Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

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

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

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

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

Interview with author Leah Cypess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you hold back anything when writing YA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on attending more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for interviewing me!

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%).

14

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 author Christine Norris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m glad to be interviewing friend and author Christine Norris, who has several works for children and adults, including the “Library of Athena” series and the “Zandria” duology. When she’s not out saving the world one story at a time, she is disguised as a mild mannered librarian, mother, and wife. She cares for her family of one husband-creature, a son-animal, and two felines who are steadfast in their duties as Guardian of the Bathtub and Official Lap Warmer, respectively. She has also done several English Adaptations of novels translated from other languages, and reached a new level of insanity by attending Southern Connecticut State University Graduate School to get her Master’s in Information and Library Science. She currently resides somewhere in southern New Jersey where she writes interesting opening bios for interviews. Her web page is here!

Christine, how did your first novel get published?

CHRISTINE NORRIS: I sold my soul to the devil, uh, I mean I was such a newbie. I had a book of agents and publishers, and knowing pretty much nothing about them, sent queries. And bombed horribly – got back my own letter from one, with the word ‘No’ scrawled across the top. Another came on a crookedly-copied half-sheet of paper. Ugh!

But it was the early 2000’s, and there wasn’t a lot of stuff on the internet about publishing, and most agents still took paper copies. Eventually I found a writer’s forum, Absolute Write, and I started to find out about other publishers. I found LBF, a teeny tiny publisher, in Pittsburgh at that time. They took my first book, TALISMAN OF ZANDRIA, and the sequel. Both are out of print now, but I’m doing new editions for Zumaya.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing background?

NORRIS: I really don’t have a formal background, nothing like a degree in Creative Writing or anything. I just started writing in 2001, and kept on going. I have six books now, with a seventh out with an agent (crossing fingers for an offer!) and working on number eight. Yes, it took me ten years and six novels to finally land an agent. Just goes to show it’s never too late. I really love her too, she’s just wonderful and supportive.

Someday I guess I’ll stop writing, but I don’t see any reason to at the moment. I’m like a literary Forrest Gump.

VENTRELLA: How did you find your current publisher?

NORRIS: That is an interesting story. Okay, maybe only interesting to me. The publisher that put out the first two books in the “Library of Athena” series decided to go back to strictly Romance books — which these decidedly are not. I had the third book finished, and they dropped the series. After I finished freaking out, I calmly put out an email to my friends at Broad Universe, begging, I mean, asking if any of the publishers in the organization would be interested. Elizabeth Burton at Zumaya said she would look, as long as it wasn’t a Harry Potter or Twilight clone, and she liked it enough to take it for the Thresholds imprint.

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

NORRIS: I think there are advantages to publishers of all sizes – everyone has their pros and cons. You can be a big fish in a little pond or a small fish in a big pond. Smaller publishers are more personal, a little more homey, if you will. They also, many times, have less money to spend on promotion, which is okay if you know how to do a little guerilla marketing. They will also sometimes take a chance on a book that a bigger publisher might not feel is commercial enough. I always say that if you do your homework and are comfortable with what any publisher can give you, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to publish. It’s all about what you can live with.

I was at a writer’s conference recently, and there were a lot of big agents and editors from Big Six houses attending. We hear a lot about how people ‘in the biz’ feel about smaller publishers and how they look down on us. It is just not true. They were all very professional, and more than once I heard: “Someone selected your work from a slush pile. You are just as published as anyone.” It was nice to hear, and it was nice to get that kind of respect for my work.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about THE SWORD OF DANU.

NORRIS: It’s the fourth book in the “Library of Athena” series. Oh, you want to know more? All right then.

Megan Montgomery, the main character, has begun to teach herself magic. After the last adventure, when she almost gave up protecting the Library of Athena altogether, she decided that she needed to arm herself against the Order of Ares, a.k.a. The Bad Guys. But her magic doesn’t always go the way it should. She has also decided that she will do whatever it takes to never, ever, never open one of the Special Collection books again. They are enchanted and suck you inside, and then things try to eat you while you solve the clues and fight the monsters to find the magical artifact hidden inside the book and get out.

