One of my favorite writers is Nebula-nominated Chris Kastensmidt. Chris has been a good friend over the years. He’s the person that motivated me to go to Viable Paradise, and he writes historical fantasy. We both published at Cats Curious back in the day. Obviously, we have a bit in common. I would really like you to get fired up about his work and seek it out. Thanks, Chris, for answering a few questions!
Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book. Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?
Chris: My process is pretty standard for all my writing projects. First comes the idea: it may be the start of a story, or the end, or the whole thing all at once. I’ll write down whatever comes into my head, then set it aside to let it simmer. In some cases, I never go back to that idea, which means it probably wasn’t worth a whole lot in the first place. In other cases, the idea will stick in my head, and, piecemeal, the scenes will start taking form in my imagination. Every time I picture something new, I’ll go back to my notes and drop it in. Once the story starts taking place, I’ll sit down and make sure everything is in the right place, filling in gaps where I need to. That leaves me with a complete outline. Only then, after everything is in place, start to finish, is when I finally start writing the story.
At that point, the actual writing is fast. I usually write five to ten thousand words per day. So, in the end, I might spend a day or two writing out a story which I spent a year piecing together. It is a long process, not for the impatient, but it tends to give me solid results. I always know I have a complete story before I write it.
Tamago: Since you are writing historical fantasy, I know that you research a great deal to get the feeling right in your story? When is research a step in your writing process?
Chris: The research, besides providing detail, is also an integral part of piecing together the story. Research often helps me invent the individual scenes. For example, I was recently researching the city of Olinda in the late sixteenth century for my latest novel. I discovered that poetry competitions called outeiros were a popular form of entertainment at the time. That tiny detail inspired what, to me, became one of the more memorable scenes in the novel.
Tamago: How do you know when a story is working?
Chris: If I make it to the outline stage, I’m pretty sure I have a serviceable story. I know what is going to happen in every scene, and I’ve eliminated every plot hole I can find. Of course, plot isn’t everything. It’s still my job to put the right words into the right place and turn a good idea into a great read.
Whether or not readers will like it is a different story. Some of my personal favorite stories have been hard sells, whereas others that I felt weren’t my best work were snapped up quickly by editors. In any case, I never trust my own judgment. I critique every story before I send it out.
Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?
Chris: Revision, while much easier than outlining and writing, is by far my least favorite part. I revise line by line, looking for ways to make every sentence read better and sound better (by reading out loud). Revision is a constant reminder that the text is never perfect, that the writer can always do better. The toughest part of revising is knowing when to stop, finding that sweet spot of diminishing returns before you get caught into an infinite loop of frustration. I’d lump receiving critiques in with revising. It’s part of the dirty work of getting a finished story into shape for the reading public.
The parts I enjoy are researching and writing. But I can’t lie, the best part of writing is getting the book out into the world. These days, I receive a lot of invitations to lecture. There is nothing better than speaking with students who have already read my work.
Tamago: How many drafts of a project will you write? What do you do in each draft? Chris: Since I have the entire story worked out, scene by scene, before I ever write it, I don’t tend to write a lot of “drafts” in the typical sense of the word. I may visit the story a hundred times to add little details, but I wouldn’t count those as drafts. Once I’ve passed the outline stage, I’ll write the first draft, then revise it and critique it until I’m happy. At the minimum, I do one revision before critiquing and one after, but for more important texts, I tend to revise a couple more times. So maybe three drafts for something simple, five or six for a more complex text.
Tamago: Do you have critique partners or readers, or do you work alone?
Chris: I almost never discuss a story before the first draft, so my creative process is mostly solitary. Once the story is finished, however, I always run it by others for critique. I typically receive four or five critiques for a story, more than that and the information can start to become more contradictory and confusing than useful.
Tamago: Designing a series is complicated. In what ways do you manage to keep track of continuity from book to book?
Chris: Copious notes. These days, I use Scrivener for pretty much all my writing. That way, I keep most of my notes in the same project as the text.
Tamago: What has been your favorite project to date? Why?
Chris: For sure The Elephant and Macaw Banner. I’ve invested years of my life in that project, and it’s starting to pay off. The series has been well-received around the world and has spun-off novelettes, a graphic novel and the upcoming novel. There’s a lot more to come, things I can’t even announce yet. Unfortunately for readers of English, the rest of the world has been much quicker publishing the stories than the U.S. Only the first story has been published in the U.S., while others have been sitting in magazine inventory for years, waiting their turn. But I hope to have the graphic novel and novel published in the U.S. by 2016 at the latest.
Tamago: Are you a fast writer or a slow writer? How long does it take you to write a book or story, or does that vary from project to project?
Chris: It’s a funny question, because “fast writing” can mean so many things. When I have to write something, I can shovel words onto the screen like a bulldozer. During a recent writer’s challenge, I was locked into a library with writers from around the world, and I produced three stories in a single night. But for my more important projects, that’s not the way I like to work. I prefer research a subject thoroughly, putting the pieces together the best I can, and that takes time. Where I could sit down and write a mediocre novel in two months, I prefer to spend years on it and try to create something truly unique.
Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?
Chris: Every moment is special: every sale, every review, every recognition.
For a long time, I didn’t consider myself a “writer” in the professional sense of the word, but along the way, I’ve been paid to write stories, comics, poems, textbooks, video games and articles. At that point, I can no longer pretend *not* to be a writer. It’s nice to see other people designate me that way as well, putting me on lists of writers, inviting me to speak at events and schools. These days, I receive about one speaking invitation and two or three press interviews per month. It’s a level of recognition I never really hoped to achieve.