Mike Grinti is a 2003 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He and his wife, Rachel, cowrote two books: Claws (2012) and Jala’s Mask (released last November). They write middle grade fantasy, though they have dipped into YA on occasion. They met at a writing workshop in 2002, though they didn’t start writing together until a few years later. They live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States.
Rachel Grinti grew up in Pittsburgh as the oldest of five siblings. She learned to read when she was only three and has been reading about magic and monsters ever since. Not only is she hopelessly addicted to reading, but she tries to spread the habit by working as a children’s librarian. She loves dogs, and still lives in Pittsburgh with a hyperactive, cowardly Boston Terrier named Miles.
Mike Grinti was born in Russia but moved to the US with his parents at a young age. He picked up the language quickly, and fell in love with reading after he checked out The Hobbit from his school library. He’s been hooked on fantasy and science fiction ever since. Besides some short stories, he wrote one very bad novel on his own before finally working with Rachel on some good novels. When he’s not writing or reading, he’s probably playing video games. He has a day job making video games to support their writing and reading (and eating, and dog-owning, and roof-having) habits.
When and how did you make your first sale? What is your philosophy about rejections?
Mike: I think my first pro sale by pay rate was to a horror anthology called Corpse Blossoms, back when I wrote under my way-too-long legal name. But that wasn’t SFWA-qualifying for some reason, so maybe it’s my Writers of the Future win a decade or so ago? Something like that. I’m kind of aggressively non-nostalgic about my pre-Grinti days for some reason. (Which is odd, because I’m ridiculously nostalgic about basically everything else all the time.) I didn’t even keep any copies of my short story sales. The novels are different, though. I’ll always keep those.
I guess my philosophy about rejection is that you should keep “sending it out” until you’re tired of sending it out, and you should have already started something new. Nothing takes away a rejection’s sting quite like having a new project you’re super excited about. (The only thing better is when a rejection trickles in after the work already sold elsewhere. For more money.)
So don’t give up right away, but also don’t spend all your time forever polishing a novel instead of writing the next one. Let it do the rounds, then let it sit for a year or two or ten, maybe come back to it later. Jala’s Mask was written before Claws, but was rewritten almost entirely after Claws using all the things we’d learned going through multiple rewrites on Claws before and during editorial.
However, it’s important to note that while this is how I feel most of the time, I’m a big baby about rejections. I mope and sulk and generally let it get to me the way you totally shouldn’t. I got so depressed submitting my first (thankfully unpublished, solo) novel that Rach got fed up and started submitting it for me. I’d like to think I’d be better now, but I’ll always be way more of a baby than Rach.
Rachel: My first professional sale was our first published novel, Claws, which our first agent sold for us in 2012. There’s a ton of agent submission advice out there, so all I’ll say on that subject is that we signed with him via queries and the slush pile (and after messing up his submission guidelines, whoops).
Before I started writing seriously, I developed my rejection philosophy while helping Mike submit his work: when a rejection comes in, send out another submission. I researched, made spreadsheets, and had a list ready to go. It’s easier to be chill about rejections when they aren’t your work, so it was more stressful once we were sending out our co-written work. But I think it really helped to have that submission experience so I had the process down. And I definitely agree that having a shiny new project helps keep you going after rejections.
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?
Rachel: Sometimes many stages, sometimes one long, constantly changing stage. It took us two years to reach the end of our latest book, but that involved several major rewrites in the middle of the process–a rewrite from scratch halfway through, and throwing out 30,000 words much later. By the time we got to the end, we had a pretty solid draft that we could revise. Most of our time is spent on that first draft. One of our setbacks came from realizing a particular story needed to span multiple books, so that meant replotting and rethinking.
Mike: We’ve really been trying to push towards identifying bad paths in our projects earlier so we have to do less throwing out and rewriting. To some extent this is always going to be a thing, but sometimes it’s easy to just want to get that word count up and keep charging ahead–leaving a meandering trail of questionable choices that probably could have been identified by taking a step back a little more often.
Our latest project has been a long, tough road. We’ll see how the next one works out once we’ve had time to process everything we’ve learned writing this one.
As far as what our revisions look like, I’d say that it’s not uncommon for scenes to come down in layers. Usually setting and plot action happen in the first layer, and usually there is a lot of scaffolding–descriptions and small arcs of action that are false starts, or attempts on an idea that gets put down better a few paragraphs later. Hopefully a few shiny character moments stand out, too. The next layer is to try and remove all that scaffolding for the action, and expand on the character moments that stood out–this is where the dialog gets less rambling, but also takes on more depth, wit, and emotion.
