Many authors are teachers. They have an inherent love for learning and sharing this passion with their students. But Oregon-based author Valerie Brooks is not only an author but owns a business that teaches aspiring authors how to break through doubt, live a creative life and write their bestseller.
If you’re an aspiring or seasoned author, you’ll want to read this article in its entirety, because Valerie’s provided some wonderful advice, insight and resources for writers. Though she’s built a thriving career in the business, she was also kind enough to take time away to share her story and give us a peak at the plot of her latest noir novel.
You are an author, but what is your day job? Writing is my day job, along with other writing-related incomes. My main client, a green-chemical engineer, writes poetry and novels but has no time to market them, so I send out his submissions and helped build his career. He now has a publisher for his collections. I’ve also been a developmental editor for novel and memoir writers, along with teaching classes in how to write noir.
Did you always want to be an author? My first love was drawing and painting. I had dreams of going to the Boston School of Fine Arts, but my parents were of the generation that considered that a hobby. They hoped I’d become a teacher. I had no desire to do that. They used a funny line on me: “You’ll get married and need a skill to fall back on when your husband dies.”
I did, however, keep journals, write poetry and short stories. Plus, I was an avid reader, often staying up late, using a penlight under the bedcovers. My parents could never figure out why I was so difficult to get up in the morning. Dad resorted to splashing water on my face and yanking my pillow out from under my head. I gave them fits.
My Dad was an artist in his spare time and an avid reader, so I didn’t understand why he was so against me trying to become an artist. But he worked as a carpenter to bring in a paycheck, sometimes creating beautiful church altars. We all find ways to express ourselves. I wrote a memoir piece “Liberté” about our relationship, why we fought, what caused his suicide, what I had to understand about that. It was published by Seal Press in the anthology France, a Love Story: Women Write About the French Experience.
I didn’t find my world as a writer until my son left home. My husband Dan said I should write the novel I’d started while my son was in school. I’d work on it late at night.
What is your most recent book and what inspired you to write it? Tainted Times 2, the second in the Angeline Porter Trilogy, just launched this month. I call it a psychological femmes-noir thriller. My first novels were literary. I was lucky to have great agents, but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t sell them to a publisher. I was discouraged until I remembered the novels I read when young, novels by Daphne du Maurier and Somerset Maughn, gothic novels. When I was young, I watched “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “Perry Mason.” When my son was in school, I worked at Lane Community College and could take free classes. I took a course called “Film as Literature” and fell in love with film noir. Susan Glassow, my instructor and the creator of this course, wrote on one of my papers that I should be a writer. I didn’t need much encouragement. After that, I studied noir writers on my own and knew that would be a voice I’d love to explore.
How do you hope your book uplifts those who read it? Noir taps into the universal zeitgeist of the times. People relate to its universal themes of injustice, corporate greed, politics, government, etc. Noir in a sense presents the world realistically. My novels deal with injustice and my protagonist does things I’d never do, but like a superhero without any superpowers, she fights injustice with her intellect, training in the law, and courage.
The famous author James Ellroy came up with the best quote about why people love noir:
“The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation. The social importance of noir is its grounding in the big themes of race, class, gender, and systemic corruption. The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.”
What are you most excited about with this book? The first novel in the trilogy Revenge in 3 Parts took former criminal defense attorney Angeline Porter from Paris, to Portland, and last to Kauai. I had great fun creating twists and turns in the story and twice the story took a turn I did not see coming. This second novel with Angeline went deeper psychologically into a world of secrets and lies that turned her world inside out. Plus, she’s still outrunning criminals who want her dead. This time, however, she has more at stake—a sister she never knew about. I was able to return to my hometown of Tilton, New Hampshire to write the novel and use it as a setting, and that made me go deeper into how I fleshed out the characters. People have told me that they couldn’t stop reading Tainted, and after they finished reading, the story stuck with them.
The third novel in the trilogy takes place in Hollywood, Florida. I will make it very noir, very scary. For those who like a love interest, yes, there is one, Gerard Duvernet, a French-American citizen and FBI agent. But is he who he says he is? What do we know for sure?
What advice would you give to someone wanting to succeed in your professional industry? First, keep your day job. It’s not easy to succeed in this profession. You have a better chance publishing if you write nonfiction. You must have a clear sense of purpose, a mind for business, and patience. I’m stubborn, persistent, and have found other ways with my writing to make money. I don’t expect to be successful in sales until the trilogy is finished. Then I will go full force with whatever it takes to get it out into the world in big numbers. I will also go after a traditional publisher. But even with a traditional publisher, expect to do most of the promotion and learn how to market. Find out how and what to do for social media marketing.
