Interview: Bud Webster

JoB cover 1When an author stops breathing, the stories stop coming, but the presses keep rolling. Ah, but do the checks keeping coming? Enter: Bud Webster of the SFWA’s Estate Project.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why does the SFWA operate an estate project? How does liaisoning for deceased authors help SFWA members?

BUD WEBSTER: Well, with the advent of e-publishing both online and through Kindle/Nook readers, more and more of the classic sf/fantasy stories and novels are in demand. The Estates Project was created primarily to enable both paper and electronic publishers to approach heirs and/or agents in order to seek permission, sign contracts and make royalty payments. How does that help current members? Well, the glib answer is that eventually they’ll ALL be estates, but aside from that it adds to the list of services SFWA as an organization offers. The more we do to protect authors’ rights, whether those authors are above or below the ground, the better off our members are. Of course, the Project extends to non-members as well, as it should; SFWA advocates for ALL sf/fantasy writers, not just the ones who pay dues every year.

 

CARL: How does the estate project help publishers, editors, agents, and anthologists?

BUD: Publishers come to us looking for contacts with an estate. In many cases, the estate is handled not by an agent but by a family member or other heir. Using the database (over 500 names at this point), we hook the two sides up so they can do business. Some are looking to reprint stories, others want to publish novels. In a few cases, a publisher would like to make a writer’s entire body of work available, and this makes it possible for them to do so legitimately and legally, with benefit to them, the heirs and the readers. Agents are more willing to represent estates if they know that there is a resource for editors and anthologists to use to find them.

 

CARL: What constitutes due diligence when determining whether a story is public domain?

BUD: A good question, but one that doesn’t have a simple answer. You can’t just Google a name, not find anything on the first screen, and assume that the estate is dead. Nor can you find one source offering the work for free and claiming it’s PD and not look further. That ain’t no way diligence, due or otherwise. For me, due diligence is looking for as long as it takes to find an answer one way or another. If that means asking a few people, fine. If it means checking the Copyright Office website for specific renewal notices, searching for the possibility that the magazine that originally published a story may not have registered copyright then looking further to see if the author did at a later time, then that’s equally fine. I will point out here, though, that to my direct knowledge the information at the CO website is not always accurate; in one specific case, an e-publisher checked the status of a novel there, found no notice of renewal, and issued the book. When the author – still alive and writing, I’ll point out – found out about it, he was able to show the publisher his paperwork proving that the rights HAD been renewed. To the publisher’s credit, they immediately issued a check in the amount the writer asked for. So, due diligence? It’s whatever it takes. Now I know that’s not terribly responsive, and it’s certainly NOT a legal definition by any means, but it’s what I do.

CARL: How does the current copyright law place authors and estates at a disadvantage?

BUD: Hard for me to say, as I’m not a lawyer. I consider myself a copyright conservative – I think publishers should always err on the side of the estate – but I do consider the current term of copyright (life of the author plus 70 years) to be unreasonable. It is the law, however, and that’s what we have to deal with, not what we think it should be. I don’t think it places either authors or estates at a disadvantage, though. Again, I’m not a lawyer. The most important thing that the law does, in my distinctly un-humble opinion, is to give the authors or their estates control over what is done with their work. This is more vital than you may think, as there are cases in which copyright has been blatantly violated. A couple of years ago, for example, a photo of two gay men kissing was used, without their or the photographer’s knowledge or permission, in a campaign against a Colorado politician who had advocated gay marriage. The Southern Poverty Law Center brought suit, but it was a split decision. To me, it was clear-cut – no permission, no rights. Until and unless I declare work of mine to be PD, I am the ONLY one who gets to say where, when or if that work is reprinted either in paper or phosphors. Or even mind-control rays from Venus.

 

CARL: Do you provide legal consultation on the copyright status, get involved in dispute resolution between estates and publishers, get involved in the prosecution of copyright violation, or post notice of violations?

BUD: Indirectly, yes, but as I said above, no lawyer be I. I can alert an estate to possible piracy (and do), suggest that they talk to a lawyer and perhaps aim them at one of the legal eagles in SFWA, and I do post URLs of pirate sites for other writers to use to look for possible pirate editions of their own work, but I cannot and do not act as a legal advisor. SFWA itself, in the forms of the Grievance Committee and Writers, Beware does act for the membership and has been very successful in doing so.

CARL: What about relatives who don’t want their names listed on the SFWA website?

BUD: We don’t list the names of ANY private individuals on the website unless they specifically ask to be listed. That way lies potential madness. Estates handled by family or other heirs are listed on the Estates Project page with a link to my official e-mail address. When I get a query, I either forward it to the family or blind-copy them when I reply to the inquirer. That way they can respond directly in their own time.

 

CARL: The publisher’s office, the agent’s office, the copyright office, the Internet, how hard can it be to get information about an estate?

BUD: Ah, there’s the rub. The problem isn’t finding information, it’s finding valid, accurate and current information. That’s tougher than you might think. You have to look deep, find more than one source, and verify verify verify. Anything less isn’t due diligence.

 

CARL: The estate liaison office lists contact information for more than 500 authors and is seeking contact information for an addition 65 authors. Finding and updating information for so many authors must require a huge staff.

BUD: Don’t I wish? Nope, it’s just me right now, and my faithful team of mutants, avengers and super friends. Seriously, I can put out a question to several hundred other people on the listserves I’m on, add to that the occasional notice in LOCUS and other info and news-oriented periodicals in the field and eventually find an answer – most of the time. Those estates I haven’t been able to find in the seven years or so I’ve been doing this are, very likely, orphaned; until I know for certain, though, they remain unknowns.

 

CARL: These names must be very familiar to you because you’ve written extensively on the history of science fiction. Tell us a little about that. Or better still, tell us a lot about that.

BUD: Funny you should ask….One of the reasons I was tapped for this task is my deep interest in and knowledge of classic sf and fantasy writers. It’s my geek, if you will. I started out writing in my own fanzine, Log of the Starship Aniara (later just Aniara), then gradually began writing for other markets beginning with a sercon (read: serious content) ‘zine called bare*bones in 2001, then moving on to paying markets like David Hartwell’s New York Review of Science Fiction and Science Fiction Chronicle a few years later. Those were all articles on sf and fantasy anthologies, an itinerant column I called “Anthopology 101.” In 2008, William Sanders and a few others of us started an onliner called Helix SF, and that’s where I began the “Past Masters” series. We did Helix for ten issues, then stopped; the column continued in Jim Baen’s Universe and when that died, went to Eric Flint’s Grantville Gazette. Both columns have been collected and are available in print from Merry Blacksmith Press. In addition, the Anthopology 101 collection is available in e-book format from ReAnimus Press.

There ain’t a lot of money in this (although I certainly won’t object if anyone reading this, like, buys a copy or two), but there has been an enormous amount of satisfaction and gratification over the past 13 or so years, not to mention the extreme pleasure of interviewing people like Jack Williamson, Phil Klass (william Tenn), Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison and Barry Malzberg. The passion I feel when I delve into our shared history, the sheer wonder I experience in digging into Yesterday’s stories of Tomorrow is overwhelming; like a solar flare straight from the heart of the Sun, it brightens my life and fires my intellect. I like to think that I have been able to impart some of that to my readers; and in my work with the SFWA Estates Project, I hope to repay those old masters for the Wonder they have given me over the decades.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Martha Wells

Martha WellsMartha Wells writes adult and YA fantasy and Star Wars/Stargate tie-ins. She is best known for her Raksura series.

Wells’ first published novel, “The Element of Fire,” was a finalist for the Compton Crook Award, and a runner-up for the William Crawford Award. Her second novel, “City of Bones,” received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and a black diamond review from Kirkus Reviews, and was on the Locus Recommended Reading List for fantasy. Her third novel, “The Death of the Necromancer,” was nominated for a Nebula Award. Her fantasy short stories include “The Potter’s Daughter” in the anthology Elemental, which was selected to appear in The Year’s Best Fantasy #7.

She has published 2 Stargate Atlantis novels, Reliquary and Entanglement. Her Stargate SG-1 short story, “Archaelogy 101,” was published in Stargate Magazine #8. In 2013, Lucas Books published Wells’ Star Wars novel, Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge.

The first volume of her Raksura novellas was published in September 2014. The second volume will be released in April 2015.

She has also published 2 YA fantasy novels, Emilie and the Hollow World in 2013 and “Emilie and the Sky World” in 2014.

Wells is known for the complex, realistically detailed societies she creates. This is often credited to her academic background in anthropology.

Check out the awesome art and music for the Raksura characters.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: The music for your Raksura universe is so dramatic and so haunting. Your website says “fan music,” but the music is so well produced and so appropriate for the story, I have to wonder if it was written and produced by a professional musician. Who is Peter Cline and how did he get involved?

MARTHA WELLS: Peter Cline contacted me through my Live Journal and said he was inspired by reading the novels to do some pieces of music, and would I like to hear it. I loved them and asked him if I could put them on the site for other people to enjoy. That’s really all there was to it.

 

CARL: The Raksura art is direct and immediate. You don’t have to analyze it to understand the art represents. And it’s all about the characters, rather than landscape or costume or whatever. Did you have a hand in designing the art?

MARTHA: No, I didn’t design or commission any of the art. The professional art for the covers was commissioned by the publisher, and the fan art was done by readers who were inspired by the novels and wanted to do some art. The artists usually email me and say they’ve done fan art and would I like to see it, and I say yes, and link it or host it on the site if the artist is okay with that.

 

CARL: How much of the art is fan and how much is professional? Which ones are for the cover, which are for the inside of the book, and which are just for the website?

MARTHA: The two cover paintings on the art section of the Raksura site are labeled as covers. One is by Matthew Stewart, the cover of The Cloud Roads (it was the winner of a Chesley Award for best paperback illustration in 2012), and the other is by Steve Argyle, the cover of The Serpent Sea. The cover art of the novels was commissioned by the publisher. There isn’t any art inside the novels. I didn’t commission any art for the web site. (I can’t afford to.)

 

CARL: I also noticed that there’s more than one artist. Is there a different artist for each book? A different artist for each character?

