Thursday, August 30, 2012

Interview with Bethany Wiggins

It's a great honor to host an interview with Bethany Wiggins.  Bethany is the author of the exciting young adult novel, SHIFTING, and a forthcoming novel, STUNG.  For this interview, questions were solicited from several junior high English and Creative Writing classes.

Even after paring down the list and removing questions like "What is your blood type?" (Must have been a Stephenie Meyer fan!) the list was still more than forty questions long.  Bethany graciously answered every question submitted to her.

Thank you, Bethany, for taking time out of your busy schedule to tell us about your writing! 

Questions from 7th Grade English Classes:

1.  Is it hard to be an author?

Yes! Being an author is a lot of work. Plus, you don't have a boss breathing down your neck, or a supervisor keeping you on your toes.  You have to be your own boss and supervisor, and find the self-discipline to work hard every single day.

2. How long did it take you to write your first novel?

It took me about ten months to write my first novel.  That being said, it was ridiculously long (nearly 800 pages) and I never edited it.

3. What made you decide to write about Skinwalkers?

I wrote about Skinwalkers because I had heard so many real-life stories about them, and thought they were fascinating.  I also wanted to write a book that had to do with magic and mysticism.

4. How does it feel to shapeshift?

I can only imagine!  When Maggie Mae shape shifts into a dog, she has the overwhelming desire to start eating rotting food out of the school's dumpster.  That particular idea came from watching my mom's dog sneak into the kitchen and eat trash like it was the best thing in the world.  I can only guess how it feels.

5. Do you have any hobbies?

Yes, I do.  Aside from writing, I like to run on the treadmill while listening to good music, I bake lots of cookies and bread, but my favorite thing to do is take my kids swimming or to the library.

6. What is the most inspirational book you've ever read?

Aside from religious books, To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind.

7. Do you live another life through your stories?

Yes!  That is the beauty of writing.  You live through every character you write about.  I have been hundreds of people--albeit fictional people--and done all sorts of things, like crossing shark-infested waters on a raft, turning into a cheetah and running 60 miles per hour through the desert, and being chased by a pack of Skinwalkers.

8. How many books do you want to write?

I don't know.  I'll write something and then think maybe I'll take a little break from writing, but a new story always seems to jump into my head right then, and I start writing another book.

9. Did you write stories when you were little?

No, I did not!  I know so many writers who have been writing since they were in kindergarten, but not me.  All of my life I loved to read, and loved to tell stories, and listen to other people's stories--especially ghost stories.

10. How do you come up with ideas for books?

I have these weird, crazy thoughts come into my head sometimes, like when the swine flu was on the news all the time, and people swarmed clinics for vaccines issued by the government, I thought to myself, "What if there really isn't any swine flu and the government just made it up so that they can give everyone these vaccines that are going to turn them into zombies or something?"  That is how my latest book, STUNG, came about.  That, and a nightmare that woke me up at 5 a.m.

11. What do you think your next book will be about?

LOL.  I just answered that.  BUT the next book I plan on writing, after STUNG 2 is done (my current work-in-progress), is STUNG 3.  Here is the actual book blurb for Stung:

There is no cure for being stung.

Fiona doesn't remember going to sleep.  But when she opens her eyes, she discovers her entire world has been altered--her house is abandoned and broken, and the entire neighborhood is barren and dead.  Even stranger is the tattoo on her right hand--a black oval with five marks on either side--that she doesn't remember getting but somehow knows she must cover at any cost.  She's right.

Those bearing the tattoo have turned into mindless, violent beasts that roam the streets and sewers, preying upon the unbranded while a select few live protected inside a fortress-like wall, their lives devoted to rebuilding society and killing all who bear the mark.

Now Fiona has awakened, branded, alone--and on the wrong side of the wall.

12.  What made you want to be an author?

That's a funny story.  I never really WANTED to be an author, but one day I was at my sister's house and she said, "I just watched the movie HOLES, and the man who wrote the book it is based on says, all it takes to write a book is an hour of writing a day for one year.  And then you have a book.  I'm going to do it.  Do you want to do it too?"  I figured why not.  Because of that, I discovered that I love writing.

13.  What's your favorite food?

I love all food.  I have several favorites.  Dove chocolate with caramel in the center, pizza, Taffy Town brand taffy, and baklava are some of my favorites.

14.  Do authors need a backup job?

Typically, yes!  I actually do not have a backup job, but I have a very hard-working husband who supports me as a stay-at-home mom by day, and a writer by night.  Being a published author does not mean you're a millionaire.

