Episode 56: Kelley Armstrong

An hour-long conversation with New York Times-bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, author of numerous fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels in multiple series for adults, including the thirteen-book Otherworld series, which began with her first novel, Bitten, and other series and standalone novels for young adults and middle-grade readers.




Kelley Armstrong’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo of Kelley Armstrong
Photo by Kathryn Hollinrake

Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of numerous fantasy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, for adults, young adults, and middle-grade readers, both standalones and in multiple series.

Born in Sudbury, Ontario, she grew up in London, Ontario. She went to the University of Western Ontario to study psychology, with plans to become a clinical psychologist, but on the brink of grad school, realizing such a career would limit her writing time for many years, switched paths and went to Fanshawe College in London, studying computer programming.

While getting her education, she married and had first child, a daughter, then took a full-time job programming for a bank while continuing writing. She sold her first novel, Bitten, in 1999, and had two more children, sons, before it was released in 2001, at which point she quit her job to write full-time, which she’s been doing ever since.

Among her series: OtherworldCainsville, Rockton, Darkest Powers and Darkness Rising, Age of Legends, and the Nadia Stafford crime trilogy. She has also written several serial novellas and short stories for the Otherworld series. Starting in 2014, a Canadian television series based on Otherworld, called Bitten, aired for three seasons on Space and SyFy. Kelley lives in rural Ontario.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kelly, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

Now we’re both authors in Canada, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually met each other in person anywhere at any conventions or anything like that. I can’t think of a time.

I don’t think so. We’ve probably passed somewhere at some convention because it’s a, you know, relatively restricted literary landscape. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t recall.

Yeah, it’s a small literary landscape, but it’s a very, very large physical landscape. And Saskatchewan and…you’re in Ontario?

I am.

Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.

They are.

When we moved up here from Texas when I was eight years old, it was the year of Expo ’67. And I was excited as we were leaving Texas because I thought, we’re going to Canada, and I’d get to go to Expo 67, and my parents had to point out to me that…

It’s a long way.

…we would be closer–we’d be just as far away from Montreal in Saskatchewan as we were in Texas; basically, it was pretty much the same distance. In my defense, I was only eight, so.


Well, so this…you have two books coming out this week–month–which we are going to talk about a little bit. But first, I’ll do what I always do with this, which is take you back into the mists of time–I’m going to put reverb on that one of these days, the mists of time–and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up and then how you got interested in writing. And probably you started as a reader, because we all do, and the sorts of things that drew you into this field and, you know, all of that stuff. So, how did that all happen for you?

Yeah. So I grew up in London, Ontario, and it is that typical thing where you start off by reading. I was a very young reader. I was the oldest child, and my parents were very keen on teaching me how to read. Neither of them was a huge reader themselves, but they understood literacy was important, and so, their first kid, they were doing everything right, making sure that I was learning to read. So, every night, after dinner, while Mom cleaned up, Dad would be reading these books. And I very quickly learned to read that way. And for me, it turned into, “I want to do that.” I would take those stories and do what we would now call fanfiction, where I would take what I had heard and maybe create a new story for those characters or a story with different characters in that world as some way of working on what the author had created and building my own stories on it and then, getting older, was moving into creating entirely my own stories.

Well, what were some of the books that influenced you back then?

So, certainly back when I was very young, I can’t really recall. We have sort of gone through trying to work that out. It was a whole lot of really simple Golden Book readers. So, none of them stuck. So, the ones that stuck came later. There was one series about Irish setters, and they were adventure series where each…one was Big Red…and each one had a different Irish setter.

I remember reading Big Red.

Yeah, exactly. So all those…Hardy Boys, too. Read so many Hardy Boys. They always had much more interesting adventures than Nancy Drew, so I devoured Hardy Boys. And some of the classics, but really I was looking at the adventure stories, the mystery stories, and the stories with the animals.

So when did the fantasy side of things start to creep in?

So yeah, people always ask, where did that come from? And I always jokingly blame too many early Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. That supernatural-combined-with-the-mystery was perfect. But I think it was more, when it comes to stories, mythology has them, so I very quickly got into mythology. I knew the Dewey Decimal System number for the myth and folklore section. So I would be there pulling down those books when I sort of ran out of stories in my own area to read.

When you started writing as a young person, well, did you share your writing with other people? I always ask that because I did, and I found it was like, oh, people actually like the stories that I tell.

Exactly. Yeah. Because I was so young and I was telling stories before I could write them down, so, at that age, you don’t have any of that…when people get older, and they start thinking, do I want to share this or not? As a kid, no, of course you share it because you have created this thing. So certainly, early on, sharing everything with parents, siblings, etc., friends and so on. It’s only when you get older that you start double-guessing, do I want to actually share this?

Did you have any teachers that sort of encouraged your writing along the way in high school or around that time?

I did. I certainly did, certainly in both elementary and high school. I was doing a lot of writing and getting a lot of really good feedback on my writing. So I often joke that, you know, they really tried to steer me away from the fantasy, the supernatural, etc. “You could write normal things,” but the normal things were what interested me. So it’s good that they still encouraged me despite the fact that I was not necessarily writing the kinds of stories that they were hoping for.

I always tell a story that when I was about eleven, I wrote my first complete short story that I remember actually finishing, and it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So you could tell where my mind was early on. And there was a teacher who, you know, he was my junior high English teacher, and I showed it to him and he took it seriously, and he critiqued it and said, you know, “I don’t understand why your aliens to this and why does your character do that?” And I still credit that with taking it seriously, taking the writing seriously, with having helped set my mind on, “Well, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to write better things going forward.”

It is, and it’s very important because, yes, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re hoping you would write, or it’s not a genre that they read, just that overall encouragement means a lot. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone on.

But you didn’t actually go immediately into writing. You studied psychology to begin with, I believe, is that right?

Yeah. I went to Western for psychology undergrad. I was planning on going on to masters and doctorate and becoming a psychologist. I was heading into grad school and realized I was heading into that kind of a career where there’d be a lot more schooling, and I would not be writing, because university was the one time where I didn’t have time to actually write fiction. So I thought, I’ve got this long time where I’m probably not going to be writing, do I want to wait that long before I try to at least…? My sort of goal was, maybe someday I’ll be able to be a part-time writer and part-time at some other career. So I switched gears there and went to college for computer programming. I had been doing that way back from the Commodore 64. It was a big interest of mine. So I did that. Got your typical corporate cubicle job that let me write and study the craft of writing.

Do you find…I mean, psychology would tend to tie into writing in some way. Did you find that what you studied in that field has been beneficial in your writing career? And the computer programming? I mean, I always say, nothing you do is wasted when you’re a writer. Have you found that?

It’s true. Because people always sort of look back and they say, you know, was that a waste, or when I see young people heading into college, university, and their ultimate career is writing, and they just want to totally focus on that. And I say, anything that you take is going to help. Psychology for characters, absolutely. Because it helps with my character backgrounds to know if I want a character who is like this at 35, what type of background did they probably have to get them there or what life experiences could they have had that get them where I want them to be at that age? And of course, programming meant that I did not have to hire anyone to, you know, code those early websites.

I had a Commodore 64 for years, and I did a lot of programming at the time, too, in BASIC, and I did some quite complicated things. You know, I created a whole music entry system to use that synthesizer chip that it had. And you had to put in like three different values for each note. And yet I did all that, and it worked. And then I thought, “But, you know, other people do it better than I do.” And I was never tempted to stick with programming because, again, it was more like, well, that takes a lot of time. I could be writing.

Commodore 64 with disk drive, monitor, and joystick.

It did. Yeah. I was doing the old text-based adventure game, so I was writing text-based adventure games, which of course took a whole lot of work just for a very short, short and simple one.

Well, your first novel was Bitten, which came out in 1999 or was sold in 1999. It came out in 2001. How did that come about? That’s kind of your breaking-in moment. Or had you had some short stories before that, or how did that work for you?

Yeah, I had had a couple of short stories published, but nothing significant. And I had been writing novels. So, when I made that choice to go into programming instead of going on to graduate school, that meant that I then knew that I had to get serious about writing. And it meant writing novels, joining writers’ groups, taking writing courses. So I was doing that. I was writing novels. I was writing novels that were to market. So whatever was…I had one that was, for example, a female private eye, in the time period when we were seeing a lot of that. When I got to…so, I finished three novels, no interest, no interest from publishers or agents. And then, I decided I was going to work on this one idea that I had for a book about female werewolves. And I figured nobody’s going to ever want this, so this is just totally for me. And it was all freeing that way, too, like not be saying, “I’m writing this in hopes of getting it published,” But just I’m tired of trying to get stuff published. I’m just going to write something for myself. Got it done, and of course, started thinking, “Well, is there any chance?” So I had a writing instructor take a look at it, and he thought that it had promise, so he offered to recommend me to an agent, and she took it on, and it took off from there.

And there’s been quite a few since then.

There has been, yeah.

So is it a fairly straightforward, you know, once that one came out, it was successful, and you’ve been doing it ever since?

Yeah. Not…certainly now people look back and say, well, clearly Bitten was successful, and I’m like, not actually, no. The publisher, my American publisher, bought the first two and then was not interested in a third book because they just weren’t selling. They started selling more with the third book. But yeah, you certainly get that where…they were successful enough that I was able to keep publishing, and from where I stand now, 20 years later, that’s the big measure of success, is not how much you make or how many copies you sell, but just can you keep finding a publisher to want more books?

Yeah, that sounds familiar.


Now, I’m going to ask you this, even though as somebody who’s worked in Canada as well. I think I know the answer. But have you ever…has being a Canadian author but published in the US market, has it been a good thing or a bad thing, or has it made any difference at all, do you think?

It’s been a good thing for me because certainly I make more. I mean, having that extra market…I mean, a Canadian bestseller is, what, 5,000 copies? I mean, that’s not going to give you an annual income even if you’re doing one per year. I mean, being able to have that US market, that’s where sort of the much bigger incomes coming from. And then that drives getting a UK publisher, getting the foreign publishers, and it’s all of that. I mean, Canada is great, but actually being able to make a living off of strictly being published in Canada would be tough.

Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what you have coming out this month. You know, two books in a month is not bad.

It’s weird, yeah,

And another one coming in October, I think.

Yeah. And it was kind of an odd thing because, yes, so what is my second middle grade came out early this month. There was supposed to be a standalone thriller coming out in August, because they usually obviously don’t keep them quite so close, but the standalone thriller got bumped up to the end of June. So I end up…because it’s the same publisher in Canada for them, Random House, and they didn’t see any crossover t you’ve got. You’ve got, like, your fantasy middle-grade book and your standalone adult thriller, they’re like, “There is no crossover.” So it’s not like I’m going to be competing with myself. It just makes it tougher for me promoting to be making sure to mention that I have two books coming out.

Well, and I did want to ask you, even before we start talking about The Gryphon’s Lair, which is the middle grade, um….when did you make the step into the. Both middle grade and young adult markets, I guess?

Yeah. So for a young adult, that came back…so, the first one came out 2008. Would have meant I was writing it in 2005. And that was back when you were seeing a little bit more interest in young adult books. I had a daughter who was hitting that age, she was twelve, thirteen, and she wanted to read Bitten. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” So I said, how would I write something that is that type of book in that world, but with teenage characters. So that became The Summoning. And then after it was written, you were seeing publishers wanting that, because that’s when Twilight started taking off. So, they were looking for more paranormal YA, and I happened to have some. So then that one sold. Middle grade took a little longer. I have sons, too, so when they got to be the middle-grade age, I was writing with a friend (Melissa Marr), she also has a son that age, and we decided that we would co-write middle grade for our son. So that was the first trilogy, the Blackwell Pages, based on Norse mythology. And then I kind of took a break from middle grade there and then went back. Last year was the first in this new series.

OK. I have to ask you, does your daughter read your books? Did she read that? Because I have a daughter who’s nineteen now and the only one of mine she’s read are ones I’ve actually read out loud to her, and she really seems to be reluctant to read my stuff. And I think it’s because if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t know how to tell me.

I know. And that’s really tough. Now, my daughter reads everything, and she’s obviously, she’s like twenty-eight now, so if she read everything…

She’s probably read Bitten by now.

Yeah, exactly. She reads early…she reads sort of drafts when they’re at the point where I want her to take a look at it. She helps with that. Now, my sons are a different thing. Yes. They read the trilogy that I wrote them, but let’s just say that they are not exactly saying, “Hey, Mom, what else do you have?”

So I had, I still have, a niece, when she was a teenager–this is a long time ago now, probably my first book–and she said she didn’t want to read it because she didn’t want to know what was going on in her uncle’s head. Which I thought was funny.

Exactly. I mean, that is the weird thing, too, if you write. Yeah. Bitten has some sex scenes in it, and it was like, yeah, do you really want to know what your mom’s going to write for that scene? No, the answer is no.

Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. Well, we’re gonna talk primarily about The Gryphon’s Lair book, but we’ll also mention Every Step She Takes, which is the standalone that’s coming out, because we’re going to talk about your creative process and it will be interesting for me to hear the difference between your planning and writing for an adult novel, and your planning and writing for the younger age group. But first of all, how about a synopsis about The Gryphon’s Lair?

So, The Gryphon’s Lair is book two in a series. The basic concept is that we’ve got this set in a fantasy world, completely fantasy world, with monsters. This world has monsters, but they’re based on science. So, there’s no magic in this world. If you’re going to have a, say, a basilisk that can turn people into a stone, it can’t really do that, but it can shoot a neurotoxin that can paralyze someone. So you’re doing things that are science-based rather than magic-based. The main character is a princess. I mean, there are a lot of princess books out there. I wanted to take my try at going ahead and doing that in a slightly different way. And she is a twin. She’s supposed to become queen, and her brother is supposed to become the Royal Monster Hunter. That’s how this always works. And she would much rather be the Royal Monster Hunter. He would make a better king.

So, an accident happens and they’re able to switch places. So, in the book one, we saw her first sort of forays as the Royal Monster Hunter, book two, we’ve got, she is in charge of a young gryphon, because while it’s called A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, the slaying part is pretty light. It’s really more like being a monster conservator or a monster ranger, where you’re trying to help people live with, you know, monsters being in that land. And sort of moving the monsters out when they get in, killing them if you have to, but it’s more about a conservationist idea. So, she is raising a young orphan gryphon, and it becomes a little big and dangerous. So in book two, she has to take it into the mountains where the gryphons live and try to take it back home.

Sounds like a great setup for a story.

It’s a lot of fun.

Maybe just a brief bit about Every Step She Takes, too. When I say they’re coming this month, I should explain to listeners that we’re recording this in June. I guess Gyphon’s Lair is already out, right?

Yes. And then, yeah, every step she takes comes out on the 30th.

So it’ll be out when this airs, which goes live, which will probably be…it might be August. So if you’re hearing this, you can get these books.


So, Every Step She Takes, maybe a little bit about that.

Yeah. Every Step She Takes, standalone thriller. It’s about a woman, Genevieve, who is living in Rome, and she’s living a very ordinary life. She’s a music teacher, has a boyfriend. She’s very happy with this life. She’s a former American. And she gets this package addressed to Lucy Calahan, which is a name she hasn’t used in 10 years. Turns out that she was the victim of a scandal when she was 18. It was a celebrity scandal, and in trying to get out of that, she ended up finally just leaving and coming…and going abroad, and ended up in Rome. Now she’s getting a call from somebody who was involved, who wants to make peace with it, who wants, who has come to understand that her role in it was not what she thought and called Genevieve back to make peace. And she goes back to make peace, and the woman ends up dead. So, that’s kind of a problem, because she is dead and Genevieve is being framed for it.

So these are two very different books…

Very different books, exactly.

So let’s talk about how these things come about. I mean, it’s a cliche to ask, where do your ideas come from, and yet, it’s a valid question. Maybe if you don’t like it that way, I often say, what was the seed from which this novel grew?

Exactly. Exactly. And for the Royal Guide series, that was actually…it comes from two things. So it comes from video games. Witcher. I was playing Witcher years ago, playing probably the second or third one, and thinking, “You know, I really like the monster hunter concept. I really it. I feel like I’d love to do something with it in fiction. Not that idea obviously, but just that very basic monster-hunting concept. And I played around with it as a young adult book. So the book was pretty much the concept was the same in that it was a princess who had a twin brother, they really wanted to switch roles. I wrote about 5,000 words of it, and it wasn’t really gelling. Just something wasn’t working. And I put it away, and every now and then I would come back to it and say, “I really like this concept. What’s not working?” And one day just had this epiphany of, “What if it was middle grade? What if, instead of being seventeen, she’s twelve.” So that, of course, meant a total rewrite, but when I rewrote, I could see, yes, that absolutely works with…it had that level of fun and lightness that it needed. The original version with the teens made it much darker, and it just wasn’t quite gelling. But in the middle-grade version, it just popped.

And that one came from sort of…not exactly random, but, you know, just something else that you were doing. Is that kind of typical of where ideas come from? They can come from anywhere, in other words?

Yeah, it certainly can be, where it’ll come from something that sort of sparks an idea, and then I run with it, and by the time you get to the final product, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the original concept, or the original where I sort of took that from. I mean, nobody’s going to read Royal Guide and think, “Aha, she was clearly influenced by Witcher,” which is a very adult and very different story. But yes, I can sort of say that that’s where it started, and then my brain keeps on spinning on that concept until I make it my own.

On the mystery side, is it any different?

No, it’s very similar. Certainly with the, sort of grain for Every Step She Takes, we see a lot of things now, particularly when we see #MeToo coming out, where we see these stories of young women who made mistakes in some way and the way they were demonized for them. I feel like, I hope we would not necessarily do at this point, where we can look, where, at the time, it was very clearly the young woman had seduced the guy who was in power, etc. But I was fascinated by the way that we presumed that she was guilty, even when you can look back now and she would have been like, you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, early twenties, and the guy’s like forty or something, and yet we still somehow see that Lolita complex, where clearly she was the instigator, and she’s the one who got all of the fallout. That’s where that idea started from, but of course, once I took it and ran with it, it does not bear any resemblance to any actual case.

Now, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? You know, are you a pantser a plotter? There’s another cliche question for you, but what does it look like to you?

Yeah, I think like a lot of writers, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’ve developed my own sort of process by now, where, when I go into a book, I have a very good idea of that Act 1. I know what the setup is going to be. So if we were to take something like Royal Guide, for the first book, I know exactly what the setup is: these two twins, and they’re in the wrong positions, and we’re going to have…a gryphon is attacking, and we’re going to have, the brother goes off after it, sister is left behind, and she’s going to sneak off after them. Things are going to go horribly bad, and we’re going to lose our current Royal Monster Hunter, which then means that that position is now open for someone who’s way too young. So that’s Act 1. And I know that going in. I know my characters. I know my setting. Once you get past that, I know the major points. So I would know, how do these two add up switching rules? What is she going to have to do to prove herself? What is her voyage going to be? What do I want? I mean, often in a story like that, you get this very elongated training session, where a character is going to be the Royal Monster Hunter, so now let’s spend half the book showing her in training. And I knew I did not want that. So, how do I work around that? So, I would know all the major parts, and the final act, what she’s going to face down, she’s obviously going to face down that, you know, gryphon that killed her aunt in the early part of the book. She’s going to have to come full circle and face down that gryphon. So I know that’s what’s going to have to happen. I have no clue when I start writing where this is going to happen or how it’s going to happen. Because, if I was to go and decide exactly how that happens, by the time I reach that point in the book, it would no longer fit.

On the mystery side, you often…they’re often quite intricate, and you have to be careful about what information you provide and when. Do you do more detailed planning for mysteries than you would for a straight-ahead kind of fantasy story?

You would think that I would, but I actually don’t, and it’s because a lot of the mystery is shaped through editing. So I will go into it certainly knowing who I think is the killer, etc., that could change. And mystery fans hate hearing that you get like partway through the book and change who the killer is, but it’s not like you’re being cheated because then you continue writing that, and then you finish that book and go back and you craft and edit and you put in the correct clues, you get rid of the clues that pointed in the wrong direction. It’s not as if you sort of go off on a 90-degree angle and cheat halfway through. A lot of it really is formed through that editing process of saying, OK, now that I am done, where did I put in clues that led nowhere? I mean, yes, you want some red herrings, you don’t want too many of them, or where am I missing clues that would have pointed towards this, and going back and filling all of that in.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you like, know, a quill pen under the tree on a piece of parchment writer or…?

Computer. Yeah, because I grew up on computers. Now, I did write…my earliest stories were on a typewriter, and so, having done the longhand and done typewriters in my past, I’m still that generation that remembers what a glorious thing word processors were. Like, you did not…you could edit to your heart’s content. You didn’t have to be, you know, getting it right the first time. You could go in and edit and change things. So, yes, totally computer-based.

Do you work at home or do you go out…I mean, right now, we’re all working at home, basically, but…

Exactly. Yeah. No, I’ve got a writing cabin in the back field. So I live rural. We live on 10 acres or so, and so I’ve got a little cabin in the way, far back. It’s off-grid. No Internet. No, you know, everything. So I just go back there and work.

Sounds nice.

It is!

I was going to mention, on the word-processor side, since you are familiar with the Commodore 64, you probably remember a program called PaperClip?

Yeah, yep.

That was my first word processor, and for a long time, in my early books, they all had 10-page chapters, because you got 499 lines of text in a PaperClip file, and that was as far as you could go.

Right, yeah, exactly.

And that works out to about ten pages of manuscript format. So for a while, all my books had the same length of chapters because of PaperClip.

I think mine, still, if you were to look at my chapters, they’d probably all be between eight and 12 pages.

Yeah. I think I still fall into that kind of a zone as well. So, you talked a little bit about working on the mystery side, on revision, and so forth, but in general, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I write a first draft right through. I don’t stop. If I decide that I’m going to make a change in plot, I mean, something as drastic even as getting halfway through a book and saying, “OK, I’ve decided that this character’s father is now dead,” even though he’s been alive until this point, I’m going to decide that he died, like, ten years ago, I don’t actually stop and go back and fix it up. I just keep on going as if he’s been dead for ten years and making lots of notes on things that I want to change. So, once it’s done, put it aside for a couple of months, come back to it. Do usually once sort of go-through on the computer, which is more of a revision one, where I’m moving stuff around, adding stuff in, you know, killing off father, you know, ten years ago, etc., going and fixing all of that. And then, if I have time, doing a round of paper edits, because even though I’m so computer-based for my writing, I still find that I edit best on paper, paper and pen, so I can see it, and it looks like an actual book story. And then it goes off to the editor after that.

Yeah, it’s…I’m a little bit older than you, but I also started on a typewriter and then switched to the computer, and the way that you write sounds very much like the way that I do, too, and I was…who was it I talked to? I guess it was John Scalzi I talked to…one of my very first interviews on here, and he talked about how he does a rolling revision, but he’s always written on a computer. And he never went back to that time when you pretty much had to do a single draft all the way through before you did your revisions. And he thought that there is a connection between having once worked on a typewriter and doing it that way. I don’t know about that.

I don’t know, because, yes, certainly in my early word-processing days, even with Bitten and my early novels, I did that, where I would write, and I would go back and edit and I would write and go back and edit. But I got so caught in that endless editing, and I would be editing things that I would later just cut right out because I’m pretty ruthless in the revision and I will cut out entire chapters. I will lift out 20,000 words and put in 20,000 words of stuff. It’s much harder to do that if I’ve spent time perfecting this, you know, chapter. It’s easier to pull out a first draft chapter than a chapter that I have polished, you know, five times, so…

And the working on paper resonates with me too. I am currently doing page proofs for my next book from DAW, The Moonlit World, which, by the way, is werewolves and vampires. But yeah, you know, once you get to page proofs, there’s stuff that you can’t believe that you left in the original file that you sent because it just somehow comes out differently when you see it in print than when you see it on the screen.

It does, yeah.

Now, once you’ve got a draft, you mentioned that your daughter reads stuff, do you have other beta readers? Do you do that, or are you self-contained more?

Yeah. It completely depends on what the project is. If I’m gonna be working on a series, if I’m partway through a series, there’s fewer early editors at that point. But if it’s a brand-new standalone or if it’s a new first novel or if it’s a new novella, I’m more likely to send it to my daughter, or I’ve got critique partners, and they will see it before my editor does. Now, if it’s, you know, say book three in a series, book four in a series, it’s going to go to my editor first, because by that point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and there’s not as much of that, “Is this working?” The editor knows what to expect, and I can go there. And then a critique partner or my daughter may come in at a later point if they just say, “I’d just like to read it.”

What sorts of things do you get…you mentioned, “Is this working?” Is that kind of the focus of that level of reading?

Yes, certainly for that first–if it’s standalone, if it’s first in a series–I’m really sending it to somebody to say, just generally, “Is this working? Is this flowing? Do you see any major issues with it? Do you see that it’s too close to anything that you may have read?,” even, because you never know, you can send it to somebody, and they’re like, “I just read something that’s very similar to this recently.” So, it helps to have that totally trustworthy critique partner who, before the editorial process, can help me get it cleaned up, because, by the time the editor sees it, I don’t want to be embarrassed.

One thing I forgot to ask was, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I am fast, and I do a fast first draft. I think it’s because of that mow right through it, not stopping to edit. I want to stay in the voice. I want to stay in the mood, and I want to keep that going. So I’m going to…now I’m not nearly as fast as some people I have met. I am relatively fast in getting that first draft done.

It’s always relative. There’s…no matter how fast you are, there’s somebody else…

Yeah, exactly.

…who says, “Oh, I did a hundred and fifty thousand words in a week.” When you get to the editorial stage, what sorts of things do you generally find the editor commenting on? What kind of changes are requested, if any?

There are always…it’s always interesting to go back and see because there are always those things that, in the back of my mind, I knew was a problem. But even after 30-odd books, I’m still at the stage where, “Yeah. OK, that’s probably a problem,” but I’m hoping it’s just me because fixing it is a lot of work. And then they come back and say, “Yes, that is a problem,” OK, thanks. And then they say it independently, where I don’t say, “Is this a problem?” I do, sometimes, if I’m concerned. But that independent verification of, maybe a plot point that I feel like, eh, that’s not quite gelling for me. Or they might come back…certainly in a series, especially, coming back with, like, “We need more of a reminder of who these characters are, we need less of a reminder of, you know, plot points from previous books because we don’t want to…if someone hasn’t read previous books, we don’t want them to be not willing to go back. If they already know who the killer is in the past two books, they’re not going to want to go back and read them, right?

