🎭 Writer's Roundtable
Join Liz Addison, also known as E.A. Haltom, author of Gwendolyn's Sword , and Alex McConduit, author and founder of Big Boot Books , while they discuss their individual narrative works, their love of writing, and the self-publishing process.
Happy Wednesday, everyone, and welcome to Cloudflare TV's Talent Week segment. It is lovely to have everyone here.
My name is Marianna. I'm the Internal Events Coordinator here at Cloudflare.
I am not a writer at this Writer's Roundtable, but I was an English major, used to be an English teacher.
Now I'm just a nerd. So those are my qualifications.
I'm here to facilitate this conversation today between two incredibly talented writers who fill very different spaces in the publishing and writing world.
Would you please introduce yourselves? Alex, why don't we start with you?
How are you doing? I'm Alex McConduit. Nice to meet you, Liz. I mean, sorry.
Liz is here also. Sorry. But I'm Alex. I'm an author from New Orleans. I write children's books, and I also work with students around the world to publish their own books and just to kind of teach everybody about self-publishing and writing and spread the joys of my hometown, New Orleans.
Awesome. Thanks, Alex.
And Alex is a publisher and writer at Big Boot Books. Have one of his wonderful publications right here, Peter and the Pelican, partially funded by the Pelican Society of New Orleans, if I remember correctly.
And Liz, why don't you tell us about yourself and your work?
My name is Liz Addison, and I am a senior commercial counsel here at Cloudflare.
And I am in Austin, Texas, and I wrote a historical fiction novel called Gwendolyn's Sword.
And it won the 2009 Texas Writers League Manuscript Contest for historical fiction in 2009.
But it didn't get published until 2014.
And then it's sort of a republishing with and I can talk about that and sort of when we talk about self-publishing in 2015.
And it was self-published.
Awesome. And I understand both of you started out with writing and then self-publishing, which is quite a process.
So before we start, I just want to give a shout out to both of you for the public to know.
This came together just last week.
We connected last week. I ordered these wonderful writers works just last week and they both delivered.
And oh, my gosh, what fantastic reads for very different audiences, for very different purposes.
But both stories with such a heart at the center of them.
So highly recommend Big Boot Books, E.A. Haltom's, which is Liz's pseudonym, Gwendolyn's Sword.
So first, I think the question that everyone is wondering is what prompted you to start writing your first book?
What an undertaking.
Liz, would you like to start sharing with us? Sure. So I was kind of writing for a long time.
And I think part of what really inspired me or kind of spurred me on was in college, I read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
And I enjoyed it.
And at the end of it, there was sort of an interview with him where he talked about how a student, a woman student had written him to suggest that he have more female characters in his stories.
And his response was, if you want more female characters, go write your own stories.
And and I was kind of a little angry when I read that.
But I also thought he's got a point. And, you know, if there are certain stories that I want to see, then I need to go write them.
And, you know, I grew up on Star Wars and, you know, saw the very first Star Wars in the theater when it came out and was just like jaw dropping.
It was just so amazing. And I was, I think, eight years old then.
And I didn't identify, I identified with Leia a little bit, but mostly identified with Luke.
And, you know, when I would see these kinds of stories, you know, and later saw the movie Excalibur and all the different kind of stories of King Arthur.
And I was relating to those characters, not the sort of females on the side.
And I wanted to have a story out there that, you know, for the next to me who was coming along to have available to read that was that person.
And it was them and they didn't have to like mentally redress the hero in the story to be able to see themselves in the story.
Absolutely. Wonderful inspiration.
And I actually read Fahrenheit 451 and had the same thought as the reader who wrote in.
And Alex, you know the story, but do you want to share with the world what prompted you to start writing your first book?
And what was that first book's title?
Because it's so cute and I really love it. Well, you know, I just want to piggyback on what Liz said because part of the reason that pushed me over the edge to actually become a writer was creating something for kids or for people who didn't have something already out there for them.
Something that they didn't identify with.
And so, you know, being from New Orleans, although New Orleans is a worldwide brand, there isn't usually, you know, it's still a small city.
There isn't just like a whole bunch of media created directly with New Orleanians in mind.
And because New Orleans is such a unique place, we have our own culture, we have our own, all of these things that don't necessarily always translate.
So the first book that I wrote is called, you can kind of see it, The Little Who Dat Who Didn't.
