Welcome to the two hundred and seventy-fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with science-fiction / fantasy author Jessica Meats. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Jessica. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based…
Jessica: I live in the UK in a town called Reading (a great name for the home of a writer!).
Morgen: It is, though sadly it’s pronounced “redding”. Would it be great to live in a place pronounced “reading”. OK, moving swiftly on… 🙂 How did you come to be a writer, Jessica?
Jessica: I don’t think I ever made a decision to become a writer; it’s just who I am. I’ve been writing and creating stories all my life. As a little girl, I used to fold sheets of paper together into little “books” and write stories in them. I remember one about how I killed a dragon in the living room and was made by my mum to clean up the mess.
Morgen: <laughs> What genre do you generally write and have you considered others?
Jessica: I usually write science fiction or fantasy. I like exploring the “what if”s of what might happen if the world was slightly different or if technology advanced in particular ways. If I were to write another genre, it would probably be adventure or thriller, since I love writing fast-moving plots and a lot of that comes into my stories anyway.
Morgen: And readers love reading them. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Jessica: I’ve had published a novel called Child of the Hive. This is a science fiction adventure, set in near-future London, about a group of people who get caught in the middle of a conflict between two organisations.
I’ve also had published a technical manual on creating electronic forms. This is a fat textbook suitable for use as a doorstop or blunt instrument. If you’re ever struggling to get to sleep at night, the chapter on security will send you right off. 🙂
Jessica: Both of these were published under my own name. I’ve also had a few short pieces published in places such as local and university magazines. I don’t count the university magazine as a great success as I was on the committee and we were usually desperate for submissions to fill pages.
Morgen: But it got your writing read, and it’s always lovely to see your name in print. 🙂 Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Jessica: I’ve had a lot of rejections. Child of the Hive went through three drafts. After each of the first two drafts, I sent out submissions and received rejection letters back. Most were form letters of the “Dear Insert-Name-Here” variety but a couple had useful feedback that I incorporated into the later drafts. When I finished the third draft, I sent submissions out to every publisher or agent I thought might be interested. I got my first rejection letter back by return of post. Since most of the letters were so impersonal, I didn’t really mind. I’d been advised to expect rejections.
Morgen: It’s a shame though. I think I’d rather they take a while because then at least you think it might have been somewhere up the food chain. You’ve just mentioned “electronic forms”. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all?
Jessica: Yes, both of my books are available as eBooks. I was keen to get Child into eBook format but, when I asked the publisher about it, they initially said that they weren’t looking at eBooks at all. I just kept asking. A while later, I was told that the MD was looking into the possibility of publishing eBooks. Then I was told that they’d offer eBook editions of new books but that they weren’t going to go through their already published catalogue. Then, eventually, they gave in and told me that they’d do an eBook release. I think they might have just wanted me to finally shut up about it.
Morgen: 🙂 With so many authors I’ve spoken to or heard about selling more eBooks than pBooks these days, you were wise to badger. Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Jessica: I have a Nook myself, which I use when travelling just for convenience. I still prefer paper books but eBooks are much easier when I’m not at home. The silly thing is that my books are available in Kindle format but not EPUB, so I can’t actually get my own eBooks on my reader.
Morgen: Oh dear. I’ve just bought a Kindle which I think takes every format although I also have an Elonex (which my friend Caroline is now using to see if she gets on with eBooks). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Jessica: All of it, pretty much. The publisher sent out some press releases when the book first launched, which got me a couple of mentions and one review on a book blog. Since then, the marketing effort has been my own. I’ve done online recordings, a Twitter competition, book signings, talks in schools and libraries, a dealer table at a science fiction convention and anything else that seemed like a good idea at the time.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you have a favourite of your books or characters?
Jessica: Definitely Child rather than the electronic forms book. 🙂 Of the characters, Sophie is my favourite. She starts off as a pitiful, slightly-broken creature, which made her perspective very interesting to write from. She was also a lot of fun to write because she was so much smarter than everyone else around her and knew it.
Morgen: Characters have to grow or learn something about themselves and she sounds like fun. If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Jessica: I don’t have any particular person in mind but I’d worry that they’d cast supermodel attractive people as the lead characters. These people are geeks. Alex is overweight; Will is scrawny and scruffy; Rachel is un-girly and self-conscious about her appearance. Only Drew could be played by some hunk. The others I’d want to look like they spend all their time hunched over computer screens rather than working out at the gym.
Morgen: That’s the thing. Not only does the author have an idea of their characters but the readers do too. Apparently Tom Cruise is set to play Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher, a strapping 6-foot something. Tom certainly has stage presence (I love the MI films) but it’s caused outrage (yes, they’re that passionate) from Lee Child fans. Did you have any say in the title / covers of your book(s)? How important do you think they are?
