Erin Bartels is a longtime member of the CCWA family. In addition to teaching workshops (this month’s, as well as in August!), she has had a hand in planning past conferences and events. She is an integral part of our writerly community, and we are thrilled that she stopped by for a quick Q&A session!
What is your writing schedule like?
Schedule? What is this schedule of which you speak? I'm very good at giving people advice about writing regularly, but I'm very bad at doing just that, mostly because: life. I had been getting up at about 5:30 each morning for quite some time in late winter and early spring to revise one novel and draft another. Then suddenly I had a couple beta reads and a couple paying freelance jobs drop right in my lap. We needed a new car (and so needed some extra dough) so I took them. They finish up by June 1 (the same day as my workshop, which is luckily not on time management) so I hope to get back to writing in the mornings in June and July.
I try to work before anyone else gets up because I find it nearly impossible to concentrate and remain immersed in my fictional world around people who need things from me. Loud din of a busy coffee shop, no problem. I don't owe those people anything. Husband looking for keys or cute little kid looking for hugs, no way. I do owe those people my whole self when it's mine to give. When my husband (who is also a writer) and I are both in drafting mode, we often write together in the evenings, which is great. But sometimes there is a scene you just have to be wholly in, alone, and it's best to have a silent or empty house for that.
What has surprised you most about your journey as an author?
Because I've worked in the publishing industry for nearly 15 years, not a lot in the publishing process itself has surprised me--yet. What has truly surprised me is rereading my own work after some time has passed. The last edit I did of the novel I have on submission right now (The Bone Garden) I noticed layers of symbolism and connection between scenes and themes that I had not intentionally put there. Remember deconstructing books in English class and coming up with all sorts of incredible parallels and symbols and hidden meanings? Yes, some of that is intentional, but I think some of it comes from the author's subconscious. I read things in that manuscript I don't remember writing. It was like parts of it had been written by someone else. I've also had some early readers point some of these things out to me that I hadn't noticed. And that's really thrilling--to know that the years I've spent honing this thing have been worth it because, damn it, it's good.
Do you have any writing rituals or habits that others might think are strange?
I wish I did. It would be so much more interesting if writing were somehow magical, if the muse were conjured up by incantations or awakened by incense. But I have no talismans, no little goo-gahs or statues, no favorite coffee mug, no candle-strewn shrine. Because for me the muse is awakened in the act of writing, not the environment that surrounds the writing. The writing simply has to start and it will go somewhere--it has to. It's in the act of writing that I discover just what I have to say.
What’s the LAST thing you Googled for your novel?
Precipitation levels in Michigan over the last few decades. I was looking for the year of a particularly rainy summer in about the right time frame in which to set some backstory. I know it's fiction, but I am the type of person who wants to get certain details anchored in reality--phases of the moon, a bad mosquito season, constellations in the right part of the sky at the right time of year--because I've had a few reading experiences that were ruined by noticing that an author got something like that dead wrong and it yanked me totally out of the story. Setting, especially a dynamic setting you find in nature, is so important to get right. Trees need to bloom at the right time, crops need to be the right height, lake levels need to be high or low on the right years. Seem picky? Some reader out there knows what's right and when you as the writer get it wrong, that reader can no longer trust you.
What are you working on now?
Once my freelance projects are out of the way, I'm back into drafting mode on a new story that is, at the moment, rather unsatisfyingly titled One Last Summer. It's a story that is close to my heart because in it I'm exploring some things that happened (in different ways and at different times) to me as a child. You know those losses and betrayals and just downright confusing moments of childhood and young adulthood that you never got explained? That friend who dropped you like a rock, that person who abused you, that loneliness you felt, that guilt over things you know you shouldn't feel guilty about? But also the achingly simple beauty of childhood summers, new possibilities, a fresh chance at love. Those are the types of things I'm writing about.
I'm pilfering the setting of my first failed manuscript (because it's awesome and I love it and the story sucked in some ways but there was good stuff there too) and even a few characters, so a lot of the work of location scouting and casting is done, but I'm telling an entirely different story with different main characters. And even though I'm revisiting some hard memories and crafting some hard scenes (which is maybe another reason I prefer to be alone when I'm writing them out) I also get to revel in a world with no responsibilities, lots of sunshine and fresh air, and Michigan "lake culture" as I like to think of it. It's a beach read if there ever was one, but also a bit of coming-of-age and midlife crisis and envy and fear and family drama thrown in to keep things uncomfortable (in a good way, of course).