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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]

Interview: Karen Hancock

[Photo of Karen Hancock and husband overlooking the Grand Canyon] Karen Hancock is the author of Arena, a SF allegory, and the epic fantasy series Legends of the Guardian-King The Light of Eidon, The Shadow Within, and Shadow over Kiriath, all by Bethany House publishers. The final volume, Return of the Guardian-King, is scheduled for release in early 2007. Karen has the distinction of being a three-time Christy Award winner with her first three novels, something no other author has done since the inception of the awards in 1999. She took part in the list in January 2006. Shannon McNear, Ben Yoder, Beth Goddard, Becky Miller, Jill Nelson, Elizabeth MacGuire, Rae Stabosz, and Rick Shepherd asked the questions and made comments, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. More information about Karen's work can be found at kmhancock.com, and reviews of her four books are up at the Christian Fandom website. (Arena is under SF, the other three under fantasy.)

SM: Where were you born?

I was born in Pasadena, CA but moved to Tucson, AZ soon after where I've lived most of my life.

SM: Where did you go to school?

I went to school in Tucson, AZ and Danville, CA and graduated from the University of Arizona with Bachelor's degrees in Biology and Wildlife Biology.

SM: What did you take in school, and why?

I've always been fascinated with animals and the out of doors. In high school, my favorite subject was Biology so it seemed logical to pursue that field in college (Though I did give serious consideration to majoring in psychology.) Wildlife Biology included classes in mammology, ornithology, botany, game management, ecology, etc, and we took lots of field trips. My interest in animals and the outdoors has continued as we have hiked, camped, skied and raised at one time or another, goats, turkeys, chickens, pigs, pigeons, dogs and even catfish.

SM: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

I'm married to an engineer (though he, too has a degree in Wildlife Biology) and we have one son, whom I home schooled for eight years before he went into high school. He is about to graduate from the UA with a degree in Computer Science. We also have an 11 1/2 year old redbone coonhound, who, in his prime probably was the equivalent of 1.7 dogs! Certainly his voice is.

SM: How did you get started writing?

I have been reading since I can remember and making up stories to entertain myself almost as long. I read my first science fiction novel in the seventh grade – Andre Norton's Judgment on Janus – and was hooked on the genre from then on. Fantasy followed soon after, if you don't count the Big Book of Fairy Tales that fascinated me earlier and from which I still carry mental images. I started writing my stories down about a year later, though at that time I was into Westerns. I wrote an entire novel (Western) in high school and even submitted it to Doubleday for consideration for publication, and started a second novel (SF.) They were both awful and when the manuscript came back from Doubleday I was mortified that I had actually shown it to anyone and threw it away.

Then I went to college where I read and wrote nothing except what my assignments called for. Graduated, born again, and married, I moved with my husband to northern Arizona and began to read again. I had no job, no phone, no car, and no TV. We were house sitting and I was complaining to my husband about a novel I was reading at the time. He suggested I write my own and the idea immediately took root. The next day I found a Writer's Market on the bottom shelf of the bedside table and in it an article that claimed to tell you if you were a writer. I was. I started writing a Christian western novel that very day, using a pen and a pad of yellow legal paper. I think it was about six months later that I saw Star Wars at the same time as I was studying a booklet called "The Christian Warrior" and perceived all sorts of allegorical possibilities in the movie, and the genre in general. The western was dropped in favor of a new SF novel, which later morphed into a fantasy novel called The Shadow Of Ghel. That, in turn went through three complete rewrites to become The Light of Eidon. Though I read widely and in all genres, I have never had any interest in writing anything but Fantasy and SF.

SM: What books have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF/F titles) Articles, short stories?

Only the four novels Shannon mentioned in her introduction: Arena, The Light of Eidon, The Shadow Within, Shadow Over Kiriath.

SM: Of your books, which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

Legends of the Guardian-King is one long story arc and, as a whole story, it is my favorite.

SM: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

I would say Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs had to have had some influence simply by virtue of the fact that I read so many of their books early on. The same could be said of Frank Herbert, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton, Connie Willis, C.S. Forester and Lois McMaster Bujold. I know that I learn a lot just by seeing and experiencing how something is done. The greatest deliberately cultivated influence on me as a writer, though, would be Dean Koontz. Not only have I read most of his books, some several times, but I've also pored over his book on writing fiction, and have actively studied his technique. I love the way he creates characters, sustains tension, and uses words.

SM: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF/F as a genre?

Andre Norton's Judgment on Janus, which I read in the seventh grade.

SM: What is your personal all-time favourite SF/F work, and why?

I don't have a single all-time favorite but there are a number of works I've read and enjoyed multiple times and probably could read and enjoy again: Dune, Watership Down, Lord of the Rings, The Warrior's Apprentice, Watchers, Jurassic Park, Kathy Tyers' Firebird, and Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice.

SM: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I suppose my faith stance could be categorized as orthodox/evangelical non-denominational Christian. I believe the Apostles' Creed and in addition, hold the Bible in its original languages to be the accurate, inerrant literal word of God. As such, I see it as completely relevant to people's lives today. For that reason and because the Bible claims to be the only way we can truly come to know God, I believe it should be studied and absorbed with the same regularity and dedication one accords one's necessary physical food. My pastor has taught up to six times a week for years from the original languages using a systematic categorical approach that incorporates the disciplines of isagogics, exegesis and hermeneutics. From this, among many other things, I have come to understand something of the nature of the unseen spiritual conflict that goes on around us (Eph 6:12 "For our battle is not against flesh and blood ...") and that has had a profound effect upon my writing. In fact, it is this conflict that I repeatedly find myself analogizing in what I write.

There are many other areas in which my beliefs affect my writing, too. I think in their stories all writers express their world view, their values, their experiences and their understanding of life and spiritual matters. This is certainly true for me, and often I find myself wrestling with the same sorts of things my characters do. Even the writing process itself is entwined with my spiritual life.