15.  What is your favorite genre?

Young adult!  I typically like a little magic or science fiction in my books, but I read anything YA.

16.  Do you believe in Skinwalkers?

I believe my neighbors have really, truly seen something out in the desert that they call Skinwalkers.  I have heard some pretty scary stories!  That being said, I don't think it is possible for a person to put on an animal skin and turn into an animal.

17.  When did you know you wanted to be an author?

I knew I wanted to be an author when I was twenty-eight years old--one year after my sister convinced me to try writing.

18.  Would you like to be a character from one of your books?  If so, which character would you be?

Yes!  I would LOVE to be Maggie Mae, and have the ability to turn into any animal I wanted.  How cool would it be to turn into a falcon and fly to school?

19.  What's your favorite thing about writing novels?

My favorite thing about writing novels is getting to live the story through my characters.  Every time one of my characters falls in love for the first time, it is like I get to fall in love for the first time . . . again.  When they finally beat the bad guys, it is like I am beating the bad guys.  Writing novels is the coolest job EVER.  Who else gets to be a ninja one night, a shapeshifter the next night, a princess the next night, and a magician the next night?

20.  Besides yourself, who is your favorite author?

I am actually not my favorite author.  I'll read other people's books, like Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT, or Frannie Billingsley's CHIME, and wish I had thought of that story.  I am a longtime fan of Robert Jordan and Tad Williams.

21.  When did you first get hooked on writing?

I think I was really "hooked" on writing about a month or two after I started writing an hour a day.  At first writing was really hard.  To put my thoughts down on paper, and make them sound just how they looked in my mind, was a lot of work.  But after tow months of just doing it, it started getting fun and I was hooked.

22.  What do you do when you're in the middle of a book, get stuck, and can't think of anything else to write?

I beat my head against a wall.  Just kidding.  I start talking to my husband about my book and running different ideas off of him, while he gives me new, fresh ideas that could work.  Talking through the plot with another creative person has saved several of my stories.

Questions from 7th/8th Grade Creative Writing classes:

23.  How long did it take to write Shifting?

Shifting only took me about six weeks to write, which is insanely fast for me.  But, when I wrote Shifting, I only had two children.  Now it takes me about a year to write a book, but I have four children!

24.  Where did you get the idea for Shifting?

I wanted to write a young adult book with a supernatural/magical twist.  i had lived in Silver City,
New Mexico as a teenager and heard all the spooky stories of Skinwalkers, so I decided to write about the good force that would counter-balance the evil Skinwalkers, and Shifting was born.

25. Why did you choose shapeshifting as Maggie's gift?

I chose shapeshifting as Maggie's gift because I think it would be so cool to be a shape shifter!  It also made her life really difficult, which makes for a sympathetic character.

26.  How many rough drafts / rewrites did it take before you were happy with Shifting?
I chose shapeshifting as Maggie's gift because I think it would be so cool to be a shape shifter! It also made her life really difficult, which makes for a sympathetic character.

27.  Did you choose the title Shifting, or was it suggested to you?

I did not choose the title Shifting.  Shifting was originally called The Hunted, but that title wouldn't work because P.C. Cast had a book out with the same title.  My editor, Emily Easton, sent me an email and asked what I thought of the title Shifting (I loved it) and so that's how it came to be.

28.  Other Native American groups have shapeshifter stories and legends.  Why did you choose the Navajo skinwalker legend?

I chose to write about the Navajo culture because I had been around it and experienced it first hand.  one of my best friends is actually Navajo.  A funny thing--she is the only person who WILL NOT talk about Skinwalkers because the Navajo believe that if you talk about Skinwalkers, it calls their attention to you.

29.  Most authors base their characters and stories on people and incidents from their own lives.  How much of you, the people you know, and your personal life are in the book?

My books are filled with personal experience.  Everything I experience in life adds to my understanding of what a character is going through.  Take Maggie Mae's not fitting in, for example.  I didn't fit in.  in high school, my only friend decided she didn't want to eat lunch with me anymore, but instead of telling me this, she would run away from me if I tried to sit by her until i got the point--she didn't like me anymore.  So, I know how it feels to eat alone at lunch, I know how it feels to be picked on, I know how it feels to wear the wrong things to school.  As for the characters in my book, most of them are based loosely on several people i know or have known throughout my life.  Bridger like to mountain bike--my cousin liked to mountain bike.  Mrs. Carpenter is a lot like my mother.

