The Hardest Part: C.S. Fuqua on Rise Up

When Bull Spec opened for submissions in November 2009, I had no idea what to expect. Certainly not the avalanche of good stories which buried me for the better part of two years. But there’s a fine line between a good story and one of those stories that I just had to publish, and the very first of these was “Rise Up” by C.S. Fuqua. (So early in fact that this was before there was even a “magazine”, only a vague idea about publishing a story now and then.) Reading the story, listening to the music, I knew this was a story I had to have, and I’m still very proud to published it as the Mike Gallagher-illustrated cover story for Bull Spec #1. Now, the story title serves as the title for Fuqua’s recently released collection, Rise Up. Here, Fuqua explains the hardest part of putting the collection together, one I deeply sympathize with: the business side of things.

By C.S. Fuqua:

I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer–the business of writing–manuscript marketing and book promotion–remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier–Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines–but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers–fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists–meaning most writers–promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote  my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook and Goodreads.com, operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities–in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.

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About Rise Up

C.S. Fuqua’s second collection of short fiction, Rise Up, has just been released by Mundania Press and is available in paper and eBook formats at http://mundania.com/book.php?title=Rise+Up. The book collects two dozen short stories, featuring ghosts and faeries, the macabre and mundane, rich and poor, distraught and jubilant. From the dark fantasy of title story, “Rise Up,” to the science fiction comedy of “The Garbler,” to the satire of “Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget,” each story in Rise Up explores the motivations, actions, and consequences that force ordinary people to become extraordinary.

Rise Up‘s stories intertwine good and evil and how we waver between condemnation and redemption: the cold-hearted abuse of science for battlefield enhancement in “All the Brave Soldiers,” the pity of a young girl’s ghost for a dying general in “Grace,” modern society’s propensity for foolish restrictions in “The Addict.” The title story, “Rise Up,” explores second chances when a mandolin player uses music to resurrect his fiancée following her tragic death, only to bear even greater tragedy and loss in the long run. In “Demons,” an Iraqi War veteran suffering PTSD mines the depths of compassion when he befriends a phooka, tortured and starved to the brink of insanity.

From the man who spares children from life’s heartaches, to the mechanic who grossly overcharges clients for unneeded repairs, to the politicians who deceive countries into war to torture and maim in the name of a plethora of gods, evil comes in many guises. Sometimes we recognize its approach; sometimes we don’t. The stories in Rise Up explore the consequences.

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C.S. Fuqua’s books include Rise Up, Big Daddy’s Gadgets, If I Were… (children’s poems), Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, Trust Walk, The Swing: Poems of Fatherhood, and Notes to My Becca, among others. His work has appeared in publications as diverse as The Christian Science Monitor, Naval History, Main Street Rag, and Year’s Best Horror Stories. Please visit http://csfuqua.comxa.com.


The Hardest Part: J.L. Hilton on Stellarnet Prince

Raleigh author J.L. Hilton’s debut novel Stellarnet Rebel was published by Harlequin imprint Carina Press in January, with a release party at Tir Na Nog. A fitting place, as the space station at the center of the novel contains an Irish Pub and one of the book’s protagonists, Genny O’Riordan, well, you can probably guess by the name. (Also, there’s a certain shortage of local Glin establishments, though that’s more than understandable considering it is one of the alien races invented by Hilton for the book.) The series combines cyberpunk, video games, space adventure, blogging, and even a couple scenes of (well done) character- and plot-relevant sex in a page-turning package. Earlier this month, Carina Press published book two of The Stellarnet Series, Stellarnet Prince, and in this week’s edition of The Hardest Part, Hilton talks about the struggles of writing the sequel. Under deadline. And with the rest of a full life happening.

The Hardest Part: J.L. Hilton on Stellarnet Prince

With a sequel, an author has to walk a tightrope between context and clunky exposition, back story and boring, while avoiding the flaming faults of the first book and juggling its strengths. On a unicycle… of… deadlines. (Can I stop the circus metaphor now? I’m starting to hear creepy calliope music…) This is a challenge, to say the least, and some authors experience terrible writer’s block with sequels. Or so I’ve heard. I didn’t, but then Stellarnet Prince is the first second book I’ve ever written. There’s always next time.

I wrote my debut novel, Stellarnet Rebel, without the need to reintroduce characters or remind readers. I took my own sweet time building worlds, inventing an alien language, and figuring out how the hero sneaks into the military zone of Asteria Colony to steal a spaceship. When do the alarm bells go off? How many airmen are wounded in the process? Can he make it through the metal doors before they close? I need to research non-lethal weaponry, rubber bullets, flashbangs, shock poles… tomorrow.

But sequels come with unicycles. I mean deadlines. (There goes the music again.) I’d won a contract for Stellarnet Prince based on a partial and a synopsis, then had six months to add 75,000 words. And they had to be good words, too, dang it. So here’s where I mention I homeschool two children, am the founder of a local club and an annual charity event, and have a successful side business as a jewelry designer. I took two years writing and revising Stellarnet Rebel. But, no prob, I worked in newspapers. You learn to get shit done before midnight or you’re fired.

Given my full plate, constant interruptions are a hard part, but not the hardest part. I envy authors who can lock themselves away in a motel room or cabin. I haven’t sold enough books to be able to afford a good lock, let alone a secret Appalachian hideaway or a vacation. Plus, my husband would have to take time off from his job to stay with the kids, and I just can’t afford that much whiskey, either.

No, the very hardest part of Stellarnet Prince arrived unannounced around 80% completion, when my 7-year-old daughter said, “Are you almost finished with your book? Because I miss you, Mommy, the way you used to be.” Now imagine it with big, teary eyes and a trembling pout. Add a basket of starving kittens if it helps, because the way I felt, they might as well have been there.

