Interview with author A. C. Crispin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

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

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

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

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

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

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

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

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

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

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

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

4. They submit first drafts.

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

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

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

Interview with Author P. N. Elrod

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing author P.N. Elrod, best known for The Vampire Files series featuring undead private eye Jack Fleming. She’s edited award-winning anthologies, warns new writers away from scams, and is open and honest about her incurable addiction to chocolate. More about her toothy titles may be found at

What is it about vampires that so attracts the public?

P. N. ELROD: They’re easy on the eye, have money (if they’re doing things right), and get to kick butt—at least that’s true for the ones in my books!

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to become the “vampire specialist” with your series?

ELROD: I didn’t decide. I like writing about the characters. You write about what interests you and that passion comes through in the words. If you’re lucky your words will touch others.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on the many variances we’re seeing in vampire stories?

ELROD: I don’t have any. To each his own, let’s all have fun.

VENTRELLA: Do they bother you?

ELROD: Not even a little. I have other things on my event horizon.

VENTRELLA: Do you think this trend will die down eventually?

ELROD: I was told in the 1960s that vamps were dead. Apparently someone got that wrong and others will continue to get it wrong. I don’t pay attention to trends. If I did, then there would be no Vampire Files or any of my other books. I write the kind of stories I want to read and hope others agree with my take on things.

VENTRELLA: The concept of a vampire private eye solving his own murder must have helped sell your first novel in that series.

ELROD: The concept resulted in 20+ rejections from publishers who didn’t know what to do with a cross-genre book back then. It wasn’t a mystery or a horror and no one knew how to sell it—especially agents looking for a quick placement. It finally sold off the slushpile to Ace Science Fiction. It only took two years of shopping around—and about 20+ rewrites to get it up to a professional level. I’m glad it too so long—it resulted in a much better book!

VENTRELLA: You’ve written a sequel of sorts to Dracula. How did that come about, and what constraints did you discover?

ELROD: It is a sequel to Dracula. I’ve always thought that Quincey Morris got a bum rap at the end, and wondered how it was that he knew more about vampires than all the others except for Van Helsing. I also wondered—after V.H. again and again harped about using a wooden stake—that they bumped off Dracula with a big metal knife. Well, my hero, Fred Saberhagen deftly and cleverly dealt with the latter problem in his classic The Dracula Tapes. When I was ready to do my own take on things, Quincey Morris, Vampire was the logical result!

No constraints. I wrote the kind of story I wanted to read. I love the Victorian period, the research was a joy and still is. I’m doing another Quincey book, but it will have to be scheduled after I turn in my new steampunk series.

VENTRELLA: In my next novel, a vampire runs for President (but of course, no one believes that vampires really exist). Do you think there’s a market out there for a political vampire novel?

ELROD: I wouldn’t know. Get some feedback, polish, shop it around, and find out.

VENTRELLA: When editing, what do you look for in a story?

ELROD: As little work for me to do as possible. I expect a clean, polished manuscript from writers who bothered to proofread and use the spell check.

After that, I want a beginning, middle, and satisfying ending with characters I can relate to whether they’re good guys or bad apples, and good solid writing.

I expect an enthusiastic, cheerful, professional attitude. My goal is the same as the writer’s: producing the best story possible so readers fall in love with their words. If you’re a paranoid diva whose deathless prose that must be preserved like the Dead Sea Scrolls, move on. Neither of us will enjoy the experience.

VENTRELLA: Do you generally invite others to join your short story collections or do you have open submissions? Which do you prefer?

ELROD: These days I’ve room for only nine stories in a collection. I call on a core handful of writers on my A-list choosing about four of the nine, depending on who is available. A-list writers are busy! The publisher—who is footing the bill—naturally wants to promote the writers who have books with them, and pick the other names. It’s only fair, and they are being more than generous about it.

In past projects I could handpick all the writers, inviting ones I knew would deliver good stories. I’ve asked only 2-3 otherwise unpublished writers for work, and they did not disappoint.

Those projects were not open submission, but I got stories from other writers with more cohones than sense. I let in one based on his letter and story. The letter, I later found out (this was before Google), was a gross exaggeration of his supposed “sales”. His story required extensive and repeated line edits. After that, I put him on my “do not invite” list. I don’t deal with liars.

Here’s a clue, new writers: tell the truth. You’re only as good as your reputation for honesty. If you’ve not sold anything, it’s perfectly okay. But don’t tell an editor that you’ve sold 20 stories to various publications when you really mean you just submitted stories and are waiting to hear back. These days it’s too easy to check up on you.

After speaking with other editors who have done open submission collections, I know I’d not want to work on such a project. I don’t have the time or patience.

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

ELROD: They’re not cracking down on e-piracy. It’s not about freedom of information, it’s about theft of property. It’s one thing to resell a used book, but used bookstores don’t sell Xerox copies.

Contrary to popular myth, most writers don’t get paid much, and piracy cuts into the pittance they do manage to get from their hard work. Pirates are not promoting anything. If writers could make more money by giving away free e-copies of their works, they’d be doing it. Some of the more successful ones have chosen to do so, but the pirates have taken that choice away from the rest of us.

Publishers are losing millions in revenue through e-theft. If the music industry can crack down on it, so can the publishing industry. I want them to get off their duffs and shut down on these so-called “share” sites. Slap fines on the pirates and those who download from them. If anyone wants a free copy to read, go to the library. Each time a book is checked out, the librarians note that and order more from those writers. It’s good for everyone.

I believe most people want to do the right thing, so please, support your local library and the writers you love.

VENTRELLA: You’ve self published a novel, even though surely you could have sold it to a traditional established publishing house. Why did you decide to do this?

ELROD: Let’s call it commercial publishing. “Traditional” is a term used to excess by a notorious reverse vanity printer to make their customers think they’re in safe hands. In true “traditional” publishing it was the writers who paid the costs. Writers call that “the bad old days!”

I could not have sold THE DEVIL YOU KNOW to a commercial publisher, since it was always meant to be a signed, numbered, limited-edition written specifically for my fans. My publisher for that series prefers stand-alone titles—at least from me.

Commercial publishing is glacially slow. It takes time to put books through editing, copy-editing, design cover art, arrange distribution, etc. I wanted to get the book out quickly.

So I did my research of various printers, pricing, delivery times, shipping costs, got the best deal from a local company whose people I know. I did the cover myself, got a professional edit, and a lot of proofreading. The printer very kindly tweaked my interior design to cut down on the page count and thus the cost. I had some good breaks and learned a lot.

For future non-commercial venue works I’ll go through a POD service, again, doing my research so I get the lowest cost per copy, but with a professional company that can deliver the goods to the readers. While it won’t be a signed edition on acid-free paper, it will be available through my website links at a low price and won’t ever go out of print.

I see many new writers opting to self-publish—usually long before they’re ready.

Some neos think having a book finished is good enough, and that the story is so great that people will forgive any “little” errors. It’s a nasty reality check when they get bad sales and worse reviews as a result. I don’t recommend self-publishing for the new kids. I was able to get away with it, based on my experience, an obsessive attention to detail, and a sizable fan base built up over the last 20 years.

VENTRELLA: Has it been a success?

ELROD: It’s sold out the 500 copies I had printed. In self-publishing terms it was a runaway bestseller. In commercial terms it tanked.

It took a year to sell that many copies. Had it been a commercial release it would have sold that many in one day.

I was only able to do because I have a solid platform of readers. Even so, only a tiny fraction of them chose to buy. I had hoped to sell out in the first month. So despite my experience and fan base, I overestimated my sales figures. It was instructive!

If a new writer with no platform decides to self-publish, they can expect to sell 5-10 copies to family and friends, perhaps 50 if they bust their bottoms with promotion. But they can also expect the standard “If your book is so good, why couldn’t you sell it?” Unfair, but that’s how it is.

I know some writers are promoting their backlists with much success as e-books and POD copies, racking up thousands of sales. But THEY had a plenty of commercial sales that built up a good audience. At this point, writers who have pro sales, who have books in the stores, and who self-promote like mad have the edge.

A new writer with no professional sales is delusional if he/she thinks similar success will happen to them. It’s all the difference between holding a garage sale, and having a store at the mall. It’s just better business sense to try for professional publication from the get-go.

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

ELROD: Get feedback, rewrite as often as it takes, and expect rejection. No one escapes.

Send your work to venues that actually publish it. Don’t send a fantasy to a mystery house or a western to a cookbook house.

Just because you worked really, really hard on a book, don’t expect anyone to give you extra credit for the effort. Publishing is a business. Your words have to be worth buying and selling. If they aren’t you get a rejection. That’s when you ask for more feedback, rewrite, and try, try again.

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

ELROD: Sending unpolished work out before they’ve gotten feedback from other writers, not just friends and family. They love you and want you to feel good.

Other writers will tell you the truth.

An amateur wants to be told how good their book is. A pro wants to know what’s wrong with it so they can fix the problems. Get the problems fixed first, then start shopping. Write the next book while you shop the first.

Don’t give up. Ever read a terrible book that still somehow got professionally published? That writer didn’t give up.

Obey Yog’s Law: “Money flows toward the writer.” Never pay to publish. It’s hard to believe, but many writers still think you have to pay to play. It’s scary how many will ask me “How much did it cost to get your book published?” I’m talking about my commercial titles, not the ones I self-pub. I’m very clear that there is a huge difference between the two! (Usually the money they make. Commercial wins out every time.)

Don’t look for a publisher online, get Writer’s Market. You cut out 99% of time/money-wasting vanity and scam operations. If you google “book publisher” most of the names on the first page are scams wanting to turn you into an ATM for them.

Go into a bookstore, find books similar to what you write, then follow submission guidelines to the letter. Scams and vanity houses cannot get books into stores.

Ask other writers to recommend reputable agents in your genre. It worked for me.

Did I say to obey Yog’s Law? It’s worth repeating. Writers get paid, they don’t pay!

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

I don’t give dinner parties. My cooking is lethal. Ask the few survivors.

If we ate out, I’d hang with my friends in the here and now. I’ve learned it’s often a good idea to keep some distance between oneself and one’s heroes. You might catch them on a bad day and be disappointed.

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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