Guest blogging -- Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

I've been invited to join in a blog-a-rama by Terry Price and Cindy Corpier -- thanks so much, y'all! Here are the questions and my answers. Check out their sites for their answers! Enjoy!

What is your working title of your book (or story)?  Laws of Migration, out last month.

Where did the idea come from for the book? It was an amalgamation of ideas, actually. One was relationships and how the different lens through which we each see the world has such an effect on what we think/believe/act on; another was the idea of "how the could the best thing be the worst thing/how could the worst thing be the best thing"; and the overarching idea was about birds -- watching them, they way they live, their variety and behaviors.

What genre does your book fall under? Women's fiction

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? Oh, this is tricky -- Elize could be played by any strong blonde who comes across as Alpha. But I think I had Kelly Lynch in mind, that extreme competence and physicality. Not to mention rocking cargo pants and no makeup. Erik/ Eric Bana? Sebastian Stan? Someone who is magnetic and you glance a second (and third) time, but not someone who is beautiful to the point of awkwardness. Frankie I see as a shorter Lucille Ball, but in a black curly wig and pencil skirt; Karen Gillan, with the addition of some weight and ink and a New Orleans accent, could be Zephyr. 

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? How the quest for an exotic bird became a search for love, forgiveness and a new life.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? It came out from F+W Media January 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? I'll say six months, though that's probably a lie. It was a hard book to write, hard to find the window to the character and story, hard to voice, hard because I had to grow up a LOT to be able to do it justice. A rewritable draft? Probably a year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? To me it's got a similar feel as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, or Eat, Pray, Love, or the film Decoy Bride. All deal with being out of step in another culture, but that experience being the salvation of the character. 

Who or what inspired you to write this book? I follow my fascinations. I reinvent the wheel every time I write. I constantly set myself new challenges to accept, new techniques to learn, new adventures to have (in the name of research!). So it was birds + personalities + personal growth.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? It's a sexy love story set in one of the most incredible places on earth doing something (going after an exotic bird) that most people don't ever get a chance to experience. But it's also a universal story, because we've all been lost, we've all had to forgive, we've all had to start over. 


Parent vs. god vs. Santa

By and large, as writers we love the characters we write. For whatever their flaws, they're the people we're choosing to spend our time with. They've become our friends. This, I think, is a danger point.

As writers, we aren't writing happy stories about happy people. If we are, 99.9% chance we aren't selling it! "Nothing proceeds in the story except through conflict." (Robert McKee) No conflict = no story.

Conflict comes from wanting something and not getting it. All the ways of not getting it, all the failed plans and paths to trying to get it. This is overlaid with the personal belief system of whether getting it should happen.

If our character is our friend, we try to protect them. If we feel like the parents, we want to shield them. If we are Santa, then we give them space to act and reward them regardless. (Has anyone EVER gotten coal in his/her stocking?)

This thinking keeps stakes low and characters flabby.

In LOM, I knew Elize had to radically change in order to actually get the outcomes she wanted in her life. The only way that could happen would require short-term agony for long-term benefit. She had to break, in every way, before she could be remade, pliable and open. In this way the mythic Hero's Journey rings true to life: pain can birth redemption and a new start.

You have to give the character pain, agony on top of that, failure and breaking -- you have to see their future like a deity, realizing the ultimate benefit of the current moment for their growth. You must grit your teeth through their screaming and crying and complaining … knowing it's what's best. (Actually, it's a lot like crate-training a puppy.)

Tough love and long vision makes your characters both more interesting and more believable, and in the end, more satisfying when they achieve what was once only a dream. This tension is where reader interest takes hold, and the realization of the dream is where catharsis is achieved. 

(PS. if you are following the path of a Greek god, escalate the agony to war and kill lots of people along the way.)

No one sees the same blue

I write, to a large degree, the adventures or experiences I'd like to have … or at least to read. For me this has always included a healthy dose of sights - my characters going places I'd like to see. Consequently, my characters usually have a substantial background in art and history, and a vocabulary of elements and colors.

As I was crafting Elize, my straitlaced scientist, none of that fit. Why would she know Islamic architecture? How could she explain and/or appreciate Majorelle blue? Between her family and her education there wasn't a reason. She wouldn't and she couldn't. 

