Today’s interview is with Lu Ann Brobst Staheli. Lu Ann got her start as a celebrity paparazzi-stalker-chick, which led to her award-winning career as a ghostwriter for celebrity memoirs. A masochist at heart, she taught junior high school English for 33 years, moved to the school library for year 34, and once spent two weeks summer vacation backpacking through Europe with 15 of her students. She has won three Best of State Medals–two for writing and one for teaching–but refuses to wear them all at the same time because she’d hate to be known as a show-off. Her published works include A Note Worth Taking; Leona & Me, Helen Marie; When Hearts Conjoin; Psychic Madman; One Day at a Time: Teaching Secondary Language Arts; and Books, Books, and More Books: A Parent and Teacher’s Guide to Adolescent Literature.
Welcome, Lu Ann and thank you for joining us for this Be An Author bonus interview. We’ll start as usual, by asking:
Where did you first get the idea to write a book?
I’ve been writing for most of my life, but my first completed manuscript idea came to me after I read Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen. His book was based on real events from his childhood and activities he participated in with his cousin. I started thinking about all the fun stories my mother had told me about her childhood, growing up in Southern Indiana with her older sister. My mother had recently passed away and I wanted to honor her life and to share her stories with the rest of our family, so I drafted Leona & Me, Helen Marie. The original draft was bound into copies which I distributed to my family, and although it won awards in the League of Utah Writers contests, I didn’t find a traditional publisher for it. Eighteen years later, this children’s novel is my latest release on Kindle.
What goal did you originally have for your books and / or writing?
My husband asks me this same question all the time and I’m not sure I’ve formulated a real answer. I write because the ideas come and simply won’t go away until I get them onto the computer screen and into a publishable form. When I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer, but other than a short stint as a teen reporter for a local newspaper I didn’t know how to go about being published. That opportunity taught me that I didn’t want to work for a newspaper though. A lifetime lover of books, I wanted to see my name on a cover and have my work published in a way that others could have that same type of reading experience. Now I write both fiction and non-fiction for magazines and book-length publications. It is satisfying to see my work in print, but it is also gratifying to hear from my readers that they have enjoyed my work and learned something from it that has helped them in their life or career.
How did you decide whether to self-publish or find a mainstream publisher?
Opportunity, or the lack thereof. I’ve published both ways, and they each have their perks and pitfalls. Right out of college I started my own printed mini-magazine about the Osmond family. I had subscribers from around the world, but the amount of organization, paperwork, and the pressures of deadlines, photos, and copy for a publication I ran alone became overwhelming at times. However, I was ready when the opportunity came along for me to actually become the head of the official Osmond Fan Clubs, and I knew how to write the type of articles the fans wanted to see. I also knew when I needed professional help in the actual printing and mailing of those newsletters. This experience led me to write for national magazines, and I had articles published in Scouting, Grit, Byline, and many other magazines before I turned my efforts toward books. The querying process is not easy, and although I’ve done it many times and had several New York agents or editors interested in my manuscripts, when it has gotten down to their final decisions I haven’t “made the cut” so to speak. When Hearts Conjoin and Psychic Madman were both published by niche publishing houses, which was a perfect match for these books, but I felt my other work needed a larger market. Since mainstream houses seem to all be looking for the next Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins, I knew my work wouldn’t meet their needs. When I first started looking for publishers, self-publishing was not even an option because it was expensive and viewed so poorly by the buying public and the publishers themselves. Thankfully Kindle has changed all of that, and the success of self-pubbed authors like Amanda Hocking has changed the public’s opinion.
How do you feel about the rise of ePublishing in the last few years?
My article on Traditional Publishing Versus Self-Publishing was a cover story in The Writer Magazine last year and will be featured in their upcoming book The Best of The Writer, so that might give your readers more insight into the decision making process they need to consider before deciding which route to go. As an author I love ePublishing. It has allowed me a venue to get my books onto the market and into reader’s hands via their reading devices. As a reader I both love it and hate it. I’ve read many wonderful books on my eReader, both traditionally published and self-published. I love that so many backlist titles are once again available and easily accessible for our reading pleasure. But the downfall is that many manuscripts which are simply not ready for publication are also made available. I’ve run across books that are poorly written and even more poorly edited, seen books covers that are laughable rather than enticing, and felt sorry for those authors who have taken the plunge into publication long before their books were ready. ePublishing is a wonderful thing. It allows those authors with something important to share an option. But you absolutely MUST continue to use the entire process of being a professional before you launch your “baby” into the world. Use a critique group, hire a reputable editing company, find a talented graphic artist to design your cover. Make sure your book stands out because of excellence, not because it’s scary. Check out sites like Lousy Book Covers to see what I mean.
How did you find enough commitment to complete your first book?
