Member Spotlight: Renee Carter Hall

1. Tell us about your most recent project (written or published). What inspired it?

Huntress smallMy most recent published work is Huntress, the story of a young anthro lioness’ journey to become one of her people’s elite female hunters. Some of the character names and deities were taken from an old notion I’d had many years before to write a Watership Down-style novel about regular lions, but the story of Huntress was inspired by an episode of the National Geographic Channel’s show Taboo. It focused on the practice of “breast ironing,” where young women have to either painfully flatten their breasts so they can stay “girls” and keep going to school, or let their bodies develop, officially becoming women, and then be forced into marriage. The conflict of that choice stayed with me, and a more extreme version of it became part of the book.

2. What’s your writing process like? Are you a “pantser,” an outliner, or something in between?

The process can vary from project to project, but for longer works I usually make a few pages of notes brainstorming possible scenes, characters, elements, and so forth, which then turns into a list of key scenes. It’s a pretty flexible, organic type of outline, though, and things often get added, changed, or moved as I get into the writing. The other part of my process is that I try to work longhand for first drafts whenever I can, especially for short pieces; for a lot of different reasons, it feels better to me than composing with a keyboard.

3. What’s your favorite kind of story to write?

I’ve always felt most at home in fantasy, whereas science fiction is more a place I visit the suburbs of but don’t feel comfortable venturing into the heart of the city. I like adding a touch of humor where I can. And of course, I like writing anything with an animal or animal-like character involved, or I wouldn’t be here!

4. Which character from your work do you most identify with, and why?realdragonscover

There’s a lot of me in Leya from Huntress — her longing, her drive, her perfectionism, and her questioning. I admit, though, sometimes I do feel like Dinkums from Real Dragons Don’t Wear Sweaters, wanting to be taken seriously as a fearsome creature of legend despite being pink, fuzzy, and cute. Whenever I feel like I should be writing some kind of gritty, edgy, epic trilogy that will win prestigious awards; whenever I feel like I’m just writing these silly, shallow little stories that will never really matter — yeah, that’s Dinkums.

5. Which authors or books have most influenced your work?

A lot of my influences aren’t technically (or primarily) authors, but when it comes to my furry fiction, it’s pretty easy to pick out the notable turning points on the timeline. I read Bambi around age 10 because I was curious how it compared to the movie — and found that in many ways I liked the book better. As I’ve read it again and again over the years, I’ve come to appreciate its reverence for the natural world and its adult sensibility that doesn’t resort to easy, sentimental answers. Later, books like Ratha’s Creature and Watership Down opened up the possibility of writing animal fantasy in a way that included culture and change (with or without humans being part of the mix). In late high school, I fell hard for the Redwall books, and though the formula eventually wore thin, that initial enchantment became a big influence on my first published novel, By Sword and Star (I wrote a whole blog post about that here).

Later on, around the time that I was getting into the furry fandom, I read S. Andrew Swann’s Forests of the Night and started to see possible ways to write the bipedal type of “furry” fiction, in addition to the more feral style of animal fantasy that I was already familiar with. Without question, my biggest influence among fandom works was a short story I discovered online, “Wings” by Todd G. Sutherland. That inspired my own story “Dog Days,” which then became my first story published within the fandom.

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Guest post: “Setting Effective Writing Goals” by Renee Carter Hall

Setting Effective Writing Goals

by Renee Carter Hall

 

For many of us, a new year brings a feeling of a fresh start — a blank slate ready for new habits, new goals, and new accomplishments to celebrate. But after the novelty wears off and all the responsibilities, obligations, and distractions of day-to-day life rush back in, it’s easy for writing to get pushed back to the bottom of the to-do list. Here are a few tips to help you set goals that won’t set you up for disappointment.

