Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Author Interview: Buffy Greentree

By Iola Goulton

I'd like to welcome Australian author Buffy Greentree to Australasian Christian Writers today. I've recently read Buffy's first novel, After the Winter, which I've reviewed over at Iola's Christian Reads. However, it did open up a bunch of questions about Buffy and her writing. I've interviewed her about her books on my blog, and today's she is visiting us to talk about her writing. Welcome, Buffy.

How do you categorise your writing?

When I started writing, I didn't want to write 'Christian' novels, in that I didn't want to write specifically for Christians most of the time (though some of my books obviously are, like the theology book I've drafted up on the liberal/conservative divide).

However, in all of my books, no matter what the story, I aim to show the world as it really is. My worldview holds that there is a divine being with a plan for humanity, whether we follow it or not. I believe that there are consequences to sin, humanity is made up for mind, body and spirit, there is life after death, and eventually right will win out (even if that only happens in reality at the second coming). So I termed my work 'Christian appropriate'.

However, the more I write, the more obviously Christian everything is becoming. I try to make it all sound normal, but I have to acknowledge that not everyone thinks it's normal to expect God to act, or prayer to be effective, for there to be spiritual gifts or the need for repentance before moving forward. I've gotten away with it in some books, such as After The Winter. None of my secular readers have said anything about the strong message on repentance and forgiveness through Christ at the end as it was period appropriate.

However, other works I have a bit more trouble with. My first YA trilogy that I would love to get traditionally published is very blunt about how the world really is. My poor main character is a non-Christian to begin with but basically has to realise that believe in God or not, she is still going to have to deal with the spiritual world, it's just much easier to be on God's side. I'm also curious to see how Virtually Ideal goes, as the main character is not your typical 'Christian character' (she's a bit irreligious to begin with), but then the introduction of prayer and God later on might put off non-Christians. So I'll just have to see.

What do you see as the main differences between fiction written for the Christian market compared with the general market?

Honestly, I think all Christian writing should be accessible to the general market, but that's because I differentiate between Christian writing and writing for a Christian market. As C.S. Lewis said, the world does not need Christian writers, it needs good writers who are Christian.

For me, writing as a Christian should come down to which attitudes/actions of the characters are rewarded and enforced, and which lead to negative consequences. All books should accurately reflect the Christian worldview, whether or not the characters call on the name of God. For example, I believe Christian romances should be less focused on characters saying Christian things such as, 'Just trust in God and it will all work out.'

Instead, it should be a demonstration of our message in a realistic manner: character does this, leads to negative consequences. Character does that, eventually leads to positive consequences. You may not even mention God in the whole thing, but all the results are a true reflection of Biblical promises. This can be seen brilliantly in C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles. He doesn't have to mention God for his message to get across, and it wasn't marketed as a Christian book.

What is the hardest part of getting a book written, edited and published?

When I first started, I thought getting through to the end of the first draft was a huge, almost impossible task. Now I realise that's the easiest part!

The editing stage is something I'm still learning about. Even after bringing out three books, I realise my self-editing skills are not what I want them to be yet. Three edits minimum is my new standard. First, my structural edit might involve pulling the entire book apart and rewriting it, a very scary concept for me. Then for the third draft I'll consider each and every sentence to find the best expression, and finally the fourth draft is a polish. I admit that After The Winter has not gone through as many as it should, but I'm working on Virtually Ideal to be better.

Then there is publishing. There is just so much to learn. Really, you need to start researching about both traditional and self-publishing as soon as you start writing the book. You need to create your platform, build up a strong support network of beta readers, editors, and reviewers, learn about the market, work out about doing book launches, understand how Amazon and other marketplaces work, learn sales strategies, as well simple things like book formatting and cover design.

Even if you get a publisher, knowing these things will help you write a better, more marketable book. Now that I've got three books out, I think I'm starting to get the hang of it, possibly. I still haven't done a large book launch, or really done a marketing push. I'm waiting until I have a good body of work so as to get maximum effect for my efforts. And so far it's only taken me two years of focused effort.

How is self-publishing different from working with a publisher? What made you choose the self-publishing option?

