Interview: Rhiannon Held

Rhiannon Held is a graduate of the 2006 Odyssey Writing Workshop. She lives in Seattle, where she works as a professional archaeologist. Unfortunately, given that it’s real rather than fictional archaeology, fedoras, bullwhips, aliens, and dinosaurs are in short supply. Most of her work is done on the computer, using databases to organize data, and graphics programs to illustrate it. Her debut novel, Silver, is the first in an urban fantasy series from Tor. You may visit her website at http://rhiannonheld.com/


Congratulations on your book deal with Tor! Can you tell us what inspired Silver?

The character of Silver herself came to me first. I started playing with the idea of a werewolf who had been injected with liquid silver: what would it do to her? Would she hallucinate? What if she saw the spirit realm—or possibly something her imagination had constructed that seemed like the spirit realm? Of course, to create the spirit realm, I had to figure out the werewolf religion. And then I had to figure out werewolf culture. And Silver needed some other characters to jumpstart her journey, and of course my other POV character had to have a journey of his own…and by then, I had an entire novel!

Has this sale had an impact on your writing schedule? How about on your day job as an archaeologist?

In some ways it has, and in others it hasn’t. Before the sale, I was already a fast writer, so I don’t necessarily need to put in any more raw hours at the keyboard now to meet deadlines. My writing time has been cut into a little by all the business aspects of having a published book, though. Maintaining a social media presence, arranging signings, looking for opportunities to attend cons, writing guest blog posts, finding reviewers who would be interested in my review copies… A lot of the shuffling of my schedule has been to figure out when to do business within my old writing time block: write first, business later, or vice versa? To make room for business, I’ve been working on becoming more efficient about my writing time. I make sure to do my plotting on my way to and from work. That way, I can sit down and write out what I’ve already figured out ahead of time.

I’ve so far been able to fit my writing time around my day job, but business things like cons and out of town signings aren’t as flexible. Fortunately, currently I work most with the final stages of producing reports for our clients, so while deadlines can be tight, I know ahead of time when a report will be due, and can finish my work on it before leaving for a con.

How does being an archaeologist affect your writing?

I think it affects my world-building most, which won’t surprise people, but I think they would be surprised by the kind of world details that it affects. When people think of archaeology, they often picture Old World archaeology: temples and artifacts of large, settled societies. When you study small hunter-gatherer tribes, you have to rely more on aspects of anthropology, to get at their culture without fancy paintings and monuments to showcase it. I treat my werewolves as a tribal society, one that lacks written records to allow them to better hide from humans. That means they should have all kinds of things I’m familiar with because of my anthropology training: taboos and songs and games and holidays and etiquette and…

My graduate degree was from a program specializing in evolutionary anthropology, which creeps in too. For example, evolutionarily, it makes no sense for a shift to be involuntary. Any werewolves with that trait would have been caught by humans sooner or later on their DNA pitchfork and torched out of the gene pool. I considered other questions like how many werewolves would there need to for a breeding population? How fertile could they be given a longer lifespan? I think they’re all fun and interesting things to consider, and while I don’t bore the reader with them on screen, I think readers all have enough experience with various human cultures for something to feel subconsciously “real” if it’s based in real human cultural traits.

Silver is the first book in a trilogy, correct? Did you have all three books written before approaching a publisher?

Actually it’s the first book in a series, not a trilogy! I’m careful about making the distinction because I think urban fantasy runs into trouble when it doesn’t realize its differences from traditional fantasy and doesn’t capitalize on its similarities to the mystery genre. The trilogy is a concept often used in traditional fantasy, and it carries connotations of some large, book-spanning arc to be resolved at the end of the third book. A mystery series, on the other hand, has much more flexibility for the author to craft an arc for returning characters for each book, but not have to save the whole world at the end of the third, the sixth, the ninth books…

But to actually answer the question, when I sold Silver, I had book 1 and the discovery draft of book 2 finished. When my editor told me she was interested in buying book 1, she also asked whether I had any other books planned. Tor decided to buy the first 3, with an option on the next one. At that time, I had rough ideas for books 2 to 4, but over time and in talking with my editor, they got modified and refined. Book 2, Tarnished, is a combination of my rough ideas for 2 and 3, the current book 3 is something entirely new, and the old idea for book 4 has been pushed to an indeterminate place later in the series.

