Come and linger in the dark and creepy shadows of speculative fiction with Author/Editor/Journalist Elizabeth Donald.
Daily Dragon (DD): Your fiction might be best described as eclectic, including vampires, zombies, space ships, perhaps some romance, and more, oh my. Are you a horror writer, a science fiction author, something in between, or something else entirely unique? What tempts you to write across genres?
Elizabeth Donald (ED): They always tell you to “write what you know,” but I say write what you read. Write what you love. Don’t chase trends or force yourself into a genre or story form that doesn’t suit you. Most of my work has dark and creepy shades to it, because it’s what fascinates me. Even my sword-and-sorcery fantasy or the space adventures tend to have their darker elements, because when you grow up reading Stephen King and Richard Matheson, it’s what permeates your imagination. I like the term “speculative fiction,” because “genre fiction” seems too generic; as with music and cuisine, I like a little bit of everything, and I write it accordingly.
DD: What can fans expect from a story or novel by Elizabeth Donald regardless of what genre it might represent?
ED: I hope that they have come to expect a fall through the hole in the paper, to be unnerved and frightened, to be excited and emotionally touched, to forget that they’re reading a story and instead feel as though they’ve entered another world. That’s the delightful suspension of reality that happens for me when I’m reading a really good book, and writers who can do that for me on a reliable basis have become auto-buys for me. I hope they expect to find fully-realized characters that interest them, and stories that they cannot predict told in prose that they enjoy.
That’s what I hope they come to expect. What I’ve heard from readers is that they expect my characters to die, usually a horrible and untimely death that leaves them shattered. It’s been a few years since I updated a character census, but the last time I did, the death rate for speaking characters in my work was upwards of 60 percent. I was wholly flattered when someone edited a meme to include me, so it would read, “Joss Whedon, George R.R. Martin, and Elizabeth Donald walk into a bar. Everyone you love dies.” As a compliment, I’ll take it!
DD: Nocturnal Urges, your first series, included three novels. What aspects of your style or other writing elements kept this series fresh and still alive along with its vampire cast?
ED: I have actually written two series, and in both cases, I never intended them to be series. I’ve often said—only half joking—that if I’d known The Cold Ones would inspire a series, I wouldn’t have killed off so much of the cast! I think the key to keeping a series going is making it fresh. It’s important to have continuing themes and characters so the reader is returning to a familiar world and continuity is key. Everyone loves it when Indiana Jones recognizes the Ark of the Covenant painted on the wall of a crypt two movies later. But you can easily fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over, so you have to change things around—and let them stay changed. It shouldn’t be magically restored at the end of the book, but the book itself should feel complete—it’s not a chapter in some larger saga, it’s a story in itself. New people come into the story and people who have been around for a long time are not safe. No one is safe, at least in horror fiction. Be unpredictable.
DD: You have written both series and stand-alone fiction. What do you see as the pros and cons of each approach?
ED: Stepping into a series novel is like walking down the street in a neighborhood you know well. Maybe you grew up there or maybe it’s just a place where you’ve spent happy days. It’s comforting, it’s familiar, and it’s always a delight to see it again. It’s the reason readers like series fiction so well: they have scouted out this territory and they know it well. Stand-alone fiction is harder, because you’re creating a new world and a new cast from scratch. It may or may not work, for you or for the reader, and you need to find ways to make it different from the worlds and people you’ve written before. But it is also more freeing, because you can burn down the whole world if you feel the need.
DD: Kym Lambert, founder of the Sarah Connor Charm School, gave your zombie outbreak novella The Cold Ones the SCCS stamp of approval for strong female characters. What is it about the women you create that deserves such an accolade? Can you recommend any other authors for strong female characters (or other memorable characters)?
ED: There’s actually a backlash against the term “strong female characters,” which I feel is undeserved, because the real backlash is against the concept that women can be strong only if they’re backhanding some jerk in an alley—wearing spike heels and a G-string, no doubt. I can’t say if I’ve ever thought of my characters as weak or strong by definition, but simply as people, as nuanced and layered as the real people I know. We all have moments of strength and moments of weakness, times of pain and times of triumph. In a novel, we are by definition seeing characters at their highest or lowest moments… seeing how they respond to those moments perhaps gives us a little perspective on our own moments of strength.
I think, instead, what we’re seeing is a growth of women as people in genre fiction, rather than being reduced to the helpless maiden lolling on the muscular barbarian’s iron-thewed arm as he fights off the bad guys. Women as partners, as leaders, as fighters, as scientists, as heroines, and as villains—because darkness has its own strength. Fiction is finally coming to reflect women as a diverse variety of people with their own agency and motivations, rather than objects to be won or lost on the battlefield.
Off the top of my head, a few authors who write really amazing, diverse women include Seanan McGuire or her horror pseudonym Mira Grant, Gillian Flynn, Stephen King, and Sarah Langan.
DD: In addition to writing fiction, you are also a professional journalist. How has your work in the newsroom, et al., contributed to or affected your fiction, both practically and from a content standpoint?
