Spotlight: Bren McClain - The Twenty-Seven-Year-Overnight Success

 
 

Bren McClain grew up on a beef cattle and grain farm in Anderson, South Carolina where at the age of three, her two loves were born: writing and animals. These two loves would eventually be the foundation of her literary career, but it would take decades to get there. 

In the meantime, she had a life to live. She has a degree in English from Furman University. She taught high school English for a year, became a journalist, worked as a radio reporter, a television reporter and anchor, before switching into corporate America. During this time she became desperate to be creative and picked up a legal pad and started writing. 

She wrote two failed novels, got a literary agent and lost a literary agent. It wasn't until she returned to her two loves–writing and animals–that her literary career changed.

Bren's story is one of perseverance and determination. She calls herself a "twenty-seven-year-overnight success."

It's been a long road to publication, but she's here now. Her debut novel, ONE GOOD MAMA BONE, the third novel she's written, was published February 14, 2017.

 

"I gave it as much love as I could, and now it’s on its way out there in the world."

 

As a debut novelist, what does it feel like to send your first book out into the world?

It feels like I’ve given birth. Truly. I see my book now as a separate, living, breathing being. ONE GOOD MAMA BONE is apart from me. I gave it as much love as I could, and now it’s on its way out there in the world.

Fly, sweet Mama Bone, fly!

 

Tell us about your current project. 

It's a novel I am calling TOOK, which I am over-the-moon excited about it.

Honestly, I didn’t know if I could fall in love with characters as deeply as I did with the ones in ONE GOOD MAMA BONE. But I did–and it was an easy love.

The novel is inspired by the real life Eula Bates, a woman who held a shotgun on a bulldozer that tried to come through her farm to build a road into the Savannah River Hydrogen Bomb Plant in 1951. The cops came and hauled her off to the SC Insane Asylum and kept her for 16 years. Eula’s story is the prism through which I am telling the whole story. Eula’s story, in real life, didn’t turn out so well. This is why I’m writing it as a novel, to give Eula something good.

I love to approach material from a journalist’s perspective, so I conducted interviews with more than 30 people who were thrown off their land in SC when the Savannah River Plant came in 1950. Six thousand people in seven small farming communities. I had no idea what to do with the information, so I put it away for five years and wrote ONE GOOD MAMA BONE. When I was ready to return to the material, I thought about reading through notebook after notebook of research, but my gut told me to just get quiet and see what information had stayed with me.

I knew immediately. It was Eula Bates, her story.

It feels like it has wings already. TOOK was just named the gold medal winner of the William Faulkner – William Wisdom award for Novel-in-Progress.

 

"I wanted it to happen with my first novel, but it didn’t."

 

If you could go back 10, 20, 30 years and give your future writing-self one piece of advice, what would it be?

That the words often told to me–trust the process–are absolutely true.

Never in my wildest mind would I have said, “I think it would be good to keep my butt in the chair writing for 27 years before I publish.” 

Are you kidding me?  I wanted it to happen with my first novel, but it didn’t.

Nor did it happen with my second.

It took the third one, ONE GOOD MAMA BONE, to launch me on the publishing scene.

And, boy, am I glad.

Because this one is part of my life’s work. I couldn’t have said that about the first two.

Pat Conroy’s new fiction imprint, Story River Books, is my publisher. To be escorted into the publishing world via Pat’s enormous heart is literary nirvana. It all happened just right. 

 

"If my book had to be placed on a scale of 1 to 10, it was sitting at 2 when Lorin read my pages prior to our developmental meeting in Tampa."

 

What are the highlights of working with Free Expressions? How would you describe its overall effect on your professional/creative trajectory? 

If my book had to be placed on a scale of 1 to 10, it was sitting at 2 when Lorin read my pages prior to our developmental meeting in Tampa.

After leaving that meeting and doing the work she suggested, she moved it waaaay on up the line. Not that I am saying I could even write a “10” book, but in my eyes, she helped place it there.

How? Lorin gave me an incredible piece of feedback, paraphrased here: 

"We see your main character, Sarah, limping along with her feelings of inadequacy. That gets old. Readers would rather see her magnificence. Bring us her magnificence. In fact, begin with it. Trust me, her inadequacy will rise up through it."  

Lorin knocked it out of the park with this advice.

I took the limp-along opening scene and recast Sarah showing strength – and not weakness.

From that new opening, the entire rest of the novel spilled forth.

I have received countless comments from readers about Sarah, every one of them talking about how they loved Sarah. One wrote that she didn’t want the book to end, because she wanted to stay in Sarah’s heart. 

THANKS, LORIN!

 

On your website, you quote Albert Camus, “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened” and how you write not what you know or want to know, but you write what opens your heart.

Can you talk about this a little more, and what advice you would give writers about writing what opens their hearts? 

To paraphrase another writer, Rilke–He advised writers to show to the world what they think is beautiful. Not another soul on earth may think it so but you, but hold this beauty in your hands and show it to us. I did that in my current novel with cows, their maternal love which is more awesome than awesome.

That opened my heart, made me want to love, love, love. 

At times, in the writing of my novel, I would imagine a cow in my cupped hands and would actually lift them high, as if saying, “This is what I think is beautiful.”  

 

"Loving animals opens my heart, and that’s exactly the state I want to be in when I open myself for writing."

 

What outside hobbies or interests feed your writing?

My work with and love for animals, especially farm animals. I’ve just been named to the board for Indraloka Animal Sanctuary in Meehoopany, PA, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Loving animals opens my heart, and that’s exactly the state I want to be in when I open myself for writing. 

 

FAST FACTS

  • Currently reading: 
    CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, by Caroline Leavitt
     
  • If you could enter the world of any novel, which would it be?
    THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, by Carson McCuller.
     
  • Do you write to music, or do you prefer silence?
    I write to instrumental music, mostly soundtracks, on headphones.
     
  • Is there a specific food or drink that fuels your writing?
    Coffee first thing in the morning!

You can find out more about Bren and ONE GOOD MAMA BONE at her website, www.brenmcclain.com

She's on Twitter, @BrenMcClain, and also on Facebook, and Instagram where you can follow the adventures of The Mama Bone Barnstorm Book Tour

ONE GOOD MAMA BONE is available at Amazon.

 

SPRING WRITING INSPIRATION GIVEAWAY

Enter the SPRING WRITING INSPIRATION GIVEAWAY for a chance to win great prizes and a one-on-one story development session with Lorin Oberweger!

TWO GRAND PRIZE WINNERS WILL RECEIVE:

  • A 25 minute one-on-one story development session with Story Guru Lorin Oberweger
  • A copy of Donald Maass' new book, THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION
  • A package of five high quality highlighter pens for editing
  • An inspirational mug for your writing fuel of choice
  • A writing journal for all your brilliant thoughts

Total prize package value: $150

THREE FIRST PRIZE WINNERS WILL RECEIVE:

  • A 25 minute one-on-one story development session with Story Guru Lorin Oberweger

Total prize package value: $100

The more questions on the Giveaway you answer, the more entries you get to win the prizes! 

The giveaway starts on Wednesday March 8, 2017 at 12:00PM PST and ends Wednesday March 22, 2017 at 12:00PM PST . 

We'll choose winners at random and announce them here and on social media. 

GOOD LUCK!

Spotlight: Donald Maass - Evoking a Visceral and Emotional Experience in Readers

 
 

We are thrilled to be presenting agent Donald Maass as this month's Spotlight Interview. Don is a veteran literary agent, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and author of more than half a dozen writing craft books. 

His seventh and most recent title, THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION: HOW TO WRITE THE STORY BENEATH THE SURFACE, takes you through a comprehensive range of narrative techniques designed to help you provoke deep visceral and emotional experience in readers. 

Don is also an expert writing instructor whose acclaimed workshops and seminars are known for their challenging, high-level content, leading you into a deeper relationship with your work and greater writing success--no matter what your current level of success may be.

 

This is going to be the sixteenth year you’ve been putting on workshops with Free Expressions, what motivated you to work with them?

Live workshops have a dynamic that the flat page and online PowerPoint cannot achieve. There’s something about time apart in a room of writers that frees creativity. 

In person, I can riff, prompt and engage with writers personally. There’s a feeling of barriers being down, of “the industry” being accessible and open, of the focus being where it belongs: on story. 

Plus, it’s just fun to work with Lorin, Brenda, and the team! 


"It’s important to have time not to meet goals
but to explore the manifold possibilities of story."


What have you learned about conducting workshops over the years? 

Every writer learns differently. You can never tell what will switch on a lightbulb or trigger a story breakthrough. It’s therefore important to approach story craft from a number of angles, stimulating new ideas through a variety of prompts. 

While there’s nothing wrong with daily word count goals, it’s important to have time not to meet goals but to explore the manifold possibilities of story. 


What advice would you give to writers coming to one of your workshops for the first time?

Don’t expect a formula for success, but do expect to assimilate many new ways of deepening your story. 

Expect to write a lot. 

Expect to have fun. 

Expect your brain to hurt. 

That’s all good.

 

"I realized that plot is only one dimension
of what gives story impact." 

 

How have your thoughts on fiction craft evolved? 

Once upon a time, I thought only about plot.

Then I realized that plot is only one dimension of what gives story impact. Surprising scenes, micro-tension and manipulating reader expectations are also important. Still later I began to understand how character arcs happen and integrate with the outward plot. 

More recently, I’ve been focusing on areas of storytelling that are not traditional craft topics; for instance, creating a sense of wonder or what produces emotional effect.

The latter is the subject of this new “Emotional Craft” workshop.


What would excite you in a manuscript that came across your inbox RIGHT NOW?

The first impression of a manuscript is created on the first page, so always I value the immediate arrival of a confident storytelling voice, something intriguing and something emotional engaging. 

Beyond that, there is originality and the ability to sustain tension and constant surprise on the page for the length of a novel. What helps achieve those effects is a grasp of plot, scene elements, micro-tension, character arcs, story world, a shifting moral map, and all the other things we learn in workshops. 

And then there is something that is tough to teach but that can perhaps be enabled: an underlying urgency that flows from the author’s own experience.

We shorthand that with the word “passion”, or sometimes “purpose”. As vague as those words are, they are nevertheless part of what sweeps us away when we read.


How is THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION different from your previous books? 

This new book presumes a grasp of all the Breakout essentials. It’s not a recap but an altogether different way of looking at story: through the emotional effect that story produces on readers, and on how that effect is achieved. 


"Readers feel strongly when they are surprised, challenged, inspired, led, misdirected,
and when story connects them to our
greatest values and highest ideals."


What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF FICTION?

It’s this: What characters feel has little to do with what readers feel. While the question of showing versus telling is not wholly irrelevant, it’s only a small generator of a story’s emotional effect. 

Readers feel strongly when they are surprised, challenged, inspired, led, misdirected, and when story connects them to our greatest values and highest ideals.

Beneath all of that is the writer’s own spirit and emotional journey in creating the story. That more than anything shapes what we’ll feel as we read.


What are you currently reading? 

Apart from client manuscripts and submissions, I’m catching up with UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead, UNDERGROUND AIRLINES by Ben H. Winters, A GENTLEMAN OF MOSCOW by Amor Towles, THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB by Genevieve Valentine, THE FIFTH PETAL by Brunonia Barry, to name a few. 

Has anyone read BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough?  That one’s coming up on my radar quite a bit lately. 

 

You can follow Don on his Facebook page and on Twitter as @DonMaass.

All of his books can be found at Amazon.

If you haven't already taken one of his classes, or if you's like to take another, Free Expressions is offering four workshops with Don this year. You don't want to miss out. Whether you're a beginner or a professional, a class with Don is a master class in writing craft.

The Emotional Craft of Fiction - Houston

The Emotional Craft of Fiction - Seattle

The Breakout Novel - Tampa

Story Masters - Toronto