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 Agent and Author Donald Maass

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am very pleased to be interviewing Mr. Donald Maass, one of the top literary agents in New York. Donald Maass’s agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. Donald MaassHe is the author of THE CAREER NOVELIST (1996), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (2001), WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK (2004), and THE FIRE IN FICTION (2009). He is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.

I first met Mr. Maass when he taught a writing workshop in the Lehigh Valley. I learned an awful lot from him, but when we spoke, it was mostly about John Lennon (who we both admire). I used his 2002 book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL to help tone my latest manuscript and have just finished reading his newest book, WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION: HIGH IMPACT TECHNIQUES FOR EXCEPTIONAL STORYTELLING.

Let me start by asking about the underlying theme of 21st century storytelling. How is that different from 20th century storytelling? Why did you make that distinction?

DONALD MAASS: There are many ways in which fiction writing has evolved. Many 20th Century techniques have dated. Objective description, scene-and-sequel, strict adherence to tense/person are all unnecessary. Genre rules are confining and regularly broken. 21ST In WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION I forecast the death of genre. Genre boundaries didn’t exist a century ago and won’t a century from now.

Overall, I’m pushing fiction writers to understand what gives fiction high impact, which is great stories beautifully written. High impact fiction is also highly personal, meaning that to the degree one writes according to rules, or simply to sell, one is working in a box. To write high impact fiction you’ve got to break out of your box—and “literary” can be a box too, By the way — or build an altogether new box which is wholly your own.

VENTRELLA: You list “Quirks” and “Special abilities” as ways that writers can create characters with which readers will bond. Is it possible to go overboard?

MAASS: Theoretically a character could go over the top, I suppose, but in nearly all manuscripts it’s the reverse. Characters, when they stand out, show us strength, self-awareness, strong opinions, lively voice, comprehensive world views and more. Quirks, handicaps, special abilities and even superpowers are common and useful devices nowadays, it’s true, but don’t by themselves do the whole job, or fit every story. Great characters are the sum total of what they do, who they are and how they fully experience their story world.

VENTRELLA: There are exercises after each chapter, which are similar to the ones you had me and those in your writing seminars do. Some of them made a great impression on me and were very useful. How are these different from your earlier workbook?

MAASS: They’re shorter, more prompts than step-by-step exercises. The creative brain moves at high speed. I’m trying to match that!

VENTRELLA: Have you ever made the authors you represent do these exercises?

MAASS: Oh, constantly. They ask me for that.

VENTRELLA: Your advice to always have “micro-tension” on every page has been criticized by some who, I believe, don’t completely understand your point. Is it possible to have a “page-turner” without tension on every page?

MAASS: No. Tension is not about action, explosions and shouting. It’s about generating unease in the mind of the reader. BREAKOUT There are many ways to do that, many of them subtle. Even language itself can do it. When tension exists in the mind of the reader there’s only one way to relieve it: Read the next thing on the page. Do that constantly, on every page, and readers will read every word — you have a “page turner”, no matter what your style, intent or type of story.

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

MAASS: I would say that anyone can become a better writer. Every writer has strengths and every writer has weaknesses. In WRITING 21ST CENTURY FICTION there’s a chapter devoted to helping authors understand the writer they are, plus the writer they’re not, and compensate. Look, some writers will never be artful stylists and some will never be maniacal plot spinners. That doesn’t matter. What matters is growing. There’s always a way to work on what you’re weak at, and succeed.

VENTRELLA: How do you balance the surprise element — where you have your character do the exact opposite of what is expected — with believability and consistency?

MAASS: Great question! Let me put this proposition to you: When your mousy librarian pulls a gun out of her purse, readers won’t object, they’ll dive deeper. It’s psychology. The expected is dull. The unexpected is intriguing. Readers will go with you when you surprise them. The mistake I think is not pulling that gun in the first place or, when it’s drawn, not fully playing out all the consequences of pointing that gun. Working that out and using it is what makes a surprise believable.

VENTRELLA: When looking at a query letter, how do agents react to authors whose previous work has been self-published?

MAASS: There’s a certain bias against that but it comes not from moral objections but from experience. That said, the fact is that there are hundreds of famous writers who first self-published. It’s not about one’s chosen path but about how well one writes.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important are the small press?

MAASS: Very. We work with them, hoping and praying that the cash crunches that can clobber small presses don’t hit them. There even are some “digital first” models that are working, though I would stress that they’re new and evolving. fire E-books aren’t a revolution, new utopia or new paradigm. They’re simply a new opportunity in the not especially easy business that we call publishing.

VENTRELLA: Some established authors are foregoing agents and publishers altogether and are selling their work as ebooks on their web pages. Why do you advise against that?

MAASS: Your pool of potential readers is cut by three quarters, and your ability to make them aware of your book is reduced even further. You’re dependent upon three bookstores who only display one hundred titles in your category. A handful of authors have made this work but they have the minds and energy of publishers. That describes very few reading this interview, trust me.

VENTRELLA: Allow me to ask something a bit more personal. You advise authors to not worry about genres but to write the story you want. My latest manuscript mixes vampires with a political thriller. In response to my query letter, I have received rejection letters from agents that handle political thrillers saying “We don’t do vampires” and agents who like vampire stories saying “We’re not interested in political thrillers.” Should unestablished authors aim more for specific genres in order to get noticed before trying to mix things up? Or are the responses I am getting normal, and I just need to keep trying until I find the right agent?

