Profiling Professionals: Sci-Fi Fantasy author Kate Elliot

My first impulse when entering a place that is wall-to-wall books is to visit the Science Fiction and Fantasy section. It’s my favorite kind of genre fiction and I will often pluck books off the shelves like fruit then bring them back to a tiny nook tucked in the corner and peruse them all searching for something to sink my teeth into.

During one such excursion to the local library I happened upon the works of Kate Elliot. Among the large stack of books piled high on the desk was Spirit Gate, the first in the Crossroads trilogy of books written by Elliot. Epic fantasy is usually not my thing. I love the worlds, but don’t have the patience to find things like character and story buried beneath so much minutiae that it takes three chapters to tell me everything about a craggy mountain range.

It took a chapter or two to get hooked on Spirit Gate and over the next few months I finished off the other two books in the Crossroads Trilogy Shadow Gate and Traitor Gate. The books were true to its genre with a universe filled giant eagles, political intrigue and great battles to satisfy the most ardent fans, but it was also felt different than the others.

Perhaps the best description of the Crossroads series comes from the author in a brief description on her website:

I wanted to write an epic fantasy series with the complex and dense interpersonal relationships I was watching (at the time of writing) in great tv shows like The Wire. Also: giant justice eagles (eagles the size of Cessnas from which reeves–like sheriffs–dangle hang-glider style in order to patrol the countryside).  — Kate Elliot  

The Crossroads trilogy built a world that felt realistic and showed complexity in the way characters interacted with each other and the society they live in. It examined those in power and those that weren’t and showed how they were intertwined. It’s very much like The Wire, a show that explores the drug trade in the mean streets of Baltimore and how both cops and traffickers aren’t all that different from each other. Both The Wire and Elliot’s books have this in common: both are grand in scope and handle interpersonal relationships within their respective worlds with a level of nuance I don’t see very often.       

Since finishing off the Crossroads trilogy, I’ve read a lot more of Elliot’s work and became became an ardent enough of fan to visit Borderlands Books in San Francisco to get a book signed by the author herself. I did end up getting my copy of Cold Magic, book one in the Spirit Walker trilogy signed by the author, but also got a lot more than a brief conversation and a signed book from the encounter.

It eventually led to a lengthy interview and a profile here on The Art & Business of Creativity.

I have a soft spot for fiction authors because it’s a profession that this writer had dreams of doing, before journalism got its hooks in me. The biggest reason for this post is to answer a lot of my questions about what it takes to be a writer and possibly help someone else interested in writing fiction to make an informed decision.

So here are some lessons from a woman who has done this before and continues to do it. My hope is that you come away inspired and find yourself thinking that a writing career is possible.

 

Where you came from and being a writer

Writing is deeply personal  for Elliot, that much is apparent. The profession is so much apart of her identity that she would, “cut off an arm and a leg rather that stop writing.” Needless to say, that type of passion struck a chord with me.

[I] Never felt there was anything else I could as passionately. I took piano lessons, but it didn’t take me more than two or three years to realize I wasn’t willing to work the way you had to work. Writing is the one thing I am willing to work 16 hours a day for.

Being a successful writer doesn’t happen by accident, it’s a product of choices that are sometimes conscious and other times not. Choosing a profession is deliberate, but it is often guided by the things that hold weight and meaning in the personal life. Values differ for each person, but it plays a role in choosing a career. Perhaps there is an alternate universe version of Kate Elliot that is a piano player, who knows, but writing is the thing she couldn’t stand to live without.

Passion is a good starting point when choosing a career. While it may not be the end-all-be-all, when it comes to paying the necessary cost to doing it well, best to choose something you’d be willing to lose limbs over (metaphorically speaking.) Now some can separate the personal and professional. People make the choice all the time to find work that is financially fulfilling and find personal fulfillment elsewhere, but for someone like Elliot the two sides are completely intertwined.

Elliot grew up in rural Oregon and spent much of her time outdoors and amongst nature. She was a self-described “outdoor child” and a reader. During our interview she spoke of drawing maps and writing stories constantly as a child and while those moments are small ones, it’s an experience she holds dear. Boil it down to its simplest elements and really the most important work in fiction is just that — writing stories. When the most important parts of the profession carry emotional weight, then there is an investment in the work and a sense of satisfaction that goes beyond a paycheck. Now that’s not to say personal and financial fulfillment are mutually exclusive, people value work purely for the financial stability it brings (or simply don’t have the option to choose,) but boy does it feel so much better when the two are one in the same.

The past can inform the present profession in a more nuanced way as well. Elliot’s mother was a Danish immigrant that came to the US at an early an early age and that had a big influence on her career. Elliot said that even though she was born here, she was privy to an experience and way of living that people embedded in the US can’t see. She would continue to explore other cultures later in life by travelling to other countries and forcing herself to confront differences and see a wide range of human experiences.

The cliché phrase write what you know bears out in her work. The Crossroads is a series that deals with clashes between large civilizations and really examines what happens when different parts of those societies come in contact with each other. The Spiritwalker trilogy is a much more personal story, but the big conflict is still one between cultures.

Elliot’s professional aspirations originate from her experiences growing up and many of her strengths as a writer are also born from the life she has lived. The decision to pursue a career in writing is one made out of an emotional connection to the art and that passion can be traced back to childhood.

Writing, like any other artistic endeavor, is about expression and pursuing it as a profession requires a fundamental desire to communicate. Anybody that writes for a living recognizes the impulse to be heard and to know that what gets put into words is understood and recognized by those who read them. To take the leap and call it a career requires the answer to a more fundamental question — just how much does writing mean to me?

When writing is something that you can’t live without then the decision is an easy one.


The Nuts and Bolts

Kate Elliot sets herself apart because she builds fantastic places that are still familiar. There are instances where I feel that other authors in the genre get lost in the worlds they build or the ideas they bring up. I don’t pick up a work of fiction to read a polemic essay or a thinly veiled geography lesson, but to read about people in a world that feels lived in and real.

World building is no easy task, especially when it involves so many fantastic elements. Things like magic and giant eagles obviously don’t exist, but in a fictional world their presence and function need to feel real. What gives the worlds Elliot creates weight is the way society and culture operates in conjunction with so many of the fantastic elements in her novels. Her worlds inevitably feel grounded and carry a sense of history.

I wanted to get a sense for how Elliot does this so we discussed world building and the process of creating these complex fictional places. The process begins with a careful and thorough self-examination.

The first thing is try to be aware how easy it is to grab general common knowledge and generic things we see out of Hollywood and half-baked knowledge of the past. A lot of times people have erroneous as in shallow views of the past.

Stereotypes are quick and easy, but also lack the depth to be truly meaningful. Now it’s easy to confuse depth with minutiae or disguise depth with spectacle. Giving the most accurate description of what something looks like or imploring the reader to look at that awesome mystical creature is not depth. What she is referencing are the people living within that world. Having a flat or erroneous assumption about society and the people living within it (even a fictional one) will inevitably lead to a caricature of one on the page that a reader can see through right away.

A good start to getting beyond stereotypes is cleaning up the lens that you look at the world through. That means taking inventory of personal biases and recognizing the things you don’t understand. I am a man and person of color and that impacts the way that I see the world and other people. That will differ from the way that a white woman or a gay man would see the world and it’s important to recognize the way other people may see certain choices within a work of fiction and account for them.

So what does this have to do with world building?

It’s recognizing that the author is not a passive participant in the world they create. They bring all the baggage of their upbringing and worldviews to the table and being ignorant of them means there is a blind spot that could impact the way a character or fictional society comes across to the readers. A fiction writer can’t be partial to parts of their world. They have to be in tune with all of it and that means understanding how the ghastly and unsavory parts of society think and operate just as much as the virtuous and right. It also means stepping back and becoming aware about how those depictions will come across to the reader. Now that doesn’t mean making changes based on whether or not it will upset the reader, but it’s better to step into a pile of poo willingly than suddenly find it all over your shoes.

Realism depends a great deal on how characters interact with the world and acquiring a  level of understanding necessary to begin writing depends on the author. There is no magic bullet or correct method to do this, but exploring the line of thinking that went into the worlds that Elliot created takes some mystery out of the process.

The Spiritwalker series takes place in a steampunk universe where science and magic are at odds with each other, but its also alternate version of European history. Her aim was to write about a Europe that is much more demographically and ethnically mixed. She didn’t just turn to academic writing for insight into european history, but examined several layers before starting to write.

What I often do is start with well-written children’s books. They often give basic information to situate yourself. Once you can situate yourself you can look for more. The next layer of history is popular history. Once you become familiar with this topic then you can start moving into the really academic books and cultural reading.

Elliot said that she does take notes and creates notebooks, but much of the world building happens in her own head. She described it as hitting a certain fill line and once she got there it was time to start writing.

Her novels also tend to have a large cast of characters. In addition to a deep understanding of the culture she creates is an approach to characters that is focused on their relationships. There are often a lot of characters, some major and others minor, but all of them memorable in some way. Kate said that she keeps track of characters not by individuals and traits, but by their relationships to each other because in real life people are band animals and that is how they process relationship.

I use a rubric where I hierarchize characters. There are ones whose stories drive the plot and there are secondary characters that get a lot of screen time and often have their smaller story arc. Then there are tertiary characters and I try to make them memorable.

World building is as much about people more so than anything else and the best ones have a keen understanding about that. It’s important to create an accurate setting, but properly situating the reader within a fantastic world requires a keen understanding of relationships. World building has everything to do with the character’s relationship to each other, their land, society and their culture.

Return to the familiar and a new venture

This is a big year for Elliot who has already released one book and is poised to release two more by years end. A collection of her very best short stories appropriately dubbed The Very Best of Kate Elliot released in February. While primarily a novelist (she quipped about writing twice as many novels as short stories,) the collection is an excellent introduction to her works.

The summer brings the book Court of Fives, which is slated to release on Aug. 18. The novel is her first foray into the Young Adult genre. The impetus for writing this novel is a little bit more personal to her.

I get tired of debates in epic fantasy whether women characters should be in there. I didn’t get many adventure stories when I was a girl and I wanted to write the kind of book I wanted to read at 16.

Having a woman protagonist is not new in her novels. The Crossroads Trilogy had Mai and Spiritwalker revolved around Cat, but the difference in Court of Fives is in the age and focus of its narrative.

Spirit Walker is a college age story about [a woman] fighting who she is. Young adult has a teen protagonist. I had to write something that is very focused on the main character and how she saw the world.

The story shares traits with many recent forays into the genre as of late, but it also looks to have a little bit of her flare as well. Jessamy is a young woman of mixed race who escapes her station within a restrictive society by participating in an intense athletic competition called The Fives. She of course falls in love and has to deal with jealous nobility threatening her family. The intriguing part about this is that the novel still feels like epic fantasy despite the genre promising to explore themes of class and privilege.

This fall marks her return to epic fantasy and a familiar universe. Black Wolves is tentatively slated for a release this November and marks a return to The Crossroads trilogy universe. Fans of the series will remember a reference to the Black Wolves in Traitors Gate, the final book in the series. Elliot said that the book takes place after what happened in Crossroads, but it is written in a way so that it functions as a standalone novels.

She wouldn’t divulge and details but she said, “Yes, you will see characters you will recognize.”

 

Profiling Professionals- Tricia Peterson

Profiling Professionals is a series of articles that highlights individuals that don’t take the beaten path when it comes to their careers. If you know of anybody that fits this profile email Jose San Mateo at info@jasanmateo.com.

Name Tricia Peterson

Occupation: Artist

Website: http://www.ratgirlproductions.com/

Contact information: support@ratgirlproductions.com

 

It’s fitting that Tricia Peterson’s career as an artist and her website Ratgirl Productions owes part of its launch to a corporate pet supply store’s need to shutter its business.

“I got laid off working a job for six days a week. I was managing a pet supply store and working my bum off,” Peterson said. “One day they set me aside and said the figures were not looking good. It really hit me hard, but I was in an ok place. Then it just clicked and I asked myself ‘why am I not doing art.’”

Ratgirl Productions is now two years old and what started out as an idea has grown into a business with a steady following. She still sets up shop at anime, comic, and furry conventions throughout California, at one point working a pace of three in one month, but now its to the point where she has a group of regular clients and now sells merchandise online.

It usually starts early

Peterson always had an inclination for art. As a young girl growing up in the Napa Valley there was little else to do but spend time drawing up in her room.

“I definitely had a lot of free time and drawing tended to fill that up. When I was young, I’d spend a couple of hours on a doodle,  slaving away to get the perfect shading in. You go into kind of a zone and block out time.”

Her dad was a musician with a penchant for the arts while her mother managed a video store called Video Point in Sacramento. As a kid her family would often watch films together.

“I was born and raised in the Napa Valley; surprisingly not as a wine and dine personality,” she said. “I really had a lot of inspiration from things my parents showed me. My dad would bring home a lot of animated movies especially.”

Peterson hung out with a lot of animals and she often spent her days watching Looney Toons and Disney movies. She said her favorite movie was the Lion King, which had an influence on her style. Visit her website and nearly every page you’ll be greeted by a cute furry creatures that wear human clothes and stand up on two legs.

In the way of formal art classes, Peterson started with art classes and took a video production class at Napa High School during her junior and senior year. She got her hands on studio grade equipment and learned the tools of the trade for an animator. In the summer of 1999, Peterson attended a college level animation course in Valencia, CA at a school called CSSSA (California State Summer School for the Arts. She said that learning techniques like storyboarding and creating scripts were useful for her.

After High School she went to Santa Rosa Junior College and took courses online at Anthem College, but for the most part Peterson taught herself.

Peterson developed her own style through imitation. She would often fall in love with certain characters and stories, try and mimic them then incorporate it into into her own original works.

“I’d watch a movie, see a certain style then try and develop my own sorts of style in genres like anime or disney character types,” she said.

Learning this way allowed her to be flexible when it comes to commissioned works. She can easily adapt to what a client is looking for. Peterson said that clients are often surprised when they look through her portfolio and see all the different styles that she is able to do.

She still learns the same way, often watching animation from countries like France and Russia or exploring animated cartoons from decades past.

Striking it out on your own

Real life was often the most challenging part of pursuing a career in art. Peterson was always a hard worker and after high school she was working 40 hours a week in addition to taking her college courses.

She spent time working retail with a five-year run working at various WalMart’s, but it left her little time to work on her art.  She said, “Certain retail job required a lot of mental focus and my art would definitely take a beating. I wouldn’t draw something for months at a time.”

It wasn’t until she was laid off around Halloween in 2009 that she decided to commit much of her time to Ratgirl productions. She finally took the plunge after she went with her sister to the bank and opened a business account.

The skills she learned from working customer service were useful to her business. She was already saavy with social media and knew how to design a website for herself. It also helped to have strong support from her family.

“I am really thankful from my husband and friends and family who have been supportive of what I’ve been trying to do,” Peteson said. “They would ask  ‘are you sure you want to do just this?’ whereas the average joe will ask ‘how do you make a living?’”

The two most difficult things about starting Ratgirl Productions was time management and marketing. She said that becoming a sole proprietary business was juggling being the boss, production artist, public relations writer and everything else.
A typical day is often a lesson in multitasking.

“Pop in movie to get some inspiration and let my mind flow. I’ll definitely try to keep a somewhat rigid schedule so I don’t work on one thing all day,” Peterson said. “I try to  mix it up and work on couple of different things at once so I don’t get restless and fatigued.”

The more difficult task is marketing. With so so many different artists out there, it’s difficult to get yourself noticed so she spends a couple of hours scouring facebook and social media interacting with her fans.

“Regular posting on my site and keeping a good online presence shows people I’m not just a part time artist, but I’m but here to stay,” Peterson said. “It gives them security that they can hire me and I’m not just going to blow them off. I give each project their due time and people appreciate that.”

Not all of her time is spent online though, she also hits the convention circuit working the artist alleys and dealer room. Peterson said that she had been frequenting conventions as a fan for years so it was natural to bring Ratgirl productions to conventions.

“More often I am trying to keep a face to face presence at conventions,” Peterson said. “It’s really major haul getting to every single events. Whenever I’m at conventions it’s usually on a professional level at dealers room or artists alley.”

Selected Works

Ninja Time

This is a parody inspired by The Cartoon Network Show Adventure time and the popular anime series Naruto. She said It’s a fan favorite on her pages and often the kids that see her at conventions recognize the style.

Kitten Vs. Yarn

This started out as a request from friends to build a little bit more artwork in her portfolio. The very flat style is inspired by some of the more recent cartoons on Cartoon Network.

The Watcher

Produced inbetween getting laid off and starting her business. She produced this piece after seeing a contest on Deviant Art. The theme was Dreams and nightmares.

Artist spotlight: Melissa Pagluica

My main platform at the Vallejo Times-Herald and affords me the farthest reach as far as audience. I’m fortunate to have some great colleagues, but I also get to talk to some talented coaches and High School athletes with great stories to tell.

The closest I’ve ever gotten to the field are those days I cover games, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned some lessons from sports figures that can’t be applied to my writing life. I’ve never met John Wooden before but I’ve read every book and article there is about the legendary coach from UCLA. Wooden died in 2010, but  but he remains an influential figure to me. The one thing I take away from his life and teachings is that it’s everybody’s responsibility to use their skills to teach others and also to be taught themselves.

Mentor is both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it’s someone whose principles and values have dictated their decisions and actions as they went about their lives. As a verb, it’s being open to teaching others through actions and receptivity to teaching those that seek guidance. By that definition, all of us are mentors and all of us can be mentored.

It’s a simple matter of being observant enough to see the lessons that be gleaned, but also it’s being aware that the way we conduct ourselves has an impact on those around us.

My talents lay in journalism and in writing. The real beauty of my profession is that it affords me the ability to ask questions and learn about people on a daily basis. My job is to tell stories both imaginary and real and this blog is my platform to tell the stories about all the wonderful Creatives I meet on a daily basis.

I’m going to make it a point to profile at least one person on this blog each week. My hope is that you see each one of these stories as an opportunity to be mentored because every person that has taken the time to speak with me has certainly been my mentor.

Melissa Pagluica

Melissa Pagluica loves a good story.

“My dad was a big fan of Zelda. He’d be playing Zelda and then call me over. I’d run up whenever he’d be fighting the boss,” Melissa said. “ I remember watching X-Men, Gargoyles, and Sailor Moon. I think that’s when I started caring about anime. I used to scour the TV guide a lot (for anime), watch Sci-Fi channel. Robot Carnival and weird Sci-Fi. I played a lot of RPG’s.”

Melissa is an artist from Sacramento whose art is influenced by cartoons and video games. That love for colorful characters from her childhood carried over into high school, college and now into a career as an artist.

Melissa got her Bachelors degree in Fine Arts at Cal-State University Chico in 2007. She said her main influence was a Nanette Wylde, a teacher in Digital Media at the school.

She first started doing commissioned work in college, doing album titles for bands like RedSkunk Jipzee Swing and the New Orleans Moonshiners.

“It just sort of happened in my life,” Melissa said. “I kept making friends with musicians and other band would see my work.”

Currently she works part-time as a desktop publisher, “playing with design software and updating English files into different languages for publications” as she puts it, but her goal is to work full-time as an artist.

“Work the last couple of months has been pretty tough and I find myself up in the wee hours,” Melissa said. “Various project for my day job can be unpredictable, but I take it one day at a time. Work is 24-7 sometimes.”

Between her day job Melissa carves out time to do the things that she loves. Recently Melissa had a booth at the Animation on Display Festival where she handed out business cards and hada portfolio of past work she’d done for clients. Her commissioned work ranges from $15 for sketches to hundreds of dollars for a full color work

She said that it can be challenging at times, but takes a positive approach and sees it as a way of stepping out of her own element.

“I’m still navigating art world, figuring out how to put myself out there. Mainly it’s just my day job that gets in the way. I want to do art all the time; that’s what I wish I was doing. It’s finding ways to balance work and art. ” Melissa said. “I’m learning that if your serious about art, and you want to do it professionally, then you have to make it your lifestyle.”

Melissa’s Work

Melissa uses both traditional and digital mediums to produce her work. Initial sketches are done on sketch pads then transferred using Photoshop or Painter. She said at times she’ll use mixed media or acrylic paints.

One constant is the dreamlike quality that pervades most of ther pieces. On the surface are foreground characters, but the beauty in all her work is the subtlety where shadowy figures often tell their own story in the background.

If you want to see more of Melissa’s work visit here

Swan Dance

“I like working with ideas that people can recognize and associate with easily. Swan Lake is well known for the scene where the Princess becomes a Swan and I wanted to try putting my own spin on this transformation. Stories are important to me, so I always try to portray a point of view that looks like a story is unfolding within my art.”

Gwen Turner


“Gwen Turner is from a story that I’ve been working on for a awhile. She’s a librarian, the non-adventuring nose stuck in a book type, who gets sucked into a dark underworld of demons.”

Utena

“When I do fanart, it has to be nostalgic for me. Utena was one of those animes I watched growing up. I wont pretend to fully understand Utena, but it was fun trying to portray the relationship and pulling symbols I remember from the series within the background.”