Things I Wish I Knew: Q&A with author Karen Katchur

Ever wonder how published authors balance writing and the rest of their lives? Or what it’s like to have that breakthrough moment with a manuscript? Karen Katchur, author of THE SECRETS OF LAKE ROAD (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne), has some answers for you. Karen’s first novel THE SECRETS OF LAKE ROAD was declared a “Best Summer Debut” by Library Journal. Her next novel is set to be published in early 2017. Follow her on Twitter.

On writing schedules, inspiration, advice to her former self, and the rollercoaster of emotions that is writing…here’s a Q&A with Karen Katchur:

What is some advice you’d go back and give your unpublished self?

The only thing I can think of is to stop worrying so much. Control what I can. And stop worrying about the things I can’t. I have a feeling I’ll be telling my future self this as well. It’s something I need to work on.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

My writing days all start the same. I exercise first thing in the morning after the kiddos leave for school. It’s during this time that I think about what I’m working on that day whether it’s a particular scene, or character, or plot point. Then I take notes before hopping in the shower. Sometimes I come up with the best ideas in the shower! I don’t think I’m alone in this. I sit at my desk for the rest of the day until my kiddos get home from school. Some days I’m able to get another hour or two of writing time in after they’re home. On a typical day I write anywhere from three to six hours. That’s not to say some of those hours aren’t spent staring at a blank page on the computer screen!

How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

Since my schedule revolves around my family’s schedule, I have to be flexible. And balancing the house chores, the kids, the pets, etc… is a daily battle. Some days I succeed and some days I don’t. I think it’s about prioritizing. If a deadline is approaching then the cleaning and laundry and other daily chores have to wait. Also, unless I have a deadline looming, I only write Monday through Friday. I take weekends off to spend with my family. I find I need the break from whatever I’m working on to think and come back to it with fresh eyes. I don’t subscribe to the “write every day” rule. I need time away from the writing in order to think, to feel, to figure out my characters, their motivations, the plot or whatever it is I’m working on.

Can you describe a moment when you’ve had a “breakthrough” with your
manuscript?

There’s such a feeling of euphoria when things finally click whether it’s with understanding your character, or getting yourself out of a plot hole. While I was writing THE SECRETS OF LAKE ROAD, I remember struggling with the plot and trying to find a way to connect the past and present mysteries that felt natural for the story. I think I brainstormed with you, Carly! I can’t reveal what we came up with since I don’t want to give anything away, but it was such an easy fix because the groundwork was already there, and it made sense for the story. It’s on those days you feel brilliant. Nothing can stop you! Until the next problem with the character or plot or setting or whatever. It truly is an emotional rollercoaster hitting all the highs and lows. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, Why am I doing this to myself? And then I have a day where it all comes together, and I’m like, Oh yeah, that’s why!

What are you reading now?

I just finished THE GOOD GOODBYE, by Carla Buckley- fantastic read! And I’m just starting PRETTY GIRLS, by Karin Slaughter. Up next, ONE MORE DAY, by Kelly Simmons

Karen Katchur is a full-time fiction writer and winner of a short story award. She is an active member in both the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and Romance Writers of America and has held various board positions in the local chapter, Pocono Lehigh Romance Writers. When she’s not reading or writing, she instructs fitness classes and holds a M. Ed in Health and Physical Education as well as a B.S. in Criminal Justice. She lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters.

Further reading: Karen Katchur in Writer’s Digest

“This beautiful, heartbreaking, and affecting debut, reminiscent of the work of Heather ­Gudenkauf, will have readers craving more from Katchur.” – Library Journal

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Why You Need A Creative Writing Mantra

I think everyone has an internal champion that pushes them on with colloquial phrases. Aside from the “you can do it” self encouragement I think it’s important to display your mantra in front of you at your work station. We all know we can do things if we dedicate time and attention to them; however, it’s easy to forget when inspiration isn’t coming or you’ve had a hard day.

Let me tell you about mine.

My creative mantra is “trust your future self.” In creative industries there are a lot of what ifs and uncertainties. It used to cause me lots of stress worrying about everything to come. In life, especially in a creative life, there are no guarantees so all we can do is work hard and prepare our unknown selves for what’s to come. And if we live with the awareness that each effort is better preparing us for future struggles we will be ready to tackle them with inspired fearlessness.

I think we underestimate our future selves because we only have our current capacity for understanding. But what if you thought about your future self as separate from your current self. All the wisdom you believe yourself to have in the present would only be multiplied in the future, right? So why don’t we give our future selves more credit to adapt and be even stronger than we are today? Everyone thinks they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, so believe that your future self has already carried these burdens and survived to become the person you want to be. I think we owe it to our growth.

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Whether you need to overcome rejection, find your tribe, or feel the strength to write the most honest parts of you, there is a mantra you can find to bolster your journey.

Personally, I’m looking forward to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s her new book about creativity and it’s out this fall.

If you don’t have your creative mantra yet, here are some other favorites of mine you can borrow: 9e4073d6863e21b9a5b923c3e62390af 64dc2842e4f64e924cff62860a37cbe3 854bdb9922cae40934cf19855987807c c960caaf15c4d669ae4b735e37709d8f 6db4b3782b555876f83e4d5f7ebddcd0 56742506bd278f91f9bf7a557dd13802 34d4f71fc9ac164fd6af6bc5770ca7e4 Q: I’m excited for Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC to come out this September. Are you?

