Guest Post: A Writer is Always Terrified by Joyce Schneider

J.A. Schneider


J.A. (Joyce Anne) Schneider is a former staffer at Newsweek Magazine, a wife, mom, and reading addict. She loves thrillers…which may seem odd, since she was once a major in French Literature – wonderful but sometimes heavy stuff. Now, for years, she has become increasingly fascinated with medicine, forensic science, and police procedure. She lives with her family in Connecticut, USA.

A Writer Is Always Terrified

I look at that title I just wrote, and I laugh. Easy to do at times like this when I’m between books – one done, the next just starting to form. Well it is kind of funny, when you’re out of your writing tunnel, to remember what it feels like when you’re in it.

Oh, those twin terrors: the new, blank page, and the question, What happens next?

Which tells you immediately that I don’t outline. I start with the fun part – an idea, the beginning with my main one or two characters and a fuzzy idea of the ending. That’s the exciting part, just letting the new idea start to swirl in my head. Then more ideas come to join the Word doc of notes that I keep – but those notes start to resemble a shopping list more than any semblance of order.

I’ve tried to outline, several times gave it my best effort. Those outlines maybe made it up to chapter four or five…but then what? The final stories went off the rails anyway.

So pare it back down to the naked beginning. And since I write thrillers, they inevitably start with something high adrenalin. Those opening scenes are my favorite, the cornerstone of what reading that story should feel like, with the problem remaining of how to maintain that intensity.

For me the hardest part is the battle with the first draft. Two of my favorite author quotes are David Baldacci’s “A writer is always terrified,” and E.L. Doctorow’s “Writing is like driving at night. You can only see as far as your headlights.” Other terrific quotes are Tess Gerritsen’s “Do you have the guts to stay with it?” and Stephen King’s “Just flail away at the goddamn thing.” I have a collection of those quotes on a Word doc which I keep open to the left of my writing draft, and those quotes are my crutch, like friends saying, “Hey, we all go through the same thing!”

It’s a comfort.

Then when finishing a book I wonder, How in the world did I do that? It feels like that whole story, finally and after struggle, just…took form. It feels like magic, and I don’t remember how I did it! Only that ideas came as I wrote. Things just finally filled in…although that never happens in the first draft.

Nobody gets it right the first time. You HAVE to do it wrong first to see how you should have done it. First drafts to me feel like descriptions of mountain climbing, where you have to pound spikes, one at a time, into the hard rock face, and then you pull yourself up to the spike where you’re hanging on, buffeted by wind and lost sleep, and you reach up further and bang in the next spike, and the next…until you’re done with the bleeping first draft.

And then you “turn the pile over,” go back to the beginning to see what you’ve got. By this point, the muddy water has cleared (these metaphors do help), and you have a clearer idea of the story. It does get easier after the first draft. Even pleasant with discovery as characters come to life and start figuring things out for themselves. Kinda like Geppetto carving Pinocchio?

My biggest hurdle is still avoiding the quagmire of re-writing too soon, editing as I go along. I’m still trying to learn to write rough, master the art of powering through, get to the end of the manuscript and THEN worry about the quality, go back and edit.

But I’m not there yet. I still plod away, starting each day trying to get yesterday’s work into better shape, and then I move ahead. Which is better? Writing 3,000 words a day, then having a mess to go back to and edit? Or writing a more careful 1,500 words a day and having them go down cleaner?

I fall in the latter category. But maybe that’s because, subconsciously, I really do have a story structure more clear than I realize in my head. Honestly, I’m not sure.

I’m still learning, and the learning never stops. For the next book, I’ll make another try to get a decent outline down…














Guest Post with Sarah Armstrong

Good day ladies and gentlespoons!

I have the pleasure of presenting to you a guest post from Sarah Armstrong, author of the newly released novel The Devil In The Snow.

The thing that stood out to me the most while reading this book was the strong focus on mother and daughter relationships across generations of the same family, so I asked the author if she could tell us a little bit more about this.


Mothers and daughters

We think we know how the theme of mothers and daughters should play out. Everyone has an understanding of the way the relationship should be, with the adoring young daughter, resentful teenager and conciliatory adult. In The Devil in the Snow, my mothers and daughters have to navigate their relationships with each other, but under an unusual kind of pressure.

My main character, Shona, is repeating the same pattern of angry resentment with her daughter, Cerys, that was played out between Shona and her mother, Greta. Shona knows that unhealthy habits are being repeated, but can’t seem to break the pattern. Greta can see exactly what is going on, but Shona refuses to believe in the family curse. Who would want to believe that the devil was after their family?

The line, ‘But she hadn’t quite turned out to be that kind of mother, and Cerys wasn’t that kind of daughter,’ was one of those which floated into my head when I was thinking of other things. We have expectations, as reader, as parents, and as daughters, of what an ideal mother-daughter relationship should be like. There is a strong archetype of perfect mother-daughter pairs who go shopping and have lunch, a dynamic of strength in their similarities. Shona wants this with her daughter, but refuses to do the same for her mother. I use the theme of familial repetition in many different ways in the novel.

When we find fault in ourselves, we sometimes look back to see who can be blamed for our large feet or a tendency to stay in bed too long. Genetics link us back through time, way before we can start to follow the threads. However, for Greta, Shona and Cerys, inheritance isn’t just made of physical flaws, but an external and determined threat, chasing them through the centuries.

The idea of a family curse linked to inheritance can be traced, in my own life, to the metabolic illness within my own family and other families I know. Metabolic disorders are inherited and triggered by genes from both the mother and father, causing problems in the way energy is processed. These unknowable, unseen genes sit within our DNA for generations, silently being passed on, waiting for that pair to cause problems. The symbol of the devil becomes a way of looking at the real, physical world, and the threats we can pose to our children without even knowing. Neither Greta nor Shona want to believe the warnings, and so the cycle continues.

The relationship between the mothers and daughters in The Devil in the Snow is complicated by the same thing that complicated the relationship between the sisters in my first novel, The Insect Rosary. Their situations are made problematic by an unwillingness to learn from the past. Everyone is doing their best, but it isn’t until they start listening to each other that they become formidable and can finally face the true enemy.

Sarah Armstrong

Sarah lives in Essex with her husband and four children. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, and she teaches creative writing for the Open University.

Interview with Stephen Kozeniwski

Stephen Kozeniewski
Stephen Kozeniewski lives in Pennsylvania, the birthplace of the modern zombie. During his time as a Field Artillery officer he served for three years in Oklahoma and one in Iraq, where, due to what he assumes was a clerical error, he was awarded the Bronze Star. He is also a classically trained linguist, which sounds much more impressive than saying his bachelor’s is in German.

In the past year, I have discovered countless new books I would never have found without the help of Twitter. One of the best finds has got to be the audiobook of Braineater Jones, as read by Steve Rimpici.
I was still riding high from the release of Fallout 4 (shame on you if you haven’t played this game and fallen in love with Nick Valentine already) and this book was the ultimate follow on.
Braineater Jones Audiobook

Audible – only available in the US

After listening to this book, I started ploughing my way through the rest of his work and have recently finished his latest novel Every Kingdom Divided. As a housewarming celebration for my new website, I thought I’d get him to answer a few questions about his books.


 I assume you’re talking about my wife’s collection of antique sour cream jars.  Well, prior to the ’60s dairy products were commonly kept in glass containers and farmers and the like took particular interest in decorating them.  Then, when disposable plastic containers took over, all these sour cream jars were out there floating around in flea markets and such, so today they have a nice kitsch value.  And hence why my kitchen and dining room are lined with them.

2) You’ve released a few books now and can be considered a seasoned professional, but how did the first book come about? (the idea, publishing, release etc)

 hurrhurrhurr I’m a seasoned professional
 My first published book, BRAINEATER JONES, was not the first book I wrote.  I have around twenty or so “trunked” novels (that is, sitting in the metaphorical trunk with little hope of ever being published.)  But let’s set that aside for now.
I wrote BJ in late 2009 and started trying to get it published in 2010.  I spent four years trying to get a New York agent and a publishing deal with one of the Big Five (back then it was Big Six) publishers.  There are about 300 active literary agents in the United States, and not all of them represent horror, so by the time I had queried about 150 of them I had basically exhausted all of my options and was seriously considering trunking BJ.
 Then my friend John Waxler introduced me to Elizabeth Corrigan, the author of ORACLE OF PHILADELPHIA and its sequel RAISING CHAOS.  Elizabeth turned me on to Red Adept Publishing, a micropress out of Raleigh, North Carolina, which at the time was brand new.  I submitted to Red Adept, and they accepted within about three weeks.
 The process of publishing with Red Adept started with three rounds of vigorous editing: content, line, and proofreading.  I had a lot of input with my cover, which was produced by Streetlight Graphics.  Basically I dictated everything you see on the original (comic book/penny dreadful style) cover with maybe my publisher reining me in on some of my wackier suggestions.  The book was ready to go by July of ’13, but we pushed off the release date to October because we expected a horror novel would debut better closer to Halloween.  For the release itself I had a lovely party where I sold a bunch of copies and one of my friends even made a brain-shaped cake.
 Now, the story of EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED is even more fascinating, but, then, I suppose you didn’t ask me about that…

 3) Your books are very varied in atmosphere and content, did you enjoy creating one world more than any of the others?

That’s a tough one.  My actual favorite world is the setting of my sci-fi novel THE HYENA, which remains unpublished at present.  (Hint, hint, New York.)  I’ve been dabbling with that universe since I was 12.  But that’s not a very interesting answer because nobody’s read it.

 I guess I really cut loose with the worldbuilding in EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED.  It wasn’t exactly a kitchen sink, but I was able to incorporate a lot of obscure trivia into creating that universe.  Every working gear and sprocket in that world has some kind of basis in obscure Americana or U.S. political discourse.  There was an actual brief-lived Mormon country called Deseret, for instance, and the “reconquista” of the American Southwest is a real concept in Mexican politics.  It’s kind of fascinating to look at the invisible historical fault lines on a map that theoretically just shows one country.

 4) You’re one of the most active authors I know on social media and the interwebz at large, do you think this has helped you reach more readers?

 Am I?  That’s very kind of you to say.  I wonder what all the others authors are doing.  Actually writing, presumably.
 I’m usually down on myself about how small my readership is, but I suppose the fans I do have are loyal, and that’s not nothing.  And I did meet most of them online.  I met you on there.  And Renee Conoulty, who introduced us.  Yeah, actually, I guess social media has helped me reach more readers.  At least, that’s the excuse I’ll keep telling myself.

5) TWITTER CHALLENGE (144 characters):  When the zombie apocalypse arrives, what’s your strategy for the first 24 hours?

 Zombocalypse Plan
Fly to Wales. Protect @Most_Sublime and precious Welsh cultural artifacts. Like, um…rarebit factory?

6) Assuming you’ve survived those crucial 24 hours, you now only have 3 books that you can keep with you. What are they?

 This is hard because I own books with sentimental value, too, not just ones I want to read.  I mean, I’d have to take my signed copy of THE RISING.  But I guess I’d also want THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.  And I don’t think I want to live in a world without an extant HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY.

 7) I’ve listened to the audiobook version of Braineater Jones (it was amazing), how did the audio version come about and precisely how awesome is it to hear your work read by Steve Rimpici?

 Rimpici is a menace to society.  The sunlight gleaming off his shiny, bald head has downed just…just countless aircraft at this point.  I really consider it a public service to keep him off the streets and out of the path of low-flying planes.  If that means he’s in the recording studio, so be it.
 My publisher put BRAINEATER JONES up on ACX, which is Amazon’s site for connecting voiceover artists with authors.  The first audition we received, the narrator was clearly from a rural area, and considering the book is in first person, it ended up with Braineater sounding like a cowpoke, and that just really didn’t work.  After that I was convinced that this was going to be a long, painful process and that at some point we would just have to settle for someone not-so-terrible.  In the very next audition, though, the narrator sounded like Humphrey Bogart, and then as part of his audition he skipped forward to the Dante poem on the gates of the Welcome Mat and started belting it out in this flawless, you know, late medieval Italian.  So, basically, he made the hardest part of the book sound like child’s play.  And that was Steve Rimpici.  He went on to earn a Voiceover Arts Award nomination for his rendition of BJ, and deservedly so. 
 I’m not sure whatever happened to him.  I think he may be in jail right now for illegally impersonating Patrick Stewart.

 8) Every Kingdom Divided had a very strong message about the roles of individuals in war, alongside the wonderfully snarky dialogue. Where did the idea for this book come from?

 In 2009 I was watching a lot of MSNBC.  Like 3, 4 hours a night.  I felt really informed!  But I probably don’t have to tell you that cable news will rot anybody’s brain, and I was convinced we were right on the precipice of just falling apart as a nation.  And this was right when the Tea Party was becoming a thing and Obamacare was this huge divisive issue and we were in the middle of this horrible global recession.  It seemed like the revolution was right around the corner.  I mean, part of this was real life, but I know part of it was watching too many talking heads on my part.  (Don’t do that, kids.  Just say “no” to cable news.)
Anyway, the rhetoric was so amped up!  I thought it was ridiculous that Americans had no problem calling people who disagreed with them Nazis or Bolsheviks, so I thought it would be an interesting thought exercise to take the wildest claims of the opposing party and envision a world where they had all come true.  And thus EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED was born.  The Blues (read: liberals) of the book are the wildest Paranoid Pete fantasies of what a current-day conservative would say liberals want (abortion clinics on every corner, welfare queens living high on the hog, everyone in a marijuana daze, everything politically incorrect banned.)  The reverse is true for the Reds (read: conservatives) so in their nation medicine is replaced with faith healing, there is no government, non-Christians are thrown in concentration camps, and so forth. 

 9) You’ve mercilessly exploited my fear of the dentist: do you have any phobias that I can similarly exploit?

 My main fear is obscurity, so, really, by featuring me on your blog at all, you’re doing me a mitzvah. 

 10) Bonus question: is there any question you wish someone would ask you about your books in an interview?

 I suppose nobody’s ever asked me whether all of my books tie together, DARK TOWER-style.



So there we go! Following his responses to questions 2 and 10, there’s clearly going to have to be a follow up interview, not least to save him from the cold embrace of obscurity that he fears so much.