Fletcher DeLancey


20 QUESTIONS IN THE HOT SEAT

1. Why do you write?

Because unlike real life, in writing there’s a delete key!

I love telling stories, and I love crafting words. Part of that comes from a childhood marked by a slight stuttering problem, combined with such rapid speech that at times only my mother could understand me. Poor Mom spent many a year translating my words to my father and others. Writing made all of that go away, and to me it felt like magic. That feeling has carried over to my adult years, even though I’ve lost the stutter and most of the speed.

With regards to my fiction, there is also an enormous joy both in living with my characters, and hearing from others who were touched by them. It has brought me into contact with a whole new community of interesting people from all corners of the Earth, literally. (Though I’m still hoping for that reader from Antarctica…someday a scientist from McMurdo or Palmer is going to have some down time on her hands!) I started writing my stories because they were an escape from real life. Now I write them because they are an intrinsic part of my life.

2. What genre do you feel most comfortable working in?

You’d think science fiction or fantasy, since that’s what my five online novels are, but I also love writing fiction that takes place in the here and now. (Is there a genre for that?) Not to mention travelogues, comic real-life shorts, political/cultural commentary, and science writing, which is actually my professional background. Science writing is the practice of taking scientific concepts and restating them in layperson terminology. Ideally it renders tough topics not only easy to understand, but fun to read about. I love making people’s eyes widen as they get a concept and say, “Wow! That’s really cool!” Which is probably why little sciencey bits tend to find their way into my novels.

3. What was the first thing you remember writing?

A story about the Abominable Snowman, when I was eight years old. You know, the kind that you laboriously print on triple-lined paper, and make front and back covers out of construction paper and glitter, and bind with yarn? I think my mom still has it.

4. How do you work? That is, how do you approach a new project? Do you write different scenes and put them all together or do you just go from point A to point B and you’re done?

Usually I start a story with a couple of vivid scenes in my head, and then figure out how to get to them. This is against all the rules I was ever taught, because I’m essentially starting a story right in the middle, with no beginning or end in sight. In the case of Without A Front, one of those scenes was the assassination attempt at Hol-Opah. (Highlight that space to see the answer — I didn’t want any inadvertent spoilers.) I had a crystal-clear view of that event, like a movie playing in my head, and from there I went back and built up what was necessary to make it not only plausible, but inevitable.

What really sucks is when I finally arrive at one of those magic scenes and find that the story as it has developed will no longer allow it. A major subplot of Without A Front had to be completely changed from the way I’d envisioned it, which I ranted about for three or four days before settling down and doing what had to be done. As it turned out, the story was far more powerful that way — my originally envisioned subplot was too predictable. (When a beta reader guesses what you’re planning before you even get there in your writing, that’s a bad sign.)

This is not to say that I do all my writing off the cuff. I outline the story once I have a better handle on it, and keep a lot of notes (a database, actually) on characters, timelines, upcoming scenes, necessary plot developments, et cetera. And I edit as I go along. Some writers, and writing instructors, say that’s not the way to do it, and that editing should wait until the second draft. But that’s just not what works for me. My stories are dynamic; they shift around in the process of writing them. Characters get fleshed out, plots and subplots change; ideas get tossed out or slotted in. Which means I’m always going back and changing things in earlier chapters to make them work with the section I’m currently writing. I make steady forward progress, but there’s a lot of backtracking as well. So when some authors talk about their third or sixth or nineteenth draft, I’m always a little amazed — I only ever have one. Well, one draft and many, many little snippets of stuff that I’ve saved from all the changes.

5. Do you talk to your characters?

No, I’m a passive observer of their lives. But I listen to them very closely, laugh at their jokes and teasing, and feel everything they feel. For all that, they can still shock me with their actions and decisions at times.

6. If you could have an afternoon with any one of your characters, who would it be and why?

Ooo, tough question. At this point I think it would be Salomen from Without A Front. I’d be curious to hear how she’s managing a role she never envisioned or wanted, because I can relate to being put into an entirely new culture. Plus she’s funny and damned intelligent and doesn’t let bullshit get by her, and those kinds of people make the best conversationalists.

7. What’s your favorite story that you’ve written?

Whichever one I’m working on. No, seriously — I live these stories while I’m writing them. So I’m always more favorably disposed toward the one I’m currently immersed in. Right now it’s Forward Motion, the fifth novel in the Past Imperfect Series. A few months ago I would have said Without A Front.

