Author Interview ~ Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie Morrill is a twenty-something living in Kansas with her high school sweetheart-turned-husband and their daughter. She loves writing for teens because her high school years greatly impacted her adult life. That, and it’s an excuse to keep playing her music really, really loud.

Welcome to Novel Journey!

Let’s start by giving our readers a little bit of insight into the force that drove you to start writing. Was there a particular instance or instinct that made you want to be a writer?

My elementary school really emphasized writing. Every day we had “writing time” for 15 or so minutes. We could write about whatever we wanted, and I thought it was the best part of the day. When you finished a story, you took it down to the “publishing house,” which was a tiny room at the school. You picked out your cover and binding, then someone typed up the story and returned it to you. After you illustrated it, you read it to the class. I loved every single part of it except the illustrating, and from the first “book” I wrote, I always told people I wanted to be a writer.

What’s the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Toward the middle, feeling like the book will connect with future readers. Or questioning if what I’m writing about really matters. That’s something I especially struggle with on the days that I don’t feel particularly inspired to write.

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

I used to all the time, and then I realized I’m not that interesting of a person. For the Skylar books, I intentionally made Skylar as opposite of me as possible.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I actually didn’t find my first critque group until I was pretty far along in my novel journey. Back in 2007, when I went to the American Christian Fiction Writers conference, I prayed for both a critique group and an agent and walked away with both. I think the lack of input in my early years helped me develop my voice, but I also think it the road would have been easier and less lonely had I found my critique group earlier.

Tell us a little about your latest release:

Out with the In Crowd is the second book in the Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series. Skylar may have vowed to change her partying ways, but it’s not so easy to change her friends. She’s trying hard to live a new life, but her old one is constantly staring her in the face. Add to that two parents battling for her loyalty, a younger sister struggling with a crisis pregnancy, and a new boyfriend wishing for more of her time, and Skylar feels like she can’t win.

This is a YA novel, part of a series you developed around a high school senior battling all of the insecurities most teenagers face. What made you decide to target this age group? Because the only book ideas I had were for YA novels. Seriously. I tried writing adult books, but I never caught fire for them the way I did my high school stories.

I work with the youth in my church, and I know the kind of mixed messages they get on a daily basis. What message do you hope readers gain from your novel, and how is it different from the things they hear on the streets? Ooh, good question. I hope in Out with the In Crowd (in all three Skylar books, really) they’ll see that you’re never too far gone for God to redeem you. I think on the “streets,” it feels easy to get pigeon-holed. “She’s a party girl,” or “She’s a goody-goody.” But God never sees us like that.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her: Like I mentioned before, I made Skylar as opposite of me as I possibly could. I wanted to write a character who had complete confidence in her looks, but zero confidence in who she was inside. At first it was really hard to try and figure out how she would react to things, but once I dove deeper into her situations with her parents and younger sister, it became easy to see what kind of security issues Skylar had.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least? I really enjoyed the interaction between Skylar and her younger sister, Abbie. They’re so different from each other that it’s always fun when they discuss something.

I least liked all the junk with Skylar’s parents. It was really hard to sit at my computer and write these horribly tense scenes about their separation, to see how it was affecting Skylar and Abbie, and then call it a day and go hang out with my awesome husband and daughter. Those were really draining days.

What kind of activities to you like to do that help you relax and step away from your deadlines for a bit? As you might guess, I’m kinda a bookworm. Reading feels like vacation time to me. I completely tune out what’s going on around me and get transported to another place.

Also, I just got a Wii for my birthday. I don’t know if “relaxing” is a good word for it, but it’s a lot of fun.

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision. Wow. Okay. 1. I have a spark of an idea where I think, “This is going to be a book.”
2. I spend a couple weeks gathering other ideas to make it “big” enough to be a book.
3. I write the first three chapters and a synopsis. Those get sent to my critique partner, and then when she approves I send them to my agent.
4. I write a horrendous first draft. I focus on getting the story down as complete and as fast as I can.
5. I take a couple weeks away from the book, and then I start my first revision. The first one often involves a lot of rewriting.
6. I read it one more time to smooth things out, then send it to my critique partner and my husband.
7. I input their comments, read through it one more time, and then wait to see if it sells.

What is the first book you remember reading and what made it special? The first books I remember loving are the Boxcar books. There was something really fun about reading books about kids doing so much stuff on their own, especially solving mysteries.

How do you think reading the work of others helps you as a writer? I think it opens up my mind to different ways of saying, expressing, or illustrating ideas. It also reinforces things I’m taught at conferences, about what makes an exciting opening or satisfying end.

