alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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The Devil and Micol Ostow: An Interview

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Micol Ostow writes novels about haunted houses, urban legends, and serial killers. But she’s actually a very nice person!  I had the good fortune to learn from her at a writing workshop last fall. And the even better fortune to bring her here for an interview.

I was so interested to learn that your most recent book, The Devil and Winnie Flynn, is about the Jersey Devil. I grew up in Pennsylvania, and all the kids who visited New Jersey beaches over the summer always returned with stories about the Jersey Devil. In my mind, it’s like a cross between Bloody Mary and Bigfoot. What’s your Jersey Devil like and why did you choose to write about it now?

My Jersey Devil was based on anything and everything I could find online, which mainly came down to various shadowy winged creatures of varying degrees of fearsomeness. One description I read suggest3d that the devil was a sort of winged dinosaur, which–I mean, if you’ve seen Jurassic Park, you know that’s no good, but it still didn’t inspire much fear, in my opinion. My brother and I were committed to writing a mystery, and since the genre itself was so new to us, we decided the best way to connect to our story was to write about something we *did* know, AKA: New Jersey. Once we focused on Jersey as a location, we sort of backed into the Devil, since it’s one of the most pervasive myths of the state. But since the legend itself was so goofy it informed the tack we took with our mystery–it’s the story of Winnie Flynn, a horror movie fan but real-life skeptical who’s swept up with a reality tv “ghost-hunting” investigation that is, by nature, extremely campy. And it’s only when (spoiler alert) she begins to discover that some of the spirits she encounters may not be rigged for the camera, that the story turns into something a little darker, more sinister.

Another curious aspect of Winnie Flynn is that it’s told in the form of letters from Winnie to her best friend. Why did you choose the epistolary format? Does it enhance the suspense factor? Or is it a way to make the book more accessible and down-to-earth in the face of supernatural events? 

I wish I had a clear, thought-out answer as to why the story is told as a running letter! In general I tend to write lots of different genres and age levels and *lots* of different voices: from squeaky-clean aspirational tween to young chapter books, to racy romantic YA “bitch lit.” It’s only in the past 5 years or so that I’ve made a mini-brand of writing dark, edgier young adult fiction. But even with that niche, I’m always coming at the work in a new way, waiting to see how my characters are going to talk to me. In this case, Winnie was clearly talking directly TO someone. Her voice simply sprung, fully-formed, that way. But she was a blast to write, which is why I’m always encouraging my students to take risks and try different voices and points of view. You never know who’s going to emerge on the page!

Let’s talk process: How do you know when you’ve found an idea or concept for a scary novel, that it’s something you want to explore? Do you know right away what age group the concept is suitable for or do you have to work with it a while before deciding?

Well, as I say above, because my writing is so diverse, my process evolves a lot, too. not to mention now that I’m the mother of two small children, I often have to sacrifice the preciousness of a very deliberate process for the sake of just getting words down when I can!

I will say that normally, once a concept grabs me, the general age level is fairly clear–AMITY, for instance, which was a retelling of The Amityville Horror in the form of a Stephen King/Shirley Jackson mashup–was always going to be older YA. Same with WINNIE. Whereas with my chapter book, LOUISE TRAPEZE, I fiddled with voice and age level quite a bit (five very distinct drafts!) because I was so new to the chapter book genre. I had to write that whole story and then step back and determine what age range it was trying to be, and then I had to revise (and revise and revise!) accordingly.

I know from the workshop that you’re a fan of scary movies as well as scary stories. What’s the best horror movie or novel you’ve read recently? Or that you’re looking forward to in the near future?

I’m dying to read Grady Hendrix’s MY BEST FRIEND’S EXORCISM. And while it’s not horror, I LOVE dark thrillers and just read Robin Wasserman’s GIRLS ON FIRE. I also just started the last in Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES trilogy, END OF WATCH.

You’re settling down for a midnight movie marathon. What’s the perfect snack?

Mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Cheap rose wine. Red Vines. (NEVER Twizzlers.)

What are you working on next?

I’m all over the place! My younger daughter is 7 months old and I promised I would try to take it easy her first year. That has sort of worked. I have the third book in the LOUISE TRAPEZE series releasing in September, and in my “spare” time I’ve been alternating between a picture book, a new chapter book series, and–you guessed it–a YA thriller. Not horror, but dark and twisty. So we’ll see where it all goes.

micol

Micol Ostow is half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, half student, half writer, half chocolate, half peanut butter. When she is under deadline, she is often half asleep. She believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts except in the case of Chubby Hubby ice cream. She lives in New York City where she reads, runs, and drinks way too much coffee.

