Nia Quinn on Sigils, Sushi, and Serials
2022 Genre Fiction Contest Winner Nia Quinn discusses her prize-winning series, Sigils & Sushi.
Nia Quinn is the author of Sigils & Sushi, a 2022 Genre Fiction Contest Winner in our “Ongoing Serial” category. This urban fantasy romp stars Immy, a witch with the ability to manipulate ink on her skin into any image she desires. Enjoy the ride as she deals with mysterious baubles, dragon storms, her demon roommates, and more!
Nia has wanted to own a sword for more than twenty years (a lack that I have on good authority has been rectified since winning the contest). She grew up devouring fantasy about powerful girls with magic, sword, humor, and kindness – all of which form the bedrock upon which Sigils & Sushi rests. Her hobbies include reading, writing, gaming, and petting any fuzzy animal that will let her.
I hope you enjoy getting to know more about Nia and her approach to writing!
How would you describe Sigils & Sushi to someone unfamiliar with it? Why should they read it?
Sigils & Sushi is an urban fantasy romp starring Immy, a failed witch with a penchant for finding (and making!) trouble in a crazy magical city. If you love found family, strong female characters, mystical beings and malarkey, you’ll love Immy’s story!
What’s your goal for Sigils & Sushi?
I am envisioning Sigils & Sushi as a “forever” serial, although realistically, I’m sure it will have to end some day 😭 I have a couple larger arcs in mind that will likely form seasons, but no specific end in sight.
Right now at Episode 33, it’s only the day after we first met Immy, and we’ve only scratched the surface on getting to know her and her friends—there’s a ton of fun still in store!
You’ve been writing Sigils & Sushi as a serial, and releasing new episodes weekly. What advice would you give to others about writing serial fiction?
Serials really are a different format from novels! Many novels end a chapter as a scene closes, or once something’s resolved, especially with bigger books—sometimes readers need permission to put a book down. With serials, you’re relying on hooking a reader firmly enough that they’ll come back week after week for each new installment.
Once you’re far enough into your serial, great characters and an engaging story can be enough to do this, but especially at the beginning, resting points at the ends of episodes are your enemy. You still want to resolve storylines and questions (don’t be like the Lost TV show!), but an open loop at the end of each episode helps to pull the reader forward through the story. Open loops come in many types: cliffhangers, new questions, tension ratcheted to the breaking point, a hint of something amazing that’s coming next, introducing a new conflict, etc.
Because many serial platforms show a preview of the next episode, I generally recommend leading into a compelling situation over a cliffhanger or simple question; if the open loop is resolved in the first few lines of the next episode that show in the preview, you’ve lost your pull.
Also, make sure you set a realistic schedule for yourself! I personally think consistency is more important than frequency. A few for instances:
- If you think you *might* be able to manage three episodes a week, plan for two instead—fans will be happier with two episodes a week with the occasional bonus episode, than if you promise three and can only deliver that half the time.
- If you can do one episode a week, but are worried about hitting a specific day, then don’t promise a consistent Thursday release—leave yourself the flexibility you need.
- If you need to take a break (vacation, burnout, mental health), just let your fans know ahead of time!
What has been the most fun or unexpected part of writing serial fiction for you?
I was surprised how well I jive with the format! I’d only written novels before, and thought it would be tricky to switch over, but I’ve found I love writing short snappy episodes. I think it will change how I write future novels as well.
What’s your writing process look like?
For brainstorming, I’ll scribble notes in GoodNotes, or dictate on my phone as I fall asleep or go for a walk. For drafting, I write on my laptop, cozy on my couch (at least until summer, when I love to sit outside!). My rabbit keeps me company, so I’ve often got one hand petting him while the other’s on the keyboard.
I work the best with 25-minute sprints or 50-minute coworking sessions. I don’t write every day, but I try to hit at least 600 words for each day I write—those are other projects, though.
For Sigils & Sushi, I have it very streamlined. I’ll sit down, read through my notes for the next episode, and start a sprint on Discord. A few sprints later, I’ll have the episode drafted (between 1,000 and 1,600 words). As I write, I put placeholders in anywhere that’s holding me up, like coming up with a creature name or a new curse for Immy, so I can move on and keep writing. Once the draft is done, I’ll go back and fix all the placeholders (pick names, do research, etc.), then I’ll have Scrivener read the episode back to me to catch any missing words or weirdness. Lastly, I’ll run it through ProWritingAid as a final check for grammar, spelling, and echoes (repetition).
The hardest part for me is coming up with the title and writing any author notes, and I of course leave that till the end 😂 Once I’ve managed both those, I’ll upload and hit publish!
What’s your approach to plotting? How far in advance do you have things mapped out? Does fan feedback play into your planning in any way?
I always know a few major things that will happen in the next 5–10 episodes, but otherwise my ‘plotting’ is mostly pantsing! For instance, I knew ahead of time that Immy would need to go into Kor’s mirror, but I had no idea what was behind the mirror until I was writing that episode. I love seeing where the story leads me in the moment, and letting Immy’s world unfold as I go.
Fan feedback totally plays into my storytelling! Many of my social media posts and author notes include prompts and questions for fans to answer, and several fan responses have given me awesome ideas for future scenes and characters.
