Rachel Caine. In Conversation With a Writing Powerhouse
Many creative writing courses use literary writing as an example of what to aim for in terms of writing quality. However genre authors are equally as capable of providing a very useful model for what makes a successful and well written story. Creating engaging characters and drawing you into their worlds is Rachel Caine’s hallmark.
But there is also another side to being a professional writer; one that many readers do not consider, because they only see the finished product. You have to be prepared to work very hard. The following interview, which Rachel kindly gave at 6:30 am, her time, demonstrates why she has such a remarkable output. When it comes to writing no one can ever accuse her of being complacent or unprofessional.
You had a very interesting start, before getting into your writing stride, because you had to go through quite a few reinventions until you were able to settle in to being Rachel Caine.
I started out as Roxanne Longstreet, which is my maiden name. I wrote mainly what I like to read, which was urban fantasy and is more adventure than horror, but it does have supernatural elements. So that’s where it was placed. At the time no one knew how to place the sort of writing that had supernatural elements in it. Was it in fiction or romance fiction? Turns out it was placed in horror.
So I had a lot of covers with red and black, but it wasn’t what people were looking for at the time, because the trend for horror was moving more towards the really gory, splatterpunk kind of thing, and I wasn’t writing that.
This meant that after about five books I had to start all over again. I had to find a new name, because my sales weren’t very good and my publisher wasn’t confident that I could reinvent myself with my original name, so I started again as Roxanne Conrad, because I was married by that time. I wrote two books. My agent said ‘You might want to try romantic suspense, because that seems to be more like what you’re writing.’ He was correct at the time, but again there was still no paranormal element to romantic suspense. I couldn’t resist dropping in paranormal elements, and when I did the readers used to think ‘That’s really weird’. So nobody knew what they were looking at.
I took a couple of years off. I knew the book I wanted to write called Ill Wind had no market at that time, but this was the first ‘Weather Warden’ novel. I decided I wanted to write it because I thought it was a cool story. I wrote it and sure enough, about that time there was a market forming for it because Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books had hit the popular market and Jim Butcher’s ‘Dresden’ series that started, just a few months before the ‘Weather Warden’ series did. So there was a groundswell of interest in that type of writing. Turned out I was writing what they now term as ‘urban fantasy’ or ‘contemporary fantasy’.
It was really pretty much what I had always been writing, but the market finally intersected with me, which is a lucky thing. It was really as much a matter of persistence as it was market research.
And then I had the opportunity to write young adult books. My first two adult books were actually vampire themed, something I still loved, and it just so happened that Twilight came out about six months before my young adult vampire series began. So again I very much benefited from the intersection of things that occurred.
How did you cope psychologically with having to reinvent yourself more than once?
I think, as a writer, you’re always trying to write something different and the hard part for me were the labels that were being put on my writing. It was a popular label at the time that I started writing, in that was called ‘slipstream’. Slipstream was the bucket they threw everything in that they didn’t know how to label. Nobody really knew what that was the time. That can be a strength, but it can also keep you from finding an audience if they don’t know where to find you on the shelves.
As far as the reinventing yourself goes, you just have to find what’s interesting and challenging to you, and let other people worry about the labelling. There are genre conventions, but usually if you’re writing in that genre you already know the expectations. But there’s a difference between doing something because it’s challenging, different and exciting, and doing it because you just think it’ll make you some money. Writing is my day job, but I don’t believe in writing things I don’t have a passion for, so I really don’t find myself writing things just for the pay cheque. I’m not saying I haven’t. I did it once and I regretted it. So I don’t do that anymore.
Do you think readers have become more flexible and not so worried about wondering exactly where a book fits, and they are more prepared to read a book just to see where it takes them? And do you think that being able to download part of the book as a sample might be quite a useful tool?
I do. As e-books have become more prevalent, it’s truly opened up a whole new readership, because those people really aren’t concerned with which section of the bookstore they’re going into. If there’s a good story and somebody points me to it, I don’t care if the spine says ‘romance’, ‘science fiction’ or ‘mysteries’, I’m going to read it. If the sample particularly appeals to me, I will read it.
