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An hour-long conversation with Lisa Kessler, bestselling and award-winning author of dark paranormal fiction, including The Moon Series, The Muse Chronicles, The Night Series, and the new Sentinels of Savannah series that begins with Pirate’s Passion.
Lisa Kessler is a bestselling author of dark paranormal fiction. She’s a two-time San Diego Book Award winner for best published fantasy/sci-fi/ horror and best published romance. Her books have also won the PRISM Award, the National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, the HOTE Medallion Award of Merit, and an International Digital Award for Best Paranormal. Her short stories have been published in print anthologies and magazines, and her vampire story, “Immortal Beloved,” was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award. When she’s not writing. Lisa is a professional vocalist and has performed with San Diego Opera as well as other musical theatre companies in San Diego.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.
Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Now, I usually start the show by talking about how we know each other. This is kind of a different one, because basically I know you because I was on your show, so…
Right. Yeah. You’ve been on Book Lights a couple of times and we always have such a great time. Plus, we have the musical background. So, I feel like we already know each other so well.
We will talk a little bit about Book Lights a little later on, too, so you get a chance to talk about that….I think I hear cats in the background.
Yes, sorry. My cat never comes in here, but she just decided to come in and be on the radio. So sorry about that.
It’s quite all right. Mine’s asleep somewhere or he might join in as well.
He’ll hear the other cat, and they’ll have a conversation.
I think it was my second interview, with John Scalzi, there were cats in the background. So, it’s kind of a Worldshapers tradition, so…
Oh, well, good. Maybe my cat knew that, and I wasn’t aware.
He’s probably a long-time listener. Well, we’ll start by taking you back…I always say this, and it’s kind of appropriate, considering the book that we’re going to be focusing on, Pirate’s Passion…take you back into the mists of time, but perhaps quite not as far back as the 18th century, to find out when you became…well, first of all, where you were born and where you grew up and then how you became interested in writing and specifically in writing tales of the paranormal and the fantastic.
Well, it’s kind of an interesting story because it’s sort of paranormal and I promise that it’s true. I grew up in San Diego, and after I graduated high school, I got into our family business–we made hospital window blinds–and so I travelled a lot for trade shows. And one of those trade shows took me to New Orleans. And some background. I sang opera and musical theatre, music was my focal point, but I always wrote for fun. And I was madly in love with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but anyone who was a fan back in the ’90s, it took a year and a half for another book to come out. And way back in the day of the Internet, when there were…remember net groups and things like that?…there was an Anne Rice one, and I met some other women there, and we started our own Yahoo! group to write our own vampires while we would wait for the next vampire book. So I probably did that…I would write every night my own vampires just for fun, probably for like eight years. I never thought about publishing anything.
But I had a trade show in New Orleans. And so, since I was in New Orleans, I had to get my palm read. And the palm reader gave me the reading and it seemed pretty right on. And then as we were leaving, she stopped me at the door and said, “Can I ask you something?” And I said, “Sure.” And she said, “Are you a writer?” And I said, “No, I sell window shades.” And then I thought about it and I said, “Well, I write for fun every night.” And she smiled and said, “You’re gonna be a famous writer someday.” And I was like, “What?” And my brain would not let it go. And by the time I got back to the airport, I had written out a plot outline for my first book, Night Walker, which was Mayan vampires in San Diego. Very cool book, but it took me a really long time to get that published. But I wrote it in six months, and I had no idea that all those years I had been practicing.
I got to meet Ray Bradbury a couple times before he passed away, and he always believed that you had to write somewhere around 800,000 words of crap before you became a storyteller. And I never knew that that was what I was doing. I filled up a whole hard drive with text documents of my vampires and never with any inkling that I would publish it. If I hadn’t seen that palm reader, I don’t know that I ever would have gotten that nudge to try and get published.
And then I wrote short stories—that was where “Immortal Beloved” came from—because I thought, “I’m not sure I’m a good writer. I’ve just been writing for fun.” So, I wrote a bunch of short stories and I got five of them published in publications and I thought, “OK, so I’m not horrible,” And I went on from there. But without that palm reader in New Orleans, I…it just wasn’t on my radar. I was so busy singing and working. The writing was just for fun. So, she really changed the course of my life that day unexpectedly. It was very, very strange. And now I write full time. So, who knew?
So you said that you’ve always written. Did you actually start as a kid? I know many of us writers do start whenever we’re quite young. Did you start way back then?
Yeah, I did. I did write when I was a kid, but I never thought I was going to be a writer. I wrote my first book in sixth grade. They actually bound and published it for me in the school library. And thankfully, when they re-did the school library, somebody on the school board found me and brought my book back. It was called The Wonders of Unicorn Creek. It was all of like twenty pages, but that was my first book.
