By: Mark J. Engels
Genre: Paranormal Sci-Fi Thriller
Age category: Adult
Release Date: 8/10/17 (trade paperback); 10/1/17 (ebook)
A distant daughter. A peculiar device. A family lineage full of secrets. When werecat Pawlina Katczynski finally resurfaces, her location previously unknown to anyone close to her, the reunion is short of welcomed. Instead, she finds herself thrust tooth and nail—tooth and claw—into a feud between opposing werecat clans as her family and their enemies reignite a battle that has raged for years. Always Gray in Winter invites the reader to join the feud and see if blood is truly thicker than water…
I’ve been a fan of anime, manga and anthropomorphics for over thirty years. My muse came to me one night at work, imploring I write her story. When I ignored her, she “charmed” me with fangs and claws. And told me her name was Pawly.
I’d been on the publication trail for some while before I got a couple small press offers, so I had some idea of what to expect. Every small press is different, and each is at a particular stage in their development. My publisher had been around a couple years before I signed on, though at the time they were in the middle of an expansion and eager to sign new authors. We negotiated a number of terms in the contract, which I had come to understand by talking to other authors, agents and editors I’d met during the query contests and Twitter “pitch parties.” And what I’d learned helped establish just exactly what my publisher and I came to understand we could expect from one another.
After having been an anime, manga and anthropomorphics fan for so long, I wanted to give back to the fandoms I’d come to love, through which I had found such joy and made so many dear friends. Wanted to create content after consuming it for decades. Because I thought my characters and concept were kewl and labored under the delusion others would too. I was determined to take their story to a wide audience, which was the main reason I queried agents and, later, submitted to small presses.
I’m an electrical engineer in my day job, specializing in the design, construction and commissioning railroad and rail transit signal and communications systems all over the United States. An iterative design process is second nature to me, starting with the abstract and working toward the specific. So I can’t not be a plotter, really. I laid out a series outline in prose form detailing three generations of my werecat protagonist Pawly’s family, from the height of the Cold War to the present day. Then I figured out a starting and an end point for the first book, which takes place in media res. Drafting came next. A year or so later I was ready to begin my edits. I’d both joined a real-life writer’s group by then and picked up a copy of Browne & King’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers. Boy howdy, did both of those underscore just how much editing I needed! About another year’s worth, in fact.
“Balance” is not found, as if one is out in the woods looking for berries or mushrooms. Balance is struck, it is made, it is hard fought. And it is always a compromise. Along the lines of “this isn’t he arrangement everyone likes most, this is the arrangement everyone dislikes least” more of then not.
I’m very fortunate that I enjoy my day job for its intrinsic value (I play with trains and electronics all day, yay!) and make a decent living for my family doing it. I do work full time, though, and during business hours the job needs must be my priority. I’m also a father and husband. Every night after my son goes to bed, I devote two or three hours to “writing”, but I don’t use such a narrow view as “words on a page.” Research is writing, mentally picking away at the Gordian knot my plotlines have bunched themselves together into is writing, dispositioning critique partner feedback is writing, reading other’s books is writing, platform building is writing, etc. Many activities don’t get words down on a page but are part and parcel of my writing process nonetheless. To help make sure the words I do get down are the right ones, and that those words have a fighting chance of reaching their audience.
I really didn’t set out to be an author, or a writer for that matter. It just sort of happened. Being an anime and manga fan at the dawning of the Internet age, I came upon newsgroups, bulletin boards and mailing lists where I could meet and get to know fans of one particular franchise or another. On a couple of occasions after a dramatic shift in a story or after its conclusion, I felt that the creators had left “money on the table”, leaving characters undeveloped, plot threads twisting in the wind or entire stories gone untold. So I set about to fill in the spaces between with fanfiction. Including several novella- and novel-length stories.
My books aren’t all that different. I came to know an artist featuring anthro characters whose work I adored, who wanted to release a web comic featuring them but wasn’t sure how to begin. He was struggling with his antagonist’s motivations especially. We began a dialogue about same with an outline I’d prepared and expanded into a complete story arc. After sitting down at a convention together over coffee, he told me “this sounds like a great story, but it’s not my story” and that was that.
Or so I thought. I was fully prepared to put the experience behind me and go on with life, but my muse had other ideas. She came to me and started shredding away at my consciousness, insisting I tell her story. And that of her family. Turns out my muse she be a werecat. One who looks strikingly like my story’s protagonist, in fact. Pawly makes a convincing argument with fangs and claws.
A year to draft, a year to edit, a year to query/submit. Nearly another year before release during which time I built out my web site and social media presence.
After I finished my series outline, I sent it around to some friends and fellow writers in the anime fanfiction communities to get their feedback. All of them thought the premise outstanding and unique, and all exhorted me to not to try to cram the story into one book. So after spending a fair bit of time re-organizing my outline, I’ve determined I have enough plot points to cover at least three books. Or four should I decide to dive deep into Pawly’s family history.
“Best ways?” Uhm, I’m not all that sure I know, truthfully. Because marketing is every bit as much subjective as editing and critique. What worked for them/there/then (that is to say, for me or for any other author) may not be useful nor effective for you/here/now. If one desires to write a book in a specific genre, while reading deep in the genre, pay attention to what successful authors in that genre have done and are doing to build their platforms. All of it is worth considering, even if some of it might not work well for you. Or for your book. You’ll be prepared to make an informed decision yea or nay.
