A writer like you: Alison McBain
Meet Alison McBain, an award winning author with nearly one hundred short works published.
She was born in Canada, grew up in California, and after her nomadic twenties, settled in Connecticut. She has one novel under her belt as an author (The Rose Queen), one anthology under her belt as lead editor (When to Now: A Time Travel Anthology), and a recent nomination for the Pushcart Prize for poetry. When not writing, she practices origami meditation and draws all over the walls of her house with the enthusiastic help of her three daughters. Once in a while, she puts on her Book Reviews Editor hat for the magazine Bewildering Stories. And although there are too many books out there to choose favorites, a couple of her favorite authors are Terry Pratchett and Tanith Lee.
You’ll enjoy reading about the journey to find the “good words,” the struggle of being your own boss, and the compromise you might have to make with your inner critic.
Let’s dive into the interview.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was four, I wrote a horror story about the monster in my closet and “self-published” it by stapling it together and drawing a suitably terrible picture on the cover. It was great – and I’m still looking to write a better story than that one.
What has shaped you into the writer you are today?
I’ve been writing all my life, but most of what I was writing wasn't that great initially, since I hadn’t lived enough to make my experiences translate into writing. It took years of getting all the bad words out of my system in order to find the good ones. I’m often still searching for them, honestly (and still saying a lot of bad words as I go along, ha ha).
What motivated you to choose your profession?
Well, my main profession is “Mom.” I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I began writing as a way to use my creativity in other ways than trying to find out the best way to remove permanent marker from my great grandmother’s tablecloth. I returned to writing after a long break of having and raising three kids, and I used writing as a way to figure out what to do next. Then it became my “next.”
What have you learned about writing or business so far?
Patience is a must – that, and hard, hard, hard work. I always joke that when you’re your own boss, your boss sucks. That’s because either you have a lazy, procrastinating boss (which is me half the time) or you have a workaholic boss who expects you to be up until all hours of the night, chugging away (which is me the other half of the time).
What have you learned from your mistakes or failures along the way?
I don’t like to see any mistakes as failures, since everything is a learning experience. And if you’re learning how to do something better, it’s not wasted time.
I can’t say I’ve made any huge mistakes along the way, as far as I know, but I think the one thing I might wish to go back to the beginning and change is to write under a pen name. Instead, I wrote under my own name and I haven’t really held anything back – my personal and professional life overlap a lot. I think having that extra distance might have been helpful.
Why are reading and writing so important to you?
Words change lives.
How do you stay motivated to write?
When the alternative is picking gum out of my kids’ hair, the motivation seems obvious, ha ha.
How do you combat the inner writer critic?
It used to be I’d swing between those moments of: “I am the most brilliant writer on the planet!” to “I is write bad.” My inner critic and I have come to an agreement. She can criticize me all she wants, but I’m still going to write and send out my stuff to be published, even if she thinks it’s crap. Hopefully some editor out there won’t hate it as much as she does.
What are your current writing goals, and how do you plan to achieve them?
I want to be a bestselling author who can have a winter home somewhere far, far away from snowy Connecticut. Or, barring that, heated seats in my next car.
The publishing industry has changed significantly in my lifetime. Writers who can write fast tend to be successful, even if they aren’t household names. For most of us, it’s no longer about writing “THE great American novel” and selling it to one million readers. It’s great if it happens, but it’s not worth banking on. Now, it’s about writing one hundred great American novels and selling them to ten thousand readers each.
So my current writing goal is to produce 2-4 books a year and have several ongoing series, so that readers who might be interested in one series but who are waiting for the next book can check out one of my other series in the meantime. To me, that’s a win-win for both writer and reader.
What is your ultimate writer dream?
To inspire younger writers, just as I was inspired by my own literary heroes.
What strategies do you use to improve your writing skills?
I learned how to tell a story by reading other peoples’ writing. And I learned how to edit my own work by editing a ton of other writers’ work. It’s like any skill – you’ve got to keep practicing in order to get better.
Tell us about your books. What inspired them and where can we find them?
My debut novel The Rose Queen is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but with a twist: the beast is a woman. It’s based loosely on the fairy tale, but explores the backstory and loose ends that the fairy tale never tied up.
I was also lead editor of When to Now: A Time Travel Anthology. I belong to the writing group and small press publisher The Fairfield Scribes, and we produce a short story collection each year containing contributions from our members and also from writers around the world. The theme of “time travel” was a group idea, and we all had a lot of fun writing and choosing the stories to go into the anthology.
If you don’t live in Connecticut, the easiest way to get these two books is on Amazon. They’re also stocked locally, in both indie bookstores and our local libraries (support your local library!).
Describe your typical writing process or routine.
I’m a pantser, which means I “write by the seat of my pants.” While I will go into writing a story, book, or poem with an idea in my head of where I want to start and where I want to finish, a lot of the process is 1) getting from beginning to end and 2) rewriting and adding all the complexities and extras that make a story exciting. I don’t outline, and I’m highly impressed by people who are able to. I’ve tried it, and my characters laugh at me and run off the page.
As to when I can get to the actual writing, that’s usually when the kids are in bed. My writing time is from about 9pm-3am. But I don’t write every day – in fact, there can be long stretches when I’m stuck working on editorial projects and don’t get to writing at all. But when I’m caught up in a story, I can sit down and bang away at the keyboard for hours.
What are you currently working on, and what makes you excited about it?
I always have a zillion projects going on, so here goes.
A collection of my fantasy short stories will be published in April – I’m very excited by this book, since I started out my writing career with short stories. These are all either hard-to-find stories of mine (not available to read online) or brand new stories.
The second book in my Rose Queen Trilogy will be published in the late summer/fall – And it’s going to be action-packed! War, love, and betrayal – you don’t want to miss it.
I’ve written a contemporary romance that is under consideration with a couple of publishing houses. It’s the first in a series, so if it gets picked up, more books will follow.
I’m the lead editor for the Fairfield Scribes’ new anthology: Don’t Be A Hero: A Villainthology, to be published October 1st. After my first experience as the lead editor for When to Now: A Time Travel Anthology in 2018 was concluded, I wasn’t sure what to expect moving forward. Certainly not an Amazon best-selling book, as When to Now turned out to be! So I’m excited to be a part of putting together this new anthology for the Fairfield Scribes – it’s going to be awesome.
A collection of my science fiction short stories will be published in early 2020. The amazing part about this second collection is that the fabulous artist Richard Ong is creating a custom piece of artwork to grace the cover, based on the feature story of my collection. I’ve never had an artist create a work based on my writing, and so I’m doing excited backflips in my head over this.
What writing advice would you give other writers like yourself?
Just write. It doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter how many words you do a day. It doesn’t matter what other writers are doing. Don’t use the TV or a video game or anything else as an excuse not to write. Don’t allow others’ successes to make you afraid to reach your own victories. Don’t just participate in other peoples’ stories – create your own.
What types of stories do you like to write?
I’ve never stuck to one genre, either in my reading or my writing. I feel an interesting story can be told no matter the background details, so I’m happy to write anything. I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, literary, humor, romance, alternate history, and horror. I have yet to tackle Westerns and mysteries, so those might be next.
Where can we connect with you?
You can find me on my website, where I blog about my kids, interview creatives, and post my webcomic about parenting. I am currently the lead editor for the anthologies produced by the Fairfield Scribes. Bewildering Stories is one of the oldest and most widely-read webzines around, and I serve as the Book Reviews Editor. If you prefer social media to connect, you can also chat with me on these Twitter accounts: @AlisonMcBain (author), @Toddler_Times (cartoonist) or @FfldScribes (editor).
Thank you, Alison.
My favorite FREE THE WRITER takeaway is, “Don’t just participate in other peoples’ stories – create your own.” Lately I’ve been working hard to prioritize my ideas and my stories. I’ve been happier than ever. Alison has also found a way to balance her home life with her writing life; it’s possible people! Keep trying and don’t give up.
What did you learn from Alison? Feel free to share in the comments below.
To free the writer today, let’s set aside time for our own stories. (Maybe you can pull off Alison’s 9pm-3am schedule, but I’d keel over.) Turn of the TV, take out a pen or a laptop, and go for it!