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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Creating New Worlds with Science Fiction: Author Interview with Jake Kerr

You write science-fiction, fantasy and steampunk. What drew you to genre?
More than anything I’m drawn to great stories, and those are what I want to write. Growing up, the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, and even the eighties paperbacks of Piers Anthony filled me with wonder and excitement. While I can appreciate the manic energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the complex characters found in William Faulkner, I have always been most drawn to the stories being told.
Genre, because of its fantastical framework, is such a great vehicle for telling stories. As readers, the sense of wonder is immediate and real. We see this fantasy or future world, and we want to travel along with the characters, because the discovery isn’t just about their conflicts and how they are resolved but also this new world. It is exciting to travel to parts unknown!

What do you think it is about sci-fi that draws readers to it? How do you think writing in this genre is different or the same as other forms of fiction?
The biggest difference in writing genre is that it is ostensibly harder. So many of the familiar touchstones for contemporary settings don’t exist and need to be established by the author. Otherwise the world is too strange and makes no sense. I can accept that there is a school of magic called Hogwarts, but what are the rules of behavior in this school? What are the rules of magic? What kind of social systems exist in a school based on something impossible? All these things need to be considered by a writer of genre and can be safely ignored by a writer of contemporary setting fiction.

Ultimately, though, writing genre is the same as other writing. I’m a big believer in Faulkner’s comment that we are all writing about the heart in conflict with itself. That conflict and the challenges we face as humans exists in one of Ray Bradbury’s Martian villages as much as it does in Jay Gatsby’s mansion.

In your novelette, Old Equations, a character consider Einstein as a “minor thinker.” Why did you choose a scientist who has done so much to spawn sci-fi as someone to minimalize?
The Old Equations is an alternate history, where the core tragedy involves around a married couple realizing that their expectation on how a deep space mission will go is not at all what they expect. This is a great example of how you build science fiction: We start with an impossible “if:” If relativity existed but no one knew about it, what would happen to a couple when one of them is on a mission that suddenly experience relativity effects? The answer is a heartbreaking discovery, and how the couple deal with this deeply personal and sad situation is the core of the story. Which brings us to your question: The entire story would not exist at all if I were not able to somehow create a world where Einstein’s theories were ignored. So I killed him early in his life and created a history where his influence was quickly dismissed.

In short, to create this tragic situation that illustrates a husband and wife dealing with unexpected loss, I had to create the scenario where this loss occurred.

Your current novel, Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, is listed as a trilogy. When do you expect to release the other books? What made you decide it could be a series?Book 2 will be out in February, while book 3 will be out in April. I can say now that I’m 90% certain there will be a book 4, which I will most likely release in July or August. I love how J. K. Rowling and Rick Riordan handled their series: Single books that could be read as stand-alones with a bigger story that slowly reveals itself. With the final book being how all those pieces come together.
For Tommy Black, I started with this single artifact—the staff--and as I considered where I would want to go with the books a lot of things came together: Persian and Arabic mythology, other artifacts, a world war as a background, and all of these competing interests among the characters. It was an epic tapestry behind a personal story, and to me that’s the ideal framework for a multi-book series.

I know you’ve done numerous short stories, but when did you actually start writing your first book? How many re-writes do you think you did?
I was about one-third done with a mystery novel when I decided to focus on short fiction. So I started novel-writing early but abandoned it. Tommy Black started out as a writing exercise about five years ago, and I would work at it and abandon it over that time. Part of my frustration was that it was my first novel, so I just kept writing. Each chapter was revised a couple of times, but it wasn’t until I hit 80,000 words and was nowhere near an ending that I realized I had to step back and look at the novel as a whole. At that point I plotted the book out in my head, deleted 40,000 words, and then rewrote the last 30,000 words. This was finally done in late 2013. I sent the book out to some beta readers, and one of them pointed out that a certain character was unnecessary. She was right. So I went back and then rewrote the final 50,000 words, removing this character.
So, all told, writing the first novel took about five years and probably a dozen rewrites, including two very large manuscript-wide revisions. The good news is that there were countless lessons learned, and I can write a novel and revise it much faster now.

I'm amazed by your gigantic rewrites of 40,000, 30,000 and 50,000 words. That's like totally rewriting your book. What stopped you from just throwing in the towel and saying it's too much work?
It’s funny, because it never even crossed my mind to abandon the book. I knew that the core ideas driving the story were sound, and I knew that the opening scenes were exciting and fun and drove forward momentum to find out what came next. I simply didn’t know what came next, which I saw as a fixable problem. I rarely abandon a story completely if I think it has what I call “good bones.” I have a fairly large folder of stories that I finished and didn’t revise or abandoned, but all of those fit into one of two categories: The core plot or concept turned out to be too broken to fix or, and this is generally rare, I just fell out of love with the story and couldn’t muster the energy to revise.

An example of the former is a horror novelette I wrote. It is decent, and the final scene is heartbreaking, but I really couldn’t find a way to fix all the various pieces to make it a cohesive whole. I may recycle the ending in another story someday, but for now it is sitting on my hard drive.

Who encouraged you  in your writing?
Along the way, the biggest encouragement came from my own family and a local critique group here in Dallas, the Writers Garret. They critiqued practically every chapter, and kept encouraging me to keep writing.

Are you active with any writer’s critique groups? If so, how have they helped you?I have two critique groups. One is an organized group in Dallas that I mentioned above—the multi-genre Tuesday night group at the Writers Garret. They could not have been more helpful at helping me hone my craft at writing. They are a treasure. The other group is a loose collection of writer friends who I can count on to critique my work. Critiques are invaluable, and they have helped me in every possible way, from grammar to character motivation to description guidance. They look at what I write and tell me where I went wrong.

I can’t find anything online about your publisher, Currents and Tangents. Is this your self-publishing imprint? Did you send your novels out to traditional publishers or agents?
Yes, Currents & Tangents is my self-publishing imprint. I created it solely to make the business side easier to manage for paperwork, but the reality is that this is Jake Kerr Press. I sent the novel out to about 50 agents, and the feedback was lukewarm. One agent felt it was too in between middle grade and young adult, while another simply didn’t love it, although he loved my writing and wanted me to send him my next novel. Two major publishers asked for the book. The first really liked it but the imprint didn’t handle middle grade. The other was still looking at it when I decided to self-publish and withdrew it.

What made you decide to go the indie route?
I decided to self-publish because I ultimately felt the risk/reward of self-publishing was worth pursuing. I tested the waters with The Old Equations, and it sold well. I also took part in an anthology series that was self-published by Hugh Howey and John Joseph Adams. That was a raging success. There are many more reasons, but the biggest one was that I had seen the potential and felt it was worth the risk.

What marketing has worked best for you?
Publishing, like music and TV and film, is a long tail business. There are a select few hits that make hundreds of thousands and then the income and sales drop dramatically. One of the things that the public doesn’t quite understand is how steep the long tail is. For every publisher, from self-publisher to New York or London publishing house, the aim is to climb as high up that steep slope as you can.
In publishing, there is no greater opportunity for an independent producer.
Getting radio airplay or movie theater distribution is nigh impossible for independents, yet getting distribution through Amazon—the worlds largest bookstore—is not hard at all for independents. Yet, publishing has possibly the steepest of all curves that lead to the long tail. So you can be in the top 10% of all sellers and only make a few dollars a day. It is that steep grade from 10% to 1% where fortunes are made.

For me, my challenge is to find ways to climb that mountain, to gain a few feet and set a new foothold, climb a few more feet and secure myself. So when I look at my sales and I see that my rank is, say, 9,000--which is quite strong when you consider there are millions of books on sale on Amazon—I know that the real battle, the tough battle, is growing from there. It is in many ways an endeavor that requires a lot of luck, so I put myself to be in the position to be lucky as much as I possibly can.

Have you done the Kindle free books promotions?
I am not doing any free promotions. I did a three day discount of the ebook to 99 cents in mid-December, and it significantly boosted my sales. So manipulating sales prices—including free—is an important strategy, but I think for it to ideally work you need to combine it with external marketing to reinforce the value of the discount. 

What has surprised you the most about getting published other than the excitement of seeing your books in print?
I was so busy doing all of the publishing work that I was surprised by something that I should have considered a hope all along but simply didn’t consider: That kids would actually like my book. It’s been out for a little more than a month, and I’ve had kids tell me it’s their new favorite book, create fan art for it, and been told by teachers that there is a waiting list to take the book out of classroom libraries. What an amazing, wonderful surprise.

What advice would you give someone who thinks they have the great novel in them just waiting to be told?
We all have stories to tell. We all have novels inside us. All of us. Writers are the ones that feel the overwhelming need to share those stories via the written word. So my first bit of advice is to be a writer. So write your novel down. It will suck. It won’t maybe suck. It WILL suck. But get it down. Then take it to a critique group. It can be online, in your hometown, writers you meet at a convention. However you get to know them, show them your work and examine their guidance.

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing?
The best advice I ever received about writing was to read widely and weirdly. Having a broad understanding of what various writers are doing and how they are achieving their goals will help you in planning out how you are trying to achieve what you are writing.

What do you wish you knew sooner about writing that you know now?
That guided practice would be as effective as it is. Once I graduated from college I tried to write, but my writing was so horrible, and I had no idea how to fix it. As a result, I stopped writing for 20 years. It was only when I had guided feedback that I truly understood where I was going wrong. And this was done with hard work. Before I completed a single story I had done dozens and dozens of writing exercises. Looking at all the pieces of writing that I had trouble with before. When I finally did start writing stories, I was able to understand not only what I was doing wrong but how to fix it.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about writing?
Momentum is often important. So many writers get lost staring at a blank page. Just remember that you can always delete the words you start with. So start writing and let your imagination carry you away.

Thank you for taking the time to share your writing story with me. If you would like to learn more about Jake and his writing, here's a couple of links to get you started.

Author website:
Tommy Black series website:
Twitter: @jakedfw

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