I was invited to participate in this blog tour on writing by a very enthusiastic and talented writer named Serena Lin I met as her VONA workshop instructor. She posted last week on her Drunken Whispers blog. (Her thoughtful post is well worth reading!)
Question #1: What are you working on?
I am, at last, researching a new novel. My working title is The Reformatory, and it will be a historical supernatural suspense novel set in 1930s Florida. My most recent solo novel was 2011’s My Soul to Take, the last in the African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep–so I have had a long break from novels.
My two-year appointment as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College ends this month, concluding a wonderful three years of teaching at Spelman. During that period, although I published two YA zombie novels (Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls) and one Tennyson Hardwick mystery novel (From Cape Town with Love) with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, those projects were already in process when I began teaching. I had not begun work on a new solo novel…until now.
As eager as I was to quit my day job when I left The Miami Herald in 1998 to begin writing fiction for a living, Spelman taught me a different kind of liberation as a writer: the freedom not to write for a living. During this period, I have been writing short stories and speculative scripts and/or treatments for film and television projects, allowing me to grow as a short story stylist and to get more traction in Hollywood.
While I was at Spelman, I co-produced and co-wrote my first short film, Danger Word, with Steve. The director, Luchina Fisher, also co-produced the film. Danger Word stars veteran actor Frankie Faison and newcomer Saoirse Scott, and it was nominated for Best Narrative Short at the Pan African Film Festival and the BronzeLens Film Festival. Although we included this story of Kendra and Grandpa Joe trying to survive the zombie apocalypse in Devil’s Wake, the original short story, “Danger Word,” was my very first fiction collaboration with Steve in YEAR, published in Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams. (In that original story, the older girl was an 8-yera-old boy named Kendrick instead.)
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I now have more books optioned simultaneously than ever before, and I am working as a co-producer on most of them. Becoming a filmmaker has been an important step in creating more interest in my work.
As for The Reformatory, I’m not going to say much else about it except that it’s from the POV of a 15-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy who get caught up in the horrors of the era’s criminal justice system. (For a hint, read my previous blog posts, “Unburying the Lost Boys,” Parts I and II.) In terms of previous work, it’s more in line with The Good House or Joplin’s Ghost. However, it would be appropriate for both adults and readers over fourteen. I think.
I do think it’s possible to talk a project to death. As writers, either we are talking about what we’re writing or we are actually writing. Until I have done more actual writing, I will do less talking.
Question #2: How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
I’m not sure how to define my “genre.”
Most of my work has a supernatural element that would suit a “horror” label, but many of my readers do not consider themselves horror readers. Just today, a colleague said, “I’m scared, but I’ll read it because it’s you…”
I love Octavia E. Butler, Stephen King and Nnedi Okorafor, but most of my reading is not in speculative fiction. I tend to read more historical and black literary novels in the vein of Tayari Jones, Bernice L. McFadden, Leonard Pitts and Dolen Perkins-Valdez. History, race and culture are primary in my inspiration. Often, as in the novel I’m researching now, the speculative element is in service to the history–exposing it, acknowledging it, correcting it.
But a historical bent does not make me unique, as you can see if you check out the newly-published Long Hidden anthology of historical speculative fiction. (Here’s a free link to my new short story in the anthology, “Free Jim’s Mine.”)
My research into the abuses against children at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, has been a vivid reminder of how so-called “horror” in fiction is mild compared to the horrors in history.
Which leads to…
Question #3: Why do you write what you do?
Writing supernatural or post-apocalyptic fiction is an emotional escape for me. I literally was brought to tears every time I started reading nonfiction accounts about the Dozier School like The White House Boys (Roger Dean Kiser) and The Boys of the Dark (Robin Gaby Fisher with Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Straley). My mind reeled with every page: Who would treat children like this?
Sometimes it’s less horrifying to imagine a supernatural entity at work than it is to reflect on our casual human monstrosity. Demons make more sense of the nightly news.
My fascination with mortality began at a young age, and I have been trying to process it ever since. I don’t have the ability to pretend it away, and less so since I lost my mother in 2012. This awareness has driven my ambition, my faith, my writing. I write stories of unimaginable crisis to process my fears of loss, illness, death.
I write to witness the amazing inner strength of my characters.
The zombie apocalypse is fiction, but every generation suffers its apocalypse. We are the walking dead.
No matter what our beliefs about what happens after death, that’s a lot to process.
How does your writing process work?
I write novels and screenplays, and both begin with the outline. I don’t outline shorter works, although sometimes I think I should. From a practical standpoint, I learned the value of detailed outlining as a published writer, when I was able to sell a novel based on three chapters and an outline.
I’m surprised by the number of writers who tell me they’re struggling with a project, but don’t want to outline–or hadn’t thought of it. Outlining, to me, isn’t a creative buzz-kill that crimps all creativity; it’s a simple diagnostic tool to show me if I understand the story I want to tell, the direction I want it to take, and whether or not it has the legs to get me there.
My chapter-by-chapter outline for Blood Colony was 30 pages long. But after it’s written, my outline’s job is done. For a novel, I might write the outline and then never refer to it again. I know the story after that; the rest is just the details. After I finished The Good House, I referred back to my outline and realized I’d left out a few images and scenes, but the book had outgrown my hazy concepts at the start of the journey. The outline was enough to show me what I had–the rest was created in my daily practice.
No outline should be written in granite. (Screenplays are different, since I often write those collaboratively and the outline literally grows into a treatment, which grows into a script without dialogue, which grows into the full script. That’s the Robert McKee method in Story, and it works for me.)
On deadline, I also use page quotas. Depending on the project, my page quotas vary from 3-5 pages or 5-7 pages. Page quotas are an incredibly useful tool, as are deadlines. If Idon’t have an external deadline, I create my own.
Doesn’t sound like “fun”? Wandering aimlessly through a long project isn’t fun for me. I don’t like creative rollercoasters, just as I don’t like rollercoasters in real life. My fun is in watching my characters react and grow through the story. Even with an outline, there is plenty of room for surprises on each page.
The idea isn’t what matters most–the power is always in the execution.
Sometimes I have three or four hours to write. Sometimes I have fifteen minutes. Sometimes I only have time to read over what I wrote during the last session, but at least that keeps the story fresh in my mind. I used to think I needed a closed door to write, but now my office doesn’t even have that. Most of our writing props and rituals are only an emotional crutch–or, worse, an excuse not to write.
Having said that, sometimes I make the choice not to write. I give myself over to my students, or my family, or, say, a short film fundraising campaign. I can feel “flow” reading student manuscripts, shooting video, editing video.
But I always come back to writing.
Writing is not always fun for me, although it is much of the time, just like when I was 10 years old. But even “small” writing projects are difficult. The longer I write, the harder it gets.The challenge may be what I love most of all.
“First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” ― Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories
The two writers I have selected for the Blog Tour next Monday, 5/26:
TINA MCELROY ANSA
Tina McElroy Ansa is a novelist, publisher, filmmaker, teacher and journalist. But above all, she is a storyteller. Her five best-selling novels, essays and reviews have won praise from The New York Times to First Lady Michelle Obama, who has quoted from the writer’s “Baby of the Family.” Ten years ago, Ms. Ansa established the Annual Sea Island Writers Retreats on Sapelo Island and St. Simons Island, Georgia , where she has lived for 30 years. Since 2004, she has conducted the writing workshops at colleges and cities throughout the Southeast. She also leads private writing retreats by request.
DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER
It’s a special pleasure to invite one of my former MFA students from Antioch University Los Angeles. If you don’t know his work, this won’t be the last time you see his name. He’s author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Daniel is also an essayist and blogger who recently made an impact with his essay decrying the lack of diversity in publishing literature for BuzzFeed. He writes regularly for Salon.com and co-edited of Long Hidden. He’s a great writer and a great advocate for writers. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter.
Plase spread the word with the hashtag #mywritingprocess