Saturday, October 12, 2013

Heart of the West Writing Conference


This morning, I spoke at the Heart of the West Writing Conference, a conference for the Utah chapter of Romance Writers of America.  I was able to talk about one of my favorite subjects--Point of View and the Choice Cycle.

For those of you who haven't heard of the Choice Cycle before, it's a system that I've developed through years of study, writing, and editing to help writers keep a clear hold on point of view.  Clear point of view strengthens the reader's connection with the main character, and therefore makes them more invested in the story you're telling.  This emotional connection is key to sympathy, interest, and holding your reader's attention so that they won't put your book down. We read to feel something, after all, and readers will feel more if they are able to experience the point of view character's journey with them.

I won't go into detail about the choice cycle here, because I'm currently editing an e-book about the subject, to be published in cooperation with http://www.eschlerediting.com I'll let you all know when the book is ready for purchase.

Here are a few things I touched on--besides the choice cycle--at the conference today.

If I were to put together a "standard works for writers," I would include the following books:

Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain

Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham

Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card

Hooked, by Les Edgerton

and for Romance writers, On Writing Romance, by Leigh Michaels

We discussed the self-concept and how it is created throughout a person's lifetime.  The self-concept is based on our personalities, how we are raised, what our values are, and culminates into one sentence describing what we think of ourselves--how we define who we are.  The self-concept is at the center of everything a character does, and influences all the choices he makes.  When the character is faced with a challenge at the beginning of the story, the challenge has to hit them where it really hurts--it has to challenge how they define themselves.

In the case of romance, the romantic interest may be the person who presents that challenge.

We also discussed interesting ways to develop a character.  I provided the following list of questions to ask yourself when creating your characters--questions with a psychological and developmental twist to help make your characters realistic, flawed, and very human.


Consider the following questions for each of your main characters:
Is your character able to make choices and take risks? 

How far is your character willing to go to get what he/she wants? 

What is one thing your character WON’T do?  Why?  Would this character vacillate on this standard if presented with the choice between their values and what they love most (their romantic interest)? 

What is your character most afraid of?  (Hint—your character will have to face this greatest fear or the story will fall flat.)

How does everyone else in the story feel about your main character?  What is his/her reputation?  Has your character earned this reputation?

How does your character deal with stress?  He/she needs a physical outlet—coffee drinker? Runner? Soap Opera watcher?  Fiction?  Ice Cream?  Yoga? Reality TV? Secret hideaway?

What is your character’s self concept?  How does it differ from his/her reputation?  How does it differ from who your character really is?  Which view of your character (the reputation or the self-concept) is more realistic? What does your character's romantic interest know about this reputation? Or about the actual self-concept? 

How do you feel about your character?  How do you think readers will feel about him/her?  Remember that we read to feel emotion.  


After your characters are created, use choice cycles to put the characters together, have them interact in their environment, provide external and internal conflict, and control the pacing of your story.  The choice cycle can help you do everything from create a meaningful setting to reveal information about both your hero and heroine, and build tension to a satisfying climax.

It was a great experience to speak at the conference!  Thanks to Jewel Adams, this year's Utah chapter president, and to my friend, Ann Bracken, Utah chapter secretary, for arranging the experience!

For more information and awesome help with any writing tips or services, visit eschlerediting.com

