“Writing Advice from Author, Sarah Maury Swan” by Joan Y. Edwards
Thank you for coming today, Sarah.
I am so glad to be here, Joan.
Our readers are going to love hearing about your adventures writing your exciting books. So, let’s begin.
Sarah, you’ve written three books now. Their titles intrigue me. Where can our readers get them?
All of my books are available through my website: https://sarahmauryswanlovesbooks.com,
Earthquakes is also available through https://www.ingramspark.com It is also available in the Sarasota, FL, public library and, I hope, soon the Craven County, NC, public library system.
All three books are available at Next Chapter Books and Art in New Bern https://thenextchapternc.com/ At the moment, until we get COVID-19 under control, order books from Next Chapter Books and Art from Michelle Flye through her website. She will arrange for you to pick them up and pay for them online.
The three winners of the Giveaway are listed below the interview.
Give us a short summary for each book. And tell us a little history about why you wrote each one.
Terror’s Identity by Sarah Maury Swan
Sable Books, 2015, Ages 12 to 18, $7 pb., Ebook $2.95
Sixteen-year old Aidan Knox’s life turns upside down when he, his sister and his mother enter a witness protection program and begin a dangerous new life because of his father’s work investigating a terrorist organization operating in the U.S. How will he remember the details of his new life with a new name and a made-up past? And will he be able to settle in to a new school and all that entails? Whom can he trust and can he keep his mother and sister safe?
Terror’s Identity – The story came to me because after 911 people in the U.S. equated Muslims with terrorism. That is not true, so I wanted to make that point.
It required a fair amount of research because I didn’t know much about witness protection and who investigated terrorism. Fortunately, my back-door neighbor was in the Secret Service and able to give me most of information.
Since I had read that one should get the main character into trouble and then make the trouble worse, I had Aidan and his family living in Lake Forest, Illinois, to begin with, because it is very posh. So, I called the Lake Forest Chamber of Commerce and asked the woman who answered whether any of the houses that backed onto Lake Michigan were situated so that the owners could moor a boat behind them. I explained that I lived on a horse farm in rural Baltimore County, Maryland. That I wasn’t coming to visit and all I wanted was a yes or no answer. With a sneer in her voice and, I’m sure, her nose in the air, she replied, “I can’t possibly tell you that information.” I’m also sure she sighed at the end. “Listen lady,” I said, “I’m not coming to Lake Forest. I live on a horse farm in Maryland. All I want is the answer to my question.” “Oh, all right,” she sniffed. “Yes, there are a few.”
Though I know a bit about sail boats, I researched boats I wanted to use in the story, including whether you could anchor a boat close to shore. When I called the sewage plant further up the lake to see if a small schooner could anchor off shore there, the worker was much friendlier. The people in Dundalk, Maryland, where Aidan ends up, said “Sure, come on in. What do you need to know?”
I picked the last name for Aidan/Brent’s new best friend from Baltimore/Dundalk history. I wanted to have his new friend be African American. There was a boy from a slave family who helped alert the soldiers in the inner harbor’s Fort McHenry that the British war ships were coming up the Chesapeake Bay and just entering the mouth of the Patapsco River on their way to the fort. I used Da’Wan as his first name. The funny thing is a couple of years ago when I was selling copies at the New Bern Farmers’ Market, a fellow came by with his family and stopped to look at my books. He was so excited when he learned that the sidekick’s name was Da’Wan, because that is his son’s name.
Emily’s Ride to Courage by Sarah Maury Swan
2017, Ages 8 to 12, PB $13.95, Ebook $2.95
ISBN PB: 1978170173; ISBN Ebook: 9781978170179
When Emily and her sister move to their grandfather’s farm, Emily dreams of having a horse of her own. She wants to buy Gemini, the patient horse she uses for riding lessons. However, Grandpa refuses to buy a horse with four white hooves. Emily’s plan to get Grandpa to accept Gemini is only one adventure. Emily also learns the value of math, supports her sister during a difficult time, and even helps her mother all the way in Afghanistan. Gemini proves his value when he helps Emily rescue Grandpa during a grass fire.
