Interview with author Shane Lindemoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Shane Lindemoen today. Shane is a newer science fiction writer from Minnesota. He started with short literary fiction, earning honorable mention in the 2005 Lorian Hemingway competition with his story “Mount Airy,” and a Glimmer Train nod in 2011 for “Lucretius.” His debut novel ARTIFACT (Boxfire Press, 2013) won the National Independent Publisher Award (Gold, 2014). Shane has had a varied professional life, working as a private investigator, a shoe salesman, and as an Editor of National Affairs for the ezine Secret Laboratory (Maple Hills Press, 2011). He’s also an inactive, licensed Peace Officer for the state of Minnesota, and very nearly finished with his MA in Behavioral Systems Analytics. You can typically find Shane at http://www.shanelindemoen.org trying his darndest to transform his thoughts into tradeable monies.Profile

Shane, what is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

SHANE LINDEMOEN: My process is an unmitigated, undifferentiated mess. My workstation is enclosed by a mountain of reference books that I call upon at any given time; my browser has thirty bookmarks open at once, always Wikipedia, always a thesaurus, always Google. My writing has this tendency to take on the language and feel of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Which is beneficial in some ways, but harmful in others: there are many books I can’t read while in the midst of writing something. I once spent two weeks obsessively reading every single Chuck Palahniuk book in existence, and when I sat down to write it was the most horrendous block of text every typed into a word processor.

I have learned to use this weird dynamic to my benefit: if a scene calls for suspense, for example, I’ll use time reading John Little, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Ronald Malfi, or John Everson, which puts me in the right mindset to write suspense. If I have an action scene, I’ll read Matthew Woodring Stover. If it’s time to paint exposition or do some world-building, I’ll read Dan Simmons, Larry Niven, Ian M. Banks, Tolkien. Alex Garland, Amy Hempel, or Cormac McCarthy if I want to say something profound and thoughtful. There’s a whole pantheon of heroes I invoke at any given time when I write. This is why I hesitate reading stuff by new authors, especially when I’m in the throes of writing a new yarn, because if I read something that’s written poorly, I’ll begin to write poorly.

As for the outline. I take that pretty seriously. Before I even drop ink on a draft, I’ll spend time drawing out on paper the various plot threads and where they intersect on the broader timeline. I’ll mark the beginning, the big events, and the end – and while I may not know exactly how things will unfold between those events, I try to make something happen every 1500 words to raise the stakes, create more peril, reveal small amounts of plot, and move things forward. I don’t spend much time on characterization, because I feel the characters flesh themselves out through interacting with each other and responding to things I throw at them. Some say it’s beneficial to have personality types in place before hand, but I get the feel of a character as I go. I simply tag them with something that readers will identify – I give them an image to anchor a voice to, and I try remaining consistent to the way each character responds to things.

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?

LINDEMOEN: I subscribe to the belief that we’re all red-blooded, anatomically-lateral humans capable of accomplishing the same things. Our species hasn’t drifted too far from itself in something like 200,000 years, and yes, there are dimensions of difference specific to us, and yes, many do have certain predeterminations, but excluding functionally demonstrable certainties (disability, mental illness) there is nothing one human can do that another can’t. Writing is a skill – it can be learned, it can be honed, and it can be perfected like any other.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

LINDEMOEN: I think it means to either stick to your expertise, or write what you’ve experienced. I think they say this because the yield is more authentic that way. How I’ve interpreted this is simply to know what I’m talking about in terms of research. If I’m writing a space adventure, for example, I’m going to want to know actual spacecraft design and engineering. I’ll learn about antimatter and ion propulsion and how to theoretically create artificial gravity. The goal is to sell the idea of authenticity, and swindle my readers into thinking that I know what I’m talking about. Nothing kicks readers out of perceived immersion more than illogical crap that doesn’t make sense on real terms.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

LINDEMOEN: Reading science fiction is more work. I think it’s a genre that requires its readers to be active observers and engage with the theoretical aspects of it. In other words, reading fantasy is like a ride; reading science fiction is like a homework assignment.

A lot of science in science fiction is actually, functionally possible, which appeals more to the scientific-thinking person – someone who expects a certain amount of reality in what they’re reading. A reader of fantasy doesn’t feel compelled to analyze and measure things against functionally demonstrable laws of nature, because the expectation is that everything – from the nature of the characters, to the nature of the universe itself – is fair game and intended to be taken at face value, no matter how fantastic or absurd. This might sound like I’m making fun of fantasy or something, but that’s not my intention. Fantasy is just a different delivery system of narrative and truth, which I think appeals more to the largest bell of the readership curve. Readers won’t suddenly debate internally about the natural selection of dragons and griffens and trolls, because it isn’t possible in real terms. Readers can accept each thing for what it is and enjoy the ride as passive observers. An interstellar warp drive is possible. Suspended animation is possible. Colonizing other planets is possible. And because of this realness of things, readers of science fiction come into a story with certain expectations.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about ARTIFACT! Jacket

LINDEMOEN: ARTIFACT is my debut novel, which recently won the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award for best science fiction. It’s about an ancient alien machine recovered from beneath the surface of Mars by interplanetary miners. When scientists bring it to Earth for study, a physicist activates something inside of it that causes him to inexplicably teleport back and forth between different points in the same timeline. As the separate moments begin to focus on some sort of singularity, the physicist must use what little time he’s given in each place to piece together exactly what happened the moment he invoked the artifact, before it rips reality apart. I’ve been comparing it to equal parts Matrix, Inception, Dark City, Stargate, and Night of the Living dead. I’m not going to lie… it’s pretty out there.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

LINDEMOEN: I’m currently working on another science fiction yarn tentatively titled VAGABOND. I haven’t tried soliciting it to publishers or agencies yet, so we could be talking about a slushpile candidate, but it really depends on whether or not I can sucker anyone into buying it. Here’s the setup:

The last evidence of the Endeavor spacecraft became immortalized in a single image captured by the Pinnacle telescope: A teardrop silhouette falling into the shadow of Saturn’s largest moon, moments before losing contact with Earth. The mission and its crew vanished, never to be heard of again. It was considered the last great human push into the fringes of deep space.

Years of silence, speculation, and uncertainty intervened – an uncertainty that stifled any hopes of interstellar travel – and without warning, the IDSI administration received a signal from an outpost in deep space matching the Endeavor’s distress beacon.

Commander Susan Fenroe of the International Deep Space Initiative – a veteran astronaut assigned to her last six-month rotation aboard the science station and galactic telescope, Pinnacle – is beseeched by Command to select a crew of eight, and once again tempt the final darkness. Her mission: travel to the source of the distress beacon, and ascertain the fate of her long lost contemporaries. And when her ship comes in violent contact with something close to where her predecessors disappeared, Fenroe and her crew quickly learn that they must surrender faith to each other and their training if they hope to make it back alive. Because what they find in that distant outpost of human curiosity and ambition is a force of nature that could bring about the end of all things.

A dark fantasy mixed with equal parts survival-horror and hardline science fiction, VAGABOND is one woman’s odyssey into the last of all unknowns. A poignant contemplation of being lost, of shapes moving in the dark, and of the light that keeps them there.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

LINDEMOEN: I think it’s great. I think it fills an important void in the market. But there’s almost no way other than word-of-mouth for the consumer to sift through the innumerable quantities of crap out there. Many serious self-published authors have the odds stacked against them, because they must somehow find a way to set themselves apart, and there’s really no validation of quality at the onset other than the author’s word. But like in anything, good stuff will always claw itself out of the lesser muck. I know of at least two people who’ve made livable money going the self-pub route after they couldn’t land any traditional contracts.

One author – Adam Nicolai – decided to publish one of his fantasy yarns (CHILDREN OF A BROKEN SKY) exclusively on his own, because he had faith in its success and wanted a larger cut of the profits. Of course, almost every self-pubbed author claims that self-pubbing is a choice, but in his case I actually believe it – Adam is an excellent writer, and his novels are good enough that it’s conceivable publishers would consider picking them up. And then there’s Andy Weir, author of the phenomenally amazing science fiction novel THE MARTIAN, who’s probably going to win the Hugo and the Nebula next year. He couldn’t sell TM at first, and decided to self-publish it. When it sold a couple thousand copies on Kindle, it was quickly picked up by Crown, and hit the New York Times Bestseller list shortly after that. So, yeah – self-pubbing is a good platform for the fierce amateur, but it’s also a thankless, unglorified, disrespected, cut-throat place in which only the serious, learned, passionate, and skilled authors will survive.

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?

