I’ve known Gabrielle Luthy since she was my editor at Bonjour Paris, around 2003 or 2004. I was living in New York at the time; she in Paris. We finally met in person over dinner at Le Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre, while I was on one of my bi-annual Paris pilgrimages. A friendship and writing partnership was born.
Gabrielle has been my writing coach for years since those days at BP—but she doesn’t know it. She would never give herself that credit (she’d use the more generous “critique partner,” but that suggests my skills were equal to hers from the get-go—and they sooo were not). But whether she’d agree or not, I owe my chops, my success, to what I learned from Gabrielle—both by our writing sessions together, and by reading her own award-winning work.
Gabrielle knows her craft: how to create characters you fall in love with, flaws and all; how to surround you in a location setting; how to tell a story that stays with you years later; how to write the best freaking dialogue I’ve ever read.
And she’s generous with what she knows. A visit to her website will bring you to an immense library of writer’s resources. It’s all about making you a better writer, not promoting herself. That’s Gabrielle.
So when she told me that she’d taken a leap of faith to leave her job and launch a series of writing retreats in Paris, I was all in. As someone who also left the cozy confines of the day job to pursue bigger dreams, I knew that this wouldn’t be easy for Gabrielle, but I also knew it was what she was meant for.
I talk to Gabrielle about her life-changing choice, her Paris Writing Retreats, and pick her brain about writing:
GABRIELLE ON TAKING RISK
Lisa: When did it hit you that you were ready to launch Paris Writing Retreats? What motivated you to take that leap?
Gabrielle: April 16, 2019—the morning I woke up (in Melbourne, Australia) to see Notre Dame in flames. Like so many who love Paris, I posted my memories—first from being a tourist, then as a resident of Paris—on Facebook. A friend commented that she was putting a trip to Paris with me on her bucket list, and that’s when it hit me. I wasn’t in a position to move back to Paris, as much as it was calling to me, but I knew a lot of people writing genre-specific fiction who loved Paris. Why not combine my two greatest loves?
Lisa: In an email to me about the retreat, you signed off with “Feeling the fear but doing it anyway.” That was my mantra when I left People Magazine to start a new career as a writer. So you’re feeling that, too?
Gabrielle: Oh hell yes! Right at the time of the fire, my employer was going through a round of job cuts. I had intended staying, but “If not now, when?” kept going through my mind. Two weeks after the fire, I told my manager I wanted to go; two months after, I was on my way.
Lisa: “If not now when?” was also my mantra when I did the same. During a period of similar changes where I worked at Time Inc., I heard a Disney executive say this during an interview on Good Morning America. It was her rationale to give up her big, cushy job to pursue her dream. Talk about the right message at the right time.
Gabrielle: Yup. But it was still a hard choice because I loved my team. But the strategy from higher up about how things would look after the cuts wasn’t clear, and I decided it was time to spend energy on myself and what I loved, rather than corporate profits.
I didn’t tell my managers the details of why I wanted to go—a case of superstition more than anything—but they’re truly decent people and went to bat for me. When it was all official and I told them why I was leaving, they both said, “Well, of course you’re doing that!”
Lisa: They’re right. It’s what you’re all about. But, yeah, it’s not easy even so. People think it’s getting started that’s the hardest part. But to me, the hard part comes after—when you’re in it and you’re thinking, Can I pull this off? And here you are, pulling it off. Are you aware that you’re living the dream even when it’s hard?
Gabrielle: Thanks for the reminder—because I woke up the day after I left, heart pounding, thinking, “Oh my God, I’m unemployed!” I had to remind myself that I’d wanted this, and that it was time to get to work.
Lisa: It took me three years before I stopped feeling “unemployed” and started feeling “self-employed,” so hang in there.
Gabrielle: I also remind myself that I’ve done this before—I left that same company in 2001, and then I left my next employer to move to Paris in 2004. The difference then was that I soon went into other roles. This is the first time I’m really striking out on my own.
There have been days when there are so many decisions to make that I’m at risk of analysis paralysis. What if I make a wrong choice? What if some window that I wasn’t even aware of is closing and I’ll never have that chance again? When that happens, I take a deep breath, remind myself of the awesome people cheering me on. I say out loud, “Eye on the prize,” and keep going.
