Wednesday, April 20, 2011

[Interview] Dylan Birtolo

Dylan Birtolo is the author of two novels, The Shadow Chaser (Inkwater Press, 2004) and The Bringer of War (Lulu, 2008).

He is also the co-author of Colonial Gothic, a role-playing game and has short stories that have been published in places that include the anthology of short stories, Ransom (Athor Productions, 2008)); the multi-media epic fantasy setting,  Baeg Tobar; and the e-zine, The Edge of Propinquity.

In this interview, Dylan Birtolo talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing back when I was in third grade and we had to write out our stories in cursive writing on paper with the one inch margins drawn on them. I actually still have the very first story that I ever wrote. It was required to be one page long and tell a story, mine was 17 pages. At this point, I knew that I wanted to be a storyteller and share stories with people.

Ever since then, I have always been telling stories in many formats - writing, orally making up stories on the fly, running tabletop role-playing games. It didn't matter to me how I was telling the story, as long as these stories were getting out there.

I think it was high school when I decided that I wanted to be a published writer. This had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to make it a vocation, but solely was based on the fact that I knew I could share my stories with more people if I wrote them down in books. Plus, I just thought it would be wonderful to hold a book in my hands with my name on the cover.

Over the next several years, I tried a couple of ideas for a book, deciding to go right for that rather than try to get some short fiction published first. It wasn't until I was two years out of college that I stumbled upon my first idea for a novel that would turn into a full-fledged book. I shopped it around and tried to find both an agent and a publisher who might be willing to bite on it. It was a few years after that when I found a small publishing press that was willing to publish my first novel. From there, once it was done, I started trying to figure out how to market it and going to cons to meet other writers, editors, and publishers. The irony is, now I am getting into short fiction more after I published two books, rather than the other way around which is more standard.

How would you describe your writing?

Is frenetic an acceptable answer? Seriously though, I am writing a lot of short fiction currently and some game fiction. Everything that I write is fantasy based, and usually has a bit of a darker tone to it than most sword and sorcery fantasy.

I also write a fair amount of urban fantasy where I take the modern world and throw a twist into it that changes it significantly. I have submitted several short pieces for consideration into multiple, different anthologies at this time and am waiting to hear back about whether or not my stories are accepted.

I recently completed a contract for the game called Colonial Gothic. This was a cooperative effort between myself and another writer where we wrote letters from one character in the game world to another.

Most recently, I have been working with the creators of Baeg Tobar to create some short fiction that highlights pieces of their world that ties into their graphic novel, The Torn God.

Who is your target audience?

Honestly, my true target audience consists of my Beta readers and myself.

I try to create stories that I know that I would enjoy reading. I find that my writing is much more exciting if I am excited about creating it. Other than that, I do have a handful of friends that are my beta readers - a collection of about 10 people who read just about everything that I consider sending out. I like hearing their feedback and knowing that they enjoy the stories that come out of my head. This has expanded to the point that I now write for people who have read my current books and stories and want to read more.

Going to the same conventions year after year enables me to see the same friends and fans each year. I love to have new things to share with people who enjoy what I create and hunger for more. I have never actually written a story for a specific audience in terms of a certain age bracket or type of person.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

The strongest influences on my writing always go back to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Specifically, the books the influenced me the most were The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings series, and The Hobbit. These books influenced me the most because of the fact that these are the ones that I grew up on.

The story in my family is that the first book I ever read was actually The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Of course I wasn't actually reading the book - I just had requested my mother to read it to me so often that I knew the first chapter or so by heart and would "read along". It still makes for a good story. But, these are the books that I have read the most. No matter which fantasy authors I read, every few years, I come back to read these series.

There are several authors I have read since then that I have enjoyed and think are wonderful, but those two definitely form my core influence.

I will say that the two authors that have had the most influence on my style, versus my content, would be Stephen King and Alan Lightman.

Stephen King's book On Writing is the best book I have ever read to improve my craft. With Alan Lightman, I was incredibly lucky to have him as a creative writing instructor. Not only did he improve my writing quality, but I also owe him for keeping me interested in writing. I can honestly say that if I didn't take his class, I would probably not be a published writer at this point in my career.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Personal experiences are key to writing, and I am no exception. I am a firm believer that you can only write what you know. Once you have experienced things, it gives you a very different perspective and enables you to write about it in a way that makes it more believable and put in details that you might otherwise miss.