LINDEMOEN: I didn’t have an agent when I made my first professional sale. But I can tell you theoretically what the process should look like. I know that you’re to solicit agencies first, before you try finding a publisher. And if none bite, you have five options. You can 1.) spend the next year refining and perfecting your manuscript, and approach agencies again with a better product, or 2.), start immediately contacting publishers directly. The reason you hit up agencies first is because they won’t normally take you if you’ve been rejected by every single publisher in existence. And most advance-paying publishers don’t accept unsolicited, albeit unagented manuscripts. But say you’ve been rejected by agencies a couple of times, and your manuscript has been refined to the extent that neither you nor your cohorts can find a single reason why it hasn’t been picked up. Well, you really have nothing to lose by pawing the mail slots of various publishing houses. Your manuscript is dead – might as well flame out on the off chance it gets picked up. And if it doesn’t, option 3.) Self-publish. Option 4.) Toss your manuscript in the garbage and start a new one. Option 5.) Enroll in creative writing classes and learn how to write better.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

LINDEMOEN:A few sage words from one of my favorite authors, Matthew Woodring Stover:

“ ‘Unreliable narrator’ is a tautology. Belief in the reliable narrator is an act of faith intellectually equivalent to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.”

And:

“If your writing is not a vehicle for truth, it’s just fucking product. Pink slime. Chicken paste.”

One more:

“The next time someone advises you, as an aspiring author, to ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ advise this person in turn to read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, and then invite him on my behalf to shut the fuck up for the rest of his life.”

Last one, from Neil Gaiman:

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

Thanks for inviting to your site! If anyone needs me, I can usually be found in two places: http://www.shanelindemoen.org, or http://www.facebook.com/shanelindem. Thanks again!

Interview with author Kathryn Craft

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am thrilled to be interviewing friend and now-successful author Kathryn Craft today! Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: THE ART OF FALLING, and the upcoming WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL. Craft_small_photoHer work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic (Morning Call, Allentown, PA).

Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she served for a decade on the board of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She is a member of the Liars Club, an author’s collective started by NY Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry and fantasy writer Gregory Frost. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Kathryn, let’s start by talking about your first big novel, THE ART OF FALLING, which is already in its second printing! How does that make you feel?

KATHRYN CRAFT: That was a huge surprise! My book was only six days past its publication date when I found out —- I couldn’t believe it when I saw the email from my publisher. I of course realized, from social media and trade shows and the number of reviews, that the book had truly “left home.” But who knew the extent to which it had traveled? I’m thrilled.

VENTRELLA: I recall you saying that you queried 112 agents before you found the right one. Tell us about the story, and what kept you going? (I gave up on my latest novel after about twenty-five…)

CRAFT: I kept going all the way through to publication for one reason: I was powerless to quit. THE ART OF FALLING was more than a path to publication for me. It was the source of my healing.

I turned to writing fiction after my first husband’s suicide, sixteen years ago. I had a lingering need to use my writing to form a more hopeful story from the chaos of those events.

Penelope Sparrow was my path.

I placed her in a harsh environment —- in a dance world with even harsher expectations about a woman’s body than those of our celebrity-driven society -— then watched as inner conflict about her imperfections imploded her dreams and relationships. I dismantled her support system. Gave her talent and passion and exclusive training then whittled away at her faith and resolve with years of rejection. Then I gave her a taste of success, a taste of love, then yanked both away at the same time. Finally, at that point, I thought, maybe she might be at the brink of self-harm.

But I wasn’t sure. So when Penelope wakes up at the start of the novel in a Philadelphia hospital room, and learns that she had landed on a car parked below her fourteenth story penthouse, what happened on that balcony remains a mystery that Penelope must reckon with. And when she bravely started rebuilding her life, I knew I would do whatever it took to see her story told.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for people trying to find an agent?

CRAFT: Here are five quick tips:

1. Pass the pitch test. If your project is hard to boil down into a succinct statement about your protagonist’s goal and the chief obstacle faced, rethink your project’s structure. Deepen the motivation and raise the stakes until the story matters — then your pitch will hook the reader.

2. Adjust your inner clock. I’ve heard many estimate that it takes ten years of consistent work to make a novelist, and a couple of years to get an agent. I started submitting early to get a feel for where I was and so learned both the art of writing and the business of pitching simultaneously. Querying is an investment in your career as worthy as writing a good book, so think of it as a process.

3. Submit in small batches. Too many authors use the ease of digital reproduction to blanket the industry with a flawed submission package, blowing opportunities they could have salvaged by tweaking all along. Send no more than 15 at a time.

4. Look for young agents at established agencies. These agents have more time and more room on their lists, yet have all the clout and resources of a reputable agency behind them.

5. Reframe “rejection.” To buoy your spirits for the long haul, mentally thank each agent who steps aside so that your true agent will one day be revealed. If an agent doesn’t know how to sell your book, you don’t want him representing it. You want him to love your work, because that passion will fuel his desire long after the money earned per time spent ratio is surpassed.

VENTRELLA: What was it like dealing with the publisher? Did it meet your expectations?

CRAFT: Sourcebooks exceeded my expectations in almost every way. What I’d heard: You’ll get no advance. (I got a decent advance.) Editorial support will be lacking. (I had two editors who loved my book.) You’ll have to fight for a decent cover. ArtOfFallingSmall(The cover blew me away, as did their retitling.) They’ll put no effort into promotion. (My publicist arranged my blog tour, arranged for giveaways, booked signings, and arranged for radio, TV, and newspaper support.) They no longer put money into marketing. (Good! Paid ads are no longer as effective as the other forms of trade marketing into which they poured their efforts.)

Clearly they’ve done something right, due to the great reviews and the early second printing. I’m a happy camper.

VENTRELLA: How much of the book changed between the time you submitted it to the editor and the time it was released?

CRAFT: Because I’d been working on it so long, and had developmental input from my agent, only one scene was swapped out for something different. All other changes were minor, such as ironing out how to portray one character’s accent.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing to promote the book?

A lot! No one loves this book, or wants it to succeed to its full ability, more than I do. My efforts have included:

• Thirteen years of volunteerism and relationship building in multiple writing communities

• Author website, Facebook Page, author newsletter, social media, and years of regular posts at high-visibility group blogs (The Blood-Red Pencil, Writers in the Storm).

• Facebook meme campaign.

• Two bookstore launch parties in “home” communities (I even had a flash mob!)

• A 9-hour virtual launch party on Facebook with eight other women’s fiction authors with new releases.

• One-month blog tour — both writing the guest posts my publicist arranged and interviews and posts I arranged.

• Signings in PA, MD, DE, NY, MA, and OH in places where I have friends I can stay with.

• Paid marketing through AuthorBuzz (expensive, but it took me thirteen years to get here and I don’t want to squander the chance).

VENTRELLA: What kind of responses are you getting from readers?

CRAFT: The response has been beyond my wildest expectations. I love living in the era of Goodreads and book bloggers, for sure, but direct communication from readers has been so much fun! My absolute favorite so far was from a man (not my target market!) named Douglas in Michigan:

“I stumbled onto THE ART OF FALLING while perusing the ‘New Books’ section of my local library. It was among the stack of books that I got out that day and it sat in my apartment untouched for a week. I didn’t open the cover until I was looking for something to release me from my insomnia last night. It did not have the intended effect. What I found was a beautifully written narrative about a world I know nothing about — modern dance — and something I have personal experience with — expressing those feelings we hold so close to ourselves. In the last day, I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s not often that this happens, that a book is so truthful and engaging that you beg for it never to be over, but when it does happen, you want to shout it from the rooftops.”

VENTRELLA: You also help run writers’ conferences (and once more, thank you for helping me with the Pocono Writer’s Conference we did last October!). How important do you think it is for authors to attend these?

CRAFT: I’d think it would be difficult to get a fully rounded education in publishing without them. And it’s a great way to get a concentrated hit of craft classes, as well, if you don’t have regular access to them. But pitching to agents in person — only available through conferences — has been priceless to me. Gauging their excitement, seeing that they are book lovers just like me, receiving their feedback (you almost always get a request to submit, and almost always receive personalized feedback) really helped usher me along. I also enjoy interpersonal interaction with authors and other writers — I met my critique partner in 2005 at The Write Stuff, and she had traveled there from Ithaca, NY!

