Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Interview: Melanie Nowak

Joining us today is Author Melanie Nowak Author of the Venomous Vampire Series Almost Human. I won her book from a contest and she was nice enough to agree to an interview to go along with the review I wrote of her 1st Trilogy. Thank you so much Melanie for taking time out of your schedule to come and chat with us.

Hi Melanie please share a few things about yourself.

Melanie: I am a happily married mom of 2 boys. My wonderful husband and I have shared almost 20 years together, and we are a very close family. We live on Long Island in N.Y., but hope to be moving upstate into the Catskill mountains very soon.

As far as things you can’t read off the back of the book cover in “About the Author”… basically I just love fantasy – I love it. Whenever possible, my childhood was spent roaming the forest alone imagining that I was a shape shifter or a faery. When I was at home or at school, I was buried in a fantasy book or daydreaming out the window.  

Now that I’m older, I can be practical mom, keeping everything on schedule (mostly) and running smoothly, doing what needs to be done. I do very much love spending time with my family. We have great fun together and I feel very blessed in my life; but at heart, I am still a dreamer. I always will be.

Have you always wanted to write?

Melanie: I never thought that I would be a writer! As a child I was forever playing “Let’s Pretend”, and throughout school, I was an avid reader who aspired to be a singer and actress. I always had a creative imagination for stories, but I wanted to act and live them, not write them!

Although still very active in drama classes during college, I became a teacher, but after my children were born, I was fortunate to be able to stay home with them. During the day while doing housework, I found myself thinking up ideas for venomous vampires, and a story involving characters I created. It was unlike anything else I had seen or read, and I felt badly to think that my ideas would just be forgotten. So one night, I sat at the computer and decided to just write them down for myself. Before I knew it, I'd been writing for hours! It started in a sort of ‘screen-play’ format, because I was used to dealing with that in my drama classes, but I soon started expanding on that to add the characters’ thoughts, and I eventually converted it to a novel.

I never planned to publish, I just had fun writing it. The story was very long but I knew just what I wanted to happen - it was kind of like writing a whole TV season, with smaller episode arcs along the way. Due to its length, I decided to break the story into 3 parts and make it a trilogy. I still never thought about doing anything with them, until my mom and a friend convinced me to let them read it all. They insisted my books should be published, so I decided to find a way to share them with others.

What made you decide to go the self publishing route?  How did you go about making your very own press?

Melanie: As with most authors, when I decided to try and publish my series, it was a long and difficult endeavor. I spent a few years trying to get published by traditional methods. I researched the whole process and jumped through every hoop – from writing query letters and a synopsis of each book, to submitting specifically formatted sample pages (every agent and publisher wants something different). Unfortunately, most publishers and agents are swamped with inquiries these days, and are unable to give each submission the attention it may deserve. I got numerous rejection postcards without anyone ever actually reading my manuscripts.

As a busy wife and mom, I wasn’t able to attend conventions or camp out on door-steps to be read. I stopped trying to publish, and was earning my Masters Degree to be a school librarian, when a professor mentioned that Amazon was unveiling a new e-book device. I looked into it, and learned that Amazon would accept previously unpublished books for the Kindle. I knew that once you self-publish, most traditional publishers will not consider your work, but no one was considering my work anyway. After some research and deliberation, I decided to publish on Kindle, because it was an effective way to share my stories with the public. I could have closure, feeling like I'd done something with the books, and be able to move on. I wanted to begin writing the 2nd trilogy for the series, which had already been playing out in my head, no matter how I tried to focus on other things.

After my series began to gain Kindle readers, I started to get e-mails from them, requesting print copies of the books. To try and make that happen, I shopped around again for agents & publishers in January ’09. This time I had verifiable sales to show them - I was selling over 30 Kindle books a day, for a month straight! For an unknown author with no advertising, I thought that was considerable, but publishers & agents didn't care. There is still a stigma against ‘self-published authors’ (although I believe that is slowly changing) and although their responses only said “Sorry, your work is not right for us”, I believe they didn’t like the fact that my books were already out in e-book format, even though they had never been printed. Again I was constantly rejected without even a request for a full manuscript for review. I finally decided to publish in print independently, because I was more interested in sharing the stories with readers, than waiting for a publishing house to back me.

