Interview with Hugo-Nominated Author Janet Morris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Hugo-nominated author Janet Morris. Janet is probably best known for her Silistra series. She has contributed short fiction to the shared universe fantasy series “Thieves World” and then created, orchestrated, and edited the fantasy series “Heroes in Hell,” writing stories for the series. Most of her fiction work has been in the fantasy and science fiction genres, although she has also written historical and other novels. Her 1983 book I, THE SUN, a detailed biographical novel about the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I, was praised for its historical accuracy.

Janet, let’s start by talking about the Kindle promotion going on right now.

JANET MORRIS: There is an Amazon giveaway (May 15-17) of the author’s cut reissue of BEYOND SANCTUARY as a Kindle book. This is the only time this book will be offered as a free Kindle download.

It the first novel in the “Author’s Cut” group of reissues: each “Author’s Cut” volume is compeltely revised and expanded by the author(s) and contain new material never before available. The other “Author’s Cut” volumes that have been released as ebooks and as trade paperbacks are TEMPUS WITH HIS RIGHT-SIDE COMPANION NIKO (2011) and THE FISH THE FIGHTERS AND THE SONG-GIRL (2012). The next “Author’s Cut” edition will be BEYOND THE VEIL (2013), second of the three “Beyond novels” in the Sacred Band of Stepsons series. We will eventually reissue all the Sacred Band of Stepsons books, and then more of our backlist, in this ‘author’s cut’ program. It’s very satisfying to get all the errors and deficiencies corrected, and have a chance to enhance these perennial sellers.

Most Sacred Band novels will not have giveaways; we chose BEYOND SANCTUARY as a good starting place for those new to the series and, in its enhanced and expanded form, as an attraction for those who loved these books and stories in the 20th century. We are planning to do a few Sacred Band stories as Kindle shorts as time goes by, but nothing specific has been decided.

VENTRELLA: You started your publication history with the Silistra series. How did you make that first sale?

MORRIS: I wrote HIGH COUCH in 1975 and its two follow-ons, THE GOLDEN SWORD and WIND FROM THE ABYSS thereafter for fun: following the story for my husband and our friends. I knew no one in publishing and had no aspirations to break into the business.

One friend said her husband knew an agent and the book (HIGH COUCH) should be published but I would need to provide the manuscript in a clean, double-spaced copy, not single-space with handwritten corrections. I had my dad’s ancient typewriter (non-electric, non-correcting; the “p” key stuck) and was a terrible typist. I found out it would cost $1.00 per page to have the manuscript typed by a professional, which meant a $250.00 investment. So I didn’t do that for over a year; by then my second book was finished. In 1976 my friend sent the typed HIGH COUCH manuscript to an agent, Perry Knowlton, president of Curtis Brown, Ltd.. Perry called me and said I was a natural storyteller and he wanted to represent me and the book, and did I have any other books? I said I did but they weren’t typed up. He said, “Get them typed.”

Perry remained my only agent until his death. By the time I had the other books typed, he had sold HIGH COUCH for five figures to Frederik Pohl and Sydney Weinberg at Bantam and I was able to quit my day job. Then Perry sold THE GOLDEN SWORD and WIND FROM THE ABYSS to them in a package. By then I was writing THE CARNELIAN THRONE. By the time THRONE came out, Bantam had over 4M copies of the first three in print.

They bought THE CARNELIAN THRONE also, and my next series went to auction in two countries simultaneously based on sample chapters: I still don’t like to write outlines.

Silistra got many foreign rights deals, but only the French one is a divergent manuscript: for a sizable additional sum, I provided extra ‘erotic passages.’ ‘Erotic’ in those days was much less explicit than now, but even so, SILISTRA shook a lot of people from complacency: it wasn’t feminist, nor was it conservative; it featured pansexual characters and dealt with philosophical and sociobiological questions about sexuality and abuse of power; the main female character was powerful and had a sword: all these elements were challenging to the fantasy and SF community. And the book didn’t fit a neat category. In what was then a very hidebound and immature market, it blazed tough trails and still today doesn’t fit any simplistic or political model.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing world changed since then?

MORRIS: E-publishing is a big change. Deconstructionism is rampant: the continual division of the novel into smaller and smaller subsets of its constituent elements (such as mystery, thriller, erotic, adventure, romance, horror, etc.) either mirrors or leads the deconstruction of politics and of society. Writing outside established marketing categories is increasingly difficult; the mid-list book, which was an incubator of talent, is all but gone in print publishing.

As an ox-gorer and a windmill-tilter who writes mythic novels with political subtexts and who never has been easy to categorize, I think e-publishing is a good thing. I no longer have to cut a big idea into three volume-sized chunks: I can write the book at the length it needs; I don’t have to fix or endure additional errors from semi-educated production people; I can control my covers and the book’s sell copy. The downside is there is much more free reading material (some worth the price, some not), and a lower educational level among some groups – but there have always been books and writers for every echelon of society.

VENTRELLA: Do you see a future where self-publishing will be accepted?

MORRIS: Sure, eventually. When we decided to return to fiction (after taking 20 years off to create the nonlethal weapons mandate, the nonlethality concept, and other initiatives in the defense policy and planning realms), we wanted to keep our fiction e-rights and at that time my agent (Perry Knowlton’s son, Tim, at Curtis Brown) said it was impossible to make a deal like that with a major house. So we decided to put together a small publishing house that did e-books and trades and make strategic alliances with other small publishing houses who produced quality hardcovers. We did this because the self-publishing road is still stigmatized, and because the production learning curve is steep. Kerlak did our first two hardcovers and gave me what I wanted: sewn binding, linen boards, generous print size, etc.

The stigmatization of self-publishing is primarily from the big chains, who look down on POD but POD was what attracted me to small publishing: no remaindered books; no books going to dumpsites; no torn-off covers returned and no tax liability for unsold stock. When we do reissues, we do “Author’s Cut” editions in which we can correct and expand and enhance each book that we’re releasing with better covers and production values than the twentieth century originals: an approach possible now but not practical even ten years ago.

Machiavelli commented in THE PRINCE as follows: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more uncertain of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things: for the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in those who would profit by the new; this weak support arising partly from the incredulity of mankind who does not truly believe in anything new until they actually experience it.” We found this when initiating the nonlethal weapons programmatics: twenty years later, we are where we should have been in five years in nonlethals, and at absurd cost because nothing is adopted until big things take that viewpoint onboard commercially. Similarly, with publishing, as vested interests deal themselves in and competitive entities are created, things will stabilize – hopefully with new players, but with many of the old entities in new guises.

VENTRELLA: Will the rise of smaller publishing houses and e-books mean that these may someday be better accepted? For instance, will SFWA someday accept more of these publishers? Would that be a good thing?

MORRIS: Eventually the writers organizations must accept reality. E-books and small publishing are part of the new reality. SFWA, like all bureaucracies, protests that it protects its membership while it actually protects primarily itself. When SFWA sees that it must change to survive, it will change. Adaptation is always necessary for survival.

VENTRELLA: Now let’s talk about something more fun: Writing! What led you to write fantasy?

MORRIS: My work doesn’t fit many contemporary definitions of fantasy. I really write mythic novels and stories, sometimes in an SF and sometimes in a fantasy context, but there’s nothing ‘sweet’ or ‘pastel’ about my work: my characters face challenges and so do my readers.

When I write something that publishers call ‘fantasy’ I am writing in what I think is the most important tradition of fiction: starting with Homer and up through Shakespeare and Milton, the most important themes to tackle are those of the mythopoeic domain, tales of the body and mind seen through a temperament and a cosmos divorced from current reality so what is said can be more clear. For me, myth is the ‘common’ language of us all – or has been until these days of stories reduced to their lowest mechanical nature. My stories have a historical cognizance, a literary cognizance, and a philosophical/ scientific cognizance.

Bantam once wanted to separate a book of mine into two books: a short ‘wisdom literature’ book and a longer ‘mainstream’ book. I didn’t do that, but in retrospect it was a well-thought impulse on the publisher’s part.

I’ve also written nonfiction; a rigorous historical about Suppiluliumas, a Hittite king; a pseudonymous ‘novel’; other pseudonymous ‘high-tech thrillers’ (or what you will) with strong technology drivers. I make more money when I write under one male name than when I write under one female name or, as reality dictates, as “Janet Morris and Chris Morris.” But I write the book, each time, that forces me to write it, whether fiction or nonfiction. If the book is fiction, I write only when the story and characters demand that I give up my real life because what they will say is more important.

VENTRELLA: How do you create a realistic, believable fantasy world without just looking like every other realistic, believable fantasy world out there?

MORRIS: We say about THE SACRED BAND, our newest mythic novel, that it is “an adventure like no other.” This book had waited since the late 1970s to be written.

My books are remarkably unlike most of what else is available in contemporary fiction, so making the story or milieu ‘unique’ is not an effort for me. We started ‘The Sacred Band of Stepsons’ series and characters in the ‘shared world’ universe of Thieves’ World®, and so wrote in a milieu populated with other writers: making my work ‘fit’ their construct was a challenge. I have a deep love for the third, second and first millennia BCE, and my ancient characters always are touchstones to historical reality: I don’t “try” to make my fantasy world different from reality: I try to take you into the mythos of humanity. Silistra had a complete language, a glossary, a unique context, a rigorous rationale actually based on sociobiology and genetics, but had sword-wielding women and horses and ancient skirmishers as well as high-tech outsiders trying to understand it. The “Dream Dancer” series, also ‘science-fantasy,’ was set in space habitats primarily. It’s very easy for me to establish a credible world construct and posit behaviors there: I have predicted several major events in the real world over a number of years based on that ability to identify the most likely course of action that a country or individual will take in a given context. Now this skill is beginning to become a field of study called “intuitive decision making” and also “implied learning.” We once called it “speed understanding.” Writers often have this ability, and it allows creators to make their characters and societies credible. The writers who don’t have it can’t make their characters, or worlds, credible enough to please me.

If you want to write something completely unique, you will probably fail or at best write something without redeeming value. The mind works in certain patterns: the mind organizes facts in story form; it is your commonality with that body of human thought that makes a good book, not its estrangement from the common values that humans share.

VENTRELLA: As one of the original THIEVES’ WORLD gang, you’ve had a huge influence on modern fantasy fiction. It’s one of the first (or maybe the first?) shared world anthology. (I copied it completely and stole this idea for my TALES OF FORTANNIS series, by the way.) Where did the idea for this originate?

MORRIS: TW had one volume published when I was asked to come aboard: “Thieves’ World,” which had Joe Haldeman and Andy Offutt and Bob Asprin and others. Bob had the original idea for the “worst town in fantasy, the grittiest, meanest, seediest place possible.” He asked me to write for it at a convention and I said, “How serious are you about gritty?” I had written a very short piece about a woman who killed sorcerers for a living, and I proposed to bring those characters into Thieves’ World, plus an immortalized and very unhappy mercenary who regenerated. Bob said okay, I could bring the characters and take them out again afterward.

I started the story “Vashanka’s Minion,” that introduced Tempus (a/k/a the Riddler, Favorite of the Storm God, the Obscure, the Black). He has a metaphysical link to Herakleitos of Ephesus, and lives as a warrior in a Herakleitan/Hittite cosmos that I overlayed on what Bob and Andy already had done. But when Tempus got down to the dock and Askelon of Meridian got off the boat, Tempus said, “You, get out of my story. There’s not room enough here for both of us.” So Askelon didn’t arrive in Thieves’ World until “Wizard Weather,” although Cime, Tempus’ sister-in-arms, did show up. Tempus forms the Sacred Band of Stepsons in Thieves’ World #2, meets the patron shade of the Sacred Band in #3, and puts the Band together.

Then the TW books start to succeed and people get cranky. I called Bob and asked for a letter because I wanted to take my characters out of the shared town and do a group of novels with them, since Bob was complaining my characters were “too big.” So we agreed on that plan. These tensions made the stories more fun: people came and went; I took my characters into my own constructs such as Wizardwall and into the real ancient-world settlements of Nisibis and Mygdonia. Everyone contributed something useful to TW, and its fabric is still very rich.

I got Lynn Abbey’s permission, after Bob died, to bring the Sacred Band back to Sanctuary for a big novel to tie up loose ends that was set ten years after the Stepsons left town in TW #11 and well before Lynn’s own novel, since that milieu wouldn’t work for me. This project became THE SACRED BAND. As agreed with Lynn, THE SACRED BAND was followed by a novella, “the Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl” (the title story from the second “Sacred Band Tales” anthology), which takes the Stepsons back out of Sanctuary again and sweeps up all my TW stories not previously collected. So now, between “Tempus with his right-side companion Niko” and “the Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl” all our ten TW Sacred Band stories are assembled in two volumes, along with other Stepsons tales not available elsewhere.

As for fun quotient, I get more joy from the Sacred Band of Stepsons than from any other characters. And the SBS character list is expanding….

VENTRELLA: Another great series you’ve run is the HEROES IN HELL series (which now apparently includes LAWYERS IN HELL, which could be the name of my autobiography). What future themes can we expect to see?

MORRIS: If I’d known you, I’d have invited you to contribute to LAWYERS. In the 21st century Heroes in Hell books, next up is “Rogues,” to be followed by “Dreamers” (or “Visionaries,” I haven’t finalized the title), then “Poets,” then “Pirates” (or “Swashbucklers”). “Doctors” is a distinct possibility. There are many stories left to tell in hell, especially now that we have met hell’s landlords and heaven has sent down auditors to make sure hell is sufficiently hellish.

VENTRELLA: How do you work with the authors to make sure there is consistency in the world setting for these collections?

MORRIS: Each hell book takes a year to write and assemble, and the writers must coordinate more completely than was possible before the internet: we have a “secret” working group on Facebook where the writers interact and arcs and meta-arcs are chosen and polished. They choose characters. Our “Muse of Hell,” Sarah Hulcy, has put up 130 orientation docs, so there’s plenty of available information. When they choose the characters, we check to see if those characters have been used previously, and if the characters are available and meet our criteria, they can “claim” those characters for the time they write for the series. If they leave, they can’t take the characters: characters come back to me and stay in hell to be recycled.

Then they work on a short “two or three sentence” synopsis. I must accept the synopsis and the characters before they start to write. They can use legendary, historical, or mythical characters. They can’t use characters from modern fiction (post 1900) and they can’t use recently dead or living people. Then writers are allowed to post in-progress snippets which the group can read, and comment upon – or not. Chris and I write “guide stories” (two or three), setting up the current long arcs and the general tone of the volume at its beginning and end. Between these “bookends,” the other writers must set their stories.

When the stories are generally selected, I edit for continuity and tone, and Sarah Hulcy follows me with a copy-edit. Chris Morris is the final editorial reader, and with the three of us working on the stories for continuity and cohesion, we get a strong result and a better book than we could have produced before the internet.

VENTRELLA: I assume your anthologies are primarily invitation-only (correct me if I am wrong). How do you deal with stories that don’t meet your standard or are rejected for other reasons?

MORRIS: We are invitation-only. The milieu of our hell belongs to Chris and me. The authors know that from the outset. We usually won’t let them write a story we don’t think will work: by the time we’ve approved characters and synopsis, we know what the story will be and how we’ll use it. If someone simply fails to write a useful story, they probably haven’t met our guidelines. Our hell universe is easily recognizable. Each writer has left a clear trail of participation. If they want to rewrite a story we won’t accept and take out the arguably HIH context and characters, of course they can try.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss your novels. Which is your favorite?

MORRIS: In fantasy: THE SACRED BAND (Janet Morris and Chris Morris; Paradise, 2010; Kerlak, 2011), the mythic novel of the Sacred Band of Stepsons uniting with the Sacred Band of Thebes and returning to Sanctuary. In historical: I, THE SUN (Janet Morris, Dell, 1987).

VENTRELLA: Who is your favorite character?

MORRIS: Tempus and then Niko and the Sacred Band of Stepsons fighters.

VENTRELLA: What would you ask that character if you could meet him or her?

MORRIS: Tempus lives in my skull. I meet him on a regular basis and I’m happy to have a character so available. He’s been there since 1979. I went to the White House and he said, “Kinda small, isn’t it?” I would ask him, in all seriousness, whether he truly believes that “character is destiny,” a line he shares with Herakleitos.

VENTRELLA: And what do you think he or she would answer?

MORRIS: “The sun is new every day.” We call him the Riddler, remember.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer writing fantasy or science fiction?

MORRIS: Fantasy, because very little in SF can transcend the gimmickry of a technical conceit, yet without that conceit at its heart a book isn’t truly science fiction. Furthermore, so little emerging thought and technology is employed by sf writers today that the genre is lagging far behind reality both in the cosmology area and the technology area: sf is no longer a place to experiment, but is now very derivative.

VENTRELLA: Do you find novels easier to write than short stories?

MORRIS: A novel is a major commitment, and must move smoothly along its trajectory. A “short story,” if it’s more than three thousand words, actually lets you focus more deeply on a circumscribed area or event. I think short stories and novels are different; each form is unique and equally demanding. I prefer novels but short stories are good exercises in discipline.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

MORRIS: I don’t “outline” in the way that you mean. I get characters, and their background; I immerse my intelligence in a milieu that’s fully realized: a place with weather and politics and problems and a special nature. I use square post-it notes to write down certain things that must happen during a sitting: a line of dialogue, a particular event, where I need to be when the section is done; a section or chapter or story title. I know where I want the story or chapter or novel to end; I know where I want to start each section: how I get there is the fun for me.

Often times the question for me is which viewpoint character will have the best take on a particular set of events. When I have (twice) sold a project based on outline, it took all the fun out of it.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what techniques do you use?

MORRIS: I wait. I lie on the bed or go for a drive with paper in my pocket and wait for the characters to start to interact with me, or to tell their story to me. I need to “see something moving” and other writers who write this way all agree – if there’s something moving in your mind’s eye, there’s a character there.

Abarsis was a good example: I knew I wanted to do “A Man and His God” in which at the end the Slaughter Priest would die in Tempus’ arms. I got a character called Abarsis. I thought he and the Slaughter Priest would be two different people but the character wanted to be “Abarsis, the Slaughter Priest.” This was a very big, very strong character and I argued that if Abarsis was the Slaughter Priest then he would die. He said that was fine. Susan Allison of Ace called me up after she read it and confessed that the story made her cry. And Abarsis came back as patron shade of the Sacred Band: the character knew more than I what to do and how, in order to be memorable. Sometimes with good characters you must let go and let them forge ahead. This requires belief in your Muse.

VENTRELLA: You’ve collaborated with other prominent authors, at least one of whom lives with you, which makes it easier. How have these worked? (For instance, do you share writing equally? Does one author do the basic work and the other expand from that outline?)

MORRIS: With whatever writer, we talk about the story line, points of interest, what needs to be accomplished. If it’s Chris, he may come up with a title or a concept. I usually do draft or if I write with others, I’ll often write first: I like beginnings. With some writers, I send sections and they pick up the action; with others, I’ll do a draft and then they will add to it after I’ve done all I want to do, from beginning to end.

Everyone has a special genius, and working with each person is different. If the other writer starts, that’s a different process for me: I work on the story they’ve sent in Track Changes, do what I want to the entire manuscript. Then they accept or reject or we go back and forth. I worked a number of projects with a writer who was outline-driven and I could never figure out what those notations were supposed to evoke, so I’d call to discuss it. The outline made the other writer feel better. I can do a series of chapter titles and use those as an outline, but beyond that, outlines don’t help me. I often work with other writers who don’t like to outline either, or outline in the most cursory way.

VENTRELLA: Writers who are trying to make a name get hammered with lots of advice: The importance of a strong opening, admonitions about “writing what you know,” warnings to have “tension on every page” – what advice do you think is commonly given that really should be ignored?

MORRIS: All advice should be ignored. Every real writer is different. Every story has a nature, an organic way it wants to unfold. Tell a story that sweeps you up, that you want to hear, that keeps YOU on the edge of your seat. Some stories start best with dialogue, others with narrative: writing is catching the wave of creativity. The wave must be there for you to catch.

Writers learn from reading other writers whom they can admire, and writers whom they detest. Before Silistra, I bought a paperback by a famous writer and when I was done I threw it in the wastebasket, said “I can do better than that,” and did. When I read, I try to read writers who can teach me something, who are better at some things than I am. But print-through is always an issue: often when I am writing fiction I read only nonfiction, and vice versa.

The only person who should ask you to make changes in your book is some editor who has paid a lot of money for it. Even then, changes are risky: the story unfolds on the first pass the way the universe unfolded in the first moments of creation: in the way that it must.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see starting writers make?

MORRIS: Writers who have no characters and force a story bore me. Writers who are good at one thing – such as dialogue – may do that one thing too much: talking heads don’t work except very occasionally, when they can work very well. Knowing when to do something is part of the art of writing. Sometimes I act as an acquisitions editor. If you want to sell to me, you’ll tell me who, where, what, and why, and then finally how – all on the first page, hopefully in the first couple paragraphs: where I am, what it’s like, who cares about what’s happening. I want to fall through the words into a different place. But most of all, you must make me care almost immediately.

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

MORRIS: Homer, Hesiod, Tiye, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, Herakleitos, Einstein, DaVinci, Xenophon, Kikkuli, Thales, Plato, Odysseus (assuming he was Homer’s grandfather), Epaminondas, T.E. Lawrence, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Byron, Mary Shelley, Evelyn Waugh, Emil Zola, Dwight Eisenhower, Sun Tzu, Aspasia, Aristotle, Marguerite Yourcenar, Henry James, Suppiluliumas, Anksepaaten, Herodotus, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Richmond Lattimore, Solomon, the Biblical “J.” And I’d really like to have Roger Penrose as toastmaster, but he’s still alive.

Interview with Author Donna Galanti

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Donna Galanti. Donna is the author of the paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT (Echelon Press). She has a B.A. in English and a background in marketing. She is a member of International Thriller Writers, The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and Pennwriters. Her blog is here. You can connect with Donna here on Twitter and Facebook and purchase her book here!

Donna, your first novel has just been released. Tell us about it!

DONNA GALANTI: Absolutely!

In my paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT, Laura Armstrong’s friends and adoptive family members are being murdered, and despite her unique healing powers, she can do nothing to stop it. The savage killer haunts her dreams, tormenting her with the promise that she is next. Determined to find the killer, she follows her visions to the site of a crashed meteorite –- her hometown. There, she meets Ben Fieldstone. In a race to stop a mad man, they unravel a frightening secret that binds them together. But the killer’s desire to destroy Laura face-to-face leads to a showdown that puts Laura and Ben’s emotional relationship and Laura’s pure spirit to the test. With the killer closing in, Laura discovers her destiny is linked to his and she has two choices –- redeem him or kill him.

Readers who devour paranormal books with a smidge of horror and steam will enjoy A HUMAN ELEMENT, the new novel about loss, redemption, and love.

Here’s what reviewers are saying:

“A HUMAN ELEMENT is an elegant and haunting first novel. Unrelenting, devious but full of heart. Highly recommended.” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times best-selling author of ASSASSIN’S CODE and DEAD OF NIGHT

“A HUMAN ELEMENT is a haunting look at what it means to be human. It’s a suspenseful ride through life and love…and death, with a killer so evil you can’t help but be afraid. An excellent read.” –Janice Gable Bashman, author of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

VENTRELLA: How did the idea originate?

GALANTI: It came to me in a flash from nowhere 15 years ago driving to work. I wrote the entire outline on my lap as I drove (dangerously) and shelved it until 2 years ago.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

GALANTI: I do outline but when I over-outline I can’t get started. I tend to write an 8-10 page preliminary synopsis, bulleted chapter outline, and a 1-page worksheet detailing each character. I like to write “from the dark places” in the third person. A HUMAN ELEMENT has a ton of dark in it from murder and mystery with an evil paranormal thread. However, I did challenge myself to write a middle grade adventure fantasy recently in the first person and had a lot of fun.

