Analyzing Your Ideas Against Existing Trends: Kalyn Josephson

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Kalyn Josephson, author of The Storm Crow, a YA Fantasy novel out with SourcebooksFire July 2019. Kalyn currently works as a Technical Writer in Silicon Valley, which leaves room for too many bad puns about technically being a writer. .

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Yes! I’d read an article about a little girl who fed her neighborhood crows. In return, they brought her trinkets. People christened her The Crow Queen, a title that really stuck with me. It gave me the idea for a fairytale-esque story about a girl trapped in a tower (naturally) and the crows who brought her pieces of the world. I’d always loved crows, and couldn’t get the imagery from the story out of my mind. Eventually it expanded into a larger world, until The Storm Crow was born. 

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Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

The first thing I ironed out was the 8 types of crows (Shadow, Sun, Battle, Storm, Fire, Water, Wind, Earth). From there, I built a world centered on their integration in society. Then I asked: what happens if they all disappear? How does that impact the world? The people? For my MC, Anthia, it had a very personal impact, and the story follows her struggle to deal with it.

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Usually I’m pretty good at sticking to my outlines. But sometimes I’d reach a point and realize what I had planned won’t work. Either because it doesn’t fit the characters, or it’s not coming together on paper like it did in my head.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

Story ideas pop into my head pretty frequently, and I keep a notebook of everything. Not all of them are good enough to be the kernel for a new world, and a lot of times I end up combining ideas. You always have to analyze new ideas for how similar they are to existing books and trends, but especially in the YA Fantasy market, which is heavily inundated. I’ve had to scrap a lot of ideas I loved that were too similar to existing books. 

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How do you choose which story to write next if you’ve got more than one percolating?

Whichever one won’t leave me alone. I have a long drive to work, which is pretty much my only free, uninterrupted alone time. A lot of my brainstorming is done then (so much so that I bought a tape recorder that I leave running so I can dictate ideas). Often, a lot of tiny ideas will pop up, and they’ll all fit nicely into a larger WIP. When that starts happening, I know it’s a story I want to focus on.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

5 is impressive! I have 2 little black cats I adopted, Snags and El. El is a lap kitten that keeps me company while I write; Snags only pops up on my desk around dinner time to ensure I don’t forget. 

 Snags (left) and El (right)

Writing A Novel Set In the Publishing World with Lauren Mechling

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Mindy:             Today's guest is Lauren Mechling who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, The New Yorker online and Vogue where she writes a regular book column. She's worked as a crime reporter and metro columnist for the New York Sun and a features editor at The Wall Street Journal. A Graduate of Harvard College, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

Mindy:             Lauren joined me today to talk about how her own experiences in print media helped form the world of her new novel, How Could She?

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Mindy:             Your new book is titled. How Could She? And it follows Rachel, Sunny and Geraldine. It is very much set in the media world it deals with print, it deals with the collapse in many ways of the print industry and then also the rise of podcasting. So why that world?

Lauren:            Yeah, it's about two collapsing worlds, the collapse of friendships over time and the collapse of an industry that is very dear to my heart. I've been part of, you know, initially print media for two decades. And I also was able to weave in one of my true loves and newer love, which is podcasts. I've listened to so, so, so many podcasts. And it all has sort of fit together, as I thought about it in the sense that the stories about three women, okay, they all started out in the print media world and now, you know, a decade later in their mid thirties they have succeeded to varying degrees or in one case not succeeded.

Lauren:            And podcasting is this new dark horse, or it was. And so Geraldine, the character who, you know, all the memos of how to get ahead in life passed her by. She followed her heart and it backfired on her. And she's essentially suffering PTSD at this point from a failed relationship. And she's working at a job that's so beneath her. The only opportunity she really ends up having is one that she creates herself, which is a podcast. And that ends up being the engine of her, you know, ascent and a, you know, a whole new adventure for her.

Mindy:             And one of the things that I enjoyed so much being also an author and moving in the print world myself in the world of publishing, one of the lines that I loved was when one of the characters who is writing a YA novel is talking to an editor and the editor says, "You write beautifully but so does my cat." And I loved that. It was a wonderful indication and it's so true, that just being able to write and even write very well is not enough. There are so many elements involved.

