#CreateYourLife: Rebecca Donahue

Have you heard of Maggie Stiefvater’s Critique Partner Love Connection? It’s this wonderful initiative organised by the New York Times bestselling author of the Mercy Falls trilogy, where she gathers writers who are looking for critique partners (CPs) and feedback on their work, and allows them to match up based on their interests. It’s very much like a third-party dating app, hence the name.

That’s how I’ve met some of my kindest, most supportive and talented writer friends. Becky is one of them. I only just started connecting with her a few months ago, but we hit it off really well, probably because we write in the same genres (and even the same topic! hint: Backstage).

So here’s Becky’s story (prepare to be blown away by her talent):

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Becky Donahue is a former editor and current project manager for an academic publisher, but she dreams of becoming a full-time author and artist. She’s been writing novels since she was thirteen and doing art since she could hold a crayon and reach the walls of her parents’ house. She has a delightful green-cheeked conure, Carmie, that keeps her company while she’s writing or drawing.

1. Let’s start from the beginning: what were your childhood aspirations?

My earliest memories are of drawing – in sketchbooks, on my parents’ walls, on my relatives’ walls – but I always had stories in my head. I’d entertain myself on the bus to school by telling myself stories, and it’s something I still do today whenever I’m walking or driving somewhere. But it wasn’t until I met Sarah Dessen when I was about twelve or thirteen that I realized writing books could be a real job.

(Joyce: I don’t usually interrupt, but YOU MET SARAH DESSEN?! She’s like my YA superhero. One of them, anyway. But she’s definitely up there in the ranks.)

2. What is one thing many people don’t know about you?

I don’t keep my old books. I know a lot of people do, but I find it ties me down. I threw away a dozen manuscripts this past summer that hadn’t worked for one reason or another. Also, I can only draw upside down.

3. When and how did you realise that you are a writer/artist?

When I was in my first year in college, my creative writing teacher told me I’d never be good enough to write a novel. And you know what? She was right – I’d never be able to really write the kind of novels I was trying to write back then, because those novels were what I thought I should be writing, what I thought people wanted to read – and not what I really wanted to write. It took me awhile to realize that, of course. But what mattered, was that I kept writing anyway, and even though I haven’t published yet, when I look back at that, the fact that I could’ve quit right then and didn’t, that made me realize that I was truly in this for the long haul, no matter what it took. Plus, if I had quit, I never would’ve discovered the kinds of novels that I love to write, the ones that are completely and totally me!

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Art’s always been a bit different. I started selling my work when I was fifteen, but it never really clicked that I was an artist because of that. I took a good ten years away from it because I didn’t really know how to be an artist or what it meant to be one. But then I got laid off from my job this past February and I had a whole month where I could do anything – so I taught myself how to use colored pencils, the one medium that had always terrified me. And I loved it.

4. What and/or who inspire you?

Everything inspires me! I feel like so many people say that, but it’s true. The texture of the sky on a misty morning, a song that I’ll listen to on repeat for weeks, a conversation overheard on the train, a particularly good novel where the story and the words are just so perfect. I think it’s important to always be paying attention to everything, both because it keeps me present and also because I never know how the world around me will add to whatever story or art piece I have brewing in my head.

5. How do you recharge?

I once told my boyfriend that I was like a smart phone battery. Sometimes, I have to go sit in the corner of a room, by myself, with nothing but a book or a sketchbook to keep me company. I get overwhelmed easily when I’m around people for too long, so I try to have some alone time every day. Though, I have been known to do crazy things, like fly helicopters, when I get truly stuck on either writing or art work. Sometimes, I’ll journal or free-write for a bit, and my bird, Carmie, loves to hang out with me while I do that.

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6. Have you experienced anything truly surprising or unexpected, writing-wise, between your first novel and your current book?  

My first book was a long, rambling mess that was based on a spin-off of superman and it was so, so bad. I had no plot or character development. I also tried to write too much like other authors I liked. With my current book, I have a much better understanding of who I want to be as a writer, and that definitely helps focus me.

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With art work (even though this wasn’t what you asked, I’m going to answer it anyway!), when I first started drawing, I would draw things as I thought they were supposed to look. Here’s a nose, I’ll draw a nose, and it never wound up looking like a nose.

