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Eileen Cook is a multi-published author with her novels appearing in eight languages. Her books have been optioned for film and TV. She spent most of her teen years wishing she were someone else or somewhere else, which is great training for a writer. Her newest book, THE HANGING GIRL, came out in October 2017. She’s an instructor/mentor with The Creative Academy and Simon Fraser University Writer’s Studio Program. Eileen lives in Vancouver with her husband and two very naughty dogs and no longer wishes to be anyone or anywhere else.

 

1. Tell us about your latest book, The Hanging Girl.

The Hanging Girl tells the story of Skye Thorn. She’s given tarot card readings for years in her small Michigan town squirreling away money in a hope to escape to NYC after graduation. When the town’s golden girl goes missing, she tells the police about a psychic vision she’s had that helps with the investigation. It’s no challenge—her readings have always been faked, but this time she has some insider knowledge about the abduction. The kidnapping was supposed to be easy—no one would get hurt and she’d get the money she needs to start a new life. But a seemingly harmless prank has turned dark, and Skye realizes the people she’s involved with are willing to kill to get what they want, and she must discover their true identity before it’s too late.

 

2. What was your inspiration behind it?    

The initial inspiration came after I went to a conference put on by The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. They’re a group of people who use science to investigate various topics- including psychics. The session I went to covered how easy it is to fool someone into believing you have psychic ability.  I found that fascinating and filed away the information knowing it would be useful for a character.

The second bit of inspiration came after talking to a good friend about lies. I started to think about a character who tells a lie (for a good reason) and how that leads to more lies until she is in so deep that she has no idea how to get free. I think many people have told a lie to try and make a situation better, that ended up leading to more trouble. (Hopefully not as much trouble as it got the main character, Skye, into!) 

 

3. Your books are known for multiple plot twists. Do you know all the plot twists before you start the book, or do they come to you as you write?

Do I get points for thinking that I know all the plot twists before starting? I spend a fair bit of time blocking out and outlining my books- two to three months is fairly common. During this stage, I wander around the house asking myself all sorts of questions and making elaborate notes about the plot. When I sit down to write I’m convinced that I’ve thought through every possible angle. 

Surprise! Once I start writing I come to learn more about the characters, or something that seemed straightforward when planning, becomes complicated. There are always twists that develop during the writing process. 

 

4. Do you think that your previous work as a counselor has impacted your writing style, and if so, in what ways?

What drew me to the field of counseling was the same thing that attracted me to writing- the chance to better understand why people do the things that they do. In counseling, you’re trained to understand that good people can make bad decisions (and often do!) which is a great thing for writers to understand because it drills into character motivation. Bad guys aren’t bad “just because,” they have reasons to do what they do. 

I’ve also discovered that drawing on my counseling training (from understanding a person’s backstory, to how and why people make change) have helped me strengthen my writing. I use a lot of these in my teaching - if we understand how real people respond to situations, we can better portray how our characters will react. 

 

5. If you could go back in time, what is the best piece of writing advice you would give your younger self?

The best advice is one that I would have loved to have gotten at that age! Read. I truly believe that the best way to learn how to write is by reading voraciously. And reading with an eye to the craft- asking yourself how, and why, writers made the choices they did. 

Secondly, in life in general, as well as with writing, I tell myself to relax and enjoy the journey. There will always be rejection, and things that don’t go well in any pursuit, the secret is to persist and celebrate the small wins along the way. 

 

6. As a multi-published author, how much time do you personally spend on marketing and what has been your best marketing tool? 

There is a balance between spending valuable time on marketing and using marketing as an excuse to procrastinate. Trust me, I am a MASTER at procrastination, so I know all the tips. 

With marketing, there’s so much conflicting advice about what works and what doesn’t. Some of the best advice I was given was to focus on the type of marketing that comes the most naturally. The reason is that you’re more likely to do a task that you enjoy and you’re also more likely to come across as authentic. For me, this means I tend to focus on social media and public speaking. I enjoy interacting with others so social media gives me a chance to build those relationships. I’m also one of the few people who actually enjoys public speaking, so I like to teach, lead workshops, and do school visits. I typically have a goal to spend an hour a day on marketing, but that is certainly much higher right around a book release, and of course days when I teach. 

