Welcome to week eight of the Process Project!! If you don’t know about us already, please visit The Process Project page to find out more about this project, and read interviews with other authors.
This week I am really excited to share an interview with one of my fellow classmates. We met virtually through the Johns Hopkins MA program, as he was taking classes remotely from across the country. I’ve had a chance to read some of his work and also receive feedback on my own novel from him. He’s a terrific writer, and I’m so excited to share this interview with you!
Meet Justin Sloan!!
Justin was in the Marines for five years and has lived in Japan, Korea, and Italy. He currently lives with his amazing wife and children in the Bay Area, where he writes and enjoys life.
And now...on to the questions!!
JB: What is/are your main genre/field of writing?
JS: Many of the panelists at writing conferences and speakers on podcasts and whatnot recommend we find our niche, or focus on a genre of writing so as to meet our readers’ expectations or give our agents a way to sell us. To this end, you could say I write middle grade and young adult coming of age fantasy (urban and epic). My novels on Amazon certainly match this (Back by Sunrise, Teddy Bears in Monsterland, and Falls of Redemption), as does my novel that will be published in the next couple of months, Allie Strom and the Ring of Solomon (a MG urban fantasy).
That said, I would argue that we are artists and therefore should not limit ourselves. If you are angry one morning, work on that thriller or epic sword fight in your fantasy story instead of the cute children’s book you have been focusing on. Are you feeling fancy? Put your mind to work on a literary novel. I have written one literary novel and have outlined a second, and find it to be a rewarding experience that uses a different part of my brain than my typical stories. My short stories are all over the place, and my screenplays tend to be half in the fantasy realm and half in the comedy genre. Luckily, Telltale Games seem to fit right into my genre, as we are doing a Minecraft game, Game of Thrones, and Tales from the Borderlands.
JB: What is your writing routine? Do you have any writing rituals?
JS: Making sure to write every day is important, as is trying to have a routine. I am a morning writer, or was until we had our second child. At that point, any hope of a routine sunk down the drain. Now I write whenever both children are sleeping, or try to take lunch breaks where I write at a picnic table by a lake or while eating at Chipotle.
If life allowed it, I would wake up at 5:00 am, make my coffee, and write for two to three hours before waking up my children and taking them to school. One day I hope to be back in this routine. As for the routines I am able to follow, I love listening to music soundtracks while I write, and tend to use Pandora or Songza for this. I also, of course, need coffee. And a bit of pumpkin pie or chocolate always helps.
Rituals and routines for writing are indeed important, and we should all try to establish writing routines, but part of being a professional is that we make the time and we write. For others out there who feel life is too chaotic to write, you have to force yourself or it will never get done. In the amount of time that you spend making excuses, you could have written a novel!
JB: When you are preparing to write a new story, what kinds of techniques or methods do you use to organize your ideas?
JS: When I am preparing to write a new story, I always turn to my trusty Evernote. I can type into it, or on my Samsung Note I can handwrite into it. Evernote is accessible from any mobile device or computer, so I never have to go looking for my notes or make sure a device is handy. I can be walking down the street, have an idea, and put it in there with my phone.
Often what I’ll do in the early idea stage is organize the ideas in folders based on whether I think they would make a better short story, novel, or screenplay. Sometimes they work as all three (starting as a short story, evolving into a novel, and then being adapted to a screenplay). When a story may be better as a novel is when it is more internal, or where I really want to tell the story but it fails to meet some of what Hollywood readers often look for. For example, I have a story of a man trying to escape the pain of a rebuffed love, only to have her follow him to Japan and reveal that the reason she rebuffed him was her terminal illness that he didn’t know about. This could be a great film, but for me it works better as a novel (at least for now, until I wrap my head around how it would play out cinematically). A lot of that story is internal to the protagonist, and the story does not have a strong antagonist in the traditional sense. That said, if someone wants to buy the movie rights to the story, please contact me and I would be happy to talk about it.
JB: While you are working on a piece, do you have any particular way that you structure your work?
JS: After tracking my ideas in Evernote, my next step is generally to take what I have and think about it for a bit, then start the MS Word version. This is where I start with a one sentence version of the story, break it down into three sentences of what the story could be (one for each of the three acts of a story, whether it’s a novel, screenplay, or game idea), and continue to expand on this.
When I reach a page or so of this expanded outline, I like to break it up into a beat sheet. This means I put my main story points in bullet point format, under the appropriate act, and often organize it as best I can to meet whatever story structure seems the most appropriate that day (The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, lays out a wonderful structure based on Joseph Campbell’s work. Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, is very similar, and I have also enjoyed Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach by Paul Guilino).
