Interview with Author and Editor Val Griswold-Ford

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am happy to be interviewing Valerie Griswold-Ford, writer and editor. Val was journalism major in college and covered several political beats, wrote a weekly column and rose to associate managing editor of The Daily Campus, the fifth largest daily newspaper in Connecticut. Val writes dark fantasy, horror, paranormal romance and urban fantasy, in addition to her nonfiction works. She is currently co-editing the third book in the “Complete Guide” series with Lai Zhao, entitled THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY: THE AUTHOR’S GRIMOIRE. Her two dark fantasy novels NOT YOUR FATHER’S HORSEMAN and DARK MOON SEASONS are available from Dragon Moon Press, and she is working on the third book in the trilogy, LAST RITES. She lives with her husband and three kittens in Concord, New Hampshire. Her web page is www.vg-ford.com

Val, your most recent work is the pirates and magic collection of short stories RUM AND RUNESTONES, due out in April of 2010. Where did the idea for this come from?

VAL GRISWOLD-FORD: Well, I’m a pirate addict. I adore pirates, and always have. So I was at a party at RavenCon last year with Misty Massey and Gail Martin, and we decided that we had to do an anthology of pirates and magic. I pitched it to Gwen Gades, the head of Dragon Moon Press, got the okay, and we were off!

VENTRELLA: Tell us about this new collection!

GRISWOLD-FORD: It’s amazing. More than I’d ever imagined. The writers were given a very simple assignment: to write a short story, under 8k, that used pirates and magic as the main impetus of the story. It was an invitation-only anthology, and I approached about 20 authors. Thirteen of them (including you!) responded. We’ve got everything from dark and creepy to love-lost-and-found to comedy. Even a song! It’s a great anthology, and I’m very proud to be the editor.

VENTRELLA: What is the process that you take as an editor when organizing short story collections?

GRISWOLD-FORD: This is my first short story collection, so I sort of made it up as I went along. I waited until I had everyone’s story in and read, then I listed them all in a word document and arranged them in an order that I thought made sense.

VENTRELLA: Some short story collections are reprints, and some (like RUM AND RUNESTONES) are by invitation. Is one easier or better?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Easier for who? The writer or the editor? : )

I think that by invitation is easier for the editor, because you can pick and choose your authors, so you’re getting a known quality as far as work. I specifically chose authors for R&R that I enjoyed reading, so I knew what level of quality I was getting. On the other hand, as a writer, I can see how the invitation-only anthologies might seem a bit cliquish. I don’t normally write short stories, but I was in one invitation-only anthology (WRITERS FOR RELIEF 2), and knowing that I had been chosen put a little bit of added pressure on me. Could I finish the story to the editor’s expectations? It can be tough.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also cowritten guides to writing, specifically THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY. Why did you think such a book was needed?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Because there wasn’t a how-to on specifically writing fantasy. The Complete Guide is more like a reference guide than a “this is how you write.” Each book (there are three in total) goes into detail on topics that specifically apply to fantasy. The first one has topics like medieval feasts and clothing, writing fantasy fight scenes, things like that. We went a little deeper in the second book, building on the first and going into topics like combining mystery and fantasy, writing sex into your fantasy and government systems to use in fantasy. The third book was what to do once the book was written -– it went into things like querying magazines, agents and publishers, writing query letters, what to do about advertising -– things that writers don’t necessarily think about. It definitely filled a need –- I’m still getting emails from writers about what they’ve found in it.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, what submissions have you seen that just make you scream?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Hmm. Well, when we were doing the second guide, we got a submission that looked like it had been written in another language and then run through Babelfish to translate it to English. It was seriously weird -– all odd tenses and sentence construction. That was really the oddest. Most the subs I get are from professional authors, so I don’t get too many howlers.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written novels and short stories of your own. Does a background in editing help? When an editor is assigned to your work, have there been major problems?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Not really. I tend to edit my own work before I send it off to Tina (my long-suffering editor), so she’s yet to threaten to murder me. The only time I saw her slightly aggravated was when I was having issues with a chapter in Horseman –- I actually sent her the chapter with “This sucks” as every other line. She was not impressed.

VENTRELLA: Where did the idea for NOT YOUR FATHER’S HORSEMAN come from?

GRISWOLD-FORD: I belong to a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), and I’m part of the Storyteller’s Guild for our barony. We were doing a storytelling exercise, making up a story around a word we were given, and my word was Plague. I made up the story, and then had a dream that night about a modern-day Horseman. Nikki was the result.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your most recent novel, DARK MOON SEASONS.

GRISWOLD-FORD: DARK MOON SEASONS is the second part of the Apocalypse trilogy. Nikki now knows both more and less than she did before, and she’s on the hunt for the other Horsemen. Now, though, she has more to deal with than just Gene-Tech –- the government has gotten involved, and she’s got to worry about Department V agents as well.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to promote your books and let people know about them?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Well, I’m on Twitter, and I run contests on my blog. I also have teabags with my books’ names on them that I put out on the freebie tables at various cons I attend. I’m going to be podcasting HORSEMAN this summer, and DREAMS this coming winter, which I hope will garner some more interest as well.

VENTRELLA: Many new authors, anxious to see their book in print, rely on self-publishing. What’s your opinion on this?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Self-publishing is a hard road. Unless you’ve exhausted all your options, and are prepared to hustle your rear off selling, I would advise against self-publishing. If you really think you can make it, go for it, but don’t make it your first choice. I know it’s a long road -– I’m still trying to find an agent -– but don’t give up. You can’t have a thin skin in this business.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise authors to start with the small press publishers and build up a reputation first, or should the pitch be given to the majors first?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Shoot for the top. Don’t get me wrong -– I adore my publisher, but seriously, if you don’t try for the apex, you’ll never know if you could have sold it to Tor, or Baen, or St. Martin’s. Believe in your work, and go for the gold.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future of publishing? Will e-books eventually take the largest share of the market?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Honestly, I don’t know. I like ebooks, but until the readers come done in price, I don’t know that they’ll take over. I still love my paper books, and don’t own an e-reader, although I do read books on my computer. But ebooks have definitely come, and they aren’t going away.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of advice you could give aspiring writers?

