Has your writing ever taken you by surprise? For example, a positive and belated response to a submission you’d forgotten about or an ending you never saw coming?
For me, writing is full of surprises, mostly because my characters tend to take on a life of their own.
For example, with my current WIP, I told myself the mc was a girl because that story would be easier to sell than one with a non-binary main character. However, before I realized what I was doing, the character was telling someone that they use “they/them/their” as pronouns and thinking about being neither boy nor girl.
I thought I could control the gender of my main character, but that character decided they were non-binary (like me) whether I liked it or not.
The idea of characters I’m creating doing unexpected things always seems odd to me, even though it is something many writers have experienced.
I often find myself wondering why things like this happen. Why do my creations surprise me? Am I really surprising myself? How come I feel like I am not in control of these characters as I create them and make them do things? Shouldn’t I be more deliberate? What is the point of craft advice if my characters are just running around doing their own things with me putting zero thought into how that affects the story on some technical level?
I can maybe answer one of those questions.
Craft advice is for revision, not first drafts. At least, that is how it is for me. Other writers might be able to think about plot and scene and characterization while they draft. I can’t. I can only think of the characters as living entities and the story as something unfolding as it happens. If I outline, it’s because the story is unfolding in my head much faster than I can really write, and even then, when I start writing, I don’t usually stick to exactly what I outlined.
I think I get surprised because a lot of what I’m doing is not happening on a conscious level. It’s like dreaming. When I draft, my subconscious does the heavy lifting, so it feels like my creations have more agency in the creation of the story than I do.
When I was younger, part of me wanted to believe there was something supernatural about writing. I don’t think that now, but I do love writing about supernatural things.
I always surprise my self when I’m drafting.
My revisions, on the other hand, are far more deliberate and conscious. The biggest surprises there are how patient I am. In real life, I’m not known for my patience.
What kind of surprises do you find when writing?
Photo Credit: The back ground photo on the header was taken from Simone Scarano on Unsplash.
June 5 question: Of all the genres you read and write, which is your favorite to write in and why?
Fantasy is and always has been my favorite genre to write in. I think this is simply because I like making things up and I don’t like being bound by rules about what is and isn’t possible.
Sure, fantasy worlds have their own sets of rules, but as the author, I get to make up what those rules are and how far they can bend before the break. I grew up playing games with my mom were arm chairs could time travel if they spun fast enough and people could turn into mannequins of they made eye contact with mannequins for too long.
Every time I watched TV show that had an ounce of magic in it, I’d make up my own stories about the the characters, continuing their story and adding myself to it. Back then, the word fanfiction wasn’t part of my vocabulary, but that is the best word to describe my early stories, even if I never wrote them down.
Fantasy was the genre that made me want to read. For many years, I thought I liked historic fiction, and I also thought I hated reading. However, when I read Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars Expanded Universe(technically science fantasy), and The Chronicles of the Deryni, and Wicked, that was when I started to love reading.
And was before I discovered urban fantasy novels like Tithe and The Dresden Files.
Whether I’m reading or writing, my mind just gravitates towards fantasy. I enjoy the occasional hard science fiction or contemporary novel, but often, a story needs to have some kind of magic to really win me over.
The same goes for writing. There is always something magical, something that doesn’t quite follow the laws of physics or at least the rules of what is possible.
I love infusing the real world with magic, and my best writing has been urban fantasy. Creating new worlds is fun, but it is more time consuming. Patiences hasn’t always been my biggest strength. Sometimes I try to write science fiction, but it mostly turns into science fantasy.
I could ramble on and on about why I like fantasy, but what it comes down to is freedom to let my mind run wild, and to just make stuff up.
What was an early experience where you learned that language has power?
The word “chemical” has a lot of power. As a kid, it was a word that induced fear or panic. Chemicals were bad smelling things used to clean or dangerous things used in science labs.
I believe I was in fifth grade when I had a science teacher who blew my mind by telling the class things like some of the juices and sodas we drank were technically chemicals. She said that even water was a chemical.
I remember a brief moment of fear, then realizing that the word “chemical” had a much broader meaning than I originally thought.
Today, I looked up definitions of chemicals, here are some of the results I got:
Basically, almost anything is a chemical. Some of the definitions mention artificially prepared substances or those used in a chemical process, but nowhere do they say it is exclusive to those things. However, these elements of the dictionary definitions do have a stronger connection to the perceived definition of the word than the more scientific definition on wiki. (I know isn’t always the most credible website, but I included it anyway because the definition there echoed what I’d hear before. Plus, sometimes I trust the internet hive mind more than random website put up by individuals).