MAASS: Cross-genre fiction can be difficult to pitch and place, yet some of the most successful authors we represent have invented new genre hybrids. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that when a speculative element is involved, say vampires, it’s often best to look first toward agents, editors and imprints comfortable with that. (Alternate history might be an exception, and YA seems to be open to anything.) Keep trying. I find that wonderfully written works always find their way into print, even if the don’t always fit neatly into a slot.

VENTRELLA: What really excites you when you find a great book? Can you tell instantly?

MAASS: I know right away when I’m in the hands of a confident storyteller. I’m drawn immediately into a full realized story world, yet there’s no rush to tell me everything about it. Characters immediately win and intrigue me, even when they’re dark. The emotional life of the characters is rich, their inner struggles are compelling, and the story immediately starts to mean something. It makes me think and feel. No problem, right?

VENTRELLA: What was the last great book you read?

MAASS: Last great book–? Argh, too many to say. Right at the moment I’m reading Susanna Kearsley’s THE ROSE GARDEN (2011), a gothic tinged past life story. Susanna counts as her influences some greats like Phyllis Whitney. She writes warmly and does history well, too. The book’s got me under its spell.

Interview with author Christine Norris

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

Christine, how did your first novel get published?

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

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

VENTRELLA: What is your writing background?

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you find your current publisher?

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about THE SWORD OF DANU.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview with 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

The Query Letter

I’m at that stage where I’m sending out query letters to agents for my next novel. While the publishing industry changes daily, the advantages of having an agent to sell your book has not disappeared.

Query letters are tremendously important, but too many authors get hung up on them — as if agents will laugh in your face if your query letter isn’t absolutely perfect.

You’d better use proper grammar and have no misspelled words, but if an agent thinks your book sounds interesting — and if it’s the kind of book they handle — then the other stuff doesn’t matter too much.

The key is to get them interested and make them want to read it. They want to read your letter and think “Hey, that could sell if done well.”

Remember: This is a business letter, not a piece of fiction. Act professional. Treat it like you would a cover letter for your resume.

There’s a hilarious blog called “Slush Pile Hell” in which an anonymous agent posts some of the terrible queries received. It amazes me that people think they sound professional when they oversell their work as the greatest thing ever written or ask questions that are the equivalent of raising your hand and admitting you know nothing about the business. Keep in mind that you are hoping to establish a business relationship with the agent. No matter how good your novel, no one will want to represent you if you present a “difficult” image.

You’re just wasting time if you don’t know who is receiving your letter. Never send a “Dear Agent” letter. Find out which agents are right for you. Make sure they like the kind of book you’ve written. Agents who represent cook books won’t be interested in your science fiction novel. A textbook agent couldn’t care less about your children’s story. You might as well just toss your letter into the trash before you even mail it and save the postage, since the result will be the same.

Make sure you read their guidelines. Do they want an email instead of a letter? Do they want to read the first ten pages? Do they want it in the body of the email or as an attachment? Seriously, if you can’t follow simple directions, how difficult of a client will you be?

The world of publishing is smaller than you think. Agents talk to each other. If you make a fool of yourself with one, it probably won’t be long until another knows about it. There’s plenty of information out there for you to learn how to do it right, so you have no excuse.

Finally, do not take rejection harshly. That’s part of the business. Every author has been rejected before. Sometimes the work just isn’t what the agent wants, and sometimes the agent likes the work but doesn’t know how to sell it. It doesn’t mean your novel is bad. (There are plenty of great novels that were rejected many times — for that matter, there are plenty of bad novels that make the best seller lists…)

In a future post I’ll share my standard query letter (which is adjusted and changed based on who is to receive it) and will discuss the format. And I’ll be sure to let you know if I have any success with it!

Interview with Agent Alia Hanna Habib

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am happy to be interviewing Alia Hanna Habib, a literary agent at McCormick & Williams. She represents narrative non-fiction, memoir, and cookbooks, as well as the occasional novel that strikes her fancy. Before joining McCormick & Williams, she was a publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a graduate of Barnard College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

How did you get involved in the publishing business and end up where you are?

ALIA HANNA HABIB: I’d always loved reading, and I knew I’d end up doing something with books. My first job out of college was at Houghton, in the publicity department. I did a bunch of different things between then and now, including non publishing related stuff, but eventually I returned to publishing and realized I really wanted to develop my own projects. Being an agent seemed the best way to do so.

VENTRELLA: Who have you represented in the past? What has been your biggest success?

HABIB: I moved over to being an agent from being a publicist just over a year ago, so none of the books I’ve sold have hit the shelves yet! But I’m very proud to have sold a narrative history of autism by Nightline correspondent John Donvan and television journalist Caren Zucker, a book I think will make a big difference in the life of parents and kids of all stripes. I also have a longtime interest in education — I was the publicist for Paul Tough’s wonderful book on Geoffrey Canada, WHATEVER IT TAKES — so I was thrilled to get to sell Elizabeth Green’s expansion of her wonderful New York Times Magazine cover story on “Building a Better Teacher” to Norton last summer. I think it will really change the way we talk about teachers and education reform.

VENTRELLA: What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

HABIB: It really runs the gamut. I love what I call spooky literary fiction: Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, work that is a little uncanny yet very well-plotted. I represent cookbooks, and they’re my bedtime reading. And as I’m always looking for book ideas, I read a ton of magazines and blogs.

VENTRELLA: New writers trying to get an agent make a ton of mistakes. This blog’s purpose is to try to minimize these mistakes. So let’s discuss a few. First, there is the query letter. What do you look for in a query letter?

