This week in the author interview series we meet Daniel Arenson. Like many writers out there, he’s made that quantum jump to published novelist, but only very recently. With a number of poems and short fiction sales, his first novel Firefly Island has been released in library edition hardcover by Five Star Publishing. One of the things that I find most interesting about this interview series is how certain elements are held in common by all the authors, while at the same time varying in numerous ways. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what those are, but suffice it to say that writers are our own breed, but we come in a lot of shapes and colors. Perhaps this is precisely what I’m trying to get to the root of.
TH: Can you tell me a little bit about your writing career? Credits, general work, accomplishments, etc.
DA: I sold my first short story ten years ago, when I was eighteen years old. It was to an ezine called Exodus. They paid me $30. This is a huge moment when you’re eighteen. I’ve been occasionally selling stories and poems since. You can read most of them for free on my website, www.DanielArenson.com. Around the same time I sold that first story, I started to write my fantasy novel FIREFLY ISLAND. It took a few years to write, a few years to revise and sell, a year to see print. It was ten years from initial concept to publication. Moving from stories and poems to novels is a big change. When you write and sell a story, it’s done. Novels live on; you keep promoting and breathing them, trying to keep them in print for as long as possible. Luckily FIREFLY ISLAND is still out there doing its thing.
TH: What is The Story of Daniel? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick?
DA: Vonnegut jokingly claimed that HOCUS POCUS was written on napkins, candy wrappers, business cards, and the like, all bundled up and numbered. I think the Story of Daniel would be something like that, a bunch of anecdotes and tidbits of life in a bundle.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
DA: I still don’t know that I want to be a writer. Writing is hard. Novelists in particular work endless hours and get paid next to nothing. Few people, I think, want to be writers; writing is more of a compulsion. Novelists ultimately have a need to create something that can live independently of them, maybe even outlive them. Before I wrote, I painted. Painting and writing are just different ways of telling stories. But my name looks bigger on a book cover than my signature on a painting.
TH: How do you find that the creative process compares between writing and painting?
DA: In the past couple of years, I’ve been attempting abstract watercolours, which involve a lot of discovery throughout the process. I sometimes start with an idea, play around with it, see where it goes, and often develop new ideas along the way. Paintings are similar to poems, in that sense. Raw images and emotions, a glimpse that hints at a story beneath a surface. When it comes to novels, that’s less like an abstract painting, and more like a detailed portrait. When you paint something realistic and detailed, you’ll probably work with layers. You’ll start with a sketch, fill in some basic colours, paint a background, add more details, and keep adding layers across the canvas, gradually bringing it to life. With a novel, things are similar. I also start with a sketch–an outline. I then quickly hammer out a rough draft and go over it multiple times, with each “layer” adding more detail and polish.
TH: Do you have a stack of crap-writing stuck away somewhere? I’m talking about stuff that helped you learn and develop your craft, like the five novels he or she had to write before they could get to the good one. Describe yours.
DA: When I was fourteen, I started to write a story about castles. It was the first or second story I ever attempted. I kept typing, and it grew and grew, and soon hit five hundred pages. At that point, I was still introducing the characters and storyline, and ran out of steam. Seriously, it was horrible. An unintentional comedy. I think my grandmother had a copy buried in her basement at some point, but I’m hoping it got lost when she moved. I really do. I write better now. Honestly.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have a bestseller or make some sort of artistic or literary impact, but do you have an immediate close-range goal? Is there some accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
DA: I’d like to have a novel published in paperback in the near future. FIREFLY ISLAND is currently available in hardcover. It’s a beautiful hardcover, nicely printed, nice cover art. It looks great on a bookshelf. If and when I can get a book out in paperback, that’ll be a new world; a book to take to the beach or cottage. I don’t have any crazy goals like to outsell Harry Potter, as nice as that would be. I’m taking baby steps. I have my first novel out and it’s been selling. Next step is moving to paperback. After that, I’m hoping to just keep writing and selling books. I have a million ideas and I’d like to keep writing so long as people keep reading.
TH: What are some of the things that most inspire you?
DA: Music, for emotion. History, for plots. Nature, for descriptions. Hot wings and cold beer on a summer patio, just because they’re good.