Lauren:            More and more. I mean I think at the time when I wrote that what I was thinking was there has to be a hook, there has to be a high concept there. You know, in order to write a story that has any chance in the market place, you also have to basically tell a whole other story, which is that of yourself and market yourself on, you know, in social media. So yes, being able to put a sentence together is sort of the least of it.

Mindy:             Right. Even if you can do it very well, it doesn't matter. You have to be a hustler and you have to be a mover and a shaker and you have to be able to sell yourself. And I think it's a really interesting dichotomy because a lot of creatives aren't that person. That the performative quality when you're a writer isn't necessarily always there. So do you have any, any thoughts on that?

Lauren:            I've definitely had to jump into the limelight more than I ever was. I've always felt like I've been like living in the margins even when it doesn't seem that way to other people. I always feel like a bit of an outsider and an observer and yes, now I am, um, you know, writing tons of personal essays and doing interviews about myself. It's, it's strange and I feel that the Lauren Mechling from two years ago, if she saw what was happening, she might be horrified. But it's actually fun and it's necessary. I think it's completely justifiable in a way that maybe the snobby, older version of me wouldn't have thought. I, you know, I really have a story to tell. And so I'm doing whatever I can, I'm doing it for these three women who I invented.

Mindy:             When I was first getting started, I had that, oh, you know, writer in the high castle creating their art for Art's sake. And now I'm like, what do you want me to do? Do you need my hair to be pink? I can make it pink.

Lauren:            It's also fun. I'm not an introvert and I'm not an extrovert. I'm a mix of the two. And writing is hard. I don't feel, I don't think I would be happy if I were in a castle just churning out fiction nonstop. I'm meeting, really cool people. And I also really like, you know, even talking on the phone, which I never get to do anymore. Now I get to do it. And so there's, there's a good side to it. Absolutely. I hope it'll feed me and feed me to, you know, to go back to the castle or as it were, the Brooklyn desk and you know, go back, go into retreat a little bit again.

Mindy:             No, absolutely. Because it is a solitary undertaking and you do need, you do need to refuel sometimes and other people... I'm the same way. Other people help me do that. If I was working in solitary constantly, just being an artist, I think it would stop. My work would suffer.

Lauren:            Totally. There's left, right? There's a writer, oh, Kristin Miller. I remember once, she's a young adult writer and she wants to tell me she had a theory, which is there has to be an equal amount of coming in and going out in that, you know, material comes into you and then it comes out of you as your work and it's important to her to take breaks and be in the world and then go back and have funny things to say about it.

Mindy:             Oh yes. I agree with that. I was a YA librarian for a long time, so I remember, Kristen's series.

Lauren:            Yes. Great. Kiki Strike.

Mindy:             Yes. And Kiki Strike. Yeah.

Lauren:            Yeah. She's so cool.

Mindy:             Wonderful writer. Coming up, the complexities of female friendships as a storytelling concept.

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Mindy:             So the focus of the book also, while the setting and the realm that it's operating in is very much the, the print world. Your focus is very much on female relationships and the intimacy of that, but then also the intimacy fading and there becoming this space in between and some of the assumptions that we make about people that we used to know and perhaps changed and all of the different ways and the complications of a female friendship over time. So if you want to talk about that a little bit since it's a huge focus in the book.

Lauren:            Well, when I started writing the book, I was thinking about the three women's arcs, you know, as an x-y axis of, you know, where they would start when the book starts in January, you know, New Years and then where they would find themselves the next New Years. But in turns out it's essentially not a very accurate way of thinking about the way people change or their relationships change because there's the element of time as this third dimension. And in that sense that people who are intertwined and have a relationship between the two of them, when they reach a point of, you know, everything going well and feeling close to each other and they have, you know, they know how to relate to each other and they have their rhythms. Life throws curve balls and one person will have failures and one person will have successes or you know, new people enter the picture.

Lauren:            And so friendships are, they're very, very, very vulnerable and they're all, they always have to evolve to the moment and then be ready to spin around again and take on a new configuration. And in the book, I really, I looked at these three women who had a, they sort of had a pretty good thing going when they got to know each other. I mean, it was a bit of a fraught triangle because two of the women were very suspicious of each other and not very close, but they all knew where they stood and they all had their roles and they all were for the better because of their relationships with other women. Enter a decade plus, and it's really, really, really hard to maintain the fiction that friendship, these friendships will just remain strong and unchanged and keep going because, you know, someone has a baby, someone becomes a, you know, semi-famous person. Someone has setbacks that cause her to feel, feel sad in a way that other people maybe they don't really understand or they can't truly relate to.