Jessica: I was given a lot of input, more than I expected. The publisher hired an artist who, based on the blurb and a quick synopsis, drew up about a dozen possible cover designs. I hated all of them. After a few exchanges of email, I got on the phone with the artist and talked about what I liked and disliked in the various designs. He then drew up another design which I liked better, but I was still asking for changes. Finally, he gave me a design that I liked – except that I told him to change the colour of my name. I do think covers are important because they’re the first thing people see. They have to both draw in potential readers and accurately represent the book within.
Morgen: There’s a big discussion going on at LinkedIn at the moment about covers; some saying they’re not the be-all-and-end-all for readers but others saying that they draw the reader to you in the first place. I’ve never not bought a book because of a poor cover but an engaging one is certainly more alluring. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Jessica: I’m writing a novel called Reflected Memories that’s intended to be the first of a trilogy. It deals with the concept of parallel universes and the idea that things could be breaking into a world like our own from others. The title comes from the fact that the main character, thanks to an accident with the technology, has been left with the ability to remember future events. This ability is more confusing than helpful for him, particularly when he gets muddled as to whether he’s remembering things that have already happened or that are about to happen.
The problem, for me, is that I’m on the stage of editing and coming up with a second draft of Reflected Memories, but it would be much more fun to write the second one in the series, Path to Abomination. I’m having to restrain myself from doing too much on the second book until I’ve finished making changes to the first.
Morgen: Maybe if you get stuck on Reflected Memories you could do a bit of Path to Abomination. 🙂 Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever get stuck, suffer from writer’s block?
Jessica: No and no. I get distracted by my day job and hobbies which have a habit of interfering with my writing. As to writer’s block, I suffer from the opposite. I tend to have loads of ideas rushing round my brain and the problem is sticking with one of them long enough to finish writing the book.
Morgen: Oh me too. Very lucky aren’t we. I’d hate to stare at a blank page and have no clue. I have a dozen display books (each with 80 sides) packed with interesting newspaper cuttings (one of my free eShorts, Feeding the Father, was inspired by one) should I ever run out. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Jessica: Run with it. Child, for example, started with the idea of the character Will in hiding. I knew he was hiding from two groups of people not one, but it took me a few chapters to figure out who either of the groups were. This technique leads to some nice plot twists. I’ve been often told by readers that they would never have guessed the ending when they started. Off course not – I wouldn’t have guessed the end when I started.
Morgen: I’ve heard a few household authors say that; that they don’t want to know what happens until they start writing so it’s a surprise to everyone.
Jessica: On the flip side, this does occasionally mean I’ll write myself into a dead end. With Reflected Memories, I started the first draft believing that one person was the main character. It took me a few chapters to realise that the main character actually should be someone else. This means I’ve got to do massive rewrites to the opening to fit with what comes later.
Morgen: 🙂 Apparently JK Rowling wanted to kill off a particular character and he/she wouldn’t let her so she killed off a different one – I don’t suppose he was very grateful! Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Jessica: Characters tend to create themselves. They start off as little more than a name and, over the course of the story, develop their background and personality traits. Sometimes, they surprise me. A character turned up in Child purely to deliver some information to the main characters. Before I knew what was happening, she had a personality, a crush on one of the other characters and a vital role in the story. Their names are trickier, because I want names that are normal enough but which aren’t the same as people I know. I often flick through a book of baby names (useful for terrifying boyfriends :)) to get ideas and when I find the right one, it just sticks.
Morgen: 🙂 Do you write any non-fiction, poetry or short stories?
Jessica: The forms book is the biggest piece of non-fiction I’ve written. I also have a technical blog which I write for work. My short stories tend to come in two forms. Some are plotless and really, really short. Others stop being short very quickly. One of my first attempts at writing a novel started as a short story. With poetry, I think I’ll settle for saying not often and not well. Occasionally, I get the urge to write poems but I generally don’t like what I’ve written so they don’t get shown to other people.
Morgen: Ditto my poetry. My trouble is I don’t know what’s good and isn’t, but then my writing groups soon tell me. 🙂 Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Jessica: I generally need to edit the beginnings of stories. As I said, with Reflected Memories, I’m having to make huge changes to the first few chapters. With Child, I had to go back and insert into the earlier chapters the character who’d turned up unexpectedly. I also find myself needing to add in descriptions later, as I spend the first draft racing through the plot so that I can find out what happens next and I tend not to stop and look at the scenery.
Morgen: I think that’s the best way; just get the idea down and worry (or not, hopefully) about the detail later. Some writers like quiet, others the noise of a coffee shop etc., do you listen to music or have noise around you when you write or do you need silence?
