Darcie Chan is a phenomenon. A star. A sensation. Her book, The Mill River Recluse, sold more copies than Elvis or the Beatles’ books (they had books, right?) and she’s inked a high profile trad pub deal. In this installment of my Author Spotlight series, she takes some time to share her ideas on the trade and the craft. Rather than sullying her moment here with my usual inappropriate jabbering, I’ll just cut straight to the interview, tempering my usual shameless self-promotion with a subtle suggestion that you buy all my books or clowns will hunt you down. And you don’t want that. Nobody wants that.
RB: Your first novel is a blockbuster. To what do you attribute its success?
DC: I certainly did not expect The Mill River Recluse to resonate with readers to the extent that it has. It’s impossible to know exactly why it did, but my best guess is a combination of 1) a story and characters that touched people enough to start word-of-mouth recommendations, 2) marketing and advertising that worked to get my novel in front of enough readers to start that word-of-mouth chain, and 3) luck.
RB: What was your journey as a writer? How long have you been writing, was this your first stab at it, etc. Give us the dirt.
DC: The Mill River Recluse was written years ago, and it is the first substantial piece of fiction I attempted.
I remember winning a school-district-wide writing contest when I was in seventh grade…I was only 11, but I came home with my little trophy and announced to my parents that I wanted to be a writer. My English teacher mother immediately said “Great! You can do anything you set your mind to. Follow your dreams!” My very practical and honest father, who worked in special education administration for much of his career, told me that writers have a hard time earning a living and that I should think about doing something else as a career to provide financial security. In the end, I decided to do what each suggested – i.e., I would go to law school and follow the dream (read: write fiction) in my spare time.
I didn’t have much time to write for pleasure in college and law school. I might have written a short story here and there, but I never attempted to get them published. My intention was always to focus on book-length fiction. After I’d finished my education and had been working as an attorney for a few years, I finally felt as if I had enough time to try to write a novel.
RB: Let’s talk process. Do you outline, plot and structure, or do you just sit down and write? How long between when a book idea comes to you, and when it’s ready to be written?
DC: Given that I’ve completed only one novel thus far, I’m not sure that I have a fully-evolved writing process just yet. But, as of this point, I first take some time developing an idea in my mind before I’m ready to put it on paper. After I come up with an idea for the central story arc, I think about sub-plots and create initial profiles for the necessary characters. Once I feel comfortable with my concepts for the main plot and characters (which happens once I know how the story will begin, who will be involved in each plot and sub-plot, and how each plot within the story will be resolved), I write out a chapter-by-chapter outline. Only then do I start writing. My outline generally becomes more detailed as I work my way through the story and other ideas or twists come to mind. So far, it’s taken me a few months from the time I first conceive an idea for a story until I finish my first outline and actually start writing.
RB: Do you have a set schedule for writing? What’s your typical writer’s day like?
DC: I’ve recently left my legal job to write full-time, so I’m now able to devote a lot more time to writing. I usually start working around 9:30…I use the first hour or so each day to take care of emails, social media, etc., so that once I begin to write, I can really settle in. I usually take a break for lunch in the afternoon and a “play break” to spend some time with my son at some point. I stop writing for the day around dinnertime, although I sometimes sneak back to my computer after my son and husband are asleep to get in a few more paragraphs. I really liked working as an attorney, but I truly love what I’m doing now!
RB: Do you have monthly or annual word goals? How is your discipline?
DC: I would say that I’m pretty disciplined…I’ve always been very happy working independently. Also, being able to write full-time is really a dream come true for me, and I’m determined to give it my best effort. I don’t have specific word goals, but based on the length of what I’m writing and the time I have to write it, I have a rough idea of about how much I should be finishing in a given time. Right now, that’s about a chapter each week, give or take a little.
RB: Longhand or computer? Any trick software you favor for writing?
DC: I use Microsoft Word on a PC, nothing more. Radical, huh?
