Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

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

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

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

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

Ravencon 2012

Ravencon 2012

Interview with author Leah Cypess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you hold back anything when writing YA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on attending more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for interviewing me!

Interview with author Kathryn Craft

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am thrilled to be interviewing friend and now-successful author Kathryn Craft today! Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: THE ART OF FALLING, and the upcoming WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL. Craft_small_photoHer work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic (Morning Call, Allentown, PA).

Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she served for a decade on the board of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She is a member of the Liars Club, an author’s collective started by NY Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry and fantasy writer Gregory Frost. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Kathryn, let’s start by talking about your first big novel, THE ART OF FALLING, which is already in its second printing! How does that make you feel?

KATHRYN CRAFT: That was a huge surprise! My book was only six days past its publication date when I found out —- I couldn’t believe it when I saw the email from my publisher. I of course realized, from social media and trade shows and the number of reviews, that the book had truly “left home.” But who knew the extent to which it had traveled? I’m thrilled.

VENTRELLA: I recall you saying that you queried 112 agents before you found the right one. Tell us about the story, and what kept you going? (I gave up on my latest novel after about twenty-five…)

CRAFT: I kept going all the way through to publication for one reason: I was powerless to quit. THE ART OF FALLING was more than a path to publication for me. It was the source of my healing.

I turned to writing fiction after my first husband’s suicide, sixteen years ago. I had a lingering need to use my writing to form a more hopeful story from the chaos of those events.

Penelope Sparrow was my path.

I placed her in a harsh environment —- in a dance world with even harsher expectations about a woman’s body than those of our celebrity-driven society -— then watched as inner conflict about her imperfections imploded her dreams and relationships. I dismantled her support system. Gave her talent and passion and exclusive training then whittled away at her faith and resolve with years of rejection. Then I gave her a taste of success, a taste of love, then yanked both away at the same time. Finally, at that point, I thought, maybe she might be at the brink of self-harm.

But I wasn’t sure. So when Penelope wakes up at the start of the novel in a Philadelphia hospital room, and learns that she had landed on a car parked below her fourteenth story penthouse, what happened on that balcony remains a mystery that Penelope must reckon with. And when she bravely started rebuilding her life, I knew I would do whatever it took to see her story told.

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

CRAFT: Here are five quick tips:

1. Pass the pitch test. If your project is hard to boil down into a succinct statement about your protagonist’s goal and the chief obstacle faced, rethink your project’s structure. Deepen the motivation and raise the stakes until the story matters — then your pitch will hook the reader.

2. Adjust your inner clock. I’ve heard many estimate that it takes ten years of consistent work to make a novelist, and a couple of years to get an agent. I started submitting early to get a feel for where I was and so learned both the art of writing and the business of pitching simultaneously. Querying is an investment in your career as worthy as writing a good book, so think of it as a process.

3. Submit in small batches. Too many authors use the ease of digital reproduction to blanket the industry with a flawed submission package, blowing opportunities they could have salvaged by tweaking all along. Send no more than 15 at a time.

4. Look for young agents at established agencies. These agents have more time and more room on their lists, yet have all the clout and resources of a reputable agency behind them.

5. Reframe “rejection.” To buoy your spirits for the long haul, mentally thank each agent who steps aside so that your true agent will one day be revealed. If an agent doesn’t know how to sell your book, you don’t want him representing it. You want him to love your work, because that passion will fuel his desire long after the money earned per time spent ratio is surpassed.

VENTRELLA: What was it like dealing with the publisher? Did it meet your expectations?

CRAFT: Sourcebooks exceeded my expectations in almost every way. What I’d heard: You’ll get no advance. (I got a decent advance.) Editorial support will be lacking. (I had two editors who loved my book.) You’ll have to fight for a decent cover. ArtOfFallingSmall(The cover blew me away, as did their retitling.) They’ll put no effort into promotion. (My publicist arranged my blog tour, arranged for giveaways, booked signings, and arranged for radio, TV, and newspaper support.) They no longer put money into marketing. (Good! Paid ads are no longer as effective as the other forms of trade marketing into which they poured their efforts.)

Clearly they’ve done something right, due to the great reviews and the early second printing. I’m a happy camper.