3 Steps to a Great Kissing Book


by Amy Maida Wadsworth
Remember the opening scene in the film version of The Princess Bride? If you don’t, go refresh your memory, because it’s a great movie. (And if you haven’t seen the movie at all, warning: spoiler alert!) We’re going to analyze this fantastic little film in honor of  Romance Writers of America, since this week is the Utah chapter conference. So for all you romance writers, let’s dive into a favorite love story.
It goes something like this. A sick young boy is sitting on his bed playing video games when his grandfather comes to read him a book. The young boy hesitates, pauses his video game, and looks at his grandfather like he’s hopeless.
Grandad persists and begins reading about young Wesley and fair Buttercup. He reads how Buttercup realizes that when Wesley says, “As you wish,” he really means, “I love you.”
It doesn’t take long for the boy to interrupt with, “Wait. Is this a kissing book?”
Of course, he comes to find out that the story is much more than a kissing book, just as true romances are more than erotica. The relationship between Wesley and Buttercup is at the center of adventures with pirates, kidnappers, miracle workers, an evil prince, a wicked sadist, and torture.
The kissing isn’t half as important as the people who own the locked lips.
As a result, The Princess Bride is the kind of romance that can win over a ten-year-old boy—and become one of the most quotable movies of all time.
Leigh Michaels, author of On Writing Romance, spells out how the character-driven romance hooks the broadest audience in fiction readership, with interests varying from realism to westerns to fantasy. The common thread in every romance, regardless of how it is dressed, is the relationship between the hero and the heroine.
That relationship depends on two key elements—the characters’ personalities and the choices they make. Both characters must be interesting, sympathetic, strong, and attractive (physically and personally). This doesn’t mean that they need to be supermodels, but they need to grab each other’s attention as well as ours.
The best way to establish their interesting personalities is to show them in action—preferably in a situation that puts them in conflict with each other. This conflict is, of course, alive with physical attraction. Still, the choices the characters make will continue to cause conflict and threaten the uniqueness of this attraction, the underlying sense that the two of them have something very rare between them—the once-in-a-lifetime love.
If your characters continuously have to make choices that legitimately keep them apart (not simply failed communication that seems the obvious solution to the reader), the romance becomes more interesting, more realistic. And the kisses—when they finally come—mean more. Romances that sizzle are about two characters who push through conflict to be together. Then, when they finally are together, the union is satisfying, deserved, magical. When written well after all this effort, it’s hard for a well-earned kiss to be sappy or saccharine. And equally hard to write the long-anticipated “I love you” and have it feel hollow or trite. But if you get the lead-up wrong, sappy and trite are all you’ve got.
So, how do you do it right? Here are three tricks to help you.
  1. Put your characters on opposing sides of the same issue. This could involve business, politics, a hobby, or a passion. If she’s a die-hard, blue-blooded Duke fan because three generations of her family have graduated from Duke and he attends Kentucky, you’ve got some ingrained conflict going.
  2. Give your characters important moral dilemmas that force them to make tough choices. If she’s attracted to him but will lose her humanitarian grant if she refuses to work with his organization’s rival, she’s got to get the humanitarian grant. If he is attracted to her but she happens to be his brother’s ex, he’s got to choose to ignore his attraction. They are good people caught in circumstances that make their relationship seem impossible.
  3. Delay gratification at least until mid-story, then rip them apart again and rebuild the climax. In act one, they realize they’re attracted even though it’s unlikely they can ever be together. In act two, they take that chance to be together, experience bliss, and realize this is a once-in-a-lifetime love; then they see that they’ve ruined the very moral decision that kept them separated in act one. Finally, in act three, they struggle until they figure out a way to make things work and they come together with a bright future. It seems formulaic, but if your characters are interesting and their choices are strong and meaningful, then it won’t feelformulaic. It will feel natural and as meant-to-be as their relationship.

Things You Can Do Now

  1. Make sure the issue between your characters has important consequences. This will usually mean that it has to do with other people—not just money, products, or hobbies. Strengthen conflict by attaching secondary characters to the issue.
  2. Read your favorite romance (again) and see how the author implemented these ideas. This critical thinking will help you as you plan your own romance.
  3. Remember that it’s about choice. Go through your manuscript and underline every choice your characters make—their choices should be active and have consequences that affect the relationship. If they don’t, then revise until they do. This will give your story more of a shot in the arm than you think.
If you follow these guidelines, every touch will be earned and every kiss will be satisfying. No more sap or saccharine. No more hollow or trite. Your romance will be more than a kissing book, and your readers will sigh when they read, “As you wish.”
Your turn: What’s your favorite romance, and how does it fulfill some of these requirements?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Call it Like You See It! Exploring Narratives and Point of View


Call It Like You See It!

