“Damaged,” by A.G. Wagoner, is the Grand Prize winning story for the Tenth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards, besting 1,300 entries across six genres: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and YA. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive feature on Wagoner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. And check out information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, Wagoner talks about who and what has inspired her as a writer and the keys to writing a successful thriller. You can read “Damaged” here.
Tell us about yourself.
I’ve always wanted to be a novelist. Growing up, though, everyone told me writing was a hobby and I needed to do something more significant with my future. While applying to medical school this past year, I decided that, to hell with those people, I wanted to be a writer, not a doctor, despite how difficult it can be to make a career writing. The only reason I hadn’t seriously tried to become a novelist was because everyone wanted me to do something more acceptable. I didn’t want to be that person that followed a suburban, normal path simply because it was easier and safe. I wanted to be brave, adventurous. So I rejected my seat in medical school and started investing my time and my heart into becoming a bona fide Writer. The WD Popular Fiction Awards marked my second writing competition I’ve ever entered (since high school) and my first award (since high school). As of yet, I have not attempted to publish anything, but hopefully I will have something published soon!
What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing thrillers?
Writing thrillers is like reading them: it’s exciting, fun, and fast paced. I tend to gravitate towards high-intensity stories that naturally drive themselves forward, adding layers of suspense and danger on top of another. One of the biggest benefits to writing thrillers is that they are so much fun. I find myself writing somewhat manically; I have to know what happens next! Thrillers – good thrillers, that is – tend to have intricate story lines with twists, turns, and red herrings. It can be a challenge to weave all those elements together and do it in a way that readers will buy. People who read thrillers tend to read a lot of them and won’t tolerate subpar plotting. It’s a fine line to walk, but very rewarding when you get it right.
Describe your writing process for this story.
This story began as a completely unrelated concept before it turned into “Damaged.” For some time I had been playing with the idea of a character that didn’t have a conscience and how that would affect their daily life, relationships, career, etc. Somehow that turned into this idea of a con laying low, post crime spree and the people the character would come across (other criminals) which would bring consequences all its own. I always look for ways to accelerate the story, drive it up a notch. It sort of exploded into this high-octane confrontation in a dark parking lot. I had one hell of a good time writing it and I’m glad someone has enjoyed reading it, too! I wrote it in an afternoon, sitting at a coffee shop while I was supposed to be looking for jobs. As I said, when I get on a roll I tend towards the manic, not stopping to eat or socialize. The caffeine probably doesn’t help. I always do my best work while procrastinating! I finished a novel during undergrad in my college’s library while I was supposed to be studying for exams and finals hopped up on espresso. Ah, good times.
How long have you been writing? How did you start? Do you write full time?
I have been writing stories and keeping journals pretty much as long as I’ve been able to write. It’s something I have always done and will continue to do as long as I am able, whether or not I ever make another dime from it. I don’t remember “starting” to write; it seems to me that it was something I was born doing. In sixth grade, my first attempt to stretch beyond a short story and write a book was “Lacy Clarke and the Hidden Letter.” I was a big Nancy Drew fan! Then I started a more grown up novel in middle school, working on it off and un until undergrad when I finished it senior year. It’s far too disjointed from years of not quite working on it to publish anytime soon, but finishing it was a big milestone for me. Knowing I possessed the capacity to finish a novel helped me decide to pursue writing seriously. I don’t write full time – yet. I’m in the process of moving into a new career and hope to publish a novel soon.
Who has inspired you as a writer?
I come from a long line of storytellers. My grandfather had a massive library, filled with volumes of thick, leather books with a distinct, comforting smell. Some of my favorite memories are sitting around with my family, listening to my grandfather, uncles, and father trade stories around a kitchen table (and possibly a bottle of vodka). Storytelling is as much a part of my identity as my southern drawl and much of my inspiration comes from years spent listening and laughing at their feet. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin introduced me to Turtle Wexler as a child. I loved Turtle. She was smart and young, a bit of a troublemaker, too, and at the end of the book she’s the one to solve the mystery. I wanted to be just like her. I realized then what stories could mean to a reader. I hope to one day be able to do that for my audience. I want them to see something in a character that they can carry with them always. I want to be the kind of writer that can help people escape, have an adventure, fall in love, or all the above. More than any one specific writer in my life, those emotions are what inspire me to write.
Which genres do you write in? Are thrillers (short or long) your primary genre?
I write whatever story is floating through my brain that day, regardless of genre. I normally don’t even consider genre until the story has slowed and I’m not quite sure which way to go with it. That is when I’ll think about genre. But I do have a tendency to write faster paced stories that often end up being thrillers. I also write horror and historical fiction. I enjoy writing stories that have room for a lot of creativity. I appreciate being able to break with reality for a little while and write whatever comes out. Sometimes it surprises even me!
Describe your typical writing routine.
First I see or hear something that catches my imagination and it roots in there, brewing, until I can make a story out of it. I start brainstorming ideas and questions, drawing pictures, graphs, whatever comes into my mind in this big notebook where I keep track of my newest ideas. At this stage, any idea is raw and writing it down longhand helps me make sense of it, explore, and focus on it. I used to be a pantser, but now I usually work up a rough outline before getting started. It helps me keep working forward even when I run out of steam. Once I have an outline, I set to writing. I don’t always write linearly; first I write the scenes and chapters that have the most impact. Then, when I can see the big picture, it’s easier to string the scenes together in the best way, to add hints and subplots that work best. The most important thing is to sit down and write! That’s the fun part anyway. For me, it works.
How would you describe your writing style?
I have no clue. I’m still trying to figure out my style! It’s fluid at this point, in my nascent career. With every story I try writing a little differently to fit my mood. Maybe it will become more concrete as I settle into my writing career, but probably not. I enjoy being able to write whatever and however I fancy.
What are the keys to a successful thriller? How does the short story format affect these keys?
To no one’s surprise, surprise and suspense. There is no greater disappointment to a reader (at least to this one) than getting to the end of a thriller and realizing that you knew what was going to happen by paragraph two. And suspense – by definition a thriller should be so exciting that it is impossible to put down. A successful thriller has to keep the reader hooked from the beginning until it culminates in a surprising, gut wrenching finale. Obvious to say, but much harder to execute!
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
My big notebook! I have a notebook of unlined pages filled with graphs, sticky notes, paragraphs, sketches, lists… Anything that could possibly help an idea become a story. It’s where I write down ideas ranging from the almost complete to the totally raw. I work through plot problems and note what sort of research I need to do. When a story hits a fork in the road, I map out what would happen if scenarios until my fingers ache. It helps me keep my thoughts straight, plots moving forward, character descriptions detailed. I don’t have enough room in my brain to keep track of all the ideas and nuggets I think of, so they all live in the notebook. Without it, I doubt any story would develop beyond a basic idea. I’d be too overwhelmed by all the stories in my head.
Where do you get ideas for your writing?
Everywhere! I see people in coffee shops, hear conversations in restaurants. It could be a news story or an article in a paper. History is ripe with prompts, too, once you start looking at it. Sometimes ideas come to me in dreams. Friends and family give me ideas, though occasionally that can be more dangerous than it’s worth. Sometimes it’s what people say or what they do. Sometimes it’s just a name on a side of a cardboard coffee cup. Ideas are everywhere. The trick isn’t finding ideas but making sense of what to do with them afterwards, where they should go, where they should be set. Getting ideas is the easy part!
What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?
Apparently, I’m a natural, if you don’t mind me saying so. Writing is as inherent to who I am as my sense of humor. It comes as naturally as breathing and not writing has never once occurred to me. One of my biggest strengths is how much I enjoy writing big scenes jam packed with drama and suspense and danger and action. I like stories with intrigue where the characters have a lot to lose. I think those two things are my greatest strengths. So I keep writing. That’s how I have developed any good qualities I might be lucky enough to possess. I keep writing and exploring what I can do, keep enjoying it. I write in different genres, different points of view. I explore writing the way Peter Parker explored his newfound talents after that provincial spider bite.
What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?
I’m a big picture kinda gal. It is difficult for me to hammer out all the tiny little details a novel needs. I think it’s one reason why I write short stories. Not every scene has a significant amount of action in a novel and I don’t enjoy writing those as much. I also lack a lot of discipline when it comes to writing. Since I have grown up writing for fun with no deadlines or consequences, if I lose interest in a story, I simply quit writing it. I can’t do that when I’m trying to write a novel or a short story for a competition. To strengthen myself, I write anyway, even when I’m not as interested in the story. Or I try to find something that interests me in a slow scene. There’s always something, or there should be, even in the least exciting of chapters. In fact, it’s in these scenes I try to add more of the hints and red herrings that make good stories great.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
My fifth grade teacher told me I was a good writer. I know that’s not quite advice, but it was life changing, nonetheless. It was Christmas time and she had an entire board dedicated to her class and something in which each student excelled. On a post it note shaped like a wreath, were the words “good friend, good writer.” It was the first time someone that I wasn’t related to had told me I had a talent for writing. I remember a hint of excitement, a tiny kindling of hope that maybe I was good, really, actually good. I knew I loved writing, but it felt good to know that someone enjoyed reading it, too. I still have that post it note.
What’s your proudest moment as a writer?
This is it! Since I’m still new to trying be a professional Writer, having won a national contest (not to mention money of any amount) is huge for me! It’s too easy to think about all the people who fail at writing daily and reread all the dumb first drafts (okay, okay – rough second drafts, too!) I’ve written over the years. It seems impossible that I could be so blessed as to make a living doing something I love so well. Amidst all the doubt that plagues writers, winning the WD Popular Fiction Awards is like that moment in fifth grade all over again. I find myself thinking maybe I can do this after all.
What are your goals as a writer: for your career and your work?
I want to be able to quit my day job and write full time! That would be a dream come true, especially if I could make enough money to pay rent. I have a novel finished and another one almost done so I plan to start pedaling my manuscripts around to agents and publishers alike soon. I also started a Masters program in January and I hope to teach Writing and English when I’m done. Even if I never publish anything or win another competition ever again, I look forward to writing for as long as I am able!
Any final thoughts or advice?
Write on! You’ll never get any better or publish anything or win anything if you don’t keep writing. Even if you’re terrible at it, keep going. Mistakes make for the best teachers, anyway (sorry, mom). Think of that book, that story, that made you fall in love with the written word for the very first time and keep on. Whether you want to be the next Stephen King or you’re just looking for a therapeutic way to pass the time, keep writing.