Alexandra Penn was a museum kid. The daughter of a photographer and a Scuba diver, she spent her teenage years in the field: Penn has worked with Smithsonian archaeologists, NASA software engineers, volcanologists, and photographers. She also managed to fail Algebra II with a passing grade, which she's a little proud of.
Her work is both a love letter to and an intense criticism of the academic world.
She has been bitten by a shark, she watched the final shuttle launch from the fire escape outside Launch Control, and she has been a certified diver since age twelve. She likes dogs, long walks on the beach, and socialized medicine. Also books.
Penn is one of two Directors of The Writers' Rooms, an editor for hire, an amateur linguist, and a Taurus. Her work has received many accolades, including an Honorable Mention in the Writer's Digest Annual Contest 2017.
She spends all her free time on Twitter.
1. Will you tell us about your most recent published work?
My most recent work is the third book in The Letter Mage series. The Letter Mage is a series I’ve been describing as “Gay Hogwarts in space with a little His Dark Materials thrown in for good measure”. It’s about a kid who lives in a contentious lunar university, and while trying to get the departments to stop throwing rockets at each other he accidentally turns into a supervillain.
“Book” is a bit of a misnomer, though: The Letter Mage is actually a serial on Patreon. A new installment comes out monthly, and every four installments I put out a collection. The Third Quarto was just released last month.
2. What personal challenges do you face as a writer?
Marketing is by far the hardest part of turning this into a career.
I’m introverted and a little asocial: all the free marketing these days involves social media, and that’s just not something I mesh well with. I’m fairly active on Twitter and Instagram, but nowhere near active enough to build a new following from those crowds. I love personal appearances, such as cons and signings, but those are expensive and harder to come by.
I’m actually currently in the process of planning a small-town book tour in the Midwest! If you know a small-town library that allows sales and is currently looking for more LGBT diversity, send me an email or message me on social media.
3. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Finding time to be an artist. Between running The Writers’ Rooms, working as an editor and teacher, and marketing, actually sitting down to write can be something I need to schedule. Lining that up with inspiration is near-impossible.
Second-most-difficult is research. I get mired down in technical details and worldbuilding far too easily. This is less of a problem in The Letter Mage, but in another of my works-in-progress I’m definitely walking a fine line between research and writing.
4. What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
It’s actually something I’ve already given up: living close to family. A few years ago, I moved from Washington, DC to Iowa City. Being closer to the university opened up a lot of doors for me professionally: this is a small area, and a lot of big names travel through it pretty regularly.
It was a great choice, career-wise! I’ve had the luck to join some incredible endeavors, my books are doing well, and I’ve made some amazing friends. But I definitely plan on returning to the East Coast someday—my family and I have always been close. I miss them from the bottom of my heart.
5. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Publishing The Letter Mage has definitely transitioned writing from a hobby to a career. I have deadlines, and the book now pays my bills. My writing has also improved drastically over the past year, in that I’ve been publishing something once a month and therefore getting a truly massive amount of practice.
6. How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have? Will you tell us about them?
I honestly don’t know the number. I have a few from way back in high school that I’m planning on revisiting—one that starts out as Chosen One urban fantasy and ends up being post-apocalyptic when the Chosen One misses her chance, and one that’s more contemporary about a suicidal teenage author whose characters save her life. I have an entirely-finished novel about a bookstore which is abducted by aliens, but given that I know the owner of the shop it’s based off of I need to edit that desperately before it sees the light of day.
I’ll also occasionally happen upon lost fragments of stories on my computer that aren’t more than a line or two long, some of which I remember and some of which I don’t. There’s a document called moustachepoems.txt in my Dropbox that surprises me every few months—I always promptly add to it and forget about it again.
7. Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do! I read every single one of them. Good ones make my day. I’ve had a few that make me tear up and blubber like a child.
With the bad ones, I ask myself a bunch of questions. First, do they talk about anything I can improve on legitimately, or is it just “lol this sux”? Looking deeper, what can I get out of that review? Do I want to take it at face value, or are they legitimately missing something that I could make clearer?
And second, has anyone else had the same critique? Or is it one person with off-the-wall criticism? Because if it’s just one person, unless you 100% agree with their comments it’s probably not worth listening to. If several people all have the same criticism, it’s time to re-examine.
Don’t get me wrong, bad reviews can still put me in a funk. I deal with that by going to the gym and working off the anger, or drowning my sorrows in making art other than writing.
8. Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
All the time. There’s a huge endgame twist in The Letter Mage that people have all the information they need to figure out. No one’s figured it out yet.
Most of my secrets are hidden under unreliable narrators. There are a few places where a secret appears in the form of an inconsistency in the story, when it’s actually a product of inconsistency in the person telling the story—I love to let my readers make assumptions.
9. What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
The indomitable Erin Casey and I are close friends! Not to mention the community of The Writers’ Rooms—which is incredible and supportive.
I’m overall a pretty solitary person, but my community is just incredible. I’m lucky to have them.
10. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
You’re not 100% wrong about college being unnecessary for the career you want to pursue, kiddo: maybe spend your time submitting stories and writing rather than just talking about what you want to do with your life, though.
Also: take business classes. Take a ton of business classes. They’re amazingly helpful in the years ahead.
11. What are common traps for aspiring writers?
First, never pay for publishing. With the one exception of print-on-demand, money should always flow toward the author. They’re not doing you a favor by printing your book, you’re doing them a favor by letting them print your book. You made the product.
Second, make sure your work is finished and polished.
Third, take time to learn the business. Make sure your work is protected and make sure you know what a contract means before you sign it. If there’s no contract involved in something, rethink your choices. When I work as a freelance editor, even short jobs get a contract. I’m actually working with my grandmother as a client right now, and even she gets a contract. There is no reason not to cover your butt in case something goes wrong.
12. What’s the best way to market your books?
There’s no one right answer to this. Market your books in a way that’s authentic to you. There’s so much advice out there on how to do social media, conventions, newsletter swaps, internet advertisements—and not a lick of it will matter if it’s inauthentic.
Try to be unique and genuine, and the marketing will follow.
13. What is your favorite childhood book?
Well, it’s a tie. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne and The Sign of the Seahorse by Graeme Base were both equally-requested for my childhood bedtime reading.
I’ve always had, um, eclectic taste.
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