WHY I WRITE
You can see/hear this presentation on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMpyXvGQ8BE
Hello, Literary Gladiators. My name is Ilene Schneider, and I thank Josh Caporale for inviting me to post the inaugural entry in the Guest Contributor Series. My claim to fame among Literary Gladiators is as Ari Schneider-Gans’s mother, but I am also a published author, with two mystery novels and a nonfiction book to my credit, along with various contributions to academic anthologies and newspaper opinion columns.
Whenever I do presentations and book readings, I am asked questions about my writing process and publishing experiences. I’ve collected the most frequently asked questions to answer for you today.
I’m often asked when I began writing. I have always been a writer, beginning with my parodies of nursery rhymes when I was about 8. At camp, I hated sports, so I volunteered to run the camp newspaper during the free period. I fell in love with journalism. I was 12. My first nationally published work was a eulogy of John F. Kennedy accepted by Ingénue Magazine when I was 15. I was a communication major in college, concentrating on journalism. I was an editor of my college paper, and a founding editor of a Jewish student paper in Boston. My goal was to be the first woman editor of the New York Times. Even though I got sidetracked, and instead became one of the first women to be ordained as a rabbi in the US, I still continued to write. I was the editor of a Jewish student paper in Philadelphia while I was in rabbinical school. After that, my writings were academic or curriculum design or reports or other forms of nonfiction.
About 10 years ago, I found myself temporarily underemployed. In case you’re wondering, that’s a euphemism for between jobs, also a euphemism. I’ve been a voracious reader since first grade – it would have been earlier if my mother hadn’t been afraid the teachers would be angry with her if she taught me to read before I started school. For quite some time, I had wondered how certain books had gotten published, let alone made the best seller lists. But I also believed it was dishonest of me to criticize books if I hadn’t written one. So I did. It took a while, and it took even longer before I stopped trying to find an agent and concentrated instead on looking for a small publisher who did not require an agent and was willing to take a chance on an unpublished author. Eventually I did.
Which segues into the next question: how I got published. In all three cases, it was a matter more of whom I knew rather than what I wrote. For my first book in the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mystery Series, Chanukah Guilt, I queried a woman I had been chatting with online after she mentioned she had recently started a small independent press. So many months had passed between when I had submitted my manuscript and when she emailed that she wanted to publish the book that I had forgotten I had written to her.
The second book, the nonfiction Talk Dirty Yiddish followed a similar path, but with one difference: the publisher queried me. Again, I had met someone online who was the acquisition editor for a large nonfiction publisher. She emailed me that they were starting a new line of books called “Talk Dirty …” and wanted to know if I would be interested in writing the Yiddish version. She didn’t consider my lack of fluency in Yiddish to be an obstacle, as I am experienced in doing research. I realized that if I didn’t write the book, they’d hire someone else. I would read the book and think, “I could have done that,” so I accepted.
By the time I had finished the second book in the mystery series, Unleavened Dead, my first publisher had closed down. For the third time, I contacted an online acquaintance who was acquisitions editor for a small press. Her response was, “I was hoping you’d ask. I love accepting books from people I know.” I’ve been with that publisher, Oak Tree Press, ever since. I am currently editing and proof reading the manuscript of my third mystery, Yom Killer – you can credit Ari for the title – and am about to send it off to Oak Tree.
And that leads to the next question: what is my typical writing day. I don’t have a typical day. For almost eight years after the publication of Chanukah Guilt, I still had a day job, as a chaplain for a hospice, which can be emotionally draining. I often found myself reading, my favorite way to unwind, when I should have been writing. Now that I have retired, I find other ways to procrastinate – volunteer work, gardening, birding, traveling, knee replacement surgeries, surfing the ‘net under the guise of research, and, of course, reading so I can keep up with the so-called competition.