 

 

 


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Killer Washing Machines: An Interview with Anna Breslaw

 

I met Anna last fall at a workshop about writing horror fiction for teens. Anna & I had brilliant conversations under the Pennsylvania stars about ghosts, celebrities, serial killers and writing for women. Trust me when I say that Anna has a strange and sparkling mind. We caught up again this week with a few questions about writing and things that go bump in the night.

anna

Your debut novel Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is hyper-realistic contemporary YA fiction. But when we met last year you were working on something much darker for your next book. What’s the status of that project?

It’s driving me crazy! Haha. Yay honesty! I’ve actually turned it into an adult book (the protagonist is 29 now, my age) and am nearly done with the first half but keep going back and making changes, obsessing, et cetera. I might take a break and start a new YA project as a palate cleanser—I am thinking more of a love story this time, and maybe supernatural in some way—but definitely hope to finish it this year.

What personally scares you more—real-life things (serial killers, earthquakes, car accidents) or supernatural things (ghosts, monsters, zombies)?

Real-life things, unless Stephen King is somehow involved, in which case, literally any damn thing (cars, washing machines…).

Process time: Where and how do you work? Home office/kitchen table/on the train? Is writing novels different than writing for magazines?

I have a little desk in the corner of my living room that I work at—sort of an open home office, if you will—that faces my backyard. I’m pretty bad at keeping my writing schedule regular, or hitting a certain word count every day, but I know a lot of people swear by that. Although when a joke or a character idea or whatever comes to me when I’m outside the house (which happens often) I’ll jot it down in my iPhone. My Notes look crazy.

Magazine pieces are generally a lot more structured/formulaic than novels are, at least in the drafting phase. The arc is pretty clear, there needs to be a clear “takeaway,” and there’s a tight word limit so it’s hard to play around. Every word counts. It’s almost more like tweeting than it is like writing-writing. Whereas with novels, you can really go nuts and write long and then tighten it afterwards.

What do you wish you were reading but aren’t (because it doesn’t exist)?

So many things: Fran Leibowitz’s memoir, a YA novel by Junot Diaz, Mary Roach’s nonfiction take on the world of women’s magazines, fiction about this or this, an adult novel with a premise/spirit that’s similar to a Joss Whedon show

 Right now, who is the person/celebrity/fictional character you would most like to subject to a horror movie fate? 

 James Franco. He’s too chill. I don’t trust it.

scarlett

Anna Breslaw is a New York-based freelance writer and author who mostly writes funny things, or things about women, or both at once. Previously, she was a staff writer at Cosmo and a sex & relationships editor at Cosmopolitan.com. She’s also been a contributing writer for Jezebel and Glamour.com. Scarlett Epstein Hates It Here is her first book. You should follow her on Twitter.

If you too would like to drink wine and meet writers like Anna–though I can’t guarantee the talk about serial killers–and you’re writing for children or teens, I suggest you check out amazing catalog of workshops offered by the Highlights Foundation.


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90 Days of Writing Bliss

The Fountain of Love, by François Boucher [1748]

What my life is like now that I’ve discovered The 90-Day-Novel
(The Fountain of Love, François Boucher, 1748)

WARNING: This post contains little to no objectivity.

I am in love. With The 90-Day-Novel by Alan Watt.

Because The 90-Day-Novel loves me just the way I am.

After I came home from Clarion West in 2011, I have been hunched over my desk with a gimlet eye, struggling to improve my writing. I critique my peers, I read the pros, and I work hard to identify my weaknesses, correct or patch them, and produce good stories.

Structure and plot are repeat performers in the parade of Things I Do Wrong. I’m a woolly thinker, the sort of person who has to say something (two or three times, usually) in order to find out what I want to say. That makes crisp plot turns tough.

I’ve tried LOTS of writing books and instructive internet articles. I’ve read about The Snowflake MethodGMC, and 7-point Story Structure. I’ve checked out the examples from popular books and movies and noted how they match the analysis perfectly. It all makes sense. My head nods in understanding. Got it, I think. This time I won’t go down one of those weird rabbit holes my brain is always finding. I’m going to keep it simple, stick to the structure, and just do this.

Cute but dangerous

Cute but dangerous

But what seems so simple when I’m reading about it becomes so impossible, so ineffable, when I try to carry it out. I go back and forth from the examples to my story and don’t understand how I could possibly mess up something so obvious and clear. Am I really this stupid? I think.

