Curses. Phantoms. Haunted moors and dangerous secrets. Ladies and Gents, I have a very special guest for you today on Why Words Work: The fabulous author J.A.Ironside!
J.A.Ironside is the author of The Unveiled series, a soon-to-be-trilogy of books following teenage psychic Emlynn and the dark creatures she encounters with her gifts. With the third book set to be released sometime soon, this series is quickly becoming popular, especially with e-book readers!
Alongside this, she is also a contributor to a variety of anthologies, host of speculative fiction podcast Dissecting Dragons, a martial artist with 20 years experience and, to top it all off, a bibliophile to the core. After hearing all of this, I just couldn’t wait to interview her and find out more about her writing life!
So let’s not waste any more time. Here is J.A.Ironside!
You are a bibliophile through and through, reading three books a week! But how did you make the transition from reading books to writing your own?
The simple, glib answer is the same as it is for many authors – no one else had written the book I wanted to read, so I wrote it myself.
I think that might be a bit too simplistic an answer where I’m concerned though. I was able to read pretty competently well before I went to school (which got me into so much trouble on my first day of primary school – that’s another story…) so I was precociously working my way through everything from Roald Dahl to Les Miserables by the time I was nine, simply because I read fast. In some ways it was an issue of supply and demand – despite raiding my parents’, sisters’ and grandmothers’ shelves as well as being a regular at the library,
I was always scratching around for something to read. When I ran out of books I started writing them. (Fortunately my ‘juvenilia’ – mispelt, unpunctuated, plotless and lacking in characterisation – is lost forever!) The transition from reading books to writing them, didn’t complete itself until I started showing people what I’d written twenty five years later. I still struggle with the shyness.
You’ve said that, in your writing, you want to bring out the best (and the worst) in your characters. This explains your leanings towards dystopia and horror – but how does your love of Speculative Fiction enter this?
I think all good fiction, regardless of whether it’s speculative or not, examines the character journey. The most satisfying books are the ones where the characters have to struggle not just against outside forces but against aspects of themselves.
With the Unveiled series, I’ve tried to have Emlynn’s internal struggle with her own flaws, mirror her external struggle with whatever forces of darkness she’s battling that week. Characters who experience the full gamut of human emotion, without descending into melodrama, are my favourite kind – blame my early love of Shakespeare! Ultimately, I’ll pick speculative fiction over more mundane fiction because I would rather a character’s external struggles be with a zombie hoard or a dragon or the Ancient Dead.
That’s obviously personal preference and partly it’s because my brain is a bit weird. I find it difficult not to include speculative elements in fiction because as far as I’m concerned we already live in a world where anything could happen. It’s improbable, it’s unlikely, but I only need the smallest split percentage chance to feel it’s possible.
J.A.Ironside’s books can be found here!
As an accomplished martial artists, I would expect your stories to deal with physical threats – yet The Unveiled Series is dripping with curses, ghosts, secrets, relationships and other immaterial threats.
Why is this?
Partly this was because I was attempting to set certain YA trends and tropes on their heads a little bit in Unveiled.
There was a dearth of good female MCs, who were stronger than their male counter parts, when I was growing up. Utterly maddening since I just didn’t identify with the female MCs I was presented with. Having said that, there was then an explosion of the ‘female warrior’ type MC in fantasy and, probably somewhat perversely, I felt cheated once again because a lot of these characters weren’t fully rounded or complicated. What made them ‘strong female characters’ was the fact that they happened to be able to wield a sword or throw a punch.
Using a sword or punching someone or just generally being able to fight is lots of fun – I’m the last person who would dispute that. But what irritated me was this was just another custom female character cut-out list in disguise. Put it this way, if you can take sword and replace it with a more traditionally feminine object such as a sewing box, and yet it doesn’t change the basis for a character, then that’s not a character. That’s yet another paper doll.
Ultimately what I want was for the definition ‘strong female MC’ to become redundant. Qualifiers like ‘strong’ have no business being associated only with female protagonists. Writers should all just be writing people – messy, complicated, flawed, three dimensional people.
To contradict myself slightly, I like a good female warrior in a book but she must be a fully rounded character. When ‘warrior’ becomes short hand for ‘unusual’ without actually making the character three dimensional, then we’re just creating another gender stereotype and potentially feeding into a constraining ‘not like the other girls’ sub group.
What I’m getting at is that not everyone is strong in the same way. I teach women’s self-defense classes. Once I’ve had a group going for a couple of weeks, and we’ve all broken down the internalised mindset that stops people, especially women, believing that it is absolutely fine to defend yourself (something that makes so many women hesitate, a hesitation that often means they are over powered)
I tend to find there are different types in a group. Why wouldn’t there be? We all think and act differently. The most enthusiastic members of a self-defense group are unlikely to come along to a martial arts class, let alone cope with the rigors of the constant training, competing, fighting and grading that go into gaining a level of proficiency.
