Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Parenting to Publishing

Karen Balcom is a wife, mother of two, lives in Chapel Hill, NC and like me, she is a writer.  She spent twelve years in the music business, first at Twin/Tone Records in Minneapolis, MN and later at Mammoth Records in Carrboro, NC.  She left music when she and her husband decided to have kids.  Now Karen runs her own business designing and making handbags (mintworkshop.com) and has done freelance writing related to sewing, textiles, and design.  Karen says she wrote a novel because she wanted to see if there was a way to sleep less, drive her husband crazy, and neglect her children, but still have something to show for it.
Let’s see how she’s doing it:

Karen my blog is titled “closet writer” I only recently came “out” about my writing.  When did you come out of the closet?  Ha!  I’ve been out of the closet for a while now.  I started freelancing seven or eight years ago and when I switched to fiction, I told my husband and close friends right away.

What genre do you write? What is your book about?  My book is called “Bring Me Back”, is women’s fiction and is about Claire, a music writer who gets a career-defining assignment to interview Christopher, the media-hating rock star she was obsessed with twenty years earlier, in high school.

Are you actively seeking an agent? What are your query stats? What is the most memorable feedback (good or bad) you have received about your book?  I AM actively seeking an agent!  And my query stats are about as bad as they can be—somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 sent, a handful of requests, still waiting on some, rejections on others.  I know my query letter is the problem.  The best feedback I’ve had came from Leigh Feldman, who wrote me an extremely encouraging rejection letter.  Sarah Dessen (YA author who lives in Chapel Hill) referred me to her.  Leigh said my book had such an appealing premise that she had no doubt that others would clamor for it.  I committed her words to memory.  Still waiting for clamoring.

Has any websites or articles helped with the query/synopsis process?  I think getting query advice on the internet is like spending the day on WebMD.  You’re only going to come away thinking everything is wrong or you have an incurable disease.  Read the stuff on Query Shark and then just start working on it.  I have written at least fifty versions of my query and I continue to revise.  Getting feedback is the most important part.

How do you feel about conferences? Have you been to any? Do you have any suggestions of which conferences are good?  I just attended my first conference, which was the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York in January.  It was great and I definitely recommend it.  I met some people, learned a lot, and participated in their Pitch Slam, so I now know that I can face a firing squad with a minimum of hesitation.  I am hoping to attend the Muse Conference in Boston in April.

Can you describe your writing routine? Any certain music, food, smells or atmosphere gets you in the mood to write?  I like quiet.  I do my best work at home when everyone else is asleep.  When I was writing “Bring Me Back”, I woke up at 3:30 or 4:00 every day.  I would write for a few hours, get the kids off to school, and then get back to writing as soon as I could.  I use music to put me in a certain scene or mood, but then I have to turn it off to do the actual writing.  

What are you currently working on?  I’m working on a second novel and a handful of short stories.  I recently finished a novella about Claire, my main character from “Bring Me Back”.  It’s a slice of her life in high school and how her general disappointment with boys led to her obsession with Christopher.  That was really fun to write.

What are you reading now? What is your favorite book? What is your favorite movie?  I’m always reading ten things at once.  The last few nights has been “Meant To Be”, which is unpublished and written by my critique partner, Karen Stivali.  It’s wonderful.  Even the third or forth time through, I still laugh and cry.  My favorite book of all time is either “The Trumpet of the Swan” by EB White or Judy Blume’s “Forever”.  Silly, I know, for a grown woman, but I love those books.  Favorite movie is easy—“Sixteen Candles”. 

What is your favorite writer’s resource?  I love Query Tracker.  I could not live without that website.  I also love love love Anne Lamott’s book on writing, “Bird by Bird”.  I read that when I get depressed about writing and it always makes me laugh.

Tell us about your blog, any blog advice you can give?  My blog is meant to be fun.  I blog about music a lot and have been doing a series called Rock ‘n’ Roll High School where I ask people five questions about high school and music.  My philosophy with blogging is that you shouldn’t talk about yourself all of the time.  It’s boring. 

