Sunday, May 1, 2011

Parenting to Publishing

Karen Stivali got her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from NYU in film and television production and a Master's degree from Rutgers in clinical social work. She worked in both industries in varying roles until she got married and had kids.  She lives in New England, and for the past 15 years Karen Stivali has been a stay-at-home mom of two boys. She does all sorts of volunteer work at her sons' schools and in her community. She also bakes custom cakes/desserts and is known for her party planning and fundraising expertise. For the past 5 years she has been writing about the TV show The Bachelor for several forums on the topic. She also has a great blog where she ties in the topic of The Bachelor, her love of cooking and her novel. Sounds tasty!
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?
We’re supposed to come out? Uh oh.Seriously, although it’s no secret to anyone in my life that I write (blogs, forum posts, letters, newsletters, recommendations, meeting minutes, storyline/scripts for birthday parties) there are very few people who know that I am (and have for years been) a fiction writer. I like to keep my writing life separate from my personal life in a lot of ways. A lot of people don’t like the pressure of reading their friend’s writing. They may not like it, or it may not be a genre they find interesting. Plus (my personal pet peeve) a lot of people assume that the people in a novel are “real people” who they “know” and there’s nothing I hate more than the question “so, am I in the book?” It’s easier for everyone if I only tell people about my writing on a need-to-know basis.
What genre do you write? What is your book about?
I write women’s fiction with strong romantic overtones. Contemporary love stories. “Letting Go” (formerly titled Meant to Be), the novel that I currently have on submission, is about what happens when you’re already committed to the wrong person when fate finally brings you the right one. My two main characters, Daniel (a handsome British expatriate who’s a professor at NYU) and Marienne (a talented artist and awesome cook who’s about to become a mom) are both trapped in marriages that are, for a variety of reasons, unfulfilling. When Daniel and Marienne meet as neighbors they discover their paths have crossed several times before; they lived in the same town briefly as children, attended the same college. A penchant for good books, bad movies and Marienne’s to-die for homemade brownies creates a powerful bond between them. Their friendship helps them weather every hardship from Daniel’s divorce to Marienne’s unexpected widowhood, now they’re both secretly wondering if it can survive a first kiss.
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?
Yes, I’m actively seeking an agent. My query stats are all over the map. I’ve had a dozen requests for partial and full manuscripts, multiple form rejections, and a lot of non-responders. I currently have several submissions out, so we’ll see what happens. The most memorable feedback I’ve received came from an agent who requested enough pages that he clearly read through the first significant sex scene. The feedback I received was that “although there were certain elements that I truly enjoyed… this isn’t what I’m looking for at the moment.” It made me laugh because I’m guessing the sex scene was the enjoyable element. I can live with that.
Have any websites or articles helped with the query/synopsis process?
Yes. Nathan Bransford’s blog and  forums have helped me tremendously. I can’t even tell you how many versions of my query I had critiqued on that site and I’m incredibly grateful to Nathan and all his forum-goers for all the help and feedback they provide. It’s invaluable. Some agents who have not been in the market for my type of novel have taken the time to tell me that my query is well written and I know that wouldn’t have been the case if it hadn’t gone through the review process at Bransford’s forums first.
How do you feel about conferences? Have you been to any? Do you have any suggestions as to which conferences are good?
I have attended one conference, so far---Writer's Digest Conference in NYC this past January. It’s a pretty famous (or infamous) conference because it offers the well-known “pitch slam”, a mind-blowingly nerve-wracking two hour event where every writer in attendance gets the opportunity to pitch a roomful of fifty top agents, in 90-second pitch sessions---agent speed dating. Insane, wild, but a great way to meet agents, fellow writers, and get your pitch heard. I’ve heard great things about Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace, held in Boston annually, and I’d hoped to go to the one this spring, but that’s not working out schedule-wise. I also know some writers who swear by the Backspace Conference in NYC. I hope to attend one of those some day soon.
Can you describe your writing routine? Any certain music, food, smells or atmosphere that get you in the mood to write?
Routine? There’s supposed to be a routine? No one tells me anything. My routine is that I write whenever I possibly can. Sometimes it’s on the backs of receipts I’ve pulled out of my purse because there’s no other paper handy while I’m in the car waiting for basketball practice to be over because it’s my turn to drive carpool. Other times it’s leaning against the bathroom wall writing notes on a tissue with eyeliner because I’m afraid I’ll forget the idea if I have to trek downstairs at 3am and wait for my computer to restart. Most times it’s me, at my laptop in the kitchen, for as many of the 24 hours of each day as humanly possible. I probably get the most solid writing accomplished late at night, when everyone else is asleep, but there are days when I manage to write thousands of words while I’m cooking dinner, helping with homework, fielding phonecalls, and stopping the cats from killing each other. I’m good at multi-tasking. And I almost never sleep. That helps a lot.
