The following is an interview with author Kait Ballenger, friend, fellow Spalding University grad student, and author of upcoming releases After Dark (with NY Times Bestselling author Gena Showalter) and Twilight Hunter. Also, enter for a chance to win a copy of After Dark, autographed by both Gena Showalter and Kait Ballenger. Just click on the link at the end of the post and enter for a chance to win!
RH: What typically comes to you first: plot or character? Do your stories begin with a person or a situation?
KB: Typically character comes first in my novels. I begin with a person, rather than a situation. Usually, after I develop the hero and heroine, then I decide what situation to place them in. Their occupation is one of the first things that come to me. Since I write paranormal romance, my hero and heroines’ professions are very important. For example, in Twilight Hunter, the first full length book of my series, the hero Jace McCannon is a werewolf hunter and the heroine, Frankie Amato, is a female packmaster. From there I can build immediate conflict. To me, the characters of a book are more important than plot. That’s not to say that plot isn’t absolutely crucial—because it is—but, for me, I can still enjoy a story even if it has a bad plot, as long as the characters are ones I care about and can identify with. But if I don’t like the characters, a novel won’t be enjoyable for me.
RH: One of the major elements about your writing that leaps out at me is character development. What is your writing process when it comes to character development? How do your characters “speak” to you?
KB: One of the first things I try to think about when I’m creating characters is their manner of speech. I try to fuse my narrative voice with the character’s voice, even though I write in third person—which is called third person limited point-of-view. This isn’t only so I can understand how to write their dialogue, which can be a big tool for characterization, but also because it reveals a lot about their character. An example would be that vampire hunter Damon Brock, leader of the Rochester division of the Execution Underground and hero of Shadow Hunter (which is a prequel to the series featured in the After Dark anthology alongside a novella by Gena Showalter) is a cold and calculated character, at least outwardly. As a result, his sentences are somewhat short and clipped. He’s a man of few words, who likes to get straight to the point. Figuring out the way he spoke helped me learn about who he was as a person. Another example would be Jace McCannon, the hero of the first full length book in the series Twilight Hunter. He swears A LOT and uses a lot of slang. That helped me figure out that Jace, though intelligent, isn’t exactly a “high-class” guy. He’s very blue collar, aggressive, and open with his emotions.
RH: Does dialogue come easy to you, or is it something you have to work at? What are some of your strategies for writing the strongest possible dialogue for your characters?
KB: Dialogue is something easy for me to write. It’s something that has always come naturally to me—the thing I struggle most with is forcing myself to slow down and write description of setting and scenery. A good trick for dialogue: sometimes if I’m not certain about a line of dialogue, I’ll read it out loud to myself. If something doesn’t sound normal out loud or doesn’t flow well, I usually know that it’s not a believable line. Contractions are something to remember when writing dialogue. People don’t often say “will not” unless they’re trying to emphasize that part of a sentence, they’ll say “won’t.” That’s just a random example though. I think it’s really good practice for fiction writers to try writing screenplays or plays. This forces you to pay more attention to your dialogue, so I highly suggest that. Also, the best writers are good listeners. If you listen to someone speak and hear the natural tones of their voice, you just try to mimic that sort of thing when you’re writing from a character’s point of view.
RH: Writing from multiple POVs if often a challenge. What is your process for alternating points of view? Do you write in alternating chapters from the very start, or do you write the story one character at a time?
KB: My process for writing alternating points of view is to alternate as I’m writing. I switch perspective about every 2000 words. I don’t make the 2000 word thing a rule of thumb, but it’s something that sort of comes naturally as I’m writing. I find it easier to write from alternating points of view than from one character’s point of view. I get easily distracted and sometimes bored with just one character lol. In that way, writing multiple perspectives is easier for me because I’m able to switch characters when I start to get bored with one. It keeps things interesting. I also think it’s challenging to write in one character’s point of view for an extended period of time because you have to continue to find fresh and unique things for that narrator to say. I’ve done it in my young adult writing with first person narrative, but I much prefer writing third person alternating.
RH: Having read both your YA and adult work, one of your many things that leaps off the page is your ability to write heart-pounding action scenes. Does this come naturally? What is your philosophy or code for writing a good action scene?
KB: Action scenes are another thing that comes naturally to me. Something I intentionally do while writing action scenes is: I keep my sentences short. The short sentences quicken the pacing which makes the reader flip the pages faster to find out what happens next. I also think an important aspect of writing action scenes is the verbs the author uses. If you don’t use strong verbs, then that action is not going to seem very active. Active voice, strong verbs, and often (but not always) short sentences make for good action scenes.
RH: After reading some of your YA and adult works, I get the idea that you don’t like passive female characters or damsels in distress. Why? Do you feel you have a calling or a responsibility to your own gender to create strong female leads?
KB: I don’t like passive female characters because I’m personally not a passive female, so I don’t identify with heroines who are that way. In my adult writing it’s just a personal preference, but in my YA writing, I feel that I should be giving young girls an example of something to look up to since they do idolize characters in books, TV, and movies so much. I try to write strong female characters in both my adult work and my YA work, though, regardless of ‘obligations,’ simply because that’s the type of book I want to read. But as a feminist, I do think writing strong females is important, especially in romance, so even though I don’t feel obligated to write that way, I choose to write my heroines as strong women. Women need to see that they don’t have to be super submissive and sacrifice themselves in order to get the hero’s attention—not that a man’s attention should be how a woman defines herself by any means! Women can be strong, independent, and still find their knight in shining armor. I think too often society tells women that being a strong female is undesirable and I’m happy to break that stereotype. If there’s one thing I can’t stand in a novel, it’s a whiny or passive heroine.
