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.





First Book Friday: Laura Resnick








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: Robert Gleason

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

RobertGleasonTor executive editor and nuclear terrorism expert Robert Gleason answers questions about his novels The Wrath of God and End of Days.


CARL SLAUGHTER: Is End of Days a prequel to The Wrath of God? A direct prequel or an indirect prequel?

ROBERT GLEASON: WRATH OF GOD takes place 50 years after END OF DAYS. Kate Magruder, the heroine in END OF DAYS, is an 80+ old woman, and the Citadel is the only bastion of technology left in the world. A modern incarnation of Tamerlane the Earthshaker is coming down the rubble of the Alaskan Highway leaving mountains and towers of human skulls in his wake. As his consort, the Lady Legion, once tells Tamerlane: “We have made a skull of the earth, around whose throat we string not gems but dead worlds.” The Citadel is ill-equipped to confront such a warlord, so Katherine Magruder’s son, Richard,who was trained by Los Alamos scientists and an Apache shaman,opens a hole in Time. Together, they bring back George S. Patton, Stonewall Jackson, Amelia Earhart and a triceratops to combat Tamerlane in the Southwestern desert in the Battle of the Apocalypse. When Rosie O’Donnell heard that plot description, she said: “Smoke a lotta crack, don’t you, Bob?”


One of the main characters has apocalyptic visions. What’s the premise for this? Genetic? Paranormal? Pharmaceutical?

Kate Magruder’s grandmother was a legendary real-life female Apache war shaman named Lozen. Kate inherits Lozen’s visionary abilities.


Why Russia as a setup rather than India, Pakistan, or Iran? Why Islamic extremists rather than extremist religionists in Israel or America or secular nationalists in China. Or Britain, which has both nuclear weapons and a growing population of Muslims, as well as a recent history of terrorist attacks?

Russia has the most fissile explosive of any foreign power, and it’s easier to steal. If you run a nuclear forensics test on the fallout after the nuclear attacks, it will come back as Russian-made nuclear bomb-fuel. Also my rogue state wants to destroy the developed world, and Russia has enough arms to do it. So does the US. No other nations capable of hitting the world with thousands of nukes, except the US and Russia. If my rogue state wants to get the developed world to wipe itself out, it needs both Russia and US fully on board. Why did I choose Muslim terrorists? Well, actually I chose a Middle Eastern nuclear rogue state, which employs real soldiers and sailors. I fictionalized the name of the state but was thinking of a combination of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which are close, almost inseparable allies in reality. The Saudis leadership is extremely wealthy and has a long history of funding terrorism. They even funded Pakistan’s nuclear program, still fund it, and Pakistan,among the world’s rogue states–has the most ambitious nuclear weapons program. To make END OF DAYS nuclear scenario work, you’d need a rogue state with those kinds of capabilities. (I took my scenario from Herman Kahn’s THINKING ABOUT THE UNTHINKABLE. It’s called “Catalytic Nuclear War.”)


Do weapons like Black Stealth Crow – “a creature of inconceivable cunning, elusive as smoke, invisible as night,” designed to evade infrared detectors, change shade in a flash, and hide in plain sight” – already exist?

The Crow exists and is called the B-2 Bomber. It was designed to assassinate the Soviet leadership during the Cold War and destroy their Control-and-Command Centers by delivering multi-megaton strikes in sequential laydown patterns. I got most of my information from some books by Bill Sweetman. Here’s a wiki-link for it.


Explain and describe “the no-man’s-land between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.”

The Oak Ridge and Sandia Nuclear Weapons Labs have done studies arguing that nuclear bomb-fuel reprocessors can be built with equipment from old wineries or old dairies by as few as a half-dozen technicians. Oak Ridge claimed terrorist groups could do it. It is certainly within the capabilities of a rogue state. The two labs in separate studies said building it could take less than six months. If you have the spent fuel rods from a nuclear power reactor, Oak Ridge said you could reprocess enough bomb-grade plutonium to fuel the Nagasaki bomb. This can be a clandestine program capable of eluding weapons inspectors. (The UN’s IAEA nuclear inspectors are notoriously inept.) With such low-tech nuclear explosive reprocessors, a nuclear power reactor can become a nuclear bomb-fuel factory. Former Japanese prime ministers and defense ministers have said they opted for nuclear power primarily because it allows them to stockpile dozens of tons of plutonium explosive and has allowed them to develop technology with which they can rapidly assemble nuclear weapons if the need for them arises. That is a major secret reason why so many nations love nuclear power. Nuclear power is also said to be the nuclear terrorist’s training wheels.


If the material for nuclear weapons is so easy to obtain and if building and detonating the bomb is so simple, why haven’t terrorists already used nuclear weapons?

The two nuclear terrorist groups that have the greatest access to nuclear explosive,the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba,are both in Pakistan and, as they are currently constituted, are only about seven years old. The TTP has been blowing up Pakistani nuclear installations since 2006, and in 2012 announced it wants to launch attacks on the US. These organizations were created, trained and funded by the Pakistan military and intelligence services and are far more sophisticated and better funded than any other global terrorist groups. They are really military organizations and states within the Pakistani state. Also it’s not that hard to acquire Pakistani nuclear explosive. Obama’s first Pakistani ambassador said in a Wikileaked memo that she didn’t fear terrorists stealing Pakistani nuclear explosive. She feared the Pakistani officials and the people guarding it would steal it and give it to terrorists. A significant amount of it is continuously transported in truck and van convoys to elude detection by the US and India. Terrorists could hijack the convoys. The groups aren’t very old though. Also if those groups were to do it right, they’d want to stockpile enough nuclear explosive to take out a half-dozen US cities. That would take time and planning.


You’ve been researching nuclear weapons for 30 years. What has that research involved?

I’ve talked to a lot of military experts, former defense secretaries, physicists, scientists, politicians, Special Forces generals and other officers. I read a million studies. I never found a definitive book on the subject though, because the so-called experts are afraid to trace the funding for nuclear proliferation/terrorism and to expose key individuals. They were also afraid of “the no-man’s-land between nuclear power and the nuclear bomb.” The experts spend part of their time working for the government and are loath to antagonize government officials. I only broke down and wrote the non-fiction book because I couldn’t commission one for the experts I pitched.


Have other nuclear experts corroborated your research and agreed with your conclusions?

Lots of top military officers and top government officials, including a former defense secretary and chairman of the energy committee read, vetted the book and you can see their endorsements. I sent my nonfiction book, THE NUCLEAR TERRORIST, out to a lot of experts, met and corresponded with a number of them, and no one disproved or seriously attacked anything in it. What amazed me, however, was how little the experts knew about actual nuclear terrorism activities including those groups in Pakistan we just discussed. (One of the very top guys said he know “nothing about nuclear terrorism.) They also weren’t familiar with those Oak Ridge and Sandia studies I described above. Most of the so-called experts focus on nuclear arms control among nations not terrorist groups, and the odds of terrorists stealing nuclear weapons and using them are remote. Terrorists could however steal nuclear explosive and cobble together crude but powerful terrorist nukes. Most of the experts I know don’t want to get into the no-man’s-land between nuclear power and the nuclear bomb. They work with governments and even the nuclear industry.


Is End of Days a warning or a prediction? Is there still hope? What can be done to avert nuclear terrorism?

END OF DAYS is a warning. If terrorists nuke us, they would very likely try to frame an innocent third party for the attack. How do you prove the innocent party didn’t do it? Terrorist nukes leave no terrorist fingerprints, and the nuclear bomb-fuel could have been stolen from an innocent country. We might well retaliate against the innocent. Also we seldom focus on nuclear theft prevention. We always focus on illicit nuclear bomb-fuel programs. Terrorist would be more likely to steal their bomb-fuel, then build crude but powerful terrorist nukes and use them. It’s easier and safer for them.