My first draft had her blind to the world around her, which made Morocco ominous and unappealing, not to mention drab. Not fun to write and NOT the experience I wanted to read! If she couldn't SEE, then what was the point of being in Morocco?

I returned to her biography, walking as Elize through her life experiences. I also threw down the book and picked up my bins, exploring South Texas's great birding sites and visiting Elize's home town, alma mater and closest shore, at South Padre Island. 

Somewhere in there, I got it! The colors of her world weren't named after Crayons and didn't have painter's names, they were translated through nature! She didn't see Cadminum Red like others might, she saw Male Cardinal Red.

With that realization, the entire lens through which she sees the world snapped into place. From that vision came the heart of the character and I hope, her appreciation of Morocco in all its multi-colored, -patterned and -shaped wonder.

The gift of that vision to me was to not just look at something, classify and dismiss it, but to wonder at it and really look and realize that Male Cardinal Red is actually tinged with black; that there isn't a solid green in nature, it shifts and moves with the light and the wind; and that only through birds (and possibly the Aegean) can Majorelle blue be expressed. 

I believe Anne Morrow Lindberg said it best, "Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living." 

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           Majorelle blue in Marrakesh. How would you describe it?

Getting to Know you (and gagged until then)

Why is it the most productive practices are the hardest? (This question may fall under the same category as: why is everything good bad for you? I'm looking at you, Bacon!)

At the first flush of an idea there are two impulses: tell everyone and write it all down. From what I've seen, if you tell ANYONE, especially if it's a really good idea, you don't write a thing. In fact, the passion dissipates and you float like a helium balloon exactly 5.5 days after the party: still inches off the ground, but deflating and sad.

If you make it to the "write it all down" phase, you look up after X number of pages and have no where to go. Nothing left to say. THE WALL.

Writing needs a pressure cooker, which is why accountability, classes and deadlines work. Something needs to exert enough compression to force your mind and body into new and strange paths in order to produce a story.

My experience, as a writer, as a writing teacher, as a friend of writers and wanna be writers, suggests: get an idea? Shut up. Write a single sentence if you absolutely must, but really, just press the idea down. Ask questions, throw hypotheses, let it grow. Sketch, don't write, a Hero's Journey cycle for it. Toss that out and do another. Throw away all that you've read/seen/done before. Keep silent. Make "resist = persist" work for you. 

You're trying to refine that concept and "cook" it until you explode, fully formed, on the page. (Talking about the story here, not the whole book.)

I think one of the reasons why our first books are relatively easy (we have the story, just need to get the words on the page) is because we've been in that pressurizing state for most of our lives. We've refined, selected and rejected for -- sometimes -- decades. When we finally understand the practice and the craftsmanship, the story pours out.

Which brings us to the gags. <Doesn't usually apply to first book, due to pressurized pre-writing. See Above.>

The longer I write, the more characters that people my mind and pages, the more I cherish this practice: don't write what your character says, but rather what they want -- for the first draft. 

That's because you don't know them. You may have a bio and sketches and a Pinterest board detailing the contents of their home, but you don't know them … yet. Dialogue is the crowning jewel in a story: crafted lines that say one thing in a very specific voice, but oftentimes mean something else, (subtext) while working toward the greater story goals. As DIAlogue, there are two or more people, on a rollercoaster of emotion, executing these lines, advancing the story, in the fullness of their natures.

So, quick question. How does your character respond in the affirmative? Is it "yes."? Crisp and devoid of slang and culture? Really? And if you are unsure about that, then you don't know your character … yet. 

If you don't know your character's word choice, because you don't know the every element of education, background and personality that leads to that word choice, then write the first draft in subtext. Give yourself that "getting to know you" space. When you do take their gags off in the second or third draft, you will have spent a whole book with them. You'll know what they want, how they act, how and what changes them and the why of their backstory. You'll have incorporated their "self." Dialogue arising from that knowledge and their subtext will truly -- and truthfully -- flow.

Yes, it's counterintuitive. Hard. Pressurizing. Does it save you entire drafts? Does it keep you from falling in love with your witty self and sacrificing the story to keep that one really funny scene? Is this "murdering your darlings" before they fully grow? 

Yes, yes and also yes. Does it work? YES!

(For more details on this practice, read STORY by Robert McKee)

Begin with the End

In LOM, I knew exactly how the story started. The three women, the "kidnapping talent" conversation, the scene at the office. What I didn't know, for my first time writing a book, was how and where it ended.

