Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

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). Hartley 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. ActofWill

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. hamlet-cover-300x300 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. DarwenArkwrightmedium 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?

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

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. atradus 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?

HARTLEY: Write a really good book. Tears-of-the-Jaguar-cover-199x300

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.

Interview with author Leah Cypess

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Leah Cypess is a writer of Young Adult fantasy who I’ve met at various conventions and am thrilled to be interviewing today. She used to be an attorney living in New York City, and is now a writer living in Boston. Leah Cypess author photo 1 She much prefers her current situation. When she is not writing or chasing her kids around (or doing both simultaneously), she enjoys reading, biking, hiking, and drawing.

Let’s start by discussing your latest release, DEATH SWORN. Tell us about the story!

LEAH CYPESS: To quote Kirkus: “A teenage sorceress without magic attempts to solve a murder in a cave full of killers. What could possibly go wrong?”

DEATH SWORN is the tale of a sorceress, Ileni, who was raised to believe she would be the next leader of her people — until her powers began to fade. Now she has been sent to be magic tutor to a cave of assassins, as part of a forced tribute. The last two tutors before her both died under mysterious circumstances, and presumably she is next … unless she can figure out what happened to them and how to keep it from happening to her. But she will soon discover that those murders are part of a much larger plot, and ultimately she will have to make a decision that could change the world.

VENTRELLA: This is not a sequel to your previous works. What made you decide to move on?

CYPESS: I started writing DEATH SWORN before I got an offer to publish MISTWOOD. I couldn’t write a sequel to MISTWOOD or NIGHTSPELL because I didn’t know if either of them would ever get published.

VENTRELLA: It seems that these days, all it takes for a book to be considered “Young Adult” is to have a young protagonist. Do you agree?

CYPESS: Pretty much, yes. DeathSworn HC CContrary to the opinions of many, there are almost no content or style restrictions in young adult, and more than half of its readers are actually adults.

VENTRELLA: Do you hold back anything when writing YA?

CYPESS: Nope. First, like I said, there’s no need to hold anything back; and second, since I started writing DEATH SWORN thinking I was writing an adult novel — because at the time, I wasn’t that familiar with how the YA genre had evolved.

VENTRELLA: What YA do you like to read? Who are your favorite YA authors?

CYPESS: I mostly read speculative fiction YA, since that’s my favorite genre in general! As for favorite authors, I have many, but to pull a few out of the bucket: Sarah Rees Brennan, Anna Jarzab, Leila Sales, and Megan Whalen Turner.

VENTRELLA: What do you think separates your books from all the other fantasy novels out there?

CYPESS: I don’t think of fantasy books as being generic, any more than I think of realistic literature as being generic. In fact, I think they can be more original because not only do you have a unique character and a unique plot, you also get to make a unique world!

VENTRELLA: What led you to write MISTWOOD? What inspired you?

CYPESS: I had an imagine in my mind of a shapeshifter hiding in a forest, being hunted by men on horseback. I started writing without having any idea where the story was going. In fact, I thought it was a short story, though about an hour later I realized this was going to be a novel.

VENTRELLA: Did your publisher ask for a sequel or was there already one in the works?

CYPESS: MISTWOOD doesn’t have a sequel, no matter what Goodreads says. :) Mistwood hc cNIGHTSPELL is a “companion novel” to MISTWOOD — it’s a unique story with new main characters, though it does take place in the same world and have a few cross-over minor characters.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting your works, and have you found anything that seems to be more successful?

CYPESS: I do promote my books, both online and through bookstore visits. I have no way to judge what’s successful and what’s not, though. I do the things I enjoy or at least am comfortable with.

VENTRELLA: You’ve attended science fiction conventions — do you think these are worthy expenditures of time and money in order to promote your work?

CYPESS: If you’re going just for promotion, then no — dollar for dollar and hour for hour, I don’t think it’s worth it. (At least not as a young adult author.) If you enjoy them, though, you do get the benefit of some promotional value as well.

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on attending more?

CYPESS: I do, though I’m considering holding off until my kids are older and childcare isn’t such a hassle. Of course, I’ve said that in the past and then reneged…

VENTRELLA: When I speak about writing with other authors, I find that I tend to be very organized with my outlines, and I know exactly where I want to go and what information needs to be placed where before I even start writing. Is this a lawyer thing? Do you do that, too?

CYPESS: See above re how I wrote MISTWOOD. ;) I am a terribly disorganized writer. At some point, my manuscript resembles a jigsaw puzzle with me trying to fit all the scenes together in a way that makes sense. So, I suspect it’s not a lawyer thing, though you’d probably be better off polling lawyers who are still practicing.

