28 July 2009

Aspiring Author Profile: Robb Grindstaff

Robb Grindstaff


Washington, DC

Genre(s) you write:
Literary, mainstream, upmarket women's fiction

Books/Authors you love:
Authors: John Irving, Dave Eggers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amy Tan, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Mary Gaitskill
Books: World According to Garp, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, Love in the Time of Cholera, Kite Runner

How long have you been writing?
40+ years in one way or another. Told my teacher in second grade that I wanted to be an author. She said 'you have to be a writer first. After you've written something, then you are an author.' So I went home and wrote a one page short story. No idea what it was now, but my mom loved it and put it up on the fridge for the whole family to see. That's when I discovered the joy of being published and having readers. Wrote through high school, majored in English and journalism and continued writing through college. Somewhere along the way, a full time job, married, kids, a mortgage - the career in the newspaper biz and family life took over and my fiction writing stepped aside for 20 years or more. Then one day about 8 years ago, had an idea for a novel and sat down to write. Haven't stopped since.

Do you have any professional/industry experience as a writer?
30 years in newspapers, much of that on the business side of the industry, but have been a reporter and editor and currently managing editor of a daily newspaper. So my professional experience is more involved in reading/editing other people's work, and not with fiction (at least hopefully not; we try to avoid that).

Had anything published?
Literary mag back in college. Now, regularly submitting and querying, but still looking for the big publication deal that will surpass my mom's refrigerator door.

Agent status (please X all that apply)
[X] Need one
[X] Want one. Desperately. Want. One.
[ ] Got one
[X] We’re “talking” (manuscript of my first novel requested by an agent who is reviewing it. But I've had several agents request the full MS, have entered discussions with two agents, but no luck yet)
[ ] I’m cyberstalking him/her, but so far they have yet to respond to my inappropriate sexual advances…. Erm, I mean, my query letter.
[ ] Agent? Who needs an agent?

Either/Or when you write:

Pen and paper, or computer screen? -- Computer screen absolutely. I can't read my own handwriting, and the words come much too fast for pen and paper. I type about 70wpm and that's not fast enough either, but I can read it and edit it on the fly.

Plotster (outlines, scene cards, etc.) or Pantster (writing by the seat of your pants)? -- Some of both. I generally have an outline of the story; I know what happens or is going to happen. Sometimes the entire story comes to me in one idea, and I outline the entire novel in one sitting, then go back to write it scene by scene. However, I don't let the outline lock me in. If, while writing, it takes off in a different direction, I let it go. Later, I'll decide whether to change the outline to match what I wrote, or vice versa. Othertimes, however, I just sit down to write with the barest kernel of a character, and let the character tell me about herself and her story. The story and the character develop slowly.

Music on, or off? -- Off. No distractions. Silence. No movement, no sound, nobody walking in and out of the room.

Solitude, or surrounded by people, sounds, things? -- See above. Solitude and silence.

Cleanest first draft possible, or screw grammar/spelling/punctuation and fix it later? Generally pretty clean first drafts as far as typos and grammar etc., and I'll go through and tweak and edit and correct as I go. But still requires a lot of editing later, more for word choice, scene construction, organization, etc.

Slave to the whimsy of your muse, or writing like it’s your job, even when you don’t feel like it? -- Unfortunately, the muse wins. I wish I was more dedicated and disciplined to writing XXXX words per day whether I want to or not. I try, but it doesn't often work. When I'm in the 'zone,' however, I can turn out 10,000 words or more in a day, and they're usually pretty good words. When I force myself to write as a matter of discipline, I invariably wind up trashing anything I wrote.

Do you have a certain place/time of day/writing implement/obsessive ritual/etc. that is crucial to your writing process?
No, not really. Often it's late at night, but then I fall asleep.

Where do you get your inspiration?
I don't know. Especially when a story comes into my head complete from start to finish in one thought. But the stories, the characters especially, in my work have been inspired by the people I've known over the years, the things I've seen and places I've been, and all the great writers I've read over my lifetime. But I usually don't see that until I'm done, other than the more surface, obvious influences. Carry Me Away, for example, I had finished writing it and out querying agents for a year or more before it hit me: as a parent, for years and years, my biggest fear was to lose a child or a have a child permanently disabled, and a car accident was usually the basis for that fear. Seems obvious now, but I didn't realize that in Carry, I wrote my biggest fear, but not from the parent's perspective.

