I’d like to introduce you to the eighty-fourth interviewees in my ‘Meet the Author’ series. They are the husband and wife writing team, Jason and Shelley McClanahan.
Hi, Shelley and Jason! Welcome to Susan Finlay Writes blog site. Can you tell us a bit about how you began writing?
Jason: It all started June 2011 with Dungeons and Dragons. I was running the game and asked for character bios; nothing fancy, a few sentences to help make the characters more than just a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper. Out of eight players, only two did it. One of them was Shelley. Or would have been. A few days pass and she’s “working” on it. A week goes by and it’s “twenty pages and still in the works.” Then she blurts out that she’s set aside her character’s background and is working on her character’s parents. At that point the running laugh of the group was to get her word count at the start of the weekly game session. Six weeks and over a hundred thousand words later and she’s done…with the parents.
Shelley: Her parents were just so interesting. Then I realized my character was going to save the world.
Jason: Yeah…we had some “discussions” about that in a game context.
Shelley: Yep, I realized that was going to be a problem in a D&D setting and ditched it as a bio and made it my own setting.
Jason: Which means only ONE person did a bio for me.
Shelley: By the end of July, I had a 136k word behemoth. I hadn’t written since 1989 when I abandoned an 800-plus page, handwritten fanfic about Durand Duran. (Please don’t force me to make eye contact right now.) But writing this purged me of many difficult experiences in my life and it reawakened that love of writing that I thought was gone forever.
Jason: During this time I wasn’t involved with it. I had enough on my plate preparing the weekly games. I had created my own world and the players were constantly heading off into the literal unknown. Sometimes I was figuring out and creating where they were mere hours before the game started. If I were to aggregate all my notes, I was probably keeping pace with Shelley’s word count.
Shelley: Jason has an incredible talent for world building on a practical level. Like, he can create a world and it’s more real than the one we’re living in. I have that talent too but in a literary sense, so when we started working together—
Jason: Shelley created an amazing skeleton for Enthoran and together we made it what it is.
Shelley: At some point I realized that I have a weakness in the area of conflict and action. I’m afraid of my characters getting hurt. So I asked Jason to rewrite a scene that I knew was weak, and six days later it had been expanded by 25k words and was a brutal onslaught of death and destruction and fantastic action description. So I said, “That’s it, you’re hired.” That’s pretty much when Jason came on board.
Jason: Hah. Shelley can do great interpersonal conflict but when swords get drawn she does have a tendency to go for the quick resolution. I like to drag characters through the mud. Maybe a bit too much, she’s had to rein me in a time or two, I really wanted to kill a character in Sea of Jasmine but she wouldn’t let me.
Shelley: Hello. Vital character. It was a vital character.
You two are married and you write novels together. Can you tell us about what it’s like to write with a partner, especially a spouse? How does that work? Do you ever disagree about something in a story?
Shelley: Ok, I want to start by saying this: looking back on it we make it sound easy but something happened at the end of December 2011 with Sea of Jasmine. I had a friend at the time that thought she understood the publishing business and said that it wouldn’t be feasible for Jason to be listed on a publishing contract as a co-author. (I have since learned that she had no idea what she was talking about.) Our marriage had already come through some really tough times but that was the worst. After three days of hell, the two of us came out the other side as inseparable writing partners and from then on we have been determined to prove her wrong.
Jason: Pre-January 2012 was rough indeed. Being in the careers I have been—nuclear plant engineer and now software developer—I had teamwork pounded into me from day one, so I entered into this with that mindset. Shelley has had a tough life and teamwork for her meant being taken advantage of. Not to mention, Sea of Jasmine was her baby and at first my suggestions of changes to the story arc were met with resistance. In all honesty, we needed those three days; they bared us to each other, uncovered a few uncomfortable truths, and in the end not only did it forge our writing partnership but it solidified our marriage.
Shelley: I still didn’t get a grip on that teamwork thing until half a year later when Jason described it to me as we each are playing a musical instrument, and that one by itself is good, but together we are a duet, and that we are able to create music that could never be created on a solo level. Each of us are highly creative in our own right and each of us have strengths and weaknesses, but they are in such a way that each one balances out the other. Oftentimes I would be writing a scene and Jason would text me with the very idea that I was already writing; but we wouldn’t have had that relationship had it not been for that well-meaning and very stupid friend.
Jason: That whole “thinking what I’m thinking” thing has gotten a bit creepy. We’ve started finishing each other’s sentences and I find myself grabbing my phone to text Shelley a split second before one comes in from her.
Since Shelley’s teamwork revelation, things have been fairly smooth. In the mornings before we get up for the day we sit in bed, drink our coffee, and connect. That’s frequently when deep discussions about the stories will happen. I’ve been late to work a number of days because we’re deep in excited talk about what’s happening in the current scene and I just couldn’t leave.
Shelley: We disagree a lot. That’s how we end up with a great story.
Jason: There will be heavy silence sometimes when one suggests something the other disagrees with.