VENTRELLA: Do you think a particular style is better or is there no right way to do it?

CYPESS: I think the best style varies by writer, and sometimes even by project. To quote A.J. Liebling, “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.”Nightspell hc c

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

CYPESS: Get it critiqued (more than once!), revise it (more than once!), then write a killer query and start sending it to agents. And while you’re doing that, write a new manuscript.

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

CYPESS: When the manuscript is done, read it out loud.

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

CYPESS: Right now, I am hard at work on the sequel to Death Sworn! And it’s scheduled for March 2015, so that’s definitely what’s next.

VENTRELLA: And finally – what is it about lawyers that make us want to write science fiction and fantasy? There seems to be so many of us…

CYPESS: On my first day of law school, the dean said, “You’re all here because you got good grades, but you don’t like math and you can’t stand the sight of blood.” That’s not entirely true, of course, but I think law does tend to attract many people who don’t have a strong ambition to enter another profession … which means it’s going to attract a number of people who really, deep down, want to be writers. (But not the poverty-stricken kind.)

Thank you for interviewing me!

My 2014 Mysticon Schedule

This weekend (February 21 – 23, 2014) I will be a programming guest at Mysticon in Roanoke, Virginia.

They’ve asked me to be a guest before, but I’ve generally said no because it is so far away! However, this year I gave in.

I’ve only been to Roanoke once before. When I was in college, a bunch of us drove there from Richmond to see a concert with Elvis Costello and Squeeze.

I figured more people would read this if I had a picture of Q here

I figured more people would read this if I had a picture of Q here

I’m sure it’s changed a bit in the last 35 years or so…

Anyway, Mysticon looks to be fun. The main guest is John DeLancie, who played “Q” on all those Star Trek shows. Also in attendance will be many of my friends, including some I have interviewed here on this blog: Keith R.A. DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, KT Pinto, Peter Prellwitz, Tony Ruggiero and Allen Wold.

And if you’re a fan of my Fortannis anthologies, you’ll find some of those authors as well (namely Davey Beauchamp, Danny Birt and Tera Fulbright, as well a few who will be in the forthcoming collection A BARD DAY’S KNIGHT — Angela Pritchett and the aforementioned KT Pinto).

Anyway, if you’re there, be sure to say hi! I’ll be on a bunch of panels and my artist wife Heidi Hooper will be judging the Masquerade competition and hosting some art panels as well.

Here’s my schedule:

The Biggest Mistakes Made by Beginning Authors (Friday 4 pm): We’ll discuss not only writing mistakes but also promotional mistakes.  How writers have screwed themselves over and killed their chances of making it in the publishing world doing easily preventable things! With Tony Daniel, A.J. Hartley, Jonny Lupsha, and Gail Z. Martin.

Who is Behind that Curtain? (Friday 5 pm): The use of different points of view can reveal or obscure elements of your story from the audience. Do certain points of view only work with certain types of stories? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each form? With Stuart Jaffe, Gail Z. Martin, and Patrick Thomas.MystiCon

If You Spell “Cheif” Like That One More Time!! (Saturday 11 am): Our guest editors offer tips on how to avoid their reject pile and provide insight into some of their pet peeves when reading a submitted manuscript. With Anita Allen, Laura Haywood-Cory, and Michael M. Jones

Dancing Neck to Neck: Romancing the Vampire (Saturday 6 pm): Explore the evolution of the blood sucking undead from foul, fearsome creature prowling the Carpathians to debonair, bodice ripping object of modern desire. With Alexandra Christian, Kenneth Hite, and KT Pinto

I Am the Game Master, You Are My Pawns: Game Mastering Basics (Saturday 7 pm): How do you keep players engaged in a game? How do you manage different kinds of role-players and types of play? What about interruptions like roommates and smartphones? Share your secret techniques and best practices for running role-playing games (and other moderated games) that keep players coming back for more.  With Brandon Blackmoor, Kenneth Hite, John Jones, Greg Porter, and John Watts

The Eye of Argon (Saturday 11 pm): 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 Keith DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, KT Pinto and Peter Prellwitz.

Making Politics Work in Fiction (Saturday midnight): Real world political narratives are filled with cultural revolutions, passionate speeches about social change, war, and intricate, Machievellian plots. How can you portray them convincingly in your story? From noble houses in fantasy worlds to galaxy-spanning empires in SF, how do you make them believable and engaging without burying your reader in the intricacies of your setting’s political theory? With Brandon Blackmoor, Tom Kratman, Peter Prellwitz, and Leona Wisoker

Tooting Your Own Horn (Sunday noon): Done properly, self-promotion is an important part of building a career. Poorly executed, self-promotion can do more harm than good. Our panelists will discuss what works and doesn’t work along with these common questions: Do book-signings really help a small author? Are bookmarks and/or postcards effective at garnering attention? Does a blog help or hurt an author? Does an author have to have a website? With Tally Johnson, Gail Z. Martin, Michael Pederson, and Gray Rinehart.

