Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.
This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)
Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanistis calling for western speculative flash fiction:
Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Nametrilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)
As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.
That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.
So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.
(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)
Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.
Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.
“How Does Your Garden Grow?”
In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!
Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.
More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.
Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.
Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.
“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”
Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.
Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.
“Triangle at Rhodes”
Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.
And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.
When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.
The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.
Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.
“The Affair at the Victory Ball”
Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.
Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:
Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.
Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.
“The Cornish Mystery”
It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?
Ah. That is why the reader reads on.
So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.
Allow me to sum up the current state of Autumn in Wisconsin with the following excerpt from a beloved classic:
Yup. Rain. And lots of it. Our sump pump is working, thank the Lord, but the extension hose attached to the pump outside came off. Heaven knows how long our sump pump dumped water right next to the house. I’m praying that I got it re-attached in time…and that it stays connected when I go to work at a nearby elementary school for a while.
So, um, my mind’s not exactly in a writerly place right now.
But let’s not fall into another panic attack. Let’s think on the lovely colors of fall (that will hopefully show up some time) and the literary celebration that is National Book Month.
I usually roll my eyes at “National ___ Day/Week/Month,” but this one’s got my attention, especially after working with kids of elementary age who still cannot read.
My heart chokes as I sit with children who cannot recognize letters, let alone words, and these kids are at least my sons’ age, if not older. These children want to read. They want to understand what those printed squiggles are with every picture. They want to know what all the signs say in the rooms, what the teacher sees when she reads to them. They want to know what the world is trying to share with them, to enter all the worlds that flourish around the illustrations on paper, to fill their imaginations with places and people never seen before.
They so badly want to know.
So this month, my friends, please take a moment to read to one who cannot. Share a story you love, or a story neither of you have ever seen before. Countless worlds await us in the bookshops and libraries, worlds of dragons and treasures and friendships and love, journeys of redemption and damnation and transformation and hope.
Let us bring those worlds to those who do not yet know their own written language. Let us share a cherished tale with those whose eyes can no longer hold words in place.
Let us celebrate this most precious gift: the gift of story.
Not sure what to read? Allow me to share a few books floating around my house.
What’s Blondie reading?
Blondie also had a go at some classics earlier this summer thanks to Bookpacks, a really cool combination of book and audio book to help kids focus on reading when there’s no pictures for context. Maybe your library has Bookpacks, too! Click here for more info.
I’m bringing a talk about familial villains to the table with an analysis of Black Maria–or Aunt Maria as it’s known in the States.
While I was also tempted to reread Something Wicked This Way Comes, I decided to try something new. I’m hoping there will be a lesson or two to share when I’m done.
Not gonna lie–my brain is addled by the overlapping schedules of six different school districts that can now call me at a moment’s notice to substitute. Time to read, let alone write, feels all but gone.
It’s at such a moment like this, when the world is soggy like forgotten cereal, the kids are screaming like so many banshees wielding stale banana chips as throwing stars, and the university asks for the presentation due a week ago, that I need to remember the gift of story.
The gift of escape.
Sweet, spooky escape. x
Any reading recommendations you’d like to share here among fellow book lovers? Please share it in the comments below!
Once upon a time, when magic did not hide from human eyes as thoroughly as it does today…
“The Mill That Lost Its Pond”
You know the words.
Once upon a time.
So many fairy tales begin this way. Like river stones bridging shores, we travel with those words from our world to another, eager to see what lies beyond.
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has been luring his audiences to cross reality’s river for years, but this summer he and author Cornelia Funke did more than lure us over the river. They led us through the hills past Grandmother’s house into a forest where past and present seemingly grow as one.
According to IndieWire,del Toro had wanted to expand on the folklore within his fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, and I’m so very glad he did. The book’s a beautiful reading experience from cover to cover. (Seriously, the art work of the book is stunning. Just look at this!)
I could gush for another thousand words about the beauty of the language, the flawless shifts in point of view, etc etc, but instead let’s sit and talk depth. Not, you know, profound philosophy or some such thing, but giving a story-world depth. Giving the world a feel of history and life. Giving a sense of reality to non-reality.
And using the fairy tale to do just that.
Now I suppose that sounds a touch ironic. Words like once upon a time are timeless, aren’t they? They’re right up there with A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Fairy tale lands are…you know, out there (insert vague hand-wavy gesture here). That’s why there’s that indefinite article a. A time could mean Any time.
But The Labyrinth of the Faun is NOT “out there.” We are told on the first page of Chapter 1 precisely where and when we are:
There was once a forest in the north of Span, so old that it could tell stories long past and forgotten by men. The trees anchored so deeply in the moss-covered soil they laced the bones of the dead with their roots while their branches reached for the stars.
So many things lost, the leaves were murmuring as three black cars came driving down the unpaved road that cut through fern and moss. But all things lost can be found again, the trees whispered.
It was the year 1944 and the girl sitting in one of the cars, next to her pregnant mother, didn’t understand what the trees whispered.
