A Master Class with Gerri Leen

This week’s interview is with an author whose work I’ve admired from afar for months. Gerri Leen is an accomplished genre writer who’s been widely published in anthologies, magazines, and literary journals. I first came across her work last summer, and her talent and prolific output astounded me. Gerri has a lot to teach all of us up-and-coming fiction writers. At the very least, the advice she offers throughout this interview helped me feel a little less alone when it comes to the sometimes lonely world of writing, editing, acceptances, and the dreaded rejections.

A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Gerri LeenI had opportunities to pursue writing when I was younger, and writing seemed to come easily (at least as far as school projects were concerned—I never tried to get published back then other than one poetry submission to Omni that I never heard back on), but it never seemed a viable way to make a living—and I was all about supporting myself back then.

So the ability was there but not much experience and definitely not a lot of drive. For years I wrote poetry to quench the thirst to write. But after my mother died in 1998, I quit writing poetry for a while, and I found that there were stories that needed to come out. I started writing fanfiction in 1999 to scratch that itch, and sent in my first professional submission to the Star Trek Strange New Worlds contest in 2004—and got in on my first try. And then didn’t make it into the next volume or make a sale for original fiction for quite a while after that, so I had to really examine why I was doing it. Once I decided I was writing for myself, I could keep going. And things have progressed since. I started writing poetry again, and now I have some poems published. When I was in my teens and twenties, I would say that I would write when I was old. Well, I’m sure the me of back then would think that I’m old now, so prophecy fulfilled.

Favorite authors really run the gamut. I tend to read mainstream fiction, young adult (both speculative and non) and speculative fic. I am sort of weird in that I don’t tend to like series—I much prefer a stand-alone book with an actual ending—so that sort of leaves out a lot of fantasy and YA.   In mainstream fiction, I adore Stewart O’Nan, Gillian Flynn (way before Gone Girl), Armistead Maupin, Doug Coupland, Max Barry, Ron Rash, the thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, and Matt Ruff (although some of his are borderline speculative). In speculative, I love Connie Willis, Joan Vinge, Jane Yolen, Daryl Gregory, Scott Westerfeld, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury.

You craft a variety of stories, including horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Do you prefer writing in one genre above and beyond the others, or do you love them all equally?

Sirens Call Issue 19I tend toward mythology-related things. That would probably be my favorite: any time I can rework a myth (or a fairy tale or a legend).   I often don’t get dark enough to nudge my stories out of dark fantasy and into horror, so it’s fun to see the ones I have managed to push over the cliff get accepted. Just when I think I’m not really a sci-fi writer, the muse will pull something new out of her bag of tricks and I realize that I still am. I’m sort of a commitment phobe, so I love being able to go back and forth among all these genres (and even mainstream) and try new things. I recently started writing romances under the pen name Kim Strattford. I also do fiction with romance under my own name, but the stories tend to be dark or bittersweet. For the real romance stories, it seemed wise to create a pseudonym that readers could count on for the happy endings they crave (and that the genre demands).

With hundreds of published stories over the last few years, you have an enviable output as a writer. How do you keep yourself focused and avoid burnout?

Thank you! I’ve been doing this for ten years now, so I guess I’m in it for the long haul. But if I feel burnt out or unfocused, I don’t write. Sometimes I just don’t feel like writing. Sometimes I’ve got things going on in life that sort of take over the brain so I don’t have the energy to write—and I often feel like the muse is diverted to handle the crisis, guess she’s an all-purpose inspirer. I have frequent severe migraines and sometimes they take me off the playing field (other times, writing through them is the only thing that makes them tolerable—although the stories don’t always make a whole lot of sense when I read them the next day). I’m pretty chill when it comes to any kind of schedule. If I’m meant to be writing, I’ll write. If not, I’ll do something else.Bottom line, this should be fun. If it’s not fun, take a break till it is. At least for me, when the story is there, it’s going to flow. But if it’s not there, no amount of me hitting keys is going to get it there. I’ve learned not to force it.

It’s also fun to have projects that are really close to your heart to keep your interest level up. I have a collection coming out from Inkstained Succubus Press that will feature genetically enhanced racehorses that manage their own careers. I have written in this world before and they offered me the chance to do a novel-sized collection of interconnected shorts, and since I’m an avid follower of horse racing, I jumped at the chance. I also am editing a collection of speculative companion/service animal stories for Hadley Rille Books that will benefit an animal rescue group I support in Northern Virginia. Health issues on several fronts have delayed this book, but we are ready to get going on it again. I think it’s a really fun group of stories and poems, and it was oh so enlightening getting to go through the slush pile. I have a much greater appreciation for why things get rejected and how it may not be any reflection on quality, just a case of a story not fitting the theme, or being too much like another story that fits better for whatever reason (although an astounding number of people don’t read the guidelines—I was a little shocked). I think having done a stint as editor on a slush pile, I am much more copacetic when I get rejected.

If forced to choose, which part of the writing process is your favorite: developing characters, establishing setting, or crafting dialogue?

Anthology 1 Gerri LeenDialogue, for sure. There are times when I’m writing, if a scene is in my head and I just want to get it captured, I’ll just do the dialogue and work out the connective tissue later. I think I would be very happy as a screenwriter, because dialogue is the part that’s always come naturally to me (this kind of makes sense since a friend and I used to do plays of fairy tales in elementary school for the younger classes—sometimes making up the thing as we went along). I’ve had to work on the texture part, of setting the scene and bringing it alive as the character sees it. Writing poetry before I did much prose can at times be a problem. In poetry, every word counts, so I am often fighting my own tendency to be spare or choppy. But I’m learning.

For character development, I think a lot of that often comes through in the dialogue as much as the inner monologue and action moments, so I see that as part and parcel of the dialogue process. I always go back to shows like Joss Whedon’s. If you hear the dialogue, you can pretty much tell who would have said the line. So much of what made his characters who they were was how they said things. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but it’s what I’d strive for: to be able to achieve such distinct voices for characters. Probably easier to do, though, in a novel than in shorts, and so far I’ve mostly concentrated on shorts and novelettes.

All writers hear the word ‘no’ a lot during their careers. How do you cope with rejection and keep submitting?

Ares Magazine Gerri LeenRejections never stop sucking. That’s the reality. But I think the trick is to have a lot of stories circulating (and be working on other things) and don’t obsess over things that are rejected—and get them right back out to a new market. And take crit with a grain of salt. If you hear the same thing more than once from different editors, then yes, it may be something that needs fixing. But to edit every time before you send out again: that way lies madness.

That said, it’s not always easy to just brush off the constant rejections. When it gets really bad—one month this year I got six rejections in one day—I often take a break from original stuff and write fanfiction (which is where I really learned to write). I just disappear into worlds I adore, get some immediate love back for the stories, and feel…energized. Sometimes I focus on poetry for a while. Not that it doesn’t get rejected, too, but the process for writing it is a lot easier for me and seems to use a slightly different part of my brain. Or sometimes I just take a break completely from writing. Binge-watch a show (you can always take something away whether it’s how they worked in a plot twist or a clever way of introducing something), watch movies, play games on my iPad, or just read. I’m not a “write every day no matter what” type of writer. I write when the muse either gives me scenes ahead or I get the feeling a story is imminent. I was once told I lack discipline since I won’t do the “butt in chair everyday” method, but I think I’ve done all right doing it my way.

Out of your published works so far, do you have a personal favorite piece?

Oh, man, that’s a hard one. My favorite is probably “Disruption of Destiny,” which appeared in the launch issue of Ares Magazine. It was actually prompted by a movie called The Safety of Objects. But I have a story that’s looking for a home called “One Way” that will give “Disruption of Destiny” a run for its money as my favorite once it gets published. It is a sci-fi story written in a bit of a reverse timeline. And the muse gave me the story backwards so I discovered the character the same way the reader will, with each new bit revealing that you really don’t understand what’s going on at all.

Huge thanks to Gerri for taking the time to answer my questions. Check out both of her author websites here and here as well as her Facebook and Twitter pages. 

Happy reading!