Tag Archives: novels

Writing in Two Worlds: An Interview with Novelist and Journalist Jessica McCann

Novelist and nonfiction writer Jessica McCann

We have a real treat today: I recently conducted an e-interview with Jessica McCann, a magazine writer and freelance editor whom I’ve worked with several times over the years. She’s also a budding novelist — her novel “All Different Kinds of Free” is due to be published in April of next year.

Her story of how she got her start in nonfiction writing, and how she reclaimed her childhood love of fiction in order to start writing it, is inspiring and contains valuable lessons for any writer would would like to work in both fiction and nonfiction.

Write Livelihood: How did you get your start as a nonfiction writer?
McCann: I’ve worked at least part-time as a freelance writer since I was 17 years old. I started freelancing as a high school senior for an amazing group of women in the communications department at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Each of them mentored me in their respective areas — external communications, media relations, community outreach and employee communications. They exposed me to so many types of business and journalistic writing styles and approaches. I consider the time I spent there to be my formal education in the writing profession.

A few years out of high school I landed a full-time job in communications, then as went on to work as the editor of a regional business magazine, and finally editor for a custom-book publisher. To make extra money and build up my portfolio, I continued to freelance on the side. In 1998, I quit my editing job to freelance full time, and I haven’t looked back since.

What role has fiction writing played in your development as a professional writer?
Fiction didn’t have a role in my professional writing career for a very long time. When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being a novelist. In eighth grade, a misguided English teacher told me a short story I had written was lazy and unimaginative — that he expected more (out of me). Maybe his assessment was accurate. Maybe he was hoping to fire me up and get me to work harder. But all he really did was crush my confidence.

It took me 20 years to work up the courage to dabble in fiction writing again. I focused instead on nonfiction and built a successful career as a business writer and journalist. Once you’re on a certain path, it’s pretty hard to find the motivation and courage to wander off into the dark scary woods in search of something different. So for a long time, I stayed with what I knew I could do well, stayed with what was safe.

What inspired you to write your debut novel, “All Different Kinds of Free”?
The work was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court case Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 1842. I first read about it when I was doing freelance copyediting on a book for MIT about Supreme Court justices.  The case  appealed the conviction of a bounty hunter charged with kidnapping Margaret Morgan, a free woman of color who was alleged to be an escaped slave. The court case focused on state’s rights, and the ruling represented the first time a major branch of the U.S. government made a proslavery stand. But I was most interested in Margaret and what became of her.

My original goal was to write a biography, and I spent about three years researching her life — or, at least, attempting to research her life. The sad truth is that Margaret and her fate were irrelevant at the time. The issue for most people in the mid-1800s was much bigger than one woman’s fight for freedom. Yet, to me, it was all about Margaret. When I realized I didn’t have enough facts to write a biography, I was devastated and grudgingly packed away my research. Then my mother-in-law loaned me a book, a fictional biography about George Washington, by Mary Higgins Clark. It was a fun read, and it gave me the idea that a fictional biography might be the only way I could tell Margaret’s story and really do it justice.

At what point did you decide the novel might be publishable?
In its earliest stages, I never really believed it would ever get published. It was just a story I felt compelled to write, and I was enjoying the creative process. Then I entered the first few chapters in  some writing competitions as a novel in progress. I didn’t win, but I received semi-finalist recognition in two respected contests. That’s when I started to believe I might have the chops to actually write a novel that people would want to read. When All Different Kinds of Free was named a finalist in the Freedom in Fiction Prize, publishing my novel was no longer just a fun dream. It became a tangible goal that I wrote  into my business plan.

Does your writing process differ for writing fiction?
Not much. I enjoy the research phase of writing. That’s often what fuels my creativity, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. The interviews, digging through articles and books at the library, searching online for little-known facts and resources — it’s a process that helps ideas form in my head, helps me arrange the pieces of my story to create the picture I want my readers to see.

How does writing fiction impact your nonfiction writing, and vice versa?
As I mentioned earlier, for many years I was quite literally afraid to try my hand at fiction and was content writing magazine articles and corporate work. Then, after more than 10 years freelancing for the same clients, I hit a sort of road block. I was bored out of my mind, to be blunt. My clients were still happy with my work, but I felt like I was writing the same old articles again and again. I could do it with my eyes closed.

I felt stifled creatively, felt I was doing my clients an injustice, and felt it would soon catch up to me in a bad way. So I started writing short stories based on writing prompts, just to flex my creative muscles and work my brain in a different way. A couple of amazing things happened. One, I remembered how much I enjoyed writing fiction; and two, I realized that good fiction writing isn’t a whole heck of a lot different than good nonfiction. Being efficient with the language, using vivid imagery, telling a compelling story — these are universal to good writing, regardless of the genre.

