Q&A With Author J. R. McLeay
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How do you plan your stories? Do you use story boards?
I outline my stories carefully before I begin writing. I start with a basic idea or theme, then try to structure the plot into three acts: The Setup (Act 1), The Complications/Conflict (Act 2), and The Resolution (Act 3). I insert major turning points at the ends of Act 1 and 2, and try to add additional dramatic conflicts interspersed throughout Act 2 to carry the story forward.
Every chapter in my novel The Cicada Prophecy has a specific subject, opening, closing, and character point of view, which I try to alternate from chapter to chapter to keep multiple story and character threads in the background to keep the reader engaged and guessing where the story is going next. I try to place a “hook” at the end of every chapter with a dramatic device or question to pull the reader into the next chapter so he/she is always thinking: “That’s unexpected—I’ve got to see how this plays out.”
I try to pace the dramatic tension carefully from chapter to chapter, with periodic peaks and valleys, always slowly building to an intense crescendo by the end of Act 2, which is resolved by the primary dramatic scene in Act 3.
Do you enjoy the editing process?
Not really—the fun for me is in the crafting of the story and challenging myself to make it engaging and literary in terms of the diction and character development. But, like many other writers, upon completion of the first draft of manuscript, I’m obsessed with locating and removing any writing errors that crept into my script. It’s not always easy to find them when you’re so heavily invested in the story and the words you’ve already committed.
This is why independent editors can be so helpful. I engage a minimum of four to five outside reviewers whose editing skills I respect to provide detailed copy editing and feedback on the various elements of the manuscript. I also use a feedback outline that I ask my reviewers to use to ensure I received pointed feedback on each element of the script, asking these questions:
a. How interesting in general did you find the book’s primary subject or premise?
b. How compelling was the embedded conflict in pulling you forward?
c. How satisfying was the book’s ending in resolving the built-up tension and answering your key questions?
d. How did you find the book’s length? Too long? Too short? Why?
e. How did you find the book’s pacing? Too slow? Too fast? Which elements or scenes need revision, deletion, or alternate placement?
f. How did you like the manner in which the scene was set for each chapter? Too much development? Too little?
g. How did you like the book’s characters? How appropriately and compellingly were they developed? Too much? Too little? Too shallow? Too complex? What changes do you recommend to their development?
h. How did you like the character names? Are there ones that you think should be changed? Which ones and why?
i. Were there any parts of the story that didn’t make sense (i.e. in connection with prior scenes or segments)? Which ones?
j. Which words stuck out as awkward or inappropriate or lame or not powerful enough?
k. How did you like the dialogue exchanges? How snappy and interesting did you find them? Which parts didn’t work?
l. What other changes would you recommend in general, and specifically (including punctuation, diction, use of active vs. passive voice, show vs. tell, etc.)
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
I generally did quite well in college in terms of marks for essays handed in for various subjects, and one professor even commented that my paper was “publishable.” I also had a strong affinity and interest in copywriting and designing marketing content for various business ventures I pursued after college.
But the main inspiration for writing a full-length novel came from my rapidly evolving interest in solving medical problems, which was an outgrowth of my root cause analysis experience as a consultant in industry. I became increasingly interested, obsessed really, with using my process to understand the mechanism behind aging in organisms, and this began to uncover some really interesting new research in this area where I found I could bring a new perspective. But instead of writing a non-fiction book on my findings and my analysis, I thought it would be more interesting to capture and communicate my research in the form of a fiction novel where I could create the world I foresaw in my imagination.
I plan to use this literary forum and format to explore many more dramatic ideas and possibilities in the areas of biogerontology (the study of aging at the cellular level) and genetic engineering with my future books.
How do you select the title for your books? Does it come to you right away or is it the last thing you think of?
The book’s title is hugely important in terms of attracting readers and purchasers. It is inevitably one of the first things I think about as soon as I conceive of the general story idea. It is one of the ways for me to distill the essence, or hook, of the story and also think about ways to generate interest from outside parties to my story.
I generally agonize over multiple titles and often change them over the life cycle of my story development. Usually my best ideas are already taken and have been used by other published authors, and although these are not copyrightable I still insist on having a unique title for all of my books. The last step before publishing is testing multiple title ideas with friends and over social media and with dedicated online test sources (i.e. pickfu.com).
Can you identify a time when you experienced a serious bout of writer’s block? What did you do to overcome it?
I suspect every writer experiences writer’s block at one or more times during the crafting of his/her story. My approach for minimizing this is to first storyboard the book in the detailed manner discussed above to give me structure and guidance on where I’m going and how to begin and end every chapter. It’s usually pretty easy for me after that, but if I ever get stuck I ask my wife and friends/family for ideas on where they think I should go or handle the sticking point. Sometimes you just need to step away from your story for a couple of days to free your mind and use the outside world for inspiration!
J. R. McLeay is a graduate of the University of Toronto. He is an avid biogerontology researcher, with specific focus on the cause of aging at the cellular level. Based on exciting recent breakthroughs in the field of molecular biology, J. R.’s debut novel The Cicada Prophecy paints a picture of how the world might look if everybody lived forever while eternally young. A bold and provocative premise predicated on emerging science, his vision of the future is sure to stoke wonder and alarm at the prospect of children taking over the planet.
How do you select the titles for your books?