Aspiring Voices is going on a short hiatus through the end of the year, but we’re stepping out on a high note with the spirited and unique Alexander Chantal. I spoke with Alexander about his unique take on forms, the scientific perspective he brings to crafting a narrative, and the eclectic array of authors that have influenced him.
Paul: Tell me a little bit about how you got started writing. Was it something you always enjoyed, or did you come into it at a later point in time?
Alexander:When I was young, I enjoyed writing little bits and pieces here and there. My mother got me a “My First 500 Words” book when I was very little. I read it all in little or no time, it was fun. Then I was given eights volumes of an encyclopedia, at that point in time I realized three things: I wanted to write small stories with the stuff I already knew, I loved science and reading was like alcohol, once you’re addicted, there is no way out.
I didn’t start off writing like most people, writing small stories on a notebook, but rather making board games with ridiculously elaborate stories and rules. It was crazy, but then and there I realized I loved Sci-Fi. What really got me writing was the Left Behind series. I was’t much of a religious person, but the story was so interesting, then my love for anime grew in intensity.
Initially, I started writing poetry. Didn’t think for a second I’d try and become a writer. A poet, that’s what ran through my mind. Seven years ago, I started writing my first story, I never gave it a name, and then my recent work-in-progress: Adagio for Canon.
We’re back after a short break with a new installment of Aspiring Voices. This week I’m happy to welcome Susan Stuckey to the interviewee seat. She talks about the spirited inspiration that keeps her writing, the challenges of staying on track with your vision, and highlights the importance of teachers.
Paul: What would you say was the catalyst for making the pursuit of writing a priority for yourself?
Susan: Back when i first started writing I was told by a member of a writing group I belonged to that i would never write anything worth reading. I decided to prove that statement wrong.
Paul: That’s an incredibly positive response to such negativity. Have you found a different (hopefully) better in-person writing group, or did that experience kind of turn you off from the whole scene?
Susan: There aren’t any “in-person” writing groups anywhere nearby, and feedback is important. I searched for on-line groups. Tried several of them. Found one that was tolerable (better than the others in most ways).
Paul: Is there a part of writing that you find particularly difficult?
Paul: Describe your process a little. Do you plan and outline extensively? Do you discovery-write?
Susan: I think that is has become part of the motivation issue. When I first started I was a pantser. All I knew when I started writing was the beginning and the ending – and the adventure was finding out what came between those two points. Then I was convinced by others that I should outline. I tried. I really, really tried, but discovered I couldn’t work with an outline. But I think the damage was done and the stall induced by trying to outline just continues now fed by my own self-doubt.
Paul: What would happen when you tried to write with an outline? Did the structure get in the way of your process? What are you doing now to try and overcome that doubt?
Susan: With an outline it means you know it all already – you have point “X” beginning & point “Y” and everything inbetween. So where’s the adventure, the fun of discovery? So I wrote nothing. After I realized the issue, I tossed out the outlining and and now trying to recapture my old “pantser” fun (and frustration when the writing heads down a sidetrack).
Paul: So when you discovery-write, do you have any idea of the ending or are you taking the journey along with the characters, as clueless as they are where it will lead? You mentioned the sidetracks that pantsing can sometimes lead to. How do you identify when a discovery-written story has gone off the rails and what do you do to bring it back?
Susan: I know the beginning and a general ending. The “off track” is either discovered in editing – or when a block is reached and I’m trying to figure out why the story won’t progress. Usually those scenes/chapters etc that are off track are snipped out and put in another file. They sometimes become another story.
Paul: What was the first story you remember writing where you finished and thought, “Yeah, there’s something here”?
Susan: I wrote a ghost story in high school. I kinda thought it was “cute” but the English Teacher called me into her office to talk about it. You have to understand this English teacher was demanding, strict, and didn’t believe in false praise. I was scared to death (knees quaking, hands sweating etc) as I made my way to her office. She totally floored me because she loved the story and told me I had talent and from now on she wouldn’t accept anything but the best from me.
