Interview with Author and Editor J. Richard Jacobs

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author J. Richard Jacobs today! jheadshot J. says he is a country boy turned scientist/engineer/naval architect turned author. He writes science fact, science fiction (usually hard), occasionally horror and fantasy. He’s also the editor of the successful “Twisted Tails” series, the most recent of which has just been released and features a story by Yours Truly. His web page is here.

So tell us about the “Twisted Tails” series!

J. RICHARD JACOBS: Well, first and foremost, The “Twisted Tails” series of anthologies is a demanding thing to get into. The reason for that is simple. I look for quality in every sense for these books. It’s a tough nut to crack for many. In one of them I received 480+ submissions—only twelve were included.

Next, they are eclectic. There is a theme for each, but no genre restrictions are set. As long as the story fits the idea of the theme, I don’t care if it’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror (the no gore kind), Paranormal or Mainstream. We’ve had a good run through seven books so far and this new one, TWISTED TAILS VII: IRREVERENCE (the eighth book in the series) is no exception.

VENTRELLA: Wait — it’s the eighth collection and it’s called TWISTED TAILS VII?

Is that a twist?

JACOBS: TWISTED TAILS II was released in two volumes and, though there is a complete edition available, TWISTED TAILS VII is actually the eighth book in the series…. Not a twist, just confusing….

Anyway, the stories have no set word count. There is one major element that must be met, and met well. TwistedTales All of them contain a twist ending (Twisted Tails). It may be subtle or a violent yank on the carpet, but it must be a logical and plausible part of the story line. Not many authors can do that.

All of them are aimed at fun and entertainment. Sometimes the fun is a mite on the dark side, but it’s still fun.

VENTRELLA: The “Twisted Tails” covers all feature dragons – because of Double Dragon Publishing, I assume. Do you think this may mislead people into thinking they’re all high fantasy stories?

JACOBS: Deron Douglas of Double Dragon Publishing and I discussed this in the very beginning as I wanted the books to become a part of the Double Dragon trademark, so to speak. We decided then and there that the way to do that would be for all the covers to feature one or more dragons. The first book, TWISTED TAILS: AN ANTHOLOGY TO PLEASE AND DELIGHT, had two dragons on the ground, a result of flying too close and getting their tails entangled. I think everyone who sees these covers will admit that Deron is quite an artist…!

As for people thinking they’re all High Fantasy, I don’t think that is necessarily true. They are listed with the genres indicated and the overleaf and inside flaps spell it out fairly well. The truth is, most of the books have had at least one Fantasy included in the collection.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of stories will we find in the new book?

JACOBS: Oh, my, now there’s a tough question to answer. Would saying that they’re all great be of any value? I guess not. This edition of the series includes examples of all genres. It drools humor and mystery and fantastic panoramas and shadows and sunshine and darkness and….

All of the authors in this one have gone several extra miles to fill the pages with delightful material that I guarantee will entertain.

VENTRELLA: How do you determine themes for the books?

JACOBS: Oh, boy, that’s a biggie. I have to think long and hard on that before I commit to a theme. Though the process is complicated, the reason is simple. I have developed what could be called a stable of authors, bless’em all, who are highly talented wordsmiths and story spinners. Without them there would be no “Twisted Tails.” TT2-510 You, by the way, are one of them. Oh, you knew that, didn’t you? Okay, so I just gave you a plug on your own blog. I’m not ashamed of that and I am proud to present you in this new one.

Anyway, I have to think about what my authors have produced in the past and how they may handle whatever little germ of a thought I have. After considering that carefully, I can then firm up the idea and name a theme. As an example; this next one in the works has as its theme: Para-Abnormal. I’ll let your imagination deal with that.

VENTRELLA: I also edit a short story collection, and it’s not as easy as it looks. What are the major problems you have had with editing?

JACOBS: Authors. There are a lot of writers in this world—there are very few authors. Now, authors are wonderful in all respects except following instruction about things like format. Also, most authors are atrocious spellers and typists. Typos and spelling errors are a large part of the job. Not so much with grammar, though it rears its ugly head on occasion. I am willing to work with any author to almost any level if they have given me a great story. I’ve even ghostwritten a couple of works for authors who have presented a compelling story.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with telling authors you have rejected their stories?

JACOBS: That’s simple. I’ve been in this business about 57 years and saying, “What the hell is this? Did you take special classes in school to become this stupid, or does it come naturally?” is easy for me. Okay, okay, I’m really not that cold, but close to it. If someone has presented me with something that shows promise, I will tell them. If they have sent me crap, I’ll tell them that, too, but I try to be diplomatic.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who submit to you?

JACOBS: Hah! Format. Format. Format, and telling me their work is copyrighted and I’d better not do anything with it other than what has been agreed upon. Arrogant newbies.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for authors wanting to write short stories?

JACOBS: Short stories are harder to write than novels. You have few words to work with, yet you need to land on the run with fully developed characters and that ain’t easy. som510 Pacing a short is not an easy thing, either. The best advice I can offer for those who would dare write short is, write until your fingers hurt, the words on the screen look like they’re printed backwards and your legs are so numb that you can’t feel your feet. Then, do it some more. Read other short stories by great authors from the dim past to see how they made it work. Then, write some more. When you think you have it wired, begin submitting your work everywhere and see what happens. Oh, and do develop a really thick skin; this business is brutal.

VENTRELLA: Which of your novels have been most successful in your opinion?

JACOBS: That depends upon how you view success, doesn’t it? If you think about sales, you have missed the point, in my opinion. Sales are nice for the wallet and, perhaps, for the ego, but personal satisfaction in what you’ve done is far more important. I have written nothing I would not love to rewrite. After having rewritten it, I would like to rewrite the rewrite. Never satisfied with my work. It could always be better. Having said that, I think SEEDS OF MEMORY has been the most successful in my way of looking at things. It took ten years of writing, head scratching, rewriting, research, more head scratching, more rewriting, putting up with constant interruptions and free advice before it was finished. I just rewrote it…!

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the “Rain” trilogy.

JACOBS: We recently had a meteor come down in Russia. People saw the videos. In short order, they will forget what they have seen and return to an all-is-well-in-the-world life of complacency. The first two books of the Rain Trilogy, STORM CLOUD RISING and MAELSTORM, are aimed at shaking that complacency by the lapels—hard. The third one, still not completed, is more of an adventure dealing with what the world is like after the rain—the hard rain.

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?

