An Interview with
Tamara Siler Jones
by Lazette Gifford
a few short weeks Tamara Siler Jones will have her first book on store shelves.
Ghosts in the Snow (A Bantam Book, ISBN #
0-553-58709-9) is described as a
forensic procedural mystery in a medievalist fantasy setting and is already
drawing considerable attention.
Tamara is also an accomplished quilt-maker with
pictures of several lovely works up on her website. Be sure to check it out and
learn more about Tamara and her upcoming books:
Tell us about Ghosts in the Snow. When will it be available?
in the Snow is the story of Dubric Byerly, a long-retired war veteran, who finds
his relative peace as Castellan of Castle Faldorrah shattered when his castle
becomes the hunting ground of a ruthless killer. The murderer preys on serving
girls, taking their kidneys and hair. Cursed by the Goddess he denounced decades
before, Dubric sees every bloody ghost as each woman dies. With no apparent
connection between the murders, a skeleton staff, and increasingly angry and
violent castle residents, Dubric must find the killer while risking war, and the
loss of his sanity.
It's scheduled for a November release which,
oddly, is October 26, 2004. It should be available to the English-speaking world
(US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia) the first week of November.
This is your first sale. Can you tell us about how it came about?
boy. That's a complicated question. The simple answer is I queried and got an
agent, then he sold it. The accurate answer is a bit more involved. One day at
work I got an idea that my character, Dubric, wanted to solve a serial crime.
When I got home, I started writing. Six months later, after writing practically
every day, my first draft was done, but it was a long way from perfect.
Normally, that would have been okay with me, but the book insisted otherwise. I
was happy being a casual writer, but Ghosts wanted more.
I joined the Del Rey Online Writer's Workshop,
rapidly met some wonderful people who became my writer's group, and I revised,
revised, revised. Chapter One was voted runner-up for Best Fantasy Chapter and
life got strange. I started receiving fan mail, and hate mail, as well as wide
and varied comments on-site about my work. The best was "You Suck. Your Story
Sucks. Why Have You Wasted My Time?" I still love that quote. It reminds me not
to take myself, or the process, too seriously. It's not brain surgery, after
all, and no one's life is depending on it, not even mine. I've discovered that
readers either love my stuff or loathe it, and that's just fine.
While at OWW, I learned a lot about theme and
voice and structure. The hardest bit for me to learn was passive/active voice.
It truly drove me insane (ask my husband). "You're passive," critiquers would
say. "What the heck does that mean?" I'd reply. I'd get some nonsense about
subject object babblespeak. I wasn't a lit major in college, or English, or
journalism. Not even close. In fact, as a freshman I tested out of the only
English class on my transcript. Art, science; that I know. What the heck does
passive voice mean? All the grammar books had the same mumbo-jumbo nonsense.
Can't anyone explain it in normal terms?
I can, for all you non-lit types out there.
While this is not the full explanation for passive voice, a good way to start is
to avoid the use of state of being verbs (is, are, was, were, am, be, been,
being...) to shore up your more active verbs. There you go. Simple. I learned
those verbs in 6th grade and still remember the entire list. I rooted them out
of my prose as if they were vermin and it made a huge difference.
Once the manuscript was active voiced, as clean
and perfect as I could make it, and correctly formatted, I started to look for
an agent because the book would not be denied.
The first query, of course, came back as a
rejection, but I was determined and it didn't faze me. Much. It didn't faze the
book at all. I sent ten more queries the following day. Seven rejections came
back. Most were personalized and expressed concern over my length. Ghosts, at
that point, was about 247,000 words. Yep, dang near a quarter of a million, but
I honestly didn't know any different.
