Karen’s (Very Digressional) FAQ
I don’t have time to read your whole biography. I just want to know the salient facts of your life so I can write this report for school. Please help me out?
Well, sure, you said please.
Born: 1981, Whangarei, New Zealand
Lived: Whangarei, Otematata, Oamaru, Christchurch (New Zealand), Fuuchuu-shi (Japan), Melbourne (Australia)
Jobs I Have Had: Shopgirl, book shopgirl, shelf-filler, tutor, assistant teacher of English in Japan, and what’s called a tutor in the Antipodes and a TA in the United States. Currently a teacher.
Hobbies: Baking, World of Warcraft, reading, cocktail concoction, and watching movies about cheerleaders.
Favourite Foods: Apples, chocolate, pretty much anything I can bake.
Favourite Musicians: Aimee Mann, Amanda Palmer, Ani DiFranco, Bic Runga, Crowded House, Nesian Mystik, Vienna Teng, the Beatles.
Favourite Movies: Clueless, Mean Girls, Easy A, Intolerable Cruelty, Empire Records, Jesus Christ Superstar 2000 (yes, really) and both X-Men movies. There were only two X-Men movies.
Favourite TV Shows: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Leverage, Friday Night Lights Community and Parks and Recreation.
Favourite Play: Much Ado About Nothing.
Favourite Musical: Chess (You guys, you have no idea how blessed I feel to live in a world where there is a musical about chess).
Writing Questions (non-spoilery):
Will there be a sequel to When We Wake? How about Guardian of the Dead?
There will definitely be a sequel to When We Wake! I know that, because I delivered the manuscript. It’s called While We Run, it starts six months after the events of When We Wake, and is told from Abdi’s point of view.
There will probably not be a sequel to Guardian of the Dead. I mean, never say never, but at this stage it’s not very likely.
How long does it take to write your books?
So far, it varies. The first draft of Guardian of the Dead took three months. The second-to-eighth drafts added another 15 months onto that. The first and second drafts of The Shattering took about eight months. The first draft of When We Wake took about four months. The first draft of While We Run took ten weeks, but that was a little too fast for me – I wouldn’t want to do it again.
I tend to like writing a terrible first draft and then fixing it up, like I might fix up an antique car if I were into cars. It’s not unusual for me to slice a third of the book out and replace it with entirely new material during the structural edits phase. Other people write in different ways. The only right way to write is the right way for you. That said, I have never heard of anyone getting a first draft traditionally published. Revision always happens, and fortunately, I enjoy doing it.
How do you research?
I read a lot of books, and I run around the internet. Blogs and message boards are great for character research, Wikipedia (and its neatly listed sources) are excellent for a fast fact-check, Google Image Search is a splendid way to get a quick reference for a physical description, and so on. Government immigration websites, Project Gutenberg’s collection of Grimm’s Folk Tales, the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre, recipe collections online, NASA, medical websites, gardening websites, religious websites, and more. Many more.
I am so grateful for the internet. I understand people wrote books before it existed, but I’m not quite sure how. For one thing, how did they procrastinate? Playing whist?
The other thing I am very grateful for is smart people who know things I don’t. I often email or call knowledgeable people (sometimes I knew them beforehand and sometimes I didn’t) and say things like, “If I was going to kick someone in the stomach, how would I do that and how would it feel?” or “If I was going to cryonically freeze someone, what kind of damage would that do to them?” and they make me look much cleverer. Of course, all responsibility for the remaining errors is mine.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I would love to be a smartass and say “I order them online”, but that is actually partially true. I get ideas from browsing around the internet, from watching TV, from reading great books and thinking “what if I took that and did this?”, from reading bad books and thinking “what if I IGNORED that and did THIS?”, from reading the newspapers and wondering what would happens if I stuck one of my characters in a particular situation, and from sitting in the bath and thinking about my toes.
(What if I was missing my big toes? What if some sort of calamity had taken place? What if my parents had always been very cagey about this, but it turned out my missing big toes were a symbol that they had, when young and starving, promised their firstborn to the fairies in return for their aid, and that was why we had kept moving all these years and why I had been told to wear this iron ring all my life but I had taken it off in a fit of teenage rage and the fairies had come at last to claim me?)
Ideas are not really a problem for me.
Choosing the good ideas and making sure there’s a whole story to go with them is more challenging. I am a big fan of the “throw it all in and see what happens” school of storytelling. During the first draft if I know something needs to happen in one part and I’m not sure what, I generally write [SOMETHING HAPPENS HERE] and keep going.
At the end of the story, I will run a search for square brackets, and go in to fill those pieces in.
