Fiction is a Series of Choices: Interview with Seanan McGuire

Absolute BlankBy Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Seanan McGuire (pronounced SHAWN-in) is a literary force to be reckoned with.

She is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. The ninth October Daye book, A Red-Rose Chain, comes out next month. She also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.” (For details on her work as Mira, check out MiraGrant.com.)

You’d think that would be enough to keep her busy, and you’d be right, if we were talking about an ordinary human. In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music (see her Albums page for details). She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”. Somehow, she also manages to post to her blog, Tumblr, and Twitter regularly, watch a sickening amount of television, maintain her website, and go to pretty much any movie with the words “blood,” “night,” “terror” or “attack” in the title. Most people believe she doesn’t sleep. We think there might be some kind of demonic bargain going on.

Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot.

We talked to Seanan about gender, being a “social justice warrior,” navigating social media, and the soon-to-be released A Red-Rose Chain.

Background Photo: seananmcguire.com

Background Photo: seananmcguire.com

Toasted Cheese: You have a name that, to many, appears to be of ambiguous gender. On your Tumblr, you recently posted a link to this article, and responded to a reader’s question about it (here). Can you tell us a bit more about any gender bias you’ve dealt with (directly or indirectly) in terms of publishing/readership?

Seanan McGuire: For the most part, my readers are awesome, and they aren’t weighted one direction or another (so it’s not “only women read me” or “only men read me,” or anything like this). I think I receive a lot more rape threats than male authors. They seem genuinely stunned, when I talk to them about it, to discover that this is just how life is for me, and for most of the other female authors I know. I wish it would stop.

TC: You seem to endeavor to make sure your characters represent a variety of racial and gender identities. We (and many others) see this as a positive. This question comes in two parts:

  1. Is this something that comes naturally to you, or have you had to consciously work at it?
  2. Have you dealt with any pushback, either from publishers or fans, because of it?

SM: I honestly just want the characters I write about to reflect the diversity that I see in my friends and in the world around me. I also grew up white and cisgendered in America, so I do have to make an effort not to default to “white, cis, American.” That can be an effort. It’s worth it.

I’ve received a few inquiries to the effect of “why did character X have to be gay?” or “why did character Y have to be Indian?” I try not to be cranky about those. I do wonder if the people who ask me those questions go up to people on the street and ask “why did you have to be ______?” Fiction is a series of choices. Reality is a series of coincidences. If our choices are not as varied and diverse as those coincidences, we’re doing something wrong.

TC: You blog and tweet a lot about social justice issues (like racial and gender inequality, the representation of women in the media, etc.), and as we previously noted, these issues certainly enter into your work. Because of that, you and a number of other current science fiction and fantasy authors have been the target of complaints by other authors and fans claiming that these “social justice warrior” (SJW) issues are “ruining” SFF. What is your response/reaction to those complaints?

SM: I feel like a lot of those people have not read much science fiction, which has always been about “SJW issues.” Science fiction is about politics and society and pushing the envelope. Anyone who’s read Tiptree or Heinlein or Piper or King can see that. I think that there’s a tendency to paint the work of our childhood in rose tones, thinking it was always perfectly suited to us—I find it when I go back to watch old horror movies, and am just stunned by all the slut-shaming. I wonder if some of these people wouldn’t be equally stunned if they went back and read the authors they say they admire.

TC: We recently wrote an article about the negotiation of social media for writers… you weren’t able to participate at the time, but since you’re an author we always think of when we think of authors on social media, we’d like to ask for your response to a few of those questions! So… how has your relationship with the internet/social media changed since being published?

SM: I spend a lot less time reading web comics, and a lot more time trading Disney pins. Really, it hasn’t changed that much.

TC: How would you describe your relationship with your fans online?

SM: A lot of them are super-sweet, and so excited to talk to me. I do worry about hurting someone’s feelings without meaning to, since I’m a little odd sometimes, so I try to be ultra careful.

TC: What are three things you wish fans wouldn’t do when interacting with you online?

SM: Ask me questions about pub dates that I haven’t announced; ask me for spoilers; yell at me because a book is not available in their region. I am incredibly accessible and up-front. The flip side of this is that if I haven’t said something, I probably can’t, and I get really uncomfortable when pressured.

TC: Let’s talk about Toby! The Winter Long, Book 8 in the series, was kind of a game-changer. With A Red-Rose Chain coming next month, what should readers expect from Toby & Co. moving forward?

SM: A book annually, as long as DAW lets me. More seriously, I don’t do spoilers. They, too, make me super uncomfortable.

(At least four more books after A Red-Rose Chain are confirmed at this time. Be sure to check out the review in our next issue for more!)

