I met Lynne Heinzmann years ago when her first novel, Frozen Voices, winner of the Fairfield Book Prize, came out. Lynne contacted me about her new book coaching and editing business, and I offered advice. I hired Lynne to edit Quick Start to Kick Start Your Book and discovered what an excellent editor she is. After referring many clients to her, both for fiction and nonfiction, I hired Lynne to edit The Joy of Writing Journal. I’ve enjoyed seeing Lynne’s editing business grow and reading her wonderful books for adults, children and teens. This is our third author interview upon the launch of her first YA novel where we dig into writing a YA novel and other juicy bits.
Inspiration for the Book
Lisa: What was the initial inspiration for writing the YA Novel But Cats Don’t Talk?
Lynne: A few years ago, I read a local newspaper article about a concert pianist from East Greenwich, RI, planning to perform all 32 Beethoven sonatas in a series of concerts at West Kingston’s Courthouse Center for the Arts. That equates to him performing over 11 hours of music! I wondered what would compel someone to try to complete such a herculean task. Would he win some awards? How many other pianists have accomplished this in the past? Had any women done it? I was intrigued and wanted answers to all of these questions. At the time, I was in the early stages of planning a YA novel about a ballet dancer. Reading this article made me change my protagonist to a Beethoven-loving pianist determined to perform all 32 sonatas.
Characters and Elements in Your Book
Lisa: You studied ballet as a child and teen; your protagonist is a concert pianist. When writing the book, did you find parallels between the two disciplines you used in the story?
Lynne: For BCDT, I relied heavily on my background as a ballet dancer. As you mentioned, throughout my childhood and into my early adult years, I studied to be a ballerina, taking classes seven days a week and performing in various dance companies in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Virginia.
While other kids in my middle and high school classes were hanging out at the mall and going to football games, I spent my time in ballet studios and on stage. This led to me feeling different and wondering how to fit in with my peers, major themes that I incorporated into BCDT. I also used the idea of becoming immersed in a discipline at a very young age—I was only three when I started ballet lessons—and loved the art and performing. As Becca, the protagonist in the book, says, I was never so alive as when I was performing on stage in front of an audience.
Including an Animal as a Character
Lisa: Why a talking cat?
Lynne: When I was little, one of my favorite books was The Story of Dr. Doolittle by Huge Lofting. I loved animals and often imagined how fun it would be to converse with them. So, when I got the chance to include a talking animal in one of my books, I jumped at it. I selected a cat because they are so darn cute, and so many people own them—46 million households in America. Perhaps including an adorable kitty as a character in my book might help readers relate to the story even better. Plus, I was looking for a way to show what Becca, my protagonist, was thinking and feeling, and I hoped that having her talk to her cat—and having him answer her—would be a great way to let the reader in on her thoughts and emotions.
Editing a Character out of a Book
Lisa: You also mentioned in your book launch presentation at the Davisville Free Library that you deleted some major elements you had started with. Can you say more about why you deleted some and whether it was difficult to eliminate characters you may have come to love?
Lynne: When I write a rough book draft, I tend to fill it up with all my thoughts about a particular story. Then, in subsequent drafts, I edit the book by deleting the elements that don’t belong, either because they are irrelevant or unnecessarily complicate the story.
In my early iterations of BCDT, the main character was Peter, a young man with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He regularly saw a psychiatrist and lived with his grandpa, a loveable Swamp Yankee (a down-home, native Rhode Islander).
When I discovered that less than 20% of the winners of major piano competitions were women, I decided to switch the sex of my protagonist to encourage all those female pianists out there. I felt like the OCD and the visits to the doctor made the book too much about the treatment of mental illness and not enough about the person it affects. So, I cut those elements and instead mentioned that Becca will be getting treatment, encouraging the reader to seek help when he needs it.
I loved the grandpa character in the earlier versions of the book, but he kept trying to solve all of Becca’s problems for her, so I had to cut him out and make him just the voice of reason in her head. Ultimately, I hope I’ve sculpted the book to include just those characters and elements needed to tell the story best.
Clarifying Your Audience
Lisa: Lynne, you’ve written an award-winning adult novel and two middle-grade children’s books about the Rose Island Lighthouse. Why did you write But Cats Don’t Talk as a YA novel? And how is writing a YA novel different?
Lynne: My first three books were works of historical fiction. The first was written for adults and the next two for 8- to 12-year-olds—although readers of all ages enjoy the Lighthouse Series books as well. All three required massive historical research about people, events, speech, and other information relevant to specific times and locations. I felt obligated to get all of those details correct and focused much of my book-writing attention on that.
For my fourth book, I wanted to branch out and try something different—a young adult novel set in modern times—to concentrate more on character development and plot. Since I had already decided to use a young woman as my main character—YA novels should be written about characters under 20—this genre seemed very appropriate for BCDT.
Guidelines for Writing YA Fiction
Lynne: Another guideline for writing YA fiction is that it be told from a young person’s perspective. While writing the book, I greatly enjoyed viewing the story through 18-year-old Becca’s eyes, seeing events as she would experience them at that age and telling the story accordingly. YA characters are supposed to solve their own problems—as Becca does—rather than rely on an adult to fix things for them. And the book’s subject matter should resonate with young adults.
The three main topics of BCDT—feeling “other than,” worrying about your future, and learning who your “family” is and how to ask them for help—are all subjects that YA readers can relate to. YA fiction is not a “dummied down” version of an adult novel; it is a separate genre with its own quality benchmarks.
The Process of Starting a Novel
Lisa: What’s your process of starting a novel?
Lynne: I begin writing each book by crafting a book blueprint—a concept I learned from Jennie Nash’s online Author Accelerator program. By first developing a comprehensive plan that describes my book’s structure, point, plot, ideal reader, timeline, outline, beginning, and ending, I can write my book confidently, knowing that it will be a complete story and say what I want it to say. I learned so much about the craft of writing (voice, tone, point of view, etc.) in my MFA/Creative Writing program, but I learned how to write a marketable book through Author Accelerator.
By the way, I first heard about Jennie Nash’s Author Accelerator program through an Author Spotlight you did on her a few years ago. Thank you for providing helpful information like that to the writing community!
Belonging to a Writers’ Group
Lisa: You mentioned your book writers’ group. How did your critique group develop, and how does it work?
Lynne: For the past ten years, I have been a member of various writers’ groups that I joined in various ways.
My longest-standing group is comprised of two other women who were in my MFA program with me. We meet in person at each other’s homes a few times a year to discuss 20 to 30 pages of our fiction work, which we email to each other a week in advance. Critiques (strengths, weaknesses, and suggestions) are offered in writing and discussed at length at our get-togethers.
Another of my writers’ groups (6 to 8 participants) meets at a restaurant once a month to discuss 25 pages of one person’s fiction or nonfiction work emailed a few days in advance, with a new author in the “hot seat” each month. This group resulted from a continuing education creative writing class that we all attended. Critiques are mostly verbal and often concentrate on one specific element the author wants help with.
A third writers’ group (10 to 12 members) was organized online through our MFA Facebook page, concentrating on YA fiction. We meet at the university library monthly to discuss 25 pages each from two authors. Critiques are written with a verbal discussion and are focused on the work, not the author.
Finding the Right Writers’ Group
Lisa: I wondered if you have any advice on starting a novel writing group (or book writing group): what to look for in a group, how to find or create one, what questions to ask yourselves as you’re starting a group, pros and cons of certain decisions, tips to make it work well, etc.
Lynne: Since each genre of writing has its own “norms,” I suggest finding a group of authors who write books like yours. There are many authors groups in most states: romance writers, historical fiction writers, academic writers, etc., which can be found online.
The smaller groups are the most helpful since you become more familiar with each other’s work and will be more likely to stay together over the years. Receiving the work via email before your meetings is vital so that you have time to develop an informed opinion of the work rather than having to comment on it extemporaneously.
Make sure there are guidelines for the feedback that include rules like these:
- Critique the work, not the author.
- Provide written feedback so the author can review it again after the meeting.
- Offer feedback on the work’s strengths and weaknesses and suggestions on how to improve the piece.
- Realize that the ultimate authority of the work is the author—she’s the one who knows what its intended point/purpose is.
- After your work is critiqued, you should feel energized and encouraged. If you feel like you’ve been attacked, changes need to be made in the critiquing process, or you should find another group.
Writing Tips for Writing Humor
Lisa: There’s some lovely humor in But Cats Don’t Talk. Can you share any tips for writing humor?
Lynne: Humor is a natural part of our lives and should be part of any book we write. I find that it’s best just to let your humor come out in your writing rather than trying to craft funny scenes deliberately. Trust me—other people will enjoy your sense of humor, no matter how quirky!
Editing and Publishing Multiple Novels Simultaneously
Lisa: I asked a question during your presentation, and I wonder if you would share your answer here because I found it wonderfully informative. You worked on this book for seven years and six major rewrites. In that time, you wrote and published other books. How did the different books influence each other and even support each other?
Lynne: I am always writing more than one book at a time. I find that they help me view each differently.
For example, while writing BCDT, I also worked on a nonfiction how-to-write book, two middle-grade lighthouse books, and a memoir. The how-to-write provided me with the information I needed to select first-person as my point of view for BCDT, the middle-grade books emphasized the need to keep my plot moving briskly for the YA audience, and the memoir showed me that all artists share commonalities like feeling isolated from their peers.
Also, I often find it helpful to step back from a book if I’m having trouble with a particular character or section. Working on multiple books simultaneously allows me to concentrate on one while letting the others “rest” until I am ready to return to them. When I return to the problem book, I often find that my subconscious mind has resolved whatever trouble I had with it, and I am now ready to write on it.
Persistence Pays When Shopping for a Publisher
Lisa: With the number of large, and even medium, publishing houses continuing to shrink and bigger houses eating up the smaller ones, it’s harder to get a book deal without a huge following. You got a book deal with a smaller independent publishing house. Any advice to our readers about how to do that and elements of your proposal that you feel helped interest your publisher?
