Sarah Avery is an escaped academic who taught way too many sections of freshman composition. After earning a doctorate in English with a dissertation on modernist poetry, she spent a few weeks driving around the Adirondacks blasting Tori Amos on the car stereo and asking herself, What would happen if I stopped holding back? The answer turned out to be a return to her first literary love, fantasy fiction. As a mildly entrepreneurial private tutor, she’s able to get almost all the best parts of teaching with almost none of the annoying parts. She has a collection of novellas, Tales from Rugosa Coven, published by Dark Quest Books, and she coedited a themed anthology, Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic, with David Sklar. Her short fiction has appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe and Black Gate.
Iulian: Sarah, I am very happy to have had the opportunity to meet you in person through our common critique group, Writers of the Weird. But as much as I got to know your works, I haven’t had a chance to learn too much about you. Can you tell us some cool stuff? Where are you from, how did you grow up, have you ever imagined you’d be doing what you are doing?
Sarah: I grew up as an Army brat, so I spent several of my early years in Japan, Korea, and Germany. The biggest contiguous chunk of my childhood was in the suburbs of Washington, DC. That’s where I met my high school sweetheart, to whom I’ve now been married for almost 21 years. Hm, how random an assemblage of cool stuff would you like? I was the worst varsity fencer at Vassar College—I had a quick eye and a quick mind, but a slow hand. I can knit in perfect darkness for three days and never drop a stitch. One year I read so many sonnets, I regularly dreamed in iambic pentameter. Still do, on occasion.
I knew I wanted to write, and which genre, when I was 11 years old. I was misdiagnosed with a terminal illness, so I took up writing fantasy to create through language a world where I was not going to be dead within five years. School seemed kind of futile—all that preparing for a future I supposedly wouldn’t live to see. Writing for my own joy felt like the most purposeful part of my life. As Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” By the time it was clear the doctors were wrong, the writing habit was deeply ingrained, and I was getting pretty good.
I’m not sure whether it’s surprising or not, but I made better career choices when I thought I wouldn’t live to see twenty than I made in my twenties, when suddenly it felt like I would have forever to pursue my dreams.
While I was in grad school, my husband and I kept a Crazy Dream List of things we wanted to try if we ever got free of my dissertation and his master’s thesis. A year and a half into my first teaching gig after the Ph.D., the university budget crashed, and I was blessed with a layoff—every full-timer in my department who had health insurance but wasn’t tenure-track got the axe on the same day. My first two thoughts were simultaneous: “Oh, no, the mortgage!” and “This is the best thing that ever happened to me!” When that semester ended, on my last day as a classroom teacher, I turned in my students’ grades, and then went to Starbucks and started writing a new fantasy novel. That first year, I wrote 300,000 words and was truly happy in my work for the first time in a decade.
You call yourself an escaped academic. How was your experience working in that field? Regrets? Accomplishments? Did you leave it due to disappointment with the academic field in general, or was it just a natural, conscientious step for your career?
My teachers in college had all been tenured since the 70s, and they had the kindness to wish for me the same kinds of jobs they had: they got to read and write and talk, and teach two courses a semester to small groups of students who wanted to work hard, and somehow they got paid for all that fun. They didn’t realize jobs like theirs didn’t exist for my generation. Tenure was under attack, and even where younger professors were still being hired in tenure-track positions, their teaching workloads were usually much higher. The process of getting a doctorate had changed, too, with grad students carrying such high teaching loads that the average time to degree in English reached ten years, and the average dropout rate reached 75%. And of the ones who do finish, only half get stable jobs in the field. But we were at a small liberal arts college, so I didn’t know any of that, and my professors had no graduate students, so they didn’t really think it through. (The take-away for writers considering grad school: Don’t do it!)
I wanted to write, but I also truly love teaching. As long as I thought teaching would support me as a writer, getting a degree to teach with seemed reasonable. By the time I understood that life as an academic would never allow me enough time to write, and would never allow me the freedom to write as I pleased, I was so close to the end of the doctorate that it would have been silly to give up.