What do you wish you’d known early in your career that might have saved you some time and/or frustration in writing? In publishing? In writing—Don’t get too picky with the first draft, just get it down. It was actually my engineer husband who suggested this to me. I was struggling with a manuscript, and he was like, “Stop editing and just write it.”

In publishing—This one’s tougher because I received my contract when I was 24 … it’s hard to shave off too much more time. But I’d say get in a critique group. It helped me to learn how to accept criticism better.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

The series I’m fiddling with now is about a girl who loses 120 pounds in high school all with diet and exercise. It’s based on a girl I used to babysit for who did just that. I’m in the early stages still and having lots of fun.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

If you’re looking to get published, do everything you can to the best of your ability and trust God with the rest. When the offer came through for The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series, my agent kept saying to me, “I just can’t believe it. You have no platform and you write an unproven genre. I have no idea how we got you published. This is obviously God.” He can do it for you too.

Guest Blogger ~ Robert Liparulo

Best-selling author Robert Liparulo is a former journalist, with over a thousand articles and multiple writing awards to his name. His novels include Comes a Horseman, Germ, Deadfall, and this year’s Deadlock, as well as the young adult series, Dreamhouse Kings (the latest of which is Timescape, releases July 7). He is currently writing, simultaneously, an original screenplay and novel, with the director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, The Guardian).

How Music Influences My Words

Pace. Rhythm. Tension. It’s no coincidence these terms describe both stories and music. In fact, for me, music has always helped me create stories. When someone mentions a favorite scene from one of my novels, more often than not, I immediately remember the music that was playing in my headphones when I wrote it: Olaf’s attack on Brady and his son in Comes a Horseman (“Elk Hunt” from Last of the Mohicans); Stephen’s confrontation with the killer Atropos in Germ (“The Battle” from Gladiator); Hutch’s apprehensive readiness to rise from charred ground and fight at the end of Deadfall (“Death is the Road to Awe” from The Fountain). Music gets me in the mind-set to write specific scenes—its rhythm reminds me of the pace I’m looking for as I work to find just the right words; its mood holds me in a sort of suspended animation within the scene, regardless of outside distractions or the time it takes to write it.

Years ago, as movie critic, I’d sometimes see films before they were finished, without a musical score. At one screening, the director stood in the aisle humming the music that would accompany each scene. That was more distracting than the film’s symphonic nakedness, but I understood the poor man’s panic over having his film seen that way: music can make or break a movie. It not only adds a rich layer of enjoyment to the viewing experience, it cues the audience to the filmmaker’s intentions—“OK, time to get scared” or “In case the this guy’s mask made out of human skin isn’t enough to let you know, he’s the bad guy!” That’s why the tracks of musical score are called “cues.”

(I’ve dreamed of including a playlist—even the actual music in digital form—with my novels. Readers could then start a soundtrack with each chapter, heightening their experience of the story. Of course, individual reading speeds make that impractical; few things are worse than out-of-synch audio tracks. And, yes, I realize it’s part of the author’s job to create the same emotional response in readers that music does, using only words. Still, I sometimes imagine myself acting like that director: leaning over a reader’s shoulder, and at the right moment going, “Da-da-da!”)

It’s hard for me to experience a story, in any medium, without musical accompaniment—whether in my ears or my head.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to music as I wrote—through years of writing magazine articles and intermittent screenplays. It started as a way of deadening the sounds of screaming kids, vacuum cleaners, and when I rented an outside office, the shouts coming from the divorce attorney’s office next door. Then I started writing novels, and the type of music I played suddenly mattered.

Faster tempos do help keep the pace up—if not within the story, then at least with how fast my fingers move over a keyboard; but then, volume helps with that as well. The louder, the better. More important than tempo is how a piece of music makes me feel. A cue that starts off slow and builds to a triumphant crescendo can carry me through a fast-paced action sequence as well as any nonstop, staccato rhythm. “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from The Da Vinci Code, for example: a hero’s theme if ever there was one.

Over time, I’ve built a library of music categorized by the mood it puts me in when I write. Take, for instance, Clint Mansell’s haunting music for Requiem for a Dream. Its cues seem to be teetering on the edge of something, without relief or execution. No wonder several of the titles have the word “Tense” in them. When I launch into a suspenseful scene, I’ll often queue up my Requiem playlist.

