No one has more insight into the fictional world of a dysfunctional family than my friend, Barbara Claypole White. Her third novel, THE PERFECT SON, like her other novels, explores the impact of mental illness on family dynanics and she does this from the inside out, allowing readers unprecedented access to her characters and their lives.
But today I wanted to talk to Barbara about writing and publishing! So we did! Her road has been long and winding — and look where she is now. THE PERFECT SON already has 500 reviews on Amazon and it launched YESTERDAY!
Please welcome Barbara Claypole White to WFW!
Author Barbara Claypole White Shares Writing Advice She Wishes She’d Gotten
Amy: A virtual hug for you, my friend! And huge congratulations THE PERFECT SON, your third (THIRD!) novel. As with your other books, THE PERFECT SON deals with family dynamics and mental illness. But today we’re going to talk about writing and publishing, just to shake it up a bit!
From The Unfinished Garden to The In-between Hour to The Perfect Son, what changes have you seen in publishing and what do you think has effected you the most?
Barbara: I have a limited perspective, but it’s clear that publishing, like other creative industries, is changing rapidly. It used to be relatively simple with New York and a few outliers. Today we have choices that range from self-publishing, to online publishing, to traditional publishing. And no one knows how everything’s going to shake out. There are more choices and there’s more competition in what has become a flooded market. Trying to stand out is harder than ever, and authors are caught in the middle of a technological and economic war in which allegiances between the key players shift constantly.
And the mid-list is, to quote Bob Mayer, getting creamed. A-list authors have the luxury of being treated well by their publishers and getting book tours, a big share of the dwindling promo dollars, etc. One of my friends was even given a New York stylist to help him dress appropriately for his book tour. Most of us in the middle are merely treading water with leaky life vests, trying not to drown as we eek out our pitiful marketing budgets. And sometimes we occupy complicated positions to survive.
I straddle two camps. My new book is with Lake Union, which is an imprint of Amazon Publishing (for the record, I’m a book lover with a well-used Kindle), but I’ve always been committed to supporting independent bookstores. I go to tons of local author events and buy local when I can. But I’m not a fan of black and white thinking, and I never see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. Come on, people—character development 101.
Fortunately I’m immune to criticism for my move to Amazon. From day one of my career, I’ve experienced publishing prejudice. My first two novels are with MIRA, the literary-commercial imprint of Harlequin. Write relationship stories and stamp the word Harlequin on your cover, and you develop a thick skin overnight. (Several of my early reviews for THE UNFINISHED GARDEN started with, “I would never have picked this up if I’d realized it was a Harlequin.”) Even a family member made snide comments about me being “one of those authors,” and I spent my life explaining to people that despite being with Harlequin, I didn’t write romance.
I was thrilled to start my career with MIRA. They have amazing editors, and I will be forever grateful for everything I learned through my two books with them, but things change and you have to adapt. Now more than ever, adaption is the key to mid-list survival. I enjoy being an Amazon author. I’m treated extremely well, I feel as if I have power and control over my book—and yes, it’s my book and not just a product—and there’s a good chance that for the first time I could make real money doing a job that consumes me and my family seven days a week.
Bottom line, I want to earn a living as a full-time author, and Amazon is my best hope. They understand promotion and can do things for a title’s digital sales that no big publishers can. I saw the power of Amazon last month when THE PERFECT SON was a Kindle First Pick. In the month before my launch date, I sold more copies of the e-book than THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR (print and digital) sold in a year and a half. So go ahead, ask me about life on the Dark Side… J
Amy: How has your writing process changed from book one to book three? And, how has your writing changed?
Barbara: I hope that I’m a better writer, but I’m not sure that my process has changed. I do think that I’ve learned to trust that process more. In other words, I panic less about my deadlines and how the hell I’m going to turn a shitty first draft into a polished story. I’m a very messy writer, and I have to meander through lots of research—mainly one-on-one interviews—lots of colored sticky notes, and an ungodly amount of rewriting. I love what Stephen King says about excavating plot. I think of myself as excavating characters—always tying to dig down to the next emotional level—and that’s how I find the good stuff.