Before e-books were so easily, available artificial barriers were set up in book stores. I had a lot of male readers tell me when I started writing the Red Letter Days series, which were romance novels, that it was a real challenge for them to get into it. They would tell me ‘I went and bought your romance novels. You should give me credit for that, because I had to walk to that section of the bookstore and stand there and look for it.’ They felt exposed and judged by browsing, which seems crazy, but is really perfectly understandable. Now they don’t have to worry about this, when they can just click on it in an e-book website, and nobody has to see the cover of what they’re buying. So I think it’s a marvellous thing to allow audiences to cross these conventional boundaries.
I do think there has been breaking down of the boundaries in genres, which are blending. You do have the supernatural appearing in mysteries. The supernatural has been a strong component of romance. Romantic elements are starting to creep into the science fiction and science fiction is creeping into the mystery, literary fields. It’s always been there, but it’s getting to be more prevalent now.
I don’t really look at it as genre fiction as such. I just think it’s writing and that at a certain point if your writing is good enough and if you’re using language well enough, it rises out of genre fiction into popular fiction, and you’re hitting a much bigger audience – like George R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones.
Literary fiction is a tougher nut to crack for a genre fiction author. But there are lots of people who’ve done it. There are a lot of science fiction authors who’ve been literary authors from day one. Catherine Valenti is very much a literary author, in the way that she uses language and words like poetry. What she does has this gorgeous dreamlike literary quality to it. Robert Sawyer is also very literary, and yet also very approachable from the science fiction side of the equation. Margaret Atwood is another writer who can easily cross over. I don’t think there’s a stigma in that, and I don’t think there should be a stigma. I enjoy all those shades of variation, the stories, the language, and I admire beautiful writing.
I’m not saying I can write like that, I’m an adventure writer and I always have been, so I understand what it is I do. But I do like to stretch myself. This is why I have a book coming out in February 2014, which is a story that’s set in Shakespeare’s Verona surrounding the events of Romeo and Juliet. That was entirely out of my comfort zone, but I’m glad I did it, because it was such a good experience.
As this is obviously a change of genre for you, how closely have you been working with your editor? And what sorts of insights did you gain by moving out of your usual genre?
I normally work with female point of view characters, and I have for a while. So coming into a male point of view character was a mental shift for me. It took a couple of iterations to get right. I really had to work on his voice, but that was before my editor ever saw it. I think where my editor really added value to it was later in the process, when she reviewed the entire novel. I think that once I realised I was rewriting Shakespeare, I got a kind of panic attack because I was suddenly thinking ‘Oh my God. I have to be more faithful to the Bard.’ So about the middle of the book I got a little too timid, and it became almost a transcription of Shakespeare instead of reinterpreting it. So my editor pointed out to me that I was getting a little too into the weeds and I needed to get out of it and find my own voice again.
I also employed a Shakespearean scholar to go through to double check the language and the history. That was very educational, because I didn’t know the term ‘romance’ wasn’t invented in Shakespeare’s time. So every time I was tempted to use the word ‘romance’, I had to find some synonym for it that was in use at the time.
You write about 500,000 words a year. This is a phenomenal amount of words. When you consider this, there are two arguments as to whether this is a good or bad thing. For example it could be said that ‘How can you possibly write quality writing if you’re writing so many words?’ On the other hand it may be a case that the more you write the better you get. What’s your opinion on this?
My training comes from music originally. So I liken a lot of things I do to music. When you start out as a musician, you’re rubbish, you’re awful. But this is quite normal, because not only is your brain learning to process the music, but your physical muscle memory is being built. So you are learning how to place your fingers on the keys, or how to control your breath, until it becomes simply automatic.