RB: How do you come up with your characters? Based on real people, pure invention, or a combo?
DC: Most of my characters are invented, but some have characteristics, mannerisms, or personality quirks that I’ve encountered with real-life people.
RB: Do you ever have issues with motivation? Writer’s block? If so, how do you move past it?
DC: I haven’t had a problem with writer’s block yet, and I’m hoping to keep it that way! I’ve found that unless I know my characters and where the story is going (including how it will be resolved), I’m not comfortable trying to write. I think that’s why I spend quite a bit of time thinking through the plot lines and coming up with characters. Once I have those things established enough to put down in the form of an outline, I have sort of a “roadmap” of where I’m going, so I don’t have to worry about getting stuck.
Another thing that helps me is to stop writing for the day at a point at which I know exactly what’s coming and what I’m going to write next. It’s hard to stop like that, as my inclination is to keep pushing words onto the page as long as the ideas are flowing…but it makes it easier to hit the ground running the next day.
In terms of motivation…I’m thrilled to be doing what I’m doing. No lack of motivation here! J
RB: Describe your work environment. Quiet? Music? Window? What is it like?
DC: My office is the “bonus room” above our garage. It has three windows looking out in various directions, each of which has a beautiful view of trees. I prefer it to be quiet while I’m working…I love music (and have played piano since I was very young), but I find it to be completely distracting and disruptive when I’m trying to focus on a story.
RB: How many hours a day do you write? Are you consistent every day, or is it sporadic?
DC: I would say that I write on average about six hours per day during the week (when I have childcare) but less on the weekends. It varies, though, depending on deadlines and whatever else life throws on my plate. I find that I’m most productive when I do some writing or editing every day.
RB: How many times do you polish before your manuscript is ready for edit – how many drafts?
DC: Many! Once I finish a first draft, I put it in a drawer and let it sit for a few weeks. I also give it to a handful of trusted readers to get constructive criticism. After that, I read through the whole thing, carefully consider comments I’ve received from my test readers, and revise until I can’t stand the sight of it anymore and feel as if it’s as strong as I can make it.
RB: What do you think about the current state of trad pub vs. self-publishing? If someone came to you and asked which to do, what would you say?
DC: I think we’ll see some volatility in the publishing world for some time to come. The rise in popularity of e-books, both traditionally published and self-published, has certainly changed the way lots of people read, and I expect that it will continue to do so. Traditional publishers and indie/self-publishers will have to continue to adjust to this reality. I would guess that e-books will continue to become more popular for reasons of convenience and price, but I don’t think there’s any way that good, old-fashioned print books will disappear any time soon. I think the greatest thing that could happen out of the whole situation is that people begin to read more, which would benefit authors everywhere and society as a whole.
In terms of choosing between traditional and self publishing…that’s a tough question, because I think the best path to take is a very personal decision, and what’s best for one writer might not be best for another. I feel that, for me, there are several benefits of traditional publication that far outweigh the advantages of going it alone.
The first is that it is currently very difficult for a writer to get a self-published print version of a book into the brick-and-mortar stores (such as Target, Barnes and Noble, and Costco) where readers of print books typically buy them. Most retail stores will not stock self-published titles, and even if they did, most individual authors have neither the financial nor logistical ability to achieve wide distribution of a self-published print book. As a writer, I’d love to get my work into the hands of as many readers as I can, and for all of these reasons, a traditional publisher can help me reach many more readers than I could on my own.
A second plus with traditional publishing is help with marketing and publicity of a book, and by “help,” I’m not just referring to a marketing budget. A publisher can open doors to mainstream media coverage that is so difficult to get as a self-published author. It also provides to authors access to the expertise and advice of an entire department of marketing and publicity staff. I knew nothing about marketing an e-book before I released my first novel. I had to play catch-up after the fact, and learning basic book promotion by trial-and-error wasn’t easy! Now, after having done all the marketing and promotion of my first novel myself, it is quite a relief to know that I’ll have my publisher’s support and guidance to help me when it’s time to promote my next two books.
