Friday, June 15, 2012

Fiction Friday: Interview with author Daniel Sickbert

Daniel Sickbert is the author of the fantasy novel The Death of Innocence. To be honest, I didn't know it was a fantasy novel when I began reading it. I would have missed out on a great read if I had known, since I don't usually read this type of book. I am so glad I didn't, though! It really draws in the reader, and the story moves along quickly. There is none of the long, draggy filler that you often find in fantasy novels. And the final twist at the very end will keep you thinking for a long time after you finish the last page.

I had the opportunity to interview Daniel about the book. He was gracious enough to answer all my questions quickly, even though he and his beautiful wife have a new baby and a two year old at home. Here is the interview, and be sure to check out his book! You'll be glad you did.

How long did it take to write the book?

-It took about a year and a half of total time.  About 90% of the book was written at work on lunch breaks and things like that, and I took a break of four months or so in the middle of the book (in between writing parts 4 and 5). 

Where did you get the idea?

-The book started with Christopher Dauphin’s account of the curse of New Haven.  I suppose the idea came from a dream; I got out of bed in the middle of the night, wrote it in the span of an hour or so, then went back to sleep.  Interestingly, I did the same thing with the prologue of my second book (which is included at the end of this book as a bonus).  The next morning, I got up and read what I had written and then spent a week or so thinking about it…I had set up an interesting framework for a story, but there wasn’t much substance there yet.  At some point along the way I decided to use this book to play with some fantasy clichés (the amnesiac hero, the daring raid to rescue a fair maiden, the hero’s invincibility, etc.); I liked the notion of moving the story along these familiar paths then veering off into unexpected territory, and I actually think this is largely responsible for the positive response I’ve gotten to the book.  Once I had created Shane and his starting situation, I knew that Alphonsus had some siblings out there to provide the story with villains, and I knew how Alphonsus would make his return to the book.  Once I had those very basic details sketched out I just started writing, and most of the rest of the book almost wrote itself.

What inspired the creatures?

-I wanted the raol to be very literally the shadows of someone’s nasty mind.  They are, if you will, hatred personified.  They gain substance and strength as their prey fears them (they often begin as little more than wisps of black smoke).  I liked the idea of an army being summoned not as skeletons or demons, but directly from someone’s thoughts; the more evil the person, the stronger their constructs could be.  It gave a more personal animosity to the attacks directed against our heroes, and when Shane is shown to be capable of summoning them it shows how far he’s fallen throughout the book.

What was easiest about writing the book?

-The writing process itself, actually.  I very rarely had any kind of writer’s block (the break I took had more to do with life getting in the way than a dearth of ideas).  I think more than anything it was just a fun book to write, since I was writing off the cuff with very little pre-planning; when big events happened it was like watching my baby grow up.

What was hardest?

-The hardest part was definitely keeping all of my loose plot threads together…I laid a lot of seeds throughout the entire book that all needed to come together by the end.  A lot of things happened along the way that were not planned and ended up contributing to that final cohesive answer (for instance, Shane losing his arm), which was pretty gratifying.  Stephen King says in ‘On Writing’ that stories should take on a life of their own and write themselves, that the characters should do or say things that you weren’t planning, and that’s when you know the story is alive.  That happened for me about 2/3 of the way through the book, and it’s an odd sensation – things flowed very quickly from that point and I just wrote without really thinking very much about the path the book was taking.  I think in the end I tied everything up with a pretty neat bow, but there was a lot of work put in to combing back through the book and making sure nothing conflicted with what was written before.

I have the same problem, trying to keep everything straight for consistency. How did you do it? Did you keep a notebook, a computer program like OneNote, or something else, if anything?

I kept pretty copious notes on characters, starting on post-it notes (as I was mostly writing at work) and moving on to a word document with character details.  With long-form writing in particular I think you develop a picture in your head of how the character should look and act and consistency becomes a bit less difficult in terms of characters.  I will say that with one character losing their arm I had to be very careful in editing to make sure I didn’t talk about them using that arm/hand or avoiding the plural of either word.

In terms of events, I kept notes (again in a word document) on open plotlines that I’d revisit at the end of each Part of the book and update as necessary.  I also kept bullet-point notes of important plot points of each Part.  I re-read all that I had written prior to resumption of work after my months-long break as well, which I think helped focus me on what my goals were for the rest of the book.

The only place in the book where I really did any kind of an outline was in the last section of the book, where events start speeding up.  I wanted to make sure my story beats were hitting in a good order and also the location of all of my characters in the big battle.  That was my first experience in writing a constantly-shifting narrative and it was fairly difficult balancing my characters and the pace of the battle itself with the bulk of my cast versus what was going on with Shane.  Everything had to flow into one natural progression and then crash back together at the right spot.  I used a fairly top-level outline to avoid constricting my writing, essentially a list of events that needed to happen in each chapter and where my characters were at the end of each chapter.

When you began, did you know how it would end?

-I knew the ultimate endpoint from the start but I didn’t know how I was going to get to that endpoint.  There were certain scenes that I knew from the start would be in the book (Belinda’s fate, the storming of Raht) but almost everything else, including a certain sci-fi twist to things near the end, was not pre-planned.  I have written some short stories and novellas (as writing exercises, not for public consumption) with an outline and I feel like it constrains the story a bit too much.  Being more in control of the story does not necessarily equate to a better story.  Of course, I may have just been lucky that my plot pulled together as nicely as it did without the benefit of pre-planning.

How did you get published?

-I self-published this book as that seemed to be the most expedient way to get it out there.  The publishing market isn’t too kind to either long books or fantasy books right now, and mine fell in both of these categories.  Before I got serious about sending out queries to publishing houses, I started writing my second book, Sin, and I intend to self-publish that book for e-readers everywhere and then get serious about getting published for the brick-and-mortar stores.

I've heard both good and bad experiences with self-publishing lately. What was that process like? How long did it take from beginning the self-publishing process to having your book in hand?
 I used Xlibris and I had no problems with them.  The only thing I might have liked was for them to have some artists on staff to aid with cover illustrations (my mother actually did a charcoal sketch for the cover and then Brandon Seda, a friend of mine, did the coloring).  They set up a payment plan for me, asked what marketing plans I wanted (I did an email marketing plan and I wouldn’t suggest it), and asked if I wanted both hard and soft cover books.  You’re really in control of the entire process…the price point (to an extent), the font size (I used a fairly small font size to keep my book to a length that allowed for a slightly lower price point), the font and formatting, etc.  Once they’ve gotten everything ready they send an electronic proof for you to approve, and upon approval they’ll start manufacture and send out the hard copies of the book.  It took about 6 months if I recall correctly from my first payment to getting the book, which is truly a surreal experience.

The only negative I had about self-publishing outside of the lack of cover artists was the marketing…the companies offer a number of marketing plans but from my own experiences and what I’ve read from others they aren’t particularly effective.  A dedicated publishing house would almost certainly be able to provide more robust marketing, though who knows how much they’d provide to a first-time author.  Really, marketing is sadly just not a skill of mine and I didn’t put the time and effort into marketing that I could and probably should have.  I just moved on to the next book and decided I’d pursue publishing with a ‘real’ publisher, if you will, somewhere down the road.  Before I do that, and after I finish editing Sin (my second book), I’ll self-publish on Kindle, Nook, etc. as I’ve heard very positive things about that process from other authors.
Is Sin a sequel or free-standing book? If it's not a sequel, do you plan one? The ending seems open to one.

Sin is a free-standing book and it’s very different from The Death of Innocence.  It’s set in our world and follows a woman several years after both her husband and son die in a horrific domestic violence situation.  She and her new husband settle in a small town called Sin and things literally go to hell.  This book sits very firmly in the horror genre, and I take the same approach to playing with horror clichés that I used when manipulating fantasy clichés in The Death of Innocence…her house is potentially haunted in a very Amityville-esque fashion, there are brutal murders sweeping through the town, a blizzard cuts the town off from the outside world, and the protagonist takes a literal journey through hell and back.  I think those interested in (and open about) religion will find some interesting ideas here, and anyone who loves horror in all its forms will find it a fun ride.

Who do you see as the hero of the story?

-Based on response from readers, it seems like Belinda is everyone’s favorite character.  I personally feel that if anyone were to fit the classical definition of ‘hero’ it would be Alise, but I do see Shane as the protagonist, if you will; you’re meant to root for him as everything is taken away on his quest to determine who he is.  His ultimate fate is again meant to be a play on the typical fate of ‘heroes’ in fantasy novels, particularly those suffering some amnesia…while Shane may come from royalty and have magic powers, it may not come from the heroic origins one would expect!

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