About that time, I found Holly Lisle's site
(due to the recommendation of my super-proofer Sam Godwin) and read some of her
essays. Good golly, I was more than two times too long! No wonder no one was
I revamped my query, offering to split the book
in half. The narrative took a definite turn/lurch near the middle and it was a
prime place to break it. Ten queries went out and almost immediately I got a
response from an agent, William (Bill) Reiss at John Hawkins and Associates. He
wanted to see more. Less than two weeks after sending the initial query, I was
agented by one of the best agents in the country. After six months of queries, I
received very, very few rejections. I couldn't believe my luck.
Bill suggested some changes, which I made, and
he sent Ghosts out to three publishers. Del Rey said no, as did NAL. Off to two
more. Warner a no. Still no word from Bantam... then, about 6 months after the
initial peek, I got an email from Juliet Ulman at Bantam, filtered through my
agent to lessen the blow (not that I would have minded the naked truth - I'm a
glutton for punishment). Juliet wanted to know if I'd be willing to get rid of
the epic fantasy bits and focus on the mystery aspects instead.
Gosh, yes! I want to write commercial
mystery/thrillers anyway so, for me, it was like jumping from step A to step M
on my writing career plan.
We discussed some changes and the contract
negotiations began. While Bill hammered out the details, I went back to writing.
The entire second half of Ghosts was discarded (as was the follow up novel I
wrote during the query/sale process). Also, of Ghosts' first half, we kept maybe
1/3, if that. It became a completely new book and I wrote it in less than three
months. I turned it over to Bill a couple of weeks before the contracts were
final, and he gave it to Juliet the day I signed. It's a heck of a story, tight
and vicious and surprising. I hope.
Between the acceptance and the published novel, what sort of process do the work
and you go through?
Work. Lots and lots of work. The book was accepted in mid-June, 2003. I re-wrote
darn near the entire book, from scratch, before September 1, then immediately
began work on the next book, Threads of Malice (in between family time and a
full time job). It was a big upheaval to my mundane life. Family members who
normally barely looked at me hung on my every word. People we rarely heard from
started to call. Everyone and their uncle wanted to read it. A writing buddy
made me a single hard-cover copy of the original Ghosts so I let folks read
that. Again, either they loved it or loathed it. I tried not to think of the
implications of getting published, and instead focused on writing Threads.
Changes came back from Juliet. Made them, sent
it back. More changes, more changes... still more changes. Lots and lots
and lots of changes. There were very few "story" changes after the big
rewrite. Most were clarification and clean up. I have some bad habits: words I
like, sentence structures I tend to fall back on, things like that, and there
were scenes to stick in to explain this or that or whatever. I started
marketing, attending conventions for readings and panels. I found it very
difficult to work full time, write full time, and edit full time (all the while
being a wife and mom and daughter with a sick father). Stress started to show.
My dad's illness progressed, leading to a couple of meltdowns in my psyche. He
passed away in February while I was in the midst of an edit. I barely remember
anything that happened in my life from January till June.
I quit my job in May. It was either that or be
locked away in a padded cell.
I love what I'm doing; love the process, the
learning curve, my agent and editor. I even love the work. I just never imagined
that there would be so little "free time." If I'm not actively creating
narrative, I'm editing, proofing, researching. It's a full-full time job, dang
near 24/7. I have to make plans to not work; otherwise it never stops.
Vision: You don't outline when you write but
trust your subconscious to keep the story on track. How do you deal with
worldbuilding and other background material?
There was some initial worldbuilding, but it
was a long time ago, and it all changed dramatically during re-writes. Back when
I was a newlywed (in the dark ages when computers measured their storage space
in KB), I wrote a sappy, vapid book called Magician's Gambit (unaware of David
Eddings' novel of the same name). I wrote happily along, oblivious and unaware
of, well, everything except my story. I devised a convoluted past history, where
some demons spewed from the ground and ate their way across a continent. Mostly,
whatever disgusting, nasty, vicious thing I could think of got added in. It was
a mess, but it gave me a shell. Not much of a shell, but the concept of an
earth-like place that made it to a certain point, then was forcibly ripped back
to the dark ages, or worse.
I still had that shell in the recesses of my
mind when I started Ghosts 15 years later. I knew that the world had taken a
severe back-step hundreds of years before, knew that some boys with guts and
determination fought and died to get the land back. I knew they built their new
society around a feudal model, knew they had horses and swords and built stone
keeps where they could. I knew there was a magic dagger of terrible, and cursed,
power. And, I knew that the surface wouldn't match the underlying truth. That
stuff was already there in the shell.
The rest I made up on the fly. And then, after
I did, my editor changed it. She changed it all. Juliet has the unique
knack of flipping my narrative inside out and show me what I intended to say all
Well, almost. Simply writing Ghosts changed a
See, originally the world was conquered by
demons. Now it's mages. Originally the fall back happened around 1740. Now it's
apx. 1870. There were seven families involved in the retaking of the land; the
seven families remain but they've been completely restructured. Magic, its uses,
modes, and effects -- changed. Political structure -- changed. Religion --
changed. People who originally died now lived, and vice versa. Even character
archetypes changed to fit the new mold. I think that my willingness to be
flexible and let it happen in its own way made it a lot easier to implement some
of the bigger changes in backstory and world mechanics. To me, everything is
fluid and flexible, at least until it's in print.
I like the process of discovery, the
unearthing, and as I worked through the book I had to research a wide variety of
things. I chose some aspects of Dubric's world early on, while others developed
over time. Many more changed while writing and editing. I tried to remain
flexible and let the characters and story show me what was important. There are
a lot of little details, glimpses into the world, lurking in the shadows. It's a
fully developed place, three-dimensional and alive, but the characters and story
are what's important to me. If some aspect of the world needed to change to
better showcase the story, that wasn't a problem at all, even if it was the
histories of the characters themselves.
Most of the changes I discovered by writing.
For example, Lars, Dubric's page, originally was of minimal importance. But,
after writing my way into the story, things in the shadows suddenly made perfect
sense. Lars is now vital to Dubric's story, and the story as a whole. I didn't
know about Dubric's ghosts or why he has them until I actually wrote it. I
didn't know lots of things going in, but that's okay. I knew enough to get
started and my characters knew the rest.
I think that the work involved in writing a
complicated novel like Ghosts is the same whether it's all pre-planned and
structured, or organic and discovered. You can either do the grunt work up front
(in outlines and worldbuilding and such) or you can do it from the back
(revision and restructure). Whichever way works for the writer is the way to go
(or some other completely different way).
I tried, desperately, to write a book from an
outline while Ghosts was in its query phase because that's what I was supposed
to do. All the writing books said so. I sat down over several weeks and did the
world building, did the whole character arc, story arc, development, move to
climax and denouement thing. Was fun. Highly enjoyable. But when I sat down to
write, my notes hamstrung me. I wrote 247,000 words in 6 months with Ghosts all
from a one sentence idea and two opening lines. In Mirror and Darkness, in 4
months, I wrote sixty PAGES. I was miserable, the story was miserable... I was
doomed as a writer, forever a one-trick pony.
I fretted and sulked and grumbled for a while,
then realized I liked my first scene, only the rest was crap. I chucked all but
the opener and threw my notes in a dumpster. I wrote the entire book, The Stone
Spies, in about 6 weeks and I was in heaven. Since Ghosts went through so many
dramatic changes during its road to publication, the entire story of Stone Spies
is now defunct, but it's a really fun book and bears no resemblance to the
outline I tried to make it adhere to. I trusted my characters to know about
themselves and their world. They haven't disappointed me yet. My free-wheeling
method might not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Because Ghosts in the Snow is a forensic mystery you did some odd research. Can
you tell us a bit about it?
have a bit of a medical/science background to start with -- I was a veterinary
medicine, chemistry, and medical laboratory major at various times before I got
my degree in art. That helped. I also love all things disgusting, including
blood and guts, so even the most disturbing aspects were very interesting to me.
I read books and prowled sites about Jack the
Ripper, searching for attack patterns, quirks and little details of the crimes.