VENTRELLA: How much of the book changed between the time you submitted it to the editor and the time it was released?

CRAFT: Because I’d been working on it so long, and had developmental input from my agent, only one scene was swapped out for something different. All other changes were minor, such as ironing out how to portray one character’s accent.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing to promote the book?

A lot! No one loves this book, or wants it to succeed to its full ability, more than I do. My efforts have included:

• Thirteen years of volunteerism and relationship building in multiple writing communities

• Author website, Facebook Page, author newsletter, social media, and years of regular posts at high-visibility group blogs (The Blood-Red Pencil, Writers in the Storm).

• Facebook meme campaign.

• Two bookstore launch parties in “home” communities (I even had a flash mob!)

• A 9-hour virtual launch party on Facebook with eight other women’s fiction authors with new releases.

• One-month blog tour — both writing the guest posts my publicist arranged and interviews and posts I arranged.

• Signings in PA, MD, DE, NY, MA, and OH in places where I have friends I can stay with.

• Paid marketing through AuthorBuzz (expensive, but it took me thirteen years to get here and I don’t want to squander the chance).

VENTRELLA: What kind of responses are you getting from readers?

CRAFT: The response has been beyond my wildest expectations. I love living in the era of Goodreads and book bloggers, for sure, but direct communication from readers has been so much fun! My absolute favorite so far was from a man (not my target market!) named Douglas in Michigan:

“I stumbled onto THE ART OF FALLING while perusing the ‘New Books’ section of my local library. It was among the stack of books that I got out that day and it sat in my apartment untouched for a week. I didn’t open the cover until I was looking for something to release me from my insomnia last night. It did not have the intended effect. What I found was a beautifully written narrative about a world I know nothing about — modern dance — and something I have personal experience with — expressing those feelings we hold so close to ourselves. In the last day, I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s not often that this happens, that a book is so truthful and engaging that you beg for it never to be over, but when it does happen, you want to shout it from the rooftops.”

VENTRELLA: You also help run writers’ conferences (and once more, thank you for helping me with the Pocono Writer’s Conference we did last October!). How important do you think it is for authors to attend these?

CRAFT: I’d think it would be difficult to get a fully rounded education in publishing without them. And it’s a great way to get a concentrated hit of craft classes, as well, if you don’t have regular access to them. But pitching to agents in person — only available through conferences — has been priceless to me. Gauging their excitement, seeing that they are book lovers just like me, receiving their feedback (you almost always get a request to submit, and almost always receive personalized feedback) really helped usher me along. I also enjoy interpersonal interaction with authors and other writers — I met my critique partner in 2005 at The Write Stuff, and she had traveled there from Ithaca, NY!

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

CRAFT: This novel was a NaNoWriMo mess that took six years to sort out and another two to develop fully. At this point I’m not a believer in directionless fast drafting. I like to write about the story first, exploring how best to bring its structure to life, then write. What I end up with is more like an extended synopsis (my last was a hundred pages) than an outline. Results show that the few months I invested in that step will save me years in the editing phase.

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

CRAFT: I think it’s a viable option for certain well-developed works that have built-in markets and authors who know how to reach them. For my kind of “literary book club fiction” this was never a consideration. I needed broad distribution that would allow my audience to self-select. Since these are the types of books I love, I don’t tend to read self-published work.

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

CRAFT: “Story is conflict.” That is a partial truth that allows authors to fall into a junk pit where they can get sidetracked climbing over obstacles as diverse as explosive as nuclear rockets and as incongruous as the kitchen sink. “Each story is about a certain kind of conflict” — now that’s much better.

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

It’s from Virginia Woolf: “Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.” Two things strike me: that she said “each sentence,” and that the best writing takes risks that might get uncomfortable.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer?

CRAFT: If you want to get published you need a public, so seek out and pay attention to the feedback that will allow you to evolve as a writer. Surround yourself with wickedly smart people who are farther down the road than you are, never forgetting to turn around and give a hand to those following behind. In doing so you will have mentors, readers, and a good life.