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

CRAFT: This novel was a NaNoWriMo mess that took six years to sort out and another two to develop fully. At this point I’m not a believer in directionless fast drafting. I like to write about the story first, exploring how best to bring its structure to life, then write. What I end up with is more like an extended synopsis (my last was a hundred pages) than an outline. Results show that the few months I invested in that step will save me years in the editing phase.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

CRAFT: I think it’s a viable option for certain well-developed works that have built-in markets and authors who know how to reach them. For my kind of “literary book club fiction” this was never a consideration. I needed broad distribution that would allow my audience to self-select. Since these are the types of books I love, I don’t tend to read self-published work.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

CRAFT: “Story is conflict.” That is a partial truth that allows authors to fall into a junk pit where they can get sidetracked climbing over obstacles as diverse as explosive as nuclear rockets and as incongruous as the kitchen sink. “Each story is about a certain kind of conflict” — now that’s much better.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

It’s from Virginia Woolf: “Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.” Two things strike me: that she said “each sentence,” and that the best writing takes risks that might get uncomfortable.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer?

CRAFT: If you want to get published you need a public, so seek out and pay attention to the feedback that will allow you to evolve as a writer. Surround yourself with wickedly smart people who are farther down the road than you are, never forgetting to turn around and give a hand to those following behind. In doing so you will have mentors, readers, and a good life.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now? What can we expect next from you?

CRAFT: My next novel, WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL, is due out from Sourcebooks in Spring 2015. Based on true events that resulted in my husband’s suicide 16 years ago, it is the story of a tense ten-hour standoff between one desperate man ready to take his life and the police, while the three women who loved him most, and the larger community, grapple with how best to respond.

I’d better get back to work on it — it’s due June 1! Thanks for having me, Michael!

Interview with Campbell award-winning author Mur Lafferty

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Mur Lafferty, who just recently won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer. Mur lives in Durham, North Carolina, and her web page is here. mur laffertyShe is a podcaster and her first traditionally published book is THE SHAMBLING GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY, published in May from Orbit.

I was fortunate enough to share a reading with her at a recent convention, and enjoyed it tremendously!

Mur, after hearing your reading, I didn’t think I could be further impressed by you, and then you went and won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer! Tell us about that!

MUR LAFFERTY: It was an amazing experience. I was in my second and last year of eligibility and it was a tight field. Oddly enough, last year several people told me they thought I had a good chance (I came in 4th), while this year everyone looked doubtful and said it was a really strong field and they didn’t know who would take it. Which was good because I didn’t get my hopes up, and was really surprised when I won.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the podcasts. How did you first become involved in that?

LAFFERTY: I heard about podcasting in 2004 soon after it was created and knew I wanted to be involved. It took a couple of months to decide what I wanted to talk about, but I launched my first geek-oriented show that December. I’ve done several different shows since, and still enjoying it a great deal.

VENTRELLA: Many of your podcast stories are now available as kindle downloads – did you use a specific publisher for these? Lafferty_ShamblingGuidetoNYC-TP1

LAFFERTY: No, I hired freelancers for layout and editing and cover art, but I published them myself.

VENTRELLA: Can we expect paperback editions soon?

LAFFERTY: It’s unlikely. I like the concept of POD (I used to work at Lulu) but I’ve found the cost per book too high for reasonable sales.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise other authors to podcast their work, or do you think this would only be worthwhile for a certain type of fiction?

LAFFERTY: It’s hard to say. The podcast fiction market is pretty busy right now, and it’s so much work for not a lot of return. When I started doing it, there were far fewer authors doing it, so it was easier to stand out. I’m not sure I would do it these days if I didn’t already have some kind of blog/podcast following.

VENTRELLA: You have also written about gaming (which is where I also got my start, in Dragon magazine all those years ago) … did you write about games or were you creating games (or modules) yourself?

LAFFERTY: Both. I was writing for RPGs at White Wolf, but I also had a nonfiction column in Knights of the Dinner Table for several years. I discussed the geeky lifestyle, parenting as a gamer, and other topics important to me as a gamer, a writer, a mom, a geek, and a woman.

VENTRELLA: How do you publicize yourself and get the word out?

LAFFERTY: I’ve been active on Twitter and Facebook for years, and my podcast is another way to promote myself. I just try to stay active, talk about things that I enjoy, and help promote others.

VENTRELLA: For the Shambling Guides, did you get an agent? If so, tell us about the process! MurLafferty-MatRG

LAFFERTY: My agent story is long and detailed and likely far too long. In short, my agent at the time was more interested in selling another one of my books, and in networking via conventions I got my book in the hands of the editors at Orbit. They sent me an offer and I sent it to my agent to negotiate it.

I had had unproductive experiences with agents in the past, and this one was looking at successful Kickstarter campaigns and found the campaign I did for my novella series, The Afterlife Series, and contacted me. I was hesitant, but she convinced me. A year later she quit being an agent and I got picked up by my current agent at the same agency.

None of my agent experiences are standard, or contain advice I could give others, I’m afraid. It’s been a strange road.

The only advice I can give is a bad agent relationship (and I’m not even talking about crooks, just agents you don’t click with) is worse than no relationship at all.

VENTRELLA: How do you research? Did you live in New York for a while?

LAFFERTY: I wish! I love the city, visited a couple of times, and did a lot of research in books and online and with friends who live in the city.

VENTRELLA: Your next Shambling Guide is for New Orleans – why did you pick that city?

LAFFERTY: The series began in NOLA with a short story I’d written for a charity guide to benefit the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. By the time I wrote the New York book, the fictional world had changed a bit, and I’d always meant to go back and revisit the city that got me started.

VENTRELLA: Where do you expect to go next?playing keeps

LAFFERTY: I’d love to go to Orlando, Vegas, San Francisco, or London. I’m not contracted for any more, though, so it’s up in the air.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating the setting first, characters first, or plot first? How do you organize your work? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

LAFFERTY: I get a plot first, and then put characters in it. Setting depends on the book I’m writing; if it’s a Shambling Guide, of course it’s a decision made early in the book, otherwise it could be later. I’m a pantser but wish I could outline. I’ve tried. Really.

VENTRELLA: How have you handled collaboration?

LAFFERTY: I’ve only collaborated on one thing, a self published novella + photography project called HER SIDE I did with my friend JR Blackwell, a very dark and bloody story about the birth of a serial killer. We brainstormed about it, usually her telling me a vague idea, me fine tuning it, then she took her photographs and sent her favorites to me and I chose the ones I wanted to include with the book. She’s a writer as well, so I listened when she had issue on the climax, and her comments made it a lot better.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for beginning writers concerning getting published? Is self-publishing a reasonable way to begin?

LAFFERTY: I have no idea these days! The self publishing world is getting very clogged with content and it’s hard to stand out. The people making millions are the exceptions, I’m afraid. I don’t look down on self publishing — I can’t, I do it myself — but I do worry that a lot of people are doing it because they are afraid of rejection in the publishing world. But they don’t realize that often the publishing world is a lot more professional with their rejections than, say, a bad Amazon review.her side I recommend attempting traditional publishing while self publishing, but always being confident in your work. Make sure you’re publishing good stuff.

When it comes to self publishing, remember, you need to make it professional, a lot of people overlook the need for editing, the need for proper ebook layout, and the need for a good cover. They’re unwilling to spend the money, and put out non-professional books. Don’t do that.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about “I Should Be Writing” which is something in which all aspiring writers should have an interest…

LAFFERTY: In 2005, Michael A. Stackpole had a writing podcast called “The Secrets”, a show from the POV of a veteran writer. I enjoyed it, but wondered if we could use a show that spoke to writers about the things that really slow us down at the beginning, namely the angst within that tells us over and over to quit. So I discuss how the writing career is full of rejections, and nothing will kill you (Salmon Rushdie is the exception), and persistence is key. I also explore my own anxieties mainly to let people know that they are not alone. It’s also a platform for me to interview established writers to promote them and have them give their own writing advice.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

LAFFERTY: Gosh, I don’t know. I am so critical of myself I often agree with criticisms. Publishers Weekly mentioned my weak romantic plot, and I’ve always felt romance is a weakness of mine, so I couldn’t really get mad about that. And I try to avoid online reviews for a variety of reasons — if I’m a grownup, I say that the reviews are for the reader, not for me, and if I’m a little less mature I just say, well, there’s nothing I can do about it if it’s negative, Hell Lafferty it’s not like I can edit the book to suit them (and likely can’t edit the next one either because it’s already turned in), and if I’m not mature at all I’ll admit I’m a fragile flower and don’t like reading things that make me sad. So criticisms are either a) from my editor and something to work on, b) things I agree with, or c) something I haven’t read because I don’t want to cry.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

LAFFERTY: Growing up, it was Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, and Madeline L’Engle. They wrote fantasy with prominent female characters and I was delighted to find books with a hero I could identify with.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

LAFFERTY: You will make mistakes, and there are very few mistakes that will kill your career. There will be stumbles and mistakes and bad decisions, but the only thing that will stop you from writing is yourself.

