I’ve gotten to know J.C. Hart over the years, and met her on WordPress among an immense group of writers. When she agreed to this interview, I wanted to pick her brain about the craft of writing because every writer is different. The creative process is often like scattering puzzle pieces across a notepad and simply finding what fits, but sometimes there is more order and control to it. When a writer finds that control, that perfect fit that works for them, stories are born.
J.C. Hart is a founding member of both kiwiwriters.org and specficnz.org. Her work appears in the Masters of Horror Anthology, A Foreign Country: New Zealand Speculative Fiction,Tales for Canterbury: Survival, Hope, Future, Regeneration: New Zealand Speculative Fiction II, and Baby Teeth: Bite-Sized Tales of Terror, among others. For more information on the author, please visit just-cassie.com, where you can keep up to date with her projects past and future.
What comes to you first when working on a new story: plot or character?
It’s almost always the character, and sometimes more broadly, the setting. I have very occasionally begun with a plot, and for me those are the hardest stories to write because you have to find the right character to tell the story – whereas if I have a character, it speaks to me and informs the way I’ll tell the story and that makes everything a whole lot easier.
Do the stories you write typically open with a person or a situation?
Well, I would say that they open with a character in a situation. I tend not to ‘set the scene’ in my openings so much as introduce a character who is dealing with something and then run from there.
Do you find your characters to be inspiring to you as an author? What compels you to write them?
There are two ways in which I can be compelled to write a characters story – either they pop into my head fully formed and I can’t help myself from writing it, or they appear, a mysterious character who reveals themselves over time and captures my interest with intrigue. Funnily enough, there are the occasional characters that do both, appearing to be fully formed and then revealing small things that change the way I see them, and the way I write the story.
Are they inspiring? Sometimes. I admire their strength, their courage, their determination, but then I know that in some way my characters are like me, and that I possess some of those qualities. And in the same way that they have their positive attributes, they are also flawed. Human.
Does writing dialogue come easy to you, or is it something you have to work at? What are some of your strategies for writing the strongest possible dialogue for your characters?
I find writing dialogue comes fairly naturally to me. I’ve spent a lot of my life watching other people, listening – the bonus of being an introvert 😉 So my best advice would be to think about how people actually talk. Yes, yes, we need to get information across sometimes in a story that people might not normally talk about, but you can make it come out in a natural way. Think about what kind of world your characters are operating in, and that will affect the way they speak and interact, and then make sure you’re consistent and that your characters don’t all sound like the same person.
You are a founding member of SpecFicNZ. Tell us a little bit about that.
SpecFicNZ is an organization that we set up a few years back, designed to support and promote speculative fiction authors in NZ. Back when we began, there wasn’t anything else around, and we created a community where authors can get to know each other, promote their work and look for opportunities. While NZ is a small country, we’re also quite spread out, and for the likes of me, in a small city, it’s nice to feel like I’m part of a wider community of authors who are all working with the challenges that face writers in a small country.
With the emergence of e-books, what are your thoughts concerning the self-publishing market today? Do you consider self-publishing to be a stronger decision than approaching traditional publishing houses?
That’s a bit of a loaded question isn’t it? Lol I think self-publishing has come a really long way in the last decade or so. I remember the days when it was like, the worst decision ever to self-publish, something akin to signing your death warrant and you best forget about traditionally publishing after that because they won’t touch you now, kind of attitudes around it. The landscape is vastly different these days, to the point that friends and family often ask me why I don’t just self-pub my work – it’s a viable option, it’s no longer going to ‘ruin’ your career, and even the non-writers can see the benefits of it. It’s definitely an option everyone should at least consider.
All that aside, I don’t know that I’d call it the ‘stronger’ decision. It really comes down to what you want as a writer. If you want books on shelves in bookstores or literary awards, then you’re best bet is probably still traditional publishing. But if what you want is a career, and for people to read your books, then self-publishing is definitely a good way to go. That said, I would caution that you still put in the hard work, write an awesome book, polish it until it’s the best it can be, and make sure you’ve got a kick ass cover before doing so. If you’re going to self-pub, do it right, give it the same time and effort as if you were going to submit traditionally.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors hoping to make it through the slush piles?
Aside from the obvious – write an awesome book and edit it well – the best advice is to follow the guidelines! Every market/publisher/agent is different, and your best bet at getting read in the first place is making sure you read the guidelines and follow them to the letter. Some places are okay when you forget one or two things, other places are very firm about rejecting without reading if you haven’t followed instructions. Alongside this, do your research, not every market is going to be a good fit for you, so focus your efforts and approach the places that would be.
But really, just write great stories, and don’t take rejection too personally. There are so many reasons a story/novel might not get accepted, and not all of them are that your book was bad.