Monday, December 30, 2013

Q & A with Rayne Hall | Author of Horror Fiction and Fantasy

Rayne Hall is author of horror fiction and fantasy
Artist's impression by Fawnheart
Rayne Hall has published more than fifty books in several languages under several pen names with several publishers in several genres, mostly fantasy and horror. She is a trained publishing manager and holds a master's degree in creative writing & personal development. She is the editor of the TEN TALES fantasy and horror anthologies and the author of the WRITER'S CRAFT guides.

Literary Juice:  As the author of horror and fantasy fiction—which, according to your website, the stories are described as quirky, disturbing, and mostly dark—what is it that draws you to the “dark” and “disturbing”?  When did you first take an interest in horror and fantasy fiction? 

Rayne Hall: I didn’t set out to write dark and disturbing fiction...but whenever I wrote something dark or disturbing, the stories sold, earned critical acclaim, and won awards. After a while, I accepted that this was my vocation.

Dark fiction, like perhaps no other genre, allows me to challenge readers' perceptions of good and evil, and to make them think.

Sometimes I write other genres, but the stories often acquire a dark slant. Whatever genre I intend to write, it often turns into horror. Some years ago, I started a light-hearted Regency Romance novel. At first, all went well, with lots of funny situations and witty banter, but then I discovered that there was a centuries-old curse on the family, the hero had a guilty secret, and the vengeful housekeeper was on a serial killing spree.

My attempt at writing a contemporary romance set in China went well until I got to Chapter 4. A mine shaft collapsed, trapping the heroine in total darkness with an armed murderer and little oxygen. Another time, I had this idea for a cute story for children, but by the time the story was finished, all the cute children were dead, sacrificed to an ancient god. This happens all the time. Even my lightest, funniest stories have an element of macabre humor.

My interest in horror fiction dates back to my teens when I discovered the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The psychological intensity of Poe’s horror tales gripped me and never let me go.

With fantasy fiction, my interest grew more gradually. An early influence was the novel Krabat by Otfried Preu├čler. Although little known in the English-speaking world, it’s a celebrated children’s book in Germany, with a magic story that subtly shows how a whole generation of young people – including the book’s author - came to fall under Hitler’s spell and realized the truth too late.

LJ: Are there any authors, past or present, who have greatly influenced your writing?  In what ways?

RH: In my early teens, I loved the historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff and Hans Baumann. I also read a lot of Karl May. Although Karl May (1842 - 1912) is almost unknown in the English-speaking world, he is popular in Germany. I loved his atmospheric descriptions of exotic places where he had never been. His approach has definitely influenced my novels, especially Storm Dancer.

I was about fifteen when I discovered a book with stories of Edgar Allan Poe. They were so exciting! At once, I started writing horror stories. They didn't have much plot and blatantly copied Poe's style, but at the time I thought they were really good. Poe has remained an influence on my short fiction, especially my psychological horror stories.

Later, I was influenced by the Gothic stories by the Victorian writer Amelia Edwards. Although her stories ooze suspense from the start, the horror builds slowly. One of Edwards' suspense techniques is to place the protagonists into an unfamiliar environment and isolate them from their companions. For example, the narrator of The Phantom Coach has gone grouse hunting, alone, in a bleak wide moor in the North of England, got caught in a snowstorm, and must seek shelter where he can.  Above all, I love Edwards' vivid descriptions of location, climate and weather (in this story, the approaching storm and the moor landscape covered in deep snow). Her skillful use of descriptions (e.g. coach with its mould-crusted leather fittings)  to drive the plot and create a spooky atmosphere is the work of a horror genre master. Surprisingly, Edwards’ stories don’t feel dated to the modern reader, the way many other Victorian stories do.

When I read Amelia Edwards' stories, I immediately recognized a kindred spirit. This was how I wanted to write, and here was a master I could learn from, someone I could strive to emulate.

