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Interview With An Author: Ginnah Howard

In our Interview With An Author series, Writer’s Relief asks professional writers to share their tried-and-true secrets for publishing success.

GinnahHowardGinnah Howard’s stories have appeared in Water~Stone Review, Permafrost, Portland Review, Descant 145, Eleven Eleven Journal, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. Several have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her novel, Night Navigation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York State gave Howard their Media Award for work on behalf of those with mental illness and their families. Her new novel, Doing Time Outside, a stand-alone sequel to Night Navigation, was published by Standing Stone Books in August 2013. The third novel of the trilogy about two upstate families, Rope & Bone, will be published in the summer of 2014.

CONTEST: Leave a comment or a question for Ginnah below by January 15 and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her books, Doing Time Outside and Night Navigation! U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed. Congratulations to our winner Erika Armstrong! Thank you to all who participated!

How did you get your literary agent?

Getting an agent was more of a marathon than a sprint. Though I had always loved to read and had been thrilled as a child by the highly rhythmic poems in the Books of Knowledge such as “Little Orphan Annie” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” I did not consider doing creative writing until I was in my late forties. After I had thrown away hundreds of pages of bad stuff, I began to learn how to “show” rather than “tell.” At that point I finally wrote a couple of stories that “worked,” about two upstate women who were struggling to raise their kids and get their cars started on subzero mornings. I took those stories, those characters, to a month-long writers’ conference facilitated by Russell Banks. He said, “I love these women. Go home and write at least twelve more about these families to make a collection, and then I’ll give you a recommendation to my editor and agent. I did that and Banks fulfilled his promise. I received encouraging rejections, but it was clear that the work was not yet ready. Over the next ten years, I added more stories, fifteen of which were published in literary magazines. I continued to send out queries to agencies, often with recommendations from well-known writers who were facilitators of other conference workshops I attended. Finally, in 2005, Alice Tasman of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency agreed to represent me.Though she was not able to sell the novel-in-stories at that time, she did find an enthusiastic editor with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that published my next novel, Night Navigation. And Alice’s chutzpah, also gained me a substantial advance.

Every writer has to learn how the publishing business works. How did you do it?

Until I watched my 142,000 word manuscript go through the process of becoming a book of 97,000 words, I knew almost nothing about publishing. Many advantages come to a writer whose work is published by a major house. By major, I mean that besides the prestige of being backed by a big name, so many more services and promotional opportunities are available: All the editing, copy-editing, and formatting is taken care of, hundreds of pre-publication review copies are sent to the media, with free books given to readers through sites like BookBrowse and Amazon Vine. The in-house publicist sent copies, often with personal notes, to places I suggested such as radio interviewers and college departments that fit the novel’s “niche.” My book was given a page in a beautiful catalog that a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sales representative took around to all the major bookstores, so that these chains ordered a box of Night Navigation pre-release. All of this created a buzz and made it more likely the novel would get a review in the New York Times—which it did.

Since I was not a famous author who’d be given a book tour, I was expected to do my part in marketing as well. I scheduled seventy-five “events” that followed the hardback publication and the paperback release one year later: library, bookstore, and conference readings; college visiting writer “gigs”; radio interviews; joining book clubs for their discussion of the novel in person or by speakerphone, etc. Some online marketing. All of which, though intense, I enjoyed. That was my experience with the business of publishing with a major house.

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And what were the biggest stumbling blocks that you had to overcome?

Though I believe my second published novel, Doing Time Outside, is as good a book as Night Navigation, my agent was not able to sell it to one of the big publishers. Speculations on reasons for this might be the subject for a different interview. Instead, Doing Time Outside was published by a small press. And here’s the reality of many small presses (or self-publishing) vs. major: Almost none of the promotion done by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is going to be available.The good thing is that I knew this ahead of time: The lion’s share of all the marketing would be my responsibility.

I’d say that the biggest stumbling blocks have been that it’s difficult to get your small-press novel reviewed, and since no sales rep has promoted your book, stores will not have ordered a box of them, and likely the print run will not have been large enough for that anyway. There’s no chance to be in the Times.

What role does social media play in staying connected to readers and/or building an audience?

As a writer who did not grow up with the Internet, I’m still something of a novice in making full use of social media, but I do see it as an important marketing strategy—especially if your book is released by a small press or you are self-publishing. If your book is good and has some sort of niche that you can market to and you can devote much of your life to promoting for a year using a wide range of “tools,” slowly, slowly your book may gain momentum. You will send your thirty free author copies out to likely media and venues. You will have a great website and pages on Amazon, Facebook, Goodreads, and BookBrowse. (And if you’re much more tech-savvy than I am, you’ll be on Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest…) Every time you do a reading or have an interview or get a review, you will post those announcements and links on all the sites I just mentioned. You will send emails announcing each stage of your book’s emergence to the 400 people in your address book that you’ve been truly connecting with over the years and hope they won’t begin to dread your literary barrage. You will be sending these emails through a Web service that permits such blasts, 100 at a time, 1,000 an hour. You will put up fliers geared to book clubs in all the Laundromats and malls, offering details about your book and saying that you are available to join their discussion if they select your novel. You can send that same flier to dozens of public library book clubs saying you will join their discussion via telephone or Skype if they aren’t within driving distance. You will send postal mail to your niche because those strangers will not bother reading your unknown sender invasions. And of course you can blog.

