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Finding the Words 

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Writers write.

It’s a deceptively simple statement, but one that proves true. Everyone has an idea for a novel until they sit down in front of a blank Word document. Getting the words, any words, on the page every day is the first step to a short story, an article, or a novel. But what do you do when the words won’t come?

Aspiring writer Stephanie Saulter decided that there must be an app for that. In 2010, she launched Scriptopus, a web app that helped writers get into the habit of writing for 15 minutes each day. The app offered random pieces of original fiction for writers to scroll through. Once they found a piece that inspired them, they started writing, anything and everything that came to them, for 15 minutes. These exercises would become the next set of prompts, like a comment thread on a forum. After a prompt had 10 posts, it was closed and emailed to all the writers, so they could see how their works influenced others.

Within a couple of years, Scriptopus had taken off and Saulter had completed her first novel, Gemsigns. Saulter sold “Gemsigns” to Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus as the first work in a sci-fi trilogy. The series follows a group of genetically engineered humans who were created to help combat a deadly illness that threatened to eradicate humanity. Called Gems, these special humans were enslaved by companies hoping to profit from their DNA. After the crisis abates, the Gems demand their freedom. With the help of some from public outcry, the Gems are emancipated, but they struggle to find their place in society and hold those responsible for their enslavement accountable.

Now, as she finishes her final entry in the ®Evolution trilogy, Regeneration, Saulter speaks on finding her voice, overcoming the challenges that face every novelist, and the app that changed her life.

Diana Beechener: Often, prospective writers feel there isn’t time in their day to write. How did you find the time when you worked in another occupation?

Stephanie Saulter: I must say that when I had a regular day job I felt exactly the same way. Not to discourage aspiring writers, but I don’t think “Gemsigns” would have been written had I still been getting up at 6:30am and getting home at 7:30pm and trying to have a life on the weekends.

Diana: To get yourself into the habit of writing for 15 minutes every day, you invented an app called Scriptopus. Did it make a difference to your writing process?

Stephanie: I needed to get myself from the stage of mostly just thinking about writing to actually doing it. I think the whole idea of “process” can sometimes sound a bit more mystical–magical than it actually is. Mostly it’s about just getting on with it.

Diana: After Scriptopus got you into the habit of daily writing, how did you find time to transition from those exercises to writing a novel?

Stephanie: I went freelance at the end of 2010, and I wrote it in 2011 in the free time I had between jobs. I ended up deciding not to take on new work in order to write it; fortunately I was in a position where I could afford to do that.

Diana: What was the biggest challenge?

Stephanie: The biggest challenge came at the very beginning: giving myself permission to go for it. It felt like a huge investment of time, and mental and emotional energy, in something very speculative – it’s not like I had an agent or a publishing contract back then.

Diana: How did you shape the story?

Stephanie: I’m not one to write draft after draft of the entire manuscript; I edit as I go, building up the layers of the story and refining and polishing along the way.

It’s the same with my plots. They develop as I write, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. It takes me a while to work out where to start, and I have an idea of where I’m going to end up, but I know very little about how I’m going to get there.

gemsignsDiana: When you finished “Gemsigns”, what did you do with the manuscript?

Stephanie: With the first book I asked a few friends – some avid readers, some not – to review the manuscript. Some of them suggested other readers as well. I don’t let anyone else see [my writing] until I think it’s as good as I can possibly make it at that moment.

Diana: Now that you’re published, do you use the same editing process?

Stephanie: It’s grown into a little network of people who I trust to give me really straight, honest, thoughtful feedback. It now includes my actual editor, Jo Fletcher, and my agent, Ian Drury. I always value their advice, even when I don’t follow it.

Diana: Did you always plan to write a trilogy, or did your story develop into one?

Stephanie: I had no intention whatever to write a trilogy. It wasn’t until my agent asked if I’d given it any thought that I gave it any thought! He said he could probably sell more than just the book I’d written. I didn’t believe him, frankly, but it was an intriguing prospect. True to his word he sold all three – and of course I was delighted to have the opportunity to write more of the ®Evolution.

Diana: Now that you’ve written two books, do you still face challenges when you sit down to write?

Stephanie: The challenge became living up to the standard I’d set myself.

Diana: Where do you look for inspiration when you’re not feeling inspired to write?

Stephanie: Deadlines. Seriously, you pretty much just need to get your head down and do it. I tend to go for a long walk when I get stuck. Sometimes I’ll visit a museum or gallery. It’s more about clearing my head than hoping for some kind of bolt-from-the-blue inspiration. But a clear head is absolutely necessary – it makes room for the ideas.

Diana: Do you still do the 15-minute exercise?

Stephanie Saulter: No, not anymore, and not for a long time. I’ve been writing for publication pretty steadily for the past three years, so the 15-minute exercise feels a bit redundant.

Diana: Does Scriptopus still influence your writing? Do you set writing goals like the app did?

Stephanie: I have a daily word count target, but I don’t beat myself up too much if I miss that; it’s more important that the words are the right ones than the right number.

 

Stephanie Saulter is currently finding inspiration from deadlines while completing Regeneration, the final instalment of the ®Evolution trilogy. Her first book, Gemsigns, was published in the UK in 2013 and is available now in America. The sequel, Binary, will be available in the US in 2015. To check in on Stephanie’s progress with her novel, check out her Twitter @scriptopus or her blog stephaniesaulter.com.

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Diana Beechener has a BA in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied literary analysis and film history. A proud member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, she is a journalist and film reviewer for Bay Weekly. She is also a PR blogger and consultant, helping businesses improve their written communications and social media relationships. Contact Diana on LinkedIn.