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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Getting out the First Draft: Author Interview with Benjamin J. Denen

You hold a Bachelor of music degree and you compose musical scores. What made you decide to switch out of that artistic style and write a novel?
My passion for writing first stemmed from my love of reading. My parents instilled a love of literature at an early age, and it hasn’t let go! I toyed with writing fiction as early as high school, but it wasn’t until music became my profession instead of a hobby that I really buckled down and wrote my first book, The Keeper of Edelyndia. Basically, with music no longer being my hobby, I needed something that I could do to help me unplug from my “day job.”

How long did it take you to write your fantasy book?
 In total, I spent about 3ish months from the start of the Prologue to the completion of the Epilogue. At the time I was also working another day job so I took basically two weeks of vacation about two months apart and wrote about 90% of the book. It was binge writing at its best (worst?)!  

How many rewrites did you do on it?
I only technically rewrote the first dozen chapters or so once I completed them. Originally, I had started the story as a first-person narrative, and soon realized that it was too limiting for the story arch I was working on. After that, I rewrote the first dozen then completed the novel. Once it was finished I went through so many re-reads and tweaks that I can’t remember the number. Basically for about a year I constantly poured over the “finished” product. I’ve learned a valuable lesson since then. For me, I need to finish a manuscript, do one read-through/round of edits, then sit on it for a while before picking it back up. That works much better for me.

Who helped you with the editing?
My wife is a constant partner in the editing process of everything that I write. Sometimes she edits as I write, other times she waits until the first draft is done. After I’ve done at least one round of edits, I gather a small focus group (some call it beta readers) and have them read through the manuscript. At that point, it is still in its rough form, but I’ve found it is a great time for me to get feedback. After that stage, there are usually a fair number of changes to both the editing and the story/plot.

Could you give me a short synopsis on the novel, The Keeper of Edelyndia, for my readers?
There are few things that I struggle with more in this world than summing up my books in a few sentences! My joke is that if it took me 115,000 words the first time to tell the story, how can I do it in 100?! Here’s the long and short of it (as best I can describe):  

o At its core, The Keeper of Edelyndia is an epic fantasy story about doing what is right no matter what the cost is. I wrote it as an allegory of my own experiences in the church world. Though it is not meant to be read as a literal representation, it explores some very realistic and difficult themes found in our often broken world.

The series focuses on a small group of individuals who rise up against the injustice of a cruel and oppressive Church/State in defense of the innocent. Orron, the primary protagonist of book one, is a young man who wakes up in a forest with no idea who he or where he came from. As the story progresses he is welcomed in by a family and adopted as one of their own. Soon, he must make some incredibly difficult decisions to save those he has come to love.  

When did you know your story would work into three books?
It’s been a few years since I started this project so it is hard for me to say when exactly. I feel like pretty much from day one I knew that it was going to be a multiple-book story arch. Right now, it looks pretty strongly that it will wrap up in three books (in the chronological series), but already I have written a prequel titled Raulin: Rise of the Forest King that focuses on the origin story of one of the supporting characters found in The Keeper. That will actually be released shortly. So, in reality, it will be more than three books in total.

One of the joys of self-publishing is that the author has complete control over the series. As I was beginning to write book two I realized that the origin of the character, Raulin, needed to be explored in more detail as he will play a very critical role in the rest of the series. He is one of my favorite characters and writing his story was perhaps the most enjoyable experience I have had as an author so far. 

What is your publishing timeline?
Book Two (the chronological sequel to The Keeper of Edelyndia) is tentatively slated for a release in the first quarter of 2016 with the third and final book coming out possibly releasing a year later. That is very fluid right now. Right now, my goal is to build up a fan base so in addition to Raulin: Rise of the Forest King.

I plan to release another book in October that I have been sitting on for a while. This book, titled Mansfield Hollow, is character-driven urban fantasy with some horror elements, think The X-Files as a loose reference. The goal is to alternate the releases of The Keeper Chronicles and the subsequent sequels to Mansfield Hollow.

Your books are indie-published. Did you try the normal route and try to find a traditional publisher to handle your book? Did you pitch any agents?
I did actually try to the traditional route of publishers and agents. Off the top of my head, I don’t know how many query letters I sent out but it was several. Without having any bites, I sat on completed stories for a while before taking a flier on a vanity press with The Keeper of Edelyndia last year.  In the end, we parted ways after about 10 months and though I wouldn’t recommend that most authors go that route, I found it to be a valuable learning experience.

Before signing on with them, I think I lacked the confidence in my writing to really go hard at it on my own. While the first edition was sitting on the market with little action I released a Christmas novella titled The Question of Christmas in November of 2014 and was blessed with a fair amount of success. Combined, those two experiences showed me that if I’m able to put the effort into self-marketing, self-publishing is a wonderful avenue for me. I have been thrilled with the success of the 2nd edition of The Keeper of Edelyndia since it’s re-release in early June of 2015. 

When did you decide to self-publish?  I made the decision to self-publish The Question of Christmas for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a novella which rarely draws the interest of a traditional publisher. Second, because of the story, I knew I wanted to partner with a non-profit called Gigi’s Playhouse—a down syndrome center for children and adults. All of the proceeds from sales go directly to them. Self-publishing made that possible. After I realized that not only is it possible to connect with readers as an indie, it’s actually much easier than I thought.

How did you decide what sources to use for putting together your book?
Because of work that I do, I have some skill with design and layout so I knew that I didn’t need a resource that did everything. Josh Jack Carl. a friend, from designs did all my cover art and I handle the interior layout of both the e-book and print editions. From there my decision was relatively easy.

In my opinion, Amazon is the absolute king of retail, especially books. In this e-book and smart device era, the Kindle book is king. CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing are such easy-to-use resources and the best part is they are free! Since I can handle all design aspects on my own, they just handle the distribution and sales. I’m a huge fan of what they offer independent, self-published authors. They are wonderful to work with—great support and being able to track sales by the minute is unbelievably handy!

What has been the most overwhelming part of publishing your own book?
Easily without a doubt it is the marketing. I’m 33 so I grew up right before the social networking boom. Prior to self-publishing, I only used Facebook for personal reasons. I didn’t engage Twitter or other platforms. That has been a work in progress. Social media platforms provide indie authors with wonderful resources and direct access to readers, but learning how to intentionally utilize them is the key. 

Does your background in writing music help you in writing your novels?
In many ways, yes. Having played music professionally my entire adult life, I had already adopted many of the habits that a successful authors needs: dedication, the ability to see a project through, the work habits of time spent alone working on my craft, etc. The industries operate very different (music and publishing), though, so it’s been a learning process operating in both. Sometimes, working in two unrelated creative fields can make it hard to focus, especially when they have deadlines at the same time! 

Do you think we’ll ever see one of your major characters in a book who is a musician?
That’s a fascinating question. Music has already played a role in The Keeper of Edelyndia so that wouldn’t surprise me at all. I don’t have anything on the table yet that would include a MC that’s a musician, but it’s not out of the question. With the loads of experience I have in the music industry, it would make sense. Stay tuned!

I haven’t been promoting like I should have these days, but when I originally released the first edition of The Keeper of Edelyndia, I composed a four song soundtrack that I released on all major digital platforms (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, etc.) under the same title. As a composer, it was fun to write music based on the characters and themes found in the book. I plan to do more of that in future.

How do you write? Did you do an outline first? Did you do individual character development before doing the full plot?
All of my books have started in a similar fashion. An idea pops into my head that I can’t let go of so I sit down and bang out the prologue or first chapter. For whatever reason, that is how it always starts with me… a scene in my head that begs to be written. Often, I know very little about the characters or where the story will go, I just have to write that first chapter! After that, I sit back and if I decide it’s worth pursuing, I begin by crafting the primary character’s story. Who is he/she? Where did he/she come from? What is he/she trying to accomplish? And on and on and on until I feel like I know this person. Then I begin with outlining.

In the 4+ manuscripts that I’ve completed so far, I have done a lot of experimentation with this. For The Keeper of Edelyndia I did a chapter-by-chapter outline. It helped me stay focused, but in the end I found that to be a little too restrictive. I like the idea of allowing the characters to tell the story.

With Mansfield Hollow, I tried the complete opposite approach and did little-to-no outlining. That was a disaster! I ended up creating a new outline and rewriting it almost from the ground up. Now, I think I’ve settled into a sweet spot of outlining the general plot, loosely sketching out the chapters, then writing in a way that allows the story to go where it needs to go.

Are you active with any writing groups?
I am now pretty active in several writing groups through facebook. I’ve always had a couple of fellow authors that I bounced ideas off, but I have been mostly enjoying the larger communities. I say mostly because, as it turns out, it seems that authors can be a rather dramatic group!

What type of publicity do you do to promote your book? What has worked best for you in generating sales?
Boy, I’d say that right now my approach is the old machine gun, “spray and pray.” I don’t have enough experience yet to feel like I know exactly what I’m doing! There are a number of businesses out there that will promote indie books through email lists, social networks, etc. Some of these have been incredible and led to a large number of sales. Others have been duds. Mainly, I am trying hard to maintain an online presence (very much a work in progress) while building a catalogue of books for fans to buy.

What do you know now about writing/publishing now that you wished you had known sooner?Self-publishing is an absolutely wonderful avenue! I’ve been sitting on manuscripts for a whilen now that I would have released much sooner had I not been so afraid of the mystery surrounding self-publishing. It takes a lot of hard work, but it is very doable without having to break the bank. 

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along?
When writing a first draft, don’t get bogged down with “word-smithing” and getting everything just right. Just write. Pound it out and finish the first draft. What matters most is the story arch. After that, go back and add in the details, the best turn-of-phrase, the most meaningful descriptions, etc. I spent years starting and stopping because I didn’t think my first draft was matching up to my favorite best sellers that I was reading. Finally, I read somewhere that it isn’t suppose to! The finished project should and will look VERY different from that first draft. What matters most is getting the story out of my head and laid out so I can go back and begin to really make it work.

Any other thoughts on writing that you’d like to add?
We are in an exciting era for independent authors. Amazon and other companies are making it possible to distribute great books without having to go through the major publishing gatekeepers. Yes, this means that the market is flooded with poorly edited and written books, but don’t worry about that. Write great stories that move people and they will stand out.

If you're a fan of fantasy, or his storyline piques your interest, here's how you can learn more.
 The Keeper Chronicles website:

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