I’ve been blathering on this blog for the past year and a half about my own experiences in writing, my own observations about this business, and all the things I have learned along the way. As much fun as I’ve had doing this, it recently occurred to me that maybe folks would like to hear from some other writers as well. After all, probably the greatest thing I’ve acquired on this journey is the friendship of some very fascinating people. On that line of thought, I’ve decided to interview some of the writers I’ve met, getting their perspectives, experiences, and lessons learned on their paths in this business.
The first person I chose to particpate in this was Kim Williams-Justesen. It was important to me that she get to go first because she’s my personal mentor and I owe her an ocean of thanks. I met Kim in March of 2010. By then, I’d been beating the hell out of the same novel for about two years. I’d read all the how-to books and attended some small workshops, but for all I was learning, the book just wasn’t getting written. When a friend of mine, who was probably tired of hearing my frustrations, mentioned that she knew an author named Kim Williams-Justesen, I was ecstatic and I hassled her till she set up a time and a place for me to meet Kim.
The first time I met Kim Williams-Justesen was in a tiny cubicle in a stuffy office at Broadview University in West Jordan, Utah. We were introduced to each other and after shaking hands, we were left by ourselves to get better acquainted. We looked at each other stupidly for a while but were eventually able to make the empty small-talk of complete strangers. It was awkward. It wasn’t at all how I had it planned out in my head. I’d been certain we were going to get along swimmingly and instead, I was sure this woman hated me. I just knew she thought I was some kind of talent-junkie who thought I was going to ask her to “hook me up” with an agent or something. As I later found out, she thought it was me who hated her. Probably because, by nature, I look annoyed.
I went home disappointed by the meeting and feeling like a bit of a loser. Still, I’d done one thing right that day: before leaving the office, I asked Kim if we could exchange e-mails. I wasn’t sure if this might come across as too invasive, but I was desperate and all alone in the world of writing! This woman was the only person I knew at the time who had any experience in professional writing and being published. After meeting her that first day in the office, I’d concluded that I had to find a way to make her adore me, and ultimately… teach me everything she knew about writing! It took me two weeks to send her my first tentative e-mail, but I was delighted and surprised when she kindly and promptly e-mailed me back. We spent the next several weeks getting a feel for each other in an ongoing e-mail Q and A - mostly about writing-related topics. After a while, an unexpected thing happened: we became friends.
Since that day just over two years ago, Kim has walked me through my first novel, she is the co-author of my second novel, Beautiful Monster, and she is currently giving me the same level of what seems to be endless tolerance and infinite support on my third book. We plan to begin another collaborative effort as soon as I am finished with the project I’m working on now. I’ve been lucky to be a part of Kim’s own writing career as well. Just less than three hours ago, she and I finished the final revisions of The Deepest Blue, a manuscript of hers which is scheduled for release by her publisher in the Fall of 2013.
Kim Williams-Justesen is the author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey! Ranger! series for children, and co-author of the nonfiction self-help book, Love and Loathing with Randi Kreger. Also, her novel My Brother the Dog, is scheduled for re-release in hardcover under the new title, Kiss, Kiss, Bark! in Fall of 2012, and the possibility of a sequel for it is being discussed. Our first collaboration, Beautiful Monster, is currently making the rounds, looking for a home, and Kim is on the brink of finishing a project I’m especially in love with, a novel under the working title of Death Kiss.
She’s been a vital component in my growth as a writer, as well as an instrumental part of my life in ways that go far deeper than fiction. What follows are some questions I asked her about her own experiences as an author. I hope her answers might help you the same way they have helped me.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
A: I don’t think there was a specific time I said “Oh yeah! I want to be a writer!” I’ve always loved words and writing, so I think I just evolved into doing this.
Q: What is the first story you remember writing?
A: In third grade I had to write a book report. We went to the library to pick books off the shelves, but I either had read what was there, or I didn’t think it was interesting (boy books, yuck!), so I went home and wrote my own book called “A Pony of My Own” – which was wishful thinking on my part. I even had a pen name – Pearl Bluebonnet. It was about a girl who finds a “stray” pony and talks her mom and dad into letting her keep it. Typical 8-year-old thinking!
