This week’s guest is the clever and articulate Noel Ashland. I talked to her about finding a creative environment, the joy of the short format, and her unexpected strategy to avoid writing the story you don’t want to tell, plus a lot more.
Paul: Have you always thought of yourself as a writer or was it something you picked up along the way? What attracted you to writing in the first place?
Noel: I remember when I was little, I loved to make up stories. I told stories to my family and friends long before I could write. I think I’ve always thought of myself as a writer or at least a storyteller. Fifth grade was when I really started writing, and I was attracted to it because I could unleash my overactive imagination and entertain people at the same time.
Paul: Was there a particular teacher in fifth grade (or other point in school) that encouraged you or was that just the point at which it kind of solidified for you, where you realized you could express your imagination and get a positive response for it?
Noel: My 5th grade teacher made a difference. Her name was Mrs. Dorsey, and we all had a writing notebook. She always encouraged me to read my stories out loud to the class (I was pretty shy then), and my classmates would always tell me how much they enjoyed them (I wrote a lot of humor at the time). I’m sure the stories were terrible, but that’s when I remember really spending a lot of my free time writing. I wrote stories, plays, and poems. I even made comic strips (I am not an artist, but the art was funny and went with the story). If I wrote before then, I don’t really remember it. I think it was that she gave us a lot of freedom to write about what we wanted and gave us some fun prompts to try out. She would even take the time to read things I wrote outside of class and make comments.
Paul: So did you continue to write all through school up to the present time or was there a point where you kind of had to decide you wanted to pursue it more seriously?
Noel: I wrote for fun all through school and college. I started taking it more seriously about five years ago. That’s when I decided that I wanted to publish eventually though I think I’ve always had dreams of it. I wrote a few short stories with publishing in mind and started working on my novel. I’m doing a complete rewrite of it now (started a few months ago). In the past five years I’ve taken some long breaks (I went through a divorce, my father’s death, and worked full time while getting a masters degree), but I have a goal of being ready to submit to agents by next summer. Even during the breaks from writing the novel, I was thinking about it, outlining, and working out the characters. I also kept writing through papers for school, journals, and other shorter writings.
Paul: How do you define the distinction between writing for fun and writing seriously? Is it just a matter of submitting or does it change the kinds of stories you write or the subjects you tackle? Is it in the process or the approach, in your opinion?
Noel: For me it has to do with audience. Writing is always “fun” for me, but I used to write without thinking about a possible readership. I think taking it “seriously” for me was when I realized I wanted to reach a broader audience and that I was willing to go through many revisions. When I wrote for “fun” I didn’t really feel the need to revise or edit since the act of writing was the reward.
I actually enjoy revising and editing, so I don’t feel that it has affected my enjoyment of writing. The end goal is just a little different.
It doesn’t affect my subject matter. Though I think my novel comes partly from a conversation I had with a high school student my first year of teaching. He mentioned there weren’t many books that just happened to have a gay main character, and I tried to help him find some. At the time there weren’t many. Over the years many students have expressed similar concerns. I guess I’m trying to write something for all my students who were looking for something different and for my best friend from high school who loved paranormal novels and always had to read about straight couples. I am also writing for all teenagers. I want to go against some of the stereotypes in my writing and help teens deal with real issues (grief, loss, bulllying, relationships, etc.). I write with my audience in mind, but I also write what I want to write.
Paul: I’ve experienced a version of that shift as well. I think it may have something to do with the craft of writing. Doing “serious” work with the intention of being published means no longer having the luxury of first-draft-and-done. Nothing is ever publication worthy on the first draft unless you write five hours a day and average 200 words out of that. In order to really get serious about it, you almost have to discover this whole other side of writing which is self-critiquing, peer-critiquing, revising, analyzing, re-writing, and so on. Then there’s the whole business side.
I think it’s interesting that you use the phrase “happened to have a gay main character.” Do you think there’s value—social value, I suppose, or even just value in connecting with audiences—in trying to consciously create gay characters who are queer but at the same time are not defined by it? Is that something you’re striving for in your novel?
Noel: Yeah, because I think there are great works out there already that deal with the social and political issues. I don’t see myself as wanting to make a social statement so much but wanting to tell a great story with strong characters. I wrote a short story about the social issues to get it out of my system before starting the novel. I don’t want any of my main characters to be defined by one aspect. My main character isn’t defined by being gay, but it is a part of him, and it is important to give him developed relationships or attractions. I strive to make all of my characters complex with strengths and flaws. I do see value in creating those kinds of characters regardless of their demographics.
Paul: I really like the idea of writing a short story that is specifically the tale you don’t want to tell—but might be tempted to—before starting a longer work. Is this a strategy you employ fairly regularly or was it more of a one time thing? What particular itch does short story writing scratch for you in general, as opposed to longer pieces?
Noel: It is a strategy I used for this particular novel. I had moved from a big city to a small town (to teach) and went back in time. Teenagers were socially punished for being any kind of different (race, religion, clothing, sexuality, interests) by not only other teens but by the adults. The short allowed me to express my feelings and explore some of what I was witnessing.
What I like about short stories is that they can be more thematic and symbolic. Not that those elements don’t appear in my novels, but in a short story I don’t feel the need to develop side characters or fill in all the blanks. I can focus in on one theme or message and use everything in the story to support it. I enjoy the challenge of narrowing my story down to have the most impact. I love to leave a few things up to the reader’s interpretation.
Paul: Does short story writing typically feel like a narrowing down of a broader tale or do you ever find story ideas come to you that just feel like they won’t or shouldn’t expand beyond a shorter form?
Noel: The broader tale is there in my head, but the part that really matters is the short story. When an idea comes to me, I know right away if it will be a short story or a novel. I can’t really explain how I know, but I do.
Paul: I usually feel the same way. Have you ever been wrong before? For example, have you ever written a short story and thought later, “You know, I could go back and expand that a little…”? Or maybe started a novel and realized, “this isn’t as broad of an idea as I originally thought”? I find sometimes the way I can tell is by the order the characters occur to me. If I think of the character or characters first, often times that’s a longer project. If I get a plot notion first and have to insert a character into it later, that tends to be a short story. Do you tend to put plots to characters or find characters to serve your plots?
Noel: I mostly agree with your thoughts on it. If the characters come first, it’s often a novel; if the story or message comes first, it’s often a short story. My current project was probably a little of both, though I had my three main characters in mind, and they helped solidify the story.
Paul: How often do you write? Are there any techniques you employ to get in that creative mindset, a favored place to write or a time of day you find you’re at your creative peak?
Noel: During the summer, I try to work on my writing every day. During the school year, I am lucky to get in a few hours a week. I don’t really have any habits or a set schedule, but that works for me. I set goals each week, and most of the time I am able to meet them. I usually think about where I am going next in the novel for a few hours or days before my writing session. Often I think out the whole chapter before I actually write it. I don’t force myself if the chapter isn’t in my mind yet. I find I have to discard almost everything I force myself to write. Sometimes I’ll write nonfiction or revise when I am waiting for the ideas to form.
I write in several rooms of the house and sometimes when I am stuck, a change of scenery is all I need. When inspiration strikes I can write all night. I tend to write best at night, which can be a problem during the school year.
Paul: [laughs] I imagine so. Okay, last question, the one that I ask everyone. Tell me about the best book you’ve read recently.
Noel: I’ve read a lot of great books recently, but one that stands out is called Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers. It’s a young adult novel about a young woman trained as an assassin for death. There is action, political intrigue, and a dash of romance. It’s the first in a series called His Fair Assassin. The novel had great characterization, a lot of unexpected twists, and kept me reading long after I should have been asleep. It was a fun, quick read.
Noel Ashland writes nonfiction, short stories, and an occasional poem. Currently, she is writing a young adult novel featuring a medium, a ghost, and a teen suspected of murder. When she’s not writing, she enjoys traveling, spending time with family and friends, volunteering in her community, and drinking coffee. Catch up with her on her blog and follow her on twitter.