Justine Musk Interview: Lessons in Great Writing

After reading BloodAngel, I became enamored with Justine Musk’s style of writing.  She is phenomenal at visual writing.  Imagery like hers is rare and beautiful.  She has also authored Lord of Bones (the sequel to BloodAngel) and Uninvited.  She has contributed short stories to Kiss Me Deadly: 13 Tales of Paranormal Love and Love Bites: The Mammoth Book of Vampire Romance 2. Justine’s writing is so profound that I thought we might be able to learn a thing or two from her. If you are interested in learning more from her, she has an excellent blog over at Tribal Writer .  :) Without further ado, I give you Justine Musk.

BloodAngelwas your first published novel.  How long did that journey take, from conception to shelf?  What struggles did you face when it came time to find a publishing house? 

I started kicking around ideas and images for the book when I was in college, so from conception to shelf it was probably about ten years, all told.  The manuscript, when it was ready, found an agent quickly and it sold relatively quickly. But it took me about eight other unpublished novels to get to that point. Struggle is the name of the game – you have to learn how to love to engage with it, or you won’t last.

“Heat and dust and silence, the sky hammering itself into the flat white of noon” was Jess’ impression of a moment in the desert in BloodAngel.  This line is forever emblazoned in my brain. Your use of imagery in your writing is beautiful.  Is that an acquired talent that the rest that can be learned and honed or an innate talent that one must be born with?  If the former is true, what is the best way to develop that skill?

 Thank you!  I’m a strongly visual person, and so I think that comes through in my writing, and I always gravitated to writers who enjoy that play with language (Joyce Carol Oates, T.C. Boyle, Poppy Z Brite come to mind), who take risks with it.  I definitely think it’s a skill that can be developed – Janet Fitch comes to mind, her book WHITE OLEANDER, how she (apparently) worked hard to find her own language and imagery, to see the familiar from a new angle. 

Probably one of the best things you can do is to read a lot of contemporary poetry. And of course to write, write, write.  Give yourself exercises.  Take different things and force relationships between them, figure out how they’re similar to each other, explore that in your writing.  Do a lot of freewriting – don’t censor, just give yourself over to your undermind and see what bubbles up.  Don’t be afraid of yourself, your true voice.

What is your writing process like?  Describe your frame of mind when you sit down at your laptop to write, be it a blog post or a novel. 

 I write daily, usually in the mornings, and when I have the kids (I am divorced with 50/50 custody) I’ll try to get up at 4 or 5 am to do some work while the rest of the house is still sleeping.  I really love that silent, kind of lonely time.  I’ll give my mind stuff to mull over – some information about the scene, some dialogue – before I sit down to write that scene.  Same with the blog: I’ll do a lot of reading, let ideas surface, percolate, find each other, before sitting down to write a blog post. That incubation period is super important. 

 There are times when I get anxious about writing, and will do a few minutes of meditation, maybe some quick yoga, to calm my brain.  There’s almost always that bit of resistance to work through, but then the writing starts to flow and it’s lovely. The trick is to get through that resistance. It will kill you dead if you let it!

You are established and have this gig wrapped around your finger.  But, in the beginning, how important was critique and mentorship to you?  What suggestions do you have for those that seek these types of guidance?

 I don’t feel like I have this gig wrapped around my finger!  I stepped away from fiction for a couple of years while I went through my divorce and thought hard about the kind of writer I wanted to be (I might have been overthinking it!).  The blog Tribal Writer was partly an attempt to reinvent myself, re-position myself a little bit.  In a lot of ways I feel like I’m starting over, although I guess that’s not exactly true.

 Critique and mentorship are so important, I can’t emphasize that enough.  It has to be the right kind: tough but constructive, nuanced, particularly as you become more advanced in your craft.  My agent has a great editorial eye and I benefited from that.  I also found a great writing coach, who gives terrific feedback and holds me accountable as I push to finish my current novel.  So if anything, that kind of mentorship has become even more important to me.  You need someone to help you through your blind spots, who isn’t necessarily your agent or editor.  We all have those blind spots, and when someone can shine a light on them for you, so you can see something you couldn’t quite before?  Breakthrough. A great feeling. You should always strive to get better, get better.

Your blog, Tribal Writer, is a commanding, educational, and inspirational force for writers seeking guidance in this business.  What is the single most important piece of advice you were given that has guided your career and formed who you are?

Thanks so much.  And wow, what a question.  I feel, looking back, like I made a lot of mistakes, was groping my way through the dark for so long… I can think of a few things, maybe not one big thing.  Persist, persist, persist.  Write what you want to know about (instead of just what you know, which can be very crippling).  Work close to your soul, or else you won’t have a chance in hell.  My friend Jason Calacanis, a tech guy, advised me to get on Twitter back when most people still didn’t know what it was, and that was what really kicked off my fascination with platform and social media, which, now, feels like a huge part of who I am – or am becoming.  I’m not one of those writers who says you don’t need to worry about developing an online platform – I think you absolutely do need to worry about it, you need to start learning about it as soon as possible, you need to think very long-term, and you should make platform-building as important as your actual writing.  


You have a large family and a demanding career, what time management tips would give to help those trying to balance work and family?

I have an unusual life, very privileged, a lot of help, so my situation is not typical and I don’t want people thinking that I’m some kind of superhero.  I’m not.  But you have to be quote-unquote selfish about making the time for your creative work, you can’t allow yourself to get caught in the trap of trying to be all things to everyone, so self-sacrificing, guilty.  You have to absolutely refuse to sacrifice yourself, your writing, which to me is one and the same thing.  But that can get very difficult, because this culture expects women to sacrifice themselves and will frown on them when they don’t (partly because it’s so bloody inconvenient for other people when they don’t!).

And you can’t sweat the small stuff.  Sometimes you have to let the small stuff kind of go to hell, at least for as long as you can get away with it.  Routine is important. Exercise and nutrition and sleep.  Creative rituals.  Healthy boundaries.  But I’m not sure there is a ‘balance’, there are periods of obsession and then periods of recovery.  It’s not a marathon so much as a series of sprints, with rest breaks in between.  Otherwise you burn out and break down. 

You also have to know what you can give up.  I don’t watch TV, I rarely go to movies, I have a very uninteresting social life (at least for the time being).  I am very clear on what I want, and clarity is a beautiful thing.

On your blog, you mention dreams of building a media empire.  What will this mean for your career as an author?  Can we still expect to see new novels on the horizon (soon J)?

I’m actually just starting to say that, it’s still a very tender young bud of a dream.  I just think it’s a very, very exciting time to be a writer.  I spent the last ten years surrounded by entrepreneurs, so I’ve been a little bit infected by that spirit.  But I am a novelist (and maybe a blogger) first and foremost:  I’m just very strongly attracted to the idea of the writer as entrepreneur, self-published as well as traditionally published, as a producer of multimedia content, as a transmedia storyteller. At the moment I just feel open to anything, like anything is possible, so long as you have the passion for it and you’re willing to sweat for it and you’re not afraid to embrace change.  When things are changing, when there’s some chaos, there’s also remarkable opportunity.   

There is a lot of good information here for writers looking to perfect their writing ability.  I hope that you guys have enjoyed this lesson.  I certainly have and I want to say a BIG “thank you” to Justine for agreeing to do this interview. It was kind of you to take time out to help those writers in need. 

What is your writing process?  How can you improve what you do?  Leave your comments below, I love hearing from you! 

 © Tania Dakka and Chaotic Musing, 2011