Friday, April 24, 2009

[Interview] Dora McAlpin

Award-winning author, Dora McAlpin has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She writes under a number of different names which include D. L. McAlpin, Ivey Banks, and Z. D. Zeeks.

Her first novel, Out of the Dark won first place in the 2006 TheNextBigWriter Novel Contest, and, in 2008 another novel of hers, The Keeper of the Sparrows was a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.

In this interview, Dora McAlpin talks about her writing.

When did you start writing?

I was five the first time the writing frenzy took me. Not having pen and paper handy, I wrote my story in crayon on the wall of my bedroom. I was eight when I wrote my first manuscript. It was supposed to be a short story for a school project. Once I started writing it, I couldn't stop. I called it "Rascal, the Little Red Devil of Cherry Lane."

How did you decide you wanted to get published?

I can't remember ever wanting to be anything but a writer. I have notebooks full of stories, poems, songs, essays, and half-crafted novels from my growing-up years. Most of them, no one else has ever seen. I wrote them for me. The concept of 'being published' was never as important as the writing process itself. I've said often that I'd write cereal boxes for a living if that was the only kind of writing job available. Fortunately, it hasn't come to that.

I went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and majored in journalism. I did some newspaper and magazine work and then found my professional calling as an analyst for the Department of Defense. I've got an exciting and satisfying career there.

I've continued writing fiction in my free time. Through my writing, I explore various psychological, philosophical and societal themes -- as well as purging a few personal demons along the way. It's driven by elements of my psyche that aren't necessarily consistent with my family or world personas or even my own concept of self. When I write, I do it solely for me. Kind of like a person's diary, I guess. Early on, I shared bits and pieces with my sister, Karen, and a couple of my trusted friends, but limited it to the less controversial of the works. I largely built my body of work as a secret collection. Always, my plan was to burn it all before I died or my kids shipped me off to a nursing home and found it.

In my thirties, I had to face the very real possibilitity that, given the volume of my work and the nature in which it's spread throughout my real-life and virtual homes, I might not have sufficient lead time to destroy it all. Not having it in me to destroy it then, I came to the bitter conclusion that I needed to confess so people who loved me wouldn't discover these secrets after I was gone, when it was too late for them to ask questions. At least this way, I could put the stuff in context. Still, it took a long time for me to actually get up the nerve to do it.

I started with Barry, who at that time was my boyfriend. I thought I could live with things if he hated it. After all, boyfriends aren't usually permanent, anyway. Worst-case scenario, we'd break up. He read Promises To Keep -- and loved it. He wanted me to expand the story to tell a little more about David's background. I didn't want to do that because it was already a pretty lengthy manuscript.

I wrote another manuscript detailing David's childhood ... then another ... then another. Two years and six books later, David had a fully documented childhood. And I had a husband. One of the foundations of our marriage was that he accepted me for who I am. He's never resented the hours I spend banging away at the keyboard.

The other person I shared the manuscripts with was Karen. A tell-it-like-it-is kind of person, she'd let me know if it was time to light the bonfire. She loved my stories. She read one and then another and another.

I was working my way up to my mother. I was sure she'd be mortified.

My phone rang.

"I read your book," my mother said.

My world tilted. Obviously, she'd gotten hold of one of the ones I gave Karen. I held the phone in a death grip, waiting for what might come. "Wh-wh-which one?"

"There's more than one?"

"Uh-huh." There were about fifteen by then.

"Promises To Keep," she answered. "You need to get this published. But first, there's some wording you need to fix on page 68. And I found a missing 'e' on page 109."

After some more editing and style suggestions, she asked me to send her another one. I took a deep breath and sent her Out of the Dark. And she didn't hate it!

I had a Sally Field moment. "You like me! You really like me!"

Based on this positive feedback, I slowly expanded my circle of readers. Since many of them said they thought I should try to get published, I decided I needed to find out how to go about that.

I knew the first step was to make my work as polished as it could be. I was a nonfiction writer by training and profession and a fiction writer only by instinct, so I needed to learn some of the rules for fiction. In addition to reading several books and conducting massive online reading, I joined a writers' critique group at TheNextBigWriter. I've learned a great deal there. As a bonus, I've made some wonderful online friends. I won the site's novel contest in 2006. That significantly bolstered my faith in myself as an author with the potential to be published.

I've made a few submissions. The rejections have been encouraging. Some of the editors have taken the time to provide suggestions for improvement. Thanks to them and others who care enough to help, my work keeps getting better.

While seeking publication for some of my manuscripts, I believe the right approach for a few may be to publish them myself. Though they're stories I believe need to be told, they're not the types that would attract readers in sufficient numbers to be appealing to publishers. I don't have any problem with that. Publishing is a business. The companies need to make a profit or they die and so it's understandable they need to focus their resources on the manuscripts they deem most likely to boost the bottom line.