This is also where we tend to notice places where the story’s voice got dropped–either because some dialog was a placeholder, or there wasn’t enough character work so I slipped into trying to use elaborate word-stunts to bridge the action.
If overall things are working, this second pass feels like carving something from a block of wood. Lots of throwing out large chunks, lots of fine detail work. This is also where you find out the scene is just rotten at the core, and you need to start over. The hard part is realizing that the rot spread from something several scenes past–it’s rare that I’ve run into a major issue in a scene and NOT found that the problem started a ways back, in some innocuous decision.
So then we hit a third layer of revisions, which is the part where your scenes are clear enough that you can take a step back and start identifying some of these issues that span multiple scenes. It’s where you start looking at different character arcs and realizing things don’t hold together how you want. So then you have to dive back into each scene affected and start rewriting and rethinking. Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a partially-new scene and go back to the first step.
Hopefully with every pass things are getting better. One of the toughest things to balance is the defensive desire to minimize changes–“what’s the least I can change and still have the plot/this character/these scenes remain unchanged”–and getting overly excited about new ideas. New ideas can be very exciting, because they aren’t yet mired in reality–in the slog of rewriting and struggling and feeling frustrating. Invariably huge changes will have their own issues. I think it helps us to be methodical like this. Don’t be resistant to change, but let big sweeping changes sit before committing to them.
I should note, none of the scaffolding and placeholder use is intentional. When I’m writing I’m trying to write a complete, finished scene–I try to get in the character work, to make the action flow. But I accept that some of what I write, intending to be final, is going to be placeholder.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Mike: I’ve always been too enamored with my fantastical creations. I tend to come up with a lot of the weird fantasy in our books, but for Rach it’s like panning for gold. Tiny flecks of gold. In a mudslide. Eighty percent of the stuff I come up with is completely unusable, and I’m terrible at seeing that, so Rach helps to rein me in and keep me grounded. I’m trying to get better at it.
I’m an incredibly messy drafter. I leave out words; I use the wrong words all the time. I know I lean too heavily on Rach to clean my writing up, and am now making a serious effort to start being more professional in what I deliver to her–trying to go back over my scenes to clean it up, trying to identify issues I’ve created so she can use brain power on issues I couldn’t have just found myself with an extra few days rereading.
Also, I love exclamation points. I use them everywhere. If someone isn’t talking in a perfectly level tone of voice, my instinct is to add one in! For every line! Of the dialog! Rach has to spend way too much time removing them all. Recently I suggested a new rule where I’m just not allowed to use them, ever, because I can’t be trusted with them.
Finally, something it’s taken me a long time to see as a weakness is how obsessive I can get with writing. Taking my health more seriously, because it affects my writing, has been hard for me. Accepting that putting down fewer words but taking the time to make them good words is working smarter than trying to bang out a scene at 3am and then having to rewrite the word jumble I created. I worked that way for a very long time. There’s a high there–chasing that feeling when the words are just flowing and the word count is in the thousands. It feels like I’m doing brilliant work. In actuality, some of the best work I’ve done has felt slow and plodding, while of the most laughably bad flowed out of me in a tide of emotions. More sleep. More thought put into every word. Fewer arbitrary writing highs, more good words. I’m trying!
Rachel: Mike is more long-winded than me (maybe you’ve noticed by this point), but I tend toward the other extreme. I can be too sparse with descriptions and write the bare bones of a scene. I let myself write that way and go back to fill in details as needed in revisions. I’m trying to get better at that, because it’s not a great use of time to get stuck on a scene until it’s just right when it’s an early draft.
I’m also trying to get better about letting go of a project–sometimes I look back at older work and only see things I could do better now. That’s not always bad, because it means I’m always trying to learn, but being proud of what I did is super important too.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
Rachel: We have a lot of ideas for more middle grade books, so that’s going to be our main focus. The project we’re finishing now is book one in what will hopefully be a middle-grade fantasy trilogy that includes some of our favorite things to write about: magic and heroes, friendship and first crushes. We have some notes and outlines for stand-alone middle grades, and I have pages of notes for solo projects–mostly YA books I hope to squeeze in when I have time so I can write books with more romantic elements, too. I want to write lots of books about smart, funny girls having magical adventures and saving the day (and sometimes kissing).
Mike: I’m excited to finish this current project. I think it’s by far the best work we’ve ever done, and I’m ready to commit several more years to finishing the story. And I’m excited about other ideas we’ve put on the backburner in the meantime–we’ve learned so much writing this book, I’m excited to start processing it all and applying it to a fresh work. (And, of course, to realize there’s even more we need to learn. Every new project has new things to teach you. Some of them are just nicer teachers than others.)