What are you currently working on?
I recently completed the first draft of my second novel, “Holding On”. It’s a sequel to my first novel, but it is a completely stand-alone story. I’m letting that sit for a week or two before I do a cover to cover edit. In the meantime I’ve churned out a novella that, with any luck, I’ll finish tonight after I complete this interview.
What are you reading now? What is your favorite book? What is your favorite movie?
I am currently reading about a half dozen books I’ve recently downloaded from a variety of publishers while I research the crossover between contemporary romance and women’s fiction. I’m trying to learn as much as I can about the current market for both of those genres. My all time favorite book is Anton Myrer’s “The Last Convertible”. I read it for the first time when I was 14 and I don’t think I’ve gone more than a year without re-reading it since. It’s one of those sweeping sagas where you come away feeling like you’ve known the characters forever; that’s always my favorite kind of book, one where you feel like the characters are people you actually know. My favorite movie? There is no single answer to that question. I love movies, always have. There are many that I consider favorites for different reasons. Good Will Hunting and Keeping the Faith, because I love the dialogue and the characters. Titanic, because no matter how many times I watch it I always still hope Rose will scoot over and make room for Jack on that damned door. Chocolat, because the combination of Johnny Depp and all that chocolate is just irresistible. Remember Me, because that movie transported me back to my college days in New York City and was a touching tribute to all those impacted by 9/11. Jerry Maguire, because he had me at hello. Cousins, because it’s a beautiful love story. A Fish Called Wanda, What About Bob?, Sleeper and Anger Management, because no matter how many times I watch them they always make me laugh. The Notebook, The Way We Were, and Running On Empty because they always make me cry. (I warned you, I’m a movie-girl. I’ll stop now.)
What is your favorite writer’s resource?
Query Tracker has been incredibly helpful for keeping track of the dozens (and dozens) of queries I’ve sent and has helped me to sort through agents in a very efficient manner. And Nathan Bransford’s blog and forums. Not only are Nathan’s posts great, but he runs his forum in a manner that is conducive to learning and making friends. He insists on posters being respectful to one another, something that is sorely lacking on so many other forums, and it creates a very safe and unique atmosphere. I’ve made several friends there including, most notably, my critique partner Karen Balcom. There’s no question in my mind that if I hadn’t met Karen and had her support I’d have given up and stopped querying ages ago. She was also a great roommate when we attended the Writer’s Digest Conference. She’s a sounding board for every idea and we swap everything we write; there’s no such thing as a draft that’s too early for her to see. I can’t imagine getting through all of this without her.
Tell us about your blog. Any blog advice you can give?
My blog is a glimpse at things that are important to me. I think it accurately depicts my humor, my writing style, my passion for food, and it all ties into my book in ways that may not be obvious to everyone (yet) but are to those who know me and have read my novel. I don’t think I’m qualified to give blog advice other than keep it real and just do it (if any other cliché’s come to mind I’ll let you know).
What blog do you keep up with the most? Why?
The blog I read the most often is Nathan Bransford’s, because I enjoy his posts, find them incredibly informative, and I think he’s an all-around great guy.
Is there an article you have read recently that helped in your writing?
Right now the most helpful articles are the ones that talk about how you can’t give up. That’s definitely an important message that writers need to hear over and over again, because it’s not easy to keep going when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, and everyone in the submission process has days where they feel that way.
Tell us about blogging about The Bachelor. How did you get started? Any perks? Got any juicy scoop?
I started watching The Bachelor several years ago at the beginning of Andy Baldwin’s season. My father had just passed away from pancreatic cancer and when I tuned into the show one of the first things Andy talked about was how he’d started a charity in memory of his uncle who had recently died of pancreatic cancer. I googled the charity, wound up finding links to forum sites about The Bachelor, started posting on them, and rediscovered how much I loved writing. I’ve posted on the boards for several years and my posts have had in incredibly big impact on my life. I’ve made several online friends who I’ve gone on to meet in real life. I’ve also met several contestants, many of whom I now consider to be good friends. As far as perks go, that’s a double-edged sword. I tend to know how the season plays out before it airs, whether I want to or not. Some seasons I’ve had inside information about contestants that has made me very unpopular with that person’s “fans”. I try to stay away from the “scoop” as much as possible these days and enjoy the show for what it is; a glimpse into the intense, bizarre experience of a group of people who agree to have their lives filmed for eight wacky weeks. I enjoy analyzing the edit, and I love doing my sarcastic commentary, but I never lose sight of the fact that these are real people and that what we see on TV is what the producers choose to show us, and that doesn’t make what we see “real”. Commenting on a reality TVshow should never be used as a free chance to take cruel pot-shots at the personal lives of people you don’t really know. It’s a TV show, it’s for entertainment purposes only.