I always try to incorporate my experiences into my writing, and at the same time, seek out experiences that fit with the type of stories that I write. That's why I picked up martial arts and horseback riding at first. I stay with them because I love them, but I wanted to know what it was like so that I could bring that to light in my writing. And let me tell you, it is very different to talk abstractly about wearing armor and getting on a horse and actually doing it. I think that having this knowledge and experience enables me to put in a lot more minor details and make my stories more believable. Hopefully this makes them more entertaining as well.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My biggest concern as a writer is whether or not the story that I am writing is going to be both enjoyable and clear to read. If I am not writing something that is fun to read, then there is not much point in putting the time to put fingers to keys.

The biggest problem that I have with this is my internal editor - where I will rewrite the same sentence multiple times trying to get it just right. The biggest way that I deal with this is I learn not to listen to the editor - to pound out that first draft and stay excited about it. I find that if I just keep writing my first draft, my energy and excitement stays up, which usually keeps the story moving along at a steady and enjoyable pace. I can always do the editing after the entire first draft is complete.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge is getting my writing out there.

Personally, I do not have problems with the writing, and while I don't enjoy the editing, I think I do a decent job at it. Even if I don't, I do have a couple of friends who are good at editing and are more than willing to read through my material.

However, getting my writing out there is a problem that has no simple solution. With short fiction, I need to find someone willing to buy a story. With books, even if you have the best book in the world, it doesn't do any good if no one knows about it.

I deal with the problem in two different ways depending on whether we are talking about short fiction or novels, because they really are two different beasts.

With short fiction, I find that getting the fiction accepted in a reputable market is the hardest part. True, you can publish it on your own website for free, but then you are left with the problem of getting people to your website and convincing them to spend the time to read your material. If they do not know you and you don't have a reputation, I feel like the odds of this are significantly small. Instead, what I choose to do is write short pieces for markets that already have a fan base. This can be something like monthly e-zine like The Edge of Propinquity, the graphic novel and surrounding stories of Baeg Tobar, or inclusion in a short story anthology. I find that all of these are ways to get your writing noticed by even more people. In these cases, you can be pretty sure that you will have more than just your effort going into the promotion of the writing. This communal marketing helps immensely.

For books, it is much harder because in these cases, usually you are doing all of the marketing yourself. Granted, you may have some support from your publisher, but I have been told that is unlikely. I have not been published by a large publishing house, so I do not know if it is different in that case. With a small house publisher or independently publishing, you will definitely have to do all of the marketing yourself. I am not sure what the solution to this is, but I can say the different things that I try: having a website, maintaining a blog, having a mailing list, going to conventions, posting in forums, and getting more short fiction out there which hopefully leads people to your novels. This marketing plan is still a work in progress.

Do you write everyday?

I do write every day, but I do not write fiction every day. I have another job that pays the bills and that is being a technical writer.

Even though it is a different style of writing, it has improved my craft significantly. It has taught me how to tighten up my writing, express my ideas more clearly, and be less repetitive. If I was not a technical writer for my day job, I know my writing skills would not be even close to where they currently are.

With my fiction writing, it is a very different beast. Because of my schedule, I am not able to get fiction writing done on a regular basis from Monday to Thursday. However, there are times when the desire to write a story is so strong that I need to make the time to write.

When I have decided it is time to write I have my rituals. I turn off all distractions, because otherwise I can't keep the writing flowing. It is too easy to get distracted and lose a train of thought, which is devastating especially in the middle of an action scene. Then I get myself a beverage, what it is varies based on the time of day. It can even just be a glass of water, but I need something there to sip on when I am gathering my thoughts. The last step is the music. What music I play depends on the story or scene that I am writing. I find that my music and the tone of my writing often go hand in hand. Regardless, I do have a preference for music that either has no words, or that I know the words so well I don't think about them. Otherwise, I might start listening to the words of the music, which makes me unable to write.

How many books have you written so far?

I have written two novels so far. The first is called The Shadow Chaser and was published in 2004 by Inkwater Press. It is an urban fantasy novel that tells the story of a world where people have the ability to shift between their human form and an animal form at will. A young man named Darien is thrust into this world because he is a shifter even though he doesn't know it. He is stuck between two warring factions who are both trying to recruit him because even among the shifters, he has a unique ability that makes him potentially more dangerous.

My second novel is The Bringer of War and it was published in 2008 by Lulu. Yes, I self published my second novel because I made the decision that it was more important to make the book available to my fans than to try to publish it traditionally. This novel is a stand-alone sequel to The Shadow Chaser and delves deeper into the conflict between the two warring factions of Shifters. It tells the story of what Darien does once he has access to his powers, and how another player gets involved - one who has the same abilities as Darien.

What advantages or disadvantages has self-publishing your second novel presented?

The Bringer of War was self-published through Lulu. This was a decision that I spent a lot of time debating about. I tried to get it traditionally published, but I was pressured for time. I very much wanted to make sure that it was available at GenCon 2008 so that it would be available to my fans who had enjoyed the first book and kept coming to my table for two years to see if I had anything new. It got to the point where I knew that the only way it would be available by then would be to self-publish, so I opted to go that route.

However, going with a self-publish book takes a lot more work if you want it to be of the same quality as a traditionally published novel. I spent a lot of time and effort into getting artwork for the cover, laying out the book, line editing the book, etc. I also called in a lot of favors and did put a fair amount of money into the process as well in terms of paying artists and editors for their work. The traditional rule is that money should always flow to the writer, but I decided to violate that rule in this case because I was self-publishing and wanted a quality product. In the end, I believe I succeeded, but it was far from simple.

I can honestly say that I would not self-publish again. The amount of work that it takes to finalize a quality product is simply not worth it. By the time that my novel was available, I had lost my enthusiasm for it and was not excited to market it and get it out there like I had been with the first novel. This is perfectly understandable because your excitement and energy will only go so far, but it is not a good way to handle the release of your book. You should be excited about it and do everything you can to make it available and known. No one else will market it for you, and honestly, no one else should because no one is going to as excited as you are about your book.

Which aspects of the work you put into The Bringer of War did you find most difficult?

I think that the marketing aspect is the most difficult. I think this is because there is no clear idea of what works and what doesn't. The problem with marketing is that you can put a lot of time and effort into it (and possibly money too), and have no good way to measure the effect it might have.

There are a lot of things that you can try that have no effect whatsoever. So it becomes a question of how you will market yourself and how you will determine what is worthwhile. You only have so much time - where will you devote it? I have a feeling that marketing also is susceptible to the law of diminishing returns.

The best way that I deal with these aspects is I do the marketing aspects that I enjoy doing. I enjoy going to conventions and meeting other writers and editors. I enjoy talking with potential readers and past readers to see what they liked and didn't. I like updating my blog and sharing details and writing thoughts with anyone who reads it. I enjoy sending out emails to the mailing list because it reminds me that I have people who enjoy what I create and seeing the stories that I come up with. I don't know if this is enough, but that is the wonderful thing about marketing - no one knows what works. There is no single solution that works for everyone.

Which aspects of the work you put into the novel did you enjoy most?

I love the creation of the first draft. This is by far my favorite part.

Everyone writes differently, and what works for me will not work for another writer. But, when I am writing, at least with a novel, I often don't know what is going to happen. Yes, I have the big-picture events planned out for consistency, but the minor details are as much of a surprise to me on my first writing as they are when someone is reading it for the first time. Because of this, I think it is very exciting to create the first draft to see what happens. It is like reading a story that you are enjoying, watching the characters come to life and start to take charge of the story. Eventually it gets to a point in the story where I don't feel like I am writing any more and I am just documenting what happens. That is when it gets really exciting.

What sets The Bringer of War apart from the other things you've written?

This book has a lot more action and a lot more intensity in terms of outright violence than my previous works. There are many scenes where people are being brutally attacked by different animals. I won't say that I went into excessive or even vivid detail, but there are some details in there that will and have make some readers a little uncomfortable.

While my stories have always been a little bit darker, this was the first time that I showed the darkness as clearly as I did.

All of my stories have a tendency to move pretty quickly because of the fact that I know I write action well. The best scenes in any of my writing, according to my readers, are my fight scenes. I seem to have a talent for writing combat in a way that flows quickly and is easy to follow while keeping the excitement up. So, I tend to put a fair amount of action in all of my stories and try to keep it moving at a steady clip. My first draft actually needed a couple of extra scenes added because as one of my beta readers said - "You need to slow it down once in a while, otherwise when the person gets to the end they feel like they ran a marathon."

What will your next book be about?

I'm not sure since I am currently focusing on my short fiction. However, I am toying with the idea of another urban fantasy novel, but set in a different world than the one of my previous two novels.

I have a short story published in The Edge of Propinquity that talks about a young man, a martial arts practitioner, who learns that oni - Japanese demons - actually exist and masquerade as humans. The only weapons that can harm them are traditionally-made Japanese swords. Over the course of that short story, he becomes an oni hunter. I am thinking that my next novel will expand on this short story - several years after the events of the short.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

My most significant achievement is getting my first book published. I am still new enough to writing that sometimes I can hardly believe that I actually have a novel out there with my name on it - let alone two! It still feels like a big deal and is something that I am very excited about. I love sharing it with people and hearing what they have to say.

I have taken many steps over the years that I am really proud about, but finishing that first novel and getting it published is definitely the biggest step I ever took. I can still remember what it felt like to open that box the first time and pull out a copy of the book. I will never forget that feeling.

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