Debby Mayne is mentioned in my ebook, Writer Program: The Nitty Gritty. She was gracious enough to do an interview with me for the book, to help writers and people who want to be writers. She’s a successful author of Contemporary Women’s Fiction, has written a wide range of material (fiction from romance to mysteries, and nonfiction as well), and she has worked as a writing instructor. She is a wonderful source of information, and I am blessed and thankful that she calls me her friend.
Debby Mayne interview
From an interview with Debby Tisdale Mayne, author, by Jennifer Harshman, which took place by telephone on December 3, 2012. My questions and comments to Mrs. Mayne are in bold. My notes and comments to you, the reader, are in brackets and italicized.
JH: How did you get started writing?
Debby Mayne: I was a recreation major in college. I never saw myself as a writer. [Notice that even great writers don’t always recognize that they are writers.] I wanted to pursue recreation, lead programs. I enjoyed writing reports and papers all through school. Others would procrastinate, say they didn’t want to write them, so I said, “Can I write it?” It took me a little while to realize that it really wasn’t the right thing to do.
JH: I think that’s a common thing among writers—people come to us to help them write things. But we must behave ethically. What came next for you?
Debby Mayne: Later, when I had children, I was a bit of a clueless parent at first, so I wrote all these little notes to myself, and taped them up all over the house. We didn’t have Post-It notes then, but it was like that. A neighbor noticed and suggested that I put them all together and write an article on parenting and sell it to a magazine.
So I started writing parenting articles from those Post–It notes. [Notice that there are various ways to get started, and to get your ideas out of your head and onto paper. Try different things, and do what works for you.] That was in 1983. I joined Parenting Publications of America. Writing those articles gave me a steady income.
I used to read a book a day. [Notice that writers read a LOT. I also used to average a book a day.] My husband challenged me to write a book instead of just writing articles. So I did. My first book took five years to get published. I submitted 23 proposals during that time. Any self-respecting sane person would give up, but I’m not either one of those. [Notice that it takes a long time, so when it’s tempting to give up, keep at it.]
JH: Tell us the story of when/how you knew you should be a writer.
Debby Mayne: I never really knew. I graduated in ‘75 and there was a recession–rec departments were getting cut left and right. If they had one recreation person, they’d fire him; if they had ten, they’d cut it down to 5, so it was a really bad time to be graduating with a degree in recreation. So I looked around for something else to do.
I took three courses in geriatric recreation, and worked in nursing homes. Then I became program director for a local YWCA. I took a pay cut to do that, but it was fun and I learned some things. During that time I did some freelance ad copy writing–sporting goods stores, bowling centers, etc. [Notice that she’s writing what she knows. She’s using her background to help her.]
JH: What obstacles did you encounter? What would have prevented you from becoming a published author?
Debby Mayne: Rejection, family problems, my mom had bypass surgery that was botched by the surgeons and she remained in a vegetative state, and that was really hard on me. We moved, my husband lost his job, lots of things happened and could have stopped me from writing ever again. But I am very stubborn and don’t give up easily [this is almost a requirement, it seems—just adapt, though. Don’t be stubborn with an editor; be stubborn about keeping at it]. I still wrote on the side. One thing that’s important to remember is that the family is more important than the career. You have to put them first, but you’re already doing that, with the homeschooling.
JH: What did you find out as a result of overcoming those obstacles?
Debby Mayne: I found out that I’m more stubborn than I realized, and even after I feel like I get rejected—I still get rejected, by the way [yes, even with all those books she’s published]—there are times, even now, when I feel like my writing isn’t worth anything, but eventually I recover and feel good about things again.
JH: What do you know now, that you wish you had known then?
Debby Mayne: If I had known then what I know now I probably would not be doing what I’m doing. It’s so competitive. Like in music, where anyone who can sing will try to get a recording contract, anyone who can write will try to get a publishing contract.
Most editors try to be nice, but, well, you know how much they have to handle. They deal with volumes… I walked into my editor’s office years ago, and that’s not a common thing—most writers don’t end up in their editor’s office—but I saw that her desk had these tall stacks of manuscripts, and there were more on the floor next to the desk, and more on the floor behind her desk, and even more just piled on the credenza along the wall… The sheer volume of what they have to go through…
I always thought I’d write tons of books, but I am starting to scale back. Tons of projects out there right now, in various stages, and you don’t know what’s going to come up next [in your life], and one thing can topple it all.
JH: What is the writing process like for you? Do you have a set routine, things that help you get in the groove, things like that?
Debby Mayne: I am very routine-driven. I’ll have my morning coffee and check my email, and while my creative brain kicks in, I write nonfiction. I’m working for About.com as the Etiquette guide right now. [Notice how she writes about all sorts of things, and in all sorts of places? That’s what it takes to make a living at writing.] It’s nice to have that steady paycheck each month. I write promotional material, blog, then go for a 3-4 mile walk, then come home and work on fiction. I write an hour at a time. I’ll eat lunch, then write for about an hour, maybe run some errands, do some laundry, then try to get in another hour before dinner.