30. Which of your characters do you most identify with?

Maggie and Mrs. Carpenter.   Maggie is a lot like me as a kid, like how she's sort of an outcast.  As an adult, I TRY to be like Mrs. Carpenter--I'm sort of a no-nonsense mom, while at the same time, I really love and adore and nurture my kids.

31.  What are some of your favorite books?

I grew up reading massive fantasy series by authors like Robert Jordan and Tad Williams.  They will always be some of my favorites.  I also loved Patricia McKillip, Robyn McKinnley, and Cynthia Voight.  As an adult I love Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, anything by Janette Rallison (she is hilarious), and Divergent by Veronica Roth. 

32.  What is your process like?  Do you use outlines?

My process is a little different from book to book.  Sometimes I try to outline, and it works until about half way through the book, at which time the story completely changes course without me meaning to change it.  Other times I know the beginning and the end, and then just fill in the middle.  It sort of depends on the book.  But I have never sat down and plotted out an entire book, and then written it according to the pre-plotted plot line.

33.  Did you ever change your mind about a story once you'd gotten partway through?  What made you change it?

Yes, yes, YES!  I think I have done this with every single thing I have ever written.  I will get half way through and then realize I had things all wrong, and so go back and rewrite the first half of it.  I don't know what makes me change the plot, or why this happens, but for me, writing is like going on a hike.  I don't know what is around the next bend in the trail until I get to it, and sometimes it is a total surprise.  And when I get to the end of the hike, the view is never quite what I thought it would be when I started out.

34.  Now that you're published, would you go back and change any part of Shifting?  If so, why?

I would not change a single thing in Shifting.  I have come to the conclusion that no book is ever perfect.  You just have to work hard until you reach a point where you are happy with the end product, and then let yourself move on to something else.

35.  Do you have any other books planned around Navajo legends?

I do not, but that doesn't mean I won't write about Navajo legends in the future.

36.  Do you set aside time to write every day?  What time is that, and do you have a daily goal to shoot for?

I write Monday through Saturday, from the time I put my kids to bed until I can't keep my eyes open.  I used to have the goal of writing 1,000 words per day, but decided that sometimes it is better for me to slow my writing down and focus on the plot a little bit more than the word count.  Sometimes (rarely) I write 2,000 words a night, sometimes (typically) I write 300.  But as long as I do it six days a week, my words slowly grow into sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, and finally a novel.

37.  Have you ever fallen asleep while writing?

Yes I have.  But only twice.  I jerk back awake when my head bobs forward and I think, for a split second, that I am walking down a flight of stairs and have tripped.

38.  How do you choose your plotlines?

Every book is different, but I have these weird, crazy thoughts come into my head sometimes, like when the swine flu was on the news all the time, and people swarmed clinics for vaccines issued by the government, I thought to myself, "What if there really isn't any swine flu and the government just made it up so that they can give everyone these vaccines that are going to turn them into zombies or something?"  That is how my latest book, STUNG, came about.  That and a nightmare, which I will tell you about a little further on.

39.  Did you ever write a character whose life was your personal dream?

If you mean a personal dream, as in I dreamed all my life of being a movie star, so I want to write about a movie star, then no.  But if you mean have I ever had a dream, and then written that dream into a book, then yes.  But it wasn't a dream.  it was a nightmare.  The book based on that nightmare, Stung, comes out this April.

40.  When you were little, did you want to be an author when you grew up?

Actually, no!  To be honest with you guys, I never thought I was smart enough to be an author.  Being a book lover, I idolized authors.  I did always love hearing and telling stories, though.  my favorite thing as a kid, when we had cousins sleep over, was to lay awake way past midnight and tell ghost stories.  Or skinwalker stories.

41.  How crazy did you feel when you found out your book was accepted by a publisher?

So crazy I can't even describe it.  Just imagine a grown woman laughing, screaming, crying and jumping up and down for a really long time, while her kids stood and watched her with wide, scared eyes.  That sort of sums it up.  That being said, you must understand that Shifting was the fifth book I wrote, and I had been trying for years to get published, and had gotten nearly two hundred rejections on three separate books.  So, after years of trying, to finally make it was feaking AWESOME!

42.  How long did it take for a publisher to accept Shifting?

From the time I started writing Shifting, until the time it was accepted for publication by Walker books, was over TWO YEARS!

43.  How did you decide to make Maggie a child who had been bounced from foster home to foster home?

It just fit with her situation, so I really didn't decide to do it that way--that's just how it happened.  She was a shifter, so her parents were hunted down and killed, making her an orphan.  And then, with the problems that arose from her shape shifting, no one would want her around because they didn't understand the reason behind her seeming rebelliousness.