Exploring Narratives and Point of View

By Amy Maida Wadsworth
My husband is a football fan. And me? I generally enjoy football because it’s easy to fall asleep to on a Sunday afternoon. Last season, however, piqued my interest. The NFL’s referee union went on strike, and everyone—fans and players alike—complained more than usual about referee calls. My husband explained that inexperienced, scab referees were determining game outcomes with egregious calls.
Of course, this makes an author think. A referee’s calls depend entirely on his point of view—his keen senses, what those senses observe, and how he applies his knowledge of the rules. Of course, a single referee is limited. That’s why a bunch of referees consult each other and use consensus to establish truth—or as close to the truth as they can get.
What does that have to do with an author? Simple: A narrator’s point of view (POV) determines a story just as clearly as a referee’s point of view determines his calls.
What is the difference, then, between the narrator and the protagonist? It’s a question that stumps many novice writers, but one that will determine much about the presentation and voice of a story.
Orson Scott Card’s Characters & Viewpoint discusses this very question. Card is a master at creating sympathetic characters, and most of his book explains that creation process. The last few chapters focus on narrative voice, which is just as important as creating characters. Creating the character is only part of the process—once you’ve created your character, you’re still faced with the quandary of how to present your story to your audience—in other words, how to define your narrator.
Here’s why that’s so important: Defining your narrator will make the difference between a nice idea and a stellar novel. Your narrator’s connectivity to the story is key to the kind of story he will tell.
Here we’ll explore three types of narrative voice and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Through it all, you have one very important thing to determine: is your narrator a participant in the story or an observer only?

OMNISCIENT NARRATOR

The omniscient narrator is an observer of the story. He sees the story as a whole, knows all of the characters, can get inside any character’s head, and can see how all of the events culminate in the story’s end. The omniscient narrator tends to take on a moralistic tone at times because of his POV. Being omniscient, he is all knowing—a god. An omniscient narrator would say, “Jerry didn’t realize this would be his last bite of caviar.”
The best recent example of the omniscient narrator is Lemony Snicket from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Snicket is a character in his own right, though he doesn’t participate in the story. His love for the characters is apparent. He adds a touch of humor as he occasionally talks directly to the audience, warns about an upcoming scene that could be frightening for more sensitive readers, or defines an interesting word. He adds to the story through his interpretation and his telling of the story. When I read these books, I picture one man sitting at a typewriter, telling the story he knows and remembers well. Another way to view the omniscient narrator brings it much closer to home—you, the author, have a voice of your own.
The advantage? The omniscient narrator can reveal information whenever it needs to be revealed. This allows you, as the author, a great deal of flexibility.
The disadvantage? Since the omniscient narrator is removed from the story, so is the reader. The reader is less able to attach to or sympathize with one character and experience the story as it happens. In short, stories told by an omniscient narrator can lack emotional resonance.

FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR

With a first-person narrator, the narrator is a participant in the story. In fact, the narrator is the protagonist. The story told in first person made a popular resurgence with Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. The pronoun used to refer to the protagonist/narrator is I.
The advantage? The emotional removal of an omniscient narrator doesn’t exist in a first-person narrative. The narrator has the best seat in the house for everything that happens. Therefore, so does the audience. We feel the character’s emotions and experience her pain. In short, we become Katniss Everdeen.
The disadvantage? Changing point-of-view characters is frowned on when you choose to write in first person. The Hunger Games is told completely from Katniss’s POV. She has to find out what happens to the other characters through observation or conversation. She never knows what goes on in the other characters’ heads. This makes it challenging for you to reveal information to your audience—but it also makes the story more realistic.

THIRD-PERSON LIMITED NARRATOR

This is the most common type of narrator. The point-of-view character is the narrator, and the pronouns he or she are used to refer to that character. This creates the same kinds of intimacy as a first-person narrator.
The advantage? You aren’t limited to the protagonist’s POV. If you want to show a scene the way the villain sees it, you can. Or if you have two protagonists, you can alternate between them. This means the reader knows more about what is happening than the characters do, but it is hoped that the reader is still able to sympathize with and root for at least one character.
The disadvantage? Pronouns can sometimes be difficult to manage. You have to stay on top of things to ensure that your POV is clear. If you change too often or in a haphazard way, your narrator takes on an omniscient tone and you lose the connection with the characters. You should change POV only at the end of a scene or at a point where your character has come to a decision and set a new goal. Not only does this minimize confusion, but it also creates hooks that keep your reader engaged.

