Viable Paradise is an intense one week workshop run by the Martha’s Vineyard Science Fiction Association. While attending this workshop in 2012, otherwise known as VP16 (Viable Paradise 16), I met so many amazing people who loved writing as much as I did, and who possessed drive and determination in their left hand, creativity in their right. Soldiers of fiction, I like to think, who have been working hard in the three years since our island time together. Today, we get to talk to the novelists of that class, five women who have published a spectrum of fiction.
Allow me to introduce:
1. Ladies, let’s start off by discussing your current book publications. What’s it about, what inspired you to write this story.
Debra: Blood Surfer is a fast-paced action-adventure superhero story with a heavy dash of romance. My hero and heroine are on the run from the law in Star Haven, where people with superpowers (called alternative humans) are banned. They’re trying to get to Thunder City where “Alts” are welcomed. They quickly discover that getting out of Star Haven alive is only half the battle.
Alison: The Saffron Crocus is a historical mystery for young adults. Music, Murder & Mayhem in 17th Century Venice.
Camille: Letters to Zell is a satirical, epistolary fairy tale asking: what happens when happily ever after isn’t the happy you’re after? We join three Grimm princesses whose lives are thrown into chaos after a fourth sets off to chart her own destiny.
Lauren: The Fire Children is a young adult fantasy. When the solar eclipse comes to Kaladim, the people retreat to caverns below the city while the Fire Children explore their world. Despite the warnings, a young woman named Yulla ventures aboveground for a glimpse of the sun’s children, only to find that the Witch Women have kidnapped all but one.
It was supposed to be a short story, but my short stories have a terrible habit of demanding to be novels instead…
Tam: My next book is Salt and Iron, which is about the youngest kid in a family of famous monster hunters, James van Helsing. He figures if his family knew he had exactly the same sort of magic that the monsters have, they’d probably pierce him with iron and bury him in salt. He’s in love with his best friend, Gabe Marquez. He figures it can’t get worse, which is about the time that somebody starts manipulating him to use his magic, goes after the people James loves, and change Gabe into a monster.
2. Was this the book you workshopped at Viable Paradise? If so, what impact did the workshop have on its development?
Alison: No, this is not the book I workshopped. Actually I workshopped a short story.
Debra: Yes, this is the book I workshopped. I submitted my eight thousand words and prayed for the best. I rewrote the entire book based on the feedback I received from the VP faculty and fellow students. The essential story remained the same, but the details changed to make it a stronger, more relatable story.
Camille: I workshopped a different novel at VP, one I fondly refer to as my “space ponies” project. Though I trunked that particular novel, at least for awhile, the lessons I learned during my VP critiques were miles apart from what I’d learned in local writing groups. I started Zell a couple of months after VP when life demanded I pay attention to some different aspects of humanity.
Lauren: This isn’t the book I workshopped, but it’s the first post-VP thing I wrote. I had a whole new set of tools in my toolbox when I sat down to work on it, especially in regards to plotting and pacing.
Tam: No, but holy hell did Viable Paradise ever inform the construction of this book. Uncle Jim did this lecture about building a model house. He talked about furnishing all the rooms, even though nobody would see them, so the house would feel more real to the model-maker. That’s how I approached this book. I can give you the hierarchy of the sidhe, and tell you the minutiae of their wars. None of that is elaborated on in the book but it’s there. The goal is that readers will be able to feel the floorboards underfoot.
3. Let’s talk traditional publication versus self publishing. Which is your path and how did you find it?
Alison: This is my third book (first novel, though). I had published two non-fiction books traditionally so I stuck to that road. However Black Opal Books is a very small press so I have to do as much marketing as a self-pubbed and I also arranged for the cover art.
I sold this book the first time I pitched it. A tweet-length pitch in a Facebook group pitch session.
Debra: I chose the self-publishing path after a long, hard-fought battle trying to get traditionally published. I don’t like giving up battles and would have continued to fight for my place in the traditional world, but one day after I sent out a round of queries to literary agents, I received a phone call and learned a close family member was very ill. After that phone call I realized just how badly I wanted to put my book into his hands before he could no longer read it. I couldn’t wait for agents, editors, or New York to fall in love my writing, so I made a plan to self-publish. A year later, when the final agent (who had requested a partial, then a full) sent me her rejection, I had a plan in place to get my book out there. That family member now owns a copy of my book and he’s read it. My mission is complete, but the journey continues.