I thought you were going to say, “Fortunately, they threw it out when they re-did the library,” but…
Mo, I got that wonderful book back. But I never…I always wrote, but I didn’t have that, you know, I just never realized I was going to be a novelist. That was never on my radar until New Orleans.
So, when did the music come in?
Music has always been my first love. That was…my dad was a musician, and as soon as I got to junior high, I was in choir and I had all the solos and in high school and right out of high school, I was taking private voice lessons and getting in San Diego Comic Opera and Lyric Opera and stuff like that. It was just, music has always been my first love and passion, and I still have a church job, so I still do sing every week. And that was really where my focus was. And I wrote…but during all of that, I was writing every night. I was building good skills for becoming a writer without any idea that I was ever gonna be one. So it’s very, very odd.
So, you mentioned that you started with short stories. Where was “Immortal Beloved” published? It was one it was a finalist for Bram Stoker Award. Where did it fall in there? Was it like your fifth one or was it an earlier wonder? And what was it about? Because I’m not familiar with the story.
Oh, OK. “Immortal Beloved” was…I was trying to write some short stories that I could try to get published to see…because I really had no concept if I was a good storyteller or not. But I had had the idea about…because I’m very musical, I had the idea about Beethoven, and nobody has figured out, you know, who his “immortal beloved” was, and I was really into writing vampires. So I thought, “What if Beethoven’s immortal beloved really was immortal, and what if it had to be a secret because he was a man?” And so, anyway, the story takes place today, but the vampire is hearing a child prodigy playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and he’s wondering if it’s Beethoven. It’s a really cool story. And I wrote it as an experiment. I wrote it while I was listening to the “Moonlight Sonata” over and over. And it really has, like ,three different acts. And so, the story kind of follows that same kind of structure. And it got…it’s been republished quite a few times. It’s in an anthology that’s out right now called…I’ll have to look it up, I can’t remember what…Dead Souls, that’s what it’s called. It’s a paperback anthology called Dead Souls, and it’s reprinted in that right now. But it was a fabulous experiment. And the story came out really well. I was really proud of it. I did my research and I felt like at the end, maybe Beethoven was in love with a male vampire.
Well, there was a whole movie called Immortal Beloved, of course, which did not have a vampire but was also dealing with that question of exactly who the immortal beloved was.
And somebody recently, they found some DNA or something, I don’t know, but I saw it pop up again recently and they still don’t know. But they think they’re closer to figuring it out. I don’t know. It’s a great mystery, though.
So, talking about “Immortal Beloved,” and I’m also going to get into your research, because obviously there was some involved there, when we talk about the book. So, why don’t we start talking about the book? Now, you’ve written a lot of books. How many series do you have at this point?
I have five series so far. Three of them are finished and I’m currently writing two others, The Sedona Pack and also the one we’re going to be talking about, The Sentinels of Savannah.
The Sentinels of Savannah, and the first book is called Pirate’s Passion, which I read. So, why don’t you give a synopsis of it so that I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away?
Okay. Well, there’s actually a novella that’s like the prequel just to get you into the whole world. But basically, there is a pirate crew that sank outside of Savannah over 200 years ago, in the 1700s. But the thing was that their final plunder was supposed to be the world’s greatest treasure. But when they took over the ship, all they found was a wooden cup that seemed to always have water in it. And so, they all drank from this without realizing that they had taken a sip from the Holy Grail. So, all of these men are still alive. They’re now immortal. And so, most of them still live in Savannah and now they have regular jobs. They have made a replica of their ship so that they can still sail. And their captain is still pirating, but he’s pirating in real estate.
And so, anyway, I made this special division of the government, Department 13, who deals with paranormal threats to American citizens. And because they’re the government, they have to…there’s laws, and they can’t steal, but he meets up with the immortal pirate crew and gives them the option of stealing now for the government. So they are going back to some of their piracy ways and also helping America. So, it is really wild and fun series to write so far.
And it is, of course, a romance, as well as paranormal, paranormal romance, kind of right there in the title. So who is the romance between?
So, in Pirate’s Passion, the romance is between the ship’s pilot, do the guy who steers the ship, and a historian who works for the Maritime Museum in Savannah, Dr. Charlotte Sinclair. And she has some secrets of her own. It was a wild adventure of a book to write. And the thing is, when you’re writing romance with these big paranormal elements, it’s really hard to balance the two. because you want the romance readers to get that happy-ever-after that they want, but when you have paranormal elements, a lot of times the stakes are gigantic. You know, the world could end, there’s lots of death and all that kind of thing. So, for me, it’s always a fun juggling act to keep it even, so that the romance is achieved, but we also get a really fun adventure with lots of danger. For me as a writer, I need lots of danger. When my kids were younger and at home still, they who see me sitting at the computer chomping on gum, going, “No, the story is stalled. What’s happening?”, and I had taught my daughter, “Well, it’s time to raise the body count,” because nothing gets things moving like a dead body. So anyway, a lot of people die in my books, as well. But balancing the romance with that is always a challenge. Bu in this book, it was it was not so difficult because the hero and heroine had a lot of spark instantly, which is always fun for me.
