Interview with author and editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Please welcome Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail! Danielle has worked both sides of the publishing industry for over seventeen years. Her works include the urban fantasies YESTERDAY’S DREAMS and TOMORROW’S MEMORIES, the upcoming TODAY’S PROMISE, and THE HALFLING’S COURT, and the writers guide THE LITERARY HANDYMAN. She edits the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies and DRAGON’S LURE, and has contributed to numerous other anthologies.

To read excerpts from the Eternal Cycle series, and other works by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, visit the excerpts page on her website.

Danielle, tell me about your new “Eternal Cycle” series.

DANIELLE ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Well, I can’t really call the Eternal Cycle series new … or not all of it, anyway. YESTERDAY’S DREAMS was originally published by Vivisphere Publishing back in 2001, then again by Mundania Press in 2006, and TOMORROW’S MEMORIES was also published by Mundania in 2009. TODAY’S PROMISE completes the series and has never before been in print. All three books will be released by Dark Quest Books between now and Summer 2012. In fact, the DQ edition of YESTERDAY’S DREAMS is already available.

When I started this series I had no idea I was writing a novel, let alone a trilogy. I had an idea and then that idea spiraled out of control. I’ve always been interested in Irish mythology but most of the Irish-themed fiction I had picked up over the years never really did anything with the mythology. When I finally realized Yesterday’s Dreams was going to be a novel I saw a chance to indulge my interest in the Irish and mythology in general.

Set in New York, the books follow Kara O’Keefe, a young first-generation Irish American. What Kara doesn’t know is that she is also descended from the Sidhe, the elves of Ireland. When her father begins his second battle with cancer Kara must make a choice. She pawns her heirloom violin to save the family house. She ends up at Yesterday’s Dreams, a pawnshop in the Village run by Maggie McCormick, a full-blooded Sidhe. Kara’s selfless act brings her to the attention of forces both good and evil. One wanting to teach her and keep her save, the other wants to claim her power for his own, by any means necessary.

Olcas is an ancient demigod long ago defeated by the Sidhe when he and his and his brothers, along with their mother Carman terrorized Ireland. Though their bodies were destroyed their spirits lingered. Throughout each book one of them returns by possessing another until they join forces first to take revenge on the Sidhe, then ultimately dominate the world.

This is a classic tale of good versus evil, along with a healthy dose of self-discovery, written in a lyrical style. I like to think I capture the magic and wonder of the old myths, while introducing some truly unique concepts.

VENTRELLA: What makes your series different?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: You know, I’m not egotistical enough to thing I really bring anything different in content. If you look hard enough you can find similar things somewhere else. What I — and all other authors — bring to the table is perspective. No matter how many times a story has been told the perspective is unique. I also bring passion and vision. I take the same elements that everyone is familiar with and see what unexpected angle I can put on those elements. From time to time I hit on a concept that my readers really seem to appreciate, such as the Great Wall that appears in both TOMORROW’S MEMORIES and TODAY’S PROMISE, where the life forces of the Sidhe take visible representation in the form of a spiraling knotwork pattern that changes and grows with each thing they experience, or in THE HALFLING’S COURT where my biker faeries have wings, but they are only partially physical. They function in the same way as a magic sink, starting as a fin that unfurls from the fae’s body then expands as they draw in more magic. The more magic they gather, the more tendrils come off those fins until they look like angel-style wings made of mage energy. For the most part, though, I just look at things differently. As different as I can manage and then I let my imagination out to play.

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin? Characters, plot, themes?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I have a saying: The plot is what happens when you’re getting to know the characters. It is very important to me to have well-developed characters people connect with and care about, or love to loath, depending on their role. Not saying the story isn’t important, but it is filtered through the characters’ perception. Without the characters there is no story. It is my job to ensure the characters are not interchangeable, but distinct and recognizable personalities in and of themselves.

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

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: You know, I’m told I’m a pantser. Until I was I had never heard the phrase, but basically it means I jump in and discover the story as I go along. I’ve tried writing outlines, but most of my writing starts with an idea. Sometimes one line. Often I don’t know where it’s going until I get there. Most of the time I write a scene until that sparks another idea and I jump to that scene until I have a framework that give me an idea of the shape the project is going to take. Think of it as the supports for a deck. You pour the footing, you build the framework, and then you close everything in.

