Interview with Larry Hodges

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA:  I’m pleased to be interviewing author Larry Hodges today. His web page is here. Larry, tell us about your latest work!

LARRY HODGES: My new novel, CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS (from World Weaver Press), dramatizes and satirizes politics in a new sub-genre, campaign science fiction. larry1_smThe novel covers the election for president of Earth in the year 2100, when the world has adopted the American two-party electoral system. A father decides to buck the system and run for president of Earth, taking on his own daughter with a third-party moderate challenge – with an incredulous alien ambassador along for the ride.

Presidential politics has dominated the news for years, and few stories are more compelling than a bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-finish political campaign. And yet, where are the SF stories that cover this? CAMPAIGN 2100 is West Wing in the 22nd Century. The underlying theme of the novel is moderation in politics; some will read it as a Moderate Manifesto.

VENTRELLA: How did you go about finding a publisher?

HODGES: One of the toughest decisions for a new author is whether to try and get an agent, or go directly to publishers. I decided to try both, and sent numerous queries. For agents, I mostly used http://www.agentquery.com. For publishers, I mostly used http://www.ralan.com. It took three years – three years of checking email every three minutes – but then, one day, I received a note from a publisher that they really liked the novel – only . . . [and there followed a list of things that they’d like to see rewritten]. I did the rewrite. With the publisher’s blessing, I also had the novel critiqued at The Never-Ending Odyssey (an annual writer’s workshop for graduates of Odyssey), and did more rewriting from that. I sent the rewrite to the publisher, and from there on I checked email every three seconds for many months. And then came the response, which I printed out and put on my bulletin board: “I’m pleased to offer you publication with World Weaver Press for the novel CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS…”

VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?

HODGES: I’ve been reading science fiction & fantasy since elementary school. It was inevitable that at some point I’d start writing it. My first story was “The Snowflake,” written circa seventh grade, which featured a guy read about a snowflake warning in the newspaper, and rants about how stupid that is, that they meant a snow warning. Then he sees the same snowflake warning on the TV, on the radio, from friends, and he keeps sarcastically correcting them. It ends with a giant snowflake falling onto and demolishing his house.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t science fiction that turned me into a professional writer – it was table tennis. Yes, ping-pong. In high school, when I wasn’t reading SF, I was training in this Olympic sport, and became first a top player, and then a top coach. (I’m in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame.)SpiritofPong-cover-med I began writing coaching articles, and then books on table tennis. I was hired as director and a coach for table tennis at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and between training sessions, I began to write SF. I now have over 1600 published articles and eleven books – seven table tennis, five SF/fantasy, which adds up to twelve since one is a table tennis fantasy novel.

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

HODGES: CAMPAIGN 2100 really has four main characters – an ensemble cast. I decided that each would get their own introductory chapter. Each had to have some major issue to deal with that affected the plot, while developing them as memorable characters.

• Toby, the de facto “main character” (since he’s the one running for president of Earth), is introduced in chapter one, which is five years before the rest of the novel. President Corbin Dubois is being sworn in as the new president of Earth – and Toby ran his campaign, assisted by daughter Lara. Only he now realizes he’s made a terrible mistake, thinking, What have I done? He’s supposed to stay on as Corbin’s political director, but decides to resign. Corbin blackmails him, threatening his daughter if he leaves, and Toby ends up staying – but leaves us with the cliffhanging thought, What can I do to fix this? His character is developed as he faces a huge conflict – his desire to fix his mistake in making Dubois president, while not destroying his daughter’s future. The novel really takes off when he finally goes to war with his own daughter! He is a gold mine of conflict – inner conflict over his past support of Dubois, his battle with his daughter, and various campaign issues; and external conflict as he runs for president against Dubois.

• Twenty-two, the alien ambassador, is introduced as she’s diving into Earth’s atmosphere on her way to landing at the seat of world government. She’s excited, wondering about this new world and its politics as she naively converses with her overly adoring ship’s computer. We learn a terrible secret about her, which the reader knows but no one in the story will learn of until the very end. And then we see the alien point of view during first contact – and how both sides react when it turns into a disaster.

• Bruce, who also helped Toby run the Dubois campaign (but quit early on when he realized it was a mistake), is a professional table tennis player. He’s introduced as he’s playing for the U.S. championship. His great intelligence and sarcasm is highlighted throughout, with him simultaneously carrying on four conversations (with his opponent, the umpire, people in the crowd, and his thought computer), and then, right when he’s about to win . . . he makes a big decision. He’s such a flamboyant character that he’s easy to write, but he can be irritating, and so it’s a high-wire act making sure he goes the Han Solo rather than the Jar Jar Binks route.