My Capclave 2013 schedule

This year, I will be attending the Washington DC convention Capclave for the first time, and it looks to be great fun. small_dodo_transparent The Guest of Honor is George R. R. Martin, and other guests include many people who you may have met through my interviews here: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Philippa Ballantine, Gardner Dozois, Val Griswold-Ford, Mike McPhail, Tee Morris, James Morrow, Lawrence M. Schoen, Hildy Silverman, Bud Sparhawk, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and Allen Wold, among many others. Links to each of these interviews are to the left.)

Capclave is held over the Columbus Day weekend (October 11th)

They’re keeping me busy, as I like, and I’m moderating a few of these panels.

Here’s my schedule:

So You Want To Be A Writer?: We did it before and we’ll do it again! Authors discuss how they became a writer, and why you should(n’t) Writers share their experiences and offer advice to those interested in becoming a professional writer. Pay it forward. With Matt Betts, Michael Dirda, Laura Anne Gilman, Alma Katsu, Dina Leacock, and Bud Sparhawk. (Friday 4 pm)

Saturday Morning Cartoons: Once we could only watch cartoons on Saturday morning, now they get entire channels. What are the best sf/fantasy cartoons ever? What did you learn from them? How have cartoons influenced other media and even reality? With Matt Betts, E.C. Myers, Sherin Nicole, and Steve Stiles. (Friday 5 pm)

Buy My Book: Self promotion and you. Nervous about talking about your books and stories? There are some things you should do and avoid when talking about your writing. With Philippa Ballantine, Jennifer Barnes, and John Edward Lawson (Friday 6 pm)

Reading: This is where I will read from my work, and probably my humorous short story “The Jesus Secret.” (Saturday 9:30 am)

Moving Beyond the Small Press: A look at how small presses in the age of the eReaders – where anyone can be a publisher – have their limits, and what to do when you’ve hit them. There is also the additional pressure of performing on a higher level. Listen to panelists describe what to do when you have plateaued with your own independent publisher, and what lies ahead if or when you step up to corporate publishers. With Philippa Ballantine, Ron Garner, and Lawrence M. Schoen (Saturday 10 am)

Mass Signing: The Saturday evening mass autographing session. With Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Catherine Asaro, Eric Bakutis, Philippa Ballantine, Matt Betts, Matt Bishop, Neil Clarke, Tom Doyle, Andrew Fox, Charles E. Gannon, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Laura Anne Gilman, Bob Greenberger, John G. Hemry, Alma Katsu, Annette Klause, John Edward Lawson, Dina Leacock, Edward M. Lerner, Marianne Mancusi, George R.R. Martin, James Maxey, Heidi Ruby Miller, Jason Jack Miller, James Morrow, Diana Peterfreund, Patrick Scaffido, Lawrence M. Schoen, Jon Skovron, Alan Smale, Michelle D. Sonnier, Bud Sparhawk, Janine Spendlove, Michael Swanwick, Jean Marie Ward, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Steven H. Wilson, Leona Wisoker, and K. Ceres Wright (Saturday 7:30 pm)

The Eye of Argon: Our panelists read the worst fantasy story ever written, mistakes and all, and if they laugh or read it incorrectly, they are forced to act out the story. Just try not to fall over laughing! With Tee Morris, Hildy Silverman, and Ian Randal Strock (Saturday midnight)

Not Another Lawyer Joke: So we all know lawyers just make the stuff up as they go along. Or is that just the ones in fiction? How does fiction and popular media portray the law and lawyers? What do they do right and wrong? What about all those Law and Order shows? With Day Al-Mohamed and Jim Stratton (Sunday 9 am)

Interview with Robert Brockway

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Robert Brockway today. Robert Brockway is a Senior Editor and columnist for Cracked.com. brockwayHe is the author of two books, the cyberpunk novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY, and the comedic non-fiction essay collection EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL EVERYBODY: THE TERRIYINGLY REAL WAYS THE WORLD WANTS YOU DEAD. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Meagan and their two dogs, Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. He has been known, on occasion, to have a beard.

Tell us about your novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY!

