Throughout the years of interviewing authors, many have talked about the importance of accountability. Today’s interview features Kelly Sokol, who echos the value of someone to share drafts and updates with. Do you have someone holding you accountable in your writing? Enjoy Kelly’s interview and find her on Facebook, Instagram, and her website.
Who are you?
Thank you so much for having me! My name is Kelly Sokol. I’m an author, and I live and work in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
What do you write?
I write books about difficult women (so far, all of my main characters have been women, anyway), characters that come to me in the fights of their lives. It’s always the characters that drive me. I can’t write about an idea or an event; at least, I can’t write about either of those well. I hear a singular voice speaking from one lived experience, and I have to know this woman. I need to find out what in her life brought her to this precipice and what life-altering choices she will make to survive it. We go to great lengths to mask and silence our primal selves in our society. But at some point, we all have to face who we are at our core. I love the way fiction helps us do that. For my newest novel, Breach, I imagined a woman forced into an unthinkable choice as she fights to keep her family whole and honor the promises she made to her bomb tech husband and the family they’re raising. I have to listen and follow once a character starts nagging at me.
Really, for so much of my life, I was convinced that writing was reserved for the brilliant, for artists, not some humdrum normal person. Though I’ve loved books of all kinds since I began reading at four, I didn’t begin my professional writing life until I was in my early thirties. I signed up for a class at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia, and haven’t stopped putting pen to paper since. That was almost twelve years ago. I started with an introduction to fiction class, moved through several workshops, studied personal essay writing, and pursued a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I joke that taking an intro to fiction class was my gateway drug back into writing, but what it really taught me is that writing is a craft. Craft can be studied, honed, improved forever.
Yes, I love what I do. When I face a blank page or screen, the possibilities are limitless. There are no constraints. No one ever sees my early draft work unless I’m ready for feedback. I fiercely protect the wildly messy creative process, the time when the work feels like a living, pulsing part of me. The early draft work is just for me, and I love that part of the process. When I’m ready to begin the revising and rewriting part of the work, I have given myself time and distance from the manuscript so that I can be kind of ruthless. Rewriting is when the actual story takes shape. It feels like some kind of magical excavation and sculpture.
Finding readers and navigating the publishing industry is not the same as writing. Finding readers and publishing aren’t the same things, frankly. Without a love of the writing process just for itself, I wouldn’t be writing or publishing anymore.
Where do you write?
I can write anywhere. My writing muse isn’t picky about time or place so long as I show up regularly to do the work. I wrote early drafts of my first book, The Unprotected, in a coffee shop in Norfolk, Virginia, and libraries across Southeastern Virginia. I started Breach at my old kitchen table. I have a home office for the first time in my writing life. It’s upstairs and has its own bathroom and a coffee maker, so I can hermit away and work while still being physically present in the hub of my family’s life. Even so, I still work under field lights at late-night soccer practices and in loud tournament hotels among squealing teenagers. The physical details of everyday life are so important in fiction. I don’t want to lose the ability to work amidst all of it. I love the loud, sweaty, smelly mix of daily life.
For first draft work, I write longhand in marble composition notebooks. Fancy, right? I also give one to every student who takes one of my classes–every writer needs a notebook. I like composition books for several reasons. First, they remind me of being a child who doodled and created, unaware that anyone might be looking. Second, they’re neither expensive nor precious, so I have the freedom to write shitty first drafts (oh thank you, thank you, thank you, Ann Lamott) on their pages. It’s not that deep. It’s a word after a word after a word. I can make them pretty later. I can find composition notebooks at any pharmacy, drugstore, or grocery store. So I have no excuses not to write! Finally, transcribing my notebook pages into a Word doc jumpstarts my revising process. The scaffolding I’ve erected just to get my character into a scene becomes obvious, and I can knock it down, for example.
I swoon over a Papermate InkJoy gel pen. They’re absolutely my favorites, and I keep them in my car, at my desk, and in every bag I carry.
As far as technological tools, I love using voice memos when I’m in the car or out in the woods. It’s hands-free, and sometimes the perfect breakthrough or realization hits me in the middle of a long run or drive. And a great help for editing is using the spoken content/spoken text capability on a smartphone. Reading aloud helps me spot clunky phrasing and repeated words and all manner of things, but when you hear your work read back to you in a voice that’s not your own, all of the blemishes appear. I’m pretty basic and low-tech, I know!
