Interview with Jean Davis

This is one of an ongoing series of interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review.

Jean Davis lives in West Michigan. When not writing, she can be found playing in her garden, enjoying a glass of wine, or lost a good book. Her novel A Broken Race is now available, and her short fiction has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Acidic Fiction, Tales of The Talisman, The First Line, Allegory, Isotropic Fiction, Liquid Imagination, and more. Upcoming publications include two short fiction stories in Caffeinated PressBrewed Awakenings II anthology. Follow her writing adventures at www.jeanddavis.blogspot.com. Her story “Kick the Cat” appeared in Issue 1.2 in November 2015.

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3288 Review: How and when did you start writing? Was there a specific event or moment which sparked your interest in the written word?

Jean Davis: If we’re to go back to the spark, I’d have to say it was my fourth and fifth grade history teacher who accepted my short stories on the sly and wrote encouraging comments on them, sneaking them back to me tucked between my regular assignments. I don’t recall exactly how we came to this secret arrangement, but the fact that she wasn’t an English teacher, so there wasn’t that pressure, and that she was an adult who liked what I wrote, was very exciting.

I wrote on an off, more so in high school and into my early twenties. And then I had kids. I spent most of their year early years plugging away at various major rewrites on a single novel as time allowed, which if you have young kids and a job, you understand is about ten minutes a week in a state somewhere between exhaustion and asleep.

It wasn’t until 2005 that I found my way to fan fiction where I again got a taste of feedback and encouragement, not that those two things were often hand in hand or very helpful. The search for more productive criticism led me to a critique group. There, I started writing seriously and learned a lot. I’m still learning a lot, seven years later.

3288 Review: Fan fiction is an interesting tool for learning the writing process, because it comes with the built-in restriction of adherence to established canon and characters. What part of your author’s toolkit do you feel benefitted the most from fan fiction–dialog, scene building, plot, or something else?

Jean Davis: Up to that point in writing, I’d been focused on a single novel for years, lost in rewrites, knowing it still needed a lot of work, but not sure how to go about fixing it. Stepping into an established world in a different genre was a good way of easing into writing something other than the world I’d been in for a long time. Receiving feedback on those stories gave me the freedom to learn more about writing in a way that didn’t come out and tell me that my novel love child was ugly. At that point in the game, that would have been hard to hear, even though I knew it needed work.

Because the characters and world are established, I used fan fiction to work on plot structure, pacing, and trying to give my readers an emotional experience. I experimented with making readers laugh and cry and working plots into different lengths, from flash to short stories and a novella. I haven’t gone back to read any of it but I’m sure it wasn’t great. Writing fan fiction was a good learning experience and it also introduced me to beta reading, and helped me grow my first layers of thick skin.

3288 Review: On the whole, do you consider the online writing community to be a help or a hindrance when writing? How do you decide when to say “enough” to the suggestions, critiques and criticism?  And which communities are the most useful and helpful?

Jean Davis: When doing the actual writing, an online community can be a great place for group support. I’ve found having a place where I can put my goals and progress out in public helps me stay on task and having  others waiting on the sidelines to share small victories, like finishing a chapter or sending out a submission, makes the whole process less lonely.

At the editing stage, I love my critique group, even when they don’t love my writing. Having access to people who are willing to take the time to read and comment, to offer suggestions, ask questions, to help transform the story I had in my head to a finished draft where they see the same thing I do, is a wonderful thing. All hail the internet and how it brings us together.

How do tell when a story is done? Gut feeling. Sorry, that’s about as exact as a recipe from grandma, isn’t it? There’s some time required to get acquainted with what feels right and what doesn’t first. It wasn’t until writing somewhere around 800 critiques on other people’s work and receiving that many on 90 some pieces of my own that I felt ready to go with my gut. By that point, I knew what my regular critique partners were going to say upon my own reading of the first draft. Their voices haunt me, I swear.  Now can put up a fairly clean draft, and if I don’t receive any major comments during critique, feel confident enough to polish it up and send it into submissions.

I belong to Critique Circle, which is a large online writing community comprised of members from around the world, from those writing their first piece to the widely published. In my eight years there, I’ve learned as much by helpings others with their writing as I have getting feedback on my own. It’s a great place to meet other writers, network and grow.

