Anne Elisabeth Stengl is the author of the Tales of Goldstone Wood, a series of adventure fantasy novels told in the classic Fairy Tale style. She is married to the ever-so-dashing Rohan de Silva, whom she met at fencing class, and lives with him and a kindle of kitties in Raleigh, NC. When she’s not writing, she’s thinking about writing. When she’s not thinking about writing, she has probably stopped thinking altogether and should be served tea and sent to bed. Her first novel, Heartless, won the 2011 Christy Award in the Debut Novel category.
Let the conversation begin!
Do you begin with character or plot?
For the most part, I have to say that I begin with plot (Veiled Rose being the one exception to that rule so far). For instance, when first drafting the original version of Heartless, I began with the plotline of a princess who, due to heartbreak, disappointment, and selfishness, becomes her own worst enemy and can only be saved by grace.
However, there wasn’t much to that plot until the actual person of Princess Una, with all her naiveté, good humor, and flightiness, walked onto the page. And even with her development, Heartless would be a mere shell without the cast of colorful supporting characters. Monster the cat, Prince Felix the aspiring swordsman, and enigmatic Leonard the jester create the comedic moments and dramatic tension that make for the true fairy tale flavor. And where would the story be without the enormous contrast between the seductive Dragon and steadfast Prince Aethelbald?
In the development of my current work-in-progress, this question of plot vs. characters has become an increasingly pressing one. The plot of the story has been in my head for I couldn’t even tell you how many years! But when it came time to sit down and actually write the thing, I realized I didn’t really know who the characters were going to be. Oh, I knew in a general sort of sense! I knew one was an acolyte in a pagan temple. I knew one was destined to become king. Another, I knew, had a scar across his face. But who were they, exactly? Through the evolution of this draft, the basic plot has not altered at all. But the characters, as I get to know them, shape the actual story.
Other than my second novel, Veiled Rose (which began with nothing other than the thought, “I wonder what a story about Leonard the jester would look like?”), all of my novels have begun with the plot. However, this in no way decreases the emphasis on characters! The difference between a plot and a story is always the characters.
Who inspires you and how are you a bit like them?
I have a whole list of great novelists who are always my inspiration! Topping the charts would be names of children’s and YA fantasy novelists such as C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Edith Nesbit, and more. I love how they recognized the truth that writing for young people did not mean writing down to young people. Children’s and YA fiction has the potential to be among the most beautiful and most profound in all literature! Lewis never forgot his childhood; he never lost the little boy hidden within the grown man. And by virtue of remembering that child, he was a more mature man. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that it takes faith like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven? (Matthew 18:3) I believe it is equally true that it takes faith like a child to begin to grasp the great and fantastic mysteries of the world. To look upon the rational and see the fantastic. To look upon the irrational and know it for truth.
This attitude, this link to the inner child, inspires me as I write. I try to remember the sense of wonder I felt when I was younger and able to revel in the wondrous. And I admire tremendously those great authors who did the same!
What advice would you give to new writers?
Write, write, write. Oh, and read, read, read. Don’t limit yourself to what is “comfortable” either in your reading or your writing. Don’t just write what you know . . . expand what you know! If you’re a fiction writer, don’t neglect to read the great poets of older ages. Don’t forget to study histories of ancient times. Don’t turn away from those theological and philosophical tomes just because you write historical romance, or speculative fiction, or whatever genre is your preference. If you want to be a good writer, you need to be a student. And that is for always! There will never come a time when you “know enough.”
Study, experience, live. You’ll have a lot more to write about! And if you don’t have the experience to write the story that it is pressing on your heart right now, don’t worry. Live a couple more years, and you might be surprised to find that suddenly you know just how to tell it. I take comfort in the fact that I am currently only 25 . . . I have a LOT of experiences ahead of me still! And a LOT of study! I can’t even imagine how much my work will (Lord willing!) improve.
What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?
Tricky question! Each of them has been difficult in its own way. I suppose Heartless was the easiest to initially draft. It was my first full-length novel written post-college. It was a straightforward plotline, and I wrote it very simply. That being said, it also went through more drafts than any other project of mine so far! The difference between the original Heartless and the published form is . . . let me find a suitable word . . . astronomical, maybe? Ridiculous? Incalculababable? The core is still there: Princess suffers heartbreak, becomes a dragon, is rescued by undeserved grace. But, my word, did it ever need to grow!
Veiled Rose might have been both my hardest and my easiest. It was hardest in that I drafted the entire thing very quickly, sent it to my publishers and . . . they hated it. The whole thing. The entire story from beginning to end (except the character of Rose Red. Everyone loves her). We almost skipped that book entirely, they liked it so little!
But they gave me a second stab at it. In just over two months, I got to rewrite my 120,000 word manuscript. And when I say “rewrite,” I don’t mean “tweak it a little here and there.” I mean toss the entire thing out, start from a completely new position, work to a completely new climax, introduce an almost entirely new cast of characters. It wasn’t a rewrite. It was a new novel.
That being said, it practically wrote itself in those two months. I mean, I wasn’t eating, sleeping, thinking, or functioning on anything like a human level, but the book turned out really well. My publishers loved it, I loved it, so far my readers have loved it. So, yes. Hardest and easiest.
I think every book is the hardest ultimately, though. Every project presents a whole new set of challenges. If not, you might be stagnating as a writer and should consider increasing the challenge for yourself. As long as each new work-in-progress is more difficult than the one before, you are probably making good strides toward improvement!
Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?
Both, absolutely! I like to have a decent outline to work from. But within the framework of that outline, everything is spontaneous. Each scene can be written innumerable ways from innumerable perspectives. But the outline keeps me gently controlled so that I remain pointed in a specific direction. No rabbit-trailing allowed!
I think, whether you are an outliner or seat-of-the-pantser, it is wise to have a beginning, middle, and end in mind before you get started. Always have something to work toward. Working as I do under pretty tight deadlines, keeping my beginning, middle, and end-goals in sight forces me to stay focused!
But you don’t want to get too crazy with your outline either. Be sure to leave plenty of room for that dramatic inspiration of the moment! Much of my best writing happens in completely unplanned plot-twists.
How long do you take to write a book?
Oh, it varies! In the case of Veiled Rose, two months. Normally, something around five months gets me to a relatively polished draft (though with several rounds of rewrites yet to go!). My most recent finished work I expected to take me about three months. Eight months later, after the longest, hardest slog of my writerly memory, I typed: The End. And then started on the revisions.
As I said above, every book is its own journey. It will take you down completely new paths and on unexpected detours. But this makes the writing life interesting! On the whole, I write pretty fast compared to most. This is not necessarily good . . . nor is it bad. Ultimately, the important thing is to write at a pace that is right for you. As long as you are finishing projects, does it matter if it takes you two months or two years? (Okay, it does if you have a deadline, but you get my point!)
Daily word count?
I go for an average of 4,000-word days. On a really good day, I write up to 8,000. However, there are also those incredibly long and difficult work days when my end result is 5 words. Or none at all. Yet I still feel as though I’ve run a marathon!
Ultimately, the writing life isn’t about word count. It’s about what’s going on in your head. I often feel as though my novels are like a complicated mathematical equation (EEEEEEEEK! MATH!!!! But bear with me here). There is a right solution to this equation. Plug in the right formula, and I’ll solve for X in no time! Problem is, I don’t know what that formula is. Or I haven’t invented it yet. And I might need to try half a dozen (half million?) wrong formulas before I find the right one.
Those are the days when 5 words are a victory. But take heart! We all have days like that. It’s part of what it means to be a writer. I like how this gentleman puts it: “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.” –John Kenneth Galbraith