Over the course of the last year and a half, I have read more books than I had read in my previous years combined, and among those stories, I have my favorites. Sarah Beard’s debut novel, Porcelain Keys, is one of them.
Sarah put a lot of her own heart into her words, and though it took her five years to get the story to where she wanted it to be, the perseverance seems worth it. I was captured from the first sentence and the rhythm swept me up to the last page. Visit Sarah at http://sarahbeard.com.
Interviewer: Joanna Celeste
Q: Porcelain Keys centers around Aria, a gifted pianist. As a music aficionado, was the process of writing fiction much like that of composing?
A: Since music is mostly a hobby for me, I generally don’t put too much thought into my piano compositions—I just sort of let my heart lead the way. Whatever I’m feeling or thinking about comes out as music. Once I get a melody down, I’ll usually add some depth to the piece, but for the most part they’re just simple, heartfelt compositions.
I guess the first drafts of my books are that way, too. I just write what I feel without thinking too much about whether or not it’s going to work. Then once I have the story down, I go back and analyze it to death. I tear it apart and rework it over and over until I get everything just right—plot, characterization, pacing, setting, dialog, conflict, tension, etc. Each element has to be considered separately, then together as a whole.
A book could be compared to a symphony or concerto. You have all the different instruments playing different parts, serving different purposes, and when all put together you have something grand and beautiful. I don’t compose musical concertos, just little solo piano pieces, so it’s simple and easy. My books, on the other hand, are literary concertos. If one instrument (pacing, plot, etc.) is out of tune, it sours the entire work. Only when all the instruments work together and complement each other can a literary concerto become a moving masterpiece.
Q: Yes, it’s an intense process with editing being the primary focus. Throughout thefive–year journey of writing your novel, what are some key moments or pieces of advice that strengthened you to keep moving forward?
A: There were countless times I wanted to give up during the writing of this book. Like when my critique partners would point out plot problems that seemed too big to fix, or when I couldn’t pin down a character’s motivations. I would go home feeling discouraged and would want to scrap the whole thing. But a woman in my writers group, Shauna Dansie, once gave me a great tip. She suggested that when I come across a story problem that seems impossible to fix, that I should write it down on a little piece of paper and set it aside somewhere safe, then continue working on other parts of the story. The theory is that you know in the back of your mind that there is that big problem that needs to be fixed, but you don’t have to worry about it because you have it written down somewhere. So your subconscious does all the work. And one day as you’re folding laundry, the solution just pops into your head. Or you wake up in the middle of the night, and you know why your character did that stupid thing. It worked every time.
Another piece of advice that stuck with me was one I received at a writing conference. I was sitting across the table from a literary agent at dinner (great opportunity—or so you would think) and I told her a little about my book and asked her which genre it would be—YA or women’s fiction—since the story begins when my character is 17 and ends when she is 19. New Adult was not yet an official category, so she basically told me that no publisher would ever pick up my book because there wasn’t a market for it. My shoulders must have visibly slumped because author Stephanie Fowers, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said something like, “Don’t worry, Sarah. Just write the story you want to tell and don’t try to fit into anyone’s definition of what makes a marketable book.” I took her advice to heart and stopped worrying about trends and categories, and just wrote what I wanted to.
Q: That’s brilliant advice, since we can’t really help but write the story that is there to be told. Without being outwardly religious, there is a certain quiet weave of spirituality in your writing. Life seems to hold its own essential divinity, as you would have experienced in giving birth, surviving cancer, and living in general – but did you seek to share a particular message, or was the writing organic?
A: When I first started writing Porcelain Keys, I didn’t set out to share a specific message or lesson, I just wanted to write a great love story. But I think on an unconscious level some of the lessons I’ve learned in my own life seeped into the story. I’ve learned from experience that it’s possible for people to change and overcome character flaws, and that damaged relationships can be repaired. I also know that grief can cause people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. So as I wrote the story and my characters did certain things, I used my own life lessons as a reference to help me decide whether or not their actions were realistic and believable. It wasn’t until after I finished writing the story and had to start describing it in query letters that I really thought about what messages it contained.
