Ursula Wong is a retired engineer who writes gripping stories about strong women struggling against impossible odds to achieve their dreams. Her work has appeared in Everyday Fiction, Spinetingler Magazine, and the popular Insanity Tales anthologies. Her debut novel, Purple Trees, exposes a stark side of rural New England life in the experiences of a young woman who struggles for normalcy despite a vicious and hidden past. In her recent novel Amber Wolff, Ursula taps her Eastern European heritage in the story of young Ludmelia Kudirka struggling against the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1944.
In addition to her writing, Ursula is on the Board of the Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative and teaches workshops and classes exploring the complex business of publishing, As she notes in our discussion, writing is only part of the job, and Ursula has been generous in guiding both experienced and novice authors on their journey, not only as writers, but as editors, marketers, designers and promotors of their own work. On Saturday, November 18, the SBWC community is delighted to welcome Ursula for two consecutive programs: The Secrets of Self-Publishing, and an intensive, follow-up workshop, Should I Self-Publish, which will offer personalized guidance to finding a publishing solution.
(Hollis Shore) You come to writing from a career in high tech. Why writing, and what first inspired you to tackle fiction?
(Ursula Wong) I always wanted to write fiction. After my husband and I retired, I took many classes on writing craft, and started writing stories. Eventually, I got into novels.
(HS) Can you tell us a little about your background? Where did you grow up, and were the arts and writing part of your childhood?
(UW) I lived and worked on a small family-run dairy farm in central Massachusetts when I was growing up. My grandparents, who fled Eastern Europe for a better life in the U.S., originally bought the homestead. There were some difficult years with the family and just being in the fickle dairy business, but with the help of scholarships, I finished college.
With degrees in physics and mathematics, and an advanced degree in mathematics, I entered the job market when mini-computers were “the new thing.” I specialized in the areas of messaging and security. While all this was going on, I had a beautiful daughter with my husband, Steve. After decades working in the high-tech field, I retired and took up writing fiction, as it was something I could do regardless of where we lived.
My mother started out as a professional musician before settling down on the farm, and my creative side could be from her, although I can write better than I can play the piano.
(HS) You wrote short stories before writing your two novels, Purple Trees, and Amber Wolf. What surprised, delighted or challenged you about writing in a longer form?
For me, the challenge of writing a novel was churning out seventy thousand cohesive words on one subject. I tend to be economical with words. Writing a novel forced me to explore avenues I wouldn’t normally address in a short story.
(HS) Your novel, Amber Wolf is inspired by family history. What role did storytelling play in your family and what are the seeds that set this project in motion?
(UW) While I was growing up, the entire family sat together at the kitchen table at least once a day for a meal. Most of the conversation was about the animals, harvesting, planting and weather, but it was a constant dialogue and not necessarily in English. Our extended family was large, and we had frequent visitors over the weekends. From a young age, I was part of many conversations with many different people. I think this experience planted the seeds for characters in my novels.
(HS) Both of your novels feature strong female protagonists. What prompted these characters and what inspired you about their stories?
(UW) I spent years trying to understand my natural voice as a writer. Purple Trees taps some of my history, although Lily, the protagonist, is the compilation of many women I know who had traumatic childhoods. It was a story I felt compelled to write.
Amber Wolf is about resistance fighters opposing the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe during WWII. Telling the story through the eyes of a young woman allowed me to naturally step into her shoes and react to the events of the time.
The Baby Who Fell From the Sky, a novella, is about an old woman living in the Andes and the inner strength she taps when raising a child. It was inspired by a trip to Peru where I met many women happily living simply in the mountains, centered in their religious beliefs that combined a duality of nature and Christianity.
Strong female characters were a common feature in all my novels, showing my inclination to write about women who overcome impossible odds. As my business cards attest, I’ve become a voice for strong women.
(HW ) Could you describe you approach to research? What technological and organizational tools have you found useful? Do you research as you write?
(UW) When I research a subject to prepare for a new book, I don’t write. However, when I begin writing, I continue to research special topics that come up as the story unfolds. I spend a tremendous amount of time reading both fiction and non-fiction even when I’m not actively researching a subject for a book.
I organize material using Microsoft Office tools, specifically Excel spreadsheets. I include character sketches, details important to conveying a sense of time and place, historical timelines, and so on. I’m very careful about tracking references. When I find something important on the Internet, I download it to my computer as a precaution, for links can sometimes change.
(HS) What about your process in general? What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I write almost every day, and always in the morning. I don’t strive to achieve a daily word count, but accomplish something every day. This might include rewriting old material, writing new material, outlining a new novel or other creative work. In the evenings, I answer email, write book plans, and do some marketing.
(HS) You are a member of The Storyside, an innovative writers’ collective. Could you talk a little about the history and methodology of this group and how it has impacted your own work?
(UW) The Storyside is a 5-person closed business-based consortium. Our members have published both traditionally and independently. We all work on each book our members create, bringing individual skills to the production process. We have in-house experts to assist with many of the complex jobs of editing, cover design, formatting, and marketing, Sharing the work saves money and helps us to create better books. Marketing reach is broader than any one person could easily achieve, resulting in more sales potential.
The Storyside has been invaluable in helping me become a better writer who understands her market.
(HS) Self-publishing is complex and requires the writer to wear many hats. Can you tell us what it is like to act as editor, designer, and marketer of your own work? How do you balance the creative and business sides of your writing life?
(UW) I contend that any type of publishing is complex and requires a writer to do many different jobs. It takes time to master the skills required in writing, refining, and marketing a book, work that is necessary for both traditional and self-published authors. Self-published authors also need to do book covers, formatting, mastering publishing tools, and more, although much of the work can be out-sourced.
With self-publishing, small press, and hybrid publishing, the writer usually can be as involved as they want to be in the production process. The resulting book can be very much the writer’s vision. It can be a satisfying experience, but making all the decisions required along the way can be overwhelming. I think it important to temper individual vision with advice from experts.
Writing a novel is hard work, but it’s only part of the job. Writing a marketing plan, tracking contacts, and establishing a schedule for the book are also important to containing the work and getting it done.
(HS) Did your background in high-tech help you in designing and marketing your work? What surprised you most about the process of turning your manuscript into a book?
(UW) Writing was a deliberate second career for me. I spent years going to school, attending workshops, and writing stories. When some were published, I began writing novels. Basic working skills were useful in my new career, but subject matter was completely different.
In addition to learning how to write fiction, it was important to understand the many choices available in the changing publishing landscape. It was also important to come to terms with using social media for book marketing, and thinking of the entire writing, editing, and production process as a business.
(HS) You now lead workshops and courses on publishing options. How has your role as mentor and teacher affected the your own work as writer and self-publisher?
I love the questions and fresh perspective of my students. The publishing landscape changes constantly, and teaching helps me keep up to date.
(HS) Who are your influences and what is it about their work that attracts you?
I rarely read for pure enjoyment anymore; I read to examine a plot or scene technique or to learn something new. For example, I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt to examine how she maintains tension in a very long novel. It’s an excellent piece.
(HS) What is the next step in your writing world?
I’m in the preproduction stages with Amber War, which tells the story of the resistance fighters in Eastern Europe in 1948 when the Soviets revert to espionage to infiltrate and destroy partisan outposts. Publication is slated for February, 2018.
I’m editing Finding My Father, a novella about a woman whose father served in the Viet Nam war. After his death, she strives to understand how the war affected him.
I’m also finishing a nonfiction piece, From Idea to Printed Page, which helps the reader develop an idea for a novel, and guides them through the work of writing, editing, production, and marketing.
The Secrets of Self-Publishing
with Ursula Wong
Saturday, November 18, 2017
10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library