Interview with author Thomas Erb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: From the snowy confines of Upstate New York, from a place he calls “Hell’s 1/2 Acre,” author/artist Thomas A. Erb brings stories of the unlikely hero: from extreme brutal violence, to touching, gripping interpersonal relationships sure to catch the reader and never let them free. (He wrote that.) 2012-09-29 22.36.48

Thomas, how did you first become interested in writing?

THOMAS ERB: I’ve always been a storyteller. It started visual when I was two and used to draw elaborate battles with army men fighting the Nazis or another vile foe. It then turned to comic books. For most of my young life, all I wanted to do was work for Marvel comics. I would create my own characters and write whole story arcs to accompany all my great illustrations. (pure sarcasm intended.)

Then I got into role-playing games. Yup, that’s right … Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Champions, Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulu, you name it, I’ve played it. And, just like for comics, I’d have to create highly detailed character backstories and potential subplots for my DM(s). Although, I never knew if they liked that I did that or not. Oh, as a word of advice … Never piss off a Game Master. Bad idea.

Now, I’ve fallen in love with writing my very own fiction — a love that keeps on growing with each tale I tell.

VENTRELLA: I must admit, my background is similar — I went from creating worlds and stories in D&D to creating them in LARPs to writing my own stories (the characters in my books are so much easier to control than my players).

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?

ERB: I believe we all have an innate creative talent. Each one of us has something to say and in that yes, we are all storytellers. However, much like my philosophy with the visual and musical arts, I think that innate ability has a limitation. By that I mean, while we all can create, there is a certain level where some folks top off their talent. Some folks are just “born” to be X. Poe/Hemingway/Toklien/King were surely born to the written word. Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt were put on this earth to give us visual masterpieces. Krupa, Rich, Peart were born to make playing the drums into a sonic art form. Same goes for the rest of us.

Quick life anecdote: While I was born to draw, I never tried hard. It’s always come easy to me. I had friends that would bust their humps and draw for hours and hours and no matter what, they couldn’t draw the same level as I did. (Now, I am saying this with no ego at all. Just an observation.) The same holds true for drumming. I’ve been playing drums since I was 16 and really love jamming. Sure, I’ve been in many bands and jammed with some amazingly talented musicians but I’ve plateaued my drumming talent. I know I will never be a Neil Peart. I wasn’t “born” with that level of ability. Even if I took more lessons and practiced for ten hours a day. It’s just a reality.

So … very long answer I know, but yes, writing talent is human nature but the level of craftsmanship,language, once in a generation storytelling ability does have a cut off. Not everyone can be Stephen King, Tolkien or James Joyce.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about TONES OF HOME!

ERB: My very first novella, TONES OF HOME, was released in June of last year and it’s the most brutal, violent story I’ve ever written. If you dig graphic scenes with tons of blood, machetes and shotguns, rednecks and oh yeah, the Beatles … then this story is right up your jukebox.TONES official Cover

I am currently working on my first novel. (well, the one that I actually want folks to read.) It’s a deep story of loss, troubled relationships, a Nor’easter and a black monster coming to a small lakeside town, seeking revenge. I’m really loving this project and hope to have it in the hands of an agent by Thanksgiving.

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

ERB: That’s a really tough one. I feel like I am just now, seeing my true “voice” come to fruition. While I loved writing all the great bloodletting in TONES OF HOME, I don’t think I am a Richard Laymon kind of writer. But, it’s the best work I’ve done thus far. So, Yeah, I’d say check out TONES OF HOME or “Spencer Weaver gets Rebooted.” It’s in a new anthology called FRESH FEAR.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character?

ERB: All of my stories seem to be based around an extremely flawed character. Or, as I like to refer to them, the unlikely hero. Usually they have something about them, whether it be a physical or mental determent. I have a weakness for the “loser”. The outcast, the outsider. A fat or skinny kid with asthma. I just identify with that and my thinking is, “hey, if I can feel for this guy/gal, then the readers should as well.” It’s not about having the Chisel-chinned, barrel-chested hero, saving the day. No … that’s the easy way out. It’s more of a challenge to break away from that trope and find a way for this less-than-heroic protagonist to overcome all the huge hurdles that makes up a great compelling story.

All characters must have flaws. Both protagonists and antagonists. (even Darth Vader has a soft side.)

VENTRELLA: Certainly agree with that (as you can tell if you read about the reluctant “hero” of my fantasy books.)

ERB: There are so many basic story ideas out there in the ether and to me, it’s more of how you get there as opposed to reworking old ground. Either way, readers want to escape and I hope I offer a wide mix of rich characters and tales they can sink their hungry teeth into.

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

ERB: When I first started writing, I just sat down, opened a cold beer and let the muse of chaos take the wheel. That’s how I wrote my first novel. (a zombie tale that might see the light of day … someday.) But, when I went back to write a second draft, I was overwhelmed. Too many characters. Too many plots and subplots.

So, now, I am working on a happy medium kind of approach. I need to have some kind outline. It’s always loose and organic. Nothing is written in concrete. That would feel too much like a term paper and not an adventure.

I write the basic novel idea is. Usually the characters come to me almost immediately. I then write a very loose outline and then, write the first draft. Get it all down, fast and dirty. Never looking back.

Side note: Dry erase boards and sticky notes are a writer’s best friend.

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

ERB: This is lame, but I’m going to steal from the master. Stephen King states in his must-read ON WRITING book that we should take that statement as much extensively and inclusively as possible.

While I may not know anything about being a Gunny Sargent in the Royal Space Marines guarding the Princess Allayha, I do know what it’s like to always try to live with the demon of my father being a cruel man whom I could never please. You can use that kind of thing in your fiction.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started? What was your first story or book published?

After on a whim, I spent a year writing a zombie novel, I decided that I really enjoyed this writing thing and I started meeting other writers online. Back then, it was Myspace and through a few message boards. I discovered Brian Keene, (who’s book GHOUL made me want to write seriously) and found out he was attending a con in Ohio. I went and met him and some other folks that changed my life forever.