With YESTERDAY’S DREAMS it started with two things: an idea for a short story about a pawnshop that only accepts goods that are connected to the owner’s soul and a bad guy named Olcas, which is Irish for evil. I named the character that without realizing that there was an actual figure in Irish myth named that. Once I made the discovery that determined that my novel became a trilogy because Olcas had two brothers. So you see, I never approach a project trying to figure out what all the pieces are because my imagination works better when I give it free rein. I’m not saying there aren’t time I know where I want to end up, but I enjoy the discovery of figuring out the in between as I go. I used to think this meant it took longer for me to finish a project, but recently I finished TODAY’S PROMISE, the last book in the Eternal Cycle Series, and it only took three months, without an outline. The process was all-consuming, not to mention exhausting, but the satisfaction in the end is something I’ll never forget. I don’t regret not working from an outline, it’s just the way my brain works. I don’t recommend it for everyone, but it does work and I love the organic feel of the end result. I find that I do need to keep a close eye on details so that if something changes I make the proper adjustments in the bits I’ve already written. By writing the key points as I figure out what they are and then linking everything I end up with a tightly woven story.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a favorite of your babies?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I have favorite aspects more than anything. Every book or project has something that stands out. In THE HALFLING’S COURT, my biker faerie novel, it was the weaving of social identity with the fantasy elements and drawing parallels. I was able to draw heavily on mythology, which I really like, but also on dialect and recognizable subcultural elements. Finding the way to meld the recognizable with the fantastic really gets me going. I love turning things on their ear.

In the Eternal Cycle series I again weave mythology with the everyday, but there I actually took an existing myth and expanded on it which was challenging and also really cool. See, Irish mythology is a bit fragmented because it was an oral tradition and the ethnic identity of the Irish people was for so long repressed that a lot of detail has been lost. Taking the bits and pieces and weaving them into something rich and powerful is a real thrill. So much of the myths and legends dovetail nicely, but there was also the challenge of addressing popular belief, particularly with something as popular as elves. We draw on them so heavily in our literature that the lines between legends and creative license have blurred. Take for example the belief that elves or faeries can’t touch cold iron. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist anywhere in world mythology, but I found nothing to support it in Irish mythology. In fact, Goibhniu, one of their major gods, is a blacksmith. Sorry, but blacksmiths work with iron and steel. Also, redcaps … they carry and iron pike. So, I had to find a way to recognize the popular belief while at the same time explaining why I’ve discounted it. One thing I did find, though, is that in the folklore, which is often separate from the actual mythology, it was common to hang iron implements to ward off evil … scissors over cradles and horseshoes over doors, that kind of thing, so I suspect that is the basis for the belief about elves and iron, but that only presumes that elves are evil, which to me isn’t necessarily so. I love playing with details like this.

And … on another front, I actually have a nonfiction book that will always be special to me. It is THE LITERARY HANDYMAN, an informal writer’s guide. This isn’t meant for someone on our level, with either learning or experience already under their belt, but for the beginner who could really use some solid advice about the craft and business of being a writer. That one is special to me because it is so much different from the fiction I write. The core of the book started out as various articles I posted at different sites on the internet, so there is some overlap, but each article is meant to be taken individually so I didn’t worry about that too much. Besides, some points bear reinforcing.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I do have a few core authors that I follow … Anne McCaffrey, Patricia Briggs, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Mercedes Lackey, Jim Butcher … you know, the ones most people know about. But I also have some personal treasures that have yet to be discovered by the world at large, and I’ve had the pleasure to work with them. They are L. Jagi Lamplighter, Bernie Mojzes, Elaine Corvidae, and James Daniel Ross. There are others, but this would be a really long answer if I tried to include everyone.

Of course, romance is my guilty, junk-food reading.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss publishing. You’re with Dark Quest Books. How did that come to be?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I was courted. There’s no other way to put it. The publisher, Neal Levin, saw what I was doing on my own and actively sought out a relationship, first on the technical end, and then as an author. He wanted to build his list quickly and effectively and knew I had the promotional experience, as well as contacts in the industry. When I had issues with several titles going out of print Neal was in a position to offer me a home for them, a situation that has benefited us and the authors involved quite nicely.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages of going with a small press?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I have worked for virtually every level of publisher in the industry, from Random House to reprint publishers, specialized markets such as medical or music publishing, even magazines. I have seen pretty much everything there is in publishing. That insight has taught me that no publisher is perfect and many of them have the same flaws when dealing with their authors, no matter the size of the House: response time, royalty payments, and scheduling issues. The majority of authors struggle with all of those things. The larger publishers are both harder to get into and less forgiving of the learning curve. I find by starting out in small press I have had an opportunity to learn the business more fully, make contacts and establish myself. Print distribution is harder for a small press, but with the market drifting more toward ebooks anyway that is less of drawback.

The other concern is marketing. Whether you are with a small house or a big one, in most cases the promotional responsibility falls to the author anyway because the marketing budget is disproportionately divided with the large houses and generally nonexistent with the small ones.

