Saturday, December 10, 2011

NaNoWriMo Wrap-up: Interview with Jason Black

This is the third of four interviews we conducted with 2011 NaNoWriMo winners:

Hey Jason, if you would, tell us a little bit about yourself:

I'm an ex-techie guy who has fled the software industry for a life of fiction, which happened when I discovered that writing novels was a heck of a lot more fun than writing software documentation. These days, I spend most of my time as a "book doctor," a freelance editor who does literary analysis for a living. Basically, I do for independent and aspiring authors what a good agent or publishing house editor does for authors under contract: help them bring the core of their story into its truest possible form.

What’s your idea of great literary fiction?

I can't answer that without first talking about what fiction itself is. To me, the purpose and function of fiction is to poke with words at the readers brain, in such a way as to encourage the reader to imagine same story that the author imagined. Every writing technique I know or have ever heard of, every little rule of thumb we writers whisper among our tribe, every single one of them is founded in this. Those techniques are simply ways the tribe of writers has discovered generally work better to evoke the reader's imagination. To me, then, great literary fiction is simply writing which does this best.

Why do/did you choose that “genre?”

But literary isn't a genre. That's a misconception. Anything can be literary, if it is written well enough. The best writers, the ones we put the "literary" label on, have simply developed their craft to its zenith. Reading such writers is like visiting a skilled masseuse. You lie prone on her table. She works at your musculature with such skill that she fades away, her very hands fade away, until you lose yourself in the sensation she creates within you.

Other writers punch you in the back.

What, if anything, have you written prior to this?

I have six prior National Novel Writing Month manuscripts to my name. Over these seven NaNoWriMos now, I've tried a lot of everything. High fantasy, historical adventure, western, sci-fi/horror, mainstream, and urban noir. I've written manuscripts aimed at middle-grade readers, young adults, and adults.

One of my books, _Bread for the Pharaoh_, a middle-grade adventure set in Ancient Egypt, is available on Amazon under my pen-name, Jerome Asher.

Do you see yourself influenced by any particular author or authors?

I think I'm influenced by every writer I read. Part of that has to do with my role as a book doctor; when I read, now, I can't help but pay attention to the craft of what I'm reading as well as the story. I'm always looking at what the writer has done with the words to see how that contributes to my feelings about the story at any given time. I learn a lot that way.

When a book punches me in the back, I stop to figure out what the author screwed up, and remind myself not to do that. When a book surprises me with a great twist or unexpected revelation, I stop to figure out what the author did to set up that wonderful moment of surprise. When Stephen King says that if you don't read, you don't have either the time or the tools to write, this is what he means.

All the lessons from what you read, both good and bad, inform who you are as a writer. Some folks do that by osmosis. I take a more consciously aware approach to it. Do what works for you.

Why did you decide to take part in NaNoWriMo this year?

I do it every year. That first NaNoWriMo, when an office-mate conned me into giving it a try, was a truly life-changing, revelatory experience. I had no idea I could write long-form fiction, much less that anybody would enjoy reading it (in that case, the few people who read along with the book as I posted it, day by day, to my blog). But I could, and they did, and it was such a wildly exciting, joyous, liberating, creative experience that I knew it wouldn't be the last time. How could I let that go? I've done it every year since, and it's no exaggeration to say that NaNoWriMo is what put me on the path towards leaving the soulless world of software documentation for something I truly enjoy and value doing with my life.

How did it go?

It went great! I finished on November 29th, with 51,000 words and change. What was different for me this year versus earlier years, is that I actually finished the story during November, too. My fastest time to 50,000 words was that very first NaNoWriMo, when I hit 50k on the 18th of the month. Some years, 50k has come late in the evening on the 30th. But never, before this year, have I actually reached the point of typing "the end" before December 6th.

Any advice or warnings for people who may want to jump in next year?

More than I can fit in a short paragraph. :) But if I can say just one thing, it would be to plan, plan, plan. November is NaNoWriMo; September and October are NaNoPlanMos. The only reason I can get through a novel in a month (or a month plus a few days), is because I've worked out the story ahead of time. I know what has to happen for the plot to go from where it starts to the finish I have in mind, before November 1st. Without that, somewhere in month I'd hit a blank spot where I wouldn't know what comes next. There's a name for that: writer's block. I live in terror of writer's block. I hate that feeling. So Iprevent even the possibility of it by working out the story's twists and turns ahead of time. Then in November, I can just write.

So, you “won” NaNoWriMo, because you met the specified threshold and hammered out over 50,000 words during the month. But most novels run in the range of 90,000 words or so. Do you feel you truly finished your novel and brought the story to a close?

I did. There is always revision and editing, of course, which I will do over the coming 9 months with the help of the people in my critique group. But yes, because of my planning process, I have a solidly first-draft manuscript. It shouldn't have any significant plot holes or other deep-structure issues that would require me to re-write whole chunks of it. That's another reason to pre-plan: who has time for re-writing chunks, or even the entirety of, a novel? I know I have a lot of cleanup to do on the prose, but that's a much better task to face than realizing the story has some gaping flaw in its plot which renders the whole thing non-workable.

Tell us a little bit about the book, “jacket-copy style”:

Sure. This year's novel is a middle-grade Western: 10 year old Maria Browning never asked to move from her home in Chicago to the unpopulated prairies of the Nebraska Territory. But in the spring of 1863, that's just where she finds herself: working hard to eke out a life with her family on the 160 acres Uncle Sam has promised to give them, should they last the requisite five years. Maria finds her only friend in the form of a wild horse she names Pebblehoof, part of a herd that roams the wedge of land west of the startup town of Columbus. Her parents wouldn't like it, if they knew.

But the government wants something else, too. Uncle Sam wants a Trans-Continental Railroad to link up the growing nation's eastern and western shores. The Union Pacific Railroad country wants their man Silas Seymour to build the stretch of track running west from Columbus. And Silas Seymour wants his railroad line to go smack through the middle of the Browning family's

She may never have wanted to come to Nebraska, but as spring turns to summer and the family's situation becomes dire, Maria comes to love the wild prairie and discovers she'd give anything to avoid trading her life under the open sky for confinement in Chicago's noisy factories. Can Maria and Pebblehoof save the family's home from the railroad barons who would drive them from their

What are your plans for the novel now (stick it in a drawer? on-going editing? submitting to agents? self-publishing? etc.?)

I lean towards independently publishing this one. I wrote it as a gift for my niece, who is presently seven and is absolutely bonkers for all things equine. It will be her birthday present in January, 2013, so I have just over a year to get it polished up, find someone to help me with a sharp-looking book cover, hire a book designer to make the insides look as sharp as the outside, and then get the thing up on Amazon.

Would you do it again? Why or why not?

Absolutely. The thing about writing novels is that once you get the skill of telling a good premise from a lousy one, you start to see ideas for interesting stories all over the place. I keep a file of them, one that grows longer much faster than I can write the stories. These ideas percolate around in my brain, and every so often I'll get an idea for a great scene in one of those stories, or an awesome plot twist, or what have you. Why would I do it again? It's too much fun not to, and at the end of it I have something I can be proud of and share with the world.

Where, if anywhere, can people go to learn more about you and your writing?

You can find me online at You'll find my book doctor information on it as well as my blog, which is all about hands-on techniques for character development in fiction. I don't blog often, but when I do, I try to make it useful information.

Well, thanks so much for joining us, Jason. Best of luck to you.

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