The word chemical, at its core, really doesn’t tell you much about something. It’s as general a term as material or substance. However, if I went up to someone and asked if they wanted to drink a chemical, they’d probably look at me like I had twenty heads.
This always reminds me how a words literal meaning and the meaning it carries for individuals within a culture or society, can be different things and can affect the power and effects that the word has.
Last night, I was reminded how chemical’s connotation can spread fear and panic, even to people who are aware of the words denotative meaning.
The lake I live on was getting an being treated with alum, which will bind excess nutrients, specifically phosphorus, and reduce the amount of cyanobacteria blooms in the lake. The barge carrying the alum capsized.
The whole neighborhood was out watching the ensuing spectacle of trying to flip the barge back over and drag it to shore. The more people threw around the word “chemical” the more nervous people got. By the end of the night, there was a post on Facebook claiming “Time to take a stand merrimac this company the town hired just flipped the boat carrying 1500 gallons of environmental hazardous materials” The language in this post in powerful in a negative way. It uses words whose connotative meaning scares people with a call to action based on false information.
The town did not hire the company when in reality, the lake association did the hiring, and the funding came from two towns, association fundraisers, and an EPA grant. The materials were going into the lake anyway, and at the time this was posted, the tanks had not been recovered, so no one actually knew how much of the alum, if any, had actually spilled. The hazard was that the alum and the chemical used to balance the ph might not have spilled in the same proportions they would be put into the lake in. Some of the older, weaker fish might die — the same fish that would probably die when the water temperature rose and the oxygen levels declined in the summer.
However, the person who posted this didn’t care about truth. The language in this is intended to scare and aggravate people. In Merrimac, residents are facing tax hikes because of a new school and a new police station. This person used language and misinformation to try and decrease people’s confidence in the town’s decision making abilities when it comes to spending money and hiring contractors, probably trying to get people to oppose the necessary but expensive new school.
When I log onto the town Facebook, I often find myself wondering how much thought people actually put into these posts. How much of it is careless and unfiltered, and how much is calculated lies and word choice people use to further their own, small-town political agenda?
I’ve also noticed that the tone these malcontents use in their town-related posts echoes that of some politically conservative relatives and twitter trolls. However, detailed analysis of the language used in social media forums is content for a completely different post.
What I hope readers take away from this post is that often, the connotation of a word lends it far for power than its denotative or literal meaning.
The difference between chemical’s connotative and denotative meaning surprised me when I was a child, but it was something I didn’t really think much about it until last night when the word “chemical” was spreading fear throughout my neighborhood.
Chemical may have been an accurate term for the contents of the tanks, but saying “substance” or “material” would have been accurate too, and they would not have conjured the same fear as chemical did. Even using the name of the chemical might have caused less fear.
The words and language we use are as important and influential in our interactions with our neighbors, friends, and family as they are within our writing.
Can you think of any words whose connotative meaning evokes fear?
If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)
For me, this would be the first chapter. However, I wouldn’t use the wish to help write it. I’d use the wish to help revise it.
Writing a first draft of a first chapter is a blast.
It’s like standing at the base of trail I’ve never hiked. The sun is out but there is a cool breeze. I have a map. I have ample snacks and water for both me and my dog. It is going to be an awesome day even if I am going to be gaining about 1,000 vertical feet per mile.
The first chapter is just that first stretch of trail when I am full of energy, when I’m practically running, wondering just how long it will be before the trail gets steep and I hit a scramble.
The whole hike up is the first draft of the manuscript. It’s hard work, but it is the kind that gets the adrenaline going and results with a breathtaking view.
I can’t stay at the summit forever. Eventually, I have to come down.
Often, when hiking in New England, the steepest scrambles are close to the summit. They’re my favorite part to go up and my least favorite to go down.
I can just see myself on my way down Killington. I’m a little ways down from the summit, standing on a slab of granite, staring straight down a ravine thinking,
“Did we really go up that? Do I have to go back down that way?”
I’m exhausted. My spouse is exhausted. The dog is exhausted. The dog, who was like a brilliant mountain goat on the way up, needs assistance going down the steep sections.
