Highlights

  • Pursuing our dreams as writers.
  • The traditional publishing process.
  • The importance of writing weekly short stories to improve our writing craft.

This is my dream, and that I am lucky to have the opportunity to pursue it.

Welcome to the twelfth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.

In this episode, I chat with young adult writer Kristina Mahr about finding more time to write and growing her brand with her first book, ALL THAT WE SEE OR SEEM, coming out on May 15, 2018.   

Arthur: Your first book, “All That We See or Seem,” is coming out on May 15. Congratulations on your first book! What a great accomplishment! How did you just decide “I’m going to do this” and push through all the obstacles of writing a book?

Kristina: Thank you so much! Honestly, it was years in the making. My New Year’s resolution had been “write a book,” or “try to write a book,” or some variation of that with increasing frustration with myself since college. I would chip away at an adult contemporary novel that lived in my head, but I was very sporadic and inconsistent with my writing time. Until my sister had a dream one night about a girl who falls in love with a boy she meets in her dreams, and I couldn’t shake it. I have been an avid Young Adult reader for years, and this felt like my chance to explore writing that genre.

Still, it was a couple years before I really sat down and dedicated myself to it. I got accepted to the inaugural Aspiring Writers Workshop with Maggie Stiefvater, put together by Madcap Retreats, by submitting the first chapter of All That We See or Seem as a writing sample, and I resolved to finish my first draft of the book before going. So I really hunkered down and FINALLY truly focused. I think I finished the first draft about a week before the retreat.

Then, once I went to the retreat, I learned SO MUCH. My brain was bursting at the seams with all of this writing knowledge. I knew I could write the book so much better after everything I had learned, so I went home and rewrote it in three months.

The authors at the retreat (Maggie Stiefvater! Victoria Schwab! Tessa Gratton! Natalie Parker! And so many more.) were so relatable and helpful, and they made what had always seemed like a pipedream to me suddenly feel reachable. I really credit that retreat with my dedication to the pursuit of writing novels.

Arthur: Did you ever have a moment where you were discouraged? What did you do to keep yourself writing?

Kristina: Oh, yes. I always say that the beginning is easy, because the idea is so bright and shiny and you’re so excited about writing it, and the end is easy, because it’s the culmination of the story and you can see the finish line, but the middle. Oh, the middle. It can be a slog. The bright-and-shininess fades, and it becomes work. Setting up dominos carefully because if you don’t, they won’t fall the right way and you won’t be able to pull off the ending you’re working toward.

To keep myself going during those tough parts, it really helps to remind myself why I’m writing the story. That this is my dream, and that I am lucky to have the opportunity to pursue it. I also usually step back at this point and make a plot map. I love plot maps. They provide a great visual. I keep mine in the main room of my house, where I see it all the time and visualize the scenes and turn them over in my mind. It helps me get excited about upcoming scenes.

Arthur: You have your author website, a separate short stories website with a collaborator, and an Instagram account with your “It’s Only Words” concept – which I think is a great idea. Are these three sites all run by yourself?

Kristina: Thank you, yes! The short story collaboration project has unfortunately taken a backseat because of the novel-writing, but my writing partner and I hope to dive back into it in the near future because it has been a wonderful exercise for us as writers. But I do keep active on my author website and my Instagram project, “It’s Only Words.”

There is nothing better than hearing from someone that something I wrote touched them in some way.

Arthur: How do you balance it all? Self-promotion, writing, twittering, reading, and all the other activities associated with being a writer?

Kristina: Luckily, I enjoy it all! It never feels like a chore. When I think back on times I used to be bored, I roll my eyes at my past self. Now, I’m never bored. I enjoy and value free time to lounge around and marathon a Netflix show, but I always have something I can be doing. Working on a deadline has been a newer experience for me, and it certainly changed the game. But I still know myself and what I require to be productive. I try to schedule out my week every Sunday. Writing evenings, reading evenings, time with my friends and family. I make sure that there’s a healthy balance, because otherwise, I’ll be burnt out and cranky.

Arthur: Have you had success with the “It’s Only Wordsidea? Is this also part of your own “self-promotion” strategy?

Kristina: Honestly, “It’s Only Words” started as a way to process things going on in my life. Writing helps me sort through my thoughts and emotions. But at the same time, I love reading poetry and finding something I can relate to, so I decided to put my own writing out there, in case someone else related. Some of the messages I have received in response have reaffirmed this for me. There is nothing better than hearing from someone that something I wrote touched them in some way.

It has also become a writing exercise for me. At least once a day, but usually more like twice, I deep-dive into my thoughts and feelings and pull out words and metaphors and play with different ideas and combinations of words. More than once, I have stumbled upon a metaphor or phrase that made it into a short story or novel.

I don’t devote nearly enough time to gathering followers and truly using it as a method of self-promotion, but one of my goals for this year is to do so.

Arthur: You’re publishing your first book traditionally. Is there any self-promotion involved as part of being published by a publisher?

Kristina: Yes, definitely. All That We See or Seem and its sequel are being published by a small press, so there isn’t quite the marketing power you might get from one of the bigger publishers. Self-promotion is a necessary part, and luckily, I am also surrounded by such supportive people who have really spread the word and helped promote my book.

I recommend that everyone who is actively querying also be actively writing. Work on your next project. Keep busy. Don’t absorb the rejections, because they will weigh you down. It truly is not personal.

Arthur: What can you tell me about the traditional publishing process? How did you get connected with them? Do you have an agent and how did you meet them? Was there a pile of rejection letters before you finally were published? Did you consider self-publishing?

Kristina: I got the attention of my publisher through a Twitter pitch party called #PitMad. Basically, on designated days, editors and literary agents sort through pitches on Twitter and “favorite” any pitch that catches their eye, signaling you to send them a query or writing sample, whatever they specify.

I was in the querying trenches for about ten months before catching their eye. I have more than enough rejection letters to wallpaper the lower level of my house. (I haven’t calculated this at all, but I really feel like it’s accurate.) I got fourteen manuscript requests over those ten months, but eventually, for one reason or another, they elected to pass. It is a truly difficult part of the process, and I recommend that anyone who is actively querying also actively be writing. Work on your next project. Keep busy. Don’t absorb the rejections, because they will weigh you down. It truly is not personal. (I still constantly need to remind myself of this!)

I never really considered self-publishing. I love writing books, but I don’t think any other part of the process of self-publishing would be for me. I am very, very glad to leave the logistics of distribution and all of that to my publisher!

Arthur: Did you have to prepare a “pitch” when trying to market your manuscript?

Kristina: Yes, the art of pitching a novel was one of the focuses at the Madcap Retreat I attended, and it has proven quite handy. For #PitMad, I had to get that pitch down to 140 characters, but it worked!

Arthur: Your short story “To Die Will Be an Awfully Big Adventure” was incredible. I was even a bit emotional while reading as I was completely pulled into the story, picturing myself in the protagonists view and having to go through what she was going through. And the writing itself is very well done, as is your writing in your other short stories. Would you contribute this to your experience “Mapcap Retreats Aspiring Writers Workshop?” Are there specific things you changed in your writing that you learned from the workshop?

Kristina: Thank you so much! I appreciate the kind compliment.

I would say that I really found my voice as a writer through short stories. I call them writing playgrounds. You get to play with concepts and ideas over a shorter span than a novel, and we were writing them so frequently that I kind of fell into my writing style, settled into my writer skin. I found my rhythm. And because I learned about the power of short story writing at the Madcap Retreat, I would say credit lies there!

If anyone is looking to hone their craft and find their voice, I really recommend writing a short story a week. It takes time and energy, but its impact is huge.

I can’t even really quantify everything I learned at the retreat. World-building, crafting character arcs, different revision tactics… I still refer to my workbook every now and then! I cannot recommend it enough, either that specific retreat or finding another one that suits your own schedule/needs. As a bonus, it was the first experience in my life when I have been in a room full of fellow writers. I made friends there who have since become an invaluable part of my writing support system.

If anyone is looking to hone their craft and find their voice, I really recommend writing a short story a week. It takes time and energy, but its impact is huge.

Arthur: I understand that writing is not your full-time job. In these interviews, I’m seeking to understand how writers make more time for writing and increase their productivity when writing is not their full-time job. When you started writing your book, what was your writing schedule?

Kristina: I work full-time as an accountant, so my head lives in numbers much of the day. It is wonderful to get to go home and switch gears into the world of words. When I first started writing, I was very inconsistent. I would write voraciously one night, pouring thousands of words out, and then not write again for a week or more. I am not that way anymore, that’s for sure. I still do not write daily, but now I schedule out at least 2 or 3 weeknights devoted to writing, and a good chunk of the weekend. I do give myself time between work and writing, though. At least an hour or two to unwind from work and let my eyes not be on a computer screen.

Arthur: I also want to discover how writers focus during their writing sessions. Reading your blog, you talk about the mechanics of your writing sessions with your co-writer for your short stories project, Jenna. How do you maintain focus during these writing sessions? Put your phone on silent? Do you have a quiet space you work in? Listen to music or no music? Do you have tips for other writers to maintain their focus when writing?

Kristina: The sequel to All That We See or Seem could only be dedicated to Jenna, my writing partner and one of my closest friends, whom I met at the Madcap Retreat. Our co-writing sessions are how I got that book written. Writing is such a solitary thing so much of the time, but it was wonderful to be solitary alongside another person. I had the little Skype window in the top corner of my screen as I worked, and the sound of her typing away at her own book to motivate me to keep on typing. Plus, there are those moments when you just need to pause and say, “WRITING IS HARD.” It’s nice to have someone there for that.

Other than that, I do prefer to have my phone on Do Not Disturb mode while I’m writing. I have a beautiful loft set up as a writing space, but I have written there only a handful of times. For the most part, I write camped out on my couch with my laptop, surrounded by my pets.

I have a hard time writing with distractions. When I was on vacation with my family last year, there were too many people around, so I had to put headphones on and listen to music to drown them out while writing. I discovered that I could write to classical music with no lyrics. There’s an amazing song called “Nuvole bianche” by Ludovico Einaudi which ended up being the song I listened to on repeat while writing the ending to my second book, The Weight of the Fire. When I listen to it now, I am pulled right into that story.

As for what I would tell other writers… I would say do whatever works for you! Discover your optimal writing environment and protect it. I also recommend writing sprints. Jenna and I typically write for an hour and then take a half hour break. The break always seemed to come just in time, just when we needed to take a step back and regroup. In February when I was on deadline to finish the sequel, we would write for 6-7 hour stretches on weekends in that way, by breaking it up into sprints.

Arthur: Do you outline or plan your stories before the actual writing happens?

Kristina: I do outline, but whether I stick to that outline is an entirely different story! I feel like you learn so much about your characters as you’re writing. So something I may have outlined to occur may feel completely wrong when I reach that point, because by then I know my characters better and may realize that it’s not something they would do or say. I let the story carry me where it wants to carry me. And then, when I realize that my outline went right and I have gone left, that’s usually when I pause and create my plot map.

Discover your optimal writing environment and protect it.

Arthur: What kind of experience are you hoping to create for your readers?

Kristina: I want them to be immersed. I want them to find passages in the story that they take a picture of and send to their friends. And I want them to feel satisfied and happy when they close the book at the end.

Arthur: How did you determine your target audience? Was this part of your original pitch to a publisher?

Kristina: I write what I like to read. I love Young Adult. The teenage years are such a formative time, and it’s fun to explore that within extraordinary circumstances. Like, it’s hard enough that Reeve, my main character in All That We See or Seem, is just about to turn 18 when the story begins and is trying to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants her life to look like. Now add to that that she’s suddenly visible in the nightmare world she’s dreamt herself into every night of her life. How it impacts her and changes her path was so much fun to explore.

Arthur: Have you ever used Wattpad or Patreon to market yourself? What are your thoughts on these platforms?

Kristina: I have not, but I’ve heard many good things about Wattpad! When I have some time, I would love to explore both options more and see if they would work for me.

Thank you so much, Kristina, for sharing your wisdom on the writing craft. Be sure to check out her first book, “All That We See or Seem which comes out next week.

In next week’s episode, I chat with Claire Luana about her Moonburner series.

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