Several things kept me going at that point. My husband made a lot of sacrifices to support my degree—the fact that he followed that up by making more sacrifices so I could walk away from academia and write fiction is a testament to his awesomeness as a spouse and as a person. I had a wonderful circle of friends and mentors, people I would probably never have met if not for grad school, and I’m so glad I still have those people in my life. And I had my dissertation director, the wonderful poet-scholar Alicia Ostriker, who taught me things about writing large-scale projects that I still use in writing fiction. Alicia once said to me about a chapter draft, “Every paragraph of this has its own separate set of organs, with a head on the front; you have written a tapeworm. You need to learn to write a whale. Write something with a liver as big as your car. For a book, every structure scales up.”
Since you have a doctorate in English, this question might be moot, but I’ll ask it anyway: did you participate in any kind of writing seminars and workshops, especially geared toward SF/F, or was it all just very natural to you? Would you recommend young writers to attend such venues (especially if they don’t have a doctorate in English!)
My first writing seminars were in summer camp in my teens, because that’s the kind of geek girl I was. I spent three summers at a writing camp. In college I took creative writing of various kinds, just about every semester, and auditioned my way into the senior seminar that allowed me to write poetry for my senior thesis.
Actually, I tried to write a fantasy novel for that thesis, but at twenty-one I had no idea how to pace myself for a project that long. Even with a genre-friendly advisor, it would not have gone well for me. And the advisor I had was quite hostile to fantasy. “Nobody wants to read that,” he said of the entire genre. Years later, I found it immensely gratifying to learn that fantasy and science fiction sell twice as many books as literary fiction. Nonetheless, I let myself get badgered out of fantasy.
For a solid decade after that, poetry was the only creative writing I did. I got into an MFA program at Johns Hopkins right after college, and spent a year doing that part time while working various clerical jobs. My advisor was wonderful, my classmates were wonderful, but I began to suspect that what one does after earning an MFA looks almost indistinguishable from what one does before earning it. If I walked away from schooling of all kinds and set up a card table, perhaps with an optional pizza on it, and invited some writing friends over to workshop drafts, would I really be missing anything I needed?
That was the right question. The answer was no.
So I switched to a degree I thought would be more useful for a teaching day job. Oops.
I had a wonderful dissertation workshop group that helped me learn how to think a 300-page thought and articulate it in a way that made the 300 pages worthwhile. For a while I also belonged to a goals-focused group of poets—we didn’t workshop drafts, but we witnessed each other’s monthly commitments to send out work out to presses and magazines, and we helped research markets for each other’s work.
Ultimately, the writing workshop that has helped me most with my actual writing has been the Writers of the Weird, where I met you. It turns out a big table in a friend’s basement is better than an MFA seminar, if that friend has invited enough committed writers.
The workshop that helped me most with the business side of writing—which nobody talked about at all at any school I went to—is now called Cascade Writers. It’s a small annual writing retreat in the Pacific Northwest. For three of the four years I traveled out to Seattle for it, it was a larger conference called A Writer’s Weekend, run almost entirely by Karen Junker. To make it sustainable, Karen scaled it down and found people to share responsibility with, and that version of her vision turned out beautifully, too. Almost every clue I have about writerly professionalism I either learned at A Writer’s Weekend or realized I needed to learn because of my experiences there.
I would absolutely recommend to young writers that they go to shorter, more focused workshops, rather than degree programs. Odds are, they’ll need to have day jobs anyway, even if they succeed madly at writing. Unless they already love teaching, an MFA won’t help get a day job that would work for them. For a person who’s interested in a program like Clarion or Odyssey, I recommend doing it as early in your life as possible, because if you have children, the possibility of a six-week residential writing workshop away from your kids is simply out of the question for several years.
Ultimately, though, you don’t need schools or courses or retreats to write great fiction. A critique group of like-minded people who are serious about writing and have enough social skills to critique usefully is the main thing you need.