I cannot write at home, so I take myself off to a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks or some other location that doesn’t mind people using them as an office and has wall plugs to recharge laptop batteries. I find I can concentrate when there is ambient noise I can ignore because it has nothing to do with me. At home, my unwashed laundry and unwatered plants, not to mention telemarketers who ignore the Do-Not-Call list, are always interrupting my train of thought.
And I need to keep track of those thoughts, as I am not a plotter – a writer who outlines and plans every plot twist and scene and nuance of character – but a pantser – one who writes by the seat of her pants. As such, my characters are in control. They tell me what is going to happen. I have a general idea of the story, but the characters often take me in different and unexpected directions. I am then forced to figure out how to get the characters out of whatever corner they’ve made me write them into.
Because my characters tend to take on a life of their own, I sometimes discover that my readers see things in them that I had never intended. For example, I had written the character of Aviva’s first ex-husband – she’s been twice married and divorced – so she would have a close contact in the police department after he was appointed the temporary Director of Public Safety for her town. I had expected him to be an important albeit fairly minor character. But readers kept asking me about Aviva’s relationship with him and how it was going to develop. I hadn’t planned anything further, but did explore their interactions in the second book and expanded it even further in the third.
Another example is when readers tell me they were on the edge of their seats during certain scenes, which I had not considered to be all that suspenseful. But, of course, I knew what the outcome would be.
Which brings up the issue of whether my characters are based on people I know. No, they’re not. My main characters are never based on real people. At the most, they are composites. But I do observe people, so some of my secondary characters are based on strangers, people I see at bookstore cafés or restaurants or stores, and my idle speculations about them. I am also an unabashed eavesdropper, and sometimes overhear conversations, particularly one-sided cell phone ones, that I include in my books.
I am often asked what advice I would give to aspiring writers. I have four bits of advice for aspiring writers. They’re not original with me, but have stood me in good stead.
- Don’t give up. If you can’t find an agent – and remember, it takes only one who believes in you and your book – or if the agent can’t find a publisher, try querying small and midsized publishers that do not require agent submissions and are willing to take a chance on an unknown. And if you still are not successful and are sure your book is publishing-worthy – and has been ruthlessly edited, preferably by strangers, and formatted by a professional, and read by people who recognize and appreciate good writing – then self-publish.
- Grow a thick skin; but don’t get overly confident. There will be critics who will hate your book for the same reasons others love it. Accept all of it – the good and the bad – with equanimity.
- Don’t expect to get rich. The reason there are news articles about writers whose blogs are optioned for Hollywood or writers who sign seven-figure multi-book contracts is because those occurrences are so rare.
- Get out there and push yourself. The days of the reclusive writer slaving away in an attic garret – or, more likely these days, parents’ basement –are over. As are the days of publisher-financed book tours and advertising blitzes, unless you’re a bestselling author who doesn’t need the extra hype. If you don’t have an internet presence, if you don’t spend part of your writing time on social media, if you don’t participate in Listservs, if you don’t attend writer and fan conferences at which you participate on panels, your book, no matter how good, will remain unknown and unread.
And finally, why do I write? It’s so I can answer the question “What do you do?” by answering, “I kill people.”
But, of course, there is a much more important and serious answer: the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when people tell me how much they enjoy reading what I write, the chance to entertain others. When UNLEAVENED DEAD was published, a woman who serves with me on the board of our local library bought the book. She was a big fan of CHANUKAH GUILT, and had been waiting patiently for book #2. Her husband of many years had died just a few months before, and she was still mourning the loss. When she came to my book launch party a few weeks after she had bought the book, I asked her if she had read it and enjoyed it. She said, “Enjoyed it? I got home and began reading it in bed. I went to sleep with a smile on my face for the next three nights.” That to me is not just satisfying, but a symbol of success. It was the best praise I could have received.
I know there are a lot of questions I haven’t answered. You can always reach me by email at email@example.com. And please follow my blog at http://rabbiauthor.com or friend me on FaceBook at http://www.facebook.com/rabbi.author.
Thank you for joining me on Literary Gladiators. And keep reading.