My voice is darkly quirky, and I don’t think that’s changed. Working on craft is, however, ongoing for me, and I do have a better understanding of story structure and pacing than I did when I wrote THE UNFINISHED GARDEN. I even force myself to outline. Shocking, I know, but writing to contract is such a great motivator. I’ve discovered that outlines aren’t scary or restrictive, but they provide a road map that I clearly need. When the clock’s ticking, there’s something reassuring about knowing which direction you’re heading in, even if you decide to take a detour. (I love my detours…)
Amy: Having a novel published is rewarding, but it’s also really hard work. What’s the hardest part for you? What’s the easiest part? (Are there easy parts?)
Barbara: Writing is hard and bloody, but it’s stitched into my very being. I have to write. Writing is my therapy, my escape, and the way I process the world of mental illness. It has certainly helped me find acceptance with my son’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I don’t think many people realize that mental illness is treatable not curable. And it can be fatal. You can’t just take a pill and hey presto, no more messed-up brain chemistry. Mental illness is ongoing. It demands constant management, and the strain on a family is incredible.
When I can just write, even when the writing’s hard, I’m at peace. But I do struggle with the author life. I always wanted to be a Bronte sister—without the T.B. and the alcoholic brother. You know, that gloriously romantic idea of writing a novel, wrapping it in brown paper, mailing it off to publisher…and then starting the next one. As an author, there’s so much to juggle, and I feel constantly torn in opposing direction, which is tough when you have a high maintenance family.
So I guess the actually writing is the easiest part. But I would never describe writing as easy. I do have a horrible time starting a new manuscript. I’ve never been one of those people who wakes up and says, “Oh, I had this brilliant idea for a story in the middle of the night and the plot came out fully formed.” I try not to think hateful thoughts about those people, because I struggle to find my plots. In fact, I pretty much struggle with everything until the third draft. That’s when the magic begins.
I also find it hard to walk away when a story’s done. I touch on dark stuff, and anything about mental illness is intensely personal for me. It’s almost as if I have to detox before I can move in with a new set of damaged characters. That slows me down and makes me less productive. Fortunately my lovely agent knows this about me!
Amy: Even though we’re here, on my (cough-award-winning-cough) blog, but tell us how you really feel about social media and the role it plays in today’s publishing and writing climate.
Barbara: Ohhhh. How honest would you like me to be? J It can totally overwhelm you, but I don’t see how you can ignore social media. Personality is a huge part of succeeding in this business, and social media is a wonderful tool for networking with other authors, connecting with readers, and broadening your community. You have to move pretty fast to keep up with it, and I think it’s a mistake to spread yourself too thin. Pick the medium that works for you and do that well. For me it’s Facebook (although I use Twitter for information sharing). I’m considering Instagram, since I take so many photos of my garden, but I don’t have the time or sanity to learn something new right now.
Amy: What’s some writing or publishing advice you wish someone would have given you?
Barbara: Great question. The other day Matthew Quick was talking at my local indie, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, and he kept stressing the importance of authenticity. We hear so much about creating your author brand, but Matthew was talking about producing art that is authentic. I agree. You have to be true to your writing voice and not worry about those readers who will never get you. I write about dysfunctional families, psycho squirrels, and mental illness, and yes, my characters use the F bomb. That puts me outside a lot of people’s comfort zones. But that’s my comfort zone, my passion. It’s what I want to write about; it’s my niche. The other day, when my agent was reading my proposal for novel four, she laughed and said, “Well, it’s classically BCW,” which I loved. It’s not that I want to keep churning out the same thing again and again, but I’ve found my voice and I have no intention of changing that. You can’t please everyone, but you can please yourself. Write for you and then release it into the world. And know the haters are gonna hate.
English born and educated, Barbara Claypole White lives in the North Carolina forest with her family. Inspired by her poet/musician son’s courageous battles against obsessive-compulsive disorder, Barbara writes hopeful family drama with a healthy dose of mental illness. Her debut novel, The Unfinished Garden, won the 2013 Golden Quill Contest for Best First Book, and The In-Between Hour was chosen by SIBA (the Southern Independent Booksellers) as a Winter 2014 Okra Pick. Her third novel, The Perfect Son, launched on July 1st, 2015.