Interview with author Leona Wisoker

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing novelist Leona Wisoker today. Leona is a frequent guest at the conventions I attend and I always have a great time when she’s on a panel with me (as long as it’s not too early in the morning before she’s had her coffee).leona-square1 Her science-fantasy series “The Children of the Desert” is set in a world still struggling through a number of basic moral and developmental issues. Her webpage is here.

Leona, how did you first become interested in writing?

LEONA WISOKER: I’ve told stories for as long as I can remember. Whenever my older sisters were out of the house, I would sneak into their rooms and tell their stuffed animals endless fantastical tales. I have no idea if I told stories to my own toys. I probably did. But theirs were so much cooler! Besides, I wasn’t supposed to be in their rooms at all, so that added to the fun.

When I was … around ten, maybe eleven, I taught myself to type using a self-directed record and flipbook course. It made me feel important and business-y and Just Like Dad, who went to an Office every day and had a Desk and Important Grown Up Business to handle. I remember deciding, early in life, that I wanted to have a job that involved an office and a typewriter and a pencil cup and a calculator. Thankfully, I turned out to be a terrible receptionist.

I wrote quite a lot on various typewriters and computers from that point on, although for many years my first processing point was handwriting a story in a notebook. Ah, the days of scribbling away and getting blue ink all over my hands! I think I was in my late twenties before I abandoned that in favor of brainstorming on a computer.

At some point I started submitting my tales to various magazines, if you can call it that. I sent in roughly one story a year: my annual Why-Am-I-Doing-This-When-I-Know-I’m-Gonna-Get-A-Rejection-Day. I was always too busy getting in my own way, of course. I resisted learning technique or craft because I already Knew It All. I had a huge vocabulary! SecretsGallery I earned straight A’s in English class — when I turned in my homework, of course. That was always a problem. Homework is so boring…

Gaming was a lot more fun. I put far more effort into my AD&D campaigns than I ever spent on homework. I built detailed worlds and plans — I wanted to be sure that any tavern or stable the characters walked into, I had plots and hooks ready in all possible directions. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had a file cabinet drawer full of backstory and modules and character sheets and so on. I even developed voices for special NPCs.

Inevitably, it occurred to me that all this work would be better off used for stories. I drifted away from gaming and focused on my writing. Now I could finally showcase all the really cool stuff the gamers kept missing, and these characters wouldn’t ever insist on wandering off across town to the one spot I hadn’t developed, goddamnit–

Um. Yeah. Well, by the time I learned the flaw in that reasoning, it was too late. I already had so much time and effort invested into learning to write properly that there was nothing for it but to plow ahead. End result, happily, was a four-book publishing contract with Mercury Retrograde Press, and a handful of short stories accepted by various anthologies and short-fiction magazines.

In some ways, it was a lot more fun to tell stories to my sister’s stuffed animals. They were a fantastically supportive audience. Real life writing involves an awful lot of boring homework and practice exercises. I often miss being a GM, too; there’s something exceptionally cool about being in charge of steering a group of people from one disaster to another while they try desperately to outwit you.

But I have a desk, and a chair, and a pencil cup; I go to work in an office, and I feel very Business-y and adult. This is the life I dreamed of as a kid. And I have stuffed animals of my own now — two dragonets that ride on the dash of the Blue Dragon, my much-beloved Jeep; the mini dragons are named Marguerite and Henry. (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference!)

I cannot confirm nor deny telling stories to my dragonets while I’m on long road trips.

VENTRELLA: the transformation from Dungeon Master to author is one I can relate to completely, as can many authors I’ve interviewed here. GuardiansGallery

Which of your characters was the hardest for you to write and why?

WISOKER: Hands down, Ellemoa has been the most difficult character in the series to date. For those unfamiliar with the series, a quick explanation is in order: Ellemoa is a ha’ra’ha from Arason, and Idisio’s mother. She is completely psychotic — by human standards, at least.

Ellemoa illustrates what happens when a ha’ra’ha loses interest in following human morality structures. The only reason she doesn’t go on a rampage and wipe out every single human being in sight is that it would hurt her son–and the last remnant of her sanity is tied to keeping Idisio safe from harm. Balancing her brutality and sympathy was a tricky process. Idisio needed to see himself as independent, Ellemoa needed to believe that she was in charge, the reader needed to see the dangerous slide toward mutual insanity underlying the entire relationship. And I needed the reader to be rooting for Ellemoa to come back from the darkness in spite of her terrible actions. So from a technical standpoint it was tough; from an emotional standpoint it was painful, because I had to really think about what she’d gone through and how she would react.

