Author Hayley Stone on Being Published, Romance in Sci Fi, and Feedback from Readers

I’m thrilled to share with you a fun Q&A with the talented writer who was my critique partner for INCONCEIVABLE. Hayley Stone’s debut novel, MACHINATIONS, is on fire, and knowing how awesome this story is, I’m not the least bit surprised! After all, it’s got a strong woman as the main character, plenty of action, and a touch of romance. Thanks to Hayley for taking the time to talk to me about life since the release of MACHINATIONS.

Wren: What’s been the most surprising aspect of being a published author?

Stone: The unpredictable cycle of highs and lows. One day, you feel as though no one will ever read your book and why didn’t you listen to your parents and get a real job and oh god you’re going to die poor—and the next day you get an email from your publisher about attending San Diego Comic-Con and joining NYT bestselling authors at an afterparty.

For a while, everything is cloud nine and surreal and wonderful, but then you gently—or sometimes not so gently—float back down to earth and the cycle starts over. You start worrying again. Something goes wrong, while something else goes right, and nothing’s happening, and everything’s happening, and so on and so forth.

Being a published author isn’t about coasting through non-stop success. It’s about finding your rhythm in a club where the music is constantly changing, and sometimes you can’t find the right beat.

It’s madness. Wonderful, terrifying madness.

Wren: Tell us about some of the feedback you’ve received from readers.

Stone: A lot of readers seem to really connect with Rhona, and enjoy her brand of snark, while also acknowledging her impulsiveness and fallibility as the story’s heroine. I’m glad that both her strengths and flaws appear to be coming across, because that’s the purpose of her character: I wanted to portray a realistic woman dealing with horrible circumstances far beyond the pale of normal human experience. Sometimes she does a good job; other times she sucks. Just like most of us.

Readers also seem to adore one of the secondary characters, Rhona’s best friend, Samuel Lewis. This comes as no great surprise as Samuel is a precious cinnamon roll, too good for this world, too pure. Except, as we come to find out in book two, he’s more than capable of making some tough, and questionably ethical, decisions, too. I think Samuel fans will be especially interested to learn more about his past in the upcoming sequel, Counterpart. *teaser!*

Wren: I love the fact that your book has a romantic storyline included in the narrative. Why did you decide to include that in a sci fi novel?

Stone: I set out to explore humanity and identity in Machinations, and relationships play an understandably large role in people’s lives. One of the things the sci-fi genre does best is take a relatable experience (like being in love) and position it inside a unique “What if?” scenario. In the case of Machinations, that turned out to be a troubled romance between the main character, Rhona—a clone who inherits all of these memories and emotions—and her progenitor’s lover. It asks the questions: could you love someone who looked and behaved identical to the person you’d lost? Should you?

Wren: Writing a book is one thing. Selling it is another. What have you done to get the word out about MACHINATIONS?

Stone: I’ve done quite a few interviews like this one! My favorite, by far, has been this post I wrote for Chuck Wendig’s blog about the five things I learned writing Machinations. I also attended San Diego Comic-Con as an author and had my very first book signing there, which was pretty awesome and hopefully got Machinations some nice publicity!

I’m also fortunate to be a part of a great reading and writing community on Twitter and Facebook, so I reached out to my friends there and they’ve helped me spread the word. At this point, an author really can only hope their work is connecting with some people and that they’re telling others to read it, too!

Wren: What have you learned through your journey to publication that you want to share with other writers who are still querying?

Stone: One rule: It takes as long as it takes.

In our driven world, it’s advice that seems easier said than done, but it holds especially true for this industry. Professional deadlines and personal goals notwithstanding, don’t try and put a timer on your success. Querying takes times, submission takes time, edits take time. What might happen quickly for one person could take a year for another; it’s not a sign of failure and it’s almost never a reflection of the quality of the work either. Comparison is the thief of joy. Keep your eyes on your own paper, keep writing and putting your work out there, and you’ll be fine.

Additionally, learn to recognize the signs of burnout, and take care of yourself. Seriously. You’re important. So relax once in a while.