RH: Your stories are packed full of supernatural creatures: werewolves, hunters, vampires, faeries, skin walkers, etc. When did your obsession with the supernatural first begin? What interests you about paranormal and urban fantasy?
KB: The first series that got me interested in reading was the Harry Potter series, which is fantasy, so my interest in the supernatural and paranormal came around that time. My mother, aunts, and older cousins always read paranormal romance and urban fantasy, so that influenced me growing up because I wanted to be reading what they were reading. So when I was old enough, that’s what I naturally gravitated towards. What interests me about the paranormal is the reflection it has on our current society. For example, in Victorian times vampires represented sexuality, and at times homosexuality, which were both things that society feared. The same thing goes for all supernatural creatures. They’re reflections of our current society. It’s interesting how now we romanticize some of the things we fear. I think that’s one way of confronting our fear. It’s fun to take something that to some people are maybe scared of—like a werewolf or vampire–and confront that fear by making it possibly romantic.
RH: Having been in an MFA program with you, I have had the opportunity to read some of your writing for young adults. Anything in the works for younger audiences right now?
KB: I have a young adult urban fantasy novel about to go out on submission with my agent. Other than that series, I don’t have any current young adult works in progress. But this semester I plan to try writing a picture book under the guidance of my new mentor, Lesléa Newman.
RH: You’re only 22. So far, you have teamed up with a NYT Bestselling author for the release of your novella this month (June 2013). In late August, your debut adult paranormal novel will debut. What’s it like to be so young and accomplished?
KB: Being only 22 and having done so much with my writing career is both an advantage and disadvantage at times. The advantage is that people are really impressed with my accomplishments, I know I have a long career to look forward to, and I also have more energy and enthusiasm for a lot of tasks that I think many older authors don’t appreciate as much. However, before I was published, it was difficult for people to take me seriously since I was so young. I mean, when you’re getting pitched to at a conference by a nineteen year old (which was how old I was when I was trying to find an agent, and I look young for my age even now, so I was REALLY young then), I can see where some might be skeptical about your professionalism and abilities lol. That’s not a problem now that I’ve managed to break through and establish myself, though. Also, a lot of the people working in the industry are at least 15 years or more older than I am, so sometimes generational age gaps are prevalent. This is especially true when talking about social media, which is something my generation is very familiar with. That’s not to say the more seasoned veterans in publishing aren’t aware of the importance of this—they definitely are!—but I understand it in a way they can’t since it’s something I grew up with. To me, it’s second nature.
RH: You’ve told me before that the query process for you was pretty long and daunting. What advice do you have for aspiring authors (like myself) hoping to make it through the slush piles?
KB: My advice to aspiring authors is to not give up and to keep querying despite multiple rejections from agents. Just because you’re receiving rejections that doesn’t mean your work isn’t good. But at the same time, rejection can also mean that your writing is not ready. If you have no formal training, have not attended any conferences to teach yourself about craft, and don’t have a critique partner to tell you when your writing is not up to standard, then assume that you are getting rejected because your writing is not good enough—yet! You can always continue to improve, even once you’re published. If you have training, have gone to conferences, and have honed your craft but are still getting rejections, then assume the problem is that you just haven’t found the right agent yet. Your agent will be your best friend in the industry. It’s kind of like a marriage—you have to find a perfect match in order for it to be truly successful, so you’ll have to deal with duds before you find Mr. or Mrs. Right. Something to always look at in your work, especially when you’re preparing to submit, is voice. Voice is what agents are really looking for, what they can sell to editors, so do your best to bring out your own unique writing voice. Essentially, voice is your style, what makes your writing intrinsically yours. But, most importantly, keep writing and don’t give up. The difference between a published author and an unpublished author is time spent persevering. I firmly believe that if you keep working at it and don’t give up, then it will happen. The only way you will never have a chance of being published is if you don’t try. If you keep trying, the possibility is always there.
Thank you for having me on your website, Rebekah, and also thank you for all the kind things you said about my writing!
Kait Ballenger is a full-time paranormal romance author, wife, bellydancer, graduate student, and soon-to-be-professor. She is the multi-published, award-winning author of the Execution Underground paranormal romance series. With a B.A in English from Stetson University, Kait is currently earning an M.F.A in Writing. Kait believes anything is possible with hard work and dedication. One day, she hopes to be a bestseller and to see her novels on the big screen. Look for the next two books in her page-turning Execution Underground series: Twilight Hunter, book one (August 2013) and Immortal Hunter, book two (January 2014). For more information, please visit www.kaitballenger.com or follow her on Twitter @kait_ballenger.
For a chance to win a free signed copy of After Dark, click the following link and enter! (U.S. entrants only, please)
Where to find Kait online:
on Amazon: www.amazon.com
After Dark on Barnes & Noble: www.barnesandnoble.com