I’m forced to conclude that I probably am. And then I don’t feel so good. Because I’m me and pigheaded, I keep writing anyways. Spend days hammering at things that made me feel sick and sinking.

A few weeks back, I started writing a new novel. I wasn’t prepared, but I needed to get started, so I jumped in without a plan. I had a genre, two characters, a setting, and a situation. I figured I would just pants my way through an 80,000 word zero draft and worry about it later. I told myself it was a learning experience–though what I would be learning was unclear.

Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who) mentioned The 90-Day-Novel to me because they liked the questions for pre-writing. I put in a request at the library, but I wasn’t too excited. By now I had learned that anything promising 5 Easy Steps or 7 Essential Rules—basically, anything with a number in the title—was bad news.

My precious

My precious

But it wasn’t. The 90-Day-Novel is the how-to book written Just For Me.

I was two weeks into my draft when I finally got my copy. I read the introduction and did the exercises. Just as, you know, an experiment. When I came out the other side, I had tons of new material. And a realization that I needed more of this. It was an incredibly hard decision to throw away the 10,000 words I had already written and start over. It put my schedule for finishing back by almost a month. And it was the best writing decision I’ve ever made.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be working from a plan that works with the way my mind already works instead of against it. Here are some of my favorite themes from the process that I find most restorative:

  • Story isn’t logical.
  • Our idea of the story is not the whole story.
  • The moment we force it, or fear that we’re getting it wrong, we’re out of our story.
  • It is not your job to figure it out. Trust that your subconscious will find a way to resolve it.
  • The story already lives fully and completely within us.

Honestly, working with the 90-Day process, I feel like I could write a novel about anything. Any topic, any structure, no matter how complex or challenging. I can’t wait to finish the current novel and get started finding out what Novel #3 is going to hold. Because with a process like this, it’s going to be good stuff!


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The Memory Maze

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

Photo by IM Seongbin via Flickr

I’m on the elventh month and third-ish draft of this whole ‘Let’s Write A Novel’ project, and I’ve come to one glaringly obvious conclusion. Novels are big. REALLY BIG. With all these bits that branch and then branch again and again, and if you follow the branches sometimes you come to the ONE THING THAT WILL SAVE YOUR NOVEL and sometimes your face bounces off a prickly green wall and you have to turn around and start all over again. But then you come back to that same intersection and you think, “Left had the angry bees at the end, so I should go right.” Except, maybe it was right that had the booby trap and left is the safe way. Or was that the turn before? But your face is all swollen with hives and you think you might be going into anaphylactic shock and you feel all trembly and why is everything going dark and….CLONK.

So, when wending your way through the maze that is your novel, you need strategy. And that strategy is ORGANIZATION. Everybody’s going to do this differently, but there are tools that can help you find your way out before the bees hollow out your alimentary cavity and turn your intestines into a honeycomb.

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  • I do most of my thinking longhand, which means I’ve already filled 4.5 spiral-bound notebooks and a bunch of looseleaf with thoughts and scenes (And whining. Whining takes up space too.) Reading a novel is (usually) a pretty linear experience. But writing it isn’t. So what happens when you’re working on Part 3, Scene 12 when all of a sudden you’re seized with inspiration that will remake Part 1, Scene 20 in a blaze of literary glory and your brain is firing so fast with this dazzling save that you can barely write fast enough to get it down? YOU WRITE IT DOWN, OF COURSE. But now you need to be able to find it again when it’s useful. Sometimes this is as simple as marking the scene # with a different colored-ink, to make it easy to spot when you’re flipping back through.

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  • SCRIVENER: I love Scrivener. Not only does it keep all of my scenes and revised scenes and scraps and research and photos in a single file, it also has the excellent “Document Notes” in the right-hand pane. I didn’t use this much when writing short stories, but I love it for a novel. When I finish working on a scene, I write down what things I want to work on in the next draft (“What Needs To Be Done”). I also make notes about scene goals and character motivation to remind me what I’m writing towards.

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  • EVERNOTE: Another genius application that encourages me to be more organized. Bonus: it’s on the web, it’s on my phone, it’s on every computer everywhere. I can ALWAYS put a note in here, tag it, and find it later when I’m writing. I can even make audio notes if I’m seized with inspiration when I’m out and can’t take my hands out of my mittens long enough to type on my dinky phone keyboard. Evernote lets you keep separate notebooks for different topics. My novel notes don’t get mixed up with planning my fantasy escape to some climate where it’s not below zero during the day or recipes for pies I want to bake. Notes are taggable and fully searchable and filterable. I use notes to make lists: of all scenes where a certain secondary character appears, of key moments in character development, of possible character names, of potential setting locations, of scenes I want to include in the next draft. I use notes to type out and save examples: of particularly proficient prose (by other authors), of action well-described, of active setting, of strong voice, of all the best parts of other books that I want to steal for my own.

