Erin Manning (aka red Cardigan), who blogs at And Sometimes Tea & Coalition for Clarity, and one of AoftheA’s fave bloggers, recently self-published her first novel. Yay Erin! It’s been out for a few months now, and I asked if she wouldn’t mind being interviewed to talk about her book and her writing. She agreed, so we chatted last night – it’s reprinted below.
LarryD: Tell us the name of the book and a brief synopsis of what it’s about.
Erin Manning: The book is The Telmaj, and it takes place in a fictional galaxy. The story centers around a young boy named Smijj. Smijj is an orphan who lives aboard a decrepit space station, and he survives by doing odd jobs and attempting to be a thief. He has a strange, mysterious ability to teleport himself by thinking about where he’d like to be–sometimes! Trouble is, he can’t control that ability, which lands him in hot water on occasion.
Smijj’s life changes forever when he accidentally teleports aboard a cargo ship leaving his home, and he learns why his mysterious ability exists, and the sad truth about what happens to people like him in the vast world beyond the only home he’s ever known.
LarryD: And the target audience?
EM: I’ve targeted the intermediate children’s fiction market, which encompasses readers ages 8-12, approximately. I think this market is under-served, especially when readers that age are looking for imaginative fiction like sci-fi.
Unfortunately, a lot of the attention is paid to the YA market of slightly older readers–but many kids in the 8-12 age range just aren’t ready for the sheer amount of graphic sex and violence on the YA shelf. I want to reach kids who’ve already read the Narnia series, perhaps, and want exciting stories, but who aren’t interested in the love life of sparkly vampires or teen zombies.
LarryD: Yes, I noticed the lack of vampires, werewolves and pouty teen angst.
EM: It’s conspicuous by its absence, yes?
LarryD: Oh yes. Pleasantly conspicuous. How has the response to the first book been, in terms of sales & reviews?
EM: In terms of reviews, I’ve been amazed and humbled by how positive readers have been, and how much they have liked the story. I’ve had about six Amazon reviews–not bad for a self-published author–and none of them have been from relatives or people I know personally! There was one negative review…but there’s a story behind that one.
I have actually sold some books. I believe the correct publishing term would be “not all that many.” But considering that most of the sales have been based on word-of-mouth so far, I have been encouraged by this process.
LarryD: I read the Amazon reviews, but those were by adults. How has your target audience responded?
EM: The ones I’ve heard from have responded well! One blog reader read the book to her daughters, for instance, and they reportedly are eagerly awaiting the second book in the series. I think that kids in general enjoy stories that don’t talk down to them and that have exciting elements.
LarryD: I’ve read the book. I haven’t posted my review, but I’ve given you an idea of what I thought; it was a strong story with surprising twists and a great premise that I promise not to give away.
EM: Thank you!
LarryD: While I was reading it I had to remind myself I wasn’t the target audience (and both my boys are beyond it as well). I have to say there’s nothing objectionable in the story and his crises are handled with a good balance of cliff hanger-ness and anticipation. You mentioned most of your sales have come by word-of-mouth. Are you planning a website, or any other type of promotion?
EM: Yes, my husband and daughters are planning to help me set up some marketing things in the near future. We haven’t decided exactly how to go forward with the marketing, but one thing we all agree on is that I have to get the second book in the series published as part of this effort, because I think that people tend to be more willing to consider buying into a series of books than a stand-alone. I’m hoping to be able to get that done in the next couple of months so we can focus this summer on marketing efforts. My daughters have lots of good ideas!
LarryD: When do you hope to have the sequel published, and how many books will be in the Telmaj series? Do you know?
EM: The sequel is undergoing proofreading by my all-volunteer Advance Reader Team, and I plan to have it available by no later than May. Book three is completely written but I haven’t begun editing it yet. Book four is nearly finished–I have about three chapters to go to wrap up the story. There will be at least seven Telmaj books, and there may be as many as ten depending on how the story develops.
LarryD: Describe the feeling of holding your published book for the first time.
EM: Total, unadulterated terror. Really. Granted, it was the first proof copy and I knew there would be errors, but I think there was a moment of “What on earth have I done?” It’s strange to think of it now, but the fear comes from putting so much of yourself out there in a way that’s totally different from blogging. I think I’m more comfortable sharing my strong opinions than my imagination.
LarryD: What lessons did you come away with from the publishing experience – not the nuts and bolts of how to publish – but the writing & editing of it.
EM: The biggest lesson was: don’t use Microsoft Word for Mac. Seriously–those of us who use Macs should stick to the Pages software. I spent a lot more time on formatting issues than I needed to because of the Mac/Windows glitches.
But other than that, I learned what seasoned writers mean when they say that you’d better love your novel, because you will have read it so many times by the time it’s ready for publication that if you don’t love it, you will come to hate it. I know that’s true even for traditional publishing, but it’s even more true for the self-published author. One more thing: if people are volunteering to proofread, say yes!
LarryD: You mentioned you wanted to make the story exciting but leave out the graphic violence and sex that seems to inundate kids’ lit these days. But there’s more to it than just that, right?