Unfortunately, something has gone terribly wrong, and one of the books has escaped its pages and is now this imaginary Ireland is taking over the manor where Megan lives. So she and her friends are kind of forced into finding the artifact, in this case the Sword of Danu, so they can fix it all. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to give too much away. Except that, of course things try to eat them. Things are always trying to eat them. There’s the Morrigan, and Goibhniu the Celtic smith-god and all kinds of teen angst.

VENTRELLA: And, of course, you have a series based around a library. Tell us how that series came to be.

NORRIS: It was so long ago — late 2004 — that I really can’t remember when or how I came up for the idea for the series. It kind of evolved from what might have been a chapter book idea to a novel, to a series. My son was only 2 at the time, so I had never heard of the Magic Tree House series, which my books get compared to often, along with Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Percy Jackson. There are a lot of similar elements in them.

I do remember stating at one point, “I think I could write a hundred of these.” Uh, no way. Five is the limit. One more left to go. It was just serendipity that, years later, I became a librarian. At that time I was working a really horrible part-time job and being a stay-at-home mom. Life is just funny that way, I guess.

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

NORRIS: Just one, really? I’m sure I made all kinds of mistakes. Not knowing how to write a good query letter. Not really doing my homework when it came to submitting. Being too self-conscious with my writing — it all came out stiff and self-absorbed. I think once I realized that I actually knew what I was doing, that I had made it past most of the newbie mistakes of the technical parts of writing, like not filtering my main character’s every action through me, the narrator, that I was able to loosen up and just write better, let my unique voice out (which is mostly sarcasm thinly veiled as humor, but still …). I also think that every writer needs to make those kinds of mistakes, so that they know when they’ve got it right.

VENTRELLA: What’s your advice for authors who wish to self-publish?

NORRIS: Don’t do it unless you are willing and able to commit the time, energy, and money that it takes to do it properly. Being a self-publisher means you aren’t just the writer, but you are the publisher, and unless you understand exactly what that means, I don’t suggest you attempt it. You need to hire editors, cover artists, do marketing, and pay for it all. It’s a big job. It can be done, but those who have been successful will tell you it was hard work.

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

NORRIS: Be yourself. I never wrote to trends, or tried to write fan-fiction (though I recommend it to teachers who are trying to teach younger writers the mechanics of story and writing itself), but I had this idea of what ‘good’ writing was, and I was trying to reach some ideal. That old axiom ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really apply to most fantasy writers — unless one of you out that happens to have a dragon in their backyard or owns a big secret library full of magic books — but write what you like. Make yourself happy with a story and you’ll make readers happy too.

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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 Joshua Palmatier

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Joshua Palmatier. Josh and I have been on panels at various SF conventions together, and we’ve had some great discussions about writing and fantasy. Joshua is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy — THE SKEWED THRONE, THE CRACKED THRONE, and THE VACANT THRONE — under the Joshua Palmatier name. And look for the “Well” series — WELL OF SORROWS and the just released LEAVES OF FLAME — by Benjamin Tate. Short stories are included in the anthologies CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE URBAN KIND (edited by Jennifer Brozek), BEAUTY HAS HER WAY (Jennifer Brozek), and RIER (Alma Alexander). And the two anthologies he’s co-edited are AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR and the upcoming THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY (March 2012). His web pages are www.joshuapalmatier.com and www.benjamintate.com, as well as on Facebook, LiveJournal (jpsorrow), and Twitter (bentateauthor).

Josh, your Tate books take place in the same fantasy world as the Palmatier books, although not at the same time or with the same characters. Why have two different authors? When new authors are trying to get that important name recognition, doesn’t this put you at a disadvantage?

JOSHUA PALMATIER: Well, the two names were actually a strategy brought up by the marketing department at my publisher. The idea was that we’d release the new books under the Ben Tate name and make it an open secret. Hopefully, the Joshua Palmatier fans would learn of the name switch and buy the new Tate books, while the Tate name would bypass the ordering structure of the bookstores so that they’d carry the new books on the shelves and pull in new readers. It was an attempt to increase the audience for my books. The sales for the Palmatier books were OK, but not as high as hoped, so the publisher was looking for ways to draw in additional readers. At this point, I would have to say that the ploy didn’t work, although I think there were numerous factors as to why it didn’t work.

VENTRELLA: Is the voice the same in the two series?

