Defying all odds is what #1 New York Times and international bestselling author Sherrilyn McQueen writing as Sherrilyn Kenyon does best. Rising from extreme poverty as a child that culminated in being a homeless mother with an infant, she has become one of the most popular and influential authors in the world (in both adult and YA fiction), with dedicated legions of fans known as Paladins–thousands of whom proudly sport tattoos from her numerous genre-defying series.
Since her first book debuted while she was still in college, she has placed more than 80 novels on the New York Times list in all formats and genres, including manga and graphic novels, and has more than 70 million books in print worldwide. Her current series include: Dark-Hunters®, Chronicles of Nick®, Deadman’s Cross™, Eve of Destruction™, Nevermore™, Lords of Avalon® and The League®.
Over the years, her Lords of Avalon® novels have been adapted by Marvel, and her Dark-Hunters® and Chronicles of Nick® are New York Times bestselling manga and comics and are #1 bestselling adult coloring books.
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 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.
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?
Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.
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.
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.
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?
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…
…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.
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.
That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.
Victoria/V.E. Schwab is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage Song, Our Dark Duet,Vicious, Vengeful,The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts. . Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured in the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, and more, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has been optioned for television and film. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, she’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Thank you for having me.
Before we started recording this, I was just telling you that my daughter is a fan, and the way I came to your books, was my niece, she’s a lawyer, actually, in her 30s, had recommended the Shades of Magic to my daughter, who then read them and then recommended them to me. So, it’s what, you know, they say, “Word of mouth is the best possible publicity.”
I think, especially, weirdly word of mouth is more powerful these days when there’s so much buzz in so many different directions that I think there’s an authenticity that comes with word of mouth that really makes it very special. So, I’m incredibly flattered that that’s how you came to my work.
I always like to see if I can find any connections with the authors, your about the twenty-third I’ve interviewed here, and it’s a stretch with you, but you grew up in Nashville, and I went to university at Harding University, in Searcy, AR, which is in the neighborhood, church of Christ, you’ll be familiar with that if you grew up in Nashville.
And I spent a month with a family in Edinburgh, before you were born, so there you go, there’s a connection.
That’s a good connection, that’s like, what, five degrees of separation, not six.
Yeah, not bad at all. So how did you, first of all, become interested in reading—I presume you started as a reader of the fantastic—and then moved on from there to start writing it. Did that all start when you were a kid or what was your story?
I definitely wasn’t one of those children who grew up in a library. I think those are really beautiful narratives to hear. I was a jock. I was a really serious athlete all growing up. I wanted to go to the World Cup for soccer long before I ever thought about telling stories for a living. But I had a lot of health problems as well and so I wasn’t able to compete in sports at that level, but really I was a proficient reader, in that I was a very capable reader, but I had not had the experience that many children have growing up where they read something that makes them forget that they’re reading, that transportative experience. And the first time that ever really happened with me was with Harry Potter. And that can seem like a very trite answer these days, when almost everyone, it seems, has read those books, but you have to remember I’m 31, and so I read the first Harry Potterbook when it came out and I was 11 and Harry Potter was 11. So, I had the, based purely on the year in which I was born, the immense (privilege) of ageing with a protagonist in that way, and of becoming part of something that was such a phenomenon, such a worldwide phenomenon. And so, Harry Potterwould come to dominate and inform my entire teen years, my entire youth, in that way.
And that was a really special thing, because if I hadn’t had that series, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to find a series that transported me in that sense, that made me realize the power of narrative, because I grew up in love with poetry. And poetry is incredible, poetry, everything from William Blake to Shel Silverstein, is wonderful but it’s not transportative in the same way. It gives you an intense appreciation for language, but it doesn’t make you forget at any point that you’re reading.
And so, that’s really the power that Harry Potterhad for me, and being a true World-Domination-seeking Slytherin, my first reaction was, oh wow, this is cool, and my second reaction as an eleven, twelve-year-old was, “Wow, words are very powerful.” You know, the idea of words on a page being something which could psychologically impact you in that way, which could emotionally transport you, was to me a very intoxicating premise. And so it wasn’t very long before I started trying to write as well, though it would be, I would be 18 or 19 before I tried to write a book.
Did you write stuff before that, short stories or pieces?
I was particularly into fragments, yeah, really into poems, very dark, apocalyptic poems. All teenagers should write bad poetry. I was really into short stories. I was really into narrative non-fiction. Basically. I was really into anything that wasn’t novel-length because I was so convinced, to be honest, sixteen books I’m still convinced, that I don’t have the attention span for a novel. I was very afraid of the idea of having to keep a novel in my head while putting it down on paper. And so, I really…one of the only reasons that it even took me until college to try and write a novel was because I tried every other form first and then I realized that, as a sophomore in college I realized that the reason I hadn’t tried to write a novel was because I was afraid of failing. And I have a very antagonistic relationship to fear. The moment somebody points out that I’m afraid of something, or the moment I realize I’m afraid of something, I have a kind of combative reaction to that. So I realized I had a fear of heights and I jumped out of an airplane when I turned 18, and I realized I had a fear of change and I chopped off all my hair, and I realized I had a fear of being away from my comforts and so I traveled around Europe, like backpacking, and so, when I realized that I was afraid of failing to do this thing I immediately sat down and was determined to start and finish a novel.
Well, when you were writing fragments and bad teenage poetry—and I’ve edited magazines of teenaged writing, and I can assure that teenagers still write bad teenage poetry—were people encouraging you that, you know, you’ve got something here, maybe you should be writing it. Did you have encouragement along the way?
I did have some reinforcement in that, I struggled a lot as a teenager, and I felt very displaced at the time. I was so in the closet that I had no concept that I was gay, but I just felt continuously othered. I had been dropped into an all-girls Southern preparatory school at age thirteen in a completely different state, and I felt so out of place and so out of my element that writing became something that was just a tether. It was just an outlet for me. And then I had a couple of teachers who began to encourage me. And you know, God knows if they saw something or if they were just trying to say, “Here’s an anchor, here’s a life raft, but it really helped. And I, because I grew up with poetry I had a really, really good ear for cadence. And so, I actually…I mean, I was 15 or 16 when I started submitting poetry and winning contests with it. And by the time I graduated high school I was my high school’s Poet Laureate, and I had a sense from there on that I really wanted to do something with words, that words gave me a sense of power that I didn’t feel in the rest of my environment.
So, when you got to university, did you study writing, or did you study something else and write on the side?
When I first went to university I started out in astrophysics, and so needless to say I was a great departure. I would end up changing my major six times…and I stand by this. though. I wasn’t changing it because I wasn’t capable in any one discipline. I was changing it because the idea of choosing only one was terrifying to me. And that was really one of the first indicators I should have had that I wanted a creative profession because one of the beauties of writing fiction is that you get to become somebody else for a limited period of time. You get to become an astrophysicist, you get to become an explorer, you get to become an archaeologist, a scholar, a write,r you get to become all of these things and kind of dive into different lives. And that was something which really, really appealed to me. I do have a minor in creative writing.
I’m of very many minds when it comes to pursuing creative writing from an academic perspective instead of from a exploratory perspective. I still believe that the best education that I’ve gotten towards my own writing has been reading. I still believe that the vast majority of what I took away from those programs was, if anything, simply a…not a comfort, I don’t think I ever became comfortable with sharing my work, but the necessity of getting over that fear of critique, that was something that I took away from the programs. But the writing was something which happened in the background. It was something that I protected throughout university as a creative outlet.
It’s interesting, because several authors I’ve talked, some of whom did have formal creative writing classes, are also of two minds. I went into journalism myself, when I made my decision I wanted to work with words, because I was very, very practical and thought, “I can get a job,” as opposed to just trying to make a living just writing stories or something. So, how did the first novel come about? How did you break in, I guess is the question.
