Become a Writer Today

Be Creative Every Day While Building a Writing Business with Caitlin Berve

October 28, 2021 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
Be Creative Every Day While Building a Writing Business with Caitlin Berve
Show Notes Transcript

Caitlin Berve recently published a collection of modern fairy tales called When Magic Calls. She's also written two other anthologies and has another one in the works. 

While she's not writing, Caitlin runs her own writing business and coaches other writers on how they can improve their books and their craft. In addition to all that, she also edits memoir and fiction.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Caitlin and was fascinated to hear how she balances both her writing business and creative work.

I also found out that Caitlin took an MFA in creative writing. Many new writers wonder if they need to take an MFA before they can write a book, so I put that question to Caitlyn, and I think you'll find her answer says a lot about what it takes to become a successful writer today.

In this episode we discuss:

  • How Caitlin manages her time
  • Mistakes that memoir writers make
  • Types of memoirs
  • Finding an editor for your book
  • Advice on joining a critique group
  • Finding the balance between client work and writing
  • How to use a setting as more than a backdrop
  • Tips for selling more books

Resources:


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Caitlin: So, what we wanna do is we want to create an experience for our readers. We’re not just delivering a story to them, we are taking them on a journey. In order to do that, we have to describe the setting, we have to describe the action, we have to let there be dialogue, have our characters interact with each other. If I just summarize what happened, that’s telling. As a reader, I don’t get to experience your story through summary, I just understand it. I want to basically have a movie playing in my head, and for that to happen, you have to show me.

Introduction:  Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan: What does it take to work at something creative every day, like a collection of short stories or even fairy tales, and also to build a writing business? 

Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to Become a Writer Today. 

The leap many new writers need to make is considering their writing as part of a business which helps them earn an income. Now, if you want to write on the side of, you know, a day job and you just want to pursue creative work, that’s completely okay, but many writers want to get paid for their stories and also for helping other people in the industry. 

A few years ago, I came across a great piece of advice from the screenwriter David Mamet. He said work on your business every day and also work on your craft every day. In other words, if you do one thing in the morning that’s related to creative work, like writing a short story or perhaps writing a chapter for a book of non-fiction, and then if you do one thing for your business every day, like setting up your other website or doing something that would help grow your email list, then you’re on track to not only get better at creative work but also to earn a living as a writer. 

Now, when I was working a day job as a copywriter for the British software company Sage, that’s the approach I followed. I get up in the morning and I’d write for 30 or 60 minutes before work and I try and — well, back in the day, I try and knock out short stories and submit them to writing competitions. When I moved to nonfiction, I started working on book chapters before my day job. 

And then after the day job in the evening, I typically try and do something which would help me build up Become a Writer Today, like sending outreach emails to other writers that I wanted to talk to or perhaps figuring out different ways that I could grow my email list or even outlining a course that I could offer other writers about my approach to the craft and that’s how I started to earn an income from Become a Writer Today.

Now, I recently had the chance to catch up with one new author who is making that leap. Her name is Caitlin Berve. She has recently published a collection of modern fairy tales called When Magic Calls and she has another collection in the works. 

Caitlin also runs her own writing business and she coaches other writers about how they can improve their books and their craft. And not only that, but she edits memoir and fiction on the side as well. I recently had the chance to catch up with Caitlin and I was fascinated to hear about how she balances both her writing business and creative work. I also found out that Caitlin took an MFA in creative writing. Now, many new writers wonder if they need to take an MFA before they can write a book and I put that question to Kaitlyn in the interview and I think you’ll find her answer says a lot about what it takes to become a successful writer today.

If you enjoy the show, please consider leaving a short review on iTunes or share the show on Overcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. And if you really enjoy the show, you can support it on Patreon for just a couple of dollars a month and I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books.

Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Caitlin Berve.

Bryan: Would you be able to give listeners a flavor for who you are and how you wear so many hats as a writer and editor?

