Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Conversation with Author Denise Leora Madre

One of the things I've liked most about becoming a writer is the wonderful people I have met. Denise Leora Madre is one of those people. Not only is she a lovely person, she's also a very talented writer who has just submitted her first novel to a publisher. Remember the name, folks, because you're going to be seeing a lot more from her soon!

I sat down with Denise for a conversation about writing, publishing, and those pesky characters which have a mind of their own.

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Lissa: You’ve just submitted the manuscript of your first novel. How do you feel about reaching that point in the process?

Denise: Relieved! As I tend to overanalyze, obsess, and otherwise short-circuit my writing progress, I'm thrilled to have finished this all-important step toward publishing my novel.

Lissa: I do, too. I think it comes with the territory. I found myself today mentally re-writing a scene in Ghostwriter. A bit late for that. In a way, I wish my stories could be “living documents” that I can alter and update as I grow as a writer. 

Denise: Wouldn’t that be the best? Even now, I’m thinking about a scene in my manuscript I should have added, a line I should have changed. I don’t think the revision process ever ends. 

LissaYou worked on this story for nine years. What was it about this particular story that resonated with you so powerfully? 

Denise: This story was more than a semi-autobiographical tale of a brokenhearted college student and her attempt to survive sophomore year alone. It was at once a love letter to Howard University and a way to find some closure about the preempted end of my time there.

Lissa: I know what you mean. Sara’s passion for the island is my passion for the shores of Lake Erie. Certain places have a hold on our hearts, especially if they’ve shaped us into who we are today. 

Denise: Howard University is definitely such a place for me. I was an older student when I started there but still very insecure and unsure of myself. By the time I left HU in 2002, I was a very different woman, and for the first time in my life, I could truly say I loved and accepted myself. And I credit my time at Howard with those wise, wonderful people with that transformation.

And that’s the root of my need to finish the book, beyond the desire to finally finish a personal writing project. I needed to tell my story and pay homage to the place where I found myself. So I pushed and pressed until I completed my first draft on Friday, June 1, 2007 around 3:00 p.m., some three years after I started writing. I held my newborn son in one hand and had the keyboard resting beneath the other, and it was one of the proudest moments of my life thus far. And to date, the final four words have not changed.

Lissa: The symbolism of that moment is apt because it is like “your baby,” something you have created, loved, and nurtured. And it can be very difficult sending “your baby” out into the world. 

Denise: I do feel that way, in the sense that this story started as a baby in my head. But now that it’s gone off to a potential publisher, I see it more as an adult going out into the world to hopefully make something of itself. I realize I wrote it and had a lot to do with that process, but I’m humbled that this story chose to share itself with me over the past nine years and excited to see what becomes of it.

Lissa: Did you consider submitting it at any earlier point? 

Denise: I've submitted it several times to literary agents, small publishing companies, and once to a major publishing house. Each time, despite complimentary feedback, I was rejected.

Lissa: The fact you got that feedback is huge. It means they really did see promise in your manuscript. They don’t do that for everyone. That had to give you a little bit of a boost, didn’t it? 

Denise: It totally did! I respected those who said, “It sounds like a great story, but I’m just not enthusiastic enough to represent it.” I liked knowing they saw something worthwhile in it, but I wanted to work with people who loved my story as much as I do. So I took the rejections in stride, believing the right opportunity would come along at the right time. This chance to publish seemed to come out of nowhere, but I recognize the hand of God all over it and thank Him for it.

Lissa: I always tell other writers that all a “No” means is that they’re not the right publisher for them right now. Things can always change.

Denise: And often do when you least expect it.

Lissa: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? Did you make any mistakes which taught you valuable lessons? 

Denise: I could have saved myself a few years, several drafts, and much frustration had I aligned myself with other fiction writers sooner. Their expertise, empathy, and support have been invaluable during this process, and I shudder to think at what stage my novel might have stagnated without their insights. Then again, I also recognize the value in each twist and turn of my writing journey, so I wouldn't change anything about how I got where I am.