Not something I really want to do again. I’m not planning on ever developing another character quite that damaged. Once was enough, unless I want to start along Stephen King’s career path….

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist and antagonist believable characters?

WISOKER: With the “Children of the Desert” series, I found it easiest to round out each character by showing them from other points of view; thus the multiple POVs in each book. For example, one person thinks Alyea is wonderful, another sees her as a spoiled noble brat; and then there’s how she sees herself. That approach brings fantastic complexity to characters.

When I’m working with a single POV, as in my short stories, I try to keep ordinary and extraordinary moments balanced. BellsGallery In one of my stories (“Silver and Iron”, Sha’Daa: Pawns), an evil fae makes plans to sacrifice her lover in order to summon demons, then goes to the grocery store and deals with traffic jams. “Believable” roots in common experiences, in keeping a foot in what we see as real life. Meals are a really easy way of hitting that shared note, because everyone has to eat. Basic weather changes also give the character and the reader to meet on common ground.

The hardest part, for me, is cutting out the fat. I tend to overwrite, and my early drafts have to be put on a drastic diet. It’s a painful but strangely satisfying process.

Speaking of process, it’s time for me to return to my fiction writing. I’m still not done with the first draft of the last book in the “Children of the Desert” series, and it’s getting both annoying and embarrassing. Fear and anger are excellent motivational forces, aren’t they?

Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Mike! This was a lot of fun.

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing NY Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley today! A.J. is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including the mystery/thrillers such as THE MASK OF ATREUS, young adult fantasies like ACT OF WILL, and children’s fantasies like DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT (which won SIBA’s best YA novel of 2012). Hartley With David Hewson he has written two adaptations of Shakespeare plays as Game of Thrones-esque epic thrillers, the first of which was MACBETH, A NOVEL (audio edition voiced by Alan Cumming), and HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. When he’s not writing, A. J. is UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Professor of Shakespeare.

A.J., I just finished reading ACT OF WILL and enjoyed it tremendously! Like my own ARCH ENEMIES, it is a first-person high fantasy story with a punnish title about a cowardly young entertainer with a sarcastic voice who gets thrown into an adventure against his will — so you can see why it appeals to me. (The stories otherwise have nothing in common plot-wise.) What inspired you to write ACT OF WILL?

A.J. HARTLEY: I grew up reading high fantasy—Tolkien, Le Guin, Lewis, and the like — and loved it all, but as my reading tastes expanded, I started to crave fantasy which was rooted in some version of reality and didn’t take itself too seriously. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett because I think he proves that fantasy with a comic edge needn’t be “light” and can be as serious as more obviously ponderous works. I like that. I’ve always been a devotee of writing which is fun, outrageously populist, deliberately and self-consciously “genre” but still rich and complex and layered. Like Shakespeare, a master genre writer if ever there was one. ACT OF WILL grew out of many of these impulses: high fantasy with an attitude and a strong sense of character voice, swords and sorcery with a little Salinger thrown in.

VENTRELLA: It seems to have gone through a number of different printings with different publishers. Can you share that story with us?

HARTLEY: From the first time I submitted the manuscript, I ran into the familiar problem of publishers saying something like “we love it, but we don’t know what it is.” In other words, it was considered a hybrid in terms of genre. They didn’t know what shelf to put it on. It took me twenty years to sell it. Literally. By then the market had evolved so that smart-mouth heroes and a pointed absence of dwarves and elves were no longer considered antithetical to fantasy.

Even so, when the book came out from Tor, people weren’t sure how to market it. The original hardback cover (which I actually really liked) didn’t look like a fantasy novel at all, and it certainly didn’t suggest its young adult protagonist. Both novels (ACT OF WILL was followed by WILL POWER) were very well reviewed (the second book made Kirkus Top ten for the year –- and Kirkus are notoriously hard to please!) but they didn’t really sell. ActofWill

When they went into paperback, Tor went with more conventional fantasy style covers, but that didn’t solve the problem. Simply put, people who read them liked them, but not enough people read them. They eventually went out of print and I self-published them with the current, more aggressively YA covers. Interestingly, these covers (stylishly designed by a wonderful designer called Asha Hossain) have really touched a chord with readers and book sellers. They play up the drama of the stories, rather than the slightly tongue in cheek tone, but they fit the books very well indeed.

