Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Author Interview: Stephanie Black

LDS Suspense author Stephanie Black is my guest today. Her new novel, Fool Me Twice, has just been released by Covenant Communications, Inc.

Welcome, Stephanie! What made you start writing?

I've always loved a good story. My mother reports that even when I was very small, I would sit and turn pages in books. When I got a little older, my love for stories extended not only to reading, but to playing long Barbie games filled with intrigue and danger and strange goings-on. I loved Barbies--it was my favorite game. I think it's only natural that my love for creating stories in Barbie games would develop into a love for creating stories in print!

What a creative use for Barbie! How long have you been writing? When did you sell your first book?

When I was a kid, my sister and I wrote a couple of plays for ourselves and younger siblings. When I was a senior in high school, I took a creative writing class. My stories were incredibly dull. I was good with spelling and grammar and could construct a decent sentence, so somehow I thought that was enough. I hadn't figured out that my stories needed plot, conflict--all those things that I enjoyed in the books I read. For my last story in the class, I finally came up with a fun idea. The teacher gave me an A--hooray!--and wrote, "Interesting--don't stop!" on my story. I didn't stop. I played with that story for years, expanding it, writing random scenes, just generally having fun with it. After I graduated from college and my first daughter was born, I started using her nap time as writing time. Eventually, I decided to try to take the ideas I'd been working with and form them into a novel, start-to-finish. I got a couple hundred pages into the first draft before I figured out that the novel was going off in three different directions. There was a lot more to writing fiction than I'd realized.

I started reading books on fiction technique. The first one I read--and this is still one of my favorites--was The 38 Worst Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them), by Jack M. Bickham. That book opened my eyes. I scrapped my first attempt at a novel and recycled many of the story ideas, altering them to create a stronger, more focused plotline. Five hundred pages later, I had the complete first draft of a novel. I spent years working on that manuscript, rewriting it over and over, reading more technique books, gradually learning how to shape my story into a salable novel. That book, The Believer, was published by Covenant Communications in 2005.

What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?

I'm a combination of both. I need to have a general idea of where the story is going, or I'll just be stuck. But my outlines are very broad. I won't know exactly how the book will unfold until I write it, and new ideas and connections and plot ideas will come to me while I'm writing. I keep a brainstorming file where I can type my way through roadblocks in the story.

With my first book, I spent ages on every scene, polishing as I went. Consequently, it took me a very long time to write anything--and sometimes I'd go back and cut out big chunks of text that I'd spent ages perfecting. I've learned now that it works better for me if I just throw down a sloppy first draft without worrying about making it good. Then once that draft is written, I'll have a much better idea of what the story needs and what it doesn't, so I won't waste endless amounts of time polishing scenes that are destined to be cut. My first drafts are now incredibly messy and inconsistent. When I change my mind about plot issues, I usually don't go back and fix them--I just press onward, leaving the inconsistencies, knowing I'll fix them later. I might make a note for myself, but if I keep going back to fix things before I reach "The End," it'll take me forever to finish my draft.

How do you choose your characters' names?

I have a couple of favorite websites that help me. The Social Security website for baby names is a fantastic resource for choosing first names. It lists the most popular names by decade, so if I need a name for a sixty-year-old man, I can see what names were popular sixty years ago.

For my protagonists, I choose names that I like and that seem to fit the character. I try to be careful not to have names that are too visually similar to each other (like Sarah and Sheila) so readers won't get confused (in early drafts of Fool Me Twice, I violated that rule and named the twins Kira and Kristen, but sure enough, my test readers found it confusing. Kira became Megan).

I have the worst trouble with villain names because I'm always thinking things like, "I can't name the villain Katherine--I have a niece named Katherine!" I can be somewhat neurotic about this, and it can get kind of ridiculous, especially with minor characters. I should just pick a name and get on with it!

For villains, I use the names of people who send me spam email. What is your daily schedule like?

Writing time usually comes either in the afternoons while my youngest child is napping and the older kids are at school, or in the evenings after the decks are relatively clear.

How do you handle life interruptions?