MARTHA: Matthew Stewart did the cover for The Cloud Roads, and Steve Argyle did the covers for The Serpent Sea and The Siren Depths. There isn’t an artist for each character, as the only official art commissioned by the publisher were the cover paintings for each novel. There is art by three different fan artists on the site, and the link to each piece of art is labeled with the artist’s name. Some people drew the individual characters, the others drew groups. I didn’t tell any of the fan artists what to draw, they drew what they wanted.

 

CARL: Before you wrote Stargate and Star Wars stories, how much research did you do? Did you watch all the episodes? Did you read other Stargate/Star Wars novels? Did you consult with anyone on the TV/movie production team?

MARTHA: I was/am a long time Star Wars fan, and a Stargate: SG1 and Stargate: Atlantis fan. I saw all the movies, and watched all the episodes when they first came out before I knew I was ever going to write the books, and have them all on DVD. I didn’t consult with anyone in the production departments, just the editors for the publishers who were licensed to do the tie-ins.

 

CARL: Are there guidelines for writing franchise tie-in stories? Is there an editor assigned to keep everything within a canon? Do you submit outlines and so on? Or do you have creative freedom?

MARTHA: Yes, there are guidelines, and they are different for every franchise. There is an editor (all professionally published novels have editors) who helps with canon questions. I did submit outlines, but submitting an outline doesn’t mean I don’t have creative freedom. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by that in this context. I wrote the books I wanted to write.

 

CARL: Did the franchises contact you or did you query them? Is there an application process for writers who want to break into franchise writing?

MARTHA: I queried for the Stargate: Atlantis novels. The Star Wars publisher contacted my agent and asked me if I’d be interested in doing the book. I don’t think there is any standard application process. I think it’s different for each franchise.

 

CARL: Did you feel artistically inhibited writing about a universe you didn’t create?

MARTHA: No, but I feel an obligation to get the story and the characterization as close to canon as possible.

 

CARL: After doing so much adult fantasy, why did you decide to delve into YA sci-fi?

MARTHA: When I was a teenager, I enjoyed a lot of books that would now be classified as YA. I wanted to write the kind of books I wanted to read back then.

 

CARL: Did you study the YA genre or consult with any YA author/editors?

MARTHA: I read YA books because I enjoy them, I don’t know if that counts as studying the genre.

 

CARL: The main character in your YA stories is a girl named Emilie. Is she modeled after someone, real or fictional?

MARTHA: She’s fictional, and I made her up. She isn’t modeled after anyone.

 

CARL: Will there be further adventures with Emilie?

MARTHA: Probably not. The publisher was Strange Chemistry, the YA line of Angry Robot Books, and they shut down earlier this year.

 

CARL: Got any advice to aspiring speculative fiction writers?

MARTHA: Just research the industry so you know how publishing works, and write the kind stories that you love to read.

 

RAKSURA MUSIC:
The Solitary:

Chime:

Deceit of the Fell:

The Fell Flight Attacks:

www.marthawells.com

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Sandy Williams


Sandy Williams
Sandy Williams is the author of the Shadow Reader YA trilogy by Ace. Her next book is a space urban fantasy/science fiction romance due in January 2015. She is currently reading The Wise Man’s Fear, book #2 in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. She has taken the ice bucket challenge.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: The love triangle between McKenzie, Aren, and Kyol created a lot of buzz on Good Reads. Readers spent a lot of time discussing which guy is sexier, which one is better suited for McKenzie, and her decision making process when she chose between the two. Why did you choose to include a love triangle in the story?

SANDY WILLIAMS: Ah, the love triangle question. Readers either love them or hate them. Surprisingly, a good number of readers who usually hate love triangles enjoyed McKenzie’s story. I think that’s because I didn’t write it as a love triangle. I wrote a story about a girl who falls out of love with one guy, and into love with another. When I was writing the story, I tried really, really hard not to make McKenzie go back and forth between the two guys. She’ll always love Kyol, of course, but it’s a different kind of love, and once she made the decision to move on, she moved on. That didn’t erase all the memories she had with him, or the fact that he’s a good, respectable man, but she found Aren, and he lets her be who she wants to be. He lets her take risks and doesn’t protect her from the knowledge of the evil in the Realm. They fit together better.

 

CS: When McKenzie finally gets what she’s been asking for for 10 years, a normal life in the human world, she goes back into the fae world and stays. Was she really happy or did she really at home in the fae world all along?

SW: She definitely wasn’t happy with a normal job and life in the real world. After ten years, she’d built too many relationships to be able to say goodbye to the Realm. When she gets a taste of normal, she realizes that she’s permanently changed, and that she doesn’t need to be like everyone else on Earth; she can be herself.

 

17211803CS: At the beginning of the series, McKenzie is a Nancy Drew type, using her gift to analyze the scenes where fae transported. By the end of the series, she has learned how to wield a sword and uses it in battle. So she’s become a sort of warrior princess type. Why the transformation?

SW: I love the transformation! McKenzie has always been a strong, brave person, but in a world where everyone else has wielded a sword since they could walk, she’s never stood a chance against her enemies. She’s always had to have a protector. I wanted her to be able to take care of herself. She has the courage for it, and because of a certain event at the end of The Shattered Dark, she starts developing the skills. I love how that changes her character.

 

CS: If “Shadow Reader” is turned into a movie, who would you want to play McKenzie? What about Aren, Kyol, Lena and the other characters?

SW: This is one of the hardest questions I’m asked. I can point to actors and actresses who look similar to the characters in my head, but they’ve never been in a role where they acted like my characters, and a person’s movements, expressions, posture, etc. make up such a big portion of a character in my mind. But, if I’m forced to identify specific actors and actresses, I can do that. 🙂 For McKenzie, if the model on the cover of my books has any acting ability at all, she would do phenomenally. She looks EXACTLY like McKenzie. I’m so lucky my cover artist found the perfect match. I’m not a huge Brad Pitt fan, but Brad from the movie TROY totally works as an Aren. Kyol is probably the hardest match to find because there’s so much in his personality that makes him unique. Gah. I seriously can’t think of any actor that comes close to Kyol, but I’m going to say Stephen Amell, just because I love ARROW and he can be intense.

 

CS: What’s next for Sandy Williams?

I’m planning to release a sci-fi romance early next year. I’m excited about it. Both the hero and heroine can kick some serious butt, and they have a fun history. You can read an excerpt of the first chapter here . I can’t wait until it releases!

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Ann Leckie

LeckiePhoto-160x240Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice swept the awards. (See the list below.) The sequel, Ancillary Sword, is due in October 2014. The third novel in the trilogy will be titled Ancillary Mercy. Lecke is a Clarion West graduate, former VP of SFWA, founder of GigaNotoSaurus, and former slush editor for Podcastle. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Subterranean Magazine.

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU’RE A CLARION GRADUATE. WHAT DID YOU LEARN AT CLARION THAT MADE A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?

ANN LECKIE: I learned a *lot* at Clarion West. It would have been difficult not to. But I think there were two things that made the biggest difference.

One was something that, when I say it, maybe sounds kind of trivial. But it was so important. Which was, that before I went, I knew that I wanted to write, and I had been writing–of course, you have to send a sample of your fiction with your application. And I had written two novels (now trunked, fortunately) and several short stories, and had been submitting those short stories. But I was hesitant to say, “I’m a writer.” I would, when asked, kind of hedge. “I’m trying to write.”

After six weeks of being with people who took my work seriously, who all assumed that of *course* I was a writer, I went home feeling like I could take my own work seriously now. Not that I was holding back, or not taking it seriously before. But the “gosh should I really be doing this, am I wasting my time, what if I’m not really a writer?” part of my internal critic was gone, which psychologically freed me up to push harder and be more confident in my work. This might not be a big deal for some folks, but it was really important to me.

The second thing is maybe also a bit odd. So, our week six instructor was Michael Swanwick. Who is awesome. I mean, he read every single story each of us had applied with and also every single story we’d turned in during the entire workshop, and gave us critiques on every one of them. This is an amazing commitment, an incredible gift to us. And he’s Michael freaking Swanwick, right? So when he critiqued the story I’d turned in for week six, he gave me all kinds of fabulous advice, much of it very specific, and I noted it all down and was all set to revise the story according to his advice. Because, seriously, it was, no question, excellent advice. How could it not be?

But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it was excellent advice for an entirely different story. Not the story I’d written, but the story he’d perceived in the shambles that was my first draft. And I said to myself, “Self, you can’t actually take any of that advice. Instead, you need to rewrite the story in such a way that Michael Swanwick would not have misread it.”

That story turned out to be my first genre sale, my first pro sale, and my first appearance in a Years Best anthology. And the vitally important lesson Michael Swanwick taught me was that sometimes you ought to ignore even the very best advice. Even if it comes from Michael Swanwick. Maybe that sounds trivial, too. But anyone who’s been faced with several, possibly contradictory critiques of a story will probably know how incredibly useful that knowledge is.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: FROM THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANCILLARY JUSTICE AS A SHORT STORY UNTIL YOU SOLD THE NOVEL MANUSCRIPT WAS, WHAT, 10 YEARS? WERE THERE TIMES DURING THAT DECADE WHEN YOU THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER FINISH THE BOOK OR THOUGHT IT WOULD NEVER BE GOOD ENOUGH TO SELL?

ANN LECKIE: Oh, merciful Unconquered Sun, yes. Pretty much the entire time I was working on it, plus the entire time I was querying agents. I’ve come to think of that as the normal emotional background of writing, actually.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU WERE WORKING ON THE MANUSCRIPT WHILE YOU HAD YOUNG CHILDREN IN THE HOUSE. HOW DID YOU MANAGE BOTH AT THE SAME TIME?

ANN LECKIE: With some difficulty. At first, I would write in the few hours a day that my toddler napped, while my older child was at school. When he stopped napping, I signed him up for morning nursery school and wrote then. Once both kids were in school full time it got easier, though I’d made my life a bit more complicated by taking a job as a lunch lady. I wasn’t able to finish Ancillary Justice, though, until I quit that job and had school hours to myself. It would have been a zillion times harder if I’d had a full-time day job to handle. I’ve been really, really lucky.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: ANCILLARY JUSTICE SWEPT THE AWARDS. ANY IDEA WHAT THE APPEAL OF THE STORY IS THAT MADE IT SO POPULAR?

