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.

Interview with Hugo and Nebula Award Winning Author David Gerrold

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing Nebula and Hugo award winning author David Gerrold. David-GerroldDavid Gerrold is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes. TV credits include episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, Land Of The Lost, Logan’s Run, and many others. Novels include WHEN HARLIE WAS ONE, THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF, the “War Against the Chtorr” septology, The “Star Wolf” trilogy, The “Dingilliad” young adult trilogy, and more. The autobiographical tale of his son’s adoption, THE MARTIAN CHILD won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette of the Year and was the basis for the 2007 movie starring John Cusack, Amanda Peet, and Joan Cusack. His web page is here.

David, you’re probably best known for your first sale, the Star Trek “The Trouble with Tribbles” classic episode (which you’re probably tired of talking about). It’s kind of a Cinderella story for writers, in that your sale would never happen these days. Or would it?

DAVID GERROLD: I think it would be a lot harder for a new writer to break into a prime-time show the way I did. Back then, most shows were written by freelancers. Today, most shows are written by staff writers, and there are less episodes in a season, so there just aren’t as many opportunities. And it’s a lot harder for an unknown writer to get his outline in front of a producer, let alone have it pass the “Is this good enough to take a chance?” test.

Back then, it was a lot easier for a writer to establish a reputation. Guys like Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch and Charles Beaumont and George Clayton Johnson were well-known as go-to guys for a good script. Today, because shows are mostly staff-written, it’s a lot harder for a TV writer to establish a reputation outside of his specific show, until he becomes a producer.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written for one my favorite shows (Babylon 5), as well as scripts for Logan’s Run, Twilight Zone, and other TV series. star trekHow much control do you have over these scripts? In other words, do they get edited greatly by Hollywood types or are the end results usually what you wanted?

GERROLD: It depends on the producer. Joe Straczynski (Babylon 5) is one of the very best. He knows what a good script looks like and he respects writers who bring their passion to the story. He trusts writers. He doesn’t rewrite scripts unnecessarily.

Other producers (unnamed) can’t drink their coffee without first peeing in it to improve the flavor. Every writer has horror stories.

VENTRELLA: Your novel THE MARTIAN CHILD has to be one of your biggest successes, and that must be very satisfying to you given the biographical aspects of the story. Do you think the personal nature of the story hindered you in any way?

GERROLD: Actually, I think the personal nature of the story was enormously liberating. I didn’t have to make stuff up. It was already there. And because the focus of the story was about the relationship between myself and my son, I had an enormous wealth of material to draw upon. The story was about how much I love my son. Whether he’s a Martian or anything else, he’s my Martian. That’s the point.

I think the success of the story has to be that every parent who read the story or saw the movie recognized the experience of falling in love with their own child. I think it’s the best love story I’ve ever lived.

VENTRELLA: Were you happy with the resulting film–both as a film and given the changes that were made to the main character?

GERROLD: Where the movie stayed true to the love story, I enjoyed it enormously. I felt that there were things added to the movie that were unnecessary—-like all that business with sun block and weight belts.martian child I wanted one sequence from the book included, which I felt would have illustrated the core of the entire relationship-—that’s the “pickled mongoose” sequence, where Dennis learns how to tell jokes. I think it would have been a better movie with that included.

VENTRELLA: Money considerations aside, do you prefer books to scripts?

GERROLD: Scripts make more money, but disappear faster. Books are harder work. They’re a much more personal creation. I view books as a special kind of love affair with one reader at a time.

VENTRELLA: Through Land of The Lost and the Star Trek animated series, you worked with a number of great science fiction writers. Do you see that sort of thing in television today?

GERROLD: There was a moment when a producer (unnamed) who should have known better, said, “Don’t hire science fiction writers. They think they know more about my show than I do.” And based on the evidence, most SF writers do know more about science fiction than most TV producers.

On the other hand, there are brilliantly written shows like Dr. Who that demonstrate that an intelligent writer-producer can push the envelope over and over again.

VENTRELLA: You were originally involved in the first season of Next Generation but left as the lawyers took over … Has TV (and the movies) turned away from the people who know science fiction best to instead rely upon standard television scriptwriters too much? If so, are there exceptions?

GERROLD: See above. The exception is Dr. Who.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on all the various Star Trek incarnations? Which is your favorite? (Not counting the episode where you had a cameo…)

GERROLD: A lot of good people have worked on a lot of different incarnations of Star Trek. But my favorite is still the original series, the episodes produced by Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon—when Star Trek was about exploring a very big, very unknown universe. Book1-AMatterForMen-DavidGerroldIt was about challenging our heroes with the question, “How does this universe work? What is our place in it? What does it mean to be a human being?” Those stories were humane, subversive, disturbing, thoughtful, and ultimately caused a whole generation to think outside the boundaries of what we had previously believed to be possible. To me, that’s what Star Trek should be—a humanistic challenge, not just a franchise for selling toys and tickets.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever have a project you really wanted to do that fell through? Do you have any new ones you’re trying to get done?

GERROLD: The Star Wolf TV series. I think that would have been a wonderful show to work on.

And yes, I have some new projects I’m working on.

VENTRELLA: Most authors agree that they write for themselves, not others. Do you agree with that assessment? Is that a good idea for a starting writer?

GERROLD: I write for myself. I let others pay for the privilege of reading over my shoulder.

VENTRELLA: I remember reading your novel THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF when it first came out, and I still recall much of its plot–probably because I love a good time travel story. More importantly, the fun of the book was not the adventure, but the possibilities and consequences of time travel and world changing. Why did you decide to go in that direction instead of a straight-ahead adventure?

GERROLD: Because that’s where the story wanted to go.

VENTRELLA: Did you ever consider doing a sequel? Someone else gets the belt?

GERROLD: A sequel would be anti-climactic. There’s nothing else to say. (Well…that’s not quite true, but I’m not going to give it away here.)