Camille: While workshopping Zell at local (Pacific Northwest) conference in the summer of 2013, I met my agent, Cameron McClure. She expressed interest in the finished manuscript and I took my sweet time getting things just right. She and I did a set of revisions, and I signed with the Donald Maass Literary Agency in April of the following year.
We began shopping the novel shortly after. At the London Book Fair, Cameron met a man who was very interested in the concept and who would eventually become my acquiring editor at 47North. I chose 47North not only because they gave me a competitive offer, but because with a book like Zell – which is hybrid fantasy, fairy tale, women’s fiction, satire, epistolary – selecting a traditional bookstore shelf on which to put it is no small task. With Amazon’s marketing algorithms, I am assured the book is reaching the people it should and not out confusing lovers of traditional fantasy or contemporary literature, rather finding the place where those Venn diagrams cross.
Lauren: The Fire Children and my Night Owls books are trade published. I’ve worked in the bookselling industry since high school (first at an independent bookstore, currently for one of the Big Five), so it’s always been a goal of mine. In addition to what I knew from wearing my day job hat, when it was time to query agents, I used a lot of what I’d learned from the wonderful, smart people on the Absolute Write forums, and from blogs like Janet Reid’s Queryshark.
Tam: Salt and Iron is coming out from Dreamspinner, which is a medium-sized press publishing out of the States.. They paid an advance and they pay royalties, as I guess they’re in the “traditional” category.
I haven’t self published anything, but if I can’t sell the book I’m currently shopping around, I’ll probably go that route with it. That will mean a very steep learning curve, and for the first time ever I’ll be the layout person and sales department (I’ll contract out the cover art and editing), which I will probably find quite uncomfortable. All I want to do is write stories, and my business genes seem to be set to minimum expression. Just thinking about all the work that goes into self publishing makes me go eeep.
4. Playing favorites. Our characters aren’t our children, but we have a special place in their existence. Who is your favorite, and do you feel that you created them, or found them?
Alison: The characters have taken over. The singer who is murdered in the opening insists on a prequel so her story is heard properly. The young lady who lost out on the hero’s attentions insists she get her day in the sun in a sequel. I will do what I can to make them happy.
Debra: I can’t choose a favorite because I created all of my characters. In the case of my heroine, I created her after I killed the hero. With superheroes dominating the movies these past few years, I needed to find a new, unique power for my heroine to use. Something no one has seen, at least not recently in the movies. So I put my hero in jeopardy in the opening scene and tried to figure out what would be a fun way to rescue him. Then my evil muse whispered in my ear – why rescue him? So I didn’t, and he lay there on screen next to my blinking cursor mostly dead. From there, I built Hannah, the Blood Surfer. She can heal you from the inside out by skimming through your arteries and veins. She’s quite talented and very valuable to those who want to possess her.
Camille: I have three POV characters in Zell – none of which are the title character – and my goal was to provide each of them with a distinct voice. The loudest of them, Bianca aka Snow White, is a present tense, foul-mouthed, straight-talker. I found it freeing to write a character unafraid to speak her mind. She loves as fiercely as she opines and her bravery is something I covet as a friend and as a woman, though that sort of love can burn too hot at times.
Lauren: That’s a tough one. I love Yulla and Ember both, and think they work together well as a team. I have a minor… character? entity? in the Desert Wind, who ended up playing a bigger part than I’d intended originally. She got a raw deal a long, long time before the story starts, and I hope I’ve made it up to her at least a little bit by the end.
Tam: Why would you ask such a question? *covers the ears of all other characters*
Okay, so, I haven’t even sold this book yet, but in How to Save the World, the death-gods-vs-mechs book I’m currently shopping around, there’s a character named Alex. I love that guy. In the course of the book he goes from doing what he’s told in the hopes that it will make life a little less painful, to choosing his own path. He spends some time unsure of his own humanity. He deals with PTSD. Man I make that poor kid suffer. And no matter what’s happening around him, he’s always trying to do the right thing for everyone else. Eventually, he starts to be able to look after himself the way he used to only look after others. That’s his arc; to learn to love himself, in spite of everything he’s done and everything that was done to him. I love that.
