Interviews Conversations with other authors – how they write, what they use, and what drives them.

The JT Lawrence interview: From Joburg with dystopia

I am a born and bred Johannesburg girl; I bloomed in the city of gold, she said when I asked her for an introduction to herself. Think pavement weed, not flower. JT Lawrence, South African science fiction writer extraordinaire, stops by to talk about her writing, her process, and how she got here.

I am a born and bred Johannesburg girl; I bloomed in the city of gold, she saidThink pavement weed, not flower.


I first came across Janita Lawrence through her book How We Found You.

As with many of these author conversations, it was through the 20Booksto50k group on Facebook – she had posted what I thought was a beautiful cover, a rambling thing involving a ruined mall escalator, and she had asked for feedback. It was a work of speculative fiction. I dropped my two cents in and wandered away.


A week or so later, the book came out. I read it. And I was stunned. Here was someone who wrote like Margaret Atwood crossed with William Gibson – the wild gene-editing storylines of one married to the high-tech low-life sprawls of the other – and wrote about a country I had never really read about in science fiction: South Africa. It was immediately obvious how much research and life went into the book. It painted a picture that felt more real than anything I’d touched in years.

[Image: the original cover that sparked this conversation.]

Needless to say, I reached out and started reading more of her work. JT has done extraordinary things, and wears more hats that I can count. She’s been a Swiss au-pair (I had to Google that), a Thai waitress and an art director at The Jupiter Drawing Room (an advertising agency named after a Parisian bordello). Now she’s a mother, a playwright, an international bestselling author who genre-hops with effortless ease.

I’ve now gotten to know her much better, and we’re working on an shared-universe anthology together – it’s titled 2054 – and the amount of effort she puts into everything is truly extraordinary.

Note: this interview has been edited lightly. JT gave me this interview late last year: it’s my fault that it didn’t go up earlier – I was too busy writing and tweaking this site. Let me add my apologies for the delay.

1. So I got to know you through Why You Were Taken and How We Found You . . . which (I think I’ve said quite a few times before), as a very devout reader of dystopian fiction, I consider right up there with Margaret Atwood. How did that series come about? What was it like to write that, and how did it do?

In around 2000 I heard an engineer saying that water-scarce South Africa would have a serious shortage in the near future and something in my head clicked. Soon the story of the savage drought was complicated by a fertility crisis, and given layers of colour and texture by a protagonist with synaesthesia. I thought it would be a 50,000 word YA cyberpunk story, but then an ambisextruous biker and an assassin with burn scars stepped in and upped the ante.

I wrote Why You Were Taken as a standalone, but there were still so many things left to discover. What became of the Genesis baby? What happened to all the discarded SurroSisters? Next thing I knew, I had a story arc ready to span five books. I wrote the second in the series because I had to know what happened next, the third because I’m now addicted to a dystopian sphere where the edges blur between biomimicry and bionic creatures, and neuroreality and the real world. I need a break now, I need to write something less bleak, but book four is already nipping at my subconscious like a robotic piraña.

[Image: the series that the book grew into.]

2. You genre-hop under your own name, which is rare for indie authors. There was the hugely successful Memory of Water, The Underachieving Ovary, and Grey Magic … how have these books worked out? Do your fans hop with you, or identify you in a particular way?

I don’t stick to genres in reading or writing. I don’t just stick to novels either: I write short stories and plays and radio serials. There’s way too much fun to be had by experimenting with different forms and genres, and I’ve always liked a challenge.

Some of my fans will genre-hop with me: it’s both a compliment and a curse. If I was shit-hot at marketing I’d have five pen-names with their own mailing lists and targeted retail strategies, and my reviews wouldn’t start with: “This isn’t my usual genre …” but I’m sleep-deprived and time-starved, and for now I choose writing for love more than money.

I have a feeling that despite my habit of getting in my own way, my hard work will eventually pay off. I like to call it ‘borrowed confidence’: a concept my credit card has a great deal of experience in.

3. As an indie author, you hit a lot of the bars perfectly – great covers, stories that people fall in love with – what’s your secret? Are there any literary influences that you hold dear?

Thank you! I have no secrets. I write every day. I no longer strive for perfection. I trust the creative process. Sometimes I get nervous when other authors break their ideas and problems down into identifiable pieces: for me, that’s like taking an engine apart. I don’t even know some of the names of those parts, or what they’re supposed to do. I just write. I go with my gut feel and nonsense-prayers to whichever goddesses happen to be listening.

