In this Bum Glue series, I interview other authors. Next up is award-winning author Joan Gelfand who I discovered when I read her writing book You Can Be a Winning Writer:The 4 C’s Approach of Successful Authors – Craft, Commitment, Community, and Confidence. Her first novel, Extreme, came out in July 2020. I hope you enjoy her perspective.
Nita Sweeney (NS): When and how did your writing journey begin?
Joan Gelfand (JG): It really began when I was 8 and started writing book reports for school. Next was writing poetry in High School and then finally publishing poetry in my college years. That is when I began to identify as a writer. I went to San Francisco State University for a degree in poetry and then to Mills College for my MFA.
NS: Plotter or pantser?
NS: What’s your biggest writing struggle and how do you handle it?
JG: Getting the work finished. I have a lot of projects and I love to sketch things out (poems, reviews, articles, stories, and my next novel.)
The struggle is to edit and fine tune the piece to a point where I LOVE it. I won’t ship/publish it until I love it and feel I have nailed what I want to say.
NS: What is one thing about writing you wish you’d learned earlier?
JG: That writing is entertainment and you have to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
NS: What a fabulous reminder.
Author Interview – Joan Gelfand reading
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever heard?
JG: “Put this novel aside and start a new one.”
That was from a Pulitzer Prize winning author who I hired to advise me on how to fix the second part of my first novel. I had interest from a NY agent! I put that first book aside and I’ve regretted it ever since. When an agent expresses interest, you must pursue it!
NS: Do you write by hand or on a computer?
NS: What are you currently reading?
JG: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Betrayal on the Bayou by Sheryl Bize-Boutte.
Joan Gelford & Sheryl Bize-Boutte
NS: Is there a book you couldn’t finish? Why?
JG: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon. The characters didn’t hold my interest and the story/plot line didn’t engage me enough.
NS: What book couldn’t you put down?
JG: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers. It was a book about Yemen and coffee – it was non-fiction. It had a San Francisco angle, it was about one of my favorite topics, it was set in an exotic location and it read like a thriller!
NS: Thank you! That title has come up a few times lately–a sign to read it.
What advice would you give writers starting out?
JG: Start publishing as soon as you feel ready. Build your writer’s resume of writing credits.
NS: Has your writing life turned out differently than you expected? If so, how?
JG: I thought I would have had my first novel out about 20 years ago. In the meantime, I published 3 collections of poetry, a book of short fiction, and a book for writers! My first novel was JUST was published on July 14th! www.extremethebook.com
NS: How exciting! Congratulations. What’s next for you writing wise?
Joan Gelfand at Pt. Reyes
JG: On my desk is my next poetry collection. I have all the poems I just need to organize and edit. And, I have a publisher already. After that is my next novel.
NS: Lots for us to look forward to from you. More excitement!
NS: Mermaids or Goddesses?
NS: Toast or bagels?
NS: Ocean, mountains, or forest?
JG: oh no ! I love them both – can’t choose !
NS: No need to choose then.
But what about leggings or jeans?
NS: Dogs, cats, fish, guinea pigs, or horses?
NS: Thanks so much for your time Joan. It was great to get to know more about you!
Extreme by Joan Gelfand
The author of three poetry collections, a chapbook of short fiction and You Can Be a Winning Writer, a book for writers, Joan’s work appears in national and international journals including Rattle, PANK! The Los Angeles Review of Books, Prairie Schooner, Kalliope, California Quarterly, the Toronto Review, Marsh Hawk Review and Levure Litteraire. Her chapbook of short fiction won the Cervena Barva Fiction Award.
President Emeritus of the Women’s National Book Association, a member of the National Book Critics Circle and California Writers Club, Joan coaches writers.
Her novel, Extreme, set in a Silicon Valley startup, was published by Blue Light Press in July, 2020.
“Even the greats don’t nail it on the first try.” ~ Emily Temple
Each year in November, hundreds of thousands of ordinary, everyday people across the world take a challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction in thirty days. It’s called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’ve done this challenge many times. Since I know how effective it is in helping writers complete a very rough first draft, I often suggest NaNoWriMo in my classes and newsletter.
Each year in December, a fraction of those same people send their unedited or barely revised 50,000 words, the same words they just wrote in November, to agents and editors.
Here are six reasons why you do not want to do that:
1. They will hate you forever.
2. They will hate you forever.
3. They will hate you forever.
4. They will hate you forever.
5. They will hate you forever.
6. They will hate you forever.
Last month my husband and I attended a Veterans Day luncheon at the local senior center. A friend of Ed’s who happens to be a retired editor, greeted me by saying, “I hate your newsletter!”
He didn’t hate my newsletter. What he hated was receiving submissions that weren’t ready for an editor’s eyes. I had to agree with him. I don’t know if any of those submissions were written during NaNoWriMo, but the point remains – YOUR WORK MUST BE REVISED.
Please. I beg you. If you participated in NaNoWriMo this year, don’t let the excitement (mania?) of November (or any writing spree for that matter) lull you into believing your work is ready to go out right away. Let your manuscript rest. Then, in January (or August), bring it out again. Revise, revise, revise. Have other people read it. Then revise again before submitting it anywhere.
