What would you do if Neil Gaiman read your short story?
Last year I had the good fortune to meet new author Kate Bitters at my local writer’s group. She has a truly awesome story to tell. Not only has she published her first book (and is about to publish two others!), but her own short story was hand picked by the NPR radio show “Wits” and read on air by Neil Gaiman himself!
I invited her to sit down and chat about her career as a writer and her NPR claim to fame.
It’s my understanding that your real name isn’t actually Kate Bitters. Can you explain your pen name?
Kate Leibfried is my real name, and Kate Bitters is my pen name. I felt like I wanted a separation because I work as a freelance writer. I wanted my fiction world, my personal creative work, and my nonfiction freelance world to be separate. Also, people have struggled with saying and pronouncing my name since I was born, so it’s not a very friendly name to have on the cover of a book. That said, my first novel was published under my first name Kate Liebfried, but I went back and changed it.
How did it feel when Neil Gaiman was reading your stuff out loud on “Wits”? Did you have a vocal reaction? Like OMFG?
It was surreal. I felt like a minor celebrity. I was just in awe that Neil Gaiman was reading my short story, because he is one of my personal heroes. Well, I can die happy now. It was amazing. However, part of the story was mistyped by the senior producer and that also made my stomach clench and go “OMG Neil Gaiman thinks I made a typo!” But if you’re listening or reading this Neil, I did not make that typo!
He re-tweeted your blog post right?
He did, he has a very active tumblr account which I really admire. He’s a big time author who does all these cool things, and yet he still has time to connect with people on social media. And he really does make an effort to answer questions. I admire that.
The short story you wrote for “Wits” was pretty short. It must have been a fun break from your larger works. What are you writing now?
I’m really excited about my novel that will be coming out soon, because I’ve spent so much time on it. I mean two years of editing! The inspiration for this novel came from an album I was listing to. The album was by Electric President, and the brains behind Electric President is Ben Cooper from Florida. I actually contacted Ben Cooper when I started writing, and he gave me his blessing to weave some of his lyrics into my work. Every chapter in Ten Thousand Lines corresponds with a song title. I had the opportunity a year and a few months ago to hand him my manuscript in person. He was playing at Varsity Theater. I got to talk to him, hang out with him for a little bit, and I was probably more shaky than when Neil Gaiman was reading my story.
I’m really excited about this book because it is very heartfelt and I feel like I have learned a lot since my first novel. The action is more integrated, and the plot is tighter than in novel number one. And I don’t want this to be a spoiler but: every time when I read to a certain part, I end up crying because there’s a really heart-wrenching part in it. The woman who edited it also experienced that feeling too, so I’m really excited to get it out there.
I did query agents last winter. I got a couple of responses. Positive responses, not just a form letter. I actually sent my full manuscript to one of them, but then they had it for a couple months and it languished until they finally said, “Sorry, we just don’t have the capacity right now.” That was a close call, and I got kind of discouraged. I’m looking at a couple options right now. There’s an interesting thing going on right now called Kindle Scout. It’s Amazon’s version of free market press publishing.
Basically you put the first few chapters of your book up. People select books that they like and put them on their bookshelf. If you are on enough bookshelves after 30 days, Amazon will pick you up and publish you. Not through Createspace [Amazon’s self-publishing arm], but actually publish you through their publishing company. That’s one option. Createspace is another option. Then there’s a little publishing company in Eden Prairie called Beaver’s Pub Press. I may be thinking of working with them, we shall see.
That’s pretty impressive! I look forward to reading it. Given that you also freelance write on top of your creative writing, how do you manage both? Did the freelance or creative writing come first?
I’m a list maker, and the beginning of each day I plot out my day and I try to set some time aside for myself. It’s not always as much as I want. I have the goal of writing every day. It doesn’t always happen, but I find that if I take a break of more than three days from a story it leaves my head and I feel like I’m set back pretty far. I think I spend about on average an hour a day writing for myself. It’s just a matter of having a list and how I carve out my time. I’m pretty organized about it. I have to be since I have so many different jobs.
I’ve been doing creative writing for longer than freelance writing, since I was little and started making up stories. Throughout college I started several stories but only got twenty pages into each one, then kind of gave up and moved on. I always wanted to be a writer, but was always told in so many ways that it wasn’t practical, that I wasn’t going to make any money. It’s hard, I’m not going to say that it is easy, but it’s possible. Maybe not yet with my novels, but hopefully someday.
I started writing my first novel when I was in Panama. I was there for six months working on an alternative energy project. I was doing a feasibility study and found out pretty quickly the project wasn’t feasible. It was converting banana waste into energy and the conditions weren’t right for this particular island I was living on. I ended up doing a lot of writing. I had this idea already and actually developed this idea when I was living out in Portland, where I first moved after college, and I finally had the time to do something about it. I started writing. I wrote about 80 pages in Panama. I came back and wrote about 400 more. So that beast of a book is called Elmer Left. It’s about an old man who runs away from home.
When you finished Elmer Left, what made you decide to go the self publishing route?
There are a lot of reasons I decided to self publish the first book. First of all, it’s really long. It didn’t fit within the neat confines of the 80,000-110,000 word ideal that most agents and publishers are looking for. So there’s that. I didn’t want to cut it. I could have made it into three books, but I didn’t think they could have stood on their own very well. They don’t fit very neatly into any category. It’s kind of a self discovery book. It’s kind of an old man coming of age book. It is kind of a commentary on religion. I shouldn’t say kind of. It is all of those things. It doesn’t fit into a bucket very well. I wasn’t sure how to go about courting agents because of that.
I’m curious to know what your work space looks like? What do you do when you need to get your writing done?
I need it to be really quiet. Almost absolutely quiet. I don’t go to coffee shops. I get distracted by the music and by the people. I go to the coffee shop if I’m a little short on inspiration. Typically I work at my home office which is pretty small, but it’s my desk, my laptop, and my external monitor. Up above my desk I have notes pasted to the wall. I have a timeline of my story so that things line up properly. And I have a bulletin board full of quotes, notes to myself, and little bits of inspiration. Occasional I will grab my laptop and sit in bed an write too, if I feel like I really need to feel comfortable. But usually it’s at my desk.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is just starting out, who is still in school and dreaming of making this life possible despite everyone else saying how difficult it is?
Read a lot. That’s my number one piece of advice. If you want to be a good writer, read. Read. Read. Read. Read. Read! Read a variety of things, not just one genre.
But beyond just honing your writing skills, you have to have a certain amount of chutzpah, because people are going to tell you “no” a lot. You have to be OK with trying and failing.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it’s easy to write and think you’ve written the best thing in the world, but you have to listen to other people’s advice too. Not everyone’s advice though. You need to have a feeling about what is right and what’s wrong for your story.
I have to add that when I started freelance writing I worked as a waitress at the Original Pancake House selling pancakes and coffee for two years. That was necessary. I had one steady client, a couple of temp gigs, and I just built it up until I felt comfortable quitting. An interesting thing happened after I quit. I suddenly got a surge of business. I was more open to it, I was looking for it, and I was ready to say “yes!” to anything because I had just quit my job, which was my steady income. That was just a necessary path to take in order to become a full time writer.
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