Author Interview: Amy Willoughby-Burle and The Lemonade Year

It seems like eons ago that I met Amy Willoughby-Burle, at a little writers’ workshop and retreat nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. That two-week period was an experience that changed the course of my life. There were budding writers like myself and Amy, big-time published authors, and everyone in between. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that over fifteen years have passed since then, but here we are. I still remember reading Amy’s short story then—and thinking it was amazing—and overhearing the workshop leader telling another teacher, “She’s the real deal. She hears the voices.”

Amy writes stories that grab you with ferocity and don’t let go. She’s currently out on a tour for her new novel, The Lemonade Year, but when I tugged on her sleeve and asked her a few questions, she was happy to chat. 

Lauren: What inspired you to write The Lemonade Year?

Amy: Generally everything I write starts with a line of dialogue that I either overhear in real life or hear originally as fiction in my head, or the same way with an image or something that I see as I’m walking or driving. It’s hard to explain really how that “thing” sticks out and then sticks around in my brain. I don’t ever have an idea for a plot—you know like, “I think I’ll write a story about a woman at her wits’ end.” Those lines or images just start wiggling their way around in my head, and I end up writing random lines and scenes until I realize that they go together, and then I start working on figuring out the story and the characters from there.

LF: Who is your favorite character in The Lemonade Year? Who was the hardest character to write?

AB: My favorite character is Oliver. He ended up being quite a surprise to me in the writing stage. I had him pegged all wrong until I really got to know him. I think he provides a certain undercurrent to the story and a new way of thinking that surprises the main character, Nina, as well.

The hardest character for me to write was probably Nina’s mother. She’s not very forthcoming in the novel—at first anyway—and as a character she kept her cards pretty close to her chest. She’s living in a bit of a fantasy world and that caused it to be difficult for me to find the truth of her.

LF: You also write short stories (and they’re wonderful). Do you ever get so attached to characters in your short stories that you write them into novels?

AB: Well thank you, and this is really funny, because yes! Nina, although I might not call her that in the story, appears in my collection, Out Across the Nowhere. She’s in the story “The Conscious Absence of Knowing.” If you read that story and read The Lemonade Year you will see that shared experience. I also have another story in the collection that I turned into a novel as well. it’s not published yet, but hopefully will be one day.

LF: When you get an idea you want to write about how do you decide to shape it into a short story or a novel?

AB: I always say that I have about two lengths of story that I write: they are either about 1000 words or 100,000 words. I just start writing, and when I get to that first milestone I can tell if I’m going to have to keep writing a novel or if the story is told enough as is. Even if I end at the short story length, I never really put those characters away. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them started chatting with me again. It was several years after Nina shared the version of her life in the short story before I actually wrote the novel version. Sometimes the characters are done sharing with me at short story length and sometimes not.

LF: Who are some of your favorite authors? Or favorite books? What do you love about them?

AB: I have loved Ron Rash for the last twenty some years. He’s my literary, “I told you so.” I have been telling people to read him for two decades and now he’s pretty well known. His work is amazing. I love the language of it. I’m a character driven reader and writer for whom the sound of the sentence is just as important as the information it delivers, so I’ve got Ron on a pretty tall pedestal for doing just that. I also really enjoy Joshilyn Jackson. She’s great at writing quirky and endearing characters, and just when you think you’ve got her story figured out she blows it wide open.

LF: As a reader, what makes you fall in love with a book? What makes it memorable or moving?

AB: Characters and their relationships. No matter what the world of the story is or what set of circumstance the characters are in, it’s always the characters themselves and the way they react to each other that grabs me. Maybe this is crazy to say, but I care less about the plot than I do the characters. Their struggle to understand each other, come together on something, get over a heartache, fall in love…that’s what becomes the plot to me. Case in point is the book Warm Bodies. The guy is a zombie and it’s a post-zombie apocalypse, but I’m completely taken with his desire to connect to someone more so than how these people are going to survive the next level of even worse zombies. It’s all about the love story for me—which I think is the real story, of course.

LF: What genre(s) do you read most often? 

AB: I don’t really have a most often genre. I tend to gravitate toward contemporary fiction with a literary bent, but I also love to read a good fantasy, and I will totally get lost in a fun love story. I go highly on recommendation, so if a friend says they loved it, I’ll give it a whirl. If I see a movie that I like, I always try to find the book to get the rest of the story from the original storyteller. I guess I’m a pretty equal opportunity reader.

LF: For you, what’s the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What’s the most challenging part?

