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‘A Metaphor for Real Life’: Conversation with Fantasy Author Ryan Peabody

Like many fantasy readers, Ryan Peabody spent his childhood imagining worlds and dreaming up big adventures. However, when he entered law school, his love of fantasy grew for another reason — it gave him space to relax and explore.

Shadows of Hammerfall author Ryan Peabody

“I like the unexpected,” he says. “I suppose I’ve always enjoyed the fantasy genre, even as a youth and all the way through law school, as a space to relax and explore. I have read all different genres, fiction and non-fiction. But I was always drawn back to fantasy for its unique ability to capture the imagination with adventure and big ideas. As a writer, the world of fantasy was so vast that the logical next step was to further expand that universe in areas that I personally wanted to explore.”

The Texas-based author has wrapped up Shadows of Hammerfall, the first in an eventual three-book series chronicling the adventures of brothers Drakiel and Kael, and their efforts to save their kingdom from corruption, invaders, frightening primordial creatures … and how they shape themselves, society and world in the process. It features many twists and turns, including some that surprised Peabody as much as anyone.

‘I wanted more than an adventure; the characters needed to be more like real people. I wanted to get them to reject the status quo and effect real change,  in both themselves and in the world around them.’ — Ryan Peabody

In other words, a strong fantasy debut by a lifelong fan of the genre. Shadows is being shopped to publishers now; publication is anticipated in late 2018 or 2019.

Word Journeys sat with Ryan to discuss Shadows, in a conversation that not only offers up plenty of tidbits about the book, but gives insight into the writing process.

WJ: Ryan, thanks for joining us. Where did you come up with the seed of what became Shadows of Hammerfall?

Ryan Peabody: The very essence of fantasy is a metaphor for real life. I wanted more than an adventure; the characters needed to be more like real people. I wanted to get them to reject the status quo and effect real change, in both themselves and in the world around them. So many people today just accept the ideas of others rather than testing their own. My characters face off against the greater problems in society and find that making any progress to finding solutions is infinitely more difficult than they appear. The Shadows looming over Hammerfall are those problems, and iour aspiring heroes must pass through the crucible of fire and transform from naïve youth into hardened adults.

WJ: Can you elaborate more on what we’ll read in Shadows?

RP: Two brothers are born into a family where their entitlement is all they will ever need. Yet satisfaction in this lifestyle becomes more unbearable and oppressive than being in prison. They strike out to challenge the powers that be, and in the process, find themselves so far over their heads that  the course of their lives changes forever. As their brotherly relationship is shattered and rebuilt, they individually uncover a corruption in Hammerfall that will unlock secrets of an ancient past that will plunge them all into darkness. They alone can stop it, if they can only rebuild their broken bond in time.

WJ: In the book, we see a parallel, in some ways, to the social and political movements in the US. Did you have that in mind when writing it? Or did that draw out naturally through your characters and their stories and journeys?

RP: It’s more about the controlling forces in society than politics. That being said, politics has a tendency to get out of hand on either side; most people may agree. So I wanted to use that as a starting place and delve deeper. I wanted to pit my heroes against the person behind the person; the unknown antagonist pulling the strings of society. At the same time, I wanted to craft characters able to justify any action as a means to an end, and challenge notions of morality as they begin to slide down a dangerous slope to becoming the very thing they proclaim to fight against.

WJ: You present a great juxtaposition of influences in the boys’ lives, between Yodden, their wise blacksmith friend and a guiding light; and the Prime Chancellor, a very corrupt and authoritative, yet charismatic man. Tell us about the ways in which you present good v. evil in these characters, and also the room that fantasy allows you to develop variations of the theme.

RP: I wanted to blur the lines between good and evil by making these two characters pulling toward their own ends, but by following very different directions. It’s almost like the idea of vigilante justice; is killing a known killer justifiable? Or is due process more important than righting a wrong, particularly if the justice system itself is corrupt? The main characters must decide to fight within a broken system or justify their actions outside of it.

WJ: “Shadows” is in many ways the story of two brothers, Drakiel and Kael, who embark on a journey together – and then everything in both their lives changes. What are some of your favorite parts of their journey?

RP: My favorite part, without giving too much away, was their role reversal over the course of the book. The brothers start out with nearly the same personality profile and then are drawn in such dramatically different directions. I found this to be a particularly interesting concept, what would happen to the same person growing up in different environments; taking a different path through life. How dramatically different would the “same person” end up as a result of very different environments and external forces? I also explored how such seemingly small decisions can have dramatic impact on the life paths we follow.