ANN LECKIE: I honestly don’t. Well, I did sit down to write a kind of story that I thought I’d enjoy reading. I threw in things that appealed to me–heck, I crowbarred them in. I was working the whole time with the assumption that it would never sell so I might as well please myself. I guess there are other people out there who like the same kinds of things I do!

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: YOU HAVEN’T DONE SHORT STORIES IN A WHILE. TOO BUSY WITH NOVELS?

ANN LECKIE: Pretty much, yes! Though I’d like to do more short fiction some time.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT WAS YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH GIGANOTOSAURUS AND WHAT WERE THE HIGHLIGHTS OF YOUR TIME THERE? WHAT ABOUT YOUR ROLE AT POD CASTLE?

ANN LECKIE: I started GigaNotoSaurus because I’d inherited a bit of money, and I felt that there weren’t enough places publishing longer fiction. I’ve been really pleased with how it’s turned out: in its first year, two stories I published were nominated for Nebulas, and another one the next year. And I published some amazing work by amazing writers, like Zen Cho’s “House of Aunts” or Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon.” Or Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Winged City.” Or…I could go on.

Podcastle–when Rachel Swirsky became editor of Podcastle (that was before PC had even started running) she asked me if I’d like to read slush for her. And I said yes, because it seemed like it would be fun. And it was! I also did some episode intros, and narrated some stories, which was also great fun. When Rachel was ready to step down, she asked me if I was interested in editing, but I was already setting up GNS, and felt two editing gigs would be too much. So I stayed on slushing for Anna and Dave when they took over.

I enjoyed it very much, but I’ve stepped down as slusher there, and turned over my GNS editing duties to Rashida J Smith, because noveling right now is taking up a lot of brain space.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHAT PERSPECTIVE DID YOU GAIN DURING YOUR TIME AS SECRETARY OF SFWA?

ANN LECKIE: There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes at a volunteer organization. Orgs like SFWA continue to exist and function because of the hard work of folks who actually have lots of other things to attend to, and they spend their free time doing that hard work. And it’s easy for members to think of the Board (or whatever the org equivalent is) as “them” to our “us” but really “they” are us to begin with. I’ve come to be a bit more patient with how slow some organizational decisions are, and how easy it is to think a particular issue or procedure is just a matter of immediately doing one particular thing, when really it’s more difficult and complicated than that, for reasons that aren’t necessarily visible to me.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: GOT ANY ADVICE TO ASPIRING SPECULATIVE FICTION WRITERS?

ANN LECKIE: Yes! Don’t give up. Be willing to take criticism, be willing to reconsider what you’re doing, but once you’ve decided on what you’re doing, do that. Don’t worry about what someone told you editors want or don’t want, don’t worry about whether your work is marketable, don’t worry about lists of “rules” that tell you not to use second person or never to use adverbs or whatever. Just do it, and do it as awesomely as you can at that particular time in your life, and trust the universe for the rest. And when it’s done, send it out and try to forget about it, and start working on the next thing. And speaking as a former slusher–when you submit, always read and follow the guidelines!

 

Ancillary Justice won the following awards:

2014 Hugo Award for Best Novel
Golden Tentacle for best debut novel of 2013.
Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of the year.
British Science Fiction Association BSFA Award for Best Novel of 2013.
Nebula Award for Best Novel.
Locus Award for Best First Novel.

The novel was also nominated for the following awards:

Shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award.
Tiptree Award Honor List for 2013.
Finalist for the 2013 Compton Crook Award.

 

Carl_eagle

 

Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Mur Lafferty

Mur_lafferty_headshotMur Lafferty is one of the pioneers of podcasting – founder, producer, host, voice, editor, author. She has won the Parsec Award several times. Her Shambling Guide comedy-horror series is available from Orbit.

MUR’S RAP SHEET:
Member of the Podcast Pickle Hall of Fame
One of the Top Ten Savvy Women in Podcasting, 2006
Tricks of the Podcasting Masters was named one of the top reference books for 2006 by Amazon.com.
2007 Parsec Nomination for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Short Form): I Look Forward To Remembering You
2007 Parsec Award for Best Writing Related Podcast: I Should Be Writing
2008 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Novella Form): Heaven – Season Four: Wasteland
2008 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Long Form): Playing for Keeps
2010 Parsec Nomination for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Novella Form): Heaven – Season Five: War
2011 Parsec Nomination for Best Speculative Fiction Story (Novella Form): Marco and the Red Granny
2012 Nomination for John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
2013 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

 

Lafferty_ShamblingGuide2F8-1-200x300CARL SLAUGHTER: You’re one of the pioneers of podcasting. Geek Fu Action Grip, Wingin’ It, I Should Be Writing, Mad Science with the Princess Scientist, Angry Robot Books, Pseudopod, Escape Pod. Did I miss any?

MUR LAFFERTY: Almost! I did the Lulu Podcast and This Day in Alternate History back in 2007.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: How did you get involved in each of these projects and what significant happened while you were there?

MUR LAFFERTY: I’m not sure what significant things happened- I was simply interested in podcasting and I became part of the podcasting community where I met Michael and Evo of Dragon Page, and Steve Eley of Escape Pod. My communications with them had me working on Wingin’ It and the Pseudopod and Escape Pod, and editor Lee Harris was a listener of mine for I Should Be Writing and he asked me to do the Angry Robot show.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You recently returned to Escape Pod. In what capacity?

MUR LAFFERTY: I’m Editor at Large for Escape Artists, which means I am co-editing Escape Pod with Norm Sherman, but I have some other duties that will be apparent in future months.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: I Should Be Writing is your longest running podcast. How many episodes have there been? What topics have you discussed? Who have you interviewed?

MUR LAFFERTY: Probably around 400 to 500 total. I have video, special eps, and some premium content for people who have supported me for years. I talk mainly about the anxieties that can stop new writers, and how to work past them. I’ve interviewed Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman, NK Jemisin, and, coming up, Seanan McGuire and Charlaine Harris.

 

Mur_lafferty-300x198CARL SLAUGHTER: Who is the Princess Scientist, what are the science topics, and how mad is the science?

MUR LAFFERTY: She’s my 11 year old daughter, we do science experiments around a theme via video. We’ve done sun science and baking soda science.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Whose idea was it to launch the Parsec Award? Who was involved?

MUR LAFFERTY: I thought SF podcasting needed an award, since podcasting awards started coming on the scene in 2005, but no one was recognizing the geeky section of shows. I got together with Michael R. Menenga and Tracy Hickman and we launched the award.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You carved out a fiction career for yourself in podcasting before you broke into print. How does an author get podcasted without getting published first? Is it easier to get a story published after it’s been podcasted? Is it easier to break into print after you’ve been podcasted?

MUR LAFFERTY: Publishing fiction via podcast is a DIY endeavor – an author doesn’t “get” podcasted, she does it herself. As for easier, I don’t think so. Like all self publishing, if something is a huge hit, publishers may take notice, but if it’s not, then publishers will consider it already published and not worth their time. One thing podcasting will give you is an audience which can make you more attractive to publishers, but ultimately you have to have a good book.

 

Lafferty_GhostTraintoNOLA-TP-200x300CARL SLAUGHTER: Suppose someone wanted to launch a podcast. How much money would they need to raise? What would they need in the way of recording equipment and web resources? What would they need in terms of personnel?

MUR LAFFERTY: I think you’re thinking bigger than I’ve ever been! You can launch a podcast with a $20 mic and some web space, which can be $120 a year. You don’t need a group to do it, the biggest thing is make sure you have a host with plenty of bandwidth so, if you get popular, you don’t get hit with a huge server bill.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Anything else an aspiring podcaster needs to know?

MUR LAFFERTY: You will hate your voice and your first few shows will likely suck. It happens to everyone. Don’t let it stop you.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Laura Resnick on Cover Art

MisCookLaura Resnick has authored 6 fantasy-detective-comedy novels (the Esther Diamond series from Daw), 3 fantasy novels (the Silerian trilogy from Tor), 15 romance novels (from Silhouette), many short stories (mostly in DAW anthologies), several essays on print and screen fiction, and “Rejection, Romance, and Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer.”

She won the Campbell award for best writer and was a finalist for the Rita award. She won the Romantic Times Magazine award 3 times. She writes “The Mad Scribbler,” a monthly opinion column for Nink. For the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s bulletin, she wrote a quarterly opinion column, “The Filthy Pro.” She wrote a monthly column, “The Comely Curmedgeon,” for Nink. She has served as member of the board of directors, president elect, and president of Novelists, Inc.

Laura Resnick has done extensive research, including interviews with authors and art directors, on how cover art is developed and how it has a drastic affect on sales and careers. Her current artist, for the Esther Diamond series, is Dan Dos Santos, a 5 time Hugo nominee and Chesley winner.

In this interview with Diabolical Plots‘ Carl Slaughter, she provides the inside story on cover art.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: You’ve done extensive research on how cover art affects sales figures and author careers. Give us some examples of cover art that tanked sales and delayed careers and some examples of how cover art moved a book off the shelf and fast tracked a career.

Laura Resnick 1LAURA RESNICK: An editor once cited Barbara Michaels aka Elizabeth Peters to me as an example of a writer whose career was held back for years by bad covers. Peters died last year (peacefully at home, at the age of 85) after a career which included many New York Times bestselling novels. But that success came some 20 years and many well-reviewed books into her career, and there was a noticeable shift in packaging that accompanied her well-deserved success. For years, publishers were giving her muddy, generic covers that conveyed nothing of the tone of her books, and she developed her audience strictly on her own merits via word-of-mouth, with no help at all from her dreadful packaging. Then if you look at the packaging she started getting around the mid-1990s, you can see a definite shift in quality of the covers, which accompanied her rising sales. In particular, the eventual packaging of her Amelia Peabody series (the early books, poorly packaged, were also repackaged with the new look) was a winner, and the series was commercially very successful for years (she was working on another Amelia Peabody book when she died).

