MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing author Tracy S. Morris. She is the author of the Tranquility series of urban fantasy mysteries. The most recent, BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY, is a murder mystery set in a haunted hotel during a Renaissance wedding. She’s also published a number of short stories. Her web page is here.
Hi Tracy! Tell me a little bit about yourself!
TRACY S. MORRIS: I’m a professional writer, so I spend most of my days in front of my home computer in my pajamas. My specialty is service journalism in the gardening industry. Which is a fancy way of saying that I write “how to” articles that deal with topics like compost, animal manure and growing the perfect tomato. I like to call that “living the dream.” Although it probably means that I’ve got no life.
I’m also a retired newspaper photographer/reporter. On my best day, I got to shoot the president (with a camera) which probably put me in the crosshairs of a secret service sniper. On my worst day, I was suspended off of the back of a speedboat in freezing weather and driving sleet to get a picture for a news story.
I got to do some very interesting things in that job. I had a ride in a hot air balloon. I had the best seats in the house for every major sporting event. But I also had no life, no predictable schedule. And after the day with the speedboat in the sleet, I realized that there has to be a better way to make a living. Which is why I now work at home in my bathrobe.
When I do leave the house, I’m a shooting enthusiast, a martial arts black belt and a former fencer. I’m a history buff and I’ve spent some time in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which is a group that recreates history from Roman times through the late-renaissance (the boundaries are nebulous and basically cover anything that other history groups don’t cover.)
VENTRELLA: What’s something unusual or different about you that your readers probably don’t know?
MORRIS: That’s a tough one to answer. I’m pretty transparent about my life, so there isn’t a lot that my readers don’t know about me.
I like to collect antique cameras. The collection is mostly thanks to my dad, who likes to go to garage sales. I asked him to be on the lookout for antique cameras for me. So he used to pick up any old camera he saw at an auction. I have several antique bellows cameras, a couple of twin lens reflex, some very nice medium format box cameras and two or three Brownie Hawkeye still in the box. He even bought me a couple of necklaces with camera charms. Eventually I hit a point where I had no more room for them and I had to ask him to stop buying them for me.
The one camera I want most that I don’t have yet is an old Speed Graphic press camera. One of these days I’m just going to cave in and buy one on E-Bay or something.
VENTRELLA: Your “Tranquility” series seems to combine a number of different genres. How did this come about?
MORRIS: Tranquility really grew out of something I was writing for fun. Because of that, I didn’t try to stick with a formula or say “I’m going to make this just a mystery. Or just an urban fantasy. Or just a horror. I was writing for me, so I made it about the things that interested me.
I grew up on a family farm out on the border of the Ozark mountains. My family lived in that region for four generations. When I was a kid, I read a few too many bigfoot stories. So the things that scared me weren’t the monster under the bed. It was whether there was something out in the dark woods out past the barn. That’s where the horror element from Tranquility came from.
I wanted to write the book as a pure horror, but I also have a skewed sense of humor which kept slithering in. One of the major themes that appeared in the book grew out of my reaction to moving home and really seeing the oddities in my small town for the first time. This made the book feel much more like the TV series Northern Exposure, or possibly the Disney Cartoon Cars with that ‘city slicker comes to the country and discovers that it’s a pretty great place’ theme.
By the time that I finished writing the book, I finally embraced the notion that my natural writing voice is humor instead of horror.
TRANQUILITY was nominated for a Darrell award, and placed runner up in 2006. At the awards ceremony my publisher asked when I was going to give her the second book. When I sat down to write it, I decided to make it as fun and absurd as possible. So I threw in everything but the kitchen sink.
The second book in the series, BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY, came after I had been through the process of helping to plan and put on four weddings (Two of them the same year.) I had dabbled in wedding photography by that point, and I had some sarcastic, slightly cynical views about the business side of the wedding industry.
So I thought ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen at a wedding? How about a murder? What’s the worst thing that can happen in a murder investigation? Why not a killer who can move around the hotel through secret passageways – phantom of the opera style? What about if all of the hotel guests mistrusted the investigator and wouldn’t talk to him? Why would they do that? What if they were conspiracy theorists?
VENTRELLA: Do you think that not fitting into one genre made it a harder sell to editors (and the public)?
MORRIS: I didn’t actually have to sell the series. Which is almost embarrassing to admit, since so many other authors have tales of sending a novel out to 45 agents and 20 publishers before gaining acceptance. I sold TRANQUILITY to Yard Dog Press because I was friends with the publisher. When I was outlining the novel, I told Selina Rosen, the editor about this new project that I was excited about. She asked me to send it to her when it was done.
BRIDE has been easier to sell to the fans, because I have a catchy summary that makes the book sound fun. Where else would you be able to read a murder mystery set in a haunted hotel during a Renaissance wedding?
VENTRELLA: I note that they are from Baen Books in e-format but Yard Dog in paper. How does that arrangement work?