TC: Many readers of this series enjoy the way you’ve built the faerie world Toby inhabits. We know that you studied folklore, but how much of Toby’s Faerie is your creation, as opposed to already-existing folklore?

SM: It’s sort of “chicken and the egg.” Most of Toby’s Faerie is based on folklore, but then spun, hard, in my own direction.

(You can find out more about Seanan and Toby’s version of Faerie on Seanan’s blog, where she answers reader questions about Toby’s world in the lead-up to the release of each book. You’ll see several posts at the link, but if you want to dig even deeper, check out the Toby Daye tag!)

TC: And let’s go out on a light note… we know you’re a big fan of lots of different kinds of media. Give our fans a recommendation of one of your favorite:

Books
All-time favorite: It by Stephen King.
Recent favorite: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.K. Carey.

Movies
Slither, written and directed by James Gunn.

TV shows
Most likely to re-watch: Leverage or The West Wing.

Musicians/Bands
I spent literally a decade following the Counting Crows around the West Coast. I am a fan forever.

Seanan’s Links:

Finding Your Fairy Godmother:
A Guide to Acquiring a Literary Agent

Absolute Blank

By Seanan McGuire

ELEVATOR PITCH: “Can you sell this in the time it takes to ride the elevator?”

It’s time to talk about something that’s near and dear to every writer’s heart. Something that many of us regard as falling somewhere between “fairy godmother” and “the monster in the closet.” Something that can legitimately make the difference between success and success that takes a whole lot longer to accomplish. No, I’m not talking about talent.

I’m talking about literary agents.

QUERY: “Dear Mr. Agent, I have written…”

As a writer, if you want to become a professional, it’s your job to write something that’s good enough to sell. Not “have an idea that’s good enough to sell.” Not “have enough talent to change the literary world forever.” The first thing you need to do is write something that’s good enough to be worth an agent’s time. How will you know when you’ve done that? Well, that’s very personal, but I recommend finding someone who’s equipped to give you an honest opinion—a creative writing professor, a writer’s group, or just a really blunt friend—and asking them.

For purposes of today’s discussion, we’re going to assume that you’ve got a finished, salable product. Awesome! At this point, the potential for a literary agent comes in. Now, a literary agent’s job is to take that something that you’ve written… and sell it. Sounds simple, right? It both is and isn’t. The literary agent will understand business protocols, the current state of the market, reasonable expectations, and what a good contract should include. A good literary agent protects the interests of his or her client, prepares them for the realities of the publishing world, and generally frees the writer’s time up for, I don’t know, writing.

I’ll be frank: many authors don’t have agents when they first start out. The agent-to-author ratio is scary, especially since you don’t need any training to stick “author” onto your name. Most agents are already representing several clients, and there’s no magic number for how many they can handle. I, for example, am relatively self-starting: point me at something, tell me it has a candy center, and I’ll see you next month. In contrast, Olga here needs daily contact or she starts freaking out, and when she’s freaking out, she’s not getting anything done. An agent who could handle four of me may be hard-pressed to handle me and Olga.

Look at it this way: being an agent is something like trying to plan a dinner party, only instead of dietary restrictions and seating plans, you have amount of hand-holding and sanity exams. I can’t tell you how to get invited to that party. You’re going to have to do that on your own. What I can do is tell you how to, hopefully, improve your chances of using the correct fork once you get there.

Also look: many authors who have written good, salable books manage to sell their first book, or even their first several, without the aid of an agent. It’s true that the number of major houses willing to consider unrepresented authors is down. It’s also true that the number of accessible small press houses willing to consider those same authors is up. It can be difficult to tell the genuine small houses from the predators, but if you want to be a professional author, you’re going to spend hours in the research trenches. Researching publishing houses is the least you’re going to be expected to do.

OUTLINE: “Make sure you cover the major points quickly and cleanly.”

I want to be clear: I am not the girl to ask if you want to know how to write the perfect cover letter, the perfect agency query, or the perfect book pitch. The idea of writing a synopsis makes me break out in a cold sweat, and I regularly beg my Siamese to write my book pitches for me (she always refuses). Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help you with that. I recommend starting with the annual Guide to Literary Agents. There’s a new one every year, and it’s always packed with reference material, advice from real literary agents, samples of good queries, and more. So yes, you need to do your homework.

The homework doesn’t stop with learning the basics. You can’t query every literary agent in the world at once—in fact, that would be a really bad idea, since every agent has his or her own areas of specialization. If you query an agent who only does science fiction with your non-fiction book about the history of pandemic flu, you’re not going to make a very good impression.