HABIB: I like an original idea, and a healthy mix of confidence and humility. I also like to see some sort of publication track record or media platform, particularly for non-fiction.

VENTRELLA: What are some examples of bad query letters you’ve received?

HABIB: I did my graduate degree in nineteenth-century literature, which is easy to figure out with a quick Google search. Someone wrote to me saying I’d like his book because it had all the verve of Dickens and wasn’t prissy and bloodless like Austen. I don’t think anything could have alienated more quickly than insulting Jane Austen. She’s why I went to grad school in the first place! The takeaway from this is your query letter should be about selling you, not denigrating others. That just makes you sound bitter and arrogant, plus you could very well be addressing a fan of the writer you’re taking down.

VENTRELLA: Some agents hardly pay attention to the query letter, stating that writing a good query letter doesn’t mean you’ve written a good book, and vice versa. What’s your view?

HABIB: It’s helpful to see how someone talks about their book, so I’d say a good query is very useful.

VENTRELLA: When you do ask to see a manuscript, what mistakes are most common?

HABIB: You know, once I’ve asked for the manuscript, I really just want to see if the person can write or not and if they can grab the reader from the first page. Don’t bury your story forty pages in.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an unimpressive first page yet you continued reading and found it worthy?

HABIB: If I really like the concept, yes, or if it’s a client referral and I know and trust the client’s taste. It’s a lot like picking up a book at the book store. Sometimes you’ll see it through to the end, if you feel invested in the bigger idea, and sometimes you won’t.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the publishing industry. Do you think the rise of e-books will encourage more experimentation and risk-taking among the big publishers?

HABIB: I hope so. I think it’s also shaking up how we think about formats and categories.

VENTRELLA: Is the small press getting more respect due to e-book sales?

HABIB: Yes, and small presses have also been putting out things of really high quality.

VENTRELLA: If a writer had self-published his or her first book, how does that factor into your decision making?

HABIB: If they self-published well, and have a sales track to prove it, I’m always interested.

VENTRELLA: Assuming you are impressed by the manuscript, how important is the writer’s personality to deciding whether to represent him or her? Have you refused to represent someone because of that?

HABIB: The agent/writer relationship is pretty close. I haven’t refused anyone because of personality reservations– and all my clients are really great, so I really haven’t had to– but you do want to keep your relationship with your agent (and eventually your editor and your publicist) as collegial as possible. You want them to want to talk to you.

VENTRELLA: Is there any final piece of advice you’d like to give that I haven’t asked about here?

HABIB: Be nice to everyone you meet along the way!

Interview with agent Marisa Iozzi Corvisiero

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Marisa Iozzi Corvisiero today.

Marisa is an attorney as well as an agent. She is the founder of The Corvisiero Law Practice, P.C., a boutique law firm in midtown New York City. She is actively building her client list and focusing on science fiction, fantasy, paranormal and romance, as well young adult and children’s literature. In non-fiction, she is interested in seeing proposals for memoirs, how-to (in any industry), guides and tales about the legal practice, parenting, self-help, and mainstream science. No text books please. She’s interested in reading your query and first fifteen pages (full book for children’s books – illustrations not necessary) to Marisa at marisa@lperkinsagency.com You can visit her agent blog at http://thoughtsfromaliteraryagent.blogspot.com and follow her on twitter @mcorvisiero.

I am always surprised to find so many fellow attorneys involved in the publishing industry, although usually I am interviewing fellow authors. I’m curious as to your start as an entertainment attorney and how that led to your becoming an agent – or did the agent thing happen independently?

MARISA IOZZI CORVISIERO: Becoming an agent sort of fell on my lap. It started with a favor for a talented fellow writer. I was writing a cross genre science fiction novel at the time, and started connecting with other authors, going to conferences, joined a critique group and so forth. Eventually, one thing led to another and I found my self sending in submissions for other writers through my law firm and really enjoying representing them.

Then one day, that one talented fellow writer said that he had rekindled a connection with a friend from grammar school, and just found out that she is now a literary agent. Not missing a beat, I asked him to introduce me to this Lori Perkins person, who sounded so fabulous. So he did, and after one conversation with Ms. Perkins, we both knew that we were meant to work together. She offered to mentor me, and to share her 23 years of experience and contacts in the industry with me. She said that after six months with her it would be like having a masters. Of course I agreed, and took on this opportunity of a life time. The six months came and went, and I’m still with the L. Perkins Agency, learning from the best.

VENTRELLA: Do you think having a legal background gives you an advantage over other agents?

CORVISIERO: I think that any additional skills or knowledge that one brings to the table gives one an advantage. Lawyers are trained to spot and solve issues, analyze, strategize, negotiate and draft legal contracts. These are very important skills for an agent, but I think that one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to posses these abilities. Most good agents out there have these skills. So I suppose that being a lawyer helps me be a good agent.

VENTRELLA: A query letter is very important for an author wishing to make an impression, but it seems that the skills necessary to write one are completely different from the skills needed to write a novel. How do you overlook a poor query letter to inspect the manuscript – or do you? (By “poor query letter” I do not mean one that contains misspellings or other obvious errors, but instead one that just does not grab your attention as it should.)