My best piece of advice for getting your work published:

Do not focus on publishing. Sit down daily to write and rewrite and revise again after you’ve read the stuff to a good critique group. Remember that though there will be days when you dread facing that blank screen, always there will be the thrill of the unexpected coming to you out of nowhere. The joy of making the world on the page is your real ADVANCE. And because you have written a book worthy of readers, you are willing to spend hundreds of hours to maybe sell a thousand copies.

We’re happy to promote Ginnah’s book Doing Time Outside. Compelling, tough, and funny, Doing Time Outside travels the back roads of family life to better understand what it means to be tied by blood and love to the world of mental illness, addiction, and incarceration.

Doing Time OutsideReviews:

“Ginnah Howard guides us through a gritty America caught between a small-town bar, a church, and a jail cell. Through compassion for her characters and the buoyancy of her voice, Howard gives us a novel with a generous and intelligent heart.” —Mermer Blakeslee, author of When You Live by a River

From CHRONOGRAM (excerpt)
Catskill’s wordsmith Howard has a gift for the choice, mundane detail: the vinegar chips and Advil headaches and warmth of a dog’s fur on a cold day. Her turf is the Upstate New York just outside of the weekender realm, and her people are fiercely smart and loving throughout their frustrations and misunderstandings. You start really, really wanting Rudy to make it, a topic around which Howard builds mind-bending suspense.
It all comes together in a knockout ending—Howard’s characters have grown and so have we. A beautiful read.

“Howard is a writer to watch.” ─WASHINGTON TIMES
“Howard is a graceful, spare, and fluid writer.” ─PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Also, you can view reader reviews of Doing Time Outside on Amazon, and her interview with Off the Page.

Read more from Ginnah Howard!

CONTEST: Remember to leave a comment or a question for Ginnah below by January 15 and you’ll be entered to win a copy of her books, Doing Time Outside and Night Navigation! U.S. residents only. This contest is now closed.

55 Responses to Interview With An Author: Ginnah Howard

  1. Victoria,

    I laughed when you said that your three younger children were your tech crew when making a video in the “wilds” of Rwanda which was really in a ravine in your neighborhood. I’m guessing you’ve already made this into a scene in your the 67,000 word memoir draft. It does seem to me that you are now truly ready to get together with a critique group or to exchange manuscripts with someone who is well on the way in his/her own work—someone whom you can tell from reading even an excerpt of his/her writing that an exchange will be mutually beneficial. I’m thinking if you can raise five children on your own, finish college, and at the same time work on such a large project, you will certainly be able to do whatever is needed next to keep moving forward.

    I do not have a blog connected to my website or any way you can “follow” me at this point. If you would like to get in touch beyond this Writer’s Relief blog which I’ll continue to respond to as long as there are new questions/comments and W R is willing, you can send an email to me though my website http://www.GinnahHoward.com Go to the last “page” of the site (or almost to the final page) and click on “Contact.” This will open up the way to email me. Then if you do email, I’ll respond from there, plus put your email in my address book. This may be a curse or a blessing because it means that you’ll get my literary spam: announcements of readings and info on when the new novel, ROPE & BONE is releasing, etc.

    Congratulations on the Phi Theta Kappa scholarship. It sounds to me like you are so deserving.


  2. Jennifer,

    Here’s a quote from the much published author, Mary Gordon, which might be reassuring: “There may be some writers that contemplate the day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. Beckett had, tacked to the wall beside his desk, a card on which were written the words: ‘Fail. Fail again. Fail better.’”

    Actually I think that’s pretty grim and I don’t recommend this “take” on one’s work. I mention it because you feared failing. What I try to do when I’m in a slump, and not working on a big project, is just to write something, anything, each morning—usually drawn from some little note/line I’ve scribbled down from a happening or observation or from something I read—like the yard cat who always moves in with us when we come to Florida for the winter has started sleeping on top of the refrigerator. I know I should make her get down because when my partner comes back, he won’t like that, but… I try not to think about this quick writing as a “product.” The next day I look at what I wrote and if it interests me, I’ll mess with it and add to it. No question, I would much rather revise than write.

    But you’re so correct that the critique group has to be the “right fit”—meaning there are a couple of people in the group who “get” what you’re trying to do and they make comments that help you get there. Good luck with the once-a-week blogging.

    P.S. I meant “perspective” rather than “prospective” in my first response to you. One problem in blogging is that proofreading errors cannot be corrected.


  3. Dear Ginnah:

    Thank you so much for the informative insight into my memoir about attending college as a mother of five. As you’ve guessed, I was the one in charge of my brood, even while attending college part time. Oh the stories I can tell, shopping, assisting the children with their schoolwork and projects and activities while studying and accomplishing my own college work. My oldest has learning disabilities and I needed to review with her each night what was taught in school to help her understand and survive in the school setting.
    But my other children assisted with some of my projects, like learning the properties of ingredients in baking peanut butter cookies with the twins, and later in my college journey, using my three younger children as my tech crew when I needed a French video in the “wilds” of Rwanda which happened to be a ravine in our neighborhood. I started my college journey at a community college and because of awards won a Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.
    The first draft of these scenes with some insight, but I’m sure it needs more, is about 67,000 words. I’ve read Lamott and heard of the others and will add them to my reading list. Thanks again for this wonderful information. I’ll keep you posted and try to join your website list.
    ~Victoria Marie Lees

  4. Ginnah,
    Thank you very much for your help. I’m going to try to blog once a week here to start.
    I haven’t given myself the ok mentally to pursue this dream and I need to work on that. I used to belong to a writers group years ago. I’m actually still in touch with a few of them. Everyone seems to have left writing. The other group I tried to join was not a fit for me. Very nice women but in to more abstract writing. I will start looking again.
    I think my big fear is to fail. Which not writing is a failure so there we are! :)
    I’m trying to take baby steps and I am very grateful for your support and comments! Thank you!

