Regular readers may remember this week’s Aspiring Voices spotlight writer from her excellent guest fiction post, The Gun’s Fear, earlier this month. I chatted with her about her past life as a dancer, the role of criticism in improving your skill, the nature of success and how one defines “making it” as an author. Plus, she teaches me about Kinetic Fiction.

Kinetic

John via Creative Commons

Paul: What was the first story you remember writing where you finished and thought, “Yeah, there’s something here”?

Alisia: The first story that really changed my view on writing was something I wrote in ninth grade. I had just finished reading On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony and was inspired to write my own short introduction to Thanatos. The piece was only about 500 words, but it was the first time I had finished a story with a sense of accomplishment. I had never had the urge to share any of my previous writings, but I was so proud of this piece that I mustered up the courage to post it on Fictionpress. I didn’t get many views on my story, but one person left me a very flattering comment. She told me my story was the best she’d ever read on the site and she urged me to write more. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word from a stranger for you to realize that not everything you write is complete garbage.

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For this week’s Aspiring Voices, I talk with the savvy and articulate Alexandra Lynwood about her experience self-publishing and the opportunities opening up for new authors. We also talk about getting in The Zone, the siren song of the Xbox, and what still draws crowds into bookstores.

Printing Press

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In this edition of Aspiring Voices I sat down to chat with ED Martin, author of the forthcoming novel The Lone Wolf. We talked about humanistic psychology and its role in her writing, how finishing her first book led to ideas for more, and the downside of having creative impulses in the morning.

Love and Redemption, Part 3

J. Star via Creative Commons

Paul: So I was kind of drawn to the tagline on your website that reads, “…stories of love and betrayal, sacrifice and redemption”. What is it about those things that attracts you as a writer?

ED: I have a degree in psychology, and I really enjoy examining people’s motivations for their actions and reactions. The themes I write about are universal, no matter the genre. So many conflicts people have revolve around love, but for me there’s no story in that. For me, it gets interesting when you have a character who loves someone, but maybe he betrays her somehow. How does she react to that? Or a character loves someone, but her goal isn’t the same as his. What’s he willing to give up to help her? And more importantly, why does one character react one way but another reacts differently? These themes are something we can all relate to; by writing from different perspectives, maybe I can help readers open their minds and better relate to other people.
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This week I’m welcoming the wonderfully thoughtful Lea Grover to the Aspiring Voices hot seat. Lea is a prolific blogger over at Becoming SuperMommy and writes fiction on the side. Lea and I had a chat about historical fiction as a connection point to your past and present, the paradox of wanting your children to understand suffering without having to suffer, the social aspect of writing, and why you can’t believe anything anyone says over the phone.

Vintage Series -- Adams Lake c. 1950, My mother

Mark Kortum via Creative Commons

Paul: You’re a blog writer and have done work on a number of sites, many in the so-called mommy blogger realm. What is it about fiction that attracts you? Does it scratch a particular itch that slice-of-life or journal-style non-fiction doesn’t? If you had to choose only one, which would you pick?

Lea: Fiction has always attracted me. Making up stories, inventing characters… it gives you control over not only some version of the physical world, but over your own emotions as well. It definitely allows for a creative expression that non-fiction doesn’t. If I had to pick only one, I would probably pick fiction, but that’s only because I’ve had the opportunity to write about my life—which has had its fill of extraordinary events. I feel like my non-fiction is something that I write because it can be used to help people, and my fiction is what I write because I quite simply can’t not write.

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Untitled

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Willow scraped her slippers along the carpet, reaching up to stretch and rub her eyes but stopping short with a little squeak of surprise when she saw the book on the floor. Her office was spotless, a sanctuary from the chaos of a careless boyfriend through the rest of the house. The walls were lined with floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, excepting the wide corner desk, where she ran her customized balloon distribution company from her laptop. A book on the floor in this office was an affront to Willow’s unflinching rule: no one in the office without explicit permission.

She picked up the hardcover and turned it over. Agatha Christie’s After The Funeral. Willow carried the book into the kitchen, staring at the cover. “Hey Long,” she said, suppressing a sour look at the sight of her boyfriend hunched over a cereal bowl, slurping and chewing loudly with an open mouth, “were you looking for a book in my office?”

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An effervescent Callie Hunter is my guest today for Aspiring Voices. I chatted with Callie over breakfast about living inside your fictional characters, letting your characters live their own lives inside your head, the differences between writing screenplays and novels, and why going to nursing school may be just the thing her writing career needs.

Journal BW

Walt Stoneburner via Creative Commons

Paul: Tell me a little about what made you start writing with the intention of sharing with other people.

Callie: Even as a kid I liked to write stories, but it only became an intention to share when I wanted to build on the foundations of my characters. Sure, I have a character, but how would they interact with others? How would they grow and adapt to new challenges? I really learned that sharing my writing was a good idea when I discovered roleplaying. But that didn’t teach me the correct way to write, and taught me very bad habits. But with that practice, I learned to build a good character and give them elements of realism.

It wasn’t until I turned that character into a novel that I desperately wanted to share with writing workshops, mostly online, as there aren’t many close to where I live, sadly. If I share my writing and other people enjoyed it? That’s what drove me to keep trying, learning from mistakes and producing higher quality work.

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This week’s edition of Aspiring Voices finds us talking to the fascinating George Wells. George’s work has been featured in Spark: A Creative Anthology. We collided minds to talk about using personal experience as fuel for writing, using family and friends as blueprints for characters, how to establish a setting so that readers will accept implausible events and what inspired him to move south of the border.

Pared - Guadalajara México 2007

Lucy Nieto via Creative Commons

Paul: I saw from your website that you were told by teachers growing up that you were a writer, but it took until you were around forty years old to sort of own that label. What do you think made being a writer a thing that you feared and what allowed you to overcome it?

George: I’ve suffered from self-esteem problems and social anxiety disorder for most of my life, something that I still struggle with. I was a terrible student, but when I did do my assignments, my teachers praised the potential of my work. My reaction to that, given those problems, was a fear of the attention I was receiving. Instead of focusing on the positive attention, my mind went straight to “attention”, and I backed away quickly. 

When I went to college, I was doing a little better, and signed up for a creative writing class. I dropped out after a month. Again, I was getting a lot of positive feedback on the few opening scenes and character sketches, but I felt so under the microscope that my old anxieties were plaguing me again. I started to get sick just thinking about the class. I wouldn’t write another word of fiction for 20 years.

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I’m starting a new series of posts here called Aspiring Voices. These are interviews with other aspiring writers discussing writing craft, inspiration, breaking into the business, the learning process, books, and probably a lot of other stuff, not all of it necessarily on topic.

My first guest is Anma Natsu, whose YA novel Aisuru will be released next year and is currently the host of The Lackadaisical Writer podcast. Anma and I sat down to discuss dog training, charging creative batteries, what grown-up writers need to do to create effective YA, and why she tears up every time she reads a particular graphic novel.

Cherry Blossoms

Bart via Creative Commons

Paul: When did you decide to pursue writing seriously? Was there a catalyst to it or have you always been sort of picking at it?

Anma: Well, I started writing back in middle school, but back then it wasn’t truly serious for my fiction writing; it was more of an outlet for dealing with being an extreme introvert in a school of bullies. When I was in high school, I did a presentation in English class on caring for and training dogs, complete with a hands-on demonstration with my own puppy (the one time in school I was popular [laughs]). Part of that was a 30-40 page manual that my teacher raved over and encouraged me to expand and publish. So for awhile, I did have an idea of doing that and writing non-fiction books. But eventually I realized there were already tons of dog training books and wrote it off as a silly dream.

Many years later, I was still dabbling with fiction writing but I wouldn’t say it was a truly serious pursuit until I tried participating in National Novel Writing Month for the first time, which was in 2006. I failed miserably at the goal to get to 50,000 words, but I wrote more in that month on a single work than I ever had before and it helped me realize I could do more than just write a few story starts. Two years later, I actually finished writing my first novel, though it was just below 50,000 words.

I would say that was the real catalyst for me to truly decide to fully embrace my writer side.  Seeking publication wouldn’t become a firmer goal though until maybe 3-4 years ago, after meeting my sweetie, because he actually encouraged me with my writing. While I had friends who would “cheer” me on, no one really encouraged me or even read my stuff, but he did, gave me his honest feedback and his unmitigated support when I shyly mentioned considering eventual publication.

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llibreria - bookstore - Amsterdam - HDR

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My attention was brought to the following article in which it is suggested that perhaps eReaders are not heralding the end of printed books after all. As an exercise for yourself you can work out how much stock to put in an informal telephone survey which doesn’t even control for ownership of an eReader device. But another incident had me thinking of ebooks at roughly the same point in time, which was that I went to purchase an ebook copy of Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business for a book club only to find it isn’t available in that format. I ordered the print version and started wondering why my first inclination was to buy the ebook.

I have a perhaps unhealthy fondness for printed books. I’m the kind of guy who stares longingly at pictures of crowded secondhand bookstores, wishing I could be there to absorb the smell. I believe the most beautiful decor you can give a room is wall-to-wall bookshelves. And yet, I’m a technologist by trade. The fact that I can have a dozen audiobooks on my phone as well as access to a small library of digital titles is why I love living in the future. The built-in dictionary feature on my Kindle is my favorite feature of anything ever. The challenge, for book lovers, is how to reconcile these things.

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sinister

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book podcast I listen to recently held a conversation stemming from Claire Messud’s recent statement in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:

If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.

I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.

The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.

Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.

The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?