Interview: Odyssey Online Graduate and Author Jenise Aminoff

jenise-headshotDianna Sanchez is the not-so-secret identity of Jenise Aminoff, whose superpower is cooking with small children. She is an MIT alumna, graduate of the 1995 Clarion Workshop and Odyssey Online, active member of SCBWI, and a former editor of New Myths magazine (www.newmyths.com).

Aside from 18 years as a technical and science writer, she has taught science in Boston Public Schools, developed curricula for STEM education, and taught Preschool Chef, a cooking class for children ages 3-5. A Latina geek originally from Albuquerque, NM, she now resides near Boston, MA with her wonderfully geeky husband and two daughters.

Her debut novel is A WITCH’S KITCHEN, forthcoming from Dreaming Robot Press in September 2016.


Congratulations on the sale of your first novel, A Witch’s Kitchen, coming out from Dreaming Robot Press on September 25, 2016! How many stages did your novel go through before you sent it to the publisher? How much of your time was spent writing the first draft, and how much was spent in revising? What sort of revisions did you do on the novel?

Thanks! All told, A Witch’s Kitchen took me two years, three months to complete. I started it just before Thanksgiving 2013 and completed the first draft on March 25, 2014. Luckily, I had signed up for Odyssey Online’s Powerful Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction, intending to use it for a completely different project, so that helped a great deal. Even so, I knew it was nowhere near ready to send out. So I revised and revised and revised. I had my elder daughter’s class of 4th-6th graders read version three, and revised based on that. I went to the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in April 2015 with version six, learned a ton, and revised some more. I formed a critique group, and another SCBWI group’s coordinator paired me up with some manuscript buddies, so more revising.

I waited until version eight to begin querying in July 2015, and that’s the version that hooked my publisher. They gave me a detailed revision request, and I started writing version nine to that. Then I took Writing MG/YA Novels with children’s book writer and verse novelist Holly Thompson in Fall 2015, and that showed me how to shore up my saggy middle, prompting version ten. It also gave me enough information to know that I needed more help, so I enrolled in Odyssey Online’s Getting the Big Picture with Barbara Ashford. I started doing the assignments in advance because the revision was due January 31st, and the class ended February 16th! This all worked out, though, because when I delivered the tenth version to DRP, they gave me a second, less lengthy revision request, and I was able to roll the last of Barbara’s gems of wisdom into it. I gave them version eleven at the beginning of March, and that’s the final version aside from line edits and consistency error correction.

A Witch’s Kitchen is a middle-grade fantasy novel. What drew you to write for middle grade readers? What are some challenges unique to writing for a younger audience?

kitchen_cover-1I have two daughters, currently twelve and nine years old. I started writing children’s fiction because they demanded it. My elder daughter, Annie, loves Calvin and Hobbes, but she was just disgusted by Susie, the one girl in the comic, and she demanded that I create a comic called “Susie’s World,” which I did. It ran (unpaid) in a local free parents’ newspaper for about four months before they decided they wanted the ad space more. Then Annie got upset that none of the books she read showed kids actually doing science and demanded I write that. I tried, and it was sort of awful, with cardboard characters spouting science at each other. She read my first chapter book and condemned it as boring.

So I then started working on a hard-SF YA novel, and the research was proving to be much harder than I’d anticipated, when my younger daughter, Nora (then 6), asked me to write her a story with fairies and unicorns as a Christmas present. I thought, sure, 10 pages or so. But it grew and grew and GREW. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had written something like 50 pages.

Challenges: Children are the most honest and brutal critics EVER. They give you exactly zero slack. They are also the best consistency checkers ever. If you say one thing in chapter 2 and then say something contradictory in chapter 14, they WILL catch it. In some ways, it’s very freeing to write for children. You can do insane, whimsical things that you’d never get away with in adult fiction. You can tell bad jokes and make personal hygiene a major plot point. But it’s also harder because kids don’t have the literary foundation that adults have, so you have to make everything crystal clear. I’ve lost track of the number of time Nora asked me “But Why?” questions as I read it aloud to her at bedtime. Oh, and you have to be careful with character names. I had to change the name of a major character because my beta readers couldn’t pronounce it.

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?

Hmm… I have to go back to the BC era — Before Children. I attended the Clarion Workshop in 1995 and came out of it on fire to get published. Surprise! This turned out to be much harder than I’d expected. My first published piece was a poem based on the Doña Sebastiana myth (New Mexico has some interesting, idiosyncratic folktales about Death), which appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Terra Incognita magazine. I think I got $25 for it. My first pro fiction sale was a tight little short story called “Fate,” which I sold to Clarion classmate Nalo Hopkinson for her anthology, Mojo: Conjure Stories in 2002, published in 2003.

My main problem in those days was that I was a pantser. I loved the rush of sitting at a keyboard and writing for three or four hours straight. At the end of that, I’d have a 3000-4000 word story, and it would be pretty good. The problem was, I didn’t know how to revise. I’d just rewrite the whole story, and every time I did, I’d lose some of that initial magic until I wrote the story into the ground. This infuriated my critique group(and my husband!) because I kept churning out stories that were almost, but not quite, good enough.

“Fate” was the first short story where I finally figured out how to revise. I think it helped that I was writing it for Nalo. Now that I think of it, all of my best work has been stuff written for a specific person, rather than some faceless audience. Anyway, I wrote the first draft throwing in everything I could think of, and then I started pruning. I’d look at a paragraph, a sentence, a single word, and think, “Do I need that?” I pared it down from over 4000 words to just barely more than 2000, and it distilled down to the rawest, most essential emotional content. It got fantastic reviews.

What made you decide to take an Odyssey Workshop online class?

I was all set to jump on what I’d learned, but I got pregnant with Annie the month after it came out, and then I went through nine solid years of sleep deprivation until we finally taught the kids to sleep through the night. (Parental Pro Tip: melatonin!) Once I started recovering my brain, I started writing again. But something had changed. Maybe it was the fact that I’d been working as a technical/science/grants/marketing writer all this time, but when I began writing again, I couldn’t fit my ideas into short stories anymore. They all turned into novels, every last one of them. Which was shockingly difficult for me because I’d never studied long-form fiction writing and had no idea what I was doing. So I started looking for online classes, because there was no way I could go to something like Clarion or Odyssey or graduate school.

With a little Google searching, I found Odyssey Online, and one of the classes offered was Powerful Dialogue in Fantastic Fiction. Throughout my early writing, the one consistent criticism I received was that my dialogue was terrible. “Stilted” was the polite term I heard a lot. So I signed up for that, just about the same time I started writing the fairies-and-unicorns story that would turn into A Witch’s Kitchen. I was so lucky! Right when I realized I needed help, there it was. In addition to vastly improving my dialogue (I now get consistent compliments), Jeanne Cavelos also very kindly introduced me to the concept of the Three-Act structure and helped me identify the two turns of the novel, even though that was completely off topic. When I needed help with revision, Odyssey Online was the first place I looked.

You are a former editor for New Myths magazine. What did editing for a magazine teach you about your own writing?

I read slush for Aboriginal SF right after Clarion, and that taught me a great deal about what not to do. For example, sending a cover letter handwritten in peacock blue calligraphy on scented lavender paper will not make your story any better.

Editing for New Myths taught me how to create a complete, balanced issue. I found one or two stories I lovedlovedloved, and then I went looking through the other submissions for stories that would build on that theme either by providing an alternate viewpoint or by contrasting strongly. From this, I learned that sometimes, stories get rejected not because they’re bad but because they just don’t fit in an issue. New Myths has multiple editors, and we would trade around stories like baseball cards and call attention to stories we liked but couldn’t use. Now I understand that the way to ensure publication is to write something that isn’t just good enough, it’s so compelling, so intriguing that you can’t not print it.

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

I’m now transitioning from being a pantser to a plotter. I still hate revising. I’ve reluctantly gotten better at it (thanks, Barbara!), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to continue writing in a way that maximizes the need for revision. So now I’m learning to structure my novels in advance, and hopefully this will reduce the number of revisions I’ll need. Cross your fingers.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon?

I’m actually returning to short fiction for the moment. I sold a short story to Dreaming Robot Press for their Young Explorers’ Adventure Guide 2017 anthology, contingent on a revision (curses!), and I’m currently working on a story for People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy. I’m also spending a lot of time building my online presence in social media (@diannabooks) and on my web site (http://www.diannasanchez.com/) in preparation for the book launch in September. But I’m really champing at the bit to get back to novel writing.

I’m currently having a terrible time choosing between two novel projects. One is a middle grades urban fantasy set (mostly) in Albuquerque with cross-group protagonists – that means the main characters come from multiple ethnicities but still have fun and solve problems together. It’s about culture shock, adjusting to a new environment, and changing your perspective. I’ve written about a third of this novel, and it’s pretty well plotted out, so I’m focusing on it for now.

The novel I really want to write is a YA urban fantasy in which a Hispanic teenager gets lost in an infinitely large discount store. It’s strange and creepy and has been slowly expanding in the back of my mind for a long while, but right now it’s just disconnected scenes and fragmented ideas, and I’ll have to put in a lot of work to give it a coherent structure. So that’s going on the backburner, along with four other novels, including that hard-SF YA novel, plus sequels to A Witch’s Kitchen. But stories have a way of pushing to the front of my mind and demanding to be written RIGHT NOW (sort of like cats on your keyboard), so we’ll see if I can stick to my plan.

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