I read widely and I love film, too, and I’m sure that I absorb every beat in some way or other. Of course I have favorite authors: Michel Faber; Margaret Atwood; Kate Atkinson; William Boyd; Neil Gaiman; Hilary Mantel; Ann Patchett; David Mitchell; Kelly Link; Sarah Waters; Marisha Pessl; Barbara Kingsolver; Kazuo Ishiguro (note: Ishiguro later won the Nobel Prize for literature)… but I’m not sure I can single any one of them out individually as a literary influence. Rather, they’re the collective shoulders I stand on.

4. How do you approach the writing of a novel? Are you a plotter or a pantser? What’s your process like?

I pantsed a book once. A psychological thriller. It was a joy to write, completely experimental, sexually explicit, and it didn’t honour any of the tropes. It hit #1 in category in the free store (Amazon UK), stayed there for nine months, and was downloaded over 45,000 times. The Memory of Water is a Marmite book: you either love it or hate it. It’s how I’ve met some of my most loyal fans and picked up some of my most scathing reviews.

One reader in particular bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t give it ‘minus five stars’. I think I laughed and cried at the same time.

Since that particular pantsing exercise I’ve gradually learned to respect story structure (and my readers) more, and I’ve begun to understand the value of tropes. I still write for myself first, but now it comes from a place of understanding more than it did before. That said, in the end, the work itself will always trump my (or my readers’) expectations or opinions. It’s just the way it is and the way it has to be.

How do I plot? I have a simple ten-point outline, and every story I write starts there. I don’t plan too much; the rest is a road of discovery.

5. How has local reception been? South African science fiction seems to be pretty rare: it seems to be dominated by US and UK authors. How has it been adapting to markets and breaking in those US-dominated markets? Is there any advice you’d like to give for authors from similarly emerging scenes (like Asia?)

Local reception has been incredible. Marcia Love from Exclusive Books (the biggest book chainstore in SA) read a review copy of Why You Were Taken and worked with me for over a year to get my books into the stores, and continues to give every new release fantastic placement. I was invited to speak at the Kingsmead Book Fair, and I was the first indie author to be invited as a panelist at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, which is SA’s premier lit event. I got to speak about craft, magic and the transformative power of sex in the village’s church on my baby’s first birthday. It’s not a day I’ll soon forget.

Once I was able to liberate myself from the tyranny of local traditional publishing (a hopeless circular energy-suck of gigantic proportions … think Betamax sinking sand; Vogons; Kafka trapped in amber). I found more encouragement and support than I imagined possible.

All that said, my main target market is, without doubt, the USA and UK. I have mouths to feed and tailoring my work to the local market is a sure way to starve. Earning dollars while you sleep is extremely motivating way to start your day.

6. And lastly, what’s ahead for you? What are you working on now, and what do you intend to work on the next two, three, five years down the line?

I’m knee-deep in my edit of book 3 in the dystopian thriller series (When Tomorrow Calls) and it keeps reminding me how weird I am.

I oscillate between thinking it’s good and original and dark, and then thinking it’s a rehash and deserves to be chucked in the fire. Luckily it’s the eighth book I’ve written so I know the drill, and I know that if I just keep putting the hours in, it will get to where it needs to be.

Next up is to write the prequel novella to the series, and then I’ll leave it alone for a while and work on some smaller projects: I’ll publish a few bonus chapters for my infertility memoir, deliver the scripts for the radio conversion of How We Found You, and write twelve new short stories to add to my Sticky Fingers collection. There’ll be some time spent on audiobooks, translations, and adaptations.

The next big writing project then, in 2018, will be taking my magical realism / urban fantasy Grey Magic and creating a 5-book series. It’s about an eccentric hexing-and-texting witch with a special talent for getting into trouble, and it’s so much fun to write. The first book pretty much wrote itself (and it happens to sell itself, too) so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m going to refresh the cover, save the episodes up and then publish them rapid-release style to cast a spell on the Amazon algorithms. I’ll let you know if it works!

The three years after that is uncharted territory. I’ll most certainly be writing and publishing, hopefully at double the rate, but who knows what the muse has in store for me?


