Today, I am happy to have author Diana Pharaoh Francis as a guest. A writer of urban fantasy, Diana has written numerous books, articles and stories. Her series fiction comes highly recommended, and the latest of her Horngate Witches chronicles is now out: Shadow City. Thank you for joining us, Diana, and for your thoughts on the writing life!
Diana Pharaoh Francis has written several fantasy series, including The Horngate Witches series, The Crosspointe Chronicles, and The Path trilogy. Bitter Night has been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice for Best Urban Fantasy of 2009, and Crimson Wind was nominated in 2011 for the best urban fantasy Heroine. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western and is a lover of chocolate, Victoriana and sparkly things. For a lot more information about her and her books, visit www.dianapfrancis.com. She can also be found on twitter as @dianapfrancis.
The world is falling apart. The magical apocalypse has come. Now is the time to guard the covenstead against both raiders and refugees. But Max has been stolen by a powerful demi-god who is determined to force her to find a way to use a magical power she never knew she had—even if it kills her. Meanwhile, back in Horngate, a Fury is birthing. When the creature breaks free of the fragile bonds that enclose her, her rage will scour the covenstead from the earth.
Max finds herself in the Shadow City, a place of mysteries and magic, where she must battle for her freedom or become a slave to creatures of dreadful greed and power. Back in Horngate, Alexander must swallow his anger and pride if he hopes to defeat the Fury, a creature that no one has ever successfully fought before.
In the end, it will be courage, friendship, faith and loyalty that win the day. Or else no one will live to see tomorrow.
1. I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?
I think it does describe me. There’s such a big part of me that is connected to the writing—from the daydreaming and working out of stories to the tactile experience of writing—that I think half my personality would wilt away without writing. Which doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t have to force myself into my chair to work. I’m clearly contrary that way.
I didn’t try to be creative with my writing until high school when I wrote some fairly horrendous poetry. I didn’t try fiction until I was in college and that went, um, let’s just say it was a terrible experience. I was ripped to shreds in my workshops. And yet, I finally had an outlet for my storytelling. The thing is, all my life I’d been a storyteller; I just hadn’t written anything down. So all of a sudden, this entire world opened up for me. It didn’t hurt that this also coincided with somewhat with (and here I go dating myself) the advent of the early, affordable desktop computers. My first three years of college I wrote my homework on a portable typewriter, and my fiction in notebooks. With the computer, I was able to write a lot more.
But eventually I started writing novels because I realized that I could. That’s a powerful moment. Up until that moment, it never occurred to me that I could be that person who put the words down for others to read. It was like the waters parted and the angels sang. So I started writing novels. And they weren’t very good. But it didn’t matter. The key was to learn the craft. Eventually I wrote Path of Fate, which was my first published novel.
Which is my favorite of my own books? You know, I don’t know that I have one. Each was such a struggle on its own and each taught me something. I love them all for both what I managed to do in them. I learned from each one. Each had it’s only particular set of struggles for me to overcome that taught me skills for the next books.
2. Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves?
I know what you mean. I’m from an academic background also. I don’t think I ever made a concscious decision to become published. It was just something I wanted to do. I wanted to share my stories with actual readers. I didn’t even think about it. I went to grad school for creative writing to hone more of my craft, and then I went on for my PhD in literature. At that point (during my PhD), I no longer wanted to be in classes. I wanted to have the chance to practice and develop on my own. Find out about who I was as a writer. Maybe the thing that pushed me quite a bit was the fact that academia really doesn’t like genre writing much. Fantasy is frequently considered unworthy or unimportant or mediocre or pick your favorite flavor of prejudice. Anyhow, at some point I decided to submit things out. These were short stories. I still wasn’t convinced I’d ever be able to do a full novel, but I thought maybe I could do some short stories. Eventually a few got published, and that only fed the desire to publish a novel. You see, I don’t think I write short as well as I do long, so I thought—if they like the short stuff, wait til they see the long stuff!
