Inspiration and encouragement:
I read that when you were in 5th grade a teacher told you “you might be good at writing and that some grown-ups do that for a living.” Obviously, that made a strong impression on you. How did that inspire you?
I’ve been telling stories since I was little. My mom tells me I would go through reams of scratch paper, drawing girls in dresses that spilled off the page, and telling my siblings stories to go with them. I don’t remember a time that I didn’t like reading. But until my teacher, Ms. Kline, told me that some of the poems I’d written in class were beautiful, and I should share them, I hadn’t ever made the connection between the stories I told and the stories I read. For the first time, I realized that I might be able to write the kind of stories people would read. Because of that initial encouragement, I started writing more: short stories at first, then longer work. I wrote my first “novel” in junior high—though it was pretty terrible! I found it a few months ago.
Have there been other occasions where mentors have praised some other skill or quality of character they saw in you that similarly impressed and motivated you?
I’ve been really lucky to have lots of teachers who motivated me: mostly, it was their faith in me that allowed me to believe in myself. My parents were probably the most significant of these—my dad, in particular, always believed I could do whatever I set myself to do, and it’s largely because of his belief in me that I went on to graduate school and finished a PhD. (He started telling people when I was a master’s student that I was working on my PhD—how could I disappoint that faith?). My mom, though not particularly creative herself (both my parents are statisticians), always made sure that I had the materials I needed, whether it was paper, paint, fabric, or access to a computer to write.
I also had a string of English teachers who inspired me. My seventh grade English teacher, Ms. Johnson, helped introduce me to Robin McKinley, who was the first fantasy author I remember reading who featured strong women as heroines, the kinds of stories that I write now. She also told me that she fully expected me to someday sign my book for her. (It only took me another 27 years to actually publish a book!). It’s hard for me to overstate the importance of that belief. I don’t think I was a particularly exceptional writer then, but the fact that someone) saw what I was capable of gave me faith in myself.
My high school English teachers—Mr. Williams, Ms. Marshall, Ms. Brown—helped me add critical analysis to my repertoire, and one of the real pleasures of social media has been reconnecting with all of them just before my book came out.
I wrote a fairly terrible epic fantasy novel in high school, and my dad asked Dean Hughes to read it (he had been a bishop in our ward before they split the ward). Surprisingly, Dean Hughes agreed, and while he gave me some constructive critique, his positive feedback encouraged me to keep writing.
Since you teach writing to college students, how do you encourage writers who show promise?
Wow, this is a great question. I think I was drawn to teaching initially because I had so many great teachers, and that responsibility is certainly something that weighs on me as I prepare my classes. The longer I teach, the more convinced I am of the importance of praise. Of course, it’s important to offer correction, to help students know what areas of their writing need work—but unless they also believe that they *can* improve, such critique can be demoralizing. I’m also consistently surprised by how often people fail to recognize their own gifts—good writers often know where they struggle, but they don’t always know what they’re good at. Part of being a teacher is helping them see that.
In your callings in the church, how do you nurture spiritual gifts in the people you influence? Is there any correlation between those two settings that often call for encouraging words?
I definitely think there’s a corollary to church work. Sometimes I worry that we’re so focused on telling people what they need to improve, that we forget that people are often more motivated by love and encouragement than by shaming. Right now I’m in primary, and I think the most important thing I can do for the children I work with is assuring them that they are loved. This can look like a lot of things, but often it looks like listening to them and praising them for the many good things they do.
I understand that many fond aspects of your life converged in writing Blood Rose Rebellion – your mission to Hungary, your fascination with the 19th century, your ruminations on the role of an “anti-savior” – someone who lacks the power that others in her setting wield easily.
A one sentence summary of your captivating YA historical fiction/fantasy book Blood Rose Rebellion reads: “in a world where social prestige derives from a trifecta of blood, money, and magic, one girl has the ability to break the spell that holds the social order in place.”
Anna, the main character of the book, is feisty, smart and determined – but unlike all her peers, lacks magic.
Megan Manzano from Writing Infinities said she was drawn to some foundational questions explored throughout the book: “What is one willing to sacrifice for change? Can an individual commit to a cause if it means potentially losing those they love and having people come after them?”
Her question is a rich one – not just for the structure of your book but for other areas of life. How, for example, do you see this tension playing in people’s spiritual lives? What might this mean for a recent convert to the Church or to anyone who is trying to reconcile new truths with old assumptions?
I wrestle with this question a lot, and not just in the things I write. But in fiction, I’m especially drawn to hard questions: I think a good story requires the main character to make a difficult choice, and the ones I like best are the ones without easy answers, where any choice requires some sacrifice
I think the nature of agency itself requires hard choices: if good choices were always rewarded with good, and bad choices always followed by negative consequences, what virtue would there be in choosing good?
I’m a little hesitant to speak to how this tension plays out in other people’s lives—I can only really speak to mine. But as I get older, I find it harder and harder to see things in black and white. There’s so much complexity in our world, tension between doctrine and culture, tension between some of the things we feel to be most true and church traditions. For me, it’s a consistent wrestle: how do I stay true to the things that I believe are most important? What does that look like in daily life, especially if it puts me in conflict with people that I care about? I’m not sure I have good answers—this is something I’m still trying to figure out.