AB: The most rewarding thing is to have a reader tell me how much they loved a scene or a certain character or how much they connected to the story. That’s the whole reason I read as well, so when my own work is able to do that for someone else, it’s pretty wonderful. The most challenging thing is to try and get the story right. I worry that I’m leaving something out or not doing a character justice. They usually tell me if I’m headed in the wrong direction. That and the waiting… the waiting really is the hardest part. I’ve got two other books being shopped around right now and I’m just waiting to hear from editors and waiting to see what they think. it’s a lot of waiting. That’s when I usually start writing something new—while I’m waiting.

LF: What are you working on right now? Any hints about your next book?

AB: Right now I’m actually working on a  sequel to The Lemonade Year. Fingers crossed that the editor will want it. I could write these characters forever. Of course, they’re going to have to fight it out with a plenty other characters who are already making their voices heard. I actually have an idea for a hopeful dystopian (I know, right?) series for young adults, which isn’t usually the type of story I write, but these characters are fighting hard to get out. I’ve already got a pile of those random scenes I mentioned written, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

***

You can get a copy of The Lemonade Year wherever books are sold, including on Amazon. And while you’re at it, check out Amy’s short story collection, Out Across the Nowhere. To learn more about Amy Willoughby-Burle, visit her website and see if she’s coming to read at a location near you. 

Amy Willoughby-Burle grew up in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She studied writing at East Carolina University and is now a writer and teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and four children. She writes about the mystery and wonder of everyday life. Her contemporary fiction focuses on the themes of second chances, redemption, and finding the beauty in the world around us. Sara Gruen says of The Lemonade Year, “When life gives you lemons, read this book. It’s a delicious glass of humor, heart, and hope.” Amy is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Out Across the Nowhere and a contributor to a number of anthologies.

writer’s clinic: 4 mistakes you’re making in your query

 

This week I’m starting a new series called Writer’s Clinic, where I’ll share tips for writing, submissions, query letters, and more. Today I’m kicking off the series by talking a little about queries. 

 

Most of us would rather have cavities filled than write query letters. I don’t like writing them much, either. Now that I’m an editor at an indie publisher, I’m on the other side of this fence. I see dozens of queries come through my inbox that immediately turn me off because of the same mistakes. The good news: they’re easy fixes.  

 

Today, I’m sharing my 4 top peeves and some tips to help you polish your query so you capture an editor’s attention—in a way that doesn’t make steam come out of her ears. After all, you put a lot of time into writing that manuscript—now you need to take the time to write a solid query that does it justice. Here’s my top repeat offenders and how you can avoid falling into these categories:

 

1.The super-casual “Hey, Dude” email that reads like a text message. It’s true. We get these. They have little to no capitalization, fragmented sentences, and no salutation. I’m horrified by these because I used to spend hours poring over examples of queries to get mine just right to send it to a publisher. Queries like this took less time to write than the amount of time it takes to sneeze. I don’t even read the ten pages that are attached to these queries because I figure if you can’t compose an email, you most likely can’t compose a novel. (Note: below is not the worst offender by any means.)

 

Not a “Dear Lauren” or “Dear Editor” in sight. The solution: do your homework. Jane Friedman and Writer’s Digest have some excellent examples of what to do and not do with a query. The basics: be polite, be professional, be succinct (but give us more info than the above example). You might have found us via Twitter, but your query to us is not a tweet. You are sending the equivalent of a cover letter you’d attach to a resume—not a text message. Also, write your query in first person, just like you’d write a real letter.

 

2. The query that guarantees we’ll be hooked, even though you totally ignored our submission guidelines (PLUS didn’t bother to note our names). 

This one is a no-brainer. At BCP we have very simple guidelines, like 80,000 words, please. (We’re flexible, but unless we are BLOWN AWAY by your MS, we’re not going to help you cut 30K words). I know this writer read our guidelines, because he says outright that he’s submitting an MS well over the word limit. However, our current book list does not indicate this “dark alley” that he speaks of. I was also confused by his idea of “feminism” and his genre of “nonfiction novel.” Also: it goes a long way to note the editors’ names when they are emblazoned on the publisher’s website. If nothing else, go with “Dear Editors.” But you need a professional greeting in order to be taken seriously.

 

3. The query that has too many errors. We all make mistakes and have typos here and there. We’re human. But when you’ve drafted your query, take the time to double-check for typos, those embarrassing auto-correct mistakes, and font changes that come from cut-and-paste. This may seem minor, but as an editor, I’ll be editing your manuscript for errors. If your query is chock full of them, I’m not excited about reading your entire MS.

