Friday, June 04, 2010

Author Mary Beth Whalen ~ Interviewed

Bio: I am an NC native and love living in the south! I have been married for almost nineteen years to Curt and have six children ranging in age from teen to preschooler. Things are never dull around here! Additionally, I write and speak for Proverbs 31 Ministries, direct She Reads, and write novels. My first novel, The Mailbox, releases in June of 2010 and I am currently writing my second and planning my third.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

My new
book is called The Mailbox and is based on a real NC landmark. Lindsey Adams has come to Sunset Beach NC since she was 15 years old and put a letter in the Kindred Spirit mailbox, which sits on a deserted stretch of beach. When the book begins Lindsey has returned to Sunset to write her 20th letter to the Kindred Spirit, this time as a newly divorced single mom. While there she runs into Campbell, who first took her to the mailbox years ago… and later broke her heart. Campbell is dealing with his own issues as he struggles to help his anorexic daughter. To find out what happens to these two people and how the mailbox figures in, you have to read the book!

We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

My journey was unique… and fast. I labored for years to get a nonfiction book published, but doors just wouldn’t open. It was a very frustrating process. I serve with a fabulous group of ladies at Proverbs 31 Ministries who write primarily nonfiction. Since that’s what everyone around me was doing, that’s what I did. I submitted proposal after proposal to publishers and got turned down. All the while, I loved fiction but was too afraid to put myself out there and try. Why? Because it mattered too much. It was one thing to get turned down as a nonfiction writer. But if I was told I couldn’t write fiction then that would be the end of a dream. I kept telling myself I would try… someday.

Someday arrived when I met my friend Ariel. (The Mailbox is dedicated to her for a good reason.) She was a fiction writer and we connected over our love of telling great stories. I shared with her the idea I had for the book. She encouraged me to “just try.” With her prodding, I began to write the story. That was in August of 08. I wrote until November and quit at 60,000 words in. I had written myself into a corner and gave up. In February of 09, Ariel sent me an email that basically said, “No one quits writing at 60,000 words in. Will you please finish that book for me?”

So I got it back out and wrote til it was done. Turns out the break I had taken was good for my perspective. I finished in April and took it to a clinic at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference taught by Susan Meissner. Other than my agent and Ariel, no one had read The Mailbox at that point, so submitting it in a clinic setting was tough! Based on their suggestions and others, I revised it from May until early July and submitted it to publishers. At the She Speaks conference I met with Terry Behimer from Cook, who loved the manuscript but was not getting a lot of support for it from her team. She told me that she didn’t think they could publish it but she did like my writing and wondered what else I had in mind. I pitched an idea that I had just had and she said to submit that idea to her. So I walked away from that meeting feeling excited about the second book but sad about The Mailbox. I loved Cook and really wanted them to have the project.

The next week while on vacation, I got an email from Terry saying that while she was gone to She Speaks, the tide had turned in the office and she was feeling much more hopeful. Two weeks later I got “the call” offering me a two book contract—one for The Mailbox, and one for the one I pitched. This was in August of 09—just one year after I started writing the book! They slated it to come out in June of 11 but the very next month, one of their titles fell out of the lineup for June of 10. Terry asked me if I would be willing to work very hard to get the book out in that spot. So it’s been a whirlwind but we’ve done it. And I am very glad that Cook did get The Mailbox! By the time I am back at She Speaks this July, the book will be out. If someone had told me that at last year’s She Speaks, I wouldn’t have believed them!!

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

The more I get to know writers (especially fiction writers) the more I realize that we all experience self-doubts. It seems to be the nature of the game. We all know we have far to go. That is certainly true of me. With the book I am working on currently, I put off beginning it for awhile because I felt so inadequate to write it. The subject I am dealing with is tough and the characters are complex. I didn’t know if I was ready to take that on. And yet, that’s what I was contracted to write so that’s what I had to do. In those moments I have to trust God to supply the ability and the words I need and get out of my own way.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I wish I had done what I loved and not been so afraid to put myself out there.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

Life. I keep a running list of ideas, just a file I add to as that “What if?” question pops into my head. I might meet someone interesting or hear a story about someone and my mind starts to spin. I find myself extrapolating into a full-blown story idea that I have to get down. Right now I have 12 different novels I would like to write. By God’s grace, I pray the ideas just keep coming.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

I get “the look” from my engineer husband almost daily.

I think the moment I would have to go with would be when I was working with my very talented editor and she and I would have these really detailed discussions about what Lindsey would or wouldn’t do or Campbell’s reaction to a situation and I would have to back up mentally sometimes and think “These are not real people!” But to us, they were.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Sounds trite, but never, never, never give up. I have a magnet on my fridge with that quote and it’s a good reminder.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

Becoming a mother of six children. It’s given me depth and stretched me beyond what I thought myself capable. Good practice for the writing journey!

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn't have to be one of your books or even published.)

I write devotions for Proverbs 31 Ministries’ Encouragement For Today. Those are very rewarding to write because we see the impact they make on the people who subscribe. It’s very neat to be part of that ministry and hear the stories of how a certain devotion was the exact thing a reader needed on the exact day it arrived. It happens often and we know only God could orchestrate that. It’s humbling and sobering to be part of that on a regular basis.

Share a dream or something you'd love to accomplish through your writing career.

Writing a novel a year is my biggest aspiration. If I can keep churning out books I will be a happy girl!

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

Actually writing a whole novel. That seemed so daunting to me. So much so that I mainly wrote The Mailbox as an exercise to see if I could start at “Once upon a time” and arrive at “The End.” It seemed so huge that I had to get my characters everywhere. I mean they had to wake up in the morning and walk to the kitchen—they can’t just wind up in the kitchen without some sort of explanation. Perhaps this seems silly but that was overwhelming to me. And to do that for an entire book? I thought it would exhaust me. And it did at times! But in the end I loved it.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

Plot it out and get to know my characters. Susan Meissner taught me about interviewing characters and I now do that for each of my main characters. I spend weeks/months really getting to know them and letting the plot unfold in my mind as I do. One book I have found really helpful in digging deep into characters and their motivations is Break Into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

Most of my writing is done sitting on my bed with my laptop in my lap. It’s how I wrote my nonfiction book and how I wrote The Mailbox. I can write with interruptions, with kids yelling, with a child snuggled up next to me or even jumping on and off the bed. I can turn it all off and just go into the story. I wasn’t always like that but with six kids, I had to learn to or I would never get any writing done! I do occasionally go to our local Panera Bread or Barnes and Noble to write. In fact, for Christmas this year my husband gave me the best gift: a $100 giftcard to Panera so I can buy lunch or coffees when I write! Sometimes on Saturdays I will go write for 6-8 hours while my husband holds down the fort at home. That’s really nice.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

I am a plotter in that I make an annotated scene list of 35-40 scenes—things I know need to happen, start to finish. (Susan Meissner taught me this as well!) When I am writing, I just pull up that scene list and go from one to the other. It’s good if I can write a scene a day. Ideally, 40 scenes of around 2000 words makes up an 80,000 word book. That never happens that neatly, but it’s a framework to hang my efforts on. I like to know where I am going but I also like to be open to the unexpected things that come up in the writing. If I have a new idea during the writing or come upon something that would be good to add, I make a note at the bottom of the manuscript. Then at some point later, I go back and find a place in the scene list to plug that idea in so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.


Kelly Freestone said...

Thanks, Mary Beth!
Great interview, girls.
I really enjoyed this post. I'm in transition from one novel to the other, I found most of this very helpful to the plot/character/ending bit.

Looking forward to your book!
Personal question: what's Ariel's story, do we need to purchase the book to find out?

Thanks again!

Kelly Klepfer said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Mary Beth.

Marybeth said...

Kelly, Ariel wrote eye of the god with Abingdon. She was shopping that proposal when I met her at ICRS in 08. While there, I told her about the idea for The Mailbox and she urged me to write it. She didn't let me give up.

Millie Samuelson said...

What an inspiring journey! Full of great tips and hopes for the "rest of us"! Thanks! :-)

Julie Garmon said...

Thanks! Loved reading this interview. Looking forward to The Mailbox.

Diane Marie Shaw said...

I really enjoyed this interview. It was very encouraging.
Six children, you amaze me. :)

Karen Schravemade said...

Wow, Mary Beth, you are my hero. Seriously. Mother of six, published author, devotional writer - you really ARE a Proverbs 31 woman. I need someone like you as a mentor! I've always thought I'd like 4 or 5 kids (and a career as a novelist in my spare time- ha!), but now that I have 2 under 2 I'm finding it really hard to make the time to write. I am just tired all the time! However you are living proof that it can be done. Congratulations on your book release, and I wish you every success with "The Mailbox"!