Interview: Guest lecturer Alex Hughes

Alex HughesAuthor and Odyssey graduate Alex Hughes will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. Alex was born in Savannah, GA, and moved to the south Atlanta area when she was eight years old. Shortly thereafter, her grandfather handed her a copy of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, and a lifelong obsession with scifi was born.

Alex is a 2011 graduate of the prestigious Odyssey Writing Workshop, a Semi-Finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, and a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the International Thriller Writers. Her short pieces are published in several markets including EveryDay Fiction and Monster Corral. Clean was a Finalist in the Silver Falchion Award 2013.

Alex’s work is layered, dark, adventurous, and a little funny, with an emphasis on great characters and interesting worlds. She gets her inspiration from history (she majored with a European history focus in college), family members, and headlines, as well as whatever book she has in her hand. Lately she’s been reading neuroscience books; the brain’s a cool, cool place and the mind even more so.

An avid cook and foodie, Alex loves great food of any stripe–even better if she can figure out how to put it together. Great food is like a great book; it has lots of layers that work together beautifully, and the result is delicious and harmonious. She’s working on figuring out Thai curries right now–suggestions welcome!

Alex loves swing dancing, Tetris, music of all kinds, and has been known to get into long conversations with total strangers at restaurants about the Food Network, much to the embarrassment of her sister. She can also balance a spoon on her nose while crossing her eyes, and talk for hours about absolutely nothing.


Congratulations on your recent release of Vacant Alex Hughes Vacant(Mindspace Investigations, #4, released December 2014 from Roc). We’re excited to have you as a guest lecturer this summer, wherein you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Thank you! I’m excited about Vacant, and about the opportunity to teach at Odyssey. The program was a huge push forward for me as a writer, and I hope that I can share some of the lessons I’ve learned in the last few years with the students. The most important advice I can give to developing writers is to keep the love of story. Every tool you learn is one more that will help you tell the stories you want to tell on the page. Write boldly—and make mistakes boldly. Sometimes knowing what doesn’t work, or identifying a problem clearly, is the first and best step forward to getting to a great place on the page. Practice will help you with confidence and with skill, but never, never, never lose the love. Joy is part of the process, and the joy will get you through the hard times.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you write every day, at a set time, in a set place? Do you prefer writing in coffee shops, or writing as solitary venture? What kinds of writing goals do you set?

I’m fortunate enough to be doing this full-time at the moment, and I have a dedicated room in my house with a door I can shut. I still end up writing on a laptop at a coffee shop or curled up in bed under a heating blanket on a cold day. I’ve written on the floor surrounded by scene cards, I’ve written on the kitchen table or at a restaurant with WiFi. I’ve written with friends in sprints online, stolen an hour from other work on the computer by myself, and stayed up late with no one but me and the story. Sometimes my brain likes the Pomodoro technique, and sometimes I like to just disappear into the story. Sometimes it’s easy and I write like the wind, and sometimes I struggle for hours on 800 words for the day.

I have learned over the years a few important things. Like the fable with the tortoise and the hare, I’m the hare. I move forward on a project in a big push and quickly, but then I lose a lot of time to naps and worry. My tortoise friends often outpace me over the long term even though I can do 5 to 7 thousand words a day in the middle of a project. Also, I need a lot of structure—I need to get up at a certain time, I need to have rituals in place for when I start writing, and I need to have a definite end time to keep me focused. But the routine can’t stay the same for more than a couple of months at a time, or my creative self starts getting lazy. So every book has its own journey, and its own habits.

There’s a point in the journey with each novel where I’m panicked I won’t be able to write anymore, and there’s a point in the journey where I’m sure everything I’m writing is crap. On those days in particular, it’s helpful to have a line in the sand, a number of words I must hit on those days to consider myself successful. That number changes per book but is frequently somewhere between 2000 to 3000 words. When it’s going well, that’s less important, but when it’s tough I literally have boxes on the whiteboard that represent 500 words, and I put a new magnet up every time I write another 500. A novel is such a huge project that it’s critical to have a way to visualize progress. No matter what else is going on, if you aren’t making progress, you won’t get through the rough spots and finish with something you’re proud of.

You offer several deleted scenes for your fans, which is a brilliant idea. How do you choose the scenes you offer? Are they scenes that you decided to cut, or are they scenes your editor asked you to cut? How do you think cutting these scenes strengthened the stories?

Alex Hughes PayoffThank you! My fans really seem to like those, which is fun, since they happen inevitably as part of my process.

Because I’m a “character” writer by nature, and because I started out as a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), when I’m deep in a book a scene inevitably will pop up in my head that wasn’t on the outline. I always write these as they occur to me, because some of the best scenes I’ve ever written have happened this way. Sometimes I have to throw them out early, because they didn’t work. And sometimes I get to the end of the book and realize they don’t fit within the arc of the story.