  5. Colette,

    Of course you mustn’t give up now. You’ve completed a manuscript. That and doing any needed revision based on a critigue from a writer-reader whose comments you believe in are what matters. For me getting published and all that involves is secondary to the writing.

    I did come across something on the Writer’s Relief site that might be helpful if you are not able to connect with a live critic to exchange work with. You might look into writing groups that get together online. If you’d like to know more, go to Writer’s Relief “Leads and Tips” on their Home page. Find the “getting help with your writing” section. There you’ll find tips on “Creating your own writing group.” One of the suggestions is to find a group online. I googled “writing critique groups” and all sorts of links turned up. “Live” is better, but online might work out well also if you don’t find anyone near you. Or in may fit into the birdcage more easily.

    I’m about to move to a new place for the winters. If there are no writers in this new location, I might check out the online scene as well.


  6. Victoria,

    You say you’re “in the process of writing my memoir about attending college as a mother of five young children and how we all grew through my college experience.” It sounds like a rich world to write about, but having been a working mother with only TWO small children, I know that though the six of you may have all grown from the experience, unless you had a stay-at-home husband with a strongly developed feminine side or a nanny, there were likely mornings when you got in that car to head to class after an all-nighter with a sick child or dealing with a wet bed or some crisis common to motherhood when you felt like crossing the state-line and never coming back. If so, your memoir will be stronger for taking your reader to that Laundromat or Price Chopper with you and your young progeny. Just the thought of those real-life scenes from my own past make me still wake up daily grateful for having lived through it. (I speak as though it is ever over when for the rest of a mother’s days, the phone may ring at any minute with some sad news or disaster. Or yes, joy.)

    It does sound like your memoir material will lend itself to lots of scenes, scenes where very little essay voice will be needed. Bring the reader into the kitchen as everyone of the five gets ready for school—camera, sound, lights–and we’ll “get it” through the dialogue and significant details: what’s just been knocked over, what’s burning on the stove, who just pushed whom—and you’ll hardly have to “tell” the reader a thing. Right offhand I can’t think of a specific mother memoir that involves such a large brood, but some great memoir writers come to mind when you talk about characters we love, scenes, and building tension. Probably you’ve read Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Tobias Wolff…all of whom are knockout at all of the above, but I also recommend Deborah Digges two memoirs. And though it isn’t a memoir I suggest the good mother-daughter novel—Alice Munro’s LIVES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN—for her mastery of everything.

    Do send word through my website if this family makes it to the bookstore.


  7. Kimberly,

    If you are in the query stage of submitting your novel to agents and publishers, sometimes it’s suggested that you tell whom your readers might be and how you’d reach them. If you don’t already know about the National Alliance on Mental Illness http://www.nami.org , I suggest you use this site to think about marketing. NAMI is the largest grassroots advocacy, support, and educational organization in the U.S. There are NAMIs in all the states with executive directors and presidents, plus member affiliates in counties all over the country. Most of the states have annual conventions. The 2014 NAMI conference will be in D.C. I did a reading of DOING TIME OUTSIDE this past November for a group of about 300 people at the NAMI New York State conference. You can also reach out to the NAMI groups whose members have a mental illness such as “in Your Own Voice” and “Peer to Peer.” You can send copies of your book to the quarterly print and online NAMI magazine in hopes of a review. You can target all the mental health agencies, clinics, and hospitals. And if your novel also has characters with the dual issues of addiction, then there’s the whole chemical dependency connection, rehabs, and perhaps criminal justice. If it’s literary fiction, you’ll want to market to those readers as well: book clubs, libraries, and colleges, etc. Perhaps you already know all this.

    Though my novels NIGHT NAVIGATION, DOING TIME OUTSIDE, and ROPE & BONE (to a lesser extent) have characters with mental illnesses, the stories focus on families and what it’s like to be tied to trouble by love and blood—any kind of trouble that sucks all the oxygen up so that everyone finds it hard to breathe. I’m hoping my next work will take place in a different world. Right now I’m working on short pieces taken from recordings of people describing in close detail a specific job, one of their tasks, such as going out to collect clams in clam farming, mending nets as part of being a marine biologist, raising the roof off of a basement to build the main house under it, etc. In collaboration, cutting that process down to a prose poem or its essence—with me doing none of the actual writing. Just going in close on the nouns and verbs, the rhythm and passion or pain of the task. I’m in the mostly “thinking about this” stage. I was inspired to try this by Philip Levin’s poetry collection, WHAT WORK IS.

    Good luck with getting your novel “out there.” No matter what your angle is on mental illness, no question it’s a topic of great concern in this country where our jails are where many end up rather than in treatment.


