Author Shane Lindemoen and I had a very nice discussion on his blog today. We talked about vampires in fiction, the difference between writing and editing, and BLOODSUCKERS! Check it out and leave a comment.
“They’re all a bunch of bloodsuckers!” I heard someone say.
BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT is now available in paperback, ebook, kindle, and nook. If you like reading my blog, you’ll probably enjoy this.
BLOODSUCKERS is a political thriller — with vampires. Mostly, I loved picturing what it would be like to be a politician who could look someone in the eye and charm them to do their bidding. Imagine the power!
Here’s what it’s about:
Norman Mark is a politician with skeletons in his closet (literally). He’s a liberal Democrat who is constantly attacked by the tea party extremists who say he’s a socialist and an atheist and wasn’t born in America — and a vampire! Everyone laughs at the crazies but it turns out they’re right about all of that.
Disgraced reporter Steven Edwards supports Mark completely. When Mark is shot at a campaign rally, Steve looks to his acquaintance who drops the smoking rifle, smiles, turns into a bat, and flies away — leaving Steve as the prime suspect. He is rescued by the vampire believers (Jon Stewart calls them “Batties”) and he goes into hiding. The only way he can prove his innocence is by proving to the world that vampires actually do exist while constantly on the run from the bloodsuckers and the FBI.
Steve learns that vampires have been controlling things behind the scenes for thousands of years, accumulating wealth and influence. Many vampires don’t like the idea that one of their own is running for President and they’re trying to stop him, worried that he will expose their existence. Others support Mark. Many of them want Steve dead.
Some people have been surprised when I tell them that the candidate is a liberal Democrat, but that’s the dilemma Steve has. Does he continue to support the candidate he believes will be a great President even though he’s a vampire? A President who could charm his enemies into passing progressive legislation that will help all Americans? A President who could meet with foreign enemies and convince them to bring peace to the world? Do the ends justify the means?
The book is as politically accurate as possible, and features real journalists such as Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, and Stephen Colbert. No, I didn’t get their permission. I hope they get upset at me. I could use the publicity.
And if you’ve read any of my other books or short stories, you know there are many twists, turns and surprises.
I have received some very nice comments from fellow authors who have read the book:
“Ventrella’s quick, bright dialogue punctuates the adventure with dry humor even as he ratchets the tension up towards an ending that might just surprise even the jaded reader. Highly recommended!” – Ryk E. Spoor
“Funny, quick, too smart for its own good.” – Mur Lafferty
“I loved the characters, the political insight and the final revelation!” – Dennis Tafoya
“A delicious blend of mainstream thriller, oddball horror, and biting social commentary.” – Jonathan Maberry
“Action, adventure, laughs and chills.” – Jon McGoran
“Sucks you in from the start and gets its teeth into your imagination.” – Gail Z. Martin
Sometimes bloggers post a donation button so you can show your support for all their hard work. For less than $6 you can download the kindle, nook, or ebook of BLOODSUCKERS. You’ll be supporting my blog and you’ll have fun at the same time.
Grab them with that opening sentence! Astound them with that first page! Don’t let them get away!
New writers hear this advice constantly. It’s a vulture perched on our computer screen, daring us to fail. It sucks up endless hours while we write and rewrite to snatch a reader’s attention.
But how important is it, really?
As with everything, the answer is “it depends.”
As a starting writer, the need to grab a reader earlier is greater than that of an established author. I don’t have to be swept away on the first page by Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, because I know that they will captivate me before long. “But who is this Michael A. Ventrella fellow?” people will ask. If I don’t hook them early on, they won’t continue.
Writing skill in and of itself is not enough. As an editor, I have seen stories that were very well written but nothing happened until page ten. There was character development and background information provided that could have waited until later, when I cared about the character’s situation and it mattered.
So yes. Grab them early. And let us know what we’re in for.
The opening page should ideally establish who the main character is and a setting — Knowing when and where a story takes place helps us get into the story easier. Most importantly, it should contain a question that makes the reader want to turn the page.
