Q & A

What follows are excerpts from the two interviews we’ve done in the run-up to the release of GRAYSON RISING. Got your own questions? Feel free to send ’em to me and I’ll make sure they get answered.

Tell us about GRAYSON RISING.

GRAYSON RISING is an adventure first. The story takes place over ten days and is told more or less in real time. It takes place NOW, HERE, and that’s a really important part of the story. There’s a young girl who’s trying to figure out who she is, and that’s the heart of the story. She’s got to figure out who she is, and she’s got to figure out fast.

There’s some dipping into the magical in GRAYSON RISING, and the reason that works, in my mind, is because the story is so firmly grounded in the real world. When you’re being hunted by the FBI; when you’re alone and scared and on the run, a little bit of magic can change everything.

How long did the book take to write?

I started GRAYSON RISING as a NaNoWriMo project in November of 2011. It took me until December, 2012, a little more than a year, to produce what I call an official second draft. The second draft wasn’t good enough to share yet, so I spent all of 2013 to work the story into the form it took where I could show it to people without feeling too embarrassed. In January of 2014, I allowed a small group of BETA readers to read through it, did some final clean-up, and started sending out queries. A year later, I found CafPress.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

There’s this movie I love, called Magnolia, and the first three minutes is this beautiful montage of impossible things that really happened. That was, in my mind, the gem that started this story; the seed that it grew from. I wanted to tell a story that took place in the real world, but transcended the real world. I wanted to write a story where the things that happened seemed impossible, but weren’t.

GRAYSON RISING started out as a series of little short stories that I told my kids as they approached their teen years – stories about magic firmly planted in our world. Those stories became the flashbacks that populate GRAYSON RISING’s world today.

What do you want us, the readers, to take away from the book? What lessons should we be learning?

GRAYSON RISING is about choices. We have choices, we all do, and our choices matter.

What kind of research was involved in writing Grayson Rising?

I drink a lot of coffee — some days that’s my breakfast AND my lunch — and Grayson drinks coffee, too. She probably got that from me, so that counts as research. Right?

GRAYSON RISING really does take place in the real world. It takes place on streets I’ve walked, and in places I’ve been, I made a conscious effort to place this story in the same universe that I exist in.

What did you learn while writing Grayson Rising?

The thing I learned more than anything else is this: I use a lot of words to say things. I guess those who know me well already knew this about me, but it came as a surprise to me. You’d think my verbosity would make for a great novelist, but it doesn’t translate that way. In the final re-write, I cut at least 10,000 words. Words that I thought at the time were necessary to the story. It turns out, removing them made the story stronger.

What should we learn about Grayson and the other characters that we might not get right away from the book?

I think the thing you might not get when you first read the book, but what is super important to me, is that the book is about choices. Sure it’s about her journey, but it’s about the things that people tell us about who we are and what we think and who we want to be.

In The Iron Giant, the plot pivots on this idea that there’s this robot that is created to destroy life, but he chooses to be good instead. We all have this idea of who we’re supposed to be – based on our friends, our family, our experience, our education, our upbringing … but we make a choice to be what others see in us (or to not be). It’s a choice.

Are there any hidden themes that we should look for? Anything we might discover during a second read?

Just about everything in the book that happens, happens twice. This was a decision I made as I was organizing the story because the book is about choices and it’s about learning from your experience.

Twice, characters get stuck behind glass and can’t get free – once, Grayson has to figure out how to get herself free; the other time, she uses it as a tool to protect herself. The world that she doesn’t understand early in the book, is the world she uses to protect herself later on.

Oh. Bears, too. Bears are an important part of the mythology of GRAYSON RISING. There is no doubt in my mind that Grayson’s father was trying to teach her about bears and their significance. That’s why he gives her that bear cub necklace. There are references to bears spread all across the book, like they’re dancing just outside of Grayson’s vision.

What do the bears mean? Maybe we’ll find out in book two.

Was there a point during the writing of this book that you nearly stopped? If so, why? What kept you going?

I confess that I “almost finish” a LOT of things. GRAYSON RISING could have been one of those things that I only ever almost finished.

There was a period after the second draft – when I didn’t want others to see it yet – that I took the novel and restructured it to just be ten days. I rewrote the first three chapters to be tightly focused on this need to answer questions. I thought, “maybe this is it, but if it’s not, I don’t know what to try next”.

Anyway, I finished those first three chapters and I was talking to my teenage daughter – who has the luxury that she can get away with being totally honest with me, so she’s my harshest critic. I gave her those chapters and said, I don’t want you to edit it or trash it or tear it apart, I just want you to tell me, which of the three is it? Is it “better than expected”, “as expected”, or “worse than I expect”?

She looked at me and said, “Dad, it can’t possibly be worse than I expect.”

My wife and I went out to dinner that night and it was maybe an hour later when I got the text message from her. It said three words. “Better than expected.” That’s when I knew that I was, finally, on the right track.

Is there another installment of GRAYSON RISING to come?

I’ve storyboarded Grayson’s tale as a trilogy. (Of course it’s a trilogy.) I’ve gotten so far as a chapter breakdown for GRAYSON FALLS (the likely sequel to GRAYSON RISING), and it’s my NanoWriMo project this November so hopefully we’ll see that in something like another four years.