I read up on autopsies, brushed up anatomy, and started collecting information
on serial killers like I collect fabric. Books about blood spatters and
footprints and crime scene methods became my reading of choice. I made phone
calls and asked questions, dug through old textbooks to find details about
razors or decay rates or how much blood someone can lose before they die. Lots
of wonderful research! Little of it actually made its way into Ghosts, but it
was all there in my head or notes in case it was needed.
I also learned about medical practices of the
civil war era, about writing implements, paper, parchment, optics, dyeing, rust,
factories... lots of little atmospheric details. I don't claim to be an
authority on any of it, but I hope that Ghosts' details are at least reasonably
has influenced your writing?
Currently (outside of my writers group), my favorite writers are Stephen King,
Thomas Harris, Stephen R. Donaldson, John Grisham, Arthur C. Clarke and Neil
Gaiman. I read dang near everything except westerns. Since starting on this road
to publication, I have met so many wonderful writers online and in person (like
Wen Spencer, Patricia Bray, Joe Halderman, Holly Lisle, Lazette Gifford,
Victoria Strauss, Mary Winter, S.E. Viehl, Glen Cook, Lawrence Watt-Evans, and a
multitude more), all of whom are wonderful, helpful people. I'm ashamed to say I
haven't read them yet, but I will. They're on my must-do list along with JD
Salinger, Truman Capote, the Brontė sisters and Virginia Wolff. I'm dreadfully
behind on my reading.
Beyond writers that I've read and writers that
I actually know, I remember one college professor who wrote on an essay, Tammy,
you write very well. Was a nice little boost at an opportune time in my life.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing?
I've been writing since grade school, second or third grade, if not before. All
through primary/secondary school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. That didn't
work out (finances got in the way), so I tried other things, finally graduating
college with a degree in art.
I've always been writing something, and getting
published was a small, vaporous goal until Ghosts demanded that I make it vital.
I still find it weird to describe myself as a writer. I've been doing it so long
that it's part of me, yet it's very new as a vocation. Before Ghosts, writing
was a private passion. Now it's public. That's taking some getting used to.
What advice would you give to someone trying to sell her first novel?
Make it as perfect as you can because editors and agents don't have time to
teach the basics. Trust yourself, trust your story, and never give up. Accept no
alternative other than "I will be published" but be ready, and willing, to make
changes if need be.
you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? If it helps, how
should writers best be using it?
think it's a great tool. Without it, I certainly would have had a much harder
time. All of my writer buddies are online; we're scattered all over the globe
and would never have met each other without the internet. I converse with my
editor and agent via email most of the time, and there are some awesome message
boards and research sites just for writers.
The internet is great for helping aspiring
writers know that even though they write alone, they're not alone. Their
problems with their story, characters, manuscript, and sales are normal and
expected. It's nice to chat with someone who understands the frustration of a
dead story line or rejected query, and someone who understands the elation of
the perfect word, the perfect sentence, or writing ten magical pages. Most
non-writers have absolutely no idea. They think we're nuts. It's reassuring to
discover that we're not, or at least not to others of our kind.
The internet is also like having a library at
your fingertips. Google is one of the greatest inventions of our time. But it's
also addictive. I have a tendency to answer emails and message boards right
now! I need to ignore the ding.
Writers should be aware of the scams and things
out there. It seems like so many of the bad agents and rip-off publishers are
online, but if you stick to reputable sources, like Herman's Guide and
publishers you've actually heard of, you'll be a lot safer.
What is your average day like? Do you write every day?
Get up. Watch Simply Quilts (the only TV show I
watch), eat breakfast and read comics online (I read Stone Soup, Foxtrot, For
Better or for Worse, and The Boondocks). Read Ann Landers -- it's great for
story ideas, or so I keep telling myself. Check the message boards on FM, answer
emails and other pressing correspondence, go exercise. Once I'm home again, I
clean house and make lunch for hubby (he comes home for lunch). I try to do some
editing, but mornings are usually pretty full.
