Welcome to the latest installment of Breaking In, where I interview authors about their experiences breaking in as writers — how they did it, what it felt like to get there, and how it differed from what they were expecting.
Today, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview Nebula-Award-nominated author Karina Sumner-Smith.
As she notes on her website, Karina is a fantasy author and freelance writer. She is the author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant (2014), Defiant (2015) and Towers Fall (2015).
Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including the Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things,” and the ultra-short story “When the Zombies Win,” which appeared in two Best of the Year anthologies. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a small dog, and a large cat.
Her latest novel, Towers Fall, which concludes the Towers trilogy, was published on November 17th.
War. Fire. Destruction. Xhea believed that the Lower City had weathered the worst of its troubles, and that their only remaining fight would be the struggle to rebuild before winter. She was wrong.
Now her home is under attack from an unexpected source. The Central Spire, the City’s greatest power, is intent on destroying the heart of the magical entity that resides beneath the Lower City’s streets. The people on the ground have three days to evacuate—or else.
With nowhere to go and time running out, Xhea and the Radiant ghost Shai attempt to rally a defense. Yet with the Spire’s wrath upon them, nothing—not their combined magic, nor their unexpected allies—may be strong enough to protect them from the power of the City.
Towers Fall, and the other books in the Towers Trilogy, are available from your preferred print or online bookseller. You can find a complete list of Karina’s works, and how to find them, here.
[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Karina! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?
[KSS] Thank you!
Is it fair to say that I don’t know? Honestly, I don’t know that I feel like I’ve broken in as a writer—and looking at my list of publications and accomplishments, that sounds wrong, or at least disingenuous. I’ve published three novels, I’ve published short stories, I’ve been nominated for a Nebula Award, and yet … I feel the same. Same bundle of ambition and stress, enthusiasm and self-doubt. Still striving to do better, to communicate more clearly or powerfully or beautifully; to write more, or at least more effectively. Striving to have my work seen and found and read.
I think that perhaps we feel that there will be a moment that we say, “Yes, this is it! I’ve made it!” And there have been wonderful moments. Seeing my name on a cover. Seeing my book in a bookstore for the first time. Reading wonderful reviews from authors and reviewers that I respect. But, for me at least, the true work of writing remains the same. It’s that relationship between me and the story, and the flawed process by which I flail and struggle to bring that story to life on the page.
What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?
I followed the advice that was oft-repeated in the science fiction and fantasy community for many years: to write short stories, get some publications to build a name for yourself, and then move on to novels. And perhaps this was great advice at one time—but things are so very different now. Though there is still a market for SFF short fiction—and that market is growing, thanks to digital publication and renewed interest—I feel that people who want to be novelists are best served by learning to write novels. (And short fiction publication credits do not, perhaps, have quite the same clout that they once did.)
The thing is, many things about writing a short story and writing a novel are so very different. The process, of course, and the endurance one needs to see things through, but other things too. Pacing, for one; structure, for another. The way that stories are constructed on a line-by-line, scene-by-scene way is drastically different between the two forms.
The way I used to think of it is that a short story is made of all the words that you need to create a single emotional note. It’s the build to specific moment, a revelation, a change. In contrast, a novel is like a song—multiple notes, each one building on the last, working together to create something larger and more complex.
As a result, when I was finally “ready” to write a novel, I felt like I had to learn to write all over again. I failed at writing a very many novels before I figured out what worked for me.
So I suppose my strategy, such as it was, was to write a lot of short stories to build a reputation, write a novel, find an agent, sell the book, and then go on to be a wild success. (I’m still working on that last part!)
And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?
Well, thing is, I never wanted to be a short story writer. I always wanted to write novels. If I could do anything differently, I’d have stopped writing short stories and concentrated seriously on writing novels years earlier.
That said, I don’t think I’d abandon short stories entirely. Learning to write short fiction was helpful to my development as a writer—but what was even more helpful was learning to critique and read others’ work with a critical eye. Joining an online critique group and attending the Clarion Writers’ Workshop back in 2001 were both critical to my development as a writer, and I’d never undo either experience.
Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?
I’m lucky enough to know quite a few full-time authors, so I think I had fewer illusions than some new authors. (Or, rather, my dreams of my shiny future as a Real Author were not quite as wild and colourful as they might have been.) I’ve also written for a living for years, first as a business proposal writer and corporate communications person, then as a freelance writer.
Some aspects are what I expected. Writing is hard work—no surprise there! I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to balance what I need creatively to enable me to write interesting, rewarding books, while at the same time staying productive and healthy and happy and sane. Because I think what has come as a surprise is how emotionally exhausting some elements of a fiction writing career can be. Being reviewed, for example—regardless of whether the reviewer likes the book—is often intense, and I have not yet found a way to not read reviews. Publicity in general takes a lot more time and energy than I’d been expecting, for sure, with the added uncertainty of never quite knowing what you’ve done has been effective.
There are also parts that are far more wonderful than I ever expected. When the work connects with the right reader—when it speaks to them, and they share some bit of that experience with me, it is so absolutely rewarding. I also quite enjoy much of the day-to-day work, and the satisfaction of seeing a project come together.
What are you working on now?
Publicity! There’s so very much to do to welcome a book into the world—things that (sadly) have little to do with champagne and self-congratulations.
But I am, of course, working on another book, too. This one’s a strange contemporary fantasy about a modern city in which people can shape reality by the power of thought or belief—often to very strange and disastrous consequences. I’m not sure if it’s the most marketable idea, but it speaks very directly to both my head and heart right now, and so that’s where my focus remains. I’m also hoping to write a few short stories again, just to keep my hand in, so to speak.
How can people keep up with you online?
Thank you, Karina, for such a thoughtful and informative interview. And you know, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would be all over a contemporary fantasy where people can shape reality, so you’re guaranteed at least one sale!
Coming up next on the blog: My November-in-review post, then two more Breaking In interviews and probably a look back at 2015 to round out the year. Because it’s almost 2016, isn’t it? Oy.