Fantasy author Alma Alexander will be a guest lecturer at 2015’s summer Odyssey Writing Workshop. Alma Alexander’s life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, and touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website, her Facebook page, or her blog.
Welcome! 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?
One young and aspiring writer, asking for advice of this nature, once unforgettably told me that she “didn’t have time to read.” I knew then that she would never really be a writer.
I think reading is the primary education for any writer. You need to have an inoculation of language in your writerly stream before your own words can take form. People who don’t read never develop the love and the reverence for the written word–and how, then, can they hope to tease out its wonders? So that is the first and primary advice that I give to anyone who tells me they want to write–I ask them how much of their lives they’ve spent reading.
Beyond that, if you are serious about pursuing this as a craft, as a vocation, as a career… well… Write. Practice. It comes only with practice, this inner instinct about whether something you’ve just written is good, or if there is something wrong with it, and what, and how it needs fixing. I remember writing a page and half of something once and stopping and staring at this thing I had just produced and coming a realisation that what I had there was a dense–a very dense–summary of the thing I needed to actually write. Eventually that page and a half, once I teased out everything that got condensed into it until it weighed as much as a literary neutron star, turned into nearly three chapters of the book that came out of it all. But without the millions of words of practice I had already put in… I would not have known this, recognised this, figured out what I needed to do to fix it.
So–two very obvious pieces of advice. Read. Write.
Rinse and repeat.
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 always “wrote seriously” (and now I’m laughing to myself over here behind my screen). I won national writing awards when I was a pre-teen. I sold stories way way wayyy back… for pretty much almost nothing. The first “real” book I got published was my Dolphin’s Daughter collection of fairy tales, and that was mid 1990s–so the first true book I published, I was into my 30s. But I was writing “seriously” long before that.
As to what I was doing wrong… I don’t think I was doing anything “wrong.” I was not ready. That doesn’t mean I was wrong. I was, perhaps, raw, and unpractised, and maybe sometimes hasty (I learned the more intricate truths of self-editing as I went along). I was… Young. And with some writers maturity comes early–with others, you have to grow into it. Here’s an example–at age nineteen, I wrote a novel about the Matter of Britain, from the POV of Guinevere. That almost got published. An editor who was quite taken with it took it far enough into the process to enlist the aid of a very senior beta reader–a man who was a Big Name in South African publishing at that time (that’s where I was living). The only problem was that he was very much a High Literary Guru, and probably entirely the wrong audience for my work. He nixed the Guinevere book and it didn’t go anywhere after all. But his report, which the editor shared with me, began like this: “I have no doubt that this is a writer who is destined for great things in times to come.” Unfortunately that was followed by the proverbial BUT–and that slayed me. His objection was that my story lacked, in his words, “…what Kazantzakis called ‘madness’…” –which was true, because I was very young (nineteen) and my understanding of what drove that story–betrayal and adultery and sexual obsession–was limited and flawed. I would write a very different story if I were writing that thing today. In other words, he was probably totally right. Although I hated him for telling me so at the time.
Why do you think your work began to sell?
Truthfully? I have no idea. What sells or doesn’t sell is so, so subjective and audience-driven. Luckily there are as many kinds of readers as there are writers and there is probably an audience for any storyteller. The problem is connecting with it, of course–and sometimes you connect on the level of a Gaiman or a Rowling, and sometimes you barely scrape together a fiercely devoted but numerically small following. In my mind it never mattered whether it sold–it mattered whether it connected.
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 tend to blurt out a very clean “first draft” but that’s because I don’t really just put down whatever comes into my head. In some sense my truly awful chaotic first draft tends to get distilled into a second iteration while still inside my head, and it’s the “second draft” that becomes my “first,” in a way. Then it gets tossed to what I am very fortunate in having–an in-house editor, my husband, who is a professional in that field and who is always my first reader and my first editor. If you think this is being mollycoddled and wrapped in swaddling bands, he’s pretty damn ruthless. He may be married to me and he may love me, but the work is the work and he does not pull his punches. When he tells me there is a problem there usually is. That’s my polish pass–taking his suggestions on board, going through the manuscript for anything that I myself may have missed or want to add. Then I’ll let it sit for a little while just until the image and the imprint of it drains from my system, and I”ll give it another reading, another once-over, cold.
After that, it’s ready to go out. And sure, any editor who gets it will have their own input and opinions, and so it will be tweaked at least once more before it nears any kind of publication. But really and truly–revision and rewriting, although I know that some of it is necessary, even essential, is my least favourite part of this whole process. I enjoy telling the story, not grinding the rough edges off it ad infinitum. Therefore I will do the edit and the polish and the rewrite–but I won’t bury myself in those. They, to my mind, are just the final tweaks. My work has already been done.
The kind of revisions I find myself doing most often tend to be two of my husband’s favourite editorial caveats. There are scenes which I may have avoided writing and fleshing out for whatever reason, and they need more development–and I have to go back and fix that. Or there are scenes which I fleshed out a tad too much, and which actually need condensing into a shorter more succinct pithier form. I’ve done both. Those are the most obvious editorial ruts that I fall into. I very rarely go back and fix things on the level of language itself. That’s too instinctive. I don’t really make major or dramatic errors at that level that would require a huge amount of work. It’s story, and pacing, that I sometimes do need to pay closer attention to.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
My husband has these things he calls my “weasel words” and he goes after them with a passion and a vengeance. I then need to go through my manuscript expunging wishy-washy descriptors like kind of, sort of, almost, nearly, apparently, and the like. I get told very firmly to decide what it is that I want to say, or what is going on, and to go there, and to stop dancing around the edges. It’s the classic problem in that you can’t be “a little bit pregnant.” I really need to–um–kind of take responsibility for this kind of thing…
The paradox of writing is that a writer’s work is often done in solitude, but that the writer craves community. The Pacific Northwest, where you reside, seems to harbor a vast community of science fiction and fantasy writers, as well as writers of other genres. What would you say to writers, aspiring or otherwise, who don’t have an immediate community and would like to be part of one? Do you find community or solitude more helpful for your writing? Do you have a particular support system that keeps you writing consistently?
A lot of my writerly interactions actually comes from a network of online friends–and while it is nice to meet those friends every so often at places like conventions and what have you, my email and chat exchanges with my friends and colleagues are not bounded by geographical proximity. Some of my best friends are in the Antipodes, for Heaven’s sake. But yes, there IS something very nice in just hunkering down over a cup of coffee (or something stronger) and hashing out a plot point or whining about current woes. There was a time I had a writing chum, back in South Africa, and we used to go out to some coffee shop or another and exchange manuscripts, and get enthralled by each other’s stories… One time a waiter came over and asked, diffidently enough, “Er, are you two studying something…?” It’s always great to have a friend who absolutely understands where you are coming from because they’re wearing the self-same motley cloak of the storyteller and they know intimately the shadows from which you yourself have come. It’s amazing if that can happen in person. But honestly, these days if you and your chum are both on something like Skype, for instance–you can share an hour of writing time while connected and bounce things off each other in real time that way. The Internet is a gift for those of us working alone in our cubbyholes and offices. The whole entire world is just on the other side of our monitors and only a point and a click away. Use that. Find a community. It’s better that way. (Mailing lists, for instance. They can be a busy little time sink sometimes but they can be utterly invaluable. This is your tribe. Find a way to talk to each other.)
In an interview with Speculative Craft earlier this year, you say you are a “pantser” as opposed to a “plotter.” For definition, plotters use outlines to craft their stories, while pantsers write by the seat of their pants (hence the term). Have you ever tried to outline a story once you get inspiration for it, or do you feel as though that kills your motivation? As a pantser, how do you make your plots powerful and unified?
Things… worlds… live in my head. Some people may need to have all of that down on a piece of paper before they can make sense of it. Me, I carry the whole dream inside until it is ready to come out. I have something along the lines of Sherlock Holmes’s memory palace, almost. I have things sorted into little mental pigeonholes and I know exactly where to look for things when I need them. I’ve occasionally written down things like family trees–but only because something like that is more visual–not actual words–and it was easier to have it to glance at if I needed it rather than trace individual lines in my head every time. But most of the time, it all lives inside. And it is a messy complex complicated tangle. If anyone could see the inside of my head during the writing of a complex novel it would be a lot like looking at the back of a tapestry–where chaos reigns, and threads intersect and stretch across other threads and interconnect and tangle–and it all looks impossible and utterly without meaning. But on the other side, the tapestry, there is a real picture that you can see and everything makes perfect sense. That’s the closest I can get to describing it. But my tapestries–they’re made from that back side. And there are times that the picture that emerges, when I am done, is a surprise even to me. That’s what being a “pantser” means. A plotter would be doing things on a pre-printed canvas or meticulously counting stitches. Pantsers connect threads by instinct working from the back of the tapestry and somehow… somehow… get the picture right on the other side of the fabric without ever seeing it being made.
It’s been a busy year for you! Embers of Heaven, the sequel to the intricately woven The Secrets of Jin-Shei (2005) was released in February 2014; Random, the first book in the Were Chronicles, was just published in October; and there are rumors of a fourth Worldweavers book. What’s next on the writing-related horizon for you?
Wolf and Shifter, books 2 and 3 in the Were Chronicles, are due out in fairly short order after Random–they are both with the publisher right now, and Wolf is already in edits. So there will be that series to wrap up. There are more stories to be told in that world, however, once the first three books are done–and that’s an ongoing thing, I think. There is also a fantasy novel I am trying to wrap up; I’m shopping around another historical fantasy (or two), and there’s a surprising, very unexpected book which might make an appearance sooner than I think. But that’s still in negotiations, so I can’t reveal much about it (except that it’s like nothing I’ve ever done before–but then, for those who know my work, that is hardly unexpected since no two of my books have ever been exactly alike). I’m keeping busy…