Interview with author Gail Z. Martin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Gail Z. Martin again today! Gail is a good friend and a great writer who has helped me with advice from time to time. Some of her books are available through my publisher, DDP, and we often do DDP book release parties at conventions. Whenever we’re at a convention together, we always end up on at least one panel together, and she’s often been one of my favorite performers in our “Eye of Argon” panels.  I interviewed her about six years ago but so much has happened since then.

Gail, let’s begin by talking about your new steampunk novel, written with your husband, Larry N. Martin. Tell us about the plot!

GAIL Z. MARTIN: There’s lot of action, intrigue, industrial sabotage, cool inventions, mad scientists, awesome steampowered gadgets and airships!

So here’s the official blurb: New Pittsburgh in 1898, a crucible of invention and intrigue, the hub of American industry at the height of its steam-driven power. Born from the ashes of devastating fire, flood and earthquake, New Pittsburgh is ruled by the shadow government of The Oligarchy. In the abandoned mine tunnels beneath the city, supernatural creatures hide from the light, emerging to feed in the smoky city known as ‘hell with the lid off.’

Jake Desmet and Rick Brand, heirs to the Brand & Desmet Import Company, travel the world to secure treasures and unusual items for the collections of wealthy patrons, accompanied by Jake’s cousin, Veronique ‘Nicki’ LeClercq . Smuggling a small package as a favor for a Polish witch should have been easy. But when hired killers come after Jake and a Ripper-style killer leaves the city awash in blood, Jake, Rick and Nicki realize that dark magic, vampire power struggles and industrial sabotage are just a prelude to a bigger plot that threatens New Pittsburgh and the world. Stopping that plot will require every ounce of Jake’s courage, every bit of Rick’s cunning, every scintilla of Nicki’s bravura and all the steampowered innovation imaginable.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration work? In other words, did you split writing plots and characters and then edit it all together later or did someone do a first draft that the other revised and so on?

MARTIN: We worked out the setting, plot and characters together. Then we passed the drafts back and forth to tighten up, make sure of continuity, and continually brainstorm. We’ve got a pretty good system going!

VENTRELLA: Why do you think steampunk is popular now?  What is it that makes it appealing?

MARTIN: The Victorian era is now beyond living memory. For many people, it’s the era of their grandparents or great-grandparents. So it’s familiar (or at least the TV/movie interpretation is familiar if not the reality), but distant enough in time for us to be able to play with it without offending the people who lived through it. I&B final coverIn Europe, it’s also the 100th anniversary of World War I, which was really the end of the old world of the empires that the Victorians worked so hard to build. And it’s an outgrowth of the fascination with shows like Downton Abbey, which show the clothing and societal change (although without the cool airships and gadgets)!

VENTRELLA: Why did you pick Pittsburgh as the location for the story?

MARTIN: Pittsburgh is the logical place to put an American steampunk story because at the end of the 1800s, Pittsburgh was the epicenter of American steam-powered manufacturing. Pittsburgh in the 1890s was a huge deal, the country’s second-largest financial center, and the home to Robber Barons like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Mellon family. An astonishing number of important inventions came out of the Pittsburgh of that era, and its skies were constantly dark with the clouds of soot from the coke furnaces that drove the mills.

In our book, we tampered with history somewhat to incude the cataclysmic circumstances that creates  New Pittsburgh, so things are similar but different in some crucial ways. That helps to set up the steampunk, and also to create some long-standing opponents.

VENTRELLA: Will this be an ongoing series and if so, do you see an ending to the story?

MARTIN: Each book is self-contained, but we plan more novels and novellas/short stories set in the world of New Pittsburgh. We’ve done spin-off stories featuring the government agents from the Department of Supernatural Investigation that you meet in the novel, and we call those the Storm and Fury Adventures. One of those stories is in Clockwork Universe: Steampunk vs. Aliens anthology (Airship Down). Another one is in the upcoming Weird Wild West anthology (Ruin Creek), and we just released Resurrection Day as a short story on Kindle/Kobo/Nook. There will be a new novella on Wattpad (Grave Voices), and stories in the upcoming Unbound corset-themed anthology, the Alien Artifacts anthology (currently on Kickstarter from Zombies Need Brains, LLC), and even a super-villain steampunk story in The Side of Good/The Side of Evil from eSpecBooks.

