Ask the Author: 8 Questions with Award-Winning Author Christina Hoag

Christina Hoag won a prize for writing interesting stories when she was six years old and that’s what she’s been doing ever since. She is the author of the novels Girl on the Brink, (Fire and Ice YA, 2016), named 2016 Best of YA by Suspense Magazine, and the noir crime tale Skin of Tattoos, (Martin Brown, 2016) a 2017 Silver Falchion Award finalist. She is also the co-author of Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner, 2014). A former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, she reported from Latin America for nearly a decade for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, and The New York Times. She now makes her home in Los Angeles.

ALC: How have your experiences and adventures as a journalist influenced and informed your fiction stories? How did you learn to bring emotion into your fiction writing, which is often lacking from journalistic writing?

CH: Being a journalist both helped and hindered me. Journalism is a great background for being a novelist because you know what a story is, you know basically how to write, you make deadlines, and you’re just used to working with language. On the other side, I had to learn to put emotion into my story. As a journalist, you have to be neutral. You always look for balance in your story. You have to have the argument, the counter argument and so on. So when writing a novel I had to get myself untrained from that and be much more emotional in my storytelling. I have to really put my head into the head of the character and tell the story from that point of view rather than the neutral observer. With my first novel, I was 170 pages into it when I looked back at what I had written and thought “God, this looks like a reporter just saying this happened and this happened.” I threw it all out and started again. So it has been a process.

 ALC: Discuss how years of extensive interviews inspired and contributed to your novel Skin of Tattoos. What advice do you have for writers on finding credible interviewees and executing quality interviews to enhance their story or work?

CH: I researched that book extensively. It grew out of a magazine assignment in El Salvador around 2000, and I interviewed some young men on the streets there. Some had been deported from Los Angeles, or were fugitives fleeing crimes, and were now stuck in El Salvador, which they didn’t know because they were brought up in the United States. Some of them barely spoke Spanish, and they certainly couldn’t read Spanish that well, so they were really a fish out of water. I wanted to tell the story behind these guys who look pretty foreboding with the tattoos and the shaved head and what not. But they’re mostly just scared kids. They want a job. So with that book I wanted to tell their story and their families, of trying to make it in L. A.

As a reporter, I also interviewed many gang members for different stories I was reporting on as a journalist, but not specifically for the book, as well as experts in that area so I built a knowledge base about gangs. You always get more out of interviews once you accumulate at least some basic knowledge about it.  So my advice would be to do your research homework first then go for interviews. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of time with an expert going over basics which you can get elsewhere and use your time with the expert to dig deeper and have a more meaningful conversation. Plus they will appreciate that you know something about the subject.

"They're mostly just scared kids...I wanted to tell their story."

ALC: How did your nonfiction book Peace in the Hood come about, what was the co-authoring process, and how have you built a readership for this book?

CH: I co-authored Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence (Turner Publishing, 2014), a book on “gang intervention.” Basically I was the writer. I interviewed my co-author, noted gang interventionist Aquil Basheer, at length about his life and his program to train former gang members as community peacekeepers who disrupt the retaliatory cycle of gang violence. I also interviewed many former gang members, cops, psychologists and others who work in this field. I’d write the chapters then Aquil would revise, add, subtract and so on. It was a fascinating project, and I’m proud to say that the book is being used as a text in several university courses and has been issued in hardback for college bookstores.

ALC: When writing outside of what they know or have experienced, what research steps can writers take to ensure their fiction stories are believable, relatable, and accurate?

CH: Some of the best things are memoirs because they are firsthand experience. Other nonfiction books are good, too, but memoir is usually written by someone who went through the experience you’re writing about so they’re a great place to start.  YouTube videos are a good way to pick up things like speech patterns, manner of dress etc. Documentaries, movies and TV shows, especially for period/historical stories, are great. They’ve done all the research for their sets and so on. Newspaper and magazine stories are good too. You can also seek out experts and ask for interviews, offer to buy them lunch.

ALC: What are 3 to 5 elements of a really good suspense story, and how much do you know about a story’s plot when you sit down to start a new fiction manuscript?

CH: I know the beginning and end then I have to work through the mushy middle. A good suspense story has to continually pose new obstacles for the protagonist to hurdle. I think that’s really what keeps readers turning pages. They want to find out what happens next, even if they know the ending, they want to know how the protagonist gets there. I also think you have to dole information out carefully, just giving readers what they have to know at a particular point in the story yet hinting that there’s more. Use of red herrings is also a good device for later surprising the reader.  You have to keep everything logical but unexpected.

ALC: What inspired you to write your young adult novel Girl on the Brink, and how did you find the voice of a young adult as you were writing? 

CH: Girl on the Brink was inspired by my own experience in an abusive relationship. I really wanted to write a book that was entertaining yet cautionary for girls as they start their dating lives. There are clear red flags of abusers but unless you know what they are, you can easily mistake them for the opposite of abuse. It took me a while to find the voice but I read a lot of YA books and it started to percolate through my writing. That’s the best suggestion I can make for capturing voice.

"I read a lot of YA books and it started to percolate through my writing."

ALC: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the publishing process, and how have you overcome these obstacles?

CH: There are many: overcoming self-doubt in writing, finding an agent, dealing with rejection and disappointment. This isn’t an easy road to pursue. There are so many ups and downs at no matter what point in your career. You have to write because you really, really love writing, because you can’t imagine doing something else. The best thing is to develop perseverance and belief in yourself and wear those like a coat of armor. 

ALC: What marketing initiatives have you found to be the most effective in reaching readers for your fiction work? Anything that isn’t worth the time or financial investment?

CH: I do as many personal appearances as I can. When people hear you speak, they are more inclined to buy your books. I’ve also run ads on Bookbub, Amazon and have done a Facebook post boost. As other authors have found, Bookbub works the best but you really have to drop the price quite a bit to get sales. It’s a tough market to break through the clutter. I have also done book blog tours. The tour worked well for Girl on the Brink, but did not work well at all for Skin of Tattoos. I have since read that book blogs are not nearly as big of a deal as they used to be so I don’t know about spending time or money on them in the future. Ultimately, I think you just have to write a really good book.

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