- Just start writing your story, even if you don’t know all the “rules”.
- The importance of book covers and editing.
- Using social media to truly connect with your readers.
Writing is a passion that fulfills me in ways well beyond money.
Welcome to the forty-fifth 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 writer Traci Ison Schafer.
From Traci’s book, THE ANUAN LEGACY:
“The shuttle vibrated under the stress of friction with Earth’s atmosphere. Opening my mind, I directed my mental willpower into the shuttle. Slow to entry speed! Still, the vibrations rocked the shuttle. If I didn’t get the shuttle’s speed down, it would break apart under the continued force of entry. I focused everything I could pull from within myself at the shuttle. It slowed – not quite to a normal entry speed – but close enough to ease some of the stress on the craft.”
Arthur: Tell me about your writing journey. What were your early influences? Why did you decide to start writing?
Traci: Though I’d had a few people in the past tell me I should be a writer, I never really took that seriously. I figured that kind of career could never pay the bills—unless you were one of the fortunate few who hit it really big—so I just dismissed it. Only after I started writing did I realize, there’s more to it than paying the bills. Writing is a passion that fulfills me in ways well beyond money. I think other writers will understand that statement. My writing journey didn’t start until I was in my mid-forties. I’d never been a reader (I’ve recently been diagnosed with dyslexia so that explains why I wasn’t drawn to reading) but several people were going on and on about a book one day and told me I HAD to read it. Just to find out what all the stir was about, I read it and discovered I actually loved reading for pleasure. I couldn’t wait to read another book, but couldn’t find one that sounded quite like what I wanted to read. At that point (remembering those people who’d told me I should write), I decided to give writing a try and write the book I wanted to read myself. I know it sounds crazy, but the next day I started writing what would become The Anuan Legacy. Of course, I had no knowledge of the actual craft of writing, so once I had a first draft (and an agent pointed out all the things I’d done wrong), I started taking craft classes, going to workshops and conferences, and figured out how to tell the story the proper way. This journey is why I try to encourage writers to get their first draft written, regardless of whether they know all the “rules” yet or not, and how they can become a writer no matter where they start, because I did it from a point of being about as clueless as one can be.
Arthur: I love your prose; how did you develop it? How long were you actively writing before your first book was published? How is your writing process different now than when you first started?
Traci: Thank you. I don’t know that I really “develop” it as much as just write down what comes to me. I probably shy away from the fluffy, big-worded literary type of writing because of the dyslexia. When reading I tend to skip over those kinds of words so they never really became a part of the pool from which I draw. The Anuan Legacy was the first thing I ever wrote (beyond dabbling a little in poetry for fun when I was in school) and that took about seven years from start to published, but I was learning along the way.
I’m not sure I’ve really changed my process much from when I first started, I just know the craft better now. I start out with a bullet list of this happens then this happens, a rough outline, I suppose, and start filling in the details. When I first started, I would bounce around as scenes would come to me, but now I go more in order. I guess that would be the biggest difference.
If they’d have offered kids the opportunity to go into space, I’d have been the first in line.
Arthur: How has your history with the military influenced your writing?
Traci: Well, working at Wright-Patt (Wright-Patterson Air Force Base) helped fuel the setting and topic, but I think the bigger influences were my love of Star Wars and astronomy growing up. If they’d have offered kids the opportunity to go into space, I’d have been first in line. I’d still go. But, through my book, anyone can have that kind of adventure right now.
Arthur: How long did it take you to write THE ANUAN LEGACY? How did you come up with the driving conflict and craft it in such a way to keep moving the story forward?
Traci: Because I discovered writing late in life and had to learn the craft of writing as I went, it took a really long time to go from first draft to published book. I started writing The Anuan Legacy on January 10, 2011, finished my first draft on June 4, 2011, and published it on February 13, 2018. So, you see there was a substantial time difference between the time it took me to write it and the time it took me to write it correctly. But, since it was self-published, I was also learning the publishing pieces as well toward the end.
I knew where I wanted the story to end up, so I just kept putting road blocks along that path with some of that conflict happening in every chapter. One of my writing mentors, William Bernhardt says that every chapter has to move the story forward, and he’s right. So, there were some chapters that just got cut because there wasn’t enough action/conflict happening to move the story along. I kind of hate that because some of the characters’ personalities got cut out in those more playful scenes between Gaige and Victoria, but it keeps a better pace. I’ll probably offer some of those deleted scenes to my e-mail subscribers who are already vested in the characters and might appreciate the extra insight into those characters.
Every chapter has to move the story forward.
Arthur: What was the hardest part about writing THE ANUAN LEGACY for you? Why?
Traci: The story flowed very easily, even with story revisions. Story critiques never bother me. They always get my brain flowing with an even better version. However, I hate the line-editing kind of revisions. I tend to spin around about those tiny details far too long. That’s definitely the hardest part for me.