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So how much do these tricks and tools really help? Well, I’m not finished with the book, so the verdict’s still out. But I think if you pack your explorer’s kit with these handy utensils, you reduce the chances of having to eat your own shoe leather just to stay alive. But the smart adventurer always stays alert—and remember: Keep a sharp eye out for bees.

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr

Photo by quisnovus via Flickr


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Ready to Move Forward with Your Novel? Start by Going Backward

Lost in a dark wood Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

Lost in a dark wood
Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

You know all those fairy tales about being lost in the forest? You start off feeling daring and intrepid and the next thing you know, the sun goes down and the path isn’t where you thought it was and there are scary noises in the trees and ah! what just grabbed my leg?

Revising a novel is kind of like that. You’ve got your main character, and she’s got a goal, and you’ve planned a couple of setbacks for her and maybe a little romantic interest off to one side and….whoa! where did that two-headed plesiosaur come from? I mean, it’s cute the way it flaps its fins and begs for dried squid chips, but your story is supposed to be set in 1950s Vienna. And since when did your heroine start tearing tissues into confetti and weeping at soap commercials? Your character sheet says she’s “strong and capable.”

As all readers of fairy tales know, there is one secret weapon against the fatal forest. The well-prepared adventurer intuits that the forest is not to be trusted and prepares accordingly:

Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

Breadcrumbs!
Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

When going into that dark wood of an early novel revision, reverse outlining is your trail of breadcrumbs. Plus, you get to play with colored paper and feel massively organized.

What is reverse outlining? For me, it meant going back over every scene I had written in the first draft and writing down the important parts of the scene on the front of the card. On the back of the card, I made notes to myself for the revision. What changes needed to be made? What was missing? (Usually transitions into the scene) What was excessive and needed to be trimmed? (pretty much everything to do with meandering around an unanchored setting) What was just plain wrong? (oops! Cousin Stella isn’t supposed to be pregnant anymore.)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II (l, front; r, back)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II(l, front; r, back)

When I finished my first draft I had a folder in Scrivener with about 20 new scenes (or scenelets) that weren’t in the original outline, that I had written spontaneously while thinking through the first draft. I didn’t have a place for them yet, but I knew they filled a hole in the story. The card process helped me find a place to slot in the new scenes.

Now that I’m about 40% of the way through the second draft, I cling desperately to these cards. The forest is dark and scary and haunted by plesiosaurs. But I have my trail of neon index cards shining through the poisonous smog, and I tiptoe carefully from one to the next, writing wrongs, adding settings, and erasing pregnancies, one card at a time.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

The tabs on the left for P1, P2, & P3 divide the story arc into Acts (P= “Part”). Part 4 is lurking behind the cards standing on end on the right, which are homeless scenes that I’m pretty sure I know where they want to go. The blue tab on the right is my current location. When I finish a scene in the current draft, the scene card moves in front of that blue tab. I cannot tell you how good that feels.

Have you tried reverse outlining? Feel free to share what works for you. Tips on taming plesiosaurs also welcome.

Bonus reading:


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8 Reasons Why Your First Novel Isn’t Working

In my previous posts, I talked about Why Novels Are More Fun Than Short Stories and lifted your spirits with How To Not Hate Your First Draft. Now that you’ve dried your tears and have begun to envision a glorious future for your deformed brainchild, it’s time to talk about exactly how you’re going to climb that gilded staircase to the stars.

In June, I spent two weeks at the Fantasy & Science Fiction Novel Writer’s Workshop in Lawrence, Kansas, learning from two sharp and insightful instructors: Kij Johnson and Barbara J. Webb. On the first day of the workshop, we eight first-time novelists sat around the table in the fishbowl and listened as Kij told us everything we had done wrong.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Like Madame Defarge, Kij knits while we cry.

Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.

Common Problems of First Novels

  1. Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
  2. Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
  3. Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
  4. Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
  5. Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
  6. Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
  7. Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
  8. Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.
Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.  Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Delicious, but not enough to sustain a novel.
Photo by Christine Lu, via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Keep in mind that though everyone in the class was a first-time novelist, we were reasonably experienced writers with publications in professional markets like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Writers of the Futureand we still did it wrong.

That’s because writing a novel is hard. It’s probably not much like anything you’ve written before. So don’t freak out: now that you know what’s wrong, a second draft is the perfect place to fix it.

