I can’t think of a more wonderful way to start this year’s Spell Caster interviews than with the lovely and talented Jenn Reese. Multi-talented is an understatement! She writes great action romance, fun and engaging books for young adults and kids, and witty short stories and sets of series. On top of that she studies martial arts and designs covers for ebooks. I suspect that’s just the tip of the iceberg. My hunch? She’s a renaissance woman, incognito. It is a pleasure to have her visit my website today!
JENN REESE–WRITER AND MARTIAL ARTIST
KARA: Jenn, it is really great to be chatting with you today! First of all, “Above World” is amazing–one of the best books I’ve read. In fact, I was reading it while on the treadmill (I was about halfway through) and continued walking three hours at a 7.0 incline just to finish the book. Totally oblivious to my leg cramps, I couldn’t stop reading. It is so good!
The book’s world is a wonder and the main characters, Aluna and Hoku, are truly likable. I was cheering for them through the last page. Not only do the main characters feel real, but each supporting character has motive and depth.
Did you know, when writing the first page, this was going to be such a wonderful adventure?
JENN REESE: Hi, Kara! First of all, thank for you for the wonderful introduction and for your kind words about Above World. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed it enough to stay on a treadmill longer than absolutely necessary. What a compliment!
Now to answer your first question: NO. I’ll be honest — I’m terrible at beginnings. I’m a plotter and usually have most of the book worked out before I start writing, at least in terms of major arcs, themes, and the ending. Because of that, I have this whole list of things I know the beginning of the book has to accomplish… which makes it extra hard for me to write. So I’m sad to say that when I started writing this book, I thought it was awful and that there was no way the story would live up to all the epic places I wanted it to go. But that’s where revision comes in. I think I rewrote the opening eight times, both for critiquers, my agent, and then my editor. Those earliest attempts have now been buried at sea, hopefully never to surface again.
KARA: The locations are amazing! I appreciate all the time that must have gone into the cities’ and landscapes’ details. Are you a pants-er, or did you plot and chart all the different types of colonies before writing the first words?
JENN REESE: As I mentioned above, I’m a plotter and I especially love designing new cultures. I blame my life-long love of Dungeons & Dragons. Even as a teen, I loved creating new races of humanoids, new monsters, and new magic systems. Developing the people and places in Above World was tremendous fun. Although I did much of it before I started writing, the cultures became more detailed and rich with each revision pass. The world gained depth as I spent more time in it and understood it better.
KARA: The fierce determination of your heroine is admirable, as she starts out on her quest, alone, and wins allies along the way. What personal life lessons have you used to enrich Aluna’s journey? Anything new you’ve discovered about yourself while going through the process?
JENN REESE: I wanted Aluna to be the kind of girl who acts quickly and sometimes makes the wrong decision because of that. In the end, I think life is richer if we try and make mistakes and fail than if we play it safe. It took me a long time to learn that lesson, and I often wonder what my life would have been like had I learned it sooner. That’s where Aluna comes in.
KARA: What lessons would you like young readers to take from this story?
JENN REESE: My greatest hope is that readers connect with the story and enjoy it, regardless of whatever else they get out of it. Although I’m always exploring themes that are important to me, I try to respect that each reader brings their own perspective and life experience to the process. I don’t try to embed lessons of any sort, but I do hope the story inspires readers to think and explore the aspects that affect them most strongly.
KARA: Aluna learns that she has friends she can count on during the toughest battles. This made me think about your writing support group, which you acknowledge at the end of your book. Do you have any advice for new writers who are searching for their group of critters and supporters?
JENN REESE: Writing friends are better than gold! My advice is to look for people who are respectful critiquers, who genuinely support your career, and who, if possible, enjoy the kinds of books you want to write. Don’t worry if they’ve published anything themselves. Although most of my writing buddies are published now, none of us were when we met. Over the years, we’ve helped each other improve, supported each other through dark times, and cheered the loudest over successes. You don’t find your writing family, you grow it.
KARA: I have a friend whose spunky twelve-year old daughter just self-published a middle-grade book. Amazing, right? Such courage! Any words of wisdom for young authors exploring their craft? Any words of advice to YA authors in general?
JENN REESE: Read extensively, write as much as possible, and finish what you write (even if it’s crap). That’s the basic advice. Beyond that, I’ve had my most success when I’ve reveled in my passions and trusted my voice. Use your individuality. The thing that will make your writing stand out is you.
KARA: Another book I thoroughly enjoyed was “Jade Tiger” which is now available in paperback and eBook. In “Jade Tiger,” your fight scenes are so detailed, I feel as though I’ve learned Kung Fu from reading them. What is your approach to fashioning a good fight scene? Do you visualize or act out the scene before writing it? Or do you write it down immediately as it comes to you, without a lot of plotting?
JENN REESE: I love writing fight scenes! I choreograph every fight in my head, and sometimes enlist people to help me act them out in real life so I can better describe them. They take a lot of thought and my writing speed slows down drastically whenever I get to one. You can’t just describe what’s happening in a technical way; you have to create a mood, a sense of danger and tension, and keep your character at the center of it all. There are a million decisions that happen in a fight, and each one can elucidate character. It can’t just be about the punches and kicks.
KARA: You have experience in the martial arts. Do you practice competitive Kung Fu? Or another branch of Chinese martial arts? Are the fight combinations in your story ones you’ve practiced in real life?
JENN REESE: I studied kempo for 5 years and have been studying kung fu, tai chi, and Chinese weapons for about five more. Over the years I’ve also had a chance to take workshops in Muay Thai, Monkey kung fu, and boxing, and to watch classes at my friends’ schools… in addition to feeding my addiction with documentaries and flashy martial arts movies. I use as much of that as possible in my stories. I always feel more comfortable describing a move if I’ve done it myself, or seen one of my instructors do it.
The nice thing is, you don’t have to be good at martial arts in order to write about it. In fact, I think it helps that I’m fairly terrible. I have to think more about everything I do, study longer, and pay closer attention to details. All of that helps when I sit down to write.
KARA: Shan’s mentor is an intriguing character. Reflecting on your own mentors and their lessons–in writing and martial arts–have you found any advice from your teachers that crosses over to other aspects of your everyday life and creative explorations? (If so, I’d love to hear examples) eg. How has your martial arts practice helped your writing, besides with research?
JENN REESE: Some day I’ll write a book about this topic, because that’s the only way I could begin to describe all the ways martial arts has impacted my life. Kung fu is not just about fighting; it’s an attitude and an approach to life.
Like many martial artists, Bruce Lee is one of my idols. His quotes apply not just to martial arts, but to life in general. My current favorite, paraphrased, is: “Take what is useful; discard what is not. Make what remains your own.” Lee is talking about fighting styles and techniques. For example, I have a bad back, so I can learn a move, remove the parts that might hurt my back, and develop something different that works for me and my special needs.
But the concept applies equally well to writing advice, and heck, to life in general. We’re all different. It’s useful to learn as much as possible, but in the end, we need to keep only what works for us individually.
KARA: Mushin. No mind state. Shan speaks about the ’emptying of the mind’. I try to practice mindful walking. On the one hand, it is wonderful to be in the moment, breathing, feeling the ‘now.’ On the other hand, sometimes ideas come to me out of the blue right at that time, which might be good for the writer in me but counter-productive for the meditator. Have you had this experience and do you have any advice when a writer is faced with such a dilemma (accepting sudden ideas versus clearing the chatter)?
JENN REESE: As much as I love martial arts and love being in that state of mindfulness, writing trumps everything for me. It’s a real pain when a great idea comes in the middle of a weapon set, but most of the time, I just keep a notebook on hand for capturing thoughts. This makes me a bad student of mindfulness, but I think it also makes me a better writer.
KARA: In “Jade Tiger,” I love the influence the ancient Chinese statues have on their guardians, how the animal energies shape individuals’ characters. Do you study mythological stories or folklore when shaping your characters?
JENN REESE: I love studying mythologies. In the case of Jade Tiger, I specifically researched the five traditional kung fu animals: dragon, snake, crane, leopard, and tiger and their symbolism in martial arts. In my kempo school, we associated dragon with the phrase, “Ride the wind,” which became so meaningful to me personally that I had to work it into the novel.
KARA:“Jade Tiger” has a strong heroine and an educated, less physically strong hero. I’ve heard him called an excellent example of a compelling, attractive beta male. Ian is adorable. How would you classify Ian? Was it a challenge to shape this story with a strong female character like Shan and a witty hero, whom she often saves?
JENN REESE: Honestly, it wasn’t hard at all. I know plenty of strong, fierce women and smart, gentle men. That we don’t see that combination more in fiction seems like an odd omission to me, not reflective of reality. I strongly believe that all people, regardless of gender, have the same capacity for bravery, wit, and the full range of human qualities. And it’s certainly fun to explore different options and upend people’s expectations once in a while.
KARA: Would you tell me a little bit about the series of short stories you wrote, which cover the signs of the Chinese Zodiac? Which was the most challenging? Do you have a favorite?
JENN REESE: I started the Tales of the Chinese Zodiac series when I was having trouble writing. I told myself all 12 stories had to be under 500 words each and must begin with the phrase “In the year of the [animal]…” I let go of expectations and just let myself have fun. Some of the stories are less successful than others (there are one or two I don’t like anymore), but Monkey has been my favorite from the start.
KARA: I saw the Zodiac stories are available in a chapbook. Have you done audio for this collection?
JENN REESE: The series originally appeared on the website Strange Horizons (and still does, in the archives), and was then collected into a chapbook by Tropism Press. There’s no audiobook, and I don’t currently have plans to record one. I loved working on the series, but I’ve definitely moved on.
KARA: Last year, you finished up a collaboration; your writing group wrote a short story for every letter of the alphabet! What a great idea!
Was this a spur-of-the-moment adventure? How much time did it take to work out the details of who did which letter? Do you have a favorite story in the bunch? Is this set available in print?
JENN REESE: My part in the “Alphabet Quartet” was simple: the other three authors had already written their stories, sold the series to Daily Science Fiction, and asked me to come on board and finish up the rest of the letters. (They were nice, though, and left me some good ones.)
All the stories are available online for free at Daily SF (http://dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/alphabet-quartet). We never told anyone which stories we each wrote, but let’s just say I have a particular fondness for “C is for Crate.”
KARA: You are a multi-talented woman, and one of your many interests is in graphic design. Tell us about Tiger Bright Studios. I understand you started designing covers for friends. What happened when you realized that not only are you very good at it, but also you really enjoy the process of making book covers? What are your future plans for the business? Branching out? What services do you offer? What is the best way for authors to reach you?
JENN REESE: I’ve always loved graphic design — when I was a little girl, I wanted to be an artist, not a writer!— but it wasn’t until some good friends kicked me in the butt and told me to go for it that I began to take myself seriously as a designer. A month later, I’d launched a website and seeded it with a dozen designs I’d done for free. Because I’m an author, I had access to mailing lists full of other authors wanting to publish their backlists in ebook format. I got my first job the day I announced that I was open for business, and have had a steady stream of work ever since. Right now, I design print and ebook covers using stock photos. “Style for your stories” is my tagline. You can find my work and rates at TigerBrightStudios.com.
KARA: What’s coming up for you? Anything new you’d like to share with us?
JENN REESE: Let’s see… Above World will be out in paperback in February, 2013. The second book in the series, Mirage, will launch in March 2013, and I’m currently revising book 3, the final book in the trilogy. In the meantime, I’ve just sent a new project to my agent and am keeping all fingers and toes crossed that he likes it.
KARA: Good Luck!! 🙂 Since I heard you are a gamer, I’d love to do a round of flash questions with you!
KARA: Doom or Wolf?
JR: DOOM! Until I get motion sick, that is — about five minutes in.
KARA: WoW or KotOR?
JR: WoW! Been playing since 2006. My hunter and I are still BFFs.
KARA: Portal 1 or 2?
JR: Portal 2! I missed the boat on Portal 1, but it’s on my list to go back and play.
KARA: PSP or Gameboy?
JR: PSP. I’m a Sony gal.
KARA: Me, too!! Nintendo 3DS or Vita?
JR: Neither! My path was Atari 2600 —> Sega —> Playstation.
KARA: 360, PS3 or good ol’ PC?
JR: PS3, of course, but my Mac for World of Warcraft.
KARA: ICO or FFVII?
JR: FFVII! I have a figurine of Red XIII on my bookshelf.
KARA:Oh! Awesome! Snake or Master Chief?
JR: Neither, although I’ve at least played Snake.
KARA: Old or New Dante?
JR: Alas, neither.
KARA: How about Halo or Gears?
JR: No guns for me!
KARA: What about MW3 or BF3?
JR: Still no guns.
KARA: The top three games of all time? (Evil laugh)
JR: Ouch! There’s just no way to pick. My top three games in the last five years, though, are World of Warcraft, Portal 2, and Little Big Planet 2.
KARA: Thank you so much, Jenn, for spending time with my readers and me. I look forward to your next, amazing project–and Book Two of Aluna’s adventure!
JENN REESE: Kara, I’ve never had anyone ask questions about so many different aspects of my creative life. It was a genuine pleasure to be here!
KARA: And Thank you for stopping by, dear Readers! If you like what you’ve learned here, show some love, drop a comment, or check out more about Jenn and her books! Her website: http://www.jennreese.com/