New York Times bestselling author and Odyssey graduate Meagan Spooner will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is the author of Hunted, Unearthed, and the Starbound Trilogy (These Broken Stars, This Shattered World, and Their Fractured Light). She attended Odyssey in 2009 and sold her first novel a year and a half later.
She grew up in Virginia, reading and writing every spare moment of the day, while dreaming about life as an archaeologist, a marine biologist, and an astronaut. She’s traveled all over the world to places like Egypt, Australia, South Africa, Antarctica, and the Galapagos, and there’s a bit of every trip in every story she writes.
She currently lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina, but the siren call of travel is hard to resist, and there’s no telling how long she’ll stay there.
In her spare time she plays guitar, plays video games, plays with her cat, and reads.
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 of the things I tell developing writers is to get used to sharing your work as early as you can. Learning to receive both praise AND critique is an invaluable skill, and like any skill, it takes practice! Leaving aside the emotional component that makes sharing work and receiving critique difficult, one of the hardest things to learn as a writer is the ability to pick and choose what elements of a critique serve you and your story. Not every suggestion is right for you—and what might work well for one writer’s style may not work for another. You can’t accept and implement every suggestion you get, but neither can you reject it all out of hand! This skill is one that simply takes practice, and a lot of it!
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?
Believe it or not, every book is different. For example, Hunted, a Beauty and the Beast retelling that came out last year, is almost unchanged from the first draft I wrote of it—aside from some cosmetic editing for sentence structure, word choice, etc., of course! Whereas Undying, the book that my writing partner and I are working on now as a sequel to Unearthed, has already been rewritten half a dozen times, and we’re not even to the end of the “first” draft! (It’s probably draft #6 by now, really.)
I spend the bulk of my time on the first draft rather than the subsequent revisions, but that doesn’t take into account two key periods: the pre-writing stage, where I’m thinking about the story and organizing my thoughts, and the “rest” period after I’ve sent a draft in to my editor and before she sends it back to me. Those are both just as vital to my process as the actual “work” of writing and revising. I have to be able to step back from a story in order to have perspective when I come back to revise it. As a published author, though, I often have very little control over how long that period is. Sometimes it’s a week. Sometimes it’s six months. The key, for me, is to set aside a little time every day to consider the story, think about what I’d like to change, that sort of thing. The same goes for the mental work prior to starting a draft. I don’t always get to control when I start writing, so I work at what I can control: making sure I’ve thought a lot about the story on my own time.
You earned a degree in playwriting from Hamilton College in New York. What are some playwriting skills that help you with writing prose?
Character development and dialogue, hands down. While studying playwriting I also studied acting, and I use the same approach when creating a character in a story as I did when constructing a role as an actor. Just as in writing, as an actor you have to have a sense for the character that goes beyond what’s actually in the text. You create backstory, dreams, fears, and motivations to bring your character to life in ways that transcend the text. I still pull out my old acting exercises when I’m up against a stubborn character who refuses to jump off the page. I often act out scenes by myself when trying to make sure the dialogue and the push and pull of the action feel natural and organic.
Congratulations on the release of your latest novel Unearthed, co-authored with Amie Kaufman! Your novel involves an extinct alien race, advanced technology, and a newly discovered planet. What was the inspiration for this story? What were some of the challenges you faced while writing it?
The story behind the inspiration for Unearthed is both funny and not at all glamorous. Amie and I were on tour for one of the books in the Starbound Trilogy and had a rare afternoon off, which we spent resting in our hotel room. An Indiana Jones marathon came on the television, which of course meant we weren’t leaving that hotel room any time soon. In the commercial breaks, we were bemoaning the fact that there weren’t any adventure books with an Indy feel in the YA SF/F market. And it took us an embarassingly long time to remember that we were authors and could actually do something about that! It really was a case of us wanting a particular kind of book, discovering it didn’t exist, and deciding to just make it ourselves.
Research was one of the big challenges for this story. Because it’s a near-future story—the space travel is inspired by a Contact-like broadcast from an alien species, but humans aren’t really a space-faring civilization yet—we had to make sure our science was all rock-solid. None of these “Well, it’s like 400 years in the future, we can just have teleportation!” hand-waving solutions. We did a lot of reading (books and internet), but our favorite resource was interviewing experts. Speaking to a real person about your questions always, without exception, provides interesting tidbits that you never would’ve thought to ask about on your own. Sometimes those “tidbits” will end up being a massive part of the resulting story!
What’s an outstanding short story or novel you’ve read recently, and what made it work for you? What were you able to take away from it to help in your own writing?
I’m always fascinated by genre, and in particular the differences and overlaps of science fiction and fantasy. (One of the things I picked up as a student at Odyssey!) I’m in the middle of reading (well, listening to on audiobook) a novel called A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. It’s a fictional “memoir” set in an Earth-like, Victorian-era world where dragons are real, biological creatures rather than legends and myths. The main character is a woman with a fascination for natural history and biology in general, and for dragons in particular, and it’s all about her participating in the development of the scientific method, essentially, when it comes to studying nature. I absolutely adore seeing real “science” in a fantasy setting, and of course there’s the added tension that this researcher is a woman in a time when women weren’t really allowed in the sciences at all. Feminism, science, and dragons, all in the same book? Sign me up!
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
There are always new projects on the horizon! One of the things that changes abruptly post-publication is that suddenly you don’t get to take as long as you want (or need) on a project, and you don’t have any downtime to recharge. It means you have to do a ton of self-care to protect that creative spark so you don’t burn out. So at any given time I’m usually drafting two or three books, revising one or two, and publicizing/touring/marketing one or two. Right now I’m in the middle of writing Undying, the sequel to Unearthed, with Amie Kaufman. I just finished revising my next solo book as well and am waiting for that to come back for copy-edits; I can’t talk too much about that one yet, but it’s another retelling in the same vein as Hunted, although this one isn’t actually a fairy tale. It’s a gender-swapped, cross-dressing adventure story that I absolutely adore and can’t wait to see on shelves! Amie and I are also writing book one in our next series together, and I’m also starting work on my next next solo book after the follow-up to Hunted.
Thanks for this, Meagan. I read Unearthed and it was brilliant! Craftwise it taught me how you can create cliffhanger moments by raising the stakes in a very specific way (like a kiss between the protags) and then make a crisis happen right away. In moments like that I really wanted to know what happens next. Have you heard of the Jade Ilhara series of novels? They’re YA archaeological thrillers, and the action is quite well-written, at least on the same level of Andy McDermott if not better. All the best!