Tell me a little about your kids, husband and home life.
I have two sons, one husband, two cats and two African dwarf frogs. There’s an abundance of testosterone in my home. All the residents keep me busy in their own special ways. My life is hectic, but I love it. Most days.
When it comes to writing, what kind of support do you have from friends and family?
I have a few friends who know all about my writing endeavors and they are incredibly supportive. I wouldn’t have even completed my first novel without them, let alone survived the query process or made it through book two. I also have a local critique group whose members have been a great source of support and encouragement. I keep writing very separate from my family life. Writing is my time. The rest of my life is family time. Kids and family always come first and as long as they know that I feel like I’m doing my job well.
How do you balance event planning, baking, volunteering, being a good mother/wife and pursuing your writing dream?
I’m supposed to be balanced? Holy crap. These questions are freaking me out. Baking calms me, the product of baking makes everyone around me happy (and I’m a bit of a people pleaser so that works for me). The same goes for event planning. I love to do things that make other people happy, it brings me pleasure. Volunteering is a bit of a compulsion---I’ve only recently learned to say the word “no” and I’m still not very good at it (though there are a few ex-boyfriends who would argue that I’ve always managed to say “no” pretty effectively….but that’s another answer to a different question). I always make sure my family is my top priority, so I know they’re never being neglected. Writing I make time for because I have to do it. It’s like breathing, not doing it is simply not an option.
What has been your biggest challenge in writing so far? Any solutions?
My biggest challenge has been staying sane through the query process. I’ve never been an “oh look at me, look how great my stuff is” person and that doesn’t make it easy when you need to sell yourself and your book to people. Also, rejection is not my favorite thing, but it’s a huge part of the process of trying to publish a book. My solution? I whine to other people who are going through the same thing, and I listen when they whine to me, and we make each other feel better. Misery loves company. And we send each other chocolate, which helps quite a bit.
What is your guilty pleasure? Tell me something people wouldn’t guess about you.
My guilty pleasures are trashy novels, goofy bad movies that I can’t help but watch over and over again, and chocolate, ridiculously high volumes of chocolates---it’s not a snack, it’s not a food group, chocolate (for me) is a way of life. There are a lot of things people wouldn’t guess about me, those things just vary depending on who the people are. I’m actually a very open person and will tell most people anything they ask, but different people ask different questions, so they all know different things. People who didn’t know me in college probably wouldn’t guess that I went through a phase where I dressed like a punk rocker, complete with the combat boots and safety pinned clothes…though maybe they would, I still dress on the quirky side. I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t guess that I’m a novelist and would be surprised to learn that I not only write loves stories but ones with significant sexual content. Most people wouldn’t guess that I worked as a freelance hand-drawn animator for a while…I worked on a few TV commercials and some segments of the show PeeWee's Playhouse (no, I never met PeeWee).
Any advice you can give to writers? Also, any helpful tips, tricks or websites?
My advice to writers is this: If there is something else you can see yourself being happy doing, do that. If you simply have to write, accept that it’s a necessity, it’s part of who you are, stop fighting it and do it. That’s really all there is. Oh, and make sure you get people to critique your writing. No matter how good you are or how thoroughly you go over your own work there are elements of your own writing that you simply can’t see. Everyone needs feedback and editing. Everyone. You are editing these answers for me before you post them, right?

To learn more about Karen Stivali check out her blog and also follower her on twitter.
Thanks again, Karen, for a great interview. You are very funny and a talented writer, and I am sure we will see your books one day in our local bookstores. Good luck in your writing and agent search, and please keep us posted.


  1. My hat is off to you ladies who are moms and write. I can barely raise myself and do anything else so huge, HUGE props to you. Really great interview...good luck with your agent search.

  2. Thanks for the kind words and well wishes, Mary Kate!

    And thanks, Jessica, for conducting the interview!

  3. What an excellent interview, Jessica! :)

    And WOW. You are one talented and smart lady Karen! The education and careers you've pursued outside of writing are so impressive! I hope you find an agent very soon so we can read your fabulous books.