GRISWOLD-FORD: Don’t stop reading and writing. Don’t judge your journey by anyone else’s. And don’t give up. Ever.

I will tell you the story of how I got HORSEMAN published as an example. Feel free to laugh, because I was a true newbie at the time.

So, it’s September 2004, and THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING FANTASY has just come out. It’s my first byline since college, and I have never been published as an author before. We’re talking on the email list that spawned the Guide about what we can do to promote it, and I offer to set up a book tour up here in New Hampshire. Tee Morris (of MOREVI and Billibubb Baddings fame) takes me up on it, and we go on a 3-state, 6-stop tour in 4 days. Seriously a whirlwind. We end up with nothing to do Saturday afternoon, so we take out our laptops (another bit of advice: have something to write with at all times!) and he starts editing. I start noodling around with a story that will eventually become HORSEMAN. He reads what I have and says, “This is really good! You know I’m going to push you to write more, right?”

Flash forward to December 8, 2004. I know this date, because there was an ice storm and I stayed home from work. Tee calls me, and our conversation goes like this:

Tee: How’s the book coming?

Me: Um, it’s coming.

Tee: Good! Do you have an outline?

Me: Um, sort of?

Tee: Well, Gwen wants to see it tomorrow morning.

Me: …!

I pulled an outline from somewhere, and sent it off to her. She emailed me back and asked to see a rough draft. I finished it at 45k (yes, 45k!) and sent it off to her on Jan. 4, 2005. She came back and said that it was good, but short –- could I lengthen it? Of course!

Well, by then, Tee and I were working on OPUS MAGNUS, and we were talking to Gwen about launching at Westercon 58, which was going to be in Calgary that year. In one email she sent, Gwen mentioned three launches they were looking to do: LEGACY OF MOREVI (Tee’s book), THE GUIDE, and HORSEMAN. I sat and looked at that email for a good five minutes before I got up the courage to email her back and ask if that meant she was buying HORSEMAN. She emailed back and said she’d told Tee in December that she was. Hadn’t he told me?

Well, he hadn’t, because he’d thought she was kidding. Unknown authors do not sell books based on a chapter outline. But I had.

Which is why you never give up. Never.

Interview with Hugo Award-winning author Lawrence Watt-Evans

Lawrence Watt Evans grew up with parents who were science fiction readers, so he grew up reading the stuff, and decided at the age of seven or eight that he wanted to write it. He has been a full-time writer for more than thirty years, producing more than forty novels, over one hundred short stories, over one hundred and fifty published articles, and a few comic books. Most of his writing has been in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and he has received a few awards, including the Hugo for best short story in 1988, for ”Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.” He served as president of the Horror Writers Association from 1994 to 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and the obligatory writers’ cat.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Lawrence, thank you! Let’s start by letting us know what your latest work is that is available and what we can expect next.

LAWRENCE WATT-EVANS: My latest novel is called A YOUNG MAN WITHOUT MAGIC; Tor released the hardcover in November of 2009. This is the first volume of a fantasy series called the Fall of the Sorcerers; the second volume, ABOVE HIS PROPER STATION, will be out in November 2010. Whether there will be more remains to be seen. If there’s sufficient interest from readers and publishers, this series could go a long time — I have about a dozen novels plotted.

VENTRELLA: You try to break down traditional plot cliches in your stories. What are your plotline pet peeves?

WATT-EVANS: My biggest is simply people doing things, or failing to do things, because it’s necessary to make the plot work, and not because that’s how real people would act. Plots that depend on people not telling each other important things when there’s no reason to keep them secret, for example. Real people generally like to talk, and keeping a secret is hard, so why do so many characters in books go to such lengths to not tell each other things?

Why don’t characters in novels call the cops more often? Why don’t they tell their friends what they’re up to?

VENTRELLA: I’ve commented on this blog before about how I dislike the typical fantasy hero who is a noble-born chosen one with special powers. Why do you think it’s important to avoid those kinds of characters?

WATT-EVANS: I don’t think it’s important to avoid them; I just think they’ve been overdone, and I prefer to focus on more ordinary people.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever worry about genre when your work crosses the line? Do your publishers and editors ever give you a hard time about it?

WATT-EVANS: When I started out I never used to worry about genre. Back in the ’80s, I wrote whatever I wanted and let the publisher worry about labeling it. By the ’90s, that looked like a bad idea — my fantasy was much more successful than my science fiction or horror, so writing SF or horror was dragging down my sales and hurting my career. My agent eventually convinced me of that, and I mostly stopped writing SF and horror novels. (In short fiction, no one cared.) I’d intended to go on writing SF under a different name, but that never really worked out. By the turn of the century I was purely a fantasy writer.

But the thing is, the market kept changing, and now readers and publishers want cross-genre stuff — pure traditional fantasy isn’t selling well anymore. Urban fantasy, crossing fantasy with hard-boiled detective stories — that’s selling. Paranormal romance is selling. Historical fantasy is selling. Since I write for a living, I can’t afford to ignore that, so I’m currently working on an urban fantasy novel called ONE-EYED JACK, and I’m looking at some other genre-bending possibilities.

I’m perfectly happy working in various genres, but I do try to keep up with what publishers are buying.

VENTRELLA: Are humorous stories easier or harder to write?

WATT-EVANS: Easier than what?

For me, each story has its own natural tone, and that has nothing to do with the difficulty of writing it. Some funny stories are easy, some are hard; some serious stories are easy, some are hard.

