Interview with author Michele Lang

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to interview Michele Lang, who writes all kinds of speculative fiction, and has also practiced the unholy craft of litigation in New York and Connecticut. LADY LAZARUS, her latest release, is a historical fantasy, the first of a series (Tor: September 2010). DARK VICTORY, the next book in the series, releases January 2012.

Michele, how did you get your “big break”? Aspiring writers want to know!

MICHELE LANG: I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten a “big break” exactly, more like a bunch of sweet serendipities that have led me from project to project. My first book, MS. PENDRAGON, was published by a now-defunct e-publisher; I pitched the executive editor at an online workshop run by an online romance writers group, From the Heart.

My first NY contract was with Chris Keeslar, who I met on the plane back from Romantic Times in Daytona in 2006. Now that was a lucky break! Chris is a wonderful editor, and I enjoyed writing NETHERWOOD for his Shomi line. Because of that contract, Lucienne Diver agreed to rep me as an agent, and Lucienne sold the LADY LAZARUS series to Jim Frenkel at Tor.

VENTRELLA: Do you believe that anyone can be a fiction writer or is the ability to tell a story more of an innate thing?

LANG: I think storytelling is part of what makes us human. I know many fantastic storytellers who cannot convey those stories in written form, so writing ability is not exactly correlative with a storytelling gift.

The most important factor, I think, in becoming a fiction writer is sheer determination. I know many talented writers who have broken through, but they didn’t break through because of their talent. They became published, and stay published, because they refuse to give up in the face of rejection and difficulties.

VENTRELLA: I recently blogged about “plowing through that first draft” and you wrote similarly about the “salami list.” What tricks have you found that help you personally get your work done?

LANG: To be honest, a contractual deadline does the trick better than anything else! But, aside from sheer panic, I have found some little tricks that help me to get work done.

The best is to have a daily goal. It can be humble, and probably should be, but most important it must be tied to your long term goals.

Start with a vision – what do you want for your writing life? Tie that vision to a goal you can achieve through your own efforts.

Break down the goal into measurable steps, and break those down into monthly steps. Weekly, and then daily. Work your plan, and review it in writing every month – how are you doing?

Try to get your daily goals done at the beginning of the day, before life sinks its teeth into you. Maybe this is only a tip for the morning people of the world, but it definitely is helpful for me.

Expect resistance and the termites of daily life to attack these goals. But dedicate a daily time to pursuing your goals with passion and consistency, and your dreams won’t be denied.

I try to write every day, though with a bunch of small kids in the house that is not always something I can achieve. I have time dedicated to writing: right now it’s 5:30-6:30 a.m., weekdays. I try my best to tack on another hour during the day, but that is not always possible. But I’ve done my best to make a habit out of the 5:30 hour.

That said, when I’m on deadline all bets are off. I write every minute I possibly can, then. The house goes to hell, but my immersion in the project overwhelms all resistance. I love writing 24 hours a day against a hard deadline – it’s so primal and exhilarating.

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

LANG: I try to listen. When I am deep into a story, I can hear the characters and they tell me what they do and why. They often surprise me too.

If they go off and do something I don’t expect, I follow them and try to figure out what they are doing and most importantly, why. I try mightily not to impose my own judgments and expectations of what they should be doing – when I do that, the writing gets very dull and safe. And that’s death for the story.

When I’m rewriting, I try to climb inside my characters and see the story from their perspectives. And I try to make sure the story reflects their truest natures, whether they are villains or heroes or some combination of the two.

VENTRELLA: Some of your work is hard to categorize. How do you see yourself?

LANG: The stories that come out of me end up in the genre aisles, the romance and fantasy shelves. I think that’s a wonderful destination.

But before that, I am simply a writer. I write the stories that demand to be written, the ones that I have no choice but to write. I write the stories that I wish already existed inside a book.

I read this way, too. I try to read like a kid, without preconceptions about the market, what is marketable, where a story fits in the pantheon of Story. I read for love.

I might find WATERSHIP DOWN in the fantasy aisle, or FULL DARK, NO STARS in general fiction (or at the front of the book store in its own special dump), but the books I love the most transcend category for me. They are just wonderful stories.

To keep writing, it’s important to understand the marketplace, to respect the daunting job of the sales department and marketing department to get books into stores and into the hands of readers.

However, I figure if I write the best book I can possibly write, there will be a place in the market for it, especially now with the rise of ebook distribution and its long, long tail.

VENTRELLA: How does your latest fit into this dilemma? Is this giving your publisher problems with promotion?

LANG: LADY LAZARUS is a historical fantasy, but one with werewolves and vamps. My editor calls it historical urban fantasy, but it’s pretty epic in scope, too. The pacing doesn’t match a standard urban fantasy, but it does get pretty explodey by the end, and the next one, DARK VICTORY, picks up speed and ends up blowing up a good chunk of Eastern Europe and our history of World War II, besides.

Tor’s been great about promoting the books. I went to BEA last year, NYC ComicCon and I just got back from the Empire State Book Festival too. I think the urban fantasy market is very, very crowded but LADY LAZARUS is not quite an urban fantasy, so its out of the box status might actually help set it apart.

VENTRELLA: We met at Lunacon a few years ago; do you attend many conventions? Do you find them worthwhile?

LANG: I only started attending SFF cons after I sold my first book, and love them. I love meeting readers, and so I also find cons a great source of inspiration and new ideas.

I attend as many local cons as I can, and wish I could travel to more. I did get to go to World Fantasy last year and it was wonderful. But the local ones are great too.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plotline and setting for LADY LAZARUS.

LANG: The series is set on the eve of World War II in a magical Budapest, and tells the story of Magda Lazarus, a witch with the power to return from the dead. In order to avert her sister’s horrifying visions of the impending war, Magda must battle SS werewolves, wizards, and demons, including the one who has possessed a willing Adolf Hitler.

VENTRELLA: How did you get the idea for the story?

LANG: This idea went and got me, I often say. My parents are both Holocaust survivors. This book is the ultimate what if – could my family have all survived if they had magic on their side?

The title comes from the famous Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus.” She uses the idea of a Jewish girl returning from death as an extended metaphor for her own suicides. I am very literal-minded — when I read this poem for the first time I thought the idea of a murdered Jewish girl returning from the dead to kill Nazis was awesome. Wanted to read the story, so I wrote it!

VENTRELLA: Do you find short stories to be a good way for aspiring authors to get noticed?

LANG: Yes, absolutely, though that is not the way I came up in the writing world at all. Short stories are becoming a bigger and bigger market, and I think that’s terrific. The form is going to get more popular, I think, as people’s reading habits continue to change.

Aside from getting noticed, it’s a great way for published writers to promote their longer work, and also a great place for any writer to audition settings and characters for longer stories.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry?

LANG: Hah – by the time I gave you an answer, it would be out of date, things are moving so fast! I’ll just say that it’s an amazing time to be both a writer and a reader. I write stories, my readers read and enjoy them. The more ways I can get my stories to readers, the better.

VENTRELLA: For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

LANG: I’m not sure…it is definitely a confusing thing! The NY publishing route is no longer the only way to achieve financial success as a writer. The best way for a new writer to go forward is to get educated about their rights (read the Copyright Handbook for a start), read any publishing contract very carefully, and go forward boldly.

You will make mistakes – all writers make business mistakes at some point, or have bad luck. But then we start again. As I said above, stubbornness is the key to the game, more than luck or talent.

VENTRELLA: And finally: You’re like the fifth author I have interviewed who was an attorney prior to giving it all up to write. (I’m still practicing, though…) What is it about lawyers that make us want to write fiction?

LANG: I could say something witty here about lawyers and the truth, but I just won’t 😀

Actually, most lawyers I met during my practice were ethical and decent, and many of them were brilliant. I was a litigator, and I can say that the ability to convey a narrative is essential to winning jury trials. Also, to be a good lawyer, you need to be able to read a witness, tell when they are lying, get to the bottom of their motivations, etc.

The other great thing about being a lawyer is you learn to endure. It sounds like I’m joking around again, but I’m not. Generally speaking, litigation is like trench warfare – whoever hurts the other side the most, wins. That stubbornness, again – you need it to be a successful lawyer, you need it to be a pro writer.

Coincidence? Not in my case. Being a lawyer toughened me up for being a writer.

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.

Interview with Author Tee Morris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Tee Morris today. Tee grew up very near me in Richmond, Virginia yet we never met until a few years ago at a convention. His web page is TeeMorris.com.

Let’s start by discussing your latest book, which will be first in a series –- PHOENIX RISING: A MINISTRY OF PECULIAR OCCURENCES NOVEL. How did you decide to collaborate with Pip Ballentine?

TEE MORRIS: It was a bit of arm-twisting on Pip’s part. I had a bad experience with co-writing, and my co-author really put me in a precarious position that completely ruined our friendship and professional relationship. So I was quite gun-shy. Pip eventually talked me into a compromise: we would write a podcast-for-pay idea. Unexpectedly, someone contacted Pip’s agent on this “steampunk idea” she was working on, I was then picked up by Pip’s agent, we changed focus and then we got to work on what would become PHOENIX RISING.

I still can’t believe we put this puppy together and are now, presently, closing in on the sequel’s climax.

VENTRELLA: Was there a conscious decision to write a steampunk novel because of current interests in steampunk for business reasons?

MORRIS: Actually, no. Steampunk was a conscious choice, but it was because we wanted to write it.

I first discovered “steampunk” back in 2006 and found it fascinating. I wanted to write something in it, but I didn’t want it to be a knock-off of what I had already read and seen. There’s a lot of cool things to explore in steampunk, and the more I delve into it the cooler it gets. There are authors who are riding the steampunk train to capitalize on its rapidly-growing popularity, but Pip and I wanted to do something we were sincerely drawn to, and steampunk really appealed to us.

VENTRELLA: How much should a writer consider the market when deciding what to write?

MORRIS: The writer should look at what is selling when they want to begin pitching to agents and editors. However, you really should consider how good of a product you are going to produce if you simply write to what’s hot. I’ve seen authors do that, and the writing comes across as trite. If your heart isn’t into it, the reader will assuredly pick up on that. At present, I won’t write a werewolf-vampire-Buffe-Blake urban fantasy because I have nothing new to offer to that market. If I tried, it would probably insult readers of the genre and do a lot of damage to my career.

Sure, look at the market, but don’t try to force a story to happen. That can backfire and really damage a career.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration work?

MORRIS: Believe it or not, writing across hemispheres was very productive. Whenever I slept, Pip wrote; and when Pip was asleep, I was writing. Literally we got in 24 hours of non-stop writing. This is one reason why, with Pip working on relocating to the Americas, our word count has taken a hit.

The downside was that we had small windows of time when we could discuss the book. We couldn’t bounce off ideas when we had them, and discussing problematic moments were…well, problematic as we could only do that for a small window of time between hemispheres. Still we managed, and we now have a pretty solid workflow at home.

