Working a Great Premise Into a Plot, And Other Highlights from Sarah Gailey’s Virtual Con r/Fantasy AMA

Sarah Gailey’s new novel, When We Were Magic, came out in March, just a month after the release of their novel Upright Women Wanted, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic means they can’t do any of the promo events authors would otherwise be doing.

Luckily, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has partnered with r/Fantasy for a “virtual con” for authors who’ve had to cancel their book release events, and to kick things off, Gailey dropped by on Monday for an AMA. Here are the highlights!

On the future of the universe in Upright Women Wanted

I don’t have any plans to write more in that universe as of right now, but as always, I STRONGLY support and encourage fanfiction.

On elevator-pitching all their books at once:

If I was going to elevator pitch all my books at once, I would say this: I write character-driven stories that explore trauma, identity, and genre conventions. I think they’re fun but emotionally weighty, and I like to think that my readers come away from my books with a new understanding of themselves and the world they inhabit.

On how they’d explain their books to someone who “hasn’t read fantasy for years but really wants to get back into it”:

I would say that my books are scifi/fantasy as written for people who don’t read a lot of fantasy! I’m interested in the human side of genre stories, and as a result, I spend more time exploring what characters are feeling and experiencing than I do unpacking magic systems or explaining how things work. A lot of readers have told me that they don’t usually read fantasy, but that they were able to connect with the story of MAGIC FOR LIARS because it’s more about family, identity, and grief than it is about sorcery.

On their favorite character:

There’s a special place in my heart for Rahul from MAGIC FOR LIARS. He’s one of the few genuinely good-hearted characters I’ve ever written. It’s not that he’s flawless — it’s just that he’s got, like, what do you call ’em? Healthy coping mechanisms.

On writing advice for their younger self:

If I could tell my younger writing self anything, it would be: listen to every edit note as if you have no choice but to take it. Instead of reacting defensively, or getting scared that you’re a Bad Writer, accept every edit as a test of how watertight the work is. If an edit note doesn’t work, that’s okay! But even the goofiest edit notes can help me find weak spots in what I’ve written.

On writing advice for writers trying to build a routine right now:

Now is such a hard time to start any kind of routine — honestly, my advice would be to give yourself a lot of space and keep expectations very low right now. I really loved this piece about making space for the emotional weight of this moment in our lives.

That said, if you want to try to incorporate writing into your routine right now for the first time, I’d recommend making your goal an amount of time instead of a number of words. “Today, I’m going to try to write for an hour” is a very reasonable and gentle goal! If you only write one sentence in that time, it’s okay — that’s more words than ‘none’ and you’ve done something you weren’t doing before.

Above all, be kind to yourself. Any creativity in a moment of crisis is more than enough.

On how they’re doing right now:

Right now I’m not getting much writing done at all, because my one brain cell is mostly dedicated to deciding what my household’s next meal will be, over and over, forever. I’m also spending a lot of time staring at my shrimp, who has eaten all the other shrimps that were in his tank, and the catfishes, who are 100% of the time Doing The Most. I’m also spending a LOT of time right now trying to keep Tinkerbell the dog from chewing her paws, which involves switching back and forth between the Grippy Socks (hateful, cruel, a malignance upon her life) and the Comfy Cone (distressing, shameful, an umbrella of despair).

On how they work a great premise into a plot:

You’re absolutely right that I start with a premise and go from there. In order to find the plot, these days, I ask myself what I want the premise to address. For instance, in UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED, I knew that I wanted the premise to include queer spy librarians on horseback — but that’s not a plot. So I asked myself what I wanted readers to know by the end of the book, and the answer was ‘I want them to know that queer tragedy isn’t the only queer narrative available.’ The plot came from there: I had to find a story that would communicate that idea, within the premise I was working with.

On how they came up with the When We Were Magic opening:

I didn’t know that I was going to write that opening until I started drafting. At first I just thought Josh would be dead. But then a male colleague of mine asked me a question that I used to get all the time: when are you going to write something about MEN?

And. Well. I got mad.

On how they feel about multi-volume fantasy series:

I fully ideologically support other writers doing extended series, but it’s not for me! I was so challenged in even figuring out how to make American Hippo a duology, I think a longer series would drive me bananas. But as always, if you want more River of Teeth content, I can’t recommend fanfiction highly enough!

On which of their two books they’d choose to write a crossover between:

Oh WOW I love this question! Probably MAGIC FOR LIARS and WHEN WE WERE MAGIC, so I could see Roya take on Alexandria. I would love to see Alexandria try to get away with manipulating Roya. I don’t think it would go well.

On their next book:

The next thing I can tell you about is THE ECHO WIFE, a science fiction novel coming from Tor Books in early 2021. It follows the story of a womans life in the year after her divorce from her husband, who she left after she discovered that he was leading a secret second life with a clone of her that he created by stealing her technology. It’s about identity, duality, and the cost of choosing what kind of woman you’re going to be.


On book recommendations:

  • Jade City by Fonda Lee: it’s The Godfather but without the sexism, racism, homophobia, or weird vaginal surgery subplot, plus martial arts, knife fighting, and magic powers?? Exquisite.

  • The Thief of Always by Clive Barker: Barker doing MG/YA horror. Absolutely harrowing, best opening paragraph of any book ever written.

  • Where I End & You Begin by Preston Norton: Teen romance body-swap comedy with a surprisingly tender heart.

  • The Infinite Noise by Lauren Shippen: What if instead of going to mutant academy, the x-men went to a therapist? Lovely queer YA romance.

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I know. I KNOW. But I revisited those books a month(?) ago and they SMACK ASS. They are so much more than I remembered, so complex and well-put-together and they have so much to say about the cost of poverty, instability, and violence on the human soul. I highly recommend reading them now, whether or not you read them back when they were new.

Check out the rest of the AMA over at r/Fantasy!

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