44.  What's your favorite genre to read when you read for pleasure?

Young adult!  There is nothing better.

45.  What's your favorite genre to write?

I write what I love to read, so young adult.

46.  How many books do you plan to write?  How many do you have planned right now?

I have already written ten books.  Shifting was my fifth book, Stung is my ninth.  I plan to write as many books as I have time to write, so long as the stories keep coming to me.  As of now, I only have one book "planned."

47.  How did you become interested in Navajo folklore?

I became interested in Navajo folklore because so much of their religion and folklore seem like "magic" to me.  Also, the hair-raising tales of Skinwalkers as my friends and neighbors have told me made me want to write about them.  Here is a quick story from a neighbor.  He was in his mid-twenties, and a big, tough, tattooed and bearded guy that no one in his right mind would pick a fight with.  He pulled me aside at a Christmas party and said he'd seen a Skinwalker before.  His voice trembled as he told me, "One night after midnight, my cousin and I were out driving on a deserted road on the Indian reservation (he was on the Ute reservation), when the two of us looked at each other.  The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and my cousin said he felt like something was wrong.  When we looked back at the road, a man was crouched on the side of it.  He wasn't wearing a shirt--only a pair of cut-off shorts.  No shoes.  And he had stringy blond hair.  He watched our car approach, and when we were beside him, he jumped to his feet and started running alongside us.  My cousin screamed for me to go faster--we were going 30 mph--so I floored it, but the man started running on all fours, staring into the car window.  We started screaming.  It wasn't until we were going 55 mph that we pulled ahead of him.  He was a Skinwalker.  I will never drive on the Indian reservation after sunset again in my life!"

Get your copy of Shifting today!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Character Delineation

People's personalities are as unique as their fingerprints.  They react to the same situations differently, they express themselves in distinctive ways.  An author's great challenge is to make his fictional characters as refreshingly individual as real people.  Some writers refer to this challenge as character delineation.

To help my students better delineate their characters, I have them fill in a table with rows of attributes on one side and columns for their characters' names at the top.  Attributes include such things as physical differences (like hair and eye color), dialogue differences (distinctive words and phrases they use), and emotional reactions.  I've found it effective to use the Hogwarts Express scene from the first Harry Potter movie to allow students to identify differences between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  It helps any author to do a little "people watching" like this.

One of the things my students usually notice while watching this scene is that Ron and Hermione use different phrases to show strong emotion.  Ron chooses the word "Wicked!" when expressing his surprise whereas Hermione exclaims "Holy cricket!"

I refer to characters' unique speech patterns as "dialogue fingerprints."  If you're delineating dialogue well enough, readers know who a character is without needing the speaker tag to reveal it to them.  A young person I'm acquainted with likes to say "Oh, Mylanta!" if something surprises her.  Comedians are masters at picking up on and imitating dialogue fingerprints.  Quiz:  Which U.S. president did Dana Carvey often impersonate using the phrase "That wouldn't be prudent"?

I've pondered using the Mylanta example in a novel, but also wondered if I ought to use a registered trademark symbol with it.  ("Oh, Mylanta®!"  Or how about this instead?  "Oh, my Tylenol®!"  Nope.  Just doesn't have the same ring to it.)

Authors should also give attention to gender differences when delineating their characters.  A criticism I often hear about romance novels is that romance authors make their male characters speak, think, and act too much like women.  I have a problem with male characters who think and act too much like a woman.  (Chiefly because my wife thinks if a fictional man can think and behave like she wants him to, I should, too.)

To make a point about gender delineation, one of my college professors asked several male students what color of blouse an attractive co-ed was wearing.  "Blue!" they all agreed.  When asked if the men had answered correctly, the women in the class disagreed and named the specific shade of blue.  (You can tell I'm not female, because I don't remember the shade.  Indigo?  Cobalt?  Baby blue?  Aw, who cares!  Blue is blue!)

Early in my writing career, I learned how easy it is to make mistakes when differentiating males from females. I know how men react, but my wife had to kindly point out to me that most women don't punch walls when they're angry.  (Maybe their idiot husband's arm, but never the wall.)

There are also regional differences, educational differences, and age differences in speech and behavior.  If you're thirty or forty-something try using a lot of teen slang in your next conversation.  If you're an English teacher, wait for your next parent-teacher conference and say "ain't" and "we was" as many times as possible.  Watch what happens when you've gotten your real-life delineations wrong.