VENTRELLA: How did you interest Harper? Did you have an agent first? Was the novel completed and then submitted or did they accept a proposal?

MORRIS: The Harper Voyage deal is all due to Laurie McLean, our Super-Agent. What happened was Pip’s write-up in Locus Magazine took an interested party to her website. When they saw she was working on this steampunk property with me, they immediately asked “When could we see it?” So I signed on with Larsen-Pomeda Agency and then we got cracking. The “interest” didn’t really kick in until someone made an offer. Literally, within 24 hours, there was a bidding war (from people who had initially passed on it), and then the wildcard — Harper Voyager — stepped in and said “We want it. Badly.”

The rest is future-history.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting this book?

MORRIS: Pip learned a lot of new promotion tactics when working with ACE and GEIST. Between our previous experiences with Dragon Moon Press, we’re simply incorporating years of what has (and hasn’t) worked, and creating a plan:

1. The “Tales from the Archives” Podcast. This is the first volume in what could be a continuing series of short stories set in the world of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. We’ve been having a blast with this, watching really talented authors like Valerie Griswold-Ford, Nathan Lowell, O.M. Grey, P.C. Haring, and many others produce original steampunk of various moods. We’re only a few episodes in, and people are really enjoying these works.

2. The Book Trailer.

People have really mixed opinions about book trailers and whether or not they sell books, but I argue that it really does depend on the book trailer. This one was particularly ambitious as we were creating original footage as opposed to working with stock footage as I did with Pip’s Geist trailer (which I edited together). We have been getting a terrific response from it with over 1000 views on YouTube and over 500 shares on Facebook in just over a week. It’s also a great way to get the word out about the book. How will it equate in sales? We don’t know, but it is helping in letting people know what the book is, or at least what the mood of our book is.

3. The Ministry Blog and Podcast Tour. As you see here with your blog, Michael, and others online, Pip and I started writing guest columns and interviews not only with podcasts (which really worked well for us back in August 2008 when we hosted “Double Trouble” online) but with blogs as well. Pip found that work with bloggers — book reviewers, authors, and others — cast our net a little wider than the podosphere. We’re reaching new people who show a little more faith and trust in their book blogs than they do in the mainstream media book critics. (Something we find very telling.)

4. Ministry May-hem. The month of May is when we start with the push of live appearances. It begins on April 30 (Not quite May, but close enough) with a stop at Borderlands in San Francisco. Then on May 7th we return to Staunton, VA (where we filmed the Ministry trailer) at BookWorks, and we will be wearing our steampunk best. May 11 we head up to Harrisburg, PA for a Watch the Skies meeting. Again, we’ll be in our steampunk best. Then May 20-22 is the Steampunk World’s Fair in Sommerset, NJ. We close the May-hem with Balticon May 27-30.

June … we’re going to have a wee rest.

5. Buttons, stickers, bookmarks, and postcards. You can never go wrong with freebies.

Pip and I have learned over the years that the key months of promotion should be the month before a release (keeping it fresh in people’s minds), and then two months after the book’s release (as it has that “new book” smell). If after June the book hasn’t “caught on” it probably won’t. You can still promote and still pimp, but it’s “old news” after that.

For Pip, though, she’s got SPECTYR (the sequel to GEIST) coming at the end of June, so there will be some serious gear shifting during the May-hem. Rather appropriate, now that I think about it.

VENTRELLA: This is your first novel with a major publisher (if I am not mistaken). What differences have you found between Harper and Dragon Moon? (And why do so many small publishers have “Dragon” in their name? My publisher is Double Dragon. Maybe they should merge and become Double Dragon Moon.)

MORRIS: Apart from the advance (which is a mixed blessing in itself), the distribution (which is a blessing no matter how you look at it) and the layout of the book (which I did for myself quite often because I liked that), there is still a “team” feel about working indie and working corporate. I have noticed with Harper Voyager that our publicist is also working hard to get our names and book out there to critics and media outlets, both traditional and new. Having that kind of support in publicity has been very nice! Dragon Moon and I did a lot of great things together, but distribution was always a challenge. I grew as a writer, and they gave me my first opportunity. A lot of terrific things happened to me because of it.

Harper Voyager is not my first orbit around the Moon, but it is definitely my “small step” and “giant leap” into what I hope will be my writing career.

VENTRELLA: You travel to many conventions to promote your books. Do you advise aspiring authors to attend these things? What do you get out of these conventions yourself?

MORRIS: Something else that I have learned in my years as a writer is really, really listen to what other authors have to say. (Both good and bad, when it comes to advice.) Perhaps one of the most important nuggets of know-how I got was from Hugo/Nebula/Aurora/insert-SF-writing-award-here winning author Robert J Sawyer:

“When you get an advance, don’t spend it. That advance is your marketing and advertising budget.”

I was traveling without an advance as my budget, and pushed myself several of thousands of dollars into debt. Even when I was writing books like PODCASTING FOR DUMMIES and ALL A TWITTER, I was already so deep in the red. People across the country had my books in hand, sure, but I was broke. Part of the problem was poor financial planning. When I got out of that debt, I plan events very differently now.

Don’t get me wrong, I love going to these conventions. I love talking shop, meeting other authors, and talking to other fans, not just about what I write, but about other geeky things like Firefly, Eureka, and steampunk. I dig that. But as I mentioned on my blog, these conventions are not cheap. I get invited to a lot of cons, but unless some of these costs are offset, I can’t go. In my early days/years, I would never make claims to have cons offset my costs. However, I have to make it a point of asking now as it’s just not that easy for me financially. I think cons are great for authors, provided you are smart about which cons you are going to attend; and more importantly, what you can afford.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing industry changed since you entered it?

MORRIS: Well, there’s the e-book market for starters. The whole e-book movement has really been fascinating to watch. I think with the development of the ePub format, the elegance of iBook and the Kindle, and the affordability of digital books in comparison to hardbounds, the e-book is coming into its own. The publishing industry is now being forced to adapt, and I think many publishers are on top of it.

I’m also noticing over the year a growing animosity between writers and publishers, more of it coming from writer. There’s a mentality of “Us vs. Them” which rings hollow when I hear writers say “We understand it’s a business.” I’ve always regarded my career as a business, and I can only hope that I’m still writing when my child is in college. Harper Voyager have asked a lot from Pip and myself, but we are all working together to make the best book possible. If the book is a hit, it’s a win from everyone involved. That’s why I’m a little put off by that argument.

Something I have noticed, too, is that misconception of “writers just writing and letting someone else handle promotion as that is someone else’s job” is finally dying out. Even older authors have recognized the power and potential in podcasting, blogging, and social networking. Writers have needed to become Swiss Army Knives, wearing many hats and building up neck muscles in order to support them all. We have to look beyond “the end” and work with our publisher and the public to make our upcoming titles meet their potential.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception beginning writers have about the craft?

MORRIS: The biggest misconception (apart from the one mentioned in the previous question) is the editor is out to “ruin” your work. Only bad editors tell you something like “Change it, or else.” An editor’s job is to make your good book a great book, and in this process help you become a better writer. Again, it’s a team effort. And when you do have a point of contention, you have to defend your choice with facts and resources backing up your facts. Simply saying “because it is cool” doesn’t cut it. I am thankful for every editor I’ve had, and I am a better, smarter writer because of them.

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

MORRIS: Superiority complexes. I’ve seen this in both writers with big and indie houses and it sickens me. A byline doesn’t make you any better a person. You just come across to people as a right jerk …with a byline. Maybe fans would “look away” once upon a time, but that kind of behavior can affect your sales. It can also make you a real leper amongst your peers. And even with books, awards, and movie deals (if you are really blessed) behind you, try and keep your head on straight. This ride can end at the drop of a bowler hat. I know that. So, I do what I can to be the best person (who just happens to have a byline) I can be.

VENTRELLA: What’s your next project?

MORRIS: My next project is a steampunk reboot of MOREVI. I love the story and I love the characters of MOREVI; but as it is, MOREVI is not ready for the mainstream press. It needs a rewrite. It needs a new direction. And it needs, for the love of God, to lose the elves. Those were my co-author’s touch, and I’ve hated them since the original printing.

I don’t have a problem with elves. They’re like Vulcans with better tailors. I just felt like they were not a good fit with MOREVI, and I think a complete reboot with Rafe taking to the skies and the region be China. (Still kicking around ideas, you know.) It would be something like Battlestar Galactica, only without so much gender bending.

me&tee

Interview with Publisher Deron Douglas

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m interviewing Deron Douglas, publisher of Double Dragon Press, the largest science fiction and fantasy e-publisher in the world (and, I might add, the publisher of my books). Deron, is that claim based on the number of books you have available, the most sold, or what?

DERON DOUGLAS: Hi Mike, it’s based on both numbers… sales and number of editions available for purchase from DDP and all our retailer sites worldwide. However, it is a fluctuating number as well.

VENTRELLA: What is in your background that made you want to start Double Dragon?

DOUGLAS: I’ve been involved in the publishing industry, in various aspects for about 25 years. I’m also an avid Science Fiction and Fantasy reader from when I was a kid. About 10 years back I purchased one of the first ebook devices on the market called the Rocket eBook (I still own 3) and found that there weren’t very many titles that I would enjoy reading myself. After further investigation into the technology it “clicked” that I had the personal experience and technical ability to pull it off.

VENTRELLA: Have your standards changed over the years? Now that DD is doing better, are you being pickier with which manuscripts you accept?

DOUGLAS: We’ve always had high standards, but like everyone else are restricted by our submissions pool. But generally I like to select titles that I find interesting and diverse; something that I would want to read myself.

Yes, as the submissions pool gets larger we find that we can select more carefully based on market trends and an author’s current readership base.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake that aspiring authors make when they submit their work?

DOUGLAS: In a lot of cases they do not bother to read the guidelines or take the time to find out what we publish. Double Dragon Publishing is essentially a Science Fiction and Fantasy publisher, but I still have people sending me relationship books, autobiographies etc. If an author does happen to read the guidelines and are submitting within the right genre, they neglect to send their best possible “polished” work. We edit all titles before they are published, but we won’t accept a title that is still in the development stages and requires massive rewrites.

VENTRELLA: What do you personally like to read?

DOUGLAS: I like science fiction with a time-travel, time paradox sort of twist, as well as “steampunk”, alternate reality, divergent societies sort of stuff.

VENTRELLA: You’ve recently begun to expand a bit and publish other genres. Tell us about that!

DOUGLAS: Actually, from the start we accepted everything in all genres, over time we found what sells and what doesn’t. But occasionally I’ll accept something that is “out there” because it’s well written and I’m curious as to how it will be responded to by our readers. But maybe you are referring to our sister imprints, Carnal Desires Publishing and Blood Moon Publishing? Each is dedicated to a genre that we felt was growing to a degree that it deserved its own identity and staff.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been able to lure some fairly famous authors to DD for their e-books. How has that worked out?

DOUGLAS: It’s worked out very well for us. The things take seem to be common to all is that they’ve heard our reputation for a very expansive eBook distribution network, fair methods of working with authors and our “professionalism”.

VENTRELLA: Most of the paperbacks you publish are print on demand. Do you see a future where you would have regular print runs?

DOUGLAS: No, not at all. In fact I can see a near future where we will be phasing out paper book completely. Last fall (2010) is was reported by Amazon that eBooks were outselling “hardback” books on Amazon. This year in Feb It was reported by Jeff Bezos (CEO and Chairman of Amazon), that eBooks are now outselingl paperbacks. People tend to forget that Double Dragon Publishing is an eBook publisher and has always been, and as a result we are well positioned to take advantage of this huge market. After all, we are one of the pioneering ePublishers and have been involved for more than 10 years.

VENTRELLA: How do you publicize your books?

DOUGLAS: Currently we release between 100-120 titles per year, as such we are unable to publicize every title ourselves. We depend upon the author to promote themselves and build a base of readership. After all, if they leave DDP they will take this base with them. But we also provide venues of promotion such as out blog at blog.double-dragon-ebooks.com, Facebook, etc. We also provide a forum where new authors can discuss methods of publicizing themselves with other seasoned veterans.

VENTRELLA: Do you see e-books as the future? Is this good for the industry?

DOUGLAS: Ebook have taken off from where they began 10 years ago, it seems every major manufacturer is now building an affordable ebook device that allows the seamless purchasing of titles almost anywhere in the world. Yes, I think ebooks have a future and think they are also good for the industry. But the industry will change, portions such as paper book production services will die off. But eBook conversion services will sprout, are sprouting in fact.

Interview with Author Tracy S. Morris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing author Tracy S. Morris. She is the author of the Tranquility series of urban fantasy mysteries. The most recent, BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY, is a murder mystery set in a haunted hotel during a Renaissance wedding. She’s also published a number of short stories. Her web page is here.

Hi Tracy! Tell me a little bit about yourself!

TRACY S. MORRIS: I’m a professional writer, so I spend most of my days in front of my home computer in my pajamas. My specialty is service journalism in the gardening industry. Which is a fancy way of saying that I write “how to” articles that deal with topics like compost, animal manure and growing the perfect tomato. I like to call that “living the dream.” Although it probably means that I’ve got no life.

I’m also a retired newspaper photographer/reporter. On my best day, I got to shoot the president (with a camera) which probably put me in the crosshairs of a secret service sniper. On my worst day, I was suspended off of the back of a speedboat in freezing weather and driving sleet to get a picture for a news story.

I got to do some very interesting things in that job. I had a ride in a hot air balloon. I had the best seats in the house for every major sporting event. But I also had no life, no predictable schedule. And after the day with the speedboat in the sleet, I realized that there has to be a better way to make a living. Which is why I now work at home in my bathrobe.

When I do leave the house, I’m a shooting enthusiast, a martial arts black belt and a former fencer. I’m a history buff and I’ve spent some time in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which is a group that recreates history from Roman times through the late-renaissance (the boundaries are nebulous and basically cover anything that other history groups don’t cover.)

VENTRELLA: What’s something unusual or different about you that your readers probably don’t know?

MORRIS: That’s a tough one to answer. I’m pretty transparent about my life, so there isn’t a lot that my readers don’t know about me.

I like to collect antique cameras. The collection is mostly thanks to my dad, who likes to go to garage sales. I asked him to be on the lookout for antique cameras for me. So he used to pick up any old camera he saw at an auction. I have several antique bellows cameras, a couple of twin lens reflex, some very nice medium format box cameras and two or three Brownie Hawkeye still in the box. He even bought me a couple of necklaces with camera charms. Eventually I hit a point where I had no more room for them and I had to ask him to stop buying them for me.

The one camera I want most that I don’t have yet is an old Speed Graphic press camera. One of these days I’m just going to cave in and buy one on E-Bay or something.

VENTRELLA: Your “Tranquility” series seems to combine a number of different genres. How did this come about?

MORRIS: Tranquility really grew out of something I was writing for fun. Because of that, I didn’t try to stick with a formula or say “I’m going to make this just a mystery. Or just an urban fantasy. Or just a horror. I was writing for me, so I made it about the things that interested me.

I grew up on a family farm out on the border of the Ozark mountains. My family lived in that region for four generations. When I was a kid, I read a few too many bigfoot stories. So the things that scared me weren’t the monster under the bed. It was whether there was something out in the dark woods out past the barn. That’s where the horror element from Tranquility came from.

I wanted to write the book as a pure horror, but I also have a skewed sense of humor which kept slithering in. One of the major themes that appeared in the book grew out of my reaction to moving home and really seeing the oddities in my small town for the first time. This made the book feel much more like the TV series Northern Exposure, or possibly the Disney Cartoon Cars with that ‘city slicker comes to the country and discovers that it’s a pretty great place’ theme.

By the time that I finished writing the book, I finally embraced the notion that my natural writing voice is humor instead of horror.

TRANQUILITY was nominated for a Darrell award, and placed runner up in 2006. At the awards ceremony my publisher asked when I was going to give her the second book. When I sat down to write it, I decided to make it as fun and absurd as possible. So I threw in everything but the kitchen sink.

The second book in the series, BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY, came after I had been through the process of helping to plan and put on four weddings (Two of them the same year.) I had dabbled in wedding photography by that point, and I had some sarcastic, slightly cynical views about the business side of the wedding industry.

So I thought ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen at a wedding? How about a murder? What’s the worst thing that can happen in a murder investigation? Why not a killer who can move around the hotel through secret passageways – phantom of the opera style? What about if all of the hotel guests mistrusted the investigator and wouldn’t talk to him? Why would they do that? What if they were conspiracy theorists?

VENTRELLA: Do you think that not fitting into one genre made it a harder sell to editors (and the public)?

MORRIS: I didn’t actually have to sell the series. Which is almost embarrassing to admit, since so many other authors have tales of sending a novel out to 45 agents and 20 publishers before gaining acceptance. I sold TRANQUILITY to Yard Dog Press because I was friends with the publisher. When I was outlining the novel, I told Selina Rosen, the editor about this new project that I was excited about. She asked me to send it to her when it was done.

BRIDE has been easier to sell to the fans, because I have a catchy summary that makes the book sound fun. Where else would you be able to read a murder mystery set in a haunted hotel during a Renaissance wedding?

VENTRELLA: I note that they are from Baen Books in e-format but Yard Dog in paper. How does that arrangement work?

MORRIS: Yard Dog Press does not deal in e-books, so they did not contract those rights. But the publisher has a working relationship with Baen. (Baen bought the e-rights to Selina Rosen’s Misha Merlin titles as well as the Sword Masters series from Dragon Moon Press.)

Additionally, Baen had just bought the E-Rights to another popular Yard Dog Press series, The Four Redheads of the Apocalypse.

Since I already had a working relationship with Baen, Selina suggested that I offer the E-rights to them. I could have put out the E-books myself through Amazon. Authors such as Jim Hines have done that with great success. Another Yard Dog author, Margaret Bonham has put her Yard Dog Press epic fantasy novel Prophecy of Swords out that way. Since then her title has reached the top 10 in epic fantasy e-book category for Kindle.

But Baen brings with them a new audience of readers that I might not reach otherwise. That is very exciting to me.

(By the way, through the month of December 2010, if you purchase either TRANQUILITY or BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY in trade paperback from Yard Dog Press (Direct from the publisher, not from Amazon), I’ll send you a free preview of the first two chapters of the next Tranquility book that is now in progress, which is tentatively titled IT CAME TO TRANQUILITY.

The links to these books on Yard Dog Press are: TRANQUILITY and BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY.

Baen is also running a special on the E-Books. Until January 1, 2011, you can order both TRANQUILITY and BRIDE OF TRANQUILITY along with the books in the “Four Redheads of the Apocalypse” series as a Yard Dog Press bundle for $20.

You can order the E-Books at: http://www.webscription.net/m-9-yard-dog-press.aspx)

VENTRELLA: How did you make your first sale? Did you have an agent?

MORRIS: I still don’t have an agent. Instead I’ve made every sale I have the old fashioned way — by researching markets and sending manuscripts out.

My first sale was to an anthology called OCTOBERLAND that was put out by Flesh and Blood Press. It was a story entitled “Frost King” that I had basically written and rewritten multiple times.

I sold the story exactly the wrong way. It had been the first short story that I ever wrote, I made revisions with the help of an English teacher and then put it in a drawer through my college years. Once I decided to pursue writing again I started sending it out. Every time It was rejected I rewrote it using suggestions that the rejecting editor provided me. Eventually after 12 rewrites over 4 years, I sold the story.

That same week I also sold “Attack of the Godless Undead Zombies” to Yard Dog Press for one of their “Bubbas of the Apocalypse” anthologies. That story was written in the space of two days. I turned it in to Selina Rosen after my husband gave it a single editing pass.

Today I try to get a story to the point that I am happy with it before I send it out instead of changing it with every rejection. I feel much happier with the end result.

VENTRELLA: I have a short story that I can’t seem to sell, as it hardly fits into any specific genre. What advice do you have for me (and other writers reading this) for finding the right editor?

MORRIS: Before you do anything, consider your goals. Do you want to sell a story you are unhappy with for the sake of having a sale? Or do you want to have the best body of representative work you can possibly produce?

If you just want the sale, then rewrite the story along a formula so that it fits into a single genre. But if you are happy with the story as it stands, put it aside until the right editor comes along.

My personal choice would be the second option. I have been writing and reading speculative fiction for 20 years and I have seen genre conventions change drastically over the years. I never thought I would see the day that Jane Austen and Zombies were used in the same genre. I have ‘trunked’ perfectly good stories because they didn’t have the right market, only to have the perfect market for the story come along two years later.

If you change your work into something that you dislike just to make a sale, you may end up with a ‘representative body of work’ that you are unhappy with.

Also bear in mind that compared to novels, short stories are very quick to produce. You can have a short story written within a few days. So if you can’t find a home for one, you can set it aside and devote your attentions to creating and selling a new story.

VENTRELLA: You have two short stories in Baen’s online magazine “The Grantville Gazette”: “Still Life with Wolves and Canvasses” and “A Study in Redheads.” Do you think that online publications are the wave of the future?

MORRIS: Don’t forget about my co-writer for those stories, Brad Sinor.

A few months back Amazon began selling more electronic books than print books. This has a huge impact on magazines. Particularly since the publication business model is not the same as the book business model.

Most print publications don’t get their revenue from selling copies of their magazines. Instead they get revenue from ad sales. So a magazine like Fantasy Magazine once could leverage their sales numbers to attract advertisers. Fewer people are going into stores where these magazines used to sell. Instead, readership is online now.

