J.R. McLemore is a writer who really has to be interviewed a few times to get the full breadth of his knowledge down in print. In this interview, I wanted to start with a question about the work he is doing currently, then I wanted to take you all on a rip-roaring journey through the highlights of being a professional writer. Hold on to your seats guys, this is going to be one helluva journey!
Q: I wanted to open with a question the Grand Inquisitor would have been proud of. What do you think your next book will be about?
A: That’s an interesting question. As a matter of fact, I’d like to know, too. Actually, I try to be forthright with my readers by giving them plenty of sneak peeks over on my blog (http://jrmclemore.blogspot.com/). I recently did a post that showed, I think it was five, books that I was currently working on for release. Of course, I always preface this with a disclaimer that things are likely to change. Like race horses, there’s always one book that’s a nose ahead of the pack and will most likely cross the finish line before the others, but sometimes, a sleeper will come to the front and beat out the others. At this time, the closest book to publication is another southern story called Rabbit on the Run, about a black field worker named Gordon Mosely, who, during the Depression, is on the run from a lynch mob who thinks he killed a white girl. Also, I’m currently working on a science fiction novel about a scientist (a geneticist) who has developed a treatment to increase our lifespans by decades and maybe even a century. The working title for this novel is Youthanasia. In it, I want to show the good and bad aspects of being able live for hundreds of years because I think everyone has wondered what it would be like to live forever. But, how many of us have thought beyond that rosy, glamorous picture to wonder about the negative aspects? I hope I can do justice to showcasing those differences.
Q: I think that one will be another winner, J.R. Many writers tell tales of having to rewrite books many times over. How many times do you rewrite your books?
A: Zero, if I can manage it! I’ll be honest, I hate the editing process. Especially if it means a rewrite. Some writers might say they enjoy editing, and maybe they do. I’m not one of those writers, though. I love creating from scratch, but going back over it time after time becomes tedious. By the second time I’m going through a story, it’s really begun to lose its luster, in my opinion. I don’t even reread novels by other authors that I loved reading the first time; once is enough, and I’m ready for something different. Maybe I have ADD or something. A rewrite means throwing out great whacks of a story you’ve already written and trying to fit something new into that gaping hole in an attempt to rid yourself of plot holes or some other big flaws. This is the hardest kind of writing there is, I think. Not only do you need to come up with something to fill that gap neatly, you also have to seamlessly shore up those ragged edges where you ripped out the original text. Knowing I have to do this really saps the motivation out of me and I tend to put the story aside for quite a while before I’m able to muster enough excitement to return to it. As a matter of fact, I have a horror novel that I’ve rewritten three times already. I originally wrote it in 2005. It was my first novel and I called it The Shadow People. Since that last rewrite, I let my wife read it and give me her opinion. She thinks it needs another rewrite, which I fully intend to do. I’ve made some lengthy notes about the new plot and renamed it The Consuming Darkness. When I look back at the original first draft and the materializing plot for the next rewrite, I can’t help but shake my head at how vastly different both stories are from one another. I think this last rewrite will make a far superior story, though.
Q: Do you think an author needs professional help to promote properly?
A: If that author is me, then, yes. I suck at promoting my work because I’m too modest. However, I don’t think every author needs professional promotion. Just like every author does not need professional editors, graphic artists, etc. I do everything myself; from writing, editing, cover design, page layout for the paperbacks, to digital formatting. I’m fortunate enough to have a wife who is a professional English professor and that goes a long way toward making my books better during the editing process, but I also have reliable beta readers who bring even more insight to the table. I guess being technologically adept helps in some of these regards. I think there are a lot of authors out there perfectly capable of wearing more than just the writing hat, who can jump into promotion themselves and become wonderfully successful. I’m not one of those writers, though. So, yes, I need professional assistance and I think others do as well. Also, I think promotion, like trying to pick a bestseller in the publishing industry, relies heavily on luck. It’s like playing darts in the dark. If a book is written well and has a great story to tell, I think it’ll eventually become successful. Promotion, of any sort, can only help to gain attention for that book sooner rather than later. To me, it all boils down to the story itself. If it’s great, then it’ll do well. If it’s not…well, you can’t polish a turd.