Eventually I want to be a hybrid author, with some works self-published and others traditionally published. Once you've learnt all the skills for self-publishing (which takes years) and you've built up your audience (which also takes years), self-publishing allows you to get work out much faster. So it's great for topical books and to start building up an audience while a traditional publisher considers some of your other work. It also allows you to publish works that might otherwise be seen as 'unmarketable'. I knew I was going to do some contriversial Christian works that most publishers wouldn't touch. But I also knew that they had value and could change people's lives. So I'll bring these out myself.

However, unless you have built an amazing platform, a traditional publisher will have a larger reach. Also, you don't have to pay for anything up front, and you might even get paid! Yes the royalties are less, but overall for one book you usually come out ahead. Consider that when you self publish you have to pay for good quality editing, formatting and book cover design, all of which is a minimum of $2,000 and can go up much, much higher. With just one or two books, you're never going to make that back. The most successful self-published authors either already had a large platform (such as bloggers who have thousands of followers), or have brought out twenty books.

Also, a publisher will challenge you to make sure your work is really up to standard. It's so easy to self-publish that it's very tempting to bring out something before it's ready. So unless there is a good reason not to use a traditional publisher, I think you should always try.

What advice do you have for someone seeking to write and publish a novel?

Remember that writing is a talent, and like every other talent it takes time and dedication to master. Start practicing early, frequently and with resources to help you improve. Be prepared that your first million words are going to be pretty lame, and that it will take years to develop all the necessary skills, usually about a decade. But you have to start somewhere, so the sooner you get those million words out of the way, the faster you can progress.

And as part of all that, take the time to learn as much about publishing and marketing as possible, because once you've finished the book is too late. I'd suggest planning on about two years of building a platform and audience before you can expect any returns. If you need any help about how to start thinking like a writer, why not check out the first in my writing series: The Five Day Writer's Retreat?

For more advice, updates, laments and hymns about writing, check out my blog at www.100firstdrafts.com, and all my books can be found as ebooks and paperbacks at Amazon—just search for Buffy Greentree. (Luckily there's only one of me.)

That's great. Buffy, thank you so much for visiting today. 

31 comments:

  1. Thanks, Buffy and Iola--a very thoughtful and thought-provoking interview. And what an interesting writing journey you are on, Buffy. Well done to you! I think my favourite piece of advice in it all was: 'Be prepared that your first million words are going to be pretty lame, and that it will take years to develop all the necessary skills, usually about a decade. But you have to start somewhere, so the sooner you get those million words out of the way, the faster you can progress.' I think I'm up to about 800,000, so hopefully I'm getting there!

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    1. Had to laugh, Jo-Anne. Thought just the same about those million words. On the other hand, I was once a 'fan writer' (meaning I used to write stories based on science fiction on tv) and got a lot of training there as to what worked and what didn't. There probably are more than a million words out there under various pseudonyms.

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    2. The beauty of writing under pseudonyms is you don't have to own up if it was truly awful writing!

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    3. Jo-Anne, the thought of a million words is pretty mind-boggling, so well done for getting as far as you have! However, do we ever stop learning? I suspect we don't (or shouldn't).

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    4. Come to think of it, I forgot to add in all the many thousands of words in those essays in my uni days, as well as for my 39 subjects at theological college, plus the various bits of ministry related material I have also written in recent years. So yay! I might have made that million word mark too, Anne! Then again, as you say, Iola, do we ever stop learning? Maybe after the NEXT million ...

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    5. You're not alone Jo-Anne, I counted all my uni essays, particularly when I drafted them, had them pulled apart by a tutor, and then drafted them again. That surely must count for extra words.
      And Anne, one of my dirty little secrets is that while I was writing my honours thesis I was also writing fan-fic by night. Surprisingly the creative output helped with the academic writing. And I think more people read my fan-fic than have ever read the thesis.