  8. Hello Ginnah:

    My name is Victoria Marie Lees. What a wonderful interview, so helpful for beginning writers. You are also a storehouse of information in all your comments. Thank you so much for all this information. I write short stories at this time, mostly YA, some poetry, and am in the process of writing my memoir about attending college as a mother of five young children and how we all grew through my college experience.

    I find that when I read stories or novels, I pay close attention to how the author has put together the scenes and plot and how the tension builds. I try to notice what the author feels is important to tell the reader about the characters and how the writer makes the reader fall in love with those characters.

    Congratulations on all your writing accomplishments. I plan to use this information to move myself forward as a writer. Thanks again.

  9. Ginnah, your story is heartening for other of us “late bloomers” out here. Best wishes to you, and may your writing continue to flow!

  10. Jessica,

    One of the most difficult craft problems I had when I wrote NIGHT NAVIGATION was that because the mother in the novel was loosely based on my own experiences, I tended to have way too much backstory, too much interior because the mother hadn’t made the full leap into fiction. This clogged the forward action and broke the narrative tension. As I moved along in NN, I got better at cutting a lot of that as I revised and eventually learned to not to have so much in the first place. One of the pleasures of writing DOING TIME OUTSIDE is that because the characters and situation are almost totally imagined, there is almost no backstory. Since I know most of the DTO people so well from being with them in Book 1 and Book 2, all I sometimes needed was a gesture. If I wanted to fill in what kind of person Rudy’s father was before he died, I could do that by simply having Rudy’s mother, Carla, say the following in her head as she waits to visit her son in jail: “If Rudy’s father was alive, he’d be here. For sure he’d be standing in this line, leaning forward, ready to take on anyone who tried to stop him.”

    But far beyond craft problems such as backstory and narrative tension, by far the greatest struggle for me when NIGHT NAVIGATION was published was that because I had used my own experiences as the wellspring for the novel, it meant that I had also used the lives of others close to me. It turned out that these people felt betrayed, a terrible invasion of their privacy. Stealing. Because I felt I had treated the characters in NN with sympathy and love, off in my little writing room as I turned so much of the “real” into fiction, I had somehow not faced how these people were bound to feel if this novel was ever published. They were as upset by the things I made up—now their enemies from all their pasts would believe that crap also. This is a common ethical dilemma for all writers who use their own worlds. Jane Smiley has a wonderful essay about this: “Can Writers Have Friends?” And there’s an interesting piece related to this in today’s NY Times Draft essay : My Heart, My Sleeve: Writing about My Brother http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/13/his-heart-my-sleeve-writing-about-my-brother/?hp&rref=opinion

    So it is with particular joy that DOING TIME OUTSIDE is not based on my own experiences, that it is 99% invented. I have betrayed no one.

  11. Evelyn,

    I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult for non-fiction writers. The only non-fiction MS I tried to get published was a teacher-narrative I wrote about a year of working with a group of high school students who were way off the track in reading and writing titled: I’m SICK OF THIS ALREADY. It got a “wow” peer review from Heinemann, but educational presses want “how to” books rather than narratives. Since that’s my limited experience with non-fiction, anything I say will be sheer speculation. Since you write non-fiction, I’m sure you have a much better sense of what sorts of books are of current interest. My guess is that it so depends on your subject and of course how well you write about that. I do think it’s likely that once your book gets published, because of the amazing range that the internet offers for tracking your niche market, in some ways it will be easier to promote a non-fiction book than a novel.

    Best of luck with your project. I hope that all of you who have responded to my Writer’s Relief interview will contact me through my website once you get published.


  12. Janna,

    I appreciate your comments about the interview. “a hulk of a novel”—what a good way to put it. Since the world of your novel-in-stories is set in Upstate as well, it may be interesting for you to see how the particulars of your work align with NIGHT NAVIGATION. Good luck with putting it “out there.”


  13. Hi Ginnah,

    I’m thankful beyond words for your reply. You’ve brought to my attention an angle I’ve never considered. I live a rather isolated existence, sometimes teasing about the comfort of my gilded birdcage, but I see that I need to spread my proverbial wings.

    After completing the MS, I thought the next logical step was to submit it for review. My naiveté is showing, and the learning curve is steep, but I’ve come this far and I’m not willing to give up. Hopefully I will find the resources needed, and make a connection.

    Thank you!

  14. Ginnah, Thank you so much for sharing the wealth of your experience. I am an Upstate girl as well, and I have a hulk of a novel in stories about one family. I am delighted to know there is room for success with that, and humbled to learn what an array of hats you’ve had to don in order to get your work “out there and read”.

    All the best with your third novel! I look forward to Night Navigation.

  15. Publishing is definitely a hard route in itself. It seems some wait for a chance to be picked up and are left discouraged when they are rejected by publishing companies. In this day and age, self-publishing has become easier. It still takes time, money, and effort; but gives a backup plan if nothing else to achieving the dream of seeing you work in print. I plan to self-publish and am thankful for the routes you have mentioned such as Twitter and Facebook to self promote. The hardships and extensive journey of seeing a book leave completion and enter into the world of publishing and distribution to the reader is a tough one. Aside from those hard times, what has been the hardest thing for you writing your books? And what have you done to ease your struggles with your issue. Dialogue is sometimes my worst enemy. It is the achievement of having the character speak naturally that is hard for me. However as I always do, I research and read obsessively.