Yeah. I was going to ask you about that element of it, because I haven’t read…you know, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy and I’ve read a lot of paranormal stories, but not paranormal romance, and certainly that balance is different than if it were just an urban fantasy.
You know, in an urban fantasy, you might have a romantic subplot, but it’s not quite as front and centre as the romance is in Pirate’s Passion. And, of course, there’s also the difference in the cover art.
Right, definitely. Yes. If you’re writing paranormal romance, the market is that there’s some kind of man chest on there, man chest and some kind of fog. And that’s what makes readers go, “Oh, it’s paranormal.” But, yeah, in urban fantasy, there’s almost always a big romance, you know, subplot going on. But in urban fantasy, there doesn’t have to be a happily ever after, and in romance that’s the deal you’re making with the reader. So, like, if it’s a mystery, the deal with the reader is that you will solve the crime by the end of the book, and the deal with the romance is that there will be a happily ever after, somehow. You may not know how that’s going to happen, but somehow there will be a happily ever after at the end. And so it does make it tricky, because if you don’t meet that, the readers are really disappointed. And in urban fantasy, you’ve got a little more wiggle little room, because you can have happy for now, you can have that they break up at the end. But there’s another book, so maybe they’ll get back together, you know? Like Sookie in the Sookie Stackhouse books, you know, she had many happy-for-nows with all different people. So, you have a little…more options there.
You couldn’t do that in a paranormal romance because the reader is expecting a happily ever after. So, in a paranormal romance series you’ll usually see some kind of band of brothers, you know, like this one has a pirate crew, because although all those characters will be in every book, I need a different character to be able to get his happily ever after. And that’s why werewolf shifters and things like that work really well in paranormal romance because you have a whole pack, and each one gets to be the hero of a book.
Does paranormal romance draw in readers from the more regular fantasy side and also draw in readers from the romance side that might not otherwise venture into that territory? Is it like a place where they come together? Ecumenical, sort of?
Yeah, I think so. I think so. I think paranormal romance is like a gateway drug to fantasy for romance readers because they get that taste of the worldbuilding and, you know, the worldbuilding and those super high stakes. You know, the world could end, you know, a city be destroyed or something like that, and it’s a whole new thing because other…there’s lots of genres of romance, historical, contemporary, romantic suspense. Romantic suspense can sometimes have super high stakes also. But the fantasy elements are all in paranormal romance. So, if a romance reader who maybe typically reads historicals stumbles across a time-travel or a paranormal romance or something like that, that can be their first experience sometimes with that kind of genre and can lead them toward, you know, urban fantasy and maybe even high fantasy.
To be fair to the cover art with the “man chest”…
There was, of course…for a long time, urban fantasy seemed to be distinguished by the bare midriff of the female protagonist.
Exactly. Exactly. And urban fantasy, for a long time, it had to be the female protagonist, she had to be in black leather and high-heeled boots. And it’s like, if you read the book, the, you know, the women are, like, kicking ass, and I’m sure it wasn’t in high-heel boots. But that was what needed to be on the cover. But all of that is really like marketing and bookstore…you know, what people are expecting, I think. I don’t know who came up with what those need to be, but they sure stick.
Now, we’re using Pirate’s Passion as an example of your creative process. So, where did the idea…I know that’s a cliché, “Where do your ideas come from?”, nevertheless… where did the idea, or the seed, that grew into Pirate’s Passion come from, and is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?
Well, actually, it was really neat. I got invited to be part of an anthology for the Romantic Times. Romantic Times was a magazine that would have the Book Lovers’ Convention, a national convention, where people came from all over the world. Lots of Australian readers would come to that one, and they wanted…it was happening in Atlanta, and so they called it Moonshine and Magnolias. And they wanted…they picked twenty romance authors, of all different genres of romance, to write a novella that was set in the south. And they needed…and the only requirement was it had to include Atlanta. And I’ve been to Atlanta, and it’s not like my most favourite city, but my grandmother and her family were all from Savannah. And I love Savannah. I’ve been there before. It’s very haunted city. It’s just, it’s so gorgeous and so much history. And so, I thought about Savannah. If I set it in Savannah, I could put the bad guy in Atlanta. And then I’m thinking about it, and I’ve been to Savannah before, and Savannah is all ghosts and pirates. It was a big pirate hub back in the day. You can go The Pirates’ Inn restaurant. It used to be a bar back then, but it is still there. And you can go inside, and they will show you the pirate tunnels that are still there, where they would get…they would get you so drunk that you would pass out and they would drag you through the tunnels onto a ship. And when you wake up out in the ocean, they’re like, “Well, you’re our ship’s doctor now.” So, anyway, you can still see those in Savannah. And when you walk along River Street, you know, they have all the pirate stuff. And so anyway, I thought, “Well, if I wrote a pirate book, but I don’t want it to be historical, I want it to be now, how can I make these pirates immortal?” And then I thought about the Holy Grail and I thought, “Ah, that could work.” And the whole thing came together.