I love the juxtaposition of the fantastical with the mundane throughout the story, like images of pixies plucking dead bugs from the grilles of rental cars, or going into battle armed with a Nerf gun. Do these small but charming details come to you during the rough draft process, or get added in later, once you better know the scene?
Thank you! I add those details as I’m drafting. Immy’s world looks a lot like ours, but the pervasive magic and mystical beings definitely put a different spin on things, so I keep that in mind as I picture Immy’s environment in each scene. Would things be manufactured the same way, or would magical creatures have a hand in their production? What ordinary sights take on new meaning? What objects get interacted with in unusual ways? If you’re poor in a world with all these fantastical things, what are you gonna MacGyver to get by?
The world of Sigils & Sushi is full of strange creatures. (And I’m learning things. I had to look up Lou Carcolh.) How do you decide what kinds of creatures to include in the story? Any tips for designing or researching mythological creatures?
I’ll admit my browser history is full of Google searches like “mystical creatures that start with R” and “magical beings that heal” 😂 I like including known beings because it adds that flavor of familiarity, and I still get to add fun twists—some of the creatures I take more creative liberties with than others.
I also come up with my own critters from time to time, like the axolotlae, polymerae, and the shadelurk. Many of these are inspired by regular animals, technology or the environment, and by urban legends and ghost stories. To come up with everyday creatures, I ask questions about the setting: If there’s a black light in the room, is it a bulb with phosphor, or a tube filled with amaranth nectar to feed the ultraviolet fluorosprites inside? If you’re digging out your old binder of Pokémon cards, are you shaking off dust or living dust bunnies?
Some creatures just get added for the fun of it, or to show the diversity of the city, but others are more purposeful. For those, I’ll usually dive deeper into the lore to find just the right fit. This entry on Wikipedia is a great place to start if you’re looking for a specific type of creature (e.g. bird, cat, reptile), and this is a nice alphabetical list of some as well.
Humor feels like an important element of the story. Something happens every chapter that makes me laugh or smile. What advice would you give to authors trying to tell humorous tales? Do you workshop jokes with anyone, or go with your gut?
I go with my gut. I’ve always loved to make people laugh, so I’ve had a lot of practice, both in writing and face-to-face. Writing humor is a very intuitive process for me by this point, and I can usually tell when I need another beat for the joke to work, or when I’m piling too much on and need to pare back.
My advice would be to read as many funny stories as you can get your hands on! Humor has a rhythm to it, and the more you expose yourself to it, the more you internalize it. Terry Pratchett’s books are a great place to start if you like fantasy, but there are hilarious books to enjoy in every genre.
On your site, you describe your fiction as “found family fantasy.” What interests you about the “found family” trope, and how do you use it in Sigils & Sushi?
I love that found family offers hope. Hope that even if we got a rough start, we can have a better journey. Hope that from amongst everyone around us, we can find a few people who get us, who care about us.
We don’t get to choose our blood or adoptive families, but a found family is a community we craft for ourselves. I think there’s something really significant in who we gather around us—who we embrace with their idiosyncrasies and flaws, because the occasional friction or frustration is worth their friendship, their company and support.
Immy would be pretty alone in the world if it weren’t for her friends, both the ones she’s found, and those that found her. As it is, she’s got some great—if pretty quirky—support, and she needs all the help she can get!
We can’t talk about Sigils & Sushi without me asking: What is your favorite kind of Sushi? Any personal sushi stories you can share with us?
Let me start off by saying that I’m a total foodie—when I enjoy food, I *really* enjoy food. But my first experience with sushi was a deli platter at a potluck at work, which was… not delightful 😂 My next was a sushi roll absolutely doused in sauce at a teriyaki joint, which was a step up, but I didn’t really enjoy. After that, I didn’t think sushi was for me, until a good friend convinced me to try again. We went to Pabu Izakaya in San Francisco and ordered a whole spread, and it blew my mind. The textures, the tastes, the combos… It’s still one of my most memorable meals.
My favorites are probably otoro (fatty tuna), which literally melts in your mouth; unagi (eel); and tobiko (flying fish roe) and ikura (salmon roe)—purely because it’s fun when they pop in your mouth!
If the world of Sigils & Sushi was real for a day, which of your characters would you want to hang out with, and what would you do together?
I’d definitely take Immy out for sushi, and let her order whatever she wants. We’d go axe-throwing at Hellhound Hatchets (she’d do way better than me 😂), and follow it up with Dippin’ Dots for dessert—banana split for me, and ultimate brownie batter for Immy.
I’d bring my Switch so Bracchius and I could play Animal Crossing New Horizons while he tells me all about everything he’s been up to lately (and complains about Kor). Then I’d let Bracchius pick out a couple Squishmallows to keep Sparkles company, and make sure at least one is big enough for him to lounge on like a beanbag (I’m betting he’d get this one for the little guy).
Anything upcoming that you’re working on (Sigils & Sushi or anything else) that you want to hype up or tease us with?
Yes! I actually have *two* projects I can tease 😂 First, I’m about halfway through writing a novella-length prequel to Sigils & Sushi about how Immy and Bracchius met. Once completed, it’ll be available for free to all my Laterpress and newsletter subscribers!
I’m also working on Banshees & Boba, a series set in the same world as Sigils & Sushi, with a different cast of characters, but hopefully just as much fun! I’m currently finalizing the first episodes and waiting on the cover from my designer.