Fortunately, my livelihood doesn't depend on finding huge markets for my work. For many of my stories, all I really want is to share them and hope a few readers passionately love them.

This also means I have a large collection of supplemental material. If one of my novels is published and a reader doesn't want the story to end, he or she will be able to visit me online to read more about the characters and their stories -- something I always want to do when I finish reading a book I really love.

Right now, I'm in the process of analyzing and sorting my works, deciding which might be suitable for submission and which I should publish independently. By the end of the year, I hope to have submission packages put together.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

Intense.

Who is your target audience?

My manuscripts' potential audiences run across the demographics. Some will appeal largely to women while others are likely to attract male readers as well. I've written one young adult novel and am working on another. I don't really want to settle on a particular genre because I want to maintain the freedom to write whatever is most compelling to me at any given time.

At the same time, I don't want to disappoint readers who liked one of my stories and, based on that faith, decide to try another. I've organized the work into several series and collections, which should help. To further make the distinction for readers, I'm exploring the use of pseudonyms. Right now, I've got stories or excerpts on the web under my full name as well as D. L. McAlpin, Ivey Banks, and Z. D. Zeeks. I'm considering a couple others.

I'm not trying to fool anyone. I associate each name with the mood or mindset I was in when I wrote the stories. So the books with the same author name are all within the same genre and should appeal to the same readers.

Who influenced you most?

Karen. She's very creative in her own right. I can call her any time of day or night and she'll talk about my stories with me. When I'm at a crossroads and don't know which direction a story should take, I throw ideas her way. When I'm depressed because I've just had to kill off a character I really liked, I call her. So she's great for holding my hand through the writing itself. Then, when the manuscript's done, she switches the kid gloves to boxing ones and really lets me have it.

I wish every struggling writer could have a sister like Karen.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My writing always is a psychological and emotional journey. Every major life event is transformed in some way and written into the stories. I don't necessarily do it consciously. As often as not, it's only when the writing's done that I realize how much of me is really in there.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

As a personal writer, my biggest concern is that I've got way more stories in my head than I'll ever have time to set down in writing. Only one life, and so many words to write.

As a writer who shares my work, my biggest concern is that I'll gain a reader's faith only to lose it. I know it's unavoidable. Sharing more stories with more people exponentially increases the chances that I'll disappoint someone the way a few of my favorite authors have disappointed me.

I can't really fix either of those things, the time or the disappointment factor, and so I just do the best I can ... and hope for the best.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The only real challenge I face is in trying to keep the writing in perspective within my life.

Along with other obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I have hypergraphia, which is an overwhelming need to write or produce documentation. That obsession serves me well in both my established career as a nonfiction writer and editor and in my evolving career as a fiction writer. If I don't exercise control, though, it seriously gets in the way of my interpersonal relationships.

The most important thing in my life is my family. I want to make sure I give my children all the time and attention they need. We only have our children in our homes for a brief few years. There's so much I want to share with my children. And so I establish rules for myself about the writing so it doesn't get in the way of raising my children.

Do you write everyday?

I write something every day, but sometimes it may only be a few words scribbled onto a napkin. I really don't have rituals or set schedules. I write in the same way that many people watch TV, go online to chat, or go out dancing. It's my way of unwinding and amusing myself.

Basically, a time arrives in my daily life when nothing else requires doing, and I run for the computer. I type frantically until something makes me stop. Usually, that something is the word 'Moooooooooommmmm!'

How many books have you written so far?

Here's a list of the titles. None of them have been 'officially published', though excerpts from several are available on the web.

THE ARMAGEDDON LOST SERIES
Out of the Dark
Into the Light
Into the Daybreak
Through the Dawn
At High Noon
Beneath the Clouds
Within the Mist
Beyond the Fog
Beneath the Blue
Within Sacred Light

THE BROKEN SPARROWS SERIES
The Keeper of the Sparrows
The Fallen
The Eagle

THE PROMISES SERIES
Promises Foreshadowed
Promises To Make
Promises Pretended
Promises Reclaimed
Promises To Keep
Promises Foretold
Promises Avowed
Promised Embedded
Promises Invoked
Promises Exacted
Promises Retrieved
Promises Foresaken
Promises Unbound
Promises Fulfilled
Promises Divined (in progress)

THE ETERNALS SERIES
Tales of the Gods
Tales of the Spirits
Tales of the Spirit Walkers (in progress)

THE PUBLIC DEFENDER SERIES
The Doppelganger Scenario
Lost and Found
A Simple Matter (in progress)

ROGUE WORKS
Strangers With Candy
Laughing Out Loud
A Turn of the Page
Angels Fear (needs final edit)
Only Time Will Tell
Time and Again
The Best of Me
A Secret Worth Telling (in progress)
Holding On (in progress)
Show Me the Way (in progress)
Shades of Gray (in progress)
The Collector (in progress)
With Every Beat of My Heart (in progress)

SCREENPLAYS
Double Take
Desperate Arms

What is your latest book about?

