Rob Thurman is one of those authors whose work I so enjoy reading that I can finish one of her novels in a weekend. Each character is (seemingly) well thought out. Each plot is (seemingly) well constructed. I would have never guessed that Robyn is a “panster!” I hope that you appreciate her honesty and directness as much as I do. Robyn will be at Colorado Gold in Denver from Friday, September 20th through Sunday, September 22nd.
Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get involved in writing? How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was ten years old (back in the day when I read the Encyclopedia Britannica for fun. That would’ve been my first clue I’d grow up to fly the geek flag loud and proud.) I watched Star Trek at that age with my mom and, yes, it was the original version. To this day I twitch uncontrollably when I see William Shatner. Is there a legitimate diagnosis for Shatner-phobia in the world of psychology? There should be. But watch it I did and I thought Spock did not get nearly enough face-time or storylines, that Bones was somewhat of a bigot to Vulcans by constantly telling Spock to not be an emotionless robot, and Kirk should be shot by an Orion slave girl who didn’t at all appreciate being one of his one-thousand and one alien chick booty-calls. So, I ‘fixed’ all that. At ten I was writing Star Trek fan fic.
I kept writing as I grew up, but I didn’t finish anything. In fact, I never tried. I only wrote three page scenes of original fiction—the good parts: action, friendship, angst, sarcasm, and more. But all in all, only the exciting, best parts of the story I imagined in my head. When I went to college, I thought about writing more seriously and took a creative writing course. However, the teacher only wanted us to write about one subject and only one: the struggles of the poverty-stricken people of the Appalachian region. While I read and enjoy nonfiction, especially mythology and archeology, I loathe writing it. Unless these poverty-stricken mountain people were zombies in disguise and eating the occasional tourist passing through, I had no interest at all. That one course put me off considering writing as a career or major.
I did keep writing for fun and other venues (did you know I can think of four authors off the top of my head who are NYT bestsellers and once wrote fan fic?), but I obtained a practical degree in wiping ass…cough…a nursing degree and another medical field degree and a near minor in Russian language (which I can’t speak a word of today.) I thought that I did love writing, but it was impossible to be published, impossible to support yourself financially writing. But as it turns out, I was only half right! I wrote my first book, a go at the action-mystery private detective genre, and it didn’t sell. And I’m glad it didn’t sell as it was terrible. People in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future would not even wipe their ass with it.
My second attempt at a novel was the one I first published, NIGHTLIFE. It’s an urban fantasy novel or contemporary fantasy, depending on your choice of labels, and I just finished DOWNFALL, which is the ninth in what became known as the Cal Leandros series. Or if you go by the now defunct Borders computer, the ‘Carl’ Leandros series, because, yes, Carl is a name for kicking monster ass. Cal is short for Caliban and a very appropriate name for the character it is, if you know your Shakespeare.
You write really great characters. How did you go about learning your craft?
I have fans constantly ask me that, but I didn’t learn it anywhere. I’ve read every day since I could read and read adult novels when we were still actually learning to read in school…when you had to sound out the words and look them up in the dictionary. That led to some strange ideas. When I was seven I thought estranged meant you were separated from your significant other as they were in a mental hospital because they were ‘strange.’ I really should’ve looked that one up. Awkwardness could’ve been avoided.
I never read young adult novels as this was a time period when there were four young adult novelists with actual writing careers, not just one shot novels. I didn’t read Judy Blume as I was already pure geek and not interested in my period, or peer pressure regarding sex and drugs, and while she was, I know, an amazing author, it just wasn’t a genre I was interested in. I did read Madeline L’Engle, who I think was the best young adult author of all time—always was and always will be and I don’t need to compare her to anyone else to know that. The way she combined science fiction with fantasy with vulnerable yet brave characters and brilliant plots, none of which depended on sexual tension between teens, will astound me until the day I die.
So, no one taught me how to make characters unique, interesting, multi-layered, or morally flexible. I read everything I could get my hands on and when I started writing, I wrote what I couldn’t find. I wanted to see characters who could be loyal to their friends or siblings beyond any question. I wanted main characters who weren’t good through and through, because no one is. And a little darkness in a character makes them more interesting to me. I wanted characters of color, characters with different sexual orientations (those two things in my tiny country library with its donated books from twenty years ago could not be found when I was a kid), villains that were wholly evil that you could hate without worrying about their traumatic childhood and villains who you liked despite the horrific things they did simply because they were sarcastic, challenging and flat-out fun. I guess you could say I taught myself. I read thousands of books and while reading most of them I thought this would be better if…. And then I went out and wrote that if.
I think that’s the basis for why many writers write. You can’t find precisely what you want, close but not close enough, which means you have to write it yourself.
What do you feel is the most important craft element for aspiring writers to master?
Hmmm. Two, I think. Plots…if you don’t have an interesting, intriguing plot, you’re screwed. I’m not saying it has to be original or unique because by this point it’s all been done. You can come up with the most brilliant, unheard of (by you) plot and then find out months later that it’s been done five times in the past two years and twenty times in the past ten years. You don’t have to be original, you simply have to make it entertaining and put your own stamp on it. I have books with twists at the end (I even had one book, TRICK OF THE LIGHT, that had four surprise endings) that my fans never saw coming. The fans are boggled, can’t believe it, blown away, and that thrills me, but I know someone somewhere has done it before I did. There’s nothing new under the sun. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to be original and put your mark on it, but don’t worry about it obsessively. You’ll go insane. Just write it down and slap it on your murder board: There is nothing new under the sun.
The second would be your voice. This is debatable among writers, authors, publishers, editors, yeah, everyone. But if I read a book and then read another book by the same author, yet I can’t tell it’s the same author as the writing is complete generic if technically perfect, I’m not interested. The best authors (not necessarily the bestselling, but the best) have a unique voice. The voice draws the reader in, makes them feel closer to the main character, more involved in the plot; it can make them feel as if they are a part of the book, that world, that universe. Voice adds texture and realism and holds out a hand for the reader to take and join in. Having a voice as opposed to strictly professionally perfect writing is the difference between mint chocolate chip ice cream and vanilla low fat yogurt. Don’t write what you think people sound like…write what you would say. And don’t filter yourself. Write what you would think in your head. If you were alone in your house and you were a man let’s say (as I’m a woman but write from a male pov 75% of the time) would you think/write (you’re alone, not talking to anyone) “I will have some wine as I am thirsty and irritable, the day was difficult, and I need to relax. Perhaps later I will masturbate for stress relief.” NO. You would not think that if you were a man (or a woman for that matter.) You would think/write, “It had been one bitch of a day. I grabbed a bottle of wine, didn’t bother with a glass, and flopped on the couch as I pulled down several swallows of the best vintage five bucks could buy. Maybe later I’d hit the bathroom and jack off for extra stress relief, but now I was too tired and the couch, beat up and curved to fit me perfectly, was my Mecca.”
Of course, that is for contemporary fiction. If you’re talking epic/high fantasy, that changes things. But I don’t write or read epic/high fantasy (although I read it all in high school), so my advice is not applicable there.
Tell me about your writing process.
I write daily. Seven days a week, twelve hours a day. One sick day or vacation day and my deadlines are blown. I do not plot…I’m a panster not a plotter. If you don’t know what a panster is, it means to fly or write by the seat of your pants. I’m worse than that. I write by the skin of my ass. I do always know how the book will end, what trope I will mutilate if I use a trope, and the ‘hook’ I’ll use to catch a reader’s interest. Still, with the surprise endings in most of my books, I must have a plotter in my subconscious. We’ve just never met and shaken hands. I look back at books I’ve written (especially CHIMERA, ALL SEEING EYE, and TRICK OF THE LIGHT) and I think who wrote that? How the hell did I come up with all those plot twists? I’m possessed (not demonically…well, maybe <grin>) by a plotter, but my conscious itself does not plot—it’s rather strange.
How much writing (how many novels etc) did you complete before you were published?
Two. The first didn’t sell, but the second did. But there is no number to fixate on. I read that Simon Green of SF fame wrote ten books before he published and they took all ten at one time. I’m not certain if that’s true or not, but in this crazy business, I wouldn’t be surprised. I used to hear the average was five books before publishing, but that was before e-books and self-publishing and independent publishers—there isn’t a norm. Everyone is different.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the publishing industry that you didn’t know before you were published?
Everything. Every-single-thing. If I had known then what I know now, I’d be far more sane, but I also might never have tried to publish at all—it is that…I can’t even grasp a word to cover what it is. I think it’s criminal that any creative writing programs at the college level don’t include a class on the business and promotional side of publishing and the other realities regarding covers, titles, contract rights. There are hundreds of things to know and you don’t find them out until after you publish and it’s too late to do anything about it. But here are a few examples if you publish with the Big Five (you actually have much more freedom self-publishing, but…problems there as well), a few and only a few and not necessarily the worst.
1) You have no control over your book covers. None.
2) You rarely get to pick the title of your own book.
3) You often have to change things for your editor (such as aging up a cute 12 y/o minor character to be an 18 y/o love interest.) I’ve had college students say that they would never do that, never change their work, never compromise. My reply to them was that I admired their integrity and we had a name for such integrity in the writing world. It’s called ‘unpublished.’
4) Your book sells for 7.99 or 8.99 in paperback. You get anywhere from 6% to 8%, depending on circumstances too numerous to name. You do the math. It’s not pretty math, is it?
5) The average writer sells 10,000—15,000 copies of a novel (for the Big Five. I don’t know the numbers on the smaller, independent or e-publishers.)
6) Per a Jim Butcher interview, I believe he said that 1 out of 1000 writers will publish. 1 out of 10 published authors will be able to support themselves writing (see above not-so-pretty math). This means 9 out of 10 writers have day jobs or very supportive partners/spouses.
7) There is this thing called a reserve. This means the publisher will hold back so many thousands of dollars (in case the bookstore returns what they don’t sell) until your book has sold enough to pay off your advance. This leads to the next point and my last as I don’t want people jumping off bridges.
8) Royalties are referred to in the business as ‘found money.’ In other words, you will most likely never see a dime in royalties. Your advance is what you receive and may be all you ever receive. Advances can be not-so-hot or fairly good, depending on the publishing house, but advances are paid in three parts: when you sign the contract, when you turn in the book and it passes through one content edit and three copy edits which takes months, and, finally, when it’s released to B&N or Amazon. So that figure might like okay at first glance, but it is paid out in three installments over a period of two years. For people who need such ridiculous things as food and shelter, that might not be a source of income you want to rely upon solely.
What is the most important piece of advice you could offer to aspiring authors?
Write for yourself, write for fun, write because you can’t bear not to write, but don’t write for money, as you might be disappointed. Don’t write for fame—that is beyond rare and most likely will never come. If you write for yourself, then money and publishing is the cherry on top. If they come, it’s a fantastic surprise and you’ll appreciate it so much more because you don’t automatically expect it. But if those things don’t come, you will still be happy with you and your art. And with self-publishing growing like kudzu, these days, you can share your work on your own, make some bucks, get some fans and that’s great too—people telling you how much they love your work is almost better than money and so addictive I’m surprised the DEA isn’t all over it.
Rob Thurman has written three series for Penguin Putnam’s imprint ROC FANTASY: The CAL LEANDROS Novels, The TRICKSTER Novels, and The CHIMERA Novels. Her first book, NIGHTLIFE, was released in 2006. She has written thirteen books to date and is releasing the ninth book in the CAL LEANDROS Novels in 2014. She has also written for a Charlaine Harris & Toni L.P. Kelner Anthology, WOLFSBANE AND MISTLETOE as well as three other anthologies: COURTS OF THE FEY, CARNIEPUNK, and KICKING IT. In 2012, Rob released a mainstream supernatural thriller, ALL SEEING EYE, for Pocket Books.
Although she does not write Young Adult, her first Urban Fantasy book in The CAL LEANDROS Series—NIGHTLIFE—has received a 2011 Eliot Rosewater Award Nomination for Excellence in High School Libraries—rather to her bemusement as she’d be the first to say her books are not for younger teens. Apparently, the librarians and teens disagree!
Rob’s work is dark, non-stop action from beginning to end, rife with purely evil sarcasm as sharp as a switchblade—and probably nearly as illegal. If one shoved LORD OF THE RINGS, THE SHINING, and PULP FICTION into a wood-chipper, the result would be what Rob aims to deliver in her Urban Fantasy novels.