Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English with a minor in history from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut series, The Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.
Historical fantasy author Cass Morris joins Queries, Qualms, & Quirks this week to discuss pitching too early, the perils of the acquisitions board, accepting that some readers won’t like your book, the importance of knowing the business side of things, and being too stubborn to quit.
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Transcript of Queries, Qualms, & Quirks: Historical Fantasy Author Cass Morris and The Perils of the Acquisitions Board
April 8, 2021
Transcribed by Jake Nicholls
[00:00] Cass: Everything worked out in the end despite the, uh, the bumps along the way.
[Intro music: strumming guitar]
[00:10] Sarah: Welcome to Queries, Qualms & Quirks, the weekly podcast that asks published authors to share their successful query letter and discuss their journey from first spark to day of publication. I am your host, Sarah Nicolas. I hope you’re enjoying the podcasts and the stories authors are sharing with you. If you are, please consider leaving a review on your podcast app or sharing the episode on social media. If you’re interested in supporting the show with a couple of bucks a month, go to patreon.com/pubtalklive.
Today, you are going to hear from historical fantasy author Cass Morris. Cass works as a writer and educator in central Virginia. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and a BA in English with a minor in History from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily and will beat you at Mario Kart. [Laughs] Her debut series, the Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books. So, please welcome Cass. Hello!
[01:14] Cass: Hi! Thank you so much for having me on.
[01:16] Sarah: Thank you so much for coming on. So, we’re going to start by going kind of all the way back to the beginning—so when did you first start getting interested in writing, and then, from there, how long did it take before you started getting more serious about publication?
[01:31] Cass: I think this depends on how you define serious. I have been a storyteller since I was a very, very, very small thing. Um, among my earliest sets of memories is crafting a sequel to The Last Unicorn and making my cousins act it out with me. [Sarah: That’s great!] But I knew I wanted to start writing books when I was eleven. I saw the movie Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time then—in 1997, when it was re-released in theaters—and I sat there at the end absolutely gobsmacked by the size of the universe that had been presented to me. Because that’s one of Star Wars‘s best things, I think, is its ability to show you in a single scene so many different stories happening, all at the margins and in, in the corners and in the shadows and in the different costumes and everything. I was just blown away, and I thought: I want to do that, I want to make big worlds like that, that have so much room in them and so many different stories in them. So that’s when, at least in my eleven-year-old head, I seriously knew I wanted to be a writer. [Sarah: Mhm.] But, you know, the, the dedication came and went over the next decade and a half or so as I did other things. I, I always was writing—I was certainly writing plenty of fan fiction, I was writing some original things. I went to grad school for Shakespeare studies and it was after that that I realized in, in November 2011, that I kept thinking of myself as someone who wanted to be a novelist. [Sarah: Mm.] But if you want to be a novelist, eventually you have to actually write a novel. I had gotten very much away from creative writing over the previous few years because I was doing so much academic writing, you know, [Sarah: Mm, mhm.] and they’re just, they’re different beasts—it’s a different skill set, a different part of my head, and it was like, “Okay, if I still want to be a novelist, I need to buckle down and do something”. And that really was when I, I got very serious about it and started deliberately making the time and writing with an eye towards publication. So that was 2011—how old was I then? Twenty-six? Yeah, that sounds right. [Laughs]
[03:39] Sarah: I’m trying to remember when exactly we met, and if it was around that time. I think it was around that time.
[03:46] Cass: It was—it was the next year, it was the next summer, um, 2012 at Ascendio in Florida.
[03:52] Sarah: Yes! [Laughs]
Once you realized that you wanted to be a published author, as opposed to kind of doing it as a hobby, how did you start learning more about the publishing industry—like how it works, how to go about it, how to query, that kind of thing?
[04:07] Cass: I did a lot of googling, a lot of trying to find websites that would guide me. But, honestly, I think I learned the most about the industry as a whole from Twitter. From writing Twitter, and from following lots of authors, from following lots of agents and editors, and seeing that side of, of the canvas, I guess, that, that you sort of get— It’s not fully a behind-the-scenes look because people are still putting out a certain version of themselves on Twitter, certainly.
[04:35] Sarah: Yeah. Still filtering…
[04:37] Cass: Definitely. But it gave more of a view into the moving parts than other things I was finding, so that was really where a lot of it came from, was the occasionally dubious, um, guidance of social media. [Laughs]
[04:50] Sarah: [Laughs] I think a lot of us who really got started in the industry around, like, 2009 to 2012, Twitter was such a great resource back then. And it still is, but it wasn’t… How do I say this? It wasn’t as big, right? So it was, [Cass: Yeah.] it was easier to find people, and the agents only had like 800 followers, [Cass: Laughs] so they were more accessible.
Then what happened? Can you break down kind of your journey for us? I know you, you had a little bit of like stops and starts along the way, [Cass: Laughs] so can you tell us what happened?
[05:20] Cass: [Laughs] Oh, I sure did. Absolutely. So, that convention that we, we met at was my first sort of step into trying to become part of the publishing world, because they had an event there where you could pitch your book to agents. And this was the book I’d started the previous year. I had scrambled to get it finished and to write a query letter so I could pitch at this convention to two, to two different agents. And… I sort of knew, like, it was— I knew it was practice, because they were both agents who focused much more in YA and I’d written an adult novel, but I figured, “You know, let’s just go for it, for the experience of doing this thing”. And I’m so glad I did, because it showed me both that the book wasn’t ready yet—it needed a couple more months of editing, [Sarah: Mhm.] and that was fine, that was good to know. Like, they asked me good questions about the story and I was like, “Hmm, you’re right. I should fix that, or figure that out in a different way”. But it also taught me what agents were looking for in a query—what the big things they wanted to see in a query letter were, what they wanted to know right off the bat. So that was a great experience, and it helped me a lot.
So, I spent the next six months or so editing some more, polishing the book up, and then started querying. And that was early 2013, and I did the thing where I just made a big ol’ spreadsheet of all the agents that I thought could possibly be interested in this story. Researching the ones who, you know, worked for writers who had similar types of books—y’know, historical fantasy and epic fantasy… Combing through Twitter, again, [Sarah: Laughs] Manuscript Wishlist day, um, hashtag… that hashtag, is actually how I found Connor, who became my agent. I queried him in August? Yes, it was August of 2013. He immediately asked for a full manuscript, which was shocking to me by that point because I’ve been querying for a very long time, [Sarah: Laughs] and had mostly just heard deafening silence—you know, so many of them you don’t even get a form letter rejection it’s just, “Well, I haven’t heard from them in three months, I guess that’s a rejection”—but Connor immediately asked for a full manuscript because, I would later find out, he also has a background as a classicist—classical studies, y’know, Greek and Rome—and so my concept intrigued him. We signed in October of that year, so I had about a nerve-wracking eight weeks, really, between him asking for the full and hearing back from him, and the, the week that he made the offer was the most nerve-wracking, because I was following him on Twitter [Sarah: Mmm…] and he said something on—publicly—about, like, “I’m reading this amazing manuscript. This is so exciting, I can’t wait to think about this some more”, and I was like, “Is it me? [Sarah: Laughs] Is it? Or someone else? I don’t know what to think”. It was wonderful and horrifying.
When I took the call from him, I was actually at a theme park. [Laughs]
[08:02] Sarah: Oh gosh! [Laughs]
[08:03] Cass: I was at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, in Virginia, and had to, like, find a tucked-away corner to have this conversation in. [Both laugh] It was in the New France area—for anyone who’s been to Busch Gardens Williamsburg—near the log flume, so there’s this, like, French Canadian music in the background and it’s like, “This is one of the more surreal moments of my life”. [Sarah: Laughs] That’s—that’s weird… [laughs] but fitting in, in a way, for it to be just a very odd moment. So, we then spent a little while continuing to shape the manuscript—uh, Connor is a very editorial agent. He likes to help shape projects and get them ready to go out on sub. We went on sub early 2014, did a round of submissions with sort of, you know, the top publishers—the big, the big heavy hitters—and we didn’t get any bites. We did a little more refining, a little more revision, and did a second round.
This is where I got my heart broken a little bit. There was an editor who was really interested in it, and the acquisitions board turned this editor down. And so, I started to get my hopes up, and then it was like, “Oh, nope. Nope. Not gonna happen”. And we were about to shelve the project. I, in fact, mentally already had—I was like, “All right. This might not happen. I gotta be okay with that. I’m gonna work on something else”, and before, my idea was that—this was in… it was 2015 by this point—I was going to get Connor something else by the end of the year, to work on and to shop. So I was working on a different project. And Connor had learned his lesson about getting my hopes up, and so he didn’t tell me when he had interest again.
[09:35] Sarah: Ohh! [Laughs]
[09:37] Cass: And so, in September—this was two days before my birthday, it was the best birthday present ever—he calls me, and I thought we were, we—it was a scheduled call, I thought we were just gonna be checking in, touching base, talk about the new thing I was working on, but he opened with: “So, I sold your book to DAW. Actually, it’s a three-book deal”. I was like, “I’m gonna need you to repeat that”. [Both laugh] ‘Cause it was just—I had already mentally put it away. Um, so, I was very surprised and very happy. So we signed the contracts—you know, the contract process is long, it was somewhere between then and the end of the year, I don’t remember exactly when everything was settled—with my acquiring editor, and we did more editing, more revisions. Uh, the sheer number of words in the first book that—from the original draft to what came out on the page [Sarah: Laughs] must be astonishing. I, I’ve never actually totaled it all up, but it must be phenomenal, with all the rounds of revisions we did.
And then about a year into this process, my editor left DAW for another publishing house. [Sarah: Oh no…] Which is a thing that happens, you know. [Sarah: Yes.] Editors are people! They have lives. They make the choices that are going to be best for them in their careers, and I totally respect that. It is a thing that happens—I think it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t get talked about a lot, and so it can take you by surprise. I sort of wasn’t really prepared for it, ’cause I hadn’t heard people talk about it happening—but it does. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] It’s one of those sort of just behind-the-veil, publishing-world things. So, I got then handed over to Betsy Wollheim, who is one of the head honchos at DAW. Amazing. Has won, you know, Hugos and things like that for editing. Also a super busy person—and so that then [Sarah: Mm.] delayed the whole process a little bit, because she had to get up to speed on the project, and then she had her own, y’know, view about further revisions. It lengthened everything.
You know, people will say that from acquisition to being on the shelf can be anywhere from, like, six months to two years. I was beyond the two-year point, because of all this. So I, I was on the long, long ride, and the, the pub date got changed a couple of times, which was nerve-wracking for me. Eventually it did come out, in 2018. And… and it did all right! It’s, it’s done good, so… everything worked out in the end despite the, uh, the bumps along the way, and I think in some ways it was probably good for me that I had a sort of bumpy first experience, because from now on in my career whatever happens I’ll be like, “I can roll with this”. [Laughs]
[12:03] Sarah: I like that you mentioned… There are two, um, kind of, hurdles that happen quite a bit in the industry that we don’t often hear about and we don’t talk about publicly, and that’s: one, your book going to the acquisitions board and the board turning it down, which… it does happen a lot, and it can be—’cause once you have the editor interest—the editor is interested in buying it, you think, “That’s it”, like, “I’ve made it, right? They’ve, they’re, [Cass: Yeah.] they want to buy it”, but they have their own, kind of, internal roadblocks that they have to get over, too. And then, to have an editor leave the house, especially when you’ve been through a longer submission journey, where you’ve gotten a lot of no’s—it’s even more nerve-wracking, because you’re like, “Well, what if this new editor hates the book?”. [Cass: Laughs] And, you know, [Cass: Yep.] because so many people before didn’t like it, [Cass: Yep.] so what are the chances that this new editor is going to love it as much as the first one? And that happened to me, too, and I was very lucky that my new editor really liked the book and really, really got it. Yeah, it can definitely slow everything down, and… it’s just, like, one of those extra things that you can worry about if you’re a worrier. [Both laugh]
[13:11] Cass: No, but if your anxiety, like mine, flaps around looking for loose things to attach to—congratulations, here’s a few extra ones! [Laughs]
[13:18] Sarah: Yes, yeah. [Laughs] I don’t recommend worrying about these things, because we already have so much… [Cass: No…] And none of this is, is in your control, either.
So, the show is called Queries, Qualms, & Quirks, so we’re going for that first Q right now. Uh, can you read a successful query letter for us?
[13:36] Cass: I sure can! This is the one that I sent Connor, back in 2013.
Dear Mr. Goldsmith,
An assassination attempt forces Latona, an elemental mage, to unleash her latent powers, demonstrating potential that far outstrips her training. When the dictator who threatened her family dies, she determines to take this opportunity to change the course of her life, but she quickly discovers that ambition has a high price.
The city-state of Aven is a place where elemental magic shapes the rule of the land as strongly as law and war. In the power vacuum left by the dictator’s death, the conservative old guard clashes with the populist liberal faction over the best way to shape the nation’s future. Latona and her sister Aula, a widow whose frivolous nature conceals a scheming mind, use charisma and cunning to manipulate advances for the populists. Their paths intersect with that of Sempronius Tarren, a rising politician who dreams of a vast empire growing from his beloved city. He believes that the gods have equipped him with the necessary skills and thrown down this challenge – but in order to achieve his goals, he will have to break some of his civilization’s most sacred laws. Custom dictates that no mage may attain the highest political offices, but Sempronius, who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. Aula sees in Sempronius a man with an extraordinary vision for their nation and the greatness to make it a reality, and she pushes her sister to cultivate an alliance with him. As their friendship blossoms, Sempronius encourages Latona to learn to wield the extraordinary magical power that is her birthright – but Latona’s husband objects to the idea and the alliance, and Sempronius’s secret could ruin them both and destroy their faction’s chance to reform the city.
Aven is a completed 106,000 word historical fantasy with series potential, inspired by late Republic Rome. I write professionally for the education department of the American Shakespeare Center, where I have worked since graduating in 2010 with an MLitt. from Mary Baldwin College. My undergraduate degree is a BA in English and History from the College of William and Mary. I blog both professionally and personally, and I am active on major social media platforms.
Thank you for your consideration.
[15:35] Sarah: Thank you. Did you say it was 160,000 words?
[15:39] Cass: 106, when I queried. [Sarah: Oh, okay.] 106. It ended up being 148, was the, the final print. [Sarah: Oh goodness. Wow.] Yes, it grew a lot in edits, which was something that surprised me, because I had sort of always heard that, “Oh, editors are going to make you cut so many things out”. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] And both of my editors did exactly the opposite: they asked for more. They wanted things fleshed out more, and I was like, “All right, you’re going to be sorry you asked for this but—” [Both laugh] More I can do.
[16:07] Sarah: Yeah. I do think historical fantasy readers are more forgiving of longer books than some other genres, though, so…
So, how has your experience been since your book came out? Were there, kind of, any surprises along the way, anything, you know, you want to tell, uh, listeners about?
[16:23] Cass: I was not surprised by how anxiety-ridden it made me, but [laughs] that is something I’ve had to learn how to deal with. When From Unseen Fire debuted, I went round the bend. I was checking Google and Goodreads and Amazon and rankings constantly—I wish I had told someone to take my phone away from me. [Sarah: Laughs] So it’s like, “Take it. Give it back to me in two weeks, maybe”. If that had been a viable option, I should have done that. I was so keyed up. It was so bad, because there’s nothing in my control at that point, you know? Once you’ve written the book, you’ve done the part you can do. [Sarah: Yeah.] Really no amount of, of me shouting on social media drives metrics—that doesn’t [Sarah: Mm-hm.] drive sales, really. The author’s power to do things like that is very small. But I was making myself very wound up about it, and I had to learn how not to do that. And… [Sarah: Mm-hm.] My second book came out this last December, and I am a much happier person [Sarah: Laughs] having weaned myself off of all of that. I don’t look at Goodreads at all anymore. I have someone who does that for me, and passes along the lovely things and allows me not to worry about the non-lovely things. I worry about different things instead. That whole process dominated a lot of my response to the book being out in the world.
[17:45] Sarah: Mm, I can see that, yeah. I think a lot of first-time authors kind of fall into that though, ’cause you, you don’t get very much information when you’re traditionally published about how the book is selling, and all that kind of thing. [Cass: Mm-hm.] And so, we’re just trying to get as much information as we can, but a lot of that information is, uh… sometimes not pleasant, you know. [Both laugh] Or, you see the bad reviews and even—you could read, you know, twenty great reviews and read one bad review, and that’s the one that’s going to stick with you, you know?
So, it is time for the quick-round portion. I call it ‘Author DNA’. So it’s just, kind of, all the little things that we talk about that define an author. Though, not really—there’s, these are mostly like surface-level things, but they’re fun.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
[18:33] Cass: I think of myself as a ‘planter’, rather than either of those two.
[18:37] Sarah: Do you tend to overwrite or underwrite?
[18:40] Cass: Way over. [Both laugh] Way, way over.
[18:43] Sarah: Are you more of a morning writer or a nighttime writer?
[18:46] Cass: Absolutely nighttime—I do not function in mornings. I don’t enjoy it, certainly, so…
[18:51] Sarah: Agreed. [Cass: Laughs] So, whenever you first start writing a story, what usually comes first? Is it character, or plot, or concept, or something else?
[18:59] Cass: It’s usually a sense of the aesthetic… of what the place is going to sort of look like, what historical vibe it’s going to have. And then, character comes next—usually that’s sort of—they pop up in whatever painting my, my head is starting to come up with.
[19:15] Sarah: Interesting. Especially ’cause you have a worldbuilding podcast, which we’re going to talk about. [Laughs]
Do you prefer coffee or tea?
[19:22] Cass: Tea. I find coffee too bitter.
[19:24] Sarah: Whenever you write, do you prefer silence or do you prefer some kind of sound?
[19:28] Cass: Sound. I require background noise. I can’t, I can’t be left alone with only my own thoughts. I… [Sarah: Laughs] I do a lot of movie soundtracks in the background.
[19:36] Sarah: Mm, okay. And when it comes to first drafts, are you more of a get-it-down or get-it-right kind of person?
[19:42] Cass: I think I’m more on the side of ‘get it right’. I am not someone who can go through a full draft if I know there are major things wrong and I’m gonna have to restructure them later. That feels like wasted energy to me—I’d rather pause, unsnarl, and then move on.
[19:56] Sarah: And what tools or software do you use to draft?
[19:59] Cass: Scrivener! And I’m very excited [Sarah: Laughs] that Scrivener 3 finally dropped for Windows, because…
[20:05] Sarah: I saw! I haven’t used it yet, but…
[20:07] Cass: Oh my gosh, it’s so pretty! [Both laugh] So pretty!
[20:11] Sarah: I haven’t updated it yet, so um… but hopefully this week.
Do you prefer drafting or revising more?
[20:18] Cass: I think I like revising more. It’s more satisfying to fit the puzzle pieces together, even if that means, you know, you’re hacking off the bits that don’t work. I find that really gratifying.
[20:30] Sarah: And do you write in sequential order, or do you hop around?
[20:33] Cass: Hop around. I am constitutionally incapable of writing [Sarah: Oh, wow.] in sequential order. Can’t do it. [Laughs]
[20:40] Sarah: I don’t know how people hop around! [Laughs]
[20:43] Cass: I have to do—what I tend to do, is I, I write sort of the ‘tent-pole’ scenes first. Or at least parts of them. [Sarah: Mm.] The big major moments, the, the act turns, the, the reversals, and then sort of play ‘connect the dots’ between them.
[20:57] Sarah: Okay, so it’s time for the second Q in the podcast name: qualms. [Both laugh] Uh, you talked a little bit about some of them, but what were some of the worries that you had on your journey and were they realized, or did you get over them, or did they come to fruition? Like, what happened with all your worries?
[21:12] Cass: I worry about people liking the book. I… I want them to. I want them to see what I was doing, and, and trust me to take them on a path through this forest that, that I’ve created. And some people did and some people didn’t! And the challenge was learning to be okay with that—that there is no book on this planet that is ideal for everyone. Just not ever going to happen. And, and releasing that was difficult for me, being someone who likes to have control over things and who very badly wants to be liked. But knowing that you’re never going to please everyone can be freeing, in its own way, and can be the release, in and of itself, once you can wrap your head around that. What really does help is focusing on the good parts, and focusing on the people who said it was their favorite book of the year. Uh, even it was only a couple of people, they were strangers—they didn’t know me, and they loved it! So, I have to live for those people. It’s like, “It will find its readers, and I just can’t worry about the ones who didn’t like it as much”. And… and like I said with the second book, I have overcome, not all of that anxiety, certainly, but I have overcome my need to be aware of the response in the same way that I was with the first one. [Laughs]
[22:32] Sarah: Yeah, I think a lot of authors when their book comes out, they, they do worry about readers liking it. I feel like that’s a pretty common worry, and it’s also… it’s so frustrating, because it’s not—there’s not anything you can do about it.
[22:43] Cass: And it, it can be frustrating especially when, when I see reviews that, that just clearly wanted the book to be something it isn’t. [Sarah: Mm-hm, yeah.] Like YA. If you open this book thinking it’s a YA book, you’re gonna be disappointed. Because it’s an adult fantasy novel—it’s structured differently, it focuses on a lot of different viewpoints—so if you’re expecting one thing and it’s not that, I can see where that’s a frustrating reading experience, but I also, you know—where my defensiveness comes in is, “But that’s not the book’s fault!” [Sarah: Yes.] It’s made me much more generous, though, in how I read and review other fiction. [Sarah: Oh, yeah.] I’ve gotten much better at going, “You know, this book didn’t work for me, but that’s not necessarily the book’s fault. Who is it for, who is its ideal reader, and does it work for them?” It’s made me nicer on… [laughs] things like that, I think.
[23:35] Sarah: Yeah, I’ve gotten several reviews that say, “Oh, these characters sounded like teenagers”. And I write YA, [Cass: Laughs] so I’m like, [Cass: “Good?”] “Thank you…?”. Like… that’s the point, yes. [Laughs]
[23:52] Cass: The one I got like that was, “She didn’t even try to hide that this was inspired by Ancient Rome”, and I’m like, “You’re right, I, I sure didn’t!” That was my log line, that was my marketing. [Sarah: Yeah.] Like, I—you’re correct?
[24:06] Sarah: That’s a selling point. [Laughs] Feature, not a bug. [Laughs]
[24:11] Cass: Exactly! Exactly. So…
[24:13] Sarah: All right. So, it is time for the third Q, which is the most fun Q out of all of them. Do you have any writing quirks? Is there anything about your writing process that is kind of interesting or fun or unique?
[24:23] Cass: I have… a, a slightly odd superstition, [Sarah: Mm.] I think. I have a couple of necklaces that I wear when I’m drafting. And it’s not an absolutely everyday thing and, you know, not every single time I sit down to write a few words—but when I really want to focus, I have these two charm necklaces, really. They’re—one of them’s labradorite and the other one is, um, celestite… that, you know, they’re supposed to be good gemstones, good, good crystals for writers. [Sarah: Mm.] And, I only sort of half-buy into, to the mystical nature of that, but it’s become a habit. It’s become my own little like, “I put this necklace on and it’s focusing time” [Sarah: Yeah.] sort of thing. [Laughs] It’s, it’s a weird little thing, but—and so, they, the rest of the time they live on my desk, on top of my tarot cards to sort of, like, charge up [Sarah: Laughs] their energy in a way. [Sarah: Nice.] They also taunt me because if I, if I, if I sit there looking at them and realize I haven’t put them on in a couple of days, it’s like, [Sarah: Laughs] “Mm… you haven’t been buckling down, you haven’t been focusing”, so…
[25:26] Sarah: So they judge you a little bit, too. [Laughs]
[25:29] Cass: They do a little bit, they do.
[25:31] Sarah: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard of, um, a couple people have—I don’t know what you would call them, like, almost like good luck charms? [Cass: Yeah…] Or, or just points of focus, like physical objects, that even if you don’t believe in kind of, like, the more mystical, like supernatural, side of it, they’re just a point of focus, you know.
[25:50] Cass: I am a pagan; I do believe in some woo-woo things, but I’m also very practical—I’m a very practical witch. And so, where the power comes into it is, “Okay, but if it’s having this psychological effect on me, then it’s working!”. [Sarah: Yes, exactly.] Whether or not the stone itself has any power, if it helps my process then it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, and that means it works! [Sarah: Mm-hm.]
[26:10] Sarah: When you were kind of in the lowest parts of your writing journey, what was that like, and what kept you going?
[26:16] Cass: What it was like for me—and this comes out of a history of anxiety and depression—it alternates between really grayed-out feelings about the world. Like, those feelings of, ‘nothing matters’, ‘nothing I do matters’, ‘nothing in the story matters’, ‘nothing in the entire universe matters’. [Sarah: Mm.] It’s all just a big gray blanket dropped over everything. Alternating, sometimes, with moments of intense white-hot frustration [both laugh] with the things that are outside of my control. What kept me going, and what continues to keep me going, is honestly just sheer cussedness. [Sarah: Laughs] Just refusing to let any of the things that happen be the thing that defeats me. [Sarah: Mm.] It’s like, “No, I’m not stopping! You can’t make me!”. [Both laugh] Just being stubborn! That’s what gets me through, is, is just an inner little goblin of tenaciousness [both laugh] that rises up to help me get through the really tough moments.
[27:17] Sarah: Nice. Do you wanna share with listeners: what are some of the biggest mistakes that you felt like you made along the way, in your journey to publication?
[27:27] Cass: I entered without a strong sense of how the business part of it worked. I didn’t know quite what to expect when it came to how long things were going to take, for one thing. What the whole marketing process was going to look like. [Sarah: Mm.] How many different people have their hands in how many different parts of the process. And so, I sometimes felt… lost. I worried frequently that I wasn’t doing what was expected of me, because I felt like nobody had told me what was expected of me. [Sarah: Mm.] I, I sort of wish that I had educated myself a little better about those parts of the business, leading up to publication. Uh, post-publication, the biggest mistake I made was reading reviews. [Sarah: Laughs.] Just don’t—just don’t! [Both laugh] Future authors out there: just, everyone told me, too, and I didn’t listen, and I wish I had.
[28:14] Sarah: That is a big thing. I feel like we talk about not reading reviews a lot, and almost every author is like, “No, it’s fine, I can handle it”. [Laughs] I mean, some people really can, but most people can’t. [Cass: Yeah…] [Laughs]
[28:27] Cass: I’m absolutely not one of them. No. [Laughs] I want to hear only the good things. And… yeah. Because, like, at a certain point, it’s—the phrase that gets passed around is “Reviews are for readers”. [Sarah: Mm.] Because, a reader who critiques my book—well, I can’t change it now. That’s not something I can fix, that’s not something I can go in and change. [Sarah: Mhm.] And then, when it came to writing the next book, I got so in my head, and I was trying to avoid anything that anyone thought was wrong with the first book, and I was trying to make everyone happy who had liked anything about the first book. [Sarah: Mm.] I was like, “Well, that’s impossible, because some of those things are contradictory!” One person’s favorite character is something that somebody else thought didn’t need to exist! [Sarah: Exactly.] So it’s like, I can’t reconcile—I can’t fit those things together. But I was trying to, and… that was not good. That was not healthy for me. [Laughs] That was not a good place to be.
[29:17] Sarah: I remember, even querying, I got a response—two different responses on one day from a query letter. And one was, “I love the voice, but I couldn’t really follow the plot”, and then the second one was, “I loved the plot, but I couldn’t stand the voice”. And I was like, [laughing] “What am I supposed to do with this?”. [Laughs]
[29:37] Cass: I had almost exactly the same thing happen! It was, it was ones that said, “I love the concept, but I couldn’t get into the writing”, and the other one said, “I love your writing, I think it’s great, but the concept isn’t doing it for me”. And I’m like, “Wha— I don’t… I don’t… that’s not useful, what do I do with—” [Breaks into laughter]
[29:53] Sarah: Yeah. I was very lucky that it happened on the same day, too, because then I could, I could look at that and… really—’cause you see, you hear, y’know, “It’s subjective and everyone has their own opinion”, but seeing those on the same day really helped it, like, solidify in my mind that… people are just gonna have different opinions, and that’s fine.
[30:11] Cass: Yeah. It’s totally subjective. Not every book is for everyone, and that’s fine.
[30:16] Sarah: Though I do wish, as to your first point, that publishers would do a little bit better—or even agents; I don’t know whose responsibility it would be—do a little bit better job of preparing authors for some of those things. Like, I teach a class [Cass: Yeah.] on press kits, and every time I offer it, it’s, it’s people who are already published who are coming to get that information, when really I wish you had had that information six months before you were published, you know? And, so… I don’t, I don’t know what the solution is there, but… I’ll just keep teaching my class [laughing] until there is one.
[30:52] Cass: And I think that’s great! I, I do—I wish there was, like, a primer for new authors [Sarah: Mm-hm.] that could be handed out. Like, “Here are all the things you’re gonna need to know about”. But there sort of can’t be, because the experience is gonna be so different [Sarah: Yeah, definitely.] at different publishing houses, and it’s just… it’s tough! It’s tough, and there are so many things in the industry that do still sort of happen behind a curtain a little bit. And authors worry about lifting it, about, about, “What if I say something? What if I, [Sarah: Mm-hm.] I get somebody mad at me because I reveal something?”. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] It’s tough! It’s, it’s hard to know, on either side of that curtain, what the appropriate behavior is sometimes.
[31:30] Sarah: Yeah. Can you share, um, what are the most important lessons you learned on your journey to publication that listeners might find some value in?
[31:38] Cass: Absolutely. From a craft perspective, the biggest things I learned all had to do with pacing. Left to my own devices, I would write stories with very interesting characters who wander into each other and have conversations, for a few hundred pages. [Sarah: Laughs] The exciting incidents were not happening with enough frequency, or at the points in the manuscript where they needed to happen. So lots of those rounds of revisions I went through was fixing that. Was, was putting something exciting at the right point in the beginning, you know, when we’ve just gotten to know the characters just a little bit, and then bam! Something exciting has to happen—as opposed to spending longer just introducing who they are. There’s some great resources out there, but once again, this is something I learned a lot about from Twitter. From some fantastic authors who do threads on this sort of thing. There, there’s just so many out there that have wonderful resources. Right now, Susan Dennard is doing a series on, y’know, how she… makes a book [Sarah: Laughs] in, um, her newsletter, which is fantastic. Melissa Caruso does a lot of great craft threads, and… seeing how other authors do it helps me think about my own process, it’s given me some good tips and tricks. There’s no one right way, of course, right? There’s no one right answer to how to pace a novel, but having all of these viewpoints and all of these different methods has helped me refine my process, and I think I’m getting better at it and hopefully I, hopefully I keep getting better at it—I never want to stop learning about things. [Sarah: Mm-hm.]
From a mindset perspective of, like, important lessons, I think that big idea of, like, “Not every book’s gonna be for everyone, and that’s fine”, is the big thing to, to set yourself on. But at the same time remembering that—at least when it comes to, like, the querying stage—it only takes one yes. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] One yes gets you in the door and to the next step. So, not being discouraged by the no’s. If they have something useful for you in them—you know, if you get some feedback, take it, incorporate it, if it’s good, but… just keeping in mind that’s, that subjectivity, that it only takes one yes to get where you need to go. [Sarah: Mm-hm.]
[33:46] Sarah: I just recorded an episode with Rebecca Enzor, which may come out before or after yours—I’m not sure on the schedule yet—and she said that story structure was, was one of the most important things that she learned craft-wise, and she had written a couple books and then started learning about story structure, and the book that she wrote right after that is the first one that sold. As someone who’s, like, very pragmatic, I feel like story structure was one of the first things I learned, but there were other things [Cass: Laughs] I definitely [laughing] needed to learn after that.
All right. So, this is not a business that most of us succeed in completely on our own, so this is kind of like the acknowledgements portion of the podcast. [Both laugh] So, who are some of the people who helped you along the way, and how did they help you?
[34:31] Cass: I am fortunate to have an extremely supportive family. My parents, from the time I was eleven and said I wanted to do this, have had my back, have encouraged me, uh, have always been my biggest fans and my biggest cheerleaders. And that’s still true—they don’t understand why I’m not George R.R. Martin–levels of famous yet. [Both laugh] “When’s HBO gonna call you?” and I’m like, “I don’t know, I’d sure like them to, but… [laughs] your expectations may be slightly unrealistic, [Sarah: Laughs] Mom and Dad”. But, they love me [Sarah: Mm-hm.] and they’re very supportive.
My best friend John Levines has been… just an absolutely invaluable person, through my entire life. But when it comes to my writing specifically, he is the person I bounce thaumaturgical ideas [Sarah: Mmm.] off of—he’s the person that I go to when I need to talk magic, and how it works, and, and get ideas from him, and… There are certainly fingerprints of his in this series, very much so.
My agent Connor has stuck with me, uh, even when things were, y’know, tough, and, and going through those rounds of submissions, and… He and I have learned each other in some interesting ways and, and he has done a really good job figuring out how to manage my anxieties, and how much information I want versus need sometimes…! [Both laugh] Which is magnificent.
And then one of the best things I did, I think, was join a debut group, in my release year. I was actually part of two groups. I was part of Authors ’18, which was a large debut group—different people who had adult fiction coming out in 2018—and that has been a… absolutely magnificent network to have. Many of us are still active in the group, we still sort of have posts, where it’s like, “Okay, who needs help with something? Who needs something boosted? Who needs, y’know, retweets?” And things like that. But it was so wonderful to have people going through the same things at the same time. And so, the group was sort of the safe space where we could all come and vent about frustrations, or talk out, y’know, like, “This is… this seems weird, something my agent’s doing—is this normal?”. Or, “Is this thing that my editor wants me to do—is that okay, can I push back, would you guys push back?”. It was just—it was a great place to have those conversations. And then I also did something called, uh, The Debutante Ball, [laughing] which is a blog, that… each year, it’s, uh, five women who put together a whole year’s worth of blogging, and they became good friends and people I still rely on for things. [Sarah: Awesome.] It’s important. [Laughing] It’s so important to have writer friends. It’s so, so, so important to have writer friends! [Laughs] [Sarah: Yeah.] You need people you can talk to, who are… I think both at your stage, and slightly ahead of you, but not so far ahead of you that it’s intimidating. [Both laugh] Just to talk to about all the weird bumpiness that, that happens [Sarah: Mhm.] in this industry.
[37:15] Sarah: Real quick—just, um, because you’ve said his first name a lot—can you just say who your agent is?
[37:20] Cass: He’s Connor Goldsmith, of Fuse Literary.
[37:24] Sarah: I follow him on Twitter. [Laughs]
[37:26] Cass: He’s excellent!
[37:28] Sarah: You read your query letter for us, so we kind of know what the Aven Cycle is about, but is there anything you wanna add that readers might want to know about, if they’re interested in checking it out?
[37:36] Cass: If you like… ambitious people using magic in some really interesting ways, this is a series for you. If you liked Game of Thrones, but wanted a writer to be nicer to women [Sarah: Laughs] and more empowering to women, uh, this will be up your alley. The thing about that query letter that amazes me is that, with as much as the book changed in revisions, the core of the story remained the same. There is very little about that query letter that would need adjusting to reflect the book as it is—in fact, we pulled chunks of it, I think, for the, uh, the jacket copy. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] Aula isn’t as much of a focus; she sort of drops to a secondary character, but still, she’s important. The geopolitical aspect doesn’t get touched on as much, because that got… way beefed up in, in my first rounds of edits with Connor, so there’s also a conflict going on in Iberia—which is Spain, to Rome—with a different kind of magic there, [Sarah: Mm.] and with a different set of characters who sort of didn’t come into the query letter, who I think are fascinating and… one of whom I’m just, I’m so mean to her! [Sarah: Laughs] I, I owe her a happy ending, in some way, because I’ve put her through so much! [Laughs]
[38:46] Sarah: Also, you have a podcast about worldbuilding—can you tell us about that?
[38:50] Cass: Absolutely. The podcast is Worldbuilding for Masochists. I am co-host with Marshall Ryan Maresca and Rowenna Miller. We talk about all kinds of different aspects of fantasy worldbuilding—from geology, to geopolitics, to cultural things, to what a family unit looks like, to, you know, what the animals in your culture are like, to what the art is like—all the little details that fill out and flesh out a world and make it seem like a place real people could live. And we draw on a lot of history, we draw on a lot of science, we draw on other books that we love. We get to bring in so many exciting guests, it’s kind of the best part about the podcast is tricking other writers [Sarah: Laughs] into coming and talking to us. [Laughs] It’s like, “Yes, come. Let us, let us enjoy your brilliance for an hour”. We have so much fun. It’s, it’s a delight to get to talk both to my co-hosts and to all of our guests about this thing I love to do—which is just making, making worlds! Making… making new places to go let my imagination live.
[39:54] Sarah: That sounds so fun. Yeah, I was on a panel and they, it was about alternative media the authors do—so like podcasts, YouTube, that kind of thing—and someone had asked like, “What is your favorite part about it?”, and it was, “That I have an excuse to contact these people that I probably wouldn’t contact otherwise—these really cool publishing people—and have conversations with them”. It’s really just, like, an excuse to [laughing] talk to fun people!
[40:19] Cass: It really is. It’s, it’s a chance to have fun conversations with brilliant, brilliant people, and I’ve learned so much from that process, too, honestly. I came in one year into the project, replacing Alexandra Rowland, who started the podcast, um, with Marshall and Rowena. But… even in just this year, like, I’ve gotten so many ideas, I know that the next project I work on is going to put a lot of them into action. [Sarah: Mm.] And that’s been the case for my, my co-host, as well. Marshall’s book that just came out, The Velocity of Revolution, is built on the bones of the podcast. Um, it’s built on the things we’ve talked about, because it made him interrogate the work he was doing in a different way, and start thinking about, like—what we say on the show is, “Choose, don’t presume”. [Sarah: Mm.] When you’re building your world, don’t just assume a family unit is, you know, mom, dad and a certain number of kids. [Sarah: Mm-hm.] What else could a family unit look like? That could be not just a option, but perhaps that’s the norm, [Sarah: Mhm.]—you know?—in, in the world, and, and just making… making every choice about worldbuilding purposeful. And interesting.
[41:25] Sarah: Yeah, I can see how… thinking deeply on these worldbuilding topics for each episode can really lead to improving your own craft in the area, as well. That’s really interesting, yeah.
[41:37] Cass: Yeah. We think, we think, too, a lot about… how to then give that information to the reader, and how much do you trust them to figure out versus how much do you have to sort of lead them to—the craft-based things. We talk about a lot of that, too, and it’s just—it’s great. I love that I get to just spend time every couple weeks thinking about that real hard for a while.
[41:57] Sarah: Well, that is everything today. Thank you, Cass, so much for coming on Queries, Qualms, & Quirks.
[Outro music begins: strumming guitar]
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Queries, Qualms, & Quirks. You can find the text of Cass’s query in the show notes, along with links to find out more about her and her book and her podcast. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a review on your podcast app, tell your friends, or share this episode on social media. If you’re interested in supporting the show with a couple of bucks a month, go to patreon.com/pubtalklive. That link is also in the show notes. And if you’re a published author interested in being a guest on the show, please click on the home base link in the description, or go to sarahnicolas.com and click on the podcast logo on the sidebar—that is Sarah with an h, and Nicolas with no h. Thank you for tuning in, and we will see you next time!