Notecards on the wall

Organizing information

In a letter to Orion Clemens, in March of 1878, Mark Twain once wrote:

You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.

On the heels of the fifteenth annual NaNoWriMo, the world’s largest writing event, nearly 500,000 writers across the country are now starting at a brand-new manuscript after pumping out 50,000 words in just thirty days. Almost certainly, many of them are now asking themselves: Now what? And for every 500,000 writers, there are, no doubt, an equal number of answers to the question.

Every writer has their own writing process. Whether that means busting out the notecards to lay out the plotlines or making sure there are fourteen bags of M&M’s on hand at all time, there are just some things that a writer relies on to make it through a manuscript.

Upcoming Ooligan author Karelia Stetz-Waters is no exception. Recently, I got the opportunity to ask Karelia all about her writing process and how she brings her stories to life.

What does your writing process look like?
I start with a rough idea for a story. Then I outline the story using index cards, one card per scene. This allows me to move the scenes around as needed.  Once I have a fairly good idea of how the story will progress, I will tape the index cards to the walls of my office so I can see the whole story at one glance. Then I write one draft by hand in composition notebooks. I then type it and revise it. After that, I let it sit for three to four months. Then I come back to it and revise it again.

Some of Karelia Stetz-Waters' notebooks

Some of Karelia Stetz-Waters’ notebooks

Where do you get your ideas for your other books?
When I am writing a thriller (I have one published and two in the works), I look for something that pushes the boundaries of what we expect in the genre.  The thriller genre is full of violence, drugs, murder, shootings, even perversion, so in The Admirer I created a character who willingly volunteers to let the serial killer amputate her legs. She suffers from a disorder called Body Integrity Identity Disorder (it really exists!) that causes the individual to desire the amputation of their own limbs.   I started with this unlikely victim and built the story around her.  The sequel deals with conjoined twins.  The next thriller (very much a work in progress) deals with the infestation of pythons in the Everglades. My friends say I have a dark side. I guess that’s true. I’m always looking for the next creepy or unusual theme.

However, my writing is not exclusively dark. I have also written a romance novel which is currently represented by Dystel and Goderich Literary Management. That story is very sweet and charming. The inspiration for that story was born of my love for Portland, Oregon because the romance between the two protagonists is intrinsically tied to the city where they meet.

Do you talk about what you’re working on with anyone throughout the process or do you keep it a secret?
I talk to my wife and to my friends at work.  I am lucky to know a lot of writers, so I always have someone to bounce ideas off of.

How did the idea for Forgive Me If I’ve Told You This Before originate?
I lived through Ballot Measure 9 and I wanted to write a story about Ballot Measure 9 (an anti-gay ballot measure launched by the Oregon Citizens Alliance in the early ’90s).  I wanted to show how these kinds of discriminatory ballot measures affect young LBGTQ adults. I wanted to focus on the human experience as it coincides with the political experience.  I also wanted to celebrate all the things that were good about that time.  While the politics were difficult, it was still a magical time to grow up.

How long have you been working on this novel?
I started working on Forgive Me in 1996 when I was 20.  It’s gone through a lot of permutations and none of that original draft remains in the finished work, but it has been a long time in the making.

What type of research did you do for your book?
Having come out (by attending the junior prom in drag) during the violent political debate surrounding Oregon’s famous anti-gay Ballot Measure 9, I figured I was well qualified to talk about growing up gay in Oregon.  At the time, I even knew a prominent figure in the Oregon Citizens Alliance, the political powerhouse behind Ballot Measure 9 and other anti-gay legislation.  Later I spoke to other people who lived through Ballot Measure 9 and watched the excellent documentary on the subject.

How do you deal with writers’ block?
I believe it was Mary Oliver who said that “writing is like a date: nothing happens if you don’t show up.” I believe the best way to overcome writers’ block is simply to keep working.  Having a tried-and-true process helps with this. I may not know what I want to write, but I always know how I write.

Have you ever felt, midway through a book, that you didn’t have any more ideas and you wouldn’t be able to finish writing it? How do you cope with that?
Outlining has helped me avoid this situation. I know, before I start, exactly where the book is going.  The plot certainly develops and changes as I work, but the skeleton is set in place at the very beginning.

How do you feel about your books after you’re done writing them? What’s it like to see them published?
I dreamed of being published my whole life, so the first time I saw one of my books in print it was a real thrill. My wife threw a party for the launch of my first book, and I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  The party was in a beautiful event space in a building overlooking my home town. My parents were there. My friends were there. I felt incredibly blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life.

With that said, once I finish a book, I almost immediately forget about the plot and the characters, and I start working on the next one.  I remember thinking, “If I can just publish one book, I’ll never want anything else ever again,” but as soon as it was published, I started thinking, “I’ve got to write the sequel.”

Do you have any advice about the writing process for aspiring authors?
I love to talk to aspiring writers, and I’m full of advice—probably too full!  However, I think the best piece of advice I could offer new writers is to start with an audience and genre in mind.  Find a journal and write a short story for that journal. Pick a small press and write a novel for their target audience. Choose a genre, study it, and write a novel just like the top ten favorites in that genre.  This is really good practice, and it makes publication easier.

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