Q: Is the written word in book form a money making venture, in your opinion?
A: Only as much as going to the dog track is a money making venture. Along the same lines as what I said about promotion, I believe a lot of success in publishing comes from luck. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s not all about luck. I mean, if an author writes a crappy book with a lot of typos or just a shitty story that goes nowhere, then (s)he better fall into a huge pile of luck, and, unfortunately, some writers have done that, but it’s extremely rare. In addition to luck, there is a large amount of skill and ability that the writer should bring to the table. Everyone has different tastes when it comes to the kinds of books they enjoy, but, in the end, it all boils down to a good story. If the writer can craft a story that sucks that reader in and keeps them turning the pages, then I think that writer will be successful, which may translate into sales revenue and possibly larger success. But, there again, that relies on luck. As writers, we can only do so much before releasing our work to the public. From there, it’s largely out of our control. If, on the other hand, a writer thinks their first draft will be worshipped by readers on bent knees, well, that writer is probably going to have a rude awakening and most likely wallow in obscurity. That’s a writer who obviously doesn’t care about the readers, and the readers are the ones who make or break us writers in this business. Without the readers, we’d be voices quacking in the void.
Q: Just out of interest, how does it feel to be highly rated as a writer?
A: I don’t know. Am I highly rated? Seriously, it doesn’t feel any different from being in any other occupation, I’m sure. Like everyone else, I wake each day and put my pants on one leg at a time. Now, I’m sure the feeling would be much different if I had the notoriety of Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowling, or some other blockbuster author. In the meantime, I’ll keep creating sentences to make paragraphs and paragraphs to create books.
Q: Some writers say that their greatest works have come to them by pure accident. Do you think great writing can come by accident?
A: Yes and no. I think that a great idea can come to you by accident. It might even be accidental that the writer executes that idea in a fantastic way. But, I don’t think that a novice who hasn’t learned his/her chops is going to sit down and create a blockbuster masterpiece through sheer luck. I really think it takes a lot of skill and ability to accomplish such a feat, which only comes through many hours of honing one’s craft.
Q: What is great writing to you?
A: Ah, the million dollar question! I think all writing is subjective, great or otherwise. Everyone will have different opinions about what constitutes great writing. For instance, Catcher in the Rye is heralded as a classic. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though. However, I thought To Kill a Mockingbird was brilliant. I think a lot of genre writers have created some great writing, but other readers out there will most likely disagree with the writers I name. Great writing, to me, is whatever captivates a reader and keeps him/her turning the pages to find out what happens next. If the reader can lose themselves in the story, forget their mundane problems, and leave them wanting more, then I think a story has succeeded at being great.
Q: Some writers say that writing is their escape from what they feel is a hundrum, boring existence. Is writing ever an escape for you?
A: You bet! Just like reading can be an escape, so is writing. Sometimes, I think writing is even more of an escape because the writer is in the world longer than the reader. A reader can flick his/her eyes across a sentence and experience what the writer is trying to convey, but the writer probably spent a lot longer constructing that sentence than the reader did comprehending it. While a writer is submersed in the world (s)he is creating, they are watching the various characters act out what they are meant to capture on the page. In a sense, writers are equivalent to sportscasters as we record what we see unfolding in our heads. It’s up to us to translate those actions to a third party somewhere down the timeline.
Q: How do you think your writing has gotten better over several novels?
A: Hmm. First, I hope my writing has gotten better! Of course, that’s for the readers to decide. From a technical perspective, however, I think my writing has gotten better. At least, when I go back and reread some of my earlier stuff, I can see where I could’ve improved. I think it’s obvious to point out that this insight comes with experience. The more you write, the more you should be learning as a writer ways to improve your craft. Also, this requires listening to the feedback you receive and making any necessary adjustments to make your stories better. I don’t think a writer can improve by working in a vacuum, sealed off from the criticism of any readers. So, with that said, I think my writing has gotten better in that my writing style has become more casual and informal. I’m a naturally laid back person, and I want my writing to reflect that. I think the casualness of my writing helps readers feel more at ease with my characters and plots. At least, I hope so.
Q: What do you think you could personally improve?
