Today’s interview is with Craig Hansen, an author who was fortunate enough to turn the horrible situation of losing his job into the positve outcome of becoming a full-time writer.
JGA: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got started writing?
CH: Well, I was born on a rural farm in the Deep South in abject poverty, was responsible for my brother’s death, and was blinded at the age of seven. But I loved music, and… wait a second. That’s not my story! That’s the plot of Ray. And Walk the Line, for that matter. That’s not me at all.
Okay, let’s start again. I was born in Duluth, MN, and was put up for adoption. The people who chose me lived in southern Minnesota, though. I grew up in Rose Creek, a town of 350 people, just east of Austin, MN.
My mom read to me as a child, I became a voracious reader far earlier than I was “supposed to,” and had my first story published when I was around the age of 14, in eighth grade. It didn’t appear until a year later, and I was 15 by then and in my freshman year of high school.
Inspired by John Irving’s The World According to Garp, I briefly tried the sport of wrestling, but it wasn’t for me. After my story was published, I focused more on creative, rather than athletic, pursuits. I centered my college degrees around becoming a great writer, but fell into journalism and won some awards, and tried a lot of off-focus careers before finally coming back to writing.
That’s the quick overview, anyway.
JGA: How do you go about the actual process of writing?
CH: The process varies. When I’m brainstorming, I typically start with a college-ruled notebook and a pen and just start putting ideas on paper. I usually focus on who my characters will be, moreso than the plot itself. The plot may start with a basic concept at the idea stage, but it’s the characters I cast during this stage that will ultimately determine where the plot goes.
Eventually, I collect these notes into an MS Word document, as a sort of “bible” of the story. Something I can refer to when I’m trying to remember character names or what so-and-so’s Dad does for a living. A catch-all.
Over time, I get to know my characters well enough that I’ll write out a rudimentary plot. If there’s a mystery element to the novel, I’ll call this page, “What Really Happened,” so I can build in all my red herrings and misleads around that, utilizing my cast of characters and why they might seem suspicious or involved, when they’re actually not the real culprit.
If it’s more of a suspense story, like SHADA, I tend to jot down what the touchstones are for the plot. I’m not a meticulous outliner. I’m definitely more of a “by the seat of my pants” sort of writer, because any time I’ve ever meticulously outlined anything, within fifty pages of writing, so many better ideas have occurred to me that the outline itself is no longer relevant.
That happened with SHADA. I even wrote a blog entry about it. I had a very vague idea of how I wanted the climactic scene of the novel—the séance during which Ember attempts to speak to her Grandpa Normie—to be resolved. As I was writing, however, a very different and entirely organic resolution occurred to me. This idea became so much better than what I had planned, I just rolled with it.
Anyway, more about the process: I do my first drafts in a freeware program called Focus Writer 1.3.3. It’s not a program that’s full of deep features and novel-writing shortcuts and all those bells and whistles. I don’t need those because I have my notebook and my “bible.” What Focus Writer 1.3.3 does very well is wipe away all distractions so you can concentrate on forward progress, not revisions. Love that. I don’t even worry about what I want to put in bold or italics or anything. It’s just pure writing.
Once I’m done with the first draft, I import the file into Microsoft Word 2007 and go through a series of revisions and read-throughs, and in the process I can do anything from adding in italics and other formatting, all the way to fixing typos, cutting material, adding detail, fixing contradictions. Whatever needs to be done.
Eventually I run out of ideas for how to make the manuscript better, so I send it off to beta readers thinking, “It’s bulletproof,” and then get the feedback I need to bring me back down to earth, reminding me it’s not bulletproof yet and there’s still work to be done.
I’ll go through more revisions and once I’m sure it’s flawless, I’ll send it off to my editor, who’ll once again bust my chops and remind me I’m human by showing me all the stuff that needs to be fixed or improved, though by then it’s generally stuff like spelling, grammar, sentence construction and not oversights on the level of statements like, “You idiot! You said Ember’s tall on page 10 and short on page 76! And you call her Becky on page 110!” Because by the time it gets to the editor, my beta readers and I have hopefully caught all of that sort of bone-headedness.
So I enter the editor’s final changes, put it aside briefly, do a final read-through and try to find the things everyone still missed. And then I let it out into the world. Fortunately, in this eBook era, it’s never too late to make corrections, but I do make every attempt to ensure as many are caught as humanly possible before anyone pays for the book. I hope that my track record has been at least above average for an indie author.
As for my schedule, I’m a huge night owl. I generally get up around noon. I write some, or do social media marketing, or contract editorial work, during my afternoon shift.