On the local level, there is, of course, NaNoWriMo, and our region of Ottawa County and Grand Rapids. One month a year local writers congregate in coffee shops and offices and pound out words in writerly camaraderie to complete their own short rough draft in a month. If you need to learn self discipline as far as writing each day or want to try your hand at writing a novel, National Novel Writing Month is a great way to go. I use NaNoWriMo to experiment with new projects and reset my commitment to writing each year.

3288 Review: Your book A Broken Race was published a little while ago. Where did you get the idea? What was the writing process like (e.g. “pantser” vs. “planner”)? And how has it been received by your readers?

Jean Davis: A Broken Race began as a personal challenge to write all the main characters as grey, both good and evil, and let the reader decide who to cheer for. I’d been reading books on writing at the time and wanted to focus on creating a well rounded antagonist. Is a bad guy bad if his motivations are good? As that question was the sum of what I began to write the novel with, you can surmise that I fall into the panster category.

By the time I finished the first draft, I’d developed a soft spot for (main character) Joshua. His innocent view was so much fun to write, especially in his not so good moments. Keeping the “Williams” in the grey zone was my biggest struggle because I kept wanting to pin everything that was wrong in the world on the guys in charge. Because, that’s generally what we do. Though, it would seem I found the right balance for them, because I’ve received comments that readers liked the Williams, even when they felt they shouldn’t.

When I finished A Broken Race, I intended for that story to be finished, a standalone. I’d said what I had to say. But I’ve had readers ask for a sequel because they enjoyed the characters. That’s a wonderful thing to hear.  I won’t say a sequel is off the table, but I’m focused on several other projects right now.

3288 Review: Who are you reading right now? Are there any authors you look to for inspiration? And of these, which ones have had the biggest impact on your writing?

Jean Davis: I Just finished Reaper by local author, Lindsey Winsemius,  and have her second book, Patrician on my reading list.

My taste in books tends to vary but every one I read goes into the creative juice factory. More than specific authors, it’s how two characters interact, a scene of witty dialogue, a vividly detailed description, the parts where I pause to appreciate the skill behind the pen, all those little tidbits become inspiration.

To avoid any unintentional bleed through, I try not to read the genre I’m writing at the time, so I’ve been on a sci-fi and fantasy dry spell reading-wise. Meaning I have quite a few of them forming bases for the to-be-read stacks scattered around my house, because I don’t stop buying even though I’m not reading. And no, I don’t have a book problem.   

3288 Review: Tell us something about your experiences as one of the local ringleaders of National Novel Writing Month. Has it affected the way you approach writing? And how has the local literary scene changed in the time that you have been involved?

Jean Davis: Ringleader. I like that. Ha! When I volunteered as a municipal liaison for NaNoWriMo seven years ago, we were a handful of local writers participating in a November writing challenge. Now we’re a large group all over Grand Rapids and Ottawa County. We’re friends and writers who stay connected all year long. It’s been very gratifying to see the group continue to grow and more and more of us getting published.

NaNoWriMo helped me finish a novel for the first time. In the nine years I’ve participated November has come to signify a renewal of writing time. It’s a kick in the pants to sit down and knock out a rough draft that I would have otherwise put off or maybe never even started. I’ve learned that the way I write best is to just sit down and do it, usually short bursts unless I’m really in the zone.

NaNo helped me to build a writing schedule and realize how much I can accomplish in a short time if I really want to. Setting goals, and participating in other challenges throughout the year helps keep my procrastinating habits at bay.  If you also enjoy writing challenges, beyond the popular NaNoWriMo, try either session of Camp NaNo, Blogging A to Z and A Story A Day In May.  

In addition to our group growing and the birth of Caffeinated Press, I’ve seen more local year round writing groups pop up and I’ve enjoyed meeting more local authors as events bring us together.  There’s even a Tulip City Author Event in Holland on July 9 with a twenty-three authors and all their books. Yes, I’ll be one of them, and I hope to see you there.

3288 Review: What writing projects are you working on right now? Do you have anything planned for release in 2016?

Jean Davis: As we speak I’m working on the rough draft of Bound in Blue, the third book in a space opera series. Once that’s wrapped up, I’ll swap it out for the fourth draft and hopefully final draft of Sahmara, a fantasy novel. I also have two short stories in rewrites and a slew of others that need to be edited or finished. We won’t talk about all the novels that also need my attention. However,  after a couple of dry writing years, thanks to work and building a house, I’m finally making progress again, and that feels really good.

Look for my short stories “Giving Chase” and “Mother” in the Brewed Awakenings II anthology.