I have five children, so life isn't boring. I suppose how much chaos I can handle when I'm writing depends partly on where I am in a project. Drafting is the hardest thing for me, requiring the most concentration. If I'm doing light editing or proofing, I can do that in small snatches at various times throughout the day, but if I'm struggling with a story and need to work my way through it, I probably won't even attempt to work on it until I have some (relatively) uninterrupted time. Of course, that's probably just my way of procrastinating--if I'm struggling with a story, it's easy to say oh, I'll wait and work on it later, whereas if I'm excited about the story and it's going well and the adrenaline is flowing, I'm going to be much more willing to work on it, no matter what else is going on in the house!

Do you write to music? If so, with lyrics or only instrumentals?

I don't usually write to music. The only time I might turn on music when I'm writing is if I'm doing very light editing that doesn't require much brainpower. And I've been known to play songs to try to amuse my preschooler so I can snatch some more time at the keyboard.

What food or snack keeps the words flowing?

Anything chocolate . . . or filled with sugar . . . or . . . well, actually, snacks are a lot less likely to keep the words flowing than to stall them. If I get up during writing time and go root through the pantry in search of goodies--especially if I do so repeatedly--that probably means I'm not as focused as I ought to be. Hunting for a snack is a good way to stall (so is checking my favorite blogs and--my personal favorite--reading e-mail!).

What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?

I love rewriting. I know some authors hate it, but I love it. I love working with an already-written manuscript and watching it grow more polished, deeper, richer--just all-around better. Since my first drafts are so sloppy and inconsistent, I expect to do a lot of rewriting. I'll do at least two complete drafts before I even think about letting anyone give me feedback on a manuscript (if my test readers tried to read one of my first drafts, their brains would melt). After I get feedback and revise accordingly, I'll do a few more drafts before I'm ready to submit the manuscript.

One thing I dislike is struggling to find a story, which is what's been plaguing me on my current work-in-progress. I've had a heck of a time creating this plot, and even though I'm nearing the end of the first draft, I still haven't wrapped my mind around the whole plot. Among other problems, there's some crucial backstory that I haven't figured out how to weave into the current action of the story. I know I'll get it worked out, but this draft has not come easily. I can't wait until it's finished, so I can (you guessed it!) start rewriting.

What is your next project?

My work-in-progress is another contemporary suspense novel aimed at the LDS market.

What is your advice for other writers?

Write. Don't be afraid to plunge in. Your words don't have to be perfect the first time you write them down. Don't edit yourself into oblivion on the first draft. Write and rewrite, get outside feedback, and rewrite again until your work is as good as you can make it.

Study technique. There are a multitude of excellent technique books available. Along with the book I mentioned above, Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure is one that I highly recommend.

Learn the market. I was just reading in literary agent Nathan Bransford's blog about how many calls he gets from people who want an agent but don't have the first clue how to go about getting one (if they did know, they wouldn't be wasting his time by calling--they'd be sending a query letter). Understanding how the market works can not only help keep you from wasting time (yours and agents'/publishers') but can help give you a realistic view of what to expect. If you think that only bad books get rejected and that if your work is good, it will definitely get snatched up by a publisher the first time you submit it and you'll instantly be rich and famous--you might be in for a reality check! There is a ton of information available both in books and online, and the more you know, the more successfully you'll be able to operate in the publishing world.

Tell us about your new book.

Fool Me Twice is a contemporary suspense novel that centers around Megan O'Connor, a young woman whose difficulty in standing up for herself when it means disappointing others has stalled her dreams and trapped her in an increasingly frustrating life situation. When her estranged twin sister shows up and proposes a plan that will get Megan the money she needs to break free, she decides to go for it. She's edgy about the plan--a scheme to coax an inheritance out of a sickly great aunt--but convinces herself that they aren't hurting anyone. Soon, Megan's decision lands her smack in the middle of a web of danger, deceit and revenge.

What other work of yours has been published?

As mentioned above, my first novel was The Believer, published by Covenant in 2005. Believer is a semi-futuristic thriller--sort of a George Orwell-meets-the-Book-of-Mormon type of story. Pretty intense. I'd love to publish a sequel to The Believer someday.

Thanks for being my guest today, Stephanie.

My pleasure.


  1. Sounds really good. I love the cover too!

  2. Great interview Marsha! The books is fabulous!! It was also great to see you this weekend in Utah!


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