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. How has that been?

It’s been good. Ninety percent of the time it’s such a good experience. They bring up the things…I always say that, you know, most of my editors, there’s about 80 percent of what they say I dead-on know, “Yes, you’re totally right. Either I already knew it or, as soon as they say it, I see it. Then it’s about 15 percent where I’m not sure, and I have to think more about it. And it’s only about five percent where I can say, “I understand what you mean, but that’s not right for my book.” So, 90 percent of my editors have fallen into that group. There’s always the occasional one that you’re just not going to gel with. Whatever I’m working on, they are looking for something different. They very clearly are looking for a different kind of story than the type of story that I tell. And I can’t sort of twist myself to give them the type of story they want, because that’s not what my vision is for that book.

You were talking about the editors saying things that you kind of knew in the back of your head. My main editor, of course, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books. And all of us who work for DAW, like Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda, and all those people. We all have this thing in the back of the head, “What would Sheila say?” And even though, you know…I do exactly the same thing. I will know that there’s something there that, you know, “I bet she says something,” but I’ll think, “Maybe not.” And sure enough, she always comes back and says, “You know, I didn’t…this needs…whatever,” you know. So…

Yeah, this needs to work. This little area here, this motivation or this plot point just needs a bit of work.

And that’s what editors are for. When I work with new writers, you know, sometimes, I’ll run into people who are concerned about what editors will do to their work. And I say they will generally make it better. That is really what they’re about.

Exactly. There’s a lot of fear, I think, with new writers, they get some kind of feeling, or they’ve heard stories where the editor is going to demand bizarre changes, like demand that you change your werewolves into vampires or your female main character into a male main character. That doesn’t happen. What they’re in there doing is just helping you shape that story, because it’s hard to tell when you’re that close to your story, whether or not it’s actually working.

And speaking of characters, one thing I kind of forgot to ask along the way was how you go about developing characters. I mean, you know who you need in the story, from the big picture. But then how do you flesh them out? Do you do a lot of character sketches or writing in their voice or any of these various tricks that some people use, or how does that work for you?

Yeah…I’ve sort of learned to do this combination where I certainly do dive in at the beginning, and I want to know who they are, what’s their biggest fear, what’s their main goal, what do they want most from life, and what do they want most from this situation? And, you know, what are some of their hobbies? What are some of their interests? What are some of their dislikes, their past experiences, all that psychology stuff? But I still have to get into the writing because I can certainly say that if it’s the first book in a series or it’s a standalone novel, when I start writing, I can say the character is like this, and by the time I’ve hit, you know, ten, twenty thousand words, that character has shifted. And then I have to go back and adjust that early part.

Yeah, that’s often a revision step for me is to make sure that the character’s consistent.


Do you ever find, as some do, that minor characters become major characters without your knowing it was going to happen?

It definitely happens, where, yes, you come up with what you expect to be a minor character…I always use one example from my first book, Bitten. So, there was this renegade werewolf, he was one of the bad guys, and in the first draft, I killed him off at the end of chapter three. But then was like, “I really like him. I feel like he has more to him.” So I thought, OK, fine, I’ll keep him alive till the end of the book. I kept him alive till the end of the book, and I killed him, and then I still was like, I still feel like he had more. So then, I let him live. He eventually ended up becoming part of the pack and becoming a major character. And in the last book of the series, he appears to have died, and it was kind of an in-joke for everybody who knows how hard I try to kill this character early on.

Well, I did want to ask you about series writing. I’ve been on a panel–at CanCon, I think it was–talking about writing series–the most I’ve ever done as a five-book series–what the struggles of writing a series? The challenges and the rewards, I guess.

Yeah. I guess…the rewards are easy because that readership growth and that readership loyalty, that, if the series takes off, if it finds its audience, they are right there hungry for the next book. And that’s a whole lot easier than standalones, where you’re reinventing the wheel every single time and looking for a fresh audience. So, the series has that built-in audience if it works. The drawbacks are obviously, especially when you go into a long series, running out of ideas, running out of originality. Certainly, with the Otherworld, the only reason that it got to 13 books was because I changed narrators. So, every few books, one of the minor, one of the secondary, characters would become the narrator, and the other characters would fall into the background. So, it would instead be a story about this character’s corner of the world, so you’d start with werewolves for two books, and then spin-off to a witch and get her corner of the world for two books. And then, you spun off to a ghost and get her corner of the world for a book. That kept it going through 13. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever get that long because even by 13, by changing characters, by the time I finished the series and went on to something else, I realized how tired I really getting. I didn’t see it until I went on and did something new.

I often wonder about the challenges of continuity…I mean, even in a trilogy, continuity could be a problem. Did you do something to try to keep track of all those little details that just pile your pile up?

Yeah, yeah. There’s the series bibles. And now what I do is my daughter is in charge of those and she…when she’s doing her reading, she’ll usually read one of my books for just that, you know, for fun and for general feedback, but then later on, after it’s completely done, past proofs, everything, she’ll take it and enter it into the bible. So if there’s new information, it goes in there. And then, on the next book, when she goes and does that first read-through, she can first read through the bible, and she will in that read through notice, “OK, Mom, you said this here, and it seems to contradict something.” You know, something like, you get a minor character’s age wrong, you know, you said they were twenty-eight here, and they’re twenty-seven now in book two. Unless they regressed, that does not happen.

Yeah. There’s that and, the other one that that’s happened to me, is that because I’m writing…you know, sort of like you, I have a kind of a general idea, but then I’m making up a lot of stuff as I go..and this was in the five-book young adult series. And I made up something in the first book. And by the time I got to the third book, I really wished I had not made up that particular aspect of how the magic worked, is what it was, because I wanted them to be able to do something, and I had shut that door in my face without even knowing I was doing it, three books before.

Yeah. And it really is that you kind of learn to try to not give absolutes. You try to, you know, learn with that first series, to try to, in future series, instead of saying, “It’s not possible to do this,” you will say, “It’s usually done this way,” or “As far as we know, it’s not possible to do this..

“It’s never been done.” That’s a good one.


 Well, let’s move on to–this is where the reverb should come in again–the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? And why do you think any of us write? And in particular, why do you write the kind of stuff that you choose to write?

Exactly. And for me, I think it still is…I’m still that reader. I’m still the kid who was the reader who wanted to tell stories. And it still is for me. You know, I love reading other people’s work because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, you can read someone else’s story, and it’s entertaining in a way that is original to me and fresh. However, writing my own story, it’s exactly what I want to write. It’s exactly the type of story that I most want to tell. So, all my favorite themes, my favorite tropes, my favorite character types, archetypes, are going to be in there because that’s what I’m doing. I always, still, because I started as a reader who was trying to write to entertain herself, I’ve kept that where, I still have to be my own first reader. And if I’m bored with a story, I need to stop and look at it and say, “Where did I lose interest?” Because for now, it still is, I love writing, and I always tell a story of…I think I had about three or four books out, and I was on a panel, and somebody said, “Now that you’re doing this for a living, do you still love writing?” And so they went down the panel, and when it got to me, I was, “I absolutely still love this. I can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.” And after the panel, one of the panelists said, “Oh, honey, you just wait until you’re at Book 10, that that will change.” And I’m at 35, whatever it is. And no, that has not changed. And I think that’s really important for me, that I still love what I’m doing and I still can’t believe that they actually pay me for this.

Well, on a bigger scale, what do you think is the impetus for telling stories for all of us who do this?

Yeah, and I don’t even…it’s really hard to say. I mean, certainly, the reader feedback is lovely. I mean, that sort of moment when somebody tells you how much a book of yours meant to them. And it can be that it meant something because it came at a difficult time in their life and it provided escape, etc., or it can just be, “I love these books, and I’ve read them to death.” And that’s a really important thing, and it’s a wonderful ego boost, and it feels like you’ve shared something of yourself with them. But I’m not even sure whether that’s the main thing. I mean, that’s obviously important, and the feedback is wonderful. But if I was to say that I could never get feedback again, would I keep on writing? I would. It probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable because I would be constantly worrying, are people out there actually liking what I am writing? That feedback helps to reassure me, but I just feel like, for me, it’s that storytelling. I feel like for a lot of us–I mean, when people say they want to become a writer and you tell–and once they really realize what that means, I think they figure they’re going to write a book and make a lot of money, or…I always figured, as a kid, if I could finish a book, like finishing a 100,000-word book would be so huge that very clearly it would get published. Ha-ha-ha, no. And I think once they realize…I’ve had so many people have said to me, “I wanted to be a writer, but then I got to know you and saw you, like, on a personal level how hard you work,” and said, “I don’t actually want it that badly.” And I’m like, that’s OK because I do.

I mean, I’m twenty…well, more than 60 books with all the nonfiction and everything…and I still love writing. And the thing is, you know, the whole thing of would I do it even I wasn’t knowing that people were reading it, well, I did, you know, a good nine or ten novels before I published anything. So I guess…and I was still enjoying the mere fact of writing the stories, even though I wasn’t finding a readership.

It is, because certainly with those early books, the unpublished ones, I would finish it and it wouldn’t sell. And there’s that moment of, “I shouldn’t even bother continuing,” but I couldn’t do that because every time I would go back and say, “I’ll right this next one for me,” because I couldn’t not write even when it wasn’t working out.

Well, and what are you working on now?

What I’m working on now is a young-adult thriller. I’ve taken a couple of years off of doing young adult while I got my middle grade going, and I wanted to come up with an idea, I felt like I wasn’t coming up with the right concept for next one. So I am working on that.

And where can people find you online?

You can find me at KelleyArmstrong.com. And on Twitter, I’m relatively active on Twitter and Facebook (@KelleyArmstrongAuthor). Not so much on Instagram, but I occasionally remember to host mostly pet pictures.

Yeah. I always struggle with Instagram. I would like to be more active on it, but I keep forgetting about that one somehow.

Exactly. I do, too.

And perhaps should mention everybody should know that it’s Kelley with an e, K-e-l-l-e-y.

It is. Yes. Although I also have the domain without the extra E, so if you type it in wrong, it should redirect you.

I should do that with Willett because that second T is constantly dropped off. Even if they put it in right–like, the Saskatchewan Book Awards judges put out their comments from this year’s, and I had a book nominated, and in the first part of it they put two Ts on it, by the time they got to the end of it, they dropped that second.

Yes, it does. It is not…I mean, I get so much that doesn’t have the E, that was one of the first things I did was snag that domain that didn’t have the second E.

I should look and see if it’s available. That would be a good thing.


All right. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you!

That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.

I did. Thank you very much.

Well, bye for now.

OK, bye-bye.

Episode 55: Adria Laycraft

An hour-long conversation with Adria Laycraft, author of Jumpship Hope (Tyche Books), freelance editor, and wood artisan, an Odyssey Writers Workshop alumna whose short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, both online and in print.



Carving the Cottonwood
Girl Gone to Ground

The Introduction

Adria Laycraft is an author, freelance editor of fiction, and wood artisan who earned honours in journalism in 1992 and has always worked with words and visual arts. She coedited The Urban Green Man Anthology in 2013, which was nominated for an Aurora Award, and launched her debut novel, Jumpship Hope,, in 2019. Her short stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, both online and in print. Adria is a grateful member of Calgary’s Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, and a proud survivor of the Odyssey Writers Workshop. She also has two YouTube channels, Carving the Cottonwood and Girl Gone to Ground.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Adria, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you, Ed. It’s wonderful to be here.

Now, I say I feel like I’m kind of an honorary member of the IFWA, because we’ve known each other for a long time through conventions in Calgary, and so, although I’ve never, you know, really been a member of the organization, I’ve been part of the Writers at the Improv that that group does every year, for many, many years now.

That is so much fun, Writers at the Improv.

I’ve done it a couple of times as a program. In fact, I did it when I was writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library, and I did it again this year at the Saskatoon Public Library. Except I didn’t really have anybody show…it was just before everything closed down and I think people were a little iffy. All I had was an English As a Second Language class, and none of them wanted to compete. So what I did was, I just took words from them…because for those…I guess I should explain…Writers at the Improv is like any improv, you get words in the audience and you write a story using those words. I wrote a story on the words that they gave me. So that was kind of fun for me. It wasn’t quite the usual kind of a process, though. But anyway, enough about me. You’re actually here to talk about you. So, we have known each other a long time and you’ve been a writer all that time that I’ve known you. So, let’s take you back into the mists of time, as I like to say. How did you get interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy…and in writing? Which came first, or how did those two things come together for you?

Well, I can…of course, that’s why my phone rings…I have definitely been a reader and a fan of science fiction and fantasy since before I could even read. According to my mom, I demanded to be taught how to read before kindergarten because I was tired of waiting for people to have time to read to me. So, I’ve always been a reader. I read The Lord of the Rings at age eight for the first time. And I reread it several times, and launched me into reading Heinlein and stuff that I just hadn’t even thought I was old enough for yet. But always, always been a very avid reader. And then, somewhere along the way, when I realized I had to have a job in the big wide world, I realized that that writing the books that I loved so much could be a thing.

Well, you studied…well, first of all, you grew up in Calgary, I presume, or is that correct?

Northern Alberta.

Northern Alberta. So when you went to…when you were in school, did you start writing stories and sharing them with your friends and that sort of thing?

Yeah, and I was attempting to write novels at that point. I was still uncertain about short fiction, but I was always a book lover and I was attempting to write at that time. But being a sensible girl raised by sensible parents, I thought that I should go to journalism school and get a job that I could write for a living and maybe get a paycheque.

Yes, and that’s exactly what I did, because in high school I wrote novels and short stories and I knew I wanted to be a writer. And then I looked at it and I said, “Well, you can’t make a living as a writer,” and I went into journalism for that very reason, so I’d be doing something where I would be I would be writing. And, you know, it wasn’t what I wanted to write necessarily, but I thought it’d be useful. So, did you find that useful, your journalism training, and then the work you did there? Did that help with the fiction writing later on?

I got told several times, both in photojournalism and in the writing classes, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. So, anyone from Calgary knows that SATE is on one side of the C-train tracks and the art school, ACAD, is on the other side of the tracks. And so, I actually had a couple of instructors tell me, “You’re on the wrong side of the tracks. You should be in art school.” And, of course, I fought that and graduated with honors and worked as a freelancer. I’ve been published in several magazines and newspapers, especially around Alberta. But it didn’t take me very many years before I realized that there might possibly be more truth in the fiction I wrote than in the journalism, and I decided that it was time to step away from that and focus more on the fiction, which is where my heart was.

I still find…and, yeah, I was kind of there, I mean, I, I did journalism and I, you know, for eight years I worked for a newspaper as a reporter and then as editor of the newspaper, and then I was a communications officer for the Saskatchewan Science Centre. All that time I was writing fiction, but I did find that the mere act of having to put words on paper is helpful, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, that the discipline of writing helps you write. Did you find that, as well, that there was some benefit in all that nonfiction when you got around to focusing on fiction?

Sure. Definitely. And just even, as you say, words on the paper, but even the act of it, the physical act of putting words on the paper, the more you do it, the easier it gets to get started. And that seems to always be the hang-up for everyone, is getting started.

Well, I often say that as a newspaper reporter, you don’t have the luxury of not writing because the newspaper is going to come out and there have to be words in it to go around the advertising. So, you have to provide those words. So, I did find it a very useful side of writing. But all that time I was writing fiction. Were you writing fiction even while you were working mostly as a non-fiction freelancer?

I was, sporadically. I also spent several years chasing wildlife photography and sold a bunch of pictures to magazines and postcards and calendar companies and all kinds of neat things, back in the day where you still had to mail the slides physically to the company. And so, I was writing and always reading, but it was a little sporadic. I chased a lot of other interesting things. And I think that just lends itself to good fiction, too.

Well, you have to have something in the tank that you turn into words about other things, I think. And that’s another thing that I found writing nonfiction is that, you know, it broadens your horizons a little bit from focusing just on the stuff that you make up. It exposes you to other things. So when did…

Kind of like reading outside your genre will sometimes open your mind up to things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

Yeah. Well, you did mention the imaginative Fiction Writers Association. When did you become involved with that excellent writing group?

Oh, I became a member…I believe it was ’96, or ’97. And my very first ever short story critique was performed by Randy and someone else who I don’t remember anymore.

That would be Randy McCharles.

Randy McCharles, our intrepid leader with When Words Collide.

How was that for you, the critique process?

That very first one? I mean, I was just in my mid-20s, it was the first time I attempted short fiction, I hadn’t even really read anything. The story was atrocious, and Randy did his best to tell me so in the kindest way. But it was quite an experience. And it was…it brought me back actually to the journalism-school days when, you know, you would have to write and write and write your assignments and then have them trashed. But it was very eye-opening and I learned a lot. And IFWA has, through the years, brought me so much, just…it’s hard to even express my gratitude because it’s so big.

Well, it’s good to hear because, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of authors and I always ask about their formal training, and that was, in your case, the journalism, but also if you can find a good writers group. And some of us have never had a handy writers’ group. And then there’s people who’ve been in writer’s groups, but they were not helpful. So it’s nice to know that there’s one out there that really works.

And IFWA has had its ups and downs, I mean, we became so big that the only way to be helpful and manage the numbers was to have splinter groups. And I was involved in one of those–well, a few of those splinter groups–but one in particular that went on for several years. And that kind of small focus can…that’s where you really get your value, is if you can find just a…usually between six or 10 people seems to be ideal…and you share work amongst you and you focus on one person’s work at a time. And, oh, my goodness, you can make leaps and bounds of progress that you just simply wouldn’t have been able to without them.

So when did you start selling short fiction?

That would be after attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop out in New Hampshire. Odyssey, we used to jokingly say, is a lot like Survivor because it is six weeks long. But we used to joke that it’s like Survivor, but you can’t vote anyone out. And it’s 16 students that critique each other and take courses and classes and workshops and do assignments for six weeks. It’s an MFA-equivalent course that’s crammed into a very short amount of time and it’s very intense. Because of that, the requirements for that course, I had to really get into short fiction a lot more than I ever had before. Even though I was a member of IFWA coming up to that time, Odyssey was what really got me looking at short fiction, reading it, writing it, really exploring it. And it was just shortly after that. So, my roommate got her first short story sale while we’re there. And then I got my first one shortly after, and it was written while I was at Odyssey.

When was that first one and what was it?

So let’s see. That was 2006. Oh, my goodness, I can remember the story, ‘course the title runs right out of my head. And it was published in a little online journal. It was a Christian journal, I believe. Just a small thing. But, of course, being the first one, I was really excited.

Yes, it’s…I was in…where was I? I was in Zurich, of all places, on a choir tour with my university choir, which I had gone back to as an alumnus just a few years after I graduated and I got a, you know, a mailgram, because we didn’t have email in those days, an aerogram from my mother telling me that I had sold a short story. So I still remember that very clearly. It wasn’t science fiction, either, that first one. But it was my first short story. So, yeah, you always remember the first one, that’s for sure.


Now though, you have…your first novel has come out. When did you start focusing or thinking about novels, or were there some unpublished ones in there before you published one? How did that work out for you?

There are several unpublished novels in my history. I, like I said earlier, love, love book-length fiction. I love the ability to just really immerse yourself in that world and those characters. And personally, short stories just aren’t long enough to really have the same impact on you. So, yeah, there’re a few novels sitting there that still need to find a home. The interesting thing is, Jumpship Hope began, as well, at Odyssey. We had an assignment to write up a flash piece, which I’d never heard of before. So here I was, already struggling with writing short stories because I wasn’t used to being so brief, and now I had an assignment to write flash fiction, a thousand words or less. And it was to be read out loud in public at a bookstore. It had to be five minutes or less. So that scene was actually inspired by my roommate, she said, “Just take one impactful moment and turn it into a story.” Just one. She said if you try and put too many moments in, then you won’t have flash fiction. So I took an impactful moment and turned it into, you know, threw it onto a spaceship. And, of course, immediately saw everything that led up to that moment and everything that came after it, and I had to write a book.

Well, this seems like a good place to give a synopsis of said book. So…without giving away anything you don’t want to give away...

Jumpship Hope is about first contact. And, of course, you know, that wonderful space-opera thing of being able to jump or fold space. And it’s an adventure about, you know, learning what we stand for. And it deals with humanity in a time where Earth has become pretty unlivable, and they’re trying to survive in orbit, on the moon, and on Mars. And things aren’t going so great, of course, because that makes good fiction.

And, you talked a little bit about how it came about, coming out of this this flash fiction. What was the impactful scene that you wrote that then triggered the rest of it? Or will that give something away?

Well, the impactful scene is very much that mirror moment in the middle where our hero, Janlin Kavanaugh, stops being chased and starts chasing. It’s where she puts her foot down and she says, “I’ve had enough and I’m going to make some changes.”

Well, how did you go about planning out the novel? Are you a detailed outliner…are you a pantser or a plotter, is the usual way to say that…?

Right. I’m a bit of a pantser, but I’m a bit of an organized pantser. I like to sail in the first 20, 30 thousand words, just feeling my way around. And then I will start plotting more and making sure that the pieces that I want are in place and in order. And then that gives me more confidence to move forward without running, you know, too many detours. Yeah. That would be it.

So what do you end up with in actual pre-writing, like a 400-page synopsis or a paragraph scribbled on the back of an envelope? What did it look like?

I usually end up with, when I’m still getting that first thirty thousand, then I usually end up with a lot of random scenes from all over the place in a scribbled notebook. And then, that’s when, at that point, I need to step back and say, “What’s important? Where am I going with this?” And that’s when I’ll start planning and I’ll start doing a proper outline. Having learned so much about story structure and fiction elements and plotting, I understand the importance of backing up in that moment and taking a look and making sure that I’m focusing on what I really want to say and not just one thing after another.

Well, other than that impactful scene, what was the impetus for telling this particular story? Where did the, you know, where do you get your ideas? That’s the other cliché we ask. And how does that, you know, this is for Jumpship Hope, but, you know, you’ve written short stories as well. What is your general sort of idea-generating process?

Mm hmm. Usually, there is an endpoint. That’s pretty clear. And it’s all about finding out what happened to end up at that point. Without an endpoint…and I actually read an interesting article not long ago about a triangle setup where, if you understand the inciting incident and you understand your mirror moment in the middle, and you understand the transformation at the end, once you have those three pieces, you can just go ahead and fill in what’s needed to get there to those points. So…I’m sorry, I lost track of the question.

Well, when you’re coming up with the story, how does it start for you? Does it start with like an image or a character or a plot idea or what’s typical for you?

It’s often a scene with the people and the dialogues coming to me. I can hear the characters, I can see the scene, I understand the tone and the emotion that’s taking place. And those scenes are what become this notebook full of scribbled bits and pieces that I then have to string together and bridge with more prose to make it a readable novel.

What’s your actual writing process? Do you write, you know, in long bursts or short bursts or in your office or off in a coffee shop or on a piece of parchment under a tree with a quill pen? How do you write?

Do you know, I really miss coffee shops. I used to write in coffee shops all the time when my kid was little. It was my way of being able to step away from the house, being an at-home mom and a freelancer working from home, right? But these days, I’m usually on the couch with the laptop or the notebook on my knees. I tend to write in spurts, so I’ll do an hour, take a break, another hour, take a break…but I also tend to take a whole day and just focus on the novel and not try to look at other jobs, like the editing jobs that I may be on that day, or that at that time. So I try to just let the book fill my head for that day and then I can maybe set it aside and take a few days to do all the other life-stuff. So it’s kind of…I work in spurts and then I take breaks.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I’m pretty darn fast. While I was in between the journalism years and getting the novel published and becoming a freelance editor, I ran my own freelance copywriting business. So you learn, just like with the journalism, you learn to write fast. You learn to get words down on the page and you learn to meet deadlines, which, I’m very sad to say, I missed the deadline with the sequel to Jumpship Hope.

Well, deadlines. I always remember, I think it was Douglas Adams who said that, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”

Yes, that’s an awesome quote!

So, once you have a first draft, what’s your revision process look like? Or do you do, like, a rolling revision and it’s all polished when you get to the end of that draft? Or do you go back to the beginning and do it all from the beginning? How does that work for you and what sorts of things do you find yourself working on in the revision passes?

Well, with that messy, rough first draft, I tried to just keep plowing forward, though sometimes it is important to step back and look at what you’re doing. But I try to keep pushing forward until I get to the end. But especially since I’ve become an editor over the past five years, I find it very difficult to take the editor hat off and just write. So it’s…some of the biggest discipline I’ve ever had to have is now to be able to just say, “Stop worrying about the editing, stop trying to make it perfect right now, it’s just a first draft. Get to the end.” And then, once that first draft is done, as you come back to the beginning, then I get to put my editor hat on, and I feel much more confident and equipped, better equipped, to do a good job.

Well, I was going to ask you about the editing. Have you found that editing…t sounds like you’ve found that editing other people’s work helps you to look at your own critically. I certainly find that.

It definitely does. And I really enjoy it. It can be incredibly monotonous, and of course, anyone can edit for themselves to a certain degree, but I know for myself, even as an editor, I need other people’s eyes on the work. When it’s your muddle and your head’s just too far in it, you often can’t see it from the same perspective as someone else can for you.

So, what to do when you get to that point? Do you have beta readers or do you bring in an external editor or how do you like to do that? Or critiquers?

Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a couple of wonderful beta readers and some author friends who are always happy to exchange manuscripts. So then, I can help them without them feeling like they should be paying me because that’s my job as well. And they get to help me and we just get to do it as friends, which is wonderful, and very talented people that I call friends. I’m incredibly blessed in that way. And then, of course, with the particular work in progress, my publisher is waiting for that, and they will do a wonderful editing job for me there.

What sorts of things do you find yourself having to work on, both in revision, and then when somebody else looks at it, are there sort of consistent things that you find you have to spruce up?

Mm hmm. Consistent, yeah…on all levels of editing, there are things that every author has, like tics, I guess? Bad habits. One of mine is the word “very.” So, I will actually go and do a seek-and-destroy that one. There’s a few others on my list that are pretty bad, but that one is always number.

I actually thought for a minute you said the word-fairy, like the word-fairy, like this fairy that flies around and gives you words or something, not the word “very.”

Oh, a word-fairy!

A word-fairy would be a very good thing. Put your manuscript under your pillow and the word fairy comes and fixes it all up.

Ed, that’s a great idea.

I’m going to have to write that story!

Yeah. We need some word-fairies! Yeah, no, it’s a word “very.”


V-E-R-Y. That one gets me. Apparently it’s my way of trying to…often I mark them and I’ll go through. A lot of times you can just take them right out and it’s fine. But sometimes it’s because I simply have not taken the time to do good word-choice thinking, right? To really think it through and get the right word instead of ones that need the word bury in front of it.

Yeah. And that’s something as writer-in-residence, that’s actually–which I just finished at the Saskatoon Public Library–I found myself pointing out to other people, You know, don’t use a weak verb with a modifier if you can find a strong verb, that sort of thing.


Or a weak noun with a modifier.

The other one that I’m often catching and other people’s work, which I now catch as I’m writing, is instead of saying what something is not, say what it is. So instead of saying, “That’s not bad,” say, “It’s good.” And if those words don’t seem to cut it, then you’re not choosing the right words.

And the other one that I catch myself and I do this–it’s not a search to replace, but I often do a search for passive voice like was and had and things like that, and see if there’s some way to turn that one around as well. And that’s another one I often point out to people.

It just makes the writing so much more powerful. We don’t realize…I guess it’s kind of like that quote that good, easy reading is really hard writing?

So, when you got to your editor, your publisher, which is Tyche Books, what was the editing process like at that side of things for you? How do they approach editing?

I was pleased to see that they approach their editing very much the same way I do. Lots of comments and suggestions and track changes, so that I could go through and approve, accept, or reject, because like I tell my clients, it’s your story and you should always have the final say. So, I was really happy to see that I got a chance to look through the suggested changes and give my own feedback on that and make the changes I wanted or, you know, deny the changes that I didn’t think were appropriate. So, that pretty important. I know there’s been other Canadian authors that have had to fight things like Canadian spelling and things like that.

Yeah, that’s always a tough one for me, because my publisher’s in the U.S., but I have my own little publishing company where I adhere to Canadian spelling, and I’m constantly having to do a check on spelling to make sure I’ve either not used it for the American publisher or I’m using it in the stuff I’m doing myself or the Canadian publishers I work for. So, half the time, I’m not sure. And then I was just editing somebody else’s manuscript and they wanted UK spelling, which is not quite the same again. But there’s some software tools to help you with stuff like that. And I did want to ask you about editing, since we’re talking about it. How did you get into freelance editing?

Being a journalist and a freelance journalist for many years and then a freelance copywriter for many years, I was always really interested into getting into editing as well for fiction, because that’s my first love. And for a long time, I simply didn’t feel qualified. I wanted to make sure that I really did know my stuff. I actually took some courses and brushed up on my editing and grammar and a whole bunch of other things before I hung my shingle out. I really wanted to be sure that if I was asking people to pay me for my time, that they were going to get a good return on investment. So when I did go ahead and start doing that, my first couple of jobs were with IFWA members, actually, and that really helped me gain in my confidence and get started. It sounds like a really easy job, and I love to say, “Pinch me, I get paid to read for a living.” But like I said earlier, it can be incredibly tedious and monotonous and almost meditative at times. And it’s certainly not easy.

No, it’s not. And I do it, too.

It’s hard work.

Yeah, it is. And it does…well, and of course, basically, as the writer in residence I was editing, I was taking up to 3,000 words at a time, and I would go over that with a fine-tooth comb and then I would meet with people for an hour. And I met with some 70 individuals over the course of my time there. And there’s a song from My Fair Lady that kept running through my head, which is, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. I get words all day through, first from him, then from you. Is that all you blighters can do?” It’s just the perfect editing…not ht it means in the context of the musical, but it’s the perfect editor’s song!

It’s the perfect editor’s song. It really is. And unfortunately, in these past years that I’ve been working as an editor, I actually stepped away from writing for a little while. And I don’t read as much as I like to. My to-be-read pile has gone completely nuts because I keep buying books. And when you read all day at the end of the day, you want to do almost anything else.

Yeah. It’s an occupational hazard, I think.

I think so.

The other thing about editor–you may have heard this, having worked in journalism, but my publisher at the Wayburn Review once put it one of his columns as a joke: “Editor is actually an acronym, it stands for Expensive Dummy in the Other Room.”


I think he meant it as a joke.

Oh, here’s hoping.

He didn’t fire me, so it could have been too bad. So, how has the reception been to Jumpship Hope? Have you…you know, are people enjoying it?

Yeah, it’s been really great. And I’ve had some surprising feedback. In fact, just last night I got the message from my auntie and she said, “Adrià, I don’t usually read science fiction, but you had me right till the end and I can’t wait for the next one.” So, it’s lovely to hear things like that, especially when you’re, you know, neck-deep in the sequel and you’re doubting everything.

Yeah, well, that’s sort of the middle part of the book when you’re just, you’re not sure. I had something like that from my father once. One of my first…I guess my first novel. And he actually, he did read this kind of stuff some, and he read it and he actually said to me, “When did you learn so much about human nature?”

Oh, well, that’s nice. That’s actually a really good compliment.

Yeah. I thought it was, too.


So you mentioned that you are working on the sequel…?

Jumpship Dissonance. And the final book, which is also getting little bits of scribbles, just as I try to sort everything, is Jumpship Freedom, and that will create the trilogy.

Is there a set release date for these, or is it a little amorphous yet?

Jumpship Dissonance was initially set to launch at When Words Collide in 2020, but 2020 isn’t going so well, and I missed my deadline anyway, so we’re shooting for 2021.

I was hoping to launch a book at When Words Collide, as well. So, yeah.

Yeah, it it’s going to be a fun one. Online.

I wanted to ask you as well about the woodworking because it’s interesting that creative people are often creative in more than one way. You mentioned the photography, which you focused on–ha ha!–focused on it for a while. So where did the woodworking side of things come in?

Now, that’s a fun one because, yes, creative people do often have a lot of things that they want to try, at least. And a lot of creatives will have many talents. But I struggled for a long time wanting to learn how to carve and just feeling like I should just get my butt in the chair and keep writing because that was the focus, that was my hobby. You know, I had work and parenting and yada-yada. But a few years ago, actually, when I backed off from the writing and the reading and I was doing more and more editing, I needed something else that took me away from the screen and the words and allowed me to work with my hands. So, I took a class at Lee Valley and then another one a few years later at Black Forest Wood Company. And I just absolutely fell in love. Woodcarving has a certain soul to it, like nothing else I’ve ever met. And I’ve always been a big nature girl, I love being in the trees. So it doesn’t surprise me that I like to carve wood. And I just kind of gave myself permission to go ahead and play and have some fun. And it’s really taken off for me. To me, it’s part of my soul-survival kit, if that makes any sense.

What sorts of things do you carve?

I’ve tried all kinds of neat things. I carve a lot of what’s known as cottonwood bark, which is the thick bark that grows on balsam poplar trees. And it’s very soft and forgiving. It’s really easy for beginners to play with and it has a beautiful grain. It’s known for those little fairy houses, you know, carved out of the bark? That is usually cottonwood bark. And it’s carved, you know, the faces, like the old man with fear and the mustache, wood spirits. One of my favorites is a whale tale that I carved, that I wear as a pendant. And one of my favorite, favorite subjects to carve is Celtic knots and weaves.

So it’s all a form of creating something from…not exactly nothing, but shaping materials into something else, which I think is a, as you might guess from the fact this podcast is called The Worldshapers, is actually a metaphor that I like, that we don’t really create things from nothing, but we take the material that we have inside us and we we shape it into stories and into new creations. So, woodcarving is very much a good metaphor for that.

It’s funny that you would put it that way, Ed, because I actually noticed one day that as an editor and a woodcarver, it’s all about taking things away.

That’s true. I guess that’s true.

I actually am a little jealous of sculptors because they add the clay until it’s right. Whereas a woodcarver, or a stone carver, has to remove material until it’s right.

Well, that’s Michelangelo’s famous thing, it’s attributed to him, that, “How do you carve David? Well, you get a piece of marble and you cut away everything that’s not David.”

Not David. It’s that simple. Very simple. Just like writing. You just put some words on the page. It’s that simple.

You could say that we’re starting with the entire English language and we just take away the parts of it that we don’t need for the specific book. So, it’s all in how you look at it.

Right. Exactly.

Well, then, on the big philosophical side, why do you do this? Why do you tell stories? Or why do you think any of us tell stories? And why, in particular science fiction and fantasy stories?

Oh, we desperately need them. Science fiction and fantasy has given an outlet to talk about things, in all of our history, has given us an outlet to talk about things that weren’t supposed to be talked about. And we could hide underneath the the the wizards and the spaceships, but we could still tell a story about people. And for me, life’s not worth living if there’s no story. So how philosophical is that for you, Ed?

Where do you think that impulse comes from, for human beings to tell stories? Because we’ve been doing it our whole existence.

Well, it’s so important for us to work out what happened and to help us to think it through and decide how we really feel about it after initial reaction, which is, you know, usually either fear or celebration. But I think stories also help us to share information with those that maybe weren’t able to be on the scene for that moment. Right now, in our world as it is, which is a pretty scary one, we’re seeing a huge uprising like, possibly like none before, and I’m really hoping it is, it will be like none before. And that, of course, is around the Black Lives Matter. And, it’s… I’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook and other media sites reading and reading and reading people’s accounts and their firsthand stories of being black and living in America and what it looks like every day and what it feels like every day. And without those stories, how can someone like me in privilege and safety understand why they need to get so upset right now? So we need story. Without story, there’s no understanding.

Well, and I mentioned that this is called The Worldshapers. It’s probably too grand to save that any one story shapes the world in any significant fashion. But do you hope you’re at least shaping your readers in some fashion through your stories?

Oh, that’d be great. Do you know what would be great? Star Trek. A lot of the great ideas that they came up with have now come to pass. Like, the little communication devices seem an awful lot like flip-phones. It would be really great if someday we really can get in a jumpship and fold space and visit other solar systems. And if I inspire the little brain that’s capable of figuring that out, then that would be really something. But I’m not sure that I have that kind of power, I just like to tell a good story.

So you mentioned what you’re working on. Do you have any short fiction in the works or anything on that side of things?

No, I don’t. I haven’t spent a lot of time with short fiction recently, although I am reading Rhonda Parrish’s Earth anthology, the one with the golems and giants? It’s really god.

I think most of are either novelists or short story writers, and although we might do both, there’s one we tend to gravitate to. And certainly, in my case, it’s always been the longer stuff. I don’t write…I finally put out a collection of my short stories and I had to go from my first short story sale in the ’80s up until last year in order to have enough to make a collection. Not a huge short story writer for sure.

Well, how many stories did it come to that?

Twenty-two, I think. But there were at least three of them that hadn’t been published before. So they were one that I included that way. So actually published short stories? I wouldn’t think I’m more than about 20 in my entire career.

Well, I know that book exists and it’s on my wish list but I don’t own it yet.

Yes, please, please do buy it. Everybody listening now, please. Paths to the Stars. Shadowpaw Press. Twenty-two short stories by Edward Willett

It looks amazing and I can’t wait to read it.

So, where can people who would like to know more about you find you online?

AdriaLaycraft.com Is a quick way to find me. And I do have a Facebook account that I’m pretty regular on. Other than that, I try not to spend too much time online. Oh, but you can definitely go to the Tyche Books website. Not only do they have amazing authors and amazing books, you can get your favorite Tyche Book on a travel mug and they’re really nice travel mugs, a sweater, a hoodie, a sticker, a poster, a wall hanging. They’ve got it all.

And the YouTube channels you mentioned in the bio?

Oh, yes. You know, it would be really great to have a YouTube channel about writing, but it’s kind of a boring thing to film.

That’s why no, you know, writing competition TV shows. This week, the contestants will type!

Exactly. But Carving the Cottonwood is the first YouTube channel I started, and it was my way of giving back…so many YouTube channels about carving are just people learning and showing what they’re doing. And I was able to learn from them as I was, you know, figuring out how to do this, so filming myself is now my way of giving back to those people and to inspire those who would just like to give it a try. Now, the Girl Gone Vagabond channel, it did get renamed. It’s called Girl Gone to Ground. And it’s going to be now a focus on me finding a little piece of land out here on the West Coast and building a little cabin and a garden and a woodshop. And it should be a lot of fun to see how it works out.

People can find those just with a search on YouTube, I presume.

Yes. You bet.

All right. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Adria. I enjoyed that. I hope you did?

Oh, I did. Thank you so much for inviting me, Ed. It’s such an honor.

And hopefully we’ll see each other in Calgary again one of these days, if nowhere else.

Maybe not this summer, but I’ve really got my hopes set on next summer.

Yeah, me too. Well, thank you very much.

Great. Thanks, Ed!

Episode 54: Lisa Foiles

An hour-long chat with actress, singer-songwriter, dancer, voice-over artist and writer Lisa Foiles, former cast member of Nickelodeon’s All That, author of the new middle-grade novel Ash Ridley and the Phoenix.





Lisa Foile’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lisa Foiles

Lisa Foiles is best known as a four-year series regular on the Nickelodeon sketch comedy show All That. Other TV appearances include Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle, Disney’s Even Steven, TNT’s Leverage and Nickelodeon’s Game Shakers. Lisa is the host of UFC.com’s UFC Minute and Screw Attack’s Desk of Death Battle. Her voiceover credits include multiple national radio campaigns, as well as the lead voice in the X Box One videogame Lococycle.

Lisa is also an accomplished singer, as well as tap, jazz, and ballet dancer, with more than twenty years of professional training, and now she is the author of the middle-grade fantasy novel Ash Ridley and the Phoenix (Permuted Press).

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.

Hi, Edward. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

It’s my pleasure. I was watching the video about your book, and it just looks like a lot of fun. So I’m really happy that your publicist got in touch and asked if I wanted to talk to you, because it looks like this should be a fun conversation.

Yeah, it’s…you know, it’s kind of a new venture for me. I definitely didn’t start out as an author. I’ve gone in many different career paths, and somehow I’ve ended up here and I’m having a great time.

Well, let’s talk about that a little bit. I always start by taking my guests…it’s become a cliché on here, “back into the mists of time”—I wish I had reverb I could add in at that point—to find out…well, first of all, I know from your video that you have on your Web site talking about the book, that you were a big reader as a kid, even if you weren’t thinking of writing at the time. So, is that kind of where this writing all started, was reading as a kid? And when did the acting come into it?

Yes, a big reader, but very specific reader. I pretty much only picked up books that were fantasy, that were middle-grade works of fantasy about kids with dragons and going on grand adventures in vast countries and, you know, fictional worlds. That’s really what I loved. You know, I was good at school, but I didn’t really enjoy it, and reading any other type of book was really a chore. And even to this day, I’m the longest reader of all time. It takes me so long to read anything. So, I like really have to pick and choose what I’m going to read. “All right. This is what I’m going to be writing for the next year.” But, yeah, when I was a kid, I would just sit in the bookstore, and they say don’t judge a book by its cover, but 14-year-olds don’t understand that, you know, 12-year-olds don’t care. And I was very young, and I would just pick out books based on the cover. Does it have a unicorn? Does it have a dragon? Does it have a, you know, whatever mythical creature or a princess or a fairy? That’s what I gravitated toward. And yeah, I mean, I just could not get enough of these types of books and kind of pulling inspiration from each one, the ones that really stuck with me. Just through the years, I kind of started crafting my own story, never intending on releasing it. It was just kind of a fun daydream for me to escape into, you know, during school, you know, during the day.

And so…I mean, were you kind of starting to craft a story way back then? Did you do any— 

Yes. Yes.

So it did start very early then.

Yes. This story, in particular, it really was inspired by all of these different works of fiction. So, the first book and movie that kind of went along with it was The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle.

Oh, I love that one, yeah.

And there was something about that book…I mean, that was really my introduction into fiction. And it’s so stuck with me, and it so affected me, just greatly, that I just couldn’t get enough. I mean, I remember we used to go to Blockbuster and rent that movie over and over and over. My parents were always like, “Do you want to rent something else?” And I’m like, “No, I do not, I want this one, again and again and again and again.” And especially the beginning. And I’ve had…I think I’ve only had three people figure out the comparison between my book and The Last Unicorn. But the whole….say first, maybe two chapters…is kind of like a love story to The Last Unicorn. It’s like a love letter to The Last Unicorn, because I was so inspired by Mommy Fortuna and her Carnival of Beasts. And in the book, they really don’t dive into it, it’s just kind of like, it happens, then they kind of move on. But I’m like, wait, wait. Like, go back to that. That is so fascinating, that you have this travelling circus of creatures. And that’s exactly how my book starts. I imagined, as a kid myself, working as a stablehand in this travelling circus of mythical, magical creatures. And that’s where Ash, my main character, starts. And obviously, the journey from that has nothing to do with The Last Unicorn, it’s, you know, really completely different. But that is kind of my homage to that piece of work that changed my life.

And I remember the movie very well. I think I have it RCA videodisc, which was the video that actually played like a record. It’s a movie on a vinyl disc inside a sleeve, and you stick it in there. That was quickly superseded once laserdiscs came along. But it was really cool there for a while. And I think I have The Last Unicorn. That was one of the ones I made a point of buying.

I don’t even remember what year it came out.

Yeah. ‘70s, I would think.

Yeah, that sounds right.

Yeah. So, going back to childhood days, where did you grow up, anyway?

I grew up in a town called Spokane, Washington. Everybody knows Seattle, Washington, but this is on the other side of the state, kind of near Idaho.

Well, actually, the World Science Fiction Convention was there two, three years ago.

Oh. In Spokane?

Yeah. So I was in Spokane.

Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, so that’s kind of where…all my family’s from the Pacific Northwest. I was born in Portland but quickly went to Spokane, and that was where my whole childhood was. And, yeah, my parents just kind of saw this creative streak in me really early and put me in dance, singing, and theatre, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. I was very quickly homeschooled because all of my time was taken up with dance, singing, and acting and…you just kind of…at a very, very young age, I’m so thankful that I figured out what I want to do with my life, ‘cause I know, you know, so many people struggle. They get into their 20s and 30s and 40s, and they’re still just like, “What am I meant to do with my life?” Well, I knew when I was three. So, that’s been very helpful, to like, know exactly what path I need to go down. And after a while, my parents were like, “OK, she’s too talented to live in Spokane, Washington.” In fact, I was pressured by some of the judges of dance competitions. I was just winning first place every year, every competition, I was sweeping, every single time. And there were a couple of judges that went up to my parents, they were like, “Why do you guys live in Spokane, Washington?” “Just…our family…” And they’re like, “No. You need to take her to Los Angeles. Like, go put her in the entertainment industry.” And thank God they did. We literally packed up everything and just headed for California.

Oh, that’s a huge leap of faith!

Bryan Hearne, Kyle Sullivan, Chelsea Brummet, Lisa Foiles, Giovonnie Samuels, Jack De Sena and Shane Lyons in All That (1994)

Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, I’m so grateful for my parents that they took that risk. And, I mean, it definitely paid off, because a year after living there is when I booked the Nickelodeon series, All That, and that kind of boosted my entire life and career.

Were you still thinking about this story during that time? Was it always kind in the back of your head?

Yeah. In fact, that’s kind of how I…I kind of link them together.  I remember…I truly believe that these fantasy books that I read when I was little are the reason I became an actor, because they sparked that creativity inside of me, that imaginative playfulness that you need to be an actor. And so, you know, I would read these fantasy books and pretend I was these characters and watch the Disney movies and pretend I was the princess, you know, everything, but it really goes back to those fiction stories. And I even, I vividly remember sketching scenes from this book in my head, this story in my head, while sitting in the dressing room at Nickelodeon. So, you know, I’m telling you, through all these years, I’ve just had this story kind of buzzing around in my brain, and I’ve developed different portions of it as I’ve gotten older. And kind of…you know, when you’re a kid, it’s just kind of this fantasy world you can escape into, but as I got older, I’m like, “I can actually create a hero’s journey out of this mess in my head,” and create a story that, you know, “Hey, if this is what I dreamed about when I was a little girl, I want to share this with other little girls. I have to share this. I have to get this out of me, so it doesn’t drive me crazy.”

Now, looking at your website, you know, you’re continuing to do acting, and you’re a singer and you’re a dancer and all those good things. I think I mentioned to you off the top that that always intrigues me because I do some stage acting—mostly just for fun, but I’ve done professional…mostly musicals, actually. Not that I can dance. No, I can’t dance. I can barely manage stage choreography if given enough time, if the choreographer yells at me enough. But my daughter started dance at age three and sings and went into…we have a company, a youth company here called Do with Class Young People’s Theatre, whose most famous alumni…alumnus…alumna, actually…is Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame.


And I always like to mention that because it gives me a chance to do my showbiz joke, which is that…see, I actually directed Tatiana in a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves when she was eleven years old.

Wow. Lucky you!

All the dwarves were paid by little girls with beards. And my joke ever since Orphan Black has been that, if I’d only known then what I know now, she could have played all seven dwarves! I didn’t need all those other dwarves.


Anyway, so that side of things, on a much lesser scale than what you’ve done, is something that’s very familiar to me. And I like to ask: it seems to me that acting and creating characters when you’re writing are very closely linked, because acting is, of course, putting yourself into the mind of somebody you are not, and making that person seem real, and that’s exactly what we do when we create characters. Do you find that they feed together like that for you?

No, absolutely. I’ve performed every scene of dialogue in my book out loud. And I did it many times. And, in fact, when I was first thinking about putting this story on paper, I’m like, “Is this a screenplay? That’s certainly what I’m most familiar with.” You know, I’ve been…I went to school for writing, and screenwriting was a big part of that. And obviously, I’ve been…I’ve read more scripts in my life than I have books. I’ve read so many. I understand the format. It takes me…you know, I could write a scene in five minutes. Definitely not as familiar with writing a novel. I mean, my joke is that I honestly went to Google, and I went, “How to write a novel,” like, “How to write a book. How to write book.” And just, you know, that’s how I started.

But yeah, no, back to your question, I completely believe they’re related. And, you know, I developed all of these characters so much more than I probably needed to, because as an actor, I’m like, everybody needs this crazy backstory of these scenes that previously happened. Like, I need to dream up lives for every single one of these characters, even the small ones. And, I mean, I’m happy with how it turned out. I feel close to these characters. In fact, I got to narrate the audiobook for Ash Ridley, which is so cool. So I really did end up getting to perform my book. I did it right here in my studio, in my home studio, and I was sweating by the end of these chapters because my arms were flailing, and I was doing voices and accents and just going over the top and redoing lines that I thought I could do better. And, in fact, at the very end, there is a scene that I genuinely started crying while I was recording it because I got so into the character and how she was feeling, and, you know, everything is going dark and being sad and scary, and I genuinely started crying. So, there you go. Acting and writing. It’s all the same. Come on.

And if you do your own audiobook, you really cannot complain about the narrator. Actually, you probably can, because you listen to yourself and go, “Oh, maybe I could’ve done that better.”

I do not want to listen to it back. I’m happy with how I performed it, and my husband, who worked in radio, and he’s an editor and producer and everything, he did all the producing for it. He didn’t end up editing it. We sent that to Recorded Books, and they took care of that, but he was there to tell me, you know, like, “Oh, redo that line,” like, redo that. So I’m happy with my performance, but I do not want to listen to it back because I’m sure that I will just pick it apart and be like, “Oh, I need to do that line differently. I would have said it differently…” So, I really don’t want to hear it again.

Are you like that with your film and TV performances?

Crazy perfectionist. Yeah. I mean, I put my all into it when I’m on set, when I’m in front of the camera, and then I just dread watching it, you know, because then it’s in the hands of somebody else. When you’re performing and your in front of the camera, it’s like, you have that control of what you say and what you do, but the director is still, you know, has his hand in it. But then, once it’s all filmed, I mean, that’s all post-production, that’s in the hands of other people. So, I get so nervous about the ending product, you know, watching it on TV, I just…you know, I get butterflies in my stomach when my scene’s about to pop up. I’m like, all right, here we go.

Yeah, that’s the big difference between doing stage and doing…I’ve done a modicum of film and video work, just little things. But it is a very different process and a very different feeling as a performer. I was in a music video with somebody (Ed. – Here’s the YouTube link), and she’d only done film and I’d only done stage to that point, and she said she didn’t like doing stage work because the audience threw her off. She wasn’t used to getting the laughter and the applause and everything.

Oh, that’s interesting. Just on that note, I was actually very blessed that the show that I was on, All That, it was sketch comedy, and much of it was filmed in front of a live audience. And so, it was this perfect marriage of theatre and TV acting and film acting because, you know, if we messed up, we could do it again, but at the same time, we had that instant feedback from the audience. I mean, it was an audience full of kids, which does not give pity laughter. I mean, if your joke does not land, that place is silent. You don’t have adults going, you know, pretending. So that was such a great experience. And I’m so happy that you are allowing your daughter to go into that world of dance and being on stage. And it’s so cool that you do that and you’ve done that in your life. I think that’s so important. I’ve said it for years, that anybody that can dance and compete on stage or do theatre on stage in front of a crowd, can pretty much do anything, because that feeling of going on stage, you know, seconds before you go out there and you have to nail it, you get one shot…I mean, there’s not a lot of moments in life that are equal to that. And if you can handle that and get through it and nail it and be happy with your performance. I mean, you can do anything. Life’s easy after that.

Well, going back to…you said that you studied writing at university…well, first of all, where was that? And was that just screenwriting, or was there some other forms of writing?

So my college experience is a little…interesting. So, I had just gotten done with All That. I was on the show for four years, and then I spent a couple more years, I think, like, one or two, in LA, doing some other roles and continuing to act. And I just needed a break. I was seeing a lot of young child actors around me that were kind of falling into that horrible LA lifestyle. And…I mean, you know, there’s a million of those child actors, you know, downfall stories out there. And that was happening around me. Like, there’s people I knew that were going into that world of, like, partying and drugs and alcohol and all of that. And I so just did not want that to be part of me at all. And I was in LA working…I mean, this was around the time of being 17, 18. And that’s when you are…you’re already as a person just trying to figure out who you are, and being in the public eye while I was trying to figure that out was really difficult. And my parents supported that I wanted to step away for a little bit. And my…my parents’ college and my parents’ parents’ college, my whole family, cousins, aunts, uncles, everybody went to the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. I had been going there my whole life to go to football games. You know, the whole thing. I mean, it’s just that family college.