The late David Gemmell influenced me in a more practical manner. He was a kind of mentor, although that word suggests a more formal relationship than we had. Sometimes we chatted about our writing – his fabulously successful epic fantasy novels, and my largely unpublished efforts – and he shared what he was working on, what creative decisions he had made for his work in progress and why. He also pointed out where he felt I was going wrong with my stories, and suggested techniques for me to try. At the time, I liked to create twists by letting the reader expect something, and then twisting the plot in other ways. David warned me against this. Whenever readers think they know what will happen, they lose interest in the story; and even if what happens is not what they expect, that moment of lost interest is fatal to the book’s tension. I've taken his advice, for my novels anyway. You may see David Gemmell’s influence in my epic fantasy novel Storm Dancer.

LJ: Are any of your stories drawn from your own life experiences? 

RH: I like to blend real life experiences with a big dose of imagination. Many contain a grain of something that happened to me, but in much-changed form. I've often visited the ancient stone circles in Cornwall, but I never witnessed a human sacrifice like in Druid Stones. The train journey across the Swiss Alps happened, but unlike the story Night Train, there were no vampires on board. My experiences as a bellydancer and museum guide inspired parts of Turkish Night and The Painted Staircase. The events in Black Karma, with the shaggy dog pursuing me night after night, occurred almost exactly as I've written them. As a young woman in London, I was really molested by a would-be rapist and had the wits to pretend I was a dominatrix – but the rest of Only A Fool happened only in my imagination.

Storm Dancer is set in a fantasy world loosely based on the cultures of the Bronze Age period and the climate and geography of the Middle East, so my travels in the Near and Middle East and in North Africa inspired many colorful details.  A few elements from Asia - including Mongolia - have also found their way into Storm Dancer.

I also used personal experiences of what it's like to work in a distant Third World country, cut off from all support, at the mercy of an employer who doesn't honor the terms of the contract. My experience of performing and teaching bellydance has found its way into this novel, too, so when Merida learns to bellydance in the harem, and when she entertains in a tavern, those scenes have authenticity.

LJ: Apart from describing that spine-tingling thrill they experience from your stories, many readers have also defined your stories as “thought-provoking”.   What is the message you are hoping to convey through your writing?  What do you believe your audiences find most appealing about your books?    

RH: Through the medium of an exciting story, I can get messages across without sounding preachy. I’m inviting my readers to think, to probe their own consciences, to ask themselves what they would have done in this situation, to explore what is right and what’s wrong – but I’m not forcing them to. Each reader decides for themselves if they want to simply enjoy the surface thrill or if they want to go deeper.

There’s no single message I want readers to carry away after reading my stories. Each story has a different message, and each reader’s psyche is different. However, I like to challenge people’s perceptions, and to shine a light into the dark grey areas between good and evil.

I don’t provide ready-made answers – I guide the readers on their own explorations.

LJ: Have you learned anything surprising about yourself when writing horror fiction?

RH: I've learnt that by fictionalizing something, putting it on paper and shaping it, I gain control over it – especially the things that frighten or disturb me. Cowards make good horror writers, because we know what fear feels like, and because we never run out of ideas what to write about. But it’s the process of writing that gives us control – it’s a form of empowering therapy.

Let me give you an example. I used to have a terrible fear of fire. It was so bad, I could never bring myself to even light a match. Once when I was about seven, my father forced me to watch a house burn, and I had nightmares about it for three decades, and the experience increased my fear. As a teenager, I heard about  disturbing fire-related events that had happened in my neighborhood, some recent, some of them long before I was born.

Another house burned down, and I heard afterwards that the Turkish family who lived there had not been able to get out. Their charred skeletons told how they had cowered in the corner as the flames devoured them, and the father had shielded his daughters with his own body for as long as he could. This moved me deeply, and then I heard someone say, “They were only Turks. Good riddance to the vermin.”

Then I found out about the atrocities committed against Jews during the Nazi period. This was in the 1980s, and the prevailing attitude was still that these were things best not talked about. But some things filtered through. In the town of my birth, locals burnt the synagogue and then built a church on that spot. In a nearby town, the eager citizens went even further: they locked the Jewish population into the synagogue before they set it on fire. The fire brigade, instead of putting out the flames, fanned and fed them, and made sure none of the Jews could escape. 

One day I took a sheet of paper and wrote down everything that scared or disturbed me in connection with fire. Burning houses, churches, racial hatred, hypocrisy, a scared child witnessing events she cannot understand...these elements clicked together. Into a disturbing tale of human evil.

That story – titled Burning - was the most difficult piece I've ever written. Several times, I had to set it aside because I was too upset to continue. But I persevered, and during the process of putting my thoughts on paper and shaping them into fiction, I gained control over my fear. When it was finished, two amazing things happened: My phobia vanished, and the story won awards. 

LJ: What are some marketing strategies that you use to successfully promote your books?  What advice would you give writers who are interested in publishing their own horror fiction or fantasy? 

RH: My main advice to writers of any genre, whatever publishing path they choose, is to make your book as good as you possibly can.  Promotion, perseverance and luck all play a role in success, but the most important factor is quality, and that is in the writer’s control.

Learn the writing craft to the highest possible standard. Use instruction books, study the works of the masters, take online classes, join critique groups, or whatever suits you.

Write the kind of fiction you enjoy reading. What’s your favorite kind of fantasy? Sweeping epics set in imagined lands, or gritty urban fantasies set in modern cities? What kind of horror pleases you? Gory splatterpunk, creepy ghost stories or psychological horror? That’s the kind of story you’ll be good at, and that you’ll enjoy writing.

For successful promotion, be aware who your target readers are. Then consider how and where to reach them.

With social media, it’s best not to bombard your fans and followers with automated “buy my book” messages. Instead, use social media to interact with people who share your interests – and who are interested in the kind of topics your book is about – and [be] helpful and genuine.

Fiction by RAYNE HALL
ISBN-10: 1482567229
Paperback; 458pp; $9.41
About this Book: Dahoud is a troubled hero with a dark past. As a siege commander, he once razed, raped and killed...and he enjoyed it. Now he needs to atone. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Q & A with Michelle Isenhoff | Author of the Divided Decade Trilogy

Author of Divided Decade Trilogy
When Michelle Isenhoff isn't writing imaginary adventures, she’s probably off on one. She loves roller coasters and swimming in big waves. She’s an avid runner. She likes big dogs, high school football games, old graveyards, and wearing flip-flops all winter. Her dream vacation would include a lot of castle ruins. Once an elementary teacher, Michelle now homeschools two of her three kids and looks forward to summer break as much as they do.

Literary Juice: You have mentioned that your historical fiction series, the Divided Decade trilogy, is set in your home state of Michigan. In what ways has the state’s history, as well as your experience living in Michigan, influenced this series and its characters? Additionally, how has your role as both a former elementary teacher and homeschool teacher influenced the series?

I went into teaching because I love children’s literature. I started writing novels after I became a teacher, so education has played a very important role in the process. I write the book I’d want to read in my classroom, be it public school or homeschool. I put in all the literary elements I love—vivid imagery, dynamic characters, and layers of meaning—which often draw adults to my books. Kids probably read them more for the adventure. My aim, for my historical fiction as well as my other novels, has always been the classroom.

My Divided Decade series began because I spent a winter reading up on the Civil War in preparation for a family vacation to Gettysburg. In my reading, I discovered an account of a Detroit inn-keeper who often housed slave-catchers while harboring the runaways in his barn. That prompted me to dig further into Michigan’s role in the war, and the Divided Decade trilogy was born.

LJ: Not only have you written historical fiction, but fantasy, adventure/comedy, and an early chapter as well. Is there a set formula that you follow when writing different genres? If not, what is the writing process like when working with multiple genres?

While I still love historical fiction, it has some rigid parameters. After writing three HF novels, I wanted to explore some plots not dictated by historical fact. The Quill Pen and Song of the Mountain still contain a strong historical flavor, but their fantastical elements let me spread my wings. The only formula I followed is a very general one: conflict, bumps and bruises that mold and change a character, and resolution. The getting from one end to the other was simply freer.

Writing my Taylor Davis series, however, was a vastly different experience. This was a chance to stretch my writing, to experiment with a new style and method. I sacrificed some (not all) of the literary depth for humor, fast-moving action, and wild imagination. They are much more commercial in nature. They are also more structured. The first book was originally intended as a serial, so it was written in six “episodes”. Readers won’t recognize where they begin and end, but the divisions helped me pace each story during its creation. They've been very fun to write. The second book releases on January first.

LJ: Have you ever looked back on one of your published books and regretted anything about the story, whether it was the ending, something about a character, or a specific outcome in a chapter? If so, what would you change if you could?

Some of my books were written several times before I published. But Song of the Mountain was actually published and pulled within a week because it still didn't feel right. It underwent one more major revision and was republished several months later, to my complete satisfaction.

My biggest regret, however, is jumping in before I understood how to present a digital novel. While my books had all been critiqued by several quality beta readers and the stories were sound, I quickly realized I needed to hire an editor and learn how to create a more readable interior. Fortunately, digital publishing is very fluid. I simply re-uploaded the retouched files and the worst damage was fixed. Since then, I've also been replacing my cover images with professional ones as funds allow. The experience has prompted my commitment to publish only high quality products and to help other newbies arrive at that same conclusion a little sooner than I did.

LJ: What is the worst criticism you have ever received regarding any of your books? How did you overcome that criticism? Also, what is the best compliment you have received?

First, I evaluate the source of the criticism. If it comes from someone who routinely gives poor reviews or isn't’t interested in my genre but “read it anyway,” I take it with a grain of salt. When it comes from more knowledgeable sources, I learn all I can from the experience. Probably my most difficult criticism came from a peer who gave me a two-star rating. This was someone I admired as a writer, and her comments stung. But she had some valid points. My writing has grown stronger from her insights. I actually asked her to publish that review.

My greatest compliment comes every time a child emails me, whether to discuss part of a book, ask a question, find out when a sequel will be released, tell me he or she wants to become an author, or whatever. That contact means my book impacted a reader and that I did my job well.
I was also tickled when a 79-year-old man wrote to encourage me to “keep writing for us kids.” 

LJ: What is the most surprising thing you have learned about yourself when writing?

That I can do it and do it well! I love to watch my skills improve. I've learned I can work under pressure, meet deadlines, and persevere when it gets tough. Writing a full-length novel and selling any copies at all is a huge accomplishment, and I’m thrilled to say I've done it eight times.

LJ: Your books have received fantastic praise on Amazon. What advice would you give aspiring authors looking to receive positive feedback for their own works as well? What can they do to captivate audiences and start building a fan base?

First, READ! You cannot be a good storyteller if you never come to understand the elements that make a story great. Second, don’t expect too much. There are hundreds of millions of digital books out there now, and it’s tough to make even a ripple. Keep in mind that if your Amazon sales rankings are in six figures, you’re still in the top 10% of books being sold on the site. But unless you write in the popular adult genres, you’re in for a tough slog. Do not expect to quit your day job. Third, don’t give up! Your books can gain a following.

Building a fan base is plain old hard work, but first you have to make sure your story is good (see above comment about READING). Get involved with an author group and take advantage of critiques. Learn the fundamentals and keep improving. Then invest in making your publication the best it can be. Hire help if you need it. At the very least, hire an editor. If you publish junk, any attempt at marketing is moot. Once you’re producing quality, network with others authors and with bloggers. Engage with your target audience. Ask for reviews. Use social media to your best advantage (which doesn't necessarily mean doing it all). Gaining a following is a long, slow crawl—one I’m still working at. I've met too many success stories to believe it can’t be done. But the first step, the very first step, is to give the readers something worth purchasing.

Historical Fiction by MICHELLE ISENHOFF
434pp; Kindle Price-$7.99
About this Trilogy: This set contains The Candle Star, Blood of Pioneers, and Beneath the Slashings.