Author Ren Cummins first book The Morrow Stone has been well received among the Steampunk writing/reading community and was voted among the top five steampunk novels of 2010 by www.SteamPunk.com. While he doesn’t consider himself a steampunk novelist, this husband, father, writer and editor is also taking on the challenge of managing the sci-fi division of Flying Pen Press. With so much on his plate he reveals how he manages to keep up with his daily task, putting family first and writing each novel one page at a time. I want to welcome Mr. Cummins to Lexi’s Author Alcove and thank him for taking time to speak with us today.
I love science fiction television and movies but have yet to take the leap into reading much of it. This interview has opened up a whole new genre of reading to me and I hope to my loyal readers (yeah Will I mean you). I will be purchasing my copy of THE MORROW STONE ASAP! You can read an excerpt of The Morrow Stone and Reaper’s Flight here before you purchase your copy.
1. What inspires you to write?
One of my college professors used to say that inspiration was everywhere; that the key to it was to allow yourself to be open to it. That philosophy stuck with me – I try to let whatever I experience trigger some sort of idea that could potentially be used in a novel or a story. But more specifically, my wife and daughter are fantastic sources of ideas or suggestions – a lot of the characters in my current books come directly from them or other friends and family. And lastly, my own youth and educational experiences growing up were a big source of inspiration. The concept of fiction as an analogy to autobiography is constantly on my mind as I write, and I can usually track most of the ideas I write to their real-life counterparts.
2. What are your writing habits? Do you write a certain amount of pages per day? Do you write at a certain time of day?
I try to write at least a page a day, whether it’s something I’ll keep or not. I have a couple playlists on my iPod that help channel ideas, depending on the scene I’m working on, and I’ll just plug in and focus on the particular bit I’m feeling impressed to describe. Mornings usually work best for me; the evenings are usually when I let the ideas percolate in anticipation for the next day.
3. Do you write by the seat or your pants or a plot outline?
I’d have to say it’s a healthy dollop of each. I like to have the “big picture” all fleshed out before I begin and have the characters defined, with their own flaws, strengths and general character arcs – but the stories often surprise me in the middle. The characters will just turn a corner, and Bam – something I didn’t expect will simply show up. Frequently, I find myself scratching my head and wondering, “jeez, what did I just do to them?”
4. I am new to the writing genre of Steampunk. Can you enlighten us as to what exactly Steampunk is?
This is really a meaty question, and you’re likely to get a different answer from each person you ask. The core of it is a sort of Victorian era science fiction – – think along the lines of HG Wells and you’re on the right track. There are several variants from this, but all seem to stem from a similar base of collective elements – fantastical steam-powered devices, airships, goggles, that sort of thing. I think of it a lot like how Obi-Wan Kenobi described the height of the Jedi – a more elegant time. It celebrates the ideas of invention and industry, all the while remaining loyal to a simpler (and oft times more environmentally friendly) science, one requiring the simplest of elements – heat and water. If you like your fiction with a proper suit and waistcoat and astounding adventures, then perhaps Steampunk is something to look into.
5. Congratulations on your book The Morrow Stone being nominated for www.Steampunk.com 2010 book of the year. How did you feel when you heard your book had been nominated?
Thank you! You know how everyone always says “I was happy to just be nominated!” or “I feel like I’ve already won!” ? Well, that was totally me. The Morrow Stone was only my first full-length novel, and it’s so far only been self-published. So to stand side by side with Cherie Priest, Nick Valentino and Scott Westerfeld – I was really and truly gob smacked. I love their books, so it felt great to see mine up there among them.
6. Can you tell us about The Morrow Stone and Reaper’s Flight?
Well, the tagline would be something to the effect of: Twelve year old Death wears a pretty black petticoat. The central character is an orphan girl named Rom who finds out that she is a Sheharid Is’iin, who are angelic sorts of beings also called “Reapers” by the people who live in the exiled township of Oldtown-Against-The-Wall. Several hundred years earlier, the people living on the other side of that great wall kicked out all those who practiced arts in favor of science, and we see what those generations of exile have done to these people. Trapped on one side by an impenetrable wall and by aggressive monsters on the other, their life is beyond challenging; Rom’s discovery that she must serve as a protector to this town is a struggle enough for her, but the unexpected responsibilities that go with her role are overwhelming to her. Her path brings her in contact with two other young people – Kari, who hears the music that comes from all magical constructs, and Cousins, a young lad with his own gifts and challenges. They’re all brought together when opposing groups seek the titular Morrow Stone, an old and mysterious object tied closely into their town’s history and the war between science and art.
The Morrow Stone introduces the reader to the characters and the world, while Reaper’s Flight uncovers many of the mysteries of both the city beyond the wall as well as the darker histories of both communities.
