“Entering any contest is good for a writer. It sharpens our tools and forces us to do the best we possibly can. To get published, we must accept nothing but the best from ourselves.” ~~ Susan Keller
Writing Brings Clarity
An Interview with Susan Keller
by B. Lynn Goodwin
Susan Keller submitted the opening of Blood Brother to Writer Advice’s Scintillating Starts Contest. It captured my interest, with its unique situation and powerful conflicts. I passed it on to the judges, who made her one of our winners. Her story is published now, and while I’ve read cancer survivor’s memoirs before, this one was unique because of the estranged brother referred to in the title.
Now that I’ve read the whole book, I’m impressed by two things: Our choice and Ms. Keller’s story. This is a memoir with a difference and a story well worth reading, whether you’re suffering from cancer, missing a sibling, or curious about how other memoir writers tell their stories.
In the interview below she talks about her writing process and the story that resulted.
BLG: Tell us about the kinds of things you wrote before Blood Brother: A Memoir. How is writing a memoir different and when did you know you could do?
SK: Prior to Blood Brother: A Memoir, I wrote poetry and won acknowledgements in local and national contests. I wrote short stories that were published in literary mags and nearly completed on a novel titled Flask about a woman who cannot tell the truth to herself or others. The story is wrapped around a road trip with the protagonist’s estranged mother, her suicidally-depressed stepfather, and a tranquilized cat. I plan to get back to Flask in the near future.
I can’t say that writing a memoir is different than writing anything else. The truth is what a writer must find and express. The genre is immaterial.
There was no one moment when I knew I could write my memoir. It unfolded. It was an organic process with a life of its own. I showed up, worked hard, and simply kept going.
BLG: How did you discover that writing is therapeutic? What did it help you figure out?
SK: Writing the truth brings clarity, which in turn brings calm. This calm helped me see that my view of the past was not the only reality.
BLG: Did writing Blood Brother: A Memoir, as opposed to living the experiences, help you see anything new about your family and if so what?
SK: Yes. In memoir, we delve deep into our personal stories where nuance and complexity reside. In acceptance of these shades of meaning, humility and even forgiveness of those who have hurt or harmed us can take place.
BLG: What is your favorite scene in the story?
SK: My favorite scene in the book is where Johnny receives my phone call after decades of estrangement.
BLG: I loved that moment too. What was the toughest part of writing this memoir?
SK: The toughest part was getting the emotions right. Of digging down deep to remember, and in some cases relive, painful or even traumatic experiences.
BLG: I know you were a winner in one of Writer Advice’s Scintillating Starts Contests? How did that help you on the road to publication? Why would you recommend Scintillating Starts to others?
SK: Entering any contest is good for a writer. It sharpens our tools and forces us to do the best we possibly can. To get published, we must accept nothing but the best from ourselves.
BLG: Were you repped by an agent? If so, what was that experience like? If not, how did you find your publisher?
SK: I was not repped; nor did I want an agent. My goal was to find a small publisher, and I located TouchPoint Press through Publisher’s Marketplace—a resource I would highly recommend.
BLG: Thanks for the recommendation. What are you doing to publicize this book?
SK: What am I not doing to publicize my book? I’ve been marketing Blood Brother: A Memoir for over a year. I’m especially keen on contacting influencers, both individuals and organizations. I’ve had a number of articles published about me and my book, including one in “Psychology Today.” I’ve been featured in the Marin IJ newspaper. I’ve been invited to participate in numerous book clubs. I’ve been asked to present before the entire medical staff at Stanford Medical Center and to participate in a panel at Dominican University on Writing and Healing. I’ve built an email list of 650 people that I continue to add to. There’s more, but I’m getting boring.
BLG: Those are wonderful credits. Sounds like you’re getting the word out. Where can readers learn more about you and your story?
BLG: Thanks so much for this eye-opening interview.
If you want to know more about why Susan Keller was invited to speak at Stanford and Dominican University, you can ask her by going to her website. Her story is one of a kind, and you should find the time to read about her experiences.
“The writing process involves a lot of trial and error. Not every storyline or character is going to make the cut and that’s okay.” ~~Taylor Moore
Turn Setbacks Into Motivation
An Interview with Taylor Moore
by B. Lynn Goodwin
Former CIA agent Taylor Moore brings a wealth of knowledge and Texas history to his debut novel Down Range, which invites us into the Garrett Kohl series. With a combination of adventurous spirit, grit, and compassion he tells the story of a secret agent whose returned home with a 12-year-old survivor of a gun battle in Afghanistan who he hides with his crotchety father.
Amazingly the two get along. The boy loves chores and Kohl’s aging, authoritarian needs a boy to train. Meanwhile Garrett Kohl tracks down a drug trafficking ring operating in the rugged Texas high plains. The intensity grows as these outlaws are determined to destroy anyone who interrupts their plans. The traditional Western genre meets high espionage in this thriller.
I was curious about how a CIA agent became an author and learned so much from his answers in this Q&A.
Tell us about your writing background. Did your style evolve from writing reports for the CIA or have you been creating fiction for a while?
