Sarah Elizabeth Monette is an award-winning American novelist and short story author who writes primarily in the genres of fantasy and horror.
Under the pseudonym Katherine Addison, she published the critically acclaimed fantasy novel The Goblin Emperor, which received the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was nominated for several prestigious awards.
Sarah has also published several successful novels and numerous short stories, and her work has appeared in various publications including Strange Horizons, Alchemy, and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
Hi Sarah! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself?
I was born in Tennessee, went to college in Ohio, and moved to Wisconsin for grad school, where I’ve been ever since. I have a Ph.D. in English Literature; my research specialty is English Renaissance drama, which I think explains some things about my writing. I’ve published twelve novels (counting both solo and collaboration) and more than 60 short stories. I write primarily horror in short form and fantasy in long form.
My best known novel is The Goblin Emperor (written under my pen name, Katherine Addison), about which see below. I work as the administrative assistant for a small public library; I also teach for a low-residency MFA program. I live in a house that’s coming up on 120 years old, with my husband, our cats, and our books.
Can you walk us through your writing process and routine? What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I try to write every day, although I’m not one of those inflexible people who say you must write every day or you’re not a “real writer.” Some days I write 50 words, some days I write 1500 – it depends on a lot of factors, only some of which I can identify. I don’t set word count goals or page count goals for myself, except that, on days I’m writing, I have to get to 50 words. It’s a low bar, but some days that’s all I’ve got.
In terms of process, I’m a make-it-up-as-you-go writer, so the first draft is me telling myself the story (also known as a discovery draft). I don’t outline, and I don’t generally world-build much before I start writing, although sometimes I draw maps. I revise that discovery draft extensively, because generally by the time I get to the end I know what the story needs and can go back and make it look like that was what I meant to do the whole time.
I get up at 6, go to the library at 7, come home at 10, and write from 10 to 4, except on days when I have a dressage (an equestrian sport) lesson. At 4 I go read a book, to get away from the computer. Sometimes, if it’s going really well, I’ll come back to the computer at 5; mostly, though, 4 is the end of my working day.
How do you balance your day job with your writing career?
My day job is, thankfully, only part time. I go to work at 7 and get done at 10, and that’s it. It’s not the kind of job you have to take home with you.
Your novel The Goblin Emperor won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, can you talk about the inspiration behind that story, and the impact of winning the award?
I started The Goblin Emperor because I wanted to write a story with elves and airships. I was casting about for something to have happened and (because I am a horror writer at heart) the first thing I thought of was the wreck of the Hindenburg. And then I had to think of a reason the wreck would matter to my protagonist, and for some reason the Hindenburg cross-pollinated in my head with the biography of Elizabeth I, and how she went from house arrest one day to queen the next. That was where the story started, and it proceeded very straight-forwardly from there, as each decision my protagonist made opened up a whole new set of problems.
I was, of course, delighted when The Goblin Emperor won the Locus Award, but the thing about awards is, they don’t change anything. They don’t change your writing process. And you can’t think about awards when you’re writing. You can’t say, “I will now write an award-winning short story” and have it happen. You have to write the story thinking about the story, and then you send it out in the world and hope for the best.
Can you speak to the experience of writing under different names and how that has impacted your creative process?
It hasn’t, really. The novels I write as Katherine Addison are the same novels I would write as Sarah Monette. The fact that the Doctrine of Labyrinths books are quite different from the Osreth books, which they are, is one of those correlations that do not equal causation. But then, I’m not writing under two names at the same time, as a lot of people do; I have no reason to distinguish Monette from Addison.
How do you approach collaboration in your writing, specifically with Elizabeth Bear?
Bear and I collaborate like a tennis match. One of us starts and writes until she gets bored or stuck or has to go do something else, then sends it to the other, who edits what’s been written then writes until she gets bored or stuck or has to do something else, then sends it back. We both enjoy it, and the voice it produces doesn’t sound like either of us in our solo work. We balance each other well.
As an adjunct faculty for Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program, how do you approach teaching creative writing and what do you hope to impart to your students?
The nice thing about teaching creative writing at the graduate level is that all your students are there because they want to be, not because they need a creative writing course to fulfill their minor, or their core requirements, or just because it was the only thing available in the time slot they needed to fill.
There are some things about writing that I don’t think can be taught – part of writing comes down to talent, and that you either have or you don’t. But a lot of writing depends on skill, and skill can be taught. You can also teach yourself a lot about writing by learning to read critically, and reading critically is absolutely a teachable skill.
So I start teaching about writing by teaching about reading, both published novels and other students’ work, and the more of that you do, the more you can look at your own work critically and figure out what works well and what needs fixing.
I try hard not to be prescriptivist with my students. There’s nothing about writing that’s a “must,” except that, really, you should try to write as often as you can.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have a big cluttered desk and a lot of bookcases. I do a lot of brainstorming and story-wrestling and editing by hand, and I am a fountain pen fanatic, so my fountain pens and notebook are always nearby. And there’s generally a cat.
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