Interview with author Leah Cypess

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Leah Cypess is a writer of Young Adult fantasy who I’ve met at various conventions and am thrilled to be interviewing today. She used to be an attorney living in New York City, and is now a writer living in Boston. Leah Cypess author photo 1 She much prefers her current situation. When she is not writing or chasing her kids around (or doing both simultaneously), she enjoys reading, biking, hiking, and drawing.

Let’s start by discussing your latest release, DEATH SWORN. Tell us about the story!

LEAH CYPESS: To quote Kirkus: “A teenage sorceress without magic attempts to solve a murder in a cave full of killers. What could possibly go wrong?”

DEATH SWORN is the tale of a sorceress, Ileni, who was raised to believe she would be the next leader of her people — until her powers began to fade. Now she has been sent to be magic tutor to a cave of assassins, as part of a forced tribute. The last two tutors before her both died under mysterious circumstances, and presumably she is next … unless she can figure out what happened to them and how to keep it from happening to her. But she will soon discover that those murders are part of a much larger plot, and ultimately she will have to make a decision that could change the world.

VENTRELLA: This is not a sequel to your previous works. What made you decide to move on?

CYPESS: I started writing DEATH SWORN before I got an offer to publish MISTWOOD. I couldn’t write a sequel to MISTWOOD or NIGHTSPELL because I didn’t know if either of them would ever get published.

VENTRELLA: It seems that these days, all it takes for a book to be considered “Young Adult” is to have a young protagonist. Do you agree?

CYPESS: Pretty much, yes. DeathSworn HC CContrary to the opinions of many, there are almost no content or style restrictions in young adult, and more than half of its readers are actually adults.

VENTRELLA: Do you hold back anything when writing YA?

CYPESS: Nope. First, like I said, there’s no need to hold anything back; and second, since I started writing DEATH SWORN thinking I was writing an adult novel — because at the time, I wasn’t that familiar with how the YA genre had evolved.

VENTRELLA: What YA do you like to read? Who are your favorite YA authors?

CYPESS: I mostly read speculative fiction YA, since that’s my favorite genre in general! As for favorite authors, I have many, but to pull a few out of the bucket: Sarah Rees Brennan, Anna Jarzab, Leila Sales, and Megan Whalen Turner.

VENTRELLA: What do you think separates your books from all the other fantasy novels out there?

CYPESS: I don’t think of fantasy books as being generic, any more than I think of realistic literature as being generic. In fact, I think they can be more original because not only do you have a unique character and a unique plot, you also get to make a unique world!

VENTRELLA: What led you to write MISTWOOD? What inspired you?

CYPESS: I had an imagine in my mind of a shapeshifter hiding in a forest, being hunted by men on horseback. I started writing without having any idea where the story was going. In fact, I thought it was a short story, though about an hour later I realized this was going to be a novel.

VENTRELLA: Did your publisher ask for a sequel or was there already one in the works?

CYPESS: MISTWOOD doesn’t have a sequel, no matter what Goodreads says. 🙂 Mistwood hc cNIGHTSPELL is a “companion novel” to MISTWOOD — it’s a unique story with new main characters, though it does take place in the same world and have a few cross-over minor characters.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting your works, and have you found anything that seems to be more successful?

CYPESS: I do promote my books, both online and through bookstore visits. I have no way to judge what’s successful and what’s not, though. I do the things I enjoy or at least am comfortable with.

VENTRELLA: You’ve attended science fiction conventions — do you think these are worthy expenditures of time and money in order to promote your work?

CYPESS: If you’re going just for promotion, then no — dollar for dollar and hour for hour, I don’t think it’s worth it. (At least not as a young adult author.) If you enjoy them, though, you do get the benefit of some promotional value as well.

VENTRELLA: Do you plan on attending more?

CYPESS: I do, though I’m considering holding off until my kids are older and childcare isn’t such a hassle. Of course, I’ve said that in the past and then reneged…

VENTRELLA: When I speak about writing with other authors, I find that I tend to be very organized with my outlines, and I know exactly where I want to go and what information needs to be placed where before I even start writing. Is this a lawyer thing? Do you do that, too?

CYPESS: See above re how I wrote MISTWOOD. 😉 I am a terribly disorganized writer. At some point, my manuscript resembles a jigsaw puzzle with me trying to fit all the scenes together in a way that makes sense. So, I suspect it’s not a lawyer thing, though you’d probably be better off polling lawyers who are still practicing.

VENTRELLA: Do you think a particular style is better or is there no right way to do it?

CYPESS: I think the best style varies by writer, and sometimes even by project. To quote A.J. Liebling, “The only way to write is well and how you do it is your own damn business.”Nightspell hc c

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

CYPESS: Get it critiqued (more than once!), revise it (more than once!), then write a killer query and start sending it to agents. And while you’re doing that, write a new manuscript.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

CYPESS: When the manuscript is done, read it out loud.

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

CYPESS: Right now, I am hard at work on the sequel to Death Sworn! And it’s scheduled for March 2015, so that’s definitely what’s next.

VENTRELLA: And finally – what is it about lawyers that make us want to write science fiction and fantasy? There seems to be so many of us…

CYPESS: On my first day of law school, the dean said, “You’re all here because you got good grades, but you don’t like math and you can’t stand the sight of blood.” That’s not entirely true, of course, but I think law does tend to attract many people who don’t have a strong ambition to enter another profession … which means it’s going to attract a number of people who really, deep down, want to be writers. (But not the poverty-stricken kind.)

Thank you for interviewing me!

Interview with author Kathryn Craft

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am thrilled to be interviewing friend and now-successful author Kathryn Craft today! Kathryn is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: THE ART OF FALLING, and the upcoming WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL. Craft_small_photoHer work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic (Morning Call, Allentown, PA).

Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she served for a decade on the board of the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group, and now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She is a member of the Liars Club, an author’s collective started by NY Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry and fantasy writer Gregory Frost. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Kathryn, let’s start by talking about your first big novel, THE ART OF FALLING, which is already in its second printing! How does that make you feel?

KATHRYN CRAFT: That was a huge surprise! My book was only six days past its publication date when I found out —- I couldn’t believe it when I saw the email from my publisher. I of course realized, from social media and trade shows and the number of reviews, that the book had truly “left home.” But who knew the extent to which it had traveled? I’m thrilled.

VENTRELLA: I recall you saying that you queried 112 agents before you found the right one. Tell us about the story, and what kept you going? (I gave up on my latest novel after about twenty-five…)

CRAFT: I kept going all the way through to publication for one reason: I was powerless to quit. THE ART OF FALLING was more than a path to publication for me. It was the source of my healing.

I turned to writing fiction after my first husband’s suicide, sixteen years ago. I had a lingering need to use my writing to form a more hopeful story from the chaos of those events.

Penelope Sparrow was my path.

