Book Box: Interview with A.J. Vrana

Interview written and conducted by Colby Bettley

  • Introduce yourself and tell us what kind of author you are.
    Hello! My name is A. J. Vrana, and I write contemporary dark fantasy and horror with elements of romance. I typically enjoy writing about small towns with dark secrets and obscure histories, and I love infusing my fantasy and horror elements with folklore!
  • What made you start writing?
    I’m not sure, honestly. I’ve always been drawn to writing stories for as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved visual art as well, but I really don’t have an aptitude for it. I think at the end of the day, artists of all mediums love storytelling, and writing was the medium I had the most success with from an early age. That said, I only seriously started writing with the aim of getting published during my undergraduate degree when I was taking a lot of literature courses.
  • Tell us about your book(s).
    Currently, I have one duology (a two-book series) published with The Parliament House Press. It’s a folklore-infused contemporary dark fantasy-horror duology called The Chaos Cycle and consists of The Hollow Gods and The Echoed Realm. The first book, The Hollow Gods, came out in July 2020, and the sequel, The Echoed Realm, is releasing August 10, 2021. The Hollow Gods begins with Black Hollow, a remote town nestled in the forests of British Columbia. The people of Black Hollow believe in something called the Dreamwalker, a spirit said to lure young women into the woods and take possession of them, and when these girls return, they almost always end up dead. The story revolves around Miya, a young woman who thinks she may be the Dreamwalker’s next victim. However, it’s a multiple POV book, so we have two other narrators: Kai, an abrasive young man who keeps waking up next to the lifeless bodies of these missing women, and Mason, an oncologist who arrives in Black Hollow to get away from a traumatic event. I obviously can’t reveal much about the second book without spoiling the first book, but the three POVs remain in The Echoed Realm, so the main characters’ stories continue throughout the duology!
  • Who is your favorite character that you’ve ever written?
    I think Kai Donovan is my favorite character to write, although he is also the most difficult for me. He has a very unique voice and is quite surly, so it’s always fun to think about how he reacts to his environment. Also, because he’s a little bit unsocialized, he has a unique perspective on a lot of things we take for granted as common sense. He’s also a fan favorite, which has made me appreciate the challenge of writing him even more!
  • Do you have a character that you really dislike?
    I mean, I really don’t like my main villain in the series! I won’t say a lot about him, but he is highly narcissistic and believes he can do no wrong, which I think is probably a quality most of us dislike! In terms of my protagonists, I definitely think I’d get on the least with Mason because he’s a bit of a know-it-all and low-key arrogant (though he doesn’t think he is). 
  • Do you see yourself in any of your characters?
    Oh, absolutely. I think each of them carry a little piece of me. There is so much about Miya that reminds me of myself when I was in my early 20s. Many of her struggles with mental health, finding her purpose in life, and her bone-deep ache of dissatisfaction with the status quo are partly inspired by my own struggles. Kai definitely gets his potty-mouth from me, and he’s been an excellent repository for all the things about human society that don’t make sense to me when I think about them too hard. And even though I am nothing like Mason in personality, we have a similar educational background! We both spent way too many years in higher-ed, so his scientific rationalism and excessively logical approach to any problem are things I am trained in, and it’s a world I am deeply entrenched in as an academic. 
  • Tell us about your writing & editing process.
    It’s pretty chaotic if I’m being honest. It takes me forever to write a book, and that is partly due to time constraints. I always have a ton going on at once. I am in two different degree programs (a PhD and an MPH) and I work three different freelance/contract jobs to stay afloat. Writing is something I do if and when I have the energy, but it’s also what’s most important to me. As you can imagine, this can create quite a lot of anxiety! I seem to enjoy occasional bursts of energy for writing, but at the end of the day, it’s all about staying committed to the project no matter what and understanding that the process isn’t linear; there are peaks and valleys. Even if it means there are massive gaps between writing sprints, keeping the flame going, no matter how small, gets you through the marathon. 

My editorial process is extensive, and honestly, I can’t emphasize the importance of editing enough. When I finish a manuscript, the first thing I do is set it aside for at least a few weeks. This is so, so, so important. When I do go back to it, I read with the big picture in mind and take note of anything I think might be a continuity issue or might not work in the plot. If I’m absolutely sure it needs to be changed, I’ll do that immediately. Otherwise, I’ll set it aside for a second opinion. I may do some light line editing, but the idea of the first read-through is to see how the first draft pulls together. Another thing I look for in first drafts is anything that can be cut and anything that needs further development, with more emphasis on the former. Cutting excess is one of the most important aspects of developmental editing, because the tighter your manuscript is, the more appealing and readable it will be to everyone who picks it up after you.

After this first round of edits, I’ll go back and make sure that my changes make sense. I might do a little bit more line editing now, mostly for clarity, tone, and voice. I’ll also keep my eyes open for anything more that can be cut. Once I’ve done this second round, the manuscript goes off to my freelance editor, Malorie, for a developmental edit. She will come back with a report on everything that works and everything that doesn’t work along with in-line comments. Once working through her edits, I will do another read-through to check these changes. Then, the book goes to my beta readers. I only have two or three beta-readers; these are people I trust and who I know won’t mince words with me. Once I incorporate their feedback, I do yet another read-through before sending the manuscript to my agent. My agent will also give me editorial feedback in the form of a report and in-line edits.