Wren: What projects do you have in the works?

Stone: Currently, I’m working on a short story that takes a more generous view of artificial intelligence. It’s a nice break from novel-writing. Sometimes you just need a change of pace, you know?

And in terms of long-form work, I’m developing ideas for book 3 of the Machinations series, and have begun tinkering around with an epic fantasy as well. Lots of exciting things in the pipeline!

You can buy MACHINATIONS at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo.

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DROWN: Author Esther Dalseno’s Retelling of The Little Mermaid

drownI was a kid when Disney released its version of The Little Mermaid. My friends and I were warbling our own versions of “A Part of Your World” at the same level little girls today sing “Let It Go” from Frozen. So, when I saw Esther Dalseno‘s novel DROWN and discovered that it’s a new version of this classic tale, I was intrigued. More than that, I had greedy hands for her book. (I mean, just look at that amazing cover!)

You can pre-order DROWN now on Amazon, and it will arrive on your e-reader on October 31. To celebrate her release day, Esther agreed to talk with me about her book, her journey to publication, and why she’s eager to read INCONCEIVABLE!

Tegan: Esther, how did you get the idea to do a retelling of The Little Mermaid?

Esther2Esther: It’s always been my favorite fairy tale all of my life, it’s so gorgeous and sumptuous and bittersweet, and I kept waiting and waiting for someone else to do it.  I am a big traveler, having left my country Australia nearly ten years ago, and at the time of writing in 2009 I found myself in a very lonely situation in third-world Laos.  Having been in the South East Asian region for some time, I had become a very enthusiastic scuba diver, and my love for the underwater world led to DROWN.  Everything about the atmosphere in the depths influenced DROWN’s dream-like narrative voice and pacing, and I found myself inspired by every little thing – the way light fractured when it hit the water surface and fell on sand beds, the way octopus ink jets and stains the water in cloud formations just for a moment, the tiny popping noises in your ears during breeding season, when the water is filled with fish spawn.

Tegan: Who do you think will most enjoy your book and why?

Esther: Readers of all ages, especially those who enjoy a more literary approach to a story.

Tegan: Often, fairy tales leave readers with some kind of lesson. Do you have a particular idea or two you hope readers take away from your book?

Esther: The Little Mermaid has always been a character who gave up life as she knew it not just for a man, but for a chance at humanity.  The theme of DROWN is how precious humanity is, and how readily it is taken for granted.  I live in Europe and currently there are thousands of Syrian refugees seeking safety and a new home here.  They have crossed land and sea in perilous conditions – the old, the young, small children and newborn babies, just for a chance of belonging to a society that respects human life.  In a way, DROWN’s protagonist has motives similar to that of refugees, and she seeks safety and value in the human world.

Tegan: The cover of your book is gorgeous–eye-catching and it certain piques my interest. Who designed the cover for your book, at what levels were you involved in its design, and is there anything you want to tell readers about?

Esther: Thank you, Tegan!  It is gorgeous, and I feel very fortunate to have such a cover for my book!  Let me tell you, this design was not at all what I had in mind for DROWN, as I had very set ideas regarding all aspects of the novel!  In fact, that cover was the very last option I would consider.  However, it grew on me so rapidly, and the public’s reaction has been so positive that I’ve once again reached the conclusion that it’s best to leave such things to the professionals!  Here is a lesser-known fact that only advance readers know: the character on the cover is not at all who you think it is.

Tegan: Tell us about your journey to publication.

Esther1Esther: I sent out query emails immediately after finishing DROWN, and it was on a beach in Thailand that my little Nokia travel phone rang.  It was Holly Root of Waxman & Leavall, yes, THE powerhouse agent Holly Root, whose client list includes V. E Schwab and Rae Carson among many other bestselling authors, offering little old me representation.  I had just had another offer the day before, but after our conversation, I knew Holly was the right agent for DROWN.  Sounds easy, right?  Like a recipe for success?  Not entirely.  Then came the storm in the guise of the Big 6 publishing houses, who had difficulty placing the novel.  “The fairy tale aspect screams YA,” they said almost simultaneously, “but the writing feels so adult!”  I can confidently say that in the year 2010, there was not a Young Adult or Fantasy editor in any of the big publishing houses who had not read DROWN.  We held our breath, as we were so close to a significant book deal with a certain house we could practically smell it.