I have an inversion table to help with my neck and back problems. Do you have back problems?
JH: Yes, I do—back, neck, shoulders . . .
Debby Mayne: I think just about every writer I know does. I love that thing–I look like a bat, but I love it. Now, if I could just write upside down…
JH: What do you do to ensure that you get your work done?
Debby Mayne: I don’t have to do anything special anymore, because I’ve been doing it for so long, and I’m pretty disciplined, but at first I would make a list, and also, I would do nothing else until my daily word count was done. [You hear over and over that discipline is the key. Like I say, the ABC’s of writing begin with Apply Butt to Chair.]
JH: What is the publishing process like? What kind of time frames?
Debby Mayne: Every pub is different. All the ones I work with have a multi-step process. You write the book, then there is the substantive edit, which may also be called a macro edit or developmental edit. Then you write it again [called rewrites or revisions], then you go through the copy edit, which is like a mix of proofreading and the macro edit.
Then you get the galleys—the proofreader also gets the galleys. At that point, you can correct only small errors. If it’s big enough that you need to change a line in the print, you can’t do it. This part takes about a year. [Debby has several books in different stages of the publication process, so life can get pretty hectic. She tries not to let this happen around the holidays, but it often does. During holiday season 2012, she had four books at three different publishers, all coming back for revisions at the same time.]
JH: What can new writers expect when it comes to rejection?
Debby Mayne: Everybody has a different experience. Most writers get a form letter, unless they’ve met the editor. If the editors know you, they might take the time to send a letter that’s a little more personal, a little nicer. When I submitted my first piece, the editor was very nice and said, “I can tell you’re new at this. Keep it up, go to some workshops, and try again.”
Editors are really, really busy. Rejection letters come across as terse. They’re nice people and they don’t mean to be that way. Writers, try to picture yourself opening 100 emails a day, with people sending you their writing… Remember how swamped editors are, and respect their time, and only submit what they ask for–if it says query, do not send the manuscript! When they say send three chapters, you send three chapters, not the whole thing.
There is a process, and at each step in the process, the goal is to get you to the next step. Editors want to help you, they really do. There are just steps you have to go through, and certain ways things have to be done. If you learn to work with the system, you’ll do better and it won’t be so frustrating for you. Although it will still be frustrating. <laughs>
JH: Some authors discourage new writers because of the many obstacles and the changing publishing industry (it’s possible they don’t want more competition, too, but that’s just speculation). Would you recommend that others write, and why?
Debby Mayne: I’ve seen all of this, too—a lot of authors who feel very protective of their turf. Most are really nice, though. All of my writer friends are. I don’t hang out with the unpleasant ones. Yes, I think if someone has the desire to write they should, as long as they know it’s not an easy process.
One time when I was speaking, someone asked me a question that was really surprising. It was, if I had to give up writing or reading—just one of them—but I had to give it up forever, which would it be? Without even hesitating, I said I’d give up writing, because I was a reader first, and reading is very important to me. I wouldn’t want everyone to give up writing, though, because then the stream of good things to read would dry up.
Right now I’m judging the Writer’s Digest “short short” competition. I see a lot of potentially good stories that aren’t ready yet. They’re trying to insert literary devices, like leaving out all punctuation (which they think is a literary device, but it’s really not). There’s all sorts of things in these pieces, like passive writing, sensationalism–gore and bloodiness. It’s just too much, and readers don’t want to see bad things happen to animals or to children. It’s a tough one to do.
JH: Do you have any tips to offer both new and improving writers?
Debby Mayne: Read the current material in the genre that you write, attend workshops with editors, agents, and other pros. If you want to break rules, learn the rules first! For example, learn omniscient versus limited third person point of view. Omniscient can work, but it’s hard to do well, and it separates the reader from the work.
Keep writing, keep learning, and keep improving your work. You’ll get better as you go along. When I look back at my early work, my first book… <cringes> I would not even submit that book now.
People promote their book before they’ve gotten to first base with it. That’s dangerous. All sorts of things can go wrong. You might overhype it. You might not get a contract right away. Then you have to deal with questions from potential readers. When’s that book coming out? Where can I find it?
Establish a platform–the word “branding” is overused but there’s a reality there. I’ve tried changing my brand a few times, but my main thing is Contemporary Women’s Fiction, and Contemporary Christian Romance. Your platform could be a blog, a speaker tour, having expertise in a specific field-doctors do quite well. It could be anything that showcases your skills.
Never give up who you are, and never sacrifice your family. They need you. They need to understand that you have to work, but love on them. Give them what they need, and more.
