Our guest this week is a pal of mine from Absolute Write. We hang out together at Grandma Susie’s (it’s a whole story by itself), and she’s a lot of fun to trade banter with. She’s also a trade-published author of short mysteries, as well as her latest non-fiction, Bully-proof.
What’s the funniest mistake you’ve made as a writer?
Back in 2009, when I began writing my first novel, all I had to go on was an old, 2007 copy of Writer’s Market. It not only listed agents and publications but gave guidelines for what was acceptable to the various publications. A novel, it stated, needed to have a word count of around 195,000. So, early in 2010, I duly completed my novel at 196,000 words and was so proud of myself. Imagine my shock when I went online to a writer’s website and discovered that a novel of that size, from an unpublished author, stood absolutely no chance of even being looked at by an a literary agent.
I hadn’t realized that the economic disaster that was 2008 had brought about a lot of changes in the publishing industry. I was miserable for about a day and then I saw the funny side of it. I could have written two books in the time it took to write one. Fortunately, cutting that behemoth down to 98,000 words wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be and I sure learned to keep current on what’s what in the industry.
That’s still pretty tough, Gail. I’ve cut my novels by a third, and that was excruciating. Cutting away half is a writerly feat worthy of pride.
Have you done any projects that took you way out of your comfort zone from the beginning?
Oh, yes. Writing non-fiction, particularly about a subject like bullying. It’s all about research, getting one’s facts straight and presenting them accurately but in a way that holds the reader’s interest.
Tell us about your most recently published work.
Bully-proof (Penguin Random House SA) was published in June this year and it has been quite a roller-coaster ride. For me, the nice thing about having a commercial publisher is that they do all the marketing for you. I had expected that I’d have do some interviews but I hadn’t expected the amount of media attention the book has received. It’s kept me a lot busier than I thought it would. What has been heartening is how well the book has been received, not only by the local public but also by people as far afield as the USA.
Bullying in schools is a world-wide problem and South Africa is no exception. Part 1 of Bully-proof provides information about what bullying really is, the enormous harm it causes to victims and practical solutions for both parents and kids. Part 2 of the book provides a comprehensive, step-by-step guide for schools to create a safe and bully-proof learning environment. Although the case studies I’ve used are drawn from the South African milieu, the behaviors described and discussed are universally common and the suggested techniques can be used by anyone anywhere.
What’s the craziest story idea you’ve ever had? And did you write it?
Technology has given us many new ways to explore the human brain but what if we’re able to, not only explore, but control the human mind? Although mystery novels are my thing, I’ve recently found myself being drawn into Sci-Fi short stories and hacking into the human mind is the idea behind one story that’s lurking on my hard-drive.
What project are you looking forward to next?
Getting back to writing fiction. For me, it’s a totally self-indulgent pleasure and, in the words of Terry Pratchett, the most fun anyone can have by themselves, as well as being indoor work with no heavy lifting. I’ve begun plotting my next mystery, which will be set in the U.S., in north-east of Ohio where I spent several idyllic weeks a few years back. I met some wonderful people there and I promised them a book.
How much do you structure your stories before you write them?
My first novel was a ‘seat of the pants’ adventure and that’s probably why it’s still sitting on my hard-drive. Writing the non-fiction book, which of essence had to be very structured, I learned the value of having things well-organized at the start. Since my passion is mysteries with twists in the plot, having a plan before I begin is helpful in avoiding plot holes or loose ends that don’t get tied up. Knowing what each scene needs to convey to the reader and what the outcome of that scene needs to be, I can then relax and let the creativity take over.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
If you’re writing in English, make a concerted effort to master the necessary skills. The internet is full of self-published novels that are badly written, with poor attention to spelling, sentence construction and the effective use of adjectives and adverbs. No matter how wonderful your story idea is, if the reader struggles to read it, you aren’t going to be as successful as you deserve to be.
I totally agree with this. It’s really sad, when you meet someone who has a story inside them, but they lack the skills to get it across. But they are just skills–they can be mastered. Speaking of skills, what author’s style do you admire the most?
I’d have to say Elizabeth George, an American novelist who sets her mysteries in the U.K. Her complex, character-driven stories are extremely well written, with beautiful word-pictures that can make you feel as if you are right there in the scene.
What is the single most important quality in a novel–what must an author do to win you over?
Captivate me to the point where I can no longer see the print on the page, only the images that are conjured up by the words.
Besides writing, what are your favorite things to do?
Reading, of course, would be a big one but I’m also very fond of gardening and sewing – not just dressmaking but patchwork quilting and embroidery, too. A few years back, I took a course in beaded jewellery-making, which is a lot of fun and another creative outlet. I guess you could say that I like complex, detailed work, which might explain my passion for writing mysteries.
That’s an interesting parallel, Gail. Tell us something else that will surprise us.
I’m pretty sure that I’m close to being the world’s worst cook. I’m okay with baking but, as my children will tell you, I should best leave the cooking to someone else. We’re talking ‘toss the pot out along with whatever was in it,’ here. I’m that bad at it.
Oh, dear. I suppose we shouldn’t expect a cookbook from you anytime soon. 🙂
You can find out more about Gail Dore’s latest book at www.bullyproofbook.co.za.