Julie Frost: I have a friend who can help you with your demon prob--What is that?
Johnny Worthen: Wolfsbane, specially for you. Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
F: You know I write books about werewolves, right?
W: I’m never sure if wolfsbane is good or bad for werewolves. I’m a cat person myself.
F: Hilariously, dogs are terrified of werewolves. Cats seem to think of them as their very own fur rug-beds. But dogs are sensible creatures and cats are weirdos. Having been owned by five cats, I can say this with some assurance.
W: No argument there. My weirdos are all inside. Probably because of what you write. Tell me about your series Pack Dynamics.
F: As you may or may not know, I cut my writerly teeth on fanfiction. A few years after I made the break from fanfic to original fiction, “Iron Man” came out, and Robert Downey, Jr. became my Celebrity Boyfriend (in a completely platonic fashion, because we are both happily married). I wrote a not-Tony and not-Pepper novelette where they are kidnapped by terrorists and finally admit that they have a thing for each other, and he asks her to marry him, and she says yes. Of course, my not-Tony is a big-pharma guy who wants to cure cancer and is not quite the same narcissistic jerk that Tony is, and my not-Pepper is a werewolf, because I am me and Patrick Tracy (who is a genius) told me to, after I realized that I’d written a straight thriller-romance without a single speculative element, and I was flailing around trying to figure out how to add one. The markets for straight thriller-romance novelettes are nonexistent, whereas if you can add a speculative element to it, there are, like... five good-paying markets that will at least give it a cursory glance.
Iron Man,” however--it’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” And so, I thought, what would happen if Tony hired Harry and Perry to look into some industrial espionage for him? WACKY FUN, is what... except I didn’t want to write fanfic anymore. So I was lamenting this state of affairs, 3000 words into the story, when a kind soul tapped me on the shoulder and said “Don’t you already have a universe you can plug characters like that into?” And, well, yes. Yes, I did. I had been a short-story writer up until then--short stories picked me, not the other way around--but this thing quickly bloomed into a novel-length work without me meaning it to. It takes place before that first novelette, so not-Pepper is still hiding her lycanthropy from not-Tony. And, yes, I’ve totally gotten called on the fact that Alex and Megan are Tony and Pepper but... I don’t care, honestly. Is it fun? Yes? Then my crazy diamonds can by-golly shine on.
The basic gist of book one is “A private eye with PTSD is thrown face-first into a brutal world of werewolves, vampires, and nanotech by a pharmaceutical espionage case gone horribly awry.” The “Piles of Cash and Killer Benefits” novelette picks up a couple months after that one leaves off, with Alex and Megan and the terrorist. And then “Pack Dynamics: A Price to Pay” picks up a few months after that, where some of the dangling plot chickens in the first book come home to roost. The elevator pitch for that one is “A werewolf private eye confronts a group of vengeance-fueled criminals to stop them from selling Berserker Virus Murder-Wolf tech to terrorists--but when he’s offered an opportunity for payback of his own, he might save the world and lose his soul.”
Alex was supposed to be the main protag in the novels. It wasn’t until I was deciding if Ben, the Harry-analogue from KKBB, was going to live or die, 70,000 words into book one, that I realized that the whole thing was actually about Ben in the first place. Such are the vagaries of writing a novel by the seat of your pants. I don’t do that anymore. Outlines are my very good friends, though I’m still getting a handle on how to outline a novel. See above: short stories picked me, not the other way around. Novels are hard.
W: There are all kinds of stories about how someone becomes a werewolf. How do yours work?
F: In the Pack Dynamics ‘verse, it’s basically transmitted by body fluids mixing. So if you’re bitten by a werewolf, their saliva gets in your bloodstream and turns you. If a werewolf bleeds into an open wound you happen to have, you get turned. I, uh, haven’t decided if it’s an STD yet because it’s never come up. I also have nanotech-created werewolves, which got really fun, really fast, because “regular” werewolves triple in mass when they shift, whereas the ones created with the tech retain their original body mass. Because science. And then that science gets cranked up to about a fifteen in book two.
W: Susceptible to silver?
F: Silver to the heart or brain is insta-death--it basically fries those organs to a crisp right then and there. Silver anywhere else burns fiercely until removed, and those wounds take longer to heal. Wolfsbane is a paralytic that dumps freezing toxins into the system; if you leave a werewolf covered in a net or tied by a rope made with it, it will eventually root into their body, flower, and then die after about three weeks, dumping toxins and killing the wolf as well. (Of course, wolfsbane--or monkshood, as it’s also known--doesn’t do humans any favors either, and will in fact kill us faster.) And rowan, or mountain ash, will make a werewolf spike a fever and hemorrhage from the wound. So you can totally stake a werewolf in my novel universe. They can also bleed to death if they’re wounded so severely that the super-healing can’t kick in fast enough.
|Wolfsbane (kinda' pretty)|
F: ...Ants and weevils aren’t even in the same family--you know what—never mind. I guess wolves and humans aren’t either. I had a were-squonk in one of my short stories where Ben was investigating a “cheating spouse” case. So the possibilities of other weres in that universe are certainly there. I mined American folklore for that one--a squonk is a creature so hideous that the sight of its own reflection is enough to make it cry so hard it literally dissolves in its own tears.
W: What first drew you to werewolves?
F: I’ve loved the unloved critters from an early age, and I liked wolves before they went from “we must exterminate all these scary predators” to “what magnificent animals with a beautiful family structure,” though the attitude was beginning to turn around when I was a kid. I think that in urban fantasy, we’re seeing that same shift in attitude from “scary monster” to “someone who grows fangs and fur three nights out of the month but just wants to mow his lawn and pay his bills the rest of the time.” Monster is as monster does, as Ben is fond of saying, and there’s good and bad werewolves just like there’s good and bad people. Of course, a bad person who is also a werewolf that triples in mass when he shifts is orders of magnitude scarier than Hannibal Lector, so I can have fun with that too. Frequently.
W: Look out there, that’s a were-cantaloupe. By the light of an autumn moon, it changes to a rotting cantaloupe.
W: I love how you’re so active in the writing community. I see you at all the conferences, you’re a member of my League of Utah Writers chapter and a great ally. What do you find most appealing about being part of all this?
F: So many people helped me out when I was first starting, and this is, I suppose, my way of paying that forward. This business can be infuriating, mystifying, and exhilarating all at the same time, and helping people navigate through the pitfalls, or giving tips on craft, or even just the mechanics of submitting, is tons of fun for me.
W: I love how you have branded yourself. If I’m the tie-dye writer, you are the werewolf woman. Tell me about that.
F: So the novel didn’t sell until six years after I wrote it, but meantime Ben was yanking on my sleeve and going “You know you can get short stories out of this, right?” And then I realized that I could do literally anything with werewolves, and I wasn’t constrained by the novel universe in short stories, so I created a werewolf who was a mindless wolfman rage-monster when he shifted, but who had lost his legs in an IED explosion, and had Adventures With Prosthetics. I could put werewolves in the Old West. I could even put them in space! I’m working on one now for the Baen Fantasy Contest that’s swords and sorcery.
Writers of the Future--I would either win with a werewolf story, or pro out of the contest. Dave Farland, the coordinating judge, famously hates werewolf fiction. So if I could win him over, I’d know I had arrived. And, wouldn’t you know it: Achievement Unlocked--I won third place for Volume 32 with a werewolf story. That kind of solidified the werewolf thing--and expanding that story into a novel is next on my plate after I finish the Guardian Angel to Serial Killers novel I’m embroiled in right now.
But it’s not All Werewolves All The Time. I’ve got a space opera novelette coming out soon, along with an epic fantasy I’ll be self-pubbing with cover art from the handsome and hard-working Sean Ricks. I’ve written every shade of speculative fiction from hard SF future-science all the way to epic fantasy with magic and dragons. And of course, mixing all that is fun too. My first sale contained space dragons.
W: You’ve made the step from traditional publishing to hybrid, meaning you’re now putting out titles yourself, also called indie. Tell me about your decision to do this and how hard has it been.
F: When I finally got a handle of what book two of the Pack Dynamics series was going to be, I realized that people really should read “Piles of Cash and Killer Benefits” first, or they’d be horribly confused as to why Alex and Megan were suddenly getting married. For some reason, my Alex stories are a hard sell (I’ve sold all my Ben stories, which are mostly noir-ish hardboiled detective things, but I’ve got a pair of Alex stories sitting on my hard drive that, apparently, no one wants. It makes me sad, because I think Alex is awesome), and an Alex novelette was an even harder sell. Not because it’s a bad story (I don’t think--I hired the same guy who edited the first novel to edit the novelette and he said the shorter one was superior, and was super surprised when I told him which one I’d written first), but couple the length with the werewolf (and werewolves are a hard sell, trust me on this) and the fact that Alex is a Tony Stark analogue, and, well, no one would buy it.
