Sophie’s first novel (A BAD DAY FOR SORRY, St. Martin’s Minotaur) features a rural Missouri housewife-turned-vigilante. It was nominated for the 2010 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best First Novel, the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, and won the Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Mystery of 2009 by RT BookReviews Magazine, and appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle and IMBA bestseller lists. Her young adult novel, BANISHED, will be released by Delacorte in October 2010. Her post-apocalyptic suspense series for Harlequin Luna will debut in March 2011. Her award-winning short stories have appeared in a variety of publications. Sophie lives in Northern California with her family. Visit her at www.sophielittlefield.com.
What two or three things would you do differently if you were starting your publishing career today?
Believe it or not, I’m pretty happy with the path I’ve taken. That might be a surprising response considering how long it took me to be published (well over a decade) and how many books I wrote before selling (nine).
But the things I did right – if only accidentally – are these:
1. Never give up. Every rejection I ever received only fueled my determination and made me try that much harder.
2. Build a community. There are writers in my life who have been there from the beginning, as well as the friends I’ve made every year since, and their support has meant the world. I didn’t choose them based on what they could do for me, but they have been unfailingly generous no matter how many or few writing credits they had to their name.
3. Keep expanding your world. I love a challenge – and I may have a teeny-tiny little focus issue – so it’s been natural for me to keep trying new genres, media, formats. While there are certainly times when it makes sense for a writer to concentrate her efforts more narrowly, I’ve found that casting my net wide has kept me fresh, engaged, and delighted with my job.
What one issue makes you struggle the most as an author? How do you handle it?
Organization is very difficult for me. I’ve had to step up my efforts many times over to meet the challenges of timelines, bookkeeping, contract details, research, correspondence, travel arrangements and speaking engagements. It is only because I cherish my career with all my heart that I am able to force myself to set time aside to create lists, calendars, timelines, etc.
It has helped me immensely that I am the parent of two children who have wildly different personalities and gifts. As I frequently tell them, no one can be good at everything, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give our best efforts to the struggle. Just because it takes me longer to perform organizational tasks, and I’ll never do them beautifully, doesn’t mean I can’t do a competent job, one I can be proud of. When I remember that I am setting an example for my kids, it spurs me to do the best job I can.
This is deceptively simple: Never hold back.
It’s easy to start worrying that you’ll run out of ideas when you’re writing a series or even a standalone novel. You start fretting about the pacing of the final scenes when you’re still staring over the gulf of the unwritten middle, and it’s tempting to slow things down, toss in some narrative, keep your characters’ emotions in check.
Far better to put the pedal to the floor on page one and careen ahead. Not only will you never run out of ideas, it seems that the more passionately one flings one’s heart onto the page, the more rapidly the well re-fills.
In the process of building a novel, if you worry about all the different aspects at once, the loose threads and uncertain outcomes and wobbly character arcs and sketchy motivations and missing details, you can easily fuel the not-good-enough voices and paralyze yourself. If you can focus on the single story moment in which you find yourself, if you can experience it as deeply as your fictional characters do, then it will be a success.
What one issue ignites your passion? Does your passion fuel your writing? What would you do with your life if you didn’t write?
I am desperately passionate about two things: stories and my children. Absolutely, they fuel each other – since the moment my kids were born I have been their storyteller, reader, listener, imagination coaxer. When my children were younger, I wrote far less, and it was my great privilege to give my time and energy to them. Now, they are growing up and it’s my responsibility to allow that to happen, and that means building my own life apart from them. How blessed I am that this career has been waiting in the wings for me all these years, and the journey of being a parent has given me an emotional depth, richness, and maturity worthy of building books around. At twenty-five, I had a limited emotional palette. I had no idea what depths of devotion, pride, fear, protectiveness, sorrow, rage, and hope I was capable of. Now I can create far more compelling stories because I can identify and appreciate many more human impulses.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
I’m working on the fourth Stella Hardesty mystery and having so much with it. I’ve taken her on the road to help out a distant relative, but she ends up with a stowaway and stumbles on a gruesome scene and – oh, just a whole bunch of stuff happens…and she’s about to turn 51, which seems like an age for new ventures, with the milestone firmly in the past.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
At the time, it seemed like my publication path was unbelievably long…even unfairly long. I don’t like admitting to feeling that way, because I’m a firm believer in not comparing one’s successes or experiences to those of other writers, but year after year I watched other people land contracts and it felt like it would never happen to me.
However, I have come to realize that my extra-long apprenticeship was a gift. Occasionally I go back and take a peek at all of those shelved manuscripts and it is very clear to me that they were deeply flawed. The writing gods were looking out for me when they ushered those stories gently back into the closet – I would not want to be known for a debut book that featured unsympathetic characters or bland story lines or maudlin prose or acres of uninterrupted narrative.
That said, I remember how confident I was when I completed my first manuscript, a romance titled THE LOVE EQUATION about computer dating, long before match.com era. I was quite certain that every person in America would be captivated by it…
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I struggle with every negative comment or review. At this point, I’m convinced that every author does. To all of my colleagues who say they don’t read their reviews, listen to criticism, care about the lists, etc. I say a heartfelt and affectionate pshaw. It does get easier, but only because we learn techniques for handling the hurt and get a little more disciplined about applying them. Here’s just a few:
· Check in with your trusted writing friends (not your non-writing friends who, much as they love you, really don’t get it) and ask them to remind you how fabulous your work is, how hard you’ve worked, how much you’ve accomplished– and remember to be there for them when it’s their turn
· Remind yourself that it is impossible to please everyone, and that trying will only make you crazy
· Get back to work.
This last is the critical piece. I was just corresponding with a friend this morning about how, when you dive back into the work, everything else fades away.
As for block…uh uh, sorry, I don’t go there. I’m absolutely committed to being in the chair every day. Yes, there are times when you’ll do more staring at the screen and possibly crying than writing…too damn bad. It’s the job. And, to quote my favorite twelve-step aphorism, the only way out is through.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I’ve made more mistakes than anyone I know. I think most of them have been of the too-much-enthusiasm and impatience variety, but I’ve also been inappropriate, headstrong, embarrassing, and downright unprofessional. I’ve sworn that when I am asked to be the Bouchercon Grand Master at the age of eighty, my speech is going to reveal all, and it’ll be a doozy, let me tell you!
I would like to say that I’d tell my former self to slow down, be a little more patient, trust the system. But that’s advice I’d never take in a million years – I just don’t possess the sit-still gene.
To salvage some useful advice from this, however, I’d say this: when you build your team, make sure that you choose people who “get” your style and can work with it. My agent and editors know that I’m more dive-in than think-it-through, and they have been great at working with me. I have definitely met publishing folks who are wonderful and talented and who, I am quite sure, I would drive insane in less than a week. It’s probably best that we don’t work together…
One other thing: there is a type of mistake that you can’t recover from, and that’s being an asshole. That kind of footprint is like Neil Armstrong’s on the moon dirt – it’ll be there through the millennia. People do remember, and they bide their time. I’ll tell you this: I remember everyone who has been a jerk to one of my friends, and some day, somewhere, somehow, the scales will get evened up.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Um….wake up, look around, press “go” on the imagination button?
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
My friend Juliet Blackwell and I are always talking about how hard it is to tell our non-writing friends that no, actually, we don’t think a spa weekend/girls’ night out/wine tasting in a limo/cooking class would be a blast – we’d rather keep writing, thank you. They think we’re crazy. And it has led to some hurt feelings.
It’s not that I don’t like to have a good time. But good times for me always take place in the context of story. When I talk to people at cocktail parties or barbecues, I usually want to know two things….first, what are you reading and second, what’s really going on in that head of yours? Are you feuding with a relative, having murderous thoughts about a boss, having an affair, cataloging your bitter regrets…what is your biggest secret, your deepest regret, your fondest unspoken hope? Your home remodeling plans, children’s accomplishments, views on our nation’s leadership….eh, not so much.
