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May 16, 2017

How Bestselling Fantasy & Sci-Fi Author Catherynne M. Valente Writes: Part One

The prolific, multiple award-winning, New York Times bestselling author, Catherynne M. Valente, took a break at her spooky writer’s island to chat with me about her superhero origin story, earning street cred with readers, and her truly unique process.

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Since her first novel — The Labyrinth, published in 2004 — the hybrid author has gone on to pen over 24 volumes of both fiction and poetry across multiple genres (including fantasy, sci-fi, young adult, and horror).

In addition to being published and anthologized in dozens of print and online journals, Catherynne has won or been nominated for every major award in her field, including the Hugo Award (for both a novel and a podcast), and been a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.

She is perhaps best known for her crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making — a book launched by a dedicated online fan community that went on to become a NY Times bestseller.

The series — which recently concluded with book five, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home — has been lauded by fellow author Neil Gaiman, and Time magazine called it, “One of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.”

The prolific author continues to find innovative ways to connect with her audience, and she recently launched a Patreon project called “The Mad Fiction Laboratory,” where she offers professional and personalized advice on the business and craft of writing, as well as a sneak peek at her multiple works-in-progress.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews.

In Part One of this file Catherynne Valente and I discuss:

  • How to write a novel in three to ten days
  • The story behind her four-month “circus” book tour and the birth of a viral bestseller
  • Her love of performance
  • Previews of her three wildly different upcoming projects
  • The umbrella cover museum that doubles as her office

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Bestselling Fantasy & Sci-Fi Author Catherynne M. Valente Writes: Part One

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host, Kelton Reid, to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers. This week the prolific, multiple award-winning, New York Times bestselling author, Catherynne M. Valente took a break at her spooky writer’s island to chat with me about her superhero origin story, earning street cred with readers, and her truly unique process.

Since her fortuitous first novel, The Labyrinth, published in 2004, the hybrid author has gone on to pen over twenty four volumes of both fiction and poetry across multiple genres, including fantasy, sci-fi, young adult, and horror. In addition to being published and anthologized in dozens of print and online journals, Catherynne has won or been nominated for every major award in her field, including the Hugo Award, for both a novel and a podcast and been a finalist for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy awards.

She is perhaps best known for her crowdfunded phenomenon, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, a book launched by a dedicated online fan community, that went on to become a New York Times Bestseller. The series, which recently concluded with a fifth book, has been lauded by fellow author Neil Gaiman, and Time Magazine called it, “One of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century.”

The prolific author continues to find innovative ways to connect with her audience and she recently launched a Patreon project called The Mad Fiction Laboratory where she offers professional and personalized advice on the business and craft of writing, as well as a sneak peek into her multiple works in progress. In part one of this file, Cat and I discuss how to write a novel in three to ten days, the story behind her four month circus, book tour, and the birth of a viral bestseller, her love of performance, previews of her three wildly different upcoming projects, and The Umbrella Cover Museum that doubles as her office.

The Writer Files is brought to you by the all the new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for authors, bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those selling physical products, digital downloads, and membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress now. That’s Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. And if you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

And we are rolling once again on this show with a special guest, and Catherynne M. Valente is here today, multiple award-winning, prolific, New York Times Bestselling author of over a dozen works of fiction and poetry. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, I know you’ve got a lot in the hopper, to chat with listeners about your fantastic work and your process as a writer. It s real exciting to talk to you today.

Catherynne Valente: No problem, thanks for having me.

How to Write a Novel in Three to Ten Days

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I m extremely inspired by your story as a writer. I know you ve done a lot of stuff and I kinda wanna chat about, I guess maybe, for listeners who aren t familiar with you and your fantastic journey to where you are today. Can you kind of give us a little bit of your, just your origins as a writer and how you got your start? I know you’ve done a ton, a ton of stuff.

Catherynne Valente: My very minor superhero origin story?

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Catherynne Valente: My first novel came out when I was twenty five, so twelve years ago, and it was called The Labyrinth. It came out with Prime Books, which is a small press, independent press. I had really only just graduated from college a couple of years before and I had heard about NaNoWriMo, which was just, or nano-WRY-mo, I always say nano-REE-mo, and I know it’s wrong. It had just started. I was only in its second year and I had just graduated and I was working as a professional fortune teller in Rhode Island.

