Conversation Corner with James Pailly, Sci-Fi Writer and Science Blogger Extraordinaire

I’m thrilled to have James Pailly as a guest today on Doorway Between Worlds. I’m a devoted follower of James’s blog Planet Pailly, where he shares knowledge about science in a way that never fails to make me laugh while I learn. James also writes science fiction, and I thought he might have some interesting ideas to share about how to communicate sciency concepts to readers. I was right! Here is our conversation about high school fears, molecular personalities, and the art of bringing science into science fiction.

On your blog Mission Statement page (I love that title, by the way – very science fiction!), you talk about how you’re working on improving your scientific knowledge, so you can grapple with its complexities in your writing. What prompted you to share that research on science with others through your blog?

First off, thanks for inviting me!  I could never resist crossing a doorway between worlds.

I guess I started my blog because of a deep-rooted sense of insecurity.  As a kid, I loved Star Trek and Star Wars, but I hated science class.  Especially chemistry.  Chemistry and I are old, bitter adversaries.  So I grew up really wanting to write science fiction and knowing next to nothing about actual, factual science.

Most of my writing instructors reassured me that it didn’t matter.  Good storytelling comes first; just make up the sciency stuff.  But I couldn’t shake the fact that when it came to physics and astronomy and biology, I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  I felt embarrassed by my ignorance, and that stopped me from writing anything at all.

I believe the best way to overcome that kind of insecurity is to face it directly.  So in a moment of either extreme courage or extreme foolishness, I decided to teach myself science.  In order to ensure that I’d stick to it for more than a weekend, I also decided to blog about my research.  I figured regular blogging would keep me from getting lazy and that readers would hold me accountable if I made mistakes.

For the most part, it’s worked.  There’s still loads of science for me to learn, but I don’t feel so insecure about my ignorance.

That’s fantastic. I’m ignorant in a lot of areas of science, too, and I love learning about all the different things you talk about through your blog. How did you end up developing the ideas for your various series?

I’ve had multiple special series come and go on my blog.  Sciency Words is by far the longest running.  The original idea was that I’d write brief, dictionary-style definitions of important scientific terms.  Now Sciency Words posts are much longer and usually include what I describe as “highly technical scientific diagrams.”  Like this one:

Earth: Ahh!!! What are all these things crawling on me? Moon: I think some of them got on me too.

Image courtesy of James Pailly

The other currently active series is called Molecular Mondays.  Every other Monday, I focus specifically on that subject I dreaded most in school: chemistry.  This is another case of me directly facing my insecurities.  I’ve tried to talk myself into canceling this series several times now, but the feedback I’ve gotten has really surprised me.  Apparently I’m not the only one who struggled in chemistry class, and I guess people like to see that I’m not giving up on something just because it’s hard.

Yes! I am one of those who struggled with chemistry. I think part of the issue was that it wasn’t very relatable for me (as opposed to biology, which I did quite well in) – it felt abstract and boring. But your posts on chemistry are inspiring me to learn more. And your “highly technical scientific diagrams” are a big help in making it fun. Do you have a background in art? What do you see as the role of art in communication?

You know, the funny thing about studying art is that when you really get into it, when you’re learning to mix pigments and get them to adhere to a surface, you’re actually doing chemistry.  With figure studies, you’re doing anatomy and biology.  When you’re working with light and shadow, you’re starting to do physics.

I think a lot of science can feel abstract and boring, as you said.  Chemistry is especially guilty of this.  But once you get to know atoms and molecules, you find that they sort of have their own distinct personalities.  Carbon makes friends with everybody.  Helium just wants to be left alone.  Oxygen’s super greedy for everyone else’s electrons, and most metals are sort of blasé about letting their own electrons go.

Oxygen: Gimme, gimme, gimme!Oh, these old things? Take them, if you want.
Images courtesy of James Pailly

That’s not really a scientific way of thinking.  It’s sort of my artistic interpretation.  I take a bit of creative license on my blog, but I think a little creative license can help make science feel less abstract and more familiar.

Applying character development to scientific concepts is brilliant. (I can imagine science teachers taking fiction writing classes to broaden their communication skills.)

Actually, one of my favorite teachers — my high school physics teacher — wrote two episodes of Star Trek, one for The Next Generation and another for Voyager.  Now there was a man who knew how to turn science into good storytelling!

That is so cool! I wish my high school physics teacher had been a sci-fi writer. Although he had his own talents – he was a born comedian and a talented dancer. (He used to entertain us with some Russian dances if we asked nicely.) 🙂

I love that whole idea of cross-pollination between different knowledge areas. I’m curious – have you found that learning more about science has helped you with your original goal of improving your science fiction writing?

I have two science fiction projects that I’m actively working on.  The first is called Tomorrow News Network.  It’s a short story series about a journalist who travels through time, covering the biggest news stories in the galaxy before they happen.

I started writing T.N.N. shortly after I started blogging.  The T.N.N. universe is filled with fairly standard Sci-Fi tropes: wacky time machines, emotionless cyborgs, sprawling space empires, etc.  From the beginning, I’ve tried to fit my research in wherever I can, but T.N.N. is still what some would label “soft-core” science fiction.

Tomorrow News Network

Image courtesy of James Pailly

My other project is still in the world building stage, and I’m sort of approaching it in the opposite way to how I approached Tomorrow News Network.  This time, I’m starting with my research — specifically my research on planetary science, orbital mechanics, and chemistry (of course) — and I’m fitting in traditional Sci-Fi tropes wherever I can.

The result is a universe that feels much more grounded in reality.  At least, I hope so.  Also, with all the omnipresent hazards of space travel hanging over my main characters, I think this is a universe that will feel a whole lot more dangerous.

I’m so glad it’s been a worthwhile endeavour for you. I can’t wait to see the results! Before we wrap up our conversation, I was wondering — do you have any recommended resources for those who are interested in writing in the sci-fi genre?

A lot of science fiction writers seem to skip the research part of their work.  I’m not saying you have to go research-crazy like I do, but you can find a lot of cool story ideas buried in scientific literature.  Real life science is often weirder and more wonderful than anything you could possibly imagine.

So I’m going to repeat a piece of advice from Isaac Asimov (at least, I think it’s from Asimov).  He told new science fiction writers to get a subscription to Scientific American.  They’re one of the best at making science accessible without oversimplification.

Of course, the world has changed a bit since Asimov’s time, and now you can find quality science journalism all over the Internet for free.  You’ve got websites like Live Science, Universe Today, and Space.com (although these websites are sometimes guilty of oversimplification). Magazines like Popular Science and Scientific American post a lot of their articles online too.