7. Besides being a husband, father, musician and blogger you are also a managing editor at Flying Pen Press. How do you juggle all those different responsibilities and still find time to write?
Sometimes, I don’t think that I do. I’ve unfortunately had to set music mostly aside; it’s for fun when I get the time. Blogging is a good way to clear out the verbal buildup – it’s a lot like setting your oven on Clean and burning off all the gunk that’s been building up by the simple process of usage. Fatherhood and Husbandhood probably get most of my time – I believe that what you produce can only be as good as the soil it springs from, so keeping a happy balance in my home and personal relationships is key to letting my head be clear to write. The managing editor role is pretty new; I expect things to shift into a much higher gear after the holidays have ended, which is really why I’m trying to get as much of book 3 done as I can while I have half a brain left to doing it. All in all, the most important thing I have to remind myself is that all books get written one page at a time.
Lexi’s Note : I am going to put this on my wall over my desk! “Books get written one page at a time.” Ren Cummins
8. What is more difficult for your writing your novels or marketing them?
Definitely marketing. I’ve always had a challenge at thrusting my material into someone’s face and say “hey, you should check this out!” It always felt rather intrusive. But with these books, I’ve been gradually rolling them out into my circles of association – family, friends, etc. And as the feedback has been consistently positive, it supports my confidence to keep handing it out further and further.
9. Do you have an agent?
Not presently. I sent out a few queries when the Morrow Stone was first completed, but not surprisingly got very little traction. I know the material is good, and I know it’s marketable, but I remain – to the agencies at large – one of a million buzzing voices of aspiring writers. I’m in no hurry; my agent’s out there somewhere, and whether they find me or I them, it’ll happen. Meanwhile, I’ve got more things to write.
10.Your novel has been compared to the Harry Potter Series in some reviews. Do you think this is an accurate comparison?
Well, I only hope J.K. doesn’t find the comparison too offensive. This series is definitely focused around the same time frame of a person’s life, that bit where you’re struggling to decide or discover your identity, and I know at that same age I was really thinking about the way I’d react to finding out I was secretly a superhero or something along those lines. I really enjoyed the Potter books – I love the alternate sheen of a near-Earth and think there’s so many ways you can go as an author with using our own reality as an anchoring point for your fantastic adventures. But at the same time, I tried to keep myself as far from the Harry Potter “formula” as I could, but there are definitely elements that cannot be avoided when writing books along these lines. For example, it’s often preferable to have a central character with whom your audience can associate, allowing them to discover the critical elements of your world right along with your readers. One of the questions I kept asking myself throughout Rowling’s books was “what would I do if I were The Boy Who Lived?” and using that as a sort of moral compass when I read his merry adventures. It made the experience of reading the books more than just a passive adventure, but a study in choice and responsibility. I know a lot of people don’t go that far when reading a book, but those are some of the elements I find most interesting.
Also, one of the parts I loved the most about the Harry Potter books were their ability to quite easily transfer to film. They told dramatic, cinematic tales, and I remember at several points thinking about how wonderful it would be to actually see the scenes on screen as I envisioned them. This is something I think about a lot when writing – about the potentially visual aspects of the film, how they would go with a particular style of soundtrack, what kinds of actors I could see playing the parts or whatnot. I don’t just want to tell a story, I want to tell a story that’s enjoyable enough that others would want to tell, also. That’s one of what I believe the greatest successes the Harry Potter books have achieved – they’ve re-ignited a fire and a passion for storytelling. I think, whether you enjoy her books or not, you really have to thank her for supercharging the publishing industry in a way that hasn’t really been done in a while.
11. Do you consider yourself an independent author? Do you think more books will be published independently of the larger publishing houses in the future?
Ah, yes, the big industrial debate, eh? I love this subject – I saw it happening with music several years back and I see it happening again in literature and movies. Thanks in large part to the internet, marketing and just plain getting your material out to the world and into peoples’ hands is easier than ever. For example, the first edition of Morrow Stone was sent from my computer and onto Amazon.com in less than a week. Literally, a week went by and people could order my books. That was pretty impressive. The options for writers are vast – there are options to go Vanity Press or Print on Demand that never even need the sometimes draining process of trying to convince others to publish you. I heard of one author who released his book as a series of free podcasts. By the time his 40th podcast had come out, he had musical scores, multiple voice actors, sound effects, the whole deal – for an estimated audience of 20-30 thousand downloads. That’s a game-changer. I love the freedom of conceptual development that you have as an independent author, but not-so-secretly envy the massive distribution networks possessed by the larger publishing houses. But thanks to the availability of online book shopping, the days of “bookstore shelf real estate” are fast fading. Although places like Powell’s book store in Portland are among my favorite places, sometimes I just like to sit down at my laptop and find the book I want to read, and either have it in my hands in a couple days or download it to my kindle or whatever and just read it right there. The immediacy of the net is making it simpler for every person who has a book inside them to put the book into the hands of the person who wants to read it. The genie is out of the bottle, and I think it’s going to be very exciting to see what happens next.