VENTRELLA: Some established authors these days have begun placing their out-of-print catalogue in e-book format and selling it on the web, avoiding a publisher completely.the-man-who-folded-himself-7 Have you considered such a thing? Why or why not?

GERROLD: It costs money to print a book and distribute it. It doesn’t cost anything to make it available as an ebook, and the income goes directly to the writer. Having your back-list available to the audience is good business. I’ve got several stories available on Amazon.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been given advice, as a small time writer, to avoid politics on Facebook and my blog. I’ve ignored that advice. I note that you also post your political views from time to time, as well as visiting a political bulletin board. Do you think this has hurt your sales in any fashion, or do you not care?

GERROLD: Larry Kramer said it, “Silence equals death.” Martin Neimoller said it, “First they came for the communists,and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I think that it’s important to speak up. Not speaking up is surrender. And the status quo is always the enemy. But if you’re going to speak up, do your research first. I believe that the evidence is the strongest argument.

But there’s an even larger context that I would advise. Be pro-, not anti-.  If you’re going to speak up, then speak up for people, speak out against injustice, speak up for making a difference, speak out against hate-mongering. If you identify a class of people and vilify them, you’re making enemies. But if you identify a category of people who have a just cause and speak out for them, you’re showing your compassion for others.

I think that if we remain silent, our silence is interpreted as agreement. Nope. I’d rather be unpopular for speaking out than accepted for the lie of silence.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of politics, one of the biggest issues for me is the anti-science position many take these days–arguing against climate change and evolution for political or religious reasons instead of scientific ones.13806 As someone who relies on science for your fiction, what’s your opinion on this? What should we do?

GERROLD: The answer to hate speech is more speech, honest speech, accurate speech, thoughtful speech, humane speech, rational speech, compassionate speech, forgiving speech, loving speech.

The answer to stupid speech is evidence, rationality, accuracy. And occasionally, a healthy bit of ridicule.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

GERROLD: Terry Pratchett, John Varley, Spider Robinson, George R.R. Martin, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Laura Joh Rowland, Frederik Pohl, and about a thousand others who are stored on my Kindle and who I have not yet gotten to.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

GERROLD: Science fiction is harder to write. There’s so much new science happening every day that it’s impossible to keep up.

Fantasy doesn’t have the same restrictions, but writing a great fantasy might be even harder than writing good science fiction. I think George R.R. Martin proves that.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

GERROLD: Quit.

If you’re going to be discouraged, be discouraged now and save yourself all that time and frustration.

But if being told to quit just pisses you off, then maybe you have the determination to keep going no matter how frustrated you get.9780812576085

VENTRELLA: Given your career, you’ve met a number of other talented and/or famous people. Who did you most enjoy meeting?

GERROLD: Robert A. Heinlein, of course. Theodore Sturgeon. Arthur C. Clarke. Spider Robinson. Anne McCaffrey, Frederik Pohl, Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, but especially Harlan Ellison who has been a lifelong friend.

Outside of the writing community, the entire cast of the original Star Trek series, especially William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Kelley, and Nichelle Nichols.

Beyond that, Robin Williams, Virginia Madsen, Candice Bergen, Pat Tallman, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, Levar Burton, Chase Masterson…I could go on for hours.

Oh yes, and one particular former Mouseketeer I had a kind of crush on once.

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

GERROLD: Suetonius, Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut, and Gore Vidal.

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 Author Stephen Brayton

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Stephen L. Brayton today! He has written numerous short stories and books, mostly horror and mystery. His website is here.

Stephen, tell us about your latest work.

STPEHEN L. BRAYTON: I’m working on a book trying resolve some of the imponderable questions of life. Why do all boats have right hand drive? Why is there braille on the keys of drive through ATM machines? Does anybody really know the rules of cricket? Why do females always go to the restroom in groups?

Huh? Oh, you want to know about my latest writing project. Well, it’s called ALPHA, but don’t get the idea that it’s the first book. The first book of mine to be published was called NIGHT SHADOWS, about a homicide detective and an FBI agent out to solve some supernatural murders in Des Moines.

BETA was the first book in the Mallory Petersen series. Mallory is a Fourth Degree Black Belt and private investigator in Des Moines. Most of her cases are a little odd, but every now and then she accepts something serious. In this book, she is hot on the trail of a kidnapped eight year old girl and tangles with members of a child pornography ring.

In ALPHA, published this last August, Mallory becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of her boyfriend. This time around she has to deal with crooked cops, illegal narcotics and gangs.

VENTRELLA: What is your next project?

BRAYTON: I’m working on an entirely new type of vampire story. I want these vamps to sparkle when they appear. I think it would make a great series of movies… What? Already done? Oh well.

Actually, I have three projects on my desk that I would like to finish. I’m 2/3 completed with DELTA, the next Mallory Petersen mystery. I’m also reworking the sequel to NIGHT SHADOWS. I also have another private investigator mystery’s first draft finished. It just needs hours and hours of editing and rewrites.

VENTRELLA: You’ve had more than one publisher for your works. How did you choose which publisher to use?

BRAYTON: Whichever one would succumb to blackmail first. See, I have video of…well, let’s save that for another day, shall we?

Actually, for NIGHT SHADOWS and BETA, I queried several publishers after I attended a conference in Chicago in 2009. Three of them emailed rejections, but Echelon Press accepted both novels.

A couple years later, I met Sunny Frazier, acquisition editor for Oak Tree Press and became a member of her Posse email group. In 2011, I had finished with ALPHA and queried her to see if Oak Tree would be interested in this book. She accepted and ALPHA was published as a trade paperback. The first two are currently only available as eBooks.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give a starting author about finding a publisher?

BRAYTON: I think writers need to start promoting early. How early? Well, when did you first conceive of your idea for a story? Yes, that early. Get yourself a website, a blog, and join some of the social network sites. Attend conferences and critique groups and make contacts? How does this aid you in finding a publisher? Well, if you’re already promoting and becoming serious about writing, then it’ll be that much easier to find someone who is interested in you.