The other thing you need is a set of procedures that works for your group. It’s easy to find out all the procedures that make up what’s called the Clarion method—though it always tickles me to hear it called that, since nearly every procedure I’ve heard of that falls under that name is absolutely standard in almost every creative writing class I’ve ever taken. Those procedures are a fine starting point. Tailor them as needed.
What do you consider to be the defining moment in your writing career, the moment when you knew this is what you will do for the rest of your life? What story, market, or anthology had a part in that?
I was about 100,000 words into the first draft of the first novel I ever finished, the one I started right after leaving academia. I realized I’d been happy every day for months. Not just pleased with one or two dimensions of my life, but consummately happy, and happy particularly with my work. Every morning, I woke up and I couldn’t wait to start writing. Every night, I went to bed excited about the next day’s writing. All night, I dreamed about my writing. I was putting in four to eight hours of pen-to-paper time every day, and two or three more in the evening to type up what I’d keep of the day’s longhand work. My draft was rough—I had a lot to unlearn—but I could see the bones of the story, and I knew they were good.
Writing novels was no longer a thing I dreamed of doing, or tried to do. I was doing it. It was even better than I had ever imagined.
The time of year came when I was supposed to be applying for a new teaching job for the next school year. I said to my husband, “What if I didn’t go back? What if I found a day job that actually let me write? Because I’d rather be a barista at Starbucks and come home free to write as I damn well please than be a tenured professor and write scared.”
My husband might have said many things. What he said was, “That’s quite a leap of faith. Can I take one, too?” So he left his big corporate software employer for a start-up, and I took up part-time tutoring instead of looking for a full-time gig, and as a family we took about a $40,000 pay cut. Never regretted it, even though the start-up never did take off.
The moment I knew we were in it together, I knew I’d always find a way to keep writing.
The other defining moment was when I knew my stories did the deep things I wanted them to do. Stories save us in hard times—stories have saved me more than once, and I think most people have had that experience.
I see two main ways that stories do this. Of course, in conversations about fantasy, escapism comes up, and that’s a valid, important function. When you’re suffering, sometimes you need to be lifted out of that moment in your life so that when you come back down you have the strength to face it.
The other way is the Emily Dickinson tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant way. A story can take you into the core of the hard experience you’re having, as long as it takes you by a different path than the one you’re on.
I found out my writing could do both of those things during the time that produced the Grail story you’re publishing in this issue. My friend George, who was a central organizer and much-beloved person in my local Pagan community, was dying. Those of us who could travel into New York to keep him company at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center took turns making the trip. Two of my coven-sisters worked in the same office. Sabrina was about to take the train in to see George. Jen handed her a copy of my working draft of “Closing Arguments” and said, “Read this on the way—you need it more than I do.” And Sabrina told me afterward that the only way she could manage her own anticipatory grief at losing George, so that she could bring some strength to him when he needed it, was by devouring my novella and escaping into it.
In George’s last days, I started the Grail story as a form of spell-prayer on my blog. Many of George’s friends, including some I’d never met and some in other countries, started reading the story as its episodes came to me. For all its flourishes and funny moments, it’s a story of shared heartbreak. And the vast rippling circles of people who loved George were as desperate for ways into that heartbreak as they sometimes were for ways out.
After seeing how people used my work to do the most important things humans to with stories, I had to grow out of the self-deprecating false modesty I had allowed myself. The decades I had spent honing my craft had resulted in an actual ability to be of service to the world through my art. Pretending not to be there yet, just because it’s awkward to be a writer with no impressive professional sales, wasn’t doing anybody any favors. As I knew when my husband and I committed to reinvent our lives that I would be a real writer, I knew after the Grail story that I had finally become one.
Some of your work has Wiccan influences. How did you get involved with Wicca and what does it mean for you? What motifs do you use in your fiction, and are there other inspiration wells that might not be as obvious?
My parents accidentally raised me Shinto.