Q: Every writer has his or her own writing process. What is your personal process?
A: My process varies. I used to have a set writing schedule, but I’ve learned to adapt. I have to know the basic structure of the story before I begin – beginning, middle, and most importantly how it ends. From there, I develop the characters and try to learn more about them so I can understand why they do what they do in the story. Then I dive in and start writing. I try to write complete chapters at one sitting, but I’m also finding that grabbing a paragraph here or there is just as effective.
Q: Where do you do most of your writing?
A: Anywhere I can. Mostly in my bedroom at the small desk in the corner. I will also write at work if things get slow, or in the car, or if I’m waiting in an office or something. I will hear pieces of conversation between characters in my head and I write them down no matter where I am.
Q: Who are your favorite authors?
That’s a long list! Shakespeare, Poe, Paul Zindell, Christopher Moore, Eric Larson, Isaac Asimov, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway, and a lot of others I can’t think of at the moment!
Q: Which authors would you say have most affected your own writing?
A: I heard Jane Yolen speak at a conference about the mood of a story, and it had a lot of impact on me. I began to think about story differently because of that and I think she helped to change the way I write for the better. Eric Larson writes nonfiction in such a compelling way that it feels like you are part of history. This taught me to pay attention to details in a way that I also believe has strengthened my writing. The writers I worked with while getting my Masters degree also had a huge impact on me.
Q: Which of your own characters is your favorite, and why?
A: I think Donny, the little brother from “My Brother the Dog” is one of my personal favorites. He was so fun to work with, and he makes me laugh every time I reread him.
Q: Which of your own characters is your least favorite, and why?
I dislike Julia, the mother in “The Deepest Blue” because she is based on two real people, neither of whom I’m very fond of.
Q: Do you believe in muses? Do you have a muse? If so, who or what is your muse?
A: I do believe in muses, and I have many. Some are real, some are only in my head. One of my muses is a nasty woman who is always telling me I can do better, but she inspires me to push harder, even if her methods are not kind. I have actual people in my life who are muses. They inspire me with ideas and they encourage my writing. I value them dearly.
Q: Which of your books was the most difficult to write and why?
A: “Beautiful Monster” was the most difficult because it caused me to confront some aspects of my own life that were not very pleasant, and that’s really all I want to say about that.
Q: What events in your life do you think lead you to the path of writing?
A: I think that any event which triggers introspection can cause that desire to write. For me, it was simply a love of words and a sense that playing with words was fun. Even when I was in PR and I was writing about obsolete chemical weapons, I enjoyed the challenge of working with the words to serve a purpose.
Q: When you are writing, do you have anyone in specific who you feel you’re writing for?
A: When I’m writing the first draft, I try to focus on story rather than audience. Later, in revision, I focus on who I think the story is aimed at so I can tighten the details and make them appropriate to that audience.
Q: Have you ever had writer’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
A: Yes – more than once. The first time I had writer’s block it was so severe that I would have full-blown anxiety attacks just sitting down at the computer. I had to overcome it because I was in the middle of my MFA program and I was at risk of not graduating. I overcame it by working with a mentor who tricked me into writing. I started by collecting words, then organizing those words into categories, then playing with the words in interesting combinations, then creating sentences from those combinations, then paragraphs, and in time, I was back to writing without the dread and fear that had frozen me. I use this same technique now when I start feeling stuck.
Q: What are your biggest pet peeves about the books you read?
A: Silly and stupid errors. Things like grammatical mistakes that should have been caught by a good editor. Or ridiculous tag lines that need revising. I also get very peeved when a character does something that is totally out of line with the psychological presentation that the author has created.
Q: In the course of an average week, how much time do you dedicate to writing?
A: It varies a little, but I typically spend at least 12 hours a week with my butt in the chair working on a book. I will spend other time reading, looking through information for a story I’m working on, or doing things related to writing. For example, if I need to find a specific setting for a scene to take place, but I haven’t been there, I’ll find something close to what I need and go for a visit. This counts as working on writing for me.
Q: How has your writing changed since you wrote your first novel?