Two examples of how this can work. First, when Sunny receives a query, she doesn’t begin with the manuscript. She puts the writer’s name into an Internet search engine and sees how many times that person is listed? If the person isn’t already a presence, Sunny will be less inclined to accept the manuscript no matter how good the story is. She’s looking for marketers first, then she’ll consider the quality of the story.

A second example is, Kat, an author friend who attended a seminar in Minneapolis a couple months ago. During the two days, she attracted the attention of the presenter who became interested in Kat’s story and and asked her to finish it and submit it.

These are two of the ways to find a publisher. Then, it’s up to the writer to do some homework. Check into the publisher and find out how they operate. Do authors have multiple books with the same publisher? How do they operate? How much work are they going to put in to promote your book and how much are you going to have to do? What promotional ideas do they have?

VENTRELLA: What are the disadvantages and advantages of using a small publisher?

BRAYTON: Disadvantages: they don’t have the financial means to give you a splashy promotion. Of course, nowadays, neither do the big guys. All publishers are expecting the author to do the lion’s share of promoting. Most small publishers have a small staff who are very busy, so don’t expect things to move quickly.

Advantages: I think in some ways, the smaller presses can be more personable. Plus, they’re more willing to accept new authors because they’re looking for business. They can’t afford the well established names but there are some popular writers who have had a fair amount of success with the indies.

VENTRELLA: Do you believe that anyone can be a fiction writer or is the ability to tell a story more of an innate thing?

BRAYTON: I think everybody tells stories. Just eavesdrop on a conversation at a restaurant or a bar or when friends gather. Everybody is telling stories. Sometimes the stories relate a true incident and sometimes the person will, uh, stretch the truth to sensationalize the story.

It’s a different matter if the person can take pen to paper to tell the story in a way that is concise, has a beginning, middle, and ending. Does the person know how to follow simple grammar/punctuation/spelling rules and know when to break them? Is the story worth telling or is the person just trying to tell what happened at work today?

Serious writers will take the time to learn the craft, learn from others, and constantly work to improve.

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

BRAYTON: I remember when I created Mallory Petersen. Nobody told me to build a character profile, I just did it. It made sense to figure out all I could about the character. Likes and dislikes, personality, quirks, favorite color and flower. The car she drives, whether she rents or owns a residence. Her friends and enemies. I don’t do this with every character (although I should), but I know enough about my characters, right now, to make them vivid and memorable. When some secondary character needs more attention, then I’ll go back to the profile and fill in a bit more.

Because I write about a woman as my main character, I am constantly asking women if I’ve stayed true to the gender. Do I understand how women act and react? Is the personality too rough or too feminine? Do I understand how a woman feels when attracted to a man? This is my challenge, to keep Mallory’s character real in each book.
Most of the time when I research a story, I’ll visit the locations for each scene and try to envision how the character will behave during the scene. I’ll try to get into the character’s head and figure out what she’s thinking and if it seems reasonable, then I’ll go with it.

VENTRELLA: What is the best way for an author to use the services of an editor?

BRAYTON: I have discovered many ways to edit a manuscript. Unfortunately, I am unable to find the time to incorporate most of them. I’d love to have a three other people to run through the story. One reads it aloud, one reads along silently, and the third one listens. Then they switch roles. This way, everybody has a different perspective and a viewpoint I might not have considered.

Of course, there are critique groups which are invaluable. You can also pay for editing, although be careful because if you get someone who doesn’t know what he/she is doing, then you’ve wasted your money. I wouldn’t waste time and money on a professional editor unless you can afford it.

Besides, once your publisher’s editor gets it, that person is going to find mistakes and make suggestions. So clean it up the best you can before it’s submitted. You’ll save everybody a lot of time.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

BRAYTON: I’ve been learning that part of my problem is I don’t outline enough. I’m so eager to get to writing, I don’t think through a lot of the potential problems and pitfalls of the story and end up wasting some time having to research and possibly rewriting sections. This is what I’m currently experiencing with DELTA. I wrote a chapter and now I’m going to rewrite it because I talked with another author about how to strengthen the scene. If I would have researched the issue a little more in depth beforehand, I might have saved some time.

Yes, I outline. Then I write linearly, that is, from Chapter One onward. Normally, I write at work (after all my duties are done, of course) because it’s quiet with few distractions. I usually have NPR classical music on for background noise. I write longhand and my first edit is inputting the longhand onto the computer. Then I’ll read chapters to a critique group and jot down their advice.

VENTRELLA: What have you done to promote your work?

BRAYTON: Social networking. Blogtalkradio. Guest posts on other blogs. Internet interviews. Radio interviews. I was featured in a local television newscast. Library and bookstore appearances. I leave business cards wherever I go and put them in the mail when sending bill payments. I have family and friends who talk me up to others.

I’m open to discussing any other venues. I think authors need to look at non-traditional ways and places to promote. I know a couple of authors who co-write a series about animals. They attended the local Pet Exposition to sell their books. This is the type of thing authors need to look at when marketing.

VENTRELLA: What general advice do you have for the aspiring author that you wish someone had given you when you began writing?

BRAYTON: Do your homework! I think I covered a lot of it above when I discussed promoting early. Learn the craft of writing.

Figure out what you want to accomplish with your writing. Do you want to make money? Be famous? Be on the New York Times bestseller list? Entertain local folks? Do you want to write just for your family and small group of friends? Whichever you decide, invest some time to research the best method of accomplishing it.

If you’re going to be serious about writing, be serious. I’m get tired of hearing authors who are still outlining after several years or still developing characters or constantly rewrite the first chapter or switch stories because one isn’t working out. Come on! Knock it off and write! Stop the excuses and write. Sure, there are ‘life’ matters to attend to, but serious writers will make time to write. Nobody had to tell me to write, I wanted to write. I still want to write. I get antsy if I don’t. I feel as if I’m letting others and myself down by not finishing that next chapter.

Learn from others and find your way of creating and writing a story.

Interview with author Ryk E. Spoor

MICHEAL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Ryk E. Spoor today!

