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May 23, 2017

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

In Part Two of this file 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.

If you missed the first half you can find it right here.

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

  • Her love of Spotify playlists for writing inspiration
  • Why the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect
  • Her organizational hack for Scrivener writers
  • Why your personal creative outlet is important for your sanity
  • Where the author keeps her three Oxford English Dictionaries and 24 tarot decks
  • Why writers need to read everything

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 Two

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Kelton Reid: Hey, hey. Welcome back to the Writer Files. I am still your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats and brains of renowned writers. In part two of this file, the prolific, multiple award winning New York Times bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente, took a break from 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 first novel, Labyrinth, published in 2004, the hybrid author has gone on to pen over 24 volumes of both fiction and poetry across multiple genres. 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’s perhaps best known for her crowd-funded 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 the 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. 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 two of this file, Cat and I discuss her love of Spotify playlists for writing inspiration, why the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, her organizational hacks for Scrivener writers, why your personal creative outlet is important for your sanity, where the author keeps her three Oxford dictionaries and 24 tarot card decks, and why writers need to read everything. And if you missed the first half of this show, you can find it in the archives on Apple Podcasts and on WriterFiles.FM, as well as in the show notes.

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.

Her Love of Spotify Playlists for Writing Inspiration

Kelton Reid: Input often equals output for highly prolific writers like yourself. Yeah, so it sounds like coffee is one of the things that kinda gets you in the mode before you sit down. Do you stick on headphones, or do you just kinda prefer silence?

Catherynne Valente: Funny thing, I’ve changed a lot over the years. Because I used to write a lot in cafes, and I had my headphones on, and I always had to have 100 percent of my music library available on my laptop, to the detriment of any other storage on my laptop. But, then I would be in the office, I’d have to have music on, I d have to have playlists. And boy, these days, I can’t stand having headphones on when I work, because it makes my head feel compressed, like wrapped up in cotton. And I will go from either total silence … I do make a Spotify playlist for every book that I work on.

Kelton Reid: Oh, nice.

Catherynne Valente: Yeah. And basically what I do is, I search for keywords having to do with the story and then just dump all the music into a file, and as I work, I’ll remove things if they’re terrible. So for the Bronte book, I put Charlotte and Emily into Spotify, and every song that had those names in it, I put in … and Jane for Jane Eyre, things like that, I put into a file. And for the Mass Effect book, I just pulled all my favorite video game soundtracks into a playlist. So I’ll either listen to that or nothing, these days. I have to have a lot more peace around me. I used to be able to write with people in a Starbucks milling about all the time, that time is done.

Kelton Reid: For sure. Spotify has come a long way too, in recent years.

Catherynne Valente: It really has.

Why the First Draft Doesn t have to be Perfect

Kelton Reid: They have some spooky algorithms that can kinda almost guess exactly what you want to hear next. Well okay, so here’s the million-dollar question: How do you feel about writer’s block? Do you believe in it, is it a thing, have you ever had it?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, sure. Not being able to think of something is always a real thing. I tend to try and work on something else if I can’t figure out what to do. Writer’s block for me is more, I can’t figure out what the right plot point to do next is. So while I’m thinking of what to do next, I will either work on another project or go running or something.

As far as just not being able to write at all, I’m not gonna say that doesn’t still happen to me, because it does. But I no longer really have the luxury of indulging that for more than a day or two, because I have a number of people relying on me turning in a manuscript. So, “You’ll get in trouble if you don’t do this,” is a great motivator.

I used to be really focused on having the first draft be completely perfect. And I think I had a lot less problems when I let that go and started thinking, “You can fix it in post,” the way you can fix something in post-production in a movie. That’s what I always tell myself, You can fix it in post. The first draft does not have to be a work that inspires feelings of awe in people. It can have problems, and those problems can be fixed. So that’s helpful. I mean, I still try to make the first draft as good as I can make it, but I don’t necessarily refuse to go onto the next page until everything before it is right, anymore.

Kelton Reid: I love that. Fix it in post. So it sounds like you are a Mac user?

Catherynne Valente: I am, yeah. I am. Down in my office I have this … I love the computer I have even though it’s old, because it has a great story. So it s a 2008 all-in-one Mac desktop. I got it, because I posted, “Does anybody have a Mac desktop that they want to sell? Can’t afford to get one of the big schmancy new ones, but if somebody has one reasonably priced, I’m interested.” And Smith College, the librarians at Smith College emailed me and said, “We will trade you, we’re getting rid of all our library computers and replacing them, we will trade you one for a complete set of your books signed,” and I was like, Absolutely sold. No problem.

Kelton Reid: Wow. That is so cool.

Catherynne Valente: So my computer is from the library at Smith College. I do love it, and I have an Air laptop. Honestly, I travel so much that the lightness of the Air is really crucial. When I used to have an older, heavier laptop, I constantly had shoulder problems from carrying it everywhere. But I am a Mac user. I don’t know how much longer, given the changes they’re making, but for the moment. My gaming computer is a PC.

Kelton Reid: Well, are you primarily Microsoft Word, or are you more of the Scrivener school?

Catherynne Valente: I am all Scrivener, all the time. I am a Scrivener evangelist. I could not function without it. They better not ever stop supporting that program, or I’ll be in trouble. No, I love Scrivener. That was actually why I switched to Mac in the first place. All of my friends were talking about Scrivener at the time, they didn’t have a PC version, so I switched over to Mac to use that program. It’s great.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Catherynne Valente: It’s just spectacular.

Her Organizational Hack for Scrivener Writers

Kelton Reid: Yeah. And for the self publishing piece, obviously that’s a huge advantage to Scrivener, obviously. That’s cool to hear. You’re working on multiple projects across multiple genres, you’re doing the productive procrastination thing, where you’re just moving from piece to piece. When you get stuck on one, you move to the other. So how do you stay organized? Do you have any tips?

Catherynne Valente: Very poorly. I am not a particularly organized person, so I’m pretty bad with that from time to time. But I will say that one of the things I use Scrivener for, if I have anything that’s a hack, this is my hack. At the beginning of every year I start up a new Scrivener file, and all of the short stories, talks, poems, essays that I write for that year, I do in that one Scrivener file, and they’ll appear in the sidebar as chapters in folders, but the folders will say “short fiction,” essays, poetry.

So I can see at a glance, everything I have to do this year and everything I have done with the year. Which helps me think of the year as a unit and helps me be able to tell anybody what I have due or what I have eligible for awards or anything like that. So that is one of the big things I use Scrivener for as an organizational tool.

Kelton Reid: Very nice, very nice. Well, how does Catherynne M. Valente unwind at the end of a long writing day?

Catherynne Valente: Usually I’ll come home and have a cocktail and watch something and knit or crochet. I’m a big fiber arts crafter. So it’s very meditative, knitting and crocheting. I used to spin as well, but between a novel deadline and spinning yarn for Christmas presents, I developed carpal tunnel really badly a couple years ago.

I’m the first person to hurt themselves on a spinning wheel since Sleeping Beauty, it’s ridiculous. So unfortunately, because that was actually incredibly debilitating, I’ve been afraid to pick up spinning again. But it’s very meditative, doing these sort of crafts. My brain just keeps going and going, so it’s kinda bad for me to work late at night, though I still do sometimes, because I won’t be able to sleep for like four hours after I stop writing, because my brain just keeps on going.

Kelton Reid: Well, I’d love to pick your brain about creativity a little bit if you have time.

Catherynne Valente: Sure, yeah.

Why Your Personal Creative Outlet is Important for Your Sanity

Kelton Reid: How do you personally define creativity?

