Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Lynne Jamneck
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Is there a certain instance -- a moment in your life that you can pinpoint to and say 'That's when I knew I wanted to be a writer'?
Growing up I loved to read and I loved to pretend. In middle school a friend gave me Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man and for some reason something clicked. The way he wrote and described things made me realize that writing is just pretending on paper.
Which writers have had the biggest influence on you and your work?
As a kid I loved horror, adventure fiction, and mysteries. I guess some of my early influences would include Jack London, Edger Allen Poe, Tolkien, Bradbury, Stephen King, and Arthur Conan Doyle. My parents subscribed to National Geographic Magazine, too, and I devoured those. The NG television specials, and documentaries by explorers like Jacque Cousteau and Thor Heyerdahl were family events.
I also loved television shows such as the original Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Kolchack the Night Stalker, Night Gallery, and those old B horror movies with titles like Them! and The Head that Wouldn't Die. My friends and I were always first in line for vampire movies and things like The Legend of Boggy Creek. Cheesy stuff, I know, but when I was a kid I just ate it up.
Later on I discovered writers like William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, Arthur C. Clarke, Anne Rice. I'm sure there are lots of others I could list off, but those are some of the major ones.
I'm influenced to some extend by almost everything I read, really, in that I'm always thinking, "Why does this work? Is this something I could incorporate as a technique?" or "Wow, this stinks! Do I ever do that?" It's not the plot I look at, but how the story is woven, the author's craft behind the action. Faulkner and Bradbury showed me how rich language could be. King and Oates taught me about suspense. I've had a lot of teachers.
It wasn't only books or movies that influenced me, though. I grew up hunting, fishing, camping. In northern Maine, schools still let out for three weeks in the fall so all the kids could work in the potato harvest, hard, dirty physical labor, but fun. I've traveled in Europe, had two babies, lost loved ones and close friends to accidents and suicide, been hired and fired, known true love and true betrayal, been in car accidents, helped perform autopsies on farm animals, climbed mountains, canoed whitewater, and fallen off horses. I've dipped my toes in the ocean on Bondi Beach and stood on the Acropolis, wondering how the hell Erecthius ever saw Theseus' sails from there. I've slept in the guardhouse of an Austrian castle. I've been a daughter, sister, starving student, a lover, a mother.
That's where the visceral elements of fiction come from: real life. A writer can't just be well-educated or good at research; to build a living, breathing world with interesting characters, you have to write from the gut. I'm not saying you have to live your life like a fantasy adventure. The trick is the ability to synthesize your own everyday experiences into your fiction. Infuse your characters with believable emotions and motivations. Infuse your world with rich sensory detail. For that you have to be in touch with your own existence and your own soul, the dark and the light of it.
Have you always been drawn to the Fantasy genre, or was it something you found you had a knack for after the fact?
Fantasy falls into my "adventure" category. I like historical fiction, too, for the same reason. I started playing around with the idea of the Nightrunner world years ago, in the midst of trying all sorts of different types of writing. It took hold and here I am, almost six books later. Although my books are certainly fantasy, there are strong elements of mystery, horror, and psychology in them, too, not to mention some social commentary.
When writing, do you work from an outline? Do you find that working without one gives you more creative freedom?
Outlines don't work for me. I generally write by the seat of my pants, seeing where each day's inspiration takes me. It's not that I don't do any advance planning, but it's mostly in the form of scattered notes and daydreaming, or having conversations with my characters in my head in the shower or while I'm driving.
Any specific rituals you adhere to during the process of writing? Do you need absolute disengagement from the outside world?
I have an office outside my home. That's really crucial. It's lonely, but I need the solitude to get into that altered headspace. I usually do some mental warm up -- playing blackjack on the computer, throwing a Tarot spread, doing some yoga, journaling, answering online interviews like this one -- otherwise known as the "sacred daily procrastination ritual. "
Like many writers, I also listen to music while I work, and am very particular about what it is, depending on the scene I'm writing that day. What I listen to has changed over the years, too. At first it was all classical, then I went through a Celtic phase. I wrote the climactic battle scenes in Stalking Darkness inspired by Enya's "Cursum Perficio". When I needed melancholy scenes afterward, I switched to her "Exile." Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is great, too; big, dramatic music for big, dramatic scenes.
Later my tastes shifted again and I wrote at least half of Traitor's Moon listening to Clapton and the Eagle's Hell Freezes Over album. Lately it's mostly new agey meditation music -- Tibetan bells and horns, music with natural sounds worked in, Native American flute music. However, when I need to power up on a slow brain day, I use the soundtrack from Lemony Snickett's' A Series of Unfortunate Events. Great stuff! Musical caffeine.
How did you make that psychological click from wanting to be a writer and realizing that now I am a writer?
