Now, without further ado, it is my great pleasure to introduce Brooke Johnson! I met Brooke within a few weeks of starting my blogging endeavor. I don't remember exactly how we met, but I do remember that we had an excellent conversation about steampunk and indie publishing. For the record: I think Brooke has the right idea about steampunk: it should couched in a world of Victorian-era steam technology, not Victorian-era urban fantasy. Anyway, here it goes.
How did you get started as a writer?
Oh gosh, it was a conglomeration of things, but I made the final decision when I was twelve. I knew that I loved to tell stories, and I committed to that. I took whatever creative writing classes I could while in high school. My dad even paid for me to take the course with the Institute for Children’s Literature. At this time, I was working on a novel, an epic fantasy. Sadly, I never finished. When I got to college, my Intro to Creative Writing professor told me that it was garbage. He said I would never make it as a writer writing sword-and-sorcery. Undaunted, I continued writing, short stories mostly, and my last semester of college, I began writing another novel.
I want to punch your professor in the face right now. How can any self-respecting teacher say that to a student?!?!?!
What was your first complete story?
The first complete novel I ever finished was a fantasy inspired by ancient India. I loved that story (I still do), but after months and months of revision and rewriting, the process exhausted me. I put it away, but I intend to return to it someday.
I came to a similar conclusion about my first novel. Unfortunately, the more I learn about writing, the more I realize how much work it actually needs.
What made you decide to write it?
In part, it was to show that I could do it, that I could write a fantasy novel and succeed as a writer. I wanted to prove myself to everyone that had doubted me over the course of my infantile writing years. But more than that, it was the story that I wanted to read. I have always had a fascination with the eastern cultures, from Persia to Japan, and especially India. I wanted to write a story that took place there, something magical and adventurous, something I could be proud of. So I wrote it.
I remember your post about snobby readers. I'd want to stick it to them too!
Do you free-write or outline?
I used to free-write, just letting the story take me where it wanted to go, no real regard for characterization, pacing, or structure. I loved writing that way, but after the fact, when I needed to go back and revise, I realized that I had created more work for myself than if I had outlined in the first place. I had always been averse to outlining, and I realize now that was only because I was lazy. I’m still lazy, but it’s proactive. By outlining, I have less work on the back end of writing.
Proactive laziness! I love it! Though, it does sound like a bit of an oxymoron.
Do you plot the entire story first, or bits at a time as you write?
I don’t know how other authors outline, but I’m both an extensive and lenient plotter. I start with character worksheets, developing backstory, personality, relationships, and goals for the major characters. From that alone, several scenes begin to take shape. I then start writing little snippets of those scenes, usually no more than a sentence or two, and in no particular order. That usually gives me a dozen scenes. After that, I really start to explore the story. I build a brainstorming document, asking questions about the story and answering as the ideas come to me. This produces more scenes, which I write down. I do this until I have about forty to fifty scenes, depending on how long I intend the story to be. I organize them into several different arrangements, finally picking the one that seems to be the right one. And then I start writing. If I start to realize that my original plot isn’t working, I tweak it until it’s right.
I like your process! It's like mine, but about a thousand times more efficient.
What do you do to counteract writer’s block?
Deny it exists. When that doesn’t work, I examine why I’m blocked. Maybe the scene I just wrote isn’t working, or maybe the scene I’m about to write isn’t quite right. Maybe my scene order is wrong. Maybe I haven’t plugged enough emotion into that bit of dialogue. Usually, I get writer’s block when something’s wrong with the story. Once I figure out what the problem is and fix it, I can continue writing as if nothing happened.
That seems to be a fairly common cause of writer's block: something you've already written doesn't work.
How do you keep your characters original? (i.e. what do you do to make sure your characters don’t turn out the same in every story?)
That’s a tough one. I haven’t written enough novel-length stories to know if I tend to make my characters similar or not. I think in some sense, the characters that I write will have similarities. They’ll have similar morals or similar dreams. I have noticed that most of my characters want to achieve more than what life has handed them; they aren’t content with the life that they have. But, I’m sure that could be said about a lot of people.
This is a problem I encountered ALL THE TIME when I was younger. Eventually I learned, gained some experience, and grew out of it. Now I know that creating new and different characters takes a lot of work, but it's worth it.
What exercises to you use to develop your characters?
Like I said before, I use character worksheets, figuring out their past, present, and their vision of the future. I don’t rely on physical appearance, and in most of my stories, it’s likely that the main character will have very little descriptors. The most important thing about a character is what they want, why they want it, and what stands in their way. You can learn a lot about a character based on their dreams and how they react to obstacles. A lot of that is plot-building, but plot and character are inseparable in my opinion. You can’t have one without the other.
Ah! The elements of conflict! Shallee McArthur wrote a really good post on this topic a few weeks ago. It was great!
How do you build a believable world within your stories?
I imagine that the world is real, whether it’s steampunk or fantasy or science fiction. In a sense, those places are real, if only in my head. The important thing is to get that reality across to the reader. We all rely heavily on sight, but I think that places really come alive when you fill them with sounds, smells, touchable objects, even tastes. The world should be more than a backdrop for the characters to traverse. It should be as alive as they are. It should have that sense of permanence. Characters are temporary. They come and go, but the world (as long as no Dark Lord destroys it) is eternal.
Cheers! Couldn't have put it better myself!
What do you do to make your whole story interesting? How do you avoid “slow stretches”?
I’ve always had a talent with pacing. Every chapter, every scene, every page, paragraph, sentence, or snippet of dialogue MUST advance the story forward in some way. The story must always be in motion; the status quo must always be changing. As soon as the story or the characters become static, the story slows. And that doesn’t mean you have to have death-defying action on every page, where the hero is always in mortal peril. The change, the advancement of the story can be subtle: new information about another character, an internal realization for the main character, an emotional change, a physical change, a decision, etc. But there must always be change.
I agree. I wrote a post about every chapter having a complete plot (like a mini story), and Shallee wrote a post about writing in action-reaction sequence. Check them out.
How does your own life inform your writing?
I’m a people watcher. I observe how people converse, how they interact with one another: strangers, friends, family, coworkers. I absorb everything, and I put that into my writing. I believe that no matter how fictional the setting, the people should be as real as possible. I’m also a very emotional person (understatement). I draw from my own emotion when writing emotion into my characters, remembering past episodes of anger, sadness, happiness, love, and anxiety.
I think this is why it's so hard to write believable alien cultures in science fiction. To be convincing, they have to be so different from us; however, that difference also isolates them from the reader. It's a catch-22 kind of situation, I think.
Who is your favorite author?
Easy question! Diana Wynne Jones. She is a goddess.
Wow, I'll have to check her out!
Howl’s Moving Castle by said favorite author. It’s a perfect mixture of adventure, romance, and magic.
Well why didn't you say so in the first place! I absolutely LOVED the movie and have been wanting to read the book for a while now. I just didn't know who the author was.
Favorite genre to read?
I read an awful lot of fantasy, but I also love steampunk and other historical fiction.
I like steampunk ala Steamboy. I'm not such a fan of the urban-fantasy kind of "steampunk"
Favorite genre to write?
Fantasy, easily. While I do love writing steampunk too, there’s something about magic that’s just so darn magical.
When you’re not writing, what do you do in your spare time?
I get together with friends every week and run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, tossing pirates, goblins, and cultists in the party’s path. I play video games (though not as often as I used to). Right now, I’m playing through the Kingdom Hearts series for the umpteenth time. I also like to bake, which is making me fat.
My wife loves to bake, but she knows if she keeps baked goods in the house, she'll eat them. Her solution? She bakes, we eat a little, and give the rest to friends and neighbors.
What are three interesting facts about you?
I am deathly afraid of dinosaurs. Laugh if you like. I still have nightmares about them.
I hate summer weather. Give me snow any day.
I can (somewhat) speak Japanese.
I'm guessing you're not a fan of Jurassic Park? Also, kudos on the Japanese; it's a really tough language.
And there you have it, friends! That's Brooke Johnson. Incidentally, she's just finished a steampunk novel called Chroniker City which I want to read more than anything right now (I've been dying for some real steampunk for about eight months now). So, send her messages, emails, snail mail, smoke signals, or whatever else you can think of, and tell her you want to read it too!