In Conversation With Juliet E. McKenna

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Juliet McKennaIf you’re a regular on the Fantasy and Science Fiction convention circuit, you will have hopefully had the pleasure of meeting Juliet McKenna, whether that was her as a guest of honour, or presenting an award, or taking part in one of the many interesting and challenging panels.
Juliet has had an incredible influence on the landscape of Fantasy storytelling, with over 15 novels, plus a multitude of short stories, articles and reviews. Just recently, the Aldabreshin Compass series has been released digitally – Southern Fire in October, Northern Storm in November and the others to follow in December and January.

FB: Juliet, you are a very busy woman, balancing family and writing, as well as networking at conventions and visiting local SF and writers’ groups. It seems to me that, to be a successful author these days, you have to be organised to keep on top of social media and build and maintain a relationship with your readers. How do you view the shift in emphasis from the publisher driving an author’s career, to the author essentially driving their own career?

JM: I think this particular shift can be tough on authors who aren’t naturally outgoing, especially online, however much they might like socializing in person with their friends. Then there’s the other side of that coin; social media can become an appalling distraction for the writers who are always happy to chat to whoever, about whatever – until they look up from their keyboard and realize they’ve lost half their working day.

Juliet McKennaWherever a writer might be along that particular spectrum, I think the most important thing to remember is what hasn’t changed amid all publishing’s upheavals. What sells books is word of mouth. Someone telling someone else that this is a really good read. That used to spread from reader to reader, from booksellers, from librarians, and to a lesser extent than you might think, through written reviews and recommendations. What social media offers writers is a whole new range of ways to get that word of mouth started, by letting readers know their book’s out there, whether that’s through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, personal and guest blogs etc.

The next thing to remember is that generally what gets readers talking about a particular title is knowing more about the ideas and inspiration behind the writing. Maybe that will include things like the books which that author reads and likes themselves, to give some indication of shared tastes and interests. So that’s good news for every sort of writer. Those who don’t want to live their personal lives online can keep the focus on their books and their own reading while those who can all too easily get sucked into endless discussions over a current news story or political debate can legitimately limit such conversations to their personal rather than professional time online.

Oh, and the other thing to remember is an excellent bit of advice I was given right at the start of my own career. Arguing with a review is like starting an arse-kicking contest with a porcupine. Even if you win, the cost to yourself simply won’t be worth it.

FB: You have a keen interest in female protagonists, both as heroes and villains. As a writer, what comes more naturally to you, a male or female lead?

JM: For me, the lead point of view arises naturally from the story and the part which individuals play within it, as well as their roles in the world I’ve drawn. That’s what will determine whether a main character is male or female for me. And gender is only one element in creating a fully realized and convincing character. It frequently comes after considerations like personality traits which will have a significant bearing on the plot and on this particular character’s relationships with other people.

Obviously I have half a century of life as a woman to draw on for inspiration when it comes to writing female characters. When it comes to writing from a male perspective I have brothers, my husband, my sons and a few close male friends who’ve all had me check in with them when I want a more informed opinion on something I have a male character say or do. That said, I’ll do the same with my female friends when I’m writing a character whose life experience or temperament is significantly different to my own.

Juliet McKennaFB: As a woman, how do you consider the current literary panorama in terms of gender domination?

JM: What frustrates me is the persistent skew in media and review coverage towards a narrow range of primarily white male authors. All the more so when surveys of actual readers show most people are perfectly happy to read books by men and women from all sorts of backgrounds. What readers want first and foremost is a good story and the ability to write that has nothing to do with gender or race or any other such factor. But readers have to know a good book’s out there if they’re going to buy it. When publicity drives sales and sales are what convince a publisher to keep an author in print, authors outside that charmed circle are increasingly struggling to reach the sales required to sustain a conventional writing career. And no, expecting reviewers and magazine editors to take steps to correct this systemic imbalance isn’t asking for special treatment. It’s asking for an end to one particular group being given an ongoing inherent advantage.

FB: You’ve been involved in the world of literary awards. From an awards perspective, would you say mainstream publishers have a massive advantage over self-published authors?

JM: When it comes to awards, getting a book from a publisher (hopefully) tells a judge or an administrator that the story has gone through a selection process, that it’s been edited, revised and proofed and all the people involved in that process are confident this will be a sufficiently worthwhile read to be a commercial proposition – which they’ll have backed up with the reviews and cover quotes gathered from trustworthy sources. Incidentally, the size and reach of the publishing house is irrelevant. Small presses are producing some superb books these days while mass market operations can still churn out regrettably forgettable shelf-fodder.

So the greatest challenge for self-published authors is convincing the wider world that their work reaches a truly professional standard. That can and has been done and not just with ebooks. Jill Paton Walsh famously won a place on the Booker shortlist with Knowledge of Angels which she published herself. The thing is, as a conventionally published author for many years, she knew the standard she had to reach and was merciless with herself. Trust me; I’ve heard her talk about the process. Unless and until you’ve had the experience of seeing just how much better the input from fresh, professional eyes can make your own work, it’s genuinely hard to understand this. I know it was a revelation for me – and such input is still invaluable as far as I am concerned, for anything from a short story to a novel.

Unfortunately so much self-published fiction only reaches a standard of ‘promising final draft that now needs a dispassionate editor’s ruthless input’. So that’s where mainstream publishing has the edge. Though I can see that changing as more and more authors turn hybrid; applying what they’ve learned from their mainstream publishing experience to their own independent projects alongside mass market books.

FB: As a world builder myself, I thoroughly enjoyed looking at the maps you created for Einarinn, the world of your stories. I spend a lot of time mapping and constructing every aspect of my world before I even start plotting the story – things a reader may never even see. After Tolkien, it seemed that, to write Fantasy, you had to have a map to go with the book. What’s your take on world building and what kind of advice would you give to new writers on this matter?

Juliet McKenna's Einarinn
Juliet McKenna’s Einarinn

JM: Maps are certainly useful, and the earlier and the more detailed the better. That way you avoid having to reverse engineer something accurate from the finished text which is what happened to me with The Thief’s Gamble. Or rather, happened to my design engineer husband when I confessed I’d worked out all the travel times and distances accurately but as far as a map went, all I had was a scribble on the back of an envelope… Thankfully he originally trained as a draughtsman.

But there’s much more to world building than that. Last year at Fantasycon, I came across a brilliant acronym to remind authors of the things they need to think through. PESTLE. Politics, Environment, Society, Technology, Law and Economics. Because all of these things will shape your characters and their experience and expectations as well as the opportunities they’ll have to get involved in whatever plot is also inevitably shaped by these things. World building isn’t a linear process; how and why things happen depend on who’s involved which is influenced in turn by where they are and what they’re doing. As far as I am concerned, that’s why it’s such fun.

But what’s such fun for the writer can end up being very dull for the reader if the book wanders off into extensive, irrelevant detail. I am constantly reminded to be strict with myself by memories of early novel drafts where my test readers scribbled comments in the margins like ‘this is boring, why do I need to know it?’ As well as remembering my own experiences as a reader stupefied by four pages of an author’s research into medieval wood working. The writer has to know how all these background things fit together but the reader only needs to know the details which serve the story. A good rule of thumb is the Iceberg Principle. Only a tenth of the total world building should show above the surface.

Juliet McKennaFB: Writers and small businesses alike have been fighting tooth and nail against the MOSS VAT legislation, which will put them at an economic disadvantage compared to big businesses. Moreover, there is a petition called: ‘Scrap plans forcing self employed & small business to do 4 tax returns yearly’. Now, we’re witnessing a shift of power from conventional publishers to individual authors; just when writers could really do with economic support to have a chance of making it on their own, it seems that new legislation is working against them. Ideally, how would you like to see this situation resolved?

JM: With specific reference to the digital VAT mess, we need a realistic turnover threshold so that authors – and everyone else selling digital products – isn’t hit with unreasonable compliance costs before they’ve made a single penny. Along with a system that’s actually workable since the current regulations simply aren’t fit for purpose. They assume things like online, real-time access to customer location data which just isn’t there. While that’s all being agreed, we need an interim suspension or some other meaningful easement of these new regulations.

Longer term, authors need to work together, and with representative organizations like The Society of Authors and The Writers’ Guild, as well as sharing professional and commercial information and experiences more widely. Knowledge is power after all. When the full facts about writers’ declining incomes and the added costs of quarterly tax returns are dragged into the light, as well as things like coercive contracts and abuses of copyright by big business, it becomes that much harder for anyone from publishers to legislators to brush off solo objections to ill-informed plans on the grounds that ‘oh, well, you’re just one unusual case…’ At the moment far too many far-reaching decisions are being made by people with no actual experience of running the small businesses so hard hit by all this. So we have to speak up until we’re heard!

FB: Once the Aldabreshin Compass series is released on e-book in full, what can your readers expect from you next? Any projects on the go?

JM: I’m looking forward to continuing the short stories I’m writing which run parallel to events in The Aldabreshin Compass series. Then the short stories and a novella I’ve written in a new fantasy setting, the River Kingdom, will be next up for ebook publication. I also have some novel proposals in that world which I want to get in front of the right agent and/or editor. Then there are a couple of as yet unpublished novels on my hard drive; one urban fantasy and one historical. I’ve got rewrites in mind for both and then we’ll see if independent or mainstream publishing is the way to go with those. It’ll be interesting to see what 2016 will bring us all.