Interview with Kerry Gans

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing good friend Kerry Gans today (We’ve both studied under the Master Jonathan Maberry). Kerry is the author of several short stories, a family history book, and the middle grade novel THE WITCH OF ZAL. She is a chocoholic theater geek, believes libraries are magic, and considers Chincoteague Island her perfect writing retreat. When not writing, she haunts cemeteries and dusty archives in search of long-dead ancestors and pursues her most important work-in-progress, her daughter.KerrySmall

Tell us about your newest book!

KERRY GANS: THE WITCH OF ZAL is a re-envisioning of The Wizard of Oz. It’s a genre twist, in that Dorveday is from a completely urbanized sci-fi world, which makes rural, magical Oz quite the culture shock. 12-year-old Dorveday runs away from home to protect her robotic dog from the oppressive Ministry, and she accidentally lands in Oz. A Victorian gentleman Scarecrow, a clockwork Tin Man, a literally yellow-streaked Lion, and an escaped slave boy help Dorveday to find her way home to Zal. Together they battle zombicorns, killer butterflies, and an alchemist Wicked Witch while overturning society as Oz knew it. But will Dorveday return home in time to save her mother from Ministry threats—and can one girl shake up Zal the way she did in Oz?

VENTRELLA: What made you decide to write an Oz book?

GANS: I never set out to write this book. The book started out as a homework assignment. Jonathan Maberry asked us to take the Dorothy meets the Scarecrow scene from The Wizard of Oz and rewrite it in a different genre. I made Dorothy from a science-fiction world, so rural Oz would be completely alien to her. I had so much fun writing this scene, I decided to write the entire book!

VENTRELLA: What is the main difference in writing a middle grade book and an adult book?

GANS: In a middle grade book like THE WITCH OF ZAL, there are a few guidelines (all of which can have exceptions, of course). No sex. No falling in romantic love. No swear words. Make sure the vocabulary fits the age group. Most important, the kid has to be the hero, the one who solves the problem in the end.

While I do think you can tackle any topic you want in a middle grade book (even difficult topics like abuse and death), there is a certain sensitivity you need to bring with you. Perhaps certain scenes happen off-stage that in an adult book you would see. Perhaps the language you choose is not as harsh or as stark as you might use in an adult book. So while I would never tell a writer to avoid hard topics in middle grade, be aware that if you want to get it published you probably can’t handle the topic as baldly as you would with an adult book.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the publishing decisions made.  

GANS: I tried to get an agent for Zal, but no one showed interest. This was quite soon after the movie Oz The Great and Powerful had come out and didn’t meet expectations, so I think people were not interested in another Oz offering. Jonathan Maberry suggested I send it to a small press that was looking to start a middle grade fantasy line. Turns out that Charles Day, the publisher at Evil Jester Press, is crazy for Oz stuff and really believed in the book. So I got my first book contract with no agent—a scenario I had never envisioned. But it pays to keep your mind open and never get so tunnel-visioned on one way of publishing that you miss opportunities that come your way from unexpected sources.

Once I was on board at Evil Jester, I did book edits (several rounds) with the editor. We also needed a new title because my working title didn’t work for the market. My publisher is also an illustrator, so he did the cover art for the book. We went through multiple rounds of cover art until we settled on the one we have. Working with a small press, I had a lot more input throughout the entire process than I would have with a large traditional press.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to go that route? Any regrets? 

GANS: I wanted my first book to be with a press—I did not want to self-publish. I wanted to go through this entire publishing/marketing process with someone else, someone who would have my back and who could brainstorm ideas with me. In many ways, a small press is the best of both worlds, in that the author often has more control over the final product (such as cover art), while having a larger reach than they could get by themselves.