Shelley: Actually what happens is Jason says, “I don’t feel quite right about this, we might want to think about changing it.” I stomp in circles for about twelve hours, then I think “Hey I just got an idea. It’s a great idea. Maybe Jason was right.” But what usually happens is I stay mad, I write mad, and he gushes over what I wrote.
Jason: An outside observer would think we slaughter sacred cows on a regular basis judging from our reactions to each other’s suggestions.
Shelley: Quiet you.
Can you describe your writing process for us? Who does the editing?
Jason: Basically we rough something out verbally and Shelley writes it. (Although I am taking the lead on another book, we’ll see how that goes.) After she’s done with a section or chapter, I go over it and make suggestions or catch errors and maybe write an alternative paragraph or two. We go back and forth like that until it’s what we like. Sometimes I’ll tackle a section or chapter by myself, especially if it’s action oriented or I just can’t describe what I want to happen well enough. However, one thing we found out early on is that our writing styles are very different. While they have begun to merge, what I write just can’t be put straight into the manuscript without it being obvious and jarring. One of the first pieces of advice we found for co-authors was that, unless they have extraordinarily similar writing styles, only one should write the manuscript; so Shelley will “translate” what I write.
Shelley: That way we have a seamless narrative. Thank God neither one of us have ego problems.
Jason: Speak for yourself you scene-stealing hack.
Shelley: You know everybody loves me more. Jason got advice from an agent that everything we write should be professionally edited before querying. We have found a freelance editor named Sarah Cypher—
Jason: Is that an awesome name or what?
Shelley: As I was saying, she suggested that we move a critical scene from the middle to the end which changed the whole dynamic of Sea of Jasmine. That was a three-day stomp fest for me—
Jason: And me. We were hacked off by the audacity of her suggestions.
Shelley: But the more we thought about it the more we realized she may be on to something. It would require rewriting almost the entire book, which we did. That was the incarnation that we put on Authonomy in June 2012. By August HarperCollins requested the full manuscript, not for publication but to do an analysis of marketability. So we heard back from them in November of that year and they suggested even more changes. After more stomping, we now have a story that touches everybody who reads it…except agents. So far.
Are you outliners, or do you use some other method?
Shelley: Outline? What’s that? Isn’t that another word for literary prison? I rebel against outlines. I’m a very freeform writer and often write scenes that happen at different times, so I end up with scraps of the manuscript that I weave together. When I see an actual outline I hiss and throw a crucifix at it and run like hell the other way. My characters are deeply offended at the idea of an outside force dictating the course of their lives. The closest I get is jotting down a phrase or even a word as a placeholder, and I expand that into a scene and sometimes a whole chapter. To compare my writing style to an outline would be like comparing a rainbow to a cinderblock.
Jason: And I’m a very Point A to Point B person. How can you write B if A hasn’t happened yet? While I don’t outline per se, I do have a number of ordered notes that I tend to follow but happily deviate from if the scene ends up unfolding differently than I expected it to. (Although I admit to some pain when it happens.) Shelley’s scattershot approach leaves me dizzy at times. Each style has its own problems; I can get bogged down because I want to get to a particular scene but there’s three others I have to write first but don’t want to, and Shelley’s butterfly writing can leave gaping consistency holes. I think, however, that our vastly different methodologies merge wonderfully. When Shelley bounces about changing things, I can almost immediately identify where other areas got impacted and together we decide if we modify what she just wrote or change the now conflicting parts.
You are in the process of trying to get your first novel, The al Miran Legacy, Book I: Sea of Jasmine, published. I read the following description: Sea of Jasmine is a fantasy novel that deals with political and cultural oppression, especially towards women, but despite being a little on the dark side, it also has a Whedon-esque humor. That sounds intriguing. Can you tell us more about it?
Shelley: The idea just came to me as I wrote. I never set out to write a novel at all, actually. The story developed on its own, and wound up being cathartic for me. In expressing a lot of my personal experiences, I created a situation that some women can relate to, especially regarding the dehumanization of women not only in other countries but here in our own. It’s surprising how many women have been abused or attacked. I hope, so much, that this story can give survivors like me a sense of empowerment and possibly even a voice.
As far as the humor goes, I firmly believe that no matter how serious things get, if you don’t keep a sense of humor you won’t survive, even if it’s sarcastic or dark, as in my case. Joss Whedon expresses humor this way most of the time, and Jason and I both found that we can relate to his style better than anyone else’s.
The series itself, though, follows the father of the girl who will save the world. It’s not easy raising the most powerful being on the planet. And it’s accidentally a love story. It didn’t start out that way. I hate romance!
This is the first book in a series. How many books do you have planned for the series? Are you working on one now?
We have six books planned and the second is well under way. It actually started out as the first book, but then Shelley was inspired to write a prequel and that wound up being the first book in the series. That worked out really well as the other book was our first foray into writing and, to be honest, it’s badly written. We’re now rewriting it from the beginning. Thanks to Shelley’s scattershot approach, we have parts of the fourth book written and a lot of material for the third. Thanks to Jason’s methodical nature, the whole series is planned and documented with rough ideas for what happens in each book. (Shelley can’t look at it; it makes her eyes go different directions…even though she helped plot it. This will be the one and only mention of a series-spanning outline, let us never speak of it again.)
