J.M. Schneider shares his Epiphany moment as a Novelist

Is one of my favorites. He is witty, charming and an all-around good guy.

Name/Pen name: John Schneider/J.M. Schneider

General location: Upstate New York, mid-Hudson Valley

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? My first distinct memory of wanting to and believing I could be a writer came in the fourth grade. Our teacher gave us an assignment to write a creative story on any topic that came into our head, and these stories would be read and judged against everyone else in the entire grade. Of course, I had done many writing assignments before that, but with no constraints on the topic, I remember feeling almost giddy with the potential. I crafted some sort of tale in which I was the heroic figure, and the words flowed from my head so quickly that I couldn’t make my No. 2 pencil move fast enough.

When my entry was announced among the winners, I was surprised that it was so well-received, but somewhat counterintuitively not surprised that it had come from me so easily. It was then that I realized I wanted to do something with writing in the future.

What inspired you to write?

I never had a flash of bright light or a moment in which I knew I wanted to write. For me, it’s not as much of an inspiration as an outlet. My mind is always going; sometimes it’s about what color I want the new kitchen countertop to be, how to organize my office, or something I learned in a documentary, but most often it’s me taking an idea that I saw or heard or thought up and expanding upon it.

In my late teens I had to take a red-eye flight from California back to the east coast. I took flying lessons as a teenager and love flying but, this being my first commercial flight, I was not yet accustomed to the boredom of sitting in coach for six hours straight. Unwilling to sleep, I stared out at the featureless darkness. After some time, I saw a single, tiny light on the ground. Without knowing anything about where it was, I spent the next four hours concocting different sub-stories about the building next to that light, who lived in it, why it was the only light on in that area, who else was looking at that light at the very same second I flew over it, and so on.

When you do that enough, it kinds of builds up in you, and it makes you want to relay these stories to others. The problem is, telling these stories to friends and acquaintances is a good way to lose them all and end up standing by yourself at parties. But, if you write these stories down so people can read them, you are considered creative and insightful.

Are you a planner or pantster?

I am primarily a pantster, but it took me a long time to understand that about myself.

Outside of writing, I plan everything to within an inch of its life. When driving, I memorize routes to new places as well as backup routes in case of problems. I thrive on the routine of rising at the same time every morning, standing at the same place on the train platform, making sure everything is back in its proper place in my house, etc. This stems not from some low-grade OCD disorder (I hope), but from my observations that doing things a certain way maximize my efficiency and result in the fewest hassles during my day.

This killed me when I first started trying to write novels, because my characters’ bad decisions and poor choices were to be avoided like the plague. So, when I tried to plan a novel, I had every conflict tidied up and solved in about 15,000 words, and that doesn’t make for a very good book.

Now that I’ve learned that, unlike me, my characters make bad decisions and poor choices, I can let them do those dumb things and drive the story forward. Of course, I give them the smarts to solve things in the end – I mean, c’mon, I can’t let them flounder around forever!

Which of your works is your favorite? Why?

This is always a difficult question to answer because, as I write more, I feel as if I get better in many aspects of the craft. Based on that, I think my latest book is always my favorite because it’s my best.

But a more accurate answer is that I don’t have a favorite work. Instead, I have favorite things from each of them. These can be very small or rather significant, ranging from a single line in a conversation, a description of how a character is feeling, a realistic but completely unexpected plot twist, or the pacing of a critical scene. I even have favorite chapters.

For example, in Love at Point Blank Range (my latest release), I feel that there are several analogies that capture the essence of the item or feeling that I’m describing. My hope is that I can use that technique as I move forward into future works while getting better in other areas; steadily turning deficiencies into strengths and becoming better as a writer. That’s both the hell and the glory of writing. It’s qualitative, not quantitative, so while there is no way to achieve the goal of a perfect novel, there is always a way to improve, and that means I have something to shoot for.

Would you say your stories are plot or character driven?

They start out as plot driven and then morph to character driven. The way I see my books (and almost every book, honestly) is that the initial setting is the beginning of the plot. The characters are inserted into it, and in the beginning, they tend to react to the plot. As the story moves forward, characters exert their will on what is happening around them, so they begin to alter the plot, and that continues with a greater and greater impact until they are running the show. At that point, everything that happens is driven by the characters.

What do you take with you on vacation?

That totally depends on the vacation. I like to travel light (I hate checking bags when I have to fly) so I’ll go for the bare minimum of clothes. I keep the shoes to a minimum because I have big feet and each pair costs me a lot of room. Unless it is going to be really cold (think northern Canada in January cold) I don’t bother with a coat. Depending on the exact theme of the vacation and whom I’m travelling with, I might bring a computer to write.