What blog do you keep up with the most? Why?  Nathan Bransford blog.  I read that every day.  Nathan is funny and entertaining and although he concentrates on writing and books, he isn’t afraid of the occasional tangent.  I like tangents.

Is there an article you have read recently that helped in your writing? I read a hilarious blog entry on Terrible Minds about the reasons you shouldn’t be a writer.  Not helpful, but entertaining.  (warning: the article is vulgar)

What was easier to break into the music industry or the writing world?  I was so lucky to get my music industry job, but I worked my butt off and my enthusiasm for music definitely helped.  I am hoping that the same things will work with writing.  I’ll have to get back to you on that one. 

Tell me a little about your kids, husband and home life.
Steve and I have been married for 15 years.  He’s much more laid back than me and it sounds clichéd, but he really is my best friend.  He’s the one person who really gets me (although I try to keep him on his toes).  Our daughter, Emily, is 12 and has an incredible sense of self for her age.  She’s very creative.  She’s a LOT like I was at that age—boy crazy.  Ryan is 9, and we call him the rock scholar.  He is obsessed with music, but not normal stuff.  He loves The Beatles and the Black Crowes.  We’re pretty laid back at our house and we mostly just like spending time together, listening to music or taking a family dip in the hot tub.

What kind of support do you have from friends and family when it comes to writing?  The answer to this one could be a book in itself.  I have unbelievable support from my entire family.  There are many writers in my family, so everybody gets it.  My friends are incredible too.  Everybody’s always willing to read and offer feedback.  I’ve had more than 30 beta readers on “Bring Me Back”.

How do you balance running your own business, being a good mother/wife and pursuing your writing dream?  It is a constant struggle to keep all of the balls in the air.  I know there are days when I don’t do a great job.  I just try to spend some time on everything every day, even when it drives me crazy.  I prefer to focus on one thing and finish it, but that isn’t always possible. 

What has been your biggest challenge in writing so far? Any solutions?  Learning to accept criticism.  You can write in a bubble, but you can’t produce something worth reading in a bubble.  It’s like having kids—at some point you have to put them on the school bus, knowing that somebody, somewhere, is going to make fun of them.  The good news is that accepting criticism has its rewards because it helps you get better.

What is your guilty pleasure? Tell me something people wouldn’t guess about you.  I don’t know if this is something people wouldn’t guess about me, but I am obsessed with Duran Duran.  20+ years later and John Taylor still makes my heart go pitter-pat.  My high school crush on him was fuel and inspiration for “Bring Me Back”.

Any advice you can give to writers? Also, any helpful tips, tricks or websites?  By far, the most valuable tool I found in this process is my critique partner.  We are a great match—identical work ethic (crazy), same sense of humor (more crazy), and we have complimentary writing styles, but are still quite different.  We started querying on the same day and have helped each other through some very difficult days.  When you get a bunch of rejections in one day (and you will—that’s just the way the universe works), you need someone who feels your pain for real.  We IM almost every day and sometimes use Skype or talk on the phone.  We are in constant contact.  We met on the Nathan Bransford forum. Nothing I write goes out into the world without Karen reading it.  Nothing.  I meant it when I said it—no bubble.

We hope to be buying “Bring Me Back” at our local bookstores.  To learn more about Karen Balcom or her critique partner Karen Stivali check out their blogs.  I want to say a BIG thank you to Karen for being my very first interview for Parenting to Publishing.


  1. Great job, Jessica! Glad you've got this up and running! Thanks!

  2. Good job on this Jess! You asked good questions and I've got a real interest in "Bring Me Back". Can't wait for the next one :)

  3. Great post. My top quote: "You can write in a bubble, but you can’t produce something worth reading in a bubble." Repeat it. Bold it. Print it. Wallpaper it everywhere you write!

    Although Balcom, Stivali and I breathed the same hot, stuffy air during the Writer's Digest Conference we never met in person. Twitter connected us nevertheless! Inspirations both. Thank you Twitter, WDC11 and Jessica LeSaicherre for bursting the writing bubble.

  4. This was a great interview, and very inspiring. I totally agree that finding the right critique partner is crucial. Nothing compares to getting feedback from someone who "gets" your work like you do, but has enough distance to find its weaknesses.