And I actually got a scholarship to the U of I for acting, like musical theatre acting, or whatever it was. But I started going to the classes, and I was so unhappy with how quickly they were progressing because I had just stepped off a national TV show in LA and then suddenly I felt like I was in Acting 101, with all these people who…God bless them, like, I know that they’re going to college to learn these things, but they’ve never done anything, like never done, you know, film acting or anything. And that’s fine. That’s totally fine. That’s why you go to college, is to learn. But in my selfish little 18-year-old brain, I’m just like, I can’t do this. I can’t spend four years at this college. Like, I was looking at the curriculum to come and what they wanted me to do, and I was like, I’m past it, like, I already know all this. So I was just very frustrated with that. And looking back, I probably should have just done it anyway. I’m sure there’s so much I could have learned, and the teachers could have showed me so many different aspects of acting that I was not familiar with. You know, for example, like, I’ve never really done Shakespeare. I don’t really know that much about that world, and I’ve always kind of wanted to.

So I left that college almost immediately, like, I honestly only went to U of I for like, maybe a month, maybe less? And I’m like, “I gotta get out of here, this is not what I wanted to.” And I found an amazing online college called Taylor University, and they had an entire writing program. It was like a writing certification program, kind of like an associate’s degree, like a two-year program. And it was just as much writing as you could do, everything from screenwriting to technical writing, expository writing, fiction writing, nonfiction writing. I mean, you name it. I mean, they actually had me, like, writing articles and submitting them and pitching them to newspapers and magazines during this course. So, it was very real-life. And that’s what I loved. And, yeah, so that was kind of where I kind of got that bug of, like, “I need to write more. Like, I really have a passion for this.” I remember my favourite lesson…I really wish I remember the teacher’s name…because I never met them, you know, everything was online, so I don’t really have a face with the name, so I can’t remember his name…but my favourite exercise he ever had me do was, he’d have me write…he’d give me, like, a topic and then have me write an entire paragraph about it. And then I’d, you know, I’d read it, and I’d edit it, and I’d be like, “Oh, man, this is awesome.” And I’d submit it. And then he’d be like, “Cool, cut it in half, but have it say the same message, same everything.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK.” And I go back, and I’d try to edit it down and say what I had to say, but you know, shorter but still with the same pizzazz. And I’d submit and be like, “OK, there you go.” And he’d be, like, “Cool, cut it in half again.” And I’m like, are you kidding me? And just that…

I like this guy!

It was amazing! But that taught me editing, you know, to like, say what you need to say shorter, to the point, like, get the listener’s, the reader’s attention, and be done. I’ll never forget that lesson, and I still practice what he taught to this day.

Now, we’ve talked a little bit about the book, obviously, already, but let’s so go in and focus on that now as an example of your creative process when it comes to writing. First of all, you have sort of talked a little bit about it, but let’s have a synopsis. Without giving away, you know, whatever you don’t want to give away.

Yes, of course. So, my main character is Ash Ridley, and she’s this…it’s all set in a fantasy world called Cascadia. And I actually named it that… there are so many little Easter eggs in this book that if you know me, you know where it came from. And there is this beautiful place in Oregon where there were these, like, these waterfalls and this lake, and it was like the most magic place I could escape to, and it was called Cascadia. And I always thought that was the most beautiful word ever. And that just described this magical place I got to visit. And I’m like, you know what? It would be so cool if I named my fantasy world after someplace like that that, like, you could actually go visit, like, I could go visit and be like, “Oh, this is my fantasy room.” But back to synopsis, sorr.

So, Ash Ridley is this peasant girl living in Cascadia, and she is a stable hand to this horrible woman in a travelling circus of mythical beasts. And they go from town to town, and they put on little shows, and they try to earn money and, you know, Ash does this away from her father for months and months at a time because her father is very poor and it’s what she can do to help him with money. You know, obviously, he hates having his daughter going out there and working but, you know, they’ve got to make ends meet some way, and she’s happy to do it for her father because she loves him so much. And, yeah, they just go from town to town putting on these shows. And one of the creatures in the circus is a very elderly Phoenix. And she just, she loves this bird so much. She loves all the animals, whereas the, you know, the woman running the show, they’re just money to her. And one night, this elderly Phoenix, which she names Flynn, starts coughing and wheezing and moulting and losing, you know, just the sparkle in his eyes, and he eventually, as the Phoenix does, bursts into flames and just becomes this pile of dust.

And, you know, many adults know the story of the Phoenix, but I don’t know if a lot of kids do. And that was exciting to me, that maybe this story was the first introduction to the legend of the Phoenix that little kids would ever have. And Ash, of course, doesn’t know the legend. I mean, nobody in Cascadia has seen a Phoenix in however many hundreds of years, I think I said, like, five hundred years or something like that. And so, she thinks that he’s dead. You know, he is trapped in this circus as all the other animals, and just like she is, and they’re all just shells of their former self and, you know…but a couple of minutes later, you know, a little foot pops out of the pile of ashes and this baby bird, this baby Phoenix bird, emerges. And that’s the start of our buddy comedy right there. Ash and Flynn become best friends, and she has to, you know, navigate this new life, being bonded to this magical creature.

What did your…you know, you’ve talked about your thinking about it for a long time, but when it came down to time to write it, what did your outlining or synopsizing…how did you approach it? Did you do an outline? Did you just start writing? How did that work for you?

Yes, I took six months to plan out the book, I believe. Could have been longer. This…my story is really this melting pot of every magical creature that you’ve ever heard of. And I know that a lot of fantasy authors are good at coming up with their own fantasy creatures. You know, J.K. Rowling’s obviously amazing at that. But I had so many of them in my book that I wanted them to all come from actual folklore and legends from all over the world. So, it took me a very long time to research all of these creatures, you know, the Manticore and the Hydra and, you know, all these different creatures. I wanted them…I wanted kids to be able to read the name of a fictional…of a magical creature in my book and be able to Google it and see what it looked like. That was important to me. Part of my book is that Ash and Flynn are then swept away to a school, an academy that trains kids who are bonded to magical animals. So, it’s a little bit like Pokémon, where every kid has their animal, and they train them, and they teach, you know, they…as time goes by, they get a little bit of the magic themselves, you know, kind of transferred to them, and you create this amazing bond with your animal. But obviously, they’re scary, crazy, dangerous creatures that the school’s like, “We’re gonna teach you how to not die,” you know? So, you know, obviously, like, every kid has a different animal, and I wanted them to all be from actual folklore from all over the world, you know, everything from Irish folklore, Scottish, to Norse. You name it, I borrow a little bit from everything. And, yeah, so that took many months to learn about all of those creatures, put them all together and outline it. Yeah, it took a long time. Goodness.

How detailed an outline did you do?

Very detailed. In fact, the one document that saved my life was…I think it ended up being like a seven-page, single-spaced document that was just descriptions of every character, biographies for every character and descriptions of what everybody looked like, everybody’s backstory was, and what all the creatures looked like, what their powers were, what their strengths were, and how they would fight against other creatures…again, that Pokémon aspect of like, you know, water type versus fire type versus earth type…and trying to figure out how all of them would work together. And that’s the document that helped me more than anything. I mean, I just had that document up on my computer the whole time I was writing. I could refer to it, but yeah, I would say that…I don’t know if everybody outlines—again, like, this is my first novel, I don’t—I just did it the way I thought was going to be the easiest for me. And, yeah, I think outlining is absolutely crucial. I mean, it’s such a great roadmap. Once you start writing, you don’t have that scary feeling of, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to come next?” You just have to get from point A to point B, not from A to Z.

Well, one of the reasons I do this podcast is to find out how everybody does it. And you find it’s all over the map. There are the extreme outliners. There’s a fellow named Peter V. Brett, who wrote a bestselling series called The Demon Cycle, and he writes 150-page outlines before he writes an actual story.

Oh, my goodness. Wow.

I mean, longer books than yours, obviously. That’s at the one extreme. And then there’s Kendare Blake, who’s a bestselling YA author, and she just kind of has the general idea and she just starts writing.

That’s terrifying.

I fall somewhere in the middle myself. So, with the outline in hand, what did your actual physical writing process look like. How did you write? Did you take a quill pen and sit under a pine tree somewhere?

I should email you a picture of the laptop that I wrote this thing because it is the most broken, busted old Macbook you can imagine. The screen is cracked…in fact, the whole screen had fallen off at one point, so the screen is like taped on, the camera doesn’t work, some of the keys stick….I mean, it’s so horrible. But that was my little writing machine, you know? It’s like…I sat on the couch, and I’m one of those people that, like, once I get in the creative mode, I can sit for six or more hours and just write. Like, I don’t even need a break. I will just go and go and go and go. And that’s why a lot of people keep asking me, “Are you going to write a sequel?” And I’m like, “Well, I wrote this book before I had two little kids, so I had the luxury of sitting and having creative time to myself all day, every day. And now that I have these two kids, I barely have time to write one email every day because I’m staying at home watching them.” So, I have no idea how I’m going to write the sequel. I’m going to have to seriously, like, buy a plane ticket to like some foreign country. It’ll be like, “Don’t bother me for two months, I’m writing.”

Kids do get older, and eventually, they get a little easier…

That’s true, throw them in school…

Speaking from experience.

Yeah. Hey, don’t tell me that, I don’t want them to get bigger.

Mine’s 19, or about to turn 19.

Mine are one and three.

Oh, yeah.

So I’m still in the, you know, teething mode right now.

Yeah, and you’ve got two of them. I only have the one to worry about.

Oh, yeah.

So, how long did it take you to write that first draft?

I want to say the whole process took about a year and a half, I think. I think it took me a year from start to finish to, like, really get it to a place that I was ready to submit it. So, I don’t know how long it took me to write the first draft. I just know that I got to a place where I thought it was clean, and, you know, I wasn’t terrified to let somebody else read it. After about a year and a half, I think so.

So how did you work? Did you write a complete first draft and then go back to the beginning and revise or did you kind of do a rolling revision as you went along or how did that work for you?

I wrote the first draft, just anything that came to my mind. I didn’t really worry about editing. I’m just, you know…I always worry about, you know, too much dialogue, Because as an actor, like, I cared more about the dialogue than I did the, you know, describing things which…that was a huge note with my editor, once I got to, you know, once I got my book deal. She was like, “You need to describe things more. Describe there’s more. Go more into that.” But my dialogue was always awesome. Like, as an actor, it’s like, I know how people talk. I know the back and forth and, you know, one-upmanship between two characters—is that the word? One-upsmanship? But yeah, it took me a while because I wasn’t in a rush. I was doing other things. I was, you know, acting and hosting, and, you know, I was focused on that side of my career. This was kind of just like when I have time, I’m gonna I’m going to work on this.

How long is it? I’ve only seen the ebooks. How many pages did it end up being…? It’s a middle-grade book. So it’s…

Yes. It’s… OK, so I planned it to be the exact length as the first Harry Potter book, if that helps anybody out there?

Well, it helps me, I have that, so I know what it looks like.

I think it ended up being maybe, like, one chapter longer than the first Harry Potter book? But that’s that was my roadmap, because I’m like, if I’m gonna write a book similar to the first Harry Potter book, I’m, you know, a book like that, I want to reference the best one out there. And I mean, that’s…people might debate whether it’s the best middle-grade book ever, whatever. I mean, that’s what people like. It’s the most famous one. So I’m like, hey, I’m going to use that as, like, my roadmap. I remember I would…I counted out all the chapter lengths, and, you know, I kind of use, “OK. So her chapters are about this long, so I want my chapters to be that long. And so, I like, really kind of used that to help me write it. So I’m sure it sounds very amateur. Like, again, this is my first novel. You’re, like, a total pro, I’m sure you’re just like, “You’ll learn, newbie.”

No, I mean, it’s the same…I mean, I’m very old, but back when I started writing, and I got my first computer…it was a Commodore 64, and the word processor was called Paperclip, and you could only put 499 lines of text into one file on the Commodore 64, which made chapters about ten pages long. And I’ve kind of been writing the same length chapters ever since just because that was my first computer.

Well, that’s what you know, yeah.

I’ve only recently kind of broken out of that, but for a long time, it was almost like clockwork. OK, I’m getting close, and here’s a chapter break. So, yeah, everybody…

Oh, that’s funny.

We all start in different places. But you’ve done a ton of writing. And one thing I always tell people who…I teach some writing, and I’ve just finished a gig as writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for the last nine months, working with new writers. And that’s what I say, is that the way you learn to write is to write. So it sounds like that writing course you took was ideal for getting you up to speed.

It was. I mean, I was yeah, I was writing way before that. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 13 years old, and I showed it to a director friend of mine who had directed a pilot, my very first pilot that I ever booked. And God bless him, I’m so happy he did this…I was so mad at the time because I was 13, and I had it in my brain that I was this prodigy because I was 13, and I wrote a screenplay, and here it is and let’s go to the Disney Channel, we’re making this right now. And my director friend tore it up, and I’m so glad he did. He sat there with me, and he went line by line, and he’s like, “Typo, typo. Can’t say that, blah blah blah.  Don’t give camera direction, blah blah blah. And I just sat there just like, “Oh, my gosh. Like, why is he just not praising me for being this amazing child actor who can do anything?” And I will never forget the things he said, not taking it easy on me, about my first screenplay, which is buried somewhere in my files, somewhere in my garage that no one will ever see. Like, no one will ever see this screenplay. But those lessons he gave me were so, so valuable. And his name is Greg Atkins. If somehow this, if ever you know, if he ever stumbles upon this, Greg Atkins, “Thank you so much for not take it easy on me.”

And then after that, I wrote, you know, a couple of other TV shows. I wrote…I mean, nothing that made it because I was, you know, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. And I just kept anything that entered my head. I would just write it. And then, I wrote my first novel that I never did anything with when I was around 14 or 15. And yeah, just a ton of half-written books are on my computer throughout the years, which I’m sure a lot of writers have that. But yeah, I just never stopped writing. And I kept a diary every single day as well. I thought it was really important at the end of the day, to just write what was never on my mind.

So, you’re friendly with words, in other words.


And I think that having somebody like that who takes it, I mean, takes it seriously. When you’re 13…my story is similar that I when I was 11 years old, I wrote my first complete short story, it was a rainy day activity with a friend. It was called Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot, because you could see where my mind was. And my grade…I was 11, but I was in grade eight because I skipped a grade. And anyway, my grade eight English teacher, Toni Tunbridge took it, and he didn’t just say, “Oh, you wrote a short story. That’s really good.” He went through it line by line and said, “OK, well, I don’t understand why your characters do this and all this stuff.” And ever since I’ve credited that because it was that taking it seriously enough to properly critique it.


That made me think, OK, the next thing I write is going to be better than that.

For sure, absolutely.

.That’s kind of the attitude you have to have going forward as a writer is you’re always the next thing is going to be even better than the last thing.

Yeah, I was one of those people that everything, like everything I wrote…I mean, I’m sure, I say one of those people, but I’m sure that’s just all creatives. But like, the thing that I was working on at the time, I was like, this is it. This is the thing. I’m going to put my whole life into this one thing. Chips in, like, I’m all in. This is the one I’m gonna make. This is the movie I’m going to make. This is the TV show that’s going to get picked up. And obviously, none of them ever were. But to this day, almost every project that I write has references, like all of them, you know, you remember old characters, you remember old scenes. I was just thinking the other day how funny it would be to just, like, sit at a dinner table with all of my past main characters and just have a conversation. Like, you know, this one over here in the half-written books. You know who did such and such?

They might not be very happy with you.

Oh, totally. And, you know, I think, like, the end of that little fun story would be like, you know, the one character that does get picked up, does get published. You know, it’s just like a silly thing. But, you know, all the failures just helped me so much. And that’s why it’s just like, keep writing. Just write, write, write, write, write. Whatever it is, just keep writing. Because, you know, there were times when I would get that writer’s block in the middle of writing this novel, and I’d be like, “Oh, my God, I’ve got that scene from that book I wrote, like, ten years ago. That would be perfect in this scenario.” And I could borrow that. And then, all of a sudden, it was…it had already been played out in my mind years ago. I was very familiar with it. And boom. So, yeah.

Going back to this book, I also wanted to ask you about the characters. You talked about how you did backstory for all of them. My daughter’s big anime fan. So backstory is something we always talk about in anime, but…how did you decide what characters you needed? I mean, how did you develop these characters in your head?

Yeah, I mean, Ash was always there, she was always…

And before you say that, is Ash a deliberate choice because of the Phoenix rising from the ashes?

Well, her name is Ashton, which is a name I always liked. And yeah, I did like that it was, you know, that you could compare that kind of, you know, the ash and ash. Yeah, I did. I did really like that. And I’ve always thought Ashton was like a beautiful girl’s name. And the one thing that was very important to me about Ashton Ridley was that she was not special. That always kind of was something I thought about growing up is, many of the books that I was reading, you know, the main character, the kid, was always, like, the Chosen One. Or, like, their mom happened to be the queen of this planet, and so they were the prince or princess, you know, like, you know, Harry Potter had that crazy stuff happened, and then, like, Percy Jackson, like, you know, his dad, like every character I felt like had something already going for him before they were born, that then, you know, they fulfilled their destiny. It was very important to me that Ash did not have a destiny, that she was not special, that her mom had passed away, that her dad was poor. She had no friends, she was working for this horrible woman, you know, nothing, nothing going for her. I mean, this was like, this was going to be her life until Flynn came along. And still, as the book goes on, one of the big themes is that Flynn is the special one, not her. And so, she’s, you know, she’s going to this school full of rich children who are all very privileged, and she’s not, she’s the only poor child among all of these rich, privileged kids. And everybody’s so fascinated with Ash and Flynn’s presence at the school, but they’re fascinated with Flynn. So, she still feels like she has to prove herself during this whole journey. So while it. Yeah.

So while Flynn is this special, amazing, rare, powerful creature, you know, Ash is just a normal girl and she’s got to, like any normal, got to, you know, pick herself up and make something out of her life and fulfill this journey she’s on.

There’s a very good book by Patrick Ness called The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which is a young adult novel, told from the point of view of the ordinary kids who are in a high school where you’ve got the Buffy types and all these other things going on. And there’s like there’s some sort of apocalypse going on, but they’re just trying to get through algebra class.

That’s so brilliant. See, I love stuff like that. I absolutely love stuff like that. In fact, there is…one of my half-written books, years ago, was sort of a comedy about people who had X-Men powers, but like bad powers, you know what I mean? Like, the X-Men, obviously, I mean, it was a totally different thing, it wasn’t related to the X-Men, but like a similar concept about, like, you had all these superheroes with all these amazing powers, but then, like, you had this misfit group that, like, “Oh, my power’s that I can, you know, I can make bananas mushy just by looking at them.” You know, like a really terrible power.” And like, how do they, you know, save the world or whatever.

One of the special kids in that book is The King of Cats (Ed. – Actually, the god!). So, everywhere he goes, cats congregate around him and look at him adoringly.

That’s amazing. Yeah, I mean it was just so important to me that that Ash was really relatable because, you know, it’s like, if I’m reading, you know, Percy Jackson, it’d be like, “OK, well, I’m, you know, I feel like I’m like Percy, but I didn’t…my father isn’t, you know…who is his father? The guy from the, you know…everybody listening, “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Yeah, no, I can’t get the word out of my mouth either.

The god of…well, whatever, you know.

Yeah…Neptune is the Roman version…Poseidon. There we go.

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. There you go. Thank you. Thank you. That would have really driven records for the rest of the day. Yeah. This is like, OK, well, you know, I want to accomplish cool things, but my dad isn’t Poseidon, so what do I do? So it’s very important to me that Ash was really relatable for just girls who were like me growing up.

Now, once you did have it ready to submit, and you obviously found a publisher, you had the editing process, and you mentioned one thing that the editor came back and said was, “You need more description.” Were there some other things that you had to work on that maybe surprised you?

Yes. So, worldbuilding was my biggest one. I mean, there were things that I…I do really enjoy describing things, so sometimes I would go into, like, too much detail, like describing like what this flower looked, it was like, too much. But worldbuilding was a big thing. My editor is Natasha Simons, and she’s brilliant and she’s funny and I love her, and you should follow her on Twitter because she is one of the best Twitter accounts. But, yeah, she was so kind with me and so patient and gave me such wonderful notes about how to build out this world and make it really feel like a real place. And she really didn’t do too much to it, honestly, like we didn’t have any crazy big edits to the story, just…all the suggestions that she had for me to add things were wonderful. I mean, I didn’t…there’s a flashback chapter with Ash and her father that wasn’t originally in the book, and now it’s maybe my favourite chapter. So, I’m really glad that she suggested to add that in there. And yeah, thankfully, she understood a lot of my quirky comedy. Because I come from the comedy world, it was important to me to have the book be really funny. And I was always worried about that, like how I hope my editor has a sense of humour because a lot of things in here are super silly. And she went along right with me. So, yeah.

So any challenge…when you’re riding for young people and doing humour it’s easy to do humour that you don’t actually get. I’ve been guilty about a few times, I think. Do you feel comfortable with that?

Yeah. I mean, I came from a kids’ show. I was on a kid show for four years.

Oh, good point, yeah.

Yeah. I was very familiar with, like, what jokes resonate and what don’t. And that’s kind of why I always wanted to write kids’ TV, because I really did feel like I had, you know, I was just good at picking up on what was going to land and what wasn’t. And maybe one or two jokes in the book are like jokes that only adults would get. I think at one point before a battle, like a, you know, they’re having the two kids, like, do a little, like, practice battle or something, but she says, like, “Protect yourself at all times.” Obviously, that’s a reference to UFC, which I worked at for the longest time. Like, no kid is going to know, like that’s what, you know, protect yourself at all.

But, you know, there’s a couple of little things in there, like, you know, the book was dedicated to my late father, and one of our favourite movies that we sat and watched was Napoleon Dynamite. Like, we were obsessed with that movie, and we’d quote it all the time. And that’s literally the only reason why I added a liger to the book. At the very beginning, a liger is referenced a couple of times, and I think one of the teachers, maybe the teacher has…yeah, the teacher has a liger, I think. But the only reason that the liger is even in the book is because in Napoleon Dynamite, he’s like, “It’s a liger, known for its skills in magic.” So, that’s the reason…you know, that’s the only reason that’s in there. Yeah.

No, I didn’t have a problem with writing jokes that I think kids will get, you know, that…I think that so far that the best part of this whole process is getting kid feedback. I so appreciate all the adult feedback I’ve been getting from my friends and fans and everybody, like, I so appreciate it. I can’t even understand why someone would read something I wrote. I’m so humbled by all of it. But it’s the feedback I’m getting from the young readers that makes me genuinely emotional because I wrote it for them, and the fact that it’s resonating and they feel inspired by it, and they’re enjoying it, just…it completely warms my heart.

Have you had an opportunity to do a school reading or anything like that?

I had a whole bunch lined up, and then good old coronavirus came along and cancelled all my appearances.

A few of mine, too.

It’s so frustrating, right? I mean, it’s so funny, it’s my first novel, and I was getting advice from a couple of other people who had published. And I’m like, OK, so like what? Like, what do I do? How do I do this thing? And they’re like, you know, “The number one thing that helped us is appearances signings, like, do as many appearances as you can, that’s going to make or break your book launch.” And I’m like, “OK, cool.” So I had a whole bunch lined up, and they all got cancelled. So I’m like, oh my God. Like, my book is going to debut in the middle of this pandemic. I can’t go out and promote it. I literally only have social media. So I…I just tried to utilize Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram as much as I could, and thankfully it’s been great. Everybody’s been so supportive.

One other thing I wanted to ask you about the acting and writing side of things. As I said, I’ve done stage work, and I’ve also directed a few stage plays. And I always feel when I read some people’s stuff that they don’t keep a clear picture in their mind of where people are in relationship to each other. And it seems to me that the acting side of things, you always kind of have that mental image of,” OK, so-and-so’s over here, so-and-so is over there.” The kind of blocking of the scene, I guess. Do you find that some of your background has helped you in that sort of thing, as if you’re almost, like, you’re directing?

Absolutely, I don’t have a problem with that, with losing track of that or, you know, I play out every scene in my mind like a movie, and I even sometimes stand up and I act out the scene. It’s so dorky. I’m telling you, thank God I got to actually do it for the audiobook. So, you know, I had a reason to be silly and act up these scenes, but when I was writing it, I would straight up just stand up and like act out the scene and walk over here and talk to a lamp, and that was the other character, just to get a feel for the room. And yeah, absolutely. I credit that to my acting, but yeah, I didn’t have any notes about that kind of stuff from the editor, so I must have been good at that, I don’t know.

Well, we’re getting kind of closer to the end here, so we’ll as, you probably touched on it a little bit, but this is the other cliché part of the podcast, where I say, “and now the big philosophical questions,” which is basically why? Why write? Why tell stories? Why tell this particular kind of story? Why do you do it, and why do you think any of us do this whole storytelling thing?

Well, the coolest experiences for me over the course of my whole life are when I’ve gotten to tell stories so many different ways and see how they all affect people. I mean, even sketches on All That are stories. They’re just short little stories. They’re funny and they’re silly and they’re over the top and there’s usually slime, but at the end of the day, it’s a story, and we’re telling it to the kids. And I get to see their reaction, you know, as they watch me do it. And I’m also a singer and a songwriter, and a lot of the songs that I’ve written are based on literature, and they tell a story from beginning to end. So that’s a completely different way of telling a story. And I get to see the, you know, the reaction to people who listen to my songs and how that affects them.

And like I said, I write screenplays and I write TV shows, their pilots, and that’s also a story, I mean, in a different way. And then this book has been a completely different way of telling a story. So, I mean, so many creatives, that’s really what motivates us is that we just have these stories that we need to get out there. We are these bards of the world that, you know, we have all of these collective experiences in our brains that we want to share in either a comedic way or a dramatic way. You know, everybody’s experiences are so different as they navigate life. And, you know, that’s where all of our stories come from, are just things we’ve experienced. You know, it’s like every character in my book, I know where they came from. I know what inspired them. You know, there’s a character inspired by Star Trek, there’s a character inspired by the Sherlock TV show, like there’s, you know, just every little thing, even if it’s a side character on some show nobody’s ever heard of, it affected me enough to put it in this book.

And that’s everybody’s screenplay, everybody’s novel, it comes from their experience and what affected them deeply. And so, everyone’s going to have a different story to tell because of their life experiences. And sharing that with each other, I think, is just so important to life, and just, you know, seeing what other people have experienced and being inspired by other people and inspiring other people. You know, like I said before, the only reason I became an actor is because my creativity was sparked by these young adult fiction novels. So, it’s only right that I take that creativity that it sparked and turn it into a fiction novel to then inspire other kids who are just like me. I can’t think of any better way to pay it forward.

