Living the life you write. Writers can’t always. For many, writing is the escape from the mundane, the wielding of powers they can only display in pages, because wearing a cape in public still has not caught on as a fashion trend. Few of us feel our daily lives really are the stuff of novels. The writers who are virtual twins to their literary selves – they are the envy of readers, and others authors alike.
It sometimes seems that Author Jaleta Clegg is lucky to be writing her own life, and space/time forces her to leave out most of the good stuff.
Science Fiction as daily life? Impossible, you say. However, it isn’t impossible to the youngsters who know Jaleta in her public persona (including cape.) She’s involved in Science Education, on the grandest scale. Reading her work, you learn as much about the ‘Klingon Lunch Lady’ as you ever do about her characters. Jaleta Clegg lives only seventy-six miles from space, and she writes as though she commutes from orbit every day.
Joel Kirkpatrick: Most children sprout some insane-interest in dinosaurs and space at just about the age of six, the world over. By high school, that interest is shoved aside by too many other things. Not with you, though, you never lost your interest in space, did you?
JC: Oh, no. I’ve always loved space and the stars. I stare up at night and wish I had my own space ship. I saw Star Wars when I was 11 (yeah, giving away my age there). The real draw for me was Han Solo’s ship. Forget the Force and Jedis and everything else. I wanted the Falcon so bad. I still do. But, since the technology is still a long way away, I pretend through my writing and my day job. I’m tickled to be a planetarium director for the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center. We have a portable digital system that is incredible. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I just sit inside and pretend I’m really on my way to those distant stars.
And if I’m really lucky, I get to play in one of our starships. Interactive storytelling at it’s very finest. Plus it looks really cool.
JBK: What age group of students do you mentor now, in all things orbital?
JC: Most of them are 10-14, although our staff ranges in age up to early 20s. I also do a lot of planetarium shows for cub scouts, 8-11. We do field trips all through the school year, teaching them the basics of physics and astronomy through fun presentations and experiments. I love my day job.
JBK: Many authors who know you, who themselves have only written only two or three novels, marvel at how many complete books you have penned. For the record, how many novels of yours are waiting some signal to go to press?
JC: I just finished edits on the rest of the eleven in the series The Fall of the Altairan Empire. Book 1, Nexus Point, has been out for a couple of years. Book 2, Priestess of the Eggstone, is coming out any time now. I’m just waiting for the publisher to schedule the other nine and I’m good to go. Meanwhile, I’m working on some other stories – steampunk fairyland elves, cross-dimensional travel, a high fantasy epic, and more science fiction adventure set in the same universe as the series. It’s an addiction. I can’t stop telling stories.
JBK: It seems you must be writing constantly. What is the longest single stretch of time you have endured, when you could not find any time to write?
JC: Since I started my first full novel eighteen years ago? I had stretches of up to four or five years where I didn’t do much writing. I’ve got eight kids, most of them mildly autistic. They eat up lots of time, but they were also the reason I started writing in the first place. I needed something to look forward to beside diapers and messes and Barney. I needed an outlet.
But when I’m not actually putting words in files, I’m dreaming up more stories. I tend to let them percolate in my head for months sometimes and then write them in a mad rush. I wrote a 170k rough draft in six days once, but that story had been brewing for years.
JBK: Can you single out one element in modern Sci-Fi that you believe keeps you so inspired to keep reading and writing?
JC: The sense of adventure. I love stories with great characters and good stories. I love action and romance and fights and explosions. I also love the real science. I keep reading and writing SF because I want to travel out there. I want to see those nebulas and planets for myself. I’m never going to go into space in real life, so make-believe is the next best thing. Besides, I don’t have to worry about getting motion sickness unless I’m reading in the car.
JBK: You do not write only Sci-Fi. You have a supportive Horror audience as well. You have called your style of Horror ‘silly’. Why so?
