It's time to talk with another author!
This morning we have Leslie Conzatti dropping in.
Leslie Conzatti is a blogger, author, and avid enthusiast of all things book-related. Residing in the Pacific Northwest, she currently works as an elementary school paraeducator--leading small groups, supervising children outside the classroom, and providing in-class support for teachers. Since 2013, she has been running a writing/review blog called "The Upstream Writer", where she posts original serials, excerpts from current and past projects, updates on her writing, and featured reviews of independently-published titles. In 2016, she released her first fairy-tale re-telling, Princess of Undersea, a twist on the tale of "The Little Mermaid." Since then, she has had a handful of stories published in various anthologies. Books are Leslie's passion, and she endeavors to use her words to support and inspire children's imaginations, independent creatives, and quality literature wherever it happens.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I think the realization came when I was about eight years old. I was doing a Language Arts assignment, and one of the prompts was to describe the landing of the Mayflower from the perspective of someone standing onshore. A very simple prompt, but it ignited my imagination in a way that I enjoyed. Right about that time, I found out that if I wrote down the amazing and colorful scenes that spun through my head, then I could come back later and read it again and relive the initial experience over again! So I kept on writing, whatever ideas came to me, and I haven’t really stopped ever since!
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
Ha! I think the better question would be “What does my writing schedule look like when I’m working”! I am currently employed as an elementary school paraeducator/teaching assistant. This means that I work very much on an average school schedule, 8-3 every weekday, 180 days out of the year. I do get some holidays, days off, and such--but having such a large chunk of my day taken out does leave only a little time for writing, once I get home! Most days, I get home from work and I have a few extra things I do, until my “work brain” winds down enough for my “writing brain” to engage--it usually happens around 8 PM. I have several documents open on my computer, so I’ll pull one up--whichever one is at the forefront of my mind at the moment--and start writing away. I try to limit myself to one main WIP, one or two short stories, and whatever serial I’m writing for my blog. If I can’t get myself into the writing mood, that’s usually a good indication that I should be reading instead, so sometimes I’ll choose to do that.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Not sure how interesting it is… but I’m utterly incapable of opening a blank document and just writing a story. I’ve tried a couple times, but I couldn’t sustain it for more than a few days. It’s like, the first time my brain gets an idea, I get the whole idea, and I just have to write down the bare-bones notes from start to finish. I have to think an idea through from beginning to end before I actually start writing it.
But then, when I start writing a story that I’ve already outlined and planned, sometimes as I’m going through the scene or working out exactly the conversation some characters might have, I’ll change my mind about something or I’ll see a plot hole that needs to be filled, and so I’ll change the outline to fit this new idea. So I’m kind of a planner first, but also I’m pretty loose with my plans. My first draft rarely resembles my final draft--or if it does, it’s because I ended up sticking with the initial plan pretty well.
What does your family think of your writing?
I think pretty much they’re mildly interested for the most part--at least they’re willing to support me, even if they’re not all enthusiastic about the kinds of things I write. Pretty much, they’re proud of me and willing to step up and buy a copy of my book if I get it published, but, like, the free stuff on my blog and stuff, the really prolific things I write, or the short stories, they don’t really get into. And I think they’re finally realizing just how long it takes for a thing to go from “planned” to “written” to “published”--like, it’s not like I have all these drafts in my back pocket, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice! This is a process, it’s a commitment of years to get a book publish-ready--and thankfully, I think they’re getting to understand that.
Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
I’ve heard from a few readers, and they’ve said things like “I want more!” and “A very good re-telling… with more intent and depth as opposed to the original.” All of it adds up to exactly the reaction I was going for, so every time someone else confirms that, it just motivates me and gets me more excited to keep doing what I’m doing!
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
From very early on, I definitely wanted to have a career in some kind of creative expression: whether music performance, acting, dancing… I wasn’t incredibly coordinated or good at either, but I had a creative drive that needed an outlet somewhere! The more self-aware and introverted I got, though, the more it wound down to things like I want to work in a small bookstore; I want to work in some field pertaining to books and reading, like a library; A career in the field of education wasn’t even on my radar until someone recommended it to me, and I got to try it out one summer during my freshman year of college, on the staff of an inner-city summer camp in Oklahoma that provided books for kids to read, small math drills, and just lots of fun and games and such. I found out in just four weeks how much I LOVED helping kids learn to read, and so when, after I graduated, a friend recommended that I apply for a substitute staff assistant position with my local school district, I went for it!
What is the first book that made you cry?
Here’s the thing: books don’t really make me cry. I might get choked up, but as long as it’s just words on a page, I can usually focus on something else when I start getting choked up, and I usually won’t burst into tears.
That being said, I will admit to choking up while reading books like Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Froer, and even A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness brought the tears, but the latter was mostly because I’d watched the movie first (and most CERTAINLY bawled!! Such amazing acting!!) and so reading the scene in the book just brought back images from the movie… Bottom line, I’m really a sympathetic crier. If I read about someone crying, I won’t cry. If I read about a sad thing that happened to a character that I’ve already connected with on an emotional level, I might get choked up. But it’s usually seeing and hearing someone else crying that will move me to tears! (So if you can write a scene in such a way that gets me to picture the character crying enough to get me to cry… well done!)
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
A mix of both, I think? It’s the method I use to approach every attempt at re-telling… which, at this point, pretty much anything I write is re-telling some part of something I’ve read in the past! (“Nothing new under the sun,” am I right?) But I will say, given the choice to “write trendy” or “subvert the trope”, I will choose the latter most of the time--not just because the “subversive” stories are the ones I prefer to read, but also because honestly, giving readers more of what the market is already saturated with is just throwing out words that get lost in all the noise of “same old, same old.”
However, there is something to be said with honoring the original, especially when it comes to re-telling fairy tales! I try to keep a loose and general sense of the original story for the framework that I’m placing my story in: A curious Mermaid who wants to see what the human world is actually all about (The Little Mermaid)--but in this version, she keeps her voice, albeit with an intense stutter that makes it painful to listen to her (Princess of Undersea); A young woman who is actually the heiress to a large estate is forced to serve as a maid to her stepmother and step-sister, until the night when she dresses up in a magnificent gown and meets a prince (Cinderella)--and in this version, there are dragons involved, and a magical ring (The Dragon’s Mark); A spoiled prince defies the request of a Fae enchantress and is transformed into a hideous beast and cursed to remain alone until a beautiful girl comes along who sees past the grotesque exterior and recognizes the human underneath (Beauty and The Beast)--but in this version, the damsel herself is shallow, selfish, and vain--so how can he ever hope to break the curse? (The Prince and The Rose); A young woman from a mountain village pays a visit to her grandmother and encounters a wild wolf (Little Red Riding Hood)--but in this version, the woman is a wolf-shifter herself, and she’s the guardian of the mountain town, so she defends them from those who would seek to stir up trouble (Red, The Wolf).
And that’s not even mentioning the re-tellings I have planned for the rest of The Undersea Saga! I love throwing in references to the original tale, even as I’m creating it anew with my own twists--and I like to make sure to read enough different versions so I know what things other authors have already written about, and what things they haven’t!
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I am fortunate enough to have many author friends who have helped me in many ways over the years!
When I was first starting out as a book reviewer with a brand-new blog, I put out the question in a massive writing group, asking if there were any authors interested in having their book reviewed and featured on my blog. Out of the three people who actually responded, I’ve maintained contact with two of them: Jeffrey Cook, who was instrumental in widening my sphere of “Local Authors I know”, and connecting me with a group of authors who have published two short stories from me in their group anthologies! Also R. R. Virdi, who was just barely getting started when he sent me a copy of his book, which at the time sported a rather shoddy blurb and even worse cover art… but man, oh MAN has he come a long way since then! And he doesn’t hesitate to support those around him, either, which is an awesome kind of person to be! He really encourages me to take risks and stay committed to my craft.
Kelly Blanchard was a huge support from the beginning, very much inspiring me with the character art she would share, and passing on multiple opportunities to promote one’s work--of course, her work is so stellar that I can’t resist hyping it every chance I get.
A few friends I connected with over the years weren’t authors when I first met them, like Pamela Poole, who was a painter in particular when I joined her “artists of all sorts group”, which happened to also be the place I connected with the man who would go on to publish the “first edition” of Princess of Undersea, back when it was going to be part of a group anthology that fizzled. We stayed connected, and when she started publishing her Painter Place series, I got on board to support her! Then there is my friend who writes under the name Lisa Rae Morris, and she was originally just “a mom in my church,” until a group of us (actually, pretty much everybody except me was “a mom in our church”) started getting together for some write-ins… And I still remember the day when she came to group and said “I’ve got this silly idea knocking around in my head… What do you think?” WELL, the moment she started describing this “silly idea”, I and the others in the group pretty much begged her to start writing it post-haste… and that “silly idea” became THE TIME TREE CHRONICLES, which has won awards and stuff!
I could go on… But suffice to say, I so much appreciate the author friends I have, and each has played a part in shaping me into the writer I am today!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
I think it would be, “You have the writer’s touch. You can write something worth reading.”
I spent years just writing fanfiction and “guilty pleasure” stories (quick little tropey-dopey stuff that is now badly in need of copious amounts of editing before anyone could ever see it) and then just moving on from them, because at the time, writing was my “guilty pleasure.” I had no idea of the sort of market for the kind of stuff I loved to write, I couldn’t spend a whole lot of time working on them because it felt like I was “wasting time” and not working--and besides, I didn’t really have anyone in my family or circle of friends who really shared my same tastes or even got what I was trying to write. I spent a lot of my teen years feeling very out-of-place because of the looks I would get when I wanted to talk about things that I found very exciting. But it wasn’t until I actually buckled down to get serious about publishing, a full two years before my first book actually released, that I really learned what it meant to work at writing, and I found a niche that I could fill, and people who shared my same interest, that I really saw myself actually improving as a writer. I just wish I’d had that sort of support and motivation earlier on in my life!
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
The best money I ever spent was commissioning the artwork that I used on the cover of my self-published novel Princess of Undersea. I had never really seen artwork of any of my characters before, and certainly 4 years ago, when I first published Princess of Undersea with a plain, minimalist cover, the imagery that I based my character descriptions on didn’t even exist--I was really convinced that I’d pretty much made up the “too-human-to-be-fish, too-fish-to-be-human” style of Merfolk that I described in my story… Every kind of mermaid image ever seemed to be the “half-fish, half-human” sort, but the human half was either completely nude or covered up in a way that a sea-creature would never think of! I was not happy with any of that, so I assumed that I would rather have just a blank, colored cover than put something on it that I didn’t actually like. Then, four years after I wrote the first-ever draft of Princess of Undersea, a certain TV show aired that dealt with mermaids… and wouldn’t you know, they looked and “transformed” exactly as I’d pictured it! I was able to send a couple stills from the show to give the artist a sense of what I wanted, and the picture he came up with was exactly everything I wanted it to be! Definitely, if you know an artist who makes pictures of things in the aesthetic of the story you’ve written, you should definitely ask them to make artwork of your story and pay them for a job well done! It’s completely worth it.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
That’s a tough question, because I don’t often pay attention to how popular a book is before I read it and judge for myself whether I appreciate it or not! I will say that I feel like more people ought to have heard about the Hollow Earth trilogy and it’s spin-off series The Orion Chronicles, written by the brother-sister team of Carole and John Barrowman. (Yes, all the Whovians and fans of Torchwood and Arrow who all just let out a collective gasp… THAT JOHN BARROWMAN!) I still remember how strange it was to see such a familiar name on the library shelf--I had no idea he wrote, much less along with his sister!
The adventure of Hollow Earth is absolutely a family-oriented romp through magic and time travel and all sorts of fantastic scenes: a twin brother and sister discover that they have the power to enter the drawings they make, using the scenes to move from one place to another, or to hide within. That discovery leads to the revelation that there’s an entire secret world, undetected by regular people, inhabited by monsters and magical creatures, and it must be protected before unscrupulous villains attempt to control and unleash those monsters upon the unsuspecting world.
The thing that drew me into the story the most, besides the absolutely stellar writing and the quick pace of it all, was the whole premise that a preteen with a sketchbook could animate and interact with works of art--how many highly-imaginative kids have created just such a fictional scenario in their mind to stave off boredom while wandering through an otherwise stuffy and uncomfortable art museum? Would the idea take hold, and encourage kids to be more interested in art than they would otherwise be? It’s brilliant and touching by turns--and although I haven’t gotten my hands on The Orion Chronicles just yet, I absolutely expect nothing less than sheer genius from that one, too!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple different projects at the moment!
Mainly I’m trying to focus on completing the first draft of the sequel to Princess of Undersea, which I’ve titled Fugitive of Crossway. It’s not a direct re-telling of a fairy-tale, like the first one basically re-told the story of “The Little Mermaid”, but I’ve drawn inspiration for this story from the tale of “Pinocchio.” It isn’t about a wayward puppet who harbors dreams of becoming a real boy, but it is about a young farm lad who nearly drowns in a boating accident, washes ashore on the mainland and is picked up by a traveling carnival--one that, as it turns out, has a captive mermaid as one of their attractions. The two of them help each other escape, both of them heading for the sea--the young man to return to the island that is his home, and the mermaid to return to her home under the water--but all along the way they encounter strange characters, some who help and some who hinder them in their quest.
The other project I’m working on currently is the third “season” of a blog serial I started a couple years ago, called “The Clan of Outcasts.” It started out as just a story about a bunch of super-powered individuals in a fantasy kingdom who defy the cruel authorities who branded them as “outcasts”, and use their powers to fight to reinstate the true rulers of the kingdom… That story expanded into a second arc wherein the celestial beings who first generated said super-powers were warring against one another, with the mortals--Gifted and unGifted alike--caught in the middle of the power struggle. I finished that and thought it would be the end… but no! This year, in addition to everything else, I picked up some inspiration for an all-new story arc, adding new characters to the existing cast of old ones… And although it’s really fun, it’s also challenging to find time to write all that I want to write! I have to keep reminding myself that this is a story I’m just writing for free, while the other WIP should take precedence because that’s the one I’m going to publish and market… but I can’t help myself!
What do you have coming soon?
Once I finish Fugitive of Crossway, I start work on Book 3 of the Undersea Saga, which I’ve titled Fury of Outwest, and then Book 4, Queen of Overcliff. Each story re-tells a different fairy tale: for example, Fury of Outwest will be kind of a Western, gender-bent, steampunk version of “Aladdin”: a thieving young female outlaw discovers a magical device that seems to hold the power to grant her every wish, but her discovery puts her in the crosshairs of the sharpshooter bounty-hunter who never misses her mark, Calamity Jacqueline. Then in Queen of Overcliff, we’ll once again return to the main characters of Princess of Undersea--namely, Ylaine and Nathan--for a version of “Snow White” that’s not altogether like any you’ve ever heard, especially since there will be Merfolk involved!
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
If you enjoy fairy tale re-tellings as much as I do, then you can find the ones I’ve mentioned above serialized on my blog, The Upstream Writer. I have short stories in several different anthologies (with one more on the way, releasing soon!) where you can get a small taste of my style, along with samples from other excellent writers, and maybe even provide support for a worthy cause, in the process!
My Facebook author page is a great way to interact with me and stay up-to-date on whatever I’m doing--I love to answer questions or discuss ideas, so don’t be shy! Come on over! Books are my passion, and writing is my outlet--it’s an amazing world out there, if we choose to see it!