Thank you for coming along to the blog today, Thoraiya and congratulations on your wonderful book deal with Tor US. I am so excited for you and as you know I’ve been a fan of your work for more than 10 years! I hope you will visit again when your book is coming out so we can share the blurb and the cover and all that other wonderful stuff that happens when a book gets published.
Thanks for having me, and yes, please!
Can you tell us a bit about the book (series) that is going to be published?
Sure! Today I found the bit of scrap paper I first wrote the idea on. It reads: “Write an epic fantasy novel about a tropical rainforest where countries are not horizontal, but vertical, and defended by magic.”
Even though I planned TITAN’S FOREST as a standalone initially, CROSSROADS OF CANOPY still fits that basic description. A pantheon of reincarnated gods and some mythically reimagined Australian fauna and flora made its way in there, too. Unar, protagonist of Book #1, is a Gardener – a sort of apprentice priestess – in Canopy, the vast and leafy jungle city where the rich and privileged leave tributes at temples and get fat on sun-ripened fruit. In Canopy, they’re safe from demons that lurk below their deity-maintained barrier, and they generally have no idea where their excrement goes when it falls down into the dark.
But Unar’s sister falls down there, and that kicks off her adventures.
Excellent! I guess I should explore your writing history. How long have you been writing? What did you start on, novels or short stories? What are your bread and butter (that you like the most?)
I started pounding out the requisite million unpublished words in high school! Novels first, even though later, when I was working full time and doing after-hours calls, it took almost 5 years to write just one. Then, when I was pregnant I had lower back pain and couldn’t sit at my computer for very long to type. That’s when I wrote “Night Heron’s Curse”, which was my first published short story. Tehani Wessely bought it for ASIM in 2008. Also in 2008, I attended a workshop with Jim Frenkel at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, and he advised me to build a reputation with short stories before I wrote another novel. I like both. I don’t think I’ll stop writing short stories.
It’s taken a long time to get this far, hasn’t it? The industry seems to be getting more and more difficult to penetrate. Can you tell us a bit about how you got an agent and then the book deal?
It has taken a long time, and I’m glad I was oblivious, early on, to how much work and persistence it would take, because I might have given up. On our first day of lectures at vet school, which I’d worked my ass off to get into because I wanted to be a zoo vet, I remember hearing the recommendation that zoo vets get a decade of experience with cows, first. It made sense. Giraffes, rhinos, elephants; the closest you’re going to get to them in private practice is cattle.
But I was devastated! I thought there was no way I could survive ten years of getting smooshed against fences by poo-covered cows, all for a tiny chance of gaining one of the three zoo vet jobs in all of Australia that would only be vacated when one of the existing zoo vets died. And those people all seemed young and healthy!
So, I was discouraged. I decided to be a small animal vet and just do whatever bird and wildlife work I could get on the side. That’s why I don’t like it when people ask me how to get published, because “write stuff that isn’t good enough for ten or twenty years” is a horrible, discouraging answer, and I would have hated anyone who told it to me when I was in high school!
I got my agent, Evan Gregory, by querying according to the agency guidelines. I hadn’t met him at a fancy overseas convention or anything glam like that, haha. I was a Locus subscriber. Every time an issue came out, I’d open to the ‘BOOKS SOLD’ section and highlight all the agents that represented work that sounded like mine, and that’s how I’d make my list of who to query. It helped that Evan had an interesting blog, and worked for Ethan Ellenberg, who reps John Scalzi and Karen Miller. Both authors had spoken highly of the agency so I knew they weren’t dodgy.
The book deal came about, I guess, because Evan does go to conventions, and fancy lunches (maybe they aren’t that fancy, maybe they eat discounted sumo salad on park benches?) – ANYWAY, the point is, he had a better idea than me who the editors were that might be a good match for my work. And he was right, wasn’t he? And simultaneous submissions are brilliant compared to my decade of sending printed novel manuscripts in the post to one publisher at a time and then waiting years for each reply.
And I was over the moon after the offer from Diana Pho at Tor. She is just lovely. I’m thrilled to be working with her. Tor was the first publishing imprint for grown-ups I ever really became aware of, plundering the Eye of the World from Mum’s shelf and inhabiting the world of the Wheel of Time in my school holidays.
That is persistence! I’m happy you had such a wonderful outcome after so much hard work. You have written a number of works and have had recognition for many short stories over the years? Did the award wins help you gain notice from publishers? Did you find short story writing honed your novel writing skills or was it unrelated?
I have no idea if the award wins helped me gain notice. The invitations to contribute to anthologies that I occasionally received could have been because of awards, or just because the editors had read my stuff. They sure gave me confidence and hope for the future. And the Aurealis and Ditmar award ceremonies brought me to my first conventions and introduced me to the community. I first met you in person at an Aurealis night, didn’t I? I love the community! Hello, community!
It sure helped to know that my writing, sentence by sentence, was publishable and that people enjoyed reading it. But I think, for me, short-story writing might have been a pleasant detour instead of a necessary phase. If I had to guess at the weaknesses of my early manuscripts, I would say problems with novel-length structure and novel-length character arcs, and I couldn’t learn those from writing short stories. My strength has, I think, always been pretty writing, and yeah, the short story words I wrote might have gotten prettier, and they certainly got more succinct, but I suspect that wasn’t what was keeping my novels from being bought.
I know how you feel! How did you keep up your motivation all these years? Do you have any advice for other writers who are struggling to maintain the faith and keep writing?
Living in denial? I did this thing where, in order to be excited about the book I was writing and make it the best it could possibly be, I had to believe it was The One. No matter how many stats or experts told me my first book might not be The One, and my second book might not be The One, and my third, and my fourth, I had to tell myself they were wrong, and that THIS one was The One. Every year, my New Year’s resolution was to write better, to write The One.
Which automatically meant I couldn’t be the arbiter of which one really was The One, which is why self-publishing could never be for me. I knew I would have to keep throwing novels at the trad publishing wall until one stuck. Kevin J Anderson’s popcorn theory (Google it!) worked for short stories, so I had to believe it would work for novels, too.
It’s not easy. To willingly, deliberately delude yourself that you’re an exception to the rule (where failure is the rule, the statistical likelihood anyway); to rely on long-suffering editors to bring you back down to earth by telling you not yet, not this piece, not this market; to wonder if you’re suffering from that syndrome where the more incompetent you are, the more likely you are to think you are competent, etc.
To read other people’s stories, not knowing if your story is the one where the writer persists and finally breaks through, or if yours is the one about the ex-writer who walks away and becomes a teacher or a truck-driver and lives a happy life with enough money to buy plenty of books.
If you are reading this story, my story, I’m sorry that I can’t tell you what your ending is going to be. I can only tell you that I cried harder at the thought of being forced to give up out of financial necessity than I did over all the rejections pouring in (happy face!).
Did you have to make sacrifices to continue to write (personal , physical or material)?
Chiefly material sacrifices. My husband is amazing and my kid is brilliant, my parents do what they can and my friends are the best; I feel personally supported in every way. But 2014 was still horrific. There was kind of a slow creep, a reduction in living standards, starting with me leaving my job as a vet to have the Small One, culminating in some stark financial realities as I decided to try and make this writing thing pay off instead of going back to veterinary practice. It was a shock to my self-image, going from being a person with a successful, professional veterinary career, with a home and an investment property, to a person with none of those things – and I was panicking until two months ago about keeping my little car. Now I have a book advance coming and can breathe a little easier. Of course, I can’t be sure how much of all that was my career change, how much our move to an expensive area, how much was motherhood and how much bad luck. But, hooray, this seems like a luckier year!
If you could give three tips on writing and writing well, what would they be?
Devour other people’s books. Write when you are inspired and also when you are not inspired. Don’t rewrite until you get to the end. (There, now you’ve made me give shit advice already, because that works for me but not everyone).
Look, I can only think of those two things that apply to everyone, and I’m not even sure about that second one. OK, what about read good blogs? Like this one! And the Book View Cafe blog. Maybe Chuck Wendig’s place, and NK Jemisin’s. Ian McHugh’s blog, and Pub Rants, and Man Versus Bear. Cat Valente’s archived posts are still good, even if she doesn’t blog as much these days. And Sean the Bookonaut and Ebon Shores can give that sense of community. Take the advice from them that seems most useful to you. And practice. Keep practicing.
What were the instances in your life that inspired you to keep writing (besides award recognition)?
Travelling to beautiful places. Discovering amazing things. They have always inspired me.
I started writing CROSSROADS OF CANOPY after a trip to Cairns and the rainforests up there in tropical Queensland. All the other rainforests I’d been to wanted to come to the party as well – Nepalese forests, Canadian ones, Tasmanian and Singaporean and New Zealander. I put my version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in there because of a book on ancient civilisations that my Dad brought back from Lebanon for me.
It was pretty inspiring at Worldcon in Melbourne when random strangers asked me when my first novel was coming out (I still don’t know exactly!). Also, quite surreal.
One recent inspired moment was when my husband and I stood outside the dusty, desolate storage facility we’d hired. All our beautiful furniture was inside, some of it hand-made by him from gorgeous Australian hardwoods; furniture we couldn’t fit in the rented unit where we were going. I saw my veterinary textbooks in boxes next to my favourite fat fantasy novels, and asked him in a very small voice if I should keep the veterinary books out, because maybe the writer-dream was over, and he said, with complete confidence, without hesitation, that I would not be needing them.
Looking back, where did you gain your personal leap forwards with respect to your writing? (such as perseverance, feedback, an editor, insight gained over years?)
The most serious problem with the Self-Delusion Method is that you spend so much time convincing yourself that everyone is wrong about your writing not being awesome that hearing criticism without getting defensive can prove difficult. That’s even before you learn that two people will give completely opposite feedback to each other. And sometimes the feedback is wrong. When you’re new, you’ve got no idea when it is and it isn’t wrong, so you might try and work it out scientifically – that is, to get many people commenting on one piece, so it’s more like a survey. But then different people will have different areas of expertise, so your survey is weighted, and then it’s not really a survey any more, is it?
I regret the times I’ve been ungrateful about feedback. The Self-Delusion Method should probably be stricken from the list of advisable routes to publication. One moment that led to a bit of a leap was when Alisa Krasnostein at Twelfth Planet Press took most of the pirate-talk out of my pirate novella in the name of improving readability and I was convinced she was wrong – SO WRONG! – but I went along with it, grumbling inside. I was so immersed in pirate slang at that point I had lost all perspective on what a normal person would or wouldn’t understand from it. And then about a year after it was published, I sat down and read it again, after I’d lost my sea legs, after I’d lost the pirate cadence from my inner voice, and saw how she had been right – SO RIGHT!
Trusting the most excellent editors that I’ve been fortunate enough to have was probably a bigger step for me than it should have been (happy face!).
Wow. Thank you Thoraiya. All writers have personal journeys to continue writing, but yours is truly inspiring. I have made some material sacrifices but not any where near what you have done. I am so pleased for your success. Seeing you succeed should give other aspiring writers hope that their turn will come. I wish you every success and I’ll see you back here when the book is coming out.