Welcome back, fellow creatives! I hope spring brings you days of renewal and hope. I’m in a daze with all the conference work for university, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel! With the right music and support, I can pace myself to reach that light.
We all learned when we were wee that music carries a special storytelling power. Maybe there was that one movie soundtrack you listened to over and over again to relive your favorite scenes. Maybe there was a favorite musical where the songs of characters help tell the story, or an opera where the emotions of instruments and characters alike blended into one voice. I was very much a soundtrack child, but my father’s love of New Age music had its influences on me, too, and one album in particular got a play on our stereos: David Arkenstone‘s Quest of the Dream Warrior.
Now you may be wondering why I titled this blog post Two Steps from Hell and here I’m sharing New Age from the 90s. Hold yer hightops, I’m getting there.
In a highly, highly visually-charged culture like the U.S. of A., engaging in music that told a story–no stage, no movie, no book, just music–felt very unique to me as kid. Music like this feels more…more open to the possibility of telling multiple stories. Yes, Arkenstone had one story in mind when he composed the music, but because the visuals of the story were left to the audience, I felt like I could take those sounds and make a story of my own. (I did, too. It involved a band of bandits helping a kid thwart an evil sorcerer. At one point he became a giant eagle for coolness. Wonder where that story is…Anyway.)
This is where Thomas Bergersen comes in. Another kid from a small town, though his is in Norway. Just another soul who loved music. But while I enjoyed taking my lessons and then moving to words, Bergersen taught himself composition and orchestration. In the mid-2000s He partnered with Nick Phoenix, a composer based in the States, and together they created Two Steps from Hell. Their music has appeared in loads of movie trailers like Batman v. Superman, but I’d rather focus on their albums here, for what is this month of May but a time to celebrate the fantasy storytelling we love?
Yes, my friends, Wyrd and Wonder is back! Let us see how story-music of others may inspire your own storytelling.
Perhaps your characters are on a journey through a land of light and mystery. Perhaps danger runs as freely as the river alongside their road. Can’t you feel it in the strings, in the herald of the brass singing in the air?
Oh, don’t let the synth take you out of this moment. One of my favorite elements of Two Steps from Hell is their ability to bring voice and synth together with the orchestra. There is a timelessness here, a genre-bending that allows the music to reach those in the future, the past, or an Elsewhere altogether.
Like the sea. Perhaps your characters are not upon the land at all, but upon the water, their ship leaping with the crest of every tumultuous wave as they close in upon the enemy before it can attack the innocents ashore.
Fear is cast overboard as your characters take to the cannons, take to the ropes, take to the enemy’s hull and climb, swords divine with sunlight as they battle the enemy from hull to stern.
Two Steps from Hell have several albums available, and I wish dearly I could review them all here. While all albums are epic, each also carries its own identity. Dragon brings such an air to it through the strings without synth, for instance, while Skyworld embraces that synth to add the presence of technology to the setting. Dragon‘s trilling strings show us the dragon wings beating in large, sweeping motions. It cuts the clouds as the warring windjammers upon the water. When the violins run their scales downwards, you know the dragon is diving…to aid? To conquer? It is up to you, storytellers.
For that is the joy of music such as this. It is up to us to create the story, to share what we see when the story is told. Whether the story takes us on a journey of swashbuckling under the sun or through the shadowed realm of our own grief, music guides us into the unknown on wings of hope.
These are the days where we celebrate Impossiblity’s rightful place in our imaginations. All is never truly lost if we take heart. Even the courage of one soul can be enough to vanquish the darkness and rise a legend.
I’m really excited to share my pilot podcast episode next week! We’ll study the story-starts of some fantasy books throughout May–for of course we must–and hopefully by the end of May we’ll know if this hair-brained scheme of mine is, um, you know, going to work, and what have you.
I’ve got a publisher interview coming up as well as some ponderings about names and the importance of oral storytelling in the home. Blondie is also finishing up the illustrations for her story to share here about The Four Realms, which makes my heart smile.
A good morrow to you, my fellow creatives! The cold clouds of April blanket my Wisconsin skies these days. The world is a palette of tans and browns, the wee specks of new green, new life, just barely peeking.
There is, however, always new life to be found in our words. I’m excited to share an indie author who has planted a number of stories across multiple publications. My friends, please welcome Rob D. Scott!
Let’s work through the niceties first. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!
I live in Edinburgh and work in a community college. I only started creative writing three years ago, which is crazy. I should have started years ago. That’s life.
It was winter and a period of really awful weather. I started writing a novel for something to do and out of curiosity. I enjoyed it, so kept going. I read books about writing, did a short on-line course, and started submitting short stories to on-line magazines and competitions while I worked on my first novel (which is now hiding in a cupboard). I’ve started a second one, which will hopefully turn out much better.
I find a lot of writing inspiration in the rural landscape of my state, Wisconsin. How would you say the urban setting of Edinburgh—or the countryside of Scotland—inspire your storytelling?
Edinburgh is a beautiful, amazing city and so many writers have used it. I haven’t that much yet. The countryside is more likely to find their way into my stories.
I usually start a new piece of writing using a memory (recent or distant) of a place or moment; that might be in the city or countryside. I write it almost as a factual description and the story develops from there. Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about fossils that writers dig up and that’s what I feel I do. Once I find the right fossil, it soon turns into fiction; (to mix my metaphors) it’s like a paper ship floating down a stream. I just go with it and see where it goes. I might have an idea where it’ll end up, but not always.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
When I was twenty-one, I went for a job interview in a town at the other end of the country just so I could visit the Thomas Hardy museum there. That’s not very ethical – especially as they paid for my travel and a hotel! I was first in the museum in my horrible new interview suit and I lingered there too long and was late for the interview. I didn’t get the job, but the museum was great and the countryside from the train ride was amazing. I had forgotten all about that. I should write that up as a story!
Someday, I’ll visit the USA and go to lots of writers’ houses and museums. Carson McCullers is a big favourite, so I would maybe head down there first.
As you should! 🙂 Nothing saps my creativity like a telephone call from my children’s school principal. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
I really have no excuses not to produce thousands of words every day. I work but I have free time; especially in lockdown. I am amazed how people with busy lives and family responsibilities (like yourself) manage to write.
Although I don’t think I could live without it now, writing is not the top of my priorities. Work, other people, a day in the countryside, a trip to the cinema, etc make me put down my pen. Life comes first, writing second.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I just absolutely love this Ray Bradbury quote:
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
As an amateur/beginner writer, this makes a lot of sense, and is great advice – I guess for successful authors as well. We’re all different – so just do your thing. Give it your best shot. Try to find something that’s meaningful to you in some way to keep yourself going through the trickier times.
Your encouragement here reminds me of the theme of hope I see in your flash fiction “Goodbye, Frenetikov.” The beautiful level of detail in the beginning uniquely balances with the uncertainty felt in the end. Do you find yourself drawn to themes uplifting to readers, or do you take readers into the darker feeling as well?
Thank you for your comments. I wrote a few very sad stories during lockdown. I think I’m out of that, now. In fact, I’ve just started writing a longer piece, and before I started, I decided that it should be something with a very positive theme. If I am going to spend the next few months on it, given what’s happening in the world right now, I feel that’s where I would like to spend my writing time.
In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. (“You Die If You Worry” comes to mind.) Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?
I am very much learning the craft and that there are many different ways to produce a successful short story. The word-length requirements (e.g. 300, 500, 750, 1000, 1500, 2000) can influence the plan. I usually write the story to its best, natural length and worry about where to submit to later.
If I pick up a collection of published short stories, what strikes me is the quality of each line, the language. So that is the number one goal for me; the quality of each sentence, the appeal and magic of the jumble of words. For the structure, I really only think in terms of a beginning, middle and ending. You get in the car, start it up, go for a drive and stop somewhere. Apart from that, there is so much variety in short fiction – anything goes. For example, you might have no dialogue or almost all dialogue in a story.
With very short fiction it can be frustrating not being able to fully flesh out character, setting etc, in the way a novel allows you to, but equally that provides much of the fun and challenge of the form – perhaps like poetry – to find evocative/resonant ways to hint at what’s missing, the spaces in between.
You are published in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Do you have any favorites you’d like to recommend?
The ones that accepted me are the best, of course!
HA! Sorry, go on. 🙂
There really is something for every taste out there. Much of my experience of the writing for the literary world has been for on-line magazines. The creativity and quality right across the board is very impressive.
I have to say Popshotmagazine is just a beautiful object, as well as the great writing. It’s a lovely paper magazine with poetry, fiction and illustrations. I was lucky to get in there once. They commissioned an illustrator to produce something to accompany my short story, which was just amazing – that someone would do that.
Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll have to check them out. What would you consider to be common traps for aspiring writers? I imagine there are a few when it comes to short fic submissions.
I had to learn a lot about the technical side of things – voice, point of view, plot and so on. I think it’s good to remember there is a lot to learn (I notice in your other interviews, writers say this, too).
In terms of submitting to litmags, not understanding at first why you get so many rejections can prove very disheartening. And it would be a great shame if beginner writers gave up because of that.
You learn that you have to know your audience and the market to give yourself a chance, so submitting to the right sort of magazines is important. That means reading the stories in the magazines to guess if yours might work for them, which is both enjoyable and a great way to learn from other writers’ work.
I must mention editors here because they really are the superheroes, along with their ‘readers’. They often do the job for love not money and are the people who choose your story. So be nice to them! And when you submit, follow all of their guidelines very carefully about format, word length and so on.
If you’re lucky they will help and even give a little advice. For some reason, I’ve found sci-fi editors to be especially supportive – or perhaps they’re just super-skilled at letting people down gently! I’ve been trying to ‘find a home’ for a couple of sci-fi stories since I started writing, with no luck. When I started, I kept a folder of ‘nice rejections’ to cheer myself up when the piles of rejections got too much.
I think one useful tip is that if there is a ‘themed call’ for an issue, you might have a better chance with that if you have a story to fit the theme.
As an indie author who is also having a go at lit mag submissions, I’d love to ask about your process in searching magazines and sending multiple pieces. Do you find yourself writing your stories first and then finding magazines that fit the story, or do you scope out the magazine themes first and then craft stories to fit them? I noticed you recently published in a “lockdown” themed anthology, for example.
Good luck with your submissions.
I usually write my story then look for a place to submit. The word length is a big decider on where to submit to, along with the house-style of the magazine.
Calls for submissions for a themed issue – with prompts such as ‘Road trip’, ‘First love’ or ‘Winter’ – can be a great way to get going on a story that you can end up submitting to more than one place or developing into something longer. The theme of the ‘Lockdown’ anthology I was published in fitted with something I was writing at the time and I spotted their call.
The submission pages are crucial. They describe the type of story they are looking for and often say ‘read some of our stories to get a feel of what we’re looking for’. That’s a must, but it’s also great to read the stories. You mentioned, Jean, that you’re inspired by the countryside – there are litmags that have a specific focus on that.
After three years of submitting, I have a much better idea of who might consider or accept a particular type of story.
Having said all of that, it is an amazing, random-feeling process, of being in the right place, at the right time, with a story that appeals to a particular editor, in terms of what they are looking for right then. Getting published anywhere – no matter how big or small – is an enormous thrill, but of course you set targets and have favourites you aim to get into.
Receiving acceptances are tremendously encouraging and validating. There really is nothing else like it. There’s more than a little ego and pride involved there, of course. But, it’s also reward for hard work and effort. And for not giving up.
Let’s wrap up with a little inspiration. Writing and reading can, to me, be a transformative experience. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes, in a way. It is certainly a deeply personal process, and also both reflective and instinctive. I often find it quite meditative, even therapeutic. It can be fulfilling and quite emotional at times – as you go through your imagined characters’ experiences. Although it’s a solitary activity you are very engaged with memories and thoughts of other people and the world.
Maybe it sounds corny, but I think words and the way they can be strung together really are magical. It expresses who we are.
Making the connection with a reader is very special too – even if you never meet them beyond a ‘like’ on Twitter or Facebook, or a purchased magazine. The thought that people read your work and find something interesting, rewarding, enjoyable makes the whole process more of a communal, shared activity. It must be great to have people buy your book because they know your work and love your characters. That’s something to aim for in future, for me.
A beautiful encouragement we all should aspire to, Rob. Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts here!
I’m super stoked to share an interview from a new SFF publisher as well some amazing music to inspire the epic adventurer within you. There’s also a side project of mine in the works that is so close to “publication”…
Every semester I encourage my newest group of students to read for fun to improve their writing skills, but then here I am, not getting much reading in. Oh, I’d just tell myself the excuse that if I commit to a book, I want to get something out of it as a reader and a writer, and how am I to know what book will give me that? I’ll just watch what my favorite book bloggers recommend and just go from there.
But that doesn’t force me to commit to reading, and that’s just not cool. Sure, time has always been that elusive treasure in this life as a mother, teacher, and writer. That’s not an excuse, though. Besides, there are plenty of other writers with jobs who don’t have much time to read and–
And so, I decided to start a podcast.
Please watch for updates in May while I get this wee podcast off the ground. x
I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)
My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.
Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.
Except, for me, the Ashippuns.
Let me explain.
First, there would be Old Ashippun.
Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.
Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.
Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?
I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.
Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?
It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.
And I knew what I needed to write.
See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.
We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”
You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”
All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.
Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.
They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…
Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”
There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.
I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.
Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.
I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.
Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.
Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?
But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.
HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.
This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.
I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!
But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.
The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”
THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.
So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.
Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.
More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…
Hello hello, fellow creatives! I hope you are well and safe where you are. As a friend of mine said on Facebook, Wisconsin seems to be stuck in a snow globe that some cosmic child keeps shaking.
Winter may be magical, but I think we’re all up for a different kind of magic, wouldn’t you say? Let’s add some fantastic wonder to our writing and reading lives with the help of the ever-magical dark fantasy author Ronel Janse van Vuuren.
Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts, Ronel, as well as your stories. I see you’ve got a stunning free ebook available for those who sign up for your newsletter.You describe Unseenas a trio of stories that dive into folklore about the mistress of the veil. I love how deep you dig into folklore and mythology to craft unique stories for modern readers. What kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Thank you. I get an idea for a story. Then I flip through one of my folklore books (whichever one catches my eye that day) and I’ll read through the entries until something clicks. Then I’ll go and research whatever I found on sacredtexts.com where all the books about folklore and mythology that have lapsed copyright live online. To keep everything organised and backed up, I’ll create a blog post about it (even if it’s something that has to be scheduled for two years from now) and look at how the thing was used recently in books, movies or games. It takes about two days to do all the research for a blog post and to write it. So, for example, for “Once and Future Queen” there’s the background of the Rift, Faerie, Seelie and Unseelie Courts, Solitary Fae and magic (all which already have their place in previous books and are all fully researched with blog posts written). But the Season Courts and the Elementals were only vague ideas when I planned this book. So four days for the folklore.
But I also used acid attacks, pottery, police procedure, and gardening in the book. I didn’t have to do much research on gardening – only the meaning of flowers – or any research on police procedure (know enough from personal experience). Which left acid attacks and pottery. Both subjects can pull you down the Pinterest rabbit hole. For the acid attacks, though, I just stick to following @stopacidattacks on Instagram because there are so many resources – and heart-breaking photos.
So for “Once and Future Queen”, I took a week to research everything I needed to know before writing. Plotting is a whole other beast!
Noooo kidding. I was just working on a synopsis for a new trilogy, and worldbuilding the hazy bits is EXHAUSTING.Do you consider plotting to be the toughest part of your artistic process, or would it be something else?
To stop dreaming and to start doing. I create all these stories in my head, talking to characters for hours – and then I remember that I can’t plug a USB cable into my head and download the story to my computer, I actually have to type it. And my head works a lot faster than my fingers (despite typing at a crazy speed that means replacing my keyboard three times a year).
Heavens, that’s a lot of keyboards! I wish I could type that fast, but I get distracted by kids learning from home…or a phone call from the principal when they’re at school. (Sigh) That just does my creativity in. What is your writing Kryptonite?
Shiny new ideas. And stationary! Weird, but these can keep me distracted from what I’m actually working on. I shouldn’t be left alone anywhere that notebooks, pens or anything else deemed “stationary” can be found. I even have a Pinterest board about stationary… https://za.pinterest.com/miladyronel/got-to-love-stationary/
Ha! This is why I can’t hang out in used bookstores or at library sales. I’m always distracted by the possibilities! You mention another big struggle with focus, though, regarding your ADHD, especially after you published your first book. How did publication change your process of writing?
Yes! First, I had to rein in my ADHD. It meant that I had to change the set-up of my writing cave (desk faced away from windows, drapes drawn during the day, internet access hidden until nightfall, phone set to aeroplane mode, etc.) to optimise focus. Then I had to work out an editorial and a writing calendar. It took some time, but I finally have one that is flexible enough to be changed if I have sick days (I hate getting flu because someone two streets away sneezed) or if I get the chance to join an online writing summit (the Women in Publishing Summit the first week of March every year is well-worth attending). I’m usually six months ahead with my work. Before I made this shift, I would jump from project-to-project never finishing anything – I still have folders full of half-finished ideas that I’m turning into amazing stories.