 

7. You are an instructor/mentor for Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio working with writers from around the world. Can you tell us a little more about that?

I am very passionate about working with other writers to help them tell the story that excites them. This comes from both a selfless desire- I love stories and want to see as many in the world as possible, and also a selfish benefit- the more I help others make sense of their writing and improve, the more it helps me with my own work. In order to assist a writer, you have to be able to identify what exactly isn’t working and what might make a difference. This is much easier to do with someone else’s work as compared to your own. 

The SFU Online Writer’s Studio provides a ten-month program where they download weekly modules and have bi-weekly workshops. I’m a mentor for the workshops. In that time the students exchange work with each other and provide critiques. You can learn more about the program here: http://www.sfu.ca/continuing-studies/programs/the-writers-studio-creative-writing-certificate/tws-online/why-online-format.html

I’m also a mentor with The Creative Academy. This is also an online program and provides downloadable courses, free resources, as well as a membership option where people get access to me (as well as two other amazing people) in weekly office hours to ask questions and to be held accountable to their writing goals. You can read about it here: https://ccscreativeacademy.com?affcode=16426_-f80ly9k

 

8. You’re also an experienced speaker for schools. What kind of presentations do you give and how might a school contact you to give one?

I love school visits! There are no book fans quite like teen book fans. I always work with the school to understand if there is a particular focus they would like for the school visit. I can often dovetail a talk to what they’re currently working on in their classes. Most commonly I do talks such as: Lying for Fun and Profit- How to Become a Writer, where I discuss my books, my path to publication, do a short reading, and answer any questions about my books or writing. One of my most popular talks is on story structure where I discuss how the Hero’s Journey can be used to understand all types of stories from books to film. I’ve also done specific writing workshops with creative writing classes. 

If a school is interested in having me all they need to do is reach out by email. Let me know the size of the group if you are thinking in person or via Skype, and what you might like to focus on. I can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

9. What are you working on next?

To be honest I am always happiest when I have a project on the go. I love the process of making things up.  My most recent project is currently called You Owe Me a Murder. It is a modern spin on Hitchcock/Highsmith’s story Strangers on a Train. A character has a chance meeting with someone who ends up completely changing her life. She finds herself embroiled in a murder for hire scheme and has to decide how far she will go to get her life back.  

As you may know, TopShelf Magazine is really geared toward helping booksellers and librarians discover fantastic new authors and books, as well as invaluable tips on how to improve the marketability of their establishments. With that in mind, please allow me to pick your brain for a few helpful tidbits that indie booksellers may find helpful.

 

10. In your experience traveling from bookstore to bookstore, doing signings and other events, what have to discovered are some of the best ways to captivate readers and get people into your bookstore events?

I see two prongs to planning any bookstore events. The first is trying to leverage any existing fans or readers, I may have who may come out. I use social media to try and make sure that people are aware there is an event and encourage them to attend (and hopefully bring a friend!) To work well, I think it’s so important to be authentic and genuinely interested in the audience versus trying to do a hard sell. I typically do a short reading but find the most interesting portion of the event tends to be the question and answer, where can have a discussion about anything from the book to writing in general.

The second prong to a successful signing is to encourage people who don’t already know me or my books to attend. This means attempting to make it more of an event. I’ve seen this done a few different ways. One was having a panel of writers versus just one- so that people had a chance to hear from a wide range of writers. Another example of a signing being leveraged into a larger event was- a group of romance writers do an event where the local singles groups were contacted to come out. There was wine, discussion of romance-and book sales. People who didn’t know the writers came because it was a fun night out. 

 

11. Have you come across any marketing strategies used by booksellers in your travels that have struck you as particularly impressive or effective?

If there is ever an angle to make an event, rather than simply a signing, then in my experience that works the best. For example, I did one book event for The Hanging Girl, where people all got a fortune cookie when they came in, there was a tarot card reader, and I discussed how psychic abilities could be faked. It made for an interesting discussion for people who might not otherwise have turned out to see me. (Even if I do think I’m delightful.)  