There’s a lot of room in Grayson’s world for many, many more stories. You meet a wide range of people in the book and I believe they all deserve to have their stories told.

I’m working right now with CHOICE OF GAMES — they’re a company that creates second-person text adventures like the “choose your own adventure” books of my childhood, only fully technology-enabled. The CHOICE OF GAMES framework naturally adapts to Grayson’s universe. I’m hopeful, while I’m working on GRAYSON FALLS, to continue working with them to create a separate story set in Grayson’s universe.

There seems to be a lot of YA books featuring a strong female lead, lately. What makes GRAYSON RISING different from them?

Let me start by saying I’m a huge YA fan. We make so many decisions during that period of time in our lives. Compelling stories with young adult protagonists really appeal to me.

What makes this story different is that it takes place NOW, and in the world that you live it. This isn’t post-apocalyptic. This isn’t an dystopian story. The most compelling part of the book isn’t its fantasy elements, it’s that it resides in the real world.

And Grayson is different than your average heroine, too. She’s figuring out who she is. She’s not trying to figure out how to save the world or which boy to choose, she’s figuring out who she is. That’s a story I wanted to tell.

Oh. You know what else? GRAYSON RISING is NOT a romance. I feel like the tendency is to put romance in it because that’s what is expected of a strong female lead, and I don’t believe that’s true. Grayson doesn’t need a boy to figure out who she is, and she certainly doesn’t need a boy to define her place in the world. Grayson IS her world. And that’s a major take-away from this story.

Are you planning to add romance in later books?

You know how the running romantic theme of Spiderman is that loving someone puts them at risk, but it doesn’t keep him from loving them? That’s a struggle for Grayson. In the second book, there are people she would like to be closer to, but she loves them so she can’t be. Are there kissy-lovey parts? Absolutely not. There’s no romance here. Love, sure. But no romance.

Let’s talk about writing it. What is your writing process?

Most of my early drafts are written by dictating into my iPhone; usually while I’m driving my car. I wrote my whole first draft, scene by scene, using voice-to-text. I have an old Kindel desk that’s my writing desk at home, and that’s where I write when I’m working on draft revisions and/or cleaning up the day’s dictation; but most of my real CREATION occurs between me, my iPhone, and my car. 

What has the publishing process been like for you?

In a word, SURREAL. I’ve been writing my whole life, for probably close to forty years, and I write because I have to. I really believe that. To be a functioning member of society, I have to write. I have to put my ideas out of my head.

But being published is totally different. To be in this place where other people care SO MUCH about what I’ve written — that’s foreign to me. It’s taken me some time to process this experience. Some days, when I hold a copy of GRAYSON RISING in my hands, I still can’t comprehend that it’s actually happened.

What got you started writing?

I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been sentient. I wrote comics when I was probably 5, 6, 7 – I used to sell them to my friends on the playground. I drew film strips in Sharpie on acetate to construct my own little movies, and that lead me to one act plays and stories, then a career in technical writing, training and development.

Are you working on any other projects? If so, what?

That’s complicated because I write “starts” of lots of things. I’ve written a library-full of first chapters (probably close to 400), but I only finish the ones that feel important to me.
I’m really excited about a project I’m working on right now, and I’m close to half-way through a first draft, so I think it’ll make the light of day some day. It’s about an A.I. built at MSU, who’s obsessed with the notion of God. We’ll see what happens to him

Tell us about your life outside of writing.

I am a technology consultant – I manage teams of people who write software, design and build websites, and build our applications for businesses. I work with businesses to figure out what kind of software they want, and then help them to make it happen.

That might seem disconnected from writing, but it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to me. I was a computer programmer for years and years and I used to tell people all of the time when they learned I was a writer and an English education major, that the trick of writing a good story and a good piece of software is the same. It’s about taking the smaller pieces and putting them together to make something that’s better than the sum of its pieces. It’s about making something, and then making it better.

Which authors or works have inspired you the most.

I’m a huge fan of Charles Dickens. A TALE OF TWO CITIES had a profound impact on me as a writer, and as a human. There’s something about the way Dickens tells a story and how he paints his characters that resonate with me. Victor Hugo, too. LES MISERABLES was the first book to make me cry.

What else do you want to share?

If you read GRAYSON RISING, you would reach the conclusion that choices weigh on me a lot. Responsibility and ownership — they’re the big ideas I think about the most. Not just as a writer, but as a person, too. I think that makes me a better writer.

I think the biggest struggle that real, LIVE humans have (outside of fiction) is discovering the REASON we do the things we do – the “why” of it. Characters don’t just say things because “I say so,” they have motivations and reasons and explanations. We have to ask WHY. And it’s apparent in the fact that there are no “bad guys” in GRAYSON RISING, too; when you ask WHY you discover it’s never black and white.

Any advice that you would give to aspiring writers?

I have one piece of advice: WRITE. Just write and write and keep on writing. It’s the whole reason I get excited about NanoWriMo every year, because I believe that the biggest enemy to a successful writer is one’s own self. We get too lost in our heads so we stop writing. If you can bring yourself to write, you’ll discover it’s much easier to make something better than it is to make something.

Write. Just write.