I have quite the list of half-finished ideas, too. Heck, some of them are even on this site, if one wishes to check outWhat Happened when Grandmother Failed to Die. 🙂 Would you say writing energizes you, or does it exhaust you?
Planning, plotting and researching are energising phases, mainly because it’s all new and shiny – and I can do it in any order which suits my ADHD quite nicely. Writing, on the other hand, is exhausting. Not only does it require me to slip into the mind and skin of the character, feeling what the character is feeling, experiencing what the character is experiencing, and going through time at hyperspeed, it also takes a lot out of me mentally, emotionally and physically to be in that mental space for hours at a time (and it’s painful on my carpal tunnel, leaving me with swollen hands at the end of the writing day). For example: after writing one complete story line in one sitting in “Once and Future Queen”, I was in tears à la Joan Wilder in the opening scene of “Romancing the Stone”. Yeah. Hopefully readers will have the same reaction.
I think we all hope our books pull at something deep within our readers, just as other books have done to us. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel and why?
“Ushig” by Annemarie Allan is my favourite novel that seems to be invisible on Goodreads. I bought it a decade ago on an online store (as a paperback – I love paperbacks!) and it was so dark and thrilling I just had to read it again to figure out whether I liked or hated it. It introduced me to the Celtic water horse, the ushig, and made me want to learn more about the different types of water horses across cultures.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Unfortunately, yes. For a long time, almost a year, I struggled to read. I pretended that it was because of bad grammar or something silly story-wise that pulled me from the book, but it was as if I just couldn’t read. Then I found this amazing series about faeries by another South African author and it was like coming up for air. Maybe the books are better in my head than they actually are, but after reading three (there are nine primary works and three companion books) I felt like I loved reading again. So I space reading the books out in case reading becomes dull again (it took me two years doing it like that to read the entire series).
Thank you for the recommendation! Such books really motivate us to find the settings that inspire their authors. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I’ve done virtual pilgrimages to New Orleans (vampires, am I right?), several locations in France (the Bastille, anyone?), and Bath (Jane Austen knew her stuff). My first literary pilgrimage happened by chance when I was a tween: I read this amazing book I had borrowed from the school library (can’t remember the title, though it had something about running in it) and it mentioned a local stadium. A few weeks later, my primary school had a sporting event there and I could see the characters from the book competing in their final sprint. It was absolutely amazing. One day I’d like to do those virtual tours in person so I can experience the physical and imaginary spaces meet as I did that day when I was twelve.
YES–I’d love to visit the lands that inspire my favorite stories. Folks, if there is a place you would love to visit on a literary pilgrimage, please share it in the comments below! Now, back to writing. You write a good deal of fantasy, both in series form and as standalone stories. Series writing is often the “hot” thing to do from a marketing perspective, but let’s face it–a lot of stories can be told in one book! Can you describe your process for choosing whether a story requires one book or more?
With my current on-going series, the decision was made to do several short books as it isn’t conforming to any publishing norms: the first book (for free on most online retailers) has a couple of flash fiction pieces (defined as a story shorter than a thousand words) followed by the folklore from original (very old!) sources. It serves as an introduction to the series. The second book, exclusive to newsletter subscribers, contains three connected short stories followed by a bit of folklore. Books three and four are flash fiction collections, books five, six and seven are short story collections, books eight, nine and ten are novellas, and the last five will be even longer as they connect storylines from all the books before them.
Readers will either love or hate this way of telling the story. But with so many storylines and characters that tell the bigger story, it was the best way for me to tell it and for readers to consume it (in bite-size pieces). I’ll probably release a box-set when all the books are done (hopefully by the end of this year!).
But for other stories, I stick with one escalating problem per book. In “Magic at Midnight”, Amy saving her pegasi no matter the cost was the core problem, everything else just sort of happened and anything that would have dragged the story beyond one book was cut. There might be more books set in that universe at a future date, but then the series will be connected through a shared universe, not because Amy’s story was dragged out.
Personally, I like to look at TV series to see when they’re dragging a thing out too long. For example: “The Vampire Diaries” ends perfectly at the end of season four when Damon and Elena end up together. The point of the series was to get her to choose her true love between the Salvatore boys, and when she chose the Salvatore I liked, it should have ended. Torturing Damon in season five, Elena being removed from the series in season six, mama Salvatore coming to town in season seven, and the Sirens in season eight were all filler until Damon and Elena end up together anyway. The point? Know what your story is about and cut anything that doesn’t belong.
Excellent advice! There are many traps for writers aspiring and established alike, and we all fall into them at some point. What are the worst you’ve seen?
Most traps are set in “everyone knows” or strongly believing something because it is “what everyone says.” As you move deeper into the writing world and especially the dark side, as Mark Dawson calls indie publishing (he’s a big-name indie author, FYI), you learn that you have to forge your own path and do things your own way. But here are the biggies that is especially prevalent among South African aspiring writers and I believe everywhere else:
Believing that being published through a big publishing house is the only right way to be published.
Believing that having an online presence as an author shouldn’t be done until a publisher tells you to do so.
Being so desperate to have that publishing deal, that they’ll sign their rights away without thinking twice.
These are definitely major assumptions we’ve got to work on changing. Considering your experience in writing and publishing, what would you say is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Two I would warn about, though, as they aren’t talked about enough.
Reviewers asking for money. It happens. It’s even acceptable in some places. Even on BookSirens (the best place to find reviewers in one spot) has good reviewers asking for a fee. But here’s the thing: Amazon doesn’t like paid reviews. And if a reviewer contacts you because “they love the blurb and the cover is so gorgeous” you shouldn’t feel flattered: just delete the email. This was a costly lesson. Not only didn’t the reviewer deliver on her end (despite shining testimonials and seeing all the proof that it is money well spent), she got my surname wrong. Building your own review team organically is the best way to get honest, proper reviews for your books.
Sponsors of competitions offering more services for your book. Look, at first I didn’t think twice about it. I knew nothing about indie publishing and thought the amount the “self-publishing with support” company was asking to convert my book into an ebook was reasonable (the prize of printed books I’d won was worth more than twice that). The promises of promotion and all the other things that sound good (getting your book into a brick-and-mortar store) didn’t happen. And despite telling them what the price for the ebook should be, I found it for five times the price on the (only) store they’d published it to. With Amazon, you can easily convert your own ebooks (with Kindle Create) and your paperbacks (either with Kindle Create or with their templates) for free, you can hire freelancers on Upwork to do it for you, and you can format your ebooks easily on Draft2Digital for free. It doesn’t have to cost as much as the printing of a couple dozen books – for an epub “that you can load to Amazon” (tip: Amazon prefers mobi or Kindle Create (kpf) files).
Thanks you SO much for taking time to chat with me, Ronel! Let’s wrap up with a little marketing advice that helps fellow indie authors avoid those unethical practices and helps them connect their stories to readers. What have you found to work with marketing your own books?
Being authentic. Readers want to connect with the person behind the words. It’s not always easy. I mean, going through the process of your furbaby dying is excruciating enough without sharing it on Instagram, but sharing those real moments in your life help readers to feel like they really know you. The same with sharing a new haircut. Some things are off-limits, like the parts of my life connected to others who don’t want to be on the internet, but I share enough without over-sharing. It works a lot better than doing cover reveals, blog tours and all the other “must-do” marketing things put together. (Though I still love doing cover reveals and blog tours.)
Happy December, one and all! I think we would all love to enjoy some stories with our morning dish of treats, wouldn’t you say?
Luckily I have just the thing.
As I was researching the murky world of network marketing (aka, multi-level marketing) for my short story “The Hungry Mother,” I came across an indie author who spreads awareness of networking marketing’s scams while also writing YA novels and books dedicated to rescue dogs and funding rescue shelters. My friends, please welcome Savy Leiser!
Let’s jump first into how hard you help promote other writers and voices. I was deeply moved by your June video on OwnVoices and Diversity in fiction. You emphasize the vital role sensitivity readers play in bringing a story to bookshelves—and how publishing companies need to pay more attention to them. Have you noticed any shifts in the publishing world to be more inclusive, or no?
Thank you! I’m glad you liked that video. From my perspective, I’d say yes, there has been a shift to be more inclusive. However, I’m always cynical regarding big corporations. A lot of the pushes for diversity by larger publishing houses seem to be performative. I recently posted a video called “Books I’m Reading for Bisexual Visibility Day,” and after reading A LOT OF BOOKS, I noticed a consistent pattern: the books that were self-published or published by small presses had way better representation. I think a lot of times, big publishers study and adapt to market trends (which is reasonable from a business perspective) but a lot of the push for inclusion comes from indie authors writing what they want to write and putting it out there, not taking no for an answer. I’ve talked about this in other videos too; sometimes I worry that publishing houses are scared to publish m/f romances with bisexual characters because it’s easier to box something into the market as a “LGBTQ+ romance” or a “straight romance” — but indie authors are doing a great job with that already.
