Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest today, Elizabeth Sims. Elizabeth is the author of short stories and novels, including the Rita Farmer Mysteries (The Actress, The Extra, and On Location) and the Lambda Award-winning Lillian Byrd crime series (Holy Hell, Damn Straight, Lucky Stiff, and Easy Street).
She writes frequently for Writer's Digest magazine, where she is a contributing editor. Her latest book is the popular instructional title, You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (Writer's Digest Books).
Elizabeth earned degrees in English from Michigan State University and Wayne State University, where she won the Tompkins Award for Graduate Fiction. She belongs to several literary societies as well as American Mensa.
Norm: Good day Elizabeth and thanks for participating in our interview. How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Elizabeth: Happy to be here, Norm. I was an early reader, and my parents read to me when I was little. I remember sitting on my father's knee listening to Kipling's Just So Stories. He also told me tales he made up, usually involving a hapless little girl who had lost her dolly. When I was six, my mother started going to college to be a teacher, and suddenly the house started to fill with all these new, exciting books, just as I was getting better at reading. So I read as much as I could, though much of it was beyond my understanding, and I started to make up stories. Somehow I just naturally took to writing. I started writing stories and poetry seriously in high school and college.
These days the work itself keeps me going. I have so many ideas for new work, but only so many hours in the day!
Norm: What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
Elizabeth: Sure, all those things. It makes my day when I hear from a reader who both enjoys the content of my work and appreciates its style. I try to write with economy and beauty.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing short stories? As a follow up, are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to the short story and does it have a form?
Elizabeth: Short stories are a natural beginning place for a writer. You think of some little idea and you make a story out of it and you write it, and maybe it isn't very good, and you wonder why, and you start to think and analyze what you read, and you learn and you get better.
I'd like to write more short stories. They require discipline, because they have to have impact. You can't dick around; you have to get to the point, and you have to do it gracefully. I've gotten into the novel-writing thing because that's where you can reach lots of people and pay the bills. But short stories will always pull me, and I've just got to make time to write more of them.
There are no disadvantages of the short story form; if you realize you're writing something that's going to run longer than maybe eight to ten thousand words, you decide to make it a novella or even a novel. This usually happens organically, as you get to know your characters and what they're about.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Elizabeth: Two things help me focus: Coffee and knowing that writing pays the bills. If I don't write and put my work out into the world, I don't earn money.
I enjoy reading back my own rough work; I can always see ways to make it better. And when I take a look at my published work, I'm usually pretty happy with it.
Norm: Who or what has influenced your writing?
Elizabeth: I mentioned my mother's being a college student when I was young. Then she became a teacher of high school English, and as I grew up I got to read everything her students read, all the textbooks and novels, so it was a good foundation.
As many young people are, I was drawn to the stories and novels of Ernest Hemingway, and I think his economy with words and commas influenced me to an extent.
Norm: Do you work from an outline?
Elizabeth: Usually. I have to have an idea of where I'm going. My Rita Farmer novels were outlined in great detail, while my Lillian Byrd novels have been done a little more loosely. You always have to have some wiggle room in there.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Elizabeth: Well, you know, in nonfiction you're not supposed to take any liberties. In fiction, I don't know if there is such a thing as too much liberty with your material. As long as you have the skills to pull it off, you can get as absurd as you want. I do caution beginning writers that you must strike a consistent bargain with your readers. For instance, in science fiction you have to obey whatever bounds of physics you've established. In fantasy, your shape-shifting monster either can or cannot read the minds of its victims. In historical fiction, you can write that President Kennedy had a secret love for knitting, but you can't write that he served two terms. Stuff like that.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Elizabeth: I think what you're asking is how do you keep doubt at bay? You can either flick that little bitch or bastard off your shoulder, or you can let it sit there and yammer but you ignore it.
I think if you're really a writer, you have no choice but to persist. And you might as well have a good time doing it, right? Make it fun! Decide that it's fun!
Norm: Could you tell us a little about your latest book, You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams (Writer's Digest Books, 2013)?
Elizabeth: First I became a novelist, then I became a writing authority due to my articles in Writer's Digest magazine. People started to ask me for more advice on how to write well enough for publication, and I got tired of giving them the brush-off. I looked into books on how to write well so I could recommend something. But I was horrified to see that invariably, sooner or later, all of those authors tell aspiring writers that writing is very hard. Not only that, but they warn that you'll probably never be commercially successful because the odds are heavily against you, so, you know, keep your expectations low.
I had taught myself that writing was way easier than most people think, and I had achieved some measure of commercial success, so I decided I needed to write my own book. My message is this: Writing a book is easy and fun—provided you get the hell out of your own way and let your natural talent and creativity take over. And You've Got a Book in You shows how to do that.
I talked to my agent about it (Cameron McClure at the Donald Maass Literary Agency) and she thought it was a good idea, so I worked up a proposal and some chapters, and she sold it to Writer's Digest Books. I'm happy to say it's in its third printing, as of summer 2014.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your book serves and what matters to you about the book?
Elizabeth: As I said a moment ago, my purpose is to help aspiring authors get over their doubts and produce original, vibrant work.
What matters is when I hear from someone who feels the book has changed their life. You've Got a Book in You is my greatest gift to the world; there's more of me in it than anything else I've ever done. If I died today, I'd feel my life has amounted to something more than a quest for my own achievement and comfort.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Elizabeth: My WEB SITE is a good place to start; there you can find free excerpts and links to buy.
Norm: What is next for Elizabeth Sims?
Elizabeth: I'm working on the fifth in the Lillian Byrd series. My readers have been waiting too long for this book! It's called Left Field (yes, it does feature women's softball), and in it Lillian solves a murder early on, but instead of resolving things, it only leads to more mystery and intrigue. The first chapter's up on my web site now, but I'm still writing the ending! I hope to have it out by the end of this year (2014). I have plans for the next in the Rita series as well.
I'm also continuing to write for Writer's Digest, and I'm working on republishing my novels in paperback, as well as getting some more material ready for self-publishing. I'm establishing my own imprint, Spruce Park Press, which will handle that. But Cameron is anxious for me to write more fiction for her to shop to the New York publishers, and I'll have to get around to that sooner or later, because I like being a so-called 'hybrid' author, who's published both traditionally and self.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Elizabeth: Norm: What are you doing for recreation these days?
Elizabeth: After shoulder surgery in May, I did some therapy in the pool, and now I'm obsessed with learning to swim really well, in a 'low-impact' way. I'm teaching myself with the help of Terry Laughlin's videos and books, the Total Immersion system. It's a tremendous challenge for me, but it's coming along.
Norm: Thanks again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
E: You're welcome. Same back at you!
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