THE CRAFT OF WRITING — OCTOBER 2021
I’m excited to welcome author Lisa Simonds back to the Craft of Writing blog. Lisa first appeared on this blog in February 2020 when we discussed her debut novel, All In.
Lisa is back today as an award-winning novelist for her second work, Stork Bite, which won a 2021 IPPY Award. New authors take note: it’s possible to be recognized for your work even early on in your career!
L.K. Simonds is a Fort Worth local. She has worked as a waitress, KFC hostess, telephone marketer, assembly-line worker, nanny, hospital lab technician, and air traffic controller. She’s an instrument-rated pilot and an alumna of Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas.
Her debut novel, All In, was released in August 2019. Her second novel, Stork Bite, released in November 2020.
Welcome Lisa Simonds and thank you for joining us!
Thank you, Kay! Good morning to you and everyone who’s joining us. October is my favorite month, and I’m thrilled and honored to be this month’s Craft of Writing guest.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Please tell us about your journey to becoming an author.
Actually, no. The first career I really wanted was as a pilot. That was around the time I became a Christian and got my private pilot certificate. I wanted to be a missionary pilot with a group like Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). I have a friend, Nancy Cullen, who has volunteered in the Idaho and Indonesia MAF facilities. MAF uses small aircraft to help people who live in hard-to-reach locations.
Even though I didn’t always want to be an author, I always was drawn to stories. I lost myself in books when I was young, and I think all that reading nurtured my imagination. I made up stories in my head too, as far back as I can remember. I think fiction called to me a long time before I became self-aware as a writer.
You asked about becoming an author, which implies a readership. I think gaining a readership demands a submission to craft in order to write stories that other people want to read. Mastering the craft of writing, particularly the craft of fiction, is a never-ending quest. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, athletes who have their eyes on the prize submit to the discipline of training and run the race according to the rules. As a runner yourself, Kay, you know something about that. The prize for writing isn’t an award, it’s a readership.
Can you give us a brief synopsis of your second novel, Stork Bite?
Stork Bite is difficult to capture in a brief synopsis. The novel encompasses two interconnected books. “Book One” is about a young black man named David Walker, and I titled it with his name. David’s peaceful, pastoral life is suddenly and dramatically torn from him when he accidentally kills a white man. The year is 1913 and the man David kills is a Klansman. David hides the crime and flees the scene because he fears what the Klan will do to him and his family. “Book One” is the story of what happens to David in the wake of that terrible event.
“Book Two” is titled “Shreveport,” and it introduces a cast of characters who live in Shreveport, Louisiana. Cargie (rhymes with Margie) Barr; her husband, Thomas; Mae Compton; and Jax Addington. “Book Two” picks up in 1927, about a decade after we leave David in “Book One,” and it follows the lives of the Shreveport crowd over many years. These characters may seem distant from the boy David Walker and his story, but all of their lives, including David’s, intertwine—some more directly than others.
I like the idea of the secret lives people have. It’s interesting to me that two people can be right next to each other physically, but each can have whole worlds happening inside them that the other doesn’t know about. I touched on that idea a lot in Stork Bite. There’s one scene in which Cargie, who has been reading a lot of novels, thinks it’s strange that her husband, Thomas, doesn’t know all the goings on inside her head when she lays it on the pillow next to his. But then, Thomas has his own secrets that Cargie doesn’t suspect either.
In the early drafts, I played with interspersing David’s story with the Shreveport stories, jumping back and forth in time and place. This type of structure has been done effectively in some popular novels, but it didn’t work for Stork Bite. Based on feedback from some early readers, the intermingled narratives were disruptive and hard to follow. In the end, I decided to keep David’s story as a whole piece and place it at the beginning. The Book One/Book Two structure is unfamiliar to readers, and some are more than a little discombobulated by it. A few have had trouble getting past their initial disorientation to enjoy the novel. Others take to it just fine.