At this point, all the editorial work done is purely developmental, with only some minor line editing and copyediting. Once my agent and I are satisfied with the developmental edits, I then dive into the line edits. This is an ongoing process and will continue up until I have galleys with a publisher, but before submitting a final version to my agent, I will read through the manuscript another 2-3 times to improve sentence structure, flow, clarity, voice, tone, to eliminate repetition, and to make sure every sentence packs the punch that I want. Then and only then is the book ready for submission!

  • How do you deal with feedback?
    I think the hardest thing about feedback is knowing which critiques to take and which to ignore. For anyone seriously considering a career in writing, you do need to be open to feedback and tamp down on the urge to view critique as something that compromises your creative vision. It’s natural for writers to get defensive when they receive negative feedback, but this is really a huge part of the editorial process, and there is no way around it. That said, there is also the problem of taking everyone’s feedback too seriously, and this is just as detrimental as not taking feedback at all. If you listen to all feedback, you’ll have way too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak, and your work will end up feeling like a chimera. After struggling with this a lot while I was working on The Hollow Gods, I came to the conclusion that there are only two types of feedback writers should take: 1. Feedback that excites you and makes you think, “Yeah, this will definitely make my story better!” and 2. Feedback you hear again and again, even if you don’t like it. If more than one person is giving you the same critique, it’s definitely time to listen. However, an important caveat here is that the people giving you feedback should be qualified to do so. Therefore, be very selective about who you are seeking feedback from in the editorial stages of your work. 
  • What’s your writing fuel?
    Aside from coffee…an unquenchable desire to see a story brought to completion, no matter how long it takes. For me, personally, I get maybe one good story idea every few years, and so when I do, I want to really honor that idea by working as hard as I can to bring it to fruition. That doesn’t mean there won’t be times when I feel unmotivated, and sometimes you just have to buckle down and work through those periods even if it isn’t enjoyable. However, knowing what’s on the other side is always enough of a glimmer to keep me going.
  • Do you have a favorite time/place to write?
    Hmmm not really. I’d say this changes with time. I do think some of my best ideas come at night, and I used to be one of those people who’d wake up at 3am and start writing for no other reason than suddenly feeling inspired. That’s changed, and now that I’m old and cranky, I try to write whenever I have the energy, and that’s all over the place! I do prefer writing at my desk in my office. In general, I prefer quiet, though if a coffee shop is ambient enough, that can work too! However, because of the global pandemic, I haven’t been to a coffee shop in over a year!
  • Do you enjoy reading yourself? If yes, what genres and what is your favorite book?
    I do enjoy reading, but I’m not nearly as much of a bookworm as many of my fellow readers are! I truly envy the voracious appetite that many in the book community have! I don’t think I have a favourite book, to be honest. I don’t really re-read books, so I would struggle to name an all-time favourite, but I do love speculative fiction. I’m not really into high fantasy or hard sci-fi, but anything with folkloric and speculative elements is my jam. I loved The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, and I love genre-benders like Katya de Becerra’s What the Woods Keep and Oasis. 
  • Who’s your biggest inspiration?
    I’m not sure I have any particular individual I look up to in that way. For whatever reason, the idea of inspirational people never resonated with me, even when I was a kid. Rather, I look for inspiration in the people who support me, because I think support is more inspirational than anything else—knowing that there are people who believe in you and are willing to offer their time and energy to see you actualize your dreams. That’s inspirational to me! So, I guess rather than having someone I look up to, I’m inspired by my friends and partner who are always there to give me a boost when I need one. 
  • What’s changed for you since releasing your first book?
    I think I’m less anxious about everything. When you first book is releasing, you want everything to be perfect. I had so much anxiety about finding a typo in my book, because I know how sneaky typos and minor errors are. You have 10 people read the manuscript, and something will still slip through the cracks! You want your release day to be perfect and awe-inspiring, but when your book is coming out in the middle of a pandemic, it’s kind of impossible to have the sort of release day you want. Most of it is spent at your computer, refreshing social media and Amazon rankings. Now that I’ve been through it once, I’ve learned to let go a little. I still get anxious sometimes thinking about whether I’m doing enough to promote my work, but the need for perfection has greatly subsided. 
  • What do you want to say most to your readers?
    It’s okay to DNF books you don’t like! Just kidding. Honestly, I want them to know how grateful I am that they took a chance on my work. As a debut author with a small press trying to get by in the middle of a pandemic, it has been such a privilege to be so well-received. I’m amazed at how many people have stuck with me through The Hollow Gods and are now excited to read The Echoed Realm. I’m floored at the support, and I’m moved to know that my work has had a positive impact for some people out there. Really, all any writer wants is to find their audience!
  • Are you currently working on anything? Can you share some secrets?
    I am! I’m currently working on a stand-alone supernatural horror novel (with a touch of murder mystery). It also takes place in a small town and follows a woman who comes to the town to take care of her estranged sister after their mother suddenly passes away, and she gradually starts to realize that there are gaps in her memory and discrepancies in her knowledge and perception while inside the town borders. And, of course, there’s a murderer on the loose. 
Photo by @chelscey on Instagram.

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