To celebrate the release of Stormsong, the sequel to the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark, author C.L. Polk dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked cycling, ideal reading experiences, bees, how to get published as an aspiring fantasy author, literary influences, plotting, Glorfindel, world-building, an auspicious Neil Gaiman encounter in the ’90s, and more. Here are the highlights!
On why she chose to follow Grace instead of Miles in Stormsong:
The biggest reason was that Miles’ actions in Witchmark had immediate consequences, and he was in no physical shape to do anything about them. It was either skip weeks of recovery and not talk about what happened as a result, or let Grace take the torch and keep the story moving. I also thought that it wasn’t appropriate for her to see the truth, be appalled, and instantly change into one of the good guys. That she needed to go on her own journey and her own struggle. That I had to make her change a process. So she got a book.
On whether she sketches out character’s backstories before writing:
I did do that. I figured out the main milestones of their lives before they all collide in Witchmark. Tristan’s I wrote like a synopsis, but Miles and Grace got scenes written in first person from an early age, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
I found that settling those past events and knowing exactly what they meant to the characters showed through, even when I didn’t directly refer to them. I’d recommend it to anyone who feels like they don’t understand a character that well yet.
Suggested snacks for a Witchmark-themed book club:
I would recommend cut apples spread with almond butter and sprinkled with cinnamon. that or early season orange wedges sprinkled in dyed pink sugar (oranges in Aeland aren’t as sweet as ours are, so you’d need early season oranges to get the right taste.)
On the perfect reading experience:
Ideally, I’m reading in the tub with a big pitcher of ice water infused with mint, cucumber, and ginger, but I used to love reading while laying around by a swimming pool in the sunshine.
When asked to describe her writing style:
Long ass sentences! An oddly formal tone! Too attached to figurative language!
Her top 3 literary influences:
Tanith Lee, Mercedes Lackey, and Barbara Hambly.
On treating your spine right as a writer:
Well, honestly, I’m a sloucher, and I always have been. but I take time out to stand up, stretch, get water, touch the floor. I walk when I’m stuck, I get massages that kinda hurt, and think about how I really should add some core strength exercises to my routine—but honestly, not enough.
Her advice for aspiring fantasy authors:
Be current. Know what’s getting published right now. Read fantasy novels published in the last three years by authors who have less than a handful of books out.
We all know that it’s the juggernaut series of fantasy that introduce many people into the genre. They’re beloved. They also reflect a business climate in publishing that is long past and now only exists for a few people—the few people currently publishing those juggernaut series.
For new authors, the reality is very different. You’re exciting and you’re full of potential, but you’re unproven. And the fashion in fantasy novels has changed. The fashion is to write a single book, a standalone. It can have series potential, but standalones are really taking off now.
If you really want to write a series, go for it. It still happens. But you might be looking at a rapid release schedule—Sarah Kozloff has a four book epic fantasy series that has one book coming out EVERY MONTH. It started in January and the whole series will be published by April. I think it’s just wild. I need to speed up my reading so I can get on it.
Her advice for young writers in general:
You have to write. And sooner or later, you have to learn how to muscle through writing even on days you don’t feel it. This is discipline, and it will save your ass later.
Finishing a story that isn’t shiny any more is a reality of the business. The gloss is going to come off. You’re going to get bored with what you’re doing. You’re going to doubt it. Finish it anyway. This is perseverance, and it will save your ass later.
You need to be true to your own self. Publishing is stressful. Seek joy. Write what makes you chairdance at how cool it is. Understand what you like, what excites you, and what you believe is awesome. Stick close to that, and don’t waver.
Whatever problem you’re having in your career or pursuit of art, you can probably solve it by writing more.
Reading is important. Yeah, I learn a lot about stories by watching television and movies and playing games. They’re super useful for learning. But if I want to improve my writing as well as my storytelling, reading is important.
On Witchmark’s path to publication:
Witchmark’s first draft was the summer of 2014 and was in stores July 2018. The acceptance to publication took about two years.
It’s about a guy who wanted to be a doctor. But his past catches up with him when a murdered journalist dies on his treatment table and following the clues brings him within reach of the family he escaped years before. His search for answers uncovers a terrible secret that threatens his country.
Oh and he kisses boys.
And on the number of rejections Witchmark received before publication:
I think I was on about 35 rejections.
The inspiration for the bicycles in the Kingston Cycle:
I started transportation cycling around the same time I picked up writing again, and I remember waiting at a crosswalk at a group ride, surrounded by cyclists who were just shooting the breeze, casually talking to each other while we ambled along, and thought, “I want to write a book where this happens all the time.”
And I tucked that away until the ideas for Witchmark started coming, and then I envisioned the city as teeming with cyclists who routinely amble along, say hello to the people they’re riding beside in a draft, nobody in a tearing hurry. It was a really nice image, so I build Kingston around it.
Her approach to worldbuilding more generally:
I have to say that I don’t do a lot of world building compared to some of the efforts I’ve seen on r/worldbuilding. I go with a few pages of general information and build in detail as I need it. I think I spend some time daydreaming, dash down some notes, figure out the major implications of the big decisions, and then spend time on it as I’m writing.
I do this because if I don’t work through it quickly, I will ruminate about everything in advance. I’ve learned to work from a sketch rather than a painting—like I knew Kingston was The City of Apples and that there were city grown and maintained apple trees all over town, but I didn’t know that the apple in your lunch told people a lot about where you were from and what social class they could assume based on the variety until later.
On an auspicious Neil Gaiman encounter in the ’90s:
I haven’t been at a Norwescon since the 90s. I met Neil Gaiman in a signing line. I told him I wanted to be a writer but none of my ideas were original. He nodded and signed my copy of “Snow, Glass, Apples.”
…It took me a while to get it.
Check out the rest of the AMA here. For more C.L. Polk, read an excerpt of Stormsong or her short story “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid.” You can also read our reviews of Witchmark and Stormsong!