Today I have the pleasure of bringing to you Jon Ford, author of soon-to-be published Hunters (book one of the Songbird series).
He is a super talented writer who started his official journey to authorship about four years ago when he branched away from creating fan fiction and wrote the first words that would become Hunters. That book is now complete and is being queried while he continues on with Blood to Earth, book two in the series.
I’ve been intrigued with Jon and his story since first meeting him and he’s a terrific source of inspiration for writers of all genres. He’s also a wonderfully fun soul who loves to chat with other authors and aspiring writers, so feel free to drop him a note in the comments.
You can also learn more about Jon and Songbird, as well read his weekly musings, on his website, www.jonfordauthor.com.
Thanks for giving us your time, Jon!
From a very early age, I’d been interested in writing. At school my favorite subject by far was creative writing. Back then, I’d write short stories based on things I was interested in as a child, which boiled down to aliens and giant robots.
The first inklings of wanting to be a writer were sown when I was about 12. I’d started reading a number of source materials that would become extremely influential to me. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight, it’s really blatantly obvious.
The first was the Marvel UK run on Transformers. Simon Furman wrote the UK stuff, and his story was a masterclass is balancing multiple characters in long ongoing story arcs. To this day, I still believe that his storytelling stands up to almost anyone.
I also had a passion for 2000AD. I loved the anthology nature of the science fiction stories, especially the works of people like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Anyone who knows comic books will know their names. They’re the funny book equivalent of Stephen King or JK Rowling!
And, of course, there was Star Trek. I’d started reading the books based on the TV show (at first I was unaware there even was a TV show!), and adored the character interplay between the trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
And that was where my passion for writing got serious…
Let me take you back to the summer of 1998. I got into a conversation with a guy from work who was in a ‘Play-by-Email’ Star Trek role playing game. It was called SFTCG (Star Fleet Tactical Command Group) and the way it worked was thus. Each player in the game had a character. One member of the game would write a short sequence of the story from the point of view of their character, then end it by handing off to another character. Each player could take the story and the characters wherever they wanted to, within reason.
I got obsessed with this game.
Most players had just one character… I eventually created seven distinct characters and a plethora of supplementary characters. Over the course of a couple of years, players started to drop out and I started picking up their characters, too. Before long, I was basically writing a Star Trek novel. (I still have it if you want snippets!)
This was when I realized I had a passion for writing.
A serious passion, though? Not quite yet.
That came a few years later when I started writing fan fiction for my characters from a game called City of Heroes. Over the span of five years, I wrote two and a half books detailing a story of my characters and those of my friends. I fell in love with the characters and the storytelling…and realized that I wanted to do more with it. I finally figured out I wanted to be a published author.
And that’s where my story began in earnest.
Not great, to be honest.
I knew that I loved writing, but never assumed I was any good at it. Something that persists to this day. I don’t think it’s unusual for writers to feel pessimistic about their own work. What I’ve always tried to focus on is what I believe to be true. For instance, I honestly believe that my greatest skill is seeing the big picture – laying out the storyline.
I also love character creation. In my gaming life, this resulted in a serious case of what they call ‘Altitis’. (Urban dictionary defines it as: Altitis – The mental disease of making too many alts. One with altitis can’t just play one character, he/she has a need or desire to play many.) This rolled over to the Songbird series as I have around nine or ten ‘main’ characters, and probably about 25 secondary ones. I have a vivid imagination – characters, back stories and storylines come very easily to me.
The other aspect of writing I think I do well is dialogue. It’s probably my favorite thing to write and my books are heavy on multi-character interaction. There’s nothing I like more in my writing than getting characters together and having them converse with each other, establishing what I hope are unique relationships within the story. Just like in real life, characters should bounce off each other differently. In Songbird, for instance, Gayle talking with Michael should have a different vibe from Gayle talking to Lana.
