Stephanie and I met on Absolute Write, and she’s an absolutely fantastic writer friend to have. She’s beta read my first book for me, she’s a great person to come to for ideas when I’m stuck, and I absolutely love that she writes work that’s entirely different from mine. It’s refreshing to bounce ideas off someone with a completely different perspective, especially when they’re as articulate as Stephanie.
So, Steph, tell me about your upcoming work.
My upcoming novel, out March 15th, 2016, is called What Boys Are Made Of. It’s the first book in the Saint Flaherty series and falls under the literary psychological headings. To sum it up in a sentence, sixteen-year-old Simon ‘Saint’ Flaherty accidentally kills his opponent in a back alley fight and has to live with the consequences as he’s forced to fight again.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that—abuse, cartels, and the problems inherent to a violent culture play a pretty big part in it—but that’s how the story starts. Definitely not YA.
Still, you’ve managed to distill it into a single sentence. That’s no easy feat. Another thing I struggle with sometimes are naming characters. How do you deal with that?
Most characters come to me with first names. Simon has always been Simon, and I can’t imagine Erin by any other name. I’ve only changed character names a couple times when I realized that several minor ones sounded too similar.
On the other hand, last names are something I intentionally choose. What Boys Are Made Of is set in Appalachia, along the Ohio River. This part of the country was settled by coal minors, often from Britain and Poland, and the last names in the book reflect that—Erin Livingston, Jeff Petrowski. Even though the mines have been closed for generations, this region doesn’t have a lot of flux. Families stay, and the names with them.
How did you decide on your title(s)?
I would love to say they come to me in bolts from the blue, but this is one part of writing that I have to wrestle with. I usually pull up the songs I was listening to while I wrote the particular piece and start scribbling down phrases from them. When that fails (and it usually does) I come up with lists of themes—verbs, adjectives, nouns—and pair them together until I get something striking. That’s how I found What Boys Are Made Of and book 2’s title, The Mercy of Men.
My one and only perfect title that arrived from nowhere was Book 3 in the Saint Flaherty series, What About the Girls. I was reading a rant on dealing with rape culture, and the woman mentioned she was so sick of hearing “what about the boys.” She wished just once that someone would shout “what about the girls” instead. There it was, the perfect title for the book I was writing.
How do you manage world-building? Is it all thought out ahead of time, or do you make it up as you go?
World building is really tough when you write first-person present-tense, which I do. Think about your everyday life. Do you walk around thinking to yourself, “Gosh, I’m so glad I live in a republic governed by our president Barack Obama, who rules as the executive branch of government”? No, of course you don’t! Which is fine, except sometimes readers want to know what everyone’s talking about.
For example, there was a civil war—the Second Civil War—about five years prior to the beginning of What Boys Are Made Of. Seems like it’d be important, but one character was too young to really know anything but the propaganda, another has PTSD and doesn’t like to talk about the war, a third is too busy trying to survive the ongoing aftermath to care why the shooting started, etcetera.
We never hear why the war happened. That might sound like a huge oversight, but the cause of the war doesn’t affect the character’s lives. Only certain events like a local bombing or the food shortages the community experienced make it into the narrative, because those are still things they think about. Maybe in a future book we’re find out more of what happened, but for now we don’t, and that’s okay.
Yeah, the whole world-building prologue–how my world came to be–is pretty much discarded now. You’re cranking along pretty well with your novels. Do you write with a word count goal?
I definitely do! My first main novel, I made the mistake of having no idea how long it should be, and so it ended up sixty-thousand words over the mark. I trimmed the extras and it was still much too long—it took cutting plot to make the length manageable, which any writer will tell you just plain is a sucky thing to have to do. The book’s better for it, but I learned my lesson. Every manuscript since, I’ve aimed for a word count and hit it on the nose. It makes my life much easier!
I just finished cutting a two book series down from 350k to 218k, so I really feel you on that one. You end up with the determination that you’re NEVER going through this again. It took tons of beta comments to teach me that skill. What’s the most memorable writing comment you’ve ever gotten?
This was back in my fan fiction days, when I wrote a story that was about Ginny recovering from the Chamber of Secrets. In this story, I played up how much the books don’t go into it, and phrased Tom Riddle as a sexual predator who went after an eleven-year-old girl, and how Ginny was coming to terms with it in a world that would rather she “forgot” about it.
Make fun of fan fiction all you like, but I received several heartbreaking comments from young women saying how much my story meant to them because Ginny’s journey was one they’d made themselves after dealing with sexual molestation at a young age. Her struggles were theirs, and her triumph to keep living gave them hope. That moved me deeply, and it means a lot to this day that I was able to help these young women. It’s something I keep in mind with my writing, making sure it’s accurate so that those who have been in these situations know they are not alone.
What is the best part about being an indie author for you?
The best part of being indie is that I can write anything I want, literally. I had no idea, when I started out, how much traditionally published authors are restricted by their publishers, how often they’re contractually barred from writing further works about their own characters and universes. As both a reader and a writer, that blows my mind. Why restrict something that fans want and will pay for?
As an indie author, I can write anything from random one-shot stories to entire books about situations that strike me as interesting. When I realized I had to cut a point of view character from What Boys Are Made Of, I immediately wrote a novella for him that takes place six months later and acts as a fascinating insight to a time between the first book and the second. And yes, I’m going to publish it. I’m going to publish all of those extras, and I have the freedom to do so because I’m indie.
I like the freedom to do anything, too. It’s your time, talent, and money on the line. You don’t have to ask permission. There’s a similar freedom with blogging. Why don’t you tell us about your blog?
A funny question to answer here of all places, because, Cathleen, you were the person who told me to start one! We were discussing something and I mentioned that I didn’t want to blog, I didn’t think anyone would read it, and you pretty much said “pish posh go do it.” And for whatever the heck reason, I did.
Turns out I have plenty to say, and people enjoy reading it, and that’s enough for me. It’s called Under-Paid, Over-Enthused, and it’s about whatever the heck is on my mind three times a week. It’s also got my short story, “The Foreigner’s Loneliness,” available to read.
Thanks for interviewing me, Cathleen! I always enjoy reading your blog, and it’s great to be here. My first full-length novel, What Boys Are Made Of, is out in paperback and ebook on March 15th, and I hope you’ll all take a look!