Everyone does it at one point or another. I do it all the time just to piss off my wife. We all try to talk with an accent or use the dialect from another country.
It’s fun, I’ll admit, to try and make yourself sound like William from Newfoundland, Billy from Ireland, James from Manchester, Ivan from Russia or Eddie from Jamaica. But how do you convey this in your manuscript?
Here are the most common pitfalls when writing dialogue—and how to avoid them. Needless to say, you will come across A Clockwork Orange every once in a while, which defies what I am about to say, but generally, you will want to follow these rules. Why, you may ask? Well, here is the answer, but it comes in a strange way.
Have you ever watched the show Swamp People? Have you found it strange that they are speaking English but there are subtitles at the bottom? It’s so you can really understand what they are saying. If we cannot understand the main character(s) in a show or novel, we will not watch or read it. Everyone wants to understand what is coming from the other’s mouth. More on this below.
Keep a lid on profanities
Have you ever watched a comedian on stage and all they do is swear every other word? After the performance, the main complaint of the audience is, “They did swear a lot.” Writing is the same way. Yes, people do swear (you’ll find that out if you watch UK Reality TV), but no one wants to read it in their novel. Okay, maybe the occasional F-bomb is okay, but not every other word. They stand out on the page, especially when a potential reader is doing the finger flip to see if they want to buy the work. Save your swearing for the time your character needs to really be intense with their words. This will show the reader you care about them and are not just out for shock value.
Sling the slang away
Every good author knows when to use a little slang. But, like profanities, you want to use this sparingly. So make sure the people in your work actually speak English (or whatever language you are writing in). Now, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. A Clockwork Orange uses slang with propensity, so how did Anthony Burges get away with it? He developed an integral slang not used at the time and made sure his prose showed the reader what it meant. The novel was also written during the height of his career and examined ad infinitum by the masses. Want to write like him? Read all his work first.
Reproduction is for the birds and the bees
When I talk about reproducing a conversation that takes place between two people, I mean every part of it. Try this. Grab your cell phone and set it to record. Have a conversation with someone about anything; just make it a real life conversation. Talk about the weather, a sporting event, the latest celebrity gossip—it doesn’t matter what, just talk. Don’t tell them you are recording it, you need this to be a candid as possible. Now, later that day, have your smart phone convert the recorded discussion into text. Replay the conversation and write out everything (and I mean everything) from the first ‘um’ to the last ‘‘kay’. Once you are finished (and the smart phone beeps it is done), read the conversation out loud, as if you were proofreading the work. Heck, even wait a few days in order for the words to be lost from your mind. Now, how does it sound? Crap, right? So, why would you make your reader sit down and try to understand that conversation?
Take out all the idioms and your conversations will still feel natural.
Mangling is for the antagonist
Raise their hand if, at one point, you wrote the dialogue of a character who could not pronounce the letter H the following way:
“‘Ello, Joe. ’Ow’s it been? ‘Aven’t seen you in days. Wife and kids doing well I presume?”
Okay, my hand is up as well. I have been known to do it in the past, but not anymore.
This is a mild case of mangling dialogue. Don’t do it. Just tell the reader how they speak and let them fill in the blanks without wondering what the heck they are saying. Remember, the easier it is for the reader to read your work, the more they will enjoy it. Ultimately you want the reader to say, “I read it and enjoyed it, even with the guy that could not pronounce his H’s.”
Summing it up
As a writer, your job is hard enough without putting yourself through the wringer. Make it easy and write the way you want to see it done with the works you read. Don’t make your reader struggle when they pick up the book.
When you think there is an issue with your dialogue, the best way to figure it out is to have someone read it out loud. If they struggle (and not because of the actual words but the flow), you know there is work to be done.
Jeff Marsick and Scott Barnett invite you to attend a Dead Man’s Party! An assassin puts a contract out on his own head and a select group of peers have thirty days to fulfill it. For the world-renowned hit man known only as Ghost, ordering a Party is a last resort, a way to go out on his terms, at the top of his game. The invitations are sent, the killers are coming… and that’s when things go horribly wrong…
A former military officer, Jeff Marsick writes novels, screenplays, and comic books. He’s also a regular contributor to the comic book and pop-culture website, Newsarama, as well as the writer and co-creator of the self-published comic series Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers. He recently won Darby Pop Publishing’s “Breaking Into Comics” script writing contest, and from that will come Indestructible: Stingray #1, to be published by IDW/Darby Pop in May.
Scott Barnett is an illustrator, designer, storyboard artist and 3D modeler/animator. His comic book work can be found on painted covers, trading cards, and pin-ups for the comic book and card industry. He’s had work published by Image, Malibu, Chaos, Avatar, London Night Studios, Topps, and several others.
IM:Tell us about how you first met and decided to collaborate on a comic book series?
SB: Jeff and I had actually known each other for years before we collaborated on Dead Man’s Party.
JM: We frequented the same comic book shop, Heroes Cards and Comics in Norwalk, Connecticut, and we’d always talk about storylines and ideas that we had of our own. I knew that Scott was an artist, but I was kind of new to writing comics, so it didn’t immediately dawn on me to collaborate on something.
SB: Yeah, it wasn’t until about five years ago that we finally started throwing ideas around and getting serious about doing something. I emailed Jeff with this idea of a hitman putting a hit out on himself, and he came back with this concept of a competition he called a ‘Dead Man’s Party.’
JM: It was crazy. Hand to God, I’ve had this idea for decades, all the way back to when I was in college. And yes, Oingo Boingo is involved. For some reason, this concept of a bastardized Viking funeral/Irish wake has always been the movie that plays in my head when I hear their ‘Dead Man’s Party’. But I’ve never known what to do with it. So when Scott emails me, my response is “Ooh! I’ve got it!”
SB: And our ideas meshed together perfectly into what you’re reading now.
IM:Who are some of your creative idols and influences and how important are they to the creation of this series?
SB: For me, it’s John Byrne, Joe Jusko, and Alex Ross. How important are they to the creation of THIS series? Well, I used to describe my art style on DMP as ‘Alex Ross meets Sin City’. By no means am I suggesting I’m as good as Alex Ross, by the way. Byrne’s influence shows up in my panel layouts—at least I hope it does—because I think Byrne is a master at laying out a page. And Jusko? I just simply wanted to BE him when I was younger. His Marvel Masterpieces card set is still a dream job of mine…
JM: As a comic writer, there are a couple altars that I pray at: Peter David, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker in particular. But I’m also influenced by a wide variety of novelists and screenwriters: Dennis Lehane, Duane Swierczynski, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Elmore Leonard, David Benioff… this list can go on and on.
SB: It usually does. You’re showing surprising restraint.
JM: Haven’t had my coffee yet. As for how important these influences have been to the series’ creation, I wouldn’t say they’ve been instrumental in its CREATION, but they have been important to me as a writer and helping me find my voice and how I envision a story to unfold.
IM: This story was set up as a four-issue series. Are there any plans for a sequel or prequel?
SB: First of all, we’d found we couldn’t reach the conclusion we wanted in four issues, so there will, in fact, be—
JM: Wait for it, wait for it…
SB: A fifth issue.
