a debut author, or a seasoned novelist, the publishing end of a writer’s life is stressful. If you’re an aspiring author, you worry about creating a story and query that will wow prospective agents. If you’re a debut novelist, you agonize over how best to promote your book, and you worry that no one past family and friends will buy it. And when you’re a seasoned writer, you fret over if you’ll be able to keep your stories new enough, yet familiar enough to appease your readers, your agent, your editor, and your publisher. Yet at any stage of the writer’s journey, you must learn how to keep these anxieties from crawling onto your lap when you sit down to write. That is, if you want to keep your sanity intact and your creativity flowing. If you don’t, you’ll be observing everything you write through the eyes of would-be readers, and putting a choke-hold on your writer’s voice. How long, then, before writing feels like a daunting chore?
So deal with your anxieties the best you can during your non-writing hours. If you’re an aspiring author, work on your writing skills until you master them, and research how to write an irresistible query. If you’re a debut author, rely on seasoned authors to tell you what marketing methods worked best for them, and which ones they believe were time-wasters. If you’re a seasoned writer, listen closely to your fans so you’ll know what elements of your writing appealed to them, and find creative ways to deliver them more of what they want, but in stories that are fresh and exciting. But when you sit down to write, forget about everything but your story. See it, breathe it, believe it, and love the story you’re in, so that readers will do the same. Yes, the choices we make on the publishing end matter, but when all is said and done, it’s the stories themselves that will matter most.
Speaking of stories, I’ll end my time here as a guest blogger for WFW with a true story for those of you still dreaming of living the published author’s life:
One January morning, after a string of miserable circumstances that had me convinced that I was a fool to believe that anything good could ever happen to me, much less my biggest dream, I woke to a blizzard raging outside. Unable to face the day, I told my husband and son to eat left-overs, and crawled back into bed with a bag of Oreo cookies, a jug of diet soda, a pack of cigarettes, and a stack of library books. I chose to start with Tawni O’Dell’s debut novel, Back Roads, for one reason, and one reason only—I thought reading a bleaker story than the one I was living might remind me that things could be worse.
Imagine how surreal it would have been, had someone stepped into my room on that hopeless Sunday back in 2000 and told me that in two years’ time, the very author whose book I was holding in my hands would be blurbing my first novel. I hope you’ll remember this story on your stormiest days.
My thanks to WFW for including me on your wonderful blog. I wish you all a productive and fun writing day. May you all write a successful publishing story for yourselves.
~ Sandra Kring
Sandra Kring lives in central Wisconsin. Her debut novel, Carry Me Home, was a Book Sense Notable Pick and a 2005 Midwest Booksellers Choice Award nominee. The Book of Bright Ideas was Target’s Bookmarked pick for the summer of ’06, and named to the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list as a cross-over book in 2007. Thank You for All Things was All You magazine’s first book club selection. How High the Moon, was a Midwest Booksellers Association’s Connections Pick, and a Target Breakout Book. Kring’s latest book, A Life of Bright Ideas, was released this past February and featured in Target’s Emerging Author’s section.