Interview with author Shane Lindemoen

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Shane Lindemoen today. Shane is a newer science fiction writer from Minnesota. He started with short literary fiction, earning honorable mention in the 2005 Lorian Hemingway competition with his story “Mount Airy,” and a Glimmer Train nod in 2011 for “Lucretius.” His debut novel ARTIFACT (Boxfire Press, 2013) won the National Independent Publisher Award (Gold, 2014). Shane has had a varied professional life, working as a private investigator, a shoe salesman, and as an Editor of National Affairs for the ezine Secret Laboratory (Maple Hills Press, 2011). He’s also an inactive, licensed Peace Officer for the state of Minnesota, and very nearly finished with his MA in Behavioral Systems Analytics. You can typically find Shane at http://www.shanelindemoen.org trying his darndest to transform his thoughts into tradeable monies.Profile

Shane, what is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

SHANE LINDEMOEN: My process is an unmitigated, undifferentiated mess. My workstation is enclosed by a mountain of reference books that I call upon at any given time; my browser has thirty bookmarks open at once, always Wikipedia, always a thesaurus, always Google. My writing has this tendency to take on the language and feel of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Which is beneficial in some ways, but harmful in others: there are many books I can’t read while in the midst of writing something. I once spent two weeks obsessively reading every single Chuck Palahniuk book in existence, and when I sat down to write it was the most horrendous block of text every typed into a word processor.

I have learned to use this weird dynamic to my benefit: if a scene calls for suspense, for example, I’ll use time reading John Little, Stephen King, Joe Hill, Ronald Malfi, or John Everson, which puts me in the right mindset to write suspense. If I have an action scene, I’ll read Matthew Woodring Stover. If it’s time to paint exposition or do some world-building, I’ll read Dan Simmons, Larry Niven, Ian M. Banks, Tolkien. Alex Garland, Amy Hempel, or Cormac McCarthy if I want to say something profound and thoughtful. There’s a whole pantheon of heroes I invoke at any given time when I write. This is why I hesitate reading stuff by new authors, especially when I’m in the throes of writing a new yarn, because if I read something that’s written poorly, I’ll begin to write poorly.

As for the outline. I take that pretty seriously. Before I even drop ink on a draft, I’ll spend time drawing out on paper the various plot threads and where they intersect on the broader timeline. I’ll mark the beginning, the big events, and the end – and while I may not know exactly how things will unfold between those events, I try to make something happen every 1500 words to raise the stakes, create more peril, reveal small amounts of plot, and move things forward. I don’t spend much time on characterization, because I feel the characters flesh themselves out through interacting with each other and responding to things I throw at them. Some say it’s beneficial to have personality types in place before hand, but I get the feel of a character as I go. I simply tag them with something that readers will identify – I give them an image to anchor a voice to, and I try remaining consistent to the way each character responds to things.

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?

LINDEMOEN: I subscribe to the belief that we’re all red-blooded, anatomically-lateral humans capable of accomplishing the same things. Our species hasn’t drifted too far from itself in something like 200,000 years, and yes, there are dimensions of difference specific to us, and yes, many do have certain predeterminations, but excluding functionally demonstrable certainties (disability, mental illness) there is nothing one human can do that another can’t. Writing is a skill – it can be learned, it can be honed, and it can be perfected like any other.

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

LINDEMOEN: I think it means to either stick to your expertise, or write what you’ve experienced. I think they say this because the yield is more authentic that way. How I’ve interpreted this is simply to know what I’m talking about in terms of research. If I’m writing a space adventure, for example, I’m going to want to know actual spacecraft design and engineering. I’ll learn about antimatter and ion propulsion and how to theoretically create artificial gravity. The goal is to sell the idea of authenticity, and swindle my readers into thinking that I know what I’m talking about. Nothing kicks readers out of perceived immersion more than illogical crap that doesn’t make sense on real terms.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

LINDEMOEN: Reading science fiction is more work. I think it’s a genre that requires its readers to be active observers and engage with the theoretical aspects of it. In other words, reading fantasy is like a ride; reading science fiction is like a homework assignment.

