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There are a few people who I consider mentors for my own writing and creative life, and Orna Ross is one of them so I am delighted to interview her for you. Today we talk about the importance of writing, creativity and the empowerment of the author in this new age of publishing and how you need to take creative control of your work. This is also episode #139 of The Creative Penn podcast – you can download the backlist here.
In the intro I talk about what I am working on writing-wise, including a course coming soon on how to create multimedia products. I also mention the success of Hugh Howey's Wool novellas, as well as the importance of creating your own email list.
Orna Ross is the author of 7 literary novels as well as creative non-fiction and poetry, and she has experienced every side of publishing. She is also the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
You can watch the interview on YouTube – on writing here and on publishing here, or listen in audio above or read the notes below.
On literary fiction and labeling
- On writing literary fiction and the issue of labeling books and genres. Categories are for bookstores and necessary for buyers to know where to buy and sellers to know where to sell. One of the joys of indie is being able to write whatever you like and not fit into a box. Literary doesn't mean without story – it's more an aspirational thing. It's the category that doesn't have a container like genre writing. Literary doesn't necessarily mean better writing – there is great and crap writing in all categories – the story is in charge. The second dimension is taking care of with the language and the form. All Orna's books need plotting but she also loves the language. Browning ‘the aim makes great the intent'. Try to at least aim to unleash your inner Shakespeare.
- On the importance of setting. Orna uses Ireland and also San Francisco and places that are important to her. Story can be told in so many ways but the novel, as the pinnacle of human achievement, contains the best of the writer in terms of what they know and their imagination. The container for that is the place where it happens so we are, in some sense, the place that surrounds us. The texture of the experience. If the setting is right, the story comes alive. Place also gives a sense of the metaphor of place. Ireland is full of storytellers and stories, with the Bardic Celtic tradition. Orna loves San Francisco as a place, but also more as a concept. It was a city that grew around the gold rush, with diverse multiculturalism, forward thinking politics with gay liberation. It was mythical for a girl growing up in an Irish village. Orna's latest novel Blue Mercy is partially set in Santa Cruz.
The elemental truth of fiction
- Writing about the truth in relationships – how fiction helps us deal with elemental truths. We discuss the mother-daughter relationship and the ideation of the concept of motherhood. It is a feminist archetype story, the woman breaking away from the mother with rebellion. Orna turns this around in Blue Mercy and has a sexually liberated mother with a daughter who is more repressed. Fiction is a lot of lies but good fiction has truth at the heart of it. Everyone is always asking writers what part of the book is biographical but by the time it is finished, you don't really know yourself. The strangest things happen when you write fiction – it is interwoven with our lives. Don't be too analytical about it.
- How writing helps us cope with life events. Orna had breast cancer and she feels that writing saved her life. She doesn't know how to live without it. She has to write to stay sane and during the cancer time, it helped but it also helped all the other times as well. It's for the good times and the bad. Orna writes in two ways – the published work but she also free writes daily for 20 minutes or so. That is private. Yeats – Words alone are certain good.
- We are all creative but we have to find practices to open ourselves to it. This process is ours for everything – not just for writing – for everything in our lives. It's about being awake and losing the staleness of old mental patterns. Good writing brings us alive. Orna writes a lot about creativity. This is so important to me because I never believed I was creative – I had an affirmation ‘I am creative, I am an author‘. It all begins in your mind and with what you believe about yourself. It's not about striving or working really hard at the early stages, it's more about allowing creativity to arise. It's not about adding – it's about taking away and clearing space for creativity.
Traditional/ trade publishing, indie publishing and the hybrid option
- Orna's own publishing journey. Orna has been in media and publishing/ journalism for over 20 years. She has also been a novelist published by big name publishers and even sold mass-market in supermarkets. Blogging changed Orna's writing life when she realized that when you write for traditional media, you self-censor and shape material for the market, for retailers. She started blogging about the creative process on the launch of her second book when her hair had just fallen out with cancer. That moment was transformative because it led her down the path to self-publishing.
- Self-publishing represents an important part of the history of publishing. There are 3 key moments in the history of the written word: From bard to scribe, then scribe to print and self-publishing is the next leap – being able to reach readers directly. Orna has got the her rights back for all her books and she is republishing them on her own terms, even though she had what most people dream of having in terms of a publishing deal. It was a mixed blessing and there was a lot of frustration to be part of the publishing commercial machine. In self-publishing, we're intending to break through and change that, but Orna is absolutely a believer in the co-existence of trade/traditional publishers with the author deciding per book which is appropriate.
- Blending traditional publishing with self-publishing in the hybrid model. Indie vs trad is a phoney war and it's only a war because of the way self-publishing has emerged. They are both ways to meet readers and each can be suited to different books and different stages of an author's life. Writers need to claim their power and focus on the writer-reader connection. Writers need to see self-pub as an empowering tool. It should change their relationship to trade because there is choice and the risk is lessened as authors have their own audience.
- On the definition of an independent author. An indie is someone in service to the book, the creative director of the book from the start to the reaching of the reader and that connection. They may work with a trade publisher, or a paid publisher or do it DIY – it can be any of those things but it is key to see yourself as the creative director and partners must buy into the way you see the book. It is not just a way to get into the way things have always been done. It is more about writers realizing that we know best, contrary to received publishing wisdom. We have a global market now and there are enough readers to sustain each writer who takes the trouble to go out and reach people with their work.
On the Alliance of Independent Authors
- Orna went looking for a non-profit association of independent writers who could help each other, and because she didn't find one, she started the Alliance of Independent Authors.. People are suffering from too much advice and too little time. It's about making a life for yourself in this indie world and there are lots of different people doing this right now, and people need help as well as connection with each other. There is no need for anyone else to be between the author and the reader, unless the author chooses it. So the Alliance exists to help people self-publish well, responsibly and ethically as well as learn from each other. It's about collaboration, connection, cross-promotion and being a bridge between the self-published writer and the literary community. Here's the video we did at the launch of the Alliance at the London Book Fair 2012. The stigma has really changed now around self-publishing, especially in the UK which has lagged behind the US. But the good work does the education – our great books will speak louder than self-praise. Indies are producing amazing work, and being pioneering around reaching readers.
You can find Orna's novels and creativity blog at OrnaRoss.com or on twitter @OrnaRoss
You can find the Alliance at AllianceIndependentAuthors.org or on twitter @IndieAuthorAlli
Orna's latest novel is Blue Mercy. I gave it 5 stars on Amazon with this review:
This is literary fiction with a mystery at its heart. Mercy Mulcahy's father asks her to help him die when he is already dying a painful death … In Ireland, as in the rest of the world, this is considered murder and she is accused of it, standing trial and watched by her daughter and lover.
But this is not the main thrust of the book, and Ross doesn't make this easy reading. For this is a tale of family dysfunction, of men and women, of mothers and daughters, love, hate and duty. You will find yourself examining your own relationships, and questioning what you would do, what you would give up for the ones you love. Highly recommended.