Glad to be here.
- When did you start writing?
The first story I remember writing was a parody of Miles Standish for a fifth-grade assignment. It went over well enough to encourage me to finish the parody of the entire book. I was inspired by a stage-based spoof of Gun Smoke called Pistol Mist that my dad wrote for the church youth group. He repeated it at every church he ministered so it had a great impression on me.
The long version was terrible, which taught me some projects have a limited span. Before that, however, I wrote comedy sketches for my tape recorder and tried to convince my sisters and friends to perform.
No one cooperated.
I wrote seriously in high school, including a novel (75 pages). My creative writing teacher hated everything I wrote. She wanted flowery prose sprinkled liberally with Latinate words. I preferred a Hemingway style—shorter, Anglo-Saxon words and direct sentences. (She also heaped praise on her son, who was in my class, as a model for our writing.)
I began to read writers like Anthony Burgess, Terry Southern, Philip Roth, John Fowles and John Le Carré. I reread Catch-22, which I first read in eighth grade (it took the entire summer). The second reading convinced me my writing was juvenile, so I threw it away. I didn’t discover I could write well until I took my first college creative writing class.
- What motivates you to write?
I can’t not write. I write daily, whether it be a series of posts for a Twitter novel, a blog post, or articles for Medium. Perhaps as a child no one paid the attention I wanted so I knew I could preserve my thoughts on paper for a time they would. Perhaps, like the Hebrew prophets I’m compelled to speak and writing is my platform. I know I never wrote to be cool or admired because when I first shared my writing, I received little positive feedback. Most of my friends thought it was stupid.
I might go a day every two or three weeks where I finally say, rest. But it’s hard.
- What genre do you write in and what made you chose this particular genre?
I call my genre “wry noir.” Dark novels with a sardonic twist. My first published novel, Raising Hell, was a dark fantasy novel about an optimist who drives Lucifer crazy, (as was the follow up novella, The Worst Noel). My second, Cigerets, Guns & Beer, was a Western mystery/suspense novel. Ironically, my latest novel Seeing Jesus is a light-hearted YA novel (although bullying by adults and peers is a major theme).
I know not settling on a genre hurts my brand marketing. Wit and wry observation defines my brand, which is much harder to market. But I read every genre growing up, and personally enjoy writing in several.
- What is your goal in writing? Do you have dreams where your writing should take you?
- I want to create intelligent books that any reader will enjoy.
- I want to change readers’ perceptions of the world in some small way: to help them recognize that the world is not about us and it never was. Because of this we have a responsibility to leave something of value in this world and not take from it.
- I also hope to help them recognize that other people don’t see the world in the same way that we do, they process information differently, form different values. We’re responsible for our own actions and not for theirs.
I was raised a Baptist Preacher’s Kid and everyone expected me to follow my father, grandfather and every uncle into the ministry. Fooled them. I took one message from my faith—Life is about service, not self-fulfillment, a message that seems sorely lacking in Christianity (not to mention the current political climate). I wouldn’t write if I didn’t think my writing served the world at large in some small way.
In grad school, studying literature, art and philosophy, the reigning aesthetic theory proclaimed, “Art for art’s sake.” I still adhere to that, especially given the current beliefs that art should be profit-making and reflect a narrowly-defined set of values. I also believe artists share a responsibility to make our work transformative. Our art should stand on its own; our vocation requires us to put our work in the larger frame of cultural revolution.
- Do you ever suffer from writer’s block and if yes, how do you deal with it?
Not really, although I will confess to procrastination. When I sit down to write, even if it’s two in the morning, I write. My first college fiction teacher John Vandezande (who wrote the book Night Driving, now out of print) said to write anything, no matter how bad. Start at the middle of your story, the end, at whatever point you can put words on paper.
I agree. You can fix bad prose. You can’t fix what isn’t written. Write paragraphs stream-of-conscience, outline, jot down notes and impressions. Anything to get your thoughts moving through the pipe. This is the only advice I ever give writers that I believe will benefit everyone.
