My first book took me three years to complete and was out on submission for a year and never sold. It was devastating and demoralizing and caused me to listen to a lot of Norah Jones on repeat, while drinking tequila, but looking back I realize it was just part of the process.
Colleen Oakley doesn’t avoid heavy topics. Her books cover the spectrum of the human experience from life to death with all the highs and lows in between. A former magazine editor, about to publish her third book, we caught up with Colleen to talk about perseverance, the importance of speaking up and her number one trick for staying motivated to write every day (aside from tequila).
Please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work.
I’m a former magazine editor (Marie Claire and Women’s Health & Fitness), freelance writer (my work has appeared everywhere from Redbook to Martha Stewart Weddings to The New York Times), and mom of four darling kids (well, most of the time they’re darling.) In my free time, I love to read, cook, do crossword puzzles, beat my husband at Scrabble, travel, and binge Netflix.
My debut, Before I Go, is about a young woman dying of breast cancer, who decides, in the time she has left, to find a new wife for her husband to take care of him after she’s gone. My second novel, Close Enough to Touch is about a woman with a rare and potentially deadly medical condition—she’s allergic to other people. And my latest, You Were There Too, is about a young woman trying to choose between the man she loves and the man fate seems to have chosen for her. It will be published in Spring 2020 by Berkely/Penguin.
With four kids how do you find time for writing AND all the work that comes with being an author?
I think like any working parent — by drinking lots of wine. Just kidding! (Sort of.) Luckily, all of my children are now in school; it was MUCH harder when they were infants, and I had to steal 30 minutes here and there to write while they were napping or watching an episode of Sesame Street. Now, I have a pretty great schedule: I write 4 to 5 hours each day (or do promotion, or social media, or research, or go to the post office and mail books, whatever needs to be done) while they are at school, and then I pick them up and I wear my (often crooked) mom hat until bedtime. When I’m on deadline, I do a lot of night and weekend writing while my husband does the bulk of housework and childcare.
How do you motivate yourself to write?
I’ve found when I’m in a writing slump, that the very hardest thing sometimes is just sitting down and opening the document— once I force myself to do that, I’m locked into writing (even if it’s bad, terrible writing, I’m still writing). So that’s my advice to writers who say they don’t have the time or just can’t get into a routine: open the document. Every day. Even if you only re-read what you wrote the day before and tweak two or three words. The daily habit and staying connected to the work is what’s important. It’s like Anne Lamott’s advice: Butt in chair. Except for me, I can put my butt in the chair and then get lost down a rabbit hole on the Internet about how and when and where pancakes were invented, for five hours straight. So: Open the document!
Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?
So, this is kind of a funny/sad story. Pat Conroy is one of the first authors I read as an adult that I became enamored with. I started with The Lords of Discipline when I was in college and then blew through his backlist, re-reading his books over and over throughout the years. I finally got the chance to see him speak at a book conference in Atlanta and then I stood in line for two hours to meet him. I had so much I planned to say to him— how much he had inspired me as a writer, etc. But when I finally got to him, I became completely tongue-tied. I just handed him my book to sign, said thank you and that was it. Biggest regret of my life, but also a good lesson to me to always live in the moment and SPEAK UP, even when I’m completely gobsmacked.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Read! Read, read, read. And then write! Write, write, write. And then read some more. And write some more. And don’t pay so much attention to everything else: trends, how to write the perfect query, writing groups, conferences, message boards, etc. Those things are important, sure, but I find a lot of aspiring writers can get caught up in talking about writing or researching writing or the how to become an author side of things, while missing the main way to get published— and that’s to spend the majority of your time writing, and then rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, until you have the very best book you can possibly create.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
I wish I knew! In all seriousness, I think book marketing is one of the most difficult things because the results are nearly impossible to measure. I just try to write the best books I can and hope that people read them, love them and then tell their friends to read them because I think word of mouth sells books better than anything else. Oh, and those price drops when e-books are $1.99. Those move books really well, too.
What struggles did you face in the writing/ publishing process?
My first book took me three years to complete and was out on submission for a year and never sold. It was devastating and demoralizing and caused me to listen to a lot of Norah Jones on repeat, while drinking tequila, but looking back I realize it was just part of the process. Maybe not the Norah Jones and the tequila bit, but rejection is just part of writing— even after you get published. That’s why perseverance and belief in yourself— especially when no one else believes in you— is so important.