At what point did you know you wanted to be a full time writer? Describe the journey that led to your first published book.
This would be a very, very long answer in any sort of detail. The short answer is that I liked writing in high school and college and called myself a writer, but I didn’t start writing my first novel until I was 25, then didn’t see my first book published until I was 40. (And the first book I published was actually the fourth one I wrote.) That fifteen year gap between starting a novel and seeing one of my books in a Barnes and Noble was a convoluted path that involves a lot of workshopping, reading books on how-to-write, and an enormous stack of rejection letters. But, in retrospect I have trouble remembering why it seemed like such a challenge. I liked to daydream, and I could type. Do one, then the other, repeat, and books will come out.
You are known as a writer that challenges conventions..describe some of these overall trope shattering concepts in your Bitterwood and Dragon Apocalypse series without giving too much away.
I love Reubens. Easily my favorite sandwich. I order them again and again when I travel, and about 50 percent of the time they’re pretty good. Right about now you’re wondering what this has to do with dragons. All will be revealed.
Anyway, Reubens follow the template of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and rye bread, grilled. Follow this formula and I’ll be happy. But, while half the time restaurants can nail it, I often wind up disappointed because they broke the formula. They use whole wheat instead of rye. They slip in provolone instead of Swiss. Or, all the ingredients are there, but in the wrong proportions. They’ve drowned it in Thousand Island. There’s not enough sauerkraut to even taste.
But last year I had a Reuben at a bar called the Raleigh Times. They intentionally broke the formula by swapping in kim chee in place of sauerkraut. And it was brilliant! Both kim chee and kraut are fermented cabbage, but kim chee mixes in chili and garlic and just takes it to another level. It made my tasty and familiar sandwich into something magical. I still think about that sandwich. Honestly, if I were ever convicted of murder and put on death row, that sandwich has an excellent shot at being my last meal.
And that’s how I write my books. I know the recipe for writing an epic fantasy novel. A good epic fantasy should have a quest plot. It should be in a pseudo-medieval setting, and feature characters that fit into existing archetypes of wizards, warriors, clerics and rogues. The optional but standard add-ons are magic items and magical creatures like dragons and elves. Follow this recipe and the end product will be a perfect fine epic fantasy. The reader would likely enjoy it very much. But would it be last meal good?
I think that Greatshadow is a good example of taking the genre tropes, embracing them, then subverting them. On the surface, the book sounds pretty traditional. The plot is a quest to slay a dragon. There’s a party with a knight, a cleric, a wizard, some thieves, some mercenary warriors, and a few other classes you could probably identify. The dragon breathes fire and hordes treasure. And then… I just start substituting better ingredients. Instead of using a traditional third person objective narration, I use a first person voice that blends both limited and omniscient viewpoints into narration that you likely haven’t encountered before. Instead of a traditional dungeon crawling party, I swap out standard character classes for superheroes. Imagine if Lord of the Rings were written by Jack Kirby. The fight scenes are absolutely bonkers. (Spoiler alert: one of the characters kills a small flame drake by peeing on it.) And the dungeon quest plot steals a lot of elements from both heist movies and romantic comedies to go to areas of tension and emotion that make the stakes much more personal than a typical quest novel. I’ve followed the recipe, but I’ve brought in complimentary and surprising ingredients that hopefully will leave the reader hungry for more.
You’ve developed quite a unique presence in the convention scene? Can you tell us about what you do to own the cons?
I feel very lucky to be alive at a time when nerd culture has exploded. There are comicons and SF and anime conventions happening somewhere pretty much every weekend. Bull City Comicon was the first convention where I paid for a table in the artist alley and went there to sell my books. That was about six years ago, and I was the only author in the room. I sold a crazy number of books compared to the sales I was used to from doing events at bookstores and libraries. At one of these more traditional events, I might, if I was lucky, sell a dozen books. Maybe 20 at a really awesome signing, but I also did plenty of events where I’d sell nothing. But at those early comicons, I’d sell 50 or more books, and so I kept seeking them out, adding more to my schedule, until in 2019 I did 29 events. I still consider 50 books sold at an event pretty good, though I do have the occasional event where I can top 100 books. I could probably sell even more, but when I do see a book really selling I start inching up my prices until I find the right balance of sales and profit. I have hardcovers I sell for $40 and my cheapest trade paperback is $10. I used to sell paperbacks for $5. I’d get more sales, but would barely pay for my costs. Now I’ve definitely found a good balance for making a profit without being so high I lose more sales than I have to. At comicons, a lot of people have come there willing to shell out $200 to have a movie star sign a photograph. Asking $15 or $25 for a signed book looks pretty reasonable in comparison.
I would say to anyone interested in selling books at conventions that the first important bit of advice is, duh, to write books. The more books you have in print, the more likely you are to have something that will intrigue a reader. The second biggest advice is to put some real effort into your covers. You’ll soon see what books catch reader’s eyes and which are invisible. I’ve updated many covers when I realize that people just aren’t looking at them. Finally, do your research on these cons. Find out who their media guests are. If there’s an actual movie star or TV star from a show you’ve heard of, people will turn out. If the con doesn’t have any real celebrities, you might not have much of a crowd. The bigger cons are more expensive, since they charge more for tables and there’s usually hotel and parking costs. But, in general, the bigger crowds will give you a lot more opportunity to make sales.
What takes up most of your time when you are not writing?
Biking. I do three or four rides a week, anywhere from 10 to 30 miles, with the occasional 50 mile+ ride worked in. Part of picking what cons I’m going to do involves finding out if there are any greenways I want to bike in that city. I’m starting the year with Wizard World in New Orleans. Before the con starts, we’ll bike the Tammany Trace Trail just outside the city. It should be about 40 miles of riding.
That said, even when I’m riding, I’m writing. Maybe even more so. You can’t write if you don’t daydream, and biking is a good activity for letting your mind wander. You can’t be looking at your smart phone when you’re biking! Finishing my most recent novel required a LOT of rides where I listened to the characters talking to one another so I could figure out what they were going to do.
Can you talk a bit about your upcoming release set in the Bitterwood world as well as what you have planned for 2020?
The new book is called Dragonsgate: Devils. It’s dungeons and dragons and dinosaurs, the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written. The secret ingredient of my Bitterwood universe is that I swapped out all the magic for science fiction. (I don’t regard this as a spoiler given that the first book has been out for over a decade.) It reads as fantasy, but the wizards are nano-technicians, some of the monsters are robots, and the dragons are the product of genetic engineering. With Dragonsgate: Devils, I’m throwing in a little time travel, some alternate universes, AIs and moon colonies. Over these science fiction bones I’m using fantasy muscle and flesh. This is still a book where men jab monsters with swords and arrows. There’s a big quest, epic warfare between enemy races, and tons of cool “magic” items.
The Dragonsgate books flow directly from the Bitterwood novels, but I’m trying to write it so that a new reader can jump in and have a good experience. Still if you really want to get the most nuance out of a book where a dragon fights a Tyrannosaurus rex, start reading Bitterwood the Complete Collection now, so you’ll be done with it when the new book comes out this spring! I wish I could give a firm release date, but this book is a beast at almost 160,000 words, so editing it won’t be something I can rush through.
What one piece of advice would you give to new and aspiring writers?
Don’t waste energy agonizing on whether or not you’re a good enough writer. I mentioned earlier there was a fifteen year gap between starting my first novel and finally seeing a book in print. In between was a slog of writing and rewriting and critiquing, of tossing aside everything and starting fresh again and again, and feeling like every step forward was taking me nowhere at all. I spent a lot of time wondering if I was good enough. I wasn’t! And, strange as this will sound, I’m still not. I wasted a lot of time worrying about whether or not I was any good. What I should have been focused on was whether or not my books were any good. The reality is, there’s nothing particularly special or gifted about me. I write a lot of stuff that’s godawful crap. Then I rewrite it. Then I’ll rewrite it again. Then I’ll polish that some more. The idea that I was ever good enough to write a perfect book on the first try was something I needed to let go of. All I’m capable of writing are flawed, ugly, manuscripts that vaguely resemble books. Luckily, while I never did figure out a magic secret to great writing, I did develop a lot of skills in editing. I learned to cut out the ugly and replace it with something prettier. You get an infinite number of passes to hammer out the kinks until it’s all smooth. All those times in life where you think of the perfect thing to say days or weeks after you should have said it? In a book, you get to go back and insert those perfect comebacks, even if it takes you six months to think of it. It’s time consuming. It’s real work. It’s a slog. The only real thing standing between a novice writer and a pro is sinking into that mire of terrible writing until you’re up to your neck and certain you’ll drown, then pressing on until you’re out on the other side and realize, holy crap, there’s a finished book in your hands.