William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Short Shorts: Peter and the Vampires

From the Sci-Guys #101 podcast:

At age 41, I’m not above enjoying a good young adult story. Look at Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or, my own favorite, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. The good ones are like Pixar movies; there’s something there for everybody of any age. Reading for yourself is great, but there’s also nothing quite like enjoying a great story with your kid.

This week, I wanted to bring you a young adult recommendation, and I found one that’s awesome. As soon as you’re done listening to this podcast, hit up your favorite online book vendor and search for Peter and the Vampires. It’s by Darren Pillsbury, and it’s free.

Peter is a grade school kid who finds himself forcibly moved into his crotchety grandfather’s creepy mansion. He befriends the neighbor kid, a cowardly troublemaker named Dill, and the duo soon embark on a series of accidental adventures pitted against all kinds of chilling enemies. There are four novellas in Peter and the Vampires, and each chapter is only two or three pages long. To be honest, I read it on my phone’s Kindle app, mostly in the bathroom. Maybe that’s too much info, but the point is that I found myself increasing my water intake — always a good thing — just so I could have an excuse to read the next chapter. These stories are a blast, and there were several times I actually laughed out loud at Dill’s dialog. Be aware that people asking why you’re laughing in the bathroom can be awkward.

I interviewed Darren Pillsbury, and you can find the whole Q&A [below]. But he says that he modeled the hero, Peter, after himself as a kid, although Peter is the braver of the two. Sci-Guys fans may appreciate that Darren as a kid wanted to be named Peter after Peter Parker. Unfortunately, his parents had considered the name but rejected it because it would have given him the initials “P.P.” Dill started out named after Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, who was also a humorous troublemaker, and the name just stuck.

Pillsbury confessed to me that Stephen King books were forbidden in his home when he was a kid. So starting about the time he was ten, whenever his mom took him to the store for shopping, he would sneak off to the book aisle, grab the latest Stephen King, and start digging.

“That’s who I’m writing these books for,” says Pillsbury. “The 10-year-old kid in the grocery store aisle, the one looking for ‘the good parts.’”

Personally, I thought Pillsbury’s monster descriptions were just a pinch more than my 7- and 10-year-olds are ready for, but 12 and up should be fine. There are now 18 Peter stories out, and most are collected into three larger volumes. Many of the individual stories are $2.99, but so are the collected volumes, so...you figure it out. If you’re an old geezer with a young heart that still enjoys witty banter and genuinely classic B-movie thrills, don’t miss Peter and the Vampires. It’s free, and it’s a blast.

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WVW: Where did the characters of Peter and especially Dill come from?

DP: I wanted to write horror novels, but I didn’t want to have to start over again every time with new characters, new settings, etc. I thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if I could do something like a television series, sort of like THE X-FILES, with established characters and a different monster of the week?”
And BAM, that was the genesis of the series.

To answer the main question, Peter is basically me at that age – a good kid, doesn’t misbehave too much, sweet-natured. Peter’s a lot braver than I ever was, but hey, that’s why he’s the hero. Interesting side note: I actually wanted to be named ‘Peter’ as a kid, after Peter Parker (secret identity of Spiderman). My parents told me they had considered the name, but because my initials would have been P.P. (Get it? Pee-pee? Pretty awful nickname for a first-grader), they decided against it. So, of course, my hero had to be named ‘Peter.’

I wanted to give Peter the best friend a kid ever had – somebody funny, somebody who misbehaved, somebody who pushed him to break the rules. I immediately thought of Dill in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, who’s an instigator, a troublemaker, and downright hilarious. I hadn’t read the book in 25 years, so I just started writing based on my vague recollections. I used the name ‘Dill’ as a placeholder as I wrote the first story, figuring I would rename him later…but after I finished, ‘Bob’ or ‘Steve’ just wasn’t going to cut it. He was Dill to me by then, so I left him that way.

Incidentally, Dill in MOCKINGBIRD is based on the author Truman Capote, whom Harper Lee knew as a child. Dill in my books? Not nearly as smart.

WVW: As you’re writing for a YA audience, how do you tweak your prose for that audience? Is there a particular reader you’re writing for?

DP: Interestingly enough, I’d say 80-90% of my fans are adults – college age through early 50’s, mostly. People who are young at heart.

I’ve tried reaching kids, but it’s extremely difficult. There aren’t that many trolling Amazon or BarnesAndNoble.com, and the ones who are typically want THE HUNGER GAMES or something similarly famous. So if you know the secret to marketing to teens – please clue me in.

