Charlene Carr has independently published nine novels. Her first agented novel, Hold My Girl, has sold to HarperCollins Canada, Sourcebooks Landmark (US), Welbeck Publishing (UK), Alma Littera (Lithuania), and is set for adaptation to TV by Blink49 Studios in partnership with Groundswell Productions. She has received grants from Arts Nova Scotia and Canada Council for the Arts to write and revise her next novel.
As your website mentions, you’ve travelled extensively and lived all across Canada. What brought you to Nova Scotia?
My original plan was to go to grad school in Ontario or Quebec, but after living in South Korea for awhile, having some pretty intense situations happen both there and at home, I decided being closer to family (who lived in New Brunswick) might be a very good thing. So I applied to Dalhousie just days before the deadline, and was offered a full scholarship, so Nova Scotia it was! After a few months it felt like home, the first place that had felt that way since I’d left Toronto eight years earlier.
In the past decade, you’ve independently published nine novels and a novella. Can you share some of the benefits and challenges of your self-publishing journey?
A major benefit is certainly the fact that you’re entirely your own boss when you self (or independently) publish. You determine your publishing schedule, your deadlines, what you want to write and how you want it written, etc. However, that’s also the major challenge. You’re all on your own—either handling all the many assets of publishing yourself or hiring them out, which isn’t cheap, and certainly hard to do if you don’t have another source of income, which I didn’t for most of that time. The other challenge is that writing, at times, can almost seem on the back burner as you essentially become an independent publisher. The work of maintaining that, if you want to take it seriously—through marketing, advertising, charting meta data trends, etc. is a full time job.
In addition to your standalone books, you’ve also released the Behind Our Lives trilogy and A New Start series. Did you always intend to write these stories as a series of linked novels, or was it while writing your first books that you realized your characters had more to say?
So I had NO intention of the A New Start series being a series. I wrote the first book as kind of a lark, and as a promise to a friend that I would give self-publishing a try. At the time, I didn’t want to publish my first full-length novel that way (which I’d spent over ten years honing) so I wrote When Comes the Joy (which was originally titled Skinny Me). I had so much fun through the process of writing it and had such a great reception from readers that I decided to keep going. Autumn, the lead in the second book, was a character from When Comes the Joy I was really curious about, so I decided to make the next book about her, and the pattern of having each book be about a character in this group of friends stemmed from there. Each novel is a standalone, but if you read the later books before the earlier ones, there are some spoilers.
As to the Behind Our Lives trilogy, that was meant to be one book, but once I started outlining it I realized the story I wanted to tell could not fit between the pages of one book (and have people still able to pick it up!) So, I decided to split it into three, and by doing that, I was able to give the story the time it deserved.
I love that you’ve shared some book club discussion guides on your website. Do you have any advice for other authors who are interested in connecting with book club audiences?
Although I haven’t been booked through it yet, I’ve heard very good things about the new website Invitd.ca, which allows readers to book authors virtually. Outside of that, I think just make it clear on your website and through social media that interacting with book clubs is something you’re keen to do.
It took me nearly four years to write and edit my debut novel, so I’m in awe of your prolific publishing accomplishments! What does your writing process look like? Do you work on one project at a time, or do you always have a few different stories on the go?
For the most part I’ve worked on one project at a time. After my first three novels, I started outlining/drafting and that has made a huge difference to my efficiency and ability to write more quickly. When you have a general idea of what you want to get on the page each day it really minimizes the ‘staring at the screen’ time. I also give myself word count goals and stick to them like it’s my job . . . because it is! I’m gentle with myself though. Before I was a mom, my daily word count goals were often between 1500-2500, depending on the project and the time frame I’d set for wanting the next book published.
However, when I had a very attached, nursing child at home with me, I ended up giving myself a goal of 300 words, four days a week, and as long as I hit that four days, I considered myself successful, even if I may have only gotten 150 words in during a session. Of course, there were many days I got 1000 or more if the muse moved me, but it was a great lesson in the fact that even a little bit of consistent effort adds up to a lot. The book I wrote with that low word count goal is Hold My Girl, the book that looks like it’s going to totally transform my career, with deals in Canada, the US, the UK, Lithuania, and an option for TV adaptation!
