You’ve written a lot over the years, tell us about your writing journey!
I started writing well over a decade ago and learned most of what I know thanks to the people on Absolute Write Water Cooler who gave of their time and shared their experience to help newbie writers like me get better, and not get scammed.
Because I lived in South Africa, when I eventually started querying, I would only sub to agents who accepted email submissions. Since this was the dark ages, you’ll be surprised how few did, and many UK agents only wanted print submissions, which left main the newer US agents.
Since then, my work has shifted into more adult territory, and most of my writing centres on dark, lush writing, and retellings that get twisted into new and weird shapes.
My most recent book, Cast Long Shadows, came out with Luna Press Publishing, and is a retelling of Snow White from the step-mother’s point of view, while Thief Mage, Beggar Mage, my Big Queer Epic with dragons, thieves, mages, and secret identities will soon be available from Ghost Moth.
What are the themes and concepts in your upcoming book, Thief Mage Beggar Mage?
Well, it’s retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story The Tinderbox, but with everything I don’t like stripped away, and all the stuff I do like added in. It has my usual disgust at the consequences of war and tyranny, but it has a more intimate story against the backdrop of trying to end a war and overthrow a tyrant.
Both of the main characters deal with their perception of themselves, what makes them worthy, and their distrust of themselves and the people around them. So, under everything, it’s a queer love story. With magic, and dragons, and gods, and secret identities, and stopping and restarting time.
How do you develop characters when you’re writing a novel, and what do you think is the most important thing to include in the text about them?
When I write my first draft, I just throw everything at the page. The characters tend to give me vibes and feelings, and I’ll make notes and comments for reference as I learn more about them. When I start second drafting and know the general shape of the story, I delve deeper into building the characters (and the world).
Sometimes I’ll think I know a character until I get stuck into redrafting and discover so much more about them. This discovery process can also shift the shape of the story. It’s a very organic method of writing and revision.
The most important thing for me to include is the thing that humanizes them – or makes them relatable. Even if they’re non-human or (seemingly) unrelatable. A great example here is Dexter. I mean, he’s a serial killer, but the writer still makes us root for him by adding in these little details where we can nod and go yeah, been there.
Has being in writer’s groups changed how you write, and would you recommend a writer’s group to new writers?
Maybe? I used to be in a writer’s group in Cape Town, which is where I met a few people who have become long-term friends, and got great advice on my writing. Now I have a bunch of writer and reader pals who support me, others who critique me, and still others who do both.
What you need is the opinion of people you can trust AND who know what they’re talking about. That could be a handful of well-read beta-readers who aren’t afraid to tell you where your work is stalling, it could be a rigorous critique group, another writer whose input you trust, your agent, or a combination of all of those.
You also need to learn when critique is not actually valuable. Not all crits are of equal help or even come from a good place. If you’re writing a dreamy, strange novel that borders on literary, and your crit partner is telling you it needs more ninjas, you might not be a great fit.
What’s next on your journey?
I’m currently redrafting the sequel to Thief Mage, Beggar Mage, which is a delicious mess of ghosts and dragons and sniping mages and stolen power. Because the story has moved out of the city of Pal-em-Rasha and my characters are travelling further south, I’m having a great deal of fun building the Southern Archipelagos and their cultures.
I also have a dark, modern fantasy with bisexual and non-binary mages (and monsters) on sub, a sequel to that waiting to be redrafted and revised, and I’m waiting on beta-feedback on another lush fantasy novel about time travel, mages, plagues, and a saint trying to destroy the city (and the man) he loves.
I’ve also got a few backburner projects I need to face at some point! Help!
Which writer has influenced or inspired your writing the most, and do you have a book that you’d recommend?
I absolutely adore the work of Tanith Lee, Clive Barker, and Ursula le Guin, and I’d consider them some of my biggest influences. If I had to pick a book from each it would be Lee’s The Secret Books of Paradys (that’s a cheat, it’s a novella collection), Barker’s Imagica, and Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan.
For modern novel writers, I’ve really enjoyed work by Yoon Ha Lee, Neil Williamson, Katherine Addison, and Lorainne Wilson, while for short stories, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention E.M. Faulds, whose collection, Under the Moon, I beta read, Aliya Whiteley, and Kelly Link.
What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?
Ugh, probably all of it, and yet it all had its place. When you first start writing those ‘rules is rules’ like ‘don’t start with your character waking up’ or ‘avoid adverbial dialogue tags’ are actually pretty useful to help you write clean, invisible prose that starts in an interesting place. But all rules are guidelines, and if you know what you’re doing you can break them.
However, definitely on the list for worst is ‘kill your darlings’. Why should I delete the best parts of my writing because you think my ego needs pruning and I can’t possibly actually have written something good?
Maybe I’ve just never understood that one. I’d modify it to say ‘Why is that your darling, and what does it do that makes it sing? How can that inform the rest of your writing?’
Where can readers find out more about Cat Hellisen?
I’m most active on twitter where you can find me at @cat_hellisen, but I also have a Patreon where I share writing and process, and a very occasional newsletter. If you use this sign-up form, you can grab yourself a free novella about grumpy immortal alchemist mages who take drugs and solve AI murders. Well, solve is pushing it.