L. Penelope self-published her first book in January 2015, and a year later St. Martin’s Press offered her the chance to have her planned four-book Earthsinger series reach more readers. The new version of Song of Blood & Stone, an epic fantasy about an orphaned outcast who saves the life of a spy and finds herself embroiled in a war between two nations separated by a magical barrier, hit the shelves on May 1. Penelope spoke with Unbound Worlds about self-publishing, spirituality and writing worlds you want to live in.
Unbound Worlds: Could you tell me about the process that took Song of Blood & Stone from self-published to the St. Martin’s Press release?
L. Penelope: I first published it as a self-published book in January 2015. I had decided initially to self-publish so I hadn’t queried agents or editors or anything. I was interested in the process and the whole movement. It had been out for about a year and I was able to get a Publisher’s Weekly review for the book and it won the Black Caucus of the American Library Award. That same month I got an email from an editor at St. Martin’s Press. She had found the book online and bought it and read it and really enjoyed it. It was complete serendipity. She emailed me initially about pitching her something new, my next series. I pitched her what I was working on next and she came back to me and said Song of Blood & Stone was really in her heart and she thought she could bring it to a wider audience and asked if I’d consider that. I thought it was just an amazing opportunity to reach more people than I could by myself. I went for it.
UW: How did you want to approach fantasy about race relations and segregation?
LP: I thought it was important for the world that I was creating to have its own issues. For me fantasy is always a way to draw parallels to the issues we’re facing in our world and allow us to see them through a different lens, without the baggage we’re carrying in this world. When the world started coming together for me and I saw that there were these two groups that had been separated, that had been at war, I think the parallels just started being created in my mind. It wasn’t like I set out initially to deal with race and segregation and refugees but they showed up in the story. I felt like they were supposed to be there. I tried to create a fully realized world with human beings still dealing with the same prejudices that all human beings deal with.
UW: What made you decide to integrate magic with electricity, guns and other technology?
LP: I knew that I wasn’t writing a medieval-style fantasy. The first image that came to me when I first had the idea for this book was the main character, Jasminda, on the porch of her home with a shotgun in her hand and these men are coming towards her, so I knew we’ve got guns. I also was really inspired by Maggie Stiefvater’s book The Scorpio Races which takes place in a time period that’s not clearly defined but it does have cars and telephones. I liked the vibe of that and the feel of that. Because I’m kind of a tech person, I’m a web developer, I liked the idea of technology on some level. You get the advantage of not having to spend a week or two on travel. You can get there in a few hours. There’s benefits to the storytelling and there’s benefits because it’s a time period I don’t often see in fantasy and I wanted to explore that and what that would mean.
UW: Did you have particular inspirations for your magic system?
LP: I was always interested in things that were more metaphysical. For me Earthsong is completely internal. It’s just about connecting with this energy that exists in the world. That type of magic is always really fascinating to me. I grew up in a metaphysical/spiritual tradition so I’m thinking of things in that way. Earthsong is tapping into life energy that allows you to manipulate other life energy in nature.
UW: Can you tell me a bit more about your spiritual background?
LP: I was raised as a Christian Scientist, which is a denomination most known for believing in spiritual healing instead of medicine and doctors. I’m not practicing right now, but that’s my background, a very strong emphasis on prayer and spirituality to the point of relying on it for your health care. I grew up believing that prayer is very powerful and that your mindset is very powerful in terms of creating reality and actually experiencing physical changes.
UW: How did you come up with the folktales at the beginning of each of the chapters?
LP: Those were suggestions from my editor and I thought it was a really great idea. They weren’t present in the self-published version. The idea was to deepen the world. It’s the first book of four so you’re just stepping your toe into a world that as the series progresses will get deeper and deeper. I did a lot of research on different kinds of folktales to get the shape of them in terms of how to create a new folktale that feels old, that feels like it’s part of this world. I wanted to deepen the world and have this lore that has been around that you don’t necessarily see addressed directly but is all part of the fabric that’s woven into the world.
UW: Any advice you’d give to someone who’s looking to self-publish their own novel?
LP: Self-publishing is really rewarding and if that’s the way you want to go, I think it’s fabulous. It’s very difficult and time consuming. Get a professional cover and professional editing. My goal when I self-published was to make my book indistinguishable from a traditionally published book. The community that you build around yourself as a writer is really important. Find a support system and people that you can rely on and bounce ideas off of, people to give you business advice in terms of marketing and self-publishing. The community aspect really kept me going the highs and lows of publishing.
UW: How did you find a community for your work?
LP: It starts as being a reader and being part of the community. I looked at how I found books and then targeted those places as an author and a publishing, looking at Goodreads and Facebook groups, doing research into what other authors I enjoyed were doing and trying to reverse engineer their marketing and seeing what blogs they were on and what podcasts they were on. There are some authors who believe marketing starts when you first write the book. Look at what’s selling, look at what people are enjoying and figure out how you can position your story as you’re writing. That can be a lot of baggage as you’re writing but keep an idea of what genre it is. If you decided to self-publish the genre is very important and crossing genres makes it harder to market.
UW: So what made you decided to combine romance and fantasy?
LP: It was almost not a decision. I was writing a thing that I’d love to read in a world I kind of wanted to exist in. I love paranormal romance and epic fantasy. I started showing it to people and I was getting good feedback and thought ‘Maybe I can publish this.’ Then I realized I’d done this thing that’s kind of hard. I wasn’t deterred by that. It was a matter of knowing there are people like me who love both and want that kind of mashup.
UW: What are you working on now?
LP: I’m going to be self-publishing some novellas in the Earthsinger chronicles in between the St. Martin’s books and I’m working on a new series that’s more futuristic fantasy with dragons in it.