This interview features writing advice from published author and award-winning playwright, Barbara Bayley.
Can you share a little bit about your backstory and how you came to be an author?
Barbara: A pivotal point in my childhood was getting a library card, and it became a sacred piece of paper to me because a whole world of books opened up. It was wonderful. Then in my early adulthood, I moved to Florida with my husband, and we had five children. They all went to school and I got tired of only doing housework. So, I decided to go back to school myself and took a writing class from a man named Bill Moseley at Brevard Community College. That class led me to write the first chapter of a book called, I Could Always Be a Waitress. I didn’t finish writing that book until 40 years later, and when I did, I wrote it under a pseudonym because I was afraid my family would recognize me in the story.
In the early seventies, I submitted samples of my writing to the Melbourne Times, and boldly asked for a job. At first, the editor said no. But afterward, I was called back in to be a two-week, temporary replacement for a columnist at the paper. I loved it. At the end of the assignment, I asked to stay on to write my own column, and again, the editor said no. But I came back every month with new writing samples, and eventually was offered the job. I named my column, “Your End of the Boat is Sinking”, and after a year of writing, someone entered my essays into a Florida contest. I won second place. This column was eventually published as a book and is an autobiography about the many jobs I’ve had.
I was also in the Indian River Players and enjoyed performing on stage. They came up with the idea of a one-act play contest, and I went the first year to see the three plays that had been selected. After that, I realized I could do it too and began writing one-act plays myself. I fell in love with that writing style, even more than writing a column, and I began winning awards and having my plays presented.
Finally, ten years ago, I divorced my husband and moved into a little house by myself. My energy came back, and I wrote a total of seven books.
Why do you like writing one-act plays?
Barbara: Writing plays is neat because they’re short and you get the characters in there right away. You don’t have to write like a book. You don’t have to write a lot of backgrounds. You don’t have to describe the foliage, the trees, the scenery, or anything else. You jump right on in, get the conflict going, and then resolve it in one act.
Have you had any other jobs besides writing?
Barbara: I went back to school and got my degree as a mental health counselor. I worked in private practice for years to pay the rent. I also taught myself how to play the piano at age 13, and since then, I’ve been a church pianist. I currently play services for Holy Trinity Episcopal and Good Shepherd Presbyterian. I hope to be able to continue doing this for the next 10 or 20 years.
What genres are your books?
Barbara: The books that I’ve written are fiction, and they are all humorous.
What advice would you have for new writers who want to write fiction?
Barbara: Don’t try to write a book. Write a page. A page of anything. If something bothers you if something gets you mad if something scares you—write about it. Just set it down and write as though nobody is looking over your shoulder. Don’t let your inner critic get in your way.
When would you say a new writer is ready to share their work with the world?
Barbara: I didn’t share mine with anyone because I didn’t want the criticism. I wanted to wait until it got to the printed page. When I was writing for the Melbourne Times, I would show my column to my husband, and he would say, “I don’t know, that’s not very good at all.” And it bummed me out. Then, I started to wait to show him until it was printed in the paper he’d say, “Hey, this is a good column.” So, unless you’ve got somebody you absolutely trust, don’t be in a hurry to share it while you’re still writing.
I also want to tell writers that once you’ve got an idea and start to write about it, your characters will begin crowding in and speaking to you. You’re not going crazy. Keep a pen or pencil beside your bed and get ready to write down what they have to say. You might also start your book with the end in sight. Write down those couple of sentences. Then write down the beginning couple of sentences. And then all you have to do is write the middle. Isn’t that easy? It really isn’t. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s fun too.
How do you develop characters and setting in fiction?
Barbara: It’s quite intuitive. I’m a very visual person, and I begin development by picturing the characters. I then try to find names for them and will write down each one’s characteristics on a whiteboard. Some turn out not to be important to the story, and other characters will come to you later or change. For example, I started writing one character about my Swedish grandfather who was a very nice man. But once I started writing, I realized the grandfather in my story needed to be mean, nasty, and flawed. Characters in any book you write need to be flawed.
Sometimes, I will also start writing and say to myself, “I don’t even like these people. I’m bored with them.” I know that if I’m bored with the people I’m writing about, the reader is going to be bored too. I want to fall in love with the characters I’m writing about, and then, I’ll really want to know what’s going to happen to them.
The last book I wrote is called Don’t Take It Personally, and the idea came to me from visiting a hurt falcon at a bird sanctuary in Apopka. These wonderful creatures are the fastest birds in the world, and when they’re swooping from the sky, they are coming at their prey at 300 miles an hour. The woman at the bird sanctuary informed me that this Falcon could never be released because it had lost its feathers and wouldn’t be able to stop itself from crashing if it tried to catch prey. I looked at the Falcon in the cage and I thought, “What if the bird had the choice? Would the choice be to stay in the nice, safe cage? Or, would the Falcon think it’s worth it to take the dive, even if it meant death?” You never know where inspiration will come.
How much of your fiction would you say was drawn from your personal experiences versus creative writing?
Barbara: 10 and 90. 10 percent actual experiences, and the rest has just been sitting there for years waiting to come out.
In your opinion, what distinguishes you from other authors?
Barbara: My sense of humor.
Do you have any books you’re reading for leisure?
Barbara: Oh, I am. I’m reading and rereading. One of my favorites is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. She writes the way I wish I could write, and her characters are just wonderful. She’s a great inspiration to me.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
Barbara: When I was going to write my first book, I lived with my ex-husband, and I couldn’t write there or think straight. It wasn’t until I moved into the 55 plus community I live in now that I got my energy back and starting writing again. If I got writer’s block, I would just walk away from it and leave it alone for days or weeks. I also like to get my mind off of writing by playing the piano, cooking, going to the movies, or swimming in the pool.
What piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Barbara: When I moved into the 55 plus community, I decided to tell the ladies in my swimming exercise class that I started writing a book. Although I was nervous about it, all of them said, “Good for you. Go for it.” And I never had that before. If you’re going to write, you need to get in with a group of people who will encourage you and shake off the people who won’t.
For new authors that want to be published, what would you say are the main differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing?
Barbara: I started late, so I never tried going after a publisher or an agent. Instead, I used a self-publishing press called CreateSpace to publish all of my books. I liked that company because I could spend a little extra money and get a real person at the other end of the line. However, just last year, CreateSpace got bought out by Amazon and the company no longer has the same personal touch. When I publish another book, I’m going to try a different self-publishing press called Lulu.
Is there anything else you would like to add to this Q&A that you think would be important for readers?
Barbara: I’ve got a book that I found about 13 years ago called Write, Publish, Sell!, by Valerie Allen. It’s a great little book about getting your writing out there. She is also a local writer here in the Melbourne area, and if interested, people can find her online.