For a minute, I just stand there wondering what the heck I was thinking. I curse myself for picking an out and back trail and for being so obsessed with scrambles in the first place. But then I think about how much fun I had, how worth it the view was, and of how many times I have done this before on other mountains.
Then, after I’ve planned a way down in my head, my spouse and I slowly work our way down, helping the dog when necessary.
It’s the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the hike. It’s the one part I would skip if I could magically do so. It reminds me a lot of revising my opening chapters.
As fun as the first draft was, I never start the book in the right place, and fixing that is never as simple as just deleting a chapter or several chapters. It’s deleting a whole chapter and replacing it with something else and then rewriting it, deleting it, and replacing it. Once I find something that works as a concept, then I still have to fine tune it over and over.
For current WIP, I haven’t revised the opening chapter four times. I’ve written four completely different opening chapters, and that isn’t counting all the false starts I had while trying to get the first draft going.
So if I could use a wish to help me write a book? I would use that wish to revise my opening chapter.
Whose perspective do you like to write from best, the hero (protagonist) or the villain (antagonist)? And why?
My favorite characters to write are the ones who are both hero and villain.
Power Surge is a great example of this. The whole book is from Erin Evanstar’s point of view, and the conflict with the most tension is Erin versus Erin.
Technically speaking, there is mysterious demon stalking Erin who eventually plays the role of the villain Erin has to fight. But honestly? For most of the book, Erin is in more danger of hurting themself than they are of being seriously wounded or murdered by the demon. After all, the demon wants to capture Erin alive, and while it isn’t shown on the page, readers know that Erin has attempted suicide at least once in the past two years.
Danger factor aside, the demon villain isn’t on page as much as a villain should be and doesn’t take as much action as a true antagonist would. He’s not even the real big bag behind the apocalypse, but an agent of that big bad.
Erin is their own antagonist.
In the relationship subplot between Erin and José, Erin is the biggest obstacle Erin has to overcome. José isn’t perfect. He says and does some stupid things because he is a mess, but inside, he really is a sweet guy who selflessly loves Erin. As much as Erin loves him too, there are times where they treat him horribly. If the relationship is going to work, Erin needs to defeat Erin.They need kick their dark, selfish side’s ass.
I have written heroes who are actually decent human beings and have actuall villains to defeat, and I’ve enjoyed writing them, but not as much as I’ve enjoyed Erin and other characters like Erin. I love the necromancer, succubus, troll, and human-eating alien farmer that have doubled as antagonists and protagonists in my short stories.
I think I know why.
The stories and characters I become the most invested in are the ones inspired by my fears. There are plenty of things I’m afraid of. Serial killers, bad dog owners, parking garages at night, elevators, crowds, sexual predators, and the dark are just a few items on a long, long list.
But the darkness I fear most is the one that quietly lurks inside of me. What would happen if it got too loud? Who could I hurt? What lines would I cross? Would there be any chance of redemption?
I write this darkness into my characters. I make it worse. I give them less self control. I make their upbringing rough and filled with tragedy and a lack of good mentors, and with things I imagine would have pushed me over to the dark side.
Soon enough, the characters take on a life of their own. When I start to get that feeling that they are growing independently of me and making their own choices, it is time to get plotting.
I want to see how long they can hold their own darkness off for. I want to see what happens when they fail. What lines will they cross? Can they come back once they cross those lines?
Besides writing what other creative outlets do you have?
Other than writing, photography has been my most consistent creative outlet. I loved taking pictures even when all I had was a disposable film camera.
I remember having at least one 35mm and one 110 film camera as a child. I can’t quite picture the 35mm, but the 110 was long and silvery. I was fascinated by my mom’s polaroid, and eventually, she bought me a couple kid-friendly instant cameras, one of which printed the pictures on stickers.
When my mom started selling antiques on Ebay, she bought a digital camera so she could photograph the objects she sold. When one camera would get old or become obsolete, I remember being able to use that to take pictures of and with my friends instead of my instant cameras.
I loved how digital cameras gave me the chance to see the picture right away without wasting material. If the picture didn’t come out right, I knew immediately. I could delete and retake it. This took away the stress of wasting material because of a mistake and I loved photography twice as much. Now, this is something I take for granted every time I pick up my camera.
I have to sit and think to remember what it was like to not really know if the image was going to be underexposed or blurry until it was developed. It’s hard to remember what it might have felt like to know I wasted material when an instant from my polaroid came out blurry too dark.