And if you feel like diving into the more technical stuff, check out Google Scholar.  It’s Google for academic papers (as opposed to regular Google, which searches the entire Internet).  Actually, Google Scholar is an amazing resource no matter what subject you’re trying to research, and I’m surprised by how few people seem to know it’s there.

Thanks, James! I used to love reading Scientific American, and I need to get back to it.

Finally, just for fun, I have to ask: Which do you like better? Star Wars or Star Trek? (Or something else? I’m a Babylon 5 person myself.)

Oh jeez, you’re going to get me in trouble.  Okay, I’d normally pick Star Trek, but… the trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story just came out.  I’m pretty excited about Star Wars right now.

I think we all are! Thanks so much for being such a great guest, James, and sharing your thoughts with my readers. You’re welcome back any time!

***

Do you have a question for James, or a comment on our interview? Please leave your thoughts below – we’d love to continue the conversation with you!

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Conversation Corner with Carrie Rubin, Author of Medical Thrillers

Carrie Rubin

Carrie Rubin

I am so pleased to be hosting Carrie Rubin for today’s Conversation Corner. I love Carrie’s blog The Write Transition, which showcases her wonderful insights about life and writing. Carrie’s blog has many followers, and yet she somehow finds the time to provide thoughtful answers to every single comment. I am frankly in awe of her mastery of all things media.

Carrie is also a truly funny woman who happens to write novels about disease and serial killers. (Go figure.) Her wonderful second novel Eating Bull has just been released, and I asked her if she would come on by to chat about her experiences writing in the thriller genre. Here is our conversation about teenage heroes, book promotion, health, and funny words.

Carrie, I love the beginning of your About page:

Physician, public health advocate, writer. I believe every experience is worthwhile, even if our paths deviate from where we started.

I hope you don’t mind if I steal that second sentence as an inspirational quote. 🙂 I’ve always felt that whatever we learn is never wasted, since it helps us grow later in ways we couldn’t have foreseen. How have your experiences as a physician contributed to your career as a writer? And what prompted you to make that transition?

Please do take advantage of that quote! Other than my teen sons parroting me in a mocking falsetto, no one ever quotes me.

My medical background plays a big role in my writing, first as a write-what-you-know tool and second as a platform of authenticity. This legitimacy is particularly important for my newest novel, because the social issue at play in Eating Bull is obesity and the food industry’s role in it. Readers want to know the author has experience in the area, and between my years of clinical practice and my public health research, I do.

I have always wanted to write novels. In fact, I wrote my first book fourteen years ago. But as so often happens, life got in the way. So, during a career transition from clinical to nonclinical medicine a couple of years back, I jumped off a cliff and dived into writing instead. (Thanks to the amazing support of my husband whose words at the time were, “It’s now or never.”) Of course, I keep all my medical licensure and public health requirements up to date for life’s next chapter, as well as ties to my hospital of employment, but for now I’m enjoying the life of a writer.

It’s clear in Eating Bull that your authenticity has served you well – including your experience with teen boys! Your main character, Jeremy, is so well drawn. What helped you get into his mindset? And how did you handle the ongoing switch between his point of view and that of adult health worker Sue?

Thank you. My oldest son was fifteen years old when I wrote the book, so having a character the same age as my son helped me get into a teenager’s mindset. Plus, my son served as one of my beta readers. I wanted his opinion on whether Jeremy rang true to his age. If he thought something was off, I fixed the issue. This was particularly helpful in relation to Jeremy’s video game playing and his interactions at school.

Since I enjoy writing in a third-person limited narrative, I had to make sure Sue’s chapters sounded different from Jeremy’s. A 48-year-old woman will have different insights and reactions than a 15-year-old boy. So I tried to don the personality of whoever’s point of view I was writing from. Of course, that meant thinking like Darwin, too. Getting into the mindset of a killer makes for an interesting experience!

I’ll bet it does! I’ve always thought writing thrillers must be challenging because of its inevitable focus on the negative side of human nature. How do you get into that mindset? How do you shake it off? And have you come across any useful resources that helped you write this type of thriller?

I’m not sure I do anything specific to get into the mindset, but when I’m focusing on the negative, particularly when writing from the antagonist’s point of view, I remind myself of Stephen King’s words:

If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.

—Stephen King, On Writing

In other words, I try not to censor myself. As much as my antagonist’s actions might disturb me, they are what fuel the story, and I need to be willing to go there.

I’ve read a variety of books on the craft of writing, but two of the most helpful for me in terms of writing thrillers are Story Engineering and Story Physics, both by Larry Brooks. Structure is very important when drafting thrillers, and I like to have it all laid out beforehand. Brooks’s books help me navigate how to do that.

As you know, I’m a fan of Story Engineering as well. It seems to me that engineering is a perfect concept for a lot of the activities involved in writing a book, including the engineering involved in coordinating its release. How do you handle all the various bits and pieces that are involved in promoting your work?

Honestly, that part’s a bit stressful for me. There is much to coordinate, both online and face-to-face. In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, I:

  • wrote blog posts and articles, either for my own site or elsewhere
  • sent out ARCs (Advance Reader Copies)
  • updated my various platforms and included the book’s links
  • contacted potential reviewers
  • designed bookmarks and other promotional items
  • got emails ready to send to local newspapers, alumni newsletters, and professional contacts
  • set up book signings
  • created posters for book signings
  • developed a “talk” should any speaking engagements arise
  • explored other marketing venues

Eating BullAnd, of course, during all that I was reading through the final electronic and print versions of Eating Bull before my publisher gave it the official go. It’s amazing how a typo can slip past 2,000 previous readings!

But I handled it like most of us do: making lists and tackling the elephant one bite at a time.

That sure is a big elephant! You’ve talked a lot on your blog about your introversion. As an introvert, how do you keep yourself from running out of energy with all these activities?

The busy work I listed above doesn’t really drain me. It’s the social interactions that do, particularly the face-to-face ones. So now that the book is released, and I’ll be facing more in-person promotion, I’ll need to make sure I get wind-down time every night, either in the form of a good TV show or some reading. Those always help quiet my mind and recharge my batteries, especially if they are followed by a good night’s sleep and a morning workout.

Sounds like an excellent plan. I know I need that recharging time after a busy social day (although I’m still struggling with the workout part). 🙂

You’ve mentioned that the face-to-face interactions involved in promotion are particularly challenging for you. I’ve noticed that you are active on Twitter and Goodreads and comment on many blogs. Do you find communicating through social media to be easier? And how do you manage to keep up with all your online platforms?

I do find interacting on social media much easier. No eye contact, no small talk, and communication in short snippets—perfect for an introvert. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain mentions that many introverts thrive online. That being said, I’m a big girl, and I can function in the real world when needed. It just saps my energy more than online communication.

