Hello and welcome! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. I need to give Twitter credit for introducing your debut YA novel (SHALLOW GRAVES) to me. I immediately ordered a copy on Amazon and it’s on the top of my TBR list. The premise of the novel is what caught my eye and I couldn’t help but Google you. What an interesting professional path! I’m looking forward to picking your brain 🙂
Thank you so much! I am delighted to be here.
You’ve published many short stories. Did this help or hinder your transition into novel writing?
A little bit of both, to be honest. The good thing about starting out with short stories is that I learned two important lessons:
First, that I could finish a story worth reading. That might sound trivial or obvious to people who have only ever written one manuscript, or have no trouble writing a story from beginning to end. (There are such people in the world, I’m told, as rare as unicorns.) I’ve been writing my entire life, only for the vast majority of that life I was writing stories I never finished, or stories that fell flat when I did finish them. It took a lot of work–and me dedicating myself specifically to do that work, rather than just trusting in the ~magic of creativity~–for me to figure out how to finish a story, and finish it well. That I learned writing short stories.
The second lesson, following immediately thereafter, was that I could write something somebody would want to publish. I sold my first short story to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction just a few months after I wrote and revised it. I know that everybody says you should write for yourself and you shouldn’t require external validation, but damn if it isn’t nice to get some external validation, especially when you are trying to decide if you can genuinely pursue a writing career.
The differences in craft and style aside, I don’t think short stories are a necessary path for everyone. There are a limited number of markets, a limited number of editors, and the pay isn’t all that great. For me, taking those first writing and publishing steps with short stories was invaluable–but it’s also very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you aren’t wildly successful with your short stories, you shouldn’t try your hand at novels, or you shouldn’t possibly write a novel until you’ve mastered short stories, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. They aren’t the same thing at all, and success or lack thereof with one means absolutely nothing about your potential success with the other. Being really good at short stories doesn’t teach you how to write novels. Writing novels teaches you how to write novels.
Does your background as a geophysicist leak into your writing? Do you still seek adventure in the natural world?
I think it does, although perhaps not in unexpected ways. I have not yet written an action-packed eco-thriller about a geophysicist who saves the world with the power of science–I might someday!–but there are things I do that are traceable to my geology background. I love mountains, deserts, moors, jungles, wild seashores, all kinds of natural places, and I travel and hike and explore whenever I can.
The most obvious manifestation of this, I think, is in the attention I pay to the natural world while writing. I can’t imagine ever not noticing the natural world–landscapes, weather, geography, all of it–because noticing is what got me interested in studying earth sciences in the first place. You can’t be much of a geologist if you’re bad at paying attention to the world around you, so it’s a habit that gets honed with study and research. And because I’m noticing it already, I’m going to be writing about it.
I’m often described as being a very sensory, atmospheric writer, and sometimes when that happens my response is, “Well, yes, because the real world has sensations and atmosphere.” It’s not even so much about describing the natural world–although that’s a big part of it, and the natural world forces us to pay attention in ways city or suburban life doesn’t–but in recognizing, understanding, and ultimately capturing in writing how different places make us feel. That’s something you only get from paying attention to details. Even if the only settings you care about are New York City streets, or suburban houses, or small towns, the details still matter. Not everybody knows what a NYC street feels like, or what a suburban house smells like, or what a small town at night sounds like, and you absolutely cannot assume your readers do. Noticing those details is a habit that requires practice and cultivation, and I do think that having spent ten years studying the natural world gives me a bit of a head start in that respect.
All of us out here in the slush pile love to hear success stories. How did you land a literary agent? Can you share a little bit about your querying process?
Ah, well, if it’s a slush pile success story you want, you’ve come to the right place! I landed my agent the old-fashioned way: by cold querying a whole bunch of people until I found the right one. I never went to any conferences or conventions. I never entered any contests. I didn’t even know there were other ways to do it until much later, so when people asked me, “How did you get your agent?” I was always thinking, “What, do they think I went out and caught her with a butterfly net? I wrote queries! That’s how!”
What I did was research a whole bunch of agents and make up a long, long list of people to research query. Pretty much if anybody expressed an interest in dark YA, they went on the list for further consideration. I also spent some time in a bookstore, picking up books that looked to be a similar genre to mine and flipping to the acknowledgments section to get the agents’ names. Then I wrote the best query letter I could–I’m not sure if it’s a particularly good one, but it did the job–and began sending out batches of queries. The main trick, I think, is to have a rolling list, so that when one pass/rejection comes in, you can send another query out immediately. Don’t let yourself fret about passes. You’ll find the right person eventually. My list ended up being way, way longer than it needed to be.
SHALLOW GRAVES was recently released (congrats!) and I noticed you have two more novels due out in 2017 and 2018. That’s prolific writing! Can you tell me a little about how you organize your writing time. Set hours? Word counts? Home or in a coffee shop?
I usually write in the mornings, and I aim to get down 1500-2000 words before I stop. When things are flowing it only takes a few hours. When things are dragging, it might take me several sessions over the course of the day to barely scrape the word limit. I try to be flexible, because there are a lot of aspects of writing that aren’t about word count. Revising, rearranging, rereading, all of those are important work too, but aren’t easily measureable. I’ve learned the hard way that punishing myself for not achieving rigid goals doesn’t help much in the long run.
When I’m really digging into revisions, I’ll print up a hard copy of the story and take myself off to a coffee shop for a few hours. The change in format and environment helps me look at the story with some fresh perspective.
I loved your Guest Post: On Setting the Mood and Walking Through Graveyards at YA Highway. Did you spend much time walking through graveyards for SHALLOW GRAVES? Did you take a notebook with you or just soak the sensory experience in? What other interesting places have you visited for the sake of novel research?
The only graveyard I visited in person for SHALLOW GRAVES is the one that actually appears in the book, the Gold Hill Cemetery in the tiny town of Gold Hill outside Boulder, Colorado. I already knew I wanted to set a rather significant (and spoilery!) section of the book in that corner of the mountains, so I wanted to take a look around. I’d lived in the northern Front Range of Colorado for several years, so this was less about general feel and more about specific details. How isolated was it? Were the roads paved or dirt? How long did it take to get there? How many cars passed by on those rural roads? I took some pictures but no notes. I just needed to know if I could get away with putting what I needed in that area. It’s very close to Boulder, and therefore very close to the Denver metro area, but it doesn’t take long for the city to drop away into wilderness.
When I was writing my first novel–which is a companion to SHALLOW GRAVES but hasn’t sold–I spend one cold, rainy day visiting about a dozen graveyards in Cleveland, Ohio, from broad open suburban spots to weird gnarled historic ones, and all of that research did make it into that (unsold, alas) novel.
But otherwise, I haven’t actually spend a lot of time visiting places purposefully for novels. I tend to do it the other way around: I like to write about places I’ve been, trying to recapture the feel and mood and atmosphere of them for a story.
Can you share any TV, movies, and/or books that help influence your writing?
I tend to think that any stories we consume, in any fashion, will have some influence on the stories we tell–and that’s a good thing! I think the fact that I imprinted on Twin Peaks at a young age definitely still shows in my love of the weird, creepy, and unsettling, just like imprinting on Star Trek: The Next Generation means I haven’t much patience for wholly bleak and nihilistic views of the future in fiction. More recently, the show Hannibal burrowed into my brain like nothing else has before, and I find myself thinking about it at odd times, turning over every thing it does and wondering if I can ever create something that weirdly bold and over-the-top and get away with it.
In books, I try to read as much non-fiction as I do fiction, because I think it’s important not to get so completely immersed in the structures and tropes of fiction that you forget to feed your brain new and fascinating things. It doesn’t matter the topic. I like to read about history, both human history and natural history, as well as about all manner of scientific topics, because it delights me to be constantly reminded that the world is always going to be weirder and surprising and changing. I go through phases where I read a whole bunch on one topic: the development of quantum physics, the political history of the First and Second Afghan Wars, the rise and fall of the American whaling industry, essays and memoirs from naturalists and environmentalists, etc.
But I really do believe people should read or consume whatever style of storytelling makes their brain churn and spark with activity, whether it’s TV shows or books or superhero comics or manga or video games. Never mind what anybody else has to say about them. Find the things that make you feel jazzed up and excited about storytelling and creating, and those are the kinds of influences you want.
Thank you so much, Kali!
For more information about Kali Wallace:
Twitter & Instagram: @kaliphyte
To read Kali’s guest post on YA Highway, click HERE.