5. Does your story continue in future books? If so, any hints what we can expect?
Alison: A prequel, working title of Cantinlenae sine Textu (Song without Words). Set in Mantua and environs from 1625 to 1630. It tells Margharita’s story, when she was known as “Madama Europa.” Her real name was probably Europa Rossi, sister of the Jewish violinist and composer Salamone Rossi. She was probably the first professional female opera singer.
Madama Europa probably died with her brother when, following the Gonzaga’s defeat in 1630 by imperial troops of the Gonzagas and end of the Gonzaga court, imperial soldiers sacked the Jewish ghetto in Mantua. The novel focuses on Madame Europa’s fictional relationship with Ferdinand III, who later became Holy Roman Emperor, and posits that she escaped the razing of the ghetto and fled to Venice with her love child.
The sequel is as yet untitled, but the hero would be Domenico, the love Isabella rejects in The Saffron Crocus, and her friend Dina. Domenico is a pampered, wealthy Venetian merchant. Dina is Sephardic Jew from the Ghetto who wishes to go to Spain to rescue precious Jewish musical manuscripts before they are destroyed by the Inquisition. She enlists Domenico’s help. Adventures and forbidden love ensue.
Debra: The adventure does continue. I have two more books planned for Blood Surfer’s main protagonists, Hannah & Scott. I also have a series of short stories involving secondary characters in the series. Seeker’s story, Valley of the Blind is now available. Spritz’s story, Slow Burn, comes out in January, and a new character, Claire makes her debut in Still Life in March, 2016. Scott’s older brother, Nik has been pestering me too, so he’ll get his story told hopefully by the end of next year.
Camille: Zell is a standalone novel, though if I chose to go back to it, there are several avenues to take. I didn’t want the novel to be carefully wrapped up. Though it completes the episodes of the lives of three women, the possibility for happily ever after remains. I hope that is an honest reflection of how life often leaves us after big changes.
Lauren: The Fire Children is a standalone, though I’ve toyed with the idea of a prequel about Mother Sun and Sister Moon, or checking in to see what adventures Yulla and Ember might have next.
Tam: I always plan on writing a big ol’ trilogy of doorstoppers, and then I get so excited I cram the whole plot into about 90,000 words, so no sequels planned. Not yet. But maybe in the near future. I have this idea for a trilogy…
6. If your characters watched TV, what show would be their addiction? If TV isn’t their thing, what would they read?
Alison: My characters live in the 17th century. They LOVE to go to the opera, as well as chamber music performances in people’s homes. They will do almost anything to hear a good musical performance.
Debra: My characters are usually too busy running for their lives to stop and watch TV. The few times they do watch TV it’s usually the news. If they did have time to watch a scripted show, they’d probably watch sit-coms. Something that will make them laugh. Something that will help them forget their troubles.
Camille: In the novel, Bianca is obsessed with human pop culture. She already reads Cosmo and Entertainment Weekly news. As for Rory (Sleeping Beauty), she’d be ingesting mass quantities of Bronte and glued to the BBC. CeCi (Cinderella) would be trying out for her own Food Network show and devouring celebrity cookbooks.
Lauren: Yulla is a big fan of fairy tales and adventure stories. I like to think her library would be filled with a mix of doorstop epic fantasies and westerns. And because her favorite hero is a character called The Brigand Queen, she’d totally be watching Leverage and would consider herself a Browncoat.
Tam: Gabe and James in Salt and Iron grew up swapping comics in a blanket fort. James as an adult is much more the type to read gritty detective fiction (I imagine he has every single one of the Rebus books) and Gabe would still browse happily through the bookstore, picking up whatever looks interesting. Alex from How to Save the World is a serious reader, and a lover of fantasy. After the HTSTW ends and the world isn’t blowing apart at the seams, he’d get serious about amassing a collection that would totally include Tad Williams, Fred Saberhagen, Robin Hobb, all the great epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s and 00s. His counterpart Sean is only semi-literate. He definitely prefers Futurama reruns to books.
7. Finally, what advice would you offer writers who are writing novels and marketing them (either traditionally or indie?)
Alison: When you have an idea for a novel, pitch it to a handful of strangers. Modify your pitch according to whether their eyes glaze over or not. Then write a one page synopsis. Pitch that as an extended pitch to some trusted friends. Modify accordingly.
Write the entire novel. Do not show any of it to anyone until you’ve finished a draft.
Rewrite, again without showing it to anyone, until you can’t do anything AT ALL to make it better. Send it to a couple trusted beta readers, rewrite, repeat, then submit to some contests. If you place well in the contests, start pitching it and sending out cold queries.
Don’t get input until you have a full draft. That way madness lies. And never finishing.
Debra: Find a supportive group of writers and join that group. If, after time, you find they’re not the right group for you, find another group. Take advice, but not too much advice. Don’t lose YOUR sight of YOUR story even if everyone else is telling you it’s all wrong. They can criticize your grammar, your plot holes, your world-building, but not your story. Hold your story close to your heart and don’t let go.
Camille: We’re so lucky to live in an era where there is space for almost every voice. Though writing is art, selling books is a business and has to be treated as such no matter how unromantic. The advice I’d give to almost anyone entering into the business side of things is to be kind to yourself: there is no one, easy way to get where you’re going. It’s almost impossible to divorce your art from your emotions, so in order to endure the slings and arrows to come, focus on what you can control. Have a cry if needed, then pick yourself up. It’s okay to share your frustrations, but a constant stream of negativity on social media or even inside your own office does nothing but trap a writer inside a box of despair. Concentrate on how to get your book to the readers that want it, and then fight until you get it to them. Be proud of your best work and then find the path that belongs to your particular feet.
Lauren: Treat your writing time like a priority – if other people see you taking your work seriously, they’ll follow suit. Read widely, both within your genre and outside it. Find other writers who you can talk to and commiserate with, and cheer each other on. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – your agent and your publisher are on your team. They want your book to succeed, too. It’s okay to be happy. It’s okay to be terrified. It’s okay to say no. Impostor Syndrome is a real thing, and it’s a big liar. It’s tempting to measure your success/productivity/skill against what’s happening with other writers. Try to resist doing so – every career is unique. Write what you love.
Tam: Hoooo. Well. I’m not at the point where I can make a living writing fiction, so I’m not sure I’m a good person to dish out advice about being successful. That said, Viable Paradise honestly changed my life. It was the first time I had any idea of where I was in terms of my skill level. It made me realize how little I actually knew about storycraft, and gave me a place to start learning. So, I guess I’d say give yourself permission to learn the job (from stroycraft to selling), as you would with any other job you undertook. Then spend a little time every year upgrading those skills.
8. Where can we find you online?
Alison: My webpage has all my social links on it http://www.AlisonMcMahan.com
The novel we’ve been discussing is at http://www.TheSaffronCrocus.com
Debra: You can read my blog and sign up for my newsletter at http://debrajess.com. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and LinkedIn as debrajess.
Camille: I can be found at http://www.camillegriep.com or on Twitter/Instagram @camillethegriep.
Lauren: Book stuff and bloggery can be found at http://www.laurenmroy.com. I’m on twitter (waaaay too much) as @falconesse.
Tam: Oh jeepers, I’m everywhere. I’m on tumblr ar http://tamthewriter.tumblr.com/, blogspot at http://tamthewriter.blogspot.ca/, twitter at https://twitter.com/TamMacNeil, and facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009440824771. I basically can’t keep my mouth shut.
Ladies, thank you for joining me today. Much luck and many sales in this 2016.
Folks, you’ve met some fine writers today. I’ve read most of the books mentioned here today, and I hope you get a chance to read them.
Writers, today is also the day Viable Paradise opens for applications for the 2017 class (VP20). If you’ve been thinking about applying, stop thinking and start writing. This workshop didn’t just change my life – you see what it’s done for Debra, Camille, Alison, Lauren, and Tam. Give yourself the journey you deserve.