Chapter 1, “The Forest and the Fairy”
The girl’s name is Ofelia, and this story not only tells of her meeting the Faun, but of war, of grief, of sorrow, and of hope. (After seeing what high school students are reading these days, I would LOVE to just assign this book and build a critical reading/writing unit around it.) So many themes are woven into one girl’s quest to discover her true soul, her identity as the long-lost princess of the Underground Kingdom. And hers isn’t the only journey shared here; we experience the life of Rebels hiding from the Fascist soldiers. We experience the mind of Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s sadistic stepfather. But best of all, we experience the life of this forest via the fairy tales interspersed between the chapters.
This is something del Toro must have known would not translate into the film medium: he and Funke interrupt the present-day narrative with Ofelia to take readers out and into the past. It’s an occasional pause during the first third of the book, but the interruptions increase in frequency towards the end of the book–past and present coming together for that single climactic moment in Ofelia’s journey.
The first fairy tale comes after Chapter 5, sharing the story of the sculptor whose creations Ofelia discovers centuries later in Chapter 1. The second fairy tale, “The Labyrinth,” tells of a nobleman who discovers a beautiful girl asleep in an ancient forest by a mill pond. They fall in love and marry, but her lack of memory plagues her in the night, sending her back to that forest time and again with sadness. The nobleman visits a witch her lives near the “Split Tree, which was said to house a poisonous toad between its roots.”
Hold on to that reference, if you please.
The witch Rocio instructs the nobleman to construct a labyrinth out of stones from the nearby deserted village where the Pale Man stole children to eat. The nobleman threatens to drown the witch in the pond if his wife’s memory doesn’t recover.
Rocio answered him with a smile. “I know,” she said. “But we all have to play our parts, don’t we?”
The labyrinth fails to awaken the girl’s memory, and she dies, too ill with sadness to live. The son she bore the nobleman later walks the labyrinth to find what his mother lost only to never be seen again.
It took another two hundred and twenty-three years until the prophecy of the witch came true and the labyrinth revealed his mother’s true name when she once again walked its ancient corridors as a girl called Ofelia.
All this is learned before we come enter Chapter 10, “The Tree.” The Faun has given Ofelia three magic stones and a book that instructs Ofelia to give the stones to a “monstrous toad” inside a “colossal fig tree” that is now dying because of the toad.
By the end of Chapter 12, Ofelia successfully kills the Toad and sees “The key the Faun had asked her to bring was sticking to the Toad’s entrails along with dozens of twitching woodlice.”
Yet despite dying, this is not the end of the Toad’s presence in the story.
Remember, we are given this land’s history in fairy tales, and fairy tales know no time. Whenever Man wishes to control something as powerful as Time or Life, Death often follows.
Once upon a time, a nobleman ordered five of his soldiers to arrest a woman named Rocio, who he accused of being a witch. He told them to drown her in the pond of a mill deep in the old forest where she lived. It required two men to drag her into the cold water and one to hold her down until she ceased to breathe. That solder’s name was Umberto Garces. … The task was terrible, and at the same time it arouse him, maybe because the witch was quite beautiful.
“The Echo of Murder”
This vicious act mirrors the evil we readers have seen earlier in the book with Captain Vidal. The echoes don’t end there, however. After sleepless nights of haunting visions, Garces returns to the old mill pond in hopes for peace of mind.
When he stepped closer to the water, though, Garces wished he’d never returned. The water was as black as his sin, and the trees seemed to whisper his judgment into the night: Murderer!”
“The Echo of Murder”
The trees repeat the word, over and over. The land is echoing Garces’ evil back at him.
“I’ll do it again!” he shouted over the silent water. “You hear me?” His boots sank deeper into the mud and his hands started to itch. He lifted them to his face. His skin was covered in warts and webs were growing between his fingers–the fingers he’d used to hold the witch down. … Garces screamed again. By now his voice had changed. Hoarse croaking escaped his throat and, his spine twisted and bent until he fell to his knees, digging his webbed fingers into the mud. Then he leaped into the same muddy pond water he’d drowned the witch in.
“The Echo of Murder”
The Toad is created. Yet wasn’t this Toad already present when the witch was alive, a toad the nobleman thinks on in the second fairy tale?
And yet this STILL isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Toad. He appears once more in the final fairy tale before the final chapter. This last tale shares the origins of a Child Eater known as the Pale Man.
In “The Boy Who Escaped,” we meet a boy named Serafin from a village near an ancient forest. The Pale Man captures him and takes him to his layer to eat, but Serafin is so fast he not only escaped the Pale Man’s clutches, but made off with a large key. A key to what? A key to a cupboard where the Pale Man’s dagger was kept–the dagger Ofelia and the fairies retrieved back in Chapter 20.
But hang on, we’re still with Serafin here. He escapes the Pale Man’s layer and, desperate to be rid of the key, throws it into an old mill pond.