My weaknesses, I feel, come in two areas. Firstly, I get bored with writing description. I sometimes feel like I’m just blitzing through set up so that I can get to the dialogue. When I read back through my writing, I feel that in some chapters I do it well. Others, not so much. I think I’m capable of it, but just need to get my mind into the right headspace to do it sometimes.
My biggest issue, however, is that I’ve never studied English seriously. I have no qualifications outside of what I got at school. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone to college and university to study English in some manner. If I’d known then what I know now about what I want to do with my life, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. As a result, however, I’m not as hot on my grammar as I should be. I’m learning, and learning fast I think, but that is definitely my weak spot.
And when I look back at that early work…ugh.
So, while I loved writing, and am confident in my ability to spin a tale…I was (and still am) desperately unconfident about my skill at actually telling that story.
So, remember those City of Heroes books I mentioned the question before last?
Well, a friend of mine said I should see about getting them published. The problem was that much of the content of the books (the backstory from the game, etc.) was trademarked by the company that made the game, so publishing it for profit was never in the cards. For a while, I dabbled with trying to change some of the background details to make it a story that could be published.
But it was just too difficult.
The lore of City of Heroes was so deeply ingrained in the book’s DNA that it was impossible to remove it. So, I decided that I’d leave them as they are and put them up on my website as freebies for all my old CoH chums from back in the day to enjoy at their leisure. It’s also like a little time capsule into where Songbird kind of began.
With that decision made, I also decided to go and create my own brand new universe, with my new characters. However, as I’d fallen in love with my CoH characters, I decided to somehow port them over to the new series. So, characters like Gayle, Michael and Lana all ported over, just with some key character changes. For example, Gayle went from a confident, competent shrinking violet to an outspoken, foul-mouthed maverick. Michael went from cocky, playboy athlete to cool, reserved professional soldier.
So, I had the characters locked in. But I needed a new backdrop and a story.
One day I was researching monster myths and legends on the internet and realized that everything you know from movies and books is a lie. Take vampires. All we know of them comes from pop culture. Dracula, stakes, garlic, holy-water, drinking blood and turning into bats. Or, if you read/watch Twilight…then they twinkle, too. But if you actually spend the time and research it, you’ll find there are literally dozens of vampiric myths from all over the word that are slightly different.
For instance, here’s one example from Wiki…
The Asanbosam, is a vampire-like folkloric being. It belongs to the folklore of the Akan of southern Ghana, as well as Côte d’Ivoire, Togo and 18th century Jamaica from enslaved Akan. It is said to have iron teeth, pink skin, long red hair and iron hooks for feet and lives in trees, attacking from above.
And that is simply starting at the letter A in the alphabet.
Which got me thinking… What if all these myths and legends had basis in fact?
At that point, I was off and running with a story.
Yes and no.
I knew the outline for the story. I’d got my start, middle and end. I just didn’t know how many books it would be until I started to plan it out.
The issue was that I had a big story to tell and it needed to be split up into smaller chunks that could hopefully stand alone as books, while contributing to the overall arc. I quickly found that the Harry Potter series became kind of a touchstone for that process. The way JK Rowling was always telling the Harry and Voldemort story, but each of the individual books needed to stand on its own merit. Once I started to plot it into its arcs, it quickly became clear that I needed at least seven books (coincidentally, the same as the Harry Potter series) to tell the full story.
And honestly…I haven’t ruled out an 8th book altogether!
Ah, the ‘Spreadsheet of Doom™’.
Very quickly, as I started writing, it became really obvious that I needed a way to keep track of things. Suddenly I was acutely aware of the challenge of writing an epic story over seven (or eight) books and a new admiration for how JK Rowling had managed to do it so expertly.
It started with simple things, like just keeping the timeline straight. I’m flitting between multiple chapters and multiple characters, so everything has to synchronize up. I’ll give you an example.
Chapter 1 of book one takes place at midday in London, England with Gayle on her way to a meeting at the Human Fae Alliance Academy. Chapter 2 takes place in Havana, Cuba with Zarra chasing down a bounty she’s taken on. The original write of chapter 2 took place at sunset, which was a pretty awesome time for a chase sequence…or so I thought. The problem was, if it was midday in London it couldn’t be dusk in Havana. Quite the opposite in fact – it’s actually around dawn due to the time difference. I needed to subtly rewrite the chapter to reflect this.