A writer’s process
Writers often describe the satisfying experience of “being in the zone”. Have you experienced that? If so, how would you describe it? What effect do deadlines, revision requests, publicity demands and other critical but more mundane parts of the profession have on your being able to access that “zone”?
“Being in the zone” is probably my favorite part of writing—it’s an elusive part, for sure, but it’s something I chase every time I sit down to write. For me, that means being so immersed in the world that I’m writing that the real world seems to fade away: I see my characters in front of me, the words pour out of my fingers almost faster than I can type. Of course, most of the time writing doesn’t look like this—more often, it’s me pecking out words, trying to cajole the muse to come. (I love what Elizabeth Gilbert has to say about the muse in both her TED talk on failure and her book, BIG MAGIC—that the author’s job is to show up and do the work. Sometimes the muse will come—but most of the time you just have to do the work.)
The demands of authoring—as distinct from writing—have been one of the hardest parts of the transition from writer to author. When I was writing for myself, independent of deadlines, writing felt a lot more like play, something I could do to escape from teaching and parenting. But once deadlines and contracts came into play, writing was now work, something I had to do whether I felt like it or not. I do find that when I make myself write, even if I don’t want to, as often as not I end up enjoying it. (Though sometimes it’s still about as pleasant as getting teeth pulled). I do think other responsibilities make it harder to “get in the zone”—when I was writing my second book, my first one under contract, I struggled a lot in the early days of drafting because I couldn’t escape the awareness that I was being paid for the terrible words pouring onto the page, and that put a lot of pressure on me to make the draft perfect (when of course, few drafts are). I had to figure out how to shut that out in order to write.
Publicity is a whole new thing as well—I have to set aside times to work on publicity that are separate from my writing times, otherwise it’s easy to spend all my time doing everything but actually writing, and justifying it all as work. Of course, some marketing has to be done, but if the writing isn’t happening too, then something’s out of balance.
Some authors prefer to work with a clear outline and flesh it out. Others write everything all out and go back afterwards with a sickle and pruning shears to revise. Some like to work chapter by chapter. Others hop around among chapters while they’re working on a book. How would you describe the process that works the best for you?
I think I fall somewhere between a plotter and a pantser: I usually start out with a general outline (I like Dan Wells’ 7-point-plot), but I make up the steps in between as I go. I’ll often make notes for myself in my document about what should come next, and I tinker with those ideas as I draft. I can’t do a firm outline beforehand, as things tend to change. I do try to force myself to do a complete draft before I let myself revise, otherwise, it’s too easy to get stuck in early chapters. I find I revise better if I have a picture of the whole story in my head, so I have to finish first. I do usually tend to draft chronologically—if there’s a section I’m really stuck on, I might leave a note to myself, like [insert chase scene here] and then move on.
When you submitted Blood Rose Rebellion, did you already have in mind the story lines of Books 2 and 3? How is the process going of proceeding with the narrative?
We submitted Blood Rose Rebellion as a possible trilogy, so I had a few paragraphs describing my ideas for books 2 and 3. But a couple of paragraphs isn’t much direction to go on, as I found when I was writing book 2! While the ending has always looked more or less the same, the route to get there has changed quite a bit as I’ve worked through the books.
Book 2, as I mentioned earlier, was pretty hard for me—I’ve found that this is an almost universal experience among writers, however, that the first book written under contract (whether part of a series or a standalone) is difficult. There are so many more expectations attached to that book than the first one sold. For me, the epiphany came when I realized that book 2 in a trilogy (at least, in my trilogy) is essentially a tragedy: it has to end with the character in a low point before the third book can wrap things up. That doesn’t mean that the book is miserable, only that I realized the hero didn’t have to (couldn’t!) succeed in this book.
I’m currently trying to work my way through the climax of book 3 and struggling with the gap between what’s in my head and what’s coming out on the page. I’m learning to have faith in the process though. Future me often comes up with solutions to problems in drafting that present me can only dream about. And waiting and working through is part of that process.
Women often struggle to find a way to juggle the obligations and joys in their lives. With your writing (including the two upcoming books in your series), teaching schedule and raising three children, how do you find balance in your life?
I wish I knew! The balance changes from day to day. I usually have to prioritize whatever crisis is closest, so sometimes parenting takes priority, sometimes teaching does, and sometimes writing. I try to make sure I get at least some of all three into any given day, but some days work much better than others. I do have a few rules for myself: I don’t do housework when my kids are asleep. That time is sacred (and besides, I think it’s good for my kids to realize that the house doesn’t magically clean itself). I also don’t run errands while my kids are at school—that’s work time. My youngest has just started kindergarten, and that helps. On the days that I teach, I have class while he’s in school and use the rest of the time to grade or prep class; I’ll try to write in the evenings after the youngest two are in bed. On the days that I don’t teach, the hours that he’s in kindergarten are devoted to writing. I don’t (usually) answer the phone then, I don’t run errands, I just write. And sometimes, for emergency deadlines, I carve out times on the weekends when my husband can take the kids.
