Underwords’ first New Writer Spotlight features Eljay Daly. With several professional level short story sales to her credit, Daly is a writer you will want to know and read. We are proud to introduce you to Daly, her work, and her thoughts on writing.
Her first professional sale was in 2009, which places her in her second year of eligibility for the Campbell Award.
What was your first piece of published fiction and where was it published?
When did you find out that you sold “The Second Conquest of Earth?” What was happening at the time? How did you react?
Oh, that’s a funny story! One of the final requirements for our MFA program was a reading. This particular story was one that I’d actually written with that final reading in mind. I wrote it to be read aloud, so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t sell. Still, I’d submitted it out a few months before graduation, and for the entire graduation week I kept checking my email for the rejection.
I’d asked my mentor at the time, James Patrick Kelly, to introduce me for the reading, and he graciously obliged. He pounded the podium with Jim-like gusto and said, “I swear on my reputation as a teacher and a writer and a futurist!” that my first sale was close at hand. Sure enough, two days later, when I was home unpacking my newly minted MFA, I got word from Strange Horizons that they were taking the story. When I wrote Jim to tell him the good news, he said the timing was so overly perfect that if I’d written it into one of my stories, he’d have made me take it out!
The moral: Seriously, if you need a sale or rain or something, you need to hire Jim Kelly to do some podium pounding for you.
What other stories have you sold since?
How would you describe the type of fiction that you write?
Atmospheric fantasy, I think. Often dark–or at least dirty. I’m most interested in the underside of fantasy: not the glitter and shine, but rather the cost of all that glitter and shine. And the secrets. Somebody’s paying a price for all that magic. The stories that stick with me have roots in desperation. Of course, the fiction I write isn’t necessarily the fiction that people read. I know what I’m trying to do–to build worlds sideways, to imply the dark realities in as few words as possible. I don’t know how well I accomplish it, though.
Did you have a mentor or another writer who helped to guide you through a difficult point within your writing career?
Whenever I get stuck I hunt around for somebody who’s doing what I want to learn to do, and I try to eat their brains. I read their fiction, I poke it apart; I read their blogs and advice articles, I workshop with them if I can, or I try to get to one of their lectures or panels. I’ve been blessed with a lot of fantastic teachers. I think the clearest example was James D. Macdonald. I’d been beating my head against a wall over plotting for a couple of years when I stumbled onto his fantastic writing thread on the Absolute Write forums. That thread taught me a whole new way of thinking about what I was doing. And of course, I followed Jim to Viable Paradise where I met Jim Kelly, and I followed Jim Kelly to the Stonecoast MFA program because I wanted to learn how he managed to write so tightly. And at Stonecoast I got a chance to study with Nancy Holder and Kelly Link, who helped me get my writing to a whole new level, and to workshop with outstanding writers who were climbing the same mountain I’m climbing (although some were exceedingly far ahead of me!).
There have also been mentors who don’t know they’re mentors, bless them. I read Jay Lake’s blog every day, and reading about his process has helped me figure out the way I work. He’s a masterful teacher. Elizabeth Bear’s blog was enormously helpful to me. And of course, the best teachers are the ones whose books and stories I’ve poked and prodded and analyzed in fairly obsessive detail. Lois McMaster Bujold and Michael Swanwick and Neil Gaiman come to mind. I’m grateful to them for writing such brilliant fiction–particularly since I’ve retyped about seven-hundred pounds of it.
It is said that learning to write well is like experiencing a series of never ending writing related epiphanies. If you had to pick one, what is the most important lesson you have learned, so far?
That’s so true! My days brim with writing-related epiphanies. If I have to narrow it down to one, I guess it would be “Writing teaches writing.” Keep trying. If my system isn’t working, try another system. If the story I’m working on is lousy, finish it anyway, then write another one. Don’t worry about it. Keep going. Get a teacher, get some words on the page, figure out why a plot point feels so illogical. Keep living in the story, for at least a little while every single day. As long as I keep trying, as long as I continue to focusing on improving and on getting completed projects out into the world, every problem manages to solve itself. Then one day I look back and say, “Wow. It’s hard to believe that used to seem so impossible!” Of course, then I’m in the thick of a new cluster of problems, but what can you do? Keep rowing!
OK, I can’t help it. I have another one: “Don’t follow a rule off a cliff.” In the beginning, I followed a lot of rules off a lot of cliffs. I ended up with a lot of very boring stories! And even with all that rule following, nobody was giving me any A+’s for being impeccable. I didn’t start to sell until I began consciously playing with bending rules and then breaking them, and then crushing them, just to see what the stories would look like when I was finished. That’s when they started to get interesting.
Which authors, stories, or novels most affected your development as a writer?
Dune. American Gods. Connie Willis. Lois McMaster Bujold. For short stories, Michael Swanwick. Jim Kelly. Joe Hill. Liz Williams. Jeffrey Ford. Damon Knight. Stephen King, especially his On Writing. Marion Zimmer Bradley! Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, Kate Elliott. Argh, stop me! Everything I read ends up affecting my development as a writer. I’m just… spongy.
What do you do for a living beyond writing fiction? How do you fit “writing time” into your schedule?
I’m a freelance medical copyeditor. It means I’m self-employed, so there’s no job security to speak of. I work seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I’m perpetually worried about buying food and paying the electric bill, and I have to scrounge to keep myself in medical insurance. (Just like a writer!) On the other hand, it’s ideal because I can set my own schedule. I can prioritize my days as I need to. And the bottom line is that it frees my imagination. My job doesn’t rent a lot of my mental real estate, creatively speaking. And it’s given me the added bonus of letting my left brain do pushups. That part of my writing process has become automatic. I don’t have to expend energy worrying about whether I’ve got the commas in the right places.
I get up at 4 AM so that I can get the writing done while I’m freshest, before I start tackling the left-brain editorial stuff. When I was in grad school I pushed it back to 3 AM, because I was doing my own writing on top of my course work. I tackle my days in the order of my priorities. If I want writing to be my highest priority, then that’s got to be the first thing I do in the morning. It might not work for everybody, but so far it’s been working for me.
When did you first know that you wanted to write? What inspired you to tell stories?
I have an essay I wrote when I was nine that declares I wanted to be a writer. I’m not sure I really knew what I was saying, though. Did I? I don’t know. Maybe I did. I was a voracious reader.
I don’t think I was ever inspired to tell stories–at least, not in the sense of having a desire to create a fully formed thing that went from “Once upon a time” to “And they lived happily ever after.” My reading was all aboutimmersion, without beginnings or endings–just hanging out in the middles. Trudging to Mount Doom. Sitting there with my hand burning and the gom jabbar at my throat. Living in those places. The story is the shape of the thing in hindsight, you know? When you look back at all those people who did all those things, when you look at the steps they took… then you’ve got some perspective on the arc of the thing, and it becomes a story.
What I was inspired about was the big “what if”–and that started young. “What if that girl had an eye in the middle of her stomach?” “What if I was a secret spy?” “What if this cellar had a portal to hell?” “What if I open my eyes in the dark and look up at that shelf over my bed, and all the little dolls’ faces are peering down at me over the edge? What if they’re angry?” I was into the melodrama! But the “what if” came from inside. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t looking at reality and imagining it as something… other.
Did you receive any writing related training or attend any workshops? If yes, how do you think they helped you? If no, are there any that you are considering?
I went to Viable Paradise, which is an outstanding workshop. Not only did I meet my tribe, but at the end of that workshop I felt forged. I knew precisely how serious I was about writing. Then I went to the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, which has a popular fiction track. I learned a ton at Stonecoast; I ended up with a toolbox of strategies for finding solutions to writing problems, and I continue to use those tools daily.
Both of those experiences were invaluable. I think the key was to identify my particular weaknesses, scout around to find writers for whom they were strengths, then find out where those writers were teaching.
Which of your published stories would you most recommend to someone who hasn’t yet read your work?