ED: I’ve always said fiction is cheaper than therapy. I’d be lying if I said that my day job never influences my night job. When you cover a murder, you see horrifying things—sometimes much more horrifying than we could put in the paper. You have to do something with those images, with the voices of the grieving. You can drown them in scotch, or you can write dark fiction and still be able to hug your kids. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my job. I am lucky to have a “day job” that is a true calling, a public service that I believe to be very important and that I enjoy. The things I learn as a journalist—whether it’s what piracy was really like or the proper procedures used in the investigation of a police officer’s murder—tend to come in handy in fiction as well. It uses a different part of my creative mind, however, and I can’t just switch from one to the other at the end of the work day. It isn’t easy for any writer to balance a full-time job, a family, and a writing career, especially once you get published and start touring. But a supportive family and being happy and fulfilled in both jobs makes a huge difference.
DD: You have a history of writing blogs. What should an emerging writer consider before opening up an author blog? Are there any beginners’ mistakes to be avoided?
ED: I’ve written a personal blog since before I was published, and it continues today. For a time, I wrote a popular-culture blog called CultureGeek for my newspaper, and when it was canceled, it went independent and still continues, though I don’t have nearly as much time for it now as I did when it was part of my day job. When my husband and I were engaged, we co-wrote a blog called Dancing Toward the Castle about the craziness of planning a wedding and the process of preparing to marry after multiple divorces in our past. Blogging can be focused on a particular topic, like our engagement blog, which by definition had a finite end.
But in retrospect, I rather wish I had kept to one multi-purpose blog, rather than writing separate blogs for different topics. Building readership is not easy; there are certainly enough people quacking on the internet that you really need a focus and sharp content in order to draw people in and make you a regular part of their day. I’d counsel anyone starting a blog to ensure that you write about more than just yourself and your writing. No one needs another picture of your lunch, and if you only post links and reviews of your work, then you’re essentially running an advertising site. Does anyone switch on the Commercials Channel on TV? Of course not.
Diversify. Write about the glorious sunset behind your house yesterday. Write about a hilarious joke your kid told you, or a groaningly bad one from your husband. Write about the book you’re working on and the crazy stuff you find doing research. Write imaginary conversations with the voices in your head—this was once my most popular feature, and no one has yet called the men in the white coats. Write about politics and religion if you’re brave and have asbestos underwear. Write what you think, write what you feel, write it and mean it.
And then be sure to do as I say, not as I do: Write every day. It’s important for you as well as important for the reader to be able to count on new content every day, or they forget you. Give them a reason to keep coming back. There’s always technical things: pick a good (free) host, make sure you can be streamed on the various social networks, repost yourself on your Twitter and Facebook so people know to find you, time your blog posts so they pop up first thing in the morning, at lunch or in the early evening when readership is highest, but all that is basic marketing. In the end, if the blog’s quality is good, they’ll come back to you again and again—and if they like your blog, they’ll give your novel a try.
DD: As an author and sometimes editor, what advice can you give to new writers considering publication, whether on their own or with an established press?
ED: Whether they’re my editing clients or newbie authors, I give the very unpopular advice: always start with a traditional press. You learn a lot from the process of working with a good, quality small press or a major publisher. Everyone needs an editor, from the college lit student all the way to Anne Rice. No one—myself included—can edit his or her own work. A good publisher provides you with an editor to help you shape and form the book into the best book it can be. They also provide you with line editors and proofreaders, book designers, page layout specialists, cover artists, ebook programmers, and arrange for fun things like ISBNs and distribution and marketing. Sure, you can do some of these things yourself, or you can pay experts to do them for you. But the time for that is after you’ve gone through the process a few times, after you learn from them, after you’ve built a readership that will follow you wherever you go. There’s still a stigma, and it’s fading faster than I would have expected, but it’s there. Before you sink an enormous amount of money into a book that may end up taking up space in your garage, seek out publishers in the small press. They are eager to work with new writers, and they’re looking for that unusual material that doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter categories of the big publishers in New York. Once you’ve established some professional credits and have built a readership, then consider diversifying into self-publishing.
DD: What new fiction can we expect to see from you?
ED: My newest release is Nocturne Infernum, a collection of my entire Nocturnal Urges vampire series into one volume. It’s three novels in one, so it’s a hefty 500 pages and doubles as a personal defense weapon. I am pursuing a couple of other deals at this time, and I wish I could tell you all about them, but then I’d have to kill you. Suffice to say there’s an intergalactic blockade runner fleeing from a bounty hunter that you all will like to meet, and Major Sara Harvey’s battle against the zombie uprising in the Blackfire series is destined to come to a close.
DD: What panels and other appearances comprise your Dragon Con 2015 schedule?
ED: [I appeard on] “And That’s the Truth!” in the Writers’ Track at 2:30PM Friday; I’ll be appearing on “Four Days Later” in the Apocalypse Rising Track at 4PM Saturday; and “Developing Characters Who Come Alive” in the Writers’ Track at 2:30PM Sunday. As far as I know!
My reading will be at 5:30PM Sunday in the Vinings Room in the Hyatt. All attendees will get a free limited-edition chapbook of my novella Gethsemane as supplies last.
Visit Elizabeth Donald online at https://www.elizabethdonald.com.
Scarlet Letters from the Literary Underworld (blog): literaryunderworld.blogspot.com