What’s your motto as a writer?

“My ideas are valid.” The younger me was obsessed with the idea I had to have some outrageously unique, fascinating, and paradigm-shattering concept as the basis for my story, one so good that the book critics at The New Yorker would drop their Grey Goose Martinis on the floor in utter amazement as they finished my work and a single tear would travel down their cheeks. Their reviews would describe the book, and me, with phrases like “transcendent” “life-altering” or “the Shakespeare of our time”. If I couldn’t create something up to this standard, I shouldn’t really bother wasting my time putting committing mundane words to a book. I suspect that a lot of writers (actually, a lot of creative people regardless of their medium) suffer from this insecurity.

With age comes experience and wisdom, and I’ve realized that – even as I continue to chase that idea that will stop humanity in its tracks – my unique takes on slightly more-common plots and ideas are not only worth writing, they could actually be considered good and worth reading.

More simply put, my four-word motto just means that I am good enough to do what I do, that I am, by far, my own worst critic, and to not let my worries and fears stop me from writing.

What’s your next project or what is in your future?

As I write this I’m sitting on a cruise ship in St. Maarten (I know, you’re jealous!), and so I’ve come up with an idea for a cruise-ship themed manuscript involving the heroine who visits the islands and hires a roguish but oh-so-handsome diver to help her find an artifact of incredible value that was stolen by a pirate but lost in a storm. But others want the treasure as well, and the resulting danger sparks a romance between the two.

I’m also working on a separate story about a detective investigating a series of murders. The problem is that the man on whose expansive property the first murder occurred is outrageously handsome. When a cursory investigation tells her that he is not responsible for the crime, she accepts his romantic advances and they begin a passionate love affair. But when more murder victims are found on his land and other clues start pointing back to him, she wonders what she might have gotten herself into.

I’ll continue working on both manuscripts simultaneously because I don’t consider it a bad thing to have two storylines going on. In fact, I find it helpful, because if I get a little stuck on one, I turn to the other and remain productive. As an added bonus, being focused on one story usually reveals the next step in the other manuscript.

Now the post…..

  • There is an enormous difference between a writer and a novelist. I’ve been a writer for close to 30 years. I’ve been paid for it too. But I only became a novelist about four and a half years ago. That’s a big gap.

I don’t define a novelist as someone who has published a book. Even with self-publishing, having a novel published is subject to so many variables – most of which are out of the control of the novelist – that it can’t be the criterion. A novelist is someone who has completed a book of the appropriate length.

I made a decent living as a technical writer and as someone who occasionally had short articles published, but I continued to fail as a novelist. I started books – lots of them. I had great starting ideas and thoughts about where the story would go, and the determination that I Would Stick With It, so I was sure that each time would be THE TIME.

Everything would go gangbusters for about 15,000 words and then, as sure as the sun sets at the end of the day, my writing would grind to a screeching halt. It wasn’t just writer’s block – it was a complete and total absence of ideas of how to take the story anywhere except right to the end. Each time, it seemed to me to be the same thing; I had identified the issues and goals of the characters, directed them like chess pieces to resolve those issues and meet those goals, and now all they had to do was perform the prescribed actions and everything would end and be all hunky-dory.

And those stories were entirely too short to be of any value and sooo boring.

Looking back, I could see just how much of my personality was coming through in my writing style. I make decisions cautiously, after much analysis and consideration of the consequences, and my characters did the same thing. I hadn’t yet learned to make them flawed and imperfect beings like we all are. They were cardboard cutouts of people who had the amazing ability to study a situation from the impossible vantage point of knowing how it would turn out even while it was happening, and so they always made the “right” decision. They knew that kissing that guy would end in heartbreak, so they didn’t do it. They knew that getting off the highway here instead of driving another 12 miles would ensure danger, so they kept the cruise control on.

But, at that time, I couldn’t see it. The juxtaposition is almost funny; I was so in the middle of my struggle that I couldn’t see my problem, but my character’s ability to see how their actions would cause problems was that very problem. I started thinking that I didn’t have whatever it took to write a real book, and each time I failed miserably I became more and more convinced of this fact.

In 2014, I was forced to change jobs, and my new position had little work and less responsibility. Worse, no one cared that I wasn’t doing much. With so much free time, I decided to make one more attempt at a book. I sat in my little cubicle and banged out the beginnings of a great erotic romance that had real potential. Because I could do this during work hours, I was excited because I was sure the long stretches of writing and plotting time would help me get past the inevitable road block.

It did not. The story shut down faster than a government official listening to a complaint, and soon I was staring at the document with that sinking feeling. With nothing to do for eight hours each day and a dead manuscript on the screen in front of me, I daydreamed a lot. I imagined how good it would feel to actually write a book, to get reviews and even rejections from publishers. Of course this was all pure fantasy.

Last-ditch attempts to salvage this train wreck of a book

A few days into this, I was still making some last-ditch attempts to salvage this train wreck of a book. I read to my current stopping point, envisioning the events as a movie in my head, trying to see what I could do with the scene, the characters, the color of the walls, literally anything to get things going again. I realized I was shaking my head constantly as bad ideas popped up and died quick deaths.

Then, as I contemplated hari-kari, something happened that, to this day, still gives me chills. Stephanie, the lead female character, who had just declined to do something she probably would have wanted to do because I knew it would end up badly for her, turned and looked at me. When I say that, I don’t mean she turned in my direction. She looked into my eyes and gave me a look of irritation.

“Why,” she asked pointedly, “in hell would I decline to teach that session? I would love to do that. What kind of person would I be if I didn’t?” That was weird enough, but I actually heard her voice in my head. Surreptitiously I raised my head and looked around, but no one was in sight. Returning my attention to the scene in my head, I found her staring at me, holding her hands in front of her with her palms up in a “well?” gesture. The other character in the scene, a bit player, was also looking at me with a more quizzical expression.

I figured I was having a mental breakdown from the long hours and days of inactivity, but I threw caution to the wind and decided to answer my fictional character. “Well, what do you think you should do?” To this day, I am not sure if I responded out loud or in my head.

The scene rewound and then played forward, and I watched as she not only agreed to teach the session but then engaged in a dialog with her boss. The scene jumped to the male main character, who was explaining to his friend that this would be a great opportunity for him and he would go to this class as well. I started writing what they were saying and doing.

My fingers flew as I worked feverishly to keep up with what was happening on the movie screen in my mind without my active control or direction. It was like I was watching something on the show and trying to take detailed notes. My characters were doing things by themselves. If this was a mental breakdown, I had no desire to be sane. In the nearly six hours remaining in the workday (including the lunch I skipped), I wrote almost 9,000 words. I couldn’t stop watching their moves, their reactions, their emotions, and how those all factored into the decisions they made. I felt like I had no more idea how this story was going to end than anyone else in the world.

I don’t know how I got home from work without killing myself. My fiancee wasn’t home yet, so I raced into my office and picked up right where I left off, giving my characters carte blanch to do what they wanted with their own lives based on their personalities and their wants and needs. More words flowed.

When Vicki came in the front door, I didn’t respond to her casual greeting, causing her to peer into my office and ask if I heard her.

“You will not believe what is happening here!” I yelled with unabashed enthusiasm that flirted with fanaticism.

She showed concern. “What! Is everything OK?”

“Oh yeah! My characters – they’re doing the story for me!”

“What?”

“I don’t know! I just – Stephanie, she asked me why I was having her do stuff that she wouldn’t do, and so I let her tell me what to do, and now I’m just listening to her! It’s amazing!”

I’m quite sure the plans for our wedding were in serious jeopardy of being canceled at that moment. “Are you OK?”

“Great! Just great!” Without another word, I put my head down and started listening to my new masters as they wrote the book I would take credit for. I think Vicki left the room eventually, but I can’t be sure when.

The next day or so, I settled down enough to explain the shift in my writing process, to the point that Vicki was somewhat impressed if still a little freaked out. To their credit, my characters learned to act at a more sedate and measured pace so I could write more effectively, as those 9,000-plus words required a great deal of editing and rework to become coherent and grammatically appropriate. But just having that raw material was so encouraging, so stimulating, so invigorating that I didn’t mind all the polishing.

It was that day that I realized that I am not in charge here. Sure, my name goes on the cover, and the (meager) royalty checks are made out to me, but I’m kind of like the stenographer. My characters talk to me, and I dutifully report what they are doing. Sometimes I do argue with them and protest what they tell me, but that’s because they are trying to be someone they aren’t, and that makes my objections reasonable. People in my books have a depth that I never even tried to explore, and it allows for situations that are richer and more fulfilling for the reader.

I’m still not entirely sure of my sanity. I try to explain this to other writers and non-writers. Some of the writers seem to understand or claim they do, perhaps out of an abundance of manners, but the non-writers give me the look they reserve for someone who just looked over his right shoulder and shouted to no one, “Can’t you see I’m talking to someone here?”

But those looks are worth it, because I’m finally not just a writer. I’m a novelist.

Check out more of J.M. Schneider

to http://www.scarletlanternpublishing.com until October 30, and then it will flip to the book on Amazon)

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