Serafin didn’t notice the huge toad watching him when he hurled the key into the pond, nor that it had the eyes of a man. Neither did the boy see the toad swallow the key with its wart-covered lips.
“The Boy Who Escaped”
So…hang on. In THIS story, the village is no longer deserted, but Serafin sees the pond and recalls hearing that “years ago a nobleman’s soldiers had drowned a witch” there. yet in THAT story, the nobleman is instructed by the witch to build the labyrinth out of stones from a nearby deserted village.
Fairy tales need not be restricted by time. Man cannot contain it, as Captain Vidal dares with his silver pocket watch. Oh no. As Doctor Who would say:
Fairy tales happen once upon Atime. Perhaps long ago, or not long ago. They happen when they happen. They are when the are.
And because they still are, they affect characters in this, the present tense.
Just as they affect us, the readers, now and always.
It’s always just a few who know where to look and how to listen, that is true. But for the best stories, a few are just enough.
What fairy tale echoes in your present life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
October awaits with all its firey magic! I’ve some lovely interviews coming, as well as some exciting news about Witch Week. Plus there’s updates to be told about myFallen Princebornseries–oh, my western fantasyNight’s Toothis still 99 cents, if you’ve not snatched that up yet!
I’ve the perfect music to haunt your dreams, and–if my teaching allows it–some snippets of a novella I’m building out of snow, fear, and secrets.
However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbeehas often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.
Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.
I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.
Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.
Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?
As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.
Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.
Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.
Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.
So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?
This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.
Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.
And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.
Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.
There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.
Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.
No, he didn’t get this book for me; he bought it for his parents, my grandparents, whom I’m pretty sure never cracked the cover. You can bet your boots my brothers and I did, though. I was fascinated by these bizarre animals and people with 1950s glasses and beehive hairdos. The puns were atrocious, the wordplay crazy. My favorite running series in all the collections, however, had little to do with language and aaaaaaall to do with the situation.
How did Gary Larson come up with these combos? Every pairing seemed so outlandish, and yet I always laughed, even when I was small, because Little Me knew:
That’s a baaaad idea.
Even if you’re not a fan of forcefully brewing trouble, there’s no denying that we as writers thrive on trouble–aka, conflict. There’s got to be a struggle between person and nature, person and person, person and self. There’s a quest, an escape, a threat to overcome. Somewhere, whether in our world or in our imaginations, there must be something happening, ingredients to brew the trouble that make for a delicious story.
A recipe for disaster, if you will.
Recipes with ingredients only Gary Larson seems to come up with: poodles and falcons, sky divers and alligators, marching bands and migraine doctors. These are all common, everyday things in our world, but when mixed together the story–the conflict–is anything but ordinary.
Lord knows that as a parent of two Calvins and a Hobbes, my shelves are stacked with cookbooks of mayhem.
If you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, you MUST read them. Today.
Calvin’s best friend is a tiger named Hobbes. To all the world, Hobbes is a stuffed animal, but to Calvin, he is the ultimate friend and ally in a boring world.
When Bo found his collections of Calvin and Hobbes comics, Blondie and the boys snatched them up and still haven’t let go. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see the kids so engaged with a character. Calvin deals with a lot of kid issues like bullies and school woes, but he also gets into some very grown-up topics like environmentalism and death.
On the other hand, Calvin is, well, something of a troublemaker.
This comic feels like some hilarious yet horrendous portent of days to come with Biff and Bash. (No, Blondie doesn’t get off the hook. Hobbes instigates just as often as he cautions.) Calvin can be rude, foolish, and downright diabolical, but I cannot stop loving him for one simple reason:
Calvin can take any thing, any place, any one, and create a universe of adventure.
He inspires Bash to be his own Stupendous Man, complete with sidekick (Bash’s wee Bumble, Captain Ice Cube).
He inspires Biff to find magic on the snowy slopes, even after losing two teeth in a sledding accident.
Calvin’s dad even inspires Bo’s parenting style.
Yeah, I didn’t get to do much writing this summer, but I still consider the past few months well spent because I got to be a reader–no, that’s not the right word. A listener. I was blessed to listen and watch Biff, Bash, and Blondie work together to create hilarious adventures featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, Wall-E the trash bot, Optimus Prime, Lego Batman, the USS Enterprise, and more. Every plot point was preceded with a “How About ___?” and a “Yeah, and then ___!”. No villain’s ever truly villainous, and no hero’s ever truly perfect. Settings switch from Sodor to Cybertron to Gotham City and back again without characters ever missing a beat. I marvel at how their voices run through the story together, pulling each other along…and yes, sometimes one voice knocks another down, and I must end the story with a cliffhanger. They get so frustrated when their stories diverge with the same characters, and one wants the others to follow. I wish I had perfect motherly advice to give them, but considering my own experiences with collaborative writing went up in flames, all I can manage is a welp, kiddos, maybe you should just tell separate stories for a while.
And they do. Less excitedly, but they do.
