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Transcript: An Interview with Curtis Chen

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Curtis Chen for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

MIGNON: Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language—writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, in honor of National Novel Writing Month, I have an interview with Curtis Chen, who worked on his first and award-winning novel, “Waypoint Kangaroo” during NaNoWriMo. We also talked about attending conferences and workshops, taking extreme actions to be able to pursue your creative dreams, and if you’re interested in writing short stories in the speculative fiction genre, there’s some really interesting information at the end of the interview about that.

And now, on to the interview.

MIGNON: Hey Curtis. Thanks for talking with me today. 

CURTIS: Hey, Mignon. 

CURTIS: Yeah, thanks for inviting me. 

MIGNON: You bet. Well, November is National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo, and I recently learned that your first novel, “Waypoint Kangaroo,” was something you worked on during NaNoWriMo.

CURTIS: Yeah, it was. It was maybe the fourth or fifth time I attempted NaNoWriMo and the first couple times I didn't finished and get to 50,000, and “Waypoint Kangaroo” was maybe the second or third novel, like, I actually got to over 50,000. I think the first draft was maybe 60 some thousand words and it was like a complete story: I got to the ending and I was happy that I had actually finished it.  

MIGNON: That's great. So, how do you worked on “Waypoint Kangaroo” in previous years on NaNo. Was it like a sequential thing?

CURTIS: I had not. No, so I've always at least in the early years tried to approach it as, you know, a new project every year even if I didn't have any idea when I was starting out. So I've always been mostly pantser. People talk about pantsers and plotters. So I have generally gone in with a very big idea of what I want the setting to be and who I want the characters to be just kind of improv-ed out different scenes and just see how it was going and I've sort of developed my own process over, you know, more than a decade of doing that. 

MIGNON: Do you still consider yourself a pantser?

CURTIS: Yeah, although I'm becoming less so now. I've done a few projects where I actually I've been working with other people, so I have to, you know, give them an outline to look at for the collaboration. 

MIGNON: And when you're writing now I'm curious, do you use Scrivener or Word or do you put Post-its on the wall? And how do you organize things as you're working?

CURTIS: So it sometimes depends on the project or the stage of the project. For first drafts actually, So what I'm doing NaNoWriMo, I will use a it’s, it’s a little portable a word processor called Alpha Smart Neo that I don't think they make anymore, but it's a actually runs on Palm OS which was the old Palm Pilots PDA’s operating system.

MIGNON: Wow.

CURTIS: And its, it's very lightweight, and there's no internet on it. It's just a tiny screen that will show you like six lines of text at a time. So really all you can do is just like type in some text. There's no like fancy formatting or anything like that. So I find it really good for me for distraction-free…just getting the first draft out and producing more words and just keep going because it's hard to, like you can't scroll back and read stuff but six lines at a time, it's not great for editing like that.

But yeah, so I will look at the high level structure in Scrivener, and then that'll help me with the, the next revision because I always at this point I always go into it knowing that I'm going to get a first draft out and I'm going to have to go back and fix it because, like I said, I’m, I think of it as sort of doing improv in that first draft is like, you know, just throw those these characters and in this situation and see what happens and sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't the thing I like about it is a lot of times unexpected good things will happen and I will see like, “Oh, this is something interesting I can do with this story that I didn't think of before,” but then it does me like sometimes I'll have to go, go back to earlier scenes and either backfill or like setup things that I know I want now want to pay off later on, and then at some point especially if I'm doing like a collaborative thing or where people are giving me feedback, I'll give them a Word document and then they can put in comments or during the copying phase the copy editor can actually like make changes using the track changes features, and I can see what they’re, you know, correcting or querying me about because sometimes they will ask, you know, I've been writing a lot of science fiction lately. So sometimes they'll ask about like is this actually a word or is this something you made up or it's a spelled right or stuff like that?

MIGNON: Mmm, cool. We should actually back up. Can you tell people about about your novel “Waypoint Kangaroo”? I read it, and I loved it, and I think it was nominated for some awards, but we should tell our listeners what what your first novel, and I think your second novel to set in the same world, right?

CURTIS: Yeah. Yeah “Waypoint Kangaroo” is a is a funny science fiction spy thriller. And it was yeah, it was a finalist for the Locus Awards in the First Novel category and the Endeavour Award that same year which is given out in the Pacific Northwest. Yeah, so it was really nice to see how people responded to it positively, and the second book is “Kangaroo Too” set in the same world and is the second in the series, and yeah. And I also they also out in audio books, and I really like the the narrator they got because both books are written in the first person. So the audio book is in some ways like this extended monologue of this character. You know, either describing what's happening to him or sort of talking to himself about what just happened. And I felt like the narrator, P. J. Ochlan, really did a good job of sort of understanding the essence of the character, but then he like interprets it in his own way, which was fun to listen to as the author because you know, I wrote it with a certain thing in mind and it was fun to see like, yeah.

MIGNON: Yeah, and a good narrator can make all the difference.

CURTIS: Yeah.

MIGNON: And so you, and so you worked on the first draft of “Waypoint Kangaroo” during NaNoWriMo, right? And you completed a first draft. 

CURTIS: Mmm hmm.

MIGNON: And so then what happened like how long did it take then before that novel was, you know, sort of ready to submit?  Or shop around or how did that all come about?

CURTIS: Right, yeah, so the very first draft I wrote in 2006, and I didn't actually go back and start revising it until three years later because at that time I still wasn't sure, you know, which book I wanted to try getting published first, and I was also you know wondering like do I want to do self publishing or should I try to get an agent and all that stuff. So, you know, for a few years there every year for NaNoWriMo I was like starting a different project, something slightly different, and seeing, you know, do I feel better about this than some of the other things? And then after a few years of that I decided you know, I kind of want to try to get “Kangaroo” out there first, like I'm still thinking about it and I have ideas for your future books and series and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, so from 2009 to like 2011, I did a bunch of different revisions, and I have to say that a lot of stuff changed not just because I’d given it to some people to read, and they give me feedback, but I think also because of how I had developed as a writer during that time. Like I was seeing different things when I looked at the manuscript then like “Oh, yeah, I can definitely do this better or I want to do this thing a little differently,” or as I mentioned like the first draft was only about 60,000 words. I knew I had to get it to like ninety or a hundred thousand for an adult novel.

That's what publishers want to see for. So yeah, so then I spent a few years revising it and kept revising it, and I didn't actually start querying it to agents until 2013, 2014, and that was a whole nother thing where, you know, you have to write a query letter, which is very different than the novel itself.

So I spent a bunch of time researching that and figure out how to do it. Yeah, and then got an agent and we sold the book early 2015, and it came out in the summer of 2016, and we sold the second book in the same contract. So and that came out the next summer, so as a shorthand sometimes I tell people, you know, it it took me 10 years to write the first book, and I had to write the second one in 10 months.

There's not completely precisely true but it does give you an idea of your a lot of times as a new author like, you know, you you write one thing that sells but then the publishers want more stuff from you pretty much right away. So they can, you know, keep selling, you know, if you are very successful, you know, they know readers are going to want more of your stuff.

MIGNON: Well, one thing I think is great about NaNoWriMo is that it sets a deadline and a writing schedule for you for at least one month. So with nonfiction, which I've written, you sell the idea or the outline and then then you have people waiting for you. So you have real deadlines, but with fiction unless you know, unless you're a rock star, you have to finish the book before you can sell it.

So, I think it's really helpful to have any kind of artificial deadlines like that. And and I read that, you know, outside of NaNoWriMo, you also made a deadline for yourself that you'd write a new 500-word flash fiction piece every week, and you did that for five years, and I'm just kind of blown away. I want to know how you stuck with it. Was it ever hard or are you just sort of wired to do that in a way that I am not.

CURTIS: Yeah. Yeah. No, it was definitely, so I did that from that project I just started the blog, so I would have public accountability, and I told friends about it. So they would check every Friday to see if I put something new up and yeah, sometimes it was hard, and but I did I did that from 2008 until 2013.

So not quite five years and, I think, I was able to do that part of partly because of the discipline I had developed over, you know, the previous several years of doing NaNoWriMo where like you said you have you have to you know, at least attempt to produce and figure out like okay you have set this target of 50,000 words and you have 30 days. 

If you write every day you have to do at least this many words per day, but if you don't write every day, which is generally what I do because I…other stuff going on, and you know a lot of people talk about how like they could never, you know, do it in November especially because you have, you know, the Thanksgiving holiday and you know, you have other stuff going on in your life, but I think part of the philosophy behind NaNoWriMo is that there's always going to be something else going on in your life, and you really just have to figure out how you can find the time to do the writing, and I think generally this applies to any kind of creative art that people are doing that, you know, they're not necessarily getting paid for upfront like you make a thing and you don't know what's going to come of it. And that's the other part of it. I think is that you really have to find some joy in the process of making a thing and creating it and, you know, the whole revision process for writing and that is something that I had to you know figure out for myself and I think every writer is going to be a little different, but having done that for, you know, every year in November for NaNoWriMo, I was able to you know decide that, okay, I want to, you know, do something that is just me, and I want to see if I can do this, you know every week. I figured 500 words was a manageable amount, like I could sit down for an afternoon and, you know, a few hours and just get that out, even if they weren't the best words in the world, even if they didn't really make a whole story or make a lot of sense. And that was another thing I definitely got from NaNoWriMo. It's like you just got to get the words out and you can fix them later. But if you don't have anything on the page, then there's nothing to fix, and I really sort of took that to heart over the years like, “Okay, you know, as long as I have something I feel like, you know, there are different skills as a writer that I use at different times.” So like for the first graph there's definitely one set of skills I use just doing you create something new and like, you know, make things up, and then after I've got a first draft, then I can apply a different set of skills where I look at things a little more critically and say, okay, you know, what is working? What is not and what can I do to fix it or improve it?  

MIGNON: Great. We're going to take a quick break for our sponsors and when we come back, we're going to talk about writing conferences and how those can help too, and also a really interesting choice that Curtis made about where to live which is kind of like a choice I made too, so we'll be right back. 

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MIGNON: Okay, we're back. So I'm curious…you talked about using different skills at different points in the writing process. And I know from reading bios of you that you've attended a number of writing conferences or workshops that I think you liked and, and I'm wondering if, you know, those different skills were things that you developed at these different classes or events that you went to.

MIGNON: And if you can talk about the different kind of writing workshops, and how do you, how do you find a good one? There are so many out there. I just wonder how you find a good one, and it seems like you're happy with the ones you've done

CURTIS: Yeah, so there are a lot of writing workshops out there. Specifically, I'm most familiar with the ones in the science fiction fantasy horror community because that’s, you know, I grew up reading a lot of speculative fiction, and I was a fan before I, you know, started writing professionally.

So I was going to these fan conventions, things like comic-con's and local cons. So I kind of became familiar with the the community that way, and so a lot of local conventions like like I'm in Portland, Oregon, so every fall Oricon happens here and maybe thousand fifteen hundred people locally and you know from the Pacific Northwest get together, and there's a lot of panels and, you know, costuming and kids programming and there's also a lot of, you know, writing specific programming. So a lot of these columns will have writers workshops where, you know, if you're going to the con you can also sign up to submit a piece that gets critiqued by other writers and sometimes professional writers who are going to be there doing panels and what not and then there are specific things. So I did a couple of workshops where you actually you apply with a writing sample and you have to get approved to go and and what they want to see my understanding is, you know, they want to see a certain skill level and they want to know that you're at a place in your own development as a writer where you're going to be able to get a lot of benefit from being at the workshop being critiqued by other people, giving them your feedback on their work and, you know, and learning more about your specific aspects of craft or whatever it is. So I did in 2008, I went to Viable Paradise, which is a week-long workshop on Martha's Vineyard. And then in 2014, I went to Clarion West which is a 6-week summer workshop up in Seattle, and those were both really good and they helped me in different ways because, you know, again they were six years apart, so I had developed as a writer so, you know, Clarion is a something that people talk about as being kind of like a boot camp for writers because it’s pretty intense both in that, you know, you leave home for six weeks and you go and live there with like 18 other writers, and a new instructor comes in every week. And you spend all week, you know, everyone is supposed to write a new piece every week that gets critiqued by everyone else in the class. So it's it's a fair amount of work in just, you know, reading everything and you have, you know, three or four critiques every day. But there's also a good amount of downtime where you get to know the other writers.

So a lot of people come out of Clarion West or Clarion UCSD with this cohort of people that they kind of then follow through the years as they you know, start selling more people, you know, you know, finish that novel that they started at Clarion, or they sell these short stories or whatever, and Viable Paradise because it was one week was a little more tightly scheduled I want to say because every day was like, okay, this is your schedule for the whole day. And this is what you're giving doing pretty much every hour of the day. So it was a lot of information to sort of get downloaded in that short time, but also a really great experience.

MIGNON: Do you feel like your writing really grew from those experiences or is it more about just feeling inspired and networking and getting to know people?

CURTIS: I think it's both and I think if, If someone goes into it with with an idea of what they want to get out of it, I feel like they might you know, enjoy the experience better because it is very very different than you know, having a critique group at home or even online where you're not doing stuff face to face and you're not sort of all packed into this workshop environment.

But yeah, I definitely, you know, have kept in touch with a lot of people from both of those workshops and from other conventions that I've met. When when my first novel came out, “Waypoint Kangaroo” came out, one of my Viable Paradise classmates, Claire Humphrey, her first novel was coming out the week before and actually from the same publisher also, so we ended up doing a book tour together, which was a lot of fun.

So it was fun to be able to share that experience with her and and… Clarion West you know, a lot of all of my classmates have been publishing a lot. So it's great to you know, to go online or to like read Publishers Weekly or whatever and to see them mentioned and to be able to keep up with them and, and se e how they're developing to in as writers and in their in their lives.  

MIGNON: Yeah, I love that too. Seeing people I know get published and become more and more prominent. It's so fun to go in a bookstore and see your friends’ books.

CURTIS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so I definitely recommend people to look at it. And again, I think like NaNoWriMo, it’s not for everyone, but I feel like it's worth investigating at least or, you know, certainly for in the case of NaNo like anyone can try that out and decide whether or not they want to continue with it because and, you know, like one of the things you mentioned, you know, the community is so great that, you know, if you're willing to sort of open yourself up a little to talk to other people about what this is like to do this work long-term or try to make it as a career, I think you can really get a lot out of it. 

MIGNON: Yeah, Clarion in particular sounds really intense, and I bet a lot of people are thinking well, I could never take six weeks off to go do that. But you did something that I did too that I think a lot of people don't consider: when you decided you wanted to be a writer you intentionally moved from the Bay Area to a less expensive place to live.

And I did the same thing when I decided I really wanted to do podcasting, and I don't think I've ever talked about it—definitely not on my own show. So I chose Arizona at the time and eventually ended up in Reno, and you chose Vancouver, Washington, and ended up staying there. That's close to Portland for people aren't familiar with the west coast.

And so can you talk people through making that decision to move and sort of how it helped you become a writer?

CURTIS: Yep. Yeah, so at the time, my wife and I were actually calling the writer move. So the, I think the very start of it was, you know, a couple years before we moved we it was our first wedding anniversary, I believe and we taking a trip up to Napa and we're on the Wine Train. It's a very long story so fear for you to cut it if you need to. So the Wine Train in Napa, California, is like it's a train that doesn't actually go anywhere, like, it's three hours. He goes from one end of the track to the other and there's like lovely scenery outside. But basically you sound train that goes from point A to point B, and then it just comes back to point A, and along the way they feed you. 

MIGNON: And you drink wine.

CURTIS: Yeah, they feed you lunch. There's lots of wine. So we were just kind of you know, hanging out and chatting about stuff and it was our anniversary. So we were talking about a lot of you know, sort of big picture stuff. Like what do we want out of our lives together are we happy what we're doing now in our careers and all that kind of stuff, and we were both working pretty, you know, high-stress tech jobs in Silicon Valley. I was a software engineer, and she was working at a medical device company as a corporate trainer, and so we got to talking about you know, what would we do if we could do anything, and I'd always been interested in writing and since high school I been trying to, you know, write short stories and you know send them out, and hadn't gotten anything published at that point. I don't think, but I was really interested in it, and I just felt like I didn't have the time or in particular the mental energy after you know spending all day coding software, like that took a lot out of me. And so even if I could find the time to do writing, I felt like I wasn't, you know, able to really give it all of the attention it deserved. So we talked about it and we, like, and we kind of came up with the idea of “Okay, you know, we could, you know, we're making enough money now, we could probably save some money and then take some time off, you know, maybe two or three years,” and we looked at, you know, our budget what we were spending looked at how much we could save out of, you know, what we were making from our salaries, and we kind of settled on the idea of, you know, we could stay in the Bay Area for you know, a year maybe 18 months, or we could go somewhere else that was half as expensive, and stay for two to three years and like give ourselves time to figure something out.

So yeah, we made a big spreadsheet and looked at a bunch of different parts of the country. I think Sacramento was going to be our fallback if we didn't find anywhere that was better because DeeAnn had actually lived there before when she was younger. And it was close enough that, you know, it wouldn't be a huge change for us in terms of how we were living. But that is one thing we wanted to do if we could was to, you know, get farther away from where we were so that we wouldn't be doing the same kinds of frankly expensive things that we were doing like going out with our friends and, you know, eating out at restaurants all the time and all this other stuff that, you know, just housing is very expensive in the Bay Area, electricity is very expensive, which we learned when we came up here to the Portland area because like everything's hydroelectric up here.

So our electricity bill like went down by like two-thirds of what we playing California, even though we still have a lot of electronics and computers and all the, all those kinds of toys in our home. 

Yeah, and we've been able to, so long story short, we've been able to actually stretch that a lot, you know more than what we saved for just, you know, I think it was two years that we know really actively, you know, put a lot of money into savings knowing that we were going to use it for this for this part of the lives.

But like I've done a bunch of freelance work, and my wife has done some part-time  and the contract work, and one of those contracts was like with a former coworker who is still in the Bay Area so she would fly down there once a month and they were paying her like, you know, hourly at Bay Area rates.

So it went a lot farther where we were living now. Yeah, so we're still figuring out, you know, the whole finance thing long-term, but I feel like we've been very fortunate in that we were able to, you know, give this a try.

MIGNON: And so by, by sort of freeing up so much of your time that gave you the both the time and sort of the mental space to work more on your, on your creative writing?

CURTIS: Yeah, I definitely, you know, I went into it, you know, thinking “Okay, I'm going to take my writing more seriously. I'm going to make it, you know, the main thing I'm going to work on.” And yeah, but, you know, that's it. There was still definitely a period of adjustment because we were living a little differently and also figuring out like how I was going to manage my own time and keep myself motivated. And so the flash fiction project kind of came out of that well as a way to, you know, make myself produce something every week. Even if it was just a little bit of a thing but eventually, you know, a lot of those…so one big thing I figured out from doing the flash fiction was that, you know, I was got to a point where I was able to write a really tight like 500-word scene, but it was definitely just the first scene of a longer story.

So a lot of those flash pieces I later turn into, you know, longer like you know, 5,000, 6,000 words stories and then sold them to other markets. So that was that was overall a very good exercise for me as a writer. Other people may have different experiences. So I do recommend, you know, generally, you know, being able to set yourself a deadline and meet it I think is good because you're not always going to have other people who are asking for stuff from you.

MIGNON: Yeah, the short stories isn't something that I have ever really looked into or been drawn to writing myself, but I understand that there are some really robust markets right now for, for short fiction. Is that, is that as my impression correct?

CURTIS: Yeah. Yeah, there are a lot of markets online right now, especially, that are doing really, really cool stuff with short fiction. So Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, which is a horror market, and some of these are also they're also like doing a lot more translation—getting works from other parts of world and translating them into English and publishing them for the the US and English-speaking Market. Yeah and Fireside, FIYAH magazine. Yeah, there's a lot and obviously the you know, the the print magazines there aren't as many now but Analog is still around, Asimov’s, Interzone from the UK, Black Static, which is also a more horror e-magazine.

Yeah. There's there's actually a lot of stuff out there. If you are interested in, in the field of speculative fiction publishing. I highly recommend looking at Locus Magazine. They have a website where they will put print excerpts from each issue, but every month they put out a great set of…its informational because it has a lot of publishing specific information. So definitely for people who are aspiring writers who haven't published a lot yet, it's a great way to learn about you know, what people are doing like what's selling now, which agents are making deals out there, but every issue they also do two interviews with different writers who talk about their work and their lives.

So that's also it's a really cool way to sort of get a look at what other people are doing because like I said, I think every writer is a little bit different and, you know, has to find their own path in their writing career. So it's cool to be able to read about that. Even if you're not able to, you know, go to conventions or workshops and meet people and talk to them in person.

MIGNON: Yeah, you can still get that perspective. That's amazing. You just rattled off, I don’t know, 10 or 15 outlets just off the top of your head. That definitely says to me there's a lot out there.

CURTIS: Yeah, and there's a lot more precise set. Ao I know a lot about markets because I'm currently I volunteer as the secretary for SFWA, which is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. So it's a 501c3 public charity, and we're dedicated to helping and promoting writers of genre fiction and we do a lot of stuff for everyone. You don't have to be a member to go to SFWA.org. There are a lot of resources on the site. But as a secretary, I'm the one who's in charge of reviewing markets who want to be qualified as professional markets. So right now SFWA defines a professional rate as eight cents a word and we also have other, you know, requirements like the market has to have been around for at least a year, and the circulation has to be at least this much, and in print and it's this, and if you're online we want to know some number of page views a month, I think.

But yeah, and the point of that is so that, you know, if you're a new writer and you want to know who you know who is buying the kind of stuff you're writing and who is, you know, Actually publishing it in there paying a professional rate. So for kind of try to do the work of that.

MIGNON: Didn't you help people find new what outlets are legitimate? 

CURTIS: Yeah. 

MIGNON: Yeah, great. Well, so to wrap this up, I'm just curious. Are you planning on working on anything this November for NaNoWriMo?

CURTIS: I am. I don't know what that's going to be yet, but that's kind of how I usually go into it. So, you know, I've got a few weeks to figure it out. I'll be fine. 

MIGNON: And do you have any, do you have any new books coming out soon or in the interim? What do you have in the in the oven right now?

CURTIS: Yeah, I don't have any novels coming out. There a couple of them working on, but there is a I have a story in an anthology that's coming out in early November. It's called “Infinite Stars, Dark Frontiers,” I believe and it is set in the the Kangaroo universe. So it's sort of a prequel story before any of novels happens. So if you're familiar with those characters…

MIGNON: Oh, neat.

CURTIS: It’s yeah, it's kind of fun. Yeah. 

MIGNON: Great, and so where's the best place for people to find you online?

CURTIS: Online. I have a website. It's CurtisCChen.com, and if you just search for my name, you'll probably, you know, find a whole bunch of stuff.

I'm on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all the usual places, I guess. 

MIGNON: Great. Thank you so much Curtis for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.

CURTIS: Yeah. Thank you, Mignon. This has been fun.

MIGNON: And thank you for listening. I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find me at the home of my podcast network, QuickAndDirtyTips.com, where you can also find all the other great Quick and Dirty Tips podcast hosts including the Savvy Psychologist, Everyday Einstein, and the Mighty Mommy.

Thank you to my producer Nathan Semes, and that’s all. Thanks for listening.

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