I had started Leona & Me and written six chapters over about a six month period. I was happy with how the story was going, but frustrated because it was taking me so long. I was a newlywed who had just lost her mother so finding the time and the desire to sit at a computer and work on a book like this sometimes made me cry, so I spread the work out over too long of a period. Then I found a weekend where my husband was going to be out of town for work and I didn’t have any other obligations in the way. I placed my laptop on the kitchen table, had my mother’s journals at my side, and three days later I have written another six chapters and finished a complete draft of the book. I had discovered my secret, writing in solid chunks in a limited amount of time. Since then I’ve used this method to finish several books. When Hearts Conjoin took exactly nine months from when I typed the first word until Richard Paul Evans delivered the first copies of the printed books into my hands. I wrote Psychic Madman in less than three months, and the novel I’m currently revising, Carny, was drafted in the month of November for NaNoWriMo. Maybe I learned to write to ridiculous deadlines as a college student, but wherever it came from having a tight deadline seems to work best for me in the actual drafting stages. As I learned from Lee Nelson (The Storm Testament), you can’t revise anything until you’ve got it on paper, so just sit down and spit out that first draft, then the real work can begin.
What did publishing your book mean to you in terms of self-fulfilment or growth?
Seeing When Hearts Conjoin in print was a validating experience for me. Not only did it prove that I could write and publish a book, but the praise I received from Richard Paul Evans about the book was an honor. The feedback from readers has also been a precious gift, as was the night I was awarded Best of State Non-Fiction for this book. Each of these gave me the self-confidence to write another book and another, to let my work go into the public and to remind me that I can do it–that I have the capability to not only finish a book, but to entertain or inform others though my work.
How did you and/or your publisher get your book(s) known? How much is your responsibility (if you are working with a publisher)?
Rick Evans threw a media launch party for When Hearts Conjoin, but with my magazine experience I also wrote several articles and had them accepted my magazines and newspapers across the country to let readers know about the book. Today I participate in blog tours, write guest posts, and do online interviews like this one to let readers know about my newest releases. I also present at conferences and workshops as often as possible. (I’ll be presenting a half-day workshop for teachers and authors at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference in June.) Even those who publish with the major houses in New York will find that a lot of the responsibility for promotion will rely on their participation in the process, and only those books which are considered lead titles will have the splash of advertising most authors believe is part of the publication deal. Word of mouth is the best way to sell books, and sometimes that means one reader at a time, but those readers will become your biggest fans and help sell your books to their friends who then sell them to their friends and so on.
What is the oddest, most amusing or exciting thing that has happened as a result of becoming an author?
I suppose the most exiting things is that When Hearts Conjoin was hand-delivered to both Oprah and Glenn Beck. You can’t get much bigger in name recognition I suppose. And of course, having someone as well-known as Richard Paul Evans be my publisher was also exciting. The most amusing thing occurred when a woman I haven’t seen or really thought about for over forty years contacted me through Facebook to ask what she had ever done for me to make her so mean in my novel A Note Worth Taking. Ummm, the definition of “novel” says that this story was invented, made up, fictionalized. The character wasn’t her and had she read the book she would have known that none of those things actually happened, nor was the book about that character.
What advice can you to pass on to others who would like to write?
Get the book drafted, find a small group of people who are also interested in getting published, then meet together as a critique group to give feedback and support to every page of that first manuscript. Take their advice seriously and use it as your basis for revision, but remember that the final decisions are up to you. If more than one person is making the same comment though, you probably need to change something, no matter how much you think it works, because obviously it doesn’t. Once your revisions are done, find some trusted beta readers. Their job is to read the entire manuscript as though it were a real book, letting you know where the story works and where it doesn’t. Use their feedback for another revision. Then hire a quality content editor (can I recommend Precision Editing Group?). Revise again based on their feedback, then hire a line editor. Learn to write a query letter, go to conferences and meet other writers, editors, and agents. Decide if you want to traditionally or self-publish then get busy either submitting your work or hiring a graphic artist to design a cover for your eBook. While you wait, get busy on the next book and the next. And the best advice of all comes from Winston Churchill: Never give up.
Seven-year-old Helen Marie Heffner has a knack for getting into trouble, followed close behind by her older sister, Leona Mae. Whether it’s walking the barn beams like a tightrope, fooling the neighbor boys into thinking they’re being chased by a fiery jack-o-lantern, or making a mess rather than transferring a pattern for Mama’s Christmas surprise, Helen comes out the winner every time.
But life is not always fun and games in 1922 for this southern Indiana family. In the wake of the Depression of the previous two years, the girls and their mama are often left alone in Hancock’s Chapel while their papa travels to find work to keep the family finances alive. Lately, Mama’s been showing signs of not feeling well, and Helen is stuck at home, missing the entire school year while she recuperates from the rheumatic fever that struck her the year before. Mama fears the worst is about to happen. Everything from the barn owl, to the chicken thief, the stranger who passed by one evening to a poor neighbor-boy who falls into the ravine, all point to signs of trouble to come. And sure enough, it does.
Thanks Lu Ann for a fascinating and helpful interview. If you would like to read more interviews you can do so here. And there will be more interviews along soon, as well.