 

4. The query that is waaaaaay too long. We don’t want a detailed plot summary of the entire book, but we WOULD like a 1-page synopsis. A good rule of thumb is to keep your query to 3 paragraphs. In a couple of sentences, tell us about you. In one short paragraph, tell us why we’ll love your book. What’s the theme? The main conflict? Did we ask for something like this on #MSWL? Tell us a couple of books that are similar to yours, but don’t shoot the moon and tell us you’re the next JK Rowling. Tell us about other books you’ve published, awards you’ve won, or other publication credits. We’re getting to know YOU in your letter, too. But the key is to condense things down to a quick snapshot that makes us want to read your sample chapter. Writer’s Digest has a hundred excellent examples, and I have them to thank for teaching me how to write a kick-ass query. 

 

So show us how it’s done, you say. You got it. Here’s a query for a title we accepted for publication later this year. It’s polite, professional, and succinctly captures the heart of the book. The second sentence tells me the genre and lets me know exactly what’s at stake and what the conflict will be. I get a quick summary (very compact with ACTIVE language), plus a few comparisons to other authors to get the marketing side of my brain involved. It’s over our word count, but I’m willing to read on because the synopsis has me intrigued. And it’s evident Robin can paint a picture with words.

 

 

Robin closes by telling me about her publishing credits and her experience in an MFA program. An MFA isn’t necessary, but it’s good to know. And for us, publishing credits aren’t a requirement, either. But again, it’s nice to hear about some expertise that informs her writing. (If you’re a park ranger and you’re writing a book about conservation, that’s expertise, too, and we want to know you have that. It’s helpful to hear how authors are inspired to write what they write—and we like to hear when you’ve done your research.) The kicker here was that Robin’s 10 pages she submitted were dynamite. THAT made us eager to read on, even though it was longer than the books we generally publish. (But I’ll save the first ten pages discussion for next time.)

 

The takeaway here is that your query needs to sing. It needs finesse. You’ve spent countless hours polishing your manuscript, and this email you’re sending has about a sixty seconds to grab an editor’s attention. It needs to prove you have some writerly chops and it needs to present both YOU and your book in the very best light. You can’t be lazy here: you need to make it shine.  

 

Lauren is co-founder and co-editor at Blue Crow Publishing. For submission guidelines and more, visit bluecrowpublishing.com.

Top image courtesy of JESHOOTS via pixabay.com. 

I’m in Audiobook Heaven with These 10 Books

 

Audiobooks are my new best friends. I don’t always carve out time to read during the day, because life just got way too busy. So over the last year, my daily commute has become that sacred time when I can listen to an audiobook. This has been great because (1) I speed a lot less when I’m concentrating on a book and not belting out Johnny Cash or the Clash, (2) I get a lot less hacked off during traffic jams when I’m listening to a good book, and (3) I make a huge dent in my reading pile and discover tons of new stories. Sometimes I can burn through a book a week when listening on my drive.

My new job means I spend a lot of time at the computer, and that has me primed to gather more audiobooks into my library. I can’t listen to a book when I’m writing, or editing, or doing much that is word-related, but my new job is in graphic design. For me, that means using an entirely different quadrant of that brain that allows me to create while listening to a book. That’s win-win!

So in case you’re tired of your iPhone’s playlist, like I was, I’ve compiled a list of some of my favorite audiobooks from the last year:

1.The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman. I dearly loved Practical Magic and was skeptical of the sequel. But Hoffman really delivered here, writing a story chock full of humor and heartache that was the perfect complement to the first book. The characters were wonderfully drawn and I was hooked from start to finish.

2. Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah. This book was amazing. I laughed so hard, and then—I’ll admit—cried a time or two. This story of Noah’s growing up in South Africa sparkles with wit and warmth. I loved Noah’s storytelling and didn’t want it to end. 

3. Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. This is one of my favorite books by Gaiman, and the narrator (Lenny Henry) is out of this world. Modern folklore at its best, and wicked good fun. I’ve listened to it three times already.

4. You, by Caroline Kepnes. A startling thriller, told from the villainous protagonist’s point of view. And the reader, Santino Fontana, is one of my favorites of all time. This one’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s smart, and biting, and full of diabolical humor. Bonus: there’s a sequel that’s equally mesmerizing—Hidden Bodies, also read by Fontana.

5. Nuts, by Alice Clayton. I just finished this one, and laughed until I hurt myself. I love a good sassy romantic comedy, and Clayton always delivers. With lovable characters and plenty of steam, this one is sure to spice up your workweek. Warning: you might miss an exit during the spicy parts.

6. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This is one of those books I heard references to my whole life (it won the Pulitzer, for heaven’s sake), and thought it was about something else entirely. I took a chance on this “Don Quixote of the French Quarter” and again, laughed until my ribs ached. 

7. My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, by Annabel Pitcher. Read by David Tennant, this one is part tear-jerker and all sparkle. Wonderfully layered characters bring this poignant coming-of-age story to life. It’s one I can’t forget, and one of those stories I wish I’d written. 

8. The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer. I listened to this one during a low point, and Palmer reignited my creative fire. It’s a must-read for anyone in a creative funk, or anyone who is curious about the engine that drives creativity—and the giving that comes with it. Also, Palmer plays a song with a ukelele, which is about the cutest damn thing ever.

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I confess, I never read it. Didn’t watch the series yet, either. But I listened to the re-release last year read by Claire Danes and it was just as impressive as I expected. The story had me hooked, and it’s as timely now as ever. 

10. Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. This one follows a bounty hunter in present-day America—but one where the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists. I was intrigued by the premise, but Winters’ prose and stark commentary kept me listening. Definitely one of the most unique reads of the year. 

Bonus tip: I love the convenience of Audible, but there are lots of other sites that offer free or discounted audiobooks. Book Riot has a good list of options here. BUT don’t forget your local library—even my tiny library has a wide selection of audiobooks that they’ll deliver to me ONLINE just like their eBooks. What’s better than that?

Got a favorite audiobook? Hit me up on Twitter (@Firebrandpress). Maybe I’ll add it to a future post!

How to Retreat

Every year or so, I give myself a gift. I give myself a week (or two, if I can swing it) at an artist’s retreat. My favorite spot is the Penland School of Crafts. Sometimes I take classes there with amazing artists, and sometimes I give myself residency time—which is that wide-open, no-holds-barred “making time” that people like me dream about. I used to spend a much larger portion of my life as a printmaker, but there’s been a shift in the last few years, and there’s a lot less time to make art than there used to be.

But every once in a while, I do a retreat—a residency—that gives me time to focus on making new work, experimenting with new techniques, and rejuvenates me. The problem is, I start psyching myself out. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams?

Each time I sign up to take a retreat week, this cycle of thought occurs:

1. This is amazing. I can’t wait to go. (2 months until time to go)
2. OMG, what was I thinking? This costs too much. What will I make? (1 week before arrival)
3. I have no ideas. I have only one week here. This was a mistake. (Arrival day.)
4. This is wonderful. I have time to make art again. Look what happens when I do this… (Day 2)
5. I wish I had more time. Why don’t I treat myself better? (Day 4)
6. Best week ever. I made something that surprised me. When can I do this again? (Last day)

Why do we doubt ourselves so much? Why do we doubt our abilities and our dreams? This happens EVERY TIME I decide to give myself time at a place like Penland. I second-guess myself until it’s almost paralyzing—even though I know this pattern and know that I always end up making something interesting and meaningful. This time, I went to make prints for an upcoming show in Asheville. I’d psyched myself out so bad by the first day that I didn’t even touch the printing press. I called Andrew and he said, “Are you having trouble getting back on the horse?” I told him, “It’s like the horse sat on me. He’s huge and stubborn and refuses to move.”

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The next day, I just started printing, in full-on “Let’s see what happens when I do this” mode. And the results were pretty cool. I made some calendars, some posters, and learned a new technique that led me right to the prints I needed for the show. (Scroll through the gallery above to see a little bit of everything.  The calendars and posters are for sale in my Etsy shop.)

This story has a happy ending. I had a great week and printed the pieces I needed for the Guild show, and made some things just for fun. I played around with monoprinting, and learned some new techniques. But the question remains: even though I always have a great experience at a retreat like this, why do I still doubt myself before each one? Why do I try to sabotage myself by thinking that money could be better spent on things like gas and groceries?

It’s often hard to justify an expense like that, but sometimes those expenses—and those experiences—bring the most gratifying and meaningful moments in our lives. To retreat in this way is to turn inward, to our most intimate creative selves, and get back in touch with that deepest part of the heart. Retreating reminds me of something John Muir once said. He was talking about escaping to the wilderness, but sometimes the artist’s heart is its own wilderness—and we must have the courage to go. So thank you, Penland, for opening your doors, for harboring us artists when we need you the most, and for giving us space to make, and meet our fellow makers, and for being such a bright spot in the world.