Judy Mohr is the newly-elected Secretary for the Christchurch Writers’ Guild – having translated and transcribed screeds of legalese for us – and has also conceptualised and began plotting her dark fantasy opus. This begins with Beacon of Hope for which she has elected to take the traditional publishing path.
So, Judy, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always made up stories. As a child, I would spend hours with a tape recorder making up plays for my Barbies to act out. (Yes, I’m really that old.) I have always expressed my thoughts into written form. I kept a diary in my teen years. I wrote poems and lyrics to songs in my late teens, early twenties, and spent far too many hours hiding from the real world in the bowels of a dark theatre somewhere, often on-stage singing and dancing. But while studying for my PhD, I needed to find another way to escape the pressures of being a part-time research student and a full-time mother of two.
One night, in 2008, I had one of those vivid dreams where you can remember every detail. I thought it would make a fantastic story, so I wrote it down. The next night, I revisited the dream, so I wrote down more of the details. Eventually, it became a way of allowing my mind to shift away from the complex engineering calculations that I had to do daily as part of my PhD. I wrote while on the bus. I wrote while waiting for the school bell to ring and the chaotic life of a mother to begin. I wrote while on my lunch break. I wrote before falling asleep at night. By the time I had finished my PhD, I had four volumes of hand-written notes. I typed it into the computer and there was well over 2000 single-spaced pages, and I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the world I was creating.
Today, many of those original ideas still exist, but they have grown as I’ve managed to find more time to devote to my fictional writing.
Your series spans multiple volumes; how do you organise and plot out the storylines?
You are, of course, assuming that I’m organised enough to actually plot in the first place. I very rarely plot. When writing, I write out of sequence. Inspiration strikes and I trace a character’s story, hashing out where it might fit within the timeline as I go. More often than not, I’ll write something referring to a past event, then have to go back and actually write that past event. I have a starting point and a finish point, the road between them is open to interpretation.
But how do I keep track of what will go into which book? Well, that I can answer. It comes down to finding a start point and end point for each part of the story. It’s a similar concept to separating a single book into chapters. They all need to connect, but they need to be self-contained bits of action. The other deciding factor is what becomes the controlling premise or inciting character for a given storyline. I have a large character set to draw from, and many are main characters for their portion of the overall story.
What is your favourite part of the writing process?
That would be letting my imagination run wild. It’s liberating to occasionally dream up gruesome ways for people to die, or the sensual touch of a lover’s hand. Frequently, I find myself examining my own thoughts and values as my characters go through the intricacies of life, ranging from childbirth to funerals, and battles with a sword or in the intimate confines of the bedroom. All characters are an extension of the writer, and sometimes we just have to let those aspects of ourselves run free. Saying that, it’s always interesting when a character takes on a life of their own and drives their own story. Recently, one of my characters managed to escape the massacre I had planned for her and she started a rebellion of her own. I have no idea how she did that, but she made sure that I couldn’t kill her, not right away. While I growl at the harlot for taking control of her own story, I find myself grinning. It’s so much fun.
And your least favourite?
My least favourite part about writing would be, without a doubt, the editing process. You spend countless hours building this amazing story, only to hack it to bits. Whole scenes disappear because they have no relevance, or passages vanish, never to be seen again, just because they didn’t work the way you had originally planned. In my mind, writing a story is the easy part; editing it into something worth reading—now that’s where a true writing talent shows through.
Do you have any tricks or techniques for keeping your stories focused in the right direction?
What exactly is the right direction? Because I write scenes out of sequence, I don’t normally see the right direction until the editing process begins and I start splicing the different aspects for a given section of the timeline together. It is frustrating when you know certain inciting events need to happen, having the story fully written from that point forward, but it’s that process of making point A match up with point B that is actually the fun part. I guess you can say that I’m a “Discovery” writer through and through.
Your world is complex and intriguing; can you please tell us a little about your world building process?
I have a process?
Joking aside, everything about the world in my stories is fashioned after what I observe in the real world. Okay, the magic side of things might be pure imagination, but there are still ties to the real world. Anger flashing into flames that cover the body… My mother often referred to anger like the blood was boiling and heat was rushing through you. If you think about it, it’s not far from the truth.
Any fictional world needs to be believable. You need to be able to identify the characters as real people, the settings as real places. By taking real world observations and shifting it into a fictional environment, you know that a reader could imagine whatever you throw at them and accept it as normal.
Editing is an important part of your writing process; can you tell us about the resources (ie: websites etc) you have used?
How ironic that you ask this. Editing for me is literally red ink on paper. I’ll print out what I have written, and hack at it with a red pen. When I’m happy with what I have written, I then get other writers to read it.
I’m a big user of the Scribophile.com website. This site is a critiquing site with writers from all around the world and in every genre imaginable. The idea behind the site is that for you to post your own work for critiquing, you must first critique the work of others. You may feel that you have nothing of value to add to someone’s piece, but every time you read another’s work, you start to see the faults in your own. You discover ways to express ideas that you never thought about, and the comments you get back on your own work might shift you in directions that you never considered, but make your story stronger.
Once I have something that I believe is ready to go out the door, I shove the manuscript into that metaphorical drawer and leave it while I go work on something else. I then come back to it, sometimes months later, and reread what I had. That’s when you discover those glaring faults that you would be embarrassed if anyone actually saw.
At the moment, I feel like the editing process will never end, and until my manuscript is actually published, it probably won’t.
What are the most important things you have learned through these?
Don’t give my manuscript to my husband to read. I say that jokingly, but there is actual truth to those words. Many family members don’t want to spoil any dreams that someone might have and hence will say your manuscript is great when it really isn’t. Now, my husband never once said that my manuscript was great. In fact, the first time I had him read through it (many years ago now), his only comment was, and I quote, “Your fight scenes suck.” Geez, could anyone be more blunt?
Over the years, my husband has read through my manuscript many times at different draft stages. It was him who pointed out glaring plot holes, leading to my first book becoming two. However, every time he did provide feedback, it would end in a shouting match. Now, I only get him to read through something that I want to be torn to shreds. It’s typically only a passage where I’m struggling to get the descriptive right; he can normally come up with the one word that makes all the difference.
What made you decide to take the traditional publishing route?
The biggest allure of traditional publishing is the marketing aspect. I have no idea what to do, and I really want to see my book on the shelves alongside Terry Goodkind and Brandon Sanderson, however, because of where my name falls in the alphabet, I’ll likely be next to George Martin, but I’d be good with that too. While the query process has made me question my writing more times than I care to count, I believe that my story is stronger for it. I have recently rewritten parts of Beacon of Hope, all in the hopes of tantalising an agent or publisher, and I actually like the revised manuscript much better. It’s a long road to becoming a traditionally published author, but I’m determined to get there.
Any advice for authors who might be thinking of taking similar steps?
Never give up. The worst that anyone can do is say “No”, but they will definitely say nothing if you don’t try. So you get a bad critique; rewrite the story and move on. So you get nothing but silence from agents/publishers; examine what you’re sending out, rework it and send it to the next lot of agents/publishers. If you believe in your story, it will happen. It only takes one “Yes”.