Emily’s Ride to Courage – I knew quite a bit about horses, however, I had to make sure of my facts on illnesses, conformation, horseshoeing and other relevant information.
Was it believable that Emily’s mother could be setting up medical clinics in Afghanistan? How did the Army communicate with its personnel there? I also had to make sure I had the correct edition of Black Beauty for the code Emily and her mother use.
What type of math should Emily study to be ready for seventh grade? Would there be a problem finding a dance studio for her older sister to join? Thanks goodness my vet and my horse shoer and my friends who had children in dance class all knew the answers to my questions.
I insisted that the horse on the cover be a blood bay with four white hooves. The reason I picked a bay was to honor my husband’s never fulfilled dream of owning a bay horse. I’ve always loved the coppery-red-brown color of a blood bay. (To be considered a bay the horse must have some shade of brown coat with a black mane and tail and black on his legs)
What is now KDP publishing did this book while it was still CreateSpace. They did some things well, but they could not understand that it was crucial to the plot that the horse have four white hooves. The first horse they put on the cover only had three, even though I had sent them a photo of a bay with four white socks.. They charged me more money to photoshop in the fourth white hoof. They had a tendency to charge extra for every change they made.
Earthquakes, by Sarah Maury Swan
2020, Ages 14 +, PB: $15.95, Ebook $4.95
Jonathon Thomas’ father and maternal grandfather are Marine Corps officers stationed somewhere in the Pacific Theater of WWII, which is stressful enough, but now he’s dealing with real and imaginary earthquakes. To make matters worse, his high school principal warns him and his fellow students of potential spies in the neighborhood. How’s he supposed to recognize a spy? And why are his neighbors being murdered? And why are people sneaking into his house to search for something? The only comfort Jonathon finds is when he talks to his girlfriend, Jennifer Murphy. What’s he going to do when he’s banned from leaving his house? Will his recurring nightmare of being swallowed up when an earthquake splits the ground open under his feet turn into reality?
Again, Earthquakes, came from a lot of personal history and memory. But, on the other hand, since I was only a year and four months old when the story takes place, I had to know what cars were available. And research where various roads and avenues were in relationship to Van Ness Avenue, the street where Jonathon lives.
Plus, I had to research spy activity in this country, especially about German spies on the West Coast. Were any Germans in the Pacific Theater? How much Communist activity was there during the war?
What science experiment might a 1942 high school senior be doing in his class? When I wrote the first draft during NaNoWriMo, I used a simple experiment of melting potassium over a Bunsen burner and then adding vinegar to see what happens. Of course, I had to make sure this was a viable experiment for Jonathon and his lab partner to do. Turns out, it’s not that easy. Potassium is very volatile, but a science friend of a science friend of a friend of my personal friend put me on the right track and it fit right into the story line.
This book came to me because people keep telling me I should write my mother’s story. I don’t think I can do that since I’m not my mother. But part of her history is incorporated into her role as the mother in this story.
In 2018 I saw a writer’s prompt suggesting a 50,000 word novel cozy/noirish mystery. At least that’s what I thought it said. Turns out they only wanted a 5,000 word short story. Oh well.
So, I signed up for the 2018 NaNoWriMo challenge and wrote the first 50,000 words. I’m not an outliner type, but I do think my stories out in my head before I start putting them on paper. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, it’s pretty much imperative to do an outline.
I finished the first draft and sent it out to my critique groups. A lot of edits later I sent it to my trusted editor and friend, Teresa Crumpton, who, as usual, helped me get on the right track for the final edit. I used a different company to publish the book. It was recommended by a friend who has used them. One of the good thing about Jera Publishing is that it has access to IngramSpark sources for getting your book into libraries and schools. I’ve been very pleased with the outcome.
The other thing that was different about this book was that I was able to put in my personal family history, such as my mother being a “Rosie the Riveter” model because she was Lockheed’s first female tool and dye designer. At the end of the book I have family photos of my mother christening a ship and collecting used rubber with my sister as they walked around our neighborhood. The earthquake nightmare Jonathon keeps having in the book came from my own childhood nightmare. For my author photo, I used a photo of me when I was two or three years old.
2. What experiences did you have after you published the first two books that filled you with joy?
The first was a sense of accomplishment. That I actually was able to put down coherent thoughts that others found compelling.
Seeing the cover and book designer come up with appealing covers. And, in the case of Terror’s Identity, having him come up with a useful map at the front of the book.
Seeing unsolicited good reviews made me burst with pride. Still does.
Having people come back to buy my next book.
Just the pride of saying that I’m an author.
I’m not much of a researcher, but I have enjoyed finding out what I need to know for my stories.
What inspired you to publish your books on your own?
The first book I finished was Emily’s Ride to Courage which I sent to my editor friend at Dutton. He likes my writing and was looking forward to reading the book. He passed on up the editorial line where it eventually got to the marketing meeting. The marketers liked the story, but said they wouldn’t buy it because they had a historical fiction set of horse books and didn’t want to competition. Still, it was nice to know it had gotten that far.
So, I sent it to Peachtree in Atlanta. That editor liked the story line and my writing but didn’t relate to Emily. She told me to rewrite and submit again. I did that, changing to POV from 3rd person past tense to 1st person present tense. Again, it made it all the way to marketers who said, “Good story, but we have a horse book in the works.” Very discouraging, but at least I knew they liked my writing.
Emily then languished in a corner and I wrote Terror’s Identity. Bottom line is I tried several different stories that were well liked, but not picked up for various reasons.
Fast forward a few years and I’m in my 70s, so I decided that self-publishing is my best option and now here I am with three published books. BTW, my now retired editor friend says he thinks that self-publishing is the way to go, but then he is my friend, so take that with a grain of salt.
What advice would you give writers who are not published yet?
- We all tend to try to rush our stories to print. Keep a tight rein on that thought and get yourself into a critique group or two and hope that at least one member of the group has experience.
- Make sure you have a least one up-to-date style book and, if you’re writing to young children, a dictionary of what words each grade level uses. If you are using a single person subject at the start of a sentence, please find a way to not use a plural noun or pronoun as the object. An example is: Mary slumped into her room and slammed their backpack on their desk. Instead write Mary slumped into her room and slammed her backpack on her desk. If there is no easy way to use a single subject and object noun or pronoun in both places, rewrite the sentence so you don’t need an objective noun or pronoun. If nothing else, your sentence will be stronger for it.
- Whatever your genre, join the national group where you’ll find lots of advice and guidance. Rewrite your story until you can hardly stand to look at it again, then let it sit as others comment on it and edit it. Find a professional editor—there are loads of them out there—research them carefully and make sure they’re legit. Ask for references and see what is said about them throughout the industry.
- Try to get an agent and go the trade route first. You’ll learn a lot if nothing else. Submit to as many places as you can.
- If you write novels, try writing shorter stories. You’ll be amazed at how much tighter your writing will become. Poems and picture books are a really good way to learn to winnow the words.
- All of us have “pet” words we overuse. “So” is one of mine.
- Develop a very thick skin. You’ll need it. Let what your critique people tell you settle before you respond. Some of what they say might hurt your feelings. After all, your writing is perfect, right?
- If you don’t get picked up by a trade company, take heart and make your stories as perfect as can be. Ask your writer friends who’ve self-published what companies they’ve used and what they liked or didn’t like about them.
- Go to conferences. You’ll learned tons and make many friends. That’s how Joan and I met.
- As a children’s books writer, I find it very helpful to review books through the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database . It will give an idea of what the industry is looking for and will give you material for the blog you’re going to start.
Are you in a writing group? How do they help you?
There are many levels of writing groups.