ACTION STEPS

Answer these questions to find out what kind of narrative voice will work best for your story:
  • Which is strongest: your characters or your plot/story? (If your characters are strongest, stick with first person or third person. If your plot is stronger than your individual characters, create an engaging omniscient narrative voice.)
  • Is your narrator part of the story or an observer? (If your narrator is part of the story, first or third person is best.)
  • Which characters have the most to lose? (If several characters are experiencing loss, use third person. If one character loses everything, first person allows the most emotional connectivity.)
  • How many characters change substantially through the course of the story? (If there are several, stick with third-person narrative. If one is experiencing most of the change, use first person.)
  • Do you need to change point-of-view characters to tell your story effectively? (Consider mystery as an example; many mysteries have an occasional chapter from the villain’s POV. When using first person, you can never change POV—and it can be difficult to reveal necessary information.)
How did this exercise change your thoughts about your narrator? Or what is your favorite type of narrator—to read or write?  Have you read any novels that didn’t follow these guidelines but were still well written and engaging? 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Superheroes and the Villains Who Make Them


Superheroes and the Villains Who Make Them

(In honor of Salt Lake Comic Con)
By Amy Maida Wadsworth
I’ve always related to Spider-Man—not because I’m particularly brilliant or fascinated with arachnids, but because there is a side of me that often feels socially awkward, and it takes a mask (fiction, maybe?) to make me feel like I understand people and have some control over my environment. I also relate with underdogs. In fact, most of my favorite fictional characters are underdogs—the underestimated Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), the overlooked Julian Delphiki (Ender’s Shadow), and the pushed-aside Connor Lassiter (Unwind).
Psychoanalyze that.
Superhero stories have stood the test of time because all of the characters are relatable—they represent an accelerated, concentrated version of the everyday good guy. Iron Man is a wealthy playboy who seems cool and collected—but, deep down, he’s scared of vulnerability and loss. Superman wants to save the world—but realizes that in the end, he can’t save everyone. Batman is a vigilante who wants to use his fortune to end crime—but he’s constantly being hunted by police. These heroes struggle with their faults, flaws, and shortcomings while they try to make the world a better place. Sound familiar?
Inevitably, a pesky villain rises to the occasion. As Mr. Incredible says, “I feel like the maid. I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for ten minutes?” Despite the constant mess, there would be no hero without a villain. The villain forces the hero to rise from obscurity as he provides the moment of change that essentially creates the hero. The villain makes the story. Or breaks it.

So What Makes a Good Villain?

  1. Your villain should have a heartbreaking past. Dr. Otto Octavius (Spider-Man’s Doctor Octopus) killed his own wife in a lab experiment. Magneto (X-Men) was a holocaust victim as a boy. The Joker (Batman) has such a troubled past that he only wears it on his sadistic face—a pale, smiling mystery. When we learn about a villain’s past, we can’t help but understand his craziness. It’s almost as if he touches the crazy in all of us and thus creates sympathy.
  2. Your villain should be as strong as your hero. Here, we’ll bring up Red Skull. His nemesis, Captain America, was treated with super-soldier serum and vita-rays, which basically bulked him up and gave him incredible endurance and an extremely high metabolism. Red Skull was treated with a similar serum. But this treatment accentuates the traits that already exist in the man—so Red Skull becomes a totalitarian super-bully while Captain America becomes the ultimate soldier, built to defend American ideals of freedom. The two are created in similar ways, and their abilities are similar. The greatest differences between them are their values and ideals.
  3. Your villain should be sympathetic, smart, and strong, but misdirected. Here, we have to bring up Lex Luthor. Superman’s infamous nemesis, Lex sees himself as the hero and Superman as the intruding, alien villain with the power to rule the world. Lex’s determination to rid the world of Superman makes him maniacal, and he doesn’t hesitate to sink to diabolical levels to accomplish his goals. And, let’s face it—Lex is severely outgunned (maybe even an underdog?). If Superman wanted to put an end to Lex, it wouldn’t take much effort from his laser-eyed, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet, man-of-steel self. Deep down, Lex is afraid of what his nemesis could do. (In a psychological tangent here, Lex is probably projecting on to Superman—deep down, Lex knows that if hewere all-powerful the way Superman is, Lex would rule the world with an iron fist.) One could argue that if Lex truly understood Superman’s nature, he might not fight in the first place. He might be able to trust the stranger from Krypton. A villain’s misdirection of energy and ability is what makes his plight almost sad to witness. We can’t help but wonder what would happen if he would only use his abilities to accomplish positive things.

Action Steps: 3 Things to Do Now!