Let me give you an example: for Marked, I had two major plot lines competing for prominence, and at least two subplots already. (I write overly complex books sometimes.) I knew that Adam was going to need a private investigator’s license elsewhere in the series, and his boss had just threatened him with losing his job if he didn’t get it soon. He’d been turned down twice by the board and was fighting the journey. And then, suddenly, it occurred to me that Adam’s estranged father was a lawyer, and wanted him to be a lawyer, and that he probably had a normal brother who was a lawyer too. Adam wouldn’t ever go to his dad for help, but the brother, yes, that would be a great scene. So I wrote that scene. It was a phenomenal scene. But when I got to the end of the book and took stock, I realized that, rather than fitting neatly within the PI license arc, the scene opens all kinds of doors into Adam’s past and his relationship with his brother that I didn’t have room to explore in the present book. So I pulled it out and sent it to my editor separately, asking her what she thought. Sadly, she agreed with me it needed to be cut.

For me, shaping a novel is like cutting a bonsai tree–you have to define what is and what isn’t a part of the novel. There may be small protrusions that stick out and make the series feel “full,” but too many things that don’t fit and it won’t look like a tree anymore; it’ll be a hedge of bushes. So you have to chop limbs off that are otherwise perfectly good, to make the right shape. Even in a series book in the middle of the series, no one would tolerate more than two major plots and two subplots; the shape was already bursting at the seams. So I cut the scene, and posted it later for the fans to enjoy on its own.

Likewise, the novella Payoff bridges Book 1 and Book 2 in your Mindspace Investigations series, and “Rabbit Trick” is a short story prequel to Clean. Were these stories that had to come out, but didn’t fit in the other books? Did you find it harder or easier to write at those lengths in the Mindspace world, compared to writing novel-length work? What do you find to be the biggest difference between the three forms for you (Mindspace setting or not)?

The novella for Payoff was a bear to write; it took nearly as much time for me to manage as a full novel, and far more revisions. But the editor wanted a novella at the time and I said I could do one. “Rabbit Trick,” on the other hand, was just fun. I wanted to have a short story I could try to sell to a magazine, and I wrote the shortest complete Adam story I could manage. I still had options to make it longer, of course, but I chose to close those doors early.

I struggled for a lot of years to get my head around the shorter forms. I grew up reading novels, after all. I thought in novels. And as you can see from my previous comments, I write novels that are rather complex anyway. So trying to get those ideas to fit in a shorter form was torture. I finally sat down and learned to write flash fiction, the shortest of the short stories, and got those critiqued through a writer’s group over and over for about two years. I read a lot of shorter pieces. And slowly, over time, I realized that the idea itself has to fit the size of the story. Like the bonsai, however, a good story idea of whatever size will always start out bigger than your final container can hold; you have to trim it down in a way that implies the rest and still fits the shape you’re looking for. My friend A.E. Decker says it’s like fitting a jellyfish in a cage.

A great short story has a smaller, less complicated idea than a novella, and a novella than a novel. Over time, I started to learn to match the size of the idea with the size of the story. I learned to fit the right sized jellyfish in the right sized cage. With a world like Mindspace, that’s choosing to lop off some tentacles at times.

When you began the series, did you have an overall plan for how it would end, or are you more of a pantser?

I’m a pantser by nature, but from the time I sat down to write Alex Hughes Rabbit Trickbook two, I always had a series arc planned. (I wrote Clean to stand alone.) Unfortunately, as I started working with editors who wanted different endings than I had planned, I went further and further off-book. Vacant’s ending, for example, was planned very differently from what finally ran. So after Vacant I sat down and re-planned an arc. Knowing me things will change as I go, but it’s important for me to know the general shape of where I’m going so I can move (and prune) in the right direction.

How do you keep recurring characters fresh throughout a series?

“Major” characters in Mindspace have significant character growth arcs, so they are not strictly the same people as the series goes on. They are always changing, which makes it easy to keep them fresh. Many series don’t have the kind of steady change that I have in Mindspace, though, and that would be more difficult. In those cases, it’s important to bring out different aspects of a character, and bring up surprises as you go.

Mindspace Investigations is set in a post-Tech Wars future, where electronics aren’t trusted. Was this world always clear to you? What were some ways in which you envisioned this setting?

It’s hilarious, but the characters in Clean had cell phones all the way up to the last draft. Less and less technology survived the Tech Wars as I revised the book further and further. I finally realized that the story I was telling–with the “normals,” the Guild, and the investigations going on in the confluence of the two–made more sense without advanced technology. I also realized that the story I was telling would be easier to tell without trying to keep ahead of the latest technological (and social media) trends. One day I’ll tackle a near-future book, with all the complexities that will entail. But these stories are plenty complex without adding that extra layer.

This world was always dark, from the very beginning. It always had the Guild, which was a powerful group that weren’t strictly the good guys. The rules of the telepathy system grew out of a thought experiment in my physics class in high school, a system that I built on as I went. The crime and the detective aspect grew out of my obsession with cop shows. The Decatur’s interesting mix of old and new, dirt and shiny–that part grew out of the real Decatur in 2001-2005 when I lived there. But I would say the world overall grew organically as I needed it to. I’m a big fan of worldbuilding small, of building things as you go and as you need them for the story.

Now that Vacant is out, what’s next on the writing-related horizon? Any more Mindspace stories in the works, or are you starting different projects?

Yes to all! I’ve got 10 books sketched out in general terms for the series now, and I’ll finish the rest of those for the fans over the next few years. I also have several other ideas in production right now, which I won’t talk about too much at this stage. As usual, though, I’ll mention the best way to get all the latest news about my work (and score some free short stories) is to join my email newsletter at http://www.ahugheswriter.com/email-signup.

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