Be careful about what you buy online for help with publishing. Many offers say they can get you 10,000 followers on Instagram for example. Caveat emptor as the saying goes.
Free webinars are great places to learn. One helped me focus. Their advice: don’t scatter your energy. I have a note on my computer that says, “STOP BEING RANDOM.” So, I picked two social media platforms I felt comfortable with and directed my energy there. You’ll find all kinds of advice online, but it comes down to this: focus.
As far as setting up a business, I created an umbrella company Brooks & Company to cover all the work I do from writing website copy to editing. When I decided to write noir, I formed a team of people whom I call my Noiristas. They form the front line for reading my advanced reading copies in exchange for an honest review.
Also, invest in your writing and book. I invested in 1) a professional cover designer, 2) a professional formatting program, and 3) an ad company to do a digital campaign. I found the organization Sisters in Crime had many groups that have helped me immensely with marketing.
As in any profession, you need to understand the industry and what it entails. I spent a good amount of years trying to break into the New York publishing world and came so close that it kept up my commitment and my belief in my writing. This world, however, is built on marketing. Luckily, I have a background in that.
My main advice would be to build a network of people around you. I’ve had a critique group for over twenty years, and we are all published. That points to stamina and good chemistry. Get involved with writing organizations. I belong to four. I’ve been on the board of directors of one.
Is this sounding like a job in the real world? That’s because it is. You can’t just write great works. The few who do who have been touted as “discovered” aren’t overnight successes.
When I introduced my friend, Cheryl Strayed, at the University of Oregon after her memoir Wild went wildly successful, my intro was a warning to the students in the audience of four hundred people. Articles about Cheryl talked about her overnight success and made it sound as if she’d rubbed a genie’s lamp and made a wish. Far from it. When her first novel was published, I brought her to the UO bookstore for a reading. Fourteen people attended, and that was counting the bookseller and me.
But here’s the big one: write, write, write. That’s my passion. Telling stories. If you can’t sit still and let the storytelling take you away, you might not be a writer. Sure, at times it’s hard, but nothing fills me up more than the act of writing a story that surprises me and gives me the same kind of thrill I get reading someone else’s novel. Our mission is to entertain, to provide an escape, and hopefully a little education in the process.
How do you handle setbacks and criticism? Early on, I almost gave up. But the writing wouldn’t let me. As soon as I thought that I’d forget about publishing and just write, I was free to just write. Then of course I was back in the swing of it. Rejection comes with the writer’s territory. It hardens you to what other people think. You learn that the publishing industry now follows trends more than love of the written word, not all of course, but with only the big five publishers, success for them is predicated on the bottom line.
Personally, I’ve learned to listen to the universe for guidance. For example, a friend and I started a webcast where we would have lively interactions with influential mystery, suspense and thriller authors. We hoped to make connections and broaden our own personal reading audience. But nothing went smoothly. It was such a struggle and took up so much time that we gave it up after two webcasts. I did not see that as a failure. I saw that as a message from the universe that we were not supposed to be doing that and our energy was being wasted there. After we made the decision, the relief was palpable. Also, I learned how to create a webcast, so the lessons weren’t wasted.
How do you hold yourself accountable and achieve the goals that you set forth? That’s a tough one. Every December I write up a business plan for the New Year. But as you can well guess, this year went kaput! So many times, I had to make a U-turn. Most of the time I try to set weekly goals with to-do lists. It keeps me on track. The major strategy I lay out in my business plan helps to keep me focused. Also, having a support group like my critique group helps, as I’m responsible to them. I used to have weekly lunches with my cartoonist friend Jan Eliot, but she’s retired and this year we can’t get together. Right now, I’m pushing my own agenda and accountability.
What do you find most fulfilling in the career that you’ve chosen? The writing itself. Creating a fictional world that encompasses real-world problems. Getting myself in trouble and then getting out of it. My mother once said, “Valerie, you’re a good girl who wants to be bad.” I’ve found my outlet to be bad in writing noir.
What book uplifts you? Pema Chodran’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I think I’ve given this book away seven times. A perfect book that is universal in its approach. As the description of it says, it draws from traditional Buddhist wisdom as she offers life-changing tools for transforming suffering and negative patterns into habitual ease and boundless joy. And I think I’ll end this interview with those wonderful words.
Image Courtesy of Valerie Brooks