Conversation with Denise Grover Swank
I’m very happy to have my friend and fellow 47North Author, Denise Grover Swank on the blog today for a chat about writing and whatever else happened to jump into our minds.
When With Silent Screams was released last Tuesday, Denise also had a release of her short story in the Curse Keeper series, This Place is Death.
Me: Hi Denise, welcome to the blog. Everyone else might want to take a chair and get comfortable.
Denise: Steve, I’ve gotten to know you as a fellow 47North author and I love your Hellequin series. How did you end up at 47North?
Me: Thanks very much. I self published Crimes Against Magic and Born of Hatred in 2012, sold pretty well and had great reviews and then I got a call from 47North in Feb 2013 to offer me a 3 book deal. They re-published the first 2 books and publish book 3, With Silent Screams on Feb 18th. It’s been a great experience so far. I’ve enjoyed meeting the other 47North writers, like yourself, and having people whose job it is to do stuff for you is pretty cool.
How about you?
Denise: Wait, you have people who do stuff for you? Where do I get those? Oh, you mean 47North.
David Pomerico, my 47North editor, contacted me in September 2012 saying he’d read my book Chosen and wanted to talk to me about my career. I thought he might be interested in buying rights to the Chosen series, but he was really interested in the series I had listed on my website that I’d slated for a spring 2013. The Curse Keepers is an urban fantasy/paranormal romance series based on the Lost Colony of Roanoke and Croatan Indian spirits and gods. Amazingly enough, after the worst pitch in the world–seriously I wasn’t prepared and it was a rambling mess–David asked for a three book proposal. The Curse Keepers was released in November 2013 and This Place is Death, a short story about the origin of the curse releases February 18.
(By the way, I’ve read all three books of the Helliquin series and loved it! I highly recommend this series.)
Me: Thanks very much, that’s very kind of you. I’ve got the first Chosen book, which is great. It’s a shame that since becoming an author I’ve had so little time to read anything on a regular basis. There are a lot of talented writers at 47North whose books I’d love to read, but simply haven’t had time. Between having 3 young kids, writing and actually wanting to see my wife, my days become pretty full, pretty quickly.
Although that’s where the wonder that are audiobooks have come into my life. Although going to the gym and listening to Terry Pratchett tends to get me weird looks when I start chuckling to myelf.
Is there anything you’ve read or listened to recently that you’ve really enjoyed?
Denise: I know what you mean about struggling to find time to read. I was a voracious reader until I started writing full time with my crazy production schedule. (I wrote five books last year and a novella.) Plus, I’m the single parent of six kids, although only five live at home. (ha!) But my oldest son at home is 22 and is going to community college. He’s a huge help with his four younger siblings ages 16 to 6. My youngest three children are adopted from China and Vietnam.
But reading is so important for me, not just for my imagination but for my own writing. When I feel myself getting stuck in the same sentence structures, I’ll pick up a book and just start reading. My mind latches onto the flow of the sentences and helps get me out of my rut. (Sarah Addison Allen is one of my favorites. She writes magical realism in beautiful prose–so different than my own writing.)
I’m trying to snatch more reading time in small chunks–lying in bed for ten minutes while I’m waking up, in the car waiting for my daughter to come out of her musical rehearsal, (Proud Mommy moment: she’s Sharpey in her high school’s production of High School Musical.) on the elliptical machine when I make myself get it on it. But it’s made a difference and I’ve already read seven books this year.
When did you know that you wanted to be an author? Not a writer playing around, but an author who dedicates his life to writing? Because I think a lot of writers who want to publish don’t realize how much work it is. Being an author isn’t a job, it’s a life style change. At least for me. What about you?
Me: I’ve read maybe 4 or 5 books this year, I read very quickly though.
I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was at school. But I seriously started when Keira was born 9 years ago. That was when I decided I needed to actually write something and not just say I was going to.
You’re right, being an author is a total lifestyle commitment, like getting a dog. You can’t half-ass being a writer, or your readers will immediately tell. It’s definitely not something to to start if you’re into getting rich quick.
What about you? When did you know you wanted to do this for a living? Was there ever a day when you just knew you were a professional author? For me that was when I got my first months statement from Amazon. I’d sold 100 books. I couldn’t have smiled harder if I’d tried.
Denise: I’ve always written something. I started my first book in the fourth grade. My high school English teacher recognized a talent in me and pushed me to dig deeper in her creative writing class.(My first published book–Twenty-Eight and a Half Wishes–is dedicated to her.) But I tried to write a couple of books in my twenties. Ghastly, rambling messes that had characters aimlessly wandering around. You see I hadn’t figured out this teeny, tiny thing called a PLOT.