  16. Colette,

    I can only say that before I’d be willing to send my work to a professional editor such as you might find advertised in Poets & Writers or a service like Writer’s Relief, I’d have to have it critiqued and revised first. This is not because of any copyright issues. It is necessary for me to get feedback on my work as I go along from several reader-writers that I know are good critics of the kind of stories I write. I never want critiquing until I’ve gone as far as I can go with the chapter or story on my own. Because critiquing someone’s work is time-consuming, it usually needs to be reciprocal: I’ll read your stuff, if you’ll read mine.

    Because I know so little about your work or your circumstances, I feel like I may not be very helpful. Isn’t there some way you can connect with other people who write? An adult creative writing class? An art center? A flier on the bulletin board of your library? Or you might see if the librarian could put a note in the newsletter asking if anyone would like to be part of a group sponsored by the library? Even an ad in your local Pennysaver? The group I’ve been meeting with for about ten years gets together once a week from 6:30 to 9. Usually three or four people can read out loud up to ten pages and have that commented on in any one session. In a way this is like learning to play tennis—you want some of the other players to be at least as good as you are or better. And it’s a little like going to an Alanon meeting: you only revise on the basis of the comments that “ring bells.” You don’t need to be told how to fix it; you just need to know what doesn’t “work.” Really you only need one great critic—you read his/her MS; he/she reads yours.

    Once you’ve had your MS critiqued by reader-writer(s) whose writing judgment you trust and you’ve got it as “right” as you can, then you’re ready to think about submission. And that’s a whole different topic.


  17. Thank you so much for your insightful interview. I almost passed in reading it because I am working on a non-fiction project. Also the only thing I have had published has been non-fiction. I’m glad I went with it, though, because there is a treasure trove of information for any genre writer. My only question for you after my first time read is, do you believe it easier or more difficult for non-fiction writers?

    Thank you once more and the best on your current project to be accepted for publishing.

  18. Jennifer,

    Do you belong to a writers’ group that meets regularly to critique each others’ work? I sometimes think of these as “word watchers.” Knowing you’re “up” this week may help you produce something. For a few years after I’d had quite a few stories published, I tried to write a memoir. I’d sit down day after day and get to about page 25. Then I’d sit down and delete all that. I’d start over. I simply could not find the “voice.” Then one day I saw an ad for a fiction writers workshop that met every Wednesday to critique for eight weeks: please bring a few pages of something to read to the group. Okay, I thought I’ll go and at least try to get one story going. I sat down with no real ideas beyond what I’d been trying to do the memoir on. I shifted from the “I” to close 3rd POV “she.” The first sentence came to me: The kitchen was cold. The story took off—six pages in one sitting. This became the first chapter of NIGHT NAVIGATION. Then it came to me that this was not a story, but a novel and that it would only make the leap into fiction if the next chapter would be told from the point of view of this woman’s son. That set up the structure of the novel: alternating chapters back and forth between these two characters. Interesting that the son’s chapters were always the easiest to write and I think the best written. And I’m still going to that same writers’ group ten years later.

    I don’t know if that’s any help. One other suggestion besides connecting with a writers’ group and thinking about shifting your prospective, try writing really short pieces: flash memoirs or meta-fiction or prose poems, only three or four hundred words. Check out http://www.fictionaut.com , a writer net-working publishing site that’s very writer-friendly in terms of posting your own work. Cruise around. Take a look at the “most recommended.” I’ve got some short work on there. You do need an invitation—which really means nothing more than me entering the person’s email and clicking invite. If you think you’d like to post work on there, contact me through my website and I’ll go through that invitation process.

    February often has a spring thaw, the sap runs.


  19. Misun Lee,

    Based on my personal experience of living with people who have mental illnesses, being part of support groups made up of family members who have children, siblings, and spouses who have mental illnesses, and research, I am convinced that these illnesses are caused by biochemical brain disorders. Further these disorders can have a genetic link so that there is sometimes a hereditary predisposition or vulnerability. An excellent resource for understanding these disorders is the National Alliance on Mental Illness website: http://www.nami.org

    No question there is stigma and people with these illnesses can sometimes be treated shamefully, but I cannot imagine that anyone who has bipolar, schizophrenic, or clinical depressive disorders or their families would ever consider this a blessing. Further many who have these illnesses may also have addictions which further complicate their lives and the lives of the people who love them. I urge you to read my two novels, Night Navigation and Doing Time Outside, for a close look at what it’s like to live in these worlds if you haven’t already had that experience.


  20. Hello Francisco,

    I’m happy that you found the interview helpful. I’ve had a good time thinking about my “history” as a writer. I’ve especially enjoyed responding to the comments and questions. I wish you good energy for your own writing.


  21. Philippa,

    I’m glad you found the interview about my writing and publishing experiences helpful. I’m surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed “holding forth.” Good luck with your own work.


  22. Have you ever had a time where you doubted yourself and the well dried up? If so what did you do to get back on track? If not how do you combat this problem. My inner well has frozen and I’m ready for my Spring thaw!
    Thanks for taking the time to help.