Creative teamwork is a delicate thing, and I’m still very clumsy at helping it stay together. But after this summer I’m determined to keep trying because when together, my children imagined stories as magical as dandelion seeds flying through a northern wood.
I’ve got an indie author interview on the way, as well as a fun exploration into theme music. We also need to do some serious pondering of the fairy tale, and how two storytellers of film and page came together to build a country’s history out of…fairy tales?
Happy Thursday, everyone! Summer school is winding down for the kids, which means August will be a month of Blondie, Biff, Bash, and I driving each other crazy–I mean, being creative together. 🙂 No matter what, though, I hope to keep writing here, finishing up my latest release (more on that at the end of this post!), and connecting with more of you beautiful souls! x
It’s been such an honor to connect with so many different authors from across the world. Today I am pleased to introduce you to Australian poet Frank Prem. Take it away, Frank!
Hi Jean, thanks
for the opportunity to chat today.
I’m a writer of free verse poetry, for the most part, resident in a small town in Victoria (Australia). I’ve been writing and developing my approach to poetry for over forty years, now, and have recently become the Indie published author of two collections. The first – Small Town Kid – came out in December 2018, while the next – Devil in the Wind – was released in May 2019.
When I’m not
actively pursuing writing and other authorly pursuits I work as a psychiatric
nurse, here in the town, in a small long-term rehabilitation unit.
The town I live in – Beechworth – is a pretty little place of around 3,000 residents. We have a gold mining history dating back to the 1860s, and the township itself is very well preserved, with a lot of stone buildings hewn from the local honey granite (a warm, pinkish colour in the rock).
We have become a tourist town, with thousands of visitors passing through each year, and most of them making a beeline for the well known Beechworth Bakery (https://www.beechworthbakery.com.au/).
It’s mostly a
quiet life, but very pleasant, all in all.
You may have noticed how much I love to share the music that inspires my writing. Do you also enjoy music to write, or do you require silence? If the former, would you like to recommend any favorites?
Yes, music is such a gift to us, Jean, and it has influenced my writing immesurable. In case you’re wondering, my personal taste always leads to me to find a wonderful voice – regardless of genre. The voice I have gravitated to most is that of Emmy Lou Harris, who is mostly known as a Country singer, but actually able to sing anything.
I generally write
in silence, but the music in language is quite critical to my work. My usual
approach is to create a melody of some sort in my head and to sing my work
(silently) line by line to try to imbue it with a sense of song. My often
repeated mantra is that ‘rhyme should be invisible, while free verse should be
Beautifully said, Sir.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block with another poet or prose writer? How did you overcome it?
Yes I have, Jean.
I’m a very poor reader of the work of other poets. I worry very much that I
will get other work in my head and inadvertently plagiarise or otherwise stray
from my own track.
With prose, I tend
to return over and over to a few favourite writers as my mainstay, with a
greater willingness to branch out and experiment with reading speculative
fiction. In recent times, particularly space opera fiction. Bang-bang
shoot-em-ups in the stars are a wonderful freedom for me, that is far enough
from any realities down here on earth to be completely enjoyable.
I think with my general reading I am looking for inspiration in my own work. Recently I read the entire translated work of a French Philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, who died back in the 1960s.
He explored the phenomenology of poetry and poetics and used imagery in such a way that my imagination was fired and I could hardly read more than a couple of lines without having to put the book down and write a poem that his thoughts had triggered in mine. I ended up with around 800 new poems out of that experience.
That’s a hard act
to follow, but I think I’m constantly looking for a similar experience when I
800 poems just from the course of studying one philosopher. That…wow. That, Sir, is an impressive exploration of language. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I think I’ve
always known it, Jean. As long as I can remember I have played with words, in
my head and in my speech. Twisting and contorting words and finding their
nuance and inflection and emphasis has always held pleasure for me.
An example comes
from my secondary schooling when I didn’t want to complete a pretty boring
essay that required a certain number of pages of work to be presented. Instead
of completing the task in the usual way I, for some reason, submitted a poem.
Correct number of pages, but very few words. I received a high mark (because
poetry hadn’t been seen in my school since the previous century, I suspect),
and have been writing poetry ever since.
Since you say you live with a fellow creative who’s a puppeteer, I just have to ask: do you write anything for the puppets to perform? This is a totally selfish question, I know, but when I was younger I used to write puppet plays and then perform them for the kindergartners at my elementary school. Loved every second of it.
That’s a lovely
story of your own, Jean. Thanks for sharing it.
Leanne my wife has
been performing puppet shows in pre-schools and kindergarten centres for many
years, on and off. We have spoken often of a show that would be aimed at older
students or adults, using my voice to read the poetry of the show, while Leanne
performed with the puppets.
That may be
creeping closer as an option with my transition into the authoring field.
collaborated in other ways in the past however.
Leanne designed my first attempted foray into book production some years ago, and from time to time has put poems I’ve written into music.