And when I wrote the novella for that event, my agent wanted to read it, and so I sent it to her, and she wrote me back, she goes, “I forgot to eat lunch, I was reading this, and please tell me the whole crew is gonna get a book and let me sell this series.” And I was like, “Okay.” So, anyway, I started working on, you know, what the crew stories would be so that I could give her a series synopsis. And she sold the whole series. So, I’m writing…I’m finishing book four right now. And then there will be four more. There’s eight books altogether.
So….that’s kind of an unusual way for a series to come about…
…where have some of your others come from? You know, images, characters, settings, what kind of gets you going?
My other series came from short stories that I wrote. When I…the first time I met Ray Bradbury, I had only, I had written my first book. I had written Night Walker, the palm reader told me, you know, “You’re going to be a writer.” Well, I was new, so I didn’t realize how many rejections you get. Oh, my gosh. And I would get so close with an agent and then they would go, “On second read, we’re just not sure, but we’ll be excited to see it on the shelves.” And I’m like, “What? You think it’s gonna get published and you won’t represent me?” It was very frustrating. And I was working for a literary paper in San Diego, and we did an interview with Ray, and part of the perk was that he was going to come down and speak in San Diego and we were all going to get to meet him. So I was beside myself. And so, when I finally got to meet him, I asked, I told him, I had written a book and I’m getting a lot of rejections, what can I do to improve my writing? Because I was sure it must be me. And I thought he would recommend a book, and instead he told me, “Write a new short story every week for a year.” He said, “By the end of the year, you will be a new writer.” And since I had already sold short stories and I knew you didn’t make very much money off of them, I thought, “I don’t know.” It took me a few weeks to decide, “Okay, this is Ray Bradbury. He knows what he’s talking about. I’m going to do this.”
And I wrote the first one, and I ended up having so much fun I wrote a short story every week for a year and a half. So, I have I have over 120 short stories and a few of them just stick with you. And one of them ended up being the first chapter of Moonlight, which was the first book in my Moon Series, which is still my most popular series to date, but the first chapter was that short story, and when I wrote it, I couldn’t let the idea go. So, I wrote that book and the second book in that series while I was writing a short story every week. So, it was the best thing I ever did. Ray Bradbury is a genius and was totally right.
My Muse Chronicles series came from one of my short stories, as well. I wrote a short story called Unemployed Muses Anonymous, and it was that the Muses were still here, because they were daughters of Zeus, so they’re immortal, and they were living in New York and they were all unemployed. And each of them, their personalities were coloured by what their muse was. So, the Muse of Tragic Poetry was a pessimist and the Muse of Dance couldn’t stop wiggling, and anyway, it was a really fun short story to write, but I couldn’t let the idea go that it would be really cool to have this group of women in today’s world who maybe, when they turn eighteen, realize that, you know, they’re the vessel for this muse. And so, anyway, that series was the most incredible writing experience I’ve ever had. It was just amazing, those books, and the way the whole series turned out wasn’t anything like I expected. It was really very inspired. So, I had planned six books, but in the book where I was supposed to kill off one of the muses, it turned out that wasn’t going to happen, there was a new hero who came on the scene and he was not going to let her die, and I called my cover artist and said, “I’m super sorry, but we’re going to have one more book.” So, there actually were seven books in that series. But it was all from that short story. So that, really, those inspire me a lot.
Ok, so that just takes it back one more step, though. If you’re writing a short story every week, you’re having to come up with a lot of ideas every week. So how are you generating those?
Yes, that was the hardest part of writing a new short story every week. Oh, my gosh. So, sometimes I would be so desperate that I would go look at odd news. If you go to like Yahoo! News and CNN, there’s, way in the corner, there’s “Odd.” And if you click on it, it’s bizarre stories of things that have happened. And so, I found a lot of short story ideas that way, and I learned so much doing it, because…you need a story idea. So, you go, and you find this story about a rogue wave. I’m like, “What the heck’s a rogue wave?” And then I go look on YouTube and I’m, “Wow, those are terrifying.” So anyway, I did all this research and now they think that the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes, they didn’t know, because we didn’t have cell phone videos and things back then, but rogue waves happen on the Great Lakes. And so now there have been ships where they have video of these rogue waves coming on the Great Lakes, and they think that’s what split the Edmund Fitzgerald. So, anyway, so I wrote a shipwreck story.
