When did you find out you loved to write?
You’ve probably heard this a thousand times: I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen. One of my mother’s favorite stories is of her and my dad locking themselves in the bathroom to read and laugh over my first “book”–a self-illustrated, written in pencil, stapled together book on “School Rules.” I finished my first YA novel when I was a freshman in high school and my second when I was a junior. Those are probably both still stuffed in some drawer in my childhood bedroom at my parent’s house–where they belong. They’re full of “Mary Sues” every other newbie writing misstep imaginable. But, I had stories in my head and they had to come out. I believe that we are all storytellers: It’s genetically encoded into us. Some of us are compelled to write down those stories, and some are driven to go beyond just writing them, to hone and polish them, and make them better by studying the craft writing, and through practice.
What inspires you to write?
People and ideas. My stories are very much character-driven because seeing how people react in different circumstances fascinates me. Having people confront new and unusual circumstances, then seeing the range of emotions and reactions that can elicit is intriguing. Ideas that strike me as both ludicrous and ‘real,’ like the illusion of living the “easy life” on a tropical island–the plot in my first novel, Marina Melee. Part of that was inspired by my experiences when I was a full-time college student, juggling my studies with a full-time waitressing job. I’d be tired and sweaty, schlepping hamburgers from a hot kitchen out to sunburned tourists, and they’d invariably say something like, “It must be great to live here and just hang out at the beach all the time.”
Ye Gods! started as a spoof on the vampire and this idea that these horrible monsters can be made good through the power of love. I thought, what if the horrible monster truly is the good guy, a deity, in fact, but humans have bungled the concepts of good and bad so much that we can’t tell the difference? Building a plot around those kernels of an idea, getting a complete story out of it, is challenging and fun.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
Madeline L’Engel’s A Wrinkle in Time. I probably read that book a dozen times when I was in fifth grade, and then again once a year after that for many years. It was the first book I analyzed and dissected to see what drew me in and why, and it was the first time I saw myself in a protagonist. I remember reading her how Meg describes herself as she looks in the mirror–mouse brown hair, braces…and thought, “Oh, look, a misfit, like me!” It also honed my love of science-fiction and fantasy.
What books do you like to read and who is/are your favorite author(s)?
Favorite authors is a tie among Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, Terry Pratchett, Tom Robbins, and JK Rowling. On any given day, or at any given moment, any one of them might be at the top of my list. I love books that use humor to get at deeper human truths, point out our foibles, and use language in beautiful and unexpected ways. I also love sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction, mysteries, and in non-fiction, I particularly like the history of science and scientist’s biographies. I read just about anything–except romance. I’ve yet to find any “romance” that doesn’t make me laugh. Probably not the reaction the author was looking for.
Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
I prefer working with a plot. I follow what, for me, is a very structured process, although there’s a lot of flexibility within that process. I really do most of my writing in my head before putting words down. I need to know where the story is going, the main plot points along the way, and how I’m getting there before I can write, otherwise I end up with a meandering mess. Once I have that main idea mapped out in my head, I outline on paper. First, I roll out butcher paper on the dining room table, break out the colored pens, and using a different color for each character, map out key plot points for each character with arrows showing where their stories intersect. Then, I figure out where natural chapter breaks occur and block off chapters and scenes. Finally, I use index cards to outline each scene within a chapter. That way I can rearrange them or change whole scenes, if it makes sense as I write. Since it’s all written out and color-coded, if I do make a change, I can fairly easily edit to ensure that the change is carried through consistently from beginning to end. By the time I start to write, the story and characters are like old friends. They can still do things that surprise me and change the story, and I allow for and even expect that, but I can also discriminate between a valid change and an unnecessary tangent or detour and so avoid taking it.
I know some writers argue that outlining kills spontaneity and creativity, but for me, all that spontaneity happened in the mental part of planning, and my job is to capture that plan and retell the story that already played out in my head, so it’s equally creative and spontaneous, just at a different time in the process. And I find I have far fewer rewrites on paper because I already did them in my head and in my outline.
How hard was it to sit down and actually start writing something?