Since I am writing my books as a series, I think it freed me up so I didn’t need to have them all extensively plotted or written before trying to sell the whole package. That’s not my writing process anyway. I do an outline for each book, but as I get to know my characters through the process of writing one book, more opportunities for conflict amongst them and with aspects of the world occur to me. Those conflicts form the basis for later books. I’ve heard of urban fantasy writers who had their series roughly plotted up to ten books from the beginning. I’m writing book 3, I have 4 outlined, 5 brainstormed, and a spark of an idea for 6. As I write forward, the leading edge advances too.

Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson has collected hundreds of rejection slips over the course of his career. How many rejections did you receive before realizing this success? What is your philosophy about rejections?

Sometimes I feel like my number of rejections is lower than average, but as a scientist, I suspect a reporting bias. You often hear that this story sold after 22 rejections! That novel sold after 16! I can’t remember the last time someone mentioned that they sold a story after a modest two or three rejections. It’s not something people remark on.

But I shall remark! I started keeping precise track of my short story rejection numbers fairly early on. Data is important! Around 45 or so, I made a deal with myself that when I reached 100, I would buy myself a flat-panel TV. Fifty was obviously too easy a goal at that point, and 75 seemed insufficiently round. Around 55 or 60 rejections, I sold my first story. I’ll admit I was stumped–did that merit the TV or not? I decided to keep going. I sold a second short story, and then around 70 or so, I sold my novel. With the novels taking my attention, I haven’t been submitting short stories nearly as often lately, so I still haven’t achieved my 100 (and I bought that TV long ago, because I stumbled onto a deal for a used one I couldn’t pass up).

That’s the raw data, but let me put it into perspective. As near as I can recall, the period from my very first rejection to when I sold my novel was six years. In that time, I attended four convention writer’s workshops, Odyssey, and spent over three years in an awesome writer’s group that met weekly. I could feel my writing skills improving significantly with each of those experiences, so a lot of the time I wasn’t submitting because I was waiting for the gains I’d made in skill to fully show themselves in my new work. So my rejection numbers are low compared to some because I waited to capitalize on my improvements rather than keeping up my submissions during the transitions.

I suppose my philosophy on rejections expands on “don’t take them personally.” It’s “you will take them personally at first, and even sometimes later, and that’s okay.” I struggled a lot with that at the beginning, because writers would helpfully advise me to not take any rejections personally, and then dust their hands and sit back. It made me feel like there was some sort of switch I was missing. Obviously I should be able to flip it to “not personal,” and my life would be great!

It did not, unsurprisingly, work that way. Not taking rejections personally is a muscle. You don’t get up from the couch and run a marathon the first day you ever put on track shoes, and you don’t receive your first rejection and take it in instant, easy emotional stride. Taking a day, a week, a month, to work through it doesn’t make you a bad person. The more you get, the easier dealing with them becomes, but try not to forget that there’s still going to be a rejection from an extra-special market, or for an extra-special story, that will knock you for a loop.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?

I’m a big fan of schooling! Through my experiences in high school and college, I figured out that I learn best when I have someone teaching me, rather than just reading from a book. Having been a part of the larger writing community for quite a while now, my mindset back then seems unusual for a beginning writer, but when I decided I wanted to be a proper writer, I started searching for someone to teach me rather than just reading about writing or practicing a lot. I submitted my work for critique in free workshops at a couple cons, but then I started looking into residential writing programs like Clarion and Odyssey. Odyssey seemed like it would have a really high level of instruction and would be a good fit for me.

How did attending Odyssey change your writing process?

