Today I have the pleasure of interviewing accomplished steampunk author Beth Cato. You might remember her guest post on the art of writing novellas. Today, we talk about how she manages to write award-worthy fiction at every length: short story, novella, and novel.
You’ve published short stories, novellas, and novels. Which form did you get into writing first? Do you think you’re better at one particular format?
Novels were first. My problem: my novels sucked. After several attempts, I realized this and resolved to improve my craft. I started working on flash fiction and short stories, and kept working on novels, too. Slowly but surely, I improved. I don’t think I’m better at one format or the other at this point. Every story and book is different. Some stories flow out with little need to revise, and then the next one will be require multiple drafts and scores of critique readers to help me find the focus. A new project just means I’ll find new ways to muck it up.
When you have a new idea, how do you decide what story length to pursue with it?
It all comes down to the level of complication. Flash fiction, for instance, likely has one main plot and maybe 2 or 3 characters. If you try to squeeze more than that into a thousand words, the story gets very confusing. Short stories expand to include more characters, more subplots, more scenes. I have found that most writers naturally gravitate toward certain story lengths–and have some lengths they can’t write as well. One of the biggest challenges in writing my novella was that I had never written one before and I had no innate “feel” for how to pace everything. I kind of had to look at it as 1/3 of a novel.
Once upon a time, many writers were encouraged to write/publish short stories to build credits and experience for tackling novels. Is that paradigm over with?
If the writer intends to publish traditionally, I think it’s a smart way to go (though certainly not the only path to take). It’s the technique I used. I wanted to improve my craft and also develop a nice bio paragraph for my query letters to agents. At the point where I did query my agent, I was able to state I was an associate member of SFWA because I had one pro short story publication. I think that sort of credit looks good to agents and editors–icing on the cake, to bring in a baking metaphor–but the cake is the most important thing of all. Ultimately, it’s about the story or book that is on submission.
There’s an ongoing debate on whether readers favor shorter novels (e.g. Bookshots) or longer ones (e.g. doorstoppers). Do you have an opinion on this as it applies to SF/F?
Variety is an asset. Sometimes, I want to delve into an brick-sized epic fantasy that could double as a homicide weapon. Other times, I want a quick middle grade read. Sometimes my decision is made by what fits in my purse. Personally, I don’t want to read a lot of doorstoppers in a row, fiction or nonfiction. I get impatient if I haven’t finished a book within a week.
What’s your revision process, and how does it vary between stories and novels?
I rush through rough drafts. The revision stage after that is slower and more deliberate. I work in Microsoft Word with Tracked Changes on, though I keep them hidden most of the time. I tear apart the story. I plug plot holes and smooth out dialog. I figure out what I was trying to say. I add comments to myself to fix things or do more research. After I polish it as much as possible, I present the work for other people to read.
For my flash fiction, my mom tends to be my only beta reader, but for anything longer, I look to friends and colleagues to offer feedback and perspective. For novels, I like to do a critique exchange, if possible; it’s only right, considering the amount of time and effort involved. I also send my novels to my agent. She’s a fantastic editor, which means her revision letters are downright scary. I’m actually waiting for her feedback on my latest novel. Gulp.
Tell us a little bit about Final Flight, and how it fits into your Clockwork Dagger/Crown universe.
Final Flight takes place after the events of both books, though it can be read on its own, too. I try to minimize the spoilers for that reason.
Much of the action in Clockwork Dagger took place on the airship Argus. This short story is set on the Argus again, and follows Captain Hue as his ship has been commandeered by a Clockwork Dagger and soldiers. Hue’s teenage son is a crewman, and the boy almost had his throat slit during previous events. Hue just wants his son to be safe, and instead, they are forced on an incredibly dangerous mission with widespread, very lethal consequences.
About Beth Cato
Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella Wings of Sorrow and Bone. Her newest novel is Breath of Earth. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.
Be sure to check out Final Flight, the latest installment in her Clockwork Dagger universe, which was just published by Harper Voyager.
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