It’s not uncommon for writers to publish in different genres or publications. In fact, it can be a good way to build your portfolio and gain experience. Thomas Allbaugh has his hand in several genres, and today he shares some of his tips for novelists. Keep reading!
What do you write? How/why did you pick your genre?
I write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. I began with a love of fiction that I got from reading Mark Twain and some science fiction in the fourth and fifth grades. Since then, I’ve written stories and always thought I’d write a novel. I finished my first novel when I was 61. I’m writing my second now.
I graduated to being a nonfiction writer after grad school. Currently, I’m writing a book on grief about losing our son to suicide.
Finally, I just published a chapbook of poems, part of which came out of my grieving process after losing my youngest son.
What’s the most difficult part of writing your genre? How do you work through those challenges?
Right now, I have the over-all concept for my second novel. I find the challenge with this book is focusing on action as opposed to writing too much exposition or background. I realize this is all the process of me learning about my characters and their situation, but most of this material is for me, not my reader. Most of it gets cut.
I have this same problem writing short stories. Recently, I started a story with the basic concept and conflict. I had to do a lot of rewrites to focus more and more on the central conflict of the story and the action. That was harder before I understood what I was doing. Now that I’ve made myself aware that this is how I write fiction, it feels less like driving in the dark.
How long does it take you to: write the book? Edit it? Finalize it?
For my first novel, I had to rewrite it about five times. At one point, after four drafts, I had over 300 pages. One reader suggested I harvest the scenes I liked the most and cut the rest. That was painful to hear, but I did it—I cut over 150 pages and started over.
Editing helped me create emphasis and depth, but revision took most of my time. The novel took six years. I’m about two years into my second novel; it was interrupted by my son’s suicide and a lot of writing I’ve been doing to process that.
What’s your favorite book on writing? What do you like about it?
My favorite book is James Wood’s How Fiction Works. This book mainly focuses on literary examples of point of view. It zeroes in on what Wood calls free indirect discourse: the way an author moves between his/her own authorial voice and the consciousness and voice of the characters. He provides good and bad examples, especially where the author intrudes on the consciousness of the character and doesn’t allow the character’s own language to emerge. This is especially good for someone writing in third person close.
I feel this is often a danger with religious fiction. I don’t want my way of seeing things, which is Christian, to intrude on the view of a character who feels very differently. That is called author intrusion, and I’m more aware of it, thanks to James Wood.
What writing book do you want to read next?
I have found a few pages of Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions to be incredibly enlightening in terms of understanding how to present character reactions that are not clichéd (“She shivered with fear”). I started to use it as a kind of map, but I’d like to read it through and really digest her approach to different human emotions. She is particularly good at showing how beginning writers get this wrong and fail to really make their characters’ emotions authentic for a reader. Then, she offers scaffolding on how to do it right. I think it’s going to be a very helpful book.
What’s your writing day like?
I have a day job teaching writing. I have to prepare for and teach classes, then read and respond to student writing. During the semester I can only write in the evenings, on weekends, and during a spare half hour in between work duties. I find it easier to write shorter pieces ( poems and short stories) during this time.
In the summer, I write almost every day for four months. I try to write 9 a.m.–noon; sometimes I write longer. I try not to exhaust myself. Usually this gives me the chance to write 1,000 to 2,000 words. All the drafts of my first novel, Apocalypse TV, were written during summers and Christmas breaks.
How do you prepare to write your books: pantser, plotter, both, something completely different? Describe your strategy.
I am a plontser: I do some plotting, then I do some pantsing.
When I plot, I know something about a character, and usually that knowledge comes from a scene I picture them in, so I write the scenes I know. While writing, I start pantsing, and this gives me a way to discover new ideas about my story. But it leads me to being stuck. Then plotting helps me to see further.
I think it was John Gardner who wrote that writing was like night driving in the country of Southern Illinois. He had trouble seeing beyond his headlights, but he kept driving by those lights. I think Gardner’s metaphor says a great deal of what writing is like for me.
What advice do you have for new authors?
Take yourself seriously and have fun and write what you love. You should join a writer’s group that will listen to you and hear what you are trying to do and be able to help you. You should also go to writer’s conferences and learn about how hard it is to get published and what publishers are looking for. You should learn what works and what doesn’t in the publishing world today.
Finally, really listen to rejection, and don’t rush to print on Amazon unless you are really sure that it’s a good book and is well written. Use rejection to give yourself an apprenticeship. That is, keep trying to get better. Don’t rush to self-publish. Don’t do that until you’ve developed a pretty big platform and audience.
What does your revision process look like?
My revision process is the main portion of my writing process because my drafting is mostly exploring.
I use the first draft to discover my story and ideas. For this reason, I make major cuts and rearrangements. I have to add new scenes. I have to create more emphasis.
I spend the majority of my time revising the big, global issues that shape the plot: what events happen first, what follows, and so forth. Later, I focus and add more color to scenes, more dialogue, add more character details, and create the emphasis I want. Revision for me is chaotic, but it may be where most of my work gets done. It certainly was for my first novel.
Thomas Allbaugh is the author of Apocalypse TV, a novel, and, most recently, The View from January, a poetry chapbook centered on themes of transience and the loss of his son. He is professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, where he teaches creative writing and composition/rhetoric. He has also published a textbook for first-year writing, Pretexts for Writing, which is in its third edition.