Interview: Graduate & Guest Lecturer Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn-5 - croppedBestselling author Carrie Vaughn will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop. Her latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin, and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com.


You’re one of several authors who provide in-depth critiques for the Odyssey Critique Service. What are some of the common weaknesses you see in submissions?

Characters and plot that don’t hold together. How this plays out: What the story says about the characters is different from how they’re actually portrayed. Or they’re passive characters who don’t drive the action, who are merely observers or are acted upon. Plots where actions and scenes don’t follow logically and don’t build on one another—they don’t have that domino effect we’re looking for. In all these cases, the motivation and drive for the story are fuzzy, there’s no tension, and the reader isn’t engaged.

I think many writers start with powerful ideas that have a great deal of meaning for them, but building those ideas into a story that has power and meaning for readers is difficult and takes practice and mindfulness. What’s actually on the page doesn’t necessarily match what the author intended, and authors really need to learn to approach their own work as a reader would. To see what they’ve actually written versus what they think they’ve written—those two things don’t always match up.

You graduated from Odyssey in 1998, and you’ve now come full circle as an instructor for the upcoming summer course. What advice would you give yourself back in 1998?

I was also the writer in residence back in 2009, so I’ve been here before! In some ways I’m still not sure I’m qualified to teach anything. I’m still figuring things out. I think I’d give reassurance more than advice—just keep going. This business has a lot of second chances, and third and fourth chances. We don’t talk about that much, but if one thing doesn’t work or go as expected we can almost always pick ourselves up and try again.

Congratulations on having three novellas come out this year, including two Cormac & Amelia stories, and “Gremlin,” which came out in Asimov’s Science Fiction, about a gremlin partnering with a WWII fighter pilot. What are some of the challenges in writing novella-length fiction?

Thank you! Novellas have actually reduced some of the challenges I’ve been facing recently, as strange as that sounds. Over the last couple of years, I’d been putting a huge amount of pressure on myself to write a “big” novel. Big ideas, big impact, etc. That wasn’t working out so well for various reasons, and novellas gave me a chance to back up and rediscover my creative well, without as much pressure. Novellas have enough space to tell an in-depth story with lots of detail and character development, but without the commitment of writing a full-length novel. I went into my rough drafts folder and found some stories I had abandoned or not really developed because I thought they were supposed to be novels—but it turns out that maybe they were meant to be novellas. I could finally develop them without the pressure to “go big.” “Gremlin” and “Dark Divide” both came out of that effort. So did “The Ghosts of Sherwood,” which will be coming out in June 2020. I’ve found novellas to be more liberating than challenging.

“Long is the Way” is a Wild Cards story you co-wrote with Sage Walker, which came out in May 2019. What was it like co-writing a story? How did you work together?

61mUbKcB-xLEverything I write in Wild Cards is collaborative to some extent, since I’m dealing with a world and set of characters that aren’t wholly my own and I need to constantly touch base with the series editor, George R.R. Martin, and the other writers. “Long is the Way” is a special case because it didn’t start out as a collaboration. Sage wrote the first draft of the story, and I came in later to write the frame story and pull the whole thing together. I think it’s a case that proves how much of a team effort Wild Cards is all the way around.

We do most of the work via email—we can send drafts back and forth, ask questions, and so on. The series started in the mid-80’s, and I honestly don’t know how the original writers did it without email. I understand there were a lot of large phone bills back in the day.

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’ve really enjoyed The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. I think they’re a masterclass in capturing the voice of an unusual protagonist who doesn’t have the motivations we usually associate with protagonists. The longer I’m in this gig, the more I think it comes down to achieving a voice for each story that’s distinctive, confident, and engaging. A strong voice means a reader will trust that the author knows what they’re doing. Now, if we could only figure out a sure-fire way to teach this!

On your blog you review movies and TV shows often. What can writers learn from movies and shows?

I think they can be great for looking at pacing, plotting, and foreshadowing. What needs to get set up early in order to pay off later? How do those amazing twists and reveals happen? Analyzing the structure of movies like SneakersGhostbusters, and even Avengers: Infinity War can be helpful in looking at delivery of information and handling of characters—what and who gets introduced when, why, and how. Novels aren’t movies and shouldn’t be written like them, but films and TV can show us in compact and specific ways how structuring stories works, or sometimes doesn’t—those examples can be instructive as well.

You’re a prolific writer with many novels, short stories, and novellas to show for it. How do you deal with burnout?

I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that—people in the middle of burnout so rarely recognize it! I don’t think I’ve ever burned out on the writing itself—I’m prolific because I have a lot of stories to tell and I’m pretty much always working on something new because I really enjoy the work. I can avoid burnout that way because if I get stuck on one project, I’ll move to another. When I risk burnout it’s usually because I’ve committed to too much travel, too many conventions, too many side projects. Those are areas where I’ve really had to set up boundaries, and I try to monitor those boundaries carefully. For example, I used to say “yes” to nearly every anthology invitation or side project. Now, I rarely write for more than one or two a year. Dealing with burnout is about protecting my own time and creative space.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I’m always working on something new. My two novellas about Robin Hood’s children are due out this summer from Tor.com. Also in the pipeline I have a new novel due out from John Joseph Adams Books in the next year or so—a genre-smashing romp about gaming. I’m currently at work on what I think is a pretty unusual fantasy novel that I don’t want to say too much about yet.

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