I want to say something here about the contract of trust between an author and a reader. I think it’s very, very important for authors to fulfill all the promises they’ve made by the end of a novel. That’s how we gain and hold readers’ trust, and it’s their trust that compels them to hang with us while we lead them through the labyrinth of our story. Trust is built over time, book by book. Part of a writer’s craft is learning to manage readers’ expectations throughout the story. We need readers to stay on the same page with us and not expect something we didn’t promise or didn’t intend to promise. That’s a huge part of craft as well.
What made you decide to write Stork Bite? How is it different from your first novel?
The genesis of Stork Bite was very different from All In. The novel that became All In grew from a desire to show the inner transformation when someone—in this case, a particular young woman—passes from unbelief through the veil to saving faith. All In was narrow and specific in its premise, and the story drove single-mindedly toward that end.
Stork Bite is a much more meandering, atmospheric novel. Before I wrote it, I had spent years thinking about how to capture some of my aunt’s life in a story. Aunt Mabel, my mother’s eldest sister, was a brave, decisive woman who endured more than her share of heartache. She lived in Shreveport, right across the street from Centenary College, and she was the inspiration for the character Mae Compton. During the writing, Mae became a very different person from my aunt, but I like to think Mabel would have understood Mae.
In the end, Stork Bite overflowed the boundaries of Aunt Mabel’s life, as I had imagined it, and became a story of my South. Many details in the novel came from my own tribal knowledge: a World War I diary, a dry-cleaning store, a juke joint on Lake Bistineau, cotton farming, squirrel hunting with a .22, a jilted beau, an abrupt marriage, a flight from a hurricane in the dead of night. A minor character is murdered by a jealous husband, and the killer is convicted because he reloaded and shot some more. That detail came from my great uncle, who did time in Angola for the crime.
I think Stork Bite’s strength is the world building that came from all those details. At least, that’s what readers who review or talk to me personally mention every time. They like the Southern vibe. Last week, I gave a copy to an acquaintance, and the first thing he asked was, “Does it have all the Southern…?” He didn’t finish the sentence because he couldn’t quite capture it in a word, but I think he wanted to know if he would be immersed in a Southern experience. I like to think Stork Bite gives readers that experience.
Tell us about the title, Stork Bite. How did you choose it and what does it mean?
I put a highlighted note on GoodReads about the title because readers are puzzled by it. I get that. There’s only one reference to a stork bite when a child in the story is born with one. For your readers who don’t know, a stork bite is a common birthmark on a baby’s forehead. They almost always fade with time.
The title is a metaphor for being born under the Adamic curse that is in this world. We all share an imperfect nativity. I love the shades of meaning in the Hebrew word we translate as nativity, as in Ezekial 16:4. They include everything about our entrance into this world: our family, our antecedents, our culture, our physical situation. We are all born, but the challenges our births entail are unique to each of us.
In one of the early manuscripts, I had David Walker considering all the joys and sorrows that accompany being born into this world. He thinks about how everyone is marked by trouble, like a birthmark. In the end, I felt David’s ruminations were a little too on the nose and I edited them out. In retrospect, I wish I had included some sort of epigraph at the beginning to explain the title, as Rebecca Makkai did with The Great Believers.
I love the cover of Stork Bite. Can you share how you came up with that?
Isn’t the cover beautiful? Actually, Kay, you had more than a little to do with that cover design. What I mean by that is you gave me a very good steer toward Kristie Koontz, your cover designer for Dead Man’s Watch. I contacted Kristie and we had a Zoom meeting to discuss the book and what I was looking for in a cover. I wanted an image of a stork and a cover that evoked a low country, Southern feeling. I had even gone as far as purchasing an image on Shutterstock and playing around with it myself.
I sent what I had done to Kristie, thinking she would dress it up and make it better. Kristie asked if I was open to something different if she came up with it. Of course I was! Soon she sent me back a few much-improved versions of my work and a design she had come up with on her own. There was no contest. I loved Kristie’s original design and it became the cover for Stork Bite. Incidentally, the stork image I bought from Shutterstock became a tiny icon on the spine of the print edition. Kristie suggested that little detail.
Did you find writing a second novel was as difficult as the first? If so, in what ways?
Stork Bite was more difficult to write than All In. For starters, Stork Bite has five POV characters versus All In’s one POV character.