You are already seeing more magazines online. There are several business models out there. Daily Science Fiction is delivering a story a day directly into my in box. The Grantville Gazettes require a subscription to access their online content. Fantasy Magazine has complete stories up for free with ads in the margins. Clarkesworld offers free content online, but sells their magazine with additional content through Kindle and has occasional donation drives.

When the dust settles, I think the most profitable business model will be the one we see copied.

The thing I admire about what Grantville Gazette is doing is that they are building a community around their 1632 franchise. There are the novels with the bigger name writers. But there are also message boards where fans can interact and have an impact on the storylines. Baen has an entire section devoted to the tech of the 1632 universe where experts (and there are plenty of qualified experts) can hammer out the science of the universe.

If someone wants to submit a story to the Grantville Gazettes, the story is put up on a closed message board where the Grantville fans can pick it over for conflicts with the universe timeline or the science. The author can make the changes and if the story is accepted, the same fans will buy the content.

Eventually, the ‘best of’ stories are the ones that get released in the print anthologies. Which also are bought by the community members.

Business-wise, this is smart. This is what made Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog such a success: Joss Whedon has an intensely loyal community that is willing to follow whatever he does.

This is also why celebrities such as Wil Wheaton, and internet celebrity Author Cleolinda Jones do so well with self publication. They’ve built a community of readers who are willing to follow what they do.

VENTRELLA: “Fish Story” is a short story you wrote which appeared in STRIP MAULED, an anthology edited by Esther Friesner. Tell me about that!

MORRIS: “Fish Story” involves a couple of characters that have been living in my mind for a while. Back when Laurel K. Hamilton and Jim Butcher first began publishing urban fantasy, I had a thought that it might be fun to write someone who would live in an urban fantasy world but eschewed magic. How would that person survive if they lived as a sort of magic conscientious objector?

The adventures I wrote were another example of a hard-to-sell genre mashup. I write funny third person. The urban fantasy of that type seems to take itself very seriously, and usually follows the noir detective novel conventions of first person point of view.

The characters are a good example of an idea that was trunked because of a lack of market, only to have the market return. I had an early story with the characters published in a magazine (now defunct) entitled “Whispers from the Shattered Forum”. After that, the Noir Detective novel in the Urban Fantasy market seemed to be dying.

Then TWILIGHT revived the interest in Urban Fantasy Vampires, which always seem to pull readers into the Noir Detective Urban Fantasy novels. And then along came a couple of great TV shows like “Supernatural.”

Prior to selling Fish Story, I sold a short story with these characters entitled Homo “Homini Lupis” to an anthology entitled WOLF SONGS, which was put out by Wolfsinger press. I recently finished a novel with the characters that is based on the plot to this short story.

Then Esther Friesner launched her monsters in suburbia series. The anthologies are open by invitation only. But through a mutual friend I was able to ask her if I could submit a story for consideration for her werewolf-themed anthology. I was very surprised when the story not only made it into the anthology, but was put up on Baen’s website as one of the free preview stories.

I also submitted a story to her for the vampire-themed anthology. But the competition for inclusion in that anthology was a bit stiffer, and I didn’t end up being selected.

VENTRELLA: Would you advise beginning authors to concentrate on getting short stories published first?

MORRIS: There is a huge difference between publishing a short story and publishing a novel. About 15 years ago the accepted career path was to build name recognition through short stories and leverage that to secure a novel contract. Today that wisdom doesn’t hold true. You can get a contract with an agent, or sell a manuscript to Tor or Baen if the novel is good regardless of what your name is. Conversely, you can have a big name in short stories and if your novel isn’t good enough, you won’t be able to sell it.

My advice is to concentrate on honing your craft in the medium that you want to be published in. If you want to write short stories, that’s the area you should focus in. If you want to write novels, start there.

VENTRELLA: What is your opinion on e-book publishers and Print On Demand?

MORRIS: Each publisher is different. Do your homework and contract with a respectable publisher. One good resource is SFWA’s Predators and Editors website.

VENTRELLA: How about self-publishing?

MORRIS: Rule #1 of Self-Publishing: Thou Shall Not Fooleth Thyselfeth.

First thing you must understand is that publishing a book yourself does not put you into the same league as Stephen King, J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steele. You won’t be rolling in piles of money. Nor will you spend your days poolside with a laptop, eating bon bons while you compose deathless prose.

Writing is a business. Publishing is doubly so. You will be responsible for selling the books yourself, handling the details of distributorship and all promotional marketing (these things that publishers normally do).

Additionally, you must overcome the stigma attached to self publishing. Self publishing (from what I’ve observed) is like swimming upstream against a tide of professional ostracism. In the eyes of many professionals (authors, editors, publishers, book sellers) your book lacks the quality editing work that books published with an established house have.

Promotion will be more difficult because many reviewers will give your book less priority than a book sent by a professional house. Science fiction conventions will give preferential treatment to writers who have books with professional houses. If you do manage to get paneling, you may be treated with hostility or veiled contempt by authors with credits through traditional publishers.

There are a number of authors who have been successful with self publishing. Most of them know to treat the business of writing and publishing like a business. Many of them establish a fan following through other means, and dabble in self publishing. Others have an established fan following through traditional publishing that follows them into the self publishing realm.

VENTRELLA: I assume you have cats. (Don’t all writers?) Am I wrong?

MORRIS: No cats. I am owned by two very lazy dogs. When I’m not writing, my job is to cater to their every whim.

Interview with Hugo Winning Author Allen Steele

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing two-time Hugo award winning author Allen Steele today! Allen has won numerous awards and nominations for his science fiction stories, novels, and novellas. His novels include ORBITAL DECAY, LUNAR DESCENT, THE JERICHO ITERATION, OCEANSPACE, and the “Coyote” series. His web page is here.

Allen is the Guest of Honor at the 2010 Albacon SF convention (which is next weekend as of this posting). I’ll be there too (but only as a regular ordinary guest)!

Allen,You’re one of the few authors who has been published on another planet. How did that come about?

ALLEN STEELE: A couple of years ago, NASA’s Phoenix lander made it to Mars, and aboard it is a DVD containing a library of science fiction stories and artwork about Mars that was compiled by the Planetary Society. Among them is ‘Live From The Mars Hotel”, my first published story, which was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1988. The DVD is intended to be a repository for future Mars colonists, and also a tribute to SF writers and artists who’ve portrayed Mars since the 1700’s. It’s a huge honor to have my work represented in this way. In fact, I wrote a story about this that appeared in Asimov’s earlier this year: “The Emperor of Mars”, in the June 2010 issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve been with small publishers and large. Which do you honestly prefer?

STEELE: Both have their benefits. Large publishers like Ace or HarperCollins pay better and have greater distribution; small publishers like Subterranean and Old Earth give me the advantage of more creative control and also the ability to publish individual novellas and short fiction collections, something which large publishers tend to avoid these days. So I split the difference by having my novels put out by large publishers and my short fiction by small publishers. Any preferences I may have are predicated by what I’m publishing, really.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Should a starting author consider such a thing?

STEELE: Only if they don’t mind not making any money from your work or not having it seen by very many people. Yes, I know there are exceptions, and that online publishing is offering yet another option, but the success stories are few and far between. Nearly every time I go to a SF convention, I see people hawking self-published novels from tables they’ve rented in the dealer’s room, and at best they sell only a handful. Bookstores won’t carry them, and reviewers simply won’t touch `em. There’s literally thousands of self-published novels and stories online, and I’d be amazed if any of them were downloaded more than a few dozen times. And once a book or story has seen print in any form, professional editors are not inclined to reprint them (again, yes, I know there’s exceptions. I can only name one or two, though). So it’s a dead end, and one that a new author should avoid.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres. Why do you think that is?

STEELE: This last decade, yes, SF has been less visible. Personally, I think the principal reason is that the other genres you mention are almost entirely escapist in nature, and tend to look backward instead of forward, while SF is usually a forward-looking genre, with the best work grappling with the effects of the present while confronting plausible futures. We’re living in scary and uncertain times, so it’s little wonder that many readers are searching for that sort of literature that avoids reality, whether it be ersatz-Tolkien fantasy worlds, sexy vampires, or pseudo-Victorian settings that bear little or no resemblance to history as it actually happened.

But when you look at the history of the SF genre as a whole, you see that SF is something that periodically waxes and wanes in popularity. When my first novel was published in 1989, it was during one of those waning periods. Shortly after that was the SF boom of 90’s when a lot of new writers like myself who write this sort of thing entered the genre, but this followed by the gradual decline of the last decade. Eventually SF will make another comeback. Until then, writers like myself will continue to satisfy that solid, hard-core SF audience that has never gone away, while several hundred fantasy, horror, and steampunk writers struggle to distinguish themselves from the pack.

VENTRELLA: I can think of many SF novels that aren’t that old that didn’t predict cell phones or email, for instance, which makes them a bit quaint. How does one avoid those things?

STEELE: The purpose of science fiction isn’t the prediction of the future. When that happens, it’s by accident (and incidentally, there is an older SF novel that depicts a cell phone: TUNNEL IN THE SKY by Robert A. Heinlein, published in 1955). So claiming that a given SF novel is “quaint” because it didn’t predict the future that it depicted means you’re holding it to a double-standard that’s impossible for a writer to keep. When a SF writer comes up with a futuristic scenario, he or she is simply devising a world that doesn’t presently exist and may never; because he or she is extrapolating from our current condition, they should try to create a certain verisimilitude by keeping a close eye on what may be possible. But his or her job isn’t to predict the future, but rather to tell a good, believable story.

VENTRELLA: In a similar vein, LABYRINTH OF NIGHT made use of the “Face on Mars” – is this something you regret or try to avoid now?

STEELE: When I wrote “Red Planet Blues”, the 1989 novella which I later expanded to become LABYRINTH OF NIGHT, the “Face on Mars” was an astronomical oddity that relatively few people knew about. Aside from that single grainy image photographed by the Viking orbiter in 1976, it was a curiosity and nothing more. Our lack of knowledge about it gave me the liberty to use the Face as a springboard for a first-contact story. By the time the novel was published in 1992, though, the Face had become the subject of tabloid journalism and pseudo-science books, and not long after that the Cydonia region of Mars was revisited by subsequent NASA probes, during which the Face disappeared. I don’t regret the novel I wrote — it’s a good adventure story that sold many copies in both the U.S. and in Europe — but it’s now obsolete and I don’t mind that it’s gone out of print.

VENTRELLA: What is it about alternate history novels that appeals to writers and readers?

STEELE: The appeal of alternative history is obvious: depicting what might have happened if certain events had happened in a different way. It’s like futuristic SF, only in reverse. And just as it’s unwise to read a futuristic SF novel as a means of predicting the future, I think that it’s similarly unwise to read an alt-history story as a means of understanding the past. It’s just another form of storytelling, really.

VENTRELLA: What did you do to prepare for your alternate history novels?