8. A new fiction writer approaches you at an event and asks you for advice. What do you tell him or her?

That depends on the kind of advice she’s asking for. But in the end, all writers are limited to the same advice — we can only say what has worked for us. Writing is a lonely job; it’s not like being in an office where others can help you with a problem because they’ve run into it before. The creative problems in writing are never the same from one author to the next.

I think a lot of new writers are looking for the magic instruction manual. There isn’t one. And everyone’s technique is different. For some people that may be frustrating, because they want more concrete advice. I think it’s pretty liberating. You may be doing a lonely job, but you get to decide how to do it!

Creative issues aside, here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way:

— Be critical of your own work.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. I’ve read a lot of stories where something jarred me right out of the narrative, something that really didn’t work, and if the author had taken a step back and looked at that critically instead of giving herself a pass, it would never have made it through the self-editing process. One common example: romances where every orgasm releases enough energy to power New York City for one winter’s night. Okay, romances are certainly about love, and that often includes great sex, but if your character has just been mugged, or fell off a horse and twisted her ankle, or worked a twenty-hour day at the office and can barely keep her eyes open – is she really going to have a five-alarm orgasm? Is that realistic?

It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy or romance or mystery or whatever; keep it realistic within the world you’ve created. Keep it consistent. Be critical.

— Find yourself a really good beta reader or two, and listen to them.
Beta readers have one huge advantage over you: they’re not writing the story. That gives them a distance you simply do not have. And that enables them to see things you might never see. You might not agree with them, and you might hate what they have to say — but you might also be forced to admit they’re right. Either way, listen to them and validate their efforts, and if you don’t agree, tell them why. A good beta reader is worth her weight in chocolate.

— “said” is a perfectly good word.
Watch the synonyms. Having a character exclaim, gasp, laugh, breathe, shout, cry, hiss, et cetera is something that should happen only rarely. You don’t have to think up synonyms for “said,” because “said” is sort of a non-word. Most readers don’t even register it, and it doesn’t interrupt the flow. But the various synonyms definitely do interrupt the flow. They attract attention. If that’s what you want, good. But if it wasn’t what you intended, then you just jarred your reader.

Example: “They’re half an hour late,” exclaimed Sarah.

If Sarah is at a hostage exchange and waiting for opposing agents to arrive, and the scene is full of tension, exclaiming can be appropriate. If Sarah is sitting with a friend at a restaurant and wondering why her coworkers haven’t arrived yet, then exclaiming might be a bit overboard.

“They’re half an hour late,” said Sarah.

It has an entirely different feel. Now the emphasis is on what Sarah said, not how she said it.

Okay, I could probably blather on for twenty pages about little technical things like this, but your readers didn’t sign on for a seminar, so I’m going to shut up now.

9. What’s the hardest thing for you about writing?

The ego toll and the writer’s block. The ego toll comes when you look at a section you’ve just slaved over and think, “This is crap. Have I lost it? Am I done, and I’ll never write anything good again?” Writer’s block is even worse; because when you have that you aren’t even writing crap. You’re writing nothing. It’s a hard place to be, but all of us go there.

10. If you couldn’t write, what would you do?

Talk a lot?

Okay, the more serious answer would probably be that I’d spend more time honing my photography skills. And gardening. Those are my other major creative outlets.

11. Anne McCaffrey writes to music and occasionally, she includes the music she was listening to during her writing in the acknowledgments. Do you write to music?

Regarding music, almost never. Normally I can’t tolerate distracting noise of any kind while writing. Televisions are the absolute worst, barking dogs are right up there (I have one in my apartment complex, alas) and music can just destroy my immersion in the story. Unless it’s a quiet instrumental that I can turn into white noise.

There’s an interesting side note to this, though. One of my readers put together a soundtrack to my Past Imperfect stories, made up of songs that came to mind when she was reading certain passages. She mailed it to me, I listened to it, and now when I hear any of those songs, I’m instantly transported to the relevant scene in the story. Music can have a powerful associative effect, but for me that effect happens after the writing, not during.

By the way, that reader is now my partner. But I swear it wasn’t just because of the soundtrack.

12. Do you share your writing with others as you’re working? Or do you wait until something’s complete? What are the benefits to either approach?

If you’re talking about beta readers, I share as I’m working. Sometimes I send a single chapter, sometimes fifty pages or more — it depends on how fast I’m writing and how fast they’re reading. For me, it’s best to send sections as I go, because of the way I write. If my beta readers point out something that needs to be changed, I want to be able to incorporate the change before moving forward again.

I also share certain scenes with people who can give me a reality check or a fact check due to their personal expertise. For instance, recently I sent a fight scene to a friend who is a lifelong martial arts enthusiast, and she reviewed it to see if the moves made sense. That kind of input is invaluable.