I’ve thrown away entire chapters, sometimes as many as three or four. I stopped novels after ten or twelve chapters. I never thought they were failures. They got me to the chapters I needed and I wouldn’t have written the books I finished without them.
- What advice would you like to give new, hopeful authors?
Most writers never make a living writing fiction. (Few make a living selling books at all.) You need to seriously evaluate the role of writing in your life. If you want to write for self-fulfillment, recognize that, but be honest about your talent. If you don’t spend your free time thinking about your work, how to improve your work and studying other writers to see how they make their art, you probably aren’t ready to be a professional.
If, however, you’re determined to sell your work to the world, show your work to writers and readers who won’t pat you on the back and say, “this is good.” Find readers who will find the flaws and recommend improvement.
When you think you’re ready to publish, hire an editor and proofreader.
Most of all, don’t blindly follow the advice of every blog post. Most advice contradicts a blog posted the week before. Good writers take any number of approaches to writing—some from the seat of their pants, others with outlines and notes; some write 500-2000 words a day no matter the circumstances, others try to find a quiet space to concentrate when time permits; some write rough drafts by hand, others word process everything. Explore different approaches until you find techniques that work and stick to them. It’s okay to try something new, but if it doesn’t work for you, don’t trade it for something that works on that writer’s say so.
- Please, tell us about your work.
I just finished a Twitter Novel, Doublemint Gumshoe (which I’m still Tweeting #TweetNovel), about a hapless, hopeless detective who stumbles onto a missing persons case that’s way over his head. I wanted the challenge of composing a story 144 characters at a time. When the last Tweet is posted, it will run more than 800 installments. I may rewrite it and re-release it as a real novel. I haven’t decided yet.
My biggest seller (which is like saying the biggest ant in the hill)—Cigerets, Guns & Beer—features an ex-con whose car breaks down in a small Texas town and ends up neck deep in the fallout from a thirty-year-old bank heist and murder. To make the novel more fun, I threw in a UFO and back story that connects the murder to Roswell.
During the seventies and early eighties, gas stations would sell Texas drivers beer from oil barrels next to the pump. They’d pack the barrels with ice, singles and six-packs. Drivers fill their tanks, grabbed their six-pack and popped a top as soon as they hit the highway. I joked to a friend that all we needed was guns and we’d hit the Texas Holy Trinity.* That line planted the seed for the novel. I’d been kicking around the idea of a stranger and thirty-year-old crime since grad school but couldn’t find an angle into the story that I liked.
I lived Raising Hell. I escaped from the worst job in the world, with a micromanager from hell, only to walk into a situation with four different managers with four competing agendas and every one expecting me to jump to their beck and call in a second.
From that came the idea of an optimist sent to hell by accident and Lucifer trying to find a way to destroy his optimism. Unfortunately, the hero, Pilgrim, believes that he’s already in hell so it can’t get any worse. He might as well make his punishment the most enjoyable form of eternal damnation that he can.
An agent suggested I write Seeing Jesus. We spent some time discussing my desire to write a non-fiction book about the way metaphoric thinking unconsciously drives our belief systems. She recommended that I read Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, and write something similar. (She rejected it, of course.) In the novel Sara Love learns to cope with bullying by adults and children through lessons provided by a homeless man no one else can see.
I plan to release an extended adult version this year, with a different ending, appendices and discussion questions.
Thank you for being my guest. It was such a pleasure to have you here!!
How could I resist? Sharing on a great blog like this? I’d be a fool not to.
*Readers have just witnessed the joy of fiction writing. I’ve shared this anecdote dozens of times, but I just now made up the line, “Texas Holy Trinity.” I intend to use it with the anecdote from here on out, but that’s what all fiction writers should do—strive to improve your story at every opportunity.
Contact Phillip T. Stephens:
Seeing Jesus also recently won three Human Relations Indie Book Awards