However, often I will work out what the missing piece should be and proceed as if it had happened without going back to fill in that piece right away. This is entertaining for my first readers, who will be tootling along and suddenly discover that someone has acquired a magical item or broken their arm without any explanation of how.
But that’s the best thing about writing; it’s generally not a performance art. You can always fix it up later.
How did you sell a book/find an agent/get published?
Well, first I wrote a couple of NanoNovels that were terrible, then I co-wrote a couple of novels with my BFF. They are not quite as terrible, but are not at this point sellable, as well as dozens of short stories and fanfic pieces.
Then I started writing the book that became Guardian of the Dead, and when I started telling my first readers that I thought I might be able to sell it, they were encouraging. I started researching agent blogs and websites. I attended “how to get an agent” panels at cons. I looked in the acknowledgement sections of YA books in my genre that I really liked, and I made a list of all the agents to whom I wanted to submit.
(Of course you should never submit to an agent without a completed and thoroughly revised manuscript, so I knew I wasn’t going to use the list for a while, but it was good to have it there for a goal.)
During the revision process I took the first three chapters to a workshop at WisCon. Holly Black, who is one of my favourite writers, ran the workshop, and she recommended that I submit to her agent when I’d finished the manuscript. Holly’s agent was Barry Goldblatt, who was – gasp! – at the top of my list.
So I finished the book, revised the heck out of it, wrote a query letter (that took three days. Query letters = v. important!) sent that off and reminded myself that everybody gets rejected and it’s okay. I put stamps with Marvel Comics characters on the self-addressed envelope, so that when I got rejected, I would at least be cheered by seeing Elektra and She-Hulk being badass.
But Barry asked to see the full manuscript (this is why you never submit until you’re done) so I sent that. Then he called me to have a chat, and about halfway through the conversation I realized that he was actually going to be my agent and freaked out all over the place in hilarious manner. There may have been some jumping on the bed; it’s all a blur.
I revised the manuscript again in accordance with his suggestions, and he sent that out to various publishing houses, most of whom rejected it (everybody gets rejected and it’s okay!) but some of whom made offers. I talked to more people and made more decisions and THAT is the story of how I got a North American publishing contract with Little, Brown, under the aegis of the excellent Alvina Ling. ANZ rights went to Allen and Unwin, and four years and three manuscripts later, I am still with both publishing houses.
If your real question, sneakily hidden in that one, is “How do I get published?” then I hope the above is helpful. Particularly the parts about practicing and researching the business and revising. I realize those bits aren’t very sexy, but they’re fairly crucial when it comes to the extremely sexy sensation of being able to tell people that you are a professional novelist.
I’d like to be a professional writer. Do you have any tips for me?
Sure – with the caveat, once again, that there is no One True Way to write. But these are things from which I think almost all writers can benefit:
1) Read the heck out of everything – although probably if you want to be a writer you have already developed a sustained and diverse interest in reading. It’s very difficult to write a book without one. If you don’t have time to read, you probably don’t have time to write. Read heavily in the genre you think you might like to write in, but don’t neglect those outside it.
2) If you don’t already, start making a dedicated time to write. A handy way to find the time is to give up your least favourite TV show – you didn’t like it that much anyway. When you start, it doesn’t matter so much what you are writing, as long as you enjoy it most of the time (say, 80 percent) and are actively paying attention to getting better.
3) If you’re a member of the dominant culture where you grew up and now live, see if you can spend some time in a place where you are not, ideally where the main language is not one you grew up speaking. Your horizons will expand immeasurably, as will the attention you pay to communication and nuance.
4) Research the business of writing. If you want to be traditionally published, look at what agents and editors do, and how that will affect what you want to do. If you want to go the self-publishing route (about which I know very little) researching the business still applies – just on slightly different topics.
Will you read my unpublished book and tell me how to make it better?
That depends. Are you a member of my writing group? Are we professionally connected? Is this in the context of a workshop or class? Do I know you? If the answer to these questions is no, then I am sorry, but I will not read your book. Reading is a big part of my job, and it takes a lot of time. Several of my writing friends are owed critiques right this minute.
What you need is a writing group! A good writing group is an awesome experience you get to read other people’s work and respond to it (which is an excellent way of learning how to self-critique your own work) and in return they respond to yours. If there isn’t a group you like in your local area, there are a ton online. I recommend the assistance of the charming Google in finding them.
Can I write fan fiction using the characters from your works?
Knock yourself out! I think fanfic is awesome. I read a lot of it (although not of my own work) and write it very occasionally under a pseudonym.