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Q&A: WDB Author Lisa Lenard-Cook

Lisa Lenard-Cook, author of Mind of Your Story, says that memorable fiction doesn’t arrive by magic, but if you work at writing—and rewriting—you can learn to make what’s on the page match the picture in your head.
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Lisa Lenard-Cook, author of The Mind of Your Story (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008) is a fiction writer, writing instructor, monthly columnist at (“The Art of Fiction”), and “servant” to a pack of demanding yet endearing dogs who love nothing more than to distract her from her daily writing time.

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Her first novel, Dissonance, won the Jim Sagel Prize for the Novel while in manuscript. After its publication by the University of New Mexico Press in 2003, it was selected as a book of the year by the Tucson-Pima County Public Library and the Cincinnati Public Library. In 2004, the book was a NPR Performance Today Summer Reading Choice and in 2005 it was shortlisted for the PEN Southwest Book Award. Lisa's second novel, Coyote Morning, was published by UNM Press in 2004, was selected a Southwest Book of the Year, and was recently shortlisted for the New Mexico Press Women's Zia Award.

Lisa also reviews books for the independent Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque, and has had short stories published in a number of journals, most recently The Southwest Review. She is a faculty member at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and Narrative Art Center, and, in addition to being a popular conference and workshop speaker, she teaches fiction writing in private classes, works as a freelance writer and editor, and takes particular joy in mentoring both beginning and more experienced fiction writers. She took time out from her busy schedule (“let the dogs out, let the dogs in”) to answer a few questions for us.

What inspired you to write The Mind of Your Story?
I realized that my fiction columns for, which in turn are based on the classes I’ve been teaching for over fifteen years, would help fiction writers with many of the issues with which I grappled myself.

What’s your favorite part of the book?
Considering how much information is packed in the book, this may surprise you, but I’m delighted that WDB chose to include (in appendices) a sample page from one of my works in progress, which shows the big mess of my own revision process, and one of what I call my “scribble sheets,” where I make notes during a first draft.

If you could encapsulate what you hope writers will take away from the book in a sentence or two, what would it be?
Memorable fiction doesn’t arrive by magic, but if you work at writing—and rewriting—you can learn to make what’s on the page match the picture in your head.

What piece of advice have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?
Two things. Sydney Lea always told me, “Mine the ore.” What he was meant by this was that my quick and facile way with words wouldn’t get me to the heart of my fictions. Only digging deeper, through revision and rewriting, would they reach their full potentials. Second, “Patience.” This lesson comes from my father, who died over thirty years ago. It’s taken me most of those thirty years to master it, but now that I have, I know exactly what he meant.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to writers?

Be willing to let go. It’s the connection to your readers that matters, and making that connection means recognizing that your words aren’t holy, “what really happened” isn’t the main thing, and a linear telling is usually the least interesting way into a story.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers can make?
I really wouldn’t call it “worst,” which sounds so Doomsday and dire. But new writers seldom realize just how important revision and rewriting are to writing that connects. They get something down the first time and right away want to know how to find an agent. See “patience,” above.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?
My friends, my family, my dogs, and my students. That’s one thing, right?

What does a typical day look like for you?
Let the dogs out, let the dogs in, let the dogs out, let the dogs in … Okay, in addition to being the dogs’ servant, I spend as long as it takes each morning to get caught up on my e-mail, read the New York Times and Albuquerque Journal online, do the Times crossword (on my Mac), and run through anything quick and easy on my To Do list.

For the longest time, I thought the morning was my best writing time, but it turns out I need to do this daily deck-clearing first—and that afternoon and late evening are really better writing times for me. I try to meet friends for lunch at least once a week—it’s my grounding in the real world (see the one thing I can’t live without, above)—and/or run errands. When I get home, I work for several hours, until the dogs insist it’s time for The Walk. When we get back, I do what I call the non-writing work, which includes research, reading, editing, and critiques, and which often includes writing that’s not fiction (don’t ask why I don’t call this “work”—I never said The Mind of the Lisa was logical).

My husband and I keep very different hours—he’s an early morning person (and I do mean early—he’s up at 3 A.M., asleep by 9 P.M.), and I’m a night person. So after he goes to bed, I read and write for two or three hours more.

And oh, one more thing that’s a big part of my days, nights, and work: I stare out the window. A lot.

If you could change one thing about publishing, what would it be?

Its focus on the bottom line. So many wonderful manuscripts go unpublished because editorial boards are afraid to take risks.

In what way (if any) has your writing/publishing life changed in the past 5 years?

Five years, eh? Well, it was in 2003 that Dissonance was published, so the five years is a real marker, in this case. While Dissonance wasn’t widely reviewed, it began to quietly make librarians’ lists and such, and I began to get e-mails from people I didn’t know—this had been my goal for my writing, to touch, really touch, a reader I didn’t know (I’ve revised that goal!)—as well as from people I hadn’t heard from in years, I mean, elementary school acquaintances, people I’d worked with twenty and thirty years ago, friends of my parents, friends’ parents …

Coyote Morning was published the following year. By then, I had a new agent and had started writing my monthly column for Authorlink. I wrote several other novels, all of which are in various states of completion in my “closet.” I’ve taught a lot, and widely—I love that part; the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference is a high point in my year (and not just because my birthday’s always in there somewhere). And I’ve met editors, agents, others in the publishing business who have become dear friends …

These days, I still get e-mails from people I don’t know—or used to know. But really, honestly, in terms of my writing/publishing life, not much has changed. I write, I rewrite. I beat myself up, I build myself again. I let the dogs out, I let the dogs in.

Do you have any advice for new writers on fostering a strong author/editor relationship?
Your editor wants your book to be the best it can be. Listen to her: She knows what she’s talking about. Don’t be a prima donna. (Aside: That reminds me of a quote in a student newspaper, which referred to a “pre-Madonna.”) Don’t argue about every word and comma. (All right, a disclaimer: I once argued, and won, a comma argument. But it was a really important one, and I’d never done it before—or since.) Like every relationship, you need to give, not just take.

Gee, maybe my next book should be a relationship guide, eh?

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?
I am so proud of Dissonance. I reread it recently, and couldn’t believe I’d come up with some of what’s in there! It’s what an old boyfriend used to call “small but mighty,” which is, I think, the highest compliment I can pay any novel. And I wrote it!

But there’s another thing I’m very proud of, and that’s the mentoring of writers I continue to do. Stay tuned: You’ll be hearing from many of them in the near future.

What are you working on now?
I have just started … something … I’m not quite sure what it’s going to be yet … having to do with my father’s post-World War II experiences in Italy, his parents’ emigration from Bessarabia in the early 1920s, and a long string of Romanians he helped come to Buffalo (where I grew up) in the 1960s.

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Any final thoughts?
First, I’ll quote my husband Bob: “Practice, practice, practice.” And this, from me: Listen. Pay attention. And trust what you hear and see. It’s where all fiction begins, again and again and again.

Read an excerpt from The Mind of Your Story.

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