JC: Because it is very silly. I don’t write horror to scare people, I write it to make them laugh. I take a horror trope, like a zombie attack, and find some way to make it ridiculous. When you can reduce something horrific and frightening to something silly, you can deal with it. It isn’t so overwhelming or scary anymore.
I’m also a huge fan of the unintentionally humorous monster movies. Sharktopus is my all-time favorite when I need a good laugh.
JBK: Your Horror works are all short story? Do you have a full novel project in mind for Horror?
JC: I don’t think I could sustain the silly for a whole novel and I don’t want to delve into my psyche for all the dark and disturbing things living there. I’d scare myself too badly. I scare myself bad enough writing villains for my science fiction adventures. I can add elements of horror to some of my novels, like one I’ve got planned for sometime soon, but not straight horror for a whole novel.
JBK: Why do you believe that Sci-Fi and Horror mesh so well together?
JC: They both deal with the unknown. The unknown is scary, until we figure it out.
JBK: At what point in your writing life did you begin to earnestly seek publication? Had you already written several complete books before you began to shop them around?
JC: You love to ask the hard ones, Joel. I hate to admit this, but I had the whole series written, plus a fantasy trilogy, long before I seriously started pursuing publication. It took me that many books before I had anything even close enough to confidence in my writing to think someone would want to pay me money for them. It wasn’t the stories…it was me. I was scared of rejection and criticism. But now that I get it regularly, it doesn’t bother me. Weird.
Writing all those books was great for teaching me how to write. The only writing class I ever took was scientific technical writing, which requires a completely different mindset from fiction not to mention a completely different writing style. Nobody cares about passive voice in a technical paper. My first editor was a true gem, too. She beat all sorts of bad habits out of my book.
JBK: Few new authors realize the amount of work necessary to promote their books, even with a publishing contract and printed book. You have an impressive web-footprint of your own. Did you fall into your web-persona as easily as you did your writer’s persona?
JC: Excuse me while I laugh hysterically. I wasn’t on Facebook, Twitter, or anywhere until my first publisher told me that I needed to build a web presence and I needed to do it NOW. My first blog post was only a few months before the book released. I had no idea what I was doing. But I’m glad I got online and got involved. I’ve met the most wonderful people and I enjoy it.
JBK: Online, what are you promoting most? … your books, or yourself? Can either be overdone?
JC: I’m mostly having fun and chatting with people. I participate in a couple of twitter chats most weeks and a few other chats. I love keeping in touch with friends through Facebook and other sites. I try to keep the promotion to a minimum because I really don’t enjoy tooting my own horn. People who only post endless strings of “BUY MY BOOK” are not people…they’re spambots. Nobody enjoys that. Nobody likes the person who is constantly screaming about how wonderful they are. People want to interact-they want something of value in what they read, even if it is only entertainment. I try to be entertaining in my blog posts. I also post recipes because I like to cook.
So come look me up and join me, if you want. I’m always happy to find new friends.
JBK: What type of web-presence do you feel is the most important for any new author to seriously invest time on: their social networking, or a full scale author-book showcase website? Where do you devote your own time the most?
JC: Social networking is by far the most productive for a new author. Let the publisher or Amazon or wherever list your books. You provide the incentive for people to want to read your book. Many of the books I’ve picked up lately were by authors I’d met online as friends. The only promotion they really did was to be interesting to chat with. List your book links on your blog or webpage, but don’t do the hard sell on them. Be a person first.
JBK: How did you earn a publishing contract for Nexus Point? Were you working for it with a healthy query effort, or did it come to you through some stroke of good fortune?
JC: Both? I beat it into shape, including two complete rewrites and lots of advice from friends who did editing and writing; sat on it for several years because I was too nervous to send it out; finally found the courage to submit; and then started looking for somewhere to submit it. But since it was book one in a series and most publishers don’t even want to consider a series from an unknown author, I spent a lot of time online looking for a publisher who would consider a series. Cyberwizard Productions wanted it, loved it, and would have published the whole series if the economy hadn’t tanked. Total time from my first email query to them to a contract was less than two weeks. Small publishers are great to work with. Nexus Point released a year and a half later. It took me six months to work through edits on it. Like I said earlier, I had a great editor who did a lot of mentoring through that process.
