Author Spotlight: Interview with Dawn Ross

Dawn Ross is a daydreamer who has been perfecting her writing skills for over twenty years. With an imagination inspired by a few decades of fantasy/sci-fi books, movies, and television, she has created her own epic sci-fi full of rich characters in a vast universe. It all begins with StarFire Dragons, which Kirkus Reviews says is “A thoughtful novel that owes a debt to Star Trek but works on its own terms.”

Dawn has a Bachelor of Science degree, cum laude meritum, in financial management. She also self-studies history, writing, and various sciences including astronomy and physics. Her character-focused stories include scientific elements such as space travel, space battles, fascinating worlds, cybernetic beings, and more.

Tell us a bit about the stories you write and why?

I’ve always been attracted to fantasy and science fiction stories. I love how they spread beyond the boundaries of reality and into worlds of endless possibilities. Not only do they provide an escape from reality, but they also spark my imagination.
I’m drawn to tragic characters who’ve had the odds stacked against them their whole lives and yet still manage to rise above them to become better people. It gives me hope that others can do it too. I’m also inspired by stories where the good guys win and bad guys get what they deserve.
All these things together have inspired numerous stories in my head, but none as epic as this sci-fi series I’m writing now. StarFire Dragons: Book One of the Dragon Spawn Chronicles was initially inspired by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “Suddenly Human”. The story has a Star-Trek-feel, but it doesn’t end there. I have dozens of novel ideas following this one, most of which follow the life of Jori, a ten-year-old warrior with amazing and sometimes deadly abilities.

What is your writing routine? How do you schedule your time to write?

That’s an easy one to answer: As a stay-at-home mom, I spend the first half of my weekday volunteering, running errands, and/or cleaning house. After lunch, I generally have 1-3 hours to write before my child gets out of school.

What’s your creative process like?

Many of my stories have been partially daydreamed in advance. I don’t just keep them in my head, though. I keep a ton of notes. I have notebooks all over the place, including in my car. I sometimes use the notes app on my iPhone, and I have several documents on the cloud and saved on my desktop and tablet.
This might seem very unorganized, but in truth, all my notes eventually end up on the cloud and on two separate external hard drives. My notes are very well organized in specific folders, making it easy for me to find individual stories, specific characters, and certain worldbuilding details.
Every year in October, I pick one novel-worthy story and outline it. I start with the basic Plot Dot method, then flesh out the details chapter-by-chapter. By November, I’m ready to hammer out the story. I do this with a group of other writers, both online and locally, through an event called NaNoWriMo. It stands for National Novel Writing Month and can be found at NaNoWriMo.org. The goal is to write 50,000 words by the end of the month. Even though the story is outlined in advance, I’m not afraid to veer off track. Sometimes I find interesting subplots and sometimes I realize the story won’t work as originally planned. After November, my tasks are as follows: write the second draft, get feedback from beta readers, write the third draft, self-edit, edit using ProWritingAid, send to a professional editor, then fix the final draft.

What are some of your favorite Sci-fi/Fantasy movies and books?

This is always a difficult question to answer because there’s so much great stuff out there. I grew up watching Star Wars and Star Trek so even if some aren’t great, they still have a special place in my heart. Firefly is one of my favorite TV shows. The movie that came after it, Serenity, is fantastic. Regarding sci-fi books, I’ve always loved Isaac Asimov. I’ve recently enjoyed James S.A. Corey’s series as well. And since I’m a sci-fi Indie author, I want to mention some great sci-fi Indie Authors: Elysia L. Strife, Craig Alanson, and E.J. Fisch, just to name a few. Frasier Armitage also has a novel that I love. It’s not published yet, though, but he’s a sci-fi author you should look out for. Allen Huntsman isn’t a sci-fi writer, but his horror short stories always give me chills.

Thanks Dawn! That’s very generous of you. Have you ever imagined writing in a different genre? If so, what?

Writing sci-fi/fantasy has always been my passion. The great thing about this genre is it can easily incorporate other genres such as horror, mystery, or suspense/thriller. No holds barred in sci-fi/fantasy!

What other things are you passionate about besides writing?

I love animals and nature. Growing up, my family frequented the Cascade Mountains. We went to places with no amenities like well water, bathrooms, or cabins. We hiked, explored, and camped far from civilization. It was an exciting time for a curious child to discover the spectacular facets of nature.
My love for animals and nature led to my love of art. I enjoy drawing mountains, trees, birds, and mammals using vibrant colors. My favorite subjects are carnivorous animals like eagles, wolves, and tigers.

I also enjoy drawing pets, especially dogs. You could say dogs are also my passion. My mother was the unofficial rescue lady of our town, so we always had them around. I’ve rescued many myself over the years, and have worked at or volunteered for animal shelters, boarding kennels, and veterinary offices.

You can find Dawn Ross’s epic sci-fi series on Amazon in paperback or as an e-book. Read her blog at DawnRossAuthor.com and find her on Twitter @DawnRossAuthor.

The Progression Of My Writing Process

My writing process has definitely changed in small ways over time. Some tools I’ve held onto, while others I’ve completely discarded or modified to befit my own personal needs.

Back in my early teen years I was sure I wanted to be a screenwriter. A brother in-law supported my interest and photocopied a book for me all about filmmaking. The first section of the book focused on building the script, providing examples of different ways a screenwriter will present their work to a producer: it starts with the simple “concept,” a short paragraph summary of the movie’s basic premise; the “scene outline” follows, which is a shallow summary of what occurs in each scene; the “treatment” looks a lot like a novelization of the scene outline with detailed descriptions of what happens in each scene. Finally, the “master script,” including all the key details and character dialogue. I followed these illustrations like they were a step by step process on how to write a screenplay. My school buddies and I spent hours pretending to be the next Steven Spielberg or George Lucas with the little video camera I got for Christmas one year.

Years later someone gave me the idea I could skip the production pains of filmmaking and write a novel instead. During this time someone else gave me a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft. I took a very different approach to writing my first novel, diving right into composition, putting down my thousand words a day like Mr. King suggested. It was a start. Stephen King’s book definitely inspired the work ethic I hoped to one day achieve.

Throughout my college years I became somewhat obsessed with learning about how different writers approach the craft, trying a variety of methods and tools. One of the most bizarre revision tools I discovered involved making a list of the most repeated word in your story, and then sort of creating a revised spine for your second draft using the themes you derive from this word collage. It was interesting, but I’ve never used it again.

The most helpful tool came from David Morrell’s book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. I love this method for its simple ingenuity. Mr. Morrell suggests that while you’re spending all that time contemplating and focusing your idea, why not record it on paper as a conversation with yourself? Many would argue this is just like an outline, and it is technically an outline. The difference is you can sprawl. A conversation with myself on paper is informal; I’m not boxing myself in with all those carefully aligned Roman numerals and strict lists. A conversation is loose, allowing me to pick up and test ideas and easily discard what I don’t like. This sprawling freedom allows for depth and detail as well, which in my opinion is more conducive to creativity.

My writing process these days has become focused to four drafts. Before starting each draft I begin by using Mr. Morrell’s method of a written conversation, discussing plot, character, research (if necessary), structure, and viewpoint. Subsequent written conversations analyze and revise these elements in each draft. The final fourth draft is typically a line edit.

How has your writing process evolved over time?

Book Review: The Quiet Game-Five Tales To Chill Your Bones, By Rami Ungar

This is my second experience with the works of Rami Ungar. My first experience was his novel Rose, a story about a woman who turns into a plant creature (you can find my review of that story on my YouTube channel DeathGroundReviews). Published back in 2013, The Quiet Game definitely shows its stretch marks. You can tell Rami’s still learning his craft and discovering his voice (of course, it’s arguable we are always learning our craft, even for the seasoned veteran), but don’t disregard this collection outright. It still has its charm. One thing I love about Rami Ungar is the robust exuberance of his imagination. You can tell he’s having a damn good time when he writes, and as a reader, I sense that as well. Even with some of the weaknesses in this collection, the charm of his excitement for the strange roads of his imagination pull you on through anyway. Rami’s not just writing because he thinks he can make a lot of money or attain a lot of fame. He loves it. He lives and breathes it. It’s who he is. Rami Ungar is a serious writer. I respect that.

“Addict” is the first story in this collection. It’s a story about a man struggling with a sex addiction who one day, after encountering a woman struggling with heroin addiction, becomes inspired to overcome his addiction. Using a video that guides him into a meditative state, he encounters symbolic and tormenting visions of his addiction, women he saw in porn videos, prostitutes, girls from high school that teased him. During this delirious process, the entity guiding him into the hypnotic state discloses the void in his life that he feeds with continuous consumption of filth. This is the definition of lust: one who greedily consumes but is never filled or gratified. This story surprised me. Rami handled it quite maturely, despite some moments that felt somewhat overly contrived. He illustrated well how temptation torments us.

The second story, “I Want To Be The Next James Bond”, was the weakest of the group for me, though it still has its charm. It’s a tale about a group of teenage kids encountering a haunted abandoned hospital. The main character Ronnie uses his James Bond fandom as inspiration to brave the ghosts they encounter. I related to ole Ronnie in this tale. When I was thirteen, I loved James Bond flicks (thanks to the N64 game Goldeneye, a gateway to James Bond for many my age). I spent many summer afternoons pretending I was the charming and sophisticated secret agent, defusing bombs, fighting villians atop moving airplanes, jumping out of high rise buildings as they exploded without a scratch, and don’t forget seducing the ladies with that magic line, “The names Bond, James Bond.” All this is part of my issue with the story. I was distracted by the Bond element. The haunting elements and possessed doll lost their punch. Maybe it could have worked better in the longer form of a novella or short novel, allowing more investment in Ronnie. Perhaps the James Bond fandom could have become a running theme throughout the story, his imaginative scenarios strengthening him against worse encounters with ghosts. Some of my issue was the humor, too. It ruined the horror effect for me, making it feel more like a Scooby Doo cartoon instead of a horror story. Though, maybe that’s my fault as a reader, expecting the story to be something it’s not. Perhaps Rami meant for it to be more like an adventure fantasy, not a horror story. The galumphing title suggests this.

“In The Lady Ogre’s Den” comes next, and now we’re talking. Rami hits a strong stride with this one, showing us the bizarre and disturbing experience of a young autistic boy named Jason. He suffers abuse at the hands of a nurse in the hospital and receives visits from a creature called a death wolf that preys on those nearing death. The story gives us an interesting view into the experience of someone suffering autism. Rami himself suffers with the disorder, though at a high-functioning level. He states in a postscript to the story that he dredged up “…long buried memories to write from the point of view of Jason Cambridge, along with calling upon my own personal experiences with autistic children.”

“The Quiet Game” was the first story Rami wrote for this collection, and it’s definitely a strong point. The girls at St. Dunstan wake up one morning to the eerie shock of not being able to hear. Everyone in the entire school is deaf, requiring them to resort to white boards and projector screens along with limited lip reading in order to communicate. Soon they learn that a mysterious force has overtaken the school, and it wants them to play a little game in order to escape this awful scenario. Can they solve the game and be released? Can they play within the rules to avoid elimination? This was a great story. It felt like something that would have fit perfectly as a Dr. Who episode. There’s also a hectic moment near the climax that brought to mind Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” This story is definitely a pleasure.

The collection finishes with a slam bang win. “Samson Weiss’s Curse” feels like a pure horror tale. Samson Weiss is a senator working hard on the campaign trail, meeting hectic appointments for speeches and interviews. Then one of the worst nightmares for a man in his position turns up: a stalker begins to hassle him. He soon discovers matters are much worse than your traditional stalker. This woman is a carrier, the carrier of a demanding message beyond the grave. This story is about a dybbuk, a wandering malevolent spirit that possesses the living until it can be exorcised. There’s a great moment in the story when a horde of hellish locusts invade the senator’s bedroom that had me grinning ear to ear, but in a good way. Rami also does a good job sprinkling in those background details of Samson’s life as a senator, adding in useful verisimilitude, which makes the extraordinary moments more impactful.