We’ve also completed a historical romance (even though we both hate romance) that takes place in Antebellum Tennessee. There will be two volumes in that series; the second volume will be the early years of the Civil War and end with the Second Battle of Murfreesboro, or The Battle of Stones River, in January 1863. Jason’s baby is an alternate history series that asks the question: What would have happened if there was a natural resource discovered that produced a gas with more lift than hydrogen but without its explosive nature, and the Confederate States of America was the first to exploit it in the area of dirigibles?
Somewhere far down the road, we also plan to have a short series about the history of elves on Enthoran, the world we created for the al Miran Legacy.
I’ve heard that you’ve had a harrowing publishing journey? Could you tell us a bit about that?
Shelley: It’s been harrowing, but only because it’s stressful, which goes with the territory. I’m an incurable optimist, but even I get down sometimes by the amount of rejections we’ve received. After we first put Sea of Jasmine on Authonomy in August of 2011, we’ve taken it down, sent it to a freelance editor, practically rewrote it, and put it back on Authonomy in June of 2012.
A fellow Authonomite called it “literary treacle,” which changed my style forever. Because of that comment, I began writing in such a way that I anticipated adjectives and adverbs, and developed an ability for writing in advance before it ever reached my fingers and the screen.
In August of 2012, Sea of Jasmine had garnered enough hype to catch the site admin’s eye, and we got chosen for Wednesday’s One to Watch, a short column in the HarperCollins blog that gives a mini-review and short critique. A week later, one of HC’s editors emailed us for the full m/s, stating that they wanted to review it for marketability.
We decided to take SoJ off Authonomy at that point, since we were already being reviewed by the editorial staff at HC and wanted to give other books a chance to make it to the desk for review. We began querying, and in the midst of agent rejections we received an email from HC, that November. They suggested three minor changes, but didn’t show an interest in publishing.
Since then we’ve queried more, polished our query letter, and queried some more, but still getting rejections. But I don’t give up!
What is your favorite or least favorite part of writing?
Shelley: My favorite part is writing. My least favorite part is real life getting in the way of writing—i.e., interruptions by things like Jason needing clean socks and whatnot. It doesn’t get me off my groove necessarily, but it’s very frustrating to have so much in your head that you just don’t have the time to sit down and do.
I also enjoy my characters telling me what happens to them, as if they’re recounting events to me in real time, and it’s just my job to write it down. It’s so easy for me. It comes very naturally to translate what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and where they are from my mind to the computer. I’m one of those (and I’ve proven it) that can write a couple of novels in a few months and think nothing of it.
I even enjoy revisions and editing, because it gives me a chance to immerse myself back into their existences. I miss them terribly when they’re quiet.
Jason: Writing new stuff is fun, so is helping Shelley with figuring out how to tease out a scene better. As we mentioned previously, our early morning daydreaming about the stories is a blast. But when it comes to editing, especially what I wrote…ugh…in college I would do one pass on essays, maybe two if I really felt like it needed it. Time is also an issue. Until a year ago I had a two hour plus round-trip commute. Factor in lunch and I’d be gone for nearly eleven hours. That doesn’t leave much time for family—much less writing—and it takes me about an hour to get into the groove. Fortunately with a new job, things have smoothed out.
What do you like about writing fantasies?
Shelley: Escapism. I have created a world that feels more real than this one sometimes. My characters love living there, and I love writing what happens to them.
Jason: That and world building. I have almost always been the GM for the various role-playing games and world building is super exciting for me.
Who are your favorite authors? Did any of them inspire you to write?
Jason: Growing up it was David Drake, David Eddings, Harry Turtledove, R.A. Salvatore, and other sci-fi/fantasy authors. I really didn’t get into following any one author though. I tend to focus on a setting, such as the Star Trek and Forgotten Realms novels, or just sci-fi in general. Right now I’m enjoying, and almost done with, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin 20 (and a half) book historical fiction seafaring series, and am eyeing C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series. Jim Butcher is also a current favorite with his Dresden Files. As for inspiration, I don’t think any single author has had an overwhelming influence so much as they all have contributed bits and pieces.
Shelley: I am not influenced by any author, so far as I know, there are only a handful of authors I have been interested in over the years (Shakespeare, Keats, Mary Shelley) but I keep my world and ideas in style exclusive to myself and not influenced by anything outside…except Joss Whedon. (We’re hardcore Browncoats that burn Fox executives in effigy every Saturday afternoon). It’s easy sometimes to tell where he’s influenced me, and Jason too, and our storytelling technique and our humor.
Please list any websites or social media links for yourself or your book. Thanks!
I’m really sorry, but we don’t keep up with our blog due to time restraints, but we have a facebook page we do stuff with sometimes. It may or may not have anything to do with writing, but we try to keep it pertinent. Well, we don’t try…we try to try. You can follow us at https://www.facebook.com/pages/SJ-McClanahan/127341307417259. We have a twitter account, too, but I don’t understand it. I think that part of my brain has fallen to the Nothing.