I’ve met a lot of writers who decline any sort of advice because it wounds their egos. My advice is to lean into that kind of criticism because a) it will make you a better writer and b) prepare you for a traditional publishing career where you get edited or c) show you that there is a better path for you to express your creativity.
Atlanta-based suspense author Emily Carpenter knows a thing or two about perseverance. She made the leap to novel writing from a screenwriting background, only to have her first manuscript rejected 162 times. Although that first manuscript now lives permanently in a drawer she has gone on to become a best-selling author. We catch up with her to talk about how her screenwriting background continues to shape her outlining process, the importance of unbiased criticism and the worst writing advice she has ever received.
Please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work.
I spent my youth in the state of Alabama, then a few years in New York City, working for two soap operas, Guiding Light and As the World Turns. I always wanted to be an actress and did a few years of work, not on those shows, but in TV and commercials when I moved back to Atlanta. Writing was a side project for me – what I really dreamed of doing was writing screenplays for movies. When that career stalled, I considered it might be easier to break into the publishing world and write a book. So that’s what I did. Of course it took blood, sweat, and tears – and many years of hard work – but I’m so happy where I ended up.
I write suspense with a distinct Southern Gothic flavor. These are mysteries set in creepy old houses, deserted islands and crumbling psychiatric hospitals. Oh, and there’s always a shot of romance in there.
What made you want to be a writer?
I always wanted to write stories when I was growing up, but I couldn’t even fathom being an “author.” I thought you had to be well-connected or live in NY. Just generally know things I didn’t know. So it didn’t feel like anything within my grasp. It was only when I really started investigating the publishing business – around 2010 – that I realized it wasn’t such a mystery after all. As I mentioned, I started by writing screenplays, and actually, the transition to writing novels wasn’t that far of a leap.
Do you have a writing routine?
I’ve cycled in and out of routines. For a while, before I was published, I would wake up and write every morning at five in the morning. I did this for six months until I finished an entire draft of my novel. And when my kids were younger, I was always pretty disciplined about writing during their school hours. Now that I am more familiar with my process and I am not so scared that the ideas are not going to come, I’m a bit looser with the when and where. I try to write every day when I’m working on a first draft. But when I’m between books, I’m fine with allowing myself to have days off … and days where I think and dream and ponder new ideas I’m trying to work out. The motivation is that I really just enjoy discovering a story and getting to know characters and finding out where their story is going to lead me. I find it very satisfying to be in my head, in whatever world I’m creating.
What is your outlining process?
My preference is to do a very general outline. I follow a screenplay model that divides the story into three acts. I have to know how the book opens, the events (plot points) that spin the action into each new act, and generally how the book ends before I set pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard. I also usually have some cool, cinematic visual set pieces or scenes that I know are in there somewhere. And then at that point, I’ll write.
Sometimes I have to pitch an entire, complete synopsis to my editor to sell the book and that is really tough for me. Other than needing to know those major tent-pole events in the narrative, I’m really more of a discovery writer.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
It’s hard to know, given the long slog to traditional publishing, whether to stop or keep going. I think it’s hard to have a good perspective on your own work and sometimes it’s tough to get honest feedback, especially from friends and family. I do think you can improve by just doing the thing: writing another article or another book. But in the meantime, do get your work in front of unbiased people whose opinions you trust. They are going to tell you the hard truth. It might sting a little or a lot, but you can handle it! Sometimes they might not like what you do. Fine, that’s preference and in that case, keep going. But if someone tells you the writing doesn’t feel polished or that you need to take classes, don’t be offended. Take a workshop, keep trying to improve your craft. You can absolutely do that if you put the hours in. I’ve met a lot of writers who decline any sort of advice because it wounds their egos. My advice is to lean into that kind of criticism because a) it will make you a better writer and b) prepare you for a traditional publishing career where you get edited or c) show you that there is a better path for you to express your creativity.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?
Getting noticed. It’s a crowded market out there for books these days.
What struggles did you face in the writing and publishing process?
I wrote two books prior to the one that ended up garnering the attention of an agent and selling. Those books are in a drawer now, but I like to call them my “MFA.” They were learning experiences, for sure. The first book I wrote was rejected by 162 agents. No kidding.
What is the worst writing advice you have ever received?
“Don’t think about what readers want.”