I first met Leah Ferguson in the lunch line at the regional conference for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association in Philadelphia. I complimented her scarf, and she told me she liked my hair. I liked her immediately.
Leah was on the lunch panel to discuss her experiences with publishing, and I found her honesty completely refreshing. After talking to her more at the conference and keeping in touch with her via social media, I soon found out that Leah is, quite simply, genuinely nice. She is approachable and supportive to other writers; it’s quite common to see her on Facebook urging other authors to meet their writing goals. She and I even made a deal that we’d both do NaNoWriMo; I lasted about 3 days, but she cheered me on all the way.
I asked her a few questions about her writing process and how she fits into the women’s fiction genre. Here’s what she had to say:
- When did you first start calling yourself a writer? When did you decide to write a novel?
Thanks so much for asking me to talk with you! I’m afraid this answer is going to tell you way more than I’d like about my self-esteem. I’ve been writing since I was a child: poems first, then short stories in high school, but I never called myself a writer. I took creative writing courses in college, and one of my greatest joys was the weekly column I wrote as the features editor for West Chester University’s newspaper, The Quad. Later on, I contributed an op-ed to my local newspaper in Harrisburg. But even though writing was as part of me as my skin and blood, I think I never wanted to admit that aloud just in case what came naturally to me wasn’t, well, good.
Truly, I didn’t start calling myself a writer until I signed with my literary agent (Katie Shea Boutillier of Donald Maass Literary Agency) about five years ago. I think I finally felt worthy enough to admit that this was really something I loved to do. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to embrace it, but there it is. I have such respect for writers like you, who are tackling those dreams right out of the gate. To actively use your talents is probably one of the best gifts you can give the world.
- What is your writing process like? How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have absolutely no work/life balance, to tell you the truth, and that’s something I’m working on. My grandmother always said that a human can only do one thing at a time well, and she was right: I’m either an excellent mother/wife/daughter/friend, or I am an unwashed, obsessed writer: I’ve finally figured that out and accepted it, much to my sanity’s relief. Despite that, I try very hard to sit down every morning (I’m a full-time mom to my four-year-old while his big sisters are in school) and work, but without a deadline I tend to have the focus of a drunk goldfish. I keep a blog, and you’ll always know when I’m not working on my fiction when you see posts from me every single day–I’m a champion procrastinator. But once a deadline is put down–either my own or my agent’s–I will work nonstop until I meet it. I wrote the rough draft of my debut novel, All the Difference, in a month, and took my good old time with my second book until my agent told me she needed to see a manuscript. I wrote 60,000 words and went through multiple revisions of that one in about seven weeks. (Please note: I don’t recommend this process to anyone with common sense). But I find that I work best when I don’t allow myself to leave the world I’m creating. Thankfully I have a partner who picks up the slack when I drop it (which I do like it’s on fire), and children who think having an author mom such a cool thing that they don’t mind when I’m throwing cheese sticks in their backpacks and calling it lunch.
- Your first novel was excellent, and you spoke about it at the Women’s Fiction Writers Association conference in Philly, a conference specifically for women’s fiction. How do you define women’s fiction, and why do you think you ended up writing a book in that genre?
Thank you so much for such kind words! They absolutely make my day. My definition of women’s fiction probably falls in line with the publishing industry’s: it’s a novel that focuses on the emotional journey of a female protagonist. A women’s fiction author tends to stick her main character in a tough situation and monitor her progress as she picks her way out, hoping that the reader will identify with her along the journey.
To be honest, I have no idea how I ended up writing women’s fiction. My personal interests have always geared toward literary fiction, Russian history, the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance and feminist memoirs. My writing has always been emotional, though: sarcastic, yes, and funny, hopefully, but I like to get to the root of what we feel and why, which is why I think women’s fiction came more easily to me. The genre is a rich, varied field, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
- What did you learn about the publishing business after publishing your first book? Is there anything you know now that you wished you known before?
As you probably know from the Philly conference, I could talk for a solid hour or so about this–the learning curve is so steep. The publishing business is strange in that it moves so very slowly in the beginning (mastering your craft, querying agents, revising, submitting to editors), but once you land your deal, time speeds up. My advice for writers gearing up to query is this:
- Build your social media platform, but with integrity: don’t just self-promote or talk only about writing. What else is important to you? Choose one or two topics along with writing and really try to discuss them on social media. Follow people you both admire on sites like Twitter and Instagram as well as those who share common interests with you, and start making conversations.
- Reach out to other authors: email them with questions, with compliments, for advice. Relationships with established authors are an incredible asset to you both professionally and personally.
- KEEP WRITING. Start your next book as soon you start querying. Writing your next book is the best way to sell your first one. Agents and editors will want to know what’s next, and readers, once they’ve read your first, will be hungry for more. When I got my deal for All the Difference, my publisher wanted to see a new book within 60 days. I’m about a year and a half behind schedule for that one because I wasn’t prepared for it all to move so quickly. Be prepared. Keep writing.
- If you choose to pursue traditional publishing, also be prepared to lose some control in the process. The words on the novel’s pages will be yours, but you won’t have much, if any, say in your book cover, or its tagline, or the way it’s marketed. It’s the trade for seeing your book on a Barnes & Noble shelf. Gird yourself.
- You will have to promote yourself, eventually: create a website, write newsletters, do giveaways, set up signings and interviews, shout about your book and others on Twitter and Facebook (if you’re already established your platform, then your followers won’t blink an eye). This is hard for an unwashed introverted writer, but go take a shower and get out there, friend. Nobody can read a book she hasn’t heard about.
- What advice to you have for beginning writers?
- Don’t stop writing. I started writing a blog years ago as a way to get me acclimated to sharing my work with the world. It’s what built my confidence, and the encouragement of my readers is what helped make me think that a book could be possible. In whatever way you do it, keep writing. If you have a voice, the world should hear it.
- While writing, pay attention to those times you kind of cringe at what’s on the screen: is a character too strong? The prose kind of redundant? Do you find yourself skimming over sections? Trust your instincts the first time around, and don’t be afraid to tone down, build up, or cut where you need to. Your brain knows what it’s doing: listen to it.
- Become involved with a writer’s group. You can form one in your community if you don’t have one already, or join an established professional one. I’m an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, for good reason: not only have I made countless friendships through it, but my editor at Berkley found my blog through the WFWA website, saw that I had a book out on submission, and requested my manuscript from my agent. I signed a contract for All the Difference just a few months later. Again: no one can notice you if you’re not out in the world. The writing community is one of the most supportive I’ve ever seen. You won’t regret it.
- Be smart. Learn about the business (Query Tracker is a good site) and submit your work only when it’s ready to publications and/or agents. Don’t ever pay money to someone who says s/he is an agent and asks for it upfront. Professional agents only get paid when they’ve made a deal.
- Be consistent and brave: with writing, with blogging, with contacting writer friends. This practice will help you once you cross into publication. I admit that I’m terrible at consistency (though the bravery part’s getting easier) but it’s one of the most important qualities to have in this business. It’s what tells people they can count on you.
- What’s next for you? What can we look forward to?
I’m so glad you asked! I’m working on my agent’s edits for my second book as we speak. Once I send her the completed manuscript, Katie will work her agent magic, and hopefully I’ll have good news for you soon. I’m really excited about this next book: it’s a story about a modern friendship, and what happens when a woman helps her friend chase her dreams at the expense of her own. It’s big and funny and sad all at the same time. I love it, if I can say that about my own book–I’m really happy with the way it turned out. Thanks so much for the encouragement–I can’t wait to share it with you.