Interview

An Interview with Carrie Vaughn, Guest Judge of the 2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award competition
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Carrie Vaughn is best known for her New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty who hosts a talk radio show for the supernaturally disadvantaged, the fourteenth installment of which is Kitty Saves the World. Her forthcoming novels include a near-Earth space opera, Martians Abroad, from Tor Books, and a post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, from John Joseph Adams Books. She has written several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, as well as upwards of 80 short stories. 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.

Interview by BWG member A. E. Decker


Bethlehem Writers Group: Where do you get the energy to keep momentum going for your next book? Do you need to take breaks, and if so, how long are they?

Carrie Vaughn: I write a little bit every day. I'm always working on something. I might switch projects -- between a novel and short story, for example -- for a week or two, when I get stuck on one and need to let my subconscious work on the problem. I may outline or brainstorm instead of actual writing, but I'm always doing something. Because I'm doing a little bit every day I never really need to take long breaks.

BWG: What do you do when you have a problem character that won’t act the way you originally outlined for her/him?

CV: A character not fitting with the story is a sign that either the character or the story isn't right. Ideally, plot and character are so closely connected that if one of them changes, it all changes. Story grows out of a character's actions and decisions, and that story can only happen to that character, and no one else, because of who that character is. If a character isn't acting "right," I take a look at the story -- if I want the story to go differently, I need to tweak the character so her actions and reactions affect the story the way I want. If the character is right, then the story needs to change to stay true to that character's actions/traits/beliefs.

BWG: Have you ever had a character take on a life of his/her own and threaten to unbalance the book?

CV: I'm not sure what that means to unbalance the book. I love it when a character takes on a life of her own, it means she's coming to live and the story is really flowing. Ideally, secondary characters will also feel real and alive. In my experience, it's always served to make the book better. But no, I've never started writing about one thing and ended up writing about something completely different, if that's what you mean. I try to know the ending before I start so I usually know where I'm going. And then I revise a ton, which is the best way to incorporate changes and surprises, so the finished book looks like I planned it all along.

BWG: Have you ever had to cope with the dreaded Writer’s Block disease? If so, any suggestions for a cure?

CV: Writers block usually means the story has taken a wrong turn, and I back up to figure out where I went wrong. If the character did something unrealistic, or the plot stalled and the characters need to make different decisions, if I need an extra plot twist. Sometimes, I get stuck on a scene that it turns out isn't really necessary, and I discover that by skipping ahead. But usually, getting stalled out on a story is the subconscious's way of saying something's gone off track and it's time to go back and outline again or brainstorm possible solutions -- make a list of all the possible things that could happen next, no matter how crazy, and then go with the one that gets you most excited.

BWG: What are you writing now? Planning any further stories with Cormac? Do you intend to explore his backstory? Any possibility of more Kitty stories?

CV: Right now, I'm gearing up for the release of my next novel, a space opera called Martians Abroad, and the one after that, a post-apocalyptic murder mystery called Bannerless. So, I'm kind of going in a totally different direction for now. That said, I do have more stories with Kitty and Cormac planned, and also vampire Rick. It'll just take some time to make happen. The latest Kitty story, a collaboration with author Diana Rowland, just came out in the anthology Urban Allies, edited by Joe Nassise.

BWG: What elements do you consider necessary for a story to be considered part of the paranormal genre?

CV: I think paranormal stories need to have some hint of magic and the supernatural, usually drawing on some real-world folk stories. Ghost stories, tales of creatures that are part of real folklore traditions, like werewolves and vampires. Traditional fantasy is usually rooted in grander ancient mythologies or completely made-up magical systems, but paranormal tends to have a foot in the "real" world of folklore.

BWG: What do you look for in an engaging short story?

CV: Something that's sharp, that has a bit of a punch. A vivid idea or character that stays with me. Good use of language. Short stories really need to push the envelope and take ideas further than the usual tropes. Best advice I ever got: don't go with your first idea or even your second or third -- go with your fifteenth or sixteenth, because that's going to be the place no one else has gone.

BWG: When did you start writing, and how long did it take you to achieve success? What kept you going through the period of non-success—or, in other words, how did you deal with the inevitable rejection notices?

CV: I wrote my first story when I was 8. By the time I got to high school, I decided I wanted to be a published writer and started sending short stories out to magazines. It took me ten years to make a professional short story sale, and five years after that to sell a novel -- I sold the fourth novel manuscript I submitted. The first three never sold.

What kept me going is that I kept writing new things, and the new stories and novels were always, always better than what I had done before. So by the time story #1 got rejected, I had already written #2 and it was better. Novel #3 was way better than novel #2. Because I could see my own improvement, because I was always working on new stories, I knew I had to keep working at it and sending things out and someday I would get good enough to break in. It did get hard -- I had some really low moments when I didn't think I would sell anything. But by then, the actions of writing and submitting stories had become habit, so I just kept doing it.

Rejections are never personal, so it's best to get in the habit of putting them away and moving on. And always be working on the next thing, and the next thing will usually be better.

BWG: Do you like to outline your novels, or do you prefer to write and let the story take its own shape?

CV: I outline, and I try to know what the ending is. The outlines are never detailed enough, though -- I'm always surprised by things that happen while I'm writing. I'll often stop and re-outline a novel several times based on new details and directions.

BWG: Do you have any advice for emerging writers?

CV: It's not enough just to write every day and be persistent -- you have to improve. You have to learn to analyzing writing, both your own and other peoples', for details, technique, structures, etc., so you can carry those skills to your own work. When you're reading novels and stories, notice when you really like something and try to figure out what the author is doing there. If you really hate something, ask why, and then try to avoid those mistakes. So, write, read, and learn to analyze so you can improve.

BWG: Any advice on building up a readership and getting out the word about your book?

CV: I'm still working on that one! My advice: aim high, when you're sending out your work. Don't assume you won't get into the big magazines or won't be able to land a big agent. Maybe you won't, but you have to try. Those big markets have the biggest audiences, and they'll help you get the word out. In SF&F, I like to look at the "honorable mention" lists in many of the Year’s Best anthologies, because those will tell you which magazines and publications are getting read by top editors -- those are the people you want talking about you and knowing your name.

Online, be genuine and interesting. You can't sell all the time, or people get bored. Let other people and word of mouth push your work as much as possible.

Be patient. These things take time. Keep writing, keeping getting your name out. Really good work is still the best advertising.

BWG: Any opinions on the e-book vs. print debate? What challenges do you see for writers in the future of publishing?

CV: Some people will always love ebook and some people will always love print. I think people need to do both, to get a wider readership.

BWG: How do you feel about self-publishing vs. seeking an agent and traditional publisher?

CV: Here's what I usually say about the debate:

Either way you go, you're going to be doing a ton of work. With traditional publishing, the work is often on the front end: getting rejected, making it through the slush pile, understanding the market and how that whole thing works. It can take years. The benefit is having an easier time of it on the back end: wider distribution, reviews from major review outlets, more marketing opportunities, and greater respectability when the book comes out. With self-publishing, it may be easier to break in, but there's a ton of work on the back end in getting the word out, advertising, finding readers, etc. You still may wait years before getting a body of work out there and experiencing any kind of success.

Either way, two things stay exactly the same: the reasons people read books -- entertainment, escape, education, enlightenment, whatever; and the way people find books -- familiarity with the author, word of mouth, what other people are reading, etc.

So, there are huge challenges no matter the route, but fundamentally reading is the same and readers still want good books, and it's good to keep that in mind.

BWG: Are there any particular authors that have inspired your writing?

CV: Ray Bradbury, Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Lois McMaster Bujold, Iain M. Banks, bunches of others.

BWG: Are you looking forward to judging the short stories for the Bethlehem Writers’ Group annual competition?

CV: Of course! Can't wait to see what you all are working on.