Over and over lately, I’ve heard other writers talk about the importance of finishing things. . . and over and over, I think of all the projects I haven’t finished. So when I read the best writing advice Jeanne Lyet-Gassman had ever received, I felt that tingly thing I get when truth speaks. See if you get the same feeling.
1.Tell us about your book.
From the back jacket copy:
Set in the first century on the edges of the Roman Empire and the Jesus movement, Blood of a Stone is a sweeping story of murder, betrayal, love, and the search for redemption.
Faced with the brutality of slavery, Demetrios confronts his master and flees by the blood of a stone. Determined to escape his past, he struggles to create a new life and a new identity with his friend and fellow escaped slave, Elazar.
However, freedom has its price. Secrets cannot remain secret forever. A chance for love is lost. Elazar betrays Demetrios to a so-called prophet named Jesus of Nazareth. Fearing the Roman authorities and Jesus, Demetrios risks everything to silence those who would enslave him again. His quest leads him to startling discoveries and dire choices. Demetrios must answer the question we all ask: Can we ever be free of our past?
I was inspired to write the novel by a dream my husband had in which Kirk Douglas was directing a movie about a man who plots to assassinate Christ. I had been working on a totally different novel and was stalled when he shared this story idea with me. So many questions emerged: Who was this character? What did he have to hide? Why would Christ be a threat to him? I wrote the first 65 pages in a burst of inspiration, then stopped when I realized I needed more than a Sunday-school knowledge of the era, so I took a couple of years to thoroughly research the time and place before digging back in to the story itself.
Although Blood of a Stone is set during the birth of Christianity, it is not proscriptive or proselytizing. In fact, some of my best reviews have come from non-believers. The central theme of the book explores the complex issues of forgiveness: forgiving those who have done us harm, accepting the forgiveness of those we have harmed, and finally, learning to forgive ourselves.
2. What stories, themes, motivations do you find yourself drawn to in your work and in the works you read?
I’m drawn to complex and difficult characters, people who are neither good nor bad but are troubled in some way. Many readers describe my writing as “dark,” in that I tend to explore the underbelly of life in my fiction. And I like to read books that are similar in style and taste. Some of my favorite books include Sophie’s Choice, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Cloudsplitter, and Crime and Punishment. That is a very short list, of course.
Although my debut novel, Blood of a Stone, is historical fiction, my more recent work has shifted to stories with environmental themes. My novel-in-progress, The Double Sun, is about a family of downwinders, people who developed cancer from the radioactive fallout of the atmospheric bomb tests in Nevada.
3. What do you do when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing, I like to spend time with my family, travel, and just relax. I also play violin in a community orchestra. In addition, my husband and I have been working on downsizing by getting rid of clutter and junk in anticipation of moving to a quiet, rural community in the spring.
4. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.
Every book, every story I write starts out with the question: “What if?” There are two things I know when I begin a book. I know a lot about my main character, and I know how the book ends. When I wrote my first novel, I felt obligated to start with the very first chapter and write my way steadily to the last one. Although that process worked, it was also arduous, for there were times when I walked into a chapter with no desire to write it and no idea where it was going.
With my most recent book, I’ve learned to trust my instincts, writing scenes and chapters as they came to me, plugging them into the approximate proper location in the overall story. To track my progress, I put up a large bulletin board, wrote a one-sentence description of each major scene on an index card, and placed those index cards under the Chapter Title and year where I thought they would take place. I’m now almost finished with a complete first draft, and amazingly, everything has fallen into place. The scenes fit exactly where I thought they should go, even though I wrote them out of order.
The first steps of my writing process are: 1.) Define and identify your main characters. Know as much about them as possible. 2.) Ask: “What if?” What will your main characters do if placed in certain situations? and 3.) Write the scenes that are most vivid in your imagination first. The rest will follow.
5. How do you balance what will sell with what you want to say?
Ha, that is probably my biggest problem. I don’t worry about what will sell. I simply write the stories I feel compelled to write and trust they will find their way into the world.
6. Which is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?
Drafting is definitely the most difficult. A rough draft can sometimes lead you astray and send you down rabbit trails, but until you have those words written down, you have nothing to work with. During the revision process, I start to see the gaps in the story, the patterns and threads I should pursue and develop, the unnecessary repetition, and the characters who need to be fleshed out. For me, the book takes shape during the revision process.
7. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
My favorite part about being a writer is that I get to live inside my imagination. I can create characters, places, and stories and bring them to life with words and craft.
8. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
My least favorite part about being a writer is the vulnerability and insecurity I feel whenever I publish something. I hate that feeling of really wanting people to like my work (flashbacks to junior high dances!) and knowing that not everyone will find my writing to their taste. When someone makes a snarky comment about something I’ve published, it stings–every time. I never respond, but I remember the criticism more often than the praise.
9. What are some things that get in the way of your writing? How do you move them out of the way?
My two biggest problems are procrastination and distraction. I suppose they work together. To fight procrastination, I keep a daily planner where I write up a to-do list every single morning, assigning priority to my tasks. As the day progresses, I find pleasure in checking those items off my list. Even if I haven’t done anything significant, I’ve finished the work I set out to do that day.
I fight distraction by setting clear goals: finish this scene/chapter by lunch, revise this section by 2:00 p.m., that sort of thing. Once I reach one of my goals, I give myself some time to waste with reading posts on Facebook, reading a book, watching TV, etc. If you love writing, it shouldn’t be a chore, but it does require discipline and focus to stay on task.
10. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
Finish the book.
Jeanne Lyet Gassman is an award-winning author whose debut novel, Blood of a Stone (Tuscany Press) won a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award in the national category of religious fiction. Her work has appeared in Altarwork, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Red Savina Review, Switchback, Barrelhouse, and many others. Connect with Jeanne online via her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+.