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Chatting With... author Debrah Williamson about the craft of writing and her novel, SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN.

Author Debrah Williamson  

Singing With the Top Down - Blurb

At a time in the 1950's when America is a little more innocent, two children and their flamboyant aunt head toward California in a Buick Skylark convertible.

Pauly Mahoney knows if she doesn't fret about her family, no one will. Certainly not her unstable mother or fun-loving father, who can't seem to make ends meet without her help. It's Pauly's job to hold the family together—until a hot summer night in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when her parents are killed in a freak carnival accident and Pauly's world turns upside down.

Abandoned by indifferent relatives, Pauly and her brother are headed nowhere...until their unfamiliar Aunt Nora volunteers to take them in. No one seems to care that their unlikely guardian angel is a free-spirited, chain smoking movie extra with no visible means of support. But when Aunt Nora points her stylish car towards California, Pauly and her brother find themselves on a rollicking cross-country journey with a woman who will show them that promises can be kept through laughter and tears-and that her heart has room for both of them and more.



Cindy: Welcome, Debrah. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN, your September 2006 release from NAL. Pauly's voice caught me from page one. She's a very vivid character, and as I read her story I felt like I already knew her, almost as if her story was inside of me somewhere, which says a lot for your writing. How did you go about creating such a compelling character?

Debrah: Thank you, Cindy. That's a very inspiring thing for a writer to hear. Fiction is all about the characters for me, maybe because the novels I love to read are those with the most memorable characters. Same thing with movies. I prefer character-driven stories, probably because I'm not much of a plotter. I don't feel compelled to write about "major" events. Nothing ever blows up in my stories, the fate of the world never hangs in the balance. I try to find the humor and drama and emotion that happen when larger than life characters face ordinary situations. That's fascinating to me. Both as a reader and as a writer.

Pauly, as a character, evolved over time. I first "met" her twenty-plus years ago. From time to time, while I was working on other projects, she'd drop by my imagination and toss me another idea. When I couldn't not pay attention to her any longer, I started writing her story. By that time, it was like transcribing dictation. She was very real to me, as were the other characters.

As far as how I create characters, I don't think about the process much. For me, a novel is organic, not the sum of its parts. I usually start with a name, which tells me a lot. Then I come up with a background. I ask what the character needs more than anything in the world, and why he or she has failed to get it. Then I think of a situation that might allow the character to get what she wants if she is willing to overcome all the obstacles that I obligingly set in her path.

The plot grows out of those obstacles. Who will present the obstacles? Who will help the protagonist overcome them? What will happen if she gets what she wants? What will happen if she doesn't? What if she discovers the thing she wants most is not what she needs at all? These questions allow me to construct a decent plot that pretty much only works for a particular character. So I have to approach the next novel, the next story, in a similar but different fashion.

If I could give one piece of character development advice, it would be to pay attention to the details of a character's world. Too often I read student work in which the characters are flat or barely breathing. There aren't enough details to convince me that this figment of someone's imagination is real enough for me to believe in, or root for, or even to spend time reading about. Details. Very important.

Cindy: Wow, great, comprehensive answer. I knew I was smart to invite you to be my interview subject. Okay, springboarding off characterization, was writing Pauly's story in first person a "first" for you? Do you prefer first person viewpoint to third, or does it depend on the story and the characters?

Debrah: Yes, this was my first foray into first person, mostly because I had been writing romances and first person wasn't really encouraged. First person feels natural to me and I enjoy writing and reading it. I like the intimacy of being in one character's head for the whole story. The catch is, first person point of view requires a very strong, very outspoken, funny, smart, spunky, vivid character to be effective, in my opinion. Being confined to one character's head can also be a limitation, which means readers must relate to that character 100%. Doesn't mean they must always like the character or agree with her or condone her behavior. They just have to identify and understand her. Or him, as the case may be.

I can't say I prefer one point of view to another, because so much depends on the story. First person doesn't always work, neither does third. Viewpoint is another organic element that has to grow out of the character. My rule of thumb is this: If I wouldn't want to spend several days driving cross country in a compact car with a character, then I don't want to be exclusively in his or her head for the time it takes to write a novel.

Cindy: LOL, I love that rule. It's especially appropriate for SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN, seeing as so much of the novel takes place in a car while Pauly's aunt is driving them across the country. I noticed that Pauly talks a lot about fate in the novel, and I also found "rescuing" to be a major theme as I read. Pauly's aunt rescues her and her brother after their parents are killed, and on the road to their new life in California they encounter several fascinating characters. Without giving away too much, I think I can say that Pauly and her aunt "rescue" each and every one of these characters in some fashion--and the characters, in turn, rescue them. Did you have these themes in mind as you wrote or did they develop during or after the initial writing when you looked at the story as a whole?

Debrah: Funny you should mention "rescue" as a theme. I did not realize that I had worked that element into the story in such a cohesive manner until I started revising the final draft. Of course, at that point, you start looking for ways to add nuances and to tweak the existing storyline to make it fit the theme. I rarely consider theme when I start writing. I know the answer to the big picture question: WHAT'S THE STORY ABOUT and that's it. The thematic premise. For me, theme develops along with characters. What becomes important to characters, usually the protagonist, often turns out to be the story's theme, and that's hard to pin down going in.

I believe writers work out the same "themes" over and over in their stories. I deal with mother-daughter relationships a lot. I have fine relationships with my own mother and with my daughter, so it's not a problem area in my life. I think maybe one of my "fears" is not having that connection. So I like to write about how the connection can be made, or broken.

I also deal frequently with generational differences. How the young relate to the elderly and vice versa. That's an intriguing topic to me. I think writers explore themes and ideas that present them with the biggest challenge, don't you?

Cindy: I agree that writers return to the same themes in their writing and those themes don't necessarily relate to the writer's life or personality. Most of my heroines are trying to find their identities in some way, while I have always been very comfortable with my own identity, for example. However, I'm also very protective of my identity, so maybe that's why I love exploring it as a theme in my writing.

Now, let me ask you, would you call SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN Women's Fiction or Mainstream Fiction? I approached the story thinking it was classified as Women's Fiction (don't ask me where I got that idea), however, the more I read, the more I felt that the essence of your novel is universal, which in my mind makes it Mainstream.

Debrah: Good question. I don't know exactly what it is. I just wrote the story the way I wanted to, never really expecting it to find a publisher. Not because I didn't believe in my work, but because it isn't easily pigeon-holed in current genres. My publisher tends to think of what I write as women's fiction, so I try to create characters and stories that female readers will enjoy. However, my work usually doesn't center around what we typically think of as women's problems, so that seems to make it more mainstream. While I would like to think my writing appeals to a wide reader demographic, I know that for marketing purposes, it's important to focus. I like young characters and old. Male and female. I like writing about characters and situations that resonate with me. All I can do is hope they resonate with others.

Cindy: Well, personally, I don't think you're going to have a problem with the resonating-with-others part. Because not only do I think SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN is a great book, I also think it would make a wonderful movie. The thought kept returning to me time and time as I read. So let's play Dream Cast for a moment. If SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN were made into a movie, who do you love to see play Pauly? How about her aunt? Anyone else? What do you feel your choices could bring to their roles?

Debrah: Oh, I like this game. For Pauly, Dakota Fanning. Definitely. She'll be old enough in a couple of years. She's a great little child actress and has the charm and spunk that I think makes Pauly appealing. Jennifer Garner as Aunt Nora. Not in Alias mode, more like she was in Thirteen Going on Thirty. Tough and sweet and vulnerable, all at the same time. I would LOVE to see Clint Eastwood play Tybalt Bisbee. I've been a huge fan of Clint's since his Rowdy Yates days on Rawhide. He's probably not everyone's first choice for that part, but I think he could add a unique element to the character. One thing about all the actors I mentioned is that they all have a lot of heart. They come across on the screen as genuine. That's what I like about them.

