CHAT WITH KEN STARK

Ken Stark is a horror fiction writer from Vancouver, Canada, and is living proof that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. After decades of writing only for himself, he decided it was finally time to let the world see inside his head, and what better way to do that than by utterly destroying civilization in his debut novel. With the second chapter of his Stage 3 series due for release soon and more on the way, he can only hope that everyone is buckled up for a wild ride.

Time to chat with Ken!

What are the special challenges in writing a series?

Without a doubt, the greatest challenge in even contemplating a series is going through the effort to map out an entire future, not knowing whether a single word of it will ever see the light of day. Considering the odds, it might just be a tremendous waste of energy, but if it’s published, a reader will want to know that the series is following a game plan rather than just being made up along the way. This doesn’t mean that every single step of the journey has to be plotted in excruciating detail, but you have to at least know where you’re going. In that way, I guess it’s just a magnified version of what every writer faces; tons of work with no guarantees.

What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories?

I love short stories, but they definitely have their pros and cons. A complete story has to be told in the space of what would be a single chapter of a novel, so there isn’t a lot of room for subtlety. But that limitation can work in the writer’s favour, too. A backstory can be summed up in two lines. A character’s motives might boil down to a few words. And it has to be said, there’s a certain rush in being able to weave a tale together in a week rather than the better part of a year.

Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?

Actually, I intended to use a pseudonym with Stage 3 in order to keep my anonymity, but when my publisher sent me the cover art for approval and I saw my name splashed across that incredible piece of artwork in big, bold type, the egotist in me took over and I couldn’t let them change it.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

I think horror and I chose each other, and at a very young age at that. I grew up under the shadow of Mutual Assured Destruction and nightly images from Vietnam, and most of my favourite TV shows and movies growing up reflected the zeitgeist of the day. Omega Man, The Day After, Soylent Green, Night Gallery, even scifi flicks like Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run; they all seemed to paint a fairly bleak picture of the future. They weren’t horror per se, but the dark visions of an unknown future fascinated me. I’m not sure if we’re any better off now than we were then, and in many ways the threats have actually multiplied, so though I see immense potential for the future, there remains a nervous burbling in the pit of my stomach that keeps my writing rather dark.

Are your characters ever based on people you know?

Not yet, no. I won’t say that it will never happen, but so far, my characters are their own people. All of us meet so many people over so many years of our lives, I don’t see a need to capture someone wholesale and drop them into a book. It’s much more fun to pick and choose from that library of traits, and build someone entirely new.

How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?

Probably more often than they should, but that’s when I know that I’ve created a powerful character. More often than not, the story veers off in an entirely new direction and I have to corral everyone together to get things back on track, but I always find that it all worked out to my advantage. Invariably, that momentary insurrection gave the story a more organic flow, and the story is just that much better as a result.

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

I don’t draft a detailed outline, but I know the story I want to tell and the specific arcs of the characters, and I certainly know the way I want it to end. Things might arise along the way to alter the exact ending I had in mind, but it only varies by a few degrees, and it’s always better than what I had planned. As for titles, I prefer to let those come naturally. Usually, the words jump out at me as I’m writing a particular scene, and I know right then that I have my title.

Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?

Truth be told, I’ll edit a book into the ground if given the chance. I usually pound out a chapter or two, go back and edit, write a few more chapters, go back again, and continue that way until it’s done. And once it’s done, I’ll go through it again. And again. And again. Honestly, if I didn’t have several people reminding me that I eventually had to finish, I’m not sure I ever would.

Do you have any advice for first-time authors?

