In my recent invite to authors KS Ferguson was swift to respond and provided an insight into her writing methods, novels and views on publishing. There’s a lot to chew on, so I won’t take any more of your time. Dive headlong into a world of creative ideas and characters who are very much outside the box…
You write sci-fi with fantasy elements. Where does the inspiration for ideas come from?
Actually, I write mystery thrillers, some with sci-fi elements, some with fantasy elements, and some that have both. No matter how hard I try not to include them, there are invariably dead bodies dropping left and right and puzzles to be solved. I see mysteries in everything. If there’s a poorly written news piece on Yahoo (no shortage of those!), I’m immediately imagining what the rest of the story might be.
I take daily walks around a nearby lake. One marvelously cold, foggy morning, the parking area was invaded by police vans and divers. My mind went straight to murder. But how had it been done? There was only one set of footprints leading across the skiff of snow to the open water beyond the ice shelf, and none coming back. (In truth, it was an under-ice training dive for the local law enforcement people, and there weren’t any footprints or bodies, but what an atmospheric setting with the fog wafting through the pines!) Yes, I freely admit to a runaway imagination that’s slanted toward crime and of being a genre mashup specialist, which confuses my readers and makes assigning categories at retailers a complete nightmare.
My mother was a victim of Alzheimer’s. In the mid-stages, she’d alternate between the normal, sensible woman I’d always known, and someone who made the most outrageous statements as though they were cold, hard facts. When she made a particularly jarring shift one day, I was left feeling as though I’d slipped through a crack into an alternate dimension where the normal physics and logic of my everyday world were gone, and the crazy statements my mother made were the truth.
Writers are always told to draw on what they know and what they feel. I popped open a Word doc and mentally vomited three or four pages to capture the strangeness of that interaction. As I wrote, I had no idea who the character was or why this had happened. Out of nowhere, the distinctive voice of River Madden appeared. I put the work aside a few days, a little awed by what I’d created. Then I had to do the very hard work of figuring out who the character was. Why would he have this bizarre experience of unexpectedly crossing from one dimension to another and accept that it was perfectly normal? Because he suffers from schizophrenia and struggles to separate the real from his hallucinations. Once I had that much, I was off and running.
Do you think the novel should be more than just a means of storytelling?
My college English teacher once said that writers hold the mirror up to society. What writers put in their work is a reflection of what they see around them. That said, if writers want to preach, they should get a soapbox and a street corner, or label their work as opinion and not fiction. Personally, I like to ask the questions and let readers find their own answers. I greatly admire the editorials of Dr. Stan Schmidt, Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine editor for many years. He had a knack for making readers think about problems without lecturing about solutions. If my readers go away entertained but with little questions niggling in their brains, if they rethink an attitude toward someone who’s different from them, or their role in a societal situation that creates injustice, then I’ve done what I wanted and needed to do.
Are authors obliged to raise moral and ethical questions in their work?
See Q3. Raise the questions in the mind of the reader, yes. Answer the questions, no. My hope would be that readers will get to know (and like) River Madden and see him as a human being much like themselves, but one with some difficult problems. When they next observe a madman ranting on a street corner, instead of imagining a dangerous nut case, I’d hope they’ll think back to River and see instead a struggling guy who deserves both help and compassion.
How has the self-publishing process worked for you? Are you rich yet?
Ah, ha, ha! Being an indie is darn hard work, and there’s no road to fame paved in gold. I’ve learned a lot, first about fiction writing, and then about marketing. Have I learned enough? Ask me that again in about three years.
Do you find author advice on the net useful or a waste of space?
For beginners, author advice on the web is very useful and an inexpensive way to progress. Later, you need a high-level mentor or developmental editor who can look at your work and show you what you still need to master. There’s no clear blueprint for all the craft lessons so that you can place yourself on a roadmap and say, “Okay, I’m here, and when I learn how to do these three more things, I will be writing at a professional level.” We don’t know what we don’t know. We think we’re doing great when we still have miles to go. That’s where a one-on-one relationship with a writing teacher comes in. Teachers are hard to find, and they’re frequently expensive, but they’re the single best and fastest way to improve, provided you’re willing to listen and grow.
If there was one thing about publishing you would change what would that be?
The one thing I’d change? All my books would sell a million copies the first week out the gate. Seriously, the publishing business is just crazy. There’s a ton of crappy books out from writers who didn’t deliberately mean to publish garbage but simply don’t know any better. Those have masked the visibility of the good indie-published books and given indie authors overall a bad reputation.
I’m not in favor of a gated community like the NY publishing houses, but it would be nice to see some sites rise where the books they review and promote are sorted down to those deserving of attention so that readers have a reliable place to get recommendations. Goodreads used to be like that. Since Amazon has taken over, and with all the review rigging going on, it’s less so. Of course, Amazon is the 600 lb gorilla, and their predatory practices make steam come out my ears. (If you read any of my Rafe and Kama S/F thriller series, you’ll quickly learn my opinion of large corporations.)
What’s your writing process, from initial idea through to publishing?
If I’m busy on other projects and a new idea pokes me in the eye, I’ll tuck that away in a doc somewhere. When the time is right, I’ll loop back around and develop the idea further. I tend to come up with some wacky way for a murder to happen, figure out who my characters are, plan my character change, and then design events that drive the character change while also solving the murder/mystery. Except for the crazy start to Touching Madness, I don’t write anything until I have a pretty solid outline going. I’m a logic-driven organizer, so that’s not surprising.
I draft, I rewrite, I send the work out to some beta readers, and when I have feedback, I rewrite again. If I’m satisfied and confident the book says what I wanted it to, I hand it off to my copyeditor. Then I format and publish, which tends to take days because of all the requirements of the six separate retailers/aggregators I use. Somewhere in there, often when I’m stuck on the plot, I’ll create a cover so it’s ready when the writing is done. I don’t have daily writing quotas, although when I get an opportunity to focus solely on the writing, I do track my daily word count. The writing has to fit between all the other aspects of my life, including a job that pays the bills. I’m not as productive as I’d like to be.
If you literally bumped into a literary agent in an elevator and they said ‘You’ve written novels? Sell them to me,’ what would you say to them?
If I bumped into a literary agent, I’d be no more interested in selling a book to him than to any other reader out there. If I’m thinking about this person as an agent, I’d want to know what he could do for me that’s an improvement on what I’m already doing. Publishers don’t have any magic way to sell more books than an indie does. Fifty percent of all published books don’t earn back their advances.
Many of the publishers aren’t doing any marketing for their authors, except for a few of their highest earners. I’d still be expected to maintain a presence on social media and do most of my own promotion. I’d have hard, contractual deadlines and an editor who wants to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to where the series goes next or what the title should be. Cover artists and copy editors just don’t cost that much that I should hand over huge amounts of earnings and my autonomy to a publisher to get those services. And when I see the predatory practices of publishing houses trying to tie up rights to an author’s work, I ask myself why I’d want to be involved with them in the first place. If I’m not selling to a NY publisher, why do I need an agent?
Of the five novels you’ve written so far, which one are you most proud of and why?
My characters might object if I had to pick one series over another. And since pride goes before the fall, I try to remain humble about the writing. If I look over the books in the order I wrote them, I see where I’ve grown as a writer. River Madden is the easiest and most fun to write. I have no idea where his voice came from, and I’m always frightened I won’t be able to find it again when I loop back around from writing in the other series.
My hellhound series (okay, one book, but there will be more) allows me to be more politically incorrect because of how the hellhound views humanity, and then I get to smack him hard for it. That’s always entertaining. The Rafe and Kama series is especially tough to write. Everything is more complex, from the characters and their relationship (not romance) to the corporate intrigue, and then there’s the added complication of trying to look 25 years into the future and create believable technology while positing a society with FTL capabilities.
If I were going to be proud of anything, it’s that I can switch gears to write in such vastly different settings with completely different voices, and that I continue to seek feedback so I can further improve my craft.
Thanks to Kathy for responding to the author invite and providing a fascinating insight into her writing and the publishing world.
You can find all her books on Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo and just about any other online retailer. Search for the books by title or author.
KS Ferguson – Calculated Risk, Hostile Takeover, Touching Madness, Undercover Madness, No Place Like Hell.
You can contact Kathy at her website KSFerguson.net (sign up for her newsletter) and you’ll also find her on Goodreads.