Author Interview: David Michael Williams

Welcome, one and all, to another author interview. Those who saw my book spotlight for If Souls Can Sleep and the subsequent book review will know that I rather enjoyed the hybrid genre tale. So, I am thrilled to welcome the author, David Michael Williams, to the site today!

David Michael Williams

David, for those unfamiliar with your work, can you give us a quick introduction?

Before I was a writer, I was an avid reader of epic fantasy. Naturally, I first tried my hand at the sword-and-sorcery. I wrote a trilogy (The Renegade Chronicles), which features a large cast of characters, no shortage of adventure, and plenty of world building.  The three novels—Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters—were published in 2016.

After writing a few more stories and the first draft of another book in that world, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and create a story unlike any I had ever written—or read, for that matter. The first book of my new series (The Soul Sleep Cycle) came out earlier this year.

The first thing I wanted to talk about today is your current novel, If Souls Can Sleep. Now, the cover was the first thing that drew my attention to the book. How did you come to use to use Mary Christopherson as the cover artist, and what sort of input did you have in terms of the design?

I am blessed to have worked with many talented graphic designers through my day job at a marketing agency. My coworker Mary Christopherson has a knack for photo manipulation and experience designing album covers. When an unexpected project came up—I needed a cover image for my short story “Ghost Mode,” which was to appear in an anthology—asking Mary was a no-brainer.

She knocked it out of the park. (Check out her portfolio at http://mary.design/.) Then when it came time to plan for The Soul Sleep Cycle, she expressed interest in doing those covers, too.

The process went something like this: I bombarded her with a plethora of ideas—from subjects and themes to textures and typefaces—and we reviewed existing book covers in search of more possibilities. Miraculously, she was able to filter through my suggestions and chose a composition that both complemented the story and showcased her skillset.

I couldn’t be happier with what came out of our collaboration and can’t wait to see what she cooks up for the sequel!

If Souls Can Sleep is the first book in The Soul Sleep Cycle. We’ll get to the other books too, but sticking with the first book for now, I loved the references to Norse mythology that were littered throughout the story. Was this something that you already knew a bit about before writing the book, or did you need to pile on the research?

I knew a little about Norse mythology going in, including the better-known members of the pantheon, a few of the fearsome monsters in the myths, and Ragnarök. Some of that came from novels I’ve read and video games I’ve played in addition to casual research over the years.

Norse mythology serves as the bedrock of the fantasy genre, as far as I’m concerned. It inspired Tolkien, who in turn inspired many others. The trick for The Soul Sleep Cycle was to take a theme that so many other authors had already mined and put my own twist on it. Everybody knows Thor and Odin, but what about Borr and Syn?

And what if the valkyries were government soldiers charged with protecting the dreamscape?

if-souls-can-sleep_webThe book is a blend of genres, with the aforementioned mythology mixing with some fantasy, some science fiction, and a touch of family drama. Did you always set out to blend genres like this?

I wanted to do something different—to color outside the lines, so to speak. Genre tropes can be helpful, but they can also hinder, especially if you want to defy reader expectations (which I did).

Even though If Souls Can Sleep has elements of the supernatural, the story itself needed to be rooted in reality. That’s the family drama and, specifically, a guy who has lost so much, including hope. Incredible things happen to him, and I use science (or, at least, pseudoscience) to explain much of that. The fantasy aspect allowed me to pay homage to my origin as an author while also poking a little fun at myself and the genre itself.

Truth be told, I didn’t go into the project thinking, “I’m going to combine this and this and that.” I just wanted to challenge myself creatively.

Has doing so provided any challenges in terms of getting the book in front of the right audience? While mixing it up means that there should a little something for many readers in there, it does make it hard to categorize.

It makes it incredibly difficult to categorize!

Finding the target audience for If Souls Can Sleep has proven to be challenging. When you set out to do something strange, how do you place it in pre-established categories?

I wholeheartedly believe the diverse nature of the story is an asset. Different readers will be impacted by different facets. They’ll have different takeaways. It’s at once an accessible story about loss and redemption while at the same time an incredibly complex narrative that fans of fantasy and science fiction could dissect to predict how the whole puzzle fits together.

At this point, the best thing I can say is if you’re looking for something new and possibly even unique, give If Souls Can Sleep a shot.

The MC for the story, Vincent, was someone that I found quite interesting. At times, his behavior was such that it was hard to view him as a straight up hero for the tale, but at the same time, his backstory and continuing troubles also gave him a layer of sympathy. I personally thought that it all helped flesh him out into what felt like a very real character, but I was curious, were you ever worried that his more erratic moments would leave readers cold at all?

