interviewed by Carl Slaughter
Mindee Arnett has had 3 novels published in less than a year, plus a prequel novella ebook, and is on the verge of publishing a sequel. She specializes in YA, writes both sci fi and fantasy, and receives rave reviews from fellow speculative fiction authors. Her debut novel was nominated for the Young Adult Library Services Association top 10. She is a fan of Josh Whedon, Veronica Mars, Firefly, Doctor Who, and Mumford and Sons. Her license plate holder says, “Leaf on the Wind, Wash is my Co-Pilot”; and if you know what that means, she can definitely be friends.
16-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare. Literally. Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy, is hard enough, but when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing. But it does. Eli is dreaming of a murder. The setting is Arkwell. And then his dream comes true. Now Dusty has to follow the clues,both within Eli’s dreams and out of them,to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.
CARL SLAUGHTER: I seldom meet a premise/setup that intrigues me as much as The Nightmare Affair. How long did you kick around ideas and put together elements before it all gelled?
MINDEE ARNETT: Thanks, so nice to hear. The surprising truth is that The Nightmare Affair jelled pretty quickly, although I more or less stumbled over the idea. I was actually searching for a new monster to use in a short story I was working on at the time. I wrote a lot of horror short fiction before moving onto novels. In this search, I came across the painting “The Nightmare” by Henry Fuseli. I’d seen the painting before, of course, but for some reason when I saw it this time I began to wonder what it would be like if the image were reversed,if the woman in the painting was sitting on the demon’s chest. Then I wondered what it would be like to be a nightmare, to live a life where you have to spend your nights sitting on people’s chests. Very weird and a little bit funny, I decided. And just like that, Dusty Everhart was born. I wanted to explore the humor, awkwardness, and scariness of this type of creature.
CS: You’ve had 3 novels published in less than a year. Plus a prequel. And you’re on the verge of publishing a sequel. Being a wife and mother and having a day job, how do you crank out the volume, not to mention all that blogging and promotion you’ve been doing?
MA: My other car is a TARDIS. Kidding. The answer to that question is that I don’t really have an answer. What it comes down to is this: if you really want something, you go for it, no matter what. You make time. You sacrifice. The only advice I have to give is to get enough sleep. That sounds glib, I know, but I honestly mean it. I think the ability for having maximum output in your day starts with good sleep. You’ve got to take care of the body if you want the mind and imagination to have the fuel to work at its best. And, of course, you’ve got to learn how to turn away from the distractions and focus.
CS: The conventional wisdom in the writing community is that you have to write a million words before you have to right stuff to be a successful author. How many words did you type before you wrote a marketable story? How many stories?
MA: I don’t have an exact count, but I would say it’s probably close to that million word mark. I’ve written dozens and dozens of short stories, and before publishing The Nightmare Affair, I wrote 4 complete novels that ranged in length from 90,000 words to 160,000. That’s about half a million right there.
CS: Conventional wisdom also says build a strong resume of short fiction with pro paying magazines before breaking into novels. How did you leap frog that process?
MA: I didn’t, not entirely. No, I don’t have a lot of “pro” sales, but I did place several short stories in semi-pro and literary magazines. I learned how to submit, to write a query letter, and to handle rejection. And even more than that, I spent a good many years focusing entirely on short stories. While I don’t think you have to learn how to write short stories, I think doing so provides innumerable benefits for any writer. Short stories are where you get a feel for the language, how to be concise, how to write prose that has an emotional impact. These are useful skills to have when you move onto novels, especially because longer fiction requires a whole new set of skills to master.
CS: How did getting a Bachelor and Master’s in English literature with an emphasis on creative writing help/hinder your career as a speculative fiction novelist?
MA: It was definitely a help and not a hindrance. At a minimum, these degrees gave me a legitimate reason to pursue writing. So much of being an “aspiring” writer is like taking a long journey in the dark with only a flashlight to see by. There’s a lot of unknown, a lot of “why are you wasting your time” attitude from the outside world. But my degrees came with that built-in support that the idea of pursuing fiction is legitimate. It gave me permission. Also, most of my teachers wrote speculative fiction as well. So at no point was I made to feel less because I wanted to write horror or fantasy or sci-fi. I do think that’s an important point to make. At no time was I made to feel that genre fiction is somehow less worthy than literary.
CS: You said of Avalon and Nightmare Affair: “Basically, if you like one, you’ll probably like the other, despite their differences.” Avalon is sci fi space action. The Nightmare Affair is fantasy detective. Where’s the overlap in readership?
MA: Well, perhaps I’m just hoping there are people like me out there who love both sci-fi and fantasy. I’m a genre junkie in general. But seriously, I think the stories share a similar feel. They’re fast-paced, have lots of action, some snarky humor, some scary moments, and so on.
CS: The Nightmare Affair is about a being that feeds on dreams, a fairly exotic creature in fantasy literature. Why not vampire, werewolf, witch, etc, which are all the rage in print and on screen?
MA: Those stories have been done. A lot. And I didn’t have anything new to offer about those creatures, although all three you mentioned are present in The Nightmare Affair. But really, I’m a firm believer that the story chooses the writer and not the other way around.
CS: Do you present Dusty primarily as a teen, a student, a romantic, a nightmare, or a detective?
