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[GUEST INTERVIEW] Novelist Jeffe Kennedy on Fairy Tales, Characters, Sex Scenes, Writing Strategies & More

Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook.

Carl chatted with Jeffe Kennedy about fantasy, quitting the day job, her insane publishing schedule, and more!

Carl Slaughter: In your “Twelve Kingdom’s” series, you have 3 princess sisters. What’s the character development strategy? Do they get equal treatment in each book, does each one have her own novel, or does one dominate the overall plot?

Jeffe Kennedy: Each princess gets her own book, told from first person point of view. The first book, The Mark of the Tala, is about the middle princess. The second, The Tears of the Rose, is about the youngest and most beautiful. The third, The Talon of the Hawk, is about the eldest, warrior and heir to the high throne.

CS: With the “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Chronicles of Narnia,” and “Sword of Shannara” adaptations, plus various vampire, werewolf, witch, and zombie shows, fantasy has long since gone mainstream on the big and small screen. So here’s a little game we interviewers like to play: Who would you cast to play Ursula, Andromeda, and Amelia? What about Salena and Uorsin?

JK: We writers like to play this, too! Here’s my dream cast:

  • Ursula: Gwendoline Christie
  • Andromeda: Claudia Black
  • Amelia: Amanda Seyfried
  • Salena: Angelica Huston
  • Uorsin: Ron Perlman

And can I add one? I would give up all of them if I could have Dwayne Johnson play Harlan!

CS: Why is the fairy tale your favorite subgenre?

JK: I love fairytales because they’re so rich in subconscious symbolism. I’m fascinated by the recent academic discussions of how these are tales that have a traceable evolution across eras and cultures. As they move into a new culture, some elements are subtracted and others added. This is how I’ve always seen the stories, and I have a reasonably large collection. I love to dig into the core story, look at what’s there and what isn’t. That’s why I started The Twelve Kingdoms books with the middle princess, because in the tales of the three princesses, each more beautiful than the last, the middle princess is always glossed over. I wanted to know who she was and why she’s always step two, easily ignored.

CS: Why do you never abandon an unpublished story?

JK: Because they can always be reworked. Sometimes they have to be rewritten from the ground up, yes – in fact, it’s usually easier to completely rewrite something that isn’t working that to try to revise it –but I think all stories come to us for a reason and they contain elements that can be reused. Much like fairy tales!

CS: By my calculations, you published one novel in 2010, two novels in 2011, two novels in 2012, four novels in 2013, five novels in 2014, and six novels in 2015. How did you accelerate your writing pace exponentially?

JK: Wow – I hadn’t quite looked at the math that way! Part of this is a bit deceptive. I’d been shopping one of those novels since about 2007. I couldn’t sell it for years, so I wrote another in a new series. Couldn’t sell that either. Still haven’t on that one, though I’ve since reworked it into a different genre and have it out on submission again. Then I wrote a third novel in yet another series, which became The Mark of the Tala. So, by the time I finally sold my books, I had quite a few already written and waiting in the pipeline.

And then… I got really serious about writing and prioritizing it in my life. We moved to Santa Fe in autumn of 2009 and I wrote a blog post titled, “Now Where Did I Pack My Writing Career?” With such a huge transition (after living in Wyoming for twenty years), it was the perfect time to recast my life. A lot of things fell into place – a project I’d worked on in my day job for ten years at that point and that had kept me on the road every two to three weeks got axed, too. I started selling books, my first agent found me, and things accelerated. I’ll address this in your follow-up question below.

CS: How do you maintain the quality at this level of volume?

JK: First of all, I think it’s a wrong-headed idea that slow work = quality. It’s a profound belief in our society, so much so that when I say that those things aren’t equivalent, people automatically resist. But think about it – all through school, when we struggled, our teachers advised us to slow down. We automatically suspect the thing that’s quickly produced.

BUT, they aren’t necessarily equivalent. In fact, I think art in particular can be much better if it streams mostly from the subconscious, which means getting the critical, conscious brain out of the way. All that advice to slow down, to recheck your test answers – all of that brings the conscious mind to the forefront. And here I was always the student who changed her answers wrong if I went back and reviewed. I learned to never change my first answer.

Similarly, I worked at my writing process, exploring ways to “stick with that first answer.” Before I sold books, I’d worked under self-imposed deadlines, so I could learn my own process. I track everything in spreadsheets, which let me look back at my performance over time. Then I treated building my daily word count like training for a marathon. Really the mind is a muscle just like the rest of the body. You don’t go out and run 20 kilometers the first day, right? Instead you train and work up gradually. I worked up to writing 3,000 words/day, which is quite sustainable and even easy, to 5K/day, which is pretty much running a marathon every day for me.

CS: According to your bibliography, on more than one occasion during your career, you had 2 books come out a month apart. But there are also periods of several months between releases. What’s going on behind the scenes with you and what’s going on behind the scenes with the publishers?

JK: It’s really no great mystery – the publishers set their release dates when they want them. I have very little ability to influence that, other than turning things in late, which I don’t ever do. (At least, not enough to affect the production schedule.) Now that I’m doing more self-published releases, too, I’m trying to plan those to fill holes in the release schedule.

CS: How much a part of your professional life involves participating in writer workshops and writer advice websites and what has been the result?

JK: Well, when I first decided to be a writer instead of a scientist, I began taking writers’ workshops in the evenings. I was lucky to be near a university with a solid visiting writers program, and I learned a great deal from them. Then I was part of a twelve-person critique group for many years that met weekly. That was a wonderful experience also. When I moved into fiction-writing, I didn’t know people working in my genre, so I joined the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and then the online special interest group, the Fantasy Futuristic and Paranormal (FFP) chapter. Through those organizations I took online classes and found crit partners. So I guess the short answer is “lots and I don’t think I’d be where I am without them.”

CS: How involved are you in the fantasy fan convention world?

JK: Not very. That was never my thing as a fan, though I’m not sure why. I just never got into it. As a writer I am more and more. I attend Bubonicon every year and now Mile Hi Con. I’d go to more as they’re very fun and the readers at them are terrific. I would LOVE to see someone cosplay my characters someday!

CS: You recently quit your day job. How has that affected your writing career and how do you hope it will affect your writing career?

JK: So far it’s mostly affected me personally. It’s really wonderful to have only one career! Much less stressful and really fun. Although the income continues to be a concern. However, I’ve had the time and energy to start up a lot more projects, so I’m hopeful the overall result will be tremendous growth in my writing career. It feels like it is already. I left the day job at the end of October (really, the day job left me, as I got laid off), and fourth quarter of 2015 was my best book-earnings quarter by a large margin. I’m hopeful that trend will continue!

CS: If you could time travel, what advice would you give to your would be novelist self?

JK: Hmm. I’m not sure Past-Jeffe would listen, or have the understanding to implement the advice, but I’d tell her to lock down a regular writing routing much sooner. To stop dithering about what to write and simply lay words down. Write every day, because that’s what it will eventually take.

CS: Describe the typical ways a novel series gets orphaned by its own publisher.

JK: Well, typically what happens is the author plans a three-book series and gets a two-book deal, or plans a five-book series and gets a three-book deal. I know of multiple examples of each scenario. The authors are always hopeful that the publisher will pick up the next books, too, but often if the first two to three don’t sell well, the publisher will drop the series. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely another publisher will pick up the final book(s). Most want the first book, so they can control marketing from the beginning. I know of ONE author who got her third book in the trilogy picked up. Otherwise, the main solution is to self-publish the rest of the series. Fortunately, these days, that can be an excellent option!

CS: What is the most essential element of a novel series?

JK: Ooh, this feels like a pop quiz. Hmm. I must have blogged about this one. I’m going to say complex characters with intense personal arcs. It’s best if they have deep emotional wounds and ongoing conflict they must fight through, in order to keep the series momentum alive.

CS: Why is a novel synopsis important?

JK: It’s mostly important if you’re traditional publishing. Agents use the synopsis to sell the book and then the publishing houses use them internally to communicate the essence of the book. Lots of departments will touch the book and few of those people will have time to read the whole novel. They read the synopsis.

CS: What’s the most important element of a synopsis?

JK: Conveying the goal, motivation and conflict of the protagonist(s).

CS: Should the novelist write their own synopsis or leave it to the editor/agent and why?

JK: If you can leave it to your editor or agent, that’s ideal! I love it when they take that over for me because they see the story more objectively than I do. They can more easily pick out the high points and the arcs to emphasize, because they’re not as close to the story as I am. But I’m not always that lucky.

CS: How important is a blog to a novelist’s career and what’s the best way for a writer to maximize their blog?

JK: I think this really depends on the novelist. Some people are naturally good bloggers and others aren’t so much. A lot of novelists find it difficult to write short, which is required for blogging. If a person is good at it and enjoys it – first rule of social media is to do only what you enjoy, because it shows if you’re faking it – the best way to maximize that venue is use it talk about things you like. Resist the temptation to make the blog a platform for venting. Keep it upbeat, positive, about what you find interesting, and others will, too.

CS: Should an author respond to reviewers and why?

JK: To negative reviews, never. To positive ones, judiciously. Because with negative reviews you’ll never change their minds and it only inflames their already toxic feelings, and even positive reviewers can feel self-conscious if the author is breathing down their necks. I only respond if the reviewer specifically tags me or if I know her and consider our relationship friendly.

CS: How do you blend four genres, fantasy, romance, erotica, and BDSM?

JK: Very carefully? Seriously, I don’t plan it. All of that just comes out in my voice. And it’s a rare book even for me that has all four of those elements.

CS: How can a writer use sex as a tool for character transformation?

JK: That’s a really long answer as I teach two-week and month-long courses on that topic! Suffice to say that sexual intimacy is a way to lead characters to reveal emotional wounds and break taboos that allow them to self-actualize.

CS: What is the right/wrong way to write a sex scene?

JK: I’d venture that there is no “right” way, but the wrong way is to do the [insert sex scene here] thing, where the sex is gratuitous and doesn’t affect character arc or storyline.

CS: Any advice to aspiring novelists?

JK: Write. Persevere. Write a lot more. Simple advice, but that’s the best.

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