Interview with author Leona Wisoker

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing novelist Leona Wisoker today. Leona is a frequent guest at the conventions I attend and I always have a great time when she’s on a panel with me (as long as it’s not too early in the morning before she’s had her coffee).leona-square1 Her science-fantasy series “The Children of the Desert” is set in a world still struggling through a number of basic moral and developmental issues. Her webpage is here.

Leona, how did you first become interested in writing?

LEONA WISOKER: I’ve told stories for as long as I can remember. Whenever my older sisters were out of the house, I would sneak into their rooms and tell their stuffed animals endless fantastical tales. I have no idea if I told stories to my own toys. I probably did. But theirs were so much cooler! Besides, I wasn’t supposed to be in their rooms at all, so that added to the fun.

When I was … around ten, maybe eleven, I taught myself to type using a self-directed record and flipbook course. It made me feel important and business-y and Just Like Dad, who went to an Office every day and had a Desk and Important Grown Up Business to handle. I remember deciding, early in life, that I wanted to have a job that involved an office and a typewriter and a pencil cup and a calculator. Thankfully, I turned out to be a terrible receptionist.

I wrote quite a lot on various typewriters and computers from that point on, although for many years my first processing point was handwriting a story in a notebook. Ah, the days of scribbling away and getting blue ink all over my hands! I think I was in my late twenties before I abandoned that in favor of brainstorming on a computer.

At some point I started submitting my tales to various magazines, if you can call it that. I sent in roughly one story a year: my annual Why-Am-I-Doing-This-When-I-Know-I’m-Gonna-Get-A-Rejection-Day. I was always too busy getting in my own way, of course. I resisted learning technique or craft because I already Knew It All. I had a huge vocabulary! SecretsGallery I earned straight A’s in English class — when I turned in my homework, of course. That was always a problem. Homework is so boring…

Gaming was a lot more fun. I put far more effort into my AD&D campaigns than I ever spent on homework. I built detailed worlds and plans — I wanted to be sure that any tavern or stable the characters walked into, I had plots and hooks ready in all possible directions. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had a file cabinet drawer full of backstory and modules and character sheets and so on. I even developed voices for special NPCs.

Inevitably, it occurred to me that all this work would be better off used for stories. I drifted away from gaming and focused on my writing. Now I could finally showcase all the really cool stuff the gamers kept missing, and these characters wouldn’t ever insist on wandering off across town to the one spot I hadn’t developed, goddamnit–

Um. Yeah. Well, by the time I learned the flaw in that reasoning, it was too late. I already had so much time and effort invested into learning to write properly that there was nothing for it but to plow ahead. End result, happily, was a four-book publishing contract with Mercury Retrograde Press, and a handful of short stories accepted by various anthologies and short-fiction magazines.

In some ways, it was a lot more fun to tell stories to my sister’s stuffed animals. They were a fantastically supportive audience. Real life writing involves an awful lot of boring homework and practice exercises. I often miss being a GM, too; there’s something exceptionally cool about being in charge of steering a group of people from one disaster to another while they try desperately to outwit you.

But I have a desk, and a chair, and a pencil cup; I go to work in an office, and I feel very Business-y and adult. This is the life I dreamed of as a kid. And I have stuffed animals of my own now — two dragonets that ride on the dash of the Blue Dragon, my much-beloved Jeep; the mini dragons are named Marguerite and Henry. (Bonus points to anyone who gets the reference!)

I cannot confirm nor deny telling stories to my dragonets while I’m on long road trips.

VENTRELLA: the transformation from Dungeon Master to author is one I can relate to completely, as can many authors I’ve interviewed here. GuardiansGallery

Which of your characters was the hardest for you to write and why?

WISOKER: Hands down, Ellemoa has been the most difficult character in the series to date. For those unfamiliar with the series, a quick explanation is in order: Ellemoa is a ha’ra’ha from Arason, and Idisio’s mother. She is completely psychotic — by human standards, at least.

