Today we welcome Alison McBain, novelist, editor, mother of three young children and all-round dynamo of writing creativity, where I sit her still for a few moments to discuss her story and how she managed to find the time to write and release her YA Fantasy novel The Rose Queen.
Your list of creative activities is mind-boggling and I know it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take this from the start. You live in Fairfield, New England, USA, tell me something as a Brit I wouldn’t know.
Fairfield is a typical New England town, the kind you see on postcards. It’s small enough that I can walk my kids to their elementary school, a luxury I couldn’t imagine compared to the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley, near where I grew up. And Connecticut is a positive breeding ground of authors – you can’t throw a stick without hitting one. There must be something about the water that makes everyone here want to write. Or perhaps it’s the long, snowy winters stuck inside with nothing better to do.
What are your inspirations for writing?
My mom is Japanese-American, and I grew up in California with the Asian side of my family. That meant at every holiday meal, we had turkey and sushi side-by-side. My grandmother told me stories from when she was young and lived through the Depression and internment camps, and about losing her first husband to WWII. My dad was a hippy at heart, and he backpacked around the world twice after college. I grew up listening to his stories about sleeping on a beach on an island off the West Coast of Africa, hitchhiking across Europe with a Romani traveler, or having his belongings confiscated in Soviet-era Russia so all he had was the shirt on his back when he reached Japan. So I’ve always been surrounded by the stories of my family, and it’s probably what’s made me want to tell my own stories. I tend to live vicariously through the real-life adventures of my friends and family. Probably why I write my adventures, since it’s a bit hard for me to travel much with three young children.
The Rose Queen is by no means your first step into publishing your work. What else have you had published?
I have over 70 short stories and poems published in various magazines, journals and anthologies.
Wow, that’s a lot of content. Which even in the short time we’ve talked, doesn’t surprise me. Can you tell me about your process of getting your short stories and poems published?
I start out by reading a lot – every journal and magazine I can get my hands on. I always want to get a feel for the market and for storytelling in general, and there’s no better way than by letting your eyes do the walking. Then I try to submit work to each magazine that is similar in style to what they’ve already published, because then I feel I have a better chance of getting an acceptance. I currently subscribe to several free websites that list fiction and poetry markets, including The Grinder (https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/), Submittable (https://www.submittable.com/), and Winning Writers (https://winningwriters.com/). Each one sends out a monthly email, listing markets currently looking for submissions. And then I just submit, submit, submit.
What advice would you give to writers who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Two key pieces of advice to present a professional appearance when submitting your work:
1) Read the submission guidelines!!! I can’t emphasise this enough. The guidelines are not just there to help out the editor/readers of your work, but to see if you actually took the time and effort to make at least a token attempt to follow the rules. After all, if the author doesn’t bother to read the guidelines, why should the editor bother to read the author’s work?
2) There are some formatting standards in the industry, and you can seldom go wrong if you follow them. A good example of submission letter dos and don’ts is Jane Friedman’s “The Perfect Cover Letter” (https://www.janefriedman.com/perfect-cover-letter-advice-lit-mag-editor/). The industry standard for formatting your manuscript is William Shunn, for fiction (https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html) and poetry (https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html).
Submitting so much work must mean you get a lot of rejection. How do you deal with that?
Rejection is seldom personal on the editor’s part, and so it shouldn’t be personal on the author’s part, either. If you ever respond to an editor about a rejection, please don’t be negative. If they’ve written a personalised response to you, simply say “thank you.” They’ve taken time out of their day to send you a note of encouragement, even though your story didn’t quite make the cut. Editors often get hundreds of submissions a month, and it’s better to stand out with a “thank you” than to stand out by telling them they’re an idiot.
Rejection is just a part of the business of writing, although sometimes it can be hard to see it that way. I like to tell author hopefuls about a short story of mine that had over 30 rejections before it got 1 acceptance. The point? All it takes is 1, and so the rest of the rejections ended up not mattering in the long run.
Does having so many short publications out in the market help you build your author platform and do you think they have ultimately driven sales on you novel?
Yes and yes. Building an author platform is partly about having something to give to readers that they feel they can’t get anywhere else. Some writers build their platforms by blogging, some by offering writing advice, and some by writing shorts. It’s sort of like the rule of 3 for advertisers – that a consumer (in this case, a reader) doesn’t actively think about purchasing a product (in this case, your book) until they’ve seen your name in 3 different places. Although I have no quantifiable data to back me up, ha, I feel that I have some name recognition that wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have a body of work to show for it before I ever published my first book.
This is is great advice. Thank you.
I’m not sure I dare to ask what else you do relating to writing, but go on, please?
Ha, ready for the list? With a fellow writer, I run a monthly poetry group at my local library. I’m the Book Reviews Editor, one of the coordinating editors, and also a member of the Review Board for the long-running ezine Bewildering Stories. Also, I’m the lead editor and organiser of my writers’ group’s publishing imprint, the Fairfield Scribes, and also the website manager for our site. I blog and interview creatives (writers, artists, animators, comic book creators, poets, etc.) on my own website, alisonmcbain.com. And recently I started a web comic about parenting that’s available on Twitter: @Toddler_Times.
Okay. So please tell me your secret. Where do you find the time?
I have no idea where I find the time to do everything. Perhaps it’s because I don’t watch much TV. Honestly, TV is a time suck. (Except for The Walking Dead, of course – that is a VERY valuable expenditure of my time, ha.)
I think the key is that I need to be flexible because of my kids – sometimes I write longhand in a notebook when I’m on the go, or on my laptop – but I prefer to be sitting at home at my desktop computer. Most of my writing and writing-related work happens at night from about 9pm-4am. The only time there’s actual quiet in the house, ha.
Ah, I see. You don’t sleep! Can you give me some of what you have?
Sure! Have some coffee. It’s great.
You belong to a writer’s group. How do you think that helped in you publish your novel The Rose Queen?
I belong to several writers’ groups.
Why am I not surprised!
Two are in-person groups – one at my local library, one at writers’ houses. A third group I belong to is online, Scribophile.com. For writers who don’t have local writing groups they can go to, I’d definitely recommend Scribohile. It’s an amazing writing site, with authors from all around the world.
I think the better question would be: how did they NOT help me? Because I can’t think of anything they didn’t do. I got multiple beta reads, copy edits, line edits, developmental suggestions… pretty much they rebuilt it from top to bottom for me. I am eternally grateful to them for all their help. My book wouldn’t exist without them.
We’ve got through a lot already, tell me a little bit about your novel The Rose Queen?
It’s my debut YA novel, a gender-inverted retelling of Beauty and the Beast, wherein the Beast is a woman. It’s the first in a trilogy, with the next one set to come out in 2019. The Rose Queen is available now you can purchase it on Amazon as either a print or eBook copy.
Okay, that’s it for part one of the interview. I hope you have enjoyed so far and in the next instalment we’ll talk about Alison’s writing challenges, more about her debut novel and where she shares some great advice for new writers and we take a look into her marketing strategy. If you can’t wait until the next instalment then you can connect with Alison using Twitter.
If you enjoyed this interview then why not follow my blog where I’ll be posting more interviews soon and I regularly provide an insight into my own experiences as I work towards publishing my debut novel, In The End. If you’re an author, or you’ve just got an interesting story to tell and you’d like to be interviewed, just drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org