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Stephanie Black - Author of Intrigue and Uplift
During the summer I had the delightful time of reading Stephanie Black's debut novel, The Believer. Normally I find it hard to settle into fiction; I’m usually too aware of the craft of fiction to enjoy the story. Surprisingly, that problem dissipated for me by about the third page into her book. I finished the book the very next day and had to get to know Stephanie better. I wanted to find out more about this talented LDS author. She was kind enough to oblige.
C.S.: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
STEPHANIE: I’m married to Brian and am the mother of three girls and two boys, ages 15 years down to 20 months. I’m a cheesecake and chocolate fan, a Sunbeam teacher and an amateur violinist. Born in Utah, I was raised in Washington, Arkansas and Utah. My husband and I continued the family tradition of moving (we really don’t like moving, but we somehow keep doing it!).
We spent several years in Arizona, moved east to Massachusetts, then moved even farther east to Limerick, Ireland. We now we live in northern California. If it weren't so darn expensive to live there, we'd love to stay forever.
C.S.: Ireland sounds so exotic! What a blessing that must have been. Now tell us about your background in writing. Have you taken many writing courses? Do you have a degree in Literature or in English? Do you feel any of this is necessary to write fiction people want to read?
STEPHANIE: I took a creative writing class when I was a senior in high school, so that was a few years—okay, a few more than a few years—ago. That's the only writing course I've taken, besides the usual English classes. I didn't study writing in college—my degree is in history and secondary education. But I've studied fiction technique on my own.
There are excellent books available that teach the craft of writing, and I've read tons of them. My personal favorites are two books by Jack M. Bickham: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them) and Scene and Structure. In fact, I regret that I never took the time to write Bickham and thank him (he's passed away) because I feel like I owe him such a debt for teaching me the underlying structure of fiction and giving me the tools to craft a strong story.
I don't think that a writer needs to be formally trained in the classroom, but I do think a writer benefits greatly from studying fiction technique. There are probably some brilliant writers out there who have such an intuitive grasp of fiction that they can create masterpieces without ever studying scene structure or dialogue, but I'm not one of them. I need all the help I can get!
C.S.: Prior to your book being accepted for publishing, had you been published elsewhere?
STEPHANIE: Nope. The Believer is my first published work.
C.S.: Well, that is something, given the surprises and intricacies you’ve woven throughout the plot. Did you map these out in advance?
STEPHANIE: The outlines of my books are quite general. I do need an outline so I know where the story is going, but I don't know the details of the scenes and all the intricacies, connections and subtleties until I actually write the book. I don't think it would be possible for me to map out every detail in advance. That's just not how my mind works.
My outlines tend to address the "what" of the plot, not the "how". Then when I'm writing a scene and pondering how to make something happen, sometimes a new twist or connection will occur to me. It's exciting when that happens—exciting to see plot threads intertwining into a richer, more coherent story. Needless to say, my first drafts are a mess!
C.S.: Speaking of plot twists and intertwined story lines, what gave you the spark of idea for The Believer?
STEPHANIE: It all began in my high school creative writing class, where I wrote the most boring stories imaginable. Grammar and spelling came easily to me, and because I could match my verb tenses and get my quotation marks in the right places, I thought I could write a good story just by tossing pretty words on the page. I hadn't yet figured out that a story needed . . . well . . . something happening.
It wasn’t until my last story for the class that I finally came up with an intriguing idea—involving a futuristic, repressive society. The teacher scribbled: “Interesting—don’t stop!” on the assignment. So I didn’t stop.
C.S.: Once you had the idea, how did you flesh it out?
STEPHANIE: Over the next several years, I played with that story idea, changing it, developing it, writing scenes here and there. After I graduated from BYU and was staying home with my first daughter, I started writing during her nap time. My first attempt at turning my ideas into a complete novel ended with a bad unfinished manuscript and the realization that there was a lot more to writing a novel than I’d ever understood.
I set aside my stalled manuscript and started studying fiction technique. I hammered out a new outline for the novel, taking many ideas from my first attempt, but altering them to build a stronger, more unified story. That second attempt at a novel became the first draft of The Believer.
C.S.: How long would you estimate it took you to arrive at that more cohesive first draft of The Believer?
STEPHANIE: Oh goodness . . . let's see. From that high school writing class that struck the first spark, through the years of playing with story ideas and scenes, to the completion of the first draft of a novel took me about . . . would you believe eight years? These ideas were a long time in the making, and Believer bears almost no resemblance to that original short story.
C.S.: What was your process from that point? And had you already allowed others to read the story yet?
STEPHANIE: When I finished the first draft, the work was just beginning. I was both writing a novel and learning how to write a novel, going through draft after draft of the manuscript and learning more and more about how to write a gripping story. Even though I went through countless rewrites, I didn't get tired of the story as long as I could still see ways to improve it. I didn't want to let the manuscript go until I was confident that it was ready.
I'm a shy writer. I've never belonged to a writing critique group. I can't even write an e-mail if someone is looking over my shoulder (unless the person is a child too young to read). If I'm working on a novel and someone walks past—even my husband!—and I think there is a even a miniscule chance that the passer-by might catch a glimpse of my computer screen, I'll hit the button to hide the open file or I'll tilt the lid of the computer down.
