Author Q&A Series: Deborah Chester

As an aspiring author, I have sought out insight and guidance from as many sources and people as I could find. What I have discovered is a wealth of knowledge in books, blogs, and websites designed to give burgeoning writers the direction that they seek. I wanted to soak up as much knowledge as I could, but I felt like my questions weren’t being answered.

My solution was to begin a series of Q&A interviews with authors, which I would then share here on Town’s End Tribune. My goal is to get answers to the questions that are eating at me, while also sharing them with other striving authors who seek advice from established writing veterans.

My first interview is with Deborah Chester, professor of Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma, and author of over 40 books. Deborah recently published The Fantasy Fiction Formula, a writing craft book that helps guide a writer through the process of creating a book in the fantasy genre. Deborah’s teaching influenced the writing of Jim Butcher, author of the best-selling urban fantasy series the Dresden Files.

 “Listen carefully to what Debbie has to say about telling stories, aspiring writer. She knows exactly what she’s talking about.”
— Jim Butcher

 Deborah’s role as an educator and mentor made her a top priority on my list of people to interview, and I am so glad she agreed to be a part of this series. She has so much knowledge to share, and I am elated to share the Q&A interview of Deborah Chester with you.

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 1. When did you begin writing professionally? What guided you to that career choice?

I began writing professionally in 1978, when I acquired a literary agent and sold my first book manuscript. The book was subsequently published in 1980.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was nine. There was no other career choice as appealing to me.

 2. Which authors or works were inspirational to your growth as a writer?

Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein were inspirational, but C.S. Forester and Georgette Heyer were hugely influential.

 3. What made you interested in becoming an educator?

I was seeking a day job less intrusive into my writing time than the usual 8-to-5 job. While I was working on two master’s degrees, a vacancy in professional writing here at the University of Oklahoma unexpectedly appeared and I was hired as a replacement. I had to drop my studies in Latin, but I completed my M.A. in Professional Writing and held onto the job. Later it became a full-time position, and then I achieved tenure and moved up the ladder.

 4. You recently published your first book on writing, The Fantasy Fiction Formula. What inspired you to create this work?

Many of my students over the years have urged me to write a book on writing, so I’ve long had it in the back of my mind that someday I would get around to it. Then I was contacted by Manchester University Press in England about doing one. The editor is a huge Jim Butcher fan, and she had located my blog on writing, “Chronicles of the Scribe,” and she offered me a contract.

 5. How did you get drawn to the Science Fiction/Fantasy genre? 

I’ve been a science fiction fan since my childhood. Star Trek’s original series was my favorite television show, and I always loved the notion that someday we would reach the stars. I love world-building, adventure, and history so eventually I migrated over into the fantasy camp.

 6. What are some of the pitfalls you have found working in that particular genre? What about advantages?

I’ve seen science fiction change from a genre largely aimed at adolescent boys to one that now embraces a female audience and where women authors no longer have to hide their identity behind pseudonyms.  I’ve seen fantasy rise into an enormously popular genre, pulling away from science fiction and leaving in the dust. I find it interesting that fantasy is considered cool to read by a vast spectrum of people, but science fiction still struggles against literary prejudice.

The biggest pitfall in writing fantasy comes from how threadbare its tropes are. How do you create a fresh, original story that will still appeal to readers who have read so much? And if you do create something fresh and original, will readers embrace it if it lacks those threadbare tropes they love?

The advantages are that you can create the story world any way you want. Your setting is yours to command, and science fiction is wide open to experimentation.

 7. What are some of the biggest mistakes aspiring authors make?

Two of the biggest mistakes I see are weak plotting and information dumps. Newbies are often drawn to writing because they’ve envisioned a magical world and want to live in it. They’re so entranced by this world that they pour all their creative energy into its creation, and they forget that they must also write a good story. Many beginners tend to plot the same way a video game goes, which is not how a book is constructed. If they aren’t voracious readers, they can’t develop their story sense well enough to have reliable plotting instincts.

As for information dumps, they are the bane of the genre. Writers have to find a way to explain, describe, and show the story world and its props so that readers can understand them, but without halting the story to lecture for several pages at a time.

 8. What is the best advice you would give to an aspiring author?

My advice for aspiring writers is to read, read, read, read, read. Among your favorite authors, examine why you like their stories so much. Is it their settings? Their character design? Their snarky dialogue? Their pacing and plot twists? All of the above? Do they reach your emotions?

Figure out how and why these authors touch you. Figure out why other stories bore you. Then emulate what works and avoid what doesn’t.

It’s been said that a good way to self-train is to take your favorite novel and type it. Just prop it next to your computer and type the entire thing. It will take you weeks to do, but by the end of this task you should have a pretty good idea of how dialogue flows, how scenes and chapters are constructed, where to set hooks, and how to introduce characters. Of course you won’t steal that author’s story. It’s just a training exercise. And if this exercise sounds too brutal, get over it. Writing is wonderful, but it’s tremendously hard work.

 9. Now that you have published a book on writing, do you have any plans for pursuing other educational avenues outside of teaching in a classroom?

In the past, I’ve done workshops and worked as a paid writing consultant for manuscripts, but I don’t have plans to pursue such things at the moment. When I’m not in the classroom here at OU, I keep my spare time cleared for writing fiction.

However, who knows? I’ve got a six-part series of podcasts going on the Manchester University Press Web site, where I’ve been interviewed regarding The Fantasy Fiction Formula. Perhaps I’ll consider doing more podcasts in the future. It all depends because my writing has to come first.

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For more information on Deborah or her works, visit her Website or Blog.

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I hope you enjoyed this first entry in to the Author Q&A Series. My next interview will be with KM Weiland early next month. Thanks for reading!

Inspiration

Every writer gets writer’s block from time to time. Some have longer spells than others. When it came to me, my writer’s block for fictional stories lasted for years. Now, anyone who knows me can tell I’m no schmuck when it comes to stringing words together. This is my third blog, and I’m always great at being overly verbose on things that are based in the real world. The problem comes when I try to reach for that place where things come from my imagination.

When I was younger, I was always immersed in books. I surrounded myself with fictional worlds that stimulated my brain’s natural need to create fantastical ideas. I didn’t really know how to harness that until college, when I learned about journalism and the basics of creative writing. Writing became my life. I felt like I was doing what I was meant to do. For a time, I was able to let my ideas grow and I could expand upon them using what I had learned. The problem was that I didn’t really have any direction or training in how to structure my ideas. What I ended up with was a jumbled mess of ideas that led to nowhere.

Joining the Navy did not grant me a lot of time to work on my ideas, or room to grow as a writer. Writing professionally as a journalist in addition to other jobs was not paying the bills, so I followed family tradition in to the military. I was working too many hours and spending most of my time learning how to do the job I was being paid to do. Writing fell to the wayside and became a hobby instead of a passion and a goal. My fictional ideas would stagnate and never come to fruition. I would try to expound on ideas, but I would get frustrated because I didn’t have time to really focus on them. I tried to keep the writing wheels greased by blogging, but even that ended up mothballed for a time because I felt like it was pointless pursuit. I was on the verge of just closing up shop on writing for good. That is when something miraculous happened.

My wife, Emily, is a passionate woman. She has a dream of being a violist in a professional orchestra, as well as being a teacher. She works her ass off following her dream and has not let times of doubt or difficult situations stop her. When doubt would creep in, we would always find those reasons for her to keep pursuing her dreams. She is now a month away from her Bachelor’s degree and is a phenomenal violist. I am inspired by her drive and her ardor for her chosen path. She puts her heart and soul into her music, and I feel that passion when I think about writing.

One night, we were talking about her going to graduate school and plans after that, and I knew then that my heart was no longer in the Navy. I wanted to start writing again. I began trying to get ideas out of my head, but it was slow going. I knew there were things in there, but I couldn’t get the gears going. I had to do some maintenance on my brain to be productive again. I began searching the Internet for ideas on how to kick-start my brain, and that is when I stumbled upon KM Weiland and her blog Helping Writers Become Authors. Her websites have a wealth of knowledge on writing and I was hooked. Her advice, along with many other books and websites helped me start to move my ideas from concept to reality. I was able to start putting my ideas on paper, and I could organize them in a way that made sense. I started blogging again, which helped me keep my brain moving even when I wasn’t able to come up with ideas for my stories. During a more recent case of writer’s block, I was introduced to a group of writers via a Facebook group created by KM Weiland. The massive amount of communication, knowledge, and diversity within the group has led to a burst of inspiration in me. I’ve written more on my story ideas since I began communicating with this group of peers than ever before. I currently have 3 plot lines in the works, but there is a lot of work to be done before I can ever call them done.

Through all of this, I realized that when my time in the Navy is over, I would be ready to pursue my dream of writing for a living. I have watched several people in my life realize dreams in their lives and chase them, and soon enough it will be my turn. I will continue to work and pursue my dream while being in the military, but when it becomes a full time pursuit, I can put everything I have in to it.

So here’s to my inspirations. Thank you all so very much. I could not do this without you.

To my talented wife, whose untiring pursuit has driven me to chase my dreams. To my sister, Christel, and brother-in-law, Austin, who found a passion that they love and are sharing it with the world. To those in my life who told me I could never reach my dreams, to those who told me to never give up. To KM Weiland and the awesome Wordplayers! To my family who has been behind me always. To the people who have been influential in my stories and characters. Lastly, but certainly not least, to my father, who has always been my biggest hero, my best inspiration, and my #1 fan. Dad, everything I am is because of you. I hope that one day, you will see my name on a book and be proud.

If you have a dream, chase it. Follow your heart, and never deny yourself the things you are passionate about. Don’t be afraid to step outside of the comfort zone and take a leap of faith. It could be the best thing that ever happened to you.