VENTRELLA: What are your favorite steampunk stories?

MARTIN: Jules Verne, shows like Wild Wild West, and of course the Books and Braun series by Tee Morris and Philippa Ballantine. Steamboy, The Rocketeer, even the new Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey, Jr. have steampunk elements.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Deadly Curiosities. Where did the idea for this originate?deadly

MARTIN: I went to a conference in Charleston and fell in love with the city. It had so much character, so much of a past, and was so haunted—I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t already set an urban fantasy series there. So I immediately began brainstorming with Larry and my teenagers to come up with the bones for a series that would feel intrinsically like Charleston.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more Deadly Curiosities books?

MARTIN: VENDETTA, the second Deadly Curiosities novel, comes out December 29, and we’ve got more planned. There are also a growing number of Deadly Curiosities Adventures on Kindle/Kobo/Nook with more being added each month. And there’s a free novella, The Final Death, available on Wattpad.

VENTRELLA: You began by writing high fantasy, with two separate series. When the Ascendant Kingdoms series is complete, do you see yourself writing others?

MARTIN: Oh yes. I’m already planning for a new epic fantasy series—and we’re planning a space series! I’m also bringing out short stories on Kindle/Kobo/Nook from both of my epic series. The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures short stories will add up to the equivalent of three serialized novels that are prequels to THE SUMMONER, and give the back story of one of the Chronicles of the Necromancer’s most popular characters. I’ve also just done a short story (No Reprieve) set in the Ascendant Kingdoms world that takes place in a six-year gap of time we skip over at the beginning of ICE FORGED, when Blaine McFadden is sent to an arctic prison colony. It is due to come out on Orbit Short Fiction in October. I’m planning a series of novellas filling in that six-year gap as convict/colonist.

VENTRELLA: Which of your series has been your best sellers?

MARTIN: I’ve been fortunate to say they have all done well, but I think there’s a lot of fondness for the Chronicles of the Necromancer series from readers. They keep asking for more books about those characters, and I do have 6 more planned that will get written at some point.

VENTRELLA: Is there one that you prefer?

MARTIN: It’s like asking which of your children is your favorite! They’re all special in their own way.thesummoner

VENTRELLA: It is easy to fall into cliches when writing fantasy. How do you avoid being too predictable? What is it about your fantasy novels that make them stand out?

MARTIN: I try to either pick an angle on a story I haven’t seen before, or a twist in the circumstances or setting that makes it new. Or I try to come at something key to the story—like magic–from a different angle. So in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series, it all started with the idea of a necromancer as a good guy. And in the Ascendant Kingdoms series, it was about a post-apocalyptic medieval world where magic was a casualty of war. They say that only two stories actually exist: 1) a person goes on a journey or 2) a stranger comes to town. (And someone pointed out those are the same story from different perspectives.) So I look for how to make it fresh and different. And while fantasy has its tropes and archetypes, there is plenty of room to play with them, switch things up, do the unexpected.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about promotion. You have a background in this, and have done many workshops and panels about it.  What is the best piece of advice you would give an author wanting to promote their book?

MARTIN: Build relationships. Promotion is nice, and it’s essential, but the sales and publishing opportunities will come through the relationships you build with readers and other professionals. And oh yeah—social media is not a fad. You need to be out there consistently.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your advice books.

MARTIN: “Advice” books sounds like help for the lovelorn!  Actually, they are books on social media and promotion. 30 DAYS TO SOCIAL MEDIA hit several bestseller lists and got a lot of ink in publications like The Washington Post and Worth magazine. There are also two more 30 Days books on PR and on Productivity. I tried to make everything really simple and quick for people who didn’t have a lot of time but wanted results fast.

There are also three books on book promotion. The first one, LAUNCHING YOUR BOOK WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND, is about preparing for a book launch and what do to leading up to the launch and during and after the debut. The other two books are on online promotion and social media for authors. I tried to take what had worked for me, break it down and make it easy for other people to put it to use, minus the stuff I tried that didn’t work!

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

MARTIN: I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories, even when I was a little kid. When I was five years old, I got my grandmother to write down a story I made up about a vampire. The-Dread-frontWhen I was a teenager, I started to write fan fiction about my favorite TV shows and movies, and my friends liked the stories enough they bugged me to write more. That’s how I discovered that I could entertain people with my writing.

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?

MARTIN: I think some people have a real gift for storytelling, especially if they have grown up in a family or community that values and demonstrates creating and telling stories. That’s especially true when people grow up hearing books read aloud dramatically or hearing family members tell tall tales as a form of entertainment and expression. Everyone benefits from learning technique. The point of technique isn’t to suppress your voice; it’s to help you use your voice in the best possible way. To that end, I think that someone who is sufficiently motivated can hone their abilities to write well. Will that make them a bestseller? Who knows?

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

MARTIN: I outline more than I used to, because doing three books a year plus short stories plus anthologies, there’s no time to go down blind alleys and start over. I can write faster with an outline, and I’m less likely to hit a dead end if I know what comes next. I can still sometimes get stuck for a bit figuring out how to actually write a chapter from that few sentences of outline, but it does help.

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

MARTIN: It depends. It’s been different with each book. For the Chronicles of the Necromancer, I really had the characters of Tris and Jonmarc first and built the world and plot out from there. With Ascendant Kingdoms, I had the idea of a post-apocalyptic medieval world with broken magic, and built backwards from that. With Deadly Curiosities and Iron & Blood, it was the city setting that shaped everything else.

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

MARTIN: Don’t try to be someone else. What works for someone else probably won’t work for you if it doesn’t come naturally. Martin_WarOfShadows-TP1It doesn’t mean that you can only write characters who are just like you or that you’re limited to experiences you’ve actually had, but even as you create characters who are very different or situations that are very different, there’s probably a thread of commonality with people you do know or things you have experienced that tether it to real life.

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

MARTIN: Try to make them as short and painless as possible. Even if you’re doing them in conversation or it’s explaining something to the new kid, keep it short. If at all possible, show something unfamiliar being done in a way that the reader can intuit for him/herself from context clues what is going on.

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

MARTIN: At that point, we’re looking for places where the pace slows down, for contradictions and continuity errors, for plot holes and places that need to be fine-tuned.

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?

MARTIN: I think it’s due to a couple of things. First, we are living out the science-fiction fantasies (and nightmares) of previous generations. The Internet, cell phones, satellites, drones, WiFi, computer systems in cars, space probes to Mars and the rest of the solar system—it’s the stuff SF writers were speculating about and it’s real life now. So I think people are a harder to ‘wow’ than they used to be.

Also, where previous generations could be blown away by the idea of spaceflights and computers, the next generation of ‘wow’ is a lot harder to explain—singularities, chaos theory, quantum mechanics, string theory, etc. These things are profound and really mind-blowing, but they aren’t necessarily as visual as a rocket ship or a ray gun, and they require a reader to take the time to learn something and maybe even math a little.

Finally, I think that SF continues to feel less welcoming to women, people of color and people of different sexual orientation. Hard SF about the ‘future’ tends to show fewer women and less diversity than the real US Military nowadays! Certainly we’ve made strides with the women/people of color/LGBTQ people who are writing SF and going into STEM careers and actually becoming astronauts and physicists, etc., but I think the status quo still seems entrenched in hard SF (recent kerfluffles notwithstanding)—more so than in fantasy. Reign-of-FINALThe ‘future’ envisioned by a lot of hard SF looks an awful lot like the current status quo, only with cool background sets and robots.

Urban fantasy is a lot easier for people who may be relatively new to the genre to get into because it has one foot in the real world and so requires less explanation and less suspension of disbelief. And I think we’ve seen a lot more diversity of characters in urban fantasy and a growing effort to tell more diverse stories in epic fantasy beyond the standard Western European setting. People like to be able to see themselves in stories.

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

MARTIN: I think it’s entirely possible to put out a very good book and reach a large audience with a well-produced and well-written self-published book. And I think most authors in the future will have hybrid careers writing for a mix of large traditional publishers, small presses and their own self-published work. But succeeding at self-publishing requires more time, effort and money than going the traditionally published route, and people need to realize what they’re getting into. You can’t do it half-way and make it work.

