February – technically the shortest month, but when you live in northern Michigan it can feel like the longest. Cold, dark, uneventful days seem to drag on. One way to break the monotony? Good reading! I think today’s post is a good read. Non-fiction writer Debbie Hardy agreed to talk with me a bit about her technique, habits, and encouragement for people thinking about writing.
Welcome! I’m so pleased to have you here today. Please, tell us a little about yourself.
Born and raised in Ohio, I’ve lived in Colorado (God’s country) for the last 40 years. Mother of two, stepmother of two, and grandmother of seven, I’m a widow who came late to the writing and speaking world following the death of my husband. I’m also known as The Queen of Resilience because of all the rotten things I’ve managed to bounce back from. In fact, one friend calls me a Weeble: you know the catchphrase, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” I’m a pianist and accompany my church choir on Sundays and for our annual Christmas musical. It’s a lot of fun and very therapeutic!
Why did you start writing?
I never planned to be a writer. Instead, I kind of stumbled into it. When my husband Bryan was dying of cancer in 2008, I started writing emails to friends and family to keep them updated. It was easier than talking on the phone where Bryan could hear the bad news over and over.
After we learned that Bryan’s cancer was untreatable, it became harder to share positive news. I finally asked God to give me some hope and encouragement to share. Little did I realize that, in order to share something, I had to have it first. I discovered positives snippets of a TV show, movie, book, or magazine article to quote in my messages. My readers then forwarded my emails to their friends and contacts, and within three months, I had over a thousand readers!
When Bryan died, many encouraged me to put my emails into a book. Turned out, that was a little too close to home and difficult to write. So instead I wrote Stepping Through Cancer: A Guide for the Journey, which is a resource for cancer patients and caregivers. And the rest is history!
How did you start writing?
When I finally decided to help others on their cancer journeys, I started making notes about the different steps we had taken for Bryan’s journey. These could be grouped into medical steps, physical steps, relationship steps, and others. Then, I did lots of research and included steps we didn’t take, like surgery, chemotherapy, alternative treatments, remission, and recurrence. Once I had the basic skeleton of the book in an outline, I just needed to “fill in the blanks” one paragraph at a time. It sort of flowed out and took only three months to write.
Having been through cancer and knowing how it felt to be totally alone and not knowing what to expect, it was easy to see a need. I wanted to help others going through what I’d experienced, and my first book has now helped hundreds, maybe thousands. The American Cancer Society calls every once in a while and orders a case of books to distribute.
Every so often, someone will ask how I can be so positive after all the rotten stuff I’ve faced. There’s no magic pill or secret process, but I want to share with whoever will listen how easy it is to be positive. So nonfiction self-help was the easy choice for me. It lets me share my experiences with my readers and – hopefully – help them to live better lives.
What is your writing day like?
Some of my writing friends sit down at their computers first thing in the morning and don’t quit until lunch. If they don’t get all their words out before the rest of the world crowds in, they don’t write at all.
I can’t do that. When I sit down to write after breakfast, my brain always fills up with other, seemingly more important things on my to-do list, like laundry, paying bills, and running errands. I have do them, then before I know it, my writing time is gone.
Now, I do all the other things first, then concentrate on my writing. In fact, my best work is done late at night. The only drawback is when I’m “on a roll” I might stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish a thought or a chapter. But I guess that’s not unusual for a writer.
How do you organize your writing (outlines/note cards/post-its)?
I’m a plotter, so I plan my entire book or article before I start writing. It’s like having a roadmap so I know where I’m going and how I’ll get there. I create an outline on papers. No, not on paper. On PAPERS, plural.
I learned the hard way to write things down immediately as they come to mind, because they may not make a return trip! I jot down all the points I want to make on pieces of scrap paper as I think of them. And as another thought pops up, I scribble it and add it to the pile. Then, I spread them on my dining room table and organize them by subject. I write the topics on Post-Its and place the ideas in order below each one. It’s much easier to move them around on the table rather than in a Word document.
When all the ideas are grouped by topic and I’m happy with the outline, I pick up all the papers in order, type them into a document, and print it up for a guide as I write. All that’s left is to fill in the quotes and paragraphs under each topic.