13. Sometimes writers work internal issues out through their narratives. Have you ever written a scene or character that “hit too close to home” for you? How did you handle that?

A scene or a character, no. An entire genre, yes. I started writing lesbian fiction as a married heterosexual; my first novels were largely a means of working out my own sexuality. Now that I have that little detail sorted out, my stories have changed accordingly. I don’t know if readers notice it, but to me there’s a difference in their overall feel, a greater confidence in the characters and their relationships.

14. What are some of the things you do to improve on your craft? Do you attend conferences? Take workshops? What works best for you to improve how and what you write?

“Pardon me, sir, but how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Practice, practice, practice.”

It’s a classic old joke, but so true. Nothing improves writing quite like writing — as well as getting feedback and constructive criticism, and going back to review earlier writing and seeing the differences. Workshops can be great for that, but I have to admit I haven’t personally taken part in any. (Attending a workshop in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and presenting your lesbian novel, is a great way to come out in a single efficient move. That wasn’t something I was ready for in my last home, and in this one — southern Portugal — finding an English writing workshop is a bit more difficult.)

What helps me the most are my beta readers and their varying points of view. They keep me honest.

15. How do you create your characters? Do you start with a basic outline of personality type, or work them up as you go along?

Yes.

Okay, to be more specific, I tend to have three different types of characters. The type that is outlined in advance, the type that I work up as I go along, and the Athena type that springs out from my imagination fully formed. But the “work up as I go” part tends to happen to the “outline in advance” type as well — the character parameters often change as I settle into their story.

Lynne Hamilton was a character I worked up as I went along. A lot of that process is actually visible in her story, if you’re looking for it. She’s a different person at the end of Past Imperfect than she was at the beginning, but I think her character growth was almost an organic outgrowth of the story itself. It feels natural, because it was happening in real time as the story progressed. And although I had her character well in hand by the end of that story, she continued to grow and change through the next three novels (and is still changing in the one I’m working on right now). That’s what real people do, so I try to nudge my characters into growing as well.

Revi Sandovhar is an example of a character that sprang out fully formed. She was such a contrast to Lynne for me; I slaved over Lynne and spent so much time thinking about what she would do and say, but Revi required no such effort. She was simply a force of nature; a character in control of her own parameters from the get go. I loved Revi because she was so easy for me; I just sat back and let her act out her own story. Lynne has become that easy too, but it took time for me to get to know her that well.

Andira Tal and Salomen Opah from Without A Front were both outlined characters who reached out from the screen, grabbed the keyboard out of my hands, and defined themselves above and beyond what I’d set for them. They took control early on and kept it. Micah, however, was the “spring out fully formed” type.

My characters often surprise me. I remember reading an interview with an author once—back when my writing was still limited to nonfiction—and he talked about how his characters frequently did unexpected things. At the time I thought, “Huh? How can they do unexpected things? You’re writing them, for god’s sake!”

And then I started writing my own fiction, and the exact same thing happened to me. The most startling example was Lynne’s fight with the Arnett in Future Perfect. I wrote that scene with my eyes wide open, hardly believing what was appearing on my computer screen. I mean, I was honestly shocked at what Lynne was doing. It was just so awful, truly her worst instincts coming out, and it was going to get her into so much trouble. I waited in some dread for the feedback from one of my beta readers, whose background in clinical social work makes her ideal for reality-checking my characterizations. She wrote, “I hate what Lynne did. I wish she hadn’t done it. But it’s absolutely true to her character.”

That’s when you know your characters are in control.

16. Do you have certain writing rituals that you like to perform?

Not rituals so much as environmental settings that put me in the mood to write. One of my favorite places to be is my kitchen veranda, which is crowded with colorful pots of blooming plants (that’s the joy of living in southern Portugal). I sit with my head in the shade and my legs sticking out in the sun, with a nice glass of iced tea close at hand. And ideally, the washing machine is running. This probably sounds odd, but let me explain. In Portugal (and probably a lot of Europe, but I can’t speak to that), washing machines are normally located either in the kitchen or on a veranda. They also tend to be very quiet. My washing machine provides the perfect white noise to drown out the sounds of the city, which helps make my veranda a homey little pocket of comfort. Which makes it a great place to write.

17. Talk a bit about marketing. Publishers can’t do everything for you in that regard. So what are some of the things you do to drum up audiences for your work? What do you think are some of the most effective things an author can do, besides write good material?