Here are some tricks to improve your villain.
  1. During your character development phase, create the hero and the villain together. You can even give them the same goals—but twist your villain’s approach to or motivation for accomplishing that goal.
  2. List your hero’s weaknesses and create a villain who can take advantage of those weaknesses. Likewise, your hero’s strengths should counteract your villain’s weaknesses. The two characters fit together like puzzle pieces and thus become evenly matched. If this feels like too obvious a method for character creation, assign a numerical value to abilities that you see in your characters and make sure those numbers match—give them the same amount of advantage.
  3. Awaken your inner geek and spend some time online looking at comic book villains. The great thing about comic books is that they’ve been around for years. The characters are established, explored, and debated by fans of the graphic novels and the movies. These conversations explore characters on deep, psychological levels, and much can be learned about audience expectation, character progression, story arc, and the psychology behind being a villain. There are tons of fan websites, but I particularly enjoy this site by IGN Comics.
Share your thoughts! What do you think about these expectations for a good villain? How do you apply these concepts to smaller-scale villains in a different fiction genre?
For more great articles about fiction writing, as well as professional editing services, visit www.eschlerediting.com 








Thursday, July 11, 2013

Writing Classes and Private Coaching

I've had several people ask about writing classes recently.  Usually, I teach classes in elementary schools or as part of Community Education through various school districts.  Since I have decided to pursue my Master's Degree, I'm not currently in a position to take on 25 students at a time. So, I have set up the classes in a digital format, to be conducted through e-mail, much like a private coaching session.  Check out my page about writing classes for more information.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

4 Steps to a Boat Full of Fish

Ever been hooked?
It tugs at first—a niggling, intriguing irritation you can’t ignore. With a splash and a surge, suddenly you’re racing along, gasping for breath, and barely aware you’ve taken the bait. You’re dragged, compelled, forced to flip the page, consuming the story as if you’re starved. When it’s all over, it’s four in the morning and you aren’t the person you were before.  You’ve been on the ride of your life.
It’s a difficult task to reel in readers this way, especially in our fast-paced digital world. The first 500 words (roughly the first page and a half) should be a sample of your absolute best writing, because they’ve got to get hooked before you can reel them in. (See the points below and try to tackle them all in the first 500 words of your next book. Even if you don’t leave them all in, challenge yourself to think creatively, to explore how it could be done subtly.)
If your reader puts your book down, there’s a chance he may never pick it up again.
On the other hand, when your audience is driven to read your story, not only will they finish it, but they’ll tell their friends.  They’ll pass the word along until you’ve caught so many readers you’ll need a bigger boat.
Reader satisfaction is THE  best form of marketing.
It’s also the best way to get an editor/agent/publisher’s attention and get your book in a reader’s hands in the first place.
It all starts with the hook.
Hooking your reader from the very beginning is probably an author’s most important task.
Here are four steps to hooking your reader:
1) Introduce a character your readers like enough to want him to be happy.
  • Don’t introduce your character through backstory.  Orson Scott Card begins Ender’s Game in the middle of a scene, when Ender is about to have his monitor removed. We don’t find out what that monitor is, or that Ender is a third child commissioned by the government, or that he has a bully of a brother and feels that no one loves him except his sister, Valentine. We find out all of this stuff later, after we’ve been introduced to the character and seen him in action.
  • Use sensory detail to reveal what kinds of things your character finds important enough to pay attention to. Every detail becomes a subtle demonstration of your character’s personality. Ender doesn’t notice the cleanliness of the doctor’s office or the modern art hanging on the walls. He hears what is said to him, and feels pain and lack of control as the “simple” procedure becomes more complicated. He’s only aware of what is important to him.
  • Show your character’s expectations—by showing what he expects to happen, you establish his past. When the nurse tells Ender that the procedure won’t hurt, he reveals his history of being lied to by adults as he thinks, “It was a lie, of course, that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. But since adults always said it when it was going to hurt, he could count on that statement as an accurate prediction of the future.”
  • Show your character making choices—choices reveal even more than thoughts. When Ender is presented with a problem, he reveals his character through a choice as a group of bullies meet him in the schoolyard and begin taunting him: “This would not have a happy ending. So Ender decided he’d rather not be the unhappiest at the end. The next time Stilson’s arm came out to push him, Ender grabbed at it. He missed.” The choice to defend himself reveals Ender’s character (as not being a pushover). (It also instills enduring sympathy in our reader, who cares for a fighting underdog.)
2) Challenge the character to his core—make him wonder if he’ll ever be happy again.
  • Take away what he values most.
  • Make him wonder if he even knows who he is after a particular challenge.
Example: This technique has actually been around for a long time, as is demonstrated by the countless number of stories that begin with a child losing a parent. Even the Harry Potter series begins with this sort of life-changing challenge.
3) Provide some hope that happiness will be possible again after a long and difficult journey.
  • This hope often comes through an important object—something the character can see, touch, and hold in his hand. This object will resonate through the rest of your story and linger in your readers’ minds, so make sure it’s a good one!
Example: a perfect example of this is Harry Potter’s letter from Hogwarts. The importance of this letter and the hope it represents escalates when cruel Uncle Vernon does everything within his power to keep the letter from Harry.
4) Write a great opening line.  
  • Hint at your story’s depth. Some of my favorite opening lines make me wonder how the character arrived in that situation, and with that one line I’m hooked. Rick Riordan beginsThe Red Pyramid with, “We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.”
  • Choose words carefully, because every word is important.
  • Be unique. Not just in your word choice, but in the subject of your opening line. Veronica Roth begins Divergent with, “There is one mirror in my house.”  My first thought when I read this: Well that’s odd. I have … at least five. I wonder why there is only one mirror in this girl’s house?
Example: You can Google opening lines of novels and spend hours reading intriguing lines that accomplish all of these steps. One of my favorite opening lines is from Crash by J. G. Ballard: “Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash.”
ACTION STEPS—3 things you can do now. 
  1. Print out your opening chapter and highlight all of the stuff that is happening in your story’s “now.”  This should mostly be made up of sensory details and immediate emotional reactions to what is happening. Whatever isn’t highlighted can probably be included later if it’s backstory, or it may not need to be included at all.
  2. Look for or consider adding a physical object infused with emotional importance—a physical hook.
  3. Make a list of words that describe your story—include its uniqueness, tension, emotional quality, and characters. This list may contain the seeds for your opening line.
Example: My book Faraway Child is about raising a child who has autism. Since autism is at the heart of the novel, some of the words I included in my list were: scream, difficult, judged, trial, embarrassed, unusual, unexpected. In my opening line, I used one of those words and tried to create the emotion behind the others. “A golden chicken turned on a rotisserie spit in the deli, the sharp smell of aged parmesan filled the air, and the pierce of Kaye’s scream made me want to crawl into a hole.”
Now that you’ve got your hook baited and ready, let’s go fishin’!
Remember how we challenged you to do all of the above in the first 500 words? If you want to see proof it can be done, here’s one example of many:  Divergent by Veronica Roth (you can read the opening pages for free on Amazon). What are your thoughts about these techniques? Any alternatives you’d like to add? What’s your own favorite chapter that demonstrates a good hook?
For more fantastic writing tips, a newsletter, and information on full editing services, go to eschlerediting.com 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Great Opportunity for a Free 1st Page Edit

