P. A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian writer who penned her first speculative fiction story as a third-grade assignment (a science fiction piece about shape-shifting aliens). While her early publications were in non-fiction, she has been steadily selling her short fiction since 2016. An active member of SFWA and a 2002 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, her stories have appeared in several professional anthologies and genre magazines, including Galaxy’s Edge, Cossmass Infinities, and Little Blue Marble. A complete bibliography can be found at pacornell.com.
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2002. What made you decide to attend?
When I started writing seriously, I didn’t know any writers, so I was isolated from the community. Because of this, I’d never even heard of writing workshops. It wasn’t until I picked up Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos’ book, The Science of Star Wars, that this changed. Jeanne had included her contact information in the book, so I wrote to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I must’ve mentioned I was a science fiction writer. Jeanne wrote back and told me about Odyssey. At the time I didn’t know the number of applications Odyssey receives or how few people get in. Had I known, I might’ve been too intimidated to apply, so I guess ignorance is bliss.
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 think learning to give critiques made the most difference for me. I’d learned a lot from the writing craft books I’d come across over the years, but Odyssey helped focus and direct that knowledge so I could read more critically and provide helpful feedback. This, in turn, helped me learn better self-editing techniques, and twenty years later, I still use the skills I learned at Odyssey to evaluate my work and to provide critiques for other writers. In the past, they’ve also served me well as both a slush reader and freelance editor.
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?
This depends on each story. While I’m a plotter for long-form fiction, with short fiction my writing style’s much more intuitive. I tend to start by freewriting based on an initial concept or idea and seeing where that takes me. Once I have something resembling a story, I’ll give it a read and make edits as I go. When I get it to a point where I’m satisfied or can no longer see what needs improvement, I pass this draft on to my first reader (my husband). While he isn’t a writer, he has an excellent understanding of story and the elements involved in what makes a good one. He’s also not afraid to be honest if he finds my story lacking. Once I have his feedback, I make changes and produce a clean draft. Depending on the story, this may be enough for me to send it out, but more often, I’ll send this draft to my critique partners, who are fellow writers. Then I’ll do at least one more revision, depending on how much work the story still needs. Finally, I send the story out and keep sending it out until it sells.
Why do you think your work began to sell? Did you feel a difference as you were writing? Did you consciously incorporate some new tools or techniques? Did you notice a difference in the finished stories, or did they seem the same to you as stories that weren’t selling?
In the past couple years, I’ve sold quite a few stories, and I think what’s really changed is I’m becoming more comfortable with my own writing style and voice. Of course, you improve your craft as you go, but voice is so important too. I’ve reached the point where I’m no longer trying to write like other writers I admire, but rather learning to get better at writing like me. It’s a work in progress, but people seem to be responding to it.
Your story, “When the Streetlights Go Off,” came out in the anthology Mixtape: 1986 in February 2022. How did you recreate the atmosphere of the ’80s for your story?
“Streetlights” is only my second published horror story, but I love the genre. Aside from reading it my whole life, I grew up watching ‘80s horror movies like Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and so on. These movies were always more fun to me than they were frightening, so with this story, I aimed to recapture that feeling. As an ‘80s kid, I’d been wanting to write something set in that decade for a while. There’s so much pop culture and history you can incorporate into it that the problem really becomes deciding what to leave out so the story doesn’t get bogged down by nostalgia. There are little pieces of the ‘80s sprinkled throughout, starting with the title being a play on ‘80s kids having to be home when the streetlights went on. But I had fun adding touches like frosted pink lipstick and crimped hair, and bits of trivia like the origin of The Bangles’ “Manic Monday.” This story probably draws more on my life than any I’ve written before. The characters all have elements of kids I knew in my pre-teen or teen years. The whole situation of lying to parents in order to stay out late, only to find yourself with nowhere to spend the night, actually happened to me and a friend. Even Mr. White has his roots in a friend of the family trying to scare me as a kid. All those things came together to create this homage to my childhood exposure to the horror genre.
Bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson has collected 750 rejection slips over the course of his career. How many rejections have you received on a single story? What is your philosophy about rejections?
As of this writing I’m at 494 rejections over the course of my career, so look out, KJA, I’m coming for you! The most rejections I’ve received on a single story before it sold (so far) is 26. I don’t currently have any unsold stories that can top that, so that’s pretty much my peak. I’m not troubled by rejections though. They’re part of the publication process. There are so many reasons for a story to be rejected that have nothing to do with its quality that you can’t let it discourage you. You just have to keep putting your work out there and never self-reject. Of course, some rejections are harder than others. In those cases, I allow myself a brief moment to feel the disappointment; then I send that story out again. I try to keep my stories on submission as much as possible. And while those stories are doing the rounds, I just keep writing.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
I don’t like to think in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Then it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, I’m just not good at X.” I like to have a growth mindset when it comes to my work. There are things I’ve made an effort to focus on in my writing so far, so “leveling up” to me means adding more layers onto what I already do. I guess right now that would mean incorporating greater complexity into the stories I tell. Maybe adding more thematically and having these themes play off each other. Or having multiple concepts within the same story that each push and pull the plot and/or characters in different ways. Many of my shorter pieces, especially my flash pieces, are simple little stories. I do feel there’s a place for stories like that, because sometimes the smallest story can tell the biggest truth, but that said, there’s a particular kind of challenge in adding greater complexity to a story. It’s a different way to explore our world and themes that resonates with the reader, and I feel like I’m at a point where I want to start using more of the crayons in the box.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I just sold the rights to my science fiction novella, Lost Cargo, to Mocha Memoirs Press, and that should be coming out later this year. As for new projects, I have so many ideas that I honestly can’t say which one I’ll tackle next. I go by instinct when it comes to choosing projects. I’ll take a look at my idea notes and see which one resonates with me in that moment. This way I’m always excited to write. I’ll definitely be writing more short fiction though. I love the way it lets me explore so many different kinds of stories, genres, structures, and characters. I also hope to combine some of my favorite published stories into a collection in the next couple years or so. At some point I’ll probably return to novel-length work because I have a few ideas that need to be explored at a larger word count. And I’d like to try co-writing something, which comes with its own set of challenges. I’m not putting any pressure on myself for any of this though. I write because I love it, and right now I’m enjoying the journey, wherever it takes me.