Lynne: I often joke that I may not be the best writer in the world, but I am one of the most persistent. My advice about publication is: Don’t give up! Frozen Voices, my first book, was published by an independent press because I won a book prize…on my third submittal. Yup, I sent them three different 300- to 400-page manuscripts before one of them won. And that was after I’d sent out dozens of query letters to literary agents without obtaining an offer of representation.
For my two Rose Island Lighthouse books, I pitched the idea to the publisher three times before they agreed to publish them. I presented them as picture books for readers from 6 to 96 years old—no wonder I had trouble finding a publisher! For But Cats Don’t Talk, I once again sent query letters to dozens of agents and publishers before finding one willing to give it life. Plan your book carefully. Write it. Get help editing and polishing it to make it the best book it can be. And then don’t give up until you find someone to publish it for you.
Shorter Paragraphs Make Editors Happy
Lisa: You mentioned that the main thing your editor at the publishing house did was to break up paragraphs and make them shorter. I was curious what you thought about that style.
Lynne: When I write, I group my thoughts by paragraph. One thought or idea = one paragraph. The character might think, do, and say something within that one paragraph, but if they are all related, I keep the sentences in one paragraph. The editor felt that the book would be faster-paced and easier to read if every thought, action, and piece of dialogue were in its own paragraph. This necessitated the addition of more dialogue tags (“he said…”, “she asked…”) and added nearly thirty pages to the overall book, which felt too long to me.
Ultimately, we compromised and broke up some of my longer paragraphs while maintaining the mid-length and shorter ones. That quickened the book’s pace while keeping a reasonable page count for a YA novel. A win-win outcome!
Lisa: Can you share what you’re doing to promote But Cats Don’t Talk?
Lynne: My promotion campaign consists of four parts:
- In-person author talks at venues such as libraries, bookstores, and schools. I love speaking to readers and hearing what they say about books!
- Online marketing through my website and Facebook. I’ve updated my website to include a way to buy signed books directly from me. I plan to send out a monthly newsletter to let interested readers know where I’ll be appearing and other author news. I post on Facebook to announce appearances and direct folks to my website for book purchases.
- Online reviews. Whenever I make appearances or post online, I encourage readers to submit reviews to Amazon.com and GoodReads.com since the more reviews I get, the more those sites promote my books to other readers. Currently, 100 reviews is the magic number needed to get increased exposure from Amazon and GoodReads.
- Word-of-mouth recommendations. I hope friends, family, and other readers will do me the honor of recommending my book to their friends and family. Plus, I am very grateful to people like you, Lisa, for allowing me to talk about BCDT. Thanks!
Presentation Tips for Authors
Lisa: Your presentation was excellent, and I enjoyed your slides. Any tips for giving a presentation as an author? Ways to engage the audience and make it fun?
Lynne: Ever since my days as a baby ballerina, I have loved appearing in front of an audience. That shows when I do book talks and genuinely enjoy it! I try to keep my comments short, never do long book readings, and use lots of visuals—such as a slideshow—to keep things interesting. And I ALWAYS bring some of my famous chocolate chip cookies to every event!
Lisa: I had one and it was delicious! Your book mentions many local places in Southern Rhode Island–the Courthouse Center for the Arts, Pump House, and Mohegan Sun Casino. Is it just for local color, or are these also collaboration opportunities? Are you doing any promotions with those places? Or are they selling your books?
Lynne: I added them to the book to create a sense of realism. Real places = believable stories. Now that you mention it, I plan to contact them to see if they’d be interested in doing promotions or selling BCDT. Good idea!
Lisa: Yes, I would think they would love to collaborate—good luck! You mentioned that you often work on writing more than one book at a time. What are you working on now?
Lynne: I am currently in the early planning stages of three books. There is another YA novel about a ballerina, my nonfiction how-to-write book, and my first attempt at a memoir. In addition, I am investigating funding for writing a third Lighthouse Series book. Plus, I thoroughly enjoy coaching and editing the work of other writers—like you! Thanks!
About the Author
Lynne Heinzmann is the award-winning author of Frozen Voices, a historical novel about the 1907 Larchmont Steamship disaster that won the Fairfield Book Prize. She also wrote the Rose Island Lighthouse Series, a collection of historical short stories for middle-grade readers. The series’ first book, The Curious Childhood of Wanton Chase, tells true-life stories about a young boy who lived with his grandparents at Newport’s Rose Island Lighthouse from 1910 to 1916. The Island Adventures of Paul Stedman, the second book of the series, chronicles the life of a boy who lived at the lighthouse in the 1930s as America was enduring the Great Depression and about to be plunged into World War II. Lynne’s fourth book, But Cats Don’t Talk, is a YA novel about Becca, a spunky professional pianist with problems, including a snarky talking cat.
Lynne is a book coach, editor and lecturer who lives with her family in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.