VENTRELLA: ACT OF WILL takes place in a sort of alternate middle ages, in that there are some things that are definitely relatable to the real medieval world (the way women were treated, men playing female parts in plays, etc.) yet without using any real places (and of course, adding some magic to it). How did you decide what to use and what not to use? In other words, how did you go about developing the world?

HARTLEY: To be honest, Michael, I didn’t. I just made it up as I went along, doing remarkably little of the kind of systematic world building I would do now. The world of the books is an odd mixture of my historical work as a Shakespearean, my travels all over the world (there are moments which — at least to me — evoke India, for example, where I had been right before the final version came into focus), and the voice is clearly modern, without being so contemporary that it would date quickly. What the world contains and doesn’t was determined by the story and the character, particularly the voice of the character.

VENTRELLA: What makes a novel Young Adult? When writing one, how do you change your style (if at all)?

HARTLEY: Most importantly, it’s about the age of the protagonist, and therefore about confronting adulthood in all its aspects. Beyond that, a young adult novel can do anything you might do in an adult novel. YA is defined by the age of the readership rather than by genre, of course, which means that there’s a lot of different kinds of stories within the bracket. Some are virtually indistinguishable from a middle grades novel, while others push the envelope as far as possible in matters of sex, violence, subject matter and vocabulary. So long as you are consistent and clear from the outset as to what you are writing, you can do pretty much what you want. For me, style has less to do with age group as it is to do with the sub genre or style of the story and I never consciously self-censer or simplify.

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

HARTLEY: My next publication will be the HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (co-written with David Hewson) performed by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies) which comes out May 20th. I think that will get a lot of attention. hamlet-cover-300x300 After that, I’m not sure. I’m mid stream on a couple of YA projects, but they aren’t done yet.

VENTRELLA: Of which of your fiction books are you most proud and why?

HARTLEY: This will sound like a dodge, but it’s not. I’m always proud of my work when I first finish it and wouldn’t want it published if I wasn’t, so each project tends to have a special place in my head/heart. Each book has something about it I’m proud of. In ACT OF WILL, it’s voice. In WILL POWER it’s about pulling off a socio-political critique of the genre from within.

VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?

HARTLEY: Depends what they like. If they like YA or adult fantasy, ACT OF WILL. For something a little more Harry Potter-esque, I’d recommend DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT. For historically rooted thrillers, MASK OF ATREUS. For Shakespeare fans, the Macbeth or Hamlet.

VENTRELLA: I see from your CV that you were studying for your doctorate at Boston University around the same time I was graduating from law school and being a public defender there. Maybe we even rode the T together from Brighton. Why did you leave?

HARTLEY: I left after completing my Ph.D and getting my first academic job in Georgia.

VENTRELLA: Much of your work is scholarly. How have you found your styles compare when writing fiction and nonfiction?

HARTLEY: Apples and oranges. There may be a little bleed over in terms of ideas which inform both, but academic writing is an entirely different beast, from writing fiction. Scholarly books are much slower to produce for me, much cagier, much more research-driven and hyper aware of what other people have said. I can do the first draft of a novel in two months. My performance history of Julius Caesar took me almost six years.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always wanted to ask a Shakespeare expert this: Of the hundreds of Shakespeare movies that have been released, which one(s) is/are your favorite(s)? And which just made you scream at how terrible they were?

HARTLEY: I can usually find something of value in most half-way competent films or stagings because I’m looking to be shown something new from a production, not a “correct” interpretation of the play, which I don’t believe exists. We do theatre/film to generate a new art object which grows out of the (necessarily partial) play text, not to somehow broadcast the original in some kind of unmediated way. DarwenArkwrightmedium That’s aid, I do, of course, have preferences. Of recent efforts, I like the Loncraine Richard III with Ian McKellan as an early twentieth century fascist, Branaugh’s Henry V, the Goold Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as a Stalinist tyrant, the filmed stage version of Greg Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, and Joss Whedon’s wonderfully intimate Much Ado.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with the conspiracy nuts who claim Shakespeare never wrote his plays?

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

VENTRELLA: Shakespeare is often cited by authors who point out that what makes a good story is not originality, but the way the story is told. Do you agree?