That said, I believe successful marketing strongly correlates to an author’s willingness to build relationships. Especially online ones, where so many of us find and reach our audiences. There is a lot of awful out there on social media, but there are also pockets of like-minded creatives eager to make new friends. “Getting yourself out there” is salient advice, though I would qualify “early and often.” Writing is frequently a solitary exercise, and I’d suggest one run silent and run deep while one is developing their first draft to avoid distractions. Though it’s high time to seek out other creatives once the story has something of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Start working on a query letter right then; there are all kinds of query contests online to help with that. The friends I made there (and on the Twitter “pitch parties” once the manuscript was complete) today number among my most valued critique partners. And my most ardent supporters.
The same folks ought to come in real handy as you’re going through editing your own book prior to submission or publication. They can also help make suggestions as to agents or editors that may really enjoy your book, or help refer you to their trusted resources if you decide to self-pub. Because having done so, getting on the podcasts and guest posts was fairly simple. I just had to ask my friends who asked their friends. Voila! They were glad to have me.
I make it a point to reach out to reviewers who take time to share what they liked about my book, what maybe didn’t work for them, how my book made them feel–good or ill. Though never as a comment to the review itself; those are written by readers for readers. Author responses to such are seen by many as rude, seen as an intrusion into a private conversation between readers. To the extent possible, I use the reviewer’s handle to track down an email address or social media link where I can reach out and thank them. Because I find even disparaging remarks often provide unique opportunities to consider what most to improve in my future work.
“Bad press?” I leave it lie and recommend every author do likewise. Nothing I say will change their minds about my book, and it’s not my place to try. I’ll only wear myself out in doing so. Besides, a reader’s opinion is just that. One person’s opinion, to which they’re entitled. And I’m entitled to respond with but a shrug and move on.
When bad press does come, I endeavor to remind myself of a couple key principles: first, that the book I had in my heart to write may decidedly not be the book any one person had in their hearts to read and, second, that that is okay.
Just happened to be the book I had in my heart to write, of course! The sort of book I had in my heart to read but couldn’t find. It was only after I’d written the book that I began to bill it as a “paranormal sci-fi thriller”, because I had to assign it a genre for query contest and Twitter pitch parties. Up until that point, I was complete clueless to genre conventions and subtleties (and, frankly, I’m still figuring them out.) All I knew was that my story was my story, though I set about to understand them by necessity when I began to pitch my book. Contemplate just what sort of audience I would endeavor to reach out to. And how best to engage them.
12) What are your views on writer’s block? Do you believe in it? If you do, do you have ways to cope with it that you would be willing to share?
Yes, writer’s block is a thing. A thing I fear, actually, which is in part why I do so much work up front plotting. If I know the story has a defined beginning, a middle and an end, then I can just plow through the places where the story drags and sags. Because I can always edit later! Pantsers suggest that doing such layouts stifles creativity, to which I can only say “to each their own.” This is what I do and why I do it, and it seems to work for me. Your mileage may vary.
What does seize me up from time to time happens after I’ve gotten feedback from my critique partners. They’ll point out what works for them and what doesn’t, and I’m always grateful when they do. When several of them point out one particular thing that didn’t work, that suggests strongly there’s something there I need to fix. But it’s always a struggle–I gave it my best! A bitter pill to swallow that one’s best isn’t good enough.
Or, as I’ve come to understand, it’s not good enough yet. I’ve found that if I put away the feedback for a period of time, like a couple weeks or sometimes even a month or two, then when I come back to it I can more better see what the issue is. Often with such clarity arrives the answer unbidden to the problem that had me stymied.
13) What time of day do you find is your “creative time for writing”?
Evenings. After my grade-school age son goes to bed and before I crash. To those who write early in the morning, God bless yer pea-pickin’ hearts. That just doesn’t work for me. I find I need a full day of doing unrelated stuff to get my brain “spun up” fast enough so I can write.
14) Do you have some advice for the new authors that may be reading this post right now?
The book that you have in your heart to write may not be the book any one person has in their hearts to read. And that’s okay. You’re okay. Your story is okay, though always be willing to take into consideration points-of-view that might be hard to hear. Because often those help you figure out how to tell your story even better.
What’s worked for them/there/then may or may not be practical, feasible nor helpful for you/here/now. Don’t let anyone tell you your way is wrong. Your way is your way, every bit as valid as you are. Consider other people’s successes and failures as you soldier on, keeping Bruce Lee’s timeless advice close to your heart:
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
Reach out. Put yourself out there. I know it’s a daunting prospect to introverted types, but I believe doing so will pay dividends for people like it has for me. Query contests, pitch parties and forums like Absolute Write’s “water cooler” forums are great ways to learn things and make friends. I did just that and now have a cadre of resources I can depend upon to help me write, edit and promote my stories.
15) Last but not least, what are your future plans now that you have published your first novel?
“I’M GOING TO DISNEY WORLD!”
*eyes royalty statement*
Well then, maybe not. Back to working on my next werecat book…
You can purchase Always Gray in Winter on Amazon
Read an excerpt!
About the Author
Boyhood interests in trains and electronics fostered my career as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. Authoring rail industry trade magazines articles led me to write novel-length fiction, inspired by my beloved anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms. Growing up in Michigan never far from the Great Lakes, my wife, son and I live in Wisconsin with a dog who naps beside me as I write.
I am a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest writing collectives, and the Furry Writer’s Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.
Find and contact Mark Engels here: