The thing for young and/or inexperienced writers to remember is that is soon as one starts treating your work professionally, as something serious and worthy of effort, not to mention respect, one can enter a world of other creative people who have the same struggles, goals, and roadblocks. We all go through the writing life in various stages, with similar milestones, similar roadblocks, but all with unique stories. All one has to do is make that mental shift from closeted, cloistered, would-be fiction writer, toiling away forlornly in a lonely garret, to Real-Life Fiction Writer. Once you make that shift, you discover your tribe, your peeps.
Yours truly met Elaine Isaak on Odyssey Writing Workshop’s Graduation Day. She is an Odyssey alum herself and came to attend The Never-Ending Odyssey, a week-long summer workshop for Odyssey grads that takes place right after the six-week workshop. I ran into Elaine again last fall at the World Fantasy Convention, where we joined the larger tribe of genre fiction peeps, fellow writers both further along the path and those just starting out. Connections are made, and we all benefit from those connections.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
EI: I’ve known I wanted to be a writer from a very early age–and that any other career I had would just be biding my time until I could sell my work. I’d already finished one novel and begun another when I applied for the Odyssey Writing Workshop, in addition to bothering some editors with short fiction that really wasn’t ready for prime time. After The mind-blowing experience of Odyssey, I finished that second novel and submitted through the slush pile to an editor who turned out to be interested. I got an agent on the strength of that interest, but the deal fell through. Fortunately, the agent was able to bring in a new offer. I’d like to say the rest is history, but that contract, while it did result in the publication of two books, also delayed my publishing any more–until now!
TH: How did Odyssey blow your mind?
EI: Well (sheepishly) first of all it taught me that I wasn’t quite as hot a writer as I thought. Then, it focused my effort on my weaknesses instead of just trying to play to my strengths and hoping that nobody would notice. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Thankfully, it also gave me the tools to put my mind back together again–and better this time!
TH: What is The Story of Elaine? Is it a novel? A short story? A dark fantasy?
EI: A heart-warming family drama in which our heroine constantly struggles to find the balance between participating in her daily life and leaping into a fantasy realm.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
EI: I started writing little stories (like three sentences) soon after I learned to write. I’m not sure I made the connection that I could try to make a living that way for a long time, though. In part, I was inspired by the authors I was reading in middle school: people like Ray Bradbury. I wanted to be able to inspire the same emotions in others that they created for me.
TH: Aside from Bradbury, who do you like to read?
EI: Mary Doria Russell, Daniel Abraham, Rosemary Kirstein (who swears she’s going to finish her series someday!!)
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
EI: I have a new dark fantasy series we are (I think) close to selling. This work is much nearer the bone, providing an intense relationship with the hero in a way I haven’t done before. I feel that this one will really get a reaction, for good or ill, and I’m eager to get it out to the market to see its impact.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to publishable?
EI: Good question. I have a novel called “Through Eyes of Fire” started when I was in high school. It’s been rejected once, and trunked ever since, but I recently read parts of it to a teen audience–and they want to know what happens next. So I’m thinking the trunk novel could actually result in a decent YA book. I also have a shelf full of writing practice notebooks: descriptions, scenes, exercises, beginnings that didn’t go anywhere–and three incomplete novels. When I achieve lasting fame and fortune, I’ll post one of them on my website and invite my fans to finish it.
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
EI: Foreign travel, archaeology, shipwrecks, and wierd little details of biology that provide the springboard to extrapolate a whole new world. When I’m stuck, I like to walk in the woods, or visit museums–especially modern art or natural history. I always see something new, and often see familiar things in a new way when I return.
TH: Where have you traveled and what kind of inspiration did those places provide?
EI: Well, I got to go to England and call it a business expense a couple of times–you can’t beat actually staying in a medieval house and walking the streets your characters would have known. I’ve also drawn on my fascination with and visit to Mongolia for a series of short stories. Some day, there’ll be a Mongolia novel or two–maybe that’s up next! I also kept travel journals through Spain, Italy and India–and some of those stories work their way into fiction. I suppose that’s the difference between research (knowing what you need to find out) and inspiration (getting excited about something that sparks the imagination). I never expected to be inspired by the feeling of being stalked by a tiger–but it made a great scene in The Eunuch’s Heir!
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
EI: Research is a blast. i tend to dive in with too many web links, heaps of interlibrary loan books, or just outright buying several volumes from which I’ll use only a couple of facts. But the most fun is when I can trust that I know the research and have developed the milieu to the point where I can just inhabit the character and see what he’ll do next, the sense of racing after events, trying to determine whether I am in charge of the plot or the other way around.
TH: What is your writing process like?
EI: I’m a seat-of-the-pants plotter, so I like to discover the characters and story as I go along. I work best under time pressure, rather than having a full, luxurious day to write in. I think it helps me turn off my inner editor if I know I only have two hours to write that day. When I have ideas about events or moments that happen later in the story, I’ll jot them on the back of old business cards and shuffle the pile around to achieve the maximum excitement.
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 where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
EI: I thought I had really made it when I sold my first book–that’s the goal for so long, that I lost sight of the fact that it was really just one step in a much larger process, that of becoming a career novelist. I compare this to working really hard to climb a mountain, getting to the top, then realizing it was just the first of many mountains. Trouble is, I didn’t take enough time to savor the feeling of success at that level before banging my head against the next climb. My financial goal as a writer is to be able to send my kind through college on my writing income. Not so good so far, but the oldest is only 8, so I have a few years to land more contracts and build a big enough pile.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
EI: Mostly. I think that running my own business for years before selling that first book helped me to put this career in perspective as an entrepreneurial activity. How do I market the product (my books) to the best audience? How much of the process of creation to delivery do I want to handle myself (as opposed to hiring an agent or a publicist, for instance)? It gives me a much more grounded approach to writing career choices.
TH: What are some of the most successful marketing strategies you have tried?
EI: By far, my most successful marketing is attending SF/F conventions. I get a chance to talk with readers, to talk about my ideas on panels, and to meet my on-line friends and readers face to face, making more solid connections. I also learned the hard way to send postcards to my non-writing friends and family if I actually want them to attend an event–email just doesn’t cut it sometimes.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
EI: My next book, The Bastard Queen, is due out in January. This is a new installment in my Singer’s Crown universe, which fans have been asking for. I’ve been working on some new short stories, and trying to send those out more diligently, so hopefully I’ll be in a few tables of contents next year.
As for what I’m doing right now. . .an oriental riff on clockworks. The research is a blast (of course).
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
EI: I was on a panel at Worldcon in Denver–a surprisingly well-attended event, given that it was late night, not near the other panels, and even one of the panelists was a no-show. So the remaining panelist, Carol Berg, and I were riffing on the topic of how to torture your characters. I said that I wanted readers to worry for the characters and ultimately, to share the thrill of their victories over such great odds. A woman in the audience immediately said, “Your books did that for me.” It was exactly what I needed to hear as a writer.