At some point in there I start outlining my characters as well. I do this when the inspiration hits, and try to at least have the main characters figured out before I get too into the details of the beat sheet, as a lot of the story can and should depend on who the characters are. Sometimes a story will even start with the character, with the beat sheet built around them.
At a certain point I just have to start writing, and then it’s anything goes. If my outline doesn’t work for the story that’s developing in front of me, outline be damned (though I try to work my way back to it from time-to-time, so I’m not left standing alone in a big field wondering what happened and where to go next).
I find this to be the easiest way to keep track of my ideas and watch them bloom into stories on the page.
JB: When it's time to revise/edit your work, do you have any particular methods that you use to help you through the process?
JS: Revising is a beast. I have struggled with revision over the years, but luckily was able to learn from Professor Mark Farrington at the Johns Hopkins program about some wonderful revision techniques. I love the idea of going back and overwriting certain scenes, especially the ones that call for more internal thoughts and nostalgic moments. I tend to write simply, and not get too bogged down in the details, so an early pass involves this overwriting, filling in the details of the world and the characters thoughts. I look for moments or items that can trigger a memory of the character’s past, memories that are relevant to the story being told. After doing this, which is usually in the morning for me, I look at it again that night and cut whatever feels unnecessary.
When the entire chapter is done, I go back through and look at voice, character consistency, and read the dialog (aloud, if possible) to make sure it flows. However, one thing that has helped me recently is Elance.com. Somewhere around this revision stage I hire an editor to go through and do a high level edit for me, because otherwise I could spend years going over and over my work. The editor finds things that I can’t find because I am too close to my work. Then I edit accordingly before reading back through my work on another device (usually my Samsung Note 3 while riding an exercise bike). This is followed by another edit by me, then sent to another editor for a final check to make sure spelling and grammar weren’t messed up in my earlier revision steps.
I am sure the other authors reading this agree that editing is a laborious process, but the results can be amazing.
JB: And most importantly: why do you write?
JS: I will back up here and go to why I started writing. After finishing the books in The Song of Ice and Fire series, by George RR Martin, I found myself wanting more amazing books to read but didn’t know where to look. So, on a stormy day in Washington, D.C., I sat down to create my own. I knew what sort of stories I wanted to read, and figured I should write them because there are likely others in the world that would also like to read them.
While at first I thought I would finish a novel by the age of fifty, I had over 100,000 words completed in about six months. From that moment on, I was obsessed. The world building and character creation pulled me into this process that now takes up most of my free time.
But what really keeps me writing? I think it has to do with understanding characters. As we get older, we realize more and more how different everyone is around us. I mean, can you believe there are people who don’t think The Princess Bride is an amazing movie? It’s true! Okay, that is an odd example, but the fact remains that we are so different from everyone around us, and I want to explore that through my writing. I want to get into characters’ heads and find out what makes them tick, or see how they would act in a certain circumstance. As an additional reason that relates to why I started, I want to inspire people in the way George RR Martin’s work inspired me, and maybe one day serve as the stepping stone for some other writer to get their start.
JB: Is there any advice you can give to writers struggling to get the words flowing?
JS: If you are stuck or trying to figure out where to get started, my advice would be to just start typing. Don’t worry about whether it’s good, or even if it relates, but put your fingers to the keyboard and go. Often we just need this little push to get the brain working, and soon you may see your amazing prose finding its way to the page (of course you may wake up the next day and realize it was horrible, but that’s okay, because it’s very true that writing is rewriting).
Other common techniques that I have found useful include taking a walk, a nap, or a shower. Ideas hit us at random times, and often when we aren’t trying to come up with them. Maybe watch a movie that you love, or re-read a book that has inspired you in the past. I often find that I will come up with ideas while reading books on how to write, such as the ones on structure mentioned above.
Maybe you’ll realize that you simply are not in the mood for the story you have in front of you, and instead you should work on a poem or a short story. That is okay. I give you permission. Whatever it takes, remember that you should write as often as possible to keep the writing muscles strong, and the muse fed. Good luck!
I want to extend my gratitude to Justin for taking his time to share his thoughts on writing and process. He offers some terrific insight to his process, and suggestions and ideas other writers can learn from. Want to read more of Justin’s work? Check him out on the web in these fine places!
Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads | Pinterest
JustinMSloan.com | www.CreativeWritingCareer.com
Justin Sloan Amazon Author Profile