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”.
Over the next few weeks, I will be conducting “interviews” with various members of the Christchurch Writers Guild – both members of the committee and others.
We will begin with Beaulah Pragg, the newly-elected President of the Guild; she is also one of the co-founders. I first met Beaulah when I came upon her book, The Silver Hawk, on the shelf of PaperPlus Hornby, noted down her details, acquired the book, and emailed her. Soon after that we organised a meeting, got discussing writing in Christchurch, and from there the Christchurch Writers Guild was born. Beaulah also works for the Christchurch City Libraries, teaches writing courses and is overall an inspiration to us all.
To begin, Beaulah, can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?
I’m twenty-six (for about another month). I work at the library and teach creative writing to children. I started writing back in 2005, with my very first National Novel Writing Month (Nano) and pretty much went from there. Have to admit, I wasn’t very good at Nano. I’d get bored with my story too easily, or get stuck, but I was too stubborn to give up, so I invented the world-building Nano, which I’ve done ever since. I just fill up the 50,000 words with character interviews, descriptions of stuff, random scenes from all kinds of POVs. At some point, all that information clumped together in my brain and I wrote the Silver Hawk. Now I’m trying all kinds of techniques to prod the sequel into shape.
What do you enjoy the most about the creative process?
I love the characters & social world-building. I’ve never been much good with magic systems or street maps, but I can tell you the history of a family back five generations. I have this cool timeline software that helps me keep track of all the backstory, and a family-tree program to manage all the inter-marrying. The trick is to let all of that go when it comes time to write the actual story. Just because you know the names of his three brothers, and their wives, and their second cousins, doesn’t mean you need to include them!
What do you find the most frustrating?
Honestly, the excessive world-building can be a bit of a curse, because you get stuck in things having to be a certain way because of other stuff you’ve already decided about his cousin’s ex-wife. Then, when I bravely tell myself to let it go and do the right thing for the story, I now have to go back and deleted said cousin’s ex-wife, or re-write her story to fit. I feel like there are so many threads and sometimes it’s hard to get them to come together in any pleasing kind of tapestry.
You have independently published your novel, can you please tell us a little about the process, the positives and the pitfalls?
That was back in 2013, so I expect some things have changed since then. I went through the query process and even got some bites from various agents, but they all said no in the end. I just wanted people to read my story, so I googled self-publishing and jumped on CreateSpace, Kindle (KDP) and Smashwords. I worked through their various formatting guides, threw together a cover and pushed ‘go’. I was really lucky. People have been so supportive and I’ve learned so much since then. The original book was full of mistakes, but my readers were also my friends, so they pointed them out in a nice ‘we still think you’re awesome’ kind of way.
I set up a book launch with South Library and got a whole heap of books printed for it. When they arrived, it turned out there were still a bunch of errors. Mum said I couldn’t sell them and paid for a last minute emergency reprint locally. Cost a heap and she wouldn’t let me pay her back. I felt really bad. It did change my blasé attitude toward spelling and grammar though. I highly recommend getting a professional editor, even if you do everything else yourself.
Please tell us a little about the inspiration behind the CWG.
Going through the process of self-publishing The Silver Hawk, I felt like I was the only person doing this kind of stuff in Christchurch. There didn’t seem to be a group for me. Everything was still all about being ‘good enough’ to get accepted by agents or publishers. When I met Angela and we realized we had both gone down the same self-publishing path independently, it seemed natural to want to create a group. The CWG is about having a place to go where you’re accepted and can talk about writing—whether you do it for fun, want to publish yourself or win a publishing contract. I just wanted to show people that we’re not alone. We’re here for you, whatever you want to do.
How have social groups such as the CWG and SpecFic influenced your writing endeavours?
It’s been great to watch that sense of community grow—to share our stories and learn from each others’ successes and failure. I’ve loved workshops like ‘Show, not Tell” because they’ve given me a chance to play and extend my writing. I’ve enjoyed going to conferences in Auckland and Wellington, meeting fellow SpecFic people and realizing there are a whole lot of people trying to do exactly the same things as me, and they’re awesome. I really believe that we have power as a community that we don’t have on our own. When be believe, as a group, that something is possible, we find a way to make it happen.
So yeah, being part of these social groups has helped me grow, not just as a writer, but as a person.
How can the CWG help and support our authors?
For me, it always comes back to those social connections. You are responsible for your own words and what you choose to do with them. We’ll help you out if you need advice, whether it’s about semi-colons or formatting a manuscript, or even handling a bad critique. We’ll run workshops where everyone can get together and practice their craft. But the main thing is that CWG is a place where you can find other people travelling paths very similar to yours. The support comes not so much from the organization, but from the people who populate its meetings, workshops and forums. We’re committed to that support being unconditional and unprejudiced. As long as you treat others with respect, we’d love to have you.
What do you predict for the future of publishing and writing in general?
We’re rapidly transitioning into a digital age. Barring catastrophic digital collapse, zombie apocalypse or other excuses to return to a primitive post-apocalyptic survival scenario, I expect most people will be reading digitally in the not-too-distant future. Certainly the traditional publishing model is collapsing. We can see that right now. The thing is, just because books aren’t being made and sold the way they used to be, doesn’t mean people aren’t reading. Story is a fundamental part of life. We all need stories to make sense of the world, and we love authors who make us think or make us feel.
