May 4, 2014

Interview With Alex Hughes, Author of “Sharp” and “Clean”

Alex-Hughes (1)

I had a chance to meet Alex at last year’s Willamette Writers Conference — of which both I and Fictional Cafe founder Jack are on the presenters’ staff for this year — and she was kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions both about her work and the work.

1. Let’s start with the numbers. How many books did you write before writing “Clean?” How many queries did you send for “Clean?” How long had you considered yourself a writer before making the sale?

Clean was my third completed novel. Clean was also my learning novel, on which I learned revision, scene structure, story structure, description, pacing, and a whole mess of other lovely and difficult things. By the time the final revision was done for the publisher, I’d taken it through eight drafts. Only a few small scenes survive from the first draft, and those heavily edited; the rest was rewrites and restructures.

I sent many queries for Clean, but more for my previous novel Valence. I believe everyone in the known universe turned that one down. I also got hundreds of rejections for short stories over the years–I sent my first one out to a magazine at age 15, and got a personal rejection note. This encouraged me to send many more stories but for years I made no sales whatsoever. I didn’t get a major project published until age 28, thirteen years later.

2. I’m not the first person to notice similarities between Mindspace and Harry Dresden. What are some other influences and inspirations that helped you create the Mindspace books?

I actually hadn’t read Harry Dresden until after Clean, and then only because people were remarking on it. I grew up on cop shows and Star Trek, and didn’t really see a difference for awhile :) In college, I read a classic cyberpunk book called Catspaw by Joan D. Vinge, in which a tortured telepath struggles to make his way in a dark future world. I wanted to write something like that (I’d fallen in love with the concept), but I knew my guy had to be a detective because of the cop shows. I also had a close friend at the time who was a recovering anorexic who was very open about her struggle, and I know I wanted to talk about habits and addiction. For this kind of project, though, a substance seemed a simpler thing to understand and deal with. So the basic tenets of Clean were born.

As a note, though, Cherabino was originally named McNally or something, and was Irish, blond, and much meaner. My writer’s group in college made fun of me so strongly for that (apparently a cliche) that everything about her had to change.

3. Tell the story of your journey from query to publication. How long did it take? What were the best, worst and most surprising parts?

From the first idea in college to the draft that got the publisher’s attention was maybe seven years and as many drafts. I submitted draft five to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards in 2009 and got back a review that the book was “mediocre.” I was so angry! I’d been working my tail off! It couldn’t be mediocre. So I went out and started finding the classes and teachers and resources I needed to be so amazing they couldn’t say no. I went to writing group after writing group, and I took classes online. I worked. I connected up with people from a Willamette conference, and we worked together. I took a massive online novel revising class. I worked some more. And then I applied in January 2010 to the Odyssey Writing Workshop and submitted the new draft to the ABNA that year on the same week. I got accepted to Odyssey, and the first day there I got the call from the publisher. I nearly had a heart attack.

The best part for certain was that call, as unexpected and out of the blue as it was. Followed closely by the day I heard the voice auditions for the audiobook of the novel. Hearing someone bring my character to life was *amazing.* It made it real.

The worst part is the uncertainty. It turns out that there’s more to publishing and being a successful author than just writing great books. Some of it–like marketing, and social media–you have to learn as you go as best you can. And some of it–like sales numbers–is completely outside of your control. Obsessing about a lot of things you can’t control (or might control, maybe) is a recipe for anxiety and disaster. I’ve had to learn to let things go and focus on the writing, which is what I loved in the first place. I’ve picked up knitting and yoga along the way as well. Yoga is *amazing* for mental focus and stress control.

What’s the most surprising part? I found out I’m a lot better at business sense than I thought I was. My gut is pretty good. And I found out I could write and revise a really good novel in four and a half months. Challenges bring out the best in you sometimes in a surprising way.

4. Could you talk a bit about why you opted for a traditional publisher as opposed to indie or self-publishing?

Back when I was trying to get into the writing world originally self-publishing wasn’t a real option. It was the mid- to late nineties and the traditional publishers were the only game in town. I dreamed of walking into my big-box Barnes & Nobles and seeing my book there. A decade later, my husband and I were beginning to talk about self-publishing when I got the call. I knew that I was finally ready, but as it happened the publisher called me first. I’m still incredibly honored and proud to visit my book at the bookstore, and my publisher has been a partner I’m proud to work with. But there are still many options out there.


5. What’s next for Alex Hughes, and for Adam?

Alex is currently working on book #4 in Adam’s world, where Adam is called in on an FBI case outside of Atlanta. There’s a short story in the world I’ll release sometime in the next few months as well. I’ve also got a few fun projects I’m working on, which include both a novel in another world on my own, and a collaboration project with Kerry Schafer, one of my writing partners. I’ve recently had stories accepted into the Thunder on the Battlefield anthology and The Sea anthology, and had my first invite to an invitation-only anthology, which was a huge personal milestone. What’s next? I try new things and be creative. I *love* this stuff, and I love the readers. They’re awesome, and I want to keep them happy.
6. What question do you wish more people asked you?

Well, I used to wish people didn’t ask about pets. I don’t have actual pets (hubbie is violently allergic), and they treat me funny when I talk about my imaginary cat. But lately, I’ve been considering a small dragon. So I like the question a lot. People like to weigh in on my dragon choice.

I also wished more people asked about my super nerdy academic obsessions. For some reason, that’s not a common cocktail party question, go figure.
7. What’s the answer to that question?

Ooooh! Thanks for asking! I was a history major in college, and I *love* early modern European history, especially social and cultural history. Reading about people who thought and acted differently from anyone I’ve ever met… well, it makes my brain happy. War of the Three Henries? Best named war ever. Plus Cardinal Richeleu was just as conniving in history as he is in the Three Musketeers by Dumas. Oh, I am a major biology nerd. And physics. And brain and behavior. Ask me about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. And brain surgery. And historical plastic surgery–definitely ask me about that! Or don’t… I can go on for awhile. :)


Go here to buy Alex’s books today. I mean right now. You’ll be glad you did.

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