Interview: Ann Leckie

LeckiePhoto-160x240Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice swept the awards. (See the list below.) The sequel, Ancillary Sword, is due in October 2014. The third novel in the trilogy will be titled Ancillary Mercy. Lecke is a Clarion West graduate, former VP of SFWA, founder of GigaNotoSaurus, and former slush editor for Podcastle. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Subterranean Magazine.

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU’RE A CLARION GRADUATE. WHAT DID YOU LEARN AT CLARION THAT MADE A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?

ANN LECKIE: I learned a *lot* at Clarion West. It would have been difficult not to. But I think there were two things that made the biggest difference.

One was something that, when I say it, maybe sounds kind of trivial. But it was so important. Which was, that before I went, I knew that I wanted to write, and I had been writing–of course, you have to send a sample of your fiction with your application. And I had written two novels (now trunked, fortunately) and several short stories, and had been submitting those short stories. But I was hesitant to say, “I’m a writer.” I would, when asked, kind of hedge. “I’m trying to write.”

After six weeks of being with people who took my work seriously, who all assumed that of *course* I was a writer, I went home feeling like I could take my own work seriously now. Not that I was holding back, or not taking it seriously before. But the “gosh should I really be doing this, am I wasting my time, what if I’m not really a writer?” part of my internal critic was gone, which psychologically freed me up to push harder and be more confident in my work. This might not be a big deal for some folks, but it was really important to me.

The second thing is maybe also a bit odd. So, our week six instructor was Michael Swanwick. Who is awesome. I mean, he read every single story each of us had applied with and also every single story we’d turned in during the entire workshop, and gave us critiques on every one of them. This is an amazing commitment, an incredible gift to us. And he’s Michael freaking Swanwick, right? So when he critiqued the story I’d turned in for week six, he gave me all kinds of fabulous advice, much of it very specific, and I noted it all down and was all set to revise the story according to his advice. Because, seriously, it was, no question, excellent advice. How could it not be?

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it was excellent advice for an entirely different story. Not the story I’d written, but the story he’d perceived in the shambles that was my first draft. And I said to myself, “Self, you can’t actually take any of that advice. Instead, you need to rewrite the story in such a way that Michael Swanwick would not have misread it.”

That story turned out to be my first genre sale, my first pro sale, and my first appearance in a Years Best anthology. And the vitally important lesson Michael Swanwick taught me was that sometimes you ought to ignore even the very best advice. Even if it comes from Michael Swanwick. Maybe that sounds trivial, too. But anyone who’s been faced with several, possibly contradictory critiques of a story will probably know how incredibly useful that knowledge is.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: FROM THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANCILLARY JUSTICE AS A SHORT STORY UNTIL YOU SOLD THE NOVEL MANUSCRIPT WAS, WHAT, 10 YEARS? WERE THERE TIMES DURING THAT DECADE WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER FINISH THE BOOK OR THOUGHT IT WOULD NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH TO SELL?

ANN LECKIE: Oh, merciful Unconquered Sun, yes. Pretty much the entire time I was working on it, plus the entire time I was querying agents. I’ve come to think of that as the normal emotional background of writing, actually.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU WERE WORKING ON THE MANUSCRIPT WHILE YOU HAD YOUNG CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE. HOW DID YOU MANAGE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME?

ANN LECKIE: With some difficulty. At first, I would write in the few hours a day that my toddler napped, while my older child was at school. When he stopped napping, I signed him up for morning nursery school and wrote then. Once both kids were in school full time it got easier, though I’d made my life a bit more complicated by taking a job as a lunch lady. I wasn’t able to finish Ancillary Justice, though, until I quit that job and had school hours to myself. It would have been a zillion times harder if I’d had a full-time day job to handle. I’ve been really, really lucky.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: ANCILLARY JUSTICE SWEPT THE AWARDS. ANY IDEA WHAT THE APPEAL OF THE STORY IS THAT MADE IT SO POPULAR?

ANN LECKIE: I honestly don’t. Well, I did sit down to write a kind of story that I thought I’d enjoy reading. I threw in things that appealed to me–heck, I crowbarred them in. I was working the whole time with the assumption that it would never sell so I might as well please myself. I guess there are other people out there who like the same kinds of things I do!

