Kathleen Sams Flippen, Writer/Owner of Spaces by KSF, interviews Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, Steampunk proponents and authors of Phoenix Rising, The Janus Affair, and Dawn’s Early Light. Featured speakers at the James River Writers 2013 Annual Conference, the husband and wife team talk goggles and airships, social media and networking, how to juggle creation and marketing, and how to rise and stay afloat in the ever-changing world of the written word.
K: Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair are the first two novels in your steampunk series, The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. The Ministry website notes that while “steampunk is modern technology—iPads, computers, robotics, air travel—powered by steam and set in the 1800’s,” true steampunk is more than just goggles and airships. Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair present a critical view of the role of women in Victorian England, and Agent Eliza D. Braun, an outspoken native of New Zealand—where women have the vote—provides the “punk.” Why did you begin writing steampunk, what do you like most about it, and do you think mainstream awareness of the genre will dilute it?
P: I always have loved history and been fascinated by the characters and lives in it. Steampunk gives an author a wonderful chance to get in and get his/her hands dirty with history. You can twist events and characters and see how differently they would run in a world where steampower and clockwork power are taken to extremes. It is a genre where flights of fantasy and probing looks at the worst of Victorian society both have their place. You can be whimsical and complex at the same time.
As for being diluted by mainstream awareness, well, fantasy and science fiction also started out as niche markets, and they have grown to maturity and acceptance. I look forward to steampunk reaching that level. I have noticed even in the last year that more and more people are aware of the genre, and that makes me very happy!
T: What draws me to steampunk is its elegance and attitude. If cyberpunk is making technology work by any means necessary, then steampunk is creating technology with its own style. Whether it is the Captain’s Quarters of the Nautilus or the train car headquarters of James West and Artemis Gordon, steampunk has a feel and a panache all its own, making it a rich sub-genre to explore. There is also the attitude of breaking convention—an underlying emotion in steampunk that some authors tend to overlook when bringing in the goggles and airships. Sure, you need the gadgets, but there also have to be compelling characters with desires and emotions that go against Victorian conventions. That’s what Pip and I bring to our books, and I think this is what makes our steampunk appealing. We work with the characters first, then bring in the gadgets.
And yes, I do love the gadgets.
Steampunk still has a few steps to take before it goes completely mainstream, but I think the genre will only grow stronger, provided writers remember that steampunk is not (as Jeff Lee sang in his viral video) just “gluing gears on it and calling it steampunk.” It is characters, an attitude, and a good story at its core. True, there will creators who will try and “fake it” while others work hard to make it “legit,” but I think you can say that about science fiction on a whole—some people get it right, some people get it wrong.
So long as people are creating it. That’s what matters.
K: Tee, on your website you wrote that “being an author . . . means being a marketer, a promoter, and a public speaker. You need to . . . know what new technology is out there and how you can make it work for you. That’s the difference between being a writer and being an author.”
You have written about social media [All a Twitter: A Personal and Professional Guide to Social Networking with Twitter and Sams Teach Yourself Twitter in 10 Minutes], and you teach workshops on blogging, podcasting, and social networks. You and Philippa created a YouTube book trailer for The Janus Affair, and you are seeking funding through Kickstarter to create a role-playing game with Galileo Games. You are involved in so many difference aspects of social media. What advice can you give to other writers about using new technology to promote your work? Any mistakes to avoid? Best practices? Any great successes to share?
T: Social media really opens up the author’s ability to get the word out about his/her works and works-in-progress. There are so many opportunities available with platforms out there, the biggest challenge being “Where to begin?” The important thing to remember when you are laying down foundations for a social media platform is that maintaining your platform does require time but should not take up ALL of your time. You need to budget breaks where you check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and platforms that you know work for you. Not all of them will work, but when you can make them work, use them together to get your message across the broadest spectrum. Some apps will work for you while others will not, but don’t put all your strategy into one platform. That can limit your voice. With a variety of platforms, you can create a strong and active platform, so long as you are creating content relevant to your readers. If all you are doing is endless self-promotion, you will become “noise” as opposed to “signal” in social media circles. Keep some things private (yes, you can share too much), but promote when appropriate. Share with your readers and your platform works-in-progress, clever graphics, photos of you at book events, or just relaxing on the beach. Be personable, be professional.
This is the greatest trip up in social media on a whole: Remaining professional while being personable. People can get on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms and make complete and utter idiots of themselves. They rant about politics, religion, relationships, and worse—critics and criticisms on books and other writings. There are going to be opposing viewpoints, nasty-grams, and jerks in general; and through it all, you have to be a professional but keep your cool and personal edge. Some days are easier than others. Sometimes the best thing to do would be to walk away from your computer. It’s a hard platform to manage at times, but you have to remember that when you post anything— ANYTHING—online, you are sharing your voice with thousands on thousands on thousands of people. You are your best editor when it comes to social media, and you need to have a strategy.
K: Both of you have written about the importance of networking. Tee has said that “you need to understand networking with people, what image you portray when online or when at a convention.” Philippa has said that social media does not replace the face-to-face experience of meeting people. Science fiction/fantasy writers have an unique networking opportunity through Comic-Con, Dragon*Con and other pop culture conferences that you both attend, but can you discuss the types of networking that are most beneficial for writers of any genre?
P: Despite all social media, conventions are still a great place to meet readers, agents and editors. Sometimes the value of those connections is not immediately apparent, but when you need someone to invite into your anthology (like the Kickstarter Tee and I are doing right now) or you need a freelance editor, then those connections are the way forward. My favorite story is definitely meeting Felicia Day at New York Comic Con. We had connected on Goodreads.com when she liked my book, Geist, and then we shared a few tweets after that. Then at DragonCon, she told me to jump the line (via twitter) and I handed her The Janus Affair, and she replied ‘Oh, I’ve already got this!’ That was definitely unexpected. So don’t underestimate those personal connections. I think social media is a great way to increase your exposure to readers and professionals you would never meet at conventions. Just be aware that you are shouting into a room where more people than just your fans and friends can hear you.
T: I have really seen my years touring Science Fiction conventions coming to fruition with the organization of the Kickstarter anthology. Though the cons, I’ve met writers and editors, and I’ve made friends who have followed my career since its beginnings in 2002. You also find a lot of inspiration at conventions in the cosplayers, the makers, and the fans who can say something or suggest a resource that will kick off the next idea for you.
The same rule applies for cons as it does for social media: have fun, but try and keep a professional demeanor when socializing and speaking on panels. Sometimes, I let that slip and I’m thankful Pip is there to pull me back. Sometimes, I have TOO much fun…but I’m getting better at keeping control.
K: Philippa, you have said that “diversity” is important if you want to make a decent living as a writer. I understand you work with two different publishers–one for your supernatural fantasy and one for steampunk. You are developing a new historical fantasy series, a new YA series, and a new high fantasy series. You podcast, you are hoping to develop a role-playing game based on the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, and you are involved in digital publishing and much more. How do you juggle the creation and marketing of all your different projects?
P: I have to be careful with my scheduling. I can write one project, while editing another, while thinking about a third, but I cannot double up on any of those projects. I can’t write two things at the same time. So I have a very careful list of to-dos that I stick with. In addition, I keep spreadsheets of all the details of my projects so I keep all those little details straight.
Marketing is something that is just as important as writing. In this day and age very few authors can afford to just write. Again, you need to manage how you approach this. I like to get emails and marketing out of the way in the morning, and have the afternoon for writing and editing.
K: Tee and Philippa, can you each share how you got your first books published? How did you get noticed, what advice would you give to writers seeking publication, and how do you deal with the publishing hurdles that continue to arise even after a writer publishes his or her first book?
P: My first novel was e-published back in 2002 when e-publishing made you enough money in a year to buy a coffee. I guess that makes me a hipster in the e-book market! I simply submitted to their slush pile. It was a book that I turned into my first podcast novel, Weaver’s Web. The podcasting of three of my novels certainly gave me a fan base, that later helped me sell my first book to Ace Books. I wouldn’t say it was the reason they signed me—that I attribute to our awesome agent Laurie McLean—but it did help that I already had a platform in social media. That was a real turning point in my career. Having someone who knows the business and is committed to your success is amazing. She helps me negotiate the twists and turns of the business.
I think the most important thing is always to try and be a professional, even if you aren’t one yet. Consider what you are saying, both at conventions and throughout social media. Publishing is actually a small business: everyone knows everyone, and how you act will get around. It’s a fine line to being personable on social media and professional, but do take a moment to think about each tweet or Facebook post.
T: When I wanted to get my first book published, I spent months researching options. Back then, self-publishing was considered a “last resort” and the more I read about it, the more I read about how professionals tended to look down on that sort of thing.
I’ll get back to that in a moment.
I went with traditional publishing, giving the smaller, independent publishers more scrutiny than the major ones. I went with Dragon Moon Press, an indie press based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and saw my first novel (co-written with Miss Lisa Lee) published in 2002. I hit the conventions and discovered that while there are many books on the market about publishing, none of them can really prepare you for interaction with other authors. I found out in some circles that “small press” authors were expected to be “seen but not heard” and that some authors, both large and small press, thrived on holding court. I discovered those authors and publishing houses that nurtured near-cult status, and I found out that the people I grew up with were some of the coolest people I’ve ever met.
Perhaps the best bit of observation came from author Terry Brooks when he said “A byline doesn’t make you a nice person. You can still be a bad person, but have a byline.”
Truer words never spoken.
Now, 10 years later, a lot of the writers who turned their noses up at me are singing the praises of self-publishing. An establishment I had been told was essential to my career now appears to be struggling to keep up with technology. Small presses are now hailed as the future of publishing. What does all this tell me? It tells me that to survive as an author (as many people I met in the early years are no longer writing) you need to change with the times, diversify your writing platforms (self published shorts, podcasting, traditionally published novels, indie press anthologies), and consider what you have to work on next. The publishing industry is changing and to continue to write in it you have to move like water. Flow and ebb, and try to keep your writing and your skills sharp.