As an editor, I am always looking for that grab in the stories I buy. Here, check this opening paragraph from a story by Mike Strauss from the second Fortannis collection, A BARD IN THE HAND:
The heavy wooden door of the only permanent structure in the outskirt town of Padrin’s Hold burst inward without warning and a powerfully built woman dressed in fur skinned from a rare howl bear collapsed onto the hard wooden floor. The frequency with which this occurred was so high that the blood running freely from a large gash in the woman’s leg spilled onto a stain made by many similar injuries across the years. The single resident of the building, a middle-aged elf woman named Endrith, was not only unsurprised, but actually made a few more notations in the thick ledger she was writing in before looking at her guest.
Makes you want to read more, doesn’t it?
Here’s the first page of Mark Mensch’s story “A Matter of Death and Life” from the upcoming Fortannis collection A BARD DAY’S KNIGHT:
“I thought zombies only came out at night,” Nigel said to the milling mass of corpses.
Every story he heard about the undead had always been that they come out of graves at night and roam the darkness looking for the living to feed upon; or at least wait until there was a thick fog to hide within. So he was quite unprepared, when walking through the woods one afternoon, to run into a group of three of the lumbering creatures.
Once the initial shock of seeing them wore off, he figured he wouldn’t have any difficulty with them. After all, they were “lumbering.” What turned out to be difficult for him though was the forest. He was quite adept at moving through a city. Throw drunks, cut purses, fenced off areas and dead-end alleys at him and he could navigate it like a sailor with a magical sextant. But apparently trees, roots, loose dirt and other woodland debris was not the same thing. He found himself stumbling as he ran, cursing at the brambles snagging his clothes and quickly losing his sense of direction.
In addition, the dead had brought friends. Before he knew it, over a dozen of the rotting corpses had him surrounded and his only choice was to climb up a very large tree. Luckily, hand-eye coordination and balance are not in a zombie’s repertoire. Nigel was treed, but safe.
That was three days ago.
Here, one more, by Bernie Mojzes, also from the upcoming A BARD DAY’S NIGHT:
Normally, finding a dead cat is a bad thing, especially when it’s nailed to your front door. But there are worse things.
Being poor, uemployable, and shunned by society, for one.
Being suddenly but discretely wealthy, but still unemployable and shunned by society, for another.
If you’re reading this now, then you probably already know some of my earlier adventures: you’ve either read my own (true, and almost unbiased) accounts, or were at least subjected to the lurid revisionism of the local bards and broadsheets. If you can’t be bothered to do basic research, well, don’t look to me fill you in. I’ve done my part. Suffice to say, my last job earned me enough money that I never needed to work again. Which I suppose is good, if dull, because it’s not like clients were lining up at my door.
Except for the cat. And that didn’t really count as “lining up.” More like just hanging around.
Which is exactly what my own life consisted of at that point. Hanging around and waiting for something to happen to break through the daily monotony of dining (alone) in Ashbury’s finest restaurants and then drinking myself stupid until it was late enough to go to sleep.
Can there be anything worse than boredom?
I examined the cat. It wasn’t terribly large, but showed no signs of being feral; its coat was glossy and well-groomed, a calico, and it wore a worked leather collar with a bell. A large spike had been driven through its chest and into my oak door. Blood stained and matted the fur beneath the wound, and discolored the wood below.
Very curious, and I decided I’d begin my investigation immediately upon recovering from my hangover the following afternoon. In the meantime, it wouldn’t do to have a cat hanging from my door. What would my neighbors say? They already hated and feared me. I would, I decided, put it in a canvas sack and store it in the basement until the morning. I reached for the cat.
And learned exactly what is worse than boredom.
As I carefully tugged the dead cat off the nail, it hissed and spat, and raked a sharp claw across my cheek. I dropped it and jumped back, gracefully catching my heel on a cobblestone, and sprawled on my back.
The last I saw of the dead cat, it was racing into an alley.
There was no way I’d be able to catch it, so I went inside, poured myself a glass of wine, and collapsed on the bed. And I don’t remember much else.
Your goal is to establish a setting and make us want to continue reading. Give us a question that can only be answered by turning the page and continuing on.
And, once more, the final caveat that is always given: There are no rules. It is possible to ignore this advice completely and still have a great opening. If it works, it works.