JT Lawrence and her muses live (online) at jt-lawrence.com. You can reach her on Twitter and support her via Patreon.


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Tommy Donbavand: a Wordsmith versus Cancer

Tommy Donbavand is a writer’s writer.

By the time I made his acquaintance online, he’d written and published over one hundred books, primarily for young readers; Scream Street, one of his oldest works, was on the BBC as an animated TV series; and he’d also written Doctor Who: Shroud of Sorrow, which came out for the Doctor’s 50th anniversary. It had Clara. It had the 11th Doctor.

Gold.

But two years ago, Tommy was diagnosed with cancer. Stage four, inoperable. He beat it. And when I emailed him, he sent me his harrowing memoir: Tommy v Cancer, a book with a cheerful cover showing a cartoon Tommy beating up the Big C with boxing gloves on his hands. That book was probably one of the most hopeful and the most brutal books I’ve ever read. It could have been renamed As I lay dying and Falkner would have applauded. Within its pages was a man who, watching his life pass away in a haze of hospitals and beeping, refused to go gentle into that good night. His memoir is a beacon of hope.

In July, Tommy was kind enough to answer a few of my pestering questions, and I’d like to share them here.

How did you end up as a writer, and what were your first big moments? 

As a child, I always wanted to be an actor – and writing followed as a natural extension of that dream. I wrote stories and scripts so that I would have something to perform. Eventually, I had a successful career in theatre, appearing in dozens of touring plays for children, shows at holiday venues and on board cruise liners, and I spent eight years playing the character of the Clearlake MC in the West End musical Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. When I got married and had children, I didn’t want to be away on tour all the time, so I dropped the acting and promoted writing to my full-time job.

Was writing children’s fiction a conscious choice, or did you sort of gravitate towards it?

It was a conscious decision. You can have so much more fun with fiction for younger readers (adults don’t seem to appreciate farting goblins turning up in the midst of a crime thriller for some reason). Plus, kids give you great, honest feedback. You get to know exactly what you’re doing right – and wrong – in no uncertain terms.

How is it to write now? Are you back on your feet proper, and has this made any change to how you used to work before?

I’m not back to full strength yet by any means. I can write again, but I’m not as prolific as I was before all this cancer nonsense, and I can’t sit at my desk for long periods of time. Some days I’m so run down and unwell that I can’t work at all, and that’s very frustrating. It has meant that I’ve had to avoid taking on projects that have deadlines as much as possible, as there have been a couple of occasions where I’ve missed submission dates and caused problems for publishers. Thankfully, they’ve all been very understanding, but that’s not a reputation I want to get for myself, no matter what the cause.

One thing that has had to stop is my career as a creative writing tutor. For the past ten years, I’ve visited around 70 schools per year running writing classes and giving talks about my life as an author. That’s impossible to do now, and I’ve lost over half of my income as a result.

Does writing energize or exhaust you? As in, do you sit at the typewriter and bleed?

It used to energise me – now it does both. I don’t bleed at the keyboard, so much as allow it to take over my subconscious and let the words flow through my fingers. If I ever get stuck, I switch to pen and paper to brainstorm my way back to a position where I can carry on again.

How has Amazon impacted the children’s fiction market?

Hardly at all. Children’s books are a very hard sell on the Kindle. There isn’t yet a solid e-reading device for kids and, until there is, children’s publishing will stay firmly in the world of paper and ink.

You wrote Shroud of Sorrow for the 50th anniversary . . . how did that  about? And who’s your favorite Doctor?

As a huge fan of the show, I’d always wanted to write for The Doctor, and I bugged the series editor repeatedly until they let me have a go!

My favourite Doctor is the Third – played by Jon Pertwee. I managed to sneak a cameo of him, along with all the other Doctors, into a scene where I portrayed the funeral of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Now I can say I’ve written for them all!

Does a big ego help or hurt a writer?

It definitely hurts. Despite some of the biggest names having big egos, agents and publishers much prefer to deal with writers who are pleasant and easy to get along with. There have been occasions in my career where I’ve thought I might be a little too nice when I’ve avoided standing up for myself to avoid coming across as arrogant but, in the end, I’d rather be seen in a positive light than someone who’s difficult to deal with.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

That the first draft of a project is only the clay on the potter’s wheel. Only once you’ve got that first draft down can you begin shaping it into something beautiful or exciting by rewriting subsequent drafts. The quality of that first draft doesn’t matter. Just get it down, then get to work making it better.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Write, write, write. Then write more. Writing is a kind of muscle. You only get better by doing it over and over again. Fill notepad after notepad with stories – both inside and outside of your favourite genres. You don’t have to show them to anyone. But, with each page filled, you’ll be a slightly better writer.


You can find Tommy on www.tommydonbavand.com and @tommydonbavand on Twitter.

His books are on Amazon and Tommy V Cancer, if you’re up for one of the funniest, darkest things you’ve ever read, is here: https://www.amazon.com/Tommy-Cancer-Mans-Battle-Against/dp/1521903689

 

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Brandon Ellis: From Ohm Totem to the Stars

I talk with Brandon Ellis, author of the science fiction and fantasy, about being an indie author, finding inspiration and what it takes to climb that ladder to financial success.

 

Like many of the scifi authors I actually know, I met Brandon Ellis through Facebook.

 

Brandon interests me. Not just because of his writing (science fiction and fantasy – my two favorite genres), but also because he is a writer progressing up that curve to the midlist, and because he’s someone who’s very visibly putting in the work. He asks for feedback, takes it, discusses the challenges that he’s going through, his progression to a full-time author, and pays forward what he knows. Every cover and every book he puts out is more polished than the last. He is diligent and relentless in his pursuit of his writing – qualities I very much admire.

 

Here, then, is a snapshot of Brandon Ellis, captured as much for my own fascination as much as yours.

 


YW (me): So, first – a bit of an introduction to yourself, if you will.
Brandon:  I’m from Portland, Oregon. Actually, I always say I’m from Portland, but that’s a little bit off. I grew up twenty miles south of Portland in a small town called Gladstone. It was a place full of mischief and mayhem. Those who knew of “us” in Gladstone usually thought we were a little backwards, poor, and uneducated. In truth, we were none of that. The group of boys and girls I grew up with were simply imaginative, doing our best to find creative ways to entertain ourselves, such as playing games like “Ditch’em” in the forest or organizing skate board clubs or bicycle hangouts while creating forts on the side. To me, that was education at it’s best.
Obviously, I’m grown up now and I don’t do much of that anymore except on rare occasions with one of my kids. At the moment, I’m a sports therapist and for a time before I decided to become a writer, I was one of the most successful sports therapists in my area. I used to teach classes and hold seminars for continuing education all over the Northwestern United States, teaching therapists how to do what I do. I’m now immersed in writing. It’s my biggest passion, so I’m not extremely busy as a sports therapist anymore. Instead, I work part time as a therapist and part time as a writer.
YW: You’ve got two series out – the Purelights and the Star Guild. One is decidedly fantasy, almost a Narnia + the Dark is Rising thing, and the other is completely different – a space opera in a world that’s rooted in the Panspermia hypothesis. And all the books in these two are very well reviewed.

Let’s talk about these two worlds. How did they come about? The books, the characters – and given that you oscillate between fantasy and sci-fi genres, how much time and effort did it take you to produce this work?
Brandon: The very first novel I ever wrote was The PureLights of Ohm Totem. And, to my surprise, it won a global book award in the Fantasy category. It eventually became a trilogy. It’s a story written straight from my heart, where what little training I had in non-violent communication and aikido (martial arts) were the foundation of that story.

 

The PureLights of Ohm Totem grew out of a vision I had ten years ago. I had a very long day, working almost twelve hours, from early morning to night. I walked into my house, put my keys on the counter, and then stopped. An entire book suddenly exploded in my mind.

 

That had never happened to me before. I ran down the hall and grabbed a pen and paper and wrote as much of the story as I could remember. I wrote about a “Snow Tree” in the middle of a forest and two children who come upon that tree. There, they learn valuable, including being told they are about to go on a mission. When the children asked where that mission was going to take place and when, they Snow Tree let them know it was just around the corner, inside the blackberry tunnel, where they would be transported to another place and time.

 

The main characters turned out to be a boy named Coda and a girl named Zoey. When they enter the new world, Coda became a black panther. Zoey, a skylark. Together, they explore a world where spirit animals rule, though the animals are split into two warring factions — the PureLights and the Dims.

 

Many of my fans have asked me to continue the series. And, maybe, one day I will.

