Interview and an Excerpt – Ren Cummins
Interview and an Excerpt is a weekly feature that explores the process of writing and indie publishing through interviews with self published authors. The aim is to demystify the process for those who are aspiring to become indie publishers themselves. This week’s guest is Ren Cummins. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know him through our interactions on Twitter and he’s been so much fun to meet. He is running an simultaneous interview featuring me on his site today. You should check that out. Not because it’s about me, but because his approach is a lot more fun and way less clinical than mine. Go on… I’ll wait.
1.) How long have you been an indie author?
I really want to take the snarky path here and say I’ve been an indie author since I first started writing stories at about seven. But I did take a few years off (hah!) and didn’t being self-publishing until 2009. So, professionally for about 4 years.
2.) How many books have you self published?
I just completed my sixth full-length novel; in addition to that series, I’ve written several anthology stories and the like, which have been published under a different pen name.
3.) Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I really am a bit of both. I form my stories out with an end goal and a skeletal narrative structure, but frequently I’ll find the characters in a situation that just seems to want something different from that which I’d originally intended. I’d say the closest thing I can draw a metaphor to would be playing jazz. The structure is kind of there, but I love to get into it and play with it as I go. If I try to nail all of it down before I write it, it takes some of the fun out of it. I mean, how fair is it if only my readers get to be surprised?
4.) Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
Hmmm. In the past, I’ve written the novels out in a nearly chronological order. I know that’s often frowned upon, but it just seems to work with my narrative sensibilities. Granted, in the editing phase, I do a lot of shifting around in order to build suspense and that sort of thing. But typically, I write cover to cover. On my last book of the Chronicles of Aesirium series, however, I changed it up a bit. I wrote two chapters in, wrote the last two chapters and then jumped all over the place until I was ready to tackle the third act. Then I just soldiered through all the tears and triumphs until it was done.
I think I nursed a few drinks after that. Pretty sure, but you’d have to check the video to be sure.
Writing can become incredibly emotional for me. There were some very dramatic scenes throughout the steampunk series, and I found myself crying (and hating myself for being such a right bastard to my characters, naturally) several times. Once I had to get up from my laptop and go for a drive, just to remind myself why I allowed myself to write such terrible things about my beloved characters.
At the same time, writing the “hero moments” for my characters is deeply satisfying. I feel like I’ve been on the adventures with them, feared for them, worried and cheered for them – so when they triumph, so do I.
Once I had found myself stuck on a particular scene for two months, until I had a dream about the characters (who seemed fairly irate) who said, “Um, Ren? Seriously, we can’t stand around all day. How about if you have us do… this?” and then they showed me how to wrap up the scene. Yes, I’m not cracked, I know they’re not actual entities, but I do try to imagine them as such for so much of my waking time that it only made sense for them to take on that sort of resonance in my subconscious.
5.) What is the best writing advice you’ve ever come across?
It came from a tenured professor at my university. He said “here at school you’ll learn how to write. But it’s out in the world that you’ll discover WHAT to write ABOUT.” He told me that LIFE was the most essential education an author could have, and not to deny myself the education that only walking the earth could give. Pretty awesome man.
The second best advice I got was from a friend of mine named Jen Ashton who said “don’t tell people you’re going to write a novel. Just write a novel.”
6.) If you were going to mentor a new writer through the publishing process, what pitfalls would you warn them against?
No, I’m kidding. I’d say the greatest pitfall is thinking that the currently-accepted “historical” model for the publishing industry is going to be around for much longer. There’s just no reason for people to give up so much creative control and ownership and, yes, I’ll say it, MONEY to a company who doesn’t do anything you can’t already do for yourself. If you want to write a book, write a book. End of story.