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: John Patrick Kavanagh is a writer, designer and fellow attorney. His current novel CAMDEN’S KNIFE is a rewrite of his previously published SIXERS that was a hardcover best seller (praised by Scott Turow as “Terrific”) and optioned for film by 20th Century Fox.
John, tell us about CAMDEN’S KNIFE!
JOHN PATRICK KAVANAGH: It’s a major renovation of my first novel, SIXERS, that my now-publisher, then-agent Lori Perkins, suggested I undertake. The story is set against the accidental unleashing of a pandemic affliction, Camden-Young’s Disease, which strikes 74% of Caucasians while the other 26% are somehow immune. The massive conglomerate Southern United Enterprises manufactures treatments for CYD which are also used recreationally by the sixers. Dr. Arthur Camden believes there might be a cure formula in a pair of notebooks confiscated from him upon his dismissal from SUE while Trisha Lane, the powerful overseer of the corporation’s Pharmaceutical and Media Divisions, thinks Camden purloined four ounces of a distillate she needs for the creation of an incredibly potent smart pill. Her new admin assistant, our protagonist David Stonetree, gets drafted to be the go-between for a possible swap and faces some difficult decisions.
One of my favorite aspects of the project was the creation of a pair of peripheral web sites that might be portrayed as bonus features. Pinkiefinger.com is a mockup of the home page of a dominant social media site while thecombatartzone.com is an extensive exploration of the assets of the estate of another conquest in Trisha’s trophy case. I can’t tell you how curious I am to see if readers will actually check for the existence of these domains after they’ve seen the names.
VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in?
KAVANAGH: I always start with an outline. I think that has something to do with my legal background, as in never ask a question that you don’t already know – or think you know – the answer to. For the book I’m currently working on, the blueprint is eighteen hundred words covering the Prologue, Epilogue and seventeen chapters in between. Two or three additional pages of notes devoted to each of those nineteen segments. A time-of-day flow chart. Numerous sketches of everything from a bird’s-eye view of the exterior of the megaresort down to floor plans of various guest suites to give me a better sense of where characters are situated and how they move. Same for the theater where the Concert is held and especially its stage to help keep track of the performers’ actions. A list of how A relates to B and then to C. Another of details I want to include and potential spots to tuck them in. Single page bios. Lots of cross-referencing.
VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?
KAVANAGH: Plot, setting then characters. Especially the antagonist. For me, that’s the compass which points to everything else.
VENTRELLA: What’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?
KAVANAGH: Load them up with avarice and the skills necessary to achieve their desired outcomes. Pick any great villain and you’ll most always find greed and cunning heavily in the mix.
VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?
KAVANAGH: That sense is certainly important, but it has to include the enjoyment of writing about it … as long as that doesn’t get out of hand.
VENTRELLA: How do you mean?
KAVANAGH: In the sequel to CK I’m currently working on, WEEKEND AT PRISM, there’s an entire chapter devoted to “the biggest rock concert ever held in the history of the Universe,” along with some cutaways to break up the action. It’s already clocking in at close to 24,000 words but it’s so much fun to work on that I keep returning to add more embellishments.
VENTRELLA: What was the most difficult part of the book to write?
KAVANAGH: Assuring that all of the near-future pop culture references are both plausible and believable. For instance, I have Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Stefani Germanotta all releasing their third greatest hits albums on the same day. That meets the test, I’d say. But a PGA golfer winning tournaments by reclining on greens and using the handle of his putter like a pool cue? Plausible but bordering on unbelievable, so I struggled with that inclusion until I checked the physics involved which indicated it’d probably pass muster if the shot was less than forty feet.
VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?
KAVANAGH: That my protagonists aren’t strong enough. But I understand they sometimes come off that way because I surround them with characters who are more skilled, more successful and have much higher ball drives.
VENTRELLA: Ball drives?
KAVANAGH: When security people are auditioning pups for possible future employment in contraband discovery, one of the first tests they run is to find out how much the dogs want the ball and how intent they are on keeping it.
VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors?
