by Connie Ward
What made you decide to become a fiction writer?
Fiction is in the blood. When I was young, my grandfather and his brothers were storytellers, sitting around the living room making grand adventures come to life. My father and grandmother were always voracious readers, always leaving a paperback around for me to read. They could both speed-read and I was so jealous, thinking it was a superpower. My father and my uncle James had written short stories and poetry. One small-town Mississippi family visit found me sitting in my father’s childhood bedroom at the desk with my uncle’s old typewriter, dreaming of werewolves and comedy capers, clacking away at what I thought would be the great American novel. It turned out to be a poorly typed, grammatically incorrect copy of the movie Strange Brew that, despite its juvenile feel, is now kind of funny to read. The desire to entertain people with stories started early for me. Stephen King and comic books, with their fantastic tales, fueled my passions. I remember sitting up all night reading a paperback copy of King’s It, visualizing the clown and being enthralled and terrified about kids my age being able to face down evil, always hoping I could make someone feel that way with writing. I put out countless knock-offs of the Friday the 13th world that were passed around school, kids pushing me for another chapter. Nowadays, if a teacher found what I had written I would be in a hospital getting assessed! Classes in creative writing in high school and poetry in college pushed me to think critically about writing. Then life inserted itself in my path, like it tends to do, and I took some years off. Creating never left my blood, and after writing some comic books I made a pact to write that novel before I turned forty. I beat the mark by a few days.
What type of stories do you write? And why?
The Long Season is my first published novel and is historical romance New Adult fiction. It’s a coming-out story with a sports background. I didn’t set out with one genre in mind. The central idea was that my main character would reflect something that was missing in most of my teen and college reading, a gay main character. Don’t get me wrong. Now there are plenty of examples of that. When I was young, authors putting that out were not exactly mainstream enough for a kid in a conservative area to know about, and I didn’t have the Internet because Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet. My goal is to make sure the main characters speak to me and what they are going through represents something meaningful to me. It has to be something I want to read and has to be driving me crazy not to write. I wanted to be a comic-book writer and create a gay main character that brought something worthy to the table. After a year or so of receiving letters from Marvel telling me they liked my work but wanted me to keep working with an editor there and nothing coming of it, I went into self-publishing. I did a little funny comic book, One Angry Koala, and what would have been a gay main lead in a supernatural thriller, Premonitions. They sold well, but I found my own art talent wanting and working with other artists with full-time jobs impossible to maintain. I finally devoted myself to a novel that had been digging its way through my subconscious. I want to write different things with each book. I love hockey and grew up in Cicero, Illinois, home of Al Capone, which made The Long Season. I love YA, magic, and sci-fi, which inspired my current steampunk project. I have a children’s picture book inspired by a trip to Australia and a YA coming-out novel on the burner next. I want to write things that speak to my emotional experiences on some level, things that might mean something to someone going through a tough time like I had. Ultimately, I strive to create something new with each work.
What do your family/friends think about your writing?
This question makes me laugh a little, thinking about the late-night phone calls with friends listening patiently to me ramble on about some idea I have to create a whole world or how some great reveal I’ve been planning needs to change. I’ve repeated so many useless facts from research their eyes must’ve been rolling in the backs of their heads at times. I also reached out to a book critique group to proofread and give feedback on TLS. I joked with people that I have my mom to tell me I’m great! I needed critical feedback. My family has been so supportive of the process, no matter how obsessed I became with locking myself away on a vacation to finish a chapter. I can’t imagine how many times I made some friends read and reread it. I gave a copy to my 88-year-old grandmother in Mississippi before she passed away, and she read it in two days and loved it. She asked all kinds of questions, wanting me to write a sequel, wanting to know what happened next. She helped and pushed me. My mother-in-law said it felt like a movie when she read it. It is difficult to keep explaining to my friends and family how slow the publishing process can be. Everyone kept asking me what was happening. When I won the pitch contest, Pitchapalooza, it seemed everyone thought it would be mere minutes before they could buy a copy. I don’t think they were ready for the never-ending waiting to hear if anyone would pick it up, and then when BSB did, how long editing, proofing, etc can be. I was mostly patient. They weren’t, and that was cool. They were into it, many of them having heard bits and pieces already. Little did they know it was a marathon, not a sprint. I truly believe all the time and the process have made the book much sharper, and I hope the great community of friends and family I have will feel rewarded for the wait. And if they don’t…no refunds.