One thing that you must do as a writer is surround yourself with successful like minded people. To be able to cheerlead for another is rewarding and to be challenged and encouraged offers opportunities for growth.
When I first met Michelle she was, like me, another swim mom at the pool with her kid. Swim meets and practices were frequent and often long.
Any time I saw Michelle she had a stack of papers in her lap and a pen in hand. For the longest time I thought she was a doctor because of the way she poured over and focused on the her pages. We talked kids but not work. Fast forward and we meet at a writing festival where she’s doing a presentation. What?? You’re a writer.
I haven’t let her out of my sights since.
Michelle Barker is not only the first to ever read one of my full manuscripts, but is also a valued friend and colleague. I’m not at her rank yet but I strive to at least close the gap.
Not only is she an accomplished author, but she’s also a professional editor and a triathlete.
Her writing style is so beautiful that she transports you to the time and place of the story. When you read her books (which I hope you will) pay attention to the word choices and sentence structure. Every time I read her books I’m mesmerized by the images she’s able to conjure up in my imagination.
Here’s the interview with Michelle Barker. And so you know–all Michelle’s contact information is at the bottom of interview.
When did you start writing? Please tell me about your books—names and how many in total.
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but the formal decision to become a writer happened when I was around 22.
I had just started a master’s degree in comparative literature and was mired in a paper on Ibsen, when I suddenly realized I didn’t want to deconstruct his work; I wanted to learn how to write like him.
That was (eek) over thirty years ago.
Since then, I have published non-fiction, short-fiction, and poetry in literary reviews around the world. I’ve also published four (and a half) books:
½: Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii (Leaf Press): a poetry chapbook.
1: The Beggar King (Thistledown): a fantasy novel for teens.
2: A Year of Borrowed Men (Pajama Press): a historical picture book.
3: The House of One Thousand Eyes (Annick Press): a historical novel for teens.
4: My Long List of Impossible Things (Annick Press): a historical novel for teens.
All of Michelle’s books are available at Amazon: click here: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=books+michelle+barker&ref=nb_sb_noss or Indigo: click here https://www.amazon.com/s?k=books+michelle+barker&ref=nb_sb_noss or at your local library or book store.
My Long List of Impossible Things is Michelle’s latest book. It’s a Young Adult historical fiction set in Germany at the end of WW2 where the question is how do you choose between survival and doing the right thing?
What is your education level?
I have a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and an MFA in creative writing that I did much later. I never finished the degree in comp lit. As soon as I embraced writing as a career, I quit school.
Why did you choose to do an MFA?
I waited a long time to make this decision, weighing out the benefits vs costs—both of which are considerable, in my opinion.
I’m glad I waited; career-wise and skill-wise, I wouldn’t have been ready to do it any sooner and would likely have gotten frustrated with the lack of quick success so many people expect upon graduation.
While I would never advocate that every writer should get an MFA, for me it was the right decision.
I remember talking to a writer friend who was doing it and I asked her, “Why? Don’t you already know how to write?” Her response was the reason I went ahead with it. She said: “No matter where you are as a writer, an MFA will make you better.” Is that true for everyone? I can’t say. But it was true for me.
How did you secure your first agent or publisher? How long did it take?
I actually got an agent early in my writing career—mainly because she was new in the business and was looking for clients.
My suspicion is that she signed anyone who approached her. Did that mean I sold my first novel quickly? Absolutely not. My early novels were not in any shape to go out into the world, but I didn’t know that at the time.
When I veered into writing fantasy, my agent didn’t represent that genre, so she passed me off to someone else. That relationship lasted about a year, during which time the new agent tried but failed to sell my work—and then gave up on me. That was a low point.
My first published novel took ten years from initial idea to signed contract. Yes. Ten. I ended up doing it the old-fashioned way: without an agent, sending out query after query, and periodically taking stock to do yet another major revision.
There is a good news/bad news aspect to that story. The good news is that during those ten years, I wrote and published a lot of other things.
