MY INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR PAULA STOKES
What’s your name and what genre would you consider your books to be?
My name is Paula Stokes and I’m a bit of a genre-jumper. My first book was a fluffy romantic contemporary YA novel, which I then followed up with a twisty YA thriller, and I’ve sort of gone back and forth like that for the past few years. Currently I have seven books available—three contemporary YA novels and four YA thrillers. I recently wrote an adult thriller and I’m excited to see if I can find a publisher for it.
Tell me about your latest book. How did you come up with that (story, angle, idea)?
HIDDEN PIECES is the story of Embry, the only child of a single mom, who accidentally starts a fire with a boy she’s been secretly meeting up with. Because Embry comes from a low-income family, she’s terrified that if she confesses to starting the fire that she’ll be liable for hundreds of thousands of damages, which could mean losing both her family coffee shop and her home.
I’m not sure where the idea came from, to be honest. I just started thinking about a girl being asked to make impossible decisions, where no matter what she chose, things turned out badly—sort of the world’s worst Choose Your Own Adventure book 😉 I made Embry low-income because I grew up in a low-income family and I know firsthand how much harder it can be to make good decisions when the risk of poverty and homelessness is hanging over your head with every choice you make.
Here’s the official description:
Embry Woods has secrets. Small ones about her past. Bigger ones about her relationship with town hero Luke and her feelings for someone new. But the biggest secret she carries with her is about what happened that night at the Sea Cliff Inn. The fire. The homeless guy. Everyone thinks Embry is a hero, too, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Embry thinks she’ll have to take the secret to her grave, until she receives an anonymous note—someone else knows the truth. Next comes a series of threatening messages, asking Embry to make impossible choices, forcing her to put her loved ones at risk. Someone is playing a high stakes game where no one in Embry’s life is safe. And their last move…is murder.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
Super-grueling research—I went to the beach 🙂 In addition to spending a couple of days in a small beach town in winter, I also researched a lot about fires and how they burn, as well as detective things like how the police use footprints they find at crime scenes to help identify criminals.
What’s a typical working day like for you? When and where do you write? Do you set a daily writing goal?
I work two or three jobs in addition to writing, so I don’t have many typical working days. I’ve also been focused mainly on revision for the past few months, so with that it’s hard to have a word count. I’ll be starting the draft of two new books soon, and when I do draft, I shoot for 2000 words a day for at least 5 days a week so a total of 10,000 words. This is actually a pretty easy goal for me, so I often write more or revise as I go along or spend some of my work hours taking online classes about promotion or reading books for research. Being a writer means not just writing, but also bookkeeping, scheduling, promoting, marketing, market research, book research, graphic design, advertising, brand-building, accounting, planning events, mailing stuff, etc. so I always tell people that for each hour of drafting, I spend a second hour on revision and a third hour on non-writing-related business stuff.
How important are character names to you in your books? Is there a special meaning to any of the names?
They’re not too important, but I think I come up with names that are a “good fit” for each character, if that makes sense. And for main characters I do prefer that they hit a balance of not being too generic or too strange, and I prefer that they’re not the same name used by a lot of other books. So my main characters have been: Lainey, Micah, Max, Parvati, Maguire, Jordy, Winter, Jesse, Genevieve, Elliott, Embry, and Holden. I also think it’s important to have a mix of unusual and more common names, or else your book ends up feeling like it’s set in a soap opera town 😉
What do you think of book trailers? Do you have a trailer or do you intend to create one for your own book?
I do have a trailer. The link is below. Honestly, I have personally never been persuaded to buy a book from a trailer and many that I have seen have a low production value. When I was writing for Tor, they paid to have a trailer made for VICARIOUS and I had low expectations, given my previous thoughts about trailers. However, the end product was amazing to me, so I worked with that same company for HIDDEN PIECES and I really like the finished product here too. Check it out and give it an upvote if you like it too 🙂
What writing advice do you have for aspiring authors?
[I pasted this directly from my website because it’s still the best advice I have ;)]
Read. No, read way more than you currently do. Reading is the second-best way to learn how to write. Obviously, writing is the best way. It takes most people a couple of practice books to get good enough to even think about publication. If your first book doesn’t sell, you are not a failure. You are human. Human is good. Books by robots would probably suck. Be sure to read ON WRITING by Stephen King (yes, even if you don’t like horror and think Stephen King is kind of an oddball) and BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott (yes, even if you’ve never heard of Anne Lamott). Oh, and if you’re down with colorful language, read this blog post that tells you all the secrets of getting published.
If you didn’t like writing books, or weren’t any good at it, what would you like to do for a living?
I think it’s important to acknowledge here that most published authors—and I mean 90% or more—do not get to “write for a living” even if they love it and are very good at it. The median yearly income for a traditionally-published author with a book in Barnes and Noble is something like $10,000, and even when I was writing for two major publishers (so two books a year), I only made about $20,000 after figuring in business expenses. This year I’ve made less than $2000 from writing, and without several part-time jobs doing everything from teaching to nursing I would not have been able to pay my rent. Many authors supplement their incomes by doing speaking engagements at schools, teaching writing at universities, and offering freelance manuscript critique services.
However, if I could have any job I wanted for a living besides being a writer, I would like to do something with animals—zookeeper, dolphin trainer, marine mammal scientist, pet detective, etc. And if I were independently wealthy and could do any job and not need to draw a salary, I would love to go into disaster areas after floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. and rescue stranded animals. Obviously I would need some training and specialized equipment to be able to do that, but the will is there. I’m just waiting for the means 😉
Do you read reviews of your book(s)? Do you respond to them, good or bad? How do you deal with the bad?
When I started writing, I read all my reviews. I think I was hungry for validation. The critical reviews definitely hurt more than I thought they would—there were days where I would read them at the bus stop and it’d feel like everyone there waiting with me had just lined up to slap me for no reason. But the more I thought about reviews, the more I realized that the good ones always outnumbered the bad (a feat in itself, since people are more likely to spend their time reviewing something that didn’t meet their expectations than something that did), and that it was wrong of me to give 5 bad reviews more weight than 20 great ones and another 20 good ones. I mean, doing that, focusing on your negative reviews, is almost disrespectful to the people who loved your book. It’s like your brain is saying their words matter less or something.
After that realization, I still read reviews for a while, but it was more of a social experiment to see how many people had read the book the way I intended it to be read vs. the people who got messages from it that weren’t intended, etc. I know some reviewers want authors to learn from reviews, but so much of writing is subjective and if one reviewer writes “this book was slow-paced and full of terrible purple prose” there is almost definitely a different review commenting on the book’s action-packed fast pace and breathtaking evocative prose. So as an author, I appreciate feedback, but in the end I know I can’t please everyone so I’m going to do what feels right for me.
These days I don’t read reviews unless someone tweets them at me, because I’ve been professionally struggling for the past couple of years with limited sales and no new book deals. When you can’t pay the bills, critical reviews start to feel personal like “Why does this person want me to be fired and lose my apartment and end up homeless? Can’t they see I’m trying? Can’t they see other people LIKED my book?” The rational part of my brain knows that most people aren’t writing reviews trying to get anyone fired and that individual reviews don’t really have that power, but I struggle with anxiety and anxiety isn’t rational. I guess what I mean is that I’ve learned to recognize the periods where I’m better off not inviting more negative voices into my head, and those are the times when I don’t read reviews at all.
But even then, I really appreciate the time people take to write reviews and I definitely want them, even the critical ones. The worst reviews are no reviews, because then a book appears unpopular to the publisher, the booksellers, and to other readers. I will embrace a “Meh, it was okay” 2-star review on Amazon or Goodreads every day of the week, so don’t let authors’ fluctuating mental statuses keep you from reviewing books, please. We need you and your reviews ❤
Where did your love of books come from?
My love of books came from learning to read before I went to kindergarten and then spending a lot of my free-time all throughout elementary and high school reading. I used to get fifteen or more books from the library and then read them all and go back for more in less than two weeks. In high school I was a serious introvert who felt a lot of pressure to be perfect, and books were a safe place for me to experience what it was like to make mistakes and still find success or happiness. My family didn’t have much money when I was a kid, but my parents made sure I could get to the library regularly and definitely encouraged my love of reading.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I think you have to self-publish if you want to be able to give readers what they want. I mean, that is a good business strategy if you want to continue to sell more books, and the best plan is to cultivate a base of readers who want to read the same things you want to write. Unfortunately, in traditional publishing it is more about giving your publisher and their sales team what they want. Recently I pitched my editor a bunch of heartfelt contemporary ideas—stories like Girl Against the Universe, which is definitely the book I wrote that is most beloved by readers. However, that title doesn’t have the highest sales figures, and the Sales/Acquisitions team members told my editor the only kind of book they would consider from me was another twisty thriller. At the time I didn’t want to write another thriller and it is extremely hard to spend three to six months grinding out a three-hundred page book you don’t want to write. For me it’s not about pleasing specific readers or originality, per se. It’s about writing stories I feel passionately about. So I decided to write one of the heartfelt contemporary ideas I was in love with. Now I just have to find someone to buy it 😉
Where can your fans find you and follow??
Thank you for taking your time to do this interview ❤️
Thank you for thinking of me 🙂
Bio: Paula Stokes is the author of several novels, most recently Hidden Pieces, Ferocious, and This is How it Happened. Her writing has been translated into eleven foreign languages. Paula loves kayaking, hiking, reading, and seeking out new adventures in faraway lands. She also loves interacting with readers. Find her online at authorpaulastokes.com or on Twitter and Instagram as @pstokesbooks.