I began writing short stories and then submitted my short story, “Cutting Class” to the DARK THINGS II anthology edited by Ty Schwamberger (whom I met at the con) and next thing I knew, Bazzinga! I was a published author. mock cover

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?

ERB: I think each person tackles their writing in their own way. I jumped straight into the novel but I was only doing it for fun. It wasn’t until later that I wanted to do something with this whole writer gig.

With some hindsight, I’d suggest write some short stories first. With shorter works, you really learn how to write tight, lean prose. Plus, it’s far easier (and I use that term loosely) to get published.

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

ERB: I think both have their own angels and demons. It also depends on what kind of storyteller you are. If you like deep character development and more than two intricate plots…a novel is best for you. If you really dig fast-paced, gripping tales with a small cast… short stories are for you.
I love writing both. I usually like to write a short story in between other long works. It’s a nice change of pace.

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

ERB: Platform. Publishers are looking to see if you have an effective and active writer’s platform. And to me, that means an engaging, fresh online presence. A blog, Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Goodreads account. And many, many more. Too many, in my opinion. It can be a distraction, trying to keep up with updating all your social media sites. (A necessary evil, but still evil.)

I do giveaways, I’ve done podcast interviews, blog talk radio interviews. I go to conventions when the money is right and try to post something funny, new and interesting on the social sites as much as I can manage.

I’m always looking for new ways to get my work out there. It’s an ongoing process.

13. Do you attend conventions or writing conferences? Do you find these to be a useful activity?

I attend as many as time and finances allow. Conventions are one of the biggest reasons I’m here today. I’ve made many, life-long friendships as well as business connections. It’s a must to get you and your words out there. We writers live and create in a room, all alone. You need to get out and meet other like-minded folks who know what you’ve been going through.

Plus, I’ve gotten the blurbs for my books and stories because of the conventions and conferences. Writing and life in general is about relationships.

Get you and your stories out there.

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

ERB: When I first started writing back in 2007, self-publishing was the devil’s work. It was much maligned- rightfully so and very much a joke. But now, in 2014, you are a fool if you don’d consider exploring the self-publishing market. Things are fluid and ever-changing in the publishing world and the once hated and mocked world of self-publishing is now becoming common place.
The secret is to put out work that kicks the crap out of any book that comes out of the big 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?fresh-fear3

ERB: Get the first draft down, fast and dirty. Don’t stop to worry if it’s good. That’s what second and third drafts are for.

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

ERB: Research the publisher before you sign a contract. Know the business side of things. Royalty rates/payments/editing, etc.

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

ERB: Anything from Jonathan Maberry. They guy is a monster and tackles all the genres I love. YA zombies, military thrillers, comic books, you name it. He is my mentor and I use him as my career guidepost.

VENTRELLA: And I couldn’t help but notice he named a character after you in his latest novel…

ERB: Jon was so kind to have his signature cop-turned Department of Military Sciences bad ass Joe Ledger clean my clock in his last Ledger novel, EXTINCTION MACHINE. I think my jaw still pops when I talk.

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

ERB: I have a retro-zombie novella that is looking for a new home. And I am currently writing a wintry monster novel that I hope to have completed and in the hands of agent by the end of the year.

I am also working on a comic script, a screenplay and a self-publishing project of my short works I hope to have out early in 2015.

I love having a lot on my plate. Not just saying that as a fat guy. I have many stories and projects inside me and time is of the essence.

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

Start in the Middle!

The theme of this blog is “Learn from My Mistakes.”

I just wanted to emphasize that. I don’t want anyone to think that my advice posts here are because I am an expert in the field of writing and publishing, because I am not. Almost all the things I am advising you not to do here are because I did them already, and found out they don’t work. I’ve warned you about the proper point of view, using outlines, why you should not use prologues, and other obvious writing rules that aren’t so obvious.

So today let’s discuss another bit of advice that I just had hammered into me: Starting your story in the middle.

I’ve always known that it is important to start your story with a bang, and all my books and short stories have done so. You want to grab the reader in the first page, and keep those pages turning. I jump right in and fill in the background later.

I know that.

However, there was something I was missing that, in retrospect, seems really obvious to me now.

I just received two rejections from agents looking at my latest manuscript BLOODSUCKERS. Both said the same thing. They liked my writing, but there was no urgency — the story didn’t grab them quick enough.

And they were right.

You see, I started the story off with a beautiful naked vampire killing a Presidential candidate on the eve of his nomination (sex! violence! politics!). Soon after, a new candidate was chosen who was accused of being a vampire by crazies (called “batties”) who actually believe vampires exist. This was followed by a conspiracy to assassinate that candidate, and a plan to frame the assassination on a disgraced reporter who had written an article about the crazies. Then the plan is carried out …

Well, do you see the problem?

The main character in this story is the reporter — the guy who is framed for the assassination and then has to go into hiding, running from the vampires and the FBI. Once that happens, the story kicks into high gear. The only way he can prove his innocence is by proving that vampires exist. He gets help from the batties and eventually from some other vampires. Can he expose the candidate, will he be killed along the way, or will he be corrupted by the system?

But that doesn’t happen until page 60 or so.

I mistakenly thought that all the other action was sufficient — that the conspiracies and plots would be enough.

The problem is that these early threats and dangers all concern people other than my main character … there’s not even the suggestion that he will be involved until the assassins pick him to be their scapegoat. That early stuff didn’t matter personally to him. The “middle” of my story is actually the start of the story for my character. And that’s where I needed to begin.

So it’s time for a new draft. I need to get the reader to understand the danger my protagonist is in early, so that the reader has some connection to the story and cares.

So learn from my mistakes — it’s not enough to have lots of action, drama, and “tension on every page” early on. You need to connect that tension to your protagonist if you want your reader to care.

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

Interview with author Michele Lang

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to interview Michele Lang, who writes all kinds of speculative fiction, and has also practiced the unholy craft of litigation in New York and Connecticut. LADY LAZARUS, her latest release, is a historical fantasy, the first of a series (Tor: September 2010). DARK VICTORY, the next book in the series, releases January 2012.

Michele, how did you get your “big break”? Aspiring writers want to know!