KAVANAGH: Tops is David Wingrove. I’ve read his massive Chung Kuo series two and a half times and just finished the first installment of his Roads To Moscow trilogy, THE EMPIRE OF TIME. Not only another masterpiece, but narrated in … for me, anyway … the extremely difficult first person present tense voice. I read Bill Bryson’s IN A SUNBURNED COUNTRY at least once a year, easily his best despite the anachronisms it’s now saddled with. I also love Jason Gay’s sports coverage in The Wall Street Journal. His mix of humor, insight and commentary is beyond compare.
VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?
KAVANAGH: WEEKEND AT PRISM still needs its final five chapters and an Epilogue … I really have to get past that Concert stuff … which should provide the set-up for a third novel set two years later in which many of my characters – especially the High Ball Drivers – join forces, intent on combining their incredible wealth and appurtenant influence to … they’ve got really big plans.
VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?
KAVANAGH: Great question. Seeing the most famous dinner party in history was attended by thirteen guests, I’ll go with that number of seats. I’m thinking a breezy late afternoon on the deck of The Pier House in Key West, catering provided by Geno’s East of Chicago. My wife Susan is a tremendous hostess so I’d bring her along with my best friend Dave Lersch in the event a good cop – bad cop intervention is necessary. That’d leave ten and my dream pairings would be Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns, Abe Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, Bill Shakespeare and Paddy Chayefsky. Perhaps Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison? And finally, Wolfgang Mozart and Keith Richards. (laughs) I can hear Richards’ Cockney voice asking, “Wolfie? That middle bit in your Piano Concerto Number Twenty in D Minor? Me and my mate Mick cribbed that for our song Wild Horses.” To which the maestro responds, “No problem, man. I jacked that hook from one of Johnny Bach’s outtakes.”
On the weekend of April 25th, I’ll be a guest at Ravencon, a small but fun convention in Richmond, Virginia. The Guest of Honor this year is Elizabeth Bear. There’s also a costume competition and my artist wife Heidi Hooper is a judge. It’s always a lot of fun to visit my hometown, even if I hardly get to see any of it since I’m in a hotel all weekend.
Anyway, here are the panels where you can find me (and more may be added):
Anthology Don’ts (Friday 4 pm): There are always rules for submitting in anthologies … length, subject matter, etc. Our panelists discuss the common errors they see (or have been guilty of) in anthology submissions. With John Betancourt, Jim Stratton, and Tera Fulbright.
Opening Ceremonies (Friday 7 pm): Guests are introduced to the audience!
Reading (Friday 9 pm): I’ll be reading excerpts from my books and short stories and talking with readers.
The Eye of Argon (Friday midnight): The worst science fiction story ever written gets a reading by our brave panel as they compete to go the longest without tripping over a misspelled word or laughing uncontrollably. Audience members are also encouraged to take a chance. Can you keep a straight face, especially when the panel begins acting out the story? With Philippa Ballantine, Gail Martin, and KT Pinto.
New Releases from Perseid Press (Saturday 11 am): Perseid Press publishes, among other things, the “Heroes in Hell” series. Come and visit Perseid authors and find out about their latest release “Dreamers in Hell.” With Rich Groller.
Young Adult Literature (Saturday 3 pm): What makes a Young Adult novel these days? Is it just the age of the protagonist or is there something else? What books should be considered Young Adult that are not, and which are that shouldn’t be? With Bill Blume, Betty Cross, and Lana Krumwiede.
Allen Wold’s Writing Workshop (Saturday 8 pm): Participants do a small writing exercise, which is then evaluated by the panel, discussing where they have done well and where they can improve. With KT Pinto, Allen Wold, and Darcy Wold.
The Greatest Animated Films of All Time (Saturday 11 pm): The panelists will debate what the greatest animated films are of all time in an attempt to come up with a Top Ten List. Weapons must be checked at the door. With Chris Impink and Patrick Vanner
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing NY Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley today! A.J. is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including the mystery/thrillers such as THE MASK OF ATREUS, young adult fantasies like ACT OF WILL, and children’s fantasies like DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT (which won SIBA’s best YA novel of 2012). With David Hewson he has written two adaptations of Shakespeare plays as Game of Thrones-esque epic thrillers, the first of which was MACBETH, A NOVEL (audio edition voiced by Alan Cumming), and HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. When he’s not writing, A. J. is UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Professor of Shakespeare.