A: Oh – wow – it’s like I’m a different writer. I know so much more about the craft now than I did then. I know so much more about all the aspects of story that I had no idea of at the time I started writing my first book. I still think that first story idea is solid, but the execution is terrible. I often think about rewriting it because it would be so much better now.
Q: When did you first get published, and what was your experience with that? How did it happen?
A: I got started with publishing when I wrote articles for internet companies like CitySearch. It was great experience learning to compress my language and to meet deadlines. My first book publishing experience was when I coauthored a self-help nonfiction book with another author. Seeing my words in print became an instant addiction. That box of books arrived on my door step and I just wanted to have more!
Q: What was your first book signing like?
A: It was thrilling! My publisher paid for me to attend the Book Expo America convention. It was in Washington, DC that year. I got to walk around and learn more about other publishers, see all the books that were coming out, collect tons of free samples! It was heaven. When it came time to sign, I was so nervous, but it was an absolute thrill. It felt like nothing would ever be better! Of course, other book signings have also been thrilling, but that first one was just awesome. Crazy awesome!
Q: As a writer, what do you think your strengths are?
A: I’m pretty critical of my writing, and so I have a hard time identifying this, but I think I am really good at building a solid story structure, and I’m also good at dialog. I like listening to people, so I think I have a natural ear for how people speak.
Q: And what are your weaknesses?
A: These are like job interview questions! Haha! Actually, I think one of my weaknesses is the first draft. I get caught up in making things perfect the first time, and that tends to slow me down. I’m also really bad about including sensory detail. I skip over the stuff that can really bring a scene to life, and then I have to go back and add it in during revision – which of course is what revision is for, but I just wish I could remember to do it the first time out.
Q: In writing, what has been your most wonderful moment?
A: I have two – when my box of author copies of my first novel arrived at my door. That was a thrill beyond words. The second one was when someone I was mentoring completed his first novel. I felt almost the same thrill as what I feel when I finish one of my own.
Q: How has the publishing industry changed since you first got published?
A: E-Publishing has become such a huge component in publishing, and that’s really only been the last five years or so. When I first published, that wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I think it has made some really nice things happen in publishing, but I also think it has opened the door to some terrible, second-rate work getting produced as well.
Q: Where do you see the publishing industry going from here?
A: This is such a time of transition in publishing. I remember being at a conference 15 years ago and a guy said that “Rocket Books” were the wave of the future and would be the death knell of the traditional publishing industry. And now we all say, “What’s a Rocket Book.?” It was pretty much a Kindle or a Nook, just 15 years too early. I have no idea what is going to happen from here. I just know that there will always be a place for a good story, and I want my stories to be part of that future.
Q: What is the best advice you have to offer new writers?
A: Focus on the craft. Love the writing. You can’t control the publishing world, unless you want to self-publish that is a whole different topic. Learn how to write better. Go to conferences, workshops, classes, and focus on becoming as good as you can be. By the way, that’s a never-ending process.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a result of your experiences in writing?
A: I’ve learned that I can actually write pretty decent stuff at 3 a.m. when I need to. I’ve learned I am stronger because of choosing to do this, but I am more humble, too. I’ve learned that my writing friends are some of the best friends in the world. I’ve learned that I can become very OCD when I’m in the middle of a book, and that isn’t always a good thing.
Q: Who were your mentors?
A: I was blessed to have amazing mentors throughout my writing life. Carol Lynch Williams, who is also a very dear friend; Rick Walton, who taught me that funny is subtle; Tim Wynn-Jones, who taught me to look for interesting detail that benefits a scene or a character; Alison McGhee, who taught me that you need to know a character’s mind so well it becomes your own; MT Anderson, who taught me that voice is something you can learn, and if you can’t learn it you shouldn’t be writing; and the late Norma Fox Mazer, who taught me how to dig deeper into a story and see what’s sleeping beneath.
For more about Kim-Williams-Justesen, check out her website at: http://www.kwjustesen.com/Home_Page.html
And to get some of her books, go to: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/kim-williams-justesen
Jared S. Anderson & Kim Williams-Justesen