This week, I sit down to chat with author and blogger Christie Yant.
Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer, Assistant Editor for Lightspeed Magazine, occasional narrator for StarShipSofa, and co-blogger at Inkpunks.com, a website for new, nearly new, and newly-pro writers. Her fiction can be found in the magazine Crossed Genres and the anthologies The Way of the Wizard and Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011, both from Prime Books. She lives on the central coast of California with her two amazing daughters, her husband, and assorted four-legged nuisances.
ANTHONY: Hi, Christie! Thanks for dropping by!
CHRISTIE: Thank you for having me!
ANTHONY: So your short story “The Magician and the Maid and Other Stories” has appeared in two major anthologies, THE WAY OF THE WIZARD and YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2011, and it was honorably mentioned in YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION: TWENTY-EIGHTH ANNUAL COLLECTION. When you were writing it, did you envision such a fantastic year for the story?
CHRISTIE: Never. The thing about that story that still blows my mind is that it was my first sale ever. I mean, to even sell something to an editor of JJA’s caliber (he was just an editor to me then, albeit one I minioned for—now he’s also my husband!) was more than I ever expected. I thought it would sit in the slush pile for a month and then get a nice rejection back, and then figure out who to send it to next—the same thing I’d been doing for seven straight years at that point. Instead I clicked “send,” went to sleep, and found the acceptance in my inbox when I woke up. For it to be picked up for Horton’s Year’s Best later in the year was unbelievable, and that Dozois even noticed it–and for extra geek cred, it was even run on io9! No, I couldn’t possibly have even hoped for any of that.
ANTHONY: You’ve talked in other interviews about the origins of the story concept. Talk to me a bit about story execution — how long did it take to go from concept to a draft you were ready to submit to an editor?
CHRISTIE: I started it in July of 2009. I wrote that opening scene, not really knowing where it was going, but I liked the voice of it a lot. Over the next few months I pushed myself to get it done as part of an application for Clarion, but it was a very difficult story for me to write. Initially I only wrote the part of the story set in our world in the present day; it just wasn’t coming together, so as an exercise I decided to write the fairy tale part as back story. It took a while for me to realize that the fairy tale actually belonged in the story itself. Then it took even longer for me to figure out how to combine the two pieces into an effective whole.
I sent it both to Clarion and to JJA’s slush pile at the same time, the moment it was done, on February 21, 2010. So from concept to submission, it was seven months! It was time well spent, though. I learned so much while writing that story about voice, structure, and tension. (P.S.—I didn’t get into Clarion! Its success since has taken the sting out of that particular rejection.)
ANTHONY: I recently had an early-draft reader point out my tendency to digress within a short story, introducing little bits that don’t advance the plot and often slow the pace. Since short stories usually rely on fast and steady progression, did you ever feel with “The Magician” that you were moving down the wrong track or that you were introducing tangents that were diluting the story?
CHRISTIE: In this particular case it was a story that I needed to grow, rather than prune. The big breakthrough for me was in writing that back story and realizing that it needed to be part of the whole. Also the warehouse scene, which brings the Magic Mirror more fully into place, didn’t exist until the final draft. I think in recent years I’ve ended up underwriting rather than overwriting—this particular story would have been totally hollow if I hadn’t expanded it, and it wouldn’t have succeeded.
ANTHONY: Jay Lake often talks about an author’s “sphere of control” in terms of story length. Where would you say your “sphere” lies? Do you feel more comfortable in short story length, or are they a stepping stone to novels?
CHRISTIE: You have asked the question I have been wrestling with for a couple of years now. I have concluded that I am not—at least right now—a novelist. I love the short form. I have novels written, I have others plotted, but when it comes down to it I don’t feel that I can do the same thing with novels that I can do with short stories. I just don’t get excited about my novel-length tales as I do about my shorts. That may change as I grow as a writer and (I hope) get more stories out there. But for right now, under 10,000 words is where it’s at for me.
ANTHONY: You recently wrote on the Inkpunks website about structure and how that affects the telling of a story. I don’t want you to repeat the whole theory when readers can follow the link to that post, but can you summarize it for us, and talk a bit about how that idea influenced “The Magician?”
