Today, I’m thrilled to have novelist Maura Weiler tell us about her new book, her writing schedule, and her REALLY GOOD wisdom about balancing writing and platform-building. Plus, her book includes nuns and she’s reading Ron Hansen . . . so well, I love her.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
My debut novel, Contrition, will be published by Simon & Schuster/Infinite Words on April 21, 2015. It’s the story of a journalist and adoptee who discovers that she has a twin sister who is a world-class painter. The journalist is anxious to introduce her sister’s genius to the world, but her twin is a silent, cloistered nun who refuses to show or sell her work. The sisters clash over their shared biological past as well as the meaning and purpose of art.
It was a fascinating book to write because I got to research the cloistered way of life, a world that few people ever see. I spent a lot of time attending vocation programs with women who were considering the life and was privileged to interview several cloistered nuns. I asked so many questions that some of the sisters thought I might have a religious vocation myself, which freaked me out. After thinking about it, I concluded that I didn’t feel called to become a nun, but to write the novel.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I began reading and writing creatively as soon as I learned how. My first love was poetry. I wrote a poem a day for my third grade teacher and wrote for my grammar school newspaper. I haven’t written poetry in a while, and I miss it. In Contrition, the twins’ late mother was a poet and the sequel to the novel will feature a lot of poetry.
I love to read so much that I have forgotten to breathe on occasion. Growing up, my mother could hear me unconsciously holding my breath and then gasping for air when I ran out. “Maura, breathe!” she would remind me as I sat enthralled by the book in my hand.
I was an English Literature major in college. I couldn’t imagine studying anything else.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I am a researcher and an outliner with a tendency to plunk my characters into unusual settings that I’m curious about. I love immersing myself in their worlds to get the tone and the details right – be they cloistered convents, the burlesque circuit, or real-bearded Santa Claus conventions. It’s typical for me to be writing one book or screenplay while concomitantly researching the next one.
Once I feel comfortable in the milieu and have an outline of the major plot points, I start writing my first draft- which I affectionately term my “vomit draft.” I let it all out and don’t look back until I’ve reached the end of the book or script. It’s generally very messy and on the short side, but I have to put the whole story down as fast as possible to avoid the terror of the blank page. I welcome those serendipitous moments when new plot points or small details assert themselves as I’m writing. I always include them because they often end up paying off later in the book with an “aha!” moment. For example, in the novel I’m working on about mall Santa Clauses, I’d made my character pregnant for no apparent reason, only to discover later that her belly would enable her to don the Santa costume and beard to pinch hit when a scheduled Santa fell ill.
After I finish a first draft, I spend months rewriting it with the help of my critique group and the tools I’ve learned in writing classes. When it gets to the point that I find myself glazing over upon hearing suggestions, my own or otherwise, I know I’m finished.
4. Who are you reading now?
I’m always reading several books at once. Right now I’ve got Cynthia Swanson’s The Bookseller on the exercise bike in the mornings. It’s an expertly drawn parallel-lives story set in 1960s Denver that makes me want to exercise longer just to see what happens next.
In the car, I’m listening to You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero for the fifth time because I find this hilariously snarky self-help book both engaging and empowering. I’ve bought it for at least six other people and urged just about everyone I know to read it.
In bed at night, I’m reading Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, a poetic, meticulously researched novel about a cloistered convent thrown into disarray when a new postulant shows signs of the stigmata. Every line sings.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible just knocked me out. The lush, vivid descriptions of the Belgian Congo on the brink of independence is a fascinating backdrop for this relatable story of how one tyrannical parent’s actions combined with the other’s meek acquiescence can destroy a family.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles breaks my heart every time I read it. When English country maiden Tess Durbyfield is sent to stake a claim on the ancient family seat, a crime against her creates a chain of events that spirals out of control in this 19th century story of greed, grief, and misplaced judgments.
I love The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson not only because her poems are extraordinarily beautiful, but because they are so apt and insightful. Dickinson managed to capture the broad span of the human experience while only rarely venturing out of her house.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Oh boy! I wish I knew! I’m still learning how to do this, as are most writers I’ve met. Eisenhower said “What’s urgent is seldom important and what’s important is seldom urgent,” which for me translates to: “Do what’s important first, or you’ll rarely be writing.” While I know this, it’s particularly hard to make it a priority when my book is a month away from publication and there’s so much pressure on writers to do their own marketing and publicity, something most writers – myself included – would rather avoid entirely.