I handled every aspect from editing & formatting, to cover photos (that's me on book 1). It took a lot of time, research, learning what needed to be done, and finding the most cost effective way to carry it out. It was very important to me that my books be priced as affordably as possible for my readers. Self-published books are more expensive than mass-market paperbacks, because they are POD (Print On Demand). Each book gets printed when ordered. It’s cheaper to print mass quantities of books at a time, but then you need to pay for them in advance, and have a storage warehouse, and I didn’t have enough investment money to use that method. There are many POD companies available to authors, with varying degrees of assistance and pricing. I wanted to do everything by myself, short of actually printing out the pages, and I was willing to take a very small royalty, if it would keep the retail price low.

I chose a printing company that allows me complete control over production, including price, and I learned what was involved to become Independently published in print, such as purchasing my own ISBN #’s and getting listed with Bowker and various distribution companies. In April of 2009, and WoodWitchDame Publications was born.
What are some of the up and down sides you have found to self publishing?

Melanie: Pro’s of self-publishing:
  • Complete control – over the price and the story (I cannot express how important that is to me. I can write the story that is true to my vision, without having to bend it to fit a certain niche, or to be more marketable in the eyes of a publisher).

  • I don’t have to wait for approval of things, or settle for changes that I am unhappy with.

  • I don’t have deadlines to meet that can jeopardize the quality of my story.

  • Also, having learned everything myself, I now have a better understanding of the publishing process as a whole. I don’t know everything, but now when other publishing companies come to me with an offer, I know enough to understand just what they are offering, and whether it is worth it for me. So far I have received a few offers from small presses, but I’ve decided that it is more advantageous to the series if I keep control for now.

  • I am currently able to have a very personal rapport with my audience. While this would not be impossible if I were published through a large company, I am certain that doing everything on my own gave me more opportunity and encouragement to forge a true relationship with my readers. I am always accessible through many avenues for questions and conversation about my series.

  • I have the satisfaction of knowing that I did it all by myself.

Con’s of self-publishing:
  • Having complete control means complete responsibility. If there is criticism for the book covers, the story, or the editing – I take the blame. This series is my baby, and I handled every decision. I’m still new at this, and still learning. I try to learn from criticism and improve as I go. Hopefully, I’m doing a pretty good job.

  • Having to handle everything takes away from writing time. I do not have the luxury of writing only the passionate essence of the story and then handing it off to others to be polished up, checked for story continuity, and so on (although I wouldn’t want to trust that to others anyway!). I am responsible for every single aspect of each book, including handling listings, sales and promotion. Some of it can be difficult and frustrating.

  • Editing is especially difficult when it is of your own work. I already know what each sentence is supposed to say, so sometimes my eyes tend to skip over little errors, and my mind automatically fills in the blanks. It takes many re-reads before I feel a book is sufficiently edited, and of course once it goes to print, I always find a few more things I’ve missed and need to go back and fix!

  • I only earn a royalty from each book sale, with no advance checks or bonus incentives from a publisher. However, I’ve learned that many times when a publisher offers a big check to an author for signing on with them, it is just an advance on future royalties they would be getting anyway. For now, it is more advantageous for me to keep complete control and get my small royalty per sale, than to give up some control to get an advance check.

To me, the advantage of switching to a larger publisher, would be access to funds for a promotional campaign and mass market printing. That would drive down the cost of printing each book. Ideally, that would lower the retail price. However, that savings often goes to the publisher as their commission, rather than being reflected in the retail price for the consumer. I do think that my books are fairly priced now, considering they are POD, but in these difficult economic times, I want to make sure my books are as affordable as possible.

I would be open to entertaining offers from other publishers. A larger publisher would have the connections to get my books into more stores, more quickly, and could provide a budget for promotion, to create better public awareness of the books. However, I still want to keep as much control over my series as I can. Staying true to my vision for the characters is what makes my books unique! At this point in time, I may not have a contract with a big bonus or advance check, but every time a reader tells me that my characters resonate with them, and my stories have touched their lives, it is more rewarding than I ever would have imagined!

Is there any advice you could give to someone who has decided to self publish?

Melanie: Decide why you are writing. Is your ultimate goal to be on a bookstore shelf, or to tell an amazing story? If you just want to write but aren’t as emotionally connected to it, that is an entirely different path from someone who wants to truly express & share feelings and ideas; the difference between writing articles or informative observation pieces, and writing a novel. If you are passionate about your writing & want to share your story with readers, here’s my advice:  

1st - If you have a story inside of you yearning to be told, then be unafraid to really give in to it and write your true thoughts and feelings. The passion will come through! You cannot write while worrying about who might read it or what they will think. First, be true to that inner voice and write the story that you want to write.  