MICHELE LANG: I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a “big break” exactly, more like a bunch of sweet serendipities that have led me from project to project. My first book, MS. PENDRAGON, was published by a now-defunct e-publisher; I pitched the executive editor at an online workshop run by an online romance writers group, From the Heart.

My first NY contract was with Chris Keeslar, who I met on the plane back from Romantic Times in Daytona in 2006. Now that was a lucky break! Chris is a wonderful editor, and I enjoyed writing NETHERWOOD for his Shomi line. Because of that contract, Lucienne Diver agreed to rep me as an agent, and Lucienne sold the LADY LAZARUS series to Jim Frenkel at Tor.

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

LANG: I think storytelling is part of what makes us human. I know many fantastic storytellers who cannot convey those stories in written form, so writing ability is not exactly correlative with a storytelling gift.

The most important factor, I think, in becoming a fiction writer is sheer determination. I know many talented writers who have broken through, but they didn’t break through because of their talent. They became published, and stay published, because they refuse to give up in the face of rejection and difficulties.

VENTRELLA: I recently blogged about “plowing through that first draft” and you wrote similarly about the “salami list.” What tricks have you found that help you personally get your work done?

LANG: To be honest, a contractual deadline does the trick better than anything else! But, aside from sheer panic, I have found some little tricks that help me to get work done.

The best is to have a daily goal. It can be humble, and probably should be, but most important it must be tied to your long term goals.

Start with a vision – what do you want for your writing life? Tie that vision to a goal you can achieve through your own efforts.

Break down the goal into measurable steps, and break those down into monthly steps. Weekly, and then daily. Work your plan, and review it in writing every month – how are you doing?

Try to get your daily goals done at the beginning of the day, before life sinks its teeth into you. Maybe this is only a tip for the morning people of the world, but it definitely is helpful for me.

Expect resistance and the termites of daily life to attack these goals. But dedicate a daily time to pursuing your goals with passion and consistency, and your dreams won’t be denied.

I try to write every day, though with a bunch of small kids in the house that is not always something I can achieve. I have time dedicated to writing: right now it’s 5:30-6:30 a.m., weekdays. I try my best to tack on another hour during the day, but that is not always possible. But I’ve done my best to make a habit out of the 5:30 hour.

That said, when I’m on deadline all bets are off. I write every minute I possibly can, then. The house goes to hell, but my immersion in the project overwhelms all resistance. I love writing 24 hours a day against a hard deadline – it’s so primal and exhilarating.

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

LANG: I try to listen. When I am deep into a story, I can hear the characters and they tell me what they do and why. They often surprise me too.

If they go off and do something I don’t expect, I follow them and try to figure out what they are doing and most importantly, why. I try mightily not to impose my own judgments and expectations of what they should be doing – when I do that, the writing gets very dull and safe. And that’s death for the story.

When I’m rewriting, I try to climb inside my characters and see the story from their perspectives. And I try to make sure the story reflects their truest natures, whether they are villains or heroes or some combination of the two.

VENTRELLA: Some of your work is hard to categorize. How do you see yourself?

LANG: The stories that come out of me end up in the genre aisles, the romance and fantasy shelves. I think that’s a wonderful destination.

But before that, I am simply a writer. I write the stories that demand to be written, the ones that I have no choice but to write. I write the stories that I wish already existed inside a book.

I read this way, too. I try to read like a kid, without preconceptions about the market, what is marketable, where a story fits in the pantheon of Story. I read for love.

I might find WATERSHIP DOWN in the fantasy aisle, or FULL DARK, NO STARS in general fiction (or at the front of the book store in its own special dump), but the books I love the most transcend category for me. They are just wonderful stories.

To keep writing, it’s important to understand the marketplace, to respect the daunting job of the sales department and marketing department to get books into stores and into the hands of readers.

However, I figure if I write the best book I can possibly write, there will be a place in the market for it, especially now with the rise of ebook distribution and its long, long tail.

VENTRELLA: How does your latest fit into this dilemma? Is this giving your publisher problems with promotion?

LANG: LADY LAZARUS is a historical fantasy, but one with werewolves and vamps. My editor calls it historical urban fantasy, but it’s pretty epic in scope, too. The pacing doesn’t match a standard urban fantasy, but it does get pretty explodey by the end, and the next one, DARK VICTORY, picks up speed and ends up blowing up a good chunk of Eastern Europe and our history of World War II, besides.

Tor’s been great about promoting the books. I went to BEA last year, NYC ComicCon and I just got back from the Empire State Book Festival too. I think the urban fantasy market is very, very crowded but LADY LAZARUS is not quite an urban fantasy, so its out of the box status might actually help set it apart.

VENTRELLA: We met at Lunacon a few years ago; do you attend many conventions? Do you find them worthwhile?

LANG: I only started attending SFF cons after I sold my first book, and love them. I love meeting readers, and so I also find cons a great source of inspiration and new ideas.

I attend as many local cons as I can, and wish I could travel to more. I did get to go to World Fantasy last year and it was wonderful. But the local ones are great too.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plotline and setting for LADY LAZARUS.

LANG: The series is set on the eve of World War II in a magical Budapest, and tells the story of Magda Lazarus, a witch with the power to return from the dead. In order to avert her sister’s horrifying visions of the impending war, Magda must battle SS werewolves, wizards, and demons, including the one who has possessed a willing Adolf Hitler.

VENTRELLA: How did you get the idea for the story?

LANG: This idea went and got me, I often say. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. This book is the ultimate what if – could my family have all survived if they had magic on their side?

The title comes from the famous Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus.” She uses the idea of a Jewish girl returning from death as an extended metaphor for her own suicides. I am very literal-minded — when I read this poem for the first time I thought the idea of a murdered Jewish girl returning from the dead to kill Nazis was awesome. Wanted to read the story, so I wrote it!

VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be a good way for aspiring authors to get noticed?

LANG: Yes, absolutely, though that is not the way I came up in the writing world at all. Short stories are becoming a bigger and bigger market, and I think that’s terrific. The form is going to get more popular, I think, as people’s reading habits continue to change.

Aside from getting noticed, it’s a great way for published writers to promote their longer work, and also a great place for any writer to audition settings and characters for longer stories.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry?