Also, there will always be someone better than you. That’s OK. it should drive you to write more, not less.

Me & Mur at Balticon 2013

Me & Mur at Balticon 2013

Interview with Author Myke Cole

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Myke Cole, who constantly upstages me whenever we’re on a panel together at a convention. Headshots of Myke ColeAs a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. Thank goodness for fantasy.

Myke, let’s start with the big news about your latest book FORTRESS FRONTIER. Give us a hint of what it’s about.

MYKE COLE: FORTRESS FRONTIER is the second book in my SHADOW OPS military fantasy series. It tells the story of a military bureaucrat suddenly forced to take command of a combat outpost against hopeless odds. The book explores the question we all ask ourselves: how would I stand up in a crisis? What would I do if I were truly tested?

Oscar Britton, the main character in CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS #1) is a character in FORTRESS FRONTIER, but not the protagonist. I always intended to use a ensemble cast in this series, and FORTRESS FRONTIER is the first step in that direction.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

COLE: The same way I promoted CONTROL POINT: I’m carpet bombing the Internet with guest blog posts, interviews, giveaway contests and excerpts. I just put out a book trailer. I’m getting out to cons as much as I can. I just got back from Confusion, and I’ll be hitting Boskone and Lunacon in the next two months.

But the biggest thing I’m doing? Not being a dick. I don’t bear-bait or take polarizing stances in public. I don’t tear other people down. I respond to my fans when they email or @ me. I have adhesive backed bookplates that I can sign and send to people if they want an autographed copy of my work, but don’t want to pay the high price of shipping a book back and forth. I generally try to be accessible, available and kind to people, whether they’re industry pros, personal friends or fans I’ve never met before. That’s rarer than you’d think, and it goes a long way.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

COLE: Peter V. Brett described it best when he called it “Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.” It’s as honest a look I can provide into how the US military would deal with the existence of magic. It deals with some tough issues like the conflict between liberty and security in a free society, but it’s also crammed full of giant explosions and helicopter gunships squaring off against rocs. Win-win, if you ask me.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set series in mind? In other words, do you have a plan for a specific number of books in the series?

COLE: I’m under contract for 6 books right now. BREACH ZONE will complete the arc of this particular story, but the other 3 will also be SHADOW OPS books. ShadowOps_FortressFrontier_US_Final1Books 4 and 5 will be prequels, taking place in the early days of the Great Reawakening before CONTROL POINT. Book 6 will follow an ancillary character from FORTRESS FRONTIER on his own adventure.

After that, I’ll take a look at the state of publishing and book selling, see how fans are reacting to my work, and decide where to go next.

VENTRELLA: I have to admit that “military fantasy” is a genre with which I am unfamiliar. Was that a hard sell to agents and editors?

COLE: I only ever tried to sell it to one agent – Joshua Bilmes. He has been a dear friend for over a decade now, and from our first conversation, I knew he was the only person in the world I wanted to represent me. He rejected 3 novels from me over 7 years before finally agreeing to represent CONTROL POINT, and a lot of people suggested I try other agents. But I never did. It was going to be Joshua, or it was never going to be.

Editors were a different story. They did balk at a blending of two genres that appeal to disparate audiences. When CONTROL POINT went out to market, it garnered rejection after rejection, many with comments like, “the story seems unsure of its voice.” I had almost given up hope when Anne Sowards made the offer.

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

COLE: How did I “obtain” him? That makes it sound like I have him trussed up in my desk drawer. I knew of Joshua by doing research on who was representing authors I admired. I then deliberately sought him out at a SFWA party at Philcon in 2003. Fortunately, we hit it off amazingly, stayed up talking until 3 AM, and have been close friends ever since. As I said earlier, Joshua rejected 3 novels over 7 years from me. All that time we were visiting one another (I lived in DC at the time), exchanging phone calls and emails. The friendship was always separate from our business relationship.

But, ultimately, how did I “obtain” him? I wrote a good book and sent it to him. That’s the only way anyone ever gets an agent. There is no end run.

VENTRELLA: It appears that you started off, like me, writing mostly nonfiction. Do you feel that the skills learned in writing nonfiction are comparable to writing fiction?

COLE: In the bones, sure. Good nonfiction requires solid prose styling and feel for rhythm, the beats of your sentences. You have to be interesting and construct a narrative in essays just as much as in fiction.

The real difference for me is in Law-Enforcement/Military/Intelligence writing (reports, orders, plans, analysis, etc) that is a totally different animal.

VENTRELLA: What was your first published piece of fiction and how did you get that published?

COLE: Let’s talk about the first piece of fiction I had professionally published. That would be “Blood and Horses,” a military SF short that took 3rd in the Writers of the Future contest and was published in Vol. XIX. wotf191I did it the old fashioned way, I entered a story every quarter, without fail, for 5 years.

Now, it was a great experience and there’s no doubt that it launched my career. I learned a ton out in LA, developed some critical contacts, and got the shot in the arm I needed to keep going. Unfortunately, I later learned that the contest is not firewalled from the Church of Scientology, and there are personal and financial ties there. I certainly won’t judge the beliefs of the church (or of any faith), but there’s enough reporting of physical/financial abuse tied to them that I am now very uncomfortable with having participated. There’s nothing I can do about it now, other than caution new writers who are considering getting involved.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

COLE: I am an uber outliner. I frequently have outlines as long as 50-100 pages before I write a lick of prose. I also submit my outlines for feedback before beginning prose. This way, I don’t wind up with a problem later in the manuscript that forces me to throw out 30,000 words at the 11th hour. Oh, wait. That happens all the time anyway. *sigh*

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

COLE: In the case of the SHADOW OPS series, I started with an idea: “How would the US military handle magic?”

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do when building a character (or a setting or plotline, for that matter)?

I use the Internet almost exclusively. It’s rare I can’t find intimate details on almost any topic (I had to research heavy crane operations for BREACH ZONE). When I hit walls on Wikipedia, I turn to friends and sometimes acquaintances and fans I know through social media.

When all else fails, I make it up. These are fantasy novels.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your hero someone with whom the reader can relate?

COLE: The irony here is that the technique I used arguably failed. I made Oscar Britton, the protagonist of CONTROL POINT as human as possible. He’s wavering, indecisive, terrified of the decisions that face him. I feel confident that is an accurate portrayal of how a person of his background (bad family, no sense of rootedness) would handle the situation he finds himself in, but it’s also the most consistent criticism of the novel. In the end, I don’t think readers want real characters. They want dramatic, inspiring characters that feel real. There’s a big difference there.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

COLE: I cheated. I use epigraphs at the top of each chapter that allow me to engage in as much exposition as I want without getting accused of info dumping. I mask it all in the form of quotes, newsclips, etc, but the truth is that it’s all just stuff I needed the reader to know and couldn’t think of any other way to get it to them.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

COLE: First off, 2nd and 3rd drafts are hors d’oeuvres. CONTROL POINT went through 14 drafts. ShadowOpsCoverFORTRESS FRONTIER had 9. BREACH ZONE is currently on its 7th. And what is my main goal? To make the book awesome.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

COLE: Totally disagree. Plenty of writers try to strike out and do something new, and others write what they think will sell. I certainly won’t pass judgment on either decision, but that’s not what I do.

My favorite authors? There isn’t room to list them all, but here’s a few: Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Jack Campbell, Mark Lawrence. Believe me, I could go on.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

Stop writing short stories. There’s like 3 people in the entire world who read short stories for pleasure. Everyone else is an aspiring writer looking for the magic key. You want to be a novelist so write novels. If you write a dynamite novel, nobody is going to care that you didn’t have a story published in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy. They’re going to buy and publish your novel because it’s awesome. Stop wasting time and learn your craft.

VENTRELLA: With the publishing industry in constant change, do you think the small press has become more acceptable, prominent, and/or desirable for beginning writers?

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

Yes. I think that self-publishing is a perfectly viable way to go about bringing your work to market. The trick is making sure that you actually have work that’s good enough to bring to market and you’re just an unrecognized genius, vice doing an end-run around the bald fact that your work just isn’t there yet.

I absolutely cannot judge my own work. I need an expert to give it the nod. Self-publishing also requires a lot of project management skills. You have to be your own art director, and you have to supervise the copy-editor and the proof reader. You have to get ISBNs, you have to convert and format your text. You have to get it uploaded and figure out a good price point.

That’s a shit ton of work. I’d far rather give a professional a percentage of my profits and let them deal with all that crap.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

COLE: After that big speech I just made about short stories and self-publishing, I’ve just completed a novelette set in the SHADOW OPS universe. It’s a piece of backstory for BREACH ZONE told from the goblin point of view. I briefly considered sending it out to short story markets, but was turned off by the market policies (no simultaneous submissions). So, now I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing it, or using my literary agency’s eBook program (for which they charge the standard fee of 15%).

14

Interview with Agent and Author Donald Maass

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am very pleased to be interviewing Mr. Donald Maass, one of the top literary agents in New York. Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. Donald MaassHe is the author of THE CAREER NOVELIST (1996), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (2001), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK (2004), and THE FIRE IN FICTION (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

I first met Mr. Maass when he taught a writing workshop in the Lehigh Valley. I learned an awful lot from him, but when we spoke, it was mostly about John Lennon (who we both admire). I used his 2002 book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL to help tone my latest manuscript and have just finished reading his newest book, WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION: HIGH IMPACT TECHNIQUES FOR EXCEPTIONAL STORYTELLING.

Let me start by asking about the underlying theme of 21st century storytelling. How is that different from 20th century storytelling? Why did you make that distinction?

DONALD MAASS: There are many ways in which fiction writing has evolved. Many 20th Century techniques have dated. Objective description, scene-and-sequel, strict adherence to tense/person are all unnecessary. Genre rules are confining and regularly broken. 21ST In WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION I forecast the death of genre. Genre boundaries didn’t exist a century ago and won’t a century from now.

Overall, I’m pushing fiction writers to understand what gives fiction high impact, which is great stories beautifully written. High impact fiction is also highly personal, meaning that to the degree one writes according to rules, or simply to sell, one is working in a box. To write high impact fiction you’ve got to break out of your box—and “literary” can be a box too, By the way — or build an altogether new box which is wholly your own.

VENTRELLA: You list “Quirks” and “Special abilities” as ways that writers can create characters with which readers will bond. Is it possible to go overboard?

MAASS: Theoretically a character could go over the top, I suppose, but in nearly all manuscripts it’s the reverse. Characters, when they stand out, show us strength, self-awareness, strong opinions, lively voice, comprehensive world views and more. Quirks, handicaps, special abilities and even superpowers are common and useful devices nowadays, it’s true, but don’t by themselves do the whole job, or fit every story. Great characters are the sum total of what they do, who they are and how they fully experience their story world.

VENTRELLA: There are exercises after each chapter, which are similar to the ones you had me and those in your writing seminars do. Some of them made a great impression on me and were very useful. How are these different from your earlier workbook?

MAASS: They’re shorter, more prompts than step-by-step exercises. The creative brain moves at high speed. I’m trying to match that!

VENTRELLA: Have you ever made the authors you represent do these exercises?

MAASS: Oh, constantly. They ask me for that.

VENTRELLA: Your advice to always have “micro-tension” on every page has been criticized by some who, I believe, don’t completely understand your point. Is it possible to have a “page-turner” without tension on every page?

MAASS: No. Tension is not about action, explosions and shouting. It’s about generating unease in the mind of the reader. BREAKOUT There are many ways to do that, many of them subtle. Even language itself can do it. When tension exists in the mind of the reader there’s only one way to relieve it: Read the next thing on the page. Do that constantly, on every page, and readers will read every word — you have a “page turner”, no matter what your style, intent or type of story.

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?

MAASS: I would say that anyone can become a better writer. Every writer has strengths and every writer has weaknesses. In WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION there’s a chapter devoted to helping authors understand the writer they are, plus the writer they’re not, and compensate. Look, some writers will never be artful stylists and some will never be maniacal plot spinners. That doesn’t matter. What matters is growing. There’s always a way to work on what you’re weak at, and succeed.

VENTRELLA: How do you balance the surprise element — where you have your character do the exact opposite of what is expected — with believability and consistency?

MAASS: Great question! Let me put this proposition to you: When your mousy librarian pulls a gun out of her purse, readers won’t object, they’ll dive deeper. It’s psychology. The expected is dull. The unexpected is intriguing. Readers will go with you when you surprise them. The mistake I think is not pulling that gun in the first place or, when it’s drawn, not fully playing out all the consequences of pointing that gun. Working that out and using it is what makes a surprise believable.

VENTRELLA: When looking at a query letter, how do agents react to authors whose previous work has been self-published?

MAASS: There’s a certain bias against that but it comes not from moral objections but from experience. That said, the fact is that there are hundreds of famous writers who first self-published. It’s not about one’s chosen path but about how well one writes.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important are the small press?

MAASS: Very. We work with them, hoping and praying that the cash crunches that can clobber small presses don’t hit them. There even are some “digital first” models that are working, though I would stress that they’re new and evolving. fire E-books aren’t a revolution, new utopia or new paradigm. They’re simply a new opportunity in the not especially easy business that we call publishing.

VENTRELLA: Some established authors are foregoing agents and publishers altogether and are selling their work as ebooks on their web pages. Why do you advise against that?

MAASS: Your pool of potential readers is cut by three quarters, and your ability to make them aware of your book is reduced even further. You’re dependent upon three bookstores who only display one hundred titles in your category. A handful of authors have made this work but they have the minds and energy of publishers. That describes very few reading this interview, trust me.

VENTRELLA: Allow me to ask something a bit more personal. You advise authors to not worry about genres but to write the story you want. My latest manuscript mixes vampires with a political thriller. In response to my query letter, I have received rejection letters from agents that handle political thrillers saying “We don’t do vampires” and agents who like vampire stories saying “We’re not interested in political thrillers.” Should unestablished authors aim more for specific genres in order to get noticed before trying to mix things up? Or are the responses I am getting normal, and I just need to keep trying until I find the right agent?

MAASS: Cross-genre fiction can be difficult to pitch and place, yet some of the most successful authors we represent have invented new genre hybrids. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that when a speculative element is involved, say vampires, it’s often best to look first toward agents, editors and imprints comfortable with that. (Alternate history might be an exception, and YA seems to be open to anything.) Keep trying. I find that wonderfully written works always find their way into print, even if the don’t always fit neatly into a slot.

VENTRELLA: What really excites you when you find a great book? Can you tell instantly?

MAASS: I know right away when I’m in the hands of a confident storyteller. I’m drawn immediately into a full realized story world, yet there’s no rush to tell me everything about it. Characters immediately win and intrigue me, even when they’re dark. The emotional life of the characters is rich, their inner struggles are compelling, and the story immediately starts to mean something. It makes me think and feel. No problem, right?

VENTRELLA: What was the last great book you read?

MAASS: Last great book–? Argh, too many to say. Right at the moment I’m reading Susanna Kearsley’s THE ROSE GARDEN (2011), a gothic tinged past life story. Susanna counts as her influences some greats like Phyllis Whitney. She writes warmly and does history well, too. The book’s got me under its spell.

Interview with Hugo-Nominated Author Janet Morris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Janet Morris. Janet is probably best known for her Silistra series. She has contributed short fiction to the shared universe fantasy series “Thieves World” and then created, orchestrated, and edited the fantasy series “Heroes in Hell,” writing stories for the series. Most of her fiction work has been in the fantasy and science fiction genres, although she has also written historical and other novels. Her 1983 book I, THE SUN, a detailed biographical novel about the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I, was praised for its historical accuracy.

Janet, let’s start by talking about the Kindle promotion going on right now.

JANET MORRIS: There is an Amazon giveaway (May 15-17) of the author’s cut reissue of BEYOND SANCTUARY as a Kindle book. This is the only time this book will be offered as a free Kindle download.

It the first novel in the “Author’s Cut” group of reissues: each “Author’s Cut” volume is compeltely revised and expanded by the author(s) and contain new material never before available. The other “Author’s Cut” volumes that have been released as ebooks and as trade paperbacks are TEMPUS WITH HIS RIGHT-SIDE COMPANION NIKO (2011) and THE FISH THE FIGHTERS AND THE SONG-GIRL (2012). The next “Author’s Cut” edition will be BEYOND THE VEIL (2013), second of the three “Beyond novels” in the Sacred Band of Stepsons series. We will eventually reissue all the Sacred Band of Stepsons books, and then more of our backlist, in this ‘author’s cut’ program. It’s very satisfying to get all the errors and deficiencies corrected, and have a chance to enhance these perennial sellers.

Most Sacred Band novels will not have giveaways; we chose BEYOND SANCTUARY as a good starting place for those new to the series and, in its enhanced and expanded form, as an attraction for those who loved these books and stories in the 20th century. We are planning to do a few Sacred Band stories as Kindle shorts as time goes by, but nothing specific has been decided.

VENTRELLA: You started your publication history with the Silistra series. How did you make that first sale?