I wouldn’t say I have regrets—the people at Evil Jester are great and so supportive. I do have lessons I have learned, though. The biggest one is that while a small press gives you the best of both worlds, a small POD (print on demand) press is often trapped between the worlds of self-publishing and traditional publishing. I have found in trying to get the word out that I can’t capitalize on many self-publishing marketing strategies because I don’t have the ability to control pricing and other variables, yet because we are POD I am not eligible for many of the traditional marketing avenues, either. If your small publisher does a traditional print-run, most of those closed doors open.WitchOfZal Cover

I would never discourage someone from going the POD route—I feel it makes the most sense financially and environmentally—but be prepared to be a little more creative with your marketing. A huge self-publishing support network has grown up to serve that community, but there is not a similar system for POD small publishers. I think there is a need for it, and it may yet arise.

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

GANS: My writing process is constantly evolving. I’m not a huge plotter—I usually know the beginning and the end and a few scenes in between. I used to write everything straight onto the computer, but now I’m incorporating writing longhand again. I’ve found that when I write longhand, what I write has a vastly different feel and depth than what I write straight to the screen. I also find that I get “attached” to the words on the screen—I have trouble thinking outside what is already there. I don’t have that problem with handwritten pages—I can cross out, draw arrows, have notes in the margin. It frees something in my revision brain.

So my current process looks something like this: 1) a short sketch of what I know about plot and character, 2) perhaps a typed up “first draft” that acts as a fleshed-out outline and lets me get to know my characters, 3) using that as a guide, write the whole thing longhand, 4) type it in fresh from the longhand manuscript. I haven’t actually written a book from scratch since I re-incorporated my longhand writing, so I’m not certain this is the way it will work. But that’s my plan.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

GANS: I write a really bad first draft, then go back and cut mercilessly. If the reader doesn’t need to know that info at that moment, then it can go. And since the first draft is complete, I can see where the information I’m cutting works better, where it actually belongs—or even if it’s not needed at all.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

GANS: I think it depends on the author. Writing short stories is a completely different skill set than writing a novel. Some authors are more naturally attuned to the short story skills, others to the novel skills. I will say that even if you are focused on being a novelist, gaining that short story skill set is vital. It helps sharpen your craft, and we are seeing that writing short stories using your characters and your world between novels is a great way to keep your audience rabid while they wait for your next book. Writing and publishing short stories as a stepping stone to getting a first novel published, however, is no sure-fire path to success. A few stories in high-quality publications is never a bad thing, but agents won’t take you on the basis of those stories alone—they need to know you can write the novel you’ve pitched. Bottom line, if you love to write short stories, write them, but if your heart is in the long form, follow it. There is no single “right” path to publishing success.

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

GANS: I have no problem with self-publishing—in fact, my genealogy book is self-published. There is absolutely a place for self-publishing and it fills the voracious appetites of the readers. There is some very good self-published literature. However, there is undoubtedly a large amount of poorly written self-published work out there, which tarnishes the self-publishing “brand” for everyone. Some people hypothesize that eventually a system will rise to help readers separate the professional-level work from the first-draft level work. Amazon’s warning labels for error-riddled books may be the first step. Ironically, we may see the rise of gatekeepers on the very platforms designed to help us escape the gatekeepers.

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?

 GANS: In this day and age, there are a lot of publishing paths available. The first thing I would tell them to do is get it professionally edited—get themanuscript into top-tier condition. The second thing to do is decide what they really want from the publishing experience. Depending on their goals, they can then decide whether they want to pursue self-publishing, traditional publishing, or something in-between. But whatever road they take, make sure they put out a professional-level product.

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

GANS: I did get this advice when I was a novice writer, but I wish I had gotten it earlier because I would have gotten started on my career sooner.

Jonathan Maberry once told a group of us that if we were serious about wanting to be professional writers, we had to start calling ourselves writers—even if we had a day job where we did something else. For instance, we would answer, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer and a video editor.” Once we start saying it aloud, once we own that part of ourselves, many things start to change.

Once I started following that advice, my writing career advanced. When you openly claim your writing, you look at it in a different way. It’s not a little hobby you feel you have to hide—it’s a part of you that you are proud to claim. You view yourself through a different lens, too, because you’re not denying a part of who you are anymore. You gain confidence in that. You meet others who also identify as writers. Most of all, by saying it out loud, you’re giving yourself permission to make writing a priority in your life.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you working on now?  What can we expect next from you?

GANS: I have 2 books in active revision and another on the revision back-burner. The book closest to being ready is The Curse of the Pharaoh’s Stone, which is a middle grade historical adventure. Set in 1922 Philadelphia, a 12-year-old boy tries to break the curse he believes he placed on his family. While trying to decipher the Egyptian artifact he thinks powers the curse, he places his family in very real danger from a man who would kill to possess the artifact the boy guards.

I’m deep into revisions of a Young Adult sci-fi novel, Veritas. In this book, a 16-year-old girl who has been told all her life she is worthless discovers that she controls the greatest power in the universe. But is that enough to stop a war and gain her father’s love?

My back-burner book has been out on submission to agents, but early feedback leads me to believe it’s not quite ready, so I’ll be looking at it again before I send it out anymore. The Oracle of Delphi, Kansas is a YA contemporary fantasy, where a 16-year-old daughter of Apollo is torn between her human side and her godly side. When her half-god boyfriend threatens the entire town with destruction, she must either stand with him as a god and sacrifice the people she loves or stand against him in defense of humans—and maybe lose her life.

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

GANS: As a person with anxiety disorder whose panic attacks are often triggered by eating with others, I would never hold a dinner party. But if I did, I would invite my ancestors—particularly the ones where I can’t find their parents. My brick walls and dead ends. They could not only tell me their lineage, but I would find it fascinating to hear about their lives—particularly the ones who immigrated to the U.S. Most times they didn’t leave any information as to why they left their home countries for America, or what they felt as they tried to assimilate to a new culture. I’d be taking a ton of notes!

 

 

Talent is an Asset

Maybe you shouldn’t be a writer after all.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing their dream, but not everyone can be successful in the world of art (and yes, writing is a creative art). snoopy-writing

I’ve thought about this a lot (especially when I look at my own work and get depressed). In one previous blog I wrote about how you need talent, hard work, and connections to be successful. You don’t need them in equal amounts — if you have great connections, you don’t need as much talent, for instance (which is the only way to explain the success of some writers, musicians, and actors).

But assuming you’re an average person who wasn’t born into a well-connected family, talent is pretty much a necessity. And by “talent” I mean that creative spark that gives your work uniqueness and originality.

There are just too many creative people out there who, well, aren’t very creative.

Come on, you know it’s true. They may have all the skills but there’s still something missing.

In the past few years, as I have attended writer’s conferences and readings and so on, it’s becoming clearer. There are so many aspiring writers who know their grammar rules and understand the concept of what makes a good story who just don’t have that extra something that makes a story real. And yes, during my moments of self-doubt, I worry that I belong to that group.

I don’t know how to teach talent. I sometimes think that is something you are just born with.

When I was in High School, I wrote a musical comedy that our drama club put on. It was a silly western called “But I’m Allergic to Horses.” I got my musician friends to play for us, and I also recruited some of the students from the music department to help. There was one girl who played piano who, if you put the music in front of her, could play it without a mistake — something that always impresses me. I never learned how to read music other than the very basics. When we practiced the songs, I would give her the chords and ask her to improvise, and she was absolutely lost. She had no creative skills at all, despite her mastery of the piano in all other respects.

And there are some writers like that. They write much better than I ever could, but their stories lack originality, surprise, excitement. They have the technical part of writing down pat, but their work is predictable and boring.

Obviously, what you need is mastery of both the technical part of writing and the creative part.

But at least one of those, you can learn.

Interview with Catherine Stine

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing Catherine Stine, writer of suspense and speculation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Her newly released crossover sci-fi thriller is RUBY’S FIRE.

Catherine, tell us about this new series. What makes your series different?

CATHERINE STINE: It takes place on a future earth (2099), and the world has suffered from extreme weather and border wars, but it is not an oppressively dystopian atmosphere. There are signs of renewal. I’m more interested in what takes place during a perilously delicate recovery, and what kinds of events and people affect it.

VENTRELLA: My fantasy novels are also considered “young adult” books, primarily because of the age of the protagonist. What else makes a story YA?