So, my…weirdly, because of my background in poetry, because I had an interesting or unusual cadence, I was able to get a literary agent with that first, first novel that I ever wrote, the one that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. Now, that book never got published. It got very far up the acquisitions ladder at multiple houses and got rightfully rejected because it had no plot, because I didn’t actually know how to write a book. It was the first time I’d ever even tried. And what I was good at was writing very pretty sentences and what I had not yet figured out how to do was write a story. And so, I was so busy, that happened when I was a sophomore, I got an agent, from my sophomore year through my junior year that book was on submission to publishers and being summarily rejected from them. I hit my senior year, it was my second semester senior, and at that point I was doing an arts program. I had moved from astrophysics into set design into art history into English into…oh, God, one other one…and then—Japanese cultures and mythologies—and then into graphic design and marketing and design, and because I had come into the program so late, I was really behind. So I had this intense course load that I was having to take because most of the design majors had been in their program for like, four years, and I had been in it for a year and a half. So I had no time. It would have been very, very easy to put writing aside, and I would have followed that classic narrative arc of going off and doing something else for ten, fifteen, twenty years and then saying, “Oh I always wanted to write a book, I always wanted to be an author,” and find my way back to it. And I had this crystal-clear, almost out-of-body experience, on a February night as a second-semester senior, thinking, like, “This is where I make this choice. I either sit down right now and try again and try to write another book. or it is going to be something that I come back to after I have had another life,” and I didn’t want it to be that.
And so I began checking out of my art studio space for two hours every night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., walking off-campus to a coffee shop across the street, and sitting down and writing for two hours a night. It was time I really didn’t have, but I made this decision that I did not want to…I didn’t want the first book I had ever written to be a fluke and I didn’t want to give up on this path. And so, some nights I would write 500 words and some nights I would write 2,000 words, but essentially by the time I graduated that spring I had a draft of another novel and that novel was called The Near Witch, which is about a village where a stranger appears one night, and the following night all of the children begin to disappear one by one, and that would go on to be my debut novel
And there’s been several since then.
How many are you up to now, after about ten years?
Well, sixteen in about eight years, because it sold ten years ago, but I had several gaps. I had an eighteen-month gap between when it came out and when my next book came out. So for a while there, it was a two-year gap between when it sold and when it was published and…so, but yeah, it will come out to about seventeen books in ten years.
Now, you write both young adult and adult. Was the first book young adult or adult?
The first book was young adult, and I’ve actually written a few middle grade in ther,e as well, so for the age bracket below young adult. The Near Witchwas young adult. My first three books, The Near Witch, The Archived, and The Unbound, were all young adult, and then my fourth novel, Vicious, was my first adult novel.
When I started, my first unpublished novels were all basically young adult because that’s how old I was.
Is that one reason why you started in the young adult market? Because you were quite young when you wrote that first book.
Interestingly…and this is something that I had to do a lot of, like, soul-searching with afterwards, I have never written very comfortably into YA. Even my books that we were talking about earlier, The Savage Songand Our Dark Duet, they’re very, very much upper YA. And it has nothing to do with any of the arbitrary boundaries. I find that I tend to write very dark and very adult and less…I write almost no romance and I write very little coming-of-age, and so, it’s not that I ever fell cleanly in one category or another, it’s simply that my agent said, this will work in this category or this will work in this. I have always tried very hard to do what’s right for the story, and and try to worry about where it fits on a shelf later, because, you know, YA is a category of which more than half the readers are adults, and adult is a category of which more than half the readers teenagers. And so, I think it could be really unnecessarily divisive when we think creatively about these boundaries and about these thresholds. My primary interest is writing stories for a version of myself. So, when I write middle-grade novels, I am writing the book that I would have wanted to read at ten or eleven. Now I was a very morbid, strange ten- and eleven-year-old reading Jason Bourne and Stephen King. I was a very morbid and strange and outsider seventeen-year-old, which is who I wrote The Savage Songand Our Dark Duetand the Archivebooks for, and I’m a very morbid and strange thirty-one-year-old, which is who I wrote Vengefulfor earlier this year, and so, I think that’s really the only way that I fathom the boundaries between my books.
And I think you’ve pointed out, I’ve seen in interviews, that there are different categories in different countries.
Exactly. Yeah, my threshold for young adult in France is like twenty-three, and the threshold in, what is it, let’s see, in Brazil it’s quite high…or it’s quite low…oh, but in like the UK, which is where I live, you’ll see the young adult spaces on the shelves really skew younger. So, what we would consider a lower YA in the US, in terms of that kind of, like, fourteen and fifteen and much more contemporary, that’s the bulk of the young adult shelf in the UK. So, even books of mine which are published as YA in the US then are published as adult in the UK
I want to talk specifically about the Shades of Magic trilogy, and…so, I’m going to ask you the classic question. I won’t say where do you get your ideas, but I will say, what was the spark for that particular trilogy? And there’s more books coming in the series.
There are, there are. So, I’m a bit of a magpie writer. I have a slow process in which I collect many shiny bits and pieces of an idea before it coalesces into something, before I have a nester or whatever. I…so, it’s never like, one thing. I’m not a person who dreams entire stories. I’m not a person who sits down and has an entire character spill out. It’s usually a collection of fragments that simply…something comes along to become the codifying ingredient. And so, for Shades of Magic, A Darker Shade of Magic is the first book, and for those who don’t know, it’s about a magician with the ability to move between alternate versions of the world, officially as a messenger and unofficially as a smuggler, and he comes into possession of something he should not have. It all came about from several, several sources, gathered together slowly, but essentially, I wanted to write a love letter to Harry Potterbut not to any of the specifics of Harry Potter. I wanted to write a love letter to the nostalgia of wanting to visit a place, because at the time I was thinking about Shades of Magic, the market was inundated with dystopia and with narratives in which…the narratives themselves were incredibly compelling, but you as the reader would never want to go back and visit just to spend time in those worlds. Whereas, with Harry Potter, like, you wanted to go back to Hogwarts and you could kind of visually, mentally extrapolate what house you would be in and what you would study and do all these things, and it kind of gave you a world of nostalgia that existed outside of the actual plots of the characters. And I missed that, I missed having a world that I wanted to simply spend time in. So, I wanted to design that.
I also wanted to…I really like designing magical structures because I think that magical structures work best when they are at their most intuitive. And so, I wanted to design an intuitive magical structure. I wanted to do a nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I was very much in love with at the time and still am, and I just…I had a visual in my head, along with all of those other elements. I had this still-frame picture, which I get sometimes, I get still-frame pictures in my head, and it was a man in a red coat walking through a wall and colliding with a girl dressed as a boy. And I had no story to go with it. And so, that was that was actually the first piece of the puzzle that I had. And then I was piecing through a snowfield garden, talking to a friend of mine, trying to figure out what I was going to write next, and I mentioned that picture, and I thought about how I write about a lot of different kinds of doors in my books, metaphorical and physical, but I had never written, at that point, alternate worlds, alternate realities. And when I mentioned that, I immediately thought back to that visual in my head and thought, “Oh, what if he wasn’t walking through a wall between rooms, like, what if he was walking through a wall between worlds?” And all of a sudden all of the other little shiny magpie pieces that I had just kind of started clicking, cascading into place.
One of the, I would almost call it a character in the book, is the city of London, and it’s three different iterations. Why London?
You know, it’s twofold. My cheeky answer is that London is the most overused setting in fantasy, and I wanted to play with that, because while all three to four of the Londoners in the series are called London, only one of them is actually London as we know it? And the rest is kind of a semantic anomaly. And so, you can go in assuming you know what the setting of this book is going to be and be proven very wrong because we spend very little time in our London, and the other answer is that the way that my magic systems are designed is, essentially, I wanted to build different bodies on the same bones. So I wanted to strip the geography down to its base elements and then build new cities on top of that. So, one step in our London is one step in Red London, is one step in Grey London. They have the exact same geographic footprint. And then I build the cities on top of them based on their relationships to magic. So, in Red London magic has thrived and so have the people and so the way that their environment works is a very magic-driven system, whereas in White London magic is being controlled and dominated and constrained by the people and it’s starving out all of the nutrients of their city, et cetera, et cetera. And so, I needed a geographic foundation that was easily recognizable, and London is one of those that is…it’s easy division. I mean, it has two banks and it has a river in the middle. And that’s essentially what I needed to do. I needed them all to be on the same footing pretty quickly.
Now once you had your actual idea, and all these elements that you had together, what did…and does…your planning process look like? Are you a detailed outliner or are you more of an on-the-fly kind of writer?
No, no. I plan. So, but I don’t plan everything. I think people hear the word outliner and they think like I’ve, you’ve stripped all of the magic from the process, like that you’ve somehow left no room for discovery and I disagree pretty strongly with that idea of an outliner. I have to know certain things when I go into a book. I have to know how it ends because I work backwards. So, I need to know how the story ends and where all of the characters are at the end so I can know who they should be and where they should be at the beginning. And so, I have a little bit of a rewind process when I’m writing.
Normally, I will then figure out five to ten of the most important kind of beats, the pins in the map, and then I will give myself enough space to explore and find my way between those pins. For A Darker Shade of Magic, it was a little unique because I was selling it to Tor, my US publisher, on a proposal, and so, essentially, because it was quite an ambitious project, I sat down and I wrote a five- to six-thousand word synopsis that was essentially a beat sheet for the story that I wanted to tell. And that’s more detailed than I had ever done before, but I knew that I…I am somebody who feels more comfortable with a map. I don’t hold myself to that map I don’t but it gives me a sense of where the world ends. It gives me a sense of, “Oh, if I go this way I’m gonna fall off a cliff and I don’t want to do that.” So, I use the map as giving me a safe environment to explore without getting derailed too far.
It’s interesting, again, talking to so many different authors, how different that process is for everyone. I think Peter V. Brett, who wrote the Demon Cycle books, writes like a 150-page outline, so he’s just very, very, very precise. Then there are people who say, “Well, I do a page, and then I go for it.”
I think it’s really interesting it’s so important to remember that there’s no right way to write. I think the what what works for you is whatever allows you to get out of your own way. So, for me, I get scared by not having a plan, and so that eliminates any of the joy that would come from discovery. Whereas there are other writers who—ninety percent of their joy comes from just wandering in the dark. I am somebody who gets a huge amount of joy from executing a strategy.
What does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit down at a desk for eight hours a day? Do you write in a coffee shop? Do you write in longhand? How do you do it?
A little bit of everything. I probably max out about two to three hours a day, because my job also requires me to…I mean, it’s an embarrassment of riches but I am really, really lucky to be at a point in my career where there are a lot of other demands on my job that are not actually word making. So, whether it’s, I’m about to set out on tour for almost three months straight, and so that obviously will change, and I will need to adapt and write in airports and write in hotel bars and in my room and things like that. I am somebody, though, who writes in twenty- to twenty-five-minute sprints because I have very short focus and it’s going many directions usually, and I try to do two to three hours of those twenty-minute sprints a day. And obviously, some days I exceed that and some days I don’t.
But I think it’s also really important to remember that there’s a difference between time spent creating and time spent typing. So, while I only sit down at my computer for two to three hours a day to write, I am creatively cogs turning all day, when I am at the gym, when I am walking my dog, when I am on a train or a plane, I am constantly turning over pieces of the story, so that when I sit down I can work. And sometimes I write by hand when I’m stuck. I don’t draft by hand, but I plot and I strategize and I create myself beat sheets for a scene by hand. I will do whatever I need to do to keep creative momentum. And some days when I’m travelling I don’t actually write any words but I spend time with the story so that I keep the creative door propped open in my head.
It sounds like you probably are a little different on every book in the way that it all comes together.
Absolutely. I will say that my process differs based on whether I’m writing a 45,000- word middle grade installment for my City of Ghostsseries or the adult novel that I’m working on right now, which is a book that has been in the process for almost a decade.
Once you have that draft, what does your revision process look like?
My revision process is really interestingly consistent considering I have three different editors at three different publishing houses. I think the more books I write the more I hate first drafts, because you become more and more aware of the things you’re doing wrong but you still have to do them wrong before you can do them right so that you have something to work with. I really do, it goes straight to my editor, first of all, like, I have a beta reader, she’s wonderful, and her job is essentially to keep me from quitting. And then I have very close relationships with all three of my editors. And so, I go…I turn in the first draft. Well, but also, I should sidebar or footnote and say that I do revise as I go. I don’t zero draft. So, when I say I turn in my first draft to my editor, I have been told, at least, that my quote-unquote first draft looks a lot more like perhaps a third draft because. By the time I’m turning it in I have outlined and strategized and plotted and kind of polished what I have as I’m going.
So, I turn that to my editors and then I usually do three to five rounds of revision, in kind of concentric circles. So, the first round of revision is very broad. It’s big picture. It’s plot and arc and pacing and worldbuilding. And then from there we move in kind of Russian-doll style to character and, again, pacing because by then I will have made some structural changes that need to be shored up and tightening of internal motivations. And of, you know, a lot of the emotional cogs. And then the third round, we start looking at the actual wording, tightening up any of the line edits, perhaps cutting one last scene in order to just to make sure that it’s functioning in its absolute strongest form. And from there it’s just last polish.
Are there any things that you find that you consistently end up doing getting in revision that for some reason you just didn’t notice in the first draft. We all have weaknesses that are caught by our editors.
Yeah, I do try. I do think that the more books I write the more I’m aware of those weaknesses. It doesn’t always stop me from making them, but I usually…I really have gotten better listening to the voice in my head that throws up a little warning light that something’s not working. And so even if I don’t know how to fix it I’ve gotten better at flagging it for my editor, as saying like, hey I know this moment isn’t achieving the right emotional piece or the right number of beats or whatever it is. That is probably the only thing that I feel like I’ve gained over the course of drafting. But the middle of the book and I always fight. The tension in the middle. I am quite confident in my last notes and in my first notes but there’s usually always something in the middle that I struggle with.
Using characters…and this question kind of goes back to the first draft…but how do you decide what characters you need and who are going to be your characters that carry the story forward. And do you do a lot of character planning?
No, I don’t, like do a sheet, I don’t, like, put them through their, like, psychological profiles and Meyers Briggs. My rule with characters is that they need to be fully realized enough that I could give them their own book, even if this is not their book, and they would be able to hold it up as the protagonist. And that is the rule that I hold for characters who are on-page for one scene. If you meet them in the course of my book, they should have enough depth, even if you never see it all, that they could have been the protagonist of a different story. And so, in the early stages of a book I don’t necessarily always know which characters are going to take up more space as the story goes on. A classic example of that is, there’s a character in the Shades of Magicseries who becomes kind of our, like, doorway to grey London, to our London, named Ned, Ned Tuttle, and Ned Tuttle is a human character with no magical powers who was only supposed to show up in one page of the first book. And…but because I try very hard to give characters enough potential, enough depth, he became somebody that my editor and my readers wanted to see more of as the books went on, and so he started to show up more and more.
And so that is the luxury of treating each of your characters as though they are a main character, simply not of this book. I make sure that for every one of my characters I can answer the questions, “What are they afraid of, what do they want, and what are they willing to do to get it?” Because I think understanding those core psychological tenants, those core kind of ethical and motivational tenants, are some of the most important for grasping a character, even if they aren’t going to be the central one of the narrative.
You had mentioned that briefly you had studied set design. Have you done any other…like, been an actress?
No. God, no.
The only reason I ask is because I am an actor.
The process that you talked about with characters, sounds very much like what actors do to try to bring characters to life, even if you have a walk on, you try to make them in some way memorable.
Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I do think that authors…I think one of the… I don’t want to call it a failing One of the frustrations I’ve had with some of the novels that I’ve read lately is, I think, in the interests of plot and pacing, sometimes authors are forsaking character a little bit and they have to remember that, if we don’t care about the people that the plot is happening to, we will not care about the plot when it is over. Like, you have to, if you think about it, if you’re writing a series, we come to the first book in a series for the plot because we don’t know the characters yet. Right? So, we have to be drawn to the first book in a series solely based on the concept and the plot. But we don’t come back to a series for the plot. We come back to the subsequent books for the characters.
Now this is going to be a little shorter than some of these, because I know that you’re very, very busy, so I’m going to come to the final couple of questions…
I have a nine-month-old puppy who keeps coming into the kitchen and looking at me like, “Hey!”
So, a couple of big philosophical questions here. You’ve talked a little bit about why you started, but why do you think anybody writes. Why do we tell stories, and particularly stories of the fantastic?
Oh, God, that’s such a big question. I’m not sure I have an answer to it. I mean, I can’t…this is the thing, I can’t speak to it a general…writing is such a personal process. I think many of us probably have slightly different motivations. I have friends who write because they’re good at it and they make money and I have friends who write because it is an exorcism of internal chaos and I probably fall somewhere in the middle. Like, I love my job. I see it as a job. But even if I weren’t being published, I would write, because it is the only way to make straight lines out of all of the tangles in my head.
Another way to ask is, why do you think readers read stories and are interested in what we right. And also, because this is the others the other question I would ask is, What do you hope your books give to readers. What do you hope they take it away from them?
I think sometimes it’s escapism and sometimes it’s mirror. Like, sometimes we want to be somebody else and sometimes we want to see ourselves. And so, I think that can depend, really, on the story. I think a goal for me when I write is to give them both, is just, show somebody who isn’t usually centered in the narrative, to give them space in the middle, to let them see themselves in that way, but also sometimes to let them escape their reality. I mean, I write fantasy because…and this is the dedication at the beginning A Darker Shade of Magic…but I grew up wanting the world to be stranger than it was. I grew up looking for cracks in stone walls that might be doorways and I may I still believe in magic and I still believe that there’s so much more to this world than we understand and it’s that potential for magic that makes me want my readers to doubt their reality. That’s my goal. I want you to pick up one of my books and ask yourself by the end, like, I mean, “Is that possible?”, because, for instance, I have a series called The Villainsseries. The first book is Viciousand the second book is Vengeful. And these books are built on a sci-fi concept, on the concept that superpowers can evolve from a specific kind of near-death experience, right? And, like, it’s an extrapolation of science, of the kind of the phenomenon that happen s when adrenal responses overload under immense stress. But I tried to write it with an eye toward utmost realism. And it’s funny to say I tried to write a supervillain novel with an eye towards realism, but every few months I will get an email from somebody, usually a guy, a like, grown man, who will say, “Hey, like, I read these books and, like, I just want you to, like, confirm this isn’t real, is it? Like, this phenomenon isn’t real.” And that entire interaction right there is my goal. That entire interaction, whether I’m writing fantasy or science fiction. I want readers to doubt, because when we’re when we’re young we doubt. When we’re young we believe so easily, and that’s something that we seem so loathe to hold onto or so unable to hold on to. And that’s what I love about fantasy, both as a reader and as a writer, is that it reintroduces doubt and possibility.
You talked about the crack in reality. I think it’s a great metaphor. That was Doctor Whowhen the crack opens up in the wall in Amy Pond’s room.
And we’re thinking, “That could happen. That could totally happen.”
We read to believe something can happen, if we are not sure about it, in our own world, or if we don’t think it’s possible in our own world, whether that’s a person, whether that’s magic, whether that’s simply a better, stronger, stranger, darker, freer version of ourselves
So, you are going on book tour. Perhaps we should at least mention that book.
What’s really interesting is I’m going on book tour in part for The Near Witch, which is the book that I mentioned at the very beginning, the very first novel. It went out of print…I mean, this is the thing. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. And when The Near Witchcame out in 2011 it was strange and quiet at a time when the things which were successful were very loud. And I had no readership yet, it was my debut novel, and it wasn’t particularly given the time that it needed to find its strange little morbid audience. And I have the immense fortune now, almost a decade later, that my readership has grown and is full of readers who like my strange, morbid, peculiar stories. And so, The Near Witchis finally being rereleased after five, six years not on shelves, and so I’m going on tour for that and for the graphic-novel release of my comic book series, which is set in the Shades of Magicworld, called The Steel Prince.
It’s interesting, because The Near Witch is going to seem like a brand-new book, then, to most people.
Some people have been, like, “Why did somebody put on the blurb that this is her debut novel, like, this is obviously her sixteenth or seventeenth book,” and I’m like, “Well, this is the weird paradox of it, isn’t it?” Like, it is a brand-new book and it has a novella with it that was never published. And it’s gonna be really interesting to see what the readers’ reception is to this book, for those who assume it is a new book
Now, for those who want to follow along and try and find out where you are and what you do doing, and all that stuff, how do they find you online?
Oh, I live inside the Internet, so it’s very, very simple. Probably the best places to find me are on Twitter and Instagram. On Instagram I post my tour schedules when they’re finalized, so it’s a good way to figure out where I’m going to be, a little bit more static than Twitter. But I’m @VESchwab on both of those platforms
When this airs, you’ll actually be well into the tour, this will probably be on in April sometime, I think. So, have a great tour.
Thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.
A notorious night-owl, she loves watching TV, eating bacon, playing video games with her kids, and sending cheesy texts to her husband. You can find Tosca hanging around the snack table or wherever bacon is served.
The Lightly Edited Transcript
So, Tosca, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me.
Now, we’ve never met in person, but we do have something in common: we both share a publicist, Mickey Mickelson, at Creative Edge. So, I think we ought to give him a shout out off the top here.
Yay, Mickey! Yes. He’s awesome.
He is. Now, we’re going to focus a little later on in the interview on your very latest novel, The Line Between, which will, I think, when this goes live it will have just released, so this will be very timely. January 29, I believe is the release date.
So, we’ll talk about that in detail. I finished reading it just this morning, actually, as we’re recording this, and so it’s very fresh in my mind. But let’s go back in the mists of time to find out what path actually took you to writing, ’cause you didn’t start out planning to be a writer, did you when you were a kid?
No, I didn’t. I really wanted to be a professional ballerina and it was something I pursued very ardently and very seriously, up until I had a…I tore a groin when I was a teenager. So, that takes a long time to heal, and then I grew six inches, which can…you know, on pointe shoes I’m six-foot tall, so it takes a special kind of partner to be tall enough to partner me now. So, yeah, it kind of became apparent maybe that was not going to be the path for me, so I went off to college and was thinking maybe I’d go into some kind of business. My dad was a lifelong business management professor. And I thought, maybe, I’ll do something in business, or maybe I’ll…at some point my parents said, “Why don’t you become a news anchor or something?” I don’t know why, and I was like, “Oh, yeah,” and then I thought, well, maybe I’ll go into advertising. I don’t know why I thought these things. But it was not really at the forefront of my mind, even though I had been writing my whole life. I grew up, you know, writing stories and poems and things, and I won contests, and went off to little young people’s writing conferences and stuff. But I just never really thought of it as a thing.
Where did you grow up?
So, I was born in Virginia and we moved, right before I started First Grade. So, I did most of my growing up in Nebraska, where my dad taught at the University until just a few years ago, when he retired.
Well, I’m in Saskatchewan, so I kind of that whole Great Plains thing is very familiar.
Very familiar. Absolutely.
And all my relatives are in places like Missouri and Oklahoma and places like that stand.
Also, the ballerina aspect is interesting to me because my daughter is a dancer and she’s taken ballet and tap and, never really thought of doing it professionally, because she doesn’t have the a body type either, but it’s interesting because she has commented on the fact that she has friends who wanted to be professional dancers, and then they injure themselves as a teenager and that dream kind of fades at that moment. So, she’s actually thinking of going into kinesiology and wants to help people like that work through their problems, and sports psychology and all that kind of stuff.
That’s wonderful, because it’s become, even in the last couple of decades, since…well, it was slightly longer than that I guess for me, but in the last couple decades even, dancing has become so competitive and the bar is so much higher, I think, than it was even then. So, it’s very extreme.
Yeah, I’m just as glad she’s not trying to pursue it professionally, speaking as a father.
It’s hard on the body.
And, speaking of fathers, your dad, actually…I was reading an interview with you…he actually had a lot to do with you writing your first novel, didn’t he?
Yeah, he did. Well, what happened is, so I went off to college and went to Smith College in Massachusetts, and I was back for spring break for some reason, I’d come back for spring break, and I was, we were in the car, and I was talking with my dad and I was talking about…talk about the mists of time, I was talking about one of my favorite books, which was called The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
I know it.
You know that one?
I just loved that book and I’ve read it many times. It’s a retelling of the women behind King Arthur’s throne, the women behind the King, basically. And it’s fascinating, the characters are amazing, and I was having this conversation with my dad and talking about how books are like emotional roller coasters and they’ve got twists and turns and sometimes you’re upside down. And I just blurted it out that day and said, “You know, I think I’d like to write a book,” and the thought was, you know, maybe it’d be fun to see if I could write something like that for somebody else to enjoy. And so, my dad made me a deal that day. He said, “Okay, look. I will I will pay you what you would have made this coming summer working at the bank. which I had done the summer before and I was supposed to go back and work again as a bank teller, which I’m terrible at because I’m horrible with numbers, and my drawer would never balance, and it was just a fiasco, but he said, “I will pay you what you would have made working at the bank if you will very seriously spend your summer writing full time, writing a novel. Your first novel.” And I said yes. And so, I did, I spent that summer writing my first novel. And of course, I couldn’t do anything just kind of simple for starters. I had to write this Neolithic historical novel about the people of Stonehenge, England. And of course, I spent the early part of my summer over in Oxford, I was studying economics the first part of the summer, so I bought all these books because, you know, we didn’t have the Internet then, or any of that stuff. So, I bought all these books about Stonehenge and all this and brought them back with me and by then I had about two months left, and I didn’t really know that you can’t really do this, most people can’t do this, in about two months. But I didn’t know this. So, ignorance is bliss. And I read these books and I researched, and I tried to kind of piece together an outline and I wrote my first novel that summer…and it was not very good.
Do you still have it?
Yeah, it’s in the basement with my skeletons. I spent the next summer…I actually submitted it to Writers House, which is one of the premier agencies in New York. And I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Like, back in the day you were supposed to print it, but not bind it. Well, I bound it. You’re not supposed to put a cover on it. Well, I put a cover on it with a nice cute little picture of Stonehenge and everything. And I wrote my synopsis and I sent it off…and the other day I found the rejection letter from Writers House, and it starts off with, “Even after reading the twenty-three-page synopsis, we’re still not sure what this novel is about.”
Never write a twenty-three-page synopsis. Oh, my gosh. And, you know, they said, “Your characters are two dimensional, and the story lacks tension,” and all this, but somewhere in the in the letter–and it was a great letter because it was personal feedback, I mean, it was real feedback instead of just a form letter which is what you so often get these days. At some point in the letter they said, “But it is strangely reminiscent of Clan of the Cave Bear, which was also one of my other favorite novels. So, what I took away from that is my book is like Clan of the Cave Bear. And I said to myself, I’m going to do this again!
And you did. But not right away.
No. No, not right away. I ended up graduating from college and I went to work for a computer magazine. So that was fun, and it was very cool because I became a professional writer in that way and learned about the process of editing and publishing and I wrote two computer books during that time as well. So, it was it was very educational.
See, that caught my eye as well because I went into journalism–I’m ten years older than you, I think–I went into journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. And, yeah, writing was what I did, but my first published book when I became a freelancer was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.
My second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So, I had a series going.
Yes, you did, you did. Was it a do ology or a longer series?
It turned out to just be a duology. After that, I moved on to writing about other exciting topics like Microsoft Office and Creating Cool Web Pages on AOL and stuff like that. So yeah, my writing books actually started with computer books as well. So that’s also caught my eye.
That’s awesome. I remember writing tutorials for the magazine on how to use WordStar. Remember WordSstar?
I still know two authors who use it.
George R.R. Martin uses it, I think.
Robert J. Sawyer does as well, and another fellow DAW author, Gerald Brandt, uses it.
Oh, my gosh. I didn’t even know it was really still around until I read that, I think about George R.R. Martin, and I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I used to know all those commands by heart. That’s what I read in my college papers on. So crazy.
And there was another interesting thing that happened there in the ‘90s. You did beauty pageants.
Yeah, that was a classic case of somebody saying, “You should go try this, or do that,” and I was like, “Okay,” so that happened. And I had never really grown up doing anything like that. It had just never really been in my realm of possibility. But the one thing that taught me was that when people believe in you or believe you can go do something, suddenly in your mind something opens up and it becomes possible. And so, I tried it, and I didn’t win. And then my sister-in-law at the time said, “I think you should go back and try it again.” I was like, “No, no, I’ve already done that,” and she’s like, “No, I think you have unfinished business. Go back.” And…I really learned through that process and through the second time especially, which was the time that I won, that, you know, people want to…and you want to think a beauty pageant would teach you this…that people want to make connection. They want to be seen. They want to feel that they are connecting with others. And I learned that very much through that through that whole process and through the appearances that I was fortunate enough to get to do on behalf of a lot of charities and things around the state. And actually, that experience has served me really well in this new job of being an author. I say new, it’s been a while, but in this job of being an author, especially when it comes to doing things like interviewing or interacting with people or going out and meeting readers and speaking and signing, you know, stuff like that, because I think that’s basically what we all want, to connect and to know that we’re not alone.
And you were also writing, during that time, your second novel, weren’t you?
Yeah, I was writing a book that I that I never finished that I fondly call “the book that will kill me.” And then I wrote another book very quickly, in about six weeks. I wrote a book that would become my first published novel, but that then took about six years to publish actually.
Yeah, overnight success.
It always seems like, and people always think that you are, even though they don’t know how many years have come into that process.
Well, especially in the days when you had to print things off and you mailed them off in boxes and then you waited and waited and waited.
And you have to send the self-addressed stamped envelope and it came with all these ominous warnings, remember: if he didn’t send it you would not hear back.
Well, I lived in Canada, so I had to send International Reply Coupons. It was awful. So, tell me about that first novel, Demon: A Memoir.
I was part of an online gaming community at the time, and I was trying to think of a new gaming character, and I was actually thinking about doing like an angel or something, and I thought a fallen angel would be much more interesting and I just really got to thinking about life as a fallen angel and witnessing history and the progression of time. And I came home, and I started writing that book. I wrote, like, I don’t know forty-some pages that night by hand. And within about six weeks I had a first draft. But the narrative was kind of unconventional and it took a few editors…well, the editor who finally acquired it is the one who said, “Look, I think you need to frame it more like this,” and it gave me the guidance to go in and redo it and then, so that one was picked up in a three-book deal. And I remember them saying, “What else do you have?”, and during that time I had briefly entertained the idea of writing a book about Eve, from her point of view, and I had written like one page, and I pulled that page out and I was like, “Well, I’ve got this I’ve got this one page about Eve,” and they are like, “Great! We’ll take it and one other book,” and I was like, “I don’t have any other ideas,” and they said, ‘You’ll think of something. So, that was that. So, yeah, suddenly I had this three book. But I say suddenly, you know, very tongue in cheek.