Then years later, I started a family blog back in the mid-2000’s when blogging was all the rage. I wrote stories about my kids and my family. I honed the craft of storytelling, structure, and yes plot. I heard about NaNoWriMo in 2009 and told myself (literally) you either do this and finish or shut up about writing a book. So I started my romantic suspense So Much to Lose on November 1 and finished that sucker on December 10. Over 94,000 words.
When I wrote that last sentence, I was hooked. I’d spent forty years trying to figure out what to do with my life and I knew this was it. But So Much to Lose sucked. I mean really, really sucked. So while I was waiting to start editing, the germ of an idea popped into my head. What if there was a little boy who could see the future? So I exiled my first book to my external hard drive and started Chosen the week before Christmas 2009. Now, four years later, I’m working on my sixteenth book.
Your plots are very intricate, finely woven masterpieces. Are you a serious plotter or a pantser and just a genius? Or do you write a rambling first draft and put it all together in revision?
Me: It was my English teacher who got me interested in writing too. I was about 12 or 13, I think. I have no idea what grade that is though.
As much as I’d love to say genius, I do write out the plot for the books before I write the book itself, but only in terms of knowing what the main parts of the story are, how it ends, begins and roughly what characters need to do what. I have an idea about how each chapter will start and finish, but usually I have no idea how it’ll get from beginning to end. I like to be surprised and have the characters feel more natural to me.
I’ve tried different levels for control in each book and the 3rd feels the most natural. It occasionally means adding chapters, and in a few occasions, whole characters, but knowing exactly what’s going to happen annoys me and I end up ignoring it.
As the Hellequin Chronicles is a series of books, I know what each book is going to be about. And I know how it ends too. Although, the flashback parts I don’t usually decide on until I’m just about to start writing so I can figure out what era suits the flashback story parts best.
How about you? Do you plot out in detail or just write as it comes? Do you know how your whole series will pan out before you write book 1?
Denise: It’s so weird, but my level of plotting depends on the book. In the sixteen books I’ve worked, I think I’ve pre-plotted two in detail. Most I have general or over-sweeping ideas. Sometimes I’ve found the best stories just evolve. I have a starting point and an end, and a few highlights I plan to hit along the way. But writing a scene inspires another and I come up with a story I never would have had if I’d plotted the sucker out. That doesn’t mean the story comes out pure gold when it’s done.
My last completed book– THIRTY-ONE AND A HALF REGRETS– I ended up with a major revision in the middle third of the book. That’s always so frustrating. How much more efficient could I have been if I’d had a plan? And I feel incredibly sorry for my developmental editor and the utter drivel she is forced to read in my first drafts. I’ve told her that I feel better because I know she knows I can pull a well written book out at the end. But the truth is, the story wouldn’t be what it turned out to be without those false starts.
Do I have a a series all planned out? This is where I’m supposed to say yes, right? The sad answer is no. I don’t. What about you? Do you have an end plan for the Hellequin series? Do you have a set number of books you plan to write?
Me: I’ve got the plots figured out for most of the series. There are a few books that I’m not sure about or haven’t decided which way round they should go, but for the most part I know what will happen in book 7 and how it relates to the rest of the series.
As for how many books, well I’m currently writing book 4, PRISON OF HOPE and then book 5, which will end the 5 book arc. Then I’ll move on to the second 5 book arc. The main thing I wanted to do was ensure that if someone comes along and picks up book 3 or book 9 they both get a complete story without having to read everything before it.
In terms of other series, CHIMERA, my sci-fi apocalypse book, which I’ll be starting this year, is a trilogy and that tells a complete story.
I like not having everything set in stone for Hellequin just in case I think of something cool, I want to write, but for shorter series, I want to know where it’s going.
Are there any books that are outside of what you’ve currently written that you’ve got an idea for? A horror or sci-fi book for example?
Denise: I’m planning a humorous contemporary romance series for later this year about three friends who make a pact to get married by the time they are thirty. Of course, they will be disasters. 😉 I’d also LOVE to write a thriller series. My Chosen series has some thriller moments and I love writing those scenes. Unfortunately, I have no plot or ideas for it. Will it be contemporary? Will it have paranormal slant? I have no clue. I suppose it will come to me. My problem is I get an idea for a book and then I have to figure out what genre it is. Which is why I currently write in four genres–urban fantasy/paranormal romance, romance mystery, contemporary romance and YA science fiction. I’m a Gemini. Enough said. 😉
With my Rose Gardner series, each book is a completely self-contained mystery, but there’s on over-arcing mystery as well as the main character’s personal life and relationships. Still the books can be read independently even though reviewers usually suggest readers start from the beginning to really enjoy the series. My Curse Keepers series also tells a contained story in each book with main character dealing with a particular demon, but the over-arcing mystery elements are much more prevalent and interwoven throughout all three books. My plan for the series is a set of trilogies. I already have a plan for books four through six, but the ideas are still fairly loose.
