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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Importance of Shifting Tension: An Interview with Brennan McPherson

What made you decide to write your first story? Kindle shows it as only 27 pages. Why so short? Were you testing the waters to see what your feedback would be? 
My first book was actually CAIN--I wrote the short story prequel, ADAM, after I'd finished CAIN. I wrote CAIN because I had a bucket-list idea to write a book before I died, and I couldn't get the first scene of Cain standing on a hilltop descending into a valley to kill his brother Abel out of my head.

While I was finishing college, I had less credits my senior year and thought, "Now is way better than when I get a full-time job." It was my first manuscript. I labored on it for 4 years while studying fiction writing on my own with textbooks and anything else I could get my hands on. I had a friend who offered very valuable line-edit critiques, as well. Without him, none of this would have happened.

But really, I think it was something God led me into. I've tried to force things to happen in the past and failed miserably. I just sort of stumbled into writing, and for whatever reason, God's blessed the journey (albeit amidst some heavy lows). 

How long did it take you to write your second book? How many rewrites did you do?
Six months. One draft. Very different from my first book (which, again, took 4 years, and had multiple false starts, one of which lasted 150 pages before being completely scrapped). 

Who helped you with the editing?
I edit as I go, and I write clean prose (mostly because I write slowly), so after I draft, I don't normally re-draft unless something is horribly wrong. I edit, and maybe add sentences or paragraphs here or there where I didn't put in enough information the first time around. I'm one of those weird writers who writes too sparingly in the first draft. I blame the years in business school condensing 100-page case studies into half-page summaries. 

Are you active with any writing critique groups? 
I'm active in a monthly critique group with myriad multi-published authors. And I worked with my editor, Natalie Hanemann, formerly a senior acquisitions editor at Thomas Nelson. 

How did you go about finding an agent and/or publisher?
My story is a bit of an exception. I never had an agent. I still don't have an agent. Because of my job at a non-profit ministry, I developed a relationship with the publisher of my first novel. My coworker told the president of the publishing company I was writing a book. The publisher requested to see it because of our relationship. They had an editor review my proposal and sample chapters, and decided they actually wanted to publish it.

Bizarre set of events. Still makes me scratch my head. Never went to conferences. I did send out queries (that got ignored). Publishing can be an extremely frustrating business filled with gatekeepers who say "no" for all sorts of arbitrary reasons, such as how they stubbed their toe five minutes before reading your email (so what if I made that up just so that I feel better?). Really, I just think you need to be walking in God's will if you're pursuing writing. If it's his will, it will happen. If not, well, at least now we know, right? 

What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Prep work before drafting is the hardest part for me. I hate plotting things out. Developing character personalities, all that. I just want to jump into the thick of things and DRAFT. I know now it saves me an insane amount of time to do the hard work of figuring out my story and characters beforehand. After that, I think the hardest part about writing is just. . . actually writing. Exercising the self-control to plant my butt in a chair and focus for more than 30 minutes at a time. 

What does your editor remind you to do most often?
Stop spelling "gray" wrong. I always spell it "grey." You'd think I'd learn by now. . . other than that, she's always very focused on character and is looking out for ways to develop characters more deeply. She's an amazing editor, and she's getting pretty busy because of it, which isn't good for me, so don't hire her, ok? 

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
That friend at the very beginning who line-edited my work and sent back 60 pages of material bleeding red all over the floor. That was back when I still had no idea whether I could do this thing or not, and at the end of that brutal critique he said, "You've got talent." 

We have all experienced rejection. Tell me how you learned to write past it.
Sheesh. Where to start? Most of the rejections I've received have primarily been about monetary concerns (so far as I can tell, ha-ha). Are there publishing houses acquiring this sub-genre? (Most common answer: definitely not) I've written in a small, small niche, and that's a problem in publishing, whether you go traditional or indie. But I can only write what I'm passionate about. And so I keep writing, trying to figure the details out on the way. It'd be much easier if I just wrote romance or thrillers. But I don't. Still, I've managed to grow a healthy platform and get some real book sales. Who knew?

What has surprised you the most in writing/publishing?
What's surprised me most is the depression. I've been in the creative space all my life (formerly a professional touring drummer). I thought musicians were "emo." Then I started writing and realized I'm way more "emo" as a writer than any musician I've met. No one's joking when they say, "Writing's hard." What's frustrated me most? The business side. I have a degree in Business Management, and it's still "tear your hair out" frustrating. 

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner?
Write more, faster. Stop tinkering. No one cares about a flower you embedded into your language like some poetic treasure hunt. They just care about story, story, story. Focus on giving it to them, and drop some flowers along the way. 

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
Story is about tension leading to transformation. If you have a scene where the level of tension isn't shifting, or there's no transformation taking place (it doesn't have to be big), that means there's no forward movement in your story, so stop writing it. Write about a shift in tension, or a transformation, instead, and do so with only the pertinent details. Not, "Bob sat on an oak chair with hand-spun legs and looked past the windows on either side to find the murderer staring at him from beside the crackling fireplace." Instead, this, "Bob sat and watched orange light flicker across the ax-shaped jaw of the murderer standing beside the crackling fireplace." We don't care about whether the chair is oak, or has hand-spun legs, or whether there are windows your character DIDN'T look at. 

Are there any other points about writing that you would like to add?
It's fun! Even after all the blood, sweat, and tears, it never gets old to watch a story come together as your fingers fly across the keys. 

What is the next book that will be coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
The next book. . . is actually a novella based on Psalm 23. It's a fantasy parable called "The Hunter and the Valley of Death." The concept is that a man (the "Hunter") goes to the legendary Valley of Death to kill Death so that he might bring his loved one back to life. Of course, he fails miserably, but to say anything more would be to give some great twists away! 

Hope you found some inspiration for writing from this interview. I know I did. If you'd like to read a sample of Brennan's work, here is a link to it and his website. 
Download ADAM, a free prequel short story, at brennanmcpherson.com/free-e-book (https://brennanmcpherson.com/free-e-book/