And I read about this strange hailstorm in Death Valley that basically took out all the power, and it was so strong that they closed the highway, and so I wrote a sci-fi story about that it was really aliens, and all this kind of thing. So, I found a lot of things looking at weird news.
I was so desperate, sometimes I would look at songs that I like and see if I could come up with a story to go with the song. Sometimes, the ideas just showed up and I was like, “Thank you!” Sometimes I wrote spinoff stories from other stories. The other thing, too, that was fun was I tried to challenge myself to write stories I never thought that I would, just see if I could. So, I wrote…I’m not a big sci-fi reader, but I wrote, like, five sci-fi stories. And I wrote one about a gunslinger, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Who knew?” But it was a great experiment because you learn to research faster, you learn to get ideas faster, you write faster, you edit faster. I mean, in the beginning, it would take me an entire week to write and edit the short story, and by the end of my year, I could sit down Sunday afternoon with an idea (finally!) and then write the whole thing, edit it, and have it up by midnight, because I was so much faster by then. So, it really was a great thing for my tool kit, as a writer, to keep your brain going and coming up with ideas and writing them down and not picking it apart so much. You know, get the whole idea down and then edit it. And I feel like learning beginning, middle, end, it all works for writing novels because each chapter is, you know, similar to and has that same flow as a short story.
Is this something you recommend to other writers, to beginning writers who are looking to up their game?
Definitely. Definitely. I used to…I’ve been too busy now, so I haven’t done it…but I mentored five writers through it, and they all wrote a new short story every week for a year. And it was the coolest thing. I mean, most people would drop out partway through. It’s really hard. It’s a marathon. But five of them finished. And it was so exciting to see. And we would make it, Sunday night was deadline night, and they all would post their stories, and I would give everybody feedback on their stories and encourage them for next week, and all that kind of stuff, and to see five of them finish, and they were so much better by the end of the year, it was really inspiring. So, I hope that eventually I’ll be able to do that again, because it’s really hard to do it on your own, and I think having a group, the little bit of peer pressure and all, it really helped. They were all cheering each other on, and it was it was a great experience.
When I did it, I did it alone, but I had a blog—this was back in MySpace days—and so for fun, I was just writing my story and I made Sunday night deadline night and I would have put it up on my blog on MySpace. And I didn’t realize at the time, but I was building a readership before I ever had a book come out. I had, I think, over 6,000 subscribers to that MySpace blog who were waiting for the free story every week. And I met Ray Garton, who is a horror master, Grand Horror Master winner and everything, I met him through that. He had stumbled across one of my stories on my blog, and he messaged me and said, “You can write! That was great. What are you doing?” And I got to meet him at Book Expo, and he gave me reference when I was looking for an agent, and all of that just happened because I was writing a new short story every week and putting it up on my blog. And it did get to be a little bit of peer pressure, because the subscribers were waiting on Sunday night, so I felt like it had to go up.
But having that group where I was, you know, cheering these writers on, it was really exciting, and they got so much better. We would compare at the end their first story with their last story, and it was amazing. Ray is right. It’s the best way to improve your writing, for sure.
Well, coming back to Pirate’s Passion, and all of your novels, once you have that idea, what does your planning and outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline or are you more of a make-it-up-as-you-go-and-worry-about-it-later, or how does it work for you?
Yeah, yeah. I’m a big time pantser, unfortunately. Sometimes I look at my plotting friends and I’m like, “Dang it, I wish I knew what was happening next.” But the flip side of that is for me, writing can be magical, because cool things happen that I never thought of, and they’re always so much better than what I had thought was going to happen. And so…I always feel like…Ray Bradbury used to talk about that there’s, like, a superconscious up there that wants stories told, and when…he used to think that when you get a story idea, it’s downloading in your head and it’s your job to, like, dictate that, you know, follow the story and let it spill out. You don’t get to direct it, kind of thing. And I feel like by letting myself not have a big outline, it gives me the freedom to let the story go where the story needs to go.
And there are times where I’m like, “I don’t know, this is way off…” Like, in The Muse Chronicles when I’m suddenly going, “Oh, my gosh, I have to add a book.” But it was the right thing to do for that series, and I loved that book. It was great. So, that was all good. But had I been so pinned in by my series outline, and my book outline, you know, I would have just gone, “Sorry, she has to die.”
And, you know, as a writer, for me, part of the fun is the discovery. And so, I try not to pen it in. I mean, for my publisher, they do need a series outline, so I come up with who the hero and heroine will be and sort of what the adventure will be. In the pirate series it’s, you know, which relic are we going to go after of each time, and that kind of thing. But beyond that, I leave it wide open so that I can discover it as I go. And a lot of times, character growth, too, because your characters change as events happen. And so, as a pantser, I’m constantly asking, “what if” and “why?” You know, “So, what if this happened? And why did they react like that?” And that is how the story unfolds for me, that’s my process. And, “How can I make it worse?” I’m always asking, you know, “What, if this happened, why did they react like this, and how can I make it worse?” Well, it’s Savannah, it should rain. So, for me, that’s my process.
