Olivia J. Bennett enjoys creativity in all its forms and turned that passion towards writing the gripping YA adventure book A Cactus In The Valley. Her characters undergo stressful and emotional situations throughout the survival story and she wanted to share some of her advice for writing strong emotions effectively.
What’s the first book that made you cry?
I honestly don’t know what book first made me cry, but the book that made me cry the most was The Book Thief, hence where my nickname, The WordShaker comes from. But the book that’s made me cry most recently was The Catcher In the Rye.
What is your book, A Cactus in The Valley about? How did the idea first come to you?
A Cactus In the Valley is the story of two teenagers whose plane crashes in the remote Arizona desert, and they have to find their way back to civilization. That’s the external plot, but there’s a lot more to it.Truly, A Cactus In the Valley is a story of friendship, trauma, and redemption. I wrote it during a dark period of my life, and something that I always tell people when they share with me how they’re struggling is that my meanest demons helped me write a novel that healed me in ways nothing else could. Something amazingly beautiful came out of something so dark, so something good can come out of your darkness, too. Sure, what I write is entertaining, but truthfully, I write to say something important, to shed light on the beautiful horror it is to be human.
What sort of research did you do? What’s your most useful resource?
Since A Cactus In the Valley takes place in the Sonoran desert – and since I live in the corn-and-soybean region known as the Midwest – I had to do a lot of research on the types of plants and animals that reside in that area. I also did a lot of research into survival skills, as well as what harsh environments do to the human body. However, the most important research I did was reading and watching other survival stories in the same genre as A Cactus In the Valley – not to copy, but to learn. I think a lot of writers forget this step, but I’d argue that it’s the most important. When you see these stories similar to the one you’re trying to create, you get a better sense of what you want your story to be like – you see what works and what doesn’t.
How do you get to know your characters? Do they ever surprise you?
I usually start outlining characters in my story notebook. I divide each character into 3 categories: physical, mental, and backstory. The physical is . . . well, what they look like. The mental is their personality, their strengths and weaknesses, their goals and motivations, etc. And the backstory is the character’s life story, as well as how the events in their life have affected them. Usually, I write some scenes in that character’s POV that I know won’t make the final cut of the story to get into the character’s head. Yes, my characters do surprise me! That’s honestly my favorite thing, because then you know your character and the story has truly taken on a life of its own.
Do you have any tips for writing strong emotions?
Writing style is a huge factor in writing emotions. Sentence structure can convey anger, sadness, frustration, elation, and an array of other emotions. Word choice can define the subtle nuances between different shades of anger. Another thing is you have to know your characters. You have to know how they portray anger, fear, happiness. Describing the physical reactions to emotions – the flutter of nervousness, the twist of anxiety, and the crush of loss – is another way. However, this should all take backstage to the buildup and catharsis of the emotional dynamic of a scene or story. Everything in an emotional scene should build the feeling or push the character to their breaking point, and so all of the emotion floods out in that cathartic release.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Right now, I’m working on a companion novella to A Cactus In the Valley, entitled A Panther In the Snow. It follows Harper Holmes, one of the main character’s best friends, as her and the families of Wyatt and Terra grapple with their disappearance. This has been such a fun novella to write, because, despite being in the same ‘series’, it’s a vastly different story than A Cactus In the Valley. The tone is different, the style is different, the character arcs are different. I really got to expand my style and my writing abilities with this novella.
What one piece of practical advice would you give to other young writers?
Never stop writing. Never stop watching movies and tv and reading books. Never stop refining your craft. Never compare yourself to other writers, just compare yourself to the writer you were yesterday.
Olivia J. Bennett, also known as Olivia J, The WordShaker, is a writer, artist, and creative extraordinaire. She has been writing all her life, and is the author of A Cactus In the Valley.
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As ever, if there’s anything else you want to know or chat about then just leave a message for Olivia in the comments and she’ll get back to you.
Tomorrow Peyton McDonald, the author of the moving YA novel Before The End Of Summer, will be talking about two of her favourite topics – inspiration and motivation.