Other angles might be something like a romance event that I mentioned earlier, having a police officer there to talk about crime investigation for a mystery novel, travel advice on Rome for a book set in that area, or a person sharing recipes because their main character is a chef.  

Most readers only have a few authors that they would leave the house to see. The challenge becomes how else can you convince them to come into the store for someone they may not know. What topics does the book delve into that might entice someone to hear an author (who is often an expert in those areas) discuss?

 

12. What are some of the coolest things you’ve seen at bookstores that you feel other booksellers should try and replicate?

I love when stores are able to create events out of simple signings. I’ve seen a summer book club with a range of authors talking about their books, a writing workshop for people writing in a particular genre, blind date with a book events where people are matched up with books they may not have picked up on their own, and as I mentioned above, moving the talk from being strictly about a book/author and more into the topics the book deals with which may bring in a larger audience.  

These days authors and readers also look to TopShelf Magazine for tips on writing and book recommendations. Here are a few questions for aspiring authors.

 

13. Do you follow a regular writing routine? Do you have any funny, weird, or unusual habits while writing that you wouldn’t mind sharing?

When I started writing it took me a long time to realize that what works for one writer might not work for another. I always encourage people to try different processes and see what fits their style.

I spend time plotting and planning before starting to write. Sometimes this includes writing diary entries from different character’s point of view, making timelines, and endless lists.  I used to jump in as soon as I had an idea, but I’ve learned it’s better to let an idea ferment for a while.  Like wine, it gets more complex and interesting if it sits for some time. 

I usually get up early and walk the dogs or go to the gym before settling in with a cup of tea and getting to work.  I’m not creative before 8 am or after 10 pm. I usually have three or four hours of writing/creative time before my brain gives up.  I spend the rest of my day doing more business things, marketing, teaching, research etc.  Of course, there’s also plenty of looking at random things on the Internet, yelling at my dogs to stop digging in the yard, or plotting to buy more shoes.

 

14. How much time and money do you have to put into marketing your books to keep them selling and ranking on bestseller lists?

There is far more time spent marketing and reaching out to readers than I had imagined when I started writing. I pictured myself (ideally in a Paris apartment) writing stories and occasionally attending swanky literary parties with other writers. For the record, I have yet to hang out with Margaret Atwood or Stephen King- but I’m still hoping. And instead of a Paris apartment, I have a small home office where I’m usually found wearing yoga pants and mumbling to myself. 

I do believe the best marketing a writer can do is having another book. That is always my first priority- writing. I use the remainder of my time to reach out to the writing and reading community. This might be through conferences, book signings, social media or blog posts. The goal isn’t to sell your book. No one likes to feel “sold.”  I try and focus on engaging with people who like the same things that I do- books!  I talk about what I’m reading and what I’ve enjoyed so that interactions are more about our shared passion versus me trying to press a book into someone’s hand. If you have a true fan- who really loves your books- they’ll tell people and that is the best marketing possible. So, whenever I can I try and build those relationships with readers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians. 

In terms of cost, a writer could spend tens of thousands on marketing. However, most of us don’t have that kind of disposable income for this area. There are many things that writers can do that are low or no cost. 

 

15. Is there anything that you could offer aspiring authors that you feel could be of substantial value in their quest to hit the bestseller list?

I would love to stress to every writer the value of persistence. I was fortunate enough to have Canadian writer/storyteller Ivan Coyote as a writing instructor years ago. When I confessed my fear of rejection and that I might never “make it,” Ivan gave me the best advice that I’m happy to share.  Ivan said: Here’s the thing, you’re already not published. The worst thing that will happen to you is that you still won’t be published.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. I realized that the worst thing that would happen is that someone would tell me no. I could survive rejection (heck I got through junior high and high school after all).  

I know that writing is what I’ve always wanted to do. I attempt to keep my focus on trying to be a better writer, to make my readers happy. I try to not worry about lists, or sales numbers, as those things aren’t within my control. But if I can write a great book that people talk to other people about, that will lead to that kind of success. Or at the very least that’s my plan! 

 

Thanks so much for having me.