- Why outlining your story is critical to efficient writing.
- Writing dialogue in a way so all your characters don’t sound the same.
- How positioning our writing desks can improve our writing productivity.
Welcome to the fifteenth 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 horror writer Sean Stone about what influences the events in his stories and how to write better dialogue.
Books with outlines are both easier to write and just better constructed.
Arthur: On your About page, you note that you work as a lab technician. I’m assuming writing is not your full-time job. What is your writing schedule and how do you find time to write?
Sean: That’s right, I have to fit writing around my day job. I usually do a couple hours of writing in the evening after work. I also dedicate one of my days off to writing. Sometimes I get a bit of writing done on my lunch break, too.
Arthur: You have a great collection of books and stories you’ve authored. Describe your typical writing session. Are you a fast writer, just trying to get words on the page and finish the first draft? Or are you a slow writer, making sure every sentence is one that could be etched in stone?
Sean: I try to write fast and just get those words down, but I’m rarely successful. I usually sit down at my desk with a cup of tea and pull out my notes. From there the plan is to convert the notes into a beautiful story. Instead I often end up staring into space trying to figure out the best way to start the sentence. Once I get going I usually pick up a good speed. If I see typos I have to go back and fix them right away, they just really bother me.
Arthur: How long does it typically take you to write a first draft?
Sean: That seems to vary depending on how much I’ve outlined. The first book I wrote took about a year to do and I didn’t outline at all. That book, Cursed, was a pain to edit as well. These days a first draft typically takes 1-2 months.
It’s so much easier to put in twists when you already have it all planned.
Arthur: Do you outline your stories before you sit down to actually write the prose?
Sean: I never used to, but I’ve learned the benefits of doing so now. When I started writing I just sat down and pantsed the whole book, but I’ve realised books with outlines are both easier to write and just better constructed. It’s so much easier to put in twists when you already have it all planned. The book I’m currently writing (Dead Warlock: Arcane Inc. Book 5) is the first time I’ve actually written a detailed outline of the entire book before writing a single word of the draft. I’m hoping it will help make it my best book yet.
Arthur: You have a great article on your blog about people watching. I’ve heard of writers who go to the bar or coffee shop just to listen to people talk around them, in order to improve their dialogue writing. What specific things are you improving with your writing through this kind of experience you’re describing on your blog?
Sean: One of the main things I’m looking to improve is the differences between people in the way they speak, the funny little expressions that a person might say, also the way the use their body, how they gesture and carry themselves. I notice in some books that at times the characters tend to speak in the same way, they use the same phrases, the same gestures, there isn’t much difference. I think this problem stems from the author hanging out in the same circles and when people mingle in the same circles they tend to become very similar. By watching more people in various social circles I’ve noticed the differences that make characters really come to life and stand out from each other.
Arthur: Do you self-publish your books? If so, how do you develop the covers? Do you do it all yourself, such as the formatting and editing? Or do you hire an editor or artist?
Sean: I do self-publish, but I do not try to do any of the cover work myself. I wouldn’t know where to start. I have a cover designer who does everything for me. I give him all the information about the book and tell him any ideas I have of my own and then I just wait and see what he comes up with.
One of the main things I’m looking to improve is the differences between people in the way they speak.
Arthur: Do you have any advice or “lessons learned” for self-publishing writers regarding the process?
Sean: There’s a lot of lessons I’ve learned that I could pass on but I’d be here all day if I tried to sit them all! I made a ton of mistakes when I first started out. I’ll stick to the big ones that I got wrong.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself. I tried self-editing and creating my own covers in the beginning. Two things that I am very bad at. In self-publishing you need to figure out what bits you’re good at and outsource the rest.
- Another important thing for me was to get a mailing list. Creating a mailing list of readers is one of the most valuable things I did. It’s the easiest way to keep your readers up to date with what you’re doing and sell your books to them.