*If you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’re going to get the founding of the nation in which she lives and the genealogy of her ancestors.


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Rewrite Your Way to Greatness

Today, I’m less than 10,000 words away from the end of the first* draft of my first** novel. You might think that at this point I’ve got the finishing line in sight and I’m feeling good.

You would be wrong.

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr

Photo by Karl Baron, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Now that I’ve written more than 50,000 words and have the overall shape of the novel in front of me, I have this lovely, panoramic vision of All The Things I’ve Done Wrong. It’s like the view of Mordor from Mount Doom. We’re talking volcanoes and wastelands: this is not the kind of stuff I can put right with another measly 10,000 words.

The last couple of days, sitting down to work has made me want to cry and yell at the cats for…having fur and stuff. I wont lie–it feels terrible. But, just as with most other things about writing novels so far, this is just another crisis of faith.

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr

Photo by saxcubano, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Maybe (okay, probably) some of what I’ve written is terrible. Maybe it’s missing big chunks of plot and character motivation. But that doesn’t mean the book itself is going to be terrible.

I think, as novice writers, we fall into a trap. We compare our first drafts to somebody else’s completed novel. In a side-by-side comparison, that thing we just made–that we struggled with and worked so hard on–looks like crap. Because the thing we made is NOT a complete novel. It’s an early stage draft. And you never see anybody else’s early stage draft. You don’t see the mangled first pages of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or Life After Life, or Wild Seed.

You may, in fact, have the most precocious, promising, early-stage draft in the history of novel-writing. But if you compare it to that OTHER thing, the finished novel, what you have looks like utter, meaningless crap.

Would you compare a cement block to a skyscraper? Would you look at that block and scorn it because it doesn’t have a marble lobby and banks of high-speed elevators that shoot straight to the rotating rooftop restaurant?

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The humble cement block. Photo by Jeremy Price, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Yet, when that skyscraper’s finished, that worthless cement block will still be a part of it***, hidden somewhere inside, doing its bit to keep the rooftop restaurant turning out platters of regionally-sourced pork belly and craft cocktails.

A first draft is a necessary step on the way to completing a novel.
A first draft is not the same thing as a novel. Not even close.

Go ahead, have a drink. You're going to need it. Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Go ahead, have a drink. You’re going to need it.
Photo by David Kenny, via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To prove it to you, Maggie Stiefvater dissects a first draft of a chapter from her novel, The Scorpio Races, and walks you through step-by-step of what she changed and why.

And then she gets ten other novelists to do the same. Including blog hero, Margo Lanagan, talking about her latest, The Brides of Rollrock Island.

There’s also “Writing Excuses: 5.29: Rewriting,” in which guest author and Writers of the Future judge Dave Wolverton (Farland) promises that even Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning authors write terrible first drafts. This is a really good episode, with specific advice, and I highly recommend checking it out. After all, it’s only fifteen minutes long.

This is how novel-writing works:
You write a draft, you find the problems, and then you fix them.
And then you do it again.

* “Real” because this draft was preceded by a zero draft, written at breakneck (NaNo) speed last November.
** In some senses this is my third novel, but those other two have been put quietly away and we’re not going to talk about them.
***Don’t tell me that modern skyscrapers don’t include cement blocks or that’s the wrong kind. It’s an analogy, okay?


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The Superpower Every Writer Wants: An Interview with Intisar Khanani

Khanani Photo ctuIntisar Khanani grew up a nomad and world traveler. Born in Wisconsin, she has lived in five different states as well as in Jeddah on the coast of the Red Sea. She first remembers seeing snow on a wintry street in Zurich, Switzerland, and vaguely recollects having breakfast with the orangutans at the Singapore Zoo when she was five.

I met her at the Indiana University Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2012, where she repeatedly showed me how to fix my ham-handed needle work in the book-making class.

She visits today to talk about writing while parenting, when it’s okay not to write, and the importance of having a nice, private shower to escape to.

1. What’s a typical writing day like for you?

My typical day starts around 6 am when our toddler comes into our room to get me to help her in the bathroom (ah, the trials and travails of potty training). By the time we’re done, the baby is awake and so begins our day. While my husband helps out a lot with the kids, the only “quiet” times I really get tend to be if the kids go down for their nap at the same time. If I’m tired out enough, I’ll go down as well and if I don’t sleep, I spend the time lying down thinking of characters, scenes, and dialogue. Cooking is another good opportunity for developing dialogue. The shower is best, but that typically doesn’t happen till the kids are asleep anyhow. So, when I finally sit down with my laptop sometime after 8 pm, I’m ready to pound out what I’ve been thinking about through the day.

