Elaine Isaak – Codex Blog Tour

Howdy, howdy, howdy! This is Elaine Isaak!

I’m Elaine Isaak and my most recent novel is The Bastard Queen, from small press Swimming Kangaroo.

This is my first novel with a female protagonist–probably because I grew up believing that boys have more fun. Beloved bastard of an unloved king, Fiona searches for the origin and cure of a terrible plague that has beset her kingdom and threatens to drive the land to civil war. It’s the worst possible time to fall in love. . .

Tell us something about you that would surprise us.

Thanks to a new devotion to rock climbing, I’m actually in better shape now than I was in high school. I never expected to become a fitness advocate–but it not only works the body, it clarifies the mind.

What is the biggest obstacle you face when it comes to your writing? How do you overcome it?

Finding the balance between a healthy appreciation of my own talents, and my fear that the projects I want to write are, in fact, beyond those talents.

I used to think I was a really great writer. Now I understand that writing skills are a personal continuum. There is always room for improvement, always an area where I am weak or my work is not coming together. It’s important to find the resources that will help me understand these weaknesses, but it’s also uncomfortable to have them pointed out. It then becomes easy to focus on the flaws, and even to be overwhelmed by the flaws if I don’t see an immediate way to improve.

So I am constantly trying to keep my strengths in mind while I remain open to working on the weaknesses.

I’d like to know how you decide which subplots are truly relevant, and which are just looking pretty.

A good subplot informs, explores or reinforces the themes or the heart of the book. It might start by a simple reversal: the main character is on a quest to find his father; the character in a subplot wrestles with the challenges of parenting. In this way, the subplot invites the reader to think more deeply about fatherhood as revealed through these two characters. This is a pretty obvious example, but it can provide a useful way to examine potential subplots and pare them away. Will this subplot show more about the ideas that the author wants to discuss? If not, chances are, it’s windowdressing.

It’s important that the subplots be dynamically related to the main plot, rather than just being that same story, only smaller (a woman falls in love. her best friend also falls in love. . .boring!)

In regards to backstory – how much is too much? I have read about some agents and editors who wish to be plunged into a narrative with no setup, while others seem to think that a world building introduction is key.

I think the no setup approach is essentially sound. Far too many books and authors get bogged down trying to “set the scene” or deliver the backstory of the characters involved, and they try the reader’s patience because they give me no reason to care about where I am or who I am reading about.

I think you need to start by getting the reader excited about something. Get them wanting to learn more, then deliver the backstory in small doses when they really want to know why the protagonist is the way she is or what created the political situation she finds herself in.

I think the best world-building takes place when a character we care about is moving through an interesting environment–not in a static presentation meant to lay out the facts.

Do you have any non-writing-related projects going on in your life? How do you balance them with each other and with your writing?

I have kids, does that count?

I also do a lot of other creative projects, in part because having other outlets helps to keep my creative centers engaged on non-writing days or between books. Performing tasks that require physical creativity (sculpture, weaving, even building with legos) seems to help me focus my imaginative skills as well and I often find solutions to writing problems while engaging in these other things. Right now, I’m developing a fabulous costume idea for Worldcon masquerade. . .

If you were walking down the street more or less minding your own business, having a coffee or maybe texting someone cool, what would you do if some creature that was absolutely not human asked you for directions?

Well, I don’t drink coffee, and my phone doesn’t text, but it does have a camera–so I would probably try to shoot a sneaky picture or two while I tell the alien I am downloading map data to provide the best directions.

At the very least, giving instructions to a non-human could provide a really interesting experience in cultural relativity. Does it understand right and left? does it navigate by scent or sound rather than sight? If it has radial symmetry, then how would I adjust my directions accordingly?

Thanks, Elaine!

Hey, everybody! Elaine is also going to hang around for a bit, if you want to ask her questions or talk about her experiences. Ask her why you don’t want to be her hero.

Join us in the comments section!

And, as always, be sure to visit the official Codex Blog Tour page for more interviewey goodness!

Published in: on April 6, 2011 at 5:50 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks, Elaine, for your advice on subplots! I’m currently wrestling am extremely rough draft of a fantasy novel into coherence, and now I have a better measure for subplot relevance–and I feel that I was right to chop out one of them. It was so pretty…

    • Glad to be of help! Yeah, you gotta watch out for the pretty ones. . .I discovered on revising my first book that one of the secondary characters was on the Hero’s Journey ala Joseph Campbell. Good for him! not actually helpful for the story, alas.

  2. Whoa. The questions about giving an alien directions and how the information you give hinges so much on differences they exhibit was awesome! Thanks for the brain-expansion.

    • That quirky question lead me to think more deeply about alien-ness. I have to thank the good Dr. Grasshopper!

      • Ha, don’t thank me….thank Carolyn Jewel, who came up with that nifty question!

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