A.J., I just finished reading ACT OF WILL and enjoyed it tremendously! Like my own ARCH ENEMIES, it is a first-person high fantasy story with a punnish title about a cowardly young entertainer with a sarcastic voice who gets thrown into an adventure against his will — so you can see why it appeals to me. (The stories otherwise have nothing in common plot-wise.) What inspired you to write ACT OF WILL?
A.J. HARTLEY: I grew up reading high fantasy—Tolkien, Le Guin, Lewis, and the like — and loved it all, but as my reading tastes expanded, I started to crave fantasy which was rooted in some version of reality and didn’t take itself too seriously. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett because I think he proves that fantasy with a comic edge needn’t be “light” and can be as serious as more obviously ponderous works. I like that. I’ve always been a devotee of writing which is fun, outrageously populist, deliberately and self-consciously “genre” but still rich and complex and layered. Like Shakespeare, a master genre writer if ever there was one. ACT OF WILL grew out of many of these impulses: high fantasy with an attitude and a strong sense of character voice, swords and sorcery with a little Salinger thrown in.
VENTRELLA: It seems to have gone through a number of different printings with different publishers. Can you share that story with us?
HARTLEY: From the first time I submitted the manuscript, I ran into the familiar problem of publishers saying something like “we love it, but we don’t know what it is.” In other words, it was considered a hybrid in terms of genre. They didn’t know what shelf to put it on. It took me twenty years to sell it. Literally. By then the market had evolved so that smart-mouth heroes and a pointed absence of dwarves and elves were no longer considered antithetical to fantasy.
Even so, when the book came out from Tor, people weren’t sure how to market it. The original hardback cover (which I actually really liked) didn’t look like a fantasy novel at all, and it certainly didn’t suggest its young adult protagonist. Both novels (ACT OF WILL was followed by WILL POWER) were very well reviewed (the second book made Kirkus Top ten for the year –- and Kirkus are notoriously hard to please!) but they didn’t really sell.
When they went into paperback, Tor went with more conventional fantasy style covers, but that didn’t solve the problem. Simply put, people who read them liked them, but not enough people read them. They eventually went out of print and I self-published them with the current, more aggressively YA covers. Interestingly, these covers (stylishly designed by a wonderful designer called Asha Hossain) have really touched a chord with readers and book sellers. They play up the drama of the stories, rather than the slightly tongue in cheek tone, but they fit the books very well indeed.
VENTRELLA: ACT OF WILL takes place in a sort of alternate middle ages, in that there are some things that are definitely relatable to the real medieval world (the way women were treated, men playing female parts in plays, etc.) yet without using any real places (and of course, adding some magic to it). How did you decide what to use and what not to use? In other words, how did you go about developing the world?
HARTLEY: To be honest, Michael, I didn’t. I just made it up as I went along, doing remarkably little of the kind of systematic world building I would do now. The world of the books is an odd mixture of my historical work as a Shakespearean, my travels all over the world (there are moments which — at least to me — evoke India, for example, where I had been right before the final version came into focus), and the voice is clearly modern, without being so contemporary that it would date quickly. What the world contains and doesn’t was determined by the story and the character, particularly the voice of the character.
VENTRELLA: What makes a novel Young Adult? When writing one, how do you change your style (if at all)?
HARTLEY: Most importantly, it’s about the age of the protagonist, and therefore about confronting adulthood in all its aspects. Beyond that, a young adult novel can do anything you might do in an adult novel. YA is defined by the age of the readership rather than by genre, of course, which means that there’s a lot of different kinds of stories within the bracket. Some are virtually indistinguishable from a middle grades novel, while others push the envelope as far as possible in matters of sex, violence, subject matter and vocabulary. So long as you are consistent and clear from the outset as to what you are writing, you can do pretty much what you want. For me, style has less to do with age group as it is to do with the sub genre or style of the story and I never consciously self-censer or simplify.
VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?
HARTLEY: My next publication will be the HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (co-written with David Hewson) performed by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies) which comes out May 20th. I think that will get a lot of attention. After that, I’m not sure. I’m mid stream on a couple of YA projects, but they aren’t done yet.