As a freelance editor, I often place bids on projects through Eschler Editing, a full service editing house that aids authors in their journey toward publication.  Now, you can take advantage of an amazing offer--a free first page critique.  The first 500 words--roughly the first page--can make or break your novel.  Check out Angela's offers and sign up for her newsletter today!  She was my editor back when I was publishing, and she's thorough, helpful, and encouraging.   http://www.eschlerediting.com/

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Getting Serious--the separation of professional and personal

Something happened to me when I graduated from college.  Perhaps it reveals all of the deep, dark feelings I've had about myself and my inability to accomplish my personal goals through the years, but somehow I felt more... legitimate after my graduation.  Amazing how such a small--but expensive--piece of paper can change so many things.

So, I've separated my "professional" blog and my "personal" blog.  This web address will now contain blogs about my writing, and editing adventures.  For more personal posts--about my family, my faith, and my educational pursuits--you will have to go to amymaysmusings.blogspot.com


Thursday, March 21, 2013

An Interview with Robison Wells

It's been forever since I've posted, but I had to post this interview I did with my friend, Robison Wells.  This interview was done as an assignment for my Creativity and Cognition class, and it was an absolute delight.  I hope you have as much fun reading as I did interviewing Rob and writing this mini-biography. 


 Robison Wells, Compulsive Creator

            I met Rob Wells at a book signing, back when writing was his hobby instead of his full-time job.  He was personable and funny, and I liked him immediately.  Since his writing and characters were also funny and personable, I ignored my budget, bought his books, and became an instant fan.   

