By Karen Hemmerle, Contributing Editor
Kim Lajevardi is a Colorado fiction writer whose first novel, Silent Witnesses, is nearing completion. She is also a middle school science teacher and mother who pulls from her myriad experiences to write in both the mainstream and fantasy genres.
Boulder Writers’ Workshop: Please tell us about your novel, Silent Witnesses. What inspired you to write it?
Kim Lajevardi: The first snippet of the idea came from the protests in Egypt when Mubarak was in his final days. There was an incident where a reporter was attacked in a crowd of people, and it spawned the conversations on media outlets that always seem to accompany those sorts of stories. Questions like: Why wouldn't people intervene? How can something like this happen with so many witnesses? What were they thinking?
Well, that sparked something in me. I was also curious, but beyond that, I wanted to understand the phenomenon that causes incidents like it. Mostly because I had an experience years earlier where I witnessed a violent attack at a traffic light where none of the people in the cars surrounding me intervened. I knew why I hadn't been able to act. I had my infant son with me, and it pre-dated my purchase of a cell phone. But what about the people around me? Were they afraid? Cowardly? Or something else?
From all of that, Silent Witnesses was conceived.
BWW: In Silent Witnesses, you write from multiple PO. How did you make that choice, and how do you keep the different points of view straight in your own mind?
KL: I made the choice to use multiple POVs because of my research into The Bystander Effect, the idea that the presence of others can stop an individual from helping in an emergency situation, which is amplified, not diminished, when there are more people. This made clear that I needed a group of witnesses to fully explore what it was that I wanted to understand about the dynamic. As a newbie novelist, I was intimidated by the idea of too many POV, so I settled on three. It turned out to be the perfect number.
I keep each POV straight in a variety of ways. Primarily by understanding who they are and why they arrive in that scene in the way they do, their characteristics and life circumstances. It was a gargantuan job that evolved over all of the drafts and after a ton of feedback from my critique partners, but, ultimately, I had to really dig in and understand their why. That level of intimacy makes it clear who I'm writing at any given time, and is assisted by the use of first person. I literally pick them up and embody them when it's their turn.
A second technique I use is separation. I never write more than one POV at a time. There must be space and/or time between voices. If I'm working in short bursts, that's an easy accomplishment. But when I work in longer chunks of time, I make sure to break the work up with a physical task. It can be as simple as a shower or a lunch break, but there has to be a division between them. They're different people, and because I kind of pull them on like a comfortable sweater, I need the space to change into them, so to speak.
The final strategy I use, and I've used it more and more as I've worked in the final drafts, is music. Each character has songs in my playlist that makes me think of them and/or parts that they're going through. In fact, this has been such an integral part of my final revision/editing rounds that I'm considering creating character playlists as part of my outline process for my next book. I find that certain songs help me tap into the emotion they must be feeling and the themes of the piece as a whole. I highly recommend it.
BWW: How has the editing process gone? Do you just make minor tweaks, or have you decided to rewrite whole sections of the book?
KL: I'm going to whisper this; I don't want to jinx my future editing self. Editing is good. Please don't throw anything at me, and I reserve the right to reverse myself at any time in the future, but I'm really beginning to understand the idea that a book is not written but rewritten. All of the niggling little ideas plaguing me about scene, character, or whatever seem to be more manageable in the final editing stage. My prose has never been sharper, and since I'm a better writer than when I started the book, I can go back to the beginning and apply that to the early chapters.
In terms of how much I edit, Wow! Does saying the whole thing quite cover it? Not only have I made minor tweaks more times than I can count, but I've rewritten the whole thing at least four or five times. The first two rewrites involved new blank documents. I actually retyped and reworded the entire manuscript. I think that coming out of my first and second drafts there was just so much room for improvement that the blank page was more freeing. On the third and fourth drafts, though, I found that improvement was more incremental: moving sections, rewriting scenes, and adding or subtracting to increase character, plot, or emotion. It's still completely reworking the storyline, but it involves more finesse and weaving than huge broad strokes. Novel writing is definitely not a sprint for me, but each time it gets better. Above all else I'm a reader, and that matters.
BWW: How do you know when it’s time to stop editing?
KL: I don't exactly know. I can be quite the fiddler sometimes. But there are scenes that sing, and those are the scenes that I know to leave well enough alone. Otherwise, I think my fingers will be primed until someone tells me to stop. Please tell me to stop.
BWW: Is there any overlap between your careers as a middle school science teacher and a writer, or do they occupy totally different parts of your brain?
KL: Yes and no. The overlap is not what some people would expect it to be. I don't go to work seeking out ideas, and when I'm there, I'm there. I consider myself a professional, and I give my job the focus it requires. But there are skills that I've learned from being a professional educator. Skills like collaboration, reflection, acceptance and perseverance. Those skills are necessary to be successful in anything at a high level and they're most definitely transferable skills. It doesn't matter where you start, if you learn yourself and push yourself to be better, always better, you will have some of what it takes to attack a novel.
BWW: Have you considered writing a science-based novel or writing for middle grade readers?
