Today’s author spotlight is on Cleolinda Jones. To read part 2, go here.
Cleolinda is best known for her book Movies in Fifteen Minutes as well as her posts to Livejournal on the same theme. Cleolinda also plays with dolls.
That is to say she’s the brain behind The Secret Life of Dolls, an ongoing serialized story in which the main characters are the dolls on her bedroom shelf (Think Toy Story meets Being Human). Cleolinda is also the person of record that many journalists call when they need an anyman (or any woman) quote about young adult literature. Particularly Harry Potter or Twilight.
I caught up with Cleolinda via E-mail just before the Christmas break.
Where can my readers find you? (Facebook? Twitter? Tumbler? Livejournal? Personal Website? WordPress? Your publisher’s website? Amazon? Pigeon Courier? Telegraph? Semaphore?
What projects have you been working on most recently?
In terms of online writing, I’m currently recapping Varney the Vampire (the Moby Dick of vampire literature, if you will), and I’ve got a pretty regular run of “The Secret Life of Dolls” entries going. I was really concerned about having spent two years snarking on Twilight and then trying to bring in a Bella doll and get people to like her as a character, but I seem to have managed it, which is really satisfying. And since I’m trying to read more current fiction for 2011, I’ve got three or four book discussion posts going at the moment. I’m still working on a vampire novel of my own that’s been giving me fits for years, but I’ve finally figured out why it’s not working, so I’m really excited to be redrafting it, and am currently trying to figure out how to choreograph a fight scene involving mechanical peacocks. I ought to be working on “Deathly Hallows in Fifteen Minutes,” but I’m putting that aside until I get to see the movie again.
How did you come up with the concept for movies in 15 minutes?
I came home from seeing Van Helsing (May of 2004?) and started noodling around on a non sequitur bit to put into a journal entry that night (this became the “Valerious Family Plans a Wolf Hunt” scene), and then it turned into two or three bits I was going to scatter throughout the entry, and then I just ended up doing the whole thing. And it was fun, so I did a few more; I don’t think I really got the process down until “Troy in Fifteen Minutes” later that month.
How did Secret Life of Dolls come about? Can you describe the process that you undergo to work on the installments?
A pretty similar process, actually–ongoing projects usually start when I’m just playing around with something, my interest in it catches fire, and then I keep going. “Secret Life” started off as a couple of sentences in a regular journal entry about how I wanted a second Arwen doll, “so they can gang up on the Eowyn doll.” The next few times, I just mentioned the dolls when something (usually Lord of the Rings-related) would come up), and it grew into a semi-regular thing. The early entries were based around which doll I wanted to get next, oh, look, I got a doll for my birthday, and then the other dolls reacting to it. It really seems to have taken shape as an ongoing storyline once someone gave me a Faramir doll for the Eowyn, with a second Faramir and an Edward Cullen action figure providing conflict.
One of the reasons I came to really enjoy writing it as a serial was because I got to test so many tricks and techniques, but with instant feedback. I could try to see how much characterization I could get across with dialogue; if I could make readers like a character they were determined to hate (i.e., various iterations of Edward and Bella); if my foreshadowing was working, based on people’s comments (or if I was giving away too much); how I needed to pace the story in order to create a storyline or a character arc; how to balance a large cast of characters (there was a point last year where I wasn’t doing so good a job of this); if I could make people laugh or creep them out or make them sad or keep them in suspense, or maybe everything all at once. If I tried something and it didn’t have the effect I wanted, I would find out immediately in the comments, which would also help me figure out why it hadn’t worked–what I needed to make clear in the next entry, what I needed to play up or play down. So I got to practice a lot of the same mechanics you would use in regular fiction, but with a much more immediate sense of what I could and could not do, and why.
