Interview with Author Stephen Brayton

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Stephen L. Brayton today! He has written numerous short stories and books, mostly horror and mystery. His website is here.

Stephen, tell us about your latest work.

STPEHEN L. BRAYTON: I’m working on a book trying resolve some of the imponderable questions of life. Why do all boats have right hand drive? Why is there braille on the keys of drive through ATM machines? Does anybody really know the rules of cricket? Why do females always go to the restroom in groups?

Huh? Oh, you want to know about my latest writing project. Well, it’s called ALPHA, but don’t get the idea that it’s the first book. The first book of mine to be published was called NIGHT SHADOWS, about a homicide detective and an FBI agent out to solve some supernatural murders in Des Moines.

BETA was the first book in the Mallory Petersen series. Mallory is a Fourth Degree Black Belt and private investigator in Des Moines. Most of her cases are a little odd, but every now and then she accepts something serious. In this book, she is hot on the trail of a kidnapped eight year old girl and tangles with members of a child pornography ring.

In ALPHA, published this last August, Mallory becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of her boyfriend. This time around she has to deal with crooked cops, illegal narcotics and gangs.

VENTRELLA: What is your next project?

BRAYTON: I’m working on an entirely new type of vampire story. I want these vamps to sparkle when they appear. I think it would make a great series of movies… What? Already done? Oh well.

Actually, I have three projects on my desk that I would like to finish. I’m 2/3 completed with DELTA, the next Mallory Petersen mystery. I’m also reworking the sequel to NIGHT SHADOWS. I also have another private investigator mystery’s first draft finished. It just needs hours and hours of editing and rewrites.

VENTRELLA: You’ve had more than one publisher for your works. How did you choose which publisher to use?

BRAYTON: Whichever one would succumb to blackmail first. See, I have video of…well, let’s save that for another day, shall we?

Actually, for NIGHT SHADOWS and BETA, I queried several publishers after I attended a conference in Chicago in 2009. Three of them emailed rejections, but Echelon Press accepted both novels.

A couple years later, I met Sunny Frazier, acquisition editor for Oak Tree Press and became a member of her Posse email group. In 2011, I had finished with ALPHA and queried her to see if Oak Tree would be interested in this book. She accepted and ALPHA was published as a trade paperback. The first two are currently only available as eBooks.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give a starting author about finding a publisher?

BRAYTON: I think writers need to start promoting early. How early? Well, when did you first conceive of your idea for a story? Yes, that early. Get yourself a website, a blog, and join some of the social network sites. Attend conferences and critique groups and make contacts? How does this aid you in finding a publisher? Well, if you’re already promoting and becoming serious about writing, then it’ll be that much easier to find someone who is interested in you.

Two examples of how this can work. First, when Sunny receives a query, she doesn’t begin with the manuscript. She puts the writer’s name into an Internet search engine and sees how many times that person is listed? If the person isn’t already a presence, Sunny will be less inclined to accept the manuscript no matter how good the story is. She’s looking for marketers first, then she’ll consider the quality of the story.

A second example is, Kat, an author friend who attended a seminar in Minneapolis a couple months ago. During the two days, she attracted the attention of the presenter who became interested in Kat’s story and and asked her to finish it and submit it.

These are two of the ways to find a publisher. Then, it’s up to the writer to do some homework. Check into the publisher and find out how they operate. Do authors have multiple books with the same publisher? How do they operate? How much work are they going to put in to promote your book and how much are you going to have to do? What promotional ideas do they have?

VENTRELLA: What are the disadvantages and advantages of using a small publisher?

BRAYTON: Disadvantages: they don’t have the financial means to give you a splashy promotion. Of course, nowadays, neither do the big guys. All publishers are expecting the author to do the lion’s share of promoting. Most small publishers have a small staff who are very busy, so don’t expect things to move quickly.

Advantages: I think in some ways, the smaller presses can be more personable. Plus, they’re more willing to accept new authors because they’re looking for business. They can’t afford the well established names but there are some popular writers who have had a fair amount of success with the indies.

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

BRAYTON: I think everybody tells stories. Just eavesdrop on a conversation at a restaurant or a bar or when friends gather. Everybody is telling stories. Sometimes the stories relate a true incident and sometimes the person will, uh, stretch the truth to sensationalize the story.

It’s a different matter if the person can take pen to paper to tell the story in a way that is concise, has a beginning, middle, and ending. Does the person know how to follow simple grammar/punctuation/spelling rules and know when to break them? Is the story worth telling or is the person just trying to tell what happened at work today?

Serious writers will take the time to learn the craft, learn from others, and constantly work to improve.

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

BRAYTON: I remember when I created Mallory Petersen. Nobody told me to build a character profile, I just did it. It made sense to figure out all I could about the character. Likes and dislikes, personality, quirks, favorite color and flower. The car she drives, whether she rents or owns a residence. Her friends and enemies. I don’t do this with every character (although I should), but I know enough about my characters, right now, to make them vivid and memorable. When some secondary character needs more attention, then I’ll go back to the profile and fill in a bit more.

Because I write about a woman as my main character, I am constantly asking women if I’ve stayed true to the gender. Do I understand how women act and react? Is the personality too rough or too feminine? Do I understand how a woman feels when attracted to a man? This is my challenge, to keep Mallory’s character real in each book.
Most of the time when I research a story, I’ll visit the locations for each scene and try to envision how the character will behave during the scene. I’ll try to get into the character’s head and figure out what she’s thinking and if it seems reasonable, then I’ll go with it.

VENTRELLA: What is the best way for an author to use the services of an editor?

BRAYTON: I have discovered many ways to edit a manuscript. Unfortunately, I am unable to find the time to incorporate most of them. I’d love to have a three other people to run through the story. One reads it aloud, one reads along silently, and the third one listens. Then they switch roles. This way, everybody has a different perspective and a viewpoint I might not have considered.

Of course, there are critique groups which are invaluable. You can also pay for editing, although be careful because if you get someone who doesn’t know what he/she is doing, then you’ve wasted your money. I wouldn’t waste time and money on a professional editor unless you can afford it.

Besides, once your publisher’s editor gets it, that person is going to find mistakes and make suggestions. So clean it up the best you can before it’s submitted. You’ll save everybody a lot of time.

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

BRAYTON: I’ve been learning that part of my problem is I don’t outline enough. I’m so eager to get to writing, I don’t think through a lot of the potential problems and pitfalls of the story and end up wasting some time having to research and possibly rewriting sections. This is what I’m currently experiencing with DELTA. I wrote a chapter and now I’m going to rewrite it because I talked with another author about how to strengthen the scene. If I would have researched the issue a little more in depth beforehand, I might have saved some time.

Yes, I outline. Then I write linearly, that is, from Chapter One onward. Normally, I write at work (after all my duties are done, of course) because it’s quiet with few distractions. I usually have NPR classical music on for background noise. I write longhand and my first edit is inputting the longhand onto the computer. Then I’ll read chapters to a critique group and jot down their advice.

VENTRELLA: What have you done to promote your work?

BRAYTON: Social networking. Blogtalkradio. Guest posts on other blogs. Internet interviews. Radio interviews. I was featured in a local television newscast. Library and bookstore appearances. I leave business cards wherever I go and put them in the mail when sending bill payments. I have family and friends who talk me up to others.

I’m open to discussing any other venues. I think authors need to look at non-traditional ways and places to promote. I know a couple of authors who co-write a series about animals. They attended the local Pet Exposition to sell their books. This is the type of thing authors need to look at when marketing.

VENTRELLA: What general advice do you have for the aspiring author that you wish someone had given you when you began writing?

BRAYTON: Do your homework! I think I covered a lot of it above when I discussed promoting early. Learn the craft of writing.

Figure out what you want to accomplish with your writing. Do you want to make money? Be famous? Be on the New York Times bestseller list? Entertain local folks? Do you want to write just for your family and small group of friends? Whichever you decide, invest some time to research the best method of accomplishing it.

If you’re going to be serious about writing, be serious. I’m get tired of hearing authors who are still outlining after several years or still developing characters or constantly rewrite the first chapter or switch stories because one isn’t working out. Come on! Knock it off and write! Stop the excuses and write. Sure, there are ‘life’ matters to attend to, but serious writers will make time to write. Nobody had to tell me to write, I wanted to write. I still want to write. I get antsy if I don’t. I feel as if I’m letting others and myself down by not finishing that next chapter.

Learn from others and find your way of creating and writing a story.

My Philcon 2012 Schedule

This weekend is the Philcon Science Fiction Convention, which is held every year in New Jersey. (Don’t ask).

The main guest this year is author Catherynne Valente. Artist Guest of Honor is Phil Foglio. I’ve been a fan of Phil’s for years (and I have an original piece of art I bought from him at an Arisia convention way back in 1986!) I keep trying to interview him for this blog, so maybe I can corner him at the convention for a few words.

Here is an incomplete list of guest panelists, which includes many people who have been interviewed on this blog: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Michael F. Flynn, Gregory Frost, Gail Z. Martin, Mike McPhail, Christine Norris, KT Pinto, Peter Prellwitz, Tony Ruggiero, Lawrence M. Schoen, and Hildy Silverman.