Yeah, it’s always in retrospect it may seem suddenly but…
I was interested because a lot of your early books and even the current one, there is certainly a Christian element and you’ve been published in the Christian market. What’s your religious background?
I grew up Christian. I grew up non-denominational, in just a Bible-teaching church, and so when I was writing about this fallen angel, it just made sense for me to go to the Scriptures and form it that way, because for me that’s the authority on those things that I have grown up with. So, that’s been really important to me as I wrote the story of Eve, and then I went on to write the story of Judas Iscariot and the Queen of Sheba. And so, I’m trying to keep things as scripturally accurate as possible. When you are writing Biblical stories, it has been really important. And to that end I’ve always maintained like a small cadre of experts that I can always go to, theologians, academics, you know, scriptural experts, that I can go to pick their brains and get help as I needed it.
So that struck me as well, because I grew up in the church of Christ, and my dad was a preacher and an elder and so all of that stuff is very familiar to me as well.
We’re like twins!
Well, you’re a bestseller and I’m not. There’s that difference.
Well, yeah, that’s an overnight thing too…no, it’s not.
So, all of that strikes me, and my own fiction has a lot of religious references and it does play a part in the plot as well, so that kind of struck my eye as well. Now, moving on to your current one, which we want to talk about, The Line Between, maybe you could give a synopsis so that I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.
Well, The Line Between is about a disease that has emerged from the melting permafrost and it’s causing madness in its victims and it’s spiraling towards a pandemic by the time that the main character, whose name is Winter Roth, is expelled from a doomsday cult on the American prairie, in Iowa, and so as she’s trying to acclimate to life outside this cult, in a world that she’s been taught to regard as evil, this seeming apocalypse is happening, and it seems like all the things that she was taught to fear and to expect are actually happening. And so, that’s the premise of the story and it’s…I don’t know if I can say a lot more without giving it away. She ends up on a mad race across the Midwest…yeah.
That’s why I wanted you to do it and not me so I didn’t give away something I shouldn’t. So, what was…this will be a very apt metaphor considering that the New Life cult sells seeds…what was the seed from which this book grew?
Well, two things. It was actually two separate ideas. One was about the disease coming out of the permafrost–and that was taken straight out of headlines, actually. There’s quite a few headlines in the last couple years talking about microbes and things coming out of the permafrost that are still viable. There was also a news story a couple of years ago in Siberia about a reindeer carcass that thawed from the permafrost, and it was full of anthrax, and it made an entire Siberian village sick and a little boy died. So, this kind of you, know menace, you know, trapped in the frozen tundra and stuff was very interesting to me and there’s been some stories about that. So, in that way it’s not completely unheard of or completely original. So, I took that in and then I also had this idea about a girl leaving a cult and just what it would be like to look at the world through her eyes as she tries to start over. And I was in New York with my publisher, Simon and Schuster, and we were having a meeting, and I was talking through some of these ideas–I came with a short list of some favorites. And my publisher at the time said, “I like these two, why don’t you put them together,” and I said, “Oh, I didn’t think of that, but that could be cool.” So, I really have to…I think it worked out really well and I really have to give credit to my publisher for that.
Well this kind of, I would call it near-future science-fiction thriller, that’s what I would call it, it seems a bit of a departure from what your previous books have been. So, is this kind of a new direction for you?
Well, it is only in so much that it’s a little bit apocalyptic. The two books I did before that were thrillers, also. So, this is my third thriller, so I kind of took a right turn somewhere after doing several historical, biblical historical novels, and started doing these thrillers. My duology before this, The Progeny and Firstborn are what they’re called, had a historical element in it. So, there was a little bit of that, but, yeah, it’s a little different. I’m really enjoying the thrillers. It’s just a completely different animal.
So, with that initial idea, what happened next? There was obviously a lot of research involved in this book. Is that how you start?
Yeah, I’m pretty obsessive about research. There’s not as much research as I have experienced for some of my other books like Iscariot, about Judas Iscariot, and the Queen of Sheba. So, I do my research, I form my outline…this one I ended up going round and round with a few times. It took me a little longer than normal.
Yeah, I’ve got a new series that just started, and the first book was back and forth with my editor because you have to make sure you have everything in that first book that will then support the books that come afterwards.
Yes. The smart thing to do would be to plan out all the, you know, what’s going to happen throughout the books, except I never do that.
I recently interviewed Peter V Brett, who wrote The Demon Cycle books that start with The Warded Man. And he writes like a hundred and fifty pages of outline, so everything is planned out in the tiniest detail, and I thought, “That sounds like a great idea, but I’m never going to do it.”
I dream about outlining like that and it doesn’t ever happen. But I think for me that the more outline I have, it is better. I know people who write completely free of any outlines, and I’ve tried that before, and it’s never worked out very well for me.
So, what does your outline look like? How long is it?
Well, it may it may turn out to be about nineteen or twenty pages, but it’s a loose kind of list of events that happen throughout the book. And then sometimes I plug in little bits of research or things, kind of more or less where I would need them. So, it’s really just a document with things more or less in order as far as I can tell.
Do you find that you do some of your research as you’re going along, like you get to a point and you say, “Oh, I don’t know what Council Bluffs looks like or whatever, and you have to do a little research at that point?
Absolutely. I’m always looking things up and I’m just afraid that someday some government person is going to come knock on my door because of the of my searches.
Yeah, I’ve thought of that. I recently had to look up, “What’s the best way to kill somebody from behind with a knife?”, and I thought, “You know, that could look bad.”
Yeah, I have looked up so many killing things and weapon things and strange, strange things. Yeah.
And this particular one, of course, there is the medical/scientific aspect of it. Who did you talk to about that?
My sister is a doctor and she also teaches medical school.
Oh, that’s handy!
Yeah! So, it is a prion disease in this book which is the same…it’s the kind of disease that Mad Cow is. It’s called Creutzfeldt-Jacobs Disease when it’s in humans. It’s very insidious, it’s very scary. We had to accelerate it a little bit for this book and so…it was really kind of fun and scary and a little weird to realize that you’re like basically designing this, like, designer disease to wipe out a bunch of people.
So, with this, I mean, The Line Between has a fairly complex structure, with flashbacks mixed with the present-day action. It’s largely first-person, but not quite entirely. Did you…does your outline say, well, “Here we’ll have the flashback, and then this part will be present-day, and then here’s another flashback,” or does that sort of happen as you’re writing?
That kind of thing happens as I’m writing. I’m not I’m not quite that visionary or organized ahead of time. You know, I kind of know what I want to happen, and then when I go in, I just have to kind of see how it feels. And a lot of things happen in the process of writing. I mean, I find that I can outline to my heart’s content, but things always change, and things always come up in the actual process of writing and I compare it to looking down at a map or down at the ground from 30,000 feet, but it’s very different when you have boots on the ground. So, it’s a completely different perspective. So, things happen in the process of writing. For that one, I wanted to show what had transpired to lead to Winter’s being expelled from this cult, but I didn’t want to slow down the narrative, or drain out the tension. And so, that’s why I decided to go with this kind of back-and-forth, like past-present-past-present structure in the book.
I thought it worked very well, because, it was like, just when you wonder about something in the present day, then you get this little nugget of information from back in the enclave of how it got to that point. I thought it worked really, really well.
Thank you. Well, it took a little massaging through some of the some of the drafts, that I am very happy with how that part too. So, thank you.
And then there’s a couple of not-first-person sections was that just a place where you felt you needed to get some information out and that was the best way was to give a short scene with another viewpoint?
I’ve got these kind of odd little one-off scenes with these, just where the camera…I always think of it kind of like a movie or TV show where the camera pans over to somewhere else where we see what’s going on. Those were just fun. I don’t know how to say it any differently. I mean, I wanted to show a little bit of…you know, the story could have done without them, but it was just fun.
