Award-winning writer Amy Atwell has racked up some serious wins—including over 25 contest placements. Her manuscript, Public Relations, earned her membership in the Pixie Chicks, which is what we Romance Writers of America® 2008 Golden Heart® finalists call ourselves.
Amy’s present pursuit and passion is writing, but she’s been many things: store manager, stage manager, horse trainer, magazine editor and—get this—lead singer in a rock band. I’m guessing there’s quite a story behind that last one. 🙂
Amy is highly regarded in publishing circles for the WritingGIAM (Goal in a Month) Yahoo! groups she founded. How she oversees the GIAM loops, writes, and manages everything else on her heaping plate is a testimony to her energy, enthusiasm and organization.
I invite you to read the interview and learn more about the amazing Amy Atwell . . .
•I see that you’ve completed five full-length manuscripts, Amy. Impressive! When did you start writing the first one, and what was it that led you to pursue your dream of being a writer?
Before I launch into answers, I must take a moment to thank you, Keli, for inviting me to participate. I’ve enjoyed reading about so many other authors’ journeys, and I’m honored to be here. I hope I won’t burst any bubbles, because I think I’m the least impressive person in the world—no really, bottom of the barrel. In fact, I’m always happy just to find myself in the barrel. It’s always nice to feel like you belong to something bigger than yourself.
I was always an avid reader, and I loved to make up stories and songs when I was young. I still have the short story I wrote for a creative writing class in high school, and I’ve kept a file of my song lyrics, though I’ve forgotten many of the melodies. Still, I thought of my writing as just a way to pass time, and I didn’t take it seriously for many years.
As we approached 2000: The New Millennium, I had a mini (and early, thank you!) mid-life crisis. I suspect many people had childhood dreams of where they’d be by the year 2000. My reality was happily married, no children, living in Chicago, well paid and well respected as a manager for a retail chain. I had no complaints, but I wanted more. I feared that somewhere along the line, I’d stopped dreaming of things. I’d accepted life as being what it was in my regulated everyday world. I decided if I had one dream to chase, it was the dream of writing a book and having it published. By June 2006, I’d taken a bunch of random scenes, added about 70K words, and had my first completed manuscript.
•A writer can learn craft, but voice is something that comes with time. You’ve written in several sub-genres: historical, contemporary and romantic suspense. Do you have a different voice for each? Which of the three sub-genres comes easiest for you, and which do you find the most challenging?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about craft, but you’re right, voice is this elusive element that’s organic to each story. I think the more we write, the more we’re attracted to a particular type of story and voice that fits us. When we match ourselves to the right story, the voice is amplified—like a megaphone—and it resonates with the reader.
My historical voice is different from my contemporary voice, and my romantic suspense is different still. It all depends on the characters and the story they want to tell. I wouldn’t say any of them comes easiest—once I’m in a story, my family will tell you I’m a lost cause. Absent-minded professor comes to mind—I’ve been known to walk into walls while rereading my pages. But I will say I find romantic suspense to be the most challenging because there are so many pieces of the puzzle to fit together between a romance plot and a suspense plot.
•You said Shakespeare introduced you to big casts, character-driven plots and powerful emotion. Do you write “big” stories? Would you say they’re character or plot-driven? And how do you engage your readers’ emotion?
I love the works of William Shakespeare. His plays have withstood the test of time because his characters tap deep within us to emotions we identify with. I’m not sure if I’d call my stories “big,” but they do tend to have large casts. I love stories where the hero and heroine find love with each other while finding acceptance in their family or community.
Mostly, my stories are about everyday people facing unexpected events in their lives. For instance, in my 2008 Golden Heart finalist manuscript, Public Relations, the hero is an actor playing a soap-opera hunk. At this point, everything in his career is golden—the guy can’t seem to fail. Meanwhile, the heroine is a struggling Broadway wannabe who’s been featured in failure after failure, and she’s lost faith in the fairy tale of success. There’s a lot of me in both those characters—the faith and the doubts, and I think readers connect with those universal emotions, too. So, while I try to craft entertaining plots, I really count on my characters to engage the readers.
• Your three contemporary romances together have racked up a remarkable number of awards, over twenty-five if my count is correct. What is it about your first chapters and scenes that so obviously grab a judge’s attention? Your intriguing hooks? Action-packed plots? Brilliant dialogue? All three and more?