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    6. Hi Elizabeth - I know huge numbers of people read my fan-fic. I was once speaking to a guy whose living was selling fanzines and he told me that one of my stories had nearly won a FanQ award (of which I'd never heard) and asked how many I'd sold in the States. He was incredulous it was only 2 because he said that it was impossible even to be nominated, unless you'd sold 50000 copies. He estimated a quarter of a million copies of one story alone had circulated through the US and was the single most influential story on the interpretation of the "canon" of the televised series itself. He thought I'd made a fortune from the story... but we figured that, whoever it was, wasn't me.

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  2. Buffy, you are a woman after my own heart, particularly in regard to your statement, 'all Christian writing (I'm presuming you mean fiction, here) should be accessible to the general market.' Your comments about researching publisher and market well before the book is finished is really challenging. My first book, a biography of a missionary, was published by a Christian publishing house, but my next project (only 52,000 words into, ATM) is fiction and also somewhat lit. fic. For that, I may have to find a different publisher, even self-publish. Scarey thought!

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    1. Hi Rhonda - I think that being accessible to the general market is trickier than we think. I collate the comments coming in from Christian bookstores that participate in the CALEB Prize and one of the most consistent is that they don't like books more suited to the general market because the message is not upfront and clear. Meantime, the general market is unhappy with even the most subtle references to God and that is reflected in reviews. Mike Duran makes some compelling points here: http://mikeduran.com/2014/06/christian-filmmaker-message-before-story/ and although this refers to film-making, I don't think it's much different for readers.
      So, given that publishers have to make a living too, I don't wonder most choose to either target the Christian market or water the message down so greatly it's very little different to a good moral story.


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    2. Annie, I agree. The Christian market and general market have different expectations. The successful crossover book is elusive precisely because it's very difficult to write a book that appeals to a large number of readers in both the Christian market and general market.

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    3. I've recently finished reading Writing in Obedience, which discussed the various markets Christians write for. I agree with Mike Duran about story before message, and that's even more important when targeting seekers or non-believers.

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    4. I do agree that writing 'cross over' books is almost impossible. Both markets are very demanding. However, I think this is a weakness in both markets, not a strength, and something as writers we need to think whether we want to encourage. For me that is one of the big advantages of self-publishing, I get to put out books as I think they should be, not how publishers think is financially viable. But this also needs to be tempered with humility, because sometimes it's pride that stops us taking the advice of others. So, I haven't got all the answers, but I'm looking for them.

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  3. Hi Buffy and welcome. Great interview, Iola, with some excellent challenging questions.

    I love that CS Lewis quote about Christian writers. And as the Jo-Anne and Annie mention how true is that first million words? Reinforces Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule for achieving some form of competency.

    All the very best with your writing, Buffy and looking forward to hearing more from you on ACW.

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    1. I'm not altogether convinced by Gladwell's 10,000 hours (it works as long as people are actively seeking to improve over that 10,000 hours. Otherwise it's just 100 hours 100 times).

      The same can be said for writing—authors don't/won't get better if they don't learn the craft and seek feedback. But, yes, start writing, practice writing, and seek to improve. And you will. The key is to start.

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    2. Gladwell's book did inform my thinking, along with Maxwell's 'Talent Is Never Enough' (which from memory, I would probably recommend more). Obviously repeating the same mistakes over and over doesn't get you very far. However, there is something very powerful in realising that it's going to take a long time to become an expert, accepting that and starting to work towards it. There is also something quite liberating about knowing you don't have to be perfect straight away.

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  4. Some interesting thoughts on writing fiction as a Christian and publishing. I like your point 'I try to make it all sound normal, but I have to acknowledge that not everyone thinks it's normal to expect God to act, or prayer to be effective, for there to be spiritual gifts or the need for repentance before moving forward.' It's such a tricky line to write fiction from a Christian worldview that will appeal to those outside the Christian 'bubble' without watering down our Christian convictions - that there is a loving eternal creator God who acts. As you say, easier in some genres (maybe historical or fantasy) than others.

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    1. Hi Jeanette
      I think that's so true... so hard to write without watering down in order to get out to a market where we're not preaching to the converted.

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    2. Good point, Jeanette. Thanks for commenting.