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’ve read interviews with Neil Gaiman—who wished me luck on TLS after I talked to him about it when I bumped into him at the David Bowie tribute concert at Radio City, not that we’re friends, unless you count twitter—where he said that he gets asked that question a lot. He gave a great elaborate story about getting ideas by sacrificing chickens, which you should find and read. The idea that an idea comes from one particular place that could be verbalized didn’t make sense to me until it happened. My idea for historical hockey fiction did actually come from a specific place. There really was one moment in particular that started it. I am a big hockey fan, and someone gave me a copy of a hockey history book. Flipping through the pictures of old teams in thick wool sweaters and unsafe, thin padding, I came upon a picture that spoke to me so intensely I devoted hundreds of hours of my life to the idea it presented. The 1907 Kenora Thistles were underdogs that won the Stanley Cup. One of those guys has a trophy named after him to this day. Hockey is a sport of rough, tough, iron men that played most of a game without changing out. It was, and is, one of the most athletic endeavors. That breeds all kinds of stereotype pressure to be a real man, whatever that means. Back then, you had to remain perfectly still for a long time to not blur your expensive photos. So your position in a photo was well thought out and purposeful, often meaningful. The Thistles took a team photo. The way they were sitting, legs curled into each other, looked very intimate, effeminate, but wasn’t the main oddity for me. One of the men looked like his head was cocked toward, and he was gazing at, another player. That must mean something. In a flash I was envisioning them as secret lovers and what it must have been like for them to hide that from their whole world in a time when the truth could have meant their death. A picture is worth a thousand words, or more! Not all my ideas come from such a lightning moment. My next book idea came to me in stages over years. I had written comic-book scripts and done lots of research that went unused but could never really get out of my head. It had been rattling around for years until I needed to combine everything into one story and write it. A lot of ideas are floating around in my head. Some take purchase and some I get excited about, talk about with friends, and then put backstage because they aren’t as important to me at the time. Time. That’s what I need more of!
How do you write; do you plan everything out or just write?
I write in my head for a time first, and then I do some verbal storytelling to work out the major kinks, testing my story against other people’s critique, before I sit down to really write it. There are a lot of methods of writing. I more or less used the snowflake method for TLS, writing a sentence description, expanding it to have major plot points I had been knocking around, then fleshing out the characters and writing pages of background on each of them before going back to do a complete outline. I had about thirty pages of outline with bullet points that had grown into pages before I started copying them over to a manuscript and going for it. I also did tons of research, if it can be weighed without printing it out. The research slowed me down because, being a history buff, I went down the net rabbit hole many times. That method has so much stability and planning to it that, for a new writer, worked well for me. The only drawback was that I had to combat the pressure to keep to the outcomes I wanted when the characters started to tell me something else needed to go down. What are you gonna do? I changed things. It’s not my fault really; they told me to do it. My second novel combines comic-book scripts and some notes I had been expounding on for years. Putting all that together required a lot of verbal storytelling to see what I was pushing too hard with and what was actually working. It’s a much more complicated script than TLS but did not have an outline that was finished at all when I started writing chapters in this planned trilogy. Great novel writer Brandon Sanderson said that he writes a series by doing the first one more or less off the cuff and then writing the series outline after, going back to change the first one to suit. That is what I am doing, and not working from an outline has let this steampunk adventure go wherever it wants to go. It is a fun experience, but not doing all of the research until the first draft is finished is hard for me, and having to stop to plan the next chapter has its own drawbacks. I’m a new novelist. Maybe I should have done several successful smaller projects before branching out into historical. I probably also should have done the present-day coming-of-age story first before I arrogantly went into a period setting. I maybe shouldn’t go back further into another setting piece and certainly shouldn’t tackle steampunk. But nobody tells me what I can’t or shouldn’t do.
What makes The Long Season special to you?
In many respects, TLS took on a life of its own. I wanted to tell a “What if?” type of story about a young hockey player who had the pressures of a hard family, a small town, the big leagues, and all that pressure of fitting in and being macho. I wanted to challenge the sports world to be more inclusive. During the current Chicago Blackhawks’ first Stanley Cup run, one of their players pinned up a picture of an opponent from the newspaper wearing a skirt. There was anti-gay sentiment and misogyny all wrapped in for good measure, propagated by a respected news source and players. It saddened me. Just last month, unfortunately, another Blackhawk screamed the “F” word at a referee. It’s all over the sports world. The You Can Play Project is growing, but when I started writing TLS it was fledgling. This idea in sports that men must be so manly as not to be well rounded or that women in sports are stereotyped is so slow to change. My novel is not a political piece, but it is always in my mind that maybe it can help someone struggling to be a hockey player, or whatever they want, who is afraid to also be himself. To have my first novel be able to help anyone in the way some reached me would be amazing. Foremost, I aimed to tell something that felt true and real, with all of life’s trials and tribulations.
How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters?
Without getting sued, I will say they are all made up! Off the record? The fun is in having people wonder which characters might be them or me. Some authors inject themselves into a character. I think authors write some wish fulfillment in their characters. You were unpopular? Write about being the cool kid. I know that someday I will write something more autobiographical, but for now I probably did more minor wish fulfillment. I really wanted to be athletic and be a fit superstar, so that’s Brett. I was in the jazz band and marching band—although for a brief moment I played defensive tackle in football and scored a freak touchdown on the B team in a real game—so there’s a lot of jazz music in there. I love watching goalies, so there are a lot of the greats in Jean-Paul. I work in the mental-health field so Brett has an issue to face. I do have this free-spirit friend with fiery red hair and some anti-stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a woman. A lot comes from the flappers of the Roaring Twenties, and some filtered back into Margret’s character, even though the two are also very different. Other traits of friends and family enter the characters. I took some historical figures from hockey, like Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, who once scored a goal by beating the entirety of the other team while literally carrying two of their players on his back, and put some of their accomplishments into my characters. Sometimes things in life are so fantastic you can’t make them up. Some of what the characters are like is a product of thinking about what life would be like if things in my life were reversed. My father is loving and supportive and my mother stands up for what she believes and loves, so I wondered what it would be like for Brett to have awful, harsh, cold parents. Sorry, Brett. I’ve been wild and crazy in my life but tried hard to make good decisions about the important things and to treat people well, so Jean-Paul is, um, not that.
Which gay/lesbian authors inspired you the most? Do you have a favorite
of this author(s)?
I visited Oscar Wilde’s grave in Paris. His marker is this ornate tribute to male form that fits everything I knew about him. His Portrait of Dorian Gray was a pivotal read for me, telling us all to live and be proud. I’ve been influenced and inspired by many authors, LGBT and not. I found my way to Felice Picano’s Like People in History, and his Alistaire shocked and intrigued me. Books like that really make us question our realities and what we can make of ourselves. I like being entertained with well-written fun novels like Brent Hartinger’s Russell series. Paul Russell’s novels pushed the edge of dangerous concepts just like Edmund White’s did. More contemporary authors speak to me as well, like Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary. I love superheroes and wish we could have seen what was to come of Perry Moore after the amazing Hero, if he had lived. I read great authors all the time, like Jay Bell and David Levithant. Three people, I believe, have written perfect novels: Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun, and my favorite book, Bart Yates’s Leave Myself Behind. They are very different from one another, but they speak to something so universal through complicated characters and just destroy me.
Do you have any suggestions for new writers?
Being a new writer myself, I feel weird giving advice, so I will do so from a point of reality. I don’t really know what it will take for you to make it because I am trying to make it happen myself. I struggled so much with getting time to write TLS and thought writing a novel would be the greatest accomplishment in the world. And it is and it isn’t at the same time. Authors say writing the book is the easiest part because boiling down the manuscript into a one-sentence or one-paragraph selling point, or a two-page summary, is ridiculously difficult. I shot for 300 pages, not two! Buy my book because it’s awesome. Wait, I have to market it too? Okay. Well, I’d say to enter contests for writing like I did. I put together a sell sheet and the most professional one-minute pitch I could muster and then entered the Book Doctors’ Pitchapalooza contest. I had sixty seconds to convince them to help me get an agent or publisher, and I did it, by editing and practicing my pitch a lot. That helped me find an amazing editor, Jerry Wheeler, who helped whip it into shape and be ready for someone to take a chance on. I had to get over the idea about editing notes indicating a lack of quality and accept them for an act of growth. I can also wallpaper a mansion with the rejection emails or the weird ones from the agent who led me on for months before falling off the face of the earth. You know who you are. Reach out to people and be real. Make connections and treat others with respect. Their time is valuable. I can trace lines between the people who have helped me, so remember that when someone says no and is maybe a little direct with you, and you want to say something witty back, be polite and ask for guidance instead. Authors, agents, publishers have all taken a minute or two each to give me advice. Andrea Beaty, children’s author from the pitch contest, even took me out for drinks a few times and once on a madcap run through two bookstores to research covers and titles on the shelves. Take all advice and run it through the filter that is you. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Someone smart said that.
When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
I love adventures and, as I grow older, consider going out with loved ones to eat and tell stories an adventure. I work at a job I love, but it is time consuming. These electronic devices keep me connected to it constantly, which is tiring. I try to do as many things as I can when not lying on the couch with the dog watching countless hours of The Game of Walking Flash Theory. Thankfully my in-laws love watching the dog, which lets us go, go, go all the time. People joke about how often we travel and that there is always a sightseeing schedule with a hundred things to check off. The second we land we are attending concerts, trying new restaurants, or hosting movie nights in the yard. When not doing that, or sometimes during, I’m always reading one novel while listening to another audio book and reading comics. You can’t grow old if you keep going. I asked my grandmother why she was still volunteering, and she said that if she ever stopped doing she might never get started again. I live by that insight.