It wasn’t just ten solid years of failed novel writing. The bad news is that there is way more revision involved in taking a novel from first draft to publication than you would ever imagine. I learned that firsthand.
I sold my first two novels without an agent. By the time I finished my third, I found a new agent and I am with her still: Hilary McMahon, of Westwood Creative Artists. You can check out their page here: http://www.wcaltd.com
What challenges did you face during your early years of writing? Whether real or imagined.
I began publishing short pieces early in my career, and that was an important confidence-builder. Publishing a novel, though, felt like it took forever (because it basically did). Like many writers, I did not understand that you can’t sit down and pop out a publishable novel in a couple of drafts. The Hollywood version of novel-writing was playing in my head, and I couldn’t figure out why real life refused to cooperate.
Learning how to write a novel takes time. You have to write a few of them before you get the hang of how to do it. If you expect it to happen overnight, you will suffer—as I did. I was impatient. I am now grateful that my early efforts at novel-writing were never inflicted on anyone other than my poor beta readers.
Are you familiar with “Imposter Syndrome”? (“the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s efforts or skills”) Has this doubt and/or insecurity crept into your psyche? what do you do to counteract it if it does?
Oh yes. This insecurity creeps into my psyche on a regular basis and tells me I’m not smart enough, not talented enough, and that if someone asks me a question, I won’t know how to answer it properly and will likely say something stupid.
How do I counteract it?
I try to tell myself that few people truly feel as confident as they seem.
We’re all bumbling along trying to make sure we don’t have spinach between our teeth, and all I can do is be honest and not pretend to be something I’m not.
Do you compare yourself to other writers? Whether in the way of creativity, the number of books sold/written, perceived talent, etc.?
I try not to compare myself to other writers, other than as a way to motivate myself.
We’re each on our own journey, and where I am has nothing to do with where anyone else is. Comparison is often a negative process. You end up either resenting the other person or beating yourself up because you don’t think you measure up.
One of my teachers used to say ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’ When someone in the writing community experiences success, I try to see it as a success for all of us.
What is your advice to writers starting out? Can you provide three tips to keep the writer focused on moving forward and not tumbling down the proverbial rabbit hole of self- doubt?
- DO NOT GIVE UP. If you want this badly enough, and if you work hard enough at it, it will come. But it takes time. This is a tough business, and it will test you, and there will be hard moments and quite possibly tears. The published author is the one who doesn’t take no for an answer.
- Listen to feedback. Understand that not all feedback is created equal. Your mother is going to love everything you do, and an inexperienced writer won’t really know how to help you. Find someone who can give you valuable feedback—and listen to them.
- This is going to sound obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Write. It’s a lot easier to think about writing, and talk about writing, and tell people you’re going to write—and then waste the day on Twitter and Facebook. Apply the AOC (Ass On Chair) rule every day—especially if you’re writing a novel. The daily practice is essential.
What was the best advice you’ve ever received?
My novel-writing teacher (and talented author) Gail Anderson-Dargatz gave us that motto.
We had to produce a lot of work in her class, and the thought of handing over a first draft of our fledgling chapters to be critiqued by the rest of the class was a daunting—and potentially paralyzing—process. So we were instructed not to obsess over our work: just sit down and write, and don’t worry about whether or not it’s any good.
Chances are it will be better than you think.
Anything you’d like to add in regards to writers or the professional industry?
I think it’s worth remembering that this is a business.
Of course it feels personal when your work is rejected, but really, it isn’t. And rejection, though rotten, is the way we get better. It forces us to work harder, take our work to the next level.
You want whoever publishes your work to love it as much as you do. You don’t want a lukewarm agent or publisher—so if they say no, consider that they might be doing you a favour.
Michelle will also be sharing the wonderful world of editing with us next time. Make sure to mark your calendar so you don’t miss it.
If you want to contact Michelle or follow her on Social Media–tell her I sent you.