So, when you look at it that way large houses have only two things going for them, visibility and distribution. The drawback: higher expectations and very little flexibility when it comes to identifying a “successful” book.

I know one author who signed a three book deal with a major publisher. The first book came out and performed respectably, but not to the publisher’s expectations. The elected not to release the other two books in the series, but likewise would not release the rights either as they were keeping the first book in print. Unless you do really well at the offset there are only a small proportion of authors out there (relative to the number that are actually published) that have staying power with a large publisher, whereas small press by using print-on-demand technology, can afford to maintain a large backlist and allow titles to grow in visibility over a prolonged period of time. Unless a publisher goes out of business or the relationship is dissolved by one or the other party, books stay in print indefinitely.

Personally, I also find small press affords me a lot of creative control, more personal interaction with my publishers, and deeper understanding of the process because I am involved at virtually every stage. In many cases I have taken books from concept to completion before even approaching a publisher to sign it. This experience has allowed me to work on projects a major publisher probably never would have considered, some of them which have been quite profitable, as well as award-winning. With a larger publisher you are luck if they even ask what you would like to see on the cover. Once you give them the manuscript you take what you get, a lot of the time, and it isn’t always representative of your book’s content.

This doesn’t mean I would never consider or pursue a contract with a large publisher, it just means that I will always maintain a relationship with small press as well.

VENTRELLA: You’re Marketing Director for Dark Quest. Were you involved in its inception?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Well, not really. See, Dark Quest started out as a game company over ten years ago. That arm of the company still exists, but separate from the fiction division of Dark Quest Books. Neal Levin had tested the waters with SKEIN OF SHADOWS, a novella collection based on a gaming universe. That book had already been produced and Dark Quest was looking to take things further into full-fledged book publishing. They were familiar with my work both writing and promoting through the Garden State Horror Writers, a writers group we both were members of. He first approached me to come on staff as Promotions Director. At the same time he approached my husband, Mike McPhail, to pick up the role playing game he’s had under development. That game is the Alliance Archive Martial Role Playing Game, which is scheduled to release later this year.

While we were negotiating our participation another publisher of ours made the decision to opt out of the business. Unfortunately, that company published our best-selling anthologies: The Bad-Ass Faeries series and the Defending the Future series. Dark Quest Books stepped in to contract the Defending the Future books, collections of military science fiction short stories by some of the biggest names in the industry. In fact, SO IT BEGINS was the first book Dark Quest released, after SKEIN OF SHADOWS, which was a venture of the gaming arm of the business.

Between Mike and I, we’ve been taking an active role ever since, not just as authors, but editors, promoters, designers, and artists. Just recently the Defending the Future series has become the core of a new imprint, DTF Publications, which offers military science fiction novels and anthologies by well-known and beginning authors. Mike McPhail is the administrator of that imprint.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss marketing. These days, even authors with major publishers need to know how to market themselves. What are some of the smartest things an author can do to promote their own work?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Create an internet presence. You can do this via a professional looking website, social media, blogs, being featured on book sites, making sure your work is in the database sites with accurate information and covers wherever the book is listed. You should also solicit author interviews, guest blogs, and book reviews, as well as join productive professional organizations or groups, such as Broad Universe or SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). Not only do such groups offer support and networking opportunities, but they are a great way to learn of events. Other than possible membership fees, all of these are free promotions.

With your website include more than just who you are and what you’ve published. Have excerpts, a schedule of author events, free stories, a link to a blog you update regularly, that kind of thing. Some authors even have contests. Make the site something that warrants repeat visits. On mine I include my costuming and crafting efforts as well as a point of interest. Mike, my husband and fellow author and editor, includes the development phases for his creative works.

The other thing I recommend is conventions. Both attending them and distributing flyers or bookmarks at them. If you can attend you meet your target audience first hand and benefit from the celebrity phenomenon, an one would presume the potential readers can actually see your book and perhaps even buy it. If you can’t attend most conventions will accept promotional goods for free, or a slight fee if you want the materials put in the registration packs. If you write speculative fiction or one of the other established genres like romance or horror, this is a surefire way to reach those you want to reach, whereas a general book fair might not be as effective.

VENTRELLA: What are some of your marketing pet peeves?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: My biggest issue I have with promoting (beyond the fact that it is a massive time-sink) is that once you make the contact requesting a review or interview you have no control over 1) if anything comes of it, and 2) if the person responsible for posting the review or interview presents it either professionally or accurately. I have not encountered this, but a friend solicited a review from a site and sent a physical copy of the book. When the review posted it was clear the reviewer only read the back cover copy, which had certain incorrect information on it that made it obvious the reviewer hadn’t actually read the book.

One thing I did encounter myself was one person I gave a book to for review who rather than writing a review of their own lifted two of the Amazon reviews for the book and posted it on their site, as if they had wrote them.

VENTRELLA: You’re also an anthology editor. Do you find that to be a difficult job to take on?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Again, like promotions, this is a time-consuming job. There are many elements in being a project editor that are not the fun bits. Paperwork, organizing details, acting as a go-between with the publisher and the authors. Working with difficult personalities. I love taking a book from concept to completion, but some of the stages in between are pure torture.

VENTRELLA: I also edit my own anthologies and it’s not easy, especially when you have to say no to friends who submit stories. Has this been a problem for you?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I’ve had to deal with a lot of things across the ten anthology projects that have actually published, and a number that are still in the works. There have been problems with unpleasantness when it came to rejections, but my biggest problems have been with temperamental authors having issue with the editing process or the publisher’s terms, and not dealing with either in a constructive manner.

Sadly, this has lead me to be more circumspect in who I invite to a project because editing an anthology has enough inherent headaches involved without voluntarily inviting gratuitous headaches on board.

VENTRELLA: Anthologies just do not sell like they once did, given Smashwords and other places on the internet to get stories. What have you done to get attention and increase sales?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: We’ve built something of a reputation, for one. Of the projects I am directly involved in five have been finalists for various awards, three have won. There are plenty of excellent reviews, and, of course, we have made a point to be very visible at conventions through launch parties, panel discussions, adds, and a presence in the dealer’s room. For our two major series, Bad-Ass Faeries and Defending the Future we have dedicated websites with extra content and lots of information about the series. Another thing we do is try and solicit submissions from big name authors who happen to be friends, people likely to do it for the love, not those who want big money. I also tend to give more consideration to authors who write well and I know put effort into promoting every project they are a part of. The two series I mentioned are by far our best sellers, with sales in the thousands, but all of them do respectably, particularly in ebook.

VENTRELLA: Do you accept unsolicited stories? If so, what are you looking for now?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: My projects are a bit different from the usual collection. I require every author to present me with a proposal for approval because my biggest gripe is having to reject a perfectly good story just because it is too close to something I already have, so yes, I will consider proposals from authors that have not been approached for the collection, but the stories will have been discussed beforehand in those instances. I do not generally consider stories that were not specifically written for the collections because we do theme anthologies, so unless the author has talked to us in advance and made a case for their story, it is best to wait until there is a call for submissions and then pitch your idea.

I have two projects in the works currently, but the deadline has passed for both of them and any future projects will be invitation only as I have learned that there is much less hassle that way. But you know, I have had to make the decision recently to step back from anthologies for a while. Between the stress and the time involved I haven’t been accomplishing anything toward advancing my personal writing career. I don’t see departing anthology work altogether—there are a large group of people who likely wouldn’t let me—it’s definitely taking a back burner for a while. Mostly I discovered I have six partially completed novels on my computer…and having learned if I focus on them I can complete them relatively quickly, there is something very wrong with them being stuck in limbo.

VENTRELLA: The “Bad Ass Faeries” series is probably your most popular. How did that come to be?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: This series was borne out of the artwork of Ruth Lampi. Really and truly. At Albacon one year I met this then-aspiring young artist and she showed me some sketches on notebook paper. Her skill was such that when I had a project I wanted illustrated I contacted her. Years later we were holding a shared promotional event that was, unfortunately, barren of attendees. While sitting there with the store’s staff chatting to entertain ourselves we were talking about how we met and suddenly an anthology was conceived. Because most people have come to think of faeries as the pastel princesses portrayed in children’s shows and related media, we decided it was time to be true to the spirit of the faerie legend of old where they were mischievous, malevolent or warriors. They were tough and wicked and sometimes downright ugly. Thus, Bad-Ass Faeries. The series has taken on a life of its own.

VENTRELLA: You’re a regular at east coast conventions (where we have shared a few panels from time to time). What are the reasons you attend?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Being a writer is for the most part a solitary endeavor. We pour ourselves out on to the page and we desperately want to know that the readership enjoys what we have written. Reviews are usually few and far between, not to mention at times mixed. By going to conventions I have the unique opportunity to interact with my fans, learn what they liked and what they didn’t, and conversely, share with them the development and thought that went into the books I’ve written or been a part of. Conventions more than any other promotional event allow the author to make a personal connection with the fans in a comfortable, relaxed, and informal setting. The other reasons I put so much time and effort into conventions are networking, as a means to distribute my books (which is a challenge for small-press authors), and being social with fellow authors and fans, which is a great way to generate ideas and keep touch with what is going on in the industry.

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