Ellemoa illustrates what happens when a ha’ra’ha loses interest in following human morality structures. The only reason she doesn’t go on a rampage and wipe out every single human being in sight is that it would hurt her son–and the last remnant of her sanity is tied to keeping Idisio safe from harm. Balancing her brutality and sympathy was a tricky process. Idisio needed to see himself as independent, Ellemoa needed to believe that she was in charge, the reader needed to see the dangerous slide toward mutual insanity underlying the entire relationship. And I needed the reader to be rooting for Ellemoa to come back from the darkness in spite of her terrible actions. So from a technical standpoint it was tough; from an emotional standpoint it was painful, because I had to really think about what she’d gone through and how she would react.

Not something I really want to do again. I’m not planning on ever developing another character quite that damaged. Once was enough, unless I want to start along Stephen King’s career path….

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist and antagonist believable characters?

WISOKER: With the “Children of the Desert” series, I found it easiest to round out each character by showing them from other points of view; thus the multiple POVs in each book. For example, one person thinks Alyea is wonderful, another sees her as a spoiled noble brat; and then there’s how she sees herself. That approach brings fantastic complexity to characters.

When I’m working with a single POV, as in my short stories, I try to keep ordinary and extraordinary moments balanced. BellsGallery In one of my stories (“Silver and Iron”, Sha’Daa: Pawns), an evil fae makes plans to sacrifice her lover in order to summon demons, then goes to the grocery store and deals with traffic jams. “Believable” roots in common experiences, in keeping a foot in what we see as real life. Meals are a really easy way of hitting that shared note, because everyone has to eat. Basic weather changes also give the character and the reader to meet on common ground.

The hardest part, for me, is cutting out the fat. I tend to overwrite, and my early drafts have to be put on a drastic diet. It’s a painful but strangely satisfying process.

Speaking of process, it’s time for me to return to my fiction writing. I’m still not done with the first draft of the last book in the “Children of the Desert” series, and it’s getting both annoying and embarrassing. Fear and anger are excellent motivational forces, aren’t they?

Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Mike! This was a lot of fun.

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.

Ravencon 2012

Ravencon 2012

Interview with author Leah Cypess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you hold back anything when writing YA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on attending more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for interviewing me!

Interview with author Kathryn Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penelope Sparrow was my path.

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

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

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

CRAFT: Here are five quick tips:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are you doing to promote the book?

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

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

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

• Facebook meme campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with author and editor Bernie Mojzes

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Bernie Mojzes is a writer and editor, responsible for a variety of stories ranging from fantasy and science fiction to horror to erotica, and even some non-genre work. He’s a friend who I see regularly at conventions, and has contributed some amazing and captivating stories my own TALES OF FORTANNIS series. bernie-spikeIn his copious spare time, he edits Unlikely Story.

Bernie, How did you first become interested in writing?

BERNIE MOJZES: I read voraciously as a kid, from day one of “Dick and Jane” when I finished the book while the other kids were trying to figure out page 3 (and was then told by the teacher that I was never to read faster than the other kids again. I wish I could have been there when my dad discussed that with the teacher.). But seriously, I loved reading, loved falling into those new and interesting worlds, and for as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who can create that sense of wonder in others.

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?

MOJZES: Ah, the nature/nurture question. There’s a massive difference between being a writer (being able to use written language to clearly and convincingly convey an idea) and being a storyteller (being able to create an interesting narrative that captivates an audience), and in the intersection of those two things is that creature that most people call “a writer.” Within that intersection, there are three major things that are necessary:

* a willingness to learn the craft (everything from basic grammar to how to incorporate beats and cadance into your prose)
* cultivation of the imagination
* observation and transformation of the world around you
* an openness to hearing critique

Yeah, I know. That’s four things. I can count. I swear.

Different people’s brains work in different ways. How we observe, how we perceive and what interpretations we make of those perceptions, and how we process and integrate and assimilate that information. And that’s not all, but it’s also how we connect the dots between that, what we’ve learned in the past, and what we will learn in the future, and then how we use all that to construct new worlds and new characters and new stories. Some people will weave intricate multilayered tapestries while others write linear, full-throttle with guns a-blazin’ adventures. What’s the right approach? There is none; there’s only the approach that works best for that particular writer.

If you can figure out the way your brain works best, and then train to minimize your weaknesses, and do the hard work of the three (4) things I listed above, I think most people can become good writers. But there are no shortcuts. It’s hard work – harder than most folks realize – and in the end, a lot of aspiring writers falter because they aren’t willing to do the work.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your latest work!

MOJZES: Last October I had a story in the debut issue of Betwixt Magazine called “The Red Danube,” available here. EvilGazebo_lgThis is the most difficult and unflinching piece I’ve had published, and I’m very proud of it. Technique-wise, it was a challange and a blast to write. I wanted to do two things simultaneously: pull the reader close into the the most intimate thoughts and actions of the characters while simultaneously pushing the reader away, holding the reader at a distance. Since one of my weaknesses is talking about my own work, its probably better to point you at a review of it up at ChiZine, which starts:

No end-of-year round up would be complete without mentioning Bernie Mojzes’s “The Red Danube” (Betwixt Issue 1, Fall 2013). This story is something else.

Charlotte Ashley reads deeply, and writes insightful reviews; she’s worth following closely.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide upon the theme for your magazine? I mean, really, bugs?

MOJZES: Hm. Yes, bugs. The magazine started its life as The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, a biannual online magazine dedicated to stories involving bugs. How we came up with that is a long and sordid tale that involves, well … it’s long and sordid, and since this is a PG13 blog, let’s just leave it at that. Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to see what we could do with a really unusual and specific theme. There was the danger, of course, that everyone would look at it and think, eww, bugs, I’ll send my horror story about spiders. Fortunately, the writing community came through for us, sending us, yes, some horror stories, but also stories about love and loss, death and transformation. About race relations and science and society and historical revisionism. Interestingly, by focusing in on such a seemingly narrow, weird theme, we’ve been able to put together issues of astounding diversity.

VENTRELLA: How has it been received?

MOJZES: Really well, surprisingly. When we first opened up for submissions, we were terrified of the grand experiment being a flop, but from Issue 1 on, we’ve had good to excellent reviews. We’ve had stories by some of the more interesting authors on the scene today. Stories that have appeared in our pages have gone on to make honorable mention lists and appear in Best of Year anthologies.

VENTRELLA: You’re expanding, though. Tell us about your new endeavor.

MOJZES: Expanding? Diversifying is probably a better word. In 2013 we decided that we’d offer new and interesting (for us, and hopefully for others) games to play. With this decision, we realized that The Journal of Unlikely Entomology was no longer properly descriptive, so we’ve gone with “Unlikely Story.” Under the Unlikely Story umbrella, we’ll continue to put out one issue of Unlikely Entomology, and also one issue of The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (stories involving cryptography, ciphers, hacking, etc.), and one other issue. The first of those was The Journal of Unlikely Architecture (stories about buildings); the second will be The Journal of Unlikely Cartography (stories involving maps). Cryptography will be coming out in February, and we’re currently accepting submissions for the next Entomology issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve co-written stories (for example, in the TALES OF FORTANNIS: A BARD IN THE HAND anthology, ahem) … how did you go about doing that? bardinhand-510 What was the process?

MOJZES: Co-writing a story is an interesting process. I wrote “Embarassing Relations” with Bob Norwicke, a friend of mine from an old D&D campaign. He’s since moved to a different state, and we’d lost touch, but he had this brilliantly twisted character in the game that I wanted to use as a foil for my protagonist. I found Bob online and asked if he’d mind me stealing his character. That’s how I found out that Bob’s also a writer, and we decided to give co-authoring a try. I sent him a rough one paragraph concept for the story, he liked it, so I wrote an opening scene, written from my protagonist’s POV. Sent it to Bob, who wrote the next scene from his protagonist’s POV. From there we alternated. Some of what we did was writing toward the conclusion, writing to move the plot along. But some of what we did was writing a scene that intentionally put the other’s protagonist into a bind. This was the challenge — write your way out of the bind while still moving the plot along. That created some really interesting and unexpected twists that, I think, led us to bring the story to places we might not have otherwise discovered.

We did establish some ground rules. First was that I had veto power (because it was my story idea), and would eventually do an editing pass to make the story stylistically cohesive. Second, either of us could say “my character wouldn’t do that,” and offer rewrite suggestions. Third, both of us were free to re-write any dialog that the other author put in our character’s mouth.

Other than that, we created a vague outline early on (which included the phrase “hijinx ensue” multiple times) – left intentionally vague in order for us to both have the freedom to play within the plot and let the plot evolve.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character? And what’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?

MOJZES: Okay, first thing is, these two are secretly the same question, and I’d expand that out to include the secondary and tertiary characters that appear in your work.ClockworkChaos_lg All of these characters have, to the degree allowable by the point of view from which the story is told and the amount of time they have on the page, be as fully developed and “real” as possible.

First thing to remember is that every character is the protagonist of their own story. So whenever anyone does anything, it has to make sense for that individual to be doing that. Sometimes you find yourself writing a scene where the needy, self-absorbed and completely narcissistic friend of a friend suddenly does something immensely selfless in order to move a plot point along, you’ve got to take a step back and rethink. Maybe you need to rethink the character. Maybe you have to rethink how you get through that plot point.

But most importantly, remember that nobody is perfect. If you have a character that always does the right thing (or that always does the wrong thing, in the case of the villain), you end up with a caricature, not a character. Good people have flaws and failings. Bad people have good in them. That’s what it means to be human. You have to show that humanity in your characters.

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?

MOJZES: A character can be larger than life but still be believable. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding a character that’s big enough to be interesting but human enough to be believable.

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

Not much. I think as advice goes, it’s easily taken to mean that you should know your proper place and not dare step beyond it. All that leads to is solipsism. I think reversing it – know what you write – is more interesting. By which I mean, research deeply and respectfully, and with an open mind. Don’t be superficial, and don’t look to media representations of something for reality. Think three-dimensionally, and consider the wider context.

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

MOJZES: Whenever possible, I try to break the info dumps into smaller pieces and incorporate that into dialogue or action. fantasic_erotica_cover_comp_400x600Sometimes you’re stuck with an expository lump, though – information that you just need to get across to the reader, and can’t for whatever reason (word count limits, for example) deal with it more elegantly.

So, lets say there’s a 10 sentence paragraph that fills a whole page and sits like a giant indigestable lump in the middle of your story. So first, for each piece of information, decide whether or not the reader really needs it. (You may need someone else to point these out to you). Cut the bits that aren’t needed.

Now you have a 7 sentence info dump. See if there’s any of that that can be incorporated naturally into dialogue or action.

Now you have a 5 sentence info dump paragraph. Break it into 2 paragraphs and separate them with one or more paragraphs of dialogue and/or action.

Lastly, rewrite those two paragraphs so that the info that is dumped is done strongly through your POV character’s perspective. So, not just [fact], but [fact as your character perceives it]. By doing this, you’re taking what is largely an uninteresting declarative statement of fact and making it do double duty as something that reveals character. And like magic, you’ve turned a giant, boring info dump into interesting, compelling prose.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, what is the biggest problem you have when dealing with authors?

MOJZES: We have blessedly not really had any major problems with authors. The biggest problem has been technological, where the author wasn’t seeing all of the edits we had sent them, either due to old software, file format incompatibilities, or whatever. And that ultimately leads to misunderstandings and aggravation on all sides. Probably the most problematic of these issues comes from authors having their software set to use .docx format by default, and we suggest that people change the default settings to use .doc or .rtf instead.

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

MOJZES: In an environment in with that large presses are contracting and consolidating, small press is critically important. Dead_souls_Cover_Final OnlyWell, first, we should really define some terms. There are small presses like Small Beer and Subterranean that have significant resources and ability to put books into bookstores, and micro-presses which perhaps only put out a few titles a year. I think it’s important to understand that distinction, because they really fulfill a different need in the market.

The are three technological innovations that allow small presses to be successful with books that a large press won’t touch: Print-on-Demand, The Internet, and e-books. POD and e-books allow small press to reduce or eliminate the need to order and warehouse large print runs of books that aren’t guaranteed to sell. The Internet allows people to find obscure and niche books, leading to something called “The Long Tail.” Small and micro-press can cater to niche markets and be successful selling smaller unit counts.

This creates opportunities for a wide variety of authors who simply could not be successful under a large press marketing scheme.

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.

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