For three years we lived on an Army base in Japan. Just about every weekend for those three years, we set out for Avery Adventure Day and went to see different cultural sites. My parents tried to explain to me what all those shrines and temples meant to the Japanese people around us. Being seven years old, I thought my parents were explaining how the universe worked. So for me, everything in the universe was alive, with an indwelling spirit. All of nature was sacred, and nothing in nature could be evil. The Gods and ancestors were all around us.
Boy, were my parents surprised three years later when they realized I’d settled comfortably into an approximately Shinto worldview, but I didn’t know what the Lord’s Prayer was. When my father got orders for a new post in the States, my parents started looking for a church that suited them both. They found a lovely one, a congregation I still regard with love and gratitude. But despite my best efforts at monotheism, I was irrevocably animistic.
Alas, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to be authentically Shinto when one is not at all Japanese.
About halfway through my college years, a Wiccan friend suggested I read The Spiral Dance by Starhawk. It was the first time I got a glimpse of a community I could authentically be part of that also had the same spiritual worldview I did. It was 1990, before the internet, and it was very difficult for Pagans to find each other. For a few years, I drifted into groups that ended up saying to me something along the lines of, “You’re so organized! You’re comfortable with alphabetical order, and have a shoebox to put things in! Will you be our priestess?” That sounds like an exaggeration, but remember, I started to identify as Pagan while I was still an undergrad. After a couple of attempts to fill a clergy role despite having no mentors, training, or clue, I decided the answer was no, and I started looking for a group to learn from.
I had imagined myself in an improvisational, politically active, anti-hierarchical group like the ones described in Starhawk’s books, but after years of guesting at various circles, the community I fell in love with was very different. They were recovering from a crisis of leadership—the two most senior people active in the lineage had just divorced each other messily—and I saw people who had not created the mess stepping up to make things better together. I saw humility and service. I saw people gathering up what they treasured about their faith and practice, and talking openly about how to pass on the good stuff without passing on the dysfunction they’d been party to. And when these people made rituals together, their rituals had oomph. (That’s a technical term, oomph is.) I wanted in. They said, “Are you sure? We can’t promise there will never again be a mess like the one we just lived through.” They cared far more about transparency and the well-being of a newcomer than they cared about increasing their numbers. That was the clincher. Yes, I was sure. Nearly twenty years later, I’m still sure.
That’s how I fell in with the Blue Star lineage of Wicca. As Wiccan traditions go, Blue Star is pretty old-school, with a stable liturgical structure and a formal path of training for people who feel called to clergy roles. My eclectic Wiccan characters in Tales from Rugosa Coven affectionately call denominations like ours Snobby High Episcopagans, a label we embrace and sometimes use ourselves. I took the first degree of initiation, which makes me sort of the equivalent of a deacon, but I’ve been inactive since my kids were born. Service as clergy will have to wait until my kids need me a little less. The Gods have many devoted priests and priestesses, and the community has many able initiates, but my sons have only one mother.
The obvious way my life in Wicca has affected my fiction is that the three novellas collected in Tales from Rugosa Coven are rooted solidly in a Pagan community. Those stories are about a recognizably real coven of Wiccans in a version of New Jersey that’s far weirder and more supernatural than the New Jersey I used to live in. I love it that so many Pagan readers—not just Wiccans, but also Druids, Asatruar, and others—have delighted in seeing their social world on the page, warts and all. I also love it that non-Pagan readers, including some who knew almost nothing about Paganism, have enjoyed those stories as stories, about human beings who laugh and suffer and make choices they never expected to make. You don’t need to know or believe any particular thing to get the stuff that’s funny and the stuff that’s deep in that book.
It’s about the family you make. The first of the stories, “Closing Arguments,” is about balancing the family of people you choose with the family you’re born to. I think everyone can find something to relate to there.
I hope so, anyway, because it’s one of my main preoccupations as a writer, no matter what kind of fantasy I’m working on. My sprawling epic family saga has a lot of thematic overlap with my wry contemporary fantasy novellas.