Ryk, like many genre writers (including myself), you read science fiction from a young age and then got into gaming. What is it about role-playing games that encourages people to become writers?

RYK SPOOR: Well, on both sides of the game – GM or player – the game itself is telling a story. It may be a very simple story, especially for beginning players or people just in it for a beer-and-pretzels amusement, but a story about how these people go out, confront problems, solve the problems, and achieve their goals. So pretty much by its very nature, RPGs make you into a storyteller … which certainly encourages you to start writing down the stories that affected you most. It’s all downhill from there.

On the GM’s side, of course, it’s even more so. You’re the person who constructs, or at the least controls and directs, the entire world. You know what the villains are doing and why, you have to figure out how they deal with things when your players do something you don’t expect (and they always do something you don’t expect), and so on. That’s pretty much what a writer does – invent a world and tell us the stories in that world. For some writers, there’s even the equivalent of those annoying plot-busting PCs; some writers find their characters taking off on their own.

So honestly, I think the fact is that the very essence of a well-run RPG is storytelling, and anyone who does that a lot will have stories they want to tell.

VENTRELLA: On a previous blog post, I wrote how important it is to make connections if you want to get ahead in the world, with publishing being no exception. Your story is a bit unusual in that regard. How did you go from being a fan/troll to a published author?

SPOOR: Heh. The short version is that I insulted the right person at the right time. I could give you the long, long version, but since this is a written (and presumably to be webbed) interview, let me just point you here; the key part starts with the sentence, “Then one day, I got into an online argument with Eric Flint”, which is a little less than halfway down that page.

VENTRELLA: Had you ever submitted any stories for publication before that?

SPOOR: I actually had submitted a short story when I was 11 to a magazine (I no longer know even which one). It was some years later that I started submitting the Jason Wood stories that eventually became DIGITAL KNIGHT. All of the rejections for those stories read the same way: “This was a great story, everyone in the office loved it, but it’s way too long for magazine publication.” Of course, as individual stories, the Jason Wood stories are also far too short to be novels; they’re novelette or novella length works, which has for years been pretty much the worst length to try to publish.

The three stories which formed the core of DIGITAL KNIGHT – “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish”, and “Viewed in a Harsh Light” – were eventually collected by me and put up for electronic purchase as “Morgantown: The Jason Wood Files” at hyperbooks.com; this was long before the e-book explosion happened, of course, since they were up for several years before Baen ended up publishing me.

VENTRELLA: Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up and what was it about them that appealed to you?

SPOOR: There were a lot of them. When I was very young, the most influential was L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books. I loved Oz – the world, the people, and the subtly macabre and more complex-than-I-appreciated universe. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books were very strong influences because they were a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in a world that was this one …yet not the one I knew.

My dad had quite an SF library that I went through as I got older, but it was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Dickinson, who introduced me to E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series by lending me a battered, somewhat cigarette-scorched copy of Second-Stage Lensmen. Doc became my single biggest influence for years; he defined “sensawunda” to me, and I in fact wrote GRAND CENTRAL ARENA specifically as a salute to him.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

SPOOR: Depends on the book, to a great extent. I have to outline when I’m working with a co-author, like Eric Flint; we discuss the general idea, then I work up an outline, he kicks holes in it, I fix it, we agree on the outline, and then I go to work.

For my own work, it still depends somewhat on which books. In DIGITAL KNIGHT, all of Jason’s major adventures were “outlined” in a single concept: the “trick” or “twist” that he uses to take down the supernatural opponent du jour. Knowing that, the only other thing I had to do was figure out who my main character was; the rest started writing itself.

For PHOENIX RISING, I’d plotted the basic outline of Kyri’s adventures out partly during my gaming time, as Kyri was originally an RPG character. But a lot of her adventures simply fell out of the fact that I know the world so well that by now I can just write it.

With GRAND CENTRAL ARENA I had to first construct the universe; some of that I discussed in my appearance in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea; I actually did write out an outline for it, so I could pitch it to Baen, but once I had the outline I started writing. In many ways the finished product doesn’t look all that much like the outline.

But if I know what I’m writing, my process is basically just to sit down, put on my earphones, and write. I average about 1200 words per hour once I get moving, and I don’t rewrite or edit for the most part; I can’t see flaws in my own writing unless I wait something like five years, so I depend on my beta-readers and my editors to tell me when I’ve screwed up.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about PHOENIX RISING.

SPOOR: Oh, I could talk about that all day. PHOENIX RISING is the first volume in the Balanced Sword trilogy, although since I don’t yet have a contract for the other two volumes I have done my best to give it some kind of closure on its own. The basic story focuses on Kyri Vantage, who loses first her parents and then, later, her brother to unknown forces despite what everyone had thought were strong protections against evil; when she discovers just who and what was behind this, she is forced to become a living representative of a desperate, weakened god in order to bring justice to her home and eventually, she hopes, discover and destroy the true source of this evil; the events, of course, have a far greater impact and importance than Kyri recognizes at first. Other threads in the book follow the other two main characters, Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed, as they first meet each other and then eventually catch up with Kyri at a crucial moment.

This is a terribly important book to me. I wrote the first draft of Kyri’s story in 1992, and I’ve wanted to tell her story ever since; more, this is the first appearance of my fantasy world of Zarathan, which I created back in 1978 and have been building ever since. Zarathan was mentioned, very briefly, in DIGITAL KNIGHT, but there was no real vision of what it WAS in that book.

PHOENIX RISING is also quite complicated; there are threads of plot seen which are part of other stories – for instance, one character who plays a significant role for a part of the book is actually a main character in the projected Spirit Warriors trilogy, and there’s another couple of characters we see a few times who are major players in my other projected trilogy Godswar; basically the problems sweeping the world in PHOENIX RISING are so huge and complex that no one group of heroes can deal with them all; you need at least three separate groups. For the reader, I hope such things give them the feeling of a larger, more real universe, one in which there are a million stories outside of the story we’re following.

