Writers Aud and Gemma have two things in common: they attend the same critique group and both have short stories in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3. (Available at independent bookstores, through Bookshop.org, and from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.) They are also good friends who, during the pandemic, came together via Zoom to talk about writing and to share their creative plans for the future.
Aud: First, me too! I’m excited that we’re not only both in the short story anthology, but my story comes directly after yours!
G: So tell a little bit about both of your stories.
A: My short story in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3, “Monkey in the Middle” is about a marriage falling apart as seen through the eyes of the couple’s young daughter, who has no clue what’s going on. My novella in the Novella Anthology volume 3, book 1 is called “Broken Soul to Broken Soul,” about two characters, suffering from separate traumas, who come together to form an unorthodox friendship that might lead toward healing.
G: I love both of those stories – in different ways because they’re so different. My piece in the Anthology of Stories, “The One that Got Away,” catches a group of fishermen in the middle of swapping tall tales. The one my story’s about is the tallest one of all!
A: I reread your short story and liked it even more this time around. It is so well done and with such a short number of words!
G: Thanks, Aud!
A: I don’t know if I ever told you this, but your blog inspired me to start one. I had one years ago, but not about writing. Can you talk a little about your blog?
G: Wow, I didn’t know my blog inspired you to start yours – I’m glad you did. My blog’s focus is reading and writing, and also my love of words. That’s why I subtitled it “Writer and Word Explorer” – also ’cause it’s a fun sorta-pun. I love words. I haven’t explored that facet as much as I want to on my blog, things like word origins.
A: You’ve done some of those. I remember some of those, yeah.
G. It’s one of the things I love. And highlighting other authors, giving them one more opportunity to be out there. It’s a nice way of networking and I get exposed to new things that way, too. And I can’t wait to start posting character interviews. Including one of yours! How about you, Aud? What’s your blog’s focus?
A: The writing process and how to get there, namely through living, reading and writing, which is what it’s called, “Live, Read, Write.” That’s my process; have experiences, read early and often and after that’s all done, digest it, and spit it out in the form of fiction.
G: [Laughter] So what are you currently reading?
A: I am currently reading a travel memoir by an English guy named Tony James Slater and it’s called Kamikaze Kangaroos! It’s about his year traveling through Australia with his sister and his sister’s Australian girlfriend. I’m almost finished that one, so on deck is a cozy mystery that takes place on a Caribbean cruise ship. I never heard of the author, but I like cozy mysteries, I like Caribbean cruises and I like 99¢ for eBooks on Kindle.
A: And, there’s a reason that I like 99¢ eBooks – they’re not always good. I learn more from the bad stuff than the classics.
G: That is an excellent point. I think you have a lot of patience because I want to get lost in the books I read. I don’t want to be critiquing them.
A: Well, I’m not really critiquing them either, but I’ll read something and think, “Aww! I wish that person had a critiquing group because they wouldn’t have done that!” But it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the story. And I read so fast, that I just zip right through them. [Editor’s note: Aud has already read 12 more books since this joint interview. She is currently rereading Judy Blume’s classic middle grade novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. ]
G: You’re a fast reader. I know there have been some books I’ve read where I thought, “Oh man! My critique group wouldn’t let that fly!”
A: That’s exactly it, yeah! I know you’re also a big reader, Gemma. What book is on your nightstand right now?
G: I’m not nearly as fast as you, though! Right now I’m savoring Circe, by Madeline Miller. It’s the story of the nymph Circe from The Odyssey. She welcomed Odysseus and his crew to her island and gave them a feast. Because the men acted like pigs, they were turned into pigs. That’s the myth, and we’re seeing her from her birth. She’s just a minor nymph at the beginning and she’s not loved by her parents. The gods and Titans are very human in some sense – they squabble – but they’re also bigger than life. I’m really enjoying it. It’s an interesting view of mythological things. It’s well written, detailed but not too detailed. She captures the scene with just a few words and I love that. I’m trying to learn from that. [Editor’s note: since this interview, Gemma has finished Circe, still loves it, and is now reading The World of Odysseus by M. Finley.] So, tell us a little bit about what you’re writing.