Bestselling authors and high ranking military and political officials have called your book prophetic and plausible and have compared it to On the Beach, The Road, The Stand, Swan Song, Left Behind, Fail Safe, Sum of All Fears, Dr. Strangelove, and even the Book of Revelation. A few have compared you to Dante, Milton, and even Nostradamus. By contrast, readers on Good Reads said it’s too long and too descriptive and has too many characters and anthropomorphic animals and weapons. How do you reconcile such drastically different perspectives on the same book?

Booklist and PW gave it starred reviews. Booklist said it was better than THE STAND and that it was “in a class by itself.” PW said it made “THE ROAD look like a stroll through the park.” LJ gave it a rave review. I received no negative print reviews. All the experts and professional writers liked it. In fact, l got lots of great fan mail and it was a national bestseller. It is, however, a long complex novel. I never have fewer than ten intertwining viewpoint chapters in the book at any time. I’ve never seen that done before in any book. I did this in part because I wanted to dramatize Armageddon,something no novelist has ever done, all the other end-of-the-world novels being post-apocalyptic, not apocalyptic. I devote 150 very dense pages,almost a third of the book,to the apocalypse and I do it through that multitude of viewpoint characters and viewpoint chapters. I needed all those viewpoint characters to fully dramatize the apocalypse. I thought that was important when I wrote the book. It may be, Carl, that I wrote a serious novel and the publisher packaged it as a thriller. Hence, some readers thought they were getting THE STAND and were surprised to get something much more complex than THE STAND. I also packed the scenes with immense amounts of scientific, geographic, political, historical, architectural, anthropological, mythological and religious detail. The serious reviews and professional authors love and admire that sort of stuff. I do make the reader work, and I guess some people couldn’t handle it. The book was a national bestseller, got the best print reviews I ever saw, so I’m not too perturbed.


You were prominently featured in a History Channel documentary entitled “Prophets of Doom.” Is that documentary available online?

My website has a seven-minute clip from that documentary. If the readers want, they can click onto it and see if they like it. I’m sure the History Channel website would sell them a DVD. Or they can see if HC is rerunning it. They rerun it with fair regularity. It had high ratings, and now some filmmakers are doing a documentary on me and THE NUCLEAR TERRORIST. They have excellent commercial and critical credentials, and we start shooting next month. It’s not in the can though. Hollywood is weird. Who knows what will happen?


Do you have any tips for speculative fiction authors who want to use nuclear weapons as a premise?

The Pentagon refuses to seriously study nuclear terrorism. Among other things, it’s complex, requires some knowledge of science, and the consequences of nuclear attacks are largely unpredictable. All you can do is develop possible scenarios. Therefore, I would try to absorb as much hard information on the subject as I could. To that end I’d read THE NUCLEAR TERRORIST: His Financial Backers and Political Patrons in the US and Abroad. I wouldn’t recommend writing anything like END OF DAYS. It was too hard, too time-consuming and too exhausting. Write something easier.


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: Tina Connolly

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

tina_connolly-300x450Flash podcast site Toasted Cake was launched in 2012 by speculative fiction author, theater buff, and painting hobbyist Tina Connolly. Toasted Cake recently posted its 100th podcast. Connolly’s first novel, Ironskin, published by Tor, is a fantasy retelling of Jane Eyre and was nominated for the Nebula award. Ironskin was followed by Copperhead. The third in the series, Silverblind, is due in the fall of 2014. Seriously Wicked, a YA novel, is due in the spring of 2015. Connolly’s short stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and many other magazines. She is a graduate of the 2006 Clarion West workshop.


CARL SLAUGHTER: Why did you decide to launch a podcast?

TINA CONNOLLY: Because once upon a time in 2008 or so, Rachel Swirsky asked me to narrate a story for Podcastle. Podcastle led to Escape Pod led to Drabblecast led to Pseudopod led to Beneath Ceaseless Skies led to Three-Lobed Burning Eye led to Cast of Wonders led to Strange Horizons led to Far-Fetched Fables led to John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey’s anthology, The End Is Nigh. And so on. Basically, I got hooked.

So there I was in 2012 with a book coming out (Ironskin) and another book under contract (Copperhead) and a one-year-old boy and a new-to-us fixer house, and I said, Self, you know what would make this year even better? Podcasting a new story every single week, that’s what.

TL;DR: I be crazy overscheduled, yo.


CARL SLAUGHTER; How did you choose the name Toasted Cake?

TINA CONNOLLY: I knew I wanted it to be a flash fiction podcast, so I was batting around ideas that would play off of the bite-sized idea. Things like Snackcast. They were all taken. I kept brainstorming tasty -pod and -cast names, but still, all taken. Eventually I just got to things I like, like Pie for Breakfast (taken.) And eventually, Toasted Cake. (Listen to episode 32, “The Hungry Child” by Romie Stott, to hear an outro about why you should totally toast your cake.)

It has been since pointed out to me by more than one person that Toasted Cake and Tina Connolly share a set of initials. I did not do this intentionally, but I suppose my subconscious may have gotten the best of me….


CARL SLAUGHTER: Why restrict the podcast to flash fiction?

TINA CONNOLLY: One, because I wanted to podcast an episode every week, and that wasn’t going to be feasible with full-length fiction (not doing it all myself, anyway.)

But two, because I LOVE flash fiction, and I think it gets a bit overlooked. A really good piece of flash fiction is just a different creature than a full-length story, or a poem. (Listen to episode #13, Helena Bell’s “Please Return My Son Who Is In Your Custody”, for an outro with some of my Brilliantly Insightful Theories (TM) on what makes flash fiction work.)

The fact that I DO love flash fiction has made Toasted Cake work out really well, I think. I mean, in that you should probably only start a magazine if a) it’s filling a niche, and b) if it’s something you’re passionate about. I never wanted to become a magazine editor in particular, but boy howdy, I do love reading a piece of flash fiction each week.


CARL SLAUGHTER: How often do you post readings?

TINA CONNOLLY: Once a week. (With occasional misses for laryngitis.)


CARL SLAUGHTER: What type of stories do you feature?

TINA CONNOLLY: A few descriptors I like are weird, quirky, dark, twisted, funny, fun, literary, puzzling, bizarre, tongue-twistable, singable, patter-friendly, elocutionary, experimental, witty, and wistful.

A few of our amazing authors: Camille Alexa, Vylar Kaftan, Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Rachel Swirsky, Caroline M. Yoachim, and I have to stop there or I never will. Most of the stories are reprints, and since they’re flash they tend to come from a few markets in particular,I notice a number of stories from Nature and Daily SF (and in the first year there were still a number from the late lamented Brain Harvest.) But I’ve also run original stories (“Zing Zou Zou” by C. S. E. Cooney, is a particularly awesome example), and stories from folks who’ve told me this is their first podcast appearance.


CARL SLAUGHTER: Who does the reading?

TINA CONNOLLY: Me! But while I was off on maternity leave, I had a few fantastic guest-narrators read for me: Dave Thompson, Graeme Dunlop, David Levine, and Matt Haynes. It ended up being all male voices, actually, because with three of the four of them I sent them something that I had wanted to run on the podcast but thought I wasn’t quite the right narrator for it.


CARL SLAUGHTER: You read for a variety of other podcasts. What type of stories do you like to read?

TINA CONNOLLY: Here’s where I post the list of descriptors I like again! 🙂 Seriously, though, what’s different about Toasted Cake is that everything I purchase has to be a) be podcastable and b) by ME. I sadly have to turn down stories that I personally like but I think I’m not a good fit for. So the stories on Toasted Cake are definitely the sort of stories that I think I will enjoy reading, and that will suit me. (But I also sometimes stretch a point and make my listeners listen to me sing, for example. 🙂

When an editor asks me what I feel comfortable with, my list usually goes something like: younger voices, alien/fey/otherworldly creatures, snarky, wistful. I’m planning to join Audible as a narrator one of these days,once the baby’s older, anyway! I would love to sink my teeth into a full-length book.


CARL SLAUGHTER: A number of your stories have been podcasted. Who chooses the reader for your stories, you or the podcast editor?

TINA CONNOLLY: The podcast editor does. I’ve had a lot of great podcasts run! Actually, my first exposure to Drabblecast was via hearing Norm Sherman read my On the Eyeball Floor for Escape Pod in a killer reading.


CARL SLAUGHTER: Toasted Cake recently reached a milestone. 100 podcasts. Can we expect any major changes or is it ‘steady as she goes’?

TINA CONNOLLY: Thank you! Yes, we did reach 100 , I’m thrilled to make it this far. (I was originally just planning to do one year, but then it picked up the Parsec award for Best New Podcast, so I thought, hmm, maybe there’s some people out there who’d enjoy hearing a little more of it… 🙂 No major changes,I plan to at least make it to 200, so there’s a good bit of Toasted Cake in store yet!


CARL SLAUGHTER: How does an author submit their story to be podcasted on Toasted Cake? How does someone volunteer to read for Toasted Cake? Do you accept prepackaged podcasts from the author or reader’s publicist or agent or fan?

TINA CONNOLLY: Right now I am the only narrator, although I wouldn’t rule out having another guest voice from time to time. Prepackaged podcasts is an interesting idea! I’m not sure if anyone’s doing that,at least, they haven’t contacted me with it. AFAIK, all the main podcasts, including mine, just accept submissions of stories. In text form.

I currently am doing two open submissions windows, one in February, and one in August (but not this year). Here’s the info, and I’m looking forward to the August submission period! Toasted Cake is a boutique market, which is a nice way of saying I can only pay $5. (You can also choose the option of me buying you a drink at a con, which I love as it means we get to sit down and chat a bit.) However, it is primarily a reprint market, which means you could have sold that story ten times already before sending it to me, and another ten times after. . . . Or, just come listen to the show!

Thanks for the interview, Carl, and for having me here on Diabolical Plots!


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.

Review: A Memory of Light

written by David Steffen

(I’ve done my best to keep this spoiler-free as long as you’ve read the previous 13 books)

It’s the end of a saga twenty-three years in the making, the conclusion to the Wheel of Time series. I picked up book one of the series when I was in eighth grade. I was at a Barnes & Noble with no money and time to kill, so I picked the book on the SF/fantasy endcap with the coolest looking cover. The one on the endcap was book 8 in the Wheel of Time series, so I found book one, “The Eye of the World” and sat down in one of their cushy chairs to read for a half hour until my ride showed up.

By the time I’d finished the prologue and first chapter, I knew I had to read the series. I stuck with the series as I went, getting each book as it came out. And now, a decade and a half later in January 2013, the final book has been published.

Robert Jordan is the creator of the series, and he wrote the first eleven books of the series. In 2007 he came down with a blood disorder and passed away. He left copious notes behind, and eventually Brandon Sanderson to finish the series. Brandon has done an extraordinary job with his work on the series. I can’t tell what parts he wrote and what parts Jordan wrote, and I didn’t notice any shift in the tone, the style, or the characters.

This final book is all about the leadup to the Last Battle, and the Last Battle itself, which everything in the previous thirteen books has led up to. All of the nations have been gathered by Rand with the intent to unite them. It is finally revealed what identity Demandred has taken since escaping the Bore. The armies of Light face off against the forces of the Dark One. Slayer, the creature that had once been Padan Fain, the six remaining Forsaken, hordes of Trollocs, all against Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene and the White Tower, Fortuona and the Seanchan.

The book was solid throughout. The prologue started out with a huge reveal that ties into details revealed ten books ago. There’s plenty of variation in action, and the stakes have never been higher. In the previous thirteen books, Robert Jordan had shown that he was very reluctant to kill off any major characters who fight for the Light–that is one of the major criticisms that could be leveled against the series since it does lower the tension quite a bit. But this is the last book, and it is the Last Battle, and all bets are off. Any character can die, and some of them do.

Rand’s fight against the Dark One is a very interesting one which goes to places I wouldn’t have expected. The Dark One gets some unexpected character here that I wouldn’t have seen coming, some glimpse of his motives in the grand scheme of things. In some ways he’s not entirely evil though his acts generally are. That was a pleasant surprise since, for the most part, the Dark One has been a stereotypical Satan kind of character.

The battle scenes of the last battle are epic and tense. The most badass characters in the series are there facing off against one another and you never know who’s going to die or when. Every day when I had to set the book down I was eager to pick it back up again to find out what happens next. The best part of the book, though, is watching how Perrin has developed. From the beginning of the series he has been my favorite character, especially his abilities that come from being a wolfbrother. In this book he finally reaches his full potential and he needs every ounce of that to fight against Slayer. His battles against Slayer in Tel’a’ran’rhiod are some of the most exciting reading I ever remember reading. It’s a great setting for a battle between two experienced fighters who have cultivated the flexibility of mind to be truly dangerous there.

Another one of my favorite characters plays a big role in this book, this one who had only been introduced in The Towers of Midnight (Book 13), Androl Genhald, an Asha’man Dedicated who is among the group loyal to Logain (rather than Mazrim Taim). Through his eyes we get to see some of the inside stories at the Black Tower, which has been closed to most other characters for half the series. Androl is, strictly speaking, one of the weakest of the Asha’man in raw strength, but he has a Talent that allows him to create gateways despite his weakness and in greater quantity and size than any other. You get to see Androl unleash this Talent, and he can be quite badass.

The one thing that I was disappointed with was the resolution of the plot thread with the creature that had once been Padan Fain. That is one of the longest plot threads in the series, starting in the first few chapters of the first book when the Darkfriend Padan Fain arrives in the Two Rivers and later in that book is distilled by the Dark One to hunt Rand like a hound, only to be corrupted by Mashadar, the mindless entity that haunts Shadar Logoth. His abilities have grown and grown throughout the series so that no one, not even the Dark One can match him. The books have talked up his abilities so much, I was wondering how they were going to resolve it at all. So I watched for him with great anticipation, at which point that thread was resolved a little too neatly, a little too easily.

So, well done Brandon Sanderson for finishing the series with high quality. I truly believe that Robert Jordan would have been proud of you, and quite happy with how it turned out.


My Hugo Ballot 2013

written by David Steffen

I’ve spent the last several months reviewing award nominees. I decided to take it one step further and post the final decisions that I plan to post to my Hugo ballot with explanations (where I deem them necessary) about why I voted the way I did. I encourage anyone reading this to post discussion in the comments about how they voted, why I am wrong in my choices, etc.

What makes this more interesting is that the Hugo Awards use an instant runoff voting system. You rank your changes from 1-x, and can also set a number to the “No Award” category. You can find all the nitty gritty details at the Hugo Page explaining votes. I like the system a lot, much more than just a simple single-cast vote, because if your primary vote is for the least popular story, your other preferences still count for something.

If you are a nominee, keep in mind that I am just judging these based on my own preferences and, though I aim to not make my reviews mean, if you don’t want to hear my honest opinion of your work than you might want to skip this article.

For a full list of the nominees, see the original announcement on the Hugo site.


Best Novel

1. Redshirts, John Scalzi (Tor; Gollancz)
2. Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW; Gollancz ’13)

Reasoning: I’ve only had time to read one book and a partial so far. I finished Redshirts and reviewed it here–I enjoyed it quite well, though there were some parts I didn’t like it was huge amounts of fun. I’ve started Throne of the Crescent Moon but haven’t finished it yet. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a solid book so far, but even though it has the strength of being set in a non-European based fantasy world, it still lacks the novelty that Redshirts has for me.


Best Novella

1. The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
2. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
3. San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats by Mira Grant (Orbit)
4. The Stars Do Not Lie by Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)
5. No Award

Reasoning: The only story that I disliked enough to prefer no award was “On a Red Station, Drifting” by Aliette de Bodard. See my Novella Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.