Maybe in 20 years, it’ll be somebody writing a novel that was inspired by reading this one.

That is absolutely the dream, honestly. Like, you know, my whole career of acting has been just so much fun and so fulfilling, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I’m so glad that I discovered my talents and goals because of these types of books. So, I’m so thankful for these authors. You know, like Anne McCaffrey was a really big one. And, you know, thank goodness that they decided to sit down and write these books because that’s the reason for my career. So, yeah, I mean, I can’t think of anything better than helping other people discover that passion, you know, their passions. Maybe it’s acting, maybe it’s singing, whatever it is. You know, if I have even the smallest ability to inspire somebody, it’s…I mean, I got to do it.

And what creative things are you working on right now besides raising two small children?

Yeah, I have a big one I can’t talk about right now, but it’s definitely related to acting and writing, which is super cool. I have another…I have a TV show project that I’ve been kind of working on with another former cast member of All That.

Her name is Alyssa Rayas, and she and I kind of collaborated and came up with a really fun pilot idea. So, we’ve been fleshing that out and getting some writers on board to help us kind of develop that. And I really hope that goes forward because it’d be so hilarious. But aside from those two projects, obviously I’m still, you know, pushing the book. The audiobook is out there, and I’m just trying to…oh, and I now sell autographed copies through Premier Collectibles. And that’s…they just got a whole new shipment of those. So, those are now available. They all sold out day one, but now there’s more available. So, selling autographed copies and selling the audiobook and just trying to get the word out there in a world where I can’t go outside. If I could take a megaphone and just walk around everybody and shout in their face that I have a book available, then I would, but I can’t leave my house right now, so I’m just gonna do my best with the Internet.

And speaking of the Internet, where can people find you online?

Yeah. My website is lisafoiles.com. And I’m pretty easy to find on every social channel, everything is, you know, Twitter.com’s actually Lisa Foiles, Instagram is Lisa Foiles. The only one that’s different is Facebook.com/LisaFoilesOfficial. So, I’m everywhere, and whichever one that you frequent the most, you know, hit me up on there I’d love to hear from you. I love chatting with fans. I really try to make a point to respond to people.

All right. Well, thank you so much for this. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it half as much as I did.

I did. Thank you, Edward, so much for having me. I very much appreciate it.

And I’m looking forward to finishing reading the book. I do have it. And it’s on my finish this up because it sounds great list, so…

I got to tell you, I’m already shocked that people have finished my book because, like I said, I’m the slowest reader on the planet. It would take me months and months to read my own book. So I have no judgment for anyone who’s taken a long time. I’m the same way.

I just haven’t gotten to it yet out of everything else. But I’m looking forward to it, especially after talking to you today, so, thanks so much.

You too. Thank you.

Episode 53: Bryan Thomas Schmidt

An hour-long conversation with Bryan Thomas Schmidt, national bestselling author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction whose debut novel, The Worker Prince, received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases and whose short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies and online.





Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction whose debut novel, The Worker Prince, received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases, and whose short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies and online and include canon entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s WARS, amongst others.

As a book editor, he was the first editor on Andy Weir’s bestseller The Martian and has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Todd McCaffrey, Jean Rabe, and more. His anthologies as editor include Infinite Stars and Predator: If It Bleeds for Titan Books, Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek, Mission: Tomorrow, Galactic Games, Little Green Men–Attack! with Robin Wayne Bailey, and The Monster Hunter Tales with Larry Correia, all for Baen; Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6, Beyond The Sun, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for various small presses, and Joe Ledger: Unstoppable with Jonathan Maberry for St. Martin’s Press. He lives in Kansas City.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Brian, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

We’ve met a couple of times at conventions here and there, I think. And of course, you live not too far from Kansas City. So, I was down there for the Kansas City Worldcon, and I think I probably said hi to you sometime during that weekend.

You did. I think…weren’t your daughter or your wife with you, or both?

Yeah, they were both…I was just telling you before we started that I have family not too far from there. My mom was born in Butler, Missouri, about, I don’t know, 50 miles from Kansas City, a small town, and Adrian, Missouri, is right down there, too. And that’s where she grew up and went to school. And that’s the birthplace of Robert A. Heinlein. So, while I was there, I actually went down to Butler, and they have a library there, Virginia Heinlein’s name is on it, and they have a collection of Heinlein books. And so, I actually donated some of my books to them and signed them while I was down there. So, that’s kind of cool.

But anyway, enough about me. So, we’re going to start with, as I always say to the guests, taking you back in time. How did you first get interested in…well, first of all, in science fiction, and then in writing it? It’s not necessarily the same thing at the same time.

Well, my interest in writing came first, because…my mom likes to say I never played with a toy the same way twice, because I could always imagine new scenarios for the toys. And so I was creating storytelling even as I played. And so I kind of had a natural inclination towards storytelling. So, I started writing basically fanfic of some of my favorite children’s books, you know, when I was in kindergarten and, you know, doodling around before that, but by third grade, I was writing with a partner doing like little books in some of my favorite series.

What were those favorite series?

First Scholastic edition of
The Littles, 1967

Well, like, for example–I’m trying to remember, I forget the author these days, but—it’s The Littles. They were books about little people that lived in the walls. They had tails and they had, you know, they would fly paper airplanes, and little, you know, contraptions they made out of things, and they lived in the walls. And there was a whole popular series of Littles books. That’s the one I remember that we were writing stuff for. There were other things, but I don’t remember off the top of my head what they were. But that was kind of my first thing. And then, when I got into sci-fi was when I saw Star Wars, and that’s what really…Star Wars: A New Hope really made me look at things differently. I was always into space. All of the NASA launches and the different missions. In fact, my grandma kept a scrapbook, which I now have, of all the news clippings from all the history of NASA until she died. And so, we have, up through the middle of the space shuttles, we have clippings from all that period, all the way back to the very first, you know, Mercury astronaut program and everything. It’s really cool stuff. And so, I’ve always been a fan of all of that, but Star Wars took it to a whole new level and made me think about it in a whole different way. And then I got into Star Trek, the original series, which was rerunning every night and was in competition with dinner, much to my mother’s chagrin, and Space: 1999 and so on and so forth. And that’s what really started it. But, of course, naturally, I combined my desire to tell stories with my science fiction, and it kind of went from there.

So, when did…when you were writing all this stuff, were you sharing it with other people? I always ask that question because I found for myself that when I started sharing my stories when I was writing them in high school and so forth, and I found out from that that people actually liked my stories, and that was one thing that eventually pointed me toward the, you know, doing writing professionally. Did you share?

Well, yeah. I don’t remember who all besides my family I shared them with, but I know I shared ‘em. Some of them, eventually, I entered into a writing contest, creative writing, in school. And I won some awards. And so, that was an encouragement because, like, I can really do this, you know, they’re judging me the best in the contest. I may have something here. So, yeah, I did share. Back then, I was also doing music a lot, and I shared my music a lot more publicly than I think I did my writing, though occasionally, different things would happen with writing. But the music I definitely performed in public, so…

You’re a singer or instrumentalist or both?

Singer, piano player, songwriter. I played banjo, I played guitar a little bit, and eventually took up hand percussion, but I mainly was known for piano and vocals and songwriting.

I always ask that question, because I’m a singer and did that kind of stuff, too.

Yeah. Yeah. I have several albums out.

Well, I can’t say that.

I toured, I had stuff on the radio, and I toured and did all that stuff, too. So, it was a whole other life before I settled down to writing books.

Now, when you got to university, you didn’t actually study creative writing, did you?

No, I studied…at first, I was a music major, because music had been the area where I’d had the greatest success up to that point. And they wanted me to learn classical and they wanted me to write classical, and I got really frustrated, so I ended up switching to the English department and pursuing writing. And I still have mixed emotions about that. I mean, they didn’t really…you know, “you’re not a composer because you don’t write classical music.” Well, lady, people are asking me to sing my songs everywhere I go, and you told me your own husband doesn’t like your compositions, so I think you call him me “not a composer” is kind of a little ironic. That was kind of my response, which didn’t go over well. But anyway, I went into the English department and then ended up deciding I wanted to pursue screenwriting and transferred and finished my college in California doing screenwriting and then went into TV and film. And so, writing kind of took over. But at the time, of course, it was scriptwriting, which is a different animal than prose writing.

I’m always interested in that, as well. So, the scriptwriting that you did…when you did start writing more prose, did you find benefit from having been a scriptwriter?

Well, my dialogue was really strong. I’ve always been really good with dialogue because scripts rely so much on dialogue. When it came to writing all the visceral stuff and the descriptions, that’s where I had to struggle, because I really had to figure out how to describe stuff in the amount of detail I’d never had to deal with before. And  that was part of the struggle. But I was writing scripts in high school, really. I created my own TV show when I was, like, in eighth grade and wrote, like, fourteen episodes. And I was writing scripts for my favorite shows and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, I was always doing scriptwriting alongside whatever prose I did.

I want to go back to the studying writing at university, I’ve asked many writers about that, some who have done it, some who haven’t done it. And I get a very mixed bag as to how helpful it was. What was your reaction to the actual creative writing part that you studied at university?

Well, I didn’t have any particularly bad experiences, but I think that what I was trying to do definitely was pushing the envelope as far as creativity with what they were expecting me to do. I always put a twist on everything. There was always some kind of weird…it didn’t have to be science fiction necessarily, but it definitely was a twist. I had to…even with screenwriting, I had to write a newscast for a class. And so, I wrote humorous news stories, but delivered, like, straight. You know, at the time, this will totally date you, but I remember one of the reports was about, you know, heavy winds at the Wichita airport, and you see pictures, video of the planes flipping over and all. You know, so underemphasizing things, you know. “The entire session of Congress had to be cleared today because Vice President Quayle passed gas in session.” You know, that kind of thing was the kind of stories that I would come up with, and they were delivered deadpan, you know? And so, I think some of my teachers were like, “I’m not sure you’re taking this seriously or not.” I was like, “I am, it’s just like, I like to have fun with it while I’m doing it.” So, you know, the humor that people now see in things like Simon Says, I’ve always been doing that. I mean, that’s just kind of where I came out. You know, shows like Hill Street Blues that mixed humor with drama were always my favorite types of shows, anyway, so those were kind of the things that I modeled myself after.

So, you were writing scripts, but you did several things along in there before you really started focusing on the prose side, didn’t you?

Yeah. I mean, I did the…I was doing the music thing, and then I ended up going back and getting a master’s degree in seminary and doing…starting a nonprofit that taught leadership development in the arts, and went over to Africa and Brazil and Mexico and various places, and helped train leaders. In fact, in one denomination in Ghana, West Africa, I would say seventy percent of their music leaders today are people I trained. So…I mean, Ghana is the size of Oregon, so, you know, take it for what it is, but…you know, it’s one denomination out of, you know, hundreds. But still, you know, it’s kind of an accomplishment to have had that kind of impact on a particular group of people. You know, we’re talking about forty, fifty people who are kind of my progeny over there, they’re doing their thing, that I was able to train and have gone on to success. And so, a lot of those experiences that I got out of that have, of course, informed my writing.

One of the reasons I went and did all that is, when I was doing screenwriting at first in Hollywood, you know, I kept getting, “Your stories just a little too plain, a little too cliché, a little too, ‘we’ve seen them before.’ You need to get more life experience to write from.” So, I ended up going up and doing a concert tour, when I did my first album and left Hollywood behind. Quit my job—I was working for a company that did documentaries for History Channel and A&E and a bunch of different stuff, doing all these different shows, Biography was one of them. And I left and went on tour as a musician, moved back to live in Kansas City with my sister, and ended up doing the music thing, going to seminary and then going off and doing ministry for a while and doing these leadership-development training things, and then found my way back to prose, you know, after a decade of that. So, it was kind of a roundabout way that I came back and started writing novels as opposed to, you know, screenplays and songs and other things. But I started my first novel in about 2007, 2008.

And is that the one that was The Worker Prince which was published in 2011?

No. That was 2009. The first novel’s unpublished. And may never be published.

I have a few like that.

Yeah, it’s…yeah, I mean, I like the story and the concept, but, man, I was not up to pulling it off. Worker Prince is interesting because Worker Prince went through more rewrites than any book I’ve ever done to get where it was, and then, of course, we did a second version of it when it was picked up by a new publisher after the first publisher kind of went belly-up in the middle of releasing the books. So, I got a chance a few years later to put them out again and release the third book in the series. And I rewrote the first two and fixed a lot of things because my prose had advanced back far enough I felt like, you know, this was a chance to really write some wrongs, so to speak, and put it out there. So, there’s two versions of the story out there, too. So, yeah, Worker Prince was my first published novel. And that trilogy, actually, the Saga Of Davi Rhii, is actually gonna be re-released this summer, God willing, from my Boralis Books imprint and be out in hardback for the first time.

So, that’s your own imprint, Boralis?

Yeah, I’ve got my own imprint now that I do a lot of these novels and stuff with. I’ve also sold a novel to another publishing company, as well, and I still do anthologies with some of the other publishers and, you know, my novels are out there, but it’s just, you know, there’s so many advantages to doing it yourself these days, but I’m kind of becoming more hybrid.

Yeah, me too. I’m published by DAW, but I have my own little press, too, Shadowpaw Press, which I’m putting stuff out through for sort of the same reason, one of which was a story that came out and I went back and rewrote it. It was kind of nice to go back and fix some things in that old book.

Yeah, I mean, sometimes you realize…I mean, there’s a point where I say, you know, people ask me, “Oh, you’re going to put out Worker Prince again? Are you going to do yet another version of that?” No, I’ve done that. And I can look at it and probably nitpick it to death right now, based on where I am as a writer right now, because I feel like the John Simon books, which is my current series, is way advanced ahead of where I was with the Worker Prince series, but at a certain point, you’ve got to let your writing stand. And I think, you know, I got a chance to do the books I wanted to do, and that was the only reason that I did the rewrite the first time on that series, because I’d had a publisher pressured me to go one direction with it and various things, and it was new, and the next publisher was just like, you know, “Give me the best books you can,” and I was able to just go back and make it what I wanted it to be rather than what somebody else was telling me it needed to be. And so, that’s why I did it. And, you know, I think there are…it is certainly fun to go back and explore your writing. Sometimes it’s painful to go back and explore your writing.

I’m actually…I have a copy of the first novel I wrote in high school, The Golden Sword, which was later rewritten as The Silver Sword when teenage me realized you probably could even pick up a sword that was made out of gold. And I’m going through it because it’s interesting. And I’m tempted to throw it up under a pseudonym on Amazon just to see what happens. The scary thing is, what if it sold better than my current stuff? That would be so horrifying.

Well, you know, the one thing…there’s good and bad about the whole self-publishing movement. The bad is that people can throw up any crap they want. And I don’t say that as an indictment of what you’re talking about here with yourself, but I’m just saying, unfortunately, there’s a lot of crap out there being published, and some of it is actually successful. And so you never know. Your book might come out and it might, you know, be a hit. You can’t look at it as an indictment of quality anymore. I mean, you want to put out the book that you’re proud of that best represents you under your name, and you absolutely can be proud of that. But, you can’t look at anybody else’s success as a measure of your own because there’s just, you know, they might be a marketing genius who writes like crap, you know?

Yeah, I think there’s definitely some of those out there.


You’ve done quite a bit of editing. How did that get started?

Well, the editing came about because I found that I had a really good ability to communicate with writers. I’ve always been a communicator. I like teaching, and I like helping people. And I got an opportunity to do one of those gratis anthologies called Space Battles, where everybody basically was donating a story, and that was my first chance to see what it was like. And at the time, I was being mentored by Mike Resnick, who was a big anthologist. And Mike was encouraging me with anthologies, and I was really starting to say, this could be a fun way to get to work with some of my writing heroes, and give new writers a chance to work with their heroes, and it’d be kind of a big collaborative thing. So, I started doing that, and then in the process started doing some freelance editing and ended up doing novels and other things, as well. And eventually, you know, my fourth anthology or something like that was Shattered Shields, which I did with Jennifer Brozak. Well, Jennifer grew up with Andy Weir, and Andy Weir wrote The Martian. And I was sent The Martian because Jennifer didn’t want to edit her childhood buddy. She felt it wasn’t wise to work together.

Probably true.

First edition of The Martian
by Andy Weir

So, I got Andy Weir’s The Martian, and I was the first editor on it, before it ever went out, and worked with him on it. And later he did…you know, I’m always proud of this, and I always remind him of this, and he freely admits it, but the stuff that he refused to do for me when he was paying me, Crown made me do. So, you know, I edited it, and I told him he needed to, you know, “You need to describe NASA. You have all these scenes with NASA. You need to describe the sets.” “Well, everybody knows what NASA looks like. I don’t need to describe mission control.” “Like, yes, you do.” “No, I don’t.” So, he didn’t describe mission control. You go back and read the final book, and yes, he did, because Crown told him to do it. So, there were a lot of things like that, that…but when, you know, when you’re a freelance editor, you work for the client. If the client’s the author, they can basically overrule you. And, you know, that’s why I started…I have a rule where it’s in my editing contract that, you know, you can only put my name on your book as editor if you really want to put my name on it, if you have my permission, because there are certain books that I’m just like, “Yeah, I edited that. But they didn’t listen to me, and I don’t want my name on it.”

That sounds like a good plan. I’m doing some freelance editing, although it’s anonymously at the moment, but yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll remember that.

Well, I mean, it’s…the thing is that, especially as I became more and more known as an editor rather than as an author, which is ironic because I always think of myself as an author, but because of the success I had as an editor between Andy’s book and then a bunch of anthologies and different things, and I reached, you know, national bestseller status and a lot of things before…with, you know, editing than I did as an author, you know, I started to really worry more about my reputation as an editor and the value of that. And people started to come to me, want me, because they wanted the editor of The Martian to work on their book. So, it started to become the kind of thing, well, I need to protect this and make sure the integrity is there, integrity has always been important to me, and make sure that it actually has maintained some value. And so, that’s when I started thinking about the fact that, you know, I had people trying to slap my name on the book and then when they put their book out, and they got bad reviews on Amazon, they would comment on the reviews and say, “Oh, that’s the editor’s fault.” And I would have to go in and send them a cease-and-desist letter or risk having to come in on Amazon and say, “No, we told you to do it. And I can print…I’ll put a blog post up and show everybody where we told you to do that.” And I didn’t want to get in those kinds of battles, so it ended up just being easier to just, you know, make it a policy and just let people know in advance than to try to have to deal with that.

Do you find editing…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, working with a lot of writers…and I do find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps me see flaws in my own. Do you find that to be the case as an editor?

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s…I always am finding stuff that people do that I think, “Oh, that’s a great description. I need to memorize that turn of phrase, because I could use that. I’ve never seen that before. That’s something that I can incorporate into my own dialogue, internal monologue, that would be something I could use.” Or, you know, some way that they’re doing things that is unique. And, yeah, I’m always finding things. You know, I always tell people the reason that I did so many drafts on The Worker Prince is, I was learning craft.

And I literally did a sartorial draft. People said to me, “None of these people are wearing any clothes. You never mention clothes, the entire book. Where the hell…what, are they naked? What’s the deal?” So I did a whole draft where I did nothing but address what people were wearing. Because I literally hadn’t…because I don’t think about clothes, because I’m not fashion-conscious. Anybody who’s ever seen me in public knows that. I don’t…so, I didn’t even think about it, you know? So, I had to go back and actually write what I call my sartorial draft, where I did nothing but put people in clothes throughout the entire book, you know? And I would do drafts on, you know, a particular character’s dialogue or a particular subplot or, you know, “You didn’t do enough description. So you need to do a descriptive draft,” you know? Now, a lot of that stuff, I can do it two or three drafts, and it’s all part of the process. But at the time, I had to focus on specific aspects of craft and go back and do a draft because I was learning it.

And I think that’s where… people talk about the writer’s journey. People get, you know, some people get annoyed by that. You know, it sounds cliché, but the reality of it is, you’re building your toolbox, and eventually, you can use more than one tool at a time. But when you start out, you can’t use a saw and a hammer at the same time. Well, most of the time you can’t really use a saw and a hammer at the same time that I can think of, anyway, but you get my point. My point is, you know, you’re gonna have to…you learn how to use the tools one at a time, and then you can put them all together. And you get to that point where you can…I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar, where you can eventually, you know, you’re thinking about all the different things at the same time, theme and, you know, all those kind of things. But at first, I literally had to think, stop and think about them individually in some cases.

Well, you’ve mentioned process, and that’s what we’re going to talk about now. So, talking about your creative process, but first, we’re going to use these Simon…John Simon thrillers, right?


We’re gonna use those as the example. So, maybe we should start with a synopsis of at least the first book, or both, whatever you can do without giving away too much.

Well, the John Simon thrillers are a near-future, 2029 Kansas City noir detective series. They’re about a top Kansas City Police Department veteran detective, an eighteen-year veteran, who, when his partner is kidnapped, has to team with the only witness. The problem is, that witness is a humanoid android, and he hates technology. So, this is the only guy that can maybe help him find his partner, and so he reluctantly teams with him. And thus a beautiful friendship and partnership is born. And basically, that’s the whole premise of the series. Now, what happens in Simon Says is, they’re investigating some people who are using art to transport secret documents, and I won’t say how, but it’s very, you know, there’s a whole technical aspect to it. It’s very, very sci-fi, and so on and so forth, and all that’s going on.

So, that’s book one. Book two, they’re dealing with terrorists who want to blow up some major tourist site in Kansas City. Book three, which I’m finishing right now, there’s an outbreak, somebody sabotaged a bunch of androids, and they’re behaving against programming. And so, that threatens the status of Lucas George, which is John Simons’s partner, the android, you know, threatens his status on KCPD, and so it becomes this whole personal crisis for him. So there’s…that’s kind of…I don’t know if you wanted more in-depth of a synopsis, but that’s kind of the gist.

Well, hopefully that piques people’s interest. So, what was the seed that…you know, I hate the cliché, “Where do you get your ideas?”, but it’s still a legitimate question. What was the seed from which these stories grew? How’s that?

Well, it’s funny because, actually, Simon Says started out as a screenplay, and it’s something I wrote in the ‘90s. And it’s interesting, because I wrote it and it wasn’t…it really wasn’t strong enough, but it was my buddy cop story, and it was written and set in Miami because I was a big Miami Vice fan. So, for whatever reason, I decided to set it in Miami. I also had just made a trip to Miami, and I could do research to write it off of. And it was about this tough, macho LA cop who has to team with an HIV-positive snitch to solve his partner’s kidnapping. Well, he, of course, is a little bit homophobic, a little bit weirded out by the HIV thing, which was very common back in the ’90s when HIV was new. And so, I wrote the storyline, and there was an art-dealer storyline, but it was very, you know, everything ended up being about drugs, and it was very…what I got from people was, “We’ve seen it before. It’s too cliche.” So, I liked it because I had come up with all these really cool scenes and action and the humor and the banter I really liked, but, you know, nothing ever happened with the screenplay.

So, when I decided I wanted to do something different after the Worker Prince series, the Davi Rhii series, I was looking at things, and I said, “You know, I really love cop stories.” I started pulling out Simon Says out of a box, and re-read it, and I said, “You know, I bet you I could do something with this, but I really need to rework it.” And so, I took it, and I said, “Well, you can’t do the HIV storyline now because people would hate this guy because they’d think of him as homophobic,” and it’s a whole different environment for it, so what could I do? I could make him technophobic and put him with a robot and turn it into sci-fi. Perfect. So that’s the genesis of it, really.

Okay, then. So, on a more general term, where do ideas for stories generally come to you from? That was pretty specific on that one.

Well, it kind of was, yeah. I’m sorry if you were looking for general, but generally speaking, I just, I don’t know, a news story? You know? I got one the other day that…there was a news story on, and I got this idea for this thing, and I wrote it down, said, “This is something I could do something with.” And, you know, I mean, that kind of thing happens all the time. Or I’ll…even a line in the song, or somebody’ll make some comment, or something will happen, I’ll get all these things. I mean, with this John Simon series, the plots for the future books come from the police blotter or from stories that I hear from the cops when I’m doing my research, a lot of times, where I’ll take it and put some kind of a sci-fi twist on it or some kind of a different twist on it. I’m always trying to do something. I mean, these guys are not homicide cops, they’re property detectives, which ironically, they end up investigating homicides and other things in the process of investigating property crimes, which kind of stretches the reality a little bit, but that’s what they end up doing. And that’s because I wanted to show other areas of policing besides just the usual homicide cop, you know, the murder detectives. So, I actually get to show them doing other kinds of investigating besides just murder. So it’s kind of, you know, the rebel in me wanted to do something different?

Well, you mentioned research. How much research do you do on these, do you have to do on these?

Well, I mean, I all-night ride-alongs with the Kansas City PD, you know, two or three times a year, where I literally go out all night long in the roughest neighborhoods of Kansas City and do ride-along. ’Course, none of that’s going on right now because of the fact that we’ve got the Covid crisis going on. I normally would be doing one right about now, because I’m getting ready to start book four and I always do ride-along in between books. So, I do both. I also have several friends now on the department.

I go to actual locations because I’m writing in Kansas City. I actually go and take pictures of locations. I listen and make notes, “What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I see?” so I could describe them well. And I will talk to people about the history of Kansas City and do various things. I did a whole tour of Kansas City and recorded it one time for three hours with this guy who was an expert on the history of Kansas City, so I could get a whole sense of the city. I am constantly talking to police about various, you know, things that are going on. “What’s the latest?” You know, my nephew’s a cop, too, but in a different department, so I hear from him. And, you know, “What kind of cases have you had? What kind of interesting things? What’s going on with your department”, those kinds of things.

So, I mean, you know, I’m doing that kind of research, and I’m also doing research on tech, you know, to keep up with my android storyline and whatever tech I can come up with for police tech. What’s the future of policing going to look like, and what kind of tech can I come up with that I can build stories around.

When it comes to building the stories, what does your planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do we wing it a bit? How does it work for you?

You know, I’m traditionally a panther. The first book, I wrote 110,000 words in six weeks, which was incredibly fast for me, but I cheated because I had a screenplay. I had 50,000 words already written. And I basically, I didn’t use all of them, but I had a hell of a lot that I could use and rewrite. And so, I kept a lot of sections of dialogue, but I reworked a lot of things. So I was able to, you know, cheat and write that book faster because I already had a basic structure, an idea. I just was, you know, building around it and making it better and stronger. The second book, you know, took me a lot longer. So, generally, what I do is, especially if I’m building a sequel is, I’ll map out what I call the TV Guide pitch line for each plot, the main plot and the subplots. And then I do a synopsis, which is just a short one-page thing, four or five paragraphs max, where I lay out, “This is what the gist of the story is.” And that’s what I work from.