A final major benefit of traditional publishing, and what I believe to be the most important, is the fact that, with a publisher, a writer has a team of experts in every aspect of book production — i.e., editing, copy editing, legal review, when necessary, cover design, formatting, marketing, and publicity — who work together with a common, vested interest in making a book the best representation of the author and the publishing house that it can be. This is not to say that an indie author cannot assemble a team of experts to provide those kinds of services to produce an indie book. An indie author can and should do this. However, hiring experts and overseeing the book production process takes time which could otherwise be spent writing, and again, the professionals hired by an indie author to help with a book may have no connection or working relationship with each other.
At the end of the day, the story is the heart of a book. Distribution, marketing and publicity, and a quality package are really important, but the story itself is what will ultimately determine whether a book succeeds. It’s my job as a writer to provide a quality story. I have a full and busy life, and I cherish and am very protective of the time I have to write. So, for me, having the option to use my time to write the best story I can and to let my editor and publisher coordinate and help with everything else that is required to produce a quality book is extremely appealing.
RB: What counsel would you offer a newbie who was interested in pursuing the author’s path?
DC: My advice would be to read as much as you can, including books that you might not typically choose. Write as much as you can, and try to write at least a little bit each day. Seek out and take to heart constructive criticism. Don’t give up when you experience rejection, and don’t be afraid to take an alternative path to get your work out there, once you’re confident that it’s ready.
RB: What’s your biggest writing regret? The one thing you wish you could do over, or differently?
DC: Two things come to mind. I wish I’d taken more writing classes in college. Since I changed my major to English late in my junior year and still wanted to graduate on time, I didn’t have much time to take anything other than the core English requirements. And, second, although I felt The Mill River Recluse was as strong as I could make it before I first uploaded it to the Kindle Store, in hindsight, I wish I’d hired a professional editor to go through it before releasing it to the world. Yes, it’s resonated with readers in a way that I never dreamed it would, but I think I got lucky in that respect. The saying “you get only one chance to make a first impression” certainly holds true for writers. The Mill River Recluse was my one chance to make a “first impression” as a writer, and there is certainly more that I could have done to make it stronger.
RB: Whose work most influenced you, and why?
DC: I don’t think I’ve been heavily influenced by any one person or writer. I try to learn something from each book that I read. That said, my favorite book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. It is timeless, and such a beautiful, heart-wrenching, uplifting story. I read it every few years, and I learn something new every time I do.
Also, in college, I took a poetry class taught by Yusef Komunyakaa, and the graduate assistant who taught my small section was Khaled Mattawa. During one session, the graduate assistants gave readings of their own work for all of the undergraduate students in the lecture hall. Khaled read a poem he had composed about looking through the Sears catalog when he was a boy. (The poem is online and can be read here: http://www.webdelsol.com/
RB: What’s your current project? Can you tell us anything about it?
DC: Currently, I’m working on my second novel, which (along with my third novel) will be set in the fictional world of Mill River, Vermont, and will involve many of the characters from my first novel. The second book involves a new story and some new characters as well.
RB: What’s the best thing about being an author?
DC: Being able to do a job I love, one I’ve dreamed about doing my whole life, and to do it from home, where I can be close to my son while he is so little.
RB: Reader e-mails. Respond to them all? Some? Never? How about reviews?
DC: I read and try to learn from reviews posted for my first novel, but I’ve never commented on any of them. As for emails – at this point, I try to respond personally to every e-mail I’ve received, although sometimes it takes me a while to get through them.
RB: You’ve been extremely gracious sharing your time and views. What advice would you leave budding authors with, if you only had thirty seconds to impart it?
DC: Come up with a story that you feel passionate about telling – a story that moves you emotionally – and then put your heart into the telling of it. Hopefully, your emotion will carry through and move your readers. I’m convinced that if you don’t have a story that touches readers in some way, nothing else you do to try to make your book a success will matter.