Interview with Karen Dionne of Backspace
As an aspiring writer, I know how important an active network of fellow insa... err, passionate writers can be. A good critique group can take an ok novel to great! An understanding ear and soothing back pat can get you over the next hurdle of self-doubt or writer's block. These are the primary reasons I joined Backspace - the Writer's Place. I enjoyed the discussions; I can get lost in reviewing past questions and answers with agents and authors... and you can meet some excellent authors. People who have put their foot in the door of publication and really, it can be an inspiring experience for those who yearn for similar success. I sent some questions to Karen and Christopher, founders of Backspace.
1. When did Backspace begin?
Christopher Graham and I started Backspace three years ago, in April of 2004. We met over the Internet at a large, public writers board that had lots of great people posting helpful information, but because of its public nature, it also had problems - a handful of troublemakers and nuisance posts by people who weren’t serious about writing tended to overwhelm the discussion, making it difficult to find the good stuff. As aspiring writers, Chris and I felt we needed a site where writers could gather in large numbers to talk about writing and help one another understand the publishing process in an atmosphere of respect, and so we started Backspace. The Backspace discussion forums now have nearly 500 members in a dozen countries. About a third of the membership is agented and/or published, including a handful of New York Times best-selling authors. We believe Backspace’s phenomenal success demonstrates that in creating the kind of writers site we wanted, we discovered a need.
2. In your mind, what does Backspace offer to writers?
The real beauty of the Backspace discussion forums is that the membership is a mix of published authors and the soon-to-be. Writers join because they want to give and get. In that sense, no matter where they are in the publishing process, everyone's a mentor because we're all learning from each other. In not quite three years' time, members have watched dozens of Backspacers sell their books, work with their editors and publicists, do book signings, go on tour -- even hit the New York Times best-seller list. We understand what copyedits are even if we've never seen them; we know what happens at an editorial board meeting; we understand the reason for a last-minute cover change (and how little the author can do about it); we know that Amazon rankings don't mean diddly in terms of overall sales (though we also understand the author's need to check them compulsively every hour).
3. The articles and forum discussions by authors and literary agents are impressive. How did you build those relationships?
In the process of assembling the articles on the www.bksp.org homepage and lining up guest speakers for online question and answer visits, I made an interesting discovery. I found out that for every stereotypical bitter, jealous writer, there are hundreds of well-published authors and agents and editors who are eager to see aspiring writers succeed. The Backspace organization is predicated on the idea of writers helping writers. I’m extremely grateful that those in the publishing world who are of like mind recognize the value of our educational efforts, and are eager to contribute.
4. Do you have a favorite article or author discussion from 2006? If yes, which one and why?
I love all of the discussions, but a few that stand out are literary agent Jeff Kleinman’s visit back in December 2005 where he went far and above the call of duty, spending literally hours answering members’ questions, and Jerry Gross’s recent question and answer discussion that shed light on the writing process from his freelance book editor’s perspective. The article on the www.bksp.org homepages by David L. Robbins “Advice for Writers” is absolutely inspiring, as is the talk and video of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Douglas Wright’s 2006 keynote conference speech.
New York Times best-selling author Lee Child and literary agent Richard Curtis have been outstanding early supporters, and both have terrific articles on the homepages. David Morrell is a fabulous contributor to all things Backspace, with articles for our homepages, a guest speaker visit to our discussion forums, and as a faculty member at our conferences. David touts Backspace as a valuable writers resource when he attends other conferences, and recently included our url in the revised edition of his how-to-write book Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing (excerpted on our homepages).
5. Backspace has received varying levels of accolades, from literary agent support and recommendation to site awards from Writer's Digest. How does that make you think/feel about Backspace and its position in the writing world?
That Backspace has been recognized early on as an important entity in the publishing world is extremely gratifying. Again, I believe it ties back to our purpose: helping authors succeed. Writing is a solitary endeavor, and publishing is a tough business. The better educated writers are about the business they’re trying to enter, the more likely they are to break in – and to stay in. Publishing professionals know this, and have been very gracious in offering Backspace support.
6. How many Backspace Conferences have there been?
The 2007 Backpace Writers Conference on May 31 & June 1 will be our third full-fledged writers conference. In addition, last fall Backspace sponsored a one day Agent-Author seminar at The Algonquin Hotel in New York with only agents on the program that was so well received, we’re planning another for the fall of 2007.
From an organizer’s standpoint, our conferences have been a little too successful, since there are far more great folks offering to be on the program than we have room for. Naturally, the New York location is a factor – our conferences are convenient for agents and editors to attend. But I also believe the conferences’ early success is because we set the bar so high. Newer authors can learn from the material that’s presented, but our program is so advanced, even published authors take something useful away. And of course the networking possibilities at a smaller, more intimate conference like ours are outstanding.
7. What do you enjoy most about Backspace?
The thing I enjoy most about Backspace is watching members succeed. Every month when I assemble the content for the Backspace newsletter, I marvel at all of the announcements that have been posted at the discussion forums of short story placements, novel and non-fiction sales, awards won, interviews posted, book reviews in major magazines, and on and on. The cumulative success of Backspace members is inspiring!
8. Do you have any lessons that you have learned while developing your own writing that you can share with aspiring writers?
Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned along the road to publication is that each person’s path is different. Occasionally, an author will hit one out of the park their first time at bat, but that’s not the norm. Most spend years in the minor leagues honing their craft before being called up to the majors – as they should. The key is to persevere.
I signed with my agent in 1999. My first novel wasn't ready, but my agent loved the premise and thought my writing was strong enough that I could pull it off with a rewrite. But it really was early days for me, and while I had a great idea and a certain amount of talent, I didn't know how to craft a novel. I’m not exaggerating when I say my agent taught me how to write one. Three and a half years and three complete rewrites later, we were both so tired of it we couldn't bear to work on the story any longer, and the novel went on submission without a sale.
I spent another couple of years writing my second novel, and somewhere in the midst of that started Backspace, which quickly consumed great gobs of my writing time (as in literally years). In fact, Backspace was so successful, there were many times I considered throwing in the publishing towel and concentrating solely on it. But last month, my second novel, an eco-thriller called FREEZING POINT in which extremists plot to stop an energy company from melting icebergs into drinking water - neither realizing that the water is contaminated with an unknown, deadly disease, sold to Natalee Rosenstein of Berkley. Am I glad now that I hung in with the writing!
9. What should Backspace members look forward to in 2007 (regarding agent articles, author forum discussions, site changes, etc)?
Chris and I are currently working on a major change for the www.bksp.org website that we hope to announce at the Backspace conference this spring. The Internet is a fantastic resource for writers, and we’re very excited about the expanded possibilities in the upcoming changes. Stay tuned!
I enjoy being part of the writing community at Backspace. If you'd like to get to know a little more about Karen Dionne, you can visit her on her website.