For those who know me, rest easy. I’m not talking about my fashion sense. I have clothing older than my children that I still wear regularly, making me very much a typical guy in that regards. I also take delight in regular manly things – for example I learned just recently my nephew was complimented by his grandmother (my mother) on the fact that he’d been working out and looking good. He shrugged it off and she made a reference to uncle Jason. To this he replied, “The difference between me and Uncle Jason is that I’ve still got a neck!”
Of course I laughed at that. I considered it a compliment, in my simple borderline redneck mind. Bless my mother for feeling the need to defend me though: “He has a neck…it’s just a really thick one.”
In spite of my caveman instincts, I do have some higher level traits. I was asked on Twitter the other day what my style was. It was in regards to writing, thankfully, otherwise I’d have been lost. My first instinct was to respond with saying I’ve got no style, I just let things happen. Then I thought about it some more and decided there was more to it. I’ve refined my writing over the years and found some things that work for me.
The first, and the one I responded with, was that my style involves letter the characters tell the story. I believe the characters are the most important part of any story. After all, as a reader I want to identify with who’s telling the story or who the story is happening to. If I can’t be interested in that character, then what’s the point in learning more about them and their predicament? I want to see characters learn and evolve, hopefully becoming better along the way. I want them to overcome challenges, but not because they come out of the womb as a resident all-knowing badass, but rather because they’ve made mistakes like a real person and they’ve learned from those mistakes (hopefully also like a real person).
Beyond that, I’ve evolved my writing process into a few important steps. I start out with the characters and brainstorm what’s going to happen to them. For example, I spent Saturday with my family at the Pittsburgh Zoo. It’s a good zoo and we had a good time in spite of the temperature reaching 93 degrees. On our way there we went the wrong way and had to go through a couple of toll booths on I-76. The first one was manned by a woman who took our $4.70 (for traveling about 15 miles on the road!) very politely and respectfully. Those might not be the right words, she just seemed like a happy and positive person. And not in a crazy or delusional way.
As much as the 10 seconds of exposure to her personality was pleasant, what initially drew my interest was how she looked. She was a slender girl with some truly rocking hair. So blond it might have been white, she had it spiked up to resemble a mohawk. Maybe it was a mohawk, I’m not sure (see my earlier comments on my fashion sense). The sides of her head weren’t shaved, I know that much. She also had some small tattoos on her forearms that I could see. Nothing offensive, it looked appropriate. If I had to describe her in a word, I’d use the word “beautiful”. However, I didn’t consider her beautiful in an I’m-attracted-to-her sense. Rather she was inspiring to me. I knew immediately that a character based on that woman was going to make an appearance in one of my books. I have no idea which book, nor do I know what her role will be, I just know it’s going to happen at some point.
So I’ve got characters first when I write, then I decide what I need to motivate those characters. Take my latest Voidhawk book (Lost Soul) as an example. I’m still writing it but I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what could come next for the characters of that series. They’d reached a position in their lives that, to be honest, was kind of boring. I had to shake it up but I wasn’t sure how to manage that in a way that would make for something I would want to write about, let alone read. A stroke of inspiration hit me one day – I think while I was driving into work. What sort of event could pull established and responsible adults from their daily routine without a second thought? What if their child had been taken and the only hope for getting them back required dropping everything?
So I had characters and I had a plot. As I brainstormed and wrote, subplots appeared and so did a few surprises. Such is the magic of my Voidhawk series that I usually can just write and the story unfolds but I wanted to enforce a little more structure, so I worked ahead and jotted down some highlights of what I wanted to happen along the way in future chapters. Already, one chapter into that outline (I didn’t start until chapter 10), I had to rework my outline and add a new chapter. I like to think I’m flexible and able to adapt – not that I let my characters walk all over me.
Lost Soul isn’t finished yet, but I’m hoping I’m less than two weeks away from having the rough draft down. Tentatively I’m really hoping for a release date of mid July – early August. Until then I plan on releasing an omnibus edition of the first seven Vitalis books. A lot of reviewers have whined about them being short. In a bit of defensiveness, I openly marketed them as novella length stories designed for quicker entertainment. I’m irritated by those reviews, but c’est la vie. In an effort to please as many people as possible I’m putting the omnibus together and should release it mid June – early July.
Speaking of Vitalis and tying it back into character driven writing, I had a conversation with another Twitter friend who was sharing her love of Vitalis with me. She was shocked at how Matriarch, Vitalis book 7, ended, but she absolutely loved it and felt it was her favorite book in the series. I agreed with her, I think it was the best one I’d written – just don’t tell the other Vitalis books I feel that way or they might be upset. I shared this with her, and it’s very true: Matriarch surprised me. It unfolded in ways I never expected. The characters I write about have a tendency to do that more and more – they take the story places I’d never intended or considered. That happened with Vitalis: Matriarch, and it happened to a greater extreme than I’d ever dealt with before. I loved how it worked though, not only because it offered up so many potential future options but because it truly allowed the characters to develop and evolve and to tell their stories.
I liken Vitalis to a cross between something with Ridley Scott’s alien chestbursters scaring the crap out of people, a world with its own spirit or sentience guiding life ala James Cameron’s Avatar, and a slew of very interesting characters with their own wants and dreams drawn together into a situation in a manner similar to the TV show, Lost. Unlike Lost, Vitalis makes sense and doesn’t jump around and leave the reader confused or frustrated.
So that’s my style. It’s working better and better for me as sales ramp up into a happy place. Oh sure, I’d love to get more and I’m writing furiously to achieve that, but writing isn’t about instant success. For most writers it’s not about the business of selling books at all. That’s not because they’re sucked into loving their art more than anything, it’s because they have to love their art – the sales aren’t there to support anything else! I’m very fortunate in having as many sales as I do – it gives me the very real hope that I might be able to make writing the day job in the future.
In fact, I read Jeff Bezos release to Amazon’s shareholders recently. In it he said he’s thrilled to have over a thousand “independent” writers on Amazon that are selling more than 1000 books a month. I’ve been over the 1000 mark since December of last year. I’m no Amanda Hocking, John Locke, or Selena Kitt, but I’m trying hard to get there! I know Selena personally and she’s been somewhat responsible for my success. I’ve felt challenged and competitive towards her for a while now and it’s driven me to try and perform better and better in hopes of meeting or exceeding her sales. I’ll probably never get there, given the different genres we write about and the number of people willing to read those genres. Still, I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon!
To learn more about Jason Halstead, visit his website to learn about him, his books, sign up for his newsletter, or check out some free samples of his books at http://www.booksbyjason.com.