Ideally, my writing:platform-building ratio would be 5:1 for the six hours a day I have to work. These days, I understand that I have to be content with the opposite ratio, and am resigned that down the road it will probably settle into 4:2 at best. Not long ago, I had only an hour or two to write/market, so I’m very, very grateful for the time I now have.
Once I accepted the fact that I had to teach myself this new career of self-promotion, I found out that I actually enjoy it. So for now, I am okay focusing primarily on marketing, but I hate that it takes time away from my writing.
The tips from other writers that I’ve found most helpful include:
– Focus on the marketing elements that you enjoy. It’s better to do a few things well than to do a lot of things poorly. No matter how much time you spend, there’s always more you could be doing and at some point you have to find peace with just doing the best you can.
– Don’t wait until after you’ve sold your book to build your network. Pursue and sustain relationships with other writers, editors, booksellers, etc. all the time so that when you need a blurb, a referral, or advice down the line you have a lot of people to turn to.
– Remember that you’re a writer and carve out some writing time every day. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes, writing or not writing is the difference between a good day and a bad day for me. I’m guessing that may be true for you as well.
– Get some help. Hiring an outside publicist was the best thing I’ve done for myself and Contrition. While I continue to manage my social networking, my publicist is pursuing interviews and features – something he’s far better positioned to do than I am. He’s also working to place promotional pieces that I’ve written for the book, which means that I get to focus on writing the promotional pieces. Yay!
7. What is a typical day like for you?
I get up at 5 or 5:30 am to do yoga and ride my exercise bike. The exercise bike is one of my favorite parts of the day because I get to read uninterrupted. Then I get my two daughters up and off to school. I write and work on my platform from 9-3. Once a week or so, I stop to have coffee or lunch with another writer to bounce ideas off of each other about what we’re writing and exchange tips on our marketing efforts. At 3:30, I pick up my daughters and take them to the park, a museum, a play date, or on errands. We meet my husband at home around 5:30 or 6. He cooks dinner (bless him) and we play with the girls until baths and bedtime stories. I try to read in bed, but I’m often happily exhausted and go to sleep at 8:30 or 9 as soon as my girls do.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
I’m in it. I write in Writerspace, the garret in Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s beautiful, historic Victorian house in Denver. It’s a respectful, quiet atmosphere and there are usually two or three other writers there to talk shop on breaks. I vastly prefer it to writing alone at home, where I get caught up in insecurity and laundry. I’ve written successfully in coffee shops in the past, but had to change shops periodically because I’d get to know the other regulars so well that we would spend more time talking than writing.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
In the first draft of Contrition, the journalist and the nun weren’t related. I was initially furious when a top agent suggested that I make them twins because it sounded too much like a bad talk show topic along the lines of: “Twins separated at birth reunited after 26 years! See them meet live at 3 pm on Susie Says!” But the agent had also given me a lot of great advice and knew far more about the market than I did. So I pouted for a long time, took even longer to do the rewrite, and then fell in love with the characters’ new dynamic. Now I can’t imagine them not being twins.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Creative writing is ridiculously difficult to make a living at. If you are equally interested in writing and some other thing, do that other thing instead, because writing can break your heart.
That said, if you, like me, can’t not write, then make sure you do it. You know who you are. Even if you’re a champion procrastinator, you’re also the one who loses track of time and space once you get started, don’t want to stop when you have to, and get a profound sense of satisfaction after having done it. Besides, if you’re in this category, avoiding your need to write requires more energy and causes more misery than actually writing, scary as it is. Along with the heartbreak, writing has brought me more joy than I could have imagined.
Finally, be confident in yourself. I’m not saying scorn constructive criticism or be sloppy. I’m saying put in the time and work hard, all the while believing in your core that you can write as well as anyone else. You wouldn’t feel so driven to do this if you weren’t good at it.
Maura Weiler’s debut novel, Contrition, will be published by Simon & Schuster’s new imprint, Infinite Words, on April 21, 2015. She is a former columnist for The Connecticut Post and a trash artist whose work has been featured on NBC Television and in galleries and shows across the country. As Director of Development at Blue Tulip Productions, she helped develop the screenplays for such films as Speed, Twister, The Paperboy, and The Minority Report. For more information or book club queries, visit www.mauraweiler.com, Maura Weiler Author on Facebook, @mauraweiler on Twitter, or friend her on GoodReads. Contrition is available for preorder now at bookstores nationwide.