On Writing: Q&A with Jessica Conoley
At The Color Eater debut on August 12th, 2017 we did a mini question and answer session. The crowd at the Uptown Arts Bar had a ton of fantastic questions, and we clearly didn’t have time for me to answer all of them. This post is dedicated to the questions ON WRITING. Check out my OFF WRITING post from October for insight in to my reading behavior and more.
How does writing create order for you?
It’s the way I process thoughts. Until the end of an essay I often don’t know what has been really bothering me. It wasn’t until the end of The Color Eater I realized Lena was dealing with similar internal conflicts I was struggling with when I wrote the book. I’m an emotional idiot, but it’s safe for me to process my emotions on the page, and once I read it I understand myself better. My writing is smarter than I am.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
I imagine there are lots of things I’ll give up, but until it’s asked of me I won’t know what I’m really willing to risk. I know two things I have already given up are: time with people I love and my illusions of financial security.
What is your “homework”?
Read and write. Read and write. Read and write. Writing also consists of editing/re-writing. But, creativity-new-content-add-to-my-word-count-wise—I’m only good for about ninety minutes of intense, gritty writing a day. Once my brain is spent on creative work then I write newsletters/blog posts/edit other writers, etc.
How do you visualize the landscape of a story before it’s completed?
I’ll normally get one flash of a scene, like a Polaroid in my brain. I can see that scene very vividly, and then I start a wider scan around that image in my imagination. Slowly (very, very slowly) the rest of the world unfolds.
What are your most effective world-building techniques?
My agent had me fill out a world-building questionnaire before I started the latest draft of The Color Eater. It included questions like: what’s the level of technology in the world, write the world’s Wikipedia page, what are gender roles in the world, what’s type of clothing do people wear, what’s the role of religion, etc. I knew the answers to 75% of the questions; the other 25% forced me to look at the world more in depth. The WBQ is on my desktop right next to the most recent draft of The Color Eater. It’s a great, quick- reference that helps me maintain consistency throughout the novel.
What are some things you’d have new writers avoid in their practice?
Other than reading and writing as much as humanly possible, if someone says real writers “have to do XXX” take it with a grain of salt. Lots of people say you “have to write every day/read only your genre/build your platform before you sell your book/finish a draft in a season, etc. Try XXX, if it’s not working, let it go and move on to the next thing. Everyone has to find their own way and that takes a lot of trial and error.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
In addition to the answer to the last question. 1) Comparing your writing/your career to other writers. Compare your writing to the writing you did two years ago, if you’re better than that’s all you need. 2) Not building a supportive community around themself. This industry will eat you alive. You need to find writer friends who understand and non-writer friends who are kind and supportive.
What’s your weirdest writing habit?
Creepy doll postcards. I write inspirational quotes on the back of them and use them for bookmarks.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A cat who looked suspiciously like Carey Grant—he would be named Archibald Leach.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Taking a day off. Once I take a day off it’s impossible to start back up. Literally weeks can go by before I can make myself pick up the pen.
If you could tell your younger-writing-self anything, what would it be?
Trust with practice you’ll get better. If you could practice piano for all those years there is no reason you can’t practice writing even harder, because part of writing is reading and reading isn’t even hard.
What are the most important magazines for writers to subscribe to?
I have no idea. I’m on a tight budget right now, so I don’t subscribe to anything. And mainly I’m a novel reader. I like long form stuff better than short story collections, so magazines aren’t generally my bag. (Says the magazine editor…)
How many hours a day do you write?
Ninety minutes of actual typing time in front of the screen, on a good day. There’s a lot of writing (read hours) that involves giving my brain space to figure out what happens next and I’m cleaning house or doing Pilates or petting my cats. But actual pen to paper, ninety minutes is a good day.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Owning the type of writer I am at this point in my life. I really want to be the write-every-day, super-high-word-count, don’t-let-stuff-come-in-the-way-of-my-work writer, but I am not. I need to become more consistent in my practice to achieve that. So, not berating myself constantly when I fail to achieve what I “think” I should be doing is a daily part part of my process.
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
Read more. I’ve always loved reading, but I used to feel guilty for doing it—like I should be “working” or doing something productive. Now that I realize it’s part of my job I never feel guilty about reading, sometimes I feel guilty if I’m not reading.
How far along have you planned out sequels for The Color Eater?
One follow up to this book, and another book that pre-dates this one with characters who are secondary/older generation in this book.
Do you have a Color Eater bible?
Sort of? I have one of those black and white memo books you get for school that has the hand written first draft. I have a smaller spiral notebook that has terribly drawn maps, and me trying out made up words, and pretty much the scratchings of a mad woman.
What does literary success look like to you?
Positively impacting a person’s life when they read my work. No way to ever know if I’ve done it or not, other than if people tell me. I guess if little girls start dressing up as my characters for Halloween that’s a good start, or people start getting tattoos based upon my novels… those could be indicators I left a pretty big impression.
If you were seated at an event in your honor on your 85th birthday, what would you like to hear them say about your life?
She worked hard, was true to herself, and wrote stories no one else could have imagined.