Edit, proofread, return back and forth emails
with editor and/or writing buddies. Finish housework. Do freelance artwork, if
there is any. Ask the kid if she's cleaned the bathroom yet. Let the cats in and
out a couple hundred times. Edit some more. Start supper. My only real reading
time is while supper cooks. Sad, I know.
Supper with the family. Finish up that day's
allotment of edits, email back and forth with Sam and go over life and story
lines. Tell the kid to turn off the TV because it's sucking her brain away.
Laptop and I settle on the couch and I get to WRITE!
Bedtime at 11:30 or later.
I don't get to write every day, but I do work
on writing every day. Some days all I do is edit (like yesterday). Other days
it's all creation. Some days are research heavy. It just depends. Sometimes I
try to take a "no writing" day. I last until 8 pm or so, then I can't take it
anymore and I have to write.
Your first sale is a fantasy novel, but are there other genres you write in? Is
there another genre you would like to attempt but haven't yet?
editor has already mentioned a spin off series featuring Lars so I'm trying to
work Dubric's stories toward that end. They'll probably be darker and have more
magic. Maybe be a bit more intense. They'll also show more of the political and
geographic landscape, I think. I just have loose, swampy ideas for those right
I'm also in the midst of developing a set of
modern forensic mystery/psychological thrillers with no fantasy elements.
Standard commercial fiction fare. (My editor and agent both liked the same one
of two story ideas I pitched so the Meg Nakathani mysteries will possibly be a
"go" sometime in '06). I need to feel out the character a bit more, ding her up
a little -- I like tragic heroes -- but her first mystery will likely shock a
lot of people. It's shocked everyone I've described it to.
I'd like to write a SF novel, but I haven't
started yet. I'd also like to write a writing book at some point, and an epic,
but they're a long way off. I have too many people to kill first.
already have several conventions lined up. Have you attended conventions as a
fan in the past? What sorts of things are expected of you now that you've sold a
actually used to organize SFF conventions, or at least the gaming aspect of
them, so I'm very comfortable in the fan-convention environment and I understand
the insanity that the staff has to control and endure. Last year's World Fantasy
was a bit of a change in that not only was I not working behind the scenes,
there were no fans to speak of. No costumes, no Klingons, no gaming. Nothing but
writers and editors and agents, all talking books and stories. It was heaven,
but exhausting. I don't think I've talked so much in such a short period of time
Now instead of scheduling games and arranging
furniture, I'm giving readings and being on panels. Since I know how frustrating
"talent" can be for the staff, I'm volunteering to help and doing everything I
can to be flexible in where they put me and what they'd like me to do. I'm also
meeting many, many people who are struggling to break the publication barrier
and who are trying to understand the business. I try to pass on what I've
learned, from little tips about making your own letterhead, to sentence
structure and mechanics, and I also try to be approachable and friendly. Most
writers tend to be rather shy individuals -- myself included -- but when I'm on
the program at a convention, I want to be a bit more animated and outgoing. It's
been great fun. I've been a pro at three conventions so far and have four more
scheduled for this fall.
have other books listed on your page. How soon can we expect the next one out
after Ghosts in the Snow?
Threads of Malice is on schedule for release in November '05. There's a teaser
for it on my site and in Ghosts' paperback release. I haven't started book three
yet and I'm wavering between doing something with the historical precedent of
werewolves or murder by arson. Both ideas intrigue me, but I might decide to do
something political too. Lots of ideas skipping around my head.
Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to
say to our readers?
love to help aspiring writers understand how to better navigate the road to
publication, understand tense/voice/structure, or just talk shop. Feel free to
drop me a line at
email@example.com or just say "hi" at a convention.
Also, believe in yourself and believe in your
story. Miracles can happen. I'm proof.
Thanks, Zette! This has been fun!
To keep track of Tamara
Siler Jones and her upcoming work,
be sure to visit her website: