Today I’m welcoming Elizabeth Spencer to my blog as part of my ongoing Author Interview series!
PepperWords: Easy stuff first: Who are you and what should we know about you? Where are you from, etc.?
Elizabeth Spencer: Hi! I’m Elizabeth Spencer, and I’m a bit of a nerd. A nerd who likes to make stuff. So it’s no surprise that I spend a lot of time writing YA fantasy—but also baking, crocheting, sewing, and pretty much anything else that involves making cool things. (I’m currently working through the entire World of Warcraft cookbook!) I also play a lot of video games, particularly RPGs. I live in New England, but I’m a very new transplant and I haven’t really settled in here yet.
PW: I lived in Massachusetts for 12 years myself. Tell us a bit about your writing history. Have you been doing it long? What inspired you to start writing?
ES: I’ve been writing since I was in grade school, but it took me a long time to muster up the courage to try to publish something. I started writing seriously about nine years ago, and wrote five full-length novels before Justice Unending. Justice was the first book that I really made me stop and think, “Wait. What am I doing? This is good. I could query this.” I’m glad I did!
PW: What about this book? What sparked it? What genre is it, and what draws you to that particular genre?
Justice Unending is an action-adventure-style YA fantasy with some light steampunk elements to it—so while there are corsets and trains and at least one giant steam-powered laboratory, the story’s main focus is an insular group of bodiless immortals and the conflicts between them and the people they possess.
Justice was the product of this persistent, half-formed idea that haunted me for most of a year, where I wanted to write some kind of fantasy about people marked with tattoo-like symbols on their body that gave them certain magical powers. But that wasn’t an idea as much as it was a magic system, and I had no idea what kind of story should go with it. I was on a long plane ride when it finally all came together—what if these people were possessed by some sort of spirit, and the symbols on their bodies were the marks of whoever was inside them? And, hey! I love Victoriana and steampunk, but I hadn’t actually written anything but high fantasy. So why couldn’t I throw in some corsets and big hats in this one? By the time that plane landed, I had the setting, the main conflict, and most of the main plot points and characters worked out.
PW: Oh my God, I am so in! This book sounds amazing. Okay, in Hollywood we write log lines for scripts—one sentence that sums up the story, a bit like the write up in TV Guide. For example, the log line for Back to the Future might read: “A teenager gets sent back to 1955 where he must contrive to get his parents to fall in love else risk never being born.” What would the log line for your book be?
ES: A teenage girl is possessed by the spirit of an ancient assassin who wants to use her body to take down the kingdom—and to right an ancient and terrible crime.
PW: And if you were casting your book as a movie, are there any particular actors you’d envision as your main characters?
ES: Is… is this the time to admit that I don’t watch a lot of movies?
PW: LOL! Fair enough. What are some of your favorite books? Favorite authors?
ES: Ahhh, I can never pick a favorite! The Seraphina books by Rachel Hartman are some of the best YA books I’ve read in the last few years, and Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books are my new favorite MG series. But Patricia McKillip will probably always be my favorite author, though—I started reading her books when I was very tiny, and read all of her books throughout my teens and early twenties. She’s probably the reason I became so determined to write my own books.
PW: What are you currently reading? What’s on your TBR list?
ES: I just started on the first Mistborn novel! It’s amazing, and there are tons of them, and I can already tell that this is going to be a series I’m going to be reading for a very long time. I also want to check out Martha Wells’s Ile-Rien books, if only because I have been completely obsessed with her Raksura series, and the next one doesn’t come out until mid-2017.
PW: Tell us about your writing process. Is it very structured? Do you have a favorite place to sit and write, or a favorite food or drink while writing?
ES: I’m definitely a plotter! But recently, I’ve found that something halfway between plotting it and winging it seems to work best for me. I go into my first drafts with about four or five major plot points and a lot of world building—I like to have my world, characters, and magic systems figured out in advance. But then I just loosely follow the outline, point my characters toward the next big plot point, and see if I actually end up there. When I hit the end of a writing day I’ll write a quick “mini-outline” of the plot points that feel like they should happen next, and then use that as a guide the next day.
I write in a seldom-used guest room that I’ve crammed a desk into. I’m a bit ritualistic about it—that room is only for writing, and the internet is only for accessing my files and doing research. There are very few distractions in there, except a bunch of warm blankets and a pair of speakers for background music. Alas, while I’d like to say my writing drink is “hot chocolate,” if I make some before I write I’ll forget about it until it’s ice cold. I just wait until I’m done to treat myself now.
PW: How long does it take you to write a book? How do you know a manuscript is ready to send out to agents and publishers?
ES: I am extremely neurotic about tracking how much I write—I have an Excel spreadsheet that tallies up my totals by day, week, month, and story. So I can say with complete confidence that it takes me 4-5 months to write a first draft, about two to do the first edit, and however many more months it takes to drum up some beta readers and work through their changes. Thus far I average about a year to a year-and-a-half from starting to being query-ready.
Justice was a bit of a mess, though. I started querying it before it was ready and had to stop, get some new betas, and rewrite some of the story before I tried again. The first version I queried was only proofed by me and my beta friend who reads everything I do. And while they’re a fantastic reader, I needed the cold, hard, dispassionate gaze of a perfect stranger to figure out which things really weren’t working. After getting three new betas and rewriting the first fourth of the story, Justice was finally ready to go. That took nearly two years. Goodness!
PW: I’m a slow writer myself, which agonizes me since so many people say you should put out several books a year. How did you get the publisher for this book? How long did it take, and how many queries or submissions did you send out?
ES: I queried 30ish agents, stopped, then rewrote. Then I queried 93 agents over the span of (again—crazy detailed Excel spreadsheet here) 10 months. That resulted in 5 full requests and 1 partial, but no one ultimately offered me representation. And while that was very disappointing, I knew by the end of it that I probably had something special if I was getting this much interest.
I later submitted it to nine publishers and got two full requests and two contract offers. That took another 10 months—although most of that time was spent trying to get my first contract offer to work out, and then having to hunt down and negotiate a second one. But this is my first published novel. Now that I know the ropes, I hope the next ones will go faster!
PW: I’ve had similar experiences in querying and submitting. It does (usually) go faster once you get the hang of it. That said, never a good idea to rush it, right? What are you working on now?
ES: A YA high fantasy about an impenetrable fortress in the middle of the ocean that is said to be home of the gods—until a ship full of starving and half-dead children crash-land on the shore, bearing a curse that’s slowly killing them. I’m about 85K into it and am hoping to be done with the first draft by the end of the month.
PW: Yow, sounds intense. What advice would you give to young writers, or writers who are only just starting out?
ES: Start a writing habit. Don’t worry about being good. Don’t worry about publishing or getting an agent. Worry about establishing a habit where you write on a schedule—whether it’s every day, 3 times a week, or whatever makes sense for your schedule. Then learn how to finish projects reliably and on a decent timeline. It took me wayyyyy too long to learn that it didn’t matter how good my writing was or how interesting my ideas were if I was unable to finish a first draft in a reasonable amount of time—or if I never did at all.
PW: Where do you see yourself in five years?
ES: I’m hoping I’ll get an agent sometime in the next five years. Fingers crossed! But even if I don’t, I intend to keep publishing books. It took me a long time to decide to publish something. Now I need to get my butt in gear and actually start building a library!
PW: Now a little about you in general. Favorite quote or inspirational saying:
ES: I’ve always been fond of “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
PW: I’ve never heard that one, but I really relate.
ES: Plum-colored purple!
PW: Favorite TV show:
ES: Is this a bad time to say I don’t really watch TV, either? Uh. Can I do my favorite video game?! I’m a diehard fan of the Castlevania series (before they rebooted it with the Lords of Shadow spinoff), and while Symphony of the Night is probably the best game in the series, my favorite story (and cast of characters) will always be Aria of Sorrow.
PW: Works for me! (I know nothing about video games except what my kids and husband try to explain to me.)
ES: I’m not sure I have one! I’ve enjoyed a bunch, but claiming a “favorite” seems like a pretty big burden. And I’m not sure I’m ready to make that sort of commitment.
PW: Someone (living, dead, or fictional) you’d like to meet:
ES: It’d be so lovely to have a chance to talk to Tolkien about how he came up with his ideas and built his worlds. World building and linguistics fascinate me!
PW: And last but certainly not least, where can we find you and your book?
Within the walls of the Bastion, it’s an honor to become a host for an Unending—the bodiless, immortal spirits who rule the country.
But for Faye, it meant her sister would have to die.
When Faye sneaks into the Mother Duchess’s manor, she just wanted to see her sister one last time. Instead, Faye finds a manor in chaos, a murdered man, and an Unending assassin named Aris who needs a new body—Faye’s body—to bring the Bastion to its knees.
Now Faye’s harboring the Bastion’s most wanted criminal. And if she wants to live, she’ll have to escape the Duchess and her immortals, all while keeping Aris from harming anyone else.
There’s just one problem—Aris is not the villain. And now Faye is the only one who can help her stop the Duchess before anyone else—and especially Faye—has to die for the Unendings’ whims.
Trays rattled. A half dozen women gasped. Justine was on her knees and forearms, her head inches away from the tiles. Her fingers clawed at the grout.
It happened so quickly Faye was left standing with her hand in the air. She dropped to her knees and put an arm gently on her sister’s back, her voice shaking so hard she had to force herself not to yell, “Why didn’t you say you felt this bad?”
“I—” Justine croaked. She clenched her eyelids shut, clamped her arms against her chest, and bent over herself, folding her body into a tight ball of pain.
The maids crushed around them. Olivia crowded up behind Faye, sounding worried. “We’ll have to carry her to her room. Two or three of us can do it. Faye, tell your father—”
“No,” Justine whispered. “No.”
Faye watched Justine’s back rise and fall with every unsteady breath. “Oh. Oh. Me? You want me.”
“What?” Faye asked.
“I can’t… I’m sorry. Please, one moment… I…”
Justine didn’t answer. Slowly, unsteadily, she pushed herself up to her knees. She was still shaking as she pulled her arms away from the curve of her stomach, lifted them, and showed their backs to her sister.
Thin black sigils ran all the way down her arms, spiraling and looping from her knuckles to her elbows. They looked like stylized flames.
Those were the sigils of an Unending.
Faye stiffened. The maids sucked in a collective gasp of surprise. Only Olivia managed to croak, “Whose are they?”
Justine stared at her own hands like they belonged to someone else and cocked her head to the side, as if listening to a voice only she could hear. “Belisama.” She paused a moment, dreamlike. “The Mother’s guard? I would imagine that she’d choose someone big, someone strong, someone who can…” She fluttered her eyes weakly, and it sent tears sliding down her cheeks. “I am admirably responsible? Duty? Is that enough?”
Faye wished Justine would stop talking. Her sister did not ramble. Her sister was proper and well spoken, and this … this was terribly, desperately wrong. Faye stared at the sigils as her stomach shuddered like a pot in rolling boil.
Justine pulled herself away from Faye as she rose to her feet. Olivia offered her a shoulder, and Justine leaned against it before she tried to speak again. “We need to send a message to the Mother Duchess. I’ll have to go there, talk with her, be Fixed.” Her eyes widened, as if she only then realized what she was saying. “I have to tell Mother and Father. I have to get my things in order. I have to make sure the maids know what to do. I…”
No one said anything, even as Justine trailed off into silence. The maids looked at her achingly. Olivia shot Faye a concerned glance, then gently took Justine by the arm. “Come, miss. Let’s tell your parents the news.”
Faye tried to breathe and choked on a sob. No one seemed to notice. The maids stepped around her, their skirts rustling against the tiles as they followed into the hall, leaving the half-finished dinner still bubbling and popping on the stoves.
Faye couldn’t move. She was trembling, she realized, trembling so hard her fingers were numb. Her brain looped wildly, madly, hysterically through a pair of awful, unbearable thoughts.
Her sister had been chosen by an Unending. Her sister was going to die.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Spencer is a YA fantasy author who writes action-packed adventures about magic, mystery, and very brave women. She also writes steampunk, although that’s mostly because she really, really loves big hats. Her first novel, Justice Unending, was released by Evernight Teen in November 2016. She otherwise has a very normal job as a professional editor and project manager. She lives in New England with her husband and an extremely fluffy cat.