CORVISIERO: Query letters are very important. They not only showcase the author’s work, but also the author as a professional. If a query is sub-par, it is an indication of many things such as lack of attention, professionalism, skills, respect etc. I’ve written an entire blog entry on titled “Don’t Screw Up Your Query: You only get one change to make a good first impression”.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the query looks good, that there are no errors, it briefly describes the novel, says something about the author, provides genre and word count as well as a brief description of the target market and why this novel would appeal to them. If all of this works and the story line does not grab my attention I will consider not reading the work. At this point I ask my self if the storyline is interesting and unique. If not, I go back to the e-mail and type up a short decline letter and tell the author why I’m declining it. If it is interesting and unique, I go on to read a few pages. After that, if I like what I read, I ask for the full synopsis and/or the full manuscript.

VENTRELLA: How important is it for you to love the work in order to represent the client?

CORVISIERO: Very important. I only represent things that I love. My time is very limited and precious. I will not waste it on something that I don’t believe in. Even if it is selling.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever accept work that you believe has potential but needs major editing?

CORVISIERO: The short answer is yes. I have taken on a few diamonds in the rough and it usually pays off in the end. I can’t do this often due to time restraints, but if I see the potential in the work and the writer, I will go out of my way to help them.

VENTRELLA: Is there any story or plotline that you are sick of? Is there anything you wish you’d get more of?

CORVISIERO: I wouldn’t say that I’m sick of them, but I’m very conservative when it comes to vampire novels. One would think that the market is oversaturated with them, but they are still selling. So when considering a vampire story, it will need to be very unique or traditional with a unique plot. I mean seriously, enough with the clumsy but smart teen that falls in love with a vampire who simply can’t resist her. Been there, done that … let’s get creative people!

Which is a good segue into what I do want to see more of. I want good science fiction and urban fantasy. Throw in a good romance or attraction between the characters and I’m even happier. I want someone to send me a well written, fresh story with compelling characters, that will blow my mind. Give me the next Matrix, Harry Potter, Avatar, Mission to Mars, Abyss, Contact. See the pattern?

VENTRELLA: Do you think the vampire trend will end soon? (I hope not, given the manuscript I’m working on now.) Do you see anything new on the horizon?

CORVISIERO: The trend itself, or “frenzie” if you will, will most certainly end. Everyone is riding the coat tails of Stephanie and Charlene. But even after the demand for creatures of the night, or sparkling creatures of the day ends, there will still be market for vampires. I can’t think of a time longer than a couple of years, when a book or movie about vampires wasn’t released. I think its almost like a cycle. Every few years a hot vampire story emerges. Remember Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, Blade, Buffy, The Lost Boys, on and on through the years all the way back to Nosferatu in the 1920’s. People love vampires. And so I think that there will always be a market for them.

The problem is that vampires have been too glamorized. Made to seem almost human but for the need to drink blood, some even eat food and can go into the sunlight with an application of a special lotion (The Gates). Not to mention all the super powers. When I was reading Breaking Dawn (Stephanie Mayer’s 4th book) I kept thinking this is like vampires meets the X-men. So I think the key to a good new vampire story may be to bring it back to basics.

As for trends, we have gone from aliens, to vampires, to werewolves, to zombies, to fallen angels. Now there are talks about super heroes. I have personally seen some keen interest in mermaids. I’ve received at least two really good queries already. I may be the first to say it but I think that there is something there.

VENTRELLA: What do you love to read? Who are your favorite authors, and why?

CORVISIERO: Other than my fabulous clients, I would say that my favorite authors are Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks. Now, as you may imagine I read quite a bit and I love many, many authors, but I have to say that when it comes to Nora and Nick I enjoy them above all others. When I pick up one of their books, I know what I’m getting. I trust them. For instance, I know that any novel by Nicholas Sparks will probably make me weep and laugh, and it will provoke thoughts and promote some sort of emotional learning within me. He is fantastic at reaching the reader.

Nora Roberts is a whole different story. I call Nora “My good old reliable”. I know that I can buy any one of her books without even reading the jacket and I will like it. She is a pro at creating believable and intricate characters whom you want to follow through their journey to the end. I usually sprinkle one of her novels into my reading schedule after reading a number of manuscripts and other books. Once in a while “I need a dose of Nora”. When I saw Nora Roberts at RWA this past July I told her this, and I told her that she is one of the few writers that I trust explicitly with my time. She seemed very flattered, even though I’m sure she hears this all the time. And that makes me like her even more.

VENTRELLA: Some people advise authors to attend writer’s conferences specifically for the chance to meet agents and make pitches. Others say such a thing is useless unless the manuscript is finished. What is your opinion on writer’s conferences?

CORVISIERO: Conferences are wonderful, and writers should take every advantage of the resources and opportunities that they offer. If you can attend one or two a year, they should, even if the manuscript is not finished. Attending a conference gives authors the wonderful opportunity to meet other authors, agents, and editors. There is always something to be learned at the workshops. They are invaluable. I would however advice not to pitch a manuscript until it is finished. Also, to get more out of a conference choose one that suits the genre of your work.

VENTRELLA: How will the rise of e-publishing affect your business?

CORVISIERO: E-publishing is changing the industry to a point where sooner rather than later all books will be available as an electronic version. I’m not sure how long it will take until we stop cutting down trees to print books, but that’s something to ponder. This doesn’t affect my business significantly. Other than learning about the new e-publishers popping up everywhere, how they work, and how they like to be reached. Right now, if we sell a book only as an e-book, the advance will usually be lower than an advance from a traditional publisher would pay, but the royalties are higher, and so there is still a profit to be made for agents and authors. Either way its clear to me that e-publishing is the way of the future. As much as I love the feel of a book in my hands; the sound of the pages turning; and the smell of an old and well loved book, as well as that of a newly printed one; I still think that e-books will eventually dominate the market, if not replace it all together.