2nd – Edit – a lot. You’ve poured your heart out onto the page and it’s a moving and wonderful work. Now you need to look at it with a critical eye for grammar, story structure, and continuity. Understand the story structure of different genres and where your story will fit. It’s alright to blend genres, but labels such as YA and Adult fiction need to be discerned more carefully. Sex and language are not the only determining factors between YA & Adult. Also consider the complexity of plot, reading level of the vocabulary used and the intellectual focus of the story as it relates to age. Do not write “down” to your readers – it is important to be sure they can follow the plot and understand the story, but don’t be afraid to write something that will make people stop and think. Proper grammar, spelling and punctuation is so important I have to say it again. If you’re unsure about something – look it up! EDIT!

3rd – If you want to share your story, you will find a way. Independent publishing isn’t for everyone – neither is Traditional publishing. You have to figure out what is right for you. Large publishing companies will be hard to reach without connections. It’s not impossible (but close). Be aware - larger publishers often want you to edit your work to fit their image. Getting traditionally published is HARD. Even if you have the best book ever, getting the right people to read it will be even harder than writing it – you have been warned. I was rejected over 200 times without anyone even being willing to read my manuscript! There are many small presses that are more open to accepting new work without many changes, you just have to find the right one for you. I did some research and found that the small presses that were open to publishing my work, did not feel like a good fit for me, so I opted for Independent Publishing. Whatever publishing path you feel is right for you, do not give up!

Independent publishing is also a good option to keep your story true to your own vision – but be prepared to put in the effort. If you do not work hard to help your target audience find your book, and if your book is not of professional quality when it is read, your sales and reputation as an author will suffer. Make sure your book is the best it can be, and then find a way to help others find it!

4th – Believe in yourself and be strong. Publishing Independently can be frustrating and difficult at times. You need to have patience, a very thick skin and an incorrigible spirit. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to gain an audience who appreciates your work. Your audience deserves a professional quality book, and when you are working independently it is often more difficult to see your work with a discerning and unbiased eye. Almost all books get a negative review at some time or another. It is important to truly analyze the review to see if there is criticism in there that can help you improve. We are all learning everyday – no one and no book is perfect. I don’t think you should go changing your story to suit every reviewers whim, but don’t just dismiss a negative opinion out of hand. Make sure you honestly ask yourself if there is a good point in there to be learned from, and whether some tweaking might be necessary. Decide whether your story came across as you intended. If it seems that it did, and the reader just didn’t enjoy or agree with it, then that is their prerogative. If the reader seemed to miss your intent, then perhaps it wasn’t clearly expressed in the writing and you should consider toning it a bit.

5th - Decide how you will define your success. If to you, success = money, quit now, LOL. To me success is the feeling of accomplishment and the swell of excitement I feel when someone tells me they read my book and it really resonated with them. In my experience, take care of the emotional success and the physical success will follow. I concerned myself with telling a good story, putting in tons of work to research certain elements, refine and edit it to the best of my ability, and learned what was needed to publish and promote it. I make myself accessible to readers and view it all as a labor of love. Through that sincere effort with no help from paid promotion, I have earned approx. 7,000 loyal readers to my series in 2 years. That number may seem small by traditional publishing standards, but for an Indie, it’s more than I ever expected! Now writing is my full time job and I can pay my bills with it! 

Do you read a lot of books in the Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance Genre?

Melanie: No, not at all! Before I had begun writing, my genres of choice were fantasy, sci/fi & horror. I was never interested in reading romance, because the first few I had read, had very undeveloped characters and more sex than I had felt necessary based on the emotional underdevelopment of the story. I don’t remember what I had read, but it turned me off to the romance genre. I was much happier reading sci/fi fantasy with more interesting characters, that really made me think. I had never heard of paranormal romance or urban fantasy at the time.

After I published my own books and began the laborous adventure of marketing and promotion, I was introduced to the wealth of new paranormal stories, in genres I didn’t even realize existed. However, difficult as it was, I decided that I would not read any of them. I had already written my first three books, being completely unaware of new popular series such as Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, Vampire Academy & Twilight, and one thing many readers praised was my unique approach to the genre. Rather than risk unintentionally influencing my writing style, I made the decision not to read any PNR or Urban Fantasy books until I am finished with my series.

