Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Writer's Reality 101: The Story Behind the Story

This interview may be my greatest challenge to date. I'm interviewing mystery man Jonathan Spectre, author of...of...geeze! I read so many excerpts from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards that I can't remember the title of your book Jonathan. It'll come back to me, I'm sure, but to save us some time, what's the title?

Jonathan: What? You don't have my excerpt printed out and framed over your desk? I'm astounded. Well, right now the title is "The Key of Caligula's Bath: A Madison Dawn Adventure"- though I fully expect an editor to change it. It doesn't roll off the tongue, but I was going off the axiom that a good title says what the story is about.

Lisa: Thanks Jonathan. Now folks, here's the kicker. Jonathan Spectre's name isn't really Jonathan Spectre. Jonathan writes under a pen name. I have no idea who he really is, but, as I am providing him with his premiere interview on the World Wide Web, he should at least be so kind as to give up the goods to me first, here in public, when he is ready and willing to do so. Do we have a deal Jonathan?

Jonathan: Oh. When I said I'd give you the goods in public, I thought we were talking in euphemisms. Hmm. This is awkward.... Anyway, yes, you have no idea who I really am. I'm in the same boat. I don't know how many times I've taken a hard look in the mirror and said "Who am I?" This is right after I've bolted upright in bed and just before the girl with the emerald eyes bursts into tears. Sorry, got caught up in cliché’s there. What was the question again? Ah yes. No, I'm not ready and willing to tell your readers my real name.

Lisa: Let me re-phrase that last question of mine. If you ever decide to finally go public with your real name, will you agree to let me break the news on my blog in the future? Pretty please? And I know a bit about why you write under a pen-name, but others don't. Care to explain?

Jonathan: Sure. There are two main reasons why I chose a pen-name. (Three if you count "I like to think of myself as a secret agent spy" as a legitimate excuse). One, there's already an author with my name. He writes non-fiction, liberal political, Bush-hater type stuff, so I figured it would confuse everyone when his name appeared on an adventure novel. Second, I wrote much of my book while travelling for work, which meant I wrote it on a company computer. I'm a little concerned what my company would say if they found out I wrote a hit best-seller that grossed millions of dollars and got a movie deal while working for them (even though I wrote on my own time). They'd probably want to claim it as their intellectual property. This is all assuming someone actually decides to publish my book, of course.

Lisa: Any hints for us as to what you do for a career while waiting for your book to become a bestseller?

Jonathan: I’m an engineer. I know this makes people want to run to their bookstore and see what fun adventure tale I’ve concocted. No one tells colorful, adventurous stories like an engineer. I work in aerospace in a job I love. It was what I’d hoped to do when I entered college. Can’t really complain about that.

Lisa: What motivated you to begin writing your own novel?

Jonathan: Now that is a very interesting question. I hope the answer makes sense to your readers because I think it might make me sound like a crazy person. I was going through some counselling a few years ago because, well, I messed up and I’m messed up, to be honest. During that time I found out two important things about myself. One, I put far too much into what people think about what I do and who I am. Everything I did was for someone else’s approval, hoping they would validate me as a person if they liked x, y, or z. Second, I learned I was addicted to romance. I know this sounds like a wonderful thing to be addicted to, but it really means I was addicted to this false, superficial, emotional high that we get in the early throws of love. I decided that I would put this “addiction” to use and write an adventure novel. Moreover, I would write it in secrecy. I wanted to do this without an ‘attaboy’, without any real hope that my friends would like me more because I was writing a novel. It’s actually another reason for the pen name. No one in my real life knows I’ve been writing this book over the last 2 ½ years, so I don’t look to others to approve of my writing.

Lisa: What has it been like for you, keeping your writing a secret from everyone who knows you? Have there been moments when it’s been tough not being able to share what’s been happening with the book, like when you made it to the semi-final rounds in ABNA?

Jonathan: Honestly, it’s been weird. I only picked a pen name the day I sent in my ABNA submission. I just thought I’d get some non-biased feedback on my writing to see if I had anything worth publishing. It turned out I met a lot of really cool writerly friends, and now I’m a bit torn as to whether to merge things or not. There’s been a number of really funny interactions on the ABNA forum that I wanted to share with my wife, but couldn’t. And getting my novel read by PW in the quarterfinals was cool too, but I couldn’t share my successes. I’m kind of ready to be done with it all. But the problem is that I’ve kept this secret for two and a half years, so I need to get something out of it. My plan is to get a little more feedback and then see if anyone is interested in publishing it. If so, I’ll dedicate it to my wife and have a surprise for her waiting under the Christmas tree some day. If not, well, I’ll probably still print it off and give it to her as a present, anyway. I mean, yes, it’s not good to keep a secret from your wife, but I shouldn’t be in too much hot water if I dedicate it to her. Right?

Lisa: No comment on your last question directed toward me, although it might be interesting to hear readers’ opinions on that. What’s the book about Jonathan? And is there some romance in it?

