Welcome to the one hundred and eighty-eighth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, autobiographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with YA / Adult fantasy author / illustrator, poet, and nonfiction writer Vonnie Winslow Crist. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. I can talk for England and today I’ve met my match so I hope you’re sitting comfortably. 🙂
Morgen: Hello, Vonnie. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Vonnie: I’m a daughter, sister, wife, mom, granny, and reasonably good friend. I was born in the Year of the Dragon, and have loved fantastical creatures since I first began to read books. Or perhaps before then, since I remember seeing sprites and gnomes when I was very little. I told stories filled with trolls, dragons, brownies, and fairy godmothers to my younger sisters and their friends, then to my children, then to groups of kids at schools, and now to my grandkids. Writing was just a matter of putting to paper the stories I’d woven since girlhood. I wrote poetry first. Then prose, because I’d gotten too wordy for verse. (This interview will lend credibility to my wordiness).
Morgen: You’ve met your match here… well, compatriot from the other side of the pond, let’s say. 🙂 I can guess with trolls and dragons what the answer to this will be but what genre do you generally write?
Vonnie: I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction with a mythic, folklore, or fantasy vibe. Currently, I write “Writers Block,” a book review column. In the past, I’ve written restaurant, movie, video, and book reviews for local papers, and also a kids’ column that focused on folklore. I also illustrate.
Morgen: You do, I’ve seen your drawings on a guest post you did for me recently about that very topic… they’re beautiful… and cheeky… I couldn’t help having the Spriggans back. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Vonnie: Book-wise, I’ve had a collection of fantasy stories: The Greener Forest, 3 speculative eShorts: Sideshow by the Sea, Assassins, and Bells, 2 collections of poetry: Essential Fables and River of Stars, and a children’s book: Leprechaun Cake & Other Tales published: http://tinyurl.com/Vonnie-Winslow-Crist-Amazon. Plus, I’ve had lots of stories, poems, essays, and illustrations included in magazines, anthologies, and e-zines. Some of the places where I’ve had work published, call the UK home: http://etherealtales.co.uk/sneekypeek7thissue.htm.
Probably the most special sighting was not of one of my books, but of Issue 20 of Faerie Magazine http://faeriemagazine.com. After a long illness, I lost my dad in 2005. He never really got to see a book or magazine that featured my writing displayed prominently in a bookstore. When I walked into the Barnes & Noble Bookstore near my parents’ home in spring 2010, almost 5 years to the day from when he’d died, I saw the newest issue of Faerie Magazine on display and in the hands of several people standing there. I opened to the contributors page and read my name. It brought tears to my eyes. I thought about how proud my dad would have been for me to push him in his wheelchair into that bookstore, pick up a copy, and announce to those customers that his daughter had an article in the magazine they were holding. I had a story published in Faerie Magazine Issue 22 this spring, and experienced much the same feeling. I guess no matter how old we are, we like to make our parents proud of us.
Morgen: We do. My father died less than a week before 9/11, before I started writing and before I got my dog… two periods of my life I wished had happened in his lifetime. But I know how proud he would have been so that’s a compensation. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works?
Vonnie: (She groans before answering) I’m just starting to do that. It’s hard work and outside my comfort zone. Writing (and illustrating) are solitary activities. Promotion involves putting yourself out there in person and online. Yikes! It’s quite intimidating for most writers.
Morgen: And it shows in the answers I get for that question. Marketing is often the answer to “what’s your least favourite aspect” although it’s far easier… well, not sure if easier, but more options now we have all these opportunities for discussing our work (fine line to touting) online. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Vonnie: Yes. The manuscripts for both books of poetry won awards, and thus were published. Poetry, as I’m sure you know, doesn’t make money for publishers or poets.
Morgen: I do. Having poets in my writers group discussing that side of the industry has opened my eyes to it.
Vonnie: The great news was that the judge for one of the contests was Pulitzer Prize-winner, Mary Oliver. She graciously allowed me to use her comments on the back cover of one of those collections.
Morgen: Excellent. 🙂 Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Vonnie: Not at the moment (she says with a deep sigh and a shake of her head). But I did have one briefly till her agency closed. I’ve had some success without an agent, but often I think you’ve got to have some success before an agent wants to represent you.
Morgen: It seems like that these days but again the internet gives us a fighting chance to do that. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Vonnie: The 3 eShorts are only available as eBooks. I’m working hard to have the short story collection and 2 volumes of poetry available as eBooks. Though I’m a book-lover whose shelves are sagging with tomes (some dusty and others quite dust-free), I know that much of the reading public is jumping on the eBook wagon. I don’t read eBooks (yet), but as a writer, I know I must embrace the new technologies or miss out on getting my words to readers.