Luck plays a part, but persistence and patience and doing your research also play a big part. I knew what market I was looking for and I found a publisher who wanted what I had.
JBK: You are very soon to be an author with two publishers in tow. JournalStone is putting Priestess of the Eggstone (book two in your Altairan Empire series) into print in August 2012. How long have your fans waited, to follow Captain Dace back into a new adventure?
JC: Nexus Point came out December 2009. They’ve waited a long time. Changing publishers did put a delay in the process, but if Journalstone is willing, book three is ready to submit any time. *cheesy grin*
JBK: In your relationship with your first publisher, did anything surprise you, as a newly published author? Was it anything that you believe is commonly misunderstood by most new authors?
JC: I thought that since I’d written and edited the book, all I had to do was sit back and watch it sell. Fans would flock to my book. Ha! With thousands of books releasing every week, you have to work hard to get your name out there and find people who want to read what you write. If you do nothing, your story gets lost in the noise.
I didn’t expect to feel like a pimp so often. “Looking for a good read? Try this one…” *opens trenchcoat* I’m selling myself and my books through everything I do online. Not blatantly, but every interview like this is a chance to interact with someone who might be intrigued enough by what I say to check out my stories. Every friend on Twitter or Facebook is someone who might want to read my books. Word of mouth is the only marketing that really works and it has to come from someone other than the author, but the author has to get the ball rolling in the first place. It’s a delicate balancing act.
JBK: At the good news that you were about to see the new book in print, did you just sit back and wait for the first proof copy to arrive? How involved are you in the process to make this new book a reality?
JC: Are you kidding? I worked my tail off editing to make it as perfect as I could, then fixing everything the editor suggested was broken, then talking it up with everyone I could find who was interested, then waiting with bated breath to drool over the cover. I didn’t do the artwork or the page layout, but I want to. Holding that first proof copy in my hands was one of the best moments ever. Right up there with watching a shuttle launch in person. Holding the real thing, knowing people could buy it and read it, was even better.
JBK: Which is more fear-inducing: getting back into a project to self-edit, or handing the manuscript to an editor for professional help? Have you ever faced a necessary edit that you really did not want to make?
JC: Handing it off the pro editor is much more frightening. I have a stupid little voice in my head that tells me the editor is going to hate the story and tell me I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag and it’s completely worthless. No matter how hard I try to ignore that voice, it’s still there. I’ve never had that happen, though. Every editor I’ve worked with has been great. My first editor worked through the book one chapter at a time. I’d send it to her, she’d mark it up, then send it back. I’d see her email in my inbox and cringe, knowing it was going to hurt. Some of those chapters came back three times as long because of all her comments and suggestions. It was a good learning experience for me, but it was painful. I got one chapter back that only had two corrections in it. I panicked wondering if she had given up because my writing was so bad. It took me a week to find the courage to email her about it. Her reply? That chapter was great. You’re learning. My advice? Take a good fiction writing class sometime and learn that editors are your friends, not your enemies.
Yes, I’ve had to make changes to a story I didn’t want to make to fit what the editor wanted. I was in love with a scene but it didn’t fit. If I let myself be objective and honest, the scene was better with the editor’s suggestion. I’ve also put my foot down and refused to make edits the way the editor suggested. I did rewrite the sections, but my way. When the editor says, this is a problem, don’t argue. Step back from your feelings about it and honestly evaluate the changes. There is usually a problem that needs fixed. How you fix it is up to you, as the author.
JBK: Why does it seem so much easier to edit some other writer’s work, than to edit our own?
JC: For the same reason it’s easier to clean someone else’s house or do their dishes – you aren’t emotionally invested in it. My books are my babies, my children. They’re born perfect. Except books and children aren’t perfect. They have flaws, they have bad habits, and they need direction or guidance to really blossom into something better. When you’re pointing out the flaws in someone else’s baby, it doesn’t hurt. Being told your baby is far from perfect hurts.
JBK: Writers are sometimes driven to write until they have reached some particular milestone in their book; e.g. the conclusion of a difficult scene or chapter. Must you do the same, or can you leave your project and come back to it later when time allows?
JC: Depends on the circumstances. Yes, I have kept writing even though I was about to wet my pants because I had to go so bad. The story was flowing so well I didn’t want to stop. I also taped a sign to my bedroom door (after I locked myself inside) that said, if there isn’t blood or broken bones or open flames, GO AWAY. It only works sometimes. I write until I run out of ideas or until life decides I need to do something else. I’ve learned to be able to pick up a story mid-sentence if necessary.
I would love to spend a month in seclusion doing nothing but writing. But someone else would have to pay the bills, do the shopping, clean the house, go to my job, do the cooking, etc. I write when I can.
JBK: Nearly every author will tell you they write what they would love to read. What do you love most to read?
JC: What I write – action, adventure, explosions, romance. The impetus to write my first novel was the lack of books at our local library that I found appealing. I wrote books that were the kind I wanted to read.
JBK: Which era of Sci-Fi inspires you the most: the classics of our youth, or the modern books?
JC: The classics, hands-down. I have an entire bookcase dedicated to Andre Norton.
JBK: Horror readers can claim, with some good arguments, that there are too many vampires/werewolves/zombies in their favorite genre. Are there any elements of Sci-Fi that you feel are being over-done? Are there any familiar elements you consciously shun as a writer?
JC: Gritty realism, profanity, dark dystopian futures, whiny teenagers, amoral characters, gratuitous sex scenes, bizarre sex scenes for the sake of shock. My books are more like the space opera series from the golden age of SF. I prefer characters I can admire and like-people with convictions and moral values. No, I don’t mean perfect. My characters are very flawed, but they believe in basic decency and good. They’re people I wouldn’t mind having as friends, except for the trouble they tend to cause.
JBK: Do you edit yourself creatively, for any particular audience? Have you ever wondered to make any scene more graphic, more disturbing, but withheld those stronger elements?
JC: I don’t write anything that would embarrass me if my mother or children read it. I aim for a PG-13 rating, at the most graphic, at least as far as sex scenes or language goes. Violence? My books are pretty violent. Lots of people get beat up, shot at, chased, captured, etc. But it’s part of the story. The biggest problem I have to face when editing is to remove the distance between the reader and the emotions in the scene. I shy away from strong emotions when writing. I have to kick myself into removing those barriers from the story. It’s more powerful, but it’s scary. It’s like performing in your underwear. That stupid little voice wants to know if they’ll be shocked at what I’d written. I have to remind myself that this isn’t me…it’s my characters.
JBK: Is there really such a thing as Science Fiction anymore? So much of last century’s fiction is reality. Is there any part of the fiction that you just cannot believe as possible-ever?
JC: That’s one reason I write space opera. My spaceships tend to be retro, more like Flash Gordon than Star Trek. Until they invent an FTL drive, I’m safe claiming my stories are science fiction. But I also know that my version of the future will never be possible, not with our current understanding of space and time. I don’t deal with time dilation. Jumping between worlds in my universe is like sailing in ours. Time passes the same for everyone. People don’t have to wait centuries to pass messages between planets. I know it isn’t realistic, but it’s my universe and my rules. My stories are about the people, not the science or technology.
JBK: As an author with a good history of publication, you must have had your share of odd reviews. Do less-than-flattering comments ever bother you? What should new authors learn, to prepare themselves for such direct reader-writer interaction?
JC: I’ve been lucky. I haven’t gotten any really vicious reviews, except on a couple of stories I posted for free on B&N. The best advice in dealing with reviews is to just let them be. Good or bad. Thank them for posting a review, especially on a blog, but don’t comment more than that. Authors who get dragged into arguments over the merits of their book will lose. Learn to grow a thick skin, because once your story is published, it isn’t yours anymore. It belongs to the readers.
JBK: Writers crave reviews. They will get both raves and panning reviews. Who might be the most accurate in their opinions: another writer, or the public at large? Do writers sometimes go easily on other writers?
JC: Writers are some of the most generous and forgiving reviewers. They are also some of the most nit-picking vicious critics you will ever meet. Depends on the writer, your relationship with them, and whether they have pet peeves about writing. I’d rather get an honest review from a reader any day. They’re the ones I’m trying to sell the book to.
JBK: You have also dabbled in Graphic Design, this stunning cover for the WHC 2008 convention in Salt Lake City being an example. Are you able to do such work on a regular basis?
JC: I got into graphic design in 1995 when an opportunity dropped in my lap. I did yellow page ads for phone books for several years. I like dabbling in art, but not enough to do it full time. I don’t want it to become just a job. I do mostly convention books now, and only every few years. I’ve got friends who run cons who need someone they can trust to produce a good, clean file. And that cover? It wasn’t me, it was the artist. Without that painting, the rest wouldn’t be worth spit. I’m like the person framing the artwork, not the artist.
JBK: In modern publishing, there is a growing debate on the subject of prologues in novels. Sci-Fi has always seemed to embrace them, as grand new themes and new worlds are difficult to understand without some lead-in information given quickly to the reader. What about a series of books in a single theme, like The Altairan Empire? Is Nexus Point, itself, really a prologue to the series?
JC: Nexus Point is exactly what the title suggests – the starting point, the center for everything that happens afterwards. It’s a story in and of itself, too. I tried very hard to write complete stories in each book. Yes, I leave a few threads dangling, but that’s the beauty of a series. It’s one big story containing several smaller stories. Wait until book 11. Then, you’ll see how everything fits together. And yes, book one contains foreshadowing for the ultimate final climax of the whole series.
As far as prologues in a book, that’s still up for debate. I read them, unless they are a summary of The Story So Far. Sometimes I’ll use them, but it’s part of the story. Most of the time I just make that scene chapter one and start writing.
JBK: Which is more important in Sci-Fi narratives: proper physics or only a rollicking good story? Do you nitpick the science in books that you choose to read?
JC: I only nitpick about the science if it’s essential to the story and they got it wrong. I can’t read Clive Cussler for that reason. I know too much about the science he’s mutilating. If it’s not central to the story, it won’t really bother me. I love a good storyline and I can forgive all sorts of bad science if the characters and story are good enough.
JBK: Your writing projects are varied widely in theme, you are equally at home writing Fantasy. Some writers cannot do that; they must continue in the genre they are comfortable. Do you recommend that writers move away from those comfortable places, to help themselves grow? Do you have any favorite authors who write only one genre?
JC: Short stories were invented so writers could play with new ideas. You don’t have to invest as much in a short story which allows you to experiment more than you would in a novel. I write whatever the story needs. My current project involves steampunk and fairies and magic and elves and portals to Earth because that’s what I felt like writing. But then, I have a short attention span. I like to push boundaries. If you stay in your comfort zone, you might miss out. I’m adventurous with my food and spices, why not with my writing? The only one I haven’t been able to make myself write is straight romance. I want to slip in magic or aliens or send them all to another world. Staying inside the real world is tough.
Authors? I love Julie Czerneda’s stories. She only writes hard SF and she does it well. I’m also a sucker for a good murder mystery. Most of those authors stick with that genre. It depends on how creative you can get. Any genre is limited only by the imagination of the people writing it.
JBK: What aspects of your own writing do you believe might need the most improvement?
JC: The technical aspects of it. Not grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, or spelling; but the construction. I’m still learning how to write good fiction that doesn’t read like an article in Science Digest. It’s all about word choice and phrasing. I also am addicted to certain phrases and words. It’s like saying “umm…”. It’s a hard habit to break, but it makes the writing cleaner.
JBK: When beginning a new project, which is clearer to you: the opening, or the conclusion? Do you ever have a firm design for how a story will conclude, or do you let the narrative grow, as it wants?
JC: That really depends on the story I’m writing. Most of the time I have a good idea where I’m starting and where I want to end up and I may have a few scenes in the middle, but it’s very fluid. Any outlines I write are very sparse and flexible. I don’t want boxed in if I’m struck by a great idea that totally changes the storyline.
I write very linearly – start at the beginning and write to the end, wherever that may be. Then go back and make sure all the pieces fit together and make sense.
JBK: Your delightful short Vicar’s Revenge is a whimsical short-story with a barely hidden moral. Your approach to the short story form is actually quite tightly controlled. Where do you work the hardest to craft the text: within a short story, or within a full length novel? Is one simply easier for you to write?
JC: I enjoy both. Short stories are more work per word, though. You don’t have any leeway with your audience. With a novel, you can mess around a bit and they’ll accept it because they have a whole book. Short stories give you a few thousand words to work the same magic. They require much tighter editing.
My biggest problem is that a short story has to have a limited plot. My plots start simple then breed complications. Before I know it, I’ve got another novel not the short story I was aiming for. I have to consciously try to keep the characters and plot simple. Only once have I had an editor tell me my story was too short and I needed to expand it. It helps to limit myself to one writing session for a short story. I have to finish it that day or it doesn’t get finished.
JBK: You once said in a forum post, “I don’t think any author who deliberately sets out to write a moral message does a very good job.” You then went on to say that we all do it subconsciously. Do you try to write with such messages in mind? Can any author keep themselves completely out of their own text?
JC: Oh, no, we can’t keep ourselves out of our writing. It’s a reflection of who we are. What we believe shows through. But if we try to deliberately write a story about the evils of slavery, say, we end up with a preachy overblown piece of work. Concentrate on telling a good story. Whatever you wanted to write about will find its way into your story in a way that isn’t like bashing your reader over the head. Readers aren’t stupid. You don’t have to spell it out.
JBK: What type of story have you wanted to attempt writing, but have not yet tried?
JC: I have many attempts saved on my computer, most of them not successful. Attempting is easy. Succeeding is hard. I can’t think of a story I’ve wanted to write but haven’t, except for those I haven’t started yet because I can’t find time.
JBK: You were once accused of selling-out by accepting a publication contract. Are there any true differences between Indie authors and small-press published authors? What would you say to a new author about continuing to seek publication?
JC: Small-press authors are like SF authors – everyone looks down on us. I’ve had several self-published authors tell me I should have published my books myself. I’ve had NY published authors tell me I should have pursued publication with a big house. Me? I’m happy where I’m at.
One of the drawbacks to self-pubbing is that you, the author, pay the editor directly. The editor feels obligated to give you what you want, not necessarily what you need, because if you are unhappy with what they say about your baby, you may not pay them. Conflict of interest, as far as I see it. I know a lot of self-pubbed authors who aren’t that way. They produce great stories. But too many authors, especially new ones, aren’t ready to listen. Editors hand out critiques. Critiques can really sting. When you’ve got the distance and maturity to accept critique, you’re ready to publish, whatever way you choose. Until then, keep working on your writing.
The other reason I wanted a publisher is so someone else would handle most of the paperwork involved in bringing a book to market. It’s much easier now with the explosion in the eBook market, but it still takes time and effort.
It also helps to have a publisher take some of the marketing responsibility. The more people talking about your book, the better chance you have of finding your readers.
For new authors, research all the different ways for publication and find the one you are most comfortable with.