ROBERT BROCKWAY: RX is a cyberpunk novel about Red, a bio-hacker, chemical beta tester and specialty drug dealer in a futuristic mega-scraper city called the Four Posts. Pharmaceuticals aren’t just tolerated in the Four Posts, they’re practically a necessity. Everybody medicates constantly, to the point that Rx Feeds – nano-assembling custom drug stations – are piped into every household. The hot new drug of choice is Presence, a powerful hallucinogenic gas that simulates time travel, but with none of the consequences. Want to shoot a T. Rex? Fist fight King Henry II? Bring a battle-mech to the Civil War? Dose up on Presence and go for it. Your timeline won’t change in the slightest. Red’s best paying side-job is beta-testing new strains of Presence – hey, somebody has to go back and make sure the dose is taking customers to the right time and place. But he’s just woken up with a hell of a headache and no memory of the last twelve hours, only to find he’s violated his Non-disclosure Agreement – a crime punishable by death in the Four Posts. Now with a pair of incredibly brutal bounty hunters on his trail, Red has to clear his name and figure out what the strange prototype drug is doing to his mind before it literally tears him apart.

VENTRELLA: What sort of research did you do before writing this?

BROCKWAY: Too much. I’m kind of a link hoarder, and though the general framework of Rx is obviously science fiction, much of what appears in it was inspired by real stuff. The Four Posts were inspired by Ponte City, a huge single-skyscraper project in South Africa that, for a time, was considered the most dangerous place in the world. The drugs in Rx (well, excluding the Gas) are more stable, more potent versions of real pharmaceutical developments – drugs that eliminate fear, inspire trust, add IQ points. All real stuff.

VENTRELLA: Why couldn’t you go with your original title?

BROCKWAY: I’m assuming you’re referring to the original title of “Time Fuckers: Fuckers of Time.” RXAre the reasons not self-evident? I was never going with that title. It’s awful. I give myself terrible working titles until the book is finished to keep myself from taking it too seriously, and to stop from worrying about things when it’s not time to worry about them yet.

VENTRELLA: You’ve actually done an annotated version of the book, with footnotes and asides and references listed. Why did you decide to do this?

BROCKWAY: Well, it was all that research and link hoarding. I heavily fictionalized the info in Rx, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for not believing a word of it is remotely possible. But I wanted to show people that the real world has always been, is now, and is about to be much, much crazier than they would ever suspect.

VENTRELLA: How did you publish this?

BROCKWAY: I published Rx as a serial eBook in three installments. I did this partly because I liked serial novels, partly because I was curious how it would do, and partly because I didn’t have a reliable network of Beta-readers. The plan was to self-publish these little episodes and incorporate reader feedback along the way. Then I would take a huge editorial pass on the collected version, and release that as a finished book. Toward that end, I ran free giveaways of the first episode, then included review incentives where any (positive or negative, so long as it’s helpful) review would earn you a free copy of the next episode. In that fashion, you could get the whole series for free, just by leaving reviews on each episode.

VENTRELLA: What is your background and why did you decide to write?

BROCKWAY: I’m not sure how to answer that: I decided to write because I’ve always been writing. I don’t know how not to do it. My background is happening right now, I’m pretty sure. I have in no way ‘made it’ or become some sort of name. I’m still practicing, learning from my myriad mistakes, and trying to get better. I hope I’ll always think of myself like that.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s a great thing! I prefer physical books myself, though I’m definitely a hybrid reader these days. It’s most beneficial to beginning (I’d prefer the term ‘Indie’ as many aren’t really starting out, so much as just now getting seen) authors because, for the most part, your self-published books are just as viable as traditionally published works in these new marketplaces. I see indie books all the time, just browsing around on Amazon or Indiebound. I’m not even looking for them. But if your book hooks me with a good cover, killer title or compelling synopsis – you’ve just made a sale to a person who would otherwise never have even heard of your work. As much as we bemoan the death of book stores (and they shouldn’t die, I love them), we tend to overlook the upside: There’s one less middleman to filter out your work.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres these days. Why do you think that is?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s just because we’re segmenting our descriptions of the genre. We used to call all of that stuff ‘science fiction.’ Is my book ‘hard science fiction’? Everything_BrockwaySome people have said so – derogatively, I might add – as though that limits its appeal. Others call it ‘cyberpunk’ – also derogatively (man, I’m sensing a pattern here). If we applied that pattern retroactively then 1984 would be ‘technological dystopian’ and FOUNDATION would be ‘dynastical space opera.’ It’s not: We’re all sci-fi. We’re all brothers and sisters in nerdishness here.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

