Bonus Online Exclusive: A Chat With Sandra Anthony, Winner of the Eighth Annual Popular Fiction Awards

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Sandra Anthony, author of the YA short story "Forfeit," is the Grand Prize winner of our Eighth Annual Popular Fiction Awards, beating 2,300 other entries across six categories: crime, horror, romance, science fiction, thriller, and YA. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, Sandra Anthony shares how she incorporates writing into her busy schedule and discusses the ingredients for a good story. You can also read Sandra's winning story here.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I was born and raised on a family farm outside of the small farming community of Lexington, Nebraska. My parents were farmers and ranchers, and though it may seem a cliché, they really did teach us the value of hard work, productivity, and perseverance. Though they are not writers or even necessarily literary people, they also taught us the value of reading, and books were constantly a part of our upbringing. At an early age, I began to write poems and stories; and I seemed to think of life in terms of narrative. I often wandered our farm alone, making up my own tales, or regaled my baby sister with some yarn I had spun just for her benefit. Storytelling was an important tradition in our family, although it most often went by the more colloquial term “b.s.-ing”. To this day, I believe I learned the art of story not only from the books I adored, but also from the hours I spent at my father’s side, listening to his buddies swap stories over a cold beer when the work day was done. The “hook”, the build-up, the climax, the punch line – it was all built into those stories, and I learned to tell them myself in that venue.

Although at home I was quite opinionated, at school I was the shy kid who loved books and was loyal to her friends. As junior high and high school progressed, I became more outgoing, increasingly involved in music, writing for the yearbook, and other, less orthodox, activities that included learning to pilot small aircraft and becoming a graphic designer at our local newspaper. Thanks to good scores and a lot of applications, I also ended up graduating with a full scholarship to college. Writing had always been a part of my life, and I had consistently been journaling from the 8th grade on, but when it came time to pick a vocation, writing was only a hobby to me, and I chose teaching, a profession I felt I could pursue with confidence. In college, I once again immersed myself in a variety of activities, traveling to Mexico for a summer as an exchange student and editing and producing my own newspaper on campus during my freshman and sophomore years. Working thirty hours a week and carrying a full academic schedule meant that I eventually let the newspaper go by the wayside, seeing it as just another activity I had enjoyed for a season. Not until I took a fiction class my junior year and received positive feedback on the stories I submitted there did I begin to consider that I might be able to pursue a career in writing. I enjoyed writing fiction so much that it scared me a little, but I had no idea how I would incorporate that into my dream of teaching. When college ended and I went out into the world of education, it was easy to set the idea of doing more with my writing aside once again. I continued to journal, write poetry, and occasionally produce stories, but teaching became my all-consuming passion, and there was little time for more.

Five years passed, and in 2005, I began to think about going back to college for my master’s degree. I had continued to write and had even started several novels, but I never seemed to be able to finish anything. A master’s degree in creative writing seemed like a way to force myself to finish, so I embarked on a six-year odyssey to complete that degree – slowly, since I was only able to take one class each semester while I was teaching full-time. In my fourth year, I submitted a story for a creative writing scholarship and won third place. The next year, I won first prize. The scholarships bolstered my confidence and enabled me to continue financially. They also encouraged me to begin writing my thesis, a young adult novel inspired in part by my own experiences teaching refugees while living in the Middle East during the summer of 2009.

During that summer, I also experienced the power of blogging for the first time, and since then, I have continued to write online about my travels to Israel, South Korea, Japan, and various other locales. I finished the first draft of my novel in the spring of 2011, and graduated with honors that summer. My thesis then won the prize for my college that year, which was another encouragement. As I began to share my work with other writers and readers of YA fiction (including my students), the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. All of this proved to be the impetus I needed to continue pursuing writing as a career. What had once been only a hobby at last began to seem like a calling, and I began to challenge myself to enter contests like this one. Though I continue to teach full-time, I now feel more and more certain that one day, I will be able to pursue this passion with all of my resources as well.

What attracted you to writing about this particular genre? Do you write other genres as well?

I do love to write in a variety of genres, including literary, mystery, thriller, and even memoir. However, I have a special place in my heart for YA fiction. My attraction is closely tied to my work as a middle school educator; I am now in my eighth year of teaching middle school, and during that time, I have purchased and read literally hundreds of young adult books to share with my students. One of my passions is to get my reluctant readers hooked on reading, and that only takes one book – but it has to be the “right” book! Over the years, I began to think that there were stories I would like to see my students reading, but I wasn’t seeing them on the shelves. Toni Morrison has said, “If there's a bookthat you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." I have quoted that often to my students during our creative writing lessons, and with so much investment of my time in reading young adult stories, it seemed only natural that I would take my own advice and write some! We all remember what it is to be young, and YA literature offers lots of room for exploring the commonalities that connect all humans in creative ways. I feel like some of the most cutting-edge writing being done today is in the field of young adult literature, and there’s a real freedom to really explore fresh new avenues of communicating narrative. Not to mention, it really is immensely enjoyable to me to craft stories that I feel will be accessible to all ages.

In your opinion, what elements make a good story (YA or otherwise)?

All the stories I love seem to enjoy several things in common: a compelling dilemma for the main character, an unexpected plot twist, an unforeseen connection between characters or actions that unravels with the story, a gripping pace, and an ending that somehow unwinds a new revelation for the reader. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, I always look for some grain of truth that will come to light as the story is read, something that shifts the reality of the main character and that will resonate with the reader as they come to the end of the story. I love it when a reader feels both satisfied with the outcome, and also dissatisfied that the story has to end. These are the things I continually strive for in my own fiction, no matter the genre.

What do you feel are your strengths as a writer? How have you developed these qualities?

I think one of my strengths as a writer is that I am a reader. I read constantly, often five or six books simultaneously, and I read across almost all genres, both fiction and nonfiction. A day never goes by that I am not reading something, somewhere – usually when I am supposed to be doing something else! – that informs my writing world and strengthens my vocabulary. Like most writers, I am a huge fan of words that are used well, but I am also equally intrigued by the art of how people tell their stories, and I am constantly pondering how that might apply to the things I am working on.

In the same way, I have always continued to write for myself, no matter how crazy my schedule has gotten. Nowadays, whether I am blogging, working on short stories, revising one novel or drafting another, I find that I crave and have to have my time to put words on the page. But even before I began writing fiction on a regular basis, I always processed my life through writing, which meant keeping multiple journals and files of random reflection, and saving everything, so I could easily go back and read my past work. I think this constant habit of narrating my own life to myself, along with a profession that gives me access to so many stories so consistently, has really helped me to develop a voice that is authentic for my characters. It also helps that I am really, really stubborn; no matter how many times I have to revise something, I will work on things until I am absolutely satisfied that they reflect my best effort.

What are your weaknesses? How do you plan on strengthening them?

My main weakness is a busy schedule and the tendency to prefer people and getting projects done above my own need to write. This is something I have consistently had to address since I began working on my first novel in 2010, and what it amounts to is that there has to be time in every week for my writing that is non-negotiable. Once set, I have to give myself permission to guard that time just as jealously as I would time for any other appointment or obligation. That’s a difficult thing for me to do, since I do love to say “yes” to everyone.

Among my other weaknesses are a fondness for repeating certain words that catch my ear a little too often (something I spend a great deal of time on in revision), and a tendency towards wordiness in general. Much of my revision time, which I have actually learned to enjoy, is spent in paring down my prose, and now I find that I actually can edit more for wordiness as I rough draft as well.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Somewhere along the line, one of my professors told us that whoever said, “Write what you know” was full of baloney. She maintained that as writers we were practically obligated to write what we didn’t know, to explore the places other minds had not yet dared to go. That simple idea freed me up as a writer in a way that nothing else has, because up to that point, I was constantly coming up with story ideas and then feeling as if I didn’t know enough about the concept or the setting or the culture to really write a good story. And what I discovered is that if you follow your imagination into those tales, you can fill in the gaps you don’t know with research, but the essence of the story is true no matter what, and that’s what you have to be free to write about. Now I take a great deal of delight in writing what I don’t know, and I am always surprised to discover, at the bottom of it all, that there is an amazing amount that I have in common with my characters, no matter how different we may appear to be from each other on the surface.

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