Interview with Kelly Meding

RW: Kelly Meding, author of the Dreg City series including Three Days to Dead, and As Lie the Dead, is here today. Let's get down to it.  How long have you been writing and have you been always writing in your current genre?

KM: Technically, I've been writing stories since I was twelve. In seventh grade, I took it upon myself to write my very own YA novel, complete with every cliche imaginable, including 90210-inspired brother/sister twins. It was pretty bad.

I didn't start taking it seriously as a career option until college, when I developed a keen interest in writing screenplays. That fizzled out pretty close to graduation when I realized how little control (or respect) the average screenwriter has. Around the same time, I rediscovered my love of prose via fanfiction and began fiddling in fandom for a few years. During that time, I began writing my own original fiction, including a handful of novels. So I've been writing "seriously" for about six or seven years.

And it has not always been the same genre, but there has been a common thread through most of them. My first (not counting the awful, now-no-longer-in-existence YA dreck) novel was mainstream--a quiet, small town story with absolutely no supernatural anything. The next few dealt with people who had psychic abilities, but the books were more mystery/suspense than UF. Then superheroes. It took six other books before I wrote my first urban fantasy, which is my current genre.

RW: You seem to have navigated an interesting path with your writing. How did your experience with writing screenplays benefit or hinder your fiction/novel writing?

KM: I think it was hugely beneficial, because it gave me another set of tools to use. In high school and college lit courses, we're usually taught prose, poetry and essay writing, but very rarely are we taught screenwriting/playwriting. Screenwriting is so unique because it requires a very visual eye and a different way of looking at a story. Movies/television are visual mediums, whereas plays are almost completely focused on dialogue. Learning to master (or at least become competent with) those skills will always be an asset.

I also like to apply the screenplay's 3-act structure to my novels--it helps me see the beats of the story and to keep the plot moving forward. Obviously, there's more room to tweak the structure, and you don't want to adapt it completely, or your novel will probably suffer from an overlong beginning.

I can't really think of a way that it's hindered me. But I'm also fond of saying that no writing is wasted writing.

RW: That's a very interesting perspective, and you're right that no writing is wasted writing. You said you started out writing fanfic -- there's a lot of bad rep about fanfic and the authors of such. What did you get out of that, and what advice do you have for writers who start out with fanfic as well?

KM: There are a lot of different perspectives on fanfic and its merits (or lack thereof), and I understand them, even the folks who are wholly against it. I don't agree with the folks who are against it, obviously, but I understand their reasons and respect that opinion. Part of the problem is that you rarely hear anything about the hundreds of respectful fans who write fic and participate in fandom. It's the occasional nutjob, who doesn't understand the boundaries, that makes the round of internet blogs and forums--the idiots who break the number one rule of fanfiction, which is "thou shalt not profit."

As for what I got out of it? Everything. Okay, maybe that's a little simplistic, but before I found fanfiction and began writing for a TV show I enjoyed, I hadn't written prose in years. I was all about screenplays. Those fanfic stories helped me develop my storytelling skills (don't laugh). Yes, the characters and setting were laid out, so I could really focus on plotting and I enjoyed that. I was never popular in my chosen fandoms, but a few people read and enjoyed what I wrote, and those early fans gave me the confidence to write original fiction. It took me a while to find my own style and my voice, but I did, and I couldn't be more grateful.

I still occasionally indulge in fanfic, anonymously, for the same reason as before--for love of the show/characters. There's no better reason, I think.

My best advice for fic writers who want to make the leap forward into original fiction is the same as any advice I'd give to a developing writer - read widely and read a lot. Fanfic is a great playground to develop certain skills, but if you never leave it you won't grow as a writer. And be ready for criticism. Fandoms rarely provide you with the kind of real-world crit that you'll get once professionals start reading your work.

RW: Thank you for the advice and information. Tell us about your transition to original fiction, and the process you went through to get a contract from a major publishing house. Did you study their lines of commercial fiction (i.e. were you familiar with their products?) or did you just write what you thought believe was commercial and go with it? In other words, did you study your market? And if so, how did you do it?

KM: My process was a fairly strange, non-linear series of events. If I'd had a clue about the market, it might not have taken me as long as it did to finally write a salable novel. I don't know. After the meandering mess that was Novel #1, I went a completely different route and began adapting what I'd originally written as a two-part drama series pilot into novel form. It actually went fairly well, and I immediately wrote a sequel to wrap up the story. Then I had no idea what to do with it.

