This series is my excuse to satisfy my curiosity about what makes writers tick. The hope is that by exploring how writers got to their craft, how they interact with books and their process, I might learn a little more about my own.
This week on TQfTA, I got the chance to interview M. Bryn Schut, and inspiring writer I met through the Inkshares Nerdist contest. She is the author of Visioner, an epic sci-fi/fantasy blend YA tale that puts romance in the back seat and adventure up front and center. I’m a huge fan of Miss Bryn, and can’t wait to share her particular world view (and writing) with you all.
First up, as always, let’s learn a little bit about the author.
About M. Bryn Schut
Obsessive pop culture geek by day, pedantic nerd by night, Bryn has been writing for almost as long as she’s been reading. Her interests lie primarily in science fiction and fantasy and she spends an inordinate amount of time analyzing her favorite books, movies, and video games. Her true passion lies in stories that twist the expected narrative and attempt to surprise even the most jaded of readers. Bryn’s writing credits include both first place and third place in the short story category, second place in the personal narrative category, and second place in the poetry category for Victor Valley College’s annual writing contest (2009). She graduated from Sonoma State University with a B.A. in English: Creative Writing (2012) and continued her education at the same university to obtain an M.A. in English: Creative Writing (2015), where Visioner served as her thesis project. She currently lives in northern California with her “god-with-the-level-of-commitment-we-have-he-needs-a-better-title-than-boyfriend” and their two cats.
1. What are you currently reading?
I just picked up The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy (edited by Joe Hill and John Joseph Adams) and Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I’m early into both, but I’m enjoying them immensely. I’m also reading Super You by Emily Gordon, which is a self-help book with a nerdy spin.
2. Ereader or Traditional?
Traditional, for sure. For me reading falls under a full-sensory experience and it doesn’t feel “real” unless I have a physical book in my hand. The weight of it, the smell, the texture… I love technology in all other aspects of my life, but I balk at ereaders.
3. What is your favorite book?
This is always the worst question! I’ll try to narrow it down to two: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle and Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I love L’Engle for her sense of adventure and the idea that stories shouldn’t be dumbed down just because the story is aimed at younger readers. And Gaiman just has a way with words that I find hypnotizing.
4. Why do you think reading is important?
I think it’s important to have space in your own head. We can get so bogged down with phones and Netflix and easy consumption that I feel it’s necessary to engage with a medium that encourages you to do the mental work yourself. Reading forces you to visualize things for yourself and to meet another mind (in this case, the author’s) in way that doesn’t allow you to be passive.
5. What is the one book (other than your own) that you would recommend to others?
There’s a great book I wish more people knew about that I ended up using as a textbook when I taught a fantasy writing class. Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. It’s a how-to writing guide for people who hate how-to writing guides. There are bright colors and margin notes and stories from authors and generally good writing advice. It was really useful for both the beginning writers and the experienced writers in my class.
1. What made you want to become a writer?
I’m not sure it was so much a want as being violently bludgeoned over the head with an obsessive need to tell stories. I’ve always loved the way that a good book could make me feel something, and I think my writing grew out of a desire to share that with others. Reading a book felt like a gift from an author, and I wanted to offer someone else that gift in return.
2. Why do you write?
Because I absolutely cannot fathom my life without it. Of course there’s an element of pleasure in it—I don’t think any author tortures themselves without getting some joy out of the act of creation—but I think obsession plays a big part in my personal drive. I need to get the story out somehow, or I’ll lose my mind.
3. What was the first thing you wrote?
The first thing I can remember writing was in kindergarten or first grade. It was a small picture book about horses with a unicorn randomly thrown in. No plot to speak of, just statements about things horses did. The first thing I remember writing with a real plot was clearly ripped off “The Last Unicorn” because it had a unicorn searching for her friends that interacted with a moth.
Of course, in mine the moth lied about the absence of the other unicorns so the last unicorn would be his friend, but the unicorn eventually forgave him and everyone had a happy ending.
4. Which writers inspire you?
Neil Gaiman. Madeline L’Engle. J.K. Rowling. There are dozens, but these are probably my big three. They believe in their writing so much that you just can’t help but be pulled in, and that’s the kind of writer I want to be.
5. Are you a planner or a seat of the pants writer?
Definitely seat of the pants. Every time I try to outline and plan a story it absolutely loses its magic. I always start writing with a general idea of the story I want to tell and discover the magic of it as I go along. So I tend to write whatever comes to mind and then fix it in revisions.
6. What are you currently writing?
Right now I’m trying to work on the sequel to Visioner, my YA sci-fantasy novel. I’m also experimenting with some short stories. Then there’s a novel I’d been working on and set aside that’s calling to me again, so I might be picking that up to work on when I get blocked with other work.