The main reason I tend to write long is that I love ensemble casts. Word count is a function of cast size: if you want your story to max out under 4,000 words, you can’t have more than two characters of any depth, and really you can only reach two if you have serious chops. A character-driven story with, say, six characters who all get noticeably developed will take you straight into novella territory. Novellas are harder to sell, but that’s fine, because a character isolated enough to finish her business in 4,000 words is missing out on almost everything that engages me as a reader or a writer.
I think I’m not alone in this. If I had to guess why so many fantasy readers tend to love sprawling multi-volume epics, I would say they want community-of-characters-driven stories, not just character-driven ones. An editor I met at A Writer’s Weekend years ago asked me to boil down the theme of my 300,000 word trunk manuscript, and I said without hesitation, “Community conquers all.” I wouldn’t mind that on my tombstone.
You write speculative fiction. What drives you to the genre and have you tried writing anything else?
When I was a kid, it was straight-up escapism. Considering what I was up against at the time, escapism was a totally adaptive and appropriate response.
In the years since, though, it’s the imaginative freedom of speculative fiction that continues to engage me. I’ve read my share of literary fiction, and I’ve loved some of it—Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway taught me a lot about writing a city, and you can see that influence woven through all my epic fantasy. But what I often find when I try reading contemporary mainstream fiction, literary or not, is that there’s a point in the story where possibility could open outward and the characters’ emotional truth could take on a literal or poetic reality… and then it doesn’t, and something aggressively mundane happens to close the story down instead, and I feel bored, and then sad that I’m bored because I had liked the story and wanted to see it succeed for me.
I used to write a lot of poetry, though I haven’t written much since I left academia. Poetry just isn’t what comes to me to be written these days. If a poem happened to come to me, it would be very welcome, and I’d give it a good home. There was a decade when I wrote no fiction at all, and poetry was my only creative output. I still love a lot of that work. There are some things I’m proud of that I think will still hold up long after I’m gone, no matter what else turns out to be part of my life’s work. I don’t feel that I was part of any poetic movement, or poetic historical moment. It was something that came out of my life, my community, my sense of literary ancestry. Alicia Ostriker once told me, “You will be the George Herbert of Wicca,” and if you read George Herbert, you will see why that strange compliment is quite high enough for me.
Since 2004 I’ve written a personal blog on Livejournal. Even now, when I’ve got my own website and I try to be regularly active on Facebook and Twitter, most of my online conversation with readers and the world at large seems to be on Livejournal. I try to be wherever my readers are, finding some expressive way to use whatever form of communication they want to read. A three-paragraph blog post is about the shortest form of prose I can really sink my teeth into, though. Maybe if I spent a month reading nothing but Japanese verse forms and Augustan heroic couplets, I could really get into Twitter. Or maybe everyone’s happier that I haven’t.
Since about 2007 I’ve contributed a column to Black Gate. These days, it’s all book reviews. Before I moved out of New Jersey and left most of my students behind, I wrote essays on teaching and fantasy literature. Some of those still please me a great deal. I enjoy my column, though it does take up about a quarter of the writing time I can wrest out of a typical week.
The one form of writing I don’t see myself trying is biography. Although I still love the poet I wrote my dissertation about, I spent five years writing about her work when I could have been writing my own. That feels like something I don’t need to do again.
You coedited the anthology “Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic,” together with David Sklar. How was that collaboration and are you planning to edit other anthologies? To that extend, do you enjoy editing?
There are a lot of reasons I love working with David. The one that started us on the anthology is that his kids and my kids are pretty close in age, so we’ve struggled to balance writing and parenting at about the same stages in our lives and careers. When our respective older children were preschoolers, and we were watching childless writers who’d started publishing about when we did zoom past us on their career trajectories, David suggested that coediting an anthology might help us keep our hands in the game. After all, it couldn’t possibly take as long as writing a novel, right? Sounded good to me.
We both look back on that and laugh.
Soliciting stories was fun. Reading slush was fun, too. We got far more delightful submissions than we could possibly fit in one volume. (It turns out, when editors say a story does not meet their needs at this time, that really may be all they mean.)