I then go on my health walk with my wife, enjoy supper with her and my father, who lives with us, and spend a few hours of family time out in the living room. I then go back to either my desktop or laptop and do another long graveyard shift of writing … from around eleven at night to maybe four or five in the morning, depending on my energy levels. This is when I do most of my best writing, creatively-speaking.
I then read for a while and fall asleep, usually before six in the morning, and then repeat the process again. So it’s not a typical schedule that’s for everyone, but it works for me.
JGA: How do you personally like to read books you buy these days?
CH: Ever since discovering the Kindle, it’s the way I read all my fiction. If I’m reading for research purposes, such as some of the religious writing I’ve done, I have a lot of print materials I use. But for entertainment? I’m almost a pure Kindle user.
My one disappointment with the Kindle Fire is that I can’t see using it as a reader, because it’s backlit just like iPad and the Nook Color. Once my K3 grows shaggy around the edges, maybe I’ll go with a Kindle Touch, but I have no interest in a backlit anything if I’m using it for intensive reading.
JGA: Which authors (or books) have had the most influence on your writing style, and why?
CH: Everything I’ve ever read has probably influenced me in one way or another. I think the writer who has been the most formative for me, though, over the years, is Stephen King. And not because of the monsters. Anything I do well, from how to build character to how to write a smooth narrative or craft a compelling story, I will credit to what I learned about writing well by reading Stephen King’s novels.
Those things I don’t do well are all on me, by the way.
There are a number of other writers I admire, but Stephen King is my top influence, even though I don’t write in the same genre as him, generally speaking. SHADA is actually the exception to that, though. SHADA was inspired by my deep appreciation of his novella, “The Body,” which became the movie STAND BY ME. I like to say that SHADA is my take on “The Body,” but with a female cast.
Not slavishly, not in detail, but in general tone and inspiration.
How do you go about planning your writing?
A Round of Words In 80 Days, known as ROW80, created by the talented Kait Nolan, has become an invaluable form of accountability for me. It helps me set and meet my goals on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis throughout the year. Before getting involved in ROW80, I had no published works. Since getting involved, I’ve completed and published two projects, the most recent of which is SHADA.
I set goals and report my progress toward those goals twice a week, to a group of fellow writers doing the same thing. It keeps me on task and gives me that handy sense of “get it done” that helped me in my journalism career.
JGA: Why did you decide to write your novel, SHADA?
CH: Well, I was actually working on EMBER as 2011 began. Then I lost my day job. My wife and I discussed our options and she challenged me to take my writing seriously enough to commit to it full-time, rather than doing another job search and finding a career that would only keep me away from writing for ten hours a day. Fortunately, we found a way to make that work financially.
As a result, I wanted to get a couple things out as quickly as possible, and since EMBER is a longish novel, I knew it would take too long to continue going in that direction. So first I resurrected a novel I’d written in college, MOST LIKELY, and got that out there.
Then I thought about all the time I’d be investing in EMBER, and how long it would be, and I didn’t really want to short-change myself and charge only $0.99 for a novel of that magnitude. But I knew a $0.99 read would be a better way to launch the series. So I started playing around with ideas for a prequel, something shorter in length that I could charge only $0.99 for and feel I was still delivering a value to the reader in terms of the story.
SHADA became that prequel. It is set in the summer months before EMBER begins. It introduces you to a lot of the characters who will appear in EMBER, but tells an entirely different story, complete in and of itself.
My hope with SHADA is that people will read this story, and come to love the characters they find there, especially Ember Cole. When I finish EMBER and release that, hopefully people will be ready for it as the answer to that inevitable question, “So, what happens next?”
JGA: Can you tell us a bit about the main character, Ember Cole, and some of the challenges she has to face as the story progresses?
CH: Ember Cole is a girl who has a lot on her plate. In SHADA, we find out that she’s dealing with a lot of loss in her life. A year before SHADA takes place, she saw her grandmother’s boyfriend, Grandpa Normie, die in a car accident. Since that accident, her grandmother has changed, because her Alzheimer’s has become complicated by depression-induced dementia, and so her Grandma Char isn’t fun to be around anymore. She’s increasingly delusional and confused. For a young person, that’s not easy to cope with or understand.
It’s made Ember more withdrawn and less fun to be around, too. But she has a small group of friends who care about her enough that they want to bring her out of her funk. So Jeni suggests a séance as a way to give Ember a chance to have one more talk with her dead Grandpa Normie. But these are kids in the final summer before they enter high school, so what do they know about conducting a séance, right?