Zarathan itself is my main fantasy RPG world (to refer back to your earlier question), and I’ve been running games in it for well over 30 years now, building it, rebuilding it, and coming to a deeper understanding of the universe every day.

VENTRELLA: If I am not mistaken, you have created a universe with both fantasy and science fiction elements for your stories. How have you made the twain meet?

SPOOR: Essentially, the rule to me is that normal physics holds sway unless something changes those rules explicitly. Magic does so, some psionic capabilities do, but that means that science works just fine; it’s just a subset of the laws of nature rather than the whole thing.

It’s really not hard to combine them; as Dave Hargrave, writer of the Arduin Grimoire series of RPG supplements, put it, where’s the alien with the ray gun going to stand out more: on the streets of our cities, or in the fantasy RPG city with the fireball-flinging wizard, magic-sword wielding barbarian, and the dragon flying overhead?

The only trick, so to speak, is to have clear rules as to how the various powers behave and interact. Technology, psionics, and magic all have various advantages and disadvantages in my universe and play off each other in various ways and situations.

Really powerful magic, though, is restricted to Zarathan itself, at least until after a certain event happens, but while I’ve written one story set after that event, overall that’ll be a while before I get there.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a trend away from science fiction, toward fantasy, steampunk, and “urban fantasy” these days. To what do you attribute that change?

SPOOR: There’s several factors. The “low-hanging fruit” in SF was all taken years ago, and general knowledge of the way science works – and doesn’t work – disseminated more and more through the population, making some of the old-school approaches no longer viable. You can’t have your characters just tinker up a spacedrive in the basement and cruise around the solar system in a homemade rocket and expect anyone to take you seriously any more.

The big news in science has also gotten, on average, a lot less immediately accessible. This is part of the overall progression of knowledge; back in the late 1800s to very early 1900s, it was still possible for one person to be “A Scientist” – someone who was an expert in more than one of the general disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Nowadays, it’s hard to be an expert in a splinter branch of any of them. Back then, the average (reading) layman could probably grasp in general terms most, if not all, of the key problems and ideas being explored by scientists of the day; today, many of the concepts, especially in physics, require that you understand some very esoteric concepts before you even grasp the question, let alone the answer.

Fantasy is not easier to write, really, but it’s easier to make graspable because the complexity of the rules governing the world aren’t going to be more complex than the writer wants them to be. Plus, in most cases, the fantasies assume they take place on Earth or a very Earthlike world, so the reader is expected to “fill in” lots of detail all by him or herself. From a writer’s point of view, it’s also safer. No one’s going to go to Tolkien or Brooks, or me, for that matter, and tell us that our magical worlds don’t work the way we think they do. But writers of hard SF? Yeah, we’ll have people telling us when we get it wrong. Stridently, in some cases. The fact is that even if you do a lot of research, you’ll have to stop the research somewhere and get to writing … and it’s an ironclad guarantee that you stopped just before getting to some key fact that a particular group of fans consider critical.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have similar screwups in fantasy, but those are all going to be the kind of screwups you can get in ANY story: failure of internal consistency.

I also think it’s a change in optimism that happened over the last several decades. During the late 1800s through the 1950s, science was romantic, awesome, and wondrous. It was going to solve all our problems. We were going to create new species of plants that would grow food anywhere, make space colonies on the moon and turn Mars into a second Earth. We were going to analyze the workings of the brain and abolish mental illness; we were going to cure cancer and solve the mysteries of the universe.

But science doesn’t actually work that way, and as it ran into the fact that some problems are very resistant to solution (commercial fusion and true artificial intelligence, still 20 years away and have been all my life!), the general public began to also see some of the consequences of misuse of technology (pollution, etc.) and associate this WITH technology. The shiny glow of hope faded and the chrome-plated future got tarnished. But shining worlds of high fantasy can’t be rendered hopeless by the same process … and one can also, of course, apply the same overlay of grimness and edginess to fantasy as one can to SF, so the net result is much more fantasy and less clear SF.

(of course, we’ll note that this assumes that there’s a clear division between SF and fantasy, which isn’t the case)

VENTRELLA: Creating new worlds is fun but also difficult in that there is the need to explain the world without massive info dumps. How do you do it?

SPOOR: I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. Sometimes I feel like I do nothing in the beginning of a new book but try to dump the info into the readers’ head.

The main techniques that I use are the tried-and-true methods of either (A) having the characters discuss key information as part of a normal conversation – usually with one character who has some reason not to know the key info, so they’re not “As you know, Bob …” type discussions, or (B) having the information emerge from the events of the story.

This latter technique is one that is best used for pieces of information which will actually become vital sometime later in the story – Jane’s doing X, which happens to cause Y to happen, leading her to realize (along with the reader) that Z is one of the characteristics of the world. Twenty chapters later, Jane realizes that applying Z will get her out of the situation she’s in. This allows the reader to follow along and maybe guess what Jane’s going to do with this new-found knowledge. I did this in Grand Central Arena to plant all the clues for how Ariane would be able to defeat Amas-Garao in the final Challenge.

VENTRELLA: I’ve recently realized that all my stories have the everyday person who is stuck in a situation and must overcome great odds through bravery and intellect – the reluctant hero who has no extraordinary skills. Have you find any connecting threads for your protagonists?

SPOOR: I like my heroes Heroic and my villans Villanous, for the most part. I don’t usually have reluctant heroes, although inexperienced and sometimes clueless heroes, that’s fine. As I tend to write my stories (just as I run my RPGs) at a high power level, they all tend to be at the least very highly competent and at the most quite superhuman in order to survive the threats they’re up against.

All of my characters – heroes and villains – tend to be smart. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes or misjudge things, but that they try not to do obviously stupid actions. The really smart ones often think many steps ahead. I want to see smart heroes VS smart villains

Most of my characters tend to be fairly modest, often underestimating their own abilities. The few arrogant ones (like A.J. Baker) usually get smacked down fairly regularly.