After that fell through, DROWN was rebranded from Young Adult to Adult Literary Fantasy.  We never found a publisher who wanted to take a risk on an indefinable genre and an unknown author at that point in time.  After five years of radio silence, DROWN is now being released by a baby indie press and I have never been happier.  I never, ever thought DROWN would see the light of day after what happened in New York. All I ever wanted was for people to read my writing, and now that dream is coming true.  My advice to aspiring authors is this: that the face of publishing has changed, and there is no guaranteed set path to success any more. There are many, many ways to get there. And no matter how long you have to wait, never, ever, ever give up.

Tegan: You and I connected when our books were featured together by a reader on Instagram. I think we were both instantly intrigued by the other person’s novel. I was drawn to Drown because The Little Mermaid is a longtime favorite story of mine. Also, that cover! What drew you to INCONCEIVABLE?

Esther: Tegan, I’d actually been interested in INCONCEIVABLE before that Instagram post!  Obviously that cover draws in any eye that beholds it!  But when you read the synopsis, you see there is far, far more beneath the surface than the promise of a gorgeous, frothy, whisk-me-away-from-my-real-life romance.  I think themes of woman’s reproduction and infertility being written about in mainstream fiction is the way forward.  There is a great deal of shame and an expectation for women to hold their tongues and not bring up their struggles with conception, or God forbid, miscarriage.  As someone who has experienced the latter, when I was thinking about how to respond to this question, the first thought that crossed my mind was: my friends and acquaintances will feel immediately uncomfortable reading this, seeing the word “miscarriage” and equating it with me.  And that’s what made me decide to include it.  I don’t think people truly understand the devastation of miscarriage unless they experience it themselves.  The hopes you have for that child, the bond you feel when their body flutters inside yours, and the day the flutters stop and everything becomes still.  Doctors blame you: something you ate?  Exercised too much?  Or in my case, they blamed my age.  And then everyone who knew you were pregnant begins to avoid eye contact for a little while.  It is this shame and aversion to the subject that requires more brilliant writers like you, Tegan, to include these themes into your work.  It’s so people like me can look others in the eye and say:  “That’s right, I lost my baby.  No, I am not okay.  Yes, I do want to talk about it.

Esther DalsenoEsther Dalseno was born in rural Australia, and has traveled the world writing and teaching. She lives in Berlin, Germany with her husband, daughter, and dog. She was previously published in the acclaimed short story collection, We All Need a Witness, by Pan Macmillan. Her second novel, Gabriel and the Swallows, is due for release in 2016.

All images provided by Esther Dalseno

Knights, Dragons, Turncoats: A Conversation with Author Keith Willis

traitor knight coverMeet Keith Willis. He’s into dragons, knights…you know, normal stuff like that. Keith and I first connected on Twitter last year when we were both looking to get our debut novels published. Keith’s book, TRAITOR KNIGHT, is available for purchase from Amazon as an e-book. It begins with Morgan, the main character, saving a woman from a dragon, which does not earn her gratitude. From there, Morgan goes undercover to discover the traitor who’s threatening the kingdom. It sounds like a fun take on knight tales. I’m looking forward to reading this because it’s quite different from many of the books on my to-be-read list. And if I’m anything, I’m an omnivorous reader.

Tegan: Keith, thanks for taking the time to celebrate your book’s release earlier this fall by answering a few questions.

Keith: Hi Tegen, and thanks so much for having me on your blog. Congrats on your upcoming release! For the record, I’ve already preordered my copy of INCONCEIVABLE! It comes out on November 16, which is my anniversary, and I can’t wait to read it.

Tegan: That’s so cool, and thank you for pre-ordering my book. I bought yours and look forward to reading it! You write about knights…so, are you a knight or do you play one on the weekends?

Keith: No, I’m afraid I’ve never been knighted, although I have been benighted on occasion. And, I’m sorry to report, I don’t play one on the weekends either. My weekends are generally taken up with camping and canoeing in the summer and lots of reading, writing, and Scrabble during the long NY winters.  I’ve just always been fascinated with the romantic chivalric legends—one of my early favorite books was TH White’s The Once and Future King—so I guess it was foreordained that my first novel would be about a knight.

Tegan: How did you get the idea for this book?

A Knight's HelmetKeith: The idea for the book that would eventually become Traitor Knight actually started out as just a humorous take on the traditional knight vs dragon fantasy trope. I wanted to do something a bit different, and I kept getting scene playing in my head where my knight only managed to defeat the rampaging dragon because the beast came down with a case of hiccups (l loved the notion of a hiccupping dragon, I think perhaps from too much Looney Toons in my formative years). Then I realized that the damsel in distress he managed to save was fiercely suspicious of her rescuer, although I didn’t know why at the time—just that she would have rather have been rescued by anyone else. And things snowballed from there, as my characters told me what happened. I had no notion of where things were going, or even of my characters’ backgrounds, goals or motivations when I started the story. In case you can’t guess, I don’t outline or plot things out. Definitely a pantser, all the way.

Tegan: Many of us fell in love with creative writing as children. When did you begin writing fiction?

Keith: I’ve always done a bit of writing, but the most part it was always just throw-away pieces done for the entertainment of my friends, or poems for my wife. I honestly didn’t start writing seriously until I turned 50. At that point I had the opening scene for Traitor Knight in my head, and decided ‘it’s now or never’. That if I was going to achieve my goal of having a book published, I’d best get moving and actually write the darned thing. And it really wasn’t until this point that I really felt I had the time and energy to devote to writing. And my wife was very supportive of the idea, which definitely helps. Although I try not to take too much of ‘us-time’ for writing. I tend to do my writing either early in the morning  or during my lunch breaks at work. I actually seem to get some of my best work done during that time, oddly enough.

Tegan: Do you have a professional life outside of writing? If you don’t mind, tell us about that. (I think readers are sometimes surprised to find out what some writers do for their “day job!”)

Keith: I do indeed have a professional life, also known as The Day Job. While I’d love to spend my days writing or doing something much more fun than working, those pesky bills aren’t going to pay themselves. And I don’t think my writing career is going to be at the level where it’s paying those bills, so for the time being I’ll keep working. As far as what that job entails:  I manage an eclectic group of database content editors for a global information technology firm. So after spending ten years in the banking industry and fifteen years in retail management, for the last eleven years I’ve finally been able to utilize my English degree, at least to some extent.

Tegan: Tell us about your journey to publication and what you learned along the way.

Keith: My journey to publication was a pretty long one. It took almost exactly seven  years from the time I first wrote the opening scene of Traitor Knight until the day it was released by Champagne Books this past September. It took just over a year to write the first draft (which actually was so long it ended up being two books, with Vol. 2 in revisions at the moment). Then came five years of rejection, revision, rinse, repeat.

fingers typingOver the course of my time in the Querying Trenches, I received a total of 86 rejections. The early ‘no’s’ certainly were justified—both the plot and my writing were pretty awful. My initial efforts were plagued by lots of ‘telling, not showing’, and by a lack of conflict within the story—I got my hero up a tree, but then instead of throwing rocks at him, I handed him a ladder. If everything goes the hero’s way, there’s no real conflict, no journey, and no real stakes to engage a reader.

As I gained experience and got feedback from various sources, those endless rewrites turned the story into something that began to garner more frequent requests for pages or full manuscripts. And while I still was getting rejections, now there were fewer form rejects, and more “Wow, I really like this, and wish I thought I could place it”, or “I’ve take this, but I’ve just signed someone with a very similar book.”

And then came Twitter.

When I initially engaged with Twitter, I viewed it as just another rather time-wasting social medial platform. But then I caught wind of a contest called #NewAgent. I was intrigued, and figured ‘what have I got to lose?’. I entered, and was hooked. I found a community. The writers on Twitter are amazing—supporting, sharing, encouraging, commiserating one another. I’ve met so many great friends through these contests—like yourself—who have helped me to polish my pitches and queries and pages to the point where when I entered #AdPit in September, 2014, I ended up with a publisher.

I got a favorite in that contest from Cassie Knight, who was at the time Senior Editor for Champagne Books. She requested the full manuscript on Sept. 9. While I was excited about the request, I had a number of other fulls and partials out with various agents/editors, so it was really just one more in the mix.

Then on September 30 I got a request for a promotional plan from Champagne. This sounded like it might be the real deal. I sent it in that day, and the next day I received an offer of contract. To say there was dancing in the streets would be an understatement. However, I didn’t just sign on the dotted line. I had agents reading material, and to be fair, I needed to alert them. I also wanted to have my attorney review the terms of the contract, to make sure I wasn’t giving the shop away. And finally, as this was an offer from a small press I’d never heard of, I wanted to research it.

After I signed the contract, it wasn’t all just beer and skittles. I had a lot of work to do. A clean, revised ‘final’ draft. Marketing and cover art data. In May I got my cover art (which I think is amazing), and in July I received editorial notes from Nikki Andrews, my fearless editor.

I got the ARC, with 10 days to review it for any errors. I went through it once more with my wonderful wife and proofreader, Patty, who I owe peacocks, apes, ivory and chocolate—along with all my royalties—for how hard she worked through this entire process. She was the eagled-eyed one who found things like quotation marks going in the wrong direction. Amazing.

And finally, on 9/7/15, the book was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Although if they’d been paying attention, they would have suspected.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Tegan: Wow! What a journey you’ve had. Who is your target reader for this book?

Keith: I think anyone who loves The Princess Bride will enjoy my book. Actually anyone who enjoys fast-paced adventure and intrigue tinged with a dash of romance and a dollop of wit will enjoy it. And while the target market is adults, it is definitely suitable for the YA audience. In fact my wife works in a high-school library, and one of the librarians is mentioning the book in all of her orientation sessions, so in essence about 800 kids have heard about my book so far, and hopefully a few of them will read it.

paparazziTegan: How has your life changed since your book was published?

Keith: Well, I can’t say that paparazzi are stalking me or anything like that. But it is a great feeling to be able to tell people “I’ve published my first novel.” And it’s made my life a lot busier. Most authors, especially indie/small press published ones, are their own marketing department. I certainly am, and I’m constantly trying to promote it (while not being obnoxious about it). I’m donating copies, along with lots of swag, to charity auctions. I’m slated to do several book fairs in November, and I have a spot in a village Winter Market/Victorian Stroll in December. And once I actually come out in print I’ll be on tour going to libraries and bookstores in the upstate NY and New England area to do readings/signings. It’s a never ending process, it seems, and my wife has been even better about telling people about the book than I have. I couldn’t have done this whole process without her awesome support and encouragement (and proofreading).

Tegan: Any new projects in the works?

Keith: I have more ideas than I know what to do with. I just wish I had time to write ‘em all. Right now my main focus is book two of the Knights of Kilbourne series, tentatively titled DESPERATE KNIGHTS. It was essentially done, until I ended up changing TRAITOR KNIGHT so much that much of what I’d written for book two was out of sync. So now my goal is to figure how to reconcile those changes and get DESPERATE KNIGHTS finished and ready to submit to my publisher. I also have a number of short stories set in the same universe that I’m collection for a companion volume, and I have ideas and a bit of writing done on book three, working title BEWITCHED KNIGHT.  And there are other projects that I’m in process on as well, like a series of cozy mysteries. As I said, way too much going on for a guy who works full time and has a family.

Keith WillisKeith Willis, is a graduate of Berry College in Rome, Georgia, having earned his bachelor’s degree in English Literature and French. He’s a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, the Latham/Albany/Schenectady/Troy Science Fiction Association, and the Mythopoeic Society. He primarily writes fantasy/romance fiction with a side of cozy mystery.Keith’s home base is the Saratoga Springs, New York area.

Top image via Flickr by aperture_lag

Knight helmet image via Flickr by Bryn_S

Fingers typing image via Flickr by Key Foster

Paparazzi image via Flickr by Todd Huffman

Author photo provided by Keith Willis courtesy of The Daily Gazette

PitchSlam: An Important Part of My Journey to Publication

PitchSlam, the contest hosted by L.L. McKinney. It was an important moment for me and for INCONCEIVABLE. Last October, I had a stack of rejections from cold querying agents. The rejections were warranted. I’d queried too early. But with PitchSlam approaching, I made some major changes (read: improvements) to my manuscript. It was ready. I was ready.

I sent in my pitch and first 250 words. The feedback was incredibly helpful, and I worked away on my revisions, prepping for the final submission window. At the time, I was at a beach on vacation. I forgot about the gorgeous weather and the beckoning waves long enough to hammer out a pitch and first 250 words that made me proud. I submitted and waited.

Team Mutant Charm!

When the team leaders announced their picks, I was thrilled to be on Team Mutant Charm led by the talented and lovely Michelle Hauck. It was a huge break and a much-needed confidence boost. Then, the wait for agent picks began.

When Agents Like Your Pitch

cartwheelIt’s quite a head trip when you get a notification on Twitter that an agent you admire is following you. That happened twice the day the agents made their picks in last year’s PitchSlam. When all of it was said and done, I had requests for my full from three stellar agents. I also had two partial requests. It’s possible I turned a cartwheel in the front yard. It was that kind of day.

And Then You Wait

After the excitement and cartwheels, I had to wait. I wondered when the agents would read my fulls. Were they so excited about my pitch and first 250 words that they’d push my MS to the front of their stack? Well, no.

The first agent got back to me within a month and a half, a very reasonable time frame. She asked me to revise the beginning, but overall, her feedback was very positive. After two weeks of feverish re-writes involving critique partner feedback, help from a professional editor, and lots of coffee, I sent her my revised manuscript. I felt better about it. The story was much stronger. But, it wasn’t enough to convince this agent to represent me. In the kindest possible way and with the most encouraging words, she said the story still wasn’t right for her.

I kept waiting to hear from the other agents, and even sent them my revised manuscript based on the first agent’s feedback. I heard nothing. Then, I saw that the Pitchmas contest was happening in December. I read several success stories. This was enough to intrigue me. So, another writer and I said, “Why not?”

Pitchmas Success

Even though it felt like a long shot–there were SO MANY entrants!–I’m glad I entered Pitchmas with my revised manuscript. My pitch and new 250 words received multiple requests. One came from the head of an indie publisher, Curiosity Quills Press. In the end, an acquisitions editor requested my full and then offered me a publishing deal. With an offer on the table from a very reputable publisher, I asked the agents who still had my manuscript if they would like to represent me. All declined, but I signed with CQ and have never looked back.

The Moral of This PitchSlam Story

If I had not connected with the agent who offered the excellent suggestions as part of the revise and resubmit request, I doubt INCONCEIVABLE! would be on the brink of being published. What that agent asked me to do was a complete game-changer for this manuscript. Even though it still wasn’t the right manuscript for her, it was the right fit for Curiosity Quills. I hope that no matter what happens for you during PitchSlam, you find a way to use this experience to put you one step closer to improving your manuscript and making it ready for publication.

INCONCEIVABLE Cover.jpgAnd one final note. All the work I did on the PitchSlam pitch paid off. I used that as the start of my marketing materials for INCONCEIVABLE! Because now, I’m pitching my book to people who are, arguably, more important than agents: readers who will decide whether to invest their time and money in my book!

Cartwheel image via Flickr by Bitterjug