22nd September 2018
Interview with J.I. O'Neal
Good morning - thanks for your time! Can you describe your novel ‘The Crew of Cartage 15’?
The Crew of Cartage 15 is the first half of a sci-fi duology about a young woman named Meris Brand who witnesses the death of her fiance, Ellias Gammett, and his entire Bolidium (an ore found on certain planets in the NewVerse used to create numerous other products) mining crew at the hands of the Stell-Ore mining company’s security force. (Whew! Sorry for the big mouthful!)
Meris then disguises herself and infiltrates Stell-Ore’s headquarters intent on confronting Darius Alazar, Stell-Ore’s owner/head of operations, because she thinks he’s the one who gave the order to kill the crew. But she soon finds out that not everything or everyone is what it seems and has to form alliances with people she never thought she would in order to reveal and, hopefully, take down the one really responsible.
I hope that gives a decent snapshot of the book without giving too much away :)
That sounds really exciting. When are you hoping to publish part two?
Thanks, I am excited about this story! I’m having a bit of trouble with part of the plot at the moment, so I’m probably still a couple months away from the end of the first draft. Then comes edits and all that good stuff, so maybe...middle of next year?
As I read The Crew of Cartage 15, I thought that it had a real energy that gave the story momentum. I found that very refreshing as the classic sci-fi I usually read builds very gradually. Do you think that pace is important in stories?
Thank you! Yes, I find pacing crucial to determining whether or not I keep interested in reading a novel, so want to try to keep that in mind when writing one. That’s not to say that a slow build can’t pay off as well, I’ve read and loved many books written this way, but if the story can be told faster without sacrificing clarity, I tend to try for that. I tend to see the story in my mind as a film and want to capture that immediacy on the page.
Of course, you should see the first drafts of any of my books - I ALWAYS have to pare down rather than add in. Actually, maybe it’s best if no one sees the first drafts. Ever.
I think everyone feels that way about their first drafts. It’s like those unflattering pictures of you when you’re a kid that’d you’d rather die than show! I’m thankful that there’s only ever one first draft of something: it always gets better from there. How would you describe your writing process?
Ha ha! Yes, that’s a very accurate comparison :)
My current writing process (now that I have both a Kindle and a laptop - yay!) is to write the first draft of each chapter on Wattpad - which, for those not familiar, is this amazing site where you can “publish” your stories for free and get readers and feedback and is such a great, supportive community - and then I transfer all the chapters over into a Word document, which I then print out and edit (with my handy red pen!). Once I have noted all the typos and things to change, etc., I then retype the entire book into a brand new document. It’s totally tedious, but I’ve found it is the absolute best way to incorporate all the changes. It’s easier to edit mid-flow instead of finding the part that needs work and making changes to it in the original finished document.
I don’t have a hard and fast routine, but I generally work on the current WIP (at whatever stage I’m in) on my lunch breaks at my day job and some in the evenings or on the weekend, whenever I can squeeze some writing time in. I like having a Kindle because I have the Wattpad app on it and can write while I’m in the bathtub, which is usually where I get all my best ideas anyway! (Sorry, maybe that’s too much information!)
I’m not a plotter, generally speaking, so I just kinda write my first draft as I go. The next book in my crime fiction series is the only one I ever had to use an outline for - and I totally needed it! It was the most complicated plot I’ve ever attempted. Usually, I just start typing and see what happens!
You’ve described The Crew of Cartage 15 as having Christian themes. What do you feel they bring to your story?
I’m glad you asked this, because it made me have to take a step back and analyze the story a bit. I am a Christian and try to imbue at least some of my characters with a moral compass that aligns with my own faith, but try to do so without coming across as preachy. And not every character shares my worldview because that is just not realistic. In this book, I wanted to feature a character with a strong moral compass/Christian worldview thrust into a situation where she feels like she must seek justice on her own, but then gets her understanding of the situation completely upended. She has to trust people she thought of as the enemy and distrust some she thought of as allies.
I didn’t intend it in any political or social commentary sort of way, but I like when someone’s perception of people gets radically changed when they see past their own prejudices. In this book, it’s not racial, class or any other type of prejudice that has Meris blinded, it’s simply a case of “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys.” When she finds out that isn’t the case, she has to deal very quickly with this change and turns to her faith in God to help her place her faith and trust in these new allies.
She also grapples with the various definitions of justice she and her allies have. She’s a civilian and some of her allies are soldiers, with a very different understanding of how the world works. She’s a bit naive in some respects and gets her eyes opened quite a bit in this story.
I think it brings a realism to Meris. She’s not perfect, and she doesn’t think she’s any better than anyone because of her faith, it just gives her something to hold onto in the midst of a chaotic and uncontrollable situation.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it now… :)
Not at all. That sounds like an excellent way to bring a character to life and give them real depth. What other techniques do you use to create realistic characters?
