An Interview with L.K. McCall
L.K. McCall is an Indie Author whose debut novel, Sway of the Siren, was released in December 2015. Recently, she filled me in on the five things every beginning writer needs to know over margaritas and guacamole.
Pay Attention to Strong Images
McCall’s love of writing began as a coping mechanism after her family moved when she was in high school and she was mistaken for a narc at her new high school. With a twinkle in her eye and in her thick upstate South Carolina accent, she explains denying being a narc doesn’t do any good, because that’s exactly what narcs say.
She imagined herself becoming a writer, but when it was time to go to college, her dad steered her toward safer careers like teaching and nursing. They compromised on an English degree, and after graduating from Clemson University, McCall became an English teacher.
Her love of writing never wained, and she eventually took a six-hour graduate-level class at Clemson University called the Upstate Writing Project. One of the speakers was Ron Rash, the Southern Appalachian author of numerous poems, short stories and novels including Serena and Above the Waterfall. During his lecture, Rash told the students that his stories always start with a strong image that he can’t get away from. He doesn’t know the story in the beginning, but lets it grow from that image in his mind.
It was in that same way that McCall’s idea for Sway of the Siren started with a strong image that came to her one day and wouldn’t go away. That image became the ending of the story, and the beginning of her journey as a published author.
Find An Encourager
For the last few years, McCall has taught in an alternative school for troubled students. Her classroom was in a two-room portable that she shared with an older teacher, Elijah Heyward, Jr. Heyward, a gifted poet who published Stories and Poems of a Gullah Native in 2012, would tease her with mocking poems he’d jot down on scrap paper in the time it would take her to use the restroom, which was on his side of the portable. Then, when she struggled to write a retort, he’d mock her further, asking if he had to write the retort for her as well.
Determined to impress him, she brought him a few things she’d written in the past, and he told her, “You’re pretty good, maybe you should write.”
During this time, while the image of her novel was swirling around in her mind, becoming bigger and more insistent, Heyward called her to his room and told her that he’d had a dream about her the night before. Heyward is Gullah and in the Gullah culture, dreams are very important. They can tell who’s going to be born and who’s going to die. They can predict the future. Although McCall isn’t Gullah, she has tremendous respect for the Gullah culture and community, and listened intently to his dream. Heyward’s dream turned out to be, in essence, the image she had for her novel.
That day, she thanked him, told him she knew what the dream meant, and walked away. It was another eight months before she confessed that she was writing a novel. The last day before Thanksgiving break, she brought Heyward half of the manuscript and asked him to read it and tell her what he thought. Because he’d been critical of her writing in the past, she trusted him to be honest. Because he is Gullah and the story contains a lot of the Gullah culture, she valued his input.
On Monday morning when she came back from Thanksgiving break, he was waiting outside for her. She asked if he liked it.
“What, that crappy novel you’re writing?”
But then he followed her to her room to tell her how good it was.
From that day on, he encouraged her, bringing her handwritten cards to let her know she’d been on his mind and he believed in her story. He spoke to her every day. He gave her honest feedback. And then proceeded to mentor her through the entire process, from writing, to editing, to publishing and promoting the finished novel.
Ass in Seat Time
Writing a novel requires discipline, especially if, like McCall, you have a family and a full-time job. If you want to write, you have to stop talking about it and just do it. McCall calls it Ass in Seat Time.
For McCall, that meant getting up at 4:00 a.m. every day to write for two hours before showering and going to work. After dinner, while her husband and their two sons were watching television or movies, she was at her desk writing until midnight. Every weekend was heavy on Ass in Seat Time and light on fun, or housework to the chagrin of her oldest son.
She maintained this schedule for two years. Her May River neighborhood has bonfires, oyster roasts and get togethers every weekend, and she skipped most of those to devote time to writing for two years.
The one break she gave herself from Ass in Seat Time was when she joined a writing group, Write to be Heard, a chapter of the South Carolina Writers Workshop, which meets twice a month. Those meetings gave her an opportunity to have fun, get encouragement from fellow writers, and be held accountable for her writing.
Find Beta Readers
Early in the writing process, McCall gave her manuscript to a published author who noticed that McCall used the same sentence structure over and over again. Even though she was teaching her students to use six different sentence structures, she didn’t realize that in her own writing, she wasn’t using them. Thankfully, this author brought it to her attention after three chapters and she was able to avoid that mistake for the rest of the manuscript.
During this time, find people who will tell you the truth about your writing. There are people who will always tell you how great your writing is, and that isn’t helpful during the writing process. McCall says these are the people you need after you’ve published your novel, so figure out early who they are and save them for the time when the book is published and it’s too late to change.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Anyone Else
The last piece of advice McCall has for the beginning novelist is to avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. This is your story, and nobody else can write it like you can. And in that same vein, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks about your story. There will be people it resonates with, but if you try to write a story that resonates with everyone, you’ll end up with a story that resonates with no one.
Since publishing Sway of the Siren in December 2015, McCall has donated over $1,000 from the proceeds of the novel to the Pan African Family Empowerment & Land Preservation Network which, in part, helps the descendants of freed slaves save their ancestral lands by providing funds for taxes.