Conversations on the Craft of Writing with Elizabeth Bates
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
A poet and columnist who took advantage of downtime during the pandemic to start writing novels
I'm always looking to learn from other writers about their approach to the craft! I want to know what motivates them, what they find challenging, and — most of all — what they love about writing.
I recently got to the chance to hear from Elizabeth Bates, an accomplished poet and the editor-in-chief of Dwelling Literary, who found that the combination of maternity leave and a pandemic gave her the time at home she needed to finally crank out a novel or two. As somebody who has studied literature in her bachelor’s and master’s programs, she holds herself to a high literary standard, and she strives for excellence in all her writing endeavors.
Here's what she had to say...
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? What studying or training have you undertaken that’s brought you to where you are now?
I have enjoyed writing my entire life. I remember writing stories for fun as a kid. We happened to have a publisher’s manual around our house, and I remember being about seven and researching how to write and publish books and go through the querying process.
I did a lot of academic writing throughout my B.A. in English literature and M.A. in English programs. Only occasionally did I have opportunities to write creatively during these programs, but I think the constant exposure to incredible writing set a high bar that I’m continually striving for.
When the pandemic hit, I was home on maternity leave. I had become active enough in the #WritingCommunity on Twitter that I had connected with so many encouraging writers and finally felt motivated to try my hand at writing a book. My son was just months old at the time, meaning that much of the day was absorbed in naps. Not only did I have the unique gift of time, but writing was a quiet activity I could do while he was sleeping. I wrote my first novel.
The act of writing that first novel taught me so many things about what not to do with my second novel. It was like a practice run that I needed to get out of my system. And now I’m applying all the things I learned from that experience as I work on revisions for my second book.
Tell us about any work you’ve had published or anything you’re working on now. How do you decide which projects you want to pursue?
I write a quirky column for The Daily Drunk called “Full Send.” When the opportunity to write this column arose, I was excited because it is very freeing to write shorter pieces that are fun and can honestly be sort of weird when I want them to be.
This year is very exciting for me because I will have my first two pieces published in print. My poem, “Of the Water that Washes Away,” will be featured in the inaugural issue of Seaborne Magazine. I recently learned that my poem, “Thesaurus,” was selected for inclusion in the inaugural anthology from Cardigan Press.
I have several other recently published and forthcoming poems with Second Chance Lit, Poetically Magazine, and Versification. I have pursued a lot of poetry projects over the last year and I think it makes my fiction writing better because it makes my writing stronger down to the sentence level. It really helps me to exercise my use and manipulation of language.
I am dedicating most of my time to revisions of my second novel, which is sort of a suspense/women’s fiction crossover. I hope to begin querying this novel later this year.
Do you have a preferred genre to write in?
I don’t have a preferred genre that I enjoy writing in per se, but I almost always find my greatest inspiration in everyday things and people. I like to ground my works in reality for the most part.
Who is your favorite character or what is your favorite part from any work you’ve written?
I only have one kid right now, but I feel like picking my favorite character is probably akin to picking a favorite child! I love them all for different reasons. But the novel I am working on currently has a cast of senior citizens reminiscent of The Golden Girls and I have become very fond of the four of them.
What’s your writing process? Do you have any routines or habits that help you do your best work?
With poems and short stories, I think I’m a bit of a pantser. I usually gather a flash of inspiration and then write down whatever comes to mind. With novels, I am a plotter entirely. I have spreadsheets and outlines and character sketches that guide every move I make throughout the drafting and revision processes. I definitely have new ideas come to me while I’m working (and sometimes I try to fix things in the middle of the drafting process, even though I know I’m not supposed to), but for the most part I adhere closely to the roadmap I created for the book. Sometimes I still get lost. The novel I am working on now has evolved greatly since it was a tiny idea in my head, but the general premise of the story has remained the same throughout the process.
Something that I have recently started doing, which has completely changed the way I revise, is starting up a separate document that is solely for cut material. If I decide I need to axe a scene from my manuscript, I do, but I paste all that text in my cut material document. That scene might make sense somewhere else, it might just need to be adapted more and added back in later, or it might someday serve as a jumping off point for a new project. It is so much easier for me to cut things that I know aren’t working when I know I haven’t deleted them forever. My book is better for it!
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
This may come as a surprise, Dylan, but some of the best writing advice I ever heard was from you! Several weeks ago, you uploaded a video on Twitter talking about how the plot in writing shouldn’t just be a series of events that go and then, and then, and then. The plot should move forward with the use of “therefore.” This advice has been guiding almost all of the revisions I am making for my novel. I continually ask myself why is my character doing what they are doing, how did they get here, and what will be the outcome of these actions or choices moving forward?
Who’s an author you really admire?
F. Scott Fitzgerald is my all-time favorite author. I can think of no other writer who captures the intimacies of character relationships and the human condition in the way he managed to.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face with any given writing project?
I am in the middle of the biggest challenge I have ever had to face right now. I finished drafting my second novel and after getting into the revision process, I realized that the tension and motion of the story will come through stronger with present tense. So, I am currently transferring the entire book from past to present tense. It is quite the undertaking, but it gives the story a much-needed edge that was missing before.
When you have a bad case of writer’s block and are procrastinating, what would we probably find you doing?
Piano and singing are my go-to. It’s not something that I share much about on Twitter, but prior to the pandemic, I played piano and sang professionally part-time. Music is a huge part of my life and something—like writing—I hope to continue doing until I’m an old lady!
What’s the best feedback you’ve ever received from a reader?
One time someone on Twitter told me that one of my poems affected them emotionally. I am still grateful for that compliment!
What does literary success look like to you?
With my poems and short stories, publication in general feels like literary success to me. For my novel, traditional publication is my end-goal.
Finally, where can readers follow you — website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook page, etc.?