With my time travel novels, I always knew Chloe had a YEAR, exactly and what needed to be accomplished in that time. In my Dallas O'Connor mysteries, I knew the killer would be caught and Dallas would live, though it would be close. Those genres gave me the constructs on which to hang the storyline and a goal post to aim for.

Not so with Elize. I spend seven years searching for her fitting "ending." (Don't worry, what's published is absolutely perfect, IMHO!) This searching was due to a combination of too much focus and wrong timing. Too much focus meaning I had what I wanted to happen. I didn't ask the story how it ended. (At some point, if you're going the wrong way, your brain will just STOP you.) It was wrong timing, because I needed to learn a lot more, experience, listen, loosen up and trust the story was there. I'm a slow learner.

Seven years, especially those seven years and all the projects I worked on in that time, is a very long time. Every single one of those interim projects started with: How does it end? So where does it begin? Every single one finished, because by starting with the end, I'd already accomplished the hardest part of writing a book: FINISHING.

When I finally sat down with the next-to-the-last-draft of LOM and simply asked the story: Where is the end? When is the arc achieved, the questions answered, the elixir shared? 

= The End

And that draft became the last, final, draft. Complete, whole, (and I hope) satisfying.

Will writing the end first save you seven years? Do you have the time to NOT try it?

Sensations: sound

I'm an immersion writer. What I'm focused on is filtered into every aspect of my life: food, design, movement and especially sound. I didn't grow up with TV (really didn't miss it) but I did grow up with radio. For me, music connects immediately to emotion.

When I write, I use music to fill myself with emotion I can pour on the page. Not necessarily for a character, but for the ambiance of the location, the texture of the world, the palette of sensations, thoughts and feelings I'll be exploring in the story.

Bless Sarah Brightman, she brought out Harem right as I was embarking on my all-Morocco, all-the-time adventure. Track # even mentions "American writers"!

Fascinations: the pathway to the story

When I was little, we lived in southern Spain. My parents and their best friends took the ferry to Morocco for a visit. I'll never forget the sight of their return: our pumpkin-colored Datsun, stuffed with four adults and spilling over with stuff.

Baskets, rugs, even a camel saddle, were tied to the roof -- a stack so tall that it was the height of the car again.

I had wanted to go, but had to go to school instead. However, seeing the proofs of their great adventure fanned a fire in me that was already fascinated by and attracted to arabesques, tiles, veils and other accoutrement of the exotic Middle East. 

To put it another way: from childhood on, I've been looking for an excuse to go to Morocco. Elize's birding gave me the reason I needed. I excel at research trips, they seem to mesh well with my obsessive nature and laser-beam intent. 

Which leads back to one of my laws of writing: write what you love. Or perhaps, more accurately, follow your fascinations in your writing.

By adding all my fascinations together I found the premise for my story: woman travels to Morocco in search of an exotic bird ...


From Birds of the Middle East

Prompts and prods

What I had so far: Elize was nestled at home, friends with two other ornithologists and I needed her to go to Morocco. 

Prompt: In fictional Port Rockton, she studied the white-faced ibis and the glossy ibis. In fact, that part of the Texas is the only place in the nation where the glossy ibis and white-faced share territory. So I knew she appreciated the rare ... and what would be more rare than the Northern Bald Ibis, an endangered bird? A few hundred pairs in the world! 

She's also competitive, an athlete, so "scoring" a NBI would please her too. Behold, the Northern Bald Ibis.

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                                                                  Bald Ibis picture from

Prod: Especially if she felt she'd been put down ... and she had to save face. She had to accomplish something to prove herself. Which brought me back to: How could the worst thing be the best thing?/How could the best thing be the worst thing?

Three ornithologists walk into a bar ...

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Elize's Story

Elize's world is known, quantifiable, numbered and fairly orderly. It's bike rides on the beach, surfing in the afternoon, mornings waking up with the birds. 

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But what if I shook her -- and her world -- up? Uncertain, unknown, unintelligible and overwhelming. A fish out of water, a tall blonde in a country of medium sized black haired people? 

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What if I put her HERE? The chaos of Marrakesh.

What would she learn?

How would she change?
© J Suzanne Frank 2013