It would be incorrect, though, to assume that because someone couldn’t or wouldn’t undergo intensive training that they are not strong or not able to look after themselves. All the girls in Unveiled are strong in different ways (so are the boys to be fair), learning to play to their strengths and when to accept help is one of the themes I play with.
Finally, and sorry for going off on a tangent, while I do have something in the pipeline that is a bit more about physical fighting, I found the idea of fighting something that you couldn’t tackle physically because it has no real physical presence, far more chilling.
How can you punch something that is attacking your mind?
How can you fight the part of yourself that wants to disappear? Or physically repulse grief or chronic illness and injury?
There are far more terrifying things to conquer than a physical opponent.
What do you think makes Emlynn from The Unveiled stand out amongst other teenage psychic protagonists?
Weirdly, I think Emlynn’s tendency not to trust herself probably leads to a lot of what makes her stand out. It’s fairly obvious that she has a hard time trusting people in general but that all comes from the fact that she is constantly doubting and questioning herself. Combine that with a very clear sense of right and wrong (where again she constantly questions and pushes the boundaries for herself) and a snarky sense of humour, and I think she is different. Complicated, a little over-sensitive, too independent, socially awkward but ultimately recklessly brave and loyal.
What I like most about her as a character is that despite the fact that she questions everything and is prey to all the usual teenage insecurities, her hard line is that she respects herself. That’s an important one to learn when you’re a teenager, to gain that strong mindedness, because where is your measure for treating others with respect if you don’t have any for yourself?
Do you think being obsessed with books made it easier for you to become a writer? Or could a more casual reader pick up a pen and start writing?
To the first part of the question, yes and no. Stephen King once said (and I paraphrase) that if you don’t have time to read then you don’t have the time or the tools to write. It’s the tools I gained from being an enthusiastic reader. And he is right in the sense that your best teachers as a writer are books, first and foremost. You need to learn what you like in a narrative, what works for you, before you can deconstruct it and try applying it to your own work. So in that respect yes it has made it easier because it fuelled the desire to write and taught me the basics of how to write.
The ‘no’ part is that I am forever stumbling on beautiful books that make me want to cry with envy, the sort of things that make you despair as a writer because why are you producing the dross you thought was good until five minutes ago, when this writer has created this exquisite piece of art? So it’s swings and roundabouts.
To the second part of your question, yes absolutely a more casual reader can write a book. I’ll go further and say that if you have a story and the will to write it down, then you can pick up a pen and write. It might take you longer to learn basic techniques for creative writing if you don’t read widely, that’s all. But you absolutely don’t have to be book obsessed to my level.
(One of my housemates at university once quipped that if I was ever made homeless, mine would be the only cardboard box with a book shelf. As off colour as that joke was, he wasn’t exactly wrong…)
You’ve published two books in the span of 2-3 years, plus numerous short stories, as well as co-host the Dissecting Dragons Podcast and have a third book on the way. How do you get so much done!?
I find timely human sacrifices to the gods of literature and entertainment tend to keep me on schedule.
All joking aside, it’s simply a case of how much do you want it? If I want something badly enough, I’ll find a way to make it happen. It’s like that saying – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
As I’ve become more structured in my work, I’ve found it’s much easier to break each project down into bites. So instead of thinking ‘I must get this written by this date’, I’ll give myself a rough finish date and then set myself a daily target. I aim for 5000 words a day. Sometimes I only manage 1000, some days I clock up 8 or 9 k. On three memorable occasions I wrote 20+K (I really, REALLY don’t recommend this by the way. The dislocation when you have to engage with real life again is staggering.) But I started out writing 500 – 800 words a day. It’s like running. You don’t just strap on pair of trainers and run the London Marathon, you build up to it.
Scheduling is really important for me too. I need to plan what I want to get done in advance. It’s possible that this only gives me the illusion of control but even just the illusion of control means that you are moving forward rather than sitting there looking at the growing pile of things you need to do in near catatonic panic. Or at least it does with me.
I think something that perhaps isn’t emphasised enough is that you will accomplish more if you love what you do. Dissecting Dragons, for example, is work but it never feels like it. It feels like fun. And most of the time writing feels like fun even though I’m simultaneously aware that it’s hard work.
And it may surprise you to hear this but I actually don’t think I get much done at all… Really, I think I’m chronically behind. Last year I wrote two books, co-wrote another two and wrote two novellas. This year I intend to write four books (at least to first draft) as well as a few short stories and novellas. So far I’ve written 1.5 books and a couple of short stories. I’m definitely not on target!
So it’s probably time to look for more likely offerings…
When was the last time you had a bad case of writer’s block? How did you get out of it?
