In this interview, multi-genre author Catherine Stine shares her love of suspense, discusses writing “what you know” and writing to the trends (or not), and talks about her experiences with traditional and self-publishing, from both creative- and business-minded perspectives.
Catherine Stine (@crossoverwriter) is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fantasy, paranormal romance, sci-fi thrillers, and young adult fiction. Witch of the Wild Beasts won a second prize spot in the 2019 Valley Forge RWA Sheila Contest. Other novels have earned Indie Notable awards and New York Public Library Best Books for Teens.
She lives in Manhattan, grew up in Philadelphia, and is known to roam the Catskills. Before writing novels, she was a painter and children’s fabric designer. She’s a visual author when it comes to scenes, and she sees writing as painting with words. She loves edgy thrills, perhaps because her dad read Edgar Allen Poe tales to her as a child. Catherine loves spending time with her beagle Benny, writing about supernatural creatures, tending the garden on her deck, traveling, and meeting readers at book fests.
KRISTEN TSETSI: What draws you to wanting to write suspense, and what’s the most fun you have when writing a highly suspenseful scene?
CATHERINE STINE: I love a page-turner, and I get a thrill out of crafting twists and turns and ratcheting up the tension to a fever pitch. It’s a fun challenge, as it’s not that easy to create scenes that readers can’t guess at, that keep them disturbed, thoroughly surprised, shocked. I consider it a success if they are still thinking about the theme or the characters a few days later, a week later, what with all of the diversions and media we have at our fingertips.
Probably my two most proud suspenseful creations are the ending of Pictures of Dorianna that no one’s ever guessed at correctly (unless they cheated and skipped to the end!), and what happens to Evalina’s second nasty employer in Witch of the Wild Beasts! No spoilers here, you’ll have to read the tales.
This love for suspense started with my first novel, though I was unaware of it. In Refugees, Johar runs from his home in Afghanistan to seek shelter for himself and his little niece while, on the other side of the world, Dawn flees from a cold, unloving foster home and arrives in NYC right before 9/11.
In the Fireseed series, the world in 2089 is falling apart from excessive heat and lack of food, and there is eco-terrorism, even a murder.
At the moment, I am developing a romantic suspense series set in contemporary Los Angeles that I’m having wicked fun with. I’m clearer on what I love to do, and that has made all the difference. The only downside is that to plot suspense, one must piece together a very intricate puzzle even before most of the writing occurs. As in a mystery, it is mostly plotted backwards.
You say in an Authorturf interview, “Write about things you are passionate about, not to the trends.” Anyone who’s seen the success of the many zombie efforts—all of the money made chasing that trend—might ask, if trends are so trendy, why not write to them?
Yes, I did say that… back in about 2012, when I was climbing out of my traditionally published platform into my first breakout indie moment. LOL.
The first part of my line from Authorturf still rings very true for me: “Write from a raw place, just beyond what you know for sure yet intuit strongly. Enter into a place of wonder and horror, love and brutal honesty.”
In traditional publishing it makes sense not to chase trends because what is popular at the time of writing will not necessarily be popular two years hence. This is how long it takes a traditionally published novel to come to market.
In the indie market, where one can publish very close to the time the novel is completed, authors do write to trend more often.
Interestingly, the trends that come and go in the traditional market are often at odds with the indie market. I remember a few years back when paranormal went way out of favor in the traditional market, while it was still quite lucrative in the indie market. I tell my writing students not to be a slave to trends, while at the same time, to keep an eye on the market. So, I would say, try to do both.
But the “passion” part factors in because if you have no personal energy for a trend (zombies, shifters, Gone Girl clones, fairytale twists), no matter how popular it is in the market, your work will fall flat. If you are bored with it, your readers will be.
I find that what an author is truly fixated on becomes exciting fiction. For me? Cults, shady beach towns, bizarre methods of murder, reluctant heroes, witches, tortured nature, animals and hybrid critters are some.
Whatever it is for you, embrace it and be fearless in presenting it!
You’ve said you don’t necessarily like the advice, “Write what you know,” and think it should instead be, “Write some of what you know, and some of what you’re curious about.” Are there certain things you think you, or any writer, would be better off not writing about without having first experienced them?
Joan Didion says in her landmark essay “Why I Write” she writes to find out what she’s thinking, looking at, and what it all means. To write “What I want and what I fear.” To answer questions that “shimmer” in her mind.
