Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

How I Write: Authors on Their Writing Process - Owen Banner

Today's interview is with Owen Banner, an author of political thrillers, who talks of his methods for writing and experiments with different tools and apps. 

1.        When did you first start writing?
I had a teacher in seventh grade who stuck a poem of mine up in the middle school hallway. I always look back to that as the inception of this itch to write. All I remember doing was finding as many words that rhyme with “fire” and pasting them together, but the public praise she gave me for it made me feel like a budding Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. If you’re talking about when I set down to becoming a published author, then I’d say it was 2008. It took me about three years to write Hindsight, continuously learning and re-learning things along the way, but after I published it, I couldn’t imagine not writing.

2.        What are your books about? Are you self / traditionally published or hybrid?
I’ve got two books out right now (two in a series). They are about a guy from New Jersey named Shirley (rough life already) who has spent some time in prison. Shirley’s family is from Ireland, and he gets suckered into a revenge plot that goes back to his grandfather. Shirley gets dragged deeper into this plot at the same time as he starts losing his mind. Enemies become friends. Friends betray him. He’s fighting for his life, his sanity, and his family. I’ve self-published both of them on Amazon, at the moment, but you can get the first for free on my website.

3.         What led to your love for literature? Any favorite books / teachers / writing mentors?
My love for literature really stems from a love for story, and that comes from all over the place. My dad used to tell us multi-episode bedtime stories. I became obsessed with the X-men when I was young and, at night, would put myself to sleep replaying episodes of the TV show with my own character in them. My dad gave me his Norton Anthology of English Literature and The Complete Works of Shakespeare when I was thirteen, and I devoured them. Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth were my Power Rangers. 

I didn’t really get turned on to the novel, though, until one summer when I was staying with my grandmother in a small Pennsylvanian town. She’s intensely introverted, won’t let anyone take her picture, but a woman who speaks her mind with a sparky sense of humor. Ask Gram, “how are you?” She’ll answer, “fat and sassy.” Gram’s home is less of a house and more of a living, breathing pulp-fiction rack. There are paperbacks with splayed pages poking out of every crevasse. Her life in the house is a collage of other lives. While pounding out dough for bread on the kitchen table, she’s got a flour-dusted suspense-thriller held open by the salt and pepper shakers. When her laundry goes off in the next room, she leaves the gouts of blood spurting from that book to join Louis L’Amour on horseback with bullets ricochetting through canyon walls by her ears. A bath upstairs takes her down the Nile investigating a murder with Hercule Poirot. To bond with her that summer, I went to the library and checked out Tyrannosaur Canyon. It had been so long since I’d read a novel that I didn’t know what to expect. The immersive experience of wading into a book and not surfacing for days was something I quickly found myself addicted to. When I read Stephen King’s Needful Things, I knew I had found something like heroin.

4.      What's your writing process like? Do you outline? Do you write by hand / type / dictate?
I wrote Hindsight by hand, but my scenes were so intense and I was writing so furiously for a year that I ended up with damage to the tendon in my finger (if that’s not going to sell you on checking out the novel, I don’t know what will). Plus, it was taking me twice as long as it should have with writing, then typing it up. On Fracture (book 2), I decided to give typing a go. I bought Scrivener and never turned back. 

As far as how I plan things out, on Hindsight, I knew how it was going to end (mostly). The book actually starts at the end, then rewinds and plays forward until it arrives at that end. I don’t, though, have a clear idea of how that end comes around at the outset. What I do have are some characters that fascinate me. My writing is more like chemistry. The last decision a character makes propels them into a meeting with another character. I put them in a situation and see what happens. That usually helps me see the chain reaction three or four more steps down the road. I’ve begun developing a different framework, though, for my third novel, based on Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey”. This one combines what I have learned in my own experience as a writer and puts it together with that mono-myth idea and the writing lessons I’ve gleaned from other pros. It’s a bit to get into here, but I’m hoping to launch a podcast and blog this year on it called Storycrafting.

5.        What's your editing process?
Obviously, you don’t edit as you write. You write down the bones, as Natalie Goldberg put it, then go back when you’re done to flesh them out. That’s first. I usually do a few passes. The first one is to fill in any blanks that I’ve left out in my story due to a need for research, congruency, or just a gap in the plot that I realized I needed to plug. The second is a narrative edit, where I try to figure out what I like and don’t like about the story and change it. Then I’ll do a general spelling and grammar pass. Then a last pass for words that may be spelled correctly, but are grammatically incorrect in a sentence like “there” and “their”, “from” and “form”. After this, I give it to my beta-readers, who usually have a few missed grammar points and some narrative advice for me.

6.       Any favorite apps / software / technology for writing?
Scrivener, of course. You can’t beat everything this program can do. Evernote for research and ideas. Dropbox for storing all my files. Dragon Dictation for when I’m feeling confident that I’ve got exactly what I want to say in mind. I’m experimenting with Daedalus on mobile to see if it helps me do more than a basic text-editor can. Stay tuned for those results. 

7.        Any favorite apps / software / websites for marketing and promotion?
I won’t claim to have this aspect of the author life figured out. This year I have a few strategies I’m going to be engaging in, so you can track with me and I’ll keep you posted, but for most of my marketing, I look to Twitter, Goodreads, and Wordpress. There are a few new sites I’m exploring and new methods of connecting with readers that I’m experimenting with, but it’s too early to say what works and what doesn’t just yet.

8.        What did you find most / least useful in learning to write? Least useful?
Perfectionism. The pressure to coin a phrase or revolutionize a genre does you no service. In all honesty, nobody really wants that anyway. Writers are often drawn to high-concepts and epic moments, but that’s not where people live. Besides, those are the classics, which is an era that’s gone, baby, gone. When I sit down to write, I don’t try to write phrases that will be written on epitaphs. I just try to find a way to help characters interact in a real, human way and figure out how to deal with life when it won’t cooperate. 

9.        Who or what inspires you? Where / how do you get your book ideas?
I travel a lot. I was raised in Jamaica and the Philippines. I live in Thailand now. I find some questions about life, some burdens and joys to traverse cultural boundaries. Each of those questions, burdens, and joys, though, is packaged completely differently in each unique life, whether that person is a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok or an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania. That’s usually where my ideas originate: the people I meet, the stories I hear, the conversations we have will kick off an idea in my head that runs off the rails and into the next county.

10.       When in the day do you usually write? For how long?
I try to write in the mornings, but since having kids, that writing habit has taken a beating. Now, I grab whatever time I can while I’m out during the day. I teach full time, so I usually take my phone and a portable keyboard with me to lunch and pound out an hour, if I can. On school breaks, I can work in three or more hours a day. Ideally, I’d be spending a solid two hours in the morning because it’s always better for me to write at the beginning of the day when my pragmatic mind hasn’t switched on to go into whack-a-mole mode, knocking out the other tasks I have on my plate that day. Getting my writing done early gives me a huge morale boost, too, propelling me into the rest of the day with focus and confidence.

11.       Do you have a writing routine / schedule? Any specific rituals?
When I’ve got the house to myself, I’ll hop on my desktop, where I’ve got Scrivener, go into composition mode and lose myself in the story. When I’m writing away from the desk, I usually find some way to close my eyes and take five deep breaths. Then I take three more as I think about the character’s perspective I am about to write from. It helps me to quiet myself and center in on one perspective and voice.

12.       Where do you feel most inspired to write?
At home, in that composition mode, but I can get into the flow anywhere, really.

13.       Describe your desk / writing corner / favorite writing spot.
I like wooden tones. I’ve got a box for my pens, a lamp, a smattering of books and notebooks between bookends, a bulletin board with character cards on it, and a collage of the plot points in my novel.

14.       Do you listen to music while you write? What kind of music?
Sometimes I hear a song in my head while I’m writing, but I’ve never been good at listening to music when I’m trying to do something else verbally creative. Turning down the sounds around me lets me tune into all that exquisite noise between my ears.

15.        Do you ever get writers' block? What are some ways you get around it?
I don’t normally because of the process I talked about earlier, but I’m taking on a new challenge with this current novel that gets me stuck every now and then. Hindsight is written from one character’s POV. Managing one character’s life is fairly easy. I added another to Fracture and a few vignettes. This third novel I’m on has around seven major characters who are constantly ducking in and out of each other’s lives, so it can get a little tricky knowing which way it’s going. It’s because of this that I am developing a new plotting method to help me sort through all these character arcs and the overall story arc. 

Creatively, what often helps are three things. First, I try to finish a writing session in the middle of a sentence. This gives me a trail to pick up when I sit back down, instead of starting from a dead stop. Knowing the next few words you were going to say helps you to get a running start into the next sentence to follow. Momentum is what it’s really all about. Second, about 30 minutes before you’re going start writing, read the last few paragraphs you wrote. Don’t think too hard on it, but let your unconscious mind stew over it. Studies show it’s better at solving problems than your conscious mind is. Last, reading outside of your genre gives you brand new angles to take on your characters and the tracks your story can take.

16.       Do you now, or did you ever have any day jobs? Did they add to or detract from your writing?
I am, currently, an English teacher in Thailand. It’s been great for my writing in that the reading and development I do for classes I am running forces me into all kinds of literature I may not have picked up otherwise. It’s a pain, though, when you’ve got a lesson to plan on the perfect tense, but all you want to do is get back into your story.

17.       How do you make the time to write?
I take a portable keyboard and my phone with me on my lunch break. I write at night when the kids are asleep. If I can get up early enough, I’ll pound out an hour in the morning.

18.       How much research do you do? What kind?
I’ll pour over the internet. Wikipedia is a good place for background knowledge, but forums give the most authentic and authoritative information on a topic when you can find a community that is committed to the topic you’re talking about. There are plenty of documentaries on Youtube. Google street view is great for physically walking through a location you’re researching. If I can, I’ll go visit the place itself and spend time talking with locals. The novel I’m working on now is set in Belleville, Pennsylvania, which is right down the road from my Gram’s house. What I usually do is spend a month or so researching in the beginning. When I feel like I’ve got a handle on the major issues, vernacular, and particular interests of the people I’m talking about, then I start writing. I might watch a documentary every now and then or devote some of my reading time to a book I pick up on the subject, but I won’t stop writing to do more research until I’m done. When I’m writing, and I realize I’ve hit a gap in my research, I’ll just hashtag that section with something like “#quilting pattern”. On my first edit, I’ll just search my document for the hashtags and fill them in. The research I do at the end helps me see how I could take the novel in different directions during my next edit.

19.         How much marketing do you do? Which platforms are you most active on? 
I’ve been off and on with Goodreads, Twitter, and Wordpress for a year or two. This year, I’m stepping it up. To keep it simple, and keep myself devoted to my writing time, I’ve set myself a goal to engage three people online at the end of every writing session. I’ll read a blog and post a comment, chime in on a Goodreads forum, or tweet a reply to someone else’s tweets.

20.         What's the most fun aspect of marketing? The most challenging?
The most fun aspect is building relationships and the repartee that you can get into with other authors and readers. When you stop looking at it as selling and start seeing it as any other human relationship, it stops feeling like you’re getting your fingernails pulled and starts being something you actually look forward to.

21.         What project are you working on now?
It’s a genre bender that I’m giddy about, but I don’t want to give away too much as I’m just about halfway done. When I get closer to publishing, I’m going to let the cat out of the bag, so you can join my mailing list for updates (and get a free book), but until then, this cat is staying put.

22.         What books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I read all over the place. I just finished East of Eden and the Red Rising Trilogy. Both were excellent, but for completely different reasons. East of Eden, you know. It’s an American classic by Steinbeck about where people fit in the tumbling of the world and whether evil is inborn or chosen. Red Rising is an incredible sci-fi that reads more like a dystopian meets classical history meets space opera novel. It’s some of the best plot writing I’ve come across. Add it to your Kindle, your bookshelf or your Audible and you won’t be sorry.

Owen Banner is a traveler and writer. He has lived in Jamaica, the Philippines, the US, the Czech Republic, and Thailand, traveling in between. Drawing from these travels, he writes vivid thrillers, sizzling with action and quick dialogue--but thrillers that never lose their focus on the complex humanity of their characters. He is the author of the thrillers Hindsight and Fracture, about an ex-con with family ties in a holdover terrorist group who has become a pawn in a dangerous game of revenge. 

Website (Download Hindsight for free) | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon Author


 "A high-stakes suspense novel with a breakneck pace and strong voice." - Kirkus Reviews 

When Shirley got out of prison three years ago, he committed himself to being there for his sister, Haley, and his aunt, Winnie--the only family he has left. Then he met Isaac, a man with connections to his grandfather and to the IRA. Isaac said he owed Shirley's family a favor: deliver a package and get some money. But things are never that simple, are they? What should have been an easy drop-off blows Shirley's world apart. Now he's on the run, a continent away from those he loves, trying to figure out what he's gotten himself into, who he can trust and how far he's willing to go in order to keep his family safe. 

But Shirley has a few skeletons of his own banging on the closet doors, and the hinges are starting to come off.

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