I’m a horrible procrastinator. I have the worst time starting new chapters or scenes, and I just force myself to sit in front of my blank screen and just type whatever I need to in order to get started.
Angie Kim had four careers prior to becoming an author. Family medical issues prompted her to begin writing in her forties, leading to the release of her award-winning debut novel. We catch up to talk about the value of short stories, finding a literary agent that champions your work and pushing through procrastination.
Hi Angie, please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work
I moved from Seoul, Korea, to Baltimore as a preteen, and attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School, where I was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. I’ve had five careers: trial lawyer, management consultant, dot-com entrepreneur, full-time stay-at-home mom to three boys, and finally, writer. I started with personal essays and short stories, which have won the Glamour Essay Contest and the Wabash Prize in Fiction. My debut novel, Miracle Creek, is a national bestseller and has won numerous awards. It’s a literary courtroom drama about a Korean immigrant family and a young, single mother who’s on trial for murdering her eight-year-old autistic son.
What made you want to be a writer?
I never wanted to be a writer. I wrote as a student and a lawyer, of course, but I didn’t start creative writing until I was in my 40s. I’d gone through a medical journey with my kids, and I started writing to explore my feelings on that. Once I started, I was hooked! I felt like I’d finally found something I’d been searching for all my life. I wrote about the experience here, for the Washington Post.
How do you motivate yourself to write?
I’m a horrible procrastinator. I have the worst time starting new chapters or scenes, and I just force myself to sit in front of my blank screen and just type whatever I need to in order to get started. I probably have pages of freewriting before I find the right opening sentence or image. Once I have an opening that inspires me, I don’t need much motivation to sit down and write. I get excited to see what will happen next—I often don’t know what’s going to happen until I’m deep into the scene, so I need to write and keep writing to find out what will happen.
How do you outline your work and begin writing?
I’m a pantser. For my debut novel, I started with a VERY broad outline and wrote about three chapters before I realized that the outline no longer worked. So I ripped up the original outline and wrote a new outline, wrote some more, returned to revise the outline some more, wrote more, etc. It was an iterative process. So even though I started with an outline, what I ended up writing bore no resemblance to the outline by the end of the process (or even the middle of the process.)
Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?
The first writing teacher I had was Bill O’Sullivan, who’s an editor at the Washingtonian and long-time workshop teacher at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. I had just written my first personal essay, and I signed up for his class, not because I wanted to improve, but because I thought he’d immediately offer to publish my essay (or show it to his editor friend at The New Yorker). Instead, he said something about there being clichés in my essay. I’d never done creative writing before, and I didn’t even know what clichés were. Hilariously (well, it’s hilarious now; back then, it was painful), he had to explain the basics of good writing (including avoiding clichés) to me. After that, I realized that I had a lot to learn, and I read dozens of books on writing and editing and took many classes, taking myself through a DIY mini-MFA course.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
My advice for all writers, including those who want to write a novel or other book-length work, is to start by working on and perfecting short stories and essays and submitting them for publication in literary journals. The experience of finding the right journals for each work (which involves actually reading literary magazines), submitting, getting rejection letters, revising, resubmitting, etc., is invaluable, and I can’t imagine skipping all that and going straight to writing a book. For one thing, I don’t think I would have been able to attract a top agent without the writing credentials that this process allowed me to build up.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?
I think the biggest challenge, and probably the most important thing to get right, is finding the right literary agent who believes in you and your book. I feel like everything good that has happened to me is because I found a literary agent I adore, Susan Golomb at Writer’s House. She helped me with editing and revising my book to get it ready to sell, managed to build buzz among editors and publishers, and eventually sold my book at auction. She attends almost all my editorial and marketing/publicity meetings and conference calls and is my most important sounding board. I can’t imagine going through this process without her.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
It’s really hard to say. Highly visible and national interviews and reviews have certainly led to bumps in sales volume, so I saw huge ticks after NPR’s All Things Considered ran my interview with Ari Shapiro, for example, and after national newspapers like the NYTimes Book Review, Washington Post, and LA Times reviewed my book. But I’d guess that word-of-mouth through social media and book clubs, have had enormous impact, but it’s harder to gauge things like that that build more slowly.
What struggles did you face in the writing and publishing process?
The biggest struggle I faced in writing and publishing Miracle Creek is how overwhelmed I felt at facing the blank page every day. I’m not a fast writer, so it took me years to finish the novel. Just being willing to write every day, knowing that the finish line was still months/years away. I had (and still have) a writing group; we met monthly, and I committed to turning in a new chapter or two every month or two, and this “deadline” kept me going.
How do you handle rejection as a writer?
Rejection is just a natural part of the writing process for everyone. Writing is subjective; some people are going to dislike your writing, no matter how “good” some other people might think it is. You learn to handle it by going through it, submitting and trying to learn from the feedback you get from different readers and editors. I’m not saying it’s not hard—it absolutely is!—but you have to be willing to go through it.
What is the best writing advice you have received?
Avoid clichés. (See above). Also, write every day.