Once upon a time in a land far far away (called Texas), I fell in love with an author named LJ Smith. LJ Smith wrote urban fantasy novels for young adults, starring strong female characters who dabbled in magic, fell in love with (non-sparkly) vampires, journeyed to faerie lands, battled demonic game masters, learned to control psychic powers, and saved the world once or twice. I bought and read every single LJ Smith novel as soon as it was published in paperback (and you would not believe the amount of chores younger me had to do to earn the money for all of those books). When I had exhausted all of the real LJ Smith books, I found myself still hungry for more stories starring her characters and set in her amazing universes. And that, girls and boys, is when I first discovered fanfiction.
Fanfiction, more specifically LJ Smith-based fanfiction, is what leads me to my interview with Dianne Sylvan (just stick with me here another moment). Because in that once upon a time ago when I first discovered fanfic, it was on an LJ Smith-based site called Twilight Tales. TT had stories from The Vampire Diaries, stories from The Secret Circle, stories from The Nightworld. So very very many stories. Some were awesome, some were horrible, some were super smutty, some were not as smutty as I thought they could have been. And some were so amazingly well written, so fully realized, and so incredibly plotted and fleshed out, that I thought they really should have been published as their own books instead of as stories based on someone else’s work. My favorite of these were based on The Vampire Diaries and they were written by Dianne Sylvan (who went by another name on that site but I can’t for the life of me remember what that was).
Years later after I had moved on to love other things more than LJ Smith-based fanfiction (okay okay, I am now addicted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer Crossover fanfiction), I had a moment of nostalgia one day and decided to look up those Dianne Sylvan stories again. But lo and behold they were no longer there! As it turns out, she had done the amazing (and seemingly impossible) and turned them into actual novels. She had re-written characters and plot points and storylines to make them unique and pulled out all of the elements from LJ Smith’s work, and created awesome new books out of them. So of course I jumped onto Amazon.com and bought the first one, Queen of Shadows, just as fast as my fingers would let me. When it arrived in the mail (days and days and days later) I read it all in one night. I couldn’t put it down. It was familiar and yet not at the same time, which was pretty cool actually.
I found myself really impressed by Dianne Sylvan and her ability, not only to write well (which is a dying artform let me tell you) but to take something that was based on something, and rework it so it was just hers and hers alone. I have actually now seen fanfiction based on her novels! If that isn’t coming full circle, I don’t know what is (except when I’m lost in Seattle and start making only left turns). And now, after that incredibly long-winded introduction, an interview with author Dianne Sylvan!
1) What authors, artists, and others have inspired you in your writing and in your life?
In my teenage years I was really into high fantasy – Mercedes Lackey was my life. I never was really into YA books – there were a couple of series I was slavishly devoted to but – and this was the early 90s – there wasn’t a whole lot out there yet. I’d say the single biggest book influence on my writing was a series by Gael Baudino, Strands of Starlight, which was about Goddess-worshipping Elves in the middle ages being driven to extinction by the Inquisition; her writing style was just so lush and gorgeous and dark and she wasn’t afraid to “go there” in her writing.
Nowadays I find I’m far more influenced by television than by books. I envision my books as if I were filming them, complete with camera angles and music – that’s Joss Whedon’s fault. Other showrunners like Julie Plec & Kevin Williamson of The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural’s Eric Kripke have been major influences in how I tell stories. I tend to focus really heavily on the emotional aspect of things because the shows I love rip my heart out.
I volunteer with our local animal rescue organization, Austin Pets Alive. I also dance – not professionally, of course, but I do Nia and ecstatic dance for health as well as spiritual reasons. I also run an online course called Becoming a Spiritual Nomad – my first two books were about NeoPagan spirituality, even though fiction was always my first love.
3) Why did you begin writing fanfiction?