Going forward, how do you see your fiction writing fitting in your career overall?
I would love to become a full-time novelist. It’s a challenging, slow transition, but that’s the ultimate goal. My debut book releases April 2011 from Bell Bridge Books, and I’m deep in research for my second novel.

What advice would you have for nonfiction writers who’d like to get started writing fiction?
Just get started. Start small to build up your confidence if you need to — write a short story or two, enter a contest here and there, research literary journals and submit your work. As you gain momentum, the fiction writing will start to play a bigger role in your writing life. If it’s important enough to you, it will eventually take on a life of its own.

Any final thoughts or advice for writers who work in both genres?
Be brave. Keep writing. That may sound trite or hokey, but for me it’s that simple. Look to other writers for inspiration, encouragement and motivation.

The following quotes in particular have come to mean a lot to me recently:
“To write something, you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” ~Anne Rice

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” ~Mark Twain

“The one talent that’s indispensable to a writer is persistence.” ~Tom Clancy

“Forget about becoming a great writer. Work instead on writing great stories.” ~William Tapply

That pretty much sums it up for me. Writing is scary. When you’ve already experienced some measure of success in one type of writing, switching genres and starting from scratch is even scarier. You’re putting yourself out there, vulnerable to fresh criticism, with every new thing you write. Why subject yourself to the hard work, the anxiety and the potential rejection again and again? Because you have a story to tell. So tell it, in whatever genre does it justice.

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You can learn more about Jessica’s work by visiting her website.

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Write This Way: Top Writing and Editing Links for July 21, 2009

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Photo courtesy SXC.

Novelist Pens First Book on Smart Phone; Succeeds In Making Us Look Like Slackers

A fun and inspiring story from Laptop.com’s blog. Peter V. Brett, a fiction writer with a day job and a long commute used his travel time, spent mostly on the subway, to type in writing drafts on his “smart phone” (it had a tiny keyboard!). The manuscript became his first published novel, “The Warded Man.”

While I don’t agree with the sub-title of the article, the interview reveals an inventive way to keep up one’s creative output under challenging (time/space/equipment) circumstances! Brett has continued his phone-writing habit now that the day job is history—he’s working on a new book, and the presence of a new baby in the household has made it easier for him to sit at a nearby park and thumb-type away than to try to keep the keyboard-based racket down when he’s at home!

Information Literacy and Habits of Mind

From Michele Martin’s Bamboo Project Blog. Martin, a workplace learning and career consultant, provides interesting commentary on a study reporting that most people filter information to mostly confirm their pre-existing biases. Martin notes that even the habits we cultivate to be good info-processing creatures may set us up for biased thinking.

“In light of our tendencies toward homophily and pre-conceived ideas, it would seem there are deeper issues at work that we need to consider … when we are scanning, how do we combat our natural tendency to only “see” information that fits with our preconceived notions of the world? … In developing our filtering skills, how do we ensure that we are not filtering out information that doesn’t fit with our existing concepts and frames?

“I suspect that many, if not most of us, are likely to apply our filters in a way that shields us from data we may not want to consider. But this is not effective filtering behavior, particularly if we end up filtering out key data that would change our decisions or ideas about how things work.”

I think the study Martin is discussing has real impact when one considers the sharp rise in recent years in the number of people getting their news from Internet-based sources; depending on how the news is gathered and distributed (and by whom), reading updates from new citizen-journalism sites or politically oriented blogs may encourage even more bias-confirmation than ever.

Martin links to an earlier post she did on the challenge of Web-enabled homophily and while it is oriented primarily toward learning professionals and career-seeker clients, communications professionals (including journalists and bloggers) can gain a lot from reading both posts.

What to Do When You Don’t Have Deadlines
Linda Formichelli offers four solid tips for making self-imposed deadlines stick on her blog, The Renegade Writer.

I especially enjoyed the commentary on her suggestion to “tweet” one’s deadline goals on Twitter. One correspondent, Jacqueline Church, nixed that idea, asserting,

“I would strongly caution against tweeting deadline goals. It’s not something I want public to any and all editors and publishers. I have never missed a deadline but if they’re new to me, and see me procrastinating or struggling what kind of first impression is that?”

Church suggested instead broadcasting one’s self-imposed deadlines to a narrower audience, say in a forum at Inked In or another smaller online writing community.

The post by Formichelli is brief but good. Read it when you need a positive kick in the pants to get moving on your “enterprise” projects.

Bonus Links!

5 Evergreen Editing Tips
By Maria Schneider on her Editor Unleashed blog. Five classic blunders and the editing fix for each.

50 Free Resources That Will Improve Your Writing Skills
From the Developer’s Toolbox section of Smashing Magazine. Great compilation of writing-related resources.

50 Useful Google Apps for Writers
From the somewhat embarrassingly named Learn-gasm blog. A comprehensive roundup of Google apps that could smooth your online writing experience.

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