Caitlin: Definitely. So, I decided to get into editing because I loved writing so much and wanted to help other people do it but it does cut into my writing time so when you wear a lot of different hats like I do, you have to be really disciplined about setting aside that time to get your writing done or it won’t happen, because my authors, my clients’ writing, pays me so I tend to do that instead of doing my own. But if I get up first thing in the morning and get my writing done, that helps a lot.

Bryan: How long do you spend writing in the morning? 

Caitlin: Usually just about an hour each day. I do better in a longer chunk of time like that. Some authors are really great about doing like 15-minute writing sprints and they can just snag 15 minutes here and there that works and I need a little bit more time to sink into my writing.

Bryan: Do you do that five days a week or at the weekend as well?

Caitlin: I do five days but one of those days is Sunday. So, I don’t tend to get any writing done on Tuesdays because I have full mornings that week — or that day of the week.

Bryan: Okay, and what about your editing business, how much time does that take up during the normal day?

Caitlin: That is my kind of full-time job business so it takes me about 40 hours a week, some weeks more, some weeks less.

Bryan: Yeah, that is a full-time job.

Caitlin: Yes.

Bryan: What type of clients do you work with?

Caitlin: I have two sort of categories of clients. I edit books for authors, mainly fiction or story-based non-fiction like memoir, and I do all sorts of fiction then I also have some clients who are local small businesses and I help them with their content writing so blogs, websites, sometimes tutorial videos, things like that.

Bryan: That’s quite a diverse mix. So, I’ve written a memoir recently and I’m working with an editor on it at the moment. What kind of mistakes do memoir writers typically make?

Caitlin: I think one thing that memoir writers tend to think about too much is what it means to them and not enough about what it’s gonna mean to their audience so you have to think about your reader at some point in the process as well.

Bryan: Does that involve putting in tips or perhaps changing the point of view or writing in the second person?

Caitlin: For me, what I like to see when I enjoy memoir is a little bit more vulnerability from the author sometimes than maybe they do in their first draft and then also they have to describe things in a way that someone who has never experienced it can understand and that’s something that I’ll find them kind of using shorthand, being like, “Oh, it’s on Pearl Street.” Well, if you’re not from Boulder, Colorado, you have no idea what that means.

Bryan: I’m not from Boulder, Colorado, so I won’t make that mistake. What type of memoir do your clients typically write?

Caitlin: I tend to work with, you know, I don’t really have a pattern. The latest one that I’ve worked on is someone who’s writing the story of losing her son who had a terminal illness so it’s a very emotional book, but it’s well written, so I’ve been working on that one, and then I also have a lot of family stories come to me, people who are helping their parents turn their stories that they used to tell all of the time into a book that they can pass down.

Bryan: And when you’re editing a manuscript for a client, how long does it typically take you?

Caitlin: It takes me about two weeks to do a copyedit or the first part of a developmental edit. So, if we’re doing the developmental or content editing, we do everything twice. They send it to me, I spend two weeks reading it, giving my comments, I send them the feedback, we have a discussion, they clean it up, and then we do it all again. So, each chunk of that, it takes me about two weeks to get through.

Bryan: Do you find clients are typically accepting of your feedback or do they push back sometimes?

Caitlin: Usually, they’re fairly accepting. It’s the new authors who tend to push back more than the experienced authors, partially just because they’re not used to getting feedback yet and they have to learn how to handle that, just like we all did as new authors. And then, usually, I do a sample edit before I accept a client, both so that they can check out my style of writing and I can make sure that we’re a good fit for each other and so that tends to weed out the people who aren’t willing to accept feedback pretty quickly.

Bryan: So, your new book is called When Magic Calls. How did you find an editor for your book?

Caitlin: I know editors, because I’m in that business, so I asked a couple of editors who I admire and wanted to get their feedback but also I wanted to see their editing styles to make my own editing better. So, I had a content or developmental editor go through it and then I had a proofreader. I did not end up needing that line editor in between.

