We were fortunate enough to spend a little time recently with Michael Dellert and managed to get him to open up a bit about his process and inner thoughts on writing.
Michael is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, as well as a writing coach. His publishing career spans 20 years. His blog is a resource for creative writers of all kinds, offering tips, tricks, and advice to aspiring writers seeking to improve their craft, plus insights into the current state of the publishing industry.
His recent guest post about character development was the most bookmarked of any post we’ve had here on the blog.
DAN: What is the working title of your next book?
MICHAEL: The book I’m publishing next is called A Merchant’s Tale. It’s due in stores and online by early April.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
First, you have to understand that I’m a medieval literature nerd and a fantasy world-building geek.
So A Merchant’s Tale is an exploration and introduction of characters and settings that will continue to grow and develop and interrelate with one another through a much longer cycle of stories, similar to the cycles of medieval romances, such as the Matter of Britain or the Matter of France.
The specific idea for the story came out of my world-building exercises: I was developing a medieval economy in which my characters had to make a living for themselves, and it occurred to me that a traveling merchant would see a lot of opportunities for danger and adventure.
Which is the more important of these two: write drunk, edit sober?
Writing drunk is certainly the more fun of the two options, but most important?
CJ Cherryh once said: “It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.” So I’d have to say “edit sober.” Well, semi-sober anyway. Wine doesn’t count, right?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
It took me about a month to write the first junk draft of A Merchant’s Tale. It took about three months to rewrite for publication.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
The actors I envision often aren’t suitable for the role anymore. Hell, they’re not even suitable for the role now. For example, the character of the young acolyte in A Merchant’s Tale might be played by a young Matthew Broderick (as “Philipe Gastone” in Ladyhawke) or a young Christian Slater (as “Adso of Melk” in the adaptation of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose). By the time I even wrote the story, both actors were already far too old for the role.
Which living author or blogger would you buy drinks for?
You, Dan. Many drinks, and often. With little umbrellas in them.
What makes you so damn interesting anyway?
Me? Because I’m like the mushroom that walks into the bar that doesn’t serve his kind: “Why not? I’m a fungi!”
What is the best part about being an indie author for you?
It allows me to exercise both halves of myself: the half that spent thirty years trying to be a good writer, and the half that spent twenty years being a good publisher. As a writer, I get to develop and execute stories that actually mean something to me. As a publisher, I get to put my professional skills to use publishing something that actually means something to me. An occupational hazard of publishing is that the longer you’re in it, the less you actually have to do with books. It becomes an exercise in accounting.
What’s something most readers would never guess about you?
That I’m actually a strange visitor from an alien planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. And an orbital death-ray. Commanded by my sock-monkey, Leroy.
Besides writing, what are your favorite things to do?
There’s something besides writing? I hike, I swim, I take the dog for walks, mostly just to get out of the house and give myself a clear, quiet space to think about writing. They also happen to be good exercise, which is an important way to keep oneself from not wasting away to nothing while gallivanting through one’s own imagination. I also enjoy cooking with wine (both in the food and otherwise) and listening to music. I try to get away from my desk as often as my schedule will allow (which is probably not as often as is strictly healthy). I go out to movies, readings, and arts exhibitions with friends. I’m told one has to keep up a regular interaction with society.
Why do some authors sell well and others don’t? (Indie or otherwise, but indie if possible)
Most indie authors fail to sell well because they fail to market well.
A lot of writers have a sort of Field of Dreams approach to their work. They write it and just expect readers to magically show up. It doesn’t work that way.
Readers have to find their work. Writers can make that easy for their potential readers, by engaging in social media, getting out and doing readings and signing, or sending out free copies of their work to reviewers. Or they can make it very hard for their readers by just dropping their book into Smashwords and hoping for the best.
Also, too many writers think that marketing is “beneath” them. Sometimes, it’s not even the writers themselves who think this. I have an ongoing argument with one of my friends about this. She thinks I should only have to write, I shouldn’t have to market. I keep pointing out that even JK Rowling shows up for book-signings and movie premieres.
What’s the strangest place you’ve gotten a great story idea? Describe in detail. Inquiring minds want to know!
In bed. And that’s all the detail you get. A gentleman never tells.
