How did you become a writer?
I enjoyed writing stories when I was young (and illustrating them too, with really embarrassing results), but it never occurred to me to think of writing as more than a hobby. I didn't discover my writing vocation until I was 17, and started writing a novel more or less on impulse (I wanted an excuse to take a year off between high school and college). I never expected to finish it--but I did, and by the time I was done I knew that writing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I sent out a lot of queries (to publishers--this was back when most publishers accepted submissions directly from writers, and agents weren’t as powerful as they are now), and got a lot of rejections. Eventually, my manuscript landed on the desk of an editor who was planning to start a literary agency. She offered to represent me, and after several years and a lot more rejections, sold it to a wonderful publisher.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
This is always a very tough question for me, since there have been so many, at different times in my life--from the authors I read as a child (T.S. White, Elizabeth Goudge, E. Nesbit, and all of Andrew Lang's fairy books) to the writers I discovered as a teenager (Thomas Hardy, Mary Renault, Jean Genet, and a whole range of SF/fantasy writers, from Harlan Ellison to Anne McCaffrey) to the very eclectic reading I do as an adult, which right now is a mix of SF/fantasy, mystery, and mainstream. My favorite recent reads are Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance.
I can also tell you what has not been an influence: the creative writing course that I was foolish enough to take in college, taught by a minimally-published professor who told me that if I were serious about a writing career, I’d stop writing speculative fiction. Fortunately, I trusted my gut, which told me he was wrong. Even so, it was a demoralizing experience.
When and where do you write?
I write in the afternoons, and often into the evenings. I have an office, but it’s full of non-writing-related stuff, such as bills that need to be paid and correspondence that needs to be answered, and I find it distracting; I can do nonfiction writing anywhere, but for fiction, I need calm and quiet (I’m not one of those writers who has a playlist). So I have my laptop set up on the dining room table, where unfinished tasks don’t reproach me, and I can look out at my garden and watch the birds at the bird feeders.
I’m a highly distractible writer, and will seize any excuse to procrastinate, so I use a program called Freedom that blocks the Internet for whatever period of time I choose. It helps keep me on track; otherwise, it’s too easy for me to use a tough scene or a bit of necessary research as an excuse to jump online.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of different projects. One is a YA in a fantasy setting based on Renaissance Venice, about a girl who has been brought up on her father’s estate without any exposure to the outside world, and what happens when a thief climbs over the walls and accidentally exposes a secret that her father has kept hidden. The other is for the adult market, about an important religious-magical ritual that goes wrong due to human error, and the spiral of disastrous consequences caused by the religious and secular leadership’s attempt to conceal it.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Many people believe—and argue passionately—that there’s no writer’s block, only lazy writers. What they’re usually talking about—and what many writers are also talking about when they say they’re blocked—is the normal process of getting stuck on a scene or a character or a plot turn, and being temporarily unable to move forward until they figure out what’s gone wrong, or deal with whatever distracting part of their life is pushing them off track. We all get stuck from time to time. I get stuck a lot.
Block is something different—at least, it was for me. It wasn’t getting hung up on a bad character choice or an inconsistent plot direction, and having to work out how to fix it. It wasn’t about the words on the page at all. It was about the words in my head.
I’ve always had words in my head--descriptive sentences that arrive out of nowhere, snippets of dialog in my characters’ voices. I also play a constant mental game of making up phrases or paragraphs about things I see and feel, trying to find the exact right words to capture a mood or an object or a landscape. But when I was blocked, all those words—along with the desire to find them--went away. It wasn’t as if I became aphasic. But the words that normally swarm around in my head, that define the world for me, that I love shaping and playing with, simply were not there.
I was aware of the change, of course. Also of the fact that I wasn’t writing any fiction and couldn’t even come up with any ideas for writing fiction. But I didn’t connect this shift in my mental landscape with writer’s block until two years later, after I’d started, very hesitantly, to write fiction again. In the way it felt to return to writing, I realized that my dry spell wasn’t just the laziness and self-indulgence I’d been beating myself up about, or mild PTSD from a previous horrible publishing experience, but some deeper malfunction in the part of me where my fiction is sourced. A door inside me had closed for a while. I only understood that when it began to open again.
I’m honestly not sure where the malfunction came from, or why it happened. I’d gone through tough times before, and never been blocked. I also don’t know why it resolved. Now the words fill my head again--but I also know I can lose them. Every time I sit down to write, there’s always that little bit of dread that it will happen again.
What’s your advice to new writers?
There’s only one rule of writing: there are no rules. Beware of anyone who tells you that there are. If you’re a planner, for instance, don’t feel you have to follow the advice of those who claim that the only authentic way of writing is by the seat of your pants. If you’re a natural pantser, don’t force yourself to outline. Seek out writing advice, but don’t follow it blindly; experiment. Discover for yourself what’s best for your writing. There’s no “right” way of doing things—only what’s right for you.
Also: be an educated writer. Learn about the publishing/self-publishing industry—and do it before you start trying to get published. Attempting to learn as you go or on the fly is the best way to get entrapped by scams, or sidelined by bad advice. In the quest for publication, knowledge is your greatest ally and your best defense.
Victoria Strauss is the author of nine novels for adults and young adults, including the Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City), and a pair of historical novels for teens, Passion Blue and Color Song. She has written hundreds of book reviews for magazines and ezines, including SF Site, and her articles on writing have appeared in Writer's Digest and elsewhere. In 2006, she served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.
Victoria is co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She maintains the popular Writer Beware website (www.writerbeware.com) and blog (www.accrispin.blogspot.com), for which she was a 2012 winner of an Independent Book Blogger Award. She was honored with the SFWA Service Award in 2009.
Visit her at her website: www.victoriastrauss.com.