First steps:

  1. Figure out what genre or genres your work fits in. All work fits somewhere, even if that somewhere is a blend of more standard genres. Your zombie western is “horror” and “western.” If you can, find an agent who does both. If you can’t, pick which genre represents your baby better, and try agents from that side of the dividing line.
  2. Make a list of agents who sound like they could be a good fit for you and your work. You can do this by going through the Guide to Literary Agents, by researching which agents represented books in your genre, and by looking for agent web sites. (A small bit of etiquette advice: if you have friends who are published authors, feel free to ask them “who represents you?,” but don’t follow that up with “will you introduce me?” This puts them in a very bad position. If they think you’d be a good fit for their agent, they’ll offer that introduction on their own.)
  3. Now that you have a short list of possible agents, it’s time to read any and all agency documentation you can find. If the agent has a web site, read the web site. If the agent has a Twitter feed, read the Twitter feed. If the agent has a blog, read the blog. Many agents have embraced the Internet age, and will make their desires in clients (and their client dos and don’ts) very clear.

Now that you’ve taken your first steps—you’ve found the agent or agents you want to query, and you’ve read enough to start to feel vaguely like a stalker—it’s time to prepare your pitch. Which brings us to our next major point. Major enough that it needs to be presented all in capital letters:

READ THE AGENCY SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.

I mean it. I really, really, really mean it. Agents are people who read and sell books for a living, and that means that reading comprehension really, really matters. Agency guidelines are sort of like airport security: if you set off the metal detector after you’ve been told to empty your pockets eight times, you may miss your flight. If you ignore submission guidelines, you may find yourself in the same situation. Metaphorically speaking.

SYNOPSIS: “Twitter and Facebook are the face of the enemy.”

So you’ve found an agent who’s potentially right for you. You’ve managed to compose a letter that doesn’t make you want to put your own eyes out with a pencil, and a synopsis/outline that doesn’t make your book read like a non-pharmaceutical sleep aid. You’ve opened the lines of communication. You’re done, right?

Wrong.

You know how job interview advice has started to include “be careful what you post on the Internet, because your potential boss can see it?” Well, this also applies with literary agents. They expect us to be a little bit insane—we’re writers, after all—so you probably don’t need to worry about those pictures of you in full costume at last year’s San Diego Comic Convention. They even understand that many up-and-coming writers will have Secret HistoriesTM in the fanfic mines. That’s all good. So what do you need to avoid?

You need to avoid running straight to your Facebook and posting “OMG I GOT AN AGENT!” when they haven’t actually signed you. You need to avoid running straight to your blog and posting “Jane Doe of Doe-Ray-Mi Agency is SUCH A BITCH she didn’t LOVE MY BOOK.” You absolutely need to avoid Twittering during telephone conversations with potential agents (not kidding here).

As I noted before, many literary agents have learned to take advantage of all that the Internet has to offer, and that includes checking on potential clients to see whether they can be professional. Seeing nasty slams at agents who didn’t sign you, or comments about ongoing negotiations, just make you look like you’re not ready to take the business of writing seriously. That’s not something that all agents are going to want to be associated with.

CONCLUSION: “Thank you for taking the time to consider…”

Literary agents are good. They make your job, as a writer, infinitely easier. They are not, however, door prizes handed out for reaching a certain level of skill. If you’re good, and you’re willing to work to find the agent that’s right for you, I have faith that you’ll be able to take that step. Do your homework, do your research, and bring something awesome to the table.

Believe me, the work is worth it.

Final Poll Results

Preparing to Prepare a Submission Package

A Pen In Each Hand

By Seanan McGuire

  1. Get a copy of the Guide to Literary Agents, and read all their tutorials. While the lists of actual agents will change dramatically from year to year, the format of the cover letter and synopsis won’t; you can probably pick up an older edition at your local used bookstore for five or six dollars. Just don’t use it for actually querying agents.
  2. Write one, two, and eight page synopses of your current project, and study the logical differences. Remember that every synopsis has to go from beginning to end, and make linear sense, even as the details get sliced away.
  3. Write an elevator pitch—a short, thirty-second description of your project designed to make people say “tell me more.” For double the fun, write an anti-elevator pitch to go with it—remember that “a young girl arrives in a foreign land, kills the first person she meets, and with the aid of three strangers, goes on to kill again” is a technically accurate elevator pitch for The Wizard of Oz.

All in a Day’s Work:
Should Writing be a Job?

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In On Writing, Stephen King calls writing “just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.”

Some writers balk at that statement. Writing? A job? But isn’t writing supposed to be about the joy of creation? Following your muse? I think the answer is yes. And no.