As far as the entries themselves–I have a loose storyline sketched out in my head that would take us through months of entries, if I manage not to get burnt out. I had originally wanted to introduce Tonner Bella last year, but the story always takes longer to tell than you think it will, because you want certain narrative beats in each entry, and you want to keep all the characters involved. A certain scene will expand to the point that you realize it needs to be the primary focus of the entry, and then all the other things you planned to cram in have to be saved for later. Which is good, because I don’t want to run out of material, but that’s why I have a lot planned out in advance, to varying degrees of detail–like collecting colors on a palette to use later–so that I have a lot to work with when I’m putting the next entry together. Usually I have three or four entries in the works at any one time, so I can move back and forth and put in foreshadowing if I need to, or move a certain element backward or forward. There was a subplot where a doll got killed off (I know, I know), and originally “Paradise Found” and “Paradise Lost” were a single entry I split up, as were “Death and the Maiden” and “Judgment Day” right after that. So I have my notes and my “idea to use later” files, and then I have my current entries, and I try to figure out which colors on the palette need to be used when. Which is how I go about writing chapters in a novel anyway, since I’ve always written out of order. ”Secret Life” has just been a really fun way to get better at it–I genuinely think the dolls have made me a better writer.
Are you aware of any other doll-based fiction out there?
I’m aware that there is doll-based fiction–I’d seen a couple of photo comic-style things before I started writing “Secret Life.” And “The Secret Life of [Whatever]” has been used before. I don’t know any more than that; once I start up on something, I try to stay away from anything too similar, so as not to unconsciously borrow things.
You have built readership slightly differently than many of the authors that I have interviewed. I would even go so far as to call you an internet celebrity. How has this come about?
Well, the thing about the internet is that it has many, many corners; I might be a “celebrity” in one of them, but still, none of us are as famous as the Star Wars Kid on YouTube, is the way I tend to think of it. But yeah, I imagine that I’m a bit different from a lot of writers in the order that things happened for me. I had always planned to be a Very Serious Young Novelist when I was younger; I was going to writers’ conferences and taking creative writing classes and publishing dinky little short stories in student magazines throughout grade school. So I got on the internet in 1997 or so, when I first went to college; I started a little GeoCities site devoted to movie news in 2001 and eventually found my way to the Fametracker boards, where I got a Livejournal invite code from a fellow poster in 2003. I figured, since I had been determined all my life to be a Serious Novelist, I would need to go ahead and start some kind of blog or website then, so that when I finally got published, when people inevitably saw my URL on the back of the book or inside the dust jacket, I would have an interesting place for them to visit, and hopefully stick around. I had already started writing my vampire novel at that point–I had wanted to do it as a five-week serial that October, but got derailed after three installments. That was 2003; by the next summer, I had started writing the Movies in Fifteen Minutes pieces, and a British editor emailed and asked if I’d be interested in doing a book of them. So I ended up getting published for the thing I was doing while I waited to get something “real” published.
I just tend to chase after whatever interests me and attracts my energy at the time, which means that sometimes I don’t see things through (and I feel terrible about that; maybe it’s a regrettable side effect of being a Sagittarius. I swear, I think I recapped every damn book in the Twilight series just to prove I could finish something). But it also means that I would write recaps or commentaries for whichever book or movie or show struck me at the time, and so I would have people coming in who liked Lost, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, True Blood, Twilight fandom and anti-fandom–people interested in movie news, vampire and/or Victorian literature buffs, doll collectors, so on and so forth. So I have people drifting in from all kinds of different places, and that means, in turn, that those people mention my journal in all those different places–more so than if I’d stayed on only one topic. And honestly, it’s easier to build an audience when you’re giving away a lot of content for free. Not that you have to–or can afford to–give away all of it, but it can be hard for a novelist, a new writer, to show up on the internet and get anyone to pay attention, because no one in the prospective audience knows why they should take notice. If you get out there and blog for its own sake–do it because you enjoy it–then people have a way of getting to know you and something to tell others about. Otherwise, you’re just one more writer with what is probably a very nice book, but no one on the internet has any way of knowing anything about your personality as a writer–until you engage them.
But going back to the idea of “because you enjoy it”–it’s like what Joseph Campbell says about following your bliss. I think people are attracted to enthusiasm, so I try to trust my instincts when I get really interested in something, because I think that’s what people respond to–the blogger’s enthusiasm creates the reader’s interest, to an extent. I seem to do best when I’m following my bliss, if you can call it that; that’s how I got a book published, after all, because someone stumbled across me doing something just for the fun of it. It might not be the best life philosophy for everyone, but it seems to work for me.
I don’t really know how that translates into being an “internet celebrity,” unless that just means “I’m fortunate enough that people find my work and like it.” But then, maybe I just don’t consider it “celebrity” unless tabloids and photographers are involved.