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Interview with Kage Alan, Author of Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell

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Author Kage Alan resides in the Detroit area with his partner and their fish, all of whom are affectionately named “fish.” He spends his days writing, listening to music, and seeking out the almighty deity known only in hushed whispers as He-Who-Walks-Behind-the-Blu-Ray-Racks. His books include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Sexual Orientation, Andy Stevenson Vs. the Lord of the Loins and the latest, Gaylias: Operation Thunderspell.

Welcome to Blogcritics, Kage! Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write it?

My partner and I have a favorite song from the late ’80s by German group Inker & Hamilton called “Dancing Into Danger.” It always struck me that it should have been the theme song to a spy film and I thought it would be great fun to develop a story featuring characters with those two names. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with a plot that hadn’t already been done a thousand and one times before, so I started writing a different book altogether.

It was a month into writing the new project when I then heard the song “Thunderspell” by a female German metal artist named Doro. The entire story flashed through my head in four minutes, playing out very much like a film trailer with bits and pieces that would somehow create a whole, and I knew exactly what to write and how the tone of the piece should be. That single song represented every bit of attitude, melody and quirkiness that the story needed, which is also why I used it in the title of the book. It’s my way of thanking Doro for helping inspire me.

So we have a interracial gay couple in their early 30s who’ve been together nine years — Nicholas Inker, who’s white, and Anthony Hamilton, who’s Chinese — and they’re at the point in their relationship where the most excitement they get is annoying and being annoyed by each other. Both work for a government agency and are tasked with working together to infiltrate an island paradise in the Philippines that may be a front for a new terrorist organization. Unfortunately, even their handler — a rumored ex-Navy S.E.A.L. named Debora who doesn’t mind using explosives to make a point — can’t keep them on task and not doing everything within their power to irritate the living hell out of each other.

My publisher described the book as “I-Spy meets Monty Python.”

How long did it take you to write the book?

About two, almost two and a half years, which is unusual. However, I was also promoting the re-release of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Sexual Orientation and the first release of its sequel, Andy Stevenson Vs. the Lord of the Loins. That took time away from writing Gaylias.

I had a deadline last year in order to get Gaylias published this year, so I really pushed myself to finish the first draft. Once complete, I usually like to take a few weeks off, clear my head and then begin the editing process. There wasn’t any time for that, so I dove into the 368-page draft, rewrote it and finally whittled it down to 308 pages. My head was spinning so fast from rushing things that, when all was said and done, I had no idea if the story made any sense or if there was even a story still there.

Cutting 60 pages out of a book does tend to raise an eyebrow, especially the author’s. What I found is that I put every single idea I had into the story knowing full well that some of them would work and some wouldn’t. I could choose later what fit best and discard the rest, so having a longer first draft to work with gave me more creative freedom in determining what the best material would be to carry through.

What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?

My muse is fickle. Sometimes she likes to work wherever we happen to be and other times in a very specific environment. She also likes to surf Amazon mp3 downloads and listen to new music whilst we work on a scene or bit of dialogue. I’m pleased to say that the investment has been worth it, though I wouldn’t go mentioning that to my partner.

My own creative approach works best when I can look at a very standard scene, how it’s set up and determine what needs to be accomplished, then ask myself what I could do to make it fun. What can I do to make it interesting for me to have to write and for an audience to read? If the expectation and assumption is that a character will react one way, what I can do to turn the tables and have them react a very different way?

I ask myself those questions for each scene.

I’m also not afraid to introduce new plot elements into the story as they occur during the writing process. Some work. Some don’t. Either way, I tried and that’s what editing and revision are for. It’s better to have too much than too little. The unexpected can sometimes yield wonderful results.

How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?

I’ve worked with three publishers so far and since my current one, Zumaya Publications, offered me a contract for the entire Gaylias series based on the strength of Operation Thunderspell, I’m looking forward to being with them long-term. They’ve also been very good to me having published the second edition of A Funny Thing and the first edition of the sequel.

As for advice, each publisher I’ve worked with has been time-consuming to land a contract with. It takes time for them to read your query letter, time for them to digest a few chapters of your work, time for them to look over your entire manuscript and time for them to decide if you’re worth the investment to bring into their family. Having patience sucks! It really does, but it’s the only way you’ll get through the experience. You must also convince them that you’ll be working your ass off to sell the book, so it helps to have a plan.

Once you’ve identified the publishers who handle your genre, it’s your query letter that either will or won’t get you to the next stage. Most publishers will state what they want in your query, so make sure you’ve got that. Aside from the standard information — and no typos — prepare to pimp yourself out. Grab their attention and don’t be afraid to be creative in doing it. If you can make that bored, poorly paid angst-ridden not-getting-laid summer college intern sit up and take notice, then all you have to do is convince him or her that your story is equally worth reading.

