One of the joys of online communities is the chance to meet other writers. I met Pat Bertram when she entered the Tru TV Crime contest on Gather.com and immediately liked her writing. She also started a writer's group on Gather.com called No Whine Just Champagne which brought together writers to discuss writing craft, building stories, getting published, how to promote writing and a myriad of other topics related to writing. She's currently doing a whirlwind tour of the blogosphere, talking about her newest book, Daughter Am I, just published by Second Wind Publishing. Today she's my guest on the James Rafferty Blog as part of our Writer's Notebook series.
James: Pat, one of the intriguing aspects of your writing is that you haven't settled on a single genre. Do you have any thoughts about why your writing went in that direction?
Pat: It simply never occurred to me to pick a genre and stick to it. I remember when “genre” signified formulaic stories and mediocre writing, and I wanted to be a better writer than that. I also wanted to write books that had more than a narrow appeal. Libraries and bookstores used to be set up with a mystery section, a romance section, a science fiction section, and then all the rest of the novels. That’s what mine are — “one of all the rest”. Though that isn’t a genre. Drats.
James: I had a similar experience. I’d come to like books that had depth – great stories painted on a large canvas that challenged the reader. I set out to write a book like that. But it took me a long time to finish that first novel Growing Up Single, and by the time I had, the publishing industry had swung strongly in the direction of genre fiction.
Pat: With the huge proliferation of books published every year -- over 500,000 in 2008 --it’s almost impossible for readers to find new books by new authors unless the books are genre-specific, but it seems as if we all miss out when the emphasis is on genre.
James: A while back, we talked about how the best of all worlds for a writer might just be to establish their own genre. For example, Scott Turow did very well by opening up the legal drama genre and was quickly followed by John Grisham. Have you made progress in the direction of establishing your own distinctive genre?
Pat: I wish! After Wanda Hughes read my books, she sent me a message saying, “I now see what you mean about an unnamed genre. Kind of a big picture conspiracy, behind the scenes machinations and how that affects the little guy (or gal) on the street.” So, “conspiracy” could have been a good genre name, but I broke the pattern with Daughter Am I. Daughter Am I is more of a mainstream novel, though it could be classified as a mystery. My work-in-progress is a tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic allegory, which is a weird sort of story even for me.
The unifying theme in all of my books is the perennial question: Who are we? More Deaths Than One suggests we are our memories. A Spark of Heavenly suggests we are the sum total of our experiences and choices. Daughter Am I suggests we are our heritage. So, perhaps my genre is “identity quest,” though I can’t see that as ever being a big draw. My only hope is to build an audience for “Pat Bertram’s books.”
James: Who are we? I like that. I think that sooner or later if the novelist wants to get beyond strict entertainment, he or she needs to take on bigger themes and say something about them in story form. My favorite novel of recent years, Damascus Gate by Robert Stone, was set in the period of the first intifada in Jerusalem. The novel could be seen as simply the narrative of a journalist facing a mid-life crisis, but he manages to weave in quests for spiritual enlightenment, vivid descriptions of day to day hell in the Gaza Strip and a romantic encounter with a potential soulmate. If you want to understand why the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is so intractable, this book lays it out, but still manages to drive forward with a compelling narrative that kept me hooked from beginning to end.
Pat: Most books that go beyond genre, and even many of those that don’t, seem to have some sort of quest at the heart, and mid-life-crisis certainly falls in the category of “identity quest.” It seems as if Damascus Gate is not only the story of a personal search for identity, but the search for a people’s identity or a country’s identity.
James: As a reader, my roots were in science fiction, but that eventually led me into the classics, literary novels and other genres like murder mysteries, as I followed paths carved out for me by my favorite writers. What would you say are your influences?
Pat: I like to read novels that have it all -- mystery, adventure, romance, a touch of strangeness, a bit of truth -- but since I can’t find that sort of novel very often, I settle for just about anything. Non-fiction, genre fiction, literary fiction, whatever is at hand. I used to real a lot of science fiction, but when the science fiction gave way to science fantasy, I lost interest -- I like my science fiction rooted in the human world. If Kate Wilhelm were still writing science fiction, I’d still be reading it.