I think there’s a really large component of that that transfers across to writing. You create these pathways in your brain as you go along that helps you not have to think consciously about the structure of the sentence, or which words you’re going to use. There’s a certain amount of that becomes simple instinct. It’s not good to completely rely on those shortcuts, but it’s great in first draft, because you can write very quickly and you don’t have to agonise over every single word choice you use. I’m a great believer in a messy first draft, because once it’s on the page I can make it better. I can’t do anything to it unless it’s there to fix. I would get very bored if I followed the work ethic of some writers I know who polish every single page as they go. I’ve known people like that and they’re brilliant, but I just can’t work that way. I want to get the story out, because then I can switch off the creative part of my brain and switch on the editorial part, which automatically hates everything I just did creatively, and the tension between those two parts is what improves the work.
So I do think there’s a really valuable component in just the iteration of doing something. Certainly, after 40 books, I am not scared to sit down and say ‘Yes I have to write 10,000 words today.’ That’s not a paralysing thing to me, that’s normal life. I think what really freezes up some writers, especially on their second or third book, is that they begin to doubt themselves. After the initial success of doing it, they start to realise ‘Oh wow, I have to keep doing it.’ That can be terrifying. If you get past that point, it’s a little bit easier to deal with these ground swells of emotion that you get as a normal part of the writing life.
Why do you write so much?
The reason that I write so much was not a plan. I started out doing one book a year. As things picked up, that became two books a year. Then when I started doing the young adult books, it was going to be three. Because they were doing well the publisher stepped it up to two a year, but as I already had commitment to two adult novels for the year, that brought the total to four. It wasn’t that I planned it that way, it just happened. Success is a great motivator, I suppose! Ideally I would prefer it to be two books a year, because I do want to have that leisure time to really get back into the universe between projects. That’s part of the issue when you’re writing so fast in different universes. I was doing a minimum of three different universes each year. Two Morganville novels, and two different adult urban fantasy universes. Trying to remember where I was in a long series, with a vast cast of characters and all these rules I’d invented, was difficult, particularly as I normally had only one or two weeks between projects to get back into where I was going.
Sometimes I had to rely on my copy editor to catch things, for example she might say ‘You’ve killed that character two books ago.’ (Yes, that happened.) But I do have extensive notes and I also have searchable manuscripts, which is very helpful. So when I go back and start something, if I have questions I have about a character I can find everything I ever said about a particular character. For example, I’ll be able to quickly discover that the character’s got a grandmother called Irene and she went to a college in Evanston, etc, because you have to know all those things in order to write the character well. You may not use it all, but you have to know it all. I do it situationally, because some of the characters I have I know very well and others may just been one-offs, so I have to go back and look at exactly what I said about them. So yes, I have voluminous notes. I have notebooks full of information. Even then it’s hard to keep track. Doing 15 books in this series, I may not remember I put a gas station on the corner of 12th and Main ten books ago, but someone will.
How do you work? Are you able to just sit down anywhere and work, or do you need, a specific set up?
I can write anywhere, any time. For example, I’m now talking to you in a café in Chicago, and this is my office for the moment. I have my headphones and a laptop, because that’s my mental signal; once the headphones are on it creates a sort of Zen feedback for me where I’m in my own world, untouched by the external.
If I had to have physical requirements to enable me to write, I wouldn’t get half as much done, because I travel six months out of the year. I’m in Chicago for nine days, and if I couldn’t write while I’m on the road that would be nine days out of my schedule. Instead, in those nine days I have written one movie script, half of another movie script, a short story and I’m working on a proposal for a novel. That’s just in the last nine days. You’ve got to learn to use your time effectively. It’s like a lot of other jobs, where time management becomes very critical. If you’re writing four books a year, it’s all about time management, because it’s not just about writing four books. You’ve also got to edit, and proof those four books, as well as promoting them. You’re layering those tasks on top of each other pretty much at the same time. There’s never just one thing to do at a time, it’s always one thing plus a slice of other things. If you want to have any sleep, or any social life, it’s all about time management.
Your main three series are the ‘Weather Warden’, ‘Morganville’ and ‘The Revivalist’. In all this is a very large number of books, although ‘The Revivalist’ is only three book series. How do you prevent them all becoming the same?
That’s always a challenge, when you write long series. One of the keys, I think, is to write a universe that’s big enough in the first place, so that you can have a lot of characters coming and going, and have a big stage. If you have a very small stage, and a small cast of characters, you have a limited number of things you can do with them.
