Thursday, August 18, 2011
Looing Out the Window: Staci Stallings, English Teacher Turned Writer
In Staci's interview she tells about a dangerous school situation. As for writing, she prefers characters who've decided life stinks. She offers them hope. She advises other writers to write their hearts.
Welcome, Staci. First, tell us a little about yourself.
I'm a stay-at-home mom with three kids a husband and a writing addiction! I've written 30 full-length novels, hundreds of articles, six Bible Studies, and two God Help books (for when self-help just isn't working anymore!) I blog. I volunteer at two schools and my church. I teach Sunday school and substitute. And the only reason I'm still sane is because God loves me and does an awesome job scheduling my days.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What did you read?
Yes. Words were one of my first loves. I told my grandpa when I was four that I was "anticipating" getting a ring when we went back to town. However, when I hit junior high and found romance novels (anyone remember Sweet Dreams?), my love of reading became a full-blown addiction. I devoured those early romance books and have, on occasion even after I got "older," gone back and re-read them. I love people falling in love.
Why do you write?
Because if I didn't, I would either explode or go crazy. Seriously. Writing is like breathing to me, and when I go too long without putting something on paper, life just doesn't feel right. My friends can tell when I haven't written in awhile, and they can tell when I have. I love writing because it's when I feel God the most. It's when I can take spiritual risks, just let go and let God show me the world by writing through me. It opens up possibilities in all the other areas of my life. I always come away fuller and wiser.
That’s interesting. My husband says I have pretend people running around in my head, and I have to let them out. Sort of the same thing. Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book was actually the third book I finished out of the 30. It's called "The Price of Silence," and it is far darker than most of my books. In it, we follow Robyn Lockhart, a senior in high school who's just been transferred to a huge school that she does not want to attend. Coming from a small school in Iowa, Robyn finds herself in the midst of wall-to-wall people and wall-to-wall silence about what's really going on. When she lands a spot on the school newspaper and begins trying to get the word out about the danger lurking in every hallway, she becomes a target as well. However, telling someone she is could end with her newfound friends in body bags. How do you shout from the rooftops if the only ones listening are those who want you quiet? And if you stand up, will anyone else stand with you?
That sounds like an intriguing book. A high school reporter in danger. What inspired you to write this particular book?
I was a high school English teacher almost twenty years ago. In one school where I taught, a gun was brought to a classroom next to mine and a student was threatened with it. Then I taught at another school and had one brought to my own classroom. In both incidents the administrations tried very hard to hush everything up. They didn't want to scare parents, and they thought maybe the kids would never find out. (Yeah right!) I found both assumptions to be ludicrous. In fact, one of my students had to transfer because she had seen the gun and was the one who told the administration. Because of the way it was handled, she was harassed and threatened for saying something. I began to wonder, "What happens if you're a kid and you know bad things are happening? What do you do if you tell someone and nothing is done about it? Where do you go if your parents are disconnected and the administration just wants everything to be 'okay' without doing something about it?"
The truly scary thing to me was that two years later, the boy who brought the gun to school and threatened my student was on trial for murder. How off-the-rails was he all the way back at the gun incident? So, I wrote the book for kids, yes. But even more so for parents and teachers and administrators. These types of "incidents" are incredibly dangerous to the innocent kids in school, and if you hush up enough of them, you will hush up everyone--even students who might say something about a potentially deadly situation. We need to give our kids ways to tell us what's going on. And we need to believe them when they do!
You're right, Staci. That's really scary. But I’m glad you’re making people aware. Other than something like this, where do you get ideas for your books?
A lot of my ideas come from dreams I've had. In fact, the first book I finished started with about 30 seconds of a dream. Ever since I was a child, to put myself to sleep, I would come up with a story and "tell it to myself" in what most people would consider like a movie in my brain. I would start with a dream I had that I really liked. Then when I got in bed, I would think about that dream and "push play" to watch more of it.
That's what I do with my books too. I simply "Push Play" and then translate into words what I'm seeing in my head. Beyond that, a lot of times when I get to the end of one book, I can "see" the story going on, maybe with secondary characters from the first book or maybe with the primary characters from the first book. Honestly, I never know when a great idea is going to come or how fast a book will write itself. Two I've finished in less than a month. One took seven years.
I am writing about six at any one time, and it's kind of like watching television. When I sit to write, I select a story (choose a channel), get quiet, and push play.
How do you get to know your characters?
I think I've tried about everything. I've interviewed them. I've talked with them. I've thought about them. I've listened to them (sometimes at three in the morning!). Mostly I just let them tell their story, and I write what I see. Most of the characters I've had over the years were fine with that. They wanted their story told and cooperated quite nicely. One guy, however, in the book Lucky, was the hardest character I ever wrote because he simply didn't want to be honest with me about what had happened in his past. I wrote things that made no sense to me at all. But rather than force them to make sense, I just kept writing hoping the Holy Spirit knew where we were going. (I pray A LOT while I write, falling at the mercy of God to know where this is going because I rarely have all the pieces even in the middle of the book!)
Then one day near the end of that book, I finally said, "Look, Kalin, you're going to have to tell me what happened." As weird as it sounds, I could feel how hard it was for him to tell me as he had never even admitted what happened even to himself. He was in an incredible amount of pain over it, and the shame and guilt had convinced him that no one could ever love him again if he told them... so he hadn't.
Strangely enough, however, when he told me, suddenly all those things that I'd written in the first of the book that didn't make any sense at the time made perfect sense.
So I've learned to simply be a safe place for my characters to be, to live, to grow, and to tell their stories. I find the more I do that, the better off everything ends up.
What themes do you write about?
I write what God gives me to write. Most of the stories are about characters who are incredibly broken. They have for whatever reason decided life stinks and they are on the verge of giving up--sometimes on life, sometimes on themselves, sometimes on everything. Then this person they never saw coming shows up, and through the gift of love and acceptance they find peace and healing.
Some of the themes I've written about include: alcoholism, drug addiction, loss of a spouse, success-at-any-cost thinking, dyslexia, death, gangs, social injustice, having sex before marriage, anger, fear, molestation, date rape, suicide, church abuse, starting over, hope, finding peace, seeking justice, and love.
Do you have to juggle writing with a job, family responsibilities or other obligations? How do you balance it?
Yes. Big time. I say that I'm a stay-at-home mom with three kids, a husband, and a writing addiction, but even that doesn't do my life justice. I also... run two companies, do all the finances for both companies and my family. I have my own house (with laundry, cleaning, dishes, etc.) I run the three kids here, there, and yonder. I've got two very tight-knit extended families and all the parties and responsibility that entails. I volunteer at two schools organizing and running three major fundraisers every year. I teach Sunday school and direct plays for VBS each summer. I'm active in an online writers' group, and I have my own much smaller online writers' group. I blog twice a week and try to publish something bigger almost every month. I edit my own material, help with cover design, help with formatting, and oversee everything. I also guide marketing efforts, do interviews, and write articles for publication in books like God's Way for Mothers and Chicken Soup for the Body & Soul. Oh, and I also mentor other writers--especially new ones trying to get their feet on the ground.
How do I balance it all? I don't. I know that sounds crazy, but I really don't. If I tried, I'd go nuts. Several years ago, I learned to just put my day in God's hands and let Him figure out what I needed to do that day. Whatever I get done is what He wanted me to do. Whatever I don't get done is in His hands.
Sometimes I write like crazy for a week or more. Sometimes it's a month or more between anything other than blogs. That used to make me nuts when I thought it was all up to me. Now I know God is going to give me the next piece if I'm patient enough to wait for it. I can't explain that, but I know it works. Most of all I've learned that I can't, but God can. Let Him!
Does your faith affect your writing? How?
Without God, I wouldn't even be in this game anymore. He teaches me so much through the writing. Some of those lessons are learned through just watching how He works in my characters' lives. One of those was in the book A Little Piece of Heaven--the second book in The Faith Series. As I was writing that book, I learned something about the heroine that she had never told anyone (sound familiar). She did not want to tell anyone either, but because of what had happened, she was putting her own life on the line to try to stop it. I knew that she was going to have to tell her new boyfriend and that what happened next could wipe both of them out (most often I do not know where my stories are going, so I didn't know how this was going to turn out).
I quit writing it. I didn't want them to have to go through what I knew they were going to have to go through. I'm not sure how long my rebellion lasted, but I do remember crying to a friend that I didn't want to write this part. However, when I did, I realized that it was that "hard part" that made them both stronger. They had to go through that to find real, lasting peace. Without it, the "peace" they were living was a sham.
Then there are the lessons I learn about God and how He guides my every step--in writing and in life. He leads me to the right pieces that I need for the books. He orders my days. He knows where this thing is going, and He will get me there if I just trust Him and let Him work through me. Mostly, I've learned that faith isn't about me at all. It's about Him. He has the faith, not me. I don't write the stories. God does. I don't have the plan. God does. And if I am willing to just take the steps He's asking me to take when He asks me to take them, He will bring me to the place He knew my heart wanted to be all along.
What are you working on right now?
Well, the book that I'm working on right now that's the closest to my heart is one that started out a lot like Kalin's story. This character's name is Jake McCoy, and he's a writer. He's also very much a loner. In fact, that's where we met him the first time--alone in a coffee shop huddled over a laptop in the corner. As he and I got to know each other, I realized that I could see what was in his head--the stories he was writing, but he wouldn't let me see his laptop. I couldn't figure that out. But as I wrote, he met the love of his life, and he wouldn't let her see it either. Finally it dawned on me that there must be a reason he didn't want me to see that screen.
Much like Kalin, he didn't want to tell me why. Then in the middle of writing it, my son was diagnosed with dyslexia (he'd been having extreme trouble in school with reading and spelling). Suddenly, I knew why Jake didn't want me to see that screen. Sure enough, the whole thing was filled with red squiggly lines--he couldn't spell at all! Here he is this cool guy with all these awesome stories to tell, but he can't get them written. Enter the love of his life who has been drifting in college trying to find a major or anything she really wants to do. Shortly after meeting Jake, not knowing much more than his name, she gets sent to an on-campus Literacy Center where they work with people who have dyslexia.
Right now in the story, she has just figured out what's going on with him and has talked him into going to the center. But he's terrified because in his mind there is something physically or mentally wrong with him--like part of his brain is missing or something. He loves her, and he doesn't want to let her down as he has let so many others down in the past.
For me, this one has been very personal because a lot of the things Jake goes through and has gone through I can so see having happened to my son if he hadn't had people willing to go to all lengths to help him. I just keep asking myself, "What if no one had helped him? What would have happened to my creative, fun, energetic, awesome little boy?" And sadly, I found out through research into dyslexia that in several states, they calculate the number of prison beds they will need 20 years out by counting the number of kids that can't read in the third grade.
Now if that doesn't scare a mom with a kid who's struggling, nothing will!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don't be afraid to write your heart. There are those who will tell you to figure out what will sell and write that. The only way I would agree is if you are writing just to make money. If you are, great. Go for it. But if you feel like God has stories He's giving you to tell, tell them. Follow HIM--not the world. Write what He gives you to write and then do with it what He tells you to do. You will never go wrong doing that. Yes, the path may not always be easy, and sometimes you will wonder if this will ever happen. But God knows where your piece of the puzzle fits and how it fits and when it's supposed to drop into place. Learn to trust Him--you will never be sorry you did.
A stay-at-home mom with a husband, three kids and a writing addiction on the side, Staci Stallings has numerous titles for readers to choose from. Not content to stay in one genre and write it to death, Staci’s stories run the gamut from young adult to adult, from motivational and inspirational to full-out Christian and back again. Every title is a new adventure! That’s what keeps Staci writing and you reading. Although she lives in Amarillo, Texas and her main career right now is her family, Staci touches the lives of people across the globe every week with her various Internet endeavors including:
Books In Print, Kindle & FREE on Spirit Light Works:
Spirit Light Books--The Blog: http://spiritlightbooks.wordpress.com/
And… Staci’s website http://www.stacistallings.com/ Come on over for a visit…
You’ll feel better for the experience!
Connect with her on Twitter: @StaciStallings