If you were in charge of organizing your own life, how would it differ from what you’re actually doing?
It would be a lot more orderly, that’s for sure! I work well with a regular routine, and I struggle as a part-time parent/writer/teacher to fit that routine into the bits of time I have. If I were to do just what *I* wanted, I’d have a regular 9-5 time set aside for me to do work, with evenings devoted to my family. But my husband and I have both felt that it’s important for me to be home, at least part-time, and since his salary provides the majority of our income and health insurance, he gets the regular hours and I work around it. It’s not ideal, but it’s what works for now. (I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to having all 3 kids in school full time next year).
What are your go-to escapes, treats, not-too-guilty pleasures when you need to recharge and refresh yourself?
Reading, chocolate, and BBC shows. Most of my escapes involve me being alone (reading, walking while listening to a book on tape, etc.) or sometimes with my husband (watching TV shows). I love my kids, but they aren’t very helpful when I need to recharge!
Influence of others
What is your connection to Segullah? What impact has it made on your life?
I was first introduced to Segullah after moving to Southern Utah about 8 years ago. I didn’t know a lot of people in my new town yet, and I wasn’t sure of my place in our new ward. Segullah gave me a whole community of women who were thoughtful about their faith, generous in their concern for others, and willing to accept a somewhat odd and awkward academic (who struggles to balance faith with an innate skepticism) into their midst without question. Even though I’ve developed other roots in my community since then, Segullah still holds a big part of my heart because it grounded me to a community at a time when I was struggling to find one.
You credit another LDS author, bestseller Brandon Sanderson, with wisdom about magic in fictional world building. He said that “magic has to have some cost.” Tell us how that nugget manifests itself in your writing and life – both for the Blood Rose Rebellion Trilogy and more broadly.
The idea that magic has to have some cost helped me ground the story, I think—it reminded me that unlimited power shouldn’t be unlimited, or it stops being interesting. Magic is most interesting at its limits, at the places where it fails (or might fail). And beyond the limits and physical costs to using magic, Sanderson’s rule helped me ask: what other costs does magic have? Are there social costs to using it? Moral costs? Like any power, magic brings responsibility—how do those who wield it respond to that responsibility? I’m not sure that I’ve always answered those questions, but asking them makes the stories richer (I hope!).
I have been thinking more recently about power in relationship to writing. Telling a story does sometimes feel a bit like magic—conjuring something out of scraps of paper and ink. But it also has responsibilities: what stories can we tell, what stories should we tell? What kind of world are we representing in our stories, and what is the broader repercussion of those stories? Words can harm as well as heal, and I’ve been thinking more and more about what my own responsibility/calling is in relationship to writing. (I don’t have all the answers yet).
How about sharing titles of some of your favorite books?
Because I write for young adults, I also read a lot of young adult fiction, as well as a lot of fantasy. It’s hard for me to list favorites, because the list changes depending on my mood and I read a lot (50+ books a year). Some of my favorite authors include Lois Bujold, whose Curse of Chalion is one of the most spiritual fantasy books I’ve read (I love her theology); Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog is a hilarious, time-travel novel, and her The Doomsday Book is powerful and traumatic. I love Stacey Lee’s detailed, historical YA novels and her inclusion of diverse characters in settings that often overlook them; Laini Taylor’s YA books are gorgeously written fantasies; Robin McKinley was one of my first favorites (esp. The Hero and the Crown) and I still love her books; Patricia Wrede writes fun historical fantasies (Sorcery and Cecilia, Mairelon the Magician). Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer remain some of my tried-and-true comfort reads. One of the most powerful books I read this year was Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, about the thorny issue of race in America.
What’s a favorite book in a genre completely different from what you choose to write?
I adore Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey books, especially Gaudy Night. Though Gaudy Night is ostensibly a mystery, it’s really a smart meditation on women’s struggle between balancing the life of the mind and the life of the heart that still feels prescient today.
Just for fun
What is a non-literary adventure you would love to go on some day?
My parents are currently on a mission in Japan, and I’d love to go visit with my husband and kids.
What would a dream “day off” look like for you?
I’d love to go to the beach (with someone else delegated to keep my children from drowning and/or tracking sand everywhere) and watch the waves, and read whatever I want and do nothing.
Name adorable traits you see in each of your children. And your spouse? Do those traits ever show up in the characters you develop?
My kids are all still younger than the characters I write, so they don’t generally show up in my characters. My oldest is whip-smart and very intense. I can’t say those traits are always adorable, but they would make for an intrepid middle-grade hero. My middle daughter has a funny macabre sensitivity: She loves frilly dresses, but she’s even happier if those frilly dresses feature skulls or wolves or something equally dark. I think a little of this does show up in my main character, Anna, who likes pretty dresses but is still capable of saving the day. My youngest is stubborn and cuddly and cat-obsessed, which hasn’t really shown up anywhere. (Yet.)
One of my favorite things about my husband is that he is deeply kind and reliable, and he makes me laugh. I think this does show up in the romantic heroes I write, because as charming as I find characters like Loki, they would make terrible partners in real life, and my characters generally deserve better.