What one thing do you really love about your own writing?
Oh, that's a tough one. What I love about my own writing, and what readers love, may be two very different things. Some things I've written and absolutely loved have wound up getting cut out during editing. "Kill your darlings." But overall, I think my strengths are building three-dimensional lead characters that engage readers, that readers can relate to as a real person; and doing description in very simple or subtle ways that tie to the story itself rather than stopping to describe something in great detail. I'd rather the description - whether a physical description of what someone looks like or the weather or what some scenery looks like just flow in naturally, in brief little snippets that don't interrupt the story, and help create an image in the reader's mind without ever making her stop to try to picture it. I don't like describing a character in such detail that I'm trying to force the reader to see her the way I do, but give just enough so the reader's imagination can fill in the rest.

What one thing do you wish you could do better?
Male characters. I tend to write in first person female, even though I've never been one. Go figure. I've tried to write a male lead character a few times, and they come out boring. Guys are boring to write. Women are much more complex and fascinating.

Anything else you want to say?
Haven't I said too much already?
[Me: Nope, never.  :-)  Just to prove it, you get two snippets, because I love Carry and Hannah  both too much to choose.]

A snippet from "Carry Me Away." Fifteen-year old Carrie, who has just learned that complications from internal injuries caused by a car accident two years earlier are inoperable, and doctors have given her a year or two before her body gives out completely, is visiting Mama Carissa, her grandmother in rural Texas. They're working in the grandmother's flower beds together.

We sat in the dirt together for hours every day that week. I learned the difference between petunias and pansies, tulips and daffodils, marigolds and dahlias, seeds and bulbs, annuals and perennials. I learned when to prune the azalea bushes so they’ll have time to recuperate from the trauma to bloom again in the spring more brilliantly than ever. I learned there are more kinds of roses than I’d ever imagined possible.

A butterfly landed on my glove, and I held very still while we watched it for the longest time before it flew off.

“Butterflies are the most beautiful living creature, don’t you think, child?” she said. “An amazing creation of God. They have to be that beautiful to have the confidence to land on these flowers. You don’t see moths landing on these flowers, because they’d just embarrass their selves. God had to create something beautiful enough to visit these flowers without feeling ashamed.”

“What about the bees, Mama? They visit the flowers, and they’re not so beautiful.”

“No?” She seemed a little incredulous that I didn’t find bees beautiful. She reached over to a petunia bloom and caught a bumblebee in her glove, holding it just tightly enough so it couldn’t escape, but not so much that she’d squash it.

“Looky here. See the stripes with the different colors? The light hairs covering his whole body? And look at the legs. Shiny, with tiny, coarse black hairs that collect the pollen, just like your grandma’s.” When she laughed at herself, her shoulders bounced up and down and her bosom jiggled.

The veins formed supports in the transparent wings. The eyes seemed to see in all directions. The tiny antennae searched for a signal and the little tongue-like proboscis darted in and out to get a drop of sweet liquid from deep inside a flower.

Its stinger slid in and out, trying to find a target but coming up empty. How could something so tiny hurt so much? I’d never been stung but had always heard that bees could cause some serious pain. I’d finally gotten used to needles, and it couldn’t hurt any more than that, could it?

I slipped off one pink glove, and slowly extended a finger toward the bee. I wanted to touch it, to feel the silky hairs, the slick wings, to let him taste my skin with his little tongue.

I wanted to touch the stinger, to feel it enter me, to feel its juice injected inside me like a nurse with a syringe.

“Just what are you doing, child?” Mama opened up her glove and let the bee fly off to go pollinate another flower just before my finger reached it. “Don’t you know that thing will sting you?”

“I wanted to touch it, Mama. Does it really hurt that much?”

“I think we need to get you inside for some lemonade. I’ve had you sitting out in this heat so long your brain is getting sunburnt. Besides, there’s some clouds coming in over there, so I think our good weather is about to go to hell in a handbasket.”

So we went in the house, drank some “fresh-squozed” lemonade that evaporated in my mouth before I swallowed, and shared the last piece of leftover strawberry rhubarb pie as the thunder rolled in the distance. The sky grew darker, and I napped on the couch while Mama Carissa watched TV. When I woke up, the sun was coming in through the window on my face, low and hot.

She was telling the contestants when to buy a vowel, or criticizing them mercilessly for not seeing the obvious answer. Mama Carissa always seemed to have the answer.

“Did it rain, Mama?”

“No, not a drop.” She thought about something for a minute, something serious, then she just went back to my question about the rain.

“Sometimes the darkest clouds can gather on the horizon, and you’ll think you’re in for a huge storm. Then it just goes away, and the sun comes out like nothing was ever wrong.”

Mama Carissa always had the answer.