Cindy: Excellent choices! I did not think of Clint Eastwood for Tyb, but now that you've mentioned him, I think he would be perfect, especially when he does that super-gruff, razors-on-gravel voice.

Debrah, this is your first novel written as Debrah Williamson, but you have a background in category romance, right? Can you tell us a bit about that background and how it helped prepare you to write SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN?

Debrah: I've written close to thirty published romances. Both category and historical. Solo, and as part of a collaborative team. The biggest thing writing romances taught me was discipline. How to make every word count. How to wring emotion without making readers feel manipulated. I cut my writing teeth on romance. Writing character-centered stories was basic training in characterization. In romance, plots are individual but the overall idea is the same. Two people meet, are attracted, face obstacles, overcome obstacles and ultimately find happiness.

When readers already know how your story is going to end before they even read the first page, you are under a lot of pressure to entertain and bring something different to the table. You have to make readers believe in your characters and touch their emotions, or they won't care. All of these things paved the way for all the writing I will ever do.

At its core, SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN is a love story. It's just not about the love between a man and a woman. It focuses on familial love, but the heart of the story is how people work out their differences so they can live happily ever after.

Maybe my need for a satisfying and fulfilling ending is also related to writing romances. Or maybe I wrote romances because I must have satisfying and fulfilling endings. Chicken and egg question, I guess. I don't think fiction has to be depressing or downbeat to have merit. Just as movies don't have to be serious to be worthwhile. I write fiction because writing makes me feel good. When readers finish one of my stories, I want them to feel good too.

Cindy: So, have you always wanted to be a writer? Did you write as a child?

Debrah: I just wrote a piece about this topic for my new web site. Here's the short one. Yep! From the time I was in second or third grade. I had to master the whole penmanship thing before writing became a joy and not a chore. But once I could write fast, I never really stopped. I kept journals and wrote poems and short stories. In school, I got pretty darned excited when the teacher said, "And for your next assignment, write a 500 word theme." I wrote because I couldn't imagine not writing.

It just never occurred to me that I could write anything other people would want to read. Or that it was possible for a small town girl from Oklahoma to be paid for writing. So I didn't seriously pursue writing as a career until I had tried out a whole lot of other occupations.

Cindy: I hear you. Writing is darn hard work—this business definitely isn't for pansies. What's kept you going during the difficult times? (And I know there have been tough times, because there is for every writer).

Debrah: Lots of difficult times. Lots of "what was I thinking" moments. I nearly gave up writing a few years ago. In fact, I did quit for a while. You can ask my critique partner—I quit regularly, depending on my mood. I throw up my hands, say I've had enough. The angst and pain just aren't worth it. But you and I both know, the pain is worth it. Writers can't NOT write.

My husband has sacrificed a lot to give me space and time to write. He's been a terrific supporter. My writer friends have been a great encouragement. They keep me going when I want to jump off a bridge. I have a supportive agent now, and an amazing editor. So even when I think I'm wasting my time, that I will never write another decent word again, I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of knowledgeable people who remind me to just put one word after another and keep going.

Cindy: Do you write full-time?

Debrah: I wish I could afford that luxury. After giving up my professional occupation—yes, I made the mistake of quitting my day job—I wrote my heart out for a while. That's the period during which I produced SINGING WITH THE TOP DOWN. And several other projects. I stretched myself, and my family, pretty thin financially for a long time before taking on several part-time gigs. I taught writing at the university as an adjunct professor in the professional writing department for a few semesters. I still teach through the independent study program and also teach adult writing classes. I recently took a full-time paycheck job that is totally unrelated to writing. I like to think eventually I will be able to write full-time and still pay my bills. That's the cosmic carrot that keeps me going. I work 8-9 hours a day now and do my writing in the evenings and on weekends, along with reading and grading student papers. Something had to give, so I willingly sacrificed my strict housekeeping standards. Oh, and 8 hours of sleep a night is highly over-rated.

Cindy: I love the "cosmic carrot." I have a whole bag, and I munch all the time. Tell us about your creative process. Are you a plotter, a pantser, a "plodder"? (That's what I call someone who "flies into the mist" but stops every once in a while to attempt to plot<G> (and, yes, I'm talking about myself).

Debrah: I'd definitely be a pantser if I had the freedom. I'd just sit down, type in Chapter One and start writing. That's how I worked on SINGING. But being on contract requires having to turn in proposals. Chapters and an outline. Outlining is a horrendous chore for me. I actually hate the process quite a bit, because thinking out the details diminishes my drive to write the story and see what happens next. I finally found a compromise that works fairly well. I make a step outline, as you would for a screenplay, that focuses on the primary external action of the story. I like to have at least 100 to 125 steps for a 400 page manuscript. I may not use all of them, and I may come up with new steps that aren't on the list, but the step outline enables me to create a half-way decent synopsis. And by the time I've written 3 or 4 chapters, I have a pretty good handle on my characters. I'm fortunate to have an editor who understands how quirky writers can be. She cuts me adequate slack, thank goodness.

Writer E. L. Doctorow once compared writing a novel with driving at night. I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said you don't have to see the whole road in order to get where you're going. You just have to see the part that's right in front of you.

His remark struck a chord with me because it sums up so nicely my own philosophy of writing.

Cindy: You mentioned your agent. Did you also have an agent when you wrote category romance? When do you feel an aspiring writer (or even an already published writer) should seek out an agent?

Debrah: I do have an agent now. And no, I didn't have one when I sold my solo category romances. My writing partner and I had an agent years ago when we were selling category and historical fiction. I think a writer needs an agent when she no longer knows where to send her work. A lot of writers are savvy with marketing, some aren't. If you feel you can't get anywhere on your own, see if an agent can help. If you are meeting your goals and like the progress you're making in your career, you probably don't need an agent.

Cindy: What can we look forward to seeing from you next? Down the line?

Debrah: I'm currently working on my second novel for NAL. It's called PAPER HEARTS, unless marketing decides otherwise. When I turn this piece in, I have another story that is 3/4s complete. I want to finish it next. The story is a bit different in tone and style from my other work and has a lot more humor. Once that loose end is tied up, I have another mother-daughter story in mind to explore. I find it difficult to focus on a single style or genre. Individual stories tend to capture my imagination. I also have a completed historical novel that I haven't tried to market, simply because taking on a whole different genre isn't a sound career move. Who knows where I'll go from here?

Cindy: I'm looking forward to PAPER HEARTS, then, because you've definitely caught me as a fan. Before we end, is there anything I haven't addressed here that you'd like our readers to know?

Debrah: I just want to say to any aspiring writers who may be reading, that the best way to get from aspiring to published is not to give up. I know that sounds trite, because everyone says the same thing, but it is important to know why you're writing. If you are writing primarily because you want to get published and live the so-called glamorous (cough!) life of an author, you may not find enough reinforcement and motivation to keep going when faced with rejections.

But if you write for the sheer pleasure you receive from the process, and you consider yourself a writer, whether or not anyone else has ever read a word you've written, and if you validate yourself instead of waiting for the rest of the world to pronounce you a writer, then you can endure those difficult middle-of-the-night doubts that try to knock you off course.

Sure, it's easy for someone who is published to say publishing isn't the most important thing. But I wasn't always published. And I wouldn't be published now if I had not made the act of writing my reward. Try writing for the joy it gives and you won't be disappointed.

Cindy: Great advice. Thank you, Debrah, for being my first guest! It's been a pleasure chatting with you. And, just so our readers don't have to scroll up to get the links, here's the link to Debrah Williamson's website, where all sorts of goodies about her and her books are in store.

Debrah Williamson has written professionally for twenty years and is the author or co-author of nearly 30 novels under various names. A life-long resident of Oklahoma, she lives in Norman.


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