12. Borders and Barnes and Nobel’s are rumored to be on the verge of a merger. How do you feel this will impact authors like yourself?
Honestly, I’m not sure that it will. The vendors change and merge quite a bit in whatever industry you participate, some dissolving and some engorging – in the end, their money has to come from somewhere, and people will shop wherever they can find the greatest combination of price, availability and accessibility. I think the more curious question will be what we should expect as we see more publishing companies merge.
13. Who are your favorite authors and what are you reading now?
My favorite authors…well, it depends on the day and my mood. I love reading the graphic novels of Warren Ellis, the books of Neil Gaiman and Shakespeare. I really can sink my teeth into some of that iambic pentameter. It’s juicy. I’m currently reading about seven books – I go back and forth based on whatever itch needs scratching. The last book I opened was the graphic novel to the Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, and before that Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. The stack of books by my bed is beginning to frighten me.
Lexi’s Note: I’m glad I’m not the only “bi-polar” reader around. You don’t even want to see the stack of books I have by my bed. LOL
14. On your Steampunk and Synthesizers blog you describe yourself as a recovering religiholic, why is that?
Ah, I do love this question. I was raised in a pretty staunchly religious environment, and part of my change into being a grownup was facing the idea that the beliefs I thought I had were not actually the ones I in fact had. As a young man, I’d let a religion pretty much tell me who I was and what I had to do with my life, and it finally occurred to me that I didn’t want that. In the years since that revelation, I’ve been unwinding the threads of faith and belief and rebuilding the core sense of who I am, who I want to become and my feelings on life, death and the great beyond. Like it or not, religion and faith and the quest to evolve spiritually have been a major part of my life, and though I occasionally feel inclined to just lay back and let someone else tell me what to believe, I feel that I have a responsibility to myself and my Maker to figure it out for myself. It’s a core concept – that of redefining history by coming to understand it – that plays a big part in my current novels, but I don’t expect it to always play so central a role in future books.But in conversations with people who have struggled with things like alcohol or drugs or other addictions, I’ve seen a lot of similarities to my own tendency to want to submit to a religious structure. It’s just something I work through, one day at a time.
15. What advice would you give other aspiring writers?
Write. Then get up, walk around, look at the world, breathe it in, and write some more. My aforementioned college professor gave me the most life-changing advice. He told me “it’s not about nouns and verbs and clever adjectives, it’s about living your life and telling that story of living to someone else. If you don’t get out there and live it, you’re never going to be able to write about it.”
16. What are you working on now?
I’m halfway through with the final book of the trilogy, “Fall of the Shepherd”, which will loop the entire story around from its more ancient secrets to resolving the final battle between the warring members of the Sheherid Is’iin themselves. It’s becoming a much larger story than I’d expected, and I’m making sure to tie up as many of the loose threads as I can, which is resulting in a lot of very careful narration. But thanks to my daughter, I have another series planned for some of the characters, as well as a solo series for one character who happens to be my personal favorite. Another series of much darker contemporary books will come later as well, but I’ve got a few steampunk anthologies to work on for Flying Pen Press, including a Shakespeare inspired steampunk anthology that we’re very excited about. And there’s a science fiction imprint that we’re also going to be developing which will also keep me fairly busy. 2011 is going to be a lot of fun, I simply hope I’ll be conscious for most of it.
In closing, please allow me to thank you for this opportunity – you asked earlier about the opportunities for independent authors, and your blog is one of the perhaps underappreciated elements in this new and developing publishing environment – you make new authors and new books accessible to a wider audience and help connect readers to content that might not otherwise pop up on their radars. You’re the sort of person that makes this possible for all of us, both as writers and readers. Thank you so much for all you do!
Lexi’s Note: You are so welcome. Your interview was informative and inspiring I really appreciate your taking time out of your busy schedule to be here today. I wish all of the authors I present on Lexi’s Author Alcove much success.
(photo by Nicole Raine photography via amazon)
“On the world of Aerthos, the large community of Oldtown-Against-the-Wall has long been the refuge for the former citizens of the city of Aesirium, Utopian citadel of science and magic. But outside the defensive wall, the exiled townspeople have fallen under siege by undead monsters from the wild. Among them, however, a trio of young children seem to be key to the survival and evolution of this town. Can they learn to utilize their individual skills and talents in time? And what is the Morrow stone, what role does it play, and why do so many people seek it?” (via GoodReads.com)
- Steampunk [Trendbusting] (gawker.com)
- Steampunk’s founding fathers talk shop (boingboing.net)
- The Goggles Do Nothing (crookedtimber.org)
- The Great Steampunk Fight of ’10 (benpeek.livejournal.com)