If you (or
readers) care to listen and read, this link will take you to the poem ‘Time
Comes’, on my poetry blog. I recently resurrected the piece to commemorate my 3
year anniversary as a blogger.
You are very, very concise with your word choices in your poetry, so much so that when you have a line longer than four words I sit up and take notice. (an observation made with “#Somme (8): two pennies up (for the ambulance)”). When would you say you discovered this concise style within yourself, and how do you nurture it today?
An excellent question
that touches on an aspect of writing that I think about a lot.
My discovery has
been gradual. When I look at early work, I have used long lines, almost
paragraph, in style. I think I started to seriously challenge myself with this
when I started reading poetry at the various open mic venues in Melbourne that
were available to me for a few years when I was starting out. I found that long
lines and blocks of text were difficult to read under the lights and in front
of a microphone.
I began experimenting
then with writing to mimic speech – nuance and inflection, pause and
enjambment. SO much so that it is now my writing style and unique to me, as far
as I know.
More, though. I believe this approach of using line breaks to emphasize small pauses and inflections, and stanza breaks for breathing are a way to assist young folk to read more fluently. I won’t take up space here to expound my thesis but I have written on the subject over at my author page. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.
Oooo, thank you kindly! I look forward to reading it.
Now,You’ve re-issued one collection of poems—Small Town Kid. It’s a journey through your childhood, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle. Do you find this period of life to be a common ground between poets and readers, and if so, why do you think we never tire of walking such grounds?
The first attempt to publish Small Town Kid was a wonderful adventure in book design and creativity between Leanne and myself. Unfortunately, it was back in the dark ages of printing, and to achieve cost efficiency it was necessary to purchase hundreds of copies of the book. I wasn’t ready to market myself or my books in that way, so the attempt was put to sleep until Print On Demand presented itself as an option.
I have been quite amazed by the strength of positive reaction to Small Town Kid. It certainly seems to resonate with readers.
I wonder if the
reason for this connection is not akin to my reasons for writing the collection
in the first place.
When I had small
children of my own, I would routinely talk about what I and my friends had done
when we were young – the freedom to roam, unsupervised is the chief
characteristic of those times, in my mind. My kids, however, didn’t believe my
stories. They seemed to be simply too far-fetched to be true.
I realised that a
whole era of childhood (the 1960s and 70s) had disappeared by the mid-1990s. We
had begun to supervise our children. To deliver them to friends and to school,
and to collect them afterwards. Television and hand-held devices had begun to
stories down seemed to make them more legitimate, in some way.
What I find with readers is that if I read, for example, the long poem ‘Crackers’ about bonfire night preparation and execution, I will have a line of people, mainly men, who have a bonfire lit in their eyes as they want to share with me their own experience and memories.
I think it is the
imagery combined with the voice-song of telling or reading that allows the
reader to enter their own best memories of childhood, and I believe it is the
recollection of childhood freedom that makes these stories so attractive.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Not to be in a
hurry for fame and success. I’ve always been a person who wanted things to
happen immediately. If I was pursuing my career, I should get the next
promotion. If was writing a poem, surely it was a most worthy creation and
should be published immediately.
Learning to let go
of that kind of pressure, placed on myself by myself, has been a great lesson
I’ve found that
the gift of time has allowed me to mature and become a better person, a better
worker, a better poet.
I completely understand. Not only do I see it whenever I look at an old draft–heck, the first draft of my novel was written in 2010–but I can feel the change in my own perspective thanks to the growing creative expressions of my children.They tire me out, my little B’s, but I wouldn’t want them any other way. Writing helps my soul breathe and my passion to stay alight; does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?
For me, writing is
like breathing, so there is no real question of growing tired from it. I can
take a day or two off from writing, but I don’t really like to. I enjoy this
part of myself very much.
What is tiring is attempting
to master the ancillary roles – being an Author. Mastering the myriad details
of properly publishing paperback and e-book formats. Marketing (oh lord, how
tiring marketing can be!)
All part of the
deal, though, so no point in wailing.
energizing, though, and what I know has a direct and beneficial effect on the
quality if my writing, is reader feedback.
A comment or
conversation with a reader is stimulating. A positive review is absolutely
exhilarating, and I want, immediately, to sit down and write the next thing.
Bigger, better, more astounding . . .
You get the drift, I’m sure. I love my readers and reviewers and the effect they have on me as a writer.
You and me both, Sir. You and me both.
My deepest thanks to Frank for taking the time to talk to me! Here are his vitals so you can find more information on Frank Prem and his work.
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.
Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!
It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?
Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-
Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?
Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!
Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…
I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.
I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.
That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.
All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?
Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.
Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another.Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes.Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?
I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!
Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?
It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.
To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?
I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.
Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?
I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.
If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.
On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!
And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!
BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.
Happy Saturday, Friends! While Bo and Blondie attend a baseball game and I take the twins to a swimming pool (PRAY FOR ME), please welcome fellow Young Adult author Ann Hunter!
