Cassie Dandridge Selleck Offers Tips On Novel Pacing + Her Thoughts On How Writers Can Perfect Their Craft

cassie selleck Name: Cassie Dandridge Selleck
Author’s Website, Author’s Blog
Hometown: Leesburg, Florida
Based In: Mayo, Florida on the Suwannee River
Briefly: Well, I’m 55 years old and I have raised three beautiful daughters to adulthood, all of whom are pursuing their passions in life. I think that is and will always be my greatest accomplishment and the only one worthy of listing.
Education: In progress and halfway there! Starting a program at Goddard College in the Spring for a BFA in Creative Writing. College has long been #1 on my Bucket List. Publishing a book was #2. The irony is that publishing The Pecan Man has facilitated my return to college.
Favorite Read: To Kill a Mockingbird. I know…it’s cliché’ at this point, but this was the book I read over and over throughout my youth and adulthood. My husband and I even drove to Monroeville, Alabama to tour the courthouse museum and, I must confess, to be in the town where Nelle Harper Lee grew up. I’m not a crazy stalker fan, I promise. But it was the coolest trip we ever took.
Pet Peeves: Bigotry in any form, smoking in public places, bullying, and the term “fan”. Everyone is under strict orders to slap me if they ever hear me use that word to describe someone who loves what I write. Of course “fan” is much simpler than “someone who loves what I write”, so we may have to come up with alternatives! We’ll see!
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…Oh, lots of things. A writer is just one of the things I consider myself to be. I am a consummate teacher, mentor, mother, encourager. And I love the theater and dream of writing/directing/producing plays. I’ve worked at so many different careers and dabbled in loads of artistic and creative things. Love photography, painting, scrapbooking, quilting, crafting. Don’t have time for any of it because I still work full-time at my day job, marketing for my brother’s under bridge access equipment company, but I’m moving in the right—or write—direction. OMG, I punned!
Author Crush: Gosh, besides Harper Lee? Billie Letts, Ann B. Ross, Philip Gulley, John Irving, Chris Crutcher and, in honor of my mother, who thinks he is the cat’s meow – Carl Hiaasen.
Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book I’d Recommend: Stephen King, On Writing, Rosemary Daniell: Zona Rosa; Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones
Up Next: Turning The Pecan Man into a stage play and working on a novel with the working title Beanie Bradsher. The novel is a bit of a romp for me, quirky characters, small town Florida life, along the lines of Jan Karon’s Mitford series or Ann B. Ross’s Miss Julia books.

Growing up, were you totally in love with books?

Absolutely. There were four children in my family – all a year apart – and my mother took us to the public library often. I was the only one who read for pleasure, though, and my nose was almost always stuck in a book.

Where you do feel the most comfortable writing?

In. The. Mountains. Where I long to be and plan on moving as soon as possible.

How did the idea for The Pecan Man originate?

I tell this story often. When we first moved from a very populated county in Central Florida to a small rural town in North Florida, I was averse to “city” traffic of any kind. The nearest Walmart was 35 miles away, on the other side of Live Oak, so I would take a shortcut around the downtown area to get my groceries. I loved the little community I passed through, sparsely populated with older but neatly tended wood frame homes. One day, an old man appeared from a small wooded area, “riding a bicycle as old as he was and every bit as thin and rumpled.” I knew immediately he was a new character for me. Three blocks down, I turned a corner and there was another old man in his front yard, picking up pecans with a wire whisk on the end of a broomstick. I morphed those two men together and, by the time I got home with my groceries forty-five minutes later, I knew this much about the story: Ora Lee Beckworth was an old white woman who sits down on her porch to tell the story of why The Pecan Man died in prison. I had three characters roughed out: Ora Lee, her maid Blanche, and Eldred Mims – The Pecan Man. It was ten years in the making, but I loved every minute of it.

Was The Pecan Man the only title you considered for your book?

The one and only. Ever. And it was always pronounced Pee-can, even though I call them P’cahns myself.

One of the things that readers of the novel pointed out to in their reviews is the fast-pace quality of the novel. How can writers write a novel like that, and offer well fleshed-out characters at the same time?

That’s a loaded question, but a good one! I can’t speak for other writers. I don’t have the credentials or the experience to do that. I personally believe the best way to create a sense of character is through dialogue. When we hear a conversation in a café, we don’t have the benefit of a narrator or backstory and we certainly aren’t privy to anyone’s thoughts. And yet, we can tell a lot about people from simply eavesdro…er…I mean listening to them for awhile. I do not outline and I give very little thought to plot. I put the characters into situations and see what they do. I was committed to the style, POV and voice from the moment I conceived the novel. When Ora Lee Beckworth decides to tell the truth that only she knows about The Pecan Man, she does this in the traditional storytelling fashion – sitting on her front porch. My goal was to narrate as if the reader were simply watching the story unfold before them – almost movie-like. I think the pace of the novel has everything to do with that style choice. When all was said and done, an 83-year-old woman told the story she wanted to tell, and she didn’t waste words doing it.

That being said, I struggled with the story length, and there have been some valid criticisms of the choices I made. This entire thing was a learning experience for me; I have never been a particularly confident writer. In fact, I can remember the very first moment that I believed in the strength of my writing and in my ability to create characters. I wrote The Pecan Man chapter by chapter, almost exclusively with the critique of a writers’ group in Gainesville, Florida. This was a tough group, excellent writers with strict rules about the process: one person speaks at a time and it is never the author. You say what works for you, ask clarifying questions and offer suggestions for improvement. One day a newer member was questioning the motive or action of one of my characters and, for the next five minutes, there was an absolute free-for-all at the table over what my characters would and would not do. I just sat, dumbfounded, while a group of people spoke about my characters as if they were real people. It was amazing. It happened again in a book club meeting I was invited to attend after the book was published, and that feeling was not even remotely diminished. I can only compare it to an out-of-body experience. Surreal and almost disorienting, but joyous.

Do you feel pressure to duplicate the success of The Pecan Man with your next novel?

Not at all! I feel pressure to sit down and write it and I’m doing my best to create time and space for that in my life. But I never had any great plans or goals for what I thought of as “success”. I told a story and it has been received with love and appreciation. What more could a writer want? I feel proud and grateful and probably a little bit surprised at the success of the work and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

Any tips to offer to authors who are on the brink of publishing their first book?

Yes, Lord, yes, I have advice for anyone who wants to listen or needs encouragement: Go for it! When you have done the work, told the story, gotten experienced beta readers—not Aunt Jane, received legitimate feedback and done the appropriate editing, put it out there. If traditional publishing is your #1 goal, send it out to agents and publishers and pay attention to their feedback. Enter your first few chapters in contests and see how you do. If you just want to put your work out into the world and see what happens, investigate self-publishing. Do this yourself. Don’t just ask someone else how they did it or expect anyone to do it for you. Do the research, ask the questions, compare self-publishing sites. One of my main reason for self-publishing was simply to get my novel out there for friends and family and see what happened. I rationalized that I could always pull it if it turned out to be a huge embarrassment. But I also wanted to publish with as much legitimacy as possible, so I set my list price at normal retail rates and have never been sorry. Lastly, the debate over traditional versus independent publishing is not going away. You will hear opinions on both sides. Don’t let fear keep you from trying. Writing is an art form, just like painting and sculpting. No one tells a painter that the only way to sell their work is through a gallery in New York. Your job is to know your audience and make your work accessible to them. And what anyone else thinks doesn’t matter.

cassie selleck-book cover

Have you ever experienced revising fatigue?

Personally, no. But I have experienced great fatigue with writers who have revised so many times that their work no longer even makes sense. These are the ones who take every critique to heart and try to please everyone. Remember this: it is possible to workshop a novel into the garbage can. Do the work, but make sure it is your work and not someone else’s.

My problem was not revising fatigue, but revision advice that almost derailed this project altogether. A traditionally published author, whose work I knew and respected, urged me to change the voice and write it in the third person. She was adamant that my choices would simply never work. I abandoned the novel for two years, then summoned the courage to reject the advice and keep going. I stuck to my original plan and the results speak for themselves.

How can a good writer become a better writer?

Read a lot. Pay attention to the stories that you love and analyze what you like about them. Find a good critique group with a mix of new and experienced writers, and a blend of complimentary genres. You get back from a group what you put into it. If you are thoughtful, attentive, encouraging and helpful with the work of others, you will get a great deal out of the process. If not, you will quickly realize how little tolerance people have for writers who are out for themselves alone. Know your strengths, but don’t think you know it all. Be willing to listen, to improve, to change. Tell your story. Have confidence in your ability. Consider the source. Don’t take writing advice from anyone whose work does not resonate with you. Know that a helpful critique is one that encourages your strengths, asks questions that help you write with better clarity, and offers suggestions to improve your work. Beware of the well-intentioned, but totally unhelpful soul who tells you how they would write your story. It isn’t theirs; it’s yours. Write it. Continue reading