VENTRELLA: Of which of your fiction books are you most proud and why?
HARTLEY: This will sound like a dodge, but it’s not. I’m always proud of my work when I first finish it and wouldn’t want it published if I wasn’t, so each project tends to have a special place in my head/heart. Each book has something about it I’m proud of. In ACT OF WILL, it’s voice. In WILL POWER it’s about pulling off a socio-political critique of the genre from within.
VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?
HARTLEY: Depends what they like. If they like YA or adult fantasy, ACT OF WILL. For something a little more Harry Potter-esque, I’d recommend DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT. For historically rooted thrillers, MASK OF ATREUS. For Shakespeare fans, the Macbeth or Hamlet.
VENTRELLA: I see from your CV that you were studying for your doctorate at Boston University around the same time I was graduating from law school and being a public defender there. Maybe we even rode the T together from Brighton. Why did you leave?
HARTLEY: I left after completing my Ph.D and getting my first academic job in Georgia.
VENTRELLA: Much of your work is scholarly. How have you found your styles compare when writing fiction and nonfiction?
HARTLEY: Apples and oranges. There may be a little bleed over in terms of ideas which inform both, but academic writing is an entirely different beast, from writing fiction. Scholarly books are much slower to produce for me, much cagier, much more research-driven and hyper aware of what other people have said. I can do the first draft of a novel in two months. My performance history of Julius Caesar took me almost six years.
VENTRELLA: I’ve always wanted to ask a Shakespeare expert this: Of the hundreds of Shakespeare movies that have been released, which one(s) is/are your favorite(s)? And which just made you scream at how terrible they were?
HARTLEY: I can usually find something of value in most half-way competent films or stagings because I’m looking to be shown something new from a production, not a “correct” interpretation of the play, which I don’t believe exists. We do theatre/film to generate a new art object which grows out of the (necessarily partial) play text, not to somehow broadcast the original in some kind of unmediated way. That’s aid, I do, of course, have preferences. Of recent efforts, I like the Loncraine Richard III with Ian McKellan as an early twentieth century fascist, Branaugh’s Henry V, the Goold Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as a Stalinist tyrant, the filmed stage version of Greg Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, and Joss Whedon’s wonderfully intimate Much Ado.
VENTRELLA: How do you deal with the conspiracy nuts who claim Shakespeare never wrote his plays?
VENTRELLA: Shakespeare is often cited by authors who point out that what makes a good story is not originality, but the way the story is told. Do you agree?
HARTLEY: Well, it’s sort of a false binary, isn’t it? Shakespeare didn’t generally originate plots, but the stories have his unmistakable stamp which goes beyond sentence-level utterance. I think he proves that a gifted author can own and refresh a story people thought they knew
VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?
HARTLEY: Hmmm… I believe that writing is generally a fairly self-selecting process, in that you need to love stories and words and work to be good at it, but I see plenty of writing from people who have been at it a while which isn’t that good, so no, I don’t believe anyone can do it. There’s a lot you can learn—from classes, from studying other people’s work, and from just doing it—and I think that most people can achieve a basic competence in getting a story down coherently. But writing really well, with power and subtlety, with an eye for character and an ear for voice? No. I don’t think that can simply be learned by anyone.
VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?
HARTLEY: I think that’s a genre question. Most people who read thrillers and fantasy novels want big drama and larger than life characters which take them out of their conventional reality. For people who read realist literary fiction, generally that’s not true. I like something in between the two.
VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?
HARTLEY: I outline briefly and loosely — 10-15 pages that sets up the story, main characters, world, key scenes. The book, however, is in the details. Execution is all. But the outline helps me to start with a clear sense of what the book is going to be so that I don’t wander for fifty pages trying to figure out what the story is, what drives it. You need a special gift for self-denying and brutal editing to write without an outline, I think, and most writers don’t have it. It can take me months, even years, to see what a book needs in terms of cutting. Outlines help get me there faster.
VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?