You get one shot with an agent or editor. Don’t waste it.
“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or that – but you are the only you.” – Neil Gaiman
When I was a little girl, I wrote about horses. As I got older, I wrote about the people I loved. Older still, I wrote about myself. My writing professors said, “Write what you know.” I tried to oblige them.
I think Gaiman explains this concept more accurately. It’s not that I have to write about horses, the people I love, or even myself, but I have to tell whatever story I’m telling from my perspective. I see the world through a particular lens. Any story I tell will have that frame of reference. Even in fiction, my personality will come through.
Let’s say I choose an unreliable narrator. Even then, the story is mine because I choose how the narrator will hoodwink the reader. I select every detail. And my unconscious will have a lot to say about what decisions I make.
This, I believe, is a gift. If each of us is unique as a snowflake, then no two stories told by two different authors will be alike. There may be similarities, common themes, and familiar characters, but underneath, if we are true to ourselves, a special something will lie. The foundation will be our personality. And this is what makes our story marketable.
At least I hope this is true. I’ve written what I believe is my unique experience running a marathon. I’m a middle aged woman who was overweight when I began running. That’s not unique by any means. I also suffer from several mental health challenges. That doesn’t separate my story from those of others either. I run with my dog. I know plenty of folks who do that as well. But no one else has had the specific experience of living with my brain and body during this experience. No one else has had my precise thoughts and feelings as I walked (or ran) through this adventure. And that, I hope, is what will sell the book.
We’ll see. I’ve done my final edits . . . for now. My next step is to begin querying agents. I’ll keep you posted.
It’s been a long time since a novel captivated me as much as The Art of Fielding. I know very little about baseball and thought I cared even less. Harbach made me love each character, one by one, and crafted a great story about them. The characters (college baseball players, the school president, and his daughter) were compelling, the setting (a small, private college on the shore of Lake Michigan) stark and interesting, and the story simple (primarily about relationships and the forces that drive people), but elegant. The story begins with gifted short stop Henry Skrimshander and his error-free streak. When Henry’s record-tying streak is broken by an errant throw, the book shows how it impacts the other characters’ lives. The book is beautifully written and contains tons of literary references especially to Melville, the college President’s favorite author, after which the baseball team, the Harpooners, is named. I had been listening to it in the car on CD, but about 2/3 of the way through, I couldn’t wait any longer to learn what happened to Guert Affenlight, Owen Dunne, Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz, Pella Affenlight and the others. I got the hardback from the library and finished it in one sitting. P.S. After I finished the hardback, I continued listening to the audiobook in my car. I just wasn’t ready to let go of the characters.
“Indecision may or may not be my problem.” – Jimmy Buffett
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is upon us. For several months, I planned to be a NaNoRebel and write From My Bed to the Half Marathon (titles aren’t my thing) a memoir about my journey into athleticism. I had made a list of possible topics and scenes to show my transformation from a woman who has trouble getting out of bed most mornings due to chronic depression to a woman who still has trouble getting out of bed many mornings, but who gets out of bed anyway so she can go run with her dog.
With this memoir in mind, I went to the NaNoColumbus kick-off party on Sunday, October 30th. Forty or fifty Wrimo’s (that’s what the people who sign on for this literary adventure call themselves) showed up at the Karl Road library meeting room to eat snacks, drink coffee and talk about what we were planning to begin writing a mere 48 hours from then. The energy was palpable with laughter, squealing and lots of stickers. Anne and Carrie, our municipal liaisons facilitated discussions, brought food, and offered clay for the making of little totems to carry us through the month.
As the Wrimos writing fiction enthusiastically discussed their novels, I grew melancholy. They were so excited about their characters and their plots and the traveling shovel of death (this is a mythical shovel that magically appears in novels and kills off one of the characters). I felt jealous. They intended to liberally apply ninjas to any scene that wasn’t working or, if a character wasn’t cooperating, to simply end their world in a cataclysmic event and then have the main character wake up the next day to say it was only a dream. I wanted in on this wacky world of creative abandon, but I put it out of my mind and resolved not to change gears so few hours before the start.
I spent Halloween day working on the newsletter only half aware that my subconscious was developing an idea for a novel. As I was posting the November writing events to my website, it dawned on me that I could still write about running. I could write about fictional characters in a running group. I began to get excited. Instead of shoving the ideas aside as I had when I was locked into my decision to write memoir, I let the thoughts come. One of the runners could have a dog. Two of the runners could fall in love. One of the runners could be a middle-aged woman just figuring it all out as she goes along. One of the runners could be murdered on the trail by a ninja with a shovel. The options were endless. My enthusiasm exploded and I stayed up until midnight and beginning writing the novel Love on the Trail (I warned you titles weren’t my thing) at 12:01AM November 1st.
I will allow myself to write a very bad first draft since this is, after all, NaNoWriMo and not the National Book Awards. If I can step out of the way, it will write itself. At least that’s what I’m counting on.
What are you working on this month? Did you sign up for NaNoWriMo? If not, what kind of structure do you use to get the work done?