In this 5 On interview, author Elizabeth Marro (@EGMarro) discusses her good writing days and her bad writing days, literary vs. commercial fiction, and what she learned from the sale and marketing of her first novel.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Marro is the author of Casualties, a novel about a single mother and defense executive who loses her son just when she thought he was home safe from his final deployment. Now she must face some difficult truths about her past, her choices, the war, and her son. A former journalist and recovering pharmaceutical executive, Betsy Marro’s work has appeared in such online and print publications as LiteraryMama, The San Diego Reader, and on her blog. Originally from the North Country region of New Hampshire, she now lives in San Diego where she is working on her next novel, short fiction, and essays. Casualties, published in February 2016 by the Berkley imprint of Penguin Random House, is her first novel.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Say you’re having a bad writing day. What, for you, is a bad writing day? And what builds your confidence, gets you excited to write?
ELIZABETH MARRO: A bad writing day is a day without any writing at all in it. Even if all I manage to do is scratch out a line or solve a problem in my head as I walk or vacuum the house, the day is not a lost cause. There are days when writing is a lot of staring at the blank page, but that’s fertile time and it takes a bit of sinking into.
The days that are really tough for me are the days that involve re-entry after a period of spending time away—always for good reasons, but nevertheless, away. I get through those re-entry periods by diving in and enduring the discomfort that lasts for a day or two. Nothing builds my confidence like getting in a thousand words, even really bad ones. The other thing that works is getting out into the world after spending the morning writing. I get excited to write when I hear something, see something, realize something that I can use. This can be an offhand comment by a total stranger, a glimpse of a setting or a scene, or an unusual name that I can’t stop thinking about in the obituary pages. I find a lot of inspiration in the obituary pages. My dad’s wife has begun to save the ones from her local paper and send them to me. I love that.
Do your story ideas begin with plot, character, or message in mind? If it’s been different depending on the story you were telling at the time, did you find your writing process or experience changed from one to the next?
I begin with people and a question that’s been bothering me. With Casualties, the characters presented themselves early in shadowy form and developed over time. The question they would grapple with is one that we all have to grapple with: how to live when the worst has happened and how to live with the decisions we can’t undo. With the novel I’m now trying to write, the people are again on the scene along with their arcs and the key “what if” question that got me going on it. The plot, I’m afraid, is not as clear as I’d like it to be, but that happened with Casualties, so I have faith.
You said in an interview for the San Diego Tribune, when asked whether you had a personal connection to the military that helped inform Casualties, “Nope. I’m part of that 99 percent that’s on the other side of the fence looking across at this unfamiliar territory.” How easy or how difficult was it to get inside the mind of someone who’d had the experience of seeing their child go to—and be away at—war? How did you do it?
I would never say that climbing inside the mind of another human being—even, or perhaps especially, a fictional one—is easy, but it is worth every minute of trying. The easier part, perhaps, was tapping into my experience as a single mother and all the feelings that come with the thought of losing a child for any reason. These feelings were not easy to live with but they were accessible. We don’t get through life without losing people we’ve loved unless we are very lucky, and I was able to recall my own grief and the grief of those I’ve known well.
I did spend a lot of time reading articles, blogs, and books written by or about parents of children in the military. I would read every one of the names of the fallen that were printed in our local paper or the New York Times and think about the families left behind. It is impossible to do this and not feel deeply. In the end, the feelings of helplessness, loss, and grief are as universal and they are individual. I don’t think they are necessarily altered by how that loss happens.
An oft-expressed opinion of literary writing is that it’s not very accessible to a wide audience. An equally oft-expressed opinion is that commercial writing lacks a certain amount of artistic attention. What is your opinion of accessibility vs. artistic expression and the importance of either/each?
When I was younger, and by that I mean off and on from my twenties to as recently as 2003, I thought these distinctions were important. I thought I had to know what kind of writer I was and live there. I lost sight of the fact that while publishers and writers think this way, most readers don’t. They pick up a book and they either keep reading or put it down.
Some books work better than others. Some readers love to be presented with a book that asks more of them. I’ve just finished I, the Divine by Rabih Alameddine, who wrote the entire novel as first chapters. In his hands, this experiment worked beautifully, and I loved how he gave us a character, her world, her revisionist history, and the “real” story with every new beginning. This wouldn’t work for every reader and wouldn’t be natural for every writer, but as a reader and a writer, it woke me up, it delighted me. I hated for the novel to end. I found it both artistic and accessible.
On the other hand, I have been at war with James Joyce’s Ulysses since I was in college. I fall in love with Joyce’s sentences and then resent the hell out of him for making it all so difficult for me to get lost in the pages of his novel. For me it is the most difficult to access novel I’ve ever encountered. In this case the artist left me behind, and I don’t love that. I have vowed to attempt Ulysses yet again after receiving some helpful advice from a writer and reader I respect to just treat it as though I’m walking through a city; to resist trying to connect dots. We’ll see how it works.
But life is short, and large-scale commercial success for most writers is elusive. I think we should read and write what we want and find our audiences.
In an email exchange we had some time ago about writing, age, and when (and whether) to just STOP, we discussed the different ways in which success and failure are determined and the role age plays. You wrote, “There are all kinds of pressures that are tied to the expectations we have of ourselves at different ages.” What pressures are you experiencing, and what, for you, determines success or failure?
When I was younger, the pressure was so great it often stopped me in my tracks. I could write for newspapers and I could write for my later job in pharmaceuticals, but the short stories I wanted to write, the novel I hoped to write, never got fully underway.
While some of this was due to the demands of having a job, raising a child, and trying to figure out life, most of my problem was fear. My expectations of myself were huge, and my fear of failure was in direct proportion to that. I was in my twenties and I wanted to be one of those amazing women who did everything, when what I really needed to do, and couldn’t until much later, was focus. Luckily, I was gathering skills, experience, material, and confidence in other aspects of my life. These all came in handy when I was ready to focus on the writing. The fear factor fades significantly when you hit an age when it is “now or never.” Also, by that time, I’d survived a few big failures and realized that they weren’t the end of the world.
The only real failure then—and now—is failure to try. Lately, the pressure comes from the only deadline that matters, which is trying to write all the things I want to write before my life is over.
5 on Publishing
Describe how you felt in the first weeks following the publication of Casualties, and then how you felt six months later. How long does the high last? What is expected of you in those initial weeks and months? How long does it take for the high to end, and what does that feel like when the crash comes (if it ever does)? What thoughts—whether fears or ambitions—does the crash (assuming it came) inspire?
I remember it all got real when a Massachusetts friend sent a photograph of my book the day she bought it. This happened to be the day before the official launch day. The clerk in her local Barnes & Noble went into the boxes of newly arrived books to get it for her. When I saw the photo, I was thrilled but also a bit frightened. The book was out in the world now and there were no do-overs.
There was a kind of physical and emotional crash in the late spring, three months after the launch, but I think this was because I spent a big chunk of April 2016 on a self-scheduled tour in the Northeast. I basically took the book home with me and saw people who have known me all my life. It was nearly three weeks of jet lag combined with the joy of being with people who really showed up for me and brought lots of friends. That required a bit of sleep and retrenching, and I found that writing, showing up at my desk each day, helped a lot.
Six months later, the fear was long gone and what remains is a steady glow that comes from contact I’ve had with readers. They’ve written, they’ve invited me to book clubs, and I’ve loved seeing what the story becomes once they’ve read it. Things are calmer, now, and that nice steady glow remains.
What were some of the more difficult editing choices you had to make that were suggested by either your agent or your editor, and were there any you disagreed with? If so, how was that handled?
Most of the tougher editing choices were made with my agent. She is largely responsible for getting me to rewrite my ending or, rather, take it a bit further. I loved working with her and trusted her because she never asked me to do anything that I wasn’t comfortable with, and she always got me to think about what would make the story stronger.
My editor was very good, also, and there were few changes and even fewer areas where we disagreed. I was very fortunate. The real killer for me comes when I read parts of the book now and see all kinds of things I want to fix or change that never came up. I’m saving my observations so they can help me with the new project.
What did you learn about contracts, whether with an agent or publisher (or both), that authors new to the traditional publishing world should be aware of or look for in their own contracts?
The publisher happened to have a very long and detailed contract that they may have changed by now. When I received it, the agency had already made recommended changes. The first thing I did was read the entire thing and mark every place where I had a question about the contract and/or the changes made by the agency. Everyone should do this even if it is a struggle. My agent is also an attorney, so she was able to translate quickly any passages that were confusing, and she was quick to follow up on concerns or questions with the publisher.
The basic arrangement was pretty standard, and I knew that I would not be able to make substantive changes in the financial arrangements. It’s very difficult to do, but I would have loved to have the commitments and responsibilities spelled out more clearly. At the end of the day, I knew much of the responsibility for promotion would end up with me.
I recommend reading everything you can about this. There are tons of articles out there. Frankly, much depends on how important certain things are to you and how much leverage you have. If you are a first-time author without a lot of leverage you may find it difficult to control the selection of the cover art, for example, or financial arrangements. The most important thing to be aware of going in is the relationships you have. Know who is on your side and do everything you can to help them. This includes making communication easy and open with your editor, responding quickly to problems, initiating discussions with the publicist, and thanking everyone regularly.
It is easy for some nervous, introverted authors to lose sight of how life can be really stressful right now for the folks in the industry. Ultimately the editor, the publicist, and others work for the publisher, not for you. You are all a team with common goals, and it is important to keep that in mind.