VENTRELLA: Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

GALANTI: I definitely don’t think it’s easy or a sure thing to be a huge hit. Being a writer is constant learning and improving your craft. You may write a good book but you still need other elements like having professional editing skills, a good cover, and be marketing savvy. Before this novel came out I was writing in one way or another since I was seven. I majored in English and Journalism in college and did some news reporting for Gannett News Service. I eventually ended up in marketing communications and after several layoffs launched my own resume writing service and also became a freelance advertising copywriter. I closed up my resume business to write novels.

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made when first starting out as a writer?

GALANTI: Writing a book before I learned the craft. I became involved with other writers and took writing workshops after I finished my first book. This required going back and fixing a ton of things! I don’t regret the learning that took place afterwards as I can now write a better book from the beginning. And hopefully keep learning and writing even better books. The sequel (in progress), A HIDDEN ELEMENT, starts out fast and dark and propels you into an evil underworld where chaos, despair, redemption, and murder reign.

VENTRELLA: OK, let’s be honest here — You (like me) are with a smaller, independent publisher. Of course, we’d both like to be with Random House or some other huge publisher, where we could be easily found in book stores. Did you make an effort to obtain an agent first and go the traditional route or did you instead look to the smaller publishing houses for your first venture?

GALANTI: I did submit to agents first, yes. I spent several months doing this and waiting on feedback from manuscript requests. However, I knew my premise was a harder sell for a debut author as it crosses genres in a blend of paranormal, romance with a smidge of horror and sci-fi. I believed in the story and so did Echelon Press, a small press with a solid 10 years in the industry. Karen Syed, the president, worked with me on developmental edits before I even signed so she was invested. I’m also not focused on “getting in every brick and mortar bookstore” in America. I am focused on being seen at the online bookstores.

VENTRELLA: What do you think are the advantages of a smaller publisher?

GALANTI: Definitely personal attention. I like that. I also like that Echelon Press honored my title and delivered on the cover I was pursuing. They listened to me as an author, and I was not treated as a product. I also have much leeway with my own marketing, and as a former marketer I like having that control.

These days, it takes much more to be a successful author than merely writing a good book. What efforts have you made to publicize yourself and do you think they have been worth your time?
With a book coming out, one in editing, and one being written – I’m finding out that this is only half my author time spent. The other half is “being seen.” And it’s absolutely worth the effort. I have an active blog where I post and host guest authors. I’m also active on Twitter, Facebook with a personal and author page, and GoodReads. It takes time to build relationships in all these places and manage them while promoting others too, yet I have met many supportive peers through these avenues and built a network of readers and professionals. I am currently running a blog tour (as seen here!) which involves multiple articles written, a grand giveaway, and a GoodReads giveaway. I also coordinated a book launch (4/21 at The Doylestown Bookshop) and wrote several press releases around the locales in A HUMAN ELEMENT.

VENTRELLA: I’ve met so many people who think self-publishing is the way to go, and I have tried to dissuade them of this idea. What is your opinion?

GALANTI: I honestly think a writer should start at the top and work their way down. It takes patience and waiting. Lots of waiting. I understand some people don’t want to wait. I gave myself a timeframe to look for agents and decided, after that time, it was best to go with a small press. I don’t regret it, as it allows me the ability to sell my books at conferences and be on conference panels. These are some things self published authors may not have access to. Yes, there is still a stigma. I also could not have become an accepted active member in International Thriller Writers if I self published. That being said, I see many authors with much success being self published. If you are marketing savvy I believe you can have success with it if you deliver a good product, great cover, and know how to be seen. Being a debut author, I think there are benefits to having a respected publisher standing behind you.

Interview with author Joshua Palmatier

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Joshua Palmatier. Josh and I have been on panels at various SF conventions together, and we’ve had some great discussions about writing and fantasy. Joshua is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy — THE SKEWED THRONE, THE CRACKED THRONE, and THE VACANT THRONE — under the Joshua Palmatier name. And look for the “Well” series — WELL OF SORROWS and the just released LEAVES OF FLAME — by Benjamin Tate. Short stories are included in the anthologies CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE URBAN KIND (edited by Jennifer Brozek), BEAUTY HAS HER WAY (Jennifer Brozek), and RIER (Alma Alexander). And the two anthologies he’s co-edited are AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR and the upcoming THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY (March 2012). His web pages are and, as well as on Facebook, LiveJournal (jpsorrow), and Twitter (bentateauthor).

Josh, your Tate books take place in the same fantasy world as the Palmatier books, although not at the same time or with the same characters. Why have two different authors? When new authors are trying to get that important name recognition, doesn’t this put you at a disadvantage?

JOSHUA PALMATIER: Well, the two names were actually a strategy brought up by the marketing department at my publisher. The idea was that we’d release the new books under the Ben Tate name and make it an open secret. Hopefully, the Joshua Palmatier fans would learn of the name switch and buy the new Tate books, while the Tate name would bypass the ordering structure of the bookstores so that they’d carry the new books on the shelves and pull in new readers. It was an attempt to increase the audience for my books. The sales for the Palmatier books were OK, but not as high as hoped, so the publisher was looking for ways to draw in additional readers. At this point, I would have to say that the ploy didn’t work, although I think there were numerous factors as to why it didn’t work.

VENTRELLA: Is the voice the same in the two series?

PALMATIER: That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t protest too much when the publisher suggested the name change for the new series —- the voice of the new series is significantly different than the original. So even though it’s set in the same world, it had different characters, was set at a different time period in the history of the world, on a completely different continent, and -— like the Palmatier books, which were focused on one character, written in first person, and were essentially “urban fantasies” set on an alternate world —- the new series was much more epic in nature. There are multiple POV characters and threads that the reader follows, and the action takes place over two different continents and over a much larger time span. So the feel of the books are different than from that original series. Both are dark in nature though, as the covers of THE VACANT THRONE and WELL OF SORROWS suggest.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first “big break” in publishing? Did you have an agent first?

PALMATIER: My “big break” was sort of interesting actually. I wrote my first book (unpublished) and started sending it out to editors and agents at the same time (one editor at a time, but multiple agents). I spent the next ten years writing three additional novels, sending each out to editors and agents and getting rejections from all. But most of the rejections were good, meaning they said, “I’m not interested in this project, but the writing’s good and I’d like to see whatever you write next.” This was encouraging, and it allowed me to focus my attentions on those editors and agents who were interested. I basically kept a running list for each, in order of my preference and tweaked based on the responses I got.

So when it came time to send out THE SKEWED THRONE, I started at the top of my editor list (Sheila Gilbert at DAW) and the first seven agents on my list. I heard back from those first seven agents quickly (all rejections), so sent out the next batch of seven, all while DAW still had the book. I was also getting my PhD in mathematics at the same time, at the point where I was defending my dissertation. I got a call from one of the agents, Amy Stout, while prepping for that defense. After a lengthy discussion on the phone over representation, I signed on with her and told her that DAW currently had the book. Amy called up Sheila and started talking. Meanwhile, I continued my job search and defense.

I was away at a mathematics conference, doing interviews and such, when Amy called back to tell me that DAW wanted to buy THE SKEWED THRONE. I was thrilled! But they also wanted to talk about the sequels. So in the midst of finishing up my dissertation and job hunting, I worked up the proposals to THE CRACKED THRONE and THE VACANT THRONE and almost immediately had contracts for the entire trilogy. My first sale! I was on my way!

But keep in mind that it took me ten years and I wrote three other novels before THE SKEWED THRONE found a home. And I lost count of the number of rejections.

VENTRELLA: Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

PALMATIER: *snort* Writing a book isn’t easy. I said before that I wrote three other novels before I sold one, but that isn’t quite true. I started writing while I was in high school and kept writing all the way through college. It wasn’t until grad school that I sat back and asked myself whether I was going to do this for fun, or if I was going to try to sell something. So it was ten years and four novels total from the moment I decided to get serious. There were ten years of “fun” writing before that.

And that “fun” writing was actually my entire set of writing experience. I took a few classes here and there in college as part of my other degrees (electives and such), but for the most part, those ten years of writing were me teaching myself how to write. I wrote my first true novel five different times, each time learning more about the craft and what was good writing and how much mine sucked. It wasn’t until the 5th draft that I finally thought I’d written something that could potentially be published. (And those first few drafts were bad. I mean bad. Indescribably bad.)

I also pretty much trained myself in how to send that manuscript out to find a publisher to call home. That simply amounted to a bunch of research and time on my part, reading up on what “manuscript format” meant and what publishers wanted in a “query” or “partial.” All of that’s even easier to research now with the internet, and I strongly suggest aspiring writers take the time to do the research and make a list of publisher and agents they want to submit to when they’re ready.

But of course, you have to have that stellar book first, and that part ain’t easy at all.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the books!

PALMATIER: I was waiting for you to ask. *grin* All of my novels are dark fantasy, the Tate books more epic in nature than the Palmatier books.

I’ll start with the “Throne of Amenkor” series, which begins with a young girl, Varis, barely surviving in the slums of the city of Amenkor. She’s on her way to becoming lost, like so many other souls in the slums, when she runs across a Seeker—an assassin sent by the Mistress of the city to mete out justice—named Erick. Erick trains her to protect herself and uses her to hunt his marks in the slums. Of course, these marks lead Varis beyond the slums into the heart of the Amenkor and deep into its politics. Eventually, she’s hired to kill the Mistress herself, protected by the magic of the Skewed Throne.

The series continues beyond that, with attacks from a race called the Chorl from the sea, and eventually leads to Amenkor’s sister city of Venitte. But I don’t want to spoil anything. Everyone will just have to read the books to find out what happens.

My Tate novels are a little different, set on a different continent and sort of combining the settling of a newly discovered continent with fantasy elements. Colin’s family has fled the coming war in their homeland to the new continent across the ocean, landing in one of the few settlements on the new coast. But the politics of the old world have followed them to the new. In order to escape, Colin’s father accepts responsibility for a wagon train heading into the unexplored plains to form a new settlement inland. They head out . . . only to discover entire new races of people, a beautiful new world, and unexpected and magical dangers. Attacked by one such race, the wagon train is driven into a dangerous and dark forest, where Colin’s life is changed forever when he is forced to drink for the Well of Sorrows in order to survive. But the waters of the Well transform him into something more than human. Struggling to maintain his grasp on humanity, he attempts to use his newfound powers to end the war between the three clashing races —- the humans from his homeland, the dwarren, and the Alvritshai.

VENTRELLA: You are the editor of a new anthology about fae coming out soon. How did that come about?

PALMATIER: Ah, the role as editor. That actually came about at a bar. You see, a bunch of my fellow friends and authors had gotten together for a signing and afterwards we, of course, hit the bar for a few drinks. While chatting, someone brought up the idea of doing an anthology centered around a bar, and thus AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR was born. I wrote up a proposal for that and sent it out. DAW liked the idea and thus my editing career (with Patricia Bray) was born. After the bar anthology, Patricia and I proposed a few other ideas and DAW bought THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY.

VENTRELLA: As someone who has edited a short story collection and is working on a second, I find that the hardest thing to do is reject stories, especially from friends. How have you handled this?

PALMATIER: Well, for the first anthology, AFTER HOURS, Patricia and I only invited around 17 authors to contribute. A few had to drop out because of their own schedules, so we ended up not needing to reject anyone for that anthology. However, for MODERN FAE we invited over 30 people to contribute stories, so of course we had to pick and choose from the selection there. Pretty much all of those invited were friends, of course, but we were up front with everyone and in the end we simply handled everything professionally. Both Patricia and I were able to separate the friendships from the editorial job, so while rejecting some of the friends (some of them friends for decades) was hard, we just . . . did it. Like ripping that band-aid off all in one go. Everyone knew that getting rejected was a possibility, and I think everyone understood why certain stories didn’t make the cut.

VENTRELLA: When editing an anthology, do you ever do any rewriting of the stories submitted yourself?