You’re quite active on Goodreads. Is there a certain etiquette you follow when reviewing someone else’s work online? How has reading widely impacted your own writing career?
Now that I’m an author myself, if I don’t feel I can honestly give a book four stars or higher, I don’t rate it. It does become tricky, because I also really care about tracking my reads (for my own personal enjoyment) and there are a lot of books I like (which would be 3 stars based on the rating system), but that’s considered a critical review. So I’ll mark that I read the book (not give a rating) and try to ‘hide’ that I’ve read it by not adding it to my update feed. I actually find it very frustrating that a 3 star rating is considered a critical review, because how is ‘liking’ something critical? Not every book can be one’s favourite.
Reading widely has defined my career. Growing up, I’d only read the classics and the type of contemporary novels that are studied in university. Before independently publishing, I hadn’t read a single book that would be considered commercial. So, when I finished my first novel Beneath the Silence, although I really liked it and was proud of it, I didn’t know where it fit. It wasn’t until I started independently publishing that I began reading the books that were topping the charts, and learned there was this whole other world of fiction I knew nothing about—wonderful books that readers devoured—but weren’t strictly ‘literary’. Although I would classify some of my books as firmly in the commercial Women’s Fiction category, where I see my writing going and where I hope Hold My Girl sits, is in the realm of Upmarket fiction, that sweet spot between literary and commercial. My role models are books/authors such as Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.
I know hiking was one of the ways you combatted writer’s block when you lived in St. John’s. Do you have any favourite hikes around Halifax?
I do! Unfortunately I get out a lot less as it’s tricky doing it with a little one, especially because I have some serious neck and shoulder issues from a car accident and kids come with more gear and less patience. But I’d say the Musquodoboit Back Country Wilderness Trails are my favourite, with the Bluff Wilderness Hiking Trail as a close second.
Your tenth novel Hold My Girl will be published next year by HarperCollins in Canada. How did working with an agent and traditional publisher compare to your independently released titles?
Well, the second part of that question I won’t totally know the answer to until after the book is released, but working with my agent was an incredible experience. She’s very editorial, and we spent six months and four to five rounds of revisions getting the manuscript to a place where she felt confident it would sell and sell well. She clearly knows her stuff, as the book sold well and quickly—an overnight pre-empt in Canada—and even garnered the attention of multiple high-profile, LA based production companies.
As to working with publishers, it’s been a wonderful experience so far. It’s hugely encouraging to have a team in your corner, who are such experts, and are handling all of the stuff that I found the most difficult when I was independently publishing. It means my core focus can be on the writing, and it also means my book will have a massively greater reach than I ever could have managed on my own—which is the dream, my book in the hands of and touching the hearts and minds of as many readers as possible.
Hold My Girl may not be in readers’ hands yet, but it has been optioned for television adaptation. Have you allowed yourself to daydream about potential cast members?
I have! Haha. Quite a bit. And the production team has also given me their dream potentials. I won’t share any names though!
A number of your books are set in Halifax. I’m sure all of your characters experience this city differently. How do you go about envisioning or re-envisioning the same place through their eyes?
All of my books actually have Halifax in them in some capacity. And like any place, it is what you make it. For some, the city is merely a setting . . . for others, (for example Lincoln in Behind Our Lives) it’s practically a character. As someone who has lived in many places, I’ve experienced that myself—how some locales get under my skin, almost becoming a part of me, and others are simply where I lived for a time. So, it really depends on the character, where they are in their life, how they operate—whether they spend a lot of time walking the city (such as Lincoln, above, or Tess from Hold My Girl) or whether the city is merely a backdrop to their life, and doesn’t actually affect their journeys very much (such as Autumn and Tracey from the A New Start Series).
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin