Bestselling author and new Writers’ Program instructor Amy Wallen has been a frequent literary critic for the Los Angeles Times in fiction and memoir and she is the creator of NPR’s popular reading series, DimeStories. This August, she’ll be teaching The Essential Beginnings: An Introductory Creative Writing Workshop. We chatted about connecting with readers, three minute prose, and the joys of teaching. Welcome, Amy!
Writers’ Program: You accomplished what most novelists can only dream of with their debut work – making the Los Angeles Times Bestseller list. What are some tips for the first-time novelist entering the marketplace? Is there anything you would’ve done differently?
Amy Wallen: In the short time since MoonPies and Movie Stars was published, social media swarmed the scene. Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist, and MySpace was only just starting to make people anxious about not being popular enough. That said, I don’t think the popularity contests are the way to sell books.
The best way for an author today is to make close contacts. I find I sell just as many—maybe more—books today by participating in events which are more personal, face-to-face. Even my book tour, while successful and a whirlwind of fun, readers only got a glimpse of me the author.
Today, with the World Wide Web being just that—world wide—readers seem to want to connect, to find that close-knit community. While those authors with more followers on Twitter would probably disagree with what I just said, ultimately, what an author wants is lifetime readers. Meet one reader, make a connection, and she’ll tell two friends, and she’ll tell two friends, and so on.
WP: You’re also the original creator of DimeStories, 3-minute pieces read by the author, as featured on NPR. What was your motivation for creating this project?
AW: I’m a stickler for time. And following rules. I’d been to too many readings taken over by writers who think an audience wants to hear a 45-minute saga about their awful boss or mother or life. I’m not insensitive, I just want to get to the heart of the story, so when I was asked to emcee a reading series, I said I would if I could set one rule–each piece could be no longer than 3 minutes.
Everyone said it wouldn’t work. At first, readers tried to go over 3 minutes consistently. I brought a timer, and a cat-o-nine tails whip and finally the readers got the message. What eventually won them over was they saw the strong prose which came from the writers who did their darnedest to fit a complete story inside 3 minutes. They saw the benefits of editing to get to the tightest possible gem. The audience of listeners and those wanting to try their hand at the mightiest tiniest tales grew to great proportions.
As the stories got tighter the room swelled. Soon we started recording the stories, then we pitched the idea to NPR and now we are struggling to be able to keep up with production on our budget of nil. We have been featured on The Story and NPR stations across the country.
WP: Once in awhile, DimeStories has an event called Dime-Offs — micro-story smack downs where dueling authors write about the same theme. Any of these writers ever had to take it outside?
AW: Ha! On occasion my timer has been welded into a molten pile of metal from the heat by disgruntled writers. Actually, since we are wimpy writers, most folks end up crying if they don’t win. Writing puts us in such a vulnerable position. But the idea of themed writing fascinates me because out of twenty some odd participants on a given night, we will have twenty some odd stories, each completely unique. The judges have a tough time.
WP: What aspect of teaching creative writing do you enjoy the most?
AW: Just like Dime-Offs, every time I teach a class I get to wallow in twenty new stories. I don’t think I could ever tire of seeing where the imagination can take people. Everyone has a story to tell, and I believe in helping aspiring writers turn their story into the tightest, strongest and most creative it can be. It’s never boring.
Kate Sipples is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Onsite). Follow her writing adventures at http://twitter.com/KateofGoodHope.