KL: I think science makes its way into quite a bit of what I write in terms of understanding how the physical world works. Will I actually write Science Fiction? Who knows. I don't have specific ideas in that genre at the current time, but I won't box myself in. I think every genre has inherent value. Good writing is good writing, whether it comes in the guise of action, fantasy, thriller or sci-fi. I guess that goes for middle grade books as well. The story comes first for me. If I uncover a story that leads in either of these directions, that's where I'll go.
BWW: Did you always want to be a writer? When did you start writing?
KL: No, I didn't always want to be a writer. I didn't really know what I wanted until my early thirties. Writing was always a part of me, but I never put together that part that I turned to sometimes for release or my intense love of books with a career until about five or six years ago. That's when I began to really want to write more than sometimes. A character showed up and just wouldn't let me go, and I discovered that I really wanted to write her story; to write period. I began searching for ways to do that, and I haven't looked back since.
BWW: How do you keep your characters fresh and original?
KL: Reading, talking to people and experiencing life. I don't think writers who want to write about how people react, think, feel can pull it all out of their own heads. You need to go out and live, experience, watch, listen and most importantly - read. Characters are the sum total of everything we know about how people react to the circumstances that pop up, whether through their own decisions or those of others, and in order to have that stored knowledge, you have to have experiences. I once had a science professor who believed that the best way to educate teachers and to subsequently benefit the greatest number of students was to take us out into the world, to show us, not just tell. Sound like something writers need?
BWW: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you plan out your plot in an outline before you start writing, or do you just jump in and see where the story goes?
KL: I'm both a plotter and a pantser. I do create a loose outline before I start, but I veer from it easily as characters begin to show me the way. Upon saying that, I've recently heard of creating an outline after the first draft, and I think some of my extensive edits could have been shorter if I'd done that. So I'm considering using the loose outline to begin my next book and then doing a more extensive one after the first draft. I'll let you know if that works.
BWW: What do you do when you get stuck and don’t know what happens next in your story?
KL: I wait. I read. Once I even did a short story contest that had nothing to do with what I was working on. I also listen to critique and I seek advice (Lori helped me with a chapter when I was in that position). All of those, except waiting, built my craft in the interim. Once whatever I'm struggling with has had the necessary percolation time, or I've developed a part of my writing ability to tackle it, then I restart.
BWW: Do you have a writing schedule? How do you juggle day to day life with your writing?
KL: Yes and yes! I was recently talking with another BWW member about the idea that you have to make writing a regular part of your routine. If you're serious, it has to be a priority. So I make it one pretty much every day. During the school year, that means around 5:30 a.m. I write for forty-five minutes to an hour, and then I get ready for work. Critiques, craft work and longer editing/writing comes in the evenings or weekends. During the summer, I allot several hours. Again it's in a schedule, but the schedule usually is three or four one-hour blocks with tasks between. That may change next year when I'm not writing alternating POVs, but I will still schedule it because it's a priority. You don't get what you want with sometimes.
It can be a struggle when I'm busy or life events make an appearance. But I try to make it clear to everyone, myself included, that my writing time is valuable and non-negotiable.
BWW: What have you done to develop as a writer and master your craft?
KL: A lot! Oh, you want more detail?
I read writing books (there are truly too many to list, but I especially enjoyed Hooked and Writing the Breakout Novel), I participate in a fantastic critique group, I watch movies and television shows that emphasize character over spectacle, I reach out and network with other writers (primarily through Boulder Writer's Workshop), I go to conferences (RMFW and PPWC), I subscribe to and read trade magazines, I blog and interact with other blogging writers, I read books in my genre and I participate in contests.
BWW: You’ve traveled to some exotic locations, like Machu Pichu and Easter Island. What inspired those trips? Is there a chance those locations will end up in one of your novels?
KL: The trip to Machu Pichu and Easter Island was one big trip that was my reward for completing my master's degree. It was an experiential learning opportunity from the professor I mentioned above, the one who showed teachers instead of telling them. It fulfilled the final credits of my master's. I cannot express how pivotal that trip was in my growth as a writer. It felt like an opening, a release that was necessary in order to step into something bigger. I believe my novel is that something bigger. Travel opens your eyes, and once they're opened, it's impossible to see through the same narrow filters of your past. I hope to have similar experiences in the future, and I'm always open to a good trip. My husband likes to joke that it's quicker to list the places I don't want to go, rather than attempting the list of those places I do want to visit.
I don't know if my past travels will ever make specific appearances in my books. It's possible. I did use Easter Island or Isla de Pasqua in a short story I wrote for a contest.
BWW: What’s next for you?
KL: A fantasy novel that I'm hoping to begin outlining in the coming week. It's been on the back burner for longer than I'd planned, but I'm just about ready to pick it up and begin playing with the early writing steps. I'm really excited. The genesis of the idea is a short story contest I participated in during one of my breaks/stuck periods of Silent Witnesses, and it's been slowly percolating ever since. Two years of tossing story ideas into my electronic folder, and now it is finally almost here. And come closer - this part is a secret - I think it may become a series. Shh...I can't believe I'm even thinking of biting off that particular mountain, but the story wants what the story wants.
Karen Hemmerle is an essayist and produced screenwriter, and is currently writing a nonfiction book, Goodbye to the Fat Girl. Read the blog about her book at http://goodbyetothefatgirl.wordpress.com or follow her on Facebook.