But the key is, LEARN THE INDUSTRY. Learn it. Ask questions. Study. Nearly everything I’ve learned about the publishing process is available for free through the internet. It’s also available for a fee if you don’t want to look too hard. The thing is, a lot of people want to be Cinderella, waiting for their fairy godmother to send them to the ball, or for their Prince Charming to bring them their glass slipper. I wanted to be William Wallace and take back Scotland. The world is there, my friends. Stand up and take your piece of it.
7.) Are you currently earning a living with your writing?
At present, no. I have a day job. But this may come as a shock to people, but most full time authors have day jobs in addition to writing. In fact, I know more self-published authors who are sustained by their writing than I know “traditional” published authors who can make the same claim. But I’ve also set a monetary target of exactly how much I will need to be consistently making before I can step away from the relative security of the full time job and focus primarily on writing. It’s a time investment, and I treat it just like a second full time job. Between studying the industry and business sides of publishing, trend analysis, budgeting, networking, and the actual writing and production process, I put in probably more hours than I do at my day job.
But I keep that financial target in my sights at all time. It’s my first long term goal, and it has a number.
8.) What are your writing must haves? Music? A quiet table at a coffee shop?
Let’s see. I am kind of a creature of habit, in that I like to do certain things before I start, so I can get comfortable. Usually includes a triple grande white chocolate mocha, plus a pre-generated playlist on my iPod. I love setting those up, by the way: I usually have playlists for my main characters, and then for different moods – action, suspense, lighthearted dialogue, and even the dreaded exposition. I’m a musician, as well, so the biggest problem I ever come across with writing is if I don’t have a good soundtrack playing. If it’s too quiet, my creative centers get busy trying to fill that soundscape with something. And then I feel more like writing music than writing stories. It’s a terrible thing, I know. Oh, the horror!
I can’t be around other people when I write, though. I love people way too much to try and ignore them when I’m among them – I’d rather just sit down across from them and have a chat.
Do people actually write in coffee shops, by the way? I can’t even imagine how that could happen.
9.) What tools or software do you use to write?
I use Word for the actual writing, MobiPocket for the Kindle file conversions, and Gimp for the book cover designs. My music is on an iPod. And I proof everything on a kindle fire, because, oh my god that thing is beautiful.
10.) What kind of promotion have you tried? What do you find to be the most effective?
I’ve done paperback promotions on Goodreads, but I confess that my focus has only been paperback format at conventions. For everything else, I focus on the eBook format. For promotion there, I enjoy the grassroots campaigning process. Talking to people. Tweeting. Facebooking. Blogging. Forums. I’ve done a few of the Amazon Kindle Prime promotions, and I’ll coordinate with the launch of this interview to do another day of free ebooks to give your readers a chance to check one of my books out.
11.) About how long from start to finish did it take you to finish your books? About how many hours a day do you spend writing/editing?
The concept fell into my lap – thanks to my wife and my daughter – about 4 or 5 years ago. I loved the central character concept – which was at that time essentially an anime-inspired young Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and finally my wife told me to get off my creative ass and write the book. She may have said “write me my damn book already!”, in fact, but memory blurs the dialogue a bit.
I’d originally planned the books out as a trilogy, but as I wrapped up what was then book 2, I realized that even though I’d chopped a lot out of the books, they were each over 110,000 words – much too long for young adult novels. So I revisited them both and broke them back into two books apiece, re-added all the scenes and chapters I’d chopped out for space, and re-launched them as the first four books in a 6-book series. Book 5 was released in the spring of 2011, and book 6 was just released in December.
12.) How much of the process did you do yourself and what did you pay someone else to do?
I had a few friends of mine help with some of the initial proofing and concept development on the first books, and had an editor work with me through the entire series when I started the conversion from 3 to 6 books. I did the formatting, the cover design, and….well, that’s pretty much it.
13.) Can you tell us a little bit about your books?
Well, I’d mentioned before that it was originally set up as a Buffy concept, but firstly I just didn’t want to do vampires. So a different idea occured to me. And, halfway through the first book, one of the friends I’d had reading through it handed it back with the comment: “Oooh! I’ve been wanting to get into steampunk for a while, thank you!” To which I replied: “Steam-what?”
