A writer like you: Marie Howalt
Meet Marie Howalt, chronic illness warrior and author.
Marie was born and raised in a tiny North European kingdom called Denmark and has been addicted to writing for nearly three decades. After graduating from the University of Copenhagen with a master’s degree in English studies and religion, Marie worked as a translator between English and Danish for years before sustaining an injury that caused the chronic illness PCS (Post Concussion Syndrome) which changed life completely. Now Marie writes as much as physically possible.
When not writing, Marie works part time in an art supply shop and enjoys being a cat perch, drawing, reading, and bribing imaginary people to tell their stories.
We Lost the Sky is Marie’s first traditionally published novel. Several novels have been published online and a number of short stories have appeared in venues such as Every Day Fiction and Boned.
You’ll love Marie’s advice on how to write strong characters, craft natural dialogue, and stay motivated.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I wrote a bunch of very short stories when I was a small kid, but I was 11 years old when I first had the thought that I wanted to write books and have them published. Of course, at that point in life, I had no idea what that took apart from coming up with characters and stories and writing them down.
Do you have any tips for writing strong characters?
Know so much about your characters that it would be really creepy if they lived next door (unless you have a super close relationship to your neighbours, of course). I once read an article in which it was suggested to write down five facts about your main characters that will never come up in the story. That’s a great idea. Maybe even make it ten or twenty. It’s a little like being a teacher; you want to know more about your subject than you necessarily intend to teach your class.
Before I start writing a novel, I like to take some of the characters for a test ride. Sometimes I write something that ends up in the novel, sometimes it’s a scene from the character’s daily life.
And this may sound a little odd, but try not to think of them as characters. Think of them as people instead. People have good sides and bad sides, they have a past, relations to other people, phobias, clothing styles, political views, quirks and so on.
What are your tips for writing dialogue?
The first thing that comes to mind is to read the dialogue out loud and listen. If something doesn’t sound natural, it probably needs reworking. I read everything out loud in the last editing round, not just speech. It’s a good way to catch errors and expressions or words that are used too much.
It’s also important to know who is talking. As you have probably guessed from the rant above, I focus a lot on characters, and how they speak is part of who they are. Is a character old-fashioned? Do they use a lot of vernacular and slang? Are they formal, shy, outgoing? Do they make references to popular culture or use metaphors? Sometimes having a cheat sheet can be really handy. For example, in my novel, We Lost the Sky, there are different societies with their own expressions and terminologies. What one character calls ‘Moon’s flight’ is referred to as ‘the Fall’ by another and ‘the impact’ by a third. It’s a detail, but it’s important and keeps the characters distinct.
Do you have any tips for overcoming writer's block and staying motivated?
I think writer’s block can be a lot of things. Sometimes it’s perfectionism or performance anxiety, which means you are thinking ahead to the end product and the reception of it. But when you are writing the first draft of something, putting all that aside is a good idea. Yes, there will be scenes that need to be rewritten or scrapped entirely, chapters that have to be moved around or added. There might even be parts of the story you have no idea how will turn out, but all that comes later. And chances are, some people will love your story while others won’t. You can’t polish your manuscript to perfection or receive reviews if you don’t write it in the first place, right? Enjoy the ride of the first draft and see what happens.
If you are looking for that perfect word or description or need to research something more deeply, it often works to make a note instead of pulling yourself out of the artistic flow. I mark my notes with great, big Xes in my first drafts. It’s everything from “figure out name later” to “look up how how shoes were made in the 18th century” or “make better description”.
At other times, writer’s block is a fancy way of saying you are stuck because you lack ideas or have no idea what’s going to happen next. Or put another way, you have caught up to your imagination, and you want your imagination to be ahead of you so that the word magic can happen. I have a few ways of dealing with that.
First of all, I think it’s important to stay in touch with the story you’re writing. The actual writing bit is only part of the work. You get ideas in the shower or while going for a walk or reading a book. I keep a notebook with me to jot down these bits of inspiration. The trick is not to attempt to force the ideas out, though. If you’re yelling at your brain to generate ideas, it might not be very compliant. Often I find that I get a bunch of ideas when I don’t have opportunity to write because then I’m simply letting inspiration simmer. So it’s a balancing act.
But you can kindly encourage your brain to generate ideas by doing something that relates to what you are writing. Watch a documentary about a topic connected to your story. Draw your main characters or create characters in a computer game to look like them. Consider which classes they would be in a roleplaying game like D&D. Make a Pinterest board with inspirational images or a playlist with music that reminds you of the story. You can probably think of other ways to connect with your story. And if you have friends, family, pets, beta readers or a critique group that are the least interested, tell them about the thing you’re writing. It gets the creative gears going too.
The second thing I would suggest is avoiding writing yourself dry. This is something that really works for me, and I discovered it because of my limited screen time. I can’t physically write a whole chapter in one sitting because of chronic illness, so I stop while I am in flow, type a short note to myself on what is going to happen next and turn off the computer. It can be frustrating to have a lot more waiting to get out, and sometimes you’ll probably want to write the conclusion to a scene before stopping. But if you do, it might be worth it to begin writing what comes next, just a few lines, before stopping.
Once in a while you might need a break from the story you are working on. Because another idea is tugging at you or because you need a bit of time to figure out what happens next. I’m not suggesting abandoning a project for months, but if you can’t get a story to move forward, isn’t it better to spend the time you’re stuck writing something else than not writing at all? It keeps the imagination running.
Combined, these things have kept me from writer’s block for close to four years now. When I sit down to write, I am almost instantly in flow and stay there for the duration of my writing session.
What writing advice would you give other writers like yourself?
Give yourself permission to write. Allow yourself to make it a priority. I used to participate in NaNoWriMo for that very reason. Not to push myself to write 50K words in a month, but to let myself write as much as I could. There are so many other things that take up space in our lives, a lot of them necessary, but if you are a writer, let yourself write. Find the method that works for you, whether it’s typing furiously for a couple of weeks and then taking a long break or writing a couple of hundred words every day. Give life to the stories that are inside you.
What are you currently working on, and what makes you excited about it?
Mainly, I am working on the sequel to my debut novel, We Lost the Sky. It begins a few months after the ending of the first book and features a lot of the same characters trying to get by and build something (both metaphorically and literally) under the new circumstances in which they find themselves. When I finished the first book, it was meant to be a standalone, and it can still be read as such, but it quickly became clear to me that there were other stories in that world waiting to be told. So I am tremendously excited to explore some of the subjects that were only hinted at in the first book as well as getting to hang out with some of the same imaginary people some more. And there are also new characters and places that will play a major role, so getting to know them is really rewarding too.
Where can we connect with you?
To free the writer today, let’s do one thing to connect with our story. Try one of Marie’s ideas like writing down five facts about your characters, collecting a playlist, or creating a Pinterest board. Let me know how it goes in the comments below.