SM: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters planted the seed for dealing with the angelic conflict in fiction, while his Space Trilogy was the first illustration I had of Christian analogy/allegory in an SF setting. The greater influence by far, though, would have to be the Bible itself, for it is that which has literally transformed my thinking over the years and which informs all of my work.

SM: What NON-Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Both C.S. Forester's Hornblower series and Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy have provided elaboration and illumination of many wonderful concepts that stay with me still. There is a scene in Hornblower and the Hotspur where he has trained his men for many days and sees them all in their places in the rigging, looking toward him, trusting him now completely and waiting only for his command before they spring into action. I thought it made a wonderful picture of our relationship with Christ. Similarly the Farseer Trilogy provides an excellent illustration of how our service to the king must come before all else.

However, in terms of greatest impact on my thought and writing, I would have to cite not a book but the movie Gladiator (2000.) When Gladiator came out, The Light of Eidon was already written, and the parallels of story in the two are obvious. I loved that movie, but I struggled with the ending until the Lord finally broke through, using it to show me that the Christian Life is not about "what's in it for me." It's not about making the right decisions so you can have a cushy life and see everything go right. It's about service and sacrifice and making right decisions because of who you serve and the sacrifice He made. It's about living for eternity. That has made a profound difference in how I view life, and also in how I write about it.

SM: When you write, have you ever come across theological "puzzles" you had to sort through to your own satisfaction before you could continue with the story?

Often the process of forming a fictional analogy will challenge me to really examine the concept that I am analogizing and show me things about it I hadn't considered but need to. Sometimes I never really do come to understand it fully, and seem to end up with even more questions than I started... or worse, more inconsistencies. I gave up long ago trying to create one-for-one allegorical elements straight across the board, and now concentrate primarily on telling the story. Some elements do come across as very clear and obvious, others not so much. Still others are subject to several applications. I have never felt it was good to think too much about that, because for one thing, all allegories/analogies break down eventually and no one is ever going to get it exactly right in all respects.

I also do a lot of sorting out with regard to extrapolating the mechanics of life and function in the angelic realm – how they are organized, why they do what they do, what it would be like to have a body made of light – all things the Bible doesn't give us a lot of clear information about.

SM: What do you do when you aren't writing?

Clean the house, do the laundry, go to the grocery store, take care of the dog, walk, read, sketch, watch movies, listen to Bible class... but mostly these days I have to write. A more amusing question might have been to ask what I do when I am writing. In which case the answer would be: read magazines about things I have no interest in, stare at the wall, walk laps around my back yard while my dog stands in the middle and watches me, lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling, check the email a gazillion times – as if I think the answer to my scene problem will miraculously appear in one of the messages – research, reorganize my files...

BY: I was wondering if your training in Wildlife Biology has made any impact on your writing. I love to watch nature documentaries, and inevitably the thought occurs to me while I'm watching – "Now what if that creature was endowed with intelligence? What would its society and culture and religious beliefs be like?" I've always had a fascination with the non-human, whether it be dwarves and goblins, or the winged inhabitants of planet Ythri, perhaps because it makes you look long and hard at what it means to be human. I also feel print media has handled this area much more intelligently than almost any example of cinematic media I can think of. So, do you think your training has attracted you to the non-human character in any way?

I think it has, though not in the sense of attracting me to non-human characters. Rather, I tend to think in terms of niches and life cycles when I'm devising creatures for my speculative worlds. It seems to be important to me to know where they fit into the whole picture – what they eat, what eats them, where they live, why they do what they do, etc. It also makes me more aware of animals in general when writing my stories.

If anything, though, I think the training and the experience with many different kinds of animals have led me away from wanting to make them humanlike – with culture, religion and language especially. It's especially hard for me to believe in animals using language in the way humans do – ie, human speech. Most of them are anatomically unable to do so and I just can't seem to get past that obstacle to any suspension of disbelief. However, I have no problem with animals "talking" to each other, like in Watership Down, nor with them communicating telepathically with people (as in the Farseer Trilogy.) Or even, in the case of Dean Koontz's Einstein in Watchers, with them communicating by the only means they have available (barking, body language, using magazines, nosing scrabble tiles into words... )

BY: Second question: you mentioned thinking about angels and how they're organized and what it means to have a body made of light. Do you have any opinion on the passage in Genesis 6 that describes the "sons of God"? (Gen. 6:4 "The Nephilim were on the earth in those days-and also afterward-when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.") Some consider it kind of distasteful to have angels intermarrying with humans and producing heroic offspring, and so interpret the "sons of God" to be the righteous descendants of Seth. I have often wondered (and I doubt if I'm original in this) if it could be an avenue into explaining much of mythology and heroic sagas. Some ideas for novels are latent there, I'm sure.

Yes, I do believe the Nephilim sprang from the union of fallen angels and human women. I think it was an attempt on the part of Satan and the fallen angels to corrupt the line of men so that Jesus would not be able to come as a man, the pure seed of the woman as promised in Gen 3. That's why God had to initiate the flood, to get rid of them all, and start anew. I have a number of reasons for why I believe this.

First, if the "sons of God" in that passage refers to the righteous sons of Seth, why didn't Moses just say that? Why be vague and opaque with the "sons of God" term?

Second, if they were simply righteous human men getting together with human women (some say it was the unrighteous daughters of Cain, but I don't see what difference that would make to this argument) wouldn't that union merely produce regular humans? Why would the Bible make a point of calling their progeny "Nephilim", mighty men of old, and specify they lived "in those times and afterward" if they were just human?

Third, the term "sons of God" also appears in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7 where it clearly refers to angels. In the first two, they are gathering to present themselves to God and Satan is counted among them. Since Satan tells God he has come from walking about on the earth, the implication is they are not having this conversation on the earth, but in heaven. Job 38:7 describes all the morning stars singing together, "And all the sons of God shouted for joy" at the creation of the universe. Clearly angels. In fact those and Genesis 6 are the only places where that term, bane ha elohim, is found in all the Old Testament.