My advice to aspiring authors is always the same. Don’t listen to what anyone says, just tell the story that’s in your head. Write what and how and where and when you want, critics be damned. But for the sake of those looking for something a little more tangible, let me tell you what I wish I had known from the start. First, don’t worry about finding an agent. Lots of publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, and you can find lists of them all over the web. So check them out, see the kind of things they’re interested in, and have a look at the books they’ve already published. Second, finish your book before you submit anything. And I mean finish it. Complete, edited and polished. If you send in 3 chapters and they want to read the whole thing, they aren’t going to wait six months while you write the rest. Third, and perhaps most important, write a kick-ass blurb for your book. The person who reads your email will be wading through dozens a day, and that blurb is the only thing that will make yours stand out. And if it intrigues the publisher, he/she knows that it will intrigue potential buyers as well, so that blurb is all-important. Do some research. Look at other blurbs. See what works and what doesn’t, and take your time to get it just right. If it doesn’t take a couple of weeks, it can be better. And yes, it’s that important.

Can you tell us about your road to publication?

Actually, my story should be motivation for every aspiring writer. I wrote a book and spent a year shopping it around with a remarkable lack of success. It was immensely discouraging and I began to think that I was wasting my time, but as I was checking various publishers’ websites, I found several that were looking for a specific type of story. So I set aside the book I was trying to flog and started to hash out the premise for Stage 3. When it was done, I submitted a completed manuscript to one of those publishers, and they scooped it up. And so, I guess the lesson here is two-fold. Never give up on your dreams, but allow for the fact that those dreams might cut a rather circuitous path.

Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?

I had next to no social media presence before being published, so I had to catch up quickly. Without a doubt, Twitter has become my favourite because it lets me spread the word on hundreds of extremely talented people every day, and I’ve met some real friends along the way. My least favourite is anything that involves an author’s bio. I’m perfectly happy discussing my work or being interviewed, but seeing the words ‘tell us about yourself’ fills me with absolute dread.

Do you have any grammatical pet peeves to share?

A lot of what I read could benefit from an extra comma here or there, but I couldn’t care less about grammar. Historically, the English language became what it is through adoption, absorption and invention, so as far as I’m concerned, anything goes. I feel perfectly free to dangle participles, split infinitives and hyphenate the unhyphenatable. And no, unhyphenatable is not a word, but it is now…..Dibs!

Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?

First draft, nothing! I never let anyone see a word of what I’m writing until the whole thing’s done! It’s hard enough putting my heart out there with a fresh coat of varnish, I can’t imagine letting anyone see it all full of holes and dripping with rust.

We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

The cover is the first thing people see, and in this world where thoughts drift as quickly as the click of a mouse, that cover is more important than it’s ever been. I can’t tell you the number of times someone told me that they picked up Stage 3 because of the cover. Yes, I hear you all screaming that it’s what’s inside that counts, but believe me when I say, nobody’s going to bother looking inside unless the outside draws them in. If you’re an indie, spend the money. It might take a year’s royalties to pay it off, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

Would you like to write a short poem for us?

In no way am I a poet, but how about the best limerick I can come up with in under two minutes?

Ahem…..

There once was a fellow named Ken

who took up his paper and pen

The words that he wrought

weren’t quite what he ought

And the masses cried, “Damn, this again!?”

*bows ponderously, and exits stage right to the sound of crickets chirping in the distance.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I’ve lived in Vancouver for most of my life, but as I said in one of my earlier stories, ‘a man shouldn’t grow old in the same town he grew up in’. I’m thinking Hawaii, or maybe the Mexican Riviera, but definitely someplace warm. I’m open to suggestions…. Anyone?

If you could duplicate the knowledge from any single person’s head and have it magically put into your own brain, whose knowledge would you like to have? And why.

Albert Einstein’s, definitely. He was able to see the fabric of the universe in a way that no one had before, and I would love to have just a glimpse of that brilliance. For a thousand years, humanity envisioned a clockwork universe, and then along came Einstein with a unique vision of it all. Can you imagine the audacity to suggest a century ago that space and time were really one? This meant that the ‘now’ of a someone coming toward us might be centuries different from the ‘now’ of someone moving away from us. It’s mind-boggling to even contemplate, but that unknown patent clerk envisioned it all. Just imagine if that kind of out-of-the-box brilliance was directed at some of the problems we face today.

If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?

I’m supposed to say books, right? Well yes, of course there would be books, but really, I would love a games room. Wet bar, pool table, big screen TV, comfy chairs, jukebox, room for all my comic books and nerd toys……Actually, that sounds so good, maybe I’ll just add a bed and move in!

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

No, if something gives me pleasure, I don’t feel guilty about it. That probably sounds hedonistic, but in my boring little world, such excess usually takes the form of extra cheese on the pizza or imported beer rather than domestic.

CONNECT WITH KEN

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CHAT WITH JEN PONCE

Jen Ponce lives in the Panhandle of NE with her three boys, her cats, and her goldfish named Reggie. She loves to read, watch, and write fantasy and horror. Her passion for writing comes from her desire to see more stories with strong, complex female characters. There weren’t enough books with women she could root for, so she had to write her own.

Jen Ponce: Writer of kickass women and oogy monsters.

Time to chat with Jen!

What is your latest book?

My latest book is Burning the Devil, a psychological horror story about relationships, hope, and evil. The idea for the book came from a dream, one of those unusual dreams with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end and a plot arc that intrigued me. I tried many times to write the story as I saw it in my head to no avail. I finally figured out the theme of the book and what I wanted to say with it. After that, pinning the story to paper came easier.

Is your recent book part of a series?

No. This is a stand-alone horror novel. I do have a dark fantasy series. I’m currently working on book five. The series starts with The Bazaar. I was lucky enough to win a free cover design for that book. I’m super stoked about it.

What are the special challenges in writing a series?

Keeping everything straight! You’d never think you’d forget your character’s height or eye color or what they were wearing when they come into their power … but you do. My best advice for anyone who wants to write a series is keep a story bible. Keep detailed notes. Re-read the stories before you starting writing the next one. Trust me.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

I write fantasy and horror because those are the genres I love to read most. I was an avid romance fan in my high school years and I’ve written a few romances, but I really love a good fantasy or horror novel. There’s something about diving into a book with magic and monsters that just thrills me.

What else have you written?

I have two novels with deliciously bloody vampires, a horror novel about bugs and zombie fungus, two romances, a serialized novel about a bisexual demon hunter, and my Devany Miller series.

What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?

My favorite part is seeing what happens next. I’m a pantser, which means I don’t plot out my stories. I like to see where the idea takes me. Sure, sometimes I have an ending in mind, but it’s a nebulous thing. I tell stories to myself as I write, which keeps everything fresh and fun.

That being said, I always hate the middle part of my novel. For me, I start wishing I could write a new story when I get to the end of the first third of the book. Everything feels awful, all the words I’ve written seem pointless … it’s just a nightmare. I really have to stay focused and disciplined to push my way through that point. Once I get by it, I’m good to go again and writing, once more, is fun.

Some authors, like me, always write scenes in order. But I know some people write scenes out of order. How about you?

I have tried writing a book out of order and it’s still a mess. I love the story, but I dearly wish I’d never attempted to assemble it from the middle. Ugh.

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

I have to know the title—as best I can, anyway—before I can start writing. I don’t have to know the end; in fact, I’d rather not know so it can be a surprise to me, too. But I can’t get started without a title.

Burning the Devil didn’t have that title when it started. It’s one of the rare books I’ve written that ended up with a completely different title at the end.

How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?

Character names are important, but I’ve never really had trouble with names. Titles, yes, names, no. I’ve changed very few names, and when I changed the name, the character changed too. So, I guess I changed the character’s name only after the character themselves changed.

If you were to write a non-fiction book, what might it be about?

I would write a book about dangerous relationships and what to look out for when dating, aka dating red flags. I work as an advocate for sexual and domestic violence victims and I am passionate about promoting healthy relationships, healthy boundaries, and healthy sexuality. I’m also passionate about educating people on relationship red flags. Did you know that ‘love at first sight’ can be a red flag? An abusive person likes to get you emotionally invested in themselves as quickly as possible. If more people knew what to look for and everyone was taught about healthy relationships, healthy boundaries, and healthy sexuality from the time they were tiny, it would transform the world.

How would you define your style of writing?

My writing is spare and colorful. I hate long, droning paragraphs full of description. I am an impatient reader. I want to see the story. I want to see the action and I don’t want to dwell overlong on things that don’t matter to the story. I know some people love leisurely books full of details. I rarely do. Sometimes I have to slow myself down and remind myself that not everyone is like me. I don’t want people to turn away from my work because it’s so sparse on details that they can’t see what’s happening. I just want to cut out the boring bits.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I live in the Panhandle of Nebraska. If I had to move, I’d consider Colorado. There’s a college with an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter program. I’m currently taking ASL classes and I’d love to become an interpreter.

Trains, planes, automobiles, or boats?

Trains. There’s something lovely and romantic about trains.

If you could duplicate the knowledge from any single person’s head and have it magically put into your own brain, whose knowledge would you like to have? And why.

I’d take my friend Jim’s knowledge. He was the funniest guy I knew, smartest too. I’d love to have all those jokes at my fingertips and I’d never lose at Scrabble. (Because he never did.)

Care to brag about your family?

I have three awesome boys: Emilio, Luc, and Miguel. They are kind and funny and intelligent. I learn something new from them all the time and I’m so glad I’ve been lucky enough to have them in my life.

What music soothes your soul?

Hip hop. Weird but true.

What are three things you think we can all do to make the world a better place?

Have healthy boundaries. Respect others. And be kinder.

 

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CHAT WITH ERIK THERME

erik-therme-author-photo

Erik Therme has thrashed in garage bands, inadvertently harbored runaways, and met Darth Vader. When he’s not at his computer, he can be found cheering for his youngest daughter’s volleyball team, or watching horror movies with his seventeen-year-old. He currently resides in Iowa City, Iowa—one of only twenty places in the world UNESCO has certified as a City of Literature.

What is your latest book?

My third novel, Roam, will be released in February 2017. The story follows a young man who believes he’s being haunted by his dead father, and the only way he can redeem himself is by “saving” someone else. It’s a character-driven story and very different from my first two books.

roam

What else have you written?

My debut mystery, Mortom, is about a guy who inherits his deceased cousin’s house and finds a key with a note that says: Follow Me. From there, he has to follow a series of clues to unravel the mystery. My second novel, Resthaven, is about a pack of kids who have a scavenger hunt inside an abandoned retirement home, only to discover they’re not the only ones roaming the hallways.

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

I always have a vague idea of how the book will end, but once I get there, my original vision rarely resembles the finished version. I’m not much of an outliner and prefer the “process of discovery” method when writing first drafts. I will confess that my lack of outlining causes lots of backtracking, dead ends, and staring into the screen for hours on end, but I like the freedom to see where the story takes me. Titles, on the other hand, usually come to me fairly easily, and they rarely change once I’ve picked one out.

Are you easily distracted while writing? If so, what to you do to help yourself focus?

I am the king of distraction. A typical writing session for me is as follows: open Word, type a few sentences, check e-mail, check Twitter, type a few more sentences, check Facebook . . . and rinse and repeat. It’s a miracle I ever get anything written. And it’s probably the reason it takes me two years to finish a book. I do have moments where I get into the zone and write big chunks without distraction, but those moments are usually far and few between.

Authors, especially Indies, are constantly trying to understand why some authors sell very while their talented fellow authors have a hard time of it. It’s an ongoing conundrum. What do you make of it all?

It’s been said that talent is a cheap commodity, and I’ve come to believe that’s close to the truth. I’ve witnessed excellent authors languish in sales, while horrible writers excel. Talent is absolutely needed to get the ball rolling, but hard work, perseverance, and plain old dumb luck are just as important. And even then, there’s no guarantee. Sometimes books resonate with readers, sometimes they don’t. It’s as simple as that. All you can do is keep writing, hone your skills, and hope the next book will capture the attention of the masses.

Do you have any advice for first-time authors?

Don’t be afraid to write badly. First drafts are supposed to be ugly. The important thing is to get the story onto the page. Everything can be fixed from there. Writing, as many authors will attest, is 90% rewriting. Also, be sure to tell a story you’re passionate about, because you’re probably going to spend months—if not years—reworking the same sentences and paragraphs.

Can you tell us about your road to publication?

I chased literary agents for years in the hopes of bridging the gap to a traditional publisher. After a very close call with Gillian Flynn’s agency, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands and self-publish. Six months after Mortom was released, I received an e-mail from Thomas & Mercer, who had discovered the book and wanted to acquire and re-release it through their imprint. Needless to say, I was more than happy to accept. When I completed Resthaven, I knew it wasn’t a good fit for T&M (they don’t handle YA), so I submitted the book to Kindle Scout, where it was selected for publication.

Many authors do giveaways; have you found them a successful way to promote your book?

I regularly run three types of giveaways, each of them serving a specific purpose. Goodreads giveaways are great exposure, as they usually generate hundreds of entries. Most entrants add the book to their bookshelf, which increases the chances of them grabbing a copy if they don’t win. The downside is that Goodreads currently only allows paperback giveaways, which can get pricey. LibraryThing, on the other hand, allows e-book giveaways, which is an inexpensive way to get reviews. The only catch is that the minimum number is 100 e-books, and some authors might not be comfortable giving away that many copies. Lastly (and my personal favorite) are Amazon giveaways. To win, the entrant has to follow you on Amazon (there are other options, but this is the one I use the most), which means every time you release a new book, they’ll get an e-email notification. This is a great way to build a fan base to complement your mailing list.

We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

My buddy, Craig A. Hart, summed this up perfectly in a recent interview: “There is no excuse these days for a bad cover.” I couldn’t agree more. It can get a little pricey to have a cover designed from scratch, but pre-made covers are prevalent and affordable. Resthaven and Roam were both existing covers from a pre-made site, and each cost under $100 to purchase. To be a fiscally successful writer, you have to treat your writing like a business, which means—at minimum—spending money on covers and editing.

Do you have complete control over your characters or do they ever control you?

I learned, early on, that trying to control my characters works as well as trying to catch sand in a net. It ain’t gonna happen. My job is to follow, observe, and write down the things my characters say and do. More often than not, I find they surprise me and take the story in unexpected directions.

How would you define your style of writing?

Many authors aspire to create sprawling, epic tales—which is great—but I love crafting brisk, short reads that can be devoured in one or two sittings. I often joke that my books should only be sold in airport gift shops, as they’re the perfect length for a short plane ride.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you get around it?

I imagine this is different for every writer, but for me, writer’s block most commonly takes the form of crappy, uninspired writing. This can last for hours, days, or weeks. Sometimes a long break from my story will fix the problem, but more often than not, the only solution is to keep plugging away, and eventually the muse will show her face again.

Trains, planes, automobiles, or boats?

I’ve never been on a train; planes make me claustrophobic; and my longest boat ride was a 30-minute ferry to Mackinaw Island (lovely place, if you ever get the chance to visit). Drop me behind the wheel of an automobile, and I’m pretty content to log some serious miles, as long as I have Mountain Dew, music, and/or good conversation.

Care to brag about your family?

My wife is an avid knitter and churns out cowls and sweaters with frightening regularity. Her incredible creations can be found at her Etsy shop: Knit By Design. Our 17-year-old has been on the honor roll since her freshman year, and our 13-year-old is gearing up to dominate her second year of club volleyball.

If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?

I’m a big fan of Walking Dead and Bates Motel, but my favorite show of all time is ABC’s Lost. I laughed, cried, and scratched my head at the finale . . . until it slowly sank in, and I realized the ending was perfect. It was an amazing viewing experience and one that will stay with me for years to come.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I was a child of the 80’s, which means video games pretty much dominated my youth and then followed me into adulthood. I recently purchased the complete box set of Three’s Company, and I never tire of watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island.

CONNECT WITH ERIK

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