I'm not sure. I started writing as a kid, but it was just for my own enjoyment and that of the friends and family who were kind enough to read my work. It was more a creative compulsion than a career goal. Being a novelist wasn't something people aspired to, where I come from. You needed a real job, something sensible. I was told the since I was so good at writing and liked literature so much, I should set my sights for teaching. I enrolled as an English major, with a minor in history and kept on writing just for fun. In college I took the only creative writing class offered, wrote some short stories that everyone thought were weird, and learned how the submission process works. I subsequently got my first official rejection letters.
I don't think I really felt like a writer, though, until I got mentally hooked by a meandering character study that later turned out to be the first two books of the Nightrunner Series, Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness. I started out just noodling around with this character named Seregil, who demanded a dark, medieval world to sneak around in. At the time I thought he was going to be like Sherlock Holmes, so I decided to give him a Watson, or so I thought.
Initially that character was so flat I couldn't even think of a name for him; I just knew he was younger, and blond. A yellow tiger cat we had at the time liked to lie in my lap while I typed, so I borrowed his name until I could come up with something better. Such was the humble creative birth of Alec of Kerry, who ended up being Seregil's co-star and eventually his lover. The cat was named for Sir Alec Guinness, and Alec is eventually known as Sir Alec, so I guess it was fate.
Anyway, the story kept growing and I started showing it to more people. They thought it was pretty good and wanted to see more. Over a period of several years I wrote and rewrote it as I learned to be a serious writer, and ultimately ended up with a book manuscript, which turned out to be the first two books of the Nightrunner series. After a certain point, it seemed like publishing was the next logical step. That was terrifying, by the way, and very hard work. But that's another story, one I detail in an article I wrote called "The Complete Nobody's Guide to Query Letters."
Is there a central theme to your work -- one that you have noticed running through your writing at regular intervals?
I do a lot with characters' sense of identity. I also like challenging stereotypes, gender roles, things like that. Give me a stereotype or a genre expectation and the first thing I want to do is stand it on its head. In the Nightrunner books I wanted to see if I could create a believable gay hero, one who wasn't someone's sidekick or a victim. In the Tamir Triad I'm exploring gender identity, and whether the ends ever justify the means, politically and morally.
Are you seeing any specific trends in the fantasy genre that have perked your interest? Or your concern, come to think of it
To be honest, I don't' read widely in the fantasy genre. A lot of writers I know don't, either. For one thing, when you write fantasy for a living, you need something else to freshen you up at the end of the day. I also worry about picking up other people's ideas by accident. It's not that I'm completely unaware of my genre. High fantasy is still popular, which is lucky for writers like me, who are still trying to come up with fresh angles there. Contemporary fantasy is hot -- magical stories set in the real world. Some of that is better than others.
Which aspect or elements of writing do you find the most challenging?
Plot. That's the hardest thing for me to work out. I love creating characters and dialogue. Those come incredibly easy to me. But then you have to do something with them!
Do you think it's possible for a writer to step completely outside of their characters? To have nothing of themselves in any character they create?
I assume you're talking about main characters. Because they are a product of our minds, they are a part of our selves. In some cases, they are a reflection of our fears. I really enjoy creating psychos and zealots. It's not because I am one, but because they fascinate and repel me. I feel strongly about them, so I guess they represent part of my shadow self.
My main characters/heroes are closer bits and pieces of myself, my beliefs and experiences, with aspects of wish fulfillment. None of them are me, but some have a lot of me in them. I've even been surprised when friends see me in characters I didn't feel any particular connection to. I don't think we can ever completely divorce ourselves from our creations.
And on that note, tell us something weird
Well, weird is more "all in a day's work" for me, but here goes . . .
Many of the ghost scenes in the Tamir books are based on experiences I've had myself over the years. I grew up in a haunted house, with a very unhappy tenant. I don't go ghost hunting or anything, I just know when they're there.
Let's see, what else? In Luck in the Shadows, the main character, Seregil, is slowly driven toward insanity at one point. The gooey details in the scene in which he hallucinates about body parts in his food and surrounding the boat he's on are drawn from my time as a necropsy technician. You just haven't lived until you've gotten a face full of methane and stomach acid while opening up a bloated dairy cow, or fallen down in a truckload of dead cats and dogs. Yum yum! Those same memories, together with my experience cleaning game animals, came in handy in later for human sacrifice scenes.
Has what you used to enjoy reading changed much since the start of your writing career?
Since I started writing when I was thirteen, I should hope so! I still love adventure and horror and that sort of thing, but I think my standards are higher in terms of literary quality. I tend to read more non-fiction these days, too. A lot of it is research, but there's also a lot of philosophical questing going on, as I grow older. I especially enjoy the Buddhist writings of Thich Nhat Hahn.
Which authors are you currently fond of -- anyone in particular you would like to recommend?
