Interview: Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne Gilman will be the writer-in-residence at this summer’s Odyssey workshop. Before she took the first plunge into murky writing waters and submitted her first story to a professional market, she was an editorial assistant at the Berkley Publishing Group in 1994. An almost immediate sale to Amazing Stories followed. She didn’t make another fiction sale for more than a year, which taught her humility and patience. And the fine art of perseverance.

Over the next few years, in addition to a number of short stories published in magazines and anthologies (many garnering “Year’s Best” honorable mentions), she wrote or co-wrote four media tie-in novels (Quantum Leap: Double or Nothing; Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Visitors and Deep Water; and Poltergeist: The Legacy: The Shadows Between). In the meanwhile, she moved up the corporate ladder to be Executive Editor at NAL/Penguin USA.

In 2003, after a great deal of planning and soul-searching–and with a three book contract in-hand–she left editorial to become a full-time writer. In 2004, her first original novel, the urban fantasy Staying Dead was published by Luna. It was followed by Curse The Dark, Bring It On, Burning Bridges, Free Fall, and Blood From Stone. The first in a spinoff series, Hard Magic, will be published in May 2010.

The first book in The Vineart War trilogy, Flesh and Fire, was published by Pocket Books in October 2009. The second book, Weight of Stone, will be available October 2010.

To-date, she has sold over thirty works of short fiction, ranging from mainstream to science fiction to horror. She is also the author of the Grail Quest YA trilogy for HarperCollins (2006), and a number of nonfiction books for teenagers. Writing as “Anna Leonard,” she has also written four paranormal romances (The Night Serpent, Dreamcatcher, The Hunted, and Mustang).

Laura Anne also co-edited the anthologies OtherWere: Stories of Transformation (Ace), Treachery & Treason (Roc) and The Shadow Conspiracy (Book View Press). As part of the Book View Café (http://www.bookviewcafe.com/), she is involved in expanding the definition of publishing beyond the traditional models, experimenting with the writer-to-reader connection.

More details about her work can be found at http://lauraannegilman.net.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I have a terrible confession to make. I sold the first short story I ever submitted to either the first or second place I sent it to (“All The Comforts of Home,” Amazing Stories, 1994). It freaked me out a little, because I knew damn well it wasn’t supposed to be that easy. But it took another eighteen months to get past the form rejection stage for anything else, so the scales balanced.

As for what I was doing wrong…I didn’t have the sophistication to handle advanced themes, and the simpler stuff was simply not all that interesting or individual yet. I didn’t have a developed voice, or the storytelling muscle to carry it. The first story was a fluke. Admittedly, it was a fluke that gave me the confidence that I would be able to do this consistently, some day, and kept me working.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

Repetition is half the work of developing a voice–I wrote stories that got rejected, and then I looked at why they had been rejected (when the editor was kind enough to give feedback). And I listened to what I was hearing.

I read other people’s work and, rather than imitating what I saw, I started to integrate it into my own storytelling, using it to support my themes and stylistic quirks. Over time, I began to develop a voice that was both my own and skilled enough to convey those more complicated themes and storylines.

I kept working, kept reading, kept trying, and didn’t lower my sights or accept anything less than the best market I could crack.

But it’s not an “and then I did this and it all worked” situation. I’m still developing, still learning. Knowing who you are and what you want to say is essential to selling – you can’t convince an editor until you’ve convinced yourself — and you are, if you‘re doing it right, changing and developing every day. And still getting rejected, because not everything works.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

I joke that someday I will write a book through, start to finish, and be done. But it’s never that day, and it’s never that book. I tend to work from outline, although I don’t force myself to stick to it. Then I write a structural outline that hits the pacing notes and expands on the characters and action. Then I go over it again for a rough draft that goes to beta readers, and then I take their feedback and write what I call the “editor’s draft.” That, obviously, goes to my editor, who is able to see it with a clearer eye, and puts me through another round of changes. And then, of course, I see the copyedit, and then again in page proofs, but those are nit-picking and minute changes, not rewriting.

The actual time spent on any one draft depends on the book — how much research is required, how many points of view I’m playing with, how intricate the style, and what else I have waiting on my desk, demanding my attention next.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

Continuity. Nitpicky and really important details that tend to get swamped under the bigger picture, but are essential to make the story work.

