Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station! Welcome to the newest installment- The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. Today’s interview is between authors Joelle Renstrom and Terry Persun. I hope you are as inspired as I am by this series. Enjoy the interview!
Sometimes the Magic Works: Challenging the One-Genre Myth by Joelle Renstrom.
About six months ago, something fairly unusual happened to me: I received an email from Terry Persun, someone who had stumbled across my science and science fiction blog. He complimented my work and offered to write a guest post, which he later did. As an emerging writer, I was happy to have a new follower and potential guest blogger. It wasn’t until I visited Persun’s website that I learned he is much more than that.
Persun has published eleven novels, three poetry collections, seven poetry chapbooks, a guidebook on working with independent publishers, and is the founder of Entertainment Engineering magazine, all while owning and operating his own advertising and PR agency. He’s won a heap of accolades, including the Star of Washington Award, POW! Fiction of the Year Award, and a National IPPY Award for Regional Fiction. His novels have been bestsellers on Amazon, and finalists in the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the USABookNews.com Awards. He recently had two novels—one science fiction and one historical fiction—nominated for the 2014 International Book Awards.
Joelle Renstrom: How do you manage to be so prolific? What advice would you give writers like me who would love to churn out that volume of work.
Terry Persun: Write every day. I get up at six every morning and write before work, and I write after work.
Joelle Renstrom: That’s a lot of writing and working. Don’t you save time to play?
Terry Persun: It is play. I’m lucky to be able to do this. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.
Joelle Renstrom: In addition to helping businesses with public relations and marketing, you also crank out a fair bit of science and technical writing on a daily basis. Do you ever find it difficult to balance your work writing with your non-work writing?
Terry Persun: Writing is writing. Good writing and good writers can go anywhere. Writing technical stuff helps me be clear in my fiction; technical details and descriptions enhance my poetry. It’s all the same art.
Joelle Renstrom: It is the same art, but it doesn’t always feel like it. Writing and publishing in multiple genres seems to be a lost art these days. The University of British Columbia, where I went to school for my MFA, actually required us to write in at least three genres per semester. Elsewhere, students apply, take classes, and churn out a thesis in one genre. Although I completed my thesis in fiction, I’m now primarily a nonfiction writer, a jump that would have seemed impossible had I been limited to fiction classes. Still, I often think—and worry—about being a multi-genre writer.
Terry Persun: Authors are like actors, jumping from character to character, subject to subject. Actors resist being typecast because audiences come to believe they can’t play anything else. But authors are urged to embrace genre designations, gimmicks, and labels, which doesn’t make sense when you think about writing as a craft. Early in my career I had an agent in New York who advised me to pick a genre and stick with it. I tried! I worked primarily on science fiction short stories, but some of those stories were just terrible and I felt bored and uninspired, which manifested in my writing. That’s when I realized that a day job is liberating, not restricting—after I’m done with work, I can do whatever I want. Now, I can tackle any genre or subject as long as I’m excited and passionate about it. Each genre has its own appeal—they use different sides of my brain and different skill sets. That’s what makes it fun.
Joelle Renstrom: Excitement and passion sound great, but what about the business side of things? Have other agents and publishers echoed the single-genre advice?
Terry Persun: It’s true that most agents don’t appreciate genre-jumping. The greatest challenge, like the agent warned, is that readers don’t always jump with you. Remember, it’s an agent’s job to steer you into a career and a specific audience that will provide income for both of you. They want to sign authors to three-book deals, but often that just leads to variations of the same book.
Joelle Renstrom: You say that as though there’s something wrong with a three-book deal?
Terry Persun: If you have a story you specifically want to tell in a trilogy, go for it. But to crank out three similar books because the contract or agents says so doesn’t work for me. If I did that, or if I stuck to one genre, I’d get bored and would ultimately produce less work and lower quality work. I don’t want writing to be just another gig.
Joelle Renstrom: One thing I’ve noticed thus far is that you haven’t said the word “platform,” which is one of the first concepts that comes to mind when I think about getting established as a writer. Are you concerned about building a platform? Do you think resisting a genre designation makes that more difficult?
Terry Persun: It’s possible that a more targeted approach would be more conducive to platform-building—that’s what the industry would have us believe, anyway. But I have a problem with the word’s association with social media. I don’t think social media is the best way to build an audience. It was a game-changer in the beginning, when fewer people used it. Now Twitter and Facebook are too popular to be very effective—realistically, who among my followers is going to buy a book because I Tweeted about it? Who is even going to see that Tweet? The people who actually know me will have already bought the book. Careers in writing are still built on word of mouth.
Joelle Renstrom: Social media is such a double-edged sword! I’ve heard writers say that instead of writing for 8 hours a day, they write for 6 and devote 2 to promoting via social media. It seems both crazy and inevitable. What’s your relationship with social media?
Terry Persun: I try to leverage social media just like everyone else. I go on Twitter and Facebook during work breaks. They might not build a magical platform for me, but exposure and visibility is always helpful. And you never know when you’ll get lucky and something you post goes viral, but you can’t count on that happening.