Bryan: Makes sense, makes sense, yeah. I guess your copy will be pretty polished, considering your background and what your day job is.

Caitlin: It helps, yes.

Bryan: I can imagine. Could you tell me about the book and what was the reason that you decided to write it?

Caitlin: Yes. So, When Magic Calls is a collection of short stories. They are modern takes on fairy tales. I kind of ask the question, “What would those stories look like if they were taking place today? How would they be different?” Usually, fairy tales are teaching a lesson or delivering some sort of a message and so I wondered what would today’s message be. So that’s in there a little bit. And then I love playing with form and point of view in writing so a book of short stories gave me the opportunity to try out different perspectives. I used every point of view, first person, second person, first person plural, omniscient, it’s all in there, and then I have letter stories and I have circular stories and all sorts of different formats.

Bryan: Sounds like a fun project.

Caitlin: It was.

Bryan: Did it take you long to write so many stories with so many different points of view and tones of voice?

Caitlin: It probably took me about two years to put it together. I started it while I was earning my MFA because I did an independent study on fairy tales and that’s where I wrote the first couple was for that class and then I just liked it so I kept going for the next year or so and had a collection.

Bryan: Did you outline your stories in advance before you wrote them or did you just sit down and see what came to mind?

Caitlin: I did a little bit of both. So, part of that class that I did, my teacher would give me a prompt to try out different aspects of fairytales and one of them was I had to tell the story orally to a friend and record it before I ever wrote anything and then I transcribed it and turned it into one of the stories in the book so that was very much fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type of writing. Other stories were a little bit more complex and I needed an outline to keep me on track.

Bryan: That’s a pretty interesting prompt. I guess it would make sense. Many fairy tales were told from one person to the next, you know, around a campfire and they just got passed on through generations rather than written down.

Caitlin: Yes, they were.

Bryan: When you had the book ready for an editor, did you spend long working on the edits, or was it nearly ready for publication by the time you got to that stage?

Caitlin: It was pretty close to ready and there are two reasons for that. One, I’d spent two years on it, but, two, it, for the most part, had been through two critique groups before it got to an editor. I tend to bring shorter pieces to critique groups instead of huge chunks of novels just because then people can see the whole story in a much shorter period of time and I think I get better feedback that way so it kind of already had been edited before it reached the editor.

Bryan: I’ve spent some time in critique groups and I’ve had mixed experiences. Would you have any other advice for anybody who is in a critique group or is considering joining one?

Caitlin: Yes. So there are a couple of things about critique groups that I always tell people to remember and to look for. The first is when you’re testing out a critique group, you’re trying them out, you don’t have to stay. If you don’t like the way that they give feedback, then find a different group. 

Also, you wanna look for two things in your critique group. You wanna look for people who maybe are slightly better writers than you at least. You don’t wanna be the best person there because that will force you to grow to meet them. And you wanna look for groups who give constructive feedback as well as encouragement. Some groups are all encouragement and that’s nice to hear but not too helpful and other groups are just too harsh that it discourages you from writing.

Bryan: Was your critique group an in-person group related to your MFA?

Caitlin: No. I actually found both of those groups during my MFA program because I wasn’t getting what I needed there and I’d done critique groups before my MFA so I knew that the type of feedback that I wanted wasn’t happening in my workshops so I went and found them in the community.

Bryan: Extra classes. Did you find them in your local community like through flyers or advertising or was it through Facebook or some other means?

Caitlin: I Googled it to start.

Bryan: Yeah.

Caitlin: So I found one group that way and I found it through meetup.com and the other group, I joined a writers’ organization that’s local and they’re specifically for working writers so it’s not just authors, it’s people who make a living writing in any way and I joined because I knew I wanted a job after school and, through them, me and a couple of other writers in the group started that critique group.

Bryan: When you were in the critique group or when you were looking for a critique group, did you look specifically for one focused on fiction and short stories? Because when I’ve been in critique groups, what I found is it was quite a mix between people writing poetry, people writing memoir, people writing science fiction, which could get a bit confusing when it came to the feedback stage.

Caitlin: Yes, my one group is only fiction and we lean more towards speculative fiction than anything else. Mystery is another big one in there. My other group is anybody but what it has turned into is fiction and memoir, which works really well because those use the same story writing techniques.

Bryan: Also, considering your business as well.

Caitlin: Yes.

Bryan: So, how do you balance finding clients for your business with writing fiction?

Caitlin: So, I get most of my clients through word of mouth. I’m lucky because my really two businesses go together so anytime I’m networking as an author, I’m also networking as an editor, and the more authors I know, the more editing business I get and the more opportunities I have as an author. So I just — I network a lot and that’s the way I found most of my editing clients and the way I’ve gotten like my book into a local bookstore and things like that.

Bryan: You mentioned a few minutes ago that you specialize in editing memoir. As part of your MFA, did you spend much time on memoir or personal essays or that specific type of nonfiction writing?

Caitlin: I didn’t but mainly because my MFA wasn’t the best. I had the worst timing ever when I joined that program. Something happened before my class got there, the details are still unknown, but about half of the faculty left right before our incoming class started and it just so happened that most of that faculty was the fiction memoir type of faculty so part of the reason I did that independent study in fairy tales was there weren’t a lot of fiction-type classes offered. Most of it was poetry, experimental, translation, which are fine but it wasn’t really the track I was looking for.

Bryan: I guess that brings me to a question many new writers have, do I need an MFA or a degree to become a writer?

Caitlin: Definitely not. I went for my MFA because I thought I wanted to teach creative writing in college. You don’t need it to be a writer. Most authors, successful authors, don’t have a degree in writing. All you need to do is study and write so read books on writing, go to writers’ conferences, join a writers’ organization, all of that will give you just as much as an MFA will.

Bryan: Any particular books that have helped you with your craft?

Caitlin: The first one that I really connected with was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Bryan: It’s a great book.

Caitlin: It’s really good. I love that one. I also really like — the author’s name is Stant Litore and he has one on writing characters, it’s something like Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, and another one on world-building and they’re short but they’re very powerful.

Bryan: Okay, I’m not familiar with that book, I’ll have to check it out.

Caitlin: Yeah.

Bryan: One thing I wanted to ask you about is your approach to show versus tell in creative writing. Would you be able to describe your thinking on that?

Caitlin: Yes. So, “Show, don’t tell” is something we hear all the time as authors. What I found when I started editing other people’s work is nobody ever stops to explain what that really means, it’s something that people just say all of the time —

Bryan: Or tell.

Caitlin: Yes, or tell. So what we wanna do is we want to create an experience for our readers. We’re not just delivering a story to them, we are taking them on a journey. In order to do that, we have to describe the setting, we have to describe the action, we have to let there be dialogue, have our characters interact with each other. If I just summarize what happened, that’s telling. 

As a reader, I don’t get to experience your story through summary, I just understand it. I want to basically have a movie playing in my head, and for that to happen, you have to show me. A great example of this is emotions. I can tell you Sarah felt sad or I can describe how that feeling of sadness is manifesting in Sarah. I can say that her eyes welled with tears, I can say that she clenched her fist to stop herself from crying, I can say there was a catch in her throat.
 
Depending on how I describe or show you Sarah’s sadness, I’m not only telling you she’s sad, I’m also letting you know what that feels like to her and how sad she is in a way that a reader can relate to.

Bryan: Those techniques will certainly be applicable for writing fiction or short stories. Would they work for memoir as well and, if so, how could I use them?

Caitlin: They would. So, in memoir, you are creating scenes just like a fiction author is so you are transporting the reader to your memory, essentially, and you want it to play out for them kind of like a fiction book would. We wanna make sure that we’re showing what you remember and not just summarizing an event.

Bryan: That makes sense, makes sense, yeah, so if I was thinking of something that I was upset about years ago, I would try and demonstrate that through something I did rather than just saying I felt upset about such and such.

Caitlin: Yes.

Bryan: Okay, okay, makes sense. Another area that you have an interesting take on is using setting as more than a backdrop.

Caitlin: Yes, I write fantasy when I write my own books and setting is very important in that genre but it’s also important in every genre. Sometimes, what I’ll see is an author just plops their characters somewhere and they don’t really use the setting. 

Setting is a great opportunity to add conflict and obstacles. It can get in the way for your characters, it can make it harder for them to do what they’re trying to do, and it can create atmosphere, mood, and tone for your story. 

So how you describe the setting is going to let your reader know how they should feel about that place and how — if they should be worried for your characters there or if your characters are feeling comforted there. In memoir, same thing. We wanna know how did you feel in that space that you were in. Were you comfortable? Were you uncomfortable? Why? What was it about that space that made you feel that way?

Bryan: Does this govern your approach to world-building? Is this how you approach creating the world for your characters?

Caitlin: It is. It definitely plays into world-building, especially when you think of the wider aspects of setting. A lot of people think of setting as the immediate space that the characters are in. That’s definitely a part of it. So is the wider world of your story. It could be the real modern world or one that you invented so that’s gonna include the climate, the natural resources, what this area looks like, does it have buildings, roads, all of that. It also includes the society and how your character fits into that society.

Bryan: Are there any authors that you’ve read that approached setting particularly well?

Caitlin: I really liked the use of setting in Dennis L. McKiernan’s Once Upon a Time series. It’s an older one but it uses setting very well and it has so many different settings because the characters are on a journey so you can see how he approached a setting differently in different places. The Scythe Trilogy by Neal Shusterman is a young adult one that does setting really well as well.

Bryan: Okay, I’ll have to check those series out. So I write a lot of non-fiction, any tips for me then for getting setting right in non-fiction?

Caitlin: One of my favorites that does that is Alchemy of the Afterlife by Linda Kinnamon, that’s her last name, and hers is a memoir about her time as a hospice nurse and essentially helping people pass on so she uses setting in a great way to show the emotion of those scenes and to show how a space changes after someone passes. There’s a different feeling to it.

Bryan: Is there anything I can do to research setting before I set out to write a book?

Caitlin: It depends. If you’re writing something that exists, you can always go and visit that space, depending on if you have the funds and how far away it is. You can also research online, that’ll give you a great idea, read travel blogs, things like that about the place. And then also ask people who’ve been there.

Bryan: Yeah, good advice, good advice. So when I was looking at your profile online on your website, you also mentioned that you enjoy running trails so I spend a lot of time running as well and I find it’s really good for, you know, clearing my head if I spent a lot of the day working or in front of a computer screen. Have you experienced that as well?

Caitlin: Yes. A lot of my stories are born on my runs.

Bryan: So, do you bring a notepad with you or stop to dictate into your phone? I’ve done both of those things.

Caitlin: I don’t. I find that what comes to me on my runs is not something I’ll forget —

Bryan: Yeah.

Caitlin: — now if it comes to me during the rest of the day, that’s a different story.

Bryan: Okay, okay. So when you get back from your run, do you sit down then and get to work?

Caitlin: Sometimes. It depends on the time of year. So, I like to write in the morning, like we mentioned. If it’s warmer, I’ll do my run or exercise first and then I’ll write but if it’s winter, I might have to run later in the day to let the snow melt or just to make it more pleasant so I’ll have to write first.

Bryan: Makes sense, makes sense. And do you have any tips for listeners who want to get into like a state of creative flow if they’re working on something that involves world-building or sinking themselves into a creative project?

Caitlin: Yes, I find that having some sort of mini routine before you sit down to write will get your mind back into that creative mindset before you even sit down to type. So, for me, exercise definitely helps me get there. 

For some people, making a cup of tea, that process, they know as soon as they’re making a cup of tea, it’s time to start thinking about their story and by the time they sit down with their tea to write, their mind is already switched over to that world that they’ve been working on.