That’s the real chore of writing for me. I’m a great procrastinator. I can toss the idea around in my head, plot and outline, and know everything I want to get down, but can become paralyzed with the fear of not being able to capture what I envision in words on the page. I wrote and rewrote the first 3 chapters of my first novel for about a year before I finally made myself move on. For Ye Gods!, I had a similar start, but knew I’d just have to make myself sit down and write, so “streamlined” that slow start down to months instead of a year.
Have you ever left any of your books stew for months on end or even a year?
My first novel, Marina Melee, took about 10 years from idea to writing through publication, with much of that time spent in the story “stewing.” The cook time has been greatly reduced since then, but I still incorporate significant rumination in the process. As I discussed earlier, my preparation involves a lot of mental plotting and planning. All that mental stewing prior to writing lets me work out plots, identify and fill plot holes, and get to know the characters. Then, I go through my actual plotting process. That gives me a visual double-check for consistency in the plot, ensuring characters stay in character, and identifying plot holes. I can even start to see emerging themes or subplots that I hadn’t recognized earlier on. So, all that stewing time is built in up front. Once I finish my first draft and revisions, I submit chapter-by-chapter to my critique group. We limit ourselves to about one chapter or 3000 words per week, so that’s another built-in allowance for stewing, where I can step back from the story to look at it with “fresh eyes.”
Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?
I think my writing has certainly matured and improved on both the technical and the story-telling levels. My participation in the Internet Writing Workshop, various writers’ conferences and seminars, as well as reviewing books for both the Internet Review of Books and Underground Book Reviews, have taught me a lot of the finer nuances of the difference between technically correct, “good” writing, and “great” storytelling. I can’t say I’ve personally achieved greatness, but I can at least now spot it and know a bit more about what’s involved in getting to that magic place. One way I’ve been able to “see” that my knowledge (and hopefully ability) has improved is my understanding when I read and reread Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. When I started on this writing journey, I read it and thought, “Yeah, yeah, we all know that.” After working at it, I could identify where various bits of advice applied to my own writing and where I could improve. Each time I read it–and I read it again every time I complete a manuscript and get ready to edit–I find new depth and nuance, and new relevance for my own writing in their advice. Experience has given me a greater appreciation for the adage that publishing a novel isn’t about writing it, but about rewriting it.
Writers are often believed to have a Muse, your thoughts on that?
I definitely have Muses that motivate and inspire me. They aren’t necessarily a living being, but can be an idea. I also have “muse-music”–theme songs that capture the mood of what I’m working on: “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash for Marina Melee; “I Believe in Miracles” by Hot Chocolate for Ye Gods!; and, Imagine Dragon’s “Demons” for The Un-Familiar.
Tell us about your publishing experience.
With my first novel, I’d gone through the process of querying agents and received the requisite stack of rejections, a few “gee this is great, but not for us” letters, but that was it. At a writer’s conference, some agents suggested establishing a publishing record first by looking at small, indy publishers. Those agents also emphasized that “money flows to an author” and cautioned against some less-than-scrupulous publishers who didn’t care about quality because they made their money off the author, not off book sales. My finding Casperian Books must have been fate because another publisher, that was no longer publishing fiction, referred me to them, and at the same time, another writer suggested I try them. I was determined not to self-publish or use a vanity publisher, mostly because I have a delicate ego and didn’t trust my own judgement on whether or not the manuscript was ready and good enough. I needed someone who believed in it as much as I did, and who thought it was good enough to invest their time and money in and trust it would sell well enough for me and them to earn back that investment and more.
Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or pay someone to do it for you?
Both. I go through many rounds of proofreading and editing. I do my first round while writing, at the end of each chapter. Reading what I’ve written out loud helps me to spot flaws, see where I have good cadence and where things falter, and clean up a bit. Then, once I’ve finished the first complete draft, I edit each chapter again before I submit it to my critique group (Internet Writing Workshop – fabulous, supportive, helpful online community of writers.) They get the next crack at it and always find errors I’ve missed and new ways to improve what I’ve written. Then, I send it off to a professional editor, Rebecca Bender, and 2-3 beta readers. After that, I think (hope) it’s ready for querying. Once accepted, the publisher’s editor does the final review and suggests changes or finds new errors that I’ve missed, or that I’ve introduced when making other corrections or changes.