As for when I did decide to give it the time and energy, well, I’m not sure that was a decision. I just wrote whenever I had time. Luckily my husband and family didn’t find this odd or problematic at all. This was what I wanted to do and I should have the time and space to do it. I realize now that this may be unusual, but I took it for granted a long time.
3. As the author of a series that also explores alternate worlds, I am interested in your take on the value of research for the purpose of world building. How do you go about it?
Research is tremendously important. Vital in fact. Just because the world is a fantasy world and you get to make a lot of stuff up, doesn’t mean you don’t have to know how things work and how things should work. You have to know economies, architecture, road building, household management, agriculture, weather, to name a few, and then tons of other crafts and jobs. Here’s a for instance. I set my book The Black Ship on a three masted clipper ship. I’d never been sailing. I didn’t know the first thing about it and so I had to learn everything. I spent several months just reading everything I could find about rigging, ships, seas, weather, sailing language, and so much more. I interviewed people. I went on a small sailing cruise on The Lady Washington. In the end, I think I did a great job making that book feel convincing.
In the Horngate novels, all my little creatures are ‘real’ creatures from folklore. So I spent a lot of time researching about them. And the places that my characters travel to. Plus speech patterns and sayings from Texas, and so on. Even set in the modern world as you know it, books require a lot of research to make them feel believable.
4. I know you often have sample chapters of your work online. I do this, too, as it seems a good way to market stories. Can you speak about this—about not giving too much away but still attracting a tech-connected audience? Any other thoughts on marketing strategies?
I post samples to give people a chance to get sucked in. I believe if they just sample the books, they’ll want more. I have to believe that or I’ll go insane. The danger is less that they won’t like it, but they’ll pick up the book in the store, scan a couple of pages, and decide they’ve read it. But I think that’s a minimal danger.
Marketing is a tough thing. The most powerful think you can do is generate word of mouth, and that really is something that fans do. Authors can’t really. We can do interviews and blog tours and appear at conventions and do signings, but the fans really are key. And all the things authors can do, they should only do if they are happy doing it. I like meeting fans. Some authors I know will have open dinners at restaurants with fans and I’d like to try that. I like blog tours and getting a chance to meet a broad variety of people, especially those who are new to my writing. I’m bad at asking people to buy my books. So signings make me a little nervous when people are in a bookstore and they’re afraid I’m going to sell them something. I do a very intermittent electronic newsletter with news and little bits of information.
5. I know the market does not always respond to independent “tough chicks” like your protagonists (though for me, as both author and reader, these are always the most interesting). Did you run into any negative feedback—any complaints about their tough-minded attitudes?
Some. Mostly because Max is very angry in the first book and some think her too hard. Then I’ve heard my books are a bit on the dark and gritty side. Violent. That’s probably true. I don’t really see it, but then I think things have to be significantly rough if my characters have super strength and other powers. Plus let’s face it, evil can be really evil and I want to show that.
6. Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?
My process is constantly evolving. I used to be a planner. I would know where I was going all the way from beginning to end and couldn’t write unless I did. And then it changed. I would have a starting, characters, a world, but no idea where I was going. This was tremendously stressful. Is stressful. But I can’t sort out the storyline anymore. Just vague ideas. So now I write and discover where I’m going and constantly pray my hindbrain will put things together and make sense of what I’m doing and bring things together. So far, it’s worked out.
I do keep a wiki of notes and I have a whiteboard I call my murder board that I use for plotting and characters. I also use notecards that I play with like puzzle pieces, moving them around into the right order. I put them on my murder board with magnets, so I can just look up and see them and change them as necessary.
I’m a linear writer. I have to write from start to finish. I can’t write later scenes first. That’s also the way I revise. I start at the beginning and revise everything at once, because every little change affects what comes later. In Blood Winter, my upcoming release, I ended up cutting 60K of a 90K book and adding back in about 65K. I started out with what seemed like some minor changes, but it was like an earthquake fault and I had to change most of the book. It’s really good now, if I say so myself.
Writer’s block doesn’t exist for me. It can’t. Not because of deadline, although there is that too, but I need to keep writing every day in order to keep myself sane. So I sit my but in my chair and just show up. But when I’m really struggling with a scene or a point in the novel, I realize that there’s something broken and I have to go back and find where. My mind is telling me not to go forward without figuring out what’s wrong, or I’ll end up building a house on toothpicks and it will all collapse later.
On the topic of writing and writer’s block though, I will say that for me, writing is like a river. If I don’t do it every day, I go to jump in and I bounce off it like it’s thick with ice and it takes awhile to chip back down to the flow of creativity. If I write every day, then the ice doesn’t form. I can jump in and sink down into the story and lose myself in it.
7. As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preach to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?
I’m sort of alone in the area I live in terms of fantasy writers, or people who understand the conventions of the genre. So I have beta readers that are flung out across the country and who give me solid, thoughtful, and critical feedback. I think that’s important. But frankly, the most important feedback tends to come from my agent and my editor, and mostly because they are smart readers who really know my writing and what makes for a good story. That doesn’t mean I change anything they tell me. But I pay close attention to their ideas and act accordingly.
I take criticism at the writing stage very seriously. I try to avoid reading reviews, however, because I can’t do anything at that point, and by the time I publish, I’m as happy with the book as I can be and I’ve done what I wanted to do. Not every reader will like it, and readers are entitled to their opinions. But I have to write the book of my heart when I write.
As for mentors, I’ve got a lot of online writing groups and friends and they are life-saving. It’s really easy to become so isolate and insular that you lose your sent of reality in the writing world. Especially since writers tend to have terrible self-doubt and a perpetual sense of fraud that we’re getting away with something and when people find out, no one will read our books anymore. So having that support network of other writers sharing my angst and uncertainty and our concerns about publishing and so on, really helps. There are a lot of more experienced writers I know who I can go to when I have questions or concerns. That is priceless.
8. We are all looking for agents! Do you have advice for new writers on “breaking in” to the publishing world? How do you find (and get!) a great agent?
Wow. Well, there’s no one way. I think having a chance to meet and person and pitch your ideas is priceless. I think also that really knowing who represents what is critical. You have to do your homework. You have to make sure they are good quality. The only thing worse than no agent is a bad agent. Trust me on that one. But then there’s a caveat with this. There are people like Kristine Katherine Rusch who argue that it’s crazy to have an agent these days. So you’d better figure out if you want an agent for a good reason or not. I have one because she really works to do things that I can’t or don’t want to do at this point and she’s worth the money I pay to her.
In terms of getting an agent, you have to figure out your elevator pitch and you have to make a sharp, engaging proposal and query letter. Especially that query letter. Look at successful examples (which you can find online). Then you start reaching out. You have to have a thick skin and persevere and you have to keep writing. Sometimes an agent will reject you, and maybe you can go meet her/him in person at a conference and make a personal pitch. Do look up articles on the etiquette of making an agent’s acquaintance and how not to be a creepy stalker.
9. Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)
All things inspire me. Other writers, music, the world—you name it. You know how people tell writers to keep journals of things that interest them? Do it. That means conversations, sayings, little shiny bits that attract you. A lot of my Crosspointe series was inspired by Dickens’ Bleak House. A lot Bitter Night was inspired by events in the world at that time, particularly natural disasters. I’m also inspired by other books. Just reading wonderful words. So often they make me want to go write my own words and tell my own stories.
10. Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?
I’d read Magical Words: http://www.magicalwords.net/ (I’m a regular contributor, but the depth of stuff there is remarkable).
Writer Unboxed: http://writerunboxed.com/
Kristine Katherine Rusch’s The Business Rusch (she posts on Thursdays about business). Plus she has a book about changes in publishing: http://kriswrites.com/
I’d read Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I find it so inspirational especially when things aren’t going well. I can open it to just about any spot and find inpsiration and solace.
I like Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout novel and Nancy Kress’ Dynamic Characters.