Happy Pub Day to Super-Writer Courtney Alameda, whose debut y.a. SHUTTER is out today!
I met Courtney three years ago at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in Utah. There I was fortunate enough to read a ten page sample of SHUTTER and meet with Courtney for a critique.
And you know what? I loved her and her writing so much, I signed her in the room.
Well…sort of. I offered representation in the room. And told her to think about it. Because it’s a big decision.
Then the next day…I signed her in the room.
(Actually the paperwork took a few weeks but YOU GET THE IDEA.)
SHUTTER”S on all sorts of most-anticipated lists for 2015 (including B&N and Huffington Post), and just today on Bustle’s 15 of February 2015’s Best YA Books to Get You Through the Snowy, Cold Weather.
Seriously, if you’re a horror fan, go and buy SHUTTER now (on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound, for instance). And while you’re waiting for it to download, check out Courtney’s piece, today at Tor.com:
Everything I Needed to Know About Writing Monster Horror I Learned from Alien.
COURTNEY: When I was a child, storytelling came as naturally as breathing, and I had a penchant for both expository and creative writing as an adolescent. However, I didn’t start writing regularly until college, where I discovered YA literature quite by accident.
I don’t recall what I was actually looking for, wandering in the university library that day—but I stumbled into the children’s section and blinked stupidly. Children’s literature? In a university library? My classics-saturated brain couldn’t comprehend the explosion of colorful spines in all different shapes and sizes, picture books heaped beside the novels, their titles bouncy and enticing. But a copy of Garth Nix’s SABRIEL stuck an inch too far off one of the shelves, catching my attention. Something about the girl with the bells on the cover beckoned to me; or more likely, the shadowy creature behind her sank its claws into my imagination. I took SABRIEL home, read it in one sitting, and swore I’d found my calling. I’d always planned on writing dark fantasy/horror for adults, but Nix’s work gave me permission to write it for young people, too.
I also swore to myself that, in ten years’ time, I’d have a book deal of my own—and most everything I did for those years was in pursuit of that goal, including writing every day.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
The first novel that made a significant impact on me was Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK. I was eight, and the moment I finished it, I turned right back to the beginning and read it again. It gave me the confidence to try other novels, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS (at age ten), and Stephen King’s THE STAND (at twelve). I believe these works fused in my subconscious and created the foundation for the writing I do today—one part thriller, one part horror, with a dash of fantasy. (Though I do wish those authors were not also all white, male, and two-thirds dead!)
On rare occasion, children’s works like Robin McKinley’s THE BLUE SWORD and Patricia C. Wrede’s DEALING WITH DRAGONS made it into my hands, head, and heart. To be honest, McKinley and Wrede may have been the only children’s authors I read by choice before my discovery of SABRIEL! I have always been drawn to strong female leads, and I attribute that affinity to McKinley’s Harry Crewe and Wrede’s Princess Cimorene. And if I had to name a forerunner for my protagonist, Micheline, I would certainly point straight to teen girl warriors like McKinley’s Harry or Nix’s Sabriel.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
My process is organic, with plots marked only by waypoints stretching from beginning to denouement. I ask my characters to design their own destinies and don’t tell them how to get from one point to the next; ergo, when the writing’s going well, characters’ choices often shatter my preconceived waypoints to build up their own.
SHUTTER was no exception: I threw out two or three drafts of the novel before Micheline accidentally called herself a Helsing, and her world and woes came spilling out so rapidly I hardly kept up with her. These accidental moments are the most inspiring—and frightening—part of my process. I can’t count on the happy accidents, but can only hope the “cock-eyed creative genius assigned to my case*” tosses a bread crumb my way, and that I’m present enough to catch that crumb and run with it.
Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?
Yes and no. Yes, because I refused to submit my work until I thought it worthy of an agent’s time and consideration—I wrote for years without submitting anything. Patience is one of my stronger suits. No, because I’d never even sent a query letter upon meeting (the Amazing—yes, he deserves a capital letter) John Cusick at the 2012 Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference. You can imagine my shock when he offered me representation!
I couldn’t have been luckier, because not only is John an awesome agent, but when I said, “I like weird monsters,” he asked, “Ever played SILENT HILL?” And right then and there, I knew there wasn’t anyone else who could represent my work the way John would.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
Day? My best writing comes out between the hours of eleven p.m. and four a.m., when the world (and the internet) is quiet and my cock-eyed genius is loud and caffeinated. I shut everything out while I work, blocking auditory distractions with headphones. Working alone and completely disconnected is a must if I want to get anything substantial done.
As for inspiration: I believe life experiences make the best pulp for fiction, and in order to create dynamic characters, writers must live dynamic lives. I aim to do something frightening every day. Also, I find the adage “you are what you eat,” applies to my creative life in regards to the media I consume. Books, music, documentaries, videogames, art, news stories, graphic novels—everything gets tossed into the primordial fires of my subconscious. As for what emerges, well…it usually has teeth.
Can you tell us about your next book?
Suffice to say I’m writing a first draft, have already had one false start, and am working toward a crumb big enough to run with!
Just this—aspiring writers should write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences scribbled down before collapsing in bed. Writing every day allows “the child in the cellar**” of your creative subconscious to breathe and stretch. Leave her cooped in the dark too long and she suffocates, taking your work with her.
And to quote Churchill: “Never, never, never give up.”
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Hands-down, peer critiquing has been the most important aspect of my development. Nothing has helped my hone my skills as has the careful, sensitive critique of another writer’s work. Also, having the opportunity to listen to how other readers interpret—and misinterpret—unfinished manuscripts has always been illuminating and an education in itself.
Secondly, the active deconstruction of published novels taught me what professional writing looks like, from big things like theme down to the word-by-word nitty-gritty. I have a few authors who consistently provide excellent fodder for this process—Maggie Stiefvater for characterization and beats, Holly Black for magic systems and tight plotting, Rick Yancey for lush prose and symbolism, and Neal Shusterman for voice.
Finally, nothing could replace the act of sitting down every day to write. Nothing.
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
I should say something brilliant like Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy, or Neil Gaiman, but really, I want a chance to shake Garth Nix’s hand and tell him thank you. And if I had to choose one character to wish to have invented, it would be his Sabriel.
*Elizabeth Gilbert, Your Elusive Creative Genius, TED 2009
**Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, Anchor 1995