Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ten Minutes with Carol Dunbar, A Ghostwriter Who Lives in the Woods

There's a difference between writers who dabble and those who purposefully practice a disciplined writing life. Hemingway's goal was 500 good words each day. Jack London produced a thousand. You will be impressed with Carol Jean Butler's output, as well as her personal history. I believe you'll learn much from her insights based on her decades of experience.

EN: Share how you came to be a professional writer. What was your path from childhood scribbles to a serious career decision?

Carol Dunbar: My path was not a traditional one. My first book titled The Dog Who Got Eaten was about a dog with a hole in the middle of its body who got mistaken by his owner for a donut. So, right away I struggled with plot. But I wrote many books until third grade when I decided to get serious. I labored over my masterpiece, the sequel to Peter Rabbit. I don’t know why I was obsessed with that rabbit, but it was an assignment for school, and I over-achieved, writing pages and pages—I wanted it to be really great. These were newsprint pages with those thin red and blue lines, and I erased so many times the pages became transparent and difficult to read. My teacher gave me a C. It was the only C I ever got and the hardest I’d worked on anything up to that point in my life. Then in fourth grade, I saw Man of La Mancha and fell in love with a more physical form of storytelling. I got my BFA in theatre, wrote in secret, and worked professionally as an actor for 10 years until I moved off the grid to finally focus on writing.

EN: You were born in Guam and have lived in several places such as Georgia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Texas. Now you live off the grid, in the woods here in Northwest Wisconsin. How have all these places and experiences informed your writing?

CD: I feel incredibly lucky to have this wealth of place to draw from, but it took me a while to tap into that. I used to think that because I was from nowhere, I couldn’t write with authority about anywhere. I used to bemoan the fact that I’d never write a cozy small-town story about growing up in one place where everybody knows everybody. I admire what Elizabeth Strout did with Olive, Again and how she brought all these characters from her previous novels back together into one fictional place. I might do that someday now that I’ve lived in Wisconsin for 18 years. But right now, I’m working on a novel-in-stories about people who can’t settle down. I’ve always wanted to read a book about people who move.

EN: You write both fiction and non-fiction. I myself feel my non-fiction has been enriched by poetry and fiction writing. How does your fiction inform your non-fiction writing?

Carol Dunbar
CD: This is an interesting question because my fiction informs my non-fiction from two different directions, both personally and professionally. And let me just say I think it’s wonderful you let poetry enrich your fiction. I admire poets and their precision.

From my fiction writing I learn how to tell the truth. A friend and writing colleague once shared with me that when she writes her characters in first person, they lie. That absolutely is true for me when I write nonfiction, and it’s why I prefer the third-person narrative. I have to work really hard to tell the truth when I’m writing personal nonfiction. It feels more vulnerable, and I only do it if I have something important to say that can’t be shared any other way. From a professional standpoint with the nonfiction articles and books I ghostwrite, my fiction skills help improve the writing because I know how to thread a narrative, how to draw out a story. Because of my theatre training I have a penchant for high drama, and I exploit that shamelessly to make my financial planning books more palatable.

EN: For authors seeking to publish books, especially fiction, finding a good literary agent is challenging. How did you get matched with yours?

CD: Serendipity. I met my agent at a writing conference and I pitched her. But making the decision to seek representation felt a lot like trying to decide when to go to the hospital during my first pregnancy. After so many years laboring over a book, I didn’t want to query too soon and be sent home.

I read this book called Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb, with a kickass foreword by Dennis Lehane. Wonderful book. And I didn’t query an agent until I’d done all 10 things on this list included in that book, a list that basically said, “Don’t even think about querying until you’ve done X, Y, Z.” The list included impossible things like giving a public reading to a group of strangers, and my heart sank because, as a mom to little kids, I knew it would take me years to do all the stuff on the list. But the process was rewarding in of itself, and my novel got better with each item I check off. Through Lake Superior Writers, I was given an opportunity to give a reading at Grand Central Plaza. I was so nervous presenting my book to this group of seniors, but they were just marvelous. They listened attentively when I read the first three chapters, they asked questions and we talked. Then to my utter delight they wanted to know what happened next, so I read to them some more.