HARTLEY: Well, it’s sort of a false binary, isn’t it? Shakespeare didn’t generally originate plots, but the stories have his unmistakable stamp which goes beyond sentence-level utterance. I think he proves that a gifted author can own and refresh a story people thought they knew

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

HARTLEY: Hmmm… I believe that writing is generally a fairly self-selecting process, in that you need to love stories and words and work to be good at it, but I see plenty of writing from people who have been at it a while which isn’t that good, so no, I don’t believe anyone can do it. There’s a lot you can learn—from classes, from studying other people’s work, and from just doing it—and I think that most people can achieve a basic competence in getting a story down coherently. But writing really well, with power and subtlety, with an eye for character and an ear for voice? No. I don’t think that can simply be learned by anyone.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

HARTLEY: I think that’s a genre question. Most people who read thrillers and fantasy novels want big drama and larger than life characters which take them out of their conventional reality. For people who read realist literary fiction, generally that’s not true. I like something in between the two.

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

HARTLEY: I outline briefly and loosely — 10-15 pages that sets up the story, main characters, world, key scenes. The book, however, is in the details. Execution is all. atradus But the outline helps me to start with a clear sense of what the book is going to be so that I don’t wander for fifty pages trying to figure out what the story is, what drives it. You need a special gift for self-denying and brutal editing to write without an outline, I think, and most writers don’t have it. It can take me months, even years, to see what a book needs in terms of cutting. Outlines help get me there faster.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?

HARTLEY: Varies from book to book. ACT OF WILL, for instance, began with character voice. Plot came later. MASK OF ATREUS began with two intersecting plot ideas. DARWEN began with a way of reinventing the cross-over-into-a-fantasy-world I first encountered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. WILL POWER came from an idea about what I found frustrating about some conventional fantasy…

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

HARTLEY: Usually, it means, write what you value, what you want to read, what you care about. Then it means, make sure you know what you need to pull it off.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

HARTLEY: Cut them out and then find ways to reveal the information in another way! Unhelpful, I know. I think it helps to think of how movies handle the problem, usually visually.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

HARTLEY: I’ve never been a short story writer. I’ve done a few recently, but I think it’s a very different skill from writing novels, and for the most part I don’t they necessarily transfer that helpfully. If you want to be a novelist, write novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

For me they are, to do them well as genre fiction. They are, paradoxically, easier to pull off as literary fiction, I think, because they don’t have to have the pesky necessity of plot and event. Most genre short stories read—to me—like unfinished novels or, worse, mere episodes.

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

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

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at a few science fiction conventions. Do you find attending these to be a useful activity?

HARTLEY: I do, and find them useful to a point. They can help you answer real questions about the craft and the business, but their real value is in making you feel part of a community. Writing can be very isolating, and it is good to know other people are in the same boat. And sometimes they can produce connections which are directly useful. BUT, some people treat the discourse around writing as a substitute for writing itself. It’s not. Never will be.

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

HARTLEY: It can be a very useful tool for people who already have a fan base, or for people who just want to make their work available but aren’t looking to make a lot of money off it. Some people do make money, of course, but I don’t think they are representative and for many the riches some self-pub promoters tout will never materialize. I also think self-publishing requires a degree of self-promotion most people are not good at, and which takes time away from the development and production of their actual craft: writing. Self-publishing can be a nice extra string to your bow, or a way to find an outlet as you work, but I would still recommend traditional publishing to most writers. Sometimes—not always, of course—but perhaps more often than we usually admit, rejection from publishers is indicative of the fact that the work isn’t ready. Publishing it in any form can do you more harm than good in the long term. I wrote lots of books that were rejected before I had one accepted, and I thank the stars that I didn’t opt to self-publish them. I might not have been able to see it at the time, but I can now. They weren’t ready. They weren’t good enough.

Ravencon 2012

Ravencon 2012

Interview with author Leah Cypess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you hold back anything when writing YA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on attending more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for interviewing me!

Interview with NY Times Bestseller Steven Brust

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Steven Brust today. BrustSteven is best known for his novels about the assassin Vlad Taltos, and has written many short stories in shared universes (including Emma Bull’s and Will Shetterly’s “Liavek,” Robert Asprin’s “Thieves’ World,” Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” and Terri Windling’s “Borderland” series.

I read JHEREG back when it was released, and enjoyed it tremendously. Did you ever have in mind writing a series, or did that happen on its own?

STEVEN BRUST: Yeah, here’s what happened. I wrote that one as a stand-alone, peppering it with foreshadowing and flashbacks because I like that stuff. Then I wrote TO REIGN IN HELL, which was a very hard book for me to write. When it was finally done, I was thinking that I just wanted to relax and write something fun and easy, and it seemed obvious that I could just go back to Vlad, because I knew so much of his backstory from having played him in a table-top role-playing game. So I did, and just sort of dashed off a book called “Duel.” But when the marketing department at Ace got it, they said, roughly, “But his first book did really well, and it had a funny one-word title. Can’t he find another funny one-world title?” Well, YENDI was pretty obvious, so I renamed it.

Then, after writing BROKEDOWN PALACE, various things hit me about fantasy tropes, and I wanted to examine them. It seemed like Vlad’s world would be the perfect place to do that, and TECKLA was the perfect title for the book. By then I was writing a series, and I knew the major events of Vlad’s life, but I don’t remember if I admitted to myself that it was a series until I did TALTOS. I’m pretty good at lying to myself.

VENTRELLA: You plan on ending the series with a 19th book. jhereg Was this the original plan, or have you decided that the time is right?

BRUST: That was the plan from at least the time I finished TALTOS, and maybe earlier; I don’t remember for sure.

VENTRELLA: Were the books based on a role-playing game? It has that feel with resurrections, especially, which is something you normally don’t see in most fantasy novels.

BRUST: Yes, a game created by Robert Sloan. Such things as the relationship between Kiera and Sethra, and between Aliera and Morrolan, and between Vlad and Kragar (to pick just a few examples) go back to the game.

VENTRELLA: You have specifically tried to vary your writing styles and points of view in the novels, which give them different feels – why did you decide to do this?

BRUST: Discovering the relationship between the story and how the story is told is one of the joys of writing. I just flat out love playing with that stuff; I get excited as hell when I realize that the best way to tell a given story would be something I haven’t tried yet.

VENTRELLA: THE PHOENIX GUARDS especially reads like a lost Musketeer novel. I assume that was by specific design? Did you go back and change things to make it read more like Dumas?

BRUST: Go back and change things? Oh, no; that was there from the beginning, from the first page of the first draft. That was the whole reason I wrote it. It was so much fun!

VENTRELLA: You certainly have not shied away from politics, both in your books and on Facbook and other social media. Do you believe this has affected your sales (in either direction)?

BRUST: No idea.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on the current state of the political situation in America? 9780765328892 Optimistic or not?

BRUST: Very optimistic–in the world, you can see signs of people fighting back everywhere you look. In this country, it is taking longer, but even here you can see it. The initial success of Occupy Wall Street is as much of an indication of people’s outrage as it’s ultimate failure is of it’s lack of program; and the overwhelming public support of Snowden is a very healthy sign.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a place for a third party in America?

BRUST: I don’t know. I’d like to start with a second party and see what happens after that.

VENTRELLA: Back to books: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry? For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

BRUST: No clue. I know nothing about the industry, and I work very hard to keep it that way; it just interferes with my work.

VENTRELLA: Your “Cool stuff” theory of literature explains a lot, actually, and boils down what many “how to write” articles fail to address. Or is the advice basically “Write what you like”?

BRUST: Write what you like to read. Write something you wish someone else had written because you want to read it. The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature was an offshoot of something Gene Wolfe originally said.

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

BRUST: I firmly believe it is a skill that can be learned.pglg

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

BRUST: These days, I’m mostly reading non-fiction, especially history.

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

BRUST: Mostly they over-explain. Write for people as smart as you are. If you’d figure it out, and if you’d enjoy the process of figuring it out, chances are the reader will too.

VENTRELLA: Do you attend science fiction conventions? If so, do you find these useful?

BRUST: Yes, I do. I don’t know if they’re useful, but they sure are fun.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BRUST: A sequel to THE INCREMENTALISTS with Skyler White.

Interview with author Storm Constantine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Storm Constantine. download Storm’s work has covered many genres from fantasy, dark fantasy and horror to science fiction and slipstream. She has so far written twenty-three novels, and currently has most of her short stories collected in four Immanion Press editions.

Let’s start by discussing the re-release of SEA DRAGON HEIR. There is always an urge to rewrite older materials when it gets re-released; what has changed with this edition?

STORM CONSTANTINE: My urge to tinker with old works is simply that some were written when I was much younger and certain incompetencies in the writing and structure of the stories were just too much to ignore. Also, in some cases, publishers had asked for sections to be removed, simply because they wanted a shorter book. When I came to republish the books myself, I could restore them to my original vision. As I’m an editor as well as a writer, it was impossible for me to keep my hands off revising and refining!

I don’t think the Wraeththu books (the original version of the trilogy) were edited as well as they could have been. I was such a fledgling writer then, and when I returned to the books fifteen years later to republish them I was astonished really at what I’d been allowed to get away with, in terms of inconsistencies, plot holes, wobbly structure, and so on. It was glaringly obvious to me where the stories could be successfully reinforced. Some things happened ‘off stage’ that shouldn’t have. The ending of ‘Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit’ was a prime example of that. I added a couple of extra chapters to the revised edition to ‘show rather than tell’ things that occurred.

