Welcome to the latest edition of my occasional interview series “How Tho?!” in which I ask cool writers doing amazing work about their writing path and process. Today I’m chatting with S.J. Whitby, author of the Cute Mutants series (now, with their first multi-author anthology in the world, legitimately the Cute Mutants Extended Universe!)
SJ Whitby is a nonbinary author who lives in New Zealand, where they see few hobbits despite their fondness for snacking. They’ve always loved telling stories and they’ve finally put themselves out in the world with the sprawling Cute Mutants series of novels (ten books and growing) about a group of queer superheroes. They’re passionate about increasing diverse sexuality and gender representation in fiction.
S.J. has a publishing schedule that will make your head spin, putting out a full-length YA novel every few months. The books are fantastic, with high-quality production and editing. The Cute Mutants series centers superpowered nonbinary and queer characters who must fight oppression while navigating love, rage and grief—I highly recommend it even if you aren’t a frequent YA reader.
I slid into S.J.’s DMs to request the inside scoop on their writing process and how they manage everything involved with self-publishing an ongoing series. They graciously agreed and I’m so excited to have them on the blog!
Erin Fulmer: SJ, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! I’ve been a fan for a while now, though I have to confess that your writing far outpaces my reading speed. I’m so behind!
You’ve mentioned in the past that you chose to self-publish your Cute Mutants novels in part because you felt traditional publishing wouldn’t be the right path for them. Can you tell us more about that decision and how you got started with self-publishing?
SJ Whitby: In the process of writing the first book, I was expecting to traditionally publish. However, as the series began to expand in my head—and I witnessed the speed of traditional publishing—I began to think that perhaps it wasn’t the right fit. If I wanted to publish five (lol) books, I didn’t want to wait years for the whole series to be out… I’m far too impatient for that and I write too fast to be satisfied with one book a year. So I naively decided to self-publish, because how hard could it possibly be?
There were other factors as well—I liked the idea of being able to control the process, to decide how foul-mouthed, chaotic, and queer my cast could be, and to follow whatever detours I felt like. The other factor was that I didn’t want the grueling querying process (especially in the pandemic!) to quash my love for the story and the characters. I knew that I was giving up a bunch of stuff like debut hype, real marketing budgets, and perceived legitimacy (which has felt hard at times!) but it felt like it was going to be a cool experiment. It really was a roll of the dice on a book I loved passionately and wanted to see out in the world.
EF: I think your readers really benefited from that gamble! Walk us through the self-publishing process—what stages and steps are involved in production and what kind of timeline does it happen on?
SJW: I work reasonably fast, so it’s about three months to a year between first starting a book and getting it live. So there’s drafting, beta feedback, revising, proofreading, formatting and cover, then getting it live onto sites. I’ve been doing more and more myself over time as I learn various skills, so that’s been really interesting. The part that’s hardest is honestly marketing, and I’m still figuring out how to do that and what works. So far, most of the magic is in word of mouth.
EF: I’m continually impressed by your work and your rate of output, so I have to ask my most burning question: how the heck do you do it?! What’s your daily writing routine and how do you keep the words flowing without burning out?
SJW: I write for an hour every morning, and then usually an hour or more in the evenings. The morning is a bit of a struggle, but it’s my consistent time I try to keep to. The evenings are much more flexible but that’s where I get my “big” writing days. I try to do 3-5k a day and can usually keep to that while drafting. I don’t think it’s ever taken me more than a month to do a first draft of a book.
So there’s a lot of luck in that I can write fast fairly naturally, but the thing that keeps words flowing is that I adore spending time with these characters. To step into Dylan’s world is always something I enjoy, so it never feels like work. Some of the parts like getting the cover formatting right or figuring out marketing are much more difficult to manage, but telling these stories is honestly a joy.
EF: Your series has become a sprawling universe with multiple spin-offs and even an anthology, with more to come—was this all part of your master plan? When you started writing the first book in the series, did you have an inkling of how much the world you created would expand?
SJW: About halfway through the first book, I knew what the second book would be and a third beyond that, along with vague ideas about seeds to plant for the future (e.g. Emma’s backstory). By the time I was done with book one, I had the rough shape of five books in my head. Then sometime into book two, I figured out the broad arc for the sequel series—which was way too early, so I squashed it back into my brain and focused on the main series.