SB: But to answer your question, we have a lot of plans for this series. Not only do we have ideas for sequels, I’d be interested in exploring some of the supporting characters we’ve introduced here. Jeff has done an amazing job creating characters that have had very small roles but had so much depth from a character development standpoint that I want to revisit them. For instance, there’s a character that shows up in issue four that I hadn’t expected to appear at all in the series. Jeff mentioned him briefly in the first issue, but I thought it was a throwaway line, just something that Ghost mentioned simply to prove a point. I had no idea he would show up later in the series. Now that I’ve ‘met’ him, I want to learn more.
Also, we’re currently talking with another creator about a crossover between our titles. We can’t say anything about it yet, but it’d be very cool if we can make it happen. And I think we will.
JM: The thing about this world we’ve created is that there are so many characters and plots that we can explore. I wrote a couple pieces of flash fiction for the noir and pulp website, Out Of The Gutter Online, and there are some new characters that we can bring out into the light.
IM: Scott, you draw the series at the actual print size. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s ever done that. How did you get so comfortable drawing realistic people and actions on such a small canvas? Is this a standard procedure for your other comics and professional work?
SB: Does that mean I’m a trailblazer?! Awesome! For those not familiar with the process, comic art pages are generally drawn at 11″x17″, which helps tighten up the artwork when it’s reduced for printing. The reason I chose to work as small as I do is to try and reduce the time it takes to create a page, given that I work on the series in my spare time. So far, I’ve only employed this approach on Dead Man’s Party, but then again, this is also the first time I’ve done sequential interiors. I used to work much larger, but I started painting sketch cards several years ago, and after—literally!—a few thousand of them, I became pretty comfortable at working smaller.
IM: Is it a coincidence the main character looks like the artist? Who would you cast if series was optioned as a live action feature or mini-series?
JM: Man, you should see the eyes light up when people come to our booth at conventions, get hooked by the pitch, then do a double-take between the cover and Scott standing behind the table. “Hey, is that YOU?” Never gets old.
SB: And it’s not a coincidence that Ghost resembles me. As you can probably imagine from my art style, I tend to use a fair amount of photo reference. In order to get the shots I wanted, I started having others photograph me ‘acting’ out the scenes. In another attempt to save time, I suggested to Jeff that we use our likenesses for the major characters, but before I’d gotten to start using Jeff’s likeness, he wrote out of the series the character who we had planned to ‘be’ him.
JM: Ah, writer’s prerogative.
SB: Well, I hope we bring that character back at some point, since we’ve developed a rich backstory for him.
JM: I keep wondering if I’ve offended Scott in the past because he’s awfully eager to either put me in a comic in a compromising position or have me killed at some point.
SB: You don’t remember what happened in Jersey back in ’09?
SB: Well, there you go.
JM: Wait. What?
SB: As for casting: have you seen Hugh Jackman in Prisoners? I dare you to tell me that guy isn’t a dead ringer for Ghost! In fact, because I share a passing resemblance to him, many people assume that’s who I patterned Ghost after. Until they meet me, and then they ask why I’m a shorter version of him!
JM: Someone at a convention thought you were patterning after Pacino, remember?
SB: Oh, yeah. And I appreciate you resisting the urge to quote that line from Scarface, “Say hello to my little friend!” while we were talking to that guy!
JM: It’s funny because I’ve written Dead Man’s Party as a TV pilot for a mini-series and I’m writing it as a feature film, too. I actually think that, given how recent action movie roles are going to an older generation of veteran—Kevin Costner, Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, and Sean Penn—that this could be a good role for someone like Kurt Russell to relight their career.
IM: Jeff, you used to work in the financial industry. Do you find that background helps when it comes to creating assassins and other unsavory characters for the book, or are financial types too evil to be hit men?
JM: Oh no, there’s plenty of depravity and immorality in finance to fuel a couple hundred issues of a comic book series. It’s an industry that prides itself on hiring testosterone-fueled alpha-male types who consider themselves, on some level, assassins of a sort. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, rigging financial markets, money-laundering, scheming clients out of their hard-earned nest eggs…yeah, there’s an underbelly that’s a gold mine to plumb.
SB: Wow. That was pretty impressive, the way you burnt that bridge down. Flame on!
IM: Tell us how, if at all, your military background helps you develop your characters.
JM: The biggest benefit is that my familiarity helps me write characters with a military background in a way that feels genuine. Real. I’m familiar with tactics and jargon and operating procedures, and, especially, with dialogue. I think I’m good at having a veteran sound like he was once in uniform, and not like someone playing at it.
SB: You’re a geek about that stuff: weapons and tactics and lingo.
JM: I am. It’s got to sound legit.
IM: Give us an overview of your comic book career before you started Dead Man’s Party. What other titles have you worked on?
SB: Before Dead Man’s Party, I was mainly a cover and pin-up artist. My biggest claims to fame were doing a Spawn/Angela pin-up for Spawn, a pin-up and some cards of Lady Death for Chaos! Comics, and a cover for the old Mortal Kombat book for Malibu/Marvel. Recently, I’ve done a pin-up for Red Anvil’s The Mighty Titan and a cover for the assassin book, M3, from Vice Press.
Jeff: My comic book career started by taking an introduction to comic writing course with Comics Experience, led by former Marvel editor Andy Schmidt. It was an eye-opener that, hey, I don’t need to land at Marvel or DC to get published; I can go out and self-publish my own stuff, on my own terms. I actually had Nick Spencer in my class, before he went on to become big with Marvel and Image.
But right before we started Dead Man’s Party, I had started Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, another self-published title I co-created with Kirk Manley, who is also the artist.
IM: You’ve both worked for other editors and companies. What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing versus working for another company and fitting into their editorial/artistic guidelines?
SB: I’ve had pretty decent experiences working for other companies, particularly for Spawn, The Mighty Titan and M3; I’d say the advantage to working for other companies is the exposure.
JM: The only experience I have with an actual company is with Darby Pop Publishing after I won their Breaking Into Comics script contest. That script is becoming a one-shot in their Indestructible universe, called Indestructible: Stingray #1, and I cannot rave about the editors—Jeff Kline and Renae Geerlings—enough. Working with them has been terrific and I highly recommend that everyone get a chance to.
SB: The major difference between mainstream and self-publishing is the obvious creator control that Jeff and I have on Dead Man’s Party, since it’s our property. It’s very exciting, being able to do anything we want. Nothing is off-limits, so long as it’s in service of the story. You can’t always do that with someone else’s characters, especially if they have an established history.
JM: The other thing is that since we’re both the co-creators, this is our baby. That means we can’t phone it in, quality-wise. We tried to rush issue four in order to get it to the printer on time to make the New York Comicon, but it would have meant a sacrifice in quality.
SB: Which neither of us is willing to compromise on.
JM: And I’ve always said that this experience is going to spoil me for projects with publishers in the future, because Scott and I have such a great working relationship. We can toss ideas back and forth and tell the other person if something doesn’t quite work or if the story is missing the mark somewhere.
SB: Plus, he’s ex-military; I’m afraid to disagree with him.
IM: What other titles do you currently work on besides Dead Man’s Party?
SB: Currently, Dead Man’s Party is the only book I’m working on, as it’s pretty time consuming penciling, painting, and lettering the series. Once we’ve wrapped this first miniseries, Jeff and I would like to explore some of the other concepts we’ve discussed over the years.
JM: I am working on the first issue of the next arc of Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, writing the Dead Man’s Party screenplay, and working on another feature film screenplay. I’ve also started a thriller novel, and am plotting a children’s book.
SB: Jeff doesn’t sleep.
JM: Nope. Too busy over-achieving.
IM: Did you get a lot of positive reinforcement from friends and family when you first started out in comics, or did you get comments like “get a real job,” and the like?
SB: I’m happy to say I’ve always gotten a ton of support from my friends and family. It was the industry itself that dictated I move on to other areas back in the 90s. It wasn’t until Jeff and I started discussing projects that we said, ‘Screw it. We’ve got some great ideas. If no one else wants to publish them, let’s do it ourselves!’
JM: We actually HAVE real jobs. I think everyone knows that this is a labor of love and that we’re carving it out of the margins—what little there are—of our personal lives and careers. I have never gotten anything but respect for what I’m doing and admiration that I’m able to do it while working and attending to my family’s needs.
IM: How hard is it to find the time to dedicate time to the series when you have your day jobs and family life?
SB: Honestly, it can be very difficult. It’s no secret to readers of Dead Man’s Party that we’ve had some major delays, most of which are due to me. Between a full time job as a 3D artist and raising a son, the book has been tough to give time to, especially this past year, but as I adjust to life as a dad, I’m learning how to make time.
JM: Here’s what I’ve learned as a writer, and this is what I tell everyone who comes to me and asks me how I do it: Unless your sole means of income is as a writer and you can spend eight hours a day writing…do NOT live in a fantasy world where you believe you can’t get it done unless you have a daily one, two, or three-hour block of time to write. It’ll never happen. If you’ve got a movie in your head or a song in your heart that HAS to get down on paper, you’ll have to guerrilla-write.
SB: Is that your phrase?
JM: It is. I should trademark it, right? So, what I mean is, write during your breaks at work. If you sit at a desk all day, have your company spreadsheets and whatnot on the screen, but ALSO have a document open that is your novel/comic/screenplay/memoir. Do a little work for the company, take a five-minute “me” break and hammer out a couple sentences or even a paragraph. Five minutes every hour, and at the end of the day you’ve only got 40-45 minutes of writing time in, sure, but maybe you’ve also gotten eight or nine paragraphs written, or you’ve worked out a complete scene of dialogue. That’s not nothing. Do that every day and you’d be surprised what you’ve gotten accomplished in a month.
Aspiring comic book writers: take the issue you’re working on, break it down into scenes. How many do you have in your 22-page issue? Eight? Ten? Okay, do one scene a day. That’s your whole purpose from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, that one scene. The next day, it’s another scene. In two weeks you’ll have a rough draft that you’ve had time to edit and refine. Boom. It’s great to be able to say, “My goal for the day is ten pages or 2,000 words, whichever comes first.” But if you’re working, raising a family, and have other commitments, it’s impractical and daunting. Breaking the larger task down into smaller ones makes it more likely that you’ll find success.
IM: What are some of the compromises you have to make to balance out real life and comic book life and how do your families react? Do they have your back or wish it would go away?
SB: My son is a toddler, so I can’t tell him, ‘Hey, Daddy has to draw now,’ nor would I want to. I don’t want to miss out on watching him grow. And I don’t want to be an absentee husband, either. I married my wife for a reason—I kinda dig her. Of course, the day job is what ensures the lights stay on. So the comic work has to come after that. There’s just no way around it. But I still have as much passion for creating comics—and Dead Man’s Party, specifically—as ever. My wife’s a musician, so she values creativity as much as I do and fully supports it. She’s one of Dead Man’s Party’s biggest fans. My son? Well, we’ll see when he’s old enough to tell me.
JM: “Son, no pressure now, but if you don’t like Daddy’s most favoritest project ever…you’re outta the family.”
SB: It actually might go something like that.
JM: For me, in order to have balance, I just have to make it happen. It’s like working out or spending quality family time, finding time to write just has to happen. And I have to accept that hey, today I could only write for five minutes. Yesterday I got an hour, but today, just five minutes. Well, it’s forward progress, like a round of golf. I have to keep moving the project forward. And there’s no better way to “steal” time from yourself than chiseling away at your sleep. Figure out how little you can operate on for a short period, like a week or two, and go all out. When the project’s done, THEN you can sleep in.
IM: How do your co-workers at the day job react to your comic book work? Do you keep it quiet? Do your employers ever worry you’ll jump ship if the comics take off?
SB: I’m lucky in this regard, as well. Many of my coworkers—and one of my bosses—are fans of the book and are patiently waiting for the next installment. My bosses know how committed I am to their company and I doubt I’d ever leave for the comic work, unless someone in Hollywood writes Jeff and me a big, fat check for Dead Man’s Party: The Movie! Truth is, we’re doing this because we’ve got stories to tell. I doubt I’m ever getting rich off it.
JM: My co-workers have always been fascinated with the fact that I write comics. It’s like they’ve always heard about this comic book world, but have never known anyone who does it. So there’s always this “Wow, that’s so cool!” aspect about it. I don’t keep it quiet and, while I don’t think my employers are ever worried that I’ll jump ship if it gets big—I don’t think they can conceptualize that being a possible reality—I think the only concern they might have is that being so involved might take away my commitment to the company.
SB: My boss has, on more than one occasion, told me if DMP takes off, I’d better pursue it, even if he has to fire me. At first, I was flattered, but now I think he may be trying to tell me something.
IM: You’ve been a mainstay at Connecticut ComiCONN and managed to grab a sweet spot near the Marvel Exhibits at NYCC the past few years. How do fans react when they see your work for the first time, as opposed to mainstream superheroes?
SB: Comic fans have known for a while that the industry is more than just superheroes. Some people are looking for something new, regardless of the genre. When people stop by our booth, they generally react one of two ways: they either look at us like we’re crazy when we tell them our hitman is forced to put a contract out on himself, or they exclaim, ‘Dude, that would make a SICK action movie!’
JM: I think the spectacle of the superheroes and cosplay brings people in to the cons, but then once they walk the aisles and peruse what’s out there, they’re looking for something different and unique, not just another “Guy/girl puts on a cape and fights bad guys in bold colors” story. I think, with TV shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad giving us morally questionable protagonists, or shows like Lost turning the traditional storytelling paradigm on its head, fans at cons are sort of pre-loaded to seek out the same in their comic books.
IM: How are the fans different between the two conventions? Does one cater more to comic fans than the other?
SB: New York Comicon is a show about all media, not just comics, and it’s so large, it’s like the Super Bowl for us. Scoring a spot near the Marvel Comics booth doesn’t hurt, either! It’s a great place for a ton of people to see us in a single weekend and a great place to make contacts.
Connecticut ComiCONN, on the other hand, is a little more intimate. It’s a smaller show, but getting bigger every year. The promoters do a great job, making a growing show still all about the medium of comic books. And I noticed it feeling more family-oriented than ever last year.
JM: Yeah, I’d say that ComiCONN is definitely for fans who want to come and meet creators and artists and have a little more interaction without having to deal with the crush of over 100,000 people clotting up the aisles. We definitely chat up fans much longer at ComiCONN.
IM: Does the convention scene pay for itself, or is it part of the cost of building the brand?
SB: The big shows are the most expensive and, pretty much, the cost of building the brand, but it’s necessary to get out there, meet people, and pitch to them face-to-face.
JM: I don’t think we have done a convention yet where we made back the cost of our table in sales. But, like Scott said, that’s the price of building the brand. We’ve met publishers, distributors, journalists, TV reporters, studio scouts… none of that would be possible if we were merely selling to a store. And they’re a lot of fun, the conventions, so while it would be nice to one day be profitable at a convention, we’ll continue to do it because we love it.
IM: What else do you do to promote the series?
SB: Run a website, offer our books from many different outlets in print and digital formats, do as much social media as we can, run e-mail campaigns through our mailing list, have related websites review the issues for us, do interviews on websites and radio, visit new comic shops, and I think we see Kickstarter in our future, too. Not just as an avenue for funding, but as another place to market our product.
JM: ABM. Always Be Marketing. It’s all about getting in and staying in the public eye. At cons, I’ll grab everyone walking by who has a camera or a microphone and see if they’ll do an interview or talk with us. I don’t care if they’ve got a podcast that only three people listen to; that’s three people who didn’t know about us before.
IM: Tell our readers where they can find your work.
SB: The easiest way is to visit us at www.DeadMansParty.org. From there, you can order either print versions or digital versions and the links will take you directly to the outlets that carry us, like Comixology and the Amazon Kindle store. There’s also a page that shows which retailers carry us, so you can go to a local shop and service a small business. And there’s always Connecticut ComiCONN and New York Comicon, too!
If your local comic shop doesn’t carry us, tell them about us and have them visit the site. Until we get carried by Diamond Distributors, the grassroots approach is how we reach them!
JM: If you’re looking for an adventure story with a strong female lead character, check out my Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, about a unique special ops team led by a centuries-old female zombie and her teammates, who are human hosts of ancient Chinese warrior spirits. Together they take on all manner of monster and demon that are trying to wipe out humanity. You can find out more information on www.ZGirl.org. And this May will come Indestructible: Stingray #1 from IDW/Darby Pop Publishing, and that can be ordered right now at your local comic shop.
There are a few ingredients that are necessary to become an award-winning writer. One of them is skill. Good writers are skilled writers. Wordsmiths, if you will—with the knowledge of how to use words as tools to communicate ideas and tell stories. Another thing that is necessary is passion. One must possess an intense desire or enthusiasm for writing that will fuel your way forward. Kristin Charlotte Horn Talgø has both ingredients in abundance, so her success as a writer is guaranteed. I had the opportunity and pleasure to interview Kristin recently and learn a little bit about the Norwegian native and her new book, Escaping The Caves.
IM: Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and when you realized you wanted to be a writer.
KT: I’m from Oslo, Norway, and am currently studying journalism. It took me less than a week into the first semester to realize that I’m not meant to be a hard-core news journalist, but I very much enjoy writing features and I’d like to give literary journalism a try.
I have a bachelor in Social Work. This was something I decided to do when I found myself at a point in my life where I realized that I’d taken a few wrong turns and suddenly had little or no idea who I was, where I was or where I was going. My mom is a social worker and following in her footsteps seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t. Mom is one of the best people that I know, but we are very different in many ways. I finished my degree, mostly because I hate unfinished projects, and the reason why I’m telling you this is because that confirmed what I already knew: I want to write.
That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do and all I’m ever going to want to do. So, the upside of spending three years doing something I didn’t want to is that it made me realize how incredibly important it is to stay true to yourself and listen to that little voice inside of you that says, this isn’t you. Look here, this is what you’re meant to do. Do that. Write.
I knew I wanted to be a writer since I could write. I wrote my first story when I was seven and kept writing through my childhood and teens, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was nineteen. That’s when I wrote my first book, though not a very good one! Since then I’ve kept writing. I attended a Creative Writing course at the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 2010, and that really made the difference. To meet other writers who took writing seriously, teachers who took me as a writer seriously, that was a real eye-opener. That was the first time I realized that there were plenty of other people out there who had the same passion and ambitions as me, and who didn’t think I was odd or unrealistic for wanting to write. To them, wanting to write was a natural as wanting to eat. It was amazing to finally meet others, to know I wasn’t the only one. It meant everything to me to meet people who encouraged me and believed in me as a writer. I felt like I’d come home. That was the summer I came out of the closet as a writer and I haven’t looked back since.
IM: Who or what most influenced you as a writer?
KT: All the books I read growing up. They ranged from obscure, unknown novels to acclaimed classics, but the ones I enjoyed the most usually had an element of the supernatural about them. The books that grabbed me the most and have had the strongest influence on me as a writer are the ones where there are no limits to the imagination. Where there isn’t a set of rules that you have to follow, but where you can make up your own world, entirely as you see fit. I like that feeling of endless possibilities.
That being said, Stephen King is probably the writer who has influenced me as a writer the most. I started reading his books when I was about thirteen, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I greatly admire him as an author, and his ability to describe events and emotions using the exact right words and the exact right amount of them. Not to mention his ability to create characters, not based on descriptions, but on how they act and how they speak. I love the way a lot of his books are all connected somehow, a whole universe filled with different stories, worlds within worlds. There are times when I’ve skipped pages in his books, when the story has become too gory and gruesome for my taste, but I think he’s at his best when he writes about the simple things in his stories. The human condition and the way people connect and communicate with each other, or fail to. Despite writing horror, Stephen King has written some of the best love stories, in my opinion!
IM: What is your motivation to write and keep on writing?
KT: I love to write. To me, it’s not a question of if I should write, but how and when I will fit into my day. I read a book once, where the protagonist says that writing is something she has to do in order to feel like herself, like showering or brushing her teeth. That’s what writing is to me. I don’t feel like myself when I don’t write. I get grumpy and uncomfortable in my own skin. When I write, that itch—that sense of irritation—disappears. When I write, I feel completely at ease and at peace with myself. It’s one of those rare moments when I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, or do anything else, than exactly what I’m doing right then and there.
I’d like for people to get as much joy out reading my books as I do from writing them. But writing is probably also a way for me to deal with and process emotions and experiences. One of the advantages of being a writer is that no experience, no matter how painful or awkward, is a waste, because, if nothing else, it’ll make a good story one day, in one form or another.
Not to mention, good stories can have a great impact on people. At the very least, they can offer people a breathing space, a time-out from reality. I think writing can be way of escaping reality, but also, a way of interpreting it.
IM: Tell us about your book and what the experience was like working on it.
KT: Escaping the Caves is a futuristic novel set in a post-apocalyptic word. The world was overrun by monsters that nearly wiped out humanity. After a devastating war, it was left to a chosen few to keep the monsters confined to a set of caves. The task of keeping the monsters from once again roaming the earth has been passed down through the generations. It’s a small community governed by strict rules. There is no room for the people living there to show their pain and fear. If one person starts to crack up, it’s only a reminder that they’re all cracking up a little every day. Whoever decides to leave the community becomes an ‘outcast’. They’ve betrayed humanity and so are shunned in the outside world, as well.
Jess, a trained monster hunter turns her back on the family tradition. No longer wanting to live with the possibility of being killed by those monsters, or living with the ghosts of those who have, Jess leaves the only life she knows and travels across country to find herself. As she attempts to escape the death of her sister, and the ghosts that dwell inside her mind, Jess finds more than what she bargained for. Monsters come in all shapes and sizes, even human ones…
I very much enjoyed writing this book. Once the idea for the book had been formed in my mind, the people, scenes, and dialog were quite clear to me. That being said, the story develops as I write it. I usually have a sense of where the story is headed, but I never really know what’s going to happen until I get there. That’s part of the fun. Discovering a story as I go along, discovering the twists and turns as I write them… It’s an exciting process, as I can sort of ‘feel’ the whole story at the back of my mind, but I have to dig it out, one word, one sentence, at the time. I like not knowing entirely where it’s headed; that way, anything is possible.
IM: How did the idea for your book emerge?
KT: It sounds corny, but the idea came from a dream I had. In the dream, I was having an argument with someone. I was desperate for that person to listen to me, to understand me, but when the person turned around, there was nothing but disdain and contempt on his face. We were standing on a street, people gathering to see what the commotion was about, and when I tried to seek their understanding and acceptance for my pain, I was met with the same distaste. In their eyes I was weak for crying, for revealing my hurt. In the distance, there was a huge, dark mountain range, stretching for as long as I could see. When I woke up, my mind automatically started building on it. The scene from the dream blended together with my imagination.
IM: How many books have you worked on to date and which is your favorite?
KT: I’ve written six books so far, and have just started the seventh. Escaping the Caves is the first one to be published and the first one I’ve attempted to publish. This one is probably my favorite as, by the time I wrote it, I’d already written four books. Writing those taught me a lot, so I had a better grasp of what I was doing when I wrote Escaping the Caves, than when I wrote the first one (when I was nineteen).
The first one I wrote will never be published as I consider it a trial run. The three after that are a trilogy that I’d like to continue working on, as I enjoy the world within them. I think it could really work once I’ve gotten it into shape. But after the editing process with Escaping the Caves, I didn’t feel like starting a new editing process right away, so instead, I’ve started a new book, to allow my imagination to run free for a while.
IM: What is your assessment of today’s independent writer industry and what do you think the industry needs?
KT: I think it’s great that there exists an independent writer industry filled with people who are genuinely passionate about genres that fall a little bit outside the mainstream industry. It seems to me they’re more willing to take on new, unknown writers and give them a chance, which are what people who are starting out as writers need. In my opinion, their main concern is to publish good books within their chosen genre, and not books that fit the current publishing ‘climate’. The book industry needs diversity and I think the independent writer industry provides that. The industry creates a writing environment for writers who might not otherwise have had a publication platform.
What the industry needs? Hmmm, I’m not sure how qualified I am to answer that, truth be told, but I definitely thinks it needs to keep doing what it is doing, to keep providing readers with alternative writers and different writing voices, new stories that might not otherwise see the light of day.
IM: In your opinion, how difficult is it for an independent writer to make a living today?
KT: F***ing difficult! Sorry, but yes, quite difficult, I think. Apart from the bestselling authors, I think it’s difficult for a lot of writers to make a living based only on writing books. As far as I can tell, you need to be able to sell quite a number of copies before actually making a decent profit from it. There are a lot of books being published and I think it’s probably difficult to make your own work stand out from the crowd; to make people choose your book over another. That doesn’t mean being an independent writer is a bad choice or that you can’t make a living as such, but I think it’s also important to be realistic about the industry and how it works. That being said, I think it’s important to take yourself, as a writer, and your work seriously. I’m a firm believer in hard work and that it’ll pay off if you stick to it and aren’t discouraged when things get difficult. Just because something’s hard at times doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time and effort.
IM: Do you use social media and how has it helped in getting the word out about your work?
KT: Once I got the publishing contract, I started a Facebook author page. Honestly, I’m not entirely comfortable using social media yet as a writer, probably because I feel exposed in some way, but I definitely see the value of it. There’s no point in publishing a book if no one knows you’re getting published! You need to get the word out there and I think social media is a great way to do that and connect with people. I’ve also started a website where I have a blog. That’s also a way of not just getting the word out about my work, but also a way for me to potentially reach out to people. I write about writing, books, and the publication, but in that mix, I also write a bit about myself and those small, nervous thoughts that are part of the writing process, and also simply part of being human.
Everything is still a bit new, but I think using social media is really the way of getting the word out about my work. We live in a digital age, people are online, so if you want to tell them ‘here’s my book!’, you need to be online. And while I’m new at this, I think it’s great. I’m from Norway, a small country a lot people outside of Scandinavia usually just confuse with Sweden, but even so, my book is getting published in Canada and people all over the world could read it. Social media and the internet open up possibilities for me as a writer that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
IM: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish as a writer?
Kristin: The short version? For people to enjoy my books. It really is that simple and that difficult. If someone just reads my book on a plane and that gives them joy, then I truly feel I’ve done my job as a writer. Books mean the world to me and they can open up worlds I didn’t know existed. They can give a new perspective on things and they can make you feel like you’re not alone. I can read a book and, sometimes, just a sentence hits me. I’ll think, ‘I know exactly what that’s like!’ Books can be a way for people to connect with each other without ever meeting. Also, books are great, simply because of the simple pleasure they can bring. That feeling of getting lost in another world, getting sucked in and wanting to stay there, the way it opens up your own imagination… if I can give that to others, even for just a short time, than I will have accomplished everything I want as a writer.
IM: What are your future plans and where do you see your career in the next five years?
KT: To keep writing! Even if being a writer is difficult at times, at least when it comes to making a living of it, I can’t imagine not doing it and I don’t want to either. I have whole worlds swirling around my head and I want to put them all down on paper and share them with as many people as possible. To write is what I want to do in life, always has been, always will be. And life’s too short not to do what makes you truly, genuinely happy. Where my career will be in five years is hard to say, but I’ll find out when I get there. What I’m hoping for is, of course, for people to read my books and to enjoy them.
IM: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about becoming an independent writer?
KT: Do it. There’s no reason why anyone who wants to be an independent writer shouldn’t do just that, as long as they’re prepared for a bumpy road. People always tell you that you need to work hard for the things you want in life, but that can never prepare you for just how hard you’ll need to work. If you want to be an independent writer, you’ll probably have to work twice as hard as you thought—and at least twice as hard as you’d like. But if that’s really what you want to do, then that’s just the price you’ll have to pay. You’re going to have to work hard in life no matter what you do, so you might as well work hard for the things you really want. If being a writer is what you really want, then all that hard work is worth it. At the end of the day, if that hard work means you get to do what you feel you’re meant to do in life… What’s there to think about?
I think it’s safe to say that we will always need good writers. There is always room for another good writer. Kristin Charlotte Horn Talgø is well on her way to carving out her space to be established as one of those good writers. Please support this creator.
StarWarp Concepts is a publisher of graphic novels and dark fiction for readers ranging from middle-grade through adult. Founded in 1993 by Steven Roman, StarWarp’s focus is on horror and urban fantasy. It has given us such memorable characters as Lorelei, Sebastienne Mazarin, and, more recently, Pandora Zwieback. This month, Steven talks to Indyfest about his experiences in publishing, and about StarWarp Concepts: where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.
IM: How long have you been involved in publishing?
SR: As a full-term publisher, since 1993, when I registered StarWarp Concepts as a business so I could publish comics, but I’d actually created the company in 1989 for my small-press comics. And by that, I mean the first StarWarp Concepts comics were digest-sized, hand-stapled photocopies that I sold through the mail. In terms of mainstream publishing, I broke in as an editor for a New York–based book packaging company called Byron Preiss Visual Publications in 1994—they hired me because I was a self-publisher; they figured I was already familiar with the stages of production—and eventually became editor-in-chief of its ibooks, inc. publishing division. I left that job in 2005, and now I make a living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader.
IM: How did you get into publishing? Was it always your goal to start your own press?
SR: No, back when I was a teenager dreaming of becoming a professional comic writer, I’d never even heard of self-publishing, and when I finally did, my first thought was, Why would I want to do that? I’m gonna write Spider-Man someday! (laughs) Unfortunately, that never worked out, but I still had that desire to do something in comics. And then, around 1988, I was visiting a comic shop and came across a magazine called Small Press Comics Explosion (published by Tim Corrigan), and that’s when I found out about all these people who made their own comics and, after I ordered some, I thought, Hey, why not me, too? Your publisher, Ian Shires, was one of those people I ordered comics from—I think it was a couple issues of his Dungar the Barbarian minicomic series.
The first small-press comic I published was the Lorelei One-Shot Special, and that introduced my succubus character, Lorelei, who was inspired by Vampirella and Marvel’s Satana, the Devil’s Daughter (who was a succubus), with touches of Bill Mantlo’s Cloak and Dagger and the TV show The Equalizer—in other words, she only took the souls of bad guys, and did it while spouting some awkward, ham-fisted dialogue. (laughs) I wrote and drew it, then followed that with another Lorelei one-off, and then expanded a bit by adding a couple other titles by other creators. It was at that point I decided to take the plunge into full-size comics, and did it by launching Lorelei as a series.
IM: Let’s talk about StarWarp Concepts. What’s changed along the way and how have you adjusted/adapted?
SR: I’d say the first big change for the company probably came in the nineties, with the collapse of direct market distribution. One day your comic is being carried by a half dozen or so distributors like Heroes World and Capital City that supported the efforts of small-press publishers, and the next they’re all wiped out and the only one left standing is Diamond Comic Distribution, whose focus is pretty much solely on larger publishers who’ll generate the most income. My sales figures went from 5,000 copies for Lorelei #1 to “God almighty, why’d I even bother printing this thing?” When that happened, I scaled way back on production and StarWarp Concepts made occasional appearances over the next decade-plus. One of them was an attempt to relaunch Lorelei in 2001, but fandom had had a complete changeover in the time I’d been away, and the new Lorelei #1 was met with derision (and extremely low sales figures), because its material was now considered politically incorrect. Geez, you publish one character who never bothers to button her blouse and suddenly you’re a social pariah! (laughs)
The second major change came in 2010, after I made an attempt to shop around this book project I had—called The Saga of Pandora Zwieback—to mainstream publishers, without success (we’ll get into that later) and just decided to relaunch the company as a print-on-demand book publisher to get Pan out there that way. But I felt one book wouldn’t be enough for a launch, so the first three titles released in 2011 were the first Pan novel, Blood Feud; The Bob Larkin Sketchbook, a collection of pencil art by the former Marvel Comics and Doc Savage cover painter who was providing the covers for the Pan books; and Carmilla, a reprint of a nineteenth-century vampire novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, with new illustrations—because long-dead authors of material now in the public domain aren’t going to be looking for royalty payments! Since then I’ve published the graphic novel Troubleshooters Incorporated: Night Stalkings, about a team of supernatural superheroes; two more “illustrated classics”: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars and the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White; and the digital pirate-fantasy comic The Chronicles of the Sea Dragon Special. Sea Dragon and Troubleshooters, Inc. are creations of sci-fi and fantasy author Richard C. White.
And then there’s Lorelei: Sects and the City, a graphic novel that’s aimed exclusively at adults, given the amount of violence, nudity, and F-bombs in it. It’s my nod to seventies horror movies and grindhouse films; a couple reviewers even remarked it’s the kind of thing that Hammer Studios might’ve been interested in, back in the day. It was always my intention to bring back Lorelei in some form, especially since she was my first published comics character and it was nice to see all the acclaim the graphic novel got. Her most recent appearance is in Lorelei Presents: House Macabre, which came out this year, where she tries her hand at being a horror comic hostess.
And, unlike the early days of StarWarp Concepts, it’s not just me pulling the load anymore. I’ve got two great freelance book designers in Mike Rivilis and Mat Postawa—I used to work with both of them, back in my ibooks, inc. days—and the StarWarp and Pandora Zwieback websites are handled by David De Mond. I just have to do everything else!
IM: How did you get hooked on the horror genre? Were there any books/films/comics/people that you feel inspired you more than others?
SR: My love of horror started back when I was a kid, growing up in the late sixties and early seventies. There was a channel here in New York, WOR, that used to run the original King Kong every Thanksgiving—to this day I have no idea why they thought that made for a perfect holiday movie—and every year, I’d sit down and watch it. And then, I discovered that WOR ran other monster movies during the week, as did a couple other New York stations, and that’s how I got see the Lugosi Dracula, and the Frankenstein movies, and Ray Harryhausen’s movies, and the like. It was a great time to be a horror fan!
Then, in the seventies, Marvel published a slew of horror comics: Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Haunt of Horror; and you had things like Morbius, the Living Vampire in Amazing Spider-Man. And then I discovered Vampirella, and that character turned out to be the greatest influence in the creation of my succubus character, Lorelei, two decades later. The works of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft also factored into my love of horror, and still have an influence on my writing.
IM: Now, Lorelei was StarWarp’s first title. Could you share a bit more about it?
SR: Lorelei’s back story is that she wasn’t always a succubus; she started out as a regular human woman, a controversial art photographer named Laurel Ashley O’Hara—professional name, Laurel Ash—who, at the height of her career, crossed paths with this mysterious old man named Arioch, who wound up turning her into a succubus. And, once she got her powers, she decided to use them to target the bad people in the world—the serial killers, the pedophiles, creeps like that. It just skims the edge of being a superheroine story, with heavy supernatural overtones. Since so much time had passed between the original Lorelei series in the nineties and the Sects and the City graphic novel, I included a two-page flashback sequence that touched on the origin—just so new readers would have some idea where Lori was coming from. I was actually surprised I was able to confine it to two pages!
IM: And present-day, the character is ‘hosting’ your anthology, Lorelei Presents: House Macabre. We’ll get to that shortly. But first, in the 22 years since her creation, what have the high points been? How has the character grown or changed since her inception?
SR: I’d say the high point is that there are still folks out there who still remember Lorelei and keep asking when I’ll do more projects with her; considering there was a ten-year gap between the failed relaunch of her series and the Sects and the City graphic novel, I was surprised to discover she still had fans! And the reviews for Sects and House Macabre were great—which was really encouraging, because they showed there’s still room for Lori among the tonnage of comics and graphic novels being published every year.
Lori herself hasn’t changed much from her comics days—well, okay, her dialogue has gotten a lot better—but the material has gotten more adult in tone. While House Macabre doesn’t go beyond mainstream comic storytelling—there are no sex scenes or adult language—Sects and the City has both, because I felt that was the direction the story needed to go in, considering she’s a sexual demon. The bedroom scene in the fourth chapter was very popular with readers when Sects was serialized was in a French comic magazine. You can’t say I don’t know my audience! (laughs)
IM: What led you to branch out into prose novels in addition to comics/GNs?
SR: As much as I hate this kind of story, my start in novel writing was one of those “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” situations. From 1994 to 2005, I worked for a book packager and publisher named Byron Preiss, and one of his subsidiaries was Byron Preiss Multimedia Company that, in the late nineties, branched into book publishing by licensing the rights to Marvel Comics’ stable of characters. So, BPMC published original novels and anthologies starring Spider-Man, the X-Men, and a bunch of others. I got to co-write a short story for an Untold Tales of Spider-Man anthology, and another in an Ultimate Hulk anthology, and those led to me becoming the editor on a line of Marvel books called Spider-Man Super Thrillers, aimed at eight- to twelve-year-old readers.
It was on one of those books, a team-up of Spidey and the Hulk, that Marvel rejected the author’s manuscript—after we’d printed the covers for it! So Byron, who’d heard good things about the short stories I’d co-written, turned to me and said, “You want to write this book? But with the covers already printed, you won’t get credit for it. It’ll be a ghostwriting job.” I said sure, and Spider-Man Super Thriller: Warrior’s Revenge, published in 1997, became my first novel. So, even though my dreams of writing the Spider-Man comics never came true, I did wind up writing for him—so I guess it all worked out in the end!
Then in 2001, Byron asked if I’d be interested in writing a trilogy of X-Men novels… because the writers who been scheduled to do it walked off the project. But this time, I’d get my name on the covers. Marvel okayed me, because they liked the work I did on the Spidey novel, and that’s how I wound up writing X-Men: The Chaos Engine Trilogy, which involved Dr. Doom, Magneto, and the Red Skull each getting their hands on the Cosmic Cube (if you follow the Marvel movies, they call it the Tesseract). This writer-left-do-you-want-to-do-it approach with Byron was also how I ended up writing the comic Stan Lee’s Alexa and the graphic novel Sunn for Byron’s ibooks, inc. publishing company—I was there in the office, so he didn’t have to look far for a replacement. On the other hand, I did appreciate that Byron felt comfortable in handing over those projects to me, knowing that I’d do the best job I could. And the X-Men novels sold extremely well, so those established me as a novel writer.
IM:So, let’s talk about the Pandora Zwieback series. This is both a prose (YA) novel and a comic, correct? What’s the elevator pitch?
SR: The “Hollywood high concept”/elevator pitch that I used to use at conventions was “Think Ellen Page and Salma Hayek in a Hellboy movie.” It gives you an immediate mental image, right? Then, once I’d hooked your attention, I’d follow up with a more detailed description: Pan is a sixteen-year-old Goth who’s spent the last decade diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic because she’s been seeing monsters since the age of six. But then in Blood Feud, she meets Sebastienne “Annie” Mazarin, a 400-year-old, shape-shifting monster hunter who shows Pan that Pan’s “monstervision” isn’t a mental illness; it’s a power that allows her to see past the human disguises worn by the monsters that actually exist in the world. But before Pan can make sense of all this new information, she and her parents get caught in this war among rival vampire clans looking for what they think is an ultimate weapon—and it just so happens that it was delivered to the horror museum that Pan’s dad, David, owns. Hijinks ensue, as they say.
IM: Tell us more about Pan. What makes her tick? What’s her appeal?
SR: I think a lot of Pan’s appeal is that, beyond the supernatural setting, she’s fairly grounded in reality: she’s smart and funny and sarcastic and moody and occasionally insecure and pretty responsible (to a degree—she’s not a saint); she loves her parents, and was devastated when they divorced—Blood Feud takes place nine months after the divorce was finalized—and has hopes of finding a way to get them back together; her best friend, Sheena, is like a sister to her; and when it comes to love, she’s had her heart broken a few times and acts all awkward when she meets Javier Maldonado who, by the end of the second novel, Blood Reign, officially becomes her new boyfriend. But even with all the drama she’s been through, and the drama that’s coming up in future adventures, she manages to stay fairly positive.
I think one of the biggest surprises I got was when Blood Feud was getting all this critical acclaim after it came out, and a number of reviewers said that they wished Pan was a real person, because they’d love to hang out with her. I’ve heard the same thing from fans at conventions and book festivals—Pan just really resonates with the readers and, once they’ve “met” her, they absolutely love her.
IM: And you’ve also re-introduced a character from one of your earlier comics, Sebastienne Mazarin. What’s her back story and what prompted you to bring her in?
SR: Annie got her start in the 1990s, during the height of the notorious “bad girl era,” when just about every comic publisher was putting out books with female leads who wore as little clothing as possible, or costumes that looked like they’d been spray-painted on. You had Vampirella, Catwoman, Shi, Lady Death, Dawn, Razor, and a ton of others, and the one thing they had in common was that they sold insanely huge amounts of copies. Annie was my blatant attempt at taking advantage of a trend… and it almost worked! (laughs)
The first appearance Annie made was in NightCry #1, published in ’94 by Joe Monks’s Visual Anarchy company. He and his business partner Joe Linsner—the creator of Dawn—had parted ways, and he was looking to publish other projects. When I pitched Annie’s story to him under the series title Heartstopper, he thought it had potential. So, I got together with Vampirella artist Louis Small Jr., but with his busy schedule, all we managed to turn out was a four-page story for NightCry, so the deal fell through. A few months later, I got together with another artist, Uriel Caton, and we revamped the proposal as a four-issue miniseries, which I pitched to Millennium Publications, and they immediately signed us. At first, things were looking good—the first issue sold around 15,000 copies—but then, the problems started. Uriel got too busy to continue and dropped out during the second issue, and I had to scramble to find a replacement; Millennium didn’t promote the comic, so retailers who knew me from Lorelei were surprised to learn I had a full-color bad-girl project going on at the same time; and worst of all, Millennium informed me that, although the first two issues were big sellers for them, there’d be no royalties whatsoever while they recouped their expenses—and they had a lot of expenses. When I explained that I had artists to pay, especially with the cover and interior pencils for issue 3 already done, they said the situation couldn’t change, but if we kept going the eventual trade paperback collection was sure to generate money. Riiight. (laughs) Well, I couldn’t ask my team to keep working for free, so I pulled the plug, and that was the end of Heartstopper.
But then in ’98, I was asked by the president of Parachute Press—the company owned by R. L. Stein, the author of the Goosebumps books—to pitch ideas for a young adult novel series. So, I dusted off the title Heartstopper, added a teenaged sidekick named Pandora Zwieback to appeal to teen readers, and put together a proposal for six books that kicked off with Blood Feud, about a war among vampire clans. I named Pandora after the Greek myth about the woman who unleashed evil on the world, but still had hope; and Zwieback came about because I’d opened my dictionary to the last page in search of something to use as a last name and liked how “Pandora Zwieback” sounded. Then I sat down with Uriel to redesign Annie and to design Pan.
IM: Were there any changes that needed to be made in order to make the character suitable for a YA audience?
SR: Well, for one thing, Annie needed to wear more clothes than she had on as the star of a bad-girl comic! And my approach on the Parachute Press pitch was along the lines of a female version of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who—an adult fighting monsters with the aid of a younger female companion. Unfortunately, Parachute passed on Heartstopper, so it went back in the drawer until 2005, when I showed it to some of my book-publishing contacts to see if an editor or agent might be interested in picking it up. The one major bit of feedback I got was that, if the series was meant to be young adult, then Pan should be the lead, not Annie. That took a lot of re-jiggering, because I’d never written a teenaged girl before. But, eventually, I figured out how to do it and, based on the responses I’ve gotten from readers, I succeeded in pulling it off.
What worked against me was that by the time the revamped project, now called The Saga of Pandora Zwieback, made the rounds, the world was sick to death of YA vampire stories—thanks, Twilight! (laughs) The rejection slips piled up pretty quick, with it getting turned down for various reasons: because I refused to make it a Twilight knockoff; because Pan was a Goth chick; because Javier was a normal kid and not a vampire or a werewolf for Pan to fall in love with; because it was “too violent” and not romantic enough for a series aimed at girls. Eventually I got tired of all that nonsense and decided I’d just publish it myself.
IM: While we’re on the subject, what distinguishes YA horror from adult? Is it just a question of how graphic you can get or are there certain themes/elements that figure more heavily?
SR: In general, YA horror isn’t as gory as adult horror, although it can stretch the limitations quite a bit. My approach for the Pan series is to avoid gory or ultraviolent scenes, not just because I have to keep the age of my readership in mind—I’ve had girls as young as twelve become “Panatics,” as I call the fans—but because they don’t really appeal to me. Torture porn like Saw and the like just ain’t my thing. I mean, it’s not as though I can’t write that stuff—I wrote an original novel based on the Final Destination movie franchise that had quite a few gory scenes in it, and I wrote a story for a zombie apocalypse anthology that’s disturbed just about everybody who’s read it. But with Pan, my horror scenes are more like throwbacks to the seventies horror comics and movies that inspired the creation of Lorelei and Annie: there’s blood and there are injuries, and maybe some descriptions of gross stuff, but that’s about as far as it’ll go. I leave the more adult material for Lorelei!
What’s been funny, though, is that parents I meet at shows who’re considering buying the Pan books for their tween kids just shrug when I tell them there’s violence in the series—they’re more concerned about whether there are any sex scenes in them! And when I say there aren’t, then they buy the books.
IM: How has Pan’s arc progressed over the two books that have been released thus far? What can readers expect from future installments?
SR: Well, the biggest progression for Pan is that she’s gone from being this troubled girl who’d been convinced she suffered from a mental illness, to this young woman who’s a little more confident about herself and a lot more proactive about the direction her life is going. Not that she doesn’t still have her share of troubles and insecurities, it’s just that there are things that happen to Pan’s mother in the second novel, Blood Reign, that cause her to reach the decision that if the adults aren’t going to do something about the vampire war against humanity that’s starting to take shape, then she has to take the lead. And honestly, she’s not doing it to protect the world so much as to help her mom. As I tell folks, as big as the potential is for the vampire war to have these immense, Lord of the Rings–type battle scenes in the third book, Blood & Iron, this story is really about a girl trying to find her place in the world; the scope is a lot smaller and more personal.
The book after that, Stalkers, will involve a werewolf hunting a bestselling author—no, not based on me—but the subplot will be about Pan’s last boyfriend before Javier showing up, and examining the relationship they had, which was a really bad one. As I like to say, not all the monsters Pan faces have to be vampires and werewolves…
IM: And for more mature readers, you’ve got Lorelei Presents: House Macabre. What can you share with us about the stories in this anthology?
SR: Well, unlike the Sects and the City graphic novel, House Macabre isn’t a mature readers title, it’s a one-shot throwback to things like Tales From the Crypt and Creepy and House of Mystery—it’s just that the hostess has a great deal of cleavage on display. (laughs) House Macabre has four stories in it: an introduction that stars Lorelei, written by me and drawn by Uriel Caton and “Chainsaw” Chuck Majewski; “All in Color for a Crime,” by me and artist Lou Manna (DC’s Young All-Stars), about two comic fans competing for a rare variant issue; a “Lori’s Feary Tale” one-pager by me and artist John Pierard (illustrator of the middle-grade novel My Teacher Fried My Brains), about a mythological creature called the basilisk; and “Requiem for Bravo 6” by writer Dwight Jon Zimmerman (Marvel’s Sensational She-Hulk, Iron Man) and artist Juan Carlos Abraldes Rendo, about a special ops team on their final mission. Dwight’s is the best of them all, in my opinion—a surprisingly touching story at the heart of an eight-page action-adventure. But, y’know, my stuff’s not too bad, either. (laughs)
IM: How are you handling the publicity and promotion end of things?
I send out press releases and review copies, set up interviews (like this one), and attend conventions and book festivals, budget permitting. And for those conventions, I print either brochures spotlighting StarWarp’s newest releases, or catalogs that contain the new titles and our ever-growing backlist. I also hand out two-sided bookmarks: StarWarp on one side, Pan on the other.
My biggest financial plunge was The Saga of Pandora Zwieback #0, a free, full-color comic that I published in time for the 2010 New York Comic Con. It had a seven-page story in which Pan introduced herself, drawn by Eliseu Gouveia (who also drew the cover of this very magazine), followed by a two-chapter sample from Blood Feud. This was to promote the book’s publication almost a year before its release, and to let people know that StarWarp Concepts was back in the publishing game. Once I blew through the onetime print run of 3,000 copies, I added it to the StarWarp and Pan Zwieback sites as a free downloadable PDF—which you can still get by visiting the sites.
IM: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in self-publishing today?
SR: Find someone else to pay your bills! (laughs) Publishing—even using print-on-demand print companies—isn’t cheap. I’m not the kind who goes in for Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaigns, so I finance everything that StarWarp Concepts produces. But if doing campaigns to fundraise is your thing, more power to you.
In all seriousness, though, I’d say create what you want to create, and don’t worry about trying to come up with something that’s just like whatever’s popular. Both Lorelei and Pan Zwieback are the kind of characters I wanted to create, and I really enjoy writing, even though I knew they probably wouldn’t have mass appeal. I mean, I wanted them to have mass appeal, but I didn’t let it bother me when it became clear that I wasn’t going to start appearing on bestseller lists anytime soon. You have to take the Field of Dreams attitude: If you build it, they—in this case, readers—will come. It just may take time to build that audience.
IM: Where do you go from here? What projects are you planning to bring forth over the next little while and what can you tease about them?
SR: Next on the schedule is my novel Blood & Iron: The Saga of Pandora Zwieback, Book 3, which will wrap up Pan’s first adventure, but not the series. There are at least three more novels after that, and I have a bunch of ideas for Pan stories and such. I’m also working on my first middle-grade novel—one aimed at eight- to twelve-year-old readers; apparently middle-grade adventures are what’s hot in book publishing these days.
Also in the works is Eliseu Gouveia’s Silver Sparrow, a graphic novel written and drawn by the artist of the Pandora Zwieback comics and Lorelei: Sects and the City. It’s about a teenaged superheroine who starts her career just in time to be thrown into an alternate dimension (basically, ours), where no one has superpowers, and how she has to come to terms with this strange and frightening world.
IM: Finally, how can folks keep up with you and your work?
SR: There’s the StarWarp Concepts site, www.starwarpconcepts.com, where you can find out more about our titles, as well as purchase them. We also have links to sellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, if you prefer buying them that way. And there’s the Saga of Pandora Zwieback site: www.pandorazwieback.com. We also have StarWarp and Pan Facebook pages, but since those addresses are ridiculously long, I’ll just say if you go to our websites we have links to them both.