Other issues were: keeping track of characters’ injuries (was it the right shoulder or the left?), damage to clothing and equipment, supplementary characters and details, place names (where I made them up!), characters ages, hair color, eye color, family relationships (especially for the complicated vampyrii characters!)… Even the details of the academy timetable. The list is endless.
The ‘Spreadsheet of Doom™’ is there to help me track all that. Plus it has the added feature of allowing me to put in a brief synopsis for each chapter and to play with the order of them. Making sure that the flow is right. Or at least trying to. It also tracks word counts for me, which chapters are in which stage of completion (not started, draft, first edit, second edit, final edit), and what date of the year they fall on (just in case I need to mention a particular holiday like Halloween or Christmas in the narrative!).
It’s my bible, it represents many, many, many hours of work and I’d be utterly lost without it.
Yes, I’m undergoing the thoroughly demoralizing task of querying agents.
Alas, as I write this, Covid19 is running rampant globally and the industry appears to be more or less shut down, so my efforts will start again when life begins to return to normal.
I had thought long and hard about going traditional versus self-publishing, and at the end of the day I decided that I really wanted to go the former route. For a number of reasons.
While self-publishing would get my book out there, I feel like the traditional route has a built-in form of quality control. For my own peace of mind, I want to know that my book is good enough that an agent wants to rep it and that a publisher has the faith to publish it. That would be HUGE for me.
Plus, I LOVE going to bookstores. One of life’s greatest pleasures for me is to go book shopping. I love browsing the shelves and picking something I’ve never seen before. Giving an author a chance to give me that warm glow of happiness and satisfaction from reading their vision. I want my books on those same shelves. That, for me, is the dream, and I’m pretty determined to succeed.
That said, if all else fails then I’ll go the self-publishing route. I’m very proud of Hunters. I think it’s a good read, with an interesting story and a great set up for the series. I want others to be able to read it, too.
Alas, I do wonder if our current global crisis is going to change the way the industry works. We were already seeing high-street retailers suffer from the crushing weight of online shopping, and this feels a little like the death knell for a bunch of businesses who may not be able to weather the storm. Plus, I feel like I’m part of an older generation who loves to hold a book in their hand. To feel the paper and turn the pages. I have a Kindle, but I much prefer a proper book.
I’m not sure if I’m now part of a dying breed in that respect.
I’m torn on self-publishing, if I’m honest. I’ve read a bunch of self-published stuff that has been awesome, and you wonder how it never got an agent or a traditional publishing deal. On the flipside, there’s a lot of crap out there, too. I’ve seen books rife with spelling, grammatical and even continuity mistakes. Some books feel like they were just written and thrown out to the public in days to make a quick buck. Quality control in the self-publishing space sometimes seems hit and miss at best.
Just my opinion, but I really want to know deep down that when my book hits the public, it is the best it can possibly be.
Not at first.
The first step was knowing I wanted to write a book. Or books. I wanted to leave something behind as a lasting mark on the world. I wanted something that would outlive me. Even if only a handful of people ever read it, that would be enough for me to have felt like I’d accomplished a dream.
When the urge really hit me was the day I was stood in a bookstore, looking at the shelf where my book would be if I was published. That was the day I thought to myself…”I really want to see my book right there.”
That was when I got determined to see this through.
It’s as simple as that.
It’s clichéd as hell, I know, but everyone has a story that only they can tell. So tell it.
I’m living proof that you don’t need qualifications or be an English major to write. So what if your grammar is all over the place and your spelling needs correcting? All of that can be tackled later with the help of an editor (or a friend who’s better at that stuff that you are!).
Writing is about imagination and unleashing it onto the page.
NO ONE can tell the story that you can.
Creators create and art is subjective. Never be put off by what others think.