HARTLEY: Varies from book to book. ACT OF WILL, for instance, began with character voice. Plot came later. MASK OF ATREUS began with two intersecting plot ideas. DARWEN began with a way of reinventing the cross-over-into-a-fantasy-world I first encountered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. WILL POWER came from an idea about what I found frustrating about some conventional fantasy…
VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?
HARTLEY: Usually, it means, write what you value, what you want to read, what you care about. Then it means, make sure you know what you need to pull it off.
VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?
HARTLEY: Cut them out and then find ways to reveal the information in another way! Unhelpful, I know. I think it helps to think of how movies handle the problem, usually visually.
VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?
HARTLEY: I’ve never been a short story writer. I’ve done a few recently, but I think it’s a very different skill from writing novels, and for the most part I don’t they necessarily transfer that helpfully. If you want to be a novelist, write novels.
VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?
For me they are, to do them well as genre fiction. They are, paradoxically, easier to pull off as literary fiction, I think, because they don’t have to have the pesky necessity of plot and event. Most genre short stories read—to me—like unfinished novels or, worse, mere episodes.
VENTRELLA: What advice do you have to people trying to find an agent?
VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?
HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.
VENTRELLA: We’ve met at a few science fiction conventions. Do you find attending these to be a useful activity?
HARTLEY: I do, and find them useful to a point. They can help you answer real questions about the craft and the business, but their real value is in making you feel part of a community. Writing can be very isolating, and it is good to know other people are in the same boat. And sometimes they can produce connections which are directly useful. BUT, some people treat the discourse around writing as a substitute for writing itself. It’s not. Never will be.
VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?
HARTLEY: It can be a very useful tool for people who already have a fan base, or for people who just want to make their work available but aren’t looking to make a lot of money off it. Some people do make money, of course, but I don’t think they are representative and for many the riches some self-pub promoters tout will never materialize. I also think self-publishing requires a degree of self-promotion most people are not good at, and which takes time away from the development and production of their actual craft: writing. Self-publishing can be a nice extra string to your bow, or a way to find an outlet as you work, but I would still recommend traditional publishing to most writers. Sometimes—not always, of course—but perhaps more often than we usually admit, rejection from publishers is indicative of the fact that the work isn’t ready. Publishing it in any form can do you more harm than good in the long term. I wrote lots of books that were rejected before I had one accepted, and I thank the stars that I didn’t opt to self-publish them. I might not have been able to see it at the time, but I can now. They weren’t ready. They weren’t good enough.
Filed under: writing | Tagged: A. J. Hartley, Arch Enemies, convention, fantasy world creation, new writers, promoting yourself, publishing house, reluctant hero, self-publishing, short stories, Write what you know, writing advice | Leave a comment »
At a recent convention panel I was on called “Editor’s Complaints,” there was unanimity about the biggest problem: Following the Guidelines.
Every editor, publisher, or agent has a preference as to what kinds of submissions they will accept and in what format they want it submitted. These submission guidelines will be posted on their web pages. They are not hard to find.
Why then do writers ignore them?
Read the guidelines! They are not there as polite suggestions. They are requirements.
For my TALES OF FORTANNIS anthologies, I post my guidelines on this blog and send them to whoever emails me asking about submitting. And still I get stories that do not fit the genre and are formatted in such a way that I cannot read them. I’ve even received stories that have no contact information, so I do not know how to accept the story even if I wanted to. (No, I do not feel like searching through all my emails to figure out where it came from. Once I’ve downloaded it, that’s as far as I go.)
What’s worse are people who don’t even try to determine whether the submission is the right fit. I know science fiction editors who have received mystery stories, children’s books, and even nonfiction. How hard is it to figure out whether the magazine you are sending your story to publishes your kind of story?
It gets you nowhere. You’ve wasted both your time and the editor’s time, and that won’t get you far in the publishing world.
Read the submission guidelines. Read the magazine or previous editions of the anthology if you can so you will get a better idea of what the editor wants. Do your research before you waste everyone’s time.
Does this sound unreasonable to you? Tough. Editors are busy people and we don’t have time to deal with those who cannot follow simple instructions. It tells us that you are not professional and may be difficult to work with when we send you the editorial changes we want.
Remember, although you are a writer and an artist, publishing is a business. You need to treat this with all the respect you would give a job application.