To read the opening chapters of Carry Me Away, visit either http://www.authonomy.com/ViewBook.aspx?bookid=1389 or www.fbook.me/robbgrindstaff_writer
Something from Hannah's Voice.
Hannah, six years old, at home with her mother while a group of adults from church are visiting one evening, when a thunderstorm hits. Hannah is most concerned about the snowman she had built in the front yard a couple weeks earlier.

The lights flickered twice before coming back on to stay. Everyone stumbled to the window to see where the lightning had hit.

“Yup, it got your tree, Ruth.”

I squeezed in beside Momma and peered through the blinds. Pitch black outside, I couldn’t see the tree at all until another streak turned the front yard to daylight for a couple seconds. Colors reappeared for that brief moment. The waxy green leaves of the magnolia. A silver car in the driveway. The blue door and shutters of the house across the street, with a red wagon in their front yard. A strange yellow streak down the middle of our tree. The lowest limb hung down at an odd angle, so low that the tire from the swing rested flat on the ground. Then everything went black outside again. Only dim shadows in gray remained, outlining the bright photograph etched in my brain. Another thunderclap pushed me back from the window even though I knew it was coming this time.

I was halfway across the front yard before the screen door slammed behind me.

“Hannah, where do you think you’re going? Get back here this instant, young lady. You’ll get struck by lightning out there. What’s wrong with you? What are you doing?” Momma stood in the doorway, her panicked voice screeching over the storm.

Another flash and bang at my side gave me enough light to see where I needed to go. There, just beyond the tire. I ran as fast as I could while the light lasted. Giant drops thumped my head, pelted my back, stung my face. The rain seemed to go sideways in all directions. This time the thunder didn’t make me jump.

I bent down in the wet grass and scooped him up in my hands, sliding my fingers under his icy belly and holding him close, bending over to protect him from the warm rain.

All the women crowded in the doorway beside Momma, who held the screen open and yelled for me to hurry. The two men looked through the window blinds at me, horizontal strips of a giant and an elf. When the yard lit up yet again, my legs bolted for the door before I willed them to move. Momma stepped out into the rain to hold the door so I could get by her, while the others stepped back to make way. I didn’t stop until I got to the kitchen, with Momma following right behind me. She pulled open a drawer and grabbed a box of the freezer bags we used for leftovers.

“Quick, child. Before he’s all gone.” She held the bag open while I lowered him inside. She zipped the seal shut and handed me the bag. She opened the small door on top of the refrigerator, too high for me to reach, and rushed to rearrange some leftovers and frozen packages of meat to make room for the new guest.

She took the bag with my tiny, misshapen snow baby and set him between the ice cube trays and the gumbo, just in front of the catfish fillets.

“There. Now he’s safe.” We looked at the little white blob for a moment before I reached up on my tiptoes and shut the freezer door.

Read more of Hannah's Voice at http://www.authonomy.com/ViewBook.aspx?bookid=1915 or www.fbook.me/robbgrindstaff_writer

24 July 2009

Reading as Inspiration

Reading a good book is often good inspiration for my writing. Not because I glean plot or character ideas, but because in reading a well-crafted story, I'm encouraged to craft my own just as well, if not better. I always want to improve my technique and skill, to tell my stories in the best way possible, to touch my readers with what I write, be that through humor, drama, romance, etc.  I like being able to read a good book and enjoy it not just for its entertainment value, but its educational value.

In the past week, I've devoured 3 Laurell K. Hamilton books.  And I do mean devoured.  I first picked up one of her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels a few months ago, to research erotic elements in fiction.  It was one of the later books in the series, and from what I've read since then, it seems the sexual content in the later books is much more explicit than the first few.  But since I picked up that first book, I've been going back for more.  I read another.  Then I decided to go back to the beginning to see how the series started.  My library doesn't have all the books in the series, so I'm trying to read the ones it does have in the most chronological order possible.  Each one never fails to fascinate me.

Her research is evident in every book.  From the types of guns Anita likes to use, to the science of vampirism and lycanthropy, to the myth and folklore of necromancy and more, it's obvious that a lot of thought has gone into each book.  She's also created such a vast and varied cast of characters, and yet they all come alive.  The bad guys are terrifying, the good guys are valiant and honorable, plus a whole host of ranges in between.  Sometimes the line is blurred between the good guys and the bad guys.  Sometimes you find yourself identifying with some trait in a character that Anita dislikes, and disagreeing with something Anita says or does, which ups the ante even more. 