I so get that. Characters filter in and they demand attention sometimes years before I build them on a page. Part of this process is rational and mathematical, the other part pure poetry, magic and obsession. In this regard, an author cannot say in all honesty that they write novels using only experiences and elements they are thoroughly familiar with.
Why bother if you aren’t stretching, learning, discovering. Think of it as method acting, where one inhabits a strange, new character completely out of their comfort zone. Great actors do this all of the time.
As an author of historical fiction, I adore research. I learn so much in the process. I grew up in Philadelphia and figured I knew my city in and out, but in the process of researching Witch of the Wild Beasts I learned tons about its darker history, about the wacky medical trends of the 1850s, about the roving, racist gangs and more.
The one thing that I would not do again is write a novel located in a part of the world I have not personally visited. When writing Refugees, I could not visit Afghanistan because a war was being waged there. Instead, I did exhaustive research and interviewed people who had grown up there and fled.
It worked out, but it’s very hard and not advisable. I also feel that when a Caucasian author writes a person of color as a main character it can be very tricky. I got around this once by writing my heroine Joss as biracial. But as bestselling romance authors Courtney Milan and La Quette insist when writing people of color, one must have a sensitivity reader and be up on the newest set of guidelines.
Aside from Paris (or, if you’re a Hemingway idol, Cuba), nothing inspires authors’ fantasies like living and writing in New York City. A Carrie Bradshaw apartment, computer set up at a window overlooking quirky neighborhood life…material for years. But is that true? Is New York City a major source of inspiration for you? Can you imagine writing the same way in a different place—like a suburb of Connecticut? This isn’t a trick question or a trap.
Haha, you crack me up. Yes, New York City has been a source of inspiration. I grew up in Philly, but I’ve lived in Manhattan for years, though I also live in the Catskills, which is a great counterpoint and provides inspiration for rural storylines. Hey, I had two Vietnamese potbellied pigs!
But yes, I love the city’s international feel, its diversity of people. It has a fast pulse and a driving soundtrack—classical, jazz, hip-hop, fusion. It’s really a myriad of tightly woven neighborhoods. I wrote a romance series about an artist set in NYC (in the process of being rebranded). I wrote a YA set in the East Village. Part of my first witch book, Witch of the Cards, was set in depression-era Manhattan where a shantytown was built in Central Park!
Oddly enough, it’s the sketchy beach towns nearby that hook me the most. Pictures of Dorianna was set partly in Coney Island, Witch of the Cards in 1930s Asbury Park, NJ. Even my futuristic thriller Ruby’s Fire was set partly in a city called Vegas-by-the-Sea. I love me a creepy beach town. LOL.
But seriously, NYC has endured so much—9/11, the hurricane Sandy blackout, being an epicenter of the COVID-19 virus. It makes us tough, caring, soulful, full of heart. And that is inspiring.
Author Sue Grafton angered many self-published authors when she said in 2012 that self-published authors are “too lazy to do the hard work.” There was, and surely still is, a perception among many that those who self-publish get to skip the process of editing and revising until they meet the standards we expect when reading something (something good, that is) that is traditionally published.
As someone who publishes both traditionally and independently, what can you share about the editing and revising process for each? Are you more careful with one than you are with the other?
Sue Grafton didn’t live to see the market as it is today, but if she had, I’m sure she would rethink her statement.
Many authors are now proudly hybrid, and those who started as indies do not always accept contract offers from trad markets. Some indie authors make huge pots of money. Others who started with big publishers have diversified, depending on their projects.
All of the indie authors I know go through multiple drafts and hire top-drawer editors before their manuscripts see the light of day. Many editors who worked full time in the traditional publishing world now happily work freelance for indie authors.
That said, there are no doubt some indie authors who don’t follow a professional standard, but these days they don’t get far. And over the years, I’ve read plenty of horrid trad fiction.
What contributed to publishing changes? The economic crash of 2008 was a factor in transforming the market. My agent was sending around my Fireseed series at that time, and as soon as we would put together a sub list, 90 percent of the editors at big houses were laid off. It was crazy! Houses were only purchasing sure-shot blockbusters, and very few even of those.
Another factor was the explosion of ebooks. A larger and larger percentage of folks read on digital tablets, and so many brick and mortar bookstores have folded. It’s encouraging, though, to see indie bookstores emerging, and people still love to buy paperbacks. I love hand selling at book conferences because I get to chat with readers!
I have published with big houses such as Delacorte and American Girl/Pleasant Company, smaller houses such as Evernight Teen and Inkspell, and of course with my own line, Konjur Road Press. I have also gotten my rights reverted when I could do better marketing on my own.
