Don’t Call It A Comeback

It’s Saturday night.

I’m typing this on my Macbook in my lcoal Starbucks which, as cliched as it is, has become one of my new haunts to get my writing on. The atmosphere is conducive to being creative. It also helps when a cute black girl sitting at another table smiles at me. And for that matter, a really hot blond. I swear, even if I wasn’t Denny, I’d wish I was. It’s been a crazy year, I knew releasing and promoting a book would be a tailspin, I’m still learning how much so.

Taking a break from editing my next novel, I thought I’d take the time to answer some questions from some loyal readers about Hollowstone, getting published, and being a writer. I’ll be sharing some tidbits as to how Hollowstone became a reality, some secrets about the characters, and how I did the impossible: publish a book.

If you haven’t read the book yet (AND WHY HAVEN’T YOU? IT’S LIKE THE GREATEST STORY EVER!!!!!), I’ll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

Some of the answers may surprise you. Many of the responses will be insightful. In any event, I’ll try to keep it entertaining.

Well okay then.

1) HAS THE READER REACTION TO ANY OF THE CHARACTERS SURPRISED YOU?

Neely’s popularity has been a huge and pleasant surprise. It’s awesome because she’s one of my favorite characters. She’s beautiful, she’s strong, she’s quirky, bright, full of life but I wouldn’t have guessed that she would’ve gotten over with readers in the manner she has. Cal and Prof. Nolan, I expected and true to form, they are two of the most asked about characters but Neely is right up there with them. One reader made an excellent point, it’s rare that you have a bisexual character who a) is portrayed positively and with respect b) is one of the main characters c) kicks ass.

And while the dearth of ass-kicking bisexual and other queer characters is both tragic and unacceptable, I’m glad Neely has served as those things to so many readers and it was an honor to tell her story.

2) WAS IT DIFFICULT GETTING A NOVEL PUBLISHED WITH LGBTQ CHARACTERS?

Yeah it shut many doors having both queer and POC characters as the main protagonists and discussing their marginalizations in an unapologetic manner but I have no regrets and I stand by my decision. That’s all the more reason why I’ll always be eternally grateful to Parker Publishing. It was simply a non-issue. They were excited about the novel, all facets of it and there was never a discussion about straightening or whitewashing.

What I also find interesting is that blacks and POCs are often falsely accused of being exclusively homophobic unlike white society. Yet while many (read: white) publishers and agents are rejecting queer stories left and right, my black editor and my publishing company (whose main target demographic is women of color) welcomed my story with queer characters with the widest open arms.

So as far as that nonsense about POCs being more homophobic than whites, MYTH BUSTED!!!!!

3) WILL THERE BE A SEQUEL FOR HOLLOWSTONE?

You know, I toyed with the idea of a sequel and even a trilogy but I didn’t feel as strongly about continuing the story. As a writer, you always want to go out on a high note, I believe that Hollowstone does that. The story concluded in a unique manner and I provided sufficient closure to all of the players. To continue the story that I don’t feel as strongly about, I feel I’d be doing a disservice to Hollowstone.

All of that said, if a story does manifest where I can continue the saga in a brilliant manner, I would definitely be open to it.

And all of that said, don’t be surprised if a Hollowstone alumn makes a cameo in a future story.

4) WHICH CHARACTERS DO YOU PERSONALLY RELATE TO THE MOST?

Cassidy, hands down. Ryan and a bit of Neely.

5) WERE THERE ANY TOPICS/THEMES THAT WERE DIFFICULT TO TACKLE?

Um……..YEAH?!!!!!! I’ve consistently received comments from readers saying how difficult some of the subject matter and themes were to read. Understandably so. Hollowstone is a dark story, just like any self-respecting noir. But if you think it was difficult to read said themes and subject matter, imagine how it tough it was for me to write it. More than once, Hollowstone about drove me to drink.

More than that, many of the issues are based on real life situations so there’s also the added responsibility of tackling these issues honestly, correctly and with respect.

Which is why when I finished Hollowstone, my edict for my next novel was that it was going to be sweet and sugary and full of puppies and warm happy non-depressing goodness.