Overall, I rate The Quiet Game by Rami Ungar with a 3.5 out of 5. The stories are great. There’s nothing wrong with Rami’s imagination, but one big downside of this collection are the punctuation errors, especially when it comes to dialogue. There are so many moments when a sentence of dialogue should have ended with a comma followed by the dialogue tag. For example: ” ‘Well done.’ he said, clapping his hands theatrically.’ These kinds of little mistakes constantly pulled me out of these wonderfully woven tales. That’s a key reason I marked it down. However, as I said before, don’t disregard the collection. This is one of his earliest works, written eight years ago when he was discovering his craft. I still think you’re in for a great pleasure.

May I introduce you to the strange and exciting imagination of Rami Ungar? Please do meet him. You can find him here.

Recap Of The Week

This has been a good week. A lot of great goals have been set and much progress has been made with those goals.

1. I’ve committed to a schedule. This has been very helpful. I’ve consigned much of my writing to 6:30 in the morning, a sacred time, a time when not much is happening to distract me. I even managed to wake up this early every day of the week. Good consistency.

2. I’ve got a lot of works in progress. One is a novel about a man in a religious order who has reached the evening of his life and now confronts his greatest challenge yet: transcendence. Even got a title for it now: The Miracle Morning. My short story “Moon-Frosted Forest” has gone through a few beta-reading rounds; I express thanks to all who helped with that. I definitely have more directions I can take the next draft. As you saw in my previous “Nightmare Shards” post, more story ideas have been showing up when I need them. I started outlining a tale inspired by one of those dream images this morning. A serial killer artist is the subject of the story.

I hope next week I can press onward with the same consistency. I’ll sure give it my best effort. Tune in next week! I’m sure I’ll have some mysteries for us to puzzle over.

Nightmare Shards: Fragments Of What Could Be

I’ve heard it said that we dream every night, but we usually don’t remember our dreams. Seldom do I remember mine. Only a handful of times can I recall the details of my dreams vividly, and the few fragments I do remember seem like they would serve as inspiration for a really good horror novel, or collection of shorter stories. I’ll tell you about them, and perhaps in my examination, further inspiration will germinate.

Back in high school much of my writing consisted of emotional ejaculations all over numerous notebook pages–free verse entries I claimed to be heavy metal lyrics. Me and a group of school chums started a power metal band called Codessa. I took on bass playing duties and lead vocals. Day in and day out, while I should have been taking notes and completing homework, I spent most of my time indulging in my teenage angst, writing songs with titles like, “Internal Bleeding”, “A Demons Crucifixion”, and “Can’t Deal With Myself When I’m Dealing With You”, and composing nauseating doggerel with lines like this, “Your hypnotizing scream. What does it mean? The confusion of this is making me insane. In this world of the mentally ill. All souls I’d kill. Kill the will to feel.” So on and so forth. Stilted bursts of trivial vexation.

No surprise, the band didn’t make it. We all graduated high school and went our separate ways, as the story always goes. Then one night I had the dream. I know what partly inspired it. Having seen the movie The Ring not too long before my nightmare, I’m sure the wretched figure crawling out of the screen in the movie played an influencing role.

I found myself in a derelict church. Cobwebs festooned the corners of the ceiling and draped over the abandoned pews. I stood at the end of the aisle, near the pulpit. Waiting. A storm raged outside. Rain and wind pummeled the building. Thunder rumbled. I saw her, a woman in a white wedding dress, face covered with a veil, slowly walking toward me, hands behind her back. I waited as the lightning flashed, highlighting the scene with flickers of electric blue. Soon she stood before me, removing the veil with one emaciated hand, revealing a desolate gray face that hissed at me with horrid anguish. No eyes in that gaunt skull, just pits of darkness. She then revealed a dagger with her other hand and stabbed me repeatedly. The last thing I saw before waking up was the sight of my bleeding body curled up on the ground.

I was stunned. I remember every detail with near perfect clarity. The dream is responsible for my renewed efforts at writing fiction. I abandoned my efforts of writing lyrics for heavy metal music after experiencing this dream. I wanted to complete the story the nightmare image suggested. I’m still seeking the answers.

Years later, another nightmare hit me like a high velocity bullet. I woke up feeling like I had been physically indented by the dream, as if something had entered me. Again I wandered about a nearby church. There was a small graveyard just behind the church building. A sickening feeling of terror overwhelmed me as I walked amongst the gravestones. All of them were marked with strange graffiti (by golly, I think I just discovered the title for this story–strange graffiti), alien symbols of crosses, swirling circles, and bizarre shapes covered each grave marker. I wanted to scream, but for some reason I couldn’t. It was too overwhelming for me. I wanted to run away, but the nightmare held me in that unholy, desecrated place. I awoke gasping, as though I had escaped a room filling with poisonous gases.

Nightmare shards, fragments of what could be. In time, my friends, these tormenting visions will be made whole.

Why Do I Choose The Haunted Path?

In a previous post I discussed what attracted other horror writers to the haunted pathway. Today, I’m going to try to understand why I write horror.

It’s hard to explain why, exactly. I don’t remember a moment in my life when I stood at a crossroads, one path designating a sunnier atmosphere of flower blossoms and butterflies fluttering over green grasses–the non-horror path. Whilst the other path designated withered flowers and dead grass, most of it eerily shrouded in mist–the path of horror. It’s kind of always been with me, lingering like a shadow companion.

I remember the first story I ever wrote. This was twenty-eight years ago, when I was seven years of age. I scrawled it out on folded sheets of blank paper, even supplying crude stick-figure illustrations to aid my storytelling. The story was about my little sister and I battling a strange monster. The monster gobbles us up and traps us in its belly like Jonah in the whale. No worries, though. We discover the power of transformation and change into fire, burning our way free of the monster and destroying it in the process.

As you can see, the first story I ever wrote was a horror tale, a battle with a fierce beast from the unknown wastes clashing with my ordinary world. The horror tale has always called out to me.

But why? I get asked this question fairly often, most often by relatives who are worried about me, believing us horror writers go into maniacal fugue states in the middle of the night or something. Sometimes a joke is the best answer the horror writer can provide, as the late and great Robert Bloch did, stating that “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a little boy. I keep it in a jar on his desk.”

I’ve referenced Stephen King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre on this subject before, and dammit, here I go again, but King supplies another answer to the “why I write horror?” question that’s frequently crossed my mind. Back in 1979 Stephen King attended a panel discussing horror with other authors of the genre. One of the questioners asked, “Can you recall anything from your childhood that was particularly terrible?” (another concern some of my fretting friends and relatives express to me). None of the other authors on the panel supplied an answer to this, but Mr. King didn’t want them to be totally disappointed. He told a story of a time in his youth when he witnessed one of his friends being run over by a train. King was so traumatized by the event he didn’t retain any memory of it. All he knows is what his mother told him. She even supplied the grisly detail that they picked up the deceased boy’s pieces in a wicker basket. After telling this story, Janet Jeppson, a fellow author on the panel who was also a psychiatrist, responded with, “But you’ve been writing about it ever since.”

When I was only months old, my mother suffered a stroke and died. Of course, I have no memory of the incident, only the fragments of memories some of my siblings have been able to supply. I was told she was holding me at the time she suffered the stroke and set me on the counter before she collapsed. One of my older brothers attempted to give her CPR. My grandma said at one point after the funeral that, “I was the saddest baby she’d ever seen.”

Have my stories about monstrous possession and transformation been disguised dreams of this traumatic moment from my youth?

King’s response to Janet Jeppson’s statement: “There was an approving murmur from the audience. Here was a pigeonhole where I could be filed…here was a by-God motive. I wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and destroyed the world by plague in The Stand because I saw this kid run over by a slow freight in the days of my impressionable youth. I believe this is a totally specious idea–such shoot-from-the-hip psychological judgments are little more than jumped-up astrology. Not that the past doesn’t supply grist for the writer’s mill; of course it does. (Danse Macabre, 84).

Specious indeed. I think we’re attracted to this idea because it exhibits a clear logic: writer writes x (horror) because y (trauma) occurred. However, logic does not mean truth. One can carefully craft logical lies. I agree that past events can serve as an indirect influence to a writer’s imagination. My short story “Lights Out” is about a boy who kills his parents inadvertently by a power inside him he doesn’t know how to control. My mother’s stroke was caused by a blood clot resulting from the pangs of my birth. I was an indirect cause to her death. Could my short story be an expression of grief and culpability through the character of Tommy? Maybe. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing. One thing I do know–I certainly didn’t consciously plan or realize this expression when I wrote the story. The realization came later, revisiting the story.

Trauma is part of the human experience. We can’t escape it. We live in a fallen world, susceptible to failure, disease, betrayal, and all kinds of suffering. The stories we tell reflect this reality, and the horror tale is a useful vehicle for it. I guess there’s a part of me that’s either more susceptible to noticing these hardships–relating to Richard Laymon’s explanation that the horror writer is a “worst case scenario specialist”–or I cope with the suffering of life more effectively when I confront it through symbolic form in the horror story.

Before I close, another experience comes to mind from my impressionable youth. This might have been around Halloween, because my sisters and I were enjoying the fun play of building spook alleys. We dressed up in spooky costumes, creating eerie scenarios for them, acting out horror tales, in other words. At the end of our fun, we sat down in the dark and by the dim glow of a flashlight took turns telling scary stories to one another. Who could create the scariest tale? It was a contest. I can’t remember any of our stories ( vaguely I remember my older sister telling one about a possessed doll), but I do remember ending our session feeling frustrated. My story was the unscariest of them all. My sisters laughed at it; they told me it was boring. So badly I wanted to scare them. Talk about the past haunting us. Perhaps all this time I’ve been writing horror tales in reaction to that evening with my sisters. Each horror tale I write today is my symbolic attempt to win that contest and scare the living daylights out of them. Considering the fact that none of my sisters dare read any of my horror tales, I must have finally won.

“… horror stories aren’t so much about making the world a better place as they’re about trying to get out alive, with as many shreds of your soul as you can steal back from the darkness.”

Stephen Graham Jones

A Discussion Of My Short Story Hooked

The inspiring image for this story was quite different than the final product. Just a sketch of this strange cave encrusted with lichen and moss, and the terrible rumblings from the depths. I had no back story or characters to explore the cave. I could never figure out the rest of the story, so I shelved it, and moved along to work on something else.

Months later I wrote 500 words of a new tale, this one about a school teacher named Frank who enjoys his summer vacations doing yard work and walking around the neighborhood park. Soon reading becomes his new pastime when he meets a mysterious tattooed man sitting at a park bench writing in a notebook. This new acquaintance is horror author Charlie Royal. Frank strikes up a conversation with the man and learns about what he’s writing. Frank has never been a horror fan. He just can’t understand why anyone would want to dream about horrors with so many real horrors going on in real life. Yet, he’s curious. He wants to understand the attraction. He steels himself by reading stories from classic authors in the genre, preparing to read Mr. Royal’s work in progress with the hope of helping him critique it. Matters turn very dark when Frank begins reading Charlie’s tale. The ink in those diary pages conjures something menacing, and Frank becomes possessed by it. The sketch of the cave I had made months prior turned out to be the lair for the monster that possesses Frank.

I wrestled with conflicting matters while writing this story. I love horror stories, and part of me wanted to express that love for them, to celebrate them. However, there were many other conflicting voices in my head at the time, particularly of those that expressed Frank’s opinion: “Why would you want to dream of horror when so many real horror takes place in real life?” I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and still practice the religion today. I’m someone who has grown up around the opinion that stories about demonic possession, rampaging zombies, serial killers, and the many unnameable terrors out there can invite evil influences into your life. Part of me even agrees with this sentiment to some degree, although I see the line differently than many in my community, and a discussion on the matter should be consigned to an entirely different post. Let’s just say I’m fine if evil is depicted in fiction, so long as the author isn’t attempting to promote or enact the evil.

I love the horror story, but I guess there’s a part of me that still feels a little guilty about it, because those voices from my upbringing continually echo in my head. “Hooked” was an attempt to puzzle out the quandary as well as an opportunity to explore the opposite point-of-view through the eyes of my main character. I see some maturity in this story. The characters are far more fleshed out than my previous stories. They exhibit more depth and complexity, the story’s greater length allowing for this.

A small amount guilt for my love of horror still exists to this day, and maybe that’s healthy. It’ll hold me back from becoming too gratuitous with a violent scene and prick at me if I do cross the line into the territory of promoting evil instead of merely depicting it. I sure hope I never create the monstrosity Charlie Royal does with his writing, or readers of my work will be disappearing into a dreadful place.

You can find my story here.