TM: Subject matter aside, intelligence reports are honestly pretty boring because you’re trying to pack in succinctly as much information and analysis as you can into a single document. So, transitioning from report writing to fiction was a big stretch, as details like atmospherics, which might be superfluous in an intel summary, could make a scene in a novel really shine.
I wrote my first book before ever working at the CIA but never actually threw myself into the craft until years later. More than anything, I think my intelligence background has helped me to write realistic settings and dialogue. It seems my writing style has been in a constant state of flux over the years. You just have to be willing to learn and adapt as you go.
Who and/or what inspired this story?
TM: There are so many factors that resulted in Down Range coming together as a novel that it’s hard to narrow it down to one. But I think for me, having a background in the subject matter was highly influential. After consulting for the military on counternarcotics issues, I had a lot of material to work with. And even more recently, I worked in the energy sector, during which time I had heard stories about illicit trafficking in rural communities and how criminal enterprises were ruining people’s lives.
Drug traffickers have in the past used some pretty wild methods to transport their shipments and launder money, and I wanted to come up with something equally creative. They say to write what you know, and so I did, which at the time was what was happening in the oil and gas industry. I think that the scheme that I cooked up in the novel made for some fun and unexpected twists.
How did the story change as you wrote it and what was your writing process?
TM: The final story is different than what I had originally written, due to the wise counsel of my agent, John Talbot, who advised that I make a secondary character the real protagonist and bring the action back to Texas. The original story starts in Afghanistan and takes place entirely in South and Central Asia. While it certainly wasn’t easy to write a new book, it was absolutely the right call. The writing process involves a lot of trial and error. Not every storyline or character is going to make the cut and that’s okay.
It also helps to have a great editor, which I found in David Highfill. He really helped to calibrate the mood and tone of the story, which started out a bit darker and more violent in earlier iterations. The book went from one that could be enjoyed by readers with a higher tolerance for that sort of thing to one that could be enjoyed by pretty much everyone. The writing process takes an openness to change and a dedicated mindset to getting things just right, as it may take a several versions of the manuscript to get there.
Readers will feel for Garrett Kohl, his father, and Asadi. How do you make combative characters that readers will care about?
TM: That’s a difficult thing to do because it’s easy to go too far at times. Again, I think this goes back to having a good editor, one who can really finesse your work and point out areas where you’re drawing readers in, or potentially writing something that might be a turnoff. It’s often a fine line because everyone is different and opinions vary, particularly when it comes to dark humor. I wanted to strike a good balance between characters that are prickly and still lovable.
You write action scenes very well. Any tips for doing that?
TM: Several readers have said that the action in Down Range is a big part of what they love about the book, but it took a lot of hard work and revision to get there. I wasn’t a natural at writing those scenes. I had to go back to the drawing board bigtime, which included reading a lot of the great military thriller writers, seeking advice from them when possible, and interviewing combat veterans who read my work with a highly critical eye.
When I read great action scenes now, I highlight them as I go, then revisit the sections when I’ve finished. The bottom line is, take notes, study hard, and practice, practice, practice. Also, when possible, get out there and do the things that you’re writing about. I’ve gone on police ride-alongs, trained with SWAT teams, and shot rifles out of a fastmoving helicopter. Nothing beats the actual experience when you can get it.
What’s the wisest writing tip you ever got from an editor?
TM: One thing I learned from my editor, and I think this is a great tip, is to introduce your reader to the protagonist’s problem early in the book. While this probably seems obvious, I think there’s sometimes a tendency to want to build the story first with good background. While context is highly important, much of that can be dished out along the way. But finding a good hook, particularly in a thriller, is critical, and there’s no reason you can’t do that first and let character background build with the plot. If done right, it can even ratchet up the suspense in a very rewarding way.
What’s next for Garrett and his father? Will Asadi be in future books?
TM: I won’t venture too far into that, but I will say that these three form a close, meaningful, and oftentimes comical bond and that continues in the second novel. The odd dynamic somehow works, despite the differences in age, language, and culture.
Many readers would love to know how you found an agent for your first novel. What was your process?
TM: It was the same miserable process every aspiring writer goes through—
lots of queries and lots of rejections. Fortunately, I did have some hope in the beginning, with three prominent agents requesting a full manuscript. The agent I have now was the first to read and reject my submission. But his critique was so spot-on that I decided to pull my book from the other two agents and rewrite the story. People told me I was crazy for doing that, but I knew it was the right thing to do. The book simply wasn’t ready and needed more work.
The bottom line is that if you want to be a published author, then you need to be ready for criticism and rejection. More importantly, you have to develop a mindset that will allow you to take those discouraging setbacks and use them to motivate you. Instead of giving up, learn more about the craft, hone your skills, and tackle a new project. Taking these steps will make you a much stronger writer and a more marketable client for your future agent.
What are you working on now and when will it be available? Where can readers learn more about you?
TM: I just wrapped up a draft of book two in the Garrett Kohl series, which will be available next summer, and I’m currently outlining book three. Anyone interested in learning more about my background, joining my newsletter, or following me on social media can do that at www.rtaylormoore.com
Thanks so much for advising us. You are absolutely right: writing is rewriting and this is an outstanding example of rewriting that pays off.
Down Range comes out on August 3, 2021. If you’re looking for an intriguing voice and lots of adventure, be sure to pick up a copy.