I devote a couple of hours each day to social media, but I don’t keep up as well as I’d like. I do best with Twitter and my blog, but even the latter I find challenging since I follow so many others. While I can’t catch every post, especially on the more prolific blogs, I try to stop by when I can. It’s always fun to see what others are up to, and I’ve found the blogging community to be genuine and supportive. In fact, I’ve ‘met’ remarkable people from all over the world.

I wholeheartedly agree – the blogging community has been wonderful to me as well. And of course I got to meet you! 🙂

I have one last question (one that will hopefully help this introvert impress people at awkward social events): Do you have a favourite obscure or funny medical term?

This is one of those questions where you can’t think of a great answer at the time but later come up with something perfect, usually at three in the morning. But here are a couple of medical terms I like: Borborygmus, which is the term for stomach growling, and myokymia, the term for involuntary muscle twitching, like when your eyelid keeps contracting. And if you have both at the same time? Well…you might want to skip your next meeting.

Thank you so much for having me today, Sue! I had a lot of fun, and I’m honored to be a part of your fabulous blog. For anyone who hasn’t seen Sue’s Rogue Word series yet, it’s definitely worth a look. Lots of great writing tips there. I found the s and apostrophes post particularly helpful.

Thanks, Carrie! I’m glad that my series was helpful for you. And thank you so much for stopping by DBW today and sharing your experiences with my readers!

***

For those of you who enjoy thrillers, I encourage you to take a look at Eating Bull.

And if you’re interested in reading previous conversations on various communication topics, you can find them here. Thanks for reading!

Conversation Corner with Lori MacLaughlin, Author of Lady, Thy Name is Trouble

Shortly after I started DBW, I ran across Lori MacLaughlin’s blog Writing, Reading, and the Pursuit of Dreams. With a blog name like that, how could I resist investigating? At the time, Lori was in the thick of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, and I loved following her series of posts on favourite fictional characters.

Since that time, she has chronicled her self-publishing journey, and recently published her first novel, a wonderful sword-and-sorcery adventure called Lady, Thy Name is Trouble. I asked Lori if she would be willing to stop by and share her thoughts on writing and communication. Here is our conversation on finding inspiration, interpreting body language, surviving the self-publishing process, and squawking.

On your About page, you talk about imagining tales while growing up on your parents’ dairy farm. How did your love for story come about? Who or what inspired you?

Lori MacLaughlin

Lori MacLaughlin

I read voraciously while I was growing up. My parents had instilled in me a love of books by reading to me at an early age. They had shelves of books that filled my head with stories and sparked my imagination. Many of them had animal protagonists, like The Poky Little Puppy and other Golden Books, the Thornton W. Burgess Green Meadow series, and one of my favorites, The Wind in the Willows. Another book I found inspirational was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The idea of traveling through some kind of portal to a magical world fascinated me and inspired me to create my own fantasy worlds and adventures.

I was very much a tomboy and spent a lot of time in the woods and pastures and in the barns with our animals, so it was very easy, by extension, to think of them and other real and imaginary woodland critters as story characters. I’ve always been intrigued by fantastical creatures and wished I could see unicorns and fairies and such in the woods.

There is something magical about animals, isn’t there? I grew up in the suburbs, so I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to be around animals. But one house I lived in had a little pond down the street, and I used to love going on toad-catching expeditions and watching for squirrels.

I noticed when reading your book Lady, Thy Name is Trouble that you did an excellent job describing the horses and how they behaved. Did you work a lot with the animals on your parents’ farm? What was that experience like?

Thank you! Yes, I worked with both cows and horses. I had a saddle horse and enjoyed riding. My dad loves horses, and his stories about his experiences both riding and working with horses on the farm where he grew up were inspirational, too. Mostly, though, I worked with the cows and young stock. Interacting with the animals was my favorite part of farming. Each animal had its own personality, and I really got to know them well. Animals have body language and expressions, just like people, and being able to read those allowed for so much better interaction with them. I found I had a way with animals. There were skittish cows and calves that I could do anything with that no one else could get near.

That’s wonderful. My experience with farm animals is largely limited to a pony that stepped on my foot at summer camp. I was quite intimidated, and I’m sure it showed! That’s a true skill to be able to read body language. Non-verbal communication is so important, and yet it’s something that a lot of us have trouble with. Have you found that this skill at observing others has helped you in other areas of your life? Does it affect how you approach your writing?

Ouch. That had to hurt. Yes, I’ve found that it helps immensely in communicating with others. Some years ago I worked as a feature writer for a local newspaper, and the job involved interviewing people from all walks of life for various reasons. By listening to them and watching their visual cues, I was able to find an approach that put them at ease and got them to open up and really talk to me. It was very rewarding to communicate on that level. Just the simple act of listening — giving someone your full attention — works wonders.

Observing body language was also important in a job I had as a clothing salesperson. I was required to greet the customers who came in the store and ask if they needed help with anything. The customer’s tone of voice and body language told me quite clearly if they didn’t want help at all or might want help later and wouldn’t mind being approached again. It also helped tremendously with children. I worked for a number of years as a kids’ shoe fitter. It’s not always easy to get kids, ages 1 to 10, to cooperate during the fitting process. Being able to read them helped me find ways to coax them into cooperating and made the experience a lot more pleasant for everyone involved.

Because non-verbal communication is such an integral part of expressing oneself, I try to include as much as feels natural in my writing. Expressions and gestures say so much more than just words and really bring characters to life.

Speaking of bringing characters to life – you recently published your first novel, Lady, Thy Name is Trouble. Congratulations! I am sure you went through a lot of work to make this happen. How did you come to the decision to self-publish your story? What has the experience been like for you?

Thank you! Yes, it took a LOT of work. I began writing this story as a hobby many years ago. As I began to get more serious about my writing, I read how-to books on improving my craft and joined a writer’s group to get feedback, which was so helpful. Eventually, I hired a freelance editor and proofreader, whom I met through the League of Vermont Writers group. She loved my story and understood my writing style. Her suggestions brought the story out from under a pile of extraneous words and really helped it shine. From going through this process, I learned how to self-edit, so my work is much cleaner from the start.

I began sending out queries to agents in the traditional manner, hoping to land representation that would keep me out of the publishing houses’ slush pile. I garnered some interest, but no takers. Some responses came right away. Others took months. To wait that long, only to receive a standard rejection letter was discouraging, to say the least.

Lady Thy Name is Trouble book coverAfter a couple of years of not getting anywhere, I decided to re-evaluate. It seemed like there were fewer and fewer opportunities for unpublished writers in the traditional publishing world, and the books that were coming out in my genre were mostly young adult and paranormal/urban fantasy. My novel, I think, would be described best as sword and sorcery, with the emphasis on the sword. It’s action and adventure with romance thrown into the mix.

Not wanting to spend many more months or even years waiting for acceptance from an agent, I chose to go the self-publishing route. My decision was also influenced by the fact that if I did it myself, I would have control over every aspect of the publishing process. Having heard and read about problems other writers had encountered with publishers, this aspect particularly appealed to me.

I have learned so much since taking the plunge. I started building my social media platform. I researched the pros and cons of Amazon’s CreateSpace vs. publishing under my own imprint and decided if I was going to do it myself, I was going to do it my way, to quote an old Frank Sinatra song. I started my own company, Book and Sword Publishing, and registered it with the state, going through a lawyer to make sure I didn’t make any mistakes. I bought my own ISBN numbers. I learned about book layout and cover design, book reviews, and blog tours. I taught myself how to edit music and make book trailers. So many things. I made a list at the beginning of this process of all the things I’d need to do. It seemed a very daunting list, but as long as I took things one step at a time, it was doable. I’ve had my share of frustrations. My successes, though, have blown them all away. There are no words to describe how it feels to hold my own book in my hand or to read it on my Kindle.

Wow, you have been busy! I’ve seen your book trailer, and it’s fantastic. I think it’s wonderful that you’ve tackled all the different aspects of publishing your book. Do you have any advice for writers who are thinking of going the self-publishing route? Are there any resources that you found to be particularly helpful?

Thanks! Yes, the book trailer was a lot of work, but it was fun to make. I think the most important thing for anyone who decides to self-publish is to hire professionals to edit and proofread your work. I know it’s expensive, but it will be worth every penny. A professional-looking cover is also a must. The only way self-publishing will lose its stigma is if everyone who goes that route puts out a quality product. The second-most important thing is to get on social media. Blog, Facebook, Twitter — use whatever works for you to connect with people. It’s the best way to get the word out about your book, and you get the added benefit of meeting and making friends with some wonderful people. Get on Goodreads and network with people there. You don’t have to jump in all at once. Start slow and build up as you feel comfortable.

There are a ton of online resources for self-publishers. I’ve found answers to almost every question I’ve had just by doing a search on a few keywords. Two sites that have been really helpful for me are the Insecure Writer’s Support Group at www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com and The Book Designer at www.thebookdesigner.com.

I’ve also had good luck with Audacity music editing software and Calibre e-book conversion software, both free downloads off the Web. I purchased a template from the Book Designer specifically tailored for MS Word files that would be uploaded to the distributor Ingram/Spark, and that worked well. I used www.istockphoto.com for images for my book trailers. Their one-month subscription worked fine for me, and I had no problems with them, whatsoever. I found great music at www.freestockmusic.com. Font Squirrel has a good selection of fonts that are free for commercial use. I discovered not too long ago, in my naiveté, that even fonts must be licensed for commercial use before they can grace the pages of your books. Always be sure to obtain the necessary permissions and/or licenses for anything you use before publication.

Yes, it’s always good to be on the right side of the law. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing your advice with DBW readers. I have one final question, just for fun. I noticed in your bio that you are a pilot. (From horses to planes – you really know how to go places!) I’ve written in the past about the perils of nonsensical corporate jargon. Have you encountered any weird or funny piloting jargon while learning to fly?

Thanks so much for having me here, Sue! Well, it has been a long time since I piloted an aircraft, but one thing that stood out to me was the constant use of abbreviations. For instance, I was licensed with a VFR, or visual flight rules, rating, which meant that I could fly using outside visual cues, such as the horizon, the landscape, buildings, etc. In other words, I could see where I was going. I was not IFR, or instrument flight rules, rated, so I couldn’t fly in places or at times when I couldn’t see outside and would have to rely solely on the instrument panel for altitude, pitch, direction, and so forth. All airports, in the U.S. anyway, are identified by a three letter code: Los Angeles, CA — LAX; Newark, NJ — EWR; my local airport in Burlington, VT — BTV.

Deciphering a weather report was like reading some kind of weird shorthand. Here’s an example of a PIREP (pilot report) out of my old Manual of Flight book:

DEN 275045 1745 F330/TP B727/SK 185 BKN 220/280 – OVC 290/TA -53/WV 290120/TB LGT-MDT CAT ABV 310

This means: “Denver VOR (very high frequency omnidirectional range) 275 radial 45 NM (nautical miles) at 1745Z (zulu time). Flight level 330 (33,000 ft.). Type of aircraft Boeing 727. Sky cover consists of two layers: first layer base at 18,500 ft., broken top at 22,000 ft., second layer base at 28,000 ft., thin overcast top at 29,000 ft., outside air temperature minus 53 degrees Celsius, wind 290 degrees true at 120 knots, light to moderate clear air turbulence above 31,000 ft.”

And here’s an example of radio communication from a student pilot ready to leave the airport:

Pilot: Ground Control, Cessna 69210 at Montair — going to the north practice area with information Alpha.

Ground Control: 210, taxi to runway 19. Departure on 121.1; Squawk 0325.

(This means turn your radio to frequency 121.1 so you can talk to Departure, and enter 0325 in your transponder so the air traffic controller can identify your aircraft on the radar screen.)

Pilot: Roger 210.

Sometimes it felt like I was speaking a completely different language. It was quite the experience.

That is definitely a different language. And I thought corporations used a lot of abbreviations! Thank you for giving me an inside view into the life of a pilot. And thank you for sharing all your helpful advice with DBW readers today. It’s been a great pleasure to chat with you.

***

Image courtesy of Lori MacLaughlin

For more about Lori, I encourage you to check out her blog or pick up her debut novel, Lady, Thy Name is Trouble.

Do you have a question for Lori, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!

Conversation Corner with Dylan Hearn, Author of The Transcendence Trilogy

When I first came across sci-fi author Dylan Hearn’s blog Suffolk Scribblings, I was immediately impressed with the vibrant community feeling I found in the comments. This was a place where people felt engaged. As I continued to follow his blog, I discovered that Dylan provides great support to the writing community through his insightful posts and his “pay it forward” support of indie publications. I asked Dylan if he would be willing to share his thoughts about writing and community with DBW readers. Here is our conversation about desire and opportunity, world-building, reader engagement, and electronica.

On your About page, you state that you are an author, and that “it has taken me a while to admit this.” How did you get started on your writing journey? What was holding you back?

When I was younger I had two loves, reading and music. I’ve always enjoyed reading. According to my mother I started when I was three years old and I don’t believe a day has gone by since that I haven’t had a book (or more recently a Kindle) in my hand. It was the same with music. I’ve sung since I was able to talk and got heavily involved in choirs at school. It came easily to me.

Writing was a little different. I loved writing at school — and even won some prizes for my work — but it took me a long time to appreciate the value of hard work. My stories would always start off well but end quickly because I’d get bored with the idea and want to finish things off. Eventually my writing subsided as I focussed on things that came more easily.

The other thing to bear in mind is that growing up in rural Suffolk, to working class parents, the thought of having a career in the arts was completely alien. It was something ‘other people’ did. Rather than ‘waste my time’ with writing, I left school at 16 and went out to work to earn money.

Dylan Hearn

Dylan Hearn

In the intervening years I carried on with my music to meet my creative needs, playing in bands in the south-east of England. I also worked my way up in my company, moving around the UK and then Europe. I worked with lots of people from different backgrounds and realised that what was possible to achieve in life had nothing to do with background but all to do with desire and talent.

After 25 years working for the same company, predominantly in marketing, I took voluntary redundancy. For the first time since I was 16 I had the opportunity to think about what I wanted to do with my life. It didn’t take long before the thought of writing a novel took hold. By this point I’d learnt the value of hard work. I’d never lost my love of the written word and had in fact honed my writing over years of crafting communication, so the challenge of writing a novel appealed. That important combination of desire, opportunity, and appetite for work was finally in place.

I can recall a lot of my own stories that never got properly finished. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy blogging so much – it’s a chance to tell really short stories, and fit them around the rest of life’s obligations. I’m glad you got that opportunity to return to one of your first loves, and that it all came together for you! It’s so easy to lose our dreams.

You’ve mentioned on your blog that you love science fiction, but that you never set out to write in that genre. What inspired you to write your first novel, Second Chance, as a sci-fi dystopian thriller? What attracted you to the sci-fi genre?

I’d challenged myself to write a novel, but had no idea what to write about. For years I’d toyed with the idea of writing a fantasy novel. The Hobbit was the book that first got me hooked on reading, and that love for fantasy has stayed with me ever since. My book shelves are full of the greats of fantasy, from the classics by JRR Tolkien, Raymond E Feist, David Eddings, Robin Hobb, Anne McCaffrey and Guy Gavriel Kay through to the darker novels of George R R Martin, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie. The problem was, I had such a deep knowledge of the genre I wasn’t sure if I could think of anything new, and I didn’t want to write a poorer, derivative version of what was already there.

So I started thinking about what I was interested in. I enjoy politics and current affairs and have a deep rooted love of technology. I’ve always been interested in psychology and understanding what makes us who we are. I knew writing a book would be a long slog. I wasn’t afraid as I’d been involved in projects in the past that were delivered over years rather than months, but I also knew I needed to have something more to what I’d written than just the story itself. The best way of doing that was to use the story to explore questions nagging away at the back of my mind.

As soon as that mental leap was made, it made sense to write a science fiction novel.

For me, the best science fiction has at its heart the exploration of an idea. Whether that’s the origins of mankind (2001), the challenge of living on other worlds (Red Mars), or how to extend life (Frankenstein). One of the idea seeds for Second Chance was around politics and the democratic system. I questioned whether the current trend for focussing on the short term in politics, and in business for that matter, gave us the platform to deal with the big issues like climate change. And if not, what could? By setting my novel in the near future, I could extrapolate out (and exaggerate) trends that are happening today and take them to logical end points. Science fiction gave me a way of talking about what’s happening in today’s world without directly talking about what’s happening today.

At the same time, I didn’t want to write about an apocalyptic future. I have great belief in humanity’s ability to make the right calls. We may take our time but we usually get there in the end, so I wanted to write about a world that had pulled back from the brink. More interesting for me was how we did it and what sacrifices had to be made in order to do so.

That’s one of the things I loved about Second Chance – the examination of those moral grey areas through the perspectives of the four main characters. I also loved how the world they are grappling with is gradually revealed through the actions of the characters, rather than through set pieces of exposition. World building is such a critical aspect of science fiction – too much detail and you bore readers, too little and you frustrate them. How did you decide what information to include, and when, to effectively communicate the setting?

Before writing Second Chance I spent a few months looking at what is happening in our world today, what things have changed since my childhood and what is completely different. Because Second Chance is set in the near future, and because humanity had pulled back from the brink, as opposed to lived through, an apocalyptic scenario, I knew I didn’t want to create a world radically altered from our own. I made a conscious decision not to change social behaviours, which at the most basic level haven’t altered in millennia, but to look at emergent technologies happening today to see their likely impact on the future. In this I was heavily influenced by the film Children of Men, based on the book by PD James. I loved how it blended in much that was familiar and then almost shocked the audience with technology far outstripping what we understand today. It just rang true. I realised this is how our world today would look to someone from the Victorian era. They would recognise the clothes we wear and much of what we do socially, but being able to access the world’s information from an object you carry in your pocket would blow their mind.

My first draft of Second Chance included lots of this research and lots of description and came in at 130,000 words. It was enormous. It was only when I came back to read it after putting it away for a few months that I realised much of what I’d written wasn’t needed. There were great swathes of backstory, information and description that were redundant. I’d needed them to help develop the world but they weren’t needed for the story.

As a reader, I’m not a great fan of large passages of description. I prefer books where an author includes the bare minimum and trusts the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. I break up the description across a scene, gradually filling in detail without being too obtrusive. I am also very careful not to over-describe new technologies. I never say how a pod (a form of transportation) is powered, what it is made of, or even if it has wheels. I deliberately describe the doors “peeling open”, to give the reader a feeling of difference, but never how it works.

For this particular novel, I had another reason for taking a minimalist approach. Second Chance is written from the POV of a group of characters whose lives are split between the digital and the real world. This digital immersion means their focus on the real world is lessened. They are too distracted to take in detail like we (especially writers) possibly would. I only broadened the description in the latter stages of the book when real world events become too big to ignore.

Once I’d culled the ‘boring bits’ my book came in at 80,000 words. It’s then you have to rely on your beta readers to let you know when you’ve gone too far, either by not giving enough description or accidentally culling information crucial to the plot. It’s one of the biggest challenges in writing a book, because you know everything. It’s easy to assume you’ve conveyed key information when in reality it’s missing. Beta readers (along with editors) are absolutely essential to getting this process right. By the time I’d made my alterations based on beta reader feedback, despite further tightening of my prose, Second Chance eventually came in at 86,000 words.

I think you and your support team did a great job preserving the thread of the plot while allowing for some mystery. When I read Second Chance, I kept feeling like I was just on the edge of understanding things, and I didn’t want to put the book down!

When you talked about the characters’ lives being split between the digital world and the real world, it made me think about how much time people spend on social media in the real world today, and the many things that are competing for their attention. Given this environment, I imagine it was a bit challenging to gather an audience for your work. How did you engage your readers? Do you have any tips for DBW readers who are trying to build an audience?  

When people first start out on social media, especially writers looking to build a platform of readers, it’s tempting to continually promote your book or books, but it’s a big mistake. It’s called social media for a reason. These systems were created to allow people to connect and interact with other people. The problem is, because it’s online, many people behave completely differently than they would in similar situations in real life.

Say an old school friend you hadn’t seen for years held a party at their house and when you arrived you realised it was full of people you didn’t know. It would be a daunting situation for many of us. Now in that situation, how many people would walk in saying, “I’ve written a book. Buy my book, it’s on special offer. It’s a great story. 5-stars on Amazon. Buy my book!” You just wouldn’t do it, or if you did you’d end up standing alone in the corner fairly quickly, but that’s what many do on social media all the time.

You need to build relationships with people, one at a time, and as any dating expert will tell you, the best way of attracting someone is to show an active interest in them. Ask questions. Listen to what they are saying. Don’t just broadcast, engage. If you do talk about yourself, do it in a way that’s entertaining, engaging, but most importantly, natural. It’s very easy to detect when people are being false, or are engaging with you in order to sell you something.

With blogging, the most popular posts I’ve written have been those people can relate to. I write a lot about writing but not how to write. If people want to learn the writing craft there are much better qualified folk around than me. I tend to talk about life as a writer, self-publishing, editing — often seriously, but sometimes with a little humour. I also buy and read a lot of indie books and promote those I enjoy. It’s my way of paying something back to the supportive indie community.

One of the things I rarely do is actively promote my own books. I may share a nice review somebody else has written, and have once or twice run promotions (and I do leave a little promo at the end of my blog posts about my mailing list), but I don’t shove my books down people’s throats.

That’s not to say you can’t gain sales over social media, but the majority of people need to get to know you first, before they’re willing to have a look at what you’ve written.

I had to laugh at the image of someone running around at a party shouting “buy my book.” That type of behaviour is certainly out there on social media. I like the philosophy put forward in a great book called Your Network is Your Net Worth (by Porter Gale) – “Give Give Get.” That’s really what it’s all about.

Speaking of relationship-building, I feel like I’ve gotten to know you a lot better through this interview. I didn’t know, for example, that music was such a large part of your life. I’m a piano player myself, and music has been a great source of energy for me, almost like a form of meditation. Before we wrap this up, I’m curious – do you still play in a band? Do you listen to music as you write? What type of music do you enjoy?

I’m afraid I don’t play in a band any more. What with writing, working, having a family with young children and some voluntary work I do, there just isn’t the time. It’s a shame, though, as I really miss playing live. I’ve not completely let go, however. I have a good friend who plays in a number of bands, runs a recording studio and arranges regular live gigs, and he often persuades me to do things with him. Most recently he asked me to sing backing vocals and develop a few harmonies for his latest track. You can listen to it at https://thegoodyearsband.bandcamp.com/track/run  or even buy the track if you like it enough!

There was one lesson I learned while being in a band that is just as appropriate for writing. You have to put yourself to one side and concentrate on what’s right for the song. It might have a riff that’s boring to play, or lyrics which are monotonous, or a beat that’s not particularly challenging, but you sacrifice your own interest or feeling in order to play a great song because it’s the song that’s king. It’s the same with writing. As Bill Clinton may have once said, “it’s the story, stupid.” I continually review what I’ve written in terms of what’s best for the story. I’m not precious about what I’ve written at all. If deleting a phrase, paragraph or even whole chapters improves a story, then I’ll do it regardless of how much effort it took to write them in the first place. I’ve just come to the conclusion with my current draft that a large part of one character’s journey isn’t necessary to be experienced — we just need to see the before and after. It works for the book but it means deleting four chapters, well over a week’s work.

My personal music tastes are really varied. I’ve always loved film scores, not so much those with a strong melody (like those by John Williams) but those that convey atmosphere and emotion. One of my favourites is the soundtrack to The Thin Red Line by Hans Zimmer, especially the journey to the line. Beautiful.

I have an abiding love for alternative music. Anything with discordant guitars, interesting song structures or just bags of energy will get me going. I’m a great believer that the music you listen to in your late teens stays with you for life. For me, I can listen to songs from bands like Radiohead, Ride, Nirvana, Blur, Pavement, and Elbow that are now twenty years old and they still sound as fresh today as they did then. That said, I’ve become a lot more open to all types of music, from electronica to modern classical, Americana to a good old pop song.

When I write, I can’t listen to music. I get easily distracted and find song lyrics mysteriously appearing in my text. That said, I use music a lot to get into the mood of a scene. I see writing as very similar to acting — you have to get into the heads of your characters. Sometimes this can be difficult when you’ve just dropped your kids off to school and you have to come home, sit down (with a cup of tea) and write an emotionally charged scene. I’ll use music then to help me slip into the right mood.

While I don’t normally talk about my personal thoughts on characters or scenes for fear of altering the picture readers have built in their own minds, I’ll share one example of a track I used. The final scenes of Second Chance were written against a backdrop of the song “Angel” by Massive Attack. If Second Chance was made into a film, I’d love to see this used as the story reaches its climax.

I can’t write with music on, either. I keep getting absorbed into the song. 🙂

And that’s a perfect song for the end of Second Chance. Thanks for sharing it. And thanks for sharing all your thoughts on writing and community with my readers!

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Image courtesy of Dylan Hearn

For those of you who are interested in checking out Dylan’s debut novel Second Chance, you can find it here.

Do you have a question for Dylan, or a comment on our interview? Please continue the conversation below. We’d love to chat with you!

Expressing Love: Easier in Fiction Than in Real Life?

Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I started thinking about how difficult it can be to communicate love. Of course we love our family and friends, but do we talk a lot about how much they mean to us?

We know a casual “I love you” tossed out while leaving for work isn’t enough. And yet we often hesitate to put our love into meaningful words, taking refuge in silent hugs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with hugs, mind you. I wouldn’t want to live without those!)

Maybe this is why I enjoy how love is portrayed in fiction. All the best aspects of love come out in a good story. (And I don’t just mean romantic love, although I admit to watching the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice more times than is probably healthy.)

Heroes in fantasy and sci-fi stories are expected to show courage in the face of evil. So it’s not surprising that they are also brave enough to express their true feelings. There are so many places in my favourite films where this happens.

There are the characters who demonstrate their selflessness:

As you wish.

– Westley to his true love Buttercup, The Princess Bride

And there are the characters who don’t hesitate to tell others how much they love them:

I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.

– Frodo Baggins to his companion Samwise Gamgee at Mount Doom, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Best of all, there are the characters who recognize that love is a partnership, and that we need to support each other:

You take care of me, Simon. You’ve always taken care of me. My turn.

– River Tam to her injured brother Simon Tam in the face of overwhelming odds, Serenity

This Valentine’s Day, I want to let all my loved ones know how glad I am that they are in my life. It’s definitely time to say it out loud.

And to all my dear readers, I hope you have a wonderful Valentine’s Day with your own loved ones.

I leave you with one of my favourite expressions of love from xkcd:

xkcd everything

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Happy Valentine’s Day! What’s your favourite moment of love in fiction? What expressions of love do you think are wonderful?

Conversation Corner with Brenna Layne, YA Fantasy Writer

I discovered fantasy writer Brenna Layne through her lyrical and insightful blog posts. When Brenna writes, she puts her heart into every word. She also has a wonderful sense of humour that never fails to lift me up. Her posts are written so beautifully that I admit to suffering from bouts of envy.

Brenna Layne

On finding out that Brenna is a teacher and an ESL tutor as well as a writer, I wanted to know about her thoughts on writing and communication. I asked her if she would share her experiences with DBW readers. To my delight, she said yes! Here is our conversation about writing, teaching, connections, and the importance of dragons.

I love your About page, and how you describe your transition from teaching eighth graders to reviving your own eighth grade dream of writing a novel. How did your teaching experiences trigger your desire to write?

As I translated Beowulf by lantern light during a power outage in the middle of a freezing Illinois winter, I kept feeling a disconnect—not with the literature itself, but with the idea of myself in a PhD program. I’m sort of a perpetual student, so it was hard to set my PhD dreams aside, but I realized as a teaching assistant that I enjoyed live students better than dead languages.

In a serendipitous moment, a friend told me that the independent school near my hometown in Virginia where he taught needed an English teacher. I interviewed and ended up teaching eighth grade lit, high school lit, and an intensive creative writing workshop. There were three students in that class; they’d been clamoring for a creative writing course for years, and somebody figured that the new teacher might as well do it. Those three students were amazing—they were committed yet playful, studious yet wildly creative, and so deeply passionate about writing that they inspired me to pick up the novel I’d laid aside years ago. It felt hypocritical to ask them to write if I wasn’t writing.

Their enthusiasm was a powerful reminder of another reason I became a PhD dropout—because I was so in love with the stories I read that I couldn’t be truly scholarly about them. I didn’t want to analyze Beowulf, I wanted to inhabit it, to flop down in it like a kid in the snow and play with it. I’ve always loved writing, but being around those three students was the catalyst that transformed me from a wannabe writer to an actual one—and I think it has everything to do with play, with that intense kind of absorption in imagination that we’re capable of when we’re young.

It’s wonderful being around imaginative kids. And I know what you mean about wanting to inhabit the story rather than analyze it. That’s one of the reasons I decided not to pursue my own PhD in English. I also found that academia tended to dismiss the value of genre fiction, which I loved. What attracts you to the fantasy genre? What do you see as its purpose?

My gut reaction to this question is to say: DRAGONS. IT IS ALL ABOUT THE DRAGONS.

However, it is astonishingly not, in fact, only about the dragons. I remember walking on the beach at the Outer Banks with my artist sister when we were in college. When we were kids, I wrote stories about dragons. She wrote Star Wars fanfiction before fanfic was even a “thing.” We started talking about fantasy and sci-fi and the connections and differences between them. We had this huge, geeky mutual epiphany when we realized that science fiction is about what it means to be human, while fantasy is about what it means to be an individual. By those criteria, we decided that Star Wars is actually fantasy with the trappings of science fiction.

And then, just a few months ago, I had a conversation with my writer brother (yeah, my siblings and I are not super-practical in our career choices) about how neither one of us can seem to write anything without incorporating a magical element. We had a joint nerdpiphany in which we realized that we need that magic, that it helps us to explain the world as it is, with all its mystery and terrible beauty. For both of us, magic is a lens that makes sense, because it captures something about reality that is otherwise inexpressible.

I think that for me, fantasy resonates because there is so much more to the human experience than what’s visible and even comprehensible. Possibly the earliest emotion I can recall is this beyond-verbal sense of yearning, this sense of feeling impelled toward something to which I couldn’t put a name. I was drawn to writers like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien whose works came closer than anything else to naming that unnameable something. For me, the best fantasy uses the trappings of the unbelievable, the impossible, in an attempt to articulate the unspeakable, to make sense of the unknowable. That’s the philosophical purpose, I think, which writers like Ursula K. LeGuin accomplish so brilliantly and profoundly.

Then, of course, fantasy is just plain fun. It’s an escape in a way that realistic literature can never be. As humans, we’re hardwired to strive beyond the limits of the possible, so it makes sense that we’d enjoy stories of impossible things.

That “sense of yearning” you describe perfectly captures my feelings as a child reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for the first time. I think a lot of young people are attracted to the fantasy genre because it provides a sense of purpose and meaning that they have not yet grasped in the real world. You write for young adults—how do you reach out and provide them with what they are looking for? What kinds of things do you grapple with when writing for this audience?

I’m not sure that I think really consciously about writing for young adults. I just write the characters whose voices speak in my head. They happen to usually be adults. I tried my hand at drafting an adult fantasy novel last November during National Novel Writing Month, and it felt incredibly surreal. I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure how to write adult main characters because I still don’t feel like an adult. I just turned 38, and I feel like for the first time in my life, I have a sense of who I am. I’ve had time to percolate all my young adult experiences and I understand them better now. I don’t understand my adult experiences yet; I’m so much in the thick of them.

I think YA resonates with adults as well as young adults because young adults are so fiercely involved in the process of becoming. We all are, constantly, but during our formative years that metamorphosis happens so quickly, like a surging tide, that it’s immediately recognizable. It’s dramatic and unmistakable, and we’re filled with all these messy yearnings and emotions that at least on some level, society allows and even encourages. We encourage young adults to “find themselves,” to figure themselves out, in a way that we don’t with adults. But we are all always becoming, and so I think when we read stories about this time in our lives, it resonates deeply with us. We see ourselves in them—our younger selves, the selves we can observe from a sort of affectionate distance.

So I don’t think I necessarily write with young adults in mind as an audience. I write the stories I need to tell, and write them as well as I can. I think some writers have a tendency to “write down” to young adults, and I really appreciate the ones who don’t. Maggie Stiefvater comes to mind—her prose is intelligent, her vocabulary poetic. Lia Francesca Block crafts this gorgeous, archetypal-feeling prose that reads like magical realism, like the kind of literature that stuffy grownup people describe as “serious.” I think the way to write for young adults is to read books for young adults and immerse yourself in all the ways it can be done. The thing not to do is to write down to them, to stereotype them, to discount their experiences as somehow trivial or juvenile. They’re not. When we’re children and teens, we’re doing some of the most vital work of our lives. For me, writing YA is a way to honor that.

This makes me think of the Harry Potter series, which had substantial adult readership even though it was marketed as children’s fiction. I’ve never understood people who think that fantasy stories are only for the young. I think it’s great that you’re writing YA fiction for a broad audience. What are you working on currently?

I used to be a very monogamous kind of writer—I would write ONE THING until it was completely finished—if anything really ever is finished. But I’ve morphed into this crazy scattered kind of writer who’s got about a zillion irons in the fire. So right now, I’ve got several different things going on.

I almost finished drafting a new novel in November, during National Novel Writing Month. It’s a fantasy strongly inspired by my love of medieval women’s writing. I’ve been reading Julian of Norwich and the letters of Abelard and Heloise, and imagining a world in which anchorites have magical powers. The story itself is about a girl who has been raised to become an anchorite who serves a monastic group of wizards. When their home is attacked and burned, she’s the lone survivor, and has to choose whether to give up or to go out into the world by herself and try to reinvent herself outside the security of the cloister walls. Of course she leaves (because it wouldn’t be much of a story if she just laid down and died), and it’s not until she’s beyond the boundaries of everything known and safe that she begins to discover her own power—and why it’s been hidden from her all her life.

I’ve also been working on getting feedback on a novel I wrote a few years ago. This one’s about a girl raised as a boy who’s trained to become a warrior. She’s been a fun character to hang out with; she has a very literal fight-or-flight response. When she’s upset, she either runs until she’s exhausted, or punches someone in the face. Not my typical main character, so it’s been interesting getting inside her head. As research for this one, I took a broadsword class last spring. It was so awesome that for Mother’s Day, I asked my guys to build me a pell—a sort of practice dummy—and I’m getting some sparring gear for Christmas. So writing definitely bleeds over into my “real” life in some amusing ways.

I’m also percolating some story ideas, and I have a full manuscript out on request to an agent. So basically that means that I have no fingernails and I check my email about a million times a day. It’s funny how much the submissions process brings me back to high school. The whole process of trying to impress an agent makes me feel like I’m sixteen again, desperately hoping that someone will ask me to the prom. At least I don’t have to buy a fluffy dress for this. But in high school, I didn’t have to write anybody a one-page letter explaining why I would be the best prom date ever.

I took a set of fencing classes once and had to give it up because it was killing my knees. Working with the broadsword sounds like more fun. I can think of a few things I’d like to pretend I’m hacking at while practicing, including writing critics. Is it just me, or is it harder to write a short piece selling your work than to write an entire novel? How do you tackle writing that one-page letter?

YES. The query letter nearly KILLED me. I got very grouchy during the months it took me to hone the darned thing. My husband could probably tell you how much time I spent slouching around the house, mumbling things like, “If I could have summed the whole thing up in a page, I wouldn’t have written the flipping novel in the first place, now would I??” It’s so, so difficult to take an entire book you’ve spent months or even years crafting and polishing and then condense the whole thing down into a glorified paragraph.

And then there’s that pesky bio paragraph. As an unpublished writer, I don’t have any creds to speak of, so that paragraph was at least mercifully short. The contemporary YA fantasy I have out on submission now is a retelling of an old Scottish ballad. I’ve set it in the rural South, and so it seemed relevant to mention that I grew up in the rural South. I also mentioned that I spent three years as a dorm parent for fifty teenage girls at a boarding school, since that gave me a lot of insight into the teenage psyche (as if my own teen years were not awkwardly vivid enough still).

But really, the hard part of the letter is that summary/teaser bit. It has to grab the agent’s attention, sum the plot up neatly, and offer a sample of your best writing. That’s a tall order for a one page letter, and I think a lot of writers spend more time honing and perfecting that letter than they might on an entire chapter of a book. Of course, it’s possible I’m doing it all wrong……

It sounds like a great approach to me. I wish you all the best in getting a positive response to your carefully crafted work of art! Before we wrap up our interview, I wanted to ask you about one of your other hats: your job as an ESL tutor. Can you tell me a little about how you became a tutor? What kinds of challenges do your ESL students face, and how do you help them?

I taught English at an independent school for three years. In the third year, I gave birth to my first son. I finished up the school year and decided to stay home with him. Not long after, I began tutoring at the same school part time. With a growing international student boarding population, there were a lot of ESL students of varying skill levels. Some needed extra help with reading and writing.

At first, tutoring was a way to maintain a sense of professional connection, and to supplement my family’s income while getting out into the real world a bit. I quickly grew to love it even more than teaching—it’s all the bits of teaching I love (helping students, engaging with ideas) and none of the bits I didn’t (classroom management, grading, paperwork). I also love the close connections I forge with students. I think they teach me much, much more than I teach them, though I try to be useful. 🙂

I’ve worked with students on everything from research skills to college applications to time management, but most of my students are teens from Korea and China who struggle with English as a second (or third) language. I find that the first thing I need to do is to connect—to find something that lights them up.

With one student, it was food. As soon as I asked her about missing Chinese food, this otherwise quiet kid poured out a torrent of praise for her mom’s cooking. We ended up going grocery shopping and then cooked a huge Chinese meal. In the process, she got to navigate the labels in the grocery store, and order me around as her sous-chef—all of which pushed her English skills.

With another student, it was animals. She asked me to bring my dog to our session one day because she missed her dog at home. So my dog has some tutoring experience on her resume now, too.

I think that connection is the most important thing—to show my students that I care about who they are, and then to engage them with that. With students from Korea and China, the tutoring dynamic is interesting because often those students’ educational experiences back home were very different from the Western system. They spend incredibly long hours in school and on homework, and much of the time they’re being lectured to and memorizing facts. It’s a big transition for many of them to come to the States, where teachers emphasize active participation and discussion. Helping my students navigate the American educational system, with its foreign (to them) emphases on citation and participation, is another huge part of what I do.

I could keep talking about this, I’m realizing. For me, the most important part of tutoring has been how it has changed me. I’m in awe of these young teens who travel across the world to a completely foreign culture to study. They’re incredibly brave. I can’t imagine doing that as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old. The kids I work with are a constant reminder that growth only happens when we push the boundaries of our own comfort—a lesson I’m constantly learning with my writing as well.

I think your students are incredibly brave, too. It’s amazing how much we can learn from the experiences of others. I know I learned a lot from my students in my days as a piano teacher.

And I have certainly learned a lot from you. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with DBW readers today!

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For more about Brenna, I encourage you to read her blog.

(Photo of Brenna courtesy of Brenna Layne)

To all my valued readers: This is my first interview on Doorway Between Worlds, and I welcome your feedback. Would you like to read more interviews? Or not? What types of topics would you like me to cover in any future conversations?