So, one internet-induced Steampunk education later, I realized that I was accidentally writing a steampunk novel. Who knew?
The core, though, isn’t about steam engines or things like that – they’re present, it’s the setting, but at it’s core, it’s about a young orphaned girl named Rom who finds out that she’s Death.
Death in a lovely black dress.
In my books, the Sheharid Is’iin are called many things – Gatherers, Spiritwalkers, Harvesters and so on – but to the people who fear death, they are called Reapers. It’s come to be known as a bedtime fable now, though; the thing you tell your children so they’ll stay in bed all night, or to keep people from wandering around the streets when the gaslights are on.
Meanwhile, white-haired Rom would just spend her evenings looking out the paned windows of Oldtown-Against-the-Wall’s only orphanage and dream of a life of something…more.
And it’s a fine dream to have, unless you’re dead. Though in Rom’s case, death is only the beginning.
14.) Do you mind sharing a little bit about what you’re working on right now?
Sure! I’m working on two different projects, now that the Chronicles of Aesirium are at a pausing point (yes, there will be more stories, but not just now). The first is a series of short stories called “Into the Dust” that retell a famous fairy tale. No spoilers, though, so you’ll just have to wait and see. But the first story, “Lost” will be on Amazon (link and release date tbd).
I’m also working on a new series of contemporary paranormal stories inspired by Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and the “Dresden Files” books. These will take place in the present in the Pacific Northwest. All things going well, book one will be out in the fall of 2012. You know, just in time for the world to end.
I’m also working on a series of children’s stories with my daughter; I hope to get that book launched by the end of the summer.
You can find Ren online here:
Chapter 1: The Sky People
Rom fumbled her way up onto her hands and knees in the hot sand, coughing out the fine grains of that which marked this as her least favorite (or the least graceful) landing of all time. Spitting and flinging her hair in an effort to clean herself off, she glanced around her and tried not to instantly collapse from the oppressive heat that seemed to want to boil her alive.
Or was it broil? She’d never spent enough time in the orphanage’s kitchen to keep those straight, something about the Matrons fearing she might set them all afire, or some such nonsense. Those silly women with their fear of white-haired girls, she thought. She felt off-balance all of a sudden, and held out her arms in front of her. It took only a glance to realize that she was much too tall for her lovely black dress. Grown again? She thought. At this rate, I’m going to be naked by the time I get home. Or older than Goya.
Sheltering her eyes with one hand, she spun in a slow circle to get her bearings. She’d come out at the top of a small hill that was made up of nothing but sand, right in the middle of a thousand other small hills made up of nothing but sand. Sand, sand, and nothing but more sand was visible in all directions.
That was, until she turned around, a great dark shadow making its way over the dunes. She looked up, and saw the floating city.
More than a hundred meters above her and twice as wide, it was an irregularly shaped mass of land, which, from her vantage point below and outside its boundaries, looked to be covered in lush grasses. It was as if a giant sword had cut a short, squat mountain from its base and flipped it upside down to float gently. And to make matters worse, it seemed to be moving. Even as she watched, it was drifting casually away from her in the direction of who knew where, like a cloud on the breeze.
Rom added this all into the “bad” column in her ongoing mental tally of arriving here in this seemingly endless wasteland.
“Oh, now you’re just being mean,” she gasped. She took a pair of stumbling steps and tried to leap up into the air after it, but the sand was too fine to support her efforts. All she managed to do was kick up clouds of sand and fall again onto the ground.
She did the best she could to try to keep up with it; but it was soon clear that, in spite of her efforts, the flying city was steadily pulling away from her. To make the matter worse, a final leap brought her to the peak of a much higher dune, which sloped down sharply. Her landing clipped the unsupported top of the dune and flung her down, spinning and tumbling roughly. A loud pop accompanied a heavy turn on her right side and fiery pain shot along the length of her right arm. Rom’s mouth opened in a surprised scream and was instantly coated in a layer of the fine, sun-heated sand.