I had to do a lot of research for Stork Bite too because so much of the novel takes place in a time before I was born. My research for Stork Bite was like an iceberg in that most of it never made it into the book. I spent hours upon hours on the internet and reading books, researching Shreveport’s history, Centenary College, Mooretown, Texas Avenue, Caddo Lake, the Klan, 1930s fashions and music and aircraft, bootlegging, Hot Springs, Irish gangsters, Al Capone, World War 1, Hurricane Audrey, cotton farming and ginning, and more. I have a 91-year-old friend whose family cotton farmed in Arkansas using horse-drawn plows when he was a boy. His memories of their life then were a great help.
Figuring out the structure of Stork Bite was a real challenge, requiring draft after draft of revisions and resequencing. I’m not just talking about how to position David Walker’s story, but how to sequence the chapters in the Shreveport section of the book to create a smooth narrative flow.
Why did you decide to enter your work into writing contests?
I entered for the added exposure. I felt that book contests were a necessary part of my marketing strategy. I entered Stork Bite in several contests, including the Texas Institute of Letters, the Eric Hoffer Awards, the IPPY Awards, and the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. The IPPY Awards issued Stork Bite a bronze medal in the Best Regional Fiction – South category. That was a very nice honor, and I have some pretty stickers to put on print copies.
I want to remind your Craft of Fiction audience that The Watch on The Fencepost received an honorable mention in Mystery and Crime Fiction from the Eric Hoffer Awards, which was a very, very nice honor for an exceptionally well-crafted novel.
I vetted the contests as best I could. There are plenty of contests out there, but I only entered the ones that met two criteria: 1) Stork Bite seemed like a good fit, and 2) winning might bring the novel some recognition or credibility.
How concerned should new authors be about winning an award for their books?
In my opinion, not very much because you don’t have any control over winning. There are so many variables, not the least of which are the personal tastes of the judges. If you enter a contest that you think your book has a good chance of winning and it doesn’t, there’s probably value in examining the books that did win. What’s special about them? What stands out? What, if anything, can you learn from them?
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
If you want to be read, learn to write for others, not only for yourself. I believe the more we learn to edit the self-indulgence out of our work, in other words “murder our darlings,” the more we’ll be in a position to broaden our audience.
There’s a wonderful book titled, Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings. The author did a tremendous amount of research into the Inklings, who were Tolkien’s and Lewis’s critique group. One thing she discovered was that J.R.R. Tolkien wore his buddies out by reading ad nauseam every week about hobbits and elves and Middle Earth. Had it not been for C.S. Lewis convincing his dear friend to edit, Tolkien’s work might never have been published. Wouldn’t that have been a great loss?
Getting the self-indulgence out of our work requires an objective, unsentimental approach to revision. I think maybe that’s why so many writing teachers and coaches recommend letting a first draft cool off for a period of time before editing.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel that I hope will snag some new readers. My first two novels focused on questions that I personally wanted to explore. In that sense, I wrote those books for myself first and foremost. With this third novel, I’m focusing on reader enjoyment rather than exploring life’s big questions. I’m trying to write quick scenes with plenty of humor and some suspense too. (Hopefully!) The target audience are readers who want a clean read—no language or other elements that might offend. The characters in the novel are Christians, so there is an opportunity to show the day-to-day life of a young Christian couple and their children.
This novel will be genre fiction. I’d call it Christian suspense. Something James Patterson said in his MasterClass really stuck with me. He advised writers to never condescend to the genre. I love that because it blasts away the highfalutin idea that only literary work contains great writing. Genre fiction can and should have great writing too.
I won’t tell you the title because it’s a working title that may not stick. But I do have a name for you to remember: Freddie Funderburk. Hopefully, you’ll see that name again. And again.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Please visit my website. www.lksimonds.com
There you can find links to purchase my novels and to my social media. For years, I’ve written little essays called Leaves of Grace. You can get to those from my website too, or visit www.melissakaysimonds.com for a direct link.
Thanks again, Lisa, for being with us.
It was my pleasure, Kay!