I found when I was doing the short stories, I tried plotting for a few of them because I was doing it as an exercise to try new things, and the three stories that I tried plotting, I never finished the story, and I realized that for my writing process, if it’s already basically written, I have no impulse to put it together. I feel like it’s already done. It’s already, you know, it turns into a term paper instead of a creative experience. So, I don’t I don’t do a big outlining, even though sometimes I get stuck and I’m like, “What’s going to happen now?” And I look at my friend across the table who has notecards and she knows what’s happening, like, “Dang it!” So, you know, it all comes down to how your writer brain is fixed up, and I think there’s pluses and minuses to both, but you’ve got to go with what works for you in the end.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you sitting in a home office a certain number of hours a day? Do you go out to coffee shops? Do you sit under a tree with a notebook and a quill pen? How do you write?
I don’t write by hand. I have to type. But I have a writing chair at home, so I usually write a little bit at home. Panera is my office away from home, and a lot of times…I have some local friends who are writers, too, so a lot of times they’ll come meet me at Panera and we’ll all write. And that’s always fun, because when you start to get stuck, if you see everyone else is writing, you’re like, “Okay, I got to keep right. I’ll come up with something.” So, that’s fun as well.
I am not an every-day…I know there are some people who say you have to write every single day, and I am not like that. Because I don’t plot. I write two chapters at a time and then I go back and edit those two chapters, because the only way I can be fearless is if I can promise myself that if I took a wrong turn, I’m only going to lose two chapters. So, I write two chapters and then I edit those two chapters, and so, it makes my book go a little bit slower, but in the end, I can turn in my first…my first draft is clean, so I turn those in. So, it works for me. It just makes that first draft…it takes a little bit longer than somebody who can just, you know, put it all out there and then rewrite. I’m not a rewrite, so… But for me, because I don’t have an outline, it’s too scary to write the whole book, and the thought of a rewrite gives me hives, so I do two chapters and then I go back and edit. So there may be, you know, where I write three days and then I edit for two, and then I write for three and I edit for two, and then, you know, I might be busy, so I’m doing something else. And sometimes I have deadlines overlap, and so when I get edits back for a book, I have to set aside the one I’m writing because my brain will not compartmentalize like that. I have friends who can write one book in the morning and edit a different book at night, and I can’t. So, when I get edits, I might have to set the book aside and do the edits on the other book and then go back. So I think…I think I lost my thread, but that’s basically my writing process.
Well, you kind of answered the next question, which I normally ask, which is about the revision process, but it sounds like you do essentially a rolling revision, two chapters at time, so that when you have that draft at the end, it’s actually a finished draft, not just a rough draft that you’re going to go back through from the beginning.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about your theatre background, because I’ve talked to other authors who have theatre backgrounds, like Orson Scott Card, for example, who’s written multiple musicals and directed plays and things like that. And from my own experience, I want to see if you find this as well. There’s a usefulness to being a stage performer when it comes to keeping track of where people are in relationship to each other and how they interact with each other within a space. That’s what I find. And of course, I also find that being an actor ties directly into being a writer because it’s basically the same thing: you’re pretending to be somebody else and trying to make that person come alive. Is that your experience?
Definitely. And being, you know, with a musical theatre background and opera and all that kind of thing, music plays into it a lot. Like, I build playlists for my books before I even start writing, because when I get that, when I’m going to start a new book, I usually know kind of what the theme of the book is going to be. So, I look for music, movie soundtracks, classical music, even songs with words, I have those on there, too, that will back up, you know, who I think the hero is, the heroine is, the, you know, plot things, that kind of stuff. And I think if you come from a music and acting background, I think that you are able to blend those arts together to make your words, you know…to inspire your words, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. But, yeah, I definitely feel like having that background helps my helps my writing very much.
And, just speaking for myself, my current book, Master of the World, and the one before that, Worldshaper, my character likes musical theatre, so I get to make musical theatre jokes throughout the book, so that’s fun.
Oh, I love it.
Now, you mentioned then, there is still some editing, some maybe not rewriting, but what sorts of things do you find yourself editing afterwards? And I presume this is after it’s been to your editor and it comes back for comment.
Well, and I forgot to mention this, too, I do have beta readers, I have a team of four beta readers, and they read my two chapters at the same time as I’m writing the book because I like to get their feedback as far as…you know, one of them is really good at catching typos, that even after editing, I missed, I’m like, “What?” But there are a couple of them who are really good at character motivations, and they’ll tell me, “Oh, I hate that guy!” and I’ll go, “Good. You’re supposed to hate that guy,” you know, but they give me their feedback, and a couple of times it has been really helpful because, like, one of them said, “He seemed like he would have been angrier. He would have been angrier at that.” And she was right, and so I boosted that up.