 

That trilogy was a two year project. The first book took one year to write, and then I ended up writing the next two fairly quickly.

 

The Star Guild Saga, which so far has become my most popular series, has taken two years and continues to this day. I’m working on Book Three right now, but at the same time I’m working on another two books in another series I’m about to publish.

 

It was, and still is, a blast to write. It came from a dream, which seems to be how I get a lot of my inspiration. And, after I had that dream, I wrote down as much of that dream as I could remember. Of course, the entire Star Guild Saga story wasn’t in that dream. Regardless, the dream was the spark for the entire series.

 

Star Guild is about a cast of characters that live in a starbase orbiting the planet Lumus, which is in a galaxy not far from the Milky Way. These humans have it in their belief system that they are the only beings in existence. They, however, do not know where they come from, how they got there in orbit, and why they are even there, and there’s mounting evidence that they may just be the playthings of a much more powerful race.

 

In that story, I have a favorite character named Crystal McCoy. She’s the chief of a Mech regiment on planet Lumus that’s sole function is to mine an ore called “Ebb”. Ebb is stronger than steel and is in just about every aspect of Star Guild society, including the Mech she works in.

 

Crystal is a piss-ant, always giving orders, and never willing to take them. No one likes her, but she is tolerable enough to keep her job. She has a negative attitude, a blunt personality, and a strong sense of loyalty. She is in fact one of the key characters that has always thought something never felt right within their society, especially the crap that is shoved down their throats by the government. If the government tells them that water is fine to drink, she is the type of person who would find a water filter as fast as she could.

 

This, to what she would call her detriment, is why she is able to see what not very many others see — that just about every human she knows has blinders on. In truth, the water is spiked with dumbing-down chemicals that keep her race from seeking out the truth. It keeps them lazy and focused on the nine to five job. Crystal, on the other hand, isn’t dumbed-down and the veil starts rising, showing her things she never knew existed, including where her race came from.
Star Guild is about breaking the shackles of an unknown prison to seek a freedom not ever experienced — if they can survive.
YW: What made you go indie?
 I went Indie because that’s all I know. I don’t think I have the personality to go with a publisher. I don’t like to be told what to do do, where to go, and how to write. So, in that case, I rarely go the road most traveled. I’m the road less traveled kind of guy. Indie, these days, is starting to become the road most traveled and I like that.

 

YW: From an indie author perspective – given the fact that we’re both in the 20booksto50k group – I couldn’t help noticing that you were really ticking all the boxes. Great covers, the first book of each series free, a bunch of reviews mentioned in the description – how has this turned out in terms of sales? What were the biggest challenges and the greatest victories in the process?
Brandon: I decided to concentrate heavily on subscribers, so I went to the Best Seller Summit put on by a successful writer, Tim Grahl. There I learned as much as you could with writing, marketing, mailing lists, and blogging. It was incredibly valuable. I recommend that every writer attend that workshop. From that point forward, I have created ways to attract people to my blog, to my subscriber list, and to my newsletter. These people have become my family, in a way. They not only help me get the word out about any new books or re-launches that I do, but also go out of their way to buy my books. They are heaven sent.

 

I also decided I wasn’t going to take the lazy route to self-publishing anymore. I was going to figure out any and every way I could market my books, weather it be through Facebook Ads, free book giveaways, Amazon Ads, Newsletter Swaps, and networking with as many people as I can. I placed it high in my mind that I was going to do whatever it took to be successful and to learn from the best, most successful writers that would talk to me. And, to my surprise, some actually talked to me and gave me hints and secrets on how they became successful in their writing business.
Here are a few successful writers who helped me: Hugh Howey, Nick Webb, Shaunta Grimes, Jeff Goins, Tim Grahl, Slade Roberson, J.T. Williams, and many others.

 

Some of these writers have even become my dear friends.

