Tuesday, February 17, 2015

IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS - My Guest Today - Author Laura Smith

 Today, I'm happy to welcome author Laura Smith to Between The Pages. Laura is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA. She earned her BA in Creative Writing from Carlow University in 2007. Since then, she has published poetry in Rune Magazine, Voices from the Garage, Falling Star Magazine, Blast Furnace Press, The Lavender Review, James Dickey, and Torrid. She has also self-published three middle grade books on Amazon and has recently been writing freelance articles for Hubpages.com for the past year. Besides writing, she enjoys watching and studying movies, drawing, and spending time with her family. 

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, Where would I live? 

(Laura) I live in the south hills of Pittsburgh, PA. I grew up in the suburbs, seven miles from the city. I like to write about suburban life, especially from a kid’s point of view. I now own my own house in a nearby suburban neighborhood so I get to experience suburban life from an adult perspective. I like going to cook outs in the summer and decorating the house for the holidays.

I’m a short drive from both the city and the country so I experience many different environments throughout the year. I can go downtown to see a Pirate game one day and fishing at the lake the next. Pittsburgh also has all four seasons, sometimes which literally occur all within the same day. It’s gray and rainy here. You can go five days or more without ever seeing the sun, which can bring you down, but when the sun finally comes out, it brings about a euphoric feeling and makes you appreciate it so much more. When the weather is warm, I like to sit outside and write during my lunch breaks and on weekends. When it’s cold, which is often, I stay in and write under the blankets with the TV to keep me company.

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, What things would inspire me?

(Laura) I’m inspired by movies, dreams, fears, and the past. None of my characters are based on real people, but I borrow physical or behavioral traits from people I know to make a more human but completely fabricated character. I watch movies to figure out how to frame a story and shape dialogue. When I have a vivid dream, I write it down as a poem. I struggle with poetry, and dreaming does all of the work for me, creating imagery and symbolism. After each inspiring dream, I jot it down and then sketch or even paint an image from that dream as a reference when shaping the stanzas. The past is often a great inspiration to me.

My first book, The Stable House, was inspired by a trip to a neighbor’s estate sale and seeing all of the antique riding gear and horse-themed merchandise for sale. There, I realized how little I knew of her past. I had always known this neighbor as an old woman, but she had a fascinating, hidden history. Paired with my fear of house fires, I soon had a story about a girl who learns about her own neighbor’s past just before a house fire ruins her own and forces her into a new lifestyle and plunges her into adolescence.

My second book, Saving Hascal’s Horrors, was inspired by a dream I had about a family running a grave digging business. They would all dress in blue jeans and dig in the rain with shovels until it was deep enough to bury a casket. This exciting, horrific image was blended with my failed attempt at an adult novel about a young woman trying to get out of running her deceased father’s junk store. I changed the protagonist to the little brother, changed the store to a shop that sells horror-themed merchandise, added a ghost story, and I had my new book.

My third book, The Castle Park Kids, is a tribute to my childhood summers when I was allowed the freedom to venture to the park with my brother and sister and play with my friends unsupervised. All of the games and activities that occur in the book are things that we did when we went to the park. I didn’t base any of the characters on any one person but blended personalities together to make one character and moved everyone to the cul-de-sac that wraps around the playground.

Movies, dreams, and memories have really kept the ideas coming, the structures forming, and the stories flowing since I began writing books over six years ago.

(Lynda) Estate sales, dreams, and childhood memories, those are a diverse source of inspiration that all sound intriguing.

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, Do I often visit book stores and why?
(Laura) At least once a month I tend to make a trip to Half Price Books. It’s a chain store with several locations throughout the country. There’s one just a few miles from me. They sell new and used books, movies, CD’s, cassette tapes, records, games, toys, and other merchandise, often at half price. I go there to add to my collection of books and other media. I always end up spending more than I intend and find so many things that I didn’t even know I was looking for. I also like to go to book sales hosted by libraries, churches, etc. I like to search for old copies of Stephen King books and chapter books that have the old cover designs from when I first read them. There’s no such thing as a bad book store or book sale. I eat them up. 

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, Why did I start writing? If I can't write for an extended period of time, do I react in a weird manner?

(Laura) I started writing before I could even read. I filled notebooks while practicing handwriting, one letter at a time. In Kindergarten, I wrote and illustrated my first book. It was a book about dinosaurs. I wrote about every dinosaur I knew (all five of them) and asked my parents to spell out nearly every word while constructing my sentences. Being a five-year-old dinosaur expert, I knew exactly how they should be drawn. So, I used paper that was blank on the top and lined at the bottom. I drew and colored my pictures in the white space and wrote my sentences on the lines. I bound it with yard, and that was my first book. It ended up in the trash eventually, something I’ll always regret not saving.

Throughout the years, I filled dozens of notebooks with journal entries, fan fiction, and original stories and poems. Since I started college, I’ve tried and usually succeed in writing every day. Even if I go on vacation, I bring a notebook with me so I can record whatever is on my mind. Besides writing books, I write poems, essays, blogs, and I journal. So, I can no longer claim writer’s block. There’s always something worth writing down and always something to say. 

(Lynda) Isn't it amazing that, like yourself,  a writer's brain is fully functioning at birth. Sometimes we don't recognize that fact, but most writers have always had a need to record the stories and feelings they experience, even at an early age.

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, What character was the most difficult to write, and why?