I teach fiction authors to do the same with their ideas, so all the events they want to include are in the correct order. One author didn’t follow this recommendation and was having characters interact before they actually met in her story. Kind of hard for characters to do that, unless you’re writing fantasy. As a result, she had to rewrite much of her book and thanked me for helping to get the rest of her events in order.
What’s the most surprising thing a character has “told you”?
Since I don’t write fiction, I don’t have existing characters. But I do have some stories in mind, and those characters need me to tell their story. I’m sure we’ll be talking!
No specific characters, but I’m planning a Free to Be Fabulous series. The first, Free to Be Fabulous: 100 Ways to Look and Feel Younger at 40, 50, and Beyond, published in 2015, was originally intended for women my age and older, 60+. But my book coach, publisher, and others wanted to include younger readers, so we extended it to those 50, then 40. The next book will be Free to Be Fabulous as a Senior: 100 Ways to Live Your Best Life Yet. My 60-something friends, married and not, are thrilled that they’ll have their own book.
Other books in the series will be Free to Be Fabulous as a Single Mom; Free to Be Fabulous as a Widow, Free to Be Fabulous as a Working Mom, and others, each with 100 ways to . . .
I started Free to Be Fabulous at Christmas: 100 Ways to Celebrate Without a Credit Card, but haven’t finished it. My agent pointed out that it would be more of a craft book and should be published in a magazine style, glossy with four-color print, which is more expensive. So that’s on the backburner for now. I may get my son, who is a photographer, and his wife, who is crafty, to help me with it. We’ll see.
What does your work space/office look like?
It’s my couch! I worked at a desk in an office for years, so when I sit at my desk at home, I feel like I should just crunch numbers and shuffle papers again. But when I take my laptop to the living room, sit on the couch, turn on the TV, and prop my feet up, my creativity flows and I can write up a storm.
What is your go-to snack when writing?
It depends on whether I want salty or sweet. A favorite is raw nuts: pecans, almonds, or walnuts. Not popcorn. Tried it once and my fingers got too greasy and my typing went down the toilet. Nothing sticky for the same reason. But an old-fashioned ice cream drumstick is always a welcome treat.
If you could only recommend one NOVEL, what would it be? Why?
Mercy’s Rain by Cindy Sproles is a story of a young lady in the Appalachians who’s had a horrible, abusive life. She leaves her home, her family, and anything to do with God and sets out to find a life free from her past. It’s not your typical Christian romance, although there is romance in it. But it’s about learning to feel God’s love in spite of all the unloving things that happen. The book was so good, when I finished it, I turned it over and began reading it again. I’ve never done that with any other book. When someone asks to borrow Mercy’s Rain, I buy another copy for them, because I refuse to give mine away!
If you could only recommend one CRAFT book (writing, no crocheting), what would it be? Why?
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I don’t like the creepy things he normally writes, but this is funny, informative, and helpful to a writer. I even took a three-week class to study this book! But it helped me learn to write dialog, which I had never tried before. (One note: There are some offensive words, but I heard those on a regular basis at my office job, so they weren’t too shocking.) I often recommend this book when I teach at Christian writers’ conferences, and the bookstores now carry it so conferees can buy it on-site.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Everyone has a story, but not everyone can write it. I’ve known people who put so many details into a story that I lost interest before getting to the second paragraph. That’s the difference between someone who just writes and someone who is serious about their craft. Learn all you can about writing to be the best you can be.
And don’t write in a bubble. Get open and honest input from friends, family, a critique group, and anyone else who will be objective. I’ve known some writers who didn’t want anyone to read their work until it was published. But you want readers to love your book, so why not ask some readers to help make it better? They can point out things that you as the author can’t see.
Also, read your manuscript out loud. You’ll catch a lot of mistakes that way, and save in editing costs and time. I read and reread my first book so many times, I was almost sick of it by the time it was published. And I could practically quote sections of it in interviews. That’s why you should only write what you’re passionate about. Your passion will get you through the hard work of editing, rewriting, and marketing your book.
You can keep up with Debbie at her website, www.DebbieHardy.com.