2. What’s your favorite thing about your workspace?

The trouble with my workspace is I don’t really have one. When we first moved into our condo, we had grand ideas of turning one of the two spare bedrooms into a writing room (my husband writes academic books). Now that we have two little ones and my mother-in-law staying with us, we’re a little cramped when it comes to dedicating space to anything other than toys. And diapers. I typically end up writing on my bed or on the living room couch (thank God for laptops!). I do miss the days when I had a desk and chair, both facing the wall. It helped reduce distractions—and I am easily distracted. But hey, any space is better than no space.

Any space is better than no space

Any space is better than no space

3. Besides other books/writers, where do you draw inspiration? 

I’ve realized that, when my creative well is drying up, it’s typically because I’m sleep deprived and a little tired of the day-to-day. I give myself a 2-3 day break from writing, read for fun, get out of the house and do something different with the kids, and get myself in bed as early as possible. By the end of the three days, I’m typically waking up with scenes in my head and am ready to go again.

I know some authors who swear you should write every day no matter what (my husband is one of them). I can’t do it. I’ve tried, and I’ve realized that actually empties me out. I need short breaks periodically; I need to pace myself with my story; and I need to pay attention to when I’m not writing because there’s some emotional depth or plot point I’m wary of getting into—that’s the only time I make myself write instead of allowing myself a break.

4. What do you wish you were reading but aren’t? (Because it doesn’t exist.)

Wow. That’s a hard one. I think I want more Jane Austen. And I want more YA fantasy novels about young women where the love interest doesn’t become the be-all and end-all of the heroine’s life. I know, not a request that you might expect from a Jane Austen fan, but we’re talking about YA fiction, and YA fantasy in particular, today. And what I would most want? A bestseller YA fantasy series about a girl without a love interest, or only a minor one who crops up halfway through and doesn’t rule the plot. You know, like Harriet Potter.

5. Superpower you wish you had?

The ability to write in my sleep. ‘Nuff said.

6. What should a reader do after reading this interview?

Support indie authors! With the advent of e-books, indie published novels are booming. There are some awesome new authors out there who don’t have traditional publishing houses backing them and pushing their books. Consider setting yourself a challenge to read three new indie authors in the coming months. GoodReads is a great way to get the scoop on new indie reads and up-and-coming indie authors, so go have fun!

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Intisiar Khanani currently resides in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her husband and two young daughters. Until recently, Intisar wrote grants and developed projects to address community health with the Cincinnati Health Department, which was as close as she could get to saving the world. Now she focuses her time on her two passions: raising her family and writing fantasy. Intisar’s next projects include a companion trilogy to her debut novel Thorn, following the heroine introduced in her short story The Bone Knife, and a novella series set in a fictional world of eleven kingdoms all controlled by a corrupt Council of Mages. 


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Catherine Krahe Wants Your Sisters (Stories)

C_Krahe

Catherine Krahe lives in Iowa.  She plans to save the world by telling stories and planting trees. She went to Clarion West (2011). Her stories have been published in Realms of Fantasy, Nature, and Ideomancer. She works with the Alpha Young Writer’s Workshop and is a first reader for Strange Horizons.

At least, that’s what she says. I say she is my Clarion West classmate, devastating editor & critiquer, maker of deadly Oreo truffles, and possessor of the bionic nun-field.

Her short story “Walking Home” is featured today in Daily Science Fiction.

She stopped by ye olde blogular to answer important questions about where she writes, how she writes, and the chocolate powdered flavoring mix that makes her world go round.

1. Special pen? Lucky socks? Breakfast of champions? Describe your writing process. (Include necessary rituals, superstitions, or talismans.)

My writing process is stalled these days, but my writerbrain is growing back. I grew up constantly thinking about stories–walking to and from school, going to sleep at night, in the bathroom, all the time. I’ve gotten out of that habit, or at least out of the habit of having my own active stories in my head.  Still, while I’m driving or while I’m walking from one place to another, there’s something going on. Mostly fanfic-ish things or fanfic-ish things of my own. That’s where “Walking Home” came from: it’s a side bit from the novelworld I had in late high school.

At some point, the story things up, and I do a draft. I don’t have a fixed process at this point, but do whatever the story seems to need. I usually write straight into the computer, but some stories happen on paper first. After that, I edit.  That’s the fun part–I like cutting and tightening especially.