High Melodrama is my preference in writing, and most of my characters share that preference in their behavior. I have to rein in that tendency when writing hard SF like Boundary, of course.

VENTRELLA: How do you get inside the minds of your characters to make sure they all don’t talk and act alike?

SPOOR: Heh. Sometimes I don’t think they do. I actually don’t have a … technique per se. I just get to know who they are and then I know what they’d say, and how they’d say it. I couldn’t tell you why, but I know when something is right and when it isn’t, so I write it the way that sounds right.

VENTRELLA: Ryk, we met while on a panel together at Albacon some years ago. How important is it to attend conventions to promote yourself?

SPOOR: I honestly can’t say; I can’t afford to go to many at all, so if it’s important, I’m in deep doo-doo. Aside from Albacon, I used to go to Genericon; other than that I was at I-Con once, the World Fantasy Convention when it was up in Saratoga, and Worldcon when it was in Boston, but I haven’t done much promoting. I’m terrible at promoting, actually. I hate it; I’d rather spend my time writing, unless the promotion’s something fun and flashy in and of itself.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

SPOOR: I’ve had generally good experiences with publishing, so I have minimal criticisms, aside from saying that the publishers who are clinging to DRM are gonna shoot themselves in the foot. About the only thing that’s annoying is long delays in reaction times, but alas, there’s so much slush and so hard to get people to read it, so there’s not likely to be much change there.

I think publishers need to look at reaching out to the self-publishing industry and offering professional services such as editing in an organized sense. This might be one thing that can keep them alive in the changing landscape of publication.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

There’s so many names. The old classics like RAH, Heinlein, etc., still work. Terry Brooks usually gives a good entertaining read. My preference is for worlds that are overall brighter than this one, or whose heroes at least shine brightly, so a lot of current writers tend to skirt the edge of that threshold, like Harry Connolly and Charles Stross.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of manga, especially Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist – some of the best stories I’ve ever read, actually.

Out of genre, some of my favorite comfort reads are Nero Wolfe novels or the adventure classics like Scaramouche, the Count of Monte-Cristo, Scarlet Pimpernel, etc.

Honestly, however, I’ve had a lot less time to read since I became an author. I probably read more stuff to my kids than I do to myself.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

Heh. I never learned from advice, so I’m terrible at giving it. Only two things, really; they’re pieces of advice someone did tell me eventually, but not when I started writing:

1) Never make it easy on your characters.

2) Don’t let anyone tell you there’s one particular way to write; “There are nine-and-sixty ways to compose tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” That said, writing takes work, it’s not magic.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SPOOR: Again, two, I think.

1) Thinking they have some precious, original idea that someone will steal. No, you don’t. Any idea you have, someone else already had. Probably five or ten someones. And they did it at least twenty years and maybe as many as two thousand years before you think they could possibly have done it. No one’s trying to steal your ideas. Especially other writers; we have more ideas already than we know what to do with.

2) Not reading. Especially in the genre. This would partially alleviate #1, because you’d be seeing all the other ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of new authors appear to be coming in mostly from non-print media. You really should read quite a bit of the older stuff, then the newer stuff, before you try to drop into the business, otherwise you’ll think you’re onto a new twist on an idea when it’s actually a twist we’ve seen a hundred times. I averaged a book a day from the time I was 7 or so until I was probably in my mid to late 20s. I don’t expect everyone to hit that level, but reading a bunch of the foundational classics of the genre is awfully important to ground you in this business.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

SPOOR: “Would you like this check for a million dollars?”

Honestly, while all interviews skip over one question or another, all of them together seem to have hit all the questions I’d expect someone to ask. Maybe, in a few years or ten, I’ll have had enough interviews to notice something missing!

Ryk and me on a panel together at Albacon 2010

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 and Publisher Karen Syed

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Karen Syed, bookseller, author, publisher, and all around awesome gal. There are so many things floating around about Karen, but the only truth is that she is really cool. She recently (four days before the date of her doing this interview) moved to Orlando. Having been raised in Florida (and swearing she would never move back), she spent ten years in Texas, two years in Tennessee, and then five years in Maryland, she headed back to the sunshine state with her totally awesome husband. When asked why she decided to move back to Florida, she will simply tell you it is to be closer to Mickey, Pooh, and Tinkerbell. Her favorite food is dill pickles (especially Kosher deli dills) and fried chicken, which her husband won’t let her eat very often since she got the Pacemaker/defibrillator. Heart failure and an enlarged heart sucks. (Disclaimer: Karen might have written this intro herself … but who really knows…)

You come from an interesting background in that you expanded your bookstore into a publishing company. This sounds like a fascinating story; please share it with us!

KAREN SYED: I knew at a very early age that I would be a writer. I would write on anything. I also knew I loved books. I have been reading (well) since I was four. I read everything from shampoo bottles and air freshener cans to books. So when I met my (now husband of 15 years) and he offered to buy me a bookstore, I knew I had hit the motherload of love … books and a great man. Boy howdy!

At the end of my first year as a bookseller, I was nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year. I still have no idea who nominated me, but some store in Indiana won. Oh well. So after about four years in the store, a friend and I started Echelon Press. Within eighteen months, I knew I wanted to do the publishing full time. So, I sold the store and forged ahead. During my bookstore days I managed to get a couple books published very badly.

I was so desperate to be a published author that I signed my rights away to my work for seventy years past my natural life … not once, but twice — two different companies. Oy!

So the reason for Echelon Press was to give new writers a place to break into the business. Ten years later, we’ve done okay.

VENTRELLA: How does your fiction writing fit in?

SYED: I’ve been writing for so long I don’t even know when it actually started. It wasn’t until 1987 that I considered writing as a career. My grandmother and mother were great at encouraging me and my Gramma event bought me a brand new Brother electric typewriter. It was such a vote of confidence, I knew I couldn’t let her down.

I wrote a lot for several years and even after I had the store. But once the publishing house started to take off, I had to make the tough choice; my own writing or discovering potential bestsellers. Finding awesome writers to publish is way cooler than revising my own work. But I do miss the writing. So much in fact that I did NaNoWriMo in 2010 and write a Steampunk novel that I have yet to revise. But I loved it, and I am a winner.