Paul: This is a nice flip side to the writer’s group thing. Was this teacher instrumental in shaping your interest for writing? Have there been other teachers that helped ignite that fire to write?
Susan: Just the one about writing, but there were several who encouraged and ignited the “fire” to always do one’s best.
Paul: Tell me about the best book you’ve read recently.
Susan: Wheel of Time: A Memory of Light. The book has been discussed to death by people. Suffice it to say that I thought it was an amazing conclusion to the fourteen book series and very well done.
Paul: Were you familiar with Brandon Sanderson when he took over the series after Jordan passed away? What did you think of his handling of the series’ end? Did you notice a distinct shift post-Jordan?
Susan: I had no idea who Sanderson was before the announcement. I thought the books he wrote from Jordan’s notes were some of the best of the series.
Paul: Have you read any of his solo books? I actually gave up on the Wheel of Time before Sanderson took it over, but I’ve read a couple of his Mistborn books and found them to be really great.
Susan: I’ve read his Mistborn Trilogy. I started the first book of another series he wrote, can’t remember the name of the book now, but I couldn’t finish it then. I’ll pick it up again one of these days and try it again.
Always an avid reader, Susan wrote her first fantasy story on an Apple 2E – and lost it when the computer died. She resumed her affair with writing when the “nest” emptied and has continued writing (off and on–usually off) until the present day.
This week’s Aspiring Voices guest is Nancy Zrymiak, bringing a welcome look into the non-fiction scene. She’s working on a book about her time spent in India and I was thrilled to get a chance to ask some questions about how the project got started.
Paul: You’re currently working on a book about your two-year relocation from your home in Canada to Bangalore, India. Can you describe a bit about the events that led up to the decision to make the move, and how you arrived at the conclusion that you should transplant your family halfway across the planet?
Nancy: Give me an opportunity and I’ll take it. When my husband came home and told me there was a job possibility in India, I thought it was a crazy idea. But his timing was good. First, it was November, the rainiest, dreariest month in Vancouver. Secondly, I was tired of the the rat race and the routine that comes along with living and parenting in the western world: carpooling, commuting, grocery shopping, packing lunches, making dinners. When I thought about India, I thought about adventure, culture, and travel. Once I began to think of the move as an opportunity, the decision to uproot the family became much easier. The warm weather kind of lured me in too.
Paul: You blogged pretty extensively while you were living in India. What made you want to write a book about that experience as well? Are you finding the book is more an expanded version of the blog or is the blog more a framework you can use to weave stories through that you didn’t discuss at the time? Or are they completely independent of one another?
Nancy: My India blog was more of a travel blog with photos. In the book, I delve into the lives of the people I met in India, especially the locals, and the roller coaster of emotions that they bring to the story. You’ll meet some interesting characters and learn about their daily lives as well as mine. I also write about the misconceptions that I had about India before I went, what I learned about India and what I learned about myself.
Paul: What were some of your misconceptions about the country? Do you think those are pretty typical of how North Americans view India and Indian culture?
Nancy: In the west we tend to hear about the extremely poor people of India and the corrupt rich. So I was surprised to find a growing middle class—university educated, dual income families, living in high rise apartment buildings. I also thought that India relied on western organizations and funds to take care of the poor. But there are countless Indian people volunteering and running charities—taking care of their own people. Yes, I think the media portrays India one way, and that skews our views in the west. I was lucky to be able to live there and see the many different sides to India.
Paul: So you’ve got this story you’re telling that is, in part, about yourself and your encounters and it includes real people you know and your family as characters. And then you have these much broader themes and concepts like foreign culture and the perceptions and expectations, plus a sense of setting and the truths of life in a place many of your readers maybe aren’t all that familiar with. How do you weave those together in a way that is both effective, compelling, and also true to your experience? Does it become sort of an intensely personal book where you say, “Look, I don’t know what is ‘true’ in the objective sense, but this was my experience”, or do you try and pull back a little and dig in to some research that you can use to reconcile your personal observations so it becomes more of a comparison and contrast?