A: Absolutely nothing! My writing is already perfect. And that’s a lie! Probably the biggest, most delusional lie a writer can tell themselves. Quite frankly, I think I can improve in so many areas. I’d love to create the deep characters Stephen King develops. I also love the way his stories draw you in because they feel comfortable in the beginning. I would also love to be able to write strongly-themed stories without hitting the reader over the head with my themes. Description and world building are other areas I’d like to improve upon. But, there again, these things come from writing more and more. And, most importantly, learning from mistakes readers point out.
Q: How do you feel about the writing you do now, in comparison to the writing you did when you started out?
A: I’m very pleased with the progress I’ve made as a writer over the years. I can’t say I think I’m better than anyone else other than my younger self. When I started out, I thought I was Shakespeare in the making–probably like most naive young writers. Once you put your first few stories out there, though, and see what others say about what you’ve created, that self-image you’ve formed either gets taken down a few pegs–sometimes quite a lot of pegs, actually–and you can do two things: First, you can ignore them and continue fostering that notion that you deserve a Pulitzer Prize, which is to your peril; or second, you can listen to those readers who are pointing out your mistakes and take steps to try to never repeat them. I can’t stress this enough. I think too many writers take that criticism as a personal attack and feel like reciprocating that animosity they feel when someone disagrees with them or talks negatively about the story they’ve written. As a writer, this is so counterproductive. When I read something I’ve written recently and compare it with something I wrote years ago, I blush inwardly because I think my early writing is pretty elementary. Of course, several years from now, I’m sure I’ll reread something I’ve written now and see how much more my writing has improved. Well, that’s the general idea, anyway. I hope I can keep improving.
Q: Do you think your work is heavily influenced by Stephen King?
A: Yes and no. Stephen King was a major influence on my writing when I first started out. I tried my best to imitate his style, but probably not very well. Also, I only read horror stories and wrote horror stories during my early years. It wasn’t until I started reading more broadly that I began to see techniques other authors used to construct their stories. So, I tried incorporating more of these strategies into my own writing. While I hold Stephen King in high regard, I don’t think my writing has as much of his influence as it once did. Now, I simply try to come up with stories that I find interesting and execute them, hoping they translate across to the reader as well as it materialized in my head. An interesting side note to this: when I was finishing the editing phase of The Old Royal, a colleague at work who knew a lot about my novel suggested that I read King’s 11/22/63 because it, too, is a time travel novel. He said there were many similarities between both of our books. You better believe I got a copy of King’s novel and read it. It was interesting to see the same obstacles in his book that I had to address in mine, as well as the things he thought of that I had missed. In addition to that fun little anecdote, that same colleague just recently asked if I saw King’s latest novel published by Hard Case Crime, a book called Joyland. I told him I hadn’t, and he proceeded to tell me the story’s premise, which sounded very similar to a story idea I’ve been wrestling with for a while about a merry-go-round at an amusement park where nearly a dozen children disappear during broad daylight right in front of a group of adult onlookers. I couldn’t help but think, “Stephen King, get outta my head!” As with the previous book, I’ll wait to finish writing it before sitting down to read Joyland. There’s nothing I hate more than having an author’s ideas appear in my book because I read theirs first. I try to be as organic with my writing as I can, although, sometimes the similarities of a certain subject are almost always shared between authors.
Q: How would you describe The Old Royal to a new reader?
A: I’d tell them it’s a time travel novel, but not just any time travel novel. In this story, the main character not only travels backward in time, he also influences the period he travels to. Also, I like to point out that, unlike most novels, this one comes with embedded short stories. Well, fragments, anyway. I didn’t include the short stories in their entirety, but they’re a nice addition to the main story, I think. As a whole, The Old Royal is part science-fiction, part fantasy, part crime drama, and a lot of character study; I really like to see how the characters deal with the consequences of the main character’s decisions and how he comes to make the choices he does. So far, I’m very pleased with the responses I’ve received from The Old Royal. Most of the readers I’ve talked to have thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the short story fragments throughout. One reader even went so far as to say that he wished I’d embellished some of the short stories because they were as intriguing as the main story. I couldn’t help but smile at that.
J.R. McLemore’s masterpiece “The Old Royal” is available now!