Giving characters free will, instead of outlining them in detail before writing begins, allows the story to flow naturally and allows the characters to become more real and more interesting than they could be if they had to act within a rigid profile created in advance of the actual writing process.
— Dean Koontz
Obviously The Tension of Opposites (website) by Kristina McBride (blog) has impacted my reading and writing life. For our regular readers, you know it is not often that I keep coming back to a single book in blog posts. However, when the chance to interview Kristina bubbled to the surface, I almost fell off my chair. Through using her book as a mentor text, I had many questions tumbling around for the former high school English teacher and yearbook advisor. I know interviews are text-dense, so I emphasized some of the things which stick out to me and help me be a better teacher of writers.
Q: What do you know about writing now that you wish you would have known as a classroom teacher?
A: I am not even sure where to begin here! When I was teaching novels, I focused on all the details about plot and character, trying to pull my students into the story and help them feel the magic that books have always brought me. As an author, I now realize every detail that goes into the publication process. It’s like two totally different things. Writing a book is messy and frustrating, and while the process holds a lot of its own kind of magic, it’s nothing like sitting down with a finished product in your hands, all dolled up and ready for show. I have said to my husband so many times that I wish I could pick up The Tension of Opposites and read it for the first time. Just once. But that experience will never happen, because no matter how many years I take away from the book, I’ll always remember the little changes I made to each sentence, the chapters I sliced out of the text, and the characters that I either added or omitted.
To answer your question, finally, I suppose I wish I had been able to share this experience with my students, the pull-your-hair-out, scream-as-loud-as-you-can kind of frustration that ALL authors face at some point during the creation of a book. Nothing ever makes it to the page in one perfect sweep of imagination. Writing takes work. Lots of hard work. And reading that finished product, holding it in your hands, is one of the most incredible feelings in the entire world. My appreciation for this has grown enormously as I’ve moved through my publication process.
Q: How do your characters come alive?
A: First, they simply appear. It might be a song, or a car that passes by while I’m driving on the highway, but the characters just pop into my head and start speaking like they know me. I’m aware that this makes me sound a little loopy, but I’ll own that with pride. After we have our initial meeting, if I feel the story is worth delving into, I’ll do some character study work. This can take the form of a Q&A much like we’re having right now, spring fresh from a journal entry where a character starts speaking to or through me, or be more of a slow process of discovery where the character will nod at things that happen in my daily life to get a point across. It’s only after I dive into the book that my characters truly come alive, though. Through writing scenes where I see the characters interact with and speak to one another, I learn all the details of their personalities – their dreams, fears, passions, and all the rest of the stuff that makes them tick.
Q: How do you keep track of your scenes as your plot evolves?
A: Everyone who knows me knows that I have issues. Like, major issues. It’s essential to me that everything in my life feel orderly and in place. This stems from being a slightly obsessive control-freak. Which is not the best thing for an author, because I am often the last person in control of what my characters say and do. But I try. How? One word: Outlining.
Since writing my first manuscript in 2006, I have gone from a complete fly-by-the-seat-of-my pants kind of writer to a hardcore outliner. I now spend weeks plotting out a book as I work on the first chapter or two and meet the characters. I start with a stack of blank note cards, one per chapter, taking notes on the major scenes that are in my mind from the beginning. I then try to think of scenes that will connect those big-bang chapters, asking myself what will need to happen to get from the story’s point A to point B, and so on. I try to solidify my points of suspense throughout the outlining process so I can be sure my readers will have something that pulls them through the story. I keep these note cards with me at all times, adding bits of dialogue or setting information when inspiration strikes. You’ll often find me scribbling on them after a shower or at a red light. These note cards are messy and crazy looking, but they make all kinds of sense to me. The great thing about these note cards is that I can painlessly reorder them, pull chapters out, or add new ones in whenever needed. And, as I get into the meat of a story, changes are always needed. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend outlining, there is always an element of discovery and surprise as I write each manuscript.
Q: On your blog, you’ve shared how different your book is now than it was at the beginning. I imagine the revision process was grueling. This is true for students as well. What is your best advice for young writers when it comes to revision?
A: Throw your fear out the door. Right. Now. I know how scary it can be to delete an entire chapter, scene, or even a cool line, but sometimes it has to be done. Trust yourself, and know that in the end the piece will be stronger. But, just in case it’s not, have a bank of “deleted scenes” so you can easily go back and retrieve something if you need to stick it back in. If you need something to make you feel better as you hit that “Delete” button, just think of what I did during my revision process. Six months in, after I realized that the book was not yet pulling together, I deleted all but five chapters of my manuscript. I’m talking about roughly 200 pages, gone in an instant. It was scary, but freeing at the same time. I pulled out my note cards for the first time, got to plotting, and five months later had three publishing houses bidding against one another for my book.
Interjection: Woah! Can you imagine?
Q: What are your writing habits?
A. I write whenever I can scrounge up time, wherever I can scrounge up a space to sit. I’m a mother of two young children, so there isn’t much down time in my life. Luckily, my children still nap well, so I get a block of time every afternoon. I work best in the morning, though, when my mind is fresh from sleep with nothing from the outside world yet interfering. I am typically good for about 25 pages a week (most authors would probably answer this with a word count – for some reason my brain can’t flip into that mode). Music plays a big part in inspiring me for character development (I usually choose a theme song for my main characters), but I never ever listen to music while I write. Unless, of course, I’m trying to fit in thirty minutes while the kids are watching Dora. My preferred background noise is a fan, which helps to drown out the sounds of my wonderfully crazy home.
Q: What is different about writing book two?
A. So very much! I have an agent now, the wonderfully talented Alyssa Eisner Henkin, who is the perfect sounding board. Alyssa reads my books in installments when I reach a new stage, and offers me stellar feedback. Often, she can ask one question and spin me in new and wonderful directions. Just this past week, she commented on my latest installment asking how I could amp up the suspense and tension from chapters 3-6. The next day, I had an epiphany, and I can’t believe I had been writing this book without the new development included.
Confidence is another thing I have gained. Now that I have completed one book and seen it through to publication, I know I can do it again. When I’m struggling to get a scene right, the simple fact of having reached that goal gives me that needed realization that I can do this.
I also have an editor, a publishing house, and a contract for book two. This makes things different, because I have an actual deadline for the book, but it works as a nice motivator.
I also have tons of support from the people who are reading my book and sending me feedback. Hearing from people who have been touched by my first book helps me more than I can say. It makes it all real, somehow, and that part is so nice!
“Tense! The constant push and pull of friendship, pain, love, and jealousy is beautifully drawn. A definite must read.”
– Jay Asher – Author of the New York Times Bestseller 13 Reasons Why
Just in case you haven’t watched the trailer, here it is again.
Unhurried. Finding the magic in the middle of living. Capturing a life of ridiculous grace + raw stories.