PALMATIER: That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t protest too much when the publisher suggested the name change for the new series —- the voice of the new series is significantly different than the original. So even though it’s set in the same world, it had different characters, was set at a different time period in the history of the world, on a completely different continent, and -— like the Palmatier books, which were focused on one character, written in first person, and were essentially “urban fantasies” set on an alternate world —- the new series was much more epic in nature. There are multiple POV characters and threads that the reader follows, and the action takes place over two different continents and over a much larger time span. So the feel of the books are different than from that original series. Both are dark in nature though, as the covers of THE VACANT THRONE and WELL OF SORROWS suggest.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first “big break” in publishing? Did you have an agent first?

PALMATIER: My “big break” was sort of interesting actually. I wrote my first book (unpublished) and started sending it out to editors and agents at the same time (one editor at a time, but multiple agents). I spent the next ten years writing three additional novels, sending each out to editors and agents and getting rejections from all. But most of the rejections were good, meaning they said, “I’m not interested in this project, but the writing’s good and I’d like to see whatever you write next.” This was encouraging, and it allowed me to focus my attentions on those editors and agents who were interested. I basically kept a running list for each, in order of my preference and tweaked based on the responses I got.

So when it came time to send out THE SKEWED THRONE, I started at the top of my editor list (Sheila Gilbert at DAW) and the first seven agents on my list. I heard back from those first seven agents quickly (all rejections), so sent out the next batch of seven, all while DAW still had the book. I was also getting my PhD in mathematics at the same time, at the point where I was defending my dissertation. I got a call from one of the agents, Amy Stout, while prepping for that defense. After a lengthy discussion on the phone over representation, I signed on with her and told her that DAW currently had the book. Amy called up Sheila and started talking. Meanwhile, I continued my job search and defense.

I was away at a mathematics conference, doing interviews and such, when Amy called back to tell me that DAW wanted to buy THE SKEWED THRONE. I was thrilled! But they also wanted to talk about the sequels. So in the midst of finishing up my dissertation and job hunting, I worked up the proposals to THE CRACKED THRONE and THE VACANT THRONE and almost immediately had contracts for the entire trilogy. My first sale! I was on my way!

But keep in mind that it took me ten years and I wrote three other novels before THE SKEWED THRONE found a home. And I lost count of the number of rejections.

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

PALMATIER: *snort* Writing a book isn’t easy. I said before that I wrote three other novels before I sold one, but that isn’t quite true. I started writing while I was in high school and kept writing all the way through college. It wasn’t until grad school that I sat back and asked myself whether I was going to do this for fun, or if I was going to try to sell something. So it was ten years and four novels total from the moment I decided to get serious. There were ten years of “fun” writing before that.

And that “fun” writing was actually my entire set of writing experience. I took a few classes here and there in college as part of my other degrees (electives and such), but for the most part, those ten years of writing were me teaching myself how to write. I wrote my first true novel five different times, each time learning more about the craft and what was good writing and how much mine sucked. It wasn’t until the 5th draft that I finally thought I’d written something that could potentially be published. (And those first few drafts were bad. I mean bad. Indescribably bad.)

I also pretty much trained myself in how to send that manuscript out to find a publisher to call home. That simply amounted to a bunch of research and time on my part, reading up on what “manuscript format” meant and what publishers wanted in a “query” or “partial.” All of that’s even easier to research now with the internet, and I strongly suggest aspiring writers take the time to do the research and make a list of publisher and agents they want to submit to when they’re ready.

But of course, you have to have that stellar book first, and that part ain’t easy at all.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the books!

PALMATIER: I was waiting for you to ask. *grin* All of my novels are dark fantasy, the Tate books more epic in nature than the Palmatier books.

I’ll start with the “Throne of Amenkor” series, which begins with a young girl, Varis, barely surviving in the slums of the city of Amenkor. She’s on her way to becoming lost, like so many other souls in the slums, when she runs across a Seeker—an assassin sent by the Mistress of the city to mete out justice—named Erick. Erick trains her to protect herself and uses her to hunt his marks in the slums. Of course, these marks lead Varis beyond the slums into the heart of the Amenkor and deep into its politics. Eventually, she’s hired to kill the Mistress herself, protected by the magic of the Skewed Throne.

The series continues beyond that, with attacks from a race called the Chorl from the sea, and eventually leads to Amenkor’s sister city of Venitte. But I don’t want to spoil anything. Everyone will just have to read the books to find out what happens.