BROCKWAY: Ambition. That’s my biggest mistake, anyway, and I don’t really feel comfortable pointing out the mistakes of authors who are likely far better than me right now. I don’t know if I fully pulled off Rx – it was a hell of a lot to try for as a debut novel. I further complicated matters with an experimental release schedule. I needed to write it, of course, to learn those lessons and improve as a writer — and I think a lot of readers still got some enjoyment out of it. But that will always be the sci-fi writer’s simultaneous curse and blessing: Ambition.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

BROCKWAY: Both. Natural talent happens in every field. Some people are naturally talented cabinet makers or heating repairmen. You can never fake that, but it doesn’t mean you’re excluded. I’ll never be as effortlessly good as, say, Italo Calvino. But if I work at it, I can still be pretty good someday. For example, Stephen King doesn’t think of himself as naturally talented. I’d actually agree with him. But he works at his craft, constantly, and in the end he’s going to be more influential than a hundred thousand other, naturally talented writers who phoned it in, thought they were above improvement, or never even tried.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

BROCKWAY: Anybody. Terrible answer, I know, but it’s all I’ve got these days: I’m finding so many more books thanks to recommendation algorithms or sites like Goodreads that my favorite authors are constantly shifting and evolving. Over the past few months, I’ve been most impressed with Patrick Rothfuss’ work, and I’ve got a working writer’s crush on Chuck Wendig. I don’t know how he’s so prolific while maintaining that kind of quality, but it’s something I respect and strive for.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always enjoyed the articles you’ve written for Cracked with advice for authors. (Examples: here, here, and here) How have these been received?

BROCKWAY: Mixed. People who don’t write don’t give a damn and feel compelled to tell me so in increasingly obscene ways. People who do write usually thank me. They do decent traffic with high engagement, to borrow some soulless marketing terminology.

VENTRELLA: New authors can make huge mistakes. What big mistake bugs you the most, and how can writers avoid making it?

BROCKWAY: They don’t edit. If you don’t obsessively, freakishly edit your story, then I promise you that you have made huge, gaping unforgivable mistakes, and everybody but you is going to notice and point and laugh. I edit everything. For example, I edited my responses to this interview. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have noticed that I used the word ‘obsessively’ three times in the span of two sentences. You would have laughed at me, and I would have had no choice but to kill myself to preserve my family’s honor.

VENTRELLA: Do you attend science fiction conventions?

BROCKWAY: I have attended one convention in my life. Comickaze, in Los Angeles, and I did so because I was ordered to by my employer. It was interesting and fun, but a bit awkward, and probably not representative of the larger scene. I’m kind of a hermit.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BROCKWAY: I don’t know how to categorize it, really: It’s a novel with elements of mystery, science fiction, horror and magical realism. It’s about a group of punk rockers in New York in the late ‘70s, and a group of aspiring actresses in Los Angeles in the present day. Both are tied together through a mysterious set of disappearances, usually accompanied by a strange caustic sludge, and the impossible sighting of angels.

It’s called “Punks Versus Math”.

I told you I have terrible working titles.

My Balticon 2013 schedule

I’m very excited to be going to Balticon this year, because not only am I on some great panels, but we’re doing a major book release party for A BARD IN THE HAND (along with a few other books from my publisher Double Dragon).

Balticon will be held on the weekend of May 24 – 27. Below is my schedule (although, as usual, there may be some additions and changes by the convention):

FRIDAY

Project Tracking for Editors (6:00 pm) with Lesley Conner, Elektra Hammond, Brian Koscienski, Neal Levin and Trish J. Wooldridge: How to make sure all the ducks line up in a row when working on a project. Editors share war stories and recommendations on how to get organized, stay organized, and how to deal with the unexpected.

Opening Ceremonies (8:00 pm): Where the Guests of Honor and other participants rub elbows with Balticon attendees (usually with wine and cheese).

World or Plot (10:00 pm) with Charles E. Gannon, Paula S. Jordan, Richard Allen Leider, and T. C. McCarthy: Do you start with a world and build the rest around it? Or do you start with a plot outline and allow the worldbuilding to grow out of that? What do you do when you start with a plot in mind and the world that develops seems to send the plot in another direction?

SATURDAY

Editor’s Pet Peeves (9:00 am) with Danielle Ackerly-McPhail, Walt Boyes, Alex Shvartsman, and Leona Wisoker. A head’s up for writers on what editors don’t like to see or deal with from their authors. Headaches they’ve encountered in publishing.

Worldbuilding in Role-playing Games (3:00 pm) with L. Jagi Lamplighter, Neal Levin, Mike McPhail, and Robert Waters. How do you build a believable world for your game?

Reading (6:00 pm) with Mur Lafferty and KT Pinto: Authors read from their latest works

SUNDAY

Double Dragon Book Release Party (10:00 am) with Gail Z. Martin, Bernie Mozjes and Peter Prellwitz: Come celebrate the latest Double Dragon releases (including my own A BARD IN THE HAND and TWISTED TAILS IV which features one of my stories). Coffee, donuts, hard-boiled eggs, and books! Donwload flyer

You Have Gaming in my Fiction (2:30 pm) with L. Jagi Lamplighter, Neal Levin, Mike McPhail, and Alex Shvartsman: All about how to write media tie-in fiction for games.

Editor’s Q&A (4:00 pm) with Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Scott H. Andrews, Richard Allen Leider, Patrick Thomas, and Trisha J. Wooldridge: Audience asks the panel of editors questions about submissions, acceptances, and the publishing process.

Promoting Your Book (10:00 pm) with Jean Marie Ward: What works in promoting a book? Do book-signings really help a small author? Are bookmarks and/or postcards effective at garnering attention? Does a blog help or hurt an author? Does an author have to have a website? How do you find good reviewers? What tactics do not work? What methods might work for an established author that wouldn’t work for a beginner?

MONDAY

Plotters verse Pantsers (10:00 am) with Jack Campbell, Doc Coleman, Kat Otis, Jennifer Povey, Alex Shvartsman, and Leona Wisoker: Do you plan your story or write by the seat of your pants? Panelists share the quirks and foibles of their working method with readers. A Round Table discussion.

Making Better NPCs (Noon) with Victor Hutcherson, L. Jagi Lamplighter, Neal Levin, and Mike McPhail. How to create believable and real characters for your gaming players to interact with.

My Lunacon 2013 Schedule

I’m about to head out for the 2013 Lunacon convention, which I have attended for many years (most of them as a programming guest). logo_lunacon Here are the panels I am currently scheduled to be on:

Dig in. Hold on. (Saturday 12:00 PM): Great stories raise the stakes, often creating drama by pitting the hero against overwhelming odds. What is it about the hopeless battle that so strongly appeals to readers of SF/F? What are some or our favorite struggles in the genre? With Myke Cole, Neal Levin, Gail Z. Martin, and Ian Randal Strock.

Less Shitty Second Drafts. (Saturday 1:00 PM): Giving yourself permission to let your first draft suck as long as you get it out rests on the assumption that you can make it better later. But how? Beyond “kill your darlings” and critique groups, how do authors figure out what’s not working in their manuscript and what might be likely to fix it? With Russ Colchamiro, Laura Anne Gilman, C.E. Lawrence, and Lawrence M. Schoen.

When the Magic Comes Back. (Sat 2:00 PM): From Queen City Jazz to Bordertown to Tinker to The City, Not Long After, magic coming back to our mundane world is one of the few ways we see fantasy set in the future. Why is it so often associated with apocalyspe? Do authors just not want to have to write about science and technology trying to come to grips with magic and vice versa, or is something more fundamental going on? With Myke Cole, Laura Anne Gilman, Carole Ann Moleti, and Kate Nepveu.

Michael A. Ventrella Reading. (Saturday 5:00 PM): I will be reading from some of my work and talking to people about my stories.

Who Got This Belief System in my Fiction? (Saturday 6:00 PM): From the Bible to the Singularity, how to base fiction on religious and/or political convictions without alienating those who don’t agree, or those who believe it’s non-fiction. What authors and titles have handled this well? What are the pros and pitfalls of using your own beliefs, others’, or an invented belief system? With Lawrence Kramer, Jane T. Sibley and David Walton.

Larping vs. SCA. (Saturday 7:00 PM) A fight to the death! Just kidding. Seriously, differences and similarities between medieval-themed live action role playing and the Society for Creative Anachronisms. Are either or both for you? With Zorikh Lequidre, Devon Oratz, and James Prego.

The Eye of Argon. (Saturday 11:00 PM) Our panelists read the worst fantasy story ever written, mistakes and all, and if they laugh or read it incorrectly, they are forced to act out the story. Just try not to fall over laughing! With Keith R.A. DeCandido and Hildy Silverman.

Write What You Don’t Know. (Sunday 12:00 PM) Fantasy authors rarely get irate email from dragons saying they got it wrong. How to write characters from places and times that you don’t know but members of your audience do, and why it’s important to get outside your comfort zone. With Ken Altabef, Paul Calhoun, D.L. Carter, and Laura Anne Gilman.

Interview with Actress and Author Claudia Christian

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Claudia Christian today.  As you probably already know, Ms. Christian is an actress best known for playing Ivanova on one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Babylon 5! claudia_christian_24147 She’s done much more than that, of course, and her more detailed bio and filmography can be found here.  Today, however, we’re here to discuss her new book!

