An Interview with R.T. Kaelin, Editor of “Triumph Over Tragedy”

R.T Kaelin is the author of the The Children of the White Lions series as well as the editor of the anthology Triumph Over Tragedy: an anthology for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. He kindly sat down for an interview with Paul Weimer.


Paul Weimer: Who is R.T. Kaelin?

R.T Kaelin: Well, first and foremost, my full name Ryan Thomas Kaelin who is, most importantly, a husband and father. He’s also a Reds and Bengals fan (guess where I grew up?) who likes to cook and ride his Harley-Davidson Superglide.

But, I get the feeling that’s not what you’re asking.

R.T. Kaelin is a guy with an exceedingly active imagination who, three years ago, discovered that his passion in life was to share with the world the stories bouncing around in his head. The route I have taken to achieve that goal has been different than most authors, but is not as uncommon as one might think.

I wrote my first novel, Progeny, over the course of a year and self-published it in December 2010. This decision was a conscious one after I realized the 300k word behemoth I wrote was too massive for most agents to risk taking a chance on. In the ensuing year, two very important things happened. First, I started to develop a readership, and second, I rewrote the book, cutting over 50k words. Turns out, I had written a good story, but not a good book.

Progeny has been floating around Amazon’s top 20 top-rated fantasies for the last year. Its sequel, Prophecy, came out in September 2012. The success I’ve had on my own to this point has led me to being on the verge of signing with an agent. We hope to bring Progeny and rest of the series to a bookstore near you.

PW: Not being one of those people who always knew they wanted to write, what drew you to try writing genre fiction?

RTK: Surely, you’ve heard the phrase “Write what you know?”

Well, when I was younger, I read a lot. I didn’t discriminate between genres, reading fantasy, sci-fi, and general fiction, too. Favorite authors? Tolkien, of course. T.H. White. Asimov. When I was in high school, I read Magician: Apprentice by Raymond Feist and really enjoyed it.

As time passed—I went to college, graduated, got a job, got married, had kids—my free time evaporated and I stopped reading. A few years back, my family and I were going on vacation, and I went to the book store to get something to read for the trip. I stumbled over Magician by Feist, remembered liking it, and bought it. I breezed through it (and the other three books of the series, again), and then discovered that Feist had written numerous more books set in the world of Midkemia. I made time in my life to read again (farewell, television) and read them all, after which I moved onto some other authors I had never read before. Some I liked, some I did not.

After three bad books in a row—predictable plots, stereotypical characters—I commented to myself that “I could do better than that.” I challenged myself to try, and here we go. It’s been a learning experience, I’ve made a lot of mistakes (if anyone finds a first edition of Progeny, you’ll see them all), but I wouldn’t be where I am now without them.

PW: Feist does seem to be a gateway drug for a fair number of readers and writers into fantasy. What did you take away from his work that you can and have applied to your own novels?

RTK: Magician is the classic fantasy tale: unassuming individual in an unenviable position overcoming the odds, numerous challenges, and personal flaws to grow into an important, influential character in his/her environment while most likely saving the world in the process.

There is no shortage of books like this, but Magician just does it better than most. You can’t help but root for Pug, lowly orphaned kitchen boy, as he becomes Milamber, the greatest and most powerful magician of two worlds.

The thing that always impressed me with Feist’s work was the depth behind the main story. Some books focus so much on the main plot and characters, that the background feels generic or just plain blah. Feist’s world, Midkemia, seemed like a real place to me. The people, the cultures, the history, the mores…it all combined to round out a place that felt whole, complete. The characters belonged to the world, rather than seeming like they were just passing through it.

I try to bring that to what I wrote. For The Children of the White Lions series, I spent a lot of time—months, actually—working on the world before delving too much into the first book. I fleshed out the history of the different countries, wrote short backgrounds for the different groups of people and races, noted the important cultural differences, mapped out the geography, figure out the different economies and governments. Much like a painter, I painted the background first and then moved on to the subject, i.e. the plot and characters. I found it both easier and more realistic to have my characters react to the world around them rather than the other way around, to change the world fit a predetermined outcome.

We are all a product of our environment. Book characters are the same. Granted, this often results in some unintended detours, but they are ones that I think make the overall story better and more believable.

PW: For you, then, setting and culture seem to come before characters in your writing process. But how exactly do you discover and bring to life the characters in the worlds you have so carefully constructed? Did you have to change the world in anyway to bring any of the characters to life?

RTK: That’s not entirely true.

I still had a long list of character attributes, background stories, and motivations (as well as an outline of the series’ plot). I simply paid as much attention to the world as I did to the people living in it.

I do tend to base characters initially on people I know in real life, incorporating their mannerisms or personality. But that’s more of a jumping off point than anything. It doesn’t take long before a character takes on his or her own personality and starts telling me what they would do or say in a given situation.