I placed her in a harsh environment —- in a dance world with even harsher expectations about a woman’s body than those of our celebrity-driven society -— then watched as inner conflict about her imperfections imploded her dreams and relationships. I dismantled her support system. Gave her talent and passion and exclusive training then whittled away at her faith and resolve with years of rejection. Then I gave her a taste of success, a taste of love, then yanked both away at the same time. Finally, at that point, I thought, maybe she might be at the brink of self-harm.

But I wasn’t sure. So when Penelope wakes up at the start of the novel in a Philadelphia hospital room, and learns that she had landed on a car parked below her fourteenth story penthouse, what happened on that balcony remains a mystery that Penelope must reckon with. And when she bravely started rebuilding her life, I knew I would do whatever it took to see her story told.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for people trying to find an agent?

CRAFT: Here are five quick tips:

1. Pass the pitch test. If your project is hard to boil down into a succinct statement about your protagonist’s goal and the chief obstacle faced, rethink your project’s structure. Deepen the motivation and raise the stakes until the story matters — then your pitch will hook the reader.

2. Adjust your inner clock. I’ve heard many estimate that it takes ten years of consistent work to make a novelist, and a couple of years to get an agent. I started submitting early to get a feel for where I was and so learned both the art of writing and the business of pitching simultaneously. Querying is an investment in your career as worthy as writing a good book, so think of it as a process.

3. Submit in small batches. Too many authors use the ease of digital reproduction to blanket the industry with a flawed submission package, blowing opportunities they could have salvaged by tweaking all along. Send no more than 15 at a time.

4. Look for young agents at established agencies. These agents have more time and more room on their lists, yet have all the clout and resources of a reputable agency behind them.

5. Reframe “rejection.” To buoy your spirits for the long haul, mentally thank each agent who steps aside so that your true agent will one day be revealed. If an agent doesn’t know how to sell your book, you don’t want him representing it. You want him to love your work, because that passion will fuel his desire long after the money earned per time spent ratio is surpassed.

VENTRELLA: What was it like dealing with the publisher? Did it meet your expectations?

CRAFT: Sourcebooks exceeded my expectations in almost every way. What I’d heard: You’ll get no advance. (I got a decent advance.) Editorial support will be lacking. (I had two editors who loved my book.) You’ll have to fight for a decent cover. ArtOfFallingSmall(The cover blew me away, as did their retitling.) They’ll put no effort into promotion. (My publicist arranged my blog tour, arranged for giveaways, booked signings, and arranged for radio, TV, and newspaper support.) They no longer put money into marketing. (Good! Paid ads are no longer as effective as the other forms of trade marketing into which they poured their efforts.)

Clearly they’ve done something right, due to the great reviews and the early second printing. I’m a happy camper.

VENTRELLA: How much of the book changed between the time you submitted it to the editor and the time it was released?

CRAFT: Because I’d been working on it so long, and had developmental input from my agent, only one scene was swapped out for something different. All other changes were minor, such as ironing out how to portray one character’s accent.

VENTRELLA: What are you doing to promote the book?

A lot! No one loves this book, or wants it to succeed to its full ability, more than I do. My efforts have included:

• Thirteen years of volunteerism and relationship building in multiple writing communities

• Author website, Facebook Page, author newsletter, social media, and years of regular posts at high-visibility group blogs (The Blood-Red Pencil, Writers in the Storm).

• Facebook meme campaign.

• Two bookstore launch parties in “home” communities (I even had a flash mob!)

• A 9-hour virtual launch party on Facebook with eight other women’s fiction authors with new releases.

• One-month blog tour — both writing the guest posts my publicist arranged and interviews and posts I arranged.

• Signings in PA, MD, DE, NY, MA, and OH in places where I have friends I can stay with.

• Paid marketing through AuthorBuzz (expensive, but it took me thirteen years to get here and I don’t want to squander the chance).

VENTRELLA: What kind of responses are you getting from readers?

CRAFT: The response has been beyond my wildest expectations. I love living in the era of Goodreads and book bloggers, for sure, but direct communication from readers has been so much fun! My absolute favorite so far was from a man (not my target market!) named Douglas in Michigan:

“I stumbled onto THE ART OF FALLING while perusing the ‘New Books’ section of my local library. It was among the stack of books that I got out that day and it sat in my apartment untouched for a week. I didn’t open the cover until I was looking for something to release me from my insomnia last night. It did not have the intended effect. What I found was a beautifully written narrative about a world I know nothing about — modern dance — and something I have personal experience with — expressing those feelings we hold so close to ourselves. In the last day, I haven’t been able to put it down. It’s not often that this happens, that a book is so truthful and engaging that you beg for it never to be over, but when it does happen, you want to shout it from the rooftops.”

VENTRELLA: You also help run writers’ conferences (and once more, thank you for helping me with the Pocono Writer’s Conference we did last October!). How important do you think it is for authors to attend these?

CRAFT: I’d think it would be difficult to get a fully rounded education in publishing without them. And it’s a great way to get a concentrated hit of craft classes, as well, if you don’t have regular access to them. But pitching to agents in person — only available through conferences — has been priceless to me. Gauging their excitement, seeing that they are book lovers just like me, receiving their feedback (you almost always get a request to submit, and almost always receive personalized feedback) really helped usher me along. I also enjoy interpersonal interaction with authors and other writers — I met my critique partner in 2005 at The Write Stuff, and she had traveled there from Ithaca, NY!

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

CRAFT: This novel was a NaNoWriMo mess that took six years to sort out and another two to develop fully. At this point I’m not a believer in directionless fast drafting. I like to write about the story first, exploring how best to bring its structure to life, then write. What I end up with is more like an extended synopsis (my last was a hundred pages) than an outline. Results show that the few months I invested in that step will save me years in the editing phase.

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

CRAFT: I think it’s a viable option for certain well-developed works that have built-in markets and authors who know how to reach them. For my kind of “literary book club fiction” this was never a consideration. I needed broad distribution that would allow my audience to self-select. Since these are the types of books I love, I don’t tend to read self-published work.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?

CRAFT: “Story is conflict.” That is a partial truth that allows authors to fall into a junk pit where they can get sidetracked climbing over obstacles as diverse as explosive as nuclear rockets and as incongruous as the kitchen sink. “Each story is about a certain kind of conflict” — now that’s much better.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

It’s from Virginia Woolf: “Each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze.” Two things strike me: that she said “each sentence,” and that the best writing takes risks that might get uncomfortable.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer?

CRAFT: If you want to get published you need a public, so seek out and pay attention to the feedback that will allow you to evolve as a writer. Surround yourself with wickedly smart people who are farther down the road than you are, never forgetting to turn around and give a hand to those following behind. In doing so you will have mentors, readers, and a good life.

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

CRAFT: My next novel, WHILE THE LEAVES STOOD STILL, is due out from Sourcebooks in Spring 2015. Based on true events that resulted in my husband’s suicide 16 years ago, it is the story of a tense ten-hour standoff between one desperate man ready to take his life and the police, while the three women who loved him most, and the larger community, grapple with how best to respond.