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

MARTIN: I think small presses are doing really exciting things. They are picking up the slack where large publishers are cutting back on new books and anthologies, and doing very well at it. They are experimenting with new models like Kickstarter funding. I’ve always thought it was ridiculous that large publishers have a business model based on gambling on finding a few bestsellers instead of on the steady productivity of a solid, groomed and nurtured midlist. The current publishing model is more like horseracing than business. I think that small presses will figure out a way to make viable margins on books that sell well but aren’t million-copy bestsellers. And I think that will be a game-changer.

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

MARTIN: One of my professors in college blew up at me when I said I wanted to write books. He said that he had never been able to get published, with all his experience and credentials, and so how the hell did I think I would get published! (To make it worse, he was the college chaplain!)  And now he’s long-ago passed away and I’m published. So there.

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

MARTIN: David Drake told me to stick with it and gave me the low-down on how the business actually worked.iceforgedcover2

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

MARTIN: Everything takes longer than you think it will. Stick with it. Just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it never will.

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

MARTIN: I just finished the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, and I’m finishing up the Nightside series by Simon R. Green. And I always post the books I’m reading on Goodreads!

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

MARTIN: We’re finishing up edits to VENDETTA, which is the second Deadly Curiosities novel that comes out in late December, 2015. And the edits to SHADOWED PATH, the Jonmarc Vahanian anthology coming in June, 2016. The fourth and final book in the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, SHADOW AND FLAME, comes out in March, 2016. In November 2015, the WEIRD WILD WEST anthology will launch at Philcon, with our steampunk story in it, “Ruin Creek.” THE SIDE OF GOOD/THE SIDE OF EVIL superhero/supervillain anthology with our story in it is also supposed to come out at the end of this year.  And we will owe a story to ALEIN ARTIFACTS, another new anthology, plus there are a few more anthologies in the works.  And we bring out a new short story every month on Kindle/Kobo/Nook in one of three different series (tied into the books). Plus a new Blaine McFadden short story, No Reprieve, coming out on Orbit Short Fiction in October, and a set of novellas set in the world of the Ascendant Kingdoms coming soon. Busy, busy!

gail&mike

Interview with author Jim C. Hines

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Jim C. Hines today! Jim is best known as a fantasy novelist and the guy who did those gender-flipped SF/F cover poses. JCH-TARDIS-300x287His first novel was GOBLIN QUEST, the tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. After completing the goblin trilogy, Jim went on to write the “Princess” series, four books often described as a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Charlie’s Angels. He’s currently working on the “Magic ex Libris” books, which follow the adventures of a magic-wielding librarian from northern Michigan. He’s also the author of more than forty published short stories. His web page is here.

Let’s talk about your latest news: The FABLE book, based on the best-selling game. How did that come about?

JIM C. HINES: The publisher contacted my agent to see if I’d be interested in writing the book. I’m guessing a lot had to do with my previously published work, particularly the GOBLIN QUEST series, which has some of the same fantasy and humor feel as the Fable game universe. My agent and I talked about the contract details, he went back and did a bit of negotiating, and voila – I got to write FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES, which was a great deal of fun.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of limitations did they give you? In other words, how far away from the main narrative could you go?

HINES: I had a fair amount of freedom with the story. They wanted a book that would introduce the characters and the world, but I wasn’t novelizing the plot of the game. I had to set the story in the world of Albion, and to use the characters from FABLE LEGEND, but I was able to introduce my own villains and secondary characters, my own plotline, and even my own quirky little town.

VENTRELLA: What is it like writing a story that has already been written, with characters you didn’t develop? Did you find it liberating (“Hooray! I don’t have to spend months working all the details out!”) or confining (“Dammit, I want the character to do this but I am limited by what someone else wrote first!”) or somewhere inbetween?

HINES: I was hoping it would be a bit easier to write pre-existing characters, but as far as I can tell, nothing about writing ever ends up being easy. Libriomancer-LgLionhead came up with some interesting and entertaining characters. Sometimes it was fun to play with ideas I wouldn’t have necessarily come up with on my own. But there were also moments when I wanted to do something with a given character and couldn’t, because it didn’t fit with what Liongate had set up.

VENTRELLA: Assuming that this is like other games, your character could make different choices which could change the ending completely. How did you approach this?

HINES: I haven’t played LEGEND, but I’ve played some of the other FABLE games and read some of the previous tie-in books, so I was definitely thinking about the emphasis on choice. I tried to include some moments for the characters where they had a clear and important choice to make. Trust this character or don’t? Fight or flee? Kill or capture?

VENTRELLA: Who do you think the audience is for these kinds of books?

HINES: Well, we want it to appeal to fans of FABLE. First and foremost, I hope that all the hard-core chicken-chasers will approve. But if I’ve done my job well, you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the games to enjoy the book. If you like fantasy and quirky humor, you too can be part of the audience!

VENTRELLA: What will people who have already played the game get out of it?

HINES: Right now the game is still in beta testing. I don’t know if the book will come out before the game, or how that schedule will work. So it’s possible this could be the first real point of entry into FABLE LEGENDS world. For those who have played the previous games or participated in the beta, my hope is that they’ll get some insight into the characters, some exploration of Albion and its history, and a new adventure to enjoy.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the “Goblin Quest” series. Where did the idea for that originate?

HINES: I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs, and it’s hard to get more underdogged than the goblins. How many goblins got slaughtered in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? So I really liked the idea of taking this scrawny, nearsighted goblin runt and doing a typical fantasy adventure from his point of view, with all of his questions about fantasy logic and this so-called “heroism” stuff.

VENTRELLA: What inspired the “Princess” series?

HINES: Those books were for my daughter, who went through a princess phase when she was younger. Red-Hood-LgSome of the movies, and a lot of the merchandise, all stressed that a princess has to look pretty and be rescued and so on. I wanted stories about princesses who teamed up and kicked butt and beat the witch and saved the prince. I also wanted to play with the older fairy tales, and to do something fun with it, like turning Sleeping Beauty into a ninja, or letting Snow White run around doing mirror magic.

VENTRELLA: I’ve blogged about humor in fiction, and feel that tooLibr many authors think that if your characters crack jokes then you can’t make serious points or make them ever seem to be in danger. Since humor is a part of your work, how do you approach it? How do you find the right balance?

HINES: Humor and serious go quite well together. Just ask Joss Whedon. The contrast between humor and fear/pain/tragedy can make both more powerful. You don’t want to let the humor undermine the tension, but that’s just a matter of practice and learning how to write it. Human beings crack jokes. Even in dark times. Especially in dark times. It’s one of the ways we cope. Completely stripping that out of a story feels dishonest and hollow to me.

VENTRELLA: You haven’t avoided talking about politics on Facebook and your blog. Do you ever worry that this may alienate readers?

HINES: It’s weird. A fair amount of what I talk about are things like sexual harassment and racism and sexism, stuff I’d have assumed most people agreed were bad, regardless of politics. But it’s the internet, so everyone seems to get assigned to one “side” or the other, and that’s the end of that. It’s definitely cost me some readers. But I think these are important things to talk about, and I’ve ended up with a bit of a platform to do so. It would feel like a betrayal not to do so. I try not to be a dick about things, but it doesn’t matter how polite and “civilized” you are. There’s always someone who’ll get pissed off at you.

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?

HINES: I think practice and skill are far more important and useful than talent. Looking back, I don’t know how much of where I started was actual talent vs. skills I’d picked up over my life, from reading and telling jokes and getting a pretty good education and so on. Goblin-Quest-LgBut wherever you start, pretty much all of us have to work to improve before we become Good Writers™.

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

HINES: I try not to disagree with criticism, as a general rule. Once my book is out there, it’s up to the reader what they find in the story. Who am I to say they’re wrong?

That said, it annoys me to be told I only included a non-white or non-straight character as part of an “agenda,” or to push some mysterious “message” down people’s throats. Acknowledging the existence of people who aren’t exactly like me isn’t a message. And choosing to exclude people who aren’t like you from your stories is lazy, lousy writing.