There's great imagination in her alternate reality where vampires, shapeshifters and humans all coexist.  Anita raises the dead and kills vampires for a living.  But while you might think her books are purely fantasy, or action, there's always so much more.  Romance, eroticism, moral debates, personal crises.  Laurell K. Hamilton weaves all of this into every book.  One minute Anita's hot on the trail of some preternatural serial killer that's ripping people to shreds, and the next minute she's debating the state of her psyche and mental health as a result of the kind of work she does.  She struggles with the men in her life, with love and sex and morals, religion, violence, keeping those she loves safe.  She's cynical and smart-mouthed, funny, smart, sexy, and yet flawed in her own way.

Now THAT is the kind of book I'd like to write.  Granted, Hamilton has a few flaws, a few things that I don't love quite as much.  Like a slightly distracting tendency to repeat words in close proximity, or to overuse a certain word or turn of phrase.  And I think her dialogue can lean heavily toward exposition at times, which I hate, but hey.  Perfection is a goal never attained, right?  But the blend of characterization, the complex emotional issues laced with the action and plot, it's all tantalizing.  Once I pick up one of her books, I'm loathe to put it down until I'm finished.

So the kind of inspiration I get from her isn't the kind that will make me run out and write a vampire novel.  It's the kind that has me searching for the right words to use, or ways to make my characters deeper and more complex, ways to draw the reader further into the story so they never want to put it down.  Here's hoping I succeed.

15 July 2009

Aspiring Author Profile: Chrissy Taylor

UPDATE:  Chrissy has an agent!  Congrats!

Name: Chrissy Taylor

Location: Northeast, US

Age…ish?: 37 (I think... I can never keep track)

Genre(s) you write: Steampunk, Paranormal, Romance, Mystery, Historical

Books/Authors you love: Diana Gabaldon, Anne Perry, Elizabeth Peters, Tess Gerritsen, Nora Roberts, Martha Grimes

How long have you been writing? Five years

Do you have any professional/industry experience as a writer? Nope.

Had anything published? Nope, though I have a short that will be out in a zine shortly-- next month, I think.

Agent status (please X all that apply)
[ ] Need one
[ ] Want one. Desperately. Want. One.
[ ] Got one
[X ] We’re “talking” (Though after Tuesday, it may be more of a Got One or a Need One.)
[ ] I’m cyberstalking him/her, but so far they have yet to respond to my inappropriate sexual advances…. Erm, I mean, my query letter.
[ ] Agent? Who needs an agent?

Either/Or when you write:
Pen and paper, or computer screen? Computer screen

Plotster (outlines, scene cards, etc.) or Pantster (writing by the seat of your pants)? Definately Pantster.

Music on, or off? Off for writing, on for thinking.

Solitude, or surrounded by people, sounds, things? Where and whenever I can get a free minute, though it usually involves getting interrupted every couple of seconds by one of my two monkeys... er, kids.

Cleanest first draft possible, or screw grammar/spelling/punctuation and fix it later? Cleanest first draft possible, though I inadvertently leave out entire words from lack of sleep.

Slave to the whimsy of your muse, or writing like it’s your job, even when you don’t feel like it? Always writing... the muse never leaves me alone. Well, maybe she does take the occasional nap, but I write anyway.

Do you have a certain place/time of day/writing implement/obsessive ritual/etc. that is crucial to your writing process? I just need my laptop and enough super strength tea to keep me awake.

Where do you get your inspiration? The voices in my head, and the music lyrics to the bizarre songs I listen to.

What one thing do you really love about your own writing? I don't so much love my writing, but i do love my characters.

What one thing do you wish you could do better? Stop dangling my participles.

Anything else you want to say? um... nope.

Anything for us to read? Sure. Here's an excerpt about a just developed herbal drink with some curious side effects.

“To yer success.” Seth raised his glass to her and then drank, the rest of them following suit.

The taste was not bad, but being quite petite in build, it did not take long before Phoebe started to feel the herbal’s effects, though it was quickly becoming clear she would need to make adjustments to the formula. Curiously, her skin felt somehow electrified, and though her mood had indeed lightened, it also left her feeling light-headed, her knees threatening to give way.

Seth must have realized, pulling her into his arms to offer the support she desperately needed, but his touch sent waves of desire through her, like nothing she had ever felt before. His arms wrapped tight around her waist, their bodies pressed against each other as the herbal coursed through them both. With their inhibitions gone, Seth leaned in and kissed her, his lips soft on hers at first, before his kiss deepened, setting her skin on fire, her desire no longer contained as she was overcome, and left quivering in his arms.

When he spoke it was just a whisper in her ear, his breath sending a shiver down her spine. “I dinna ken if that was the effect ye were after, but I’ll be damned if ye couldna’ make yerself a fortune.”