It amazes me that no matter how many rounds of editing a manuscript goes through, something almost always gets overlooked. The editing process has made me a much more forgiving reader when I find a few typos in books, but also much more critical and less tolerant of works that have an error or two on every page. I think that’s a sign that the writer is more interested in publishing than in writing a good story, and shows the author has no respect for the craft or their readers.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
I love when the chaotic swirl of complex story lines tumbling around in my head all come together into a cohesive whole. When I first see the outline filled with plot points spreading out in front of me, but only blank pages on the computer screen, it’s a bit intimidating. In those early stages, I’m insecure and worry I’m not up to the task of capturing all the complexity and nuance of what I see in my head. As I get further in and start to untangle it all, I get more excited to see if and how I can bring it together. It’s very similar to how I feel when solving puzzles (I’m a big fan of all sorts of puzzles.) It’s very fulfilling to know I’ve accomplished what I set out to do when I finish. That doesn’t mean I’ve managed it completely to my satisfaction yet, but I suspect all writers feel that way. That’s why we write the next one.
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?
Yes. I’ve used my experiences in the stories, but not me. I learned early on that I do a much better job of telling other people’s stories, so I made a conscious choice to remove myself or any character who might be like me, from my stories. When I was living in the Virgin Islands, I worked with marina owners and operators, and boaters. They had so many hilarious stories of their adventures, I knew I’d write a book about it. Marina Melee came together in my mind one night when two of the marina managers got up at karaoke and sang “All Our Exes Live in Texas” (they had 5 or 6 ex-wives between them). That gave me the idea of George running away from his life in Texas to “the easy life” on a tropical island.
Not only are the characters based on real people, but the location is a real place. Like Amerigo in Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival, I used a fictitious name so it could be any-island. I’d like boaters, islanders, and anyone who’s visited an island to read about São Jorge and say, “Oh, I know exactly where that is.” But, anyone familiar with St. Thomas will recognize the geography, buildings, and people.
How long did it take to complete your first published novel, Marina Melee?
Years! I had the original idea in the late-90s. I started writing in fits and starts, but juggling that around work was difficult so I never made much progress. Although not much got written, I did flesh out scenes and the plot in my head, and knew where the story was going. I just needed the opportunity to work less and write more. In 2005, I quit my job to focus on writing. That’s when I learned that being a good writer in the technical, scientific, peer-reviewed way is not at all like being a good writer in the “someone would actually want to read this” way. Because the story and people in Marina Melee were personal and important to me, I wanted to do my best, and recognized I wasn’t ready. So, I shelved it, joined an online writers group, read dozens of books on writing fiction, and really worked at improving my writing for a number of years, then had some shorter pieces published: essays, book reviews, and short stories. Once I had some fiction publishing credits, I returned to Marina Melee. By that time, the real George had lost his battle with cancer, so it was even more important to me that I tell the story well to honor him. I finished writing, rewriting, and editing in 2008, and it was published in 2010. From idea to complete manuscript took me about 10 years, then another two years for querying and publication.
Was it an easy and smooth write? Any struggles along the way?
I learned a lot about the craft of writing along the way, and a lot about what works and doesn’t for me. I can’t say any of the lessons were particularly easy to learn. Some days the words flowed and I’d think, “Oh, I really have the hang of this now.” Other days, I’d agonize over every keystroke, word, and scene, then delete them all. The hardest thing to do, for me, was to put aside my ego and send my words out into the world for critiquing. I’m pretty sure every writer’s first experience with that is like body blows, a very personal attack. Learning to accept and be thankful for brutal feedback isn’t easy, but it’s essential for a writer. No matter how much your peers in your critique group rip your work apart, it’s nothing compared to what will happen when that work is out in the world for everyone to see.
Did writing get easier with your second, and now third, novels?
