There are many Sarah Pinskers from many alternate universes. They’ve gathered for SarahCon, a convention held by scientist Sarah Pinsker. And one of the Sarahs has murdered another. That’s the premise of “And Then There Were (N-One),” the first story I read by the real Sarah Pinsker, author of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Pinsker’s first story collection Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea came out in March; her first novel A Song for a New Day came out in September. I talked to her about her careers in writing, music, and non-profits.
Location: Baltimore, MD
Current gig: Writer
Current computer: MacBook Air, replacing previous Air that met a tragic coffeeshop death.
Current mobile device: Um, it’s an Android. Moto G6. For some reason my wife gets iPhones and I get whatever phone is currently being labelled as “best bargain smartphone.”
One word that best describes how you work: Inefficiently
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I always knew I would be a writer, but I took the long way around. Got a history degree so I’d know how to do research, and so I’d have things to write about besides other peoples’ writing.
Then I decided to throw it all away for the far more lucrative field of a touring musician (/sarcasm). Did that for a while. Made two solo albums and one with my band [the Stalking Horses], got to see a lot of cool places. Bought a house, discovered the allure of a day job. Started writing fiction again. Fifty stories, a collection, and a novel later, here I am!
What are your job responsibilities?
Writing stories and novels, and all the accompanying stuff like readings and conventions and teaching. I still play shows when I can. I also have a part time day job with a non-profit, where I wear a whole bunch of hats and fake mustaches and switch them out frequently.
Take us through a recent workday.
My days all start at 7:15am, because that’s when my dog gets up. He’s very punctual; I only need an alarm if I’m catching an early plane or something. We walk two miles before I’m even awake yet. I use that time to make sure I know what I’m doing that day and sort of mentally prepare.
We eat breakfast and I shower when we come back. Two and a half days a week I do day job stuff. Otherwise, I do one of two things: stay home or go to a local coffeeshop.
I do my best work at the coffeeshop. Public accountability is an effective tool for me. I’m aware that I’m spending money so I need to be earning money, which makes me work hard when I’m there. They’re lovely people and it’s a space I find conducive to writing.
If I’m at home, my main tool is an old fashioned hourglass with a half hour’s worth of sand. I mute my phone and do half hour “sprints” with fifteen minutes’ break after each. I try to do drafting first, and meet any goals that I have for that day. Then I’ll turn to any editing I need to get done. Email interviews and blogs can be done later as my attention flags. Another dog walk when weather allows. I have a bad tendency to just keep going, so I’m trying to get better about stopping when my wife gets home.
I try not to create too many rituals. What matters is words on page, and pretty much nothing else. I can do this anywhere. I love writing retreats. If I’m in any city for long enough, I find a local coffeeshop to work in.
I try to get most of my writing done during the day so I can be social when other people are social, and go to rock shows or dinner or movies.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
I draft stories in Word, which I don’t particularly like, and novels in Scrivener. I love Scrivener for novels; I can’t imagine tackling a big project without it. The ability to colour code viewpoints, to select different sections, to look at it like a corkboard… oh, and the word count meters! I like the little target meters. I’m a sucker for a good target.
And I guess I can’t live without Dropbox because it saved me when my computer got murdered.
What’s your workspace setup like?
Laptop on an old roll top desk. Good chair. My wife built me a library a couple of years ago. I have another desk upstairs that’s good for spring and fall, but the attic is too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Since she built the library, I’ve been doing all my home writing in there. It has a great feel. All these great books surrounding me, art that I love. I do have a bad habit of curling up in a chair to write instead of sitting at the desk, but really I do my best work when I’m sitting well and focused at a desk or a coffeeshop table.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
My biggest writer hack is actually walking the dog or going for a run. I’ve never experienced writer’s block during a time when I’ve been physically active, but if I start moving less, I feel like my brain slows down.
