Last week I had the opportunity to attend a talk by another successful, well-known author. My local library does these events as a fundraiser, so it was a low-key evening full of wonderful gems of writerly wisdom. This time it was Community Conversations: Ilsa J. Bick. What has she written? Well, most recently, award-winning YA apocalyptic thrillers and sophisticated horror for older teens including Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, The Sin-Eater’s Confession, the Ashes trilogy, White Space, and The Dickens Mirror. But before Ilsa settled into YA, she wrote Star Trek, Mechwarrior, and Battletech, among others.
First and foremost, Ilsa is simply one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. (That says a lot, because I’ve met a lot of people, including astronauts. Trust me, astronauts have an interesting job and that does not necessarily make them interesting people.) Her bio should be titled “True Renaissance Woman” because she is also a well-traveled child psychiatrist, a former forensic psychiatrist at a women’s prison, a trained psychoanalyst, a surgery intern, a film scholar, and a former Air Force major. Fortunately for those of us who love to read, she discovered her passion for writing.
At her Community Conversation, Ilsa was introduced as one of the “most underrated YA authors writing today.” Her cinematic style of storytelling appeals to fans from 12 to 88 years old, proof that a story with a young adult protagonist can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.
As a psychiatrist with a love of film, she wrote scholarly papers analyzing movies such as Alien, Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, and television shows The X-Files, and Star Trek. It’s no wonder I feel some kind of kinship with this woman—our favorite cinematic and televised entertainment align very nicely. I even like to analyze themes and symbolism in movies, though I wouldn’t call my dabbling in it “scholarly.” Her favorite author is Stephen King. I agree completely that he’s such a good storyteller, even when he’s bad, he’s better than lots of others.
Ilsa explained that she got her start writing fan fiction. In fact, she’s likely the biggest fan of William Shatner’s chest on the planet. Okay, not exactly… She’s the world’s biggest fan of Captain James T. Kirk’s shirtless escapades on Star Trek. In her words, “That’s some serious beefcake!” Ilsa shared a hilarious story about an opportunity to actually meet Shatner in person. It didn’t go quite as she had hoped, but neither did it dampen her enthusiasm for that magnificent chest. We can agree to disagree about the attractiveness or desirability of Kirk/Shatner’s chest because I was always, and forever shall be, a Spock girl.
When Ilsa’s husband challenged her to write for “real,” she found a contest for Star Trek fiction calling for short stories of 7,000 words or less. With a 10-day deadline, most writers would have reluctantly passed up the opportunity. Not Ilsa. She wrote her story, submitted it, and won the grand prize, enough money to buy a refrigerator. That appliance, she says, still holds great sentimental value and is one of her dearest possessions.
She continued to enter contests and learned that she had to have a deadline, had to write fast, and had to get out of her own way. Ilsa won so often, she soon became ineligible for contests, so she turned to writing for magazines for hire. When her writing had gotten a little too edgy and dark for Star Trek, she began writing Young Adult fiction. She was trying to write a mystery that was going nowhere when she brainstormed a YA novel. She finished the paranormal mystery in a mere eight weeks and has been admired by a growing fandom ever since it was published.
Ilsa offered several pieces of advice for writers learning the craft.
- Don’t be reluctant to enter contests.
- When you are writing genre fiction, you must read widely in that genre, analyzing the structure of the story to find the points where the plot lunges forward and where it slows slightly.
- Learn to weave in a secondary plot that can allow the reader to get to know your characters a little better.
- Attend workshops taught by pros who make a living at writing. Anyone who makes their living by teaching workshops—not writing—won’t have the same insights and or the same passion for the craft.
- Learn to outline. The one time she didn’t begin a novel from an outline, the manuscript ended up at 1,000 pages because she had no clear idea where it was headed.
- Do your research! Don’t make egregious mistakes that will turn off readers who know something about what you are writing.
- Lie with authority.
How about your own writing career? What lessons are you learning, or have learned, on your journey to publication? Has a successful author made an impression on how you approach the craft? Leave a comment below.