Posts Tagged ‘my brother the dog’


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.

Kim Williams-Justesen

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

Advertisements

There comes a time in just about every endeavor when enough is enough and you realize it’s time to throw in the towel. I am not especially proud to admit that I recently reached that point a few weeks ago with a book I was working on.

It was over a year ago when I got the idea for this story. At the time, I was right in the middle of Beautiful Monster, a novel I co-wrote with Kim Williams-Justesen, (author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey Ranger! series, and co-author of Love and Loathing ~ in case I haven’t mentioned her before!) and I wasn’t looking to get started on anything new for several months. Like many stories though, this one gnawed and picked at me, demanding precedence over all else, making me anxious to finish Beautiful Monster so I could get right on it. I took down notes about the new storyline as the ideas came to me, saved them in my “writing” file, and assumed that as soon as we wrapped up the current project, I’d sit down and pound the novel out with the speed of a sugar-buzzed Quarter horse and the light-hearted glee of  a Keebler elf on sixty milligrams of Paxil per day.

That isn’t what happened. I started the story, stopped the story, revised the story, re-wrote the story and ultimately, renounced the story. At first, I was proud of my stick-to-it-ive-ness. I figured I’d hit a rough patch and instead of giving up, I’d see it through, and in the end, be able to say it was a great accomplishment. As the months rolled by and I realized I’d never made it past the five chapter mark though, I began to wonder if maybe it wasn’t time to move on to something else. After all, in the interim, another storyline (one that I liked much better) was beginning to form. But still I persisted, fearing that by abandoning this story, I might be cultivating the very bad habit of cutting all my projects short and thus becoming one of those authors that I’ve vowed never to become who has drawers full of half-written novels but no complete product.

There were a lot of reasons I had trouble with this novel. First, I ended up hating the town I set the story in, not to mention its entire population. Second, I couldn’t pin down the main character’s voice and I seemed to be at a perpetual loss as to how this kid would react to anything. Third, every time I thought I had the plot down, another layer presented itself, negating the previous concept, and as hard as I tried to stick to main frame of the storyline, I found myself constantly wavering in a different direction. Finally (and perhaps worst of all), I developed a powerful dislike for my main character.  I chalked this up to the notion that my writing voice is not that of a small-town, nineteen year-old kid and I even thought I’d been foolish to believe I could extend my creative writing abilities enough to convincingly portray one. But, while it’s true that my natural voice is older than nineteen, the reality is that I stopped caring about this story.

After attempt number five at chapter one (and seven months of frustration), I suspended the story and began something new. It had been a long while since I’d had that kind of writer’s block, and in my experience, this often indicates a (sometimes unconscious) germinating of a different story that needs to get out before any progress can be made. I am certain that one day I’ll go back to this story, and it’s my hope that by then it will have worked out its issues on its own, and I will be able to write it with my usual, natural flow.

 

I’m still hell-bent on not becoming a writer who half-writes their books. I’m still not willing to give up because the writing isn’t easy. But I have come to understand that sometimes, a story just isn’t ready to be told yet. It’s occurred to me that in the case of this recently abandoned project, I had been approaching it all wrong, and that maybe my efforts to write it in the first person were in error. Whatever the cause or causes, the story just wasn’t working and for now, that’s okay.

I am currently trying to recover from the self-doubt that this insubordinate last novel has inflicted on me, and the best way I know to do that is to keep writing. I’ve gone ahead with the concept which came to life in my mind as I was muddling through the other one, and so far, it’s coming off well. I am passionate about this story. I am excited about the upcoming adventures of my main character, I’m a little bit in love with each of the players, and most of all, I’m doing something I haven’t been able to do for far too long: I am enjoying writing again~ and these things have convinced me that (sometimes) it’s not only okay to give up, but it’s the best thing for you.


 

Of the various steps a writer should take before handing his or her query letter or manuscript over to an agent or publishing house, probably the most important one is getting raw, honest feedback from a few trusted readers. These lucky folks are called Alpha and Beta readers.

An Alpha (Alpha meaning first) reader is the first person who gets to see your work. This person has the responsibility of stopping you from further embarrassment before anyone else gets to see it. The Alpha reader should therefore, in my opinion, be your strongest critic. This person must be wholly comfortable telling you what sucks about your manuscript and what doesn’t. An education in English and Grammar is also a plus.

In my case, my Alpha reader is Kim William-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, The Hey! Ranger series, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim acquired her MFA (Masters of Fine Arts in Writing) from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2003. Not to mention, she has been circulating throughout the literary world for a good number of years, so she kind of knows her stuff – and, as it should be, she is probably harder on me than anyone else.

Kim is really the only person who gets to see my work in its most unpolished and unrefined state. However, knowing that she will be reading it, I work hard to keep it clean and neat, and to follow the rules of writing fiction, which automatically puts me in better shape. A typical page that’s been critiqued by Kim usually comes back to me with plenty of issues. Unnecessary words are called into question, 90% of all adverbs are slashed, question marks indicate a characters inconsistent voice or behavior, and of course, misspellings, grammar issues, and improper English is marked. Not to leave out issues with paragraph breaks, timing, dialogue, too much exposition, tense shifts and logic flaws. The point is, at first sight, the returned pages are often intimidating and discouraging but this is probably the most important part of the process.