Mindy:             Yes, it's very true. Especially in, um, relationships where one person has a level of success that another has clearly not achieved. You can't ignore that imbalance.

Lauren:            Right. And of course there's lots to go around, but it often doesn't feel that way. It often feels as though one person's success is the reason why you're not where you want to be. Well, and I think it's hard. And the other way, if you, if you know, you do become lucky in some way, you've acknowledged that. Do you talk about it with your friend or you know, do you just keep talking about the same old thing or do you say, hey, I get it. This is weird, this thing that I want it to happen has happened.

Mindy:             It is literally only criticism I have of Big Little Lies. I don't know if you watch it, but

Lauren:            I watched the first season.

Mindy:             Okay. No one ever talks about the fact that Jane is poor. Like it just doesn't come up.

Lauren:            Oh, that's interesting.

Mindy:             Well, right. I mean they're all just so rich and so well off and they're like, Jane's our friend and it's never...

Lauren:            Right. Why can't we talk about that? But my story is set in New York City, class and wealth are huge, huge factors in who we are and how people perceive us. And we all also have these financial mysteries that we conceal from each other. You know, everyone has weird way of surviving. People you know, do things on the side or they get things slipped to them from their aunt or something and it's not, you know, people don't even talk about their salaries very often.

Mindy:             No, I remember that when I got my first book deal, my editor said, don't tell other authors what your advance was.

Lauren:            Uh Huh. Did you think she said that because she didn't want other authors to ask for the same or do you think it was that she didn't want people to be jealous of you or what?

Mindy:             I have no idea. I am not sure. And at the time I was like, oh, okay. And because I was a baby writer I was like, okay, I'll take this very seriously. But now I, I'm just... I believe in transparency and I'm just very honest about what I make and I don't feel a reason to like maintain this fiction of the mystery of income in the creative world.

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Lauren:            Right? I mean, right now there's that thing going around where people are, you know, everyone was horrified when the author Taffy Akner talked about how she reached a point in magazine journalism where she was asking for $4 a word. And people were scandalized by that saying, that's so much. That's so unfair. But it's just think even that it's ridiculous and it's simplistic. And if, let's say a magazine writer is writing two 1000 word stories, like it's still not enough to live on. So we're so easily shocked and scandalized by talking money.

Mindy:             Oh, we are, that's very true. When I do, um, when I speak in front of groups and people ask, especially if I'm doing school visits, kids love to ask, how much money do you make? That's always what people want to know. And so I just started answering them. And then I tell them the number and they're just like, oh my God, and then I break it down for them. This is before taxes, this is spread out over 18 months in three payments and once you do that, they're like, oh, it's actually not that much money. I'm like, no, it's not. One of the questions I get because it's a symbol I guess for I'm very landlocked, so maybe that's why, but people will always ask me, do you have a boat? And I'm like, I have a canoe and I bought it used. That's my budget.

Lauren:            It's like in New York, a car in New York City.

Mindy:             That's exactly what it is.

Mindy:             Lastly, how podcast figure into Lauren's new novel and where to find the book and Lauren online.

Mindy:             So I want to talk about podcasting and your focus on podcasting in the book as well. Since that is how Geraldine then goes on to make a mark for herself and how you know, what led you to that? I know that you're an avid listener, so it just your own consumption. What kicked that particular plot element?

Lauren:        Sure. I mean it must've been, you know, it's, it's front and center and then in the back of my head, just the, the beauty in the world of podcasts and then as a fiction writer, you know, we, we sort of retake the ingredients that life hands us and make art out of them. And when I listen to podcasts, one of the things I do, I learn about the world and people who are being interviewed. But I also fantasize about, I don't know, just the podcasting life and who are these people who are doing the interviews and how do they get here? And usually it is people who come from more traditional of journalism backgrounds or entertainment backgrounds and then they decide that they want to do something where yeah, they can curse and things don't have to be perfectly or redone over and over.

Lauren:            It can just feel natural. And I love also the, the conversational element because we don't have conversations the way, I mean, I used to talk on the phone for hours, hours and hours a night when I was young. There's nothing that terrifies people more than the words, "are you up for a quick call?" It's like people are scared. They think that it means I've, you know, I'm going to tell them that somebody died or that I'm mad at them when in fact I just like to shoot the shit.

Lauren:            So in podcasts people get to do that and it worked in the narrative because there is like, there isn't that barrier of entry as far as I imagine to making podcasts as there is to getting a job at some international corporation that peddled news and culture stories. So Geraldine, I love her. She is lost. She is lovely. She is curious. She's smart, she's unafraid but fragile. And of course she latches onto podcasting. And in fact it turns out to be the best thing she's ever done in her life. Whereas her friends who have these more, you know, perceived as fancy, enviable situations. I mean one of them is a coveted artists, you know, tastemaker. And then the other one is a Young Adult writer and who has a part time job in a magazine, but their professional struggles are much greater.

Mindy:             Last thing, let listeners know where they can find you online and where they can find the book.

Lauren:            The book is available anywhere are sold. It's called, How could She? Has a bright orange cover with big lettering, hard to miss. And online I am at Lauren Mechling on Twitter and I spent a lot of time there and on Instagram I am at Laurenomics like economics, but Laurenomics and I am also at The Clog Life, which is a whole other story, but it's a very fun community.

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Amy Reed On Letting Go Of Control Once You Are Published

It’s time for a new interview series… like NOW. No really, actually it’s called NOW (Newly Omniscient Authors). This blog has been publishing since 2011, and some of the earlier posts feel dated. To honor the relaunch of the site, I thought I’d invite some of my past guests to read and ruminate on their answers to questions from oh-so-long-ago to see what’s changed between then and now.

Today’s guest is Amy Reed. Her new novel, The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World (July 9, 2019/Simon Pulse) is about two teens from the wrong side of the tracks whose lives crash into each other and start a surreal series of events that may lead to the apocalypse. Amy is a feminist, mother, and Virgo who enjoys running, making lists, and wandering around the mountains of western North Carolina where she lives. You can find her online at amyreedfiction.com. 

Has how you think (and talk) about writing and publishing changed, further into your career?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I have very little control over what happens once my manuscript is out of my hands and turns into a real book, like how much marketing support it will get, how much it will sell, and what kind of praise or criticism it will receive. Writing and publishing is just a long bumpy process of letting go. The less I depend on external validation, the more at peace I am on this crazy ride.

Let’s talk about the balance between the creative versus the business side of the industry. Do you think of yourself as an artiste or are you analyzing every aspect of your story for marketability? Has that changed from your early perspective?

My first couple of books (Beautiful and Clean) felt very authentic to me as an artist (or artiste, I suppose—I was still very much living in the wake of my MFA preciousness), but unfortunately my response to the success of those books was to become a lot more focused on writing what I thought I was supposed to write, what was “on brand,” and writing lost some of its magic. Then my daughter was born and I moved across the country, and something shifted for me.

The Nowhere Girls was about me reclaiming my passion for storytelling, my own voice, and my love for the lives of my characters and readers. My new book The Boy and Girl Who Broke the World (July 9, Simon Pulse) was the most fun I’ve ever had writing because I allowed myself to really play with fantasy and surrealism for the first time. And my next book--which will remain mysterious for now since it hasn’t officially been announced yet—is the weirdest (and maybe best) thing I’ve ever written. 

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The bloom is off the rose… what’s faded for you, this far out from debut?

Planning my own book tours. I don’t do that anymore. I pretty much just do one release event at my local indie, and I’ll do local events with friends when invited, and of course whatever my publisher plans for me, but I’d rather put my energy into my writing.

Likewise, is there anything you’ve grown to love (or at least accept) that you never thought you would?

That my books are not for everybody. I write about dark stuff because those are the stories that resonate with me, and they are the ones I needed to read as a teen. But not everybody wants to read those stories, and that’s okay. I have never been a conventional person, and my books are not conventional. And as we evolve, we are both getting even more unconventional.

And lastly, what did getting published mean for you and how has it changed (or not changed!) your life?

For the last six years, I’ve (mostly) been able to write full time, which is a great privilege and gift that I really try to not take for granted. I’ve also made some incredible friends along the way, which has been a lifesaver in this often very solitary profession.