Jessica: If I’m at home, which is where I get most of my writing done, I’ll have silence. But I’ll also write on long train journeys or scribble bits in my notebook standing at a bus stop. Once I start writing, I pretty much drown out whatever’s around me.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Jessica: Third person, because it gives me more freedom about having multiple viewpoint characters. I tend to get deep inside the head of my characters though.
Morgen: Third does seem more popular, probably because as you say there’s more flexibility. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Jessica: Yes. My first few attempts at writing a novel. My first attempt, written when I was eleven, was massively clichéd and had a main character who even I hated. About the only good thing that I have to say about my second attempt is that it was better than my first. By the time I wrote my third attempt, I had something resembling a decent plot. My fourth attempt might actually get resurrected someday. It was intended to be the first of a seven-book fantasy epic and it has some elements that I still like. The problem was that it read like a book-long prologue.
Morgen: 🙂 But now you’re older and wiser so you could go back and re-edit… when you run out of new ideas. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Jessica: My favourite moment was when my publisher sent me my copy of Child of the Hive. I was dancing round the living room at the fact that I was finally a real author. My least favourite moment is the point after the exhilaration of finishing writing a book when I realise just how much work needs to be done before it’s ready to be read.
Morgen: Oh yes. I know that feeling (she says looking at four novels in ring-binders). Probably why short stories are my favourite format. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Jessica: Write. Write some more. Keep writing. Do a lot more writing. A few million words later, look at the most recent thing you’ve written and figure out if it can be edited into something readable. Then do some more writing.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks? 🙂
Jessica: Most of my non-writing time is spent at work so I can afford to fuel my book habit. I read a lot. My flat is filled with shelves, boxes and piles of books. I do have a party trick though: I juggle. More accurately, I use a flower stick (a stick that you manipulate through the air using two control sticks). I even have a fire stick which has a wick on both ends. I’ve also been known to play badminton and study kung fu. Whatever time is left gets spent on sleep.
Morgen: Ah yes, that rectangular thing in the next room to me. We used to be such great friends. 🙂 Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Jessica: I’ve read a lot of “how to write” books and it’s hard to remember them all. Orson Scott Card wrote a great book on writing sci-fi and fantasy. It’s both entertaining and useful. It focuses on those elements useful to the genre writers and skims over more general topics. How Not To Write A Novel is another entertaining one, which gives examples of mistakes it’s easy to fall into.
In terms of websites, when you’re ready to send out submissions, the best thing to do is to check the websites of the publishers you’re approaching for guidance on how they like their submissions – or if they’re even accepting submissions.
Morgen: Absolutely, and the likes of the Writers & Artists Yearbook, Writers Digest etc. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Jessica: I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not sure either is particularly valuable but Twitter can be entertaining. I can find interesting articles through Twitter because other people have pointed me to them. I found my way to this site because someone tweeted a link.
Morgen: Oh great! Yay them. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Jessica: With the internet and the rise of eBooks, writers are quickly becoming less dependent on being picked up by a big publisher. This can be a great opportunity but it also means it’s harder to be seen. With more and more people putting their stories out there through print-on-demand or eBooks, it’s much tougher for an author to make sure that their book gets read.
Morgen: It is. I’m finding that only too well, although I don’t have much out there and really, apart from the blog I don’t mention them much (which can’t help!). Where can we find out about you and your work?
Jessica: I have a blog at http://plottwister.blog.com which is where I’ll post updates about my writing. There are some clips of me reading from Child of the Hive at http://www.childofthehive.com/extracts.php. I put that website up for the launch of Child but my blog is the one I update regularly.
Morgen: Thank you so much, Jess. Good luck with books two and three.
I then invited Jess to include an extract of her writing…
Will spun round. A man was on the platform, a few metres away. A gun was in his hand. Will hit the ground in the same instant that the doors shut and something struck them. The sound of the impact reverberated in the metal can and people panicked. A woman screamed and a baby started crying. Those who’d been sitting were on their feet, staring out of the windows at the disappearing platform. Everyone was yelling and trying to find out what the hell had just happened.
Someone asked if he was hurt.
Alex crouched down beside him, a hand still clinging to the pole against the movement of the train. Will was lying on the floor. He didn’t look injured, but tears were running down his face.
“Why him? Why did they have to send him?”
Jessica Meats grew up in Nottinghamshire, always writing. She studied mathematics and computer science at the University of York, where she was a regular contributor to a creative arts magazine. Today, she works as a technology specialist for Microsoft and uses her love of technology in her stories.
I forgot to tell Jessica this but I was reading a back copy of Writing Magazine the other day and got to Jane Wenham-Jones’ agony aunt column when I noticed, reading the (writing-related) dilemma that it was from an author called Jessica Meats! 🙂
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