Yes, it is distasteful to think of angels copulating with human women, but it's distasteful to think of men copulating with animals and yet God put a command against that in the Law. There is also a reference in 1 Peter 3:20 to spirits being in prison on account of having been disobedient in the days of Noah – why would they be in prison if all they'd done was stir up trouble and violence? There's been trouble and violence since man was booted out of the Garden. Also, Jude 6 and 7 speak of angels who did not keep their own domain but "indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh," which again seems to support this interpretation.

And yes, I definitely think it is an avenue for explaining mythology. I know that Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian myths all include gods having sex with humans to produce offspring with super powers, and I suspect there are similar tales in the myths of other cultures. Recently I've begun reading the Illiad with that concept in mind and its been a fascinating exercise. As for ideas for novels, you're right – it's a fertile area. I'm making use of these concepts to some degree in analogy in my own books. :-)

BG: I've read or heard that you participate in a rigorous Bible study. I've been to the site, but it's quite complicated and I wasn't sure where to begin. Can you tell me about the course you're taking, or direct me to where I should go on the site to begin such a study?

Concerning the Bible studies available at the Grace Bible Church site I frequent – the site contains archived lessons taught by my pastor going back to the year 2000, I believe. On the left side of the home page is a bar with a series of buttons. "Latest Audio Message," "Latest Video" and "Archived Classes" all stream directly from the site and are accompanied by Power Point slides. "Download MP3's" is where you go to download the lessons to your computer for later listening. These are audio without the slides.

At the top of the "Archived Classes" page is a box with several studies listed – Ecclesiastes, The Cross Through the Scriptures and The Doctrine of the Angelic Conflict. All are excellent but I especially recommend Ecclesiastes for someone new to the ministry. All three of these series are also available for ordering on CD ("Order MP3 CD's" button) along with many others, all free of charge. CD's typically have 40 to 50 hour long classes on them.

On both the "Archived Classes" and "Download MP3's" page, you can scroll down through the lessons (most recent is at the top) and see from the titles when there is a particular doctrine or subseries being taught (Part 1, Part 2, etc, is noted.) We are in the middle of a new study of the Angelic Conflict right now, which we began Nov 16. Previous to that, we studied the mystery doctrines of the church age, a study we began January 5, 2005. It was interrupted briefly throughout the year by conference studies of the seven churches of Revelation 2 & 3. Those conference studies are clearly marked in the lists of titles.

RM: How many drafts of your novels would you say is "normal"? I've seen a number of authors report a very short window for their actual writing, so that seems like the next logical question. Are we talking about first drafts, second, third? With revisions? And how much do you expect your editor to help you with the polish? Again, this process seems to vary from house to house, but in your experience, do you have editors who are giving you lots to change? If so, are these story structure changes? Line-by-line changes? Do you have the same editor or editors or do they change from book to book?

Officially I have about a year to write the "first draft" and turn that in to my editor. She reads it and sometimes gets others to read it, then combines everyones' opinions, reactions and feedback into a letter that she sends to me. This material includes character interactions or motivations that they are having trouble understanding or believing, areas of confusion, spiritual development, and overall pacing and plot. So far they've never offered suggestions for changes so much as they've just raised concerns I need to address, leaving me the freedom to figure out how I want to do that, if I agree it's a problem. I have not yet had them suggest changes in story structure. Armed with their feedback and my own list of things that need to be reworked, added or cut completely, I write the "final" draft. (and usually I have far more ideas of what I feel has to be done with the story than the editors ever suggest, so no, I don't feel they give me lots to change)

If all goes well I have about a month and a half to two months to do that. I have had the same editor at Bethany House for all my books and she's wonderful. I love her to death. After I've turned in the final draft, she does the line edit, checking for inconsistencies in details of character, place and plot, timing, clarity, readability, etc. I'm pretty picky about my writing and so I don't expect my editor to help me a lot with the polish – although with the time crunch I was under on Shadow Over Kiriath I do recall thinking that I could leave some of the details of timing and name changes for her to clean up. If I had more time, though, I would not have done that, because I think that even with everyone doing their very best to make the books error free, we still miss things. So I try to turn it in as close to what I want it to be as I can. Then she works through it, usually emailing me with any questions she has, then the copy editor goes through it, and I get one last turn when the galleys come through. I've added entire scenes even at galley stage.

As far as what I do during that year-long "first draft" stage, well, I would have a very hard time telling you how many drafts I do. I know I have had upwards of 15 versions of some chapters. I have tried to keep charts, but it never really works because my method of working just isn't that organized. Sometimes I just write out the chapters one after the other for a ways. Then I go back and reread what I wrote to refresh my memory and that spurs changes which take things in a slightly different direction. Sometimes when I'm writing the chapters I hit a wall and have to go back to see where I got off track, and that takes things in a different direction. Sometimes just the process of writing a chapter at all is very revision intensive, where I write several pages, find they aren't right, go back to page 1 and change it slightly to go in a different direction, write that out, find it's still not right so I go back again, this time to page two and work through the pages from there, then back again to halfway through page two and so on... I like the idea of giving myself the freedom of just going back through it again and again, changing whatever it occurs to me to change and seeing where the words will lead without having to hold myself to a "draft." But it's hard to measure official drafts when you work that way. :-)

SM: Interesting you mentioned Dean Koontz ... I just finished Watchers, which is often praised by Christian and non-Christian writers alike. I read my first Koontz novel several months ago and fell in love with his style ... but if I hadn't already read a couple of his titles, and known that he could be trusted to redeem a really nasty situation, I don't know if I would have stuck with it. But – I can see why it's regarded so highly!

Watchers was the first Koontz book I ever read. I fell in love with his hero, heroine and the dog right off, but the villain really got to me. After his third murder I decided that was it, I wasn't going to read any more of his scenes. Except that after that, there really weren't any more murder scenes. I guess I'm not alone in the loving the dog, either. Koontz has written articles about how after that book his agent and editors both were after him for years to put a dog in his next book. Which of course he never did. At least not the way he did it in Watchers.