STEELE: When I’ve researched the alt-history stories I’ve written, I’ve started by reading every reliable account I can find that depict the particular historical events upon which I’ve basing that particular story or novel. If possible, I visit actual locations; museums are another major resource. I take loads of notes, and during this period I’m fine-tuning the story and characters as well. It’s hard work, but I think it pays off in the sort of verisimilitude that you need to achieve if the reader is going to buy into the variation on history that I’m depicting.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

STEELE: The common mistake by novice SF writers is two-fold: not doing enough research, and then letting the research they have done get in the way of their story. Science fiction is hard to write, mainly because of the homework involved — which is a principal reason, I think, why so many new writers have taken to fantasy or horror instead; they’re easier to do — and there’s a great temptation to take shortcuts, but it’s just those sorts of shortcuts that undermine the story you’re creating. The other side of the coin is to do boatloads of research, then front-load everything you’ve learned into the story you’re writing; this can bog things down and cause the reader to lose interest. So you have to walk a line here: do your homework, but don’t bore the class by telling them every little thing that you learned.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

STEELE: I think fiction writing is something that can be learned, yes … but it takes a long time to develop the skills necessary to tell a good story, and it’s a task that shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. Not every kid who joins a Little League team is going to grow up to be a pitcher for the Red Sox; not every guy who plays guitar in a garage band is cut out to tour with the Rolling Stones. Somehow, though, there’s a belief that if you know how to spell correctly and can compose a coherent paragraph, you’ve got the chops to publish a novel. Writing is hard work; it’s not something you learn overnight. And, yeah, it helps if you have a certain innate talent for this sort of thing. I once tried to learn how to play guitar, but gave up after two months of weekly classes after my instructor and I came to the realization that I have no musical talent whatsoever. So if you don’t really think you’re a writer … well, you should be honest with yourself and admit that you probably aren’t.

VENTRELLA: What’s the most interesting light bulb moment you’ve had, where you suddenly have an idea that makes the entire story?

STEELE: I had one of those moments just a couple of weeks ago. You’ll forgive me, though, if I don’t describe it in detail; I haven’t written the story yet. It involves an interesting little item I found at my next-door neighbor’s tag sale. Within five minutes of picking it up, I had an entire short story in my head. It’ll be fun … once I get around to writing it.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. What effect will this have on the publishing industry? For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

STEELE: No one is really sure how ebooks are going to shape the publishing industry. There’s a lot of projections that they may eventually replace hardcovers or mass-market paperbacks. On the other hand, most readers I know tell me that they still prefer print novels. But I think ebooks are not only here to stay, but also have the potential to completely reshape how — and even what — people read. The take-off point will occur when the price of a good, reliable ebook device drops to about $50. If and when that occurs, you’ll see them all over the place.

Beginning novelists will probably have an easier time adapting to whatever changes there may be, simply because they’ll be able to take advantage of them from the get-go. It’s guys like me, who’ve had long careers writing exclusively for the print medium, who are going to have a tougher time adapting to the new environment. But we’re trying, we’re trying…

VENTRELLA: You’ll be the guest of honor at Albacon this year. What is it about attending conventions appeals to you?

STEELE: I don’t attend as many SF conventions as I used to, mainly because I’d rather spend my time writing. But when I do go to conventions — like MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin, last week, or Albacon in Albany, New York, next week — I generally have a lot of fun in a lot of different ways. I like meeting readers I haven’t met before, or seeing again those whom I’ve already met, or catching up with old friends and colleagues. I’m also a book collector, so you’ll usually find me prowling the dealer’s room in search of items to fill out my collection. And it sometimes gives me a chance to see a town I haven’t visited before, as I did in Madison.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now? Come on, give us a peek!

STEELE: I won’t tell you what I’m currently writing except that to say that it’s a young-adult SF novel, my first of this kind. The next novel to be published is HEX, which is set in the Coyote universe and is my take on the Dyson sphere concept; it’ll be out next June from Ace. As for what I’m going to do after that … I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along.

Interview with author Allen Wold

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Allen Wold today. Allen Wold has published nine novels, several short stories (mostly for the Elf Quest anthologies), five non-fiction books on computers, and a number of articles, columns, reviews, and so forth, also concerning computers. He is a member of SFWA and teaches writing.

ALLEN WOLD: Many people have complimented me by assuming that I teach writing classes, at NC State or somewhere. I am not associated with any college, or university, or even a high school. The only “classes” I teach are my writing workshops, which I do at science fiction conventions. Because of people’s comments, I have begun to think of myself as a teacher, and I am quite flattered that people think of me as one. I do have some ideas about how writing can be “taught,” and about college courses in “creative writing” (Manley Wade Wellman said that “creative writing” is redundant, all writing is creative), but some of these are best saved for private conversation. There are, and have been, some excellent writing teachers in various colleges and universities, teachers who’s stories you can read in magazines, or who’s books you can buy in bookstores. But I am not one of them.

VENTRELLA: How did you first get published? Did you have an agent?

WOLD: I did have an agent. I no longer remember the exact details, I was sending my first novel THE PLANET MASTERS around over the transom. Sharon Jarvis, then fiction editor at Playboy if I remember correctly, suggested two agents to me. I picked one, Lea Braff, and she agreed to represent it. At this time, I had no knowledge of submission protocols, and it probably showed. Lea sold my book to St. Martin’s Press, and after some fluffling around in the editorial department, it finally came out in 1972.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing industry changed since you entered it?

It has changed a lot, but I’m not really qualified to talk about that. I do not study the industry, and what I have seen, has been seen by many. So many imprints now being owned buy umbrella companies (pun intended); restriction or elimination of non-agented submissions; agents themselves taking new clients only by introduction; and, fortunately, the rise of the small independent publisher.

I felt many years ago, that the small press would, or should, or could become more important, to the average fiction writer, than the large houses, and nothing I have seen so far changes my mind about that. Some small presses lack editing skills, distribution, or money, but some have all of that and more. Big publishing is dominated by the marketing departments of the various houses, rather than by the editors. Sol Stein, one of the founders of Stein and Day, complains about that in his own company. But small presses are usually not subject to their accountants. Baen is probably the largest “small press” in the business, and the publisher, Toni Weisskopf, and her editor in chief, Hank Davis, make their own decisions. At least, that’s how I understand it, I’m sure Toni will correct me if I’m wrong.

My point here being that big publishing, it seems to me, is less concerned with books than with moving product — books or fried chicken, whatver, let’s just sell a lot. I’m not the first to think that.

VENTRELLA: How much should a writer consider the market when deciding what to write?

WOLD: Being aware of the market is essential. If you know, for example, that nobody is publishing paranormal erotica (they are, oh yes they are), and that’s what you want to write, then you have to be prepared to struggle to find a publisher, or perhaps make your story seem more like a similar genre which is being published. I don’t like that idea. Not too long ago, cross-genre work just couldn’t make it. Now it hardly matters. I suppose Lovcraftian Romance (in the sense of a story of love, as opposed to the original idea of a work of fiction) might be a hard sell, and I don’t know if anybody has tried it. Or would even want to. I could be wrong. Anime hentai tentacles…?

But if you devote too much energy to trying to figure out what is going to be popular two to three years down the line, you’ll always be wrong, and you’ll be wasting your time. Right now, paranormal romance is, in fact, doing quite well. And if you write one, just because it is doing well, by the time the book is written, and submitted, and rejected and resubmitted, it may no longer be so popular. Or it might be. But you’re worrying about anticipating a market, rather than about writing your story. If your story is good enough, somebody will take it, even if it is a bit difficult to find its place on a bookstore’s shelves.

So yes, be aware of the market, but don’t write for the market. Write what you have to write. Write a book that you’d like to read. You may start a trend. More likely you won’t, but hey, there are no guarantees in this business. None.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the emphasis on e-books is going to help the individual author?

WOLD: How can it hurt? Every sale is a sale. The more readers a writer has, the better. Several publishers, Baen for example, offer e-book versions of their hard-copy books, usually at a discount. Their cost is minimal, their profit margin is high, distribution costs them only download expenses, which is nothing compared to paper, ink, printing, trimming, binding, and so on. I’m not talking about reading books on line, but buying e-copies which you can read on your computer or your Kindle or Nook or iPad or whatever. These are actual sales, you own the book. It’s just not on paper. And the more people who read you —

Well, you have to have a good story to tell, and you have to tell a good story (not the same thing), or it doesn’t matter what format you’re in. Bad fiction goes nowhere (though some of it does get published, see Pel Toro for example). Good fiction gets found out, and is read. E-publication is something I’m keeping in mind for some of my projects, but not all. As is going with a small independent press. But never vanity, that’s a waste. If you have to pay for it, become your own press. It’s a lot cheaper.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make sure your characters are realistic and believable?

WOLD: I don’t use techniques. I use my ever increasing understanding of human nature and behavior. I watch people constantly, not deliberately most of the time, but automatically. Everybody I meet becomes a part of that compost heap in the back of my head, from which characterization (not characters) is drawn. Everything my characters do is what I have observed real people do (though I couldn’t tell you who is the model, or how many models there are), it’s the way real people behave.

Once a character begins to reveal himself, or herself, or itself to me, my task is to make sure that that behavior is consistent. One of my main gripes with the second version of Star Trek was that developed characters frequently acted out of character. Also true of the TV series V (the original, not the remake). That destroys a story for me.

I discover my characters, or at least, those that work. I discovered Larson McCade, Morgan Scott, Rikard Braeth, Freefoot, and all their supporting characters. I didn’t actually create them per se. And once I got to know them, it wasn’t that hard to portray them as they were, rather than make them go out of character for the sake of the plot.

Larson McCade, from THE PLANET MASTERS, is instructive. The story came to me in a flash of inspiration (lasting about two hours) while I was walking across the UNC-CH campus. But who would be my hero (or anti-hero, as it turned out)? I thought, what if I based McCade on myself, but on my darker self, the aspects of myself that I would never let anybody see, never allow myself to express, the shadow-me. Badly done with Spiderman, unfortunately. So I did. Since McCade was an aspect of me, I knew him intimately. I didn’t direct him on how to get from one plot point to another, I let him do it, that is, I did what I would do if I were he and in his situation, and I just wrote it down as it happened. Fortunately, I’m not Larson McCade, and we should all be thankful.

It’s taken me a long time to perfect that method, and I’m still working on it. I failed many times between now and this century. I didn’t even know what I was doing when I was doing it right. But I do now. All my Elf Quest characters, though I didn’t understand it at the time, were independent people in my head. I just presented them with problems, and let them solve them.

VENTRELLA: How do you prepare? Do you outline heavily?

WOLD: I used to outline, but not any more. My outlines could be five, ten, twenty pages. For my most recent book (rejected twice so far), I had just three plot points: I had to get here, then there, then somewhere else.