VENTRELLA: What difficulties and pitfalls face someone trying to write humor?

WATT-EVANS: The tricky thing about writing humor is that senses of humor vary. What one person finds funny may leave another cold. When Esther Friesner and I were writing SPLIT HEIRS, while we were mostly in accord, I found out that Esther has a more vicious sense of humor than I do, but isn’t as fond of pratfalls — with one exception, any scene in the book where death or serious injury is played for laughs, Esther wrote it, while I think all the falls are mine. Knowing what readers will find funny — well, I’m not sure there’s anything that every reader will find funny. There are people out there who don’t find Terry Pratchett funny, which I find incomprehensible.

So what you need to do is to incorporate a variety of humor. Don’t stick entirely to one thing — there’s no gag that won’t get old eventually. Maybe you think puns are the epitome of wit, but relying entirely on puns is going to leave most readers cold. SPLIT HEIRS had puns and pratfalls and pain, contrived explanations and elaborate absurdity, double entendres and drunk acts, so if a reader didn’t laugh at one bit, the next might get him. Overusing any one joke can kill it. Change it up.

Also, don’t try too hard. Don’t overdo it. Humor has to have some grounding in reality in order to work. There’s a reason the classic comedy acts always included a straight man. Have some respect for your characters, no matter how absurd their situation may become. It’s much funnier when something ridiculous happens to an ordinary guy than when it happens to a capering buffoon.

VENTRELLA: I know there isn’t a template that is used each time, but when creating a new world, what is your process? Do you first concentrate on the story and characters and then think about the politics and religion of the world?

WATT-EVANS: Oh, it varies. A lot. I mean, a lot.

Ethshar started out as a map I drew during a boring geometry class in ninth grade; the locations of Aldagmor and the three Ethshars were where the point of a compass had marked the paper when I used it as backing for an assignment. That was 1969. I added names and worked out some of the linguistics between then and 1972, and figured out some of how warlockry functioned, then put it aside until 1977, when I started designing the other kinds of magic. History and politics and religion came along between 1977 and 1983, but I didn’t have any stories to set there until about 1982. I started writing THE MISENCHANTED SWORD in December 1983. I’m still adding details.

For the Lands of Man, on the other hand, I knew the story first, and wanted a setting. I started with the history, from the wars against the dragons to the opening of DRAGON WEATHER, but I didn’t know the geography or magic, or history before the wars, until after I started writing the novel. I never did get the linguistics straight.

NIGHTSIDE CITY was inspired by the Los Angeles of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — “inspired” not meaning copied, at all. Lew Archer’s L.A. is a city of night, where the real world Los Angeles is a very sunny place, and that got me thinking about a city where it’s always been night, but the sun’s about to come up. (A “Little Nemo in Slumberland” strip where the sun dissolves King Morpheus’ palace may also have figured in.) So I started designing out a world where that would be possible, and even hired a planetologist, Dr. Sheridan Simon, to work out the physics for me.

VENTRELLA: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?

WATT-EVANS: I used to find novels easier, though obviously they take longer, but somewhere in the late ’80s I got the hang of writing short stories, and since then I don’t find one more difficult than the other.

As for which I prefer, do you prefer steak or chocolate cake? They’re different. Sometimes I want one, sometimes I want the other.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the primary difference between the two?

WATT-EVANS: The primary difference is that a short story is about a single change, while a novel is about something developing, step by step. The first time I was asked this question, many years ago, I said that a short story is a kiss, and a novel is a courtship, and I still think that’s a pretty good analogy.

VENTRELLA: Publisher’s Weekly said of your latest (A YOUNG MAN WITHOUT MAGIC) that the characters were “unlikeable” but that the “the tight plotting and absorbing new world make this tale readable.” Do you agree that the characters are “unlikable”?

WATT-EVANS: I didn’t think they were unlikable — not all of them, anyway. I like Anrel quite a bit. Several of the others are less than charming, I admit, including Anrel’s best friend, but I thought I’d come up with a protagonist readers would find pleasant company. I suspect the reviewer found him too fatalistic, a trait that fades greatly in the sequel, ABOVE HIS PROPER STATION.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with negative criticism?

WATT-EVANS: Mostly, I ignore it. I know I can’t please everybody. In one case, though, a reader’s comment about TOUCHED BY THE GODS me rethink the whole story, which is a part (though only a small one) of why there’s no sequel and will never be one.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

WATT-EVANS: How broadly are you defining “theme”? A lot of my stories turn out to be about someone finding a place for himself in the world. I also seem to write about a lot of immortal (or at least ancient) characters who have lived in isolation and are reconnecting with the world. And characters who are struggling to control some power that could cause great destruction if unleashed.

I don’t know why.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style?

WATT-EVANS: It varies, but usually it goes like this:

Come up with central concept, which can vary hugely in complexity — it could be a gadget, a spell, a characteristic of the setting, a plot element, a scene, a character. THE MISENCHANTED SWORD started with the spell on the sword, NIGHTSIDE CITY started with the doomed city, THE CYBORG AND THE SORCERORS started with the scene of Slant talking to the wizards of Teyzha. Sometimes this concept is the result of combining two or more old ideas I had kicking around.

Usually, I let this stew for awhile, accreting material. If I didn’t start with a character, figure out who the characters are who would be involved. Work out a background where this could take place — which might be a setting that already exists, or a new one.

Write an opening scene, to get the material fixed in my head. Sometimes this comes before the stewing.

Figure out how the story ends.

Come up with some rough plan for getting from the opening to the ending.

Start writing.

Usually, I’ll stop after awhile — usually the first time I hit a plot problem — and write up a working outline, running from three to thirty pages; when I’m satisfied with that, I’ll go on writing the story.

The first draft is usually skimpy; the second draft is largely filling in details I skipped over while working through the plot. I generally don’t know the characters all that well when I start, but I get to know them writing the first draft, so the second draft lets me flesh them out.

And after that it’s just polishing.

However, not every story follows this model. I do whatever works. Sometimes I never do write an outline. Sometimes I write one, but don’t follow it. Whatever works.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

WATT-EVANS: DRAGON WEATHER. That one came out really good. Some others came close, but I’d rate that one as my best.

VENTRELLA: And finally, who do you like to read?

Terry Pratchett, Fritz Leiber Jr. — right now I’m not sure who else, as I seem to be in a transitional period where I’m losing my taste for old favorites (e.g., Robert Heinlein) and haven’t yet settled on new ones.

51

The Axes of Evil

One barbarian prophecy says the legendary hero Bishortu will unite the three warring tribes. Another tribe has a prophecy that directly contradicts this, and they want Bishortu dead. And a third tribe, which may or may not be comprised of werewolves, refuses to let anyone know what their prophecy says. Meanwhile, the Duke on whose land the barbarians sit wants them all gone.

In the middle of all of this is squire Terin Ostler, who has been mistakenly identified as the great Bishortu. Under the Duke’s orders to get rid of the barbarians, he heads to their lands without the slightest idea of what to do.

Along the way, he has to avoid assassins, werewolves, lovesick barbarian princesses, and confused goblins while attempting to figure out the meaning of the magical and mysterious Wretched Axes. Nobody said being a hero would be easy.

I am so pleased to announce that my second novel THE AXES OF EVIL is now available.

I’m quite proud of it and think it’s a great improvement over the first. Partially this is due to experience (the more you write the better you should get), a good editor (as discussed in a previous blog entry) and paying attention to good advice from professional writers.

Fantasy author Gregory Frost likens it to Christopher Stasheff’s work. I read THE WARLOCK IN SPITE OF HIMSELF about 30 years ago and remember only that it was a fun adventure about a reluctant hero, and I am pleased with the comparison! (I hope I don’t go to re-read it and find plot parallels, because then I’ll be quite upset.)

“Humor, danger and a twisted tangle of unlikely prophecies make for a page-turning adventure,” said Gail Z. Martin, author of THE CHRONICLES OF THE NECROMANCER series. Award winning author Jonathan Maberry (THE DRAGON FACTORY) said it’s “a taut nail-biter of a thriller. Edgy, funny and dark.”

Readers of THE AXES OF EVIL should have an exciting ride, with non-stop action, humor, and unexpected plot twists. (And no, you don’t have to have read ARCH ENEMIES to enjoy this one.)

Unlike many fantasy heroes, Terin is not “the chosen one” or someone with super powers or special skills. Instead, he constantly finds himself thrown into terrible situations and finds solutions by being brave, honest, and resourceful. I always found myself identifying with average people performing extraordinary feats — to me, those are the real heroes.

The purpose of this blog is not only to allow me to interview professionals and learn from them, but also to promote my own work. (Any similar writer who says otherwise is probably not being very honest with himself or herself.) If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy THE AXES OF EVIL. As an aspiring writer, I very much appreciate (and need) your support. I hope you will give it a try and post your comments to Amazon and other booksellers. I am always anxious to receive constructive feedback, positive or negative — I can always improve, after all, so your comments are valuable.

You can order the paperback here.

You can download the ebook here.

You can download the kindle version here.

And you can join my Facebook fan group here.

Thanks for the indulgence. Next week, back to interviews!

Interview with James Enge

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing fantasy author James Enge today. James, how did you get started in the business?

JAMES ENGE: I’ve been writing since forever, but I was first published when I saw a newish magazine called “Black Gate” had started up. They specialized (and still specialize) in adventure fantasy at shorter lengths (i.e. shorter than a novel) and that’s what I was most interested in writing, so I sent them something. When the editor, John O’Neill, finally wrote me back after many months I assumed it would be another in a long string of rejections … but, in fact, he bought the story (“Turn Up This Crooked Way”) and told me he was interested in more. So that’s when it really started for me. That was in 2005, if I’m remembering right.

VENTRELLA: Creating a fantasy world is never easy, because it must be rooted in believability. What have you done to make your world both fantastic and believable? Have you found it difficult?

ENGE: I try to maintain a certain tension between free invention and concrete realism. My favorite bits in my own writing are physical descriptions which are probably invisible to everyone else. In my first story, the hero has occasion to peer through “a dark shoe-shaped patch of nothingness”. It makes perfect sense in the world of the story, but it’s not something that you’re likely to see on the street on your way to work.

VENTRELLA: Along those same lines, what steps have you taken to plant your characters in this world? In other words, many fantasy novels tend to have characters that behave like modern-day people, only in a different setting. How do you avoid that while still making the characters likeable?

ENGE: Someone called this the phenomenon of the “vegetarian Viking” — anachronistic modern attitudes grafted onto people in non-modern societies. It is tricky, because whenever the characters may be living, the audience is a modern audience and they’re not likely to laugh off chattel slavery or infant exposure (to name only two unsavory customs of the past). But, in my fantasies, it’s much more difficult to say what’s anachronistic, since it’s a secondary world. Writers can get themselves some oxygen but writing a different kind of society than lords and ladies and dukes and peasants: not every imaginary world has to be the Middle Ages with real dragons. And the actual Middle Ages were more complicated than some people think: one can plunder history for interesting ideas. Your standard Viking, for instance, would not have been a vegetarian… but he may have lived (if he came from Iceland) in a republic strikingly free from all that kingy junk we associate with medieval states. Likewise a Florentine banker (and so on).

VENTRELLA: Is religion in fantasy novels something to embrace or avoid, given the controversy it may bring?