So writers will still be needed and stories will still be read. Our job, as a group, is to look for new opportunities and pounce on them, feeding back what we’ve learned to enrich the whole. There’s no point bemoaning what is gone or trying to halt the wheels of change. I can’t tell you what the future will bring, but I can tell you I’ll be watching with baited breath. There are all kinds of exciting new ways to connect with our readers, if we’re brave enough to give them a go.
As you have insider knowledge, what role, do you feel, will the libraries play in this future?
Libraries are about so much more than books. People come to us for the community, for a place to work or study, or even just for help navigating the overwhelming mass of information out there. I get questions that range from “What should I read next?” to “How do I install Overdrive on my iPad?” and all kinds of unusual things in-between. The libraries are committed to staying relevant, which means keeping up with technology and being that support for people’s informational needs.
As a teacher of creative writing, what are some of the pitfalls you have seen?
I teach creative writing to children, so some of the issues I’ve seen are really just part of the learning process – things like “Use your quotation marks!” and “Please paragraph, sweetheart. It’s really hard to read a whole page without any gaps in it.”
Having said that, the children I teach are incredibly imaginative and have so much fun with their writing. I think one of the pitfalls for us as adults is to forget that this stuff is meant to be fun!
Any advice for aspiring writers out there?
Write. That’s a really good place to start. Keep your notes organized so you don’t expend precious mental energy trying to remember whether he had green eyes or blue. I use Super Notecard, which is just amazing for this (and also free up to the first 100 cards, so try it out).
Develop a safe, supportive community where you can share you writing and critique other people’s work. You can only improve as a writer if you let people give you feedback, and if you practice looking for ways others can improve. I’ve tried all sorts of groups and forums for this purpose, and my favourite so far is definitely Scribophile (which I just joined a week ago after our new Guild secretary, Judy, recommended it). Scribophile is also free for low-level users and has an excellent karma system which means you get back what you put in. I highly recommend giving it a go.
Finally, when you think you’re done and want to get your story out there, please make sure to find a professional editor. Even if you’re going for a traditional contract, you’ll stand a much better chance if your text is clean.
Oh, and join the Guild, so then you have people celebrate and commiserate with along the way.
Toot do da toot toot doo!
The Christchurch Writers’ Guild would like to announce the publication of its first member anthology.
The anthology is edited by Guild co-founder, Angela Oliver. It is an eclectic mixture of short stories and poems, illustrating the diversity of the writing talents and interests of Guild members. The unifying theme of ‘reflections’ was developed differently by each of the anthology’s contributors, within their own preferred genres:
Poems: the anthology opens with a poem by Sam Bueno, reflecting on his childhood; later, two poems from Damien McManus show us side-by-side childhood in Ireland and Christchurch in the present moment; Judy L. Mohr reflects on children growing up and David Thompson spins us a poem of a life well-worn, while Matty Angel writes of overcoming fear.
Historical fiction: Beaulah Pragg takes us back in time to an important Italian woman’s life.
Contemporary fiction: Helen Mongillo uses a carefully structured narrative to illustrate an important life skill and life lessons.
For children: Grounded, by Jim Cullinane, follows the fortunes of young Kiwi, Kate, who is hoodwinked by an Aussie Galah.
Contemporary fantasy: Jonathan Kingston-Smith explores the motif of the mirror in his dark fantasy/horror that imagines what life is like for those we see only as our reflections and J.L. O’Rourke offers a vampire murder-mystery. Shelley Chappell brings modern-day humans into contact with their hidden cousins, mermaids.
In the future: Ami Hart’s sci-fi romance, Ned’s Hallelujah, takes us into the stars on a journey with seasoned security officer, Ned, and the woman who might be the bane of his existence – or his redemption. Rachel Carlyon’s post-apocalyptic romance, Protector, shows how bands of youths struggle to share what remains of the earth.
Secondary world fantasy: Angela Oliver’s The Birth of Niamh is a dark fantasy illustrating the outcome of a child’s unusual birth. The Longest Night, by Scott Rankin, shows how an arrogant wizard is never too old to learn the error of his ways.
Keen to join the Guild? Let us know! Already a Guild member? Get your writing fingers ready for the next anthology call!
How old are you?
Other than writing, how to you spend most of your time?
Archery, Music, Movies, Reading
When did you realize you loved writing?
Uhm… Primary school. Around ten years ago.
What are your favourite things to write?
What do you get out of writing?
It’s my escape. My way of coping.
What message would you like your writing to leave with others?
There is always someone better and worse off than yourself. Stay strong and you’ll get through!!
What advice would you give to other writers just starting out?
Just write for you! Not for anyone else!
This entry was posted in Our Authors.
We have an amazing 332 people in our Facebook Christchurch Writers’ Guild group. It’s fantastic.
With size comes a need to be organised, so we decided we needed to create a form for all members to fill in to become “official members” so we could have a member database with basic information like an email addresses. Then we really started thinking about the kind of information that would be helpful to make the most of the Guild, and ensure that it’s working for all our lovely members.
On top of this, we really want to accommodate those people that don’t have a Facebook page. We understand that some members may be too young for, or simply not interested in, Facebook. So this gives those people a chance to still be part of the Guild, and feel as though they are valued members too.
So we would like to invite all our existing members (and new members that join us) to fill in the Membership Form you will find here or click on the Join Us page link at the top of the page.
Please be assured that all your information will be kept private, and will only be accessed by CWG admin.
This entry was posted in Our Authors.