SM: Would you recommend any of Robin Hobb's other titles? I recently picked up her newest (I think), Shaman's Crossing (Soldier's Son #1) ... I haven't gotten far enough to be sure what I think yet, but my husband was very impressed by how she weaved in the themes of honor and military service, etc. He loved her writing style, though, which I found interesting since he didn't care for Lois Bujold's latest, The Hallowed Hunt, at all.

I'm reading Book 2 of The Liveship Traders trilogy right now (Mad Ship.) I love her writing and what she does with characters and her fantasy elements always fascinate me. I wasn't sure about the first book initially. Everyone seemed to be doing an awful lot of whining and just one terrible thing after another kept happening. At one point I'd pretty much decided I was going to quit, skimmed to the end, then decided maybe I'd give it another shot and read it through all the way. Midway through Mad Ship I find myself enjoying it all quite a bit. One of the characters is a young boy who was given to the priesthood and after spending many years in the monastery where he is very happy and quite talented, is ripped away and forced to become a sailor. His religious perspective is quite interesting. The whole concept of the liveships is fascinating, and I had no idea the series was going to have dragons and serpents which is also of great interest to me just now.

SM: You wrote, "I gave up long ago trying to create one-for-one allegorical elements straight across the board, and now concentrate primarily on telling the story." That's very interesting, considering the sometimes-conflicting advice writers get about theme and storyline. Though there's a lot of emphasis on theme and spirituality within Christian, or maybe also literary, fiction, the predominant thought seems to be to just write the story – that a writer who's surrendered to the Lord in the process is likely produce a story with a spiritual theme far deeper than they guess. I get the feeling that many of the greats worked that way – Tolkien and Lewis, for instance.

I guess my take on this is that first I have to write the book to see what I'm actually writing about. Because most often it's not what I think it is. Scenes and events that at the beginning I think are important, turn out to be ones I end up writing about only as narrative summary, while things I thought were unimportant, mere incidents, end up being the ones I flesh out. Only after I've seen what I actually produce, can I see what the story really is about. I've decided it has a lot to do with emotional resonance. I think I've told the story about Mark Twain and his 8-year-long writer's block with Huckleberry Finn. Apparently he got Huck and Jim free and across the Ohio River and headed north, just as logic would dictate for an escaped slave. But then he couldn't write. Not until he decided to have them float west and down the Mississippi could he finish the book. And did so in something like three months. The writer who recounted that story speculated it was because the experience of floating down the Mississippi was what Twain really cared about, having spent many of his earlier years doing the same.

Dean Koontz also said you should never write a story that bores you, that if you don't feel like writing it, people probably aren't going to feel like reading it either. I abide by that bit of advice. Which is probably one of the reasons why it takes me so long to write a book.

SM: I know you've said that your in-depth study of the Bible is the driving force behind your writing, but what are some other things you find inspiration in? Movies, music, art?

Yes, there are very inspiring movies: Gladiator was huge, inspiring me intensely even as it completely psyched me out. Star Wars, of course, (A New Hope, TESB, ROTJ), Count of Monte Cristo, Man From Snowy River, Hornblower, LOTR... recently Reign of Fire has really intrigued me, and also Batman Begins... Music inspires me too. Some pieces just set the scenes flowing. Soundtracks are big for me (see the above movies) but I also like Bach and Handel. Recently I've been listening to Secret Garden, and that has provoked quite a few scenes. Or just the proper mood. I sometimes even use the Environments CDs – like the ocean or the thunderstorm. I also get inspired from reading in the fields of history, politics and science, and sometimes just things I encounter as I go about my life. A National Geographic article about Petra I saved from years ago fascinated me so much it ended up being the model for the SaHal in The Light of Eidon.

SM: Do you have a favorite place for writing? Do you just try to work each day until you're "done," or do you have certain hours, or a daily word count goal? And do you tend more toward outlining, or do you work with just a general idea of where the story is going, and the characters just tend to take over on the details?

Last year I finally made enough money writing to get myself some office furniture and with that I've taken over half of my son's old bedroom. I love it. Lots of horizontal surfaces where I can lay stuff out and leave it for as long as I need to (used to be I worked at the dining room table, so this is a big change.) It also has a bulletin board, a window and a door to the room!

I try to get started somewhere between 7 and 9am every day but Sunday, then work until I have to stop because people are coming over or I have to go to the YMCA, or until I'm done (depends on the day.) After I come back/the people leave, I often work some more. I keep thinking it would be nice to have a word or page count goal, and will start to do that, but then something happens, and I end up just working on something until I'm done... Tuesday I wrote 15 pages. Wednesday I thought I'd start the next chapter, but in the process of rereading the end of what I'd written the previous day, I ended up revising that. And Thursday, after dealing with a domestic crisis involving incinerated potatoes, and all the smoke that produces (I'd hate to see what a real fire did) I revised even more. But now I can at least say that chapter is pretty much where I want it.

I have a general idea of where the story is going and I tend to outline in spurts. Then I start writing and see if the characters are going to go the way I think they are. They almost never do. They almost always surprise me, sometimes in a big way, sometimes more subtly. Once I've written my way into the story a ways, then I go back and see what I've got and that gives more specific direction for the next portion. At some point things really begin to fire up and I'll usually outline a large portion of the book. Then I'll follow that more or less as I've outlined it until the end when everything seems to fall together without the need for any real outlining.

SM: I'm also curious what plans you have, if any, for after the next book (and thus, the series) is finished?

I actually have two books I started before Arena sold and after Light of Eidon was finished (when no one in Christian publishing wanted fantasy) – nine first draft chapters of one and about five of the other. Both are probably closer to SF than Fantasy, but neither are really like anything else I've written. One was inspired by the ill-fated shenanigans of the people who started the Biosphere north of Tucson, and the other by a study we were doing in Philippians on our citizenship in heaven. I am quite intrigued by both of them, and recently the Lord has seen fit to provide me a contract for one of them plus another unnamed book to be released a little over a year apart from one another. Further information will be on my blog and website as things develop.

JN: Thank you for the intriguing interview answers, Karen. I've been glomming onto a lot. I'm deep into book two of my series for Multnomah (not my fantasy manuscript . . . yet) and about to start the editing process for book one, so I'm really hungry to hear how other authors cope.
Can you expound on your least favorite part of the editing process and how you manage it, sanity intact? And also your most favorite part and why?

Glad you've found something of use in the interview answers so far. And congratulations on the series for Multnomah.

Actually, I generally enjoy the editing process, but I know that's due in large part to my wonderful editor who has a good eye and a light hand. She's also very mindful of the fact that the book is mine and will have my name on it, and I should have the authority to make it the way I want it. I always try to keep in mind, though, that the Lord is using the editorial staff to help me see things I wouldn't otherwise see and to make the book what He wants it to be, so I try to be very receptive to their reactions/suggestions and to consider them very carefully.

In doing that I think the most important thing for me is to remember is that the feedback that matters most is a reader's reaction to the work, not necessarily what he says needs to be done about it. I try to focus on that reaction – a certain passage was confusing, or they got bored at a certain point, or the characters were not believable in their motivation somewhere – and see if I can understand what in the text might have led them to that reaction. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that readers are like sheep and the writer like a shepherd trying to drive them down a road. If there is any other way for them to go, they will, and it is up to the writer to keep them going in the right direction, close off all the other passages, etc. So if someone is bored or frustrated or can't believe a certain element, or thinks it's preachy, I look to something in the writing first. And it's not always what a reader/editor has pinpointed. Also, often there are several different ways of solving the problem and the trick is to find them. One of them will usually satisfy both you and your editor.

Another important thing for me has been to communicate with my editor. If she wants me to make a change I don't want to make, I talk to her/email her about it and we discuss it. Often I think editors forget what it is like for writers to have someone else changing their words and story, and it's good to remind them – respectfully of course – that while you appreciate the work they are doing very much, it is sometimes difficult for you to receive it. More than that, some writers, once they've turned in the final draft don't care what is done to the book after that, and if you say nothing, the editor will assume you are one of those. Plus, the process of formulating your thoughts about the matter in order to talk to your editor forces you to see if you really have a case for why you don't want to make the change – and also if your editor has a good case for making it – or if you don't want to simply because of personal preference. The process of making the case also helps you to think of those other possible solutions I mentioned above.

If it's just personal preference – the changes at issue don't necessarily make anything better or worse, just different – then you have to decide accordingly. I think that old maxim, 'pick your hill to die on' applies. It's my book with my name on it, so if there are some "just different" changes made that I can't stand, I'll go ahead and change them back to the way I like it. If my feelings about the change are less intense, I often just leave it. Readers probably won't notice anyway.

The worst time I've ever had with the editing process was my first book, when I thought I had no say. When I thought I had to do everything the editor said I had to and there was no leeway. Because I couldn't do what was asked, I was forced to do what I described above, and as a result learned a lot about my editor, what her thoughts on things were, her editing policies and so forth. That has made all the difference.

Now the worst part of it is having to turn in a first draft that, given my choice, I wouldn't show to my dog. I know it's all wrong, filled with holes, inconsistencies and scenes that just stop in the middle of the action. Or else go on and on, as I'm trying to work my way through what is actually happening. Or have characters that are stereotypes or placeholders, or are so exaggerated they are like cartoons. It's definitely an exercise in humility. I usually have so many things I want to change or fix that whatever my editors/readers suggest are nothing compared to my own demands. The good thing about it, though, is that somehow in all the mess they can actually find elements that work and a story that seems worth telling, which always amazes me. And is very encouraging and reassuring.

JN: Also, any tips on juggling the "potato crises" with deadlines?

Trust the Lord to see it done, one day at a time, don't think of all you have to do, do the next thing... recall that The Lord gives to his beloved even in his(her) sleep (Ps 127:2 NASV.) I don't believe anything that happens is outside of His sovereign hand, so if the potatoes get cremated, I figure He allowed it to happen for my best and will see that everything that He wants done will get done.

JN: Have you had to make some hard choices about things to cut out of your life to make room for writing? I find myself in that dilemma and am not sure which direction to take, or perhaps more to the point, what criteria to use in order to make those choices when everything seems "important."

I have definitely had to prioritize the things in my life – my relationship with God and my intake of his word come first, after that my husband, then the writing. Housework gets tucked in around the other stuff, plus the Lord has sent me a housecleaner, which helps. I know that writing is a big, important part of God's calling on my life and that it must be focused on. I have to guard against things that take away not just my time, but my energy and my mental focus... that is, I have to be careful about cluttering my mind with too many extraneous things. Thus I have had to make choices about things to cut out of my life, not just to make time for writing, but to keep my brain uncluttered for it.

To that end, I stopped pursuing my painting not long after I signed the contract for Arena. I also have cut way back on my free reading time. Where I used to read 30 to 50 books a year, I'm down to about 5. I stopped critiquing manuscripts because those are incredibly time intensive for me. I stay off email loops because I don't have the time to keep up with them, don't have the discipline not to check email when the writing gets hung up and have seen the way that getting involved in email can really change my mood and mental focus and make it difficult to get back to the world I'm working in. Other writers might not have any problems with these areas, but will undoubtedly have their own things that distract and draw them away.

Those are the easy things, though. Harder is just maintaining the right balance with the main priorities, because as you say, all are important, but all don't have to be done "right now". You can always vacuum later. You don't have to spend every free moment with your husband when he's home... Maybe this chapter will go better if I leave it and come back to it later... We'd like to have some formula we can apply to the matter, but I don't think there is one. I think it's something each of us must sort out before the Lord and thus I often consult Him for help. I know there's always time to do His will, I just don't always know what His will is at any given moment. So I ask Him: what do you want me to do right now, Lord? And He always answers.

