Novelist and author-advocate, Victoria Strauss is a force to be reckoned with. I’m so pleased to have this chance to learn more about a woman who has dedicated so much time not only to crafting beautiful and entertaining tales but to looking out for the interests of fellow writers.
RLM: While you’re working on a story, what in particular do you read to help you along, get your brain oiled and ready to go?
VS: Reading is essential. I couldn’t survive without it! If it’s a project that demands research, I may read research materials (though I usually do the bulk of research before starting to write) – but otherwise, I don’t have any particular preferred reading matter. I read whatever takes my fancy, whether it’s in my genre or not. I’m not one of those writers who feels it’s necessary to avoid books in the genre I’m currently writing.
RLM: Your books often take on tough political and social issues. What do you think is the role of speculative fiction in society?
VS: Speculative fiction can shed light on real-life issues, and I think it can do so in a particularly powerful manner by mirroring those issues in invented worlds that don’t carry the baggage or the preconceptions that real-world settings do. The shift of context can make it possible to present those issues in fresh ways, or to turn them into allegories.
That said, I don’t think that spec fic writers have any duty to address tough issues. Literature can be social commentary, but most people read for entertainment. As much as I’m drawn to writing about difficult ideas, I always try to keep in mind that my readers want a good story, too.
In terms of speculative fiction’s place in society, there’s certainly a lot of visual media with fantasy or SFnal content–but I think that written speculative fiction is pretty marginalized. It has the smallest readership of any genre, and, like romance, is seen by most mainstream readers as hack writing (Ursula Le Guin and J.K. Rowling notwithstanding).
RLM: On a related note, what, in your opinion, is the duty of authors in today’s world?
VS: Honestly–and I don’t mean to sound cynical or snarky–I don’t think authors have any duty, other than to themselves and their own talents. If you’d asked me that question twenty years ago, I might have given you a different answer – back then, I had a much more idealistic view of writing and the writer’s role. I’ve since become more pragmatic. As an author, I’m just trying to survive.
RLM: Your Stone Duology deals with the tension between traditional ways of life and new technologies. In our technology driven world, what is the place of storytellers and keepers of the past?
VS: I think we’re losing our sense of the past, to some extent, in part because there’s so much more present than there used to be. We’re bombarded by content, by choices, by goods and services, by current events. It all encourages us to be in the moment, rather than looking back or ahead.
However, there will always be a place for storytellers, and technology is actually proving that, with the explosion of music and art and books and stories that has come with the digital revolution. The incredible success of digital self-publishing speaks both to readers’ hunger for stories and writers’ drive to tell them.
RLM: If you had to pinpoint one element that differentiates good fantasy writing from bad fantasy writing, what would that element be?
VS: I think that writing is writing, regardless of genre, and what makes bad fantasy writing is just…bad writing. There are as many definitions of “good” as there are good books, but bad books all tend to share certain qualities: poor pacing, cardboard characters, unconvincing settings, poor style.
One thing that often does predict bad or cliched spec fic writing is someone jumping into the genre who isn’t really familiar with it. Some pretty well-known writers are guilty of this.
RLM: Do you ever write yourself into a corner? If so, how do you work around that?
VS: I’m a pre-planner (I create a detailed synopsis and do character sketches before I start writing), so I don’t write myself into corners very often. But I do get stuck – a lot. It’s nearly always because I’ve made a mistake of some kind – lost sight of the character, planned the scene wrong, started it at the wrong moment… the list goes on.
I used to freak out when this happened, because it can feel like a complete dead end, and even if you sense that you’ve gone wrong, you don’t always realize right away what your mistake is. But it happens to me so regularly that I’ve learned to accept it as part of my writing process. Sometimes I can unstick myself in an afternoon. Sometimes it takes a few days. Once, horribly, it took over a month. But because I know I’ve gotten through it before, I know I’ll get through it again. That does help.
I’ve developed a sense for what I need to do to get past it. Sometimes I know I just have to keep banging my head against the wall, writing and re-writing till I get it right. Sometimes, I need time off. Going for a walk often helps, or doing some sort of non-writing project, or going away for the weekend. And as unpleasant as it is to be stuck, there’s nothing like the feeling when you finally break through the wall and know you’re back on track.
RLM: How much of your own life and experiences makes it into your fiction?
VS: I think all writers put themselves into their fiction, in the sense that you can only write about what you can think or imagine. Inevitably, your own feelings and perceptions will color what you create. But I’ve never had any desire to write about myself or my experiences or people I know. For me, fiction is a way to explore different realities, not dwell upon my own.
RLM: You are a cofounder of Writer Beware. What was the impetus behind the formation of this watchdog site?
VS: People often ask me if I got involved with Writer Beware because I was scammed. The answer is no – by and large, my publishing experiences have been positive. But I was pretty ignorant when I began to seek publication, and while scams weren’t anywhere near as common as they are now, it was luck more than anything else that prevented me from falling into questionable hands.
Around the time I first went online, in the mid 1990’s, several major scams were just beginning to implode, in part through writers’ discussion of their experiences on the Internet: scam book doctor Edit Ink, fraudulent vanity publishers Northwest Publishing and Commonwealth Publications, and the notorious Deering Literary Agency with its satellite vanity publisher, Sovereign Publications. (There are descriptions of all these scams on the Case Studies page of the Writer Beware webste.) I was at first fascinated, and then horrified, by this fraudulent shadow-industry, which I hadn’t known existed. When I saw a call on the SFWA website for a volunteer to create an online resource on literary fraud, I jumped at the chance, and began to put together the website that would become Writer Beware.
At the same time, Ann Crispin, who at the time was SFWA Vice-President, was working on establishing a Committee on Writing Scams, with the mission of gathering information on literary fraud, and finding a way to disseminate this to writers. Neither of us was aware of what the other was doing until a mutual acquaintance put us in touch. Our efforts seemed to dovetail perfectly, and we decided to join forces.
Writer Beware now includes not just the website, but a blog, a Facebook page, and a free advice service (writers can email us with questions or complaints). We’re still sponsored by SFWA, and we get additional support from the Mystery Writers of America, the Horror Writers Association, and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Sadly, Ann passed away in 2013. She was not just a colleague, but a dear friend. I miss her.
RLM: How has your work for Writer Beware impacted your career as a writer?
VS: Writer Beware and my writing are two separate tracks that I follow. There doesn’t seem to be much crossover. The opportunities I’ve received as an author and those that have come my way as a result of Writer Beware are not related. For the people who follow Writer Beware, my books give me the credibility to do what I do but aren’t really of interest; and for fans of my writing, Writer Beware is part of my resume, but not really relevant. So I don’t think Writer Beware has helped my writing career at all. I can only hope it hasn’t hurt it!
RLM: What’s next? What are you working on?
VS: I have a book just out: Color Song, a historical novel for teens set in 15th century Venice. In February, Open Road Media will be re-issuing four of my out-of-print books, including my Way of Arata duology (The Burning Land and The Awakened City) These two books are the ones I think best represent me as a writer. I’m thrilled to have them back in circulation.
I’m also revising and updating another of my out-of-print YA novels, Worldstone, for self-publication. And I’m working on several ideas for new novels. I’m not sure yet which one I’ll pick.