Well, the one with the farmer and the pigs and the carcass being uncovered, that’s the sort of thing in a movie, that happens, and then you go, “Uh-oh! That’s bad!”.
Is it bad to say I kind of enjoyed that one, where, you know, where the…it’s at the very beginning of the book so we’re not we’re not giving anything away…it’s the farmer finds that his pigs have savaged one another after they’ve dug up this carcass that came up out of the permafrost. And that was actually really fun to write.
What about settings, like the enclave in particular? Do you have a detailed map of things like that, or just as, it’s sort of, as you need it, you’ll figure out where things are?
For that, I kind of had to just form a mental map of where the things are. So, the enclave is the cult compound, basically. It’s a self-contained compound where these cult members live and work and they grow their own food and all this stuff, and they also have a seed company that they use to help support themselves. And, I did kind of have to have, like, a mental layout of where everything was just for my own sanity.
I suppose one thing about writing a present-day or near-future is that at least the world itself doesn’t have to be created. People know what gas stations look like and bars and things like that.
Yeah, that’s one of the hardest things when you’re doing, like, ancient historical…I mean, I literally spent a whole day once researching ancient toilets, ancient Israel…I’ve actually seen some, you know, when I was over there before…researching how that worked and what people used as toilet paper and stuff like that. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I just spent a whole day doing this.” So, that’s the luxury of writing present-day stuff is you don’t have to inform everyone how these things work, or what people are eating or wearing or whatever.
Yeah, it’s the challenge of writing any form of far-future science fiction or historical novels or fantasy novels is you always have to figure out these things. But at least now you know ancient Israeli toilets, and if it comes up at a party, you’ve got something to say.
It was a sponge on a stick. That’s what they used.
Oh good. Now I know, too.
There you go.
How do you develop the characters? You have a first-person character, Winter. How do you go about developing a character? Well, first of all, how do you decide who your character should be, and then how do you develop them, bring them to life?
Well, it’s prescribed for me when I do my historical novels, so that that much is already informed, in the case of, for instance, Judas Iscariot or Eve or the Queen of Sheba. So, for that, it’s all about the research and what the research might tell me about the character, what has impacted this character and how it may have formed their personality. And when I do my historicals, my role is that those characters have to very much be a product of their day. So, for the thrillers, my main characters have been younger women, women in their twenties, I think just because that’s what I have been able to identify with. They are characters that…for me, I need to be able to respect them, I need to be able to feel like I’m offering someone who might be respect-worthy for readers, while at the same time offering somebody that readers can also identify with. I mentioned before I used to be part of a gaming community, a roleplaying community. And I say this, and it’s kind of weird, but I feel like I learned a lot about characterization from doing that, because I did it for so many years and we used to write stories about our characters, and I feel like I am putting on that other skin and roleplaying that character whenever I’m writing a novel. So, it’s pretty organic for me.
How do you create a role? Going back to roleplaying…I was also a big role-player at one point…Dungeons and Dragons was my actual major in university, not journalism. Do you do a character sheet, like you list all these details about the character that you work from, or is again more of a sort of as-you-go thing for you?
I don’t. I know people who do. I know people who, friends, they’ll have…they’re so organized, and maybe I’m just disorganized…but they’ll have pictures all their characters. I mean, they’ve got all this stuff, you know? And for me, though, I just…I kind of try to get that character very firmly in my mind and I really try to get that character’s neuroses and background and injuries and wounds and hopes and all that, all that stuff very firmly in my mind, so that so that I can go into a scene and I can be that character and I can respond organically as that character. So, for instance, Winter in The Line Between has been spiritually abused, basically, and she leaves and she’s contending with PTSD and she has OCD and she’s got OCD in a world that’s being taken over by a pandemic. It was…I loaned her a couple of my own things, because I, too, have OCD, so in that way maybe she’s a little bit similar to me, but I try to just keep it really organic and just go in and go, you know?
I think really all of our characters have at least a little bit of us in them, because what else do we know to write from when it comes to writing people. There’s always a little bit of us in there.
Absolutely. And you know, when I was maybe…do you remember the game Myst, the computer game Myst?
I do indeed.
So, when I was writing for Smart Computing, I interviewed those guys–I think they were brothers that wrote that game–and I was asking them about it, and they said, you know, we just want to make a game that we would like to play. And I think about that when I write books. I want to write a book that I would want to read, about a character that I would want to follow around. So that’s really my intent when it comes to characterization and plotting and everything.
What is your actual writing process? Do you write on computer, do you write longhand, do you dictate? How does it work for you? And where do you do it?
Well, I…so I live on a farm, and a couple of years ago I married a single father and farmer. So, I write upstairs–I call the attic, it’s the old part of the farm house–and I do it on a computer, just in the interest of time. I think…I’ve gotten used to it over the years. but I think that my original desire would have been to write everything in longhand first, but it’s too time-consuming, so I do it on the computer. I procrastinate for as long as possible. And I keep thinking I’m going to mature one of these days and get over this. But I turn fifty this year, I will turn fifty this year, and at this point I don’t know if I’m going to change that much. I’ve been this way since school, when I used to write my papers the night before they were due. So, I procrastinate as long as I can, and then a few months before my deadline I freak out and then I decide I’d better get going and then I write and I get tired here and there, and then the last month or a few weeks or so I’m going very hard at it. In the last couple weeks, I’ll write up to twenty hours a day, and I just…I don’t know how long I can keep doing it that way because it’s very physically draining…but that’s my process. It’s a matter of obsession and panic after a bunch of procrastination.
So, once you have that novel crafted, or at least a draft of it, what’s your rewriting process? Do you use beta readers, or how does that work for you?
I have an editor friend who’s been with me through quite a few…most of my novels, I think almost all of them except for the first one and maybe one of the ones I co-authored… and so I will usually turn to him, to have him read it. He’s very familiar with all my writing tics, he’s often helped me, you know, structure it ahead of time, and so I have him read it, and then I go in and I rewrite. And I rewrite pretty obsessively, and I edit pretty obsessively and it’s very hard for me to turn a novel in. I actually like the process of editing better than the process of writing the first draft. I find first drafts really painful. But I like it when I have something to work with and I can really go in and shape it up. I think that’s a lot of fun. And it’s hard for me to turn it in, though, because I want to keep picking at it. I’m a picker.
You mentioned writing tics. What are some of yours that you have to watch out for?
I’ve worked really hard to try to get rid of them. I used to use a lot of dashes and I used to like to jumble up kind of the order of my sentences and, like, where you’d get the clause in front or whatever it’s called. I used to really overuse the phrase “for the first time.” I write in first person a lot and my characters would often say, “For the first time in blah blah blah I felt this, or I saw this,” or “The first time in my life this…” Those are items that my friend Steve, my editor friend, calls Toscaisms.
I have to watch out watch out for my characters making animal noises, you know, growling and snarling…
So…I had another question about the rewriting process…your editor! What does the editor contribute then, when the manuscript comes in? How much editorial revision do you typically end up with?
The editor at my publisher?
Okay. Well it just depends. I mean, for The Line Between, she had some suggestions around the structure in order to keep that pacing that’s so important for thrillers. But it just depends on the book. When I re-did it and I sent it in, we did several rounds on that one, but on my most recent one that I turned in, the one that went really, really quickly, actually, and I think that’s how you know that it’s fairly clean, she sent it back and she said, “This is the shortest editorial letter I’ve ever written.” And I was like, “This is either really good or really bad, I don’t know.” So, I went through and I made just the few changes she had and sent it back in and she sent me the line edit and she goes, “I think this is the shortest line edit I’ve ever done.” So, it just really depends on the book and kind of what’s going on. The Line Between took me a few rounds to really wrestle into shape and I think…I don’t think it was so much the story. I think there was a lot of upheaval happening at my publisher at the time, and I think that all those things can kind of go in and play with your confidence as you are working. So, I think that probably affected my writing I was working on it.