VENTRELLA: The future of publishing certainly is heading in the direction of e-books; however, there is still a stigma attached to books that are either not available in a hard copy or only available as a POD. Do you see that changing in the future?

SYED: Oooh, I just wanna smack people who feel the need to feed the distinction. A book is a book is a book. I say this in almost every interview I have done for the last ten years. There doesn’t need to be one or the other. I love my Kindle, but I also love my paperbacks. I just moved and cursed all twenty or so boxes of books I had to lug on and off the moving truck.

The sooner people realize it is a personal choice, the happier we will all be. I don’t see print becoming obsolete until we run out of trees, which means that it is perfectly safe for people to stop beating a dead horse and give eBooks the credit they have earned.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a (relatively) easy path for printing these days in that just about anyone can claim to be a “publisher” by getting software for distributing e-books and using someone else to do some PODs. Is this a good or a bad thing?

SYED: I admit to being torn on this issue. Educating people on the value of POD printing has been a tough road, but the growth of the self-publishing industry has helped with that. Of course, with one solution comes another problem. Sadly, anyone can become a publisher or an author, but not many actually become “good” publishers or authors. There is a lot of laziness in the self-publishing industry. Ugly covers, lack of effective editing, and low quality materials. This does not have to be the case. It all boils down to pride in product.

This is kinda like “Made in the USA” merchandise. A lot of times we buy stuff from other countries because the quality is better. Same thing with books. Most of us (readers) will try anything, but if you screw us once, we will move on. I read very few NYT best-selling authors because their work simply isn’t as good as most of the midlist authors I like. Why? Because the big authors know their books will sell whether they are good or not. Okay, this is not the case with all and that was a very general statement, but I think everyone knows what I mean.

Just because someone says he is a publisher doesn’t mean he is any good at it. Good publishing is not easy and if anyone says it is, he is lying like an old Oriental rug.

VENTRELLA: How can readers and writers know they are dealing with a publisher that is legitimate — where there is a standard for acceptance and books are edited before they are published?

SYED: Do your homework. Don’t assume that because they have a website they are good at what they do. As you said, anyone can say it. Talk to authors who have been with them, current and previous. If you only get awesome answers and high praise, dig a little deeper. We all have some issues and if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

I’ll be honest; there are people out there who will tell you I am a horrible publisher. They lie! No, honestly, there are a few cases where authors previously with Echelon have legitimate gripes, but pay careful attention to what is fact and what are sour grapes. I’d like to think that our successes far exceed our failures and we can’t be everything to everyone. But I will probably die trying.

Make sure that when you are considering a publisher that they share your vision. If you are not on the same page, neither the author, nor the publisher will be happy.

VENTRELLA: We met at a writer’s conference earlier this year. Have you found these to be a successful way for authors to find publishers?

SYED: Conferences have been outstanding for Echelon. I have literally found 50% of our authors at conferences, conventions, festivals, and even one at a craft sale. I need to connect with people and the only way to do that is to be out in the industry. I am a people person and I need that interaction. I also need to see a person’s face when they tell me what they are willing to do. I have learned (the hard way) who the liars are, and they are out there.

VENTRELLA: I still remember your expression when I mentioned I had written a vampire book; admittedly, it improved when you discovered the plot was not just another typical copycat. So here’s my question: What types of stories are you tired of receiving?

SYED: Pretty much vampire stuff. Heehee! Just kidding … sorta. I am truly sick to death of terrorist stories. I am of the mind that if the media and the entertainment industry continues to glamorize the horrific nature of terrorism, it will only continue to feed the fear and misunderstanding. I love thrillers as much as the next guy/gal, but there needs to be a limit and I simply don’t want to be the one to publish it. Reality sucks, why keep that fire burning so brightly.

VENTRELLA: How much of a story do you need to read before you can tell you’re going to reject it?

SYED: Totally depends on the story. I have read as few as two pages and knew I would rather gouge my eyes out than read any more, but I have also made it all the way to the end of some books and still couldn’t justify publishing it. It’s sad really when I find a book that I love, but I know I can’t make it sell. For example. I recently experienced the opposite. I got a submission (MARCEL’S GIFT) from an author named Marie Colligan. Her book is women’s fiction and involves a marriage, a tryst, a priest, the Pope, and a lot of love, understanding, and acceptance. I was shocked at the concept, but intrigued enough to keep reading. I kept telling my husband I didn’t have any idea how I could sell this book, but by the time I got to the end, I was so swept away, I am confident people will either love this book or hate it, but I know it will sell.

VENTRELLA: Have you rejected a book because you didn’t think you could work with an author, or thought the author wouldn’t promote their own material sufficiently? (Looking for anecdotes here but not names!)

SYED: Hey, I’ll give you names. This was not an immediate rejection, but … I contracted an author named Martin Bartloff. He wrote a book called TORN FROM NORMAL. It is a YA story that is very dark and very emotional. It deals with teen suicide. I was intrigued with the idea, but it was the recommendation of one of my editors that led me to contract it. We got to work and I soon discovered that Martin’s personality was far too powerful for me to tolerate in a working relationship. I know that sounds horrible, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t doubt his enthusiasm, or his desire to sell; it was specifically our personalities. I reverted his rights and suggested he self-publish. Martin needed to be in the driver’s seat. He did what I suggested.

Now, I admit that I have been a bit of a mentor to him through it all, but it was on his terms and I knew I could walk away any time. Martin is doing very well with his book and we have become very good friends. I enjoy him as a person so much more than I did as an author — don’t get me wrong, he is a great author — I just knew that if I had not made that decision, a very hard one, things would have ended very badly. As it were, things went better than either of us could have considered.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of advice you could give a starting author that isn’t obvious and hasn’t been stated many times before?

