Breaking In: Interview with Alison McBain

Welcome to the latest instalment 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 thrilled to have the opportunity to interview a creator whose hallmark is the breadth of genres and media she works in, author Alison McBain.

As mentioned on her website, Alison is a freelance writer, poet, and artist with over seventy short pieces published in magazines and anthologies. She’s also a book reviewer with the ezine Bewildering Stories.

Her novel The Rose Queen – Book 1 in the Rose Trilogy – was published in July 2018 by Fairfield Scribes and is available now.

The Beast doesn’t always wait for Beauty. Sometimes, Beauty IS the Beast.

Princess Mirabella is betrothed to a repulsive old man a year after her mother’s death. She refuses the marriage, only to find out her betrothed is a sorcerer as well. He takes his revenge by transforming her into a savage and frightening beast, giving her an ultimatum: she has three years to solve the mystery of her curse—or die.

Exiled to her mother’s estate to hide the scandal, Mirabella learns that the sorcerer was not alone in keeping secrets. Her grandfather was murdered before Mirabella was born, and her mother’s death is looking less and less as if it came from natural causes. The only point in common to all their ruined lives: her father, the king.

Faced with a conflict between saving her family and saving her own life, the choices Mirabella makes will change the future of the kingdom—and magic—forever.

Alison is also a fellow contributor to the upcoming anthology Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One), and this is one of a series of Breaking In posts focusing on the creators featured in the anthology. So obviously I’m Not Entirely Unbiased here.

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The Rose Queen: Book 1 of the Rose Trilogy, by Alison McBain

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

[AM] Thank you so much for having me, Stephen!

As to feeling like I’ve broken in, I’m still waiting for that idea to hit! I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like a “real” author, even if I sell a million books. I’m just a mom of three who started writing each night after the kids went to bed as a way to have something to do to contrast singing the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” twenty times a day.

There have been some pretty cool moments along the way that make me feel a bit more “real” – for example, the first time I was asked to do a reading of my work, and the first fan letter I got. It made me realize that I’m not writing in a vacuum. I’m sure most authors feel the same way – we send out our work into the world and hope it does well, but most of our time is spent by ourselves at our computer, tapping away.

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 probably tried a million things that didn’t work, and I’m still figuring it out as I go. I started out thinking that I could just write a book and it would immediately be snapped up by an agent. I was going to be the next J.K. Rowling!

Well… it doesn’t work like that, at least not for most authors. Some agents I contacted liked my book, some didn’t. But my book didn’t get published.

Then I found out about online pitch contests, such as Pitch Wars, #PitMad, Query Kombat, and the like. I entered all of them, and again, I got some interest and met some really great authors along the way. But… my book still wasn’t published.

Then I was told to “build my brand” by getting a publications list, so I’d have something to show agents. I made a website, started a blog, got active in social media and writers’ groups. And, at that point, I fell in love with writing short stories and poems and forgot about writing books for a while. I did this for a few years, and it was amazingly fun. But book-length ideas began popping up again, and I returned to writing novels.

So I guess all of my strategies never really worked, but I still got there in the end. And the only thing that could be said that came from my original plan is that I am a persistent type of person, and once I start something, I don’t give up. Persistence is the only way to get there, no matter where the path to writing/publishing leads. The only way to fail is to stop writing.

Alison McBain

Author Alison McBain

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

While my journey hasn’t been straightforward, I’m not sure I would change anything about it. I needed to follow a lot of different paths to find out what worked for me and what didn’t. I needed to write a hundred short stories to find my voice and style, so I could write books again and know what I was doing (hopefully). And the great communities of writers and readers I’ve found – I would never have met any of them if I hadn’t needed to reach out because I had no clue what I was doing.

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

The angels showering down flower petals wherever I walk is sort of nice.

Ha. Nah, life goes on pretty much the same. I write, I send my writing out to the world, and I still get more rejections than acceptances. The only difference is sometimes people have heard of me and I’ll get personalized rejections for my work. “I really love your other stories, but this one… not so much.”

The one thing I didn’t expect is that now people come to me for advice. Whenever someone asks me a question about writing or to mentor a project they’re working on, I turn around and look behind me to see if they’re asking a different Alison. And when I realize I DO know what advice to give them, it’s actually pretty humbling that I know (a little bit) what I’m talking about. And very, very cool that I can help out other writers as I’ve been helped.

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What are you working on now?