When I went to college the internet was still a new thing. I had no concept of fanfiction or fandom, and I stumbled across it. I read some of the, let’s say, less stellar examples, and thought, “Hell, I can do that.” It was especially important to me because I hadn’t written in several years since I had a bad experience with a famous sci fi author who told me I was a terrible writer. (She was apparently a total ass to lots of people.) Getting into fandom and doing well at it, getting awards and a readership, I think is what saved my writing career.
4) What made you decide to turn your fanfiction into unique novels?
The first version of Queen of Shadows was written in 1999. Truth be told that series bore very little resemblance to the source material – you could recognize the characters, but the world was totally different. I always felt like that story deserved its own life, but I was too chickenshit to write my own novels back then. Ten years later, I realized I was ready.
5) What have been the main challenges of doing so?
Well, it wasn’t actually all that challenging because I gutted the story and for all intents and purposes started over. I had to create new histories for the characters, and they took on a life of their own, which is exactly what I wanted – I doubt many people would see the source material in the new books. In fact even the people who’ve read the fics and think they know what’s going to happen in the books would be really surprised – the story has veered off onto its own path. The setting is different, the characters’ relationships are different. I don’t even reference the old stories.
6) What kinds of themes do you try to incorporate into your books and why?
The most important thing to me is character, so I work to make sure that my characters evolve. I especially want my female characters to be empowered, but in a real way, a hard-won way that takes time and requires them to grow. I want to present a world where the men don’t have to act a certain way to be strong, and the women don’t have to be a certain kind of strong, and I want my cast of characters to be diverse.
7) How do you feel about others writing fanfiction based on your novels?
I would absolutely LOVE that. I’ve never understood authors getting upset over fan works – it means that people love what you’ve created so much they want to participate. As long as they insert the standard “I didn’t create this, I’m just playing in the author’s sandbox” disclaimer, and nobody’s making money off of something I have copyrighted, I just don’t see the harm. I’d much rather have someone write an alternate ending for one of my books than email me ranting and raving about how I should have written it.
The Shadow World books, which currently include Queen of Shadows, Shadowflame, and (soon to be published) Shadow’s Fall, take place in a modern world where singers are psychics, vampires rule giant territories, and true love is chosen by sacred jewels. Of course they are actually about a lot more than that, but to keep it brief that kind of works (go out and buy them and read them for yourselves for a better idea!). The main characters (so far) are Miranda Grey, a talented young artist with a world of power in her head, and David Solomon, a tech geek vampire lord who can behead a traitor and rebuild a hard drive, all in the same day. There is lots of action and some suspense and a very nice helping of love/romance/smut/etc. And they are very different from the original fanfic that I read so long ago, so even for someone like me who kind of read the source material they are still surprising and fun.
8) So far you have released two books in the Shadow World series and have one upcoming. How much further do you plan to take the story?
I’m contracted through the fifth book, but I’m hoping the series will be about eight books long – it will depend on how my publisher feels, obviously, but I think even if they don’t choose to go on with the books I’ll finish the series online. The story gets gradually more and more mythic – I’m dealing with the origins of the vampire race and all the old magical things that have lived on the Earth. There’s a war coming and it’s going to get pretty epic.
9) There have been some negative reactions to your second novel in the Shadow World series, mainly about the direction the plot was taken and things that happened between the characters. How have you dealt with and responded to these reactions?
Every writer gets bad reviews. That’s just part of it. The thing about writing fiction nowadays is that the buffer zone between author and reader is gone. Used to be, if you wanted to bitch out an author, you had to sit down, write a letter, stamp it, mail it, and wait. Now, you can instantly rant at anyone you want, on all sorts of websites. The whole writer/reader relationship is changing. That’s great for the readers, but it’s hard for the writers, and we, like the publishing industry as a whole, haven’t evolved to keep up yet.
What I took exception to were the personal attacks against me, and people lying and saying I was the one leaving all the good reviews – my question was, what kind of life do you have if you spend that much time trolling Amazon? So I had to make a decision: I stopped going to review sites entirely. I don’t read my reviews. At all. I’m also willing to turn off the comments on my blog now, and I never wanted to do that. So many of the negative reactions were motivated by thinly veiled (or outright) homophobia. I don’t write for hateful people. I don’t want hateful people anywhere near me. They don’t realize that the things they say about me actually reveal far more about them.
So I haven’t been to websites with reviews in at least six months. Every writer I know said that’s what you have to do, for your work as well as your mental health – just stop torturing yourself worrying about what people say.
10) What characteristics do you think are important in a female lead character?
I think it’s important that people are able to identify with a character even if they’ve never dealt with the same situations she’s in – she has to seem “human,” even if she’s not. If you have some superhero who never makes a mistake, never says or does the wrong thing, never leaves the house with her shirt on backwards, how believable is that? I write women like the women I know: tough, flawed, smart, and able to cope with the worst life has to offer.
11) You also have written urban fantasy with human/vampire romance, though yours is more adult in theme (and much better written in my personal opinion). What do you think about the craze surrounding books like Twilight?
I think life is really complicated nowadays and people crave something simple, like a straight-up romance where you know whatever “team” wins they’ll live happily ever after. But then you have series like The Hunger Games where nothing is simple, which are also really popular, so it shows an interesting split among people who want traditional sex-after-marriage-leads-to-babies romance versus messy, screwed up but far more realistic love stories.
Personally, my problem with Twilight is the relationship model it presents. Bella essentially has no purpose in life but to pick a husband. Her hopes and dreams begin and end in her man. She drops her family, her friends (and I use that term loosely given how she treats them), and is absorbed into her husband’s clan – all they were missing is a dowry. It’s that fantasy of perfect love that just doesn’t exist in real life – and even if it did, what happens after the happily ever after? I know that kind of romance appeals to a lot of people, and I get it…but that’s not what I want to read, and it’s not what I write. Miranda and David are going to get put through the wringer as a couple – that’s what makes it interesting.
12) You have written several nonfiction books as well as your novels. What made you take the leap from nonfiction to fiction?
It wasn’t so much a leap as it was a return. Fiction has always been my first love, but for a while, like I said earlier, I was too afraid to try and get published. But I still had to write, because for me it’s like breathing; so I decided I would write about the other important thing in my life, my spirituality. I saw a need in the community and wanted to fill it. But I always knew I’d go back to fiction.
I read both series when I was about 12, and I loved them at the time…I’m afraid that now I wouldn’t, mostly because the new books in TVD are really…out there. I felt that the series should have ended at book 3. And when I heard they were making a TV series I was upset because I “just knew they were going to screw it up.” By the middle of the first season I was hooked. Now, TVD fandom is one of the things I enjoy most online – mostly on Twitter. I write comedy-type recaps of each episode. I love how they’ve deviated from the books – I think they had to, for the sake of the show, and I like the decisions they’ve made.
The Secret Circle is another beast altogether. I like the show, but I still can’t make my mind up about it. The books weren’t my favorites and I don’t remember them as well, but the series seems to still be finding its feet. They rely too much on the shock-and-awe ending for each episode. It’s got plenty of things going for it, though, and it’s definitely improving in the character department, so I’m going to stick with it at least until we find out what the hell’s going on.
14) What basic advice would you give for new authors today – with the advent of multiple platform books and such – who are trying to become published?
Don’t give up. And don’t automatically go for self-publishing online; it seems like a great deal, but it takes a lot of work and dedication just like traditional publishing, so you’re not necessarily choosing an easier path. The process of landing a contract – or even an agent – sucks weasels, but that’s part of the writing life. Right now the publishing industry is reeling from all the changes that have happened, so you have to keep an open mind about what “success” means to you.
15) Is there anything else you would like to say to readers or the world at large?
Thank you, my wonderful readers, for all of your support! I hope to continue ripping your hearts out for many years to come.
For more information on Dianne Sylvan, the Shadow World books, and other stuff, check out her website: http://diannesylvan.com/
For more information on LJ Smith (since I waxed on about her so much in the beginning), you can check out her website as well: http://www.ljanesmith.net/www/