I also recommend a fitness program for anyone who wants to write. Almost all of the writers I know have bad backs. I walk a few miles every day and am doing a few other things to keep in shape and help my neck, shoulders, and back. A writer friend taught me an exercise for my back, pressing the middle of my back into the floor, and it has helped. I need to find some good exercises to help my neck and shoulders, though. [I was able to give her an exercise to try, one my physical therapist taught me.]
I used to work for the Long Ridge Writer’s Group [a now-defunct correspondence school for people who wanted to be writers]. One of my students is now with my agent, which is really neat to see happen. In the beginning, when I was working with writing students, I tried to be so careful. I didn’t want to break their spirits. Some students really listen, and they do what you tell them to, and they learn. So many of them just want you to praise them and tell them their work is good, even if it’s not. You learn pretty quickly who those students are.
Another group that listened to me well was prisoners. I was a bit surprised by that. They did all their homework. It was never late. They did everything I told them to. I wondered why. Was it because they were used to taking orders, was it because they had nothing else to do, was it because they wanted to change their lives, was it something else?
One of them wrote really bloody horror-type stuff, hurting animals, murdering everyone, and I couldn’t take it. I told him that it was too much for readers to handle, and if he wanted to write that, there might be a market for it but I wasn’t the one who could help him with it. Maybe he could find someone else. He said no, he wanted to stick with me, and he could tone it down, and he did. I wrote one murder mystery myself, but the murder took place off the page [this term means that the book didn’t describe the murder happening, just said that it had occurred] and so my readers didn’t have any gore to deal with. It wasn’t about that.
My market is the Christian market, because that’s who I am, and I had to write from who I am. It is getting more difficult–as you already know, print publishers are shrinking. A lot of people go the self-publishing route, as a way to deal with it. I used to be really opposed to self-publishing. I’m still a bit opposed to it, because a lot of those books aren’t ready—they’re not good. But indie [independent] publishing is the greatest thing. A lot of people don’t know to get an editor before publishing, and everyone needs an editor, and don’t let it be your mom or your friend who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Have someone else look at it. Hire an editor-the meanest editor you can think of. Hire one who is freelance.
JH: That’s one of the things I see so much of: books that aren’t ready but make it to print—and not just self-published books, but ones that make it through a traditional publishing house—still full of typos and usage errors.
Debby Mayne: Yep, they’re not ready. Poorly-formed plots, flat characters, factual errors, spelling and grammar problems… You know. You’ve been around a long time, Jennifer.
Right now, I’m writing a mystery series for Guideposts. I had to audition for it. The first time I auditioned, I didn’t make it. The second time, I did. They tell you what your book series is going to be about. They give you the outline and everything. Then you write it, going back and forth with them until you write what they want. My series is called Secrets of the Blue Hill Library. I’m getting several books back for revision in the next week.
I’m really a very curious person. And I think that helps. I look for anything that interests me. Lately I have been learning all about gluten intolerance and celiac disease. I learned about it because it’s in my son-in-law’s family, and I think I have a gluten intolerance problem. I just went gluten free about a week ago… I feel really good. I already feel a difference.
[We talked about this at some length, because my children and I are gluten free, dairy free. She stopped me mid-sentence when I was telling her about the gluten free all-purpose flour that I learned how to make by experimenting in my kitchen, and she said,
Debby Mayne: Have you ever thought about writing a book? Because you should. You should write a book about gluten-free living, and gluten intolerance problems. You really should. I’ve seen your writing. You’re great. Your stuff is awesome. I know your work from Suite101 and DemandMedia. I’ve written in both of those places, too, and haven’t you written other places as well?
[I wasn’t aware that she followed my work, much less thought it was “awesome.” I was flattered and a bit floored.]
JH: Yes, I’ve written for a few other websites, and I’ve done some ghostwriting and freelance writing and editing. I’ve ghostwritten two books and have edited six so far [as of 2014, that number is 11]. There are promises of three more on the way at the moment, and I look forward to doing those and more. Proofreading and line editing are among my favorite things to do.
Debby Mayne: Well, you should definitely write that book. And when you write it, I’ll be your first customer. Seriously.
JH: I might, Rabbit. Let me write this coaching program and some other things I’m working on first, though.
Debby Mayne: Alright. I’ll be looking for that book.
Many thanks to Debby Mayne for her time and compassion for beginning and improving writers, for her help, and for her confidence in me. She has contributed more to my projects than she knows.
Please look at the wide range of writing that Debby Mayne does, because you may find that your career necessitates writing a similarly broad range of material, and you should know that it is okay. Often, that’s the way it has to be.
You are not slighting your creative writing one bit when you have to write a commercial piece (or anything else) to put food on the table. I’ll never ask you to betray your morals, but I will ask you to stretch your definition of what is acceptable (to you) to write. Who knows, you may set aside your novel in favor of creating advertising copy for businesses. You may write fiction books and online articles at the same time, just like Debby Mayne does.