I like to just “sit down” with my characters and get a general feel for their personality, then I comb through the Myers-Briggs personality types and Enneagram types to see what fits the most closely to the character’s personality, then use the information there as a sort of guideline for how they would react and behave.
I don’t adhere to the “rules” of the personality types too strictly, though, because I know individual people aren’t cookie cutter clones just because they share the same personality type. But they are good guidelines and give a little more authenticity to the characters.
I also, like most authors, probably, borrow traits and quirks, etc., from people I know in real life. A few of my own traits and quirks slip in every now and then, too. I think a lot of authors do that, as well. I have never made a character that is 100% me, though, because that would just be...weird.
I think you’re the first person I’ve ever interviewed to use Myers-Briggs as a strand to develop character personalities! Clearly, an awful lot of thought goes into your stories.
That’s very kind of you to say, thank you! I hope the readers will appreciate that. I always enjoy reading books that I can tell the writer has put in the extra work to make sure their characters and plots are well thought out, and hope to give my readers the same experience. One of my favorite quotes is by Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
My personal paraphrase of this is, “If you don’t feel it writing it, they won’t feel it reading it.” And I try to keep this in mind when creating characters and their stories.
How did you feel about The Crew of Cartage 15 being given an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Awards in 2015?
I’ve participated in other writing contests before without a lot of success, though I did learn more about how to improve my writing from these experiences, so it was nice to have a more positive outcome this time. Though this book did not place, it was gratifying that it received honorable mention from people who really know and love sci-fi. It was sort of a coming of age kind of moment for me, I guess you could say.
That being said, it also hasn’t had a huge impact on me or my writing in general. It was a nice pat on the back and I completely appreciated it, but I knew I still had to put my nose back to that grindstone and keep working to improve my craft. It’s a never-ending evolution. But I do look at it as an achievement and am happy that others liked this story.
That’s an impressive attitude! How do you know when a story is done, when it’s been ‘held to the grindstone’ for long enough?
I wish I knew! Honestly, I could tweak a story forever and ever, but I usually give myself a self-imposed deadline for when the book absolutely has to be done and uploaded to the publisher’s site (I use Draft2Digital for my eBooks and Createspace for my print books at the moment). But it’s usually right at the last possible moment that I hit the final submit button.
I send the book through a text to speech reader to listen for any typos or any sentences or scenes that don’t sound right and make changes. I also have beta readers in my writers group, whose feedback is super valuable since they haven’t lived day in and day out with the story like I have and can give me a more objective assessment. If they feel the book isn’t ready, I keep at it until they do.
At some point, I just have to walk away and pray for the best. I don’t remember who this quote is attributed to, but I like it for this: Perfection isn’t achieved when you can no longer add anything, it’s when you can no longer take anything away (my paraphrase). If I can’t pare it down any further, I take it as a sign that I’m close to it being in its final form. That’s when I walk away and hit submit.
You’ve also written crime novels. What attracts you to sci-fi and crime as genres?
Oh, boy - this question is a lot tougher than it seems on the surface. I read so many different genres and I think that plays into what I feel led to write, as well. I’ve written crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, contemporary adventure (think Indiana Jones or the Uncharted video games series type storylines) and historical fiction, and they all appeal to me as both a reader and a writer.
But I am drawn mostly to crime fiction when writing. Writing sci-fi was a new adventure for me, a new challenge. I’m not as well-versed in reading sci-fi as I am crime fiction or fantasy, so it was a surprise to me that Meris’ story came to me in the genre it did. I actually can’t even remember where it came from, which is odd. I’ve lived with her story for so long now, it’s almost like it was always inside and just waited until 2015 to emerge.
What appeals to me about crime fiction is the intrigue of the puzzle, figuring out the who and why behind the crime. It’s dark, many times, and I enjoy - well, enjoy isn’t really the right word - plunging into the psychology of the character who could be led to commit this crime. I find human behavior and psychology fascinating and sometimes, repulsive, but it’s that sort of morbid curiosity that keeps me diving back in.
With sci-fi, as well as fantasy, I think it’s a little more liberating, in some ways, while also being grounded in the same sort of psychologies. After all, human characters are still human and have to behave accordingly. Even aberrant ones still have to stay true to their personalities. (I don’t do aliens or AI characters, though, because I wouldn’t have a clue where to begin with personalities without making them seem human…) But you have new technology, new issues, new opportunities that “reality-based” genres don’t, so it’s a chance to explore characters in new lights and with fewer limitations, I’d say.
Out of the two, which do you prefer writing and why?
I prefer crime fiction, hands down. Why? I guess it’s because of the chance to explore darker sides of humanity and contrast them with the light. And the good guys almost always win and justice is almost always served, which helps me believe that the same is possible in the real world. I know, idealistic of me.