• Feodora, the tiny Russian general who is running for president, is built up in advance by hints about her almost super-hero status. When she’s introduced, she’s stuck in bureaucratic meetings, representing Russian in talks with China, Japan, Korea, and others. Her character is built up via the contrast between her somewhat whimsical and sarcastic comments there, and her contrasting thoughts. Campaign 2100 Front Final-sm(She’s practically a superhero, and so throughout the novel she is showcased doing over-the-top things.) We get a flashback history lesson on how she shot and killed the Russian lead general, took command of Russian troops, and led them to a surprising victory. Feodora originally wasn’t intended to be a major character, but when she first appeared halfway through the book in the first draft, she pretty much took over, dominating the story whenever she appeared. At the behest of critiquers, I rewrote the story so she could appear sooner. I also had to send her on various journeys to get her off the stage so the other characters could get attention!

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

HODGES: The toughest was probably Toby, simply because I had to be careful that he wasn’t overshadowed by the interesting and flamboyant Twenty-two, Bruce, and Feodora. He was the heart of the story, as he struggled with his inner demons over his guilt in making Dubois president and taking on his own daughter, and his desire to make up for this by running for president. The other three were very easy to write, once I had their characters down – the naïve goody-goody with a secret alien; the brilliant in-your-face sarcastic Bruce; and the over-the-top almost superhero and yet soft-spoken Russian general Feodora. One key thing about writing all four of them is that I considered them all different facets of myself (or facets I wanted to be), and so would just become that part of me when I wrote that character.

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

HODGES: It’s a balancing act, but for the type of story I was writing, I needed larger than life characters, such as Feodora and Bruce. But they were balanced off by the far more believable Toby, who comes off as a more regular guy in an extraordinary and highly public position.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fiction unique? In other words, what is it about your stories that makes them stand out against all the other similar stories out there?

HODGES: I thought long and hard about what I wanted to write about, balancing my strengths and interests versus what readers might want to read. I think all new writers need to do this. I decided that I wanted to write at least three different novels, each one unique – and then I’d decide which of these sub-genres to focus on:

A political satire – CAMPAIGN 2100: GAME OF SCORPIONS. What was unique about this that it created a whole new SF subgenre – campaign science fiction. I asked myself the simple question (also noted above): “Presidential politics has dominated the news for years. Few stories are more compelling than a bare-knuckle, fight-to-the-finish political campaign. And yet, where are the SF stories that cover this?”

A humorous fantasy – SORCERORS IN SPACE. What was unique about this? It was potentially a new series that covered historical events but replaced the main characters with sorcerers. In this case, the novel covered the U.S.–Soviet space race of the 1960s, but with sorcerers instead of astronauts/cosmonauts. Maybe I could be the next Terry Pratchett!

A table tennis fantasy – THE SPIRIT OF PONG. What was unique about this? Well . . . how many table tennis fantasy novels are there?

VENTRELLA:  Hey, come on. My novel BLOODSUCKERS: A VAMPIRE RUNS FOR PRESIDENT is also “campaign science fiction.”  (INSERT SMILEY FACE)

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

HODGES: This is another thing that new writers struggle with. When I first decided to write Campaign 2100, I spent a huge amount of time outlining it in great detail. Sorcerer-in-Space-cover-medThis is now some top writers operate, such as Connie Willis, who is famous for doing detailed outlines of every chapter – and then writing the novel out of sequence, writing whichever chapter she feels like writing that day. And she’s won more major awards than any other SF writing – eleven Hugos and seven Nebulas. The other extreme would be a writer like Stephen King, who only has a vague idea what he’s writing about when he starts, and often writes a huge amount before he figures out what the story is about. Another example might be Isaac Asimov, who often started with a general idea of what the story would be, and with an ending, and then wrote to that end.

So I tried the Willis method, and began to write. But it didn’t work for me. I kept coming up with creative ideas that I had to ignore, since I had already outlined what was supposed to happen, and if I changed things, then subsequent chapters wouldn’t work. And so I tried to squelch my own creativity! The result for me was rather drab writing, and it was also pretty boring to write. I finally put aside the detailed notes, and instead did a very general outline of each chapter, about one or two sentences each, and went from there – along with an ending I wanted to work toward. Often chapters would go in directions I hadn’t foreseen, and I’d just go with it – but always I’d manage to bring it back on course toward the planned ending. This method worked for me, and I’ve since adopted this.

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

HODGES: Some people mistakenly think this means write what you know now. What it means to me is two things: 1) write about stuff you know and enjoy, because you can write well about things you know, and if you enjoy it, the writing is fun; 2) research the stuff you don’t know, either because you need it in the story, or because you want to learn about something and then write about it. I’m an amateur presidential historian – I can name all 44 presidents, their term of office, and all sorts of trivia on them. I know a lot about presidential politics, and so when I wrote Campaign 2100, I knew what I was writing about – other than that thing that it was 84 years in the future, and took place in settings all over the world that I knew nothing about, with all sorts of unexpected topics coming up. And so I became an expert on such diverse topics as Tanzania; the South China Sea; Antarctica; blue whales and narwhals; wheat production; submarine bases; Brodmann Area 10, which is the moral judgment center in the brain; the United Nations; and the Hindu caste system.

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

HODGES: That’s a tricky subject, as it’s so easy to fall into the “As you know, Bob” syndrome, since that’s the easiest way to let the reader know what the characters already know. For Campaign 2100, it was a serious problem, in that readers needed to learn about the history – our future – as well as the political system. And so I had First Contact, bringing in the alien ambassador Twenty-two. Readers learn about Earth’s history (our future) and the political world of 2100 at the same time as the alien – and if I wrote it well, then readers will be as incredulous as Twenty-two!

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

HODGES: Learn the rules guidelines for writing before breaking them. There are few rules, just guidelines that range from strongly recommended to general ones, and you should understand them all – and then, when you have reason to, break them mercilessly. It’s okay to explore breaking these rules, but always have a specific reason for doing so, or your work will likely come off as amateurish. Writing is both art and craft, and you need to do both.

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

HODGES: I mostly read science fiction & fantasy and history. My favorite authors for many years were the three most famous grandmasters – Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. I read their complete works by the time I finished middle school. I periodically go back and reread some of their works; last year I reread the Foundation series from Asimov. In recent years my favorite writers have been Robert J. Sawyer and Jack McDevitt. Sawyer consistently brings us thought-provoking SF on a wide range of topics, such as his recent QUANTUM NIGHT. I read much of McDevitt, but my favorites are the Alex Benedict series, where we have a guy who researches ancient relics – but the relics are things from our future! Very interesting stuff. And yet, I’ve been debating whether to broaden my reading to some of the classics. I was on a panel with Sawyer at the recent Lunacon SF convention, and he recommended just that. After reading QUANTUM NIGHT, I’m now 60% through Stephen King’s 11/23/63, which is fascinating.

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

HODGES: I wrote 17,000 words of the sequel to Campaign 2100 (which was 124,000 words long), but I’ve put it on hold to see how the first volume sells. If it does well, expect more futuristic campaign politics as our moderate extremists move into space, running the campaigns (or running for office themselves) in local star groups! I’ve also outlined sequels to Sorcerers in Space and The Spirit of Pong, and also have plans for several other potential novels.

Interview with Kerry Gans

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

Tell us about your newest book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the publishing decisions made.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Interview with author Jim C. Hines

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am tremendously pleased to be interviewing Jim C. Hines today! Jim is best known as a fantasy novelist and the guy who did those gender-flipped SF/F cover poses. JCH-TARDIS-300x287His first novel was GOBLIN QUEST, the tale of a nearsighted goblin runt and his pet fire-spider. After completing the goblin trilogy, Jim went on to write the “Princess” series, four books often described as a blend of Grimm’s Fairy Tales with Charlie’s Angels. He’s currently working on the “Magic ex Libris” books, which follow the adventures of a magic-wielding librarian from northern Michigan. He’s also the author of more than forty published short stories. His web page is here.

Let’s talk about your latest news: The FABLE book, based on the best-selling game. How did that come about?

JIM C. HINES: The publisher contacted my agent to see if I’d be interested in writing the book. I’m guessing a lot had to do with my previously published work, particularly the GOBLIN QUEST series, which has some of the same fantasy and humor feel as the Fable game universe. My agent and I talked about the contract details, he went back and did a bit of negotiating, and voila – I got to write FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES, which was a great deal of fun.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of limitations did they give you? In other words, how far away from the main narrative could you go?

HINES: I had a fair amount of freedom with the story. They wanted a book that would introduce the characters and the world, but I wasn’t novelizing the plot of the game. I had to set the story in the world of Albion, and to use the characters from FABLE LEGEND, but I was able to introduce my own villains and secondary characters, my own plotline, and even my own quirky little town.

VENTRELLA: What is it like writing a story that has already been written, with characters you didn’t develop? Did you find it liberating (“Hooray! I don’t have to spend months working all the details out!”) or confining (“Dammit, I want the character to do this but I am limited by what someone else wrote first!”) or somewhere inbetween?

HINES: I was hoping it would be a bit easier to write pre-existing characters, but as far as I can tell, nothing about writing ever ends up being easy. Libriomancer-LgLionhead came up with some interesting and entertaining characters. Sometimes it was fun to play with ideas I wouldn’t have necessarily come up with on my own. But there were also moments when I wanted to do something with a given character and couldn’t, because it didn’t fit with what Liongate had set up.

VENTRELLA: Assuming that this is like other games, your character could make different choices which could change the ending completely. How did you approach this?

HINES: I haven’t played LEGEND, but I’ve played some of the other FABLE games and read some of the previous tie-in books, so I was definitely thinking about the emphasis on choice. I tried to include some moments for the characters where they had a clear and important choice to make. Trust this character or don’t? Fight or flee? Kill or capture?

VENTRELLA: Who do you think the audience is for these kinds of books?

HINES: Well, we want it to appeal to fans of FABLE. First and foremost, I hope that all the hard-core chicken-chasers will approve. But if I’ve done my job well, you shouldn’t have to be familiar with the games to enjoy the book. If you like fantasy and quirky humor, you too can be part of the audience!

VENTRELLA: What will people who have already played the game get out of it?

HINES: Right now the game is still in beta testing. I don’t know if the book will come out before the game, or how that schedule will work. So it’s possible this could be the first real point of entry into FABLE LEGENDS world. For those who have played the previous games or participated in the beta, my hope is that they’ll get some insight into the characters, some exploration of Albion and its history, and a new adventure to enjoy.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the “Goblin Quest” series. Where did the idea for that originate?

HINES: I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogs, and it’s hard to get more underdogged than the goblins. How many goblins got slaughtered in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? So I really liked the idea of taking this scrawny, nearsighted goblin runt and doing a typical fantasy adventure from his point of view, with all of his questions about fantasy logic and this so-called “heroism” stuff.

VENTRELLA: What inspired the “Princess” series?

HINES: Those books were for my daughter, who went through a princess phase when she was younger. Red-Hood-LgSome of the movies, and a lot of the merchandise, all stressed that a princess has to look pretty and be rescued and so on. I wanted stories about princesses who teamed up and kicked butt and beat the witch and saved the prince. I also wanted to play with the older fairy tales, and to do something fun with it, like turning Sleeping Beauty into a ninja, or letting Snow White run around doing mirror magic.

VENTRELLA: I’ve blogged about humor in fiction, and feel that tooLibr many authors think that if your characters crack jokes then you can’t make serious points or make them ever seem to be in danger. Since humor is a part of your work, how do you approach it? How do you find the right balance?

HINES: Humor and serious go quite well together. Just ask Joss Whedon. The contrast between humor and fear/pain/tragedy can make both more powerful. You don’t want to let the humor undermine the tension, but that’s just a matter of practice and learning how to write it. Human beings crack jokes. Even in dark times. Especially in dark times. It’s one of the ways we cope. Completely stripping that out of a story feels dishonest and hollow to me.

VENTRELLA: You haven’t avoided talking about politics on Facebook and your blog. Do you ever worry that this may alienate readers?

HINES: It’s weird. A fair amount of what I talk about are things like sexual harassment and racism and sexism, stuff I’d have assumed most people agreed were bad, regardless of politics. But it’s the internet, so everyone seems to get assigned to one “side” or the other, and that’s the end of that. It’s definitely cost me some readers. But I think these are important things to talk about, and I’ve ended up with a bit of a platform to do so. It would feel like a betrayal not to do so. I try not to be a dick about things, but it doesn’t matter how polite and “civilized” you are. There’s always someone who’ll get pissed off at you.

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

HINES: I think practice and skill are far more important and useful than talent. Looking back, I don’t know how much of where I started was actual talent vs. skills I’d picked up over my life, from reading and telling jokes and getting a pretty good education and so on. Goblin-Quest-LgBut wherever you start, pretty much all of us have to work to improve before we become Good Writers™.

VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?

HINES: I try not to disagree with criticism, as a general rule. Once my book is out there, it’s up to the reader what they find in the story. Who am I to say they’re wrong?

That said, it annoys me to be told I only included a non-white or non-straight character as part of an “agenda,” or to push some mysterious “message” down people’s throats. Acknowledging the existence of people who aren’t exactly like me isn’t a message. And choosing to exclude people who aren’t like you from your stories is lazy, lousy writing.

VENTRELLA: Which of your characters was the hardest to write and why?

HINES: Lena Greenwood, the dryad character from the LIBRIOMANCER books. I’ve been working to get her character right for at least a decade. The way I wrote her and her backstory is problematic as hell. This series deals with the magic of books, and Lena was “born” as a sexual servant, one who gains in strength and independence over the course of the series. There’s a lot I’ve tried to do with her journey, but it’s so easy to mess up, and I know I’ve made mistakes along the line. For some people, she’s their absolute favorite character, but she’s been tough to write.

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

HINES: I prefer to flip it to “know what you write.” Do your research, and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

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

HINES: Mostly, I try to pay attention to when I’m getting bored while writing the story. There’s nothing wrong with exposition and info dumps from time to time, as long as it’s interesting. But the moment I start getting bored, that’s a clue to look more closely at the story and figure out why.

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

HINES: My first draft is when I get a sense of the book’s structure. I can’t hold an entire novel in my head, and outlines help, but they only work so-so. Cover2Once I’ve finished that first draft and know more or less how the book goes, I can go back and start developing the characters better, cleaning up plot problems, and generally delving deeper into the story.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

HINES: Not a clue. I think it depends on where you look, too. Are superheroes science fiction? If so, then Marvel’s films are blowing away most of what’s out there. Video games? Paranormal romance vs. sword and sorcery? I try not to worry too much about what’s hot this year, and to just write stories I love.

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

HINES: I was told you have to write short stories first, and I spent years doing that before really trying to write novels. That was Bad Advice. There’s no one right way to learn, and while short fiction used to be the “traditional” road for breaking into novels, these days I’d tell people to write whatever the heck they want. Enjoy short stories? Do that. Prefer books? Start writing them.

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

HINES: I think they’re different. For me, short stories are much faster to write. You know, on account of being shorter. I like that. But you have some of the same challenges of characterization and worldbuilding and so on.

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

HINES: I like anything that gives authors more options, and gives readers more ways to find stories they love. I could do without the religious crusades about the One True Way to publish, though.

Most of my books are through DAW, a commercial publisher in New York. I’ve also self-published some electronic chapbooks, as well as a mainstream novel and a fantasy novel project that … well, let’s just say RISE OF THE SPIDER GODDESS probably wouldn’t have found a home at most self-respecting publishing houses.

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

HINES: I think the small impress has been and continues to be important. They have more ability to take chances and to take on projects that might not sell huge numbers, but are important and powerful nonetheless.

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

HINES: Finish the manuscript, and do some research. Learn how agented and unagented authors built their careers.Mermaid-Lg Learn the pitfalls of different paths. Read Writer Beware and other writing blogs and resources. There’s no one right way to do this, but there are definitely some wrong ways to be aware of!

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

HINES: You have to write short stories before you can write novels.

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

HINES: I don’t know that it’s a specific piece of advice so much as a general attitude of persistence. Writing is hard, and there are times it will wear you down. Most of the successful authors I know are the ones who got stubborn and just kept writing.

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

HINES: Have fun. Find your own voice, and your own passion. I spent years trying to write the books and stories I thought I was “supposed” to be writing, but it wasn’t until I said the heck with it and started having fun with this goofy little goblin and his flaming pet spider that I really found myself as a writer. Coincidentally, that’s the first book I sold. Go figure.

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

HINES: It depends on when you ask! Terry Pratchett, Janet Kagan, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire… Heck, I’m on Goodreads. You can see my shelves here.

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

HINES: I’m working on the fourth LIBRIOMANCER book, which is called REVISIONARY and should be out in February of 2016. I’m also finishing up the copy-edits on FABLE: BLOOD OF HEROES. Beyond that, I’m starting on INVISIBLE 2, which will be a collection of essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy. I’ve also got several anthology invites waiting for me to write short stories. So basically, I’m in no danger of getting bored any time soon!

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

HINES: I’m not actually much of a party person, so I’d probably keep it small. Maybe David Tennant and my wife to start with. (So that my wife could meet David Tennant, which would make me the Best Husband Ever. And also because I’m a bit of a fanboy myself.) Janet Kagan, who was something of a mentor for me, but passed away before I could meet her in person. I’d also want to invite someone who can actually cook, you know? Oh, and maybe Gutenberg, because he’s one of the characters in my current series, and if I got him to sign one of those books, it would be a pretty awesome memento!

Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing NY Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley today! A.J. is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including the mystery/thrillers such as THE MASK OF ATREUS, young adult fantasies like ACT OF WILL, and children’s fantasies like DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT (which won SIBA’s best YA novel of 2012). Hartley With David Hewson he has written two adaptations of Shakespeare plays as Game of Thrones-esque epic thrillers, the first of which was MACBETH, A NOVEL (audio edition voiced by Alan Cumming), and HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. When he’s not writing, A. J. is UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Professor of Shakespeare.

A.J., I just finished reading ACT OF WILL and enjoyed it tremendously! Like my own ARCH ENEMIES, it is a first-person high fantasy story with a punnish title about a cowardly young entertainer with a sarcastic voice who gets thrown into an adventure against his will — so you can see why it appeals to me. (The stories otherwise have nothing in common plot-wise.) What inspired you to write ACT OF WILL?

A.J. HARTLEY: I grew up reading high fantasy—Tolkien, Le Guin, Lewis, and the like — and loved it all, but as my reading tastes expanded, I started to crave fantasy which was rooted in some version of reality and didn’t take itself too seriously. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett because I think he proves that fantasy with a comic edge needn’t be “light” and can be as serious as more obviously ponderous works. I like that. I’ve always been a devotee of writing which is fun, outrageously populist, deliberately and self-consciously “genre” but still rich and complex and layered. Like Shakespeare, a master genre writer if ever there was one. ACT OF WILL grew out of many of these impulses: high fantasy with an attitude and a strong sense of character voice, swords and sorcery with a little Salinger thrown in.

VENTRELLA: It seems to have gone through a number of different printings with different publishers. Can you share that story with us?

HARTLEY: From the first time I submitted the manuscript, I ran into the familiar problem of publishers saying something like “we love it, but we don’t know what it is.” In other words, it was considered a hybrid in terms of genre. They didn’t know what shelf to put it on. It took me twenty years to sell it. Literally. By then the market had evolved so that smart-mouth heroes and a pointed absence of dwarves and elves were no longer considered antithetical to fantasy.

Even so, when the book came out from Tor, people weren’t sure how to market it. The original hardback cover (which I actually really liked) didn’t look like a fantasy novel at all, and it certainly didn’t suggest its young adult protagonist. Both novels (ACT OF WILL was followed by WILL POWER) were very well reviewed (the second book made Kirkus Top ten for the year –- and Kirkus are notoriously hard to please!) but they didn’t really sell. ActofWill

When they went into paperback, Tor went with more conventional fantasy style covers, but that didn’t solve the problem. Simply put, people who read them liked them, but not enough people read them. They eventually went out of print and I self-published them with the current, more aggressively YA covers. Interestingly, these covers (stylishly designed by a wonderful designer called Asha Hossain) have really touched a chord with readers and book sellers. They play up the drama of the stories, rather than the slightly tongue in cheek tone, but they fit the books very well indeed.

VENTRELLA: ACT OF WILL takes place in a sort of alternate middle ages, in that there are some things that are definitely relatable to the real medieval world (the way women were treated, men playing female parts in plays, etc.) yet without using any real places (and of course, adding some magic to it). How did you decide what to use and what not to use? In other words, how did you go about developing the world?

HARTLEY: To be honest, Michael, I didn’t. I just made it up as I went along, doing remarkably little of the kind of systematic world building I would do now. The world of the books is an odd mixture of my historical work as a Shakespearean, my travels all over the world (there are moments which — at least to me — evoke India, for example, where I had been right before the final version came into focus), and the voice is clearly modern, without being so contemporary that it would date quickly. What the world contains and doesn’t was determined by the story and the character, particularly the voice of the character.

VENTRELLA: What makes a novel Young Adult? When writing one, how do you change your style (if at all)?

HARTLEY: Most importantly, it’s about the age of the protagonist, and therefore about confronting adulthood in all its aspects. Beyond that, a young adult novel can do anything you might do in an adult novel. YA is defined by the age of the readership rather than by genre, of course, which means that there’s a lot of different kinds of stories within the bracket. Some are virtually indistinguishable from a middle grades novel, while others push the envelope as far as possible in matters of sex, violence, subject matter and vocabulary. So long as you are consistent and clear from the outset as to what you are writing, you can do pretty much what you want. For me, style has less to do with age group as it is to do with the sub genre or style of the story and I never consciously self-censer or simplify.

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

HARTLEY: My next publication will be the HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (co-written with David Hewson) performed by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies) which comes out May 20th. I think that will get a lot of attention. hamlet-cover-300x300 After that, I’m not sure. I’m mid stream on a couple of YA projects, but they aren’t done yet.

VENTRELLA: Of which of your fiction books are you most proud and why?

HARTLEY: This will sound like a dodge, but it’s not. I’m always proud of my work when I first finish it and wouldn’t want it published if I wasn’t, so each project tends to have a special place in my head/heart. Each book has something about it I’m proud of. In ACT OF WILL, it’s voice. In WILL POWER it’s about pulling off a socio-political critique of the genre from within.

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

HARTLEY: Depends what they like. If they like YA or adult fantasy, ACT OF WILL. For something a little more Harry Potter-esque, I’d recommend DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT. For historically rooted thrillers, MASK OF ATREUS. For Shakespeare fans, the Macbeth or Hamlet.

VENTRELLA: I see from your CV that you were studying for your doctorate at Boston University around the same time I was graduating from law school and being a public defender there. Maybe we even rode the T together from Brighton. Why did you leave?

HARTLEY: I left after completing my Ph.D and getting my first academic job in Georgia.

VENTRELLA: Much of your work is scholarly. How have you found your styles compare when writing fiction and nonfiction?

HARTLEY: Apples and oranges. There may be a little bleed over in terms of ideas which inform both, but academic writing is an entirely different beast, from writing fiction. Scholarly books are much slower to produce for me, much cagier, much more research-driven and hyper aware of what other people have said. I can do the first draft of a novel in two months. My performance history of Julius Caesar took me almost six years.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always wanted to ask a Shakespeare expert this: Of the hundreds of Shakespeare movies that have been released, which one(s) is/are your favorite(s)? And which just made you scream at how terrible they were?

HARTLEY: I can usually find something of value in most half-way competent films or stagings because I’m looking to be shown something new from a production, not a “correct” interpretation of the play, which I don’t believe exists. We do theatre/film to generate a new art object which grows out of the (necessarily partial) play text, not to somehow broadcast the original in some kind of unmediated way. DarwenArkwrightmedium That’s aid, I do, of course, have preferences. Of recent efforts, I like the Loncraine Richard III with Ian McKellan as an early twentieth century fascist, Branaugh’s Henry V, the Goold Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as a Stalinist tyrant, the filmed stage version of Greg Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, and Joss Whedon’s wonderfully intimate Much Ado.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with the conspiracy nuts who claim Shakespeare never wrote his plays?

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

VENTRELLA: Shakespeare is often cited by authors who point out that what makes a good story is not originality, but the way the story is told. Do you agree?

HARTLEY: Well, it’s sort of a false binary, isn’t it? Shakespeare didn’t generally originate plots, but the stories have his unmistakable stamp which goes beyond sentence-level utterance. I think he proves that a gifted author can own and refresh a story people thought they knew

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

HARTLEY: Hmmm… I believe that writing is generally a fairly self-selecting process, in that you need to love stories and words and work to be good at it, but I see plenty of writing from people who have been at it a while which isn’t that good, so no, I don’t believe anyone can do it. There’s a lot you can learn—from classes, from studying other people’s work, and from just doing it—and I think that most people can achieve a basic competence in getting a story down coherently. But writing really well, with power and subtlety, with an eye for character and an ear for voice? No. I don’t think that can simply be learned by anyone.

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

HARTLEY: I think that’s a genre question. Most people who read thrillers and fantasy novels want big drama and larger than life characters which take them out of their conventional reality. For people who read realist literary fiction, generally that’s not true. I like something in between the two.

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

HARTLEY: I outline briefly and loosely — 10-15 pages that sets up the story, main characters, world, key scenes. The book, however, is in the details. Execution is all. atradus But the outline helps me to start with a clear sense of what the book is going to be so that I don’t wander for fifty pages trying to figure out what the story is, what drives it. You need a special gift for self-denying and brutal editing to write without an outline, I think, and most writers don’t have it. It can take me months, even years, to see what a book needs in terms of cutting. Outlines help get me there faster.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?

HARTLEY: Varies from book to book. ACT OF WILL, for instance, began with character voice. Plot came later. MASK OF ATREUS began with two intersecting plot ideas. DARWEN began with a way of reinventing the cross-over-into-a-fantasy-world I first encountered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. WILL POWER came from an idea about what I found frustrating about some conventional fantasy…

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

HARTLEY: Usually, it means, write what you value, what you want to read, what you care about. Then it means, make sure you know what you need to pull it off.

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

HARTLEY: Cut them out and then find ways to reveal the information in another way! Unhelpful, I know. I think it helps to think of how movies handle the problem, usually visually.

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

HARTLEY: I’ve never been a short story writer. I’ve done a few recently, but I think it’s a very different skill from writing novels, and for the most part I don’t they necessarily transfer that helpfully. If you want to be a novelist, write novels.

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

For me they are, to do them well as genre fiction. They are, paradoxically, easier to pull off as literary fiction, I think, because they don’t have to have the pesky necessity of plot and event. Most genre short stories read—to me—like unfinished novels or, worse, mere episodes.

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

HARTLEY: Write a really good book. Tears-of-the-Jaguar-cover-199x300

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at a few science fiction conventions. Do you find attending these to be a useful activity?

HARTLEY: I do, and find them useful to a point. They can help you answer real questions about the craft and the business, but their real value is in making you feel part of a community. Writing can be very isolating, and it is good to know other people are in the same boat. And sometimes they can produce connections which are directly useful. BUT, some people treat the discourse around writing as a substitute for writing itself. It’s not. Never will be.

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

HARTLEY: It can be a very useful tool for people who already have a fan base, or for people who just want to make their work available but aren’t looking to make a lot of money off it. Some people do make money, of course, but I don’t think they are representative and for many the riches some self-pub promoters tout will never materialize. I also think self-publishing requires a degree of self-promotion most people are not good at, and which takes time away from the development and production of their actual craft: writing. Self-publishing can be a nice extra string to your bow, or a way to find an outlet as you work, but I would still recommend traditional publishing to most writers. Sometimes—not always, of course—but perhaps more often than we usually admit, rejection from publishers is indicative of the fact that the work isn’t ready. Publishing it in any form can do you more harm than good in the long term. I wrote lots of books that were rejected before I had one accepted, and I thank the stars that I didn’t opt to self-publish them. I might not have been able to see it at the time, but I can now. They weren’t ready. They weren’t good enough.

Ravencon 2012

Ravencon 2012

Interview with author Kathryn Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penelope Sparrow was my path.

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

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

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

CRAFT: Here are five quick tips:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: What are you doing to promote the book?

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

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

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

• Facebook meme campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

workshop

Interview with author and editor Bernie Mojzes

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

Bernie, How did you first become interested in writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your latest work!

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: How has it been received?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publishing Scams

I’ve written about the perils of self-publishing before (and when it’s okay to self-publish), but this is more basic: Don’t be scammed.

All contracts should be between parties who each have something to offer. scamA publisher wants your book because they think they can make money on it. They’re not going to offer you a contract otherwise. This gives you some leverage in negotiations. You should never look at any contract as if it’s a gift to you. You are giving them something they want (your book) and they in return will give you something you want (money, distribution, editing, promotion…).

New authors are so excited about being published that they sometimes grab the first thing that comes along no matter how terrible the arrangement. There are many publishing scams out there you need to avoid.

Pay to Publish: Do you have to pay them to publish your book? That’s not how it works. The money should flow one way. If they aren’t willing to invest in you, then they don’t think your book will sell and are looking to make money from you instead of from your readers. Companies such as Author House or Vantage Press are good examples of this.

This includes fake contest scams, where you can submit your poem or story and if accepted it will be published in a new anthology! And you can buy the book with your story in it! Only $60! Needless to say, no story or poem is ever rejected, and that book will never be found anywhere except in the homes of the people it scammed.

Gatekeeping: Do they accept every book that is submitted to them? Once submitted, are you assigned an editor (who does more than just proofread)? For that matter, is there even a proofreader? Legitimate publishers have a keen financial interest in making sure their product is the best it can be. Scam artists don’t care at all.

Pay to Promote: Do they require you to pay them for cover blurbs and reviews? Do you have to pay extra to be listed on Amazon and with other retailers? That’s not how it works. It costs them nothing to list you, and you shouldn’t have to pay them anything to do what a publisher is supposed to do.

Some scam companies pretend that they are your agent as well, but then ask you to pay them up front for their services (something a real agent never does). “Pay us $2000 and we’ll turn your book into a script and give it to top Hollywood producers!” Yeah, right.

They’ll also charge you for “social media services” which means they set up a Facebook and Twitter account for you, which you can do for free yourself.

Oversight: Even scams that don’t require you to pay up front aren’t looking out for your interests. One of the worst offenders is Publish America. There are class action lawsuits pending against this company, which makes promises it can’t keep and charges you for it.

Some of the things Publish America does are amazing to recount:

They once told people if they paid them $100, they’d make sure J.K. Rowling would see their work. Rowling denied it completely, and Publish America admitted that they were just going to mail the manuscript to Rowling.

They mark the price of the books tremendously higher than other books by real publishers because they know the person who will be buying most of them will be you.

They misspell words on the spine and cover and then demand that you pay them to make corrections.

They charge for editing that is never done. One person submitted pages of absolute garbage containing no actual words that was accepted by Publish America without question.

(NOTE: I usually don’t edit posts once they’re up, but this is important. Publish America’s latest scam is simple — they changed their name to “America Star Books.” Don’t be fooled! They know their reputation is shot and so they’re hiding behind a new name. Don’t be scammed.)

Do your research! A great source is Writers Beware, which was started and organized by the late great Anne Crispin (Friend of this Blog).

Mind you, if all you’re trying to do is make some copies of some book for your family and friends, go right ahead. Self-publish by starting your own company, hiring editors and book cover artists, and making sure that the quality is top notch. (I did something similar with my nonfiction gaming books, which are targeted to a small and specific audience. I used to have my own small publishing house and pay to have hundreds of copies printed at one time I could resell, but now I use Lulu; it’s much easier.)

So don’t fall for these scams. Keep searching. There are many small publishers out there who may love your book, and if you can’t find one willing to invest in you, then perhaps your book just isn’t good enough to be published. (Sorry, but it’s true. Get to work on the next one; you will improve with each book.)

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