As someone who spent the majority of my writing career as a journalist, today's guest in My Writing Corner strikes a familiar chord. My guest today is author Cathy Seckman. She has been a published writer since the 1980s, mostly in non-fiction. Her writing credits include thousands of pieces in newspapers and magazines. She is also a professional indexer, having indexed more than 200 books that range from terrorism to fashion design to ultrasound technology.
Her own published books include Weirdo World, H2O Mysteries, Too Many Secrets, East Liverpool, Ohio Day Trips, and Rightside/Wrongside. She and her husband live just outside a map dot called Calcutta, Ohio, and love traveling, hiking, and motorcycling. Let's find out more about Cathy.
Tell us about your road to publication.
As my husband would say, do you want the short story or the long story?
The short story: My cat ran off.
The long story: In 1984, I was in my 20s, working as a dental hygienist but with a desperate and secret desire to be a writer. Bud, our unfixed tomcat (we were young and stupid back then), was missing for a week before we started to worry. I went to the local newspaper office during my lunch hour Monday to place a ‘lost pet’ ad. After a lot of fuss and trouble and potential lateness getting back to work, the ad was duly placed. That night I wrote a letter to the editor. I needed to complain about the fuss and trouble but didn’t want to irritate him, so I tried to make it funny. The following Monday my letter appeared in his regular weekly column.
“This is the best letter to the editor we’ve ever gotten,” he wrote. “I’m still laughing. Ms. Seckman, you’re a very good writer.”
Well. That seemed like validation to me, so on my next day off I picked up the telephone, held down the button, and paced back and forth as far as the cord would let me. Ten minutes later I let go of the button and dialed. I introduced myself to the editor and asked for a job.
“Do you have a journalism degree?”
“I’m a dental hygienist.”
“Well, no, you can’t have a job. But do you want to try writing some freelance pieces for us?”
Can you say delirious? I was going to be a writer! That experience was followed by a full-time job at a smaller newspaper, then by freelancing at a metropolitan paper, then branching into magazine work, then building a career as an indexer. I was lucky enough to get in on the last gasp of the True magazines, writing 13 stories for True Love, True Romance, and True Confessions before they folded. My first novel, a middle-grade time travel fantasy called Weirdo World, was published by Cool Well Press in 2011. Several indie novels and short stories written with fellow writers followed. In 2015, Arcadia Publishing released my hometown history, East Liverpool. Ohio Day Trips, published by AdventureKEEN, followed in 2018. Now we’re up to date with yesterday’s release of Rightside/Wrongside with The Wild Rose Press (TWRP).
What do you find is the most challenging part of being an author?
The short story: Two things.
The long story: First, stick-to-it-iveness. I can always find better things to do than write. Maybe we’re all like that, to some extent. Sometimes, sure, I sit down in the morning and bang out 2,000 words before lunch. I can even do that for days at a time, but sticking with it long-term is hard. I don’t write every day, or even every week. Vacations, canning season, the holidays, campouts – even housework can throw me off-track. The difficult thing about that is losing track of where I am in the story. Just last week I sent my characters off on an exploratory mission to the ocean. They crossed the Plains, crossed the swamp, and were almost in sight of the ocean when I realized they hadn’t crossed the river – the same river that features very prominently on my map of Rightside/Wrongside. Then I had to back the truck up, which is always annoying.
I envy writers who can stay on schedule and write multiple books in a year. But that’ll never be me.
Second, characterizations. I constantly struggle with show-don’t-tell. In first drafts, I’m likely to write something like, Bud had never been the kind of guy to anguish over the fate of Wrongside men. He was too stoic for that.
Sheesh. In the second draft I fret over those lame sentences until I come up with something like, Willie shook his head. “Why’s it gotta be like this, huh?” Bud kicked at the campfire, sending sparks skyward. “Because it’s always been like this.”
By the fifth draft I come up with something I like, but it’s always a hard slog.
How do you come up with your plots?
The short story: I don’t.
The long story: I’m an unrepentant pantser, writing by the seat of my pants. I’ve tried plotting. I’ve read books about plotting. But I’ll probably never be a plotter. When I started R/W I had some vague notions about how things would go. Women take over a colony world because the men are fighting and trying to wipe each other out. The men are behind a 100-mile Border Fence in Wrongside; the women are in charge of everything over in Rightside. There are lots of rules and restrictions about sex. It’s only for procreation (and maybe recreation). Baby girls stay with their mothers; boys go to their fathers. What happens when a man and a woman fall in love? What happens when a girl doesn’t want to give up her son? What happens when political intrigue leads to sabotage and the kidnapping of the president’s daughter? There has to be a war. Oh, and someone important has to die so there’s a good death scene.
I got a 94,000-word book out of that, so pantsing worked out pretty well for me.
What is your latest book and how did you come up with the idea to write it?
The short story: Will Riker made me do it.
The long story: Among the various unfinished novels that languish in my computer files was Rightside/Wrongside. I’d gotten the idea from a 1988 episode of Star Trek TNG called “Angel One.” Commander Riker had gotten himself marooned on a matriarchal planet as the boyfriend of a government official, and I was fascinated by the absolute absurdity of one sex dominating the other. I didn’t get very far with the idea before the novel sputtered out, but four years ago I decided to try to finish it.
Somehow, for some reason, everything clicked for me on the second try. I wrote until my fingers cramped up and my eyes burned. The first draft went like lightning, and even the later drafts went well. Believing it was the best thing I’d ever written, I decided to try for an agent. That’s a much longer story. Seventy-some rejections later, I charitably told myself R/W was still a great book. I just didn’t know how to classify it or write a query letter.
Fast-forward to November 2022, when I decided on a whim to attend Writer’s Road Trip, an annual one-day conference in Erie, PA, hosted by Area 1 of Pennwriters. Also on a whim, I signed up for an editor pitch when I saw an opening at registration. I hate live pitches, but decided I’d just ask some questions.
The Wild Rose Press editor turned out to be a delightful person, and after she answered all the questions she said, “What have you been working on?”
Darned if she didn’t request the entire R/W manuscript. And darned if she didn’t offer me a contract two months later.
I’m beyond thrilled to know that because of that little conference and TWRP, Rightside/Wrongside will finally have an audience.
Let's get a blurb:
On Rightside/Wrongside, women are in charge and men live behind the Border Fence. Their only interactions are for sex, which women control with rigid laws. Mothers raise daughters, and fathers know nothing of them. Women send sons across the Fence and never know if they live or die. Rightside President Alanna Olaffson and her countrywomen believe female empowerment is a good thing, a necessary thing, right up to the time it goes frighteningly wrong.
Jessie, pregnant with a boy, meets Tenosha, who recently sent her son across the Fence. Unwilling to accept Rightside’s laws, they hatch a plan that grows beyond their control. Smuggling, sabotage, kidnapping, and civil war force a cataclysmic confrontation between the powerful women and the no-longer-subservient men.
Want more, then here's an excerpt:
The old man dozed over his paperback. Even in a busy week his job was boring as hell. What made it worthwhile, besides the status and the pay bag, was the free bed. Old Willie lived right in the Transfer Cabin, backed up against the Border Fence in Cody, and that suited him fine. He took his meals at a bar down the street - had a few good friends there - and spent most of his free time nodding over a book or stoking his small stove.
It was a nice quiet life, a safe life. Nobody bothered the man in the Transfer Cabin. Yeah, it suited him fine.
The bell rang, startling him out of his doze. It wasn’t a simple ring, for boxed goods or vehicles through the big Door, but the four-note flourish they used for a baby. It sounded again, signaling two to transfer. “It never rains but it pours,” he mumbled, and limped over to answer the bell.
When the ready light flashed on, Old Willie pulled out the heavy metal Drawer set into the back wall of the cabin. He smiled down at the two sleeping babies.
“Welcome to Wrongside,” he said softly.
The babies didn’t even wake up as Willie started his paperwork. That was good - it would give him time to heat some bottles after he finished.
He puzzled over the babies’ names, rolling possibilities slowly across his tongue. “Trader, Travis, Trevor? Brandon, Bert, Brock, Buford?”
Willie liked naming babies. It was his favorite part of the job. The last few transfer agents had been lackadaisical about it - most folks around here were named Bob or Mike or Tom - but Old Willie tried to be creative. He had an antique pre-Settlement book on baby names, and it was brittle and dog-eared with age and use.
“Henry, Hollis, Hoss, Hud?”
The dark-haired baby let out a wail.
“Okay, Hud, you little asshole, couldn’t wait till I was finished, could you?” Willie scolded. He picked up the crying infant and slung him over one shoulder, cradling the head carefully.
“You’ll just damn well have to ride over here with me till I get you a bottle warmed up,” he said, heading for the kitchen.
The baby, lulled by the warmth of Old Willie’s body and the rumble of his voice, drifted back to sleep.
Willie peeked down at the closed eyes. “Little asshole,” he commented absently.
Want more still? Then you'll have to buy the book. Following are its buy links:
Barnes and Noble: Right Side/Wrong Side
Amazon: Right Side/Wrong Side
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
The short story: Just do it.
The long story: I like bullet points, so here are a bunch of them.
“There is no try. There is only do.” Yoda could have taught a writing course on those sentences. Don’t wish you could write. Don’t plan to write, or try to write, or talk about writing. Sit down somewhere comfortable, with a pen or a keyboard, and write a story.
Take some classes. There’s a myriad of online courses in writing, but do some homework before you sign up for one. Who’s presenting the course, and what kind of writing do they do? Do they sell their writing? Does their work get good reviews? In-person conferences and writing seminars are even better. Ask at your local colleges and libraries, and search online. You’ll have to spend serious money to pay the registration, travel to the conference, and stay in a hotel, but you can reduce the cost by volunteering to work registration, introduce a speaker, stuff folders and badges, etc.
Join a writers’ group, in person if possible. I belong to two local groups. One is for exercises and critiques, the other is more social, but both give me quality time with other writers.
Try out different kinds of writing – many people start with memoir, but also explore poetry (I’m hopeless at that), nonfiction (pretty good at that, though), short stories, and the dozens of genres of fiction.
Accept that your first tries at writing will probably be unpublishable. Put them in a file somewhere and move on.
And here’s the last and best piece of advice. Go to michaelventura.org. Click on the pdf for “The Talent of the Room.” It will tell you what you need to know about being a writer. Read it carefully, and take it to heart.
What’s your next project?
I’d been working on a novelization of the life of one of my ancestors. Anthony Evans joined the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment during the Revolutionary War, was captured by the British, joined the British Army, escaped, and rejoined the Americans. After R/W sold, though, I abandoned that project to begin a sequel to R/W called Oceanside. I’m at the one-third point, and my heroines and heroes are fighting like cats and dogs.
Web: Cathy Hester Seckman - Home (cathyseckman.com)
Thank you, Cathy, for being my guest today. Any questions or comments for Cathy?