For this feature interview, I contacted Jennifer Ellis by email with some questions pertaining both to A Quill Ladder and the Derivatives of Displacement series in general, on writing YA, and on her perspectives as a successful indie author. Here, then, are those questions and her wonderful responses, including information on what she has in store for the future:
DPH: The YA category has changed a lot since either of us was younger, and the SciFi/Fantasy offerings have exploded. In what ways did you try to make these middle grade novels balance between the classic and modern worlds? How do you balance between revealing things to the readers (and characters) and holding things back for maintaining the drive of the series?
JE: The YA and middle-grade science fiction and fantasy books I am most familiar with and love the most are the classics that I read when I was a child, such as the Chronicles of Narnia, the Oz books, and Over Sea, Under Stone. Since I am writing for the younger end of the YA spectrum (although many adults definitely seem to like my Derivatives of Displacement series too), I wanted my books to have the same feel as some of the classics in a way with a slightly more innocent outlook on the part of the main characters and perhaps fewer dark or gritty themes — while still sending the kids on an exciting adventure. While I understand that older teens and some middle-graders are interested in more serious issues and that this is a trend in many new YA books, I wanted to create a series that had more elements of fun, magic and wonder because I think there is a place for that in children’s books, too. But of course, because I wanted my characters to be relatable, I made them modern kids in terms of their lifestyles, interactions with their peers, use of technology, clothing choices and musical preferences.
The balance between revealing things to the readers and characters and holding them back is always a challenging one, and there is no right way to do it. Because I write from the third person limited point of view and Mark and Abbey are my only point of view characters, I only let my readers know what Mark and Abbey know at any point in time so that the reader is going on the adventure with them and the element of mystery is preserved. There is a balance point, though. I do have an overall plan, and I have tried to take my cue from J.K. Rowling on this front, who kept a lot of things up her sleeve until the very end of the Harry Potter series while still providing enough information in each book to keep readers interested. I keep a running list of all of the threads that need to be pulled through in the final books to make sure I account for all, or at least most, of the clues that I have included along the way.
DPH: I happened to enjoy A Quill Ladder even more than A Pair of Docks, and two of the reasons why were the increased presence of Mark and the greater inclusion of geography in the plot. What made you decide to include these elements (beyond your credentials in geography), and how easy was it to come up with Mark’s voice – and the reactions of other characters to his Asperger Syndrome?
JE: Part of the overall series is about Mark’s growth as a person, so it seemed natural to feature him a bit more in A Quill Ladder as he starts to become better friends with the Sinclairs and feel more comfortable expressing himself with them. I also think his take on events and information is very useful in terms of driving the plot forward, as he sees things differently than the others. He doesn’t tend to filter his thoughts with regard to some of the antagonists, whereas Abbey tends to be more polite and assume that because they are adults, she owes them some respect or that they can’t be all that bad. Mark can be more blunt in his commentary and thinking, so I like being able to provide that alternate perspective. The clues and information that had to be revealed in A Quill Ladder just happened to be geographical in nature, so it was fun to be able to draw on my background for that.
I enjoy writing in Mark’s voice, but it is difficult and I try very hard to make sure I am portraying him both accurately and with empathy. When I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which is about a young man with autism, I was startled by the extent to which the voice of the main character matched my own internal dialogue at times, which surprisingly (to me) was not the case for anyone else in my bookclub. When I’m writing Mark, I try to go to that voice in my own head and imagine what it would be like to not be able to read people’s faces or body language, to constantly experience being overwhelmed by external stimuli or changes in schedule, even more extremely than other people — things many of us feel some stress over — or to feel very passionate about something (in Mark’s case maps) to the exclusion of everything else, and to use that passion as a “safe” place to go when stressed. It definitely helps to build my skills as a writer to write in Mark’s voice, but it’s not always easy!
DPH: Much of the action in A Quill Ladder takes place outdoors; when inside, it is often someplace where you wouldn’t expect to find kids today, like the library or exploring in tunnels. The portals of these portal fantasies are even closely linked to landscape. Are all these non-‘preachy’ ways of incorporating your environmental concerns?
JE: That is an interesting observation. If it was, it was certainly subconscious. I love the expansiveness of the natural world and spending time outside (although I spend far too much time in front of my computer), and I think the best adventures happen outside. I live in the mountains and in a very outdoor adventure focused community. So I probably, without even thinking, set all of my novels predominantly outside. If, as a result, I positively influence my readers to spend more time outside and consider environmental concerns, then that is a bonus, but it was not a deliberate plan.
DPH: A Quill Ladder has an expansion of characters from the first novel. Was this expansion more of a benefit to you when you sat down to write, or did it create more difficulties? Are there any ways that you’ve seen your writing improve since your first publication?
JE: There are definitely more characters in A Quill Ladder. I wouldn’t say it caused too many difficulties other than trying to determine where each and every character was and what they were doing when they were off stage, because, of course, they couldn’t be sitting around at home doing nothing. They had to be doing something consistent with their motivations. The reader did not necessarily find out what it was they had been doing, but I had to know. Also: writing scenes in which everyone, or a large number of them, appeared was also challenging, because again, all the characters had to be doing something, otherwise they end up becoming props. But with everyone doing something, you end up with a lot of moving parts that can take away from the narrative, so it was definitely a balancing act. I love ensemble cast novels like Harry Potter, but ensuring that the minor characters are unique and interesting but do not overshadow the main characters takes work.
I think my writing has improved in the sense that I tend to get things more things right the first time now, because I’m more aware of everything that I need to be thinking about as I write, such as showing character through dialogue, using physical reactions to convey emotion, making each character fresh and nuanced, and avoiding purple prose. So I’m not sure if the end product is necessarily better now, but it takes me fewer drafts to get there.
DPH: It is the adult characters in these books that seem less responsible, more selfish. Though they may hold more secrets from the children about what is going on, they seem more inept, and less aware of the dangers the kids have uncovered. Is this kind of ironic reversal something you saw in middle grade books in general, or something you specifically wanted to do?
JE: One of the tenets of YA and middle-grade novels is often that the adults are less involved or absent, allowing the plot and events to be driven by the child or teen characters. There are many ways this can be accomplished. Often protagonists are made to be orphans or are at boarding school. Because I did not want to follow the trope of making them orphans, I decided to make the adults less involved by making them less capable, in the case of some of the adults, or less aware of what the children are doing, the case of the Abbey, Caleb and Simon’s parents. It’s a way of keeping the parents off stage a bit more so the kids play a central role and do not have adults dictating their actions. I also wanted to play with the notion that as we grow older, we are more likely to become indoctrinated, aligned with certain political beliefs or groups, and more likely to have personal agendas related to our political beliefs or just the maintenance of our own positions in society. So adults can have far more of these kinds of things driving their actions than kids do, and therefore can appear more selfish, which is the case in A Quill Ladder. Some of the adults will be playing a more central role moving forward, though.
DPH: How do you come up with the clever titles for the Derivatives of Displacement books and have them integrate meaningfully into the plot?
JE: A combination of sheer luck and playing with words. I can’t even remember where A Pair of Docks came from, but it was the working title of that novel almost from the beginning. Originally, it was just a play on paradox, which is a central theme in that book, but then I decided it would be a great “turn” if I could integrate a real pair of docks. Once I had started down that path with A Pair of Docks, I had to do the same with A Quill Ladder, so I started playing with words to figure out some options, and then kept looking for ways I could integrate one of them into the plot. I was pretty happy with the result. So far, I have gotten lucky — and sure hope to again in book three.
DPH: I read somewhere that you were glad that you decided to go the indie route for publication, with lots of breaks and chances to meet fantastic people. Could you elaborate?