A lot of science in science fiction is actually, functionally possible, which appeals more to the scientific-thinking person – someone who expects a certain amount of reality in what they’re reading. A reader of fantasy doesn’t feel compelled to analyze and measure things against functionally demonstrable laws of nature, because the expectation is that everything – from the nature of the characters, to the nature of the universe itself – is fair game and intended to be taken at face value, no matter how fantastic or absurd. This might sound like I’m making fun of fantasy or something, but that’s not my intention. Fantasy is just a different delivery system of narrative and truth, which I think appeals more to the largest bell of the readership curve. Readers won’t suddenly debate internally about the natural selection of dragons and griffens and trolls, because it isn’t possible in real terms. Readers can accept each thing for what it is and enjoy the ride as passive observers. An interstellar warp drive is possible. Suspended animation is possible. Colonizing other planets is possible. And because of this realness of things, readers of science fiction come into a story with certain expectations.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about ARTIFACT! Jacket

LINDEMOEN: ARTIFACT is my debut novel, which recently won the 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award for best science fiction. It’s about an ancient alien machine recovered from beneath the surface of Mars by interplanetary miners. When scientists bring it to Earth for study, a physicist activates something inside of it that causes him to inexplicably teleport back and forth between different points in the same timeline. As the separate moments begin to focus on some sort of singularity, the physicist must use what little time he’s given in each place to piece together exactly what happened the moment he invoked the artifact, before it rips reality apart. I’ve been comparing it to equal parts Matrix, Inception, Dark City, Stargate, and Night of the Living dead. I’m not going to lie… it’s pretty out there.

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

LINDEMOEN: I’m currently working on another science fiction yarn tentatively titled VAGABOND. I haven’t tried soliciting it to publishers or agencies yet, so we could be talking about a slushpile candidate, but it really depends on whether or not I can sucker anyone into buying it. Here’s the setup:

The last evidence of the Endeavor spacecraft became immortalized in a single image captured by the Pinnacle telescope: A teardrop silhouette falling into the shadow of Saturn’s largest moon, moments before losing contact with Earth. The mission and its crew vanished, never to be heard of again. It was considered the last great human push into the fringes of deep space.

Years of silence, speculation, and uncertainty intervened – an uncertainty that stifled any hopes of interstellar travel – and without warning, the IDSI administration received a signal from an outpost in deep space matching the Endeavor’s distress beacon.

Commander Susan Fenroe of the International Deep Space Initiative – a veteran astronaut assigned to her last six-month rotation aboard the science station and galactic telescope, Pinnacle – is beseeched by Command to select a crew of eight, and once again tempt the final darkness. Her mission: travel to the source of the distress beacon, and ascertain the fate of her long lost contemporaries. And when her ship comes in violent contact with something close to where her predecessors disappeared, Fenroe and her crew quickly learn that they must surrender faith to each other and their training if they hope to make it back alive. Because what they find in that distant outpost of human curiosity and ambition is a force of nature that could bring about the end of all things.

A dark fantasy mixed with equal parts survival-horror and hardline science fiction, VAGABOND is one woman’s odyssey into the last of all unknowns. A poignant contemplation of being lost, of shapes moving in the dark, and of the light that keeps them there.

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

LINDEMOEN: I think it’s great. I think it fills an important void in the market. But there’s almost no way other than word-of-mouth for the consumer to sift through the innumerable quantities of crap out there. Many serious self-published authors have the odds stacked against them, because they must somehow find a way to set themselves apart, and there’s really no validation of quality at the onset other than the author’s word. But like in anything, good stuff will always claw itself out of the lesser muck. I know of at least two people who’ve made livable money going the self-pub route after they couldn’t land any traditional contracts.

One author – Adam Nicolai – decided to publish one of his fantasy yarns (CHILDREN OF A BROKEN SKY) exclusively on his own, because he had faith in its success and wanted a larger cut of the profits. Of course, almost every self-pubbed author claims that self-pubbing is a choice, but in his case I actually believe it – Adam is an excellent writer, and his novels are good enough that it’s conceivable publishers would consider picking them up. And then there’s Andy Weir, author of the phenomenally amazing science fiction novel THE MARTIAN, who’s probably going to win the Hugo and the Nebula next year. He couldn’t sell TM at first, and decided to self-publish it. When it sold a couple thousand copies on Kindle, it was quickly picked up by Crown, and hit the New York Times Bestseller list shortly after that. So, yeah – self-pubbing is a good platform for the fierce amateur, but it’s also a thankless, unglorified, disrespected, cut-throat place in which only the serious, learned, passionate, and skilled authors will survive.