LANG: Hah – by the time I gave you an answer, it would be out of date, things are moving so fast! I’ll just say that it’s an amazing time to be both a writer and a reader. I write stories, my readers read and enjoy them. The more ways I can get my stories to readers, the better.

VENTRELLA: For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

LANG: I’m not sure…it is definitely a confusing thing! The NY publishing route is no longer the only way to achieve financial success as a writer. The best way for a new writer to go forward is to get educated about their rights (read the Copyright Handbook for a start), read any publishing contract very carefully, and go forward boldly.

You will make mistakes – all writers make business mistakes at some point, or have bad luck. But then we start again. As I said above, stubbornness is the key to the game, more than luck or talent.

VENTRELLA: And finally: You’re like the fifth author I have interviewed who was an attorney prior to giving it all up to write. (I’m still practicing, though…) What is it about lawyers that make us want to write fiction?

LANG: I could say something witty here about lawyers and the truth, but I just won’t :D

Actually, most lawyers I met during my practice were ethical and decent, and many of them were brilliant. I was a litigator, and I can say that the ability to convey a narrative is essential to winning jury trials. Also, to be a good lawyer, you need to be able to read a witness, tell when they are lying, get to the bottom of their motivations, etc.

The other great thing about being a lawyer is you learn to endure. It sounds like I’m joking around again, but I’m not. Generally speaking, litigation is like trench warfare – whoever hurts the other side the most, wins. That stubbornness, again – you need it to be a successful lawyer, you need it to be a pro writer.

Coincidence? Not in my case. Being a lawyer toughened me up for being a writer.

Plowing Through That First Draft

One piece of advice that professional writers have given me over and over again is to just keep writing until that first draft is done.

It’s also one of the hardest things I’ve found to do!

But it’s true. If you don’t force yourself to write — even if what you’re writing is crap — you’ll never get anything done. It’s better to just plow ahead with your story and worry about the pacing and the details later.

Just keep saying to yourself “It’s just a first draft.” No one will see it unless you show it to them.

But you have to at least get that done if you expect to ever have a book completed.

I’ve met so many potential authors who have commented that they have a book started that they never finished. They do the first few chapters and then go back and polish those up and then polish them some more and some more, and the book never gets done. Meanwhile, others who may not be as talented actually get theirs completed and published, because no editor will be interested in looking at your incomplete manuscript no matter how good it is.

The hardest part is pushing onward, no matter what. It is very tempting to go back and make changes. Instead you need to fight the temptation and say to yourself “I’m not allowed to make changes until I get to the end of the book.” That way, it becomes a reward you can give yourself when you finish.

This is especially difficult when you’re facing that dreaded Writer’s Block. Sometimes I’m at point A and I need to get to point B but am not sure exactly how to do that, so I just plow ahead. Even if what you write is later tossed completely, it should get you past that hump and onto the next section. And sometimes an idea will hit you that you never would have thought of had you planned it all out in advance.

For instance, in AXES OF EVIL, there is a climatic scene near the end where our hero — the coward Terin Ostler — meets his enemy, who has the most powerful magic weapon in the world. Terin, who has no skills whatsoever, must defeat the villain. How to do this? I wasn’t quite sure, so I began writing the scene. I just plowed ahead, figuring I can always come back to it later and fill in the blanks. Instead, when I was done I realized that my solution was perfect — not only did it make logical plot sense for the characters to act that way, but it was even foreshadowed in an ironic way. I guess my subconscious knew something I didn’t.

And don’t wait for inspiration. Writing is work! If you wait for that moment to hit, you’ll never get anything accomplished. Force yourself to write.

Imagine a sculptor staring at a lump of clay. In his mind, he has his outline of what he wants to accomplish — a horse, for instance — but he’s not quite certain exactly what the final version will look like. He starts molding the clay to the form he wants, and after a while, he can step back and look at his “first draft” and realize that even though it’s rough and crude, it certainly looks like a horse. He now knows how it will be posing and the rest is easier, because it’s the clean up and polishing.

If instead he had concentrated on the horse’s left foot, he’d end up having spent the same amount of time with a lump of clay with a very nice foot sticking out of it. Seeing that little bit done doesn’t encourage you to work harder, I don’t think. Instead, I think it depresses you that so much effort has been spent on a foot, no matter how good it is.

I always enjoyed working on the second and third drafts, because that’s where you can flesh out your character’s personalities better, insert some foreshadowing you hadn’t thought of before, and really turn the work from a passable story to something special. But getting through that first draft — that’s the hard part!

Interview with Author and Editor Cecilia Tan

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Cecilia Tan today. Cecilia has been writing and editing professionally for the better part of two decades, both independently and for the small press she founded in 1992, Circlet Press, who specialize in material that mixes the erotic with the fantastic. She has written numerous erotic romances for Ravenous Romance, has edited anthologies for Alyson Books, Thunder’s Mouth Press, Carroll & Graf, Masquerade Books, Blue Moon Books, and others, and collections of her short stories have been published by HarperCollins and Running Press. On top of all that, she also writes and edits publications on baseball.

Cecilia, What brought about the founding of Circlet Press?

CECILIA TAN: I had written a story called “Telepaths Don’t Need Safewords” and just knew at the time I finished it that it was the best story I had written to date. It mixed explicitly kinky erotic action with a science fiction plot. Then I looked around for somewhere to submit it. There was nowhere. Science fiction magazines had explicit rules against sexual content. Porn magazines had explicit rules against both science fiction and any plot beyond “two people meet, then have sex.” The BDSM magazines of the time were either exclusively lesbian or exclusively gay, and my characters were neither. I had been working in book publishing for a few years at that point so I knew the business and I thought “this is nuts. Someone has to do this!” And of course that someone ended up being me.

VENTRELLA: Has it met your expectations?