Jonathan: Eh. Let’s just say that was a rhetorical “Right?” I’m probably in trouble either way. The Key of Caligula’s Bath is about Madison Dawn, a single girl just out of college who crashes her car when a mysterious cell phone starts ringing. Madison learns that she is carrying a large ruby known as the Key of Caligula’s Bath and the nefarious Italian antiquities smugglers want it back. A treasure hunter named James Kynan takes her into his world of treasure hunting and Madison must join with James to find out what this key is used for and to recover the artifact hidden in Caligula’s Bath. Along the way she learns that she is more than just a struggling receptionist, and that life is more than just being a Disney princess and waiting for life to happen to her. She also learns that the mysterious James, who has his own set of faults and addictions, can redeem himself and prove himself to her. Think of it as an Indiana Jones story written from the woman’s perspective. Yes, there is some romance in it, but it’s the early, flirty kind. The novel is aimed at adult readers who have been reading YA because they like the adventure but aren’t interested in reading about divorce, child abuse, senile parents, substance abuse, etc. So sex is discussed but there aren’t any love scenes in it. The language is clean, the heroes fight their demons but are good at heart, and the villains are more than just one-dimensional bad guys. It’s a book that leaves you smiling, yet hopefully asks you to evaluate your own life and the battles you need to fight. Someone could recommend it to their coworkers or friend at their place of worship and not have to say “Oh, but there’s this one part you’ll want to skip over”.

Lisa: Aspects that you loved/hated about writing the book?

Jonathan: I loved watching characters develop over time. My creative writing is usually limited to 6-8 minute sketches, where the point of attack is so late. With a novel, I could watch my characters grow up and grow together. I could pit their relationship against staggering odds and watch it smother for a while before it regained its flame. The characters in my book are like friends of mine that I just haven’t seen in a while. We’ve been on a great adventure together, I just don’t have the pictures to prove it.

I really hated seeing how many crutches I use in writing. The editing has been brutal as I find excessive adverbs, long lists, repeated phrases, clichés, and unimaginative descriptions. If I had known how weak my writing was when I started, I probably never would have written it. It’s been a great experience but a humbling one at that. And, not being published, I have no idea how far I have yet to go. Who knows, I may only be on level 2 of 10.

Lisa: Do you feel that writing this book accomplished what you wanted in terms of helping you through the primary issues in your life?

Jonathan: Well, yes and no. The book ended up being a place where I could put some of the things I’ve learned about myself into words. I gave James the problems that I’ve been dealing with and watched how it tortured him and made me lose respect for him. So the book itself didn’t really help me through the issues, but it became like a book report where you write about what you’ve learned. I wrote my own object lesson.

Lisa: Everything within the publishing world seems to have within it aspects of wanting approval from others – from finding an agent, to finding a publisher that wants your work, finding an audience and hoping your work appeals to them – the last part of this process strikes me as perhaps creating a challenge for you, in terms of believing in yourself even when it feels like no one else believes in you. It’s been a challenge for me. What do you think that process is going to be like for you?

Jonathan: Well, to be fair, I still desire others’ approval. It feels great for someone to pat me on the back. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when you HAVE to have that approval that causes problems. It’s when your whole self-worth is based on what others think that causes the troubles. I’m in a much different boat from author’s trying to this as a career. I have a career that I love so I don’t need to be successful in writing to feel like I’ve supported my family or done something significant with my life. If my writing turns out not to be world-class even after I’ve put my maximum effort into improving it, so be it. It’s a fun hobby and I know my friends will enjoy it. Granted, I’m working very hard on it because I think I do have the ability to be a published writer, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll lick my wounds and put my talents elsewhere. I do know that I would never have gotten anywhere with my writing without ABNA and the people I’ve met on the forums such as yourself, Gae, Megan, the Jeffs, Tracy, Mary, just to name a few. They’ve been invaluable at providing passionate, level criticism and advice that has helped me rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.

Lisa: Aww. Any plans for a second book?

Jonathan: I left the end of the book open to continue it as a series if the first book is successful. But I wouldn’t even start to write a second book without including my family. Also, since I don’t travel for work anymore, I’ve lost my writing time. I would need the support of my family to find time to write in the evenings where as now my evenings are full with other activities. I would like to continue the series, but the book stands on its own if I never write another one.

Lisa: You don’t have a blog or anything that I know of. If people are curious and want to follow your journey, how might they do that?

Jonathan: I’m on Facebook. People are welcome to friend me. Search for Jonathan Spectre. I look like a statue of a jester. I try to be clever, so perhaps I’m good for a laugh every now and then. I don’t have a blog or website or anything since I’m so new to this. Maybe I’ll just make a habit out of guest blogging on all of my ABNA friends’ blogs.

Lisa: Will you pop by every so often and let us know how things are going?

Jonathan: Sure, if you’d like. I’ll bring a casserole and a bottle of wine and we can all get caught up.

Lisa: Sounds lovely. I’ll make dessert. Any final words for the world?

Jonathan: Final words for the world? Wait, what kind of interview is this? This isn’t an interview, it’s an interrogation! Wha-wha-what are you going to do to me? Who are these men? They’re so strong. I can’t- I can’t see. Where are we going? Cigarette? No? Why- Why am I blindfolded? I can’t believe it ends like this! Tell my wife I love her! Dear God, be merci--

Lisa: I’m nothing if not determined. We’ll get his real name out him somehow…