MORRIS: Yard Dog Press does not deal in e-books, so they did not contract those rights. But the publisher has a working relationship with Baen. (Baen bought the e-rights to Selina Rosen’s Misha Merlin titles as well as the Sword Masters series from Dragon Moon Press.)
Additionally, Baen had just bought the E-Rights to another popular Yard Dog Press series, The Four Redheads of the Apocalypse.
Since I already had a working relationship with Baen, Selina suggested that I offer the E-rights to them. I could have put out the E-books myself through Amazon. Authors such as Jim Hines have done that with great success. Another Yard Dog author, Margaret Bonham has put her Yard Dog Press epic fantasy novel Prophecy of Swords out that way. Since then her title has reached the top 10 in epic fantasy e-book category for Kindle.
(By the way, through the month of December 2010, if you purchase either TRANQUILITY or BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY in trade paperback from Yard Dog Press (Direct from the publisher, not from Amazon), I’ll send you a free preview of the first two chapters of the next Tranquility book that is now in progress, which is tentatively titled IT CAME TO TRANQUILITY.
Baen is also running a special on the E-Books. Until January 1, 2011, you can order both TRANQUILITY and BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY along with the books in the “Four Redheads of the Apocalypse” series as a Yard Dog Press bundle for $20.
You can order the E-Books at: http://www.webscription.net/m-9-yard-dog-press.aspx)
VENTRELLA: How did you make your first sale? Did you have an agent?
MORRIS: I still don’t have an agent. Instead I’ve made every sale I have the old fashioned way — by researching markets and sending manuscripts out.
My first sale was to an anthology called OCTOBERLAND that was put out by Flesh and Blood Press. It was a story entitled “Frost King” that I had basically written and rewritten multiple times.
I sold the story exactly the wrong way. It had been the first short story that I ever wrote, I made revisions with the help of an English teacher and then put it in a drawer through my college years. Once I decided to pursue writing again I started sending it out. Every time It was rejected I rewrote it using suggestions that the rejecting editor provided me. Eventually after 12 rewrites over 4 years, I sold the story.
That same week I also sold “Attack of the Godless Undead Zombies” to Yard Dog Press for one of their “Bubbas of the Apocalypse” anthologies. That story was written in the space of two days. I turned it in to Selina Rosen after my husband gave it a single editing pass.
Today I try to get a story to the point that I am happy with it before I send it out instead of changing it with every rejection. I feel much happier with the end result.
VENTRELLA: I have a short story that I can’t seem to sell, as it hardly fits into any specific genre. What advice do you have for me (and other writers reading this) for finding the right editor?
MORRIS: Before you do anything, consider your goals. Do you want to sell a story you are unhappy with for the sake of having a sale? Or do you want to have the best body of representative work you can possibly produce?
If you just want the sale, then rewrite the story along a formula so that it fits into a single genre. But if you are happy with the story as it stands, put it aside until the right editor comes along.
My personal choice would be the second option. I have been writing and reading speculative fiction for 20 years and I have seen genre conventions change drastically over the years. I never thought I would see the day that Jane Austen and Zombies were used in the same genre. I have ‘trunked’ perfectly good stories because they didn’t have the right market, only to have the perfect market for the story come along two years later.
If you change your work into something that you dislike just to make a sale, you may end up with a ‘representative body of work’ that you are unhappy with.
Also bear in mind that compared to novels, short stories are very quick to produce. You can have a short story written within a few days. So if you can’t find a home for one, you can set it aside and devote your attentions to creating and selling a new story.
VENTRELLA: You have two short stories in Baen’s online magazine “The Grantville Gazette”: “Still Life with Wolves and Canvasses” and “A Study in Redheads.” Do you think that online publications are the wave of the future?
MORRIS: Don’t forget about my co-writer for those stories, Brad Sinor.
A few months back Amazon began selling more electronic books than print books. This has a huge impact on magazines. Particularly since the publication business model is not the same as the book business model.
Most print publications don’t get their revenue from selling copies of their magazines. Instead they get revenue from ad sales. So a magazine like Fantasy Magazine once could leverage their sales numbers to attract advertisers. Fewer people are going into stores where these magazines used to sell. Instead, readership is online now.
You are already seeing more magazines online. There are several business models out there. Daily Science Fiction is delivering a story a day directly into my in box. The Grantville Gazettes require a subscription to access their online content. Fantasy Magazine has complete stories up for free with ads in the margins. Clarkesworld offers free content online, but sells their magazine with additional content through Kindle and has occasional donation drives.
When the dust settles, I think the most profitable business model will be the one we see copied.
The thing I admire about what Grantville Gazette is doing is that they are building a community around their 1632 franchise. There are the novels with the bigger name writers. But there are also message boards where fans can interact and have an impact on the storylines. Baen has an entire section devoted to the tech of the 1632 universe where experts (and there are plenty of qualified experts) can hammer out the science of the universe.