Sometimes this happens on a writing date with friends, but not often. I’m more likely to get distracted by socializing than work steadily. I sometimes ping friends to bounce ideas off them or throw a draft at them. I almost always show my roommate Angela, who understands stories from a different direction and has pretty similar taste to mine–she’s wonderful. Of course, this is all subject to change.  I haven’t been writing a lot lately, and who knows what my process will be next?

Good tools: I love my CW notebook.  I require a good fountain pen with Noodler’s ink.  I need my computer, a three-year-old Thinkpad set up so I can use it but no one else can, trackpad turned off, and Dvorak keyboard. I do some tightening on paper, so I like to have a printer.  But what I need is discipline.

Bedroom Workspace. Go to Flickr  to view annotations.

Bedroom Workspace. Go to Flickr to view annotations.

2. Biggest thing that keeps you from writing when you should be writing?

Oh dear. I haven’t written anything really new in a while. I had the stereotypical post-workshop slump and haven’t unpacked my box of stories and critiques yet. Shameful, I know! I’m not sure exactly what’s holding me back besides anxiety and exhaustion. I don’t run my own stories in my head because it’s so much easier and more satisfying to return to someone else’s, like comfort food. I always have a story going, but I’m not someone who is driven relentlessly to put words on the page.

3. What do you wish you were reading but aren’t? (Because it doesn’t exist.)

I want sisters. More sisters. There are so many brothers in fantasy, especially urban fantasy, and what I want is a relationship like that between brothers but between sisters. The typical brother relationship is two brothers against the world, usually with one of them magical or otherwise vulnerable and the other one a vigilant guard. The typical sister relationship is that two sisters against the world are separated because one of them meets a man and leaves the partnership. I hate that. I want more relationships between women that don’t dissolve as part of the plot. –Why yes, I do adore Kate Elliott, why do you ask?

4. What can’t you live without?

Other than the obvious?  Chocolate milk.  Those who knew me at Clarion West know that among my first purchases in Seattle were cups and Quik.  It’s my breakfast on a normal day, and what I drink before going to bed.  I don’t need it on vacations, but it’s one of the things I do to establish ‘normal’.

5. What should a reader do after reading this interview?

Go read some Kate Elliott.  Write me a sister story.  Knit something.

Living Room Workspace. Flickr again for annotations.

Living Room Workspace. Flickr again for annotations.


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Waylines Magazine – An Inside Look

Nishinomiya-shi, Hyogo, Japan

Nishinomiya-shi, Hyogo, Japan 

When I go for a walk in the evening, I look in the windows of houses that forgot to draw the blinds. I sneak peeks at what you have in your shopping cart when I’m standing in line behind you. And if you’re a writer, I wish I could see where you write.

Writing is something of a secret vocation. Sure, authors today are expected to blog & tweet & Facebook their every thought, but the writing itself takes place behind closed doors. Behind the page, as it were.

There’s something magical about the site of creation. Granted, we writers tend to have slightly less fabulous workspaces than visual artists, but in some ways, that makes it all the more mystical (or do I mean mystifying?). To satisfy this unnatural curiosity of mine, I’ve decided to start a series about the workspaces of literary folk. Look into their spare bedrooms, their basement lairs, their frozen garrets, their comfy couches, and read the secrets of their souls.

The first victim who has volunteered to bare his tender interior spaces for your salaciously inquiring eyes is David Rees-Thomas, Fiction Editor of the brand-new Waylines Magazine. He’s also a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. He used to be the managing editor at Ideomancer magazine. He lives in Japan, and likes to build and collect old synthesizers in his spare time, which is not as much as it used to be. His musical endeavors can be found under the moniker, Phenotypo.

"Bashing the elderly and infirm with my laptop bag usually secures me a seat," says David.

“Bashing the elderly and infirm with my laptop bag usually secures me a seat,” says David.

So, a new spec fic magazine, huh? Why?

Waylines Magazine came about as the logical result of me and Darryl Knickrehm getting together and talking SF/fantasy and all that jazz every week. There are a ton of great writers out there, and there’s always room for another magazine to highlight their wonderful stories.

I worked as the Managing Editor at Ideomancer previously, and I learned so much about how to keep things from getting out of control (slush keeps rolling in even as you sleep) and also about the absolute importance of respect–for our authors and for the process. We aim to turn stories around quickly and make our editorial process as transparent as we can. We’re now on the verge of launching as a pro-rates paying market, which is our ideal. (For more about this, see the Kickstarter info below)

Darryl has a background in film and art, and we are editing the magazine as a team. We trust each other’s opinions, and each of us brings a different take on an individual story. We are both big fans of mags like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Shimmer, F&SF, Apex, Analog, Strange Horizons, and on and on. Oh yeah, and, of course, Ideomancer!! We’ve been inspired by all these guys, and we also want to do something just a little different by including film as well as fiction.