Well, to be honest, you have no idea how many contests I entered to get that batch of wins over the years. <wink> In all three of my contemporaries, I tried to establish the interconnectivity between the characters right at the opening. My goal is to make readers see enough of themselves in these characters that they want to know more about them. A hook won’t hold them forever, and it’s hard to sustain action without real character to back it up.
And I’ll confess here that I love dialogue. From comedy of manners banter that leads to more character questions:
Derek’s brows knit. “Harry, have I ever told you that you jabber like a magpie?”
“Daily,” Harry replied, unabashed.
“And have I ever expressed that I find it irritating?”
“Yet you persist.”
“Because I often find your conversation lacking. Just now, you were a thousand miles away—why, you may as well be still in India.”
Derek was glad for the mask of darkness as Harry contemplated him.
“Derek, we’re home, and I sense neither elation, nor grief, nor anything from you.
“They walked in silence for a few moments before Derek responded with a sigh. “I shall try to be better company.”
To contemporary confrontational banter, (see a theme here?) that raises the stakes:
“Where are they?” Mickey slowed as he approached a stoplight. “You shouldn’t mess with these guys. I thought I made that clear.”
“Why should I give over the goods before I’ve gotten my payment?”
“At this point, you should hand them over before they wrest them from your dead fingers.”
“You wouldn’t kill me, my boy.” But for the first time, Cosmo didn’t sound quite so blissfully sure of himself.
“Didn’t they send you with my money?”
“They sent me with a gun, Cosmo.”
“But, I always thought you liked me, my boy.”
“Yeah, well, given a choice, I like myself a whole lot better.”
There’s no doubt in my mind that a few lines of dialogue can convey far more to the reader than exhaustive pages of narrative.
• Since you studied drama in college and spent fifteen years involved in theater, it’s no wonder dialogue rolls off your characters’ tongues as easily as goofy puns do mine. In addition to dialogue, what aspects of your theatrical experience come into play in your writing?
I pull a lot from my experience as a stage manager when I write. Stage managers watch every hour of rehearsal, go over scenes time and time again. They help the actors remember their lines, and they keep track of every movement on the stage and where every piece of furniture and every one of the props is located. I tend to be very detailed as a writer and as a reader. I notice the details of how a character moves, when she moves, how she handles a prop—all these tell us more about the characters. For me, it boils down to seeing a scene in my head and then transcribing it so it makes sense to the reader.
•Not only have you succeeded on stage, but you’ve done well in a variety of ventures, from singing in choirs, to managing retail stores, to training horses and teaching riding. What life lessons did you learn from these experiences, and how do they affect your writing?
Don’t forget the short stint I did as lead singer of a rock band! I jokingly refer to my life as a series of random experiences, but years ago, in the midst of changing from the non-profit theater sector to a more commercial line of work, I revamped my resume to include an Outlook statement: I seek all opportunities to learn and adventure in a job that will continually challenge me. I take that statement seriously, and whenever I’ve chosen to change jobs—or heck, careers—I’ve held to that outlook. I choose to do what I do in life because I love doing it, because it interests and challenges me. I suspect I’m going to be writing novels for a very long time!
•I noticed you were a magazine editor at one point. Do you have trouble turning off your internal editor as you write, or do your rough drafts flow freely?
Oh, that cranky internal editor. What a pain! Took me years to turn her off. I used to write some fresh material and move forward a paragraph, but then my eye would drift upward, and I’d feel the need to go back and polish the previous paragraph. Some days, I would be lucky to write an additional hundred words.
My good friend, YA writer Debbi Michiko Florence, turned me onto Scribble Drafts. We would write for 30 minutes and email each other our scribblings. No editing allowed. These eventually evolved into Snotty First Drafts. Our goal was always to move the story forward and then go back and clean everything up later. I now use this same system on my AlphaSmart NEO. Because the screen doesn’t allow easy editing of an entire paragraph, I can draft a thousand-word scene on it in less than an hour. Then I upload it to my computer, where I edit it into about 1,500 fleshed out words. The process worked well on my last manuscript.
All in all, new scenes flow freely for me, until the story comes to a complete halt. Then it may take me days—sometimes, weeks—to figure out what stopped the story and how to get it going again. It’s maddening, but I’ve come to accept that as part of the process.
•We Pixies rejoiced with you recently when you completed your first manuscript in four years. You went through a dry spell when life took a tough turn and the writing all but stopped. How did you weather that rough patch? What brought you out of it and enabled you to type “The End”?
What a milestone. My life stalled when my mother passed away unexpectedly in 2005. Much of the rest of that year flew by as my truly heroic husband suggested we sell our home in California and move back east closer to our families. For at least eighteen months I couldn’t face writing—not with any consistency. I weathered the bad time by granting myself permission not to write, but even so, I stayed connected to writers. The downside was I lost over a year of progress, but I matured as a writer and as a person during my hiatus. And when I returned to writing, I was more emotionally prepared for the ups and downs.
To get back in the writing game, I forced myself to enter contests—not just one or two; I think I sent out over fifteen entries in a four-month period. Along with positives of final placements, I also confronted the negatives of some of the lowest scores I’ve ever received. But the effort paid off, as I connected with my dream agent through a series of serendipitous events. Having one industry professional believe in my work rekindled my efforts, and I overhauled one manuscript in six weeks and then wrote a new one in six months.
•In an effort to keep yourself on track and moving forward and to help others do the same, you started your first WritingGIAM (Goal in a Month) group back in October of 2004. That group proved so successful that you’ve since added two more and are in the process of starting a fourth. Please summarize what the groups are all about and tell us how an interested writer can find out more? To what do you attribute the wonderful success of the groups—aside from your excellent leadership, of course?
WritingGIAM is my way of giving back to other writers. The initial concept was simple: a dozen writers who all wanted to accomplish a writing goal during one month’s time joined together on a Yahoo! loop. At the end of the month, we’d liked the experience so much we kept it going. And it’s still going and growing.
Each week, we recap our progress and share our Goals, Inspiration, Amity and Motivation. We celebrate each other’s successes and commiserate those setbacks. Each loop of approximately 50 members becomes its own tight-knit neighborhood of writers. No one is required to participate—we find about 30% of our members get a lot out of just lurking on the loop.
WritingGIAM isn’t for everyone, but the members who stick with it repeatedly tell me that their productivity has improved. They’re more consistent in their writing, and it’s amazing to see how many of our members have sold over the past three years. The members on these loops build positive, progressive communities, and I’m thrilled to watch the successes multiply. Anyone interested can learn all about the groups HERE. We’re in the process of setting up a new WritingGIAMx4 loop by the end of this year.
•What do you find to be the most challenging aspect(s) of writing? The most rewarding? What advice would you give those dreaming of the first contract?
Most challenging: staying focused. I know this is the right answer, because I’ve just erased a dozen potential answers to this question that meandered all over the place!
Most rewarding: the joy of serendipity. Tell me you’ve experienced it—your manuscript is stuck in that dark corner you’ve written yourself into, when suddenly you discover a window—a floodgate—opens with the perfect solution to your plotting. And you realize, you planted it eight chapters ago, but you’d forgotten that little detail until now. Don’t you love that moment?
Advice? ME??? Oh, golly, the pressure … Okay, for those dreaming of your first contract: Learn to set realistic goals for yourself. You cannot control whether or not you get a contract. You can write manuscripts and submit them, but you cannot guarantee a contract is forthcoming. So many writers berate themselves for things not within their control. Focus on what you can do:
* Be diligent—show up as a writer and write daily, even if it’s only a hundred words.
* Find a haven—find or create a group of like-minded writers and reap the rewards of helping each other reach publication.
* Don’t be afraid to dream—and don’t ever let someone rob you of those dreams.
•In closing, do you have any final thoughts or questions for your visitors?
Thanks again for inviting me to review my journey today. I experienced some disappointment last week, a temporary setback in my career path. It was good timing to review how far I’ve come and the accomplishments I’ve gathered. I usually reserve New Year’s Day as my traditional “look back and plan forward day,” but this timing was, well, shall we say serendipitous?
So, I’ll frame two questions for readers:
* Do you set and review goals from time to time? If so, when and how? If not, do you celebrate any annual “writer” traditions?
* What serendipitous events have happened in your writer’s life? In your manuscript?
Leave a Comment for Amy
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All those who leave a comment for Amy have a chance to win the wooden word shown below, which would be an inspiring addition to any writer’s workspace and is certainly a word that resonates with Amy. I’ll hold the drawing the evening of 11/18.
Congratulations to Sandy, winner of the drawing.
Learn More About Amy
Visit her Web site: http://www.amyatwell.com
Visit her blog: http://www.amyatwell.blogspot.com