First things first! Tell us a little about yourself, please.
I like to say I’m a Mom first, a writer second, and all around ninja. I’m a dyed and true Hufflepuff #badgerfierce, love dark chocolate and red velvet cake. And I love YA literature. I love mentoring other writers, too, and teens as well. I’m assistant teacher at the Taekwondo Dojang I train at with my daughters, and I’m so grateful for my epic husband– he really is too patient with me.
Oh my g.o.s.h., you serious? My brother is a teacher in Taekwondo! Both of them have black belts. I, however, was enrolled in dance class for a summer.
(Don’t ask how that went.)
Anyway, my own three wee hooligans keep me inspired, not to mention on my toes. One phone call from the principal, though, and my creativity’s shot for the day. What would you call your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
My biggest Kryptonite is my ADD (clinically diagnosed in college). I have a hard time getting started and staying focused unless I have my ritual/routine down. I use noise canceling headphones and http://brain.fm.
I also sprint with other writers in a dedicated chat room on slack. It helps a lot to have friends and support.
I struggle with energy, too. My best-selling series, North Oak, is so emotional that it’s very taxing physically and mentally.
I’m currently developing a class that I’ll be presenting at Fyrecon later this month on how to be a word warrior without burning out.
Uffdah, burnout is right. I’m in the midst of overhauling my platform while also grading finals while also having Biff, Bash, and Blondie home for summer break. How on EARTH do you balance writing and parenthood, anyway? I’m always hunting for tips.
Not just a writer and mom, but a ninja too! I also do Taekwondo and I’m working toward my black belt in 2021. I plan on competing at the World Taekwondo Federation National Championships this July. My daughters do Taekwondo with me, so when they’re in class I’m often in the Dojang office working on book stuff.
I’m really blessed that my husband is very supportive of my writing. He’s even my business partner in our publishing LLC. He’s happy to take care of the kids whenever I need to get writing done, usually in the evenings and on weekends. In turn I’m supportive of him and try to let him sleep in and nap on said weekends before I’m working.
That’s so lovely to hear your husband’s been with you throughout the entire writing of your North Oak series!
Now, these novels feature a young protagonist and her relationship with amazing horses. The blurb for Book 1, Born to Run, mentions Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Is that a favorite book of yours, a source of inspiration, or both?
I had a hard time getting into Black Stallion as a book series when I read them as a kid. My big inspiration is the Thoroughbred Series by Joanna Campbell (and later Mary Newhall Anderson). I liked Dick Francis, as well, and I’m a sucker for the Black Stallion movies and Phar Lap.
My biggest inspiration, however, was my parents breeding Arabians when I was little. I gained a sense of horsemanship by running around half-naked and barefoot with our herd on the Wasatch Front.
Woah! You’ve such a love for horses bred and nurtured in you. I can’t help but wonder, then, if stories had that same kind of connection with you when you were small. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember being in first grade and writing a story about a rabbit pulling a carrot out of the ground. I drew a little action “kapow” around the word POP, and my teacher really liked that. I also remember my aunt giving me this gorgeous book on Shakespeare’s works when I was, like, 4, and I desperately wanted to know what the words said. Needless to say, I was reading Shakespeare by age 6.
But it wasn’t until I was ten that I truly realized the power of words, when I had to write my first official story. The words poured out of me as though they came from somewhere else. They weren’t mine. My hand couldn’t keep up with my brain. I spent the next 6 years writing 20 novels in the same fashion.
TWENTY NOVELS?! That. Is. AWESOME! So writing a long-running series like North Oak must be easy peasy, what with Book 7 coming out in July.
Well, I shouldn’t say “must” be easy-peasy, because I imagine every writer has his/her challenges with series writing. What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?
I started writing this series 25 years ago at the age of 12 (July 24th– Happy Anniversary!). So I’ve known the whole story for a long time. It’s gone through several incarnations until I finally knew its purpose and what I needed to do with it for today’s youth. My biggest challenge is keeping everyone the right age and not fudging timelines. I’m going to have to make up a chart or something one of these days as I plan to take the series well into book 20 and onward.
What would you say has been the most difficult scene to write in the North Oak series, and why?
Every book has its most challenging scene. I want the books to MEAN something to the reader. I’m writing them so today’s youth have a heroine to look up to who is going through many of the same scary issues they face daily.
North Oak #6: Dark Horse forced me to look at my own demons though, and was very hard to write. I didn’t want to deal with my own depression that Alex, my main character, had to face. A lot of the books in the series have multiple points of view, but Dark Horse only had Alex. I wanted the reader to feel alone, because that’s a big part of depression. You can be in a room full of people who are crazy about you and still feel alone.
In North Oak #5: Far Turn, I made myself cry. I won’t give spoilers, but it was a funeral scene and I chose the song “I Can Only Imagine” as they played the life video of the departed. That was tough.