When do you write?
Mornings are my favorite writing times. I like to meet the page when I’m still a little muzzy from sleep and before the coffee has fully kicked in. Those are my hours in the day when even my dog is still sleeping. I’m generally revising one story, drafting another, and reading/researching for a third. For the 90 minutes before the get ready and get to the school bus panic begins, I build on my new, emerging draft. I’ve carried those characters with me from the previous day, and I can usually slip right into their points of view. I stop when I feel like I could carry on each day so that I’m already anticipating when I get to begin the next morning. I think I internalized some Hemingway quote about stopping when “[you’re going good]”(https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/8684867-when-you-go-over-it-cut-out-everything-you) so that I can pick back up. No matter what, whether or not I feel like I have something to say, I write for a minimum of 25 minutes. I set the timer on my phone and don’t stop until it chimes, and by then, I’m humming along and don’t want to stop anyway. The other good news about handwriting early drafts is that my notebook doesn’t have internet access, so I can’t waste that perfect, quiet time on social media and email. Word counts weigh too heavily on me, so I don’t worry about them much. When I’m really deep into the creative, early stages of writing, I may pour out thousands of words in a day. Other days I need to obsess over a paragraph or a single exchange between characters.
After my children are off to school, I revise and rewrite the story that is already multiple drafts along. Keeping myself accountable for this work is easy if I have a deadline to meet, but for most novelists, no one is pushing you to finish your novel–I mean, really finish that umpteenth and final draft. You have to find that motivation for yourself. It’s not easy. I have a writer-friend who’s my accountability partner. We share work with one another and politely nag each other if we haven’t gotten any updates recently. Having a community of writers is so important to me. There have been months when they were the only people keeping me writing and believing in my work. Many of us are introverts, that’s true, but we need people who understand what we’re trying to do and why we need to do it.
I have to leave the reading and researching for last because otherwise, I’d use all of my writing time reading. I absolutely need to be reading if I’m to write, but I save other peoples’ novels as a reward for doing my work.
Why do you write?
My first confidant was my diary- the fluffy kind with the dangly lock and the matching feathered pen. I’ve always written, but I wrote in secret, stolen time for the first thirty years of my life. Writing is how I make sense of the world around me. Books were my first and will be my most enduring teachers; they’re always there for us. Reading fiction was my first lesson in empathy, and it was miraculous. I was given the opportunity to see, taste, feel, smell, and hear the world through the specific and individual lens of someone different than me. I write because I hope I can give that gift to someone else. I’m also rather unbearable when I’m not writing. All of my family can attest.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
Because I try to work on more than one project at a time, I’ll work on another if I find myself particularly stuck on one. As long as I’m putting pen to paper, something I write down will help me find the window I can climb through when the front door is locked. As far as strategies for kickstarting a stalled writing engine, I like to work with lists. I’ll pick one of my characters, likely a secondary or tertiary character, and list what I’d find if I rooted through their underwear drawer or refrigerator or shoved way back into a middle school locker. The objects a person keeps, especially those she hides, can tell us so much. They can inform us of our characters, too. I also like to rewrite a scene and have the main character do the opposite of what I had planned for her and see if that opens up another pathway.
If all else fails, I go for a run.
Bonus: What do you enjoy doing when not writing?
I trail run, and a few times a year, I run trail ultramarathons. This year, I have signed up for races in Virginia, Georgia, and California—60 kilometers, 35 miles, and 100 kilometers. If you saw me on the street, you’d never believe I could self-power that far, but being outside and in a natural space and finding my way through rooted trails and across creek beds are all steps in a moving meditation. Out there, it’s only me and my breath. Just like writing, but it’s one foot in front of the other, instead of one word after another. Trail running fits my writing life beautifully. A long, difficult run helps me tap into the primal center of myself, strips of me all the nonsense. That’s the same place from which my best writing stems. There’s no energy for artifice or ego past a certain distance.
I grew up loving to backcountry ski and hike, but I live at the beach at sea level. Like my beloved marble composition notebooks, I can find trails to run anywhere. When I’m not writing or cheering on my competitive soccer players, you’re most likely to find me getting muddy on a trail somewhere.
My thanks to Kelly Sokol for today’s interview.