And as I go…I work in Scrivener, I have a template for these books that’s already broken down into a chapter with three scenes per chapter. There’s chapters that have more than that, but I just have a base template with three scenes already laid out, empty scenes that I can do. So, I will make notes in there or in a research document inside Scrivener, I’ll make notes about ideas I have for later scenes or characters or whatever and where I think they’re going to go and where they’re going to fit in the story, and I’ll start putting things in that as I write, as they occur to me, but I basically kind of work that way. I don’t really do a lot of detailed outlining.

What does your actual writing process look like to you? I mean, right now everybody’s stuck at home. Do you normally write at home? Do you go out somewhere? Where do you like to work?

You know, I’m one of those lucky guys that can work anywhere, but I generally work at home. But, I have an office in my home, I’ve got, literally, I’ve got a copy machine and printers and file cabinets. And it’s, like, if you walk in there, it looks a lot like an office in some office building. And it’s, you know, right across from my bedroom. So literally, I could walk over there in my underwear. But it’s going to work. And I usually try to keep set hours when I write and set hours when I edit. And I fit my social media marketing around all that. And then, you know, I sit down, and I write, and I try to, I have to get, you know, 2,500, 3,000 words a day, depending on what day, what project I’m doing. You know, sometimes I only do 1,800 words a day, sometimes I do twice that. It varies, but I have to at least get significant progress done. And that’s pretty much my process. I work, like I said, I work in Scrivener and my first draft with, you know, various other support documents where I need them. I always have the Internet open so that I can do research because I’m always doing Wikipedia stuff or Googling or, you know, checking the department charts for the KCPD, or, you know, checking my photos from my locations.

I’ve done, you know, I literally do location scouts. I use the Kansas City film…what is it called?…the Kansas City Film Office has their own online database of locations in Kansas City. I use that all the time to find locations that I haven’t thought of that would be perfect for my stories. Because I’m really…I mean, the thing about Kansas City is, you know, I really want to capture unique features of Kansas City when I’m writing. And also, I want the most interesting and appropriate setting for each particular scene. You know how, as a writer, know how important it is to pick the right setting, to get the mood and the, you know, the level of tension and whatever you want and give your characters the right busyness around them to create the right ambiance for a particular scene to work most effectively. And so, I’m always looking at that while I’m writing. So, all of those kind of things.

And then, I just write. I also keep a bunch of screens of movie quotes and TV quotes open because Lucas George, one of his things is him trying to become more human. You know, John Simon’s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter convinced him that he needed to start quoting cop movies. So, he quotes cop movies, and he quotes them comically because he doesn’t quite understand the context yet. So he’s misquoting…well, he’s quoting them correctly, but in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so, I always have to have those open so that I can find new quotes to throw in for them. And he’s getting a little bit better at it as he goes, of course, as he figures out better comic timing and what’s appropriate, but I milk a lot of comedy out of the series because, you know, it’s very gritty, it’s very noir, it’s very gritty. It’s, you know, there’s a lot of cursing, it’s very realistic. It’s very much written and modeled after my experience riding along with cops, what I heard, what I saw. So, you know, there’s violence, there’s shootouts. There’s all…

I mean, the first night I did a ride-along I saw, I went back to the same location twice for two different shootings. I rode to the hospital with a gunshot victim. We stayed in the ER with him. We watched a woman chasing her brother down the street with a knife. I mean, I saw all this violence and stuff in front of me. So it’s not like…I mean, I’ve seen it. You know, I’ve seen meth addicts recovering in the ER, you know, and see what they’re like. And I mean, it’s just. I try to capture that in it because I’m trying to pay tribute to the difficulty of what it is to be a cop and the challenges they face at the same time as I’m telling my stories. So, I have all of that mixed in with the humor because, you know, humor breaks it up, and just when it gets so tense and so dark that you just, like, it’s unbearable, you can break it up with humor and give people a chance to breathe.

Once you have your completed first draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you do multiple drafts, or how do you work?

Generally, my revision process at this point is that I send it to an editor and a proofer. My first proofer. And the editor gives me extensive notes, the proofer just goes through and does prepare. That way, they both catch different stuff. And then, when I get that back, I do a rewrite and I will…which is what I’m doing right now on book three. He’s like, “Oh, this didn’t quite work. You mentioned this, you described this earlier, you don’t need this description here, but you need description here, here and here. You need to go figure this…this logic flow doesn’t work,” that kind of stuff. So I’m working through all that stuff, and I’m doing a rewrite and polish.

And I remember stuff that I didn’t do. For example, in book one, there’s a lot of song references throughout the book of futuristic songs that they’re listening to. Well, I forgot about that for much of book two, so in book three, I’ve tried to put those back in. So, I’m doing a pass where I literally go through and make sure I’ve done that. You know, different worldbuilding things that maybe I forgot about because they weren’t caught in the story, I have to go in and build them in because they’re part of the world and I have to make sure I touch on those kind of things.

And then it goes to another set of proofers and then the formatting guy, and he does the widows and orphans and the formatting, slides it on the template, and then we publish it. So that’s pretty much the process. All of that together takes about three months from the time I finish the first draft.

You don’t use, you don’t have any beta readers like some people like to send their work to ahead of time?

I don’t really use beta readers. The main reason is because I never really found good ones that I could trade with. And I spend so much time running my story…if I have story problems, I’m on Facebook Messenger talking to one of my writing friends about it. Like, I have…like, I mean, with this third book, Martin Shoemaker has been a great help to me. And he’s taken…we broke down the whole story and talked through different aspects of it, and he’s suggested stuff. And just by him suggesting stuff, it’s triggered me, and I’ve made my decisions and gone off and written my story. And he’s reminded me of stuff that I needed to cover that I ended up, you know, making it…so, I kind of beta it that way instead of beta-ing it by sending it out, you know, to beta readers and waiting months and months. But that’s just kind of my process.

I was just gonna say I’ve never used beta readers, mainly because I’ve never lived anywhere where there is anybody but me who is writing. So, yeah, like, my editor is the first person that sees it.


I was also going to ask, since you have talked about doing the ride along with the police and everything, I want to know what the overall reaction to the books has been generally, but I’m particularly interested in if the cops like them.

Well, I mean, they’re still friends with me. And they’re very supportive and cheering me on. To be honest with you, the response I’ve gotten from the cops has been really supportive. They’re really, they’re kind of proud of the books because they really feel like I represented the department well. I mean, I put them…I don’t make all cops out to be bad guys, and I don’t…I mean, it’s a real different environment nowadays for…everybody jumps on the cops all the time on the Internet and all over the place. Whenever there’s anything, any incident, you know, cop-involved, there’s people out there going, “Oh, the cops are abusing their power again, and they don’t even know all the facts.” And that’s why I always say, “Well, let’s wait and get the whole story before we decide whether the cop behaved badly,” because there are cops that do cross the line, and there are cops that behave badly. But there are also boundaries the department sets that don’t always look like they’re legit to the public, but they’re going to hold up in any court of law, whether you like how it looks or not. So, all of these things are kind of…it’s…and I know. A lot of people will hate that, but that’s the way it is.

And the reality is, you know, the cops have been happy with the fact that I have not…I dealt with the fact that they have to deal with those perceptions at the same time. I also, I mean, I’ve had corrupt cop characters in my stories, it’s just that I show all sides of it. So, they’ve been happy with it is basically the answer to your question. And I’ve been, I’m proud of that, because I’ve had a lot of people who know about policing read it and say that I got, you know, I obviously did my research and got it mostly right. So…I mean, I push the boundaries so that there’s things that I for storytelling, I just take a leap. Plus, I’m setting it in the future, so I can kind of, you know, play with some things when I want to.

Yeah, we don’t actually have android cops yet. So there is that.

Well, yeah, it’s not just the android cop thing. I have my cop living outside the jurisdiction, which totally is not allowed right now, but I know a tricky way I came up for him to do it, and they’re like, “Oh, that would never fly.” And I’m like, well…and then literally, literally recently they’ve been talking about changing that rule. So here I came up with it now, now it’s like it could actually be a possibility.

There’s another example. I came up with the idea of…it was a joke that one of the cops told me where he said, you know, he would sometimes take a fingerprint, take a suspect, and put his finger on a cellphone and say, “I’ve taken your fingerprint, and I’m running it through a database,” to scare a particularly dumb criminal that he was dealing with right? And I put that technology in my books, and now they actually have it. It is the latest tech. They literally have fingerprint scanners they can use in the field and instantly run your fingerprints. So, it’s, you know, there’s a lot of tech like that.

I also have a thing with media drones where, you know, there aren’t reporters on the scene near as often as there are drones, you know, that are literally media drones with cameras that are like, flying past the police tape and getting in the face of the cops, asking questions, you know, and the cops are annoyed by them. I think that’s where we’re going with the media, I really do. I think we’re going to see that, you know, in the next ten years. So, it’s…there’s lots of things like that that you do have to stretch the boundaries, but some of them end up coming true, which is kind of fun.

I’m also interested that it’s set in Kansas City. It’s not a place that I have read a lot of near-future science fiction set. It’s usually going to be New York or Los Angeles or somewhere like that. Did you just want to show off your hometown more or less?

Well, you know, like I said, the original story was set in Miami, and then there was this LAPD thing. And I, you know, what I originally decided was I needed to do it somewhere where I could actually do the field research. If I was going to write near-future, I had to make it real, which means I had to be able to go to places and, you know, actually, you know, I mean, I use Google Maps when I’m writing them, and then I literally go drive the route And I literally go…say, I set a scene here, and I did this, I want to go drive that route. And I’m going to see what I see, and I’m going to go back and fix it, so that somebody reading this book who actually drives that route will say, “Yeah, he got the landmarks right.” I mean, that’s the kind of detail I care about. So, I try to do that as much as I can. I don’t do it all the time, and there’ll be some people who catch me on it, and I know they will, now that I’ve said that. But, you know, I try to do it as much as I can because…and so, that’s why I did Kansas City, because that’s where I am. If I’d been in St. Louis, I’d probably have set it there.

And also, you know, LA and New York, that’s where everything’s set. Everything’s set there, and there’s reasons for that, and so on and so forth. LA, New York, and Chicago are the main ones. But I kind of just felt like Kansas City was a unique area where I could explore things. And it actually has a pretty interesting backdrop. I mean, there’s ties…I don’t know if people know that, you know, the mobsters in Godfather and the mobsters in Casino all had…you know, those kind of people, the real-Life models for them all had ties to the Kansas City mob, for example.

Apparently, my great uncles on my father’s side were mobsters in Kansas City or had some connection to it, because he had memories of them and their female hangers-on coming out and hiding out at the farm where he was growing up in their big black cars. He had memories of that.

There you go. Well, you see. So I mean, yeah, there’s actually really interesting history, and there’s some really cool stuff that, you know, besides crime that went on in Kansas City, too. I mean, we have the World War One museum, which is fantastic, we have, you know, some really world-class art museums. And there’s lots of different…steamboat museum and lots of different areas and things that have…and there’s also a whole series of caverns underground from where they were doing sandstone mining and limestone mining. And so, like book two, one of the major settings is this underground cavern that goes under Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, which is a big amusement park here. And those are real. And I actually went to them. I went inside them. You know, I mean, they’re actually, it’s real. There’s one that’s, like, five miles long that’s real, that is so big that semi-trucks can drive inside it anyway.

Well, it’s …I have to say, I use Kansas City and one of my books, but only as a place with, I believe, the actual city had been wiped out, and this one had been built on top of the ruins, if I remember how it worked. Anyway…that was the book where I killed the population, most of the population of the world in a plague. So, I’m hoping that one doesn’t come true.

Well, yeah. Thanks for that little deja vu there, Ed.

So, we’re getting close to the end here. So, I want to move on to the big philosophical question, which is basically, why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do you like to write this kind of stuff in particular?

You know, I like to write stories that would make me entertained, first of all. My mind is always coming up with crazy stuff, from the silly song-lyric twist that I sing to my dogs, to just the craziest wisecrack ideas that come out of my mouth or my head when I’m walking around town. And so, I need an outlet for that, number one. Number two, I’m a good storyteller, and people respond well to my stories. So, that’s been going on since I was a kid. So, I enjoy the response of others to my work.

On another level, I also, you know, am a deep thinker in a lot of ways and there are a lot of things that I care about, and I find ways to talk about the human condition and some of the issues we’re dealing with in the context of a story without doing it in a preachy way. I think one of my biggest beefs with a lot of sci-fi these days is so much of it is so in your face with its politics and its philosophy, to a point where I lose the enjoyment of the story. I try not to write that way, and hopefully, I don’t. I kind of let the characters…I try to represent multiple views and let people just decide for themselves where they’re going to go with it, because that’s what I enjoy reading more. So, there’s…to the degree that there’s any message, it gets worked out..

For example, in The Sideman, book two of John Simon, I dealt with his ex-wife having bipolar. Well, that’s a real-life experience, right? I had…my ex-wife had bipolar, and I basically was writing verbatim scenes out of my experience with her, with him and his ex-wife. And that was a way to show people mental illness in its reality. How does it affect people? What’s it look like? And make people more aware of it without preaching to them about good or bad, but just educating them.

On a larger scale, where do you think the impulse for human beings to tell stories comes from? Why do any of us tell stories? I’m sorry, one second.

Why do any of us tell stories? I think there is…well, I don’t want to get religious on you, but I do believe there’s something larger than ourselves, and I think that we see that in the way that the universe is, because there are things that we can’t explain, which is the whole process of scientific discovery, trying to understand and explain them. And I think that our desire to understand that and sometimes to control it is not filling in all the gaps as fast as we’d like, so sometimes there’s room to tell stories around it. I think part of the reason we tell stories is because we have something to say. I think also because there is something entertaining and fun about vicariously living through other people.

You know, one of the things you asked about, what the cops think about my stories, one of the things they say is, “Thank God none of my shifts are that action-packed and wild.” You know, what these guys go through is an extreme of what most cops go through. But if I wrote what it’s like to have a real shift, you know, too closely., people would be bored stiff, because literally, I think we…for example, there was one night, and I’m talking like, you know, twelve hours in the police car doing a ride-along, or ten hours or something, anyway. We’re riding along, and we didn’t have any calls from eight, nine p.m. up until one in the morning or two in the morning. And then we had two, three hours of nonstop calls, and then we were off-shift. And it literally was racing, lights and siren, across town from one call to the next call to the next call.

It sounds like the old definition of military life, long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, brief moments of terror.

Yeah, pretty much.

So what are you working on now?

Well, like I said, I’m working on Common Source, which is book three of the John Simon thrillers. I’m about to do rewrites on a book called Shortcut, which is a book that’s sold to Hollywood as a near-future hard science fiction, my first hard science fiction novel. I actually wrote it with the help of two scientists who did real science for me and then extrapolated from that fictional science to make the story work. So there’s actual scientific papers written that I have that are like part of my arsenal of data for the book. And I’m going to be doing a rewrite on that, and then I am putting together an anthology to fundraise stuff for the coronavirus effort, and that will be coming out, that’s a rush effort, going to put that out as soon as possible, and then working on a couple of other anthology projects as well and getting ready to put the Davi Rhii books out in new versions, as well. So, I’ve got a few things on the plate.

It sounds like you will be busy enough.


Now, if somebody wants to keep up with you online, where do they find you?

Well, @BryanThomasS, Facebook.com, @BryanThomasS, twitter.com. And then you can look at BryanThomasSchmidt.net on the Internet as well. Or @BryanThomasSchmidt on Instagram. So, those are all the places where you can find me, generally. And then, you know, whenever we open up the world again, I’ll be at a few conventions. I usually do Comic-Con in San Diego at least every other year. That’s my big one. And then, I’m at various regional conventions around the country whenever I can, as well.

Yes. Well, I hope we all get to go back to those. I had some I was planning to go to  I guess I’m not going to or places I was going to sell books I guess I’m not selling books, and all that kind of fun stuff.

Yeah, we all had that, unfortunately.

Yeah, exactly. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did too.

I did. I did. Thank you for having me.

Episode 52: Nancy Kress

An hour-long interview with Nancy Kress, bestselling Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award-winning author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections, including Beggars in SpainProbability Space, and Steal Across the Sky, as well as three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.


Nancy Kress’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Richard Man

Nancy Kress is the bestselling author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections. Among her books are Beggars in SpainProbability Space, and Steal Across the Sky. She’s also published three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.Nancy is a six-time Nebula Award winner, including two consecutive awards for her novellas “After the Fall,” “Before the Fall,” “During the Fall,” and “Yesterday’s Kin.” She’s also the recipient of the Sturgeon and Campbell Awards, as well as two Hugo Awards. Her fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages, including Klingon. She teaches writing at workshops, including Clarion West and Taos Toolbox, as well as at the University of Leipzig in Germany as a guest professor. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, the author Jack Skillingstead.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Nancy.

Thank you, Ed.

I don’t believe we’ve ever met in person. I’m sure we must have been at the same conventions at the same time, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken in person.

Since I’ve been going to conventions for 40 years, I’m sure we were there some time together.

So, I’m very happy to have you. We’re going to talk about a couple of things, a new novella called “Sea Change” and upcoming novel, The Eleventh Gate. But before we get to that, let’s do the background information. So where did you grow up and how did you get interested in writing? Most of us started as kids, or at least we started reading as kids. And that’s what turned us on to science fiction and fantasy. Was that how it was for you?

Rumpelstiltskin from Andrew Lang’s
The Blue Fairy Book

No, not exactly. I grew up in the 1950s in a small town, and we lived way out in the country. And my mother did not drive and my father had the car away at work, so I didn’t get into town very often. The books that were available to me, other than the ones at home, were in the school library. And remember, this was the ‘50s. When I was a child, the library was divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section, and all of the science fiction, with little rocketships on the spines, was shelved in the boys’ section, and all of the fantasy in the girls’ section. So I read Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, and Green Fairy Book, and Plaid Fairy Book and Polka-Dot Fairy Book and all the rest of them, and some fantasy, but no science fiction.

I didn’t see any science fiction until I was fourteen. I had my first boyfriend, who lived down the road and was studying to be a concert pianist. And every day after school, I would go over to his house and hang over the piano adoringly while he practiced. And the problem with that is that I’m tone-deaf and I can only hang adoringly for about ten minutes. And after that, I started inching towards the bookshelves in his parents’ house and pulling out books at random. And one of the books that I pulled out was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And in five minutes, I was in love, and not with the pianist. I’d never seen anything this…wide…with such a large canvas, so grand. And I immediately got very interested in it.

But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Again, my mother was Italian-American. She raised me in the way she’d been raised, and she sat me down when I was twelve and said, “Do you want to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary?” Those were all the things she could imagine. And I said, “A teacher, I want to teach kids.” She said, “OK, you’ll have to go to college for that.” And that’s what I did. I taught the fourth grade for four years after I graduated from college, and I didn’t start writing until I was almost 30. It didn’t occur to me that this was even possible. As a child, a young child like eight or nine, I didn’t know that anybody was a writer. I thought all writers were dead. The writers I was reading were like Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey and the Nancy Drew books, and I assumed it was a finite resource like oil, and we were going to run out of it eventually.

Peak author. So, you did go into writing, but you did start writing fiction, right away. You were writing…you went into the sort of corporate copy and that sort of side of writing to begin with, didn’t you?

That actually was later.

Oh, was it?

That was later. I started writing when I was pregnant with my second child. I was home, again, living out in the country, with a toddler and a difficult pregnancy and alone a lot of the day with the kids. And when they were napping, I started writing to have something to do that didn’t involve Sesame Street and had words of more than two syllables. And I didn’t take it seriously for a long time. I was a mother, and that was what I was doing, and I was taking my graduate work in elementary education because I assumed I’d go back to that, which I actually never did. And I would send stories out and they would come back and I’d send them out and they would come back. And then after a year, one of them sold. And then, after another year, another one sold, and slowly it began to dawn on me that I really like doing that better than teaching the fourth grade.

I see from the bio that you have on your website your first story was what you termed the “eminently forgettable” “The Earth Dwellers,” which appeared in Galaxy in 1976. I remember Galaxy; I had a subscription to Galaxy for a while. I probably read it.

But what I did not know, Ed, was that Galaxy, at the time they brought my story, was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy, and everybody who knew anything, which did not include me, had stopped sending them material. So, I think they bought my story partly out of desperation. And then they promptly went out of business right after that and declared bankruptcy. And it took me three years to get my $105. I kept writing to Saul Cohan over and over again, saying, “This is my first story, and I really, really want the payment.” And finally, they sent me a cheque. Whining has its uses.

Your first novel came out about five years after that, right?

Yes. And it was a fantasy. The first three novels were fantasies. And then I switched to science fiction. And I really don’t know why, because nothing about my career has been planned. I didn’t plan on being a writer. I didn’t plan on writing fantasy novels. I didn’t plan on switching to science fiction novels. I have never done what many people say you’re supposed to do, which is build a brand. And as a result, the whole thing has a certain haphazard luck to it.

Well, I think one of the things I find doing this podcast is that every writer comes to it from a different direction and in a different path. And, you know, people ask, “How do you become a writer?” And it’s, well, there’s a different story for everybody that becomes one, it seems to me.

Yes, that’s absolutely right.

You did get a master’s in English. Did you take any actual creative writing courses at any point? I ask that because I get widely varying opinions from authors as to whether those did them any good or not, the ones who took them.

I took one, and I was fortunate because the instructor liked and understood science fiction. He didn’t write it himself, but he liked it and he understood it. Other people I’ve talked to, writers, have had very bad experiences because their instructors…I know one writer whose instructor told him, “I don’t know why reality isn’t enough for you.” But this was useful to me. I had just started to write, and it was useful because it explained things like what a point of view is and why it’s nice to have one and other basic things that, even though I had always been a reader, ever since I was a little kid, I would read absolutely anything, if there was nothing else available. The back of a cereal box would do, but I’d never thought about the mechanics of it. And so, yes, it was useful. And because it was a critique class, it was also useful to get the feedback from other students in the class who were at least readers, or they wouldn’t have been there.

Yes, I often ask people who started writing as a kid, as some did, like I did. And I would share my…I sort of did the critique thing. I would share my stories with my classmates. And I found out that they actually liked my stories and that at least gave me some income, an indication that, you know, I could tell a story that maybe somebody would be interested in reading. You actually…I got ahead of myself previously, but you did work writing corporate copy and advertising copy and that sort of thing for a while.

Yeah, that came a little later. After I got my master’s degree in English and my kids were old enough to go back to school, to start school, I realized I didn’t want to teach the fourth grade, and I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to even if I had wanted to, because it was the baby bust, and they were laying off elementary teachers, not hiring them. So I took work as an adjunct at the university. And then for a couple of years, I filled in full time, not tenure track, but when somebody was going on sabbatical, I would fill in and take over for them in the English department. So I taught college for a couple of years. And then, because that’s a sort of hit-and-miss thing, I needed a real job because I was getting divorced. And that’s when I went to work for an ad agency and wrote corporate copy, internal copy, mostly for Xerox.

Did you find that type of writing has helped you in any way in your fiction writing? I always say writing is writing, and you can get some benefit out of just about any kind of writing you do.

I found it interesting and useful, not so much from a writing standpoint, but from the viewpoint…because I already published a couple of novels by then and a whole bunch of short stories…I found it useful in understanding how the world works and especially how power works. I had been in academe my whole life as a student, as a fourth-grade teacher, as a college teacher. The corporate world is much different. And it was an education for me to see how…because I was writing for executives, mostly. I would be writing scripted slideshows, speeches, things like that, starting with newsletters and then working my way up. And it was very interesting to see that the corporate world runs on entirely different principles. And it was useful in that respect. As far as the actual writing, less so, because corporations want things phrased in ways that are almost antithetical to good English. I had spent a lot of years learning to write clear sentences, but clear sentences tend not to disguise responsibility so much as the use of passive verbs. You don’t say “so-and-so decided,” you say, “it was decided that.” And large words…a Lot of terrible words were coming into use at that time. “Incentivize,” “negative profits,” things like that, that they wanted included in the copy. So, the writing was not…it didn’t help the writing in that sense, but it did help my education, which had been pretty sheltered, about how the world works.

And then, when did you start writing about writing? You said you’d already been teaching writing some. And you wrote a column for many years for Writer’s Digest. When did that all come along?

Yes. The column came first. The college where I was teaching, State University in New York at Brockport, on a hit-and-miss basis, ran a bunch of summer workshops called the Writer’s Forum, and they had a section for…where they brought in, paired one faculty member with one visiting writer. They had a section for poetry, a section for fiction, a section for journalism, all kinds of them. And somebody decided that a section for science fiction would be good. And this was very useful to me because I got to bring in, every summer for a week, another science fiction writer, who stayed at my house and we talked together. And this forged a lot of alliances and friendships that were very valuable to me. My first year, I taught with Frederick Pohl, the second with Gene Wolfe, the third with Connie Willis, and it went on and on like that. And I really, really enjoyed those.

But one of the other sections was magazine writing, which was being taught by a visiting person who was one of the editors on Writers Digest. And he said to me, “You know, you should you should write a column for us.” First, he said, “You should write some articles for us.” So, I wrote three articles, which they published, and then their regular fiction columnist, Lawrence Block, was ready to leave. He was getting tired of the whole thing. So, he left, and they hired me to do that, and I wrote the Writer’s Digest column for sixteen years. It really was just an extension of my teaching, because by that time I was teaching a lot of writing. And then out of that grew the three books on writing.

I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, my nine-month term is just wrapping up, and I’ve done that on another occasion, and I’ve taught short courses here and there along the way, and I’ve always found that trying to tell other people how to write is very beneficial to me in figuring out how I can do what I do better. Do you find that you learn from being a teacher?