A. First of all are the overarching groups of your particular genre. For children’s books is the SCBWI https://www.scbwi.org , which is full of so much pertinent information and encouragement. They have regional conferences and national conferences. Plus, they have professional agents and editors attending who are dying to find the next superstar writer. On their website they have what they call the Blue Boards where you can post questions, submit your blogs, brag or whatever. You can have your own personal page on which you can post your work and let the world know who you are. I’ve yet to meet an unpleasant person through SCBWI. The view is that we’re all in this together. That includes well known authors and beginners alike, plus giving you access to editors and agents, who if you meet one at a conference, you will most likely be given access to sending them queries of your work.
B. Then there are the regional groups. I belong to North Carolina Writers’ Network which is another font of information and will let you promote yourself on it.
C. After that are the more local groups where you can attend informational meetings usually once of month. Find one or two of those to attend. This is where you’ll meet people from your area with whom to form critique groups where you work to make your story as close to perfect as possible.
The ones in the Coastal North Carolina area are: Carteret Writers, www.carteretwriters.org which sponsors an annual writers’ contest from January 1st to the second Wednesday in March. Contests are an excellent place to hone your skills and get feedback. Then there is NEXUS POETS, https://nexuspoets.com/, which meets in New Bern once a month. They also have a contest. The North Carolina Writer’s Network lists what’s going on in each county every month.
D. The critique group or groups you join will remind you to keep true to your story line among other things, and they will also become close friends. But do learn to let them help. Sometimes it goes against your grain. For instance, I named my third book Earthquakes because of all the tumult in Jonathon’s life and because California does have earthquakes. But I only had one description of his recurring nightmare, which is like the ones I had as a child, and then let the symbolism of the turmoil in his life make up the rest. One of my critique friends in one of my groups kept reminding me that I needed to make more of an effort or the title had no meaning. She was right, but it took me a long time to come around to her view point. Now the story starts with a real earthquake and is a much stronger story because of it.
How do you check your manuscript for errors?
That’s one of the reasons that writing a novel in a short period of time is not the right thing for me. I tend to type too fast and if I don’t constantly correct my errors, I’ll end up with too many mistakes. I need to check as I go along.
I also rely on my critique groups to find errors and I also depend on my handsome devil, a.k.a. my husband, to read my stuff for errors. I promise I won’t get mad at him. And, as I said earlier, I also have a professional editor go over the manuscript for content editing but also line editing. It really is impossible to find enough of the errors that crop in the manuscript if you edit it yourself, because you know what you wanted to say, so you’re sure you’ve written correctly. But the whole process is fun in the end and gives me, at least, a great sense of achievement.
It is helpful to use a program like Grammarly which will help you keep your grammatical errors in check. Though I must admit at times I have heated arguments with it. It has a more modern view of grammar than I.
It is also very important to let your story sit a few days before you reread it for errors, flow, believability, etc.
Thanks, Joan. As usual, you’ve given me a great deal to write about. Stay safe in this time of physical uncertainty. Sarah Maury Swan
You’re welcome, Sarah. Thanks for coming to visit my blog today.
Thanks to all who read this blog post and left comments. Carol Baldwin said she had a copy of Earthquakes so congratulations to: Melanie Robertson-King, Maggie, and Carolyn Howard-Johnson, all three of you won a free Kindle copy of Earthquakes.
About the Author
Sarah Maury Swan’s stories frequently place in the Carteret Writers’ annual contest, as well as the Pamlico Writers’ Group contest. When she’s not writing or volunteering, Sarah reviews children’s books for the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database, https://clcd.com. She thinks it’s a good way to see what’s being published.
Connect with Sarah
Blog Sarah’s Book Reflections
Website: https://www.sarahmauryswanlovesbooks.com/This is a work in progress, but check it out. In the future my hope is that you will be able to buy copies of my books there.
Carteret County Seascribes blog: Seascribes.wordpress.com
Never Give Up
Joan Y. Edwards, Author
Copyright © 2020 Joan Y. Edwards