It was having this engagement with readers that clued me in on what was interesting and important about my book. It helped me both from a character development standpoint and from a marketing standpoint when writing my pitch. By the time I set out to query, I felt on solid ground because I knew how to talk intelligently about what I’d written. When I set out to find an agent, I received two requests for full reads after only five queries—and that’s going from the first 10 pages, to a request for 50 pages, to a request for the full manuscript. I share this not to brag, but to make the point that in my experience, if you really do all the things that the professionals advise you to do when setting about this process, the work pays off.

EN: You mention that you don’t send something out till you have read it out loud. This is great advice for beginning writers. What are some other tips you might suggest?

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash
CD: I can share two tips brought to you by my theatre background. First, learn how to read your drafts like an actor. An actor treats the written text like a holy thing where every word matters and is there for a reason. First drafts obviously have a lot of problems and are full of crap, but they can also offer unexpected gifts from the subconscious. If you can learn to identify these gems and trust yourself, they can reveal hidden motives and help show you the way.

Second, listen to yourself. Even if you’re not someone who typically engages with the written word aurally, even if you hate the sound of your own voice, even if you don’t have time, read it out loud, record it, and then listen to your story like a reader would listen to an audiobook. This process helps me edit in three different ways. First, as you said, when I read the work out loud, I suddenly see and hear big problems that I didn’t see when looking at the page. Second, reading and listening both help you to feel your way through the climax of a chapter, a story, or a scene. It helps you to recognize when you’re peaking too early, when you’re losing tension, when you’re doing too much or not enough or when you’re repeating yourself. And third, when you go for a walk or a drive and listen to your story again, you trick your brain into thinking you didn’t write this, and you become the person who just wants to be told a good story. And if the piece isn’t doing that, then you can identify why, and roll up your sleeves. Because the cool thing is that now, you won’t be just poking around, you’ll have a real intention to your editing because you will have identified what’s not working and why, so you will be able to fix it. This might sound tedious, but when you finally have a draft that’s a pleasure to listen to, there is no greater reward.

Photo by Levi Ventura on Unsplash
EN: You’ve had real success ghostwriting for a variety of clients. What do you like most and least about ghostwriting?

CD: What I like most is getting to interview people across the globe. It’s a little doorway into lives different from my own. I love hearing how they talk, hearing the background noises, and most especially I enjoy the conversations that are off topic. I once wrote an entire short story based on the sound of a young man’s voice who interrupted our interview with the word, “Grandpa?” So, my professional work energizes my creative work, which I’m grateful for, because you’d think it would be the opposite. I typically write 2,000 to 4,000 words a day for my paid work, and that’s in addition to logging in a 1,000-word minimum for my creative work. (I like to think that my writing muscles are buff.)

The physical fatigue is the hardest part. While the long form suits me, I’m banging away on a keyboard for hours at a time. I have an ergonomic everything plus a standing desk and a chiropractor.

EN: What are you working on now that has you jazzed?

CD: Great question. I’m working on a novel in stories that celebrates restaurant culture and the lives behind the hands that serve. These are what I call my waitress stories, and I wrote them between drafts of my novel. But the problem I’ve always had with short story collections is there’s no driving pull to get the reader to the end. So, with this collection, I’m working to thread a narrative that follows a group of individuals who all work together at a restaurant that has decided to close. So, the reader will follow them across the country to other places where they pursue other dreams and succeed or fail at building new lives.

As a writer I’m very interested in how people move through transitions. One of my favorite books is Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, and one of the most interesting parts to me was when Santiago worked at The Crystal Shop. He was very good at his job at The Crystal Shop and it was lucrative for him to stay there, but he was on a quest and so always felt this underlying dissatisfaction and a pull. I love this metaphor because I think we also get stuck in our lives working at our own equivalent of a Crystal Shop, and it can be very difficult to move on from that and answer what’s calling. Of course, in The Alchemist, the journey called him back home. And this is also interesting because in real life, it isn’t always that we have big ambitions; sometimes the greatest lessons come from learning how to stay.

EN: Thank you for your time and the rewarding read.

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