A blog by Amy Dawson Roberston and Bev Prescott on writing technique, creating characters with a dark side, dystopian societies, beer, sailing and much more.

I had the great opportunity to join one of my favorite authors, Amy Dawson Robertson, whom I’m also proud to call my friend, for a chat about all things writing and lots more.  To learn more about Amy, and her fantastic novels, “Miles to Go” and “Scapegoat” please be sure to visit her website at http://amydawsonrobertson.com/.

ADR:  Your first novel, My Soldier Too, has been very well received. How long had you been writing and how did you go about learning the tricks of the trade?

BP: Legal writing is something that I’ve done for years.  In my work as an attorney, it’s a major part of my day. Notwithstanding, l had a lot to learn about how different legal and fiction writing are from each other.  With legal writing, the goal is to take a set of facts, the relevant law and analysis and package it into a compelling story that convinces the reader that my side should prevail.  I very much play the role of “omniscient narrator” when engaged in legal writing, and the facts are things that have always happened in the past.  Unfortunately, omniscient narration and telling instead of showing run against the grain of fiction writing.  The first draft of My Soldier Too was riddled with it.

The first thing that I did to learn the “tricks of the trade” was to listen to the experts who were gracious enough to give me advice about how to move forward.  Jane Vollbrecht, who eventually became my editor, and Karin Kallmaker both recommended Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King.  I also read several other great books about the process for writing fiction.  I tried to pay attention to how some of my favorite authors wrote by re-reading their books with process in mind.  Armed with this new information, I went back and rewrote My Soldier Too.  The good news is that the story was always there, and I felt passionately about doing what was necessary to make it the best that I was capable of.  I was more than happy to put the work in.  It made My Soldier Too a better book and me a better writer.

Staying on the subject of writing process, your first book, Miles to Go was unique in that there were long stretches with no dialogue.  Miles to Go is one of my favorite books for that reason.  You took us into Rennie’s head and were able to effectively show us what she was thinking and feeling without dialogue.  Very few books that I’ve read have accomplished the same as successfully.  How did you go about developing your writing style, and did you set out wanting to write “outside of the box” by not using a lot of dialogue in Miles to Go?          

ADR: I love the way you analyze the POV of legal writing — I’d never thought of it that way.

As I mentioned in my interview with Barrett, I think the old rule about show don’t tell can be taken too far. I’m not sure how that advice was originally imparted but I if I had to guess I would think it meant that some things MUST (change to ital) be told and that it can be a hallmark of an inexperienced writer to not have developed the instinct for when to show and when to tell.

I think it’s very smart of you to read with an eye to process. I almost always try to do that as well — I often find myself surprised by the way established authors approach technique. It’s always interesting when you begin to look behind the curtain.

I did not intentionally set out to have that long stretch in Miles To Go that was mostly narrative. Writing that book was in some way like rolling down a hill or maybe falling down a set of stairs. I just went with it, making it up as I went along.

Tell me a bit about your process. You’re a busy lawyer — how do you find the time to write? Do you require specific conditions?

BP: Well, you fell down the stairs with much grace and landed a perfect 10.  As I mentioned, Miles to Go is one of my favorites.  I agree that it takes instinct to know when to show and when to tell.  Frankly, sometimes narration is the only process that makes sense when trying to go deep inside a characters head.  Most of us keep our secret intimate thoughts tucked safely away and rarely discuss them.  I’m usually a bit suspicious of a character who spills her soul in a stream of dialogue.

I didn’t have a process with My Soldier Too, because I had such a big learning curve to overcome.  For my latest manuscript, however, I do.  For this one, I sketched out the main themes and a very rough two page outline.  Basically, I know the beginning, middle and end.  From there, I let the characters show me how to get there.  I get bogged down if I try to do too much in the way of outlining.  What I’ve discovered is that it takes a while to really get to know my characters.  So, I avoid putting them in a box from the outset.

Because my schedule is so busy, I have to be rigid about when I write.  I try to write every morning during my train ride into Boston for work.  I’m lucky enough to have Fridays off so I always put in at least two to three hours.  As for the weekends, my spouse is a late riser so I get up at 5am and write until around 8am when she gets up.  In order to be in the mood to write, I need as much quiet as possible otherwise I’m easily distracted.  When I find myself experiencing a bad case of writer’s block, the trick for me is to either go for a long run or box.  Exercise quiets my mind and lets me relax into place where I can hear what my characters are trying to say.

Speaking of characters, in your latest novel Scapegoat, you created a particularly frightening fellow, Cainkiller.  I remember thinking to myself how talented you are to come up this guy.  You’re one of the nicest people I know, yet he is one of the scariest characters in any novel that I’ve read.  How did you go about coming up with him and was he easy to write?  

ADR: I’m very impressed by your discipline in your writing schedule. I am not as disciplined by half. But I think it’s so important to have the kind of continuity you get when you write every day. It allows you to really live inside the story in a way that I think is the best way to alleviate some of the anxieties that inevitably come with writing.

