Monday, August 24, 2009
Karen Miller interview
Karen Miller is the author of the bestselling fantasy duology Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, the fantasy trilogy Godspeaker, the bestselling tie-in novels Stargate SG-1: Alliances and Stargate SG-1: Do No Harm and Star Wars The Clone Wars: Wild Space. Writing as K.E. Mills she is the author of the Rogue Agent series.
What can you tell us about the first book you’ve written? What do you think is the difference between that book and your first published book?
Well, when it comes to fantasy fiction, the first fantasy novel I wrote is what got published, eventually. I originally wrote the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology as a standalone novel and submitted it to my Australian publisher. That manuscript was rejected with some rewriting suggestions and an invitation to resubmit, which I did, and it was the rewritten version of the story that was accepted for publication. The biggest difference is in the length -- the original standalone version ran to about 140,000 words, and the final 2-book story ended up at over 300,000 words. So you might say I learned I had a lot more story inside me than I trusted. Nothing changed about the story, as such -- but I dramatised a whole lot of stuff that previously had happened 'off stage' so to speak.
How did you find out and how did you react when you first learned you would get published?
I got a phone call from the editor at Voyager, saying that the project had passed through the acquisition committee and would be published. I was a bit numb at first, because I'd dreamed of being a published author for many, many years. But most of all, I was just very very happy ... and worried that I wouldn't justify the faith the editor had placed in me.
Your books combine a wonderfully complicated world and realistic characters. We’re curious, when you get an idea for a story, which comes first, the world or the characters?
Thank you! And the answer is characters, every time. For me, it's always always always about the people. The world they inhabit comes into focus more slowly, and as part and parcel of who they are and what's happening to them. But story, for me, is ultimately about people. To my way of thinking, societies are created by people, therefore they are defined by the people who live in them. Yes, there are external factors like geography that impact certain elements of world building ... but the root of it all lies in the people who live there. And also, for me, people are more interesting to explore and tell stories about than things or even big ideas -- unless what you're looking at is how those big ideas impact on the characters in the story.
The Kingmaker, Kingbreaker cover art is very neat, especially when looking at the spines side by side. How much say does the author have in creating the cover?
The Orbit cover art for those books is unbelievably amazing, isn't it? And I'm equally in love with the covers for the sequels. Same artist and design team. Spectacular. I'm so lucky on that score I have to keep pinching myself. As for what control an author gets over cover design, well, there's no definitive answer for that one. For example, I get no input whatsoever into the Star Wars covers. That's a design decision between the publisher and Lucasfilm. And with tie-in material, that's pretty much par for the course. With my own work, so far, both of my English language publishers have been tremendously collaborative. See, the thing is, publisher's don't want to upset their authors. On the other hand, cover design is a very specific part of the marketing process, and generally speaking authors don't have the expertise to comment on what will or won't entice or repel a browser in a bookshop. Authors tend to get very protective and literal about the images that appear on their covers, and we can't always see past our emotional attachment to the story. We need to remember that we're writers, not designers. Sometimes we do need to stand firm on things, but we should always bear in mind that other people in the publishing process have their areas of expertise, too, and we should respect that.
Do you plan your stories or make them up as you go? Any tips on this for new writers?
To my astonishment, I'm learning that this is actually a fluid situation. As I answer these questions, I'm about to start writing my 13th novel. At first I really needed to break down the stories plot point by plot point, step by step. Now I can be a little looser with it, mainly because I'm learning to trust myself in the storytelling process. Writing a novel is really an enormous leap of faith. It's like setting out to run a marathon. The first time you do it you don't know if you can. Now I've got a few tucked under belt I'm more relaxed. I know that I can do it, even though I will hit boggy patches and slow patches and have moments of terrible self doubt. I know now that they're part of the landscape and I just need to push on. The other thing I've learned is that writing a step by step outline is, in many ways, a very external process. When I'm writing an outline I'm not inside the story, living it, I'm standing outside it trying to imagine how it's going to turn out. It's kind of like looking at a Christmas present trying to figure out what's inside it because of the vague shape and wrapping. For me, the story doesn't actually come alive until I'm inside it, writing it and experiencing through the eyes of the characters. And it's that weird alchemical process of being inside the story, when the imagination is on fire and the story's alive and you're living it with the characters, that guides me to the nuts and bolts of what happens. Which is very scary, because you can't make that happen from the outside. It can happen on the inside, which means you have to surrender control and let the story grow and develop naturally.
Which isn't to say that I dive in without any kind of road map. I do. I know where I'm starting, I know where I'm ending. I have a few significant signposts along the way. But I'm learning to trust that much of the story will reveal itself to me in the process of telling it.