Best Novelette

1. In Sea-Salt Tears by Seanan McGuire (Self-published)
2. The Boy Who Cast No Shadow by Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Postscripts: Unfit For Eden, PS Publications)
3. Rat-Catcher by Seanan McGuire (A Fantasy Medley 2, Subterranean)
4. The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi by Pat Cadigan (Edge of Infinity, Solaris)
5. No Award

Reasoning: The only story that I disliked enough to prefer no award was “Fade to White” by Catherynne M. Valente. See my Novelette Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.


Best Short Story

1. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld, June 2012)

2. Mono No Aware by Ken Liu (The Future is Japanese, VIZ Media LLC)

3. No Award

Reasoning: The only story that I disliked enough to prefer no award was “Mantis Wives” by Kij Johnson. See my Short Story Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.


Best Graphic Story

1. Locke & Key, Vol. 5: Clockworks, Joe Hill, art by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)

2. Schlock Mercenary: Random Access Memorabilia Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (Hypernode Media)

3. Saga, Volume One, Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples (Image)

4. No Award

Reasoning: See my Graphic Story Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.


Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

1. The Cabin in the Woods
2. The Avengers
3. The Hunger Games
4. Looper
5. The Hobbit

Reasoning: See my Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Hugo 2013 Review for more detail. I didn’t regret the time spent on any of the movies, so I gave them all a rank.


Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

1. Game of Thrones, “Blackwater”, Written by George R.R. Martin, Directed by Neil Marshall. Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (HBO)

Reasoning: I’ve never seen an episode of Dr. Who (gasp!), so I can’t comment on the show in any way. I’ve only ever seen the pilot episode of Fringe, which did not inspire me to watch further even though I was excited about the show from the trailers. But my wife and I are avid watchers of the Game of Thrones series. The show is really solid throughout, great writing, casting, special effects, set design, costume design, everything is really stellar. And this episode was an especially awesome episode of a major battle, with great tension and great action all around. Even if I had been familiar with any of the other nominees, it likely would’ve come on top.

I don’t have anything against any of the other four winning the award, so I’m not casting a “No Award” vote for this category. I’m sure that one of the Dr. Who episodes will win anyway.


Best Editor, Short Form

1. Neil Clarke
Neil does great work at Clarkesworld, and I look forward to every episode of Clarkesworld. I tend to have a bit of a polar reaction to Clarkesworld stories. I either love them or don’t get them at all. But when I love them, the stories are well worth listening to the others to get to. Also, as a writer, I appreciate Clarkesworld’s lightning-fast response times.

2. John Joseph Adams
I enjoy listening to the Lightspeed podcast as well. I tend to have a polar reaction to Lightspeed stories as well, and a similar appreciation for lightning-fast response times, and it was hard to decide which to rank higher. He and Neil are ranked close enough in my mind that it’s almost a toss-up between the two and I just gave Neil the edge because he’s been a head editor longer. It’s for cases like this that I really appreciate the instant runoff voting.

3. Stanley Schmidt
I am often not a huge fan of Analog stories, often too nuts-and-bolts for me. But they’ve published some really great ones. I will immediately buy any issue with Juliette Wade in the pages, because her linguistics-based SF stories that have run there are among my favorites. There was a Wade story last year, too, a definite bonus. This was Stanley’s last year as editor so it would be neat to see him win, but I’d rather vote based on who I thought was the best rather than nominating for warm fuzzies about the guy who retired.

4. Sheila Williams
I don’t read Asimov’s very regularly, simply because they don’t have a podcast. I have read good stories in the issues that I’ve bought, so I’d have no complaints about her winning.

Reasoning: I’m not familiar with Jonathan Strahan one way or the other. I’m not going to cast a vote for him, but I’m also not casting a “No Award” either.


Best Professional Artist

1. Dan Dos Santos
Dan Dos Santos is awesome. I have a print of his depiction of Moiraine Damodred on my office wall. I love his other art as well, such as his Warbreaker cover. He just has a very skilled hand and great eye. I rarely enjoy others’ cover art as much as his. His character art in particular is really great–the examples in the Hugo packet are good ones, especially the baby-toting warrior woman, and the punk woman in the bathroom.

2. John Picacio
I picked for a large part because of the Hyperion cover with the elaborate mechanical monstrosity holding a human infant. His other covers are really good too.

3. Julie Dillon
I LOVE the “Afternoon Walk” image, with all the monsters being walked like dogs in the park.

4. Chris McGrath
I like the gritty style of these, almost like found photos of fantastical places.

5. Vincent Chong

Reasoning: They always say not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case I had to judge the artist by his cover. The only one I’m very familiar with is Dos Santos, so I had to judge based only on the samples. This was a hard category to pick favorites. I would not be disappointed for any of these five who won the award. But, I’ve gotta pick someone.



Best Semiprozine

1. Beneath Ceaseless Skies
2. Clarkesworld
3. Lightspeed
4. Apex
5. Strange Horizons

Reasoning: See my Semiprozine Hugo 2013 Review for more detail.


Best Fanzine

1. SF Signal

Reasoning: I’ve enjoyed going to SF Signal for various content for years, so I’ll happily give them my vote. The other four I am aware of, but have never read. I’m not using the “No Award” vote, because I don’t have anything against the other four.


Best Fancast

1. No Award
2. SF Squeecast
3. SF Signal Podcast
4. Galactic Suburbia Podcast
5. The Coode Street Podcast

Reasoning: This is the second year that the Best Fancast category has been running, and all five of last years nominees are nominated again. This makes me think that no one is actually listening to them and is just nominating past nominees as a habit. I think this may also have to do with confusion over the classification of podcasts who pay their authors, like Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Escape Pod, Drabblecast, and so on. By the word of the rules, these would all be considered Fancasts but many people might guess that they would be classified as Semiprozines. I asked the question of the Hugo committee long before the nomination period ended to clarify publicly the classification of these, but they never responded to me. This is hurting my favorite magazine’s chances of getting award nominations because anyone who wants to nominate them may be splitting across categories. I was very disappointed that the Hugo Committee didn’t respond to my question.

In large part to raise my small voice of protest about the Hugo Committee’s lack of clarification, I am choosing No Award as my primary vote. I would love to see a quality fiction podcast get award nominations, and maybe even win. No offense to the nonfiction podcasters who do good work, but if I wanted to listen to a conversation about SF I would just talk to someone about SF. It’s the stories that I’m here for. And if my favorite fiction podcasts aren’t allowed into the category, then I’m not interested in the category.

It also bothers me that StarShipSofa is the lone fiction podcast representative, because their constant over-self-promotion, Hugo vote begging, unfiltered content , lack of payment is just too many factors that bother me about them. And that’s even not including the aborted nonfiction project they had planned some years ago to supporting a plagiaristic audio adaptation–it was aborted when the moral problems were pointed out to Tony, but I felt that an editor shouldn’t need to have this pointed out to him. It may seem wrong to criticize a “fancast” nominee for unprofessional policies, but venues like Escape Pod and Toasted Cake have shown me that just because a podcast is staffed by volunteers in their spare time doesn’t mean that there have to be no standards.

So I’ve ranked the four nonfiction podcasts about StarShipSofa so that even if “No Award” gets eliminated as a possibility, I’ll be encouraging one of the others to get the award rather than StarShipSofa.


Best Fan Artist

1. Spring Schoenhuth
I love the jewelry designs of Schoenhuth, particularly the Robot Transformation, and the Four Electron Atoms designs. I don’t generally wear jewelry other than my wedding ring but those make me want to start.

2. Galen Dara
a really neat dreamlike style. I particularly like the Ghost River Red image. It feels like a story, and the vivid reds of the hero and the shadowy adversary are very eye catching and intriguing.

3. Brad W. Foster

4. Maurine Starkey

5. Steve Stiles

Reasoning: As with the Professional Artist category, I had to judge these by their samples and would not be disappointed if any particular one of these won, but again i have to choose.


The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (Not a Hugo)

1. Mur Lafferty

Reasoning: I confess that Mur is the only one whose stories I am familiar with, and I ran out of time to read the contributed works of the other authors. So, certainly no reason to use the No Award, but my lone vote is cast for Mur.