TAN: Circlet Press has met all my hopes and dreams except for the financial one. We grew by leaps and bounds, garnered fabulous critical acclaim, excellent notice, a great reputation, helped to blow the doors off the old restrictions and show how good mixing the genres could be, jumpstarted the careers of a whole generation of writers … but once the Returns Crisis hit the book publishing industry in the late 1990s, it’s been a financial uphill battle ever since. I’m too stubborn to quit, though, and the ebook has suddenly allowed us to start reaching the readership that mainstream bookstores abandoned. So all of a sudden, there’s some cash flow! Who knows? Maybe someday we’ll turn a profit. What’s most important to me is that we’re still able to connect authors to readers, and then put money back in the pocket of the authors. That part of the business is the same as always … in fact, it’s better.

VENTRELLA: There are many examples of small press these days; do you think this is good for the publishing industry or does it tend to water down the field?

TAN: Oh no. It’s the mainstream presses, not the small presses, who are the most watered down. That’s where you’ll find the most mediocre, recycled pap being packaged and put on the shelf. Granted, it’s not 100% the fault of the big publishers — it’s also the fault of the buyers at Borders and Barnes & Noble, who just want the same thing over and over again, in the hopes that what sold before will sell again. They are all chasing the book equivalent of the Top 40 radio hit and making a lot of boring noise in the process. The small presses are more directly connected with the readership and what they actually want. The small presses occupy the specialty niches.

Another way to look at it is with a comparison to restaurants. The big presses are the chain restaurants. They’re Applebee’s and the Olive Garden and Budweiser. The small presses are that great little gourmet Italian restaurant in your neighborhood, and handcrafted microbrews.

Small presses are also the minor leagues, but for the most part the authors being published in the small press aren’t any less talented than the ones in the mainstream press. They are sometimes less experienced, or less marketable, or just less lucky.

VENTRELLA: As a small press author, I thank you for that!

Has the rise of self-publishing been good for the business?

TAN: Absolutely.

VENTRELLA: When acting as an editor, what is it you look for? What will immediately get a story chucked in the trash?

TAN: The first thing I tell my assistant editors when its time to read the slush pile is DO NOT read the cover letter until after you read the story. Far too many authors think that the job of a short story cover letter is to build you up into a froth of excitement about how great the story is going to be, thus ensuring that a) you’ll be let down, and b) any suspense or joy of discovery in the story has been killed for the reader. I think many amateur writers are confused about the difference between submitting a short story and pitching a novel proposal to an agent or editor, and some just can’t imagine that all they should introduce in the letter is THEMSELVES and let the short story speak for itself.

We get a lot less utter garbage than we used to, though, honestly, and I think the reason why is that thanks to the Internet, writers are actually better informed about how to go about submitting, and they are much more likely to have practiced their grammar and spelling skills on a daily basis. It’s that or the Internet has somehow
swallowed up the attention of most of the crackpots who used to send us wacky submissions in red crayon and the like.

VENTRELLA: What sorts of things do you want in a query letter?

TAN: Since most of what we read is short stories, we don’t read queries. We just want a professional introduction of the author, with whatever credentials they have, but if none, just a firm, no-nonsense hello. It’s professional courtesy to include a cover letter. Sticking a post-it note shaped like a heart on the story is not professional.

Actually, these days, we only accept manuscripts by email, so whenever anything arrives in the mail, I know it’s likely to be from the land of psychoceramics.

VENTRELLA: As a writer of erotic and romantic fiction, what would you advise to someone wanting to enter this field?

TAN: Both romance and erotica have a lot of cliches. The whole trick to writing something that will thrill the pants (sometimes literally) off your readers is to satisfy their expectations while at the same time exceeding them. Be aware of the boundaries of any genre that you write in, and then find out how you can play with and cross those boundaries.

That is, unless thinking about that sort of thing paralyzes you and saps your will to write. In that case, forget everything I said and JUST WRITE. That’s probably the best advice. Step one, start writing. Step two, finish what you started. You’ll get better every time.

VENTRELLA: What trends do you see in the publishing industry that excite you? Which ones worry you?

TAN: I’m very excited at how social networking is allowing authors and readers to connect directly. But the problem is how do you find out about new authors you might like if you’re a reader, when now there isn’t just a publisher-wholesaler-retail chain delivering you a limited selection to choose from? A lot of things are changing now because of that.

It worries me a little that the newer system rewards authors more based on their marketing savvy than on their writing ability … but then I look at a lot of the junk that was published that still hit the New York Times best-seller list over the past 20 years and I realize that’s ALWAYS been true. There have always been populist and popular writers who weren’t particularly great artists.

VENTRELLA: Writing a short story is much different from writing a novel. What are the difficulties you have found? Why do you think some authors specialize in one or the other?

TAN: I’ve written a fair number of both and I really think they are different arts, just like painting and sculpture are different arts. A short story writer has to have guts and brio; a novelist has to have stamina and vision. For me short stories have always come pretty easily. I grab an idea and just pound it until it’s done. A novel takes a bit more planning. The one time I just grabbed hold of a novel with minimal planning, it took six years to finish and came out three times too long to be a commercial novel. (That’s DARON’S GUITAR CHRONCILES, which I’m serializing now on the web.) The next time I plotted out 12 chapters of 5,000 words each and bam, I hit my target right on the nose.

The secret to writing outlines for me is realizing that in the second half I’m going to deviate quite significantly from the outline I wrote, but that some kind of internal logic is at work in my subconscious, so if I forge on, it will all work out. I still have to write the outline, which to me is like sketching out the map of the mountain I’m going to climb. But when I get to the top, exactly halfway through the journey, and am at the turning point, I look down the other side of the mountain… and discover it always looks totally different from the top than it did from where you started at the bottom. Some of the landmarks are the same, but how you get to them changes.

VENTRELLA: Are you sick of vampire stories yet? Is there any plot you have seen too often?

TAN: I love vampires! But even sixteen years ago when I edited my very first anthology of vampire stories, called BLOOD KISS, there were some cliches I didn’t ever need to see. Like setting your vampire story in a goth nightclub … cliche cliche cliche! It really isn’t very imaginative to think “what if those spooky kids who look like vampires actually WERE?” Not exactly an original idea. I actually had to turn down a lot of stories where the “surprise” ending was that one of the two people who met in the bar turns out at the end to be… A VAMPIRE!