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

LINDEMOEN: I didn’t have an agent when I made my first professional sale. But I can tell you theoretically what the process should look like. I know that you’re to solicit agencies first, before you try finding a publisher. And if none bite, you have five options. You can 1.) spend the next year refining and perfecting your manuscript, and approach agencies again with a better product, or 2.), start immediately contacting publishers directly. The reason you hit up agencies first is because they won’t normally take you if you’ve been rejected by every single publisher in existence. And most advance-paying publishers don’t accept unsolicited, albeit unagented manuscripts. But say you’ve been rejected by agencies a couple of times, and your manuscript has been refined to the extent that neither you nor your cohorts can find a single reason why it hasn’t been picked up. Well, you really have nothing to lose by pawing the mail slots of various publishing houses. Your manuscript is dead – might as well flame out on the off chance it gets picked up. And if it doesn’t, option 3.) Self-publish. Option 4.) Toss your manuscript in the garbage and start a new one. Option 5.) Enroll in creative writing classes and learn how to write better.

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

LINDEMOEN:A few sage words from one of my favorite authors, Matthew Woodring Stover:

“ ‘Unreliable narrator’ is a tautology. Belief in the reliable narrator is an act of faith intellectually equivalent to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.”

And:

“If your writing is not a vehicle for truth, it’s just fucking product. Pink slime. Chicken paste.”

One more:

“The next time someone advises you, as an aspiring author, to ‘Show, Don’t Tell,’ advise this person in turn to read BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, and then invite him on my behalf to shut the fuck up for the rest of his life.”

Last one, from Neil Gaiman:

“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.”

Thanks for inviting to your site! If anyone needs me, I can usually be found in two places: http://www.shanelindemoen.org, or http://www.facebook.com/shanelindem. Thanks again!

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

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

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

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

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

Interview with author Thomas Erb

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

Thomas, how did you first become interested in writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about TONES OF HOME!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get you and your stories out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

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

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

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

Interview with author K. Edwin Fritz

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I have blogged many times warning beginning fiction writers not to self-publish. Today, I am interviewing self-published author K. Edwin Fritz, who will discuss his experiences (and talk about writing!) Keith’s web page is here!
View More: http://dianaliedl.pass.us/keithfritz-hilo4cbw

Keith, you’ve self-published your books so far. How do you deal with editing?

K. EDWIN FRITZ: I did MAN HUNT by myself, and it was hard. Really hard. And even though I’m an English teacher by day, I still published it with about a dozen mistakes. It’s was pretty embarrassing. For the second book in the series, I’m asking a favor of another teacher friend. Fortunately, she loved MAN HUNT and is willing to take on the burden.

VENTRELLA: What process did you use when choosing a cover?

FRITZ: I designed it myself. I like simple-looking covers that make you think once you look closer. Busy or chaotic images are distracting to me, so I guess it’s not surprising all my covers are relatively simple but are laced with symbolism.

VENTRELLA: How have sales been?

FRITZ: There is always a surge when one of my books first comes out, but that’s pretty much over after a month or so. I used to think friends and family would buy lots of my books, but that’s proven to be wrong. Most of them have avoided me like the plague. One nice thing, though, is that the ones who truly do support you become obvious immediately and are consistent. I’ve recently begun to advertise to the big world out there, and the results are mixed. I’ve had one nice success and a couple of flops. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time I’d rather be spending writing more stories.

VENTRELLA: Is this something you want to continue to do?

FRITZ: No… and yes… but no. I’d love to land a big publishing contract, of course, (or even a decent one) and if that ever happens it’ll be goodbye self-publishing. But in the meantime, there are some positives that have kept me going.

VENTRELLA: What are the benefits of self-publishing?

FRITZ: Probably the freedom is the best. I can put out whatever story I like, and no editor, publisher, or agent is going to mangle it. Another big plus is the time it takes. From what I hear, traditional publishing still takes a long time… many months to even a year or more. With self-publishing, once my book is done I can have it ready for sale in a matter of days if I bust my butt enough. One final reason is subtle but, in my opinion, still pretty big. Man HuntThere is a big boost to your self-esteem when you actually have a finished book to put into people’s hands. The same thing would happen with traditional publishing, of course, but with self-publishing you are guaranteed to get there.

VENTRELLA: What do you see your long-term goal?

FRITZ: Ultimately, I’d like to make a living out of writing. Until that happens, I’ll be happy making enough money to go on vacation once a year.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise other authors to self-publish their novels?