 Ms. Christian, I’ve just finished your new book BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL. This does not read like a typical Hollywood tell-all, but instead as a very personal diary of sorts.  Do you feel you accomplished what you set out to do?

CLAUDIA CHRISTIAN:  I wanted to spread the word about The Sinclair Method and save lives, so far I have accomplished both!

VENTRELLA:  You’re very forthcoming about your alcohol addiction and quite candid about other parts of your life.  Did you ever say “Nah, I’m not going to talk about that”?

CHRISTIAN:  No, I did not. I don’t believe that you can expect people to buy into something unless you are 100% honest.  besides, there is so much shame attached to addiction that I wanted other addicts to see the worst that I have been through so they could not only relate but also forgive themselves.

 VENTRELLA:  The title seems both a tribute to Babylon 5 but also the BABYLON HOLLYWOOD books that I used to read years ago.  How did you choose the title?

CHRISTIAN:  Morgan and I threw around titles for awhile then submitted them to the publisher, this one won.

 VENTRELLA:  The last few chapters of the book are almost a guide for those in a similar situation.  Have you heard from readers who were inspired by your tale to change their lives?

CHRISTIAN:  I have indeed! I have dozens of people on TSM and have helped support them, guide them and am thrilled to say that they have a nearly 100% success rate!

VENTRELLA:  The book reads like a rollercoaster – disappointment followed by great times followed by tragedy … Was there ever an attempt to sugarcoat something?BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL 

CHRISTIAN:  I’m not one to sugar coat things though I did lighten a few experiences to save face for other people. No need to be cruel in a book. I tried to be honest, period.

VENTRELLA:  Was writing the book painful or cathartic?

CHRISTIAN:  Both!

VENTRELLA: How did the writing cooperation work with Morgan Buchanan?

CHRISTIAN:  Fantastic … thank God for Skype!

VENTRELLA:  Are you happy with the reception the book has received  (Reviews, sales, comments, etc.)?

CHRISTIAN:  I am indeed though I wish more mainstream media would pick up on TSM.

VENTRELLA:  I first became aware of your work through Babylon 5, one of the best science fiction shows on TV.  Ivanova was everything we wanted in a strong leader, and many of us were tremendously disappointed when she didn’t appear in the final season (where she should have been captain!)  Anyway, sorry, let me get on with this;  I could gush about how well written, acted, and directed that series was for this entire interview.

At one point in the book, you make the comment that writer/producer J.  Michael Straczynski (who you call “Joe!”)  felt that if an actor was giving him trouble, he could always write a way to get rid of him – and in fact, that happened a few times.  Is that what happened to Marcus Cole (who played Jason Carter)?  ( I hope not, because that death was a great scene and deserved to be there!)

CHRISTIAN:  I cannot comment on things that JMS did simply because I am not in his mind…W22 114

VENTRELLA:  More importantly, do you think that happened to you?  You did not date him as he apparently wanted … I know the 5th season was not close to that incident, but do you think that he might have fought more for your return otherwise?

CHRISTIAN:  I had another job and we could not work out the schedule. It’s in the book very clearly stated how it went down.

VENTRELLA:  There were a few follow-up B5 films and sequels after the 5th season.  Have you ever been asked to be in any of them?

CHRISTIAN:  No … I only did the two TNT Babylon 5 films after the series ended and those were both fun.

VENTRELLA:  What is your one favorite scene or episode from B5?  (I have a prediction but I want to see what you think…)

CHRISTIAN: Death incarnate!

VENTRELLA:  Thought so.  (Here’s a link for those of you who are unaware).

You’ve done voice-overs in commercials, Disney’s “Atlantis” and video games such as Skyrim.  How does this kind of work compare to being in front of a camera?

CHRISTIAN: You don’t have to look good when you record!

VENTRELLA: Why do you think “Atlantis” wasn’t a bigger hit for Disney?

CHRISTIAN: Too dark and old school for these little kids nowadays … they like pink and frosting… :)helga

VENTRELLA:  And what is it about the name “Sinclair”?  There was Captain Sinclair in “Babylon 5″, and then your character in “Atlantis” was named Helga Sinclair, and then you were finally able to break your addiction with The Sinclair Method.  Coincidence?

CHRISTIAN: Who knows?! Conspiracy theorists arise!

VENTRELLA:  In BABYLON CONFIDENTIAL You spoke of some terrible experiences with crazed fans at conventions and the like.  (I do a lot of conventions and sadly, there are indeed people like that who attend, although the vast majority are wonderful people.)  Do the good experiences outweigh the bad enough to make attending the conventions worthwhile?