‘Morganville’ is interesting because it’s a town that’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s a big enough town to always find new characters to run into. You can also find new plots that are been simmering under the surface somewhere. I think of it as a sort of a ‘Broadchurch’ with vampires. So there are lots of dramas out there that we can explore.
The ‘Weather Warden’ series is writ large. It’s all about the external conflicts. So although the lead character Joanne Baldwin is there, the stories are largely about pitting the supernatural against the Earth, so it’s a big story. Because I had a lot of places I could take the readers, as well as the storyline having a lot of different challenges, I didn’t ever feel I was restricted by that in any way.
There isn’t quite as much scope if you’re writing about one person who has a very personal journey. This is why ‘The Revivalist’ series is only three. Even though it has a big overarching concept, it’s really about Bryn Davis’s journey. So it had to be done in a shorter story arc.
The three series have been written for slightly different age groups. Do you find that you are getting different audiences reading the different series, and are you losing any readers because of this?
You gain and lose readers all the time. I’ve learned not to stress about it, because some people will read absolutely everything I write, and some readers will only read certain series, because not all of them appeal to them. That’s perfectly fine. I don’t really want my young adult readership to cross over to some of my more adult material, because I think some of it is a little out there for them. I don’t feel totally comfortable with a 14-year-old reading ‘The Revivalist’ series, for instance. But at the same time I have to remind myself that I was reading Stephen King when I was 12.
I do think we all worry a little bit about whether we’re going to bring our readers with us to a new project. The answer is always no, we’re not. We may well pick up some new readers, which is great, and you may lose some old readers, which is not so great. But you as a writer always have to keep moving forward. If you are very lucky your readers will roll with you.
I do like to test myself, ‘The Revivalist’ series was a dark idea, and I went back to my original horror-author roots for a while. But I knew it was going to be a limited thing and I knew I was going to do something else completely different after it.
So I do like to experiment. I think it’s good authors have a brand, but I think a lot of people misinterpret that, thinking that the brand is a kind of thing they write. I believe that as the author, you are the brand. Yes, you are turning things out that are associated with your name, and if you’re lucky something will be wildly successful, so you will be associated totally with that. But as an author, what you have to do is establish yourself as a brand and have people willing to buy pretty much everything you write. That’s the goal.
Your lead characters are very determined women. Joanne Baldwin has supernatural powers and Bryn Davis has been in the army and yet, at times, they still get into trouble they can’t themselves out of.
That’s part of the fun of writing the kind of fiction I do, because in some ways this is very much hero fiction in disguise. If you look at a comic book, Batman has many strengths, but also some weaknesses, and the same thing with Superman. You have to look at how those kinds of characters are limited. I did look at this sort of writing, because when I started ‘The Weather Warden’ series it was pretty much a superhero story. Joanne has powers, considerable powers, but there are downsides to those powers. If she uses those powers what does it cost her and what does it cost other people? That was what made it human to me. That’s what made her human to me. She couldn’t always rely on her powers to get her out of trouble. In fact most of the time she couldn’t use them, because they would only dig a bigger hole.
For me, strong women are a real draw in fiction. Strong women are everywhere in real life, whether they’re the person that serving you lunch ( because that woman has a story, I guarantee you), or whether it’s the policewoman who has the outward presentation of being a strong woman. I think our job as authors is to try and bring forward strong characters in all aspects. I don’t have an axe to grind. I’m not trying to say I never read a book that doesn’t have a strong woman character, of course I do. In fact most literature of a certain era has that trope of women who are there for men to save them. But I like writing things where women are partners in saving not only themselves but also other people, because I think that’s more realistic to the way the world works.
Interestingly, I have had flak from time to time because, early on in ‘The Revivalist’, Bryn Davis loses a couple of fights. This is quite deliberate, because I know women who are in the military, and I know they can’t always win fights. They will fight, but they’re not going to win every fight they’re in. It depends who they’re against and how much preparation there is. It’s also true of men. Somebody’s got to lose. But my critics were really upset that I had Bryn lose fights. Of course she lost fights. You can’t have somebody who’s invulnerable as a character, because it’s not good storytelling. I believe that this was the right move to make, because Bryn could only grow stronger, and use the knowledge that she had (involuntarily) acquired. You cannot start a character from the point where they’re both brand-new and invulnerable, because you have nowhere to go.
What are your new projects over the next year?
I’m in an odd position, and it’s a result of something I’ve deliberately done. I’ve written myself out my contracts, so I’m currently uncommitted. I have nothing sold ahead, so I don’t really have anything planned immediately. Obviously I’ve got things that I’ve started writing that will be coming out through the first part of next year, but I have nothing after that planned just now.
Part of the reason for this is I wanted to make time in my schedule to work on the Morganville web series. This will be happening in the last part of this year and we are in preproduction right now. We are going to production in October/November. We’ll be doing postproduction and a lot of those promotional things, through the first part of the New Year. So that’s a big chunk of time I needed to have that wasn’t underwater with deadlines.
Apart from that, I am going to be working on some things that are an series idea that I’ve been kicking around for probably about 10 years. It’s quite complex, so I have to really think about how it works and the ramifications of it all, in terms of the story. I’ve been working on the universe for about a year, so I’m almost ready to propose it. I also want to try my hand at movie scripts, as I’m not doing anything else at the moment, in terms of deadlines. So is a good time to stretch my brain a different direction. I also have another novel that I’ve had on my radar for about 10 years that’s not supernatural, but it is a historical novel. So I probably will be seeing what I want to do with that. I may do that as a straight to e-book novel, because I don’t know that it really has a market. But I really feel passionate about it and I want to do it.
Do you think you will ever be to stop writing?
I could stop writing, but I don’t know why I’d want to. For me it’s become part of why I get up in the morning. I feel physically better, if I spend an hour writing in the morning. Even if I’m not writing anything particularly consequential, I just feel better taking control of my life like that and being the master of my own little pocket universe. After that I can deal with anything else that comes at me. I write mostly for myself, first and foremost always. The fact that I may not sell anything after a while doesn’t mean that I won’t be writing, because I just like to do it. I started writing when I was 14 and I haven’t been able to quit yet.
Your web project sounds like an interesting way to use the Internet in a creative way – do you think this is a direction film is heading?
I was inspired to look into web series by one of my friends, Felicia Day, who is something of a mogul in that industry; although we’d originally thought about doing Morganville as film or a traditional TV show, it’s a very tough sell in today’s market. It seemed to me that it was something that would lend itself to a web format – a long-running, already popular series of novels with a worldwide following. The challenge was the shorter nature of the episodes; generally, conventional wisdom is that they should be between 8 to 10 minutes long these days. So our first season will be around 48 to 50 minutes of content.
The funny thing is that it’s not that much different from a dramatic arc structure in television – you write in blocks, try to end in on tension for the next segment, and if you’re doing episodic stories, you need to have rising tension and a coherent throughline for the first season.
I tried to adhere relatively closely to events in the first novel Glass Houses, although of course for the sake of time and budget we couldn’t have all the characters and events included. But I think it’s pretty solid, and something fans of the books especially will truly enjoy (though it should appeal to people who’ve never heard of the books, I hope!).
I do believe that there is an evolution in the creative world away from ‘channels’ like TV, and into ‘content delivery’, which can be packaged in many different ways, and delivered in whatever format the consumer wants it. We are, as writers, content creators; the printed page has evolved now into electronic pages, and I think controlling your own content as it evolves into a visual medium is more possible now than ever before. But you still need to align yourself, as a writer, with people who are experts in whatever you’re doing. You cannot be everything and everywhere.
I love writing screenplays. I’ve done several over the past few years, mostly just as writing exercise; it’s very interesting how little it has in common with traditional prose. You really have to think logistically in a script, and your tools are quite limited. I’ve already said I love challenges, and screenplays are definitely challenging!
We’ll see what happens with all of this – it’s a new direction for me, but I’m not giving up the novels, either. I’ve always been about balancing acts, and this will require me to find a whole new balance point.