 

Some of the greatest challenges and victories in writing for me are the reviews I receive. I can be up and jumping around for one minute after reading a five star review and then down and lonely in the next minute, reading a 1, 2, or 3 star review. I have to stop looking at my reviews! That’s my greatest challenge. I’m sure best selling authors don’t have that issue. They know that they’ll get hundreds and thousands of reviews, usually giving them an average 4 star rating. The issue I have is that I don’t have very many reviews, so when I get one I become very excited. I want to read it immediately. One of my goals is to be one of those best selling writers that do not worry about reviews.
Did anything in your background set you up for a running start, or did you have to learn on the way?
I’ve always been fascinated with Fantasy and Science Fiction. In fact, I try to find anything and everything in those genres as I can. I’m more of a “light” person, meaning, I do my best to bring in lessons with my stories, showing the world that there is always a spark of light in the darkest of moments. I think I can best bring that ideology to the Science Fiction and Fantasy world, where the imagination of magic and future machines live.

 

Years ago, when I was in eighth grade, we had a school project to make children’s book. I spent all spring drawing, coloring, and figuring out how I was going to take three penguins — Pat, Penny, and Pooney — to the planet Pluto. The end result was a wonderful little book, bound with a front and back cover, called “Penguins on Pluto”. Well, I didn’t think it was going to get the uproar that it did. The students and the teacher loved it to the point that they carted me off in a bus to read it to the elementary students at another school. From that point, I was hooked. I wrote as much as I could, though never actually completing a story until I went to college.

 

“I won’t be surprised if in two years this guy over here writes a best seller,” my creative writing college professor said, pointing to me. By that time I was a silly and flunking college student, not caring about anything but hanging out with my friends and girlfriend. When my professor said those words to me in the middle of class, it shocked me to my core. I knew I loved writing, but never did I think of being a best seller. After class, my professor met me outside and told me that I should go to a different college to really learn the art and craft of writing.

 

I hope one day that the best seller he saw in me comes to fruition, and until it does, his words keep me going, giving me faith that I can succeed in the writing business.

 

As of right now, my books bring me about $200 to $1,000 a month. In fact, my books have only brought me $1,000 a month but once. When I first started writing and self-publishing, I thought that my books would just take off and that in a few years I’d be writing full time, living the life of a best selling author. It’s been four years and instead I’m what you’d call a struggling writer. About five months ago I decided to make a change. Instead of having “chance” take me to success, I was going to have “me” take me to success.

 

My goal is to be a top 100 author on Amazon and if the stars line up for me, I’d love to be a top ten author on Amazon. If I can get there, I’d love to help other authors get there, as well.
Here is where I see myself in 5 years: a best selling author, traveling to comic cons and signing countless autographs for people actually wanting my autograph. I don’t say that lightly. I say it with determination, with the desire to succeed. Why do I want to succeed? To help other authors, to help out those less fortunate (I already do), and to help out my friends and family.

 


Thanks for reading! I’d like to give a shout out to Brandon for taking the time to answer all of these questions. You can find him on Goodread here: to check out his work, start with book one of the Star Guild Saga here or get the PureLights box set here.

Want more interviews with people I find fascinating? Sign up below and join the thousand other people who’ve subscribed to my newsletter. It’s free, and I don’t spam.

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A Brief Conversation With Gentry Race, digital artist-slash-author

A VFX artist from Portland, Oregon, writes post-cyberpunk sci-fi – which, in his own words, is Gattaca meets X-men meets Ghost in the Shell/Akira – a mashup that makes any self-respecting cyberpunk fan drool a little.

Where a VFX artist discusses science fiction and his journey through writing it.

Gentry Race Davidson is a VFX artist from Portland, Oregon. He writes science fiction – post-cyberpunk, which, in his own words, is Gattaca meets X-men meets Ghost in the Shell/Akira –  a mashup that makes any self-respecting cyberpunk fan drool a little.

But back to Gentry. Gentry, as it turns out, is a massive movie and anime fan (if that wasn’t already obvious)  and worked at DreamWorks, Evil Eye, and at LAIKA, the studio that produced the beautiful Kubo and the Two Strings. Like many of the authors I connect with, I met him through the 20Booksto50K group: I was scrolling down and down, and up pops a beautiful cover depicting what was unmistakably a ringworld.

Ringworlds are awesome (Larry Niven and Halo are testaments to the fact), but pretty rare in indie scifi. I have no idea why.

Needless to say, I reached out to Gentry. He had a first book out already – Artifex – and it turned out Annulus, the title with the Ringworld on the cover, was going to be next in the series.  Color me intrigued: after a brief chat, I asked Gentry if I could record, across email, some of his answers to my questions.

You work at LAIKA, which is famous for Kubo and the Two Strings, and you directly worked on Kubo for two years. What’s was it like? How do these movies really get made on the inside?

Ive been working in visual effects for 5+ years now and LAIKA has been a big part of that. To be able to do my 9-5 in a creative environment such as LAIKA I am truly honored.

The movie industry generally has three phases. Preproduction, Production, and Post production.

Preproduction involves conceiving the idea, script, concept art, and design. LAIKA has to hand make everything! Then there’s Production, where the facial expressions of each character is 3D printed. The puppets are then animated and shot on stages one frame at a time.  Different “passes” or “takes” are filmed concurrently to help with VFX integration/look development of each shot. This is where it falls into Post production and any seams on the character’s face have to be “mended”.

In addition, rigs that have helped the animators animated need to be removed and replaced with the background or “Clean Plate”, respectively.

I’m sure this all sounds confusing and this link can provide a better visual of what the VFX Dept. at LAIKAcan do.

One thing that is great is to be able to scroll through the different Acts and see the sequences that drive the plot.  LAIKA has a solid grasp on theme and character.  I remember working on Kubo and realizing the subtle themes it played with such as memory, story and death.  In return, this has shown me how to handle themes in my own stories and how approach them.

How did you get into writing?

I wrote a screenplay at first. It was terrible. I did this while working at LAIKA, submitted it and of course they passed. It seemed indie authoring was the way to go. So I wrote the first draft and my editor said expand the first act cause the plot was too crowded. So, here we are . . . .

Did it work?

It did! So much better. And there is a lot to the world so it’s a bit slower introducing new concepts, and so on. I think it was for the best best. Think Gattaca meets X-men meets Ghost in the Shell/Akira.

So on the subject of the new novel that you’re working on, and the series that it fits into – this involves a huge ringworld orbiting the Earth – and it’s not just a ringworld, but a particle accelerator?

Well, the kinds of matter you can produce in a particle accelerator are contingent on the accelerator’s size. Right now, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider is the largest collider known to man. What I wanted was a future where new exotic matter, produced by even larger accelerators, allows for hyper-printing of materials – including our flesh, allowing a sort of Post-Cyberpunk future to emerge.

Hence Annulus, a particle accelerator encircling the earth. The technological singularity has begun and mankind is giving up flesh/cyborg-modded parts for the perfect hyper-printed bodies.

The story revolves around errors in the printing called erratum*. These Eradicates, as I call them, are hunted by PSYOP teams.

Artifex [the first book] was written as a reader magnet and establishes some crucial characters for Book One, along with introducing the antithesis that will help and hurt the main character. The theme is what it’s like to have an imperfection in a perfect society – and what it’s like to cope without the crutch of technology in such a very advanced world.

This is where I ask you about your top ten favourite books, and of course, why you admire these authors.

Sphere, Jurassic Park, The Diamond Age, Travels, Watchmen, Congo, Ghost in the Shell, Arrival, Eaters of the Dead, and Minority Report (Original Short).

Making that list above allowed me to really think about what I liked about the stories.  Most of Michael Crichton’s books are also filled with science tidbits you take with you long after reading.   I love this, along with the unexpectedness of flipping the genre and telling a unique story. In Sphere, for example, I loved how it starts off as an alien investigation and turns it onto its head.


*Yudhanjaya’s note: my mind immediately jumped to Michael Crichton’s transcription errors from Timeline. Some of that stuff was genuinely horrifying, especially the cat with the split face – and, of course, Robert Decker himself.

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Justin Sloan (Interview): the road to 150,000 words a month

Justin Sloan is one of those rare writers who basically just sit down and regularly turn out an extraordinary output. And he’s making enough from his writing that he quit his day job – which is something every writer dreams of, but very few actually achieve.

Justin Sloan is a pretty prolific guy. As of the time I did this interview, he had 40 books on Amazon with his name on them, and was fresh out of Telltale Games, the game studio known for the Walking Dead. He writes science fiction and fantasy, and has worked on everything from pretty large series to screenplays. Most importantly, he’s making enough from his writing that he quit his day job – which is something every writer dreams of, but very few actually achieve.

Justin writes often; 30-45 minutes a day, an hour or two on weekend days – and that adds up to a staggering 50-60k words a month. I’ve always been fascinated by writers like this – Anthony Trollope and Stephen King are two good examples a couple of centuries apart – who basically just sit down and regularly turn out an extraordinary output.

So when Justin’s name showed up on a writer’s group I’d been skulking in, I immediately resumed my quest to learn the science of writing and reached out to this guy to find out how he maintains such a prolific output. Here’s my Q&A with him.

So, Justin, you’re pretty prolific – there’s 40 books on Amazon with your name on them; you podcast, you write for Military.com, and not do you write only write science fiction and fantasy, but you also author books on writing. What’s it like to be you, producing all this work? What kind of schedule are you on? How do you maintain your output? What do you use to write, and what tools or habits have really impacted how you work? 

I love writing. It never feels like a job, and the moment it does I know I’ve overcommitted or gotten involved with a project I shouldn’t be involved in. Writing is a passion, and if an author out there says otherwise, I can’t possibly understand why they would be doing it. For me it’s just fun, and happens to now be paying my bills – a dream come true!

I am straight up with MS Word. I tried Scrivener, and didn’t like it. I also had Final Draft and all that for screenwriting, but honestly prefer the Amazon Story Writer tool (it’s free!).

For me, output is all about knowing what I’m going to write. I keep a healthy mix of outlining, research, and staying motivated by playing video games or watching movies (related, so it’s also research). Some of the best storytelling nowadays is in video games, so if you’re trying to write but don’t play games, you’re missing out. Go play Oxenfree — you’ll be amazed.

What made you become a writer? And specifically, a self-published indie author? 

I started writing when I had finished the first four Game of Thrones books (A Song of Ice and Fire series) and Harry Potter, and I wanted more amazing stories to read and inspire me, but was having a hard time finding ones on that level. So while I searched, ideas just started popping into my mind. “What if there was a book like this, or about that,” I would think and started jotting them down. Then I started writing, and fell in love with the prices.

Self-publishing? I think that was all about the freedom. I just had too many horror stories from friends about the traditional route, whether it was time it took with the big ones, or mistakes from the indie presses. I had heard great things bout self-publishing while at the San Francisco Writers Conference, and decided to give it a try. I love it!

What were your first successes as an author, and your biggest mistakes? What did you learn from them?

My biggest success came when I finally partnered with Michael Anderle. Since then the writing life has been great. My ideas are flowing, the pages seem to write themselves, and I’m making enough to quit my day job and go full-time. The right collaboration can make all the difference. I think a mistake has been to take a break from the successful series to try writing one of my other ones, which didn’t do as well. If you have a successful series, write it hard!

You’ve worked on a lot of pretty big properties and Telltale. What’s in like in the games industry? What did you have to do?

Writing for games is amazing. Imagine just sitting around coming up with awesome ideas for stories and characters all day, and then writing them? And not by yourself, but with a bunch of other amazing creatives. That’s what writing for games is like. At Telltale I was a writer, which meant story, action, dialogue, everything.

What were the biggest successes you had building up your personal brand across all these media properties?

A big moment came for me when I was able to work on the Game of Thrones game at Telltale. As I mentioned above, one of the reasons I started writing was because of the Game of Thrones books, so this was a dream come true. Now I write fantasy, and am about to release a new fantasy series in the Age of Magic books, also with Michael Anderle, which I’m sure will do amazingly well. I hope…

Now that you’ve left your job at Telltale to pursue the author journey full time, what goals and deadlines keep you ticking? Where do you see yourself?

Oh, it’s on! Haha. I plan on writing six hours a day, with breaks for working out, a quick lunch, and a weekly podcast. My goal is 150,000 words a month, and I think that should be easy, based on the math. And that’s 2.5 books for me, so I think I can easily say that 2017 will be an amazing year.

What are your top ten favorite books? 

Top ten? That’s tough… Let’s go with the Song of Ice and Fire books first, then Harry Potter. Name of the Wind, Elantris, Way of Kings, the Mistborn trilogy. Time bound. The Princess Bride. The Zane Halloway series, and the Travelers Gate trilogy.

A shout out to Justin for sparing the time to answer my questions. He lives at www.justinsloanauthor.com. As of the time of writing, he’s got a new audiobook out for Land of Gods and a new book release in the Kutherian universe called the Angel of Reckoning.

Would you like to know when the next interview comes out? Drop me your email below and I’ll ping you as soon as it does.

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