JACOBS: Hmm. Well…they’re not similar. At least I hope they’re not. xeno-version3_03 I bring a lot to the table in terms of knowledge of subject and experience in researching things. Believe it or not, you need to know how to look for things. Merely Googling is not the answer and accepting what you find on your first or fifteenth try without cross-referencing is a waste. In my Science Fiction I’m quite at home with details most of the time. I also have many friends who are experts in their fields who have saved me much embarrassment at times. I can tell you this; my work is complex because I know life is complex. I have had many high-powered mentors in the past (no name dropping here) who have seen me through my infancy and I really hope I have done well with what they taught me.

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you?

JACOBS: Horizons beyond an arm’s length and an infinite playing field for conjecture and speculation. I also like to play with science (real science) and make things work. None of the worlds I create are impossible or improbable, though they may appear to be so sometimes.

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?

JACOBS: I have no idea. Science Fiction has never been one of the mainstays of the written word. It has had a better following in the past, that’s true, but why it has hit a little slump is a mystery. I look forward to that changing. We’re getting a lot of imaginative authors in the field these days and I’m sure the Phoenix shall rise again.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written nonfiction (including something in INSIDE SCOOP which also features me!). What is different about writing nonfiction?

JACOBS: The difference is that it is not fiction.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

JACOBS: Aside from the new one for the Twisted Tails series, TWISTED TAILS VIII, I have three anthologies I’m considering that will not be an unending series. All will be based in pulp fiction style. One will be Science Fiction, another in Mystery, and the final will be on Heroes (super-hero stuff with a twist). StormCloudRising-510 I am working on another novel, MT PROMISE, and am desperately trying to complete the third book in the Rain Trilogy.

VENTRELLA: What’s your biggest pet peeve about the writing business?

JACOBS: Small checks….

VENTRELLA: I’ve blogged a lot about self-publishing. What’s your take?

JACOBS: Frankly, I don’t like self-publishing. I know there is a bundle of good stuff written and self-published, but the majority is not worth the electrons and/or paper used to put it on the market. Self-publishing still has a stigma hanging on it (with good reason) that makes me not want to read anything offered. I am aware I’m missing a plethora of good, engaging and imaginative works that are well-written, but I’m avoiding an immense amount of disappointment and saving my bucks in the process.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

JACOBS: Everyone. No, I’m not kidding. I am selective in the things I’ll pick up, but I read across the board. All genres. Short. Medium. Long. Even Michener behemoths. My favorites remain Asimov, Sturgeon, Brin, Clarke, Brown, Dick, Shakespeare (really), Poe, Hemingway and so on. Those folks knew how to do it and do it right.

To order TWISTED TAILS, click on the “books” link above. As of this posting, the only versions available are the kindle and e-book versions. The paperback and the nook versions should be available shortly.

Start in the Middle!

The theme of this blog is “Learn from My Mistakes.”

I just wanted to emphasize that. I don’t want anyone to think that my advice posts here are because I am an expert in the field of writing and publishing, because I am not. Almost all the things I am advising you not to do here are because I did them already, and found out they don’t work. I’ve warned you about the proper point of view, using outlines, why you should not use prologues, and other obvious writing rules that aren’t so obvious.

So today let’s discuss another bit of advice that I just had hammered into me: Starting your story in the middle.

I’ve always known that it is important to start your story with a bang, and all my books and short stories have done so. You want to grab the reader in the first page, and keep those pages turning. I jump right in and fill in the background later.

I know that.

However, there was something I was missing that, in retrospect, seems really obvious to me now.

I just received two rejections from agents looking at my latest manuscript BLOODSUCKERS. Both said the same thing. They liked my writing, but there was no urgency — the story didn’t grab them quick enough.bloodsuckers-510

And they were right.

You see, I started the story off with a beautiful naked vampire killing a Presidential candidate on the eve of his nomination (sex! violence! politics!). Soon after, a new candidate was chosen who was accused of being a vampire by crazies (called “batties”) who actually believe vampires exist. This was followed by a conspiracy to assassinate that candidate, and a plan to frame the assassination on a disgraced reporter who had written an article about the crazies. Then the plan is carried out …

Well, do you see the problem?

The main character in this story is the reporter — the guy who is framed for the assassination and then has to go into hiding, running from the vampires and the FBI. Once that happens, the story kicks into high gear. The only way he can prove his innocence is by proving that vampires exist. He gets help from the batties and eventually from some other vampires. Can he expose the candidate, will he be killed along the way, or will he be corrupted by the system?

But that didn’t happen until page 60 or so.

I mistakenly thought that all the other action was sufficient — that the conspiracies and plots would be enough.

The problem is that these early threats and dangers all concern people other than my main character … there’s not even the suggestion that he will be involved until the assassins pick him to be their scapegoat. That early stuff didn’t matter personally to him. The “middle” of my story is actually the start of the story for my character. And that’s where I needed to begin.

So it’s time for a new draft. I need to get the reader to understand the danger my protagonist is in early, so that the reader has some connection to the story and cares.

So learn from my mistakes — it’s not enough to have lots of action, drama, and “tension on every page” early on. You need to connect that tension to your protagonist if you want your reader to care.

Interview with author Joshua Palmatier

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Joshua Palmatier. Josh and I have been on panels at various SF conventions together, and we’ve had some great discussions about writing and fantasy. Joshua is a fantasy writer with DAW Books, with two series on the shelf, a few short stories, and is co-editor with Patricia Bray of two anthologies. Check out the “Throne of Amenkor” trilogy — THE SKEWED THRONE, THE CRACKED THRONE, and THE VACANT THRONE — under the Joshua Palmatier name. And look for the “Well” series — WELL OF SORROWS and the just released LEAVES OF FLAME — by Benjamin Tate. Short stories are included in the anthologies CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE URBAN KIND (edited by Jennifer Brozek), BEAUTY HAS HER WAY (Jennifer Brozek), and RIER (Alma Alexander). And the two anthologies he’s co-edited are AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR and the upcoming THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY (March 2012). His web pages are www.joshuapalmatier.com and www.benjamintate.com, as well as on Facebook, LiveJournal (jpsorrow), and Twitter (bentateauthor).

Josh, your Tate books take place in the same fantasy world as the Palmatier books, although not at the same time or with the same characters. Why have two different authors? When new authors are trying to get that important name recognition, doesn’t this put you at a disadvantage?

JOSHUA PALMATIER: Well, the two names were actually a strategy brought up by the marketing department at my publisher. The idea was that we’d release the new books under the Ben Tate name and make it an open secret. Hopefully, the Joshua Palmatier fans would learn of the name switch and buy the new Tate books, while the Tate name would bypass the ordering structure of the bookstores so that they’d carry the new books on the shelves and pull in new readers. It was an attempt to increase the audience for my books. The sales for the Palmatier books were OK, but not as high as hoped, so the publisher was looking for ways to draw in additional readers. At this point, I would have to say that the ploy didn’t work, although I think there were numerous factors as to why it didn’t work.

