Photo by Tom Bender
with Elizabeth Sims
Elizabeth Sims discusses You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams
Interview by Rosa St. Claire
RS: What instilled in you this love for writing? What was the first book you remember reading?
I was one of those kids who had a natural affinity for words and stories. Some might say I'm more right-brained than left. The first book I remember was The Better Homes and Gardens Children's Story Book, an anthology which was given to my mom by a neighbor when her son outgrew it. My parents both read to me out of it before I could read, then I took over later. The best thing in my life when I was little was climbing into my dad's lap and him reading to me from that book. His favorite one to read to me was 'The Elephant's Child' by Rudyard Kipling. To this day I can remember whole passages from that story word for word. I still have that book.
When I was six, my mother, at age 40, went to college to become a high-school English teacher, while my dad supported everybody with his machinist's pay. That was a huge thing in my life. Just as I was starting to really read, Mom brought all kinds of books home, most of which I was too young for, of course, but I picked them all up and tried to read them anyway, and that helped my reading and comprehension skills a lot. There was an enormous anthology of children's literature that focused mainly on myths and folktales, and that was just a trove for me. It was so big and heavy-more than a thousand pages-that I couldn't haul it onto my lap by myself.
RS: Who was supportive in your creative endeavors?
Well, my mom was. Her reverence for authors was so great that I thought, OK, the highest thing in life you can do is be an author. Yet I don't think she ever thought I'd actually become one. She kept telling me how few people make it as authors, with the implication 'Don't reach too high or you'll just get crushed.' That was damaging, but my drive to write was so strong that I overcame it. I had an encouraging teacher or two, but today my greatest enthusiast-and my best first-round critic, I might add-is my beloved partner Marcia.
RS: Your new book, You've Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, is an excellent reference for writers. What inspired you to write it?
I'd been writing articles for Writer's Digest magazine since 2006, eventually becoming a contributing editor, and the idea of doing a book more or less came out of that work. Also-and every published author can relate to this-every time I'd meet someone new and they found out I was a published author, nine out of ten would say, "Oh, gosh, I want to write a book too!" I got tired of saying, "Get a copy of Writer's Market like I did."
I read a few of the most popular how-to-write books looking for something more to recommend and was appalled at how many of those authors tell their readers that writing is really hard, and that you're most likely to get your heart broken if you want to get published, yadda-yadda. I had taught myself that writing a book, a whole book, is NOT hard, provided you get out of your own way and let your natural talent and creativity take over. That is my experience, and that is my message. Quite different from the mainstream wisdom!
Writer's Digest Books offered to publish it, and they were great in the design and editing process. They're telling me that sales are very good, but beyond that, I'm thrilled to be hearing from writers who tell me the book is helping them in all sorts of wonderful ways!
RS: Why do you think so many writers fail in their attempts to get their books published?
First of all they don't write publishable books. The key reason for that is they're stuck on all the rules of writing, and they're infused with doubt and worry about their results (rather than the process), and their work comes out stilted. It's a turnoff to agents and editors. Secondly, too many of them give up too soon. I was clearing out some old papers a while back, and I came across all the rejection letters I'd accumulated from agents and editors over the years. I put them all together, and you're not going to believe it, but it was a stack two and a half inches high, pressed down! This was in the not-so-long-ago days when all this correspondence was done via U.S. Mail. Today's aspiring writers don't know how good they have it, what with email queries and electronic submissions.
The point is, I kept at it until I got somewhere; it was like I had no choice. I kept writing books, stories, and new material, and I kept working on the best of my old stuff, and just kept at it. I would have kept at it until I died. It was just something I had to do.
Eventually I sold my first series (the Lillian Byrd novels) myself, then got an agent, who got me a hardcover deal for a new series (the Rita Farmer mysteries) with a major publisher.
By the way, I threw those old letters out, and it felt great.
RS: What is your opinion on e-books versus print? Which version do you prefer and why?
We're constantly assured that e-books will take over the world, and maybe they eventually will. I'm a bit of a techno-phobe, and I grew up loving my books, and collecting books, and I was a bookseller for ten years, so my heart is really with paper and ink. I only bought an e-reader when I put my backlist on Amazon Kindle so I could make sure my books looked OK. I try to read things on it, and I really think it's best for fiction: you naturally want to read the story chronologically. That's easy with an e-book.
But if you're trying to grasp a complicated nonfiction book, where you're going to wish to flip around in it, an e-version just doesn't work as well. Plus, heck, I hate the little nagging anxiety of 'do I have enough battery left' and having to plug it in and all that.
RS: In Chapter 9 of You've Got a Book in You, you write about "breathing life into your people". What percentage would you attribute to making characters seem real to a book's success?
I feel it's pretty high. '80 percent' jumped into my mind just now, so I guess I'll stick with that! Which is why I put so much in my book about it. Also dialogue, which of course relates to your people, or characters. This holds true for fiction and nonfiction. And character, of course, can and should drive plot.
RS: You make a very strong point in writing that every "compelling book has a hero". Who is your hero?
You mean my own personal hero? I suppose I would have to say my dad, who was an honest man and a good dad. His last act was one of heroism: he died in a lifesaving attempt that went wrong. He didn't have to try to help, but he did. And he paid the ultimate price for doing the right thing.
RS: What are the most common questions you receive from writers seeking advice?
#1: How do I get an agent?
#2: Will you help me get an agent?
I do try to help, but of course if somebody wants an agent, they need to put first things first and write a great book. That's what You've Got a Book in You is for.
RS: What are your projects within the next three years? Is a new Lillian Byrd or Rita Farmer book in the works?
Yes, after taking quite a bit of time to write You've Got a Book in You and see it through the production process, I'm now working on the fifth in the Lillian Byrd crime series. I also have plans for the next Rita Farmer mystery. That one will have to wait longer, until I get that Lillian book out.
I'm also working on another novel, a stand-alone that is set in Los Angeles like the Rita books.
I've also launched a blog called Zestful Writing, and that's turning out to be a lot of fun. http://esimsauthor.blogspot.com
Apart from continuing to write for Writer's Digest magazine, I also have plans to write and publish lots more new work, both fiction and nonfiction. I can't write fast enough!