I also re-edited THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT quite heavily, as I’d never been happy with that book. The sequel, ALEPH, had technical errors to be fixed, but I didn’t do that much to it other than that.

As the reissues of my back catalogue progressed, there was less for me to do, because I’d been improving as a writer through those years of creating the original books. book_aleph_new_ed_smallBy the time I got back to ‘The Magravandias Trilogy’, all I was correcting was typos. I was happy with that trilogy as it was first written.

VENTRELLA: What projects can we expect from you next?

CONSTANTINE: I have so many notes written down for both short stories and novels, but my worst obstacle to realizing them now is time. I have sent a couple of stories off to anthologies, but as I’ve not heard back from the editors yet, don’t want to say which they are, in case my stories aren’t suitable for them. I want to finish off the other four or so I’ve got half written, because it’s always handy to have unsold stories available, should I be approached by an editor. Also I simply want to get the ideas down.

Novelwise, there are several books I could write, but it’s knowing which to do first. I’ve started work on the third volume of the ‘unofficial’ third Wraeththu trilogy, which is a series of novellas set in Alba Sulh. English Wraeththu. The first two were quite emotionally grim stories about betrayal and obsession, but the third has a different tone – it just happens to have a couple of the characters in it from the first books. I want this one to be a ghost story, and already have a lot of disturbing images for it that are just pure, enjoyable, supernatural scares. There will be less angsting in this book!

Aside from that, I have notes for at least half a dozen novels that are all unconnected, some of them with chapters already written. My plan is to finish the short stories, finish the Wraeththu ghost story, then take a good long look at what I have in my ‘ideas’ folder on the computer. I just feel like I need to clear the decks before venturing into territories new.

Nonfiction-wise I’m working on some ideas with a friend for a couple of books concerning magical path-workings/visualisations. They will just be fun to do; sit down together and invent the stories for them. The difficult part will be for us to get together, since my friend is very busy and quite often off on research trips around the world. I hope to get at least one of these books out this year, though.

VENTRELLA: How did Immanion Press come to be?

CONSTANTINE: When I sold The Wraeththu Histories (the second trilogy) to TOR in America, I wished that the original trilogy had still been available in the UK. WRAThis coincided with the advent of Print of Demand publishing, which meant that it was possible for small presses to bring out books at a fraction of the price of traditional publishing. So initially, Immanion Press was set up to coincide with the Grissecon convention I ran in 2003, where I relaunched ‘The Wraeththu Chronicles’ As I was let down in the UK by a publisher who initially wanted to publish the Histories, I decided I might as well bring out my new Wraeththu trilogy in the UK too. From there came the idea to reissue all of my long unavailable back catalogue titles. Then it just grew from there. Other writers asked me about reissuing some of their out of print titles too, and I had a rather altruistic urge to help new writers get published as well. Unfortunately, the latter idea didn’t really survive contact with reality. I found that it’s incredibly difficult to sell the work of new fiction authors, so I’ve had to cut back on that dramatically.

However, the non fiction side of things does well. People buy books on certain subjects irrespective of who the author is, or what they might have written before. Generally speaking, they just want a book on a particular topic, rather than to seek a name they already know. Megalithica Books, the nonfiction imprint, came about because a friend of mine, Taylor Ellwood, was interested in getting work out through Immanion. He saw a way to expand that side of things and eventually became the manager of the non fiction line.

VENTRELLA: Many established authors are now self-publishing their back catalogues themselves, avoiding the big publishers completely. What are the disadvantages of doing so?

None really, since the big publishers are largely not interested in doing this job for us. OK, we’re not going to have big publicity budgets at our disposal, and most presses (like mine) run on a shoe string. We can’t afford to hire staff, so have to do everything ourselves, or work with volunteers. In my case I simply don’t have enough time to be a full time publicity manager as well as everything else.

For established authors, it’s great to see their often long unavailable works back in print. SEA DRAGONYou just have to make sure you have a fairly active online presence to help publicize your work, and let people know where they can buy it.

Is Immanion’s goal mostly to allow for established authors to reprint old works or are you actively looking for exciting new talent as well?
As I said above, the new author experiment didn’t go too well. Sadly, it just lost me a lot of money. We’re moving into ebooks more now, though, which have far fewer overheads, so perhaps in that medium I can still endorse new writers.

VENTRELLA: Has it been successful?

CONSTANTINE: Well, we’ve been around for 10 years this year, so we’re not doing too badly. The downside of it is that it eats into my working day like a pack of starving wolves. That’s another reason I’ve had to downsize the fiction line. I was in the position over the past five years or so where my workload had grown so much editing other people I had no time at all, and no energy, for my own writing. That had to stop. So I started to delegate more, to a fabulous woman, Sharon Sant, who volunteered to do editing for me. We’re publishing her first novel RUNNERS in June. I might not be able to pay a salary to people, but I can help out in other ways.

VENTRELLA: Starting authors often mistakenly think they can do this as well; they self-publish and then go nowhere. What advice do you have for beginning writers concerning getting published?

CONSTANTINE: One of the biggest downsides of everyone being able to self-publish easily, either through ebook or printed copies, is that they can do so without their work ever being looked at by a critical pair of eyes, whether that’s a professional editor or a friend who’s prepared to be honest. Editing is a very different job to writing. Even though I edit my own work to a degree, I still get someone else to do so as well. Writers are too close to their own work. We know everything that’s going on, but the readers don’t, and sometimes we don’t put enough in, or we over-write and things have to be trimmed back. The more people who can read a book before publication, the better. SHADESYou have more chance of errors being found.

Even though there are now millions more people producing books of some format or another, sadly a lot of it is let down and diminished by the fact the writing itself isn’t up to scratch, and the writers don’t know their craft.

When I ran a creative writing class, I generally had to spend the first term every year teaching the students how to write. They knew nothing of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation or narrative structure, (the writer’s essential tool box), not to mention how to create credible characters, a compelling plot and realistic dialogue. They just had an idea they wanted to write stories or a novel, and didn’t even think it involved any particular skills other than the storytelling urge. From what I’ve seen there is a hell of lot of new writers actually publishing works with all of those aforementioned aspects being of poor quality.

So, first advice – hone your writing skills, learn your craft, share your work with other writers to get constructive criticism. Your Mom saying, ‘yes, that’s very nice, dear’, is no use to a writer. You want and need people to tear your work apart really. You don’t have to agree with every criticism, and might choose to ignore some of it, but without this flow and exchange you’re at a disadvantage. You owe your work your best shot, and that means using the tools at your disposal to make that work as good as it can be.

Also, it’s now absolutely essential for new writers to self-promote and use the Internet and social media to their full advantage to get word about and create a buzz.

VENTRELLA: Some writers tend to avoid controversy, but that doesn’t seem to stand in your way. Have you ever avoided an idea because you thought your readers (or editors) wouldn’t accept it?

CONSTANTINE: Not so far, that I can think of!

VENTRELLA: To the other extreme, have you ever specifically written in order to make a point about religion, politics, sexual orientation and so on, or do these things just flow from the plots?

CONSTANTINE: I think a writer’s political and religious beliefs tend to permeate their work naturally. book_monstrous_regiment_smallI haven’t gone out of my way to pontificate about these things, but I don’t think any reader of my work would be in doubt about where my political and spiritual beliefs lie.

VENTRELLA: Do you think fantasy/science fiction settings allow you to tackle these issues in a way you could not otherwise?

CONSTANTINE: These genres give writers marvelous freedom to tackle issues it might be more difficult, or even risky, to tackle in a mainstream novel. Science fiction has long been used to criticize political regimes under the guise of fiction. I can’t help thinking that writers who have run into trouble over what they’ve written wouldn’t have done so if they’d set their stories in a fantasy world. It’s liberating; you can say what you like really.

VENTRELLA: How much of your own personal religious beliefs are reflected in your work?

CONSTANTINE: I am a spiritual person but not a religious person, but I do possess Pagan leanings. And yes this is reflected in my work.

VENTRELLA: What book do you advise for the starting Constantine reader and why?

CONSTANTINE: When I discover a new writer to read, I like to start at the beginning of their works if possible, but other people might feel differently. I don’t think it matters, other than it’s perhaps not the best idea to start with the second or third volume of a trilogy! I do have a number of short story collections published through Immanion Press, which can also give people a taster of my style.

VENTRELLA: The Wareththu series is probably your most famous. Do you plan on continuing to expand it?