WJ: One of my favorite parts is Drakiel’s sentence to the Wilds, a truly foreboding land – but you do a great literary thing by showing him experiencing his own lessons, then coming back to fight again with those new lessons in place. How does the journey, along with the original wild landscapes and creatures you created, help you draw out Drakiel, as well as set up the later story?

RP: Drakiel needed to learn humility; he finally had a situation  he had no control over. He had to give in. He had no choice. He had to be broken down and rebuilt. He had to give up who he was so he would have the opportunity to grow into who he was meant to become. In discovering the new land he was also discovering who he was meant to be. The wilds were a reflection of his own inner-self. Instead of fighting against the world he had to learn to adapt to it, and in doing so became a very dangerous man, taking these lessons back to the civilized world as a force of nature himself.

WJ: What types of creative license does working with two brothers give you when developing character?

RP: Although there are a host of unique characters, the brothers consistently emerged as focal points because of their unquenchable need to take action. The type of action they individually decide  frames their decision-making process and drives their characters. One sees the world as black and white while the other a pallet of gray. The reader may be able to almost anticipate how they will each react in a given situation, particularly as they come to know them better and better throughout the story.

WJ: When writing fantasy, what do you think are the most important ways your story holds the audience?

RP: Character and plot, in that order. The characters, including the creatures the readers will find unique and interesting, are constantly forced to make big decisions based on inadequate information. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes wrong, but most of the time in ways that will leave the readers questioning what they would have done in the same situation. The plot continually splits off and then rejoins the mainstream as well, like a river with branching tributaries, rapids and all.

WJ: You’ve set up Shadows of Hammerfall for eventual growth into a number of future books – one of which you’re writing. Can you give us a sneak preview of how Shadows ends – and where you are taking it from there?

RP: Without giving too much away, Shadows ends with a glimpse into an uncertain future. But to understand the future we must first understand the past. Book Two starts by answering some of the big questions about the more secretive characters and the incredible impact they will have on the story. It pulls back to get a bird’s eye view before quickly plunging  into the thick of the story.

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When Life Requires a Change in Longitude: Interview with Authors Larissa and Michael Milne

Sometimes, life throws wicked curve balls at inopportune times – such as, middle age. A lifetime of plans fly out the window, and you’re left facing … what?

A couple of years ago, Larissa and Michael Milne experienced this scenario. To put it more bluntly, they encountered a personal apocalypse of sorts. Faced with a Milnes-Proposal covernumber of very difficult options, they chose to rekindle their love for each other – and to do it away from their Philadelphia home. So they sold everything, got on a plane – and spent the next year experiencing the world in what has grown into a most amazing story. Imagine taking in North Korea, Vietnam and Namibia while dealing with major family issues back home …

The Milnes are writing about their 31-country, 6-continent journey in Changes In Longitude, a book that couples travel narrative and poignant memoir, with the Milnes’ journalistic skill and catchy humor present throughout. The book is now beginning to make its rounds in the publishing world, where it is certain to find a home that puts copies in countless readers’ hands in the near future.  One thing for sure: the book is bolstered by one of the best and most brand-conscious websites out there, www.changesinlongitude.com.

Recently, I had the chance to interview the Milnes, to whom I was introduced through my work for another travel narrative author and client, Lynne Martin, author of the forthcoming Home Free. As you’ll see, the Milnes’ experience is distinctive, unique – and well worth turning the pages to follow, for both its travel and emotional richness.

Bob Yehling: In this busy publishing cycle of travel memoirs and narratives, you have a truly unique personal story that prompted your decision to travel for a year? Could you elaborate?

Larissa and Michael Milne: On the surface, our decision seems like a lark or reaction to a mid-life crisis. In reality, it sprang from much deeper roots. We were reeling from the physical and emotional strain of years of dealing with a destructive family situation related to our daughter, whom we had adopted from Russia. By the time she became an adult, our relationship with her was broken and we became reluctant empty nesters. We needed time to heal so we turned to our love of travel.

Larissa and Michael Milne pose with their Rocky statue in Philadelphia. The statue made the journey with them.

Larissa and Michael Milne pose with their Rocky statue in Philadelphia. The statue made the journey with them.

BY: You combined truly exotic or hard-to-reach destinations with some world favorites – North Korea, Namibia, Vietnam, etc. Could you describe how that added to your experience – and to the narrative of Changes in Longitude?

Milnes: This journey was about discovering new places as we rediscovered ourselves. We indulged our natural curiosity for far-flung destinations, seeking to understand the people behind the places. Since journalists are not permitted to enter North Korea, we provide rare perspectives of this isolated country. We met people there who were warm and welcoming, so unlike the vitriol spewed towards the world by their government.

In Vietnam, we toured the My Lai Massacre site (from the Vietnam War). Locals, once they found out we were Americans, embraced us and said “U.S.-Vietnam friends now.” We realized that no matter how much governments are in conflict, people are the same all over the world and respect each other.

BY: One of my favorite scenes is when you find yourself mired in a Scottish meadow, ankle deep in mud – with a bull getting ready to charge you. Why do you feel readers gravitate so readily to funny, even mindless moments within the larger scope of the journey?

 Milnes: Those I Love Lucy moments are entertaining. They remind us that travel is all about creating memories, experiences that you can’t predict. In 400 days of travel, we had our fair share. Wait until you read about Larissa’s encounter with a toilet on a Malaysian train.

BY: You’ve been writing a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as pieces for National Geographic Traveler and other magazines. You were also featured in Smithsonian Magazine. What age groups have you heard responses from? And how did this writing prepare you or aid your decision to write Changes in Longitude?

 Milnes: Chucking it all to travel is a dream of many, regardless of age. The phrase “you’re living the dream” is one we heard consistently from people all over the world. Travel stories in newspapers and magazines typically place the reader “in the moment” by telling them the who, what, where and why of the story. We spread our wings more in the book by taking the reader beyond what happened in the moment; delving deeper into the situations we encountered and people we met.

BY: What were the advantages and challenges of writing this book together?

Milnes: We each have slightly different perspectives of our experiences, which adds dimension to our narrative. It can be a challenge writing in a collective voice.

BY: You’ve obviously read several travel memoirs and narratives. What in your reading moved you the most about these works? And what devices did you find most advantageous to your book (though obviously tweaking to distinguish your voice and journey)?

 Milnes: Normally we enjoy reading narratives that make us want to visit a place. But there are also books like J. Marten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals. After reading it, we have absolutely no desire to visit Kiribati, but love the way he wrote about the country and its people with candor and affection. We both relish Bill Bryson; the way he writes with humor, but also delves into the local history, which places his observations in context.

BY: Why do you feel travel is such a great way to work through traumatic emotional or structural changes in our lives?

 Milnes: Travel takes a person completely out of the routines of daily life, giving them the space and time to heal while gaining a self-awareness they wouldn’t achieve at home. Living in a foreign land where nothing is familiar also avoids stepping on many of the emotional trip wires that are pervasive at home.

BY: The best single moment of your trip?

 Milnes: There was no one “best” moment, but there was a pivotal one when we realized how the journey was affecting us. This occurred on a beach in Perth, Australia as we were watching the sun melt into the Indian Ocean. It was the first time we realized that rather than taking a break, we were making a break; we would not return to our prior lives.  Every step forward would help us shape our new life.

That first step occurred sooner than expected. As more folks flocked to our isolated spot, we found out that we sat smack in the middle of a nude beach. To remain clothed would make us the odd man and woman out. So we shed our clothes as easily as we were shedding the vestiges of our former life. But one of the nice things about travel is that no one knows who you are. You can be anyone you want and even reinvent yourself along the way.

BY: The most challenging moment?

 Milnes: In North Korea, we were fed a steady diet of propaganda related to the Korean War and U.S.-North Korea relations.  We were warned ahead of time not to counter the guides with our version of these historic events. It wouldn’t reflect well on our hosts, and we wouldn’t their change minds, anyway. But when we were touring the War Museum in Pyongyang, Michael had enough of the alternative history – and apparently, it showed. He was pulled away from the group by an Army guide who questioned where he was from and why he was being so “callous.”

BY: Now that you’re shopping Changes in Longitude, what do you feel are the central themes, or even experiences, that readers may find most engrossing?

 Milnes: No matter how down your life might be, travel can provide uplifting moments. String enough of those moments together and you can find a path forward to true happiness, a happiness that is newly defined.

We embraced a much simpler lifestyle. (Living out of a 22” suitcase for a year will do that to you.) As the world became our home, our need for personal space has shrunk, and we no longer need the stuff we used to own. We learned to adapt to new environments and situations quickly; instead of acquiring possessions, we’re more interested in acquiring a wealth of experiences. None of this would have happened if we had continued with the same routine of our prior life. If you want to change your life, then change your life.

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What To Look For (and Require) From Your Book Editor

A few days ago, on the Southern California Writers Conference’s Facebook community page, SCWC director Michael Steven Gregory posted about one of the most troubling challenges writers face today:

Gotta say, folks, I’ve recently been coming across way too many people bilking writers big time–from publicists & editors & book printers & conference organizers to you name it… Please do your due diligence before paying anybody a penny with regards to your work and dream. The big shift today is not about publishing your book; it’s about convincing you that “author services” will sell your book. (I know the SCWC’s been dealing with this for about a decade, but it’s gone really, horribly rampant as of late.) Just a heads up.

For the past three years, I’ve been a member of the SCWC faculty (FYI: the next conference is Feb. 15-18, 2013 at the Crowne Plaza Hanalei in San Diego). I’m also a freelance book editor who also, in some cases, writes book proposals and locates agents or publishers. I steer others toward a self-publishing route, whether through print books, e-books, or both.

Michael is right on the money: it’s getting tricky for anyone trying to write and publish a book. With the traditional publishing industry becoming more difficult and condensed every day, and the costs, potential profits and opportunities to self-publish more appealing than ever, an increasing number of writers are striking out on their own. The smart ones are finding qualified, distinguished professionals who can edit their books to a publish-quality shine, perhaps help them build their promotional platforms, and maybe even offer solid advice on the publishing process.

But here’s the rub: For every good, established professional, you’re going to find two or three who just aren’t qualified to provide the services they promote. Some among this latter group try hard, and mean well, but don’t have the skills or track record. The others, however, are shamelessly capitalizing on your dream of publishing a book. Like unscrupulous shysters in any industry, they promise the moon, take your money, prey on your hopes and aspirations, don’t edit well, and leave your book off worse than when you started. These are the people to which Michael Gregory alluded. When you’ve spent months, or years, pouring your heart, soul, time and money into a book, the last thing you need is to meet the proverbial robber on the road.

These people infuriate me. They infuriate all other hard-working, dedicated professional editors and author services experts who commit themselves, knowledge and skills into their clients’ works — their clients’ dreams.  I have personally witnessed authors’ dreams crushed by reputed agents and freelance editors who did nothing — or worse, touted their credentials and proved to have no track record at all.

Conversely, good editors and service professionals deeply care about your book. They pour their hearts  into your writing. None of us receive the lofty salaries New York-based editors earn (or at least used to earn). That’s OK: for us, the satisfaction comes in knowing we help authors fulfill their journey, and bring their stories, essays, memoirs and knowledge to your awaiting readership . We collaborate with our author-clients, help them reach down and find the very best expression of their feelings or subjects, and manifest it in their work. When you’re half of a great editor-author working relationship, it sometimes becomes transformative, like alchemy. Doesn’t matter which half, either.

This leads to a couple of questions: How do you distinguish between solid, qualified, professional editors, and those who are not? How can you tell when someone really cares about your work — cares enough to go over it, again and again, to make sure it’s the most polished and refined it can be? How do you know an editor really has helped other clients get published?

These are questions you should ask, whether it’s your first book or your tenth. Since self-publishing is not only a viable, but a preferred option in many cases, it is more important than ever that your book emerge as clean and mistake-free as possible. Therefore, you need to hold a prospective editor to a rather tough standard.

Here are my suggestions:

1)   Ask the editor what books s/he has edited within your genre. Believe it or not, many writers miss this, and then wonder why their manuscript hasn’t been properly edited. Editing a memoir is entirely different from editing a how-to book. “Listening” to make sure dialogue matches characters and situations within a novel is far different than polishing an explanatory thread in a history book. Mysteries differ from adventure romances. And so on.

2)   Ask what type of editing services are provided. If they say, “all editing,” or “everything you need,” dig deeper. Do they offer content editing? Line editing? Revising? Polish, or final, editing? Proofreading? The good ones do it all — and break down each phase with explanation, just like this.

3)   Ask which edited books have been published, and by whom. Do your due diligence. In nearly all cases, a quick visit to Amazon.com will suffice.

4)   If the editor’s previous works in your genre were self-published, that can also be a good thing. Go onto Amazon.com, and look at book reviews, ranking, how high up in category the listing shows, etc. That will give you an idea of how noteworthy the book is.

5)   Ask the editor to test-edit 3 to 5 pages of your manuscript. This will give you an idea of how much more refined s/he can make your work. Don’t ask them to edit more than that; be mindful that the editor is busy, too.

6)   Have a conversation with your editor on the phone or in person before hiring. It’s so easy to do everything via email, but at least hear the voice of the person you’re entrusting with your hard work.

7)   Be sure the editor does not alter your narrative voice. This has been my biggest pet peeve for years with editors both inside and outside publishing houses (and magazines and newspapers as well). A good editor recognizes or helps you develop your narrative voice, learns your working vocabulary and vernacular, and works to help you expand it.

8)   Set deadlines for performance, and pay according to those milestones. Most editors require some down payment (as I do), which is fine, but do not pay in full until you are completely satisfied with the final product. A good editor will set up installments – a sample schedule might be 25% down, 25% when half the manuscript is edited, and 50% at completion and acceptance. There are many variations, which are all good as long as you don’t pay in full until the job is complete.

9)   Does your editor have good contacts with agents or publishers? Or does s/he know how to help you write book proposals, synopses or market the book? This is not necessary to guarantee a good editing job. If so, however, that’s a huge plus. Some editors do have these credentials and contacts.

These questions will serve you well. They’ve served me well during the past 15 years and 130+ books, ebooks and numerous magazine titles that I’ve edited. Good, established editors will pass this test with flying colors.  For instance, when I work with a client, I always offer to test-edit a few pages. Some take me up on it; others just want to get started. If clients want to know my credentials, I rattle off a few finished titles in their particular genre. If I haven’t edited in their particular genre or sub-genre before, I tell them straightaway. They have a right to know. If writers want contact information for my former clients, I provide a couple of contacts. Since I also write book proposals and synopses, and occasionally work with agents and publishers directly, I let prospective clients know that as well. If they have specific questions about the publishing profession, I answer — or find the answer if I don’t know it, and get back to them.

My newest addition is a spreadsheet. When someone is considering me for their book, and want to know my background, I send them a spreadsheet with 20 recent titles I’ve edited, six books I’ve ghostwritten, and six author or client websites I’ve developed, including publisher’s name (or soon to be publisher) — and a URL to the publisher’s site, Amazon.com title link, or author’s site. Nothing verifies faster than seeing the physical proof. If you’re an editor, you may not yet have 20 books on your list — but you may have 200. Whatever you do have, give your prospective clients the opportunity to see what you’ve edited.

That’s what you want when seeking an editor. I wish we could all be in the trusting business — and it pains me to say this, because I’m an incredibly trusting person — but, you need to know who’s working on your book. And what makes them the right person to do so.

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Why You Need to Build a Platform — NOW

As I prepare to return to the Southern California Writers Conference this weekend to teach writing workshops and offer read & critique sessions to writers of all genres, I can’t help but think about what has kept me very busy for the past six months with clients and businesses alike: building platforms.

Until about 10 years ago, the word “platform” was unknown to most people outside the public relations and marketing world. Now, every publisher and most literary agents are requiring that anyone trying to sell a book — writers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, celebrities, athletes — enter the publishing arena with a strong existing platform before they bother to pitch their book or message with a book proposal and sample chapters.

This scares 90% of working writers to death — with good reason. Most writers don’t consider themselves strong self-promoters, let alone experts on social media, social networking, traditional media, promotions or marketing. Yet, in today’s world, you need to know how to factor all of these tools into your ability to sell your book — even if you’ve signed with a publisher. And you also need to know where to turn for help. I’ve been fortunate in this respect, since I owned a public relations agency for seven years and now have migrated those skills to book and brand promotion — and offered those services to authors.

Which begs the million-dollar question: What is a platform?

Quite simply, a platform is the way in which you build public awareness in yourself and your company or message — or, in the case of an author, your book. The greater the public awareness, the greater number of potential readers or customers — and the greater your platform. The bigger and more expansive your platform, the closer you are to becoming a household name, at least among the target audience of your book or business initiative.

That’s what book publishers are looking for, because it guarantees a core group of people likely to buy your book. No matter how wonderful your relationship is with your agent, or the acquisition editor of a publisher, it all comes down to one thing with virtually all publishers, from the biggest New York houses to your own self-publishing initiative: SALES.

This leads to the next question: How do I build a platform that expands awareness in my book and myself, and attracts these very discerning publishers?

The quick answer: One plank at a time — starting RIGHT NOW, no matter where you are in the writing process of your book or the process of converting your message and practices to published form.

We’re going to spend the next four blog posts focusing on the following four essential elements of building platforms:

1) Strong Traditional Media Presence — Print, Online, Consumer and Trade

2) Strong Online Presence — Websites and ACTIVE Blogs are a must

3) Strong Social Media/Networking Presence — If you’re not on Facebook or Twitter, sign up NOW

4) Outside Activities Related to Your Book Subject — This includes participation in workshops, conferences, teaching, speaking engagements, seminars and the like.

We’ll address each of these elements in future blog posts. Also know that we offer top-of-the-line platform building services and consultation to authors of all genres. Our goal is the same as yours: to see you in lights, and to see your book published.

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