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Interview with Victoria Strauss
Interview by Jenna Glatzer

Victoria Strauss is the author of six fantasy novels, including The Arm of the Stone, The Garden of the Stone, and her most recent, The Burning Land, just out from HarperCollins Eos. Sheís a regular book reviewer for the online journal SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writerís Digest and elsewhere.  Sheís an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where she serves as vice-Chair of the Writing Scams Committee and maintains the Writer Beware literary scams warning website (www.writerbeware.com). She welcomes visitors to her own website: www.victoriastrauss.com.

If I understand correctly, you wrote your first novel right after you graduated from high school.  It took almost a decade, but that novel (The Lady of Rhuddesmere) was published and well-received.  Tell me about those nearly-ten intervening years: were you just an amazing writer when you were 17, or did you do a lot of editing and revising over the years to make it publishable?

I wrote and revised it as best I knew how at the time-- which, given my age and lack of writing experience, wasnít very well. In many ways, it was a terrible novel, with an improbable plot and awkward dialogue. But there was at least a spark of talent, because it nearly was bought by Faber & Faber (a UK publisher); and though no one else came close to picking it up, the rejections I received were all the kind that say ďWe want to see more of this writerís work.Ē

Meredith Charpentier, the editor who did eventually buy it, was an old-fashioned Maxwell Perkins kind of editor who was willing to work intensively with an author to turn a flawed manuscript into a publishable book. Under her guidance I completely rewrote it (among other things, she wanted me to shift from a third- to a first-person viewpoint), and then rewrote it again. It was a tough experience, and I had to put my ego on hold. But it was also incredibly rewarding, and I learned a huge amount about writing by doing it. Iíll always be grateful to Meredith for being so generous with her time and wisdom.

What made you stick with it?  Did you ever get discouraged or stop writing?

I did stop writing for about five years after I graduated from college. I was convinced that Lady would never get published, and Iíd realized that the short stories Iíd been dutifully turning out in order to hone my craft were terrible and would never get published either (I was wrong about the first, thank goodness, but not about the second). I decided my hopes of a writing career had been foolish, and made a conscious effort to set them aside. Itís unfortunately very easy for me to stop writing, since I find the process difficult and often unrewarding-- but Iím not a whole person without it. Those were not happy years.

Then, out of the blue, my agent called to tell me that Lady had been sold. Since then Iíve been writing pretty much continuously-- though unfortunately not publishing continuously. There was a long period between my second and third novels during which I started and abandoned a number of projects (at least one of which, a novel about Hernando de Sotoís exploration of the southeastern U.S., I hope to pick up again one day).

Tell me about your agent-- how did you find her and why is she the right match for you?

I found her entirely by accident. One of the publishers Iíd queried for Lady (this was back in the 1970s, when being unagented was not a liability for a first-time author) was going out of business. She was an editor there, and was planning to start an agency. My manuscript landed on her desk; she liked it, and offered to represent me.

Publishing really has changed a lot in the past 20 years. An agent is essential if you want to sell fiction to the large houses, and agents are far more ruthless than they used to be about jettisoning unproductive or non-selling clients (I know of some well-established agents whoíll blow you off after six months if your book doesnít sell). I donít think itís very likely nowadays that an agent would a) take on a novel that obviously needed a lot of fixing  in order to be publishable, or b) keep sending it out year after year when it didnít sell, or c) carry a client who showed no signs of ever producing another book. But thatís what my agent did, and Iím eternally grateful to her.

I write fantasy, and my agent, though she does represent several speculative fiction authors, is not a fantasy/science fiction specialist. This gives me the flexibility to move out of genre if I want--for instance, for the Soto book mentioned above, which would be a straight historical novel, perhaps with a few fantastic elements. I value that, and itís one of the important reasons I remain with her-- as well as her fabulous sales ability, ace negotiating skills, and the fact that sheís a warm and lovely person.

You didn't go full-time with your writing until a few years ago.  What took you so long to make the leap, and how is your life different now?  Is there anything you miss about the 9-to-5 world?

Iíll be honest-- I donít make a living from my writing. Iím not prolific enough. A mid-five-figure advance for a duology sounds nice, but if you spread that out over the five or so years it takes me to write those books, itís not a lot of money. So though I wanted for a long time to quit my day job, I just couldnít justify it financially. It was my husband, a generous man who has always been incredibly supportive of my writing career, who finally convinced me to do it. Iím at least as time-crunched now as I was before, what with freelance writing projects and the volunteer work Iíve taken on; that, and my tendency toward procrastination, means I still have to make a conscious effort to create a space each day for writing. But Iím able to focus on it much more intensively now, and that has improved both my productivity and the quality of my work.