MA: All of the above. In the beginning Dusty is very much a teen and student. Both the romance and the detective elements build slowly through the first book and into the next one and so on.
CS: What character development do you use to convince readers that a 16 year old can whip a crew even younger than himself into a highly effective team of mercenary thieves that target the most highly valued and therefore most securely protected merchandise in the galaxy?
MA: The answer to that one is the teens in Avalon aren’t responsible for it. Instead they’ve been recruited, trained, and controlled by their crime lord boss, a ruthless guy with lots of resources at his disposal. Also, the fact that they’re teens plays a big part in what they’re able to do. People underestimate teenagers all the time. This oversight allows Jeth and his crew to be so effective.
CS: You said of reviews: “I have never read them and I have no regret.” Why boycott reviews?
MA: Very simply, reviews are not for authors; they’re for readers. But more specifically, as an author, I prefer to get my feedback and criticism from vetted sources, people I trust, respect, admire and so on, people who are there to help me do the best job I can like my agent, editors, and critique partners. With most reviews, aside from the professional ones, the reviewers could be anybody. Writing is a hard art and a hard business, both. For me, I have to protect both my sanity and my creative drive. This means filtering out the outside world so I can focus on the inner world of my stories.
CS: How much of your promotion time is solo, how much is tag teaming with other New Leaf authors, and how much is tag teaming with other Tor authors? Who do you tag team with? Are they all YA writers? Are they all speculative fiction writers?
MA: Honestly, most of my promotion is solo, at least the online stuff. But most of my in-person events are with other writers. So far they’ve all been other YA writers, some with Tor, some with New Leaf, and some just regional authors that live near me.
CS: Your agent is Suzie Townsend of New Leaf agency, who was recently interviewed here at Diabolical Plots. Describe your life as a writer if you had no agent. Describe your life as a writer if Suzie were not your agent.
MA: If I didn’t have an agent, I wouldn’t be able to do half of what I do in terms of writing. My agent takes care of the business side, which allows me time to focus primarily on the creative side. She also serves as a filter on all the craziness that comes with this business. She helps me keep things in perspective. My life before I had an agent was all pipe dreams and wishes. Agents hold a lot of the keys to the kingdom, as such, when it comes to publishing. They have the contacts and the know-how. They are essential for a writer’s career. I really can’t describe how my career would be with a different agent, and I don’t want to imagine it. Not all agents are created equal, and Suzie is by far one of the best. She’s professional, responsive, supportive, and super smart about the business. I wouldn’t trade her for a different agent ever, not by choice.
CS: Why Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Jennifer Roberson? Not familiar with Roald Dahl. Why is Joss Whedon the only screen writer on your list? Why Veronica Mars? Why Doctor Who?
MA: The short answer here is that these writers tell the kinds of stories that speak to me. With King, well, he’s such a great storyteller. His stories are so real and vivid. And they’re scary. I love horror, both to read and especially to write. I’ve always been fond of the supernatural and the macabre. With Tolkien it’s all about the world-building. I think he’s what every writer of fantasy and sci-fi aspires to when it comes to creating a fictional world. I mean, the guy wrote whole languages. He was beyond brilliant. For Lewis, I love the carefree fantasy and the sense of adventure. Jennifer Roberson was the first writer that made me want to be a writer. Her stories were the first adult fiction I ever read, and her prose is beautiful and romantic. To this day, I still go back and re-read her stuff. Roald Dahl was like a precursor to King. His stories are both gruesome and fun. I consumed them with a voracious appetite as a kid, and I still love them as a grownup.
The deal with Joss Whedon is the same as the others. He tells the kind of stories I want to experience. My favorite part about Joss is the mix of humor and tragedy. The man makes me cry,a lot,but never before he’s made me laughed. Really, I want all my stories to be like that.
Again, Veronica Mars is about amazing storytelling but also amazing characters. Veronica Mars is smart, funny, and tough. Also, Rob Bell, the writer and creator of Veronica Mars is really what makes it so amazing.
And for Doctor Who, I pretty much agree with everything you have to say on the subject. I think my favorite part is the show’s sense of fun. Anything can happen. It’s always surprising, often funny, often terrifying, and most importantly,emotionally moving. Doctor Who has more heart than any other show out there.
CS: Why Mumford and Sons, because of the tunes, the lyrics, or the band members?
MA: I love them because of the music and the lyrics. The combination of both speaks to my soul. I’m a huge fan of folk music, and the banjo in particular. Combine that with lyrics that are mind-blowing, literary, and emotionally gripping, and you’ve got something, magical. They are also amazing in concert. Seriously, the best I’ve ever seen.
CS: What does “Leaf on the Wind, Wash is My Co-Pilot” mean?
MA: This is a quote from the movie Serenity by Joss Whedon, the follow-up to the short-lived, tragically cancelled Firefly. I can’t say a lot more than that without spoilers. But this quote makes you laugh when you first hear it, and then boom,punch in the gut. Hard. It’s a classic Whedon moment. I still want to cry just thinking about it.
For Mindee’s writing advice, check out her blog below and look for these topics:
— The Myth of the Crappy First Draft
— The Elevator Pitch
— “and then” versus “therefore” and “but”
— World building
— Cover letters
— “write deep.”
— Writer depression.
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.