Vincent is not the most likeable guy. That was intentional. In fact, earlier drafts painted him as even more of a jerk. But because I want readers to root for him, I actually softened him up a little bit in the rewrites. I needed readers to be able to sympathize with him even while his actions assert the fact that he isn’t a hero. He’s just trying to make the best decisions he can, given his circumstances.

He makes mistakes. He mistreats people. Like so many of us, he’s his own worst enemy.

As with several of the more experimental aspects of this book, I knew I was walking a tightrope with my protagonist. Frankly, the feedback has been what I expected. Some people don’t like him, but overall, they understand him and want something better for him, which, I’d argue, is equally important.

I really felt for Jerry throughout the story too, as he seemed to take a lot of Vincent’s moods in such a way that it almost felt like they were par for the course for him. Despite this, he provides a nice dose of humor to the tale. How important was it for you to have some comic relief to break up and balance out the darker moments?

Very important. Without some lightheartedness, the story risked being a bit too heavy. Life has hardships, sure, but everyone needs a laugh now and then. Characters like Jerry and D.J. have some of my favorite dialogue. I want the reader to smile, to laugh.

It’s about emotional dynamics, I suppose. I know I wouldn’t want to read a book that was one hundred percent gloomy or completely tense the entire time. A reader has to come up for air, and that’s where Jerry shines.

But it’s also important to me that no character comes off as one-dimensional. Yes, Jerry is a jovial fellow, but he’s more than a clown. He plays an important role in the plot. His actions affect the outcome. When everyone else is questioning their sanity, Jerry takes it all in stride. Is it because he’s a fool? Or does his open-mindedness make him wiser than the other characters?

I’ll let the readers decide.

renegade 1Were Vincent or any of the other characters based on real people, or were they entirely fictional?

I don’t believe I’ve ever based a character entirely on a real person. Most of them are composites—a stolen mannerism here, pilfered trait there. Sometimes they start out one way and then evolve along the way.

I really try to push myself to come up with nuanced characters who have their own voices and behave realistically (if not always rationally). I don’t think it would be satisfying for me, as a writer, to just make a few tweaks to a person I already I know and toss them in a story.

Besides, as the author, I need to know my characters more intimately than people in the real world.

The story jumps back and forth between the waking and dream world. I know that you did a lot of research on sleep disorders during the initial writing phases. Given the complexity of the subject, that must have been quite a rabbit hole to jump down. Was there anything you learned during this process that you thought was particularly interesting?

While researching lucid dreaming, I came across REM Behavior Disorder (RBD). Normal paralysis doesn’t occur, and so those with RBD sometimes act out their dreams. The condition fascinated me and fit well with other themes in the novel, so I found a way to work it in.

Other phenomena, such as hypnogogic hallucinations, didn’t make the cut, though I managed to sneak in a reference. When it comes to research, I incorporate what makes sense and set the rest aside. Who knows? I might just revisit a concept in later stories…

The dream world sections do have an air of swords and sorcery fantasy to them. I know that you’d wanted to write this book as a way to challenge yourself and move away from that particular genre, as that had been your primary haunt up until then. Did including those sections make it easier to transition at all?

The scenes set in a fantasy setting were some of the more challenging passages to write, actually. For one thing, Vincent is not a valiant hero setting off on his quest, but rather a confused, cynical man from our world just trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

And while the theme was familiar—and, yes, comfortable—I didn’t allow myself to dwell too long in Valenthor’s world. Valenthor’s story shouldn’t, couldn’t trump Vincent’s. It was another balancing act.

One thing I found fascinating was that the book actually goes back several years, with you actually finishing the first draft in July 2009. You initially stopped working on the book in May 2010 so that you could focus on some other projects, then returned to it in September 2017. What made you decide to put the book away for so long?

My agent was looking for buyer for If Souls Can Sleep during that time. I wrote the next two books in the series in the meantime, and, yes, other projects came up.

In some ways it was a blessing because once I finished the third book, I knew the entire arc of the series and could make small adjustments to If Souls Can Sleep for improved continuity or to inject additional foreshadowing.

renegade 2Did the series keep popping into mind during this time, or were you able to separate completely while you worked on other stuff?

Even when I was working on side projects, I never left the world of The Soul Sleep Cycle. In fact, I will have another stretch of time in between publishing Book Two and Book Three of the series. I could start on a new novel in between, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to create a new world until Book Three of this series is truly finished.

And honestly, even when I walk away from a series, my mind revisits the possibilities. I’d love to write the adventures that follow after The Renegade Chronicles, and if The Soul Sleep Cycle finds its audience, I have plenty of ideas for what might happen next.

