Women Who Write: Julie Benz
In our new series Women Who Write, we chat with up-and-coming authors about they find inspiration, stay motivated, and beat writer's block. Our first post features Julie Benz and her novel Save Me, a story about a young women with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Read an excerpt below.
"What?" I asked, suddenly feeling embarrassed.
He shook his head. "Nothing," he said, looking away. "You're just interesting. In a good way." He licked his spoon, and I burst out laughing. "What?" he asked, clueless. He had a spot of chocolate on his cheek, and we'd forgotten to grab napkins at the ice cream shop.
"Hold on," I said. I walked over to one of the many benches lining the pathway and set my ice cream down. It was mostly melted by now. I walked close to Ackley. I reached my hand up and, with my thumb, lightly brushed away the chocolate on his cheek. His eyes were focused on me, yet again.
"There," I said, taking my hand away. "All better." When I got my eyes to meet his, everything changed. He was looking at me with such an intensity in him. I didn't step back from him – our bodies were maybe five inches from each other. But...he didn’t move back, either. He inched closer to me, dropping his ice cream on the ground. He placed a hand on my hip, and his other hand went to cup my face. It was like a repeat of last week.
"You're going to kiss me," I whispered, looking from his eyes, to his lips, to his eyes again.
He smiled as he inched closer. He leaned down to my height. "Not if you ruin the moment," he replied. He closed his eyes, his face centimeters from mine.
I closed my eyes and waited for the soft meeting of our lips.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think I've always kind of known what I wanted to do. I remember, before I even learned how to write, I would scribble lines onto paper and go into our garage and sit on our tractor and create these little stories and pretend to present them to a class. It wasn't really until 4th or 5th grade that I realized I had a passion for writing. We did this exercise in class where we had to write something like 4 short stories and I just could not, for the life of me, get them down to the guided 5-10 pages. I found myself writing basically ever since.
What are your writing habits?
I've been super terrible lately with writing since I have a couple jobs and very little down time to write, but when I’m out in the world alone or walking somewhere, I find myself looking at other people and just watching them (promise it’s not too creepy). I try to imagine their lives and their whole story. I wonder where they’re going, who they’re going to see, what their inner dialogue might be like. Sometimes a random sentence will pop in my head that I write into my phone or notebook that I think could be useful at some point in some writing of mine.
I also listen to instrumental music – music without any lyrics. My favorite artists are Ólafur Arnalds and Hans Zimmer. If I need to write an emotional piece of work, I have a specific playlist just to get me into that mood and mindset. Music with words just distracts me too much – then I tend to focus more on the words of the song than my actual writing.
What was the inspiration for this book and what did your writing process look like?
This is a tough one. I think my inspiration comes from just the fact that celebrities are like mysteries to me that I just feel the need to solve. So much goes on behind their doors. You get a personality shown to the world but I always kind of wonder – "Is this really them?" So I just decided to write this book to explore that for myself.
This book, though, was different from any other piece of writing I've done before. Usually I’ll start something, get a few chapters in (or, if I'm really feeling it, get a couple hundred pages in) and then let it just drift off to the side of my life. I can't even tell you how many partially written pieces of work I have in my computer. But this book was different. Once I started it, I couldn’t stop. I think I wrote 350 pages in about four months. I started it the end of my senior year in high school and finished it at the beginning of my freshman year in college. To this day, even though it's published, I still find myself re-reading it and editing it. I don’t think I'll ever be completely satisfied (are any artists with their work??) with it because I think there’s always room for improvement as I grow both as a human being and as a writer. Then again – the book takes place when Darcy is seventeen-turning-eighteen so I try not to edit her thoughts too much because they were the same exact thoughts I had when I was writing at that exact same age.
Long story short, my writing process was pretty boring. Since I was a senior in high school so close to graduation, I really didn’t have that stressful of a schedule. I had study hall and was a runner for the deans (basically took passes to students to take them down to the deans) and had open lunches. It was during all this free time that I always carried my notebook and just… wrote. I would say about 2/3 of the book was written during school hours. The rest was written late at night after I'd finished my homework or during the summer when I wasn’t working.
What are you working on now?
Like I said, I'm never fully and completely happy with a finished piece of work, so I'm still editing Save Me and I probably will be editing everything I write until the day I die.
I have a couple partially started works or newly formed ideas stewing in my brain but I’m trying to save them for this fall when I start my MA for creative writing & publishing at City University of London in the U.K.
What's your favorite piece of advice for prospective writers?
I’ve read it thousands and thousands of times from other established authors (which I definitely am not), but honestly it's so true: READ. Reading is so helpful. Read everything you can. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever you fancy. You can get the simplest, smallest idea from the oddest places that blossom and bloom into a story you never could have imagined.
But also…don't give up. The world is a tough one for writers. Not only will you get countless rejection letters from agents and publishers, but you’ll also give yourself rejection. I can’t even count the number of times I've written a complete work and just sat there thinking I'd just written the worst thing to man and no one will ever want to read it. I sent it off to friends and family members and they were the ones who pulled me through that. They made me believe in myself and my writing. I have so many rejections filling my inbox from agents and publishers that I just decided to skip all the hubbub and publish my work myself on Lulu. You don’t have to (nor should you) rely on someone else for your confidence – you've got that inside you already!
How do you beat writer's block?
I do a couple things.
Go outside and just breathe. I look around me at everything there is and see a story in everything. That bug? Probably has a wife and a few dozen kids it's going to get food for. (Weird, I know. But anthropomorphism is a big thing in writing – hello, Fantastic Mr. Fox?? Heck, even Bug’s Life, even though it’s not a book!)
Like I said earlier, I read. Books help so much to bust me out of my block. I read the words from other authors and it fills me with overflowing amounts of creative juices I just have to write, even if it's not what I was originally working on.
Also, weirdly enough, I act scenes out. Sometimes I just have to get out of my own head and wonder what my character(s) would do in real time. I put a situation in front of me, whether it was a scene I was working on or a random one I just come up with, and immerse myself in a character. I wonder what their expressions would be, how they would move, what they would say, etc. Not only does it help progress the story, but it also helps me understand and develop my characters more.
Or just do what my dad always tells me – add an alien invasion.