Deciding to do it was easy. Designing my own cover, and figuring out the different layouts for print and ebook, and all the ticky-tack formatting stuff, was less easy. Spending money on actual professional editors to give the stories a once-over was the hardest part for me, because I am notoriously tight-fisted with my cash, and I knew there was no way I’d make it back in anything like a timely fashion--which is why I ended up designing the cover myself, at the end of the day. Fortunately, I have friends who don’t blow smoke at me when I ask for an honest opinion, and the cover went from OH GOD WHAT WERE YOU THINKING WITH THAT HORRIBLE FONT to “Oh, hey, that’s cool and I actually like it the best of the three in the Pack Dynamics series.” Which is super flattering, because WordFire gave me amazing covers.
And now I’m working on a Pack Dynamics collection, which will hopefully debut at LTUE in February. Then I’ll look at other collections of previously-published stories, because those have already gone through various editors, so it’s just making the time to do it.
W: I’m always interested in breaking in stories. how did you first break into the publishing world?
F: My first sale was to a publication (now, alas, defunct) called “Renard’s Menagerie. As mentioned above, I cut my writerly teeth on fanfiction, and the first “original” story I wrote was a Firefly knockoff wherein the crew was hired to smuggle beagles to a planet with a rabbit problem, which idea was taken directly from the episode of Firefly where Wash suggests they smuggle beagles instead of cows next time. That one never sold (perhaps because I literally scraped the serial numbers off an actual Firefly story I wrote with that plot), but then I wrote one with the same crew where they were hired to transport dragon eggs from one planet to another by the eggs’ mother. That one sold to “Renard’s Menagerie,” and three others I penned afterward starring the same crew have also sold.
Now, RM was a penny-a-word publication, and it was the first place I sent that story. Nowadays, I wouldn’t do it like that, because I can’t help but think that maybe someone who paid more would have bought it. Live and learn. Start from the top and work your way down.
W: What advice would you give new writers?
F: The first rule of writing is Do What Works For You. There is no One Thing that holds true for every writer--scratch twenty writers, and you’ll find thirty processes. It took me ages to figure out that outlining was awesome, but outlining absolutely does not work for other people for a variety of reasons, and that’s okay. I’m not using the same outline process for my latest project as I used for Pack Dynamics 2, even. And sometimes I’ll make it to the halfway point in a short story outline, get stuck, and just start writing the thing until I’ve got a handle on the characters and can finish the outline. Or not.
And I’ve got a second rule: Write What You Love. I love werewolves. I think that comes through in my writing, and so I’ve been pretty successful (not wildly successful, mind you, but it keeps me in rum money) with them. Whatever that Thing is that you love as much as I love werewolves, write it. You might not find insta-success with it, but as you start to break in and make yourself known, the readers who love that Thing will come to you.
Third rule: The first draft is the worst draft, and THAT’S OKAY. A novel or short story does not spring, fully formed and perfect, from your keyboard. It’s going to suck Let it suck. Embrace the suck. You can edit crap into not-crap. You cannot edit a blank page.
Fourth rule, which is really a corollary to the third: Your baby might be ugly even after several drafts. Grow rhino skin, and accept criticism with grace. When my editor told me that a character in my first novel either needed more to do, or needed to be excised completely, I had to be talked off a ledge--and then I sat down, took her out (I couldn’t take her out of the universe, because I’d written several shorts with her in them, but I sent her on a Australian vacation), and gave her scenes to other characters in the story, making those people more awesome in the process. And now I get to write the story where she comes home from her Australian vacation to find that her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend got wolferized in the course of a case she thought they could work from a desk. Listen to your critics--but also remember at the end of the day it’s your story. If they’re asking you to change something fundamental, or to write something that wouldn’t even be yours by the time you finished, you’re allowed to say “no.” I put my foot down several times in book two (and explained why), or made subtle changes that kept the editor happy but didn’t change what I was actually going for. Also remember that when someone tells you that something is wrong, they’re usually right--but when they tell you how to fix it, they might very well be wrong. If it makes you slap your forehead, that’s a clue.
W: Where can my readers find out more about you?
F: Looks like you just didn’t water it.
F: Broken sprinkler.
F: Ouch! It bit me.
W: Told you.
F: Hey, why am I suddenly growing fangs, fur, and claws...
W: Prepare to photosynthesize!