Self-published Fantasy Authors: an Interview with Virginia McClain

Today I have the pleasure of picking author Virginia McClain’s brain (in a nonviolent way). Thanks for chatting with me!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your books?

“Because I’m terrible at telling people about my books! Ahem. But I’ll try. 🙂

I have two main series. My Victoria Marmot series, which is humorous urban fantasy with a dash of parody, and my Gensokai series, which is epic fantasy set in a fictional society (on a fictional planet) that draws a lot of inspiration from feudal Japan. Or at least the first two books are epic fantasy. The third book, which I’m working on currently, is more low fantasy adventure than epic fantasy (although it leads into an epic arc so…). I guess it’s complicated. 

The Victoria Marmot series is complete, with five short books in total, and The Chronicles of Gensokai series is ongoing, with two books out already, one coming in Spring of 2021 and many more to come after that. However, so far, each of the Gensokai books can be read as a standalone. There are no cliffhanger endings in the Gensokai series and you don’t have to read the books in the order they were published, although that’s probably the best way to enjoy them in terms of lack of spoilers. The Victoria Marmot series on the other hand is absolutely sequential, full of cliff hangers, and should be read in order or it will probably fail to make sense. (It’s available as a convenient omnibus for that very reason.)”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

“There have always been stories in my head. I’ve been reading since I was very little.  My mom read to me a ton as a baby and toddler, and then as soon as I learned to read on my own I disappeared into books as often as I could. But a lot of the stories I read when I was little featured, well, dudes. And, while I enjoyed those stories, I always wanted the main characters to be… well me, at least when I was young. I later realized that I didn’t care if the books featured me or not, but that I wanted them to feature more women in general, but to start with, as a kid, I just wanted to be the main character in all my favorite books.

So, for every book I read and enjoyed my brain would start rewriting the story with ME in it. Then I’d start rewriting the stories to change other things that I thought could be better and… well, the first fantasy stories I wrote featured hedgehogs and dragons and were scribbled in barely legible crayon (so they definitely didn’t feature me yet, but hedgehogs and dragons were my favorite animals at the time, so it was an extension of me, in a way). I still have those (thanks, Mom). 

As to why fantasy? I think I’ve always been drawn to fantasy because I have always wanted very strongly to believe in magic despite being a firm believer in science. I do subscribe to the idea that sufficiently advanced science is basically magic to those who don’t know how to explain it, and thus sci/fi and fantasy have always been where my imagination takes me. I also love how sci/fi and fantasy allow us to explore some of the hardest philosophical questions through digestible fiction and make us think far outside our own experiences. “

Do your books change a lot between their inception and the final draft?

“Yes and no. It really varies from project to project. Blade’s Edge, which was the first book I published, was the fourth draft of the third book I ever wrote. The original draft was about 120,000 words long and, while the final draft was 110,000 words or so, the percentage of words in the final draft that were also in the first draft was probably around 10%. That said, the overall arc was pretty much the same. There were just a number of characters who were added or removed or consolidated and a few subplots that got completely wiped out, and one or two that merged and… you get the idea. 

I often rewrite an entire scene from scratch when it comes to my final draft, even if I’m not changing anything major in the scene. For example, if I read over a scene from the first draft that feels clunky, instead of trying to rearrange it to make it flow, I often prefer to just start from scratch. The end result may be as much as 50% the same as the first draft, but I won’t have kept anything because I was feeling precious about it, but rather because it was good enough that I wrote it twice. 

In terms of projects that didn’t change as much, I didn’t have to make nearly as many changes through the five books of the Victoria Marmot series, and those books wound up being much closer to their first drafts. Probably around 75% of the first draft of each of those wound up in the final draft. I’ll be interested to see how this latest book I’m writing goes, because my process seems to be different for every book and I am not particularly good at predicting how much things will change until I’m actually in the revision stage. 

I will say, I generally consider first drafts as my opportunity to tell myself the bare bones of the story, figure out my characters and world, and get familiar with the voice and pacing. Once my first draft is done, I take some time to think about the story as a whole, in order to figure out what needs to be tightened up, and what needs to be cut to make sure that I don’t have any repeat scenes, redundant characters, or events that don’t really move the plot forward. From there I cut, add, and rearrange as necessary, and at the same time, I go through each scene and make sure that I actually describe the setting and characters at the start of every scene change. (I have a strong tendency to completely skip scene settings and character descriptions in first drafts–I know what everyone looks like and where everything is! Why take time to describe everything?–Um, maybe because it’s your damned job to make sure that people reading the book know what the heck is going on, Virginia?)”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“Hate to sound like a broken record, but it depends on the project! Victoria Marmot absolutely the started with a character and specific scene and I developed the rest out from there. Blade’s Edge, on the other hand, started with a world and a magic system. Then I added an oppressive regime and finally, after that, the MCs. That’s a big part of why so much was cut from the first draft to the final draft in that book. I did a ton of world building and character development on the page instead of in my notes! That is not the right place for that kind of thing. No reader needs to know every detail of all the secondary characters’ backstories etc, even if I do. However, that draft was an exercise in detailed world building (it was only my third book!) and I wasn’t organized enough to make separate notes so it all just came out in the story. Which was fine, that’s what first drafts are for. To save myself time, I have learned to do detailed world building and character notes FIRST, and then start writing the story after that. I guess the one thing that is consistent is that I tend to discover the details of the plot by actually writing the book, even if I outline the broad strokes first (beginning, middle, end). So far, I’ve either started with a world or a set of characters, and so I want to say that’s my normal. But it’s absolutely possible that for some future story I will come up with a plot first and the world and characters after. Never say never.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Mostly not. Usually, I give my main characters one trait/hobby/interest that I share with them, because it gives me a nice point of connection with them. However, that’s generally the limit. 

That said, the closest I’ve come to basing a character on myself is that I gave Victoria Marmot my voice, and my sexuality, both of which are pretty personal. She speaks a lot like I did in high school, and she’s bisexual, as I am. However, I also tried to modernize her a bit (it’s been a decade or two since I was 17 after all), and I also gave her a number of personality traits that we don’t share because, when all is said and done, she is NOT me. But, one of the tropes I play with in that whole series is the self-insert nature of a lot of urban fantasy. The series is written in first person and, as part of my voice, I gave Vic my sense of humor and tendency to joke when nervous. So, I’ve had a lot of people who know me personally tell me she reminds them of me. I also gave her my initials, just to be cheeky. But again, she’s not me, and she’s not even based on me, she just shares more of my traits than any of my other characters.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Any time my characters die. I hate writing deaths of characters I’ve spent so many months/years getting to know and love. Also, scene and character descriptions. I think I mentioned earlier how I forget them most of the time in the first draft and have to go back and add them later? I am terrible at them. Which is to say, I work very hard to make them ok in revisions, and then feel like a fraud when anyone compliments my writing for them.”

You have a large amount of the fantastical in your world. How do you come up with so many unique creatures?

“I borrow a lot from popular fantasy games and movies, as well as various mythologies, but I usually put my own twist on them. Mostly, I just let my characters describe what they’re seeing and write it down. Sounds a bit hands-off, but honestly, it’s rare that I design a fantasy creature in advance, it’s usually just “Oooh, look at that. WTF is that?” and then I write it down.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“Both are fun, but villains are often more fun. That said, they are also often harder to write than heroes simply because every time I try to give a villain a complicated backstory, I wind up struggling to keep from making them a secret hero. Whoops!”

Lastly, I’m always curious: What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)?

“I absolutely cannot pick a single favorite book. However, I can give you a handful of favorites. Graceling by Kristen Cashore is one of my favorites of all time. Also, Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World series) by Rebecca Roanhorse, and the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab. Also, during the pandemic I have been reading a lot of T. Kingfisher’s fantasy romance books, because they are pretty lighthearted and fun, and they are a nice stress free distraction from a world of chaos.”

Short Bio:

Virginia McClain is an author who masqueraded as a language teacher for a decade or so. When she’s not reading or writing she can generally be found playing outside with her four legged adventure buddy and the tiny human she helped to build from scratch. She enjoys climbing to the top of tall rocks, running through deserts, mountains, and woodlands, and carrying a foldable home on her back whenever she gets a chance. She’s also fond of word games, and writing descriptions of herself that are needlessly vague.

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