Monday, March 03, 2014

An Interview with the Writing Sisters

Today, it's our pleasure to introduce Betsy Duffey and Laurie Myers, sisters who write together. They were born into a writing family, and began critiquing manuscripts at an early age for their mother, Newbery winner Betsy Byars. They went on to become authors of more than thirty-five children’s novels. Their first book for adults is The Shepherd’s Song (Howard Books). 

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Follow the incredible journey of one piece of paper—a copy of Psalm 23—as it travels around the world, linking lives and hearts with its simple but beautiful message.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. . .

Shortly before a tragic car accident, Kate McConnell wrote down the powerful words of Psalm 23 on a piece of paper for her wayward son. Just before she loses consciousness, Kate wonders if she’s done enough with her life and prays, “Please let my life count.”

Unbeknownst to Kate, her handwritten copy of Psalm 23 soon begins a remarkable journey around the world. From a lonely dry cleaning employee to a soldier wounded in Iraq, to a young Kurdish girl fleeing her country, to a Kenyan runner in the Rome Invitational Marathon, this humbling message forever changes the lives of twelve different people. Eventually, Kate’s paper makes it back to its starting place, and she discovers the unexpected ways that God changes lives, even through the smallest gestures.

With beautiful prose evocative of master storyteller Andy Andrews’s The Butterfly Effect, this story will touch your heart and remind you of the ways God works through us to reach beyond what we can imagine.

Was there a specific 'what if' moment that sparked this story?

The Shepherd’s Song
was our first adult book and required a leap of faith. We both embraced the idea - to take Psalm 23 and show different people in different cultures interacting with the scripture. We knew how it would happen - a piece of paper would travel around the world. The “what ifs” that we asked were more based on our fears and doubts. What if we can’t write a novel for adults? Up to this point our longest work had been 64 pages. Neither of us had any theological training. What if we can’t write about scripture? Our faith was tested as we decided to trust God to walk with us through the writing and publishing of the book.  

What made you two decide to co-author a novel?

Collaboration is fun - writing can be a lonely endeavor. We had written independently for twenty years and had collaborated on four books with our mother. It is nice to be able to share the writing, also the pain of rejection and the joy of successes. When our mother decided to retire it seemed like time to form the Writing Sisters and write together, specifically about the power of God’s word to change lives. The writing shifted from children’s books to adult and from general publishing to the Christian. For us the change brought new life into our careers and our writing.

Do you have a full or part time day job? If so, how do you balance your writing time with family and work?

We have both been writing full time for about twenty years. Betsy: When my children were young, I would mark out time on my calendar for writing. It was easy to say no to requests to do other things, even other important things, when I had a boundary in place. Writing is a full time job for me and I have to make it a priority. Seeing it written down on a calendar made a difference. Laurie: Balance can be difficult, especially with the new demands for keeping up on social media. I schedule downtime at the end of the day when I am least productive. The writing comes first.

Some say a writer is born and others say anyone can learn. What do you say?

We are daughters of two writers, our mother wrote children’s books and our father wrote text books and also for flying magazines. More importantly we came from a family of storytellers. At a young age you pick up the cadence of a story. Being born into a family of writers shaped our lives and empowered us to write. We literally learned at our mother’s feet. She read to us as children and as soon as we could read on our own, we read her manuscripts. We also learned early on what it takes to be a writer - hours and hours of writing and rewriting, years of persistence in spite of rejection. We went in with our eyes open.

Do you consider yourself a visual writer? What about your sister? If so, what visuals do you use?

We are both very visual writers. Our mother was too. I remember our mother laying out chapters on our kitchen table. The entire book would be laid out chapter by chapter and then she would begin working on it, arranging the chapters to be the same length by cutting and pasting, looking at the plot of the book, the climax and resolution-physically laid out on the table.
Growing up in West Virginia we made a lot of quilts and always had a scrap box. Mom would lay out the book in the same way we would lay out quilt fabrics and squares. She kept a file of details that she wanted to add to the book, pictures from magazines or note cards that contained research or newspaper articles. She would begin working them into the novel on the table.

Betsy: We work in a similar way but use a storyboard. We like to look at the book on the board. We use pictures of settings and characters and many many post-it notes as we brainstorm and lay out the book.

 Are you a plotter, a seat-of-the-pants writer, or somewhere in between? And how did that play into co-authoring?

Betsy: This was a source of tension for us when we first began to write together. Laurie is a plotter. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer. In the beginning I found myself getting anxious when Laurie would come to our weekly meeting with spreadsheets! It seemed so restricting to me.
And I like to have a plan and know exactly where the book is going. Betsy’s desire to let the book take shape as we went along went against my grain. The process of working together required our surrender of the work to God. When we both let go of the control of the book we begin to work together and appreciate the skills and the wiring that God gave each of us.
As a seat -of-the pants writer I am a great starter. I love to get going and start chapters and books - Laurie makes sure they get done! She is a great finisher.

Have you discovered some secret that has helped your process for writing?

I have always been an avid reader. I know books from reading books. A thought that has helped me is that writing is the creation of reading. When I get stuck I think if I were reading this book what would happen next. What would this character say? What would I want to read?
Laurie: Reading has been key for me too. This has been important to me all my life.

What are your thoughts on critique partners?

I have been in the same critique group for 24 years and it a valuable asset to my writing. I love having a fresh and new perspective, and others can see things in your writing that you have missed. In today’s challenging publishing market it is helpful to get your work as strong as possible before submitting it to an editor or agent and critiquing helps to do that.
I have been in different critique groups throughout the years. For me the accountability is important. My current critique partner is Laurie. As we work together we hold each other accountable. We know we need to complete our goals before each weekly meeting We also write on an online document together so each of us is constantly aware of the other’s progress each day.

Do you prefer the creating or editing aspect of writing?
What's the most difficult part of writing for you ~ plotting, setting, characterization? Betsy: Plotting is always a struggle. I can get caught up in the writing and forget where the story is going. I do a lot of cutting in the process of rewriting. Laurie: Characterization is a challenge, because characters are so important to the book. At some point in the writing I forget that the character is not a real person. Betsy and I begin talking about the character as if they are a friend from down the street. Then we know the character is right.

What's your strength in writing (characterization, setting as character, description, etc)?

A great strength for a writer is simply to understand what it takes to write a book. We knew from the beginning that writing is hard work. We both understood the perseverance necessary for the profession. We both have a willingness to surrender the work and keep our egos out of it … somewhat. We also bring our different strengths to the writing.

Laurie is a terrific researcher. She has a natural sense of organization and really finds the details that bring life to the stories. In the story about the verse “He restores my soul”, we wanted the main character to be an art restorer. Laurie knew so much about paintings and art restoration that I think she could have done it herself. All that information made the story come to life.
Betsy brings in her experience as a counselor and I love how she can add the backstory. In the case of the art restorer she brought in the man’s grief over the loss of his wife and the details that came from her experience working in hospice.

Did you have any surprising discoveries while writing this book?

The shift from children’s books to adult books brought a lot of surprises and Oh no! moments. One of those moments came when we thought we were finished with the book and realized that a novel for adults had to be longer than 35,000 words. Oh no!
An agent sat down with us at a conference and read the first page pointing out that we were still writing a children’s book. The tags and beats were off. Adults don’t need as many clues about who is speaking as children do. Oh no!
As children’s authors we had never written a death scene in the book. It was surprising to open up the possibilities in an adult world. Pretty soon we realized that all our characters were dying and we had to revise. Oh no!
The whole concept of social media was a surprise. Children don't Tweet or use Facebook. Now that we were writing for adults we needed a blog, Facebook fan page and Twitter account. That was a big Oh no.

Where do you write: In a cave, a coffeehouse, or a cozy attic nook?

We live about two hours apart and so we meet once a week at a coffee shop halfway between our homes, The Perk Avenue. It is one of those special places - an old brick building with comfy chairs and wifi. No one minds if we hang out. Skype helps with the long distance writing, but there is something about being together in person that is valuable. At the coffee shop we can pray together and often our agenda changes as we give it to God. Another benefit is good coffee and scones.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve heard?

Betsy: Our mother was so wise. I was lamenting one time about a rejection and the realization that I had written a book that was not publishable. She told me that no writing is ever wasted and I’ve held onto that. Some things we write to learn the skill of writing. Some things we write and resurrect parts of the book years later. Some things we write to work out our own issues. Nothing is wasted.
A favorite piece of writing advice for me is captured in this picture of my dog, Samson. You have to treat writing as a job. I can’t do anything if I am not at the computer each day ready to work.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

If you want to write, write. Don’t give up and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.
Writing is not about producing one book or article. Writing is a journey.

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Chris Malkemes said...

Thank you for your wonderful words of encouragement. I resonate with "nothing is wasted in writing" I write because my heart can not contain it. I write because my mind will burst. I write because I'm a writer. Nothing wasted. Good advice.

Ane Mulligan said...

Their book is really good. I enjoyed it so much! Betsy and Laurie, I'm waiting for the next one!

Duffey Myers said...

Yes, God doesn't waste anything. I love the idea that your heart can not contain the words you want to express :-)
Thanks for your comment.

Duffey Myers said...

Thanks Ane - You're the best!

Kerry said...

Betsy and Laurie - I finished Shepherd's Song this weekend while in New Orleans to attend the funeral of my uncle - what an amazing blessing and a God-cident to have Psalm 23 guide me through this experience. Thank you both for way this touched my heart. Blessings to you both!