Arthur: In my previous interview with Hugh Howey, he talked about the importance of a great book cover. Can you tell me about your book cover design process? How do you test its effectiveness?
Traci: Though I’m a self-published author, I don’t even attempt to edit my manuscripts or design my covers. Those two things are beyond “story telling” and so very important. They’re best left to professionals. I hired a person, Ana Grigoriu, based on her portfolio, professional website, and numerous correspondence with her about my vision for the cover. She provided valuable feedback and we had some great dialog about the cover before moving forward. During the process, I got feedback from other writers and readers about the cover, but it was pretty spot on from the beginning. I only had her make one or two minor tweaks to the first draft she provided. I’ve had so many comments about how the cover is what caused a reader to check out my book and ultimately purchase it. I did have a bad experience before I hired Ana. I selected a designer based on his portfolio (which was really impressive), but the communication wasn’t good and the first draft didn’t represent my book well at all. For one (of many), my alien was wearing a US space suit, complete with US flags. Hello? We parted ways and I found Ana. It worked out well in the end. So, a writer shouldn’t feel stuck if they’re not satisfied with their cover. That is the first thing people see and what they’ll use to make a decision on whether to take the next step toward buying your book. You want that to be right.
I’ve had so many comments about how the cover is what caused a reader to check out my book and ultimately purchase it.
Arthur: How have you built your audience? Over your writing career, have your techniques for interacting with your readers changed? How?
Traci: I’ve definitely learned a lot about “building an audience” over time. I’ve learned that social media is the means to connect with people and interact with my readers on a more personal, direct level and not just some box to check in order to say I have a platform. I work full time outside of writing and have a three hour round trip commute every day, but no matter how tired I am, I make sure to respond to every single person who’s reached out to me via social media, and continue to seek out other like-minded people to connect with. Since I’m such an introvert, it was tough at first, but I really am in my element when talking and connecting about writing, so I found it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. I’ve met some really wonderful people over social media and some have even traveled some pretty decent distances to come to my book signings. It’s great when I get to meet a twitter or other social media friend in person! When I stopped looking at social media as just numbers and looked at it as a way to meet and connect with my readers, the numbers took care of themselves.
Arthur: In a previous interview, writer Katherine Karch and I discuss engaging our readers by adapting our writing to hook them and keep them interested in the story’s conflict. Do you have any specific techniques for engaging your readers through your prose or otherwise?
Traci: I just make sure something exciting (some conflict, or discovery, or important story question) is happening in every chapter that moves the story forward. If that’s not there, I cut the chapter.
When I stopped looking at social media as just numbers and looked at it as a way to meet and connect with my readers, the numbers took care of themselves.
Arthur: Terry Brooks, in a TED talk about writing, says he writes to find the answers to questions. Kayelle Allen, in my previous interview with her, talks about writing to tell the truth. Why do you write? Are you seeking the truth? Answers? Are they one in the same?
Traci: I suppose my writing has some deeper messages like finding one’s true self or a doing unto others kind of thing going on, but that’s not what I’m after when I write. I’m not trying to answer any grand questions or provide any great lessons. I write to escape into another world that I can’t get to from here and to give my reader that same opportunity. I don’t look at myself as writing the book so much as living it, just like my readers will be. I want to give my readers a break from the mundane tasks of daily life, because that’s what I want for myself.
Arthur: Cal Newport wrote a book called SO GOOD THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU, where he talks about making our work – whatever it may be, writing, music or artwork – “remarkable,” as in it is able to be remarked or talked about. With millions of writers out there writing books, what are you doing with your writing to set your stories apart (to be “remarkable”)?
Traci: I haven’t read that book so I can only speak to what I’ve heard about it, but I’m not sure I completely agree with what I know of it. I’m a big follow your passion kind of person where my writing is concerned. I don’t think that book holds to that way of thinking, or at least doesn’t hold to the idea that following your passion can necessarily make you happy. I do work hard to continually develop and hone the craft and do everything I can to put a quality product out there for people. But, in the end, I am doing this because I love it. If other people love my stories and remember them, that’s awesome, and I hope that ends up being the case. But I love them and am proud of them, and writing them makes me happy. That’s remarkable enough for me.
I want to give my readers a break from the mundane tasks of daily life, because that’s what I want for myself.
Arthur: Christopher Ryan, in my interview with him, talks about our writing living forever. What does it mean for us as writers to leave behind a legacy? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind not just in your writing, but in your life?
Traci: I found a passion for writing late in life. I then wrote and published starting with absolutely no experience or knowledge of how to go about that, but with a lot of hard work, I did it. I hope people will see that and know they can accomplish the same or whatever else they want to achieve in life no matter when or where they start out.
Thank you so much Traci for sharing your wisdom here with the Strange World writing community. What an incredible interview. I’m really looking forward to more of your work in the future.