What do I miss about the 9-to-5 world? Nothing. Not a thing. My network of friends has always existed apart from work, so my social contacts havenít really changed--also, Iím solitary by nature, so the isolation that troubles some writers isnít an issue for me. Itís bliss to set my own schedule. Itís ecstasy not to have to attend business meetings, or deal with office politics. Best of all... no pantyhose, ever again.

If you're working on a novel for a year or two, how do you keep your perspective?  Do you ever feel you're "too close" to your story? 

Even if I donít feel Iím too close, I know I am. By definition, if you live with something day in and day out youíre going to lose perspective, at least to some degree. Thatís why itís so important for me to have other people read my work as itís in progress (Iím lucky to have friends who arenít afraid to give me criticism, and whose opinions I trust) and to talk about it. One of my best friends is also a writer, and we brainstorm together about our books. I also talk with my husband, whoís very good at helping me out of the plot corners I sometimes write myself into.

I get stuck pretty often, usually on plot points or details of character motivation, so in the short term Iím constantly losing perspective and scrambling to find it again. But I also work my novels out pretty thoroughly in advance, and the basic concept doesnít change very much-- so even when I get lost in an alley, I know where I am in the city, so to speak. A novel is a whole other world inside my head, where I can escape whenever I want. It becomes very real to me.

How is the publishing world today different for novelists than when you began? 

Iíve already mentioned the importance of an agent if you want to sell fiction to a major publishing house. This wasnít true when I was first submitting-- it was pretty normal for new writers to get in over the transom. Back then, though, most publishers were what we today would consider independents. Thatís another thing thatís changed: the enormous conglomeration of the industry, and the ownership of publishers by companies that have nothing to do with publishing. This has led to an increasing attention to profit and the bottom line, which makes publishers less willing to carry authors who donít ďbreak outĒ after their third or fourth book, and agents less willing to keep clients whose books donít sell within a relatively short period of time.

Thereís a lot of discussion among aspiring writers about how much harder it is now to break into the publishing industry. But I donít think that breaking in is really any harder than it ever was-- whatís difficult these days is to sustain a career. A modest-selling author whose sales remain flat after several books is often less attractive to a publisher than an unknown, who could bomb-- but who could also do very well (and who will also probably settle for a lower advance). In the 1980s, when I was first published, steady sales and good reviews were enough to sustain a writing career. Thatís not true anymore.

Another enormous change: the emphasis on self-promotion. Itís commonplace today for writers to support their publishersí marketing efforts with their own activities-- arranging interviews and local publicity, setting up readings and signings, maintaining websites. But as recently as two decades ago, this concentration on post-publication publicity was very definitely not the norm (even among publishers, who do far more now in the way of author-marketing than they ever used to). Self-promotion is still optional: publishers donít require it (good publishers, anyway). I know quite a few authors who do no promotion at all. But most pay at least some attention to it.

Have you encountered any "genre prejudice?"  That is, I hear that some genre writers feel they don't get as much respect as those who write "literary fiction," whatever that may mean.  Do you think that "literary" and "fantasy" are mutually exclusive genres? 

Yes, I do encounter genre prejudice. I think every genre writer does. Many people assume that genre writers are not ďseriousĒ writers, or that the fiction they produce is by definition inferior, or that itís somehow easier to write than ďrealĒ literature. There are also the people who are surprised when I tell them I research my novels, because they think that with fantasy you can just ďmake it all up.Ē Itís irksome not just on a personal level, but because it closes off potential audiences. For instance, I think that anyone who enjoys historical novels would enjoy my latest book, in which history, culture, and tradition is as important as magic and adventure. But most mainstream readers never go into the sf/fantasy section of the bookstore.

ďLiteraryĒ is exclusive of ďfantasyĒ only if you use the term in the genre sense (which most people do when they talk about literary fiction, usually without realizing it). The literary genre is not as easily definable as fantasy or mystery, but itís a genre nonetheless, where the books share certain characteristics, goals, and audiences. But ďliteraryĒ is also a quality of writing, irrespective of subject or marketing niche. Many people, unfortunately, conflate the two, assuming that literary quality is a more or less exclusive property of the literary genre. This isnít true; genre fiction can be as literary as anything else. For instance, John Crowley, who is widely acknowledged as a literary writer but whose major works have been published as fantasy, and so havenít gained the wider audience they deserve. Another literary fantasist is British writer Ian MacLeod. Iím sure that anyone who likes Gabriel Garcia Marquez or enjoyed Mark Helprinís A Winterís Tale would love MacLeodís most recent book, The Light Ages. But again, itís published and marketed as fantasy, which means that a wider audience will never see it.