MORRIS: I wrote HIGH COUCH in 1975 and its two follow-ons, THE GOLDEN SWORD and WIND FROM THE ABYSS thereafter for fun: following the story for my husband and our friends. I knew no one in publishing and had no aspirations to break into the business.

One friend said her husband knew an agent and the book (HIGH COUCH) should be published but I would need to provide the manuscript in a clean, double-spaced copy, not single-space with handwritten corrections. I had my dad’s ancient typewriter (non-electric, non-correcting; the “p” key stuck) and was a terrible typist. I found out it would cost $1.00 per page to have the manuscript typed by a professional, which meant a $250.00 investment. So I didn’t do that for over a year; by then my second book was finished. In 1976 my friend sent the typed HIGH COUCH manuscript to an agent, Perry Knowlton, president of Curtis Brown, Ltd.. Perry called me and said I was a natural storyteller and he wanted to represent me and the book, and did I have any other books? I said I did but they weren’t typed up. He said, “Get them typed.”

Perry remained my only agent until his death. By the time I had the other books typed, he had sold HIGH COUCH for five figures to Frederik Pohl and Sydney Weinberg at Bantam and I was able to quit my day job. Then Perry sold THE GOLDEN SWORD and WIND FROM THE ABYSS to them in a package. By then I was writing THE CARNELIAN THRONE. By the time THRONE came out, Bantam had over 4M copies of the first three in print.

They bought THE CARNELIAN THRONE also, and my next series went to auction in two countries simultaneously based on sample chapters: I still don’t like to write outlines.

Silistra got many foreign rights deals, but only the French one is a divergent manuscript: for a sizable additional sum, I provided extra ‘erotic passages.’ ‘Erotic’ in those days was much less explicit than now, but even so, SILISTRA shook a lot of people from complacency: it wasn’t feminist, nor was it conservative; it featured pansexual characters and dealt with philosophical and sociobiological questions about sexuality and abuse of power; the main female character was powerful and had a sword: all these elements were challenging to the fantasy and SF community. And the book didn’t fit a neat category. In what was then a very hidebound and immature market, it blazed tough trails and still today doesn’t fit any simplistic or political model.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing world changed since then?

MORRIS: E-publishing is a big change. Deconstructionism is rampant: the continual division of the novel into smaller and smaller subsets of its constituent elements (such as mystery, thriller, erotic, adventure, romance, horror, etc.) either mirrors or leads the deconstruction of politics and of society. Writing outside established marketing categories is increasingly difficult; the mid-list book, which was an incubator of talent, is all but gone in print publishing.

As an ox-gorer and a windmill-tilter who writes mythic novels with political subtexts and who never has been easy to categorize, I think e-publishing is a good thing. I no longer have to cut a big idea into three volume-sized chunks: I can write the book at the length it needs; I don’t have to fix or endure additional errors from semi-educated production people; I can control my covers and the book’s sell copy. The downside is there is much more free reading material (some worth the price, some not), and a lower educational level among some groups – but there have always been books and writers for every echelon of society.

VENTRELLA: Do you see a future where self-publishing will be accepted?

MORRIS: Sure, eventually. When we decided to return to fiction (after taking 20 years off to create the nonlethal weapons mandate, the nonlethality concept, and other initiatives in the defense policy and planning realms), we wanted to keep our fiction e-rights and at that time my agent (Perry Knowlton’s son, Tim, at Curtis Brown) said it was impossible to make a deal like that with a major house. So we decided to put together a small publishing house that did e-books and trades and make strategic alliances with other small publishing houses who produced quality hardcovers. We did this because the self-publishing road is still stigmatized, and because the production learning curve is steep. Kerlak did our first two hardcovers and gave me what I wanted: sewn binding, linen boards, generous print size, etc.

The stigmatization of self-publishing is primarily from the big chains, who look down on POD but POD was what attracted me to small publishing: no remaindered books; no books going to dumpsites; no torn-off covers returned and no tax liability for unsold stock. When we do reissues, we do “Author’s Cut” editions in which we can correct and expand and enhance each book that we’re releasing with better covers and production values than the twentieth century originals: an approach possible now but not practical even ten years ago.

Machiavelli commented in THE PRINCE as follows: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more uncertain of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things: for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in those who would profit by the new; this weak support arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually experience it.” We found this when initiating the nonlethal weapons programmatics: twenty years later, we are where we should have been in five years in nonlethals, and at absurd cost because nothing is adopted until big things take that viewpoint onboard commercially. Similarly, with publishing, as vested interests deal themselves in and competitive entities are created, things will stabilize – hopefully with new players, but with many of the old entities in new guises.

VENTRELLA: Will the rise of smaller publishing houses and e-books mean that these may someday be better accepted? For instance, will SFWA someday accept more of these publishers? Would that be a good thing?

MORRIS: Eventually the writers organizations must accept reality. E-books and small publishing are part of the new reality. SFWA, like all bureaucracies, protests that it protects its membership while it actually protects primarily itself. When SFWA sees that it must change to survive, it will change. Adaptation is always necessary for survival.

VENTRELLA: Now let’s talk about something more fun: Writing! What led you to write fantasy?

MORRIS: My work doesn’t fit many contemporary definitions of fantasy. I really write mythic novels and stories, sometimes in an SF and sometimes in a fantasy context, but there’s nothing ‘sweet’ or ‘pastel’ about my work: my characters face challenges and so do my readers.

When I write something that publishers call ‘fantasy’ I am writing in what I think is the most important tradition of fiction: starting with Homer and up through Shakespeare and Milton, the most important themes to tackle are those of the mythopoeic domain, tales of the body and mind seen through a temperament and a cosmos divorced from current reality so what is said can be more clear. For me, myth is the ‘common’ language of us all – or has been until these days of stories reduced to their lowest mechanical nature. My stories have a historical cognizance, a literary cognizance, and a philosophical/ scientific cognizance.

Bantam once wanted to separate a book of mine into two books: a short ‘wisdom literature’ book and a longer ‘mainstream’ book. I didn’t do that, but in retrospect it was a well-thought impulse on the publisher’s part.

I’ve also written nonfiction; a rigorous historical about Suppiluliumas, a Hittite king; a pseudonymous ‘novel’; other pseudonymous ‘high-tech thrillers’ (or what you will) with strong technology drivers. I make more money when I write under one male name than when I write under one female name or, as reality dictates, as “Janet Morris and Chris Morris.” But I write the book, each time, that forces me to write it, whether fiction or nonfiction. If the book is fiction, I write only when the story and characters demand that I give up my real life because what they will say is more important.

VENTRELLA: How do you create a realistic, believable fantasy world without just looking like every other realistic, believable fantasy world out there?

MORRIS: We say about THE SACRED BAND, our newest mythic novel, that it is “an adventure like no other.” This book had waited since the late 1970s to be written.

My books are remarkably unlike most of what else is available in contemporary fiction, so making the story or milieu ‘unique’ is not an effort for me. We started ‘The Sacred Band of Stepsons’ series and characters in the ‘shared world’ universe of Thieves’ World®, and so wrote in a milieu populated with other writers: making my work ‘fit’ their construct was a challenge. I have a deep love for the third, second and first millennia BCE, and my ancient characters always are touchstones to historical reality: I don’t “try” to make my fantasy world different from reality: I try to take you into the mythos of humanity. Silistra had a complete language, a glossary, a unique context, a rigorous rationale actually based on sociobiology and genetics, but had sword-wielding women and horses and ancient skirmishers as well as high-tech outsiders trying to understand it. The “Dream Dancer” series, also ‘science-fantasy,’ was set in space habitats primarily. It’s very easy for me to establish a credible world construct and posit behaviors there: I have predicted several major events in the real world over a number of years based on that ability to identify the most likely course of action that a country or individual will take in a given context. Now this skill is beginning to become a field of study called “intuitive decision making” and also “implied learning.” We once called it “speed understanding.” Writers often have this ability, and it allows creators to make their characters and societies credible. The writers who don’t have it can’t make their characters, or worlds, credible enough to please me.

If you want to write something completely unique, you will probably fail or at best write something without redeeming value. The mind works in certain patterns: the mind organizes facts in story form; it is your commonality with that body of human thought that makes a good book, not its estrangement from the common values that humans share.

VENTRELLA: As one of the original THIEVES’ WORLD gang, you’ve had a huge influence on modern fantasy fiction. It’s one of the first (or maybe the first?) shared world anthology. (I copied it completely and stole this idea for my TALES OF FORTANNIS series, by the way.) Where did the idea for this originate?