It wasn't a genre that I really recognized. It was a mystery and suspense and it had people born with unusual telekinetic/telepathic abilities, and even if I'd heard the term "urban fantasy" at the time, it still didn't really fit that sub-genre either. But I queried it anyway and gathered a lot of rejections (maybe one or two partial requests). Around the same time I discovered and, boy, was that an education. I learned a lot about agents, publishers, queries, submission guidelines, as well as genres. I discovered this thing called urban fantasy, and a whole host of authors who wrote UF and paranormal romance.

So I started reading heavily in UF and PNR, studying their lines and doing market research. Figuring out these stories and how they were told. I wrote something new (Novel #5, which after heavy revisions has recently sold to Pocket), and began querying it. But the book was still a bit of a mess--it straddled this odd line between UF and PNR without being enough of one or the other. I had quite a few requests for partials and fulls, and lots of compliments on the voice/writing, but no one thought they could sell it.

This was summer of '07, I think. I'd seen some advice on AW about some books not being "debut novels," even if they're good. They just aren't good enough. I was reading a lot of UF, so I decided I was going to write a straight UF with as many tropes and monsters as possible. And I did. I wrote it, polished it, worked up a query letter and synopsis, wrote 2 brief paragraphs for more books in the series, and sent out nine queries. Within three months, I signed with my agent. About two months after that, Three Days to Dead sold.

My story definitely has a happy ending, but I wouldn't recommend anyone go about things the way I did. There is so much information online about agents and publishers, and so many resources I didn't know about when I started. I do think it's very important to understand your market and to have a sense of what's selling right now. Know what agents are looking for. Follow guidelines. Read your target genre. Keep tabs on industry changes. And write a book you'd want to read.

RW: Definitely read widely and what you said about agents and guidelines. Tell us a bit about your series, what is it about, and how you came up with the idea/character(s)? When did you get the feeling that "this might just work"?

KM: The Dreg City series is dark urban fantasy. Evangeline Stone, the series narrator, is a former bounty hunter who once helped keep the city's various paranormal races in line and hidden from the general public--until she's murdered, and then brought back to life in order to stop a devastating alliance between two rival races. The series follows Evy as she navigates her new life in someone else's body and tries to survive in a city that's teetering on the edge of a species war.

As for how I came up with the idea, like I said above, I wanted to write a "kitchen sink" book. Something as blatantly UF as possible, and I wanted to use a lot of lesser-seen creatures, such as goblins, gremlins, gargoyles, trolls, etc..., as well as more familiars like vampires and Fey. I wanted a closed society, where these creatures lived all around us, but still remained hidden from the general public. Only a handful of humans knew about them. And in order to have the neighborhoods and factions I needed, I chose to create a city that's never named, in a state that's never specified. The world-building was pretty easy, once I knew what I wanted.

Evy came to me out of a completely unrelated scene for a different story. I had this scene in my head of a woman waiting in Purgatory to be judged for her crimes, until she's summoned by St. Peter to come before him. He offers her a chance to return to earth and a second chance at life, if she agrees to do a job for him--that's about as far as that particular idea got. But it got me thinking about a few things: Why her? Why is she so special? How did she die in the first place?

As I tried answering these questions, I put this woman together with my UF world and it all fit. The history of the Triads worked itself out in my mind. I asked myself what kind of people would do this kind of work, and Evy's character came out of answering those questions (as did several of the supporting Hunters we see more of in book two).

I think I have that "this might just work" feeling with every book, but that doesn't mean it will (ha!). But this one really poured out. Once I had the world-building worked out and a vague city map drawn, writing it was easy. I always knew how it would start--with Evy waking up in the morgue in her new body. It only took about two and a half months to write the first draft. I liked it and I knew it was good, but I didn't have a real sense of this one working on anyone except me until I got some peer feedback that was very, very positive.

RW: Wow, that's amazing. Don't you just love it when a character comes to you and it all fits? And you've said it about feedback, etc. Were there any doubts when you were writing or querying the series? Any mid-book/mid-series blues? Did you always think of it as a series?

KM: I absolutely love it when characters and story all starts to fit together. It's also kind of awesome when a bit of information you thought was throwaway ends up being really important later on. :)

I definitely had doubts while querying the series. Not really while writing; I think I was at a point of frustration where it felt like I had nothing to lose, so why not just put the pedal to the metal and write what I wanted? Looking back and realizing just how dark and twisty Three Days to Dead is, I'm sometimes amazed at the positive reception it's had.

Most of my querying doubts came about because of my past failures to really capture an agent's attention. I knew I'd written a good book, but I didn't know if I'd written one that would attract or repel agents. So I initially sent nine queries, all to agents who had requested something from me in the past. I figured why not. A couple of rejections came in...and then requests for partials and fulls came in. Out of those nine queries, I ended up with four requests, four rejections, and one no-answer. I was astounded, and I literally had to have my roommate read and confirm the email that first offered me representation; I just couldn't believe it had happened.