Lisa: I feel ya. I always say, “Action trumps fear.” Staying in the action prevents the overwhelm—keeps you in the “now,” keeps you grateful. Break it down to small attainable goals and you will get there.
GABRIELLE ON PARIS WRITING RETREATS
Gabrielle: The June retreat is focused on the contemporary market—commercial fiction and memoirs. In line with that, we have three writers published in those areas: you, in memoir; Keris Stainton, in women’s fiction, contemporary romance and young/new adult; Juliette Sobanet, in contemporary romance, romantic suspense, and memoir.
Lisa: Who is the retreat geared for?
Gabrielle: Anyone who loves writing and Paris (even if this is their first trip). Writers of all levels are welcome, from just starting to multi-published, either traditionally or indie. On the traditional publishing front, we have the head of eCommerce for Editions J’ai Lu joining us for an informal chat about the French market, which I’m super excited about. I know nothing of that side of the industry and I’m keen to learn about local writers, as well as what makes J’ai Lu pick up English-language books for translation.
Lisa: It makes perfect sense to me for you to be doing these retreats. They are the in-person version of what you’ve been doing already on your site—helping writers write better stories. What will writers get out of this retreat?
Gabrielle: Community, connection, and support. Six days away from their regular life, in a beautiful Art Nouveau house with a small group of women who love reading and writing books for women. We’ll take care of everything, while they focus on writing.
Lisa: That sounds pretty dreamy to me. I’m obsessed with the house you’ll be using as HQ. It’s in my ‘hood and I swear I take a picture of it every time I pass by.
Gabrielle: I also want to show people (if they didn’t already know) what makes Paris such a special place for writers. There are the huge, iconic landmarks, sure, but so much of Paris’s beauty is in the details, the little treats. So, there’ll be surprises throughout the week. I want people to feel valued and inspired to create, to write or talk writing late into the night, then wake up feeling energized.
Our week is book-ended by some fun events I’m really looking forward to. We’ll start getting to know each other Sunday with a game of pétanque in a second-century Roman arena, and say goodbye with a dinner cruise on the Seine on a gorgeous boat.
GABRIELLE ON WRITING
Lisa: I want to shift gears now and talk about writing. You do know that I think of you as my writing coach and mentor, especially in the early days when I was just starting to write long-form prose instead of articles. You have a direct, cut-the-crap way of giving feedback that works for me; I don’t want to be coddled. I remember getting my MS back, the first draft of that novel I’m still “tweaking” ten years later, and you’d crossed out whole pages. Maybe like 1200 words. It was brutal. And I loved it. Your feedback still informs my writing now. My writing is tighter, more active, more natural. I still can’t write dialogue like you, but I try.
So tell me: What do you think are to top three areas novice writers should work on right now?
Gabrielle: You’ve already identified the first one: cutting the crap. I learned that I was writing the first chapter—sometimes the first two or three—as a way of settling into the story. That’s perfectly fine for a first draft, but something to keep an eye on when revising.
Learn when to reveal important information and trust your reader to pick it up by only saying it once, instead of in a series of “See what I did there?” moves.
Lisa [laughs]: Oh shit, yes. You and I talk about this a lot: saying it once then again another way, then again, maybe in dialogue. This is the biggest trap of a novice, but even we fall prey to it. I think it’s when you don’t trust yourself, or you fall in love with the sound of your own words. But in the end, don’t tell the reader how to feel, don’t manipulate them.
What’s next on your list?
Gabrielle: Characters. You don’t need to know everything about them when you start the book, but you should have an understanding of what they want and why. Depending on what you’re writing, readers don’t have to like all your characters to stick with the book—but they’ll give up if they don’t understand what they want, or don’t care about the stakes.
Lisa: Right. Character motivation is what keeps someone reading. You want to root for them. You’re so brill’ at this. There is also the trap of telling everything about the character up front, almost explaining why they’re going to make certain choices before they make them. When you meet someone, do they tell you their whole life story in the first five minutes? Pacing is everything. Okay, so we have: 1) cut the crap, 2) characters…what else?
