It took a long-time friend to convince Densie to make good on her desire to write fiction, after a career writing and editing non-fiction. Her debut novel, You’ll Be Thinking of Me, was just released this past January.
Tell us a little about your background…and the origin of your first name!
I live in Austin, Texas, am married, and have two grown kids; my daughter is 20 and my son just turned 24. They’re both currently attending college, so they don’t live at home anymore.
My name was a constant source of aggravation when I was young, but I actually appreciate it now, even though I’m called Denise about 99.9% of the time! In fact, I answer to it just as readily as Densie. All I know is that I supposedly had a distant cousin, whom I never met, whose name was Densie.
I’ve spent almost my entire career as a freelance writer and editor of nonfiction. I have a Ph.D. in nutrition and am a registered dietitian. After a brief stint in hospital work (not for me), I worked for a nonprofit in New York City and then was health editor at a now-defunct women’s magazine (McCall’s, for anyone old enough to remember it). After that, I started freelancing and since then have spent my career writing mainly about health and nutrition topics for everything from The New York Times to Prevention Magazine.
In the last few years, I’ve begun writing more scientific papers on these topics for publication in nutrition journals. I’m very lucky to have been readily available for my kids when they were young and yet still manage to make a good living. I’m still working full time and, when they show up, they always expect me to be at home, sitting at my desk—in other words, available. I don’t hesitate to remind them how lucky they were to always have mom at the ready.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I started thinking about writing fiction about six years ago, when I was 55. I didn’t have a clue how to go about it, but my dear childhood friend, Danna Walker, convinced me to go for it. I started by blogging on Open Salon, a sister site to Salon.com, posting entries almost every day for a year. My blogging was what’s been dubbed “life blogging.” I wrote about everything from when it snowed in Austin that year to a recent trip to Victoria’s Secret with my daughter. At the time, staffers at Open Salon chose “editors’ picks”; I was greatly encouraged when my posts were chosen several times among the thousands of posts—including the one about Victoria’s Secret.
After that, I began attending local critique groups, taking online courses, and reading everything I could find about the craft of writing fiction. I can’t really pinpoint any “aha” moment. It was a slow percolation of wanting to do it, combined with a determination to figure out how best to go about it.
What is your next act?
I am a novelist. Although I’m still working full time, writing about health and nutrition, I just had my debut novel, You’ll Be Thinking of Me, published in January. It’s the story of a young woman who has a chance encounter with a celebrity and takes an innocent video of the two of them on her phone. When her friend posts the video online, the young woman in the video becomes the target of an obsessed fan, who, in her delusion, believes she and the celebrity are in a relationship. The story is told from both the point of view of the young woman and the stalker. It has strong elements of romance and suspense.
I just love creating something out of nothing but a spark of an idea. Sometimes I go back and read what I’ve written and am surprised that I came up with it. The story in my published novel was so far removed from my real life, a friend of mine who read it asked if I was leading some sort of secret life that she didn’t know about!
Why did you choose this next act?
I love language and read a lot. When I come across an incredible passage or sentence, you’re likely to hear me sigh with satisfaction at having had the pleasure of reading it. I’ve also found myself shaking my head in amazement at how an author came to assemble those words in such a beautiful and meaningful way.
I honestly can’t think of anything else I would rather do than to write and spend my time improving my writing and storytelling skills. I wrote a blog post not long ago and said that writing is something I can do until my fingers are crippled with arthritis and I can no longer see the keyboard. It’s something I will do as long as I have the ideas, the motivation and the time.
The nice thing is that you don’t really age out of writing as a career. I recently attended a reading by Judy Blume at BookPeople in Austin, TX. She’s 77 years old and just published her novel, In the Unlikely Event and she was in the midst of a 17-flight book tour. She was, and is, an inspiration.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
The “plunge” was more of a mental plunge than a physical plunge that involved changing much in my everyday life. It’s been an evolution to get to where I’ve felt comfortable calling myself a “writer.” I’ve always been okay with calling myself a “freelance writer,” which is basically providing work for hire. Being a “writer” connotes creativity and saying “I’m a writer” can sound a bit pompous. I’m getting more comfortable with it.
While having a command of language helps, fiction is miles apart from writing nonfiction. Pretty much the only thing they have in common is that they require use of language and a cohesive train of thought. Nonfiction is “just the facts ma’am,” while fiction is whatever you want it to be. Fiction takes much more time, at least for me, because you have to make everything up as you go and you have to be sure that it all ties together. Nonfiction is more a matter of putting existing information together in a logical manner that makes it understandable and easy to read.To prepare, I read books on the craft of writing, took online workshops, and attended both online and in-person critique groups. Through a variety of critique groups, I found a fabulous writing/critique partner, Wila Phillips (Twitter: @PhillipsWila). We “get” each other’s writing and meet once a week to read and critique. We’ve been doing this for a little over two years now.
I wish I could say that I have my writing time well planned and executed. But I don’t. I write when I have the time and the mental energy. It takes me much more time than I would like to finish a book!
What inspired your first novel?
I saw an interview with a young celebrity in which he was asked where he thought it would go from here, referring to all the screaming girls that surrounded him wherever he went. He replied something to the effect that anyone could jump out from the crowd and stab him and that would be it. It struck me how vulnerable celebrities are and I just started thinking about what would happen if…
What challenges did you encounter?
Time was and is the biggest challenge. You’d think with my kids grown, time would be there for the taking, but I am still working and between meeting with critique groups and my writing partner, and the days when my brain is just too pooped at the end of the day to think about writing fiction, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
The second biggest challenge is motivation, at least keeping it at the level needed to finish a novel. As much as I want to finish, I’m easily led astray and it can be hard to get back on track.