RM: It seems like editors and agents are telling us yet-to-be-published writers that promoting is a big part of a writer's job these days. What is your take on this? Do you think you have a responsibility to help get the word out about your book?

Yes, that's what many of them say. My take is very much against the grain, I'm afraid. Very early in the published phase of my writing life, the Lord made it pretty clear that I was going to bow out, and He was going to take care of gathering the readership. I've told this story elsewhere, but to recap briefly - before Arena was due to release I was busy amassing information about marketing and preparing to put it all into practice - networking, meeting bookstore people, website, loops, bookmarks, the whole thing. I hoped that if Arena did well, someone might be interested in my fantasy series, a genre I had been told time and again was not viable in the Christian market. A month before Arena came out, my editor called with the news that reviews coming in were so good on it, marketing wanted to know when they would next be seeing something from me. I told him about Legends of the Guardian King, and two weeks later Bethany House bought it as a 4 book series. I had done nothing to bring that about, nothing to drum up interest in Arena. It hadn't even released. I had nothing whatever to do with the having both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal review it, but it made a huge difference in getting the word out. Far more than I ever could have done on my own.

That event started something that the Lord has continued to emphasize with me as time has passed: after my efforts at following the standard marketing advice have repeatedly come to nothing, He has brought in some totally unexpected boon out of left field. And then confirmed my understanding of what He wanted by bringing in other sources to reaffirm it, even those from the secular market. Donald Maas in his book The Career Novelist says he represents successful authors who are plugged in and market relentlessly and successful authors who just go their way and write their books without all the marketing/networking activity. I have heard the same from CBA agents and editors: Some people market up a storm and are successful, others do not and are successful. I've been told that Francine Rivers and Jerry Jenkins, for example, never did a thing to promote their work, relying on God to take care of it all.

Recently I've heard talk among professional authors and editors that even booksignings are not all that useful in promoting a new book. Unless you are someone already known and successful, the most that happens is that the bookstores get a bunch of books, and you sit with them while telling the occasional passerby where the restroom is. I have held only three booksignings, two of them local in response to pressure from my friends who want to buy the books and get them signed at the same time. Those had good turnouts and were a fun way to get everyone together. The other signing I did, which was out of town, drew two people I already knew. Only one other person even stopped at my table, picked up a copy of The Light of Eidon, looked it over and put it down. When my friend asked him was he was looking for he said, "A book against Harry Potter."

When I began to think about the numbers of readers that are needed to make a book successful and the numbers of people I had contact with (even through email loops) who were likely to become readers of my books, I realized how small of an effect I actually had on a personal basis when compared with how many readers the books needed to be successful.

RM: I see fiction as a communicative form of art, so part of what I want – in a perfect world – is readers, as many as possible, to the point that I am willing to stretch beyond what is comfortable and fun (concentrating on writing AND getting involved in author e-mail loops and discussion boards.) As an established author, an award-winning author, do you see your role expanding ever to include speaking, for example?
(I'm really enjoying your responses to the other questions. Thank you so much for this.)

I know of authors who write and speak and teach and post regularly to the loops and that's fine. I have nothing against that. It's fun, it's supportive. I'm sure it helps a lot of people go forward in their careers. It's just not something I can do and still write the books that I write while maintaining my relationship with God and my in-person friends and family. So I made a conscious decision not to get caught up in the marketing and networking concerns and focus my time and energy on writing the best books I can write. Whatever opportunities come along (like this interview, for example), I try to take advantage of, but otherwise I don't seek them out. I enjoy doing the website and my newsletter and have started a Writing Diary blog. As for speaking. who knows? If that's what the Lord directs me to do, I'll do it. But for the most part, my focus is on the books themselves, and really that's what I'd rather people focused on as well. <g>

One last thing: I was told almost from the beginning that word of mouth is the single most potent marketing force out there, and it's not really something anyone can control. There are books that purport to offer theories and suggestions as to how to get it going, but ultimately I think what does it is the books themselves coming to the right audience at the proper time. And that clearly is the province of the Lord.

Thanks for the question, Becky. Glad you're enjoying the answers.

RM: Thanks, Karen. I respect your stand and, from a human point of view, am even a little envious. I think to a large extent the way you're writing is the way I'd like to write. And yet, if marketing is part of the job, I feel I have an obligation to learn it and to do it well. I wonder if you sort of got in under the wire, so to speak – before the pubs decided they needed fiction writers with a platform as much as they need non-fiction writers with one.
So are we allowed to ask questions about your books? I mean, I don't want to give any spoilers. I can word this one generally, I think. Another trend seems to be ending one book with a tie-in to the next of the series. Did you do that consciously at the end of Shadow over Kiriath?

I did it kicking and screaming. I hate it when books do that. I am the kind of reader that won't start a series until all the books are there, because I hate being left hanging. Which I've learned since I've entered the publishing world, is a terrible approach since if no one buys the first books as they come out, there is a very real chance the final ones will never be published. When I began the Legends of the Guardian King series it was with the conscious intention of making every book end within the confines of the part of the story it was covering. I knew it would be a long time between books, so I planned to set a definite main goal in the beginning of each book around which the action would hinge and which would be resolved by the end. I originally planned to do that with Shadow Over Kiriath, as well, and only when I got to the end did I see it had to end the way it does. In some ways, though, it does still fulfill my intention of seeing a main goal resolved, just not in the normal way of doing so.

RM: What part does "writing artistically" play in your work?

I'm not sure I know what "writing artistically" means. I write what I like, basically. I do enjoy words and metaphors and lyrical language, but consider that sort of thing to be mostly out of my league, so anything that creeps in is there through the process of osmosis... it's not conscious in any case. Sometimes I do put in echoes and mirrors or symbolic sorts of things, but only because I get a kick out of those too... I suppose if I had more time, I might do more of that, but as it stands, it's pretty much all I can do to get the story told coherently. Maybe if I understood more what you are driving at, though, I could give you a better answer.

RM: What craft things do you concentrate on that you think set your work apart (and 3 consecutive Christy awards would indicate your writing is set apart, as in above the norm <g>)

Characterization, world building/setting, plotting, with an emphasis on making it all concrete, specific and believable. I'm also pretty picky about words, and using precise language so that I say exactly what I mean – Always a difficult undertaking, since often I must start without knowing what I mean. <g>

EM: Karen, I read with interest your response to Rebecca's enquiry about publicity. I struggle as well with Rebecca's dilemma of not finding the right audience for my book. It's easy to say that it's out of our hands and I'm glad to hear that you haven't had any difficulties along the way with publicizing your work. Unfortunately for most of us, it's not that easy. In my new book called Hark, the Harold Angels Sing...I used the pen name of Edward Livingston Rogers...the main character struggles with the issue that most writers (if we were honest with ourselves) struggle with. This is that writing is such a solitary occupation and that we like it that way. What Harold learns is that we can't do anything ourselves. In other words we need each other. That is the only reason some books succeed while others fail in my opinion. I guess what I'm trying to say...and not very well...is that in any endeavor in life, it takes more that one person's effort to succeed. This is the hard lesson I'm learning now and it's even harder sometimes because of the nature of Christian Science Fiction...which you should understand. So, to get back to the point...(Please do.)..:-.)..I really think that you do a disserve to someone by telling them that they shouldn't work at all the avenues they can to get the word out about their book. Word of mouth only works when you've got someone who is really interested in your work. I prefer e-mail...
RS1: I have been reading Karen's responses on publicity with interest also, and I think you have misunderstood her (if I may be so bold.) She is not telling other authors not to work all the publicity angles they think they ought to work, she is saying that she hasn't spent her energies in that direction herself.
I am frankly happy to hear that some authors rely on Christ to be their publicist. His fees are a little high – rather than 15% he seems to demand absolutely everything – but he knows a lot of people and knows how to work the loops himself. I think it's as winning a strategy as any, and that Karen does nobody a disservice to let us in on one of her trade secrets.

Thanks, Rae. You're right: I certainly have no intention of telling other authors what they ought to do in this area. It's been struggle enough for me to figure out what I'm supposed to do. And as I pointed out in my original post, both camps have their success stories... it's a matter wherein as Christians each of us must decide what we're to do before the Lord.

RM: Thanks for all your answers. You understood what I was asking earlier about artistic. I found your comments interesting. I wouldn't call your writing lyrical, but it is beyond what I refer to as "serviceable." I suspect that is because of the attention you give to word precision. I think that point in itself argues against writing fast (a topic that seems to crop up on from time to time on some writer's interviews or blogs or discussion boards.)
I also understood what you were saying about marketing – that this method is what God has called you to, not something you are advocating for all writers. My own comments in response were ... wistful, I guess, because, humanly speaking in today's "publisher's market" so much emphasis seems to be on looking for books that will sell well. Not just sell out the advance, but have the potential to be Big Books.

I know this is what they say, but just today I was reading something that drew my attention to the fact that the local Barnes and Noble carries about 120,000 titles and they aren't all bestsellers! I think the same holds true for Christian bookstores. not all the novels they carry are bestsellers. That thought led me to recall some things I've heard from published writers whose books have always just earned out their advance and maybe a little more, yet they continue to be published. I'm pretty sure that if a book earns out its advance, the publishers did make some profit on it. Yes, the emphasis is on finding Big Books, but the reality may be that the littler books do generate enough income they aren't willing to pitch them all out for the sake of their Big Books. Just a thought that things might not be quite as gloom and doom as it would seem.

RM: OK, my question is sort of sensitive. In several of your books you have near rapes and in one an off-stage spousal rape. Do you include these to make your subject matter "edgy"? Or are you actually trying to address a current societal problem? Or just extending the scene to what you believe is the natural conclusion.

With the exception of deciding to write an alternate world story because alternate world stories were hot at the time, I don't think I've ever tried to make my work follow current trends. I have never attempted to either address a current societal problem or to make my material edgy. In fact, with respect to the latter I have to tone myself down, and accept my editor's advice to tone further. I write what I would like to read and, to the best of my ability, what I think the characters would do in any given situation based on who they are, what they want, and the nature of the world and culture they inhabit.

SM: Has there been anything you've had to research that you previously had NO interest in whatsoever, then found yourself fascinated by once you actually dug into the subject?

I've always had a wide range of existing interests, so most of what I research for writing lies in some area that I was already interested in. History is probably the subject I have most surprised myself with, because I find it to be consistently fascinating. As part of my Guardian King research, I read C.V Wedgewood's The King's Peace (about the period of time just before Cromwell's revolution) and was astonished at how interesting it was. Although, to be fair, I've always had an interest in historical fiction, so I guess I can't say I had NO interest in it whatsoever.

SM: What three bits of advice would you give to any new writer?

I've considered this question for a couple of days now, debating how I should answer it, and decided I will stay away from the standard lines of advice relative to writing and take a step back to a broader perspective. You can read the world's advice almost any place: read a lot, write a lot, keep honing and improving your work, know yourself, study the market so you can take advantage of any changes when they come, persist, endure, concentrate, network, be patient. (If you are interested in some of the books I've found helpful in this regard, see the Writings section of my website www.kmhancock.com.)

Instead, the first and main piece of advice I would give new Christian writers is, seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things (which the gentiles seek – logistics, fame, publication, success, or maybe just happiness, contentment, and satisfaction) will be added to you. Focus on acquiring the mind of Christ through diligent study of his word under your assigned pastor and in staying filled with power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever you do, do it heartily as unto the Lord, but do it in the power of the Spirit and the Word or it will be only wood, hay and straw – a waste of time. If you submit yourself to the mighty hand of God, He will exalt you at the proper time.