Interestingly, prejudices within speculative fiction mirror the wider prejudices outside it. There are those who think that science fiction is literature and fantasy is a creeping commercial plague. There are those who celebrate tiny literary sub-movements within fantasy, such as the so-called ďNew Weird,Ē and consider the rest to be more or less beneath notice. Reviews in a number of print and online venues devoted to speculative fiction reflect these prejudices.

Tell me about your latest book.  Why did you write it, and what are your hopes for it?

My latest book is The Burning Land, first in a duology I call Awakening. The idea for it actually originated from research for my abandoned Soto book. I did some background reading on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and one of the things that fascinated me was the part that Hernan Cortezís completely coincidental resemblance to a figure of Aztec religious prophecy played in his success. I started a science fiction story based on this, which I never finished because I couldnít decide how it should end. I stuck the story in a drawer, but I never forgot it, and years later, when I was casting around for ideas for a new project, I returned to it. The Burning Land is fantasy rather than SF, and the premise is a lot more complex, but the core idea-- of an explorer encountering an undiscovered community and precipitating conflict and tragedy because of his accidental fulfillment of their religious expectations-- remains.

The hero of The Burning Land is a young priest, Gyalo, whoís sent into an unexplored desert (the Burning Land of the title) sacred to the sleeping god ¬rata, in search of a group of refugees from a recently-ended cycle of religious persecution. After many trials, he finds the refugees-- and also the amazing secret they guard, which seems to indicate that the central prophecy of Gyaloís faith has been fulfilled, an event that heralds the destruction and rebirth of the world. Gyaloís appearance out of nowhere, which at first seems to answer the refugeesí heretical beliefs, later begins to contradict them, and heís forced to flee, along with a young woman named Axane who has also defied her peopleís faith. But the church leaders to whom Gyalo returns are as threatened by his discoveries as the refugees were by his arrival. In the crisis that follows, all beliefs come into question, and both Gyaloís courage and his deepest-held convictions are tested to their limits.

I did a lot of research for this novel. The story features an invented religion (to the people who said when I declared my college major, ďA degree in Comparative Religion? What can you do with that?Ē, I say ďSo thereĒ), a complicated cultural and historical background (which Iíve tried to invest with an Eastern, rather than a Western European, flavor), and a number of very different settings (the Burning Land, for instance, is based on the Australian outback). I hope the book offers something for everyone: interesting world building, adventure and magic, a love story, and a serious exploration of themes of faith and repression.

You devote so much of your time and energy helping writers to avoid scams and deadbeats.  Why do you do this? 

This is corny... but itís a way of giving something back. Iíve been lucky enough in my career never to fall into the clutches of disreputable people, and I wish it could be the same for everyone.

Then again, when I started out there wasnít anything like the scam industry there is now, and the cons are getting slicker all the time. Itís much, much harder for writers these days to thread their way through the maze of people who want to take advantage of them. Even writers who take the time to educate themselves and who do careful research into agents and publishers (and I have to say that many writers seem to want to skip this step) often wind up querying at least one or two disreputables. Thereís also a plethora of new publishing alternatives-- some of which arenít really alternatives at all, but you wouldnít know it from the way they present themselves. If I can offer something to help writers steer clear of the scammers and the pitfalls, or to gain a better understanding of their options, Iím glad to do it.

If my observations are to be trusted, scams that prey on writers are on the rise.  It's so hard for inexperienced writers to know who to trust, and often, they want to jump into the arms of the first person who shows an interest in their work (even if the "interest" comes with a price tag).  Why must writers never trust agents or publishers who ask for money up front (reading fee, evaluation fee, representation fee, etc.)? 

The basis of both the author-agent and the author-publisher relationship is a shared financial interest in the authorís success. An agent who makes money only when her client does is highly motivated not just to sell her clientís book, but to get the best possible deal for it. A publisher whose profits come from book sales to the public has a vested interest in putting out the best product it can and making sure it sells. A fee disrupts this relationship. If you pay your agent up front, youíre diminishing her incentive to sell your book. If you hand over a fee to your publisher, or agree to buy something as a condition of publication, youíve just turned yourself into a customer-- and if a publisher can make customers of its authors, why should it spend time and money trying to make customers of others (i.e., readers)?