At the risk of people throwing things at me, I don’t really believe in writer’s block…
There are times when there is so much going on in real life that you just can’t settle to writing, or when you’re depressed or ill or what have you and those times shouldn’t be confused with writer’s block. That’s a legitimate point where your body is telling you to take a break. There are also books that you start writing that you have to put on the back burner because they’re just not ready to be written yet. The plot’s still cooking.
Of the writers I’ve personally met who claim to have writer’s block, a lot of it seems to boils down to them just not sitting down to write. It’s lovely when you and the muse happen to turn up in the same place at the same time ready to scrawl lines of deathless prose. In reality, the muse is a flighty, undependable party-girl who just doesn’t show up at all most of the time and you, the writer, have to do her share of the work too.
Basically, if you wait until the stars are aligned and you feel like writing, you probably won’t write anything much. Sorry.
However you can get seriously stuck. It’s not the same as being unable to start, or being lazy. You’re there in front of your laptop and you just can’t get around or past a particular scene. That has happened to me.
There was one point writing book two where I just kept rehashing the same scene over and over again. As a rule I don’t edit as I’m going along because I find if I look back, I won’t complete the first draft, and the first draft, in my experience, is hardest to get down. But in this instance, I just couldn’t leave the scene alone.
Partly I was a victim of my own success. The first draft of book 1 of Unveiled was written in three and a half weeks (I did then re-write it a dozen times in fairness), so I went blithely into book 2 with no actual plan of the story expecting it work the same way. It didn’t. (For the record the second book in a series is really hard to write.)
Eight months later, I was still at 40k words, feeling like book 1 had been a fluke. In the end, I shoved the scene in my ‘Umbles’ file in Scrivener (which is where I keep all the bits of a book I’m not sure I’ll use), went back to the drawing board and made a rough plan of the story. That’s what got me unstuck in the end.
Now, even though I know I won’t stick to a plan, I plan books in advance. Book 1 was a fluke in that I wrote it flying by the seat of my pants. That isn’t ultimately how I function as a writer which is what the experience taught me, together with the fact that every book is different. It turned out that the reason that scene, which did go back into the book in the end, was tripping me up was because it wasn’t in the right place.
Sometimes books don’t want to be written chronologically. I think when we get stuck like this, it’s often because we’re being too rigid or perfectionist in our approach. Trying something different will unstick us.
Okay, time for the hard question: name two authors who have inspired you and why?
Okay, Stephen King but not for the reasons many people might name him as inspirational ie the success, the piles of cash etc. He writes character journey in speculative fiction a way that is so emotionally honest it literally holds up the rest of the plot. Killer entities disguised as clowns and plagues affecting the world’s cell phone lines become possible because you are invested in the characters. Even the characters you don’t like.
Also Frank Herbert because he proved to me with Dune that you can explore several big concepts and ideas, and even personal beliefs, through your writing while still adhering to a coherent narrative that never descends to sermonising. You can explore issues of morality while still telling a thumping good story.
There are around a dozen others. This is painfully restrained, you realise?
Do you have any other projects lined up that you can share with us?
I do. Last year I co-wrote The Oath and Crown duology with Matthew Willis. This is a historical series set around the events leading up to the battle of Hastings and just after, and is completely devoid of speculative elements. It’s due to be released by Penmore Press later this year.
I have the second half of the Unveiled quartet coming out this year – I Hold the Tide in July (hopefully) and the final book (*sob*) I Rule the Night just before Christmas.
I then have two other series I’m working on – I’m in the planning stages right now.
One looks at Mary Cranford, from the Unveiled series, long before she became Emlynn’s mentor, and is a paranormal spy thriller series.
The other is a sort of adjunct to Unveiled but about a character called Melanie Beckett (at least that’s what she thinks she’s called) who is a professional grifter, gambler, con artist and confidence woman. Mel is very definitely an anti-hero in a way that Emlynn isn’t and her own hubris leads her to gamble away her soul by accident to a real demon. Mel finds herself working all sorts of dodgy jobs for the demon until she can trick him into giving her soul back. Hilarity ensues.
And finally, to all the bookworms itching to write worlds of their own, what is the one piece of advice you want to give?
Write what you want to write, not what you think you should be writing.
I held myself back for years trying to write something literary when what I wanted to write was genre fiction. I’m not a literary writer and there is no shame in that. In fact I sound like a pretentious arse when I attempt to write literary fiction so it’s best that I just don’t.
Embrace what you want to write, accept there’s no shame in writing what you love and the rest will – with a bit of hard work – fall into place.
As an additional piece of advice, I would say seek out other writers and find writing buddies. Exchange short stories and MSs. You’re writing will improve immeasurably and far faster than you can make the improvement on your own. Besides, writing is generally a solitary task and it can be isolating. A group of people who understand because they also write is invaluable.
And hey, if you’re still here, why not check out my article featuring Dissecting Dragons co-host M.E.Vaughan here!