Q&A with College Writing Students

A couple of weeks ago a longtime friend asked me to join her class of 19- and 20-year-old college students to talk about writing as a career. I joined virtually, via Skype, and had a good (if somewhat short) conversation.

In fact, it turned out to be an extension of some of the Career Day talks I’ve given at my sons’ elementary and middle schools, as well as with the Author Visit I gave at a local elementary school last year.

I thought it would be fun to post my answers here, but as I was starting to write them, my friends at Izzie’s Pond approached with a new proposal: would I team up with them to offer homeschool field trips to readers of Raccoon Rescue?

We’re still working out the details, but in the meantime, I’ve decided to offer more public appearances both in person and virtually, where possible given my day job schedule. If you’re interested in booking me, check out my page here; and in the meantime, consider this Q&A a guideline for what to expect:

What drove you to start writing?

The answer is the same across my first start as well as multiple restarts: writing is my way to process my world. I didn’t realize that until well into adulthood, but the drive to write has always (even when buried underneath absolute certainty that I had nothing left to say!) been a part of me. I’ve written both fiction and nonfiction to help me make sense of some of the things I experienced from the law enforcement world, from parenting, even from 9/11, and certainly the social upheaval we see today.

Do you lean towards writing about your own personal experiences or other scenarios?

I generally start with other scenarios from outside myself. It’s usually a “what if?” or a snippet of conversation that catches my ear. However, inevitably my own personal experiences find their way into my works, as I think they do for most authors.

What is your favorite genre of literature?

I gravitate toward dark fiction: realistic crime, horror, urban fantasy, or blended genres. I also enjoy creative nonfiction, which is difficult to do well. I think Erik Larson does it best, but classics like In Cold Blood or The Onion Field also stand out in my mind. In shorter-than-book-length format I’ve enjoyed The Atlantic’s “Best Pieces of Journalism” year-end roundups and have even found some inspiration or at least research in those pages.

What advice would you give to young writers?

Don’t ever let other people tell you you can’t make a living as a writer. I heard that quite a lot growing up, and I believed it, and yet my day job is content marketing — so I am, indeed, making a living as a writer.

Where does your imagination come from?

It almost always starts with a “What if?” question:

  • What if that field were dormant because something malignant is growing underneath it, poisoning the land
  • What if that hole is where some ancient beast lives, waiting for youthful blood?
  • What if the dried leaves scraping across the pavement were sentient and evil?
  • What if raccoons held the same misconceptions about humans, that we do about them?

Okay, so those questions trend dark. It’s just that I find the simplest and most real-world answers to be terribly boring.

What do you consider your best accomplishment?

Getting published, wherever I’ve been published. I’m always grateful when someone accepts or buys a story because it means what I’m saying resonates with someone else.

How do you choose which details are important to tell in a story?

This is a great question. I’m still working on this. I’m a believer in using certain words to set certain tones, but I struggle sometimes actually doing it because my brain gets bogged down in those kinds of details, and I start to focus on finishing rather than getting stuck in an endless loop of analysis paralysis.

How do you switch from murder stories to kids’ stories? Does it feel weird?

Not at all, because children’s fiction is an opportunity to tell lighter, simpler stories — and also because children’s worlds can be dark, too, and I like the opportunity to offer straightforward problem-solving without sugarcoating or making them feel like their issues aren’t important.

For example, I wrote Raccoon Rescue to put my raccoon characters in situations that are both realistic for wild animals, and relatable for readers (such as separation anxiety), that the raccoons overcome. Ultimately, isn’t that what dark fiction is also about?

What would you rather write about—a dark or light-hearted story?

I’m always going to trend dark, but again, lighthearted stories are a nice break for me and a chance to think differently about the world and people who take a lighter perspective.

What is your work schedule like when writing?

I try to get up as early as I can to work. Not only is it the quietest time of day in the house; it’s also the time I feel most creative. Because I work in marketing writing, a lot of that creative energy is gone by afternoon, when I’d rather do something else like walk or read.

Having said that, if I feel I need to sleep, I don’t push myself to wake up!

How many stories have you written?

Between the ones from 10 years ago and the ones I’ve completed in the last couple of years, probably in the neighborhood of several dozen. Not all are finished, but I count them because those ideas are now out in the world, even if they’re still in the process of forming.

Where do you find that you do your most productive work?

I can work just about anywhere as long as I can change up my scenery. I usually move between different rooms in my house, as well as outdoors, coffee shops, libraries… as long as the environment is quiet or white-noise, I can work.

I really enjoy these kinds of Q&As, because as much as possible I want to help normalize writing as a creative outlet. Much as I respect and enjoy storytelling through movies, videogames, and other media we may not even know of yet, every story starts with putting words on some kind of page.

Any other questions for me? Respond in a comment below!

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