If Souls Can Sleep finished in such a way that it felt like there was enough closure to read it as a stand-alone. I also noted that the second book, If Sins Dwell Deep, will follow a different protagonist. How inter-linked are the novels of the series? Do you need to have read If Souls Can Sleep before tackling If Sins Dwell Deep, or can you jump in anywhere with these two?

I had to make some difficult decisions early on with If Sin Dwells Deep. After drafting a handful of chapters, I realized I was trying to write three books in one. I cut a couple of major storylines from Book One, which will appear in subsequent books.

When I finished If Souls Can Sleep, I had to choose where and when to start the next book. Ultimately, I decided If Sin Dwells Deep (Book Two) would function like a parallel novel to Book One. This allowed me to tell the other side of the story—the narrative that couldn’t fit into Book One—while giving readers (and potential publishers) an alternate entry point into the series.

Because If Sin Dwells Deep is a parallel novel, readers won’t have to read If Souls Can Sleep first. They could start with either book, though I suspect reading them in the order they are published will be more satisfying.

As for content, the two books share a handful of scenes, albeit depicted from a different character’s perspective. I thought it was important to make both books self-contained. Book One is Vincent’s story, by and large, and Book Two is Allison’s. There will be closure, but the overarching saga still needs a conclusion—hence, a third book in the series.

What can readers expect from the book? Will it be tonally similar to If Souls Can Sleep?

Certain structures are consistent. For example, both books feature copious flashbacks that provide clues to the greater mystery surrounding the dreamscape and its denizens. And like Vincent, Allison has to deal with the consequences of how events in the dreamscape impact her life outside of it.

But to be clear, If Sin Dwells Deep isn’t a retread of the first plot. Yes, it will fill in some blanks and shed light on Project Valhalla’s actions during Book One, but it’s strong enough to stand on its own.

The third book in the series is titled If Dreams Can Die. With If Sins Dwell Deep set for a Fall 2018 release, when can we expect news on the third book to start seeping in?

I’ll start focusing on marketing Book Two in the months to come and for a little while after its release in October. I hope to start promoting If Dreams Can Die in early 2019. The goal is to publish the “final” installment of The Soul Sleep Cycle in Spring 2019.

As mentioned above, you previous primarily worked within the swords and sorcery genre. You actually wrote a trilogy in this genre titled The Renegade Chronicles. How would you describe this series to new readers?

The Renegade Chronicles is a love letter, of sorts, to the books that first got me hooked on the genre—DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and other shared-world fantasy series. I spent years creating my own setting, Altaerra, including its geography, history, and cultures. I created hundreds of characters and wrote numerous stories about them.

Finally, I forced myself to commit to writing a novel (or three).

For longtime fans of fantasy, The Renegade Chronicles might seem familiar on the surface, but there’s enough novelty to defy expectations. Sure, it contains certain tropes, but it’s not cliché.

For those unfamiliar with the genre—or younger readers looking for something more mature than Harry Potter but not so hardcore as Game of ThronesThe Renegade Chronicles is a comfortable entry point into the realm of epic fantasy.

You set out to publish all three books in a one year period here. What inspired that decision, and what challenges did it present?

I’m impatient? I’m insane? A little of both?

With The Renegade Chronicles, I had all three books written before I decided to publish. I reread and edited and proofed them all back to back. I could have staggered the releases, but in my mind they were a single body of work.

At the same time, “binge watching” is a thing thanks to Netflix and Hulu. I thought I’d give my readers the chance to buy all three and binge read the series if they wanted. Why make them wait if I already had the work done?

Except I didn’t have all the work done. There are a lot of small steps that go into publishing, and I had to multiple them all by three. Actually, because I published three paperbacks, three e-books, and a three-in-one e-book collection on the same day, some of those tasks were multiplied sevenfold.

It was a lot of hard work, and I learned a lot along the way.

After going through that process, is publishing a series in this way something that you’d recommend?

In the end, the cons outweighed the pros—which is why all three books of The Soul Sleep Cycle weren’t released on the same day.

One of the major reasons I went a different path my second series is this: an author loses a lot of marketing touchpoints by releasing three books at once. You can say, “My new series is coming out,” “My new series is now available,” and “Hey, don’t forget about my new series!” But you can’t really feature each book individually very well. You exhaust your marketing messages rather quickly.

Instead of releasing If Souls Can Sleep, If Sin Dwells Deep, and If Dreams Can Die all at once, I compromised by staggering their release dates by six months or so. It’s still much quicker than what traditional publishers do, so my readers won’t have to wait a year or more to find out what happens next, while at the same time making my life significantly less stressful.

renegade 3Did you approach marketing this trilogy differently to the Soul Sleep Cycle books?

I learned a lot from marketing The Renegade Chronicles. For example, I didn’t really know much about advanced reader copies. I mean, I had heard of them, but as an indie publisher, I didn’t know how important they were to getting eyes on a book prior to publication. Frankly, I didn’t know how much marketing should happen prior to the release date.

I glean something new about book marketing every day, and the beauty is that a marketing strategy should be nimble. Try something, and if it doesn’t work, change it or stop altogether. I’m just starting to dabble with Amazon ads for If Souls Can Sleep, and if that gets traction, I’ll probably create a few ads for The Renegade Chronicles too.

Writing, publishing, marketing—all of these things are an ongoing experiment for me, so I dabble and adapt.

Do you have any favorite swords and sorcery authors or titles?

I already mentioned some of the shared-world fantasy series that inspired me as a teenager. Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s contributions to DragonLance as well as several series they wrote thereafter remain some of my favorite stories. R.A. Salvatore’s DemonWars series is wonderful, too.

I’m fully invested in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire—both the books and the HBO adaptation. Neil Gaiman can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.

Both The Soul Sleep Cycle and The Renegade Chronicles are published through your own company, One Million Words LLC. How did you come to set the company up, and have you found any particular advantages to publishing through it?

My wife and I co-wrote and published a children’s book a while back. A few months after, we were informed that a word in the title that we thought we invented was in breach of trademark. We were forced to take down the website and remove the book from Amazon.

We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Since then, I’ve invested time and money in researching the legalities around publishing. When it came time to release The Renegade Chronicles, I wanted to create a business not only to establish a professional approach to the whole endeavor, but also to limit the liability my home and family might face in the future.

You are a member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin writing group. What is the group like, and have they helped you in your career at all?

The Allied Authors of Wisconsin is one of the state’s oldest writing groups. When I joined, I found myself in the company of published authors, journalists, and a literary agent. Intimidating, to say the least!

Fortunately, this is a group where members genuinely care about the success of their colleagues. We discuss topics surrounding writing and publishing. Most importantly, we share our work with group and receive constructive criticism.

My writing has improved tremendously thanks to the feedback from the Allied Authors. They are my built-in beta readers who provide suggestions on a chapter-by-chapter basis. I can ask if a certain technique works and get pointers on word choice. My books are better because of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin.

You have a background in journalism, public relations, and marketing. What can you tell us about this side of your life?

I went to college for English with an emphasis in creative writing. I wanted to write fiction—period. But being a fledgling novelist doesn’t pay the bills. Thankfully, my skills as a writer and editor got me hired as a news clerk. From there I became a reporter and then an editor, learning everything on the job. After a few years, I jumped over to the other side: public relations, media relations, marketing.

As a journalist and, later, a content specialist, I learned how to write concisely and how to meet deadlines. I trained myself be creative on demand. (There’s no waiting around for the muse when you’re on the clock!)

Equally as important, my work with creative nonfiction has expanded my horizons. I’ve gained access to people and businesses and situations I would not have encountered otherwise. Talent should not be underestimated, but a writer also needs rich experiences from which to draw ideas.

What would you say is the best advice you can give to authors still looking to get a foothold in the business?

No two writers’ journeys are the same, which is both fascinating and frustrating.

Certainly, you should learn from those who came before you. Do your research and reach out to mentors. Learn from their mistakes but also realize that what didn’t work for them might actually work for you—and vice versa.

I do worry that some writers publish before they are ready. Releasing a book is an accomplishment in its own right, but without a marketing plan, sales are bound to be stagnant. How many authors, I wonder, give up after one book because they get discouraged?

Every author has to be a marketer, whether he/she is published independently or traditionally. It takes time and energy to build a platform, to connect with readers, and to see any kind of return on investment.

My advice is this: until you’re ready to think of writing as a business and treat it as such, be patient. Have fun with the writing. Find your voice. Bask in unadulterated creativity. Make your book as good as you can. When you can’t hold yourself back any longer, take the plunge and become a professional.

Finally, I wanted to thank you for stopping by today. Do you have any final messages for readers? Where can they can go to find out more about you and your work? Feel free to link to anywhere that you want.

Thanks so much for having me, Matt. I hope you and your readers enjoyed this discourse as much as I did!

All of my books are available in paperback and for Kindle at Amazon.com. You can learn more about me and my work here:

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  1. Pingback: May 2018 Round-Up!

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