Oh, character deaths and their memorials are always so painful to write. You dive into some other tough youth issues in your series, too—bullying, suicide, and sexuality, for a start. Are these things you wanted to discuss through your stories, or did the themes just appear because of what the characters were going through?
A little of both I think. I knew today’s youth were facing some scary stuff, and I wanted to give them someone to look up to. I want them to find me someday and say “You wrote this for me.” And I’ll hug them and say “I know.”
Especially the LGBTQ+ community. There’s nothing else like North Oak on the market. I pray every night before I write that I’ll be a vassal for what the Lord wants His youth to hear. And it’s love. Everyone deserves love.
This has been such an awesome chat, Ann! Any closing words of inspiration and encouragement for your fellow writers?
Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s part of it.
Let’s talk first about reading awesome stuff. What is your favorite childhood book? C’mon, say Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you know you want to!
Haha, is that your favorite Narnia book? If I was to go with something from C.S. Lewis I’d say Out of the Silent Planet. I’m a big fan of Roald Dahl, it’s hard to pick one, maybe James and the Giant Peach. Also, I’ve been reading Calvin & Hobbes to my kids at night, and I’m always impressed by how much insight Bill Waterson has into the fundamental nature of childhood. Do other people identify that much with Calvin or is it just me?
OH MY GOSH YES! We found all our old Calvin & Hobbes collections when the basement flooded. The kids LOVE reading them, which is awesome…until one starts using some of Calvin’s vocabulary at school and winds up seeing the principal as a result. That’s not so awesome.
Anyway, what authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I think that The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books where there’s a small window in your life where it really hits you like a punch in the face. I think high schools do it a disservice by teaching it in Sophomore years. I think you need to approach it a bit later. Sooner or later you’ll feel what Holden was feeling, and Catcher is magical if you pick it up at that moment. However, if you’re reading it against your will it becomes absolutely miserable…which is unfortunate.
I know just what you mean. I recall being forced to readThe Count of Monte Cristoin college and absolutely loathed it, but when I tried it again a few years ago, I was completely enraptured. It’s like there needs to be a shedding of expectations, an allowance to read for reading’s sake, and allow the story to dictate the pace rather than the reader.
I remember being pretty upset at the end of The Elfstones of Shannara. I also found the first 6 minutes of Transformers: The Movie completely devastating. I know it was just a big advertisement to get us to buy toy robots…but it meant something to me dang it!
Oh yeah, I made the mistake of showing this “kid’s movie” to my sons. Watch the opening if you dare, folks. This movie opens with an entire planet of living robots BEING EATEN. Kids love death on a planetary scale!
(Gotta say, though, that the theme song is totally metal.)
Bash sobbed for ages after it was done, and I don’t blame him–you’re watching beloved Robots in Disguise MELT TO DEATH throughout this movie! Biff thought it all amusing and wanted to watch it again. (Yes, we are watching him.)
I’m sure you get a lot of authors and/or stories recommended to you that you just don’t dig—a reader’s block, as it were. Do you fight your way through to finish the story, or do you shelve the story, never to be finished?
The main reason I don’t finish a book these days is just a lack of time. Endings don’t surprise me anymore so the main craft of a book is in the beginning I believe. If an astute reader hasn’t guessed the ending of a book then there are problems with the build up. It’s pretty rare to encounter a book so terrible I have to put it down. Whether a book is published by a small press, a major publisher, or independently, there is almost always a memorable line or scene. Everybody has a worthwhile story to tell.
Excellent point. In all my years I can’t think of more than a few books that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I like the onomatopoeic words that show interjections of simultaneous action during a dialogue, and the present tense portions create a sense of urgency. Janet Morris does something similar in her Beyondseries, although she slips out of it into a more traditional narrative voice. I might try doing a short story in your style just to see how it feels.
That’d be cool! It’s important to test different styles. Yeah, they might not work, but some other excellent character or plot idea may arise in that attempt, and that makes the experiment worth it.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I think you gain more confidence in the process as you go. Usually there’s a theme or an idea that I want to work through, and I come up with a lot of stories that surround that idea. Once you have a hundred pages of stories, you start to see how they connect in a storyline. I imagine that The Hobbit came as a result of Tolkien saying, “I’d like to daydream about a place called Middle-Earth for a while.” Writing a book is very much taking a journey. You take the journey because you’re curious what the scenery looks like.
You’re currently a member of the St. Croix Writers, a writing group based in the beautiful North Woods of Wisconsin. Can you share a bit about this group and its awesomeness?
I just met those folks as a result of a concerted effort I’m making in 2019 to be more active in writing groups. I found a web page that listed all the writing groups in the state of Wisconsin and I wrote all of them a message. Thomas Wayne King sent me his phone number and encouraged me to call for a chat which I thought was very nice. I plan on attending their next meeting. I think a lot of writing groups could come into the 20th century a little more. There are a lot of ways that writers can support each other and I think that needs to be encouraged.