Arthur: As writers, we often tie our stories to experiences we’ve had in our lives, whether good or bad. For example, if we’re walking in the wilderness, we may come upon a tree house or waterfall we never knew existed. Do you have experiences in your life that you use in your writing?
Sean: I do. In fact, my experiences feature heavily in my Arcane Inc. series. A lot of the situations that the main character, Eddie, gets into are based on my own past. In Warlock Wanted (Book 2) he has to deal with the betrayal of a person he saw as his best friend, which is similar to something I went through when I was in college. He has his first real romantic relationship in the series and I based that on my own experiences in that area. A lot of his life is a very heavily dramatized version of events from my own. Not all of it, of course, I certainly would not want anyone to read the books and come away thinking that everything in them happened to me in some way!
Arthur: How do you balance all the activities of being a writer? Self-promotion? The writing itself? Maintaining a website? Working a normal day job?
Sean: It is hard. A lot of the time when I get home from the day job I want to just chill out on the sofa which is very counterproductive. The best way I’ve found to balance it all is to keep a strict schedule. I write 5 days a week. I also dedicate 1 day to things like promotion, website maintenance and blog-writing. Unless there is some sort of urgent thing that needs doing I don’t deviate from the schedule, so if it’s a writing a day I won’t do any promo stuff on that day. I try to keep one day free to just chill out and do whatever I want. It is rare that I ever have a day in which I don’t do some form of work though. I would be lying if I said I didn’t break the rules sometimes.
The best way I’ve found to balance it all is to keep a strict schedule.
Arthur: When I was a kid, I used to watch Stargate and Twilight Zone with my Grandpa. Many of these stories have influenced my writing today. Do you have any specific books, movies or TV shows which drew you to the horror genre? Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Sean: Goosebumps was a huge influence for me, the books and the TV show. I used to love those books when I was kid. There was another series similar to Goosebumps but for the life of me I cannot remember what it’s called. There was also a weekly magazine I used to get called SpineChillers. It was full of horror stories and each edition would investigate an urban legend too. As I got older I read a lot of Stephen King, he really knows how to tell a good story and his books always kept me hooked. I remember watching the mini-series of IT when I was incredibly young, far too young to be watching that film, it stayed with me for years. I picked up the book when I was a bit older and it’s one of my favourite books to this day.
The Cedarstone Chronicles was inspired by a show called The Originals, which is all about vampires and witches all fighting for control over New Orleans. That’s a great show and is one of my favourites.
Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles influenced me quite a bit too. I’ve always been a vampire fan and absolutely loved her version of the vampire mythos. I think she probably sets the bar for vampire fiction.
These days I write more urban fantasy than horror. Things like Harry Potter really influenced me, not just in fantasy, but writing in general. JK Rowling is my favourite author. Her books are a masterpiece of the craft.
When I was younger my sister got me into Charmed, a show about 3 witches who fought warlocks and demons. I think that show has probably influenced me more than even I realised.
Arthur: When you’re in the middle of a writing session, how do you free yourself from distraction?
Sean: Ha! I don’t. Not at all. I’m terrible. Within 10 minutes I often find myself staring out of the window at something that’s caught my eye, or I’ll just be sitting in my chair daydreaming. I also find that everyone I know wants to talk to me whenever I sit down to write. I should just put my phone on do not disturb, but it doesn’t help because I still end up checking it anyway. I am the most easily distracted person.
Arthur: You have a new blog post about adjusting your writing space. In an earlier interview, Kristina Mahr talked about finding your “writing environment,” or your writing space, and protecting it. Are there specific attributes to your work space which help you focus?
Sean: I’ve found that I cannot focus if my desk is facing a wall. Since moving it so that it’s facing out across the room my writing has been a lot smoother. I’m not sure why, it seem’s a strange thing but it does help. I think perhaps I’m more comfortable in more open spaces. I also have to have a very tidy work space. I cannot work if there’s any clutter or even dust on the desk, computer etc. It has to be tidy.