FRITZ: I think that depends on what your goals are. Don’t do it to make money. But do do it to gain experience and grow a fan base.

VENTRELLA: One of the reasons I advise authors to avoid self-publishing is because many publishers see this as a negative when they are considering your next book (unless you’ve sold 10,000 copies or something). Do you think that stigma (even if undeserved) is realistic?

FRITZ: Yes, and not just from publishers. Whenever I tell my new students or strangers that I’m a published author, they perk up. But when I add that word “self” there is a visible disappointment in their eyes. It stinks of “Oh. You couldn’t get a published the real way, so you must not be very good”.

Having said that, the publishing world is going through big changes thanks mostly to the ebook craze, and I’ve heard that traditional publishers are taking on fewer new clients because of it. “Successful” self-published authors (whatever that means) are used as a litmus test by traditional publishers, and you’re right about those sales numbers. If you can do well on your own, they’re happy to ride your coattails to even more sales when they put their name behind you. I consider that situation a win-win … with a touch of humility. But most self-published book can only count on a couple hundred sales at most. Getting to the kinds of numbers that will actually attract a publisher is very very unlikely. And there’s something else, too … the truth is most self-published books really aren’t that good. Trust me … I’ve read many.

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

FRITZ: It was a short story called “Doctor Time” and it’s about a man who invents a potion that makes him live forever. The story follows him as he slowly (very slowly) watches life of all kinds change and die off around him. It’s a sad story, but it’s also kind of peaceful in its way. The first time I told it was more or less a dare from a friend who challenged me to tell a story off the top of my head, which I did. I told it a few more times after that around campfires, etc, and it came out a little different and a little better each time. Later I tried to write it down, which took several tries over a 6-month period. Eventually, it was published in my college newspaper. An updated version appears as the final piece in my NIGHT STORMS collection.

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?

FRITZ: I do believe that many people are born with an ability to tell a great story, however that’s not the same thing as being able to write one. They are similar but not identical skills, and learning the difference is a LOT of hard work. But can people who can’t already tell a story learn how to write one? Probably not. You need a foundation to work with.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about MAN HUNT.

FRITZ: My debut novel is a thriller, dystopian, horror story. It takes place in the North Pacific Ocean on an island that has been forgotten by mankind. Living there are men who have committed all manner of moral crimes. Deceived by an elaborate ruse, they wake deep within fortress walls where they are tortured, brainwashed, and then trained to physical perfection. When they are finally released to the island’s hills and abandoned streets, they are told one simple rule: Survive long enough and you will be sent home. The island’s only other inhabitants are women.

I like to think that in MAN HUNT, survival of the fittest means being literally hunted. It’s LORD OF THE FLIES meets hard-core feminism, because it tells both sides of the story.

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

FRITZ: I have a bit of an eclectic range, so it depends on your tastes. Horror/ Thriller lovers should jump straight to MAN HUNT. People who prefer Dark Fantasy or Sci-Fi would probably like COVER OF DARKNESS (collection of 13 short stories). Cover of DarknessMy first book (also a collection) is more Young Adult/ Light Horror with some more Dark Fantasy & Sci-Fi thrown in.

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

FRITZ: I pay attention to real people. I think the difference between a good author and a mediocre one is when he/she is willing to be a student of the world.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?

FRITZ: I actually took a great workshop on this once, and I’ve come to truly believe the answer I was told that day: A great antagonist doesn’t believe they are bad. He/she just has a warped vision of what is the right thing to do.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

FRITZ: Believe it or not, it’s one of my 2 protagonists, Obe. (It’s a label the women of MAN HUNT give him … he can’t remember his real name). He’s hard to write because he has the most change to undergo, and because I started him out as a little too sympathetic even though he has inherent guilt. In my first draft, he came off as a complete wimp. Changing him to someone who could be empathized with while still being vulnerable took for-ev-er.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fiction unique? In other words, what is it about your stories that makes them stand out against all the other similar stories out there?

FRITZ: My biggest influences are Stephen King and William Shakespeare. As a result, most of what I write tends to be a mixture of pop culture horror/fantasy and traditional literature. It may sound like a strange mix, but I think it works well. Sort of like how the biggest cry you have for a TV character is when the one who always makes you laugh suddenly suffers a tragedy. It’s that mixture that makes such a profound impact.