You can see that this makes me a really inappropriate guest, and why I generally am most at home with writers and passionate readers.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
It’s what everyone else has already said…read widely, write regularly, and pay more attention to your own voice than your critics.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
I had a light-switch moment when I went from dabbler to zealot and, uncoincidentally, it happened when I was facing the prospect of defining who I would be when my kids were grown. At the time, they were 12 and 14, and they needed me to let go a little bit (I may have been a bit, ahem, overinvolved, overprotective, over-everything).
I took a long and sobering look at the years ahead and realized that many of the alternatives that work for other post-homemaker women simply weren’t going to work for me. I am not a complacent person. I am not capable of contentment. I am not particularly good at balance. The vocations and avocations I saw other women embracing did not strike a chord with me.
But I am capable of sustaining mood and creativity swings that would slay an ordinary person. And I had been saying I wanted to write for years…so it was time to get my ass in the chair and do it. I wanted the second half of my life to matter deeply, at least to me, so I took a deep breath and got started.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
I love my short stories! They are dark and violent and do not have much of an audience, but they allow me to work out themes and characters in a compact space. Short stories can have a striking impact, an emotional punch, that’s different from the work you can do in a novel. Partly because they have such a limited readership, I can experiment with things I wouldn’t attempt in my series, and I am proud of taking chances, even when – especially when – they don’t quite work.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Urrrmmmm…you’re kidding, right? I have thousands, because I’m a cranky and unreasonable person. We were at a conference recently and there was this sign that some [lovely, well-meaning, much nicer than me] volunteer had posted that said “Handshake-Free Zone.” This was when many people were battling flu, so I understand the sentiment. But I turned to my friend and said “That makes me want to make out with the next person who walks by.”
Luckily she convinced me to restrain myself…
Here’s a more appropriate one: I hate when you’re talking to someone at an industry event and they start looking over your shoulder for the more interesting/more important/hotter person. I feel like jumping up and down like a toddler and screaming “Hey look at meeeeee!”
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
I tremble with awe when I discover that I’ve managed to work a theme I care about into the story. For some reason, this can never happen deliberately. There’s a bit of advice I have on my web site that I really believe in – “let them emerge from early drafts.” You write the story, populating it with the characters that fall from your brain, and respect the lessons you have learned about pace and conflict…and sometimes, if you are lucky, you read through it and discover you have said something important about growing up or grief or longing or whatever.
And you shed a little tear about how brilliant you are, and then you live in fear that you’ll never pull it off again.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
Plot! Plot, plot, plot. Interesting things happening. Things happening, period. I can create characters all day long, but I have to work really hard to build action and tension into the story.
I haven’t so much “overcome” this issue as found some clever workarounds. My favorite is to call my brother and go “uh, what happens next in my book?” Another favorite fix is that call I get from my editor saying “erm, were you planning to add any mystery to this mystery?” Then there’s my long-suffering critique group…I basically just show up and sob until they fix it for me.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
Sing with joy. Seriously, the first oh, ten thousand or so words of any new book are the lyrics of the angels, pearls of wisdom strung on gossamer golden threads. I glow with confidence, am kind to my children and animals, wear lipstick and cook real food for dinner during this stage.
Then it comes to a screeching halt when I realize I have no idea what happens for the next eighty-five thousand words. And everything goes to hell, and people have to tiptoe around Mom and hide the scotch bottle again.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
Used to have those, until I started having to juggle harder and harder deadlines. Now, I just have to grit my teeth and get to work, whether I’m cross-legged on the floor of a crowded airplane gate, or in the bleachers at a lacrosse practice. I think it was Gregg Hurwitz who said the single best piece of writing advice he ever received from a grizzled veteran was “Learn to write on planes, son.”
That said, I’m a bit of a word count slave. I don’t recommend this, because there really are days when you’ll work harder for 500 words than you will the next day for several thousand, but I try to average 2,000 or more words a day during a first draft.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
My favorite anecdote: a pair of sixty-something ladies approached me at a signing not too long ago and said some nice things about the book. One complimented me extravagantly on having chosen a wonderful theme. “Oh,” I said, surprised, “and what would that be?” Her answer: “That women over fifty should have all the sex they can.”