I'm thrilled to have been able to interview award winning author Sarah Hoyt. She has written in many genres, but science fiction and fantasy remain her favorite. Her novel Darkship Thieves won a Prometheus Award in 2011, and she is currently working on her next work, Darship Renegades(due out in December). As if that wasn't impressive enough, Sarah is a member of Mensa, SFWA, MWA, and RWA. Check out her blog if you get the chance.
1. Why and how did you become a writer?
I don’t know. I have this theory the fates hate me. Honestly? I really don’t know how or why I became a writer. It might have been because I was born very premature and had a very sickly childhood at a time and in a place when it was believed bed rest was the cure for almost everything and quarantine at least good for half of it. I think I spent most of my childhood alone, and since my parents – at the time – rented a shotgun apartment without windows (glass at the front and back door). I didn’t even have the amusement of looking out the window. There was only so much reading I could do, even after I learned to read at four. So, it was logical to sit there making up stories. When I could write fluently (at around six) it became natural to write them. And when I was about ten I figured out that’s what I wanted to do for a living. When I figured out the realities of publishing and writers’ pay it was already too late.
2. How has the landscape for writers change over the past 15 years?
Fifteen years? For most of that time it was getting bleaker. The number of publishers accepting submissions diminished, the number of PUBLISHERS diminished. The number of bookstores diminished and most of it started being picked locally. You can track how much influence your publisher’s decision had on your final success by the number of books being published on “how to write a blockbuster novel.” In a free market this sort of book is nonsensical. Blockbusters emerge out of nowhere, suddenly and wildly (Like Harry Potter). There will be some books on how to do this that will compare books that did well and isolate their elements. But in a system that is controlled by the publisher, and where they can essentially control laydown and thereby sales, because there’s no other way to buy books, it makes sense to write books saying “you need these markers, because they impress the publishers.” Concomitantly to seeing this happen as a writer, as a reader I found it harder and harder to discover things I WANTED to read. I remember going into Barnes and Noble about five years ago with a hundred dollars burning a hole in my pocket, and literally finding nothing to buy.
I could see this from both sides – because as a writer, I was reading the books saying “you shouldn’t write cozies because they’re not real mysteries” and the interviews with the editors mocking cozies because “that’s not how crimes are solved” and as a reader, I couldn’t find any fun, light mysteries – and I wanted to scream “I’m your ideal buyer. Why isn’t anyone asking me?”
In the last five years things have changed as a reader. I think savvy book stores are looking at what sells on Amazon. The non-savvy ones are going under. And, oh, yeah, I can always buy on Amazon.
And as a writer, my books are making it onto the shelves even when the editors aren’t all that invested. From my perspective, this is progress. At the same time, though, the publishing houses are buying less and reporting smaller numbers. (In general. One of my books is selling very well indeed.)
It would be enough to make me pull out my hair… if it weren’t for indie.
3. What do you think of the current transformation within the market concerning traditional versus indie publishing?
I think indie publishing has the opportunity of becoming a great boon to both writers and readers.
We’ll get crap of course, as if we didn’t from traditional (Yes, I know Kris Rusch says traditional publishes very little crap. Well, I don’t know what crap is, but I know what I will not read, even if it’s the last book available, and my alternative is want ads in a newspaper that used to contain dead fish. And about half (if not more) of what traditional has put out – or actually got onto shelves -- the last few years falls into the “I’d rather put my eyes out with a grapefruit spoon than read that.” It might, mind you, be competently written, exquisitely worded crap. As far as my reading goes, it is still crap.) The readers are more than capable of picking what they want to read despite and around the crap.
There’s a chance, if we don’t screw this up too badly, that we’ll end up with less crap – defined as stuff people want to read. And already I have more stuff I want to read.
Goodness all around.
Of course, traditional houses will need to adapt or die. *shrug* Why should they be immune? They are NOT too big to fail.
4. Where do you get your ideas, and how do you map them out? Do you brainstorm, outline, or just write on the fly?
Well, I, like every professional, get my ideas from Hays Kansas, in return for a SASE. We keep trying to convince them to go electronic, but there’s no reasoning with some people.
Oh, okay, fine. I get my ideas from everywhere and everything. Actually the hard part is keeping from having ideas.
I’ve had ideas that are “responses” to books I read. Like you know, I’ll read a book and go “But it would never happen THAT way.” I’ve had ideas that take a phrase from a song and suddenly spin out an entire character or situation on me. I’ve had ideas in dreams. I’ve had ideas while I’m peacefully ironing, and suddenly there’s this guy – or gal in my head – telling me his story. Which, btw, is how most of my ideas manifest. Not all, but most of them. One of my publishers (the only one I continue to work with) used to throw me for a loop in the early part of coming up with a book, because she would say “Yes, but what is the book about? What are you trying to say?” Because… blessed if I know. Until I’m about halfway through the book, I often have no clue. It’s more “It’s her and this guy who changes into a dragon, see, and then his father.”
Weirdly, that particular book was completely outlined, but I had to be in his father’s head to realize it was a book about redemption and families (Actually the whole series is). So… do I map ideas? I’m not very visual. Other people keep talking of diagrams and outlining with color. Doesn’t do a thing for me. Usually when I have an idea, I write out a page with the general story. Then when I’m getting ready to work on it (and I’m assuming a novel, here. For a short, I just WRITE it.) I’ll write an outline that can range from ten to fifty pages, depending on the book. Then I “unpack” this onto a chapter-by-chapter outline, ten chapters at a time, just before I write it.
Now… this is the theory. I have had stories that unspool in my mind, in trilogy-length down to the last word and punctuation mark. One minute they don’t exist, and the next they’re all there full fledged and I’m COMPELLED to type them out.
AND I’ve had stories that won’t let themselves be outlined, and where I have to write them a chapter at a time, as though blindfolded and unable to see ahead into the next chapter. It’s very annoying, but when it has to be done that way, it has to be done that way.
Weirdly, once finished, that’s some of my most structured work.
5. Editing our work is one of the hardest things for a writer to do, especially a newbie. Describe your editing process.
Now, or when I was a newbie?
When I was a newbie I often cut out as much as two thirds of a book in editing. In editing I held the book to a rigid linear structure, cut out all humor and anything that didn’t IMMEDIATELY advance the plot. I used to do about ten passes before I was satisfied with something.
Now… well – the typical editing process?
As you can see in the novel I write on line, the process of writing is very messy for me, even with an outline. Though Witchfinder is probably messier, because I only do it once a week and I work on other projects the rest of the week.
However, a lot of its issues are issues I’m prone to ANYWAY. One of them is changing characters names without notice mid-book. Another is getting the timeline completely messed up. Another is dropping what I thought was one of the main themes halfway through. Then there’s the surprises which my characters hand me, even if I plotted in advance.
What this adds up to is that when I take a finished draft off the printer – and I always edit in print. I’m a dinosaur – I go over it for plot/theme and discontinuities FIRST, making the thing a coherent whole. Then I read it again, to make sure it still makes sense, and add in any foreshadowing/pay off needed.
Then I send it off to my betas. At this stage, it’s often only been cursorily spell checked, which is why I HAVE to train my betas to stop sending me lists of typos and missed punctuation. I CAN catch those myself. And either in traditional or indie, the work will go through one person or a couple of people whose sole job it is to catch those typos and such.
What I want from my betas at that point is “this doesn’t make sense” or “uh, this character died in chapter three. How come he saves the day on chapter fifteen? Is he a zombie?” But mostly I want the emotional resonance. Did they cry in the right places? Laugh in the right places? Do they like the right guy? Hate the right villain? More importantly, did it pay off for them? Did each thread do so? Or are they saying “I didn’t understand why the thread with the kitten ends in that stupid way. What was I supposed to think?”
Then I take back their opinions and do one final go over for plot, etc.
And then I do a manual spill chucker and general check.
Now, as with the writing process, this varies. I’ve had two books that emerged from the printer ready to go to the betas, and then the betas found no issues. So these books are essentially first draft, with careful copy-editing. No, I’m so not telling you which books. (Though one of them did very well. The other hasn’t been published yet.)
6. Is there any one novel or story you're most proud of, and why?
The temptation is to say “all of them” but of course, some stories will always be heart’s blood while others are merely darlings.
A lot of these are “firsts.” I’m fond of my first-published short story Thirst. I’m very fond of my first mystery, Death of A Musketeer. Draw One In The Dark was the novel where, for the first time, I felt I was in control of the novel-form.
Then there’s the genre I always wanted to write, which seemed impossible for over a decade. I love Darkship Thieves, because I love the characters and the world. I love the sequel (coming out in December) and right now, up to this moment, I think A Few Good Men, due out from Baen in Spring, is the best thing I’ve ever written.
7. What projects do you currently have in the works? What kind of timeline can we expect them released on?
What do you mean by “in the works” – I’ve delivered Darkship Renegades. It has a cover. It comes out from Baen in December. I have delivered A Few Good Men. I don’t know about a cover. It comes out from Baen next Spring. I’m finishing Noah’s Boy for Baen, I don’t know when it will come out yet. I’ve delivered A Fatal Stain to Prime Crime, and it comes out in October.
If you mean, though, in the works as in writing them – I’m working on The Brave And The Free, a space opera taking place 500 years after Darkship Renegades, which I hope to release next year. I’m also working on the first of the Orphan Kitten mysteries, which will come out from Naked Reader sometime at the end of summer.