Morgen: I have to say that although I have an eReader gathering dust (because I have so many pBooks to read and travel little) I’m embracing it with both hands (more if I had more!) as it’s meant many more people getting to read my writing and so quickly. It was a learning curve but not one that I think should discourage people from trying that route if the traditional ones seem closed to them. What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Vonnie: Sigh. I’m going to age myself here. In 1979, a local newspaper and a poetry broadside published poems of mine within about a week of each other. I was thrilled. When I look back on those poems now, I realize they weren’t very good. But at the time, they were the best poems I could write. I’ve learned a lot, and my writing skills have grown, but the thrill is the same as it was all those years ago.
Morgen: It’s all just practice. I look at my early pieces (of 6 years) ago and often say “I wrote that?” – either because they’re shockingly bad or occasionally because there are gems amongst them. 🙂 Have you had any rejections?
Vonnie: I’ve had more rejections than I care to remember! I just sent 3 poems and a short story off to publishers today. I’m hoping that at least one piece will be accepted (which means 3 rejections). But I’ve found that perseverance works. I’m not sure if my writing is getting better, or if the poor editors have thrown up their hands in surrender!
Morgen: Knowing how fussy editors can be I’d say definitely the former. I’m sure they’re getting more and more submissions than they’ve ever done. You’ve been writing since the 1970s (sorry to rub it in) which is a long time to polish your craft and you’re bound to have written the million words that Ernest Hemingway said you need to write to be a writer (pretty sure I have too but I guess the proof of that pudding will be in the eBook eating). When you get the rejections, how do you deal with them?
Vonnie: When it comes to dealing with rejections, you have to learn not to take it personally. I know that sounds glib, but I’ve edited various anthologies and am currently the editor of The Gunpowder Review and I know that when I reject a piece of writing it’s not always because it’s poorly written. Sometimes, I’ve already accepted a piece that’s similar in subject matter – even if the second submission is better, I can’t now tell the first writer I don’t want her story or poem any more. Sometimes, a piece of writing is wonderful, but not right for the publication I’m editing. Sometimes, I’m grumpy, and nothing that lands on my desk that day is going to please me. Honestly, if I realize I’m in a bad mood, I’ll stop reading submissions to be fair to the writers who’ve entrusted me with their work. And lastly, some subjects just don’t work for an editor for personal reasons that the author is unaware of. For example, if an editor’s mother is battling breast cancer, he might not want to read, much less accept, a story where the protagonist looses her battle with cancer.
Morgen: Exactly… you just need the right thing for the right person at the right time… easy. 🙂
Vonnie: My advice on rejections – if you still believe in the work, find another appropriate market and send it out as soon as possible. And, of course, begin working on the next story (or poem or essay).
Morgen: Absolutely, always have something out in the ether (pot, kettle, black). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Vonnie: Per usual, I’m working on several projects. I’ve promised short stories, poems, and an article to editors. They might reject my submissions, but at least I was asked to submit!
Morgen: Yay! That’s how I feel about competitions; I prefer a themed-one so I write something specific for it and if it gets nowhere I then have a fresh story to send elsewhere. Nothing is wasted and even if it never goes anywhere, or gets published (in print or eBook) it’s practice and usually fun.
Vonnie: I’m also at work on another collection of speculative short stories and a YA novel. Plus, I’m trying to get enough “acceptable” artwork ready to do a calendar in 2013. And then there’s that children’s book…
Morgen: A busy lady. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Vonnie: I don’t write every day, but there are some days I can’t type fast enough! I’m not sure exactly how much I wrote per day, but a couple of years ago I painted myself into a corner and had to write a tremendous amount in a short time.
I’ll relay the story here as a cautionary tale: I sent the first chapter of a YA / Adult fantasy novel in for an agent critique at a writers’ conference. I’d misread the instructions. I thought it was supposed to be a novel I was working on, but it was supposed to be a completed manuscript. I sat down with the agent for my critique on a Saturday, and she said, “I want to see the whole book. I think I want to represent it.” I was delighted, but knew I’d only written 3 chapters. And so, I went home and wrote like a mad woman. I sent 6 chapters to the agent on Monday with a note saying I was still polishing the rest of the book, and I could send the manuscript to her in chunks or I could send her the whole manuscript in a few weeks. I sent her another 6 chapters a week later, at which time she said to just send the whole thing when it was “polished.” I managed to write a 90,000-word book in 2 months time. Sadly, the agent closed her agency before the book was placed with a publisher – so I’m back to square one. But the good news is – at least the book is finished and ready for another agent.
Morgen: Exactly. And if you’ve done it once you can do it again… and again… What is your opinion of writer’s block?
Vonnie: Though I believe in fairies and bogles, I don’t believe in Writer’s Block! If a writer finds himself staring at a blank page, remember this isn’t the only writing you can be doing. Instead of whining: revise old work. Write a pen-to-paper letter to a friend. Jot a journal entry. Begin research on a project you might like to write about. Blog. Read a friend’s blog and respond. Read a book and take notes as to what its strengths or weaknesses are from a writing point of view. There are countless ways to be writing. And writing is what a writer does.
Morgen: It is… and isn’t it great? 🙂 A question some authors dread, where do you get your inspiration from?
Vonnie: I get inspiration from everywhere! A newspaper article, quirky word, piece of artwork, snippet of conversation, delightful scrap of folklore, my day-to-day life, or a prehistoric grave site. I’m speaking of Balnuaran of Clava, and I blogged about it.
For The Greener Forest, story inspiration came from: an injured bird sprawled in the grass, a day at the beach, a visit to the Everglades, carving an applehead doll, folklore about swan maidens, a murky pond, a toad in the garden, an old wives’ tale about snow, a pot of spiderplants, a woodcarver, a challenge to write a touching zombie love story, a scarecrow, and visiting the zoo.
While I’m talking about The Greener Forest, I must credit the woods beside the stone chapel on the grounds of Drum Castle in Scotland for the title of the book and more. I’d always believed that the world of Faerie was right beside our world, and often merged with it. But in Faerie, the sky was bluer, the shadows darker, and the moon brighter. So as I walked out the chapel door into the shady, too-green woods of Drum, I said to no one in particular, “This is the greener forest of the elves.” And with the title of my book discovered, I also realized that Faerie creatures and trees were re-occurring images in my stories, poems, and illustrations.
Morgen: And I bet they’re such fun to do. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Vonnie: I’m a “get an idea and run with it” kind of woman. But I must admit after completing a short story, to going back through it with a fine-toothed comb and searching for inconsistencies. As I mentioned, I’ve completed a YA fantasy novel that required a little more organization than I’m used to. I had to draw a map of the places where the story took place to make sure the sequence of events on the journey and the direction of the next town were correct. Also, I had to make a list of characters and their relationship to other characters, background, race, and appearance. There were even plot threads that I had to make certain were “tied up” by the end of the book. Against my spontaneous nature – but necessary to make the manuscript work.
Morgen: Which is why I like sticking to short stories. 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Vonnie: Beware of writers who take notes! I think my characters are believable because I’m constantly jotting down mannerisms, scraps of dialogue, and interesting names whether I’m sitting on a train or at a shop or eating in a restaurant.
Morgen: Oh me too, every jacket and bag I own has a notebook and at least one pen it in. You mentioned earlier that you write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Vonnie: Yes. I write about subjects that I have some level of expertise or interest in: fairy tales, folklore, myths, writing, illustration, books, poetry, etc. And, of course, I do my research!
Morgen: Research (yuk :)). With your poetry, do you write to form or free verse? What would you say is the difference between a piece of prose and a prose poem? Why do you think poetry is so popular and yet so poorly paid?
Vonnie: Yes, I write poetry, and I have 2 books of verse, River of Stars and Essential Fables, published. The poems in both volumes are heavily influenced by myth and folklore. As for what sort of verse I write – I prefer free verse, but challenge myself to write in a form (sonnet, villanelle, tanka, cinquain, etc.) every now and again. I think forms require more discipline to write. And it’s challenging not to use forced or trite rhyme or mangle a phrase to get the rhythm correct.
I think a prose poem uses more of the tropes of poetry: alliteration, assonance, sensory language, personification, internal near-rhyme, etc. than a piece of prose. (You’ll find people argue about this).
We’re introduced to poetry in its simplest forms in the nursery rhymes and songs of childhood – so from an early age we like poetry. But I think most people don’t put a high monetary value on verse because they view popular poetry as too simplistic and academic poetry as too obscure. I think song lyrics are the only form of poetry that’s rewarded financially.
Morgen: Certainly the most rewarded (apparently 1980s singer Cathy Dennis wrote Kylie Minogue’s ‘Can’t get you out of my head’ and apparently it made Cathy a millionairess, if she wasn’t one already :)). You write short stories, apart from the word count, what do you see as the differences between them and novels and why do you think they’re so difficult to get published?
Vonnie: Because of the shorter length, the biggest difference between a short story and a novel is you have to limit the scope of what you’re writing. Examples: your cast of characters is smaller, because you don’t have the space to make more than 3 or 4 characters well-rounded. You can’t give lots of prologue information, but must jump feet-first into the action. You can’t wallow in excessive description, but need to find the right word or phrase to help a reader identify a location or person, etc. quickly. There should still be the story arc (rising action, climax, denouement), just keep the story simpler. I think they’re difficult to get published because a number of magazines that used to print short prose have folded. Now, there are less slots and more writers trying to get their stories accepted.
Morgen: There are, sadly. In the UK we’ve seen most of the weeklies stop printing fiction – Bella, Best, Woman, Woman’s Own to name just a few, and that’s in the few years I’ve been writing. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Vonnie: I’m editor of a women’s literary magazine, The Gunpowder Review, and I write a book review column, “Writers Block,” focusing on books by local writers for Harford’s Heart Magazine. For over 10 years I was a Maryland State Arts Council Poet, and did creative writing residencies in schools. It was very time-consuming, so I gave it up not long ago. Occasionally, I teach creative writing at a local college.
Morgen: I’d love to do that although I run my writing group which sometimes feel like teaching, especially when I get asked questions I can answer. 🙂 Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Vonnie: Katie and Michelle, two writers I met when earning my Masters Degree in Professional Writing from Towson University. Also, Wendy, a dear friend and editor.
Morgen: I have one of those. 🙂 Speaking of editing, do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Vonnie: Nowadays, my writing is more fully-formed. But I’m a constant reviser, so I’m always changing this little bit or that. I find that letting a piece “rest” for a few days (or preferably a few months) helps me find rough spots. When I’m writing a story with a close deadline, I don’t have that luxury, and I just hope it doesn’t read too terribly.
Morgen: I’m sure the editor will tell you. You touched on research earlier, how much do you have to do for your writing? Have you ever received feedback from your readers?
Vonnie: I do lots of research, but I like to read nonfiction in the areas in which I have an interest. I also read legends, myths, folklore, fairy tales, and books by fantasy masters including my all time favorite, J.R.R. Tolkien. Most reader feedback has been very positive.
True story about reader feedback FROM me: I went to Mythic Faire in Hunt Valley, Maryland, USA in the spring of 2011. I loaded a backpack with some of my nonfiction books and politely asked author John Matthews to autograph them. I think I was the first fan that hauled so many of his nonfiction titles to an autograph session. He was very gracious and signed them for me. My geekiness was on full display that day!
Morgen: Like me with crime novelist Mark Billingham (who’s agreed to do an interview with me!) who I met (and got to chat to in the ‘green room’ – I was a volunteer) at the Oundle Literature Festival in March this year – I took along six books of his so I guess it could have been worse (better / more). 🙂 Do you write on paper or do you prefer a computer?
Vonnie: I write on both. Poetry seems to demand a paper draft. Fiction sometimes is born on paper, and other times it bursts to life on the computer’s screen.
Morgen: “bursts into life” I love that. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc. Do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Vonnie: When I write I prefer quiet with only nature noises like birdsong, bees, insects, distant dog barks, and wind in the trees drifting in through the open window. When I’m doing research or painting, I like music in the background: Celtic, Stevie Nicks, Heart, Enya, etc. I like the music to match the mood of the subject I’m researching or drawing!
Morgen: I tend to have classical so it doesn’t interrupt and I don’t soak in any of the words, not sure I could work in silence, although I’d probably get more work done as I skip through tracks I’m no so fond of, or de-tick them from my iTunes. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Vonnie: I prefer third person point of view, hands down! I’ve tried second person pov, and found it not to my liking. And first person pov feels too personal to me – too much like a diary.
Morgen: A lot of people, including editors, don’t warm to second person. I love it but it does bring out my dark side. 🙂 Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Vonnie: I haven’t used prologues or epilogues. I like to get to the narrative right away. I usually find that the information in a prologue can be dropped into the story later. Of course, I dare not say I’ll never use them, or surely the very next tale I write will require one or both!
Morgen: I rarely read either one and apparently most readers feel the same so editors (I’m generalising of course here) avoid them so you may be doing the right thing. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Vonnie: Don’t we all? And it’s probably a good idea. I’ve had some poems and stories published that probably should have stayed in that drawer. (Awkward silence).
Morgen: 🙂 I have had a couple of interviewees say that everything they’ve written has been published or at least been sent somewhere but that’s certainly not me (she says looking at the display books full of old stuff).
Vonnie: I console myself with the knowledge that everyone begins somewhere, and the fact that my work has improved enough so I spot the flaws in earlier writing is a good thing.
Morgen: It is and now you’re accomplished enough to revise them until they gleam. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Vonnie: The best part of writing is creating a world to share with readers, whether it exists for the blink of a haiku or for the weeks of turning a novel’s pages. The worst part is the submission process.
Morgen: Do let me know how you get on with your latest batch. 🙂 If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Vonnie: That quite often the characters take over, and push the narrative in unexpected directions.
Morgen: Don’t they, that’s got to be my favourite aspect… and never knowing what’s going to come out from even the smallest of ideas, like last night in our writing workshops, such fun. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Vonnie: Write because you love to write. Don’t expect to get rich, but do expect to get published if you work on the craft of writing and persevere.
Morgen: Absolutely if you stop or don’t submit (note to self: submit something!) you won’t get published. What do you like to read? Anything you’d recommend?
Vonnie: I read lots of speculative fiction. I could recommend many of the classics, but I think I’ll just mention a few YA novels I’ve read recently: Impossible by Nancy Werlin; Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore; The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mocking Jay by Suzanne Collins; and a strange novel based on a real situation, My Abandonment by Peter Rock.
Morgen: Ooh new ones to me. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Vonnie: I like to garden, paint, read, make a bit of jewelry, embroider, take walks in the woods, spend time with family and friends, and travel. Lately, I’ve been doing some genealogy research. Fascinating stuff. And in my case, most of my family roots lead back to Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Morgen: Ralan I’ve not heard of but Duotrope is great. I get their weekly bulletins and they’re so packed with opportunities – I pass them on to my email group and I’m sure their eyes light up when the see it (or hearts sink when they realise they ought to submit something). In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Vonnie: I’m based in the USA. I live in a rural area of Maryland, but with the internet, I think a writer can live at the edge of the woods and still keep in contact with readers. It’s just a little more difficult than if I lived in a city.
Morgen: Providing there’s internet access at the edge of the woods. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Vonnie: For those who like mazes, they can download a Free Greener Forest Maze that I drew: http://coldmoonpress.com/forreaders.html and my publisher also has a buy link for The Greener Forest: http://coldmoonpress.com/quickbuy.html
Morgen: Brilliant, thank you Vonnie, lovely to have a proper chat. 🙂
I then invited Vonnie to include an extract of her writing and this is the beginning of ‘For the Good of the Settlement’, a science fiction tale:
“The mirror cracked in 4212. Rose figured Granny’s death and the Darwin Settlement Wars could be blamed on that crack. She’d never replaced the glass. She wanted to remember the power of things — things like mirrors and crows and bitternut trees deserved respect.
Rose stood in front of the flawed mirror, adjusted her wire-rims, smiled — though stained and sparse, she still had enough teeth to enjoy fresh-pulled corn. She stepped back and picked up a battered hat from the dresser top, tied it on with a double-knot bow. She frowned, straightened the hat.
“No sense in wearing a hat lopper-jawed, Halifax,” she told a red squirrel balanced on the bedpost. Halifax chattered a response and jumped to Rose’s shoulder. She made kiss-kiss sounds at Halifax, smoothed her apron bib so it laid unwrinkled over her sagging bosom, fussed with a few white hairs that frizzed about her cheeks, and sighed. Rose turned from the looking glass and went through the living room to the kitchen. Two more squirrels scampered around her feet as she flicked on the burner under the teapot. The trio of hyperactive rodents leapt to the counter-top…” To read the rest of the story click http://tinyurl.com/vonnie-settlement.
A firm believer that the world around us is filled with miracles and magic, Vonnie Winslow Crist has had a life-long interest in reading, writing, folklore, myths, legends, fairy tales, and art. Her fantasy, science-fiction, and dark fantasy poetry and prose have been published in Canada, Australia, Finland, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the USA.
Drawing her inspiration from the world around her, she still sees angels in the trees, trolls under bridges, pillywiggins in her garden, and goblins of all sorts in the shadows. Though she lives at Wood’s Edge in a rural part of the USA, a part of her heart will always remain in the UK and Ireland.
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