I always envisioned it as a series. If I'd written Three Days to Dead as a standalone novel without a series in mind, I'd have ended it pretty differently. But as I was creating Dreg City, I found so many nooks and corners and characters that I knew I could play in that sandbox for a while. I have a vague idea of how I want the series to end, and I really hope I get the chance to tell it to completion. With book four finished and promising a few big changes, I'm really excited to keep going (publisher willing, obviously).

RW: You said Three Days to Dead is "dark and twisty"-- do you think it's more so than the UF out there, or right up their alley? Did you set out to make it really dark and twisty, or it just happened -- the way you (or your characters) wanted it? Also, how much is the setting (Dreg City) in play when you plot your books (you said it's a good "sandbox")? I'm just wondering, do you plug your characters in and see what happens, or do you have a definitive plot in mind when you start each book?

KM: I haven't read anywhere close to even a quarter of the published UF that's available, but if there was a 1 to 10 for "dark and twisty," with 1 being "sunshine and puppies" and 10 being "black despair", I'd probably put Dreg City somewhere around an 8. I didn't plan on making it that way--a lot of it came out of the characters as I created their environment. People who revel in a job that requires them to track and kill things (even monsters) have to possess a particular mindset, and that often comes from their environment. Most of the teens who become Hunters choose to do so because it's the lesser of two evils, often a choice between jail or "freedom." Unfortunately, freedom ends up being a short life in a brutal, kill-or-be-killed environment. So yeah, dark and twisty, but definitely not the darkest or twistiest out there.

At the start of a book, I only have a vague idea of the plot--a basic summary of events or what the antagonist wants. I rarely have the whole thing laid out, or know the ending. My plots definitely come out of the characters, and its the characters who determine how the stories shape up. And that's always a fun discovery. For example, as I was writing As Lie the Dead, I only had a vague idea of who Phineas was. I had no idea until the end if he was actually a good guy or a bad guy. He kept even me guessing! And many of Evy's actions were reactions to Phin's actions, so the characters are definitely in charge.

The city tends to just be my canvas for those adventures. It's extremely fun to investigate a new part of the city, because it really is a supporting character in its own right. Mercy's Lot is a different person than Uptown, which is different from Parkside East. Young, old, modern, crumbling, Dreg-filled or Dreg-free. Even though its a completely made-up city, it still feels very real in my head, and putting my characters in it is very easy.

RW: What's next for you? Are you going to finish the series (or is it one of those let's-see-how-long-this-will-last types of series)? If so, what's in store for Evy? Are you going to write something else?

KM: I definitely plan to finish the series. My hope is go for about seven books, so I can properly tell Evy's tale--she's gone through so much hell, she deserves a satisfactory ending. But the great thing about Dreg City is that it has a huge supporting cast of characters, any number of whom could headline their own story or novel, so the world isn't closing even after Evy's part in it is done. She'll continue to face her own prejudices, to grow as both a friend and a lover, and probably get into one hot mess after another.

Evy's future shenanigans aside, I also have a new series coming out next year with Pocket. It features original superheroes in a somewhat dystopian setting, and I'm really excited about it. I also have a group project thingie (don't you love the description) coming up with some other Dell/Spectra/Del Rey authors, and as well as few other spec projects.

My ex-roommate will tell you that I get cranky if I'm not writing something...

RW: That's so exciting about the future of the series and your new projects. Now, for something more whimsical, answer these 10 random questions:

a. Describe yourself briefly
b. What's your opinion on today's youths?
c. Any special philosophies that guide your life?
d. What do you look forward to most in the future?
e. What's the hidden talent that no one, not even the people closest to you, know?
f. What's the first word that comes to you mind NOW?
g. What's in your pocket/bag?
h. How would you go to New Orleans?
i. Boxers or briefs?
j. If you were not a writer, what would you like to be doing?

a. Average everything, with a slightly overactive imagination.
b. They need to put down the video games and go play outside. Stat!
c. Not really, but you get out of life what you put in, so choose your attitude.
d. Hopefully being able to buy a house and settle down in the next five years or so.
e. I admit, I don't think I have one...
f. misspelling
g. No pockets. Bag has wallet, gum, checkbook, pen, mini-notebook, receipts, business cards, and a granola bar.
h. Sober.
i. Depends on the guy.
j. Managing an antique shop.

RW: That wraps up our interview. Thank you so much, Kelly. It's been really fun and fascinating and helpful.

KM: Awesome! Thanks, Ray!

If you'd like to be interviewed by RaWo, please send your request and your bio to the.rawo[at]gmail[dot]com


Melissa Hollern said…
As said ex-roommate can duly attest: yes, she gets cranky when she isn't writing! :-p

Great interview!

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