Now, nearing the end of 2008, I’m finally coming to the end of the interviews with authors I happened to encounter at the World Con back in August. I sat in on a panel on where various authors discussed the business end of writing professionally, and one of them was Cynthia Felice. When I asked her if she would be willing to give an interview, she quite graciously agreed, in spite of the fact that she very rarely grants interviews. So I feel fortunate and honored to have her grace the little 1s and 0s that give shape to Blogging the Muse. Cynthia Felice is a long-time professional writer and editor, with creative tendencies that, like so many those of so many writers, go all the way back to childhood. However, she spent many years working in “real writing jobs” before venturing into the crazy world of fiction.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
CF: I write science fiction novels, and occasionally write short stories and essays. I’ve also written technical articles and had a very long 9-to-5 career as a manager of technical editors, which I enjoyed nearly as much as writing fiction.
TH: How did your technical writing career influence your fiction writing, if at all?
CF: Since I worked in high-tech industries where two-thirds of the employees I worked with had higher level science degrees, I was able to see science and technology as it developed and of course to observe and interact with scientists daily. On the whole scientists are wonderful people (and great resources for technical questions, even dumb questions!) and I have a better understanding of “the bad guy” who is rarely pathologically evil but who can create mayhem or do harm in pursuing an agenda that no one else wants or perhaps doesn’t understand. Because we had a fairly flat management structure and were relatively small (300 of us as a division in a corporation that was 7th largest in the world) I had good views into higher level management’s struggles as well as technical staff’s, white collars staff’s, and blue collars workers’. The corporate struggles and the people who wrestle with them continue to find their way into my work.
TH: What is The Story of Cynthia? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
CF: It started as a novel but grew into many novels that are loosely set in Cynthia’s Sphere, family, work, writing, dog-owning, mountain climbing, teaching, horse riding to mention recent segments. It seems ever expanding, more interesting as time goes on.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
CF: I was in high school when I was certain I wanted to be a writer. I knew because I was so happy when I had a pen in my hand and because those pages and pages I wrote made me feel so satisfied. Teachers were not quite as enthusiastic about my writing; I was prone to taking liberties with assignments. I didn’t realize that teachers wanted to know that I could follow instructions as well as entertain them. Something about that teenage brain that requires the lesson be repeated umpteen times before it sinks in. I was a classic smart loner, marginalized by the mainstream yet drawn in, too. Despite my youthful limitations, writing was already becoming my preferred tool for communication. I was actively discouraged by my mother from pursuing a writing career. But her disapproval didn’t stop me; it just put the writing underground while I still lived at home.
TH: A lot of established writers seem to have a stack of writing somewhere that will never a see the light of day, stuff that perhaps helped you learn and develop your craft. Do you have anything like this?
CF: Sure, I have “baby pictures” into which I poured my heart and soul, but which were really nothing more than some first steps. I think there are two novels and drawers full of short stories that should never again see the light of day. I suppose to insure that end I ought to put a match to them, but, hey, they may also be inspirational to one of my descendents who might need reassurance that I crawled before I walked. All those early words are a part of honing the skills, discovering how to weave the threads, the learning to see the slubs that should stay in the tapestry and what must ruthlessly be removed. Finally, I got it. It was all there and I could consistently put it all together.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
CF: I write to illuminate that which is dark to me, a learning process you might say. I continue to be surprised and pleased that so many readers seek out my work and me, as well. Sometimes I ask them what is it that they like about my work and their thoughtful answers are as varied as their clothes. The detail. The characters are always people I want to know. Oh, the worlds you build! Is that the same as seeing the dark bits illuminated? I don’t know, but obviously both writer and reader are enjoying, so I keep looking into the shadows.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
CF: I think that I do not write from inspiration, certainly not with a muse. I write to explore ideas, personalities, and even exotic places, just because that which is new to me generally pleases me. That’s not to say that I’m not influenced by life’s experiences in choosing what to write, but I need nothing more than to awaken in the morning to begin to write today. I wait for no muse.
TH: When you say that you don’t write with a muse, you’re touching on one of the biggest differences between pros and amateurs. Pros write-period- even if the muse is out having lunch. Was this something you picked up during your technical writing career?
CF: No, the nose-to-the-grindstone attitude was well in place before I did technical writing and editing (though it’s probably one of the attributes that selected me out of the tech writers’ pool and into the first steps of management.) Technical writing and editing did teach me how to be crisp and direct, how to slash magnificent prose (mine or someone else’s) to fit the space available without sacrificing meaning and intent, how to edit and rewrite, indeed, discern meaning from badly garbled papers. I thought I had invented house style guides for my first company because I’d already started creating lexicons for each novel and it just made sense to me to keep a work lexicon, too, so I’d know what it was I did last year in a similar situation without having to find the specific citation. But lexicons or style guides were nothing new to either industry, just new to me. I worked to and met deadlines at work without fail, and do the same with my fiction when I have deadlines. Even the ones that that plop the copy edited ms in my hands on December 24 with instructions to please return no later than December 26! Sometimes deadlines require the full cooperation of the family, and I’ve been fortunate to have that since I left my parents’ home.
I do get stuck, more frequently with fiction than with technical writing, but in either case I take a break from the project, not from writing. That might mean working on a different project, for minutes or days or weeks, depending on the circumstances. Usually a change lets me return to the original work and just go on, or sometimes with some amazing epiphany that was probably trying to present itself way back when I got stuck.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
CF: Re-writing and editing are my favorite tasks in the writing process; there’s nothing quite so satisfying as penciled editing tracks all over my own manuscript, now ready for final input. Research is very high on the list of good writing jobs. Heck, I’ll dig in to any topic, even those that don’t seem all that interesting at first. It’s all for the best if it’s a topic that I can’t research well on the internet, for then I have to go out and find people who can help. It’s always useful to get out of the writing dungeon or tower and smell the roses! Shopping for pencils and pads of paper is fun, too. Office supply stores make me feel like being in the candy stores of my childhood!
TH: How much time do you spend researching a brand new topic before you feel you have absorbed it sufficiently to write about it?
CF: More time than I need to spend! Researching is fun, so I’m likely to continue gathering information even after the segment is written. These days, of course I Google my questions, but I continue to haunt my local library’s reference section. I like well vetted information. The actual research time varies with my starting comfort level with the basics and the degree of technical information I must reveal in the story. For example, I don’t have to know how to build a still to have moonshine in my story (which I do in the novel in process) but to blow up the still in the fashion I’d like to use is requiring that I know more than I ever wanted to know about operating a still. Likely I’ll find and read a book on stills and moonshine, maybe two, and I’ll surely seek out anecdotes about mishaps. Chances are that a few years down the road, long after the novel is finished, I’ll come across a book about moonshine in a used bookstore and I’ll buy the book, especially if it looks like it expands what I already learned.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
CF: I am not a relentless self-promoter but I feel a responsibility to make myself available to readers and to aspiring writers.
I do signings, panels at conventions and book fairs, and I’ll teach writing or talk about it in the schools, and I’ve done t.v. and radio interviews. Early in my career public appearances were stressful for me, but as with anything you’re willing to work at it becomes easier and you get better over time. I’ve looked hard at having a web site and have decided that it’s too big a time sink for me to maintain on my own, yet it also seems a logical step, so I suspect I’ll make it one day.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
CF: I was pleased beyond my ability to express when I made my first sale. The third-party validation by a national publisher lifted any remaining guilt for taking liberties with others’ expectations of how I spent my time, that is, how much and how long I’d spend writing.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
CF: I think the business approach is a good one, as long as you also have an outgoing salesman’s personality. I don’t, so I concentrate on the production side of writing and keep the business side current, if not neat. It’s quite possible that my estate will discover gems that I didn’t quite know how to market, so they just stayed in the file.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
CF: I’m working on a voyage through time in a place that is not Earth. The novel has, for me, a large cast of characters. Perhaps it will be a series in which I can explore character interactions that I can’t do justice to in confinements of this novel. We’ll see.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
CF: A moment that I always remember fondly is when I introduced myself to Kate Wilhelm when she was guest teaching here in Colorado. I was unpublished at the time but I was submitting short stories to all the magazines and anthologies, including her husband’s (Damon Knight.) Kate lit up when she heard my name and said, “Oh, I was hoping you’d come! Damon told me all about you.” It never occurred to me that Damon Knight, editor and famous science fiction writer, would ever discuss me or my submissions with his wife.
Honestly! I was stunned. Today I look back and realize how perfectly normal that would be, that most people are not so private as I was then.
TH: Can you identify any developmental milestones between your early work and your first professional sales?
CF: Hmmm, you mean, aside from misspelled words and grammatical errors?
The baby pictures are loaded with them, not through indifference but because I simply could not see the mistakes. I had a public grammar school education, which I now know was poor. Fortunately my folks figured that out, too, and sent me to a private high school, and that helped a lot. My grammar improved but spelling did not; spell check didn’t exist, until I found an ex-English teacher as a first reader. She was a delightful science fiction enthusiast, who in the course of correcting grammar and spelling for the first many years of my professional sales was effectively my private tutor. So the first thing one might notice about my unpublished work and the final drafts of the early published works was that my command over the basic language tools improved dramatically. Even the manuscript formatting went from college thesis looking to classic manuscript format with pertinent information on page 1 (that was now unnumbered,) title and text starting halfway down the first page, double-spaced, sequentially numbered, and a title page for the editor to make coffee rings upon!
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
They’re not for everyone, but I found them to be useful in learning more about the craft and in meeting other writers, thus not writing in a vacuum, especially when I was starting out. The down side is that they also take a great deal of preparation time to make the experience worthwhile. There are good workshops and not good ones; I prefer the Milford/Clarion model, even for one-day events.
TH: What writing workshops did you attend in your learning process?
CF: Early on, Ed Bryant and I started the Colorado Springs Writers’ Workshop. The Denver workshop, which Ed also started, was already going strong and once we realized we had enough people in the Springs for a second workshop, I organized it and hosted it for years, and Ed drove down from Denver every few weeks. Ed was the professional guru who taught us how to run a successful workshop that could (and did) produce greatly improved writers who could sell. The workshop was a wonderful way to get faster feedback on stories or novel segments than submitting to magazines and waiting forever for a reply, or worse, showing the ms to your spouse or best friend, neither of which is useful for the writer or the relationship. I also attended Clarion, several Milfords, and many “Mini-Milfords” as we called them, which were weekend-long workshops where eight to twelve writers slept over in sleeping bags and critiqued from dawn to dusk! Those workshops spawned many fine writers, or at least helped to polish many who were destined for greatness.
Happily, many of those workshops continue to this day.