Breaking In: Interview with Curtis C. Chen

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 science fiction novelist Curtis C. Chen.

Per his website, Curtis is a writer, puzzle gamer, cat-feeding-robot maker, blogger, coder, board game geek, husband, and traveler. (All  those things are true, by the way. He has links to back them up.)

His short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography, Leading Edge, 365 Tomorrows and a number of notable anthologies.

Waypoint Kangaroo is his first novel.

Meet Kangaroo.

He’s a superpowered spy who’s about to face his toughest mission yet:

Vacation.

Kangaroo isn’t your typical spy. Sure, he has extensive agency training, access to bleeding-edge technology, and a ready supply of clever (to him) quips and retorts. But what sets him apart is “the pocket.” It’s a portal that opens into an empty, seemingly infinite, parallel universe, and

Kangaroo is the only person in the world who can use it. But he’s pretty sure the agency only keeps him around to exploit his superpower.

After he bungles yet another mission, Kangaroo gets sent away on a mandatory “vacation:” an interplanetary cruise to Mars. While he tries to make the most of his exile, two passengers are found dead, and Kangaroo has to risk blowing his cover. It turns out he isn’t the only spy on the ship–and he’s just starting to unravel a massive conspiracy which threatens the entire Solar System.

Now, Kangaroo has to stop a disaster which would shatter the delicate peace that’s existed between Earth and Mars ever since the brutal Martian Independence War. A new interplanetary conflict would be devastating for both sides. Millions of lives are at stake.

Weren’t vacations supposed to be relaxing?

Waypoint Kangaroo, published by Thomas Dunne Books, is available in print, ebook, and audio from your preferred online or bricks-and-mortar vendor today — June 21, 2016.

 

Waypoint Kangaroo Cover

WAYPOINT KANGAROO, by Curtis C. Chen.

[SGM] Welcome to the blog, Curtis! To begin, when did you feel like you’d broken in as a writer?

[CC] Thanks for inviting me, Stephen! For me, the “breakthrough” was selling a story to a pro-paying market (“Zugzwang” in Daily Science Fiction). That sale qualified me for Associate Membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) professional organization.

Aside from the personal validation, joining SFWA also gave me access to a great community of other pro-level writers and resources to learn more about the business of publishing. With the novel sale last year, I became a full Active Member, so now I also get to vote for the Nebula Awards!

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 started with short fiction. My basic strategy can be summed up in these steps, which I learned at the Viable Paradise (VP) writers’ workshop:

  1. Write.
  2. Finish what you write.
  3. Submit your finished writing to paying markets.
  4. When rejected, resubmit immediately (i.e., without extensive editing).
  5. Repeat ’til Hell won’t have it!

That did work for me, eventually. After VP, it took several years of cranking out flash fiction to figure out what process worked best for me to get steps 1 and 2 done. (Hint: in my world, deadlines are crucial.)

I also had to learn that step 4—rejection—is a normal and necessary part of the process. I already knew the phrase “you are not the work,” but I needed to internalize it before I could get to the next level of productivity. The key, for me, was to think of each story submission like an audition for an acting job: you go in, you do your thing, and then you forget about it. The decision’s out of your hands once you leave that room. Move on to the next thing.

For more perspective, I recommend looking at The Usual Path to Publication: 27 Stories About 27 Ways In, a book of essays by authors about how they each got published. (Full disclosure: the editor and many of the contributors are personal friends.) The title is ironic, because as the essays illustrate, everyone’s story is different. But what they all have in common is persistence and dedication. No one ever reaches a destination by NOT moving forward!

And following up on that, knowing what you do now, what would you do differently?

I feel like I’ve been pretty lucky with my writing, and I hesitate to second-guess any specific decisions. But I would tell past-me to be less anxious and tentative about trying new things, whether it was applying to Clarion West, joining a critique group, or starting to query my novel to literary agents. Even if events would have still unfolded in the same ways at the same times, maybe I wouldn’t have been so worried about things over which I had no control.

CurtisCChen

Curtis C. Chen, Author (photo by Folly Blaine)

Now that you’ve broken in, is it like or unlike what you expected? How?

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how supportive everyone has been, given all the horror stories I came across while researching how to get published! I do make an effort to be collaborative with everyone who’s working on a given project—editors, artists, publicists, and others. For the novel in particular, I’m part of a team, and we’re all working toward the same goal. My personal desires are not the only factors in any given decision.

I’m also keeping my expectations low, because I’ve learned that I have no idea what’s coming next. This goes back to controlling what I can, and not worrying about what I can’t. Is the novel going to sell well? Will anything I do online or in person “move the needle”? Who knows? We’ll see what happens. Meanwhile, I can keep writing.

What are you working on now?

Finishing up revisions on the second Kangaroo novel, which is under contract to Thomas Dunne Books. I’m also promoting Waypoint Kangaroo, which includes going on a book tour with my friend and fellow debut novelist Claire Humphrey!

After that, I’d like to get back to some short fiction projects and a nonfiction book proposal that’s been dogging me for a while. Also maybe more sleep. Sleep is good.

How can people keep up with you online?

I’m always on Twitter @curtiscchen, maintain a Facebook Page as curtis.c.chen, and keep my bibliography updated at curtiscchen.com/stories.

And speaking of Twitter, on June 26th at 10am Pacific Time (1pm Eastern) I’m doing a “tweetchat” where you can ask me more questions! That’s hosted by the Clarion West Write-a-thon, and I encourage everyone to consider sponsoring one of the participating writers with a tax-deductible donation.

Thank you again to Curtis for the interview! I had the pleasure of meeting him at the June 14th kickoff of the DAWN OF AUTHORS tour, and picked up Waypoint Kangaroo. As I suspected, it’s exactly the kind of smart, witty SF that I adore.

Coming up next on the blog: I’m not sure, but hey, stay tuned!

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