            His newer novel, “Variant,” has been nominated for a Children’s Literature Association of Utah Beehive Award for Young Adult Fiction, 2013.  The book has a different tone than the books I bought all those years ago—the humor is more edgy and sarcastic, the characters are manipulated and deceived, and devastating things happen to them.  “Variant” lingers in the recesses of the mind, and is particularly poignant for its teenaged audience.  My niece is a big fan of Rob’s work, and visibly shivered with excitement when I told her I had an advanced copy of his sequel, “Feedback.” 

            It’s every author’s dream to affect a reader in this way—to have them practically ache to read more of the story that bounces around in your head for months.  Rob kind of fell into the writer’s dream.  Though his family was supportive of the arts—his brother was a writer, his sister danced, and Rob took oil painting classes from the age of ten—Rob never even considered becoming a writer.  It wasn’t until he was studying history in college that something sparked an idea.  He approached his brother, Dan (who is also a published author and quite successful) and suggested he put the idea into a story.  Dan told Rob to do it himself. 

            Dan Wells, author of the “I am not a Serial Killer” series, and Brandon Sanderson, author of “The Wheel of Time” series, were members of a writer’s group.  This wasn’t the feel-good “ooh, I like your story,” type of writing group.  These men took their work seriously, and Rob probably didn’t know what he was getting into when he started attending their meetings.  “They nearly beat the love of writing out of me,” Rob said.  “They made it very clear how terrible I was.” 

            The first book Rob wrote was “a weird kind of historical semi-fantasy thing, and I never really felt like it was a good fit for me.”  So, he took some age-old advice that writers have discussed for generations.  He decided to write what he knew.  “I wrote a very autobiographical book about a small town where I used to live.  When I finished it I thought I might as well try to get it published.  I literally just picked up a book my wife was reading, checked the spine to see who the publisher was, and then sent the book to them.”  This was one of the books published by Covenant—one of the books that made me laugh and spend outside my budget. 

            Though he was clearly a good writer, the idea of writing full-time and making a living still hadn’t crossed his mind.  He continued school, changed his major five times, and finally told people he was studying architecture just to have an answer to their questions.  Rob was interested in theater as well, and while he attended the University of Utah, he had his first paying gig writing for RED Magazine.  The biggest perk to the job was free tickets to plays.  He learned quickly that he was more interested in theater than he was in journalism.  “…it was great when I got to watch good stuff, but I also had to report on industry news and do feature stories about experimental stuff, and I just didn’t enjoy it.  It wasn’t a particularly creative kind of writing, and it wasn’t a subject I was interested in.” 

            That affinity for theater shows in his rich, realistic dialogue.  I love good characters with flaws and vulnerabilities, and Rob’s characters are strikingly realistic.  When I asked him how he accomplishes this, his reply amazed me, as it demonstrates an approach I had never considered.  “I used to base my characters on real people, and then I realized that was hampering me more than helping—I wasn’t really creating characters; I was fitting clunky impersonations into my book.  I think with me, it all comes down to conflict.  I look at the setting or the plot first and then I try to come up with characters who will come into the most conflict with that.  I also spend a lot of time—the biggest amount of my writing time, I think—focusing on voice.  If I can get the dialogue moving smoothly, then I know that my characters will feel realistic.” 

            As I interviewed Rob, I thought of a lecture from my Creativity and Cognition course at the U, and saw many textbook creative traits in him.  Rob is definitely a risk-taker.  The average person wouldn’t complete a novel and send it to the publisher of his wife’s current paperback.  He is definitely quiet and self-reflective, as is shown in his hundreds of blog posts contemplating everything from books to food to road trips.  Rob clearly has intrinsic motivation, and has become a hard-working, prolific author. 

            Rob also associates closely with the creative person who suffers from anxiety issues and mental illness.  For the past two years, Rob has suffered with Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Despite the challenges, Rob continues to publish.  Writing with the intent to publish requires a totally different approach than writing just for the joy of it.  Still, the pressure a contracted author feels has been therapeutic for Rob.  “I work a lot, partly because I’m writing full-time and partly because I’m mentally ill.  I have OCD, and one of the problems I face is an inability to relax—I always need to feel like I’m doing something, or else I get sick.  Consequently, I head to my office as soon as I wake up—usually around 5:30 A.M., and I’ll stay until 6:30 or 7 P.M.  I also work Saturdays and almost all holidays.”