PALMATIER: All of the stories in the anthology were edited, of course. Neither Patricia nor I do what I would call “rewriting” though. Each of us reads the story and we compare notes on what we thought and how we think the story could be improved. One of us then sends out our notes about suggested revisions (we divide the authors up into two teams —- Team Patricia and Team Joshua). It’s up to the authors to revise the story, with the idea that at this stage there’s still a chance that the story will be cut if the revisions aren’t satisfactory. But all of our authors have reacted professionally to our suggestions, so we’ve never had any trouble. I think everyone realizes that we all want the best stories possible in the anthology and we’re all working toward that one goal. I think both anthologies are spectacular.

VENTRELLA: What resources do you use in creating your fantasy worlds?

PALMATIER: I use everything when creating my fantasy worlds. *grin* By this, I mean that I use bits and pieces of many different cultures all tweaked to fit the circumstances of the world where these characters and these stories are being told.

For example, in the “Well” series, I have three main cultures clashing on the plains. The human culture has aspects from the settlers who were setting out into the American West, but it’s obvious that they aren’t those settlers. For their homeland, I meshed numerous European cultures. The dwarren are reminiscent of some of the American Indian cultures, but various additions of my own, enough that I wouldn’t say they’re based on any one particular culture. What I’m trying to capture is a flavor, but I want that flavor to be unique —- familiar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to intrigue the reader.

Of course, you need to be familiar with numerous cultures in order to do this well. I wouldn’t say that I have any particular resources for this. I simply read and absorb as much about other cultures as I can.

VENTRELLA: With so many fantasy novels out these days, what have you done to make your series stand out from the rest? What’s different about them?

PALMATIER: Hmm . . . well, I’d like to think the writing. But, I also try to make the characters as interesting as possible and play around with the magic.

I think for a fantasy, you really need to pay attention to the magic and think about what makes your magic different from everyone other fantasy novel out there. In the “Throne” series, I have two main magical components that I focus on — the White Fire and the Skewed Throne. These two magics are obvious: the White Fire is a wall of white flame that passes through the city for a second time during Varis’ lifetime (it passed through once before 1000+ years ago). No one knows what this Fire is, but it touches and affects everyone in various ways. For Varis, a piece of the Fire appears to settle inside of her and she eventually learns how to use it. The Skewed Throne is designed to store all of the personalities of those who have touched it inside, so that the ruler has the ability to access this information and knowledge and, in theory, become a better ruler. The problem is that in Varis’ time, there are so many personalities stored inside the throne that it has essentially gone insane. For the “Well” series, I have the water inside the Well of Sorrows as the main magical component. This water gives the person who drinks it limited powers over time, but it also taints the drinker and eventually alters them into . . . something else.

These are the key elements that I think make my fantasy different than other fantasy novels out there. But again, that isn’t enough on its own. I think my books are darker and more realistic than other fantasies on the shelf at the moment, and I think that if you don’t have interesting, relatable characters, then all the cool magic in the world isn’t going to save you.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what techniques do you use?

PALMATIER: Wow, that couldn’t have been a better segue if I’d planned it. So, yeah, the characters are incredibly important. People won’t keep reading if they don’t care about the characters, no matter how interesting the magic or the plot. Everyone wants someone to root for. I don’t think there are too many tricks to creating believable characters though. The only real technique is to get inside of that character’s head and to seriously ask exactly what it is that the character would do in such a situation. It isn’t easy, and it takes practice to get yourself into that headspace (because it’s a slightly different headspace for each character), but you literally need to “become” that character for those scenes. You have to put yourself in that person’s world and feel them. At least, that’s how I do it. What would they think, what would they say, what would they do in this situation? Those are the key questions you have to ask in every scene.

VENTRELLA: What is your background? How did you decide to become a writer?

PALMATIER: Well, I decided to become a writer in the 8th grade, when an English teacher assigned us a “Twilight Zone” story and I wrote a rip-off of the Atlantis story with spaceships. But the teacher’s comment was, “This is good, you should write more.” I think that’s the first time it seriously crossed my mind that PEOPLE WROTE THE BOOKS I WAS READING! And that person could be me! It was a stunning revelation. I immediately began writing, doing short stories for Andre Norton’s MAGIC IN ITHKAR series (even though I never sent anything in) and eventually sitting down to write a typical “me and all my friends get transported to a fantasy world!” kind of story. It sucked of course, and I never finished it. But it was the first effort at writing something longer, and it taught me that writing wasn’t easy. I started my first SERIOUS effort at a novel shortly after that, and that one I finished (even though it sucked).

I never really had a “background” in writing. My degrees are in mathematics (something has to pay the bills) and I never really took any particular writing classes for the sole purpose of “learning” to write. I took a few creative writing classes in college, mostly for the elective credit. Everything else I taught myself.

VENTRELLA: You’re a math professor, right? Don’t those kinds of nerds usually end up writing hard science fiction?

PALMATIER: Ha! Yeah, science fiction. I think there are two reasons that I don’t write science fiction. The first is that, as a reader, I was never really drawn to science fiction. Everything I read when I was younger leaned more toward fantasy. I “discovered” fantasy and science fiction by accidentally checking out an Andre Norton book from the library. After that I was hooked. I read everything of Andre Norton’s I could get my hands on . . . but even then I gravitated toward her fantasy, not her SF. So I was a fantasy reader early on. It only made sense that I’d want to write fantasy on my own.

The other reason I write fantasy and not SF, I think, is because I needed something totally different from the mathematics to focus on while in grad school. The writing was, essentially, my “break” from all of the hardcore equations. In fact, it was such a break that Varis, my main character in the “Throne” books, hated mathematics. So when I got tired of the math, I’d switch gears and focus on the writing and the fantasy; and when the writing slowed down, I turned back to the fantasy. I think they complemented each other rather well.

In fact, I think the structure that’s the basis of mathematics helped me write better fantasy novels—keeping the plot in line and not scattered, keeping the magic realistic, with rules of its own, etc. And the fantasy helped the mathematics as well, since you need to be creative and think “out of the box” in order to come up with new ways to solve previously unsolved problems (which is what you do for your dissertation in math—solve something no one has solved before).

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made in your career?

PALMATIER: I think the biggest mistake I made was writing the sequel to my first novel when it hasn’t sold yet. You see, I wrote that first novel and started sending it out to agents and editors. But it was the first book in a trilogy (of course), and I was so confident that it would sell that while it was out doing the rounds I worked on the sequel and got it finished. But of course, that first novel never sold. So I wasted a year of writing working on the sequel, when I should have been writing a different book completely in case that first book didn’t sell. Looking back on it, it’s obvious, but at the time I had no clue. I may have gotten published earlier if I hadn’t lost all of that time.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the biggest mistakes starting authors make in their writing?

PALMATIER: Well, I still see people making that same mistake I made: writing that sequel when the first book hasn’t sold yet. You should work on something else, because then you have another novel to shop around, and if that first book sell you can still write the sequel. But the biggest mistake I see aspiring writers making is that they don’t take the time to do the research you need to do before you start sending manuscripts out there. Every writer needs to sit down and research the publishers and editors and get a good idea of who they’d like to publish their work. Make a list, with their top choice down. Do the same for agents, paying particular attention to make certain the publisher and agents are legitimate. Do a second list for top agent down. Research each one to see what they want from the writer (some want just a query letter, some want a partial, some will take the full manuscript, etc). Make certain the manuscript is in the proper format. Once all of this research is done, then send out the manuscript. All of this research won’t take up much time (in comparison to the time it took to write the manuscript in the first place) and it makes your submission professional. Publishers want good books first and foremost . . . but they’re also looking to work with someone who approaches them in a professional manner.

VENTRELLA: What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you first began writing?

PALMATIER: I think I was rather lucky in that I did get good advice pretty much right at the start, and that advice was, “Have patience.” You won’t get a contract immediately. You’re going to get rejections, and you have to realize that the rejections aren’t personal. So you have to accept the rejections (with perhaps some wine or chocolate and a few good writer friends for support) and persevere. Keep sending that manuscript out, submitting down your list, and keep writing that next project. Because by the time you get through your list, if you keep writing, you’ll have another novel ready to send out. By then you’ll have a revised list based on the rejections you’ve gotten, and that revised list gives you a better chance of success.

Joshua and I on a panel together at the 2012 Arisia convention

The Query Letter

I’m at that stage where I’m sending out query letters to agents for my next novel. While the publishing industry changes daily, the advantages of having an agent to sell your book has not disappeared.

Query letters are tremendously important, but too many authors get hung up on them — as if agents will laugh in your face if your query letter isn’t absolutely perfect.

You’d better use proper grammar and have no misspelled words, but if an agent thinks your book sounds interesting — and if it’s the kind of book they handle — then the other stuff doesn’t matter too much.

The key is to get them interested and make them want to read it. They want to read your letter and think “Hey, that could sell if done well.”

Remember: This is a business letter, not a piece of fiction. Act professional. Treat it like you would a cover letter for your resume.

(an example of a bad query letter)

There’s a hilarious blog called “Slush Pile Hell” in which an anonymous agent posts some of the terrible queries received. It amazes me that people think they sound professional when they oversell their work as the greatest thing ever written or ask questions that are the equivalent of raising your hand and admitting you know nothing about the business. Keep in mind that you are hoping to establish a business relationship with the agent. No matter how good your novel, no one will want to represent you if you present a “difficult” image.

You’re just wasting time if you don’t know who is receiving your letter. Never send a “Dear Agent” letter. Find out which agents are right for you. Make sure they like the kind of book you’ve written. Agents who represent cook books won’t be interested in your science fiction novel. A textbook agent couldn’t care less about your children’s story. You might as well just toss your letter into the trash before you even mail it and save the postage, since the result will be the same.

Make sure you read their guidelines. Do they want an email instead of a letter? Do they want to read the first ten pages? Do they want it in the body of the email or as an attachment? Seriously, if you can’t follow simple directions, how difficult of a client will you be?

The world of publishing is smaller than you think. Agents talk to each other. If you make a fool of yourself with one, it probably won’t be long until another knows about it. There’s plenty of information out there for you to learn how to do it right, so you have no excuse.

Finally, do not take rejection harshly. That’s part of the business. Every author has been rejected before. Sometimes the work just isn’t what the agent wants, and sometimes the agent likes the work but doesn’t know how to sell it. It doesn’t mean your novel is bad. (There are plenty of great novels that were rejected many times — for that matter, there are plenty of bad novels that make the best seller lists…)

In a future post I’ll share my standard query letter (which is adjusted and changed based on who is to receive it) and will discuss the format. And I’ll be sure to let you know if I have any success with it!

Interview with Author and Publisher Karen Syed

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Karen Syed, bookseller, author, publisher, and all around awesome gal. There are so many things floating around about Karen, but the only truth is that she is really cool. She recently (four days before the date of her doing this interview) moved to Orlando. Having been raised in Florida (and swearing she would never move back), she spent ten years in Texas, two years in Tennessee, and then five years in Maryland, she headed back to the sunshine state with her totally awesome husband. When asked why she decided to move back to Florida, she will simply tell you it is to be closer to Mickey, Pooh, and Tinkerbell. Her favorite food is dill pickles (especially Kosher deli dills) and fried chicken, which her husband won’t let her eat very often since she got the Pacemaker/defibrillator. Heart failure and an enlarged heart sucks. (Disclaimer: Karen might have written this intro herself … but who really knows…)

You come from an interesting background in that you expanded your bookstore into a publishing company. This sounds like a fascinating story; please share it with us!

KAREN SYED: I knew at a very early age that I would be a writer. I would write on anything. I also knew I loved books. I have been reading (well) since I was four. I read everything from shampoo bottles and air freshener cans to books. So when I met my (now husband of 15 years) and he offered to buy me a bookstore, I knew I had hit the motherload of love … books and a great man. Boy howdy!

At the end of my first year as a bookseller, I was nominated for the Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year. I still have no idea who nominated me, but some store in Indiana won. Oh well. So after about four years in the store, a friend and I started Echelon Press. Within eighteen months, I knew I wanted to do the publishing full time. So, I sold the store and forged ahead. During my bookstore days I managed to get a couple books published very badly.

I was so desperate to be a published author that I signed my rights away to my work for seventy years past my natural life … not once, but twice — two different companies. Oy!

So the reason for Echelon Press was to give new writers a place to break into the business. Ten years later, we’ve done okay.