And that’s my take and my voting strategy on all of the categories where I picked up enough of the material to be able to cast votes. There are three categories that I didn’t touch at all: Best Fan Writer, Best Editor Long Form, and Best Related Work. In the In the Related Work category, I did not have time to read any of the nominees. In the Fan Writer and Editor Long Form, I am unfamiliar with these people’s work.

How did you vote? Care to share, drop a comment. I’ve enjoyed putting this together, and I think I’ll try to do the same series of articles again next year. Let me know if you enjoyed it, folks! Do you find it appealing to see how someone else spent his votes?

Panoramic Words: Mark J. Ferrari

FerrariPhoto by Gabriel Berent

Mark J. Ferrari is a writer whose first novel, The Book of Joby, is available from Tor.

The Book of Joby is about a new incarnation of the age-old wager between God and Lucifer, but the stakes are higher than ever before. If Lucifer wins, he gets to destroy the Earth and create it the way he wishes to. The subject of the wager is God’s chosen champion: Ânine-year-old Joby Petersen. Lucifer has to corrupt him by his fortieth birthday to win the bet.

I really enjoyed this novel, one of the few that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed since I started writing. Mark takes on the divine with a nonchalance reminiscent of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, but in a way uniquely his own. I can’t wait to find out how it ends.

Also, check out Mark’s website for artwork, excerpts from The Book of Joby, and more.

Mark, thanks for agreeing to this interview.

David Steffen: Where did you get the idea for The Book of Joby? Had it been in your head for a long time before you wrote it?

Mark J. Ferrari: The Book of Joby accumulated something like a fossil bed, one layer at a time over many, many years. In part it was simply inspired by the kinds of experience I had as a kid reading fantasy. ‘What would I do if I were that character in the middle of such a story? Would being that protagonist turn out to be as much fun as it was to read about, or would being a hero turn out to be a lot more frightening and confusing than the stories make it sound?’

Many, many years later, I found myself living in a tiny, isolated, and unbelievably picturesque coastal town in Northern California. If there are any magical places on this real earth, that place is one. Living there, it became easy , almost inevitable , to find myself once again contemplating the magical potential of everyday life , of living inside some remarkable story. During my 15 years there, I was profoundly privileged to be welcomed very deeply into the life of a community that the flocks of tourists filling our town’s streets never see. At no time in my life have I ever felt as fully ‘at home’ as I did living in that town, and do not expect ever to feel so much at home again. I have never encountered such a concentration of exquisitely creative and idiosyncratic individuals, nor found children so full of life and expectation, creative play, so prone to dream aloud, or so comfortable with themselves and each other as I did doing volunteer work with that small town’s schools. Those students taught me as much or more about what life could be, maybe should be , about what I might do , even about who I was, than anyone anywhere ever had before , and I was in my mid thirty’s by then.

One year, three of those children, among the town’s brightest and best, died in separate, unrelated accidents, spaced almost exactly two months apart. It began to seem ‘intentional’ in some horrible way. The town’s official population at that time was 1,100 people. We nearly all knew each other personally. To say that the community was rocked by this triple punch does not begin to do the ordeal justice. Because of my long involvement with the town’s schools, and thus these children and their families and friends, I was invited more deeply than one might expect into the grieving processes that all of us were touched by to one degree or another. By far the greatest impact these events had on me came not from the deaths themselves, but from the remarkably genuine, probing, and communal ways these kids’ families, friends, and community dealt with their loss. At some point in life, I suspect most people are moved to ask such questions as, Why do such bad things happen to such good people? If there is a God, why doesn’t he intervene? What does one do about anger , one’s own, or other peoples? What is justice, and how much ought one do in pursuit of it? How much control can we have over the world around us, and how far should one go to seize such control? That year these questions were asked on an almost daily basis by an entire community for ten months or more.

This novel does not even attempt to answer any of those questions. It was merely inspired by all of them. Watching that remarkable community struggle with these questions in their own remarkable ways left me changed in many ways, and set me to imagining what the protagonists in the books I have always loved to read would do in an adventure where absolutely nothing ever went as it ‘should,’ for reasons no one could explain or even guess at. One night, as I lay in bed, I realized that the biblical story of Job was the perfect framework to hang such a story on, the Arthurian icons and ‘fairy worlds’ of my childhood fantasies, the perfect character set in which to clothe that remarkable community of eccentric saints and bodhisattvas. The rest tumbled out almost of its own accord.

Some have leapt to the assumption that because I framed the story in such an overt Judeo-Christian format, that the novel is intended to be ‘Christian literature.’ But this is actually not the case. As I have no interest in championing or attacking Christianity, or any of the worlds other vast array spiritual traditions, you will find both very sympathetic and very unsympathetic ‘Christian’ characters in the novel, as well as sympathetic and unsympathetic liberal and conservative, rich and poor, male and female, young and old characters.

A tale imbued with such overtly ‘religious’ cast and subject matter cannot avoid suggesting theological statements , intended or otherwise – but some aspects of the story clearly depart from standard Christian doctrine. And my primary ambition while ‘playing in this field’ was just to use ‘stories and archetypes’ from my own American culture’s mythology rather than from the Celtic, Norse, or Asian mythologies so many of our novels co-opt. For more about this aspect of my intentions in The Book of Joby, see the FAQ page on my website.

David: Did you submit directly to publishers, or did you submit to agents first?

Mark: I submitted to neither, actually. My particular path to publication was as ‘unusual’ as it is probably nontransferable.

While writing the book, I was extremely fortunate to have significant editorial help from a well known and respected freelance editor named Debbie Notkin, whom I had known for many years. Working with her over several years and various versions of this book was not only crucial to my own education about how to write well, but also, I suspect, lent a certain credibility to the project along the way. People in the business probably figured that if Debbie had been helping me with this, it might not be a total fool’s errand.

Also, because I’d been known and generously welcome for a number of years in the science fiction/fantasy community as a professional illustrator, I was allowed opportunities at various science fiction conventions I attended to do readings from this book while it was still in progress. Thus, by the time it was finished, lots of people, some of them established authors and professional editors, already knew of its existence and had heard that it was ‘pretty good’ from those who’d come to my readings.

Within months of completing the manuscript, virtually before submitting it to anyone at all, I was approached by a mid-sized science fiction/fantasy publisher who had already been aware of the ‘work in progress’ for some time. They wanted to publish it, and seemed a very good fit at the time, both for me and for my rather unusual book. Their offer helped me to solve the age old conundrum about not being able to get a publishing deal without an agent, and not being able to get an agent without a publishing deal. Because I had an offer, I was able to secure the services of a good agent to whom I was recommended by a friend and author already represented by her. I worked with her and the publisher very happily for nearly two years preparing for a pretty well publicized release date as one of their “spotlight selections” for 2004.

Sadly, a month and a half before The Book of Joby was supposed to hit store shelves, the publisher announced that , for reasons still unclear to this day , they would have to cancel a number of their intended 2004 titles, including mine. This seemed like pretty bad luck at the time, but it has become axiomatic with me that one can never tell what one’s luck means ‘at the time.’ My agent took the by then very well publicized book straight to Tor, who expressed their interest quickly. In hindsight, it seems clear to me that by mishandling things as they did, that earlier publisher probably accelerated my career path considerably.

David: Any advice on finding and dealing with agents?

Mark: Yes. Know who the agents you want to approach are, what kind of writing they sell, and how effectively they sell it, before approaching them. Then expend the time and care to find one you feel comfortable with, who really seems to like YOU the way you are, and who is generally enthusiastic about what you are already writing, the way you are already writing it.

I think most agents will and should provide their authors with editorial input , which should be seriously considered, especially by those of us who are new to publishing. In general, however, you want someone interested in representing ‘what you write,’ not what you ‘might write instead someday if pressed hard enough to do so.’ The agent/author relationship is a partnership, and if it is to work, each must make an effort to help the other succeed in all sorts of ways. But at the end of the day, you are paying someone to HELP YOU sell YOUR work. If an agent seems chronically unhappy with you or what you write, keep looking. One is unlikely to effectively promote you or your work to others if they do not like the person or the product much themselves.

