We met in 2008 in a nascent novel critique group in Portland, Oregon, and gathered with other writers every few months over tall stacks of manuscript pages. We continued the friendship on writing retreats, and sometimes, just over some of her delicious mini banana breads to talk about storytelling and books. Laura Stanfill’s advice is unfailingly productive and positive, and it’s my pleasure to bring her voice to this blog.
She has completed two novels, BODY COPY and PROOF OF US, and is at work on a new one, LOST NOTES, a sweeping, multi-generational story of collecting, connecting, and obsessing. She also has an extensive journalism background, has earned various awards for her writing and design, and holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Vassar College.
1. I knew you first as a literary writer with a lovely writing voice. In the almost-three years of our friendship, I have learned that you were trained as a journalist and worked as a newspaper editor on the Oregon coast. Many nonfiction writers struggle to meet the artistic demands of fiction writing: How do the habits of these two kinds of writing conflict with or complement each other, and how did you manage the transition?
The two pursuits have been intertwined in my life since right after college, when I launched my journalism career and started my very first novel. Newspaper work is extremely disciplined. If you’re sick, or exhausted, tough luck. Deadline’s always on the way. With that novel, I pushed myself to work for hours at a time, because professionally I was learning to survive grueling stints at the computer. The discipline transferred.
Of course with fiction, there’s the matter of making up worlds and setting the scene even more carefully than in a well-crafted feature article. Once the fictional world exists, it must change as the characters progress through the story. With journalism, a reporter must address the world as it exists, without overstepping professional boundaries, and an editor must evaluate reporters’ material with an eye toward accountability. Writing and editing nonfiction trained me to focus on the details. But fiction’s more freeing. It’s fine to elaborate, use inventive phrases and make all kinds of judgments. And if something doesn’t work, it can be fixed in the next draft. A reporter only gets one chance to nail the story.
2. You are about to go on submission with your second novel, BODY COPY. Tell us a bit about it.
When I started BODY COPY six years ago, I wanted to write about community newspapers, intense deadlines and the sacrifices reporters and editors make to put out a weekly paper. There’s something romantic about people working crazy hours for little pay in order to write about, say, a woman who makes dolls in her kitchen. My main character, 23-year-old Megan Trumball, evolved from that concept, certainly, but the story has morphed into a portrait of grief and what it means to lose friends when you’re young. It feels like the world has ended. And that’s where BODY COPY starts.
It’s an unusual structure. The juicy back story about Megan’s roommates—full of secrets, fights and betrayals—unfolds parallel to her present-tense existence. As she settles into a new job on the Oregon coast, Megan uses her reporting skills to really look at what happened with her roommates, and to judge her own culpability in her friend’s tragic hit-and-run death. The reader watches her surface from grief in a realistic way, and once she engages fully in her new community, she sets about changing it.
3. As you start to shop BODY COPY around, you have been doing a lot of research—both on agents and on books in your genre. You’ve done this successfully before: What are your techniques, then and now?
I haven’t yet immersed myself in the query pond, but I can speak to what worked last time. And that’s what you mentioned in your question: research. I tend to target agents who represent novels with some similarity to mine, such as a strong voice, a small-town landscape or a particular theme.
When I’m querying, I read lots of books and pull favorite tomes off the shelves in my living room. I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace. And I send my letters out one or two at a time. It’s a slow slog, and quite possibly an archaic method, but it’s one that has worked for me.
4. From the perspective of a writer in search of an agent, has very much really changed with the publishing industry in the past five years?
I paid attention to the market in 2004-05, when my last novel went to agents and then editors, and I’m paying attention now. The years in between, I kept my mind on my manuscript.
That being said, I definitely think things are more difficult now. I’ve heard that from ultra-talented writer friends trying to find a foothold as well as from people in the industry. Everyone’s talking about the economy. Sometimes I wish I had finished BODY COPY six years ago, when agents and editors were more willing to take risks on no-name newcomers. Of course, publishing news and bookstores’ struggles are disheartening, and ebooks have changed the landscape.
5. You’re one of the most effective writers I know, where it comes to taking an objective step back from a manuscript and evaluating its market potential. Is this a journalist’s skill? A personality trait? Where can I get one like it?
Thank you, Sarah! That’s a huge compliment, especially because I really respect all your insights about a work’s merits, shortcomings and prospects. As managing editor of a weekly newspaper, I had to balance content to ensure our subscribers would have stimulating reading experiences regardless of their particular interests. My list of options for each page was enormous, and each choice had its own consequence. Running two pages of letters meant stealing a page from business or schools. Bumping a lovely photo up to three columns on an inside page would result in a prettier page, but also a need to shrink the story.
There was never enough space for everything. Whatever I cut, or shortened, or held until next week would earn a complaint call. Perhaps that kind of editorial work trained me to think about how a reader might respond to specific artistic choices.
6. Putting the business of writing aside—what are you working on now? Where is the new project allowing you to take your craft and development as a writer?
LOST NOTES is historical fiction, and that has taken me by surprise. This summer, as I was freewriting about an object, its history took over my imagination and overruled my initial plot outline. The piece in question is a small, high-pitched barrel organ, which was manufactured to train wealthy women’s canaries to sing popular or religious tunes. Now my novel begins in 1855, and it’s set in New York and several New England states.
I’ve never written a third-person novel. I’ve never written historical fiction. I’ve never chosen a male protagonist, let alone one who speaks French. I’ve never done major research for my fiction. And yet this book is extremely exciting. I’ve always approached a story from the character angle and then struggled with plot. This time, the plot keeps flowing, and I’m figuring out character as I go. Knowing this is a first draft gives me the leeway to experiment with language and see what shakes loose.
7. You’re the journalist. What great question could I have asked, but didn’t?
How about this one: What are your thoughts on writing groups? I’m a huge fan of critique groups and trading useful feedback. There’s so much to learn from other writers, not just in terms of your own manuscript’s needs, but in the process of analyzing others’ work. I’m lucky to live in Portland, Oregon, where there’s a huge community of savvy writers.
In 2008, I joined a novel group, envisioned by writer Liz Prato as a way to address plot flaws and other big-picture issues, and I learn something new about the craft each time we get together. We read each other’s manuscripts and then comment on how everything works, what falls short and where the writer might go with revisions. It’s such an interesting process to focus on a big chunk of someone’s writing—or to submit your own work to such scrutiny. The several-hour discussions we have are truly amazing.
I joined my other critique group this past year, and we read a few pages aloud once a month. There are incredible writers in the room, and we’re all working on different projects, not just novels. I’ve been testing pieces of my new manuscript there, and the positive, helpful feedback has given me the courage to press forward.