Yes, very much. Every summer, Walter Jon Williams and I teach a two-week intensive workshop called Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. And our guest visiting writer is George R.R. Martin every year. And we…in fact, I’m reading manuscripts right now to choose our 18 students. And I find that going over these manuscripts…because it’s really, we work them very hard. In addition to being in class to do critiquing of each other’s work, we also assign exercises, and we do analysis of fiction, successful fiction, all kinds of things. And I get an awful lot out of that every year. The students bring different manuscripts every year, of course, and a wide variety of them. Some fantasy, some science fiction, some space opera, some military fiction. And I find it useful to me to try to figure out why a story isn’t working. It’s easy with the manuscripts that need a lot of attention, but very often at this level, you get manuscripts where they’re not quite working, but you’re not quite sure why. And sitting down, trying to pinpoint exactly why this isn’t working, and what might make it work, has a lot of carryover into my own work.

Well, let’s talk about your own work. Two pieces I wanted to talk about, and maybe we’ll start with “Sea Change,” which is the novella that’s out from Tachyon. First of all, maybe give us a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.

OK. “Sea Change” concerns three things. It’s a story about the genetic engineering of crops, GMOs are a very controversial subject, obviously, and I wanted to present both sides of this, although it’s clear which side I’m going to be coming down on, I think from the beginning. That’s one strand that went into the story. Another strand that went into the story is ocean blobs that we are increasing the getting off the West Coast. Seattle is my adopted city. I love it. I came here ten years ago to marry my husband, and I just love Seattle. It’s gorgeous. Every once in a while, off the coast, beaches are closed because we get blobs, ocean blobs. And they’re usually not harmful. They’re caused by runoffs from rivers and creeks with a lot of fertilizer in them, which causes the ocean algae to just go crazy and bloom, Everything under them, because the algae bloom is so dense, dies. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself, because they do break up eventually in the fall, except that every once in a while, certain bacteria combine with the blooms and they produce a toxin called domoic acid that poisons fish, that poisons sea lions, that poisons the small fish, then the larger fish eat them, and then the sea lions eat those, and you get a perfect disaster. And then the beaches are closed because it can also poison people. 

The third strand that went into the novella was a love story. In fact, if I had it to do over again, I would probably call it “Sea Change: A Love Story.” But by the time this occurred to me, the novella had already been printed, and I didn’t think that Tachyon was going to want to go changing the title at that point. But it is very much a love story.

Now, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the difference between planning for a novella and planning for a novel. So, maybe we’ll also just flip over and you can give a brief synopsis of the novel as well. And then we’ll sort of talk about everything at once. So, the novel that’s coming out is called The Eleventh Gate, and it’s quite different. It’s a far-future space opera.

Yes, it is. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera because that was the kind of thing I was reading when I first discovered science fiction. I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I was reading that sort of thing, and I wanted to write a space opera. But I haven’t ever actually done it.

So, that one takes place in a pretty far future after Earth has been environmentally trashed and hardly anybody lives there anymore. There’s a couple of holdouts, but not very many. Gates have been discovered orbiting the moon. They’re hard to see, but. And we’re not up there very much. But once they get there, they find them and they lead to eight other planets. So, all of these get settled by various different groups from Earth, the eight worlds, and they are connected with these space gates that you can go through. There are ten space gates connecting the various planets because some have two, going from one planet to another. And then, someone discovers an eleventh gate. And what’s behind the eleventh gate changes everything, including the very precarious truce, balance of economic and political power among the eight worlds. And that’s what I wanted to write about, the balance of political and economic power. And I wanted to do it through certain characters, many of them women, but not all, who are very varied in belief, in temperament. None of them is somebody…well, maybe one…but other than that, nobody is someone you can say, “Oh, this is clearly the heroine. This is the good person. This is the one I want to identify with.” I was trying to make them all having the flaws of their particular backgrounds. And a few of them are just batshit crazy.

So, these are two very different stories. This is a cliched question, but it’s still a valid question, which is, I hate to say, “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s say what inspired you to write each of these…you mentioned a little bit, I think, on “Sea Change”…and is this typical of the way that story ideas come to you?

Well, more and more, I have been writing hard SF, which “Sea Change” is. The science in it is all completely accurate. That wasn’t true when I started writing. I was writing soft science fiction, in which it didn’t really matter if the science hung together. And that transitioned into, I guess, high-viscosity science fiction, if not actually hard. And now, I write hard SF. So, although I can’t usually pinpoint where a specific idea came from, and with “Sea Change” it would also be difficult. It came off the general area of genetic engineering, which I read about a lot, and which I am obsessively interested in. I’m not trained as a scientist. I wish I were, but it’s a little late for that. But I read about it, I learn about it, because this is the future. This is where we’re going. And “Sea Change” is a direct outgrowth of that interest.

The specific idea started, as all of my stories start, with a character. And this time it was the character of an old man, a patriarch, still very powerful, who runs a world and who is brought a business proposition he can’t refuse. And from there, once I had this, I wrote, as I always do, I wrote the first scene sort of in a white-hot heat. And then I sat down and said, “OK, what have I got here? Who is this person? Who is this other person? Where is this going? What are the implications of the situation I’ve set up?” And the same thing is true of (The Eleventh Gate). The first couple of scenes came to me, and then I write them, and then I sit down and I start thinking about first the characters and the situation, and then secondly, the things I’ve learned painfully about structure. Structure came harder to me than characterization, which is one reason why my short stories for a very long time were more successful than my novels.

So it sounds like you….basically it’s a process of self-interrogation, where you have the initial thought, and then you ask yourself a lot of questions. Is that a fair way to describe that?

That’s half of it. That’s the questioning part that is intellectual. Because there are two questions that guide the construction of all fiction, basically. One is, “What do these people want?” If your characters don’t want anything, you really don’t have a piece of fiction. Sometimes maybe all they really want in a short story is to be left alone. But it’s better…and the longer the work, the more things they have to want and the more they have to want them intensely. So you ask, “What do these people want?” And the other question is, “What can go wrong?” Because that’s where the conflict comes from. If your character wants something and then they go out and get it, you really don’t have a story there, either.

So intellectually, those two questions guide me. But on the other side, it’s a little more mystical. It’s like the Stanislavski method of acting, where you become the character. I try to become this person from the inside out. When I write “Sea Change,” I am Renata. And if…when this goes well—and it doesn’t every day, but some days it does—my life disappears. I disappear. The room around me disappears. I am Renata, and I’m in this space, and what Renata would do next comes to me naturally because I’m in her mind, I’m in her heart, or she’s in mine. And that’s the other part of how I proceed. I know this sounds like a mishmash of intellectual combined with mystical. But that’s kind of how it is.

Have you done any theater?

Have I done what?

Theater. Any acting?

No. No. I don’t think…my sister is an actress. She’s a very good actress. But I don’t think I could do it. I’m…like many writers, not all, but many. I’m very much an introvert. And the idea that I have to get out there and interact with people every night for eight shows a week. It wouldn’t work. Also, I’m a morning person.

Well, that really doesn’t work.

No, it really doesn’t work. They wouldn’t let me go home at nine o’clock at night. So, no.

So, I asked that partly because I am an actor and have done, both professional…

Oh! What kind of acting do you do?

Mostly stage acting. I’ve done a lot of musicals.

That’s what my sister does. Well, she doesn’t do musicals too much anymore. She started with it. Because her voice isn’t trained, and as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten a little rusty. But she’s…she had marvelous stage presence. She still does. She does a lot of Shakespeare.

The reason I asked was what you’re describing is, of course, the acting process, you know, however you approach it, you pretend to be somebody else, you try to inhabit that person and bring them to life on stage. And the authors I’ve spoken to who have done stage acting find that it’s, the two processes are very similar. So, yeah. Absolutely. And now, what does your actual planning…

I didn’t come to it that way, though. I came to it as a reader. Even as a girl, what I would read something, the whole world would go away. My mother would get quite irritated because she’d have to say my name three or four times before I’d even hear her. I became those people in those books. And that kind of identification for me grew out of reading, not acting.

Yeah, I had both.

Doubly blessed!

So, what does your actual planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do just kind of a sketch, or what does your planning look like? And how is it different for the shorter work as opposed to the longer work?

The shorter work doesn’t really have any planning. The shorter work I kind of write, and about halfway through it all comes together in my mind. By shorter, I’m saying something under 10,000 words. And when you grow things organically that way, a certain number of them die. And that has happened. I have a whole file full of unfinished short stories that will never be finished because it just dried up on me.

That doesn’t work for longer work. For novellas or novels, you have to have some sort of structure. And structure has been harder for me to learn than characterization or language. What I do now is…I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I have a general idea where I’m going, and what I will do, as I did this morning, is I will sit down and I’ll think, “OK, this is the next scene, and this is the one after that, and the one after that might be this.” And I’ll make notes of those three scenes, and as they get a little clearer in my mind, I’ll sit down—going with the general direction that I know I’m moving—and I’ll write…I’ll begin work on one of those scenes. And by the time I finished it, I’m hoping that a couple more will have become clear to get where I need to go. 

There are certain things I will check for, too, as I’m going along. You need to have the stakes rising throughout the story, as they do in “Sea Change.” You need to have the conflict escalating. You need to move towards some sort of climax. And you need to make sure that there isn’t too much after the climax or it will be…anticlimactic! So, there is a certain structure that I have in my head, and it’s built around, again, those two questions, “What do these people want?” and “What can go wrong?”

And what they want might change. In fact, for the length of an entire novel, it has to. When I’m teaching, I point out to my students…I can’t count that they all have read the same stuff,  although I give them some short stories and we talk about those. But I can usually count on some movies they’ve seen, one of which is Star Wars. So, we talk about that in terms of what Luke wants at the beginning, which is to get the hell off Tatooine, and what he wants after that, which is to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, and on through his changing desire to become a Jedi knight, too, and right up to where his desire is to destroy the Death Star. What he wants changes and builds, and it also raises the stakes each time. So, those things kind of guide me as I fumble my way through the manuscript.

How much of this do you write down ahead of time?

Not a lot. I make a lot of notes on the science because, again, I’m not trained on that. And I will do a lot of research and a lot of notes on the science and how I can use it. Science itself suggests a lot of plot points. The more I found out about domoic acid, the more plot points came through for “Sea Change.” So, the science itself will guide it. What the characters are like will guide it. Other characters’ reactions to my protagonist will guide it. The process…I know it sounds messy, but that’s because it is messy. I can’t…I don’t outline. I’m kind of in awe of writers who do outline in detail because I can’t do that.

I think my…the example I keep giving from the people I’ve talked to on the podcast is Peter V. Brett, author of The Demon Cycle. And he writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing. And that’s the most detailed outliner I’ve encountered yet in the podcast.

That’s amazing. I would feel like I’d written the whole book. I would need to write it, then.

Yeah, I don’t think I would work for me either. What is your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, get a quill pen and sit under a tree, or…?

No. I write mornings. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. In the afternoon, I will do research and publicity and student manuscripts and stuff like that. But in the morning, I get up very early, like five o’clock. And that hasn’t always been the case, but it’s been…well, it’s been the case for much of my adult life. First, I needed to get up and write before my children got up, and then by that time, it was already ingrained. It was too late to change. But I get up, and for the first hour, I drink the first cup of coffee, I putter around the kitchen, I look at the e-mail, but don’t answer it, I check CNN to make sure nothing has blown up overnight, things like that. And then, around six, I settle in and I write…I work for several hours.

And do you do a…getting to the revision process, do you just barrel through to the end and then go back and revise, or do you revise along the way or how does that work for you?

Both. The plotting of scenes and the thinking about them is all done on a clipboard with yellow legal pads. The actual writing of words that will go into the story is done on a computer. And usually, I write the whole thing straight through. But if I feel that I’m in trouble, then I will stop and go back and rethink it, with my little clipboard and my yellow pages, and sometimes dump large sections of what I’ve written and then go back to the computer and write new sections. But I try not to do that too much. I try to have some sense of what I’m doing. The first half is always messier than the second half, because by the second half I really know what I’m doing.

That’s a first draft. The second draft, I will revise major things, characterization problems, scenes that are missing that I think I need now. I keep sort of running list of these as I’m working. And that’s the big stuff. The third draft, I go through and I clean up. I also, on the second draft, will pick up things where…I don’t want to stop writing, so I write in triple parentheses, “Find this out later,” and then keep going. These are details that I just don’t want to stop and research at the time.

And I have to say the computer and the Internet make this so much easier. I remember when I first started to write, this was in the ’80s, and the Internet didn’t exist, and I needed to know for some story long forgotten how high a regulation basketball hoop was from the gym floor. This required a trip over to the university library, trying to find it myself, failing, bothering the reference librarian, and she and I riffled through things till we finally find it, then I had to trudge all the way home. There’s a couple of hours involved for this stupid little detail.

I remember those days, yeah.

Oh, yeah. Now, it’s so easy. It’s so nice to be able to do it on the Internet and find out instantly how high that basketball hoop is supposed to be.

As long as you’re disciplined enough not to then end up finding yourself reading a history of the National Basketball Association or something like that along the way.

Well, with sports, that’s not really a temptation for me. The only sports I’m really interested in are the Seattle Seahawks.

Do you have anybody that reads…like, beta readers that some authors like to use, or is it just you…

My husband.

Oh, well, yeah. I was going to ask you about being married to a writer. So there you go.

Yes. Before Jack, I was married to Charles Sheffield, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. So, it’s been two writers. And in each case, we looked at each other’s manuscripts and made suggestions. And yes, that’s very, very helpful.

I married an engineer, who is not much help to me as a writer, but has been a great help to me on the family income side.

Yes, I can imagine.

Good career move on my part. She hates that joke, but it’s true. So, once you have your final draft, then it goes to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get on your work?

Oh, it varies so much by editor. There are editors who do absolutely no editorial work. Obviously, they send it to a copy editor, who will go over it and look for factual errors and inconsistencies, and why does she have blue eyes in Chapter 3 and green eyes in Chapter 18, that kind of thing. But I’ve had editors that have made extremely useful, substantive suggestions, and I’ve had editors that I’m not absolutely positive read the manuscript.

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers over the years, haven’t you?

Yes, yes. For a while, they kind of kept going…amalgamating or going bankrupt or whatever. I followed David Hartwell around for a while from different posts, and that was kind of nice. And then eventually, I was working with Jim Minz, his assistant, and then Jim left, and I went to a different publisher. And now I’m back with Jim Minz at Baen, that’s publishing The Eleventh Gate, which I’m very pleased to be back working with him. And in the meantime, the novella is a standalone…

Well, the novella is my favorite form. Science fiction, for reasons that defy understanding, defines a novella as between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and my novellas are usually pushing up at the 40,000-word mark. It’s my favorite form because a novella is short enough to need a single plotline to go barreling through, long enough to create an alternate world or a believable future. In a novel, on the other hand, you need not only a main plot but braided plots on top of that, and I find that more challenging. I really like novellas. Almost all of my awards are for novellas.

Is the editing process different for those than for novels?

Not really. Some editors give me useful feedback, things that they think need to be strengthened. That happened with “Sea Change.” I got some very useful information from Jacob (Weisman) about the ending on that. And I rewrote the ending to strengthen it. But some do and some don’t. It depends on both the editor and the work.

I have been with…DAW is my major publisher, and so I’ve worked with Sheila Gilbert. I’ve only had the one editor for my major books. And so, it’s always interesting to me to talk to people about working with a variety of editors. I have worked with other editors of smaller publishers, but Sheila is so good, I don’t know what it’d be like to work with a different editor.

I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Sheila.

Well, we’re getting close-ish to the end, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions. You’ve done a lot of thinking about writing and a lot of teaching of writing, so this should be easy for you. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, first of all, and why science fiction and fantasy specifically?

There are days when I think I have no idea why anybody writes. But, you know, actually, that’s a difficult question, Ed.  I’ve done this for so long, for forty years now, that it’s so deeply ingrained in me to think in terms of stories that I can’t imagine…oh, I can’t say I can’t imagine doing anything else, because I’ve done other things. I’ve taught the fourth grade, I wrote corporate copy. If you go back far enough in my college days, I waitressed in the summers. I mean, I have done other things. And of course, I was a full-time mother for a number of years, so I can imagine doing other things. But I have always told myself stories. Long before I knew I was going to be a writer, I told myself stories as I fell asleep, in which I was always the heroine. Since the 1950s Saturday morning consisted of cartoons and westerns, these were westerns. We weren’t allowed to watch television except on Saturday morning. So, I would invent gangs of my Western heroes, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger and all the rest of it. And I’d be a member of this gang, too, and I’d invent all these stories and tell myself a different chapter every night. Stories were ingrained, and I think that the human brain is built to understand the world in terms of stories.

Og, sitting around the campfire, tells a story about the great hunt he did that day, and then everybody else wants to go where Og went and kill a bison where he killed one. We’re meant to understand the world in terms of stories. And I think that’s why even people who don’t read usually watch television, with its versions of stories, and movies.

And Og embellished his story, too, the more often he told it,

Oh, Og was a terrible liar. Can’t believe a word the man says.

So, why do you think we, those of us who do, why do you think we write within the science fiction and fantasy genres specifically?

So, that’s a little harder to understand. I think, though, that it’s a large enough canvas, it’s especially suited—and this really is a cliché—to exploring ideas: political ideas, scientific ideas. It’s a rehearsal for different ways that we might live, or rather an exploration of different ways that we might live. My favorite SF writer of all time is Ursula LeGuin. And I have read The Dispossessed until my copy fell apart and I had to buy a new one. I’ve also taught it on two continents. She’s taken there the idea of anarchy, and she’s saying, “Would this be a viable way for us to live? And if so, what might it look like?” And I think that’s what science fiction does.

With “Sea Change,” I’m saying, “OK, what if we really were serious about the genetic engineering of crops, what might drive us to do that and what might it look like if we did?” And I think you can do that with most fiction, and with science fiction and fantasy you can especially do it because you can alter whatever you want to alter and put it under a kind of a microscope and say, “OK, if this were different, how would it affect us as humans?” And then you can write about it and look at it.

Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and of course, the idea is of the writers shaping the worlds that they’re writing about, but do you think or hope that your fiction might have shaped the real world in some way, or if that’s too grand, at least shaped readers in some way to think differently?

I have readers who write me and who tell me that Beggars in Spain changed them, yes. That’s my most famous novel. It’s about people genetically engineered to not need to sleep.

I remember it well.

Well, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about other things, as well. But I don’t know. I think there are very few books in history that have had that kind of impact—I don’t mean the kind of impact of Beggars in Spain, I mean a genuinely large impact—and even fewer that have shaped politics, economics, even science. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would be one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be one in terms of giving a huge impetus to the abolition movement before the civil war.

Maybe some of Dickens?

Some of Dickens, yes, for child labor. But I don’t think there’s a lot of them. I don’t think that they shape a specific thing, so much a specific event or a specific situation, as they do shape the way that readers of science fiction, good science fiction, at least, have a certain flexibility of mind. They can look and entertain at least the possibility that things could be different than they are now.

And not everybody can do that. I have relatives who never read fiction. They say, “Why would I want to read it if it didn’t happen?” And this is completely alien to me. They also have very practical minds. They look at the world as it is and try to say, “OK, why do I want to do with what’s here?” But they never look at the world the way it is and say, “How could this be different?” And for me, that’s the most interesting part about fiction. How could this be different? How could I be different? How could what I do be different? How could what’s around me be different? And science fiction, I think, is particularly well suited to that.

And of course, there’s the fact that it’s fun.

It is fun.

Both to read and write. I think, anyway. So what are you working on now?

Well, I don’t like to talk about work in progress very much, but I am working on a novel that is about the nature of human consciousness. Nothing like taking on a large subject, is there?

So it’s a short story, then.

It’s already, it’s not done and it’s already longer than it’s supposed to be.

And coming up, we have The Eleventh Gate, I think will be out just before this goes live. So that will be the freshest thing, I think, when the podcast goes live. Where can people find you online, or learn more about you?

I have a website, nancykress.com. I have a Facebook feed, but I’m not on it, I’m afraid, very much, or at all, anymore. So, that’s probably not good. But anybody who wants to contact me can do it through the website. And the publication date for “Sea Change” has been pushed back due to the coronavirus. Jacob pointed out that there are actually no bookstores to ship this book to. So, we’re hoping that by the end of May, when is a new pub date, that there will be.

Is that for “Sea Change” or The Eleventh Gate?

Yes, both of them.

Both of them. Yes, and I was going to say, well, and people can find you at conventions, but not for a while, it looks like.

Not for a bit. And of course, both books will be available on Amazon. Along with everything else in the world.

All right. Well, I think that about wraps it up, so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

I really did. Thank you for having me, Ed. I guess I didn’t equal Scott Card’s two hours’ worth of talking, but…

Yes. Well, Scott said that he went on because I would let him talk and didn’t interrupt. And so, his default is, if the interviewer is not saying anything, I should fill the space. And so, I got two hours out of him.

Oh, OK.

Anyway, thanks so much for being on and hope to actually meet you in person sometime in the future.

Well, I’m supposed to be Guest of Honor at WorldCon in D.C. in 2021, if it happens.

Yeah, and I’d like to be there. So hopefully, I’ll see you there if not before.

That would be really nice. Take care, Ed.

You, too. Bye for now.


Episode 51: Barbara Hambly

An hour-long chat with Barbara Hambly, New York Times-bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction, as well as historical novels set in the nineteenth century, about her creative process.



Barbara Hambly’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Since her first published fantasy in 1982, The Time of the Dark, Barbara Hambly has touched most bases in genre fiction: her most recent vampire novel is Prisoner of Midnight (Severn House, 2019) and her most recent historical whodunnit, Lady of Perdition, continues the well-reviewed Benjamin January series.

In times past, she has written Star Trek (TOS) and Star Wars tie-in novels (Ishamel, Crossroad, Children of the Jedi), and did scripts for Saturday morning cartoons.  In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which can be purchased on Amazon (Gil and Ingold from the Darwath series, Antryg and Joanna from The Silent Tower, John and Jenny from Dragonsbane, plus a couple of Sherlock Holmes tales “for the hell of it”).

She teaches history at a local community college, and practices iaido, costuming, and painting. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Barb.

Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for asking me to be on.

Well, it was…I ran into you, I guess, at World Fantasy, I was sort of, you know, keeping my eye out for people I wanted to talk to. And I thought, hey, there’s somebody. So I’m glad you said yes.

Very nice.

I think that’s the only time we’ve met, actually. And we didn’t really meet, just sort of chatted there at World Fantasy, but I’ve been familiar with your work for a long time and currently reading, I haven’t quite finished it, but Stranger at the Wedding is the one we’re gonna talk about today as an example of your creative process. So we’ll get to that in a little bit.

But I always start by taking my guests back into the mists of time and finding out how you got started, became interested in writing, how you got started writing, and also just a little bit of your biography, which is kind of an interesting one. So, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff? And how did you get interested in writing? Was it through reading books like most of us?

I suppose it must have been. But I remember, even before I learned to read, I was storyboarding stories. I would, like, draw the characters in a storyboard form. And I remember doing that when I was about four. So actually, I think my desire to tell stories predated learning to read. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where my father was a great reader. He always had fiction. He loved the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series, he was a great fan of Zane Grey. He liked adventure stories. He liked biographies. He liked history and when we were small children…my mother is not a great reader, but she was a very conscientious mom. And I think she looked up lists of books that had won the Newbery Award or had won children’s book awards, and she made sure that she read these to us. So we were always surrounded by an atmosphere of storytelling.

And in your, we mentioned Stranger at the Wedding, you have some pictures at the back of that of your family from when you were little, as well. So, I think I can picture your mom and dad because I have a picture of them right in front of me.

Oh, my gosh.

And a picture of you as a very little girl.

Oh, dear.

So you were growing up on a Marine base, it says.

Yes. Well, my dad was in the Marines when he met my mom. He met my mom immediately after World War Two ended, and they got married, and he was stationed in San Diego, which is where all three of us kids were born. And then he was transferred out to a Marine base in the middle of the desert in a place called China Lake. And my earliest memories are of being in…and of course, at that time, housing of any kind was very much at a premium because the war was just over, and you were in the first wave of the baby boom. And so, on the Marine base out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the married officers’ housing was a trailer park. And my poor mother got to keep house in a 30-foot single wide with three children under the age of six. And my earliest recollections are of living in the trailer, and you’d step out of the trailer, and because it was all brand new, there was nothing. There was a little concrete path around the outskirts of the trailers, and beyond that, it was desert. It was, you know, if you watch any of the 1950s science fiction films like Them or…all of those 1950s science fiction films, they’re all in, like black and white and they’re out in the middle of the desert, that’s where I grew up.

That was immediately what I thought of when you were describing it.

They were all filmed out in the Mojave Desert because it is within a couple of hours’ driving distance of Los Angeles.

And then, when did you actually start writing your own stories?

Well, as I said, I started storyboarding stories. I would storyboard stories about my toys. When I was four, I started writing stories as soon as I learned the alphabet. I would write…one of my favorite series was the Oz books, and, I’m sure everyone knows, in addition to The Wizard of Oz, there were about 25 or 30 other books about characters in Oz. And for me, it was like fan fiction. I would then write my own Oz stories. When I became enamored of Sherlock Holmes in the third grade, I would write my own Sherlock Holmes stories. And writing was just something I did. It was always completely natural to me. Storytelling was always the thing that I did. It was the thing that shaped my life.

Did you share your early writing, like with your friends or schoolmates or parents?

In seventh grade, I mentioned to some of the other students in my class that I…at that time, I was writing Edgar Rice Burroughs takeoffs…and I got teased so badly that that was the last time I told anybody that I wrote until I got published.

I always ask that because I get such different responses to it…the people who never shared, and people who were like me, and I was handing out copies of it to my classmates in high school. “Here read this. Read this!” So that’s why I always ask.

Actually I did write…starting in high school, I would write Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories. I would write…I wrote this unbelievably long—it was like a hundred-part—story about the Beatles. And those I did share with two of my classmates. And then when Star Trek came along…I was kind of a weird kid and I did not have many friends and I had been teased and bullied to the point where I was not…I didn’t tell most people what was going on with me. But in high school, I had a couple of very close friends and we were the only people in the high school who were tremendous Star Trek fans. It was the first season, the first time, the original series, it was 1966, Star Trek came on and it hit the three of us like a ton of bricks. And so, we all started writing Star Trek stories and I wrote simply for the audience of my two friends. One of them would write stories for me, for our little group, and these were the only people who knew that I wrote because I pretty much didn’t talk to anybody else in high school.

Were there any teachers who were, you know, helping out or supporting you along the way, or did you kind of keep it from them, too?

Oh, God, no. There were teachers that made a tremendous impression on me, but I certainly would not share with any of them or with anybody else the fact that I wrote.