7. Why this particular genre?
Science fiction and fantasy have always been my two great loves. Both stretch the bounds of possibility, looking forward to a strange new world and looking back to a mythical one. I’m particularly interested in what happens when those worlds are put into conflict and how they play off one another. And most of what I write tends to be Young Adult Fiction, because I like exploring that feeling of being caught between childhood and adulthood, wishing for both and fitting in neither.
8. From where do you glean ideas for your writing?
Oftentimes I have really interesting dreams that I try to turn into something more coherent and structured. Or I read a story and get inspired by some element within it. Or I watch a movie and decide that a certain character would be worth exploring. Basically, my mind is like a weird sinkhole for creativity; things get caught in the muck there and don’t get unearthed for ages.
9. What advice would you give a fledgling writer just starting on the path to building their own novel?
Think about every story you’ve ever enjoyed and think about why you enjoyed it. Was it a character? A specific storyline? Something within that story called to you. Take that tiny seed and bury it in your own work. With enough dedication and love, it’ll bloom. It’s my personal belief that stories should offer something to the reader, and I want all writers to consider that before they ever start putting words down.
10. A new writer is suffering with writer’s block. What advice would you give them to break through?
I have no idea if what works for me works for anyone else, but what I tend to do is walk away from the story for an afternoon. I go see a movie, or reread my favorite book, or immerse myself in a video game. When I get fired up about someone else’s work, I tend to come back to mine with new enthusiasm.
On your Book
1. Tell the readers about what makes your book unique.
A lot of fiction for teen girls is focused on the romance aspect, which I really have very little interest in. Visioner is an adventure story for girls, which is something I don’t think we get to see often. My protagonist, Mira, is snarky and violent and impulsive—which are not always endearing traits in a fifteen-year-old—and her journey is about learning the difference between being assertive and being abrasive. This isn’t about someone else finding her loveable, but about her discovering her own identity. Plus, there are aliens and mages and seers and missing moms and magic portals to other worlds, which force Mira to confront a lot of her previous notions of the nature of things.
2. What do you love about your protagonist? What do you hate about them?
I love Mira’s willingness to fight for the things she believes in and the people she cares for. I absolutely hate how insensitive she can be, though, and how she often doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions before she does them. She’s the equivalent of your friend who’ll get in a guy’s face for looking at you wrong, but then end up in the hospital because she tried to fight someone three times her size. I write so many of her scenes while wincing.
3. Who would you want to play your protagonist in the movie adaptation of your book?
Someone unknown, I think. Who did the casting for the Harry Potter movies? As far as movies-based-on-books go, they did pretty well for that series.
4. Are you planning on continuing the story with a sequel and/or series?
Yep! It’s a five-book series. I know the titles and very general storylines for each one. Visioner is book one, with Ravager the working title for book two. All of the books follow Mira’s journey, so we really get to see how much she grows emotionally across the series.
5. Is there anything else you want readers to know?
I am highly invested in fiction for teenage girls, particularly fiction which does not dwell on a single, defining romance as the pinnacle of the girl’s existence. I want to produce books where the girls go on quests, encounter challenges to their worldview, face their deepest fears, and come to terms with their identities as people, where they take their destinies into their own hands and don’t allow others to dictate their place in the world. I want to write the sort of adventure stories for girls that stories for boys take for granted. There are hundreds of books for teen girls that focus on romance; I want to write books for the readers who want something else.
Excerpt from Visioner:
The scent of burning skin overfilled Mira’s nostrils and stuck in the back of her throat. She coughed and spat, trying to expel the smoke from her airways. At least the coughing kept her from spending too much time looking at the bodies beside her. As it was, her eyes seemed magnetically drawn to the burnt corpses that littered the field. It was a struggle not to indulge in her curiosity and outright stare; she resorted to quick looks every few seconds just to take the edge off.
Mira’s hands were shaking, so she curled her fingers into her palms and took a deep breath. She was disturbed to discover that she was getting used to the burning smell in the air, but decided that at least she wasn’t vomiting or passing out. She took a few more deep breaths and steeled herself for the search for Ry; standing here fighting a panic attack wouldn’t do anything to find him.
Her gaze lifted from the bodies on the ground to the horizon. There was a line of trees in the distance. No one else was standing upright, which made Mira feel as exposed as a metal pole in a lightning storm. Where was everyone else? Or, for that matter, why were there only human bodies on the field if the Draykure weren’t human? The skin on the back of her neck prickled as she wondered if the Draykure had already removed their dead. And if they were still around to notice her.
That settled it: she needed to find Ry and get out of there. If her best friend was anywhere on the field, he was keeping a low profile. And as much as Mira wished she could do the same, she knew that it was already impossible; she’d spent too much time in the open to worry about stealth now.
“Ry!” Mira’s voice didn’t carry as far as she would have wanted, so she tried again. “Ry!” The end of her scream came out panicked and warbling, like the scream of a child.
There was no answer. Had Syneth even really sent Ry through? If Mira had to walk a path to get here, it seemed unlikely that Syneth could have just thrown Ry into Avrym. She was starting to feel like she’d been tricked into leaving Earth, and a new wave of rage swelled in her stomach. She should have stopped and asked more questions before letting Syneth scare her into this route.
She tried shouting a third time, then a fourth, but if Ry was anywhere nearby he wasn’t answering. “Okay,” she said aloud, trying to calm herself down. “You can do this, Mira. Ry’s not here, so you have to move to those trees. Just take a step.”
Talking to herself made it easier to step over the first corpse in her way. “Okay, good,” Mira said, injecting all the false cheeriness she could into her voice. “Keep going.”
With each step she took, Mira complimented and cajoled herself. Now that she was walking, it was impossible not to look at the bodies beneath her feet. Some were missing facial features, eyes burned out of their sockets and noses and lips all but melted away. Hair was half-crisped if it was visible at all. Leather and fabric was all but indistinguishable from the skin it had fused to. Flies, reddish-orange in the afternoon sunlight, swarmed over every available surface. It was all so overwhelming that Mira just wanted to sit down and cry.
She wished that the grassy field beneath her feet was empty. That the almost-purple sky above her wasn’t filled with the sound of wings and the crow-like call of some scavenging bird. That she could take a breath without breathing in dead people. It was hard to be excited about visiting an alien world when she was staring at dead things. As it was, all she wanted to do was find Ry and go home.
Every so often, Mira’s foot would kick into one of the corpses as she stepped, sending up a flurry of the red flies. They knocked into the backs of her hands, prompting Mira to jerk around to shoo them away. She didn’t want anything to do with bugs that had touched dead bodies. As she walked and waved away the flies, her speeches to herself became more hurried and less cheerful. She berated herself for her slow pace, or for disturbing a body, and tried to talk her legs into moving faster. The trees were a lifetime away, locked beyond a sidewalk of the dead.
She was about halfway to the trees—was that the forest Syneth had mentioned, or just a bunch of trees?—when her foot kicked against another corpse. To her horror, it moaned and shifted. “Oh, shit!” she screamed, jerking backwards away from the now-moving and crying figure.
Her first thought was that the body had reanimated and was now a zombie. When she saw its chest rise and fall, though, it seemed more likely that it was a living person. Still, she wanted to run and escape the pained cries of the thing at her feet. She’d never been good with pain—hers or anyone else’s—and she sure wasn’t equipped to help a burn victim. Its hand, however, had fastened weakly on her ankle, and shaking it loose and running seemed like exactly the wrong thing to do.
The burned person was repeating something over and over in a language Mira didn’t recognize. It was impossible to mistake the tone, though, and it was clearly a plea for help. If Ry were here, he’d help without a second thought. She’d never be able to look him in the eye again if she walked away now.
Gritting her teeth and ashamed at her own desire to keep moving, Mira forced herself to kneel down. The burn victim was young—perhaps eighteen or nineteen—and wasn’t as badly burned as the other bodies Mira had seen. She could tell it was a young man, with dark eyes and black hair cropped close to his head. The skin that wasn’t burned was a dark olive tone. He was wearing a number of thick clothes and a set of leather armor, but it had been burned down to the skin in some places and looked more like Swiss cheese than adequate covering. He continued to whimper and moan, fingers clutched around the hem of Mira’s pant leg as if to keep her from escaping.
The largest of the young man’s burns ran from the left side of his chest down and across to his right hip. Here the leather of his armor had been completely burned away, as had most of the shirt beneath, leaving the raw wound open to the air. It was about the width of Mira’s hand, wetly red and slightly blistered. A few more scattered burns dotted his legs and arms, but none of these had the same intense appearance as the big burn. Though each looked fresh and painful, none seemed to be immediately threatening his life.
He said something to Mira in a foreign tongue. The words had an Italian sound to them, like Syneth’s accent, but Mira didn’t speak Italian. She shook her head and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
His hand twitched on her pant leg, then dropped. “Anglish?” he asked Mira. “You speak Anglish?”
She couldn’t believe she was hearing a familiar language on an alien planet. “I…uh…yeah!” she stammered. “Yes, I speak English!”
“Good. Good. I know a little.” He twitched his fingers towards his body. “Isaac.”
“Mira. Need help. Please. Help.”
Mira rocked back on her heels a bit. Isaac must have taken this as a sign she was preparing to leave, because his fingers wrapped around her left wrist and held on tight. His dark eyes stared into hers pleadingly as his head shook from side to side. She suddenly felt like she was a life preserver and Isaac was trying to keep from drowning.
“Hey, hey, I’m not going anywhere,” she said, patting his hand. “My legs are cramping, that’s all.”
Isaac nodded, but his grip didn’t release. “Help,” he repeated. “Please.”