I am the lead editor for an anthology coming out October 1st called When to Now: A Time Travel Anthology. I’m really excited by the amazing speculative fiction stories in it – we have steampunk to surrealist, and everything in between.

A collection of my short stories is in the works, in addition to two more novels that are completed and undergoing edits. One is a science fiction novel based on the culture of apartheid South Africa (the first of a trilogy), one is a contemporary romance (the first of a series). In addition, I’m writing an alternate history novel set in the U.S.A. in the 17th century, and a paranormal romance set in New York City.

How can people keep up with you online?

If you’d like to get updates on what I’m working on and recommendations for books I’ve reviewed at Bewildering Stories magazine, I’m on Twitter: @AlisonMcBain and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/alison.mcbain.9. For the latest updates on live readings and new publications, my website is: http://www.alisonmcbain.com/. I also do a web comic about raising kids, which is available on Twitter @Toddler_Times.

Thank you to Alison for the interview!

I love a good time travel story, so I’m excited to hear about When to Now — and I’m really looking forward to reading her story in Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One).

Coming up next on the blog:  More Breaking In stories from Nevertheless contributors. Next up, author Fiona Moore!

 

Breaking In: Interview with Meghan Bell

Welcome to the latest instalment 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 very pleased to have the opportunity to interview a creator whose work ranges across a breathtaking range of formats and media, Meghan Bell.

As she notes on her website, Meghan is a Vancouver-based editor, writer, graphic designer, and cartoonist, and the current publisher and graphic designer for Room Magazine, Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal. Her writing has appeared in over a dozen literary journals across Canada, including JoylandGrainThe PuritanPrairie Fire, and The New Quarterly. Meghan has worked in marketing, digital communications, and fundraising for multiple arts organizations in the Lower Mainland, including the Vancouver International Film Festival and Just For Laughs NorthWest. Meghan has two degrees from the University of Victoria, and is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, where she is working on her first novel.

Meghan is widely published as an illustrator, poet and a writer of both non-fiction and prose. Her webcomic, Bell Curved, appears weekly at her website.

Her short story ‘Anhedonia’ will be published in the forthcoming anthology Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One). So yes, this is one of my Breaking In interviews with a fellow contributor, and I’m clearly Not Entirely Unbiased.

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

[MB] I don’t feel this way. When I was younger, I was convinced I’d feel like I’d broken in as a writer after a few acceptances of short work from literary magazines and/or anthologies. Then that happened, and I felt the same as I did before. I might feel like I’ve broken in once I’ve published a novel, but I doubt it. I think I’ll always feel like I’m breaking in, but I don’t know what it looks or feels like on the other side, or if there even is one. It’s an ongoing journey and the goal isn’t the destination, but to stubbornly stick to carving a path that works for me.

Meghan Bell - Bell Curved - everydamnday

Meghan Bell, as she depicts herself in her webcomic Bell Curved. This strip is entitled Every. Damn. Day. I feel you, Meghan.

What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?

For publishing short work, I went a fairly ordinary route. I have a BA in Creative Writing, and am finishing an MFA now. I currently work as the publisher of a literary journal, and volunteered with the magazine for several years before it became my day job.

When I first tried sending work out to literary magazines, when I was about twenty-one, I was really insecure and discarded stories and poems after they received a single rejection. I stopped sending stuff out for a while and tried to work on my craft. I was volunteering at a literary magazine at the time and reading and editing slush-pile submissions taught me way more than any university course or program. When I started sending work out again, at twenty-six, I sent a short story to a handful of literary journals, and it was accepted without being rejected. It was silly to me then, and embarrassing now—because I know how literary magazines work and I know they reject good work all the time—but I really needed that confidence boost to keep sending work out. I didn’t receive another acceptance until nearly a year later, but at least I started steadily submitting work and believing in it after rejections.

Strategies? I supposed perseverance, simultaneous submissions so you don’t get too emotionally invested in any one, writing work that you would want to read (even if, or perhaps especially if, you can’t think of similar examples), and finding a writing schedule that works for you. I don’t write every day, and prefer to adjust my schedule so I have blocks of four or more hours to work on a project, even if that means I don’t write for three months—I have tremendous respect for people who are able to write every day, whether it’s because they have the free time and energy, or because they are superhumans who write in ten-minute bursts on their lunch breaks, in waiting rooms, or while taking public transit, but that just doesn’t work for me. I wish it did!

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

Oh, oh my god, I would have actually kept sending out all that work I wrote in my early twenties that I stopped believing in after one rejection. Three of those bloody pieces have since been accepted, it turns out they weren’t as terrible as I thought.

When I was in my undergrad, a fiction professor told me that I didn’t belong in a creative program after I told her I was interested in writing young adult and speculative fiction. I was about nineteen and after that, I started trying to write what I thought was more “literary” fiction, i.e. writing like hers. My work really suffered, and didn’t improve until a friend lent me her book and I realized I found her stories as boring as she had apparently found mine. I started experimenting again, and writing stories I thought I might like to read, and, yeah, they’re about a million times better. Now, whenever I want to explore heavier topics in my fiction, I often turn to speculation. I’ve explored parental neglect and narcissistic abuse through superheroes, sexual assault and trauma through time travel, and in my Tesseracts contribution, depression and mental illness through a global pandemic.

There will always be people who don’t enjoy your writing. If you’re unlucky, you will encounter this person as someone in a position of power over you early in your career and they will choose to push you to give up or write the way they do, instead of helping you improve your own work. Don’t let that person crush you. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that I didn’t need to listen to that particular opinion.

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

Haha, see my answer to question one!

What are you working on now?

A young adult novel about a teen hockey player who starts acting out—and lashing out—after her older sister dies in an accident.

How can people keep up with you online?

I’m on Twitter at @meghanlbell, and you can also find me and my work at meghanbell.com and roommagazine.com (the literary journal I work for).

Thank you to Meghan for the interview! I look forward to reading her story in Nevertheless, even though as it happens my story in the anthology is also about the aftermath of a global pandemic and when I realized that I had a wee attack of writer anxiety and am now absolutely convinced that I’ll only ever be remembered as the author of the book’s Less Good Global Pandemic Aftermath Story.

But hey, in that case, why not pre-order the book so you can see for yourself?

Coming up next on the blog:  More Breaking In stories from Nevertheless contributors. Next up, author Alison McBain!

Breaking In: Interview with Kate Heartfield

Welcome to the latest instalment 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 thrilled to have the opportunity to interview an acclaimed writer of short fiction, novellas, and novels, who also happens to be having a bit of a banner year – author Kate Heartfield.

As she notes on her website, Kate is an author, editor, journalist and teacher. Her interactive novel The Road to Canterbury was released in April 2018 and her historical fantasy Armed in Her Fashion was published by ChiZine in May. In November, her time-travel novella Alice Payne Arrives will be coming out from Tor.com. I told you she was having a heck of a year!

Kate’s short fiction has been published in a range of prestigious venues. A sequel novella, Alice Payne Rides, will be published by Tor.com in 2019, as will a new novel from ChiZine.

It doesn’t sound like she’s going to be slowing down in 2019, does it?

A disillusioned major, a highwaywoman, and a war raging across time.

It’s 1788 and Alice Payne is the notorious highway robber, the Holy Ghost. Aided by her trusty automaton, Laverna, the Holy Ghost is feared by all who own a heavy purse.

It’s 1889 and Major Prudence Zuniga is once again attempting to change history―to save history―but seventy attempts later she’s still no closer to her goal.

It’s 2016 and . . . well, the less said about 2016 the better!

But in 2020 the Farmers and the Guides are locked in battle; time is their battleground, and the world is their prize. Only something new can change the course of the war. Or someone new.

Little did they know, but they’ve all been waiting until Alice Payne arrives.

The first novella in a series about Alice Payne, her scientist girlfriend Jane Hodgson, and Major Prudence Zuniga. Coming Nov. 6, 2018, from Tor.com Publishing.

Kate is also a fellow contributor to the upcoming anthology Nevertheless (Tesseracts Twenty-One), and this the first in my series of Breaking In posts focusing on the creators featured in the anthology. So obviously I’m Not Entirely Unbiased here.

Cover, Alice Payne Arrives

ALICE PAYNE ARRIVES, by Kate Heartfield (cover art by Cliff Nielsen; design by Christine Foltzer)

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

[KH] Thanks very much for having me! It’s probably in the nature of writers to never feel as though they’ve broken in. But if there was a turning point for me, it was when I signed with my agent, Jennie Goloboy, in 2014. That came about a year after I made my first short-story sale for pro rates, and it was around that time that I qualified for active membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). So 2013/2014 stands out.

 What was your path to breaking in? Did you have a strategy? Did it work, or did you end up getting there another way?

My path was a long and tedious one and I don’t recommend it to anyone! I’ve written fiction since I was a child, and I’m 41 now. I finished my first novel manuscript when I was 19, but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I printed it out on my dot-matrix and mailed it to a few publishers and then despaired. And then went to grad school. In my mid-20s, I tried again. It wasn’t until my third attempt that I started to write speculative fiction, which had always been my love, but I suspect I had subconsciously absorbed the notion that SFF wasn’t Important Literature. I had also absorbed the notion that trying to learn the craft of writing would destroy my Art. Both these notions were very damaging, but it took me a while to get clear of them.

Once I started writing what I really wanted to write, and once I recognized that I had a lot to learn, lo and behold, I started to get better. I studied creative writing by correspondence with Paul Quarrington through Humber College, and I started writing short fiction to try to understand the mechanics of story-telling better. I joined critique groups, took courses and workshops, read books and generally opened myself up to learn everything I could. From there, it was just a matter of time and effort. A lot of effort.

So I suppose I didn’t set my feet on a useful path until I was in my mid-30s. I’ve wished more than once I’d been clever enough to see that path when I was a teenager. But maybe I had to go through all of that flailing around first.

Kate Heartfield Author Photo by John W MacDonald

Author Kate Heartfield (photo by John W. MacDonald)

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

I definitely would have sought out teachers, peers and mentors, and written short fiction, and written my own kinds of stories instead of the kind I thought I was supposed to write. The internet really allows writers to connect with each other and support each other and it’s been such a help for me, but it didn’t exist in the same way when I was starting out.

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

Being a debut novelist has been wonderful in many ways, especially the connections I’ve made with readers. Holding my first novel in my hands, with that incredible cover by Erik Mohr, is and will always be a thrill.

It has also been … emotionally unsettling, I think is the best way to put it. I had settled into a comfortable despair during the years when I couldn’t get much published. Now, the despair has been replaced with things my brain is eager to worry about: sales and reviews and rankings and all the rest. There is always more promotion you could be doing: a bookstore to visit, a festival submission, whatever the case may be, and it will eat all your time if you let it. I’m doing my best to maintain the mentality that served me well when I was trying to break in, which was to focus on what I could control (my work) and not the external results, which are largely outside my control. But it has required some mental recalibration to get used to the new normal. If you let yourself, there will always be a new thing to worry about, even if that thing is whether or not you’ll stay on the New York Times bestseller list for another week or whether you can juggle all your Guest of Honour invitations (I’m a long way from either of those worries!). So I try to remind myself of that and just keep focusing on the work.

The fact that it took me a while to break in has actually been a mixed blessing in one way: I didn’t have to face what many writers face, which is the contract for the second book after the first has sold. I sold two novels at once, and two novellas hard on the heels of that, so there’s a little less pressure on my current works in progress.

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What are you working on now?

I’m writing another interactive novel for Choice of Games. That one should be done and ready for release sometime in 2019. It’s lots of fun. I’m also deep in a rewrite of a novel that hasn’t sold yet. Both those projects are historical fantasy, although in different places and times.

I’ve turned in the manuscript for Alice Payne Rides, the second novella in that series, to my editor at Tor.com Publishing, so pretty soon I’ll be working on copyedits and proofreading for that.

I have some stories coming in anthologies this fall: there’s my story in Tesseracts: Nevertheless, of course, which is about a flying carpet in a dying city. I also have a story in the new anthology from Laksa Media, which is called Shades Within Us and is about migration and borders. And there’s a prequel story to my novel Armed in Her Fashion coming soon in the anthology Trouble the Waters from Rosarium Publishing.

I plan to be at Can*Con in Ottawa and Scintillation in Montreal, both in October.

I also teach journalism and creative writing. This fall, I have an online course called Write Your Novel at the Loft Literary Center that’s designed to include a lot of feedback and mentorships for writers who are working on novels.

How can people keep up with you online?

I’m easy to find on Twitter: @kateheartfield. My website is heartfieldfiction.com and I have a monthly newsletter you can sign up for at tinyurl.com/katenews.

Thank you!

Thanks to Kate for the interview! I don’t know about the rest of you, but for my part I’m now deeply interested in what will happen when Alice Payne Arrives, and I’m looking forward to finding out.

I’m also excited to read Kate’s story in Nevertheless, which, I will be shamelessly reminding you throughout this series of posts, is now available for pre-order from the publisher!

Coming up next on the blog: A Breaking In interview with Nevertheless contributor Meghan Bell!