Cassandra Rose Clarke's first adult novel, The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award, and her YA novel, The Assassin’s Curse, was nominated for YALSA’s 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction. Her latest novel is Our Lady of the Ice, forthcoming from Saga Press in 2015. To learn more about Cassandra, visit her Faculty page.
She is teaching the upcoming 6-week workshop on Science Fiction and Fantasy (starts April 22) . To learn more, see the listing on our Workshops page; to sign up, click here.
Earlier this year I took Cassandra Rose Clarke’s class on writing effective prose, which was basically a handbook for revision. Cassandra walked us through specific exercise that helped us vary our sentence length, watch for adjectives and adverbs, and read critically. Cassandra is a staple in the Houston genre community, so I was interested to see how she applied those wonderful teaching skills to genre. We sat down last week to discuss her writing process, her views on sci/fi fantasy tropes and feminism, and her teaching style.
Holly Walrath: You mention in your bio for the Mad Scientist’s Daughter that your two degrees have served you well. How do you feel your education prepared you to write? Is it worth it for a writer to pursue a Master’s?
Cassandra Rose Clarke: My first job out of grad school was as an administrative assistant for an engineering professor. He hired me because I was an English major; he specifically liked to hire English majors because they could write. Then after that I got into teaching and that clearly tied to my degree.
In terms of my writing, that graduate degree was really useful because I wrote a novel for my thesis and it was the first time I’d ever written a novel. It showed me that I could finish a novel, [...] that I can sit down and write this big project and that I didn’t just have to write short stories. I actually wrote the Mad Scientist’s Daughter while working as an admin assistant. I don’t think I could have written that novel without having gone through the program and being forced to finish the novel for my thesis.
HW: Have you always felt that you were a writer? Was there a moment when you realized, “this is it, I’m a writer”?
CRC: Not really! I had a lot of jobs I wanted to do. I wanted to be a veterinarian for a while, but I thought I was bad at science. There was a period where I wanted to be a doctor, but really when I was in high school I was interested in art. For my undergrad, I chose that school because they have an art focus. But my last year of high school I got burned out and decided I needed a break from art. I took some English classes and ended up changing my major. I always liked to write, but I would write and illustrate.
HW: Do you still make art?
CRC: I do, I do it more for fun. I think it’s important. When I got published, writing became a job. I didn’t really have a creative outlet. It used to be writing, but now I have to make money off of it.
HW: Sometimes you hear writers say that they worry if they are successful that writing will become a job for them and not be as much of an outlet.
CRC: I started thinking of it more as a job because to me that’s what I felt like I needed to do to be successful. If I hadn’t ever thought of it as a job I wouldn’t have been published because I never would have bothered to submit things and I probably would have just written fan fiction or something. And I don’t mind that writing has become a job, it’s just that I need something else to balance it.
HW: Can you take us through your novel writing process? Do you outline, plan, or just jump in?
CRC: My process is different for each book. I don’t write out of order. The book I wrote for my thesis, I wrote out of order. I wrote scenes as they were interesting to me and then I went back and stitched them together, which I don’t think is a good way to write a book. But everything else I’ve written from beginning to end. I’ve gotten more into outlining. For example, Mad Scientist’s Daughter I didn’t outline at all. I had the basic idea for it and I kind of knew where it was going to go but I never sat down and wrote down an outline. But for Our Lady of the Ice I wrote it without outline and it didn’t make any sense. I had to go through and outline it scene by scene for the revision. Then, I still had to go back and revise it even more. I think it was a little more complex in terms of plotline. I’m working on a fantasy novel now, and that one I sat down and plotted it out like a screenplay. So now as I’m writing it, I use Scrivener and I copy the paragraph from my outline and paste it into the document so I can see what I’m doing. It evolves and depends on how complicated the book is going to be.
HW: How many revisions did you go through with your most recent book, Our Lady of the Ice?
CRC: I think with my agent I want to say it was six, and then I did two more with my editor. It was a lot of revising.
HW: Was it the same book when you were done, or was it completely different?
CRC: It’s the same book. My tendency when I’m writing is to be like, “stuff just happens,” but my editor said, you can’t just have stuff happen, each event has to build on the one before. The characters didn’t really change, like the feel of it stayed the same, but I had to shape the plot so that it was plausible.
HW: Can you comment on your submission process? What are some tips you have for submitting to journals?
CRC: I started out submitting short stories because that’s what you write when you’re in grad school. All my workshop classes were short stories because you can’t really workshop a novel. So I had all these short stories and my undergraduate creative writing teacher had encouraged me to submit them. She gave me a copy of The Writer’s Market the year that I graduated and I actually used it to submit, which is so weird to me now because everything’s online. And people in grad school were submitting their stories too, we would have submission parties and put all of our packets out and mail them out.