VENTRELLA: And finally, what general advice do you wish to give to aspiring authors that they may not have heard before?

CORVISIERO: I’m sure that this is not new advice, but I think that it’s good advice none the less. Writers should write what they know about, or what they are passionate about. Don’t write just to sell books, or to please people. Write to tell a good story, one that you’ve conceived. Enjoy the process, even if it means never selling your work. I know that it sounds ridiculous, but most of the great works were created by those with passion for the craft and not for money. The point is to reach the reader and whisk them into your imaginary world, where they will grow with the characters, suffer their pain, and experience their joy in the end when the conflict is resolved.

We are usually best at what we enjoy doing the most. So if you don’t enjoy writing, find a different hobby. Publishing is a tough industry. It is difficult to make good money. When you do, it’s wonderful. But don’t expect your writing to be an overnight best seller and bring you millions (it doesn’t happen that often). Don’t expect to sell your book and get an advance large enough to support you until you sell your next book. The odds are not in your favor. So don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. I had to say that because it’s always good to include a dose of reality. However, good things can happen, and they do. Just be prepared for the rejections and be persistent.

If this is really what you want to do, keep at it. Let every sentence be better than the previous one. Remember that success is a process and not a destination, so enjoy it and learn your lessons along the way. I urge you to never ever give up. If writing is your passion, and you enjoy it, don’t let anything anyone says discourage you from fulfilling your creative dream. Think big, shoot for the stars and when you look back you’ll do so to re-live your journey and not to dwell on missed opportunities!

Interview with Janice Gable Bashman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Janice Gable Bashman today. Janice is co-author (with Jonathan Maberry) of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE: VAMPIRE HUNTERS AND OTHER KICK-ASS ENEMIES OF EVIL (Citadel Press, August 2010). She has written for many leading publications, including NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, WILD RIVER REVIEW, THE WRITER, INDUSTRY TODAY, and FOOD & DRINK QUARTERLY. Janice is a member of the ITW (International Thriller Writers) and the Horror Writer’s Association, as well as a contributing editor of the ITW’s newsletter the BIG THRILL. Her writing won multiple awards at the 2007 Philadelphia Writer’s Conference.

Your book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is due out shortly. Tell us about the book!

JANICE GABLE BASHMAN: WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE deals with monsters of all kinds (supernatural, fictional, or real) and the people/beings/forces that fight them. It’s a pop culture book for fans of the genre. We interviewed tons of people for the book — FBI profilers, authors, screenwriters, comic writers, actors, directors, producers, criminal experts, psychologists, and others — as well as luminaries like film-maker John Carpenter, author Peter Straub, and the legendary Stan Lee. The book also has over forty illustrations from fantastic artists.

Here’s what some of the experts have to say about the book:

“WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a fascinating, far-ranging analysis of the nature of evil and those who rise to fight it … in real life, in pop culture, in literature and in legend. A must read for those who want to dive deep into the reasons for why we are fascinated by monsters … and love those who make it their business to take them down.” — Rachel Caine, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Morganville Vampires series, Weather Warden series, and Outcast Season series

“WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a riveting chronicle of all things that drop fangs in the dead of night. All aficionados MUST have this in their library!” — LA Banks, New York Times best-selling author of the Vampire Huntress Legend series

“Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman probe into pop culture’s Heart of Darkness, and what they find is both fascinating and thought-provoking.” — Charlaine Harris, creator of TRUE BLOOD and the Sookie Stackhouse novels

VENTRELLA: How did your writing styles work together?

BASHMAN: Jonathan Maberry and I each wrote individual chapters and reviewed and edited the other’s work. Other chapters were a collaborative effort. Prior to writing anything, we had to decide who was best to write each chapter. Although writing the book was research and interview intensive, we each brought our own skill sets and knowledge of the subject matter to the project; therefore, some chapters were better suited for one of us than the other.

When writing or co-writing a book, voice is important. The challenge with two authors is finding one voice that both authors can write and that fits the tone of the book. At first it takes a bit of trial and error (and writing and rewriting) to get there, but the end result is, if you do your job right, a voice from two writers that sounds like it’s from one.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any similar books planned?

BASHMAN: WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a companion to VAMPIRE UNIVERSE by Jonathan Maberry (2006) and THEY BITE by Jonathan Maberry and David F. Kramer (2009). I’m finishing up a proposal for my next non-fiction book; it’s still under wraps so I can’t share the details at this time. I can say that dozens of key players are already on board for the project and it’s sure to be a fun one.

VENTRELLA: You primarily have written nonfiction. How does that differ from writing fiction?

BASHMAN: Writing fiction and non-fiction differ and yet are the same. By that I mean that both forms of writing have a story to tell. In fiction, the story comes from your imagination (and research); in non-fiction, the story is derived from fact. Whether I’m interviewing an author for the NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET or THE BIG THRILL or interviewing a CEO of a major corporation for a trade magazine, the process is the same. I gather my facts and tell a story — the story of the person or organization I’m interviewing.

I’ve received many e-mails from authors and others I’ve interviewed thanking me for giving them such an interesting interview, one where the questions differ from those they’ve been asked so many times before. I make it my business to thoroughly research my subject before I construct an interview and find a way to take that interview to a deeper and more personal level, to get to the heart of the person and talk to them about what really matters.

But, in the end, it’s all about story. Finding the story and crafting it in a way that’s exciting for the reader. That’s my job as a writer whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started in the business?

