Meet Karina Sumner-Smith.
Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy from Talos Press: Radiant, Defiant, and Towers Fall. In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron.
Now onto the interview!
Is your writing process the same or different when writing a short story or a novel?
Different. Always different!
Generally, I think of a short story as using the fewest possible words, characters, scenes, etc., to create a specific emotional response in the reader. Often, all I know about the story when I start is the idea, the tone, and the emotional note that I want to strike in the ending.
Novels, understandably, are more complex. It’s not about supporting a single emotional reaction in the reader, but many emotions—a progression of feeling. While the biggest payoff may be in the ending, the story necessarily has many smaller emotional arcs throughout. The writing process is all about juggling these different factors, all the mini-stories and subplots, to create a compelling whole.
But while I’ve found that there are huge differences between writing a short story and writing a novel, there are also huge differences between writing one short story and another, one novel and another. Sometimes those differences are even more noticeable.
Many writers like to talk about process; I know that I do. Yet in those conversations, we tend to get hung up on categories and comparisons. Think about the process questions we most often ask. Do you outline or create the story as you go? How much do you know about the world, characters, and plot ahead of time? How much of your process is writing and how much is revision? (Etc. Etc.) The thing is, I think that all of these things are fluid—not only differing between one writer and the next, but between one work and another.
And it can be hard, I think, when we think of writing as a set process to deal with the fact that individual stories, long and short, progress differently. I’ve written stories where the scenes flowed like water; where I could barely type fast enough to keep up with the words. Other stories I’ve had to pull from my brain painfully, word by word, and then shape and re-shape from the muddle of sentences I’ve found on the page. None of these things is wrong, even when they’re challenging or distressing. There isn’t one right process, not even for an individual; there’s only what you have to do to get that particular story onto the page.
Did freelance writing inspire you to write your own stories? If not, what got you started in freelance writing? What got you started in writing your own stories?
Oh, no, I’ve been writing stories since I was thirteen! I’d probably have been writing even earlier if I’d realized that I could write a story just because I wanted to, rather than to complete a school assignment.
It sounds silly now, but what actually got me started writing on my own was finding an ad for a vanity publisher in the back of a magazine. Now, of course, the ad was for a total scam (I found that out later), but seeing a so-called publisher searching for writers made me realize that anyone could be an author, even me. All you had to do was write a book.
Of course, learning to write well—to rewrite and revise, to create compelling characters, to devise interesting plots, and all the rest—was a much longer journey. It’s a journey I’m very definitely still on, to be honest, but that was the start of it.
Freelance writing is more a matter of necessity. I spent about a decade of my career doing one form of business writing or another. Proposal writing, primarily, but also marketing and corporate communications. I wrote constantly—long hours to meet intense deadlines, creating these massive documents in just a few days—but what I really wanted to do was write novels. My first book, Radiant, actually took me about four years to write and revise because my day job took up most of my time and almost all of my mental capacity.
There came a point that I realized that my day job would eat every free moment that I allowed it to—and that, for all that I was physically writing day in and day out, I was getting no closer to my long-held dream of becoming a novelist. So, after a long talk with my husband and some careful work with our finances, I quit my job and we moved out of the city so that I could focus on my writing career. Now my time is split: freelance business writing part of the time (to pay the bills) and writing fiction the rest of the time.
Tell us about your journey as an author. How did it feel to get published the first time?
When I started writing at thirteen, I thought my journey would have me publishing short stories in my mid-teens and publishing my first novel in my early twenties. Life had other ideas.
I did actually sell my first short story at 19—after actively submitting for four years, and gathering about a hundred rejections. I remember staring at the letter in shock for a long moment before I understood what it meant. Not a rejection, not a “close but not quite” note, but an acceptance. They were going to publish my story! I did the only reasonable thing: gasped, laughed hysterically, and ran to tell my mom.
(This is actually one of the reasons why I’m so involved in the Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Workshop for Young Writers, which is an 11-day summer writing workshop for teens held at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus. Age is no barrier to success!)
Publishing novels, however … well. First I had to figure out how to actually write a novel. This took many attempts; I have dozens of failed books saved on my computer, some 30k, 40k words or more. And, like I said above, life got in the way. I wrote slowly when I had time to write at all. It’s not always an easy journey, becoming a professional author. Much of it is just slowly putting one word after another, however and whenever you can.
How do you deal with criticism? How do you feel about criticism? Is there anything you’d like to tell fellow writers when they deal with a bad review?
I think that my response depends on what you mean by “criticism”. There is a definite emotional difference between receiving critical feedback from someone who wants to help you with a piece during the writing or revision processes and reading a review of a published work.
The upside of gathering a stack of hundreds of rejections before even seriously attempting a novel-length work is that, by that point, I figured I was bullet proof. Yes, sometimes a particular rejection made me sad, but I knew it wasn’t personal. The rejection didn’t even necessarily mean that the story was bad, or had no promise; only that it didn’t fit that particular editor’s needs at that particular time.
I figured that reading reviews of my book would be similar. Take the good, leave the bad, move on. Bullet proof.
I was very wrong about that.
On the one hand, I have found reading some reviews of my published works to be helpful. It can be useful to see how readers engage—or fail to engage—with a work; to see what connected with them or went over their head, what they loved or hated, what made them roll their eyes or put the book down in boredom. Validation can be great, as can finding opportunities for improvement in future works. I do truly value reader feedback.
But (of course there was going to be a “but” here) what I had to learn through a painful process of trial and error is that sometimes a critical review is the very last thing I need to see. On a day when I’m struggling with my writing, or am experiencing trouble in my personal life—on a day when I’m just not in a good mental place—a critical review can be the thing that shuts me down. Bam. No more words that day; maybe no more productivity for a few days, a week, or more.
Every reader is entitled to their reactions, good, bad and in-between. I’m glad there are opportunities for readers to share reviews and thoughts with each other; this is absolutely critical to a healthy marketplace. But, as a writer, I don’t necessarily need to see that feedback—and, frankly, it’s not my place to engage with it at all.
What was your favorite book or short story to write? Why was it your favorite?
I’m not sure that I have a favorite, especially because as time passes it becomes harder to remember the writing process versus the final product. Stories that I love were not always the easiest or the most fun to write!
I will say, though, that I wrote a short story last year that ended up on the page much the way I first imagined it—which can be rare. The story is “The Oracle and the Warlord,” and it’s going to appear in The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, a science fiction and fantasy anthology about caregivers for mental illness and disability. It’s an exciting project, and I’m very glad that the editors thought my story was a good fit.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I just wanted to say thank you for your thought-provoking questions, and my apologies for my rambling answers! I appreciate you sharing your online space with me.
Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions Karina!
It was great chatting with you!