CONSTANTINE: I think I’ll always return to it, but as I’ve concentrated on it exclusively for quite a time now, I want to explore something different for a while. I’ll continue to produce the Wraeththu story anthologies to keep my hand in. These are published roughly annually (or I hope them to be) and include stories by other writers as well as a couple by me. The first was ‘Paragenesis’, and the recently published ‘Para Imminence’. Both are available through Immanion Press, and I’m just mulling over ideas for the theme for the next one. Paragenesis explored the start of Wraeththu, and Para Imminence its far future. Anyone interested in contributing, please do get in touch via editorial@immanion-press.com

On top of the anthologies, I’ll continue to publish novels set in the Wraeththu world but written by others. A thriving online community of fan fiction writers helped keep Wraeththu alive during the years (fifteen of them) when I couldn’t sell any more Wraeththu novels to publishers. 6880909I began to publish the best of these writers, and again am always on the lookout for new ones. If anyone is interested, get in touch at the aforementioned address.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that there are things women can write about that just can’t be done by men writers?

CONSTANTINE: Not really, but perhaps it’s fair to say they might be able to write about certain aspects of life more convincingly than a man.

VENTRELLA: Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

CONSTANTINE: Not quite sure what a pantser is, but I don’t outline that heavily. I feel that stories are organic entities that tend to create themselves as they emerge. Publishers always used to demand huge outlines from me, which I found a pain to do, and quite frankly the finished books rarely had much resemblance to their synopses. Once a story is written down, then it’s time to go back and work on fine-tuning the plots, locations and characters. I can’t put all that in a synopsis. The story has to come out first.

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

CONSTANTINE: It can be any of those, just a spark of an idea, a smell, an impression, an emotion.

VENTRELLA: All writers are told to “write what you know.” What sort of research do you do before writing?

CONSTANTINE: I think it’s important to get your facts right. I often see movies about the 70s and see so many anachronisms in them. That’s why I write fantasy instead of historical novels. You have far more freedom in a fantasy novel about, say, what people might have on their breakfast tables. You don’t want to find Pop Tarts on a Victorian table in a novel, do you? But you do see that kind of thing. I really admire historical novelists; the amount of research and checking they must have to do is phenomenal.

For myself, I research aspects that apply across universes and realities. For example, I have an idea to write a fantasy novel that heavily involves the weather – so I bought some books for research on that.

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

CONSTANTINE: I think it’s important to observe in reality how people speak, how they use their bodies and faces to communicate, how much a silence says. No one really speaks in formal dialogue like an updated Shakespeare play. hermetechOf course, it would be really irritating to have characters in a story talking completely realistically, so you have to impose some boundaries and restrictions, but it’s important to have an ‘ear’ for realistic speech.

Giving your characters credible behavior makes them believable, and people will relate to them more effectively. One thing I always tried to stop my students doing was using fiction clichés, such as people screaming or dropping a teacup/glass/plate in shock. When people are really frightened, I think most are more likely to swear beneath their breath, or not make a sound, than scream like someone in an old horror film. And have you ever seen someone drop something they were holding in shock? I haven’t. Also, things like collapsing/fainting. I don’t see that happen much either. Screaming might have its place, but the dropped tea cup and maidenly collapse really have to go!

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

CONSTANTINE: It’s just a case of being aware of it, and not dumping too much at once. A great amount of detail can be introduced with subtlety, such as in the ‘stage directions’ you might use for characters during lengthy dialogue. What are they doing as they’re talking? What are they picking up, leaning on, looking at, avoiding, etc etc.

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

CONSTANTINE: Pretty much all of the things I’ve talked about throughout the interview. Plot holes, realistic characters and situations, grammatical/syntactical errors, spelling, compelling dialogue and so on.

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

CONSTANTINE: I had this one reviewer, who used to go out of his way to review my books, who absolutely hated my work. CROWNHe obviously got his jollies by being able to slag me off once a year. I disagreed with his observations because they were subjective and just plain offensive. Clearly, he wasn’t comfortable with many of the subjects I include in my work.

I don’t expect everyone to like what I write – that would be an unrealistic expectation. And everyone is entitled to their opinion. A lot of people love writers I absolutely despise, but I don’t believe I am right and the others are wrong. It’s just down to taste.

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

CONSTANTINE: My favourite authors are Tanith Lee, Alice Hoffman, Jack Vance, P G Wodehouse, Jonathan Carroll, to name but a few. I have just about everything the first three on that list have ever written.

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

CONSTANTINE: Don’t expect to be rich. Let go of any attachment to outcome, and simply write because you love to do so. Write what you love, because your heart will show, and other people will be more likely to love it too.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about my work.

Interview with Author Myke Cole

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

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

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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

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