Lissa: I only got to know other writers after my first book was completed. Before then, I flew completely solo. I’m very secretive with my work; it’s been difficult for me to open up, but I’m glad I have. My fellow writers have been amazing. 

Denise: We need that camaraderie when we write. We need to be around people who understand what it’s like being a writer: always in another world, obsessing over diction and details while trying to behave normally. I thank God for the writers in my life. They have saved my sanity on more than one occasion.

Lissa: I like your thoughts about your life’s path. Though I look back on some of my mistakes and cringe, I realize that they made me who I am today. I never would have gotten to this place in life if I had done things differently

Denise: So true. And honestly, aren’t the detours more fun?

Lissa: How did you discover fanfiction and what did it teach you as a writer?

Denise: My obsession with the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" miniseries led me to the world of fanfiction a few years ago. I was floored by the various takes on Austen's masterpiece, even more so by the offerings online. When I became a true Twihard in 2010, a Google search led me to Twilighted.com and Fanfiction.net, the latter of which sustained me during Nano in 2011. At the end of Nano, I felt an urge in my spirit to write a TwiFanFic, something I'd never considered. Encouraged by a dear FF.net friend and author and eager to rise to the challenge, I started my first fic. I have started two stories so far and have a third and fourth in my mental queue.

Fanfiction taught me how to emotionally connect in each scene and how to weave those pieces into a larger, cohesive unit. By focusing so intently on one chapter at a time, I am forced to slow down and be fully aware of the impact each word will have on the story as a whole. Thus I also learned to quickly spot the "filler" moments, a skill which really helped as I edited my manuscript. And I learned to listen more attentively to my characters, realizing they know themselves better than I do. It's not unusual for a character's unexpected decision to change the direction and dynamic of the story, heedless of how inconvenient such a shift might be for me!

Yeah, kind of like that.
Lissa: I had never really written before I started posting my fanfic stories, so I really “learned by doing.” Sometimes, it felt like jumping off a cliff and trying to build a parachute on the way down. 

Denise: That’s a perfect description! Even though I’d completed a draft of my manuscript and started four other novels before jumping into fanfiction, I was terrified because people in the fandom know their fics. And as I prefer to write canon-based stories, I have an obligation to honor the canon even as I revisit it. The pressure of living up to what has already been accepted was huge. And with each story, that fear presents itself all over again.

Lissa: Characters do have a way of taking over your story. A few months ago, on Twitter, an exasperated author tweeted that she was trying to write a romance novel, but the main characters had a fight and refused to get back together. She had to scrap the book. 

Denise: That’s hilarious…and a little scary. So far my characters have cooperated in staying relatively true to my vision, but I don’t put anything past them. Tricksy hobbitses.

Lissa: How has your relationship with your readers affected your writing? 

Denise: My readers are the best! They challenge and delight me with each comment they share. Whether positive or negative, a reader's comment often presents a perspective I hadn't considered, and the story improves as a result. At the most basic level, my readers' loyalty and zeal affirm my abilities and warm my heart as nothing else does. I appreciate them so much because they don't have to read my stories, and they certainly don't have to care so much. But they do--about me, my writing, and my real life. Although I have yet to meet any of my fandom friends in the flesh, some of them are as dear to me as my family, and I thank God for them all every day.

Lissa: Fanfiction taught me about the intimate relationship between readers and writers. Until I started writing fanfic I never understood the truth of this quote: “A writer only starts a book. The reader finishes it.” It fascinated me, reading all of the interpretations of elements of my story, especially the way an interpretation could tell you more about the reader than it did about the story being discussed. 

Denise: That unique relationship is nowhere better displayed than in the fandom, and it reinforces the fact that writers are readers: we come to the fandom because we read the canon, and we write in the fandom because we love the canon.

I may have patronized this booth once or twice.
Lissa: What is the best writing advice you’ve been given? 

Denise: While working on another novel-in-progress, I was concerned about my husband's potential reaction to a certain plotline and told him I was changing the arc of the entire story as a result. He shook his head and said, "I know you, I love you, and I'm not worried about anything you might write in that book. So do whatever you need to do to satisfy your soul." His advice pushes me past any fears I might have as I craft my stories and reminds me that I am tremendously blessed to have such a man in my corner.