In my own case, my Esther Diamond series had a disastrous launch with (among other problems) a hideously inappropriate cover from Luna Books. Esther Diamond is a comedic urban fantasy series. To give you some idea of how off-target that cover for book #1, Disappearing Nightly, was: The year that book was released, I held that cover up for an audience at a workshop on book covers and packaging, and I asked them what kind of book they thought this cover was for. The two audience members who got the most agreement form everyone else? One thought it was a 1970s showbiz memoir, and the other thought it was a thriller about a hooker. When no one looking at an Esther Diamond cover can tell that it’s (1) urban fantasy, (2) comedy, or (3) a series, that represents a very serious cover problem. The book tanked and Luna dumped me (and so did my fourth literary agent,don’t even get me started on agents). Fortunately, DAW Books was willing to take a chance on book #2 of this badly mishandled series. They packaged it wonderfully, revived the series, subsequently acquired and repackaged book #1, we’re about to release book #7, and I’m contracted through at least book #10,of a series that crashed and got dumped after one book because of disastrous packaging at its previous house.

I think Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, aka the “Trueblood” series) is an example of someone who got a boost from good packaging. Harris was a longtime midlist career writer who developed the idea for the Sookie Stackhouse novels in an attempt to use her strengths as a writer to achieve the commercial success which had so far eluded her. (Obviously, she succeeded, becoming a #1 hardcover NYT bestseller with this series.) Ace Books launched the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, with a very distinctive cover. I remember picking up that book years ago because of the cover (which was impressive packaging, since I don’t read vampire novels). Harris was doing good work on a very commercial project, but the distinctive packaging really helped that series stand out early on.

 

CARL: Who makes decisions about cover art and who should be making those decisions?

PolterheistLAURA: At large publishing conglomerates (ex. Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster), too often the people making decisions about packaging are unfamiliar with the book or the author’s work,and therefore also unfamiliar with the author’s audience, who are the people the cover needs to attract. I have even been told anecdotes by wearily amused art directors about book covers being directed by senior people in the corporate hierarchy who don’t read books and who have no art or design background whatsoever, but who, for one reason or another, want cover control. To give just one example of how truly absurd the process can get, one art director at a major house told me that for a year or two, most of that company’s major releases had red covers because the Chief Financial Officer’s girlfriend liked red, and he wanted to make her happy.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, depending on just how small a small press is, art direction may be in the hands of one person who is also editor, marketer, publisher, and business manager. This can go well if that person is brilliant at art direction,and badly if he’s not.
Ideally, what you want in your cover artist/illustrator, designer, and/or art director are people who know art and design, know the book or the author’s work, and understand what look attracts the author’s audience. Art directors and cover artists have told me that the more people that get involved in the process, the harder it is to come out of the maelstrom with a good cover. It’s a basic “too many cooks spoil the broth” issue,especially if most of those people don’t know the book and don’t know design.

Which is not to say, however, that no one else’s input is ever valuable. One senior editor who was directing her own imprint, for example, told me about an instance where someone on the publisher’s sales force contacted her to object to a cover, and his advice was probably career-saving for the author (he had good reason to believe that a major retail chain would refuse to carry that cover, and so the package was rethought). On the other hand, the same editor also had numerous incidents of sales reps emphatically offering cover advice on the basis of what would appeal to them,rather than (and in direct opposition to) what would appeal to the audience whom the books in her imprint were aimed at.

 

CS: Are art directors qualified to make decisions about marketing? Are authors qualified to make decisions about art?

DN Cover DAWLR: Well, “marketing” is a broad term, involving a lot of areas unrelated to the book cover. It is, in essence, the question of how to get lots of people who are likely to enjoy the book to pick it up in the first place.

For the past few decades, book covers (and everything else in the publishing process) tended to be aimed at middlemen,distributors and retailers,rather than at readers. Booksellers, distributors, and head buyers for the major chains are publishers’ customers (particularly big conglomerate publishers). So decisions about manuscript acquisition and cover design have tended to be made with those type of businesses in mind. eBooks and internet shopping are now affecting this process by eliminating some of those layers and elevating the importance of the reader’s reaction to a book cover. Additionally, covers online have to catch the reader’s eye in a much smaller format (thumbnail size, rather than physical book size), which is also affecting design decisions. So the cover world, like the entire book world, is in flux these days.

That said, an art director can package a book brilliantly if she’s a brilliant art director for books, and she can only do a mediocre or poor job if she’s mediocre or poor at packaging books. Additionally, any art director is packaging a lot of books every year, on a tight schedule,and no one is brilliant all the time, for every book, especially when she has limited time to work on it; this is why even companies with mostly good covers nonetheless release some frogs-and-dogs every year.

Authors have typically been omitted from participation in the traditional book cover process at most publishing houses. This is an example of the dismissive contempt that most publishers exercise toward writers, who are usually treated as something between a tedious encumbrance and a mutant sewer rat.

Admittedly, in some cases. omitting the author from the cover process is understandable. There are authors who fixate on irrelevancies (the heroine’s hairstyle isn’t right; the hero is too muscular; the dragon doesn’t really look like that; etc.) or who have One Sole Idea for the cover and are angry at any deviation from it (even if the idea is unworkable or just plain bad).

A book cover is supposed to be an effective advertisement for your book, not a perfectly detailed representation of a scene exactly as it appeared in the author’s head. An author can only be productive in the cover process if she understands that and acts accordingly.

That said, the function of the book cover is to attract the author’s audience (her existing readers and readers who’ll like her work if they can be convinced to pick up and open the book),and who knows the author’s audience better than the author herself, for goodness sake? She is the person who is attracting that audience with her stories, book after book,not some random bystander who has no idea what her audience is interested in! She probably also is her audience, since most writers are writing books they’d like to read.

There are authors who don’t want to be involved in the cover process (though they are increasingly rare). But any author who wants to be involved should be given that chance (and at most publishing houses, is still not allowed that opportunity), because she understands her audience better than anyone else in the publishing process.

 

CS: How can an author get involved in the art process and ensure their books get good covers – or at least don’t get bad covers – without alienating relationships at the publisher?

UnsympMagLR: Not alienating relationships at the publishing house is a matter of professionalism in all things, not just covers. And, frankly, I’ve worked with a couple of publishers in the past which are so unprofessional and so contemptuous of authors that there’s really no way to get anything done without alienating them. (Also, in retrospect, I don’t regret the instances where I alienated publishing staff in order to protect my books. I regret the few instances where I foolishly backed off on protecting my books in order to try to preserve relationships with publishers; this turned out to be the wrong decision in every instance. When a book is handled badly, sales suffer, and so the relationship is destroyed anyhow,because publishers publish for money, not love, friendship, loyalty, or honor.)

In terms of the cover process, some general practical tips for writers: Inform your editor at the start (and with occasional reminders along the way) that you want to be involved in the cover process. (If you’ve done this before, present examples, so that they can see you actually wind up with good covers when you’re involved.)

Present a shortlist of cover artists (3-6) as suggestions for your cover art; and ask the editor who the publisher is thinking of. Try to establish a dialogue about who will do the cover, because getting the right artist will eliminate a lot of potential problems.

If they’re going to bypass art and go strictly with design (or design and stock photos), then present a package (ex. 4-8) of sample covers that convey the sort of style/tone you think would suit your book, and ask their opinion, feedback, or counter suggestions. They may ignore you but, again, work on establishing a dialogue, on presenting yourself as someone who should be kept in the loop and with whom ideas should be discussed.

Ask to see the artist’s sketches (and you should probably ask fairly often, if it’s a house or editor likely to omit you) or the designer’s early concepts. This is crucial, because this is the stage at which you’ve got the best chance of having your input included,while they’re planning the thing. (Too many writers just wait until they see the final cover and then object; this is way too late to voice an opinion, folks. It’s like saying after the house is built that you’d like the kitchen to be in front, not in back; at that late date, everyone’s just going to ignore you.)

After sketches or concept have been approved, ask to see the preliminary art (an artist will usually do some minor revisions to the art, as requested) or near-final design, which is another stage at which you can make suggestions.

Always be constructive and make suggestions. Just complaining and telling them what you don’t like doesn’t give anyone in the process anything to work with.

If there’s an artist, give him an e-file or Pinterest link (early on, before sketches) with lots of images. Artists are visual people, so don’t bore him with tons of text, show him visuals. I provide cover artists with all sorts of images that represent the “look” of my books, a visual portrayal of the world that’s inside my head, imagery that’s related to the text, pictures and covers that convey the tone I think would suit my cover, etc. For example, for the cover of Unsympathetic Magic, I sent artist Dan Dos Santos loads of images from my research on Vodou; for The Misfortune Cookie, I sent him the photos I’d taken on my research trips to Chinatown and copies of the Chinese calligraphy I’d been researching for the book. If you don’t have direct connection to the artist, then pass this material to him through your editor,and follow up to make sure the editor gave it to him.

Always remember, the final cover is a done deal. If that’s the first time you’re looking at it, it’s too late to change anything. So get into the process early. (However, if you hate the final cover so much you want to kill yourself, then make some design suggestions; they won’t change art at that late date, but they might change design, which is an easier fix. Might, I say.)

 

CS: Can authors afford to commission their own art? Should they? Can they find free cover art on the Internet, and if so, should they use it?

VamparazziLR: Authors are doing this in the self-publishing world,and in many cases, very effectively and successfully. In the traditional publishing world, though, you don’t want to do this. One, your publisher won’t go along with it; two, why on earth would you sign a contract that funnels the majority of the income to a publisher if they aren’t going to pay for the packaging? If you want to do the packaging yourself, then self-publish. (For some examples of great self-published covers, check out some awards sites for “best of” indie and self-published cover art.)

 

CS: “The original cover art for your romance novels has lovers in passionate embrace. Later covers have a large heart shape and no people or people silhouetted. Why the big change?”
LR: The romance market changed a lot over time, and is still evolving,as all book markets do. The covers of couples passionately embracing (in which the woman is usually half-naked and the man is mostly shirtless) was a trademark look for the genre that was largely developed by an artist named Pino (an Italian immigrant, classically trained artist, and lovely man who passed away a couple of years ago) and Kensington Books (founded by the late Walter Zacharius). The half-naked babes on the covers were popular with the truckers and jobbers who stocked a lot of the wire-rack outlets where mass market paperbacks where sold 30 years ago, and it was a new, glamorous look that became very successful. However, by the 1990s, cloth covers for these books were very popular with readers, many of whom were uncomfortable being teased or smirked at for reading novels with these prurient covers, and the look was becoming less popular. Meanwhile, the superstore phenomenon (ex. Barnes & Noble) was coming to dominate bookselling, and romance novels needed shelf space in those stores as shopping/buying habits changed among readers. A more “bookstore-ish” look became desirable. So publishers gradually started experimenting with romantic looking covers that still visually identified the genre of the book, but without a semi-clad couple actually fornicating right there on the cover.