This is the big reason that—unlike some authors—I edit as I write. I’ll knock out the first draft of three or four chapters, then go back and edit. Then I’ll write three or four more, and edit those. This gives the characters a chance to solidify before I’m too deep into the book, reducing the chance I’ll have to do a massive rewrite later on if a character ends up totally different than how they started. And not in a good way, but in a disjointed, unbelievable way.

Regarding if I have ever needed to change the world to bring the characters to life: no. And this is more of a philosophical point of pride with me. Have I written myself into a corner before? Sure. Could I have changed the world, the rules of the game to get my characters out of a situation? Sure. But I won’t do that. If my characters get themselves into trouble, they had better get themselves out of it, or…well, bu-bye.

In the end, while the setting is incredibly important, it is still the characters that drive the story and plot. Or, in a couple cases, totally blow up my plans for the story and plot.

PW: I’ve heard conflicting writing advice on writing and editing, especially in terms of when to edit and when to write. Since you edit in media res, how do you keep forward momentum instead of succumbing to the temptation of endlessly editing and tweaking what you already have?

RTK: I have rules I force myself to follow, a method to my madness.

Before I start a book, I put together a rough outline of what’s going to happen with a firm idea of the beginning, middle, and end. In the outline, I identify certain main character arcs, plot points, major events.

Then I do a detailed outline of the first four or five chapters, write them, and then stop. I outline the next four or five chapters first and then go back and edit the first chunk ONE TIME ONLY. Once done, I pick up at the details chapter outlines, rinse and repeat.

For instance, my current work in progress looks like this right now:

  • Chapters 1-40: Draft 2
  • Chapter 41: Draft 1
  • Chapter 42: Draft 1
  • Chapter 43: Draft 1
  • Chapter 44: Draft 1
  • Chapter 45: Outline
  • Chapter 46: Outline
  • Chapter 47: Outline
  • Chapter 48: Outline

After drafting 44, I outlined 45-48 and just finished up editing 40. I’ll get 41-44 edited then write 45-48 straight through.

Only after I’m completely done with entire book this way will I go back to the beginning.

Now, I do have two exceptions to this method. The first is that I never write the prologue until I’m a little ways into the book. I like to include a healthy amount of foreshadowing in my prologues, so I wait until I’m confident how certain events will exactly play out before writing it. For example, I think I wrote my current work in progress’ prologue when I was in the teen chapters.

The second exception is that every so often, I realize I need to insert a chapter somewhere earlier in the book. When that happens, I typically stop where I am, go back, and both write and edit the chapter right away.

PW: Speaking of your current work, I see that most of your work, novels and shorter pieces, are all set in one world you have created, Terrene. Where did the idea of Terrene come from?

RTK: So far, all of my novels are set there. Most of my shorts are, too. I do have a couple that aren’t, my favorite being of a reluctant sidekick to the city’s biggest superhero. His name is Alex Butterworth. It’s amazing how many syrup jokes there are to make.

As to where the idea of Terrene came from…I don’t really know. I started with a map, wanted to include a variety of societies and governments, and just…created.

PW: I can certainly understand creating a map for a book. Are there any books or works whose maps inspire your own creations?

RTK: Not in the sense you might mean. In other words, I did not rely on map styles from other fantasy works. Instead, I used a somewhat different approach.

You see, my father was a history and geography teacher for over thirty years. When I started going down the road of writing this series, I recalled I had a couple of his old geography textbooks. Granted, they were for 7th grade, but there was plenty of good information in there about plains, mountains, plateaus, marshes, rivers, lakes, weather patterns, forests, etc. I didn’t want to just throw some dots on a map, give them names and that’s it. I wanted to ensure the world made sense, that weather worked correctly, that everything was believable.

Granted, it’s a fantasy setting, but the more things that are familiar to the reader, the more unique the things that aren’t become.

PW: So, with your novels to date in Terrene, and the recent Triumph over Tragedy anthology, what is next on the horizon for you?

RTK: I have stories in two different anthologies coming out this spring/summer. I’m 70% into the first/second draft of the third book of the Children of the White Lions series. I have another project I have been poking at for a while now, which I might dive into after book 3 is done.

I recently signed with literary agent Andrew Zack in the hopes he will help me move from moderately successful indie author to traditionally published author. As a result, Progeny is getting one last round of polish before it goes to editors. Depending on what happens with that will impact the direction I go with future work.

PW: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

RTK: Well, first and foremost, you can find me at http://www.RTKaelin.com. I blog at Goodreads.com and can be found on Twitter @AuthorRTKaelin. I’ll be doing a couple of conventions this summer, the first of which will be Origins in Columbus, OH. Just got the panel schedule today and I’ll be sitting on one with the estimable Patrick Rothfuss. I’m looking forward to that.