One of my favorite memories is of sequencing the stories. We and our families got together at Lunacon, and after a day of going to panels and schmoozing, David and I took our turns kid-watching while our spouses made the rounds of the parties. The children were all young enough, we tucked them into one room together with a baby monitor, and David and I laid out hard copy of all he stories up and down the length of the hotel hallway. We spent most of two nights trying out different arrangements, reading aloud to each other the last paragraph of one story followed right away by the first paragraph of the one we were considering putting next, until all our transitions felt smooth and resonant. The satisfactions of editing an anthology are different from the satisfactions of writing your own stuff, but they’re compelling enough that I’d absolutely do another anthology, especially with David.
The small press we started with, Drollerie Press, was a one-person company with one intern and a couple of freelancers editors on contract. Just when David and I had finished reading slush, had finalized our story lineup, and had gotten all the authors to sign their contracts, the publisher had a health crisis. Weeks went by and nobody on the authors’ listserv heard from her. We wondered if she had died. Seriously, she went into the hospital, and months later when the freelance editors helped her revert everybody’s rights before the press went into bankruptcy, the poor woman was still there. It was a mess.
But the book was so good, David and I could not bear to let it die. We loved those stories, and we felt that we had put them together into something that made them more than the sum of their already-awesome parts. We asked the authors if they would stay with us while we looked for a new home for the anthology. Almost all of the authors said yes.
Hildy Silverman, publisher of the magazine Space and Time, is a friend of ours. At a SFWA event she heard Ian Randal Strock mention that he had just bought Fantastic Books, which had been a reprint-only small press, and that he was hoping to acquire some original titles. Hildy put in a good word for our homeless book, and after a few months of correspondence, Ian read it and picked it up. It took a while for us to make sure that the new contracts made sense for our new publisher while also offering the authors who had stayed with us terms that were at least as good as the ones we’d offered with our previous press, but we got to an agreement everybody was happy with, and even picked back up an author we had lost.
The whole process certainly wasn’t faster than writing a novel. In the time between the day we posted our call for submissions and the day we held copies of the book in our hands, I grew an entire second child from scratch to the point where he could climb stairs and use prepositions in sentences. On the other hand, most of that delay was about having to switch publishers in the middle.
One of the healthiest things about our collaboration was that we got to take turns being overwhelmed by other things. My entire second pregnancy happened while we watched Drollerie Press dissolve. David and his family had a pretty stable year, and he carried the anthology with only a little strategic consultation from me. When we got into contract negotiation and the production process with Fantastic Books, David’s day job as a freelance medical editor picked up pace, and he’s his family’s breadwinner. I was able to step up and handle a lot of what the anthology needed while he dealt with other things. If either one of us had embarked on the anthology alone, I don’t know if it would ever have been finished.
I should also note that our respective spouses also did a lot to make the anthology possible. Rachel and Dan took on the whole combined tribe of four children on numerous occasions to free David and me up so we could meet in person and put in a whole day on the book.
We enjoyed working on the anthology enough that we have plans to do more of them. Not soon, though. We’re still trying to do right by this one, which just went from print only to having both print and e-book formats.
How do you feel about self-publishing and indie-publishing? Where is this insane publishing world going?
I think there will always be a place for curated collections of work—as long as there are editors who are consistently able to offer a constituency of readers the kind of thing they like to read from a variety of authors, there will be a place for something that looks like traditional publishing. I also think books that have had a round of developmental editing, a round of copyediting, and a round of proofreading are still at a huge advantage over books that have only had beta readers. And book design does matter.
That said, with crowdfunding it’s more and more feasible for independent authors to hire A-list professionals to do for them all the things a publishing house would do. I’ve looked into that model for a manuscript of mine that’s received several rejections that said, approximately, We love this book, we dream in your city, it kills us that we can’t publish this, but our business model can’t guarantee us the profit we need from a book this long by an unknown author, so please send us your next thing. Okay, as rejections go, that’s my favorite kind. But I’m not a wholly owned subsidiary of a multinational corporation with stockholders to appease, and I don’t need to pay rent on thousands of square feet of office space in Manhattan, so sales numbers that would be a big loss for a big imprint could still, hypothetically, do quite well enough for me. Right now I’m contacting the people I would want on my editorial and production teams, getting estimates, doing number crunching to see what kind of goal I could set for Kickstarter. The big trunk novel may not be feasible in the near future, but I think this year I’ll try my hand at crowdfunding and self-publishing something. It’s just a matter of how big a project I can afford to learn on.