It definitely seems to make a big difference when indie authors have that extra creative control. I remember you saying something about a neat new way readers can get a hold of awesome indie reads. What was it, again?
Yes! Another YouTuber, Amara Franklin, just launched an indie books subscription box! It’s called the Indie Bookworm. Here’s the website: https://theindiebookworm.com/
Ah, that was it–thank you! Let’s peruse your own books for a bit. You first published The Making of a Small Town Beauty King back in 2016. This coming-of-age novel brings to life many family struggles in a small-town setting many of us can relate to. What inspired the seed of this story to take root in you, and how did publishing Beauty King change your process of writing?
My original inspiration for this novel was the town where I went to high school. Most people know I’m from Chicago (and still live here!) but when I was younger, my family moved to rural Pennsylvania for a few years, and I went to high school in a Philadelphia suburb with a town fair. Our fair had a beauty pageant, where a few of my friends won awards over the years. I always considered entering but I was never good at adapting to traditional beauty standards. As a teenager, I had that constant conflict of what empowerment for women meant; did it mean a lack of pressure to adhere to beauty standards, or freedom to adhere to those if you choose? (This is a theme I explore in Sculpt Yourself as well.) When I was in college, I decided to explore these feelings in a screenplay for a class, and after I graduated I decided to turn it into a novella.
As one who helped care for her grandmother during her last years suffering dementia, the premise of your novel One Final Vinyl really struck a cord with me. Does this story have roots in your own life? What inspired the road trip your protagonists (a teen and a ninety-year-old woman) take?
Yes! This book has two main inspirations: my own grandmother and another 86-year-old woman I met and never saw again. My grandmother, Kasia (my parents recently adopted a new dog that they named after her! And I’m planning out a big tattoo of her name to get on my arm soon) was one of my primary guardians during my early years. When my mom was working 4 shifts, I spent most of my time at my grandma’s house, so she and I were really close. She started showing signs of dementia when I was in high school and she passed away when I was 19, which took a huge toll on me. A couple years later, an 86-year-old woman appeared at my front door in the middle of the night. She had driven away from her retirement home and gotten lost, and she also seemed to show signs of dementia. While we waited for her daughter to come get her, she and I spent the evening having Christmas cookies and tea while she told me about her childhood in the Great Depression. I’ve never seen her since then, and I’m not sure if she’s still alive, but that kind of interaction, where two people randomly cross paths like that, hit me really hard emotionally, especially since she reminded me of my grandma whom I’d lost recently. Sometimes I’d ponder, what would happen if I’d spent more time with her? What would’ve happened if someone randomly met another person like this and ended up on a road trip? Eventually, the pieces for the story came together for me.
You work damn hard taking readers into places they may not have been ready to go on their own, but through your characters they can tackle issues like self-worth and body image. Sculpt Yourself is a powerful example of this. As a writer, how do you balance telling a good story while also sharing an important message with readers?
I like to think of writing as my way to normalize a more equal world. We all have specialties and our own strengths we can use to make the world better. I’m not going to change laws; I’m not a politician or a lawyer. But I AM a writer, so I can use my storytelling abilities to get someone to think about an issue through a new perspective or to portray a world where those ideologies would be possible. To strike that balance, I focus on the characters and their relationships to one another first. In Sculpt Yourself, the focus is much more on Amber’s relationship with her sister and with her new girlfriend than it is with the sci-fi elements of Lipamorph’s development. I tried to create well rounded characters with a variety of viewpoints that could discuss these topics in an authentic context; that way, it feels like a story, not like I’m hitting the reader over the head with a message.
And thank you for that! I’m all for having an important message in a story, but not at the cost of telling the story well.Would you say writing energizes or exhausts you?
HA! Fair enough. I know I’ve gone through those same spells where I can get a rush from a flurry of writing only to want a nap a few hours later. (Not that my kids would ever allow that, but I digress.) Establishing a creative atmosphere has been a HUGE challenge with the twins remote learning this year. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?
Being lonely. I’m a hardcore extrovert. I used to do my work in public, at coffee shops, or at random places throughout Chicago. But now there’s a pandemic going on. I also used to sell books primarily at events, like conventions and art fairs. But now there’s a pandemic going on! The pandemic has been REALLY rough on my business and my creative process and I’ve had to adapt a lot.
I could loan you my kids for a week if you’d like to re-create the hum of social noise, lol! Even reading can be a struggle sometimes. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Definitely! I go through periods where I’ll read like 12 books on my Kindle in one day, and then go months without reading anything. My reading habits definitely aren’t consistent.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I read the book Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan for Pride Month in 2018. That book uses POV in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen: a combination of plural first-person POV through a Greek-chorus style setup, combined with an omniscient third-person POV of all the main characters. That book sticks with me because of how much it made me reflect on how authors can use character points of view to their advantage in storytelling.
What is your favorite childhood book?
I loved the American Girl books, and that company was actually a huge inspiration for the model I followed with Furever Home Friends. (Books and toys combined to help kids learn!) I loved the series about Molly from World War II. I have my doll of her displayed on top of my bookshelf.
Oh my gosh! I looooved the American Girl books, and I still have my Kirsten and Addy dolls. I learned so much about life in the 1800s and the struggle to build a new life after traumatic experiences.I’ve dabbled with writing historical fiction with my own novella Night’s Tooth, but I threw enough fantasy into it that the history’s a bit, um, loosey-goosey. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
That depends a lot on the book. For the 4th Furever Home Friends book, Kringle’s Christmas, the research was completed in one afternoon when I interviewed the owner of the shelter where he was living all about his story. For #SavvyBusinessOwner, I talked mostly about my own personal experiences, so I just launched into that book without a whole lot of research. It depends a lot on the project.
What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?
Darn tootin’. I have to set a timer for myself so I don’t fall down the social media rabbit hole. It’s so tempting when we tell ourselves “but that’s where the small presses are! I could query!” Then here we are, two hours later, still reading reaction tweets about DC comics or something. As an indie author who has launched her own books as well as recently signed on with an indie press, what do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
That’s hard to say. The industry is vast and includes a lot of different types of companies, writers, creators, and readers. I don’t want to publicly trash talk any specific publications right now, but I do have a problem with the barriers put up to keep small businesses from achieving success on the level of the established big 5 publishing corporations. For example, if your book gets published with a big press, you’re more likely to get reviews in established periodicals that schools and libraries receive in the mail and use to make their purchasing decisions. Some reviewers will only accept books sent to them by publishing companies rather than individual authors.
I suppose that’s partly why you do a LOT as an indie writer when it comes to maintaining and building your platform. Could you share at least one method of marketing that, after three books and your awesome new #SavvyBusinessOwner: A Book for Small Business Owners!, you’ve found to be effective?
Thank you! Honestly, my YouTube channel has been the most effective form of marketing for me. With the internet being such a prevalent force in people’s lives (especially during the pandemic!) people are more likely to become fans of content they can receive for free. I think of all the webcomics I read for free online, and then went on to buy that creator’s book when they released one, or the YouTubers who created entertaining videos, who I eventually bought merch from or joined their Patreon. My YouTube channel is at almost 10,000 subscribers, which happens because I gave people video content for free. As a result, 10,000 people now know who I am and are AWARE that I have books out, even if they’re not interested in them. The hardest part of marketing is making people aware you exist. I talk about this process a lot in the “Screaming into the Void” chapter of #SavvyBusinessOwner.
Now I may be going out on a limb here, but if I were to guess your writing mascot, it would be your dog. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was I LOVED the drive behind your book series Furever Home Friends. Please share what this wonderful series is about—and how there are matching comfy dogs and accessories that would make perfect presents for the dog-lovers in our lives!
Thank you! Furever Home Friends is my biggest, longest-running project, and I’m really proud to see this business growing.
For some background, Furever Home Friends is a series of picture books, stuffed animals, toys, and accessories based on real rescue dogs. Each book tells the story of a dog’s journey to adoption and includes a photo of the real-life dog in the back.
For each of our main book characters, we have a plushie friend of that dog that you can “adopt” on our website (that’s just a cute way of saying you’re buying the plushie, LOL) and accessorize with little dog-sized accessories that I created on a 3D printer. We donate 10% of our profits to animal shelters.
Thank you so much for sharing your incredible stories, Savy! I can’t wait to see what your imagination creates next. For those excited to check out Savy’s work, visit her YouTube Channel for a hub of her social media links as well as her Furever Home Friends series.
I’m determined to visit with you all before December ends because by golly, Christmas is my favorite holiday and I MISS YOU ALL. I want to talk about music and holiday storytelling, AND I’ve almost won Bo over to the idea of baking a Christmas Pudding. We shall see!