As a result of his hard work, Rob writes roughly six to seven thousand words a day.  According to word count, that translates into a novel roughly every two weeks.  Of course, much of his writing includes blog entries, book reviews, essays and novellas.  He has also created several podcasts about writing.  Rob is an avid tweeter, as well, and will often blog about hot topics on Twitter.  He reads a lot of books, and he reviews the books he feels strongest about.  Somehow, Rob has found the balance between writing for pleasure and writing to publish. 

“I think [writing for pleasure and writing for publication] can definitely co-exist.  I still write because I love it.  But I also write because I have deadlines to meet and bills to pay.  It’s a different mindset.  I think I have to be more practical.”  His practicality takes the form of dedicating a few months to one project before he must return to another in order to make his deadline.  He seems to work well under this kind of pressure.  “I work quickly and deadlines motivate me.  But I think that’s a learned skill.  I think the idea of ‘writer’s block’ is something a full-time writer can’t afford to have—you have to learn how to write anyway.  That said, I like writing fast.  I feel like it more fully immerses me in the story.  It gives me a better idea of what the bigger picture is.”

Despite his need to spend hours writing, Rob still makes the time, sacrifice, and effort to book public appearances and signings.  Often, these events are required by publisher contract, and cause anxiety for any author.  I can only imagine the challenge they present for Rob.  Yet, he perseveres, even when the events are out of state. 

            “My mental illness is the first thing I bring up in any presentation, just to get it out of the way.”  Rob warns the people he is speaking for that he needs an open door nearby should he feel the need to step outside, and he carries his meds in his pocket, just in case.  “Generally, there aren’t major problems.  I just finished a week where I flew to Virginia to speak at a private school, and then went to a convention where I was on five panels.  I only had to leave one of the panels early—the last one, because I’d kind of burned out and could tell a panic attack was starting.” 

            Rob is remarkably open about his illness, and his fierce desire to get the care he needs.  In a recent blog entry, he discussed a weekend visit to a mental hospital.  He admitted himself, feeling a compulsive desire to self-injure. (robisonwells.com, October 23, 2012)  Because of his position as a published author with a widening audience, Rob has become an inadvertent advocate for people with mental illnesses, and he is adamant about the need for health care coverage for the mentally ill.  Rob’s voice will reach people far beyond his sight and understanding, and he may be a strong force for change in this important issue.  This is especially true since his favorite public appearances involve schools.  I doubt he spends much time talking about his illness in that setting, but he still exposes youth to someone who is talented, artistic, personable, funny, and mentally ill.  “Schools are the best, because it’s just so much fun to talk to eager young readers.  They’re generally a more receptive audience, and more willing to engage and interact than adults.”

  In a recent essay about being LDS and having a mental illness (Deseret News, February 20, 2013), Rob wrote, “I firmly believe that as in other areas of life, conveying the truth is the key to banishing ignorance, stigma and prejudice that surround mental illness.” I asked him how his openness has been received.  “…it’s been very positive,” he said.  “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who are glad that I’m talking about it because they have similar problems and they’ve been afraid to talk about them.  Ever since then I’ve tried to be as open as possible—even about the scariest stuff—because I think it helps to reduce the stigma.  It shows people that you can be really sick and still be successful.” In another effort to express the truth, he wrote an essay in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which addresses the importance of understanding the mentally ill and providing proper help.  (robisonwells.com, December 16, 2012)

When I asked Rob where creativity comes from, he replied, “For that, I rely heavily on Malcolm Gladwell’s research: talent gets someone interested in a topic, and that helps, but only hard work makes anyone good at it.  Anyone who puts in the effort can, I believe, be creative and successful.”  Creative people apply their creativity to every facet of their lives, and Robison Wells is a prime example of this.  He faces his trials with determination and a great tenderness and appreciation toward his wife and the way his illnesses affect her.  Somehow, he strives to create, pay his bills, be an advocate for others who also suffer from mental illness, and teach people how to love reading and writing.  I was honored to interview this amazing man, and I look forward to his continued success.

References:

Deseret News, February 20, 2013, “Mormon Author Talks About His Mental Illness and Faith,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765622942/Mormon-author-talks-about-his-mental-illness-and-faith.html?pg=1           




 

Applicable links:

Robison Wells’ website and blog http://www.robisonwells.com/