With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer/blogger Cherise Hensley present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Rysa Walker
Rysa Walker grew up on a cattle ranch in the South, where she read every chance she got. On the rare occasion that she gained control of the television, she watched Star Trek and imagined living in the future, on distant planets, or at least in a town big enough to have a stoplight. She is the author of the bestselling Chronos Files series. Timebound, the first book in the series, was the Young Adult and Grand Prize winner in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Rysa currently lives in North Carolina, where she is working on her next series. The first book in the series, The Delphi Effect, will be published by Skyscape in October 2016. If you see her on social media, please tell her to get back into the Writing Cave.
You’ve had a variety of jobs, from a water slide lifeguard to a professor of history and government. What first attracted you to writing fiction as a career?
I’ve always written. When I worked at the water slide, I wrote poetry and song lyrics in my head while watching the pool. One thing I enjoyed most about academia was writing articles and course modules. Timebound was written while I was still teaching college. Writing fiction was always my dream job, but I didn’t think it was feasible as a career for a very long time. And I may have been correct on that front. There are a lot more people making a living as authors today than even ten years ago, so maybe it’s a good thing I waited.
Your first novel was self-published before you signed with Amazon’s Skyscape Publishing. How was your experience with self-publishing different from working with a publisher?
For one thing, Skyscape is much better at marketing than I am. Timebound got a phenomenal start thanks to placement as a Kindle First selection, back when the program first started. I really do think that’s the best launch a new series can get. I’ve also had the advantage of a wonderful team of editors and great cover design. When I first self-published Time’s Twisted Arrow (the original title), it was just me and a volunteer editor. I created the cover, and my skills in that regard were pretty abysmal back then.
Another thing I really love about being with Skyscape is that they have been great about letting me self-publish shorter works. There are three novellas in The CHRONOS Files, and doing these on my own allowed me to keep one foot in the indie world.
In your series The CHRONOS Files, historians travel to the past to witness history right before their eyes. Do you feel like your PhD in Political Science with a focus on Political History plays a large role in your writing?
The history side of the degree definitely played a major role in The CHRONOS Files. One motivation I had for writing Timebound in the beginning was that so many of the students who arrived in my history classes were already convinced that history was a major snooze.
The key reason? Their teachers–probably in an effort to prepare them for an end-of-grade test–left out all of the bits that make history fun. Yeah, you have to learn about the presidents and the wars and the economic crises and all of that…but you also need to learn the other parts that make those eras come alive. For a lot of students, that means bringing in the things they’re interested in–the music and other forms of popular entertainment, the fashion, the scandals, and even the serial killers.
Lecture about a guy who murdered as many as 200 women in a hotel that was as bizarre as anything in fiction, and suddenly the kids who were half asleep are listening again. Tell them that a woman who was a blackmailer and the first female stock broker in the US also ran for President in 1873 and you can teach a lot of other stuff about the Gilded Age before they doze back off. But all of the good parts were being left out in middle and high school, and sadly, many of them still are.
The political science side will come into play a bit more in the next series…but only peripherally.
Blending science fiction with history makes for an engaging read. How did you come up with the idea of mixing the two?
I’ve been a science fiction fan since I saw my first episode of Star Trek and I taught history. Add those two together, and you’re going to get time travel pretty much every time.
How much of your time is spent researching? What is your overall process for researching and eventually writing the story?
I research general ideas before beginning a book, but much of it happens as I’m writing and looking for more details to make the characters and the locations more vivid. I like to research just before I write a historical scene because the location feels more real to me, especially if there are pictures or videos that can help set the mood in my mind. And then I can walk through the scene as I write it.
The bad part about that process is that it can contribute to “squirrel brain.” I set out to see if a slang word would have been used by Victoria Woodhull in 1873 and end up clicking on a link about the spiritualist craze in that era, and then I’m looking at the Fox Sisters and Harry Houdini and soon I’m five decades away from what I was researching in the first place. But those journeys can also lead to some interesting connections, so I allow the internet to lead me down the rabbit hole sometimes.
Your first book in the CHRONOS File series, Timebound, won both the Young Adult and Grand Prize in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. Congratulations! How did this achievement impact you and your future writing? Your career?
It’s not an exaggeration to say it made my career. Time’s Twisted Arrow was doing okay for a debut self-published book, but with a demanding full-time job, I didn’t have the time to market it the way I needed to, or the time to write a sequel. (It took about five years to write the first book.) The grand prize was almost exactly what I made in a year of teaching. That gave me the confidence (and the money!) to quit my day job and focus solely on writing the sequels. It also gave me the wonderful team that I have at Skyscape. It was an incredible contest and I met some wonderful people, both on the boards as we nervously awaited the cuts at each stage, and at the ceremony in Seattle when I met the other finalists, who also won contracts and an advance with various Amazon Publishing imprints.
What made you decide to write for a younger audience? What are some of the challenges you have faced in writing for YA readers?
I have a teenager as my protagonist, so the series is YA. But I don’t write for a younger audience. I tried to, at first. Kate, the heroine in The CHRONOS Files, was initially going to be younger, but she pretty quickly informed me that she was nearly 17 and that I was writing her all wrong. She was right. If I’d stuck with the plan, I’d have ended up “writing down” in some sense, trying to shape my ideas for the average 12-15 year old. And it just wasn’t the story I had in my head.
I do have readers that are teens (even some tweens), but most of my readers are actually adults who enjoy YA. I was a little surprised at that fact initially, although I really don’t know why. I enjoy YA fiction and I wrote the books that I wanted to read. The teen years and early adulthood are the best canvas for the type of story I like–one where the protagonist faces changes and growth and big decisions.
What have you found to be the most effective strategies to market your books? Do you have any advice for new authors trying to gain coverage?
I was just talking about this with a friend recently. Many of the marketing decisions for my books are handled by Skyscape, and I’ve been really happy with them. As for the novellas, they tend to rise and fall with the main books in the series. They’re in a nice little hammock, and there’s little I can do that will have more impact than Amazon’s marketing team.
But I do a lot of social media marketing, especially with the launch of new books. Launch parties are a big focus for me. I do all of mine on Facebook, and try to have games, prizes, guest authors, etc. I have a lot of small prizes (Amazon cards, Starbucks, free books) etc., so that there are at least twenty winners.. I’ve also found it’s worth the investment to have a pretty substantial main prize because you’ll pull in some people who aren’t necessarily in your circle. (I like using a Kindle, mostly because that ensures that the people who stop by are probably *readers*–no sense marketing to people who don’t like to read!) I have readers in a wide range of time zones, so I leave the games open for a full day and try to drop back in and chat even after the official “party” is over.
The key thing I’ve seen working for new indie authors is to have something that you can use to market yourself before you launch your first book. Many readers are hesitant to purchase a book from a debut author. If you have a few shorter works out there before you publish that first novel, it’s far more likely they’ll take a chance on you. Kindle Worlds is one option. My CHRONOS series is in the program, and I’ve worked with several first time authors who want to dip their toes into the water before diving in with a first novel. (And you can make some money doing it.) Or you can post content readers want online. Jen Foehner Wells, for example, wrote Stargate fan-fiction for several years and posted it on her blog. She build up a huge Twitter following doing this. When she finished her book, Fluency, and self-published, she tweeted to her followers–oh, by the way, published a book if you’re interested. And many of them were interested. She zipped up the charts and, thanks to landing on top of the Hot New Releases list, Amazon’s algorithms kicked in and she stayed there for quite a while. So the moral here is first, give social media followers a reason to follow you before you launch that first book. It doesn’t have to be fan-fic–could also be cool content you find on the web or a really interesting blog, like Chuck Wendig. Build up your followers while you’re writing your book.
The second part, however, is the most important one–write a good book. 🙂
Your latest work, The Delphi Project, is coming out this year. Can you tell us a little about what we can expect from your new series? When can readers expect to get their hands on the new book?
Well, it’s not time travel! After the twist and turns of Time’s Divide, my brain needed a break from multiple timelines. It is, however, still firmly in the realm of speculative fiction, as I’m pretty sure will be the case for anything I write. I like to escape when I read or watch TV…and I mean really escape. If it could actually happen in real life, it’s almost always a no-go for me. so I doubt I’d ever write anything of that nature.
My elevator pitch for the new series has been X-Files meets X-Men, and while my characters won’t be donning superhero costumes, I think that’s still pretty accurate. The story follows Anna, a young woman who unwillingly picks up “mental hitchhikers.” When she agrees to help stop the murderer of one of these “hitchers,” she finds herself at the center of a government conspiracy. We now have an official title for the first book in the series — The Delphi Effect— and it will launch with Skyscape in late October. Assuming I get back to the edits that I should be doing right now. And on that note, I’m heading back into the Writing Cave.
Thanks for interviewing with us, Rysa!
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Cherise Hensley has an M.A. in English from the University of Idaho, where she taught composition courses. She graduated from Whitworth University with a B.A. in English and marketing and also has a copy editing certification from UC San Diego. She has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management as well as the Rock & Sling literary journal and has been involved in the production of other print media such as newspapers, magazines, and yearbooks. Cherise is a teacher, an editor, and a writer, who loves discovering new books to distract her from everyday life.