In these weeks where light bleeds to night bleeds to light–
–I lose my creative fire to static.
Not the static of radios or televisions. I speak of life’s static, day in, day out. After celebrating the release of my novel Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, I knew I had to brace for the impact of a full-time grading load, something I’d not known since before Blondie was born. The music of writing gave way to podcasts and commentaries upon YouTube as I worked, a low hum of wordy noise I would hear without really listening.
After a few weeks inside a classroom, Biff and Bash’s school closed back down and returned to virtual. While not nearly as chaotic as the spring, the boys are bored by the diet of worksheets and videos. Even the extra aid for Bash is now going to be yet another face on yet another screen for yet another period of the day. It is difficult seeing my sons and thousands of other children lumped into this remote learning landscape where so little learning is done at all. (For some excellent insight into the matter, please check out this article from ProPublica.)
But as I must remind myself: this is something over which I have no control.
So we build our little forts of sanity, we three, as Bo goes to work and Blondie attends her school in-person in the next county just a few miles away (which, wouldn’t you know, has not had to shut any school district down thanks to careful quarantining and safety measures.) Biff gathers up the sofa cushions and blankets and hides away with his BBF (Best Bear Friend) to work or read. Bash burrows into his bedroom with his rabbit and robots to tell stories and craft a world of folded paper. I remain in my room with my computer to teach, to grade, eternally typing. The sounds of teachers, educational videos, commentaries, Transformers episodes, Mario games–all of it culminates into this white noise that propels one forward on the outside while restraining one on the inside.
Until some thing–some curious, unexpected thing–cuts through the static with kinetic dissonance.
What was this? Something vicious is lurking, its jaws snapping…I was preparing to teach, had no time to listen…yet I listened.
Paws drummed the ground. Wildness was coming, coming out of the frontier to scratch, to eviscerate–
But they couldn’t, not when class had to begin.
After class, I opened YouTube to see what music had slipped into the cracks of all those commentaries. It was a soundtrack–for of course it was–to a film I had only seen once.
Another surprise: the score had been saved to my computer long ago. No need to search for the individual tracks. It was time to travel beyond the static down a road unknown.
The solo violin guides me, too awestruck not to follow. Piano trickles as a river nearby. I feel like a Lost Girl yearning to remember her Neverland, hands open at my sides, fingers outstretched on which a tire fairy may perch.
Then the dissonant flutes remind me danger is afoot, and someone has blocked the piano’s river. A single note tap tap taps, and I must return to teaching, to parenting.
But not with the static. That, I leave in tatters upon the ground.
Re-discovering The Village‘s score by James Newton Howard has been a magical addition to this topsy-turvy autumn. Hillary Hahn’s craft as a violinist is nothing short of stellar (she even discusses recording for the score here!), and I look forward to finding more of her work to add to my recordings of Mari Samuelsen. Hahn’s violin is the perfect protagonist in this sound-story, the musical shadow of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in the film, and Howard’s score captures the spirit of this isolated little world surrounded by forbidden wilderness.
No matter what howls from the winds, the strings dance at forest’s edge. They dare one another to move a step too far.
It is up to us, the storytellers, to decide who steps first.
We all lose our Neverlands every now and then. We just need the right voice to guide us, be it a story, a friend, a star, or a song. As your friendship keeps my creative sparks alight, may this story’s song ignite your own imaginations with adventure and hope.
I’m really excited to share an indie author who writes some amazing children’s literature for a furry important cause. 🙂 We will also need to dive into a few holiday-ish things before 2020 ends, because it’s me so of course we must. xxxxx
And to all who have read and helped promote my novel–THANK YOU! These words feel too small for the feelings that match them, but they are all I can write now that the kids are fighting. Sigh.
I’ve been honored by other amazing indie author’s invitations to share my stories and thoughts on craft. Today’s share is a podcast I did with fellow fantasy writer Neil Mach. We covered all sorts of gleeful things, from flawed heroines to our mutual love of spaghetti westerns. I hope you enjoy it!
Lastly–for I don’t want to scamper off so soon, but there’s been one of those delightful domestic disturbances of a broken garbage disposal to deal with–here’s a sneak peak into one of my chapters of Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Charlotte’s been separated from the others and in trapped inThe Pits. Only one thing could make it worse:
She is not alone.
Charlotte’s body slams into the ice-cold clay of the Pits. She slides down the tunnel, faster and faster, until it evens out and she slows to a stop. This clay is a little less damp, the air a little less putrid. And light: barely, but there. Any light at all must mean the atrium. So, breathe through your god-damn nose, Charlie, and sneak on over that way to get help.
But why would Orna trap you down here only to let you out again? The Voice puzzles.
Shut up, no one asked you.
Toes first. Charlotte wriggles them into place, then carefully brings weight back down on her heels. Charlotte holds the bone-knife before her, ready to slash and swipe, while her free hand finds the tunnel’s side and presses it gently. Step by step. Forward.
Stop breathing through your mouth, Charlie!
But Charlie isn’t breathing through her mouth.
In the void ahead…somewhere, someone is breathing. Slurping. A click-popping, almost like a frog’s broken croak.
Charlotte pauses. Looks back. Ahead.
Another broken croak. Followed by a slow, slow rattle.
Orna—or a Hisser?—lies ahead.
Charlotte takes another step.
The rattle stops.
Charlotte slaps her hand over her face. Counts her breaths and reaches for the pendant that’s not there. Dammit, Dad, I wish I had a piece of you with me like I did that first time down here.
But even though Charlotte’s alone in the darkness, she is not alone. Liam and Arlen can find me, and they will find me if I ain’t quiet.
“Bring it on, bitch!” Darkness sucks her words into the void.
The rattle starts again. The croaking quickens to a sort of buzz…
Charlotte’s fingers groove the tunnel’s side as she walks with blind briskness. Colors squiggle where her eyes strain for light, but the air continues to freshen—she is moving towards the atrium. “How the hell can you even see me in this dark? Ha! Can you see the reeeal me…” Charlotte starts to sing, and the rattle ramps up its insane rhythm. The Voice in Charlotte’s heart laughs as it presses the bellows to the rhythm of Charlotte’s favorite Who song. Orna’s henchman Cein thought he could take it from her—hell to the no on that.
“Can you see the real me, preacher? Preacher?!”
The rattle keeps getting louder, but now Charlotte sees a clear, definable web of light ahead—the tunnel’s exit into the atrium of the Pits.
“Can you see, can you see, can you see?” Charlotte runs and slides out of the tunnel, singing,
“Can you see the real me, doctor?!”
The atrium is a graveyard of branch and bone. Ash floats lazily in the air like dust mites. A wide gaping mouth high in the wall above Orna’s old platform still hangs open, drooling its lines of glass droplets—the old channel for the water road, now crystalized tears of dead magic because of the Wall.
Charlotte looks up to the atrium’s ceiling, where the white tree once grew. New roots, black as pitch, are sewing the gap shut. But in this moment shards of light can still sneak through. She breathes deep and belts as loud as she can, “Can you see the real me, Maaaaaaama?!” she holds that last “Ma,” ready to sing herself hoarse—
“No. No. No. No. No.”
Charlotte spins around. In another tunnel’s entrance stands a pale shadow. The bottom half writhes, and the rattle grows louder. Two needle-thin arms stick out and shoot up as though a child is positioning the limbs. Ten fingers as long and sharp as snake fangs jerk out, jerk up, and take hold of the head slumped to one side. They wrench it upright. Mangled, oily locks of hair fall into place, but the tongue remains free to slurp and drool where it wants.
Inside, Charlotte wants to gag. What drunk sewed your face back on?!? Outside, Charlotte sticks her hands on her hips. “What, no Anna skin this time? I could describe my grandma to you if you want. Always did want to punch that hag in the mouth.”
The rattle tones back. “Ha ha ha ha.” Her lips don’t—or can’t—move. The tongue slithers about in the air and catches Charlotte’s scent. It wavers in Charlotte’s direction, and Orna’s snake-half finally slinks forward in short, halting movements. The hands jerk free of her head, and The Lady’s head flops to the side once more. Her fingers move in mechanical fashion at Charlotte, even as one finger falls off to the ground, lifeless at last. Orna’s eyes look pathetic without the menacing stars that once glowed in them.
Charlotte scoffs. “Jeez, even I could kill you now.”
“Charlotte?!” The cry flies down through the crevices. Yet the roots still grow, bridging every gap they find.
Charlotte sticks her bone knife back into the red belt. “Pardon me for just a second,” she says to the herky-jerky Lady and cups her hands to her mouth. “DOWN HERE!”
“An an an ha ha ha.”
Charlotte’s eyes narrow at the name. “That name’s got no power comin’ out of your stupid-ass mouth. Damn, even I can sew better’n’that..” She pulls out the bone-knife—
—almost too late.
Orna’s tongue whips far longer than before, missing Charlotte’s shoulder by a hair. Charlotte rolls to the side and curses at herself. “Yeah, Charlie, you can really slay the snake-lady easy peasy, can’tcha?”
The roots threading the atrium’s ceiling shake and crack, but don’t break. Thunder shakes from within a tunnel, echoes of light rippling out the tunnel’s sides to die in the atrium.
Orna’s tongue blossoms into three, then five, then ten translucent pink living whips. The stitches at the bottom of her face rip as her jaw unhinges wide enough to swallow a human. The hydra-tongue descends—
Charlotte leaps aside and slashes with the bone-knife. Dammit, this ain’t no blood dagger! But the blade is wicked sharp and takes out one of the tongues. It flops fish-like on the ground, spurts of oil and veli barely missing Charlotte’s leg.
She runs away before Orna’s hydra-tongue can take aim again. If I can slash up the snake part, I bet I could bleed the bitch out. She spots the serpent portion of Orna’s body, its peeling, sick skin caught on the rocks littering the tunnel’s entrance. Charlotte picks up speed, bone-knife aimed for the massive molting serpent—
Fire lights up the atrium. Roots rain ash as Liam’s blood sword burns through them all. He rolls, sheathes the blade, transforms mid-fall into the golden eagle, talons at the ready.
Charlotte’s knife strikes hard and deep into the snake’s belly. Oil laced with veli oozes from the gash. The funk of rot floods Charlotte’s nostrils.
Thunder builds in the tunnel. There’s a light, white and spectral, running with the thunder…
Orna’s body shakes and screams. Her head flops as the hydra-tongue feels the air for Charlotte.
It finds Liam’s talons instead.
“Liam fly up, NOW!” Charlotte screams. The hydra-tongue quickly coils round both Liam’s legs. Liam’s whole body burns feathers of fire, but the tongues don’t give. He transforms and hangs upside-down several feet above Orna’s gaping jaws.
The empty eyes meet his. A moan of pleasure oozes from her mouth.
The blood dagger slips from its sheath into Liam’s hand, and he slashes one leg free. Charlotte runs and aims for those needle arms, ready to rip one out.
“Can you see, can you see—” A tenor voice barrels out of the tunnel, followed by a pale figure wielding a sword of white light. Charlotte slides to a stop as he lops the bottom half of Orna’s jaw clean off. “Can you seeeee the real me?!”
Orna’s eyes roll towards him. A geyser of oil and screams erupt at the base of her tongue.
Liam slashes his other foot free, and he somersaults to the ground.
The pale figure wraps his hand in a hank of Orna’s hair and lifts her oily, sparkling half-face off the ground and right up to his own, the star-less orbs even darker next to his white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes. “You should have played the game my way.” Her herky-jerky arms begin to reach out, but he stomps down on her breasts and pops her head off with a thock! He tosses the head over his shoulder, spins the light sword. It flickers down into a broad, thick dagger with vicious claw marks crisscrossing in its steel. He slips the dagger into a leather sheath strapped to his right calf, then looks at Liam. “And where in Aether’s Fire have you been?”
Hello, you amazing creatives, you! While I fuss about with preparations for my new teaching responsibilities as well as the launch of my new novel, I want to introduce you to an awesome YA fantasy writer who has a flair for bringing magic into the everyday world. K.M. Allan is a stellar indie author who loves sharing tips on writing and “authoring” on her website, and I’m thrilled to have her share some of her lessons learned with us.
Even though I’ve loved writing all my life, I still feel like I’m a newbie to this whole writing thing. What would you consider to be traps for aspiring writers? Never knowing if you’re good enough. All writers have a level of Impostor Syndrome, but as an aspiring writer, it can be very crippling. You’re constantly looking for others to validate your work and tell you if it’s good enough when you should learn how to judge that for yourself. Another common trap, and one that I learned when I was first starting to query, is thinking you need to pay to have a submission professionally edited or assessed before sending it out. While you need to make sure what you’re sending out is as polished as you can make it, and definitely have it read by someone else to see if the writing works and there aren’t any typos, but it’s unnecessary to pay for these things.
That’s a great point! I have a short story submission I need to finish tweaking without stressing about it. Does writing energize or exhaust you? It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m writing and it’s going well and the ideas are flowing, it’s very energizing. If I’m editing, especially the nit-picky type of editing like looking for weak words to remove, it can be very exhausting.
Uuugh, the editing! I had to lock myself in a room to force myself through those final edits of my novel. Hands down, editing is the hardest part of my writing process. What would you say is the most difficult part of your artistic process? Definitely motivating myself to write. I love writing and always enjoy it when I do, but sometimes the motivation to sit down at the keyboard, especially when there’s a huge task ahead, can be hard to do. I think the fear of writing perfectly also hinders the artistic process. I definitely have ideas for how I want a scene to play out, and getting the words to create that same picture so others can see it too, can be difficult.
Selecting the right character for the focal point of the story is one of the crucial decisions a writer makes as they craft a story. Your Blackbirch series follows a male teen protagonist. Can you explain the process that led to the choice of choosing a male lead and not a female? This is a bit of a hard one to answer. The writer in me has always considered one of the female characters, Kallie Jacobs, to be just as much a lead as Josh. She’s in the first scene of book 1 with him and is one of the first characters the reader meets. Book 2 is mostly her story and contains a scene where she saves Josh, which is what gave me the initial idea to write the series. From a reader’s perspective, though, the story of Blackbirch starts with Josh Taylor and what happens to him, so by default you could say Josh is the lead. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part to choose a male lead over a female; it was just how it ended up being once the plot came together on the page.
I’m a sucker for worldbuilding studies, especially when rules for magic are involved. Can you walk us through the process of the magic system in your Blackbirch series? The source of Blackbirch’s magic (or magick, as it’s referred to in the books) comes from an ancient form of power. Eve Thomas, the book’s self-proclaimed witch, tells the MC, Josh Taylor, that the magick used to belong to ancient gifted humans but it became too much for them and was shared into every living thing, tainting and weakening the magick. There are some, like Eve, who believe greater sources of the power exist and are hidden in magical objects like crystals. She believes that if you find them, you can harness the power for yourself. What Eve doesn’t know is that Josh possesses the power Eve has been searching for. How he got that power and what he does with it is a big part of the first book in the series. In the second book, he learns more about the magick from a girl named Kallie who also has power like him. In that book, it’s revealed the power gives special abilities or gifts to whoever has the power, and these gifts are unique to them. If a witch dies, then whatever gift they possessed and their magick is gone forever, making it a rare and dangerous thing to have.
Magical Realism is a very unique niche in the urban fantasy sub-genre. What was it about the worldbuilding process that made you feel this was the right direction to take your story as opposed to something in a different time or place? I didn’t know Magical Realism was the genre of my book until I started looking at what I needed to categorize it as when I was first querying, and then later picking the right category for self-publishing. I wasn’t aware it was a unique niche, so correct me if I’m wrong hehe. When I first started writing this series I was inspired by TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell (the original TV series, not the reboot) and the YA books I’d always read. These were all set in modern times, so it made sense that my series was also written in a modern-day setting. It never occurred to me to write it in another time or place because that’s not what I like reading or watching.
As a little preview for readers here, would you like to share a favorite exchange, description, or moment from your latest Blackbirch installment? Yes, I would, thanks. This exchange is from book 2, Blackbirch: The Dark Half and happens right around the time Kallie Jacobs is first pulled into the world of magick when she witnesses the death of a friend. Kallie has always had a natural ability to see the future, and that comes into play when a witch named Melinda uses it to help Kallie—with fatal consequences.
“Don’t move,” a woman whispered in Kallie’s ear. “And don’t scream.” The hand dropped from her mouth, followed by the arm around her waist. “My friend,” Kallie’s voice cracked. “He’s hurt.” “Your friend is dead.” Kallie shook her head, as if it would somehow erase the truth. The woman’s hand returned to her, fingers combing through Kallie’s blood-tangled locks. Who was the person trying to comfort her? The lined face and long blond hair weren’t familiar. The woman tilted Kallie’s face toward herself. They didn’t know each other, yet the lady’s blue eyes trained on her like she was staring at an old friend. “Surely you knew about the boy. You foresaw it.” “How… how do you know about that?” “I was watching the two of you when you entered the forest.” “Why didn’t you help us?” The woman glanced over her shoulder; in the direction the man had run. “I can’t interfere.” What kind of bullshit was that? “Who is that man?” “It would be better for you if you didn’t know.” “It would have been better for me if you helped!” Kallie scrambled to her knees. The woman grabbed her wrists, holding her in place. “Don’t ignore the things you see, or you will lose everything.” Heat rushed to Kallie’s cheeks. “Are you threatening me?” “You threatened yourself. And that boy’s life.” Kallie twisted her hand free, slapping it across the stranger’s face. “I did not kill Jerry!” She flexed her wrist, her stomach sinking as finger shaped welts surfaced on the woman’s cheek. The lady touched her reddened skin. “When we don’t ask for our gifts, they’re hard to accept.” “I didn’t ask for anything.” The woman nodded, the deep lines around her mouth sagging. “But you still have it.” Her hand reached back to Kallie’s blood-stained hair and Kallie flinched, worried the woman was going to slap her back. Instead, her touch tapped across Kallie’s forehead. How did this woman know about the pictures she saw in her head? Kallie yanked herself away, spying a tattooed wrist. Black ink in the shape of a witch’s pentacle stained the blond woman’s skin. “You’re the witch! You did this!” Kallie clenched her hands. “I didn’t see anything real until you started watching me.” “I started watching you because you began to see what was real.” “No! You made this happen. You knew Jerry would die, that’s why you’re here.” “You knew it too.” “My vision of Jerry wasn’t real. It didn’t feel like the others.” Her usual visions came to her like snapshots, surfacing in her mind without any effort on her part. The image of Jerry in the water had been different, forced, jammed inside her head like an intruder. Like it was placed there… “By someone else,” she whispered the end of her horrified thought out loud. “What did you do to me?”
I’ve got some bonus posts on the way to celebrate my own novel’s release!
I want to share the inspiration for my new antagonists, music for those moments of action and tension, and more. My first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will also be on sale during the last five days before Chosen‘s release.
Welcome, Friends, to yet another splendid interview with a beautiful indie author soul! I am thrilled to pause all this chaos of teaching, parenting, and preparing my own novel for publication so I may introduce you to the cosmic dreamer and eternal adventurer, S.J. Higbee.
To call you an “avid reader” feels like a huuuuge understatement. Can you share a little of your reader’s journey with us? That is, can you tell us what inspired you to take on book reviewing with such gusto, and your process for choosing the books you do for reviewing?
I’ve always been an avid reader. Once I got to school and realised the power of words and how stories could take me away from where I was and to different worlds – that was it. I was away…
I originally started reviewing for SFReader.com, a forum for science fiction and fantasy readers and writers from 2006-09. However, I soon had a hefty backlog of reviews stacking up, as I thoroughly enjoyed the process of writing down my thoughts after reading a book. So once I started my own blog back in 2009, it made sense to mostly review books on it. I stumbled across other book reviewers, almost by accident.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
The late, great Terry Pratchett. There aren’t many authors whose complete output we own, but we have all his books, including Where’s My Cow? We also own all Lois McMaster Bujold’s books and I’ve read nearly all of Jo Walton’s output. I am the ultimate mood reader, however. While I do get a steady stream of books from Netgalley, I take care never to overdo it, so I’m forced to sit down and read something that I really, really don’t want to.
Hmmm, I bet those moods can put a damper on the book joy at times. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes. When I’ve forced myself to trudge through a book that isn’t speaking to me on any level. So I don’t do it, anymore. If I don’t like a book, I DNF it – and that includes Netgalley arcs. I generally don’t mention DNFs on my blog, because I have strong opinions and specific tastes and while I cut loose when discussing book covers and in my private notes about books I’ve disliked sufficiently to stop reading, I don’t think it’s fair to share those views with a wider audience.
I know you’ve recently moved out of the classroom, but as a fellow teacher, reader, writer, and parent (well, I know you’re also a grandparent, but I’m not there *yet*, thank Heaven!), I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can spread literacy awareness among children today.
I’ve taught children with specific learning difficulties and the secret is always to find what motivates them – be it rulebooks for computer games, cookery recipes and in one case building suppliers’ lists, and use those to spark their interest in reading. Above all MAKE IT FUN! Words games… silly voices… reading a word each… And always stop before the child becomes fed up, so they are left wanting more. Little and often is far more effective than longer stints twice a week, which is why so many children don’t learn to read effectively at school.
Amen to that! When we turn reading into a treat, we know they will ALWAYS be ready for that treat. Rather like cookies, don’t you think? I wonder now if the publishing industry could be doing more to promote literacy.
Children’s writers do a fantastic job in promoting literacy by visiting schools and talking about their characters. But I would LOVE to see more serious imagination with regard to interactive programs to aid literacy. In fairness, I don’t think the publishing industry should be responsible for promoting literacy skills – but governments certainly should. What about a game like Fortnite actually using wordgames, punning, jokes and literacy games, in addition to all the cool graphics, driving music and action scenes, as part of a national reading scheme? It shouldn’t be the only way to reach children, of course. But certainly ought to be part of a range of resources to target children who spend a lot of time on their screens.
Now, let’s talk about your writing. You’ve written a number of slick Sci-Fi novels, including the YA Sunblinded trilogy, the Arcadian Chronicles, and the standalone Netted. What draws you to science fiction more than other genres?
I love the fact that when I open the cover, I never know exactly what I’m getting. To ensure that’s the case, I very rarely bother reading the blurb in advance, either. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a struggle to make sense of what is going on – especially if I’ve crashed midway into a series, but as long as the worldbuilding and characterisation are sound, I’ll generally make sense of what is going on. It’s the genre I love reading the most – and when it goes well, the tingle factor is off the charts… Fantasy is right up there, too.
I never get tired of that tingle! I must admit, though, I cannot crash into the middle of a series as you often do. 🙂 In an age where publishers are eager for stories that smack of potential franchise, what do you consider to be the strengths of a standalone novel?
Sometimes, there is a story I want to tell that is only the length of a single book. If that’s the case, then I don’t want to elongate it into something more drawn-out. I think most stories have a natural arc length – and part of the skill of the author is figuring out exactly what that length is. Some of my best reads, ever, have been standalone books.
You have certainly written your share of both series and standalones as well! Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends. If it’s going well, I find a high that I don’t get anywhere else. If it isn’t, then it’s both exhausting and depressing.
I love how you don’t peg yourself into writing a specific kind of character. Running out of Space’s Lizzy and Mantivore’s Kyrillia are both adventurous heroines, while Netted’s Kris is very reticent to take on the responsibilities the story quickly demands of her. Would you say each story helps you shape the characters, or the characters come to you and the story shapes around them?
Oh, it always starts with the character and an initial scene. Often I have dreamt that starting scene. However, the characters don’t leap onto the page fully formed and it is often a question of trial and error as to how they react to events around them that help me figure out exactly who they are. Up to now, I’ve been a pantser, but I’ve just started planning out my stories – and the main success has been in nailing the narrative arcs of all the main characters – it has made such a difference to the writing process.
World-building is HUGE for my writing process. If a story-world’s rules aren’t clear, then it’s a lot harder for readers to fully appreciate the plot’s stakes, let alone care about the characters. Science Fiction is no “easy” genre to write for—not only do you have to create a realistic place, but it also has to feel possible to reach in our future. Can you share a step or three in your world-building process?
I think anyone who writes SFF with any measure of success has to care about worldbuilding. The first rule has to be that it makes sense. I studied History at college, for which I’m constantly grateful. That perspective on how humans behaved in the past is really useful for extrapolating as to how they’d behave in the future. And if they doing something completely different from anything that has happened before, there has to be a solid reason for it.
However, all of that has also to be balanced against my personal loathing for pages of long-winded explanation in some nebulous authorial viewpoint. So readers often don’t get to know exactly what is going on all the time in all the corners of my worlds, because my characters don’t. I’m quite comfortable with that – though I’m aware it bothers some readers. It’s one reason why I use language as one of my main tools for worldbuilding – the slang and swearwords also denote issues like being overrun with pests, or melting icecaps without my even mentioning them.
Blech, I am not a fan of long-winded explanations, either. They exhaust me to read, let alone write…not that my kids give me oodles of time to write, anyway. Their moods are something of a writing Kryptonite for me. What would you consider to be your writing Kryptonite?
Becoming too tired. My instinct is to try and sprint, which is a problem as writing a novel is a marathon. I’m also one of those people who tends to hurl themselves, body and soul, into whatever they are doing. It has many rewards, but the cost is that I can get exhausted. And when that happens, I become ill. I have quite a lot of different calls on my time, which again, I really enjoy. I am lucky to have a lovely family and a range of wonderful friends, but there are times when it would be awesome to also have a writing clone I could shut up in an attic with a computer and never let out until she’s finished the book…
Let’s end on some help for aspiring writers. What’s a common trap you see them falling into time and again, and how can they avoid it?
Dialogue is often a surefire way of working out how experienced a writer is. Don’t use someone’s name if there are only two characters, unless one character is being hostile or arguing. When there are two people, they generally don’t call the other by name unless they are making a point. Don’t have your characters talking for too long – we generally bat a conversation back and forth between us if the power dynamic is equal. And rather than have a dominant character drone on for ages (as they often do in real life) have them, instead, constantly interrupt the subordinate character. Remember to include the thoughts and feelings of your viewpoint character, as they are on one end of a conversation.
YES! Thank you so much for sharing your reading and writing journey with us, Sarah, and for helping us find ways to better our own writing. This issue with dialogue is something I still struggle with, even as an editor when I was tidying up Fallen Princeborn: Chosen.
Arlen sets the bear cub running towards the thicket. “Come along, all of you. Dorjan and the others are waiting.”
But She-Bear does not move. “Why do you wear his weapon?”
Liam remains still on the shore where Charlotte and Arlen placed him, his speckled curls limp, his bruises painting what must be an abridged story of the pain he felt in the nets. So Charlotte answers, “The dagger worked for me in Dissecto-Library-Horrorland .” Charlotte grips one of Liam’s arms and hoists him to his feet.
The She-Bear bares her teeth, but Arlen’s hand upon her head silences her. “You…you worked land magic underwater?” he asks.
“How do you think that one mer-dude’s face got melted?”
Liam’s hand, as mottled as the rest of him, opens and closes as Charlotte wills. Her fingers press his own tightly about his own weapon.
Leather, iron, blood. Then comes the touch of Charlotte—sparks rip through his frame. No more the beaten boy.
“Try it now, Liam. C’mon, get some heartburn goin’. Blood firin’. You know. Flame on. Ppppffffooow.”
Liam closes his eyes and feels his inner wings stretch to blot out the past, if only for a few moments. He wraps his other hand around the base of the blade. The dagger takes its blood, as always.
This time, it pays back.
The blade crackles as it lengthens, its feathers smoldering. The blood sword shines as it did in the forge so long ago, when Liam’s ambitions burned their brightest. He brings the blade close to his face to taste old victories in its heat. He sees the world in melting waves, as he did so often after striking the earth, commanding it to swallow armies and villages whole.
There are no armies now. No villages. Only Charlotte dripping like a botched painting. Arlen halved on one side of the dagger; the beast halved on the other.
The beast, whom he was meant to kill. A mother and her child so…cared for…by…
“Who is this, Arlen?” Liam’s question rumbles slowly out of his lips.
No more evasion.
While Autumn creeps its way slowly through Wisconsin’s forests and farmlands, I will continue to share more and more of my coming sequel with you. I’ve also got some interviews waiting in the wings as well as music and analyses to share. Thank you all once more for traveling with me through these unknown lands of indie publishing. You are each and every one of you a blessing to be thankful for.
Happy August, my friends! It is difficult tofathom that summer is already on its way out. Theschool supply displays are up–heck, I saw Halloween candy at Dollar General–and the fireflies have all but departed. And yet, time still feels frozen from the lock-down begun in March. Biff and Bash’s school will continue to be online until __insert random date because they’re all just “we’ll evaluate weekly” __, but unlike the spring, we’re expected to recreate the school day here at home, which means proctoring all these online lessons over the course of 7-8 hours while somehow doing my OWN job so I don’t, you know, lose it.
I know I’m not the only one in this situation. I know none of us would wish this situation on anyone else. Lastly, I also know that it is crucial to put as much positivity into the situation as we can because our loved ones feed off the feelings we share.
So, let’s focus on the chances for inspiring one another, telling stories to one another, and just being the spark that helps ignite another’s creative soul. Here’s a publisher that loves sharing authors the readers vote for: Something Or Other Publishing out of my very own Wisconsin. One of its directors, Christian Lee, was kind of enough to share his time with me so I could share a bowl full of SOOP here with you. 🙂
1. Let’s start with names. How did you come up with your brand Something or Other Publishing (SOOP)?
Our brand “Something Or Other” signifies openness to diversity and opportunity. When our Founder, Wade Fransson, was looking for avenues to publish his book, he envisioned a “full service traditional” publishing service which allowed creative control, a higher share of the royalties and direct access to decision makers in exchange for a willingness to share the responsibility of promotion and marketing. He realized that such a model could enable a diverse range of voices to be heard, on equal footing. Since there didn’t seem to be an appropriate label for this model, “Something Or Other Publishing” was born to serve these types of authors.
2. I’d love to hear a little history behind the creation of SOOP–especially because you’re located in Wisconsin, my native state.
Wade spent almost three years in Strategy and Operations for Deloitte Consulting, and then two years as an executive helping an expanding national company grow from thirty to 60,000 employees. During this time he gained extensive experience integrating emerging technologies with business strategy. He then left this corporate role to help launch an Internet startup called GoHuman.com, and it was around this time he met a woman. The startup failed, but that new relationship didn’t. After getting married and expecting their first child, they moved to Wisconsin to be closer to her family. Wade began to write his own book and realized that with the rise of self-publishing, print-on-demand, social media marketing, and other innovations, there should be a publishing model suited for authors who share responsibilities to market their books in exchange for higher royalties and more creative agency.
3. You have a unique system for your publishing company: Author-Driven Book Publishing. How does this work?
Instead of traditional submissions with a massive slush pile approach, all of our books start as a “Book Idea” where readers peruse the synopsis and vote to indicate they would read the book if it were published. This approach puts the author in the driver’s seat, allowing them the opportunity to get a publishing contract, so long as they build a verified following. Throughout the voting process SOOP works with the author to sharpen their understanding of the “Three P’s” of publishing: product, platform, and promotion. SOOPworks through these elements with the author as the book progresses toward publication. As a result, SOOP’s publishing process is a more collaborative process between author and publisher.
4. So, let’s say an author wants to submit a book to your site. What kinds of books are you looking for?
Primarily, we look for the right author before we look for the right book, so an entrepreneurial author who is eager to roll up their sleeves and collaborate alongside us is the ideal author and partner. In terms of specific genres, we publish a wide variety of genres, provided that they fit our editorial standards. For example, we recently published an anthology that was a mix of genres. We also have a particular interest in children’s books and just released a new one illustrated by Michael Gellatly, who did the maps for the Game of Thrones books. We have recently published a few books with religious subject matter, although we’re not a “religious publisher,” and we’ve also published a political book. In summary, we publish a wide variety of authors first, and books second. We can always help an author improve their book. It can be difficult to make things work with an author with whom we’re not aligned.
5. As a publisher, I’m sure you’ve got a few peeves regarding what authors send your way. What should authors avoid when submitting to SOOP?
Our biggest challenge is addressing authors’ misconceptions on what the publishing industry really is, and how it should work so we want authors to keep an open mind to the process. With our Author-Driven Publishing model, we invite authors to learn about the business side of publishing as they go, with no initial commitment either way. Many authors underestimate the difficulty and expense of marketing a new work, and that the publisher needs the author to be on the front line, bringing their network and “platform” to bear in achieving initial, local success. We provide many tools and considerable support, but the author needs to be behind the wheel and “drive” this up and through the initial book launch.
6. As an indie author, I’ve got to do, well, pretty much all my own marketing for my work. How do you and your authors work together to build a platform for your books?
Our voting system has platforming built in. Each vote is added to our extensive database of potential readers, which is a powerful marketing tool of ours. Closer to publication, we develop a three month marketing plan with the author, which we jointly execute on digital channels and “in real life,” to support key goals such as a successful pre-order campaign, becoming a #1 Hot New Release on Amazon, and being well reviewed.
7. What do you see as a major problem in the publishing industry? How is SOOP tackling that problem?
The Washington Post published an article in 2018 about the ongoing decline in leisure Reading that we’ve been experiencing for many decades. Simultaneously, there is an explosion of self-publishing that has greatly increased the supply of books. Add vanity and indie presses to this, and any business person can quickly see why the industry is in a kind of free-fall. This is why we have created a model that is completely different, one which curates works from motivated authors, to ensure that there is at least a minimal demand in place before we add to the supply. Traditional publishing relied on a few mega-stars as inspiration for the masses, to keep a steady flow of wanna-be’s lining up for lopsided contracts. Vanity publishing seeks to force authors to pay-in-full up front for the privilege of being professionally published. Self-publishing converts the slush pile into “books” that sink like rocks to the bottom of the ocean.
Our goal is to train authors before they get up to bat, and make sure they have a base hit, and are legitimately in the game. Where they go from there depends not only on the quality of their work, but on their belief in themselves, and their capacity to work diligently to build on the success our platform enables.
Thank you so much for sharing your unique publishing platform with us, Christian! I hope you continue to collaborate with authors and bring more powerful stories to our lives.