Second, don't be afraid to find and work in your own voice and story, for that is why you've been given the talent and gift – not to copy others, or write the easiest thing, or the thing everyone says they want, but to tell the stories only you can tell. If you concern yourself too much about the market, that will only confuse, obscure and maybe even scare you away from writing what God has designed you to write. Note I did not say don't concern yourself with the market at all. God can use marketing trends to guide you into the direction He wants you to go. Arena began because I had exhausted all the avenues of sales for my fantasy novel and was told by a reputable agent that the market was saturated with that type of work and I needed to do something completely different. Alternate world stories were hot at the time, so I decided to try one. I will note, however, that by the time Arena was finished, alternate world stories had hit their peak of popularity and were on the way down, so that tack didn't help me at all in the secular market.

On the other hand, once I had decided to try to market it to a Christian publisher I was told again and again that SF didn't sell and I should be writing something else. And by something else they did NOT mean fantasy, which was even more anathema to CBA at the time than SF. When Arena did sell, I was told I needed to do another SF, not Fantasy. I understand all the reasons behind that advice, and they are legitimate, but it was not the direction I was to go in. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, be aware of marketing trends and consider the advice, but balance that against where your heart really lies when it comes to what you wish to write and where you think the Lord is leading you. It's okay to follow your heart over what the world says. In the end, there are no guaranteed methods of success.

Third, whatever your hand finds to do, do it to the very best of your ability – but do it as unto the Lord, not because you think if only you write a good enough book, it will bring you success. I do think there is a basic level of craft above which one must rise before publication comes, and humility about the flaws in one's efforts and a desire to improve is always a good thing. But the truth is, there are plenty of poorly written books that are published and prospering, and probably even more well-written books that aren't. If you get all caught up in what editors or other people say about your work as a measure of its worth, it can become very difficult to go forward.

I have really appreciated this quote from J.R.R. Tolkien in his Foreword to The Lord of the Rings and have worked at taking it to heart. Perhaps you are familiar with it: "The prime motive (for writing LOTR) was the desire of a taleteller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide, I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer."

Your own feelings and standards about your work are valid and not to be ignored or superseded by others' opinions. On the other hand, there is the balance, for others' opinions, considered carefully, can lead you to a greater understanding of how your work impacts them and help you to craft it so it has the effect upon readers that you truly wish it to have.

RS2: Howdy Karen and fandom folks! I have been following your interview with interest. Exciting to see how the Lord leads and provides.
I do have yet another view to consider about "marketing strategies". There is a particular marketing strategy that can also be done for a totally different motive, namely, the one of a witness, a means to get the various Christian viewpoints visible before an otherwise hostile world that is largely ignorant of a Christian presence or perspective (and therefore susceptible to being convinced of "common knowledge" opinions about Christians, that is actually in error.)
Certainly, I applaud your consistency to be faithful to seek and follow the Lord's leading for your own particular path. I would not want to dissuade you from following what you know to be God's will for you specifically. So, what I am going to suggest might be something you could do, or it might not. Be faithful to however He leads you.
I only started attending SFF cons in the last few years. These environments have tended to sometimes be very negative about Christians. However, cons do love panels and controversy, and thought-provoking discussion. And the attendees tend to be much better educated about a great many things than the average person on the street. (And so, are also more open to new information that might alter their opinion on something.)
And cons do love to know about and use ANY authors who might also just happen to be attending them. I know a number of authors whose main marketing practice is to attend and be very involved in activities at cons. For the Christian author, the motive can be one of simply getting our particular ideas and perspectives and contributions made aware of in a public venue. It requires a great deal of tact and diplomacy.
I am no author, but have been in the audience on panel discussions that touched on Christian issues, and was able to participate in a way that was positive.
I have seen panels that included authors who were Christian, and their particular viewpoint was able to be added to the overall discussion in a positive way.
Of course, this can work both ways. Tactless, dogmatic reactions only confirm the stereotypes. Thought-provoking, tactful responses have a great positive impact.
So, what I am suggesting is that if someone is an author and a Christian, and they enjoy cons, let the con know you are attending. Offer, to be on panels. Suggest panel discussion topics. Make the goal one of just adding a Christian perspective to the mix, not one of self promotion.
After all, SFF is "speculative" fiction. It draws attention to ideas, and asks significant questions of humanity and society. Christians need to be a part of that, in order to get people thinking about certain issues, and aware of a reasonable and balanced Christian perspective on the issues.
I know I am probably just preaching to the choir here, but I have been thinking about this for a long time, and Karen's input here made me wonder if something like this would be possible, without compromising the standards set before her regarding her marketing strategies.
Regardless, I enjoyed the interview, and look forward to obtaining and reading your work, Karen!

Rick, I see nothing wrong with your idea... In fact, I think all marketing strategies can be done from the motive of primarily being a witness to the lost or a minister to the Body of Christ. To do the things you specifically mentioned (going to cons/sitting on panels for the purpose of adding the Christian perspective to the mix) I think would require a certain type of ability, personality and spiritual maturity – possibly even a spiritual gift – to execute properly, however. I also believe it would be very dependent on the direction of God or you could just end up casting your pearls before swine. The thing about Christianity is that it's not just one philosophy among many, it's a Light to a dying world. Its truths are not going to be understood apart from the work of the Spirit, since the natural mind of man is unable to perceive them as anything but foolishness.

I don't know if this would be anything I would ever do, but it might be. Who knows? I would, however, encourage you to consider ways in which you might do it yourself. Since, as you say, you have been thinking about it for some time, perhaps it is something God is laying on your heart to do. Perhaps you and/or others in the Christian Fandom community could do as you outlined – suggest panel topics to con organizers, offer to sit on panels yourself as a reader, as a devoted fan/expert of some particular author or subgenre, as a Christian fan of the field in general, or in whatever other capacity you might be qualified. The last con panel I attended was composed of scientists and I don't think all of them were novelists (though it's been a long time; I could be mistaken.)

In any case, I'm glad you've enjoyed the interview.

To all of you who have participated, openly or just by reading, I want to say thank you for your attention and for inviting me to do this. I've enjoyed it a great deal and hope you have too.

Grace and Peace

Karen Hancock

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