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

HINES: Lena Greenwood, the dryad character from the LIBRIOMANCER books. I’ve been working to get her character right for at least a decade. The way I wrote her and her backstory is problematic as hell. This series deals with the magic of books, and Lena was “born” as a sexual servant, one who gains in strength and independence over the course of the series. There’s a lot I’ve tried to do with her journey, but it’s so easy to mess up, and I know I’ve made mistakes along the line. For some people, she’s their absolute favorite character, but she’s been tough to write.

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

HINES: I prefer to flip it to “know what you write.” Do your research, and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

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

HINES: Mostly, I try to pay attention to when I’m getting bored while writing the story. There’s nothing wrong with exposition and info dumps from time to time, as long as it’s interesting. But the moment I start getting bored, that’s a clue to look more closely at the story and figure out why.

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

HINES: My first draft is when I get a sense of the book’s structure. I can’t hold an entire novel in my head, and outlines help, but they only work so-so. Cover2Once I’ve finished that first draft and know more or less how the book goes, I can go back and start developing the characters better, cleaning up plot problems, and generally delving deeper into the story.

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?

HINES: Not a clue. I think it depends on where you look, too. Are superheroes science fiction? If so, then Marvel’s films are blowing away most of what’s out there. Video games? Paranormal romance vs. sword and sorcery? I try not to worry too much about what’s hot this year, and to just write stories I love.

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?

HINES: I was told you have to write short stories first, and I spent years doing that before really trying to write novels. That was Bad Advice. There’s no one right way to learn, and while short fiction used to be the “traditional” road for breaking into novels, these days I’d tell people to write whatever the heck they want. Enjoy short stories? Do that. Prefer books? Start writing them.

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

HINES: I think they’re different. For me, short stories are much faster to write. You know, on account of being shorter. I like that. But you have some of the same challenges of characterization and worldbuilding and so on.

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

HINES: I like anything that gives authors more options, and gives readers more ways to find stories they love. I could do without the religious crusades about the One True Way to publish, though.

Most of my books are through DAW, a commercial publisher in New York. I’ve also self-published some electronic chapbooks, as well as a mainstream novel and a fantasy novel project that … well, let’s just say RISE OF THE SPIDER GODDESS probably wouldn’t have found a home at most self-respecting publishing houses.

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

HINES: I think the small impress has been and continues to be important. They have more ability to take chances and to take on projects that might not sell huge numbers, but are important and powerful nonetheless.

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

HINES: Finish the manuscript, and do some research. Learn how agented and unagented authors built their careers.Mermaid-Lg Learn the pitfalls of different paths. Read Writer Beware and other writing blogs and resources. There’s no one right way to do this, but there are definitely some wrong ways to be aware of!

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

HINES: You have to write short stories before you can write novels.

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

HINES: I don’t know that it’s a specific piece of advice so much as a general attitude of persistence. Writing is hard, and there are times it will wear you down. Most of the successful authors I know are the ones who got stubborn and just kept writing.

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

HINES: Have fun. Find your own voice, and your own passion. I spent years trying to write the books and stories I thought I was “supposed” to be writing, but it wasn’t until I said the heck with it and started having fun with this goofy little goblin and his flaming pet spider that I really found myself as a writer. Coincidentally, that’s the first book I sold. Go figure.

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

HINES: It depends on when you ask! Terry Pratchett, Janet Kagan, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire… Heck, I’m on Goodreads. You can see my shelves here.

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

HINES: I’m working on the fourth LIBRIOMANCER book, which is called REVISIONARY and should be out in February of 2016. I’m also finishing up the copy-edits on FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES. Beyond that, I’m starting on INVISIBLE 2, which will be a collection of essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy. I’ve also got several anthology invites waiting for me to write short stories. So basically, I’m in no danger of getting bored any time soon!

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

HINES: I’m not actually much of a party person, so I’d probably keep it small. Maybe David Tennant and my wife to start with. (So that my wife could meet David Tennant, which would make me the Best Husband Ever. And also because I’m a bit of a fanboy myself.) Janet Kagan, who was something of a mentor for me, but passed away before I could meet her in person. I’d also want to invite someone who can actually cook, you know? Oh, and maybe Gutenberg, because he’s one of the characters in my current series, and if I got him to sign one of those books, it would be a pretty awesome memento!

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!

workshop

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