My latest book is Promises Divined. I'm posting it in installments on a blog. I started on the first of September and expect to finish by the end of October.

Basically, I've written this story as an introduction to The Promises Series. Of all my works, that series is the biggest and most complex. Though I experimented with various ways to begin it, I finally decided the best place to start this particular story was in the middle, at the confluence of The Promises Series and The Eternals Series. This story introduces many of the main characters and serves as a bridge between the ancient times detailed in the early books and the 19th century, which is the focus of the later books.

Promises Divined tells the story of the eternal soul Adanata. He is the Keeper of the Spirit Walkers, a line of Cherokee men with supernatural powers dating back more than 5,000 years. The Spirit Walkers have a single mission -- to journey to The Cavern of the Spirits and unlock The Spirit of Knowledge from the prison to which she's been confined since the time of The Great Flood. More than a thousand men have died in the quest.

As the 19th century begins, the Spirit Walkers face new challenges as encroachment by whites increasingly threatens their people and their homeland. Adanata recognizes an even bigger threat hurtling toward Earth from a place beyond the stars. Only The Spirit of Knowledge can save the planet -- and time is running out.

Adanata has little faith in David McAllister of Early Sun Village, the current Spirit Walker and the most frustrating human to ever draw breath. But there is no time to make another. David must succeed or Earth will perish.

That's the basic gist of Promises Divined. By reading it first, someone could jump back to one of the stories that details how all this came to be or progress forward to see how David does. Because of its function as a bridge, it's a rather complicated story; I try to tell it in a way that will help the reader make sense of all the other books.

I know I'm taking a risk by putting it online because some traditional publishers might choose not to publish the series because of that history. At the same time, though, I really wanted to get feedback from readers in order to know what does and doesn't work about this manuscript. My hope is that the improved quality I can achieve from that feedback will result in a manuscript that's worthy of formal publication.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

I think the hardest part of my writing is knowing when to stop. I struggle with that every day of my life.

I think a manuscript is almost right. I go in to make a few minor adjustments and, the next thing I know, the story has carried me off on a whole new tangent. This can be really frustrating when the story's part of a series; effects of those new events being written now have to be worked into the other stories in order to maintain consistency.

That has been my single greatest barrier to publication. It's difficult to polish a manuscript for submission when it keeps wanting to change itself.

I'm becoming a little better at setting hard end points for myself now in terms of deadlines. And I don't let myself go into my finished works very often because I know I'll only end up in the taffy pull again. I lock them down, create covers for them (all amateurish; I am not a graphic artist), and call them done.

What did you enjoy most?

Promises Divined is the first book I've written in The Promises Series in several years. So for me, writing this one was like going back and visiting old friends.

I love all my manuscripts, but Promises To Keep was the first I ever completed, so that story and its series will always be special to me. I loved being in that world again.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

This is the only book that I've actually written with a set purpose. I don't deal with outlines or anything like that for my fiction. For most of my work, I just write what feels right and then go back later to fix it up.

Promises Divined has a specific function -- to serve as the start point for a reader of The Promises Series. For that reason, I've had to maintain a little more control over the story evolution than I normally would. Otherwise, I could well finish it without accomplishing what I set out to do.

In what way is it similar?

This story shares characters and events with other books from The Promises Series.

On a broader scale, I would say that all my books are similar in that they are character-driven plots in which the 'why' and the 'how' are as important as the 'who, what, where, when' stuff.

What will your next book be about?

Oh, gosh, that's hard ... I have to finish all the ones I've already started.

I think my next one will be one of the Public Defender stories. I'll spend some time on that contemporary stuff and then move back into the fantasy realm to finish editing Angels Fear. It's about a fallen angel, now a demon, and his struggles to get back into God's good graces.

Then again, a whole new story could call me. If it does, I'll go where it leads.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I think the most significant achievement was making the decision to share my stories with other people. From that, I've gotten rewards I never would have imagined.

Among my greatest moments are the ones in which a reader says, "You inspired me to ..." I can't imagine any greater gift a writer could receive.

Related books:

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Related article:

[Interview] L. Lee Lowe, author of 'Mortal Ghost', Conversations with Writers, November 3, 2008

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