The only vampire books I have ever read, are Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Anne Rice’s wonderful Vampire Chronicles, and Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. These days, writing fulfills all of my fantasy needs, and if I do feel I want to escape for a short break, I’ll read a sci/fi fantasy book.

What are some of your favorite books?

Melanie: I love series! Once I get invested in a world, a premise, or certain characters, I am usually insatiable in my pursuit of more of their story. I also really like books that are a bit morally ambiguous; I like to be challenged to make my own decisions about the characters. I like imperfect heroes, and villains you can empathize with. I also tend to stick with authors that I like, and read almost everything they write. Some of my favorite authors and their ‘stand outs’ for me:

Anne Rice: Vampire Chronicles series
Jack L. Chalker: Well of Souls series, Dancing Gods series
Michael Crichton: Jurassic Park series, Congo
Piers Anthony: Xanth series, Apprentice Adept series
Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series
Stephen King: Pet Semetary, The Shining
Pamela C. Dean: The Secret Country series
Steven R. Boyett: Ariel
Elizabeth Marie Pope: The Perilous Gard

How does your family feel about your books?

Melanie: My family is very supportive, however, most of them are not readers (*gasp* – terrible isn’t it?). Some of them have read my books and enjoyed them, and some haven’t read them yet. Writing is my cathartic escape from reality, and sometimes I am amazed that the powerful emotions I pour into the story actually do resonate with anyone else. None of my friends were readers growing up, and I always felt so strongly about my books. It seemed like other people didn’t ‘get it’. My mom was always an avid reader, but she read romances, sometimes a book a day. I don’t know if she invested herself in her books the way I did. So now that I am writing my own books, I almost didn’t expect anyone else to connect with them and ‘get it’. It’s so rewarding to realize that many people do. I’ve received correspondence from readers all over the world – it’s very exciting. I treasure the letters and e-mails I get from readers, and the new friends I have made through my books.

How did you come up with the Idea for Almost Human?

Melanie: A few things came together to bring ALMOST HUMAN to life. I’ve always been interested in bats. Vampire bats have a anticoagulant in their saliva called “draculin” (named after Count Dracula!) that keeps blood from clotting. I had the idea that such a thing would be useful for vampires as well. It would also be useful if they had something to keep the victim calm, like a drug.

I always wondered about a vampire’s ability to put victims in thrall. In old movies, vampires are always able to hypnotize people, and it’s never really explained. People are just ‘under their power’. I always wondered – why? How does it work? I put those questions together with the anticoagulant/drug idea, and took it further. What if vampires could inject their victims with venom – like a snake? Only the venom would not be deadly poison, but a combination of drugs that kept blood from clotting, kept the victim calm and even willing, and also could mark territory for the vampire – leaving a mark that other vampires could see. The vampire could then use the existence of this ‘drug’ in their victim’s system, to put them in thrall as well.  

The idea of venomous vampires seemed so logical to me, that I assumed for sure that someone else had done it already. I began searching my library for a book like that, so I could read it! This was probably in the early 90’s and there weren’t very many vampire books around at that time. I never found what I was looking for, and I filed the idea away. It never occurred to me to write it myself, LOL.

In the late 80’s, I had discovered Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles and absolutely loved them. That was the first time I read something from the vampire’s point of view. The way that she captured emotions and described surroundings was mesmerizing to me, and I really connected with her story. I’m also a huge fan of the T.V. series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. Joss Whedon is a genius! That said - towards the end of the show, I started disliking some decisions the writers made. I understood their vision, but I also saw missed opportunities. I would have done things differently.

That started me thinking of my own storylines and my own characters, incorporating my venomous vampire idea. None of this was written down, just daydreamed during housework. Then one day I realized that a lot of the ideas I had were really good, and it depressed me to think that it would all just be forgotten. So, I sat down one night at the computer, to write out a few things so I wouldn’t forget, and could look back at them one day. The scenes just came pouring out and before I knew it, I’d been up writing almost the whole night! That’s when I realized that I had a real story to tell, and wanted to write it all out from beginning to end. That is how my ALMOST HUMAN vampires were born.