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

FRITZ: I often start with a simple “What If?” question and have fun answering it in detail. But no matter what, plot must always come first, even though this isn’t my first instinct (I like to think about the characters and all their crazy mannerisms). Ultimately, people remember and talk about the story, not about who was in it. Yes, great characters are remembered too, but when you really listen to what people say, it’s about what those characters did, not about who they were.

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

FRITZ: It’s like that old adage: Intelligence = Knowledge of Things (a tomato is technically a fruit), but Wisdom = Intelligence + Experience (tomatoes don’t belong in a fruit salad). Writing what you know means writing about the things you’ve experienced, which means you are sharing your wisdom with the world.

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

FRITZ: Every story has it’s own message, it’s own reason for being … it’s own wisdom to impart, if you will. I rarely know what that is when I’m drafting, so revision for me is about seeing what that message is then making sure it shows up loud and clear in all the right places.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

FRITZ: Probably because the advances in real life science are making the fiction element less attractive. Who wants to read about fake space ships if there’s a real one going into orbit? Having said that, I’m a huge sucker for sci-fi, and I doubt it will ever die off completely. It’s human nature to advance the species. It will just change as the science of life changes.

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

FRITZ: Definitely start with short stories. You need the experience of creating a complete story arc with all those characters, etc. It’s not that you can’t do a novel first, it’s that early in your writing career you will make mistakes and doing them on a novel means a lot more time and energy wasted. A bad short story can be tossed and forgotten. A bad novel will follow you for years.

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

FRITZ: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Goodreads, my blog, author signings, going to (and running one) writing groups, and recently I added paid advertising to my repertoire. Night StormsBasically I innundate my life with writing. I even wear a wristband that says “Ask Me About My Novel” so that strangers will know what I do. (And, yes, I have sold a couple of books because of it).

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

FRITZ: Them: “You should write a story about (x)!”

Me: “Oh, you have an idea for a story but you can’t write it yourself so you want me to do it for you even though it’s totally outside my wheelhouse and since we’re friends/relatives I should be expected to drop everything I’m barely finding the time to work on and write your story instead? Thanks. I’ll get right on that.”

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

FRITZ: “Read a lot. Write a lot.” There simply is no substitute. Reading a lot shows you different styles, different skills, and often different errors not to commit yourself. Writing a lot gives you the opportunity to gain that valuable experience. But you must do both or you’ll never get better. If you only do one of them, you’ll only ever stay the same.

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

FRITZ: Short stories first. I started MAN HUNT in 1994. Book 1 was finally published in 2013. I’m not exaggerating when I say there have been at least 100 versions of the first 20 pages, and at least 20 versions of the first 100 pages. The final draft was over a thousand pages, and it took me 6 years to draft it. That’s when the hellish process of revision began. I’m quite proud of the first book in this now-trilogy, but I can’t shake the feeling that I could have written far more stories of equal or greater quality if I would have learned my writing chops on some short pieces first.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

FRITZ: I can think of 5 people:

1) Leonardo DaVinci. He’s probably the greatest Renaissance Man of all time. He was so far ahead of his time on so many things. Sometimes I actually find myself wondering if he was a time traveler or an alien. I would love to bring him to the modern world and watch him react to it… and then start making immediate plans to improve everything. ;)

2 & 3) Sitting on either side of him should be Shakespeare and Mr. King, of course. They are my idols. I owe them a beer in the very least. And watching them banter about writing over and around DaVinci’s whirlwind and chaotic head would be pure heaven.

4) Across the table would be Helen Keller. She’s incredibly wise despite having such a long, hard setback in life. Come to think of it, she’s probably wise because of it. She’d probably put everything all those other guys are saying into perspective.

5) My wife. She’s a little bit of all of the above, and there’s nobody in the world with whom I’d rather share such a great moment.

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 Philippa Ballantine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Philippa Ballantine today! New Zealand born fantasy writer and podcaster Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the author of the “Books of the Order” and the “Shifted World” series. She is also the co-author with her husband Tee Morris of the “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences” novels. avatar_hatHer awards include an Airship, a Parsec, the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice, and a Sir Julius Vogel. She currently resides in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a furry clowder of cats. Her web page is here and her twitter page is here!

Philippa, you have two new books coming out shortly. Let’s talk about HARBINGER first, which is the fourth in the “Book of the Order” series. Tell us about this.

PHILIPPA BALLANTINE: HARBINGER is the culmination of the previous three books, and I am actually rather sad to be leaving the world. Sorcha, Merrick and Raed have all been driven to literally the ends of the world. They discover that the Circle of Stars Order have plans to break the gap between the Otherside and the realm of humanity. Without their runes, Sorcha and her Deacons must take dangerous step to save their world, and all the time the Rossin, the great pard, is planning his own escape.

VENTRELLA: Then, a few weeks later, KINDRED AND WINGS, the second book in the “Shifted World” series is released. What is this series about?

BALLANTINE: The Shifted World series is all about chaos, and how people deal with it. In a world that cannot be trusted, with people warring amongst themselves, the endgame is coming quickly. The dragon Wahirangi and Finn the storyteller search for answers, while Talyn must decide her role in the world; destroyer or savior. Secrets will be revealed, time travelled through, and dragons will battle.

VENTRELLA: With your husband Tee Morris, you’ve also created the successful steampunk series “Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences”. harbingerHow did that creative process begin?

BALLANTINE: It actually began with a creative idea from Tee that was supposed to be set in current days. Then I wanted to experiment with a podcast for pay, so I suggested with do a prequel novel set in Victorian times. There was early interest from our agent in the series as novels, so the podcast idea morphed in that direction. It was a strange and delightfully circuitous path to publication!

VENTRELLA: How do you two split the writing on this? What’s your process? (Tee gave me his version a while ago when I interviewed him; I want to see how you saw the collaboration.)

BALLANTINE: We do a lot of brain storming of where we want to go, and sketch out a series of scenes. Tee does the Wellington scenes, I do Eliza’s, and we put our hands up for the other characters. Then once it is written, we swap and edit each other. We’ve got a pretty good grasp now, after three books, on how we do these things. It was tricky at first though!

VENTRELLA: The next Peculiar Occurrences book is scheduled to be out in the fall – that’s three in one year. You’ve been busy! How do you do it?

BALLANTINE: Lots and lots of marking calendars, and sharing them with Tee. I’ve also got better at prioritizing which projects come before others.

VENTRELLA: What is it about steampunk that interests you?

BALLANTINE: I love the creativity of the genre, and the heady mix of history. I’ve messed around with history before, but steampunk gives that freedom wings. Also the aesthetics are beautiful, and airships are just plain cool.

VENTRELLA: What makes your steampunk novels stand out among the others?

BALLANTINE: Tee and I have fun with our steampunk, but I think the real difference about our steampunk is the scope of the world view. Kindred and Wings_finalWe’ve not only done novels, but also short stories and podcasts, which have taken our readers and listeners all over the globe. Also, people seem to love our characters.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to move from New Zealand? (And given our politics here, do you regret the move?)

BALLANTINE: I moved from New Zealand to marry Tee, and I don’t regret it. One day we’ll probably move back to live, but right now with the writing I have the chance to go to New York to meet publishers, and the convention circuit in America provides a lot more opportunities to meet readers.

VENTRELLA: Speaking of conventions (where we’ve met numerous times), … do you find that is important for authors to do? What are the benefits of doing so?

BALLANTINE: I don’t know what the Return on Investment would be in monetary terms, but in terms of meeting fellow writers, and readers, it really can’t be measured. Writing is a solitary profession in most cases, and those kind of interactions are really needed. Tee and I have met readers who have cos-played our characters, people who have jumped up and down with delight (which I am still stunned about), and made innumerable contacts with other writers. There has to be a balance however, because you also have to write, but I would encourage new writers to try out at least a small local con.

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction and fantasy that attracts you?

BALLANTINE: The sheer scope of it. The speculative fiction genre imposes no limits on the imagination, and that is something that no other genre can offer. If you can imagine it, you can write it. From dragons to airships, from cyber-intelligences to minds of clockwork, all are possible.

VENTRELLA: The publishing industry is in tremendous flux right now. Editors and agents are so uncertain they are not taking risks on new authors, and small publishing houses are jumping in to fill the void. Given this, what sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript? (Purely hypothetical, mind you …)

BALLANTINE: There are good agents out there. Laurie McLean of Foreword Literary is my agent, but also my partner in this business. dawnsearlylightI know that I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today without her assistance and guidance.

So I think if you can find an agent like her that wants to be a true partner, then you should go that route. However, if you cannot, then a small publishing house is a great way to start, you can learn so much about editing, marketing, and the process of putting a book together.

If that route doesn’t work, then I don’t think self-publishing is a bad idea at all. The only caveat I would add is make sure you produce the best professional product possible. Hire editors and cover artists. If you take short cuts, don’t expect to get results.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the SFWA and other organizations will eventually have to consider small publishing houses and self-publishing?

BALLANTINE: I was actually on a panel recently where I heard that it is not beyond the realms of possibility that SFWA might go that way. It’s just a matter of working out how they decide on membership levels. Like the publishing industry trade organizations need to be flexible and move with the changing landscape.

VENTRELLA: What book have you read recently that you loved?

BALLANTINE: I was lucky enough to get a chance to blurb A STUDY IN SILKS by Emma Jane Holloway. It’s not coming out until September this year, but is worth the wait!

philippa

Interview with Catherine Stine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for interviewing me on your blog, Michael!

Interview with author Storm Constantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What projects can we expect from you next?

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did Immanion Press come to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Has it been successful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When It’s OK to Self-Publish

I’ve blogged about self-publishing before, and advised new authors to avoid it completely. This has caused a few of them to challenge me, pointing out those few exceptions where it worked. As I said before, if you are a gambler and want to play those one-in-a-million odds, you go right ahead. But consider this …

There are hundreds if not thousands of self-published novels being released every week. Undoubtedly, some are very good. Unfortunately, many are not. And you’re going to start with the assumption that your book is one of the ones that is not.

With all of the small publishing houses out there these days — some with very good reputations — there’s bound to be one that will accept your book. And if you can’t find even one, then perhaps your book is not as good as you imagine it to be, and you shouldn’t be publishing it, either.

Anyway, without rehashing my previous post, let’s discuss when it is fine to self-publish.

You’re writing for family and friends. If you have no desire to ever be accepted as an author, no dream of making that your career, and only want to share your writing with friends, then none of this advice matters. This blog is for those who want to break into the publishing industry, after all!

You’re writing for a small specialized audience. For instance, if you’re a member of the Cowsills Fan Club and you’ve completed your fan fiction novel The Cowsills And The Mystery Of The Secret Cove. No problem there. Even if you want to one day be accepted by one of the major publishers for your real work, this is just a fun side project.

You publish non-fiction. If you are an expert in your field and have written a non-fiction book, the stigma that seems to be attached to self-published fiction does not apply. Take my brother. Please! jeffbookJeffrey Ventrella is an MIT graduate who has taught college courses and travels the world giving lectures on computer stuff I don’t understand. He’s self-published a few books that he sells at his lectures, and this is common and accepted. Many if not most lecturers do this. (Also in this category would be gaming books, riddle books, inspirational books and the like.)

You publish art books, comics or graphic novels. No problem here. Even though the graphic novels and comics are technically “fiction,” usually what you are publishing is artwork that has already been ‘published’ on the web or in a newspaper, and your fans want the collection.

You already have a following. Some well known authors are now self-publishing their new books. This is a strategic decision. As one author pointed out, he may only sell half of what he used to this way (since his self-published books are not being carried in the stores) but he’s keeping a larger percentage of the money so he personally comes out ahead. It’s your choice here — I don’t see how this will help grow your audience — but hey, if you’re at that stage of your career, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway.

What I’m really cautioning against is self-publishing your fiction if you are a starting author. Agents and editors pay attention to these things (as do conventions and writing conferences that won’t invite you because of it). Working your way up the chain to the bigger publishers requires you being taken seriously at every step, and putting out your own book, no matter how good it is, doesn’t help you there. Anyone can publish a book these days (and with scam companies like Publish America, they can be fooled into thinking it’s not self-published, but that’s another topic).

Sometimes people ask me, “How much did it cost you to publish your books?” This is somewhat insulting. I always like to point out that I haven’t paid a cent, and in fact, I get a nice royalty check every six months. If you are a creative person (artist, musician, writer), the money should only travel in one direction.

And now, two final disclaimers. First, remember that there are exceptions always. Some authors have set up their own publishing companies. They hire publicists and artists, recruit other writers, and have editors review their own works before they publish. And some of these are very successful and have good reputations. As I said, these are the exceptions. Don’t think that just because they did that you can too.

Second, keep in mind that the publishing industry is changing daily. If what you do works, then it works. All I’m trying to say is that you need to know what you’re getting into and what the odds are before you jump into the deep end of the pool.

Interview with Author Myke Cole

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

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

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