When I’m walking, I’m thinking. I’m solving problems. I’m coming up with a better first line, or the next place to go, so that I never look at a blank page and see it as blank. I text that stuff back to myself, or just concentrate on remembering it long enough so that I can write it down the second I get home.
I don’t listen to music while I walk; I just think about whatever had me tangled up, and it untangles as we go.
What’s a “writer hack” that you’ve seen another writer use, but which would never work for you?
Somebody — was it V.E. Schwab? — I recently saw an author at a live Q&A who said she started at the end of a novel and worked backward, so that she knew where the characters needed to get to. That sounds absolutely bizarre to me, but I can’t criticise since it obviously works well for her.
I often write with a friend who listens to the same song on repeat while he drafts. Music in general distracts me too much while I’m writing. I like to listen to psych myself up, but not while I’m actually drafting or editing.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place.
I’m not sure I have any finicky processes? Oh, except that I am absolutely and completely paranoid about not having drinks on the same surface as my computer. Last winter I was writing at my coffeeshop and somebody knocked her entire iced coffee into my computer. Fried it completely. Apparently even if you can dry it out, the acid in coffee just corrodes everything.
The woman took responsibility for what she’d done, which a lot of people wouldn’t do, but ever since then I’m just terrified. I put my coffee on a chair next to me, or else in a sealed mug, and drink my water from a water bottle that closes. I used to sit at the “family table” with the owner while she did her ordering, but now I sit at a small table where nobody else can hurt my computer. I have Dropbox going, so I didn’t lose work, but the whole thing was very stressful.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My agent, Kim-Mei Kirtland, is always helpful and savvy. I know how much I don’t know, so I appreciate her thoughtful approach to everything.
I have two critique groups that meet monthly, both of which force me to ask the next question and improve my stories. They also keep me learning from other wonderful writers.
The writer K.M. Szpara is one of my best friends, and he is someone who I know I can tag in on projects that I’ve committed to, like programming a book festival or pairing mentors. We’ve reached a lot of career milestones at similar times, so we bounce a lot off each other.
I can’t even begin to say all the things my wife does to make sure I can get my work done. She’s very understanding, but also good at saying “Are you sure you want to commit to that when you have the rest of this going on?” That balances my tendency to say yes to everything.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career, and how did you deal with it?
I’m not sure I’ve made any awful mistakes in my writing career yet? I feel like I made a ton of mistakes in music that I was able to learn from and not repeat. Some of those stemmed from being young and cocky, some from not knowing yet how to read a contract. Luckily none of those mistakes had huge repercussions, and I think I’m older, wiser, and more modest now.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Old school. I have a spreadsheet with three columns: to do, doing, and done. Doing is what’s on the docket for that day. To do can be longer range. Both have dates next to them, and I keep them ordered by priority. The act of moving them to the done column is very, very satisfying to me. I’ve always liked crossing things off lists. Sometimes I’ll write that day’s things on an envelope just for the pleasure of crossing them off physically.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I feel like I’m not doing a very good job of that right now. I keep saying “after this deadline,” until the next deadline pops up like an endless game of Whack-A-Mole. In theory: Hiking, dog walks. Riding my friends’ horses. Going to a rock show. Playing music. Going to movies.
What’s your favourite side project?
I don’t know if I have side projects right now! I guess my music is a side project now. Our new dog is very smart and very speedy and I’d love to do agility stuff with him, but that involves a whole other level of commitment.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
Vivien Goldman’s Revenge of the She-Punks is awesome. She included playlists with each chapter, and does a great job of integrating both classic and new bands, many of which I enjoyed discovering through the book.
Can you share a music playlist you’ve made, whether for working or elsewhere?
Yes! The chapter titles from my novel are actually a playlist. Some of the songs only exist in the novel, but the ones that exist in our world are here:
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Charlie Jane Anders or Malka Older or Janelle Monáe, because I don’t understand how they do as much as they do.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Read everything you write out loud before you call it done.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
How to stop saying yes to everything.