My Tate novels are a little different, set on a different continent and sort of combining the settling of a newly discovered continent with fantasy elements. Colin’s family has fled the coming war in their homeland to the new continent across the ocean, landing in one of the few settlements on the new coast. But the politics of the old world have followed them to the new. In order to escape, Colin’s father accepts responsibility for a wagon train heading into the unexplored plains to form a new settlement inland. They head out . . . only to discover entire new races of people, a beautiful new world, and unexpected and magical dangers. Attacked by one such race, the wagon train is driven into a dangerous and dark forest, where Colin’s life is changed forever when he is forced to drink for the Well of Sorrows in order to survive. But the waters of the Well transform him into something more than human. Struggling to maintain his grasp on humanity, he attempts to use his newfound powers to end the war between the three clashing races —- the humans from his homeland, the dwarren, and the Alvritshai.

VENTRELLA: You are the editor of a new anthology about fae coming out soon. How did that come about?

PALMATIER: Ah, the role as editor. That actually came about at a bar. You see, a bunch of my fellow friends and authors had gotten together for a signing and afterwards we, of course, hit the bar for a few drinks. While chatting, someone brought up the idea of doing an anthology centered around a bar, and thus AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR was born. I wrote up a proposal for that and sent it out. DAW liked the idea and thus my editing career (with Patricia Bray) was born. After the bar anthology, Patricia and I proposed a few other ideas and DAW bought THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY.

VENTRELLA: As someone who has edited a short story collection and is working on a second, I find that the hardest thing to do is reject stories, especially from friends. How have you handled this?

PALMATIER: Well, for the first anthology, AFTER HOURS, Patricia and I only invited around 17 authors to contribute. A few had to drop out because of their own schedules, so we ended up not needing to reject anyone for that anthology. However, for MODERN FAE we invited over 30 people to contribute stories, so of course we had to pick and choose from the selection there. Pretty much all of those invited were friends, of course, but we were up front with everyone and in the end we simply handled everything professionally. Both Patricia and I were able to separate the friendships from the editorial job, so while rejecting some of the friends (some of them friends for decades) was hard, we just . . . did it. Like ripping that band-aid off all in one go. Everyone knew that getting rejected was a possibility, and I think everyone understood why certain stories didn’t make the cut.

VENTRELLA: When editing an anthology, do you ever do any rewriting of the stories submitted yourself?

PALMATIER: All of the stories in the anthology were edited, of course. Neither Patricia nor I do what I would call “rewriting” though. Each of us reads the story and we compare notes on what we thought and how we think the story could be improved. One of us then sends out our notes about suggested revisions (we divide the authors up into two teams —- Team Patricia and Team Joshua). It’s up to the authors to revise the story, with the idea that at this stage there’s still a chance that the story will be cut if the revisions aren’t satisfactory. But all of our authors have reacted professionally to our suggestions, so we’ve never had any trouble. I think everyone realizes that we all want the best stories possible in the anthology and we’re all working toward that one goal. I think both anthologies are spectacular.

VENTRELLA: What resources do you use in creating your fantasy worlds?

PALMATIER: I use everything when creating my fantasy worlds. *grin* By this, I mean that I use bits and pieces of many different cultures all tweaked to fit the circumstances of the world where these characters and these stories are being told.

For example, in the “Well” series, I have three main cultures clashing on the plains. The human culture has aspects from the settlers who were setting out into the American West, but it’s obvious that they aren’t those settlers. For their homeland, I meshed numerous European cultures. The dwarren are reminiscent of some of the American Indian cultures, but various additions of my own, enough that I wouldn’t say they’re based on any one particular culture. What I’m trying to capture is a flavor, but I want that flavor to be unique —- familiar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to intrigue the reader.

Of course, you need to be familiar with numerous cultures in order to do this well. I wouldn’t say that I have any particular resources for this. I simply read and absorb as much about other cultures as I can.

VENTRELLA: With so many fantasy novels out these days, what have you done to make your series stand out from the rest? What’s different about them?

PALMATIER: Hmm . . . well, I’d like to think the writing. But, I also try to make the characters as interesting as possible and play around with the magic.

I think for a fantasy, you really need to pay attention to the magic and think about what makes your magic different from everyone other fantasy novel out there. In the “Throne” series, I have two main magical components that I focus on — the White Fire and the Skewed Throne. These two magics are obvious: the White Fire is a wall of white flame that passes through the city for a second time during Varis’ lifetime (it passed through once before 1000+ years ago). No one knows what this Fire is, but it touches and affects everyone in various ways. For Varis, a piece of the Fire appears to settle inside of her and she eventually learns how to use it. The Skewed Throne is designed to store all of the personalities of those who have touched it inside, so that the ruler has the ability to access this information and knowledge and, in theory, become a better ruler. The problem is that in Varis’ time, there are so many personalities stored inside the throne that it has essentially gone insane. For the “Well” series, I have the water inside the Well of Sorrows as the main magical component. This water gives the person who drinks it limited powers over time, but it also taints the drinker and eventually alters them into . . . something else.

These are the key elements that I think make my fantasy different than other fantasy novels out there. But again, that isn’t enough on its own. I think my books are darker and more realistic than other fantasies on the shelf at the moment, and I think that if you don’t have interesting, relatable characters, then all the cool magic in the world isn’t going to save you.

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

PALMATIER: Wow, that couldn’t have been a better segue if I’d planned it. So, yeah, the characters are incredibly important. People won’t keep reading if they don’t care about the characters, no matter how interesting the magic or the plot. Everyone wants someone to root for. I don’t think there are too many tricks to creating believable characters though. The only real technique is to get inside of that character’s head and to seriously ask exactly what it is that the character would do in such a situation. It isn’t easy, and it takes practice to get yourself into that headspace (because it’s a slightly different headspace for each character), but you literally need to “become” that character for those scenes. You have to put yourself in that person’s world and feel them. At least, that’s how I do it. What would they think, what would they say, what would they do in this situation? Those are the key questions you have to ask in every scene.

VENTRELLA: What is your background? How did you decide to become a writer?

PALMATIER: Well, I decided to become a writer in the 8th grade, when an English teacher assigned us a “Twilight Zone” story and I wrote a rip-off of the Atlantis story with spaceships. But the teacher’s comment was, “This is good, you should write more.” I think that’s the first time it seriously crossed my mind that PEOPLE WROTE THE BOOKS I WAS READING! And that person could be me! It was a stunning revelation. I immediately began writing, doing short stories for Andre Norton’s MAGIC IN ITHKAR series (even though I never sent anything in) and eventually sitting down to write a typical “me and all my friends get transported to a fantasy world!” kind of story. It sucked of course, and I never finished it. But it was the first effort at writing something longer, and it taught me that writing wasn’t easy. I started my first SERIOUS effort at a novel shortly after that, and that one I finished (even though it sucked).

I never really had a “background” in writing. My degrees are in mathematics (something has to pay the bills) and I never really took any particular writing classes for the sole purpose of “learning” to write. I took a few creative writing classes in college, mostly for the elective credit. Everything else I taught myself.

VENTRELLA: You’re a math professor, right? Don’t those kinds of nerds usually end up writing hard science fiction?

PALMATIER: Ha! Yeah, science fiction. I think there are two reasons that I don’t write science fiction. The first is that, as a reader, I was never really drawn to science fiction. Everything I read when I was younger leaned more toward fantasy. I “discovered” fantasy and science fiction by accidentally checking out an Andre Norton book from the library. After that I was hooked. I read everything of Andre Norton’s I could get my hands on . . . but even then I gravitated toward her fantasy, not her SF. So I was a fantasy reader early on. It only made sense that I’d want to write fantasy on my own.

The other reason I write fantasy and not SF, I think, is because I needed something totally different from the mathematics to focus on while in grad school. The writing was, essentially, my “break” from all of the hardcore equations. In fact, it was such a break that Varis, my main character in the “Throne” books, hated mathematics. So when I got tired of the math, I’d switch gears and focus on the writing and the fantasy; and when the writing slowed down, I turned back to the fantasy. I think they complemented each other rather well.

In fact, I think the structure that’s the basis of mathematics helped me write better fantasy novels—keeping the plot in line and not scattered, keeping the magic realistic, with rules of its own, etc. And the fantasy helped the mathematics as well, since you need to be creative and think “out of the box” in order to come up with new ways to solve previously unsolved problems (which is what you do for your dissertation in math—solve something no one has solved before).

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made in your career?

PALMATIER: I think the biggest mistake I made was writing the sequel to my first novel when it hasn’t sold yet. You see, I wrote that first novel and started sending it out to agents and editors. But it was the first book in a trilogy (of course), and I was so confident that it would sell that while it was out doing the rounds I worked on the sequel and got it finished. But of course, that first novel never sold. So I wasted a year of writing working on the sequel, when I should have been writing a different book completely in case that first book didn’t sell. Looking back on it, it’s obvious, but at the time I had no clue. I may have gotten published earlier if I hadn’t lost all of that time.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the biggest mistakes starting authors make in their writing?

PALMATIER: Well, I still see people making that same mistake I made: writing that sequel when the first book hasn’t sold yet. You should work on something else, because then you have another novel to shop around, and if that first book sell you can still write the sequel. But the biggest mistake I see aspiring writers making is that they don’t take the time to do the research you need to do before you start sending manuscripts out there. Every writer needs to sit down and research the publishers and editors and get a good idea of who they’d like to publish their work. Make a list, with their top choice down. Do the same for agents, paying particular attention to make certain the publisher and agents are legitimate. Do a second list for top agent down. Research each one to see what they want from the writer (some want just a query letter, some want a partial, some will take the full manuscript, etc). Make certain the manuscript is in the proper format. Once all of this research is done, then send out the manuscript. All of this research won’t take up much time (in comparison to the time it took to write the manuscript in the first place) and it makes your submission professional. Publishers want good books first and foremost . . . but they’re also looking to work with someone who approaches them in a professional manner.

VENTRELLA: What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you first began writing?

PALMATIER: I think I was rather lucky in that I did get good advice pretty much right at the start, and that advice was, “Have patience.” You won’t get a contract immediately. You’re going to get rejections, and you have to realize that the rejections aren’t personal. So you have to accept the rejections (with perhaps some wine or chocolate and a few good writer friends for support) and persevere. Keep sending that manuscript out, submitting down your list, and keep writing that next project. Because by the time you get through your list, if you keep writing, you’ll have another novel ready to send out. By then you’ll have a revised list based on the rejections you’ve gotten, and that revised list gives you a better chance of success.

Joshua and I on a panel together at the 2012 Arisia convention

Prologues: The Devil’s Work

Prologues: Do editors really hate them?

Recently, at a writer’s discussion, an aspiring author discussed his fantasy novel. It started with a prologue that explained something important that happened fifty years prior to the action that begins the first chapter.

I advised him to cut it and work that information into the book in other ways. I dislike prologues.

Too often, especially in science fiction and fantasy books, authors use a prologue to explain the world and set the scene. Instead of jumping into the story, we get a long history lesson, full of names and places we’ll instantly forget, many of which never appear again in the book.

Bor – ring.

Let us find out about that background when it’s needed. Introduce it through dialogue instead of in some “info dump.” Trust your readers.

You’ll probably find that most of the information you created isn’t really needed for the story.

Writing a background history is important — I encourage all authors writing to develop their worlds fully. It will aid you greatly in developing your characters’ personalities. However, your reader doesn’t need all that information.

ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL take place in a fantasy world with a detailed history. The magic in this world works in a specific way. Terin, the teenager who gets pulled into the adventure against his will, learns what history and magic he needs to know as he progresses through the story. Amazingly enough, that’s exactly the amount the reader needs in order to follow the story and get excited about its plot.

None of the rest of that grand world history is in the book other than through passing comments. It’s not needed to tell the story.

Not all prologues are evil. Just unnecessary ones. For instance, in a tale about a haunted house, a short prologue describing the murder that took place there a hundred years ago might work just fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a prologue that sets the story. But then, why not just name that “Chapter One”?

Here’s my entire first chapter for my upcoming novel BLOODSUCKERS, about a vampire who runs for President (disclaimer: This could change by the time of publication):

Norman Mark was a politician with skeletons in his closet.

Literally.

I could have called that the prologue, because it sets up the feel of the book in a concise way while not actually starting the plot at all. In fact, Norman Mark is not even the main character.

I have no problem with an introductory opening like that — and neither do editors. There are plenty of examples of books that begin this way.

Really, what I hate (and what editors hate) are info dumps — where the author needs the reader to understand certain things and gives a lesson instead of tells a story.

I’m against those at any point in the book, but especially in the beginning. Your opening words need to grab the reader, and a history lesson doesn’t do it.

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