After the necessary changes are made, my wife Heather is next in line. Heather isn’t really an Alpha or a Beta reader really, but (even though I am her husband), she is honest with me. Heather has a keen eye for small details that often get overlooked by me (little things like a murder scene in which the victim falls the opposite direction he should have after having been struck by a pissed she-vampire!) This is Heather’s strength and it has come in handy many times.

After Heather, my manuscripts go to a few trusted friends. Some of them are writers and some of them are not… but all of them are avid readers who know why something does or doesn’t work. These are my Beta readers.

Beta readers are, in some ways, the most important of all, because they are not looking for grammar and spelling issues. They are literally sitting down with your book and reading it front to back, and giving an opinion of the overall feel of the story. And it’s amazing sometimes what a Beta reader might catch. For example, it was my sister who caught a major discrepancy in time while reading The White Room. Speaking of sisters, family will often want to read your work, and that is good. But keep in mind that often times, they are not going to be as forthright with you as someone who is unrelated to you. That being said, I have received quite a lot of good feedback from family and close friends. Still, for purposes of critique, I rely more heavily on people who didn’t change my diapers and see me through that nasty adolescent stage!

Having Beta readers is fun too, because you get to revisit your story with a new eyes, so to speak. Right now, my friends Tom and Sherrie are in possession of The White Room. Tom is freaking out about the spider in Gretchen’s hair (a scene I’d pretty much forgotten about) and I am cracking up because I can’t wait to see how he acts when he gets to the other spider scene (insert evil laugh here).

After a manuscript has been through several hands, professional and unprofessional alike, a writer can now submit his or her manuscript to an agent, editor, or publisher without fear of being rejected due to sloppy errors and lazy plot holes. Now, when you receive your rejection letter (and you will), you will have the confidence to continue submitting, knowing that no matter what anyone else says, your story is a good, strong one… and one day, the right person will see that.


    

      There is no time to write. If the past six months of my life have taught me anything, that’s it. Today is the first day in a very long time that I have had all to myself. The plan was very simple: wake up, shower, write. I have no other responsibilities today, so it seemed a perfectly plausible idea. So plausible, in fact, that I put off writing earlier this week because I was so certain I would have all the time I needed to do it today. That was my first mistake.

     No sooner had I lifted my head from the pillow than my phone began ringing, my doorbell chiming, and the unforeseen duties began piling up. I spent the day arguing on the phone, making plans, breaking plans, texting the information back and forth between the concerned parties, changing reservations, making amends, and then turning around and changing everything back to the way it had originally been planned in the first place. All the while, chapter nineteen of the book I am currently working on is sitting still, waiting for me to get around to it.

     I have been on chapter nineteen for about a month now, I think. I just haven’t had time to write. I am in the middle of an out-of-state move. I have a new person living with me temporarily. I will begin babysitting my nephew full-time next week. I’ve been cleaning the house inside and out to keep it in pristine condition for open houses and interested buyers. I am full of shit.

     The reason the writing is not getting done is because I haven’t been making it happen. Life is life and it goes on with or without us. The “I just don’t have the time to write” excuse is a crutch I swore I’d never lean on, and up until now, I have done a pretty good job avoiding it. I avoided that excuse so well, in fact, that I didn’t even realize I was using it until today.  Yes, my life is a mess right now. Everything is up in the air and I am juggling too many things to keep track of. My life is a whole different story from one day to the next right now. Aren’t these pretty good reasons not to write?

     The answer, sadly, is no. In truth, this is the best time to be writing. Writing focuses me, brings me peace of mind and allows me to express myself explicitly without apology. Right now, more than ever, I should be writing. I have taken too many breaks from it and they have lasted too long. My goal was to have this project finished by July 15, 2011. I don’t know if that will happen or not but I am going to keep trying for it. The book I’m working on now is a collaborative effort with Kim Williams-Justesen, author of the Hey Ranger! books, My Brother the Dog, and co-author of Love and Loathing. Kim has been waiting on me for some time now, as we’re writing alternating chapters and she can not get very far ahead without me. I have been using the world-famous “I don’t have time” excuse for several weeks now and it’s time to put that mindset to a quick death before it gains enough momentum to become a habit.

     There is no time to write, it’s true. There’s also no time to grocery shop, pay bills, raise kids, maintain a full-time job, exercise, eat right, have pets, do dishes, read books, or floss those hard-to-reach teeth that always manage to attract the attention of those wayward, stubborn popcorn kernels.

        When I finished my first book, Kim bought me a very nice silver pocket watch as gift. In that book, there’s a pocket watch that has symbolic meaning to the story, and I know that Kim meant it as a reminder of my accomplishment and about how important my writing is to me. While it will still serve that purpose, I am, as of today, assigning it an additional meaning: I will keep that watch with me to remind me that time can not be created, it can not be destroyed, and it can not be otherwise controlled. But it can be managed.

     Twenty-four hours is all we have. I do not have less or more time than you, and you do not have less or more time than me. I bought into the excuse of just not having any time, and as a result, my self-respect took a hefty blow to the solar plexus. It won’t happen again.