Interview: Alex Hughes

Alex has written since early childhood, and loves great stories in any form including science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Over the years, Alex has lived in many neighborhoods of the sprawling metro Atlanta area. Decatur, the neighborhood on which Clean is centered, was Alex’s college home.

On any given week you can find Alex in the kitchen cooking gourmet Italian food, watching hours of police procedural dramas, and typing madly.

Alex is a graduate of the 2011 Odyssey Writing Workshop. You can learn more about Alex at www.ahugheswriter.com.


Congratulations on the upcoming launch of Clean! It’s been great to see so many success stories among the Odyssey alumni. Can you tell us about this dystopian thriller?

Thank you! It’s been a very exciting ride. The book is about a recovering addict telepath who works with the police in future Atlanta to solve a series of murders where the killer kills with the mind. James Knapp calls it “a fun blend of Chinatown and Bladerunner.”

What made you decide to write about a telepath?

There’s something both creepy and comforting about the idea of someone being able to read your mind. It would allow for a lot of opportunities for intimacy and understanding, but also lead to a lot of mistrust and abuse in the real world. And just because you know what someone is thinking at this moment doesn’t mean you know that person. The implications of telepathy go pretty deep, I think.

Clean is set in a dark future Atlanta. Is this because Atlanta is home, or is there more to the story?

Well, Atlanta is home, and I was living in Decatur when I started the project. I was fascinated by the mix of old and new, gritty and bright in that area of the city, and Atlanta as a whole is like that. It’s big, with the busiest airport in the world, which means sooner or later everyone comes to (or through) the city. This leads to a lot of problems and a lot of benefits both–and both will be around for a long time, I think.

What is the most important thing you learned at the Odyssey Writing Workshop? How did Odyssey influence the writing of this novel?

When it comes to writing, the lesson that sticks out to me the most from Odyssey is the day Jeanne brought out a section from a Stephen King novel and proceeded to turn everything I knew about suspense on its head. In a big, important action scene, I’d always been taught you needed to write small–short sentences, small paragraphs, with hard-hitting action verbs. Get in, get out, go home. But Jeanne argued that King’s method, of slowing down the action and adding visceral detail, was actually more effective. That idea–and her detailed examples–crawled into my brain and wouldn’t let go.

Clean was written before I came to Odyssey–I actually got The Call from the editor the first afternoon I was there! But when it came down to revision afterwards with the editor, I ended up rewriting most of the novel’s ending from scratch. It’s now more detailed, more suspenseful, and much more successful, I think. I have Odyssey to thank for the tools to do it.

You’re also big into history. How does that help you write a dystopic future?

When you study history, you study how people behave under incredible pressure and change over time. You also study consequences–everything has a backstory, and you can’t start in the middle without dealing with the consequences of what came before. History taught me to pay attention to that kind of backstory, and to deal with social attitudes and social change carefully.

You sold Clean to Roc through an unusual series of events. Can you recount that for us? What do you say to those who claim an author first has to establish herself through short story sales?

I applied to Odyssey and submitted Clean to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards on the same week in January. The intention was to add more writing credits to my resume, since (as you point out) I hadn’t really been able to establish a history of short story sales. I watched with baited breath as, over a series of months, my novel rose higher in the ranks at the ABNA–until finally, it made the Semi-Finalist round (top 1%). I was overjoyed–that had always been my goal, and now I had it! The Finalists were always mainstream and thriller writers, so I was pretty sure that’s as far as I would get. When an agent contacted me as a result, I thought I’d reached the moon. Then, that fateful summer, an editor called. Turns out Penguin reads all the Semi-Finalists from the contest–and wanted to buy my book and a sequel. I thought I might have a heart attack… I hadn’t even realized they read the books! And getting that call at Odyssey only made the experience that much more surreal.