So, a lot of times when I get my edits back from my editor, it’s things that I thought were clear that really aren’t clear on the page. I have a writer friend, Mary Leo, who…my favourite saying that she has is, “You don’t get to travel with your book to explain it.” And that is so true. So, sometimes, you know, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience, too, where it seems totally clear to me, you know, why he did that, but it’s because I know the character inside and out and sometimes I don’t get enough detail on the page so that, you know, the editor’s like, “Well, he seems like a jerk here.” And I’m going, “Oh, because I didn’t…” And sometimes…I know I’m a rusher when I write, I’m always wanting to get to the next good part, so I leave out details. Like, one time I had an editor note somebody had gone to urgent care with a stab wound, and I had things happening with this other character, and then suddenly a nurse came in and the editor’s like, “Whoa, there’s a nurse? When did they get into urgent care? What’s happening?” And I was like, “Oh, maybe I should have them get out of the car and walk inside.” But I was so excited to get to the next part that I completely missed getting out of the car and getting…you know. So. usually when I get my edits back, it’s things like that. Like, it was clear in my head, but I didn’t necessarily get that on the page.
And when you’re writing romance, too, a lot of times the editors will look for beats in the book that they think are coming too soon. You know, they said, “I love you” too soon. And sometimes it’s the right thing for the book, and that’s OK. But, you know, they’re looking for things like that, pacing and that kind of thing. But usually…I’ve never had to do a rewrite, thank God, but usually it’s stuff like that.
Well, we’re getting fairly close to the end of the time here, so I wanted to, first of all, before I ask you my big philosophical questions, I wanted to ask you about your program, Book Lights, and how did that come about, and what is that about? I mean, I know, I’ve been on it, but you tell us what it’s all about.
Yeah, well, Sheila English owns Circle of Seven Productions and she makes fabulous book trailers. If you’ve ever seen a commercial on cable TV for a Christine Feehan book, that was Sheila English, she makes those. She is a huge book lover, and she’s also now a published author herself, and she founded Readers’ Entertainment Radio and they have two shows, Readers’ Entertainment and Book Lights. So there’s two shows a week that we do. And, I had been on both of those shows as an author and Sheila sent out one of her newsletters, and I noticed at the bottom she said that she was looking for another host for Book Lights, “So if you know anyone, please send them my way.” So, I emailed her and I said, “Well, I would do it,” And she said, “Really?” And I said, “Oh, I love talking to writers. That would be super fun.”
So, anyway, she had me jump in and try, and I have had such a blast. I’ve been so lucky to talk to so many different writers. And I talk to them from every genre. I’ve had horror authors on and women’s fiction authors on and romance and fantasy and sci-fi. And I never get tired of, you know, hearing from all these different writers from different places. I’ve had people from England and Greece and, of course, Canada. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me, you know, how people write books and the cool ideas that they come up with for them, where I’m like, “Wow, I never would have thought of that.” And so, it’s a really fun show, and it is not pointed at, you know, we always talk about the author’s new release at the beginning, but it devolves into what we’re all interested in and what TV shows we should binge and all this kind of thing. So, I feel like for readers, it’s a very reader-focused show. It’s readers who are listening. So, I feel like at the end the readers really get to know that author much better. And I hope if it’s a new author to them that they’ll be willing to take a chance on that new book because they’ll be going, “Oh my God, that author watches all the shows I do. And, oh my God, they ride horses and we have a horse ranch!”, you know? So, hopefully…my goal is always that hopefully new readers find new authors, because as an author myself, we’re constantly looking for new readers to fall in love with our series and go and read our backlist and all that kind of thing. So Book Lights is a really good forum for that.
Well, and The Worldshapers, of course, came about because I wanted to talk to authors about writing and so, yeah, authors are generally very interesting people to talk to you.
Yeah, I think so, too.
Now, that does bring us back to the big philosophical questions I’d like to, sort of, wrap up with. It’s really one question, which is, “Why do you write?” with subsidiary questions of, “Why do any of us write?” and, specifically, “Why do you write tales of the fantastic?”
Oh, wow. That is a philosophical question. Well, I think that writing, especially these days, is more important than ever, fiction writing, because fiction…stories have been around since human beings have been around, you know, there’s cave paintings of stories. And I think that Ray is probably not wrong, there’s a superconscious that that needs stories to be told and songs to be written and all these kind of things. And so, I feel like, when you get a reader email from somebody who says, “Thank you so much, I love your books when I’m going for dialysis and it takes me away while I’m going through this,” or somebody who has lost a loved one and they write you an email that this book, you know, gave them welcome relief from all this grief right now that they’re going through and that kind of thing… I think that books also teach us to empathize with people who are very different than we are. Obviously, I am not an immortal pirate, but writing this series…
Really, I know, right? Spoiler alert. But writing this series, I really dig into the question of what would it do to you if the world around you is constantly changing and you are not? And each character, I get a different facet of that. Because it affects each of them differently. And so I learn.
