Q&A with author Elizabeth Mayfield, Mule Favorite

You’re exactly right—it has been a while since The Mule blogged, but the truth is, it’s hard to find a moment when you’re out there toiling, toiling, and toiling. But you make time when the time is right.

And today, the time is right.

We have awoken the blog to share an interview with author Elizabeth Mayfield, whose brilliant debut novel, The Love Life: A Novel in Two Parts, hit cyber-shelves last week.

The Mule gave its entirety to The Love Life. We were there from conceptualization through multiple rounds of edits to proofing to page layout and cover design. We provided the Full Mule in the truest sense.

But let us be clear—Elizabeth would have done it without us. We’re just thrilled she didn’t.

Last spring, you contacted The Mule for help shaping a book of short stories into a thematically cohesive collection. Here we are, a year-plus later, and those short stories transmogrified (I can use whatever words I want; this is my website) into your first novel. How'd we get here? And what's your state upon arrival? It's been a grind, but look what you've done—you've written a great, empowering novel. Thank you, Joseph! Well, we got here very slowly, didn't we? My fault. I've written academic papers, short stories, and screenplays, but I remember how I felt when you and Jaime suggested (very sweetly and in a sort of just "oh by the way" way) that I link three stories together and make a novel. I was hungover as hell and wasn't sure I heard you correctly. Then I figured you guys thought "poor woman can't write to save her life" and were trying to scare me off without hurting my feelings...but that's because writers are crazy. We know this.

This is your first book. So many writers set out to write a book but get stopped along the way, often by something internal that insists they are insipid dummies who have no business writing a book. How'd you push through, and what advice do you have for waylaid first-timers? As much as I hate a cliche, they're all true. A real writer will have no peace until the work is finished. You will suffer and there will be days that you feel deeply insane. That's a given. Even the best writers have piles of really bad stuff hidden away somewhere. One of William Styron's college professors told him he had no talent, but if he'd stopped, we wouldn't have "Sophie's Choice." Know exactly what story you're telling and flow in that vein. I already knew I wasn't writing the great American novel and if I kept telling myself I'd never be as good as Styron, I would have driven myself totally around the bend (instead of just to the edge of the bend). It's good to have standards but you can talk yourself out of anything if you blame your standards. Don't stop. Get help. Hit the "send" button. Private joke.

In your novel, we meet a stalled woman hovering around 40 who rekindles her zest, professionally and romantically. I anticipate readers finding a great deal of inspiration in the book. I know you are hoping to uplift women, especially those in their 30s and 40s who may be scuffling through fallow stretches, who may feel like the opportunity for wonderful new adventure is well in the rearview. (I should note I happen to be a man, and the story inspires me.) What kind of impact are you hoping to achieve with the book? I'm glad the story inspired you, but you're just cool like that. I'd like to stretch that age bracket out a bit though. I hear fifty is the new thirty so sixty must be pretty cool too, if a woman insists upon it. In terms of impact, I want women to have something in their hands that says it's okay to stumble...a lot! It's okay to not have children, to be dissatisfied professionally and then fix it if you can, to understand and please yourself sexually if that's a problem for you, etc. Sex is important! I hate the word "slut" and I'm looking into having it formally and permanently removed from the English language. I want women to read the main character's most selfish and immature thoughts and actions and think "hell yes, I've felt like that too." Romance novels have their place but I'm not twenty three and I'm not dating a dashing young man with a private jet, so I don't want to read about any of that stuff. Never did.   

This is a novel told in two parts, and that second part is in the works. How do you anticipate the creation process differing this time around? Less hair pulling. Less pacing the floor. The work matters very much to me, but good God, there's a big world out there and I'm just not that important. I'm going to have more fun this time around. 