Now, I’ve learned to look specifically at shapes and shades, and I shut off the part of my brain that tries to tell me what I’m drawing is a nose. It helps me get it right, if that makes sense. Drawing upside helps too.

7. Have you changed your mind about any part of the process over the years?

becky-donahue-3When I first started writing, I refused to outline or even plan out any part of my novel. I didn’t read any writing guides either. I thought it would somehow stunt my creativity. Which, of course, is silly. Now I read all of the writing guides I can find (my favorite are by Lisa Cron), and I outline and plan (and plan and plan). I won’t start a novel until I’ve built a solid foundation for it, so it doesn’t wander off and get tangled up in loose plot threads. Also, I like to know the end before I begin, so I have a place to head towards.

8. Have you received any advice along the way that was particularly valuable or pertinent?  

The best bit of advice I’ve received is if you want to do something, find someone who already does it and learn from them. Learn from authors who are successful – read their blogs. How many books did they write and how? More importantly, how many books did they write that didn’t work and how did they overcome that? Victoria Schwab has a fantastic post about this. It’s the same for art. How do artists make a living today and how can I learn from their experience?

9. What do you struggle with the most these days and what do you consider to be your greatest strength as a writer?

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Doubt has always been my biggest weakness. I took years off of art because I doubted I was good enough. I stopped sharing my writing for ages, because I doubted it was good enough. I’m slowly getting past that, but it’s always in the back of my head. I think my greatest strength is that I refuse to give up. If one novel doesn’t work, I’ll start another one. I try not to get hung up on things that aren’t working and move on as quickly as possible to something that is.

10. As a fantasy writer, how do you go about building a world?

I find that when I’m building a world – any world, fantasy or not, – the bits I focus on are the ones that will have the most meaning for my protagonist. If something doesn’t mean something to her or him, if it doesn’t impact the way they see the world or tell me something about them or affect how they’ll change later in the story, then I usually won’t include it. This also means that whether my story is contemporary or fantasy usually depends on what my protagonist needs out of the story, and from there, I start creating a world that will force him or her to change. By the end of my story, my goal is for my main character to see the world differently than she did at the beginning.

11. Tell us about your creative process.

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I used to listen to a lot of music when I wrote. Now, I tend to write in quiet, alone, and often on my couch. I get a surprising amount done in libraries or coffee shops (but only if there’s no one sitting near me). Though, I find if I’m out in public, I can’t write without headphones. I’m currently working my way through Lisa Cron’s latest Story Genius, and I’m already finding it’s helping me develop my story better. Setting myself realistic goals is key, and so is having a way to hold myself accountable, whether it’s with a critique partner or through a calendar/sticker system. I have to write early though. If I wait until I get home from work, my brain is too crowded from the day to filter through to my story. I also tend to work with paper and pen a lot, rather than a computer, especially towards the beginning of a story or when I get stuck in the middle.

12. Who are your favourite writers, artists, musicians, or books?

I have too many to list! I adore Naomi Novik, Victoria Schwab, Maggie Stiefvater, Laini Taylor, and Neil Gaiman. For art, I’m a massive Norman Rockwell fan – I love the way he uses art to tell a story. Heather Rooney’s gorgeous drawings inspired me to get into colored pencils. I also love the Atlas of Beauty photos and would love to draw them someday. Music I am all over the place. I’ll listen to country, rock, sometimes even rap or classical. I am a bit obsessed with Ed Sheeran.

13. Where can people buy your works?

I don’t have a store set up yet, but I’m looking at joining some local galleries for my art, and possibly Etsy or Society6. I have dreams about what publishers I’d love to work with, so hopefully that will happen in the next couple of years!

14. What’s in the pipeline for you?

I’m working on a novel right now about dangerous art and faeries and growing up in a spotlight.

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For art, I’m working on a couple pieces – some with chalk paint, another colored-pencil portrait, and a couple new fun portraits with acrylic paint.

 

If you have any questions for Becky, drop them in the Comments section below! Feel free to get in touch too, if you’d like to share YOUR story here (contact details in bio on the right).

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#CreateYourLife: JF Koh

So we’re kicking off this series with JF! He’s a really supportive friend who is tireless in organising fairs and meetups for writers and artists. It all started when he took the effort to send me an incredibly kind fan mail. It made my day! Since then, we’ve been exchanging emails ranting and raving about the creative process.

Having spoken with him, I can tell that he is genuinely passionate about storytelling, and very generous in sharing everything he has learned along the way. So here’s his story:

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JF Koh is a freelance web programmer aspiring to be a full-time writer of science fiction, fantasy and horror. He is keen on writing in prose and comics. Since 2010, he has been organising the Singapore chapter of the annual 24-Hour Comics Day (similar to the NaNoWriMo challenge), which attracted some 200 participants last year. In 2014, he founded the Panelgraph Showcase comics anthology magazine (www.panelgraph.com), which he edits. In 2016, he started Starving Artist Fair in Singapore (below), a mini Comic-Con that doubles as an incubation programme for comics entrepreneurs.

Starving Artist Fair pic 1

1. Let’s start from the beginning: what were your childhood aspirations?

I was very timid and shy and didn’t think much about doing anything big, but I’ve had the usual childhood dreams when I thought I wanted to be a fireman, astronaut or scientist.

2. What is one thing many people don’t know about you?

I’m a martial arts fanboy. Six months of Xingyi, a year in Taiji, two years Wing Chun – I’ve dabbled in these arts but have yet to attain a decent level of skill. That’s why I can really identify with Po in Kung Fu Panda. One day – one day! – *awesome pose* I will become the Dragon Warrior … eaurgh, maybe. But it’s not about getting somewhere. It’s about the journey. That’s the awesome part. Most of the benefits have been from the philosophy aspect that has benefited mind and character. I learn it not in order to go and pick fights with mortal enemies, but to gain mastery over the self. It builds self-confidence, and the more I know about martial arts, the more authentically I can write about it.

3. When and how did you realise that you are a writer/artist?

It was in Secondary 2 when I became obsessed with Big Foot after watching a kid’s TV show and reading about the mythological creature. I invested in an exercise book, went to my school library, and tried to write a story about a boy who makes friends with Big Foot and they have all these adventures together.

My Big Foot story didn’t get very far because I didn’t know anything about storytelling at that point, but it was a defining moment for me when I sat there in the library, thinking that this was something I really loved doing, and it was what I wanted to do with my life: writing stories.

I started reading Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction short stories. In his writing, he also shared his thoughts about being a writer, and he deepened my interest in becoming a writer.

4. What and/or who inspires you?

Oh this is a big one. I’ll have to summarise or I’ll go on forever.

Reading both fiction and non-fiction is important to me. Keeping an eye on what’s happening in the world – both the important world-changing stuff as well as the small, uplifting personal stories – feed my thoughts. A surprising amount of story ideas are inspired by reading newspapers.

I always get psyched up by a good book or TV show. George RR Martin (Game of Thrones) and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) are the more recent successful writers who have shown me how successful you can get with a good story.

My long-time heroes are Neil Gaiman, Brad Bird, JJ Abrams and Rumiko Takahashi, just to name a few.

Brian S. Pratt is not very well-known but is a hardworking author of fantasy e-books. He inspires me with his grit, generosity and willingness to embrace online publishing platforms.

Stories I keep going back to again and again for inspiration include the How to Train Your Dragon franchise; Nickelodeon’s Avatar series, both Aang and Korra; Fringe by JJ Abrams; Dexter, which started life as a novel by Jeff Lindsay; Asimov’s robot stories; among many others.

And then there is this award-winning author by the name of Joyce Chua who was churning out so much writing at a time when I was stuck, that I had to do something to restart my own engine!

5. How do you recharge?

I need to get away from people so that I can breathe and think!

6. Have you experienced anything truly surprising or unexpected, writing-wise, between your first novel and your current book?

Well, I’ve yet to write my first novel, but something unexpected did happen between issues of my Panelgraph Showcase comics anthology magazine. My friend Kelvin Chan did the cover art for the 2016.1 issue – a piece called Crow Maiden (below).

Panelgraph Showcase 2016.1 cover by Kelvin Chan

All of a sudden I found myself writing a short story called Daughter of the Crows, about a girl raised by crows and adopted by a human family. Before long, I found that I may have enough story for a novel.

You can check out Kelvin’s cover on my Panelgraph website at https://www.panelgraph.com/

7. Have you changed your mind about any part of the process over the years?

Yes. Early in my life as a writer, my view of writing was that it should be free and without constraints. I didn’t want to follow any established “rules”, but just wanted to write new things in new ways that have never been done before.

I went through an experimental phase in which I valued only the freshness of the form and not its appeal to an audience. I was writing a lot of surreal stuff which I thought was really cool but nobody could understand. Eventually, I realised that I was writing only to please myself, and as a result I had no audience. But the real power of a story is when it can connect with people out there.

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After that, I became drawn to genre and devoted myself to the study of craft – the rules which, if you took the time to master, save you the trouble of reinventing the wheel and finding out what works. When you know the conventions, you can use them to open the door to more readers, which adds value to what you write, and allows you to turn it into a living.

8. Have you received any advice along the way that was particularly valuable or pertinent?

Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting exposed me to story structure – a very useful thing to know when you’re writing fiction.

Joseph Campbell‘s theory of the Hero’s Journey in Hero With a Thousand Faces is also about structure as in the physical shape of the story, but also about story’s psychological mirror to the life issues that people face. I’ve gained a lot from this understanding.

More recently, in Wired For Story, Lisa Cron argues that our brains are biologically hard-wired to turn on when we come across a good story, and there is scientific and evolutionary basis for this. People consume stories like they consume gossip – for survival value. Stories help us navigate the world and make sense of it. Her idea is that stories are as essential to survival as the food we eat. Once you get that, you realise people will always have a need for stories, and writers will never be out of a job. This understanding has helped me pursue writing with a greater sense of purpose.

Related to this, there is a free book which you can find on the web, called Dramatica, by Melanie Anne Phillips & Chris Huntley. Not an easy read, but the book talks about how a story, specifically the type they call the Grand Argument Story, can be a tool for resolving an issue faced by the human mind. They argue that a story can have a mind of its own (called a Story Mind) which can be structured to consider all the different sides of a problem, in such a way as to help people navigate these angles and make sense of the life issue they are facing. A story doesn’t feel complete until you’ve covered all these angles. If you’re interested to learn more, you can find it here and here.

Earlier this year, I learned something valuable from a storyboard artist called Davis Vu, who teaches a method to generate emotional beats for a story. This ties in nicely with story beats or the beat sheet which many writers work with as part of their process. Because as much as story beats are useful, you can make your stories so much more powerful if you pay more attention to the emotional experience.

9. What do you struggle with the most these days and what do you consider to be your greatest strength as a writer?

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about something which I find very difficult to deal with. Writing is lonely work, so family support becomes all the more important. My family is not supportive of my creative life, and they have even worked together to sabotage my writing efforts. I struggle with this because I’m carrying around a lot of disappointment and sadness when I should be channelling that energy into creative work. I am constantly on my guard because I never know when they are going to pull another stunt on me.

When I see Joseph Schooling achieving gold and acknowledging his parents for their love and support, it’s poignant for me because I’m happy for him but I know I live in another universe and I have to make it on my own.

I share this because I have no doubt there are other writers and artists out there facing similar issues, and I want you to know that you are not alone.

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JF with his tribe

Thankfully, I believe I have a couple of cards up my sleeve. I am very clear about what I’m out to achieve. Writing is a marathon which I have been running for years and will continue to run for many more. When I immerse myself in something, I have produced results that surprise even myself. I also have friends who support me – and to me, friends are family by choice.

10. As a fantasy writer, how do you go about building a world?

Research is important, because fact is often stranger than fiction. I mine ideas from reading newspapers and non-fiction. I like to ground my world-building in reality. Even though readers want to be taken to a faraway place which is totally different from their everyday experience, they also want to discover the familiar in this fantastical world.

I like my settings to have a historical or factual basis. For example, a setting I’m working on now was inspired by the history of Australia as a British convict colony. In my setting, this is an alien planet populated by exiles.

In fantasy, there are tropes which readers of the genre generally accept and expect, like magical creatures and shape-shifters. I won’t try to invent a setting which is too crazily different from the expected conventions.

I use the TV Tropes website as a research tool. Wikipedia is another favourite for research.

I also write science fiction, which I find a lot more challenging if I want my setting to be scientifically plausible. You can’t just make things up like you can with fantasy.

11. Tell us about your creative process.

I start with extensive research, which is hard work I cannot run away from. I write a lot of notes during this phase. If a story comes to me easily, it just means that I’ve already done enough past research relevant to this story, and I’m just dredging things up which have been cooking for a while.

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After research, I try to draw the broad strokes, which include the ending which to me is the most important part. I have to know the ending and also what the story means for me (a.k.a. the theme). Knowing the story’s meaning, and whether it resonates deeply with me, motivates me to write it.

I develop the broad strokes further into a beat sheet followed by a step outline. This is the thinking and plotting part, which I find more useful to keep separate from the actual writing part. I write tons of notes throughout the research and thinking stages. My notes are usually pretty messy, but they help me clarify the story to myself.

When I feel that I know the story well enough, then I start writing. If I did the work well in the research and planning stages, the writing becomes a breeze.

This is a method which works well for me. If I ever get stuck, I can usually get unstuck when I’m in the bathroom. I call these my bathroom moments, when ideas visit me when I least expect them. But this works only if I’ve done the research.

My friend Raymus Chang says that when he gets stuck, it’s because he hasn’t planned enough, and he will go back and work some more on his outline, then he can continue writing again. I’ve found this works for me, too.

12. Who are your favourite writers, artists, musicians, or books?

Writers: I love Isaac Asimov (robots!), Angela Carter (dark fairy tales), Neil Gaiman (the short stories especially), Jorge Luis Borges (magic realism), Jeanette Winterson (magical realist moody settings), Kurt Busiek (Superman: Secret Identity), Frank Miller (Batman: Year One), Brian K Vaughan (Saga), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), George RR Martin (Game of Thrones), JJ Abrams (Fringe, Lost, Super 8), Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles), Pete Doctor (Up), Hayao Miyazaki (you know, I know, I don’t need to say), Rumiko Takahashi (Inuyasha), Laini Taylor (fantasy), Paro Anand (a recent find: an amazing writer of hard-hitting stories), Robert Aickman (subtle ghost stories, maybe a little too subtle for most readers), Roald Dahl (British wit) – speaking of whom, a recent discovery is a dead British ghost story writer by the name of A. M. Burrage … just to name a few.

Writers of books about writing and creativity: Robert McKee (Story), Larry Brooks (Story Engineering), Steven Pressfield (The War of Art), Jack Foster (How to Get Ideas), Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics and its sequels).

Artists, mostly working in comics: Andrew Loomis, Alex Ross, Milton Caniff, James Jean, David Mazzucchelli, Stuart Immonen, Fiona Staples, Dave McKean, Junji Ito, Rumiko Takahashi and Hayao Miyazaki again.

Musicians: I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks, so: John Barry, Danny Elfman, Joe Hisaishi, Kenji Kawai, and John Williams. And a ton of other stuff, like jazz, blues, electronica, trip hop, pop – too many to name. The music often contributes to the stories.

13. Where can people buy your works?

Ha ha, I don’t have anything out yet that people can buy, but Amazon when I have something 🙂

14. What’s in the pipeline for you?

I am adapting a short story, Lions of Stone, for comics. It’s an award-winning horror piece by my friend Grey Yuen. The artist is Chris de Joya. We’re doing this mainly as a learning experience.

I have an ongoing comics collaboration with the artist Kelvin Chan (below, at work), working on a series called Kaiju Girl. It’s fun and cheesy science fiction.

24HCD-2015-188 Kelvin Chan

24HCD-2015-381 Kaiju Girl by Kelvin Chan

Kaiju Girl by Kelvin Chan

Prose-wise, I’m working on a series of science fiction stories about robotic infiltration units (RIU). I’ve written a fantasy short story called Daughter of the Crows which I hope to expand into a novel.

I’m working towards commercial book projects which I want to get on Amazon to start selling and building a fan base. We live in interesting times now with social media, Kindles and e-books – lots of tech disruption which opens up opportunities for the enterprising writer.

Thanks for the interview, Joyce!

 

If you have any questions for JF, drop them in the Comments section below! Feel free to get in touch too, if you’d like to share YOUR story here (contact details in bio on the right).