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    3. I agree Jeanette, definitely easier in some genres than in others.
      One thing that I've found that has helped me when trying to balance this is the knowledge that God is the reality. Everyone operates in a world made by God, whether they believe in him or not. Therefore, if I write about the world as I know it should be from my understanding of the Bible, it will reflect reality in a way many people feel but don't understand.
      As Christians, we should have better insight into character motivations, why people really do what they do (battles between flesh and spirit etc), and truth like that should make our writing resonate deeply with the reader even if they don't know why.
      But I do have to constantly remind myself of this. I have been trained to write from a humanistic point of view, but there is a 'rightness' when we reflect a true, God centred worldview.

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  5. Thanks Ioa. I love hearing the journey of another writer and Buffy's writing odyssey has certainly been that. And to quote her: 'writing is a talent and like very other talent it needs time and dedication to master.'

    It's so true that when you first begin you're so positive you're writing well until you really start learning the craft. Only then do you see all those glaring mistakes. That's the point where you either give it up and throw in the 'too hard' basket of forge ahead.

    I hope publishers see her talent for what it is.

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    1. My 'L' needs hitting hard, IOLA.

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    2. That's the one failing of Blogger comments: we can't edit! (And isn't it typical that you find the typo the second *after* posting, not before?

      I think those who haven't studied the craft of writing think it's pretty straightforward (I admit: I used to be one of those people). I still believe you can learn a lot by reading a lot, whether it's good writing or bad writing, but reading craft books and learning from others teaches you *why* it's good or bad, and we need to know that in order to improve.

      And you're right: when we see all those glaring mistakes, we then need to keep writing!

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    3. I am very familiar with the 'too hard' basket, and constantly have to drag myself out of it. However, as I try to tell my girls, as long as you don't give up, it is almost impossible to fail. This draft might not make the cut, this novel might not be there, but if i keep writing, polishing, learning and taking feedback, as long as I don't stop or die early, eventually if I want it enough, I'll get there.
      I just have to keep reminding myself that I want it, even when throwing it all in the bin seems easier.
      Though, falling in love with my characters always helps me through the long slog until the end. If you are about to throw it all in, just sit down with your main character and explain to them why you are giving up on them. That is usually enough to get me back in the chair.

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  6. Buffy & Iola, great interview! Thanks for visiting with us today :)

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    1. Hi Narelle,
      Thanks for having me! Glad you enjoyed it.

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  7. Thanks Buffy and Iola. I'm hoping to read 'After the Winter' soon.

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    1. Hey Paula. Not sure if you remember, but you gave me feedback on my first ever novel, Sally Hunt Vs God, as part of the Caleb competition. While it still needed a lot of work, your kind words encouraged me to keep going. So, I'm blaming everything that follows on you!

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  8. A great interview, Buffy, and so glad you are working so hard at your writing. Very interesting and important thoughts on the Christian and General market books. As a novelist I have to be very aware of my targeted readership - and that includes where they buy books. As much as I would love non-Christians to read my books, the reality is I know the vast majority are Christian women. We can only realistically try and reflect the Christian faith and walk in our books from our own personal experiences and knowledge of God's Word and His working in the lives of people. However, having said all that, it still comes down to God using our efforts that are committed to Him where and when and how HE wants to. And Iola, I sure can testify to the fact that if ever we think we don't need to keep learning, we are very foolish and heading for failure! And that magic million words? I just estimated have written at least well over 704,000 in fiction alone. Counting my other writing over many years in the writers' course, nursing and college assignments - as well as my diaries, I must be getting very close. However I really think it isn't the quantity but the quality that matters in the long run.

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    1. That is a very good point, Mary.
      Often when I'm either thinking of giving up or dreaming about 'international best seller' status, I get a gentle reminder about who I'm really writing for. The truth is after all the effort I put into a book, if God can use that to help just one person in the way He wants, then that's well worth the effort.
      And despite the Joyce Meyers of the world, God seems to rather like the little efforts. And He also seems rather keen on us making the most of the talents He's given, and not taking things for granted. And so I keep learning.
      I also keep in mind that Moses spent 40 years as a shepherd before he wrote five of the most read books ever, so maybe I should increase my decade a bit.

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  9. Great interview. And what great discussions you have in your comments!
    All the best.

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