If someone wants to submit a story to the Grantville Gazettes, the story is put up on a closed message board where the Grantville fans can pick it over for conflicts with the universe timeline or the science. The author can make the changes and if the story is accepted, the same fans will buy the content.
Eventually, the ‘best of’ stories are the ones that get released in the print anthologies. Which also are bought by the community members.
Business-wise, this is smart. This is what made Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog such a success: Joss Whedon has an intensely loyal community that is willing to follow whatever he does.
This is also why celebrities such as Wil Wheaton, and internet celebrity Author Cleolinda Jones do so well with self publication. They’ve built a community of readers who are willing to follow what they do.
VENTRELLA: “Fish Story” is a short story you wrote which appeared in STRIP MAULED, an anthology edited by Esther Friesner. Tell me about that!
MORRIS: “Fish Story” involves a couple of characters that have been living in my mind for a while. Back when Laurel K. Hamilton and Jim Butcher first began publishing urban fantasy, I had a thought that it might be fun to write someone who would live in an urban fantasy world but eschewed magic. How would that person survive if they lived as a sort of magic conscientious objector?
The adventures I wrote were another example of a hard-to-sell genre mashup. I write funny third person. The urban fantasy of that type seems to take itself very seriously, and usually follows the noir detective novel conventions of first person point of view.
The characters are a good example of an idea that was trunked because of a lack of market, only to have the market return. I had an early story with the characters published in a magazine (now defunct) entitled “Whispers from the Shattered Forum”. After that, the Noir Detective novel in the Urban Fantasy market seemed to be dying.
Then TWILIGHT revived the interest in Urban Fantasy Vampires, which always seem to pull readers into the Noir Detective Urban Fantasy novels. And then along came a couple of great TV shows like “Supernatural.”
Prior to selling Fish Story, I sold a short story with these characters entitled Homo “Homini Lupis” to an anthology entitled WOLF SONGS, which was put out by Wolfsinger press. I recently finished a novel with the characters that is based on the plot to this short story.
Then Esther Friesner launched her monsters in suburbia series. The anthologies are open by invitation only. But through a mutual friend I was able to ask her if I could submit a story for consideration for her werewolf-themed anthology. I was very surprised when the story not only made it into the anthology, but was put up on Baen’s website as one of the free preview stories.
I also submitted a story to her for the vampire-themed anthology. But the competition for inclusion in that anthology was a bit stiffer, and I didn’t end up being selected.
VENTRELLA: Would you advise beginning authors to concentrate on getting short stories published first?
MORRIS: There is a huge difference between publishing a short story and publishing a novel. About 15 years ago the accepted career path was to build name recognition through short stories and leverage that to secure a novel contract. Today that wisdom doesn’t hold true. You can get a contract with an agent, or sell a manuscript to Tor or Baen if the novel is good regardless of what your name is. Conversely, you can have a big name in short stories and if your novel isn’t good enough, you won’t be able to sell it.
My advice is to concentrate on honing your craft in the medium that you want to be published in. If you want to write short stories, that’s the area you should focus in. If you want to write novels, start there.
VENTRELLA: What is your opinion on e-book publishers and Print On Demand?
MORRIS: Each publisher is different. Do your homework and contract with a respectable publisher. One good resource is SFWA’s Predators and Editors website.
VENTRELLA: How about self-publishing?
MORRIS: Rule #1 of Self-Publishing: Thou Shall Not Fooleth Thyselfeth.
First thing you must understand is that publishing a book yourself does not put you into the same league as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steele. You won’t be rolling in piles of money. Nor will you spend your days poolside with a laptop, eating bon bons while you compose deathless prose.
Writing is a business. Publishing is doubly so. You will be responsible for selling the books yourself, handling the details of distributorship and all promotional marketing (these things that publishers normally do).
Additionally, you must overcome the stigma attached to self publishing. Self publishing (from what I’ve observed) is like swimming upstream against a tide of professional ostracism. In the eyes of many professionals (authors, editors, publishers, book sellers) your book lacks the quality editing work that books published with an established house have.
Promotion will be more difficult because many reviewers will give your book less priority than a book sent by a professional house. Science fiction conventions will give preferential treatment to writers who have books with professional houses. If you do manage to get paneling, you may be treated with hostility or veiled contempt by authors with credits through traditional publishers.
There are a number of authors who have been successful with self publishing. Most of them know to treat the business of writing and publishing like a business. Many of them establish a fan following through other means, and dabble in self publishing. Others have an established fan following through traditional publishing that follows them into the self publishing realm.
VENTRELLA: I assume you have cats. (Don’t all writers?) Am I wrong?
MORRIS: No cats. I am owned by two very lazy dogs. When I’m not writing, my job is to cater to their every whim.