Alaskan writer Sara King will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is the bestselling author of The Legend of ZERO, Outer Bounds, Guardians of the First Realm, and her latest urban fantasy series, Sunny Day, Paranormal Badass, among others. She’s an alumna of the 2008 Odyssey Writing Workshop and has spent the last six years forging a successful career in independent publishing in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. To her chagrin, she is owned by four 120-plus-pound Tibetan Mastiffs, cautiously maintains a flock of ninja chickens, and has so many literary irons in the fire that she’s losing count. Thankfully, whenever she needs writing inspiration, she can step out her front door to go wandering in the Alaskan wilderness until she gets cold or almost dies—usually one or the other, but sometimes both—and then stumble home with fresh stories to tell and a new respect for falling, drowning, hypothermia, disorientation, and aggressive 1,500-pound wildlife.
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?
Honestly, I think the most important advice I can give new writers is to cultivate a relentless follow-through and stubborn tenacity—a powerful knowledge than you will be a successful writer, and everyone who says otherwise is full of s***. Plenty of people want to be writers—millions of people—but they don’t keep wanting it until it eats at them at night that they’re not producing stories for the masses. I think the difference between a professional writer and the average writer who will never get past the first failed book is that the average writer will take that failed book after it’s clear it’s failed and hug it and cry and call their mother about how life is so hard and they’re an artiste and nobody understands them or their genius and then stubbornly and bombastically swear off writing in a drunken admission of defeat, whereas the professional writer will take that same failed book, cock their head at it, and think, “All right, what do I need to fix for the next one?” And then go do it. Ten more times. Fifteen more times. However many times it takes to get it right.
You graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2008. How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
I learned that writing is cumulative, and every single experience you have as a human being can and will be utilized later in your career. A very vivid example to me is how, in Odyssey, I met someone who had horrible allergic food reactions, so, like a dumbs***, I thought that was cool and wrote a short story about science-fictiony allergy insurance. She called me out on it the next day and I was like, “[blink blink] Holy s***, you’re right.” Then, because Karma’s a b****, I—dirt-poor yokel from Alaska that I was—realized that, of the two pairs of shorts I’d brought with me (of three changes of clothes total), one of them was almost completely see-through in the right light. And I was like, “Weeeeeeeeell s***, don’t have money to buy another pair…” So I wore my translucent yellow shorts anyway, thinking nobody noticed. A few days later, a character emerged from a different guy’s story with “see-through shorts,” and the story described the underwear the girl was wearing as the main character was reminiscing about dumb blondes or something like that. And I was like, “Oh, so THAT’S how that works.” Basically, you write what you experience, and Odyssey was a fantastic experience for someone who, in the sparsely populated ten-people-per-square-mile communities of Alaska, had never seen an actual, bona fide writer until she stepped off the plane in New Hampshire.
Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?
As a yokel from Alaska, it was one of the most glorious, fulfilling, and amazing moments of my life to meet and talk to other writers. I’d been craving it for 26 years, and I just hadn’t known what I was missing until that point. And I mean real writers, not the ones who realize they can string two words together and suddenly want to rush out and teach people the Rules of Literature based on the fact that they read some stuff by some PhD nobody’s heard of. To meet kindred spirits—that was utterly mind-blowing and awesome. To me, the workshop was most about the people, and I told Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos that when she asked why I was there. I think my answer disappointed her, but you guys really have to consider how few people really live in Alaska, and how we can’t do the basic stuff you guys do, like jump in the car to go to a convention. You want to attend Comic-Con? Sure, that’s $650 just for the one-person plane tickets, thank you.
As to what surprised me the most? Honestly, it was the setting. The trees? The college campus? The monks? Mind. Blown. I know that’s not the answer you’re looking for, but those were what imprinted on me the most—that the culture of the lower 48 states is so rich and old compared to where I live, where a house is considered “really old” if it was built 40 years ago, and nobody dares to use stone or brick because it will fall on them and kill them. (Case in point: November 30, 2018. Earthquake in Alaska. See the roads? See how nobody died? That’s the big difference between Alaska and these other countries with their massive earthquake fatalities. We don’t let people build their houses out of stone or bricks because they’ll inevitably fall and kill you. Oh, and the freezing weather will crack it in half, but that’s a different topic.)
You’re a prolific writer, with several series published. Do you tend to plan your series before you begin writing, or do you jump in and figure it out as you go along? What are the challenges of writing a series?
The biggest challenge of writing a series is that people expect you to write more. Then, when you don’t because you have other series with other people wanting you to write more, you get emails like this (paraphrased from the dozens I’ve gotten): “I can’t believe you didn’t finish this, you stupid b****, I’m never reading another book of yours again, I hope you die.” And I’m sitting there, usually mid-writer’s block, staring at an email like that thinking, “Wow, that really helps me get back into the creative flow of things, thanks random a**hole!” But seriously, I get emails like this. And it only gets worse the more popular your books become. People take on this attitude like they own you, they own the story you wrote, and if you don’t do what they want, their love turns to hate in a flat second. And believe me, it’s kinda s***ty being on the receiving end of someone who loved your work so much they wrote you an email about how stupid, lazy, and selfish you are for not finishing your series on time, as expected, because they’ve waited XXXX years and you suck. Again, paraphrased.
As to advice for writing series, I have two things to note: First, you make the most money from series if you are character-based. Non-character-based stories don’t sell as well, and people usually ditch them pretty quickly. But for character-based authors, people want to keep reading about their secret friends and will continue to do so until they die or you as a writer do something to destroy their love for you (like take too long to finish a series). Fans of character-based fiction spend the most money, and get the most invested, in these books. (Think of all the people running around in costumes at conventions, or the people who buy t-shirts with Firefly or Star Wars logos on them.)
HOWEVER. The second thing to note is that series tend to stagnate you, as mentioned above. People expect more from their favorite series, and you’re not free to go write more books in other worlds without facing their wrath. Series are like chains, in a sense, and the more chains you’ve got out there, the more weighed down you feel as a writer. But, ultimately, they are the greatest homage to character writing. (How many characters from one-book stories—aside from Hannibal Lecter, who technically had several books—do you remember vividly ten years later?)
Anyway, my advice here is write several series if you’re inspired to do so, but write them under pen names so that idiots don’t see you writing something other than their favorite series and then harass you for it. You can always do a big reveal like Nora Roberts or Stephen King and disclose your pen name to the world after one or the other has become super famous. (Also, having different pen names allows you more advertising space with big companies like BookBub, but that’s technical.)
Here ends Part 1 of our interview with Sara King. In Part 2, which will be posted next Sunday, Sara will talk about character-driven vs. plot-driven fiction and share her views on the current state of the science fiction genre.