Kara told me to go free form on this guest post. She asked for it. You’ve been duly warned. (And I’m going to try very hard not to talk about my ongoing struggle with not moving past an A-cup in the bra department at Sears.)
One of the ideas she tossed at me was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. Here’s the part where I go on about always knowing that words were my passion, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I had a pen in my hand, and blah blah blah. Gag me. Truth is, my oldest sister was born with a severe physical handicap. Because she couldn’t use her hands like I could, or like you can, the school arranged for us to have an electric typewriter in the house. (For you youngin’s, a typewriter is a machine the cavemen used to write edicts and manifestos. You plug it in and then press buttons with letters on them. Words are formed, if you push the right buttons. I became a button pusher, in oh-so-many ways.) I sort of took over Michelle’s sky-blue Smith Corona typewriter because, first, sky blue was my favorite color, and second, I loved the feeling of the keys under my fingers. Like I said: button pusher. I started writing stories as a way to keep pressing those buttons, and, because I grew up in Oregon (lots-o-rain!), I couldn’t spend every waking moment roller skating or riding my bike because of the threat of pneumonia. Well, that, and my mom got tired of me piling my wet play clothes on the hardwood floor in my room. (Wet clothing left unattended by a lazy child leaves unsightly black stains in the wood. My mom is a decorator. The stains didn’t play well on her decorator sensibilities. Hence, quiet time was encouraged.)
I read a lot as a kid. Favorite books were Around the World in Eighty Days and Charlotte’s Web, at least until I discovered those books published by the company that used an apple in its logo. Then every book with the apple logo became my favorite, intermittently supplanted by Beverly Cleary and/or Judy Blume. I went through a phase where I was in love with the shape of books, so I checked out the National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Birds, Western Region obsessively for the entire year of fourth grade. It was compact but thick and orange, and it made me feel smart to have it in my backpack. In fifth grade, I graduated to the Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals. As an adult, I can tell you nothing about North American birds or rocks and minerals.
When I got into classes where we were allowed to write more than “what I did for summer vacation” (essays I hated because I went to school with kids who did kick-ass things on vacations, and we mostly just did remodeling projects on the house because my mother was a total spaz), I started writing stupid-long stories with no point and almost always lacking endings. It was a pathological weakness: I couldn’t finish the damn stories. But the teachers saw something. In fourth grade, Mrs. Williamson called my house to talk to my mom. I thought I was busted for something that might have happened on the playground (I’ll never tell), but it wasn’t about that. She called to tell Mom that maybe Jenn should write more stories as she’s sorta good at it, and you might want to encourage her. Mom smiled, patted me on the head, and gave me a stack of white paper to go shove into the Smith Corona. Things carried on this way throughout junior high and high school. English was a cinch for me and I’d get stupid excited over grammar lessons. (Don’t ever ask to see my grades from history class, please.) It was just something I could do, sort of like how that sixth grader who bused up from the middle school for my sophomore geometry class could ace all the tests the rest of us were failing woefully.
It wasn’t until I was a grown-up, though, that I began to take any of it seriously. I have spent a lot of time reading the work of really amazing authors, some known, others not so much, to learn what works and what doesn’t. I've interviewed published authors, thrown down words of my own and then promptly shredded them, and watched. Watching and studying and listening is an excellent way to learn how to do something better. There’s a reason why surgeons have to go through thirteen years of schooling before they’re allowed to cut. Sure, there are those phenoms amongst us (Hannah Moskowitz comes to mind) who can craft compelling, heartrending works before they’ve walked across the stage for their high school diplomas, but for the vast majority, a little thing called Life Experience will do much to enrich and fuel the craft and practice of writing. If you think you’re a genius today, wait five years and look back. What you’re writing now will indeed suck to you, and if it doesn’t, well, that superiority complex might be something you want to have checked out by a mental health professional. Good luck with that.
And this leads into another question that Kara tendered: where do my ideas come from? Evelyn Lafont recently revealed, under threat of expulsion from the We Are Awesome Writers Union, that ideas come from Pez dispensers, morsels of artistry embedded into the fronts of those savory little sugary delights. Because Evelyn revealed this, she is On Notice, but as her comrade, I continue to lobby for forgiveness on her behalf. Other writers, some of them quite famous for reasons I still haven’t figured out, have revealed that ideas come to them in dreams. My dreams never make any sense, and I don’t think you want me to write about waking in the middle of the night and telling my husband that I will kill him in his sleep. (This is a true story. I was fighting with a Very Bad Guy in my dream, and I totally talk in my sleep, so, yeah...I was gonna kill someone, just not my adoring and endlessly supportive husband.)
My ideas come from news stories and from watching other humans interact on a multitude of levels. Weird moments are great. Sometimes from songs, other times from the stuff my wacky kids say. I have lots of issues from a lifetime of unfortunate choices, and those issues I use as fodder for creating really awesome villains. I may want to kill someone in my dreams—but that person will become a real character once I wake up and get past the flying purple troll cows grazing in the dream field.
Lucian Dmitri, the villain from Sleight, is an amalgamation of negative energy. Bad relationships are perfect for exactly this, as I’ve lived through a number of them, but seeing how awful one human being can be to another makes for great character building. Vicious can be translated into brilliance when constructing a human limb by limb, emotion by emotion. Cliché, perhaps, but it works. It’s all part of the process of creating believable characters. All humans, no matter how perfect on the outside, have flaws—look at Frodo Baggins. At the very end of Return of the King, he almost doesn’t drop the Ring into the fires at Mount Doom. He almost keeps it for himself, finally overwhelmed by the power he has resisted throughout his perilous journey. This is phenomenal character building. I have to remind myself that my villains must have soft spots, and my heroes must be fools.
Speaking of process, it feels weird to be answering this question as it is one of those silly things I’ve often asked writers when I’m on the interviewer side of the table. My process? It involves a quiet car parked in the lot of a local coffee shop with my Favorite Pen of the Day, a blank page, and my bag crammed with notes. I write longhand to start, usually in chunks of ten or twelve pages, and plug these pages into an ever-evolving typed second draft every few days. My house is chaotic: I have three kids (two of them under ten), a fat beagle, a husband, and a very needy cat who was probably a lover in a past life. I can’t get anything worthwhile done at home, so I write at night, alone, in my often-freezing-cold car. I outline loosely and deviate constantly. Yes, this can be maddening.
I listen to music usually when I am forced to write at home (gotta block out the noise), and then it depends on the scene I’m laboring over. For high-action sequences, I choose high-energy rock; for quieter scenes of introspection or conversation amongst the characters, I usually lean toward soundtracks. I am a soundtrack junkie. I’m totally a music vampire, i.e., I raid the playlists of other writer and artist friends to see what tickles their creative fancies. (TV shows are awesome for their playlists nowadays—isn’t that cool?) All of these sources are how I came to find Muse and Florence & the Machine and Paramore and Flogging Molly and The Fray and The Killers and the Dresden Dolls and Sia and Breaking Benjamin and Metric and Regina Spektor. I don’t know what would’ve happened if the entire of Sleight had been written listening only to Bruce Springsteen. The Ghost of Tom Joad is still my favorite CD of all time, though, and was played often during the scenes where I was building the circus environment. Old habits die hard, and there’s much to be said for the grit and dirt and heartbreak that only Springsteen can deliver. (Oh—and the RH Chili Peppers. Anthony Kiedis is hot. I’ll stop now.)
When it comes right down to it, I have no idea what I’m doing. I know what I like, what I want to see in a book when I plunk down my hard-earned pennies, and I have a pretty decent grasp of grammar. And I have two tattoos, one on each arm, the signatures of great humans who came before me, to remind me what I’m doing and where I want to go, just in case I forget.
Sleight: Book One of the AVRA-K is now available as an ebook at:
~links at www.jennifersommersby.com
(The print version will be available for order in May.)
Kara says: Isn’t Jenn amazing? I loved reading this. It was fantastic and oh so inspiring. I can’t wait until book two of her series is released. I’m quite attached to the characters and Sleight is definitely one of my favorite books of the year I have read so far. She’s a great person and I love hearing about the writing process for each individual. Follow her on twitter @JennSommersby. She’s hilarious and a lot of fun to talk to. I really enjoyed doing this guest blog. Hopefully there will be many more of them in the future. Let us know what you think down there in the comments.