One important thing I discovered after finishing my first draft of, THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER, was that I needed to let other people see it for the express purpose of trashing it beyond belief. If you don’t engage in this kind of masochistic behavior, your book will likely never reach its full potential.
One of the individuals who was kind enough to read my book and provide valuable feedback was, Jennifer Griffith, author of four published novels including her latest, BIG IN JAPAN, from Jolly Fish Press.
Admittedly, I have not read Jennifer’s three previous novels. My wife has, and gave me the gist. They are light, romantic comedies. I have, however, read BIG IN JAPAN and enjoyed it immensely. It is not a romantic comedy, nor is it entirely light.
It is the story of a very large man from Texas named Buck Cooper. To most people he knows, Buck is a nobody. But when he accompanies his parents on a business trip to Japan, Buck discovers that his large frame and sizable girth are viewed very differently in the Land of the Rising Sun and he soon finds himself immersed in the wild world of sumo wrestling.
As one of the few people who has actually read THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER, I thought it would be interesting to have a back-and-forth discussion about both books as well as our experiences in writing these novels. Today’s post is the beginning of our discussion.
I began by asking the following question of Jennifer:
RR: For marketing purposes, the publishing world is very quick to categorize a book into a specific genre. Within genres, there are sub-genres, but this seems to only pigeon-hole an author’s work even more. I have seen Big in Japan categorized as a sports novel, and it certainly fits in that grouping. But if you could describe your book without having to worry about genre, what would you say Big in Japan is really about?
JG: I spent a while struggling with which genre to categorize BIG IN JAPAN in. You’re right, it is a sports novel. But it’s different. When I set out to write it, I wanted to write something I could categorize as ‘commercial fiction,’ and I think that’s where it ultimately came down when I was shopping it to publishers. Kinda general, I know. It doesn’t fit neatly into sports because what it’s really about is a man’s journey from being walked on and invisible to being the warrior he was always meant to be deep down inside, his self-discovery. Oh, and don’t forget his discovery of love. What Buck lacks from the very first scene is the love of a good woman. He doesn’t know how or where to find it, and the story is his journey toward love. So, sports? Yeah, that’s the setting. But it’s more of a character-driven book, ultimately. Well, I hope, because that’s what I wanted to have come across to the reader.
Now, for my question to you: THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER is the story of a man’s healing process after the death of his wife, and all the people along his path who either help or hinder that journey. You’ve populated it with so many real-to-life characters. How did you breathe life into so many different story-people?
RR: Wow, believe it or not, that is a tough question. The truth is, I’m not familiar with how others write and so I can’t compare what is normal and what isn’t. But when it comes to my characters, it was important to me that the reader be able to relate to each person on the page. It wasn’t necessary that they like each person, but they needed to be able to say, “I know someone just like that.”
So the first thing I tried to do was create a compelling backstory for every major and mid-major character. The next problem to solve was finding a way to share that backstory through Todd, my protagonist, who tells the story in first person.
But finally, once I felt like the character was established with a backstory, which simultaneously outlined a personality, I let them create themselves. I know that sounds weird, but with every conversation or scene, I would visualize the people I had created having the conversation I was about to write. Going into each chapter, there were certain things I knew I needed to achieve and communicate, but I had no preconceived notion of how the conversations or actions of the characters would get us there. I let the make believe people in my head do that for me. What was interesting about this exercise was the amount of good material that got left out or how the direction of the book would change based on the behavior of a character I had just written about. I would sometimes start a chapter with a line or two that I felt were vital to fit in some how only to have the conversation go in an entirely different direction. Again, I don’t know if that is normal or not, but that is what worked for me.
JG: I think that’s one of the major strengths of your manuscript, Ryan–the conversations. The characters sound true to life, their voices are solid (each one having his own voice and sticking with it throughout the story) and yet there’s enough conflict in each conversation to keep the tension going. It was one of the really big pulls that kept me turning pages as I read it.
RR: Well, thank you. That is kind of you to say. Speaking of characters, I am curious about some of yours. Obviously your story is about Buck and his experience, but I wonder if you were to write a companion novel, which character from Big in Japan would you most want to know more about and why?
JG: I’ve actually thought about this. I doubt I’d do a full novel about any of them, but a novella (50 pages or so) would be kind of fun. Chocho, Buck’s love interest, would be the obvious choice, but I think I might have more fun writing the story of Reggie, Buck’s Philippino friend who is being pursued by the relentless geisha girl. It’d be fun to explore the back story of their romance and what could possibly be his reluctance to it.
RR: See, I find that answer fascinating. I think a short story on Reggie would be great, but the fact that he and Chocho are your first choices highlights a difference between us that I think we’ve discussed before. It’s kind of the “Avengers vs. Dark Knight” argument. The one character from BIG IN JAPAN that I was drawn to was Torakiba, Buck’s mentor and a fantastic villain. Unlike like the other baddies in your story, this character seemed to have a deeper sense of character there that I would love to know more about. What made this guy, whose introduction into sumo was probably very similar to Buck’s, into the person we meet in your story? Anyway, that’s just me. Your turn.
JG: It took me a long time to edit BIG IN JAPAN. Years. What I would like to know is how your editing process went. (Because of how polished the manuscript was when I finally saw it, I know I came to the editing process late in the game.) How did you go from your first draft to your final draft? Did you do several passes, like, one for dialogue, one for plot holes, etc., or was it more comprehensive? Did you have a beta reader who helped you?
RR: I think not having been part of a writing group (and therefore not understanding the ‘rules’ to writing) played a role in how my manuscript came about. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to edit as you go. I’ve since learned that a major rule of thumb is get the story down first, edit later.
But what I did was write a chapter and then take a day to go back and edit that chapter before moving on to the next one. Once I was finished, I would then bring that chapter home and let my wife, Shannon, take a crack at it. I know another rule is don’t let your family and friends be your editor because they tend to go to easy on you, but my wife has no such qualms.
While she was editing, I would start the next chapter, but when she completed her edits, I would stop what I was doing to go back and incorporate her suggestions I thought had merit, which were about 97% of them.
Then, when four or five chapters had gone through this process, I would take them to my best friend and his wife who are avid readers. They were the first to admit that they are not writers, but I felt certain that they would be able to point out when something didn’t feel right. And I was correct. Again, I know I was breaking the second rule stated above, but I also knew this friend had no issue with being too nice. I told him I wanted the truth and he gave it to me.
So when he and his wife finished their critiques, I would stop what I was doing and incorporate their input immediately as well. And, from start to finish, that is how I wrote THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER. Then, when I was finally done, and the entire book had gone through this process, the four of us met together and discussed what worked and what didn’t. That was seven months from the time I had sat down and put my first words to the page. Finally, Shannon and I each did one more edit of the entire manuscript. That was when you entered the picture. As far as specific edits, I never did any. Every edit I did was a blanket edit looking for any problem I could find.
And thus ends part 1.
Join us later this week for the second part of our discussion which kicks off with Jennifer talking about her move from LDS fiction to mainstream.
BIG IN JAPAN is available in most book stores and on-line at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It is also available for download on most e-book applications.
THE RELUCTANT BLOGGER arrives in stores this August.