Joelle Renstrom: You also serve as the agents and editors’ liaison for the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference, which puts you in contact with the industry’s decision makers. What insights have you gained?
Terry Persun: As much as agents and editors want to find the next best-seller, they love books and working with writers. They will do everything they can to boost writing careers and they try to be loyal, honest, and giving. Agents and editors have gotten an unfair reputation. What we need to keep in mind is that they get thousands upon thousands of query letters a year, so any brusqueness on their part is an indication of how busy they are, not how much (or little) they care.
Joelle Renstrom: I find that insight comforting, although I still picture a literary Goliath sitting behind a desk, chortling over my pitches before deleting them or setting them on fire. Still, I struggle to reconcile his kind words about agents with your refusal to adhere to what they want.
Terry Persun: My resistance to being pigeon-holed into one genre has cost me some agents over the years. Still, I believe agents have an important place in the world of publishing, but I don’t think they’re always necessary these days. I have two agents at the moment who will read whatever I write hoping I produce something highly sellable, but these days I rarely send work their way. I’d love to have an agent, or several, for different genres, and get my work out to more New York publishers and explore secondary, television, movie, and/or foreign rights, but I work particularly well with small publishers and my work is not overwhelmingly commercial, so I’m not holding my breath.
Joelle Renstrom: You’ve written a how-to book for working with small presses and independent publishers. What do small and independent presses offer that bigger ones don’t?
Terry Persun: Small presses will read and publish unusual work that’s difficult to peg. They don’t mind as much that there’s no clear market to plug me into. Small publishers take more risks—they often allow authors to have input on cover designs and are open to new ideas for marketing and publicity. Because they work with fewer authors, they spend more time on each. I often feel that we’re in this together. For example, I started a series called Doublesight, for which both Booktrope and I are seeking other writers. In a nutshell, Doublesight is a fantasy series about shapeshifters.
Joelle Renstrom: Nice! They’re not commonplace (or overdone) as vampires or zombies, but thanks to True Blood you’ve got a great market for that. How has that series involved, especially in terms of it being a project that you and Booktrope have undertaken together?
Terry Persun: Doublesight engages concepts readers might find unfamiliar, but being able to shift mentally or inhabit a different frame of mind or character is crucial for writers. I wrote the first Doublesight book and want the series to help other writers get published and to provide them with an established readership. I want Doublesight writers to generate their own stories, use their own names, and show off.
Joelle Renstrom: It doesn’t surprise me that you would strive to facilitate the growth of other writers, especially after your generosity in contacting me and writing a guest post for my blog. What other writers have facilitated your growth, either via personal contact or inspiration?
Terry Persun: When it comes to writing in multiple genres, most science fiction writers write in their specific fields, like physics, mathematics, or astronomy. But in terms of writers who publish more commercial work in multiple genres, Isaac Asimov and Joyce Carol Oates do the kind of genre-jumping I really admire. Of all the writers I look up to, though, Ray Bradbury is one of the best and most versatile.
Joelle Renstrom: You had me at Ray Bradbury, who happens to be my hero. His book Zen in the Art of Writing is the best book on creativity I’ve ever read. Your zest for what you do reminds me of Bradbury—your love of words is evident in everything you say and do. Speaking of your love of words, what’s next for you?
Terry Persun: I just recently finished a sci-fi thriller series of novellettes. I put them online individually, but five of them equal one novel basically. I wanted to try a serial novel, and I like how it turned out. At the moment I’m working on a few short stories and some poems, but plan to be back to another novel in a month or so. This is the season when I’m at a few writers’ conferences, so I wanted to work on things that didn’t take up so much head space.
Joelle teaches writing and research with a focus on science and technology at Boston University. She maintains a blog, www.couldthishappen.com, about the relationship between science and science fiction, for which she received a 2012 Somerville Arts Council Fellowship Grant and a 2013 Nonfiction Fellowship from the Writers’ Room of Boston. She’s a staff writer for Giant Freakin Robot, and her work has appeared in Slate, Guernica, Carousel, Briarpatch, Sycamore Review, and others. Her life goal is to keep the number of countries she’s visited higher than her age.
Terry Persun is an award winning, bestselling writer. He writes fiction in many genres, and has won numerous awards including two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Finalist Awards, two POW Book of the Year Awards, a Star of Washington Award, and an Independent Publishers’ Silver IPPY Award. He has worked as an engineer, an electronics technician, and an airborne navigation specialist. Using his extensive technical knowledge, Terry writes and publishes articles about the latest technologies.
Jennifer Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. She has been featured on Good Morning America, NY Magazine, Oprah.com. Her writing has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, and more. Jen leads her signature Manifestation Retreats & Workshops all over the world. The next retreat is to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day/New Years. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 31-Feb 1 in Ojai. Email retreats at jenniferpastiloff dot come for info. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Seattle, Atlanta, South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Miami, Tucson & The Berkshires (guest speaker Canyon Ranch.) She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff.