Author Spotlight: Caitlin Sangster talks Last Star Burning & New Podcast
I'm overjoyed to be hosting Caitlin Sangster on the blog today! Her debut novel, Last Star Burning, was released on October 10th, and Kirkus called it: "thrilling to get lost in" and "By the end, readers will be clamoring for more. Incredibly immersive and tightly plotted."
In addition to writing, Caitlin has a BA in Asian Studies from Brigham Young University, and she's also one of the hosts of the brand-new writer podcast, Literary Work in Progress, in which she and her critique partners perform (and discuss) first chapter critiques for querying authors.
Hi, Caitlin! Welcome and congrats on your debut, Last Star Burning. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?
Last Star Burning is about a Sev, six-teen-year old girl who is the daughter of a traitor. She lives in the only place safe from Sleeping Sickness, but because of her family’s past, her place there isn’t exactly comfortable. When a bomb goes off inside the city, she’s blamed, and she has to escape.
This book was inspired by a lot of things, but one thing I haven’t talked about before is where Sev came from. I had read so many main character girls in YA who were super competent and ready to knock anyone’s head off who came between them and what they wanted: Katniss from The Hunger Games, Kasta from Graceling, or June from Legend. I think seeing strong and competent women in books is so, so important, and I wanted to add to the spectrum of competency by writing a main character girl who was strong in a different way. Not physically able to kill anyone and everyone who came up against her (not even wanting to, though she has reason enough), but someone who was optimistic in the face of terrible situations, someone who shouldn’t have any hope, but finds a way to be happy anyway. Sev doesn’t have killer training, or special abilities that make her a force to be reckoned with. Most people don’t have skills like that, and I wanted to show that being strong can sometimes be about choosing to keep moving, choosing to adapt, and choosing to be happy.
Kirkus called Last Star Burning “Incredibly immersive and tightly plotted.” What are your tips for keeping a plot fast and focused?
I would say keeping a plot fast depends on how often you ask and answer questions (and how important those questions are). In more thriller/action-packed YA, your reader should always have a reason to turn the page. I tried to end each chapter with a question that begged to be answered. As for keeping the plot tight, I think you have to make sure everything is set up. I’m not sure where I got this, but there’s a rule that before a reader remembers a detail, you have to mention it at least three times previously. I tried to make sure all those things I was setting up for the plot also said something about my characters, about the setting or the world building so everything mattered on more than one level. Use your details. Make them all do double duty.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
The hardest thing for me is just getting enough time! But when it comes to actual process . . . cutting is really hard for me. I usually write way too much and then have to tackle the monstrosity I’ve created with a scalpel. The way that works best for me is that once I’ve made my first draft the best I can by myself, I put it away for a while. The time helps me not to be so attached to the scenes the way I wrote them. Cutting and combining things is a lot easier to do if you’re not so close to the manuscript. I always ask critique partners, “Where did this slow down? Where were you bored?” And then I have to actually do the hacking, combining, and refocusing. It’s hard to kill those darlings, but you’ve got to do it.
As a fantasy writer, I’m always interested in world building. What’s your advice for writers who may be struggling to create a cohesive setting?
I think there are two ways I’ve done this: I’m a mix of a discovery writer and a planner, so I’ve done both.
For discovery writing, I think you need to keep notes as you write. Once you’re done with your first draft, put all those “these are the things in my world I need to make the plot work” notes into a document or a spreadsheet (I use OneNote) and try to think about the big picture. If you’ve chosen to have monsters sucking the souls out of anyone who has red hair (for a random example) think about how that would affect the economy. The relationship with neighboring nations, or the political ramifications inside your world. How would it affect swearing, religion, social structure. Not all of this has to go into your manuscript, but having an underlying framework you can think about as you go back and revise helps to be more purposeful as you show people interacting with one another. You create the tip of an iceberg that hints at a much more full world below (whether or not you’ve actually fleshed out that bottom half of the iceberg).
If you’re a planner, then you can ask all those questions at the beginning. I have a list of things I think through, then decide how those things affect one another. If you have a magic system, how does that interact with the world’s religion—are they in sync or at odds with each other? How do people think about science? What crops are grown? What does your country have to import (because that would make it more expensive)? What is the government system? What class are teachers or artists or performers or farmers? Who cleans the streets?
This doesn’t have to be exhaustive. I usually only have one or two thoughts about the big picture that guide people’s interactions. Not everything has to be made as a point or be part of the plot, but a lot of times, thinking all of this through makes the plot and character relationships much more deep and layered.
You’ve lived in XinJiang and Taiwan, and also graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in Asian Studies. How did your background prepare you for writing Last Star Burning, and what other research did you do?
Well, living in XinJiang and Taiwan was what made me want to major in Asian Studies and study Chinese. During college I kept having these revelatory moments that all looked something like “How did I not know this already?!” I spent a few weeks every single year from grade school on up talking about World War II and the Holocaust, but no one ever talked about what was going on with Japan and why they were involved in the war. Just Pearl Harbor, Kamikaze pilots, and the atom bombs with zero context. That gap in my education as a kid made me want to give teenagers a reason to look a little closer at something they weren’t being exposed to in school. (Maybe there’s more focus on Asia nowadays, but there wasn’t twenty years ago!)
In writing this I leaned pretty heavily on my degree, though I did go back and reread Chinese Cultural Revolution primary sources for some insight as to what it felt like to live in a similarly restrictive society, like Wild Swans by Jung Chang, The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui, and Red China Blues by Jan Wong.
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author so far?
Finishing a book that I’m proud of. I think that all other things like getting an agent or get a book deal are exciting, but just finishing something that I put lots of work into and getting to polish it into something worth reading is the most rewarding part of being an author for me.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently obsessed with?
I am rereading the WAY OF KINGS by Brandon Sanderson series so I’ll be ready for next book to come out. And after that I’m going to reread the SIX OF CROWS duology by Leigh Bardugo because IT IS SO GOOD.
As a huge fan of writing podcasts, I absolutely love the idea behind Literary Work in Progress. Can you tell us a little more, and when we can expect episodes on iTunes?
Literary Work in Progress is an opportunity for newer authors to have more experienced authors critique their work. The first chapter of your book (sometimes the first paragraph or even the first line) is the deciding factor in whether an agent, editor, or even just a casual reader keeps reading. The podcast looks over submitted first chapters to help authors see where they’re doing really well, and where they might have some space to grow. We have other published authors come on as guests to help us critique pretty frequently as well.
I remember when I first started writing, there was a huge difference between feedback from critique partners at my same stage in the writing business and what agents or other writing professionals would say. A lot of times, more casual readers will be able to tell you something is wrong, but not what, and, hopefully, the podcast will give querying authors a chance for slightly more professional feedback.
The other half of Literary Work in Progress is meant to model good writing group behavior. If you’re an author, you spend time both critiquing other people’s work and being critiqued. While everyone does things a little differently, some writing groups and critique partners can be . . . shall we say overbearing? It’s hard not to be. If you’re a writer and you see something in someone else’s work that you feel like you can “fix”, you want to do it! But, it doesn’t really matter how would write something. It isn’t your book. Sometimes it goes even beyond that. I was in a writing group once where the other authors seemed to think they could “kill” my books, and that was almost the point of reading for me—to poke holes in things just because they could, not to call attention to things that could be better. It sounds like the same thing, right? It isn’t.
On the podcast we try to show how to give feedback that is encouraging even if it is a critique. Writing groups shouldn’t be competitive or contentious, but rather a collaboration that allows everyone to trust each other and with everyone coming out of the room happy.
And finally, what’s one steadfast piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Don’t give up. Good writing is work. It deserves second looks and revision, and someone telling you to revise isn’t a bad thing. It’s an opportunity to improve. Don’t give up when it feels like you’d get more attention sending a picture of your last Bananagrams game to an agent than your query. Get involved in the community, in person if you can, by going to conferences and book events. If you can’t, then get involved online.
Believe that your own work is good for other people to read, then do the work to make it true.
I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did! Last Star Burning sounds incredibly gripping, and I have to thank Caitlin for taking the time to share such detailed advice on world building for both plotters and discovery writers! Be sure to add her debut to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy of Last Star Burning RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local indie.
And, as always,