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

CRAFT: My next novel, WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL, is due out from Sourcebooks in Spring 2015. Based on true events that resulted in my husband’s suicide 16 years ago, it is the story of a tense ten-hour standoff between one desperate man ready to take his life and the police, while the three women who loved him most, and the larger community, grapple with how best to respond.

I’d better get back to work on it — it’s due June 1! Thanks for having me, Michael!

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 Sara M. Harvey

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Please welcome to the blog today Sara M. Harvey. Sara is a genre-crossing author whose work has been described by Jacqueline Carey as “a compelling blend of the numinous and the creepy”. sara harvey Her webpage is here!

Sara, your first work was the romantic urban fantasy A YEAR AND A DAY. Tell us about it!

SARA M. HARVEY: That book was such a work of the heart. I was lonely, living in Orlando, Florida, working for Disney, missing NYC, in the uncertain beginnings of a long-distance relationship, flat broke and spiraling deeper into debt, and I needed a distraction from my life. I came home from work exhausted every night and sat down and wrote about angels living in the East Village and it was magical and got me through a very rough patch.

It got published as a “contemporary romance” but I’d call it more urban fantasy than romance. Sure, there’s a love story, but the main love story is between me and New York City, or so I’m told. This was my NYC, the one that I got to know and love.

The short version is the Angel of Vengeance and the Angel of Joy are roommates in NYC’s East Village, Hijinks ensue!

You can still get it as a used paperback via ebay and the usual online outlets — Powell’s, Amazon Marketplace, etc. Or if you prefer ebooks, Baen Ebooks is your go-to spot DRM-free for any and all devices!

VENTRELLA: How did you get that published?

HARVEY: Funny story, really. I was working as a temp at a temp agency (totally meta, I know!) and one of the managers belonged to a women in business group to whom this local publisher came and gave a pitch. They had a contract with CVS Pharmacies to put out some mass market romances. She remembered that I mentioned I wrote so she brought me their info. What followed was the very worst query letter I ever sent. I literally said “I don’t think you’ll want this but…”

It’s a nice thing to say I sold 35,000 copies through CVS stores nationwide … but the publishing company soon went bankrupt, showed their true colors, and although I finally (after legal action) got my rights back, they still owe me $1700 that I will never see.

VENTRELLA: You then delved into steampunk with your BLOOD OF ANGELS novellas from Apex. How has that been received?

HARVEY: The reception has been overall really great!convent The first of the series THE COVENT OF THE PURE was reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and it still sells and reviews really well, even years later!

I found Steampunk to be an exceptionally fun genre to work in, there are so many facets and permutations to explore. I really love history and exploring all the dark and twisty “what if?” paths!

VENTRELLA: Do you find novellas easier than full works?

HARVEY: It was a challenge. I really throw the reader into a no-holds-barred roller coaster ride with very few places to stop and breathe. This makes for an exciting but exhausting read. So on the one side, it’s good the size is smaller, but on the other, were I writing a full 100k word range novel I would have done a lot of things differently. So … easier? No, it just didn’t take quite as long.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages of a novella?

HARVEY: Time commitment, both on the side of the reader and the writer; there’s a certain amount of time sunk into a full novel. Some concepts are just not novel-length so a shorter format allows more freedom to tell those stories without trying to pack in filler to pad the word count. With the ever-expanding self-pub and small-press markets, novellas are really gaining ground as companion pieces to larger works and standalone treasures.

VENTRELLA: Your newest work is SEVEN TIMES A WOMAN set in mythic Japan. What sort of research did you do for this work?

HARVEY: My background is in theatre and history. I have a bachelor’s degree in costume design and a master’s in costume history. I have also had a lifelong love of kimono and all things Japanese. I actually started writing SEVEN TIMES A WOMAN before A YEAR AND A DAY, when I was still living in NYC and had access to the Japanese wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took classes at the Japanese consulate, and had a lot more Japanese people in my life. 7TimesAWoman_FinalSo the research was fairly organic and I had an amazing set of resources at my fingertips. Also, the internet is a wonderful tool! But having the real life experts to fact check stuff made weeding through the bad research online a lot easier!

VENTRELLA: I note that you have been with many different small publishers. What are the advantages of using different publishers?

HARVEY: I am a pretty eclectic author and I write in a variety of sub-genres of fantasy. Each publisher has a little bit of a different flavor to their oeuvre and since I have a lot of facets to my work, I have been able to find different publishers that sync up with each!

VENTRELLA: You also wrote the opening story in the recent DREAMERS IN HELL, part of the “Heroes in Hell” series (Shameless plug: I’m in the book, too). How did that come to be?

HARVEY: I have some friends among the early recruits for the Heroes in Hell reboot and was invited and accepted to ROGUES IN HELL, but my story got pushed back to DREAMERS IN HELL, where is it much more fitting. I couldn’t be happier to have it there!

VENTRELLA: Is it difficult writing in someone else’s world?

HARVEY: Yes and no. I have written my fair share of fanfic and I find the constraints of fitting original stories and concepts into other people’s worlds and characters to be pleasantly challenging. HEROES IN HELL was a larger challenge because there are so many books and such an enormous cast of characters. Keeping everything organized was really challenging. So I ended up writing what Janet Morris calls an “outlier” story, one that fits generally into the overall story but not directly or linearly.

It was kinda cheating, but also a good way to get my feet wet. With such a robust history, I didn’t want to dive right into the deep end on my first shared-world swim!

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

HARVEY: Currently shopping out an urban fantasy novel that takes place in Nashville. And my latest piece of short (but also kinda long) fiction is the the MOUNTAIN DEAD chapbook accompanying the Appalachian Undead zombie anthology from Apex Publications.

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin? Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00075]Characters, plot, themes? What is your writing style? Do you outline heavily, for instance, or just jump right in?

HARVEY: Usually there are characters first, followed very closely by a setting (actors and location) and then I have to work out the specifics of the very vague plot idea I have for them. BUT I just started a YA fantasy where I had a really detailed plot and no characters and no setting. Which is just the opposite of my usual mode of operations. But I’m having a good time with the research and construction. I never shy away from a new way of thinking about writing!

I’m an academic at heart so I always make an outline. I never stick to it, but I make one.

Mostly, I’m a pants-er when it comes to writing. I just jump right in! Even when I wrote longhand, Mead notebooks and Bic pens were cheap, I filled drawers with them. These days I have whole folders of dribbles and drabbles in Word documents. They take up very little hard drive space and fit easily onto a 2GB thumb drive.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

HARVEY: Jacqueline Carey, Cherie Priest, Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, 1990s era Francesca Lia Block, early Anne Rice, early Stephen King, Lovecraft, Shakespeare, Tolkien, historical fiction, non-fiction history and fashion/costume books.

VENTRELLA: These days, even authors with major publishers need to know how to market themselves. What are some of the smartest things an author can do to promote their own work?

HARVEY: Like Wil Wheaton says, Don’t Be A Dick! Have a platform of actual content or wit or something. You can’t just plug your book over and over. Don’t use birthday greetings on Facebook to market your book, be a cheerleader for others and pay it forward or back or sideways — generally be involved in your community and genre, and most importantly be yourself. Be genuine in your dealings with the people you meet online or in person at conventions or signings or events. You never know who is a fan or a potential fan and you have so many opportunities to make someone’s day by just being you. Be mindful of that, think about how you’d like to be advertised to and apply that to your marketing strategy!

VENTRELLA: Should beginning authors ever consider self-publishing?

HARVEY: I think self-publishing is still the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. I have a pretty good fanbase but still haven’t moved much of my self-pubbed piece (a novelette called “Allegiance to a Dead Man” about Emperor Norton, available for Kindle and Nook!) but I know a lot of authors who do okay at it. I don’t know anyone quitting their day job, however. The industry is really in flux right now and I think self-pubbing will be with us for a very long time, if not forever. It isn’t the stigma it used to be, but it isn’t the magic wand promised by so many. So I’d say, research all your options and be prepared to go it alone. Alone. Even small presses have marketing teams, blogs, media connections, etc. Have a plan in place, a good and solid plan, before you even think of self-pubbing. Dreamers-in-HellAnd I say, try out your small press options first. Especially your first time out of the gate.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future of publishing?

HARVEY: Publishing needs to lose the megalithic “Big Six” or “Big Five” or however few of the major labels there are. They are going to crumble like the big recording labels did ten years ago. Sure, those labels are still around, but they don’t have the same strangle-hold on content like they once did. We’re in a really turbulent time right now and I think there are still a lot more upheavals to come.

That said, we still need gatekeepers. So much self-pubbed and a lot of small-press stuff it a terrible waste of time and an exercise in ego. Wading through that muck is hard on readers. But we have an unprecedented amount of literature available in an unprecedented number of ways — paper books, ebooks, audiobooks, online, etc. and there is nothing bad in that! There just needs to be a higher signal-to-noise ratio, and that’ll come with time. Remember the internet 10 years ago … it was the WWWild West! And things sorted themselves out. Publishing will do the same.

Readers aren’t going anywhere and as things have shown, there are more and more of them and they are engaging with authors in new ways every day and that right there is a thing of beauty and tells me that we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Interview with Catherine Stine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing Catherine Stine, writer of suspense and speculation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Her newly released crossover sci-fi thriller is RUBY’S FIRE.

Catherine, tell us about this new series. What makes your series different?

CATHERINE STINE: It takes place on a future earth (2099), and the world has suffered from extreme weather and border wars, but it is not an oppressively dystopian atmosphere. There are signs of renewal. I’m more interested in what takes place during a perilously delicate recovery, and what kinds of events and people affect it.

VENTRELLA: My fantasy novels are also considered “young adult” books, primarily because of the age of the protagonist. What else makes a story YA?

STINE: The hallmarks of YA are yes, the age of the protagonist (14 to 18), but the pacing must be fast and the plot high stakes. There is always a romance, yet the romance is not graphic. Themes are geared to teen concerns. RUBY’S FIRE addresses drug use, core identity issues, runaways, love triangles, extreme peer competition and genetic mutation. How’s that for suspense?!

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin — characters, plot or themes? What’s your writing style? Do you outline or just jump in?

STINE: I begin with a compelling situation and characters. Then I construct the plot. I always outline, and I do thematic freewrites. The more I think through the novel and outline beforehand, the stronger and more focused the novel becomes. Rubys-FireI advise my students to outline, even a few lines per chapter. I encourage them to think of it as a fluid entity they can tweak as they go. This seems to help.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

STINE: I read adult and YA speculative fiction. That includes horror, sci-fi and techno thrillers. Occasionally I’ll read a literary mystery to study how to craft tension.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about how you got RUBY’S FIRE published.

STINE: I published Ruby’s Fire with my own imprint, Konjur Road Press. That said, I’ve also published with Random House, American Girl and Scholastic. I’m a hybrid author, meaning I’ve done it both ways, and would like to continue publishing both ways. Why not? I do have an agent. He’s okay with that.

VENTRELLA: What do you think we will see in the future of publishing?

STINE: I think more and more authors will publish both ways. Even well published authors are choosing to self-publish certain projects. For instance, one trend is to write a “short” or a novella with one of the characters in a novel, between longer projects, and self-publish the shorts. It satisfies readers while they wait for your longer opus.

VENTRELLA: Even authors with major publishers need to know how to market. What are the smartest things one can do to promote a book?

STINE: For RUBY’S FIRE, I’m doing a big blog tour. Last time I organized it all myself. This go-around I hired a book tour host. FireSeed One CoverBut from my first experience, I “met” so many great book reviewers that this time I was able to contact them again, and they were thrilled to read the next book, and also to blurb. People are very generous online and they love getting the word out about books they like. The funny thing is that I have a friend who is published with one of the Big 6, and her publicist is approaching the very same bloggers I have a relationship with. The whole process has become democratized. It’s also good to do giveaways on Goodreads, and to host other authors.

VENTRELLA: You’ve received quite a few good reviews and awards for your work. How did those come about? Do you have to search them out or do they contact you?

STINE: Write the best book you can, and good reviews will follow. I did apply to certain indie award sites; there are good ones, and questionable ones. Do your homework. More and more, these organizations and awards will be helpful to readers to discern the best of the indies.

Thanks for interviewing me on your blog, Michael!

Interview with Author Myke Cole

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

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

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