Welcome to the first in a series of interviews with Athens-area writers. The hope is to inform you about new techniques you might want to try, increase your knowledge of the individuals in your community, inspire you on your path — or at least tickle your funny bone when you learn your AWA founder was a fan of both ‘SeaQuest DSV’ and shōjo manga. I started with the easiest writer to corral (myself), but I’m super-excited to learn about a wide range of Athens writers. Please contact me if you’re interested in answering our writing questionnaire and being featured here as a future ‘local writer’. Now, I apologize for the length of this post (‘she’ was a talker!).
NOTE: Special thanks to AWA co-founder Jill Hartmann-Roberts for supplying us with these wonderful questions.
Q: At what point in your life did you become a writer and how you first know you wanted to be a writer?
A: I have been making up stories all my life and never really ‘grew up’ in that regard. Stories with He-Man and My Little Ponies became running through the fields near our home pretending to be a wild horse surviving in a vast wilderness then became making up stories about humans (!) based on the TV shows ‘Sisters’, ‘Earth 2’, and ‘SeaQuest DSV’.
But I believe I became a writer at about age 16 when I started an unfinished novel inspired by ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’.
As for how I knew I wanted to be a writer — I knew I never want to stop telling stories, never wanted to pack away my playmates, my inspirations, and my heroes and become a normal adult. Stories to me bring out the best, most thoughtful, most beautiful parts of ourselves and our world. I have always wanted to be a writer. Or a horse trainer. Something dealing with unruly mammals.
Q: What books have you read that shaped you as a writer? Which authors’ work do you admire and why?
A: That’s an all-day-to-answer question. I’ll give a few examples. My mother read ‘The Secret Garden’ to me as a child. I loved other stories but there was a wonderful plot and sense of character progression to that book, as well as a feeling that magic exists hidden in the everyday and that we transform our lives for the better if we have the courage and dedication to seek it.
‘Misery’ by Stephen King was another important book that shaped my progression as a writer. A fantastic book that I appreciated even more when I reread it years later. It was plot AS character, character AS plot. I loved how Paul and Annie’s conflict felt natural, evolutionary, and destined toward doom. Annie is one of the clearest, most memorable characters I have ever read.
Lastly, ‘Maurice’ by E.M. Forster came quite along far into my education but pretty much blew the doors off everything. Perfect love story. Great character study. Bold, accessible writing. Fearlessness. It comforted me by helping me believe my stories and viewpoints were not too small or simple to be meaningful. And it challenged me to write outside my comfort zone and use every bit of my intelligence and love in each word and line.
Other authors include —
- Dennis Lehane for the absolute beauty and economy of his sentences
- Nick Hornby for the most relatable, flawed human characters
- Jane Austen for defining (and redefining) perfect love stories amid human fallibility
- J.R.R. Tolkien for writing the perfect adventure and then upping the game by adding a spirituality that breaks my heart and encourages me forward
- Natsuki Takaya for her take on humor, romance, courage and forgiveness. And for writing an incredible novel with over 20 main characters that just happens to also have in it drawings of hot boys (manga comic ‘Fruits Basket’)
- F. Scott Fitzgerald for creating the perfect literary novel (my favorite kind of novel) and putting the words together in such a way that I’m in awe. Every. Damn. Time.
Q: Which piece that you have written are you most proud of and why?
A: My latest novel ‘Society & Civility’. Honestly, I’ve become a better writer than I ever thought I’d be — and it’s only taken eighteen years! ‘Society & Civility’ started out as a lark, my own take on the regency world of Jane Austen. Through a LOT of hard work though, it became my most coherent piece — one filled with characters I love and scenes that speak to the challenges of being human — whatever your century or class. And I’m not gonna lie — the love story gets me every time. Actually, one line is my favorite and gives me hope as a writer for the future. Our heroine to a suitor —‘Perhaps my happiness is a great mystery to you, Mr. Barnes, but I could give you a few pointers as to how to obtain it.’ So proud!
Q: Do you gravitate toward a particular genre (s) and/or format when you write? Tell us more about which genres and/or formats are your “passion”?
A: Honestly, I gravitate toward good writing. What I mean by this snotty-sounding answer is that I’m drawn to interesting setups with great characters but HOW the story is told, and how the lines are written, is really what draws me in when I’m reading — and writing. You can call it literary fiction, though I recently learned about a new publishing term ‘upmarket’. It’s kind of like adding literary to your favorite genre. ‘Upmarket fantasy.’ Upmarket women’s fiction.’ Maybe that’s my ‘passion’.
My novel and screenwriting history goes mystery, fantasy, fantasy, love story, coming-of-age, love story, ghost story. I am drawn to fantasy because I feel there is more to life than the obvious. Also, I’m probably secretly a TV writer because I love characters, dialogue, and scenes SO MUCH.
Q: Have you studied writing and/or attended writing seminars, workshops or conferences? Where and what did you learn from your classes/sessions and other writing teachers? Did any of them stand out to you and why?
A: I’m pretty self-taught. As someone home schooled, I didn’t have a lot of connection to the idea of advanced education — but I had a lot of passion to learn on my own. The sum of my experiences in that realm is —
- A two-day screenwriting class — I learned a LOT about format and plotting. As a youngin’ I gained a lot of confidence and I still use things I learned from Michael Hauge today — like that you should make your hero funny, great at what they do, or a good person.
- Conferences — I went to about three of the Harriett Austin conferences in Athens. Great experience but one with diminishing returns. I learned to be more outgoing, that agents and editors are real, normal human beings, and I learned more about the publishing industry.
