This interview came in waves. First, I love the title of Carrie Rubin’s latest novel, “Eating Bull.” Titles do a lot of the lifting in terms of attracting readers, and this one really drew me in. Then I met the writer online after another Storyfix reader alerted me to a post on Carrie’s website, in which she recommended Story Engineering to her readers because it had helped her along the writing road.
So of course, I’m already in at that point. But when I did the due diligence – read the post, studied her website, bought the book, read the book, loved the book, swapped some emails with the author, liked everything about her…
… and she’a physician in her day job, to boot, which is pretty impressive…
… so, here we are. I’m happy to introduce you to Carrie Rubin, with the confidence that comes from knowing you’ll like the author and her website and her novel Eating Bull as much as I do. She’s an avid student of craft, and has a lot to share with like-minded writers.
There are even some valuable health tips in this interview, too. Read and learn… and live.
LB.: I have to admit, I found you from the notification of a link after you’d mentioned me (and Storyfix) on your website. Which means you are a “craftie” (literary equivalent of a foodie). Have you always been a student of craft, or were things different for you earlier in your career?
Carrie: First off, thank you so much for having me here. It’s a true honor. I owe Stephanie Raffelock, producer of your upcoming workshop in Portland, a thank you for mentioning both of us in a Facebook comment that linked back to you. Ahh, the power of social media.
“Craftie” is a label I’ll happily wear. Like many new writers, when I wrote my first book fourteen years ago, I winged it. I had a semi-formed plot in mind but not much else. A year later I typed The End and thought, “Wow, I’ve done it.” Well, I did something all right. I wrote a book full of plot holes and meandering. After a professional critique, I rewrote the book and had a decent story the second time around.
I understand now that what I did to improve the story was add structure. If I’d had Story Engineering as a resource back then, the process would have been smoother. Luckily your book appeared while I was working on my second novel. Before I started the first draft, I mapped out my story parts and milestones and then expanded it to a full outline. For my third novel, I did the same and will continue to do so in the future.
I guess once you go craft, you never go back.
LB: What brought you to the avocation of writing fiction?
Carrie: Though it sounds cliché, I’ve always wanted to write. When I started reading Robin Cook’s medical thrillers, I learned it was possible to be both a doctor and a writer. Of course, life as a physician didn’t leave much time, and that’s why my first book was so long in coming. But eventually a book was born, whose process I mentioned above.
L.B.: How does craft serve you, and what do you say to writers who prefer to just make stuff up – including their own take on craft – as they go along?
Carrie: Given my left-brained tendencies, it’s not surprising I’m a fan of structural guidelines and basic story elements. Outlining too, though why I wrote such a loosey-goosey one for my first book is anyone’s guess. To me it makes sense to iron out the kinks beforehand. When we make stuff up as we go along, we risk plot holes and pacing problems, not to mention major revisions several drafts down the road.
But I understand that style is not for everyone. Some people find outlines and essential story elements restrictive. But to those writers I’d say that even with a pre-designed structure you can—and often do—change things up. But it’s far easier to make those changes in the first draft than the fourth.
l.B.: “Eating Bull” is a title that really grabbed me. Having read the book (almost done) I can see where it comes from, but one has to immerse in that pitch before the title has meaning. If you ran into an agent in an elevator at a conference, what is your 30-second pitch for the story?
Carrie: My 30-second pitch would be: “After joining forces with a public health nurse to sue the food industry, an overweight teenager lands in the crosshairs of a serial killer who is targeting the obese. Now Jeremy—bullied, fat-shamed, and ridiculed by his own grandfather—must prove to his family, the killer, and the world that he’s more than the faint-hearted coward they think he is.”
Of course, the protagonist’s nickname “Eating Bull” takes on more significance as the story goes on, but to mention why would be a spoiler.
L.B.: Awesome pitch. Your story is highly thematic (obesity)… did you start with that, and if not, what was your launching story element?
Carrie: I did start with that. In fact, three things pertaining to obesity launched my story element:
- My frustration with managing obesity in a clinical setting. Many people want to lose weight, but so many obstacles block their success—the food industry among them.
- Reading investigative reporter Michael Moss’s revealing book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It’s an eye-opening exposé on the role of the food industry in our country’s weight problem.
- A tearful, severely overweight teenage patient who said to me, “Not a day goes by I don’t know I’m fat, because no one will let me forget it.”
Nonfiction books already exist on the issues of fat-shaming, food addiction, and the food industry’s role in obesity. So I decided to weave the elements into a fictional story instead. Fiction often evokes emotion in a way nonfiction does not, and it makes readers see things in a new light.
L.B.: The humanity and empathy inherent to youy story shines through when you discuss it this way. And you impart it to your narrative, as well.
You have three terrific POVs in your story: a student with a problem, a health worker, and a serial killer. Which came first for you?
Carrie: Thank you. Though Eating Bull has a 15-year-old protagonist, it’s not a Young Adult novel. As you mentioned, two other adult POVs make up the cast.
My nurse protagonist came to me first. When I thought of the concept to sue the food industry, I knew I’d need a social-justice-seeking character to do that. A thick-skinned public health nurse fit the bill. But I also knew she would need a patient to champion for, someone to convince to sue the food industry for his or her obesity, and someone young and malleable enough to do her bidding. So I chose a 15-year-old. But since he’s the one with the most obstacles to overcome, he became the main hero.
The killer came last, and that was actually my husband’s idea. Fat-shaming is a prominent theme in the book, and an obsessive-compulsive, fitness-crazed killer allows that behavior to be taken to the extreme.
L.B.: As a “story engineer,” did you that any muses visited you during the process, and if so, how did they influence your process?
Carrie: Some of this I answered in an earlier question, but I would add that I’m not one for muses or characters speaking to me. They don’t guide my story; I do. Not that I haven’t been surprised by a shift in my character’s direction—something I hadn’t initially thought of. That’s one of the fun parts of writing fiction. But I guess I’m too much of a realist to say the characters made me do it.
I like an objective, blueprint approach. I want to know where all the story pieces fit and how they will escalate tension before I start the first draft. It’s like putting together a puzzle, and sometimes that means roadblocks and setbacks. Of course, this is where your books helped me a great deal. They gave me a vocabulary for a process that intuitively made sense to me.
L.B.: What’s next for you, near and longer-term? Do you intend to remain with small presses, or do you have plans to go more traditional, or even perhaps self-publish someday? What informs those preferences?
Carrie: I’m nearly finished the second draft of my third novel and hope to have it ready to query by summer. I’m thrilled with my current boutique publisher. They put together a great product with Eating Bull and worked with me every step of the way.
However, like self-published authors, small-press-published authors shoulder the bulk of marketing. Promotion is difficult and time-consuming, and getting reviews is challenging. So I may query agents and try a more traditional route. On the other hand, a benefit of the small press is a quicker time to publication. So I’ll see how things go.
L.B.: Some reading this article are quite new to writing fiction, what is your advice to them, as well as warnings and promises?
Carrie: My advice on the writing side would be to plan your story first. That doesn’t mean you have to create a 20,000+ word outline like some of us do, but at the very least, flesh out the story’s structure and know what plot elements you’ll need to keep the pace moving. If you sense you’ll have to fudge to make something work, then don’t start writing until you’ve fleshed it out. It makes the first draft much easier, and by the time you get to the second, most of the heavy lifting is done. Dealing with a plot hole in the story creation phase is far less painful than dealing with it after multiple drafts.
My advice for the practical side (and warning) is to know there are millions of books out there, with thousands more being published each day. Getting an audience is difficult. It takes lots of work. Expecting to become a bestselling author from the get-go who makes lots of money is unrealistic. But with hard work and steady output, you may eventually climb out of the red and into the black.
Thank you once again, Larry, for interviewing me on your blog today. It was a pleasure to be here, and I thoroughly enjoyed our exchange.
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Carrie Rubin is a physician with a master’s degree in public health. She is a member of the International Thriller Writers association. Her novels include Eating Bull and The Seneca Scourge. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two sons. You can find Carrie on her website, carrierubin.com, Facebook, Twitter (@carrie_rubin), and Goodreads.