Author Interview: Thomas Fenske

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?

Written or published? I’ve published six novels and have three undeveloped but completed rough drafts. Of the six published books, I am torn between THE HAG RIDER and HARMON CREEK for favorites. Both involve fictionalized plots about real family, ancestors of either me or my wife.

How did you come up with the title for your books?

Titles are tricky. First, you need a working title, which may or may not be the final title. THE FEVER, my debut novel grew out of a plot involving a man caught up in a long pursuit for lost gold. Gold Fever seemed too obvious so I ended up with The Fever and worked that into the plot as a tagline a side character pointed out to the main character. A CURSE THAT BITES DEEP was simply called Curse for a long time, then I found an awesome DH Lawrence quote, “Writing is a toil and a snare, a curse that bites deep,” and it seemed a natural evolution. I decided on that late in the process and managed to work the line into the novel as well. LUCKY STRIKE has many meanings within the book and each comes up in different parts. I was pretty much set with it from the beginning. While I was writing PENUMBRA the US had a solar eclipse and I was intrigued by the awesome shadows produced by the penumbral phase. Even though the climactic events in the book occur during the penumbral phase of a lunar eclipse, I was bound and determined to use something like that. THE HAG RIDER was Captain Jack for a long time, more a faux autobiography of my great-great-grandfather (it was a nickname of his) but in revision I realized that a side character, an old witch with that description, added a lot more intrigue and drama to the plot so she became a focal point. HARMON CREEK was named after the location where my wife’s great uncle was killed in 1930. His family nickname was Buddie and for a while that was the working title but as I worked through the plot I realized that Harmon Creek HAD to be the title. Everything seems to keep coming back to that creek.

Does writing energize or exhaust you? Or both?

Both. Starting a new book usually involves a bit of forced labor, but once the plot starts to coalesce, I get excited by the process. I employ the fast writing technique during the draft and generally after I get twenty to twenty-five thousand words in, I am excited each day because I can’t wait to see what happens next. Even when I’m not writing, I generally become an airhead, and if I’m caught in a confused state, I blame my brain for being in “novel mode” … because I’m always thinking about the story. All of this is ultimately exhausting and I generally end up emotionally spent when the draft is complete. The process begins again with revision editing. The publishing process has it’s own pitfalls of stress and exhaustion. Marketing is the worst.

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

This one can be tough. With the historically based novels, it is somewhat easier because some names are already chosen for me, but side characters still pose a problem. For THE FEVER I tried to be overly creative. I used an anagram generator and input a phrase related to the plot, in this case, “lost gold mine” … and picked through the long list of possibilities. I kicked out anything with the primary words (even as part of the name). I ended up with quite a few usable names, and even one place name. Some names were a little too similar and so didn’t make it through to the final version, but many did make the final cut. Ted “Slim” Longo, Loot Meldings, Godson Millet, Dolings Motel, and Smidgeon Toll (my favorite and a favorite character of readers – she is a major character in the later books of the series).

When did you write your first book and how old were you?

I toyed with the idea for my debut novel for about twenty-five years. Recently I found the first treatment I sketched out. I actually dated it — August 1986. I started it three different times and failed but at the time I was only dabbling with writing. I complete two unpublished drafts after I found the fast writing strategy. Why didn’t I try this story first? It was my best idea and I couldn’t bear another failure. In 2012, when I was sixty, with the two other drafts under my belt, I was certain I could pull it off and I pushed forward. I had worked out the major plot elements early on and used to play around with those elements during a period of my life when I was doing a lot of distance driving. I passed many a mile thinking about that story, working out logical errors. Still, the end result was much better than anything I had daydreamed about.

What inspired the idea for your book?

A big part of the story hinged on a real event in my life, a youthful arrest. I borrowed many things from my experience to help add stark drama to a flashback that explained a lot about what was to come. That event inspired the fiction that kicked off the rest of the story.

What difference do you see between a writer and an author?

A writer is someone who writes a lot, working on their skill, sometimes writing just about anything. For instance, I wrote a few non-fiction technical articles long before I completed an unpublished novel. I completed two of them before I managed to get a third published. Once you are published, THEN you are an author. For me, that’s the distinction.

What advice would you give to a writer working on their first book? What advice would you give to help others create plotlines? What are common traps for new authors? . What do you think is the best way to improve writing skills?

I’m lumping these four questions together. For your first book, keep it simple and use the fast writing technique of setting a goal, say one or two months, don’t edit as you go, and write every day by keeping to a minimum word count until that first draft is finished. That “don’t edit as you go” throws a lot of people but believe me– if you want to finish, you need to just keep moving forward. I never cease to be amazed at how creative you can be when you are faced with that daily word count. Remember, you can always go back and edit, but you can’t edit a blank page.
What works for me in plotting is to work from a very basic general outline that illustrates the story arc. Each element of the outline should contain something I’m pretty sure I can write a day’s word count on, but often they are as vague as “something happens” or “something else happens” … I’ve found that by the time I get there, the story will tell me where it wants to go.
The basic trap goes back to that “don’t edit as you go” bugaboo. Once you lose momentum and get bogged down trying to win a Pulitzer Prize, you are taking two or three steps back. I marvel at writers working to get chapter three just perfect when they don’t have a clue what might be happening in chapter twenty-five. If you are that set in what you plan to write, you are ignoring your basic creative self.

This leads into the best way to improve writing skills. Revision Editing. It is absolutely required on a draft written as outlined above. Yes, it’s dirty, but, hopefully, your story arc is complete and a large portion of your plot is intact. This is your chance to hone your writing skills. It takes more than one pass, but it’s easy to keep going because the base is already there. Don’t be in a hurry. I usually call this phase crafting the novel. I flesh out the dialog, taking time to speak the character’s words out loud. I follow the storyline more closely, trying to find any logical errors that may exist. I run through the entire novel a minimum of three times, often four or five times. Major changes are sometimes necessary, which usually requires another full pass because a big change in one chapter might mean a half dozen minor changes in various spots. Believe me, every bit of this process serves to sharpen your writing skills.

How do you process and deal with negative book reviews?

In author circles, I see a bit of anguish over getting “bad” reviews. Hey, getting a review is never bad. Somebody read your book! Now, if all of them are bad, it might be time to circle around and see what all the fuss is about, but if most of them are good or generally good, you are on the right track. Understand this: not everyone is going to like every book. I just read one for my debut novel. “Too many unbelievable coincidences.” They are entitled to their opinion, but this tells me they glossed over a subtle plot element. There is something in the plot in plain sight that explains the coincidences. It is not overt, and it has a magical aspect, but if you stick it out into the other books in the series you can see how this one tidbit comes back around again and again.

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