- A novel critique group — this is where the majority of my education took place. We were together only a few years but I wouldn’t be here without them. Highly recommended, but you have to keep looking to find the right fit, and nowadays I’ve reached the point where I’m happier to experiment and grow without constant feedback. But I learned so much from them.
- Patrick LoBrutto — if you guys ever want to build a shrine to this man, I’ll be first in line to help. I took one day-long class he and Michael Seidman taught about character and at a conference I paid for a fifteen minute critique of my first novel. Love, love, LOVE him. He was the perfect mentor, a little challenging, encouraging (there was a scene he called quite good — still proud!), and mostly, he was super-enthused about storytelling and it was palatable and transferable. I owe him a lot.
Other than that, everything has come from books and articles.
Q: Have you had any formal writing jobs and/or published any of your work? If so, tell us about your jobs and/or publications.
A: I’ve always been happy that, while learning my craft, I had a ‘day job’ that was the opposite of writing — lots of walking, up and about, physical (stocking/merchandising at a Best Buy). That way I always came to writing fresh instead exhausted. And it’s taken a while to achieve my goal of being able to write at a professional level.
I’ve just written a couple of pieces for BE.magizine, which is a good challenge.
I’ve self published two books —
- ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’ — a novel about a young estate owner imprisoned by his servant in 1800s England. I tried to entice agents by calling it ‘a love story about a man trapped in a cage.’ For some reason, they weren’t biting.
- ‘How To Come Alive: A Guidebook to Living Your Dreams’ — a self improvement book based on my 35+ years of living and constantly seeking to improve myself.
Q: What is unique about your writing process? What works for you, and what doesn’t work?
A: I don’t know if it’s unique, but my process is (in general) to think about a story idea for a looooong time before I actually start writing. I find the more pre-work I do — ‘hearing’ conversations between characters, building playlists of songs that inspire me, even wearing jewelry that the hero might wear — all that really helps me know who these characters are what I actually start writing. Mostly, I don’t do a lot of pre-writing though. Character profiles and anything longer than a couple-of-page outline can stifle the movement of actually writing the novel. I want a general idea of events and then I want to discover and experience the book as I write it.
Once I’m writing, I actually purposefully don’t think about where the plot is going. I have my two page outline, but I want to keep as much spontaneity and freshness as possible while writing. I want the characters to lead me to new discoveries.
As long as I make sure every scene and line is interesting to me, I find I don’t have to go back and cut a lot later.
But I do have to edit a lot. I do at least five drafts. It’s just a lot of work and I don’t know any way to make something great without pouring over every word, line, and comma (shout-out to other Oxford Comma fans!).
What doesn’t work is writing anything I don’t care about. It’s been pointed out that pretty much every idea I’ve ever had is ‘un-commercial’. When I write to the best of my abilities, I think I can make fascinating worlds, great characters, and unforgettable dialogue — all things I think can be commercial. But I do have very little interest in playing it safe and doing what’s been done to death before. I’m invigorated by possibility and discovery and showing the audience something they didn’t know they needed.
from ‘A Caged Heart Still Beats’
Q: What is the most challenging area of writing for you?
A: Self-doubt. I sometimes hesitate to write for fear I can’t do my ideas justice. That leads to long breaks between stories (ironically, I’m much more confident when in the middle of writing). I also don’t know when something needs more editing and when I’ve done all I can. Lastly, this self-doubt sometimes leads me to not ‘hearing’ positive feedback and instead only focusing on minor criticisms. I’m working on these issues, but it’s the work of a lifetime.
On a more practical level, plotting has been something that’s taken time to hone (characters come much more naturally to me).
The other big challenge is figuring out how to combine the touch-the-stars-magic of writing with the idea of making money from it and transforming it into my full-time job.
Q: What are you currently writing?
A: After a break of 18 years, I’ve returned to my first love — screenwriting! I’m currently working on ‘Beaumont Lake’, a ghost story about a teenage girl forming a friendship with two ghosts while trying to avoid becoming their murderer’s next victim. It’s a big challenge but finishing this story has been a dream of mine for a long time. An inspiring song that sums up the mood of the piece — ‘Once Upon a Dream’ by Lana Del Rey.
Later this year, I also hope to finish the first draft of my in-progress novel TRIad, a young adult story about three brothers with superpowers.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who is just beginning to write?
A: Trust yourself. Read Brenda Ueland’s ‘If You Want to Write’. The craft side will come along naturally as you read a lot and write a lot. Remember that ‘Talent’ is a myth — there is only love and hard work — that’s what makes great writing.
Remember that you have amazing potential and you can do it — you just have to believe and fight and work hard and never stop following your own crazy star. No one deserves to be here more than you.
Also, read classics, read other genres and types of entertainment. Graphic novels, non-fiction, web cartoons — you can learn so much about dialogue from the masters of the comics page (Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz, Berkeley Breathed).
Write what you like, not what others tell you to like. There something the world has never seen before — alive and dwelling within you — and it is something the world desperately needs. Share your vision with us. And remember this quote by Ira Glass —
Q: How has being a writer changed your life?
A: In every conceivable way possible. It’s made me more curious, kinder; it has brought me friends and confidence. It has filled my days with the most wonderful discoveries and triumphs.
Mostly though, it has allowed me to continue playtime far beyond when most people settle down and ‘become adults’. I get to travel everywhere, meet the most amazing people, see fearsome and amazing sights, and watch the human spirit overcome every attempt to thwart it. And then I get to transcribe those experiences and hopefully bring to readers a fraction of the joy that other peoples’ books have brought me over the years.
Another thing writing has given me is the feeling that I’m only getting started. At 36, I’m beginning to feel like I’m getting the hang of this — let’s go knock the world off its axis!
by October Jones