I've been hard at work on my current novel, on a tight deadline, which means I've been reading almost nothing but research and fluff, neither of which I would recommend. One really great book I read recently, however, is The Skull Mantra, by Eliot Pattison. It's a murder mystery set in a Chinese labor camp in Tibet. The author has worked in that part of the world for years and really knows the cultures. The mystery was pretty good, but the details about Tibet, Buddhism, and the Chinese oppression there were outstanding. It was a gripping read, at once exotic and realistic, and at times very touching.
Have you ever tried your hand at scriptwriting?
Not yet, but I'd like to.
What is it that keeps your fascination with the fantasy genre strong?
I have a world and some characters I'm very fond of. They've generated six books' worth of ideas. But I wouldn't mind trying my hand at something else someday; horror, maybe, or a mystery.
What is your view on the current state of publishing? Would you encourage young writers to enter the world of professional writing?
I broke in about ten years ago, and was told by various other unpublished writers: "Publishers hate new authors." "It's a male-dominated business; women don't get a fair break." "It's easier to find a publisher than an agent." "You have to have a short fiction track record before you can sell a first novel." etc. etc. Those same truisms are still rife in the business and they're still utter bullshit. Editors are always looking for fresh new talent. Most of the agents and editors, probably more than half, are women. An experienced, reputable agent can save you years of fruitless effort and get you better deals and foreign sales. And for the record, I got my first novel agented and sold before I ever got a short story published. To date I've only sold three. Short fiction is a different art form. Not everyone is good at it. Some people can do both, others can't. It doesn't matter, so long as you figure out what you're good at and do it.
Fantasy and science fiction have been good markets for new writers for a long time and I don't see any sign of that changing. In fact, it's probably improving, with the popularity of fantasy movies and books like Harry Potter.
My advice to would-be authors is that you have to be willing to do the hard work. You must, must, MUST have a finished novel to sell before you start even thinking about an agent or editor. No one wants to see an outline and three chapters from an untried talent. Your finished manuscript is your credibility. It shows not only what you are capable of, creatively; it shows that you have it in you to finish a big project.
For someone who's just beginning, publishing shouldn't be the top thing on your list of concerns. It takes a lot of practice to become a good writer. You have to write a lot of very bad fiction to learn how to write well. You do this by doing, and by always being willing to learn. Although I was an English major in college, I only took one creative writing course (the only one offered) and it wasn't very good. I learned a lot more from working with other writers in workshops and writer's group, and of course, from reading. You can learn as much from a bad book as you can from a good one if you have a discerning eye, but you have to seek out really, really good authors to learn from.
Fantasy can be a tough genre to write well, and originally. If you only read fantasy, chances are you're going to come up with some pretty stale stories. Some of the best fantasists, including C.S. Lewis, LeGuin, and Tolkien, were highly educated academics with an immense knowledge of real history and culture. They used this knowledge to craft interesting, highly detailed created worlds. These kinds of writers inspired me to draw from real life and to do lots of research to create my own world.
Then you have the elements of craft and style. Fantasy characters should not talk like bad Shakespearian actors, or like surfer dudes, either, (unless that's the world you've created.) You have to find a cadence, a natural rhythm and voice for your world. And you have to make your characters alive, not cardboard cutouts.
What are you currently workingany exciting projects on the horizon you'd like to tell us about?
I'm currently writing the third and final book of the Tamir Triad, which follows up The Bone Doll's Twin and Hidden Warrior. Over the course of the first two books, a young prince discovers that he was born a girl and magically changed to protect him until he is old enough to challenge his usurper uncle for the throne. In this book he is a she and has to come to terms not only with the gender change but having to be a warrior queen at a young age, all the while sorting out her feelings for her squire and figure out why the ghost of her dead twin brother is still haunting her. And fight her cousin for the throne. And fight off outside enemies . . . Well, there's a lot going on, as you can see. There's my usual "who am I and what does that mean?" theme going on, and plenty of gender issues.
I also have one of my rare short stories coming out in an anthology from TOR books next year. I don't have an official title or release date yet, but the proceeds are going toward tsunami victim relief funds. At last report, it's coming out internationally in hardcover, with a foreword by Sir Arthur C. Clarke. I'm pretty excited about that! I'll be posting details on my website as I get them.
The five things every aspiring writer must know is:
Ahem. The five things every aspire writer must know are:
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Lynne Jamneck is a writer/photographer from South Africa. Her work has been accepted to and published in a number of diverse markets, including Best Lesbian Erotica 2003, H.P Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly, On Our Backs Anthology Vol. 2 and anthologies Raging Horrormones (Oxcart Press) and Darkways Of The Wizard (Cyber-Pulp Books & Specficworld.com). She was the editor and creator of Simulacrum: The Magazine of Speculative Transformation. Her first Samantha Skellar mystery, Down the Rabbit Hole, was published by Bella Books in 2005. Lynne currently lives in New Zealand with her partner Heidi.