VENTRELLA: How does your fiction writing fit in?

SYED: I’ve been writing for so long I don’t even know when it actually started. It wasn’t until 1987 that I considered writing as a career. My grandmother and mother were great at encouraging me and my Gramma event bought me a brand new Brother electric typewriter. It was such a vote of confidence, I knew I couldn’t let her down.

I wrote a lot for several years and even after I had the store. But once the publishing house started to take off, I had to make the tough choice; my own writing or discovering potential bestsellers. Finding awesome writers to publish is way cooler than revising my own work. But I do miss the writing. So much in fact that I did NaNoWriMo in 2010 and write a Steampunk novel that I have yet to revise. But I loved it, and I am a winner.

VENTRELLA: The future of publishing certainly is heading in the direction of e-books; however, there is still a stigma attached to books that are either not available in a hard copy or only available as a POD. Do you see that changing in the future?

SYED: Oooh, I just wanna smack people who feel the need to feed the distinction. A book is a book is a book. I say this in almost every interview I have done for the last ten years. There doesn’t need to be one or the other. I love my Kindle, but I also love my paperbacks. I just moved and cursed all twenty or so boxes of books I had to lug on and off the moving truck.

The sooner people realize it is a personal choice, the happier we will all be. I don’t see print becoming obsolete until we run out of trees, which means that it is perfectly safe for people to stop beating a dead horse and give eBooks the credit they have earned.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a (relatively) easy path for printing these days in that just about anyone can claim to be a “publisher” by getting software for distributing e-books and using someone else to do some PODs. Is this a good or a bad thing?

SYED: I admit to being torn on this issue. Educating people on the value of POD printing has been a tough road, but the growth of the self-publishing industry has helped with that. Of course, with one solution comes another problem. Sadly, anyone can become a publisher or an author, but not many actually become “good” publishers or authors. There is a lot of laziness in the self-publishing industry. Ugly covers, lack of effective editing, and low quality materials. This does not have to be the case. It all boils down to pride in product.

This is kinda like “Made in the USA” merchandise. A lot of times we buy stuff from other countries because the quality is better. Same thing with books. Most of us (readers) will try anything, but if you screw us once, we will move on. I read very few NYT best-selling authors because their work simply isn’t as good as most of the midlist authors I like. Why? Because the big authors know their books will sell whether they are good or not. Okay, this is not the case with all and that was a very general statement, but I think everyone knows what I mean.

Just because someone says he is a publisher doesn’t mean he is any good at it. Good publishing is not easy and if anyone says it is, he is lying like an old Oriental rug.

VENTRELLA: How can readers and writers know they are dealing with a publisher that is legitimate — where there is a standard for acceptance and books are edited before they are published?

SYED: Do your homework. Don’t assume that because they have a website they are good at what they do. As you said, anyone can say it. Talk to authors who have been with them, current and previous. If you only get awesome answers and high praise, dig a little deeper. We all have some issues and if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

I’ll be honest; there are people out there who will tell you I am a horrible publisher. They lie! No, honestly, there are a few cases where authors previously with Echelon have legitimate gripes, but pay careful attention to what is fact and what are sour grapes. I’d like to think that our successes far exceed our failures and we can’t be everything to everyone. But I will probably die trying.

Make sure that when you are considering a publisher that they share your vision. If you are not on the same page, neither the author, nor the publisher will be happy.

VENTRELLA: We met at a writer’s conference earlier this year. Have you found these to be a successful way for authors to find publishers?

SYED: Conferences have been outstanding for Echelon. I have literally found 50% of our authors at conferences, conventions, festivals, and even one at a craft sale. I need to connect with people and the only way to do that is to be out in the industry. I am a people person and I need that interaction. I also need to see a person’s face when they tell me what they are willing to do. I have learned (the hard way) who the liars are, and they are out there.

VENTRELLA: I still remember your expression when I mentioned I had written a vampire book; admittedly, it improved when you discovered the plot was not just another typical copycat. So here’s my question: What types of stories are you tired of receiving?

SYED: Pretty much vampire stuff. Heehee! Just kidding … sorta. I am truly sick to death of terrorist stories. I am of the mind that if the media and the entertainment industry continues to glamorize the horrific nature of terrorism, it will only continue to feed the fear and misunderstanding. I love thrillers as much as the next guy/gal, but there needs to be a limit and I simply don’t want to be the one to publish it. Reality sucks, why keep that fire burning so brightly.

VENTRELLA: How much of a story do you need to read before you can tell you’re going to reject it?

SYED: Totally depends on the story. I have read as few as two pages and knew I would rather gouge my eyes out than read any more, but I have also made it all the way to the end of some books and still couldn’t justify publishing it. It’s sad really when I find a book that I love, but I know I can’t make it sell. For example. I recently experienced the opposite. I got a submission (MARCEL’S GIFT) from an author named Marie Colligan. Her book is women’s fiction and involves a marriage, a tryst, a priest, the Pope, and a lot of love, understanding, and acceptance. I was shocked at the concept, but intrigued enough to keep reading. I kept telling my husband I didn’t have any idea how I could sell this book, but by the time I got to the end, I was so swept away, I am confident people will either love this book or hate it, but I know it will sell.

VENTRELLA: Have you rejected a book because you didn’t think you could work with an author, or thought the author wouldn’t promote their own material sufficiently? (Looking for anecdotes here but not names!)

SYED: Hey, I’ll give you names. This was not an immediate rejection, but … I contracted an author named Martin Bartloff. He wrote a book called TORN FROM NORMAL. It is a YA story that is very dark and very emotional. It deals with teen suicide. I was intrigued with the idea, but it was the recommendation of one of my editors that led me to contract it. We got to work and I soon discovered that Martin’s personality was far too powerful for me to tolerate in a working relationship. I know that sounds horrible, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t doubt his enthusiasm, or his desire to sell; it was specifically our personalities. I reverted his rights and suggested he self-publish. Martin needed to be in the driver’s seat. He did what I suggested.

Now, I admit that I have been a bit of a mentor to him through it all, but it was on his terms and I knew I could walk away any time. Martin is doing very well with his book and we have become very good friends. I enjoy him as a person so much more than I did as an author — don’t get me wrong, he is a great author — I just knew that if I had not made that decision, a very hard one, things would have ended very badly. As it were, things went better than either of us could have considered.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of advice you could give a starting author that isn’t obvious and hasn’t been stated many times before?

SYED: Don’t be stupid and don’t be conceited. You are not all that and a bag of chips. We are all just people and we all need help and guidance in all that we do. We are not born brilliant; it’s very hard work. In order to find great success, you must be willing to admit when you are wrong. Know when to ask for help. More than anything, do not assume you know more than everyone else just because you wrote the book. I don’t care what anyone says, writing the book is the easy part. I can say that I’ve done it all. I know.

If you think you can be a successful author just by writing book after book, think again. You can write a hundred books, but if you don’t get anyone to read them, you are just a writer, not an author. Whether you go with a traditional publisher or self-publish, you better be willing to learn how to market and sell or you better be satisfied with selling a few dozen books to your family.

VENTRELLA: We discussed some of your success stories concerning authors who submitted short stories for download. I’ve had short stories published in anthologies, but have never gone to the “download just the story” route. Do you think that is the way of the future, given that anthology sales keep dropping?

SYED: I am not a fan of anthologies. I sincerely hope that more writers will learn the value of electronically publishing short stories. eBooks could seriously revive the short story industry.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?

SYED: Think about it. A writer who has spent years writing shorts, but never finding the “right” anthology to accept them. How sad is that? Short stories are a great way to develop your writing skills and to increase you readership. There is no downside to eBook shorts.

VENTRELLA: How important are agents for publishers like yourself?

SYED: Disclaimer: I have met quite a few agents that I personally liked. However, I have only found one agent that has been worth anything with regard to working with me. More times than not, agents turn out to be more trouble for me than good. Being a smaller (or boutique) publisher, we don’t have the perks to offer than a NY house does. We often don’t pay as much as a larger house (for obvious reasons) so why would an author want to give 15% to an agent when there is little to nothing an agent can do to help them with me?

The few times I have tried to work with agents, it has meant me giving up every bit of legal protection for my company so the author could have every little thing they wanted, with no compromise.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about your books. You originally started out writing primarily romance. Tell us about those!

SYED: They are brilliant. No, really. Okay, they are damn good. I have a tendency to write what I want and that made it impossible for me to find a traditional publisher. I wrote between the cracks as a very nice editor at Mills & Boon told me one Christmas Eve as she was rejecting me. Nice, huh? I worked in daycare for fifteen years so almost all my books have some strong young characters to compliment the lead couples.

I also tend to write flawed characters. DARK SHINES MY LOVE has a blind hero. LOST AND FOUND has an orphaned teen with an emotionally devastated uncle as her guardian. THE WINGS OF LOVE deals with a man’s issues with his family and his belief in himself and things in general.

I have always been a fixer, so I write people who I can fix. Romance is about happily ever after and redemption. I do both pretty well. If I do say so myself.

I am currently toying with a mystery and a Steampunk novel. I met an author named Nick Valentino at a conference in San Diego and he introduced me to the Steampunk genre. His novel, THOMAS RILEY, was our first Steampunk novel and has been one of our most successful to date. It totally rocks. I-was-blown-away! Have become a wee bit obsessed with it — both reading and writing it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written under a pseudonym. Why did you decide to do that?

SYED: Well, in the beginning I felt like I needed to keep my writing separate from the bookstore/bookseller. How goofy was I? (Rhetorical) It was nearly impossible to explain my resonating to people and now that I just wanna be me, it is a huge pain in the butt trying to switch things back over. If you decide to write under a pseudonym, please know that it is NOT as easy as Nora Roberts makes it look.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your new Steampunk books.

SYED: Dude, Steampunk is just the coolest thing ever, almost as cool as faeries. I knew after meeting Nick that I was hooked. So when NaNoWriMo came up last year, it was my chance to do a couple things. I spent a solid month writing, and it was bliss. I also got to delve into this totally awesome and explosive genre. My series (I never come up with book ideas, I always come up with series ideas) is called Petticoat Junction and is about four girls from very different lifestyles who join together to make a very formidable band of vigilantes. Each one has a special trait and together they are incredible. Toss in the automatons, alchemy, and big flying things, and it is bliss. Isn’t that a cool word? Bliss .. ahh.

VENTRELLA: Who do you enjoy reading?

SYED: Oy, good thing you are okay with long answers. I have three favorites, oh hey, stories.

My favorite is Caroline Bourne who writes the most incredible historical romances (the best being RIVERBOAT SEDUCTION). Many years ago, I belonged to the Prodigy Romance Writers Group and I ran across a very nice lady named Carol. She became a friend and a mentor of sorts. She was incredibly supportive of me and my writing. After a bit of time, I found out she was actually Caroline Bourne (I had been reading her books for some years and she was already my favorite.) It was like fate had brought her into my life and we have been friends since. We did lose touch for a while, but thanks to Facebook, she found me and I am so freaking pleased to say that within the next couple months we will begin a new journey together. Echelon will be reissuing her previously published romances, as well as new stories (Talon’s Heart) from her. This is as cool as when Robert Goldsborough (who wrote several Nero Wolfe books after the passing of Rex Stout) called me and said he wanted to submit his mystery to Echelon. We published THREE STRIKES YOU’RE DEAD which turned out to be the first in his original Snap Malek mystery series. We have published five in the series so far, along with a couple shorts.

I also adore Jill Barnett. Her paranormal romance, BEWITCHING, was a light in the darkness for me when my first marriage was falling apart. I have never read a book by her that I did not love. And she is a wonderfully nice lady.

Julia Spencer Fleming opened a new genre for me with her IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER (A Claire Fergguson Novel). Her writing is some of the best I have ever read and her characters are just so real, you really feel like you know them.

I mentioned thrillers up a bit and once of my favorite thriller writers is James Rollins. I discovered his Sigma books a few years back and wow! I have been going back to his earlier books and love them just as much. I highly recommend THE DEVIL COLONY, his latest. Mesmerizing.

And this is not the end of the list, but I cannot ignore James Lee Burke. Have been rading his Dave Robicheaux series for years and it is one of the best.

I did recently read my first books from Jacquelyn Winspear and Seanan McGuire and they may just get added to my favorite list.

Interview with author Peter Orullian

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Peter Orullian. In 2006, Peter sold his first short story to a Denise Little anthology, and has since sold numerous stories to both Denise and Marty Greenberg, as well as Orson Scott Card’s “Intergalactic Medicine Show.” Then, in early 2009, Tor purchased the first three books in an epic fantasy series Peter is writing. His web page is here.

How did you get your first “big break” in publishing? Did you have an agent first?

PETER ORULLIAN: I think my story here is pretty traditional, and maybe a tad boring. I did get an agent first, and he then sold my fantasy series, The Vault of Heaven, to Tor. The funny thing is that in today’s publishing world, the path to publication is happening in so many ways. But my “big break” was that I landed a new agent—-I’d had one prior-—who took a deep interest in my work and almost immediately sold my books. There’s much to be said for having someone who really gets behind you.

VENTRELLA: Aspiring authors often seem to think that writing a book is easy and your first one is sure to be a huge hit. What writing experience did you have prior to publication?

ORULLIAN: Well, I’d sold a dozen or so short stories. But more than this, I’d spent several years working on my craft and understanding the business side of writing and publishing by attending workshops and following the industry. That isn’t to say that I’ve got it all figured out, but if a writer is serious, he needs to commit these kinds of things.

On instant success, I get how aspiring writers start to think this way. They’re close to their own work, and they yearn to be writing full time, doing something they love. And unfortunately, the success stories of writers who have this happen to them are oft repeated in writing circles. The thing a writer needs to do is keep writing, put his heart into each book, and then move on to the next one. With that approach, things will generally continue to get better on all fronts.

VENTRELLA: What resources did you use in creating your fantasy world?

ORULLIAN: Lots of imagination. That sounds cavalier, but it’s kinda true. I’m sure that all my years of reading, and my college days, and all my wide interests have found their way into the work. And often you’ll start down a path, and realize you need to know a bit more about a particular thing, and so you’ll do some research. But I like to extol the value of invention. Plus, therein lies the fun!

VENTRELLA: What distinguishes your fantasy world and story from all the others?

ORULLIAN: At the end of the day, stories are about the characters. And I’ve got a unique bunch. Oh, there are things like magic systems, one based on music that is pretty unique —- I’m a musician, you should know. Then, of course, the cosmology is my own, and like that. But I tend to believe that we mostly read for characters, and I’ve put mine through the grinder, as they say. They’re forced to make very hard choices, and to try to reconcile doing the right thing for the wrong reason and vice versa. Those moments of intense personal conflict, I like to think, are one of the hallmarks of my series.

VENTRELLA: THE UNREMEMBERED is the first in a new series. Have you planned them all out in advance or are you taking them one at a time?

ORULLIAN: I’ve got the first three pretty well defined. And I know the ending with a great deal of clarity. Then, the space between the end of book three and the end of the series, I have in broad strokes. So, there’s still some planning to do late in the series.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plot for THE UNREMEMBERED.

ORULLIAN: Oh, man. I’m not good at summarizing my own work. And mostly, I don’t think it can be done well in short bits of text for any book. Suffice to say that nations and realms are on the brink of war; social upheaval is putting ideologies at odds; ancient threats and enemies are stirring; and there are some who see the coming storm who are working desperately to avoid it.

See, that’s not real awesome when you boil it down. But I’ve had readers who like George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss and others email me and tell me liken my work in many respects to these epic fantasists. So, that’s both humbling, and perhaps an indication of the type of books I’m writing.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in? What is your writing style?

ORULLIAN: I’m somewhere in between. I have a rough outline, that I deviate from quite a bit. But having the outline is a nice set of guideposts to get me moving. And I do a great deal of story thinking in my outline phase, which I find helpful when I sit to write. That said, a lot of discovery takes place in the writing itself.

VENTRELLA: When creating believable characters, what techniques do you use?

ORULLIAN: Think first: What matters most to my character? Then, give them conflict and real motivation.

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made in your career?

ORULLIAN: I stuck with my first agent for longer than I should have, since he didn’t seem to have an active interest in my career.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about the book trailer. Did you produce this or hire someone to do so, or did your publisher take care of it?

ORULLIAN: I produced it with the help of some friends. I’m lucky to have folks around me with crazy amounts of talent. So, between the set of us, we’ve done some pretty cool things, I think.

VENTRELLA: Do you feel that book trailers help sales at all?

ORULLIAN: Good question. I’m not sure. I don’t have any analytics on my own stuff, so I can’t speak with any kind of authority on it. Mostly, these kinds of things are there to help create awareness of your work. So, doing at least some of these kinds of things seems right. You simply have to take a balanced approach—don’t over-index on marketing stuff. The best sales tool for your work is the work itself.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also placed a map and other information about your world on your web page. Have you found this to help sales at all or is it more for those who have already read your book and want more information?

ORULLIAN: I believe it’s both. Hopefully, readers who haven’t read my work yet might find this information and consider getting the book. But it’s also there to provide some depth for those who have already read it. Whether it helps sales or not really wasn’t my motivation though. I’m a bit of a geek for this kind of stuff, as I love finding it on the websites of authors I read. So, I went ahead and did some of it from a reader’s point of view.

VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be easier to write in any way?

ORULLIAN: Well, they take less time. But if you’re asking from a craft standpoint, no. It’s a bit of a different form, for sure. But each has its own unique considerations. I enjoy writing short fiction, as well as novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise authors to write short stories to help promote their other work?

ORULLIAN: No, I don’t advise it, as such. The main reason I do it is because I have this idea that some of the stories are too much like a data-dump, were I to drop it into one of the novels. But I like the backstory, and think others might appreciate some of the depth. So, I write the short stories for those who want to have a deeper look into my world. They’re not necessary by any means, but readers who read both the short and long stuff will have a some of those “aha” moments when they’re reading.

VENTRELLA: Many authors are now making short stories set in their world available for free online. Do you think this is a good way to grab new readers? Has it worked for you?

ORULLIAN: Again, I have to say I’m not sure if it’s a good way to grab readers or if it has worked for me. I have no way to track such a thing. For my part, I don’t do it so much as a marketing tactic, as much as I do it because I like the notion of transmedia, where using the strengths of various artistic media to tell a broader story is the goal. What that means is that you can read my book and not read my short fiction (or watch my webisodes, or explore my online map, or spend time looking through the art, etc), and you’d be just fine. But if you read and explore some of these other things, there’s a kind of larger “story experience” available to you. I really dig that possibility. That’s why you see me doing these kinds of things. I love the resonance and enlarging opportunities transmedia affords me as a storyteller. Oh, gosh, I could go on and on . . .

VENTRELLA: How do you prefer to make your short stories available – anthologies, magazines, download? What is better, in your opinion?

ORULLIAN: There’s no science to this yet, in my opinion.

VENTRELLA: Couldn’t help but notice that you’re a musician (as am I). I used music to help explain the magic in my world – has music played a part in your fiction as well?

ORULLIAN: Absolutely! As I mentioned, there’s a music magic system. And it factors heavily in several aspects of my series. Plus, I’m writing a concept album as part of the transmedia approach I mentioned above. It won’t be a retelling of the novel. It’ll be additive story, going into the early life of one of the characters, a old war, and some explanation of what I call “The Song of Suffering,” which is a song of power in my world.

On another level, I think it helps me approach a sense of lyricism in my writing. So, yeah, this is a great big question that we simply don’t have enough space to go into here . . .

VENTRELLA: Why do so many authors also tend to be musicians?

ORULLIAN: I’m not sure that’s true. Thinking now of all the writers I know, most aren’t. But yes, of course, some are, too. Rather, I’d say, “Why do so many authors also tend to engage in other artist pursuits?” Because I know writers who are painters, poets, photographers, etc. I think writers are creative types, and most creatives have more than one creative outlet, or so I’ve noticed.

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author Peter David

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’ve been a fan of award-winning author Peter David for quite some time now, beginning with his Star Trek novels and progressing through his Knight Life and Sir Apropros series, so I’m quite pleased to be welcoming him to my blog today!

Besides novels, Peter has written comic books (Incredible Hulk, Aquaman, Supergirl), television shows (Babylon 5, Space Cases, Ben 10), short stories, blogs, and more. Check out his web page and his wikipedia page and prepare to be overwhelmed.

Peter, what was your first big break into the business?

PETER DAVID: Well, I suppose my first really big break was landing a job in the sales department of Playboy Paperbacks, a now defunct but once very literary publishing company that published such authors as Anne Tyler and Morgan Llywelyn. It was through Playboy Paperbacks that I met a woman named Sharon Jarvis—an editor at the time—who eventually became my first lit agent and wound up, in turn, selling my first novel, KNIGHT LIFE. And things just kind of snowballed from there.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written many comic books – do you find the limitations inherent in the graphic novels to be a major problem?

DAVID: Not really, no. I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century; if I was still being frustrated by limitations, then I wouldn’t have learned very much in the intervening years. Plus there are advantages, such as that the artists can convey things visually that normally you’d need a ton of prose to put across. So you can really concentrate on dialogue and character development. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the axioms of fiction, and what better way to show than through the medium of graphic novels?

VENTRELLA: For your media tie-in novels, do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

DAVID: If you mean novelizations of movies and such, the book publishers approach me about working off the screenplays to produce novels of them. On the other hand, when I did the original novels based on the video game “Fable,” the guys at Microsoft asked me to pitch a plot to them for the second one (as opposed to the first one where they gave me a basic outline). And the New Frontier novels I pretty much just go off and do whatever I want. So there’s a variety.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

DAVID: There are inherent limitations, sure. You’re aware that you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox with someone else’s toys, and like any good guest, you have to be sure not to damage them and return them intact when you’re finished. But you learn to work within and sometimes around those limitations.

VENTRELLA: Which Star Trek character do you most enjoy writing? (I recall some hilarious scenes with Worf, especially concerning the size of his medals…)

DAVID: Well, obviously my favorite is Mackenzie Calhoun. He’s my guy, my captain. So I’m going to have the deepest affection for him. Of the Next Gen crew, I’d say Worf, yeah, although I do particularly enjoy writing Riker and Troi as a couple.

VENTRELLA: You were also given the unusual freedom to create your own Star Trek ship and crew with the New Frontier series. How did this come about?

DAVID: That was then-editor John Ordover convincing Paramount that doing a book series that wasn’t directly rooted in a TV series was a good idea. Once he got Paramount to sign off on the basic concept of the New Frontier world, he came to me and asked me to flesh out the mission and develop the characters. Shelby, Selar, and Lefler were always in the mix because he wanted to have a few characters from the TV series in whom readers had a vested interest, but I had total freedom to create the rest of the crew. I suppose the freedom stemmed from Paramount being convinced that the series would tank and so they weren’t feeling particularly controlling about what I came up with.

VENTRELLA: I enjoyed your Babylon 5 trilogy, as it provided much background for Vir and the Centari world. How much freedom were you given to develop these things?

DAVID: Joe had very definite ideas as to how events should unfold. I worked off a relatively detailed outline, and although I had freedom to tell the story and develop the characters in my own way, I had years worth of Joe’s characterization and world building to base it upon.

VENTRELLA: Was there ever a problem with continuity with the established Babylon 5 world, where you were told to make changes or include something specific?

DAVID: Troubles? No. I know when I turned in the manuscripts, there were points where Joe said, “No, change this” or “Fix that.” And it’s his world and he’s the final word on it, so that’s pretty much that. On the other hand, there was stuff in there that I put in that my editor was sure would get flagged. For instance, when I had Garibaldi ambushing one of the Drakh by bursting out of hiding and saying, “What’s up, Drakh?” And I was told there would be no way that Joe would sign off on that. And I pointed out that I didn’t establish that Garibaldi was a fan of Warners cartoons, and I didn’t name the aliens the Drakh. So he had no basis for complaint. And sure enough, I was right; Joe expressed no complaint about that.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done a number of movie adaptations: Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron-Man, and so on. How much freedom are you given to delve into character background and history?

DAVID: I’ve been fairly fortunate in that regard. I’ve put tons of background or references to the characters’ histories into the novelizations and they’ve sailed right through.

VENTRELLA: I imagine these must have to be completed on a short deadline, and that you are relying mostly upon the scripts. Have any been particularly difficult when dealing with the studios? Have any required massive changes?

DAVID: There have been some difficult slogs, yes. Probably the toughest was “Batman Forever,” in which I would find these plot holes in the script and come up with these elaborate and, I like to think, very compelling fixes. Meanwhile while they were filming the movie, they’d discover the same plot holes and they’d write a single line to cover it and then fax that script change over to me. And of course I’d have to incorporate that change and toss out everything I’d written. Which killed me, because they were slapping on bandaids while I was applying tourniquets. So that was a pain.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier to write than ones with established characters?

DAVID: Sure.

VENTRELLA: For the Knight Life series, wherein Arthur returns and becomes President, I have to ask (SPOILER ALERT): Why did you decide to have him resign before he could accomplish much? What point were you trying to make?

DAVID: Actually, that was originally what I was going to write. Since I was writing it just after Clinton was out of office, I was going to have Arthur get dragged into a sex scandal that threatened to swallow his presidency, which is not only what Clinton did but—let’s face it—is what happened in the original Camelot. So I loved the notion that no matter how much time goes by, the same stuff happens. All that changes is the names. But then 9/11 happened and suddenly it seemed the wrong time to be making fun of the presidency. So I tossed out the book, which was about a third written, and just started all over again. But the notion of doing an Arthurian story that focused on “the more things change/the more things stay the same” stuck with me, and I put much of that into “The Camelot Papers,” which I recently published through

VENTRELLA: Do you think your political views influenced your desire to write this series?

DAVID: Probably.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written television scripts (you’ve been a very busy man!). Are these easier or do you find their limitations a problem?

DAVID: TV scripts are the most limiting of all because of the specifics of the format. Exactly so many pages, exactly so much time it can take up. It’s pretty challenging to tell a story within those confines, but hey, you manage.

VENTRELLA: Of what are you most proud?

DAVID: My family.

VENTRELLA: Tell me about your new publishing venture. What does this mean for a previously unpublished author?

DAVID: Not much, really. Crazy 8 isn’t a publishing venture in the standard sense. We’re not actively seeking out novice authors. We wouldn’t know what to do with them if we had them. C8 isn’t a corporation; we have no officers. We have no mechanism for dispersing money. C8 is simply a group of us pooling our social networking resources while we put out books ourselves and try to make them available to the fans at a fairly reasonable price. With eBooks making up a greater and greater percentage of book sales, and print on demand as a secondary option for people who prefer paper between their fingers (as do I), there’s no reason we can’t be taking our works and putting them directly into the hands of the readers at prices that won’t break budgets.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

DAVID: Deciding up front that they want to write for franchises. I constantly hear, “I have an idea for a Star Trek novel! How do I sell it?” Well, the answer is, you don’t. Pocket Books isn’t actively looking for new authors. And agents aren’t looking to rep novels that they can only sell to one market. I always tell them that if they have an idea that’s really that compelling, come up with original characters and an original universe, and sell that. That way you have any number of markets you can approach, and you own all the underlying rights.

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

DAVID: Jesus. Moses. Thomas Jefferson. And Jim Henson. I have some questions for all of them.


Interview with author A. C. Crispin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing A.C. Crispin, whose new novel is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. She’s best known for the novelization of the 1984 V TV series, but also for her bestselling Star Wars novels THE PARADISE SNARE, THE HUTT GAMBIT, and REBEL DAWN — although I first discovered her through her Star Trek novels: YESTERDAY’S SON, TIME FOR YESTERDAY, THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS, and SAREK.

Ann, You’ve been able to write novels in some of fandom’s favorite stories. How did you manage that?

A.C. CRISPIN: After I wrote YESTERDAY’S SON and V, publishers with franchises approached my agent when they had projects they thought would be a good match for my skills.

If your readers want to read about how to get an agent, soup to nuts, they should read “Notes on Finding a (Real) Literary Agent” on my website.

VENTRELLA: Do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

CRISPIN: For original novels I write book proposals. For tie-in work, they pretty much come to me.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. How much freedom were you given to develop Jack Sparrow’s background?

CRISPIN: After a considerable amount of back and forth on the part of the Disney studio liaison, during which several detailed outlines were not approved, the studio liaison decided that instead of writing the project I had been originally hired to write (the story of the Isla de Muerta mutiny re: the Aztec gold) I should instead write the story of how Jack Sparrow worked for the EITC and wound up making that bargain with Davy Jones. So I knew where the story had to end up. How I got there was left pretty much up to me.

I did consult with both my editors on the book, the acquiring editor and the editor who completed the project. For example, they both agreed that there should be a “Lady Pirate” as a character, so that’s how Doña Pirata was born. The Legend of Zerzura plotline was my creation, but my editors suggested having talismans as a way to get into the Sacred Labyrinth and reach the treasure. So I then came up with the bracelets.

By the time I finished with my outline, it was over 70 single spaced pages long. Of course, THE PRICE OF FREEDOM is a long novel, some 235,000 words.

VENTRELLA: Did Disney censor any of your ideas or tell you to make major changes?

CRISPIN: My Disney editor (somewhat regretfully, because she really liked them) bowdlerized my hottest sex scene. I’m not sure you’d call that a major change. After all, we are talking Disney, here. (The scene was hot, but not graphic — she felt that it was a bit too hot.)

VENTRELLA: What were your main goals in trying to develop his character?

CRISPIN: To create the character of “Jack becoming” so that people would recognize Jack Sparrow, but also know this wasn’t quite the Jack they see in the films … this was a younger, more vulnerable, more trusting and less cynical Jack. He gets more cynical and “savvy” during the course of the book. He’s not the same Jack at the end as he was at the beginning. Of course that’s the goal of good fiction, right?

VENTRELLA: What adventures in your novel help shape Jack into the character we all know?

CRISPIN: Oh, Jack experiences betrayal, disappointment, fear of imminent death, hatred, and as a result learns to be much more wary and cunning, and to trust almost no one. Readers who want teasers can read the excerpts on my website. There are six there.

VENTRELLA: Do any other characters from the film appear in the novel?

CRISPIN: Edward Teague, Cutler Beckett, Hector Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, and a certain squid-faced Captain.

VENTRELLA: Were you given a peek at the script for the most recent film in order to work in some foreshadowing?

CRISPIN: No. I was given the script for “At World’s End” before the film released, but my book was finished before the script for “On Stranger Tides” was written.

VENTRELLA: The most recent movie is loosely based on Tim Powers’ novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Did you use that novel at all for reference?

CRISPIN: I’ve read ON STRANGER TIDES a couple of times, but aside from the fact that it’s an excellent pirate yarn, no.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

CRISPIN: That will be Disney’s call. I imagine they’ll base that decision on how well THE PRICE OF FREEDOM sells.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite of the Pirates movies?

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

CRISPIN: Nope. I find it a challenge to have them grow and change in ways so subtle that the studio doesn’t realize I’ve done it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written your own series: Starbridge. Tell us about this!

CRISPIN: Funny you should ask about that. There’s a good chance that the seven StarBridge novels will soon be re-released as e-books. There have been quite a few requests for them from readers, over the years. The series is about a school for young people from the Fifteen Known Worlds who come to an asteroid in deep space to learn to be diplomats, planetary advocates (known as “interrelators”) and explorers. The books focus on First Contact, and explore what it would be like in a galactic society.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier?

CRISPIN: Not really. I put my full efforts into both my media tie-ins and my original novels. With the original novels, it’s generally a bit more work, because I have to create the world, the technology, the history, the geography, the society, etc. World-building and universe-building have to be done well if you want to create the illusion of reality –- something that’s essential to writing s.f. and fantasy.

VENTRELLA: We met at Balticon this year. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

CRISPIN: You can learn a lot at conventions, and once you’ve gone pro, you can do a fair amount of networking and business at gatherings such as the Nebulas, Worldcon, etc. I enjoy conventions, still, even after all these years.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Writer Beware. How did the idea for this come about?

CRISPIN: Back in 1998, Victoria Strauss and I both realized, independently of each other, that writing scams were proliferating on the internet. At some point our investigations brought us into contact with each other, and we decided to do something about it. SFWA gave us its blessing and sponsorship, and that’s how Writer Beware was born.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. Other than “don’t do that” do you have any specific pieces of advice for these authors?

CRISPIN: I advise them to go to Writer Beware and read our articles about POD, vanity publishing, etc., so they’ll go into self publishing with a clear vision of what it can and can’t do for an author. E-publishing has taken off in the past six months, and it can now be a realistic way (provided the author has the sales numbers) to break into commercial publishing (advance and royalty paying publishing with a major press, that is). This is generally not true for POD and hardcopy “self publishing.” But there are exceptions.

The main problem with “self-publishing” is when authors confuse it with commercial publishing and expect their books to be on the shelves in bookstores nationwide, plus have other unrealistic expectations. It is really not a shortcut into a successful writing career for the vast majority of those who do it. I believe it’s still true that most POD and self published novels still sell fewer than 100 copies.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

(1) I’d go back in time and eliminate the Thor Power Tools Supreme Court ruling. That had a terrible effect on a publisher’s ability to keep books in stock. Look it up.

(2) I’d get rid of the Internet for two reasons (A) the internet has given aspiring writers the idea that they’re entitled to be published, no matter how well or poorly they write, and (B) because of the internet, writers are getting scammed at an appalling rate.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

CRISPIN: Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charlotte Bronte, and too many others to name.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

CRISPIN: I do my level best on all my books. I’m pretty proud of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, because I had to do so much research. It took me three years to write, and the whole time I was writing it, I was doing research on the historical period and the nautical stuff.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

CRISPIN: For tie-in work I HAVE to produce detailed outlines, so I’ve gotten used to working that way. I don’t like writing myself into corners, and a good outline usually prevents that.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

CRISPIN: I have no idea. Personally, I prefer science fiction, though I read both.

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

CRISPIN: Learn to read and analyze publishing contracts. Agents aren’t perfect, and you really need to be able to read a proposed contract and spot pitfalls.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

1. They spend years writing a Star Wars or other tie-in novel without ever researching whether they can actually submit the thing and have a chance of having it published. (With Star Wars, for example, they won’t even read the book; all Star Wars novels are contracted for in advance.)

2. They look for shortcuts, such as “self publishing” or POD publishing, often with a scammy publisher like PublishAmerica or Strategic, because it’s the easy thing to do.

3. They develop “golden words syndrome” and can’t see any flaws in their writing, and if someone points them out, they get mad. This is death to any aspiration to ever be a pro.

4. They submit first drafts.

5. They want to write fiction, but they don’t read it. I’ve never yet encountered a single writer, in the dozens, maybe hundreds of workshops I’ve taught, who wrote fiction well but wasn’t a reader. In order to write well, especially fiction, you must be an inveterate reader. No exceptions.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

CRISPIN: Where readers can buy my books. There are links to purchase all my books on my website.

Interview with Agent Alia Hanna Habib

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am happy to be interviewing Alia Hanna Habib, a literary agent at McCormick & Williams. She represents narrative non-fiction, memoir, and cookbooks, as well as the occasional novel that strikes her fancy. Before joining McCormick & Williams, she was a publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a graduate of Barnard College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

How did you get involved in the publishing business and end up where you are?

ALIA HANNA HABIB: I’d always loved reading, and I knew I’d end up doing something with books. My first job out of college was at Houghton, in the publicity department. I did a bunch of different things between then and now, including non publishing related stuff, but eventually I returned to publishing and realized I really wanted to develop my own projects. Being an agent seemed the best way to do so.

VENTRELLA: Who have you represented in the past? What has been your biggest success?

HABIB: I moved over to being an agent from being a publicist just over a year ago, so none of the books I’ve sold have hit the shelves yet! But I’m very proud to have sold a narrative history of autism by Nightline correspondent John Donvan and television journalist Caren Zucker, a book I think will make a big difference in the life of parents and kids of all stripes. I also have a longtime interest in education — I was the publicist for Paul Tough’s wonderful book on Geoffrey Canada, WHATEVER IT TAKES — so I was thrilled to get to sell Elizabeth Green’s expansion of her wonderful New York Times Magazine cover story on “Building a Better Teacher” to Norton last summer. I think it will really change the way we talk about teachers and education reform.

VENTRELLA: What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

HABIB: It really runs the gamut. I love what I call spooky literary fiction: Sarah Waters, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, work that is a little uncanny yet very well-plotted. I represent cookbooks, and they’re my bedtime reading. And as I’m always looking for book ideas, I read a ton of magazines and blogs.

VENTRELLA: New writers trying to get an agent make a ton of mistakes. This blog’s purpose is to try to minimize these mistakes. So let’s discuss a few. First, there is the query letter. What do you look for in a query letter?

HABIB: I like an original idea, and a healthy mix of confidence and humility. I also like to see some sort of publication track record or media platform, particularly for non-fiction.

VENTRELLA: What are some examples of bad query letters you’ve received?

HABIB: I did my graduate degree in nineteenth-century literature, which is easy to figure out with a quick Google search. Someone wrote to me saying I’d like his book because it had all the verve of Dickens and wasn’t prissy and bloodless like Austen. I don’t think anything could have alienated more quickly than insulting Jane Austen. She’s why I went to grad school in the first place! The takeaway from this is your query letter should be about selling you, not denigrating others. That just makes you sound bitter and arrogant, plus you could very well be addressing a fan of the writer you’re taking down.

VENTRELLA: Some agents hardly pay attention to the query letter, stating that writing a good query letter doesn’t mean you’ve written a good book, and vice versa. What’s your view?

HABIB: It’s helpful to see how someone talks about their book, so I’d say a good query is very useful.

VENTRELLA: When you do ask to see a manuscript, what mistakes are most common?

HABIB: You know, once I’ve asked for the manuscript, I really just want to see if the person can write or not and if they can grab the reader from the first page. Don’t bury your story forty pages in.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an unimpressive first page yet you continued reading and found it worthy?

HABIB: If I really like the concept, yes, or if it’s a client referral and I know and trust the client’s taste. It’s a lot like picking up a book at the book store. Sometimes you’ll see it through to the end, if you feel invested in the bigger idea, and sometimes you won’t.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the publishing industry. Do you think the rise of e-books will encourage more experimentation and risk-taking among the big publishers?

HABIB: I hope so. I think it’s also shaking up how we think about formats and categories.

VENTRELLA: Is the small press getting more respect due to e-book sales?

HABIB: Yes, and small presses have also been putting out things of really high quality.

VENTRELLA: If a writer had self-published his or her first book, how does that factor into your decision making?

HABIB: If they self-published well, and have a sales track to prove it, I’m always interested.

VENTRELLA: Assuming you are impressed by the manuscript, how important is the writer’s personality to deciding whether to represent him or her? Have you refused to represent someone because of that?

HABIB: The agent/writer relationship is pretty close. I haven’t refused anyone because of personality reservations– and all my clients are really great, so I really haven’t had to– but you do want to keep your relationship with your agent (and eventually your editor and your publicist) as collegial as possible. You want them to want to talk to you.

VENTRELLA: Is there any final piece of advice you’d like to give that I haven’t asked about here?

HABIB: Be nice to everyone you meet along the way!

Interview with author Mark L. Van Name

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Mark L. Van Name, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Arisia convention in Boston recently. Mark has worked in the high-tech industry for over thirty years and today runs a technology assessment company in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. He’s published over a thousand computer-related articles and multiple science fiction stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

How important is it that writers of hard SF especially have a background in science?

MARK L. VAN NAME: There are no hard and fast rules about writing, SF or otherwise. The right good, smart writer can pull off just about anything. You can learn so much via research that not having formal training in an area is no excuse for not learning about it. So, I don’t think it’s vital that hard SF writers have a science background.

That said, I do think it’s helpful to have a solid base in any areas you try to cover in depth. Without that base, you better do your research, because otherwise, you’ll make mistakes, and your readers will spot them.

VENTRELLA: Since all of speculative fiction relies on things that are not, do you think a beginning writer should be wary when writing about things of which they have no experience?

VAN NAME: Wary, yes, but afraid to tackle it, no. You just have to respect the material you’re using. If you haven’t been a fire fighter and want to write about them, reading about their work and talking to some would be a very good idea. Making it up entirely based on what you’ve seen on TV, though possibly better than no research at all, is rarely enough for your work to have the verisimilitude it should.

VENTRELLA: Given your background, are you worried about the growing anti-science attitude we are seeing in much of politics these days?

VAN NAME: Definitely, though I have to say that particular concern is lower on my list than many others, including global climate change, the huge levels of hunger and poverty around the world, our national debt, child soldiers, and many other causes. There have always been groups opposed to rationality, and there always will be.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the field? What was your first sale and how did it come about?

VAN NAME: My first fiction sale of any type was a short story, “Going Back,” to a now-defunct, small-press, feminist SF magazine, Pandora. My first professional (by SFWA guidelines) sale was a short time later, a story, “My Sister, My Self,” that went to Asimov’s but ended up in their original anthology, ISAAC ASIMOV’S TOMORROW’S VOICES. In both cases, the sale went down in the usual way: I mailed them the manuscript, and they bought it. For the first story, the editors asked that I interview some battered women–the protagonist was one–and then do a rewrite based on what I learned. I did, I learned a lot, I rewrote the story, and they bought it. For the Asimov’s piece, I mailed it, and they bought it. Not very exciting, I’m afraid.

VENTRELLA: Did you get an agent?

VAN NAME: Nope. Only after I’d sold the first four novels did I talk to an agent. I’m not at all convinced that agents help beginning writers sell short stories. More to the point, I suspect that few agents you would want to represent you would take you if you were writing only short pieces, and that’s all I was doing for many years.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Jon and Lobo series!

VAN NAME: Talking about a multi-novel series is a lot like describing a multi-course meal of experimental cuisine: whether you focus on the individual dishes or the overall meal, you’re bound to miss a lot. I’ll try it a bit from both perspectives.

The overall series is a future history that I tell from the first-person perspective of one man, Jon Moore. I’ve always found history more interesting when it comes directly from the people who were there, so I wanted to chronicle a very important time in humanity’s far future–I’m writing about a time roughly 500 years from now–but limit myself largely to what Jon can see and experience. Of course, he’s a most unusual man, as far as he knows the only nanotech-enhanced human alive, so he naturally ends up in quite a few interesting situations. In the first novel, ONE JUMP AHEAD, he meets and becomes first the owner and then the friend of Lobo, an extraordinarily intelligent assault vehicle that can go anywhere–on land, under water, in the air, or in space. Over the course of the many books the series will take to complete–I’m estimating about eighteen, but that’s just an estimate–the characters and the universe will undergo many significant changes.

On an individual book level, each part of the series is simply a novel that should stand entirely on its own. You can pick up any book in the series and enjoy it. You can read them in any order. If you read them all, however, and further, if you read them in order, then you should have a richer experience. I’ve talked to lots of readers who’ve joined the series several books in, and so far, all of them have been able to enjoy whatever books happened to be their starting points.

VENTRELLA: You like to attend science fiction conventions. Are they really worth it, given the expense?

VAN NAME: I have no clue, because hard data on the sales value of cons–or blogs or pretty much any other marketing tool–is almost impossible to get. That said, I don’t go simply to increase sales. I attend cons to be part of the community, to see friends, visit new cities, eat at good restaurants, and so on. You can’t be sure you’ll boost your sales, but you can be sure to see friends and have an entertaining time.

VENTRELLA: What’s the funniest experience you ever had at a convention?

VAN NAME: I’ve done a lot of humor panels at cons, and I’ve done stand-up comedy/spoken-word shows, so that’s a tougher question than you might imagine. Certainly one of the funniest hours I’ve spent was listening to my friend, Lew Shiner, give a talk on humorous mimetic short fiction at a long-ago Disclave at which he was the guest of honor. He delivered the entire thing in very scholarly style, but it was just an excuse to tell a ton of jokes–which he did, brilliantly.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use in order to make believable, realistic characters?

VAN NAME: I don’t see that process as separate from the overall writing process. I sit down to tell a story. The story becomes very real in my head, because I spend a great deal of time living in the world of the story. The story includes people. I get to know those people. Like any other folks, they behave the way they do because of who they are. If I try to make a character do something that she or he simply wouldn’t do, it feels bad, wrong, as wrong as it would feel if a friend suddenly behaved completely out of character. I listen to those feelings. I write the story. The characters behave as they would. That’s about it.

I should probably clarify that I’m not one of those writers who believes his characters are real humans. I know they’re not. I know I control them. I know I could make them do anything I want. I also know, however, that doing so, that violating a character’s identity simply for the sake of a plot, would be bad craft. I don’t want to do that.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process–-do you outline heavily, for instance?

VAN NAME: I generally outline, but how detailed the outline is varies widely. For a thriller, FATAL CIRCLE, that I’m partway through and hope one day to finish, I had to do some research in key areas and consult with some experts. The result was a very detailed, very long outline–over twenty-six thousand words, a quarter of a typical novel. For CHILDREN NO MORE, I went with an outline of barely three thousand words. I outline to the level I feel necessary before I’m ready to start writing the book, and then I write.

I do some writing work every day. That’s been the key to changing me from someone who sold a story every few years to someone who has multiple novels out. I don’t, though, have a word-count quota. I avoid that sort of goal because it’s so easy to fail at it, and I hate failing. Instead, I have a time requirement: I must devote at least half an hour a day solely to writing work. As long as I’ve done that, I’ve succeeded. Most days, I do more. Most days, I get a fair number of words on the page. Some days, I produce very few. As long as I’ve tried for half an hour minimum, I call it a success.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future for printed books? For book stores?

VAN NAME: I love books. I really do. My house is full of them. They’re everywhere. Sadly, I believe the printed book is going to become a minority taste. I’m not sure if the transition will take ten years or fifty, but I believe it’s coming. That said, in the fiction world, books are containers for stories, and ebooks are simply other containers for stories. Similarly, I believe bookstores will continue to exist, but they will evolve, and in time their numbers will shrink. I will hate that, because I love bookstores almost as much as I love books.

I hasten to add that I don’t see any of this as the demise of writers or of people paying for stories. They’ll just pay for those stories in other forms.

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

VAN NAME: Rather mixed. I write a blog, so in a sense I self-publish. I sell all my fiction, however, to traditional publishers. I know that some writers can make a great deal of money self-publishing, but being a publisher is a lot of work, and most of that work is not writing, which is what I most want to do. So, for me, selling to a publisher remains the way I hope to continue to bring my fiction to the market.

I also expect most people who self-publish are unlikely to make a lot of money doing so. The sales and marketing experience that a publisher brings to its job helps make each writer a brand–some obviously much bigger brands than others–and it’s hard to manage that feat on your own. Plus, self-publishers have to be good enough at analyzing their own work to know when it’s of publishable quality. I’ve read some who are indeed good at that job, but I’ve also read many who are not.

Like so many things, if others want to do it, I wish them the best. For the most part, though, it’s not for me, at least not now. I add that last bit because even for those of us who work in the future every day, it’s pretty darn hard to predict.

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

VAN NAME: I agonized over this question for months. In fact, it’s the biggest reason I’ve been so late getting this interview back to you. I really took the challenge seriously, and I found I simply couldn’t come up with a single ultimate dinner party. I won’t let myself cop out completely, though, so I’m going to give you, in no particular order, a few that particularly caught my fancy.

Each on his own, just so I could focus exclusively on him: Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, and my biological father, whom I’ve met only once for a couple of hours.

My mother as a young woman, but with someone standing by to knock me out if I started to give away the future.

Several women I care about deeply, each alone, each as a young girl, just so I could see who they once were.

I could go on and on, but one thing is clear: I’d be greedy, going for one-on-one time rather than organizing a group.

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