I like the way you’ve approached the process of your new novel. It allows you flexibility but enough structure that hopefully you don’t often find yourself at sea. I’d be interested to hear how you approach editing. Do you feel tempted to do it as you go or wait until you have a draft. Regardless, tell me a bit how you go about it.

Regarding Cainkiller. I’m very glad you think I’m nice and I generally don’t think of myself as having much of a dark side but I found Cainkiller very easy to write. Another common piece of advice you hear from well established writers is that honesty is essential. But along with honesty, they also mean bravery, in that if you are willing to tap into to painful parts of your experience, cowardly parts of your experience, etc. Essentially those parts of your experience that make you afraid or that you aren’t proud of or that you can’t bear to think about, those are the parts that will draw your best and most honest writing out of you. I believe this to be true for all the arts. I don’t think I’ve tapped that vein very much at all but in at least a very limited way, Cainkiller opened me up to places I hadn’t gone before.

In addition to talking about your editing process, I’m curious if you require special materials? Do you every write longhand — do you edit on paper or on the computer for that matter? Do you have particular pens, paper, notebooks and such.

BP:  I’ve definitely found myself at sea a time or two.  Staying with the sailing metaphor, not only was I lost at sea, I was in irons.  But, as you mentioned, writing frequently is key to navigating for home successfully with a good wind at your back. My editing process is to edit as I go.  I’ll usually get two or three chapters down on paper, and then go back and edit before moving forward.  For me, the first draft is only an outside layer.  By editing immediately, I can tap deeper into the story such that knowing the best place to go from there is easier.  When I’m finished with the entire draft, I’ll edit one last time.

There are three main tools in my writing arsenal.  I have a stripped down netbook that only has Word loaded on it, a laptop and a paper notebook.  I carry the notebook and netbook with me during the week when I’m traveling on the train to work.  I use my laptop at home to write and edit.  Once I have the entire draft finished, I’ll print out the document and edit on paper.  I always carry a paper notebook wherever I go so that I can capture any ideas that pop into my head.  In circumstances when I’m away from home and only have my notebook, I’ll write in long hand if necessary.

BP: What is your editing process?  Speaking of process, was your process for writing Scapegoat different from Miles to Go and if so, do you have a preference for one over the other?   Finally, what inspired you to write in the first place?

ADR: Your writing arsenal sounds very practical. I think your idea of having a netbook with only Word on it is a great one. Every time I’m in the middle of a project I always swear I will improve my Word skills before starting something new. I always wonder if my bad formatting (it looks fine but the coding is a mess) drives the copy editors crazy or if they just strip it and format fresh.

Unfortunately my editing style uses a lot of paper. I haven’t found myself able to edit on the computer. With my first novel I had all the time in the world since I wasn’t on deadline so I went through it many, many times, tweaking the language, looking for anything clunky, looking for inconsistencies in logic or continuity. I’m always floored by how many things you need to keep in mind at the same time which really isn’t my forte and makes me drawn to short stories.

My writing process changed somewhat between my first and second novel. As I mentioned before, I didn’t do much advance preparation for the first novel other than research. I didn’t outline or really have any idea where I might go with it. I feel lucky it turned out as well as it did, that people find it engaging. For Scapegoat, I had written a chunk of it back in 2006 so it was weird coming back to it after so long of a break. I just pushed ahead with it until I realized it was becoming complex enough in its plot that I needed an outline so that I didn’t wind up with gaping plot holes in the end. When I write another thriller, I will absolutely outline thoroughly — I’ve become a believer.

What inspired me to write? I don’t know really. I remember wanting to ever since I was a teenager. I know it seemed romantic at the time — Hemingway clacking away at the typewriter with a cigarette in a rumpled white shirt, that sort of thing. Unfortunately, it has  never (ital) seemed romantic in the least when actually put into practice. Now that I do write, I guess I find it addictive, words come into my head and it seems a shame not to write them down.

My Soldier Too seems to me to be a very successful first novel. It is a great read and I’m glad people have responded so well and have been moved by it. You took on an issue that we haven’t seen much of in the genre — what a soldier goes through after coming back from war. From your perspective, what impact do you want your work to have on your readers? What responsibilities do you feel you have as an author?

BP: Great answers and questions!  I agree writing is addictive.  Thanks a million for the kind words about My Soldier Too.  One of the best compliments that I received goes to the impact that I hope to have on readers.  My Soldier Too was described as gritty and hard hitting. Ultimately, I want to be able to tap into as many emotions of the readers as possible over the course of a story.

The first responsibility that I think I have to readers is to be true to myself.  My best writing comes from a place of authenticity.  Next is to do the research necessary to get the facts correct and finally, listen to my editor.  Since readers are spending their hard earned money and precious time to read my work, they deserve the best that I’m capable of all the way from the writing to editing and publishing.

Your last two books were thrillers.  What motivates you to write thrillers?   Will your next book be as well, or do you have something else up your sleeve?  Finally, you mentioned that you are drawn to writing short stories.  Is there a place where readers have access to the short stories that you’ve written?

