Mastering the Craft of Writing

I interviewed Barbara J. Rebbeck on my show and for this article about her novel, teaching, and mastering the craft of writing. She has quite a bit of wisdom to share!

Barbara J. Rebbeck  is a teacher, consultant and author who holds degrees from Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University in English, French, and the teaching of gifted and talented students. She has published poetry, essay and professional articles. She is currently a writer-in-residence for the Beverly Hills Academy and a member of Detroit Working Writers (DWW).

Barbara’s father was born in England so she loves to visit there to see lots of theater and her British relatives. The WWII romance of her mom and dad is the basis for her second novel, The Girl from the USO.  Her first novel is Nola Gals, a tale of Hurricane Katrina, which was a semi-finalist for the Kindle Book Award and a finalist for the IAN Award. It also won bronze medals from Readers Favorites and Moonbeam and has been adopted in several school districts.

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When did you decide to be a writer?

I never really decided, it just happened. I was fortunate enough to have a fourth-grade teacher, Miss Lillian Downes who was a drama teacher placed back in the classroom due to budget cuts. She picked up on my early scribblings and gave me free reign to write and produce little plays all year long. I expanded my audience to the neighborhood and worked on plays there, too, using my family and neighbor kids as cast and set designers.

When I moved on to junior high, I had the legendary, Mrs. Vestal Hartwig, a gentile southern lady for English, American History, and Homeroom for grades 7-9. Every week on Friday she would give us a topic for our composition due Monday. That Friday she would read what she considered to be the best of show, so to speak. I was honored to have many pieces read. For those three years, I was also editor of the “Lincoln Leader.” I still get a kick out of the blast from the past I feel when I read these newsletters.  She also had us do a term paper each semester. Our last year with her we wrote career books on our future professions.

By the time I left her classroom, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I still have that career book. The front and back cover are two real slates. My dad painted the title, School Daze which sat above the lush red apple he added. Vestal Hartwig was a superb teacher. In fact, when I wrote my master thesis years later, I sent her a copy, saying I had all the skills I needed to write it before I moved to the high school.

What inspired you to write NOLA Gals?

Like many Americans, I was stunned with the vehemence that Hurricane Katrina drowned the city of New Orleans. Even worse was the incompetence on all levels as city, state and federal resources all failed. I wanted to write the fictionalized story for teens to read so it was not forgotten. As I wrote, I felt the novel deepen as I wove in the importance of reading by having my two teens, Essence and Grace read To Kill a Mockingbird. From the classic, they learned powerful lessons of survival.

What influence does your British background have on your writing?

My father came to this country as an RAF cadet in 1943. Not many people know that pilots were sent here and to Canada for flight training to avoid the German bombardments during the war. He met my mother, a USO hostess, and they married six months later in 1943. So, I grew up leading a double life. One of my earliest memories was getting up at dawn to watch the film of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Another memory was having my poor petite friend who lived down the street, pull me in the stake wagon around the neighborhood. I was the Queen, waving to the crowds. The biggest influence on me has been the rich heritage of British literature, including their enthralling theatre.

When I began to visit my British relatives in the UK, I discovered that nothing could beat an evening in the stalls in a London theatre. The warm welcome I always received from my dad’s brother, Ron and my aunt Jean on my visits added to my British heritage. I was able to experience family life and hear all sorts of accents and expressions on frequent visits. I loved every minute of my time in London, but also the trips outside to the beautiful countryside. A few years back I visited Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed. My record for seeing plays on a trip was 9 plays in 10 days, by the way.

When I wrote a play adaptation of NOLA Gals called Turbulence, I knew exactly how I wanted it to look to teens. I also write fiction as a play in my head. I visualize all my characters waking about, talking. Sometimes I act out the scenes to see if the actions make sense with just my cat as the audience. My British background and WII play a huge part in my new literary suspense novel, The Girl from the USO. My parents’ meeting and whirlwind courtship in Detroit form the basis for the beginnings of the novel. Then it veers away as the plot thickens like clotted cream in Cornwall, England. Fingers crossed as I have a couple publishers interested in the novel. My mother’s heritage was French which set up a triple allegiance for me and resulted in my undergrad degree in French and English and my advanced degree in French.

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What has been your experience teaching at Beverly Hills Academy?

I began their several years ago as a volunteer writer-in residence working in the middle school with teacher, Sara Coyle. The first year I worked just with her 8th graders when they read both To Kill a Mockingbird and then NOLA Gals. We worked on the writing technique of extended metaphor which I use in my novel to describe Hurricane Katrina as an angry teen. From that year I began to extend my work to the 7th grade working with memoir writing and then the 6th grade working with poetry. Along the way we began to produce an annual collection of student work. Mrs. Coyle and I always included pieces of our own writing. We dove deeply for family tales and heroes, making these anthologies powerful works of art. This year I cut back on my visits to give me more time to work on finding a publisher for my new novel. I will be back in March to work with this year’s 8th Hopefully, they’ll be able to read aloud Turbulence just as the 4th graders back in the 50s read my childhood plays. It has been a rewarding experience to work with students at the Beverly Hills Academy as well as Waterford, Hazel Park, and the Academy of the Sacred Heart. There can be no better review of a book than a 6th grade boy telling the class, he had never had a book make him feel so deeply.