The reason I’m not sure on time is that while I’m working with traditional, my entire timeline can get upended in a moment, as I get a rewrite request or even “just” page proofs dropped on me. These will cost me weeks and then it takes me a while to get back into the current project. Also, this year has been unusually difficult for health, which might be related to last year being unusually stressful.
However, I’m planning on doing more Indie mysteries and space opera and those reading my blog or friending me on Facebook will be kept abreast of indie releases, as well as traditional ones. For the traditional ones, I’d like to request advance ordering wherever possible, because that really influences the laydown these days.
8. What kind of books do you like to read? What's your favorite and why?
Uh… I like to read books with letters. I prefer them in one of the languages I understand, though I’ve been known to invest unending time in reading books while learning the language.
If you mean genre I read everything: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical, lately for my sins romance (Well, I was taught it was wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s too bad because I enjoy them immensely). I read non fiction of all types (Yes, of all types. I was once held captive for several weeks of a series of nineteenth century books on biology for college students. And the reason my kids HAVE to call if they’re going to be late, was this fascinating series of books I found at a flea market about the most gruesome murders in history.)
Now, I do have a strong need for plot and for novelty, when reading fiction. Oddly biology manuals and tourist guides for places I’ve never visited rarely need a plot. If a book has no plot or is a collection of clichés, I’m not likely to like it.
My favorites? Well… I have multiples for each genre, so this is difficult, but off the top of my head and missing a lot of them: most of Heinlein, particularly The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; most of Pratchett, particularly Night Watch; most of Rex Stout, particularly Fer deLance; most of F. Paul Wilson, particularly Hosts; most of Ellis Peters, particularly Brother Cadfael; Steven Saylor’s Roma Subrosa; all of Clifford Simak, particularly They Walked Like Men; Georgette Heyer’s romances; PJ O’Rourke’s Eat The Rich; Andrew Ward’s Our Bones Are Scattered. I could do this forever, but I won’t. I’m sure I forgot a dozen others I like as much as the ones named, but if I start looking through the shelves, this will never be finished.
9. Besides writing the manuscript, what responsibilities do you see for an author in order to have a successful career?
Keep an eye on contracts; keep an eye on statements; keep an eye on the industry. Don’t offend anyone you don’t need to offend (By this, I don’t mean be timid; I mean don’t go gallivanting around picking fights for the sake of making yourself disagreeable). Keep an eye on other writers and what they’re doing and what works. Keep in touch with friends, network, help out those who need a hand. You’ll find a hand extended to you in return, but even if you don’t, giving a hand to those who need it are the dues one pays for being human. And for the love of heaven, live. Have kids or a spouse, or a lover, or a cat. Get out of your office sometime (train the cat to walk on a harness ). Volunteer, or take courses, or take an unhealthy interest in your neighbor’s lives (I’ve never done this, but I understand a pair of binoculars is useful. Just don’t get caught watching). Eat at diners and at five start restaurants. Go to a museum. Take a walk through an area of town you have no real reason for visiting. Learn how to wax moustaches or how to cook squid. It’s important to stay connected to life and people to write new stuff. Otherwise you’re just regurgitating someone else’s work, either in print or movie. And that stuff feels… recycled.
10. What advice would you give to writers who are just getting started?
Be very careful before you sign a contract. Some of the traditional publishers are getting very odd. Don’t give away your copyright, or if you do, be very sure what you’re getting for it – be it money or exposure – is worth it to you. Do NOT under any circumstances sign away your right to work again if that publisher stops publishing you, or your right to work for any other publisher, for that matter. This is one of those “NEVER DO THAT.”
Try indie, even if you’re committed to the traditional route. First, the results might surprise you. Second, it’s always good to have more than one outlet. If you find that you don’t want to do it under your own name, do it secretly, under a pen name. NO ONE NEED EVER KNOW.
Read Dean Wesley Smith’s Think Like A Publisher. Stay on top of Dean’s blog, Kris Rusch’s blog, Konrath’s blog, The Passive Voice, and any other blog that seems to be on top of what is happening in publishing right now.
And work. Never stop yourself from writing something because someone tells you it’s unmarketable. There’s no such thing as unmarketable, though there might be stuff you want to bring out under a pen name or a DBA.
In the same way never force yourself to write that which you REALLY don’t want to. There’s no reason for it and life is too short to waste writing stuff you hate.
In fact, my advice is the same you get when going into unknown territory “Keep your eyes peeled, stay on the move, and be equipped for survival no matter what the conditions and you’ll do.”
Actually I’ll pass along something Kris Rush told me over a year ago now, and which re-oriented my entire perspective. Don’t write for indie, don’t write for traditional. Write for the fans. Then publish each of the works in the way they’ll get in front of most fans. Sometimes that’s a particular publisher. BUT it never is “in your drawer.” If nothing else, put the stuff out indie. Allow it to find fans. (And for some books, indie will always be the first choice. You’ll know which they are, if you’ve studied the market.)
Oh, yeah, and good luck.