James: Yes, that kind of humanistic science fiction exerts a pull on me, though I’ve now got expectations that a strong SF story or novel will bring me to another place, tell a compelling and have a strong prose style. I’ve recently been reading a Best of collection from one of the recent years and I’m impressed by how many of these stories really work for me.
Pat: One of the few books I’ve read recently that pulled me into another world was Heart of Hythea by Suzanne Francis. Her world mirrored ours enough that it was easy to get into the story and stay there.
James: Are you writing to reach a particular kind of reader?
Pat: In a way, I’m the reader I was writing for. There were stories I wanted to read and couldn’t find, so I wrote them. The dichotomy of this is that I always wanted to reach a large readership, so it would have been more practical to write books that a large number of people would like.
James: As writers, we need to be passionate about our stories. The process of writing a novel is grueling enough, but the quest would seem impossible if we lost faith in what we’re doing and who we’re writing for. When I do public speaking, I’m always thinking about who the target audience and want to give them something special they won’t get from another speaker. In a sense, that’s much like the process of writing for that ideal reader. We write and hope the reader will get it; sometimes they’ll see themes and connections that go beyond our conscious intentions.
Pat: Even though I write the books I want to read, I am always aware of potential readers and how best to show my vision so that they will be able to share it.
James: We've both entered writing contests and lived to tell about it. Would you do that again? Did you learn anything in particular from those experiences?
Pat: I don’t intend to enter any other major writing contests, though I might if I can figure out how to make it work for me as a promotion tool. I didn’t learn much from the experience, though I gained a lot. I’ve made many friends, I’ve become involved in a couple of writing groups that were offshoots of the contest, and in a roundabout sort of way, I became published because of the contests.
James: Yes, novel writing contests feel like one of those necessary experiences that are good to have behind you. We learn from them, but they are time consuming and the odds of winning in a large contest are quite slim. But it is like a trial run for the whole process of building networks and promoting your work. And getting to know the other writers I’ve met through the contests has been the lasting benefit.
Pat: I was going to mention about how the contest was a trial run for networking, but recently I’ve become shy about asking people to read blogs or leave comments, let alone vote for an entry. It seems such an intrusion. I’d never again be able to do the kind of campaigning that was necessary for those online contests.
James: You've been very active in blogging and other forms of social media. Have these helped to build a readership? Do you actively measure the results of your community building?
Pat: Most of the people who bought my books came from the social media. Although I have thousands of “friends” there is no real way to measure my community building or to know if what I’m doing is effective.
James: In my day job as a product manager, we’ve started to focus a lot on improving our online presence and Google (i.e. search engine) rankings. Building a community through social media is a long, drawn-out process. Getting people to buy books from writers they meet online feels like a paradigm shift, as mass media promotion (the old style) is augmented or superseded by social media. I suppose actual book sales will be the key metric, but they are a lagging indicator.
James: If you just had to choose two channels of social media, what would they be?
Pat: One channel would definitely be blogging. Something I never expected when I set up Bertram’s Blog, is how much I like writing and publishing my articles. I feel safe on my blog, away from the ratings rampage of other sites, and it gives me the freedom to say what I want. I don’t write about controversial topics, so I don’t have the viewers that other blogs do, but still, for some reason, my readership is growing. As for the other channel -- I couldn’t choose just one. I have discussion groups on both Facebook and Gather, good friends on both sites, though lately I’ve actually been meeting more people on Facebook. What I would like is to find another channel, a different and effective way of introducing people to my books, but so far I haven’t found it.
James: Pat, if there is another effective social media channel for reaching potential readers, I have every confidence you’ll be at the forefront. Thanks for joining us on the Writer’s Notebook series of the James Rafferty Blog.
Pat: Thank you for inviting me to be a guest on your blog, James. I’ve always enjoyed your comments on the Gather discussions, so having this opportunity to talk with you has been a real treat.
Pat Bertram is a native of Colorado and a lifelong resident. When the traditional publishers stopped publishing her favorite type of book — character and story driven novels that can’t easily be slotted into a genre — she decided to write her own. Daughter Am I is Bertram’s third novel to be published by Second Wind Publishing, LLC. Also available are More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire.