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Thursday, February 27, 2020

SPFBO Interview: Virginia McClain

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself?

I am tall for a woman, but because I almost never wear heels people think of me as average height (until I put on heels and then everyone comments on how tall I am). Most of my friends consider me quirky but dependable. I am the friend that people call at 2am when their pet dies or their significant other breaks up with them. Lately, I spend my free time reading, running, and hanging upside down from very long pieces of fabric (aerial silks). 

Do you have a day job? If so, what is it? 

Sort of? I write (and do all the backend indie publishing stuff) and take care of my three-year-old daughter. She recently started pre-school so I drop her off and head to a cafe for a few hours to work five days a week. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can do graphic design work and advertising even when she's at home with me. 

How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale? 

I was 5 the first time I put crayon to paper to tell a tale of dragons and hedgehogs. The spelling was more creative than the stories, but it was (barely) legible. My mom saved it for ages and gave it to me a few years ago. It's pretty hilarious (to me anyway).

My first professional sale was when I was 23. I sold a short story to a literary journal called The First Line. I think they paid me $25. I was so damned proud of that story. I still have copies of it. It wasn't fantasy, but it was action-adventure, and I was thrilled about the whole thing. 

Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer? 

I've a lot of books that I have no intention of publishing. I mean, that wasn't the plan when I sat down to write them. I don't think I've ever sat down to write a book and thought "I'll never publish this." (I do think that about short stories all the time. I often consider short stories just exercise in prose.) But, after writing them, I've decided some stories just aren't good enough to need an audience. The first draft of Blade's Edge was the third full novel I wrote. And I didn't decide to publish it until I rewrote a few times. Point being, I've written a lot of stuff that I've never let anyone read, or only let my mom read. Of course she thinks they're all wonderful, but that's what moms are for. A lot of what I've written really just amounts to practice. Which is as it should be. The more you practice anything the better you get at it, and whether you practice on a single story until you get it down well enough to sell, or practice a dozen stories only once until you write one that you think people will want to read doesn't really matter. What matters is that you practiced first, and got better, and then gave your story the best you had at the time. I have written and published six books since I released Blade's Edge. I recently had to reread Blade's Edge in order to prepare for the third Gensokai book, and while I still love the story and the characters, there were bits of it that made me cringe, all choices of style or wording. My writing is better now. It wasn't bad then, but it's better now and seeing my old stuff can feel a bit embarrassing if I don't remind myself that I'm supposed to be better now. What would be embarrassing is if I hadn't improved at all as a writer in five years. 

What do you think characterizes your writing style? 

Hmm... I try to keep things to a quick pace, and I don't like to delve too much into description of people or settings. I like to drop the bare minimum of description so that things aren't happening in the void of space (unless they're meant to be happening in the void of space) and then move on to the action. Some of my readers love this, and others hate it (which means they are not likely to remain my readers). I write for folks who read as I do, and want to imagine the details for themselves. Readers who prefer the details filled in for them will probably find my descriptions insufficient. 

How often do you write? Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired? Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day? 

I go through periods (usually a month or two at a time) where I have fixed daily word counts while I knock out the first draft of a book. This works well for me, and then gives me something to edit. However, after I've done a 4 to 6 week intensive writing period, I usually take a few weeks off, and just read a bunch and watch shows. I wouldn't mind writing every day for a lower word count and then just switching projects after I finish a draft, but my schedule doesn't currently work with that. Maybe once my daughter is a bit older and I have more than 2.5 hrs of work time per day. 

What made you decide to self-publish Blade’s Edge as opposed to traditional publishing? 

I was following Hugh Howey's blog at the time that I was re-writing Blade's Edge and considering my publishing options. I'd had some success selling short stories in my early twenties, so I thought I might have some success with traditional publication. However, the more I learned about indie publishing vs. trad publishing (thanks to Hugh Howey's blog, and others) the more I realized I didn't want to sell that many of my rights, or give up that much of my income. Or wait for as long as the trad publishing cycle can take. Also, I LOVE being in control of all the details of making my books look good, and while I would love to have the widespread distribution that traditional publication can offer, that was really the only thing I wanted out of traditional publishing that indie publishing struggles to provide. So, in the end I never even submitted Blade's Edge to an agent, or anyone else. Instead, I ran a Kickstarter so I could hire the editor and cover artist I wanted and went from there. 

What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is?

Control! I have control over just about every detail of my books. I have a number of friends in the trad game and they don't have a say in any of those pieces and often find it incredibly frustrating. (Especially when they get stuck with a lackluster cover, or weird formatting, or their publishers price their ebook too high.) 

On the other hand, is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? 

Being on shelves in bookstores. It is very difficult (though not impossible) to do this as an indie, and I would love it if my books made it on to more shelves in bookstores and libraries. Also, I would kind of love it if I didn't have to do all of my own promotion. I could hire someone to do this as an indie, but I'm not making enough money to make it worthwhile to do so yet, and besides, I can do it myself, so I do. But the learning curve on promotion and advertising is steep and I have taken a very long time to gain just a tiny modicum of success in terms of building an audience and gaining readership. That said, not all publishing houses represent their authors very well, and even with a trad deal I might still be in charge of a lot of my own promotion and... argh... I can't imagine giving up that much of my royalties and still not having someone else promote me. 

One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience? 

Yeah. Always. I have a solid cover for my genre, and I'm constantly messing with my blurb to make it better, but none of that matters if my book doesn't wind up in front of readers who are interested in my genre/sub genre. That's the magic challenge. My best month of sales ever was when Blade's Edge got a BookBub featured deal. Suddenly my readership went from hundreds to thousands. That was huge. However, I didn't do a great job capitalizing on it, and I am just now learning how to advertise properly (and kicking myself for not having done so back when my book was in the top of all its categories). I have more readers now, but need a steady stream of new ones if I hope to make this job pay for itself. 

Why did you enter SPFBO? 

A well placed question, as I did it largely to help out with the previous question... gaining readers. I did not expect to make the finals back when I entered, but I figured just being in the competition would gain me some visibility. Sure enough, I got a nice little spike in sales when I entered. Another spike when Blade's Edge was made a semi-finalist, and another still when it was made a finalist. It has been great for visibility, and no matter what happens in the finals I already feel like I've won.

To be clear though, my favorite part of the entire competition has been making friends with other authors in the mix. Between Facebook and Twitter, I've made lots of friends with other authors and bloggers and it has been fantastic. (Though the absolute best is the group chat we started with all this year's finalists. The ten of us are now buddies and we all swap stories and share support almost daily.) 

What would you do if you won the SPFBO? 

Definitely do a goofy dance. Probably buy myself a nice bottle of alcohol and a fancy meal. Take a selfie with the selfie stick? You know, the usual. But, as I mentioned earlier, thanks to the new friends and added readership I feel like I already won. It would be difficult to top all that. 

For those that haven’t read Blade’s Edge, can you tell us a bit about it? 

WHO HASN'T READ BLADE'S EDGE YET!?!?!? Just kidding. Most people, that's who. Let's see... Since anyone can go read the description if they want to, I'll give you my one liner that I use to get people's attention at conventions and events: It's Song of the Lioness meets Avatar the Last Airbender with a dash Shōgun. 

What was your initial inspiration for Chronicles of Gensokai series? How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea? 

So... I lived in the northern part of Japan for two years. While I was there, I was teaching mostly night classes and I had my days to myself. One of the things I did to keep myself entertained was bike all over the countryside where we lived and check out all the little mountain shrines that topped just about every summit you could find. Most of the smaller shines were shinto (there were also some very large and impressive buddhist temples nearby) and one day when I was sitting next to one of the shrines and contemplating the view, I wondered what would happen if the spirit the shrine was dedicated to decided to show up and ask me what I wanted.

The idea stuck with me, and then more ideas piled on top of it (as ideas are wont to do) until I had a magic system inspired by meditation practices and the elements, kami (spirits) who show up to help or hinder humans as they go about their lives, and two young girls whose lives had been irremediably altered by an oppressive, misogynistic regime.

I wrote the first draft back in November of 2009 (yes it was a NaNo project but I wrote over 100k that month). Then I set it aside until 2013, when I decided to rewrite it one chapter at a time as a webserial for the now defunct JukePop serials. It was cool to have a paying market for it, and it was good motivation to actually edit it. (Spoiler alert though: editing sequentially one chapter at a time does not work for me.) So, the whole thing got a complete rewrite from the JukePop version to the Kickstarter version. And by the time it went to actual publication--print, ebook, the whole deal--it contained fewer than 10,000 words of the original draft. 

Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers will sympathize with them?

Mishi legitimately thinks she's bad at everything when she first starts training. Of course, she's not wrong, she's trying a bunch of things she's never done before, and she's not magically good at them she has to work at it, but she berates herself for it more than she probably should which... well, that's something I sympathize with pretty strongly, not sure about everyone else.

Taka... Taka has this great relationship with a red tailed hawk later on in the book. It was one of my favorite things to write. His form of affection is a fairly painful bite, and she just accepts that he's going to make her bleed a tiny bit whenever he says hi. That probably doesn't sound compelling but... he's a hawk. He's not a pet. 

What was your favorite part about writing Blade’s Edge? 

It has been so long that any answer I give now will be 90% fiction, but... Probably all of the interactions between Mishi and Tatsu, and Taka and Yanagi. 

You’ve created an interesting world with a unique magic system. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work? 

This was the book that taught me how to appreciate world building notes. Because I did NOT make world building notes to start with. I just vomited up 100,000 word of prose that was over 50% world building and character backstory right onto the page. Giant conversations about how kiso works, what kishoshi can and can't do, who has how much power and why. Ugh... it was awful. That was in the first draft.

Then, in the second and third drafts, I went through and deleted all the giant info dumps, turned them into notes for my own reference, and went back through to sprinkle the relevant information wherever necessary, as lightly as possible. Ever since then, I have made copious world building and character notes BEFORE I start any project and then I sprinkle those details in as needed. It is very important to ME to know how all of my systems work. It is not important to the reader until it's relevant to the plot, so I do my best to not spread that on too thick. 

Writing the sequel to a well-received book can be stressful :) How was writing Traitor’s Hope different from Blade’s Edge? Did the final version of this book differ from how you envisioned it as you were completing Blade’s Edge and looking ahead to the series as a whole? 

When I finished the final draft of Blade's Edge, I wasn't sure I was going to write a sequel. I'd left room for one, but I figured I would pursue other projects first, or maybe just never get around to it. I wanted it to be its own story. But the more I thought about it the more I realized I'd left a lot unanswered, and in particular I wanted to [spoiler redacted] and [spoiler redacted]. So, I decided to get down to business and write a second Gensokai book instead of moving forward on one of my other finished drafts.

It was the right thing to do because that's where my brain went, but yes, it was more stressful to write Traitor's Hope than Blade's Edge. Even though Blade's Edge only had about 300 hundred readers in that first year, I was terrified of disappointing them. Traitor's Hope has a different feel to it than Blade's Edge in a number of ways. I'm just now starting to reread it to prep for the third Gensokai book, but Traitor's Hope has enough of a dark edge to it that once I finished it I needed to take a break to do something more lighthearted. (Which is why I released a five book humorous urban fantasy series over the past two years instead of moving onto the next Gensokai story.) 

How many books have you planned for the series? 

Undetermined. I'm writing a third book in the Chronicles of Gensokai right now, and it happens not long after Traitor's Hope, but it largely follows new characters and will have a pretty different feel to the other two books. I expect it to have a few sequels of its own, and I also have ideas for some 1000 years earlier prequels to Blade's Edge down the line as well. All in all, there might be around nine books in this universe, but they will all be standalones in their own right, so the plan could change at any time. 

What sort of research did you do for the series? 

Years of martial arts training, two years of living in Japan, visiting many museums related to feudal Japan, reading some historical fiction books and then comparing those to actual historical articles, and then throwing most of that away as I created a world that has its own history and isn't actually Japan, but merely takes inspiration from it. (And yes, I used the Japanese language for a lot of things instead of making up a new one, because I do not have Tolkein's patience for creating new languages just for fun.) 

Would you say that Chronicles of Gensokai series follows tropes or kicks them? Depends on the trope. It follows some and kicks others. Folks looking for romance will ultimately be disappointed unless they come back for book two. The women all rescue themselves and... *shrugs* I love some tropes and avoid/twist others at every opportunity. 

Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of Blade’s Edge? 

I sent a synopsis and a couple of key scene descriptions to the talented Juan Carlos Barquet, and he sent me three sketches. From there we went back and forth until we wound up with the current cover. It depicts a combination of scenes really, but ultimately I liked the effect enough that I didn't worry about it not being completely accurate to the story. If I could go back in time I would have made fewer of my own suggestions and let him do more of what he wanted. I honestly could have gone with any of the sketches he first sent they were all great and it was near impossible to choose one. 

Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it! 

 It could be because it's 1am, but I'm struggling to come up with anything right now. Maybe something about the names of characters? I named most of the characters for animals, and I always chuckle to myself at their animal personae, but I doubt most readers notice them. 

What’s your publishing Schedule for 2020/2021? 

I am currently working on the 3rd Gensokai book. I hope to have it out by January of 2021. However, there is another project I am currently working on (also Gensokai related) that I can't really talk about yet, but if it winds up happening it will probably delay the release of the third Gensokai book by a few months at least. Sadly, either way, I doubt I will release anything new in 2020. Which will be a bit sad for me as I've released something every year since 2017. I might have to try to squeeze out a novella or something just to keep the streak alive. 

Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about? 

I am currently dipping my toes into some GameDev stuff. No idea how that will go, but it's kind of fun to think about. Also, I might apply for some grants and/or writer residencies. 

Can you name three books you adore as a reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer/in awe of the craft?

Graceling by Kristin Cashore was the first book that I read and then almost threw across the room because I wished I had written it. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is so good it gives me shivers, and Shades of Magic by V.E. Schwab (and its sequels) just make me want to be a better writer every time I think about them. 

Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers? 

Thanks so much for having me! I hope my rambling 1am responses aren't too hard to follow. 



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