- Finding meaning in our lives by looking right in front of us.
- Improving our writing craft takes time, patience, and perseverance.
- An ending requires a conflict to be resolved.
The process was rather reflective of my writing journey – being willing to experiment, learn through trial and error, and persevere until I was satisfied with the story.
Welcome to the thirty-third episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with YA fantasy and adult romance writer Kellie Parker about her writing and short stores.
From THE SECRETS AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE:
At the end of the universe, on an obscure planet resembling a floating chunk of rock, there is a cave containing a long, underground passage. If you find this secret place, and follow the winding, twisting way through the rock past the requisite number of booby traps, you’ll find yourself on the threshold of a room. And in this room, in a large file cabinet, are stored the secrets of the universe.
Arthur: Tell me about your writing career. What are the small successes which have lead you to this point?
Kellie: I’ve always loved reading and writing fiction, but I didn’t dive seriously into writing as a career until about four years ago. At that time, I had one mediocre completed manuscript for a romantic suspense that I’d finished a few years prior and a lot of ideas for new projects. I dug that manuscript out of my dusty Word files and reworked the entire story. Around the same time, I wrote a short story, “The Tank,” which I entered in a local writing contest. Not only did it make the final round, it ended up being the Judges’ Choice Runner-Up. I can’t tell you how good it felt to know that someone besides my mother actually liked my writing. Armed with a little more confidence, I decided that maybe this whole becoming-an-author thing could become a reality.
What really struck me as I was writing this story was how easy it is for us to chase after meaning in life without seeing what’s right in front of us.
Arthur: Your short story, THE SECRETS AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE contains a fascinating concept. A dream inspired this story, correct? What did you learn while writing this short story, whether it is something you learned about writing or life itself?
Kellie: Yes, this story was inspired by a dream—which is kind of funny, since that’s not where I usually get story ideas. But it was one of those rare instances where the dream was so vivid and so different, I had to run with it. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but the tricky part was taking the key moment from the dream and turning it into a full story. I knew the point I wanted to make and how the story would end, but it took some exploratory writing to figure out how to get there. The process was rather reflective of my writing journey as a whole—being willing to experiment, learn through trial-and-error, and persevere until I was satisfied with the story.
What really struck me as I was writing this story was how easy it is for us to chase after meaning in life without seeing what’s right in front of us. Maybe it’s human nature to overlook what we see every day. In the end, I was pleased with how the finished story managed to capture the essence of that thought.
Arthur: What is the history behind your writing journey? What did you start writing and how has your writing grown and changed?
Kellie: I’ve been writing creatively since I could hold a pencil, but probably even more importantly, I’ve always loved being lost in my imagination. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading or daydreaming up some wild story. Anything with unicorns, dragons, spies, or spaceships was bound to capture my imagination.
But like many potential authors, I never really considered writing as a career option, and so I reserved it for my “free time” as I went through college, graduate school, and into the working world. It wasn’t until my first child was born and I decided to stay home with him that I began to invest more time in my writing.
Of course, a first draft of a first novel is usually pretty lousy, and my first romantic suspense was no exception. Writing it was so invigorating, but rereading it was depressing. Feeling frustrated with my inability to fix it, I set my writing aside for a few years. But as it goes for many writers, I began to feel like a part of myself was missing and that I simply had to keep writing. So I started reading blogs and books about the craft, attended a writers’ conference, and worked on a new YA fantasy novel. I also pulled out that old romantic suspense manuscript and, after figuring out how to rework it, rewrote the story. Not only was I able to create a story I’m happy with, this manuscript recently won its category in a national writing contest.
I love that I’m constantly learning new things and improving my writing through practice. Even with my natural aptitude for grammar and editing, I’ve had so much to learn about storytelling. It’s very motivating to be able to see my work get better over time.
I love that I’m constantly learning new things and improving my craft through practice.
Arthur: You have a great article on your blog about “novel aesthetic.” This is a very cool concept in story visualization. Tell me about your story boards for your fantasy books currently in progress. Do you plan to incorporate these into book covers in the future? Do you have other resources for this type of art you can share?
Kellie: I had no clue about Pinterest or novel aesthetics until I started seeing them pop up in writers’ tweets in Twitter hashtag games. But once I did some poking around on the internet and realized how useful they are, I’ve taken to creating them for all my big projects. Sifting through images helps with brainstorming when I’m stuck, and looking at my story boards helps inspire me as I write. I search for images for my main characters, settings, scenes, and other aspects of the story. On the downside, too much time on Pinterest takes away from my writing, so I use the boards more for inspiration/ creating a mood rather than trying to find images that perfectly duplicate what I’m imagining.
Right now I’m querying agents to pursue traditional publishing, but if I end up moving into self-publishing, I’ll certainly reference my story boards for book cover ideas. Most Pinterest images aren’t royalty-free, so that’s something to keep in mind when working with story boards. Also, if you see somebody else’s novel aesthetic and want to know where they found the images, just ask! Most of the writers I’ve met are wonderful people who want to help others. Besides, it’s always encouraging to know someone liked your work so much they want to know how you did it.
Arthur: What was your outlining process for KINGDOM OF STARS AND DUST? There are two characters with clear motivations which oppose one another. Coming up with this structure can be a struggle for some writers. How did you develop the plot and outline?
Kellie: Confession time—I pretty much pantsed the entire first draft of KINGDOM OF STARS AND DUST. I had a tiny bit of the story in mind, just the main character and the fact that a soldier would end up swearing an oath to protect her. I didn’t know what her magic was, I didn’t know what her goal was, and I had no idea what would happen. That first draft hit about 100,000 words before I realized it literally had no ending. Since there was no single main conflict to resolve, and no overarching antagonist, there could be no ending.
After a little bout of self-pity and a lot of research into the craft of writing, I started the second draft. I like to use spiral-bound notebooks to organize my thoughts, so this time I hand wrote pages of backstory, character notes, possible plot points, and world-building info. KM Weiland’s blog posts of story structure and creating character arcs became my go-to resources. I already knew I wanted my two main characters to have opposing goals, but it took a few iterations of my plot to nail down exactly what that would look like.
Draft three followed two, and thanks to a beta reader, morphed into draft four. This draft underwent one more revision at the hands of my wonderful critique partners, and now that I’m finally happy with the story, I’m querying it to agents.
Since there was no single main conflict to resolve and no overarching antagonist, there could be no ending.
Arthur: You have a great blog post about finding beta readers and critique partners and the difference between the two. What is your editing process before finding beta readers? Do you have any resources you could share?
Kellie: Now that I’ve experienced firsthand the pains of “pantsing,” I start with at least a basic outline of my key plot points. From there, I write the first draft. That draft undergoes one revision focusing on nailing down the plot and character arcs. Once I’m feeling pretty happy with the story, I’m ready to send it to my critique partners, who often have great insight into both the overall story and how to improve individual scenes. After following up on their suggestions, it’s that final line-edited draft that I send to beta readers.
I don’t really have specific resources to recommend, outside of KM Weiland’s excellent summaries of story structure and character arcs on her blog. As I mentioned above, I have a pretty good intrinsic sense of grammar and sentence structure which helps me with line-editing, but I’ve still had to learn a lot about storytelling basics, like showing vs. telling and using stronger words. The other thing I recommend is to read A LOT, because reading (and trying to mimic) writing you enjoy helps develop your own style.
Arthur: Many of your stories are winners in writing contests. How do you find these? Has participating in them helped your writing?
Kellie: That first short story contest – which gave me the extra confidence I needed to keep writing – was advertised on a poster at my local library. The others that I’ve entered have been through national writing organizations I’ve joined—American Christian Fiction Writers and Romance Writers of America. Individual chapters of national organizations often have contests too, which are often listed on the organization’s website.
I’ve found that the most helpful contests are the ones where judges offer feedback beyond simply giving a numerical score. In some cases, judges will leave comments on your submitted pages or make suggestions on how to improve. Doing well in a contest can be a great confidence booster. Doing not-so-well stings, but if you accept a kindly offered critique and become a better writer for it, then you’ve still won. I think receiving a variety of feedback helps put your writing in perspective—what one reader loves, another may hate, and that reflects real life too. Not every agent or editor or reader will love our work, so contests are good practice in learning to accept that fact.
If you accept a kindly offered critique and become a better writer for it, then you’ve still won.
Arthur: Do you have any writing techniques or exercises which help you improve your craft?
Kellie: While reading about various aspects of the craft has helped a lot, the thing that helps most is simple—practice. Reading about story structure or character goals and motivations is one thing, but trying to apply it is completely different. The more you write, the more these elements become an intrinsic part of the writing process and start to click into place. It gives me great hope that maybe one day I’ll reach that level where it all comes naturally.
Arthur: What are you doing with your writing craft to make it engaging and stand out from other books in the genre?
Kellie: I think the key to making a book stand out is voice. Voice is that nebulous term that members of the publishing industry toss about, confusing all the new would-be authors. Years ago, I managed to get my not-so-good first version of my romantic suspense into the hands of an editor, and she (kindly) rejected it, saying that I needed to develop my voice. I had no idea what she meant at the time, but now I can look back on that original manuscript and agree with her.
Our stories are unique when we bring ourselves into them—our experiences, our personality, the things that tug at our hearts and ignite our passions. When we dig deep into our own lives and pour ourselves into our work, we’re more likely to create something readers will connect with on a deeper level. Even familiar plot tropes can become fresh and exciting in the hands of a writer with a unique voice and a unique approach.
While reading about various aspects of the craft has helped a lot, the thing that helps most is simple: practice.
Arthur: What is a future writing project you hope to complete one day, but perhaps aren’t ready to write yet? What is keeping you from starting? What do you need to improve to start it?
Kellie: Honestly, I don’t have a specific project I’m waiting on. I think I probably leaped into KINGDOM OF STARS AND DUST too quickly—it’s the first book of an intended series of three or four, and it entails a high fantasy world with several characters who each have their own goals and hidden agendas, along with a lot of behind-the-scenes backstory. In hindsight, this story would have been a lot easier to tackle if I’d started with something a bit simpler and smaller scale first.
I guess in some ways I’m stalling on starting the sequel. With so many plot threads and character arcs to juggle, I feel like I need to improve my brainstorming / outlining skills before jumping into drafting. I have another YA fantasy project I’d like to write in the meantime, both to take a break from KOSAD’s world and to hone my outlining and fast drafting skills. I’m a slow writer with limited available time, so I’d like to get faster at putting the words on the page.
Thank you so much, Kellie, for sharing your wisdom here with other writers. I’m looking forward to the publication of your stories and can’t wait to hear more about them. Be sure to check out Kellie’s website for more writing insight and inspiration.