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.
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.
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!