Case in point – I’d rather have a Sylessae original hanging on my wall than the Mona Lisa. I’d rather watch a Godzilla movie than Schindler’s List. I’d rather read Sunstone (a graphic novel series by Stjepan Sejic – check it out right now!) than the Lord of the Rings. I’m not saying those other things are crap…it’s just I know what pushes my pleasure buttons.
I know that Songbird won’t be to everyone’s taste. And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be, because it’s to MY taste. I wrote it for me, not for anyone else. If other people read and enjoy it along the way, then that’s a bonus.
So, if you’re out there and you’re a writer and nervous about no one liking what you are writing, I’m here to say…it doesn’t matter.
Write for YOU. Write because you love writing. Tell the story that YOU want to tell. Write it so that YOU are happy with it. Because at the end of the day that’s what counts.
Write something that you’re proud of.
I wish I could take credit for the above, but here’s a little piece of background knowledge into my psyche. I felt the same until I took that piece of advice to heart. I’m a huge fan of Kevin Smith. I love his movies, his comic book writing, but, most of all, the man himself. I listen to his podcasts regularly and he is always telling people to create. To put something positive into the world that only you can.
He freely admits his movies are not blockbusters, but they are the films that HE wants to make. That only HE can make. He’s a massive advocate of finding your own voice.
That’s all I’m trying to do. I advise you to do the same.
Okay, here you go…
I mentioned earlier that there are at least eight main characters.
Only three will end the saga as they are.
And this isn’t because of a GRRM-style culling! It’s something very different…
I have talked with certain writers about doing collaboration pieces. That is something that excites me. I love nothing more than bouncing ideas around and the art of collaborative writing. Honestly, if you have a good idea and want me to help then count me in!
I’m also looking at deepening the universe I’ve created.
Much of the book is set in an academy where fae/human hybrid children are trained to use their powers. I’m looking at writing a YA-orientated set of books exploring them (the main books are VERY adult-orientated! Profanity, sex, a little horror… you get the idea!).
There was also a huge bunch of flashback chapters in book 1 that had to be cut out for word count purposes. I’ve pulled them together to form a kind of prequel book and I’d love to write a series of those, too.
Plus, even when Songbird ends, there is potential to carry the story forwards in a very different and very exciting way. So, I’m looking at that, too. But that’s way off in the future.
Oh my! Honestly, you can ask me anything you like about my writing and especially about my books. I could wax lyrical about my books for hours. I love the characters and the story and I have a real passion for it.
I guess maybe the question no one ever asks is:
Now that book one, Hunters, is finished, are you proud of what you’ve accomplished?
What’s the answer?
And my answer would be…YES!
As mentioned earlier, I’ve written a ton of stuff over the years, and I’ve loved everything I’ve written. But it’s always been keyed off something that existed. My early writings as a kid were about Transformers. When I played the Star Trek play-by-email game, it was all hinging on a universe that someone else had created decades ago and had well established. And my City of Heroes stories had been set against a backdrop of a game lore not of my creation, and contained characters created by friends.
Songbird is all mine.
My characters. My world.
And I believe it’s a rich and textured world, filled with interesting politics, dynamics, races and characters. It’s a world set a little in the future, so things can be different, but close enough to be recognizable. I love writing in it, I truly do. I would LOVE a day to come where other writers play in my sandbox the same way I played in those other worlds when I started my writing journey.
I also love my characters. They live and breathe for me. I feel their pain, their excitement, their pleasures and their losses.
I’m so proud of what I’ve written so far, that I’m starting to become nervous that book 2, ‘Blood to Earth’, can’t hold up to it. More than that, can I actually stick the landing and finish the whole saga satisfactorily?
I have fans?
At home we have a dog called Vixen and two cats named Lana and Gayle.
The latter two are named after the characters in the book. The former influenced a character within the book.
Let it be known that I LOVE my pets!
[Nikki Note: Header art created by Tyler Edward Wilson and borrowed with permission from Jon’s site.]