David mentioned an informal survey he’d seen—neither of us has turned it up, but maybe one of your readers will recognize it and point us in the right direction—that showed authors who only published conventionally earning substantially more than authors who only self-published, and authors who did both earning more than either alone. It seems that having some curated and vouched-for work keeps up your credibility with readers, and having some work that delivers a better return per copy keeps the earnings up.
Considering that prosperity in our field is measured by whether you can afford to keep putting enough time into the job to keep producing pro-quality work, I don’t expect ever to get rich at this. As Tom Doyle puts it, writing fiction professionally is a pie-eating contest in which the prize is more pie. Nobody should expect to get rich writing, and if getting rich is a high priority for a person, there are more efficient ways to go about it than writing. Someday I would like, though, to reach a point at which all the hours I put into writing, balanced against all the income I bring in from it, calculates out to better than the minimum wage. That would be awesome, and it’s rarer than you think.
Since some of our readers are also aspiring writers, what can kind of advice can you give them to help them on their path?
There’s a lot of advice for young writers just starting out at life as well as at writing—most of it’s pretty good advice, and there’s a lot of overlap. But there’s not so much for aspiring writers with children, so I’m going to offer the things I’ve learned in the past seven years that I wish someone had told me seven years ago. In writing, as in other fields, nobody wants to get mommy-tracked, so the subject is full of ugly true things nobody wants to talk about.
But here’s a Wiccan aphorism that usually serves me well: Where there’s fear, there’s power.
Before I had kids, I would have said the usual: Write every day. Now, though, I’ve had to moderate that for myself to this: Do something to support your writing life every day. If family obligations don’t allow you to generate new words of fiction every day, there will still be something you can do. Look at markets on Ralan.com, submit a story, make a blog post, correspond with your editors or beta readers. Just do something.
It’s true that all those para-literary activities can be ways of procrastinating, but when you’ve got a newborn or a sick kid or a family move, your brain is just mush at the end of the day. Wait, just at the end of the day? Possibly all day.
The only thing I could do when my newborns were nursing twelve hours out of twenty-four was read, but I used that time to read lots of classic writers in the genre like Leigh Brackett and Lord Dunsany, people whose names came up all the time but whom I’d never read. All my fancy schooling left a lot of gaps in my knowledge of my home genre, and it was important to me to get to fill some of those gaps.
You do what you must, then you do what you can. When what you can do doesn’t move you discernibly closer to your writing goals, you look for opportunities to shore up your foundational skills, lore, or resources.
Forgive yourself for being slowed down. What you are doing is hard. Nobody who hasn’t done it knows how hard it is.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Right now I’m working on the next novella in the Rugosa Coven series. I’ve got at least three more novellas in mind for those characters, and more may come to me.
This summer, I’ll be working on a self-publishing project. If I get a bit of seed money from a grant I’ve applied for, I’ll self-publish the sprawling epic family saga. A big name editor who recently retired from a big name imprint and now freelances says she’s excited about doing the structural edit with me, whenever I can raise the funds to pay her. If I don’t get the grant, it’ll probably be a related novella that I self-publish first, and I’ll work my way up to the longer book and the series it opens.
I’d like to add my thanks for your invitation to do this interview. Writing so often feels like dropping words into the void, and it’s always good to get a sense that there’s someone on the other side of the process who wants the story, and the story about the story.
Sarah, thank you very much for such detailed and entertaining answers. Good luck with reaching all those dreams!
Stories by Sarah Avery:
• How the Grail Came to the Fisher King
Books by Sarah Avery:
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