6) HOLLOWSTONE INCORPORATED A MULTITUDE OF ELEMENTS FROM VARIOUS GENRES. DO YOU THINK IT HELPED OR HARMED SELLING THE NOVEL?

Probably both. It’s definitely not a cookie cutter novel and while that probably shut some doors, I’m also proud of that as well. Hollowstone is its own novel and it’s not trying to follow or fad, it stays true to itself. It incorporates, noir, paranormal, southern Gothic, etc because it was genuine to the story, not because it was trying to fit a mold. And obviously it’s uniqueness isn’t doing too much harm, the book found a publisher and is doing really well.

7) IF HOLLOWSTONE WAS ADAPTED INTO A MOVIE, WHO WOULD YOU WANT TO DIRECT IT?

Joss Whedon or Bryan Singer. Hands down.

8 ) HAS THERE BEEN ANY SURPRISE AUDIENCE REACTIONS?

One thing that’s been interesting is reading the responses and the reactions of white and black readers. I’m just talking Americans here. Two groups, same book and based on the feedback and the reactions, you would think they were reading two completely different books. It amazes me how blacks picked up on many of the nuances, complexities of the characters (specifically with the POC and queer characters) which it seems many white readers missed altogether. A white buddy of mine made a valid point that for many white readers, they read novels and often tend to focus on people who look like them.  So when a considerable amount of time is focused on characters who qualify as the Other, they miss a lot of stuff altogether. As opposed to POCs who are accustomed to reading about white characters and white culture, so I think for many of them they were happy to see POC, queer and other marginalized characters given the spotlight for a change.

Also too, I’ve noticed that the mere concept of Noah, and for that matter Cassidy, has thoroughly skull-fucked so many white readers. Yes in the paranormal novel with ghosts, psychics and other supernatural elements, a mild-mannered straight-A black kid who plays the violin is some mythical creature and just too far fetched.

I don’t think people realize Noah and Cassidy aren’t exceptions to the rule. They are the standard in our culture. As blacks, we know how society perceives us, ignorant subhuman savages. We understand that we have to work twice as hard and be smarter, stronger, faster, superior, to garner a fraction of what we deserve. So no, Noah and Cassidy aren’t mythical unicorns or Mary Sues, like most black people, they’re just that damn good.

9) ANYTHING YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF WHILE WRITING HOLLOWSTONE?

For my stories, I’ve come to realize that strong powerful women are a must. That’s one of the things I love about noir is that it’s one of the few genres where the women are usually the dominant force in the stories. And not just the femme fatales but the “good girls” who also usually are pretty badass in their own right.

My editor and I were discussing how many powerful women are in Hollowstone. Neely obviously comes to mind but also Phyllis, Cassidy and Ruby. Even Abby later comes into her own.

I think one of my favorite scenes is when Noah has to go “rescue the girl.” And like an idiot, he walks into a trap and the girl has to save him.

10) ANY SECRETS OR TIDBITS OR CONFESSIONS?

Hmmm. Let me think.

Let me think, let me think. Oh I know. Noah began to get on my nerves while I wrote the novel. Noah was tricky because not only is he the eyes and the ears of the audience but he often serves as the story’s moral compass. More than once he began to get borderline sanctimonious (oh who am I kidding, he was beyond the border) and I knew it was time to take him down a few pegs. I also knew I was going to bring Cassidy into the fold and explore her character so that’s how that scene with the two of them at Wong’s Bookstore and the dance came about.

It also worked out because that became a theme for Noah. He continued to learn that not everything was black and white and clear cut. People are flawed, people have their hands forced and people are lost. What’s interesting when he finally learned that, even with his most bitter foe, he finally had the strength to solve the mystery and stop the story’s Big Bad.

11) I KNOW IT WAS IMPLIED, BUT PLEASE TELL ME RYAN GETS A HAPPY ENDING.

Ryan was a difficult character to write for many reasons. I didn’t want him to be dismissed as the gay tragedy trope, but in an age where gay students are being physically assaulted by teachers and students and are committing suicide, I knew his story was one worth telling. And one that needed to be told. Most people dismissed Ryan as the gay kid and I thought it was important when Noah shared Ryan’s past and explained everything he survived and just how truly gifted this young man was.

What’s tragic is that it took Ryan going to the level he did, to get any semblance of justice. It’s like he said in one scene about Eli having a good heart and we see where that got him. Ryan had to take extreme measures before anyone finally paid attention.

While Eli represented the gay story for countless teens, Ryan represented both the gay story and bullied kid who are often terrorized in school, I also felt it was important to show why people who are pushed too far will take their power back by any means necessary.

I believe Ryan gets the healing he needs to come to terms with his past and to move forward with his life. And I think one day he even gets lucky and finds someone else.

12) WHAT IS THE MOST BIZARRE FEEDBACK YOU’VE RECEIVED?

Oh let’s see. I had a couple of people claim that I didn’t know anything about the South because they lived in Eastern Tennessee for a few years and it was totally inconceivable that a prestigious school like Hollowstone could exist in a small southern town.

First of all, ignoring the fact that the town of Newton, TN is totally fictional, I proceeded to point out the real life schools and universities and other real locations which inspired the setting for Hollowstone.

I was then told by others that southerners don’t blatantly fly Confederate flags as depicted in the novel. I instructed them to go through Nashville on I-65 and en route to  100 Oaks Mall, they’ll pass a private school (whose mascot is the rebels) have a row of Confederate flags raised proudly.

There was another comment where this woman wrote this tirade about this corrupt official in the novel she went on about how I was being sexist because I was trying to convey that women in power can’t handle the responsibility and could easily be bought off and I’m such an ahparessive misogynist for showing that women in power are corrupt like this official. Interesting theory, only there was one problem. The corrupt official the woman was referencing WAS A MAN! He was repeatedly identified as A MAN! You can file that under why reading is fundamental.

Perhaps my favorite commentary came from another woman, a self-professed feminist and champion of LGBT rights who stated (and I shite thee not) that Neely failed as a bisexual character because she dates a guy in the novel. Yeah, I made that same WTF?!!! face that you’re making right now.

I would’ve dismissed these clowns as trolls but I honestly don’t think of them are that clever.

13)  NOLAN, DUDE WHAT THE HELL IS HIS STORY?

Nolan was primarily inspired by a mentor of mine from art school. My art professor, to sum him up is either the offspring of Miranda Priestly and Severus Snape or the lovechild of Montgomery Burns and Edna Mode.

My professor is an incredible man and I definitely wanted to pay homage to him with Nolan.

14) YOU MENTIONED THE PARALLELS BETWEEEN HOLLOWSTONE AND THE GREAT GATSBY. I GUESSED A FEW, COULD YOU LIST SOME OF THE OTHERS. 

Let’s see if I can remember all of the nods to Gatsby:

The first half of the book was practically a modern retelling for all intents and purposes.

Character wise: Cal-Jay Gatsby, Noah-Nick Carraway, Abigail-Daisy, Chris-Tom Buchanan, Brianna-Jordan Baker.

Actually Goddard’s name was another nod as it was the name of the author of the book The Rise of The Colored Empire that Tom ranted about in Gatsby.

At the rave where the two girls tell Noah and Brianna about Cal replacing the ripped dress, that was another nod.

The funeral scene was another nod.

And when we introduce Neely, she meets Noah while he’s reading the Great Gatsby in the cafeteria.

I already know I forgot a few.

15) THERE WAS DEFINITELY A ROMANTIC SPARK BETWEEN NOAH AND ABBY. IF CAL HADN’T BEEN IN THE PICTURE, WOULD THOSE TWO HAVE PAIRED UP?

I think if circumstances had been different and if Cal hadn’t been in the picture, I think Noah and Abby could’ve possibly have been an item. It’s interesting because the two characters are very similar in a lot of respects: they’re both spiritual, gentle and compassionate and they were both guiding and positive influences for Cal. Would they have been the One True Pairing, I doubt it.

I think it’s possible the two would’ve dated, the relationship would run its course and the two would’ve moved on. Or maybe they would’ve gotten married. I guess we’ll never know.

16)  WHICH CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON REAL LIFE PEOPLE YOU’VE KNOWN?

Ruby Scott was inspired by my grandmother, Nanna.

Cal was actually based on a few buddies from Atlanta. All of them are charming, charismatic lovable reprobates who kept getting us into all kinds of mischief and all kinds of fun.

Noah was based on three buddies from high school. One of them is a very gifted musician.

Mrs. Blake who had a brief role was based on my senior high school writing mentor.

Randy Tyler was actually based on a sophomore high school teacher and well as my martial arts sensei and Janette was inspired by my sensei’s wife.

Vaughn was inspired by my high school classmate and buddy Angus. Yes Angus, if you’re reading, you inspired one of my favorite characters and thank you.

Nolan was based on my art professor.

17) HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ABOUT FANFIC OF HOLLOWSTONE?

Um…..awkward?

18) WHAT ABOUT SLASH? 

I know who sent me these two questions. Oh you are funny. Re: slash, might as well! Everyone kept expecting Noah to come out of the closet and/or sleep with Cal. I can’t tell you how many times I had that discussion. I swear you would’ve thought Hollowstone was the story about the two gay guys on the mountain…..you know, Lord of the Rings.

19) YOU GAVE MILLER A LOT MORE DEPTH THAN EXPECTED. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON HIM?

Miller, for all intents and purposes, was a darker version of Cal and I think that’s why there was so much animosity between the two characters because they saw a lot of themselves in the other. They both had similar origins and I think Cal could’ve become a Miller if people like Abby and Noah weren’t in his life. I’ve mentioned before that part of the special bond between Noah and Cal is that the two learned from each other. Noah was Cal’s moral compass, his north star that kept him true and honest. He taught Cal compassion and the real meaning of family and friendship. I think from Cal, Noah learned about strength. He grew stronger and he discovered strength he always possessed. I think the same can be said for Abby and Cal as well.

20) AS A BLACK PERSON, HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE SEGREGATION BETWEEN WHITE AND POC IN REGARDS TO YA GENRE? ALSO, DO YOU THINK THAT BLACK AUDIENCES ARE RESTRICTING THEMSELVES TO READING ONLY ONE GENRE? AND DO YOU THINK THAT MAINSTREAM WILL STOP BLEACHING CHARACTERS?

I don’t think black audiences are restricting themselves at all. I think the fact is the publishing industry has made it adamantly clear for the most part that they have no interest in diversity. Even though the POC markets are virtually untapped and have huge buying power that could help the industry which is frankly dying, they refuse to do so. And this goes for mainstream (read: white) media in general.

I think blacks and other POCs need to start getting more proactive in setting up our own publishing houses, our own media and producing our own work, for us, by us. Don’t get me wrong there are a few of us who are doing it, but we definitely need to step it up.

We have the buying power and the resources. It can be done. I for one can’t wait to see it.

21) HOW MUCH DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE CHANGED BETWEEN THE TIME YOU DECIDED TO WRITE A NOVEL AND FINALLY SEEING IT PUBLISHED? HOW MUCH OF A LONG ROAD WAS IT? AND HOW MUCH DID THE EXPERIENCE AFFECT YOU? CAN YOU TELL A LITTLE ABOUT THE PROCESS OF HOW THE IDEA TOOK SHAPE IN YOUR MIND?

Fighting for a project you believe in when the rest of the world is telling you no, you quickly learn what you’re made of.  You do get support when the book is published, but while you’re writing and submitting, it takes a lot to finish the novel, edit, polish it, and submit it to publishers and agents with doubt and insecurity being a constant companion. Years can pass and rejections will pile on. And seeing as the publishing of this novel kept me from going into the Air Force, I’m pretty certain this was Fate’s way of telling me what my purpose is. I’m a storyteller, that’s what I am.

22)   HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT FINDING A GOOD PUBLISHER? I’M LOOKING TO PUBLISH A SUPERHERO BOOK, AND YET IT SEEMS AS THOUGH ALL THE SCI-FI PUBLISHERS ARE HARDCORE SCI-FI AND WON’T ACCEPT SUPERHEROES. I CAN’T IMAGINE WHAT YOU WENT THROUGH TO GET AN  URBAN FANTASY NOVEL RELEASED. IS IT BETTER TO JUST GO WITH A COMPANY THAT RELEASES ALL KINDS OF BOOKS OR GENRE SPECIFIC? AND…UMM….RECOMMENDATIONS?

