Author Interview: Ken Bagnis

How do you come up with character names for your stories?

I’m a bit of a collector of names. Whenever I hear an interesting name, I jot it down in one of my journals and then I’ll look at that list as I start to develop my newest story. Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits had a big impact on my initial ideas for BREAK — so much that I adopted their real last names for my characters. Pearl Parker and Trey Barrow.

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

The plot definitely comes first. The plot must be super-solid before I know what kind of characters are going to live in that world. Characters and their development are the icing on the cake for me. I love finding voices and quirks for my characters their strengths and weaknesses. Then the characters and plot play off each other. My story can change completely as the characters develop. It’s a fluid process. My agent insisted that I share a detailed outline of BREAK with her before I wrote one word. I look at those pages now and it is unrecognizable compared to the final story. I think a writer has to be open to the story taking over and flowing to wherever it needs to go.

What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?

I need a quiet, dimly lit, cool space with as few distractions as possible. I have two kids and four cats, so this is always very challenging to find. I created this sort of glorified shed in our backyard. It has a comfy sofa and an old desk. It works perfectly for me to get away and completely immerse myself in my creative work. I can get lost in writing. I’ll be working on a scene for what feels like ten minutes and realize two hours have passed.

What inspired the idea for your book?

I’m a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, speaker, consultant, and mental health advocate. In my clinical practice, I work with adults who present with a wide range of emotional stressors and complex mental illness. My focus is to help my clients to find their passion, discover their inner strengths, and to develop a unique path toward recovery and meaningful growth. 

My client’s struggles and paths to recovery inspire me every day. I believe that mental health should be responsibly talked about in the media that kids consume. My novels are themed with mental health issues which I try to portray with an honest, accepting, and hopeful narrative. When suffering from a mental illness, I understand that it’s easy to feel hopeless and that it’s not always easy to seek out care. My writing goals aim for the reader to consider the idea of some outside perspective, connection to a community, and meaningful support.

What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?

The very first scene is always the hardest for me to write. I can spend days on the first paragraph. Those first few words carry so much weight that I get obsessed with them. They need to be just right. This is a holdover, I suspect, from the days of trying to secure a literary agent. It got drilled into my head that you must hook the potential agent or publisher with the first few lines or you’re basically doomed to a rejection pile. And I suppose that’s true, so I write and rewrite those first few lines a hundred times before I usually delete them all and start over. But when I get it… when it all vibrates just right… when I really nail that first paragraph, the rest is all downhill. That is, until I get to the very last paragraph. But that’s a different obsession.

What would you say to an author who wanted to design their own cover?

Don’t do it! Not unless you’re an amazing graphic artist like, Don Aguillo or Ash Ruggirello. I love graphic art and designing my covers. I have all kinds of colorful ideas and I have fun making early mockups, but I would never trust the final product to anybody but a professional. The cover is so important for marketing and simply setting the perfect tone of your story that you worked so hard to complete. Stay in your lane. Let the pros take over.

What’s your favorite and least favorite part of publishing?

I really do love most of the process. Especially editing and working with the designers to create a cover. I’ve learned to not get to attached to my words, so I don’t mind letting them go or changing them completely in the edits. I trust that my editor, Kisa Whipkey, knows how to make my story the best version it can be. It’s very much a collaborative process and we’re both open to whatever it takes to make the book shine. My least favorite part is public readings. I get so anxious. Especially since I know they’re being recorded. Publicity is an important part of publishing, so I do them. Grudgingly.

What do you do to get inside your character’s heads?

I think they get into mine. They become real people with unique, beautiful voices. I hear them when I go to bed. They tell me where they want the story to go and what happens next. It’s like watching a movie. I know exactly what happens in the next scene because I saw the next part of the movie the night before. I think my books are very cinematic for that reason.

When did you first call yourself a writer?

I was very proud of a fictional story I wrote about George Washington and his troops battling against aliens from the planet Talon 7. I was in the fifth grade. I (poorly) illustrated the five-page story myself. I was 100% a writer.

Whom do you trust for objective and constructive criticism of your work?

Most “beta readers” and family members will blow sunshine up your backside. Flattery feels good but it’s not very productive when you’re trying to write the best story you possibly can. Do yourself a favor and find someone who will be brutally and painfully honest with you. It might hurt a bit, but set your ego aside. You need this in your writing world. I am lucky to have my wife, Dahlia. She pulls no punches when it comes to telling me a scene sucks or “you must have been tired when you wrote that. Do it again.” Her early, straightforward critiques sting but are priceless in the end. I know that if she likes a scene, I’ve got something special brewing.

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