What about the characters? Who was your favorite to write about and did anyone surprise you as you were writing with doing something you weren’t expecting to write in?

Melanie: I can’t say that I have a favorite character to write, because I really am all of the characters in this book! Each of these characters has been taken from the seed of something within myself. I’ve been lucky enough in my life never to have been sexually abused or addicted to drugs, but everything that goes into making up the personalities for my characters, how they feel and react to things, has come from some little grain of dealing with something in my own life - magnified. At some point in my life I have totally identified with and "been" these people. Even if it didn't outwardly show, this is how I felt and wanted to react. Writing through my characters is extremely cathartic for me.

I wondered a little at first, whether I would be able to write a believable ‘guy’, but when you come down to it, we are all just people. I take care to really examine his motives throughout each scene, and to try and observe and notice things the way I think a man would. It’s actually rather fun writing for my guys Cain and Ben, and stepping into the male perspective.
Outwardly I’m sure my friends and family would say I am most like Felicity. Physically, I’ve modeled her after myself; intellectually and emotionally she is very much the girl that I was at that age. I was usually pretty quiet and shy, constantly reading my fantasies rather than trying to live them out. Because of that, I identify very closely with Felicity, but I have to admit that it’s often more fun to write for my other ladies, Allie and Sindy. Allie is much more sassy and daring than I have ever been in life, and Sindy… well let’s just say it; She can be an evil bitch – and who wouldn’t think that was fun to write? Sindy was my most insolent character, as far as straying from her planned story.

I plan out the general outline of my books well in advance of writing a single word. There will be 12 books to the series, and I do have them all loosely outlined at this point (Including a 13th book that will be a spin-off novel). There are times the story evolves a little differently as I write it, but it never truly strays from the overall outline. I have some complexly intertwined storylines leading from one book to the next, and one trilogy to the next, some of which have not even really been introduced yet, but have seeds and foundations sown throughout all of the prior books. To change anything drastically would alter the overall plan for the entire series.

When I write, I get very immersed in my characters, often going over a ‘scene’ several times, to look at it from each characters perspective, and be sure their actions and words ring true. Sometimes I make a choice because I know it’s what one character would do – but it messes things up for the other characters. I find myself very against altering an event once envisioned; to change something feels like a lie – like I am not telling what really happened. So I relate the events as I first envision them, forcing the other characters to adapt and react as they must. Eventually things come back to the original outline again, they’ve just taken an alternate path than I first planned. Difficult occurrences are opportunities to show character growth. Things don’t always happen the way we expect them to in life, and we have to learn to deal with that.  

If you could describe Almost Human in 6 words or less what would you say?

Melanie: Emotional human choices in paranormal circumstances

Do you have any plans or ideas on other series you want to write in the future?

Melanie: I have been thinking about my characters and their story for years, and have already planned their future for many books to come. I have decided to write my ALMOST HUMAN series as a succession of trilogies. The series will continue chronologically with the same characters throughout, but each trilogy will have a new focus and storyline that follows through its three books. Each trilogy is fairly self-contained, allowing those three books to be read separately from the rest of the series, but will be more enjoyable if the trilogies are read in order, illustrating the full history of the characters.

Writing the series as a succession of trilogies gives readers the opportunity to feel a sense of completion during points in the story, even though the series will still continue for many books to come. I have planned 4 trilogies for the ALMOST HUMAN series, meaning 12 books in all, and then I have plans for a spin off novel, which may result in a series of its own.

Currently available books for the series are:

ALMOST HUMAN ~ The First Trilogy
Volume 1: Fatal Infatuation
Volume 2: Lost Reflections
Volume 3: Evolving Ecstasy

ALMOST HUMAN ~ The Second Trilogy
Volume 1: Born to Blood

I am now writing Volume 2: Descendant of Darkness, for the second trilogy, and hope to release that book in 2011.

Where can your books be bought?

Melanie: ALMOST HUMAN ~ The First Trilogy was featured in the New Title Showcase of Book Expo America in May 2010. At that time, the series became available Internationally in ebook and paperback, online and in your local bookstore – if it’s not on the shelf – ask for it!

You can purchase ALMOST HUMAN through Amazon at:

Or at a discount through my website, where you can also read free sample chapters:

I would sincerely like to thank Stacy of Urban fantasy Investigations for giving me the opportunity to introduce everyone to my venomous vamps! Thanks for having me & happy reading!