She rolled over as best she could, holding her arm tenderly. It felt… wrong, like it was bent funny at the shoulder, and when she tried to move it everything went dark grey for several seconds. Rom decided not to try to do that again. It was harder this time to spit the sand out of her mouth; her lips and tongue felt too dry to accomplish it, and every time she inhaled, she got a few more grains of the sand down her throat, leading to another fit of coughing, and more pain in her shoulder.
Rom struggled to her feet, as if capable of willing herself healed; but a powerful wave of vertigo struck her, and the ground loomed before her face as a raspy blur of tan crystals. She gritted her teeth against an impact which did not come. Instead, the ground sped away from her, and the dunes of sand rushed far, far below her feet.
The wind whipped past her face, forcing her to blink her eyes against the particulates of sand and the pounding air. Her left hand held tightly to her opposite arm, but even now she could feel an odd tickling sensation in her shoulder, followed by a loud crack that was instantly swallowed up in the noise of the wind and a stunning spasm of pain. Her mind decided that, thus speeding its way unbidden through the sky towards the floating mountain, now would be the perfecttime to surrender to unconsciousness. Since she couldn’t think of a good opposing argument, Rom decided to go along with it.
* * * * *
It wasn’t instantly apparent exactly how long she had been unconscious. She’d been knocked out a few times already in her young life, and though not the sort of fact most young women might be proud of, Rom accepted this as part and parcel of her life as a Sheharid Is’iin.
Although she had clearly lost consciousness, her spirit did not travel to the land of the spirits as it normally did. As a Sheharid (or Reaper, as they were colloquially referred), she possessed an elemental affinity to the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the living world, she was responsible to protect the living or help the stubborn and lost souls to move on. One day she would be in charge of helping spirits find their way into a new life, orwatching over them while they waited to continue their journey to parts unknown.
Ever since one of her predecessor Reapers, Artifice, had locked down the way beyond in order to draw on its power, no spirits left that land. Even the spirits of Rom’s other precursors, Memory, Force, Inertia, and Ian were trapped in that land, giving Artifice access to their own unique abilities. Though, to what end or purpose, Rom was yet to comprehend. All Rom knew was that Artifice was determined to claim Rom as well, a fight which could not be won until one of them lay dead.
But I’m not dead yet, Rom thought. Her mouth felt like it was made of leather; rough and uncured, all the way down her throat. She felt a painful scratchiness in her chest with each breath, and her skin felt warm, like she was standing in the forges run by Master Burgess of the smithy.
Something cool was pressed against her lips, startling her back to consciousness.
“Easy, miss, relax,” whispered a young man, drawing back his hands in alarm. He held a brass bowl into which he was dipping a white cloth. “You’ve been in the sun too long, you mustn’t move until you get your strength back.”
There was a sort of familiarity about the boy to her eyes. His skin was a deep brown, a shade or two darker even than her friend Kari’s, and his eyes were a mixture of blue and green. His hair, though clearly black at the roots, was possessed of a lighter sheen, evidence of having spent much of his life under an unobscured sky. His hands were delicate with long nimble fingers, extending from porous white cotton sleeves which were elegantly embroidered along the lengths to vanish into generous pleats at the shoulders. A sash crossed his left shoulder and connected to an elaborately beaded belt which cinched his colorful and voluminous pants.
They struck her momentarily as humorous, and Rom nearly fell from the raised bed she was laying upon when she tried to laugh and doubled over in a fit of coughing.
The boy stood patiently by until the fit passed, and held the dampened cloth out to Rom.
“You should clean your face, gently,” he said. “Do not rub, else the sands may cut your skin. When you feel better, a bath has been drawn for you.”
In spite of the dry itchiness of her face, she did as he advised, only patting the moist cloth against her skin. It felt much better, and her head was already beginning to clear. She coughed again, felt grains of the sand she’d breathed in emerge up into her mouth. As she looked back up, he was already holding a small cup in his now free hand.
“You may rinse your mouth, if you wish,” he said.
She sat up again, slowly, feeling another wave of nausea, much lighter than before, pass over her. Blinking it away, she reached for the cup and took a small mouthful, swirling it around her mouth and spitting it back into the cup. He nodded and took the cup back from her hands.
A curtain parted across the room. Rom noticed that there were no doors she could see, but the room was mostly comprised of floor-length colored tapestries which hung suspended from chained hooks attached to the ceiling. The ceiling was covered in warm yellow stone tiles, all carved into fascinating shapes and designs. In Oldtown, all stone was either the grey limestone or varying shades of bricks that formed the buildings. It was often said in Oldtown that “red was the color of new,” referring to the bricks. But beyond the great Wall that kept Oldtown’s residents in exile, was Aesirium, and the manufactured stone that built their homes were varying shades of whites and greys. This yellow stone made her feel warm and invited.
Her eyes descended from the ceiling, drawn to movement. In the space between the two separated curtains stood a robed and veiled figure; so complete was the coverage that almost no skin was visible at any point of the shrouded person, save for a few centimeters around the eyes.
Something in the figure’s poise or body language, however, suggested to Rom that it was a man beneath the robes. Judging by the boy’s deferential bow at the cloaked person’s arrival, Rom took this newcomer as someone of authority. She swung her feet onto the floor, holding to the bed another moment until the dizziness subsided to a more manageable level.
Neither of the two others in the room moved while she re-centered herself; an observation that Rom found strangely comforting.
Rom strained to take in a slow, deep breath, but it felt as if her ribs were bound. She glanced down and thought for a moment that her dress had shrunk somehow; but the irrationality of that quickly passed, leaving her with the equally disconcerting realization that her body had grown somehow. She was, she figured, almost as tall as Briseida back home, with the developed figure of a young woman. Rom felt the blood rush to her face, suddenly very self-conscious, and draw one of the soft pillows from behind her and hugged it defensively.
“What did you do to me?” she asked.
The man at the doorway gestured to the young man who bowed and backed away from Rom. He walked silently from the room, slipping behind the taller man on his way out.
The curtain closed, insulating the room somewhat from the low murmur of activity Rom could sense beyond. The man took only a pair of steps forward, maintaining a comfortable distance between them.
His voice was soft, but carried easily to her ears sounding oddly familiar.
“I beg your forgiveness, Shepherd; we have done nothing,” he explained, bowing his head almost reverently, “save for having the attendant bring you here while you recovered from your exposure to the elements.”
Rom held her left arm out, and noticed the additional space between the cuffs of her dress and her wrist that hadn’t been there, before arriving in this new time. She had travelled through the Blink, the emptiness between moments that flowed beneath every second, using the powerful presence of other Sheharids to guide her back to her own time. But, each time she moved within the Blink, she emerged a bit less youthful than she had entered.
“I’m… older?” She looked back up at him, confusion and shock evident on her face. She shook her head. “How old do I look to you?” she asked instead.
The question seemed to confuse him, and he paused for several seconds before responding, “I-I would not know, my lady. We know well that the span of a Shepherd may encompass many lifetimes. But, if this is part of my trial, I will answer as best as I can.”
It was Rom’s turn to be confused. “Your… trial?”
He bowed again. “I have been prepared since the time of my discovery. I know all the wisdom of the Sheharid Is’iin as has been recorded and guarded by the People of the Sky, in anticipation of being chosen. If,” he amended, “if it pleases you.”
Rom’s eyes widened. “Oh, wow,” she breathed, at last recognizing his voice. “It’s… you!” She crossed the room in a single hop, reaching out to embrace the suddenly confused and not slightly embarrassed man.
“Inertia!” she said, holding him tightly.
“I b-b-beg your pardon?” he stammered.
She paused a moment before releasing him. “Oh,” she wanted to kick herself. “Right. You’re… still… alive,” she said.
Standing so close, she could see inside the gap of the veil that covered the lower half of his face, up into the naturally dark skin of his forehead. There were no gems there.
“Why do you wear that?” she asked, pointing to the veil he wore.
His eyes wrinkled in a friendly smile, and he awkwardly took a step back as he gestured to the fabric he wore around his face and head.
“It is tradition for the one prepared for the Trials to remain isolated from his people. It is said that when the Shepherd comes, the people should not recognize him. But, as you area Shepherd….”
He reached up and detached the veil, lowering it from his face and drawing back thibri, sans-serif”>“They weren’t alwaysthis small,” she frowned.
Parting the curtains with a gentle rustle of fabric, the man who would be Inertia allowed a young woman to walk in, her eyes blindfolded. In her hands were a small stack of folded cloths of varying colors. Inertia took them from her and thanked her. The girl stepped back from the room, her head inclined reverently.
When Dessim had once again closed the curtain, he brought the cloth closer and set them down upon the bed Rom had awakened upon. “They are slightly different from the clothing you wear presently, but my people would be very pleased if you found them to your liking.”
She held up the veil that was laid atop the pile of cloths. “I have to wear this also?”
He nodded. “I apologize if it is not familiar to you, but it is the way of my people. They would be too afraid to risk your wrath by looking upon your face before it is their time to pass on.”
She pointed towards the doorway. “But what about the boy who found me? He didn’t have his eyes closed.”
Dessim sighed softly. “He was the young man who rescued you; it was by his arts that you were lifted from the sands and brought here.” Inertia’s face grew somber. “He only then noticed your gems and recognized you for what you were. He knows the laws and has prepared his spirit to be Gatheredwhen you wish it.”
“Gathered?” Rom gasped, suddenly comprehending the full intent of his words. “No! No, I don’t— I mean, I’m not going to do that just because he saw my face!”
“You… will not…?”
“No!” she repeated. “I’m not going to kill someone just for looking at me!” As it was, Rom had only recently gathered her first human soul at the bedside of a much older Sheharid Is’iin, Memory. The thought of it made Rom feel queasy inside, like all the blood was rushing from her body to gather in her stomach.
“You misunderstand, Romany,” he said softly. “He has already undergone all preparations. Given his age and the amount of pinoresin he has ingested, he will be fully at rest within the hour.”
“Fully at—?” Rom fell silent, dropping to her knees. Her legs simply didn’t want to hold her up at the moment, and though she felt the seams at the back of her dress tear in protest, she didn’t care. Distantly, she noticed Dessim bow and step backwards through the curtain, leaving the young Sheharid alone with her thoughts.
Gradually, she became aware of the soft dimming of the ambient light in the room, and smelled a faintness of incense and oil being burned nearby. Glancing out the window, she saw the bright orange globe dipping down towards the horizon. From someplace not far off, she felt it: a faint trembling breath, as the young man approached his last moments of life.
It was inevitable, she knew. The young boy was about to die, and though she might argue with the reasons for it, it was going to happen. And his soul might linger at that point of departure for who knew how long. His soul needed a Gatherer; needed her to step forward and escort him onwards.
Rom reached up and held to the bedframe as she stood on still trembling legs.
Looking from the folded cloth to her own tattered and sand-encrusted dress, she frowned again. But the expression changed to an almost amused resignation.
Every time I think I know what I’m supposed to do, I find out I’m supposed to do something more, she realized. It’s like the whole world is trying to make me grow up, whether I want to or not. A horrible thought struck her – she still had at least one more jump to make before she’d be back in her regular time- would she age again? And, if so, how old would she be by the time she arrived?
She put those worries aside for now. A young man’s soul needed her. And she needed to be dressed for the part she must play in his soul’s migration.