My Writing Process (The Heffinator Style)
1) What am I working on?
As usual, my mind goes in many directions before it finally hones in on one writing project to get it done (or as done as it get can get, anyway). I'm currently working on the first Changeling Sisters novella (Summer 2014) about a minor character in the Year of the Wolf who really surprised me by demanding to share her story about what really happened to her. I'm also formulating the plot for Changeling Sisters III: Year of the Dragon, in which the stakes get higher for our Alvarez sisters, as well as streamlining ideas into my Afterlife Chronicles II cache, so the latter two are still in their nebulous phases.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
My work stems off others in the fantasy genre in a lot of ways from a lot of different time contexts, because I grew up reading fantasy favorites Tamora Pierce, Terry Brooks, Roger Zelazny, Octavia Butler, Robert Jordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, T.A. Barron, J.K. Rowling, Eoin Colfer, and those authors can never leave my writing. So in a way, I processed fundamental writing techniques from their books that I really enjoyed--memorable characters, fully-realized fantasy worlds--and channeled them into my own world-building and writing. While I developed my craft, the urban fantasy phenomena was unfolding to a wide-reaching audience. However, high fantasy books like Eragon still enchanted readers as well, so I definitely saw how contemporary and high, epic fantasy elements could combine to create resonating stories that capture the imagination.
My personal touch is to tweak or turn tropes of the fantasy genre on their head. I'd like to challenge how they came to be that way, or make them feel uncomfortable. Why is a happy ending equivocated with a main character finding their soul mate, when many of us go through many different kinds of soul mates during our lives? What happens when neither the hero or the villain wins, leaving the state of things in an unclear mess? What am I reproducing when invoking "Light" as good and "Dark" as bad; how can I complicate such binaries? How did concepts like the hero's journey or characterizations like Mary Sue/Gary Stues become things, anyway, and how do they serve to constitute what's considered "normal"?
3) Why do I write what I do?
In mainstream fantasy regulated by the traditional publishing market, I did see how a certain dominant narrative was re-articulated again and again. Main characters are often white and heterosexual, as are all of their friends. People of color are relegated supporting roles; gay characters are routinely cast as "the gay best friend". People with differently-abled and marginalized body types are also non-existent, unless the entire story revolves around Character A being fat, for example. We've all heard the stories about publishers pushing for a main character's age to be younger than perhaps what the original manuscript called for (ahem, high school instead of college age).
When Citlalli Alvarez revealed to me that she would, no ifs, whats, or buts about it, be the lead kick-ass heroine of the Changeling Sisters Series, I realized that I had a choice about whether or not to perpetuate this dominant mainstream narrative. I chose to craft the Changeling Sisters world in a way to disrupt that, to incorporate Korean and Mexican-American culture and language as dominant and just as legitimate as "white", to challenge the mainstream reader with what they may be unfamiliar with, and to spark their curiosity about what they're missing by sticking to traditional publishers who sell a certain kind of story. I'm white, so my presence is still there, and any mistakes I make are my own. But I have the opportunity to write about the world and friends I know, a colorful, diverse world, and I will keep taking that path again and again.
4) How does your writing process work?
*It begins with a question or an idea. For example, with The Tribe of Ishmael (Afterlife Chronicles I), I read Dante's Inferno for class and found myself riveted by one encounter with the demons, who had been cast into Hell to torment wicked human souls for an eternity. I wondered about how Hell would look when built from their views and experiences.
*So I build the fantasy world, pulling on things I've seen outside of me and more often than not, dreams. Dreams are awesome world-building fuel because they combine things in ways you would have never imagined in waking life.
*From there, I search for my main character(s) to carry the story and explore their relationship with the world. Have they just been dropped into it? What could have brought them there? How do they interact with each other and why? I'll usually settle on four main characters, one of which is...
*The villain(s)! Where's the points of friction between them and the main character(s)? Where do their interests coincide, in that they could seduce the main character(s)? What's the baddie's back-story (No one ever comes out of a vacuum)?
*By now the beginning just flows out of me. Easy as pie. Stream of consciousness. It could go in all directions, it touches on a mystery and attracts attention, it's wonderfully bizarre and difficult to make sense of. It might be a sign of my generation: I think in terms of multimedia. I plot out "scenes" through movie or video game frames, and then I translate these visuals to paper. Anyway, beginnings are easy to write because they could go anywhere.
*The middle is tough. There aren't as many possibilities. What gets told and by whom needs to be weighed and re-examined. I might have to go back and re-write the beginning, or re-assess a previously minor character's role. The story is unfolding toward some semblance of an "end," and I have to choose where that resting spot will fall and the degree to which it will be satisfactory. The middle is also difficult because it is where many nuances in character development take place, so they've grown to a point the reader can recognize as "changed" by the time the climax approaches. During this middle part, I often write brief character conversations or scenes I see revealed in the end.
*I like writing the climax. Dispense with all flowery imagery--(although I'm prone to doing that)--just use hard, fast verbs that convey urgency and atmosphere. Then the winding down after the climax isn't so bad either--although by that point, my characters will probably already be waving on a path(s) ahead about where they see themselves going next. The hardest part is to leave them to wave so I can revise, revise, revise, edit, edit, edit, and then glance up to see if they're still there.
*Beta-reading time: I submit the manuscript to people I trust--and people I trust to be honest with me--and hope that what I wrote makes sense. Do they understand what I was trying to do with Character A? To what degree do I succeed? How does the story feel all together? I put away the manuscript and don't look at it for a while so I can re-visit with a fresh pair of eyes. Maybe I write about my waving characters and ideas for future books, but by then, the moment has been lost.
*I collect the varying sources of in-put and continue re-editing. At some point, the manuscript reaches finished-draft status. Then I get to share it with everyone I know and everyone I don't, which makes me incredibly happy! The engagement process with the book continues with every new reader who reads, and I truly enjoy hearing how their reading experience unfolded, what worked, and what didn't. After all, writing is a process and it is constantly in a state of becoming, never finished.
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Upkins is from Atlanta, Ga. An urban fantasy author, his writing credits include Hollowstone, Stranger Than Fiction, and West of Sunset. Upkins also regularly critiques and analyzes the representation and portrayal of minorities in comics and media as a regular contributor to Ars Marginal. Follow him at DennisUpkins.com and on Twitter, @drupkins.
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