After I finished The Mad Scientist’s Daughter I decided that was the story I was going to try to get published, so I sent it out to agents and publishers.
HW: What was the process of submitting the novel like?
CRC: My story is a little weird, because I submitted to a bunch of agents and I didn’t get anything because when you’re submitting to agents you submit a query letter, and I’m really bad at writing those. None of the agents agreed to look at my manuscript, they were like “oh this doesn’t sound good,” and kept rejecting it. Then, my publisher Angry Robot had an open door month where they looked at un-agented manuscripts. Most publishers don’t do that, you have to have an agent. They accepted it! When I got the contract, I was so surprised that I asked them to suggest an agent to help me. They got me in contact with my current agent, Stacia Decker, and she really liked the book so I signed with her. It was kind of cool because I never would have submitted to that agent. At the time, she only represented thrillers. In most cases, you get the agent first and they submit the book for you. I feel like I got really lucky.
HW: Do you have any tips for writers that are sending out their work?
CRC: I think the biggest thing is to not let yourself get discouraged because it is a really horrible process. It’s terrible. Your manuscript isn’t even getting rejected, it’s just the pitch for the manuscript. You’ll submit it to a whole bunch of people and they will all reject it and you just look at it like, “I suck.” But you don’t necessarily, it’s just hard. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer it just means that the agent doesn’t need that sort of work. I got a rejection like that where somebody said “I really like this book, but I don’t have the contacts to sell it.” I think that’s the biggest piece – don’t get discouraged and while you’re submitting something, write another book. Publishers don’t tend to buy just one book, they like to buy multiple books so it’s good to have something else. I think if you want to be a professional writer anyway you have to think it terms of books plural versus just one. While I was submitting The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, I worked on the Assassin’s Curse. Once you start writing something else you, don’t dwell on the general depressing process of submitting to agents.
HW: What’s your philosophy for teaching writing?
CRC: My big philosophy is that I like my teaching to be student-centered, rather than be teacher centered. The person doing the work is the person who is learning. I can lecture, but I feel like you’re going to get more out of it if you actually get to practice. I go through samples so that students can talk about them and do activities to practice. I want the students to be doing the work because that’s how they are going to learn. I try to appeal to different learning styles too.
HW: Is there one great resource you would recommend for new writers?
CRC: If you’re interested in genre writing, it’s worth it to go to conventions. Particularly those with a literary track, like Comicpalooza. The panels can be useful but it’s also a chance to meet authors and talk to them in a social setting and there are smaller literary conventions around Texas such as Apollocon, Armadillocon, and bigger ones like Worldcon. So if you can make the trip I think those have a lot of value, particularly if you are outgoing.
I read a lot of author blogs, where authors talk about the realities of publishing, seeing how advances work, there are a lot of resources online for the business aspect.
HW: How important is it for writers to be a part of a community?
CRC: I think it’s important to have writer friends that you can talk with about your work. I don’t think people like to admit this, but with publishing there is a certain element of making sure you know the right people to be successful. You don’t need to do that to get published, to get an agent and submit it, but once you are published there is a lot of word of mouth stuff that happens where writers talk about other writers and they promote their friends. People who are really good at meeting other writers and befriending them, like at cons, I feel like those people have an edge. Writing a good book will get you published but everything after that, getting people to buy the book and know who you are, that’s where it’s important to get yourself out there.
HW: Do you think you’re good at that kind of self-promotion?
CRC: I’m terrible at it. It all happens at bars where everyone gathers in the hotel bar and drinks. I’m not much of a drinker, so it’s very uncomfortable for me. It’s like what Hemingway would have done.
HW: How do you feel about being a genre writer…do you ever feel “pegged” as a sci/fi fantasy writer?
CRC: I used to write literary fiction and I enjoy it, and I still read it. There’s so much weird stuff you can do in genre that you can’t do in literary fiction, though. I suppose I do think of myself as a genre writer because I definitely am involved with the genre community but I don’t always feel super connected to the community. For example, there was a recent controversy with Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant. Ishiguro did an interview where he questioned whether his fans were going to get the novel, because he writes literary fiction. There was a lot of uproar from the genre community, and I thought it was not that big of a deal. He can write about what he wants. That kind of genre divide, I don’t feel like that at all. Maybe it used to be that way, back like in the ‘60s, but now there is so much crossover and science fiction is all very mainstream. The reason that these literary fiction writers are writing in genre settings is because they watch Star Wars too. They grew up watching the same stuff everyone else watches, X-Files, comic books, so of course they’re going to want to incorporate that interest.
HW: It’s interesting to hear that it exists on both sides, because I think that literary fiction supporters can be the same way.
CRC: This idea that literary fiction people hate genre is weird to me because I haven’t really experienced that among my friends. People overreact. It feels outdated.
HW: What is the future of genre as you see it? What trends are you excited about?
CRC: I feel like in sci/fi fantasy there is a lot of focus on social justice issues. You’re seeing a lot of work that deals with gender, race, LGBT issues. I think there is also a lot of genre-blending going on. Not just sci/fi fantasy and literary fiction, but also sci/fi and mystery, sci/fi and erotica, taking all the different genres and mashing them together.
HW: What are you reading right now?
CRC: I am reading a bunch of books, because I start them and take a long time to finish. I’m reading Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble. She’s one of my favorite writers. She’s a good example of someone who writes literary fiction but brings in genre tropes. Her work has elements of magical realism, pop culture. The other is Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. He writes epic fantasy, a classic adventure fantasy. It’s interesting because it subverts like Lord of the Rings and the “chosen one” trope.
HW: You mention tropes, which is the subject of the Writespace Comicpalooza panel that you will be a panelist on this May. What are some of the tropes or themes that you feel are overused?
CRC: I don’t like “chosen one” narratives. Nobody likes those where there is one person who is super special and they are going to save the world. The other one, which you see in YA a lot, is where the character is presented as perfect and they are given some flaws, but those are in themselves endearing. A good example of this is Bella in Twilight. She’s pretty and the guys like her, and her flaw is that she’s clumsy.
HW: You mean, “Oh that’s so cute, she’s clumsy”?
CRC: Exactly. I think it’s this fear of giving female characters real flaws. That provokes me – let your female characters be real and have actual problems.
HW: We’ve seen more flawed female characters recently in pop culture and there seems to be concern over relatability – you have to make your characters relatable.
CRC: That’s a difficult balance to find. I feel like it’s hard with female characters. People complain about that if you give your characters real flaws – I can’t relate to her, she’s awful, and then people don’t want that.
HW: There’s still an idea that we have to write female characters a certain way?
CRC: A lot of times there’s the opposite of that trope, which is the fear of letting female characters show weaknesses. Not just flaws, but they have to be “strong” female characters, they can’t have fear or be insecure or miserable because someone doesn’t love them. These are all things that people go through – not just women. It becomes a stereotype. One Katniss is awesome, but when that’s all you see it’s frustrating. It comes from a good place of trying to show different characters, but it can alienate the reader. If I was Katniss, I would have died right away. It’s okay to have women who would have died in the Hunger Games. It’s fun to watch Katniss survive but people have corrected too far in one direction. Somebody like Jane Austen, her characters wouldn’t have survived the Hunger Games, but they aren’t necessarily weak.
HW: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter is basically a robot love story set in the future. One thing that you do within this genre is to focus the story not on the technical details of the futuristic world, but instead on the relationship between the characters. What was the inspiration for this novel?
CRC: I was trying to write a book that was more literary fiction than genre fiction with that book. And then with Our Lady of the Ice, I tried to write something more genre fiction than literary fiction. I was really interested in character. And one of my things is like we live in a world with a lot of technology. I don’t really understand how my phone works, but I don’t sit around thinking about how it works. People don’t do that. I wanted to write kind of an anti-hard science fiction book, where the science was not important to the story at all because that’s not what the story was about. The story was about the characters and the relationships. I like making things old fashioned. I imagined the world as the future according to the ‘60s. That’s why the character smokes, the detail makes it outdated. It’s nostalgic.
HW: There’s been some response to this book that people don’t like the protagonist, Cat. How do you feel about that?
CRC: I was worried about that, her relatability. It goes back to that idea of the flawed female character. I thought people would read it and think that I’m saying this is how you should act, but I’m not saying she’s a good person. It’s just what felt realistic to her character, that she was using people. One reviewer read it as a commentary on social justice and how we treat marginalized groups. When I read that, I thought that was an interesting interpretation even though that wasn’t my intention in writing it.
HW: The importance of self and consciousness is a huge theme in this book. Do you think computers can feel?
CRC: No, I don’t think Siri has emotions. It’s fun to think about the possibility. I know a lot of people who say, that will never happen, we can’t make things happen fast enough. But, that’s boring!
HW: Your new book, Our Lady of the Ice, comes out in 2015. What can you tell us about it?
CRC: The book takes place in an alternate 60s steampunk world that has evolved into atomic power. It’s in a dome in Antarctica and it’s an Argentinian colony. The city was based on Disneyworld because it’s supposed to be an amusement park with a city around it. When the book starts there are these robots that are slowly developing sentience, and as they rise up several other factions begin to try and take over the city. It’s more classic, adventure sci/fi.