Spinoffs have all been me following random ideas that popped into my head, or characters that couldn’t fit in the main books anymore because my cast got too large. So I had very vague ideas about the size of the series, but I knew I wanted the scope of the books to grow from a little gang of vigilantes to something much more expansive. I liked the idea of zooming out from a girl in a mask with a baseball bat, and eventually encompassing lost history, aliens, global politics, and the fate of the entire world. Beyond that, I have a really wild story to tell, and I’m hoping people keep coming along for the ride!
EF: I’m so here for it! Speaking of planning, did you always know what would go down in future books or do you develop the storyline as you go? How do you maintain continuity between the various spin-offs?
SJW: It’s a bit of a mix. Right now, I’ve just published Mutopians Book One and have a first draft of Book Two. I know the main beats for the rest of the series, but there’s a lot of scope in there for twists and turns along the way. As far as maintaining continuity, I cross my fingers and hope. I doubt I’ll get everything right at all times, but I do my best. These characters really do live in my head and I feel like I know them, so hopefully I get them right. My get out of jail free card is that all these are first-person ‘in someone’s head’ books, and as we all know, we’re sometimes all unreliable narrators of our own lives.
EF: As a reader, your books bring me such a sense of queer joy—the literal and figurative ways you empower your characters, who are all LGBTQ+ teens, is truly a balm to my soul in these times. How has your identity as an enby writer inspired and fueled your creativity, and what would you like your “young, gifted, and queer” readers to take away from your work?
SJW: Writing Cute Mutants had some aspects of me figuring out my own identity in my writing, and I still use my writing as a way of doing this (some books more than others). But I also wanted to write a series where various queer identities were totally normalized, loved, and supported. Sometimes there are antagonists who don’t, but there’s always so much care, friendship, and acceptance between the characters.
I didn’t read many (any?) queer characters growing up in a very religious home, so I love that we’re seeing more and more queer books out in the world. I honestly feel really privileged to show some of that to the world too. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see readers of all kinds responding to these characters! As far as what people take away from the work, it’s this: you are valid, even if there are people in the world shouting that you’re not, you are loved, and that there is a family out there for you to belong to, who consider you’re worth fighting for.
EF: That’s such a powerful and important message. I wish books like yours had been around when I was young, queer, and confused. While I sit with those *feelings*, what advice would you give writers interested in pursuing self-publishing? What are the pros and cons of this path?
SJW: The pros are that you get to put your story in the world as you envision it—you don’t need to submit yourself to the vagaries of what marketing departments consider is valid. At the same time, this is a double-edged sword, because other opinions are important to consider. So it’s vital in my opinion to surround yourself with beta readers and critique partners who can be those eyes on your work.
You’ll likely still get things wrong, because far less people are involved along the way, but embracing the help of those around you is essential. Most writers are telling stories because they want people to read them, and self-publishing is a way to make that connection. It’s incredibly rewarding in that respect. Rather than writing into the void, this is a way to find your readers, even if they’re only a small few!
One of the big cons is that you’re a tiny, tiny player in a market full of very talented people all trying to make their voices heard. It’s hard to get attention in that environment! And that funnels into the other con which is that marketing is notoriously hard to figure out. There are so many good books out there, and it can be difficult to figure out how to direct people towards yours. When you’re traditionally published, there are other people working with you to shout about your book. Authors aren’t always the best at doing that, and self-publishing puts the vast bulk of it on your shoulders.
EF: I think that burden is falling increasingly on authors across the board these days. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about self-publishing and promoting your work?
SJW: That readers matter. Find your people and let them spread the word. Promotion really isn’t something I’ve mastered at all, and it’s something I hope to focus on in the current year and get better at—my success is down to the kindness and support from the people who’ve read my books and seen something special in them, which is wonderful. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without them.
EF: Anything else you’d like to share with my readers that I didn’t think to ask about?
Thanks for having me! I hope that people check out the books if they’re interested. It’s a pretty epic ride, starting from an origin story and growing a long way beyond that. There are a lot of books, but Mutopians Book One: Imposter Syndrome has just come out, and it’s a whole new jumping on point to a wild sci-fi saga. But of course you can start with the original Cute Mutants series if you want to see where everything began and see Dylan’s story from the beginning!
Plugs/social media/other links:
Follow SJ Whitby on Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon. And check out the full Cute Mutants series at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or your favorite online retailer. Book One of The Mutopians, Imposter Syndrome, is out now!