Q: That’s awesome. On your blog you shared the inspiration of Porcelain Keys but we didn’t read the particulars of the scene that germinated your book. If you remember, please share it with us.
A: Yes, I remember the exact details of the scene. In fact, I still have it saved in a first draft (it’s horribly written, by the way). I didn’t share it on my blog because my story changed over time and the scene ended up having no relevance to the story. But it was a scene where Aria comes home from college for summer break, and she is going through a box of memorabilia when she discovers a necklace that Thomas gave her before he left town. She is surprised to see it because she thought she had gotten rid of it, and it brings back all the memories of their time together and the painful events surrounding his disappearance. This is the scene that sparked all of the questions that led me to my story. I had to know who these people were, why Thomas had left, and why he hadn’t returned as promised. For me, it was like an intriguing mystery that needed to be solved. And as I discovered the answers to these questions, I fell in love with the characters and knew that I had to tell their story.
Q: Thank you for sharing that. This is perhaps like asking you to name your favorite child, but do you have a favorite scene from your book? One that, no matter how many times you read it, resonates with you?
A: This is a tough one to answer without giving away too much of the story, but one of my favorite scenes is in chapter nineteen when an unexpected visitor walks into the parlor. My heart swells every time I read it, even though I’ve read it five million times. I also love the scene where Thomas gives Aria a painting—it always brings tears to my eyes because I know how much it means to her. The hardest scene to write was in chapter twenty-two where Aria and Thomas have a long talk—I must have rewritten it at least a dozen times—but it turned out to be one of my favorites.
Q: I loved those scenes, too. That seems to be the hardest part of being a writer, or any artist—knowing when to step away from the story and let it out into the world. Porcelain Keys is published by Sweet Water, an imprint of Cedar Fort. You mentioned that they have been wonderful to work with – what have been some of your adventures in publishing?
A: I haven’t had too many adventures in publishing since this is my first novel, but I did spend about seven months querying literary agents before being accepted for publication by Cedar Fort. During that time I sent out a total of 45 query letters, and got a few bites, including a 2000-word email from an agent listing all the things she loved about my manuscript—and all the things she wanted me to change. I was on an airplane when I got her email, ready for takeoff, and I only got the gist of it before I had to turn off my phone. I spent the four-hour flight wanting to die, and then give up writing, and then die again. It’s the worst feeling, spending hundreds or even thousands of hours on a manuscript, only to have someone tear it apart and tell you all the things you should change.
But when I got home and got a good night’s rest, I opened the email and read it more thoroughly. I realized that she actually really liked my book and had a lot of great suggestions—which was a good sign. Literary agents don’t usually give that much feedback unless they’re really interested in your manuscript. So I took most of her suggestions and implemented them. But there was one big change that I didn’t agree with and felt would make my entire story collapse. Because of this, I didn’t feel she was the right agent for me. So I kept sending out query letters to other agents. Around this time, a friend lent me a book that was published by Cedar Fort, and I really loved it, so I decided to send my manuscript to Cedar Fort. And two months later I got an email from their acquisitions editor saying they wanted to publish it—just the way it was.
Q: Congratulations! You also mentioned that you look forward to a long working relationship with Sweet Water. Do you have a second book planned?
A: I’m working on another young adult romance right now. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s set on a California beach and involves chocolate, surfing, and supernatural elements. I also have detailed outlines for two more after that, both young adult romances.
Q: That is wonderful! What will you take from this launch, to utilize in your next release?
A: I’ve learned that when it comes to getting the initial word out about a book, bloggers and book reviewers are a writer’s best friends! Also, it’s pointless to stress about things that aren’t in your control, like which bookstores will pick up your book, or whether or not reviewers like your book. Stress kills creativity, so I’m learning to stop hovering and instead get back to what I can control: writing more books!
Q: Good plan! What, if any, is/are your life motto(s)?
A: I don’t really have a life motto, but there are things I try to remember everyday: That life is short and that I should make the most of each moment. That worldly success is enjoyable, but can’t bring lasting happiness. Only my relationship with God and my family can do that. They are the constant in the ups and downs of life. They will be there when fans and literary agents and publishers are not. So God and family always come first, because to lose my relationship with them would be to lose everything.