Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Interview with Margo Ander

Hi, Debra. Thank you so much for hosting me today! I try to keep up with Two Ends of the Pen, and I was delighted that you wanted to interview me as well as review my book. I feel honored to be here.

Besides writing, do you have any other passions?
Definitely the Three Rs—Reading, Writing, and Riding. The reading and writing part are pretty much what you’d expect for a writer. The riding part is a bit more complicated. When I get on a horse, I can actually feel a deep change come over me, a sense of completeness so profound that it’s probably safe to say that if I’m not riding every day, I’m not in my right mind. Unfortunately, my horse Circe, the inspiration for Wyl’s horse Firebrand in my story, is twenty-nine years old now and has some age-related health problems that have us both grounded. Not only do I really miss the nonstop, nonverbal conversation that takes place between us when riding, but riding is my favorite form of exercise. I’m also a reformed adrenaline junky—I’m no longer suffering from immortality like I did when I was younger and did some really stupid things on horseback, but just getting on a horse still opens the window of opportunity for a sneaky adrenaline fix.

I also enjoy acrylic painting and pastels, hand-sewing and embroidering fun stuff like medieval garb, and tribal belly dancing. My elder daughter introduced me to manga and anime a couple years ago; I love Fullmetal Alchemist, Full Metal Panic!, and Dogs: Bullets and Carnage. Now she’s doing her best to get me hooked on Korean dramas, so the list of recreational interests just keeps getting longer, but finding time to indulge in them keeps getting harder and harder. I work full-time and write full-time, and my husband and I are virtually empty-nesters, so I’m trying to spend more time with him and take advantage of opportunities to spend time with our girls now that I don’t see them every day.

What is your writing process? Do you listen to music or do you like silence?
I bought a nice recliner with the proceeds of my first paid writing gig—a video script—and I’ve logged a lot of hours in it ever since. I do most of my writing now in a little room at the back of my house, with my keyboard in my lap and a big monitor about four feet away (so I can put my feet up in the recliner). My fifteen-year-old tortoiseshell cat, Cookie Monster, likes to hang out with me there. I play movie scores when I’m actually focused on writing or editing—nothing with lyrics. Pirates of the Caribbean, Conan the Barbarian, Batman, Thor, and Batman Begins did a lot of the heavy lifting for Rebel. If I’m plotting, I sometimes like silence, no artificial mood influencers. When I need to come up for air and reenergize, a good action-adventure movie helps get me back on track.

Do you outline your story or just go where your muse takes you?
I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool pantser—it was exciting to chase off after every fresh inspiration and spontaneously adapt my stories to the challenge. Unfortunately, I like twisty, complex plots, so every story I wrote ended up trapping my characters in corners they couldn’t get out of. I finally got frustrated with going nowhere fast and my 2010 New Years resolution was to do everything differently—from focusing on just one story (I have fourteen series in various stages of development), to starting writing at 3 a.m. instead of 10 p.m., to plotting the story backwards—and as a manga!  The manga approach got me unstuck, but really didn’t suit the story. Everything else, however, affected my productivity so dramatically, I’ve never looked back. 

My initial outline is pretty bare-bones—I’d much rather be writing content than an outline, so I compromise by writing out every major turning point or emotionally-pivotal scene as a part of the outline process. With a nine book series, it’s the only way I can be sure all the puzzle pieces fit together. I make heavy use of Word’s bookmarks feature—a bookmark for every scene—and during the editing phase, I upload the manuscript onto my Nook, which shows the bookmarks as chapters in the Table of Contents. I hand-write the TOC and page numbers into a table, creating on the spot the most up-to-date and accurate outline of the story without wasting time making a new standalone outline. I use that to manipulate the flow of the plot and the various POV characters. With a 150,000 word manuscript, I feel an accurate outline and bookmarks are indispensable.

Have you ever had a minor character evolve into a major one? Did that change the direction of the novel at all?
Funny you should ask! The Legend of the Spider-Prince series started out as a single book that I struggled to make work—the initial concept had been a simple retelling of Rapunzel from the witch’s point of view for my kids during a car ride, but I had to make some significant changes to the fairy tale world to support the very different version I made up, and no matter what I did when I wrote it out later, the opening drowned in backstory and world building.

I wrestled with that problem for years, and eventually realized that the main character was neither the witch nor Rapunzel, but rather a minor, yet pivotal, character from the end of the original story, and that the story itself was no longer Rapunzel. By the time I sorted out whose story I was actually telling, and how much room I would need to tell it, the original book had become Book 7, the beginning of the final trilogy in the series. It was very unexpected, but all the pieces just fell into place, and it was what it was. I was a little exasperated—my original intention had been to come up with a single, standalone YA novel instead of Yet Another series (and a more adult one at that)—but the story itself was too exciting to let drop.

Do you belong to a critique group? Have they helped improve your writing?
I have a degree in English and a library of about one hundred writing books, but nothing can take the place of frank, knowledgeable feedback on your own writing. I’ve been seriously pursuing a writing career for over twenty years, but I can honestly say my growth as a professional storyteller stagnated until I began giving and getting critiques. Until two years ago, the only people who’d read any of my drafts were family, and of them, only my youngest sister is a fantasy reader.

I only learned about in August 2011 and immediately joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop there. The first critiques I got back were a shock, but eye-opening and undeniably true. That experience kicked off a frenzy of improvement in my craft. I discovered this past January, and though the critique process there is different, the feedback has been just as helpful. I’m really grateful to have had the benefit of so many other authors’ insights. Lesson learned: A writer needs readers and feedback. You can’t grow in a vacuum.

What factors influenced your decision to self-publish your book(s)?
I really wrestled with that decision. Self-publishing offers complete artistic freedom, but it’s non-writing and labor-intensive with a steep learning curve. Like a lot of authors, I’m far more interested in writing than running a publishing business, and it was tempting to team up with a traditional publisher. But the reality is, if you want to have readers, you have to do more than just write, no matter which route you take to publication—especially if you are unknown. Both paths have their pros and cons, but either way, you’re going to be doing some marketing.

The decision to go indie became a no-brainer for me just this April, when I finally asked myself the right question: What if I sold my first book to a traditional publisher, and it sold some copies, but failed to meet sales expectations?

The sad truth to traditional publishing is that a new author has about three months to prove herself before her book starts getting pulled from the shelves. I’m a series writer. If I sold the rights to the first book in this series, spent years jumping through the hoops of the traditional publication process, only to have my publisher pull the plug on Book 1 after just three months on the shelf—ironically, about the same amount of time as it takes for SEO to produce results!—I would be devastated, and the other eight books in the series would never get read. Even self-publishing, you can’t seriously expect to sell a series without the rights to the first book!

J. K. Rowling wasn’t an overnight success—I believe it wasn’t until her third book came out that the Harry Potter series really took off. (That’s when I bought the first Harry Potter book to read to my girls and discovered that there were some really good stories being written in the YA genre that an adult would enjoy.)

I’ve been writing all my life, and I don’t intend to stop, so I’m comfortable taking a longer view. I have a day job—it’s not like I need a publisher to spot me a loan against my future sales (an advance) to pay my bills. I think the Legend of the Spider-Prince series is a great story—even fifteen years after I came up with it, I still get excited about the story line and can’t wait to get back to work on the rest of the series. I think there’s an audience for LotSP, and I believe good things come to those who have the patience and commitment to do what needs to be done, including learning new skill sets like social media, marketing, and the like. It seems unrealistic to me to expect instant gratification in terms of sales. Since even the big dogs in the publishing world are struggling with discoverability, impatience for results seems counterproductive for a career writer.  

If you used a graphic designer/publisher’s designer, how involved were you during the creative process for your cover?
I’m so pleased that that whole experience! As an indie author, I had total freedom to decide what my book was going to look like, something a traditionally-published, debut author has little or no say in—we’ve all picked up books where the cover had little to do with what was inside.

The hardest thing was coming up with what I wanted. Because I’d originally intended to traditionally publish, I didn’t have a war chest for producing my book and had deliberately tried NOT to think about what kind of cover it would end up with. So, once I made the decision to go indie, I decided to make my own cover. I’m a fair amateur artist, so I made about five different acrylic paintings, trying to get the cover right. I really enjoy painting, but none of those covers satisfied me. My cover painting style might work for a manga, but not for an epic fantasy. The truth is, all my energy has gone into becoming a professional writer, not a professional artist.

Once I recognized that fact, I scraped together a small war chest to pay for a cover. I googled “fantasy artist,” and started hunting through the Internet for a “real artist.” The portfolios for the first half-dozen artists I looked at made me feel my own covers weren’t so bad—which was discouraging because I didn’t want to use them. Then I saw Kirsi Salonen’s portfolio, and it was love at first sight. She’s a professional artist in Finland who is also working on a fantasy book series of her own. Her style reminds me of what I like about Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, but with a fresh and exotic feel that is definitely her own. It just seemed to resonate with my story, and I stopped looking at other artists. On April 23, I emailed her to ask if she was interested in doing my cover, though I didn’t think I could afford her.

Happily, not only was she interested, but we were able to work out a deal at a price I could meet. I sent her the first two chapters leading to the scene I wanted for the cover, and mentioned a few of her portfolio pieces that captured aspects of the setting or character description. Finland is about eight hours ahead of me, so over the ensuing weeks, we emailed back and forth a series of sketches for comment and tweaks at my lunch time and her end of the day. I’m so thankful that she’s very fluent in English, since my Finnish is non-existent! She sent my first sketch on May 19, and on July 18, I had not just my ebook and paperback cover, but also a beautiful 18” x 24” poster of the cover, which is part of the prize in my Rafflecopter drawing for this blog tour. I’m thrilled with how well the cover turned out, and just laugh now when my family admits how relieved they are that I didn’t go with one of my own paintings!

Do you find it difficult to juggle your time between marketing your current book and writing your next book?
This is an ongoing challenge. Trying to find a sustainable routine that allows me to do all the things I need to do is actually the real focus of my life right now. I’m not naturally a moderate person—usually, it’s all or nothing—and I did a good job of wrecking my health writing Rebel, which was my wake-up call for moderation. I have a pretty sedentary day job and combining that with 45 hours a week in my recliner with my keyboard, writing Rebel left me with twenty-five pounds I don’t need and as physically fit as a coma victim. Writing full-time, working full-time, and having a family life was and is a tough balancing act in itself. I had to make some hard sacrifices in my social life, and “free time” just doesn’t exist. Now marketing has been added into the mix, and I don’t foresee it ever going away. I know I’ll have to find efficiencies to make the best use of the time I spend promoting Rebel because the moment is fast approaching where the need to get back to writing the rest of Legend of the Spider-Prince is going to start eating me alive.

As to the marketing itself, I’m practically a hermit, so I’m not very comfortable with social media, but what’s the point in paying such a high price to write a good story, then balking at a little shameless self-promotion? I’ve been practicing putting the shameless into my self-promotion by telling people who I know don’t bite that I’ve published a book. It’s been actually kind of fun, babbling about writing Rebel and what I’ve learned about the book business so far—this is all very novel to me. I’m trying to look at this as the “reward phase” of publishing my book, getting to rebuild my social life by connecting with people who share my love for books and stories. In a lot of respects, marketing as just another aspect of storytelling—the story about my story. If I use that approach to marketing, I’m more comfortable with it. This is fiction, after all. People don’t need to read it. It’s entertainment, an enjoyable pastime, and Legend of the Spider-Prince won’t be that for everyone. People like what they like. I don’t ever want to make someone feel like they have to like what I write—I just hope that they do.

What advice would you give a new author just entering into the self-publishing arena?
I’d like to pass on a great piece of advice I got from author Simon Hawke after I left the Air Force and decided to make a serious career of writing—don’t tell your story until after it’s written, or it may never to get written at all. Don’t squander the creative energy and excitement that fuels the writing process by telling instead of writing.

My own experience drives my next bit of advice: Don’t let your first draft be your manuscript. I’ve been there, so excited to finally finish a book that I just spell-checked it, boxed it, and sent it off to a publisher’s slush pile. (That was back in the Dark Ages, pre-Internet.) Oh, the things I didn’t know, that I didn’t even know I didn’t know! Whole books have been written on THAT subject but, bottom line, a draft is not the same as a finished manuscript.

Learn the different types of editing—developmental, copyediting, and proofing, and use them yourself. Learn the tools of the trade. There are two parts to being an author—having a story worth writing, and crafting a story worth reading. Don’t waste your time or money proofreading a first draft, thinking the result is a “professionally-edited manuscript.” Editing your own work is a part of the overall writing process. Good editors can take your story to the next level, but they can’t work miracles—garbage in, garbage out! That’s why you need to write another draft. Don’t expect editors to write your story for you. Give them a diamond to polish, not a rinsed-off bit of Coke bottle!

During the self-editing process, use a “style manual” like a good, professional editor does. As a matter of craft, you will learn a lot about the art of putting words together. My personal favorite is the Chicago Manual of Style because it allows me to be more concise. It is available and searchable online, so it doesn’t take up desk space. The simplest style manual to use is the AP Style Manual that journalists and business writers use. I use that one in my day job, and yes, switching between detail-oriented Chicago at home and simpler AP at work can make my head spin.

Whatever your personal taste in matters of grammar, style, punctuation, and a bazillion other arcane matters about the craft of writing, make a point of using a style manual as your guide. Then, when it comes time to have your work professionally edited, be sure to ask your editor or proofreader what style manual they use and why. If they can’t answer that—or if they give you a blank look!—I’d find another copyeditor or proofreader. I don’t expect perfection from any book, indie or traditionally published, but I can’t tell you how many indie books I’ve picked up that acknowledge a “wonderful editor” who was obviously a proofreader, leaving the book still in dire need of either developmental editing or copyediting or both.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on Book 2 in the Legend of the Spider-Prince series. Rogue picks up where Rebel left off. Wyl may not know how to play nice, but those who DO have their own agendas, and words can be just as deadly as weapons. This isn’t child’s play, and as Wyl becomes even more entangled in the dangerous web of magic, court intrigue, and revenge that is his life, the stakes ratchet higher, and it will take everything he has—and more—to stay in the game. 

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Thank you, Debra, for hosting me on Two Ends of the Pen!

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