Well, when you got to university, you didn’t study writing, you studied medieval history and went so far as to get a master’s in. What drew you into that?

Well, I,,,when I originally…because I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and when I got into UC Riverside, it was 1969 and I thought, If I want to be a writer, I should be an English major. And I went to my first creative writing class, I was like eighteen years old, sitting in the front row with the class. And there was this woman up in the front of the class, the instructor, with a size eleven mouth and an ego to match. And here am I, sitting in the front row, thinking, You tell me what you’ve published and then I’ll listen to you. As far as I could tell, the class was supposed to be in creative writing and it actually seemed to be a class in how to write bad Flannery O’Connor knockoffs. And that was the last creative writing class I ever took.

Now, when, many years later, for purposes of the plot, I needed to find a teaching job, I went to the local community college and applied for a teaching job in creative writing. And at this point in time, I had published about sixty novels. So I applied. I said, you know, I’m a professional writer. I’ve published about sixty novels. And they said, oh, we can’t hire you because you don’t have an MFA—because after that creative writing class that I took way back in 1969, I’d switched over to being a history major. So, when I’m applying for a job teaching creative writing, they said, “We can’t hire you to teach creative writing because you don’t have an MFA. And even if you did have an MFA, if the English department hired you, they would hire you to teach remedial English because all of the creative writing classes are taught by the tenured full-time English professors because it’s more fun for them.”

And I thought, Oh, good. You have people who want to learn to be a professional writer, and instead of hiring a professional writer to teach them, you have them taught by an academic who has never published any fiction in his or her life because it’s more fun for them. And then they said, “You want to teach history?” And I said, “Absolutely.”

When I…back in 1969, as I said, when I finished my first and last creative writing class, I switched over to getting a BA and then an MA in history, which served me very well, it got me a nice job teaching history, which I still have.

And has it fed into your writing, as well?



Oh, God, yes. I…well, I’ve always been interested in history. My dad was a history buff. I had some excellent history teachers in high school and in university. My best friend in high school was a history buff. She is still my best friend and she is still a history buff, and history always felt very natural to me. I always wanted to write in historical settings or fantasy settings, but it’s the same thing, you’re world building in both in both genres. And I think that’s one reason why I’ve written in both genres, is it’s about worldbuilding. It’s about going to another world, going to a world that is not my own.

You know, in creative writing classes, they would always say, “Well, write what you know.” And…for one thing, nobody would be interested in the adventures of a fat pimply virgin in Southern California in the 1960s. I wasn’t even interested in them. So I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to go somewhere else. J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings hit me like a ton of bricks. I read the first unauthorized copy of The Two Towers. And it’s like, “This is what I want. This is the world I want to be in. This is what I want to do.”

And you got there. But you did a few other things along the way before that first novel came out, didn’t you?

Yes, yes. Well, from the time I was…actually, junior high and in high school, I—going back to “write what you know”—always in the back of my head was, I knew I wanted to write adventure fiction. And I knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to…there were certain things I would need to know. When I was fifteen, I joined a fencing class. I was always interested in historical costuming and that got me among the historical costumers, for things like, you know, stuff your characters need to know. What is it like to wear a corset and a bustle? What is it like to be in a physical fight with someone? I started taking karate in 1974 partly so that I would know what it is like to be in a physical fight with someone, which is not something that girls generally do, unless they go to a high school and are bullied by the Mexican girls.

And of course, once I got into karate, that was a whole new world. The martial arts has been a constant in my life since 1974. But it blends in with this. I do it because I love it. I also do it because if I’m going to have a hero who is wielding a sword, I want to know how to wield a sword. We would go horseback riding, and partly in the back of my mind is, If I’m going to write stories about people who get from place to place on horses, I better learn how to ride a horse.

So, there’s always this moving back and forth between real life and the fictional world inside the books, and the fact that I am going to need this information if I am going to produce these stories effectively. That’s one of the reasons that I’m drawn to history, partly because I just love history, partly because I need to know how non-industrial societies work. I need to look at stuff that has happened in history and go, I can use that. There will be times I’ll be in conversations with my friends and someone will be talking about the behavioral enormities being practiced by their sister or their brother or whomever, and I’ll be sitting there thinking, I can use that!

So tell me about the first novel and how that came about, Time of the Dark, which kind of launched your career.

Well, when I started taking karate, I quit writing for about two years. And I had a dream. And the dream was…one sequence at the beginning of Time of the Dark where the young screw-up hero first sees the dark ones, sees this creature, and because they can change their size it’s slithering in through, like, a crack in the wall, and he is shocked and horrified. And he goes to the old wizard who’s in the next room. And the wizard said, “Oh, did you think they’d be human?” And from that dream, then I extrapolated how did this situation come about and extrapolated what came from that situation.

I originally wrote it up as a single volume. I sent it to…I went to the library and got a list of publishers who were taking fantasy. I sent it to Lester Del Rey, who was the editor at Del Rey Books at the time, and he sent me back this long letter, basically telling me that I had enough material there for a trilogy, extrapolating from this, extrapolating from that. “Can you pursue this? Can you pursue that?” And I sat down for the next almost a year. Again, I didn’t tell anybody I was working on this. And I sat down and expanded it into a trilogy, sent it back to Lester, and, you know, everybody has told me it’s really hard to break into the field. But I guess in that year, they were really looking for trilogies, because I sent this manuscript back to Lester and I got a reply in two weeks saying, “We’ll take it.” And then I went, “Oh, dang, I don’t have an agent. I’d better get an agent.” And immediately had to hunt around for an agent who is…she’s still my agent.

It’s always easy to get an agent when you’ve already sold the book.

Oh, absolutely. And she immediately got me a better deal on the contract. But I didn’t…my experience with writing the book and getting accepted was…I don’t think it’s typical.

As far as I can tell from talking to authors, nobody has a typical story. It’s different for everybody. Mine was very different as well.

Well, we’re gonna talk about Stranger at the Wedding as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I did just want to ask you about some of the other writing you’ve done, the Saturday-morning cartoons and the Star Wars and Star Trek books. How is that different from writing your own material?


And did you enjoy it?

Oh, tremendously. Tremendously. Of course, as a tremendous Star Trek fan, when they started coming out with the Star Trek novels, my agent got in touch with me and said, “They are looking for Star Trek novels, and they were looking for Trek novels, of course, because everybody was writing fan fiction for Trek. And at that time, my agent told me, “They’re looking for Star Trek novels written by authors who have already been published.” Because at that time they didn’t want to have to teach somebody how to write. They wanted a manuscript by somebody who knew how to write a manuscript. And so the editor at that time was looking for…”Hey, do you have something? Do you have a Star Trek novel in your drawer? We know you’ve got a Star Trek novel in your drawer.” And as it happened, I did. And that was Ishmael, which was infamous for other reasons. And then I wrote another two Star Trek novels.

And the thing about the Star Trek novels was, they kept changing the approvals loop. Part of the problems I had with Ishmael, the first of the of my Star Trek novels, was that book went through about five editors. And the editors at the beginning of the process were telling me things that later turned out were not true, were not correct. And the mess had to be cleared up by an editor, you know, five editors down the line. But this was a problem with the Star Trek novels: they kept changing the approvals loop. So, something would get approved, and then by the time I turned in the manuscript, they said, “Oh, no, we don’t want that.”

Ghost Walker, which was the second one, I’d turned in the outline saying, you know, the plot involved Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship with the guest star. And by the time I turned the manuscript in, they said, “Oh, we don’t…we can’t have Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship. “And I said, “That’s fine. You don’t have to publish the book, but you have to pay me for it, because that’s the first line on the outline, saying Captain Kirk is in a serious romantic relationship with X, Y, Z.”

And, you know, when I turned in the outline for Crossroad, which was the third of my Trek novels, they said, “Mr. Roddenberry doesn’t want Trek novels on that subject.” And I said, “OK.” And eighteen months later, when Mr. Roddenberry was no longer in the approvals loop, I got a phone call from the editor saying, “You still want to write Crossroad?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” But of course, it was eighteen months later, so I had written this outline and I’d kind of forgotten how things happened. So at one point, the outline said, “And then these five aliens take over the entire Enterprise.” And as I’m typing along and I reach that point of the outline, I went, “God, how they do that?”

Well, it’s just like a writing exercise you set for yourself.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Star Wars…I was friends with Kevin Anderson, Kevin J. Anderson, who was doing the first two of the Star Wars anthologies of short stories, Tales from the Star Wars Cantina and Tales from Jabba’s Palace. And he introduced me to Betsy Mitchell, who was in charge of that first bunch of Star Wars novels that were being done by Bantam. And then she asked me, you know, would you do a Star Wars novel? And I was so delighted. I loved Star Wars. I loved the original Star Wars. I love the original Star Wars.

In the early days of my writing, I was…you don’t make a lot when you’re starting out. In fact, you make almost as little as you make now. So at the time, I had a part-time job at the library. And friends of mine in Los Angeles…one of my friends in Los Angeles was a fellow named Michael Reeves, who was the…he was sort of the center of a group of people who were writing Saturday-morning cartoons. And this was in the late ’80s, when you had just gotten…Transformers had just come on and you had all of these, what the writers called “poster shows,” which means that the toy company would put out a line of vehicles, and then they would hire an animation company, to…at that time, seasons were very long. A season would be, like, forty-eight episodes. And they would say, “We’re going to do a season of, essentially, yes, it’s the adventures involving these vehicles that you can buy down in the store as a toy.” And the vehicles would always transform into something else.

The first of these, the animation company that was doing them was called DIC.

And so they decided—because, of course, there was no Writers Guild that dealt with animation. This was all cheap non-union—they called us together for a…called all of the sort of bush-league science fiction writers in the Los Angeles area, called us together, and they explained that they needed scripts and they were paying…I think it was a thousand bucks a script, which to me was phenomenal. It would mean I could quit my job in the library.

And the fellow explained to us that the show was called Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. And it was about…it involved giant metal vines growing between planets. And these metal creatures would grow out of metal flowers on the vines, and the vines would go between planets, they would go between galaxies, they would go between solar systems. And these evil vehicles would trundle along these metal vines through outer space and strip mine every world in the cosmos for resources. And our brave little band of adventurers were fighting against these guys, in the vehicles that are being sold in your local toy store.

And somebody in the group of science fiction writers said, “Planets turn on their axis, and planets orbit different stars, and all the stars in the galaxy are moving away from one another, and you cannot have giant vines growing between planets.” And the story editor said, “I have explained this to the producers of the show. I have explained this to the toy company. I have explained this to the administration of DIC. Now write the scripts.” One fellow got up and walked out. But I thought, It’s basically the cast of Star Wars meets the Daleks. I can write Star Wars dialogue. I can write Dalek dialogue. No problem. So I worked on a number of shows for DIC. And it meant basically that I had more time to do my actual writing.

Well, and turning to the actual writing, let’s talk about Stranger at the Wedding, which is the one you’d suggested. I guess, quickly give a synopsis of it that doesn’t spoil anything for people like me who haven’t gotten to the end of it yet, although I’ve read quite a bit of it.

Oh, and, of course, I haven’t been able to reread as much of it as I would have liked to, due to circumstances beyond my control. But the way the story came about in my mind, is that…in the story, the young heroine, she is at Wizards’ College and she’s the daughter of a wealthy merchant family back in the big city. And her younger sister is going to have an arranged marriage with the business partner, a business associate, of their father’s. And Kyra, the heroine, has been essentially disowned by her family because she is in training to be a wizard. And Kyra starts getting omens and prophetic dreams, saying that her younger sister is going to die on her wedding night. And Kyra returns to her family, who are horrified that she’s shown up, and she has to stop the wedding until she can find out what’s happening. And so she’s basically in a position of throwing all kinds of Murphy hexes, everything that could possibly go wrong with the ceremony goes wrong. Mice infest the church and, you know, the bishop breaks his ankle and all this horrible stuff takes place. And then she falls in love with the groom. Her younger sister, it turns out, is in love with one of the kitchen help. And Kyra falls in love with the groom while still trying to ascertain who has put a curse on the wedding, who is attempting to kill her lovely eighteen-year-old sister, and why? What’s going on?

I’m enjoying it very much, as far as I’ve gotten into it. I think the main character’s very appealing. What was the, kind of the seed for this story? And is that typical of the way the story ideas come to you?

There are basically two seeds. The first of the seeds is the fact that…I’m trying to think of a tactful way of saying this. My mother tended, tends, to drag me over to total strangers and say, “This is my daughter, the author.” Or say to people at church, you know, the people at church say, “Oh, you know, my daughter wants to write books.” And Mom will say, “Oh, she can come and talk to Barbara.” And it’s like, Barbara is…Barbara has other things to do. And I’ve always found this being touted very…it makes me very uncomfortable. I know it makes my mother very happy, but it makes me very uncomfortable. So part of the seed for that, is, you know, all of those times when I would go home for Christmas and Mom would say, “Why don’t you talk to the next-door neighbor’s daughter who wants to write books?”

And the other seed was, I was invited many years ago to a workshop on neurolinguistics, and they asked me, the fellow who was facilitating the workshop, said, “What is your process of putting together a story?” And I said, “I’ll usually start with the characters.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you explain how you put together a story?” And he said, “Characters…let’s take Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.” And I closed my eyes for a second and tried to think of a fantasy that ,if you made it into a movie, it would with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. And then, I produced the entire plot in, like, one paragraph, just sitting there. I had never had this idea before, and I came up with, oh, “The older sister is in Wizard College and the younger sister and she finds out that she has a curse and she’s gonna die on her wedding night and she comes home and falls in love with the groom.” And everybody in the workshop, including the facilitator, just sat there, because there was no process. It’s like, “You give me the characters and  I’ll give you a fully formed plot.” That’s…you know, that’s a trick like swatting a fly out of the air. You can do it once by chance. And everyone goes, “How’d you do that? I have no idea.”

So what’s more typical?

What’s more typical? Generally, it does start with characters. The vampire series…I wanted to put together a story of…no, I was waiting for my sweetheart to arrive because he and I were gonna go someplace and I was lying on the couch in his house and just started thinking about a vampire and a living person having to go into partnership because someone is killing the vampires of London. And the vampires, they can’t go out in the daytime to be detectives, so they have to hire a detective. And I thought, that’s really good. And this was the start of Those Who Hunt the Night, which turned into the vampire series, because I really liked the characters. But it started out with, “What do vampires do when somebody is…when there’s a vampire hunter on their trail?” And so, they have to hire a living guy, and he knows they’re gonna kill him when he solves the case. And then from there, just going, “OK, how do you get into this situation, how do you get out of this situation?” It was exactly the same with Time of the Dark. I had this single scene in my mind. “How did we get into this scene? Where do we go from this scene?”

So it is very much like a seed that grows.


What’s your actual planning process look like as you get started to write. Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just start? How does that work for you?

Oh, no, I’m an outline girl. My outlines are usually…four or five pages, single spaced? And they’re very…they’re sort of loose. It’s…details get changed, scenes get changed, but I always have to know, if we’re starting from here, we’re going to end up here. I don’t write very well not having a goal. I have to know where we’re going. I can’t just set sail because I’ve read too many books that quite clearly did not have an outline, and that type of structure does not appeal to me.

Do you find yourself diverting from the outline as the story takes on its own pathway sometimes?

Somewhat, yes, but never, never galloping off into another direction. Mostly because I know the character well enough to know where we’re going, where his or her personal development is going. The only exception to that was Dragonsbane, where up until I was close to the end of the book, I did not know whether…at one point the wizard, the heroine, transforms herself into a dragon. Basically, she falls…she is…the man that she loves is a dragonslayer. And when they go to slay this dragon, she ends up falling in love with the dragon. And at the end of the story, she transforms herself into a dragon. And then she realizes, “I need to go back to the man that I love.” And up until the end of the story, I didn’t know whether she was going to just continue to live on as a dragon or whether she was going to step down from that and return to the man she loves. Basically, she’s choosing between becoming and being a dragon or remaining human and experiencing the depths of human love. And once I had done that, I realized the story is not a story about dragon slaying. The story is a story about love. And then, of course, I…actually through the whole process of writing the book, I needed to come up with a hero who would be emotional competition for a dragon. And I have continued to write the further adventures of this couple, John and Jenny. Occasionally the dragon reappears, but it’s…I’ve continued to write novelettes about them for sale on Amazon as downloads.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write longhand? On a typewriter? On a computer at home? In a coffee shop? How do you like to work?

I must…there cannot be anyone else under the same roof. And I have set up my entire life to be solitary. I’ve always liked solitude. I cannot write if there was someone else in the house,

Definitely not a coffee-shop writer.

I am not a coffee-shop writer. I write at a desk. I have a desktop computer. I…when I’m writing first draft, I can usually only work a couple of hours a day because it is just so exhausting. At the moment, it’s difficult to forge out the time to write because I teach at a community college. I only teach one class a semester, but we were informed at the beginning of this month that we had two weeks to switch all of our classes over to online classes, and that takes a tremendous amount of time and I have been waking up very, very early in the morning to buy myself enough time. I’m working on first draft of a project and I’m tired most of the time.

Under normal circumstances, would you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or just-right writer?

I…sometimes I think I’m fast, sometimes I think I’m slow, I have no idea.

That sounds familiar. And do you…you’ve talked about a first draft. So, do you do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning? What’s the revision process?

Yes. I do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning.

What sorts of things do you find yourself working on in revision?

Sometimes, as I’m getting close to the end of the story, I realize, “Oh, that is a more efficient way to solve the problem, so we’re gonna have to go back and rewrite whole chapters.” Other times it’s just word choices or sentence structure. Other times I will look at it and go, “This person’s motivation is not clearly conveyed, this person…I need a scene between these people to clarify, either a plot point or some motivation.” The first revision is always the hardest and the most challenging and the most tiring because that’s where the heavy work gets done. Then there will be a second, not quite so heavy revision. And from there, it’s usually just progressive polishing.

There was one of the Benjamín Januarys, the historical murder mysteries, which, of course, take place in the American south in the 1830s, 1840s. And one of these involved…it’s like, my hero is black, of course he’s involved with the Underground Railroad. And I wanted to do a murder mystery that took place against the background of the Underground Railroad. And about halfway through, I reread what I had written and…the plot, the themes in the book, were very, very dark. Basically, the book was heavily based on slavery and rape. And I went, “Nobody’s gonna be able to read this. How do I lighten it? How do I make it readable?” And I thought, OK, we’ve got this going on one side. But my hero is dealing with… and I had to put in a lighter element simply to to balance out that darkness. And I thought, OK, my hero is working out of a circus. So we’re going to deal with circuses in the 19th century. And we’re also going to deal, because the circus is in town, there’s also a revival meeting in town. So that lets me cut away from this horrible stuff that is happening connected with the murder. And, yeah, we’re going hunting for clues, but we’re doing it against the background of the circus, we’re doing it against the background of this fake preacher who is basically trying to bilk the congregation out of their money. And that lightened the weight of the book. In my opinion, it made it readable.

I’m going to guess that you’re not somebody who uses beta readers, but then it goes on to your editor directly from you. Is that correct?


What kind of editorial feedback you usually get?

I have published close to seventy novels. So I’m…I don’t get much editorial feedback because I’m good at my craft. The times when I do get more editorial feedback is if ,for whatever reason, I did not have time to smooth the differences between two drafts and they’re catching things that I would have caught if I had had the time to do one more draft. And this is something that I have developed as time goes along. 

 remember there was one book where they got someone as a copyeditor and she came back saying things that were completely against, that ran completely contrary to the point that the book was making. “Well, she shouldn’t say this. She should say that.” And I. emailed the acquisitions editor and said, “Do I have to change things according to what this person said?”, and they made sure I never got that copyeditor again. Beta reading has to be by somebody that you really trust.

Yeah, it’s not something I’ve ever had because I’ve just never lived…I was always off kind of away for many other writers and…I had a couple of people by mail that I used to share manuscripts with way back before email. But I’ve never used beta readers. And I’ve talked to many people who do, and sometimes I think maybe I should, but I think I’m too set in my ways to change to that now.


And I don’t really know who it would be anyway. Well, I want to move on to our closing question, because we’re getting up here on the time, and that’s the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? And why do any of us do it, why do any of us write, but why do you write and why do you write the stuff you write?

And the reply is, because I can’t not do it.

A good friend of mine once said there’s two basically two kinds of writers. And he said type A, the first kind of writer, is the writer for whom writing is the safe place—you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things, and that’s where your safe. And he said this type of writer usually starts as a child.

He said the other type of writer is the one for whom writing is the dangerous place. And you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things and it scares the bejesus out of you. He said this type of writer usually starts later in life, and it was his personal opinion that this is why you sometimes find writers who have substance abuse problems.

Because if you are a writer, you have to write. There really is no question about why do you do this. You do this because you do this. Because you can’t not. It is indeed a calling. And nobody in their right mind would be trying to do this, trying to make a living in this fashion, if there was any other way to be.

Fortunately, I was the first kind of writer. I started as a child. It is the safe place. It is the wonderful place. It is the place where I am happiest. I was married to a man who was the other kind of writer, where it was the dangerous place, it was the terrifying place. But he couldn’t not do it. Because he just…we are what we are and we can’t change what we are, and if we try, it hurts us.

And on that note…I’m the childhood, it’s a safe place writer myself…

Yeah. Yeah.

…what are you working on now? Aside from putting your courses online.

My publishers in Britain asked me to conclude the vampire series, to finish off the vampire series, and asked me to start another historical murder mystery series. I am working on that, but I would rather not talk about that until I’m a little bit further on with it. I realize this is not a good thing to say, but I, I just, I would rather…I’m working on another historical murder mystery series, and I would rather not talk about that until I get a little bit of a better feeling of what I’m doing.

Still, lots to look forward to.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

And where can people find you or find out about you online?

I have a Facebook site, Barbara Hambly, writer. I have not posted on my Livejournal site in a long time, simply from lack of time. Those are the two best places.

If you want to…if you were a fan of the fantasy series that I wrote back in the ’80s and ‘90s, the Darwathseries, the Dragonsbane series, the Sun Wolf and Starhawk series, if you’re a fan of those series, I continue those series in the form of novelettes. I’ll write novelettes about those characters. They’re available on Amazon for five bucks a throw. And a lot of people, they…you know, with a with a series, you like to know what the people are doing. You’d like to know where those characters are now. And I will be continuing the vampire series as novelettes on Amazon. So in addition to transferring all of my history class on to online and working on this new historical novel series, I’m also trying to fit in enough time to work on these, what I call the further adventures. So it’s busy times.

Well, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me in the midst of all that. I enjoyed that. I hope you do, too.

Thank you so much. And I’m sorry if I talked too much.

There’s no such thing.

But thank you so much. And we will meet again.

Episode 50: S. M. Stirling

An hour-long conversation with S.M. Stirling, author of numerous science fiction and fantasy novels, including the novels of the Change and the Shadowspawn series, and most recently Shadows of Annihilation, Book 3 of the Tales from the Black Chamber series, about an alternate First World War.



S.M. Stirling’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Anton Brkic

S.M. Stirling was born in France in 1953, to Canadian parents—although his mother was born in England and grew up in Peru.  After that, he lived in Europe, Canada, Africa, and the US and visited several other continents.  He graduated from law school in Canada but “had his dorsal fin surgically removed,” and published his first novel (Snowbrother) in 1984, going full-time as a writer in 1988, the year of his marriage to Janet Moore of Milford, Massachusetts, who he met, wooed and proposed to at successive World Fantasy Conventions. In 1995 he suddenly realized that they could live anywhere and they decamped from Toronto, “that large, cold, gray city on Lake Ontario,” and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He became an American citizen in 2004. 

His latest books are Shadows of Annihilation, Theater of Spies, and Black Chamber (Roc/Penguin Random House), a trilogy of related alternate-history novels set in the 1910s and involving Teddy Roosevelt, dirigibles, and spies. His hobbies mostly involve reading—history, anthropology, archaeology, and travel, besides fiction—but he also cooks and bakes for fun and food.  For twenty years he also pursued the martial arts, until hyperextension injuries convinced him he was in danger of becoming “the most deadly cripple in human history.”  Currently, he lives with Janet and the compulsory authorial cats.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Coming soon(ish)…

Episode 49: Ira Nayman

An hour-long chat with Ira Nayman, editor of Amazing Stories magazine, proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service (11 books so far), and author of six novels in the Multiverse series published by Elsewhen Press.

Les Pages aux Folles


Ira Nayman’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Iray Nayman is the proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service, which sends reporters into other universes and has them report on what they find there. There are 11 books in the series, the most recent of which is the omnibus volume Idiotocracy for Dummies. He is also the author of six novels in the Multiverse series published by Elsewhen Press; the latest is Good Intentions: The Multiverse Refugees Trilogy: First Pie in the Face. He won the 2010 Jonathan Swift Satire Writing Contest, and his novel Both Sides: Now! was longlisted for the Guernica Prize.

In his spare time, Ira is the editor of Amazing Stories magazine, and co-host of The Gernsback Machine: An Amazing Podcast. He has also been a writer/performer in radio sketch comedy groups and created several (as yet unproduced) television series. He has a Ph.D. in Communications from McGill University and taught part-time for five years in the New Media program at Ryerson University. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Coming soon(ish)…

Episode 48: Tim Powers

An hour-long conversation with three-time World Fantasy Award (and two-time Philip K. Dick Award)-winning fantasy author Tim Powers, whose sixteen novels include The Anubis Gates, Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides.



Tim Powers Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Serena Powers

An hour-long conversation with three-time World Fantasy Award (and two-time Philip K. Dick Award)-winning fantasy author , whose sixteen novels include The Anubis Gates, Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides. Tim Powers is the author of sixteen novels, including The Anubis Gates , Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides, which was the basis of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He has twice won the Philip K. Dick Award and three times won the World Fantasy Award, and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Powers lives with his wife, Serena, in San Bernardino, California.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Coming (relatively) soon…

Episode 47: Carrie Vaughn

An hour-long chat with Carrie Vaughn, author of the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times-bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award.



Carrie Vaughn’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Carrie Vaughn‘s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.

A bona fide Air Force brat (her father served on a B-52 flight crew during the Vietnam War), Carrie grew up all over the U.S. but managed to put down roots in Colorado, in the Boulder area, where she pursues an endlessly growing list of hobbies and enjoys the outdoors as much as she can. She is fiercely guarded by a miniature American Eskimo dog named Lily.

The (LIghtly Edited) Transcript

Coming (relatively) soon…