Thanks for having me!
Tell us about The Listeners!
The Listeners is a coming-of-age story in a literary horror context. In a borough quarantined due to an airborne illness that causes deformity, insanity, and death, a fourteen-year-old boy named Daniel, orphaned by the plague, is caught up with a one-eared gang/cult called the Listeners. But all he really wants is to find his best friend Katie, trapped elsewhere in the quarantine.
How would you shelve your book? YA, horror? What makes a book fit into those categories for you?
This is definitely not a young adult book. Its main character is young, but the audience is very much adult. There have been a few occasions where people have assumed otherwise, but it's not actually the age of the main character that determines a novel's audience as regards adult or young adult, but rather the content and themes. The Listeners doesn't focus on the experience of being a kid or a teen, and it's certainly not a metaphor for such experience, as most speculative young adult is. It's a story of survival, and Daniel's experience is the one that most encapsulates the horror of that.
So horror, then, is a better categorization, though honestly, I didn't realize it was horror until I was done writing the original screenplay version. (Actually, it was a collection of short stories, then a screenplay, then a novel.) For me, I was just writing a character story in the context of a plague.
Categorization is a funny thing. By day, I'm a developmental editor, and I've been in the publishing industry for going on nine years, but even that doesn't mean you always know how a book is to be categorized. Sometimes there is no set category. Sometimes there are several. Writers create all sorts of things we can't imagine. That's why we read.
The plague in The Listeners is similar to a zombie outbreak, but it’s also a bit different. How did you bring something new to a popular genre?
Well, I wasn't really thinking about doing that. The zombie connection, more than anything else, is just a useful comparison for helping readers understand the nature of the story. They're zombies, except that they aren't dead, can talk, and don't want to eat people.
I think the part that really captured me, or I guess defined the way I was going to present this infection, is the idea of people losing their minds, which is pretty much the most terrifying thing I can imagine. It's not that the sickos, which is what the Listeners call those who are infected, are particularly vicious. They can be, if they see themselves as threatened, or if that's who they were before they were infected, but generally they're just confused and losing their grasp on who they were. And that's the threat anyone stuck within the quarantine faces.
The other distinction, I guess, is that the novel isn't really about the sickos so much as the Listeners themselves—the kind of people, and the kind of organization, that thrives when the world goes to hell. That's where Daniel is really trapped. You don't have to be sick to lose hold of who you were.
What are the challenges of writing a young character? What are the benefits?
The actual challenge I faced early on the process was that I was writing Daniel too young. In the earliest drafts, Daniel is eighteen, but he read younger. So he became seventeen, and I believe he's fifteen in the final screenplay, and in the novel he finally became fourteen. And the reason I kept writing him younger than he was actually intended to be is because he had to be innocent to start with. Daniel is a sheltered kid. He's a young fourteen. He's not someone who understands the world, much less what it's become, which makes him more malleable to a group like the Listeners—which, to them, is part of the appeal.
I always had a stronger sense of self than Daniel does, but otherwise he has a good amount in common with me at that age, which I think is why it wasn't too difficult to get into his head. But once I was, he became his own person pretty quickly, and from there it's really a matter of conveying what his experience would honestly be. More than any of the other characters in the original short stories, he had the potential for growth and change I wanted, which is also one of the benefits of a young character. He has a lot of room to grow.
You’re also writing a musical and several screenplays, right? What are some ways those types of writing intersect with writing novels?
I'm actually a lot more at home writing a screenplay than a novel at this point. It's a far stricter format, but I actually really love structure, and I don't think the story of The Listeners would work as well, or have the depth it has, had I not previously written the story as a screenplay. Given I was starting with a series of short stories, only one of which was about Daniel, the screenplay format gave me the opportunity to plot out a narrative along three acts and generally explore the world of the quarantine from a particular and consistent point of view.
That's not to say that a screenplay is an inherent part of the process of writing a novel, or that I won't write another novel at some point. But I absolutely love screenplays. I recently finished a cryptozoological dramedy called Ape Canyon, and I'm starting a new screenplay that I'm not quite ready to reveal.
Now as for the musical, that's an entirely different process, or at least it is for me. I collaborated with a friend on the story, and the majority of my work so far has been songwriting, which naturally focuses on music more than plot or character. But at the same time, my co-writer and I need to make sure the fundamental elements of good storytelling are in place. We know where the acts divide. We know who our protagonist is and what drives her. We have a good sense of the developing plot, and the climax is very clear. These are the building blocks for any story, regardless of what form it should take. In this case, the important moments just happen to be revealed through song, which is a lot of fun for me. This is the first time I've ever combined my love of storytelling with my love of songwriting.
What is your best advice for writers?
As I mentioned before, my day job is developmental editor, at Ambitious Enterprises, and what a developmental editor does is focus on the big-picture issues: characterization and character arc, structure, cause and effect, logic, etcetera. So giving advice to writers is actually my job. In fact, I'm writing a book on writing right now. And there's quite a lot of advice to give, depending very much on who the writer is and what their particular issues happen to be with regard to their own manuscript. But there are definitely some general ideas to keep in mind.
One of the most important is really obvious, but also often neglected: A writer needs to write. Back around August or September, I started getting together with a group of friends on Sunday afternoons for the express purpose of working on our own individual writing projects. It's a concept I had been skeptical of before, believing myself to be self-sufficient as a writer. I could write on my own time, and if I was going to spend time with friends, I'd rather spend it doing something else.
But I was so very wrong. I've never been more productive in my life than I am right now, because from 3:30 to 7:00 or so every Sunday, I'm writing. It's the reason I finished that screenplay I mentioned, which I'd begun work on in 2011. And it's the reason I made another important discovery:
Writing is fun. Generally speaking, we know that—we wouldn't do it if we didn't—but when you're in the middle of a story, and you're not sure what needs to happen next, it can be a grind, especially when you're not putting in the time to do it regularly. But the more often you write, the more often it goes well, and the more often it goes well, the more often you get that amazing writer's high that comes with being successfully productive.
So the most important thing a writer can do is write. We all have our own schedules and responsibilities, but if you don't consistently set the time aside, you're never going to achieve what you want to achieve.
Thank you so much for joining us on the Freelance and Fiction blog!
Of course! Thanks for having me.
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