I really like the overall control associated with being an indie author. I like being able to shape and manage the product from start to finish. I love being able to work with my cover designers and editors in more of a peer-to-peer relationship in which my opinions and preferences are integral to the process and we work together with lots of back and forth to get a product that we are both happy with. I am a much better self-editor now because I can say to my editor, “Hey, let’s talk about that comma,” or “What do you think about my paragraphing style,” or, “Can you explain that semi-colon?” And then he takes the time to provide his thoughts and listens to my thoughts. To help my cover designer understand what I am looking for, I have had to study the covers of a wide range of other novels in a wide range of genres so I understand the overall “looks” of various types of covers, and I have had to think more deeply about the themes in my novels. Overall, I think it is more collaborative than the traditional model, which suits my personality, and I am a much better writer as a result of playing a role in every aspect of the process.
I also like having more control over my career, which enables me to engage in more long-term planning. In the traditional world, whether your next novel gets published or not — and when — is not under your control, and if you don’t perform well the first time out of the gates, you might not get a second chance. Being an indie author allows me to feel confident that I can try a number of different things and ramp up my career over time (which I think is a more natural progression for a career) without feeling like a publisher waiting to drop me if I make a single misstep or don’t hit it out of the ballpark my first time up to bat. That is not to say that I wouldn’t go with a traditional publisher if the opportunity arose. I might, and I would be interested to see what the differences in the experience are. I’m sure there would be positives with a traditional publisher, too, but for me, going into it having been an indie writer would be of significant benefit, as I have a better understanding of the industry and the ups and downs of writing life.
In terms of the breaks and fantastic people, I was lucky enough to be invited by one of my editors, David Gatewood, to be part of the Synchronic time travel anthology, which hit #16 in the Amazon Kindle store and has sold well for over a year. Being part of Synchronic introduced me to Nick Cole and Michael Bunker, who are very well known in the indie and the traditional publishing world, and it resulted in me being signed by Wonderment Media to publish in the Apocalypse Weird world. There have been many other great opportunities and fantastic people I have met as well, but those are two of the key ones.
DPH: As an independent, or self-published author, are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up for people?
JE: That there is indie fiction that is just as good as traditionally-published fiction and that they should not be afraid to give it a try. Traditional publishers and agents can only pick a handful of the great manuscripts that cross their desk, and the ones that they pick tend to be the ones that are to their taste or are on trend or that they think will sell well. But they are wrong just as often as they are right in their selections and their perceptions with regard to what readers want, and a lot of great books get missed. A lot of great writers don’t even bother submitting their work anymore because they would rather get on with the task of writing more books than be stuck in the cycle of submission and rejection. Many indie writers are just as serious about their craft and the production quality of their books as traditionally published writers and publishers, and the better indie fiction stands up to traditionally-published fiction.
DPH: Recently, James Patrick Kelly wrote about the difficulty for reviewers and readers in finding indie authors that they’d potentially appreciate amid all the ‘noise’. One thing he speculated was that there could be a group of better-established indie authors that have already read throughout the options out there and could recommend things in a more organized fashion. Does such a beast exist?
JE: Not precisely that I am aware of, but there are emerging forms. For example, I write reviews for Underground Book Reviews with a team of other indie authors. We only review indie books, and the books go through a two-step vetting process before they are even reviewed. So that is one potential avenue. In addition, many of the better indie writers are starting to band together in various types of publishing collectives — such as Wonderment Media, which publishes the Apocalypse Weird books and is a publishing company that was developed by indie authors for indie authors. The Chronicles anthologies [The Future Chronicles], such as The A.I. Chronicles and The Alien Chronicles, is another example of some of the better indie authors in the industry working together to get their work out there in a collective format — and in essence “recommend” each other’s work by putting their brands together.
DPH: When should the next entry into the Derivatives of Displacement be out, and how many do you have planned? Do you have anything else in the works to tell us about?
JE: The next Derivatives of Displacement book should be out by the end of 2015. I have at least four, and possibly five, books planned. Because I have Apocalypse Weird books to write as well, with a sequel to my novel Reversal, entitled Undercurrent, due in September, my production schedule for the Derivatives of Displacement has been pushed back a bit. I also have a new adult novel entitled Confessions of a Failed Environmentalist, which is more of a contemporary romance and humorous look at how we all sometimes fail to live up to our environmental ideals, that will be out late this spring.
Thanks to Jennifer for answering these questions!