The girls at WGR are excited to welcome author, editor, and writing instructor Brenda Hill to our site today. Brenda, thank you so much for granting us an interview!
1.) In your role as a writing instructor you often conduct workshops for aspiring authors. What is the most important piece of advice you give to a beginner?
To learn all you can about the craft of writing and never give up.
After welcoming new students and chatting about the different genres, I weave a glowing scenario similar to what we’ve seen in movies: someone decides to write a book, so they sit at a typewriter or computer, pound out a few sentences when they have time, and after completing the book, they send it off to instant riches and fame.
It sounds wonderful, and most of us have been led to believe that’s how it is. People still tell me they’re going to write a book ‘when they have time,’ as if time is all it takes. I tell my students how it truly is, which is often discouraging.
While I may agree to other projects to pay the bills, my first love is the novel, and that’s what I’ve concentrated on for most of writing life. I made several attempts in the early years, hiding them away when I’d get stalled.
But when I decided to take it seriously, to devote my time to writing and finishing a novel, I discovered the truth, that the Hollywood version of novel writing was a myth, a complete fabrication. Perhaps it was closer to reality years ago before the days of personal computers with novel writing software, instant research abilities, and online classes available to most everyone. Publishing houses and agents weren’t so snowed under with submissions and they could afford to take the time to work with a promising new writer. Some wined and dined them, even going as far as covering expenses while the agent or publisher worked with them to get that glorious novel written on a professional level.
Today, that seldom happens. Now, because of the enormous amounts of submissions, downsizing, budget cuts, and consolidations, few publishing houses accept manuscripts directly from new writers. Instead, they prefer submissions from agents who act as gatekeepers or first readers. And agents today are as demanding as the publishing houses. They’ll only consider manuscripts relatively free of errors, written well as to structure, pacing, believable dialogue, and of course, a page-turning story. Even then, they’re attuned to the market and will only sign what they believe will sell.
All of the techniques involved in telling a story good enough for other people to want to read require knowledge of the craft of writing. And it is a craft, just like playing the piano or any other musical instrument, painting a portrait or landscape, or even handling a car well enough to provide a smooth ride for the passenger. While some of us might be musically inclined or have watched someone else drive until we can recite the steps in our sleep, it takes knowledge and time to develop the skill to hit the exact right key, or to know exactly how much gas to give the car to get it to cruise instead of skipping like a flat rock in water.
I thought I could write a saleable novel the first time out. I’d read all my life, critiqued manuscripts at the bookstore I owned and had even taken several classes. But in the actual process of writing, I found myself frustrated by simple things such as condensing time or how to get my character through the door of a room and into another – all without boring my reader into a coma.
At one writers’ conference, a New York Times bestselling author said it took her years of learning, and when she took an unofficial poll of other authors, the average was eight years of writing, of rejections, of learning the craft before they ‘got it.’
By then, I was so discouraged I could’ve cried. I’d already spent several years on my one story, writing, sending to agents, receiving rejections. And each time an agent said I needed improvement in a particular technique, I went on a quest to learn.
So yes, it took years, and I’m still learning.
But, when I finally received that offer of representation, I burst into tears. Even celebrating later, I was still so emotional that I couldn’t stop crying.
My books are now with a small indie publisher and I’m still hoping for that big contract with all the riches and fame. I still believe in those magical fairy tales, but like other big, important steps in my life, I have to work for it. Some writers are fortunate enough to have the novel-fairies guiding them to instant success, and while I may grudgingly read their books, I want to push them off a cliff.
So I tell my students that if they, after hearing all of that, still want to write, welcome! If they have that burning desire to create stories, perhaps there’s a reason. Perhaps something they’ll say in their novels will touch someone else in a positive way. So learn all they can and never give up. But I also tell them that if they don’t want to work, they should go home and take up a stress-free hobby.
Because writing well is hard work, you have to want it with a hungry desire that will not be appeased until you see your name on a newly-released novel. When I held my first book, saw the fantastic cover with my name on it, I hugged it to me in boundless joy and danced around the room. Only one other time in my life compared with that moment – giving birth to my son.
But with books you don’t have to change diapers.
2.) Brenda, it looks like as a writer you do a little bit of everything — short stories, novels, newspaper articles, and even restaurant reviews. What is the most unusual restaurant you have visited, and what are some of your favorite foods?
I grew up in Louisiana, and I love southern cooking – which usually means a lot of fried foods. And as much as I realize baked or broiled foods are healthier, my favorites are fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, bacon and tomato sandwiches, bbq ribs, buttered corn on the cob, biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy. And of course, Mississippi Mud Pie, which is a rich, chocolate-fudge pie. That’s why I’ve battled weight all my life. I’ll eat ‘right’ for a while, even lose some weight, but as soon as I have a problem in life, I reach for my comfort food. They say, “Reach for your mate instead of the plate,’ but unfortunately, that only worked for a short time. Now if I could meet a Terry O’Neal from Beyond the Quiet in my own life, I might not need so much comfort food.