Yeah, there’s been a lot of a publishing upheaval over the last few years, that’s for sure. One thing I found in the book that was interesting was the little, the ads for the seed business. Was that something that..at what point did you decide those needed to be in the book?
Yeah, I’ve got an ad, and I’ve got a web page for it, I think. I just thought, I just…there are these little things that, once again, that just kind of come up while you’re working on something and where you think, “You know, this might be kind of helpful?” We’re so used to looking at web pages, we’re Googling things, and I thought, “Let’s just slam a web page in here, right here, for the seed business,” because it’s a little piece of extra information, and your eye can go over it quickly, you can read it.
Well, I was reading it on my iPad and my first inclination was to poke at the link…even though I knew it wouldn’t work, but that’s, I had this urge to poke at it.
I should I should have thought of that, because that would be so funny, to make some of those links live, like, on the Kindle or something.
It doesn’t work in a PDF, I can tell you that. I also wanted to ask you about…you have collaborated with Ted Dekker. What does a collaboration…how did that work for you?
Collaborations are fun and they’re educational, I think, for both parties. And if you’re ever considering doing it, my advice is always to know what your strengths are as a writer and to know what you’re bringing to the table, because, as in any partnership, whether it’s a business partnership, whether it’s a friendship, whether it’s a writing collaboration, it’s important to know how your strengths will complement the other person’s. And so, it takes time to kind of iron out the process, and I’ve known many people who have collaborated, many authors, and I’ve never heard of anybody having exactly the same process. I mean, I know coauthors that literally sit in the same room together and write each word together, looking over each other’s shoulders at the screen, which would drive me crazy, and I know other people that trade off chapters and trade off characters. Over the course of three books, we had a few different processes for that, Ted and I, and I can tell you that the first book, generally, it took quite a lot longer and the second book was much faster. And then the third book just flew by because by then we had the process down.
So, we should probably say what those three books are.
Oh, sorry, okay. So, it’s the Books of Mortals trilogy, and they are Forbidden, Mortal, and Sovereign. And I’ve actually collaborated with another author since then, but we have not put that book out yet, so…and it was again a very rewarding experience and also a very different process from the way that Ted and I wrote. So, I think it’s always different and I think it’s really important always, as a writer, to know yourself well enough to know how you work best, and to bring that to the collaboration, too.
Well, now we’ll go on to the big philosophical questions.
They’re not that hard. Well, maybe they are, I don’t know, but hopefully not. Well, first of all, why do you write, and then second, in the more general sense, why do you think anybody writes? Especially, why do we write things like historical novels and fantasies and science fiction, things that are counterfactual or alternative worlds or however you want to think of that?
I think for several reasons, I think because, a) it’s fun. You know, when you’re a kid, you tell stories. At some point we grow up and we think maybe we shouldn’t spend our time doing stuff like that, but I think on its most basic level we write, and we tell stories because it’s fun. And I think also because it’s entertaining. I think at the beginning of my career I wanted to write to see if I could do it and I wanted to write to connect with history and connect with other people. And I think, as I said earlier, that we all basically want to know that we’re not alone. And so that’s why we read and that’s why we write. These days, though…that is still there, and the fun part is still there, but I also really enjoy entertaining readers. And it took me a while off doing signings and stuff. I had…I would occasionally have people come up and give me a hug or something. and some of them would start crying. and there was some emotional response there, and what I didn’t know is that the books I had written…and the crying was not about me, and it wasn’t even really about my book, it was the fact that they, we, all turn to fiction to escape for a time, whether it’s just boredom or whether it’s just to go enjoy ourselves or whether it’s, you know, we’re going through something difficult like a divorce or we’re caretaking for an older parent or something. We all need to escape. And I realized that there were people coming and telling me, “I read your book when I was in the hospital and I was very sick, and I read your book when I was going through this difficult time.” And so, there’s an emotional connection there. And I think of those readers when I write, a lot, because it’s such a privilege to offer them those adventures or those escapes. And I love doing that.
That seems like a good reason. When you write these, you’re shaping…this is called World shapers, so I’ll use the term “shaping” your fictional worlds…are you hoping in some fashion to shape your readers, to have some impact on the real world, and if so, in what way? And if not, why not?
Well, yes, I mean I always hope that there’s something that they will take away, that they will think about, or that they will learn. And in the historical novels it’s really easy to say that, because I want them to have experienced and seen or learned something new about the history or about that time period that maybe they didn’t know before. But I really also just want them to have something to chew on when they finish reading and they’re still thinking about the book. I really like that. I like that for myself as a reader, when a part of me is still in that world and I’m still thinking about something in it. I don’t really try to dictate what that might be because I’ve learned that what it is that people take away from a book depends so much on what they bring to it and what’s going on with them at that time. So. Yeah.
So, it sounds like connecting with your readers is something that’s very important to you.
Yeah, it is, in stories and in the books but even on social media and stuff like that too. That’s one of the funnest parts about being an author to me, being invited into the lives of my readers and being able to join them for a time.
And what are you working on now? And what’s after that?
Well, currently on my desk I’ve got edits for A Single Light, which is the sequel to The Line Between, which comes out in September, I think the 17th or something like that. I have just sent over to my agent a concept for my next book proposal, which is also a thriller with a historical element. So, we’ll see what happens there. And…yeah, those two things. Oh, and it’s that busy time right before a book releases, and so it’s a little bit crazy right now but I’m trying to do these edits and stuff in the midst of all.
Is it just the two books, then, in this particular story?
Yeah, just the two books.
Well, I got to the end of it and was anxious to find out what happened next, so I’ll be looking to the next one.
Well, make sure that you get the next one.
It’s not exactly a cliffhanger but there’s definitely a sense of something is about to happen.
I put a terrible cliffhanger at the end of The Progeny, and I have some people who just wanted to murder me, I guess, over that one, so I really tried not to do that with this one, so…
I’ve discovered that. My first book in my series ends with a very definite cliffhanger and I’ve discovered there are readers who really, really hate books that end with cliffhangers, or they might like the book, but they don’t like the cliffhanger.
Yeah. If they have to wait, they don’t like it. Now it’s the book, the sequel’s already out then they’re usually okay, I think.
It’s always nice if you can get a complete series and read it from start to finish.
Maybe not for the author who wants the book to sell as it comes out, but….
Well, you know, we live in this society that so used to bingeing everything now, so I think we’re used to it in that way, to being able to watch and read and consume everything all at once.
Well, you mentioned George R.R. Martin. I finally read the books, last fall, I think, and I thought there were so many of them that he’d surely have the last one out by the time I finished the ones that are already out. But no.
He missed his deadline. I felt so bad for him. He wrote this long post about how he had missed his deadline and I just thought, “Oh, gosh, you know, the pressure for him must be so immense.”
Yeah, it has to be. So, where can people find you online if they want to connect with you.
Well my Web site, which is ToscaLee.com. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat (I’m not very good at Snapchat). But, I’m on social media…
And you’re active on there?
I’m active on there, yep.
That’s great. Well, I think that’s about it. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
Thanks for having me. I so enjoyed it.
And we should just mention, what’s the new book called and when does it come out?
It’s The Line Betweenand it’s out January 29, so it’ll be out now when this airs, and then the follow-up is A Single Lightand it’s coming in September.
And are there audiobook versions as well?
Yes, and I’m very happy to say that Cassandra Campbell–she did my last novel, Firstborn, but she must recently did Bird Boxas well–she’s narrating, and she’s fabulous.
Okay, so something else. Because there certainly are people that love audiobooks.
I love audiobooks, too.
All right. Well thank you very much for being on. I’ll let you go for now. But I really enjoyed it.