EM: Oh, yes. I initially thought about getting The Telmaj published by a Catholic fiction publisher because even though the book is not overtly Catholic I wanted to tell a story full of good and evil, right and wrong, and the kinds of virtues and values that seem to be sadly lacking in many children’s books these days. But the publisher I sent it to, while thinking it was very publishable, explained that she couldn’t publish anything but overtly Catholic fiction–that is, fiction that would show Catholic characters going to Catholic schools and Mass on Sunday, that sort of thing.
While I understood that, I think we’re reaching a point where even trying to tell a story in which characters struggle to do the right thing and have no trouble identifying certain evils really is writing Catholic fiction of a type. So many books, even for children, rely on a kind of “situational ethics” where whatever the characters we like do is good, and whatever the characters we don’t like are doing must be bad (unless they, too, are just the victims in all this). Sort of like how we view political parties these days.
I’m old-fashioned enough to think that for children, the reinforcement of the ideas of good and evil is a good thing to do–not in a cartoonishly simple way, but in a way that helps them ponder these kinds of questions.
LarryD: I thought you weaved those virtues into the story very well – they were evident without being preachy, and the characters reacted and acted in real ways. And at an appropriate level, for your audience.
EM: Thank you! I think any writer for children worries about being too heavy-handed or preachy. To be honest, that’s why I didn’t decide to make the story overtly Catholic–because I think my hand would be on the scales much too heavily if I did that.
LarryD: Have you always wanted to write fiction?
EM: Yes, since I was in grade school. I was always one of those kids with her nose in a book, and to write stories like those of my favorite authors was always something I wanted to do.
I wrote my first “novel” at age15. It’s a glorified fairy-tale called “The Fairy Godmother Expedition.” My children have read it, but it will never see the light of day otherwise!
LarryD: I think all aspiring writers have at least one of those stories buried in a desk drawer somewhere. Which other writers inspire you?
EM: Because I’ve always loved children’s fiction the best, I think my inspirations have been people like C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne (especially some of his fairy-tale plays!), Frances Burnett, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, and writers like them. I also loved Edward Eager and a little-known writer named Elizabeth Marie Pope, whose historical-fantasy novels were amazing, even if there were only a couple of them. And no one who loves children’s fiction could fail to mention Norton Juster and his epic book “The Phantom Tollbooth.” I think anyone who wants to write for children should read that book first of all. But there are many others, probably too many to mention. And I do love and appreciate adult literature too–I was a lit. major in college–but I don’t aspire to write fiction for adults. I’m not a gloomy or serious enough person!
LarryD: Do you have a writing routine? If so, can you describe it?
EM: I’m a night owl, and night time is usually my quietest time of day (though not so much with teenagers!). So my usual writing routine is to stay up late, consume caffeine, and tackle the next chapter or so. For me, the actual creation of the initial draft is a total high. I write very fast, and have been known to knock off 5000 words or more in a couple of hours when things are going well. And as you know, I love the “deadline” of National Novel Writing Month every November. I get at least 75% of each novel written in November every year.
LarryD: How do you handle writer’s block, or have you been wonderfully blessed to never be beset by it?
EM: I don’t experience it all that often, honestly. I’m more likely to write furiously and then realize that half the chapter has to go in the editing process. But my trick for handling writer’s block is: outline. I write a rough outline of the entire book before I start writing, covering what ought to happen more or less in each chapter. While this ends up being a fluid guideline, I never reach a point in the story and think, “What’s going to happen now?” I know what’s supposed to happen next, and provided I haven’t overlooked something crucial in the planning stages (like the time I was drafting the second Telmaj book and forgot for a minute that some of my characters can, you know, teleport, which made my plan to get them in trouble in that chapter crumble to dust) I just get on with it.
LarryD: Some authors have said that when they finish writing a story – once it’s all ready to be published – they describe it as a grown child leaving home, or a friend moving away. Bittersweet that it’s over. Others compare it to finally getting to know another person. What’s it like for you?
EM: I have a quote in the sidebar of my blog from American writer Mason Cooley: “Writing about an idea frees me of it. Thinking about it is a circle of repetitions.” I think that’s true for fiction, too. When I’m in the planning stages of a book, when I’m writing it, I imagine things so many different times and in so many ways. But each new character ends up being a little more real than you thought he or she would be, to the point where they start doing things differently than you imagined, and even your original characters can surprise you. So when the book is written and the story told, it exists in a way that it couldn’t so long as it was only in your mind. And that’s really an amazing thing, when all is said and done.
LarryD: How can someone get a copy of your book?
EM: It’s available for sale both at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. Funny thing: Barnes and Noble still thinks I’m the DIY photographer Erin Manning! I wish I looked half that good.
Thanks to Erin for a great interview!
I gave The Telmaj 4 out of 5 stars on my Goodreads page. The premise was original and there were several unexpected yet satisfying twists. The threat and danger levels are age appropriate. My only complaint, if you want to call it that, was occasional clunky prose. Erin was aiming for a style more along the lines of Lewis and Milne than more modern series such as Spiderwyck or Artemis Fowl – and I think she hits it more often than not. For a first novel, it was a pleasant and quick read (261 pages on Kindle), and I’m looking forward to the sequel in a few months. The book is available in e-book format, but only for Kindle at the time being. It will be available for Nook later this Spring (6 months after time of publication).
Erin has a fiction writing blog as well – Tales of Telmaja – and has links to a couple other reviews.
I received no compensation from Erin for this interview or book review.