These days, the only images I print at all are my favorites.
Much like writing, photography is a medium of story telling with drafts, revisions, and edits.
Simply snapping a picture might be enough to just say “I was here.” Sometimes, that is enough. Other times, I might photograph the same scene or object over and over again at different angles and shutter speeds so I can tell a more detailed story. “I stopped to gawk because this caterpillar because those stripes are fascinating.”
I’ve never had the patience to really learn how to make the most of my camera’s manual settings, so often, when I get home and load my images to the computer, they fall short of my expectations and I end up in photoshop adjusting exposure and color balance and adding filters.
Sometimes, when I really want to tell a story without words, I’ll let my imagination run wild while I merge and blend different photos into something so strange and abstract that it might be some kind of art.
Mostly, photography and photo editing are hobbies, but I’ve been dabbling in cover art, and that, my friends, is paid work. It means getting paid to tell a visual story. It’s writing with pictures. Well, maybe more like writing a book blurb with pictures.
What are your favorite and least favorite questions people ask you about your writing?
I love answering questions about writing and publishing.
How did you decide to write a book? What did you have to do to get published? What type of things do you do when you revise? What are your favorite editing strategies? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
The above questions are among my favorite conversation topics. I love talking about the hows and whys of writing and publishing.
As a writing teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and researching how to help people (including myself) improve their writing. I’ve found one way to do this is to develop a good writing process, and as a result, I spend a lot of time observing, analyzing and tweaking my writing process. I love hearing how other people write as much as I love sharing what I do, what works about it, and what bugs I am still trying to work out.
Publishing is another topic I’ve spent countless hours researching. I still have a lot to learn, but I have a good base of industry knowledge that is growing every day and love answering questions about it.
Whether I’m talking about process or publishing, I find that I learn though explaining. Answering questions helps come to new realizations and see things I didn’t know I knew. It prompts me to fill in gaps in my knowledge, to look at things from different perspectives, and to synthesize in new ways.
How is your book doing? How many copies have you sold?
If you have a writer friend or relative you care about, just do not ask them these questions. It might be okay if the book is on the NYT or USA Today Best Seller List. In any other situation, it probably sucks.
First off all, the writer probably doesn’t really know how their books are doing, especially if they are not self-published. Amazon tells the “publisher” how many copies were sold, so if a writer isn’t self published, they have to wait for monthly, or in some cases, quarterly statements to see how many copies sold in a set period of time.
It’s frustrating enough not knowing how many copies I have sold. It’s worse when I constantly have people asking me about it.
Friends and family have been asking me about Power Surge’s sales since a few days after it came out in the begining of October. I can make some guesses based off of the Amazon sales rank. For example, if I looked on Amazon and saw Power Surge ranked around 100,000, I could assume I sold one book today on Amazon. However, I have no clue if someone buys a book from iBooks, from Barnes and Noble, from my local indie book store, or directly from the publisher’s website, until I get my royalty statements.
In the face to face world, I get pretty awkward pretty fast when people ask my what my book is about.
Online, if asked the same question, I can refer people to the blurb or take my time adapting a pre-made pitch for the question.
But ask me face to face? You get mubmled fragments about teenagers, Maine, and Demon Hunters, and my most awkward of all: “paranormal things.”
I’m pretty sure I’d sell more books if I got better at talking it up to the people at the dog park.
However, the most awkward questions of all are things like:
Are any of the characters based off of youself? What parts? Is anything in the book based off of something that really happened? The main character self-harms. Is that something you do?
Now, a more general question, like “what inspired you to write this?” is perfectly fine. However, when people start trying to use the book as a way to learn private things about my personal life, it gets very very awkward.
I know by calling the book “own voices” I am acknowledging that some the things that marginalize the narrator are also things I’ve experienced, but that doesn’t mean I want people walking up to me at a party and grilling me about which parts, especially if they are family. The last thing I want is people to think is that they can some how psychoanalyze me through my fiction.
If you want to talk to me about writing, I’m always happy to answer questions about writing itself, about the process and different ways to publish. I’m working on getting better at pitching Power Surge face to face. However, I prefer not to have to answer questions about sales I can’t really answer, and don’t want people using my fiction as an excuse to pry into my personal life.
December 5 question – What are five objects we’d find in your writing space?