ENGE: I think you have to tell the story that you want to tell, and if religion comes up, it comes up. Religion is a normative part of human society, so a society without any religious expression would need some justification … but that in itself might make for an interesting story or world. The novel I’m working on now is starting to feature one set of deities (the Strange Gods) very strongly. I didn’t expect it, but it’s been kind of interesting to watch it develop.

VENTRELLA: What’s your biggest gripe about fantasy novels in general?

ENGE: I can’t claim to have read a representative sample — there’s just too much out there. But I think the tendency to view multivolume narratives as the norm is really not good. The longer the narrative, the more difficult it is to bring to a satisfying conclusion. I’m not knocking George R.R. Martin, by the way: I read A GAME OF THRONES years ago and loved it. But I have resisted reading the other volumes in “A Song of Ice and Fire” since then: I’ll wait till he’s done and read the whole thing, and I have every confidence the end will live up to the beginning. But not everybody is GRRM. Also, he’d been writing for a generation, producing work of classic stature long before he tackled this heroic project.

VENTRELLA: What are your favorite fantasy novels? Favorite authors? Why?

ENGE: Tolkien, Leiber, Zelazny, Le Guin, Brackett, Vance. Zelazny has a great line in THE HAND OF OBERON. He actually speaks to his main character, Corwin, and he says that he’s writing “a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.” I think that’s what all these guys do, to some extent, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I coined the term philorohorrmorbmance for it once, but it didn’t catch on for some reason, so I usually say I write sword-and-sorcery.

VENTRELLA: How important is an agent for a starting writer?

ENGE: Key. I mean, if what you want to do is sell stories to zines, you don’t need an agent. And small presses don’t usually demand that the writer be represented by an agent. But if you want to sell novels to even medium-sized publishing houses, I think writers mostly need an agent nowadays. More and more work that used to be done by publishers is being offloaded to agents — essentially, they’ve become the first readers for the publishing houses. I’m not saying there are no exceptions, but I know that my novel-writing career went nowhere until I got an agent (the great Mike Kabongo who runs the OnyxHawke Agency).

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style?

ENGE: I have to know how a story ends or I can’t make much progress on it. So I begin with the end and a beginning, and the stuff between I usually negotiate as I go.

VENTRELLA: My second novel comes out in a few months, and, like your work, it is a stand-alone story but set in the same world with the same characters as the first novel. One of the difficulties I had is in giving enough background for a new reader while not boring someone who is already familiar with the world from the first novel. How do you handle that sort of thing?

ENGE: It is hard. Mostly I’ve solved that so far by sending my hero, Morlock Ambrosius, to new places. But, in general, I think that writers have to develop a sense for what exposition is genuinely necessary for the story and what isn’t. A writer should always know more about his or her world than will fit into a story, and because the world is our creation we’re often eager to fill the audience’s ear with excessive detail. On the other hand, new and different worlds are one of the reasons people read sf/f, so what’s excessive for one reader will be just an hors d’oeuvre for others.

VENTRELLA: How has your educational background influenced your writing?

ENGE: I steal stuff from it constantly. My degrees are in Classics, and I studied a few medieval Germanic languages in school, too — all because I was (and remain) nuts about language, mythology and history (three fields that overlap more than one might think). This stuff is a tremendous storehouse for story ideas. For instance, Morlock’s move to defeat the Big Bad in BLOOD OF AMBROSE will seem a little familiar to people who know the myth of Hercules and Antaeus, and when Morlock is confronted by a stone beast in THIS CROOKED WAY he again takes a leaf (or limb) from Hercules’ book to save himself. The trick, when you steal something as blatantly as I do, is to make the borrowed element native to your work. You don’t need to know the Herc myths to read the Morlock stories, but if you do you’ll get an extra smile of recognition sometimes.

VENTRELLA: All authors these days spend a large amount of time on self-promotion, from posting a regular blog to producing podcasts to appearing at conventions. What’s your opinion on the relative value of each?

ENGE: I have no idea. There are so many forms of online community these days, one could spend a working week every week just keeping up. One thing I do feel strongly: online and offline communities may be useful for self-promotion, but they shouldn’t be used solely for that. The communities are meant to be conversational exchanges among people with common interests, and that’s really their primary value.

VENTRELLA: Do you advise aspiring novelists to begin with short stories?

ENGE: I would have said “yes” a few years ago. Now I’m not so sure: the markets are very different in what they want to see, and the forms themselves are diverging radically. When the standard novel was sixty or seventy thousand words and magazines regularly published novelettes and novellas of tens of thousands words, writers with the same skill-set could comfortably operate on book length and short-story length. Now stories seem to be getting shorter and novels are certainly getting longer (at least in sf/f). No doubt a credits-list of stories in reputable publications increases the likelihood that an agent or an editor will take a chance on a new writer. But if novels are what people want to write, maybe they should head straight for that — likewise with stories.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

ENGE: You force me to tell you! Okay, since I have no choice in the matter (not that I want one), I really like my second book, THIS CROOKED WAY. The story begins with Morlock’s horse, Velox, being stolen by an unknown enemy. In tracking down the horse, he has a number of adventures that turn out to be clashes with his veiled enemy. When unmasks his enemy, he finds that he’s already involved in a struggle that hinges on someone else’s life-or-death. The book is an homage to the episodic novels of sword-and-sorcery past (like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books, or Vance’s Cugel books, or Moorcock’s Elric books). I got to sneak in some elements that one doesn’t usually see in a heroic fantasy, like robots (i.e. golems), the internet (a.k.a. Whisper Street) or alien species (e.g. the buglike Khroi or the wormlike dark gnomes). There’s an antiheroic dragon-fight that I’m particularly fond of. And there’s some emotional resonance for me in the over-arching plot, which deals with the death or non-death of Morlock’s mother. THIS CROOKED WAY has not, in fact, made a big splash, but even if it never sells another copy it’s the book I’m likeliest to point to and say, “That’s what I do; that stuff.”