What’s the oddest or most awkward or embarrassing research you’ve had to do?
The most awkward research I ever did was on the history of early Islam, from the socio-political context of the Prophet through the various successor dynasties of the early Caliphates and down to the Crusades. The next day, someone from Homeland Security asked to become a member of my LinkedIn network. Coincidence…? I think not.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
In many ways, the fantasy genre chose me. I grew up watching old Tarzan movies and Flash Gordon serials on TV, enjoying the Golden Age horror movies with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and reading about Greek and Roman mythology. I can’t remember a time when Fantasy and Science Fiction weren’t my favorite forms of entertainment. Even now, I get giddy as a school girl when I see the Batman vs. Superman trailers.
Can you wash light and dark clothes together? Have you ever turned a bunch of stuff pink in the washer?
I can, I have, and so I don’t anymore. Experience is a harsh laundress.
What “person” do you like to write in? First Person, Third Person, etc. – and why?
I often do my early drafts in first person, to get a better sense of characterization. But I prefer to write in Third Person Limited. It allows for, in my opinion, the greatest flexibility in presenting the story and still exploring the broadest possible range of human experience within that story. It also allows the author to break up the story into multiple viewpoints and maintain energy and interest through the boggy middle part of the story. Stories that limit themselves to a single viewpoint run the risk of becoming self-indulgent whinge-fests for the main character, and of turning potentially powerful secondary characters into limited cardboard caricatures. I also struggle to capture the magic of what CJ Cherryh calls her “Third Person Intimate Internal” point of view. I’m not sure I’m there yet.
I hear you have some very exciting news! Can you share it with us?
Yes, thanks! I do, in fact. I’m going to be running my first Goodreads giveaway. Starting 18 February, 2016, contestants can enter for a chance to win one of just 20 exclusively autographed copies of both Hedge King in Winter AND an advanced reading copy of the complete, 13-episode series of A Merchant’s Tale, before it finishes its serial run and before it’s available anywhere else! The contest closes on 5 March, 2016 and winners will be announced by 11 March, 2016. You can learn more here at Goodreads.
How do you decide on a title for your book?
You know those refrigerator poetry magnets, where you just mix up different words? I give them to my dogs to play with and record the results.
What do you do for cover art? Do you do it yourself, hire an artist (you can name names if you liked them), or purchase premade?
Fantasy is a very difficult genre for indies when it comes to cover art, particularly medieval fantasy. Stock photography of dragons is hard to come by
and you want to find something that makes the reader wonder what’s special about your book compared to the other 500 titles next to it on the shelf. If you’re not an artist yourself (and I am certainly not an artist), your options are to do something very abstract (which runs the risk of being incomprehensible), to purchase something premade (which therefore has no organic relationship to your book itself), or you have to commission custom artwork.
So I hire artists, depending on my budget. For my first novella, Hedge King in Winter, it was important to me that the cover didn’t scream “first time indie author,” so I broke open the bank and hired Victor Titov and his Grafit Studio to come up with an original design based on some ideas that I sent him. When the budget for my second title, A Merchant’s Tale, proved to be more modest, I used 99Designs to run a book cover design competition. This helped me keep costs down and gave me a few samples from various artists before I had to settle on one of them. That artist, Vacaru George-Florin, and I then worked together post-contest to further fine-tune the idea that became the final cover for A Merchant’s Tale. For my next title, Romance of Eowain, I’ve done the same thing with 99Designs, owing to scheduling conflicts with both Victor and George.
The challenge then becomes tying together books that are ostensibly part of a series, but have widely different styles of artwork on the covers. I have a single book designer who handles my cover and interior book design, tying together the various titles typographically, rather than by the artwork.
How has your experience with editors been (you can name names if you liked your editor)?
I recently engaged a copy-editor for A Merchant’s Tale before I sent it away to the typesetter, and she really helped me tighten up a number of places where the language clunked, but I had become tone-deaf to it.
she (my editor) really helped me tighten up a number of places where the language clunked, but I had become tone-deaf to it.
Her name is Erin Sandlin, and she’s also the author of the blog Being Southern Somewhere Else, and has several published books of her own, including No One Has Such A Dog, and No One Should: A Collection of Canine Essays and Petit Fours from the Pie Hole: It’s For Your Face Hole. Aside from her excellent editorial skills, she’s also a social activist, and she’s donating a portion of the proceeds from her collection of canine essays to a charity called Ahimsa House, which works to rescue abused women with animals from domestic violence situations. I have a lot of respect for Erin, both for her editorial work and her social causes.
What do you think some of the greatest misconceptions about indie authors are?
The greatest misconception is that indie authors are indies because their work lacks quality, that their work “wouldn’t make the cut” in a traditional publishing environment, and that they’re all in it for vanity’s sake. That is patently false. Many worthy indies are simply talented entrepreneurs who have recognized that they can take their work directly to the market (as in the readers) and let them decide on its worth, rather than waiting for the traditional market (as in publishers) to take a chance on a horse of a different color.
Many younger writers today won’t remember this, but it used to be that a writer was actively discouraged from engaging in what was called “simultaneous submissions,” the practice of sending the same work for consideration to several possible publishers at the same time. Each publisher wanted the opportunity to consider a work in their own leisurely time, and weren’t happy with the idea that they might finally, after months of deliberation, make an offer on a story only to discover that it had been snatched up by a competitor in the meantime. So there was actually collusion amongst publishers to discourage this practice. This meant that a new author might send the same manuscript around to only a dozen houses in half as many years.
Today, indie authors with an entrepreneurial spirit can publish half a dozen novels in the same year, and collect a heavier share of the profits off each book.
However, the problem of quality is going to continue to plague them for at least another five to ten years, not because they aren’t talented, but because they lack the resources that traditional publishers can afford to bring to bear. Cover art, professional production values, and good copy-editors all cost money, a resource that most indies have only in short supply.
Plotter? Or Pantser? And prepare to defend your position!
Plotter, but in a very hippie-dippie-doo pantser kind of way. I believe that plot is the series of damned things, one after another, that happen to the characters while they’re trying to resolve the theme. The theme is what ties the “series of unfortunate events” together and provides the narrative drive, and that can only be explored through the characters in a very creative fashion. So the plot might involve an argument with a colleague, bad customer service at Starbucks, and a running gun-battle, but the theme might be about finding love. The plot is easy. The theme is much more challenging and unpredictable.
What was your road to publication like?
Like the road of many emerging authors, I imagine: long, bumpy, uphill, dark and full of terrors, plagued by dead ends and switchbacks. The hardest thing to overcome is the notion that becoming a published author is really going to change very much in your life. The day I dropped Hedge King in Winter, my first commercially-published fiction work, I still had to go out and get the milk. It wasn’t like a limousine showed up at my door and divested a full media fanfare, clown-car-style, at my front door, along with millions of dollars in sales. It just doesn’t work like that. When I drop A Merchant’s Tale in April, I’m still going to have to figure out how to pay the rent. Becoming a published author creates at least as many problems, if not more, than it solves.
What advice can you give new authors?
If you’re serious about it,
don’t give up, and don’t think in terms of this book or that story. Think in terms of a career.
Don’t start building your platform after you’ve published your book, start building it while you’re writing your book. The contest doesn’t go to the strong, or the fast. It goes to the bull-headed and the stubborn.
And if you’re not serious about it, go learn a trade and do that instead. There are easier ways to earn a living, and those of us who are serious really don’t need the competition.
What’s a good writing secret or time management secret?
- Show up. Set realistic daily goals, be ruthless about achieving them, and show up to get them done.
- Keep track of your goals and your progress toward them.
- Spend a few minutes at the end of each writing session making a notes about where you intend to go in the next writing session, so you don’t have to flail around “waiting for inspiration.”
- And when you have a bad day and don’t meet your goals, be merciful. Give yourself credit for showing up, and for what you did accomplish. Then show up the next day and get back to work.
Check out Michael Dellert’s Goodreads giveaway!
Where in the process do you create the story’s title? Do you start with it? Do you know it before you begin? Before you end? Elsewhere?
I have working titles planned out well in advance, before I start, just to keep track of project goals on the calendar. But the final title often evolves out of the final rewrite, once the theme and resolution are clear to me.
What time of day do you prefer to do your writing?
Mornings. I like to get up, take the dog for a walk, then sit down with a cup of coffee and get started while I’m fresh, before the day has a chance to whisk me away with other things.
Coffee addict? Name your poison.
Gods, yes. The caffeinated kind, dark-roasted, fresh-ground, light and sweet.
What’s your favorite food?
Italian is my comfort cuisine. I grew up in Northern New Jersey, in Sopranos territory. Ay, oh, badda bing, badda boom. If it’s smothered in fresh, hand-made tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, fuhgeddaboddit.
How do you develop characters?
How much structure is in your story before you start writing it?
None. And all of it. There are basics to good story-telling structure that I try to live by. But how I’m going to use them in any particular story largely depends on which way the characters take me. There is no story without characters, and the characters will have unique needs that have to be addressed in each story, regardless of how it’s structured. I try not to let my initial idea of the story become confused with the actual story.
How many story ideas are in your “good ideas” file? What are some of them?
Too many to count, but some of them include: Is it possible to write a “traditional” (i.e., contemporary) romance novel with a male protagonist? What does a “heroine’s journey” look like? When the villain is the hero of his own story, what does that story look like? What happens when the “child of destiny” is an unlikeable little brat? What does “boarding school” for the unlikeable child of destiny look like in a medieval setting? How do the friends, family, mentors, and rivals of the “child of destiny” shape his fitness for his role long before that fate becomes apparent?
What is the single most important quality in a novel; what must an author do to win you over?
Character, I think. I’ve started more novels than I will ever finish, and those that fell by the wayside failed to engage me and draw me in early to the story. In almost every case, this was because of poor characterization.
If I don’t care about the characters, I’m not going to finish the book.
If writing suddenly made you rich and famous, what would you do?
Drop dead of shock, more than likely. But after that, there’s some beach-front property in Fiji I’ve had my eye on…
Best book to movie you’ve seen?
Ohh, a tough one. Most adaptations are so awful. But I think the best adaptations have both been from the novel M*A*S*H. I think in both cases (movie and TV series), what made the adaptations great wasn’t their loyalty to the story per se, but to the characters and their absurd circumstances.
What are your three favorite books by other authors?
- Gate of Ivrel by CJ Cherryh.
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.
- The Swan War Trilogy by Sean Russell.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was in seventh grade, so about twelve years old, before I finally had a label to put on the thing I’d been doing for as long as I could remember.
Do you hate cats?
Hate is a strong word. But I’m about as indifferent to cats as they are to me. I’m definitely a dog person. My dogs have always been so excited to see me when I come home: “Where you been, what you do, what it smell like, when you gonna take me theeeere?! I’m so glad you’re hoooooome!!!”
My cat, on the other hand, could care less. “Oh.” (Licks crotch.) “It’s you.” (Licks crotch.) “My litter box needs cleaning, by the way.” (Licks crotch.) You know you’re going to go blind doing that, you silly cat. She’s lucky I’m a big-hearted slob and rescued her from the rain one dark and stormy night.
In a story we are often asked to create images for the reader that we may not have experienced ourselves. When have you had to do that?
In a medieval fantasy story, that’s something that has to be done on almost every page. But
ironically, it’s not usually the really fantastic stuff that is hardest to write.
In A Merchant’s Tale, there’s a scene involving a monstrous bear and a pack of otherworldly hounds. This actually wasn’t so hard to write: I grew up around dogs, and I grew up in a region where black bears are very common, so much so that I’ve several times encountered them by surprise and at close range, as my characters do in the story. I drew from those experiences to paint that scene. It was more challenging to describe a typical rural medieval scene in early springtime: the tools the farmers were using, and the difficulties they faced using them. I grew up in a rural community, but I’ve never been a farmer, and I’ve certainly never known anyone who had to use an ox-drawn ard-plough to furrow a half-frozen field. That took some research and some imagination.
Tell us about yourself. Who IS the real Michael Dellert? And not the typical boring bio stuff. The dirt. Like, when was the last time you did laundry?
I did laundry last weekend, same as every Saturday morning. I try to get most of my errands and housekeeping out of the way early on Saturdays, so that by afternoon, I can look forward to having the rest of the weekend free.
I take a guilty pleasure from superhero movies, despite how awful they often are.
And I’m a critical theory nerd: structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, transnationalism, I eat all that theoretical stuff up with a spoon.
What’s a favorite quote of anyone besides you, and one from you?
Kurt Vonnegut: “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in my mouth.” I love that line. It so perfectly describes the difficulty of wrestling words down onto paper in the form of a compelling story.
From me? “You can’t edit what ain’t writ.” My personal mantra every time I’m faced with writers’ block. I can’t make something better if I don’t start someplace.
Most writers are a bit shy. Is that how your friends would describe you (shy), or do you have your readers fooled?
I’m not sure I’d describe myself as shy. I was actually a member of a theatre troupe in both high school and college. My best friends, I don’t think they’d describe me as shy. But if I’m not on stage, I can be very reserved, particularly around people I don’t know well. One of my best friends likes to call me “Silent Bob,” as in the Kevin Smith character from Clerks. I don’t speak often, but when I do, apparently I’m terribly profound.
Did you ever have a job where they were strict about shined shoes and stuff?
Several of them in fact. I’ve worked a few jobs in corporate publishing where appearances were considered important. I even had one job where I was told that the car I was driving (a beat-up 2001 Jetta that’s been across the country four times) didn’t “represent me as well it might.” I was actually told that it would be a good idea “for my career” to get a new car. I left the job. I still have the car. I figure the car is more loyal and better company.
Is tea a big deal over in England like they make it seem in Downton Abbey? (My wife watches, not me.)
I’ve had the pleasure of doing a lot of business in England in my career. Yes, tea is a big deal, but not as important anymore as in the period of Downton Abbey, at least, not among those I’ve known. Beer, on the other hand… My lord… I’ve come home from some business trips sure that I’d need a liver transplant.
How playful are you? Is your REAL Facebook page much more revealing about sides of you that people won’t know from your blog posts or books? Is there a double life thing going on?
I’m very playful, though I doubt even my REAL Facebook page shows much of that side of me. My grandmother always said, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Sunday paper.” In the modern age, I figure that extends to social media. But in private and among friends? Hell, the kit gloves are off.
How hard was it to hit that “Publish” button the first time and send your book into the world? Looking back, what can you tell new authors about that experience?
There were more than a few moments of trepidation, I have to admit.
I think I needed two glasses of wine before I worked up the nerve (to hit the publish button).
But I had spent about six months ahead of that moment getting prepared: setting up my blog, talking about it on my blog, growing my Facebook and Twitter platforms and mentioning the book there a million times each. Hitting “Publish” was really the only thing I could do. However big a fool I might look if the book was awful, I would have looked more a fool if I’d built up all that hype and then backed down.
I would tell new authors, “Just do it.” If you’ve been working diligently at your craft, built a platform, announced to all and sundry that you’re going to be publishing a book, and you finally come face-to-face with that button, then it’s time. Yesterday’s not an option, and tomorrow is too late.
Just push the (publish) button. It’s really not going to change your life that much, where the world is concerned. But at the same time, it changes everything in your heart, where it really matters.
Doing something once and for the first time is always hardest. But doing it at all gives you the courage and confidence to do it again and again. So go ahead. Just do it.
Have you ever spent time with anyone famous? Was there any ransom involved?
I once attended a fund-raising party where I met Harry Belafonte Jr, his wife, and his daughter. They were very lovely and gracious people.
I’m also an irregular attendant at the Irish-American Writers and Artists Salon in New York City, which is headed up by Larry Kirwan (of the band Black 47) and Malachy McCourt (brother of Frank McCourt, of Angela’s Ashes fame), whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking with from time to time. They’re both very kind and humble people, dedicated to the arts and the improvement of artists’ circumstances. It’s a privilege to know them both. And so far, the only ransom has involved shots of whiskey.
What was the most fun interview you’ve done and why?
Why, of course, this interview is the most fun I’ve ever had, ever, in the whole history of fun times. But it might have been because of the bologna in my shoes. The bologna just made me feel funny.
I think we have a new contender for most bookmarked post!
Here are Michael’s links:
Michael Dellert Learn more about Indie Publishing!
LinkedIn: Michael Dellert