David: Can you give us an overview to how the process worked from submission to publication? How long from the day you dropped it in the mailbox to Tor to the day one could buy it in a bookstore?

Mark: As I’ve said, I was unusually fortunate in never having to drop anything in a mailbox, and suspect that part may have taken quite a while, if I’d had to go that way. As for the rest, though, from the day Tor said they were interested in purchasing the book until the day they actually provided and signed a contract was nearly a year. From the time the contract was signed to the day the book appeared on bookshelves was about two more years.

The process may be less glacial for a more established author, but there are A LOT of time consuming things that have to happen between the day a book is bought and the day it hits store shelves. At a large publisher there are already dozens of books in the pipeline when yours shows up. And all those must be completed before yours is. Then, in addition to all the arduous editing and production tasks involved in simply creating thousands of copies of a book, there are even more complex marketing and distribution agreements and logistics that have to be negotiated and executed before release. In short, Rome ain’t sold in a day. And selling Fresno can take even longer.

Along the way, the author will likely be asked to re-write large portions of the original manuscript for all sorts of reasons. Then a galley will be sent to the author to be read through page by page for errors, which must all be corrected and sent back. Then a second galley sent so the author can check the corrections and all else one last time before printing. You may think that when the first draft is done and sold, you’re done too, but even the author has LOTS of work ahead of him between that bright moment of sale, and publication.

David: In what environment do you prefer to write? In coffee houses? At home? With music?

Mark: Back when I had a quieter, more private ‘home,’ I liked to write in a kind of studio I had set up there. At the moment, I rent a room in a boarding house full of students, which is not conducive to concentration. Currently, my favorite place to write is a beautiful graduate library reading room on the University of Washington campus several blocks from where I live. Wherever I do write though, music is a MUST for me. Mostly soundtracks, classical, or other ‘narrative,’ ‘non-lyrics’ stuff. Happily, we live in an age where all the music you will ever want or need fits comfortably in a laptop, accessible anywhere through a pair of headphones.

David: How did you react when you received your first offer from Tor?

Mark: I was phoned with the news while driving between Omaha, NE and Portland, OR on business, and was ecstatic, though the cell signal died in the middle of my agent’s announcement, and I had to wait several hours for the remaining details.

David: If you could give only one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?

Mark: Read! A lot!

Write what you love , not what you think will sell , just the way you’d really want to read it.

If your satisfaction or persistence as a writer is dependent on the approval of others, or on some level of monetary reward, don’t even attempt to publish.

Write for your own enjoyment. If that is not enough incentive, move on to something else you enjoy more. If however, you love the act of writing itself so much that you literally can’t help doing it, and would go right on even if no one ever published you, or ‘approved’ of what you wanted to write, or of how you wanted to write it, or paid you a cent , then who can stop you? Write away and enjoy it like crazy. The rest , if there is any rest , will be frosting.

David: More specifically, what advice do you have for writers who’d like to get a book deal with Tor?

Mark: First of all, FINISH writing a book. Don’t bother Tor – or any other publisher – before you have done so at least once.

Second, when your manuscript is finished , and you’ve had some time to reflect on it, and revise and polish appropriately, and you’re pretty sure it’s really ready for the light, look at what Tor has been publishing lately, and ask yourself, “Does what I’ve written , and what I want to write , bear ANY resemblance to ANYTHING they’re publishing?” †I didn’t do that. The jury is still out on just how remiss of me that was, and what it may cost me in the end. But these days I’m thinking it’s probably unwise even to try hitching yourself to a publisher who doesn’t already publish the kind of thing you want to write.

When you’ve done all the above, and still wish to proceed, go to Tor’s website, read their submission guidelines carefully, and follow them to the letter. While doing that, get online and start researching agents. When you find some who represent authors writing stuff like what you want to write, read their submission guidelines carefully, and follow those to the letter too.

Then pray for luck, and see what happens.

Or, I suppose you could try my route instead. Just secure the services of a brilliant editor willing to teach you how to ‘write much gooder,’ then parlay your rep as an illustrator into several years of convention readings from your unfinished book, (which had better be much, much gooder than expected by then), attract the attention of a nice midsized publisher before you’ve even completed it, get an offer from them right out the gate when it’s done, get an agent on the basis of their offer, get abandoned by that first publisher , through no fault of your own – just before publication, and have your agent take it to Tor instead. If I wrote that in a novel, though, it would be rejected by the editor as ‘improbable’ or worse.

If all else fails, look for unique side and back doors of your own. If you don’t know what I mean by that †return to paragraph one of this answer.

David: What did you do to help market your book?

Mark: I read from it , for years – to anyone who’d listen. I talked about it , for years – to anyone who’d listen. When Tor bought it, I told everyone who’d listen. When it was released, I gave up four months of income and put my entire, not inconsiderable, book advance right back into a self funded, seven states, coast to coast, book tour. For four months, I did trade shows, (arranged by Tor), radio shows at 5AM, (arranged by my agent), many book store appearances for anywhere from 60 to 3 people, (arranged by me), high school talks in places like Potter, Nebraska (population 150), home book group appearances, science fiction society meeting addresses, (all also arranged by me). And on all the planes and trains in between, I talked about all of it to anyone who would listen. When I get email from a fan, I make sure I answer every one , the minute I read it, if at all possible. I made sure I had a website focused on the novel and its progress that people would want to visit , at least, back when I could afford the webmaster to run that.

How much good has all that done? I’ll never know. While ‘on tour,’ I inadvertently lost my job for another five months after coming home, so it’s made me poorer financially than I ever imagined, but the book sold many times what is considered ‘normal’ for a first fantasy novel by an unknown author. Tor is responsible for most of that, I’m sure, in the way they marketed the book to the big chains and independent book sellers before it was released, but no one can say I wasn’t also willing to work hard to encourage my own success , to however much , or little , effect. There is much more I could have done , especially online – had I known what I know now, and I will try to do it all better next time I get the chance.

David: You have quotes on your cover from Kevin J. Anderson and David Farland. How do you get those awesome quotes?

Mark: Kevin Anderson has been a supportive friend for many years, and was kind enough to support my book in that way , though, I do not believe he would have done so if he hadn’t meant what he said about it. The rest of those generous quotes were arranged by Tor, and I am grateful to all of those authors for their kind opinions.

David: Have you tried your hand with short stories?

Mark: Not much. Writing epic novels does not intimidate me much. Trying to write anything worth saying in under 400 pages scares the hell out of me. I regard the ability to do so as a superpower, and the people who do it well , Jay Lake, for instance , as superheroes of the first order.

As it happens, however, I did recently write a story that is only 7,800 words long , almost short enough to be a legitimate short story. I have no idea whether it is any good, but am having myself fitted for a tight, neoprene suit as we speak , just in case.

David: You were an artist first. What made you decide to take up writing? When did you start? Was it easier or harder than you expected it to be? And how does the creative experience of being a writer differ from that of being an artist?

Mark: They are not that much different to me. They are both ‘story telling’ activities, and , for me at least , both very ‘visual.’

I have always loved to read and write as well as draw. In Junior high, I often turned in History and Science reports that were 90 to 100 pages long , fully illustrated. My teachers grew noticeably older during the few years I was with them. Basically, I am a compulsive story teller, and after years of trying , very enjoyably and profitably most of the time , to tell my stories one slowly rendered frame at a time in pictures, I finally figured out that one book is worth thousands and thousands of pictures. When a head-on collision back in 2000, between myself on a mountain bike and large panel truck, ended my ability to render pictures in colored pencil, (my specialty back then), it just gave me some kind of ‘permission’ to turn to writing instead. I have found that I enjoy this new art form even more than I enjoyed the last one, and frankly, I am still creating pictures , many more of them much faster than I used to, in fact. I’m just doing it in words now. Anyone who knows my artwork, and has read my novel will tell you that they are both very ‘visual.’

As I’ve also mentioned on my website, while the hardest part for me about illustration was often getting started, the hardest thing about writing has often been making myself stop. Quite literally. It’s like watching a long movie in my head, which I’ve got to translate to paper as quickly and expressively as possible. Time almost ceases to exist while I’m at it. There have been occasions when I’ve sat down at my desktop after breakfast and looked up half an hour later to find the sun setting. Knowing this, it may come as no surprise to learn that half my writing process is subtractive. All this stuff gushes out, and I spend nearly as much time trying to remove the huge amounts of ‘literary packing peanuts’ in which the actual story is left swimming.

David: Do you still work on the art as well as the writing?

Mark: Yes. For a day job, I do digital background and interface art for computer games at Griptonite Games in Kirkland, WA. Since my digital art process does not involve hand rendering, (I don’t use a ‘tablet.’), my biking accident hasn’t had any impact on that.

David: Do you have any upcoming convention appearances?

Mark: I hope to be at World Fantasy Con on Halloween weekend, Orycon in November, and both Norwescon and Westercon this year.

David: What do you like to do when you’re not reading or writing?

Mark: Everything else. I love to travel when I have the finances for it. I like to backpack, bike, ski, and swim. I love books, music and film. When I had an apartment of my own, I loved to cook and ‘entertain.’ Back when I had a yard, I liked to garden. I am a very ‘social’ person, with an amazing number of really unusual and remarkably achieved friends. As a person , and a writer – I think it’s very desirable to have as large and creative a life outside of writing as possible , since that life provides most of the raw materials my stories are made of. Lose your ‘life outside of writing,’ and I’ll bet you soon have little or nothing vibrant to write about either.

For instance, last winter I lived for a while in a genuine ‘flop house:’ boarded up windows, rats the size of house cats, heroin addicts, meth freaks , even an excrement artist, (though, conveniently, he was involuntarily committed a few weeks after I moved in , literally scooped off the street into a van by ‘authorities’ while he was punching windows out of parked cars in front of the building one day). I am certainly glad to be out of there now, but talk about MATERIAL! That winter will enrich all sorts of novels, including the one I am currently working on.

David: What was the last book you read?

Mark: The last few were Tigerheart by Peter David, (Funny, moving, dramatic, EXCELLENT!), The Solitudes by John Crowley, (Lyrical, quietly but powerfully magical – often ‘just beyond one’s line of sight’ , which I love most.), and Snake Agent by Liz Williams, (Inventive and very entertaining.)

David: Your favorite book?

Mark: Not a fair question. Impossible to answer ‘accurately.’ But among my top pantheon are , in no meaningful order: Little Big by John Crowley, Songs of Earth and Power by Greg Bear, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark, The Last Light of The Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay, Once and Future King by T.H. White, Galveston by Sean Stewart, Od Magic by Patricia McKillip, The Sparrow by Mary Dorea Russell, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and anything at all by Ursula LeGuin,

David: Who is your favorite author?

Mark: An even less fair or answerable question, but if I must slice the baby up that way, it’s a tie between Ursula LeGuin and John Crowley. Why oh why do you ask such things?

David: What was the last movie you saw?

Mark: The last several were all best called ‘forgettable.’ The last INTERESTING movie I saw was called 500 Days of Sunshine , which was funny, uncomfortable, and wrenching by turns, and bore a more ‘realistic’ resemblance to any kind of actual ‘romance’ I have ever experienced in life than any movie I can remember seeing before.

David: What is your favorite movie?

Mark: More and more unanswerable questions! On my top shelf AT THE MOMENT are: Brick, The Fall, Kung Fu Hustle, The Bubble Boy, and Pleasantville. Yes, I know , a VERY mixed bag. So, David, which of last spring’s flowers do YOU think was prettiest? †Last summer’s fruit most delicious? †last night’s stars most twinkly? â€

David: How is the next book coming along? Do you have an estimated timeline of when it will come out? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Mark: The next book , currently , is called TWICE. I think you know more than most about it already. Feel free to tell your readers why. It’s a single volume, stand alone, ‘urban fantasy’ about a man who may or may not have been beaten to death by a troll in an alleyway on the night of his 50th birthday, a very ill-conceived ‘dying wish,’ and what happens after he awakens to find his poorly conceived wish granted. †It’s brilliant, of course , or will be when it’s finished , thanks in part to YOU. Not sure what else to say at this point.

Happily, the first 200 pages went to my editor at Tor about a month ago, and I heard last week that they are interested in buying and publishing it. Hooray! †If I were to finish the last two-thirds in the next six months, and Tor were to sign the contract one day later, given past experience, it might be out†two years after that?

Publishing, like life in general, seems to be a crap shoot, partner. But I still have high, high hopes. †We will see what the future brings.

Thanks for your interest, your help with the current manuscript, and your questions, David! I am hoping that your own writing and publishing endeavors all go well and weller!

J Mark

Fashionably Late to the Party: Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress, best known for her novel Beggars in Spain, recently released her latest novel, Stealing Across the Sky from Tor Books. Those are just two of her 26 novels and you can find her short fiction in seemingly dozens of anthologies and print publications. From the looks of her bibliography, she must have her own parking space as Asimov’s.

You can learn more about Nancy at her official blog,

Nancy, thank you for taking the time to sit with us today. Let’s get started.

Anthony Sullivan: What is your opinion on revisions, re-writes, etc? Is there such a thing as re-writing too much?

Nancy Kress: Yes, one can rewrite too much, and when that happens it’s usually to a writer who is reluctant to send anything out and thus risk failure. I’ve seen students bring the same story to workshops for because “it’s not quite right yet.” But the more prevalent problem is not re-writing enough, either because one doesn’t know how to revise or because the writer can’t see the story flaws. That comes with practice.

Anthony: In your opinion, what are the five most common problems aspirants have?

Nancy: Not writing enough. This is by far the biggest problem. You learn by doing.

Not reading enough.

The ending that does not fulfill what the story promised to deliver.

The long expository opening not in story-time: background or flashback or whatever.

Lack of specific sharp images in the prose, which usually goes along with excess wordiness.

Anthony: What conventions or conferences would you recommend that aspirants attend, as part of their professional development?

Nancy: If it can be managed, an aspiring writer will learn a lot at the six-week conferences: Clarion, Clarion West, or Odyssey. If not, attending a few regional cons big enough to attract a variety of writers is good for hearing various points of view on craft. And some of them run advance-enrollment workshops.

Anthony: Is short story writing essential to breaking in, or can someone work exclusively on novels and still break in?

Nancy: There are natural short story writers, natural novelists, and people who can do both. If you can publish a few short stories, it certainly helps in getting your novel looked at by agents and editors. Also, you learn faster since a short story is much less investment of time while you make all the usual mistakes. But if not, you can still work exclusively on novels, yes.

Anthony: Do you believe in the million words theory; that all aspirants must write roughly a million words before they’re generally competent enough to sell?

Nancy: No. It varies. Robert Silverberg sold his first story. There are a lot of other variables to breaking in besides word count. I didn’t write a million words before my stories started to sell, no where near that.

Anthony: Why do you feel agents have increasingly been made ‘keepers of the slush pile’?

Nancy: Because editors are overworked and harassed by publishers, accountants, and market departments. It’s easier to let agents pre-screen books than to read everything that comes in over the transom. Agents only make money if a book sells, so it’s in their interest to back ones that they think have a higher chance of doing so.

Anthony: Can you offer some suggestions for making the first scene or first chapter in your story leap out at an editor?

Nancy: Get characters , preferably more than one , on stage immediately, doing something, preferably something in which the outcome is uncertain. This means not starting with one character waking up, going through his or her daily routine, or ruminating about the past or future. Use a lot of dialogue, if you possibly can. Make the prose sharp and specific. Hint at larger conflicts or issues to come.

Anthony: You’ve been doing this for so long; is there anything remarkable or significant you personally have learned about writing in the last year?

Nancy: It never gets routine. In the last year I’ve had a novel rejected, won a Hugo, sold a trilogy, written a story I disliked that sold, written a story I liked that did not (so far, anyway), had good reviews and mediocre reviews for the same book. This job never becomes stale.

Anthony: Do you think the industry is easier or harder to break into now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: Much harder. There are fewer short-story venues and publishers are more reluctant to take on novels that are not obviously commercial. I don’t think I could have sold my first two novels in today’s market. And I see student work which I think is wonderful but which somehow cannot find a market.

Anthony: Are there any new, significant barriers standing between aspirants and pro status, now, compared to when you broke in?

Nancy: I’m not sure what you mean by “new barriers.” A poor economy always means dropping workers , including writers , viewed as “less productive” of profit.

Anthony: Your novel Stealing Across the Sky is about an alien race that comes to Earth seeking to atone for some wrong they committed long ago. How did you come up with this idea?

Nancy: I never know how I come up with any of my ideas. They just sort of appear one day, and my great fear is that one day, they won’t. I’m not one of those writers who say, “Oh, ideas are cheap, I have a million of them.” I don’t.

Anthony: The novel is written as more of a discovery/milieu story. What sort of obstacles did you encounter while writing this sort of piece?

Nancy: Just the usual obstacles: the beginning, middle, and end. I don’t outline, and I don’t know the ending of anything when I start writing, so no matter the structure, I’m always groping my way blindly through it. This is not an efficient working method, but it seems to be the only way I can write.

Anthony: At what point, growing up, did you know that you wanted to become a writer?

Nancy: Not until I was nearly thirty. I was late coming to the party.

Anthony: What creative influences do you feel impacted your writing style most?

Nancy: Probably everything I ever read. Since my favorite writers are Ursula LeGuin, Jane Austen and Somerset Maugham, and since they seem to have nothing in common, I can’t really give a more precise answer to this question.

Anthony: As an aspiring writer, I go through lulls and manic periods in my writing. What motivates you when slogging through those less than exciting passages?

Nancy: Discipline, plus economic necessity. I’ve been a full-time writer for nearly twenty years, so I’m accustomed to getting up, having coffee, and getting right to the computer. Working at the same time on work days tends to produce more reliable cooperation from the subconscious, that vital collaborator. Also, if I don’t write, I can’t pay the bills. This tends to keep one slogging.

Anthony: The internet has changed the industry for writers, readers and publishers. What has been the biggest change for you?

Nancy: I think the transition to digital from print is only in its infancy. I’ve published on-line at venues like Jim Baen’s Universe, but they tend to fold because no one has really yet figured out how to make much money in Internet fiction. I have work available for the Kindle, including STEAL ACROSS THE SKY and BEGGARS IN SPAIN, but Kindle sales account for less than 1% of fiction sales in the U.S. So at this point, the impact on me has been minimal, but that may change. The real difference so far is that now much of the business side of writing is handled on-line instead of by phone or letter.

Anthony: What changes for the publishing industry do you see on the horizon?

Nancy: Haven’t a clue.

Anthony: I recently read Images of Anna, a story of yours published in Fantasy Magazine. I found Anna to be a very vivid character. How much time do you spend working on a character like her?

Nancy: I can usually do a short story in a week or two. The character, including Anna, almost always occurs to me bundled with the story’s original idea. The details of character come to me during the process of writing.

Anthony: Do you feel you spend more time on a novel character than a short story character?

Nancy: I don’t understand that question. Of course a novel takes longer to write, so I’m spending more time with/on the character. But there is no difference in any pre-writing character study (which I seldom do).

Anthony: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects? I think I heard you had some short fiction coming up in Fantasy Magazine?

Nancy: I usually publish short fiction in ASIMOV’S, and in the last two years I’ve published eight stories there, including “The Erdmann Nexus” that won a Hugo this year. I go in spurts of short-story writing, and that one is played out. Now I’m working on novels.

Anthony: Thanks again for your time, Nancy.

Also, a special thanks to Brad Torgersen and Jennifer Wendorf for your help with questions for Nancy.

What Lies in Wait Beyond the Next Branch

Just some philosophical musing today at the approach of an important anniversary.
One week from tomorrow (June 5th) is the 1 year anniversary of my very first story submission dropped in a mailbox. It’s also my 5th wedding anniversary, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I started writing fiction in 2007, and jumped right in, diving head first into writing a novel with no prior experience writing fiction, no critique group and rare feedback from anyone. I finished a rough draft of that novel last year. Over that whole year I hadn’t even considered writing short stories. If you want to make it big, I reasoned, you’ve got to aim high. Book royalties, that’s the key. Once I finished writing the entire book, I polished the first 3 chapters to the best shine I knew how, wrote a synopsis for them and dropped them in the mailbox addressed to Tor. Their website at the time estimated 4-6 months for reply to slush, so I figured I had time to polish some more chapters before I had any chance of hearing back from them. I figured most places will take at least as long as the time estimate they give you. Right? Wrong!

I had their rejection in my mailbox 12 days later, a grainy photocopy of a form letter: “Dear Submitter”, “signed, the editors”. Now what should I do, I thought. Not that many places even take submissions of just 3 chapters + synopsis. Many places require you to work through an agent. Many others require an entire manuscript. I found another publisher that would take 3 + synopsis, Elder Signs Press, and sent it off to them. Once that was out the door I decided I needed a change in tactic.

Since novels take such an ungodly amount of time to write, and since so few publishers will take 3 chapter submissions, I decided I’d better get writing something shorter. So I wrote up my first short story, originally titled The Long-sought Purpose of the Divining Man. It was filled with almost constant exclamation points and semi-colons as I’d had a secret love for these punctuations. It was very long and had all kinds of problems, but of course I thought it was great.

I made my very first story post to Baen’s Bar, the critiquing forum associated with Jim Baen’s Universe. It took me quite a while to work up the courage. What if someone steals my work? What if someone rips my story apart? But I sucked it up, because quite frankly, their money was among the best pay in the short story biz. And of course, the good Barflies there told me what they really thought of it, pointing out all the problems that they could find. “Wow, this is harder than I thought”, I said, but at the same time was delighted to get prompt and knowledgeable feedback not only from fellow writers who were more experienced than I, but from the slush readers Edith Maor, Gary Cuba, and Sam Hidaka.

I’ve used Baen’s Bar both to give and receive critiques since then and have yet to see its equal. The critiques I’ve received there have helped me grow as a writer much more quickly than dogging through it on my own. In the year since I started writing shorts I’ve learned 10 times what I learned the year before trying on my own.

I also found other useful writing forums like the Writers of the Future forum (where I met Anthony Sullivan among others), and Hatrack River forum where I began wonderful friendships, discussed the ins and outs of writing and of the publishing business, and just had a great time.

More recently I’ve started grabbing writer friends on Facebook, which has been fun. Many of them give frequent updates about tour dates, publications, and you can just interact with them for fun too. It’s been awesome. Before you start talking to these people it’s easy to put them up on a pedestal and think of them as some sort of strange otherworldly being that can pull prose out of their ears unbidden, but they’re folks just like you and me (albeit talented ones).

Anyhoo, I sent that ESP novel submission out over 300 days ago now, and have queried at 6 and 9 months without even an acknowledgment in return. How different would my writing career be nowadays if I had sent that first manuscript off to ESP instead of Tor. I probably would never have started writing short stories, so I wouldn’t have come across critique forums like Baen’s Bar. I never would’ve made the awesome friends I’ve made, and I would be left slogging through the revisions of that novel (or ones of a second novel) with little or no feedback to help me understand what works in stories and what doesn’t. ALL it would’ve taken would have been a different address on that one envelope, and this would be so different.

I’m glad I addressed that first envelope to Tor, it set me on the path I’ve traveled to be where I am today.

Now I just need to get back to revising that novel! Such a daunting task now that I have a pretty good idea what I like and don’t like about different stories!