Nancy: It does get a little complicated, trying to weave it all together. For now I’m writing the story chronologically, so I might be writing about something really funny and then all of a sudden some sort of tragedy happens out of the blue. Then I’m left wondering how and why did this happen and can I do anything about it? But that’s India—it’s never boring and you’re always left wondering “What next?” As I write I do add some history and research here and there for interest and that helps tie things together too. I wouldn’t say the book is intensely personal—it’s not a self help book and I didn’t move there to “find myself”—but India definitely changed me and that is part of the story.
Paul: I think life is really full of those odd juxtapositions where lighthearted moments are suddenly contrasted with very somber experiences. In fiction I think this is often done for dramatic effect or as a transitional moment, kind of intentionally jarring. In nonfiction do you feel there are additional narrative or mechanical efforts you need to go to in order to avoid having it seem either awkward or sort of fabricated?
Nancy: Well, as so many people in India said—you just can’t make this stuff up. So I don’t think it will seem fabricated, but yes, the challenge is to make it flow.
Paul: Can you tease a little sample of this in action? What’s something you experienced that made you say, “Can’t make this stuff up”?
Nancy: Okay, long story short. My husband’s work provided us with a driver named Sanjeev—really nice guy, knew all the short cuts. We met his family, went to their house, met his parents, wife, children. One day Sanjeev tells us that his wife had a “family planning” operation. She’s having some problems with the recovery and he wants to take her to Chennai to recover at her parent’s house. He takes her on the overnight train and comes back a few days later. That same afternoon he tells me the doctor in Chennai wants to talk to him in person. He wants to leave right away and he’s arranged for another driver. So he goes, and two days later we get a call from the company that employs Sanjeev. They tell us they saw him on the evening news—he’d been in a huge brawl, he’d been gambling, owed people money. We said, no it can’t be true, he’s in Chennai. But they insisted it was Sanjeev and he was in Bangalore. They wanted us to use a different driver, saying that if people were after Sanjeev they might come after us. So, that’s the short version. Oh, and the driver that Sanjeev arranged for us—turned out to be some guy that didn’t speak English and didn’t know how to drive a van.
Paul: [laughs] Oh my goodness, that’s crazy! Did you ever determine if the story he told you was true or not? Was the operation just a smokescreen?
Nancy: That’s the million dollar question. Believe me, we felt a lot of loyalty to Sanjeev, he’d been with us almost a year. And I used to be an Operating Room nurse, so when he told me about his wife having the operation, I was intrigued and asked him a bunch of questions about it. But why would he take her to Chennai if she wasn’t feeling well, and why couldn’t the doctor talk to him on the phone? I could go on and on—it was really emotional and we got very caught up in trying to be detectives for at least a week. But I’ll leave all that for the book.
Paul: Is the style you’re going for in your book more of a memoir or a personal narrative? Why did you choose the style you’re working with and what are some of the advantages or disadvantages of one versus the other, particularly with the stories you have to tell?
Nancy: The book is a travel memoir. I didn’t consciously choose a style—I just started writing. There’s actually quite a bit of dialogue and interaction with other people. I’m trying to write in such a way that is engaging and keeps people wanting to turn the pages.
Paul: Okay, one more. Describe the best book you’ve read recently.
Nancy: The book I’m reading right now—Dune by Frank Herbert.
Paul: I read that one for the first time last year. I really enjoyed it. Is this a re-read or are you a newcomer to the series?
Nancy: Newcomer, and I’m really enjoying it too.
Nancy is writing a book about her experiences in India. Nancy, her husband and two children, leave behind the comforts of the Canadian cul-de-sac and move to Bangalore, India for two years. Her book is a vivid and humorous account of their time in India: the beauty, the culture, the people, the believable and the unbelievable. Check out her website, follow her on Twitter, and Like her Facebook page.