  23. Hi Ginnah,

    I have recently finished a manuscript and find myself lost on how to proceed next. I have no previous writing credentials, and no network of friends or fellow writers to ask for advice. I think the MS needs to be critiqued, but can I reach out to strangers? Perhaps a blogger interested in the topic I’ve written about? Can this be done safely, or are there copyright issues to consider?

    Thank you for a very insightful article. I’d be appreciative of any advice you can provide.

    Take care,

  24. Thank you so much for sharing the two very different journeys you took when publishing your books through a major and a minor publishing house. The insight has been invaluable.

  25. Hello, Sheila,

    Good to hear from you. I’m hoping to get myself invited to the Sterling North Book Festival in Edgerton next year if Book 1: ROPE & BONE has been released by then.

    If you still have any yearnings to write that Great American Novel (or even write a story), you might check out my response to Suzanne Dudley in the comment section following the Writer’s Relief interview.

    I also love to read writer interviews and essays on their process. For Christmas I gave myself WRITERS (On Writing): Collected Essays from the New York Times. Another great source of interviews is WRITERS AT WORK: The Paris Review Interviews. They go all the way back to the 50’s. There are 9 volumes in the series. You can get them cheap at abebooks.org 3 or 4 dollars and free shipping. The young writers who do the interviewing of the Greats are now our revered elder writers. They ask the kind of naïve questions we all want answered and the writers hold forth. Yes, Hemingway uses a pencil and stands up when he writes and leaves off at a place in the story where tomorrow he knows what the next sentence will be to jump-start the next section… I love that stuff. I have a notebook of favorite writer quotes. Many of them said by Philip Roth. Here’s one of them from his novel COUNTERLIFE:

    “The treacherous imagination,” Zuckerman contends, “is everybody’s makerwe are all the invention of each other, everybody a conjuration conjuring up everyone else. We are all each other’s authors.”

    If I get to Wisconsin, I hope you’re still in the Edgerton area.


  26. Good morning, Suzanne,

    I haven’t seen Joy for many years, but we’re in touch from time to time via email or facebook.

    Getting started writing: Someone once sent me this quote: The secret to writing is “Butt to the chair.” Nadine Gordimer (or it may have been Joan Didion) said in an interview I read in the Paris Review that every day she sits down to write at a certain time and even if she doesn’t write anything, she stays there until the time is up. She knows that eventually something will come. I think this is true whether you are a beginner or a veteran. Even Stephen King fears he won’t be able to get going again.

    In terms of your fears of the first leap: My own dive into fiction is a “lady walks into a bar” story. A woman sitting next to me started to tell me about how when she was a teenager, her doctor gave her prescriptions for large bottles of diet pills back before people knew anything much about amphetamines. She then went on to tell me tales of her “speeding” through her adolescence. I left the bar and wrote my first story. I was in my mid-forties. I had never considered really writing. Up to that point, I had only written a few love poems which were driven by my need to get out what I was unable to say to the person they were directed too. Every evening after I got home from teaching high school English, I wrote more stories inspired by the people I knew from that bar world. That summer, on the basis of my new interest and about 100 pages of drafts, I went to a week-long writing workshop for women. An author named Lynne Barrett gave a talk on the do’s and don’t of writing a short story: show don’t tell, in medias res… I left there and finally wrote the first story that “worked”: Carla, one of the main women in all my novels, falls for a work-release prisoner who is painting the old Inn in her town as part of a jail work-crew supervised by an officer.

    What I’m saying is that the next time you’re hit with that “this would make a great story” feeling, sit down and write. And do not give up if it turns out that you’ve still got a lot to learn in terms of the craft of writing and finding your own voice. I remember Russell Banks saying you can learn the craft in six months. The voice… well, that may be a longer trip. One book on craft that I found incredibly helpful as a beginner was Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A guide to Narrative Craft. You’ll need to get it used. I just looked it up. The cheapest place to buy it is through Abebooks—only a few dollars, plus shipping and handling. And if your story requires you include doing a scene on something you know nothing about—such as witnessing a cesarean section on a dog, go to YouTube. What did writers do before google and wikipedia? Also sometimes I copied scenes from the stories of writers I loved like Alice Munro—a voice that would never be mine—just to see how she built the back and forth and the transitions. I just kept deleting until I “got” it. I still do that.


  27. Bless you for your persistence in writing and eventually having your book published! I have a couple of questions: Is mental illness a blessing or curse? Is the illness itself or our reaction to it that is shameful?

  28. Bonnie,

    It’s always a pleasure to run into you on the internet. I appreciate the comments you made about NIGHT NAVIGATION and the characters. I know you have re-located and are starting some new work. Good luck with that.


  29. Gippy,

    I appreciate the comments you made about the interview being helpful. “Building a house” is such an apt metaphor for what it’s like to write a novel and really describes how it always feels to me as I work on one. I think that has to be even more true of a crime novel because surely you must have a blueprint right from the go I imagine—laying down the clues so we are compelled to try to solve the crime, but tucking in the foreshadowing that will make the close credible—if that’s the sort of story your writing. And a series besides!!!! Good luck with that. Send word through my Web site contact when the house is finally done and up for sale.


  30. Diane,

    What a pleasure to read your comments about the characters in my stories and novels. I feel a bit teary remembering our get-togethers to read short novels–each of us taking turns as we passed the book around the circle. This must have been about 25 years ago. Our paths have seldom crossed since. I was just starting to write then. I hope your winter move to Florida is going well. A new adventure.


  31. Stacey,

    Please read my response to Amy where I talk about where the world of my novels and the characters who “people” that world come from. I definitely do not understand the personality layers before I write. Some of the characters were inspired by real people and then they leap into “fiction” once I take on their points of view. Some are 99% imagined like the grandmother and the priest in DOING TIME OUTSIDE. Those characters showed up out of “nowhere.” I do often have at least one “fact” that fires me up: I hear a woman is having to go feed her boyfriend’s dogs while he’s in jail. That’s all I want to know. I make up the rest. I build the world as I go—meaning I revise as I go. What I wrote yesterday, I revise today before I start new work. I usually work slowly straight through and don’t know the ending. Or if I thought I had an ending, that turns out not to be where the novel’s going and I then have to go back and rip out all that scaffolding I artificially built in. I changed the ending of DTO radically after it had been submitted to major houses. It was a lesson in not knowing the ending before I get there, to being open to constant character surprises, to never really understanding all the layers. Just like the people in my life—probably I’ve made up many of their layers as well.


  32. Erika,

    When I first started to write back in the late 80’s, I attended writing workshops at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York for four summers—sometimes for 2 weeks and sometimes for a whole month. These workshops were sponsored by Writers’ Institute and originally funded by William Kennedy’s MacArthur grant money. The writer/facilitators were masters at running critique workshops: Russell Banks, Lynn Sharon Swartz, Leonard Michaels, and Jane Anne Phillips. I was a beginning writer, so the value of the workshops for me was to learn how to write better and to internalize so I could become my own critic –know when one of my pieces didn’t work and why. I also attended the week long conferences at Colgate for four years—another excellent set up and exhilarating in terms of sustaining the creative drive—meeting and listening to other writers. From the Skidmore and Colgate conferences, I received three recommendations to agents and editors from Banks, Hilma Wolitzer, and Janette Turner Hospital. None of those ended up getting me an agent, but I’ve always thought that was mostly because the work wasn’t ready. On the other hand, once NIGHT NAVIGATION was published and reviewed in the Times, Janette Turner Hospital invited me to be a guest-author for a series called “Caught in the Creative Act” at the University of South Carolina which was a thrilling experience. Check the Web site—though it’s no longer “running.” I’d say go to conferences if you can somehow swing it for the fun of it, but once you know you have a good book, queries to agents who usually represent the sort of books you write is what finally getting an agent is about: Do they think they can sell it?


  33. Lee,

    Yes, I definitely would have self-published DOING TIME OUTSIDE if Standing Stone Books had not taken it on. Here are my general thoughts on self-publishing based on the research I’ve done so far and without the hard-knowledge that comes from actually doing it:

    Say you write a novel and draft after draft, you’ve passed it around to three or four writers who not only write well, but who are great readers of your stuff in terms of seeing what doesn’t work. And after much revision, based on their responses and what you “know,” you’re pretty sure you have a book that’s compelling, one that’s good to read. If you have an agent, you’ll try for a big press because they do so much for you in terms of their “name” and because they can get you reviews in the major media and put your novel in the book stores… If the major houses take a “pass,” then query the mid-level presses that publish the kind of things you write. No go. Next you can try the smaller presses—no agent required. BUT be sure the small press can guarantee the following: It is going to be savvy and energetic about helping you promote your book. That they can afford to do big enough prints runs so that you can get cheap author copies and never have to worry about not having enough books. That there’s a guarantee of an ebook at the same time the book is released. That the press keeps copies in-house at the big distributors like Ingrams, That the press has almost immediate access to getting your book UP on Amazon. It may turn out that with a small press you will only get print-on-demand and only a paperback. I think that’s okay. Two sources of info I recommend: Simona David’s short, concise book, Self-Publishing and Book Marketing: A Research Guide and the Poets & Writers fall 2013 issue on self-publishing which talks about review services that are geared to self-publishing.

    If the final book of my trilogy, ROPE & BONE, doesn’t get “picked up,” I am going to self-publish. My own tentative choice is CreateSpace through Amazon because printing is done “in house” so the author copies are cheaper than other services I’ve researched and once your book is “done,” it will ship from Amazon in one or two days as opposed to one to two months if copies have to come from a small distributor to Amazon—though if you have a flurry of initial pre-orders, then Amazon will start keeping a supply of your books on hand. This may take a month or more which can be very dampening to a book launch. You can contract out the copy-editing and formatting so that your book is “print-ready” when submitted to CreateSpace, but whatever you do, the final book should have no errors and look like the “real thing.”

    In reality, with a lot of promotion and some lucky breaks, you may re-coup the money it cost to self-publish. But if it’s a good book, you’ll have the pleasure of having it out there and read. That last step for the hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours you spent writing it.

  34. Hello, Ginnah…I believe I met you many years ago through Joy Bucella (Gorence). We werre college (downtown) “roomies” and longtime close friends in Oneonta., Although I went through an entire English program at Hartwick, I was also doing a Geology major and wound up not completing the English Lit. Senior Thesis, hence not receiving that legitimate degree. But literature has always been a major part of my life and a day does not go by that I don’t think about writing. Is the very first leap into the process itself the most difficult step? In other words, how the hell do you start writing?? I’m ashamed to say that I have not read your work, and am grateful for FaceBook in gretting my attention. Although this article states that Doing Time is a stand-alone book, i want to begin with the first book in the “series.” Congratulations on all your great success! Your work sounds like it would be of GREAT interest to me, and I’m eager to purchase your books!

  35. I have always wanted to write “The Great American ” Novel. I had absolutely no idea how to even start. I love reading anything about how authors get or have gotten to where there are. Especially Ginnah Howard whom I had known years ago. She was a wonderful teacher and continues now as such along with being a encouraging wonderful author. I enjoyed “Night Navigation ” and look forward to reading her other works.

  36. Amy,

    Do you know the short stories of Grace Paley? (Oh, if not, do read her. She’s an amazing writer.) Anyway, I once heard her tell about her “process”: she often worked on several stories at the same time, going back and forth as things came to her. You can feel that in the structure of her narratives. As for my own process in terms of having “ideas” for more than one novel at a time—that doesn’t really “speak” to how I work. I’ve been writing a trilogy about two rural upstate NY families for about 20 years. One family draws on my own experiences and the other is mostly “invented”—though originally inspired by some people I once knew briefly 30 plus years ago. I don’t really have “ideas”—what I have are people that I’ve come to know so well in my imagination—so well that I have a hard time calling them “characters.” When I write I feel like I’m making the world on the page; these people I know so well are moving around in there. I have some LOOSE “plot” in my head and a central conflict—but very often something surprising happens that changes everything. That was truly the case with DOING TIME OUTSIDE. If that interests you go to my Web site and click on an interview I had on Off the Page in October, 2013.

    More than anything else I’m interested in point of view: who’s going to be telling the story and where are they “standing.” I almost always work in multiple POV’s—to give the major “people” a chance to give their “take” on what’s happening. And I almost always use close 3rd, present tense. Often a minimum of back-story. Lots of scenes. I expect the reader to figure out what’s really going on by what is “shown” not what is “told.”

    Back to your question: I’d say when ideas come to you for the second novel, keep a notebook handy to jot those down.


  37. Tracy,

    In the Writer’s Relief interview, I mentioned a lot of the things I did and am doing to promote both my novels. Does Hidden Within have a niche? If it does, then you’ll want to target that. Google that “world” and you will think of all sorts of ways to reach those readers through a blog geared them, the way you set up your Web site, author pages on Facebook and Amazon, your niche email list… See my Web site to see how it targets the niche of both my novels. I’m a relative novice when it comes to using social media, but Writer’s Relief has tips on that and I‘m sure there are other “how to promote” sites. Check Poets & Writers http://www.pw.org


  38. Hello, Kasey,

    My guess is that it’s more difficult for relatively unknown literary fiction writers to get published these days than it was in 2009 when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought NIGHT NAVIGATION. Publishing has gone through such dramatic changes in the last few years: so many good small presses, ebooks, self-publishing… Also maybe some of it depends on what’s currently “in”…Vampires, etc.


  39. Dear First Ten Responders:

    I plan to get back to each of you tomorrow (1/10/14)–probably with separate posts. I’ll figure out what’s best then. I appreciate your comments and I’m pleased that so many of responded.


  40. This is a wonderful article for those of us who will be making the final publishing decision shortly. Having only some poetry published over the years and some short stories unpublished, my crime novel has been like building a house and just the beginning of a series. This article has helped me greatly in my planning.

    I am truly grateful to Howard and other writers like her who pass on their experiences. She shows great determination and strength, as well as the love for her craft and I admire her. I look forward to reading her work.

  41. I have been privileged to hear and read Ginnah’s stories for more than twenty-five years, and I always look forward to the latest from her characters. From the early days of our small Book Group to the publication of Night Navigation, I know that Ginnah’s characters’ voices tell life like it really is, and there will be moments of genuine emotional connection to them… we really care about these families!

  42. Do you understand all the personality layers of your characters before writing, or do you “meet your characters” the moment you first conceptualize them in your writing, and do they evolve into people you didn’t expect at the beginning (perhaps forcing a rewrite of that character’s responses)?

  43. Nice to “meet” you Ginnah. I love reading author interviews to find out how they got their lucky break. The common theme is that it’s hard work and nothing “lucky” about it! My question is about writer’s conferences: You briefly mentioned a writer’s conference in your answer. I am always trying to figure out if it’s worth thousands of dollars to get myself to a writer’s conference or would my chances be about the same just sending out query letters to agents? I know there are occasionally a chance to pitch an agent at a conference, but it’s usually just one agent. Have you attended many conferences? If so, has it been worth it and what would you recommend?

  44. I am curious about whether she would have considered self publishing if the small press route hadn’t worked either for DOING TIME OUTSIDE. I’d love to know Howard’s general thoughts on self publishing, too.

  45. I am a writer and one of my biggest problems is having ideas for more than one book. Does this ever happen to you? How do you handle it if you’re writing one book and have ideas for another book?

  46. I recently signed a contract and my book titled Hidden Within is going through the editing process but would love any input on how to promote my book because it is being done by a small press any help would be appreciated so I can get it out there.

  47. I think the fact that Howard had to work with a small press for the second book serves a reminder that writers can never get too comfortable with the process of writing or selling their work. There are always unexpected challenges to overcome, both internally and externally.

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