CHRISTIE: I’m not entirely sure where I got the idea to apply structure the way that I do. I looked back at some of the books on my shelf and I can’t find examples of anyone doing it quite this way. I may have picked it up in a workshop or something in years past, or possibly it came from my own brain. The approach that I take is to visualize the shape of the story, and establish the patterns in it. I apply a visualized shape/pattern to both the narrative structure (length of story and scenes, for instance) and the thematic structure (what the story is about).
Where that really came into play in the “Magician and the Maid” was in making the two parts of the story work together. I had to alternate them, but I had to find the natural beats to leave one and go to the other, and I had to balance them in a particular way. I created a pattern or rhythm that kept the reader in our world longer than in the fairy tale. You can see the visual example I gave over at the Inkpunks site. A lot of people seemed interested in this approach, so I’ll probably do a follow-up post soon.
ANTHONY: Who would you say are currently the biggest influences on your writing?
CHRISTIE: Gaiman–always and forever Gaiman. I like to credit Douglas Adams with making me a reader and Neil Gaiman with making me a writer. His work in comics and his short stories have spoken to me in ways that no other author’s work has—though at one point I nearly quit writing because of something he wrote!
Inspired by the work I was seeing come out of DC’s Vertigo line, I initially set out to write comics. I love the way that the comics medium merges storytelling and visual art, and combined they have the potential to have such a magnified impact on the reader. I wanted to be a part of that, so I put my time into learning to write comics scripts, with the goal of some day writing for DC.
That was my plan right up until I read Gaiman and McKean’s graphic novel Signal to Noise. I read the book, closed it, set it down, and thought, “Well, never mind, it’s already been done.” I decided that I would not write comics because the pinnacle had already been reached–there was nothing I could ever do that could even approach what they had done in that book.
My spectacularly irrational response to being confronted with great art was to spend a week feeling empty, directionless and sad, casting injured glances at the book and sniffling. At the end of that week, though, I knew I couldn’t really stop writing. So I picked myself up and started learning how to write short stories instead.
ANTHONY: You’re a part of the Inkpunks group. Can you tell me about the group’s genesis and goals?
CHRISTIE: Inkpunks was Sandra Wickham’s brain child. We were just a bunch of friends who had met at various conventions and on Twitter. When we first met we were all right on the cusp of making our first sale, going to Clarion, getting internships with editors, etc. Writing is such a tough gig—the rejections just go on for long, and there’s always more to learn. It can be really discouraging. Sandra pointed out to us that we were really lucky to have each other to get us through the rough spots and keep us going, and she suggested that we share that spirit with other writers in the form of a group blog.
I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first! I wasn’t sure that we, collectively, had the kind of experience and knowledge yet that we would need for such a project. Well, I’ve been eating crow since about the third month! The blog has really reached a lot of people, and many writers and editors more experienced than we are have contributed guest posts. It’s been an astonishing success, and I can’t express how grateful I am to be a part of such a thoughtful and good-spirited group of people.
ANTHONY: Will we be seeing any more of your fiction popping up in the near future?
CHRISTIE: I just sold a story to Daily Science Fiction called “This Rough Magic.” I’m not sure yet when it will be arriving in inboxes or appearing on their website, but I’ll let you know as soon as I hear!
ANTHONY: Back to that “structure idea” for a moment — have you ever started to write a story to a specific structure and then realized it wasn’t working? If so, did you abandon the idea of structure completely, pick out a different structure, or abandon the story?
CHRISTIE: I haven’t abandoned a story in a long time—I would much rather just try to find a new approach and make it work. The story I’m working on right now has gone through a couple of different permutations, and I like the structure I’m working in now, but the story itself still isn’t quite coming together. I’ll have to find some other exercise to make it work.
ANTHONY: How do your stories most often start? Do you start with an image, a piece of dialogue, a character?
CHRISTIE: For the past couple of years I’ve started with a vague idea (a story about a person forced out of her fairy tale and into our world, for instance) and then a line or two of inner monologue from the POV character.
ANTHONY: My usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
CHRISTIE: I only get one? Oh man, that’s hard. I’d say probably “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” by Douglas Adams. Adams is of course known for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which is a totally absurd romp. Dirk Gently is just as funny, just as good-natured, but much more cohesive. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read it.
However I’m also going to chime in with a non-fiction book as well, also by Adams, and that’s “Last Chance to See.” Because it’s a big, absurd world, and we need to remember that it doesn’t belong only to us.