Odyssey taught me to deal with critique much faster. Before then, I’d get critiques on a story and not look at them for six months. Now, after Odyssey and having a weekly critique group for several years, I sometimes start revisions as early as a few days after receiving critique. A lot of that is because I learned to speed up the process of putting my emotions about being critiqued aside so I could take in the content of the critiques. The few days I take now are mostly spent brainstorming plot problems. Odyssey gave me a huge jump on learning to put my emotions aside quickly, because the experience was so intense and densely packed with information. You didn’t have time to be emotional about a critique, because you were turning in your next story, or starting your next revision, or learning some cool new writing technique to add to your arsenal.

What surprised you most about what you learned there? What insights did you gain into your own work?

What I hadn’t expected was how Odyssey helped give me a framework to continue to learn from many different sources after the workshop was over. I learned a lot of really useful specific writing and self-editing techniques, but I also learned to view my writing skills as something I could constantly grow and improve throughout my career. Odyssey gave me a firm foundation, and I’ve gone out and continued to build on it.

The biggest insight I gained into my own work was how to integrate my love of lyrical imagery with a comprehensible plot. When I arrived, I had developed both somewhat separately, and enjoyed doing both, but Odyssey showed me how confused people were when I indulged in too much imagery in one place. Hearing the specific points of confusion helped me tweak my imagery to work with my plot instead of against it.

How many stages did Silver go through before you began the submission process?

It went through approximately 4.1, or perhaps 4.2 stages! (The precision of the numbers is a joke due to the fact that I thought of polishing passes as half drafts, and named the files things like “Silver Draft 2.5”) I wrote a draft, showed it to my local critique group, revised, showed it to them again, revised, submitted it to TNEO [The Never-Ending Odyssey]. Then I let it and the TNEO critiques sit and sit and sit for probably around six months, in the name of clearing my mind, until a good friend kicked me in the pants and said “Submit it!” So I revised and used Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution exhaustively to make the sentence-level writing better, sent it to some friends who hadn’t read it yet to get their polishing critiques, and submitted it! You’ll notice two points in the process where I stalled briefly (I need to let it rest longer! I need one more person to read over the whole thing!) but I managed to break myself out and keep going.

Do you have any advice for those ready to submit their novels?

The advice I wish people had given me has more to do with what you do while you wait, after having sent the novel off. Prepare yourself for it not to sell. Start a completely new project, so if you run out of places to send your current novel, you have something new and different to try next. Settle in for the long haul, and remember all the statistics about how many novels hugely successful authors wrote before they sold their first.

All that’s stuff you’ve probably read before, though. I want to add something else. The probability of it might be lower, but it’s still a probability, so: prepare yourself for your novel to sell. Pay attention to published author’s blogs. I got caught off guard because I had avoided reading about what being published was like, because I didn’t want to get so distracted by daydreams of attending red-carpet premiers for the movies based on my books, cheered by legions of screaming fans, that I didn’t put in the work to make my novel any good in the first place. In fact, I went so far to avoid distracting daydreams that I had to scramble when I actually sold my novel. What could I expect? What might be the fun parts, the pitfalls, and the places where I’d have to work hard? A little pragmatic planning around hypotheticals can be good: will you have to rearrange your schedule to meet deadlines? Do you have the flexibility at work to attend a lot of cons? What kind of self-promotion and marketing are you good at? Which kinds are you going to have to start practicing to get better at?

For some, that might be like counting your chickens before they hatch, but for me, it would have left me much less flustered when I made my sale. Only you can decide the exact proportions of planning for the worst outcome and planning for the best outcome that will keep you happy and motivated and continuing to write while you wait, but there’s no reason to neglect one or the other entirely.

What’s next on the writing schedule for you? Are you starting any new projects?

I’m hip-deep in book 3 at the moment, though I’ve been taking time off for a short story for a themed anthology, and I do fun projects every so often. I’ve written a couple short shorts as presents for artist friends who have drawn my characters. I only ever work on one novel at a time, but when I feel the new project itch, I have a spin-off series that I’ve been outlining the first book of. It satisfies the feeling of playing in a new sandbox, without going so far as to become hard—but fun!—work, as a project does when you take it on properly.


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

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