Bryan: Yeah, that’s good advice. That’s good advice. You also teach creative writing as well. How do you approach teaching the craft?

Caitlin: I do. I teach creative writing to lifetime learners which are — it’s not college, it’s four- to six-week courses, and I approach it by using examples, exercises, and discussion. I’m lucky that I have small classes so I’ll have like six people at a time and I can really tailor what we are talking about to what they need and what they wanna know more about and my students love having the writing exercises after we’ve discussed a certain aspect of writing, like dialogue.

Bryan: So, Caitlin, you’ve done something that takes a while for new writers to do, which is make the leap from just thinking of writing as a creative pursuit to actually working on the business of writing as well, like you have a pretty good author website set up and you’ve described your editing business and your teaching business. At what point did you make that leap?

Caitlin: I made that leap about six months after my MFA. So, I started writing in my undergrad and mostly to avoid taking the regular English classes that I was supposed to be taking, creative writing counted instead so I did that, and then I kept writing for about three years in between my undergrad and my MFA. By that time, I knew that I didn’t just want to be a writer but I also wanted to work in the industry. So, after I finished my MFA is when I started doing that. If I hadn’t gotten my MFA, it probably would have been about the same timeline. It would have been those five years later is when I started working in the industry.

Bryan: And how do you find working in the industry and also writing books and doing creative work? Do you sometimes feel there’s a give and take between the two?

Caitlin: I do. Sometimes it’s hard because my business hat will get in the way of my writing hat so I know certain things don’t sell well or it’s not the right time for something but that’s what I feel inspired to write then. I’m like, “Well, you should make it this way because I know that that sells better,” and my artist side is like, “I don’t wanna do that,” so I have to find a balance.

Bryan: Yeah, it can be difficult to find that balance. What tips would you offer for somebody for selling more books?

Caitlin: If you wanna sell more, one, you need to start collecting readers now so you need to build buzz about your book, your next book, the one that you have immediately because if you do release a later book, you want people waiting for it and anticipating it. 

Also, get your Amazon keywords correct, your categories. If you need to hire someone to help you with that, do. I did for my book. I did it myself at first and then I hired a little bit of help and she thought of things that I never would have thought of to look out for it so that made a huge difference in my ranking and my sales.

Bryan: And then to flip the question on the other side, what tips would you offer for somebody who just wants to do something that’s creative and for their art or for the craft?

Caitlin: If that’s all that you want to do and you don’t care about book sales, then I would say get as experimental as you want, play with the writing and the craft, try out different points of view, different formats, have fun with it. Just don’t expect once you publish that for it to sell like mainstream romance, the top-selling genre.

Bryan: So your book, When Magic Calls, came out in April of 2020. Are you working on something at the moment or do you have a new book in the pipeline?

Caitlin: I do. I have two. I have a trilogy about a seven-year-old little girl who has power over life and death and the first person she chooses to bring back is a gang member so it’s kind of his story and her story. And I’m working on a non-fiction book on point of view and perspective in creative writing and how to do those things.

Bryan: Okay, sounds like — and when will they be out?

Caitlin: I am hoping for this fall, roughly October.

Bryan: If people want to read your book or find more information about your work, where should they look?

Caitlin: My author website is my name, caitlinberve.com. That has a bunch of information about me as an author, my book. You can also find my book most places books are sold. It’s an e-book, audiobook, and paperback. If you wanna find out more about me in a broader sense, my editing website has more of that which is ignitedinkwriting.com. It has articles on creative writing, what an editor does, all of that.


Bryan: I’ll put the links in the show notes but thanks very much. It was great to hear about your writing business and also how you’re approaching balancing it with creative work.


Caitlin: Thank you. I’m happy I got to talk.


(outro)


Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes Store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know, for just a couple of dollars a month, you could become a Patreon for the show? Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday or look for the Support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I’ll give you my writing books and discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.