Homeschooling, I spend all day with my children. But I understood what she meant. The way I used to watch movies with the family after dinner and she could snuggle in my lap. When I was available for bug slaying or Bandaid duty after 7pm. When I told her a bedtime story and sang her a song instead of just kissing her goodnight so I could get back to work.

After that, every time I closed my bedroom door to write, I thought about how she missed me. I couldn’t shake the feeling of… not guilt, exactly. Parental Responsibility grappling with Personal Reward? Existential angst? A Big Fricking Clock somewhere tickety ticking? Being seven years old only happens once, and then it’s gone. I can write for the rest of my life. I’ll never be as important to any reader as I am to my daughter right now. Balancing my love for her, and her ebullient love for me, with my love of writing is a more difficult act than the plotting, research or revisions of any sequel, because that tightrope runs right through my heart.

- J.L. Hilton

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Stellarnet Prince is available at a long list of ebook retailers as well as in audiobook, the latter available at Audible.com and iTunes, as well as Bookshare (for readers with disabilities).


The Hardest Part: Nathan Kotecki on The Suburban Strange

Durham author Nathan Kotecki’s debut novel is a young adult urban fantasy novel The Suburban Strange [Goodreads | IndieBound], and he is as a self-described  “classic literature snob” who has never read Twilight or Harry Potter. Cue the contradictions? Maybe not, as you may learn in this week’s “The Hardest Part”. Writing outside the influence of these commercial juggernauts gave Kotecki some freedom to follow his own storytelling urges — and also led to an interesting revision process both with his agent and with his editor.

By Nathan Kotecki:

The Suburban Strange is my first novel, and when I wrote it, I wasn’t considering the idea that it might be published – it was a completely self-indulgent exercise in storytelling that took on a life of its own. I realize now, that’s a rather liberating way to write – no deadlines, no outside considerations, few compromises.

So for me, the hard part came late. I spent some time showing the manuscript to trusted friends before I decided to explore the possibility of finding an agent – the first step in the traditional publishing route. That process could make a fascinating column in and of itself, and I have no complaints about my experience navigating it, particularly because I’ve heard horror stories from other writers. The hardest part of my experience writing The Suburban Strange began with my amazing agent and continued with my fantastic editor, but I am in no way casting aspersions. It was squarely on me, from start to finish. The hardest part was transforming the book I had enjoyed writing into a book others would most enjoy reading.

I have always favored literature as a reader. I am much more inclined to read something by someone who is long dead (and likely European) than new, commercial books. (I have been making amends for that since I have entered the realm of young adult fiction!) Unsurprisingly, some of the choices I made in early drafts of The Suburban Strange were influenced by literary concepts. My agent, and then my editor, had to point out the differences between the conventions that govern literary works and those applicable to commercial ones.

For example, until my agent took the manuscript, nothing supernatural was happening in the first half of the book – I had conscientiously constructed it to operate in two layers – the real world in the first half, followed by the supernatural in the second. I am paraphrasing her, but in our first critique conversation, my agent told me, “You have six pages” – meaning, something supernatural had to happen by the sixth page, or I was never going to keep the attention of the young adult reader we were hoping would read my book. That manuscript revision was probably the most radical one I undertook, but once I understood the reason for it, it made sense, and I will be the first to acknowledge it made the story more engaging, more suspenseful, stronger.

Another example is a scene that comes at the halfway mark in the novel, over winter break between the fall and spring semesters. It’s a lovely scene, still one of my favorites in the book, and it crystalizes a number of characters and relationships. It also provides what I think is a welcome respite for the reader to catch her breath after a somewhat intense fall semester (now I had reworked it) has ended with a number of ominous things looming, and to remember all the lovely things about these characters and their aspirations before diving in to the perils of the spring semester. But the scene does very little to advance the plot, and my editor wanted to cut it.

I fought for that one. Here’s another topic that would make a fascinating column: is it necessary for every scene in a novel to advance the plot? I’m quite sure in literature the answer is no, but such scenes are infrequent in commercial fiction, and so I understand why my editor’s answer was (and continues to be) yes. But she was kind enough to indulge me, and with some reshaping, the scene survived.

A number of people – aspiring writers in particular – have asked me for my perspective on traditional publishing (agent, publishing house, distribution channels) versus nontraditional (self-editing, self-production, self-distribution – each of which can take a number of shapes) and while I don’t have a simple answer, I can say this: finding an agent who made me rewrite The Suburban Strange twice, and then getting a publishing deal with an editor who made me rewrite it twice more, was both the hardest part of my writing process, and also the reason the novel is worth reading. These two brilliant people didn’t ask me to change the story; they just helped me figure out how to tell it better. They coaxed a better novel out of me than I knew I had.

The things that are most worth doing are often the hardest. If I have the impression something (a character, a scene, a revision) is going to be difficult, it’s probably important, and definitely worth my time and effort. I hope I never lose the ability to follow my muse in whatever direction it leads me. And I hope I never shy away from what may always the hardest part for me: figuring out the best path back once my muse has taken me there – the path that makes for the best story.

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The Suburban Strange was published October 2nd 2012 by Houghton Mifflin in hardcover and ebook, available wherever books are sold. And, see below, there’s another local reading (Monday, November 12, at The Regulator) after a few earlier events in the area.

Photo of Kotecki copyright Mr. Gates.

RELATED EVENTS:

November 12 (Monday) 7 pm — Durham author Nathan Kotecki visits The Regulator Bookshop for a reading and signing of The Suburban Strange. [Facebook]


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