1. Consider what you really want. That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to accept other people’s ideas of goals instead of your own. Do you want to write the first draft of a novel to challenge yourself, or because everyone else in your writing group is working on a novel instead of short stories? Consider, also, whether you want to set goals that deal with process (“write 3000 words a week,” “write for 1 hour every weekday”), goals that deal with projects (“finish 2 short stories a month,” “finish the first draft of my novel”), or a mixture of both.

2. Choose goals that are under your control. You might want the end result to be “find an agent” or “get a short story accepted to Magazine X,” but you can’t control whether agents or editors accept or reject your work. Instead, consider goals that are based on your own actions, like “query 10 agents” or “send at least 1 submission to Magazine X.”

3. Find the balance between challenge and realism. Some writers like the challenge of setting big goals and pushing themselves to achieve them; others would rather set the bar lower, get the confidence boost from achieving a smaller goal, and build from there. Consider your personality, your experience level, and your situation, and decide what’s right for you.

4. Write it down. Whether it’s in a private journal or posted online, a written list gives you a visual reminder to focus on — plus the fun of checking off your accomplishments. If it motivates you to share your goals with others, feel free; if not, keep it private.

5. Check in. Once a week, once a month — on whatever schedule works for you, glance over your goals and re-evaluate them. What steps you can take now to work toward each goal? Which ones have been accomplished? You may find that some goals are no longer relevant to you or may need to be reworked, and you might find others to add.

6. Celebrate accomplishments large and small. It’s easy to get disappointed by the goals that don’t get checked off, but try to keep the focus on what you do achieve. Celebrate your progress along the way, no matter how small that progress may seem, and reward yourself with something you love — an hour with the newest video game, the latest book from your favorite author, or a decadent dessert. (Just don’t derail any goals you might have for your health!)

I hope these tips help you make 2016 your most successful writing year yet. What are your goals — writing or otherwise — for 2016? Feel free to share them in the comments!

 

Guest post: “The Writer’s Notebook” by Renee Carter Hall

The Writer’s Notebook

by Renee Carter Hall

Writers today have more tools than ever to choose from. We can tap out notes on a phone or type our stories on a laptop or tablet. With all the spellchecking, grammar checking, sync, and instant backups at our fingertips, why would anyone still bother to write by hand? What can a pen and notebook give us that a word processor can’t?

  • A slower process. In today’s on-demand culture, that might not sound like a benefit. But when it comes to writing, faster isn’t always better, and writing by hand can force you to slow down and weigh your thoughts as you put them on paper.
  • Fewer distractions. When you write by hand, there are no emails, games, or social media to demand your attention. You can also write in a coffee shop without scoping out the available power outlets — and while I’ve learned the hard way that waterproof ink is sometimes a good idea, I’ve still never gotten an error message from a notebook.
  • A different mindset.  For me, there’s something very direct and true about writing first drafts by hand. Typed writing can feel “finished” before its time, and while I’d never trade a computer for editing, the drafting process feels more intimate in my own handwriting than a font. I’m sure some of this is generational, but to me, writing done by hand is writing for the self, while typing on a keyboard puts me in a “public writing” mindset — blog posts, emails, functional writing instead of creative — where writing by hand reminds me of childhood days spent scribbling stories in wide-ruled notebooks, and reminds me that writing is supposed to be fun. A journal feels like a safe, private, patient space to experiment, in a way a blinking cursor can’t duplicate.

I’ve kept some form of writer’s notebook (or journal, whatever term appeals to you) for over twenty years, and I can’t imagine giving it up. My journals have been to me what a sketchbook is to an artist: a gym for exercise, a laboratory for experimentation, a butterfly net for rounding up stray thoughts. Unless I’m on a tight deadline where I have to get from first draft to submitted work in a hurry, my preference is to write the first draft by hand. (This also has the fringe benefit of easing me into the editing process, since I always start making changes to the text as I’m typing up the draft.)

