Interview by Shara Saunsaucie White
Carrie Vaughn is the New York Times Bestselling author of a series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk radio advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged. Publishers Weekly said that “Vaughn’s universe is convincing and imaginative.” Kitty and The Midnight Hour, the first book in the series, has over a hundred thousand copies in print. The two newest books, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand and Kitty Raises Hell, will appear early in 2009. She’s also published many short stories in various anthologies and magazines such as Realms of Fantasy and Weird Tales, and is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s Wild Cards series.
Carrie graduated from the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop in 1998 and is excited to return as writer-in-residence for Odyssey 2009. “Once I was but the student. Now, I am the master.” Oh, and she’s also a big Star Wars fan. But she really does have a Masters in English Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She credits the intensive Odyssey experience with helping her cross the great divide between unpublished and published, and with setting her firmly on the road of professional writing, with the skills she learned and contacts she made.
A lifelong science fiction fan and reader (her parents both read science fiction), Carrie worked the traditional series of day jobs for about twelve years before turning to writing full time. She survived her Air Force brat childhood and managed to put down roots in Colorado, where she lives in Boulder with her dog, Lily, and too many hobbies. Visit her website at www.carrievaughn.com.
Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
Pre-Odyssey, I had a 40 hour a week day job and not much social life, so I wrote every day, usually in the evenings. In the three years between college and Odyssey, I wrote my first three novels (two of which have never seen the light of day), and a bunch of stories. My process was pretty much write a story, send it out.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
I wasn’t getting published, my writing wasn’t getting any better, and I didn’t know why. I needed a boost, a kick in the pants, or something. I might have also, a little bit, been looking for someone to tell me I had a chance of making it as a writer–or that I was a lost cause and should give it up. I was planning a lot of changes in my life anyway–I was set to start grad school in the fall, so it was a good time to quit my job and take a summer off. I looked at all three of the summer workshops at the time–Clarion, Clarion West, and Odyssey, which was still new at the time (I went in its third year). All of them had an amazing slate of instructors that year, but Odyssey had Patricia McKillip and Harlan Ellison, which sold me. Also, I’d never been to New England and I wanted to see that part of the country.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
Wow, where to start? I say it over and over again, but Jeanne and Odyssey taught me what it really means to revise a story, and I’d been missing that step all along. Having a story critiqued by all my classmates, and Jeanne, gave me so much insight into my writing–it showed me that what I thought I was writing wasn’t what people were reading. I started to become aware of the reader’s take on a story, and to craft my story so that the reader understands what I’m trying to say. Also, being in a workshop for six weeks, with nothing to do but write, gave me the freedom to rewrite stories top to bottom, which I’d never really done before. I’d always been so anxious to put a new story in the mail, I’d never given myself time to put that much effort into a rewrite. I still really value feedback on my writing. I’ve also learned that a critique isn’t necessarily a blueprint for how to change a story. Rather, the critique shows you where your story went astray from your original intention, and what parts of a story to focus on in order to bring it closer to what you intended for it.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to your publisher? Are your first drafts pretty much ready to go save for line edits, or do you have time for multiple drafts?
This is hard for me to answer because I revise as I write, especially on novel length works. To refer back to the previous questions, one of the things getting multiple critiques on different stories and rewriting them over the course of a few weeks did for me was show me mistakes I was making all the time, and I learned to fix those before I started. Or learned to notice them when they happen, so that I can fix them on the fly.
Anyway, what usually happens is I’ll get two thirds of the way through writing a novel knowing that the plot doesn’t quite come together, then I’ll suddenly figure out what I need to fix the plot (or I’ll have enough written to finally be able to see the forest for the trees, if that makes sense), I’ll stop, go back to the beginning, and revise so that the draft matches the new outline. So there’s sort of two thirds of a rewrite. When I finish writing, I’ll read it over and make changes. Then I’ll print it out, send it to my first readers, get back comments, read it again, make more changes. Then I’ll send it to my publisher. The first time I print it out and send it to my first readers–I’ve been calling that my “zero” draft, because there’s enough there that if something happened to me my publisher could still probably get a book out of it. But the draft I send is the official first draft. It’ll go through at least one more big revision based on my editor’s comments–which average 10 single spaced pages.
Your KITTY books are a phenomenal success. How did you first come up with the character of Kitty Norville?
It came in stages. First, I figured that if there really were vampires and werewolves, in the current vein of supernatural fiction (no pun intended), their personal lives [would] get really soap operatic and Dr. Laura wouldn’t be able to handle their problems. So they needed their own call in radio advice show. Second, I needed a character to host this show. I could have made her a normal human, but why? I didn’t want to make her a vampire, because I didn’t have anything new or interesting to say about vampires. I did, however, think I could do something interesting with werewolves. So I made her a werewolf. Third–if I could dig up the very first draft of the very first Kitty story, you would see that her name was not originally Kitty. But then I thought about naming her Kitty, and I couldn’t possibly name her anything else after that.
By March, you’ll have released six books featuring Kitty Norville. What’s the hardest thing about writing a series with a continuing character?
Remembering what I said about all the characters in all the previous books. Keeping track of the timeline. I haven’t been very good about keeping a “bible” on this series.
There is something of a challenge in coming up with new stories, keeping the series fresh, keeping it consistent while still breaking new ground. But a challenge like that is great fun. When it was clear that Kitty was going to become a rather long-running series, I spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a good series (both books and TV), and what happens when a series goes horribly wrong. I picked out a few things I think make a series successful, and have tried to live up to those traits while avoiding mistakes I think other series have made. That part of it has actually been a lot of fun. I’ve tried to set a specific challenge or goal for myself in each book, so that I’m still improving as a writer and not just phoning it in. I hope it’s working.
As the writer-in-residence at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What are your thoughts about going back as a lecturer instead of a student? What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
My first thought is: Holy cow! My first book only came out in 2005, I’m still just a baby in this business and have no credentials to actually teach anyone!
My second thought is: working with Jeanne on the Odyssey Critique Service has shown me that I actually do have a set of skills when it comes to writing fiction. I actually can articulate some of this stuff and help writers figure out what they need to do to improve. Having been through the process myself, I know that “Eureka!” moments really do happen, things really can click after a struggle. Jeanne was there for a couple of my eureka moments, she can tell you all about it.
My third thought: this is going to be an adventure, and I’m looking forward to it.
My advice: developing writers are always told to be persistent. I have an addendum to that: persist and improve. If you’re writing the same broken story with the same mistakes over and over again, you’re never going to get published. You have to challenge yourself, learn to analyze fiction, learn to analyze your own fiction. Learn to throw out broken stories and start over. If you always write in first person, try writing in third person. Don’t read or watch movies and TV passively. If you hate a book, figure out why. If you love a book, figure out why. Apply it to your own work. Never stop learning.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are there more KITTY books to enjoy, or are you starting any new projects?
I’ve turned in the seventh Kitty book (Kitty’s House of Horrors), and I have ideas for more on the way. I’m working on a couple of young adult books, believe it or not. They’re very gee-whiz adventure and I’m having fun stretching those muscles. I have lots of short stories in lots of venues on the horizon. I’m pleased that I’ve been able to keep up the short story writing, at least a little bit, while working on novels.
Carrie Vaughn’s latest release, Kitty and the Dead Man’s Hand, has hit both the New York Times Paperback Mass-Market Fiction Bestseller List and the Barnes & Noble Store Mass Market Bestseller List. Congrats, Carrie!