This is something I’m thinking about right now, looking ahead toward publishing. A good website is the first and most obvious tactic; a blog is another. I want to establish a blog as a means of getting my name out there, but am currently waffling about what I want it to focus on. Should it be lesbian oriented, or writer oriented, or do I want to blog more about world topics and politics and science, with writing and other stuff thrown in? I don’t want to limit myself, but I also don’t want to dilute myself. So…that one’s in flux. I know that bookstore readings are another invaluable tactic, but how does one accomplish that when one lives on a separate continent from the majority of one’s readers? Location is compelling me to focus on Internet options and writing options, such as taking part in anthologies and writing challenges. Anything to increase one’s visibility is a good thing.

18. Do you make some of your writing available online? How do you feel about e-publishing and e-books? Would you go that route? Why or why not?

At the moment, all of my writing is available online, and my current novel will be as well. After that, though, I’m planning to pursue the publishing route and will probably only be putting short stories online. I do think that posting the first chapter or two of a published novel is a great way to tempt new readers, and as a reader I personally love having that option to see for myself if I like an author’s style.

E-publishing is not something I’m pursuing at the moment, because I really prefer the feel of a book in my hand and think a lot of readers do as well. But I definitely see the attraction, and I’m keeping an eye on that medium. I think it’s going to grow.

19. What were your best and worst experiences with an editor?

I am an editor — that’s what I did professionally for many years. Which makes me the worst person in the world to accept someone else’s edits to my work. My most negative experience with an editor was when I was obligated by company policy to submit my articles to another editor, who clearly felt that if she wasn’t making red marks then she wasn’t earning her salary. She rephrased sentences not because they were grammatically incorrect or unclear, but because she preferred them to read as she would have written them. Needless to say, we had a fundamental disagreement as to the function of an editor.

Editors have an obligation to correct grammar and punctuation, and to clarify and strengthen the text. But the voice of the author must be preserved, or else the editor becomes the writer and the process breaks down. When I edited people’s work, I left things in place that might not have been the tightest and best word choices — but they were choices that gave the text its voice. When I began editing scientific papers, I had to unlearn that principle, because academic papers aren’t supposed to have a voice. (And I think they’re much the poorer for it! Does anyone read academic papers because they’re enjoyable?)

My best experience came when I gave my first novel to a fellow writer to edit. She gave it back to me with just a few notes, but one of them has always stayed with me. It said, “How many times does someone smile in this chapter?” And when I looked, I was startled to see that characters were smiling right and left — and it wasn’t supposed to be a humorous chapter! Her observation forced me to take a much closer look at the scenes I was setting via physical description, and my writing changed from that moment on. That’s editing at its best — a simple comment that says, “Look at this. What do you see?”

20. And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a writer? What, for you, totally sucks about it?

What sucks about it is that there is no direct correlation between writing talent and public recognition or financial reward. I have read some marvelous, complex, deeply moving stories by authors who are probably eating Ramen noodles five nights a week; and then there are the ones who churn out formulaic crap that gets snapped up by millions of readers. And most publishers, being profit driven, are looking for the latter. A British newspaper recently tested the system by submitting several novels, all Booker Prize winners from past decades, to the major publishers and agents in Britain under false names. All of them were rejected save one – and that one was accepted on the condition that it be radically altered.

This says a lot about the current state of publishing. If I were Queen of the Universe, recognition would be merit based!

But writers don’t write for recognition or money (and a good thing, too). I love being able to spin stories that give other people pleasure; that make them laugh or gasp or even cry, and immerse them entirely in a world of my making. I love that I can make characters so real to some people that they actually develop crushes. I love making a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s just for a few pleasurable hours or something more profound, and I love hearing from those people afterwards. Writing may be a lonely job, but once it’s done it tends to create a community brought together by words. And that’s a unique form of magic.

Our thanks to Fletcher for participating and for sharing a piece of her own magic here, with us.


Author Profile:

Fletcher DeLancey is an Oregon native who followed her heart to southern Portugal. A former marine educator, editor, and biologist, she now spends her time writing and (slowly and painfully) learning Portuguese as she settles into her new home.

She is well known in fanfic circles for her Past Imperfect series, a collection of four full-length novels based on Star Trek: Voyager but avoiding the usual pairings by introducing two major new characters. Her latest novel, Without A Front, broke out of fanfic and went straight to original spec-fic, earning her an entirely new reader base. Currently she is working on the fifth and last novel in the Past Imperfect series (keeping a long-standing promise to her readers), but still found time to write a short story for the upcoming issue of Read These Lips.

All of Fletcher’s work is currently available at her website, Red Moon.

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