Today we have a thematic Aspiring Voices as I chat with horror writer Sam Witt about making a real living as a working writer, genre writing, and a great dissection of the horror genre’s past, present, and future.
Paul: You were, at one point, a working writer, correct? What were you doing at the time and how was that different from what you’re trying to do now?
Sam: I was indeed a working writer in the early 90’s, primarily churning words in the adventure game industry for Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote a blog post about how that all fell apart, but one thing I didn’t mention was just how different that type of writing was from what I’m doing now.
Everything I produced back in the day was work-for-hire, which means that the millions of words I cranked out weren’t really mine. They belong to the publishers who hired them out, and while many of those words are still earning a decent sum for someone they aren’t providing me with any residual income.
The other downside to this otherwise high-paid work was its relative anonymity. Authors weren’t given front-page billing, but were consigned to the interior of the book. Work-for-hire publishers are interested in building loyalty to their brand, not yours, which gave them an incentive to obscure the work of authors.
By contrast, the writing I’m doing now is mine. The horror serial I’m writing over at Juke Pop Serials is helping me to drawn in new readers who are interested in what I have to say. My blog helps me to connect with other writers and build a stronger bond with fans interested in how and why I write. My forthcoming novels, Breaking Grace and Bad Education, will benefit from the groundwork I’m laying now and should provide me with a stream of cash for as long as folks keep buying them.
That’s the one thing writers need to be mindful of—if you don’t control the rights to your work, you don’t control the rights to your future. All you have are words, so make sure they belong to you and don’t get sold to someone else on the cheap. Continue reading →
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.
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.
Aspiring Voices is delighted to welcome Krista Quintana to the interview chair this week. I asked Krista about finding theme in her writing, dreams as story fodder, and the special role of color to her life and work.
Paul: So I noticed that color seems to play a big role in your site and in the way you organize information; even referring to your in-progress novels by a color coding. Has a colorful aesthetic always been something you’re drawn to or is this a newer development? Do you use color as a theme or motif within your writing or is it more of a trait external to the writing itself?
Krista: I think color has always been very integral in my life. When I was younger (less so now), I classified memories and people by color. And important memories are still to me, red, black, whatever emotions it evokes. With people, as I got to know them, I began to think of them as a specific color. It never really had any meaning, it just was what they ‘were.’ My mom used to be able to see people’s aura’s, and my dad had perfect pitch, assigning each note with a different color. So I think I was really destined to think in colors.
I have used color quite often in writing, often without realizing it. Probably the first novel that I wrote, I had a whole society separated in classes by what color they wore. When I edit, I have to use a lot of colors, and I’ve color coded my editing as well. Using a specific type of blue to focus on to be verbs, or a green to focus on dialogue. By the end, my page is colored and crazy, but it makes sense to me.
Today’s Aspiring Voices guest is the whip-smart Melanie Drake. I talked to her about her complicated writing process, scrutinizing readers for their reactions, and why she may someday be the rare writer/paleoanthropologist.
Paul: What was the catalyst that made you want to start writing seriously? Have you always considered yourself a writer or is it a relatively new thing in your life?
Melanie: I’ve considered myself a writer for a while, but it was only within the last two years that I began wanting to start writing seriously. I was in an accident on my way to work one Saturday, and it made me realize how short life really is. I want to spend the rest of my life doing something I love instead of being miserable doing something I hate just for money.
Paul: Wow, yeah. Sorry about the accident! So what do you do for a day job? Is it like writing is the one thing you can imagine being happy doing for a living or is it just one of the possibilities that you’ve decided to pursue for the time being?
Melanie: I currently work nights as a Customer Service rep answering phone calls, emails, and web chats and spend my days going to college full time. There are only two jobs I can imagine being happy doing for the rest of my life. First is my writing, of course, as it is my first love. The second would be a paleoanthropologist, which is the study of humans using fossils.
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.
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. Continue reading →
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.
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. Continue reading →