But feedback is absolutely vital to a writer, so I do seek it out at different points in the writing process. One of my sisters and my husband read the second draft of Believer; another sister read a later draft, my parents read the manuscript when I was getting close to the point of submitting it, and so on. It's so helpful to get a fresh look at the manuscript. Test readers can spot things I missed and help me see what's working and what isn't.
With my second manuscript, I reached a milestone. I got brave enough to send it to someone outside my family for feedback! For me, that's a big deal.
C.S.: How hard is it for you to write? In other words, do you ever hit writer's block? Did you hit it during writing this book? And if so, what did you do to deal with it?
STEPHANIE: I can't think of a specific instance of writer's block that I encountered with The Believer. When I hit snags in a story, I like to brainstorm my way through them by typing ideas into a "scratchpaper" file. I jot down ideas, list pros and cons of different options, and work my way through a problem. Occasionally when I step away from a project and am doing something else (like making dinner) an idea will come to me.
I'm not a fast writer. Words don't flow easily from my brain to my keyboard, and I can spend hours struggling with a couple of paragraphs. With my recent manuscript, I finally learned not to worry so much about writing well in the first draft, but to just get the scenes written and fix them later. That allowed me to pick up the pace of my writing considerably.
C.S.: A good writer references the five senses all throughout their story. You do this well in The Believer. Is this how you write naturally or did you flesh this out later?
STEPHANIE: Choosing sensory details is a matter of picturing the scene or character and searching for a vivid and fresh way to convey what's happening. Sometimes I'll hit on a good description in the first draft; other times it takes a lot of rewriting. I wrote some pretty awful lines as I worked at this skill—I remember once describing a character with a headache as feeling like "a bear was trying to fight its way out of his skull with an ice pick." I guess it didn't occur to me to wonder where a bear would get an ice pick, and are bears in the habit of using manmade tools?
C.S.: Good point! So what is your process of editing once the first draft is done?
STEPHANIE: I like to go back through the entire manuscript multiple times, from start to finish. There is a lot wrong with my first drafts—inconsistencies, wordiness, redundant scenes, and so on. When I reach a point where I want to check how the story flows, I'll print out a copy and read it through so I can judge pacing and transitions. I'll seek feedback from my test readers and fix problems they find.
When I think I've fixed all the problems, I still I need to go back through the manuscript for a final polish before I submit it. If the manuscript is accepted, the rewriting will begin again, as I act on feedback from editors and evaluators.
C.S.: You had a few fight scenes that amazed me in their sequence. I was surprised at their choreography. Did you research fights for your story, or did this also just come naturally?
STEPHANIE: I didn't specifically research fights. I just tried to picture what was happening and write the events in a sequence that was both clear and fast-moving.
C.S.: You’ve raised a good point: if the author can see it happening in their mind and write in specifics, it usually is clear to the reader. But here’s a question—the protagonist in your story is a man. How difficult was it for you to write from a male's point of view? Or did it come naturally?
STEPHANIE: I didn't find it difficult. I haven't yet had any complaints from male readers that I missed the mark on how a man thinks, so I hope the character is credible!
C.S.: In fact, what was your research like for this book since it is set somewhat futuristically?
STEPHANIE: When I was dealing with things that don't actually exist--for instance, the drug the police use in interrogations--what I needed was enough foundational knowledge to make a figment of my imagination sound credible, so even though it didn't exist, it sounded like it could exist.
My mother is a nurse, and she was my consultant for real-life medical details. I'd send her e-mails filled with strange, completely out-of-context medical questions. This was before she'd read the novel--she probably wondered what in the world kind of book her daughter was writing!
The internet is such a blessing to a writer. In the early days, I'd be at the library checking out books on the brain or terrorism or what have you. Now, so many answers are available with a quick round of Googling.
C.S.: Excellent points, Stephanie. Do you ever worry about accuracy as you're writing? If so, what percentage of accuracy do you feel is a good number to aim for as a fiction writer?
STEPHANIE: I think every writer worries about getting things right, and we should aim to be as accurate as possible. If a reader catches an error and thinks hey, that's not correct, it's going to jolt him or her right out of the story. Because my New America doesn't actually exist, that radically reduced the amount of research I had to do. I created the nation and the rules by which it operates, so I didn't have to worry that I'd trip up and claim that the governing council takes a recess in June when really it's in July, or that the police wouldn't have the authority to do this or that.
But I did need to make sure that what I created sounded credible, that I was internally consistent within my setting, and that the history of this separatist chunk of the United States made sense, given our world today. I'm pleased when readers tell me how believable the book felt. This society could be us, if we're not careful!
C.S.: This is true. So as you were creating your setting and society, how would you handle the scene if you knew what you wanted but weren’t quite sure how to fill in the details? For example, some writers will write in all caps, which indicates to them later "needs research." How do you handle this when you're writing about something you don't know or perhaps do not have experience in?
STEPHANIE: In the first draft, I'll fake it, knowing that I'll need to research this or that point later on. For me, this is a good system, because otherwise I could waste time researching X or Y, thinking I'll need it, but by the time I've reached the end of the book I realize I don't want X at all and Y has been radically modified. After the first draft, I'll have a much better idea of what I actually need to check. Of course, this approach wouldn't work for all novels. Depending on the subject of the book, I might need to do research up front or I wouldn't even know where to begin.
Next time: In Part Two, Stephanie talks more about THE BELIEVER. She also speaks about her new work-in-progress and the creative process in general. (To learn more about THE BELIEVER, click here.)
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