I’d better get back to work on it — it’s due June 1! Thanks for having me, Michael!

workshop

Interview with author and editor Bernie Mojzes

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Bernie Mojzes is a writer and editor, responsible for a variety of stories ranging from fantasy and science fiction to horror to erotica, and even some non-genre work. He’s a friend who I see regularly at conventions, and has contributed some amazing and captivating stories my own TALES OF FORTANNIS series. bernie-spikeIn his copious spare time, he edits Unlikely Story.

Bernie, How did you first become interested in writing?

BERNIE MOJZES: I read voraciously as a kid, from day one of “Dick and Jane” when I finished the book while the other kids were trying to figure out page 3 (and was then told by the teacher that I was never to read faster than the other kids again. I wish I could have been there when my dad discussed that with the teacher.). But seriously, I loved reading, loved falling into those new and interesting worlds, and for as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve wanted to be one of those people who can create that sense of wonder in others.

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

MOJZES: Ah, the nature/nurture question. There’s a massive difference between being a writer (being able to use written language to clearly and convincingly convey an idea) and being a storyteller (being able to create an interesting narrative that captivates an audience), and in the intersection of those two things is that creature that most people call “a writer.” Within that intersection, there are three major things that are necessary:

* a willingness to learn the craft (everything from basic grammar to how to incorporate beats and cadance into your prose)
* cultivation of the imagination
* observation and transformation of the world around you
* an openness to hearing critique

Yeah, I know. That’s four things. I can count. I swear.

Different people’s brains work in different ways. How we observe, how we perceive and what interpretations we make of those perceptions, and how we process and integrate and assimilate that information. And that’s not all, but it’s also how we connect the dots between that, what we’ve learned in the past, and what we will learn in the future, and then how we use all that to construct new worlds and new characters and new stories. Some people will weave intricate multilayered tapestries while others write linear, full-throttle with guns a-blazin’ adventures. What’s the right approach? There is none; there’s only the approach that works best for that particular writer.

If you can figure out the way your brain works best, and then train to minimize your weaknesses, and do the hard work of the three (4) things I listed above, I think most people can become good writers. But there are no shortcuts. It’s hard work – harder than most folks realize – and in the end, a lot of aspiring writers falter because they aren’t willing to do the work.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your latest work!

MOJZES: Last October I had a story in the debut issue of Betwixt Magazine called “The Red Danube,” available here. EvilGazebo_lgThis is the most difficult and unflinching piece I’ve had published, and I’m very proud of it. Technique-wise, it was a challange and a blast to write. I wanted to do two things simultaneously: pull the reader close into the the most intimate thoughts and actions of the characters while simultaneously pushing the reader away, holding the reader at a distance. Since one of my weaknesses is talking about my own work, its probably better to point you at a review of it up at ChiZine, which starts:

No end-of-year round up would be complete without mentioning Bernie Mojzes’s “The Red Danube” (Betwixt Issue 1, Fall 2013). This story is something else.

Charlotte Ashley reads deeply, and writes insightful reviews; she’s worth following closely.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide upon the theme for your magazine? I mean, really, bugs?

MOJZES: Hm. Yes, bugs. The magazine started its life as The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, a biannual online magazine dedicated to stories involving bugs. How we came up with that is a long and sordid tale that involves, well … it’s long and sordid, and since this is a PG13 blog, let’s just leave it at that. Ultimately, we decided that we wanted to see what we could do with a really unusual and specific theme. There was the danger, of course, that everyone would look at it and think, eww, bugs, I’ll send my horror story about spiders. Fortunately, the writing community came through for us, sending us, yes, some horror stories, but also stories about love and loss, death and transformation. About race relations and science and society and historical revisionism. Interestingly, by focusing in on such a seemingly narrow, weird theme, we’ve been able to put together issues of astounding diversity.

VENTRELLA: How has it been received?

MOJZES: Really well, surprisingly. When we first opened up for submissions, we were terrified of the grand experiment being a flop, but from Issue 1 on, we’ve had good to excellent reviews. We’ve had stories by some of the more interesting authors on the scene today. Stories that have appeared in our pages have gone on to make honorable mention lists and appear in Best of Year anthologies.

VENTRELLA: You’re expanding, though. Tell us about your new endeavor.

MOJZES: Expanding? Diversifying is probably a better word. In 2013 we decided that we’d offer new and interesting (for us, and hopefully for others) games to play. With this decision, we realized that The Journal of Unlikely Entomology was no longer properly descriptive, so we’ve gone with “Unlikely Story.” Under the Unlikely Story umbrella, we’ll continue to put out one issue of Unlikely Entomology, and also one issue of The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography (stories involving cryptography, ciphers, hacking, etc.), and one other issue. The first of those was The Journal of Unlikely Architecture (stories about buildings); the second will be The Journal of Unlikely Cartography (stories involving maps). Cryptography will be coming out in February, and we’re currently accepting submissions for the next Entomology issue.

VENTRELLA: You’ve co-written stories (for example, in the TALES OF FORTANNIS: A BARD IN THE HAND anthology, ahem) … how did you go about doing that? bardinhand-510 What was the process?

MOJZES: Co-writing a story is an interesting process. I wrote “Embarassing Relations” with Bob Norwicke, a friend of mine from an old D&D campaign. He’s since moved to a different state, and we’d lost touch, but he had this brilliantly twisted character in the game that I wanted to use as a foil for my protagonist. I found Bob online and asked if he’d mind me stealing his character. That’s how I found out that Bob’s also a writer, and we decided to give co-authoring a try. I sent him a rough one paragraph concept for the story, he liked it, so I wrote an opening scene, written from my protagonist’s POV. Sent it to Bob, who wrote the next scene from his protagonist’s POV. From there we alternated. Some of what we did was writing toward the conclusion, writing to move the plot along. But some of what we did was writing a scene that intentionally put the other’s protagonist into a bind. This was the challenge — write your way out of the bind while still moving the plot along. That created some really interesting and unexpected twists that, I think, led us to bring the story to places we might not have otherwise discovered.

We did establish some ground rules. First was that I had veto power (because it was my story idea), and would eventually do an editing pass to make the story stylistically cohesive. Second, either of us could say “my character wouldn’t do that,” and offer rewrite suggestions. Third, both of us were free to re-write any dialog that the other author put in our character’s mouth.

Other than that, we created a vague outline early on (which included the phrase “hijinx ensue” multiple times) – left intentionally vague in order for us to both have the freedom to play within the plot and let the plot evolve.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character? And what’s the best way to make the antagonist a believable character?

MOJZES: Okay, first thing is, these two are secretly the same question, and I’d expand that out to include the secondary and tertiary characters that appear in your work.ClockworkChaos_lg All of these characters have, to the degree allowable by the point of view from which the story is told and the amount of time they have on the page, be as fully developed and “real” as possible.

