by Ian McHugh
Following the release of her new e-book, Innocence Lost – part one of her For Queen and Country saga – I interviewed Patty Jansen about the new book, self-publishing and her writing process. This will be the first in an occasional series of interviews with CSFG members on the pretext of whenever they have new publications or wins or other big writing news.
Johanna is the daughter of a rich merchant in Saardam. As only child and without a mother, she has grown up with notions, such as that she wants to take over her father’s river trade business in her own name. Courtesy of her eastern mother, she has an unusual ability. She sees things in willow wood: whenever she touches wood, it shows her what has happened around the tree or wooden object. Any kind of magic is not common in Saardam, and the Church of the Triune, which rapidly gains influence in the city, forbids it.
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The first thing you notice about a book is its cover. Your books tend to have quite striking covers, including Innocence Lost. As a self-publishing author, how do you go about procuring good cover art?
I’m going to tell you something that everyone tells you not to do: I do it myself. Although I have no official training, visual art has always been part of my life. I’ve had several goes at trying to get someone else to design a “professional” cover for me (whatever “professional” might mean), but I’ve never been happy with the results except the cover for The Far Horizon, which was done by English artist Tom Edwards. All the other ones I’ve done myself.
I like strong colours and concepts in my artwork. I use a variety of techniques. I detest most stock photography that uses models. Models are usually too posed, too pouty, too pretty or too sexual for my liking. Innocence Lost in fact is the first time that I’ve used a commercial stock photo in my covers: the image of the girl. The background is my own photo. Books 2, 3 and 4 (and likely any others) will use models as well. There are all sorts of things attached to using images of people on commercial material (seriously, you do not want to know about this), so I often use CG graphics, especially when people are not close up. The added benefit is that you can make people look alien. You can give them horns or wings, whichever is most appropriate.
I often show the pre-final cover for comments on the Kindleboards and incorporate people’s reactions in the final design. A good cover is eyecatching and conveys genre. It’s not about accurately portraying a scene in the book.
Heh, I think it’s good for people to hear contrarian advice as well as the conventional – provided it comes with all the reasons laid out, as above, why it may or may not be for them.
One of the really important things people don’t seem to realise is that an ebook is a fluid document. If your cover doesn’t work, you can change it at the press of a button. A great thing about doing your own is that since you’ve not invested hugely in the cover, you can test a few different ones.
One thing that deters me about self-publishing my work is that I’m a terrible judge of whether my stories are any good. How do you manage that decision about whether a book is good enough and polished enough to publish?
I think “terrible judge of my own work” is a bit of a humblebrag, to be honest. If an author can sell stories to top magazines, the author can crank out a decent story. That’s all there is to it.
As writer, you grow to a stage where you know if a story ticks all the boxes. Beginning, middle, end. A resolved plot. Character motivations explained. A resolved relationship. You get a feel for how to make interpersonal relationships work. I know a piece of fiction is done when I read through and I get a “hell, yeah!” feeling.
Also, it’s very liberating to accept that some people will hate your work. That’s OK.
Even though you self-publish, you still need a good elevator pitch to catch the punters’ interest when you’re selling your books. I’m going to be asking everyone this: what’s your one-liner for Innocence Lost?
I’ve come full-circle on the subject of one-liners and pitches. You know the bit where literary agents tell writers to give a teaser for the story without putting words into readers’ minds? You know, where they say “Don’t say ‘This is a riveting story of evil magic that will take grown-up readers of Harry Potter into the next dimension’?” Well, that’s actually BS. Books that have those “tell-y” descriptions garner more attention than those that rely solely only on the blurb showcasing the actual story. So, for my one-liner, I simply describe what the series is about:
A history-inspired fantasy, loosely based on the Netherlands and western Germany in the 17th century, with plenty of magic.
This is the story’s strength, because I’ve never read any fantasy stories based on this area.
I think that’s the key right there to a good pitch line – knowing what your story’s strength is, what’s unique or unusual about it that will grab people’s attention. Do you ever find that’s hard to distill?
Oh hell, yeah. I tend to write about fairly complex worlds, and some stories are not easy to distill into one-liners.
You publish most of your novels as e-books, but you’ve also dabbled in print editions. What lessons have you taken away from self-publishing in print versus electronically?
Buyers of print books aren’t really (and have never been) my main audience. I make my books available in print eventually so that people who really want print can get them, but I’m fundamentally uninterested in print as a main format. Print books are good for selling at cons. That’s pretty much it.
A couple more questions I want to hit everyone up with:
Coming back to Innocence Lost, what aspects of this story were new for you compared to previous books, or challenged you to extend yourself – in terms of things like genre, character types, plotting or style?
There are several things:
The history part. The story originates in an alternate history short story I once wrote as part of a writing challenge. I based it on the arrival of the Dutch VOC ship Duyfken on the shores of Australia. It is known that Captain Janszoon lost a number of men to hostilities, and some of those stories were related through the generations of local tribes, as well as written down by the visitors, and funnily enough some of the details still match. Because the ship was a VOC vessel, I had to read up on that, too, and became interested in it. So much that on a recent trip to Europe I visited the old VOC headquarters, now part of the University of Amsterdam (this took some ferretting out to find it!). I had already decided on the main character Johanna Brouwer. She’s female because most readers are, and that was the demographic I wanted to appeal to. But I couldn’t write the story as I wanted as a straight historical fantasy, because I’ve so far been unable to find out any believable roles for women other than pimps and housewives. To write a straight historical fantasy would have required me to majorly change the story. That’s a story I may tell another day. I decided to take a big step back from history, to keep all my made-up names and write this with a lot more magic.
Characters: the story contains a type of character I’ve never written before. Not wanting to give away too much, but it’s the mysterious prince mentioned in the blurb.
There’s a certain point when a writer is kicking around an idea for a story that they start to get excited about it, and in my experience it doesn’t always happen right away. What was that moment of excitement for you with Innocence Lost?
I’ve been having stabs at this for years. The first chapter (pretty much unchanged) is about six years old. The story finally started to happen when I made that decision not to write it as straight historical fantasy. One day, I’d love to write a historical espionage/thriller based on the VOC, but I’ll save that for another day.
Yeah, the VOC – and the British East India Company – are fascinating slices of history. A VOC spy thriller sounds like an awesome idea. In light of your response to the previous question, it was the decision to give yourself scope to create good female roles that was the tipping point?
I was just coming out of plotting the Ambassador series, which has a male character, I wrote a hard SF, and an epic fantasy with more male than female characters. I wanted a series with a female character. That was more important to me than historical accuracy. I already had magic, so I decided to stick with the “based on” description.
A VOC spy thriller would be mostly male, unlikely to pass the Bechel test, and to be honest I don’t really care. If my focus is to stay close to history, I’m going to stay close to history.
Without wanting you to give away any spoilers for the book, were there any darlings that you had to murder in writing Innocence Lost, as in characters or scenes or plot threads that you were really attached to that the story was better without? If so, how long did it take you to realise that the darlings had to die and what made you realise?
Not murder so much as move to a next book. Over the years, I seem to have developed a writing process that leaves early drafts VERY sparse until the story is in place, at which time there aren’t any darlings that need murdering or that stand in the way of plotting. There is something major that will happen later in the series (probably the end of book 3?) that I had originally included in book 1, but the plot grew too crowded and unfocused, so I booted it to a later book. When it hits, it will be quite the attention-hogger it needs to be.
Mm. “Relegate your darlings to book 3” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Agree, but my slimmed-down writing process does not leave me with darlings that get in the way of the story. I rarely delete anything anymore.
And finally, Innocence Lost is the first part of your new For Queen and Country saga. How big a saga do you have planned, and what’s the ETA for part two?
At the moment, at least four books, but likely more than that. Bear in mind that the books are fairly short, more like episodes. They’re about 50K. I wanted to write a series for female voracious readers who like reading a book in an afternoon. The next in the series is almost ready to go to the editor and should be out in May.
That’s interesting. How much of your understanding of your market has come from experience and how much from received wisdom? What’s one piece of received wisdom that experience has shown you to be absolutely true?
There’s a wealth of shared experience in various places where self-published writers gather. Series are the thing. If you have a very long story of, say, 180K, you’re better off splitting it in three novels and calling it a trilogy. The overall story is quite long, somewhat open-ended, but has a couple of natural points of change where I could cut it. It is better and more manageable selling slightly shorter novels that are still novels and not novellas. I know some people who are doing very well with that strategy. Any series I’ve written is doing much better than standalone work.
After [book 2 of For Queen and Country], I’ll probably jot some notes on book 3 and let it rest for a bit while I write something else. Finishing the Aghyrians series is a long-held ambition, and I have book 4 about halfway done. Then there is the third Ambassador book, and I want to write a second icefire trilogy. Please of stuff to write!
Plenty! Is jumping between projects a pre-planned thing for you, or do you tend to go with one until whatever point you run out of momentum and then switch to something else while you build up your steam again for the first project?
A bit of both. At times I noodle around with different projects until one takes off, but I always come back to take the next work to completion. Sometimes a project just needs a bit of time to percolate. I used to panic when that happened, but I now know that a paused project, and the words I put down on it, will still be there when I return to it.
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Patty Jansen is a member of SFWA and winner of the second quarter of the Writers of the Future contest. As well as in volume 27 of the contest, she has published fiction in various magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Aurealis, Redstone SF and the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette. She has also ‘indie’ published a number of longer works. Patty lives in Sydney, Australia. Patty has a PhD in science, and before becoming a writer, Patty worked in agricultural research.
You can find a sample from Innocence Lost, as well as links to buy the e-book, along with Patty’s other work at her website.