Here’s a specific example of a partial scene and the music I was listening to when I wrote it:

“With the speed and fluidity he had practiced a thousand times, Hutch drew back on the bowstring and released it, all in one, smooth two-second motion. He held still for another beat to make sure the arrow cleared the bow. Then he dropped his right arm to a second arrow rising from the ground beside him. His bow arm never moved. His head never moved. His eyes never came off of Bad. As the arrow sliced a groove through Bad’s skin at the temple, Hutch was already nocking the next arrow.”

Most likely, Quentin Tarantino would go with something fast and exotic, like NEU!’s “Super 16” from Kill Bill. Because the scene is a mix of suspense and action, I powered up “Betrayal” from Enemy at the Gates—from the scene in which they discover a young boy murdered and hanging from a crane. It’s emotive and heart-wrenching, and prior to the “discovery” almost painful in its anticipation.

My writing-music of choice is almost always film scores. It seems to me that movie moguls are the benefactors of today’s great composers, Hollywood the new Vienna. I also like that the structure of a good story—with its cycle of tension and relief, despair and triumph—forces a wide variation in music within one recording. I used to think the strong bond between a movie’s images and its music would cause me to think only of those images while listening to the score—Russell Crowe plucking his violin in Master and Commander. However, I’ve found that the spirit of the music takes over and I can claim it for my own. That’s why filmmakers often listen to other movies’ scores while on set. They’re not trying to imitate another movie’s scene; they’re letting the music help them get in the mood for their own scene. The director Ridley Scott is known for doing this.

Thankfully, most movie scores don’t have lyrics. I’m too much of a word geek to write with lyrics pounding into my eardrums: I’m always trying to listen to them. Every now and then, however, a song with lyrics is perfect for getting me into the groove of a scene (though usually it’s something in its rhythm, tempo or melody, rarely its words that attracts me to it). When that happens, I play it over and over until my mind stops trying to catch every word and hears the vocals as it does any other instrument. Felix da Housecat’s remix of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” comes to mind; I listened to it while writing the scene that introduced Brendan Page, my latest novel Deadlock’s villain, a true sinnerman with a penchant for “cool,” which the song captures.

It’s all about what works for the individual writer. When writing action scenes, Meg Gardiner (The Memory Collector) says Gladiator, The Day After Tomorrow, Jarhead and 300 “get me in a fightin’ mood.” David Dun says he listened to “the womb-like sounds of a whirlpool hot tub with all the jets running” while writing The Black Silent. Whatever works.

When I write to music, it does more than nudged me into a specific pace or help me with atmosphere. It reminds me of quality, that musical notes, played on varied instruments in a specific order and speed can touch people in ways that are mysterious and wonderful. It can lift heavy spirits and wring tears from long-dry eyes. It can unsettle sad memories and tickle a laugh out of you when you need it most. It stirs the listener and paints unimaginably vivid pictures—exactly the things I want my words to do, as well.

Whirlwind

They’ve been to three worlds in less than a day. Time isn’t just running out…it’s running wild.

David King is reeling from his travels through history-and the evil he’s found there. The last thing he needs is his great-great-uncle Jesse’s hospital-bed instructions: You can’t simply do nothing. You must fix things.

David and his brother Xander’s search for their abducted mother has repeatedly led them on strange and terrifying journeys as they’ve stepped through the portals of the creepy old house and into some of history’s most turbulant moments…and confronted an unimaginably bleak vision of the future.

Now Jesse’s words saddle them with an obligation to not only visit the past, but the need to rewrite it.

Fulfilling their purpose will take everything they have, both mentally and physically. But they have no choice…because everything in the past-and the future-is on the line.

Best of the Bizarre — 2009 Edition

by Mike Duran

Had enough of the traditional year-end “Best Of” lists? Me too. I mean, why worry about the Top Ten Movies or Albums of the year when 2009 yielded so many other oddities. Here’s a sampling:

America’s Most Literate Cities of 2009 — Apparently, living within earshot of the City of Angels still lands me thousands of miles from a literate city. How about you?

Worst Book Titles of the Year — L.A. Times’ Jacket Copy has compiled some noteworthy entries. Among them, “Reading Toes,” “I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen,”and “The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.” But the best has got to be “Dr. Albert Heindstein’s Contemporary English Dictionary of Flatulence” — perfect for bathroom reading.

Best Jesus Junk of the Year — Hey, what would another year be without Christians ripping off pop culture and producing more kitschy, borderline blasphemous, merchandise. The Jesus Christ Celebriduck Limited Edition Collectible Rubber Duck has to rank high on the list. T-shirts are always popular. So how about a Jesus BFF or a Jesus is My Boyfriend shirt for someone special? The “Ex-Masturbator” T-shirt campaign is sure to keep them lining up. My favorite, however, is the End-Times Survivalist Bible Cover, complete with compass for navigating plague-ravaged, post-nuclear, Armageddons.