I get to try to make sense of the crime in the book, and, in turn, that sometimes helps to make sense of similar crimes in real life. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a “sympathy for the devil” kind of thing, but it does help me remember that criminals are still people and many times they are broken and hurting and lashing out, so I don’t make the mistake of dismissing them as simply evil or trash or whatever. God will still forgive and save these people if they are given the chance to know Him, so it helps me see them as more than their crime.
I don’t know if that makes sense or not...
It does. I think it leads to morally ambiguous, complex characters. Do you think that’s a critical component of a good crime story?
I do, personally. I like antagonists that are as fleshed out as the protagonist. Even in the first half of this sci-fi duology, we don’t see a lot of the antagonist’s motivations, but (I hope) we do see that he’s not just a “Bad Guy.” In the crime fiction series, the bad guys are different for each novel, though a few will be referred to or show up again in future books, so I want to make sure they come across as real people, not just as vehicles for the plot and for the protagonists to look good.
If the antagonist is just a Bad Guy Doing Bad Things, there’s no challenge for the detectives to figuring out the motive, which will lead to figuring out the perpetrator. It’s flat and boring and predictable. But if the antagonist is a complex character will his/her own full backstory, then it becomes interesting and harder to predict.
At least, that’s my goal.
What are your passions outside of writing?
It’s a little cliche, but I love reading and watching well-written movies and television series. It’s research, I promise! I also am passionate about issues surrounding the welfare of animals and children, anything helpless to stand up for themselves. I support as many charities as I can that help the environment, animal conservation and helping children succeed/survive. The Greater Good Network of charities is a great way to make an impact, and most often it doesn’t even require financial support, which is nice because I haven’t become a best-selling author who retires and lives off massive royalties (yet?). I only wish I could give more.
My church is amazing! I used to live in Wilmington, NC, where I started attending LifePoint Church. I’ve since moved, but I keep “attending” church via livestream or archived sermons online and am constantly stoked about what God is capable of and how He’s impacting lives all over the world, and how our little church gets to be part of that. It’s just… amazing.
I love supporting other authors. I am part of a writers group that meets to discuss our current WIPs and talk through any issues we’re having with our stories. I am active on Twitter, talking to and encouraging other writers because I feel like we’re not competition, we’re a community. I haven’t always had a lot of support outside of my family, so I feel it is crucial to make sure other writers are encouraged and allowed to vent their frustrations with someone who understands. The worst thing for a writer is to be so discouraged or isolated that they give up writing. I don’t want that to happen to anybody.
That’s really positive. I think writing is, by its nature, an isolating hobby and that can lead to all sorts of frustrations. I’ve sometimes thought that the best lesson someone new to writing can learn is that it is hard, that everyone finds it hard and that praise and reward will sometimes be very thin on the ground. Are there any lessons you’ve learned as an experienced writer that you wish you’d known at the start?
So many! You’ve hit on some really good ones that are usually learned the hard way, but I’d also add: You will get sick of your book at some point. You will have read and reread it so many times that you’ll start to question whether it’s any good or not, think it’s predictable and boring. But, to someone else reading it for the first time, it’s all new. So try to keep in mind that what has become stale to you won’t necessarily be to the reader. That’s why I think having beta readers is so super important. You need that outside perspective to let you know what’s good and what’s genuinely not working.
Also, published ≠ money. Not always and not immediately.
I’ve published three books and have made only a few hundred dollars off all of them combined over the last several years. But I don’t write for the money, I write because the stories are in me and want out.
Some authors do make a lot of money off their writing, and that’s awesome, but it’s not the way it turns out for every author every time. That’s going to be a hard lesson for some writers.
I think that anyone who goes into writing expecting to be rich is in for a long wait. I think producing anything creative is similar. I’m always reminded of the aphorism “the best way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a large fortune!” I think the only sustainable reason to write is because - like you say - you have stories that need to be told. Do you think writers are a particular sort of person?
I actually had not heard that one before - that’s hilarious. And, sadly, accurate.
The more I interact with writers online and in person, the more I’m convinced that we come from all walks of life - which is great, because readers are from all walks of life. I think we do have some commonalities, and that’s what makes it so much fun when we do interact. We speak a common language, so to speak :)
If people want to interact with you online, what’s the best way to do that?
I am most active on Twitter and they can find me using @JIONeal_writer.
They can find my draft2digital.com author page here: https://www.books2read.com/ap/n71BLx/JI-ONeal
And my Amazon.com author page here: https://amzn.to/2Lxm1Sv
I also have a website that is under massive reconstruction, www.jionealwrites.com, and people can sign up to follow me there. I have sort of put the updates of that on hold while trying to meet my publishing deadline for the next book in the crime series and writing the first draft of the second half of the Stell-Ore War duology (Stell-Ore Justice).
Will you come back some time and tell us about your crime series?
I would love to, thank you! It would be an honor. :)
'The Crew of Cartage 15' is currently available to purchase through Amazon.