When it came to researching and tracking down publishers and agents, I basically went into Sherlock Holmes/Veronica Mars mode.I purchased the Writer’s Market guide, researched markets and agents that I thought would be a great fit for Hollowstone and submitted to them. I would say don’t dismiss or discount smaller indie publishers. In the age of the internet, they can definitely make an impact.

23)  ADVICE FOR SUCCESSFUL WRITING, PLEASE! LIKE WHAT ARE THE TRAPS TO AVOID.

These two posts have some excellent steps to getting published imho.

http://dennisupkins.com/2011/07/19/my-20-steps-to-getting-published/

http://dennisupkins.com/2011/08/29/joss-whedons-top-10-writing-tips/

24)  WHEN WILL WE SEE YOUR NEXT STORY?

STOP PRESSURING ME! I CAN’T TAKE THIS PRESSURE! Actually I just finished Draft Zero of Empyrea and I’m about to go through the second round of revisions. After that I plan to start shopping the novel around.

Promoting Hollowstone has cut into editing time but I’m excited to get Empyrea done and get the novel out there as well.

25) AS A WRITER, WHAT WERE YOUR VICTORIES WITH THIS NOVEL?

As a writer, there are certain things that inform me when I’ve done my job. And the following has been a general consensus:

1) When someone says the couldn’t put the book down or they finished it in 2 days. That in itself informs me that I did my job as a storyteller. Because if I’ve hooked a reader from start to finish and keep them wanting to read, then I’ve done my job.

2) Positive portrays of black and queer characters.

3) Tackling some heavy social issues and reflecting the injustices many of us must endure.

4) People wanting to kill me because the surprise twists. When I’m tricking other writers and being told that was well-executed, I feel pretty accomplished. Now I understand why Joss Whedon enjoys it.

5) Finding out that people enjoyed my novel. That’s probably the biggest joy and that makes me want to work harder and step my game up for my next story.

26) WHO ARE YOUR LITERARY/WRITING INFLUENCES?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle immediately comes to mind. F. Scott Fitzgerald for obvious reasons, LOL! I’m a huge JK Rowling fan as well as fans of the late Dwayne McDuffie. Probably one of my biggest writing influences would be Joss Whedon who I believe has been a game changer as far as speculative media goes.

27) WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS?

Usually I’ll get a concept or an idea and I’ll brainstorm it for a bit, let the idea develop. It might range from a day to a couple of months, depends on the project. From there I begin jotting down notes of things I want to include. Then I compile an outline. And then do a very rough draft. Then I commence with the revisions/edits. And once I think it’s polished, I begin shopping around

28) TEAM CAL OR TEAM NOAH? WHERE DO YOU FALL?

Hmmmm. I don’t know. See for Cal, there are only two kind of women in the world. Abby and everyone else. And as someone pointed Noah got more than his share of play as well. Maybe because he knows how to work the Altar Boy angle.

Team Cal or Team Noah? I don’t know.

Cal is the guy you have the epic one night stand with that you’ll remember and cherish for the rest of your life.

Noah is the one you marry and settle down with. He’s that prince charming who’s stalwart and true.

The bad boy or the good boy. Convincing arguments could be made for either. What say the rest of you? Pick your poison.

29) HAVE YOU RE-READ HOLLOWSTONE SINCE IT’S BEEN RELEASED?

I’ve read it once. But truth be told, I’ve been busy working on other projects. I may read it in a year and see how I feel about the novel then.

30) WITH HOLLOWSTONE PUBLISHED, DO YOU HAVE ANY FINAL THOUGHTS ON THAT WORLD?

I think it was a story that needed to be told. It’s a story that I’m honored and humbled to share. I’m glad to finally share this world with other people, as this story has been in my head for the longest time. With the novel published, I finally have a sense of closure and I can move on to the next adventure.
But when it’s all said and done, I published a pretty cool book. And for that I’m thankful and proud.
I feel good. Golden even.
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