I met Steven Mayfield last year at the San Francisco Writers Conference (a great one to attend, seriously) and tested his book Delphic Oracle U.S.A. a few months later with our beta readers. His storytelling was a standout for interweaving multiple storylines and creating a world that was both familiar and mysterious. Check out as I interview Steven about this writing process and his next steps for the book.
Jennifer Bowen: What’s one of your favorite books and why?
Steven Mayfield: A few months ago I read All the Light You Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Angel of Esperanza by Judith McConnell Steele. I loved both, but your question probably deserves an answer that recalls a writer who has influenced me. I like anything by the British writer, Muriel Spark. Her most famous work is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but I’d pick Loitering with Intent or Robinson for a reader about to dip a first toe in the water. Spark was unpretentiously literary, which made her work accessible. Moreover, her characters were often caught in the maelstrom of someone else’s influence, responding with wit and resilience; occasionally some cattiness. I love her people for that, and without question, Muriel Spark could do as much with the simple declarative sentence as any writer I’ve come across.
JB: How did you come about writing this book?
SM: The short answer is that I wanted to write about impactful things without making the reader feel wretched. The long answer (because I’m incapable of allowing a short answer to stand on its own legs) is this: Chapter One of “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.“ was originally a short story, but when I began to work on another story, several of the people from the first piece began to pop up. I had an “ideas” file and began to go through it, quickly realizing that I had a whole group of characters whose main connection was that they all lived in the same place. So I decided to do another collection that subsequently evolved into a novel about this little town with a central narrator telling the stories of its inhabitants.
JB: We met at the SFWC. What did you get out of the conference? Why did you gravitate to BookHive?
SM: I had sworn off writers’ conferences for a few years, but went to the SFWC in both 2014 and 2015. I’ll probably go again next year. The first year I went because I was living in San Francisco and wanted to network. However, once there I found my bias against independent publishing completely shattered. It’s a new world out there and I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to trot my manuscript around to agents and editors to get it out. The conference also does a great job of connecting writers to people in the publishing world. I met my editor for “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.” there (Mary Rakow) and spent several months working with her to turn a 185,000 word monstrosity into a 88,000 word volume that can actually be transported without a shopping cart. I met you, Jennifer, at the 2015 conference and loved the idea of beta readers with metrics. I’ve been in a writing group for a long time, and they’re terrific, but the process is necessarily fragmented and getting feedback from readers who have digested the work during a sitting or two is a better indicator of how the book works. Moreover, no matter how good your writing group, it’s always best to have feedback from people who don’t know you and won’t run into you at the grocery store. BookHive and Mary Rakow were the best two decisions I made while developing “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.”
JB: Tell us about your writing process. How often and when do you write? Are you in a writers’ group?
SM: I’m a swooper as opposed to a plodder. Swoopers spray words on the paper with a garden hose, getting everything down and then fixing it later. Plodders work with a fine-tipped brush, making each sentence perfect before moving on to the next. Frankly, if I tried to make a perfect sentence, they’d have to bury me with it. I’d never get it done.
I try to write every day, but it doesn’t always happen. Supposedly, Jack London wrote 1000 words every day, sometimes scribbling away to his host’s dismay while attending some social function. I did that — 1000 words/day — while getting through the first draft of “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.,” but life isn’t always cooperative. I mean, good for Jack London and all, but I suspect he didn’t have kids.
I’ve been in a writers’ group for over twenty years and it’s a big help. We try to meet monthly and share work. It’s a great bunch and we’ve learned the most important thing: when critiquing, don’t turn someone else’s work into your work. I really came to appreciate them after receiving my analysis of “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.” from BookHive. All of the guys at one time or another had picked up on points made by the BookHive readers (The fact that I’d not revised accordingly illustrates the difference between art and stubbornness.). My group includes the poet, Chris Dempsey (Winter Horses), Leslie Gunnerson (a poet and writer of prose), Mike Christian (another fiction writer like me), and the essayist and journalist, Barbara Herrick (The Blackberry Tea Club). Leslie, in particular, has been dead on, reading each version of “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.” and then offering great suggestions (I believe she can now recite the book from memory!). Most recently she helped me with a revision for the opening that helped address an issue raised by the BookHive readers.
JB: What’s your plan for it? Traditional or independent publishing?
SM: When I began “Delphic Oracle U.S.A.” it was with the idea that I’d go the traditional route. That, of course, assumed that the traditional “routees” would have me. After attending the 2014 SFWC, I began to reconsider and had decided to independently publish until both Mary Rakow and Bookhive encouraged me to take another shot at the traditional publishing avenues. Thus, I’ll probably probably take one more at-bat while preparing the book for an independent release. That’s the beauty of today’s publishing opportunities. There are ample ways of producing a book that’s beautiful to look at and has been properly vetted by an editor and beta readers. Moreover, the e-book opportunities are cost-effective as are many of the print options. Hence, as Mark Coker from Smashwords always points out, the writer unable to obtain a traditional publishing contract no longer has to consider him/herself a “failed” writer.
JB: Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you break out of it?
SM: I just can’t think of an answer to this one. Seriously, no, I never get writer’s block as I always have more than one project going. Hence, if one storyline runs a little dry, I shift to another. Also, as previously mentioned, I’m a swooper and can always load down my brush and sling more paint on the canvas, even though I’ll have to rub off a lot of it later.
JB: Did you find working with beta readers through BookHive a valuable part of the process?
SM: As mentioned, it was one of the two best decisions made. I worried that the analyses might be superficial, but was very happy to find the exact opposite to be true. My manuscript was reviewed within the time frame given, the demographic cross-section was excellent, and the report thorough with both subjective responses and metrics. Moreover, BookHive gave me the opportunity to pose questions in advance (although the standard BookHive questions were better than mine) and I was called after receiving the report to further discuss it. Overall, BookHive far exceeded my expectations. As mentioned, my writer’s group (and my wife) had previously picked up on many of the same points made by the BookHive readers, but hearing it from an objective set of readers inspired me to work harder on a revision. More important, the analyses made it easy (or at least indisputable) to know what I needed to revise. So, as you might have ascertained, I’m a big BookHive fan.
BookHive Corp. does beta reader editorial research for authors.
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Jennifer Bowen, QueenBee (more fun that CEO) of BookHive Corp.