I had to write rejections that said things like “It’s a vampire anthology. Every readers KNOWS at least one of them is a vampire.” Then there were the millions who tried the surprise twist: they’re BOTH vampires! Argh. Or surprise twist two: the other one is a vampire hunter! I saw literally hundreds of stories with these plots even after I explicitly banned them in my submission guidelines.

Then there are some ideas that go through fads. I kid you not. One year I received no fewer than four stories all with this exact same plot: an artist falls in love with a model in a painting (usually a Renaissance painting) and gets artistically blocked, can’t paint, is wasting away… until the day the model shows up at the door to have
fantastic sex, looking just like the painting, because s/he is a vampire. Somewhere, once upon a time, that was an original plot. Now, it’s a cliche.

VENTRELLA: How do you think your education has helped your writing?

TAN: Well aside from the actual writing courses I took, it was important to me as someone who writes science fiction to learn some high level science. In college I went right for what was cutting edge at the time, cognitive science (artificial intelligence, neurology, etc) and genetics. Anything you learn that stimulates your brain is going to help your writing. I took a fair amount of psychology in that mix, as well as literature, music, etc. … Long live the liberal arts.

VENTRELLA: Besides “keep writing” what specific advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you when you began?

TAN: I think I must have started out with some pretty good advice, because I can’t think of anything. I suppose the advice I would give is this.

You need your reader to trust you to lead them on a rollercoaster ride. For them to trust you, you have to trust yourself. To trust yourself, you have to know your craft and be constantly improving it, constantly learning about yourself and the way your writing affects your readers. So don’t write in a vacuum because you’re afraid people won’t like it. Find the ones who do like it, and write more for them!

Interview with Tanya Huff

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Tanya Huff today! Tanya Huff lives in rural Ontario, Canada with her partner Fiona Patton and, as of last count, nine cats. Her 26 novels and 68 short stories include horror, heroic fantasy, urban fantasy, comedy, and space opera. She’s written four essays for Ben Bella’s pop culture collections. Her Blood series was turned into the 22 episode BLOOD TIES and writing episode nine allowed her to finally use her degree in Radio & Television Arts. Her latest novel is THE TRUTH OF VALOR (DAW, September 2010). When not writing, she practices her guitar and spends too much time on line.

Tanya, How did you break into the publishing business?

TANYA HUFF: I started by sending out Third Time Lucky to the digests — Asimov didn’t want it and Amazing did. At the same time, I’d finished writing CHILD OF THE GROVE (in about 80% the same shape as the published book) and sent it out as a YA to Terri Windling at one of the Ace imprints I think. It was twenty-five years ago so details are foggy. Terri suggested I submit it as an adult book.

One of the things they suggest when you’re looking for a publisher is to look at what who publishes what you read and I was split about 50/50 between DAW and Del Rey. But I had a friend, S. M. Stirling who’d sold two books to Sheila Gilbert while she was at Signet and now she was at DAW and that seemed like a sign. I was heading to NYC to see some shows and Steve said he’d call Sheila and ask if she had time to see me. Unfortunately, he forgot and when I called Sheila, she said she hadn’t heard from him in a few years but if I could get there right away, she’d just had someone cancel and could see me for about twenty minutes.

Never do this, btw. Never cold call an editor and mention you just happen to be in town. It was barely doable 25 years ago. It’s really isn’t now.

We talked, I left the manuscript for CHILD OF THE GROVE with her, eventually, a year and a rewrite later, she bought it and, in the intervening years, she’s bought another 25.

VENTRELLA: You’ve stated in the past that you decide to write a vampire book because, basically, you knew they were popular now.

HUFF: No, what I said was, I decided to write a vampire book because I was working in a bookstore and had observed that vampire readers were very, very loyal to their genre. That they’d buy anything with fangs on the cover in the desperate hope of finding something decent to read. I figured if I wrote a good vampire book, then I’d give the vampire fans what they were looking for and they’d be that loyal to me. So I did. And they are. But twenty odd years ago when I wrote BLOOD PRICE, vampires were no where near as widely popular as they are now. This was pre-Buffy, remember.

VENTRELLA: This leads to an interesting question in general: How much of writing is about art and how much is about business? Do you think most authors write for the love of writing or because they want to be successful? Are the two incompatible? And is there anything wrong in that?

HUFF: The two are certainly not incompatible. On one level it doesn’t matter what job you do, if you’re just in it for the money, it’ll show and it won’t be pretty. On another, good writing requires a piece of your soul so you’d better love it given that you’re gouging chunks out of yourself to produce it. Also, as I tell the high school kids I occasionally talk to, you’d better love it because the odds are very good you’ll never make much money at it. On the other hand, I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t have a mulitude of ideas floating about and the smart ones will look at what’s selling, try to use that to figure out what’ll be selling in a year to eighteen months when any book you may start now will actually be published, and develop the idea that has the best chance in the market. On yet another hand, sometimes you just want to tell a particular story so badly that the market be damned and it then becomes your agent or editor’s job to reign you in.

So the short answer is, no.

VENTRELLA: You ignored many traditional vampire myths in your books. (I’m doing the same in my next novel, by the way, about a vampire who runs for President.) What led to that decision? Did you get any complaints from the hard core vampire fans?

HUFF: In order for myth to remain alive, it has to grow and change. Once a myth codifies, it dies. I used the parts of vampire myth that were relevant to my story and ignored what wasn’t. So far, no one’s complained. Well, not to me anyway.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been fortunate (and talented) enough to have a TV series based on one of your series. How did that come about?

HUFF: The wonderful guys at Kaleidoscope optioned the Blood series because they loved them and then worked their butts off to bring it to the screen. All I had to do was cash the option check. They did all the work.

VENTRELLA: Were you pleased with the result?

HUFF: I loved the result. Christina Cox was one the actors I saw playing Vicki back in the early 90′s when she was on a show called F/X THE SERIES and I was thrilled when she got the part. Dylan Neal was not how I physically saw Mike — until I saw Dylan play Mike and I loved his interpretation. I’d never been able to cast Henry Fitzroy but now I can only see Kyle Schmid in the part.

VENTRELLA: Did the TV series inspire you to make changes in future books of the series? Did you care about continuity at all, or was that not an issue?

HUFF: I wrote the last Blood book in… I think 1996 so it was totally a non issue. I said at the time that BLOOD DEBT was the last and it has been. There’s been a few short stories since Blood Ties but I have no problem keeping the show mythos and the book mythos straight.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use when preparing a novel? Do you do extensive research? Do you outline?

HUFF: First I have the idea — or, more accurately, separate the idea I’m currently excited about from the herd. Then I write up a pitch for my agent to give my editor — this is a very short outline and has, in the past, actually used the phrase, “And a bunch of stuff happens in the middle.” I always know where I’m starting from and I always know where I’m going, I just don’t always know how I’m going to get there. After the book sells, I research for two to three months until the weight of information tips me over into writing. Then I start at the beginning and tell the story until I finish. Because I edit as I go, my first draft about 95% similar to the book you buy.

VENTRELLA: How do you personally create a new fantasy world, with its own rules? In other words, how much planning and background information do you write?

HUFF: When I create a new fantasy world I need a map so I know the climate, the type of food, the industry, the type of farming, the housing needs. I need to know what time of year it is. I need to know what the religon is, and I need to work out the profanity. Most profanity is very tied to religion and is often the hardest thing to come up with in a created world.

VENTRELLA: What do you bring to the genre that other similar books miss? In other words, what is different about your books?

HUFF: Well, I don’t take myself or the genre (or various) subgenre too seriously while still respecting my readers, but I’m not the only one. I like kick ass women and witty repartee, so that’s going to be included every time. I guess the big thing that’s different about my books, is that I’ve written them…

VENTRELLA: Many aspiring authors get conned by self-publishers who pretend not to be, or by “editors” who do little more than proofreading for a large fee. How does one avoid these scams?

HUFF: They’re not hard to avoid. Publishers and editors pay you — you’re creating the product. If you’re paying them, it’s a scam.

VENTRELLA: Besides “keep writing” what specific advise would you give an aspiring author?

HUFF: Put a third of every check you receive into a separate tax account. Sure, it won’t matter for years but there will come a day when you’re actually making a living wage and the goverment will want a surprising amount of it. If you’re Canadian, you have to pay both halves of the Canada Pension Plan and that’s a surprise when it hits the first time, believe me. It’s best to remember that you’re essentially a small business all year long, not just in April.

Remember that publishers, editors, and agents all talk to each other. They will talk about you. You don’t have to be a saint, but don’t be an ass. If you get a reputation as being unprofessional or hard to work with, it won’t matter if you have all the talent in the world.

And speaking of talent, discipline matters more. I guarentee that more disciplined people with minimal talent are published than talented people with minimal discipline.

Write subjectively. Edit objectively.

Have fun.

Interview with author Marie Lamba

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Young Adult author Marie Lamba today. Marie is the author of the humorous young adult novel WHAT I MEANT…, which Publisher’s Weekly has dubbed “an impressive debut.” She has two more novels which will be coming out soon. In addition to her fiction writing, Marie has written and published more than 100 articles, including features in national magazines such as Garden Design, Your Home, and Sports International. Her most recent piece, “Plotting a Novel Group,” appears in the February 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest. Her web page is www.marielamba.com.

MARIE LAMBA: Hi Michael. Thank you for having me on your blog.

VENTRELLA: Marie, what is it that makes a novel a Young Adult novel?

LAMBA: To me, a young adult novel is categorized primarily by the age of the main character. Since readers read about characters older than themselves, if you have a 13-year-old protagonist, you’ve just written a middle reader (not a YA), and will have mostly elementary school aged readers. Also, content figures in. Sometimes the content is not right for the YA market. But these days, almost anything goes for YA readers. The edgier the better, though you may just be banned by schools…which usually reaps great press and even better sales, interestingly enough.

VENTRELLA: You keep a pretty active blog. Do you think this is necessary to help promote your work?

LAMBA: My site helps me promote my work every single day. I’ve heard people say that if you don’t update your blog at least 3 times a week, then don’t bother having one. I heartily disagree. Sometimes it’s not about getting a huge number of subscribers, but about having a presence, and being able to be found in various ways.

While my blog may seem really active, I sometimes post as rarely as once a month. I just don’t think there’s a point in posting unless I really have something to say. Yet the site is dynamic and gets a fair number of hits everyday because I’ve got a lot going on there. In addition to offering updates about my work, essays on writing, and book reviews, I’ve made it function as my website, www.marielamba.com. So folks are going there to find out about my appearances, to read my bio, to read excerpts from my books, etc. And with links to my Twitter feed, there is always something new to see.

By combining my website with my blog, people stumble onto it while doing the weirdest searches. Like when looking for the menu of Nat’s Pizza. And then they see that my novel has a scene set there. Then they click on my link to buy my Doylestown-based novel. All because of a blog post that tagged Nat’s Pizza in it, if that makes sense?

VENTRELLA: Should unpublished authors have a blog?

LAMBA: Absolutely. It’s a great way to start establishing yourself and your voice. Everything from the color scheme you use to the tone of your bio can help create a feel for who you are. Have a page on your blog with short excerpts of your work, but don’t give away too much material there. Just enough for a taste.

If you really want to be savvy, then you could use your site for things such as book reviews and editor and publisher interviews, which would make your name familiar to the “powers that be.”

VENTRELLA: What can an author do to make their blog stand out among the many out there?

LAMBA: I think it goes back to your voice. Who you are should come through in the tone of your writing, and what you choose to highlight. Then, of course, you need to connect with your audience. That’s where bringing your site to the attention of an organization can help. For example, after I wrote a post about plotting, I saw on a children’s writing message board that I belong to that there was some recent discussion about plotting. I immediately commented there, providing my link to my post.

VENTRELLA: You also make extensive use of Twitter. How can you make your tweets stand out when there are so many people on Twitter? And do you think this is an efficient use of your time?

LAMBA: You know, Twitter is so quick that it isn’t the time suck that sites like Facebook seem to be. At least not for me. Here’s the trick though: when you post there, make it under 40 characters so that you can easily be retweeted to others. Also, try to always provide a link, whether it is to a relevant blog post or a Facebook invite to an event. Links are always too long, so go to www.bitly.com, paste the link there, and you’ll get a shorter link that you can use. And don’t always make your tweets about you. Highlight the accomplishments of others. It’s fun to do, plus I think it’s just good karma.

As for making your tweets stand out, I definitely avoid the whole “I’m getting a cup of coffee now” variety of posts. Again, I only go on there when I have something to say or I really want to respond to someone. I think then people will pay more attention to you. You aren’t the annoying talker everyone wishes would go away. And I try not to follow just anyone or anything. My list is made up of people I know, and of publishers, editors, librarians, media, authors. In short (in the spirit of Twitter), folks who might actually care to hear what I have to say.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? (Do you outline heavily, create character backgrounds first, come up with the basic concept and run with it, etc.?)

LAMBA: Good question. It’s evolving. For my past few novels, I knew my final scene. I had my opening dialogue. And then I was off! Kind of like knowing I’m driving to California, and therefore start heading west, but without a map. I do get to the end eventually. The fun thing about this method is the unexpected twists and turns. The not-so-fun thing is cleaning up the mess that I’ve created, trying to make it more direct and cohesive. It can take a long time.

With my current novel, I’m trying to be more organized. I’ve plotted it out, and now I’m in the outlining stage. Then I’ll start writing. I’m hoping that this will help me write faster. My last novel DRAWN (which is now out on submission), took over a year and a half to write. I want to be much more productive than that.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing in your fiction that no one else is doing? What makes your book different and exciting?

LAMBA: I think, again, it comes down to voice. I’m the only person with my point of view and my humor, and that flavors the plot and the characters. With WHAT I MEANT… (Random House YA), the book’s cast of bi-racial characters mirrors my own family’s blend of Italian-American and Asian-Indian personalities. Because WHAT I MEANT… has a mixed race protagonist, yet it is a mainstream story not focused on race, it became a standout in the field.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any surprising results from your writing?

LAMBA: It is always touching to have readers contact me saying that they identified with the characters and that WHAT I MEANT… is their favorite book. One girl even said that she never cries at anything, yet she found herself bawling at the end of my novel because it touched her. That was humbling.

On a funny note, an ex-boyfriend from high school assumed that one of the guy characters in the novel was named after him. He wasn’t.

VENTRELLA: You do a lot of personal appearances to promote your books. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing these? How do you organize them?

LAMBA: The main advantage is making a personal connection with a reader. If someone meets you and enjoys talking with you, they’ll also remember you and feel a connection to your writing. This is really how books are sold: one reader at a time. I love meeting people, and appearances take me away from my isolated little writing spot and out into the real world. All good. The disadvantage? I can’t think of a single one. I’m careful to pick and choose where and when I go so it doesn’t take away from my writing time.

Events happen many ways. Sometimes booksellers or conferences or teachers contact me. Sometimes I get in touch with them if I have a specific event idea. And I have done presentations to hundreds and hundreds of scouts. I also have to mention that I’m a proud member of the Philly Liars Club, a collection of 13 authors who basically lie for a living. Together we stage a slew of oddball events, and have a blast.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the publishing business a bit. With self-publishing and e-books becoming more prominent, how do you think this will change the demand and market for new writers?

LAMBA: I really think that self-publishing and e-books represent a revolution in publishing, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1460’s when old Guttenberg came onto the scene with his printing press, displacing those hard-working monks and their illuminated manuscripts. Documents at that time show that people didn’t realize the magnitude or ramifications of what was going on. Quite simply, the change was so huge that they couldn’t envision the implications.

And so it goes with us. We speculate, but we can barely foresee what all these huge changes mean. I say look to the music industry, to prevalent iPods and the dearly departed record stores. And be cautious. Will books on paper no longer exist? Will bookstores and libraries disappear? Will publishers become obsolete? The only thing I know for sure is that no matter what form content will take, someone will have to write it.

Cling to that, writers and future writers. We are not replaceable.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the stigma of being self-published will continue? Do you think it’s deserved?

LAMBA: Some self-published books are brilliant. Others are painful and shouldn’t see the light of day. Books that are horribly written and barely edited definitely ruin the reputation of others out there, sadly.

I do think that as distribution of self-published novels improves, and more established authors step into this arena, that this stigma will fade. I mean, what does an author like Stephen King really need a publisher for? Couldn’t someone of that stature just put books out into the stratosphere by himself by self-publishing? J.A. Konrath has started to do it with some success, though he still also goes the traditional route.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors? Why?

LAMBA: Anne Tyler for her beautiful imagery and quirky characters. T.H. White for his epic storytelling, sense of grandeur, and sense of humor. Audrey Niffeneger for her amazing plotting abilities. Sarah Dessen for her touching and real YA voice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see aspiring writers make?

LAMBA: Not taking the time to polish their work, and really learn their craft. Writers need to work so hard to improve everything they do. Established authors are always struggling to polish, to edit. They value pointed criticism, and vigorously revise. When I see someone with talent refusing to do this type of work to polish their manuscript, or not absorbing decent criticism, I know that they are limiting themselves, and that’s a shame.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you offer that you wish someone had offered you?

LAMBA: Writing is not only an art, it’s a business. And sometimes in this business really nasty crap will happen to you. In fact, expect it. Your novel, no matter how important it is to you, is just a commodity in the business world. Be as businesslike as you can, while protecting the sensitive artist within. And write another book. And another. And another.

VENTRELLA: And what’s next? What can we look forward to seeing from you?

LAMBA: My YA paranormal DRAWN (excerpt on my blog/website) is under consideration right now. It’s about a teen artist who moves to England in search of a normal life. But then she starts channeling one very hot ghost through her drawings. Not normal at all.

And right now I’m working on a novel for adults: When an Italian grandmother shares old fashioned recipes for sauces and for a happy life, her three granddaughters test the ingredients in fresh ways, cooking up a surprising blend of spice, passion, trouble and true love.

That pretty much sums it up! Thanks, again, for having me here.

7.28.13g

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 126 other followers