VENTRELLA: Is the voice the same in the two series?

PALMATIER: That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t protest too much when the publisher suggested the name change for the new series —- the voice of the new series is significantly different than the original. So even though it’s set in the same world, it had different characters, was set at a different time period in the history of the world, on a completely different continent, and -— like the Palmatier books, which were focused on one character, written in first person, and were essentially “urban fantasies” set on an alternate world —- the new series was much more epic in nature. There are multiple POV characters and threads that the reader follows, and the action takes place over two different continents and over a much larger time span. So the feel of the books are different than from that original series. Both are dark in nature though, as the covers of THE VACANT THRONE and WELL OF SORROWS suggest.

VENTRELLA: How did you get your first “big break” in publishing? Did you have an agent first?

PALMATIER: My “big break” was sort of interesting actually. I wrote my first book (unpublished) and started sending it out to editors and agents at the same time (one editor at a time, but multiple agents). I spent the next ten years writing three additional novels, sending each out to editors and agents and getting rejections from all. But most of the rejections were good, meaning they said, “I’m not interested in this project, but the writing’s good and I’d like to see whatever you write next.” This was encouraging, and it allowed me to focus my attentions on those editors and agents who were interested. I basically kept a running list for each, in order of my preference and tweaked based on the responses I got.

So when it came time to send out THE SKEWED THRONE, I started at the top of my editor list (Sheila Gilbert at DAW) and the first seven agents on my list. I heard back from those first seven agents quickly (all rejections), so sent out the next batch of seven, all while DAW still had the book. I was also getting my PhD in mathematics at the same time, at the point where I was defending my dissertation. I got a call from one of the agents, Amy Stout, while prepping for that defense. After a lengthy discussion on the phone over representation, I signed on with her and told her that DAW currently had the book. Amy called up Sheila and started talking. Meanwhile, I continued my job search and defense.

I was away at a mathematics conference, doing interviews and such, when Amy called back to tell me that DAW wanted to buy THE SKEWED THRONE. I was thrilled! But they also wanted to talk about the sequels. So in the midst of finishing up my dissertation and job hunting, I worked up the proposals to THE CRACKED THRONE and THE VACANT THRONE and almost immediately had contracts for the entire trilogy. My first sale! I was on my way!

But keep in mind that it took me ten years and I wrote three other novels before THE SKEWED THRONE found a home. And I lost count of the number of rejections.

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?

PALMATIER: *snort* Writing a book isn’t easy. I said before that I wrote three other novels before I sold one, but that isn’t quite true. I started writing while I was in high school and kept writing all the way through college. It wasn’t until grad school that I sat back and asked myself whether I was going to do this for fun, or if I was going to try to sell something. So it was ten years and four novels total from the moment I decided to get serious. There were ten years of “fun” writing before that.

And that “fun” writing was actually my entire set of writing experience. I took a few classes here and there in college as part of my other degrees (electives and such), but for the most part, those ten years of writing were me teaching myself how to write. I wrote my first true novel five different times, each time learning more about the craft and what was good writing and how much mine sucked. It wasn’t until the 5th draft that I finally thought I’d written something that could potentially be published. (And those first few drafts were bad. I mean bad. Indescribably bad.)

I also pretty much trained myself in how to send that manuscript out to find a publisher to call home. That simply amounted to a bunch of research and time on my part, reading up on what “manuscript format” meant and what publishers wanted in a “query” or “partial.” All of that’s even easier to research now with the internet, and I strongly suggest aspiring writers take the time to do the research and make a list of publisher and agents they want to submit to when they’re ready.

But of course, you have to have that stellar book first, and that part ain’t easy at all.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the books!

PALMATIER: I was waiting for you to ask. *grin* All of my novels are dark fantasy, the Tate books more epic in nature than the Palmatier books.

I’ll start with the “Throne of Amenkor” series, which begins with a young girl, Varis, barely surviving in the slums of the city of Amenkor. She’s on her way to becoming lost, like so many other souls in the slums, when she runs across a Seeker—an assassin sent by the Mistress of the city to mete out justice—named Erick. Erick trains her to protect herself and uses her to hunt his marks in the slums. Of course, these marks lead Varis beyond the slums into the heart of the Amenkor and deep into its politics. Eventually, she’s hired to kill the Mistress herself, protected by the magic of the Skewed Throne.

The series continues beyond that, with attacks from a race called the Chorl from the sea, and eventually leads to Amenkor’s sister city of Venitte. But I don’t want to spoil anything. Everyone will just have to read the books to find out what happens.

My Tate novels are a little different, set on a different continent and sort of combining the settling of a newly discovered continent with fantasy elements. Colin’s family has fled the coming war in their homeland to the new continent across the ocean, landing in one of the few settlements on the new coast. But the politics of the old world have followed them to the new. In order to escape, Colin’s father accepts responsibility for a wagon train heading into the unexplored plains to form a new settlement inland. They head out . . . only to discover entire new races of people, a beautiful new world, and unexpected and magical dangers. Attacked by one such race, the wagon train is driven into a dangerous and dark forest, where Colin’s life is changed forever when he is forced to drink for the Well of Sorrows in order to survive. But the waters of the Well transform him into something more than human. Struggling to maintain his grasp on humanity, he attempts to use his newfound powers to end the war between the three clashing races —- the humans from his homeland, the dwarren, and the Alvritshai.

VENTRELLA: You are the editor of a new anthology about fae coming out soon. How did that come about?

PALMATIER: Ah, the role as editor. That actually came about at a bar. You see, a bunch of my fellow friends and authors had gotten together for a signing and afterwards we, of course, hit the bar for a few drinks. While chatting, someone brought up the idea of doing an anthology centered around a bar, and thus AFTER HOURS: TALES FROM THE UR-BAR was born. I wrote up a proposal for that and sent it out. DAW liked the idea and thus my editing career (with Patricia Bray) was born. After the bar anthology, Patricia and I proposed a few other ideas and DAW bought THE MODERN FAE’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING HUMANITY.

VENTRELLA: As someone who has edited a short story collection and is working on a second, I find that the hardest thing to do is reject stories, especially from friends. How have you handled this?

PALMATIER: Well, for the first anthology, AFTER HOURS, Patricia and I only invited around 17 authors to contribute. A few had to drop out because of their own schedules, so we ended up not needing to reject anyone for that anthology. However, for MODERN FAE we invited over 30 people to contribute stories, so of course we had to pick and choose from the selection there. Pretty much all of those invited were friends, of course, but we were up front with everyone and in the end we simply handled everything professionally. Both Patricia and I were able to separate the friendships from the editorial job, so while rejecting some of the friends (some of them friends for decades) was hard, we just . . . did it. Like ripping that band-aid off all in one go. Everyone knew that getting rejected was a possibility, and I think everyone understood why certain stories didn’t make the cut.

VENTRELLA: When editing an anthology, do you ever do any rewriting of the stories submitted yourself?

PALMATIER: All of the stories in the anthology were edited, of course. Neither Patricia nor I do what I would call “rewriting” though. Each of us reads the story and we compare notes on what we thought and how we think the story could be improved. One of us then sends out our notes about suggested revisions (we divide the authors up into two teams —- Team Patricia and Team Joshua). It’s up to the authors to revise the story, with the idea that at this stage there’s still a chance that the story will be cut if the revisions aren’t satisfactory. But all of our authors have reacted professionally to our suggestions, so we’ve never had any trouble. I think everyone realizes that we all want the best stories possible in the anthology and we’re all working toward that one goal. I think both anthologies are spectacular.

VENTRELLA: What resources do you use in creating your fantasy worlds?

PALMATIER: I use everything when creating my fantasy worlds. *grin* By this, I mean that I use bits and pieces of many different cultures all tweaked to fit the circumstances of the world where these characters and these stories are being told.

For example, in the “Well” series, I have three main cultures clashing on the plains. The human culture has aspects from the settlers who were setting out into the American West, but it’s obvious that they aren’t those settlers. For their homeland, I meshed numerous European cultures. The dwarren are reminiscent of some of the American Indian cultures, but various additions of my own, enough that I wouldn’t say they’re based on any one particular culture. What I’m trying to capture is a flavor, but I want that flavor to be unique —- familiar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to intrigue the reader.

Of course, you need to be familiar with numerous cultures in order to do this well. I wouldn’t say that I have any particular resources for this. I simply read and absorb as much about other cultures as I can.

VENTRELLA: With so many fantasy novels out these days, what have you done to make your series stand out from the rest? What’s different about them?

PALMATIER: Hmm . . . well, I’d like to think the writing. But, I also try to make the characters as interesting as possible and play around with the magic.

I think for a fantasy, you really need to pay attention to the magic and think about what makes your magic different from everyone other fantasy novel out there. In the “Throne” series, I have two main magical components that I focus on — the White Fire and the Skewed Throne. These two magics are obvious: the White Fire is a wall of white flame that passes through the city for a second time during Varis’ lifetime (it passed through once before 1000+ years ago). No one knows what this Fire is, but it touches and affects everyone in various ways. For Varis, a piece of the Fire appears to settle inside of her and she eventually learns how to use it. The Skewed Throne is designed to store all of the personalities of those who have touched it inside, so that the ruler has the ability to access this information and knowledge and, in theory, become a better ruler. The problem is that in Varis’ time, there are so many personalities stored inside the throne that it has essentially gone insane. For the “Well” series, I have the water inside the Well of Sorrows as the main magical component. This water gives the person who drinks it limited powers over time, but it also taints the drinker and eventually alters them into . . . something else.

These are the key elements that I think make my fantasy different than other fantasy novels out there. But again, that isn’t enough on its own. I think my books are darker and more realistic than other fantasies on the shelf at the moment, and I think that if you don’t have interesting, relatable characters, then all the cool magic in the world isn’t going to save you.

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

PALMATIER: Wow, that couldn’t have been a better segue if I’d planned it. So, yeah, the characters are incredibly important. People won’t keep reading if they don’t care about the characters, no matter how interesting the magic or the plot. Everyone wants someone to root for. I don’t think there are too many tricks to creating believable characters though. The only real technique is to get inside of that character’s head and to seriously ask exactly what it is that the character would do in such a situation. It isn’t easy, and it takes practice to get yourself into that headspace (because it’s a slightly different headspace for each character), but you literally need to “become” that character for those scenes. You have to put yourself in that person’s world and feel them. At least, that’s how I do it. What would they think, what would they say, what would they do in this situation? Those are the key questions you have to ask in every scene.

VENTRELLA: What is your background? How did you decide to become a writer?

PALMATIER: Well, I decided to become a writer in the 8th grade, when an English teacher assigned us a “Twilight Zone” story and I wrote a rip-off of the Atlantis story with spaceships. But the teacher’s comment was, “This is good, you should write more.” I think that’s the first time it seriously crossed my mind that PEOPLE WROTE THE BOOKS I WAS READING! And that person could be me! It was a stunning revelation. I immediately began writing, doing short stories for Andre Norton’s MAGIC IN ITHKAR series (even though I never sent anything in) and eventually sitting down to write a typical “me and all my friends get transported to a fantasy world!” kind of story. It sucked of course, and I never finished it. But it was the first effort at writing something longer, and it taught me that writing wasn’t easy. I started my first SERIOUS effort at a novel shortly after that, and that one I finished (even though it sucked).

I never really had a “background” in writing. My degrees are in mathematics (something has to pay the bills) and I never really took any particular writing classes for the sole purpose of “learning” to write. I took a few creative writing classes in college, mostly for the elective credit. Everything else I taught myself.

VENTRELLA: You’re a math professor, right? Don’t those kinds of nerds usually end up writing hard science fiction?

PALMATIER: Ha! Yeah, science fiction. I think there are two reasons that I don’t write science fiction. The first is that, as a reader, I was never really drawn to science fiction. Everything I read when I was younger leaned more toward fantasy. I “discovered” fantasy and science fiction by accidentally checking out an Andre Norton book from the library. After that I was hooked. I read everything of Andre Norton’s I could get my hands on . . . but even then I gravitated toward her fantasy, not her SF. So I was a fantasy reader early on. It only made sense that I’d want to write fantasy on my own.

The other reason I write fantasy and not SF, I think, is because I needed something totally different from the mathematics to focus on while in grad school. The writing was, essentially, my “break” from all of the hardcore equations. In fact, it was such a break that Varis, my main character in the “Throne” books, hated mathematics. So when I got tired of the math, I’d switch gears and focus on the writing and the fantasy; and when the writing slowed down, I turned back to the fantasy. I think they complemented each other rather well.

In fact, I think the structure that’s the basis of mathematics helped me write better fantasy novels—keeping the plot in line and not scattered, keeping the magic realistic, with rules of its own, etc. And the fantasy helped the mathematics as well, since you need to be creative and think “out of the box” in order to come up with new ways to solve previously unsolved problems (which is what you do for your dissertation in math—solve something no one has solved before).

VENTRELLA: What was the biggest mistake you made in your career?

PALMATIER: I think the biggest mistake I made was writing the sequel to my first novel when it hasn’t sold yet. You see, I wrote that first novel and started sending it out to agents and editors. But it was the first book in a trilogy (of course), and I was so confident that it would sell that while it was out doing the rounds I worked on the sequel and got it finished. But of course, that first novel never sold. So I wasted a year of writing working on the sequel, when I should have been writing a different book completely in case that first book didn’t sell. Looking back on it, it’s obvious, but at the time I had no clue. I may have gotten published earlier if I hadn’t lost all of that time.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the biggest mistakes starting authors make in their writing?

PALMATIER: Well, I still see people making that same mistake I made: writing that sequel when the first book hasn’t sold yet. You should work on something else, because then you have another novel to shop around, and if that first book sell you can still write the sequel. But the biggest mistake I see aspiring writers making is that they don’t take the time to do the research you need to do before you start sending manuscripts out there. Every writer needs to sit down and research the publishers and editors and get a good idea of who they’d like to publish their work. Make a list, with their top choice down. Do the same for agents, paying particular attention to make certain the publisher and agents are legitimate. Do a second list for top agent down. Research each one to see what they want from the writer (some want just a query letter, some want a partial, some will take the full manuscript, etc). Make certain the manuscript is in the proper format. Once all of this research is done, then send out the manuscript. All of this research won’t take up much time (in comparison to the time it took to write the manuscript in the first place) and it makes your submission professional. Publishers want good books first and foremost . . . but they’re also looking to work with someone who approaches them in a professional manner.

VENTRELLA: What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you first began writing?

PALMATIER: I think I was rather lucky in that I did get good advice pretty much right at the start, and that advice was, “Have patience.” You won’t get a contract immediately. You’re going to get rejections, and you have to realize that the rejections aren’t personal. So you have to accept the rejections (with perhaps some wine or chocolate and a few good writer friends for support) and persevere. Keep sending that manuscript out, submitting down your list, and keep writing that next project. Because by the time you get through your list, if you keep writing, you’ll have another novel ready to send out. By then you’ll have a revised list based on the rejections you’ve gotten, and that revised list gives you a better chance of success.

Joshua and I on a panel together at the 2012 Arisia convention

Leggo My Ego

I’ve found that the writers I’ve met fall into two categories:

First, there are the brooders who think they’re no good. “I can’t stand what I’ve written! I refuse to look at it again. No one will buy this book, because I’m such a terrible writer!”

Then there are the egotists who think they can do no wrong. “This is a masterpiece! It’s the best book ever written! It’s sure to be a best seller and be made into a movie!”

You know where I’m going with this, right? That the truth is that there are some absolutely terrible and amazingly talented writers in each group?

Still, the problem comes in recognizing yourself if you fall into one of these categories, and then learning to take a step back and trying to view your own work objectively. That’s not easy.8

It’s always difficult for any creative person to look at their own work and analyze it fairly. And that’s understandable. Your children are smarter, prettier, and more talented than everyone else’s children, right?

I, unfortunately, tend to fall into the second category too often. I finish a story and go “Wow! This is great! I can’t see any way to improve upon what I have just written!” I get all excited — and then I’m crushed when I receive rejection letters.

What has helped me is a good editor who can knock some sense into me from time to time and bring me back to earth. Usually the changes she suggests make me go “Now why didn’t I see that the first time?” (I’ve discussed how and why an editor is important before, by the way.)

It is important to have a healthy ego and be proud of your work. It’s what keeps you striving and happy, in my mind. I think many authors in that first group never get very far because they are not confident in their own work to promote it properly.

But at the same time, you have to know your limitations. I am perfectly aware that I am not a great writer — but I am very proud that I am a good writer! I can be proud of my characters and my plot twists and the way I keep my story moving while acknowledging that I am still learning the techniques to make it read even better.

Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author John Ringo

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am honored to be interviewing New York Times bestselling author John Ringo, who will be the Guest of Honor at this year’s Ravencon convention. (I’ll be there, too!)

John has has over two million copies of his books in print, and his works have been translated into seven different languages. His books range from straightforward science fiction to a mix of military and political thrillers.

You’ve had an interesting background. What made you decide you wanted to be a writer?

JOHN RINGO: My family tells me I’ve always written but you wouldn’t know it by my memory. I was always the kid who never turned in his essays. But I guess I’ve puttered at writing most of my life. And it’s better than a 9-5 job.

VENTRELLA: You’re also quite unique in that you did not collect a pile of rejection letters before your first novel was published. What’s the secret? Who did you bribe?

RINGO: Sigh. I need to just make a copy of this reply somewhere so I can cut and paste. 🙂

I wrote A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE in two chunks in the mid to late ’90s. It was the second “novel” I’d written. (The quotes are because neither the original version of HYMN nor my first novel were current novel length. And the ‘first story’ is never going to see the light of day.) When I’d finished, at least as well as I knew how at the time, I consulted ‘The Writer’s Digest’ then submitted it to Baen following all the submission requirements exactly. I’d already determined that it was more or less center of the lane for what they published.

I knew it would take months to even get reviewed so in the meantime I started on the sequel (one of my big suggestions to aspiring authors) and poked around on the Baen website. There I found one of the first ‘webforums’ (Baen’s Bar). Being a shy and retiring type, I, of course, just lurked. Hah! By the end of the first month I was one of the top three posters. 🙂

Another top poster was Jim Baen. He’d been active on the internet practically since it was opened to private and business use and he actively involved himself in the discussions. Which meant we were trading frequent discussions (as well as japes, gibes and jousts.) One point to make is that I did not go on there saying ‘I’m an aspiring author! Read my manuscript!’ I just got involved in the discussions. But at one point there was a discussion going on on the Aquatic Ape Theory. Jim was a proponent. I said ‘I think you’re crazy but I have to be nice to you cause I’ve got a book on your slushpile.’ His response was ‘Marla! Find me this manuscript!’ I took that as a jest suggesting that he was going to shred it.

About a week later I got a rejection. Just a mailed form letter with the title (A HYMN BEFORE BATTLE) squeezed into the title blank in a woman’s hand.

By that time I knew enough about Jim that if he had rejected it he’d have sent a personal message. So I sort of put it aside (I think I threw it away, I wish now I’d kept it!) and continued work on the sequel. I knew by then that Lois Bujold had been rejected three times before she published so I wasn’t worried. I had a day job and I’d just keep plugging along until I got published.

A week after I got the rejection (two weeks after Jim’s comment) I got the first email I’d ever gotten from Jim. ‘Nobody can find your manuscript. Send me an rtf.’

I then wrote a really abject letter explaining that it had been rejected but that was planning on reworking it as well as I could and I understood if he didn’t want to override his first reader…

I didn’t know Jim very well at that point. When he read the manuscript he fired the person who rejected it. 🙂

Anyway, I sent him HYMN as well as as much as I’d finished of GUST FRONT. One point that had come up during the discussions was that publishers look for ‘more than a one trick pony.’ They want someone who is going to be able to keep putting out stories. So I wanted to show I had more than one book in me.

He read it then sent me a series of emails telling me what was wrong with it. And the last was ‘if you fix it the way I told you, I’ll buy it.’ (Yes, every aspiring author’s dream.) So I did and he did.

The denouement to the story occurred a few month’s later. Jim accepted HYMN in April of 1998. In August I was puttering around on the computer and got an email from Jim. (Ding! You’ve Got Mail! Remember those days?) 🙂 The email read ‘Your mss Gust Front stops in media res. You have ten minutes.’ 🙂

I’d mentioned that I’d sent ‘as much as I’d finished’ of the sequel to Hymn when I sent Jim the Hymn mss. Well, it was exactly as much as I’d finished. I was working on it at the time so it ended in the middle of a battle in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a prepositional phrase. The last word of the mss was ‘of.’. 🙂

Fortunately, I’d finished it by that time and I sent him the whole thing. And he bought that. It was also when he hooked me up with David Weber.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that someone can learn to be a good writer? In other words, can a distinction be made between the technical skill and the creative skill?

RINGO: I think that any competent person can learn to be a competent writer and sometimes that’s all it takes. To be a really good author, though, I think requires talent. That may seem pompous but… I love music. I listen to music all the time. I have a head for lyrics. I absolutely suck at music. I have zero talent. I can’t figure out how to play the most basic notes, I’m flat as a singer. I just really suck. So I leave the music to people with the talent and admire that talent but I don’t go inflicting it on people.

But talent alone is not enough. ‘How do I get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice.’ As I mentioned above, I wrote a ‘full’ really really crappy novel before HYMN. And, yes, lots of other stuff before that. (Even if I was lousy about turning in homework.) Figure that you’re going to write a million words before you’re good enough to be published. But don’t get freaked by that. Those ‘million words’ are all the letters you write, emails, blog discussions, essays, etc. If you write them well, you’re advancing in the craft. Go for leet and you’re setting yourself up for failure. (At least until novels are primarily published in leet. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What themes do you find yourself revisiting in your work that may pop up without planning?

RINGO: The competent individual trying to achieve goals using a system in which he has to use people who are below his level of competence to achieve those goals.

Real life in other words. 🙂

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you?

RINGO: The pallette. In SF you can pretty much create the starting environment and then work within that new millieu.

VENTRELLA: What science fiction stories (literature or movies) have inspired you?

RINGO: Heh. Either due to innate anti-socialness or the fact that I was always the ‘New Kid’, I grew up without alot of friends. Middle school and early HS was particularly bad. So I read instead of, you know, having a social life. So the list is…long.

Heinlein in general. (At least his earlier stuff.) The juveniles, STARSHIP TROOPER, obviously, the first part of TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE is probably my favorite book of all time. (The latter part being nearly my least favorite Heinlein.) Clarke’s DEEP RANGE was awesome. The list is endless.

VENTRELLA: Lately, fantasy has been outselling science fiction. Why do you think that is?

RINGO: Education. The educational system in the ‘West’ in general has been dumbed down so much that people’s brains aren’t well exercised. SF is designed to make people think. If you’re not used to that it, literally, hurts. A new thought causes increased blood flow to new areas of the brain. This is a good thing but it causes a slight headache. Since people’s brains aren’t broadly stressed by their education and day to day interactions reading SF gives them a headache.

In addition, alot of the traditional ‘core’ SF readers are now doing gaming instead of reading.

Combine the two and you have the relative success of fantasy.

However, thank God for it. For a while there nobody was reading. The population which graduated in the mid 80s into the late 90s contained a miniscule fraction of readers compared to newer graduates. Harry Potter has made reading ‘okay’ again. That’s a good thing.

VENTRELLA: Often, new writers are told to “write what you know.” This would seem to preclude anyone from ever writing science fiction or fantasy. Is this good advice at all?

RINGO: At one point it was suggested that I take over a writer’s workshop at a major convention. (Which idea I rejected.) But the joke was that the first thing I’d do is tell people to get some experiences. ‘The first writing exercise is to RUN to the top of this 22 story hotel! THEN BACK DOWN! When you get back I want a five hundred word essay on HOW YOUR FEET FEEL! MOVE IT MAGGOTS! MOVE IT! 🙂

What ‘write what you know’ means in SF is have a base of experience upon which to draw so as to more effectively tell the story and create the environment. I recently had to write a scene where a space welder is in an out-of-air situation. Have I ever been in an out-of-air situation in space? Nope. But I’ve been in one diving at least six times. (The last one during a cave dive which is why I now have claustrophobia.) So my big suggestion is always ‘Experience life. Then write. That way you’ve got something you ‘know.’

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? (Do you outline heavily or just jump right in? Do you tend to start with an idea, a character concept, or something else?)

RINGO: Generally I jump right in. But … The ideation for the story is usually solid from months and even years of thinking about and building scenes and concepts. And I generally start with a general idea and a scene. Then, in general, I have scenes that I write to, what I call ‘stringing the pearls.’ Those scenes (‘visions of fire’) are what drive me to keep writing and are, generally, the really good part of my books.

Sometimes stuff comes out of nowhere and requires itself to be written. INTO THE LOOKING GLASS, GUST FRONT, GHOST and THE LAST CENTURION are in that category. Those write themselves and write themselves fast. LOOKING GLASS was a couple of weeks, GUST FRONT (one of my longest books) was a couple of months while I was working, GHOST was a month, LAST CENTURION was seven net days. (153k words)

I love those.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

RINGO: UNTO THE BREACH. I don’t recommend the series. Despite it’s popularity (and it’s immensely popular) it’s not everyone’s cuppa.

But UNTO THE BREACH is outstanding. It’s one of the few books of mine I recommend. The last book that was that good was GUST FRONT but GF is weak in prose and grammar. (Early author mistakes.)

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few collaborations. What do you see as the advantage of doing so?

RINGO: For the junior author the advantages are several. They build market by introducing the new author to the established author’s fanbase. They help teach the craft of writing as well as working in the publishing industry. And you can generally get more money from doing a collab as a new author than your own work.

For the senior author they’ve got two or three values. They permit the author to get a story out there that they either don’t have time to write or don’t have quite the right skill set to write. (See ‘write what you know.’) And the senior author gets fairly good money for slightly less work than a full novel.

VENTRELLA: They have obviously worked out, as you continue to do them. Is it a truly collaborative effort, or does one author primarily do the writing and the other act as guide and editor? How do you divide up the responsibilities?

RINGO: Every collaboration is different. I’ve done collaborations where I wrote a 35k outline for the junior author, (THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS, HERO) one where it was the junior author’s idea and I took portions of it as well as teaching the craft of writing, (VON NEUMANN’S WAR) wrote most of it and left portions for the junior author to ‘fill in’ (Vorpal Blade series) to ones where I basically gave the junior author a vague concept and they ran with it. (TULORIAD.)

Every collaboration is different.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever run across unexpected controversy with your writing? If so, how have you dealt with it?

RINGO: Unexpected? No. I’m considered a ‘controversial conservative SF author.’ Not to mention GHOST, which… well, you just don’t get more controversial unless you’re a gangsta rappah under indictment for murder. How do I deal with it? Generally I try to swallow my rage and smile. Because with the exception of some of the stuff in the Ghost series, I really don’t see what I say, what my characters do and say, as particularly controversial, crazy, evil or illogical. I see the people who consider it ‘controversial’ as idiots and morons. (Whereas they view me as a ‘racist, homophobic, xenophobic, genocidal asshole’ in the words of Mercedes Lackey.)

So, mostly, I ignore it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve never shied away from political issues as well (nor have I) – we have had a few interesting discussions in this area. Do you think it is wise for authors to take stands which may alienate readers?

RINGO: As I said in a recent email to a family member, politics has become religion and there is virtually nothing which is not politicized. You can take the PC approach of having the enemy be alter versions of what the Left hates (the US military as in Avatar, Christians, middle-class white males) in which case you can alienate the core readers of SF. Or you can alienate the Left by being a human and American exceptionalist and having characters who, whatever their race, nationality, creed or sex, act in a traditional self-determinant manner and worry about PC after the Human Race has been saved.

Whatever people think, you don’t get the choice to not piss anyone off. ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’

VENTRELLA: Do you think this has affected your sales in any way? Do you care?

RINGO: If anything in the positive. My ‘controversial stands’ fit the market of my core writing. And, no, I don’t even if it’s in the net negative.

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

RINGO: Get an accountant.

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

RINGO: I tend to get sarcastic about this question. Impatience is one. There are alot of people out there that want to get published. Publishers who are even willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts are overwhelmed. So don’t think it’s going to be a fast process. Fill the time by writing your next book. Publishers also want people who have more than one book in you and if you’re a writer you’re going to want to write that one, too. Just write it. It may take years to get published. Unless you’re in your ’60s, you should have them. Be patient and keep writing in the meantime.

‘Puff reads.’ I made this mistake. After HYMN got accepted I asked Jerry Pournelle if he’d read it. He sent me a reply which at the time I took to be very rude to the effect that I’d asked him to do the most odorous chore of a professional writer so, no. Since then I’ve gotten to know more about Jerry and being asked to ‘read my manuscript’ and for Jerry he was being really damned polite.

There are authors who really enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t. Most don’t. So… please don’t ask. When we say ‘Yes’ we’re not really happy about it and when we say ‘No’ we feel like we’re dissing somebody’s baby. So … Don’t ask. Kay?

VENTRELLA: Finally: What’s the latest news on the possibility of movie adaptations? What other exciting scoops can you share?

RINGO: Zero. Nothing moving on that area. It sort of norks me that I’ve got 33 novels published or in the pipeline and so far I don’t have option or contract one. OTOH, given that I’m a ‘controversial conservative sf author’ (three strikes against me since even Syfy no longer does SF) I’m not really surprised. Just…norked. (Mildly irritated.)

Interview with Author P. N. Elrod

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

What is it about vampires that so attracts the public?

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Do they bother you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENTRELLA: Has it been a success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other writers will tell you the truth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with agent Marisa Iozzi Corvisiero

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Marisa Iozzi Corvisiero today.

Marisa is an attorney as well as an agent. She is the founder of The Corvisiero Law Practice, P.C., a boutique law firm in midtown New York City. She is actively building her client list and focusing on science fiction, fantasy, paranormal and romance, as well young adult and children’s literature. In non-fiction, she is interested in seeing proposals for memoirs, how-to (in any industry), guides and tales about the legal practice, parenting, self-help, and mainstream science. No text books please. She’s interested in reading your query and first fifteen pages (full book for children’s books – illustrations not necessary) to Marisa at marisa@lperkinsagency.com You can visit her agent blog at http://thoughtsfromaliteraryagent.blogspot.com and follow her on twitter @mcorvisiero.

I am always surprised to find so many fellow attorneys involved in the publishing industry, although usually I am interviewing fellow authors. I’m curious as to your start as an entertainment attorney and how that led to your becoming an agent – or did the agent thing happen independently?

MARISA IOZZI CORVISIERO: Becoming an agent sort of fell on my lap. It started with a favor for a talented fellow writer. I was writing a cross genre science fiction novel at the time, and started connecting with other authors, going to conferences, joined a critique group and so forth. Eventually, one thing led to another and I found my self sending in submissions for other writers through my law firm and really enjoying representing them.

Then one day, that one talented fellow writer said that he had rekindled a connection with a friend from grammar school, and just found out that she is now a literary agent. Not missing a beat, I asked him to introduce me to this Lori Perkins person, who sounded so fabulous. So he did, and after one conversation with Ms. Perkins, we both knew that we were meant to work together. She offered to mentor me, and to share her 23 years of experience and contacts in the industry with me. She said that after six months with her it would be like having a masters. Of course I agreed, and took on this opportunity of a life time. The six months came and went, and I’m still with the L. Perkins Agency, learning from the best.

VENTRELLA: Do you think having a legal background gives you an advantage over other agents?

CORVISIERO: I think that any additional skills or knowledge that one brings to the table gives one an advantage. Lawyers are trained to spot and solve issues, analyze, strategize, negotiate and draft legal contracts. These are very important skills for an agent, but I think that one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to posses these abilities. Most good agents out there have these skills. So I suppose that being a lawyer helps me be a good agent.

VENTRELLA: A query letter is very important for an author wishing to make an impression, but it seems that the skills necessary to write one are completely different from the skills needed to write a novel. How do you overlook a poor query letter to inspect the manuscript – or do you? (By “poor query letter” I do not mean one that contains misspellings or other obvious errors, but instead one that just does not grab your attention as it should.)

CORVISIERO: Query letters are very important. They not only showcase the author’s work, but also the author as a professional. If a query is sub-par, it is an indication of many things such as lack of attention, professionalism, skills, respect etc. I’ve written an entire blog entry on titled “Don’t Screw Up Your Query: You only get one change to make a good first impression”.

Let’s suppose for a moment that the query looks good, that there are no errors, it briefly describes the novel, says something about the author, provides genre and word count as well as a brief description of the target market and why this novel would appeal to them. If all of this works and the story line does not grab my attention I will consider not reading the work. At this point I ask my self if the storyline is interesting and unique. If not, I go back to the e-mail and type up a short decline letter and tell the author why I’m declining it. If it is interesting and unique, I go on to read a few pages. After that, if I like what I read, I ask for the full synopsis and/or the full manuscript.

VENTRELLA: How important is it for you to love the work in order to represent the client?

CORVISIERO: Very important. I only represent things that I love. My time is very limited and precious. I will not waste it on something that I don’t believe in. Even if it is selling.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever accept work that you believe has potential but needs major editing?

CORVISIERO: The short answer is yes. I have taken on a few diamonds in the rough and it usually pays off in the end. I can’t do this often due to time restraints, but if I see the potential in the work and the writer, I will go out of my way to help them.

VENTRELLA: Is there any story or plotline that you are sick of? Is there anything you wish you’d get more of?

CORVISIERO: I wouldn’t say that I’m sick of them, but I’m very conservative when it comes to vampire novels. One would think that the market is oversaturated with them, but they are still selling. So when considering a vampire story, it will need to be very unique or traditional with a unique plot. I mean seriously, enough with the clumsy but smart teen that falls in love with a vampire who simply can’t resist her. Been there, done that … let’s get creative people!

Which is a good segue into what I do want to see more of. I want good science fiction and urban fantasy. Throw in a good romance or attraction between the characters and I’m even happier. I want someone to send me a well written, fresh story with compelling characters, that will blow my mind. Give me the next Matrix, Harry Potter, Avatar, Mission to Mars, Abyss, Contact. See the pattern?

VENTRELLA: Do you think the vampire trend will end soon? (I hope not, given the manuscript I’m working on now.) Do you see anything new on the horizon?

CORVISIERO: The trend itself, or “frenzie” if you will, will most certainly end. Everyone is riding the coat tails of Stephanie and Charlene. But even after the demand for creatures of the night, or sparkling creatures of the day ends, there will still be market for vampires. I can’t think of a time longer than a couple of years, when a book or movie about vampires wasn’t released. I think its almost like a cycle. Every few years a hot vampire story emerges. Remember Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, Blade, Buffy, The Lost Boys, on and on through the years all the way back to Nosferatu in the 1920’s. People love vampires. And so I think that there will always be a market for them.

The problem is that vampires have been too glamorized. Made to seem almost human but for the need to drink blood, some even eat food and can go into the sunlight with an application of a special lotion (The Gates). Not to mention all the super powers. When I was reading Breaking Dawn (Stephanie Mayer’s 4th book) I kept thinking this is like vampires meets the X-men. So I think the key to a good new vampire story may be to bring it back to basics.

As for trends, we have gone from aliens, to vampires, to werewolves, to zombies, to fallen angels. Now there are talks about super heroes. I have personally seen some keen interest in mermaids. I’ve received at least two really good queries already. I may be the first to say it but I think that there is something there.

VENTRELLA: What do you love to read? Who are your favorite authors, and why?

CORVISIERO: Other than my fabulous clients, I would say that my favorite authors are Nora Roberts and Nicholas Sparks. Now, as you may imagine I read quite a bit and I love many, many authors, but I have to say that when it comes to Nora and Nick I enjoy them above all others. When I pick up one of their books, I know what I’m getting. I trust them. For instance, I know that any novel by Nicholas Sparks will probably make me weep and laugh, and it will provoke thoughts and promote some sort of emotional learning within me. He is fantastic at reaching the reader.

Nora Roberts is a whole different story. I call Nora “My good old reliable”. I know that I can buy any one of her books without even reading the jacket and I will like it. She is a pro at creating believable and intricate characters whom you want to follow through their journey to the end. I usually sprinkle one of her novels into my reading schedule after reading a number of manuscripts and other books. Once in a while “I need a dose of Nora”. When I saw Nora Roberts at RWA this past July I told her this, and I told her that she is one of the few writers that I trust explicitly with my time. She seemed very flattered, even though I’m sure she hears this all the time. And that makes me like her even more.

VENTRELLA: Some people advise authors to attend writer’s conferences specifically for the chance to meet agents and make pitches. Others say such a thing is useless unless the manuscript is finished. What is your opinion on writer’s conferences?

CORVISIERO: Conferences are wonderful, and writers should take every advantage of the resources and opportunities that they offer. If you can attend one or two a year, they should, even if the manuscript is not finished. Attending a conference gives authors the wonderful opportunity to meet other authors, agents, and editors. There is always something to be learned at the workshops. They are invaluable. I would however advice not to pitch a manuscript until it is finished. Also, to get more out of a conference choose one that suits the genre of your work.

VENTRELLA: How will the rise of e-publishing affect your business?

CORVISIERO: E-publishing is changing the industry to a point where sooner rather than later all books will be available as an electronic version. I’m not sure how long it will take until we stop cutting down trees to print books, but that’s something to ponder. This doesn’t affect my business significantly. Other than learning about the new e-publishers popping up everywhere, how they work, and how they like to be reached. Right now, if we sell a book only as an e-book, the advance will usually be lower than an advance from a traditional publisher would pay, but the royalties are higher, and so there is still a profit to be made for agents and authors. Either way its clear to me that e-publishing is the way of the future. As much as I love the feel of a book in my hands; the sound of the pages turning; and the smell of an old and well loved book, as well as that of a newly printed one; I still think that e-books will eventually dominate the market, if not replace it all together.

VENTRELLA: And finally, what general advice do you wish to give to aspiring authors that they may not have heard before?

CORVISIERO: I’m sure that this is not new advice, but I think that it’s good advice none the less. Writers should write what they know about, or what they are passionate about. Don’t write just to sell books, or to please people. Write to tell a good story, one that you’ve conceived. Enjoy the process, even if it means never selling your work. I know that it sounds ridiculous, but most of the great works were created by those with passion for the craft and not for money. The point is to reach the reader and whisk them into your imaginary world, where they will grow with the characters, suffer their pain, and experience their joy in the end when the conflict is resolved.

We are usually best at what we enjoy doing the most. So if you don’t enjoy writing, find a different hobby. Publishing is a tough industry. It is difficult to make good money. When you do, it’s wonderful. But don’t expect your writing to be an overnight best seller and bring you millions (it doesn’t happen that often). Don’t expect to sell your book and get an advance large enough to support you until you sell your next book. The odds are not in your favor. So don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. I had to say that because it’s always good to include a dose of reality. However, good things can happen, and they do. Just be prepared for the rejections and be persistent.

If this is really what you want to do, keep at it. Let every sentence be better than the previous one. Remember that success is a process and not a destination, so enjoy it and learn your lessons along the way. I urge you to never ever give up. If writing is your passion, and you enjoy it, don’t let anything anyone says discourage you from fulfilling your creative dream. Think big, shoot for the stars and when you look back you’ll do so to re-live your journey and not to dwell on missed opportunities!

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