A third challenge, when I had a written novel, was finding a publisher. I queried agents and got some “rave rejections,” very complimentary, but no takers. So I queried smaller publishers that accepted queries directly and found Soul Mate Publishing. About two weeks after I signed my contract with them, I got an email from another publisher expressing interest. While I considered self-publishing, it wasn’t my first choice. For me, for now, for this book, a small press was definitely the way to go.How supportive were your family and friends?
I must say I’m envious of writers who have a family of cheerleaders behind them every step of the way. I’ve had to look outside my family for reasons I’m still trying to understand. They don’t seem to get the struggle, the desire, and the sense of accomplishment, even if it’s not paying the bills. If my novel were made into a movie, I’m sure I would then have their undivided attention. However, I have good friends who have been incredibly supportive. They’re the ones I turn to with both good and bad writing and publishing news.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I don’t think a writer exists, past or present, who hasn’t considered throwing up their hands in defeat, or throwing the quill or keyboard across the room, whether it’s writing a first draft of a first novel, wading through a developmental editor’s notes, querying agents, or writing a second, third, fourth, or fifth novel. It gets a smidgen easier as you gain experience, but unless you’re a Stephen King clone who can whip out a draft without looking back, it’s always going to be hard.
How did you promote your book?
I’ve done guest blog posts, Facebook ads, posted on Facebook Groups, tweeted, participated in an online book launch event, requested book bloggers to do reviews, and advertised on sites that cater to readers of women’s fiction, especially those with romantic story lines. Because I don’t have one of the “Big 5” publishers behind me, it’s a steep climb. I’m told the best promotion is to come out with another book. I’m working on that.What did you learn about yourself through this process?
I have the tenacity of a pit bull and the patience of Job. It takes both, I think, to get published. I’m not even talking about promotion once your book is out there; just the writing can take years. And when you submit to agents and publishers, it can take months for them to get back to you, even if it’s with a rejection. It took me five years of an incredibly steep learning curve to get published.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
This may seem obvious, but you have to have the desire in spades. I have friends my age who are ready to hang up the saddle, kick back, and do a whole lot of nothing. That’s not me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Type A by any stretch of the imagination. But my mind is constantly going. You have to stay engaged whatever your “next act” is. It’s the only way you can stay relevant. And with writing, you never get to the finish line. You can always be better or at least different. Writing challenges abound with every new book, every new chapter, every new scene, every new sentence.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing fiction? What resources do you recommend?
You have to persevere and be willing to listen to input from others, no matter how disagreeable you may find it. And eventually, you learn which feedback to take to heart and what is off base or just not for you. You must have a high threshold for frustration and ignore the odds of actually finishing, getting an agent, and getting published. It’s good to have realistic expectations, but if you focus too much on how hard it is, you’ll never get there. You have to love the process, not just the idea of having written and published a book.
There are so many great resources for would-be novelists. Here are the ones I’ve found most helpful:
Fiction writing and publishing:
Any books by novelist and literary agent Donald Maass
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
I’ve taken some courses and workshops offered online by Women’s Fiction Writers Association, SheWrites, and an organization called Delve Writing, which no longer exists. They’ve all been helpful. You just have to find something that works with your needs, your schedule and your budget.
These are my go-to blogs. There are tons more, but there are only so many hours in the day.
I belong to the group for Women’s Fiction Writers Association and for members there is a WFWA Community Facebook page, which I’ve found super helpful. It’s a promotion-free zone, so you can’t promote your book, but you can ask questions of the group. Writer Unboxed also has a Facebook page with several thousand members and it can be a great source of information.
The other thing that’s so important is networking with other authors, writers, and editors. My connections have mainly been online, but I attended a fabulous writers’ conference in November organized by Writer Unboxed and I’m going to a writers’ retreat in September sponsored by the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.
I’ve found and attended local critique groups by going on meetup.com. You can find pretty much anything you want there. I’ve made some good friends from the meetups and my regular critique partner, Wila Phillps, is someone I met through a meetup writers’ group a couple of years ago.
I also volunteer for Women’s Fiction Writers Association (I write one of their newsletters every other week) and have volunteered to be a backup judge for a writing contest.
Get involved on social media—I know, everyone says that. But it really does keep you in touch with people who have similar interests, similar passions. I am on Facebook and Twitter. That’s about all I have time for. Even with only those two, I sometimes jump down the social media rabbit hole and wonder where the time went.
I have many favorite authors and feel like I’m being exclusionary when I list only a few, but here are some of my favorites. It’s a quite a mix! Here are the books I’d start with:
The Post-Birthday World: A Novel (P.S.) by Lionel Shriver
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs
Bel Canto (P.S.) by Anne Patchett
Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin
The Good Girl by Mary Kubica
The Marriage Plot: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides
You: A Novel by Caroline Kepnes isn’t for everyone, but it’s an example of how far from the writing “rules” you can stray and still write a captivating story.
I just received Center of Gravity by Laura McNeill in the mail and in skimming the first page, I can already tell her language is going to wow me.
What’s next for you?
I’m also working on two other novels at the moment. One is a paranormal romance, which I’m attempting to make feel as normal as possible. As a couple, my characters just have unique “issues.” The other is straight-up women’s fiction, a family drama. The theme is motherhood, pregnancy, abortion, and loss. It’s quite an undertaking for me, but it’s good to stretch my limits.
My plan now is to finish the paranormal romance by the end of the year. I have a complete draft, but I’m doing some major revisions. That’s my project for the year. I’m about 30,000 words into the women’s fiction and finishing that is my project for next year.
I think writing will be it for me. But, as a character in my novel says, “Never say never, you’ll always be wrong.” So I’m not going to rule out the possibility of something else grabbing me and not letting go.
Contact Densie Webb at Densie.firstname.lastname@example.org