Hi, Frankie! We're glad you're willing to share your thoughts with our readers. Q. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Since this website is devoted to women writers, it seems appropriate to share my writing history. On graduation day my English professor asked, "Frankie, did you ever consider becoming a writer?"
Wow! How I wished she had suggested this idea four years earlier. It had not occurred to me that writing could provide income. Three weeks later, however, I walked down the aisle. In a year I had a child and then another and another. Four years passed before I took that first creative writing class at the Charlotte, NC "Y." Yep! That was it. I was destined to be a novelist and I had a lot to learn.
I practiced writing the way one practices a musical instrument – every day. Sickness, my own or my children’s, became the only exception. My focus and intention was simply to move progressively toward that goal.
In four years, I began selling inspirational and family situation comedy pieces to Christian and Romance magazines, good training grounds, plus social-issue pieces to local magazines and newsletters. By this time we were living in Minneapolis, MN, and I knew that very few writers earned enough to support a family.
When my youngest child entered school, a hopeful writer in my critique group who happened to an Associate Creative Director of an advertising agency, arranged a job interview for me. The agency offered, and I accepted, a job as a copywriter. Surprise, surprise: practice paid off. Within a week I listened to Land O’ Lakes Ice Cream radio spots I had written – the flavor described as "Fancy enough to eat plain."
It wasn’t long before I was assigned the agency’s direct response accounts, which represented one-third of the agency’s billing. Direct response is those long copy ads you receive in the mail asking you to fill out a coupon, requesting someone to phone or call on you. While most of us throw this mail out and even copywriters consider such accounts boring, this assignment was good for me. Why? Because sentences and paragraphs were tested, tested, tested. In a very disciplined way I learned what worked and what didn’t! I had been assigned these accounts because I knew how to produce long pieces. From other copywriters’ overloads I built a portfolio of work samples from which I procured future jobs.
Future jobs taught me how to execute writing skills in ways that communicated to many different kinds of people in all media. I saw what I had written on national television commercials. My work won local, national, and international awards. I moved into middle management as Advertising Manager and Copy Chief for Dayton-Hudson Department Stores, supervising five writers, then advanced to Associate Creative Director with sole responsibility for communication strategy for an ad agency whose fifty-nine clients sold products to businesses – tools, packing materials, vats of corn syrup.
By this time my children were in high school and I had been "recycled" (divorced) and had become a single mom. Still, I itched to create that novel. I began thinking about making that transition. Seven years after divorce I remarried.
That’s when I set up a freelance business, taking less interesting work that wouldn’t sap my creative energy (like writing catalogue copy) and began in earnest. It took two years to relearn good grammar and to undo less than helpful advertising habits. I learned to think in terms of producing one sentence, one paragraph, and one page. I learned how I needed to work: mornings five days a week, no longer than six hours. I needed to complete a unit of some kind – a scene, a chapter. And, I needed to establish the start for where I would begin the next day. During free time, I explored answers to questions, What subject matter did I know about in depth? What kind of novel? What did I enjoy reading? What idea(s) and characters could sustain my interest for the duration? What motivates me?
I am deeply interested in why people do the things they do and it’s important to me to contribute my small share to make the world a better place. For all the things you may believe about advertising, I had worked for a moral company and practiced my craft with integrity. One small example: During the early rise of feminism I refused direction from my supervisor to write a headline for Land O’ Lakes Butter that induced guilt in women for not being a good cook. That may sound easy, but it was not. I became known as difficult, but a woman of integrity.
Back then I couldn’t name the kind of novel I decided upon: mainstream, character-driven, about social-issues. Not exactly the kind of mass appeal literary agents are waiting in line to represent. Marketing was a consideration, but not the primary one: I wanted to produce a novel I was proud of.
The writing process continued to enliven me; I learned about myself and shaped belief as my characters acted out their lives, many of which were different from mine. It wasn’t long before characters took on a life of their own; I just recorded what I saw and heard. But I hadn’t anticipated how characters will act out an author’s subconscious psychological issues. If writer’s block struck, that was usually the reason why. I needed to pause to free myself, which, in turn, freed my characters! In a moment, I’ll give you an example.
My husband and I were lucky enough to take early retirement. We moved to North Carolina where I purchased my first computer and set to work. I learned to write and edit in layers, e.g. review only dialog to be sure each character sounded like herself and not like me. In time, I produced two novels, written simultaneously and alternately with each other in order to gain objectivity for each story, a strategy that worked.
AT THE CROSSROADS (ISBN 1-931391-32-7) concerns four contemporary nuns facing feminist issues – abortion, forbidden romance, the right to die, donating eggs to an infertile couple. This story accurately reflects issues with which contemporary nuns must come to grips. While no longer identifying myself as Catholic, I had attended sixteen years of parochial school and spent a year in the convent. I still admired and respected the women who taught me as unsung heroines and early feminists. Until "Dead Man Walking," no one had adequately or accurately portrayed the reality of nuns’ lives.
AT THE CROSSROADS won Honorable Mention in WRITER’S DIGEST annual Self-Publisher’s International Contest and was DIY (Do It Yourself) Fiction Winner of the Year. Reviews exceeded my expectations. Find them at amazon.com, booklocker.com and at website: www.firesignexclusives.com.
I promised a writer’s block example. About a year into AT THE CROSSROADS, Vivian, the primary character and school principal, simply stopped performing her role. Despite all efforts, she had gone on strike, freezing my fingers from keyboarding. At first I ignored this and wrote around Vivian. After two years I had written all I could without her participation. Stumped, I tried a morning meditation. I visualized Vivian and asked her, "Why won’t you do what I want you to do?"
Her answer: "Because I’m your mother!"
Ouch! Until then I hadn’t known I had drawn upon parts of my mother for Vivian’s character. My mother, now almost 93, is a woman of her generation, who had no permission to act on her own behalf. So, Vivian couldn’t and wouldn’t!
"Vivian," I said, "you are no longer my mother. You are free to act on your own behalf."
And she was free!
My second novel CHANCE PLACE (1-59113-220-7) is in the tradition of "A Beautiful Mind." It’s a story of survival and redemption through friendship. In it, recovering alcoholic Frenchy Bibideaux finds himself wrongfully placed in a halfway home for the mentally ill named Chance Place in Minneapolis. Lonely, he chooses Nathan Waite as the most likely candidate for friendship. But the two men couldn’t be more unlike. Yet in a System that’s less than user-friendly, each offers the other his best chance for survival. As Reviewer Cynthia Parkhill put it: The key is the quality of friendship they can forge between them. (http://pweb.jps.net/~cparkhill/constantreader.html.7)
CHANCE PLACE was a finalist for the International Ernest Hemingway Award, a finalist for the North Carolina Channel Banks Publisher’s Contest, and a finalist for the Heekin Foundation James Fellowship First Novel Award.
Dr. McDonnell, a clinical psychiatrist professor at Emory University, wrote not one, but two reviews of CHANCE PLACE on Amazon.com and sent me an e-mail: "In CHANCE PLACE Schelly strikes soundly at the core of challenges we face as we try to maintain a sense of Self and form meaningful relationships. Although she selected mental health as her focus, exposing the shameful lack of effective help in the System and taking us inside the mind of a schizophrenic, this novel is instructive for all of us with every contact we have. Any reader will be changed in a positive way by its content.…"
What in my experience gave me the authority to address such subject matter? My youngest son was diagnosed at age fifteen of chronic schizophrenia and I have two grown schizophrenic stepsons. I have witnessed my son, stepsons, and others face life with such incredible courage, the kind few of us will ever be called upon to summon and I wanted to honor them. Reviews have been wonderful. Read them on Amazon.com and booklocker.com or on my website www.firesignexclusives.com. You may order directly: www.booklocker.com/crossroads or www.booklocker.com/chance.
Q. What would you like our readers to know about you?
That I love to laugh, to canoe, to cross country ski, to play bridge and Wizard, and, of course, enjoy a good novel.
Q. How long have you been writing fiction/poetry? What made you put that first story/poem down on paper?
I started writing in the mid Sixties. Ultimately I think I was in search of authenticity. "Shutter the Thought" was my response to a newspaper article that reported that the area on the far southside of Chicago where I grew up might be condemned and replaced by an airport.
I published a few poems. The first "Welcome Midwesterner" was published as a two-page spread in MPLS. (Minneapolis) MAGAZINE. I wrote it to understand and express my reaction to New York City during the Seventies when I visited on a business trip. At that time the City was less than safe. This poem took me five years, working on it now and then, digging to find the core I was after. I believe the poet’s craft to be the most demanding and difficult literary art. Big ideas must be crafted into a pinpoint of total insight. I never worked so hard.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre?
I write literary commercial (as opposed to scholarly), mainstream character-driven novels.
Q. Who’s your favorite author and why?
I have many, but, perhaps learned most from the Diaries of Anais Nin, whom the French named the most important female writer of the 20th century. Her novels are difficult. I learned how to write the scene, which is the basic unit of all fiction, by reading Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS. Perhaps, no one has plotted a novel better than Ira Levin in ROSEMARY’S BABY. In this work, the reader comes to believe emotionally what she well may not accept intellectually. That’s art! The movie "Moonstruck" seems flawlessly plotted. I like novels that explore lives, experiences, and realities different from my own. Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Alice Hoffman, Rohinton Mistry’s – A FINE BALANCE.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Authenticity. A character’s behavior must ring true, must resonate to the reader’s core. Hardest for me is establishing reader identification; dialogue is easiest. I urge writers to start from their strength and to work in layers, moving toward that which is hardest. What I learned last was plot structure. Discipline, patience, and polishing pay off. I’ve learned one of those ever-present paradoxes: I am free only to the extent that I am self-disciplined.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters?
Usually a character appears to me with an intriguing problem. If the character begins to consume me, I consider antagonists and situations and plot points that would FORCE the character to solve the problem. Before beginning I write character sketches and know what psychological struggle is going on inside each character. I reduce it to an emotional equation like love vs. loyalty = solution. The solution depends on the theme point I’m trying to make. Loss? Freedom? Justice? Often I don’t discover the theme until the end and then go back and rework to honor it more fully. I trust my personal integrity to produce consistency.
Further, I record what each character eats for breakfast, what kind of exercise s/he does, hobbies, and so on. It’s my job to, so to speak, put a dog and cat in a barrel, then record the conflict to solution. An opening usually comes to me that gets changed or eliminated in the final phase. I am not a natural storyteller. What follows is how I’ve come to think of story format.
The first quarter of the novel (or short story) establishes character, time, place, setting, and the problem to be solved. The first quarter ends at the first plot point when the character’s attempt to solve the problem using his/her character flaw makes the problem worse. The second quarter is his/her second attempt at solution, trying harder to make that character flaw work and ends at the second plot point. Up to now the direction of action has been a sort of "going out." The third quarter begins the "coming back" that intensifies the problem until a solution is forced by having to choose between two choices, both high risk and promising unacceptable consequences. At this plot point, the character must make the right moral choice for him/herself (which may or may not be the one the author would make). Once the choice is made, the story’s Black Moment ensues; all seems loss and doom. As in real life when high-risk moral decisions are made, unexpected reward follows. Loose ends are tied up and the story ends in a way that offers reader satisfaction.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing?
It used to be finding/making time. Then it was What will my relatives and friends think about me when they read this scene? Now it’s coming up with an idea and characters interesting enough to be willing to live with them for a couple of years. After a story is completed, there’s that odd combination of fulfillment plus grief caused by letting go of the work.
Q. What is the most rewarding?
The spiritual ecstasy of the process. Human growth. Increase in integrity. Hours go by in what seems only an eye blink.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
Each day around 4:00 p.m. my husband and I stop whatever we’re doing and play cards and games for an hour or so. We catch up, we laugh. He plays tennis. I do water aerobics. We walk. We love and enjoy each other and love and enjoy loving and enjoying each other. I wish for more time with women friends. Still, my priorities are my work and exercise, my husband, my children.
Q. Is your family supportive?
My first husband considered writers, individually and collectively, weird. He died an early death. Now my husband and children couldn’t be more supportive. My schizophrenic son, who lives in a caring, responsible halfway home, has been most responsive to CHANCE PLACE. From it, he knows I truly understand and that makes him feel less alone in his world of faulty brain chemistry. That in itself is sufficient reason for having spent so much time rendering CHANCE PLACE.
Q. Any last comments?
I’m working to acquire a literary agent. I’ve written proposals for sequels to AT THE CROSSROADS and CHANCE PLACE without luck. I hope to combine an idea that interests me into a work with broad market appeal. I am close to finishing a third proposal and have a fourth in mind.