Some years after that, though, erotica became a big market. And then ebooks came along, and no one actually sees the cover of the book you’re reading on your e-tablet. These are two factors that have led to a portion of the market moving back toward more sexual covers,while other writers and subgenres in romance have adopted more mainstream looks, images that wouldn’t have appeared on a “romance novel” 20 years ago (ex. A beach chair by the ocean; a cafÃ’ table; two hands clasped; etc.) So the whole look of the genre keeps changing as the market continues evolving.

 

CS: I was captivated by the cover art for your Esther Diamond series. Particularly the cover of “Misfortune Cookie.” So exciting, so intriguing, so dramatic, so vivid. It looks a puzzle with pieces for the reader put together. I count at least 4 hands sticking out of that giant fortune cookie. And Esther is portrayed as being perpetually on the move as she solves the case. The cover of “Unsympathetic Magic” is also particularly eye catching. So who is your cover artist? Because, if I don’t succeed as a writer, I could always kidnap them and make a fortune selling their art!

DopplegangsterLR: The Esther Diamond covers are illustrated by the brilliant Dan Dos Santos. He’s a Chesley Award winner, a five-time Hugo Award nominee, and has won or been nominated for numerous other awards for his art. He’s also prolific, so you’ve probably seen his art on numerous other book covers.

DAW Books publishes the Esther Diamond series, and they’ve been terrific about including me in the cover process. We discussed artists early on, and Dan was top pick for each of us. He’s extremely creative with cover images, very imaginative, and he captures a perfect combination of menace, comedy, and sexiness in these covers. I typically review the cover sketches and the preliminary art with the publisher, and we develop a consensus on the feedback that my editor gives him. Dan also communicates directly with me about various specifics or questions. So the cover process for the Esther Diamond novels is a pleasure for me, rather than an exercise in helplessness and frustration, and the results have been consistently excellent.

 

CS: “Book #7 in the Esther Diamond series, “Abracadaver,” comes out in November. Any more lined up? Will you continue the series indefinitely?”

LR: There are three more unwritten Esther Diamond novels under contract at this time, and I hope to do many more after that. (I’m currently tearing my hair out trying to come up with a title for book #8.)

 

CS: Any advice to aspiring writers?

RRRLR: The market and the book/publishing world have changed a great deal during the years I’ve been writing professionally, yet I find that the two most common mistakes that aspiring writers make have not changed at all: not writing enough and not educating themselves about the business. And so my advice hasn’t changed, either. It’s still:

1. Write a lot. Practice your craft. Keep writing. And write still more after that. This is a craft, not divinely-inspired magic. It requires practice. Genius does not automatically flow forth from your muse-blessed fingertips. If you don’t expect to play a sonata perfectly the first time you ever sit down at a piano, then why would you expect to write an excellent story or novel the first time you sit down to write one? Talent is wildly romanticized and overrated, and the unglamorous qualities of plain old hard work and perseverance are perpetually underrated.

2. Educate yourself about the writing/publishing business and keep educating yourself. This is a competitive profession and a complex industry. You need to treat it as such if you want to succeed.
CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S ESSAY ON COVER ART:

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Book%20Covers.htm

 

CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S ESSAYS ON LITERARY AGENTS:

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/RWRexcerp.htm
http://www.ninc.com/blog/index.php/archives/author-agent-business-model

 

CHECK OUT LAURA RESNICK’S TESTIMONY ON BREAKING INTO WRITING::

First Book Friday: Laura Resnick

 

READ EXCERPTS OF LAURA RESNICK’S ESTHER DIAMOND SERIES::

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/ManMattExcerp.htm#MCexcerpt
http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/UnsympMag.htm#Polterheist

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Excerpts/Doppel.htm

 

LAURA RESNICK’S NONFICTION WRITING::

http://www.sff.net/people/laresnick/Other%20Writing/NonFic.htm

 

LAURA RESNICK’S HOME PAGE::

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Literary Agent Amy Boggs

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

amy-boggs-photoLiterary agent Amy Boggs is a sci-fi/fantasy geek who has been professionally geeking out over books at Donald Maass agency since 2009. She specializes in speculative fiction and is especially interested in high fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk (and its variations), YA, MG, and alternate history.

Her recent books include: Tom Pollock’s Our Lady of the Streets, the final book in the Skyscraper Throne series (urban fantasy); Thea Harrison’s Knight’s Honor, book #7 in the Elder Races series (paranormal romance); Jacey Bedford’s Empire of Dust, the first in space opera series.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why get into agenting? Rather than writing or editing, or marketing or publicity, or publishing.

AMY BOGGS: I knew I wanted to get into the agenting side of the business after interning at an agency my sophomore year at college. Right out of college, I would have been very happy to have a job that touched publishing in any way, so I could have spent time in any division of a publishing house, but I knew agenting was my end goal because it combines many of my favorite things about the book business. You brainstorm with your authors and help them revise and negotiate fair contracts and fight bad covers and talk them into good covers they don’t particularly like and tell everyone you can about their fabulous books. I work solely for the author, because what benefits the author benefits the agency and me. I like that my job is purely championing my authors and their work.

 

How did you know as early as college that you wanted to be a literary agent?

Vassar College’s Career Development Office had a weekly newsletter they left in our mailboxes, and one day there was a notice for an internship at a literary agency. I had a vague idea of what agents did and thought it would be good experience. Once I got on the job, I knew it was what I wanted to do in my future.

 

How did you rise from intern to agent so quickly?

Did I? I think agent careers reflect author careers in that you can’t really say there is a typical timeline they’re supposed to follow. This varies by the agency, of course, but I did my first agency internship in 2005 and then interned at DMLA in 2008 (with jobs at two magazines in between) and then was hired as an agency assistant in 2009. Eight months later I found a brilliant author in my boss’s queries and he thought I should be the one to take him on. Two months later I signed my next client, and five months later I sold a three-book deal. I don’t know if that’s quick or slow or typical, but it happened very organically. I do know that I’m fortunate to work at an agency that encouraged my growth and has a few decades of experience to back me up.

 

Why so keen on sci-fi/fantasy?

I’ve always loved it. When I was three, I was obsessed with Scooby-Doo. Bruce Coville was my childhood. My pre-teen self couldn’t get enough of Unsolved Mysteries, but only the segments with aliens, UFOs, ghosts, and supernatural critters. The Princess Bride was my family’s first DVD. I played Legend of Zelda and read Harry Potter and wrote portal fantasy all through middle and high school. I’m not entirely sure why; I just find other worlds more interesting, and a better avenue for exploring the quandaries on our own world. Perhaps I’m the opposite of Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy; my mind works mostly in metaphors.

 

How do you size up whether an author is a good fit for you and a good fit for your agency?

99% of it is the manuscript; can’t do anything without a good manuscript. 1% is whether or not the author is a jerk. I have lots of authors and lots of excellent manuscripts coming my way and only a finite amount of time, so I’d prefer to spend it with cool people and not jerks. How do I determine if someone is a jerk? Well, if they’ve ever seriously blogged things like “I’m not racist, but†” or “I just happen to read only male authors.” then chances are I’m not the right agent for them.

 

When you read a manuscript, how do you tell when you’ve got a winner? Characters, plot, writing style? Current market? Or do you listen to your instinct?

All of the above. Intriguing characters fall flat with a monotone writing style, no amount of exciting plot can make up for characters that aren’t worth following, all the elements have to work together. All of those have to be doubly unique and amazing if it’s in a subgenre that’s recently been hot and now everyone’s sick of it. And instinct is really just a combination of all this and having read enough to know when something stands out. There is nothing quite like it when you’ve read 100 queries that day and one of them makes you sit up in your chair.

 

Do you get most of your new clients over the transom, through networking, or at conventions and workshop?

70% of my clients came to me through my queries. The rest are from recommendations from co-workers, clients, and even one from my mom (she is a children’s bookseller, so she knows her stuff).

 

How many manuscripts a year do you consider and what percentage do you accept?

I actually don’t have those numbers; when I check a manuscript off my list to read, I literally delete it off the list! But I would guess I consider about 100 manuscripts a year, and I end up signing about 2% of those. I wouldn’t say I accept them; when an agent offers representation, they are offering to partner with the author. So really what happens is both agent and author agree to a partnership.

 

Do you work with authors on revising?

Yes. I am pickier about the amount of revision I’m willing to take on (more clients equals less time for revising debut manuscripts), but I always want a manuscript to be as perfect as both the author and I can make it before it goes to editors.

 

Do you get involved on the publicity/marketing end?

I help where I can, but I am not a publicist. That’s a position that requires a particular set of skills, skills acquired over a very long career.

 

If you take on a new client, what kind of productivity do you expect? How many books a year?

That depends entirely on the client and the genre(s) they write in. In romance, anything less than one book a year isn’t enough. In literary fiction, one book every five years isn’t far out there. What I really want is for my authors not to feel overwhelmed and pushed into delivering inferior books. So far that hasn’t happened; publishing is more accommodating than one might fear.

 

Do you prefer an author stick with a series? Are stand alones trickier commercially? Or does it matter?

Again, depends on the author and genre(s). And really, it’s not about my preference, but what I advise to the author. It is their career and it is my job to make sure they are well-informed so that regardless of the choices they make, they won’t be sideswiped by the outcome.

 

Any subgenres you can’t get enough of? Any you get too much of?

High fantasy. Richly built, other-world high fantasy with fantastic characters I want to follow forever, like N.K. Jemisin, Megan Whalen Turner, Scott Lynch, Ellen Kushner. Most of the fantasy I get is tied to our world (historical, contemporary, urban, steampunk) and those are lovely, but I want more high fantasy. And it’s not so much that I get too much of any subgenre, but that I get things typical of a subgenre. Like portal fantasy where the protagonist is mystically taken to another land and the plot is their quest to get home. I want something new, regardless of subgenre.

 

What are the most common misconceptions new writers have about finding and working with literary agents?

1. Agents are gatekeepers. As cool and ominous as that sounds, it’s not true. An agent’s job isn’t to keep people out, it’s to find those they have the time and ability to help get published. Like I said above, it’s a partnership. Agents put out their information to say they’re looking for authors to partner with, writers pick which agents they want to reach out to partner with, agents decide which of those writers they think they could make a good partnership with, and writers decide whether or not they want to partner with the agent who offers. I know from a querying author’s perspective it can seem like agents have all the power here, but the thing is, we’re nothing without authors.

2. After you get an agent, things get easier. Ha. If only. No matter what level you’re at as an author, things are hard. Even that beloved author of multiple series has that major newspaper that trashes each book and faces the same blank page when they go to write their next book. It’s always hard, just different kinds of hard.

 

What are the most common manuscript mistakes new writers make?

1. Emulating books that aren’t debuts published within the last five years. Writing changes with society and readers have continually changing expectations for debut novels. Imitating Tolkien in a world that has had Tolkien’s books for 77 years is like trying to get people to invest in your new invention “the zipper.” We’ve already got that. Show us something new.

2. Transcribing literally what published novelists do subtly. I think this is why I get so many queries that start with the protagonist telling you the daily nuances of their life or a prologue that goes into detail about the world the book is set in. Novelists often get this information across subtly over the course of a novel, and by the end a reader knows ever detail intimately, so the impulse to start a book by describing the details is an understandable one. It’s just one that must be fought.

3. Going with the path of least resistance in writing. Writing is not easy, and so when plotting along, it’s tempting to go with the first thing that comes to mind. Often, however, the first thing to come to mind is something already seen in other books. It’s too easy to let inspiration become imitation become a clichÃ’ . Author Kate Brauning had a recent post about how she comes up with fresh ideas with “The Rule of Ten.” I think it’s utterly brilliant and challenges writers to question their gut.

 

Advice to new writers?

Be daring and be true. It will come across in your work.

 

Carl_eagle Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

editor’s note: We interviewed Nancy Kress in 2009–feel free to check that interview out as well.

Nancy Kress is an award winning author, Asimov’s regular, and workshop instructor. She authors a book in Writer’s Digest‘s “Write Great Fiction” series and was a columnist for Writer’s Digest. Here she offers how-to insights into character development.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Humans are complicated. How does a writer know when to develop a character through personality, feelings, experiences, biochemical makeup, relationships, circumstances, motives? When to emphasis which aspect of a person? Are certain aspects of a character inherently more useful for storytelling?

NANCY KRESS: That’s a complicated question! The most useful aspect of a character for story-telling purposes is motive: What does this person want and why? That’s what drives plot. A character’s personality will determine how he tries to get what he wants (earning it, stealing it, getting someone else to provide it, etc.) and how he handles frustration along the way. The character’s prior “experiences” (otherwise known as backstory) are good for the writer to know in order to provide the character with the feelings, relationships, and reactions that will make him vivid to the reader. Each of these elements is important.

 

How to know when to take the reader into the character’s head versus letting the character express themselves versus letting the reader discern through the character’s actions?

What feels natural? If it’s natural for this particular character in this particular situation to express his feelings directly through dialogue, let him do it. If his actions make his feelings clear (“James hurled the frying pan at Pamela”), then do that. If your character is inarticulate or has no one around to express to, then take us into his thoughts. The biggest mistake I see in student writing is not going deeply enough into a character’s point of view.

 

How to determine whether a character should evolve, devolve, or remain flat? Do you start with a character who is predetermined to evolve/devolve, or do you build a plot and let the plot determine whether the character should evolve/devolve?

The latter. I do believe that nearly all protagonists should change in some way , after all, if the events of the story don’t affect him, why should they affect the reader? How he will change is something I often don’t know until I’m about halfway through the book. Then I must go back on rewrite and set up the foreshadowing that makes it believable that this character can and will change in that specific way.

 

When to use sinister character versus victim/hero and when to give every character a legitimate motive and a compelling case?

Always. Every character must be believably motivated, and that includes the villain (sinister or not). When characters do things not from their own reasons but because the plot requires it, the whole story collapses. Their reasons may be 180 degrees away from objective reality (“I know that I’m Napoleon reincarnated”), but the writer still must convince us that the character believes it.

 

How to integrate premise, plot, and theme into character development.

Premise is the situation the character finds himself in, and it should appear fairly early on in the narrative. Plot is how he deals with that situation, which in turn is determined by his character. For example, Luke Skywalker in STAR WARS finds a hologram of Princess Leia begging for help from someone named Obi-Wan. Another boy might have shrugged and erased the holo, or tried to sell R2D2 on eBay, or whatever. Because of Luke’s personal character (plucky, curious, bored to death on Tatooine), he goes looking for this Obi-Wan, and the plot is off and running.

 

Do we really need to know that a character wears a goatee, listens to Bach, uses standard language instead of colloquialisms, and prefers omelet over scrambled? How does a character’s appearance or lifestyle help the reader understand and appreciate the story?

All those things can help readers (1) visualize the character, (2) learn something about his socioeconomic background, and (3) identify with him (or not, if that’s what the writer wants). People form first impressions of other people in seconds, and those impressions are remarkably sturdy. Use details to make sure we have the first impression of your protagonist that you want us to have.

 

Most/least useful strategies for character interaction?

The most useful: dramatize. SHOW us your character talking with others, doing things with others, treating others well or badly or indifferently or exploitatively or tenderly. We want to be a fly on the wall observing your story, as if it were a play or movie. Least useful strategy: Nothing but dialogue. You actually aren’t a playwright or screenwriter,you have the added advantages of (1) being able to show us your character’s thoughts and (2) of using exposition to provide background. Use all the narrative tools available to you.

 

Common misconceptions aspiring writers have about character development?

The most common: “My readers understand what my character’s feelings are because they’re the same ones anybody would have in those circumstances.” No. People are amazingly varied. If you don’t provide enough dramatization of your character’s motives and emotions, we may misconstrue them entirely. Or,worse,assume the character is a big bore. Another common misconception is that saying “John was sad” amounts to showing emotion. You must make us feel his sadness.

 

Common mistakes writers make in developing characters?

Writing villains with no motivation other than pure evil.
Giving us too few details to grasp a character’s personality.
Having characters change without enough foreshadowing to show that they are capable of change.
Not taking us deep enough into a character’s POV.
Having all your characters sound exactly alike in dialogue.
Making heroes all-good and all-powerful.

 

Where can writers get book length advice from you?

I’ve written three books on writing: BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDS; DYNAMIC CHARACTERS; and CHARACTERS, EMOTION, AND VIEWPOINT. All are available from Writers Digest Books and on such book-selling sites as Amazon.com.

 

Where can writers workshop length advice from you?

I teach at various venues, depending on the year, but the two most consistent are at Hugo House in Seattle and at Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. The latter is a two-week intensive seminar in writing fantasy and science fiction.

 

Where can writers get article length advice from you?

I no longer write my column for WRITERS DIGEST MAGAZINE, but much of the same information is collected in my books on writing.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

 

 

 

 

Interview: Rhiannon Held

written by Carl Slaughter

R-Held-230x300Rhiannon Held is a frequent panelist at writer’s conferences. She is a archaeologist by profession. She is the author of the Silver series, an urban fantasy published by Tor. In this interview, she answers questions about character development and world building, then wraps up by sharing her take on critique groups.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: Before discussing writing advice, let’s give writers a peek at your own stories. Especially the premise and the setting. I’m particularly interested in the fact that the werewolves in your Silver stories don’t involuntarily transform on full moon nights and are werewolves by birth rather than conversion. Isn’t that like a vampire that doesn’t suck blood, a witch that doesn’t cast spells, a dragon that doesn’t breathe fire, a mermaid that can’t swim, a zombie that’s not dead? Aren’t bite infection and involuntary transformation the age old curse of the werewolf?

RHIANNON HELD: You underestimate the diversity of the source material! If you look up the origins of the werewolf myth, you find a variety of different causes and symptoms in stories spread over time and geographic area. A werewolf could be a witch, murder, sorcerer, sinner, someone risen from the dead… They could transform with a spell, drinking from a wolf’s footprint, wearing a wolfskin belt, wearing an entire wolfskin, a Satanic ritual, rubbing their body with a salve, or†you get the idea! Basically, it was a monster that was whatever the culture adapting it needed it to be, based loosely on the idea of a combination of a human with a powerful predator. Most mythological monsters are like that,compare Eastern dragons with Western dragons, for example. Both are dragons, but they are different based on what their cultures wanted them to symbolize.

So when I decided to write about werewolves, I thought first about what I wanted them to symbolize, and built their characteristics from there. The infected, involuntarily-transforming werewolf has been used so often to symbolize the animal side of human nature, I felt like there wasn’t much more to say about it. In creating werewolves who were a species with their own culture, history, and religion, I wanted to symbolize the stress of belonging to one secret culture at home and one public culture at work and school, as has been the plight of immigrants and persecuted minorities all over. Essentially, I’ve done what storytellers have done through the ages: I adapted a familiar monster to tell a new story. That’s what monsters are for!

 

Q: The vast majority of creatures in fantasy novels are the classic creatures that have long since been incorporated into our culture, and therefore, unfortunately, well developed creatures. Are there any more new angles on vampires, werewolves, etc? Or is the reader appetite still strong enough authors don’t need to work at developing original fantasy creatures any time soon?

A: The seeds of half this answer lie in the one above. There are always new angles on old creatures, if you dig deep enough to make them symbolize new things. I personally think that’s the key: not trying to tweak a few of the usual characteristics of a creature, or to find a new situation to put the creature into, but really creating a new purpose for the creature. Take vampires, for example. In their current form, they tend to symbolize the temptation of pleasure weighed against the immorality or evil of gaining that pleasure. If you stay with that symbolism, and try to put the vampires in a mall instead of a castle, or have them drink blood from suckers in their hands instead of using fangs, you’re still not very original if they remain young, beautiful, and sexy. Those are the things that make the temptation symbolism work. If I decided instead to make vampires symbolize dementia and the trouble of prolonging human lifespan without also extending mental acuity, I might do something like make the vampires drain chi and memories along with it. Then they’d start to lose their self-identity as they become overwhelmed with other people’s lives. Which sounds like an intriguing idea, actuallyâ€

The other half of this answer is that I think adapting old creatures and making up new creatures are apples and oranges. If I want to adapt an old creature, I want to adapt an old one, and if I want to make a new one, I want to make a new one. They’re completely different processes, that you’d do for different reasons, not simply because the other one had failed. An adapted old creature allows you to use a shorthand with your reader. You don’t have to explain the whole creature, you can just explain the creature’s differences from the standard set of characteristics. Having saved all that time, you can use it build your characters, or your intricate plot, or whatever else instead. If you make a new creature, on the other hand, you’re making a choice to spend some time at the beginning of your story or novel making sure your reader is comfortable with it. Neither is a bad thing, but different stories are paced differently, and if your story idea is based on snappy, exciting action from the first page, you run the risk of killing it by doing a lot of explaining of your creature. It also often varies by sub-genre: I’ve noticed more traditional fantasy and science fiction novels, both of which are known for their immersive, detail-oriented world-building, often have their new creatures visible from the very beginning. Urban fantasy, better known for fast pacing, often has its new creatures discovered by the characters over the course of the novel. That way, the reader finds out about the creature with the characters, rather than needing all of the creature’s characteristics at the beginning.

 

Q: When do you use a fantasy creature as a metaphor, when do you use their inherent nature to develop to create a crucible or dilemma or conflict for the main character, when do they just contribute to the world building, and when are they just for fun? Does every story have to have a humanoid character or would readers respond to a story that’s all creatures? How do you develop fantasy creatures that human readers can relate to?

A: Everything’s a metaphor! Well. Most things. I happen to find metaphors fun to embed, but I don’t think they’re usually enough in and of themselves to justify a story element. So I like to write creatures for the purpose of conflict, world-building, or other story structure, and include the metaphor as a bonus Easter egg. I think if your creature is a protagonist, they do have to have internal conflict, but that’s what makes a good character in general. Their creature nature doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing providing the conflict,but it’s a useful tool for the job. Creatures can certainly be important for world-building, especially in urban fantasy. When you’re using the real world as a basis, the points of difference, like creatures, can be especially important. Finally, “just for fun”: I think fun is a category much like metaphor, in that it piggy-backs with something else, but isn’t necessarily a strong enough reason on its own. There’s a certain amount of “it’s there because it’s cool” a writer can get away with, but not a lot.

In the case of creature protagonists, I think that it’s generally a good idea to have at least one that’s human enough for people to relate to. That doesn’t mean they have to be physically humanoid. What they have to have is a set of emotions or motivations the readers would recognize. If they recognize the emotion or motivation as something they’ve felt themselves, they can relate to it and through it, the character. If your protagonist is emotionally recognizable, I think you could certainly have a story entirely about creatures. In fact, that can open up a whole suite of new plot possibilities, when you don’t have to spend space on “how does the human protagonist relate to the creatures?”

 

Q: What’s the difference between an urban fantasy and paranormal romance and does it really matter?

A: I think the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is a useful one, because they provide different reading experiences. In PR, the plot elements support the romance. In UF, the romantic elements provide a little spice to the plot. A reader who wants to read PR will probably be focusing on and rooting for the romance. A reader who wants to read UF will probably be focusing on and rooting for the plot to be resolved. That sounds fairly straight forward, but now imagine swapping those two fans’ books. The PR reader gets a UF, and is disappointed and angry because the romantic couple hardly have time for a single kiss what with all the plot crises and they don’t even get a happy ending. The UF reader gets a PR and is disappointed and angry because the plot is set aside for pages at a time while the couple flirts.

The time I see PR and UF most confused is when people are observing them from a great distance based on their familiarity with fairly unrelated genre, like military SF. From a distance, smaller details are hard to see. But though cozy mysteries and police procedurals are both mysteries, that doesn’t mean your Miss Marple-loving grandmother wants to read the gory descriptions of multiple victims of a rapist serial-killer. It’s less about the specific elements than the reader experience those elements promise. Is the novel optimistic or pessimistic? Is it humorous? Is the humor cerebral or slapstick? Do we get deep into the characters’ heads? PR and UF offer fundamentally different reading experiences on that level, whether they both happen to feature vampires in the modern day or not.

 

Q: Do all female characters have to be a kick ass heroine, high priestess, chosen one, or a wicked witch? What about mothers, scientists, BFFs? Ender’s sister played a crucial role in his life, to such an extent his commanding officer appealed to her to exercise her influence over him, yet she wielded neither sword nor spell nor badge nor political authority. Do all main female characters have to be strong?

A: Who ever said those were the only choices for female protagonists? Really, any discussion of female protagonists could be greatly simplified by deleting the word “female.” Are the only possible protagonists fighters, religious leaders, chosen ones, or magic users? Of course not, even in D&D! Do all protagonists have to be strong? It depends on what you mean by strong. They have to be active, and do things instead of sitting around while people around them act. They have to be compelling to make the reader want to keep reading. They have to be well-developed so they’re like real people, instead of cardboard cut-outs reciting lines based on their single personality trait. In the past, female characters frequently fell down on all three of those things, especially the first and last. If a damsel waits to be rescued, that’s passive, not active. If she has no personality beyond the fact that she loves a man and cries a lot, she’s not well-developed.

Where I think people sometimes run into trouble is that they equate “strong character” with “physically strong character.” Male characters don’t have to be physically strong either,they can be physically weak and wily, diplomatic, charismatic, clever, persistent†All of those characteristics and many others can lead to an active, compelling, well-developed character, male or female.

 

Q: How do you make characters realistic but interesting? Or does every character have to be exceptionally wise, intimidatingly sinister, remarkably intelligent, unusually skilled, etc.

A: I think it’s realistic to say that every well-rounded real person has a thing or two they’re good at. Not “the best at,” mind you, but good at. In character terms, competency in at least one area makes for a better character as well. If they’re competent at something, they can apply those skills to the problems the plot is throwing at them, which draws the reader in as they cheer the character along. I think there’s even a sweet spot, which you may have noticed if you’ve watched the Olympics. Obviously people who are completely untrained can’t even begin, so there’d be nothing to see, but people who are the best make a feat look too easy, and finish it too quickly. People who struggle at little at it but triumph in the end make us watchers realize the true scope of what they’ve accomplished. Characters who are competent but not the best struggle at the problems of the story and draw readers in.

I think the trouble beginning writers get into is equating “reasonable level of skill” or “high competency” with “best ever.” Why does a character have to be the best archer in the seven kingdoms when they’re the best archer in a castle at seige? Or the third best, while the first two are covering other gates? Being the prophesized one, or the only magic user of a certain type born in ten generations, etc. is in some ways even worse than being the best ever archer. Then the character is the best ever by virtue of being the only, yet they so often have no skills at all to have earned it. I think that method of making your character special can ring hollow very easily.

Confidence can be part of a compelling character as well. Justified confidence, that is. False confidence can come across deluded or arrogant, and make the character harder to relate to. And if a character is centered and confident about every aspect of their life, they probably don’t have much room to grow over the course of a story. But if the character has some of the reasonably good skills I was talking about above, and is confident about those skills, if not other areas of their life, you have a recipe for an interesting character.

 

Q: How does a female writer get inside a male character’s head for the reader to explore and vice versa? How does an emotionally and psychologically whole author develop a broken character?

A: By remembering that, underneath it all, we’re all human beings. Any character built from a foundation of “male” or “female” or “broken” rather than “human” who happens to be male, female, broken, pessimistic, optimistic, snarky, sunny…is destined to run afoul of stereotypes. After that foundation, I think research, keen observation, and empathy definitely help. When researching, you can read people’s accounts of their own experiences, or ask people about them. Then in your daily life, if you watch how people who differ from you react to a given situation, and then imagine how they must be feeling as they react, you’re well on your way to creating a character who differs from you in a similar way. Empathy also means that you understand someone’s emotions by casting them in your own terms, rather than dismissing those emotions as strange or alien. And casting others’ emotions in your own terms can be as simple as a manner of degree. Maybe you’ve never been broken, but you’ve certainly been bruised. That means you have an in to imaging what that feeling intensified might be like. When you’re finished, you can also always get a reader like your character to look it over and tell you if you’ve missed anything.

 

Q: Can religion play a significant role in a fantasy story? Doesn’t religion take away from the inherent creature-oriented nature of the fantasy genre?

A: Is fantasy creature-oriented? I’d argue it isn’t, even urban fantasy, and especially traditional fantasy. It’s as people-oriented as all the genres, and perhaps creature-decorated, though not always. I’ve seen as much magic-decorated traditional fantasy as creature-decorated.

That aside, what’s the role of religion? Personally, I think that every culture in any genre, fantasy or not, has to have an explanation for why the world exists and why it functions the way it does. That explanation doesn’t have to be religion, it could be science, or it could be something based on the particular magic system of the world, but it’s basic human nature that we need an explanation of some kind. I think that’s what writers sometimes forget: they remove religion but they don’t put anything in its place, leaving you with a culture of people who apparently don’t care what happens when they die, for example. As an anthropologist, I simply don’t believe that. Fantasy opens up your possible explanations, though, because instead of figuring the world was created by some invisible divine force, people could know the world was woven by the spirits that everyone’s seen flitting around in the depths of the woods. The explanation can be tangible.

That said, I don’t think any part of religion or the alternate explanation has to be the focus of a story. Real religions vary through time as well as space in how much they’re part of a particular culture’s daily life. If you want to tell a story that doesn’t have much to do with religion, you can set the religion or world explanation in the background. If you want to make religion a large part of a character’s daily life but not really impact the plot, you can do that too. There’s no reason not to use it to its full potential.

 

Q: What makes a good critique group? What makes a bad critique group? Do you even need a critique group?

A: I’ll start with the last part of that. I think every successful writer needs other eyes on their work to provide another perspective. Who those eyes belong to can vary. Beta readers, first readers, leaving it up to your editor…a critique group is an excellent source of other eyes as well as brainstorming partners, but I don’t think one is necessary if you can get thoughtful perspectives elsewhere.

What makes a good critique group are primarily the same qualities that makes a good person to critique your work in general. You want them to be able to quantify their initial reactions when reading, and start the process of figuring out what caused those reactions. Sometimes their suggestions for fixing problems might be useful, sometimes they might not, but the process of identifying the problems in the first place is the really key part. A beginning critiquer might say “chapter two bored me.” A more experienced critiquer might say “chapter two bored me and I think it’s because they’re talking in one room the entire time and they never disagreed.” Any reader can react, but figuring out a cause takes skill, and either that skill or the ability to develop that skill is what you want to look for in a critiquer.

A less helpful critiquer,I won’t necessarily say bad, because even advice that’s unhelpful can be offered with the best of intentions,can be one who either praises too much, or is too harsh. Saying “everything’s good” doesn’t help a writer improve, even if it makes them feel good to hear it. Phrasing problems harshly can make the writer shut down and not hear anything the critiquer says. In that case, it’s not a matter of them “not being able to take it,” it’s a matter of failed communication. The goal is to communicate a way to improve, and the best way to do that is to phrase the critique tactfully rather than letting your frustration or negative emotional reaction run rampant. That’s the difference between “this sucked so hard I wanted to burn the manuscript” and “this had some serious weaknesses that made it difficult to read.” The former is just bleeding off the critiquer’s frustration. It’s not giving the writer any additional information.

There are a few additional considerations when it comes to critique groups versus single critiquers. A good personality mesh is necessary among everyone, which is a more complicated proposition than finding a set of beta readers you can relate to individually. I’ve seen groups that cracked jokes all the time upset someone who didn’t use humor that way. I’ve also seen groups founder because one writer was prolific and no one else could ever finish anything. None of that’s about a right way or a wrong way, just about finding people who are a good fit. And a group that’s a good fit can be worth its weight in gold to your writing.

 

I thought I’d finish off with a little bit about what I’m working on right now, in case you were curious. I’m working on revising the first book in a new series. It’s urban fantasy once more, but leaving aside the creatures this time and focusing a magical system arising from myth.

 

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.

Interview: David Edison

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

David EdisonSome stories are so crossed genred and so distinctive, they defy category. Try David Edison‘s richly imaginative debut novel: “Welcome to the City Unspoken, where Gods and Mortals come to die. Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times . . . until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found. Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls . . . and one very confused New Yorker. Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys . . . and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse.” The Waking Engine, the first in a series of 4, published by Tor, is not only richly imaginative, it is richly descriptive and richly detail. Edison shares his vision for the story.

 

CARL SLAUGHTER: WHY DEATH AS A THEME?

DAVID EDISON: I’ve always been disappointed with how little attention we pay to the end of our lives: we’re all born, and we all die. Birth gets so much celebration, but for most of our lives we live in collective denial, pretending that death happens to other people, and is not something we’re encouraged to talk about, let alone confront. I was raised in a pleasantly travel- and death-obsessed family, and so it was a taboo I’ve always been interested in transgressing.

 

CARL: WHY REINCARNATION AS A PREMISE? OR IS REINCARNATION THE CORRECT TERM?

DAVID: Following on the previous question, I’ve also always been disappointed with humanity’s overly-simplistic views of the afterlife,as I perceive them. Angels and harps and clouds? Bring a book. Lakes of fire? Hardly energy efficient. Reincarnation as a cockroach? No thanks. I wanted to imagine an afterlife that was as rich and complex and full of possibilities as life,or more so. Reincarnation is a fine term,but reincarnation as oneself, which gives one more time to explore and develop one’s identity than our short span on Earth.

 

CS: WHY SO MUCH ATTENTION TO THE INHABITANTS AND GEOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE OF THE CITY?

DE: The City Unspoken is the biggest character in the series, and fleshing it out was a joy. Worldbuilding, character development, and immersion are all important and, ultimately, what’s the point of imagining a bizarre, baroque, filthy-beautiful city-at-the-end-of-all-worlds without exploring it? When you find yourself writing a story about a city, you best write about the city!

 

CS: WHY A HAPLESS EARTHLING AS A PROTAGONIST?

DE: I am a hapless Earthling, as are my readers! The story was always about Cooper finding the city, and coming to terms with the nature of the metaverse. From the beginning, this was a story about adulthood, about Cooper coming into his own in a world bigger and scarier than anything he’s ever known. I very much wanted our universe to be a part of this larger multiverse, which I call the metaverse,I knew from the outset that it would be a much stranger place than a traditional secondary universe.

 

CS: WHY A NEW YORKER?

DE: In many ways the City Unspoken is the spiritual antithesis of New York,if New York is the city where you can make it big, the City Unspoken is the place where you go to cease to be, in a big way. There are threads of my own experience as a New Yorker, and of New York during and after 9/11, so New York was as baked-in to the story as Earth and Earthlings. Lastly, if anyone has the skills to navigate and survive a strange new city while still remaining essentially hapless,at least at the outset,I imagine it’s a New Yorker.

 

CS: WHY SUCH A LARGE CAST OF CHARACTERS?

DE: This is the first book in a series of four,I knew that with a world this big and a palette so varied, the story would demand more depth of character development and breadth of action than I could fit into a single volume. I didn’t know it, but I was essentially writing “Epic Weird,” and the world needed to populate itself to support that arc. Take George RR Martin, for example: we’ll probably never get a huge amount of detail on the green-apple-Fossoway vs red-apple-Fossoway split, but that level of world-building makes the story so much richer.

 

CS: WHY SO MANY EARTHLINGS AMONG BEINGS THAT HAVE ASSEMBLED FROM THE VAST UNIVERSE?

DE: Well, there are only a handful, but when you’re writing about a city at the end of all worlds, and Earth is one of those worlds, then having Earthlings present is a gun that needs to go off,having set up such rich possibilities, some of them have to be fulfilled in what are, hopefully, interesting ways. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but Earthlings are also the ones that Cooper notices: the same way I can go to Stockholm and my eyes will find the one person wearing a Brown University sweatshirt. Sure, there are more Swedes around than Rhode Islanders, but I’ll still go home and talk about the guy wearing the sweatshirt I recognized.

 

CS: WHY AMERICAN HISTORICAL FIGURES?

DE: Following the threads of New York in general and post-9/11 New York in particular, this story shaped up to be something of an American fairytale, or nightmare. America plays a role in the story throughout the books. We read so much European-inspired secondary-world fantasy, and there is plenty of primary-world fantasy set in America, but I wanted to play with the idea of America in a semi-secondary world. Without spoilers, the narrative of America has changed and morphed and corrupted itself in some ways over the course of history, and American historical figures can speak to that directly.

 

CS: RICHARD NIXON IS THE MOST NOTORIOUS FIGURE IN AMERICAN HISTORY. WHAT’S HIS ROLE IN THIS STORY?

DE: Without spoilers, he shows the possibilities that await us in our future lives. Some other familiar faces have stayed the same, but Nixon has taken the idea of starting over and ran with it. And milked it. Once I got the image of Nixon-as-occasionally-adorable-street-urchin into my head, I couldn’t resist writing it. Who could?

 

CS: WHY THE POV OF A ROOKIE WHO IS LOOKING FOR ANSWERS RATHER THAN A VETERAN WHO IS LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS?

DE: The Waking Engine is very much a story of adulthood and finding-one’s-way, and while I do enjoy stories with super-competent protagonists, I don’t think that would have worked here, in a world that needed so much boot-strapping and relied less on established tropes. As the first book in a series, a super-competent protagonist would have less room to grow, whereas our boy Cooper has nowhere to go but up. It’s probably not coincidental that this was my first novel, and having only published a single short story before writing The Waking Engine, I was likely more aligned with a rookie looking for answers!

 

CS: IS COOPER A CHOSEN ONE CHARACTER WHO IS DISCOVERING HE’S THE CHOSEN ONE, DECIDING WHETHER HE WANTS TO BE A CHOSEN ONE, AND FIGURING OUT HOW TO BE A CHOSEN ONE, OR IS THERE MORE TO HIM THAN THAT? FOR MOST OF THE STORY, HIS EXPLORATION OF THE CITY AND HIS PURSUIT OF ANSWERS IS PASSIVE. WHY IS HE SUCH A SLOW BREWING HERO?

DE: Cooper is figuring himself out at the same time as he’s figuring out the world into which he’s been dropped. I think the pace of his development is pretty realistic,if I were dropped into another universe, it would probably take me a few days to adjust. Given the range of time the book covers, Cooper’s development is ahead of the curve. And with any multi-book story, character development is a bit of a long con. A bonus from that decision is that the reader gets to adjust to the world more naturally, alongside Cooper.

 

CS: I CAN EASILY SEE THIS BOOK ADAPTED TO THE BIG SCREEN. IT HAS TIM BURTON WRITTEN ALL OVER IT. WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE PLAY COOPER? SESSTRI AND ASHER? LALLOWE THYU AND PURITY KLOO? SOME OF THE OTHER MORE INTERESTING SPECIES?

DE: Thank you! I certainly won’t disagree! My dream cast: Tilda Swinton as the Cicatrix, Kerry Washington as LallowÃ’ Thyu, Emily Blunt as Sesstri and Alexander Skarsgard as Asher, Oliver Platt as Oxnard Terenz-de-Guises, Kristen Bell as Purity Kloo, Tori Amos as Alouette, and Chris Pratt or John Krazinsky as Cooper.

 

CS: ANY SEQUELS? ANY OTHER FICTION PROJECTS IN THE WORKS?

DE: Yes! The Waking Engine is the first in a series of four books. The sequel, for which the working title is The Noonday Plague, is scheduled to be published in May of 2015.

 

CS: A FREQUENT COMPLAINT AMONG GOOD READS/AMAZON READERS IS DESCRIPTION OVER PLOTTING, TOO MANY SUBPLOTS, AND TOO MANY CHARACTERS. SIMILAR EARLY COMPLAINTS ABOUT ANOTHER AMBITIOUS NOVEL. HERE’S A SAMPLE: “The author started out with a chess board, and he started moving a few of the pieces. You were hooked on to the story thinking that a winner was going to emerge through some breathtaking gameplay or at least, sleight of hand. What has happened is that the chess board has started falling off the table. All the pieces are moving uncontrollably and at random as they fall towards the ground. The author may contrive to have the board land flat on the floor with one of the kings standing all alone on the board while all the other pieces scatter and break when they hit the ground. I only wish the chessboard had fallen off a short table instead of falling off the edge of the grand canyon!” THE TITLE WAS “GAME OF THRONES.” SO YOU’RE IN GOOD COMPANY.

DE: Two things I love: good company and weddings. 😉

 

Check out what Library Journal and Booklist have to say about David Edison’s “The Waking Engine”.

 

Carl_eagleCarl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.