Once they get out in the woods, though, things do get spooky. I can tell you that much without spoilers. I can also say that by the end of SHADA, a lot of things have happened and it’s a complete story. But SHADA also provides some context and background for appreciating what happens next, in EMBER, when Ember Cole reaches the end of her summer and enters high school as a freshman.
JGA: Who are the readers who would enjoy SHADA the most?
CH: SHADA is young adult, in that it focuses on characters in that age range. My plan, though, is that the novel is written at a level that older readers will also appreciate it.
The sort of reader who will enjoy SHADA the most likes a touch of the paranormal in what they read, but doesn’t want to slog through Version 315 of a lycan-vampire war. They are the type of reader who wants to read about relatable characters, and have a story where there are more normal folks than there are supernatural folks.
That’s why I compare SHADA more to Stephen King’s “The Body” than, say, TWILIGHT. Because I aspire to be that sort of storyteller, but without the prevalent rough language and adult content that one finds in a King novel.
So, if sparkly vampire boyfriends who never bite before marriage is your thing, SHADA’s not for you. If you want to read about characters who are a lot like people you may know, but where the supernatural sometimes peeks around the corner and freaks you out, then SHADA might be what you’re looking for.
At its very core, SHADA is a ghost story. It’s about a group of four girls who go camping together one summer, set up camp next to an Indian burial mound deep in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin, attempt to hold a séance, and get more than they bargained for. As the blurb on the novel says, “Sometimes the dead have their own agenda.”
JGA: There are some readers (not me!) who look down their nose at anything involving supernatural elements. Has that ever come up in your interactions with other authors or readers?
CH: Not so far. I really look at supernatural elements as a storytelling tool. They can add to a story, or subtract from it. It all depends upon the skill of the author. When Stephen King began his career, not many people were writing horror. It was considered a pulp genre and certainly something no respectable writer with any degree of talent would delve into.
But King, because of his talent, not only wrote very popular books that sold to mass audiences, but revived and helped the entire horror genre to flourish anew. If he’d been a hack, no one would have noticed, but he wasn’t a hack.
He’s arguably one of the best storytellers of his generation. And he writes horror, primarily, but at a level that elevates the genre to being about more than the “Boo!” aspect, the shock value. Instead, he used the question, “What are people afraid of and why?” as a jumping off point to explore and reveal the human condition.
It’s the same with the supernatural genre. There are some who write supernaturally-tinged romances at a fun, pulp level. But as the popularity of the genre grows, there may come along a few who use this genre as King used horror.
Whether I qualify as one of the more talented people to dip into this genre or not is not for me to say. Readers will decide if they like my particular take on it. But I do think this: I’m not writing SHADA and EMBER and the books that will follow in this series to write about some unrelatable war between two types of monsters. I’m aiming at writing about people, and the paranormal element is just one of the tools in my bag of tricks to make the story compelling.
JGA: What other items are you working on at the moment?
CH: EMBER is next, of course. And I know there will be more books in the Ember Cole series after that. I could easily see reaching four or five novels on Ember’s freshman year of high school alone. So this isn’t some limited-series trilogy. This is a series that will be around for a while, so long as I remain compelled enough to keep writing it, and readers keep embracing the character.
However, I do have other stories to tell, and even other series ideas. I have solid concepts for a couple of novellas that I may try to get to in 2012, when I need a brief break from the Ember Cole series. These ideas are for slightly older readers, and are perhaps more purely suspense novels with less of a paranormal element to them. These projects can give me a taste of something else, before going back into the next Ember Cole project.
For example, I have a couple ideas for mystery series. I love good mysteries. Early Robert B. Parker, his Spenser stuff; the FLETCH series by Gregory McDonald, pre-TRUE BLOOD Charlaine Harris, even Max Allen Collins. So I have a couple series that would be more along the lines of mystery novels. One of those series would be more light-hearted with a light supernatural element. The other would be a bit more straightforward, with a religious protagonist.
But I find that if I talk too much about projects before I write them, I lose interest, so this is all I can say about them.
JGA: If you could somehow change reality and become the author of any published book instead of the person who originally wrote it, which book would you make your own and why?
CH: That’s easy. “The Body,” by Stephen King. Sure, it’s one novella. But it’s a story I love. But since that’s make-believe, hopefully SHADA is a step toward having a book of my own that at least aspires to be something of similar accomplishment.
You can buy Craig’s two books, Shada and Most Likely, on Amazon.