So for newer writers, especially if you're tackling a novel, I'd say, start off with a fairly detailed idea of what you're doing. But be prepared to let the story suggest new ideas to you as it unfolds through the writing process. Use your outline as training wheels, until you're comfortable taking your hands off the handlebars. But you know, having said that, some writers like to do detailed outlines all the time. It's not about the right way or the wrong way, it's about finding the way that works best for you. So beware of people telling you there's only 'one right way' of getting the job done.
What would you say are the dos and don’ts when submitting a book to an agent or publisher?
Single biggest mistake newer writers make -- and hello, I have more than one teeshirt on this -- is submitting work before it's ready. You need to have your work read and considered by people who are good analytical readers with no emotional investment in you, or who are strong enough to tell you what you need to hear not what you want to hear. It goes without saying that we want people to like what we've written. But while being told we're wonderful might make us feel good, it doesn't do anything to improve a manuscript. I always suggest writers sign up to the Online Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Workshop because it's run by professionals and is a great forum for improvement and encouragement. I believe you learn more about writing by reading and critiquing other people's work than you do hearing a critique of your own work. Learning how to effectively self-edit is one of the most crucial skills you can develop. Editors and agents these days are too busy to take on the work of bringing a promising manuscript up to publishable standard. As the writer, that's your job. Learning how to improve your own work is vital -- and by developing your editing eye on other people's work, you'll be doing yourself a huge favour.
Do your homework. Find out what authors the agent represents, what kind of books the publisher has on its list and make sure you're a good initial fit. And if you are going to submit to them, read their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. Trust me, agents and editors don't find it cute or engaging or encouraging when someone flouts their list of guidelines. Doing that makes you look like an arrogant prat. Nobody wants to work with an arrogant prat.
Agents and editors don't exist to make your dreams come true. Publishing is a business, so be businesslike and professional. If you get a knock back, accept it. Don't ran't and rave and write back vitriolic letters about their stupidity and your unappreciated genius. Publishing is a small pond. Don't piddle in it.
Queries, authors shiver at the idea; any tips from a successful writer on writing a successful query?
Actually, I'm sorry to say I don't. I haven't sold anything on a query. I did a covering letter with my first manscript, which basically said, this is me, this is my book, thank you for reading it, I hope you like it. Since then, everything I've sold has been a verbal pitch, talking about the story in general terms. The closest I came to a query letter was Star Wars. Once I was professionally published I dropped the editor a note saying this id me, I'm a professional fantasy writer, also a huge Star Wars fan, if ever you're in the market for a new writer I'd love to be considered. We chatted back and forth about my Star Wars interests, she read my first novel, and nothing happened for three years. Then I got an email out of the blue and ended up with a 3 book contract.
In general, I'd say it's important to be succinct, polite and self-effacing.
Writer’s block, real or fiction? What are your views on this and what advice would you give to new writers about it.
I think writer's block is a catch-all term for a complicated set of circumstances. I think if you want to write, and you can't, you're looking at some issues relating to fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being noticed, fear of offending people you know, fear of revealing more of yourself than you're comfortable with, fear of close friends and family seeing something about you. Basically you need to dig a little and ask yourself, why am I holding myself back? Deep down you know the answers. And once you've looked them in the face, you can decide how you're going to deal with them.
If you get stuck on a specific project, most often I think it's your subsconcious trying to tell you that you should've turned left at Albuquerque. When the story comes to a grinding halt, instead of trying to push through it go back to the point where the story stopped flowing comfortably, then examine the storytelling choices you've made. Play around with a few different scenarios, and wait for the light bulb to turn on.
What can you tell us about your latest book? How would you pitch it to a prospective new reader?
My latest release is The Prodigal Mage. It's the first of another duology, Fisherman's Children, which follows on from the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology. Basically it's the story of ... just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. *g* Some time has passed since the end of The Awakened Mage. And while everyone thinks things are hunky dory actually they're not, and all hell is about to break loose in the kingdom of Lur. It's also a story about family and expectation and how you can be your own person while not disappointing your parents. And it's about consequences and making mistakes and how you deal with those mistakes. It's about doing the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason, and how much that can mess up people's lives. I think anyone who's read and enjoyed the Kingmaker, Kingbreaker books will enjoy it. It's possible to read it without having read them, but there are huge spoilers for the first 2 books.
Are you working on a new story? Anything you can share with us on that?
I've just finished the third Rogue Agent novel, Wizard Squared, and that's been ... an interesting journey. Fun and fraught at the same time. I'm about to start my 3rd Star Wars novel, which is the second part of a two part story.
What does Karen Miller do for fun?
This year, because I have to write 5 novels, there's not a lot of time for fun. When life is less insane I enjoy working at my local theatre as a director and actor, and I really love film and tv and playing with my new puppy, Wilson.