Not all agents who charge fees are disreputable. A few reasonably well-established agents do ask for something upfront to cover initial submissions expense (and requiring authors to assume a direct financial burden-- by providing all full manuscript copies, for instance-- seems to be on the rise). But most reputable agents donít ask for upfront money. If they do pass on submission costs, theyíll let the them accrue and reimburse themselves from the clientís income. By contrast, nearly every scam or amateur agent in existence wants some kind of upfront or adjunct fee. So even though there isnít an absolute, 100% correlation between fee-charging and disreputability, the association is strong enough to justify avoiding fee-chargers on principle.

For publishers, thereís no ambiguity. Some small publishers canít afford to pay advances-- but I donít know of a single reputable publisher that asks authors to contribute financially to publication, whether on the front end through reading or setup fees, or on the back end through pre-sales requirements or heavy pressure to buy their own books for resale. (Note: Iím not talking here about self-publishing services or straightforward vanity publishers or book producers, but about companies that claim to be ďtraditionalĒ or independent publishers.)

Writers also need to take a careful look at the agentís or publisherís track record. An agent should have verifiable sales to commercial publishers. A publisher should be able to get its books into bookstores. Fee or no fee, fancy websites and aggressive PR aside, thatís the bottom line.

Itís important to note that many fee-chargers arenít deliberate scammers. Rather, theyíre people who donít really know what theyíre doing, or marginal folks whoíve never managed to break in. Because they arenít successful, theyíre forced to charge fees to keep their businesses afloat. Theyíre often very well-intentioned and enthusiastic, and it can be tempting, if youíve gotten a lot of rejections, to settle for someone like this. But in the end, the result is the same as youíd get with a scammer: a lighter wallet, and no sale.

There are some companies that notoriously misrepresent themselves to writers (like Poetry.com, which sends out glowing letters to everyone who enters their poetry contests, declaring them all semi-finalists... then trying to sell them everything under the sun).  How do companies like this stay in business, and why does the BBB still list them in good standing after so many writers have complained?

The BBB is not a reliable source for writersí complaints. Writers rarely seem to file complaints with the BBB-- the notorious Deering Literary Agency, whose owners are doing Federal prison time for fraud, had a clean record with the BBB at the time it was shut down, and the same is true of most of the agencies and publishers about which I get repeated complaints. The BBB has no regulatory power-- it canít sanction businesses that are complained about, or apply any meaningful pressure to get writers their money or rights back. I always encourage people to file a BBB complaint, because if complaints are on file it may make someone think twice about hooking up with a questionable agent or publisher. But itís really only useful as a public record.

Companies like Poetry.com stay in business because theyíre smart. They keep their promotional materials right on the edge of literal truthfulness (while working hard to make sure that everything is phrased in the most misleading possible way). They fulfill the letter of their promises, if not the spirit, and if cash changes hands, the buyer does receive something. Itís not like Publisherís Clearinghouse, where people are enticed to spend huge amounts of money in pursuit of a figment. With Poetry.com, your poem really gets published, and if you pay for the anthology or the coffee mug or the conference, you really get those things. Same with the many book ďpublishersĒ that employ similar deceptive tactics-- if you buy your own book for resale, for instance, the books do get sent to you.

These outfits donít tell you, of course, that you and authors like you are their best-- and often only-- customers. You do get what you pay for, however, and for law enforcement thatís apparently enough to keep these businesses flying below their radar. Also, it has to be said that law enforcement just isnít very interested in prosecuting literary fraud. The individual amounts of money involved are relatively small, and literary fraud is a niche activity rather than something that affects the general public. So it isnít considered a serious problem.

I think many writers are afraid to "go public" with their complaints against deadbeats/scam artists out of fear of retaliation-- libel/slander suits, industry blacklisting, etc.  How cautious should we be, and how can we find out if others have been scammed if we can't feel free to come out and talk about our experiences?

I think writers are less nervous about going public than they used to be, simply because the scams have become so common. You can hardly find a writersí forum or message board on the Internet that doesnít have a message or two from writers whoíve been ripped off or who want to know if itís ďnormalĒ to have to pay for publication. Still, many writers donít complain, and thatís a shame, because I agree that thereís strength in numbers. If you name names, you may steer someone else away from the agent or publisher. If you ask questions, you may get good advice, as well as support and sympathy from those whoíve been there.

So I encourage writers to name names, but I think itís sensible to be aware of liability issues. Some scam artists are quick to threaten legal action against writers who speak out. These threats can be scary (which is the point: theyíre meant to intimidate), and writers are understandably nervous about this. But the truth is that the deadbeats donít want their day in court, because they donít want to have to expose their nasty business practices to the light of day. Even if they threaten a suit, theyíre unlikely to pursue one. Also, truth is an absolute defense against accusations of libel. Itís not smart to say ďSo-and-so is a raving scam artist and a dirty double-dealing dog,Ē because thatís a value judgment that canít be proven (and also a personal insult). But saying ďSo-and-so asked for $650 to represent me and when I checked I couldnít find any evidence that heíd ever sold a bookĒ is fact. You donít have to be afraid to state facts.

One thing no one should fear is industry blacklisting. Some disreputable agents/publishers do threaten this-- and itís a frightening threat. But hereís the secret they donít want you to know: they are not part of the industry. The world of scam, marginal, and amateur agents and publishers is a kind of shadow-world that mimics the real publishing industry, but has few actual points of connection with it. A scammer or marginal could no more get you blacklisted than they could sell your book... and you already know they canít do that.

Let's say I'm a writer who just can't seem to get published.  I've been at it for years and am convinced I'm good.  But I still have no agent and no publishing deal.  Is it ever a wise idea for me to self-publish or go through a vanity press or e-publisher if my goal is commercial success?  What steps would you advise me to take before I do that?

I would advise all writers, right this minute, to give up the goal of commercial success, if commercial success is defined as ďmaking lots of money.Ē Book writing is not a lucrative trade. I know a lot of professional writers, but only a few actually support themselves with their writing (and they work hard). Iím not saying you canít make money-- just that itís one of the most difficult things to achieve, and there are enough other things to worry about in pursuit of a writing career. If you take money off the table from the start, youíll be a lot happier.

If commercial success is defined as ďlarge numbers of readers,Ē the best way is still via commercial publishing (a.k.a. ďtraditionalĒ publishing, but I donít like this term because itís been so abused by disreputable publishers trying to mislead naÔve authors). Thatís not to say commercial publishing guarantees wide readership-- many fine authors have tiny audiences-- or that you canít achieve it with e- or self-publishing-- some people do. But your odds of success are far higher with commercial publishing, which for all its much-discussed problems and inefficiencies has decades of experience and elaborate and fairly effective systems in place to accomplish this.

If youíve gone the agent route and the large publishing house route and are banging your head against a wall, you might look to a good independent publisher (by ďgoodĒ I mean an independent that can get its books into bookstores. Many small Internet-based independents arenít able to do this). Indies donít have the promotional budgets or the distribution clout of the large houses, but they can do an excellent job. Another option: a well-established e-publisher. E-publishing is still an emerging field, and its audience is small compared to the audience for print books-- but itís a dedicated and enthusiastic audience, and itís expanding every year. E-publishing used to be the same professional kiss of death that a lot of POD-based publishing is today, but thatís no longer true, and e-authors and the larger e-publishers are gaining respect.

Self-publishing (whether true self-publishing, where you contract everything out yourself, or publication through a book producer or one of the POD-based self-publishing companies) can make sense in certain circumstances-- if youíre a nonfiction author with a niche audience you know how to reach, for instance, or if sales and readership isnít important to you, or if you have a difficult-to-market project that you want to see in print, such as a poetry collection. But for the average author in search of readers, self-publication is a very tough way to go. Self-pubbed authors do succeed, and thereís periodic hype-ish news coverage about this-- but one reason these stories get so much attention is that theyíre so unusual.

The one route I wouldnít advise is one or another of the hundreds of print-on-demand-based publishers that have sprung up all over the Internet in the past few years. Such publishers are often well-intentioned, but too many of them are run by people without any professional experience, and have no idea how to select, edit, design, or market a book. Not only does this make it less likely that your book will count as a professional credit, these publishersí shoestring budgets encourage them to price their books high and make them nonreturnable (both of which severely limit bookstore placement), and to rely on their authors as an unpaid sales force. In a lot of ways, itís the worst of all worlds: the disadvantages of self-publishing combined with the restrictive contracts of commercial publishing.

Anything else you'd like to add?

My website is at www.victoriastrauss.com. There are articles, interviews, book reviews, contests, and a section on building and publicizing an authorís website (very important: all authors should have a website). The newest addition is a feature on The Burning Land, with excerpts, a lot of background material about research and world building, and a scene that didnít make it into the final version of the book. Pay me a visit, and drop me a line-- I love to hear from readers and other writers.

 

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