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Do you advise new authors to go this route, or is it better to not publish at all than to be self-published?

ENGE: Self-publishing is risky because there are so many people involved who really don’t have a realistic sense of their work’s merit. Everyone, but everyone, can afford to take a hint every now and then, and the self-publishing route usually involves trimming out all the gatekeepers who might say, “This bit doesn’t work” or “Your hero looks like a jerk here. Is that what you want?” The process of traditional publishing may keep some work from being published, but it unquestionably improves the stuff it does let into the light of day. I’m not saying that everyone involved in self-publishing is engaged in self-deception: it provides an outlet for lots of stuff, like local history, textbooks — niche work that would always have trouble with a commercial publisher but may still find an audience. But so much self-published fiction is so problematic that I think it’s a hard sell for most readers.

VENTRELLA: Any last minute words of wisdom for those wanting to break into the publishing business?

ENGE: Write the kind of stuff you’re interested in reading. This seems like obvious advice, but lots of people get involved in writing work they would never look at twice if it were written by someone else.

I’m not sure if those were words of wisdom, but at least they were words. Thanks for the chance to bend your and your audience’s collective ear!

Interview with Gail Z. Martin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Gail Z. Martin today. Gail is the author of The Chronicles of The Necromancer series. The books are available in your favorite bookstore, as ebooks from my publisher Double Dragon, and will be released as audiobooks by Audible.com soon. 0061-eWomenNetwork She is also host of the Ghost in the Machine Fantasy Podcast, and you can find her on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. She enjoys attending science fiction/fantasy conventions, Renaissance fairs and living history sites. Her web page is here.

Gail, tell me about your fantasy series The Chronicles of the Necromancer.

GAIL MARTIN: The Chronicles of the Necromancer series includes four books so far: THE SUMMONER, THE BLOOD KING, DARK HAVEN and DARK LADY’S CHOSEN. The story begins when a young man’s family is murdered, and he discovers that he is heir to a very rare type of magic, the ability to intercede between the living and the dead. He needs to learn to control that magic before it destroys him in order to avenge his family. I’ve really written two two-book sets. The Summoner and The Blood King are one story arc, and then a new story arc with the characters picks up in Dark Haven and Dark Lady’s Chosen.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set number of books planned for this series?

MARTIN: Well, I’ve given my publisher abstracts for about 20 books I’d like to write, so we’ll see! There are two exciting pieces of news about the series. First, DARK LADY’S CHOSEN comes out December 29, and it will launch as a paperback, an ebook and an audiobook. And second, Orbit Books has picked up the next four books. The Fallen Kings Cycle is the name of the new series, and it will pick up after DARK LADY’S CHOSEN. I’m already working on Book One: THE SWORN.

VENTRELLA: Do you plan the entire series in detail or do you do one book at a time?

MARTIN: A little of both. I have a pretty clear idea of the full story arc and the arc for each major character. And I’ve given my publisher abstracts for quite a few other books set in the world of the Winter Kingdoms. And my publisher asks me to turn in a chapter-by-chapter outline before each book. That said, things do arise as I’m writing that often changes the way I saw things unfolding. Usually not a change to the ultimate outcome, but changes in how things go along the way. So the overview and outlines help, but the story develops on its own as we go along.

VENTRELLA: How did you become published? Did you obtain an agent first?

MARTIN: Yes, I did get an agent first. I really didn’t have time to work, write and shop my manuscript, and I knew that fewer and fewer large publishing houses accept unagented submissions. Having an agent has been very important, especially when it comes to negotiating contracts and understanding what options exist. A good agent is also valuable for negotiating translation sales and other contracts, such as ebooks and audiobooks.

VENTRELLA: Do you think you will ever write in another genre?

MARTIN: Well, I have the first book in a new nonfiction series for writers coming out in January, THE THRIFTY AUTHOR’S GUIDE TO LAUNCHING YOUR BOOK WITHOUT LOSING YOUR MIND. Dark HavenIt’s a book on book marketing for authors who want to make sure readers find out about their books! And as far as fiction goes, I do have some ideas I’m developing, but they’re not ready for prime time yet!

VENTRELLA: I keep hearing that publishers are not that interested any more in traditional high fantasy. As a writer in that genre myself, I am worried. Do you find this to be the case?

MARTIN: I think the more important question to ask is, “Are readers interested in traditional high fantasy?” From my experience, I would say yes. So long as there are readers who want a certain genre, there will either be publishers who will supply it or authors will meet the demand directly by self-publishing. My bet is that so long as publishers sense there is money to be made in a genre, they will keep publishing it.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Do you advise new authors to go this route, or is it better to not publish at all than to be self-published?

MARTIN: I think it’s easier to succeed with nonfiction in self-publishing than fiction because most nonfiction authors have the opportunity to sell from the “back of the room” at workshops, speaking engagements, etc. Also, if nonfiction meets a need and creates a benefit, people buy it, regardless of who publishes it. Fiction is a little harder, because it doesn’t have that clear need/benefit link. With fiction, distribution through bookstores and online booksellers is still crucial, and that can be more difficult if you’re self-published.

On the other hand, a good book will find a market. THE SHACK was a self-published book that couldn’t get a publisher until it sold a gazillion copies and then was picked up by a big publishing house. If you decide to self-publish, you’ll have to work twice as hard on distribution, personal appearances, being a vendor at conventions and basic selling. But if you believe in your book, then you do what you have to do to bring it to life. I would probably advise authors to exhaust their options for traditional publishing with large and small publishers before self-publishing fiction, but I’m sure there are other authors who feel differently and that’s OK. Even when you’re traditionally published, there is a lot of work that goes into promoting the book.

VENTRELLA: Gail, you are one of the most active authors when it comes to publicity and promotion, because of your background. While it is clear that published authors must promote themselves, do you think it is appropriate for unpublished authors to maintain a web presence and otherwise promote themselves, and if so, how can that be done tastefully and effectively?

MARTIN: I think part of that depends on your definition of “unpublished.” If you post your short stories on your web site, that is a form of publishing. If you release your book as a podiobook, that’s a form of publishing.

I think you always have to be clear about what it is you’re promoting. thesummonerSome authors, like J.C. Hutchins, started out by releasing free podiobook versions of their stories and gathered so many readers/listeners that they ended up getting a book contract with a traditional publisher. So think first about what your goal is in promotion yourself and what you have to promote. If you write an entertaining blog, host a good podcast or even create an online serial that gets good buzz, you may attract a publisher.

VENTRELLA: You and I run across each other at conventions often and you attend many more than I do. Please tell us why you think attending these is important, and whether you think they are important even for unpublished authors.

MARTIN: Cons are important because they’re a great way for authors to meet other authors and of course, to meet readers. Today’s readers like to meet the authors of the books they read, just like they enjoy connecting online and on social media. It’s also a great way to attract new readers who may decide to try your books because they liked what you said on a panel, had a good chat with you in the lounge or came to a reading and liked what they heard.

For unpublished authors, cons can be great places to meet published authors and get advice. Lots of cons have writing and publishing tracks where there are panels with editors, agents and publishers, or with authors talking about the business and mechanics of writing. It’s a great free education. I definitely think it’s worth it.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first began trying to break into the business?

MARTIN: Expect to spend twice as much effort promoting the book as it took to write it. blood_king_med_coverRealize that if you don’t promote the book and you don’t sell well, you don’t get invited to write a second book.

VENTRELLA: Can you think of a personal anecdote about the writing life you’d like to share?

MARTIN: Going on book tour really does require you to check your ego at the door. You spend a lot of time driving around, setting up table displays and schlepping your stuff from store to store. No matter how many big signs in the store have your photo on them, inevitably more than one person will ask you where the bathroom is or where somebody else’s book is shelved because they just assume you work there. Smile. It’s all part of being an author, and it’s worth every moment. But just to be safe, make sure you really can direct people to the bathrooms!

VENTRELLA: You’ve got audio and excerpts from DARK LADY’S CHOSEN online, plus there are other sites participating in your Days of the Dead blog tour. Where can we find all the goodies?

MARTIN: Check out my site at www.ChroniclesOfTheNecromancer.com, for all the downloads and more Days of the Dead stuff. Also, please find me on Twitter.com as GailZMartin and on Facebook and MySpace as well.

Me and Gail Z. Martin on a convention panel

Interview with World Fantasy Award winning author Tim Powers

Tim Powers has won the World Fantasy Award twice now, for LAST CALL and DECLARE, the Philip K. Dick award twice for THE ANUBIS GATES and DINNER AT DEVIANT’S PALACE, and has multiple Nebula award nominations.tim-powers

Tim Powers has always been one of my favorite authors. I look forward to every new release and move it to the top of my “Must Read” pile. My wife likes his work too, and turned him into a piece of dryer lint art which Tim purchased and now has hanging on his wall. (No, I’m serious — check out my wife’s page at www.HeidiHooper.com).

I met Tim at a convention a while ago and now it gives me great pleasure to be interviewing him.

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Tim, one of my favorite books of yours is the pirate novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Let’s start with the big news then: How did this end up as the fourth Pirates of the Carribean film?

TIM POWERS: Disney optioned the book a couple of years ago for a projected fourth Pirates movie, and now it seems likely that the movie will happen! I imagine it’s the Fountain of Youth element in the book that they mainly want to use, but I haven’t talked to the script writers or anything, so I’m only guessing. In any case, I’m very pleased with this new attention being paid to a book I wrote 23 years ago!

VENTRELLA: Are you worried that the book may change too much upon being transferred into a film with already established characters? Do you have any say in this?

POWERS: No, I have no say in it, and that’s okay with me. I never feel that a movie must accurately reflect a book it’s based on — look at “Bladerunner”, or “To Have and Have Not”! Both were great books made into great movies, and the movies had very little to do with the original books. And obviously this movie can’t be based at all closely on the book, since the movie is using characters that are already separately established. I mainly want to be surprised when I see the movie!

VENTRELLA: Is it true that you get to have a cameo?TIDES

POWERS: No, that was an internet rumor. I’ve often said that if anybody were to make a movie of one of my books, I’d have three non-negotiable demands: (1.) That my wife and I get parts as extras in some crowd scene; (2.) That we get a free lunch from the catering truck; and (3.) that we get six of those cool jackets they make for the crew, with the movie logo on the back. This was, though, a joke!

VENTRELLA: Most of your novels follow a technique unusual for other writers, in that you take items from real history and find ways to make them interconnect in magical and fantastic ways that cause a reader to say “Aha! That makes perfect sense now!” when in fact it’s just make believe. How did this style come to being?

POWERS: Back in the mid-’70s, Roger Elwood proposed a series of books in which King Arthur was reincarnated at various points in history to save Western civilization. K. W. Jeter and Ray Nelson and I signed up to write these books, and I drew three places in history: 1529 (the Siege of Vienna), 1650 and 1810. Elwood’s project collapsed, which was just as well, but by then I had noticed the virtues of historical fiction! Such as — you get your exotic world ready-made, with its geography & maps, climate, government, currency, cuisine, mythology –! Even a lot of usable characters and events come with the package, all free. All you’ve got to do is look at the settings and the events and figure out a story that could be woven among them without knocking anything over. Find the inexplicable bits and connect the dots. It’s much easier than making up a consistent other-world, and I like to think it makes the supernatural developments more plausible, since they occur in places and among people that the reader has actually heard of.

VENTRELLA: Do you look for the connection first, or do you read a lot of history and biography and then see what jumps out at you?

POWERS: I approach it sort of like a paranoid detective. I read heaps of biographies and journals and whatnot, and my attention is polarized to look for things that don’t fit — which any biography has. And I ask myself, “Aha! What was really going on there?” And I make it a rule that nothing is a coincidence — if Keats did something on the same day that the King of Prussia did something, they’re secretly connected. And as I look for clues to the secret back-story, I eventually come up with one!

VENTRELLA: Has it ever not worked? Have you ever decided “You know, I’d love to do a book about X” and then after research, determined there wasn’t enough there?

POWERS: Not so far! I think anybody’s biography — Louisa May Alcott, Beatrix Potter — if it was thorough enough, could provide this sort of clues, this sort of evidence of a secret supernatural real story. Of course I’ve got to let the clues dictate it — it might turn out to involve vampires, or ghosts, or werewolves, or anything. If the research is going that way, I let my story go that way too.

VENTRELLA: What do you think of Dan Brown’s work? Do you think he is just copying your style, but not as well?

POWERS: Well I doubt that he’s copying me! That is, I doubt he’s read my books. But if I were ever (per impossibile) to collaborate with him, I’d tell him, “No, our made-up history has to be plausible enough to at least stand up to a quick search in the Encyclopedia Britannica!”

VENTRELLA: What gave you the idea for THREE DAYS TO NEVER? never

POWERS: It started with me noticing that, in all the photographs of Albert Einstein, his hair was white after 1928. So I wondered what had happened to him in that year — the biographies said he had some sort of stroke, or heart attack, or seizure, but I thought, “I wonder what really happened?’ So I started reading all the biographies of him, which led me to histories of Israel, and Charlie Chaplin, and Kaballah, and God knows what-all else. And of course at every turn I found odd details that couldn’t entirely be explained. One significant thing was this “maschinchen” or “little machine” that Einstein was working on for years; I eventually concluded that it must have been a time machine.

VENTRELLA: Were you a Chaplin fan before that? Or was it just research that led you to including him in?

POWERS: I wasn’t really a Chaplin fan, before I had to research him! Now I love his movies, especially “City Lights” and “Modern Times” and “The Kid.” Eventually I realized that the reason I had thought I didn’t like Chaplin was because I connected him with people like Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett doing imitations of him. Hardly fair.

VENTRELLA: You’ve commented before that you dislike it when authors try too hard to give messages or when readers try to read too much into the work. Have you been the victim of this, and how do you counter it?

POWERS: If people claim to find themes or messages in my books, that’s okay with me, as long as it’s nothing nasty. There may, for all I know, be themes and messages in them! But certainly I don’t have “things to say” in my stories — any themes that may show up are from my subconscious, not from any deliberate intention of my own.

VENTRELLA: What do you know now about the publishing industry that you wish you had known when you first started out?

POWERS: Oh — hard to say. My first publisher, Laser Books, surprised me by re-writing bits in my books, but nobody’s done that since. Really I haven’t learned anything that would have made me behave differently if I’d known it from the start! I guess I have no real complaints!DECLARE

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an aspiring writer that you wish someone had given you?

POWERS: Finish what you start, don’t do dozens of unconnected “Chapter Ones” that extend for only a couple of pages each. That’s kind of obvious, I know, but you specified what I could have benefited from hearing. To aspiring writres in general, I guess I’d say — read a whole lot, and not just in the field you want to write in and not just in the century or centuries you’ve lived in; and try to ditch your reflexive 2009 mind-set when you’re reading the old stuff. Don’t be cynical or ironic or tongue-in-cheek or Post Modern — that is, take your characters and their concerns at least as seriously as you take the elements in your own life. Don’t fret about the fact that your first drafts are dumb; they’re supposed to be. Print your stories out in the correct format and send them to editors — and start with the best publishers and magazines, don’t anticipate disappointment by starting with the lower ranks. Don’t self-publish.

VENTRELLA: And finally, what work would you like most to outlast you? What do you want to be remembered by?

POWERS: Oh gee — I suppose ANUBIS GATES or LAST CALL or DECLARE! I think those are my best. After I’m dead I won’t care, of course, but there’s something charming about the idea of somebody a hundred years from now finding a book of mine in a junk store and enjoying it, and trying to find more!

Establishing a fantasy world

When writing and creating a fantasy world for a novel, I knew that I needed to explain the world and the way it works in non-sleep-inducing manner. Too many fantasy novels begin like a history text, explaining the background and setting the scene. I hate that. I don’t want to have to study before understanding the story.

In ARCH ENEMIES, Terin is a young lad who has very little knowledge of the world and the ways of magic. He has lived at home until just before the book begins, runs away to find fame and fortune, and learns as he goes along. Rather than having the narrator explain everything at the start, ARCH ENEMIES is told in first person. Things happen in the early chapters that don’t make sense to Terin until much later.ArchEnemies-510

Our reluctant hero is accompanied on his quest by an older squire who teaches him along the way, but her lessons never take so long that the action stops. In fact, much of my second and third drafts consisted of me saying “This gives away too much too soon” and “this slows things down too much” and moving whole chunks to later in the book. I even removed entire sections that explained much about the world but were irrelevant to the story.

Terin also asks many questions about the novel’s basic mysteries along the way. What am I supposed to do to solve the prophecy? Why am I not allowed to read it? What if I am not the person named in the prophecy and they grabbed the wrong guy? Why are the dwarves being attacked and having their memories erased? Who stole the magical homestone needed for the ritual? Why did that barbarian look at me in fear and call me “Bishortu?” He comes up with theories for each of these which almost always are proven wrong, but this allows the reader to consider them as well and come up with their own ideas.

Giving away everything at the start is no fun. Everyone loves a mystery. And the same goes to the “rules” of the fantasy world in which the book exists.

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