STINE: The hallmarks of YA are yes, the age of the protagonist (14 to 18), but the pacing must be fast and the plot high stakes. There is always a romance, yet the romance is not graphic. Themes are geared to teen concerns. RUBY’S FIRE addresses drug use, core identity issues, runaways, love triangles, extreme peer competition and genetic mutation. How’s that for suspense?!

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin — characters, plot or themes? What’s your writing style? Do you outline or just jump in?

STINE: I begin with a compelling situation and characters. Then I construct the plot. I always outline, and I do thematic freewrites. The more I think through the novel and outline beforehand, the stronger and more focused the novel becomes. Rubys-FireI advise my students to outline, even a few lines per chapter. I encourage them to think of it as a fluid entity they can tweak as they go. This seems to help.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

STINE: I read adult and YA speculative fiction. That includes horror, sci-fi and techno thrillers. Occasionally I’ll read a literary mystery to study how to craft tension.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about how you got RUBY’S FIRE published.

STINE: I published Ruby’s Fire with my own imprint, Konjur Road Press. That said, I’ve also published with Random House, American Girl and Scholastic. I’m a hybrid author, meaning I’ve done it both ways, and would like to continue publishing both ways. Why not? I do have an agent. He’s okay with that.

VENTRELLA: What do you think we will see in the future of publishing?

STINE: I think more and more authors will publish both ways. Even well published authors are choosing to self-publish certain projects. For instance, one trend is to write a “short” or a novella with one of the characters in a novel, between longer projects, and self-publish the shorts. It satisfies readers while they wait for your longer opus.

VENTRELLA: Even authors with major publishers need to know how to market. What are the smartest things one can do to promote a book?

STINE: For RUBY’S FIRE, I’m doing a big blog tour. Last time I organized it all myself. This go-around I hired a book tour host. FireSeed One CoverBut from my first experience, I “met” so many great book reviewers that this time I was able to contact them again, and they were thrilled to read the next book, and also to blurb. People are very generous online and they love getting the word out about books they like. The funny thing is that I have a friend who is published with one of the Big 6, and her publicist is approaching the very same bloggers I have a relationship with. The whole process has become democratized. It’s also good to do giveaways on Goodreads, and to host other authors.

VENTRELLA: You’ve received quite a few good reviews and awards for your work. How did those come about? Do you have to search them out or do they contact you?

STINE: Write the best book you can, and good reviews will follow. I did apply to certain indie award sites; there are good ones, and questionable ones. Do your homework. More and more, these organizations and awards will be helpful to readers to discern the best of the indies.

Thanks for interviewing me on your blog, Michael!

Interview with Author Myke Cole

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Myke Cole, who constantly upstages me whenever we’re on a panel together at a convention. Headshots of Myke ColeAs a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. Thank goodness for fantasy.

Myke, let’s start with the big news about your latest book FORTRESS FRONTIER. Give us a hint of what it’s about.

MYKE COLE: FORTRESS FRONTIER is the second book in my SHADOW OPS military fantasy series. It tells the story of a military bureaucrat suddenly forced to take command of a combat outpost against hopeless odds. The book explores the question we all ask ourselves: how would I stand up in a crisis? What would I do if I were truly tested?

Oscar Britton, the main character in CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS #1) is a character in FORTRESS FRONTIER, but not the protagonist. I always intended to use a ensemble cast in this series, and FORTRESS FRONTIER is the first step in that direction.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

COLE: The same way I promoted CONTROL POINT: I’m carpet bombing the Internet with guest blog posts, interviews, giveaway contests and excerpts. I just put out a book trailer. I’m getting out to cons as much as I can. I just got back from Confusion, and I’ll be hitting Boskone and Lunacon in the next two months.

But the biggest thing I’m doing? Not being a dick. I don’t bear-bait or take polarizing stances in public. I don’t tear other people down. I respond to my fans when they email or @ me. I have adhesive backed bookplates that I can sign and send to people if they want an autographed copy of my work, but don’t want to pay the high price of shipping a book back and forth. I generally try to be accessible, available and kind to people, whether they’re industry pros, personal friends or fans I’ve never met before. That’s rarer than you’d think, and it goes a long way.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

COLE: Peter V. Brett described it best when he called it “Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.” It’s as honest a look I can provide into how the US military would deal with the existence of magic. It deals with some tough issues like the conflict between liberty and security in a free society, but it’s also crammed full of giant explosions and helicopter gunships squaring off against rocs. Win-win, if you ask me.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set series in mind? In other words, do you have a plan for a specific number of books in the series?