At a convention many years ago, I was on a panel with Fred Pohl. The question of outlines came up, and I said, yes, I use an outline, like a road map, or a blueprint. Some people said they hated outlines, because then they were trapped. I couldn’t understand that. Just because it’s in my outline doesn’t mean I have to do it. They said they wanted to be surprised. I felt like I didn’t want to be surprised if, without a blueprint, I discovered that I’d left out a door, or a bathroom. That has actually happened to people I know, with real houses. But Fred Pohl said “I used to outline, but I don’t any more.” I didn’t understand that either. Now I do. I do not predetermine what is going to happen, what people are going to do, what they are going to talk about. I select destinations. He discovers he’s up against a vampire and decides he has to destroy it but doesn’t know how; he is killed by the vampire and in his spirit form discovers how to destroy it but needs a corporeal body to do it; he finds a body he can take over and does what he has to do. Three points, 80,000 words. Rejected twice. But my vampires don’t sparkle. Dracula didn’t sparkle.

On the other hand, for another novel which hasn’t been rejected yet, I had a list of 198 scenes. Each scene was an objective, not a description. I kept to that “outline” as a form of discipline, and it worked. Each scene had a viewpoint character, fifty two in all, and each character was, in my mind, a real person. Sometimes the scene description was something like: Riding in the back seat, the little girl sees the blue lights around the house. Now, what happens? Well, I wrote the scene, and all the others, and we’ll see what happens.

How do I prepare? I need my main character, without which nothing happens. I need my setting, my world, however simple or complex that may be, though I don’t need elaborate details, as I’ll discover more about it later. I need the situation in which my character finds himself, or herself, or itself. (Clumsy, isn’t it? How about themself? Check the OED for the use of they/them as equivalent to “he or she.”) I need to know what my character wants. And I have to know what I, as the Creator — um, creator — want my ending to be. Luke Skywalker wants off Tatooine, to go to university, and become a pilot. George Lucas wants to destroy the Death Star, and has to lead, not push, Luke to that ending.

Then it happens.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest misconception beginning writers have about the craft?

WOLD: That they need talent. Talent is nice. Talent makes things easy. But talent is not necessary. There are plenty of writers who do quite well and have no talent to speak of, but who have acquired the necessary skills, and the reader can’t tell the difference. Skill is far more important. Talent is what you are born with. Skill is learned, and you can learn an awful lot. Any writer who has written more than one book improves from book to book (or they don’t, depending on their talent rather than acquiring skill, and it shows). Dorothy L. Sayers first novel, WHOSE BODY, is nicely done, somewhat frivolous, and LORD PETER is definitely silly. By the time she gets to GAUDY NIGHT, she is a master, telling a story that is neither romance nor mystery, but a deep tale of two people caught up in a distressing situation. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane are real people. The book can stand alone. Dorothy L. Sayers’ talent was revealed in her first book. Her extensive skills are shown in her last book. (BUSSMAN’S HONEYMOON is a novelization of her own play, and something of a disappointment.)

There are other essentials, such as making, not finding, time; developing discipline; acquiring patience; and having the dedication to actually do it.

This last is truly important. You cannot become a writer if you don’t write. You must make the decision that you are, in fact, going to do it. You decide to acquire those other essentials, putting other aspects of your life aside, and you write. You read extensively, especially what you like to read (and you should write what you like to read, not what you “ought” to write), but read outside your field too. And read non-fiction, especially biography, history, mythology, archaeology, and anything to do with human nature and behavior.

You may discover you don’t really want to do this after all, that it takes too much effort and time, that it’s too hard, that the rewards aren’t worth it. In which case, give it up with a clean conscience. Many people who take my workshop discover that they don’t really want to be writers after all, and that’s fine. They’re now free of that obsession, and can go on to something else.

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

See above. But not giving it enough time, thinking there’s an easy way, not listening to competent comment, not reading enough, taking TV as their model. (Oh, yes, that’s a good one. Thinking that science fiction is what you see on TV or in the movies. Thinking that characters are what you see on TV or in the movies. Huge mistake.) Not paying attention to the real world.

All good fiction is based on, and derived from, the real world in some way or another. The most bizarre fantasy has roots in the real world, at least in the way people react to the bizarreness. Also, trying to write SF without understanding science. You don’t have to have degrees, but you must have a basic understanding of how the world really works. And if you don’t know, either stuff it in a black box, or do some research. The old Tom Baker Dr. Who did this extremely well. They did not make mistakes in their science. They either knew how it worked, or they black-boxed it. I was quite impressed.

Another is not checking a publisher’s submission guidelines. Always check the guidelines, and submit that way, whether you like it or not. Do not try to save paper by printing single spaced on both sides of the page. Always use adequate margins, a header with name and title and page number. And so on. You can learn basic submission formatting, most publishers with tell you. Follow the guidelines, or you’ll be rejected out of hand. Really.

VENTRELLA: Some of your novels are currently out of print. Do you have any desire to have them released as e-books? Is that possible?

WOLD: I would love to have them come out in any format. Currently, THE PLANET MASTERS should be released soon in a print on demand format from Warren Lapine’s Wilder Books, but I don’t know when. Contact Warren and ask for it. He may be doing something more.

VENTRELLA: Do you think writers should begin with the short story market?

WOLD: A story is as long as it takes to tell it. If you try to condense an idea to a short story format, it won’t work. If you puff an idea to novel length, it won’t work. The short story market is tight, not counting on-line publication, but it’s still there. You have to do your research. Back in the day, most SF&F writers started with the magazines, back when there were more than five or six national magazines that actually paid money. These days the whole industry is completely different. If you love flash fiction, and write it, that’s what you should try to sell. If you prefer the short story format, there are all kinds of magazines (some pretty bad), and open anthologies to which you can sell. If you prefer novels, say 100,000 words or so, that’s what you should do, though it won’t be easy. Especially if you’re a beginner. I know well established writers who are suddenly being dropped by their publishers, though their books continue to sell. I have no idea why. Maybe because the publishers are more interested in moving product than selling books. I don’t know.

Write what you write, know what the market is, and find the right home. You can not write to a market, it’s too volatile, and your heart won’t be in it.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best resource a writer should use in order to find a market for their short stories?

WOLD: There are two: Ralan and Duotrope .

VENTRELLA: What have you been up to lately? What are you working on now?

WOLD: Lately? Writing, of course. That’s what I do. Every day that I can. I have obligations on Saturdays, and Sundays I try to restore my energy, but otherwise, unless something unavoidable comes up, oh, say, having my gall bladder removed, or like that, I write. Every day. See, I’m writing this today.

And I read, mostly non-fiction. And watch movies, to take me away from my writing rather than for inspiration. And attend to my household management responsibilities (my wife works full time and supports me in every way).

Right now I’m doing a complete rewrite of a book I first wrote in 1990. I learned then the absolute necessity, for me, of having my personal Death Star in mind. I threw away four false starts, totaling about 100,000 words, before I finally asked myself, how do I want this to end? When I had that, everything drove toward that ending, though my hero wanted to do something else.

When we came back from England, in ‘98, I reread it, and it wasn’t very good. I had always wanted to do a character-driven story, instead of a plot-driven story, so I rewrote it, giving my characters free rein. It didn’t sell. Then I reread it again, saw how undisciplined my description and dialog was, and I’m rewriting it from scratch, not revising it, keeping the story as written, but tightening, cleaning up, making my characters internally consistent, cutting out unnecessary description, and tons of bad dialogue. It’s turning out pretty well. But we’ll see. When this draft is done, I’m going to do a new book set in THE EYE IN THE STONE world, then come back to STROAD’S CROSS for a final pass, and try to find a market for it. It’s a haunted village, not a haunted house, forgotten by people who live in the small town a mile away, perfectly preserved for fifty years, abandoned with food on the stove, money in cash registers, toys dropped on the floor. Finding out the truth is what the story is about.

Don’t hold your breath. These things take time.

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Interview with David Niall Wilson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing David Niall Wilson today. David has been writing professionally since the 1980s. He has more than sixteen novels and 200 short stories published and has won the Bram Stoker Award for poetry and for short fiction. He is an ex-president of the Horror Writer’s Association and an ordained minster. David lives and writes on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina with the love of his life, Patricia Lee Macomber, their children Stephanie, Billy, Zachar, Zane, and Katie, two brainless Pekingese and a chinchilla named Pook Daddy. David is CEO and founder of Crossroad Press, publishing e-books and professional level audio books. His personal web page is http://www.davidniallwilson.com/ and the publishing site is http://www.crossroadpress.com/catalog

Vampire novels began your career, with White Wolf. Were these stories based on the vampire LARP games? Were you limited in any way because of this?

WILSON: First off, my career (at least by publication date) started with the sale of my stand-alone vampire novel, THIS IS MY BLOOD, followed by the actual publication of CHRYSALIS, my Star Trek Voyager novel.

To answer the question, yes, the White Wolf novels I wrote were all written in their “World of Darkness” and were always intended as companion fiction to their games. The vampires were required to be part of a known clan, to have the proper abilities, and in many cases the novels – while I plotted them – had a particular outcome that was required to further the overall story arc the publishers / editors had in mind. Yes, it was a bit restrictive, but I had a lot of fun with it. Recently I wrote the novel VINTAGE SOUL, which came out in hardcover this past December. It’s the first in a series titled “The DeChance Chronicles” that is written in much the same style and “feel” of my White Wolf novels.

VENTRELLA: You’ve used religion in your writing. What sort of research did you do to prepare?

WILSON: Well, just about every biographical note concerning me will mention that I’m an ordained minister. While that’s a bit tongue in cheek, I spent many years of my youth studying for just that purpose. It wasn’t until about my second year in the US Navy that I determined most (if not all) organized religion was merely an excuse for a small group of people to take control of a larger group by making crazy rules and blaming it on supernatural entities. I left the church behind, but not before I was pretty well versed in The Bible and most denominations who claim to live by it.

VENTRELLA: For the benefit of those unaware, can you describe the plot to THIS IS MY BLOOD?

WILSON: It is a retelling of the gospel from a very different perspective. When Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted by the devil, there is one temptation added. One of the fallen is raised as a woman to tempt him with the flesh. Instead, the woman, named Mary, falls in love with Jesus and his promise of returning her to Heaven.

Cursed to follow him and drink the blood of his followers, Mary walks a fine line between her desire to love and support the Christ, and her burning need to return to Heaven. This novel takes the world of faith, which was the world of men, and of the apostles, and shows it through the eyes of a fallen angel – one who has, in her own words, walked the roads of both Heaven, and Hell. She doesn’t believe there is a God … she knows.

Faithful to the storyline of the original gospels, only weaving in new things when there are gaps in the old, this is a novel of faith, redemption, and ultimate sacrifice.

It’s also my shot at that aforementioned organized religion. In this novel Mary knows that there is a Heaven, and a Hell. She has no need of faith, and this frees her to comment on the lack of belief, harmony, and strength in the apostles … not to mention I’ve always thought Judas got a bad deal, and had fun correcting that as well.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any negative response to your books which use religion as the core?