The control I had with my first indie project (Fireseed One and Ruby’s Fire in my Fireseed series) spoiled me. I learned so much about putting together my publishing team – connecting with great editors, cover artists, personal assistants and advertising outlets. Now I can format a book with Vellum, so I cut out that middleman step, too.
I like being involved in the book’s design and hiring just the right cover artist, as I came from the art world. I know Photoshop, so I can put together teaser promos. The advertising and social media game is always changing, so it’s a constant educational challenge. But one I’m here for.
The only downside is I miss the monster distribution machine of a huge publisher. But the indie community has many creative workarounds and we all share new avenues and tactics. I would still sign a trad deal, with a close look at the contract, the publisher, and their marketing ideas.
In 2005, Delacorte Press (Random House) published your first novel, Refugees. What do you remember most about your experience as a first-timer going through the publication process with a publisher of that magnitude? How did it compare with what you imagined it would be like?
I’m not sure what I imagined publishing to be like when I first started writing. I suppose I pictured it as little kids imagine the saints—editors as glowing super humans, floating just out of reach in a distant and rarefied realm. It was helpful to hear them speak, at SCBWI events and at forums, where they came down to earth and you could wait in line and say a hello, maybe get up the nerve to croak out a story pitch.
I was finishing up an MFA at the New School when I met and pitched my thesis Refugees to an editor at a forum. A week later, I was invited to a mysterious meeting with the Random House editing team.
They were not in agreement as to how my manuscript should be revised. The VP and senior editor were quibbling about it in front of me! The upshot was that I should revise on spec, meaning no contract until they both read my revision.
Later that day, I cried to my thesis advisor about my confusion over which editor I should pay attention to. She laughed and told me this happened all the time, and just to follow my heart. I did, and two weeks later they offered me a contract.
The editor wanted to “talk terms,” and although I was green I sensed I’d better get an agent before I did that. Sure enough, the first thing the agent asked me was, “Have you already talked terms?” If I had, I would not have landed an agent.
My editor sent me a six-page revision letter. Shocking at first, but the process was very smooth. I was delighted when she asked if the Random House fact-checker could pore over my research material. If he was looking to me for this, I figured I’d done a thorough job. Their messenger service picked up my two loaded crates of books, newspapers, and god knows what else. It turns out that I love, love, love doing research. Phew! Lessons learned on the fly.
What expectations did you have for your second novel after that debut release, and what was your experience?
The debut release went well, and they had an option on my second novel, which I was happy about. I had written a YA about a girl who had a pot-addicted mom. My editor did not think, at the time, that teens would want to read about this issue (my agent and I strongly disagreed with the editor).
The editor then suggested I pen another novel about Afghanistan. I thought long and hard about this and decided that I did not want to be put in a “political issue author” box.
My resisting her suggestion was a big risk on my part, because it would have been an easy second sell. But I have no regrets. This speaks also to the fact that sometimes it takes a while to figure out your exact thematic and genre sweet spot. It is often a painful process of elimination—of figuring out what you do not want to write first. Looking back, the part of Refugees that I loved, and still love, is the research part and the spinning the subsequent haul of research into dramatic story gold.
In the meantime, I also had a middle grade manuscript out on submission. It attracted the attention of an editor from Pleasant Company/American Girl. They asked if I would be interested in writing a book in an ongoing series. So, ironically, my second novel was a Choose Your Own Adventure for them called A Girl’s Best Friend.
Talk about cognitive dissonance—from the war in Afghanistan to girls caring for dogs at a boarding school! The format for a Choose Your Own Adventure is like figuring out a gigantic puzzle backwards. Its first three pages had a common story and after that it had something like 23 different endings!
Konjur Road Press, your own imprint, published Witch of the Cards, which in 2016 became a USA Today bestseller. I think I speak for many authors who release work independently when I say something like that is a favorite fantasy. How did it happen, how did you find out it happened, and what was your reaction (both your feeling about it and how you responded to it – did you celebrate? Had you been expecting it)?
A few months after publication, I put Witch of the Cards into a boxed set with a group of other indie authors who I knew and trusted. We worked hard on marketing, and I learned so much about promotion during that effort. Still, it was a huge surprise that it shot up into the USA Today bestselling list.
I was astonished—in a sugar shock of cotton candy sweetness and floating elation. There was no way we could have predicted the outcome, despite our ceaseless work to try and drive it up the charts. There was a lot of cheering online amongst the indie author community, which felt wonderful. It energized my writing through the summer and helped me feel that a hybrid author could succeed.
My Fireseed series has also hit the top 100 in Amazon a bunch, a thrill every time. Since then, I’ve met USA Today, New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling indie authors at conferences and online. Very heartening. We cheer each other on.
You’ve written and published to a wide variety of markets: a children’s book, A Girl’s Best Friend (American Girl Publishing); anthology contributions that include the supernatural Spirits in the Water, the speculative Twisted Earths, and the romance anthology Once Upon a Summer; a romance/mystery series (Art of Love); young adult fiction with the Fireseed novel series and Pictures of Dorianna. What sells the best, and which poses the greatest marketing challenge (and why)?
Wow, that’s a complex question. I’d have to say that it depends on the particular novel itself, and the timing of its release. It also depends on how expertly you ramp up the promo to get eyes on the book.
I started out in YA and middle grade. These all sold well, and Refugees got onto high school recommended reading lists and NYPL Best Books. In this case, my publisher helped by entering my book. But there are many contests and awards an author can apply to directly, and gain a spotlight. This is another reason to become a member of a professional group such as RWA, WNBA, SCBWI, the Authors’ Guild, or others.
So, honors like these help. The Fireseed novels won awards, and my newest historical fantasy Witch of the Wild Beasts won a second prize spot in The Romance Writers of America’s Sheila contest.
I love it when my YAs get read and reviewed by actual teens, though this market can be slightly harder to reach. Teens are pulled in many directions by social media, and it’s not as easy to do a school visit as it is for middle grade kids who have to read for book reports and the like. Though Instagram is a great site for YA authors to gain visibility. I love IG these days! All of the gorgeous flat-lays of books and dedicated bloggers astound me. I have had good success there with promo videos of my new launches, whether for the YA or adult market.
The anthologies you mention were all published through Untethered Realms, a fantasy and science fiction group I’m a member of. We publish these for the sheer joy of story, and never put a ton of money into the promo, though we’ve managed to gain a decent readership. We have a group blog where we take turns blogging and writing book reviews, and over time, we’ve built up a loyal audience. It helps that each of us independently have followers that we bring to the table. This is yet another reason to join forces when marketing. My story “Maizy of Bellagio” in the Spirits in the Water anthology remains one of my favorites, and I could see expanding this into a novel. I also plan to release a short story collection at some point.
But back to what sells best! My Fireseed novels (Fireseed One and Ruby’s Fire) and my historical fantasies Witch of the Cards and Witch of the Wild Beasts are the top sellers so far. My love for these inspires me to promote them, and readers have responded well.
I also know that romance sells, and I’m in the process of expanding and rebranding my art series, and another secret series project. No spoilers, though. We’ll see where it goes! I’m brainstorming a third witch book. So more historical fantasy for sure.
What advice would you give writing students about the business of publishing?
Your first task is to put words down and get experience crafting characters, scenes, settings, worlds and plot. Your next task is to read, read, read, for without reading a writer is lost.
Get into a trusted, serious writing group where you can workshop your material regularly. It took me a while to understand what genres were my heart, so it’s a process, and a process of elimination as much as inspiration. As Joan Didion says, “I knew what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was.”
I always have my creative writing students fill out a chart that includes fears and obsessions. This will be their core material, the themes they will “chew on” for years. A budding author must have material that invokes powerful emotions and deeply sensory memories to push them through the grueling process of writing.
This is another reason not to be a slave to trends. Rather, write what only you can say, what unearths your worst fears and secret preoccupations. I stand by my own quote from 2012: “Write from a raw place, just beyond what you know for sure yet intuit strongly. Enter into a place of wonder and horror, love and brutal honesty.”
Finally, I’ve known some wildly talented authors, but without a mad drive to fuel them through plunges in the roller coaster ride, many give up. So, it comes back to obsession and butt in chair.
After you have a novel or two that you totally believe in, then it’s time to figure out whether you want to approach traditional publishers or go indie.
There is no hard and fast rule for this in terms of which genres are best for which market. There’s also no harm in trying to submit to trad pubbers and agents first. But go into it with eyes wide open and having researched these outlets.
Know what you are getting into! Do not sign with an agent blindly, without researching their clients, authors and commissions. Do attend writing conventions and events, where you can meet editors and agents directly. Do join professional author guilds or communities where you can talk to others in the business.
And do not rush to publish, no matter whether you do this through a traditional house or independently.
Thank you, Catherine.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novels The Age of the Child, Pretty Much True, and, under the pen name Chris Jane, The Year of Dan Palace. She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.