TH: I also plumb the history books for story ideas for my novels. Is there a particular era or place’s history that most attracts you?
DA: There’s some 1812 in FIREFLY ISLAND. When the main character leads a campaign of scorched earth across her kingdom, that was inspired by the Russians burning their countryside as the French invaded. I was born in Israel, so I’m also interested in the history of the ancient Middle East. When you live in Israel, you can drive around and see — within an hour — Crusader forts from around 1000 AD, Roman aqueducts from the year 0, and biblical ruins from 1000 BC. WW2 is another interesting era. My grandfather fought in the war and told me stories about the time. While not everything here made it into FIREFLY ISLAND (or other stories I’ve written), it’s given me an understanding of how history works, which is key if you’re writing epic fantasy about wars and nations.
TH: What kind of music do you typically listen to when you’re writing? Do you use music to guide you into a mood or make the music follow you?
DA: When I’m writing at home, I tend to turn on the classic rock radio station. I usually write the first draft at the coffee shop in a notebook. I don’t bring an MP3 player, so I let the ambiance serve as my music. It works.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work?
DA: With FIREFLY ISLAND, the best promotion was getting reviews in big places. Reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal probably sold more copies than anything else. I also promote my book on my website, www.DanielArenson.com. I make sure that my website, though, has lots of content beyond just FIREFLY ISLAND stuff. I want to give people a reason to visit and learn something, not just see ads for my book. The most popular section on my website is where I give writing tips to new writers.
TH: Do you have some promotional ideas or avenues in mind that you haven’t tried yet?
DA: When FIREFLY ISLAND was published, I printed thousands of promotional bookmarks. I still have a bunch. I keep having to think of creative ways to distribute them. Maybe I’ll rent a plane, drop a bunch from the sky, and hope that the wind doesn’t blow them all into a lake.
TH: What was your biggest personal hurdle in making the jump from unpublished writer to published author? How did you overcome it?
DA: The big challenge remains the same, ten years since I sold my first story: the crazy competition. Editors are flooded with towers of manuscripts every day. They can buy only a small fraction of a percent of these manuscripts. Granted, it gets a _bit_ easier once you have some credits, but not by much. You just have to keep at it: keep writing, keep improving, and keep submitting those manuscripts.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Have you reached that point? How do you handle the financial side of writing?
DA: There’s that side to it, but creative writing is not strictly a business. When you treat something as a business, you’re doing it first and foremost for the money. I don’t see creative writing that way. Technical writing (which I’ve done), maybe. With fiction, things are different.
I don’t write fiction for financial reward. When you calculate how many hours it takes to write a novel, and look at an average advance a novelist earns, that works out to be far less than minimum wage — more like a quarter an hour. There’s only a handful of novelists who earn substantial amounts of money from their books. The rest support themselves with other methods. They teach on the side, or write non-fiction, or work in an office during the day.
Writing is more like a hobby (or addiction?), even if you’re successful and earning some money from it. Most novelists who write full time have a family member support them, or a sizeable inheritance, or they live on a farm and grow their own vegetables. There are those select few who make a living from writing novels, but then, there are also a select few people who win the lottery.
Of course, we also live in a world where rent, mortgage, and bills ask for money every month. When you’re a novelist, you never know when the next check is coming, or what size it would be. I treat writing and work as separate entities. While it’s a business in some ways, creative writing is first and foremost an art.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
DA: I’m working on a new fantasy novel. It’ll be a while before you see it. In the meantime, I have a new short story coming out in an anthology soon. The story is called “Return to Ravenworld”, and it’s a dark fantasy. I don’t have the date for when the anthology is being released, but I’ll post a notice on DanielArenson.com once I know.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your writing life?
DA: Other than this interview? 😉 The best moments are when readers email me to say they like my book. When critics like your book, that’s nice, but they were paid to read it. When a family member or friend likes the book, that’s also nice, but they _have_ to like it. When a complete stranger takes the time to read my book and email me about it, that’s when I feel that I’ve done a good job.
TH: Is there anything else you would like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?
DA: Buy FIREFLY ISLAND. Seriously, go now and buy it. Okay, you don’t have to. But if you’re curious about the book, you can read the first chapter at www.DanielArenson.com.