ADR:I fully agree with you that readers deserve the best we can offer them. Which is why it is so gratifying when you get positive feedback and so disappointing when a reader feels like you’ve let them down. I find it really interesting reading Amazon reviews after I’ve read a book. It’s striking how opinions can differ or maybe even more fundamentally how many different ways a reader can come to a book, how reading functions on so many different levels for different people. Regardless, I always try to put my ego on the shelf and really listen to reader suggestions, to see where I might improve next time.

Thrillers? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what form of fiction I ultimately want to spend my time on. I’ve enjoyed writing the thrillers a great deal but they may not be the best fit for me. I’m working on a short romance now just to see how that feels and I’m really enjoying it.

After that there’s a mystery plot I’ve had in my brain for years that I really want to try. I’m hoping that the pacing of the mystery (or at least the kind I have in mind) will allow me to do some of the work I really enjoy — delving deeply into character. I’m drawn to short stories for the same reason, the opportunity to really examine character. And in theory you have fewer balls in the air which allows you to focus more on character than plot. I haven’t published any of my stories at this point — hopefully someday!

I feel as though you and I are in a similar place, very early in our writing careers. Do you feel you’ve found your style? Are there other types of fiction you’re drawn to?

BP:  I would love to read a mystery written by you.  You’d be fantastic at it.  

Do I have a style?  I don’t think that I’ve been writing long enough to have one yet.  I’m still learning the basics, and getting used to the sound of my own voice, so to speak.  I do want to continue to write romance.  However, it will likely remain a more secondary theme in my writing.  I definitely want to continue to write about difficult subjects that, as you pointed out, we don’t often see in the genre such as the impacts of war on our soldiers.

At some point in the future, I’d love to try fantasy or science fiction.  I’m a huge fan of things like Battle Star Galactica, and I absolutely loved the Hunger Games series of books.  I’ll probably be first in line when the movie comes out this month.

You mentioned that you were under a deadline to write Scapegoat.  Given your busy schedule, how would you characterize the way reading fits into your life now that you are writing? Do you read with a different eye? Do you read more widely or more narrowly in terms of non-fiction or literary fiction or genre fiction?

ADR: I appreciate your confidence!

Science fiction — that’s one genre I might be scared to try though I could be tempted by dystopian fiction which I find myself continually drawn to.

I feel like I don’t get to read nearly as much as I used to now that writing is a big part of my life. I read a lot more genre fiction now, trying to unravel how the masters do it. And a certain portion of my reading is for research for the current book I’m working on. That is particularly enjoyable because I can read and actually feel like I am getting work done. How about you? How does reading fit into your schedule?

And for a final question: Is there something about you that your readers don’t know, but would find interesting?

BP:  I’m definitely in the same boat as you when it comes to finding time to read.  It’s really tough.  I mostly try to fit it in during the evening time when I’m ready to finally wind down from the day.

Something interesting, I get as much joy from music as I do reading and writing.  A day doesn’t pass that I don’t listen to music of some kind.  As for playing music myself, I played the trumpet and French horn in high school and was the base bugler when I was in the Air Force.  I can play taps in my sleep, and I’m learning how to play the ukulele.  I love to relax with music and a glass of wine or beer.  Speaking of which, I make my own beer, and if I can get the two grape vines that I planted a couple of years ago to produce enough grapes, I’m going to try to make my own wine.

How about you, tell us something about you that we don’t know, but would find interesting?

ADR: That’s so cool! Maybe you could offer us a little video performance when you’re feeling confident in your ukulele playing.

I’m not sure if it’s interesting, but something that people might not know about me is that I listen to an extraordinary amount of both talk radio and, like you, music. I have heard nearly every episode of This American Life and have a wee geeky crush on Terry Gross of Fresh Air. I went through a period when I listened to the Chris Moyles show on the BBC produced Radio 1. And because I subscribe to Rhapsody (similar to but much older than Spotify) I listen to a lot of music that I would never take a chance on buying — I love the freedom of that and it’s opened me up to things that I never could have imagined I liked. For instance, I’ve found I like instrumental turntablism which is this great mix of beats and samples (here’s an example if you’re curious http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHhlaspXVgo). Hopefully one of these days we can sit down in person and drink homemade beer and listen to some music. This has been great fun, Bev — thanks for playing!

BP:  Cut Chemist, I like it.  It would be great music to listen to while doing something like staining the porch.  Which by the way, I love to do, mostly because I get to be lost in my thoughts and snappy music for hours on end in the sun while accomplishing something at the same time.

I have a long way to go before I’m ready for a video debut playing the ukulele.  But, I’d love to be able to play “Hey Soul Sister” by Train someday.

Thanks so much for letting me share blog space with you.  It’s been a pleasure having this opportunity to chat with one of my favorite authors.  Let’s definitely plan on having home brewed beer together while listening to some great music in the not too distant future.

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