And if you notice, it's very New Orleans. We have our Fleur de Lis here, it's black and gold like our football team, the Saints, and then we have the skyline with the Superdome.
So, you know, this book, the reason I decided to write it, I never wanted to be a writer.
I never wanted to self publish or write for kids.
But when I got the idea, I am a person who respects ideas so much that I just, I write them down every idea I get.
But this idea, I came up with it, and then I realized that people in New Orleans would appreciate it.
But then I also realized that children who weren't interested in reading might possibly become interested in reading if they had a book that spoke to them.
So that's why I wrote this book.
I'm very proud of it. And then inside part of my long dedication.
There's a part that says 10,000 kids, and I remember that my goal when I wrote this book was to help 10,000 children publish this book or publish a book and kind of feel the same way I felt.
So it was like a whole mix of things that got me involved in writing, and then I just kept going and going.
So that's my origin story right there.
Thank you for sharing your superhero origin stories with us both of you.
And so, congratulations, you both have a long book out for Liz, numerous prolific children's books for Alex.
How exactly do these get real? How do they come to life?
How do they come from inside your brain into like words? I'm just, I'm at a loss for words because I'm so in awe of the process that it takes.
So can you tell us a little bit more about your writing process? It must look very different from person to person, the content, what kind of book, what kind of audience.
Alex, can you start a little with your step by step? Yeah, for me, like I said, well, I didn't say I said yesterday, but I won't, I don't actually take on a project seriously until I see it come full circle, meaning it has an impact.
It's something that was like inspired from myself, like my idea, and also just like a way to sell it, a way to market it.
I always say I'm 51% business, 49% artists, but I don't really get that jump to create it until all of those things align.
But for me, once I've written the book, I chose to go with Create Space at the time, which is now Amazon KDP.
I didn't know anything about self-publishing, so I literally watched YouTube videos just like everybody else and just stuck with it.
Just kept watching videos, kept learning about, you know, who I needed.
I met an illustrator online way in the UK. Actually, the Little Who That Who Didn't is not illustrated by a New Orleanian.
It's a lady named Avia Brown. And once I found her online, we just, you know, messaged back and forward.
We've never spoken.
We didn't even Zoom or at the time it was Skype. Yeah. So, you know, but just for anybody out there who's interested in self-publishing, really simple.
You write the, not very simple, the writing part, but you write the story. You have someone design it and format it, or you can do it yourself.
Watch some YouTube videos.
You find a self-publisher like Amazon KDP or IngramSpark. For me, I just went straight through Amazon because I wasn't trying to be a published author.
I just wanted to get my idea out there.
So I went straight to self-publishing and, you know, just kind of never looked back.
So what I'm hearing is you leverage the magic of the Internet to create your novel and build your business.
That's awesome. Cloudflare is an Internet company, not to make this a Cloudflare commercial, but it is cool that we are supporting something that genuinely enables the arts to exist.
So that's very cool.
Thanks for sharing that. Liz, do you want to tell us about your novel writing process and how that came from your brain to the novel I have in my hands today?
Sure. So it was a really long process. It was about five years, I would say, altogether.
And that also reflects the level of historical research that went into it.
The writing is, you know, I would go through these sort of periods where I was just focused on the writing because what I found, you know, I feel like Gwendolyn was kind of fully formed in my head already.
I really had a strong sense of who she was. And I still, though, took some time to do character sketches where you just take a page and just make up stuff about your character that may or may not ever make it into the story.
It's just so that you get how they're going to react to stuff and, you know, what they're carrying with them and how they respond to stuff.
And the thing I found out was, you know, I would spend the whole day writing.
And I also found, too, when you get stuck, when you have writer's block, you just have to keep going.
And you may end up throwing a lot of it away, but you have got to keep going.
The problem for me was stopping writing. You know, I would have to go run errands, go pick up kids, go do whatever.
And, you know, like I was talking about with you guys earlier, it doesn't stop in your head just because you're not at the computer anymore.
You can't turn it off. It just keeps going. The characters are having arguments and conversations in my head and making decisions about things.
And, you know, events are transpiring, continuing to transpire in my head while I'm not at the computer to write it down.
And it was important stuff that I needed to capture.
And so I'd have to be making notes while I was doing all this stuff so that I wouldn't lose it and I could go back to it and write it down because they wouldn't stop.
Like a dam that just kept flowing and flowing. I mean, I just I had no idea that that was one of the things I was going to have to learn how to how to cope with was that, you know, once it's going, it there's not an off button.
I couldn't figure out how to do that.
So getting it through was one thing. And another part of the process, though, was that I had a very close friend who's a real fan of sort of, you know, sword wielding historical fiction, who gave me some super honest feedback that made me have to just completely rework the story.
We all need our friends honest feedback.
We all need. Yeah, I mean, and it was it was kind of like brutally honest, but it was right.
He was totally right about the things he was pointing out.
And for me to get her story told where you really got her and you get William and you get Nigel and you get what's happening and sort of the what was really at stake at that time.
I just had to make so many fundamental changes and just believe in the story and flip it and start over.
And it still worked out.
Fortunately, there was time that I just, you know, there were some times I was worried that it was just gone.
You made it happen. So props to you. And Alex mentioned that he went online to look for an illustrator, a publisher.
What was your process?
And okay, I have the manuscript, I have the feedback. What's the next step to turn this into paper?
Where did you start? So for my case, I already had an agent waiting for me because of the Texas Writers League Manuscript Contest.
But when I delivered it to her, and she had selected me as the winner for that division when I delivered the manuscript to her finally, and she stuck through me over the years, she said, you know, it's not really the kind of thing I normally publish.
And so I was like, well, okay, thanks. And so I had to go approach and submit, just sort of cold submit to probably 30 or 35 agents.
And I got so many, like, it's so close.
And I, you know, if you write something else, I want to hear from you.
And you know, this just isn't normally what I would publish. And, and so I finally was just like, this is, this isn't going to go anywhere.
And I don't want to keep spending my time doing this.
I'm just going to get it out there, because I want it to be out there.
It needs to be out there. And, and so I went through the process of hiring editors, hiring book artists, hiring book publicists, who are people who plan an actual book launch, and will get you connected with all the different platforms for, you know, it's not just the Amazon KDP, which I also use, but there's a whole bunch of different platforms, where you can publish your book to people who, you know, you know, who are, there's like this whole world with Goodreads, and some of these other sites where people who are just fiction fans, read and promote books to each other.
And so anyway, so they got me kind of all connected up into that.
And, you know, I ended up getting some pretty decent press and pretty good reviews.
I, Kirkus Reviews picked it up, Publishers Weekly picked it up, Austin Chronicle picked it up as a Christmas pick, back in 2015, I think.
So, so yeah, so it got some press and some visibility, which for a self-published book, I was kind of, you know, they, I was really fortunate to have the team that I was working with.
That's fantastic. I love that you both arrived at where you are through very different paths, but not, not alone with the support of the support of multiple people, it sounds like, which is great.
Liz, I want to say kudos to you for being so open to your friends, honest critiques, because for writers, or, you know, just the idea of going back into something that you've already spent so much energy into, that's so hard, you know, for myself, because our books are different, you know, you have 100,000 words, I have 1000 words.
And it's very difficult to write 100,000 words. It's also super difficult to configure 1000 words to, like, make them do everything you want them to do.
And to be able to go back into anything like that, it just takes so much effort.
And so, man, congratulations. And hearing about all of that press and everything.
That's awesome. Because for most self-published authors, they just, they just get stuck out there, they don't know what to do.
And it looks like, you know, your love of writing kind of, like, pushed all of that forward.
So that's, that's amazing.
I'm happy to hear that. Thanks, Alex. I appreciate that. But I also want to, you know, Alex, when he said he's 51% business, 49% writer, starting your own imprint is huge.
And learning, you know, I hired people to do those things.
I just didn't have the bandwidth or the business background myself, to be able to do those things myself.
And to create your own imprint and get your books out there like that is, I mean, that was, the learning curve on that was huge.
It's, book publishing is an entirely different industry. Children's book publishing is, I'm not going to call it cutthroat, because that's kind of cliche, you know, that it's such a really tough industry.
It's crowded. It's very crowded.
And, you know, to make your own noise and get yourself out there like that, such an undertaking, both of creativity, stamina, and vision, to have done that.
And I love going through the Big Books website and seeing what you've got up and you know, when you fan the books that you've done so far.
That's so neat to have just sort of created this whole new, brought this entirely new thing into being, you know, you didn't just create the books, you created a whole thing.
Yeah, it's great to hear that because if you go back and actually study my blog, you'll see how like in the beginning, I was like every day, posting, posting, posting.
So when you mentioned stamina, that is the key to like, obviously everything, but for a children's author, for me, where I might be able to write a book once a year.
But to have the stamina and the wherewithal to go out and market it, email all of those people.
You're right. I mean, I did. I did do all of that.
So thank you. But yeah, you have to go out and email, you have to send out 100 emails and be okay with getting two responses.
And that's literally what the grind is about.
And it's about getting your book on blogs. You querying agents, that's literally like writing 30 separate books in themselves, just writing an email to the agent, and then sometimes they don't respond.
So I'm kind of happy that I didn't even, you know, go that route or have that in my mind.
Ironically, my second book.
So ironically, you know, this was a book I self-published, Snowballs for All.
It got purchased by a publishing company, and then they re-illustrated it and did it like this.
So I'm happy that I also became a published author because I was interested in seeing what that was like.
And, you know, for a lot of- How did it compare?
Yeah, it was- Well, I don't want to blame- I don't want to judge every publishing company, because I know that there are great publishing companies.
I love all of them.
But I just think that today, with this day and age, we have so many tools and so many resources at our fingertips with the Internet that if you can, and if you have the time, you can do it.
You know, to keep your ownership, to not just get 50 cents, a 50 cent royalty for each book.
It's just like everything else, you know, being a musician or starting- it's just easier to do everything on your own.
It's not easy. But yeah, I think that unless I get some million dollar deal, I'll probably never have a book published by a publishing company.
Unless they promise to promote me and tell me what the budget is on my marketing budget, if it's a million or 500 ,000, I would probably do that deal just so I could be popular forever and then self-publish for the rest of my life.
That was my goal.
Spoken like a true marketing major, which Alex disclosed that professionally, that's what he studied.
And I love it. I think this is proof that you don't have to be one or the other.
You can be a lawyer and a creative writer, which Liz is, and a businessman and marketer and a creative writer and advocate, which Alex is.
So I love the multifaceted people that we have on the show today for Talent Week.
I do have to say, I have not been a lawyer and a writer at the same time.
But it's within you. You know, that trumps. It's within you. I couldn't have gone very far as a lawyer without writing.
You have to do a little writing, just not fiction.
Yeah, yeah, that's true. My entire livelihood is made with words, one way or another.
I love that. I definitely love that. And one thing that I really want to make sure we talk a little bit more about, because it's so relevant and personally speaking dear to my heart, is that both of your works intentionally amplify perspectives that aren't widely represented in the literary world, if at all.
Like Liz, your author note says, I love this so much, I wrote it down.
What if there had been this type of sword-wielding woman, unacknowledged in the historical record, not a far-fetched proposition in itself, who had been the driving force behind major historical events of her time?
And Alex, you have specifically said multiple times that you create stories specifically for the children of New Orleans, one of the most unique and diverse cities in the United States of America, if not in the world.
So these children, many if not most, are young people of color, and they're our future.
And to see them represented in the literary sphere is just so critical.
Kids are, this is so cheesy, forgive the teacher in me, but kids are the most important members of our society, I believe.
And I think works that put forward protagonists and main characters, where children of every background can see themselves reflected, you are worth your weight in gold, both of you.
So I don't say that lightly, and I would love to hear a little bit more about how you first wrote your book years ago, and how are you reflecting on it now, several years later?
What are your thoughts on that? Alex, would you like to go first?
Yeah, you know, I'll start with a quote that a lot of media people probably know, but I learned later in life, which was that the medium is the message.
And so a friend of mine told me that, and it just stuck with me.
So with my book, you know, it's more like a tool for me to actually go out and interact with kids.
When I used to, when I was working corporate, I used to do marketing for Harris Casino, and on my lunch breaks, when I first wrote my book, I would go to a school or a library or somebody who booked me.
This was just my way to like sell myself and market the book.
And I will go read to kids. And in the beginning, I will go in my suit, because I'd be coming from work, but the kids wouldn't connect with me.
So I would bring an extra pair of clothes, so that I could be dressed down a little bit, you know, wear Jordans or something that they thought was going to be impressive, and just totally changed everything.
So I think it's really important, obviously, that everyone is able to have something in their culture that they can identify with.
We see where we've gotten with excluding members of society, we see where that's brought us.
So the more women sword wielding, black, bi, trans, whatever, the more we can, like in New Orleans, we say the more ingredients we can mix in the gumbo, the better the world is going to be every single time.
And one more thing, just like for the teacher in you. Just literally using the same language that children are familiar with is so important.
We have standardized testing across this country all the time. A lot of kids in New Orleans, just because it's New Orleans, they aren't going to know the same terms that a kid in New York, upper New York State is going to use.
So it's important that we allow everybody a seat at the writers' roundtable, and so thanks for having us here.
This is further extending both of our missions. Awesome. Yeah, Liz, would you like to speak a little bit more on that?
Yeah, you know, I was listening to what Alex was saying and connecting with people, and that's, I mean, ultimately that's really what you're trying to do is connect with your readers.
And, you know, one of my favorite reviews that I read was somebody saying, and I go a little TMI with Gwendolyn in the story, you know, because we don't hear often, we've got this sort of, you know, super tough kind of militant lead character where they're like, and they're menstruating right now, and they got to deal with that too on top of everything else.
Yeah, with the rags, I remember. Yeah, you know, and she's, she's got to figure this out.
And there was also, you know, when sieges happened, you know, we think about, is there access to water, is there, you know, you're kind of familiar with the typical things around the siege, stacks of grain and you got to have water somewhere.
But there's also people with babies, women with babies who are running into the castle also trying to tend to those babies, nurse those babies, keep them calm and sleeping during these kinds of events.
And because Gwendolyn's a woman, she has access to kind of both worlds.
And so we were able to see through her eyes, both the, you know, she's training with the men, she's fighting with the men, and we're seeing them in a much more personal relational way, even while she is training and fighting with them.
But then we're also seeing her, you know, even though it's not her own personal experience of being a mother, that, you know, because she's a woman, she is allowed into these spaces and allowed to sort of participate and observe in spaces that if the protagonist had been a man, we wouldn't have seen, you know, it wouldn't have been part of his story and part of his experience.
And so I really enjoyed being able to talk about the women's experience in that time in our history.
You know, and the woman who she meets, Matilda Dalbany, is based on a historical character and did in fact have that many children and did marry, you know, her second time to someone who was quite a bit younger than her and start over building this other huge family.
And when I was doing this research, there were these women who married these earls around England, and they proceeded to have 10 to 12 kids.
And all of those kids would have been bishops and sheriffs and archbishops and, you know, had all of these major roles all around the country running the country.
And, you know, it came down to like a dozen to 20 families that just, you know, these Norman families that just sort of had all these kids and took everything over.
And it was, you know, like you probably could have put all of those women who parented and raised those generations in, you know, my living room here.
It was just that many.
And in reading it, it was just sort of flooring to me how many women did that in those days and how many of those kids survived.
That's amazing. Thank you for sharing that.
I love dropping the historical knowledge, all these stories that went untold.
So thank you for telling one of them with Gwendolyn Sword, even with historical nonfiction.
It's really, really important. So we have one minute and 10 seconds left.
Before we wrap up, Alex and Liz, what general advice would you give to someone getting started on this writing journey?
Alex, let's start with you.
Really quickly, just start writing no matter what you, no matter what way you can.
I tip my advice is to, when you're on the subway, you're riding in the car, not driving, just don't be a serious writer.
Just have fun. Just get it out of your brain, put it in your phone, and then you can go back, categorize it, edit it later when you're seriously writing.
But just get it out. Like the conversations that happened all the time that you couldn't stop, you just get them out, deal with it later.
I'm sure you have other things to do. That's my advice. Just start.
Awesome. How about you, Liz? Yeah, I mean, what Alex just said was spot on. And that's great advice.
The only thing that I would add is that you don't get a lot of positive feedback as you're going through writing a novel.
And you often, in fact, get a whole lot of negative feedback.
Or it can even be constructive feedback that feels negative.
And being able to receive that and not be defensive about it and keep pushing away, plugging away day after day after day after day when you're not really going to get to any results until years down the road, if it ever, and you may never.
You balance each other really well. Just start. Just commit.
See it through. I love that message with that same energy. We're going to close this out.
We're going to close out the year 2020. Thank you, Alex and Liz, for giving us your time.
We appreciate you so much and have a wonderful day.