Karen Sargent joins the 2017 AWN! faculty lineup as she rides the wave of her debut novel, Waiting for Butterflies(available April 4th, 2017, Amphorae Publishing Group). Karen's writing ability speaks for itself in her touching first novel, but marketing her book presented a new challenge. Rising heroically to this task, Karen not only mastered the art of book promotion, but took it to new levels! Read more as you enjoy getting to know Karen Sargent!
Penny:Explain how you held on to your dreams of writing during the years when you focused on teaching and motherhood.
Karen: In many ways, my dream to write held on to me more than I held on to it. As a high school English teacher and adjunct college instructor, I taught writing during the entire school-year. Teaching writing well is time consuming and exhausting and left me with little creative energy to pursue my own writing. However, watching my students grow as writers and win awards, scholarships, and trips to Washington, D.C. fulfilled me, and I’d convinced myself that was enough. Add raising two daughters into all the busyness, I simply didn’t have time to sit in front of a laptop, although I was always working on a story in my head. Then life changed pace a bit. I changed jobs within my school district and spent all but one hour a day in an office, which meant less time grading. My girls were growing up and becoming more independent. I discovered a little more free time, and when I did, my dream to write had a fierce awakening. The dream kept nagging at me until I decided one afternoon, “I’m gonna do this.”
As much as I wanted to write, I didn’t resent putting my dream on hold. I knew equipping my seniors with writing skills was a gift that would serve them well in life, so that was rewarding for me. And nothing was more important than being the mom my girls deserved. I know many writers can juggle a career, family, and writing. I’m not one of them. It justwasn’t my time to write. I also took some comfort in something I’d heard when I was in college: "You haven’t experienced enough life to write anything meaningful until you’re in your mid-thirties." I’m not sure how true that is, but for me, if I’d feel frustrated because I wasn’t writing, I’d remind myself I was “experiencing life.” But I didn’t wait until my thirties to start writing. I waited until my forties! I guess it took me a while to have something meaningful to say!
Penny: What does holding on to your dreams mean to you as you continue your writing journey?
Karen: It’s funny, just like I never thought I could actually write a book, now that I’ve written one, that doubt hasn’t changed. Half of a second book is on my laptop and half of a third is in my head, but the same old doubts linger. Every once in a while, I have to remind myself that I am a writer. I wrote a real book, and I can do it again.
Penny:On your website, you emphasize the concept of perfection and imperfection in your characters. How does this notion of self-perception affect your writing?
Karen: During all those years I was gaining life experience instead of writing, I learned to let go of the idea of being the perfect mom, the perfect wife, etc., and all the pressure that goes with it. Women are so bad about comparing themselves to other women, wives, or moms, and keeping tally of all the ways we fall short. I decided I didn’t have energy for that. This influences my writing most in the characters I create. My characters are flawed but doing their best. I strive to create authentic characters with struggles so that readers can relate to them.
Penny: When pitching this first book, did initial rejections affect your attitude or perseverance?
Karen: I’m weird, but I love my rejection letters and I kept every one (about 20)! I quickly learned that cold-querying a literary agent is tough business because only two to three percent of queries get a response from an agent. So every response I received meant my query was at least good enough that an agent took a moment to say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I received a few form rejection emails, but I received many more personalized rejections that were complimentary and encouraging. A few agents were no longer accepting fiction; some had no room for a new author; others said I had a good story idea but it wasn’t for them. I used to say, “I get the best rejection letters!” I knew I just needed to persist until I found the right person who would fall in love with my book.
Penny: Will you continue to emphasize the concept of hope in your future writing? How important is this concept to you?
Karen: I intend for hope to be a theme in every book I write, and this will certainly be true for the next two. I may be surprised by a story idea in the future where hope is not a theme—but right now that’s not the plan. Because my stories focus on family emotional trauma, it’s important that my characters deal with trauma and find their way toward healing and hope. If readers recognize themselves in my characters, whether they are currently enduring a struggle or have overcome a struggle, I want my stories to have a positive message.
Penny: Do you ever have to beat down the self-doubt monster?
Karen: I don’t think self-doubt ever goes away. In fact, I read recently that Stephen King admits he struggles with doubt sometimes. I think self-doubt keeps a person humble and striving, and as long as it doesn’t keep a person from writing, a dose of self-doubt could be a positive thing for a writer. But really, I look at all of this self-doubt and laugh.
Penny: How do you balance family and writing/promoting your new book?
Karen: Promoting my first book may be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The learning curve has been tremendous. I spent the first six months after signing my contract researching and learning about book marketing—every free moment I had. There is so much information out there, and everybody claims to have the secret to making a best seller list. I had to learn how to discern the good information from the bad, how to figure out what might work for me and my particular book and target audience. Truthfully, I didn’t balance family life and book promotion very well. But, my family was definitely all-in and willing to take a step back to allow me the time I needed to make my first book launch as successful as possible. I’ve also learned to be a morning person, especially on Saturdays. I can get a lot done in the early hours while my family is still asleep.
I joke that my husband hasn’t read my book—and probably won’t—but that’s okay because he has done a lot of dishes! He’s a pretty good cook, too. He has never asked me to get off my laptop, but he sometimes worries I’m not getting enough sleep. As for my girls, they are 17 and 20. They are busy with their own interests, so that frees me from a lot of guilt. However, every day there is a period of time when someone will want my attention and I have to force myself to close my laptop lid and play a game or watch a movie . . . and it’s always worth it!
Penny: Share your development as a person and as a writer from early on in your life, and its progression up to your pre-marriage/pre-family-of-your-own life.
Karen: My father died when I was a baby, and my mother remarried when I was 16 months old and moved away from our family in Chicago to Southeast Missouri where her new husband’s family was from. I grew up as a stepchild, constantly reminded I didn’t belong, in a home ruled by discipline and criticism. But my mom was my champion, and I learned I didn’t need anyone except her. Although I look at my childhood with little sense of fondness, I do credit my upbringing for developing my strong sense of family. I was determined to have the family I deserved. God blessed me with a best friend and spouse thirty years ago and gave us two daughters who have never doubted for a moment how much they are loved and valued. All of this has shaped who I am as a writer because the “real life” I’ve experienced and my value for family influence the kind of stories I write.
Penny: What else would you like to share about yourself as a writer? About success?
Karen: When I finished my book and started searching for an agent and publisher, I had grand ideas of making a little bit of money and supplementing my retirement. Since then, I learned the average writer makes only a few thousand dollars a year. I wasn’t too disappointed, though, because in the quest to find a publisher, all of a sudden the money wasn’t important. Finding people to read my story was. I couldn’t quite put that feeling into words until I heard a musician interviewed on the radio last spring, who said that artists create art to be consumed. He wrote and played music because he wanted his art to be heard, and that getting paid for it was a bonus. That rang so true to me. I have a story to share. I hope I have readers to share it with. If I make enough to finance my writing and not go in debt with book promotion, I’ll be happy. If I make enough to buy a home in Belize, my husband will be happy, but I tell him he'd better get busy and sell half a million books!