Most of us have a love/hate relationship with writing. We want to create, but it can be tough to find the time/energy/persistence to actually do it. And whether you write fiction or nonfiction, a little or a lot, it’s a matter of deciding where you want to go with your writing. There’s nothing wrong with treating writing as a hobby, but if your goal is to make money as a writer, it takes discipline.

We interviewed three authors—two established, and one working hard to get there—to get their take on writing as a job.

Author John Scalzi has been a full-time writer since he left college, first writing for a newspaper, then as an in-house editor and writer for America Online. He’s been a freelance writer since 1998 and has published a dozen books. Two of those books, Old Man’s War and The Last Colony, have been nominated for the Hugo Award.

YA author Laurie Halse Anderson has been writing full-time since 2002. Her books, including Speak, Catalyst,and Twisted, have won numerous awards. Prior to being a full-time writer, she wrote early in the morning while working freelance jobs and other part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I made the transition the first time I got an advance that (with much penny-pinching) could support me for a year,” she says.

Seanan McGuire, a mid-level manager in a non-profit customer service center, is working toward becoming a full-time writer and recently signed with an agent. McGuire has been published, although “not, as yet, in my chosen genres (or that I’ll admit to).” She writes primarily horror and urban fantasy.

TC: Do you keep a regular writing schedule?

JS: Theoretically I write long-form work in the morning while my daughter is at school and short-form work after she comes home and wants attention. In reality, it all sort of mixes in together. I am trying to become more scheduled, however.

LHA: I write minimum of six hours (this can increase to 16 when the deadline pressure is turned up) a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

SM: During the work-week, I write from seven to nine every day except for Thursday, when I have my weekly “girl’s night out.” On the weekends, I do two four-hour blocks, split between the two days. Sometimes more, if I have edits to process.

TC: How much time do you spend on the “business” of writing?

JS: I spend about an hour a day on it. It mostly consists of e-mailing my agent or editor or clients. Sometimes I have to travel for work, which of course takes up more time. but when I’m at home, and hour a day usually does it. It helps that my wife handles a lot of the financial end of things, because that’s what she’s good at and has training in.

LHA: At least 25 hours a week, often more. Correspondence with readers takes up the bulk of it. Preparing for travel to conferences (tons of email, plane and hotel reservations, correspondence with committee members, speech and presentation preparation) takes up a lot, too. I have cut way back on my travel, but still spend about 60 days a year on the road. Website updates, interviews, and research for new books also happen every week.

SM: Currently, about two to five hours per week are spent contacting agents, formatting submissions, and pursuing representation. It’s a small amount of time, but it’s a tiring one.

TC: Should would-be writers treat writing as a job?

JS: If people feel it’s best to pursue writing as a hobby or a part-time thing, who am I to try to convince them otherwise? Lots of very excellent writers held down other jobs or wrote primarily for recreation and enjoyment. Also, you know. Writing for a living is hard, and generally it doesn’t pay well.

LHA: A career in the arts is not for everyone. It’s more demanding and less financially rewarding than most people realize. If you love the work, you’ll get a lot out of committing yourself body and soul. But there is nothing wrong with making your writing into a piece of your life, instead of the whole thing.

SM: I find that writing is always work, if you want to get it right; it takes time, effort, dedication, and focus. I work harder at writing than I do at almost anything else, and I’d rather have the time I currently spend on other people’s projects to devote to my own.

TC: What advice would you offer to would-be writers?

JS: 1) Be aware of your audience. The vast majority of the time, when you’re writing professionally, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience—specifically (most of the time) an editor who is looking for writing of a certain nature or function, and in a more general sense to a larger readership that is looking for something specific… 2) You have time. So long as you don’t intentionally step out in front of a bus, chances are pretty good you’ll make it to 70 or 80 or some bone-deteriorated age like that. That being the case, what are you worried about? Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the process of writing. and 3) You’re a writer. Prepare to be broke.

LHA: Do it for the love, not the money. But if you decide to make it into your career, structure your life frugally, so the ups and downs of the unpredictable market won’t hurt as much.

SM: Learn to take critique, even when it’s hard. Learn to focus. Trust your story. Follow the market. Read. Write. Adapt. Also, you’re not as good as you think you are… but you could be, if you work hard enough to get there.

King’s On Writing has even more advice for any writer trying to make it. He says that all writers should have a private writing space, with the ability to shut out all distractions. He recommends sticking to a schedule, and setting concrete goals.

“The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don’t wait for the muse,” says King. “Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three.”

And ultimately, figure out how you define success. Are you happy writing fanfiction to share with your friends, or do you aspire to the New York Times Bestseller List? Set goals that make sense for you, and stick to them.

Final Poll Results