An unusual restaurant? Have to think on that one, as I choose the restaurant, and of course I pick ones that serve food I like. I will say that it took quite a while for me to try sushi. Raw fish is not one of my favorites. Even the thought of it makes me want to dash out the back door for the nearest KFC. But it’s my son’s favorite, so I broke down and gave it a try. I took him along so that if I didn’t like it, I could pawn it off on him.
However, it turned out to be a delightful experience, and I wrote a review of the Japanese restaurant, Sayaka, complete with photos of the dishes on my http://www.cuisinescene.org site. While I enjoyed the evening, I’m not in any hurry to go back.
3.) Please tell us a little bit about your new book, Beyond the Quiet.
It’s a story of self-discovery, a journey of learning and embracing who you truly are as opposed to what you believe others require of you.
Lisa Montgomery thinks her husband’s death after twenty-five years of marriage is the worst that can happen – until she discovers his secret life.
She struggles though loss, betrayal, and bitterness, finally examining her life as a wife, mother, and as a woman. She learns to open her heart, to let go of the sterile woman she’d become to passionately embrace the woman she wishes to be. She learns to cherish each moment and follow her long-buried dreams.
4.) What is the most rewarding part of the novel writing process?
When I finally get a difficult scene to flow like I want, when the words finally match the rhythm in my head.
5.) What is the most frustrating part of the novel writing process?
I’m not a writer who whizzes through and gets everything down. Instead, I plod along, writing a scene or even a sentence, needing to feel that certain satisfaction before I can concentrate on the next one. If I’m not satisfied, I’ll write it again and again, changing this word or that one, trying the sentence in a different way. When I’m feeling pressured for time, I’ll eventually let it go, but it’ll nag me until I go back for yet another round of revisions. I’ll keep at it until I can read it and know it’s right. Then I can finally breath a sigh of satisfaction and move on.
6.) Both of your novels, Ten Times Guilty and Beyond the Quiet seem to feature women overcoming incredible hardships. Are your books based on personal experience?
Like most people, I’ve faced hardships and have struggled to overcome them, so I think there’s a little of me in everything I write.
In my first novel, Ten Times Guilty, my female lead, Tracy, is a struggling single mother trying to do the best for her son. At one time I had the entire responsibility of raising and providing for my own child, so I knew of Tracy’s desperation and her struggle to do better on limited funds. While I didn’t experience her sexual assault, I’ve coped with other traumas, so I could write about panic, hopelessness, and finally, the determination to take control and survive.
Beyond the Quiet tells about a grieving widow who discovers her happy marriage was a sham. I wasn’t a widow, but I did lose my husband of thirty years to divorce, so I knew all the emotions: loss, shock, grief, betrayal, and rage. Some of my character’s other experiences, such as meeting a man who made her toes curl, haven’t happened yet, but I have an active imagination.
My Amazon Short, Am I Wife or Daughter? is based on my own experience with my mother’s care. Again, what happened in the story wasn’t my actual experience, but the dilemmas and emotions – the indecision, the resentment, and guilt – were all there.
The women in my novels wind up stronger than they were when their stories began, and I’m still working on that strength for myself. Tracy and Lisa inspire me with their gained wisdom and strength.
7.) What are some of your favorite books? Movies?
My favorites range in genre from The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler to Memoirs of an Invisible Man – the book, not the movie. The book was a wonderful, engrossing story of a man in desperate circumstances, but to me, the movie was a disappointing attempt at comedy. Another favorite is the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, and again, I was disappointed in the later movie, which lacked the charm of the original. But I loved the movie version of Somewhere in Time better than the book, and I enjoyed both versions of Where the Heart Is. The Flame and the Flower and The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss are two of my favorite historical romances, and I love most books from Joy Fielding.
8.) Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Only that publishing your writing is a tough, competitive business, full of setbacks, disappointments, and frustrations. Yet if you persevere and succeed, the sense of personal accomplishment you feel when holding your book for the first time is a satisfaction that never fades. And when someone tells you they loved your novel, that they stayed up reading when they should’ve been sleeping, it’s like a standing ovation at the end of a glorious, grueling performance. To touch someone in some way with your stories is a wonderful thing, so if you have that desire, keep trying and never give up.
19.) Where can we go to find out all the latest B.H. news?
Thanks again, Brenda, for chatting with us today. Best of luck with Beyond the Quiet!