My writing space changes with the season. April through September, I wrote on my screened-in-porch, or, on really nice days, the picnic table by the lake.
When heat becomes necessary, I move to the kitchen table. No matter which space I’m using, my laptop is always there because it’s what I write on. For the sake of this list, I’ll focus on things unique to the space.
Winter Space (aka a mess)
Summer Space (aka heaven)
No matter where I am writing, Goose the Cat aka The Meowditor-In-Cheif, is near-by. He likes to the delete words. Nothing is allowed to be fluffier than him.
How has your creativity in life evolved since you began writing?
I’ve been labeled “creative” and “imaginative” my whole life, but what that means to me has changed over time.
Most of the time, I took it as a compliment. However, there have been a few times I wondered if people called me imaginative because my ideas were just so weird.
However, writing and publishing fiction has showed me that a lot of my ideas aren’t as unique as I used to think. I’ve gotten plenty of rejection from editors saying my short stories were too familiar, too cliche, or two similar to overdone tropes.
On the other hand, I’ve gotten rejections along the lines of “it was a very imaginative piece, but it wasn’t right for us.”
It’s not just my definition of creative that has changed over time. The ways I express my creativity have evolved as well.
Making up stories has been a part of my life as along as I can remember, but writing them down used to be an inconsistent practice. In the times I wasn’t writing, my creativity showed in other ways.
The last two years I was in college, I was photographer at a mall portrait studio.
When I was in graduate school, I made just as much money making and selling beach glass jewelry as I made working part-time as a photographer.
Now that writing fiction is my main creative outlet, how I view creativity in terms of writing has changed. I used to think that drafting was the creative part, but I’ve since learned that revising, and even editing, is a rather creative process.
Want to see the results of my creative writing and editing? Buy a copy of Power Surge and read it.
How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?
My answer is yes.
Major life events can affect how frequently I write, how coherent that writing is, and sometimes, even the content of my writing.
When I’m stressed, anxious to the point where I can’t even think about going to bed at a reasonable time, writing is the only thing that keeps me going. When my spouse goes to bed, I’ll sit up at the kitchen table with the cat at my feet, frantically writing until two or three in the morning. The sentence structure and punctuation might be more off than usual, but it is also when I can actually write emotion, show characters feeling things.
With Power Surge, the book that took a decade to finish, life events and revelations about my self shaped how I finished and revised the novel. In fact, one could say it was a major life event that lead me to finish it in the first place: I finished a different book. And I finished that book because it was the only way to get through a few months of very high anxiety.
Whether it was Power Surge, or one of my yet to be published manuscripts (Song of the Forest, Like Birds, or Earth Reclaimed), my novels, and my numerous short stories, have all helped me coped with anxiety, depression, or whatever my brain throws at me.
This summer in particular, writing helped me deal with a stressful neighborhood situation. The two people who live on either side of me both have dogs. One dog is female, yellow, and about 45 pounds (the same size as my dog). Tavi, my pup, was still a baby when the yellow dog came to the neighborhood, and I swear she thinks she is his mother, at least she protects him like a mother dog would protect her puppies. To the other side of me is an 8lb ball of yapping energy.
This was not a good combination. One day, the little dog chased Tavi out of my yard and into her driveway. I thought Tavi had been tied to the trailer of the boat I was cleaning, but I had never actually clipped his 15-foot training leash to anything, so as he ran, that dragged behind him.
Tavi stopped and play bowed, possibly oblivious to little dog’s ruffled fur and bared teeth. Yellow dog charged out of her yard and down the driveway, grabbed little dog, and pullled her away from Tavi.
Little dog got hurt.
And for the next month, neighborhood tension grew as yellow dog’s and little dog’s owners passive aggressively argued over whose dog should be leashed and who was responsible for the vet bill.
Literally and figuratively, I was in the middle of it.
It was summer, so I wasn’t working. Yellow dog’s human, also a teacher, wasn’t working. Little dog’s owner, a national grid gas employee, was on strike and eventually, locked out.
In one month, I wrote a 20,000 novella and revised it three times. It wasn’t directly about what was happening in the neighborhood, but in one scene, a similar incident occurred. The main character was dealing with the same kind of mental health problems as me.
I haven’t looked at the story in a while, so I can’t confidently say whether or not it was good. But after proof reading the third draft, I remember thinking it was fantastic, and that it was the most emotional piece I had written since Power Surge.