Yes, indeed! Especially because it’s easy to feel a bit cut off where we are, the “backwaters” that “real writers” don’t live in.
So of course I have to ask about Wisconsin, too, being a “Cheesehead” myself (yet not a Packer fan. I know, I know, I’m lucky not to be banished to Illinois for that.) Do you feel there’s something about Wisconsin’s land, people, or culture that inspires your storytelling? How so?
I think a lot of stories from rural Wisconsin are overlooked or dismissed. There’s quite a bit of arrogance in the writing community, and an impulse to disregard certain stories, which is unfortunate. Everyone has a story to tell, and all of those stories are very important and deserve attention. Actually, if you want to read more about my thoughts on this matter, check out my article “Not Worthy of Study: The Catastrophic Arrogance of the Literary Community.” Go Packers!
Ugh, don’t even TALK to me about the Packers after this lousy excuse of a season!
It can be a huge struggle balancing the writing side of life with that of family. Does your family inspire your stories, or support you in your writing endeavors? In what way(s)?
I’ll often read my stories to my girls at night before they go to sleep. If they pay attention all the way to the end, I know I have something good. If they drift off, I know I have to rewrite. They’re very honest and that’s vital.
Aw, that’s so awesome! I haven’t dared share my writing with my kids. When I see them, the fear of disappointing them digs too deep.
You regularly travel between the United States and Peru to visit family. How amazing to be immersed in such different cultures! What kinds of inspiration do you draw from the Peruvian landscape, culture, and people?
I went to Peru when I was 26 and it was super helpful to me because it was so inexpensive to live there. As a writer, you need a lot of time, not just for writing, but for reflection. Also, you can go a lot time between pay days writing, so it’s nice not to have a lot of financial pressure. Being in a foreign country is great for anyone because it shows that whole societies are built on radically different ideas. This is useful to see in person if you’re one of those people who walks around thinking, “So many things in our society seem wrong to me.” People will tell you that you’re crazy if you point out an error. “That’s the way it’s always been,” they say. It’s a massive existential boost to see that, no, it HASN’T always been that way in other parts of the world.
As much as I love my kids, they can be my writing Kryptonite: nothing zaps the creative drive like a call from the principal or a kid waking waaaay too early for his own good. What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m the first to admit I “Google as I go” as far as researching is concerned. How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I think research is more important to a tech type writer, somebody like Tom Clancy where historical items are far more important to the plot. I’m a character type writer, so research doesn’t play that big a role. However, my most recent release, Paperclip, required some research. We did it on the fly, and we found exactly what we were looking for. It turns out there were some documents that were supposed to be shredded by the government but got misfiled instead—you can’t make stuff like that up!
Oh, what a lucky find!
You and I are both published via small presses, which are different than self-publishing programs or the “traditional” publishing houses, so we see things a bit differently in the publishing industry. What do you think is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can be done to change it?
There are a lot of things I’d like to change in the publishing industry. One of the things I really dislike is that people seem to be afraid to express their own opinions. A narrative gets created about a book, and people fall in step with what the narrative states. I’ve been fortunate where I’ve felt the tidal effect of a positive narrative, but it still is a disquieting feeling. I used to get in trouble in college classes a lot because I like to offer nuanced opinions, but the mass of people want to reassign you to a larger, dumbed down narrative. “Well it sounds like you’re saying this…” they say, when you aren’t saying anything of the sort.
Oh yes, I’ve noticed that, these “narratives.” There’s hype that will lump the book into a certain group, and if you disagree than you’re an awful person. There’s no nuance anymore, no “I liked Element A in the book but not B, and here’s why.” It’s all or nothing.
Mostly, I’d like to see new authors get more of a fair shake, but part of advertising is to take customers away from the competition. The thing I’m doing to change it is to read and engage with as many new authors as I can. I’ve become pretty bored with major Hollywood releases, there are some fascinating works out there in small-press and independent publishing.
Kudos to you, Sir! There’s such a wealth of amazing tales out there that the mainstream media never touches. It’s up to us to dig them up!
Lastly, what are common traps for aspiring writers, and how can they avoid them?
A lot of the general beliefs about what it means to be a writer are just flat out wrong, and there are a lot of people giving bad advice. The big thing to remember is that the money is supposed to flow TO the writer, not FROM the writer. Even if it’s not a lot of money, it needs to be going TO you. The other thing to keep in mind is that your work will often be rejected without being read. There are some agents and publishers who send out really snooty form letters, and you’ll get these even from an email query that doesn’t even include an attachment of your work. It’s pretty much a rigged game with no chance of success, but play it anyway. Maybe we should all be thankful for that because I think too much attention is just as destructive to your ability to do important work as too little. Every story is important, and every story has an audience. Thanks for having me!
And thank you for taking the time to chat! Lord willing I can drive up to Chippewa Falls sometime for a chat. 🙂
If you’re in northern Midwest, Rhein and co-author Dan Woll are having a talk about writing and marketing thrillers.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.