COLE: I’m under contract for 6 books right now. BREACH ZONE will complete the arc of this particular story, but the other 3 will also be SHADOW OPS books. ShadowOps_FortressFrontier_US_Final1Books 4 and 5 will be prequels, taking place in the early days of the Great Reawakening before CONTROL POINT. Book 6 will follow an ancillary character from FORTRESS FRONTIER on his own adventure.

After that, I’ll take a look at the state of publishing and book selling, see how fans are reacting to my work, and decide where to go next.

VENTRELLA: I have to admit that “military fantasy” is a genre with which I am unfamiliar. Was that a hard sell to agents and editors?

COLE: I only ever tried to sell it to one agent – Joshua Bilmes. He has been a dear friend for over a decade now, and from our first conversation, I knew he was the only person in the world I wanted to represent me. He rejected 3 novels from me over 7 years before finally agreeing to represent CONTROL POINT, and a lot of people suggested I try other agents. But I never did. It was going to be Joshua, or it was never going to be.

Editors were a different story. They did balk at a blending of two genres that appeal to disparate audiences. When CONTROL POINT went out to market, it garnered rejection after rejection, many with comments like, “the story seems unsure of its voice.” I had almost given up hope when Anne Sowards made the offer.

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

COLE: How did I “obtain” him? That makes it sound like I have him trussed up in my desk drawer. I knew of Joshua by doing research on who was representing authors I admired. I then deliberately sought him out at a SFWA party at Philcon in 2003. Fortunately, we hit it off amazingly, stayed up talking until 3 AM, and have been close friends ever since. As I said earlier, Joshua rejected 3 novels over 7 years from me. All that time we were visiting one another (I lived in DC at the time), exchanging phone calls and emails. The friendship was always separate from our business relationship.

But, ultimately, how did I “obtain” him? I wrote a good book and sent it to him. That’s the only way anyone ever gets an agent. There is no end run.

VENTRELLA: It appears that you started off, like me, writing mostly nonfiction. Do you feel that the skills learned in writing nonfiction are comparable to writing fiction?

COLE: In the bones, sure. Good nonfiction requires solid prose styling and feel for rhythm, the beats of your sentences. You have to be interesting and construct a narrative in essays just as much as in fiction.

The real difference for me is in Law-Enforcement/Military/Intelligence writing (reports, orders, plans, analysis, etc) that is a totally different animal.

VENTRELLA: What was your first published piece of fiction and how did you get that published?

COLE: Let’s talk about the first piece of fiction I had professionally published. That would be “Blood and Horses,” a military SF short that took 3rd in the Writers of the Future contest and was published in Vol. XIX. wotf191I did it the old fashioned way, I entered a story every quarter, without fail, for 5 years.

Now, it was a great experience and there’s no doubt that it launched my career. I learned a ton out in LA, developed some critical contacts, and got the shot in the arm I needed to keep going. Unfortunately, I later learned that the contest is not firewalled from the Church of Scientology, and there are personal and financial ties there. I certainly won’t judge the beliefs of the church (or of any faith), but there’s enough reporting of physical/financial abuse tied to them that I am now very uncomfortable with having participated. There’s nothing I can do about it now, other than caution new writers who are considering getting involved.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

COLE: I am an uber outliner. I frequently have outlines as long as 50-100 pages before I write a lick of prose. I also submit my outlines for feedback before beginning prose. This way, I don’t wind up with a problem later in the manuscript that forces me to throw out 30,000 words at the 11th hour. Oh, wait. That happens all the time anyway. *sigh*

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

COLE: In the case of the SHADOW OPS series, I started with an idea: “How would the US military handle magic?”

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do when building a character (or a setting or plotline, for that matter)?

I use the Internet almost exclusively. It’s rare I can’t find intimate details on almost any topic (I had to research heavy crane operations for BREACH ZONE). When I hit walls on Wikipedia, I turn to friends and sometimes acquaintances and fans I know through social media.

When all else fails, I make it up. These are fantasy novels.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your hero someone with whom the reader can relate?

COLE: The irony here is that the technique I used arguably failed. I made Oscar Britton, the protagonist of CONTROL POINT as human as possible. He’s wavering, indecisive, terrified of the decisions that face him. I feel confident that is an accurate portrayal of how a person of his background (bad family, no sense of rootedness) would handle the situation he finds himself in, but it’s also the most consistent criticism of the novel. In the end, I don’t think readers want real characters. They want dramatic, inspiring characters that feel real. There’s a big difference there.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

COLE: I cheated. I use epigraphs at the top of each chapter that allow me to engage in as much exposition as I want without getting accused of info dumping. I mask it all in the form of quotes, newsclips, etc, but the truth is that it’s all just stuff I needed the reader to know and couldn’t think of any other way to get it to them.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

COLE: First off, 2nd and 3rd drafts are hors d’oeuvres. CONTROL POINT went through 14 drafts. ShadowOpsCoverFORTRESS FRONTIER had 9. BREACH ZONE is currently on its 7th. And what is my main goal? To make the book awesome.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

COLE: Totally disagree. Plenty of writers try to strike out and do something new, and others write what they think will sell. I certainly won’t pass judgment on either decision, but that’s not what I do.

My favorite authors? There isn’t room to list them all, but here’s a few: Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Jack Campbell, Mark Lawrence. Believe me, I could go on.

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

Stop writing short stories. There’s like 3 people in the entire world who read short stories for pleasure. Everyone else is an aspiring writer looking for the magic key. You want to be a novelist so write novels. If you write a dynamite novel, nobody is going to care that you didn’t have a story published in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy. They’re going to buy and publish your novel because it’s awesome. Stop wasting time and learn your craft.

VENTRELLA: With the publishing industry in constant change, do you think the small press has become more acceptable, prominent, and/or desirable for beginning writers?

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

Yes. I think that self-publishing is a perfectly viable way to go about bringing your work to market. The trick is making sure that you actually have work that’s good enough to bring to market and you’re just an unrecognized genius, vice doing an end-run around the bald fact that your work just isn’t there yet.

I absolutely cannot judge my own work. I need an expert to give it the nod. Self-publishing also requires a lot of project management skills. You have to be your own art director, and you have to supervise the copy-editor and the proof reader. You have to get ISBNs, you have to convert and format your text. You have to get it uploaded and figure out a good price point.

That’s a shit ton of work. I’d far rather give a professional a percentage of my profits and let them deal with all that crap.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

COLE: After that big speech I just made about short stories and self-publishing, I’ve just completed a novelette set in the SHADOW OPS universe. It’s a piece of backstory for BREACH ZONE told from the goblin point of view. I briefly considered sending it out to short story markets, but was turned off by the market policies (no simultaneous submissions). So, now I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing it, or using my literary agency’s eBook program (for which they charge the standard fee of 15%).

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Interview with Author Donna Galanti

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

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

DONNA GALANTI: Absolutely!

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

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

Here’s what reviewers are saying:

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did the idea originate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the Characters, Stupid

As I write this, the last Harry Potter movie just opened. Harry Potter has made writer Jo Rowlings one of the richest people in the world, and deservedly so.

But why? People have written novels about kids going to magic schools before. Many of the plots are similar to standard fantasy fare, and in some cases even quite predictable. What did she do to make it all work so well?

It boils down to something successful authors understand: A story is not about what it’s about — it’s about the characters.

We go back to the books (and movies) we love not because of the idea behind the story, but because of the characters.

When ARCH ENEMIES came out (my first novel) the comments that pleased me most were from readers who talked about how much they liked Terin or Darlissa — how they related to them, and saw how they changed during the course of the story. This was something I specifically set out to accomplish: not just to create believable characters who didn’t act cliche, but also to remember that no matter how clever my plotline was, no matter how surprising my twist ending, it would mean nothing if the reader didn’t care about the characters.

At writers’ conferences and writing groups I’ve attended over the years, I’ve listened to and read works by aspiring authors that I know will never make it unless they realize this point. They have stories about monsters and gadgets and world-shaking events and the characters are secondary. The cleverest idea in the world won’t matter if no one cares what happens to your boring, uninteresting, or cliched hero.

Seriously, think about books you may have stopped reading because you became bored. Think about all those special effects movies that you watch once and never want to see again. I am willing to bet that there is one thing these have in common, and that is uninteresting characters.

I could go on and on — Entire books have been written about how to create believable characters in fiction, but it all boils down to you, the writer, remembering that the characters are the most important element of your story.

So create those characters that are larger than life. They should say clever things, perform amazing acts of bravery, never give up. They should be people we want to read about. (See my last blog on this subject!)

At the same time, they should have definite weaknesses. They should make mistakes, lose their temper, and act like real people act. They don’t have to be likable, just interesting! Sherlock Holmes has many character flaws, but he’s a fascinating character, isn’t he?

Note that I am not limiting this to your protagonist. Too often, writers create a likable good guy hero and then place that person against a “bad guy” who apparently exists only to do bad things. Instead, you should remember that your antagonist is the protagonist in his or her own story. Unless that character is insane in some way, they do not consider themselves evil. Think through their motivations, and give them good attributes to prevent them from being cliched and predictable. (This is a good subject for a future blog, because I could write much more on this topic!)

Just always remember: Your story is about characters.

Intrerview with Nebula nominated author Bud Sparhawk

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing three times Nebula finalist Bud Sparhawk today. He’s primarily known for his short fiction with heavy and hard science, but also for his humor (in particular his “Sam Boone” series).

Bud, although you have extolled the virtues of outlines, do you think it’s possible to write a great story without an outline?

BUD SPARHAWK: I’m not certain “extolled” is the right word. Certainly I’ve advocated paying considerable attention to a story’s structure – the sequencing of scenes, time frames, and points of view. I don’t think I’ve ever recommended preparing a formal outline where a story is described in detail, point by point.

My own style of writing is to set up the scenes I think the story needs, block in the characters, setting, and time, and then move things around to the way I want to tell the story. Many times I write quite a bit before breaking what I’ve done into key scenes and then add sketch ideas that fill in empty spots. It’s generally a messy back and forth process but it works for me.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever done so?

SPARHAWK: Written a great story or used an outline to write it? All three of my Nebula finalists were done sans outline – just bashing along until they felt complete. I wouldn’t call any of them “great” – entertaining maybe. The one story that I felt was “great” was “Bright Red Star” and which received almost no literary comment, except from David Hartwell who included it in his Years Best SF #14. This story has now appeared in several languages and on audio pubs, which is somewhat of an affirmation. It was my response to some of the hysteria surrounding 9/11.

VENTRELLA: You’ve concentrated almost entirely on short stories and novellas. What is it about the shorter form that appeals to you?

I’ve been blogging about this very subject on budsparhawk.blogspot.com for some time. One of my latest musings dwelled on the differences between novelists and we short people. Although there are clearly differences between the two camps, my conclusion was simply that that some do and some can’t: Temperament, patience, and economic necessity are probably involved in a writers choices, but the mix would vary considerably.

VENTRELLA: Many writers consider short stories to be harder than novels. What is your experience?

SPARHAWK: I don’t think “harder” is the distinction I’d make. Some writers find it impossible to describe anything in a single sentence while I find it difficult to drone endlessly on about anything because I’m always anxious to get to the payoff. In my opinion, brevity always makes a point sharper and I usually edit down to reach that clarity. For example, I recently turned in a 15k piece that was originally 33k in second draft and around 20k in the penultimate one.

When I started writing I could write a 5-7K story in a weekend and once wrote one – “Persistence” – that I later sold to Analog – in an evening. I like to deal with issues or ideas and the short form is ideal for that. Longer pieces deal more with character development or expansion of a situation. I’ve written several as yet unsold novels and have found developing increasing complexity that forces the word count ever upwards tedious, albeit interesting.

Dedicated novelists have told me that they cannot begin a story without discovering that complications arise and they are faced with an irresistible urge to explain, describe, or comment. Then too, other characters come along with their own damn issues, backgrounds, motives and … well, you see how that goes, with the inevitable result is other than short.

VENTRELLA: What usually comes first for you – an idea or a character?

SPARHAWK: The idea or concept, always. I see characters as vehicles that carry the ideas forward, and try to make them eloquent spokespersons for what I try to say.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at various conventions over the years. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

SPARHAWK: I’m just a ham and enjoy the spotlight, talking to fans, and especially having the opportunity to talk writerish with the other pros. I love the readings, especially by unfamiliar writers to me.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite convention experience?

SPARHAWK: The random discussions that arise in the hallways or in the dealers room have be my favorite experiences. I hardly ever leave one of these random discussions without a story idea or two.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. What’s your opinion on self publishing?

SPARHAWK: The line between vanity and self-published has become very thin. Established writers are self-publishing collections, reverted novels, and even original works – all to take advantage of the opportunities eBooks have created. Some non-professionals (another vague term) have been highly successful with their “vanity” publishing. Results are mixed, but in most cases it seems to depend on the degree of self-promotion one is willing to undertake. Social networking seems key to success for both types.

VENTRELLA: Do you think there is a difference if an already established author self publishes new material?

SPARHAWK: If a writer has already established a reputation, then selling new material via POD or eBook should not be a problem. Otherwise you use up a lot of time, effort, and creative juice that could be used for improving your writing.

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

The lengthy delays between submission and response, which is an unfortunate consequence of limited staff and/or time available to the publisher. The industry probably needs more underpaid English majors looking for “experience” in the publishing field.

Since most editors now accept electronic submissions I can easily see the day when some maven will design an app that evaluates e-manuscripts on the fly, all tailored to an editor’s preset specifications. That would certainly change the writing game for both writers and editors. Don’t know if this would make the publishers happy or not.

VENTRELLA: What do you like to read for pleasure?

SPARHAWK: Short stories, of course, and mostly SF, but I make an exception for anything by Terry Pratchett.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

SPARHAWK: See above – “Bright Red Star.” Interestingly, I’ve written three more shorts in the same universe, two of which are in McPhail’s anthologies.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

SPARHAWK: I’ve a long novel in penultimate editing, four or five shorts that still need work, and getting as much of my published works into eBook formats as I have time for. The novel deals with the long term effects of human expansion into the universe and what exactly makes our descendants “human.”

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

SPARHAWK: It is a puzzle that in these days of instant everything and twittering phrases that short fiction does not sell better. Steven King recently observed that much of the popular long form fiction has little substance but does carry the reader along in an engaging, but superficial narrative thread that provides an immersive experience. Summer reading at the beach, in other words. I find that much of the “epic” fantasy fits this description. Clearly, fantasy in general is not my cup of tea, but there are some fantasy works that rises above the rest – like Laura Anne Gilman’s Vineart series.

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

SPARHAWK: 1. Don’t give up your day job.

2. Put some time aside for writing every day.

3. Learn humility and to accept rejection gracefully.

4. Join SFWA as soon as you can.

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

SPARHAWK: Endless rewriting in pursuit of perfection, which can never be achieved. The pursuit of “better” is ever the enemy of “good enough.” A writer should rewrite only until the piece achieves a satisfactory level in their own opinion and, of course, whenever an editor asks.

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

SPARHAWK: “Where do you get your Ideas?” to which I respond “a guy in New Jersey sends me two a week for five bucks.”. Ask a silly question …

Seriously though, no one ever asks how the magic is done and the toll it takes on family life, work, and socializing. I wrote for years while holding a fairly demanding job, raising a family, and dealing with the issues of aging parents, yet managed to eke out a few words each night, having them add up to some decent stories and a lot of less than sales worthy. The ideas bubbled up during my non-writing times and, if they were worthy of remembering, finally made it into a story. Truthfully, I have no idea where the ideas come from. I only know how much work it takes to turn them from daydreams to reality.

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