A: I am editing the never-ending upper middle grade novel, This Way/That Way about a girl drummer who learns about love and acceptance after befriending a schoolmate whose father is suffering from cancer. I might change the title because during this latest edit, it seems to be heading toward the spiritual. I’m wondering if I can make a cross-over story. I don’t want it to be 100% Christian, but God will have a cameo. What are you currently working on?
G: I am working on a novel that the idea for came to me decades ago. It’s about a girl who finds out, when she’s a teenager, that there’s a prophesy that she will become so beautiful that people will wage war, there will be battle and bloodshed and death over her. And she’s horrified. She thinks, “No! I’m not going to be responsible for the ruin of my people. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent that.” To do that, she has to become a warrior. That’s where I am in the story right now. I have the general course of the story planned out. And I know how it’s going to end, but between here and there a lot will happen.
A: Do you know, This Way/That Way is over 80,000 words long right now?
A: I can’t have that for middle grade or upper middle grade. No way. I’ve gotta cut some of that back. There’s a question they ask in the Quaker Sunday school after they tell a Bible story: “What can we take away from this story and still have everything we need?” That’s a really good question that I want to answer while editing.
G: Yes. I’m telling myself that now as I’m writing a scene. “Do I need that?” Nope. It can go. That’s the challenging thing. But you’re the one who told me this — you don’t know what you need until you get to the end.
A: That segues us to the benefits of a critique group. I’m impressed that you’re able to be in two critique groups. You read everybody’s pieces, comment on the pieces, write your own piece, plus do your blog! I don’t know how the heck you find time to do all of that!
G: It’s challenging sometimes. I used to take people’s pieces out to Starbucks or the library or a bookstore and enjoy reading them over a coffee. I miss that.
A: Do you think there’s a time when a critique group gets too comfortable since we’ve known each other so long? I wonder if we ever let each other sort of get away with stuff because we know the story. Like if we’ll read one of the pieces and fill in blanks that aren’t technically there.
G: That can be a good thing, because you’re supposed to trust your reader and let them fill in the blanks. But it can also be a troublesome thing. In our own group I think we do cut each other some slack. We have faith in each other. But on the other hand, we don’t necessarily let each other get away with stuff. Like you guys will call me on things. It’s not just typos, it’s like, “Wait. Don’t you remember this?” or “Would somebody really say that?” or “Wouldn’t somebody ask this?” So, I think we can get too comfortable sometimes, but we can remind ourselves, “Okay, I’m coming to this as a reader.”
A: The bottom line is, you as the author, have to decide what’s right for the story. Sometimes our group says majority rules but maybe not. It might be the one person is correct and the other two are not quite right.
G: Once it was told to me by a wise person, “A tie goes to the author,” so if you’ve got opposing opinions, go with yours. There can be times where someone makes a really valid point, or somebody comes up with a cool idea. And I think, “Yeah, that would be cool, but that’s not the story I’m telling.”
A: Sometimes when a critiquer asks, “What’s the person thinking here?” There isn’t really an answer. Sometimes, the character doesn’t have time to think, she’s just acting.
G: And that’s tricky to bring the reader along with that. There was a PennWriters session once where an author was saying, “Don’t overuse emotional words, but in the first draft use them all you want.” Then, when you’re rewriting it, try to bring the reader with you so the reader doesn’t need to be told the character is heartbroken, the reader is heartbroken with the character. But not in the first draft, because that’ll just paralyze you.
A: Right. Make it authentic. For me, the first draft is the hardest thing to write. My work around is I’ll use present tense. I’ll write, “Nickie looks up and asks if classrooms are up there.” When my inner editor sees that it thinks, “Oh, we’re not serious because we’re not in past tense.” That’s how I get past the inner critic.
G: That is so tough.
A: How do you handle your first draft? Your blank page as it were.
G: I guess I try to write when the inner editor’s not looking. [Laughter] “You go do something else. Your turn will come when I revise.” Sometimes I hear – I’m not proud of this – but I’ll hear the voice, “Well, Aud would catch this,” and “Steve would catch that, and Laura would say this.”
A: That’s what I do! Yup, I’m doing the same thing. [Laughter]
G: And I have to say, “They don’t always. I may be wrong.” I find first drafts easiest if I’m not thinking about all the revisions I’m going to have to make. [Laughter]
A: That makes me feel better, knowing I can fix it if it’s not quite right. [Laughter]
G: There’s that too, there really is. What does your writing schedule look like right now?
A: I’m out of school for the summer, so I take early morning walks. I keep a pen and little notepad in my pocket. As I walk, I think about the story. Whenever I hear dialog or description in my head, I’ll stop cold and start writing. Sometimes I don’t even stop. I walk and write.
A: I try to type my notes as soon as I get back because writing while walking isn’t always legible. Then I try to work on my computer outside until it gets too hot. I try to work until lunch and then I read in the afternoon. Sometimes when I’m just not feeling it, I don’t write at all. Which I know isn’t good. You have to make yourself sit in front of the computer. It’s been said before: Just put your butt in the chair and work. One thing I love is my laptop can read to me. When I hear back what I wrote the day before, it gets me in the mood to write. But even with that, I don’t think I’m as productive as I should be.
G: It goes both ways. Sometimes you have to sit down and do it. I’ve told myself, “Oh, I never got anything written today, but I don’t write after dinner.” I remember one day I just sat down after dinner and wrote. “What do you know? I can do it.” But generally I’m kind of a morning person. It often works well if I get up early and go for a walk and think about what I want to write next. I’ll often rehearse scenes in my head. On a good day, once I’m home I’ll sit down and write it. Revising usually happens after my second group has met. I’ll go through and think, “these are the little things I can do right now.” But for big things, I have a file of notes to revise – “Think about this in the future.” If I can’t decide if I want to go this way or that way – no pun intended – I will make notes about it, or if it’s too big of a change and I can’t face it right now – “Let’s not and pretend I did.” [Laughter] So, it’s a lengthy process but that’s sort of what mine is like right now.
A: Have you ever gotten inspiration in the middle of the night?
G: Not so much in the middle of the night, but sometimes when I’m getting ready for bed, or reading before bedtime. I do have a pen and a pad of paper next to me so I can scribble it down. More than one time, I looked at it the next morning and thought, “Oh what the heck was that?”
G: I must have been half asleep when I wrote that.
A: I’ve got a clipboard and a pen on the floor beside the bed. In the middle of the night I’ll write it down but can’t always read what I wrote. For some reason, when I get a magnifying glass and look through it, sometimes I can figure out what the letters are and then it’ll click. “Oh, right, that’s what I meant!” Or I’ll get inspiration in the night and some of the times you’re thinking, “This is genius!” Then the next morning go, “This isn’t genius at all. This is stupid.”
A: I’ll write it down any way, just in case.
G: You never know. It might be good.
A: So here we are, stuck at home. How has covid19 affected your writing?
G: It’s been hard sometimes, admittedly. It’s just because it’s so overwhelming. On the other hand, sometimes writing’s been a real welcome release. I can make happen in a fictional world whatever I want – I can tell myself that it doesn’t even have to be good. I can see that justice prevails in my story. Things will be done right in my story. And that’s helped. But sometimes I’ll have to go off and read something totally unrelated to world events and to my own writing. How about you?
A: I would say Covid gave me some writer’s block. What saved me from that was when a local theater group, the People’s Light, offered prompts for people to write about what they were experiencing. Later, the actors acted them out on Zoom. The prompts they suggested were things that I never in a million years would have thought to write about. I really liked that it got me writing again.
G: That was wonderful, and I’m so glad it helped with your writer’s block. What would you like to do differently in your writing life going forward? For me, I want to get back to taking morning walks and writing. I want to get more into the part of the story that matters. And to have a sense of urgency about it so it doesn’t take me another twenty-five years to finish it! How about you?
A: I want to be more productive than I am right now. When I start school in the fall, I’m going to look back and think, “Look at all these full days I had where I could have spent all this time writing and didn’t.” I have a tablet with sound effects. So, I’ll sit outside under my umbrella with my ice tea and my laptop with ocean waves playing in the background while I write. Boy oh boy, that’s fun! It got a little hot yesterday. I had some water and I doused my head and pretended I went swimming. [Laughter]
G: [Laughter] That’s cool. I used to go to Starbucks, especially when I was writing Green Midnight, I had earphones and I would play forest soundscape while I was writing. It put me in the mood.
A: Yeah. That’s cool. Anything that can get the creative juices flowing. Speaking of that, we better stop and get back to work! Happy writing!
G: Thanks for this chance to chat together, Aud! Happy writing to you, too!