And when you do land that contract? Have a lawyer go over it. Never assume that all is as it should be. Ask questions when you don’t understand something. Don’t be afraid to ask for changes to vague wording or getting rid of things that don’t really apply. Some publishers will expect a cut of your profits if the book is made into a film. Why? They didn’t help you sell it. If they want to hand-deliver it to Jerry Bruckheimer, we’ll talk. If not, kiss my grits, Mel.

There are always unforeseen things that can happen, too. I co-authored a non-fiction historical novel and while we understood that we had to sell one thousand copies before we ever saw any royalties, we never figured they’d slap a $40 price tag on a soft-cover book. I’ll most likely never see a penny from that project and it represents three and a half years of my life that I spent writing it.

One last thing I’ll mention is that I have a number of friends who have tried to get published, couldn’t, and self-published instead. This no longer has the negative stigmas attached to it that it used to. If someone can prove that they’ve got a book that’s worth reading and the sales to back it up, a publisher will take that into consideration when you contact them. It can certainly work in your favor.

Do you think a critique group is essential for a writer?

For a first book? I’m going to go with a “yes.” Maybe even for a second book, too. However, that being said, perhaps not always. Let me explain.

I was an English tutor for four years in college, so I had constant access to folks who critiqued each other’s work. Comments could be flowery and others downright brutal, but the goal was always the same and that was to improve the piece of writing. So, like it or not, I had 20 to 30 people telling me what worked for them and what didn’t and they didn’t always agree with each other. It was the best chaos I could have ever hoped to immerse myself in.

My writing back then was, quite honestly, crap. It’s still not even close to perfect and never will be, but I am continuing to get better at it. If I didn’t have that kind of an atmosphere and if others don’t currently have that kind of atmosphere, then it really couldn’t hurt to seek out a critique group. You don’t have to agree with them. You don’t have to make the changes they suggest if you don’t want to. You do, however, have to realize that if one person has a reaction to your story, chances are others out there in the reading world will have that same reaction, too. So, even if you don’t like it, is it a valid point and is it something you ought to consider?

A group will allow you to start asking yourself the same kinds of questions and approach your writing from views outside yourself. I already know that I am my own worst critic. I have a pretty good idea what works in my books and what doesn’t. It definitely helps when I’m revising, even if I don’t like what the little voice in my head is telling me. And if I think that little voice is blunt, wait until my editor arbitrarily dismisses parts of the book out of hand.

Do you have another novel on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

I’m currently writing the third book in the A Funny Thing trilogy, which I’m hoping to have ready and out sometime next year. It’s a more personal book because it mirrors some events that happened to me in the last two years, but with a more comedic spin than the reality was. Beyond that, if Gaylias does well, I already have the second book planned out in my head.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell my readers?

Take chances. Anybody can write a story about a teenager coming out or about spies working together to take on a group of terrorists. They’re clichés and have been done many times over, frequently more often than that. It’s how you approach the material and make it your own. If you can write a story, read it and catch yourself saying “That’s not half bad. I wrote that???”, then you may just be on to something.

Have confidence in your work. A couple of literary agents told me many years back that A Funny Thing would only ever get published if I switched it from first person to third and, if I did that, they would consider looking at it again. It was another “kiss my grits” moment. Sorry, but while I understand that agents and editors exist to deliver industry-accepted material, they’re not always right and they certainly aren’t about to admit it. I knew I wasn’t going to get rich off of one book, so I had nothing to lose by maintaining the vision of my work that I believed in.

Be ready to work your ass off before and after that book comes out. Research potential reviewers, contact them, follow-up with them, contact magazines both local and national, let everybody know you’re alive. Prepare to invest a lot of time and some money into a website, social sites, book signings (which I still enjoy doing), professional business cards, word of mouth… whatever it takes. And don’t get discouraged. This doesn’t happen overnight. Maybe two nights. I was shooting for domination in the Asian market and just found out this past week that my first two books were top sellers in South Africa. Sometimes things don’t always go according to plan, but at least somebody’s reading the books.

Finally, don’t let it ever go to your head. Don’t be snippy, pompous or a jackass to people… unless they really deserve it, but even then, be selective. Readers and bookstore staff will remember the feeling you left them with. If you’re an ass, just wait to hear what they have to say when your next book comes out. Don’t respond to someone who doesn’t like a word you used on page 161 with “I’m sorry, your crybaby, whiny-ass opinion means what to me again?” They don’t like that. You might come back with something like “What did you think of the word on page 162?” instead. Be humble, but don’t be afraid to be a bit of a smartass, too.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.