Who is the ideal reader of Waylines?

Well, I want to say everyone! A more fun answer is that we thought we knew what we liked, and part of the enjoyment of this journey has been discovering new stories that made us stop, nod our heads, and go, Yes! Yes!!

Darryl has a soft spot for cyberpunk, the Twilight Zone, and Heavy Metal magazine. I have a soft spot for Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and Jack Womack. Go figure!

What do you wish you were reading, but aren’t (because it doesn’t exist)?

Ooohh, that’s a tricky question.

Alright, here goes: More science fiction by authors from Wales.

I grew up in Caerphilly, near Cardiff, a proper valleys boy. I also lived in Aberystwyth on the coast. We have a rich tradition of storytelling in Wales, so it would be great to see more from my homeland. Of course, this is not to suggest it doesn’t exist, or that we don’t already have great science fiction and fantasy writers–Alastair Reynolds, David Langford, the rather fascinating Rhys Hughes, and not to forget Islwyn Ffowc Elis, who wrote science fiction in the Welsh language.

There must be so much more out there!!

Tell us about your editing process. Or your writing process. Or both. Divulge.

On a typical day, I get up, make coffee, check Waylines’ submissions. Deal with any correspondence, reply to a few submissions, wonder what the strange humming noise is, realize I’ve left the bass amp on again when the cat brushes her tail against the G string.

Take a shower, write my morning 200 words, more coffee, make notes on all the Waylines madness to do during breaks from the day job. Get on the train. Write until I get to work. I am worried that in the future, I will not be able to write unless I’m on a train!! I typically work in the day job from about 11am-7:30pm. I get some writing done and read second round submissions when I have a lunch break.

Then on to the train again. Careful strategic positioning usually bags me a seat one stop after I get on the train. Then, it’s out with the trusted, dying, little netbook, and down to more writing. Once I’m home, dinner, some admin, editing, correspondence, and other bits and pieces until about 10:30. Then I relax. Whew!

Both Darryl and I edit the magazine, so if we think a story has something we like, we bump it to the second round of submissions, and inform the author. Things slow down a bit at this point. We read the story, make notes, and make a decision when we have our weekly meeting. If we like it enough, we move on to the next stage, acceptance and editing.

Darryl and I are in text message contact over our phones all day. We have a weekly meeting every Wednesday evening, in a cheap Italian restaurant in Umeda, Osaka. Note, we do no editing when drinking the wine.

Darryl (l.) and David (r.) get wine stains on your precious manuscripts

Darryl (l.) and David (r.) get wine stains on your precious manuscripts

What’s it like living in Japan? How does that affect your writing/editing?

We’ve both lived here for quite some time now, so the boring answer is that it’s probably much like living anywhere else. I’m originally from Wales in the UK. Darryl is from Orange County, California. Beyond the temples, shrines, and the cyberpunk pachinko assault on the senses, it’s a country where people have the same everyday troubles and celebrations as your own place in the world.

The truth is that we’ve probably been shaped by the experience more than we realize. We’ve probably learned to be a lot more open regarding different cultures, different people, and different ways of doing things. (Some things about Japan will forever mystify me, but the same could easily be said about Wales.)

We live in the Osaka area, which is more down-to-earth and rugged than Tokyo. Good food, straightforward people, and possibly the ugliest, most fabulous skyline in Japan.

Your prediction for the Mayan Apocalypse?

Well, it appears to be a Thursday, so assuming this doesn’t happen, then it will be a day like I outlined above. There shall also be miso soup and red wine consumed, as well as a good chance of some 1956 B movies on the TV at home, and a few parts going missing from the synthesizer I’m building as I attempt to do some soldering at 11:30 at night.

Perhaps that’s enough to herald an apocalypse by itself.

What should a reader do after reading this interview?

Bookmark our page. We really want to make Waylines something that will be enduring, something magnificent, something to make the gods themselves tremble!! Uh, seriously though, please do pop along, it would be lovely to see you.

We have plans for the first year, into year 2, and even a few years on from there.

We’re also running a Kickstarter until Dec 6th. If you cannot suppress the urge to really help us out, please take a look. It’s worth it just for the video.

Our bare bones goals will enable us to pay our authors semi-pro rates, but more will allow us to increase our rates to pro paying level, which would be wonderful.