First thing to remember is that every character is the protagonist of their own story. So whenever anyone does anything, it has to make sense for that individual to be doing that. Sometimes you find yourself writing a scene where the needy, self-absorbed and completely narcissistic friend of a friend suddenly does something immensely selfless in order to move a plot point along, you’ve got to take a step back and rethink. Maybe you need to rethink the character. Maybe you have to rethink how you get through that plot point.

But most importantly, remember that nobody is perfect. If you have a character that always does the right thing (or that always does the wrong thing, in the case of the villain), you end up with a caricature, not a character. Good people have flaws and failings. Bad people have good in them. That’s what it means to be human. You have to show that humanity in your characters.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

MOJZES: A character can be larger than life but still be believable. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Finding a character that’s big enough to be interesting but human enough to be believable.

Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

Not much. I think as advice goes, it’s easily taken to mean that you should know your proper place and not dare step beyond it. All that leads to is solipsism. I think reversing it – know what you write – is more interesting. By which I mean, research deeply and respectfully, and with an open mind. Don’t be superficial, and don’t look to media representations of something for reality. Think three-dimensionally, and consider the wider context.

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

MOJZES: Whenever possible, I try to break the info dumps into smaller pieces and incorporate that into dialogue or action. fantasic_erotica_cover_comp_400x600Sometimes you’re stuck with an expository lump, though – information that you just need to get across to the reader, and can’t for whatever reason (word count limits, for example) deal with it more elegantly.

So, lets say there’s a 10 sentence paragraph that fills a whole page and sits like a giant indigestable lump in the middle of your story. So first, for each piece of information, decide whether or not the reader really needs it. (You may need someone else to point these out to you). Cut the bits that aren’t needed.

Now you have a 7 sentence info dump. See if there’s any of that that can be incorporated naturally into dialogue or action.

Now you have a 5 sentence info dump paragraph. Break it into 2 paragraphs and separate them with one or more paragraphs of dialogue and/or action.

Lastly, rewrite those two paragraphs so that the info that is dumped is done strongly through your POV character’s perspective. So, not just [fact], but [fact as your character perceives it]. By doing this, you’re taking what is largely an uninteresting declarative statement of fact and making it do double duty as something that reveals character. And like magic, you’ve turned a giant, boring info dump into interesting, compelling prose.

VENTRELLA: As an editor, what is the biggest problem you have when dealing with authors?

MOJZES: We have blessedly not really had any major problems with authors. The biggest problem has been technological, where the author wasn’t seeing all of the edits we had sent them, either due to old software, file format incompatibilities, or whatever. And that ultimately leads to misunderstandings and aggravation on all sides. Probably the most problematic of these issues comes from authors having their software set to use .docx format by default, and we suggest that people change the default settings to use .doc or .rtf instead.

VENTRELLA: In this market, with the publishing industry changing daily, how important is the small press?

MOJZES: In an environment in with that large presses are contracting and consolidating, small press is critically important. Dead_souls_Cover_Final OnlyWell, first, we should really define some terms. There are small presses like Small Beer and Subterranean that have significant resources and ability to put books into bookstores, and micro-presses which perhaps only put out a few titles a year. I think it’s important to understand that distinction, because they really fulfill a different need in the market.

The are three technological innovations that allow small presses to be successful with books that a large press won’t touch: Print-on-Demand, The Internet, and e-books. POD and e-books allow small press to reduce or eliminate the need to order and warehouse large print runs of books that aren’t guaranteed to sell. The Internet allows people to find obscure and niche books, leading to something called “The Long Tail.” Small and micro-press can cater to niche markets and be successful selling smaller unit counts.

This creates opportunities for a wide variety of authors who simply could not be successful under a large press marketing scheme.

Interview with author Thomas Erb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: From the snowy confines of Upstate New York, from a place he calls “Hell’s 1/2 Acre,” author/artist Thomas A. Erb brings stories of the unlikely hero: from extreme brutal violence, to touching, gripping interpersonal relationships sure to catch the reader and never let them free. (He wrote that.) 2012-09-29 22.36.48

Thomas, how did you first become interested in writing?

THOMAS ERB: I’ve always been a storyteller. It started visual when I was two and used to draw elaborate battles with army men fighting the Nazis or another vile foe. It then turned to comic books. For most of my young life, all I wanted to do was work for Marvel comics. I would create my own characters and write whole story arcs to accompany all my great illustrations. (pure sarcasm intended.)

Then I got into role-playing games. Yup, that’s right … Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Champions, Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulu, you name it, I’ve played it. And, just like for comics, I’d have to create highly detailed character backstories and potential subplots for my DM(s). Although, I never knew if they liked that I did that or not. Oh, as a word of advice … Never piss off a Game Master. Bad idea.

Now, I’ve fallen in love with writing my very own fiction — a love that keeps on growing with each tale I tell.

VENTRELLA: I must admit, my background is similar — I went from creating worlds and stories in D&D to creating them in LARPs to writing my own stories (the characters in my books are so much easier to control than my players).

How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

ERB: I believe we all have an innate creative talent. Each one of us has something to say and in that yes, we are all storytellers. However, much like my philosophy with the visual and musical arts, I think that innate ability has a limitation. By that I mean, while we all can create, there is a certain level where some folks top off their talent. Some folks are just “born” to be X. Poe/Hemingway/Toklien/King were surely born to the written word. Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt were put on this earth to give us visual masterpieces. Krupa, Rich, Peart were born to make playing the drums into a sonic art form. Same goes for the rest of us.

Quick life anecdote: While I was born to draw, I never tried hard. It’s always come easy to me. I had friends that would bust their humps and draw for hours and hours and no matter what, they couldn’t draw the same level as I did. (Now, I am saying this with no ego at all. Just an observation.) The same holds true for drumming. I’ve been playing drums since I was 16 and really love jamming. Sure, I’ve been in many bands and jammed with some amazingly talented musicians but I’ve plateaued my drumming talent. I know I will never be a Neil Peart. I wasn’t “born” with that level of ability. Even if I took more lessons and practiced for ten hours a day. It’s just a reality.

So … very long answer I know, but yes, writing talent is human nature but the level of craftsmanship,language, once in a generation storytelling ability does have a cut off. Not everyone can be Stephen King, Tolkien or James Joyce.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about TONES OF HOME!

ERB: My very first novella, TONES OF HOME, was released in June of last year and it’s the most brutal, violent story I’ve ever written. If you dig graphic scenes with tons of blood, machetes and shotguns, rednecks and oh yeah, the Beatles … then this story is right up your jukebox.TONES official Cover

I am currently working on my first novel. (well, the one that I actually want folks to read.) It’s a deep story of loss, troubled relationships, a Nor’easter and a black monster coming to a small lakeside town, seeking revenge. I’m really loving this project and hope to have it in the hands of an agent by Thanksgiving.

VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?

ERB: That’s a really tough one. I feel like I am just now, seeing my true “voice” come to fruition. While I loved writing all the great bloodletting in TONES OF HOME, I don’t think I am a Richard Laymon kind of writer. But, it’s the best work I’ve done thus far. So, Yeah, I’d say check out TONES OF HOME or “Spencer Weaver gets Rebooted.” It’s in a new anthology called FRESH FEAR.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character?

ERB: All of my stories seem to be based around an extremely flawed character. Or, as I like to refer to them, the unlikely hero. Usually they have something about them, whether it be a physical or mental determent. I have a weakness for the “loser”. The outcast, the outsider. A fat or skinny kid with asthma. I just identify with that and my thinking is, “hey, if I can feel for this guy/gal, then the readers should as well.” It’s not about having the Chisel-chinned, barrel-chested hero, saving the day. No … that’s the easy way out. It’s more of a challenge to break away from that trope and find a way for this less-than-heroic protagonist to overcome all the huge hurdles that makes up a great compelling story.

All characters must have flaws. Both protagonists and antagonists. (even Darth Vader has a soft side.)

VENTRELLA: Certainly agree with that (as you can tell if you read about the reluctant “hero” of my fantasy books.)

ERB: There are so many basic story ideas out there in the ether and to me, it’s more of how you get there as opposed to reworking old ground. Either way, readers want to escape and I hope I offer a wide mix of rich characters and tales they can sink their hungry teeth into.

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

ERB: When I first started writing, I just sat down, opened a cold beer and let the muse of chaos take the wheel. That’s how I wrote my first novel. (a zombie tale that might see the light of day … someday.) But, when I went back to write a second draft, I was overwhelmed. Too many characters. Too many plots and subplots.

So, now, I am working on a happy medium kind of approach. I need to have some kind outline. It’s always loose and organic. Nothing is written in concrete. That would feel too much like a term paper and not an adventure.

I write the basic novel idea is. Usually the characters come to me almost immediately. I then write a very loose outline and then, write the first draft. Get it all down, fast and dirty. Never looking back.

Side note: Dry erase boards and sticky notes are a writer’s best friend.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

ERB: This is lame, but I’m going to steal from the master. Stephen King states in his must-read ON WRITING book that we should take that statement as much extensively and inclusively as possible.

While I may not know anything about being a Gunny Sargent in the Royal Space Marines guarding the Princess Allayha, I do know what it’s like to always try to live with the demon of my father being a cruel man whom I could never please. You can use that kind of thing in your fiction.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started? What was your first story or book published?

After on a whim, I spent a year writing a zombie novel, I decided that I really enjoyed this writing thing and I started meeting other writers online. Back then, it was Myspace and through a few message boards. I discovered Brian Keene, (who’s book GHOUL made me want to write seriously) and found out he was attending a con in Ohio. I went and met him and some other folks that changed my life forever.

I began writing short stories and then submitted my short story, “Cutting Class” to the DARK THINGS II anthology edited by Ty Schwamberger (whom I met at the con) and next thing I knew, Bazzinga! I was a published author. mock cover

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?

ERB: I think each person tackles their writing in their own way. I jumped straight into the novel but I was only doing it for fun. It wasn’t until later that I wanted to do something with this whole writer gig.

With some hindsight, I’d suggest write some short stories first. With shorter works, you really learn how to write tight, lean prose. Plus, it’s far easier (and I use that term loosely) to get published.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

ERB: I think both have their own angels and demons. It also depends on what kind of storyteller you are. If you like deep character development and more than two intricate plots…a novel is best for you. If you really dig fast-paced, gripping tales with a small cast… short stories are for you.
I love writing both. I usually like to write a short story in between other long works. It’s a nice change of pace.

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

ERB: Platform. Publishers are looking to see if you have an effective and active writer’s platform. And to me, that means an engaging, fresh online presence. A blog, Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Goodreads account. And many, many more. Too many, in my opinion. It can be a distraction, trying to keep up with updating all your social media sites. (A necessary evil, but still evil.)

I do giveaways, I’ve done podcast interviews, blog talk radio interviews. I go to conventions when the money is right and try to post something funny, new and interesting on the social sites as much as I can manage.

I’m always looking for new ways to get my work out there. It’s an ongoing process.

13. Do you attend conventions or writing conferences? Do you find these to be a useful activity?

I attend as many as time and finances allow. Conventions are one of the biggest reasons I’m here today. I’ve made many, life-long friendships as well as business connections. It’s a must to get you and your words out there. We writers live and create in a room, all alone. You need to get out and meet other like-minded folks who know what you’ve been going through.

Plus, I’ve gotten the blurbs for my books and stories because of the conventions and conferences. Writing and life in general is about relationships.

Get you and your stories out there.

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

ERB: When I first started writing back in 2007, self-publishing was the devil’s work. It was much maligned- rightfully so and very much a joke. But now, in 2014, you are a fool if you don’d consider exploring the self-publishing market. Things are fluid and ever-changing in the publishing world and the once hated and mocked world of self-publishing is now becoming common place.
The secret is to put out work that kicks the crap out of any book that comes out of the big 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?fresh-fear3

ERB: Get the first draft down, fast and dirty. Don’t stop to worry if it’s good. That’s what second and third drafts are for.

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

ERB: Research the publisher before you sign a contract. Know the business side of things. Royalty rates/payments/editing, etc.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

ERB: Anything from Jonathan Maberry. They guy is a monster and tackles all the genres I love. YA zombies, military thrillers, comic books, you name it. He is my mentor and I use him as my career guidepost.

VENTRELLA: And I couldn’t help but notice he named a character after you in his latest novel…

ERB: Jon was so kind to have his signature cop-turned Department of Military Sciences bad ass Joe Ledger clean my clock in his last Ledger novel, EXTINCTION MACHINE. I think my jaw still pops when I talk.

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

ERB: I have a retro-zombie novella that is looking for a new home. And I am currently writing a wintry monster novel that I hope to have completed and in the hands of agent by the end of the year.

I am also working on a comic script, a screenplay and a self-publishing project of my short works I hope to have out early in 2015.

I love having a lot on my plate. Not just saying that as a fat guy. I have many stories and projects inside me and time is of the essence.

Breaking the rules

I had a conversation with one of the contributors to the TALES OF FORTANNIS anthologies I edit that went something like this (adjusted for humor):

Me: You need to cut out the first six pages and start the story here.Broken Rules Falls to Chaos Anarchy Pieces

Writer: Why?

Me: Because you need to grab readers earlier. All this other stuff is background that isn’t important to the story.

Writer: But I want it to establish character. Who says I have to start off with action?

Me: That’s what every writer’s seminar will advise you to do.

Writer: Well, you don’t have to listen to the Man! Break the rules once in a while! Who are you to say we should do what they say?

Me: I’m the editor. And if you don’t do it, I won’t buy your story.

Writer: Ah, OK. Why didn’t you say that before? (grumble grumble)

All over this blog and elsewhere, authors will be giving you advice. Don’t use prologues. Introduce information gradually instead of in an “info dump.” Show, don’t tell.

There are “rules” for writing that are very common. Go ahead, google “rules for writing” and see how many pop up. The most famous (and best, in my opinion) come from Elmore Leonard:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

But writers don’t like to be trapped. We like to be creative. We like to break the rules!

Well, don’t. Unless you can.

There are wonderful examples of writers who break the rules all the time, because they know how. They have the experience (and perhaps talent) the rest of us don’t have.

Follow the rules as much as you can when you’re getting started. People are advising you to follow them for a reason. They’re not just being mean and stifling your creative genius. You do want people to read your work, don’t you?

Jazz musicians break the rules all the time. They play notes that don’t belong in that key, change time signatures to contradict what the other musicians are playing, and just go with the feel. And they’ve spent years learning the rules to know when and how to break them.

Inexperienced newbies doing those things just make noise.

Interview with author Sara M. Harvey

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Please welcome to the blog today Sara M. Harvey. Sara is a genre-crossing author whose work has been described by Jacqueline Carey as “a compelling blend of the numinous and the creepy”. sara harvey Her webpage is here!

Sara, your first work was the romantic urban fantasy A YEAR AND A DAY. Tell us about it!

SARA M. HARVEY: That book was such a work of the heart. I was lonely, living in Orlando, Florida, working for Disney, missing NYC, in the uncertain beginnings of a long-distance relationship, flat broke and spiraling deeper into debt, and I needed a distraction from my life. I came home from work exhausted every night and sat down and wrote about angels living in the East Village and it was magical and got me through a very rough patch.

It got published as a “contemporary romance” but I’d call it more urban fantasy than romance. Sure, there’s a love story, but the main love story is between me and New York City, or so I’m told. This was my NYC, the one that I got to know and love.

The short version is the Angel of Vengeance and the Angel of Joy are roommates in NYC’s East Village, Hijinks ensue!

You can still get it as a used paperback via ebay and the usual online outlets — Powell’s, Amazon Marketplace, etc. Or if you prefer ebooks, Baen Ebooks is your go-to spot DRM-free for any and all devices!

VENTRELLA: How did you get that published?

HARVEY: Funny story, really. I was working as a temp at a temp agency (totally meta, I know!) and one of the managers belonged to a women in business group to whom this local publisher came and gave a pitch. They had a contract with CVS Pharmacies to put out some mass market romances. She remembered that I mentioned I wrote so she brought me their info. What followed was the very worst query letter I ever sent. I literally said “I don’t think you’ll want this but…”

It’s a nice thing to say I sold 35,000 copies through CVS stores nationwide … but the publishing company soon went bankrupt, showed their true colors, and although I finally (after legal action) got my rights back, they still owe me $1700 that I will never see.

VENTRELLA: You then delved into steampunk with your BLOOD OF ANGELS novellas from Apex. How has that been received?

HARVEY: The reception has been overall really great!convent The first of the series THE COVENT OF THE PURE was reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly and it still sells and reviews really well, even years later!

I found Steampunk to be an exceptionally fun genre to work in, there are so many facets and permutations to explore. I really love history and exploring all the dark and twisty “what if?” paths!

VENTRELLA: Do you find novellas easier than full works?

HARVEY: It was a challenge. I really throw the reader into a no-holds-barred roller coaster ride with very few places to stop and breathe. This makes for an exciting but exhausting read. So on the one side, it’s good the size is smaller, but on the other, were I writing a full 100k word range novel I would have done a lot of things differently. So … easier? No, it just didn’t take quite as long.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages of a novella?

HARVEY: Time commitment, both on the side of the reader and the writer; there’s a certain amount of time sunk into a full novel. Some concepts are just not novel-length so a shorter format allows more freedom to tell those stories without trying to pack in filler to pad the word count. With the ever-expanding self-pub and small-press markets, novellas are really gaining ground as companion pieces to larger works and standalone treasures.

VENTRELLA: Your newest work is SEVEN TIMES A WOMAN set in mythic Japan. What sort of research did you do for this work?

HARVEY: My background is in theatre and history. I have a bachelor’s degree in costume design and a master’s in costume history. I have also had a lifelong love of kimono and all things Japanese. I actually started writing SEVEN TIMES A WOMAN before A YEAR AND A DAY, when I was still living in NYC and had access to the Japanese wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took classes at the Japanese consulate, and had a lot more Japanese people in my life. 7TimesAWoman_FinalSo the research was fairly organic and I had an amazing set of resources at my fingertips. Also, the internet is a wonderful tool! But having the real life experts to fact check stuff made weeding through the bad research online a lot easier!

VENTRELLA: I note that you have been with many different small publishers. What are the advantages of using different publishers?

HARVEY: I am a pretty eclectic author and I write in a variety of sub-genres of fantasy. Each publisher has a little bit of a different flavor to their oeuvre and since I have a lot of facets to my work, I have been able to find different publishers that sync up with each!

VENTRELLA: You also wrote the opening story in the recent DREAMERS IN HELL, part of the “Heroes in Hell” series (Shameless plug: I’m in the book, too). How did that come to be?

HARVEY: I have some friends among the early recruits for the Heroes in Hell reboot and was invited and accepted to ROGUES IN HELL, but my story got pushed back to DREAMERS IN HELL, where is it much more fitting. I couldn’t be happier to have it there!

VENTRELLA: Is it difficult writing in someone else’s world?

HARVEY: Yes and no. I have written my fair share of fanfic and I find the constraints of fitting original stories and concepts into other people’s worlds and characters to be pleasantly challenging. HEROES IN HELL was a larger challenge because there are so many books and such an enormous cast of characters. Keeping everything organized was really challenging. So I ended up writing what Janet Morris calls an “outlier” story, one that fits generally into the overall story but not directly or linearly.

It was kinda cheating, but also a good way to get my feet wet. With such a robust history, I didn’t want to dive right into the deep end on my first shared-world swim!

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

HARVEY: Currently shopping out an urban fantasy novel that takes place in Nashville. And my latest piece of short (but also kinda long) fiction is the the MOUNTAIN DEAD chapbook accompanying the Appalachian Undead zombie anthology from Apex Publications.

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin? Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00075]Characters, plot, themes? What is your writing style? Do you outline heavily, for instance, or just jump right in?

HARVEY: Usually there are characters first, followed very closely by a setting (actors and location) and then I have to work out the specifics of the very vague plot idea I have for them. BUT I just started a YA fantasy where I had a really detailed plot and no characters and no setting. Which is just the opposite of my usual mode of operations. But I’m having a good time with the research and construction. I never shy away from a new way of thinking about writing!

I’m an academic at heart so I always make an outline. I never stick to it, but I make one.

Mostly, I’m a pants-er when it comes to writing. I just jump right in! Even when I wrote longhand, Mead notebooks and Bic pens were cheap, I filled drawers with them. These days I have whole folders of dribbles and drabbles in Word documents. They take up very little hard drive space and fit easily onto a 2GB thumb drive.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

HARVEY: Jacqueline Carey, Cherie Priest, Neil Gaiman, Catherynne Valente, 1990s era Francesca Lia Block, early Anne Rice, early Stephen King, Lovecraft, Shakespeare, Tolkien, historical fiction, non-fiction history and fashion/costume books.

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

HARVEY: Like Wil Wheaton says, Don’t Be A Dick! Have a platform of actual content or wit or something. You can’t just plug your book over and over. Don’t use birthday greetings on Facebook to market your book, be a cheerleader for others and pay it forward or back or sideways — generally be involved in your community and genre, and most importantly be yourself. Be genuine in your dealings with the people you meet online or in person at conventions or signings or events. You never know who is a fan or a potential fan and you have so many opportunities to make someone’s day by just being you. Be mindful of that, think about how you’d like to be advertised to and apply that to your marketing strategy!

VENTRELLA: Should beginning authors ever consider self-publishing?

HARVEY: I think self-publishing is still the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. I have a pretty good fanbase but still haven’t moved much of my self-pubbed piece (a novelette called “Allegiance to a Dead Man” about Emperor Norton, available for Kindle and Nook!) but I know a lot of authors who do okay at it. I don’t know anyone quitting their day job, however. The industry is really in flux right now and I think self-pubbing will be with us for a very long time, if not forever. It isn’t the stigma it used to be, but it isn’t the magic wand promised by so many. So I’d say, research all your options and be prepared to go it alone. Alone. Even small presses have marketing teams, blogs, media connections, etc. Have a plan in place, a good and solid plan, before you even think of self-pubbing. Dreamers-in-HellAnd I say, try out your small press options first. Especially your first time out of the gate.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future of publishing?

HARVEY: Publishing needs to lose the megalithic “Big Six” or “Big Five” or however few of the major labels there are. They are going to crumble like the big recording labels did ten years ago. Sure, those labels are still around, but they don’t have the same strangle-hold on content like they once did. We’re in a really turbulent time right now and I think there are still a lot more upheavals to come.

That said, we still need gatekeepers. So much self-pubbed and a lot of small-press stuff it a terrible waste of time and an exercise in ego. Wading through that muck is hard on readers. But we have an unprecedented amount of literature available in an unprecedented number of ways — paper books, ebooks, audiobooks, online, etc. and there is nothing bad in that! There just needs to be a higher signal-to-noise ratio, and that’ll come with time. Remember the internet 10 years ago … it was the WWWild West! And things sorted themselves out. Publishing will do the same.

Readers aren’t going anywhere and as things have shown, there are more and more of them and they are engaging with authors in new ways every day and that right there is a thing of beauty and tells me that we’ve got nothing to worry about.

Interview with Robert Brockway

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Robert Brockway today. Robert Brockway is a Senior Editor and columnist for Cracked.com. brockwayHe is the author of two books, the cyberpunk novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY, and the comedic non-fiction essay collection EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL EVERYBODY: THE TERRIYINGLY REAL WAYS THE WORLD WANTS YOU DEAD. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Meagan and their two dogs, Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. He has been known, on occasion, to have a beard.

Tell us about your novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY!

ROBERT BROCKWAY: RX is a cyberpunk novel about Red, a bio-hacker, chemical beta tester and specialty drug dealer in a futuristic mega-scraper city called the Four Posts. Pharmaceuticals aren’t just tolerated in the Four Posts, they’re practically a necessity. Everybody medicates constantly, to the point that Rx Feeds – nano-assembling custom drug stations – are piped into every household. The hot new drug of choice is Presence, a powerful hallucinogenic gas that simulates time travel, but with none of the consequences. Want to shoot a T. Rex? Fist fight King Henry II? Bring a battle-mech to the Civil War? Dose up on Presence and go for it. Your timeline won’t change in the slightest. Red’s best paying side-job is beta-testing new strains of Presence – hey, somebody has to go back and make sure the dose is taking customers to the right time and place. But he’s just woken up with a hell of a headache and no memory of the last twelve hours, only to find he’s violated his Non-disclosure Agreement – a crime punishable by death in the Four Posts. Now with a pair of incredibly brutal bounty hunters on his trail, Red has to clear his name and figure out what the strange prototype drug is doing to his mind before it literally tears him apart.

VENTRELLA: What sort of research did you do before writing this?

BROCKWAY: Too much. I’m kind of a link hoarder, and though the general framework of Rx is obviously science fiction, much of what appears in it was inspired by real stuff. The Four Posts were inspired by Ponte City, a huge single-skyscraper project in South Africa that, for a time, was considered the most dangerous place in the world. The drugs in Rx (well, excluding the Gas) are more stable, more potent versions of real pharmaceutical developments – drugs that eliminate fear, inspire trust, add IQ points. All real stuff.

VENTRELLA: Why couldn’t you go with your original title?

BROCKWAY: I’m assuming you’re referring to the original title of “Time Fuckers: Fuckers of Time.” RXAre the reasons not self-evident? I was never going with that title. It’s awful. I give myself terrible working titles until the book is finished to keep myself from taking it too seriously, and to stop from worrying about things when it’s not time to worry about them yet.

VENTRELLA: You’ve actually done an annotated version of the book, with footnotes and asides and references listed. Why did you decide to do this?

BROCKWAY: Well, it was all that research and link hoarding. I heavily fictionalized the info in Rx, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for not believing a word of it is remotely possible. But I wanted to show people that the real world has always been, is now, and is about to be much, much crazier than they would ever suspect.

VENTRELLA: How did you publish this?

BROCKWAY: I published Rx as a serial eBook in three installments. I did this partly because I liked serial novels, partly because I was curious how it would do, and partly because I didn’t have a reliable network of Beta-readers. The plan was to self-publish these little episodes and incorporate reader feedback along the way. Then I would take a huge editorial pass on the collected version, and release that as a finished book. Toward that end, I ran free giveaways of the first episode, then included review incentives where any (positive or negative, so long as it’s helpful) review would earn you a free copy of the next episode. In that fashion, you could get the whole series for free, just by leaving reviews on each episode.

VENTRELLA: What is your background and why did you decide to write?

BROCKWAY: I’m not sure how to answer that: I decided to write because I’ve always been writing. I don’t know how not to do it. My background is happening right now, I’m pretty sure. I have in no way ‘made it’ or become some sort of name. I’m still practicing, learning from my myriad mistakes, and trying to get better. I hope I’ll always think of myself like that.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s a great thing! I prefer physical books myself, though I’m definitely a hybrid reader these days. It’s most beneficial to beginning (I’d prefer the term ‘Indie’ as many aren’t really starting out, so much as just now getting seen) authors because, for the most part, your self-published books are just as viable as traditionally published works in these new marketplaces. I see indie books all the time, just browsing around on Amazon or Indiebound. I’m not even looking for them. But if your book hooks me with a good cover, killer title or compelling synopsis – you’ve just made a sale to a person who would otherwise never have even heard of your work. As much as we bemoan the death of book stores (and they shouldn’t die, I love them), we tend to overlook the upside: There’s one less middleman to filter out your work.

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

BROCKWAY: I think it’s just because we’re segmenting our descriptions of the genre. We used to call all of that stuff ‘science fiction.’ Is my book ‘hard science fiction’? Everything_BrockwaySome people have said so – derogatively, I might add – as though that limits its appeal. Others call it ‘cyberpunk’ – also derogatively (man, I’m sensing a pattern here). If we applied that pattern retroactively then 1984 would be ‘technological dystopian’ and FOUNDATION would be ‘dynastical space opera.’ It’s not: We’re all sci-fi. We’re all brothers and sisters in nerdishness here.

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

BROCKWAY: Ambition. That’s my biggest mistake, anyway, and I don’t really feel comfortable pointing out the mistakes of authors who are likely far better than me right now. I don’t know if I fully pulled off Rx – it was a hell of a lot to try for as a debut novel. I further complicated matters with an experimental release schedule. I needed to write it, of course, to learn those lessons and improve as a writer — and I think a lot of readers still got some enjoyment out of it. But that will always be the sci-fi writer’s simultaneous curse and blessing: Ambition.

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

BROCKWAY: Both. Natural talent happens in every field. Some people are naturally talented cabinet makers or heating repairmen. You can never fake that, but it doesn’t mean you’re excluded. I’ll never be as effortlessly good as, say, Italo Calvino. But if I work at it, I can still be pretty good someday. For example, Stephen King doesn’t think of himself as naturally talented. I’d actually agree with him. But he works at his craft, constantly, and in the end he’s going to be more influential than a hundred thousand other, naturally talented writers who phoned it in, thought they were above improvement, or never even tried.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

BROCKWAY: Anybody. Terrible answer, I know, but it’s all I’ve got these days: I’m finding so many more books thanks to recommendation algorithms or sites like Goodreads that my favorite authors are constantly shifting and evolving. Over the past few months, I’ve been most impressed with Patrick Rothfuss’ work, and I’ve got a working writer’s crush on Chuck Wendig. I don’t know how he’s so prolific while maintaining that kind of quality, but it’s something I respect and strive for.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always enjoyed the articles you’ve written for Cracked with advice for authors. (Examples: here, here, and here) How have these been received?

BROCKWAY: Mixed. People who don’t write don’t give a damn and feel compelled to tell me so in increasingly obscene ways. People who do write usually thank me. They do decent traffic with high engagement, to borrow some soulless marketing terminology.

VENTRELLA: New authors can make huge mistakes. What big mistake bugs you the most, and how can writers avoid making it?

BROCKWAY: They don’t edit. If you don’t obsessively, freakishly edit your story, then I promise you that you have made huge, gaping unforgivable mistakes, and everybody but you is going to notice and point and laugh. I edit everything. For example, I edited my responses to this interview. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have noticed that I used the word ‘obsessively’ three times in the span of two sentences. You would have laughed at me, and I would have had no choice but to kill myself to preserve my family’s honor.

VENTRELLA: Do you attend science fiction conventions?

BROCKWAY: I have attended one convention in my life. Comickaze, in Los Angeles, and I did so because I was ordered to by my employer. It was interesting and fun, but a bit awkward, and probably not representative of the larger scene. I’m kind of a hermit.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BROCKWAY: I don’t know how to categorize it, really: It’s a novel with elements of mystery, science fiction, horror and magical realism. It’s about a group of punk rockers in New York in the late ‘70s, and a group of aspiring actresses in Los Angeles in the present day. Both are tied together through a mysterious set of disappearances, usually accompanied by a strange caustic sludge, and the impossible sighting of angels.

It’s called “Punks Versus Math”.

I told you I have terrible working titles.

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!

When It’s OK to Self-Publish

I’ve blogged about self-publishing before, and advised new authors to avoid it completely. This has caused a few of them to challenge me, pointing out those few exceptions where it worked. As I said before, if you are a gambler and want to play those one-in-a-million odds, you go right ahead. But consider this …

There are hundreds if not thousands of self-published novels being released every week. Undoubtedly, some are very good. Unfortunately, many are not. And you’re going to start with the assumption that your book is one of the ones that is not.

With all of the small publishing houses out there these days — some with very good reputations — there’s bound to be one that will accept your book. And if you can’t find even one, then perhaps your book is not as good as you imagine it to be, and you shouldn’t be publishing it, either.

Anyway, without rehashing my previous post, let’s discuss when it is fine to self-publish.

You’re writing for family and friends. If you have no desire to ever be accepted as an author, no dream of making that your career, and only want to share your writing with friends, then none of this advice matters. This blog is for those who want to break into the publishing industry, after all!

You’re writing for a small specialized audience. For instance, if you’re a member of the Cowsills Fan Club and you’ve completed your fan fiction novel The Cowsills And The Mystery Of The Secret Cove. No problem there. Even if you want to one day be accepted by one of the major publishers for your real work, this is just a fun side project.

You publish non-fiction. If you are an expert in your field and have written a non-fiction book, the stigma that seems to be attached to self-published fiction does not apply. Take my brother. Please! jeffbookJeffrey Ventrella is an MIT graduate who has taught college courses and travels the world giving lectures on computer stuff I don’t understand. He’s self-published a few books that he sells at his lectures, and this is common and accepted. Many if not most lecturers do this. (Also in this category would be gaming books, riddle books, inspirational books and the like.)

You publish art books, comics or graphic novels. No problem here. Even though the graphic novels and comics are technically “fiction,” usually what you are publishing is artwork that has already been ‘published’ on the web or in a newspaper, and your fans want the collection.

You already have a following. Some well known authors are now self-publishing their new books. This is a strategic decision. As one author pointed out, he may only sell half of what he used to this way (since his self-published books are not being carried in the stores) but he’s keeping a larger percentage of the money so he personally comes out ahead. It’s your choice here — I don’t see how this will help grow your audience — but hey, if you’re at that stage of your career, you’re probably not reading this blog anyway.

What I’m really cautioning against is self-publishing your fiction if you are a starting author. Agents and editors pay attention to these things (as do conventions and writing conferences that won’t invite you because of it). Working your way up the chain to the bigger publishers requires you being taken seriously at every step, and putting out your own book, no matter how good it is, doesn’t help you there. Anyone can publish a book these days (and with scam companies like Publish America, they can be fooled into thinking it’s not self-published, but that’s another topic).

Sometimes people ask me, “How much did it cost you to publish your books?” This is somewhat insulting. I always like to point out that I haven’t paid a cent, and in fact, I get a nice royalty check every six months. If you are a creative person (artist, musician, writer), the money should only travel in one direction.

And now, two final disclaimers. First, remember that there are exceptions always. Some authors have set up their own publishing companies. They hire publicists and artists, recruit other writers, and have editors review their own works before they publish. And some of these are very successful and have good reputations. As I said, these are the exceptions. Don’t think that just because they did that you can too.

Second, keep in mind that the publishing industry is changing daily. If what you do works, then it works. All I’m trying to say is that you need to know what you’re getting into and what the odds are before you jump into the deep end of the pool.

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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