CHRISTIAN: Of course the good outweigh the bad …I love the fans.

VENTRELLA:  You also wrote a small book called MY LIFE WITH GEEKS AND FREAKS which does not seem to be available any more.  What was that about?

CHRISTIAN:  My experiences at conventions. It was a love letter to the fans, really.

VENTRELLA: Will that become available again?

CHRISTIAN: I think so.my-life-with-geeks-freaks-claudia-christian-paperback-cover-art

VENTRELLA:  Did your publisher purposely use “Star Trek” font for the book cover as a kind of inside joke?

CHRISTIAN:  Probably…

VENTRELLA:  When I read about the avant garde film “Tale of Two Sisters” I thought it might be so-bad-it’s-good worth renting, but after reading the reviews on IMDB, all of which pan it completely, I’ve changed my mind.  That must have been a very interesting experience.  Do you feel that was the worst film you’ve been in or is there something else out there you dislike more?

CHRISTIAN:  Thinking a film is bad is subjective; some people like that film … I have no idea what the worst film I have ever done is but I’m sure no two people would agree on that.

VENTRELLA:  I had never heard of the British TV show “Starhyke” until reading your book and now I want to see it!  It’s apparently never been released on DVD in America although I was able to find some clips on YouTube.  That looks like it was a lot of fun.  Why wasn’t there a second season?

CHRISTIAN:  Lack of funds.

VENTRELLA:  Then there’s “Taboo.”  Tell me about that!  How did that come about?

CHRISTIAN: I love making music…..taboo

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on  doing any more music?

CHRISTIAN:  Not really, too busy with other projects and I am not a very good singer; I just did it for the fun of it.

VENTRELLA:  You mention your huge personal library.  What do you like to read?  Who are your favorite authors?

CHRISTIAN: I love historical fiction and biographies. I love CJ Sansom, Peter Ackroyd, Bernard Cornwall, Neil Gamain, Edward Rutherfurd, etc. etc.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever read any of the Babylon 5 books?  Do you ever go “Ivanova would never do that!”?

CHRISTIAN:  No I have not, I’m not a sci fi fan.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?  When will we see (or hear) you next?

CHRISTIAN:  Tor is releasing “Wolf’s Empire” in 2014 ,another book by Christian-Buchanan

I am also still working on promoting TSM and will be doing so for the rest of my life, it’s my raison d’etre.

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

My Philcon 2012 Schedule

This weekend is the Philcon Science Fiction Convention, which is held every year in New Jersey. (Don’t ask).

The main guest this year is author Catherynne Valente. Artist Guest of Honor is Phil Foglio. I’ve been a fan of Phil’s for years (and I have an original piece of art I bought from him at an Arisia convention way back in 1986!) I keep trying to interview him for this blog, so maybe I can corner him at the convention for a few words.

Here is an incomplete list of guest panelists, which includes many people who have been interviewed on this blog: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Michael F. Flynn, Gregory Frost, Gail Z. Martin, Mike McPhail, Christine Norris, KT Pinto, Peter Prellwitz, Tony Ruggiero, Lawrence M. Schoen, and Hildy Silverman.

I’m a guest author too, of course. I’ll be there to participate in a few panels… so if you’re attending, be sure to say hi. You’ll probably find me hanging out at my publisher’s booth in the Dealer’s Room when things are slow. Look for the “Double Dragon” sign!

Here’s my schedule (subject to change):

Saturday 3:00 PM: The Reinvention of the Vampire (with fellow panelists KT Pinto, Brent Monahan, and Tony Ruggiero) What can be done in the post-Twilight era? Do we look forward to a time when vampires no longer sparkle? What new approaches can be taken with a monster that has haunted our imagination since the beginning of history?

Sunday 10:00 AM: God 2.0 (with fellow panelists Judith Moffett, Gary Frank, Ty Drago, and Wayne Zimmerman) If we were to design a Divinity deliberately rather than merely let it evolve naturally, what characteristics would we include and why?

Sun 11:00 AM: Reading (with just me!) That’s right, I’ll be reading from THE AXES OF EVIL and, depending on time and audience desires, my upcoming BLOODSUCKERS.

It’s a fairly short schedule for me … usually they keep me much busier, but I’ve been told Philcon has cut back on the number of guests and panels, so I suppose I can’t complain. I’ll have lot of fun talking about books and writing with everyone.

I’ll also be jealously watching my wife, who was assigned to be on two panels with Phil Foglio!

UPDATE: Pictures from the convention are here!

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