NeoLeaf Press: What inspired you to start writing?
Stephen: Reading. As a child, I enjoyed reading books like The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. I also read horror and soon started collecting books. Somewhere along the way I thought that I could write mysteries. So I started with short stories. I created a character called Sam P. Peterson, who was a police officer in the Quad Cities. A couple really easy to figure out mysteries. I don't know what happened to those stories.
During college, I was required to start a journal for a writing class and just kept going with it after college. I haven't written in the journal for a long time but have transitioned into weekly blogs at stephenbrayton.wordpress.com.
After college, a friend and I tried to start a comic book. I would write it and he would illustrate it. I finished my part, but he never managed to get past page 1. I tried again a few years later with him and a group, but it fell apart before anybody finished anything.
I tried writing a fantasy mystery type story using myself and my high schools in fictional roles. I'd still like to get back to those. I finished one, and started a second, but moved onto other things.
When I moved to Oskaloosa, I started martial arts and in the mid 90s, the writing bug hit again and I thought I'd take that Sam Peterson character, change the gender and spelling of the last name and make her a martial artist who solved mysteries in Des Moines.
And it's continued ever since with a couple novels and shorts stories.
NeoLeaf Press: This story really plays on ‘write what you know’. What processes do you go through in researching things for you character?
Stephen: Research for my character. It’s not difficult. My main character is Mallory Petersen and she’s me. Well, except she’s female, a lot better looking than I am, and a lot better martial artist. But she has a lot of me in her.
She doesn’t like coffee but likes Dr Pepper.
She drives a 1971 Dodge Dart Swinger, which my parents used to own.
She grew up in the same small town as I did and graduated from my college alma mater.
She likes the color purple. (Not the movie, the actual color).
She enjoys a lot of the same food as I eat.
For other characters, I do a little bit of a character profile and many are based on other people or an amalgam of other people. For instance, Mallory’s boyfriend is how I would want to look to be attractive to Mallory (except I still want to be blond, whereas Lawrence Cameron has brown hair). He has the last name of one of my high school classmates and has two sisters - my classmate’s name and her sister’s name.
Other characters I base on people I see in my travels and everyday life. If someone is rude or acts goofy or unusual, that person may end up in a story.
Mallory’s office manager, Darren, is enigmatic. I have kept him a mystery to readers… and to Mallory. This includes going so far as to not give him a last name. He has one, but Mallory can’t remember how to pronounce or spell it. He seems to know what Mallory is doing or where she is in various scenes. But, he’s caring and respectful toward his employer.
One of the interesting things I’ve tried to incorporate more into characters are the distinguishing traits. Certain phrases, or quirks, or eccentricities can make the characters stand out and not be dull.
NeoLeaf Press: What's been your biggest hurdle in getting published?
Stephen: Publishers. Lol. Okay that is the short answer. I'll give you a longer one. Publishers and agents. It may sound obvious and simple because when people discovered that they could put out books on their own, and that there was one place that would accept them-Amazon-then who needs publishers and agents anymore. There shouldn't be any obstacles to publishing. Write something, do a bit of formatting, slap a cover on it, upload and there you go. You are published.
The problem with that is because the self-publishing route was so easy, the book readers were shown a lot of crap. I'm not putting down self-published authors or self-publishing. The DIY method is an option that many people take, and there's nothing wrong with it in and of itself. There are also some very good self-published books. In fact, Writers Digest Magazine is now giving annual awards to SP books. So, don't think that I'm putting it down. I'm saying there is a lot of garbage out there that, frankly, really shouldn't be. The problem with the garbage is that it tends to lower the quality of those who can put out good stuff, or rather it lowers the assumption in people's minds about books they buy. Sure, there has always been a "buyer beware" in any purchase. I've made some purchases which I've later regretted. The problem is, buyers have to do extra work to see if what they're looking at is really worth the price being asked.
From the publisher/agent side, the indie market has also been mined. No longer do authors have to rely on the mysterious Big 6 and send their stuff to anonymous people in New York. They can go the indie route, smaller presses, but knowing that there are smaller budgets, almost no promotional or marketing from these companies. And even the big guys aren't doing the same marketing plans they did twenty to thirty years ago because the world has changed.
However, I'm a believer in indie/traditional publishing. While I don't put down self-publishing, I have never felt it was for me. Maybe I felt legitimized by a real publisher who accepted my work.
Which, I've been published by two companies. Unfortunately, one went under due to the publisher's health and the second one is going the same way.
I've been rejected scores of times. The frustrating part of it is that even in the small or medium publishers, I don't know who's making the decisions or who's even reading the submissions. I read the guidelines, I read the agents' bios and what they're looking for and I choose the best ones. When I get rejected, I'm disappointed because I really want to ask, "Well, what are you looking for?" Many agents say they're looking for 'a strong voice' or something equally as vague. They want something unique, but then turn around and ask what titles my book would be next to on the shelves.
It was tough before to get published and I think it's even tougher in today's world.
NeoLeaf Press: What is your best advice for new authors?
Stephen: Don't quit your day job. Unless you are one of the lucky few who can pop out of nowhere, scribble down some words, and are accepted by the first agent/publisher you submit to (and by the way, I want to walk out of the room in disgust when I hear about those people because I am so envious), then you will work hard. You will sweat and cry and be frustrated, exasperated, and may come to despise the book you're writing or the craft or the critiques. You will feel like your entire effort has been wasted because there will be problems along the way. There will be people who do not like the book and people who will love the book. Don't trust either party. Seriously. Those who really don't like the book probably won't be helpful, because they will always be looking for the next thing to dislike. Don't believe those who really love the book... unless they are honest enough to support you and provide positive and helpful feedback on the problems in your book.
Seek out those people who will tell you that you are moving in the right direction and to keep going. Find a critique group with intelligent people who will be honest enough to say, "This part doesn't work for me." Then listen to them. Yes, it's your baby, your darling, but children have to grow and mature and you have to be the parent who will guide them with the advice of others. Don't automatically be defensive with critiques. The best advice that I learned about critique groups is when you are done reading, shut up and do not say anything else (except thank you at the end) unless directly asked a question. Write notes on what others say that you can refer to later during the inevitable re-writes. If you have to defend your piece, then you aren't listening. If you have to explain to people what you meant to say or what you think the meaning of the scene was, then you didn't do that in the writing.
Attend enough meetings and you will learn who to seek out for critique. Be aware, that if one person says something doesn't work, that's fine. You can accept or ignore it. If three or more people have the same problem, you probably should take note that it's really not working, and you need to address that at a later time... not immediately afterward.
Critique groups are for new writers and those who've had multiple books published because everyone can learn something.
However, with all I've discussed, the best advice I can give is: Have fun. If it ain't fun, you're not doing it right. You won't be satisfied or happy and that will show in your writing.
Disclaimer: We here at NeoLeaf were both disheartened and sympathetic to hear, during the process of producing this interview, of the difficulties Stephen’s second publisher is facing. Being familiar with Stephen’s work, we at NeoLeaf decided to ask Stephen to consider us as replacement for his current publisher, as they wind down operations. He agreed, and has signed with NeoLeaf Press, making him our first independent author. Welcome, Stephen!