Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Painful Pleasure, Part II

Part two of our chat with Bonnie Pemberton, author of 'The Cat Master.'

CS: What mistakes have you made?

Bonnie: I was arrogant. I thought I knew more about writing than I did. After all, I’d written ad copy in LA. I’d written screenplays. What I didn’t know was structure. I’m a story teller. Born that way, but I needed to learn about arcs, hooks, and character. I had to rid myself of ‘ly’ words and ‘purple’ prose. Those are craftsman skills you can learn from others.
There are rules that must be obeyed in any art form. Orson Welles said that the enemy of art is the absence of limitations. Learn the rules, and then go back to being arrogant. Determine how much you can push the rules at your current skill level. Humility can be as detrimental as it can be good. Don’t lose your voice.

CS: That’s good advice.

Bonnie: Others have gone before you and you can learn from them. Respect those who’ve gone before. Learn from the brilliant in your field. I visited an actor friend in New York several years ago. He was involved in an acting class every night. Right down the street from him, Al Pacino was starring in a play, yet my friend hadn’t been to see the production. My friend was in acting classes while one of the greats in the business was literally next door. I told him he could be learning from the best by watching Pacino every night. Think of what he could have learned.

CS: Learn from the best…

Bonnie: Read writers you find brilliant and inspiring. Remember some of them were writing on parchment paper and telling a great story without a way to make easy edits. I look back and think how hard writing was on a typewriter. It’s much easier on a computer these days.

CS: What did you do right?

Bonnie: Somehow, not by design, I created characters people find compelling. So compelling that people forget the characters are talking animals. Somehow, I was able to make their voices interesting. I can write humorously, too. I’ve learned a lot. In ‘The Cat Master’ I made Jett, the villain, too melodramatic. I won’t do that again. The villain in the sequel is so different. He is fat, greasy, and heartless. Just your average creep.

CS: Do you get creative blocks?

Bonnie: Here’s when my blocks come. They are of my own making. My plotting is not efficient. I know the beginning of my story and I know the ending, but I have only the vaguest idea of the middle. Often I write myself into a corner. Then I have to spend a couple of days sitting and staring and not writing. Once I figure out who needs to speak next, I’m off and writing.

If something isn’t working in a scene, it means I need to raise the stakes. High stakes for my characters are important. Every chapter ends with someone in trouble or a foreshadowing of trouble.

CS: Tell me about the business side of writing.

Bonnie: It’s hard. One of the hardest parts is one of the things writers fantasize about, book signings. These are fun when you are near home and all your friends and relatives show up. But when you are in another town, book signings are lonely. You physically take yourself and your wares and sell yourself. Once you’ve built a fan-base, it is easier.

I’d say publicizing yourself in one of the hard parts. But I grit my teeth and do it. It is part of the job. It’s not the icing on the cake, it’s more like eating the china plate. Not fun and it takes a lot of time and energy to do. Time and energy you need to write. But here’s what I think, ‘Do I believe in my art enough to do what I need to do?’ And then I go do it.

In every field, dues need to be paid. I work to establish good public relationships and good will with every bookstore. There’s no slouching in with a lazy attitude. I answer every piece of fan mail and try to build a fan base. Hopefully, that will make promoting my next book easier.

CS: What about working with an editor?

Bonnie: I did eight re-writes on ‘The Cat Master.’ I learned a lot in the process, but I was mad every time my editor asked for changes. It's hard to hear that you don't write perfectly. I was very inexperienced and na├»ve and so happy to be working with a publisher. At first, I didn’t know I had a choice in making changes. Once she asked me to make a change and I pushed back. She saw my point and said she could understand that. Really, I didn’t disagree too much with the changes. My editor knew what she was doing.

CS: What would you say to someone just beginning to write?

Bonnie: Only do it if you can’t do something else. If you are a writer, allow it to happen. Don’t put the burden of publication on yourself at first. Just tell your stories. Write your stories. Learn.
And when you fail, don’t let it get to you. If you care too much about failing, you will never get anything done. It’s all grist for your writing mill anyway.

Bonnie is almost finished with 'The Lizard Rides Again,' a sequel to 'The Cat Master'
Learn more about Bonnie at

2 Other Creative Souls are Saying:

Leigh Attaway Wilcox said...

Wow--I love hearing about how Bonnie did it . . . does it! Very interesting interview. Thanks for posting these, Deb.

Well done--to you both!

Tim said...

Fascinating information on the 'work' of writing. Thanks for sharing.