BASHMAN: About four years ago, I decided to take a swing at publishing some articles after I became involved with a writing group. I learned to craft a query, sent out a few ideas to some local publications, and sold my first article. In the years prior, I had published my master’s thesis and a few book reviews, so I did have some, albeit minimal, publishing credentials. Once that first article was published, I began sending out more queries to both local and national markets, and the sales began rolling in. I’ve written dozens of interviews and profiles for numerous publications, but I’ve also written features, book reviews, and now a non-fiction book.

VENTRELLA: How do you pitch a nonfiction book or article?

BASHMAN: Pitching a non-fiction book is different than pitching an article, so let’s tackle a book first. To pitch a non-fiction book, the writer must write a non-fiction book proposal. The book proposal contains detailed information about the editorial format, the book contents, the author’s marketing and promotion intentions, who will buy the book, media contacts, and more. A sample chapter or two is also submitted with the book proposal. The author must then pitch the book to an agent, via a query letter, in order to find an agent to represent him in selling the book. Some publishers may accept proposals directly from an author, but most do not. So, unlike fiction, the entire book does not have to be completed before pitching to an agent or editor.

The process of writing a non-fiction book proposal is helpful beyond obtaining a sale. It helps the author flesh out and refine his ideas and really get a good handle on the book. And when it comes time to write, the author is ready to go.

Pitching an article is a different beast. To pitch a non-fiction article the writer must send a query to an editor telling that editor about the proposed article and why it’s a good fit for his publication. This is done prior to writing the article. It does help sometimes, depending on the type of article you wish to write, to have one or two quotes from “experts” in your pitch to support your proposal. For an interview or profile I have not found this necessary, but I would recommend using expert quotes for a feature article. It shows the editor that you not only have the knowledge to write the article but that you also have access to the experts who can support the material.

My experience has shown that once I’ve worked successfully with an editor, it is easier to pitch new ideas to him and have them accepted for publication, as long as the ideas are good, obviously, and fit the publication’s needs. I’ve also had editors contact me on numerous occasions asking if I would be interested in writing a particular piece for their publications. When that happens, it certainly makes life easier because I bypass the query process. If and when that happens, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to turn down an assignment if your schedule will not allow you to complete the piece on time to meet the editor’s deadline. Always, always, always meet your deadlines.

VENTRELLA: Giving a pitch to a fiction editor or agent is a skill few have. How do you manage it? What advice do you have?

BASHMAN: The hook is all important. A query letter must hook the agent or editor in the first sentence just like the first sentence of a book must hook the reader. The writer must give the agent a reason to continue reading the query letter and to request sample chapters. It may seem like a simple thing, especially after writing and editing a manuscript, but it’s not. Crafting a good query letter takes time, but it’s important for the writer to take the time to do it right. How awful would it be for a great manuscript to sit forever in a drawer because an author didn’t take the time to learn how to write a good query and therefore couldn’t get an agent or editor to read the manuscript?

My advice is simple. It takes practice. Write and rewrite your query until it sounds like something that would make you request pages if you were an agent. Run your query past a few colleagues, post it on a writer’s critique board such as Backspace or Absolute Write Water Cooler, or if you’re really brave post it online for either the Query Shark or Evil Editor to critique. But before you even get that far, read through Miss Snark’s blog achieves where you’ll find hundreds of query critiques to study as examples. Publishers Marketplace is also a good resource. Take a look at the deals page and you can easily see how authors/agents have summed-up a book’s hook in one sentence. Find books in your genre and read the back cover copy, see how the wording hooks the readers and find a way to do the same for your book.

The more a writer studies and writes queries the easier it gets, but it takes time and practice. Don’t expect perfection right out of the gate. Work on the query, study your sentence structure, word choices, etc. until you get it right. Put the same hard work into the query that you put into your book. And if you query and don’t receive requests for pages, you either need to rethink/rewrite your query letter or ensure you queried the agents/editors who are interested in your type of book. One or the other wasn’t on target.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you give an aspiring writer?

BASHMAN: Remember that you’re writing because you love to write, because you have something to say that is meaningful. Be persistent. Push through the tough times; they will come. Relish the rewards of your work. And remember that publishing is a business, so try not to take rejection too personally. A rejection may not be a reflection on your work but may simply show that what you wrote is not the right piece for the marketplace at that particular time.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst thing you have seen writers do that ruin their potential careers?

BASHMAN: I cringe every time I see a writer bash an agent or an editor in a social media setting such as Twitter or Facebook because the agent or editor rejected that writer’s work. Agents and editors receive and respond to hundreds of queries a week and often read them on their own time outside of business hours. They are searching for that next great book to represent, the book they love, and the book they believe readers will love too. They’re in the publishing business because they love books, and believe me, they want to find the next great book just as much as the writer wants to write it.

Rejection is part of the business, and a writer’s response to that rejection should be kept private or shared with a few select friends. It’s okay to feel disappointed, hurt or upset, but publically airing those feelings and lashing out at agent or editor either online or via e-mail is awful. First of all, it’s cruel. It’s done out of anger and feelings of rejection — that the writer’s work isn’t good enough, which may or may not be true. Second, agents and editors know one another, so when a writer bashes an agent or editor, that writer is labeled as trouble based on their online or e-mail rant. The writer may have written a great manuscript, but who wants to work with a difficult author, especially one just starting out in the business?

VENTRELLA: How do you manage promotion for your work? What things do you have planned?

BASHMAN: Promotion takes a lot of time, but it’s a necessary part of business. Today, authors are expected to do most, if not all, of their own promotion. It’s important to have a game plan and follow-through with it. A writer can write a great book, but if no one buys it the book is considered a failure.

For WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, we’ll be posting expanded interviews on our websites with some of the people we interviewed for the book, we’ll reach out to readers through social media, we’ll attend upcoming comic, horror, and other events, we’ll participate in speaking engagements at local libraries and other organizations, we’ll attend book fairs, hold book signings, and a whole slew of other things to get our book out there and to bring it to the attention of readers.

VENTRELLA: How important is it for a writer to post on Twitter and Facebook and keep a blog? And what can a writer do to make his or her blog different and noticeable?

BASHMAN: It’s extremely important for a writer to connect with as many potential readers as possible. The internet has given authors a powerful arsenal of tools to connect with readers through social media, blogs, Yahoo! groups, websites, etc., and authors need to recognize those opportunities and use them. I recently spoke about building your buzz to drive up sales at the Backspace Writers Conference, and I’ll be speaking about it again to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group in September. I embrace these social media and online opportunities and have found them instrumental in helping propel my writing career forward. I’m on Twitter , Facebook, LibraryThing, Shelfari, LinkedIn, and a bunch of Yahoo! groups. I also follow and comment on numerous blogs and post to my own blog, usually about the writing business.

In order for a writer to make his blog noticeable, the writer must provide content that is engaging and relevant to the blog readers. In order to achieve that, the writer must identify his blog audience—who are they and why they are there. Also, what does the writer want to talk about? How can the writer make that interesting for his readers? If the writer’s target audience is other writers, for example, how can a blog post on writing draw in potential readers, agents, editors, etc.? Find ways to target new audiences while maintaining the readers you already have? Study those blogs you admire and see what they are doing and how they are doing it. Learn by example. Then try your twist on it and see if it works. If it doesn’t draw the response you desire, tweak your approach and try again. There’s no sure-fire formula for success. Just do what you do and do your best.

VENTRELLA: What projects do you have upcoming?

BASHMAN: In addition to the upcoming non-fiction book project I mentioned earlier, I continue to write for various publications. I’ll also be shopping a young adult novel shortly.

Me and Janice

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 Christopher Hoare

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am interviewing Christopher Hoare, whose books can be found with my publisher Double Dragon. Chris was born in London, England in 1939, immigrated to Canada in 1967, and became a Canadian Citizen in 1974 but we won’t hold that against him. He led an interesting life, studying around the world, serving in the Royal Artillery and then worked in oil exploration in Libya among other things. He now writes full time, living in Alberta at the eastern edge of the Rockies with his wife of almost 40 years, Shirley, and two shelter dogs.

Chris, there are so many new authors out there. What do you say to readers to get them to check out your books?

CHRISTOPHER HOARE: Gisel Matah, the protagonist of my Iskander series, is a woman who excels in a man’s world of action and danger, driving stories that women may find a refreshing change from being treated as sidekicks or helpless targets. She becomes the top security agent for her people when the small group of moderns are stranded in a 17th century world.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide to make the main protagonist a female?

HOARE: I picked my strong and reckless female protagonist to oppose the relegating of women into accidental and amateur roles in action adventure fiction. I felt that women readers would enjoy one of their own who could stand with all the James Bonds and Rambos out there. I have heard skepticism about parts of the early stories where the young Gisel becomes the only person in the situation with the skills to take the lead, but partly because of her age. They query her action because they relate it to our society, that keeps the young in immaturity far longer than earlier societies did. I write such scenes with the age justification for her position carefully buttressed. For example, at 16 in ARRIVAL, she is picked to be Colonel M’Tov’s assistant in training a small group of parachutists because of her gymnastic experience; she then becomes the only person with the technical understanding to lead them on the operational jump when M’Tov breaks an ankle in a training exercise.

My next release is due to come out very shortly. THE WILDCAT’S BURDEN is a plunge into a dangerous writing minefield – I have Gisel both pregnant and moderately active as the governor of a rebellious city. The mothers in my writing group felt I’d mostly succeeded in depicting her in the conflicting roles, but also added their expert advice into the states of mind she should experience. The final crisis naturally takes place during her confinement and so the novel ends with attacks on her and on the city, while the plans she has prepared for the situation must unfold unattended. Another writer admitted she had a character in a fantasy give birth on a battlefield, but wouldn’t risk it again. We’ll see if readers accept this story.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on next?

HOARE: The novel I should be writing now instead of these answers. I have long wanted to write SF where the power of the mind is more important than the gadgetry. I think Lucas, in “Star Wars”, approaches this with the abilities of the Jedi, and I believe the ’50’s classics did as well in such stories as Alfred Bester’s jaunting in STARS MY DESTINATION (Tiger Tiger) and Asimov’s telepathic “Mule” in SECOND FOUNDATION.

The protagonist I introduce in MINDSTREAM is a retired professor of systems theory who has become abbot of a quasi-Buddhist monastery. He is able to access other beings – on this world, in deep space, and on other worlds – and, mentally, participate in or direct the action there. I blend a lot of the fascinating Tibetan Buddhist esotericism with String Theory in the background scenario. In the novel, Crumthorne and his assistant attend a NASA spaceflight convention to protect it against similar alien intrusion from adepts on other worlds, but it turns out that one of the Earth ‘attendees’ becomes a greater threat to all of them.

VENTRELLA: What’s the hardest part about writing?

HOARE: That’s easy – getting one’s work noticed among the cacophony of other media out there.

VENTRELLA: Have you had any formal writing training? Do you think that is necessary?

HOARE: You should have competence in the language you write in as a prerequisite. I’m appalled at the number of people who write although they have little knowledge of grammar and cannot spell; and even more appalled at those who self publish their writing without rectifying these inadequacies.

As to formal writing programs, I’m always skeptical about over-academicism because it can lead to rigidity and a failure to accept ideas that do not lend themselves to clever analysis. However, I attended a couple of university extensions that contributed greatly to my early development. A writers’ conference at NAU at Flagstaff in the late ’60s had an invited writer whose depth of analysis of fiction really opened my eyes.

VENTRELLA: How did you end up with your current publisher?

HOARE: I’m lucky to have landed with Double Dragon. Deron is supportive of ideas I sometimes spring on him, even when they turn out to be of less value than his own; he allows a writer to amass a growing body of available work without the fear of losing earlier writing to the deadly ‘shelf life’ demon of mainstream publication. Of course, that is also a function of e-publishing, where one is safe from being destroyed by the dreaded ‘returns’ policy.

I have been able to investigate the sales and distribution of POD vs e-books in my own way and learn from my mistakes (the only way I ever learn anything).

VENTRELLA: Do you have other long term goals to grab a more “mainstream” publisher?

HOARE: I would like to have a more mainstream publisher at some point, but I doubt I would find working with them (and they with me) completely successful. Really, the only thing they have that I covet is the greater exposure.”

VENTRELLA: Your short stories have also appeared in various collections, including TWISTED TALES. Do you find short story writing easier?

HOARE: Actually, I don’t like writing short fiction. The two stories accepted in TWISTED TALES II and III are the first short stories I produced since my early writing days. I doubt I will write more as I feel I was not able to get across the intentions I had in writing the stories. Possibly a fault of my lack of experience with the medium, but I really detest the literary genre that most short story writers write in.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise starting writers to concentrate first on short stories?

HOARE: Conventional wisdom when I started writing seriously said that one should always attempt to develop one’s idea first as a poem, then as a short story, and only later consider turning it into a novel. What rot. I do advise a developing writer that the shorter medium is a necessary foil when one is learning the essences of the craft of theme, tone, and plot. In a first novel one can easily lose all control over what one is writing – it certainly happened to my early attempts.

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

HOARE: Would you recommend taking your first transatlantic flight in the captain’s seat rather than the passenger cabin? It requires an inordinate amount of hard work and luck for one’s self pub not to ditch in the ocean.

I do know a few good self published novels (other than Tolstoy’s and Dickens’) but they are exceptions. The writers were not first-time novelists and had some experience and craft knowledge to back their efforts. For a year or two I tried my hand at reviewing fiction and tried to give equal time to self-published works, but after receiving more than one that was actually painful to read I gave up on the exercise.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to rely on outlines first or do you just plow right in?

HOARE: I much prefer to start with the characters and the opening question and write a first draft as an exploration. By the time the novel reaches the halfway point the ending should have made itself inevitable if one remains true to what has gone before.

There are times, when I’m not sure what should happen in a necessary scene or what comes next, that I will explore ahead with an outline or even an unorganized scattering of issues to determine the logical order which develops the story. I have never sat down and written a detailed outline of a story before starting to write as I feel that would destroy all the life – the illusion of real life happenings – that make the story flow.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about NovelPro.

HOARE: I learned almost all I know about writing during the five or six years I belonged. The partnership with some really brilliant authors and the hard work of extended whole novel critiques was more valuable than a conventional MFA. Not just my opinion, as I saw it expressed by other members who had MFAs.

If you can get in, I’d advise any writer to shelve their own writing ego long enough to submit to the group for awhile. Not everyone can do it. Some quit even before completing their very first novel crit – the be all, end all, of the NPro system – while others get kicked out because they become obstructive. I was cautioned a couple of times, and my posts put on ‘review’. I’m still in contact with some members and past members and have accepted that there will come a time when the writer has to accept that their own needs and the group’s no longer coincide. I still wish them all well, and wait for the time when a work from the group becomes a bigger success than THE DaVINCI CODE – as well as better written.”

In line with others in the NovelPro group I spent an inordinate length of time trying to perfect the query letter and the bit by bit perfection of the opening attention grabber to gain a top NY agent. Then I slowly began to realize that my writer profile ruled me out of their consideration. I’m a grouchy and opinionated senior who lives as far away from New York, and the New York mentality, as it’s possible to get without traveling through space. I tried to bend in the appropriate ways – I became a Toastmaster to hone my public speaking skills for those career building moments on camera, but by the time I became a CTM I realized I hated making speeches. I tried to convince myself that I could turn myself into a saleable ‘brand’ under the tutelage of a wise old literary agent, before I realized that I’m too much of a loner to fit the profile. I’ll go on writing my way and being me – and if that doesn’t fit with the NY concept – to Hell with them.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any specific advice you would give a writer trying to make it in the publishing business that they may not have heard before?

HOARE: I hope a few of the answers I’ve given above have pointed others to useful insights of their own. If there is anything I believe that I’d like to prove true it’s that in order to be a lasting writer – one who produces something that lasts – one has to be a contrarian. Not pretend to be one but to actually feel offended when life tries to squeeze you into a conventional slot.

My old physics prof at engineering college used to say, “If you want to have a brainwave, you have to have a brain, and you have to wave it.” I have absolutely no proof that these qualities will allow you to ‘make it’ in the conventional publishing business, but I assure you they will lead you to a more worthwhile life.

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