Gabrielle: Voice. Voice is like art—you don’t always know how to describe it, but you know it when you read it. Voice is your unique take on the world. It’s behind what stories you want to tell. Your style and word choice might change if you’re writing in different genres, but your perspective on life usually doesn’t. It’s what makes you stand out, and it can take a long time to develop, so get started now.
Lisa: Yeah, but what does that mean? Just being honest? Write how you speak? How does someone find their voice?
Gabrielle: Remember what I said about knowing it when you see it? Seriously, voice is one of the hardest elements to define. Honesty plays a part—being honest about what you care about and want to share with the world, rather than writing just to a market. Some people do write how they speak, which can work best in non-fiction—but you don’t want it to get in the way of readers identifying with your characters.
You find your voice by writing—and writing and writing—and getting out of your own way. You might also have to keep other voices at a distance: authors whose work you love and unconsciously mimic if you’ve just read them before writing, a pushy critique partner who can strip the life out of your piece, even a loved one who wants to “protect” you from the follies of artistic life.
Lisa: Speaking of voice—and this is something I’ve wanted to nail down with you because (sorry) you are the master: What makes good dialogue, well…good?
Gabrielle: Good dialogue advances the story and reveals character, either by a character not saying what they want to, revealing how they truly feel in a roundabout way (subtext), or by saying what they shouldn’t—or what another character doesn’t want to hear.
Lisa: It’s interesting that that’s the first thing you’d say…essentially that dialogue can say more by what’s not said sometimes. See—that’s why you’re the master. I do find in a lot of manuscripts I edit that people make the dialogue work too hard. They put words in the mouths of characters that function almost as narrative, and it feels unnatural because they’re clearly trying to force the scene via dialogue. It’s an impatient way of writing. Lack of pacing. Does that makes sense?
Gabrielle: Absolutely! The “As you know, Joe” form of info-dumping. That’s the sign of a newish writer.
As for not saying what’s obvious, think of how passive-aggressive people let you know exactly how they feel without saying it—it’s the feeling they leave you with, rather than what’s said. The implied, rather than the implicit.
That’s when your character has to decide whether to confront or let it go. Or! They might realize later (too late) what was really said. They key is to write it so your reader knows what’s going on, your reader is invested and yelling “Look out, you fool!” while your character goes on their merry way. We all love solving the mystery before the character does, saying, “Uh-huh, that’s right. Told ya.”
Good dialogue in fiction writing also reads naturally, although with most of the natural fillers, such as “you know” and “oh” and “well” stripped out. And if you’re writing a memoir, even if you recall the conversation word-for-word, cut it down to the most important exchanges.
Lisa: Again, I’d think that the “oh” and “well” are what make dialogue sound natural. But you’re right; when you read that dialogue back, it can sound forced.
Gabrielle: Just keep it on your revision list to make sure you haven’t overdone it—and that every character doesn’t use the same fillers, especially if you have one character who’s more direct than others. When I’m writing, I read dialogue passages aloud to make sure each character has a distinctive voice. It should be tight, but not the constant witty repartee of a Broadway show—that can be amusing at first, but soon gets tiring.
Lisa: Yes! It puts me off when you can feel the writer’s agenda through forced dialogue. Or, when every character sounds the same. While binge-watching Orange is the New Black, I noticed everyone sounded exactly the same: that is to say, like the writer. Everyone at some point used the expression, “I’m playing the long game.” Really? Also, they all sounded like men—but that’s another story for another interview. What else?
Gabrielle: If you have characters of different nationalities, sprinkle in foreign phrases, and avoid explaining what they mean unless it’s absolutely essential. Set it up so your reader knows or can guess the meaning without author intrusion.
Reading aloud also helps me avoid hackneyed dialogue. We’ve all watched TV shows where we can say the actor’s lines before they do. You want your readers to be surprised, not ahead of you. Easy, right? [Chuckles.]
Lisa: Yeah, for you. Okay, so what makes a story a standout in your opinion? What do you focus on when writing your stories to make it shine out from the pile?
Gabrielle: Voice. 1000% voice.
Lisa: Agreed. At the end of the day, it’s about authenticity and point-of-view. Okay, let’s talk about reading. You read a lot. (I’ve seen your impressive Goodreads list.) That you love to read is what would make you a great editor (hint-hint). Me, I hardly read at all compared to you—but I also can’t read when I’m writing. How much do you think writers should read? What should they read?
Gabrielle: I think writers should read as much as they possibly can, for many reasons: to know what’s happening in the market, to learn about the world, to improve their own skills by either organically assimilating story structure and character or purposefully study what other writers are doing, and to get caught up in a story to remember why you started writing in the first place.
Regarding what you should read? Whatever you want. I tend to read several different genres at once—romance, women’s fiction, and YA for enjoyment as well as market research, memoirs and biographies because people live the most amazing lives, and research and craft books for improving my writing.
Also, books are so pretty. Have you seen covers these days? Absolute works of art.
Lisa: I love your personal Instagram feed. Your point of view is very clear. You have a natural sense of marketing. How important do you think social media is for writers? Or the dreaded networking. You’re really connected to the Women’s Fiction/Romance community, which is your genre. But a lot of writers are introverts and would sooner pluck out their nose hairs with tweezers than network. We know promotion is important for book sales, but does it really, really make a difference to an agent or publisher that a writer is putting themselves out there?
Gabrielle: I think social media and networking are great tools for writers to build up their community—and to show a publisher that you don’t expect them to do everything, since large promotional budgets are non-existent for the majority of traditionally published writers. And for indie authors, it’s all up to you, so social media marketing is essential for sales.
The good news is, there are different ways and levels of doing this. Pick a platform that feels right for you and stick to it. Some people love the constant and rapid interaction of Twitter, while others prefer posting a photo every few days. Whichever you chose, learn the best practices, be consistent, be yourself, and interact. Spend your time, not on fads, but on community. This is a tough business, and loyal readers are the ones who’ll keep you going.
I actually think social media is great for introverts, because they can craft their message away from the pressure of having to be “on.” I love a good bit of quirk, and some of the most entertaining and engaging content is produced by people who feel overwhelmed and overshadowed in large conferences.
Lisa: Okay, but what about networking?
The call of our tribe can be strong, especially if you live somewhere without writers nearby. If you’re going to a conference or other in-person networking event, do your research so you know who’s attending and what you want to achieve in meeting them. Ask a friend to make introductions if it’s too awkward for you to do so. And know your limits. Some of the best times I’ve had at conferences of 2000 people are the moments when I’ve cut out with a friend for a heartfelt writing discussion over a walk outside.
Also, good thing to remember: agents and editors can be introverts, too.
Lisa: I see so many aspiring writers who write in a bubble. But I know from experience you can’t grow without critique partners. My memoir is a product of collaboration, the result of the feedback of my editor, Kat Brzozowski at St. Martin’s Press. But when someone puts his or her heart into something, the thought of negative feedback can be paralyzing. What would you say to those people?
Gabrielle: I doubt there’s anyone amongst us who hasn’t felt that overwhelming fear at some stage.
When talking critique partners, it’s essential to discuss up front what level of critiquing you want. If the work is first draft, do you want them to point out every little thing, or just provide feedback on the flow? Do you need them to be tough? And even if you say do, do you really mean it? No one is a snowflake—or any less of a writer—if critiquing is difficult for them; we all deserve respect and encouragement. But we should be honest about what level we’re comfortable providing, as well as receiving.
Lisa: Is your retreat right for the terrified “bubble-writers”?
Gabrielle: It’s absolutely for bubble writers. We’re not trading work, though you’re free to do so, if you and another writer want. Our purpose is to support writers in other ways, by taking them away from their regular world for the week, and building a community where they form relationships not just to each other but to their stories. The world can be a tough place, and we want you to open up, rather than shut down.
Save the critiquing for later. Right now, we’re creating.
Lisa: Exactly. As they say, you can’t edit and create at the same time. Thank you Gabrielle. Honestly, you’re one of the most knowledgeable writers I know. And the best critique partner a girl could ask for. You didn’t hold your punches with me, but you treated me like I was already a professional—way before I was published. Love you for that.
Gabrielle: Thanks, hon! I love you right back, and I’m so excited for us to be collaborating on the retreat. You bring a great energy into every room, and your branding expertise and knowledge of Paris is invaluable. See you in June!