Author Interview: Victoria Schwab

Victoria Schwab

Author of This Savage Song, A Darker Shade of Magic, and more | @veschwab

Victoria Schwab is a New York Times bestselling author. She has published with Tor, Scholastic, and Disney Hyperion. Victoria writes books in the middle grade, young adult, and adult categories. When she isn’t wandering the world, you can usually find her in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters.

To begin with, how do you worldbuild?

I write primarily about outsiders and in order to understand outsiders you need to understand insiders and in order to understand insiders you have to understand the world that they are inside, and so worldbuilding and setting is actually the very first thing I come up with regardless of whether I’m writing urban YA fantasy or portal fantasy or any kind of magical system. Understanding the rules of the world is the very, very first thing that I do. Then, in addition to figuring out the construct and the rules, I start figuring out the culture. And a lot of authors have very different ways that they do that. Some of them focus on the food, and some of them focus on the agriculture, and the geography. I focus mainly on language, and so I will include everything from fictionalized languages like in the Shades of Magic series to folkloric elements and idiomatic expressions. I really love the idea that idioms are such a great example of cultural infusion because they’re very specific to one culture and one language, and so that is one of the main ways that I focus on building and expanding my world because you can’t—you could have thousands and thousands of pages of world building and it wouldn’t really do you much good. Less is more in that you have to pick which things to make shine on the page to be your worldbuilding elements and so those for me tend to be language.

How do you choose what worldbuilding stuff to put in your books?

Usually it’s the smaller things. I think a lot of authors think you need to put the big stuff in, but less is more in that the smaller details can hint at a larger mythos, a larger system. Then once I do create an element, rather than creating five different religions or five different languages, I try to take one and branch it very slightly to give the illusion of more, you know. I don’t think there’s this idea that you have to have every single detail of your world, but if you can rough in the construct without putting yourself in the corner, without kind of fleshing it out so much that you risk stepping on your own rules if you try to expand it. In the Shades of Magic series, I didn’t know all of the details of that world. I didn’t know that I was going to have certain magicians be able to do things like see the threads of magic like Alucard Emery can do, or really any of the big details of later characters. I just had to construct a world that would allow for it. And so it’s a matter of finding that balance between specificity and broad stroke idea, so people need to be able to see themselves in it and kind of extrapolate the rules and the world themselves so they can tell whether something belongs. I’m a really big believer in intuitive worldbuilding. I try to make my magical systems as naturalistic as possible. Nature has a lot of rules. They tend to be elegant, so I aim for elegance in the rules that I do too.

Besides magic, what do you put into your worlds to make them feel realistic?

I add social hierarchy.

I’m really, really fascinated by class systems and by social dynamics. And again that’s where language plays a bit more into it for me in the Shades of Magic series. There are different languages spoken by the royals and the commoners and different dialectic degrees. So my background is English, my mom is English, and all of my family beyond that is British. And so there’s a lot of class system and a lot of down from your language to your accent to, like, the very slight differences in the way that you say things. I really like infusing hierarchy because not only does it flesh out the world but then it allows me to analyze the characters within that world and how they’re functioning in relation to each other and in relation to the world, whether they feel like an insider or an outsider. So I think it’s one of those ways that—I like gifts that keep on giving. It’s one of those worldbuilding tools that keeps on giving. I don’t like creating worldbuilding details that I don’t get to reuse in some way or have them hold their weight, so I think where a lot of aspiring writers get in trouble is when they create world building details that don’t actually pull weight. They’re just details for the sake of details. I think that every detail should in some way, big or small, on page or off page, be pulling its weight in the story.

How do you feel about background information in a book? You have all the stuff that you’re doing that affects the character as you write them. If you can’t get it across, do you feel like that affects it?

Of course, of course! I think there’s ten pages of worldbuilding and character design and background for every one page that gets in the book. Sometimes it’s nice writing a series because something might not get in in the first book of a series and then you get to layer it in later but you’ve paved the way because you had the notes. You knew this about a character and so maybe you were able to hint at it and keep it off page early on and then when you reveal it later on readers that were barely paying attention are going to be, “Oh, that fits because I remember this allusion that was made.” I mean, writers know their worlds and their characters better than their readers ever will, but the idea is that the reader should feel like they know everything about the character. You don’t want it to feel like authorial withholding. There’s a fine balance between giving the readers credit and expecting them to do all the work—I’m not sure I can articulate how to do that. It’s just one of those things you get better at the more books you write and the more books you read.

I read between 100 and 125 books a year in addition to writing two to three books a year. One of the reasons I read so much is that I want to understand: I’m constantly studying what is good worldbuilding, what is good character design, when does the background feel like info dump and when does the background feel really relevant, you know? But I think it’s none of the reasons that authors have so much fodder for every little bit that gets on the pages because they’re distilling to that little bit that gets on the page, but if they know more it’s still going to come through and the rest of the world’s going to feel fleshed out by the little tiny details and the allusions.

What advice would you give to editors when working with an author?

I think that authors want different things from an editor, but one of the best things an editor can do is understand the author’s individual needs. I for instance do not respond well to a long editorial letter without notes in the manuscript because I need the context. I am one of those authors where if you don’t tell me what is working as well as what’s not and give specific instances, I’ll end up deleting good things. I’ll delete things that are working simply because I don’t know anymore. Authors I’m sure enter a place of immense self-doubt and questioning when they’re editing, and so it’s really important, I think, to contextualize all of the feedback, whatever that means—like my editor gives me usually like a page or two of big picture notes and then an entire marked-up manuscript because I need to be able to see where they’re feeling certain things or else the task is so daunting that I can’t imagine doing it. The longest editorial letter I ever had was 26 pages single-spaced for like a 300-page book. It’s very hard then to wrap your brain around it, especially if you’re a holistic writer like me where you’re playing with all of the threads simultaneously rather than being like, today I’m going to fix the plot thread and tomorrow I’ll fix the character thread. Think having context clues and orientation for all feedback is important. On top of that, tell your authors what is working. Highlight the moments that are working to ensure that your authors don’t delete them because they assume that everything is broken.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors who haven’t had editors yet?

Yeah, I was going to say that we all hopefully have an editor. Um, be very communicative. Don’t be afraid. I think a lot of authors think that the author-editor relationship is like client/employee to boss, but it’s not. An author and an editor are partners, and at the end of the day, the author’s name is the thing that’s going on the book, which is not to say to disregard your editor’s feedback. It is to say that you have to stand up for the things that you really want to see in the book and also to understand that everything that you do put in that book that makes it to the end you’re going to have to stand up for. So if it’s an editor’s thing that you disagree with, know that you’re going to have to defend that if you let that go to the printed form. You know? But that’s also to say, I’m really not a believer in the authors who see their editor’s feedback and then just disregard. I think if your editor is calling something out that’s not working, then even if you disagree on the exact solution, be very mindful of the fact that someone is calling attention to a problem. They might not have the right answer and the right way to fix that problem, but never ignore the fact that something in that book is catching the editor as wrong. I think that so often we might want the editors to tell us how to fix it and then we just do what the editors say. Nine times out of ten I don’t agree with my editor’s suggested means of fixing it, but I do recognize that it’s not working if it’s pulled them out of the book. But I think that honest, absolute transparency in the relationship is important, and it’s something I’m still working on. I have a brand-new editor with This Savage Song, and it’s scary. You don’t want to misstep, you don’t want to seem demanding. It has to be a partnership. The editor’s also not your employee. Like you are working, you both want to see your hand in the book, you know, your style, so just do everything that you can to make it a partnership. And a respectful one.

How do you celebrate your writing successes?

I don’t I really wish I did, but I just keep working.

You’re Leslie Knope, basically [from Parks and Recreation].

Yeah, yeah. Most of the time my friends drag me out to celebrate. I remember getting a book deal one time and I was sitting at dinner in my backyard with several friends, and I got the offer via email, and so I looked at my email and was like, oh, okay. And I put my phone back down and fifteen minutes later I was like, oh, I think I sold two more books. And everyone else at the table was like, what is your—what is wrong with you? I was like, this is my job, like I don’t know. I always mean to celebrate and then I always end up delaying it for some reason and then I get caught back up in more work. Usually, it’s just like with a piece of cake or a glass of champagne. I’m usually dependent on my friends and family to force me to celebrate or else I would just go back to work because the work is the part that I enjoy.

How do you overcome writing failures?

By working. The exact same answer. I go back to work. You know. I had a really bad hiccup in my career several years ago with a series that got stopped midway by the publisher. And it was awful. Like I almost walked away from publishing because of it. The only thing that kept me sane was working. Because the thing I always tell writers, whether they’re aspiring or experienced, is if your book does well you’re going to need another book, and if your book doesn’t do well you’re going to need another book. So all roads lead to you needing to have your next project. And so because of that I think it’s really great, you know, unless you only have one story in you, in which case I would argue that you’re probably not a career author. You’re a person with a story. I don’t think everyone needs to be a career author to tell a story, but if you’re serious about this and you want to be an author, you should always be looking to the next project. You should always be moving forward because the only thing you can control in this entire industry is the words you put on the page. There’s so much cycling around you that’s out of your control that to fixate on any of it, the good or the bad, is a distraction from what you can actually do, which is the work.

How does an author who hasn’t been published yet stop looking to the next project and finish the one they’re working on?

Oh no, they have to finish it. That’s what I’m saying—that’s what I mean. Everything you finish, but once that project is done and it has left your desk and you’re waiting on feedback, you’re waiting on an agent, you’re waiting on publishers, you’re waiting on anything, you should not just be waiting. You should be working on the next book. But I also have back burners in my head at all times, which means I only work on one book at a time, I only actively write one book at a time, but at that time I have two to three other projects seeping, getting ready to be worked on, and so I don’t let myself actually work on them until the book in front of me is done. I can make notes on them, I can keep little note documents where I just type in little ideas that I have, but I never sit down and actually detour from the work that I’m doing. And I think it’s just a discipline thing that you learn. I will admit having deadlines really helps. Whether those are self-imposed deadlines or whether they’re publisher deadlines, I mean at this point I have essentially a constant stream of deadlines every two to three months, and so that helps me stay focused because that is my job. But I think looking at writing as a job even before it becomes an occupation is absolutely essential. The book that first sold for me was called The Near Witch, and I wrote it while I was a second-semester senior at a university, and the only way it got done was because I treated it as a job. I checked out of my studio space for two hours every single night for a whole semester, walked across the street to the coffee shop, and sat down from 9 to 11 p.m. when the coffee shop closed and worked. And I think creating a job mentality, it may not be as glamorous as this idea that we sit down in our plush PJs and our comfy writing throne and we write a book in a single sitting, but the reality of it is that books are work, you know. Stories are work. And it’s not to de-romanticize the creative process. It’s that if you want it to be more than a creative process, if you want it to be an occupation, it requires immense discipline and nobody’s going to hold your hand. When you’re a published author, nobody’s going to hold your hand throughout the process and make sure that you’re turning your work in on time. The only time they’re going to check in is when that deadline hits. So you’re going to have four to six months of silence where they’re just expecting you to take care of yourself and so you have to. You have to learn that skill really early.

—Adam McLain

Originally published in Issue 69.