And I think that fiction teaches us to empathize and learn about people, as opposed to a historical event. You know, it’s not like a textbook. When you go on a story and you go on a hero’s journey and you see people change, it reinforces to you that you can change. You can be anybody you want to be. If this person could do it, you can do it, you know, kind of thing. And I think that there is a magic in that. And so, I think that writing is important, and I feel like when I get these story ideas that they need to come out because they’re going to serve some kind of purpose that I may not even know. But they need to be told. So, we do.
Well, this is…The Worldshapers, of course, again, is the name of this podcast, and that is something you’ve kind of touched on there that I like to ask is if, you know, do you hope that your fiction is…changing the world might be a little grand, or even shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping readers in some fashion and having some sort of impact on them?
Yeah. Definitely. I hope that, if nothing else, it provides an escape from, you know, something that they need a break from. And also, I hope that through the books…there is always, especially in in romance, there’s always a character arc where they’re changed by the end of the book. And I think that that’s powerful. And I hope that that helps people understand, too, and empowers them that you can change you. You know, if you don’t like who you are today or you don’t like how your life is today, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You have that power to change that. And in romance, you know, it’s the powerful emotion of love and how that changes you. But in all fiction, you know, there’s always this change, and I think that that is important. And I hope that my books help people see that that’s possible.
I wrote a novella called “Night Angel,” which…I bawled so much writing that book, but I hadn’t planned on writing it, because this character had been, he was immortal, but he had been like so damaged that he’s a shapeshifter and he shapeshifts into this big hawk, and he can’t fly anymore because part of his arm was ripped off. And, you know, he lives forever and he heals, but he doesn’t regenerate like a lizard, so… So, I wasn’t going to write his book, but readers kept asking if he was going to get a happy-ever-after. And I’m like, “Oh, my God.” But that novella was so powerful to me as a writer because I learned and I…when I was in high school, I used to be a teacher’s aide for the deaf classroom, and so I learned sign language and all this kind of thing. And so, I made the human character, she was deaf from…there was a bombing in Ireland, and so she was deaf. And he crosses paths with her and learns from her that you’re not less, you’re just different. You’re not, you know…handicapped, I think, is this label that makes people feel like they’re less. And you’re not, you’re just different. And she taught him that. And that was such a powerful thing that I learned writing that book. And so, anyway, I do hope that readers come away with a new, maybe even just a new empathy for other people around them and in their life.
Well, I think what’s interesting is that fiction doesn’t just change readers, it changes the writers as well. We all discover things, as we’re writing these stories, about ourselves and about the way we look at the world that maybe we didn’t know going into that story. Do you find that your experience?
Exactly. Yes, definitely. And that’s part of the love of writing. You know, we do all this research and then we throw it into a story, and you put them in situations, and you realize, “Oh, my gosh,” you know, and you learn, too. So, yeah, it definitely changes you, some books more than others. But, yeah, it’s an amazing process, and as human beings, we’re so lucky that we get to do it.
And hey, we can even bring that to a musical theatre quotation because of course, in The King and I, there’s that line about, “If you become a teacher, by your students you are taught.”
So, yes, exactly. That was great.
If you’re an author, by your characters you are taught.
Yes. We definitely learn from our art, for sure.
Well, and that brings us to the end of the time. So, where do people find you online, should they wish to do so? And I’m sure they do.
My Web site is lisa-kessler.com. And I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. I’m easy to find, just Lisa Kessler, writer. And I’m also on Goodreads and Pinterest. Pinterest is really fun. I put up pictures from scenes of every book I write because I use it while I’m writing. But if you’ve read any of my books and you want to see if you were picturing people the same way I was, you can go to Pinterest. It’s pinteres.com/ldydisney, and find me there also. And I do have an author newsletter, you can sign up on Facebook or on my Web site. And I often give away free short stories, free sneak peeks into books that aren’t out yet, so there’s always something fun in there. And I’m also a Tarot card reader, so every month you’ll get a Tarot card for the month with a little reading with it. So, sign up for the newsletter, too.
And what are you working on next?
I’m finishing Pirate’s Persuasion next. And then I will be going back to the wolf pack to write Sedona Seduction. So, that’ll be fun.
All right. Well, thanks again for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I had a great time. Hope you did, too.
I did. Thank you for having me on.
And maybe I’ll be talking to you on your program again sometime. You never know.
Right? When you get that next book out, you know where to find me.
Thanks again. Bye for now.
OK, thank you. Bye bye.