Kelton Reid: Wow.

Catherynne Valente: In a genuine, tall, gothic tower, called the Old Armory, in Newport, Rhode Island. I hadn’t really been writing a lot while I was in college, because I was in such an academically rigorous program that I just, I had sort of fallen away from it. Most of what I had done, up until writing that first novel, was poetry. And by most I mean all, except for one short story I was required to write for class. I had done poetry my whole life.

But I wanted to see if I could write a novel. I didn’t know if I could, but I thought, “What do I have to lose? I’ll give it a shot.” It was October instead of November, and I didn’t want to wait. And I was 22 so I was full of piss and vinegar, and didn’t know I couldn’t do things yet. So I said, “Thirty days is for wimps. I’m gonna do it in ten.”

Kelton Reid: Wow.

Catherynne Valente: And I did. Which seems fully insane to me now. Between tarot readings I would pull out my laptop, my little, tiny laptop, and work on this book. And of course I hadn’t even thought about publishing it. I just wanted to see if it was something I could do. I submitted it to a few independent publishers, I knew it was too weird for a big New York publisher, and didn’t really get any … I got a lot of rejections saying, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever read, and we’re definitely not publishing it.” So, at 22, I didn’t really know what to do with that. So I gave up for a while and just put it away.

And then I was living in Japan, my then husband, ex-husband, was a naval officer, and I started a LiveJournal. One of the people that I got to know on LiveJournal was Nick Mamatas, and he had just published his first book, so I left a comment on his LiveJournal asking who I should be submitting to, not asking him to look at my work or anything, just, Who’s out there that likes to publish weird stuff? He gave me a list and I said, “Yeah, they’ve all rejected me. Except for Prime Books and they’re not open to submission.”

He said, “No, they are. They just don’t want to read slush. So send me your book, and if I like it, I’ll send it on.” And I did, and he did. And I actually got an email from Jeff VanderMeer saying, “They’re going to publish your book. I want to write the introduction. So when they email you to tell you they’re going to publish your book, tell them you want me to write the introduction.” So that was sort of how that first book happened. It was all very much out of the blue.

My second book, which I also published with Prime Books, was for the Blue Lake 3-Day Novel competition, in which you’re supposed to write a novel in three days, which is really a misnomer, because it’s supposed to be 30,000 words, which is not a novel by anybody’s definition. The prize for that contest is a publishing contract. I did not win that prize, but Prime published that second book. And then I gave them a manuscript, and, in an act of great magnanimousness, my editor said, “This is much more commercial than anything else you’re writing and I’m going to send it to my friend at Bantam.” Bantam Spectra.

And that was the manuscript that became The Orphan’s Tales. Bantam Spectra took a year and a half to get back to me. They said, “We really like it, but we want to see the second book in the series. Which should be fine, because your editor says it’s almost done.” I had not begun this book. I don’t know where my editor got that idea. So my last four months in Japan, as I was preparing a transpacific move, was me trying so hard to finish this book. Just about setting foot back in America, I got an offer from Bantam, and that was my first big New York book. That’s sort of how it all got started back in the early 2000s.

Kelton Reid: Geez, and that’s not even that long ago, but …

Catherynne Valente: No, I mean, it is and it isn’t. It feels like a lot longer ago than it is, and it doesn’t in a very strange way. Time is weird once you get older.

The Story Behind Her Four-Month Circus Book Tour and the Birth of a Viral Bestseller

Kelton Reid: Sure, it have a hyperbolic effect at times, when you think of it like that. But, you’ve won or been nominated for every major award in your field, which means you’ve written across these different genres, primarily Fairyland novels, which you’re very well known for. You’ve got all these other fantastic speculative pieces, and you’ve published in multiple award-winning publications.

You’ve just done so much, so the prolific nature of it is that it seems like you’re working all the time, or writing all the time. Or that may be just my impression, looking at your resume and all the stuff you’ve done. But anyway, the crowdfunded phenomenon, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, is fascinating to me, because it started on LiveJournal, you mentioned LiveJournal, and you crowdfunded it and it became this New York Times Bestselling book, that then Neil Gaiman blurbed. Can you talk a little about that?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, so I had been going on with Bantam Spectra for another book after The Orphan’s Tales, and unfortunately six weeks before that book was supposed to come out, it’s called Black Wednesday in publishing, the 2008 crash had happened and half of publishing in New York was laid off. So my editor called me and said she had been laid off.

It actually turned out that Bantam Spectra ceased to exist that day. It was reorganized back into Random House. And so there was nobody there to pick up the phones. We knew, because you kinda get three strikes in New York. You have three books that fail, you’re gonna have a real hard time breaking in again. And The Orphan’s Tales hadn’t failed. It won a lot of awards and was very critically acclaimed, but it hadn’t had stellar sales.

So we had a very strong feeling that if Palimpsest, which was the next book, failed, that was it. So I and my partner and a dear, dear friend of mine named S.J Tucker, who’s a singer-songwriter, decided to make it as much of a success as we could, with knowing that there was one person sitting in a secretarial desk at my publisher s. And there was just nobody to do the work. We got a blurb from Warren Ellis and there was just nobody in the office to tell them to put that on the cover of the book. That’s what happened to publishing during this time, and nobody could sell a book. Unless you were already this massive bestseller, there was no way you could sell a book at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009.

So we toured from Maine to Los Angeles for four months, selling this book out of the back of S.J’s tour van. We had all these reading concerts. S.J did an album based on Palimpsest, and she would sing and I would read. We picked up performers everywhere. It was the circus. And everywhere we went, people kept asking me about this one part of Palimpsest, because the main character in that book, her favorite novel from when she was a little girl was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It was not real. It was just meant to be a little character piece in Palimpsest. Which is a very adult book, by the way, with a capital A and three Xs. And the first paragraph from Fairyland is in Palimpsest and nothing else.

But, as part of trying to do everything we could for this book, we made an alternate reality game, and one of the easter eggs was an Amazon order page for Fairyland, or of a cover that I had mocked up out of an Arthur Rackham drawing and everything. And so people were like, “They’re all out of stock on Amazon. Where do I get a copy of this?” I m like, “Well, you’ll notice the url still says This is just something we post-modern kids do from time to time.” But people just kept asking where they could get it.

And when I got home my partner had been laid off from two jobs, or got laid off from two jobs within six weeks of each other. And we had just moved to Maine not even six months before, and didn’t really have the money to move again to a better job. And so I was like, “Alright, well I’m gonna do a serialized novel then, on my website. And I’ll just put up a little donation button, and hopefully we can pay our rent and get some groceries this month.”

And I went through my notes while I was looking for something that I didn’t think I would lose anything if I published it myself. Because back then, Kickstarter hadn’t started up yet, or if it had, it would have just started. Kindle was only just beginning to be a thing. There’s very much a feeling that if you self publish something, you were giving up the possibility of a big publisher. So I thought, “Well, nobody would ever publish a children’s book that was so connected to an adult book with a capital A and three Xs. So I’m not losing anything if I do Fairyland. And everybody wants to read Fairyland. I’ve been hearing about it for months now.” So I did.

Her Love of Performance

Catherynne Valente: Every Monday I posted a chapter of Fairyland and I recorded myself reading it, which actually turned out to be … I did it because I love to read out loud and I’m good at it, I was an actress most of my life, but it turns out that I have a lot of vision impaired readers who, for the first time, could take part in this viral thing, because they could listen to it. And I had a little donation button that said, “Give whatever you think the book is worth. If you don’t think it’s worth anything, don’t worry about it. If you don’t have any money, don’t worry about it, just enjoy it.”

And it went viral within twenty four hours. Boing Boing was doing pieces on it, and io9 and Neil Gaiman linked to it. And it just became this huge thing that saved us, in a very very real and tangible way. I remember being at a convention right after it really hit, and somebody in the audience asked, “Well, you realize you can’t go back and change anything, because you’ve already posted it online.” And I said, “Oh, s***.” It had never occurred to me that that was gonna be a problem. I kept a couple weeks ahead of the posting schedule, but again, much like writing The Labyrinth in ten days instead of thirty, I just ran ahead with something without knowing that I couldn’t do it and it worked out incredibly well.

It won this Web Fiction of the Decade Award, up against Girl Genius and Dr. Horrible and XKCD and all of these things which are far more well known than me, even in the organization that runs that, even in their roundup, they’re like, “We don’t understand what happened. We don’t know what this is, but apparently you do.” And it won the Andre Norton Award long before it, a year before, it ever came out in print, which is administered with the Nebula Awards for YA. Before it finished posting online, my agent found an amazing publisher for it, Feiwel and Friends, And it debuted at number eight on the New York Times list.

It’s genuine magic. I still don’t really have … People ask me all the time how to do what I did, and the answer is, “I don’t even know if I could do what I did.” It was just a perfect storm of people feeling helpless and wanting to help, of me having a lot of cred from having published traditionally for so long, and a lot of adult readers who had never been able to share my work with their kids, and hopefully the quality of the work, and just who picked it up and ran with it. A lot of things had to come together to make it happen, and it was incredible.

Kelton Reid: Wow, wow. It’s surely an inspiring story, to say the least. You’ve got this fan community that is dedicated, a large online following, in addition to everything you have out in the world. So, is the best place to find all of your works at your website, then?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, Catherynne is spelled funny.

Kelton Reid: It’s a great spelling.

Catherynne Valente: Thank you. And I’m very active on Twitter at @CatValente.

Kelton Reid: I’ll link to that. I’ll link to both. And of course, you’ve got a more recent development that’s not technically publishing, but it is a Patreon project that you just started up. It sounds like The Mad Fiction Laboratory, which you’re offering advice on the craft and business of writing there, which is really cool to see. So I’ll link to that as well. Did you want to say anything about that?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, so we’ve just started this. This is, like, the third day that it’s existed. And basically, it’s every month, I will be, for subscribers, patrons, I will be putting out an essay, as you say, about the craft and business of writing. But a funny one that makes it entertaining. Important to note, because a lot of those things are just so dry.

I remember when I was first starting out just reading endless, endless articles about how to write a hit book and how to get an agent and how to write a good sentence. And most of them, like the best you could hope for, is if it was written in a very serious inspirational tone. And I would often feel exhausted after reading it, like, “Oh, I really want to be a writer, but oh man. I just feel so much pressure from ” Even the inspirational stuff just made me feel like failing at being what that person wanted me to be.

So I wanted to write these essays that are very funny and lighthearted that still give that information and a little more motivational oomph. But also, patrons will be able to get excerpts of whatever I’m working on that month. So for example, I just released on the feed today, the first chapter of a book I’m working on that’s so secret, it hasn’t even been announced yet, and I can’t even tell you the title. The patrons know the title now and they can see the first chapter.

Kelton Reid: Oh, that’s cool.

Catherynne Valente: We haven’t even told anyone it exists yet. So a lot of really exclusive material will be available through the Patreon, as well as teaching people what I have learned after 13 years in the industry. So it’s a little bit of me, it’s a little bit of everyone else, and hopefully we can make mad science together.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I’m kind of imagining it being like the opposite of the James Patterson Teaches Writing MasterClass where he looks so serious and like, you know, these closeups of his forehead and …

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, no, I’ll have bangs so you don’t see any of my forehead. But, I mean, writing is a serious business and it can be incredibly stressful, so I think that making it a fun as possible is the way to get things done. Because if you feel great pressure of creating literature for the ages, and then running a small business, which is what writing is. It’s really hard to come home from work at the end of the day and start up that mountain.

Previews of Her Three Wildly Different Upcoming Projects

Kelton Reid: For sure, for sure. Well, that’s great. We’ll definitely link to that and point listeners at that one. So you hinted at some secret stuff coming up, but I understand that you have three books coming out this year.

Catherynne Valente: I do. They could not be more different, either. So in June, June 7th, The Refrigerator Monologues is coming out. Which is, I like to describe it as, “The vagina monologues for super heroes’ girlfriends.” So it basically takes these tropes of the girl in a refrigerator, which was coined by Gail Simone to describe all of these women in superhero comics who are murdered or maimed and raped and driven crazy and lose their powers, in order to further the plot line of the male hero, rather than that being important because it happened to them.

So because I don’t have the right to Gwen Stacy or Harley Quinn or, you know, any of the characters that had this happen to them in comics, I had to just go ahead and create a completely cohesive, superhero cinematic universe of my own. No problem. And so, if you are a big comic book fan, you will have a thousand Easter eggs in this book and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about, and if you’re not, they all stand alone. There’s a beautiful comic for each section done by Annie Wu, who’s an amazing comic artist, and I’m so, so excited for it. It’s so different than anything else I’ve ever done. I think I’ve dropped more F-bombs than I ever have in a book before. So I really hope people like that.

I also have Mass Effect: Annihilation coming out. I have done a Mass Effect tie in book for the new game, Andromeda, that’s coming out in March. The book’s not coming out in March. The book’s coming out later in the year. And The Glass Town Game is coming out September 5th, which is my next middle grade book. And that one I describe as the Brontë children go to Narnia, Charlotte Brontë and Emily Brontë, Ann Brontë, and their brother Branwell.

When they were little kids, before they became these famous writers, when they were little kids they were just like any other geeky kids that you know now, and they made this fantasy world that they kind of LARPed, RPGed. They created this world that’s build out of a child’s understanding of British politics and the Napoleonic Wars and Yorkshire fairytales and all of this crazy stuff. And they wrote in world magazines that were published by their characters. It’s incredible. We still have a great deal of it. And there’s just so much there. The idea of The Glass Town Game, Glass Town is the name of this world, is that they actually went there, that it’s a real place that they actually visited as children. That’ll be coming out in September.

Kelton Reid: I love that. So you haven’t been very busy.

Catherynne Valente: No, not at all, no. Mostly just sitting back and eating chips.

The Umbrella Cover Museum that Doubles as Her Office

Kelton Reid: All right, well I’m sure that listeners are eager to hear about your day to day productivity. So how much time, per day, are you getting ready to get into the mode or researching stuff before you start to write?

Catherynne Valente: It really depends on whether I’m on deadline or not. I’m on a pretty tight deadline right now, so I will say it does take me quite a while to sort of get into the space. I live on a spooky island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. So I have my house, but my house is filled with animals and a partner and a million distractions. So there’s this place, I’m pointing, you can’t see ’cause it’s a podcast, that I’m pointing towards it, out my window, but down by the waterfront on the island is this little tiny building which, during the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, is an Umbrella Cover Museum, or The Umbrella Cover Museum. It’s a museum for the little sacks that your umbrellas come in that you lose immediately and they all end up here in Maine.

But she doesn’t live here. She just lives here in the summer, so for the rest of the year it’s my office. So I go down there, and usually I go down to my office and I spend at least an hour making myself coffee, poking around in my notes, posting to Twitter, and then I sort of ease into work. So it usually takes me an hour or so to get into the right space. On a deadline I’ll be down there every day. But when I don’t have a severe deadline, it’s pretty important for me, in my creative process, to have fallow periods where I’m not pumping out word counts everyday. So, I need to be reading other people’s books, I need to be watching new shows and movies and things like that. I never know how that kind of stuff is gonna feed in.

That super secret project I was talking about, I ended up binge watching a bunch of British comedy panel shows, and it actually ended up helping me get into the right voice for this project in a huge way without ever meaning to. I just really like British panel comedy shows. And all that stuff is really important, so I don’t take the dictum of, “You must write every day,” completely seriously. For a creative mind, especially if you’re somebody who works on a lot of projects at once, like I do, I think that the time that you’re not working can be as valuable, as far as getting the juices flowing, as the time that you are working.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, for sure. That creative process obviously involves those important steps of putting information out Putting information in, excuse me, the preparation and incubation phase, and then you kinda have the elimination and you sit down and you spit it out.

Catherynne Valente: You are what you eat.

Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for joining us for this half of a tour of the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts to help other writers find us. And for more episodes or just to leave a comment or a question you can always drop by WriterFiles.FM and chat with me on Twitter at @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.