WILSON: Not a bit. In fact, more than one person (recently, even) has told me that the work has given them new perspective on the Christian faith. So far as I know the only time it’s been an issue was when a German publisher said they could not publish it because they were backed in great part by The Vatican.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever had an idea that bit at you but you couldn’t make work?

WILSON: Not so far. I have had moments where I had an idea I knew to be very, very good, and worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. The first time this happened was when I sat down to write THIS IS MY BLOOD. Oddly, the project I’ve just started feels that way, though after all the years and words, I’m less worried whether I can do it than I am whether I’m ready to do it…I guess time will tell.

VENTRELLA: Writing a short story is much different from writing a novel. What are the difficulties you have found?

WILSON: I’ve always been good with short fiction (I suppose that explains the award). I have noticed, though, that if you spend most of your time writing novels, it can be more difficult to go back to short form with success. You have to change your focus – sort of like the difference between a snapshot and a movie. A short story usually winds around a single conflict, while a novel can have multiple related plots that wind in and around one another. You have to be a lot more careful with your words in the short form and waste none of them.

VENTRELLA: Why do you think some authors specialize in one or the other?

WILSON: Part of it is a difference in career focus. It’s not impossible to make a living with short fiction, but it’s almost as rare as making a career of being a poet. If you want to reach larger audiences and make a mark, it’s necessary to move into longer forms at some point.

For some, creating short stories is the focus. They love theme anthologies, magazines, and collections, and I admire authors who can maintain that focus. As for myself, I write short fiction when time allows, but my focus has largely shifted to novels and screenplays.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the public is sick of vampire stories yet? Will there be a saturation point? (As an aside, I hope not, given my next book…)

WILSON: I don’t think vampires are going anywhere soon. They are very versatile, shifting to fit whatever the fiction style du jour might be. Today they are mostly just characters in bigger stories. In the old school vampire novels, the fact that there were vampires WAS the story. Now they are just characters with a different set of needs, powers, and goals. They’re not going to disappear on us in the foreseeable future.

VENTRELLA: What work of yours would you advise as a starting point for your books and why?

WILSON: It depends entirely on what sort of fiction you enjoy. My most enduring work is THIS IS MY BLOOD, while my personal favorite so far is DEEP BLUE. My latest is VINTAGE SOUL, and I’m hoping that will launch a series that sort of falls halfway between White Wolf and Harry Dresden. I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, dark fantasy, and horror. There’s something available out there for nearly everyone.

VENTRELLA: I note that you do not limit your blog to your writing only, and instead discuss whatever you want. What sort of feedback do you receive? Do your fans appreciate this, skip past it, or does it matter?

WILSON: I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on the blog, and I have to say, I can’t imagine the purpose of a blog other than to share what’s on your mind. There’s only so much one can write about their work, and if you want to actually create rapport with readers, you have to be willing to give something in return. I am personally turned off by and uninterested in blogs that cover nothing but a writer’s work. It feels like an advertisement rather than a connection.

VENTRELLA: And finally: What advice would you give to an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

WILSON: Not sure that it was not given to me and ignored, but I’d say the best advice in today’s writing world is to not get caught up in blogs, websites, hunting for agents, worrying over markets, self-publishing, and “branding” to the point that you forget the most important thing. If you don’t write, write well, and then write some more, all the rest is a waste of time.

Interview with author Marie Lamba

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Young Adult author Marie Lamba today. Marie is the author of the humorous young adult novel WHAT I MEANT…, which Publisher’s Weekly has dubbed “an impressive debut.” She has two more novels which will be coming out soon. In addition to her fiction writing, Marie has written and published more than 100 articles, including features in national magazines such as Garden Design, Your Home, and Sports International. Her most recent piece, “Plotting a Novel Group,” appears in the February 2008 issue of Writer’s Digest. Her web page is www.marielamba.com.

MARIE LAMBA: Hi Michael. Thank you for having me on your blog.

VENTRELLA: Marie, what is it that makes a novel a Young Adult novel?

LAMBA: To me, a young adult novel is categorized primarily by the age of the main character. Since readers read about characters older than themselves, if you have a 13-year-old protagonist, you’ve just written a middle reader (not a YA), and will have mostly elementary school aged readers. Also, content figures in. Sometimes the content is not right for the YA market. But these days, almost anything goes for YA readers. The edgier the better, though you may just be banned by schools…which usually reaps great press and even better sales, interestingly enough.

VENTRELLA: You keep a pretty active blog. Do you think this is necessary to help promote your work?

LAMBA: My site helps me promote my work every single day. I’ve heard people say that if you don’t update your blog at least 3 times a week, then don’t bother having one. I heartily disagree. Sometimes it’s not about getting a huge number of subscribers, but about having a presence, and being able to be found in various ways.

While my blog may seem really active, I sometimes post as rarely as once a month. I just don’t think there’s a point in posting unless I really have something to say. Yet the site is dynamic and gets a fair number of hits everyday because I’ve got a lot going on there. In addition to offering updates about my work, essays on writing, and book reviews, I’ve made it function as my website, www.marielamba.com. So folks are going there to find out about my appearances, to read my bio, to read excerpts from my books, etc. And with links to my Twitter feed, there is always something new to see.

By combining my website with my blog, people stumble onto it while doing the weirdest searches. Like when looking for the menu of Nat’s Pizza. And then they see that my novel has a scene set there. Then they click on my link to buy my Doylestown-based novel. All because of a blog post that tagged Nat’s Pizza in it, if that makes sense?

VENTRELLA: Should unpublished authors have a blog?

LAMBA: Absolutely. It’s a great way to start establishing yourself and your voice. Everything from the color scheme you use to the tone of your bio can help create a feel for who you are. Have a page on your blog with short excerpts of your work, but don’t give away too much material there. Just enough for a taste.

If you really want to be savvy, then you could use your site for things such as book reviews and editor and publisher interviews, which would make your name familiar to the “powers that be.”

VENTRELLA: What can an author do to make their blog stand out among the many out there?

LAMBA: I think it goes back to your voice. Who you are should come through in the tone of your writing, and what you choose to highlight. Then, of course, you need to connect with your audience. That’s where bringing your site to the attention of an organization can help. For example, after I wrote a post about plotting, I saw on a children’s writing message board that I belong to that there was some recent discussion about plotting. I immediately commented there, providing my link to my post.

VENTRELLA: You also make extensive use of Twitter. How can you make your tweets stand out when there are so many people on Twitter? And do you think this is an efficient use of your time?

LAMBA: You know, Twitter is so quick that it isn’t the time suck that sites like Facebook seem to be. At least not for me. Here’s the trick though: when you post there, make it under 40 characters so that you can easily be retweeted to others. Also, try to always provide a link, whether it is to a relevant blog post or a Facebook invite to an event. Links are always too long, so go to www.bitly.com, paste the link there, and you’ll get a shorter link that you can use. And don’t always make your tweets about you. Highlight the accomplishments of others. It’s fun to do, plus I think it’s just good karma.

As for making your tweets stand out, I definitely avoid the whole “I’m getting a cup of coffee now” variety of posts. Again, I only go on there when I have something to say or I really want to respond to someone. I think then people will pay more attention to you. You aren’t the annoying talker everyone wishes would go away. And I try not to follow just anyone or anything. My list is made up of people I know, and of publishers, editors, librarians, media, authors. In short (in the spirit of Twitter), folks who might actually care to hear what I have to say.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? (Do you outline heavily, create character backgrounds first, come up with the basic concept and run with it, etc.?)

LAMBA: Good question. It’s evolving. For my past few novels, I knew my final scene. I had my opening dialogue. And then I was off! Kind of like knowing I’m driving to California, and therefore start heading west, but without a map. I do get to the end eventually. The fun thing about this method is the unexpected twists and turns. The not-so-fun thing is cleaning up the mess that I’ve created, trying to make it more direct and cohesive. It can take a long time.

With my current novel, I’m trying to be more organized. I’ve plotted it out, and now I’m in the outlining stage. Then I’ll start writing. I’m hoping that this will help me write faster. My last novel DRAWN (which is now out on submission), took over a year and a half to write. I want to be much more productive than that.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing in your fiction that no one else is doing? What makes your book different and exciting?

LAMBA: I think, again, it comes down to voice. I’m the only person with my point of view and my humor, and that flavors the plot and the characters. With WHAT I MEANT… (Random House YA), the book’s cast of bi-racial characters mirrors my own family’s blend of Italian-American and Asian-Indian personalities. Because WHAT I MEANT… has a mixed race protagonist, yet it is a mainstream story not focused on race, it became a standout in the field.

VENTRELLA: Have you received any surprising results from your writing?

LAMBA: It is always touching to have readers contact me saying that they identified with the characters and that WHAT I MEANT… is their favorite book. One girl even said that she never cries at anything, yet she found herself bawling at the end of my novel because it touched her. That was humbling.

On a funny note, an ex-boyfriend from high school assumed that one of the guy characters in the novel was named after him. He wasn’t.

VENTRELLA: You do a lot of personal appearances to promote your books. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing these? How do you organize them?

LAMBA: The main advantage is making a personal connection with a reader. If someone meets you and enjoys talking with you, they’ll also remember you and feel a connection to your writing. This is really how books are sold: one reader at a time. I love meeting people, and appearances take me away from my isolated little writing spot and out into the real world. All good. The disadvantage? I can’t think of a single one. I’m careful to pick and choose where and when I go so it doesn’t take away from my writing time.

Events happen many ways. Sometimes booksellers or conferences or teachers contact me. Sometimes I get in touch with them if I have a specific event idea. And I have done presentations to hundreds and hundreds of scouts. I also have to mention that I’m a proud member of the Philly Liars Club, a collection of 13 authors who basically lie for a living. Together we stage a slew of oddball events, and have a blast.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss the publishing business a bit. With self-publishing and e-books becoming more prominent, how do you think this will change the demand and market for new writers?

LAMBA: I really think that self-publishing and e-books represent a revolution in publishing, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1460’s when old Guttenberg came onto the scene with his printing press, displacing those hard-working monks and their illuminated manuscripts. Documents at that time show that people didn’t realize the magnitude or ramifications of what was going on. Quite simply, the change was so huge that they couldn’t envision the implications.

And so it goes with us. We speculate, but we can barely foresee what all these huge changes mean. I say look to the music industry, to prevalent iPods and the dearly departed record stores. And be cautious. Will books on paper no longer exist? Will bookstores and libraries disappear? Will publishers become obsolete? The only thing I know for sure is that no matter what form content will take, someone will have to write it.

Cling to that, writers and future writers. We are not replaceable.

VENTRELLA: Do you think the stigma of being self-published will continue? Do you think it’s deserved?

LAMBA: Some self-published books are brilliant. Others are painful and shouldn’t see the light of day. Books that are horribly written and barely edited definitely ruin the reputation of others out there, sadly.