My notebooks also place my writing within the larger scope of my life. Interspersed among story drafts and notes are quirky lists of favorite commercials, possible character names, passages I’ve loved from books and poems, and the odd to-do list. To me there’s something delightfully grounding in that. There’s also a physical pleasure in writing with a good pen on quality paper, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with filling pages in a journal that isn’t quite matched by keeping track of word counts in a spreadsheet.

Keeping a notebook isn’t for everyone, of course. Some have physical restrictions that make writing by hand impractical, and if you’re prone to losing things, you’re probably better off with tools that allow for backups. Writers who keep notebooks have to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and inefficiency, but out of that chaos can come a playful serendipity that brings renewed focus, deeper contemplation, and revitalized creativity — all from putting pen to paper.

My current journal, open to the notes and brainstorming for this blog post.

My current journal, open to the notes and brainstorming for this blog post.

Tips

  • Choose materials you’re comfortable with. That might be a handmade leather journal or a black-and-white composition book, a pencil or a fountain pen. Different moods and projects can also call for different tools.
  • Take it along. Try to choose a journal you can easily carry with you, or keep one at home and a smaller one in your bag.
  • Play! Experiment with tools — write in pencil, marker, crayon. Try out prompts. Paste in pictures from magazines, cancelled stamps, ticket stubs. Make it part of your life, not just your writing life.

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Guest post: “Behind Red Stone Walls” by Renee Carter Hall

Behind Red Stone Walls

by Renee Carter Hall

 

Many readers’ experiences with Brian Jacques’ Redwall books began in childhood. I was in my senior year of high school when I first discovered the books, but as with all of my reading, age never mattered, whether it was my age or the intended audience of the books.

martin coverAt that time, since I didn’t have a good bookstore close to home, I picked up a lot of my casual reading from the book and magazine sections of local grocery stores. One day I found Martin the Warrior on those racks alongside thrillers and romances, and from the first glance at the cover, I was hooked.

It was a while before I realized the book was technically children’s fiction. This paperback edition was mass-market size, not the larger format I was used to for middle-grade fiction, and the bookstore where I bought the later works shelved all of them in the science fiction and fantasy section. To me it just felt like fantasy, with a childlike sense of wonder and its cast of animal characters — some friendly, some fierce — that appealed to me instantly. I’d never read anything quite like it, and as soon as I could, I started tracking down the other books.

Throughout my life, there have been various authors — only one or two at a time — from whom I’m willing to purchase hardcovers without having read the book first. Brian Jacques occupied that honored position for several years. While I quickly caught on to the formula of his plots, I loved inhabiting the world of fairy-tale valor he’d created.

By the time Marlfox was published in 1998, I had recently married and was living in San Diego. While there, I’d had the opportunity to meet more than one of my favorite authors, and I kept hoping for Jacques to visit. I finally got my chance when he came to a children’s bookstore in Riverside, California, in February 1999, while on tour for Marlfox. Because he’d injured his hand at a previous stop, he wasn’t able to personalize books, just sign them, but it was still a chance to say hello — though I think I was the oldest fan there, unless you count the bookstore’s staff.

I’d only ever owned a paperback copy of Redwall, so I bought the hardcover anniversary edition for him to sign. At some point when he was signing the book, either I or my husband mentioned that I’d written a children’s book as well (a middle-grade portal fantasy that remains unpublished and probably always will). He said well, someday he would have to come stand in line for my book. I babbled something inane along the lines of how he wouldn’t read it, though, because I’d heard that he never read other children’s authors. I admit I don’t remember most of the talk he gave that day, but I do remember how much I loved hearing him, how wonderful he was with the children who sat at his feet, and (as I noted in my journal afterward) that “he reminded me of the kind of uncle that all the children look forward to seeing, with stories to tell them and treats hidden in pockets.”

My husband and I left San Diego not long after that, moving back to my home state of Virginia, to an apartment near Dulles Airport. There were planes flying over almost constantly, their contrails marking the daytime skies. And then came a September morning in 2001 when there were suddenly no planes in the sky at all.

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