Top 10 Crytozoology Stories of the Year — Sasquatch and the Chupacabra are so yesterday. Now pygmy hippos and baby coelacanths are all the rage. And if that doesn’t do it for you, there’s this headline: “Yeti Stalked Bikini-Clad Student.” Why hunt sherpas when you can stalk bikini-clad coeds?

The Best Notable Quotables of 2009 — Media Research Center annually compiles the most outrageous and/or humorous news media quotes of the year. Not for the Left-of-heart.

The Worst Band Names of the Year — AV Club’s The Year in Band Names compiles such quirky handles as “Ska Skank Redemption,” “Cerebral Ballzy,” and “Libido Funk Circus.” But “Put Down the Muffin” takes top honors. Um, it sounded cool on paper…

2009’s Top 12 Weird News Stories — As if the regular news isn’t weird enough, this year produced stories about a man given a DUI when he crashed his motorized La-Z-Boy, a woman who somehow managed to conceive a second child while pregnant with her first, and a girl who fell into a manhole while texting. However, I am partial to the Brazilian environmental group’s campaign asking people to save water by peeing in the shower. Hey, I’m doing my part!

List of Banished Words for 2009 — Lake Superior State University has been banning trendy, over-used words for a while. This year’s word is a no-brainer — “green.

Top Ten Dinosaur and Fossil Finds — Only National Geographic could relish saber-toothed crocs and giant trilobites. And, of course, “another” missing link was discovered. That makes how many now?

Unanswered Questions of 2009 — Can’t accuse Slate of not probing the unanswered mysteries of our existence. This year, their noodling has unearthed such unexplained questions as “How many human female eggs would it take to make an omelet?”, “Why do gang bangers hold their guns sideways?”, and “Where can I buy wine that has the word frog in its label?” But by far the most puzzling of all the questions: “How would the law punish Siamese twins if one of the twins committed murder?” Now there’s a conundrum.

The 50 Worst Hairstyles of All Time — And all this while I thought Vanilla Ice’s Van Winkle was cool…

So there it is — a smidgen of weirdness for your edification or dismay. Happy Holidays to you from the staff a Novel Journey!

Giving

Anita Mellott writes to encourage others on their journey of life. With a background in journalism and mass communications, she has worked for more than ten years as a writer/editor in the nonprofit world.

She balances homeschooling and the call to write, and blogs at From the Mango Tree (http://amellott.wordpress.com/).

“Mama, Mama, can we help a kid in the Appalachians again this Christmas?” My tween bounced up and down in her chair at the dining table. “Remember? Last year my discipleship group collected gifts that were on a kid’s wish list. I saw a video today. They have nothing. I mean nothing.”

She wrung her hands. “Sometimes they don’t even eat, Mama, and you know what? They walk for miles together to get food, like a tomato. Can we help? Please, can…”

My husband shook his head and interrupted, “Sweetie, it’s not about we can do. What are you going to do to help?” Her eyes grew wide, and then she looked away and cast her eyes down.

I glared at him. What was he doing? Why couldn’t he encourage her? A deafening silence prevailed.

Slowly my tween raised her head. “I know, Daddy.” She moved the chicken around on her plate with her fork. “I…I was thinking. I’ll give my Nintendo DS.”

I almost choked. “But you saved up for that. Why don’t you give her your IPod Shuffle?
She looked at me. “Mama, I don’t even like my Shuffle anymore. I mean that’s why I saved up for a Nano. I love my DS. That’s why I want to give it to her. And, it was on the wish list.” A tear slid down her cheek.

I bent my head and studied the food on my plate, my cheeks burning.

I heard Jim say, “That’s a good idea. But take some time to pray about it. You should be peaceful about your decision.”

As I raised my head, I caught his glance and saw the smile spreading across his face. I understood what he had been trying to do.

“I’m so proud of you, Princess,” I told my daughter as I tried to smile while holding back my tears.

Christmas is about giving, but it took my tween to remind me about the essence of true giving: Giving when it costs.

I thought of my half-finished manuscript, the log of article ideas, the book proposal my critique group was encouraging me to send out, and the times I begrudge the early mornings and late nights it takes to write. Writing is more than a calling—it’s a sacrifice.

“Lord, you’ve called me to write to encourage others. Help me to give even when I don’t feel like it; to share from my heart selflessly. To give as you give.”

“…I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” 2 Samuel 2: 24.