Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Steph Cuthbert’s debut YA indie novel, The Amulet of Hearts (book one in The Genesis Guardian Chronicles), was released in September 2015 and debuted at #3 on the Amazon bestseller chart for science fiction time travel.
When she’s not writing, Steph can be found fangirling, reading YA, buying rockabilly dresses, training for obstacle races and drinking T2 tea. She lives with her husband, two noisy girls and two cats in Sydney.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I was really into writing and drama all through my school years. I wrote a lot of terrible poetry and a few decent pieces. At 12, my poem about the Nullabor Plains was published in an international library anthology and it won the Editor’s Choice award. It became clearer as I got older that I loved acting the most when I had written my own piece.
I came back to writing at 26 after a stint in the insurance industry and it was the most difficult and terrifying thing I have ever done. I had no idea where to start, so I enrolled in a course with Open Colleges. Ann Harth was my tutor, and she gave me so much encouragement that I look back on that time and wonder if I ever could have achieved so much without her. I now hire her as my editor.
I don’t think I ever got a break with writing. I write what I want, I publish what I want. I made a conscious decision to go the indie route so I could make my own breaks.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
The Amulet of Hearts is the first book in a young adult sci-fi/fantasy time travel series called The Genesis Guardian Chronicles. Genni Guardian is a mouthy teen with a lot of emotional baggage who goes on a quest through time to find her parents following their mysterious disappearance. The story is packed with rejection, darkness and evil forces, romance, magic shoes and stardust.
I’ve just completed the first draft of Darkside Episode I, the first in an adult space opera/prison drama novella series that I like to think of as Orange is the New Black meets Heroes, in space. Darkside was so much fun to write and it’s scheduled to be published in early 2016.
I’m currently drafting The Tears of Zeus, book two in The Genesis Guardian Chronicles. It’s scheduled for publication in September 2016.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I have an office in the middle of my house. My desk is pushed up against a bay window that looks out onto the sunroom I painted bright blue last summer. I blutac photos to one panel of the window as an inspiration board, and I have lots of books, and piles of index cards and unsigned school notes. My favourite thing in my office is my whiteboard, where I track all my projects, word counts and goals. I also have a trampoline in my office which is awesome for shaking off writing. When I’m feeling blocked, I work from the local library. It has little pod-type desks and the vibe is awesome.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I get myself and my two girls (6 and 10) up at 5:30am. We get our training gear on and head to boot camp, then school. After the school run, I have a quiet breakfast, do social media stuff, check emails, have a shower and get ready. I get my words down quickly in the morning, then after lunch I do publisher, blog, business or website work. I work until 2:30pm, and some days I fit in a run. After school it’s time for catching up with my girls, homework and after-school activities. I usually take whatever I have been working on to the girls’ activities and continue to work on it there. This is also a great time for me to brainstorm or flick through Pinterest to collect ideas and pictures for my vision boards.
Evenings in my house are madness and I don’t normally write at that time. I do social media stuff, or schedule blog posts or anything else that involves bare minimum creativity. I watch an hour of tv, and by 10pm I’m in bed reading.
Some days this all goes out the window and I will sit in the bath for 5 hours watching my toes go pruny.
WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?
I have a spark, usually a one-line idea. I mull over it a little, then once I have a character voice I start writing. I have no idea what is going to happen. I fuss a lot over the first 2000 words, trying to get the right tone, point of view and tense, but once I’m comfortable, I’m off. I write 2000 words 5 days a week. I try to get these words down as quickly as possible, in 30-minute bursts, and usually start the day with 15 minutes of brainstorming. I write in Scrivener, and sometimes I listen to playlists on Spotify. This draft is bare-bones and rough and I like to get it done in 6-8 weeks.
Rewriting is where the real magic happens for me. I leave the manuscript for a couple months and work on something else. When I come back I do a full read through. There are often gaps and contradictions, and this is because I can’t understand the shape of what I’m writing until it’s on paper. This is when I plot. I take out a stack of index cards and go through scene by scene working out story structure, plot arcs, and character arcs. Then I rewrite, expanding the story and adding depth.
Once I’m happy with the piece, I send it to my editor and we go back and forth until we are both satisfied it’s the best piece of work I am capable of. Then of course there are copy edits and proofing.
Because I’m also my own publisher, this isn’t where the work stops. While doing edits, I am usually designing covers, setting up pre-orders, and promoting the book. Once I have a polished piece in my hand, then I have to format it. It’s a timeconsuming process, but I learned a lot when I formatted The Amulet of Hearts.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Because writing allows me to process the world. I write speculative fiction, but of course everything that I write comes from me, so I am constantly writing around myself, and my own issues or insecurities or fears or hopes.
Why am I an indie author? I like to do things my way. I like to control the process, write the things I want to write, and make all the decisions regarding how it’s put into the world, how much my readers pay for it, and where it’s available.
Ultimately the thing that drives me to not just dabble in writing but to instead head for the stars with it is my children. I want them to know that chasing dreams is what life is about, but you have to work hard to make those dreams happen.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I read, watch tv, eavesdrop, people watch, collect images on Pinterest, daydream, listen to music, travel etc. and my brain makes connections between things and creates an idea that is new to me. Then I use prose to explore it.
I think ideas happen organically. My ideas are flashes of words or voices or emotions that shoot through me. Then I write them down.
I think inspiration is a little different to ideas. I think inspiration is perhaps something like driving force. Feeling inspired to write when you have an experience with strong emotions attached to it is one thing, but taking an idea and working with it day in, day out when you aren’t feeling particularly inspired? That’s work.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Each stage of writing is hard in some way for me. Getting the courage to start something, to put the first word on that blank page, is always difficult. I am constantly afraid that this time will be the last time I have an idea.
The physical and mental toll writing takes is enormous. I easily become obsessive and struggle to find balance. That’s why I am doing boot camp and running now. I also hope having balance stops the people around me feeling neglected or undervalued in comparison to my writing.
Publishing is hard. There was a steep learning curve as I had to fill out foreign tax forms, and metadata, and wrangle Word into doing what I wanted while formatting. I had to create embedded hyperlinks for 71 chapters! All new skills I had no idea I would need to acquire when I started.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
I’ve had to work hard to get my name and face out there. I go to events, festivals, talk to other writers online. It’s a huge part of the work — something I had no clue about — and can be quite intimidating for someone who only communicates with a 6- and 10-year-old on a daily basis. Once I changed my mindset though, it wasn’t too hard to start approaching authors, bloggers and other industry professionals I admire and make connections so the next time I saw them they would remember my name. I wish I had done it sooner.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC OR PROFESSIONAL VISION?
I think LGBT literature, particularly in YA, still has a long way to go even though some good things are being put out there.
A major problem with LGBT titles is the distinct erasure of bisexual characters. What bi characters do exist are often subject to tropes. That really bothers me and I hope my books go some way toward making positive changes to bisexual representation in literature.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Close to home, Amie Kaufman, Kate Forsyth, Rachael Craw. Further afield, Richelle Mead, Sarah J Maas, Alex Bracken and Victoria Schwab.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Steph Cuthbert!
— Nicole Melanson
NB: This is the second of 3 interviews celebrating YA 3 ways. We previously featured Nova Weetman, and Gabrielle Tozer is next!
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