SYED: Don’t be stupid and don’t be conceited. You are not all that and a bag of chips. We are all just people and we all need help and guidance in all that we do. We are not born brilliant; it’s very hard work. In order to find great success, you must be willing to admit when you are wrong. Know when to ask for help. More than anything, do not assume you know more than everyone else just because you wrote the book. I don’t care what anyone says, writing the book is the easy part. I can say that I’ve done it all. I know.

If you think you can be a successful author just by writing book after book, think again. You can write a hundred books, but if you don’t get anyone to read them, you are just a writer, not an author. Whether you go with a traditional publisher or self-publish, you better be willing to learn how to market and sell or you better be satisfied with selling a few dozen books to your family.

VENTRELLA: We discussed some of your success stories concerning authors who submitted short stories for download. I’ve had short stories published in anthologies, but have never gone to the “download just the story” route. Do you think that is the way of the future, given that anthology sales keep dropping?

SYED: I am not a fan of anthologies. I sincerely hope that more writers will learn the value of electronically publishing short stories. eBooks could seriously revive the short story industry.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?

SYED: Think about it. A writer who has spent years writing shorts, but never finding the “right” anthology to accept them. How sad is that? Short stories are a great way to develop your writing skills and to increase you readership. There is no downside to eBook shorts.

VENTRELLA: How important are agents for publishers like yourself?

SYED: Disclaimer: I have met quite a few agents that I personally liked. However, I have only found one agent that has been worth anything with regard to working with me. More times than not, agents turn out to be more trouble for me than good. Being a smaller (or boutique) publisher, we don’t have the perks to offer than a NY house does. We often don’t pay as much as a larger house (for obvious reasons) so why would an author want to give 15% to an agent when there is little to nothing an agent can do to help them with me?

The few times I have tried to work with agents, it has meant me giving up every bit of legal protection for my company so the author could have every little thing they wanted, with no compromise.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about your books. You originally started out writing primarily romance. Tell us about those!

SYED: They are brilliant. No, really. Okay, they are damn good. I have a tendency to write what I want and that made it impossible for me to find a traditional publisher. I wrote between the cracks as a very nice editor at Mills & Boon told me one Christmas Eve as she was rejecting me. Nice, huh? I worked in daycare for fifteen years so almost all my books have some strong young characters to compliment the lead couples.

I also tend to write flawed characters. DARK SHINES MY LOVE has a blind hero. LOST AND FOUND has an orphaned teen with an emotionally devastated uncle as her guardian. THE WINGS OF LOVE deals with a man’s issues with his family and his belief in himself and things in general.

I have always been a fixer, so I write people who I can fix. Romance is about happily ever after and redemption. I do both pretty well. If I do say so myself.

I am currently toying with a mystery and a Steampunk novel. I met an author named Nick Valentino at a conference in San Diego and he introduced me to the Steampunk genre. His novel, THOMAS RILEY, was our first Steampunk novel and has been one of our most successful to date. It totally rocks. I-was-blown-away! Have become a wee bit obsessed with it — both reading and writing it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written under a pseudonym. Why did you decide to do that?

SYED: Well, in the beginning I felt like I needed to keep my writing separate from the bookstore/bookseller. How goofy was I? (Rhetorical) It was nearly impossible to explain my resonating to people and now that I just wanna be me, it is a huge pain in the butt trying to switch things back over. If you decide to write under a pseudonym, please know that it is NOT as easy as Nora Roberts makes it look.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your new Steampunk books.

SYED: Dude, Steampunk is just the coolest thing ever, almost as cool as faeries. I knew after meeting Nick that I was hooked. So when NaNoWriMo came up last year, it was my chance to do a couple things. I spent a solid month writing, and it was bliss. I also got to delve into this totally awesome and explosive genre. My series (I never come up with book ideas, I always come up with series ideas) is called Petticoat Junction and is about four girls from very different lifestyles who join together to make a very formidable band of vigilantes. Each one has a special trait and together they are incredible. Toss in the automatons, alchemy, and big flying things, and it is bliss. Isn’t that a cool word? Bliss .. ahh.

VENTRELLA: Who do you enjoy reading?

SYED: Oy, good thing you are okay with long answers. I have three favorites, oh hey, stories.

My favorite is Caroline Bourne who writes the most incredible historical romances (the best being RIVERBOAT SEDUCTION). Many years ago, I belonged to the Prodigy Romance Writers Group and I ran across a very nice lady named Carol. She became a friend and a mentor of sorts. She was incredibly supportive of me and my writing. After a bit of time, I found out she was actually Caroline Bourne (I had been reading her books for some years and she was already my favorite.) It was like fate had brought her into my life and we have been friends since. We did lose touch for a while, but thanks to Facebook, she found me and I am so freaking pleased to say that within the next couple months we will begin a new journey together. Echelon will be reissuing her previously published romances, as well as new stories (Talon’s Heart) from her. This is as cool as when Robert Goldsborough (who wrote several Nero Wolfe books after the passing of Rex Stout) called me and said he wanted to submit his mystery to Echelon. We published THREE STRIKES YOU’RE DEAD which turned out to be the first in his original Snap Malek mystery series. We have published five in the series so far, along with a couple shorts.

I also adore Jill Barnett. Her paranormal romance, BEWITCHING, was a light in the darkness for me when my first marriage was falling apart. I have never read a book by her that I did not love. And she is a wonderfully nice lady.

Julia Spencer Fleming opened a new genre for me with her IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER (A Claire Fergguson Novel). Her writing is some of the best I have ever read and her characters are just so real, you really feel like you know them.

I mentioned thrillers up a bit and once of my favorite thriller writers is James Rollins. I discovered his Sigma books a few years back and wow! I have been going back to his earlier books and love them just as much. I highly recommend THE DEVIL COLONY, his latest. Mesmerizing.

And this is not the end of the list, but I cannot ignore James Lee Burke. Have been rading his Dave Robicheaux series for years and it is one of the best.

I did recently read my first books from Jacquelyn Winspear and Seanan McGuire and they may just get added to my favorite list.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 134 other followers