MORRIS: TW had one volume published when I was asked to come aboard: “Thieves’ World,” which had Joe Haldeman and Andy Offutt and Bob Asprin and others. Bob had the original idea for the “worst town in fantasy, the grittiest, meanest, seediest place possible.” He asked me to write for it at a convention and I said, “How serious are you about gritty?” I had written a very short piece about a woman who killed sorcerers for a living, and I proposed to bring those characters into Thieves’ World, plus an immortalized and very unhappy mercenary who regenerated. Bob said okay, I could bring the characters and take them out again afterward.

I started the story “Vashanka’s Minion,” that introduced Tempus (a/k/a the Riddler, Favorite of the Storm God, the Obscure, the Black). He has a metaphysical link to Herakleitos of Ephesus, and lives as a warrior in a Herakleitan/Hittite cosmos that I overlayed on what Bob and Andy already had done. But when Tempus got down to the dock and Askelon of Meridian got off the boat, Tempus said, “You, get out of my story. There’s not room enough here for both of us.” So Askelon didn’t arrive in Thieves’ World until “Wizard Weather,” although Cime, Tempus’ sister-in-arms, did show up. Tempus forms the Sacred Band of Stepsons in Thieves’ World #2, meets the patron shade of the Sacred Band in #3, and puts the Band together.

Then the TW books start to succeed and people get cranky. I called Bob and asked for a letter because I wanted to take my characters out of the shared town and do a group of novels with them, since Bob was complaining my characters were “too big.” So we agreed on that plan. These tensions made the stories more fun: people came and went; I took my characters into my own constructs such as Wizardwall and into the real ancient-world settlements of Nisibis and Mygdonia. Everyone contributed something useful to TW, and its fabric is still very rich.

I got Lynn Abbey’s permission, after Bob died, to bring the Sacred Band back to Sanctuary for a big novel to tie up loose ends that was set ten years after the Stepsons left town in TW #11 and well before Lynn’s own novel, since that milieu wouldn’t work for me. This project became THE SACRED BAND. As agreed with Lynn, THE SACRED BAND was followed by a novella, “the Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl” (the title story from the second “Sacred Band Tales” anthology), which takes the Stepsons back out of Sanctuary again and sweeps up all my TW stories not previously collected. So now, between “Tempus with his right-side companion Niko” and “the Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl” all our ten TW Sacred Band stories are assembled in two volumes, along with other Stepsons tales not available elsewhere.

As for fun quotient, I get more joy from the Sacred Band of Stepsons than from any other characters. And the SBS character list is expanding….

VENTRELLA: Another great series you’ve run is the HEROES IN HELL series (which now apparently includes LAWYERS IN HELL, which could be the name of my autobiography). What future themes can we expect to see?

MORRIS: If I’d known you, I’d have invited you to contribute to LAWYERS. In the 21st century Heroes in Hell books, next up is “Rogues,” to be followed by “Dreamers” (or “Visionaries,” I haven’t finalized the title), then “Poets,” then “Pirates” (or “Swashbucklers”). “Doctors” is a distinct possibility. There are many stories left to tell in hell, especially now that we have met hell’s landlords and heaven has sent down auditors to make sure hell is sufficiently hellish.

VENTRELLA: How do you work with the authors to make sure there is consistency in the world setting for these collections?

MORRIS: Each hell book takes a year to write and assemble, and the writers must coordinate more completely than was possible before the internet: we have a “secret” working group on Facebook where the writers interact and arcs and meta-arcs are chosen and polished. They choose characters. Our “Muse of Hell,” Sarah Hulcy, has put up 130 orientation docs, so there’s plenty of available information. When they choose the characters, we check to see if those characters have been used previously, and if the characters are available and meet our criteria, they can “claim” those characters for the time they write for the series. If they leave, they can’t take the characters: characters come back to me and stay in hell to be recycled.

Then they work on a short “two or three sentence” synopsis. I must accept the synopsis and the characters before they start to write. They can use legendary, historical, or mythical characters. They can’t use characters from modern fiction (post 1900) and they can’t use recently dead or living people. Then writers are allowed to post in-progress snippets which the group can read, and comment upon – or not. Chris and I write “guide stories” (two or three), setting up the current long arcs and the general tone of the volume at its beginning and end. Between these “bookends,” the other writers must set their stories.

When the stories are generally selected, I edit for continuity and tone, and Sarah Hulcy follows me with a copy-edit. Chris Morris is the final editorial reader, and with the three of us working on the stories for continuity and cohesion, we get a strong result and a better book than we could have produced before the internet.

VENTRELLA: I assume your anthologies are primarily invitation-only (correct me if I am wrong). How do you deal with stories that don’t meet your standard or are rejected for other reasons?

MORRIS: We are invitation-only. The milieu of our hell belongs to Chris and me. The authors know that from the outset. We usually won’t let them write a story we don’t think will work: by the time we’ve approved characters and synopsis, we know what the story will be and how we’ll use it. If someone simply fails to write a useful story, they probably haven’t met our guidelines. Our hell universe is easily recognizable. Each writer has left a clear trail of participation. If they want to rewrite a story we won’t accept and take out the arguably HIH context and characters, of course they can try.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss your novels. Which is your favorite?

MORRIS: In fantasy: THE SACRED BAND (Janet Morris and Chris Morris; Paradise, 2010; Kerlak, 2011), the mythic novel of the Sacred Band of Stepsons uniting with the Sacred Band of Thebes and returning to Sanctuary. In historical: I, THE SUN (Janet Morris, Dell, 1987).

VENTRELLA: Who is your favorite character?

MORRIS: Tempus and then Niko and the Sacred Band of Stepsons fighters.

VENTRELLA: What would you ask that character if you could meet him or her?

MORRIS: Tempus lives in my skull. I meet him on a regular basis and I’m happy to have a character so available. He’s been there since 1979. I went to the White House and he said, “Kinda small, isn’t it?” I would ask him, in all seriousness, whether he truly believes that “character is destiny,” a line he shares with Herakleitos.

VENTRELLA: And what do you think he or she would answer?

MORRIS: “The sun is new every day.” We call him the Riddler, remember.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer writing fantasy or science fiction?

MORRIS: Fantasy, because very little in SF can transcend the gimmickry of a technical conceit, yet without that conceit at its heart a book isn’t truly science fiction. Furthermore, so little emerging thought and technology is employed by sf writers today that the genre is lagging far behind reality both in the cosmology area and the technology area: sf is no longer a place to experiment, but is now very derivative.

VENTRELLA: Do you find novels easier to write than short stories?

MORRIS: A novel is a major commitment, and must move smoothly along its trajectory. A “short story,” if it’s more than three thousand words, actually lets you focus more deeply on a circumscribed area or event. I think short stories and novels are different; each form is unique and equally demanding. I prefer novels but short stories are good exercises in discipline.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

MORRIS: I don’t “outline” in the way that you mean. I get characters, and their background; I immerse my intelligence in a milieu that’s fully realized: a place with weather and politics and problems and a special nature. I use square post-it notes to write down certain things that must happen during a sitting: a line of dialogue, a particular event, where I need to be when the section is done; a section or chapter or story title. I know where I want the story or chapter or novel to end; I know where I want to start each section: how I get there is the fun for me.

Often times the question for me is which viewpoint character will have the best take on a particular set of events. When I have (twice) sold a project based on outline, it took all the fun out of it.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what techniques do you use?

MORRIS: I wait. I lie on the bed or go for a drive with paper in my pocket and wait for the characters to start to interact with me, or to tell their story to me. I need to “see something moving” and other writers who write this way all agree – if there’s something moving in your mind’s eye, there’s a character there.

Abarsis was a good example: I knew I wanted to do “A Man and His God” in which at the end the Slaughter Priest would die in Tempus’ arms. I got a character called Abarsis. I thought he and the Slaughter Priest would be two different people but the character wanted to be “Abarsis, the Slaughter Priest.” This was a very big, very strong character and I argued that if Abarsis was the Slaughter Priest then he would die. He said that was fine. Susan Allison of Ace called me up after she read it and confessed that the story made her cry. And Abarsis came back as patron shade of the Sacred Band: the character knew more than I what to do and how, in order to be memorable. Sometimes with good characters you must let go and let them forge ahead. This requires belief in your Muse.

VENTRELLA: You’ve collaborated with other prominent authors, at least one of whom lives with you, which makes it easier. How have these worked? (For instance, do you share writing equally? Does one author do the basic work and the other expand from that outline?)

MORRIS: With whatever writer, we talk about the story line, points of interest, what needs to be accomplished. If it’s Chris, he may come up with a title or a concept. I usually do draft or if I write with others, I’ll often write first: I like beginnings. With some writers, I send sections and they pick up the action; with others, I’ll do a draft and then they will add to it after I’ve done all I want to do, from beginning to end.

Everyone has a special genius, and working with each person is different. If the other writer starts, that’s a different process for me: I work on the story they’ve sent in Track Changes, do what I want to the entire manuscript. Then they accept or reject or we go back and forth. I worked a number of projects with a writer who was outline-driven and I could never figure out what those notations were supposed to evoke, so I’d call to discuss it. The outline made the other writer feel better. I can do a series of chapter titles and use those as an outline, but beyond that, outlines don’t help me. I often work with other writers who don’t like to outline either, or outline in the most cursory way.

VENTRELLA: Writers who are trying to make a name get hammered with lots of advice: The importance of a strong opening, admonitions about “writing what you know,” warnings to have “tension on every page” – what advice do you think is commonly given that really should be ignored?

MORRIS: All advice should be ignored. Every real writer is different. Every story has a nature, an organic way it wants to unfold. Tell a story that sweeps you up, that you want to hear, that keeps YOU on the edge of your seat. Some stories start best with dialogue, others with narrative: writing is catching the wave of creativity. The wave must be there for you to catch.

Writers learn from reading other writers whom they can admire, and writers whom they detest. Before Silistra, I bought a paperback by a famous writer and when I was done I threw it in the wastebasket, said “I can do better than that,” and did. When I read, I try to read writers who can teach me something, who are better at some things than I am. But print-through is always an issue: often when I am writing fiction I read only nonfiction, and vice versa.

The only person who should ask you to make changes in your book is some editor who has paid a lot of money for it. Even then, changes are risky: the story unfolds on the first pass the way the universe unfolded in the first moments of creation: in the way that it must.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see starting writers make?

MORRIS: Writers who have no characters and force a story bore me. Writers who are good at one thing – such as dialogue – may do that one thing too much: talking heads don’t work except very occasionally, when they can work very well. Knowing when to do something is part of the art of writing. Sometimes I act as an acquisitions editor. If you want to sell to me, you’ll tell me who, where, what, and why, and then finally how – all on the first page, hopefully in the first couple paragraphs: where I am, what it’s like, who cares about what’s happening. I want to fall through the words into a different place. But most of all, you must make me care almost immediately.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

MORRIS: Homer, Hesiod, Tiye, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, Herakleitos, Einstein, DaVinci, Xenophon, Kikkuli, Thales, Plato, Odysseus (assuming he was Homer’s grandfather), Epaminondas, T.E. Lawrence, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Byron, Mary Shelley, Evelyn Waugh, Emil Zola, Dwight Eisenhower, Sun Tzu, Aspasia, Aristotle, Marguerite Yourcenar, Henry James, Suppiluliumas, Anksepaaten, Herodotus, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Richmond Lattimore, Solomon, the Biblical “J.” And I’d really like to have Roger Penrose as toastmaster, but he’s still alive.

Interview with Author Donna Galanti

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Donna Galanti. Donna is the author of the paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT (Echelon Press). She has a B.A. in English and a background in marketing. She is a member of International Thriller Writers, The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and Pennwriters. Her blog is here. You can connect with Donna here on Twitter and Facebook and purchase her book here!

Donna, your first novel has just been released. Tell us about it!

DONNA GALANTI: Absolutely!

In my paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT, Laura Armstrong’s friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her unique healing powers, she can do nothing to stop it. The savage killer haunts her dreams, tormenting her with the promise that she is next. Determined to find the killer, she follows her visions to the site of a crashed meteorite –- her hometown. There, she meets Ben Fieldstone. In a race to stop a mad man, they unravel a frightening secret that binds them together. But the killer’s desire to destroy Laura face-to-face leads to a showdown that puts Laura and Ben’s emotional relationship and Laura’s pure spirit to the test. With the killer closing in, Laura discovers her destiny is linked to his and she has two choices –- redeem him or kill him.

Readers who devour paranormal books with a smidge of horror and steam will enjoy A HUMAN ELEMENT, the new novel about loss, redemption, and love.

Here’s what reviewers are saying:

“A HUMAN ELEMENT is an elegant and haunting first novel. Unrelenting, devious but full of heart. Highly recommended.” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times best-selling author of ASSASSIN’S CODE and DEAD OF NIGHT

“A HUMAN ELEMENT is a haunting look at what it means to be human. It’s a suspenseful ride through life and love…and death, with a killer so evil you can’t help but be afraid. An excellent read.” –Janice Gable Bashman, author of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

VENTRELLA: How did the idea originate?

GALANTI: It came to me in a flash from nowhere 15 years ago driving to work. I wrote the entire outline on my lap as I drove (dangerously) and shelved it until 2 years ago.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

GALANTI: I do outline but when I over-outline I can’t get started. I tend to write an 8-10 page preliminary synopsis, bulleted chapter outline, and a 1-page worksheet detailing each character. I like to write “from the dark places” in the third person. A HUMAN ELEMENT has a ton of dark in it from murder and mystery with an evil paranormal thread. However, I did challenge myself to write a middle grade adventure fantasy recently in the first person and had a lot of fun.

VENTRELLA: Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

GALANTI: I definitely don’t think it’s easy or a sure thing to be a huge hit. Being a writer is constant learning and improving your craft. You may write a good book but you still need other elements like having professional editing skills, a good cover, and be marketing savvy. Before this novel came out I was writing in one way or another since I was seven. I majored in English and Journalism in college and did some news reporting for Gannett News Service. I eventually ended up in marketing communications and after several layoffs launched my own resume writing service and also became a freelance advertising copywriter. I closed up my resume business to write novels.

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made when first starting out as a writer?

GALANTI: Writing a book before I learned the craft. I became involved with other writers and took writing workshops after I finished my first book. This required going back and fixing a ton of things! I don’t regret the learning that took place afterwards as I can now write a better book from the beginning. And hopefully keep learning and writing even better books. The sequel (in progress), A HIDDEN ELEMENT, starts out fast and dark and propels you into an evil underworld where chaos, despair, redemption, and murder reign.

VENTRELLA: OK, let’s be honest here — You (like me) are with a smaller, independent publisher. Of course, we’d both like to be with Random House or some other huge publisher, where we could be easily found in book stores. Did you make an effort to obtain an agent first and go the traditional route or did you instead look to the smaller publishing houses for your first venture?

GALANTI: I did submit to agents first, yes. I spent several months doing this and waiting on feedback from manuscript requests. However, I knew my premise was a harder sell for a debut author as it crosses genres in a blend of paranormal, romance with a smidge of horror and sci-fi. I believed in the story and so did Echelon Press, a small press with a solid 10 years in the industry. Karen Syed, the president, worked with me on developmental edits before I even signed so she was invested. I’m also not focused on “getting in every brick and mortar bookstore” in America. I am focused on being seen at the online bookstores.

VENTRELLA: What do you think are the advantages of a smaller publisher?

GALANTI: Definitely personal attention. I like that. I also like that Echelon Press honored my title and delivered on the cover I was pursuing. They listened to me as an author, and I was not treated as a product. I also have much leeway with my own marketing, and as a former marketer I like having that control.

These days, it takes much more to be a successful author than merely writing a good book. What efforts have you made to publicize yourself and do you think they have been worth your time?
With a book coming out, one in editing, and one being written – I’m finding out that this is only half my author time spent. The other half is “being seen.” And it’s absolutely worth the effort. I have an active blog where I post and host guest authors. I’m also active on Twitter, Facebook with a personal and author page, and GoodReads. It takes time to build relationships in all these places and manage them while promoting others too, yet I have met many supportive peers through these avenues and built a network of readers and professionals. I am currently running a blog tour (as seen here!) which involves multiple articles written, a grand giveaway, and a GoodReads giveaway. I also coordinated a book launch (4/21 at The Doylestown Bookshop) and wrote several press releases around the locales in A HUMAN ELEMENT.

VENTRELLA: I’ve met so many people who think self-publishing is the way to go, and I have tried to dissuade them of this idea. What is your opinion?

GALANTI: I honestly think a writer should start at the top and work their way down. It takes patience and waiting. Lots of waiting. I understand some people don’t want to wait. I gave myself a timeframe to look for agents and decided, after that time, it was best to go with a small press. I don’t regret it, as it allows me the ability to sell my books at conferences and be on conference panels. These are some things self published authors may not have access to. Yes, there is still a stigma. I also could not have become an accepted active member in International Thriller Writers if I self published. That being said, I see many authors with much success being self published. If you are marketing savvy I believe you can have success with it if you deliver a good product, great cover, and know how to be seen. Being a debut author, I think there are benefits to having a respected publisher standing behind you.

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