( Laura) In a book full of boys, you would think that the girl would be the easiest one to write, but my character of Lisa Arbogast in my second novel, Saving Hascal’s Horrors was my most difficult to write. I wanted to make her one of the gang without making her a tomboy. I wanted her to like horror movies like the rest of them but also had other interests. I had to make her a fifth grade girl who already had a boyfriend without making her seem like she’s boy crazy or calling Jack her boyfriend just so she can say she has one. I had to make her into a girl that her thick-skinned, older boyfriend would want to have as his girlfriend. Lisa is nothing like me. She’s strong, popular, and she knows how to stand her ground. She was somebody I would envy, not emulate. When you create a character, you have to put yourself into them. Like most of my characters, she was not modeled after anyone. She just appeared, and I had to color her in. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually got the balance I wanted. She was mostly developed and became an integral part of the story during the editing process. It took her a long time to form, but once she did, I was proud of how she turned out.

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, Would I take manuscript rejections well. And how do I feel about reviews, both good and not-so-good?

(Laura) I have been fortunate so far to receive mostly positive reviews from critics. I did have one reviewer who refused to finish reading my first book, saying that it was too terrible to continue. That really shattered my confidence and upset me. Of all my books, that one took the longest to write, and I felt like I had wasted my time. Since then, I’ve received six positive Amazon reviews and several verbal praises about that book. Still, it took all of those positive reviews to stamp out that one bad (or rather non-existent) review. I’m still a bit gun shy when a reviewer tells me that the review is ready, and I begin to sweat until I see that they liked it. Many reviewers in the independent world are very kind, elaborating on what they liked about a piece rather than what they didn’t like. 

(Lynda) I know how you feel. I've developed reviewitis since becoming published. But the whole experience has been a learning process and, as a reviewer myself, it makes me more objective and considerate when composing a review.

(Laura) When you’re a writing student in workshop, the general rule is to never say anything negative about another student’s piece. Instead, you offer constructive criticism, telling them where to strengthen the language and what you should develop or leave out. It’s more helpful than just saying you didn’t like something. So, when reviewers explain the weakness in the piece being reviewed, it is much less damaging to the author and more helpful to the reader to explain their thoughts rather than trash someone’s hard earned work. You can make the same point without the added blow of stomping it to pieces. That is something I have vowed never to do to a fellow writer.

The good reviews have a euphoric effect. It makes you feel like you’ve really done your job, and you’re walking on air when it gets posted online. You want to print it out and hand it out to people on the street. You want to send them flowers for saying such nice things about your work because writing is so personal that to validate your work is to validate who you are as a person and what thoughts you consider important. 

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, What would I tell a beginning writer to never do/always do?

(Laura) I would tell a very young writer to fill notebooks or computer space with story after story. I would tell them to let someone they trust read their work to build their confidence, to write as often as they can and never because they have to. Keep a journal or diary and never let anyone read it. That way, you can get everything out onto the page. Never let anyone tell you what to write or not write. Never let anyone tell you to change your style, but do realize that you will have to fight for that style. Don’t worry about where your ideas come from; there is no bad place to draw from.

To someone who has their mechanics and style down and are ready to publish, I would give them all of the templates, instructions, and rules about publishing. I had very little guidance in this department and had to figure out this part for myself. I didn’t know how to get pieces ready for submission. I didn’t realize there were writing contests out there that didn’t have extravagant entry fees. I didn’t know how to build a portfolio or how to query a publisher. I didn’t know about self-publishing and how it is always evolving. The business end of writing takes a lot of work and time away from your writing, but it’s just as important if you want to make a career of it. 

(Lynda Asks:) IF I WERE YOU AND WROTE BOOKS, How important is a book's title to me?

(Laura) Titles are very important and are also my biggest weakness. I wrestle with titles until just before I submit a piece. I’m always changing poetry titles. It is always the most edited and thought about section of my work.

When I read, look for interesting titles or titles that have a word in them that draws me in. Sometimes I shy away from a classic thinking that the title doesn’t make any sense. Who knew that the titles for To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye mean what they mean before you sit down to read them for the first time? You hate the title when you first sit down to read it because you think it’s going to be a boring book about birds or agriculture. It’s not until after you finish that you realize how brilliant the titles are to those specific stories. So, those titles with the secret meaning in them are the best in my opinion. It’s the reader who just has to give it a chance. That’s what I try to remember when reading or writing.

Connect with Laura:

View Laura's books:
The Castle Park Kids

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  1. Really enjoyed the interview. One of the best I've read. Want to remember your name. You seem deep and astute. Aware. Yes, I really like Half-Price bookstores. I go often in Texas. I didn't realize they were a national chain. They seem the world's best kept secret to me. Good luck with your career.

    1. Thanks so much for reading! Yeah, Half-Price is the best.

  2. Enjoyed the interview, Laura. Congratulations on your success.

    I grew up in Dormont. I expect you know where that is. It was a nice place to be a kid. I'm in California now and I miss having four seasons, esp. autumn.

    1. I do! I went to high school in Dormont. It's been a bad winter here (-7 tonight) so enjoy the sun.

  3. Great interview. I loved your memory of writing about dinosaurs as a kid. I used to make up stories all the time too (mostly rip-offs of the Famous Five stories starring me and my friends in our local country park in the south of England). And I got a badge from my favourite kids' program for drawing a patchwork triceratops and sending it in, so I guess I must have liked dinosaurs too!