As you write your next novel and look toward future publication, how much thought do you give to whether small (or medium) presses, Big Five publishers, or self-publishing will best serve you financially and creatively (and personally)? If someone were about to shop around their own novel and didn’t know what to do, is there any advice you would give them based on your experience?
I don’t spend much time thinking about that right now. I will once the novel is ready. I had a pretty good experience the first time around with a traditional publisher, but I think the novel itself will help determine the best approach. I’m open to all of them.
I would say keep an open mind. The thought of being published by a major publisher is seductive, and a major publisher can do a lot to help distribute the book. However, unless you are at the top of the priority list, you will not get tons of help with promoting the book. You may not get the same level of attention from a busy editor, and unless you are a very big author or a debut author the publisher has decided to support in a big way, you have no real leverage when it comes to negotiating.
With a smaller press, I’ve heard it can be more of a partnership both on the editorial and marketing front. If you decide to self-publish, then, of course you have much more control over everything from editorial to pricing. I, for one, wanted and needed the help of a publisher to handle the distribution and to launch me into this world. It takes significant resources to do this right, and with the limited time I have in life for writing, I want all the help I can get with that part.
Is there anything you wish you had done more or less of, marketing-wise, in the weeks leading up to and following the publication of your book? If you invested in publicity, did that investment pay for itself in book sales? If not, how did it advance your book in other ways?
I don’t regret any of the things I did. As I move forward, I will continue to look for opportunities to meet or connect with larger numbers of potential readers at one time. This can range from setting up talks to creating other events with organizations whose members may have an interest in me or my novel’s subject.
I’ll also spend more time doing things that feed both writing and promotion—more essays, more writing, more collaboration with organizations I admire and want to support to create events that help us all. It can be very stressful to think about marketing and promotion—there is always the feeling that you should be doing more. When I engage with others in projects that support us all, it just feels more sane and grounded. That said, any author should be prepared, I think, to take on the job of selling her book, because that is today’s reality.
I learned lots of lessons about marketing, and I’m still learning them. I really didn’t know what to expect from any of the activities I did. My biggest problem, I believe, was that I went to market with a loyal but very small reader base. (They did amazing things for me and I love each and every person who has been there along the way.) It was clear to me that every promotional investment is enhanced when you have a larger base, so the upfront investment of time and care, there, I believe are very important. The best advice I’ve received so far and am struggling to follow is to learn which social media platform your audience uses the most and live there, don’t try to live on all the platforms at once.
Try to resist the comparison game, but do try to learn from what others are doing. And be patient. Lauren Cerand, one of the consultants I spoke with early on, was the one who explained that this is truly a marathon, not a sprint, and that there is a lot to do after the first few months after launch.
I do wish I’d started to develop a presence with readers months/years before the book, but I was glad I invested in some professional publicity help in the months and weeks leading up to launch. I spent a good deal of my advance on publicity and promotion. It is a bit misleading to try to answer the “recouping” question by measuring the effectiveness of publicity and promotion with book sales since I don’t make any money on the book until my advance is paid back. The promotion puts me deeper into the hole, if you look at it that way. On the other hand, it is possible to gauge the impact of certain efforts on sales since the publisher shares the sales data with me and I could, cautiously, correlate some activity with sales increases and lack of activity with lower sales.
My main goal for the promotion I’ve been doing is to find as many readers and sales as I can to pave the way for my next book. I worked with one very traditional publicist with a great reputation and lots of relationships, and I consulted with two others whose background and expertise were in online and newer forms of promotion. And I was glad I’d connected with a fabulous group of fellow authors, old and new, who were launching their own books. We were able to help each other shorten the learning curve for each other. They all helped me gain visibility for my book and I learned a ton about what to do and how to do it myself.
Knowing what I know now, I would invest less on certain activities and more on others. I’d like, for instance, to have invested more in Facebook advertising and other areas which offer the ability to target and connect efficiently, leaving more time for writing. I have spoken with one novelist who was published traditionally who funneled the bulk of her spending into Facebook advertising over the past year. I saw some encouraging results in an experiment I did late last year using it. I discovered and connected with more readers at one time than I had in the past. I also learned that a large majority of these readers prefer ebooks, which is great, but on Amazon, for example, the Kindle version costs more than the hard copy.
I don’t have control over pricing or discounting of my books, so certain things I’d like to have tried and still hope to try, such as running a limited-time deep discount, are out of my hands—this, combined with targeted advertising, would help a lot.
The good news is that it is never really too late to support the book. The traditional publishing and bookselling world moves on pretty quickly after a launch, but there are things you can continue to do throughout the life of the book to find readers. I’m actually working with a group of women to present a panel about this very subject at Bindercon LA the first weekend in April. It’s called “Life After Launch: How to Balance Book Promotion and Writing for the Long Haul.” I’m looking forward to learning as well as sharing what I’ve managed to glean along the way.
Thank you, Betsy.