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.
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.
Some of the books that made me fall in love with the genre of urban fantasy were set in actual cities, or I guess, technically, they’re not really those cities but alternate magical versions of them. The Dresden Files was set in Chicago and Greywalker was set in Seattle, so I when set to write urban fantasy, I also choose to set my books in alternate magical versions of real places.
As a reader, I prefer urban fantasy settings grounded in the real world, but not fully limited by it. I want there to be some recognizable landmarks for the city the story takes place in, but I also don’t want the setting to adhere to strictly to reality because then it doesn’t feel enough like fiction.
I write the type of books that I want to read. So when I write urban fantasy, there are usually some landmarks with real life counter-parts that exist along side a plethora of completely made up ones.
In Power Surge, the school Erin and friends attended was completely fictional, but one of the battles happens at Portland Head Light. The characters go in made up shops and restaurants, but those are within the confines of Portland.
I don’t put actual business in the story, though generically named places often bear some resemblances to my favorite eateries even if that was never my intention.
Good food sticks in my unconscious, and writing first drafts is a lot like dreaming. The worlds of my urban fantasy novels wind up littered with almost-Doppelgängers of my favorite restaurants.
Legal and ethical issues aside, I don’t use exclusively real settings because I feel too limited if I can’t completely make up certain aspects of a place, like the staff, the decor, and the restrooms.
However, a recent afternoon spent in Portland reminded me this balance is a tricky one to maintain, and I didn’t do quite as a good a job with it in Power Surge as I thought I did.
I’d been to all places that inspired my setting many times before I wrote the scenes that happened there. Years ago, shortly before and while I was working on early drafts, I frequented downtown Portland as well as the beaches and light houses around it.
Unfortunately, there was a large gap between those visits and the final revisions and edits of the book.
Google maps, even on satellite view, is no substitute for actually going to a place, walking around, taking pictures, smelling it, hearing it, and taking it all in.
I’m certain that in the early drafts, my description of places with real life counterparts, the ones that ground the fantasy, were very accurate. I’m not so sure I’d say that about the final version. I’m not way off, but when I think about how I described Portland Head Light and Crescent Beach, I realize I made them to small. I didn’t take the parking lot gates into account when my characters visited at night.
How did this happen?
I revised my descriptions of the “real” settings the same way I revised descriptions of fictional ones, and wasn’t careful enough to make sure I was staying true to the place.
To readers who have never been to the places in the book, it won’t matter. However, if someone who frequented them picked up, I fear some inconsistencies with reality might yank them out of the narrative.
“That parking lot is way bigger than you described!”
“If it was ten at night, the gate would have been closed.”
This is the danger of mixing actual landmarks in fiction. You may start with a light house or beach readers could visit, but if you are not careful enough, you may edit that place away from it’s real life counterpart without even realizing it.
In some ways, that is for the better. I’m writing fiction, and no matter how much the Portland Head Light in my book may or may not look like the real thing, at most, it is a Doppelgänger. The setting of the book isn’t reality but an alternate version of it. Still, I don’t want to confuse or alienate local readers.
I’m not sure if I’ll change how I handle settings in urban fantasy, but I need to be more careful. I need to approach revision differently in those sections. I need to really be aware of how much time messes with my memory.
Have you ever used real cities or landmarks in your books? Why or why not?
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?
Note: As you read this post, you may notice I’m vague about the content of the review. You could probably go on Goodreads and figure out what I’m referring to, but I don’t want this to be seen as a response or rebuttal to the review. My goal is to capture my thought process as a new author seeing a negative review of their first novel.
Up until this week, all the reviews that I’d seen for Power Surge have been positive, which of course, made me skeptical. Inevitably, someone was going to burst my bubble.
It finally happened. Someone who didn’t finish the book left a review without a rating.
I disregarded advice I’ve heard across the internet and read the review. I’m glad I read it, even if I was surprised by my reaction.
At first, my brain processed it like feedback from a CP or beta reader. I had to squash my instinct to explain why I wrote something the way I did, and then I had to squash my urge to reply thanking the reviewer.
I thought about what I could’ve changed in a scene the reviewer alluded to. I came to the conclusion that in general, I need to be more careful about how my main character and my narrative voice react to characters who say problematic things or hold problematic opinions.
After a day, I realized that in my mind, the review had shifted from what it actually was something completely different. I had latched onto to a specific phrase the reviewer mentioned and made the whole thing about that scene.
Early in the morning when I just wanted to go back to sleep, I took it personally, as if the characters flaws were my own.
I realized one assumption the reviewer made was literally wrong.
I thought that it was the only review people are going to pay attention to. No one else would buy my book. No agent or publisher will represent future works of mine.
I thought the reviewer was wrong. I thought the reviewer was calling me out on an important issue. I wanted to thank them. I wanted to argue. I wanted respond, to know more, but I didn’t because writers need to leave readers and reviewers alone.
Instead of filing the feedback aside for future work and moving on, as you can see, I obsessed over it.
But something good did come out of it.
It reminded me that just says they don’t like a character or can’t connect with a character in a published work, I’m shouldn’t think much of it, especially when I know other readers have connected to that character. That type of thing is subjective and varies from person to person.
If a character makes someone uncomfortable? That’s okay. I’ve read books with characters that made me uncomfortable too, but that didn’t mean that book was bad.
Different people react differently to different characters. A good chunk of this bad review was based off of things I think of as subjective, and some assumptions the person made because they stopped reading too soon.
However, when I see a reviewer mention something harmful, like misogyny, it is worth reflecting on. The reviewer mentioned a phrase a character used in a scene, and I think I could’ve done a better job showing the main character and the narrative voice’s disapproval of that attitude.
Now, that might not have fixed it for the reviewer, who might have perceived an overall tone that I’m somewhat oblivious to, but to me, that change would’ve helped.
If a reviewer calls an author out on problematic or harmful ideas, then the author needs to listen. They need to take that into account and reflect. Maybe the reviewer is onto something. Maybe they are misconstruing it or their reading is being influenced by some outside factor. Either way, it’s something for me to keep in the back of my head when I’m revising the sequel and other works, especially since I do tend to include characters who hold problematic opinions or say harmful things in some of my works.
Sometimes those characters change.
Sometimes I kill them.
Sometimes they don’t actually mean the things they say, but feel they are expected to act that way fit a certain mold…or they are just trying to piss someone off.
In future science fiction and secondary world fantasy, I’m open to leaving those characters out and writing about societies that have out grown a lot of the problems that plague Earth today. On the other hand, when I write books like Power Surge, urban fantasy with a contemporary setting, the nasty side of present-day humanity rears it’s ugly head.
Sometimes problematic ideas creep in unintentionally, stemming from things I may not realize I internalized. Other times, I think I am deliberate exposing the dirt and raking up the muck, yelling “Look! This is a problem! Do you see why?”
I need to careful that the narrative voice isn’t endorsing their harmful words and to remember that silence equals endorsement. I need to acknowledge that some readers don’t want to see certain harmful concepts represented on the page in any way, shape or form, and that if those readers pick up a book like Power Surge, they might have a problem with.
Books that ignore problematic concepts and try to show us a better way to live and think and act are incredibly important. Books that get messy and roll around in humanity’s, books that acknowledge harm ideas and punch them in the face are also important.
Reading a critical review of my book ended up being a thought provoking excercise that was worth the stress it created.
If you are interested in reading Power Surge, for yourself, here are some buy links.
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.
2018 is just about over, and while it may not have been my most fruitful year for producing new work, it was a fantastic year for publishing. My first novel was published. My short fiction and poetry appeared in nineteen publications
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.