When you’re writing in a series, especially past the first few books, there are so many small and large details to keep track of, it really requires a full-time brain to keep up with it all. I’m a detail-oriented person, but I find myself run over by the sheer amount of Stuff I’ve created and need to keep track of! Specifically, the Cosa Nostradamus universe currently includes 6 Retriever novels, 3 PSI novels (first one to be published in May ‘10) and five short stories. Add to that the three books in The Vineart War trilogy, and I once had to stop and say “no, wait, wrong magic system…”

For my birthday, I’d love for an obsessive-compulsive fan to put up a Wiki for the Cos Nostradamus, so we could all keep track together. Until then, I have to rely on my own notes, and really good copyeditors to keep me honest.

When you submitted your first story to a magazine, you were an editorial assistant at the Berkley Publishing Group. What was it like spending part of your day sending out rejection letters and part of your day waiting for possible acceptance or rejection letters? As you moved up the publishing ranks to executive editor, how did your publishing and writing careers interact?

I had an amazing advantage, working in the guts of publishing the way I did. Not just in learning how the industry actually worked–although I won’t deny that helped me avoid a lot of the myths and mis-assessments new writers encounter! But mainly I learned early on that it wasn’t personal, that my stories were being judged, not me, and that getting rejected was sometimes simply a case of “we can’t use this” not “you suck.” And sometimes it was “this story really isn’t as good as you think it is. Try again.” Editors were real people to me–I knew that they rooted for the story they could fall in love with, rather than sitting there like evil spiders, waiting for something to reject.

As to how my careers interacted…carefully, is the only answer I can give. My day job, my career at the time, was editing. It got the lion’s share of my time and energy–my authors came before my own work. That was the choice I made. I’ve had writers tell me that they thought the fact that I knew, that I understood what drove them, and how to work with them, made me a better editor. I hope so.

It also told me when it was time to leave full-time editing. When the writing was demanding more of me, and I found the hours put in with meetings and the seemingly endless minutia of the editorial day, because it took away from the time I had to write… it was time to make a choice. Both careers use similar energy, both mental and emotional, and trying to give them both full-time attention was, for me, impossible.

As the author of an urban fantasy series The Retrievers and an upcoming trilogy The Vineart War, what are your thoughts regarding series-writing as opposed to writing stand-alones? When thinking of story ideas, do you know right away that an idea will be a series?

A friend of mine commented recently on the fact that, while she thinks in terms of an individual book, I tend to think in terms of series. I suspect some of that has to do with growing up reading not only SF/F, but mysteries as well–the ongoing series of stand-alone stories featuring a continuing main character. So yeah, I know pretty soon after initial idea if it’s going to be a one-off, a closed series (trilogy, quad, etc) or an open-ended series. The first five Retriever books were a definite story arc–the 6th book stood alone, even though it was part of the same series, and the Paranormal Scene Investigators are planned the same way, with each book plot-independent but building on each other. The Camelot books (YA) were three stories that each stood alone. The Vineart War, on the other hand was a definite trilogy–acts I, II, and III. The next book in that universe, if written, will be a stand-alone.

Writing an open-ended series and writing a single stand-alone isn‘t all that different. Except the note-taking. You need to keep really good notes, if you’re going to write a series. Writing a multi-volume story–that can get tricky. The pacing is different for that, and more complicated, and you have more room to make an utter fool of yourself. I’m very glad I waited half-a-dozen books before trying that!

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

Take ownership of your goals. Set them high. Work at surpassing them every day. It’s advice for anyone, really, but in the creative arts it’s especially important, because only you know what you’re capable of–and if you push yourself emotionally, if you’re not afraid of what you‘ll find but welcome the discovery, you will find depth and color in your work you never dreamed were there.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

Right now I’m working on the second and third PSI books (one is in revisions, the other’s in draft), revising Book 2 of The Vineart War, and about to start drafting Book 3 of The Vineart War. I’m also working on a collection of short stories (some original, some reprint) that will be published via BookView Café (http://www.bookviewcafe.com/), and working on a handful of original shorter work.

New projects? Always. There’s an alternate Americana novella collection out on submission, plus new proposals in the Cosa Nostradamus universe to my editor at Luna, a paranormal romance series I’m working on, and an entirely new and different book that’s in proposal stage right now, but I’m really excited about it.

The working writer is always working on at least three levels: in-production, currently-writing, and hope-they-want-it. That’s how we keep this gig going.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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