Catherynne Valente: I think if you’re making things, whatever those things are, you’re being creative. But the thing is, even if you’re not making things, even if you’re just an avid reader, and just always imagining and thinking about the stories that you read, that’s creative too. I think we are creative beings. There are very few humans who aren’t creative in some way. It’s just that in our culture, we define creativity in restrictive ways, I do it professionally, so I’m a creative.

But a housewife who is always making these perfect birthday cakes, or making crafts for her kid’s party, that doesn’t count as creative to most people even though it absolutely is. I think that most human beings actually would freak out if they didn’t have some creative outlet. For a lot of people, that’s even sports. The people who paint their faces and go to all these games, sports are a big part of their world, they turn that into a creative exercise. I think most people get very, very unhappy if they can’t make something out of their own head into something real in the real world.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. It seems like your writing is the definition of creativity. But when do you personally feel most creative?

Catherynne Valente: Right before I start a new project, I think, because I haven’t messed it up yet. It’s just perfect in my head, I haven’t messed it up by writing it. Because a lot of research and thinking and imagining goes into it before I start typing, so I feel very creative when I’m in the midst of research and discovering things and naming characters and places and all of that I really love. I cook a lot as well, so that’s definitely another creative outlet for me. I’m an avid cook, have been for most of my life.

Kelton Reid: So do you feel like cooking is a creative muse for you?

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, definitely. And it’s very different than writing, because it’s nonverbal and very sensual in the literal sense of involving all your senses, and physical, bubbling and sense and everything. So it can really ground you, I think.

The Nougat Center of Human Experience

Kelton Reid: Yeah. That’s interesting. I’ve heard other writers say that as well. It helps balance the very cerebral writing piece. So what do you think, in your estimation, makes a writer great?

Catherynne Valente: An easy question. No, it’s not at all an easy question. Everybody has different writers that they think are great, so there’s obviously a wide range of answers on that. God, I’m gonna say it’s Emily Dickinson and I don’t know if it even really is. But I remember coming across a quote a long time ago by somebody who said that they felt as though a certain book had taken the top of their head off.

And that’s what I’m always looking for. I’m always looking for a book that completely arrests me and makes me feel like my head’s been spun around and taken off. I’m always questing for that, I’m always digging through books. I have this little button from a book festival that says, “Go ahead, book, change me. Do it.” I’m like, That’s what I’m always looking for, that’s what I always want.

And there are books that I feel that way about, and I may not even like anything else that that author has written. But then other people may like other books of theirs more than they do the one I love so much. Everybody is so different in terms of what they define greatness as. I myself, what am I looking for? I’m looking for nice language, and I don’t necessarily just mean nice as in pretty, but I will happily take good dialogue if that’s what’s there. I’m looking for a book that has something to say. I’m just looking for the juice, I’m looking for the nougat center of human experience dressed up with all of the wonderful trappings of genre.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. I like that. Everything in there is grist for the mill. Do you have a couple faves right now that are just kinda sitting on your nightstand or that you’re just kinda obsessed with? A couple favorite authors?

Catherynne Valente: Well, so last year I read Human Croquet, which is by Kate Atkinson, which sounds really messed up. Though it is a messed up book, less messed up than that title sounds. Human Croquet is apparently some type of Victorian party game, where people make themselves into hoops and somersault under each other and stuff like a kids’ party game. That book was so good, I read the entire thing on my phone. There’s a level of goodness in books, and read the whole thing on your phone is really high level. And I really loved it. I loved it to pieces.

I read a lot of nonfiction books last year that I really enjoyed. Weir, Alison Weir and her book Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, I really liked a lot. And I’m rereading the Dirk Gently books right now. I mean, Douglas Adams is frustrating, because you can’t really top him. You’re not gonna do better at making a sentence or starting a book or really much of anything than Douglas Adams. It s the same with Terry Pratchett. You can’t do better than that, you can just sit back and admire.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Well, you did share already one best loved quote. Do you have any others, or one that sticks out that’s hanging over your desk or stuck in your head?

Catherynne Valente: God, I don’t know what happened to it, I think I lost it when I moved, I used to have Jack Kerouac’s 29 Rules for Writing over my desk. Not anymore. But I’ve been reading some Dorothy Sayers lately. And she’s just incredible as far as quotes. If you want quotes about really pretty much anything, she is just extraordinary. She wrote around the same time as Agatha Christie, and the murder mysteries as well.

She’s got one that I sent to all my friends, it’s something like, “Nothing makes one feel so cozy as reading about a ghastly murder on a rainy day.” And I think that that’s so true when it comes to the horror genre, which is one of my favorite genres. There is such a peculiar pleasure to reading about terrible things happening when nothing terrible is happening to you. It’s some kind of circle of schadenfreude. It’s not what I think humankind should be most proud of as a species, but it’s definitely an instinct we don’t address that much.

I love quotations, I always have. I have several dictionaries with quotations in the house. My dad actually sent me a link the other day, apparently I have a page on BrainyQuote, and I felt complete. Because I used to be one of those kids that would walk around straight reading from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations like it was a novel.

Where the Author Keeps Her Three Oxford English Dictionaries and 24 Tarot Decks

Kelton Reid: Okay, before we wrap with advice to your fellow scribes, couple fun ones for you. I know that you have obviously an Oxford English dictionary, probably in the house.

Catherynne Valente: Three.

Kelton Reid: So you’ve got these ancient tomes of probably folklore and mythology, etc. that you dig into for inspiration. But you also mentioned reading an ebook on your phone. It sounds like you’re a hybrid reader, do you like one or the other?

Catherynne Valente: For sure. Definitely both, I have a ton of books in my house. Half the reason I bought this house was all the walls are built-in bookshelves, so I have more bookshelf than book for the first time in my life. But I also have a Kindle, I really enjoy reading things on the Kindle. I tend to do a lot of my research nonfiction reading on the Kindle right now, because I can search for stuff that I vaguely remember coming across but forgot to put a bookmark in it. That’s really helpful, so I tend to do all that on the Kindle if I can, unless there’s a book that’s no available.

But yeah, I definitely go back and forth. And with something like Human Croquet, I immediately bought a paper copy, because I loved it so much. If I love a book that I read on e-book I’ll get a paper copy. But I gotta say, I was very much like, “I will read print and nothing else forever. I gotta pay into the print publishing industry and put my money where my mouth is.”

But I have to say that it’s really nice to be able to carry around a library of thousands of books in a little compact package, because I do travel so much. So that’s really nice to have when you’re on the road so often. So yeah, I’m definitely both. Because I do feel like there’s a lot of times I could get into a book if I was reading it in the print copy but I skim if I’m reading it in the e-copy. So it really depends.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, no, I understand that sentiment completely. Do you have a favorite literary character of all time?

Catherynne Valente: I mean …

Kelton Reid: There’s no way you can do it.

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, there really isn’t. There’s so many. It’s impossible. I could go anything from Susan from the Discworld books to Dionysus to Scheherazade to Jane Eyre, there’s a lot of characters that I genuinely love and would listen to anything they had to say. It’s like saying, What’s your favorite movie? I have answers, but it’s a more complicated question than that.

Kelton Reid: Sure. I even hate the “name your top 10 movies” question.

Catherynne Valente: It has to be divided by genre.

Kelton Reid: Right. Okay. If you could choose one author from any era for an all-expense paid dinner to your favorite place in the world, who would you take and where would you take them?

Catherynne Valente: So given the book I have coming out in September, it has to be Charlotte Bronte. And I think that I would take her to, oh God, am I gonna get it right? It’s the Angel at Hetton, I think? It’s a restaurant in Yorkshire which was featured in a television show called The Trip, which is one of my very, very favorites. And it is a very high end, Michelin starred restaurant, in the sort of there’s nothing around it. The Angel Inn, the Angel at Hetton. Nothing around it but moors for miles, but some of the most amazing food I’ve ever had, it’s just wonderful. And since Charlotte grew up in Yorkshire and is in many ways the voice of Yorkshire, I think she would be delighted to see

Kelton Reid: For sure. All right, well, I’m sure we are running short of time, and I’ve asked you so many questions. But I have a feeling listeners are gonna want me to ask you do you have a writer’s fetish? Like, do you collect rare, weird first editions, or do you have, like I can’t imagine what you have hanging on the walls.

Catherynne Valente: I have a lot of crazy stuff hanging on my wall. Actually, I would say that 85 percent of the stuff I have on the wall is created by fans of mine.

Kelton Reid: Cool.

Catherynne Valente: Which is very much on purpose. I never thought I did, because I always wanted to have these elaborate rituals to start writing and all of these objects and all that kind of stuff, and I always felt like it’s less work to just write the book.

I even have a reputation for elegant, romantic writing, but I’m actually a very practical person in a lot of ways. But, it was pointed out to me when my partner moved in with me that, in fact, I have 28 tarot decks in this house.

Kelton Reid: Wow.

Catherynne Valente: And I’m reasonably sure there’s more he hasn’t found yet. So I think possibly I collect those without noticing that I was collecting them.

Kelton Reid: Wow, that’s cool. That’s very interesting. That’s an interesting piece. You have a very, very interesting take on different characters that you would meet over a deck of tarot cards.

Catherynne Valente: Yeah, absolutely.

Kelton Reid: Well, before we wrap up with advice to your fellow writers, I just want to point back to your website, which I will link to in the show notes. The Patreon Mad Fiction laboratory, which looks like a lot of fun, and I will point back to that as well. You are on Twitter.

Catherynne Valente: @catvalenti.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. There’s so much out there to find. Amazing writing, actually found the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy from 2016, you got this short story Planet Lion, which is the complete opposite of the Fairylands stuff.

Catherynne Valente: Yeah. It could not be more different.

Kelton Reid: So cool, so cool to see.

Catherynne Valente: That story’s what got me the Mass Effect contract.

Why Writers Need to Read Everything

Kelton Reid: Amazing. So much out there to find. So can you offer some advice to your fellow writers on just how to keep going, how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?

Catherynne Valente: For me the answer has always been the same, from when I was a kid to now, which is to read everything. I get so inspired reading fiction and nonfiction. I will read a page from a nonfiction book and like ghostwriting my other hand will have written a page of notes.

And it’s so intensely inspiring. And especially in these See, now I’ll be an old lady, In these days of social media … But we do, we read these very short outtakes of people’s thought processes and things like Twitter are functionally infinite quip generators. And it’s not quite the same fertile ground as fiction, whether you read that on an ebook reader, or in print, or whatever. And I think that nothing inspires so much as reading.

There was one of my English classrooms when I was a kid, had a sign on the wall that said, “In order to write a novel, one must turn over half a library.” And I think that’s incredibly true. One of the things I’m gonna talk about in Patreon that I feel like people don’t very much. Because people always talk about your first novel, but nobody wants to talk about your second.

The thing is, I think people always turn over a full library for their first novel, because everything they’ve ever wanted to write is in that first novel somewhere, they’ve crammed it all in. It’s like a first album, everything you’ve worked so hard on for years. But then you have to turn over another half a library for the next book. And you usually have to do it a lot faster than it took to turn over that library for the first book. Much like the second album slump. So you have to keep going through those libraries, you have to keep finding new and healthful foods to put into your brain. And for me, there’s nothing as inspiring as reading.

Kelton Reid: Ah, I love it. So much wisdom there and throughout. Thanks for taking the time, Cat, we really appreciate you coming on here to do this.

Catherynne Valente: Absolutely, thanks for having me.

Kelton Reid: Cheers. Thanks 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.