I started writing very early; pretty much the day I found out I couldn't do the math but was good at describing the people who could do the math. Though private as a child, I went on to make a career out of telling stories--the first as a daily newspaper reporter, then as a government speechwriter, and now as director of a federal agency's website, where we use tools in addition to words--such as videos and photo galleries--to tell our stories to the public.
How did you become an author?
I became dissatisfied with the amount of storytelling I could do in a daily newspaper story, and so decided to return to school for a Masters in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University in the late 1990s. Rigorous fiction workshops forced me to re-think the way I had been writing for years. For instance, I had to learn how to expand a significant moment, to build anticipation and draw it out, as opposed to blasting all the key information into the first paragraph, as print journalists typically do in newspaper stories. This set me on the path to write several short stories, and then a novel.
What was your first published piece/Where was it published/ How long ago?
These three questions are all tied together. My first published fiction was a short story called Four Hands, which I wrote during the Hopkins program in the late 1990s. I was working on another piece in our family room downstairs, while upstairs my two daughters, then 14 and 12, were practicing a piano piece for an upcoming recital. Their teacher had given them a duet that required four hands, two for the high notes, and two for the lower. There were more fighting than playing, and I was about to lay down the law when I realized that a better story than the one I was writing was sitting right in front of me on the piano bench. I used the practice sessions to reveal the girls' characters, made the dad a renowned conductor worried more about his reputation than his children, and the recital, when all goes horribly wrong, as his moment of enlightenment. Four Hands not only got me an A, a small literary magazine called Potomac Review also published it--my first published fiction. Coincidentally, I recently received a note from the magazine saying that Four Hands was one of the editors' favorite 50 stories, and asking for permission to reprint it in an upcoming anniversary issue. I look forward to seeing it in print again.
What did you do before embarking on your writing career? Was it an asset to your writing? How?
I began writing pretty much the day after college graduation and have never stopped. My first job was as a high school sportswriter at the Naples Daily News In Naples, FL. After two years, I moved to the Lakeland Ledger, a New York Times-owned paper in Central Florida. There I switched from sports to news. My work caught the attention of editors at the Tampa Tribune, who invited me to apply for a position there. I became the Tribune's Washington correspondent in 1985, and switched to a similar position for the Charleston (SC) Post-Courier several years later. Reporting definitely positioned me well for writing fiction. I had crusty editors who did not believe in writer's block and who weren't shy about telling me how to improve stories. I had bristly readers who helped me develop a thick skin. My press pass took me into hundreds of places I wouldn't have gone to otherwise, every place from the White House to backstage at the circus. During those years, I learned how to write quickly and clearly, to listen and learn what made people's voices distinctive, and to hone my ability to separate fact from fiction.
What inspires you?
-Great writing by authors like Annie Proulx, John Steinbeck and Philip Roth.
-My children, wife and mother.
-Ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
-And my students at American University
Please share one your successful marketing techniques?
Build a map
Find readers from as many states as possible. Get them to read your first 50 pages, and then send back their name, city, state, headshot, and one positive line about your book. Use Google maps to create a free map of U.S. on your site, and plant pushpins to display the groundswell of support already underway.
Hitch up a trailer
People like videos, so take your story, reduce it to half a dozen plot points, and find yourself a good videographer. Work together on a script and storyboard, and then get out of the way. The payoff can be substantial.
I believe that even with all the amazing technology around us, including new media tools that have rewritten the rules that once governed publishing, we're still driven by very primitive instincts, things like passion, hunger, jealousy and ambition. Good storytellers must recognize this, and weave tales that explore and shed insight on the impulses that drive our behavior. As a reporter for many years, I'm a strong believer in the "guess what" test. If I say, "Guess what?" and you answer, "What?" I have one chance to capture your attention. If I fail, I know you're moving on to another storyteller. I sum up Bella in these three lines that I hope meets the "guess what" test. Isabel Moss knew she could lose her huband when he went off to war. When the call came, she was almost ready. What stopped her cold was the second call...
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Isabel Moss knew she could lose her husband when he went off to war. When the call came, she was almost ready. What stopped her cold was the second call...