I’m a guest author too, of course. I’ll be there to participate in a few panels… so if you’re attending, be sure to say hi. You’ll probably find me hanging out at my publisher’s booth in the Dealer’s Room when things are slow. Look for the “Double Dragon” sign!

Here’s my schedule (subject to change):

Saturday 3:00 PM: The Reinvention of the Vampire (with fellow panelists KT Pinto, Brent Monahan, and Tony Ruggiero) What can be done in the post-Twilight era? Do we look forward to a time when vampires no longer sparkle? What new approaches can be taken with a monster that has haunted our imagination since the beginning of history?

Sunday 10:00 AM: God 2.0 (with fellow panelists Judith Moffett, Gary Frank, Ty Drago, and Wayne Zimmerman) If we were to design a Divinity deliberately rather than merely let it evolve naturally, what characteristics would we include and why?

Sun 11:00 AM: Reading (with just me!) That’s right, I’ll be reading from THE AXES OF EVIL and, depending on time and audience desires, my upcoming BLOODSUCKERS.

It’s a fairly short schedule for me … usually they keep me much busier, but I’ve been told Philcon has cut back on the number of guests and panels, so I suppose I can’t complain. I’ll have lot of fun talking about books and writing with everyone.

I’ll also be jealously watching my wife, who was assigned to be on two panels with Phil Foglio!

UPDATE: Pictures from the convention are here!

Interview with author Ryk E. Spoor

MICHEAL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Ryk E. Spoor today!

Ryk, like many genre writers (including myself), you read science fiction from a young age and then got into gaming. What is it about role-playing games that encourages people to become writers?

RYK SPOOR: Well, on both sides of the game – GM or player – the game itself is telling a story. It may be a very simple story, especially for beginning players or people just in it for a beer-and-pretzels amusement, but a story about how these people go out, confront problems, solve the problems, and achieve their goals. So pretty much by its very nature, RPGs make you into a storyteller … which certainly encourages you to start writing down the stories that affected you most. It’s all downhill from there.

On the GM’s side, of course, it’s even more so. You’re the person who constructs, or at the least controls and directs, the entire world. You know what the villains are doing and why, you have to figure out how they deal with things when your players do something you don’t expect (and they always do something you don’t expect), and so on. That’s pretty much what a writer does – invent a world and tell us the stories in that world. For some writers, there’s even the equivalent of those annoying plot-busting PCs; some writers find their characters taking off on their own.

So honestly, I think the fact is that the very essence of a well-run RPG is storytelling, and anyone who does that a lot will have stories they want to tell.

VENTRELLA: On a previous blog post, I wrote how important it is to make connections if you want to get ahead in the world, with publishing being no exception. Your story is a bit unusual in that regard. How did you go from being a fan/troll to a published author?

SPOOR: Heh. The short version is that I insulted the right person at the right time. I could give you the long, long version, but since this is a written (and presumably to be webbed) interview, let me just point you here; the key part starts with the sentence, “Then one day, I got into an online argument with Eric Flint”, which is a little less than halfway down that page.

VENTRELLA: Had you ever submitted any stories for publication before that?

SPOOR: I actually had submitted a short story when I was 11 to a magazine (I no longer know even which one). It was some years later that I started submitting the Jason Wood stories that eventually became DIGITAL KNIGHT. All of the rejections for those stories read the same way: “This was a great story, everyone in the office loved it, but it’s way too long for magazine publication.” Of course, as individual stories, the Jason Wood stories are also far too short to be novels; they’re novelette or novella length works, which has for years been pretty much the worst length to try to publish.

The three stories which formed the core of DIGITAL KNIGHT – “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish”, and “Viewed in a Harsh Light” – were eventually collected by me and put up for electronic purchase as “Morgantown: The Jason Wood Files” at hyperbooks.com; this was long before the e-book explosion happened, of course, since they were up for several years before Baen ended up publishing me.

VENTRELLA: Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up and what was it about them that appealed to you?

SPOOR: There were a lot of them. When I was very young, the most influential was L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books. I loved Oz – the world, the people, and the subtly macabre and more complex-than-I-appreciated universe. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books were very strong influences because they were a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in a world that was this one …yet not the one I knew.

My dad had quite an SF library that I went through as I got older, but it was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Dickinson, who introduced me to E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series by lending me a battered, somewhat cigarette-scorched copy of Second-Stage Lensmen. Doc became my single biggest influence for years; he defined “sensawunda” to me, and I in fact wrote GRAND CENTRAL ARENA specifically as a salute to him.

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

SPOOR: Depends on the book, to a great extent. I have to outline when I’m working with a co-author, like Eric Flint; we discuss the general idea, then I work up an outline, he kicks holes in it, I fix it, we agree on the outline, and then I go to work.

For my own work, it still depends somewhat on which books. In DIGITAL KNIGHT, all of Jason’s major adventures were “outlined” in a single concept: the “trick” or “twist” that he uses to take down the supernatural opponent du jour. Knowing that, the only other thing I had to do was figure out who my main character was; the rest started writing itself.

For PHOENIX RISING, I’d plotted the basic outline of Kyri’s adventures out partly during my gaming time, as Kyri was originally an RPG character. But a lot of her adventures simply fell out of the fact that I know the world so well that by now I can just write it.

With GRAND CENTRAL ARENA I had to first construct the universe; some of that I discussed in my appearance in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea; I actually did write out an outline for it, so I could pitch it to Baen, but once I had the outline I started writing. In many ways the finished product doesn’t look all that much like the outline.

But if I know what I’m writing, my process is basically just to sit down, put on my earphones, and write. I average about 1200 words per hour once I get moving, and I don’t rewrite or edit for the most part; I can’t see flaws in my own writing unless I wait something like five years, so I depend on my beta-readers and my editors to tell me when I’ve screwed up.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about PHOENIX RISING.

SPOOR: Oh, I could talk about that all day. PHOENIX RISING is the first volume in the Balanced Sword trilogy, although since I don’t yet have a contract for the other two volumes I have done my best to give it some kind of closure on its own. The basic story focuses on Kyri Vantage, who loses first her parents and then, later, her brother to unknown forces despite what everyone had thought were strong protections against evil; when she discovers just who and what was behind this, she is forced to become a living representative of a desperate, weakened god in order to bring justice to her home and eventually, she hopes, discover and destroy the true source of this evil; the events, of course, have a far greater impact and importance than Kyri recognizes at first. Other threads in the book follow the other two main characters, Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed, as they first meet each other and then eventually catch up with Kyri at a crucial moment.

This is a terribly important book to me. I wrote the first draft of Kyri’s story in 1992, and I’ve wanted to tell her story ever since; more, this is the first appearance of my fantasy world of Zarathan, which I created back in 1978 and have been building ever since. Zarathan was mentioned, very briefly, in DIGITAL KNIGHT, but there was no real vision of what it WAS in that book.

PHOENIX RISING is also quite complicated; there are threads of plot seen which are part of other stories – for instance, one character who plays a significant role for a part of the book is actually a main character in the projected Spirit Warriors trilogy, and there’s another couple of characters we see a few times who are major players in my other projected trilogy Godswar; basically the problems sweeping the world in PHOENIX RISING are so huge and complex that no one group of heroes can deal with them all; you need at least three separate groups. For the reader, I hope such things give them the feeling of a larger, more real universe, one in which there are a million stories outside of the story we’re following.

Zarathan itself is my main fantasy RPG world (to refer back to your earlier question), and I’ve been running games in it for well over 30 years now, building it, rebuilding it, and coming to a deeper understanding of the universe every day.

VENTRELLA: If I am not mistaken, you have created a universe with both fantasy and science fiction elements for your stories. How have you made the twain meet?

SPOOR: Essentially, the rule to me is that normal physics holds sway unless something changes those rules explicitly. Magic does so, some psionic capabilities do, but that means that science works just fine; it’s just a subset of the laws of nature rather than the whole thing.

It’s really not hard to combine them; as Dave Hargrave, writer of the Arduin Grimoire series of RPG supplements, put it, where’s the alien with the ray gun going to stand out more: on the streets of our cities, or in the fantasy RPG city with the fireball-flinging wizard, magic-sword wielding barbarian, and the dragon flying overhead?

The only trick, so to speak, is to have clear rules as to how the various powers behave and interact. Technology, psionics, and magic all have various advantages and disadvantages in my universe and play off each other in various ways and situations.

Really powerful magic, though, is restricted to Zarathan itself, at least until after a certain event happens, but while I’ve written one story set after that event, overall that’ll be a while before I get there.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a trend away from science fiction, toward fantasy, steampunk, and “urban fantasy” these days. To what do you attribute that change?

SPOOR: There’s several factors. The “low-hanging fruit” in SF was all taken years ago, and general knowledge of the way science works – and doesn’t work – disseminated more and more through the population, making some of the old-school approaches no longer viable. You can’t have your characters just tinker up a spacedrive in the basement and cruise around the solar system in a homemade rocket and expect anyone to take you seriously any more.

