Thursday, January 19, 2012

Another Friendly Conversation: Sarah Lofgren Neumann

So, after a couple/few weeks of floundering on the interview front, I'm finally back! And as my guest today, I've invited Sarah from Glissades and Gabble. Sarah is a dance instructor (ballet, I assume?) from the Seattle area. I was actually really confused when I found her blog for the first time because I come from a very outdoorsy-type family (none of whom, to my knowledge, know anything about ballet); so, when I saw the word 'glissades' in the title of her blog, I was really thrown for a loop because glissading is somewhat reckless outdoor activity in which a mountain climber slides down the face of a glacier or snow field, using only his/her ice ax to avoid a very cold and painful maiming and/or death at the bottom. If you haven't guessed, I've never been a fan of glissading. But I digress! Let's talk to Sarah!

How did you get started as a writer?

Creative writing was one of my favorite classes in school. I’ve always had a big imagination. It tended to get me in trouble, but writing was a place where my crazy brain could be an asset and not a hindrance. I drifted away from writing as I became more serious/obsessed with dance, but in recent years I’ve rediscovered my love for it.

Hooray for rediscovery! I really don't think we can ever have too many writers in the world. It just means there's more stuff to read!

What was your first complete story?

My very first was a complex, action/adventure story about a sandcastle that came to life. I wrote it when I was nine years old and it had eight bazillion chapters and about fifty different characters.

Sandcastles always remind me of Scrubs. If anyone knows the episode I"m talking about, *high five*
What made you decide to write it?

In all honesty, it’s a compulsion with me. I get the itch (an idea) and I have to see it through. It’s always been that way, in dance and in writing. There are other reasons, such as trying to make sense of the universe, trying to add beauty to the world, proving to myself that I’m capable of doing it, but primarily it’s about the itch.

I hate that itch sometimes! Like when you're really tired and just want to sleep, but your brain won't shut up about this cool new idea...or when something terrible has happened and you feel guilty because you can't get your brain to stop saying things like "how would Character X deal with this situation?" ...stupid itch.

Do you free-write or outline?

Outline! Every time. I know as a consumer I appreciate work that has direction and a master plan. I love when things add up, as opposed to trailing off, losing focus, or leaving me disappointed. I want to provide the most meaningful experience for my readers that I can. Every word is there for a reason and I’m not organized enough to do it without extensive planning.

Yeah, my powers of concentration aren't strong enough for me to sit through a book that has no focus or direction. ...or to deal with purple prose, for that matter.
Do you plot the entire story first, or bits at a time as you write?

It depends on the story. I need an overarching plot in order to begin, but many of the story elements will reveal themselves as I’m getting to know the characters and their world on a more intimate basis. The more I write, the more detailed the outline becomes.

Ah, I see! I really need to sit down and talk with someone about this phenomenon: that your outline gets more detailed as you write. When I think of an outline, I think of something you hammer out before you start writing...I guess I don't understand why the outline would change after you've started the actual writing... please don't judge me for being a literary simpleton! (seriously, it seems like most writers who outline say the same thing)

What do you do to counteract writer’s block?

For me writer’s block is less of an issue than blatant procrastination. I usually know what I need to write. I just have to make myself write it. It’s true that writing is a habit you can fall in and out of. The more you do it, the easier it is to keep doing it. Because my goal is publication, I’m working hard to develop good habits now, to find a process that works for me. Treating it like a job is a major way to get my butt in the seat and my fingers typing.

I also believe in allowing myself brain breaks, meaning time to sort through the trickier story elements. So, yes, if something is giving me trouble, I might take some time off from writing to think it through, but I don’t consider that writer’s block as much as necessary and allowable brainstorming.

Necessary cerebration is certainly not writer's block! I think writer's block is when you can't get things flowing...lack of ideas, lack of motivation, etc. 

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?)

Reading helps. Reading a pile of books and really analyzing what makes the characters unique. A psychology class here and there doesn’t hurt and I highly recommend the book “Creating Characters” by Marisa D’vari. In many cases, those who write are of an observational bent and tend to spend a lot of time watching and analyzing the people around them. Living consciously, you know? We used to talk about that in acting class, learning how to live in such a way that we’re really processing all the little things that make people tick. Writers tend to be good at this.

Ooh, I like that last bit about observing people...just don't be creepy about it ;)
What exercises to you use to develop your characters?

Somewhere around the second draft (the second draft is when many things happen for me) I start writing character sheets. The sheets are simple – just cues, habits, responses that I pick up from the character as I’m rewriting. As I go through the draft, I start crossing some of them out and adding others. The characters starts to grow more complete and there are moments when I realize, “Oh, he would never respond like that,” and I have to change it. I never really know these people until the second draft. Yes, that means some scenes in the story have to change. Some get cut and others get expanded or added. You can tell how significant/complex the character is by how much is going on with their sheet.

I would love to see one (or some) of your character sheets. Every writer does these differently, and it's interesting to look at those differences and see what others do that might be helpful in your own writing.

How do you build a believable world within your stories? 

This is something I’m working on. Since I tend to write sci-fi/fantasy, world building is a major deal and there are moments when I’ll have to ask my audience to believe something incredible. Getting to that point where they’re willing to suspend their disbelief and just go along with it is a major goal. A lot of it is about adding texture. I think if the world has texture and grit to it, if it’s truly visceral, then that helps. Descriptions that utilize all the senses and manage to evoke a unique universe. Also – I try to be smart. I’m really, really hard on myself, asking tough questions and not letting myself get away with lazy answers. I try not to do things just because they might be cool or interesting. They must have a purpose (a logical one) within the world. I’m a big proponent of everything existing for a reason.

I like to get other people (especially sci-fi fans) to ask me questions about my world. I'll start by giving them a rundown of the plot and whichever element of the world I'm struggling with and see what they say. Some people are better at this than others.

What do you do to make your whole story interesting? How do you avoid “slow stretches”?

I’m still learning this one. Apparently I find some things very interesting that are boring to other people. It’s important for me to check in with my betas to find out where the story started losing their interest, because it isn’t always where I would have guessed. Solutions? Well, usually I have to dig a little further into the scene and ask myself what is interesting about it. How can I emphasize and explore that? Sometimes things are dull because I’ve switched over to telling instead of showing. Sometimes the stakes are too low within the stretch and I need to do something to increase suspense. Sometimes I need to incorporate more action into the story to break up the dialogue and description. Sometimes I need to take a break from the action. Sometimes there’s too much detail, other times too little. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of prose. It tends to vary a lot, but if I can determine an accurate diagnosis, then I can usually figure out how to fix it. In some instances, there’s a lot of cutting that needs to get done.

You know, I've had a lot of different answers to this question, but I think yours is probably one of the most basic and dependable. There is no substitute for an outside opinion/perspective.

How does your own life inform your writing?

How doesn’t it? In truth, everything is fodder for the blender. Most moments show up somewhere. If not in a dance, then probably reworked within a story. Not that anyone would ever recognize that the dragon is actually my evil, elementary school teacher who called me “slow”. :p

Ha! Love the bit about the teacher! That's awesome. And who cares if nobody else knows the little details like that. In a lot of ways, it's probably better if they don't.

Have you ever attended a writing convention or conference?

Sadly, I have not. I’d like to, but when the opportunities arise, I’m usually booked or broke. I do haunt readings and bookfests from time to time.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I can never seem to find the time and the money in the same instance.
Who is your favorite author?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m horribly indecisive when it comes to picking favorites. There are too many brilliant, amazing writers out there. A few I love and admire are: Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Connie Willis, Henry James, John Fowles, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Young adult authors I’ve just discovered and adore are: Laini Taylor, Nova Ren Suma and Markus Zusak

Ooh! New names! Now I have some new territory to explore. :D

Favorite book?

I have a strange fascination with “The Crucible”. I find it agonizing and impossible to put down, even in rereadings. I’ve always had a strong connection with “Peter Pan”, weird as that sounds. It’s probably the one book I’ve read the most. I also love “The Virgin Suicides”, “The Prophet”, “Jane Eyre”, “Lincoln’s Dreams”, “Hyperion”, “Lord of the Rings”, and… lots more.

The Crucible is also one of my favorites. So good! Oh, and Jane Eyre is my wife's all-time favorite.
Favorite genre to read?

Fantasy, sci-fi, magical realism, horror, YA and children’s lit.

Agreed! Though I think I need to branch out a little over the next few months. I'm getting in a rut.

Favorite genre to write?

See above. J (with a little humor thrown in)

When you’re not writing, what do you do in your spare time?

I’m the director of a nonprofit dance company called Chimera Dance Theater and that keeps me busy. Then, there’s work and looking for work and all the “real job” things I have to do. I read a lot, blog a bit and tinker around with graphic design. My hubby is a tremendous movie fan and he drags me out to see anything that might be even halfway interesting. I think I’ve seen over sixty movies this year. Crazy. Right now I have a foot injury, but I’m looking forward to the time when it is healed and I can get back into dance class.

Aw, I hope it heals quickly! Being out of commission is the worst!

What are three interesting facts about you?

I don’t eat meat.

I don’t have a real belly button. ...but you have one of those new artificial ones that are all the rage in cosmetic surgery these days? (sorry, I just couldn't resist. I'm just a little confused)

I am a tetris god.

This was a lot of fun! I hope you all enjoyed getting to know Sarah. I certainly learned a couple/few things that might come in very handy in my own writing.

Thanks Sarah, and keep it up!


  1. Hi Reece! I think the french translation of glissade is "to glide" or "a gliding action", so we do have a shared reference. Though, you're less likely to break your neck performing the ballet version. :)

    I do teach ballet, but mostly modern dance. And the belly button thing... well... you're sort of right, actually.

    Thanks for having me on your blog! This was fun.

  2. Big fan of Sarah's blog. I'm a big fan of her reading habits now as well! (Tolkien FTW) Seriously looking forward to the writing Sarah churns out in the future.

    Thanks for another great interview, Reece! Also, *high five* for the Scrubs reference.

  3. This was such a wonderful interview. Thank you Reece and Sarah :-)

  4. Thank you for introducing me to Sarah. Off to check out her blog :-)