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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Interview with JM Surra, author of Angels and Their Hourglasses,

You’ve recently released your first novel, Angels and Their Hourglasses which is the story about a pilot who goes back in time. What motivated you to write this story? What was your inspiration?
The story came to me all at once. One second I was watching television, and the next second I was up and running for a legal pad and a pen. There was this complete, fully fleshed-out story in my head, and I wanted to get it down on paper, in case it disappeared from my head. 2 hours later, I printed out a typed-out outline of the story.

In the story your pilot crashes his plane near his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts; instead of being in the present, it is now 1929. How much of an aeronautical buff are you? What type of research did you have to do to recreate this time frame?
The plane wasn’t invented or planned in, I saw him in that plane in the story. As the written story progressed, I was amazed at how perfectly the Waco biplane fit into the story. It was almost scary.

I’m a hopeless aeronautical buff, and for most of my life I’ve lived, eaten, and breathed airplanes. I’m much like my protagonist Ben Ryan. I spent endless hours as a young man talking about airplanes, Golden Age racers, and World War II. Even so, with a story so complex and interwoven with the actual history, I spent a great deal of time researching everything from military airplanes to the geographical features of Molokai Island.

You might say that I was Ben, and I had to learn many of the same things he learned. When something surprised him, as often as not that same thing had surprised or amazed me during my research.

When did you actually start writing this book?
I first started writing Angels and Their Hourglasses on May 25th, 2010. I finished the first draft on July 1st, 2010.

Did you ever consider just dropping it?
I never for a single minute gave a thought to dropping it, because of the rich history and heritage involved in the story. I have another novel titled Stalker of Death, which I started right around 1995. It’s a great story, but problematic enough so that I have to work pretty hard when I do work on it. I’ve used any number of excuses to put it back on the shelf.

When I got the idea for Angels, I was working on Stalker. Then, after finishing Angels, I took Stalker down and read it to get back into it. It’s a great, inspiring (and scary!) story to read, and I dove back in. I finished another 5, maybe 6 chapters before I got this great idea for TITOR, my newest novel, and zzzip, back on the shelf goes Stalker.

Who would you say is your target audience for this book?
Because Angels and Their Hourglasses touches on so many different subjects, it has the potential for widespread appeal, and the target audience is a wide one. Anybody who likes a good adventure story, or who likes airplanes, Golden Age racers, World War II, time travel or a story with a good love interest should enjoy it. And there’s so much more.

What surprised me most during the test readings (I had readers throughout the US and Canada give me their honest opinions) was the female response. I fully expected the women who read Angels to not particularly like it. Instead, the response was positive. I recall one woman who I was giving a bit of a nudge to, so she would finish, and she finally confessed. She wasn’t rushing through it because she loved the story so much, she would miss the characters afterward and she would feel like she was losing some good friends. She didn’t want it to end.

On the other hand, Viet Nam vets wrote me and admitted they cried like babies. They loved it. I was humbled.

How many rewrites did you do?
I think the answer is going to shock you. Fifty-four. Yeah. I went through the book with Erika, my editor, and I re-read the book fifty-four times. During those re-reads, we edited constantly, and we worked on every aspect of the book, and rewrote scenes to make sure the speaking characters were clear, made sure the details were accurate.

Why so many times? There are a few reasons. First, I knew that this project was going to require much more attention from me than working with an agent and publisher would. I was determined to produce a product that was as professional as any publishing house ever released. This was my learning curve, and it required my strict attention. The next time will probably only require twenty times through.

What sort of writing credits did you have prior to doing this book?
Angels and Their Hourglasses is the first book I have penned for publication as J.M. Surra. I also used to write columns for a radio-control online magazine. I studied at F.I.T. Manhattan, and SUNY Oswego.

Your book is a Global eBook Awards winner. How did you first hear about this award process? What did it entail?
 I found the Global Awards online. They didn’t have any big requirements, I believe the book had to be in PDF format, it must be on sale somewhere online, and there was an entry fee of (I think) around seventy-nine dollars, which is pretty typical. On the day I finished the eBook version of Angels, the deadline was just three hours away. I completed my entering of Angels into the competition with 45 minutes to spare.

There’s a funny story about that. It takes about three days to get a book up for sale and showing as for sale on Kindle, and I knew I wasn’t going to have three days, so I took the previous ‘edited version’ of Angels and published it up to Kindle, errors and all. Then I waited for the PDF file to come out at the last minute, and entered in the contest. Within a few days, Erika had reformatted the PDF to Kindle and I switched out the old version Kindle book.

I didn’t think I’d sell any, but I found that I’d sold 3 books in those first few days, and to this day I have to wonder who are the 3 unfortunate readers who got stuck with that screwed-up Kindle version! I can just hear them say, “He won an AWARD! For this mess?”

I had no expectations of a win, but I knew the story was a good one. I allowed myself to hope that I might be a finalist, but I had no expectations. I think that made the win sweeter.

What sort of impact has it had for your book sales?
I had a big spike in sale right after that, and some good reviews came in. I think that winning the award was a personal milestone for me, more than anything. I realize now that, had I been able to offer a paperback version then, I probably would have gotten more activity. But I had to make a judgment call, and I chose to wait on publishing the paperback until the book was professionally edited. I have to credit Erika with encouraging me to “wait and work” on the project.
Now it’s published, and whereas I might have sold some paperbacks at that time, I think that the paperback as it is now will make a much bigger and better impression. The Award is an enhancer to that, and should help sales once I can get it onto stores shelves. I’m actively promoting right now, and some large newspapers have agreed to read it for a book review. A few good reviews could help with getting it from here to the bookstore shelves.

I see your cover has a review blurb from the Kansas City Examiner Newspaper. How long did it take to get a review from them so you could have something for the back of the book?
Pat McGrath and I were in contact and she reviewed Angels before I actually released the book in its first incarnation as an eBook. That wonderful review was not a paid review, and it was done before the book was entered in the Global Awards competition.

The Examiner did a follow-up story after the competition where they indulged in a bit of well-deserved crowing for having favorably reviewed the winning novel well before the Global Awards validated their claims. I got the review back in about a month or two. By the way, I learned that reviewer Pat McGrath is a writer of murder mysteries, with a cute little dog sleuth at the center of each story. Murder Takes a Ride is one of the series.

Do you write with a completed outline or more by the seat of your pants style?
The book flowed like a river from me, and nobody was more amazed than me. That’s not normal, though my present book is flowing the same way. I most enjoy writing a book when the story grows to maturity in my head (which I seem to use for little else, so why not?), so I’ll have to admit to having a preference for flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writing.

How open were you to your book being edited?
I have a wonderful editor, Erika Stokes, and she lets me be myself, for the most part. I don’t usually mind being edited, as long as my ‘writer’s voice’ and the story’s integrity remain strong. I also found that having a great editor improved the overall crispness and readability of the story. Do we argue? Sure. But no Donnybrooks, or anything like that. At times it can be a lot of fun.

We’re both good listeners, good observers, and complement each other well. She admits that pulling a full-length novel out of her head just isn’t something she can do. Her strengths lie elsewhere. She knows more about making my book a professional piece of work than I could ever know. When a phrase isn’t right, she doesn’t always fix it. Sometimes she points it out to me and sets me loose on it, because she senses it needs an author’s touch.

Sometimes when I’m ripping and shredding, cutting the fat out to keep the story lean enough, she hollers at me and tells me to put back some passage that she felt personified the whole book or that chapter. She has a great eye. I think that having a book edited is a delicate process, and I think that without Erika whipping me into shape, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. I have learned a lot from her, and my first drafts now are better than my 4th or 5th drafts used to be.

What is the best piece of editorial advice or other writing advice you have received?
 You get out what you put in, and if you expect it to be a professional product, you’ll probably put in a substantial amount of time and hard work, and a fair amount of money.

Now that you have published your first book, what do you wish you might have learned earlier about writing and publishing?
I think the most important thing I could have learned, I was fortunate enough to learn in good time.  You can’t ‘buy’ your way into writing and publishing a good book, but those who think they can take a shortcut are usually soon parted from their money. Take your time, and do it right.

Nobody gets rich overnight writing, so don’t do it if you’re not passionate about it. Because there are tens of thousands of writers out there every day, and they’re all trying to do the same thing. You have to bring something better, or fresher, and you can’t pay anyone else to do that for you. Blood, sweat and tears is the way.

You are writing another book dealing with time travel, where are you in that process?
The next book is TITOR. I have completed the basic story framework and character direction planning. I’m presently developing the characters and their personalities. I’m also completing some research online to know more about a few aspects of the story.

That's it for today's interview with Jim. Hope you'll come back on Thursday when we continue the interview and discuss what goes into making an audio book. In the meantime, if you would like to know more about him, here's a link to his site where you can also buy his book

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