The big news in science has also gotten, on average, a lot less immediately accessible. This is part of the overall progression of knowledge; back in the late 1800s to very early 1900s, it was still possible for one person to be “A Scientist” – someone who was an expert in more than one of the general disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Nowadays, it’s hard to be an expert in a splinter branch of any of them. Back then, the average (reading) layman could probably grasp in general terms most, if not all, of the key problems and ideas being explored by scientists of the day; today, many of the concepts, especially in physics, require that you understand some very esoteric concepts before you even grasp the question, let alone the answer.

Fantasy is not easier to write, really, but it’s easier to make graspable because the complexity of the rules governing the world aren’t going to be more complex than the writer wants them to be. Plus, in most cases, the fantasies assume they take place on Earth or a very Earthlike world, so the reader is expected to “fill in” lots of detail all by him or herself. From a writer’s point of view, it’s also safer. No one’s going to go to Tolkien or Brooks, or me, for that matter, and tell us that our magical worlds don’t work the way we think they do. But writers of hard SF? Yeah, we’ll have people telling us when we get it wrong. Stridently, in some cases. The fact is that even if you do a lot of research, you’ll have to stop the research somewhere and get to writing … and it’s an ironclad guarantee that you stopped just before getting to some key fact that a particular group of fans consider critical.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have similar screwups in fantasy, but those are all going to be the kind of screwups you can get in ANY story: failure of internal consistency.

I also think it’s a change in optimism that happened over the last several decades. During the late 1800s through the 1950s, science was romantic, awesome, and wondrous. It was going to solve all our problems. We were going to create new species of plants that would grow food anywhere, make space colonies on the moon and turn Mars into a second Earth. We were going to analyze the workings of the brain and abolish mental illness; we were going to cure cancer and solve the mysteries of the universe.

But science doesn’t actually work that way, and as it ran into the fact that some problems are very resistant to solution (commercial fusion and true artificial intelligence, still 20 years away and have been all my life!), the general public began to also see some of the consequences of misuse of technology (pollution, etc.) and associate this WITH technology. The shiny glow of hope faded and the chrome-plated future got tarnished. But shining worlds of high fantasy can’t be rendered hopeless by the same process … and one can also, of course, apply the same overlay of grimness and edginess to fantasy as one can to SF, so the net result is much more fantasy and less clear SF.

(of course, we’ll note that this assumes that there’s a clear division between SF and fantasy, which isn’t the case)

VENTRELLA: Creating new worlds is fun but also difficult in that there is the need to explain the world without massive info dumps. How do you do it?

SPOOR: I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. Sometimes I feel like I do nothing in the beginning of a new book but try to dump the info into the readers’ head.

The main techniques that I use are the tried-and-true methods of either (A) having the characters discuss key information as part of a normal conversation – usually with one character who has some reason not to know the key info, so they’re not “As you know, Bob …” type discussions, or (B) having the information emerge from the events of the story.

This latter technique is one that is best used for pieces of information which will actually become vital sometime later in the story – Jane’s doing X, which happens to cause Y to happen, leading her to realize (along with the reader) that Z is one of the characteristics of the world. Twenty chapters later, Jane realizes that applying Z will get her out of the situation she’s in. This allows the reader to follow along and maybe guess what Jane’s going to do with this new-found knowledge. I did this in Grand Central Arena to plant all the clues for how Ariane would be able to defeat Amas-Garao in the final Challenge.

VENTRELLA: I’ve recently realized that all my stories have the everyday person who is stuck in a situation and must overcome great odds through bravery and intellect – the reluctant hero who has no extraordinary skills. Have you find any connecting threads for your protagonists?

SPOOR: I like my heroes Heroic and my villans Villanous, for the most part. I don’t usually have reluctant heroes, although inexperienced and sometimes clueless heroes, that’s fine. As I tend to write my stories (just as I run my RPGs) at a high power level, they all tend to be at the least very highly competent and at the most quite superhuman in order to survive the threats they’re up against.

All of my characters – heroes and villains – tend to be smart. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes or misjudge things, but that they try not to do obviously stupid actions. The really smart ones often think many steps ahead. I want to see smart heroes VS smart villains

Most of my characters tend to be fairly modest, often underestimating their own abilities. The few arrogant ones (like A.J. Baker) usually get smacked down fairly regularly.

High Melodrama is my preference in writing, and most of my characters share that preference in their behavior. I have to rein in that tendency when writing hard SF like Boundary, of course.

VENTRELLA: How do you get inside the minds of your characters to make sure they all don’t talk and act alike?

SPOOR: Heh. Sometimes I don’t think they do. I actually don’t have a … technique per se. I just get to know who they are and then I know what they’d say, and how they’d say it. I couldn’t tell you why, but I know when something is right and when it isn’t, so I write it the way that sounds right.

VENTRELLA: Ryk, we met while on a panel together at Albacon some years ago. How important is it to attend conventions to promote yourself?

SPOOR: I honestly can’t say; I can’t afford to go to many at all, so if it’s important, I’m in deep doo-doo. Aside from Albacon, I used to go to Genericon; other than that I was at I-Con once, the World Fantasy Convention when it was up in Saratoga, and Worldcon when it was in Boston, but I haven’t done much promoting. I’m terrible at promoting, actually. I hate it; I’d rather spend my time writing, unless the promotion’s something fun and flashy in and of itself.

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

SPOOR: I’ve had generally good experiences with publishing, so I have minimal criticisms, aside from saying that the publishers who are clinging to DRM are gonna shoot themselves in the foot. About the only thing that’s annoying is long delays in reaction times, but alas, there’s so much slush and so hard to get people to read it, so there’s not likely to be much change there.

I think publishers need to look at reaching out to the self-publishing industry and offering professional services such as editing in an organized sense. This might be one thing that can keep them alive in the changing landscape of publication.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

There’s so many names. The old classics like RAH, Heinlein, etc., still work. Terry Brooks usually gives a good entertaining read. My preference is for worlds that are overall brighter than this one, or whose heroes at least shine brightly, so a lot of current writers tend to skirt the edge of that threshold, like Harry Connolly and Charles Stross.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of manga, especially Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist – some of the best stories I’ve ever read, actually.

Out of genre, some of my favorite comfort reads are Nero Wolfe novels or the adventure classics like Scaramouche, the Count of Monte-Cristo, Scarlet Pimpernel, etc.

Honestly, however, I’ve had a lot less time to read since I became an author. I probably read more stuff to my kids than I do to myself.

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

Heh. I never learned from advice, so I’m terrible at giving it. Only two things, really; they’re pieces of advice someone did tell me eventually, but not when I started writing:

1) Never make it easy on your characters.

2) Don’t let anyone tell you there’s one particular way to write; “There are nine-and-sixty ways to compose tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” That said, writing takes work, it’s not magic.

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

SPOOR: Again, two, I think.

1) Thinking they have some precious, original idea that someone will steal. No, you don’t. Any idea you have, someone else already had. Probably five or ten someones. And they did it at least twenty years and maybe as many as two thousand years before you think they could possibly have done it. No one’s trying to steal your ideas. Especially other writers; we have more ideas already than we know what to do with.

2) Not reading. Especially in the genre. This would partially alleviate #1, because you’d be seeing all the other ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of new authors appear to be coming in mostly from non-print media. You really should read quite a bit of the older stuff, then the newer stuff, before you try to drop into the business, otherwise you’ll think you’re onto a new twist on an idea when it’s actually a twist we’ve seen a hundred times. I averaged a book a day from the time I was 7 or so until I was probably in my mid to late 20s. I don’t expect everyone to hit that level, but reading a bunch of the foundational classics of the genre is awfully important to ground you in this business.

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

SPOOR: “Would you like this check for a million dollars?”

Honestly, while all interviews skip over one question or another, all of them together seem to have hit all the questions I’d expect someone to ask. Maybe, in a few years or ten, I’ll have had enough interviews to notice something missing!

Ryk and me on a panel together at Albacon 2010

Interview with author Christine Norris

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m glad to be interviewing friend and author Christine Norris, who has several works for children and adults, including the “Library of Athena” series and the “Zandria” duology. When she’s not out saving the world one story at a time, she is disguised as a mild mannered librarian, mother, and wife. She cares for her family of one husband-creature, a son-animal, and two felines who are steadfast in their duties as Guardian of the Bathtub and Official Lap Warmer, respectively. She has also done several English Adaptations of novels translated from other languages, and reached a new level of insanity by attending Southern Connecticut State University Graduate School to get her Master’s in Information and Library Science. She currently resides somewhere in southern New Jersey where she writes interesting opening bios for interviews. Her web page is here!

Christine, how did your first novel get published?

CHRISTINE NORRIS: I sold my soul to the devil, uh, I mean I was such a newbie. I had a book of agents and publishers, and knowing pretty much nothing about them, sent queries. And bombed horribly – got back my own letter from one, with the word ‘No’ scrawled across the top. Another came on a crookedly-copied half-sheet of paper. Ugh!

But it was the early 2000’s, and there wasn’t a lot of stuff on the internet about publishing, and most agents still took paper copies. Eventually I found a writer’s forum, Absolute Write, and I started to find out about other publishers. I found LBF, a teeny tiny publisher, in Pittsburgh at that time. They took my first book, TALISMAN OF ZANDRIA, and the sequel. Both are out of print now, but I’m doing new editions for Zumaya.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing background?

NORRIS: I really don’t have a formal background, nothing like a degree in Creative Writing or anything. I just started writing in 2001, and kept on going. I have six books now, with a seventh out with an agent (crossing fingers for an offer!) and working on number eight. Yes, it took me ten years and six novels to finally land an agent. Just goes to show it’s never too late. I really love her too, she’s just wonderful and supportive.

Someday I guess I’ll stop writing, but I don’t see any reason to at the moment. I’m like a literary Forrest Gump.

VENTRELLA: How did you find your current publisher?

NORRIS: That is an interesting story. Okay, maybe only interesting to me. The publisher that put out the first two books in the “Library of Athena” series decided to go back to strictly Romance books — which these decidedly are not. I had the third book finished, and they dropped the series. After I finished freaking out, I calmly put out an email to my friends at Broad Universe, begging, I mean, asking if any of the publishers in the organization would be interested. Elizabeth Burton at Zumaya said she would look, as long as it wasn’t a Harry Potter or Twilight clone, and she liked it enough to take it for the Thresholds imprint.

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

NORRIS: I think there are advantages to publishers of all sizes – everyone has their pros and cons. You can be a big fish in a little pond or a small fish in a big pond. Smaller publishers are more personal, a little more homey, if you will. They also, many times, have less money to spend on promotion, which is okay if you know how to do a little guerilla marketing. They will also sometimes take a chance on a book that a bigger publisher might not feel is commercial enough. I always say that if you do your homework and are comfortable with what any publisher can give you, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to publish. It’s all about what you can live with.

I was at a writer’s conference recently, and there were a lot of big agents and editors from Big Six houses attending. We hear a lot about how people ‘in the biz’ feel about smaller publishers and how they look down on us. It is just not true. They were all very professional, and more than once I heard: “Someone selected your work from a slush pile. You are just as published as anyone.” It was nice to hear, and it was nice to get that kind of respect for my work.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about THE SWORD OF DANU.

NORRIS: It’s the fourth book in the “Library of Athena” series. Oh, you want to know more? All right then.

Megan Montgomery, the main character, has begun to teach herself magic. After the last adventure, when she almost gave up protecting the Library of Athena altogether, she decided that she needed to arm herself against the Order of Ares, a.k.a. The Bad Guys. But her magic doesn’t always go the way it should. She has also decided that she will do whatever it takes to never, ever, never open one of the Special Collection books again. They are enchanted and suck you inside, and then things try to eat you while you solve the clues and fight the monsters to find the magical artifact hidden inside the book and get out.

Unfortunately, something has gone terribly wrong, and one of the books has escaped its pages and is now this imaginary Ireland is taking over the manor where Megan lives. So she and her friends are kind of forced into finding the artifact, in this case the Sword of Danu, so they can fix it all. There’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to give too much away. Except that, of course things try to eat them. Things are always trying to eat them. There’s the Morrigan, and Goibhniu the Celtic smith-god and all kinds of teen angst.

VENTRELLA: And, of course, you have a series based around a library. Tell us how that series came to be.

NORRIS: It was so long ago — late 2004 — that I really can’t remember when or how I came up for the idea for the series. It kind of evolved from what might have been a chapter book idea to a novel, to a series. My son was only 2 at the time, so I had never heard of the Magic Tree House series, which my books get compared to often, along with Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Percy Jackson. There are a lot of similar elements in them.

I do remember stating at one point, “I think I could write a hundred of these.” Uh, no way. Five is the limit. One more left to go. It was just serendipity that, years later, I became a librarian. At that time I was working a really horrible part-time job and being a stay-at-home mom. Life is just funny that way, I guess.

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

NORRIS: Just one, really? I’m sure I made all kinds of mistakes. Not knowing how to write a good query letter. Not really doing my homework when it came to submitting. Being too self-conscious with my writing — it all came out stiff and self-absorbed. I think once I realized that I actually knew what I was doing, that I had made it past most of the newbie mistakes of the technical parts of writing, like not filtering my main character’s every action through me, the narrator, that I was able to loosen up and just write better, let my unique voice out (which is mostly sarcasm thinly veiled as humor, but still …). I also think that every writer needs to make those kinds of mistakes, so that they know when they’ve got it right.

VENTRELLA: What’s your advice for authors who wish to self-publish?

NORRIS: Don’t do it unless you are willing and able to commit the time, energy, and money that it takes to do it properly. Being a self-publisher means you aren’t just the writer, but you are the publisher, and unless you understand exactly what that means, I don’t suggest you attempt it. You need to hire editors, cover artists, do marketing, and pay for it all. It’s a big job. It can be done, but those who have been successful will tell you it was hard work.

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

NORRIS: Be yourself. I never wrote to trends, or tried to write fan-fiction (though I recommend it to teachers who are trying to teach younger writers the mechanics of story and writing itself), but I had this idea of what ‘good’ writing was, and I was trying to reach some ideal. That old axiom ‘write what you know’ doesn’t really apply to most fantasy writers — unless one of you out that happens to have a dragon in their backyard or owns a big secret library full of magic books — but write what you like. Make yourself happy with a story and you’ll make readers happy too.

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Interview with Author KT Pinto

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing KT Pinto. KT has been writing since she was twelve, finally getting her first book published in 2007. She writes alternate history (The Books of Insanity series) with vampyres and alternate reality (The Sto’s House Presents series) with mutants. She is a modern mythologist and a self-proclaimed ‘fluffy goth’ who would sooner wear pink with sparkles than black velvet. She will be a guest at Balticon in a few weeks (where I also will be a guest). KT will be promoting her latest novel and participating in a book release party.

KT, let’s talk first about your latest big news. You received a grant! Tell us about the End of the Rainbow project.

KT PINTO: I received a DCA Premier Grant from the Council on the Arts & Humanities for Staten Island (COAHSI), with public funding from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs to re-write the myths from an alternate lifestyle perspective. I am going to be rewriting myths from Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and Gaelic cultures. You could read an excerpt of the book here.

I will also be doing a reading of this book at Bent Pages, NYC’s only remaining LGBT bookstore (391 Van Duzer Street, Staten Island, New York) on Thursday, October 11, 2012 at 7:00 PM.

VENTRELLA: And there’s a raffle, too?

PINTO: Yes! The proceeds from this raffle will go towards completing my End of the Rainbow grant project and the winner will be announced at the end of the Staten Island LGBT Festival on June 2nd! There will be 10 different prize “baskets” (the prizes will not actually be presented in baskets), each with a different theme. All of the basket items were donated (it’s great that people are so generous!), and the baskets range in value from $70 – $220. Details on the baskets can be found here!

VENTRELLA: MUTANTS ON THE ROCKS is about to be released and is the latest in your “Sto’s House” series. Where did you come up with the idea?

PINTO: I had been having a really hard time with my vampyre series, and I realized that being in that dark place all the time wasn’t good for my creativity, so I decided to start writing some more light-hearted stories. I took the idea from an RPG I created called Sto’s House, which is about a bunch of 20-somethings who are mutated by the toxic waste in the Staten Island Dump. They don’t want to save the world, just find the world’s best microbrew.

The characters are based on my friend Christopher Mancuso (aka Sto) and the people we used to hang out with at his house when we were in our 20s. I hadn’t planned on it becoming novel-length, but one day I noticed that I had written 10 short stories, and had enough material for a really good (if I do say so myself) novel.

VENTRELLA: How has the series been received so far?

PINTO: People seem to be having a good time with it. I wasn’t sure how it would be received on Staten Island especially, but people seem to really enjoy the humor and there are enough different characters that readers can relate to one or more of them.

VENTRELLA: You’re having a release party at Balticon. Tell us about that!

PINTO: I personally am not having the party. Dark Quest Books, who publishes my Sto’s House Presents… series, is having a party highlighting their new releases for the spring. I think four authors are being highlighted there including myself and MUTANTS ON THE ROCKS, which is the second book in the Sto’s House Presents… series.

VENTRELLA: Like me, you’re a regular on the east coast convention circuit. What are the advantages of attending these?

PINTO: Conventions give you a chance to interact with fans as well as getting together with fellow authors and networking with publishers and agents. For me, it’s also good to be on the circuit because I get a chance to see what’s going on in other genres and other disciplines (like costuming and gaming). I actually am starting to cut back on some local conventions and travel to further locations, like Pittsburgh, Pa. and Roanoke Va. because I want to connect with more fans and professionals.

VENTRELLA: These days, it takes much more to be a successful author than merely writing a good book. What other efforts have you made to publicize yourself and do you think they have been worth your time?

PINTO: I have gotten very involved with my local arts organization, COAHSI, which is a good resource not only for grants, but to meet other local artists, find out about community events, help promote you and your work and even to learn about more mundane information like jobs, insurance and other resources.

I’ve been on Live Journal for a really long time, and don’t plan on leaving it any time soon. Not only am I able to write full journal entries, but I can also link it to my facebook and twitter accounts. Facebook used to be a good resource, but it’s gotten so big (I’m up to 1000 friends) and has made so many changes, networking has become difficult.

Inanna from By Light Unseen Media – who published MARCO, the third book in my vampyre series – suggested that Goodreads may be a better site for promotions, so I’m feeling my way through that site as well.

I also have an account with Constant Contact, which helps me send out a newsletter to a mailing list that I developed by going to conventions.

VENTRELLA: What was your first professionally published work?

PINTO: My first work was “E-mails 10”, which was a short story published in Nth Degree Magazine (which is now Nthzine on-line).

VENTRELLA: You have a LARP background (as do I). How has that led to you writing fiction?

PINTO: Although I have been writing since I was 12, LARPing was what helped me create my world and characters of The Books of Insanity series. I used to own a gaming company that ran LARPs around the Hudson Valley, NY and at conventions.

During that time I created some original LARPS (ex: Sto’s House) and some murder mystery nights, the main game that we ran was vampyre LARP. So I was not only able to create evil, blood-sucking fiends, but I was able to become them as NPCs

I had created a character that was supposed to only be a one-shot ‘big bad’ that the players were supposed to kill in a one-night (possibly two-night) story line. More than a year later, she still existed, because instead of people trying to kill her, they wanted to join forces and build storylines around her.

That character’s name was Celeste, and she became the main character in my Books of Insanity series.

VENTRELLA: What are the differences between writing for a LARP and writing fiction?

PINTO: When writing a storyline for a LARP, you have to be prepared that all of your plans are going to be destroyed within the first five minutes of the game. You have to plan for different levels of gamers and prepare to lead them through a storyline if necessary. Other times your PCs make their story their own and all you have to do is keep track of the rules (in my case, the staff kept track of the rules; I was more a storyline/character person).

With fiction, it’s all on you to keep the audience’s attention and creating all the drama and action. On the upside, you don’t have to worry about almost 500 characters trying to do their own thing…

VENTRELLA: Boy, do I know that feeling. Do you prefer short stories or longer works?

PINTO: I used to dislike writing short stories, but the more I do (and the more I get published!) the more I like them. I think I have developed a rhythm to creating a short in a concise manner, unlike when I write a novel.

When it comes to my reading, my preference has always been novels. I tend to feel gypped when I read a really good short story and it ends. It always feels like it ended too soon and leaves me wanting more.

VENTRELLA: You’ve mostly dealt with mid-sized press (like me!). What are the advantages of dealing with a smaller press?

PINTO: Mid-sized presses are good because they’re more open to different ideas and you are able to communicate with the senior staff on a regular basis. You also don’t need an agent in most cases to work with a mid-sized press.

Working with mid-sized presses also gives you a chance to work with and recommend other professionals in different disciples, like editors, artists, typesetters… for example, the cover for MUTANTS ON THE ROCKS was created by Victor Toro, an artist that I recommended to Neal, the publisher of Dark Quest Books.

The downside to a smaller press is they don’t get the respect that they deserve from bookstores, reviewers, some conventions…

VENTRELLA: Do you advise new authors to consider self-publishing?

PINTO: I think self-publishing is good if you have the same knowledge as a publisher would, in order to protect yourself legally and financially.

I think self-publishing is good for someone doing a photography or art book, because it’s a way of highlighting your art form. But for me, I think mid-sized presses are a good way to interact with other writers and learn about more writing opportunities that are both with other publishers and with your own company.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about your writing style. Do you tend to outline heavily or just jump right in?

PINTO: It depends on my project. My Books of Insanity series happens over 2000 years, so not only do I have to plan out each book story as I write them, but also had to plan out the arch of the series (I have 13 books planned, but once you hit the world wars, that number can become bigger).

The Sto’s House Presents… series, on the other hand, is completely off the cuff.

VENTRELLA: What predictions can you make about the future of publishing, given current trends towards e-books and self-publishing?

PINTO: I think publishing is always going to stay around; it’s just going to change form. For example, we no longer write on stone or papyrus. I also think with the popularity of ‘nerds’ with all their crazy book reading, along with the eventual (hopefully) return of a good economy, the publishing world will flourish. Just not as much in the brick and mortar form.

I also think that with the healing of the economy will also come a rise in vampires again. Lately zombies and steampunk (and sometimes both) have taken over readers’ interests, but eventually it will shift back again. And then my vampyres will rise and take over the world… and my mutants will crack open a beer and enjoy the show.

Interview with author and editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Please welcome Award-winning author Danielle Ackley-McPhail! Danielle has worked both sides of the publishing industry for over seventeen years. Her works include the urban fantasies YESTERDAY’S DREAMS and TOMORROW’S MEMORIES, the upcoming TODAY’S PROMISE, and THE HALFLING’S COURT, and the writers guide THE LITERARY HANDYMAN. She edits the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies and DRAGON’S LURE, and has contributed to numerous other anthologies.

To read excerpts from the Eternal Cycle series, and other works by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, visit the excerpts page on her website.

Danielle, tell me about your new “Eternal Cycle” series.

DANIELLE ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Well, I can’t really call the Eternal Cycle series new … or not all of it, anyway. YESTERDAY’S DREAMS was originally published by Vivisphere Publishing back in 2001, then again by Mundania Press in 2006, and TOMORROW’S MEMORIES was also published by Mundania in 2009. TODAY’S PROMISE completes the series and has never before been in print. All three books will be released by Dark Quest Books between now and Summer 2012. In fact, the DQ edition of YESTERDAY’S DREAMS is already available.

When I started this series I had no idea I was writing a novel, let alone a trilogy. I had an idea and then that idea spiraled out of control. I’ve always been interested in Irish mythology but most of the Irish-themed fiction I had picked up over the years never really did anything with the mythology. When I finally realized Yesterday’s Dreams was going to be a novel I saw a chance to indulge my interest in the Irish and mythology in general.

Set in New York, the books follow Kara O’Keefe, a young first-generation Irish American. What Kara doesn’t know is that she is also descended from the Sidhe, the elves of Ireland. When her father begins his second battle with cancer Kara must make a choice. She pawns her heirloom violin to save the family house. She ends up at Yesterday’s Dreams, a pawnshop in the Village run by Maggie McCormick, a full-blooded Sidhe. Kara’s selfless act brings her to the attention of forces both good and evil. One wanting to teach her and keep her save, the other wants to claim her power for his own, by any means necessary.

Olcas is an ancient demigod long ago defeated by the Sidhe when he and his and his brothers, along with their mother Carman terrorized Ireland. Though their bodies were destroyed their spirits lingered. Throughout each book one of them returns by possessing another until they join forces first to take revenge on the Sidhe, then ultimately dominate the world.

This is a classic tale of good versus evil, along with a healthy dose of self-discovery, written in a lyrical style. I like to think I capture the magic and wonder of the old myths, while introducing some truly unique concepts.

VENTRELLA: What makes your series different?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: You know, I’m not egotistical enough to thing I really bring anything different in content. If you look hard enough you can find similar things somewhere else. What I — and all other authors — bring to the table is perspective. No matter how many times a story has been told the perspective is unique. I also bring passion and vision. I take the same elements that everyone is familiar with and see what unexpected angle I can put on those elements. From time to time I hit on a concept that my readers really seem to appreciate, such as the Great Wall that appears in both TOMORROW’S MEMORIES and TODAY’S PROMISE, where the life forces of the Sidhe take visible representation in the form of a spiraling knotwork pattern that changes and grows with each thing they experience, or in THE HALFLING’S COURT where my biker faeries have wings, but they are only partially physical. They function in the same way as a magic sink, starting as a fin that unfurls from the fae’s body then expands as they draw in more magic. The more magic they gather, the more tendrils come off those fins until they look like angel-style wings made of mage energy. For the most part, though, I just look at things differently. As different as I can manage and then I let my imagination out to play.

VENTRELLA: When you’re approaching a story, how do you begin? Characters, plot, themes?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I have a saying: The plot is what happens when you’re getting to know the characters. It is very important to me to have well-developed characters people connect with and care about, or love to loath, depending on their role. Not saying the story isn’t important, but it is filtered through the characters’ perception. Without the characters there is no story. It is my job to ensure the characters are not interchangeable, but distinct and recognizable personalities in and of themselves.

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

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: You know, I’m told I’m a pantser. Until I was I had never heard the phrase, but basically it means I jump in and discover the story as I go along. I’ve tried writing outlines, but most of my writing starts with an idea. Sometimes one line. Often I don’t know where it’s going until I get there. Most of the time I write a scene until that sparks another idea and I jump to that scene until I have a framework that give me an idea of the shape the project is going to take. Think of it as the supports for a deck. You pour the footing, you build the framework, and then you close everything in.

With YESTERDAY’S DREAMS it started with two things: an idea for a short story about a pawnshop that only accepts goods that are connected to the owner’s soul and a bad guy named Olcas, which is Irish for evil. I named the character that without realizing that there was an actual figure in Irish myth named that. Once I made the discovery that determined that my novel became a trilogy because Olcas had two brothers. So you see, I never approach a project trying to figure out what all the pieces are because my imagination works better when I give it free rein. I’m not saying there aren’t time I know where I want to end up, but I enjoy the discovery of figuring out the in between as I go. I used to think this meant it took longer for me to finish a project, but recently I finished TODAY’S PROMISE, the last book in the Eternal Cycle Series, and it only took three months, without an outline. The process was all-consuming, not to mention exhausting, but the satisfaction in the end is something I’ll never forget. I don’t regret not working from an outline, it’s just the way my brain works. I don’t recommend it for everyone, but it does work and I love the organic feel of the end result. I find that I do need to keep a close eye on details so that if something changes I make the proper adjustments in the bits I’ve already written. By writing the key points as I figure out what they are and then linking everything I end up with a tightly woven story.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a favorite of your babies?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I have favorite aspects more than anything. Every book or project has something that stands out. In THE HALFLING’S COURT, my biker faerie novel, it was the weaving of social identity with the fantasy elements and drawing parallels. I was able to draw heavily on mythology, which I really like, but also on dialect and recognizable subcultural elements. Finding the way to meld the recognizable with the fantastic really gets me going. I love turning things on their ear.

In the Eternal Cycle series I again weave mythology with the everyday, but there I actually took an existing myth and expanded on it which was challenging and also really cool. See, Irish mythology is a bit fragmented because it was an oral tradition and the ethnic identity of the Irish people was for so long repressed that a lot of detail has been lost. Taking the bits and pieces and weaving them into something rich and powerful is a real thrill. So much of the myths and legends dovetail nicely, but there was also the challenge of addressing popular belief, particularly with something as popular as elves. We draw on them so heavily in our literature that the lines between legends and creative license have blurred. Take for example the belief that elves or faeries can’t touch cold iron. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist anywhere in world mythology, but I found nothing to support it in Irish mythology. In fact, Goibhniu, one of their major gods, is a blacksmith. Sorry, but blacksmiths work with iron and steel. Also, redcaps … they carry and iron pike. So, I had to find a way to recognize the popular belief while at the same time explaining why I’ve discounted it. One thing I did find, though, is that in the folklore, which is often separate from the actual mythology, it was common to hang iron implements to ward off evil … scissors over cradles and horseshoes over doors, that kind of thing, so I suspect that is the basis for the belief about elves and iron, but that only presumes that elves are evil, which to me isn’t necessarily so. I love playing with details like this.

And … on another front, I actually have a nonfiction book that will always be special to me. It is THE LITERARY HANDYMAN, an informal writer’s guide. This isn’t meant for someone on our level, with either learning or experience already under their belt, but for the beginner who could really use some solid advice about the craft and business of being a writer. That one is special to me because it is so much different from the fiction I write. The core of the book started out as various articles I posted at different sites on the internet, so there is some overlap, but each article is meant to be taken individually so I didn’t worry about that too much. Besides, some points bear reinforcing.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I do have a few core authors that I follow … Anne McCaffrey, Patricia Briggs, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Mercedes Lackey, Jim Butcher … you know, the ones most people know about. But I also have some personal treasures that have yet to be discovered by the world at large, and I’ve had the pleasure to work with them. They are L. Jagi Lamplighter, Bernie Mojzes, Elaine Corvidae, and James Daniel Ross. There are others, but this would be a really long answer if I tried to include everyone.

Of course, romance is my guilty, junk-food reading.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss publishing. You’re with Dark Quest Books. How did that come to be?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I was courted. There’s no other way to put it. The publisher, Neal Levin, saw what I was doing on my own and actively sought out a relationship, first on the technical end, and then as an author. He wanted to build his list quickly and effectively and knew I had the promotional experience, as well as contacts in the industry. When I had issues with several titles going out of print Neal was in a position to offer me a home for them, a situation that has benefited us and the authors involved quite nicely.

VENTRELLA: What are the advantages of going with a small press?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I have worked for virtually every level of publisher in the industry, from Random House to reprint publishers, specialized markets such as medical or music publishing, even magazines. I have seen pretty much everything there is in publishing. That insight has taught me that no publisher is perfect and many of them have the same flaws when dealing with their authors, no matter the size of the House: response time, royalty payments, and scheduling issues. The majority of authors struggle with all of those things. The larger publishers are both harder to get into and less forgiving of the learning curve. I find by starting out in small press I have had an opportunity to learn the business more fully, make contacts and establish myself. Print distribution is harder for a small press, but with the market drifting more toward ebooks anyway that is less of drawback.

The other concern is marketing. Whether you are with a small house or a big one, in most cases the promotional responsibility falls to the author anyway because the marketing budget is disproportionately divided with the large houses and generally nonexistent with the small ones.

So, when you look at it that way large houses have only two things going for them, visibility and distribution. The drawback: higher expectations and very little flexibility when it comes to identifying a “successful” book.

I know one author who signed a three book deal with a major publisher. The first book came out and performed respectably, but not to the publisher’s expectations. The elected not to release the other two books in the series, but likewise would not release the rights either as they were keeping the first book in print. Unless you do really well at the offset there are only a small proportion of authors out there (relative to the number that are actually published) that have staying power with a large publisher, whereas small press by using print-on-demand technology, can afford to maintain a large backlist and allow titles to grow in visibility over a prolonged period of time. Unless a publisher goes out of business or the relationship is dissolved by one or the other party, books stay in print indefinitely.

Personally, I also find small press affords me a lot of creative control, more personal interaction with my publishers, and deeper understanding of the process because I am involved at virtually every stage. In many cases I have taken books from concept to completion before even approaching a publisher to sign it. This experience has allowed me to work on projects a major publisher probably never would have considered, some of them which have been quite profitable, as well as award-winning. With a larger publisher you are luck if they even ask what you would like to see on the cover. Once you give them the manuscript you take what you get, a lot of the time, and it isn’t always representative of your book’s content.

This doesn’t mean I would never consider or pursue a contract with a large publisher, it just means that I will always maintain a relationship with small press as well.

VENTRELLA: You’re Marketing Director for Dark Quest. Were you involved in its inception?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Well, not really. See, Dark Quest started out as a game company over ten years ago. That arm of the company still exists, but separate from the fiction division of Dark Quest Books. Neal Levin had tested the waters with SKEIN OF SHADOWS, a novella collection based on a gaming universe. That book had already been produced and Dark Quest was looking to take things further into full-fledged book publishing. They were familiar with my work both writing and promoting through the Garden State Horror Writers, a writers group we both were members of. He first approached me to come on staff as Promotions Director. At the same time he approached my husband, Mike McPhail, to pick up the role playing game he’s had under development. That game is the Alliance Archive Martial Role Playing Game, which is scheduled to release later this year.

While we were negotiating our participation another publisher of ours made the decision to opt out of the business. Unfortunately, that company published our best-selling anthologies: The Bad-Ass Faeries series and the Defending the Future series. Dark Quest Books stepped in to contract the Defending the Future books, collections of military science fiction short stories by some of the biggest names in the industry. In fact, SO IT BEGINS was the first book Dark Quest released, after SKEIN OF SHADOWS, which was a venture of the gaming arm of the business.

Between Mike and I, we’ve been taking an active role ever since, not just as authors, but editors, promoters, designers, and artists. Just recently the Defending the Future series has become the core of a new imprint, DTF Publications, which offers military science fiction novels and anthologies by well-known and beginning authors. Mike McPhail is the administrator of that imprint.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss marketing. 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?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Create an internet presence. You can do this via a professional looking website, social media, blogs, being featured on book sites, making sure your work is in the database sites with accurate information and covers wherever the book is listed. You should also solicit author interviews, guest blogs, and book reviews, as well as join productive professional organizations or groups, such as Broad Universe or SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). Not only do such groups offer support and networking opportunities, but they are a great way to learn of events. Other than possible membership fees, all of these are free promotions.

With your website include more than just who you are and what you’ve published. Have excerpts, a schedule of author events, free stories, a link to a blog you update regularly, that kind of thing. Some authors even have contests. Make the site something that warrants repeat visits. On mine I include my costuming and crafting efforts as well as a point of interest. Mike, my husband and fellow author and editor, includes the development phases for his creative works.

The other thing I recommend is conventions. Both attending them and distributing flyers or bookmarks at them. If you can attend you meet your target audience first hand and benefit from the celebrity phenomenon, an one would presume the potential readers can actually see your book and perhaps even buy it. If you can’t attend most conventions will accept promotional goods for free, or a slight fee if you want the materials put in the registration packs. If you write speculative fiction or one of the other established genres like romance or horror, this is a surefire way to reach those you want to reach, whereas a general book fair might not be as effective.

VENTRELLA: What are some of your marketing pet peeves?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: My biggest issue I have with promoting (beyond the fact that it is a massive time-sink) is that once you make the contact requesting a review or interview you have no control over 1) if anything comes of it, and 2) if the person responsible for posting the review or interview presents it either professionally or accurately. I have not encountered this, but a friend solicited a review from a site and sent a physical copy of the book. When the review posted it was clear the reviewer only read the back cover copy, which had certain incorrect information on it that made it obvious the reviewer hadn’t actually read the book.

One thing I did encounter myself was one person I gave a book to for review who rather than writing a review of their own lifted two of the Amazon reviews for the book and posted it on their site, as if they had wrote them.

VENTRELLA: You’re also an anthology editor. Do you find that to be a difficult job to take on?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Again, like promotions, this is a time-consuming job. There are many elements in being a project editor that are not the fun bits. Paperwork, organizing details, acting as a go-between with the publisher and the authors. Working with difficult personalities. I love taking a book from concept to completion, but some of the stages in between are pure torture.

VENTRELLA: I also edit my own anthologies and it’s not easy, especially when you have to say no to friends who submit stories. Has this been a problem for you?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: I’ve had to deal with a lot of things across the ten anthology projects that have actually published, and a number that are still in the works. There have been problems with unpleasantness when it came to rejections, but my biggest problems have been with temperamental authors having issue with the editing process or the publisher’s terms, and not dealing with either in a constructive manner.

Sadly, this has lead me to be more circumspect in who I invite to a project because editing an anthology has enough inherent headaches involved without voluntarily inviting gratuitous headaches on board.

VENTRELLA: Anthologies just do not sell like they once did, given Smashwords and other places on the internet to get stories. What have you done to get attention and increase sales?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: We’ve built something of a reputation, for one. Of the projects I am directly involved in five have been finalists for various awards, three have won. There are plenty of excellent reviews, and, of course, we have made a point to be very visible at conventions through launch parties, panel discussions, adds, and a presence in the dealer’s room. For our two major series, Bad-Ass Faeries and Defending the Future we have dedicated websites with extra content and lots of information about the series. Another thing we do is try and solicit submissions from big name authors who happen to be friends, people likely to do it for the love, not those who want big money. I also tend to give more consideration to authors who write well and I know put effort into promoting every project they are a part of. The two series I mentioned are by far our best sellers, with sales in the thousands, but all of them do respectably, particularly in ebook.

VENTRELLA: Do you accept unsolicited stories? If so, what are you looking for now?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: My projects are a bit different from the usual collection. I require every author to present me with a proposal for approval because my biggest gripe is having to reject a perfectly good story just because it is too close to something I already have, so yes, I will consider proposals from authors that have not been approached for the collection, but the stories will have been discussed beforehand in those instances. I do not generally consider stories that were not specifically written for the collections because we do theme anthologies, so unless the author has talked to us in advance and made a case for their story, it is best to wait until there is a call for submissions and then pitch your idea.

I have two projects in the works currently, but the deadline has passed for both of them and any future projects will be invitation only as I have learned that there is much less hassle that way. But you know, I have had to make the decision recently to step back from anthologies for a while. Between the stress and the time involved I haven’t been accomplishing anything toward advancing my personal writing career. I don’t see departing anthology work altogether—there are a large group of people who likely wouldn’t let me—it’s definitely taking a back burner for a while. Mostly I discovered I have six partially completed novels on my computer…and having learned if I focus on them I can complete them relatively quickly, there is something very wrong with them being stuck in limbo.

VENTRELLA: The “Bad Ass Faeries” series is probably your most popular. How did that come to be?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: This series was borne out of the artwork of Ruth Lampi. Really and truly. At Albacon one year I met this then-aspiring young artist and she showed me some sketches on notebook paper. Her skill was such that when I had a project I wanted illustrated I contacted her. Years later we were holding a shared promotional event that was, unfortunately, barren of attendees. While sitting there with the store’s staff chatting to entertain ourselves we were talking about how we met and suddenly an anthology was conceived. Because most people have come to think of faeries as the pastel princesses portrayed in children’s shows and related media, we decided it was time to be true to the spirit of the faerie legend of old where they were mischievous, malevolent or warriors. They were tough and wicked and sometimes downright ugly. Thus, Bad-Ass Faeries. The series has taken on a life of its own.

VENTRELLA: You’re a regular at east coast conventions (where we have shared a few panels from time to time). What are the reasons you attend?

ACKLEY-McPHAIL: Being a writer is for the most part a solitary endeavor. We pour ourselves out on to the page and we desperately want to know that the readership enjoys what we have written. Reviews are usually few and far between, not to mention at times mixed. By going to conventions I have the unique opportunity to interact with my fans, learn what they liked and what they didn’t, and conversely, share with them the development and thought that went into the books I’ve written or been a part of. Conventions more than any other promotional event allow the author to make a personal connection with the fans in a comfortable, relaxed, and informal setting. The other reasons I put so much time and effort into conventions are networking, as a means to distribute my books (which is a challenge for small-press authors), and being social with fellow authors and fans, which is a great way to generate ideas and keep touch with what is going on in the industry.

Interview with Author Donna Galanti

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

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

DONNA GALANTI: Absolutely!

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

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

Here’s what reviewers are saying:

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did the idea originate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret of Success

I recently read an article that spoke of the three elements needed for success in any field, and it struck me as a wonderful summation. You need all three of these in varying degrees if you want to get anywhere.

The three things are talent, hard work, and — here’s the one people don’t always realize — meeting the right people and impressing them.1366571_com_success_ke

Talent is obvious, right? But that alone will get you nowhere. People who are less talented than you have become successful, and people more talented than you are still waiting tables and wondering why no one has discovered them yet.

Talent is a mixture of what you are born with and the skills you acquire. You need both. You may have a great ear for music but it won’t get you anywhere until you practice your instrument to the point where you can produce the music you hear in your head. Having great story ideas won’t get you far if you lack the basic writing skills to express them.

Which leads us to the next element: Hard work.

Almost every single person who has made themselves successful has been obsessive about their work. It’s practically all they do. They spend every day working on their craft and, of course, the more they do, the better they get.

Here’s the key: You have to love your work for this to happen. If you love it, it doesn’t seem like work.

This one has kind of been my downfall — I love a lot of things and over the years, I tried to do them all instead of concentrating on one.

When I was in college, for instance, my band meant the world to me. I loved playing, practicing, writing songs, and performing. And we got pretty good, too. We played all the big clubs in Richmond, Virginia and had a bit of a following. But we never made it. We were talented and we worked hard, but we lacked that final element.

We didn’t meet the right people and impress them. It didn’t even occur to us that we should be working on that. (Hey, we were young.)

Part of the problem was that we were in Richmond. You can only go so far in Richmond, which lacks major record labels, agents, and the connections we needed. No one was going to “discover” us there.

You have to go to the places where people who can make a difference to you live. If you want to be a successful actor, get yourself to New York or Los Angeles. Want a career in politics? Move to Washington. Computers? Perhaps Seattle.

Things are different these days than when I was in college. With the internet, it’s a lot easier to meet the right people and impress them. But even so, it is much better to be in a major city that can give you the personal touch needed to make the final sale.

In my writing career, I’ve learned how important this third point is. I’ve attended writer’s conferences, networked with other authors and agents, spoken at conventions, and have tried my best to keep myself in the loop. And it has helped me tremendously. I’ve learned things from these people I would not have discovered on my own, and my writing has improved. And the people I have met in person are much more likely to help me than those I have only talked to online.

More importantly, these people have introduced me to others who have helped my career. I’ve built relationships that will serve me when I try to sell my next novel. I’ve met the right people, and (hopefully) have impressed them.

Oh, I may not have impressed them with my writing skills (yet!) but I hopefully have given them the image of me as a professional with whom they can work; that I am someone who is reliable, meets deadlines, and completes tasks given.

You want the people you meet to know that you have something to offer them in exchange; that you can help their career, too.

These three elements need to be present if you want success. They do not have to be equal — if you meet the right people, for instance, you don’t need as much talent, which is the only way to explain Paris Hilton or the cast of the Jersey Shore. And if you are so talented that you cannot be ignored, the right people may come looking for you.

But don’t ignore any one of these elements, because if you do, you’re never going anywhere.

Interview with Author Tee Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration work?

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

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

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

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

The rest is future-history.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting this book?

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

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

2. The Book Trailer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What’s your next project?

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

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

me&tee

Interview with Alyce Wilson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Alyce Wilson, whose web page proclaims her as “writer, editor, poet.” Alyce, which one of those tags best describes you?

ALYCE WILSON: It depends on the day! I would say, though, that I’ve probably considered myself a poet longer, since that started back in second grade, courtesy of a very enthusiastic teacher, Mrs. Johnnie Stahl, who taught us how to write rhyming verse. But I have to admit that I don’t necessarily write poetry every day, while I do tend to write something in prose every day. So perhaps “writer” is more apropos right now.

VENTRELLA: Tell us a little about how you became involved in the business.

WILSON: I love the Joseph Campbell quote, “When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.” That’s what I’ve been doing. Aside for a brief flirtation with the idea of being a teacher, I’ve known from a very young age that I wanted to have a career in writing. The question has always been where and how?

In high school, I had an excellent journalism teacher, Mrs. Maryann Hoff, and began to consider that as a possible career path. But by the time I got around to declaring my major at Penn State University, I had fallen in love with radio (thanks to the college radio station, WPSU) and selected Broadcast/Cable. Perhaps if I had been less of a country mouse (raised in a small Pennsylvania town, as I was), I would have immediately sought out employment opportunities at a public radio station after graduation, but instead I felt directionless. The radio jobs available in small towns didn’t appeal to me, but I couldn’t imagine moving to a city. Fortunately, my decision to return to school, like the proverbial groundhog, waiting out six more weeks of winter, brought me to Penn State’s MFA program in Poetry. If I hadn’t panicked at the idea of city life, I wouldn’t have learned such valuable lessons that improved my poetry writing immensely.

Much as I loved grad school, however, I rebelled against the idea of remaining in academia. By that point, I had taught several undergraduate writing courses in essays and poetry, and I loved the students but hated the bureaucracy. I feared that pursuing such a career would be soul-killing and especially damaging to my writing. Instead, I felt it was important to experience life. So in my “hippie days,” I married a wispy dreamer, traveled up the Mississippi, and then took a job as a pizza delivery driver in my hometown (which served as inspiration for my second unfinished novel). Just about the time that my short-lived first marriage petered out, I found a job with the local newspaper (“The Standard-Journal,” Milton, Pennsylvania) as a reporter/assistant editor. This again, was the best thing for me, because it helped me to perfect my skills as a columnist.

However, the daily deadlines were highly stressful, and after putting on about 60 pounds and enduring a weekly migraine, I decided to get out of the newspaper business. I headed next for a PR job in Philadelphia, because after covering county politics and dealing with irate readers, living in the city no longer seemed so scary. While the PR job didn’t last, my love for Philly did, and for the past 10 years, I’ve been doing transcription work to make money and pursuing freelance and personal projects on the side. Coincidentally, spending time with college friends who had moved to Philly introduced me to my second husband, Mike Ryan, and led to our marriage and our 7-month-old son.

I’ll be the first to admit that my career path so far has been much less lucrative than, say, a career in public radio, but I believe that following my bliss has led me to becoming the person, and the writer, I am today.

VENTRELLA: Your latest work is “The Art of Life”, a collection of essays on various topics. Where did these first appear and how did you decide which essays to include?

WILSON: The pieces in “The Art of Life” came from three different sources: my “Standard-Journal” newspaper columns; columns I wrote for the now-defunct Comcast site InYourTown.com; and blog entries written between the years 2002 and 2010.

To figure out what to include, I reread all of my blog entries and columns and pulled out the ones I liked the most. Then I reread them once again, keeping in mind the following criteria: Did it stand on its own, outside of the collection? Did it fit with the other pieces? Was it likely to appeal to a broader audience than that for which it was originally intended? If I addressed a similar topic in two pieces, I opted for the one that was stronger. Then I arranged the pieces so that they led into each other, being conscious to alternate topics and tone. Finally, I went back through the manuscript and cut any pieces I felt were not as strong until I got to a reasonable page length.

VENTRELLA: You also are editor of a quarterly online literary magazine. How did that get started?

WILSON: At the time, I was about five years out of grad school, and I felt a calling to make a place for poetry in the world. This was an idea suggested to me by my poetry professors: that it was the responsibility of a poet in these days to make a place for poetry. A friend of mine, Amanda Cornwell, had received her bachelor’s degree in art and shared similar goals. We both felt it was important to make a place for the arts, particularly when you look at how the arts have been increasingly devalued in our society.

Previously, Amanda had launched a small print literary magazine, but funding was difficult and the circulation was small. We looked at the Web as a good forum for accomplishing our goals of making the arts accessible and appealing to the general public. With Amanda doing our initial Web design and serving as the Art Editor, we launched “Wild Violet” in October 2001. After the first three volumes (12 issues), she left to pursue other projects.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written a book giving advice to those who wish to appear in literary magazines. What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give (other than “read my book”) based on the mistakes you most often see new writers make?

WILSON: Know your market. As the editor of a literary magazine, far too often I receive submissions from people who apparently either cannot be bothered to check out our free online publication or have no clue how to direct their submission toward a specific market. We receive many submissions that are clearly inappropriate, which should be obvious to anyone who had perused the latest issue. It is essential to read the magazines to which you are considering submitting, and to decide which are most appropriate to send your work. It’s not enough just to look for magazines that publish poetry, for example; you need to find a magazine that publishes the kind of poetry you write.

VENTRELLA: “Literary” seems to have a specific meaning to some people in the publishing world. For instance, a science fiction or fantasy writer wouldn’t send their story to a literary magazine, would they?

WILSON: Actually, we receive all kinds of submissions, and we do publish some science fiction and fantasy. The term “literary” has unfortunately acquired an elitist connotation which, through “Wild Violet,” I’m trying to change. To me, “literary” means work which may be more challenging to the reader: writing which goes beyond basic storytelling, whether in terms of character development or the exploration of concepts. The science fiction we publish meets that criteria.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that talent is something that can be learned? In other words, can someone go to school to become a great writer or poet?

WILSON: Talent, that essential flare of ability, cannot be taught. Yet, more of us possess that essential flare than we may realize. A teacher can help you discover what your talents are. You might find, for example, upon taking a painting course, that it’s simply not something that comes naturally to you, but that photography does. That’s the role of education: helping people to discover and refine the talents they do have.

That said, I think education is a surer way to success for many people. There are few individuals with the right mix of raw talent and focused execution to become an overnight success, so to speak. It can happen, but those success stories are rare. Even those who enter a writing career later in life, after pursuing other careers, have more likely than not been honing their communications skills in other ways.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future for printed books? For book stores?

WILSON: According to Bloomberg, in the second quarter, for the first time ever, Amazon.com sold more electronic books than hardcovers. I think it’s safe to say that print books are going to take on a new role in our society. Just as with other media that have gone digital, such as music and photography, I think we’re destined for a sea change.

In some capacity, printed books will continue to sell, if for one key reason: there are always slow adopters to new technology. Plus, until somebody figures out a way to sign a digital copy, it will remain the only way to get a signed book. A lot of people like to have an object they can hold which is not subject to, say, a hard-drive crash or computer virus. So there will always be a place for books as more than just a quirky artifact. The number of print copies sold, however, will likely diminish. When you think about it, people are still buying vinyl, too, but nowadays it’s confined to discreet subcultures: namely, DJs and collectors.

Book stores will have to look at how to offer the reader an experience they can’t get from buying a digital copy. I think book stores may become more of a locus to interact: in person with authors for lectures and readings, and perhaps with other readers through reading groups and the like. I would expect at least the chain book stores to add digital kiosks to the store, where readers could sample electronic books and buy them.

If book stores don’t start planning now, they will likely find themselves running into financial trouble, much the same way that record/CD stores have in the last few years with the emergence of the MP3.

VENTRELLA: “The Art of Life” is a self-published work. What are the pros and cons of self-publishing and why did you decide to do so for this book? Would you do it for, say, a novel?

WILSON: Any means of publishing offers pros and cons, which I examined carefully when deciding how to publish “The Art of Life.”

Pros to self-publishing include more control over the finished work. The author determines the final content, layout and book cover. Aligned with that are some obvious cons: you must either do all that work yourself or find someone to do it for you. So it is much more time-consuming, especially to guarantee a high-quality final product.

Another pro of self-publishing is timeliness. You can put the book out as soon as it’s ready, without going through the delays that a publishing house would necessitate. I wanted to get “The Art of Life” out as soon as possible, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce myself to the reading public. Waiting for years for a possible acceptance by a publishing company did not appeal to me. I also felt that this particular collection, because of its range of styles and content matter, would be difficult to fit into the sort of genre or subcategory that publishers prefer.

Still another con, there is still a lot of prejudice towards self-published books, in part because so many sub-standard books have been published this way: poorly edited vanity projects that make the rest of the field look bad. However, as editor of “Wild Violet,” as part of our mission of making a place for the arts, I have reviewed dozens of self-published books. I’m happy to report there is some gold amongst the flax, so I felt like I was in good company.

Yet another con: as a self-published author, you are responsible for any expenses involved in printing and promoting the book. On the pro side, when money comes in, you see it immediately and stand to earn more per copy than through a typical publisher. Along the same lines, you don’t have access to a publisher’s connections when it comes to promotion; however, as I’ve learned from watching other authors, even with a traditional publisher, much of the promotion falls on the shoulders of the author. So if you’re willing to put that time and effort in, you could stand to profit.

Since there’s a long history of self-published poetry chapbooks, I felt comfortable with going that route for my poetry book, “Picturebook of the Martyrs.” Likewise, self-published nonfiction books can still sell, so I felt good about going that route with “The Art of Life,” as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to self-published fiction, there’s a glut in the market, with too many poor-quality books cluttering the field. Therefore, for better or for worse, I think that readers tend to look at self-published fiction a bit askew. The exception here is erotica, especially electronic versions, because that seems to sell strongly no matter the publishing source.

A caveat: these observations are largely anecdotal, so I’d be happy to be corrected by someone with more direct knowledge. However, I myself would be leery of self-publishing a fiction book, unless it were an erotica title.

VENTRELLA: One of the things that I admire about you is that you also run a Monty Python Appreciation Society. How did that come about?

WILSON: Just for clarification, I’m not currently running such a society. However, I am the former president of the Penn State Monty Python Society, and my adventures with MPS are detailed in my online chronicle, “Dedicated Idiocy.” MPS began in the 1970s when “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” first hit the American airwaves. By the ’80s, interest in the group had waned, but just before I joined as a freshman in 1988, MTV had added the show to its late-night schedule, so there were a record number of new members.

I discovered the Monty Python Society through a flyer I saw while attending an Amnesty International meeting. Since the two groups met at the same time, I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that I sided with comedy over human rights. Still, I think comedy can do a lot of good in the world. One good thing it has done for me is introduce me to some of my oldest, best friends in the world. I’ve often said the real test of friendship is whether you can get together and be silly together. With these folks, I definitely can.

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