Interview with Josh VanBrakle

When did you first start writing?
I was in elementary school. I grew up in a family where everyone, especially my dad, loved to tell stories. You could be talking about anything, and suddenly Dad would say, "That reminds me of a story." We'd all groan, but that was part of the tradition. The stories were always good.

When I got to school, then, it was natural for me to start telling stories just like we did at home. I found writing a great way to do that. It wasn't until middle school, though, that I started writing fantasy. That's when I read Tolkien for the first time. From those first pages, like so many nerds before me, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to write like that someday.
What's the story behind your latest book?
I actually started thinking about The Wings of Dragons ten years ago in high school. My school offered a creative writing course, which I took at the same time as a literature course. The lit. class talked about epics, so the pair of them got me thinking. That was the birth of Iren Saitosan and the world of Raa. Almost the entire story changed from then to now, but one thing did stay the same. I wrote one of the book's climactic turning points - the chapter "To Protect Someone Precious!" - in high school, and it only changed mildly for the published version ten years later.

Unfortunately, life intervened after high school, and I set the project down. I probably never would have come back to it, but by pure chance, in 2011 I happened to pick up a local newspaper advertising writing workshops hosted by a local author, Shannon Delany. On a whim I decided to go, and they changed my life. They inspired me to go back to those old ideas and refresh them with my new knowledge. I read every writing resource I could find, practiced the skills they and Shannon taught, and revised over and over again. I had a lot of help from my family and from the folks at my day job, who all supported me in my new project. Thanks to all of them, The Wings of Dragons released almost 2 years to the day from Shannon's workshops.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
The simple answer is "about 50 query letters." I tried at first to go the traditional route. I knew it was a long shot. I don't have a writing degree, and my only publications prior to The Wings of Dragons were a few scientific articles. They're about as fun to read as the back of the toothpaste tube. I wanted to try it though. I wanted to see what the publishing industry would say about my book, if anything. If nothing else, it forced me to think about what folks are looking for in a good story. I completely changed my introduction as a result of the tips various agents gave. I also honed my pitch. By the time I was ready to publish, I already knew what the back cover would say.

As you can probably guess, I got rejected every time. It was at once discouraging and encouraging. Why? Because while most gave me form rejections, I had two or three who said that they really enjoyed my novel. They turned it down because they weren't sure they could get an editor to purchase it "given the state of the publishing industry."

Those responses inspired me to become an indie author. They convinced me that I had something good on my hands, and that its rejection had more to do with the Great Recession and the Kindle than with some fatal flaw in my writing. Even though these agents found my work appealing, they were unwilling to take the financial risk of working with an unknown, unpublished author. Publishing a book is always a gamble. I realized that no one else was going to take a risk on me. I had to take a risk on me.

Now I love it. I love being able to write on my terms, at my pace, what I want, when I want. I love being able to work directly with editors and book designers to make my book as good as it can be. I've learned so much more about writing and publishing than I ever would have otherwise.
Why the emphasis on a lefty hero?
I've always identified with being left-handed. From the time I was a child, it marked me as different. I recall classes where I was the only left-handed person in the room. In some ways, it defined my elementary school years. Teachers didn't understand why I had such terrible handwriting, or why I smudged everything I wrote.

I never considered using it in my writing, though, until the first time I played the Legend of Zelda video games. In those, the hero, Link, is left-handed. I identified with him because he was a lefty. In so many stories, the hero is just assumed to be right-handed. When I wrote The Wings of Dragons, I decided to turn that idea on its head. I wanted to make Iren's left-handedness a key part of the storyline.

Besides, the idea of a lefty being ostracized, as Iren is, isn't that far removed from real life. My grandmother was left-handed, but she was forced to switch and use her right hand in school. She grew up during the Depression and World War II, so it's not like this was back in ye olde times. That's why on my bio, I describe myself as an "unrepentant" lefty. It's a heritage I'm proud of.
Who are your favorite authors?
Tolkien - of course - because he introduced me to the fantasy genre as he does for so many of us. In fantasy, I also enjoy Patrick Rothfuss and Christopher Paolini. In science fiction, I'm a fan of Timothy Zahn. He's written some incredible stories expanding the Star Wars universe, and his other books are just as good. I particularly recommend his novel The Icarus Hunt. Finally, I adore Shannon Delany. She's the author of the Weather Witch series and the 13 to Life series, and although they aren't really my genre, she's just an incredible person. Kind, giving, hard-working, and the reason I'm published in the first place. It was her workshops that reintroduced me to writing and convinced me to follow my dream.
The product description for The Wings of Dragons says it has creatures "inspired by Japanese mythology." What does that mean?
So many epic fantasy books just riff on Tolkien. I don't know how many stories I've read that feature Elves. I wanted to get away from that, so The Wings of Dragons has no Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, or Hobbits. Instead, I designed my own creatures. I wanted to give them some kind of general theme, though, so I drew from Japanese mythology. In The Wings of Dragons, you'll find creatures ranging from the Kodamas, forest guardians who die if they leave their wooded home, to the nightmarish Yokai and Oni. You'll also hear reference to Tengu, but they don't show up in book one (now book two...maybe...).

I should warn the purists though that I take a lot of creative liberties with these creatures. If you're looking for the traditional Japanese Oni, for instance, you won't find it. The same is true with some of the language. Iren's katana is called the Muryozaki. It's not Japanese, and it's not supposed to be Japanese. I made it up. I didn't set out to create a novel based in Japan or one about Japanese myths. Just like I didn't want to copy Tolkien, I didn't want to copy Japanese mythology either. I wanted to make my own creations and then tell a story with them. That's what fantasy is all about. You can do anything you want, so why limit yourself to what came before? That's why I say "inspired by" Japanese mythology rather than "from" it.
Who's your favorite character in The Wings of Dragons?
Rondel. No contest. She's such a complicated person, and she has so many masks that sometimes even I'm not sure who she really is. I'm still getting to know her. Is she good? Is she evil? A hero? A villain? Both? Neither? She's full of contradictions, right down to the words she lives by: "Evil must be annihilated."

Once you've read The Wings of Dragons, you might think you understand Rondel. I have a secret. You don't know anything about her yet.
What is your writing process?
I start with my characters. In the writing workshops Shannon hosted, she introduced us to some examples of character sheets that ask all sorts of questions about a person. Think D&D, only taken to an even greater level of detail. A lot of the material doesn't end up in a finished book, but by having it in my head, it helps me make my characters more 3-D. I didn't want the traditional fantasy characters - people who are all good or pure evil. I wanted each person to see himself or herself as the main character, acting correctly according to his or her beliefs.

Once I have my characters, I rely on them and their motivations to drive the story. This was a learning process for me. I had a story arc in my head when I first wrote The Wings of Dragons, but my characters shattered it. Several times I rewrote whole scenes because when I read them, I found my characters were doing things they would never do.

I split up my drafting, revising, and editing into three steps. Some authors try to do all that at the same time, but I can't. When I draft, I write fast. I shut off the part of my brain that shouts, "Wrong 'there,' moron!" and just write in a stream of consciousness. I can usually manage about 2000 words at a spurt, then fatigue sets in.

Only when I've drafted the whole piece do I start revising. I found that it's hard to start from nothing, but once I have something down, even if it's terrible, it's enough. Then I trigger that critical part of my brain to identify what's missing, what doesn't make sense, and what's just irrelevant. There's usually a lot of that last one. The Wings of Dragons was 115,000 words before revisions. After them, it was 95,000. I didn't need those 20,000 words anyway.

Revising is also the point when I bring in outsiders to read my draft for the first time. I have some great coworkers at my day job who are not only hugely supportive of my efforts but fantasy buffs to boot. They provide great comments, and their hard work is vital to the process.

Editing comes next. If revision is big-picture, editing is micro - sentence by sentence, word by word. I pruned another 5,000 words off The Wings of Dragons at this stage. To be honest, when I read it now, there's more editing I would do. I came to the point, however, when I realized that I could edit the novel forever. It will never be "perfect." It was time to get it out there and see what people thought of it. That way, I could learn from my mistakes and apply them to the next project.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
Writing for me is still a secondary career, so much of the time I'm working my day job. I work as a forester at an environmental non-profit promoting rural land conservation. I'm an outdoors person at heart, so I try to find time to get out in nature as often as possible. I love hiking, kayaking, camping, and nature photography. To me there's something magical about sitting around a campfire and telling stories long into the night. That's what writing really is to me - a way to tell stories.
What are you working on next?
Book two of The Dragoon Saga is my furthest-along project right now. It's in revisions, and I hope to have it published by 2015.

I'm also drafting a non-fiction book based on my experiences in rural land conservation. Most of the people in my profession would rather spend their time in the woods than communicating with the public. I want to become the communicator for my profession. There's a great story hidden in our farms and forests that's just waiting to be told.

The best place to stay up-to-date on my progress with all my projects is my website,
Published 2013-10-06.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Wings of Dragons: Book One of the Dragoon Saga
Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 88,910. Language: English. Published: October 8, 2013. Categories: Fiction » Fantasy » Epic, Fiction » Young adult or teen » Fantasy
Against a backdrop of friendship, betrayal, and explosive magic, lefthanded teenager Iren Saitosan must uncover a forgotten history, confront monsters inspired by Japanese mythology, and master an imprisoned dragon spirit to survive this epic fantasy adventure and stop a revenge one thousand years in the making. "A fast-paced adventure...led by a compelling cast of characters." - ForeWord Reviews