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU HAVEN’T DONE SHORT STORIES IN A WHILE. TOO BUSY WITH NOVELS?

ANN LECKIE: Pretty much, yes! Though I’d like to do more short fiction some time.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH GIGANOTOSAURUS AND WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR TIME THERE? WHAT ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT POD CASTLE?

ANN LECKIE: I started GigaNotoSaurus because I’d inherited a bit of money, and I felt that there weren’t enough places publishing longer fiction. I’ve been really pleased with how it’s turned out: in its first year, two stories I published were nominated for Nebulas, and another one the next year. And I published some amazing work by amazing writers, like Zen Cho’s “House of Aunts” or Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon.” Or Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Winged City.” Or…I could go on.

Podcastle–when Rachel Swirsky became editor of Podcastle (that was before PC had even started running) she asked me if I’d like to read slush for her. And I said yes, because it seemed like it would be fun. And it was! I also did some episode intros, and narrated some stories, which was also great fun. When Rachel was ready to step down, she asked me if I was interested in editing, but I was already setting up GNS, and felt two editing gigs would be too much. So I stayed on slushing for Anna and Dave when they took over.

I enjoyed it very much, but I’ve stepped down as slusher there, and turned over my GNS editing duties to Rashida J Smith, because noveling right now is taking up a lot of brain space.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT PERSPECTIVE DID YOU GAIN DURING YOUR TIME AS SECRETARY OF SFWA?

ANN LECKIE: There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes at a volunteer organization. Orgs like SFWA continue to exist and function because of the hard work of folks who actually have lots of other things to attend to, and they spend their free time doing that hard work. And it’s easy for members to think of the Board (or whatever the org equivalent is) as “them” to our “us” but really “they” are us to begin with. I’ve come to be a bit more patient with how slow some organizational decisions are, and how easy it is to think a particular issue or procedure is just a matter of immediately doing one particular thing, when really it’s more difficult and complicated than that, for reasons that aren’t necessarily visible to me.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: GOT ANY ADVICE TO ASPIRING SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS?

ANN LECKIE: Yes! Don’t give up. Be willing to take criticism, be willing to reconsider what you’re doing, but once you’ve decided on what you’re doing, do that. Don’t worry about what someone told you editors want or don’t want, don’t worry about whether your work is marketable, don’t worry about lists of “rules” that tell you not to use second person or never to use adverbs or whatever. Just do it, and do it as awesomely as you can at that particular time in your life, and trust the universe for the rest. And when it’s done, send it out and try to forget about it, and start working on the next thing. And speaking as a former slusher–when you submit, always read and follow the guidelines!

 

Ancillary Justice won the following awards:

2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Golden Tentacle for best debut novel of 2013.
Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of the year.
British Science Fiction Association BSFA Award for Best Novel of 2013.
Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Locus Award for Best First Novel.

The novel was also nominated for the following awards:

Shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award.
Tiptree Award Honor List for 2013.
Finalist for the 2013 Compton Crook Award.

 

Carl_eagle

 

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: James Patrick Kelly

interview by Carl Slaughter

jim_kelly_thumbSuccessful science fiction author and prolific workshop instructor James Patrick Kelly talks about his passion for mentoring new writers.

(BTW: JPK is an avid user of the Submissions Grinder, a new feature here at Diabolical Plots.)

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT GOT YOU INTO WORKSHOPPING AND WHY HAVE YOU STAYED WITH IT?

James Patrick Kelly: I think the thing that spooks most beginning writers is the lack of input. Or maybe we should call it “on the job training.” We lock ourselves in a closet and try to build worlds out of the thin air. How do successful people do it? More important, how do we do it? Alas, reading craft books about writing is like reading books about how to make love.

Workshopping is a way to measure your progress toward getting it right. You find out immediately what very smart readers have gleaned from what you wrote. The flaws you spot in other writers’ work are often the very same flaws that will distract from yours. Oh, and if you think that eventually you might not need workshops because you’ve learned everything they have to teach †well, good luck to you. I still attend workshops and probably will until my fingers curl up and fall off.

I was going to adult education workshops in the Boston area when I first started sending stuff out. Then I went to Clarion. After Clarion I was so converted to the workshop method that I joined a workshop by mail. I would send a story out to the list and maybe six weeks later it would come back with comments. Later, I was thrilled to be asked to the final incarnation of Damon Knight’s Milford Workshop, then run by Ed Bryant. I went to the original Sycamore Hill workshop and many thereafter. I plan this year to go to Walter Jon William’s Rio Hondo workshop. Oh, and I’ve now taught at both Clarion and Clarion West , the Odyssey workshop, Viable Paradise, and the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA program. And I attend a bi-monthly local workshop, the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop.

Do I believe in the efficacy of workshops? Duh!

 

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS WRITERS HAVE ABOUT HOW TO CRAFT A MARKETABLE STORY AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM OVERCOME THOSE MISCONCEPTIONS?

The most common misconception is that of the editor as a fierce gatekeeper eager to turn away all newbies. The exact opposite is the case. Editors are in competition to discover new talent. Being the first to publish someone who goes on to have a long career is, and always has been, one of the badges of honor in the editorial community. I wrote a couple of columns that touched on this for Asimov’s: Part One and Part Two.

Where newbies go wrong, in general, is that they have failed to read their manuscript as an editor would. For example, they are not familiar with what the editor has already published and will send her something very much like the cover story of the March issue, or else they will merely file the serial numbers off the best seller that she published in 2012 and submit a generic rehash. All too often they will not read their manuscript with the care that an editor who is pondering a buy decision would. Are there typos? Are there obvious grammar mistakes? Does the first sentence/paragraph invite the reader into the story?

Having read slush, I will tell you that it is all too easy to make the decision to buy or reject having read just the first page of 80% of submissions.

 

WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON MANUSCRIPT MISTAKES WRITERS MAKE AND HOW DO YOU HELP THEM RECOGNIZE AND AVOID THOSE MISTAKES?

God, where to start? There are so many ways to go wrong, which is why this is a tough profession. Let me just give two:

Over/underpopulation. This depends on the length of the story, obviously, but if there is really only one character in your story, even if she is remembering other characters, then you probably suffer from underpopulation. Conversely, say you are writing a war story, or a family saga and you are going to mention eleven characters by name in a 5000 word story, then you are overburdening the reader and ought to consider culling the herd. Have you ever heard of the three character rule? A story should have three characters: two in some sort of relationship and one who disrupts that relationship.

Slow start, abrupt ending: If you can start with a line of dialogue, do. Nothing puts editors off faster than a writer who spends the first page clearing her throat with weather reports, lyrical nature writing or infodumps about backstory. Conversely, learn the difference between climax and denouement. Too many writers end the plot but fail to adequately end the story.

 

WHAT’S THE RIGHT WAY AND WRONG WAY TO MENTOR WRITERS?

You should really ask my students this. I tend to be blunt but supportive. I see writers who are at various stops on the road to success. Those near the start get more general (and gentle) comments. Those who are close but are clinging to some dysfunctional plot point or character interaction get more specific criticism.

I can be very persuasive when I get into my plot doctoring mode. It’s easy for me to say rewrite the ending, change the point of view or lose the grandma. But I try to remind my students that I am reading according to my own tastes and prejudices. There are many, many popular writers (and styles of writing) that I have no use for. And I don’t need anyone writing James Patrick Kelly stories , that’s my job. So I make the point that I’m not an editor, unless I am. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve urged my workshop colleagues and students to send stories to this editor or that, only to find out that they got rejected.

 

TIPS SPECIFICALLY FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

Umm †Get into a workshop? Read the stories/novels bought by the editors you want to sell to? Send stuff out? Don’t give up?

And it’s never too soon to start thinking about your Hugo acceptance speech.

 

Carl_eagle

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

His training is in journalism, and he has an essay on culture printed in the Korea Times and Beijing Review. He has two science fiction novels in the works and is deep into research for an environmental short story project.

 

Carl currently teaches in China where electricity is an inconsistent commodity.