Lissa: You are. Having the support of your partner is crucial. 

Denise: Yeah, he rocks in every possible respect.

Lissa: Tell us a bit about your writing process. 

Denise: I noodle with an idea for a while before putting anything on paper, working out the details aloud. I'm sure my kids wonder why Mommy talks to herself so much! Then I create a "Brainstorm" document where I capture character names, plot bunnies, and snippets of dialogue I hear in my head. But only when I can see and feel the first few scenes/chapters do I create a document for the novel, selecting a font suited to the story which I don't change to Times New Roman until I'm at least fifty pages in.

I write on my laptop--I should say "our" because it belongs to Horace and me both, but we know the truth--with my headphones on and lip balm, a beverage, and tissues within arm's reach. And I only stop when I'm hungry, cold, or real life makes me put my Wife-and-Mommy Hat back on. On those blessed occasions when I am uninterrupted, I write until I feel good about stopping. That could be at the end of a chapter, the middle of an intense scene, or just before a major shift occurs. But I end there so as not to start the next writing session with no clue of where to begin.

Lissa: They say the most important trait a writer can have is discipline. (Which I lack.) Do you have a schedule? A certain word count you aim for? 

Denise: With young children at home with me all day, it’s tough to set a schedule. I aim to write every day as long as I can get away with it, but because my stories stick with me. I don’t worry if I miss a day. Word counts don’t matter so much, but they are fun to tally.

Lissa: Who is your favorite character in your novel, and why? What would you say is their greatest flaw? 

Denise: I'm fond of them all, but Bernie is my clear favorite and I have the most fun writing her. She's so complex--outspoken, guarded, fearless, stubborn--the friend every woman needs and wishes she were. Her greatest flaw is her aversion to emotional vulnerability, and it nearly costs her what she wants most.

Lissa: Writers have a tendency to fall in love with their own creations. Were you ever tempted to make it easy on her? With Sara in Ghostwriter, I wanted to give her the “Hollywood ending” where her mother explains why she’s been mean all these years and they cry and make up, and now have a loving relationship. But real life isn’t like that. Still, it was hard to fight the temptation … 

Denise: One of the things I appreciated about Ghostwriter was the way Sara’s relationship with her mother ended. I wanted and expected the happy ending, but not receiving it was somehow satisfying and appropriate.

My first draft of the story took it easy on Daria (the main character/narrator), but I would never do such a thing with Bernie. She’d never allow it.

Lissa: If you could have one wish for your writing, what would it be? 

Denise: The thought of leaving this world with any of my stories in various stages of undress vexes me greatly. So my deepest wish is that I would complete a polished draft of each story I begin. Be it fanfiction or original work, I never want to leave anything unfinished. Second to that would be the time to birth each story my mind conceives.

Lissa: Let’s pretend for a moment and say you were abducted by aliens before you managed to finish all your stories, right after you became world-famous. Your audience hears there are unpublished stories & they’re itching to read them. Would you want someone to complete your stories? Would you want them published as-is?

Denise: I would want all my stories posted on a fanfic site where readers could finish them as they see fit. As they would be the reason I had a career at all, I can think of no better way to thank them for their support. I would also ask the aliens to rethink my abduction because my aforementioned husband is not one to trifle with, and he would chase them from galaxy to galaxy until he got me back.

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Thank you, Denise!

Denise's first novel is in the hands of a publisher right now. In the meantime, you can read her stories on FanFiction.net.
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4 comments:

  1. I'm incredibly pleased to see Denise interviewed here. Thanks, Lissa!

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  2. "The thought of leaving this world with any of my stories in various stages of undress vexes me greatly. So my deepest wish is that I would complete a polished draft of each story I begin. Be it fanfiction or original work, I never want to leave anything unfinished."

    This really touched me! I'm sharing this post everywhere!

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  3. Opps, I spoke too soon. I didn't find the Linked or Stumble links.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry... I don't understand what you mean.

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