Me: I’m finding that I’ve got more ideas for future books then there are hours in the day. I’m sure I’ll be able to cram everything in at some point, although wanting to spend time with my wife and kids means I can’t write 24/7. Fortunately, my wife is very supportive and keeps the kids occupied so that I don’t get any of them running in to ask me something every few minutes.
How about you? How do you find the time to write with 6 kids of varying ages to keep an eye on? Are you a bit of a night owl for it?
Denise: I AM a night owl. I’m not an early riser, so before my kids were in school full time, my only alone time was after they went to bed. I have a laptop and a desk top computer, but I always draft on my laptop. And never at my desk. So I’m used to fitting in writing whenever and wherever I can. I”ll write in the carpool lane. I write at my son’s basketball practice. My daughter tried out for her high school choir while I sat in a room with about twenty trumpets blasting and you guessed it, I wrote. I’ve written just about every place imaginable thanks to my Bose headphones, but mostly because if I waited for the perfect environment to write, I’d never get anything done. Literally.
The beauty of my job is that I can always stop working to take care of what needs to be done. I can fit in all the practices and rehearsals and everything else because my job is flexible. But that being said, my youngest is six so it’s much, much easier then when I started this full time and she was two. Back then I got a lot less sleep and the two days she was in preschool, I usually worked straight through any lunch trying to get as much done as I could before I picked her up.
So where do you see yourself with your writing career in five years? Writing full time? Branched out into another genre?
Me: I’d love to be writing fulltime in a year or two, if I’m honest. Actually, I’d love to be doing it tomorrow, but those pesky bills need paying.
I’ve got ideas for other genres. My Chimera stuff is more sci-fi then fantasy and there’s a plain thriller I’d like to write, with no magic or monsters involved and a a sort of epic fantasy book too. Oh and I’ve got an idea for a historical fantasy trilogy that takes place within the Hellequin Chronicles books. Hopefully over the next few years, I’ll be able to get most of those started. So, yeah more ideas than hours to write it all at the moment.
So, if you had one piece of advice to give to new authors or people who want to be an author, what would it be?
Denise: The beauty of self-publishing is that anyone can do it and there are no gate keepers. But it’s also a curse.
New writers often don’t realize that it often takes YEARS to hone the craft of writing. You can’t pick up a flute for the first time then play in Carnegie Hall a month later. It takes PRACTICE. Writing is the same way. When you learn to play an instrument, you need an instructor—someone to critique your playing. With writing you need lots of someones to critique your writing. Even now, after publishing my thirteenth book, I STILL have a minimum of ten people read a book before it’s published. And three of those people are paid editors.
New writers tell me that they are nervous about getting their work critiqued, but trust me, it’s much, much harder to see the often nasty critique in a review. When I get a new beta reader, I tell them: Friends don’t let friends look stupid in print. (I keep saying I’m going to make this into a T-shirt.) So my advice to you is to find a critique group—either in person or online, or even both. Learn the craft of writing and storytelling THEN publish.
You may have limited me to one piece of advice, but I made it wordy. Ha! What piece of advice would you give, Steve?
Me: That’s some excellent advice. I agree wholeheartedly, find a critique group and learn the craft of writing and how to tell your story. I certainly wouldn’t be published now if I’d not joined one.
My advice would be that if you love writing, if you love the idea of telling a story, if you want to be a published writer, then don’t let anyone stop you from achieving that goal.
Getting published can be a long arduous journey, even for a self-published author. You’re going to get knocked back, you’re going to feel defeated and at times you’re going to wonder if it’s worth it. But it really is. Being an author is the best job in the world. People pay you to create worlds in your mind and tell other people about it. There’s very few jobs, bar maybe ninja-astronaut, that come to being as close as cool.
I know you said, 1 piece, but I’m cheating. Because above all, above all the advice you’ll ever receive about being a write. The most important part that you can’t do anything else without is enjoy it. Because if you don’t enjoy writing your story, no one will ever enjoy reading it.
I’d like to thank Denise for spending her time chatting with me. She’s a good friend and exceptionally talented writer. I can’t tell you all how much you should check out her work. Click the links below.
You can find Denise here:
The Curse Keepers
This Place is Death: