By day, Susan Jane Bigelow of Enfield writes a political news website, CT News Junkie, where she writes opinion and analysis about the Nutmeg State. She’s also a librarian and likes biking, reading, walking, Doctor Who, My Little Pony and all kinds of other things. She lives in Enfield with her wife and two cats.
But by night–watch out! Susan Jane Bigelow writes the Extrahuman series, of which book three is now just about to be released. She’s the kind of writer who can sit right down and hammer out 4,000 words just like that. (snapping fingers)
Here she is, to tell us how she does it.
Tell us about your new book.
THE SPARK is the third book in the Extrahumans series, which is basically about people with extraordinary powers trying to live under a repressive government in the future. This story revolves around Dee, who can light fires with her mind and is incredibly lucky, and her attempts to blend in, put to rest the demons of her past, and come to terms with her powers. All of this happens against a backdrop of revolution and possible political change in the city where she lives.
Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?
When I finished the second book in the series, FLY INTO FIRE, I knew that I had to write something about Dee. She was the character in that book whose story wasn’t even remotely complete, and her character was so interesting to me that I wanted to write more about her. I sat down and wrote the first scene. Hey, I thought, this is easy! But then I ran into a wall, and didn’t work on it again for almost two years. The thing that really got me started again was watching the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and thinking about what that might look like if it happened around Dee.
Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?
This is the most ambitious and difficult book I’ve written so far. I really had to fight my way through the rough draft, and the story kept getting away from me. There are a lot of threads to tie together in this one, and it’s far less a straight action-adventure story like the other two. Because of that, it felt like it was really fighting me. To cope, I started writing what I called my “pace book,” which was a much lighter and more fun space adventure story set in a different universe. Whenever working on THE SPARK got to be too much, I worked on THE DAUGHTER STAR instead for a while. Annoyingly I finished the pace book first and had to get through to the end on my own.
Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special, sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin until they know the whole story).
I tend to write about 1,000-3,000 words per day when I’m in first draft mode, though that can vary. I like listening to music. In fact I often like listening to the same music over and over again. For this particular book I listened to P.J. Harvey’s amazing album Let England Shake. If you listen to that album while reading this book, you may get a better sense of the atmosphere I was trying to convey. Once I get past 50,000 words written, I jump into overdrive and usually complete the draft within a matter of weeks or even days. 50,000 words is a psychological barrier for me past which I think of it as a “real book.” I’m sure I think that way because I did NaNoWriMo one year.
Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?
Yeah, I’m largely a pantser, though I’m trying to plan ahead a little more these days.
How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?
Sometimes music helps, or taking a break. Weirdly, complaining seems to help. I once complained that I was completely blocked and would never be able to write another book. The next day I started a rough draft for something completely new, and finished it about six weeks later. But mostly I just plow through as much as I can stand and hope the next day is better.
When did you first know you were a writer?
I always loved writing stories, even as a little kid. My parents bought us an Apple IIgs back in the 1980s, and I spent hours on that thing typing up huge, terrible space novels. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t write, whether it was stories or political commentary or other stuff.
If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?
I actually am a reference librarian when I’m not writing, and I love doing that!
What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?
There’s something exhilarating about writing a first draft and seeing a story start to come together. I love it when everything is clicking and I can add 4,000 words per day. It’s a total rush! Editing, on the other hand, is a lot less satisfying. I still like it, and I often find it fun to solve the problems I couldn’t fix during my rough draft.
What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?
I don’t have any formal beta readers, though I’ve thought about it from time to time. The only person I really consult is my wife, who I often show books to after I’ve done at least three revisions. She is a voracious reader, and if there are problems with the book she will spot them!
Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?
I do not actually have superpowers or live in space. [shifty eyes]
That’s one nice thing about writing science fiction and fantasy—people don’t ask those questions a lot!
Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know, and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?
Yes. And I am really scared about that. Maybe they won’t notice.
Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?
Definitely! I often think that if I don’t at least make some notes or write a few lines of dialogue, I’ll lose the whole thing. It’s usually really good stuff, too.
Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination when you’re supposed to be writing?
I procrastinate like crazy. My favorite procrastination tool is Twitter.
What about being a writer has made you truly happy?
I love having readers. It’s not just an ego thing (though it kind of is in some ways) but I love being able to share what I’ve created with other people. If I see my book listed on a library website, and I see it’s checked out, that makes me incredibly happy.
What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?
I usually tell them what my writing teacher told me a long time ago: keep writing. Don’t ever stop. Don’t give up, keep getting better, and don’t be afraid to abandon projects that don’t work in favor of something new.