If you want to be a writer, then be a writer…Write every day (even if it’s only 100 words), read every day, and focus on the big goals.
Marketing director Karma Brown thought making the leap from copywriting to novel writing would be relatively simple. It turned out to be much harder than she thought and it wasn’t until her forties that she became a published author. Now working on her fourth fiction novel, with a non-fiction book also in the works, she chats to us about early morning writing, her three-step strategy for staying motivated and crying over scenes in Starbucks.
Please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work.
I’m 46, though still feel like I must only be 35 (where did that last decade go?), am an award-winning Canadian journalist, a cancer survivor, Mom to a whip-smart 10-year-old daughter (huh…maybe that’s where the last decade went…), and bestselling author of four novels (Come Away with Me, The Choices We Make, In This Moment, The Life Lucy Knew), with another novel on the horizon (Recipe for a Perfect Wife, winter 2020). I’m also currently writing my first non-fiction project (coming in 2021 with HarperCollins Canada) about discovering the “magic” hour in your day—the one you think doesn’t exist, but I promise, it does! —to accomplish something you never imagined you’d have time for (think: writing a novel, learning to play an instrument, becoming a master chef, learning a new language…).
What made you want to be a writer? How did you begin writing?
I am that author who insists she never wanted to be a writer. Despite being an early, voracious reader, a career in writing books never occurred to me. However, the “writing was on the wall” as they say: as a child I wrote multiple picture books, about ice-skating elephants who were in love and BFF mice who had a falling out (don’t worry—it had a happy ending); in high school I interned at our local newspaper, first writing obituaries and then stories about interesting people in the community under my own byline; I hated keeping a diary because I found real life somewhat dull to revisit on the page, and much preferred making up alternate storylines in my head. But I didn’t actually start writing in earnest until I went to journalism school, at the age of 28 and after both an undergrad degree and five years working in the corporate world. While I intended to go into broadcast journalism—my dream was to become the ‘Katie Couric of the North’ (as I’m Canadian)—life has a way of pointing you in the right direction, even when you aren’t sure where you’re going. I was working as a marketing director when an idea for a novel popped into my head, and I thought, “I know how to write copy…how hard can a novel be?” Turns out, it’s HARD. But I persevered because I discovered how much I loved writing long-form fiction, and while I went through career changes, a cancer diagnosis, marriage, and the birth of my daughter, I kept at it. Finally, a month before I turned 41 (and with my third novel written), I became a published author.
How do you motivate yourself to write?
When I started writing my first novel (which continues to gather dust in a drawer, as is the fate of many first books) I was a marketing director, so I did most of my writing in the morning before work or late at night. Then I had a kid, quit my “day” job and started freelance writing, and still found I only had time, and energy, to write before dawn. Now that my daughter is in school, I have more time during the day to write but I find old habits die hard – my best, most creative time is still early (like, 5 am early) morning. As for how to stay motivated, I have three strategies: 1) ALWAYS have a deadline, and commit to it, 2) set the coffee pot timer the night before, 3) Never end a writing session with a finished scene—leave the character(s) hanging in some way, or the tension high so when you next come back to the story, you can easily pick up the thread.
You write highly emotional scenes in your novels. What do you think is the secret for getting readers to empathize with your characters?
I’m a very happy person in real life, despite the emotional hell I put my characters through in my books. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene in my debut novel, Come Away with Me (for those who have read the book, they’ll probably know which one I mean), and I was writing it in a Starbucks, openly crying while I did. I have plenty of stories like that – me crying while I write scenes – and I know that if a moment moves me to tears, I’ve likely hit the sweet spot in terms of emotional depth. But it can be taxing because those scenes and the characters follow me around even when I’m not sitting in front of my laptop, and I have to remind myself they’re not real people (because they definitely feel like they are). I think Robert Frost nailed the secret, with the wise words, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader…”
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Essentially, my advice is this: If you want to be a writer, then be a writer. Which really means (for me, at least) write every day (even if it’s only 100 words), read every day, and focus on the BIG goals. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day annoyances and struggles, but you can’t let those take you off course. I like to tell people I got published through a combination of coffee, the habit of early morning writing, and grit. Oh! And embrace the shitty first draft. Treat it like it’s the best damn thing you’ve ever written, even knowing you have to go back in and rip it apart. Always give that shitty first draft its moment in the limelight—a lot went into it, and without it you have nothing. Any draft, in any shape, is a beautiful thing.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?
Worrying and stressing about things you have zero control over. As the author, you really only control one thing: the writing. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially for us Type A sorts. But if I could go back to when my first book was on submission—the one that didn’t sell, for what it’s worth—I would ask my agent to not even tell me it was going to editors, and only to contact me when there was an offer to consider. Also, you learn quickly and somewhat painfully that reviews are not for authors—they’re for readers. So, the best thing you can do is to not read them, even the glowing ones, because there’s nothing like a one- or two-star review to kill your writing mojo. That has been a difficult lesson to learn (it’s so tempting…just a quick minute on Goodreads…), but now my husband reads them for me and lets me know about the 5-star reviews if I ask.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
Social media has been amazing for word of mouth and finding pockets of engaged readers. Not only can I share book news on Twitter and Facebook, or fun bookish photos on Instagram, it allows me to connect in real time with readers and other authors. As well, you can find other authors, bloggers, and book lovers on social sites who will become your greatest advocates and supporters, and help lessen the marketing load by sharing reviews, giveaways, photos and love for your novel(s). It also makes writing less lonely—I have discovered my version of a “water cooler” thanks to Twitter and Instagram!
What struggles did you face in the writing/ publishing process?
The hard parts: Writing in isolation; looming deadlines when your creativity has taken a vacation; lack of control (over everything, except the actual words); there are no weekends or days off; putting yourself out there to be critiqued and reviewed; trying to balance writing with family; getting published!
The best parts: Writing in your pajamas if you want; the creative process; doing what you love, every day; meeting other authors and becoming a part of the writing community; hearing from readers who have loved your books; sharing your words; holding your novel for the first time, and seeing it on the shelf; getting published!
How do you handle rejection as a writer?
Rejection is part of the writing process, and though I wish I could say at some point it ends, it doesn’t. There’s rejection when you’re looking for an agent (so much); rejection once your agent begins submitting to publishing houses and editors; rejection on book ideas even after you’ve published a novel (or four); rejection from readers; rejection from book features in magazines, newspapers, online book pages, trade publications, reviewers; rejection from “best of year” book lists…yeah, best to get used to it and stay the course. Not everyone will love your book, and some will downright hate it – in some cases, vehemently. And that’s okay. Reading is so subjective. There are books I didn’t finish that other people adored, and other books I still think about that others loathed. So, the best thing to do (while you grow thicker skin through experience and understanding that everything will be okay, after all) is to not attach your worth to others’ impressions of your work.
What is the best writing advice you have received?
Write Every Day. I read Stephen King’s memoir and craft book, On Writing, years ago – when I was writing my first book, which is now RIP in a dark drawer – and this simple idea to never get far away from the craft of writing stuck with me. Some days I write nothing more than a paragraph, but I do try to work the craft daily. It keeps the writing muscles in shape and helps me stay focused when I really need to churn out a lot of words to hit a deadline.