I do think that as distribution of self-published novels improves, and more established authors step into this arena, that this stigma will fade. I mean, what does an author like Stephen King really need a publisher for? Couldn’t someone of that stature just put books out into the stratosphere by himself by self-publishing? J.A. Konrath has started to do it with some success, though he still also goes the traditional route.

VENTRELLA: Who are your favorite authors? Why?

LAMBA: Anne Tyler for her beautiful imagery and quirky characters. T.H. White for his epic storytelling, sense of grandeur, and sense of humor. Audrey Niffeneger for her amazing plotting abilities. Sarah Dessen for her touching and real YA voice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest mistake you see aspiring writers make?

LAMBA: Not taking the time to polish their work, and really learn their craft. Writers need to work so hard to improve everything they do. Established authors are always struggling to polish, to edit. They value pointed criticism, and vigorously revise. When I see someone with talent refusing to do this type of work to polish their manuscript, or not absorbing decent criticism, I know that they are limiting themselves, and that’s a shame.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you offer that you wish someone had offered you?

LAMBA: Writing is not only an art, it’s a business. And sometimes in this business really nasty crap will happen to you. In fact, expect it. Your novel, no matter how important it is to you, is just a commodity in the business world. Be as businesslike as you can, while protecting the sensitive artist within. And write another book. And another. And another.

VENTRELLA: And what’s next? What can we look forward to seeing from you?

LAMBA: My YA paranormal DRAWN (excerpt on my blog/website) is under consideration right now. It’s about a teen artist who moves to England in search of a normal life. But then she starts channeling one very hot ghost through her drawings. Not normal at all.

And right now I’m working on a novel for adults: When an Italian grandmother shares old fashioned recipes for sauces and for a happy life, her three granddaughters test the ingredients in fresh ways, cooking up a surprising blend of spice, passion, trouble and true love.

That pretty much sums it up! Thanks, again, for having me here.

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Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author Rachel Caine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing NY Times bestselling author Rachel Caine. Rachel has the Morganville Vampires series, Weather Warden series, and the Outcast Season series, as well as writing paranormal romantic action/adventure and many other genres. Rachel will be the Guest of Honor at Ravencon next weekend (April 9 – 11, 2010) where I am a mere minor guest! Her web page is here.

Rachel, what is it that makes a novel a “young adult” novel?

RACHEL CAINE: The way I look at it, it’s purely a matter of the age of the central characters. My four main characters are ages 17, 18 and 19 now, and as with all characters, their ages and life experience shape the events of the book. So it’s not that I deliberately target the audience … it’s that I think in order to be faithful to the characters and the story, it should naturally appeal to a young adult audience. (Although I have plenty of adult readers of this series as well.)

VENTRELLA: It seems like you have a new book out every month! How do you manage to be so prolific?

CAINE: Ha, I don’t think it’s *every* month. But definitely 3 or 4 a year, that’s true. Most of that’s driven by the YA series (Morganville Vampires) because the schedule for that is we’re publishing one every six months vs. a year for the adult novels (Weather Warden and Outcast Season). But when you add it all together, three series going at the same time does tend to add up fast.

I think I’m lucky that I really enjoy writing to tight deadlines (generally) — it’s been a really great balance against my sometimes stressful day job.

VENTRELLA: There is an ironic balance that has to be met when writing about the supernatural, in that it has to be rooted in reality to be believable. How have you made decisions about integrating the real with fantasy?

CAINE: I’m going to shamelessly quote Jim Butcher, who once said that in order to have urban fantasy that feels realistic you need to have about as much “real” as you do “fantasy.” I believe that’s true … If you look at the success of the movie “Hellboy”, I think that first film achieved a wonderful balance in that area. Sure, you’ve got a big red devil guy running around fighting monsters, but there’s so much real world complication that it makes it all that much funnier and more outrageous. I thought that in the second film, good as it was, they forgot that balance, and slid it to about 75% fantasy, 25% real world … and I think it wasn’t as strong as the first.

So I try to balance my fantastic elements with the fact that everybody, even supernaturally gifted people, have to worry about bills and dry cleaning and child care. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What is it about vampires that attracts such attention these days? Do you think this is just a trend? (I hope not, since my third novel will be a vampire book …)

CAINE: Well, I’ve actually been in the vampire field when it was cool before (in the early 90s) and when it wasn’t (in the late 90s), and now it’s cool again, which is kind of great. Vampires never really go out of style — we’ve been afraid of them for thousands of years, and writing about them in fiction for more than 100 years. The fascinating thing is that in the beginning, vampires were soulless monsters … reflecting that hidden terror that those you know and love can suddenly become monsters. And then they took on personalities and became more sympathetic, and eventually (by the mid-70s) became actual misunderstood romantic anti-heroes. By the mid-1980s, vampires had become heroic, appearing as police officers, detectives, doctors, all kinds of professions that had always been seen as admirable. Now, it seems that they’re back to the dark, romantic Heathcliff-type heroes (at least in the romance circles), but then there’s graphic novels like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT that harken back to the terrifying soulless monster vampires prototypes. So there’s lots of room to do anything you’d like in vampires, which I think is fantastic fun.

VENTRELLA: For those unfamiliar with your work, can you give a quick description of your main series?

CAINE: The Morganville Vampires series (Young Adult) follows the adventures of Claire Danvers and her fellow housemates Eve, Shane and Michael in the town of Morganville … just your average Texas college town, except that it’s controlled by vampires, and the city taxes get collected by Bloodmobiles. Once you’re in on the secret, you’ll never make it out of town alive. Not all the vampires are bad, but they’re all unpredictable, and Claire and her friends often find themselves caught in the middle of the ultimate haves-and-have-not struggle.

The Weather Warden series (Urban fantasy) features Joanne Baldwin, a sexy, sassy woman with a secret … she can control the weather, and she’s part of a secret organization that battles the forces of nature on a regular basis. Mother Nature really doesn’t like us, and only Joanne and the Wardens stand between us and total extinction … when they’re not battling among themselves. Oh, and there are Djinn (genies) who sometimes serve the Wardens, and quite often turn on them with fatal results. Trust Joanne to engage in the most dangerous kind of romance … with one of the most powerful Djinn in existence.

The Outcast Season series (Urban fantasy) is a spin off of the Warden universe, and concerns Cassiel, a former Djinn who’s been cut off from her supernatural kin and now must survive in a human world she doesn’t understand or like, with the aid of Wardens she’s never respected. But in her struggle to survive, she finds herself drawn more and more to the humans she cares for, in particular Warden Luis Rocha — which makes things more difficult when she realizes that she may have a destiny after all: to destroy the human race.

VENTRELLA: How have you planned out the Morganville series?

CAINE: I had a six-book story arc planned, and I’m making the second set of six more standalone stories. There is a certain continuity to the storyline, but I’m trying to avoid too many cliffhangers. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What do you do to create believable characters who learn and grow from their adventures?

CAINE: I don’t know that it’s a conscious process for me … the characters really seem to do that on their own. I have found that less is more in character development … the more tics and traits you give a character, the less natural they seem over time. I find that starting small gives characters plenty of room to grow.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the publishing business?

CAINE: Not in any way that anyone else should look on as typical! I never intended to … a friend bought me a ticket to a writer’s conference and dropped me at the door. He wanted me to learn about being a writer because I’d been writing on my own (and hiding it) for more than 15 years at that point. So I thought I’d talk to an editor or two, and that would be that.

Only the first editor I talked to hired me to do my first novel. So that worked a little better than I expected, actually. That was in 1990, and I’ve been publishing ever since … with the occasional career hiccup.

VENTRELLA: Some of your earlier works were written under other names. Why did you do that, and would you advise others to do so?

CAINE: And that would be the “occasional career hiccup” referred to above. 🙂 I wrote as Roxanne Longstreet (my maiden name) when first starting out, but my books didn’t really burn up the shelves in any significant way. When my first publisher told me they wouldn’t be able to buy more from me, I changed my name to my married name (Roxanne Conrad) and tried again, with similar results. Rachel Caine is proof that the third time is the charm, I think!

I did use the name “Julie Fortune” for a media tie-in novel for Stargate, mainly because at that time the “Rachel Caine” identity was still new and fragile, and I didn’t want to risk bad sales on something so far outside of my new areas of expertise. But Julie actually has done pretty well on her own.

VENTRELLA: Of which book are you most proud? What would you like to be remembered for?

CAINE: I don’t think I’d like to be remembered for one book … more for a body of work. I can’t really say that I prefer one book over another; from my perspective they each have different characters, but mostly in the sense of where I was emotionally at the time I did the work. I’m not the best judge of that sort of thing. I’m just happy that it seems to touch people and entertain them.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on e-books? Do you think they’re the wave of the future or a step down from traditional publishing?

CAINE: I don’t think it’s a step down at all, but there are a number of people who simply don’t like to read on the screen, so I think traditional publishing will always have a place. For people who read for the experience of the story, versus collecting books, I think ebooks are perfect — portable, simple, and disposable. For collectors, nothing will replace the experience of a book.

I do think there is a real and growing problem related to ebooks … there’s a basic misunderstanding of copyright as it relates to electronic files. Buying an ebook doesn’t give someone the right to copy it wholesale and sell it on to others … and there’s a constant issue with this happening. Most of those people don’t understand that what they’re doing is setting themselves up as a digital publisher, which is robbing both the author and the publisher. Unless we can collectively get that settled, it’s going to bleed the industry dry over time.

VENTRELLA: You’ve wisely advised authors before not to self-publish. Why is that important?

CAINE: I don’t say never self-publish, but it’s not a good way to launch a career as a writer. If the person wants simply to have a book, and has no expectations of continuing to advance in it as a career, then self-publishing might be okay. But there are a lot of drawbacks to self-publishing … you’re responsible for marketing, getting your books into physical stores, and competing with authors who don’t have to do any of that for themselves. Don’t kid yourself: it takes time away from your writing, and trying to break into bookstores in any kind of volume is difficult, if not almost impossible.

Self-publishing also has a reputation — sometimes undeserved, but often accurate — of not being good quality. Often the covers aren’t very good, and unless you’re extremely good at self-editing, or employ a professional editor who knows their stuff, the product is often easy to detect as amateurish rather than professional. So you have a huge burden to overcome.

The last thing I’ll say is this: very few people have ever made decent money from self-publishing, and those that have, generally jumped to traditional publishers as quickly as possible. Don’t get fooled by companies that promise you they’ll publish your book, but then require you to pay for editorial, marketing, and other services. They make money off of you. Your chances of making money from them is pretty small.

VENTRELLA: Finally, what is it about conventions that you like?

CAINE: I love hanging out with my people. 🙂 I’ve always been drawn to conventions — where I can have endlessly fun conversations about things that I’m passionate about, whether it’s geeky obsession over a TV show or deep conversation about life, the universe, and everything (thanks, Douglas Adams!). I’ve met many of my best friends through conventions, and had some of my finest times ever.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk with you! Looking forward to seeing you at RavenCon!

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