No Such Thing as “Just a Story”: Interview with Author K.M. Weiland

The author of Storming and Structuring Your Novel on her writing process and the importance of writing honest stories

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K.M. Weiland is an award-winning and internationally published author of historical and speculative fiction, whose novels include the medieval epic Behold the Dawn, the portal fantasy Dreamlander, and the dieselpunk adventure Storming. She mentors other authors on her award-winning blog Helping Writers Become Authors and is the author of popular writing guides, including Outlining Your NovelStructuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. K. M. spoke with Storius about her approach to writing, balancing multiple projects, and building an engaged audience.

STORIUS: You write in a wide variety of genres, ranging from dieselpunk adventure to western. Yet there seems to be a common element: your stories typically take place in the past, often with an addition of some fantasy elements. What attracts you to this mix?

I’m a passionate history buff, so I started out writing straight-up historicals. But I got tired of having to play by the “rules” and adhere perfectly to historical details and events. This led me to write my fantasy Dreamlander, my third published novel, which allowed me to use historical elements without having to get all the details just right. Still, I love the historical stuff, so I’ve drifted back to it in my last two novels with a mix of historical settings and fantasy elements. It’s been a lot of fun!

STORIUS: When you begin working on a new story, do you already have a specific time and place in mind, or do you start with an idea of a plot and then determine the most fitting historical setting in the process?

Most of my ideas begin with a mental image of a character — and I usually get at least a sense of where he or she is or what he or she is wearing. This will show me what kind of setting the story will need to take place in. There’s some leeway though. For instance, my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer came to me as more of a medieval setting, but I ended up drifting into Georgian England, in part as an ode to my love for Charles Dickens.

STORIUS: What’s your research process when you work on a new book? Is it mostly about getting the settings right, or do the historical facts you discover sometimes affect your plot lines?

As I said, I’m a history buff, so I almost always have a good general idea of a time period and setting before deciding to write about it. I will use that knowledge to plot the outline. Then, once I know what specific questions I still need to answer, I will use those to guide me in further research. I’m very thorough when researching — in no small part because I enjoy it so much — and I may spend as much as a year researching a project before starting the first draft.

STORIUS: Are there some common themes and ideas that you like to explore in your fiction, regardless of the genre?

A reader who reviewed my portal fantasy Dreamlander rather stunned me with her perception when she wrote: “The consistent theme in each of her books is finding the best in human relationships and coming to an understanding about who you are and what you believe.” I hadn’t really thought about my themes in quite those terms until then, but I immediately recognized that she’s totally right. I also find that most of my stories often come down to explorations of ultimate Truth, as well as identity.

STORIUS: Which authors have influenced you the most as a writer? Are there some books, whether fiction or nonfiction, that you have found particularly inspiring?

That question is always difficult for me to answer, since I feel that inevitably I have been influenced by every writer I have ever read. Many years ago, I committed to reading as many of the classic novels as I could, and this has been a transformative exercise. Dickens, Brontë, Faulkner, Hemingway — so many lessons learned from these great authors. As for more modern authors, I find that I’m most inspired by books that are nothing like those I write — more literary, drifting, prose-heavy books such as Markus Zusak’s amazing The Book Thief and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.

STORIUS: In addition to novels, you have released a number of popular writing guides. How did you start writing nonfiction for authors?

I started my website, Helping Writers Become Authors, about the time my second novel came out, and it just kind of took on a life of its own over the years. I published my first writing guide, Outlining Your Novel, at a time when there wasn’t much information specifically on the subject, and it was received well. Nowadays, I devote as much time to the nonfiction as I do the fiction, and I love having an outlet for my nerdy story theory-obsessed observations.

STORIUS: Has writing those guides helped you in your own fiction writing? If so, in what ways?

Definitely. I have absolutely found that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I don’t believe my own understanding of writing techniques would be nearly as conscious if I hadn’t needed to record it in a way others could understand as well. My site and my writing-craft books are really a chronicle of my own ever-deepening journey into the infinite wilds of story theory.

STORIUS: How do you balance your projects? Do you work on fiction and nonfiction books simultaneously or tackle one project at a time?

It gets tricky sometimes. Since the nonfiction, via the site, is much more interactive than the fiction, it often feels more pressing. I have to consciously wall off time for the fiction so it is not encroached upon. These days, mornings are for fiction. I work on the website a few days out of the week, then usually have a few more days available to devote to whatever other project is in the works — right now it’s my just-about-to-be-released craft book, Writing Your Story’s Theme.

STORIUS: When it comes to getting started as an author, one of the greatest challenges new writers face (once they have a book ready) is a cold start. With thousands of new titles being published every year, simply having your book discovered by readers is far from easy. What’s been your path to building a highly engaged audience?

Slow and steady. Sheer consistency over 10+ years is probably the biggest factor, all told. In the beginning, though, it was all about putting in the work, day in and day out — showing up at the desk to do the writing, the blogging, the social-media-ing, etc. These days I’ve honed a pretty good 80–20 schedule, in which I’ve zeroed in on the 20 percent of effort that is producing 80 percent of the results. But in the beginning years, I just did it all. I tried anything that any successful author recommended, and most of it paid off.

STORIUS: What have you found to be the most and the least effective methods for growing an audience (including blogging, various forms of advertising, using social media, etc.)?

For me, it has definitely been blogging — with a side of podcasting. But I credit social media in the early years for getting my site in front of people’s eyes. Social media has changed a lot since then, but I still find it worth the time I put into it. Good SEO practices have also been key for keeping the site well-ranked in web searches. I get most of my traffic organically these days.

STORIUS: Do you find any elements of a typical book launch campaign particularly effective? Do these elements differ between fiction and nonfiction launches?

I use basically the same approaches for both fiction and nonfiction launches. I used to put on a lot more bells and whistles, but now I rely mostly on a strong email list. I still like to do prize drawings on the day of the launch to attract some extra traffic, but that’s as much because I think they’re fun as anything else. If you have a strong email readership who is engaged with what you’re writing, that is often enough to generate enough book sales for a good launch.

STORIUS: Self-publishing has come a long way in the last decade. What are your views on the merits of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing? In particular, would you advise new authors to self-publish or first try going the traditional route by finding an agent?

Honestly, I have mixed feelings about that. The self-publishing boom has treated me so well I can’t not recommend it. But I see so many subpar books self-published. My top recommendation is for authors to get the book professionally edited before they attempt self-publication.

If you have a quality book and you’re willing to put in the effort to really figure out the marketing side of things, self-publishing can be more sensible from a financial perspective. But it requires brutal self-observation and hopefully some very honest feedback from knowledgeable people who can tell you if the book is really up to snuff or not.

Really, it comes down to knowing your own goals and priorities.

STORIUS: In your articles, you often emphasize the idea that authors have the responsibility of bringing hope into the world. Why do you think this is so important, and how do you as an author approach that in your own books?

Something I adamantly believe is that there is no such thing as “just a story.” This is a statement we hear sometimes in an attempt to dismiss the impact of stories that are supposed to be “empty entertainment.” But every story is a statement about our world. Every story changes our reality. When you think about it this way, it becomes clear that storytelling isn’t just a fun hobby. It’s a profound responsibility.

Even more than hope, I believe it is the task of the author to seek truth — to try to tell stories from a place of deep, vulnerable honesty. Sometimes those truths are painful and ugly and perhaps even hopeless. And sometimes that’s important. But in a world that is drowning in cynicism, anxiety, even hatred, I believe stories have the ability to not just shine a light on dark truths but to go further in pointing out the difficult paths to redemption.

I am quite sure we can all think of at least one story that has inspired us, given us hope, shown us how to live our lives as better people, and helped us rise back up out of our own despair. If I’m going to write something — if I’m going to wield that fearsome responsibility as a storyteller — that’s the kind of story I want to be able to give to someone else.