This is first of our two-part interview with Will Lavender, author of Obedience and Dominance. It’s always great to hear from people working their way through the publishing world!
Please send comments and questions. If we have some, perhaps we can arrange for a Q&A down the road!
1. Give us a sense of your writing trajectory. For example, what kinds of writing have you done and how have these experiences informed (or not) your fiction writing?
I write what the publisher calls “literary thrillers.” My novels are all set in or around college campuses, and I use my experience as a former writing instructor often in my work. I use not only my interactions with students but also simple things like the geography of the campuses where I’ve taught. For my first novel, Obedience, it was really important for me to have the campus mapped out in my mind, so I used bits and pieces of all the colleges I attended and appropriated certain quirks of each of them to my fictional campus.
Otherwise I think we’re always using bits and pieces of ourselves. It’s impossible to write well without some sense of the biographical. I find myself using phrases and words I overhear in the world; I’ll catch a turn of phrase on NPR and it will invariably end up in my writing. Writers are sort of receptacles for language and culture. The best writers use that information wisely and artfully.
2. Where do you get your ideas for your novels? Do you have a particular creative process for coming up with ideas?
The best ideas I come up with are what-ifs. I find that playing out a scenario in my mind helps kickstart my imagination. When I’m really writing well, I’m coming up with stuff—language, prose, ideas—that’s borderline weird. It’s only in the editing process that you reign in those things. But in the drafting itself, I think writers who really allow themselves to explore and hunt out unfamiliar territories have the most success. It definitely makes the drudgery of writing a novel easier.
3. What, in your experience were the most challenging parts of the publication process (e.g., finding agents and editors, working with editors, working with publishers, etc.) and how did you address these challenges? What were the most rewarding?
The most challenging part about publishing is staying published. I found getting an agent and my first book deal relatively calm. After that things got hectic, because when that first book comes out you’re saddled with the one thing that keeps writers afloat: sales numbers. My second novel didn’t do as well, but I was lucky to have a two-book contract in the bag before that book was released. Fulfilling that contract has taken me the better part of three years, because the publisher is concerned about the numbers of my second book. It’s a nerve-jangling thing, and it’s one of the reasons that I think it’s always better to work from a finished product rather than a novel-in-progress. My first novel was finished except for the editing. My other novels have been unfinished and have been bought at various stages of their completion. This means that the writer has to fulfill the contract by finishing the novel—that feels to me like working backwards. I would rather be rewarded for a completed thing than have to push to complete that thing under a set of parameters that are at times not my own.
4. Writers in all genres today have to do a lot of self-promotion. Have you been involved in promotion for your books, and if so, what has that experience been like? For example, what has been most difficult, what has been most effective, how did you develop your marketing skills?
All writers are going to have to do some marketing. I’ve done a little, but I’m not very good at it. Some people—a friend I went to college with named Tiffany Reisz writes erotic romance, and she’s hellaciously skilled at interacting with her fans; it’s something that intrigues me but I don’t have the wit or creativity to do it well—are great at it. Others, like me, not so much.
One thing I try to do is answer all my e-mail, even if it’s negative. I always respond when people write to me, and I’ve been lucky to receive quite a bit of correspondence from readers.
Otherwise I do what everyone else does. I Facebook a little, tweet a tad, go to conferences and so on. I think people will be interested in a good book. Bad books don’t get much publicity even if the writer is a kind of PR savant. It helps if you have an online footprint, but it always comes back to the writing.
5. Are there books or other sources of advice or information that you would recommend for aspiring fiction writers?
Stephen King’s On Writing. For me, that’s the list.