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What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

Writers are a strange bunch. Myself, I’ve always been a solitary writer during the process. In the last few years I have joined two groups, the Detroit Working Writers and Sisters in Crime. In education, I was respected and held some important post including such as President of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English and Director of the Oakland Writing Project. I was also the language arts consultant for all the districts in Oakland County. The transition to author was a rough one. I published with a small press and definitely found a bias against my poor NOLA Gals. Things are getting better though. Among my author friends are Anne Marie Oomen who I’ve known for years as my teacher. She was kind enough to write a review for NPR for my novel. Terry Blackhawk is a goddess as a poet and a rare teacher and human being. Reading her books is always an inspiration. New friends are Cindy Harrison who unselfishly pointed me to her own publisher and the other Sisters in Crime, and Roberta Brown who has let me write a program for three nights of DWW authors reading their works next spring. And Weam Namou is a gem of a new friend. Thank you for this opportunity, Weam. 

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Watch for the scam artists or unethical publishers out there. Don’t be so desperate to publish. You will lose friends and make friends on your journey. Learning whom to trust is tricky. There is more than one way to skin a literary cat. It took me five years to find a publisher for my first novel. I regret that choice. Study the market, and go to lots of conferences. It’s a business.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I don’t think it changed it much. What changed it was working with so many kids in schools and sharing my writing with them along the way. As models for their own writing. I found a freedom in that process.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I have to return to that dimly-lit living room when I was an entranced 5-year old watching the coronation of Elizabeth II on TV. The film had been developed on the plane bringing it to the states for broadcast, my dad told us. Although never a royalist, he made sure we were up impossibly early that June morning. The regal clothes and jewels, the Latin words, the hymns. I was ready to swear allegiance as Prince Philip did that day. “Vivat, Vivat, Regina.” Yes, indeed, I was hooked on pomp and circumstance. Words had power.

What’s the best way to market your book?

“No reason to market a book. If it’s good, it’ll sell itself.” Thus spake my first publisher. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You have to have a strong social media platform and so should your publisher. Join writing groups and get advice. Rochester Writers did an entire conference on self-publishing last spring. Explore what fits your work. One thing I did for my YA novel was to set up a website (with my nephew’s help) that offered all sorts of ideas for the writing teacher and classroom based on writing samples and photos of my work in classes. (Thanks, Sara.) I wrote an article in a local magazine that got me into Hazel Park schools. (Thanks, Toby.) I reached back to teachers I knew from the Oakland Writing Project to see if I could work with them. (Thanks, Sandy.) For my next book, the number one thing I’m looking for in a publisher is a solid marketing plan. Oh, and someone who will communicate with me, too.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I love research. For NOLA Gals I did about a year’s research. I handwrite notes in a large notebook, I share with kids. I had two crates of books, articles, CDs, and DVDs by the time I was done. I also kept a journal with sketches of “sets” from the scenes in my heads, the ones I acted out for my cat. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird My copy is covered with post-its I used to decide what quotes or scenes to refer to. For my second novel set in WII, The Girl from the USO, I ended up with two journals of notes on my research, and again two crates of media and novels. The classic literary suspense novel, Rebecca forms the basis for this novel. The heroine loves that novel and yearns for that passion in her life. I had to coordinate all the dates to decide on the year of their novel. I opted for 1941, the year Rebecca won the Oscar. I found a classic DVD of the film that also included a Lux Radio Theatre play that aired in February, 1941. It is a marvelous piece of quaint history, including the original ads for Lux soap and a Gone with the Wind brooch. A bargain at 35 cents. This research took about 6 months. I had a great deal of family history to write from. For instance, I knew my parents’ first date had been a concert by Evelyn and her Violins. Okay, so now I had to figure out which theatre in Detroit that concert might have occurred and what music they had played. It’s like a cat and mouse chase. One step leads to another. A big help for the second half of the book were my trips to Cornwall over the years, too.

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What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Early on when I first started writing poetry, I submitted my pages for a critique from poet, Naomi Long Madgett at an Oakland University Conference. I was brave, and she was kind. She gave me advise I will repeat and have done so often. She wrote on my pages that I did have talent, but I needed to learn my craft. Got that? Learn your craft. The best way to do this is read everything you can get your hands on in your genres. In the last year while writing suspense, I reread Rebecca, sticking it up with post-its. My novel begins with a poem from that novel. In question #5 above you asked about authors as friends. In the past year, I have been in touch on twitter with my new well-known suspense authors, Ruth Ware, Clare MacKintosh, and AJ Finn. Just casual, but reassuring tweets. Finn’s The Woman in the Window that I read half way through writing my novel, gave me confidence I was headed in the right direction.  Suspense needs twists that the author won’t see coming. You have to stay ahead of the reader. Teachers are everywhere.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Deciding when the book is finished. I think it’s all wrapped up. After all, I’m submitting it. But then I’ll be watching a British TV show and suddenly a character comes out with an expression such as “getting a leg over,” a euphemism for having sex, and my author mind kicks in. I have got to include that in my book. It’s a perfect phrase for my pilot to use. So I’m off, taking hours to skim the ms. and find the exact position for him to sling that phrase. I wasn’t finished after all.

Do you believe in Writer’s Block?

I believe that the “writing process” has become so entrenched in schools and in writers’ minds that it has become a dogma. Everyone writes in their own style. I’m sitting here on my couch, still in my robe at 1:20 pm on a snowy day. Did I write anything yesterday? Or the day before? No. But I do have a draft of a memoir piece to type. I’ll get to it. I’ll never have Writer’s Block. It doesn’t exist for me. Go easy on yourself. And teachers, if you have a student who doesn’t need to do pre-writing activities, let it go. Start the story.

If you are interested in student work and Ideas for the Classroom, Barbara Rebbeck’s website is http://www.nolagals.com

#BRebbeck and Facebook.

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