Yes and no. There’s something to be said for not knowing what you’re getting into. That initial exuberance that, “I’m going to write a novel!” carried me pretty far. When I began Ye Gods!, knowing what lay ahead became daunting. Can I do this again? Do I have it in me? The story was more complex, told from multiple POVs, and these were new characters that I had to get to know. I put a lot of pressure on myself, between my desire to continuously improve my work, and to incorporate all the lessons I’d learned along the way with Marina Melee. At the same time, I knew I could do it because I’d done it once already, and knew I had learned a lot and grown as a writer. When positive reviews started coming in for Marina Melee that bolstered my confidence. Once I started and got to know the characters, the actual writing of Ye Gods! went pretty smoothly–due both to experience and having an outline to guide me. I hadn’t planned for Ye Gods! to have a sequel, much less be a trilogy, but by the time I finished, the complete story arc had developed in my mine and the characters were clamoring for the rest of their story to be told. I think the sequel, The Un-Familiar, was easier to write than either Marina Melee or Ye Gods! because I knew the story and had a very detailed outline, and I already knew the characters.
Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?
I’m a marine scientist by training, but to pursue my writing, I quit my full-time career and now am an adjunct college professor. I love teaching. I remember the professors who inspired me and instilled my passion for learning and for science, and I try to do the same for my students.
Does your day job ever get in the way of your writing?
I’m very lucky in that I have a lot of flexibility with my schedule. When I’m really deep into writing, I can cut back the number of classes I teach. I blame work when I’m not being as diligent as I’d like in writing, but the truth is, I’m a master-procrastinator and so I get in the way of my writing more than anything else does.
How do you see writing? As a hobby or a passion?
Yes to both. For now, because I have to do it around another primary, paycheck earning job, I would classify my writing as a hobby. I have started to earn money from it, but I spend as much and more on continuously improving my ability with classes, seminars, and conferences, and on marketing and promotion, so it certainly isn’t a source of income so much as outgo. But, I can’t imagine not writing, so it’s also a passion. Someday, I hope to say it’s my profession.
Have you ever been stricken with ‘writer’s block’, and how do you deal with it?
I think the best thing I did for my writing was to figure out that I can’t (or shouldn’t) write on paper until I’m ready, and learning that thinking through the story is part of my process. So, even when I’m not writing, I’m writing. When I first started, I’d call that mental part writer’s block (because I wasn’t putting words on paper) and that would stress me out. Now, I call it processing time and, for me, it’s a very productive and necessary part of my writing.
Is it true that anyone can be a writer?
I just discovered that not everyone harbors a secret desire to be a writer–who knew? Writing is such an innate part of who I am that I just figured everyone felt the same way. I’d been working under this assumption that we all did have a writer in us waiting to come out. In a conversation with friends recently, they said, “No, never had the desire.” It really was a shocking revelation. Likewise, I’ve had a number of people tell me, “Have I got a great idea for a book that you should write.” While they have a story, they don’t have a compelling drive to share it themselves. To be a writer, one needs both a story, and the passion to tell it, and not everyone has that.
What do you do in your free time?
I wish I had more free time since I really prefer hobbies to work. I golf, but not nearly as much as I’d like, and I swim a few days each week. Most of my free time, however, is spent doing agility with my dogs, Muggle and Lupin.
Is there anything you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers?
The Un-Familiar: A Tale of Cats and Gods (the sequel to Ye Gods! A Tale of Dogs and Demons; both published by Casperian Books) comes out on July 1, 2016. It continues the search for the chupacabra, who–once again–is hiding in plain sight. I’ve got the start of an outline for the final book in the trilogy, Ye Goddess! A Tale of Girls and Gods, but have put that on the back burner.
In the meantime, I’m working on a golf-buddies novel called A Rattling of Bones. It’s based on a short-story, Golf Goes On (published by Infective Ink, July 2015), the story of four long-time friends. When one of them dies, the others use a Bible verse (Ezekiel 37) to try and bring him back from the dead. It succeeds and now they have to deal with the fun that ensues. I hope to complete the first draft of the manuscript in the next few months, then go through the long process of editing, querying, and publishing, so don’t expect it will be out before 2018.