Author Interview: Nerine Dorman

Tell us a little about yourself & your background

I’m a South African-based creative operating out of a log cabin on stilts (aka the Treehaus). No. Really. I don’t have a career, as such, but I turn my hand to whatever job pays, be it typesetting educational manuals, editing a dark SF erotic romance novel or compositing concept art for film commercials. So I’m a bit of a Jill of all trades, with a skills set that spans everything from fiction writing and editing to graphic design and image retouching.

Writing is my first love, but I make most of my money working on a well-known, high-end pet food brand and in the film industry. My life is never dull, and it’s changed a helluva lot since five years ago when I took the plunge and went freelance after a decade spent in the trenches of newspaper publishing. I’m never content to do just one thing for the rest of my life.

When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

As long as I can remember books fascinated me, though I only gathered the confidence to seriously write for publication when I was in my late 20s. I think this also coincided with having regular access to a computer and the internet, so I could start figuring out that getting published was within my reach. The internet only really became a thing when I was in my second-last year of high school, so finding the right information and connecting with people who could offer concrete advice was incredibly difficult. There was a lot of mystique attached to the process of getting published, and I always had so many people telling me to “be real” or that my writing was “too sentimental” to sell. Well, now I’m an award-winning author, so I guess all my nay-sayers can eat some crow.

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

To keep going, to keep pushing boundaries, to keep hitting that next milestone. I’m playing the long game, which means doggedly and relentlessly ‘showing up’, and writing without losing heart. I heard someone say that writers are eternal gamblers, that we live from story to story, always wondering if this next one is going to be the big one. In a perfect world I’ll be able to concentrate on my writing full time, but I’m realistic. Those who reach the lofty heights of GRRM or Robin Hobb are the exception, not the rule. The rest of us shouldn’t quit our day jobs any time soon.

Can you tell us a little about your most recent novel?

I had two novels release close on each other’s heels last year during October. Sing down the Stars was a Gold winner of the prestigious Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature here in South Africa. It’s best described as ‘Star Wars meets Oliver Twist, with a side order of The Hunger Games.’ If you like Anne McCaffrey’s writing, you’ll recognise some of the themes in the story right away.

But I’d like to tell you more about my other novel, The Company of Birds, which was published through one of my preferred British small presses, Immanion. I worked author and editor Storm Constantine, and the end result was … a lot more than I initially envisioned. It’s a strange tale, mostly set in an academy of mages, but tells a story of people who are fighting for their own place in a world that would render them invisible. There’s magic, history… It’s a gradually unfurling novel that I admit takes a while to get off the ground, but it’s a story that revealed itself at the pace that I wanted to experience it – it’s a heart novel of mine, in other words.

Can you introduce us to your main character?

The main character is Liese, a mage who doesn’t have any power, at first, until she discovers she’s the heir to a forbidden magic that will turn her into a hated, despised fugitive if she’s not careful. She learns to reach out for what she wants instead of allowing others to direct her life.

Do you have a favourite quote or scene from your novel?

For me it’s when Liese goes home for her father’s funeral. There’s a cremation scene that cut deep for me because at the time of writing I was still trying to work through my own complicated feelings about my father’s passing. So I wove those emotions into the story as well.

Where do you find most of your inspiration?

Oh gods, everywhere. I will watch a film and then ask ‘what if’ and then take elements from the plot and subvert it. Or I’ll read a news report or have thoughts while reading a novel about what I really wanted the story to do.

Are you more of a plotter or a panster?

Mostly a plotter, but I allow wiggle room in the story if it feels as if it wants to head off on a tangent. Often it’s those lateral branches that then lean on a concept or theme that’s already been outlined, but take it into an unexpected direction.

What is your writing routine like? How often do you write?

I try to write at least 3-4 250-word bursts during the course of the day. My writing is a reward between other tasks. My demanding workday rarely allows me large, unbroken blocks of time, so I need to grab writing bursts between the circus acts while I can. I am not a prolific writer like I was when I was still working at the newspapers. I used to write at least 2-3k words a day back then. Glorious days. Hah. Much has changed. But now it’s about quality, not quantity.

How much research has gone into your novel?

It absolutely depends on what I’m writing. If it’s set in our world, I will lean heavily on internet searches, Google Maps (especially Street View), YouTube, and perhaps even ask friends or acquaintances who know more about the subject than I do. Google is my friend. If you saw my browser history… While I will write about magic, I do feel that the world building needs to be solid, tangible. So no pink, fluffy unicorns or magic that works at the click of a finger.

What was the hardest thing about writing?

Getting past the saggy middle of any story, be it a short story or a novel.

Did you choose self publishing or traditional? Why?

I do whatever is right for the tale. Some stories will have mass appeal, and traditional publishing will be the way to go. Others are best for small presses, that will take risks on niche novels that will appeal to only a few readers. I’ll go with a small press primarily if there’s an editor I want to work with or if they can offer me something I can’t already do myself. The bulk of my work I’ll no doubt self-publish, but I do occasionally take on write-for-hire projects in the gaming industry. That money is good, even if it means I lose all the rights to my work after I sign the contract.

What has the publishing process been like for you?

It’s been a long, hard slog, with lots of mistakes and many tears and disappointments, but also much experience gained. I’ve been in the trenches since the rise and fall of the small presses in the romance market, and now I’m happy to follow a hybrid career.

What are you currently reading right now?

“Toss a coin to your witcher…”

And now you have that song stuck in your head.

Currently I’m hopping between about 10 novels. I don’t have much time to read and I like grazing in short bursts from different works so that my mind has stuff to chew on. But I’m enjoying picking apart Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing currently to try get a better understanding of The Witcher phenomenon.

Who are your biggest idols?

JRR Tolkien, Storm Constantine and Neil Gaiman, but also Robin Hobb, Jacqueline Carey, CJ Cherryh, and Mary Gentle, among many others. Oddly enough I tend to gravitate towards female fantasy authors, so I’m always amused when people claim that women don’t write the genre…Or that there are no great works published by women authors. Hah.

Do you get writers block? How do you deal with it?

The only thing that stands between me and writing is how much paid work I have on my plate. The past two months have been terrible for my writing but incredibly good for my design work. I’ve been crunching like no one’s business, and I hope I get a breather at some point so I can play catch-up with my personal creativity. Sometimes I’ll write, and I’ll feel uninspired, but I push on through (this is why having an outline is so important). My reason for those 250-word bursts is that they’re easy goals. I can psych myself up and say ‘it’s only 250 words’ and it’s much easier to hit those mini goals than chewing my nails over a bigger picture. It’s amazing how those 250 words add up eventually.

If you couldn’t be a writer what would you want to be?

I’d most likely be focused on illustration, which is one of my neglected passions. (Quite ironic as I majored in illustration at university.)

What do you get up to when you’re not writing?

I read, I game, make art, music, work in my garden, take cat photos. I’m never sitting without things to do. I even knit and am planning on learning to read and write ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics this year. I have vague notions of taking up embroidery so I can illustrate with thread…

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Read, read, read. Read books outside of your genre. Read the classics. Read best sellers. Then write every day, even if it’s only 100 words. When you get good critique on your writing, don’t be precious over your words. Never stop learning, especially when you work with an editor. Don’t be a diva. Try to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Keep going, no matter how many rejections you receive, because overnight successes are the exception, not the rule. Write, revise, submit. Rinse and repeat.

You can buy The Company of Birds in print or ebook. Folks are welcome to come stalk me on Twitter @nerinedorman where I regularly provide free entertainment or RT obscure and weird stuff. Alternatively, follow me on Instagram @nerinedorman

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