You mentioned you needed to force yourself to hit "send." Can you tell us a little more about that? Are you an endless tinkerer? Was fear holding you back? I know the fear of exposing oneself (excellent phrasing) on the page prevents a lot of writers from ever sharing a word they care about. It's admittedly something I've dealt with in the past and will surely confront in the future. But anyhow, why the trepidation? All of that. No one wants to be thought of as stupid and writers are no different, except that deep down, they know they're not stupid. It's more that they don't want to write something hideous and then have people point and laugh at them. Also, the words really matter to us, don't they? More than anything. In some ways, I am an endless tinkerer, editing as I go and it probably hurt me more than it helped. I also let some huge mistakes slip by, repetitions of phrases, etc., so I'm glad I finally found the courage to reach out to The Mules and actually listen to them!

The Truth About Terrible Writing

Here is the most common question I am asked as a copy editor: what do you do when the writing is just really bad?

Crickets.

I want to say there is no such thing as bad writing, but I’m certain in doing so I would lose all credibility.

A lot of what makes writing “good” or “bad” is subjective. Some people love poetic language, while others find it cloying. Some people just want a book to mindlessly entertain, while others want to be intellectually challenged. As a copy editor, whether I like the story is irrelevant. My role is to prevent the mechanics—the skeleton, the bones, the letters that organize into words and then into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, et cetera—from distracting from the story. How can we appreciate the great American novel if it is riddled with typos, misplaced punctuation, superfluous adjectives, mis-conjugated verbs, and an array of other linguistic blunders?

Well, we can’t. We can’t even get into the more esoteric discussion of whether a piece is “good” or “bad” if it’s simply unreadable on the most basic level.

The good news is that “bad writing” on a mechanical level is easy to fix. Just call on your friendly copy editor and let her have at it with her bold red pen. Once you get past the initial shock and rage at the bleeding word carcass she returns to you, I’m certain you’ll find that the bones of your work are solid, strong, and supportive.

The rest is up to you.

- Jaime 

Creating Characters Who Live Off the Page

This article originally appeared on WritersWin.com

Two things.

First: Close your eyes. (You can trust me. I’m not creepy.)

Second: Imagine what your favorite fictional character of all time is doing right now.

I know it’s a strange question, but it probably wasn’t difficult to picture him or her out there dealing with the world. That’s because the best characters live off the page. They are written with such zest that they get up, throw on some clothes, and live their lives even though their creator thinks she’s put them to bed.

I’m an editor in Charleston and work with a lot of writers who struggle with characterization, who create characters as boring and one-dimensional as a former co-worker of mine who seemingly talked only about the time he ordered a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger that came with no cheese or bacon—“Now you tell me how that’s a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger,” he’d demand with a mix of woe and aggression. (Larry, if you’re reading this, I still don’t have an explanation.)

To help my writers fill their characters with life and get them off the page, I ask them to do just that. Well, not exactly that. I ask them to invite their characters to step off the pages they hope to publish and onto the private pages of their journals. The characters should comply because at this point they haven’t achieved autonomy.

And once they are in that journal, and out of the scene, I want my writers to have real get-to-know-yous with their creations, to turn that journal session into a long car ride where you can’t help but learn everything about your fellow passenger. The truth is, to truly know anyone, including someone you’ve invented, it helps to know the boring stuff.

Go for a walk in the park with your characters, I tell my writers; let them look up and ponder the sky, see if they remember all the cloud types.

This is an especially useful tool for writers who are struggling with character reaction during critical scenes. Perhaps their main character is about to fall in love, find a lump, get devoured by a shark, but the scene just isn’t flowing.  

This is the perfect time for writers to sit with their characters before the moment of consequence. Have breakfast with them, I tell my writers, imagine what they are dealing with. Think about what you’re dealing with. You’re real. Make them real, too. Let them experience the mundane, the quotidian tasks we all spend so much of our private lives messing with. Let them have an upset stomach, a zit on the jawline they can’t stop fiddling with, a grueling grocery store conversation with a former high school teacher. Allow your character to be as real as possible. And then send them off into the action, into the shark’s mouth or the oncoming bus; let them scratch the last number off that lotto ticket that changes everything. Give them flesh and then send them into the fray.

And maybe when they are back on the page, you’ll know them a little bit better, and they’ll dictate their behavior during the bank robbery or when they get fired. Maybe they’ll become so real your readers will be able to imagine what it would be like to sit down to lunch with them.

Joe

A Classic Verbal Misstep

Thanksgiving nears and I’m reminded of my all-time favorite malapropism. It was perhaps 10 years ago, and my dad was hosting dinner. My brother—I won’t say which so as to avoid shaming him; I will offer a clue and say he isn’t the oldest of my two brothers—looked at the decoration in the middle of the table and said, “Father, that’s a lovely concubine.”

He, of course, meant “cornucopia.” 

-  Joe

Enhancement Reduction: What Trimming Extra Words Does For Your Flow

For the last month or so, I’ve been working closely with a talented writer on his first completed novel. It’s been a pleasure to work on, as I see legitimate writing talent and a novel with as much potential as any I’ve been blessed to edit. But with any piece of writing, a good editor can come in quite handy, as I say ad nauseam. I wanted to show the before and after treatment to the opening of his seventh chapter. I think you’ll see what a little tweaking and streamlining—we cut a mere 16 words—can do.

We’ve taken an already good paragraph and enhanced the flow, which gives me endless pleasure. Few things satisfy me as much as getting into a good piece of writing, cutting the clutter and bringing its essence to the fore.

 

Before – 127 Words

The man pulled the door open and started up the stairs.  He noticed the smell of old carpet, mold, mildew, vomit, and urine.  Above the creak of the boards he could hear a window air conditioning unit somewhere thumping and banging, trying to keep up with the oppressive heat and humidity from outside that also permeated the stairwell.  Climbing the steps with a cane, the man used the railing for extra support, making a face at the greasy feel of the metal railing.  The floor, with constant squeaks and moans, kept track of his upward progress.  Sweat quickly started soaking through his shirt, already stained with the signs of travel.  He could feel rivulets of sweat running down his sides and down the middle of his back. 

 

After – 111 Words

The man pulled the door open and started up the stairs.  He could smell old carpet, mold, vomit, and urine.  Above the creak of the boards, he could hear a window air conditioning unit thumping and banging, trying to keep up with the oppressive heat and humidity that also permeated the stairwell.  A cane in his left hand, the man clutched the railing with his right, making a face at the greasy feel of the metal.  The stairs, with constant squeaks and moans, kept track of his progress.  Sweat began soaking through his shirt, already stained with signs of travel.  Rivulets ran down his sides and the middle of his back. 

 

What do you think? Trimming those hedges—a little proofreading here, a little copy editing there—can really do wonders, no?

- Joe

 

Book So Hard

When I say I have become a more sophisticated reader than I was as a child, I hope you don’t misunderstand me. Think less “improved vocabulary” and more “elevated snack game.” 

As a young sprog, I had the kind of active imagination that could endow mechanical pencils with human emotions and complicated backstories, but routine-wise, I was a real stick-in-the-mud. When I got a book, I would just read it. If I was in a tree, fine. If it was late at night, then I read beneath the covers. 

But after I encountered that scene in The NeverEnding Story when Bastian retreats to the attic with blanket, book and PBJ, reading was never quite the same. I am speaking of the movie, not the book. If it seems lame to get tips about books from movies, I’ll just remind you that Wikipedia wasn’t around yet, so what was I to do? If you are embarrassed to have just used Wikipedia to familiarize yourself with the plot of The NeverEnding Story, don’t be.

Bastian makes sense as a role model for anyone looking to book-so-hard. He’s so good at reading that the characters in the story directly appeal to him for help, and he ends up chasing down his former tormentors with a dragon recruited from the printed page. I’ve never matched that level of successful book-crushing, but since then, I have tasted the thrill of anticipation involved in prepping for a good reading session. If you carve out the appropriately comfortable setting, it makes opening that first page a reward in itself. You’ve already done what you can in terms of beach towels or ranch dressing or that stray dog you convinced to lie faithfully at your feet. The rest is up to the book.

But it’s possible that I drew the wrong lesson from the movie (not really a first). I think I’ve reached the point where my little rituals of comfort are starting to interfere with the actual rhythms of reading. It’s like that moment when you swallow the last bite of your GrubHub order and realize you are still rooting around in your Netflix queue for what you want to watch. As Bastian steals the book and reads it on the run, his hunger to enter into a world not his own is what makes the story so compelling to him. Books aren’t just relaxation accessories. Sometimes “compelling” is the key word for literature and not “convenient,” and free time isn’t just something to be filled out of habit. Not a revelation, just a reminder. And only sometimes. Sometimes you can sip a bit of tea by the fire, open a book for a single, pleasurable second, feel the day’s tension unspooling around you, and then snap the book shut without any regret. Job well done, book. Still plenty of time to check in on listicles about celebrity boat trends.

What’s true of reading applies to writing as well. Sometimes it is a victory to just get comfortable for the time you have carved out to rendezvous with the blank page. It might not seem like much, but just having a moment of story-building as something that you can look forward to in your day is a real treasure. But there is also a time to challenge yourself, to be dissatisfied with what you have written and to push on through dullness and discomfort to write better what you know can be. Because writing isn’t just relaxation. Writing is riding the dragon from one world into another.

- Ben

The Courage of Full-Frontal Writing

“When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

This writing is abysmal. It’s worse than abysmal. It’s trite and one-dimensional and has no soul. That sentence reeks. This word is all wrong. As a writer, a creator, you are a colossal failure. You should probably just throw in the towel and leave real writing to real writers who have real stories to tell.

Sound familiar?

That’s the voice that rears up in my head every time I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. It is loud and obnoxious and so darn persistent. It drowns out everything else and, inevitably, sabotages my writing. I am a chronic story-starter-and-never-finisher. And I know I’m not alone.

Part of it is perfectionism: we want our writing to be perfect. But so much of what makes a piece of writing great is its own particular flaws—its unique grittiness, its quirky melody, its unconventional turn of phrase. Seeking perfection is futile because it simply doesn’t exist. And really, who would want it to? Instead of chasing perfect, we need to slow down and embrace the imperfections. We need to let the words out without judgment.

And part of it is fear: we fear criticism, rejection, disapproval. Writing honestly makes us vulnerable; it exposes some of the most unprotected parts of ourselves to the world. But writing dishonestly, in an effort toward self-preservation, always falls flat. We can’t write well when we are holding back. To be successful we need to be exposed. To be exposed is to invite attack. Until we fully accept this risk, we will never truly be able to write.

And writers need to write.

It’s time to break the cycle. We need to let go of our perfectionism and face our fears of criticism. After all, our worst critics are those nasty voices in our heads. By putting words on the page, judgment free, and committing to writing honestly, we will start to silence those voices—and maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally finish a story.

- Jaime

First-Time Writers: Welcoming The Editor

You've finished a major writing project! How long did it take? A year? Two? More? You should feel great about your accomplishment. A tiny percentage of would-be novelists, screenwriters, memoirists, etc. actually complete the project they set out to write. It takes incredible discipline, but for the next step, you're going to need a lot of humility. Any piece of writing, including this little bit, could use a good editor. It's quite likely your work will need a few rounds of edits before reaching its potential, but the first time your manuscript comes back from an editor and you look upon the hundreds, perhaps thousands of changes made or requested, you'll likely respond with disgust and despair.

Your work is not done when your first draft is completed. Verbosity, redundancy, loss of focus – these are common first-draft problems. Your editor is here to help. He is not your enemy, set to debase your baby. It's a difficult thing to pour the entirety of your creative self into a project only to have an impassive, soulless editor tear it down. But there's progress in the destruction. Trust me.

- Joe