Tampa Bay has a reputation for its superb musicians, visual artists, filmmakers and theatrical companies. But the region is also home to several very successful authors. Howard Johnston, emeritus professor of education at USF, talks with four of these local authors and they share their thoughts about writing, secrets for writing success and the joys of living in the Tampa Bay area.
Eric Deggans is the TV critic for NPR. A former columnist for the Tampa Bay Times, Eric’s latest book is “Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.” Eric is the recipient of several awards for journalism and has been named one of Ebony magazine’s Power 150 of most influential black Americans.
Stephanie Hayes is arts and entertainment editor at the Tampa Bay Times. Her successful
indie novel, “Obitchuary,” has been named a “top read” by Underground Book Review.
The sequel, “Stiffed,” is due out soon.
Peter Kageyama’s book “For the Love of Cities” established him as a major voice in creating “loveable” communities. His newest book is “Love Where You Live: Creating Emotionally Engaging Places,” a practical guide for leaders and citizens.
Gary Mormino has authored numerous award-winning histories, most recently, “Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida.” An emeritus professor of history at USF, Gary received the Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing in 2014.
What does it take to be a published writer?
In a word, “discipline.”
Peter Kageyama, author of “For the Love of Cities,” says writing is like training for a marathon. You start small and work up to it. For writers, discipline means writing something every day – creating the habit of writing.
Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR, agrees. “It’s like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Write, write, write and write some more. You have to perfect the pipeline between your brain and your fingers.”
The very core of discipline is making time to write every day, says Stephanie Hayes, novelist and arts and entertainment editor for the Tampa Times. “You can’t find time to write. You have to make it.”
It’s easier to “make” time if you are passionate about your topic, says local historian Gary Mormino. “You will edit and rewrite things a thousand times, so you have to really love the subject. Passion is what drives perseverance.”
Passion and inspiration
What inspires these writers and fuels the kind of passion that drives them to produce tens of thousands of words about media and race relations, cities, the oyster industry or an edgy obituary writer named Penny?
Hayes, who characterizes her work as chick-lit or women’s literature with an edge, says her passion is true love. “Writing was my first love,” she says. “I always wanted to be a writer. As a kid I wrote plays, lots of plays.” Those plays, she says, explain her love of setting and dialog, two rich features of “Obitchuary.”
Kageyama was smitten by an idea he read in “The Rise of the Creative Class” by Richard Florida. “I believe that you are what you think about, and, after reading that book, I found myself thinking about cities and how people relate to them.” Now his passion is getting people to think about their own cities and their engagement with their communities.
Mormino is driven by curiosity, a fascination with global events that explain things locally. ‘At the beginning of World War I, St. Petersburg had only 8,000 residents. It’s a peninsula on a peninsula. It’s so isolated, how could it be affected by events in Europe? But that war produced both a massive African-American migration from Tampa Bay to northern industrial cities and “The Great Pelican Massacre,” a local reaction to declining fish populations and fears of food shortages during the war. How improbable, and fascinating, is that?’
Deggans’ goal is to change both the nature of the conversation and corporate behavior regarding race and media. In dealing with controversial issues, Deggans says you can’t confuse passion with anger.
“I’m passionate, but I try to leave anger by the wayside,” he says. “Some of what I write about can be depressing, even infuriating. But once your work becomes seen as an angry rant, no one in the mainstream pays any attention to it.”
Your most enchanted reader
Some writers are their own most enchanted readers. That’s why all four authors here agree that, no matter how good you are, you need a good editor. Cutting words that they have spent hours crafting and revising is one of the toughest and most necessary things authors must do.
Mormino says the hardest task for him is writing shorter paragraphs for newspaper feature stories. “It’s an act of compression, usually not the historian’s long suit.”
Hayes agrees and cautions, “don’t get overly fond of yourself and your words.”
Kageyama says there are two kinds of editors: the ones who can edit his work line by line and make technical changes, and the editor who can be a “critical friend,” someone who cares about his work and can offer the kind of criticism that will make it better and stronger.
Hayes actively seeks feedback from friends and has joined writing groups in which members critique each other’s work. She also works to get her work reviewed by professional critics, a strategy that also helps to boost sales. Kirkus, IndieReviews and Foreword are well-respected review services and may charge a fee, but Hayes warns “that they are still going to be honest, not glowing just because you send money.”
Changing literary landscape
With the Internet and digital technology, publishing has joined the filmmaking and music industries with an explosion of indie publishers. Authors now can retain control of their work, manage sales and reach a large audience.
Kageyama says “the tools are there to publish what you are passionate about.”
“There’s no excuse,” adds Deggans. “Independent publishing makes it possible for almost anyone to be published. The trick is to be published in high-visibility places.”
Kageyama offers practical advice as well. “Hire a designer for your book. You need to compete with the big publishing houses, and you need to look like it.”
Hayes is even more direct: “Make sure your book is ridiculously good-looking. Seriously, don’t even think about releasing it until you’re sure it’s rad.”
Why Florida? Why Tampa Bay?
Florida and Tampa Bay are rich sources of material for writers. Kageyama says he loves St. Petersburg, in particular. “It’s walkable, beautiful, has great arts and culture, and keeps getting better, better, always better.” His book “For the Love of Cities” explores how people form special bonds with their cities, sometimes even the grittiest ones. “Love isn’t just for supermodels,” he says. It’s not about loving perfection and loving things that are perfectly beautiful. It’s about having a sense of place and loving a place for what it is.”
Mormino says that even when he examines tough issues, like the demise of the oyster industry in Apalachicola, it inspires and energizes him. ‘It’s an elegy to the demise of a lost world, and it leads us to question, what have we done to this magnificent place?” Besides, he adds, Carl Hiaasen captured Florida’s allure for writers best when he said, “just read the newspapers in Florida. You can’t make this stuff up.”
OO OO OO
A writing professor once told author Michael Shaara that the best way to be a writer is simple: to “live life.”
“Go be a police officer for two years, and you’ll never run out of things to write about,” Shaara was told. So that’s what he did. For two years, Shaara worked as a police officer in St. Petersburg. And in 1975, he went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his historical novel “Killer Angels.”
The secret to success? Live, write, repeat.
Howard Johnston, PhD, emeritus professor of education at USF, is author of nine academic books that, he says, “are tucked safely away in libraries and seldom read by anyone.” His latest book, “Changing Attitudes, Changing Everything,” is being published summer 2015.