I’d always been told you needed to establish yourself in short stories, and that’s what I was at Odyssey to learn how to do. But the truth is that novels and short stories (especially in the speculative fiction realm) are very, very different creatures with different audiences. I’ve been told most agents and editors know this; while they’d love to see a track record from you, they’re far more concerned with the quality of the work. If what you write well is novels, write the best damn novel you can and send it out. Novels are where most of the money and audience is anyway, and if your work is good enough, no one will care about your lack of credits.

You had to go through the process of evaluating literary agents and choosing an agent very quickly. What advice would you give to developing writers who are looking for the right agent? What particular elements should they look for in the agency, the agent, and the agency agreement?

The right agent makes a world of difference, not only to sell your work for the most money possible, but also to negotiate the right terms. You want somebody passionate about your work, someone whom you work well with, but most of all you want someone who has a proven track record of selling. You can approach a lot of editors directly–if you spend the percentage on the agent, he or she needs to do better than you would on your own.

Ask lots of questions in the process of auditioning an agent. Ask about their track record, and how they work with their authors. If possible, fly to New York and have lunch with the person; you can get a feel for someone in person better by far than you can over the phone. Talk to several people, and talk to them about their plans to sell your book. Choose carefully; an agency relationship can be like a marriage–you want it to be harmonious, not a source of stress.

The last thing I would say is to make sure you understand what role your agent wants to play in your work. I think I was expecting an agent like my friend’s–an agent who’s very hands on with the work. She made his book hugely better… but it still hasn’t sold. My agent, on the other hand, has rarely told me anything more than “this is great,” or “this will work well.” She doesn’t give a lot of editorial input. But she’s great with contracts and negotiations; she got me some fantastic contract terms and is already thinking about how to sell the next project. She sells. And that’s ultimately what I really need. When it comes to picking your own agent, you should pick someone who will fit the role you most need, and who fits your personality and your goals. Be careful and make the right choice for you.

What are you working on now? Will it be with the same editor/publisher?

I just turned in the manuscript for Sharp, the sequel to Clean. Sharp will be out April 2013. My next project–after I finish promotions for the launch of Clean–will be working on a novella to be released as an eSpecial sometime this winter. Yes, both the sequel and the novella will be with Roc, under the editor who acquired Clean.

How many stages does your work go through before it goes off to the publisher? Can you tell us about the process of revisions and edits?

Personally, I always do at least two revisions on my own before I send it anywhere. At that point–if I’m comfortable–it goes to the editor, who sends me back an editorial letter with suggested changes. I make the changes I agree with (which is usually the vast majority), revise again for my own purposes, and send the manuscript back. Usually there’s one more round of that before the publisher is happy and “accepts” the manuscript, but it could be more or less.

Somewhere in there we talk cover art ideas and titles, although recently we’ve been doing this step much earlier. I’ve been lucky enough to have my opinion requested for cover art pretty consistently–something I take very seriously, and spend some serious time thinking about.

Then, after the final round of edits, the copyediting round arrives. Copyediting gives me hives. I choose my words carefully, even (and sometimes especially) when they’re grammatically incorrect. I also obsess about small things like whether dumpster (Dumpster?) is capitalized and whether I’ve kept everything consistent from scene to scene, even in tiny details. Going over every line with the copyeditor’s notes is… well… it’s a lot of work.

Then comes proofing, where you make sure that the final typeset text is correct. We did this step in marketing; I always catch things here, but it’s not a lot of stress for me. On the other hand, I’ve had author friends not be able to read the book one more time after all this work. They really struggle here.

After all of this, you sit back, take a break, and get ready for the next project–if you’re not working on it already.

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

At the moment my biggest struggle is juggling all the promotions and non-writing stuff; it eats up a lot of time and headspace. But I still have deadlines, and the writing and revising has to happen. Up to this point I’ve been doing one thing at a time, but I think I’m going to have to learn to do them at the same time, perhaps by setting aside specific time for one thing and then specific time for the other. I don’t know. When I write I have to devote a lot of headspace and focus to the project; I still need to play around with different ideas and formats to get to the non-writing work without ruining that headspace.


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

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