9 Unlikely Reads that Will Make Your Writing Better

There are thousands of “best books for writers” lists out there. (I’ve written one!) But what about the inspiration that comes from all around us? Not just Bird By Bird (even though everyone should have read this one by now…) but poetry, graphic novels, non fiction etc. Writers always have their eyes and ears open about ideas and jumping off points. Where do your ideas come from?

Here are 9 Unlikely Reads that Will Make Your Writing Better:

1. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

One of the most important skills a writer can have is to deeply understand the human condition. Everyone we meet in life is going through a personal struggle and so should every character. Tiny Beautiful Things is Cheryl Strayed’s book of advice from her former Dear Sugar column in The Rumpus. This book is profound in its way to relate to people and thinking about the meaning of our troubled lives.

2. Neruda

I’m a strong believer in the power of poetry. Everyone has their own go-to poet, but mine has long been Neruda. I’m a sucker for love stories and sometimes it feels like every story that can ever be told has already been written. Neruda (and many poets) have a way of distilling love and life into such simple and clear notes that it rejuvenates your inspiration and teaches us that simple stories are the most powerful.

3. This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki 

Emotions are conveyed not only in words, but often in images. This One Summer took the world by storm with its beautiful coming-of-age story set to illustrations. It won awards for its portrayal of adolescence featuring secrets, melancholy and wistfulness. When you write, images are often filling your mind and as a writer you try to get them down on paper. One of the hardest things to do is communicate what’s in your head and get it down on the page. This graphic novel is a reminder of the power of imagery.

4. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This is an award-winning portrayal of a child looking for her place in the world. We’ve all felt like outsiders, but diversity and diverse representation in literature is something all writers should be working towards in their fiction. Please pick this up.

5. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

Comedy is not easy to write. In fact, humor might just be the hardest thing to write. Time after time, I see writers who are writing what their idea of funny is, when in fact, we all have a different sense of humor. This Is Where I Leave You is darkly funny and never lets the reader forget that sometimes humor comes from unexpected places.

6. Shakespeare 

Everyone has a favorite play. Mine is Macbeth. It’s one of his easier reads, but I am always very moved by the motivation of the characters. Greed, love, passion, and legacy are universal emotions that never get old and never date themselves. I think Shakespeare is a great way to reconnect with the themes of life that run deep in our DNA.

7. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Writing for teens is not easy. Ask any YA author. What makes this book soar is its ability to remind us what our teen years were like in a honest way that few books can. We can all remember what our high school days felt like, but that’s through the lens of years of healing. Few writers can tap into the true life and death emotions that teens feel about love, life and their futures. This book is a great teacher in knowing your audience.

8. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

Family drama is my favorite kind of drama. Secrets buried by family members for the sake of their own sanity–this is a hook I can always get behind. I was blown away by this screenplay, which was originally written for the stage. Southern charm, family issues that span generations and learning what stigmas/secrets/ways of living are genetic and what you can leave behind is a lesson that takes decades to learn. This is a beautiful script based on a moving play that you can find in the link above under “2013 Screenplays.”

9. Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

Writing a novel, is very obviously different than writing a screenplay–that’s easy to see. “Saving the cat” is a metaphor for more than just writing for the screen. Saving the cat is about letting your story and characters reach an all time low, and then bringing them out from the darkness when it seems too bleak. Don’t be afraid to challenge your characters and risk losing the cat–you’ll always find a way to save her.

Q: What unconventional books, plays or stories inspire you? 

Why You Can’t Quit Your Day Job. Yet.

contract signingMany writers think their day job is getting in the way of their writing and count down the days until they can quit because that big book deal is on the way, right? Wrong, for now.

(I should preface this with: Some writers have the luxury of external support, have modified or flexible work schedules that allows them to time to dedicate to their creative projects. Day job or not doesn’t make you more or less of a writer.)

I’m a fan of suggesting writers keep a job, volunteer, or engage in other intensive hobbies for the following reasons….

Keeping your day job has many benefits:

  • Inspiration via interactions with people other than your family and settings other than your immediate location.
  • Steady income that you can rely on.
  • Routine–it’s never a bad thing to have some structure in your life. Even if that means knowing you can only squeeze in a hour or two of writing every other day.

When you quit your day job you have to get your inspiration from sitting at your writing desk all day, your income will come in crazy spurts and there will be many lows, and you suddenly have no routine and the norm becomes sleeping in and working in your PJs all day.

I’m a big proponent, if you can, to keep your day job for as long as you can. Once your writing income surpasses your day job income and you have a multi-book contract where you can plan out your income for months and years to come then it’s time to think about whether you need that day job. And many writers still keep theirs.

Getting paid in traditional publishing looks like this:

  • Getting your advance paid in thirds (or fourths!): part on signing, part on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript and part on publication (and sometimes 3-12 months after publication). That money, on average, is divided up over the course of 1-3 years. Plus, your agent or lawyer gets some too.
  • Twice yearly royalty statements, but only once you’ve earned out that advance. Royalties go towards earning back the money paid out in advance. So sometimes books earn out and you see that money in a year or two, but sometimes they never earn out. It’s not something you can plan on unless you have a royalty-only publishing deal.
  • Foreign publishers, if you’re lucky enough to get some translation deals, don’t pay quickly. If you get a deal in Italy or Greece you’ll get paid, on average, 8-12 months later then you’re supposed to. Foreign money is always “bonus money.”

My experience with debut authors is that sometimes when they quit their day job before getting published their books start to be about the idiosyncrasy of daily life with their kids or their spouse/partner. When what we need is big idea debuts that are about more than the mundane things of daily life.

Q: Do you look forward to being able to write full-time?