When writing the PETER books, I limit my vocabulary a little – not dumb it down, necessarily, but not bust out the 50-cent words when a 25-cent word will do. Also, I’m aware of the gore. I keep it PG or PG-13. Mostly I try to creep my readers out, not gross them out.

I grew up in a pretty conservative household, and Stephen King was absolutely forbidden. When I was ten or eleven and had to go with my mom to the grocery store, I would sneak off to the book aisle, find the latest Stephen King book, and start flipping through to find ‘the good parts.’ That’s who I’m writing these books for: the ten-year-old kid in the grocery store book aisle, the one looking for ‘the good parts.’

WVW: Your “About” says you’ve been writing since high school. Ghostwritten scriptwriting aside, have you had much experience with traditional publishing? If not, is this something you regret?

Nope, no experience with traditional publishing. I tried to get an agent, but one of my greatest faults is that I don’t handle rejection very well. I get easily discouraged. After the first 50 agents saying no to my query letter, well, that was it for me.

Do I regret not being traditionally published? If it were an automatic ticket to Richville, I would. But in reality, a very small percentage of traditionally published authors actually make a living at writing books. The vast majority teach or do something similar to supplement their incomes.

Right now in self-publishing, I’m getting 70% royalties instead of 10-15%, I have 100% say over the content of my books, and I’m making enough money to live on while reaching hundreds of new fans every month. So I’m pretty happy. In my opinion, the Kindle and the Nook are the best. inventions. ever. Well…after the Internet. Gotta give credit to the Internet.

Would I take a traditional publishing deal? Yes, but only if A) the advance were unbelievably huge OR I got to keep the ebook rights, and B) I retained full editorial control.

WVW: How much of your early work did you give away through your blog? Do you feel this approach gained more in readers than it cost you in sales?

DP: The very hardest thing in publishing – whether traditional or self-publishing – is promotion. It’s TOUGH. It’s much harder for me than actually writing the book. And with a blog, it’s the exact same problem – how do you get people to read your stuff? After three years, I had maybe 200 core readers. And that was after advertising sporadically on similar blogs and webcomic sites.

Through the blog, I gained some great fans who spread the word, pointed out mistakes in the stories, and encouraged me for years. For that I’m extremely grateful. But the number of people who found the blog over a three-year period was fairly small compared to the number who stumble across me by accident every month on Amazon and BandN.com.

By the way, giving away the first book in a series will help an author immensely, and I can prove it. By jumping through some hoops, I was able to get Amazon to continually give away the first volume of stories for free. Before that happened, I was selling maybe $25 worth of books a month. Total. Five months after Amazon started giving away the first book for free, people have downloaded it over 20,000 times, and I’m selling over $1000 a month combined of all the other volumes.

WVW: I can see how the Peter series could become addicting. Now that you’re – what?  Seventeen novellas into the series? What sort of writing pace do you maintain?

DP: Ha! This will be a big dilemma over the next year. I published the first 13 novellas in three multi-story volumes on May 5, 2011. Those 13 stories took me about four years to write, from 2007 through 2010.
Starting in February 2012, I began publishing a new novella every month – but I already had #14 through #18 written. Now, for the first time ever, I’m faced with a deadline. 

Normally I take anywhere from one to three months to write a hundred page novella, but since I quit the day job to write full-time, I’m trying to speed up that process. I wrote #21, PETER AND THE ORGAN GRINDER, in a single month, but I’m also trying to expand into other genres with pen names. So I’m either going to have to start writing my butt off (which is unlikely – I’m kind of lazy), or I’ll go to a bi-monthly schedule with the PETER stories as I try to expand into other genres.

WVW: You have one non-Peter book, Imaginary Friends. Are you working on anything else? How far do you see the Peter series playing out?

DP: Yeah, I’m trying to diversify – I keep hoping for that one break-out hit that will allow me to eat something more than Top Ramen for dinner. (I kid, I kid…but not by much.) 
I have an adult horror novel out under a pen name, with a second coming out soon. I keep it separate, though, because it’s a hard R-rated book. I don’t want anybody who treasures the innocence and fun of the PETER novels to read it and be traumatized. I’m not just writing for that 10-year-old in the grocery store book aisle, I’m trying to protect him, too.
I’m currently writing a science fiction/military action series. Hopefully the first book will be out by Christmas 2012. 
As for the PETER books, there’s an overarching storyline that concerns a curse on his family that ultimately binds all the stories together. Like HARRY POTTER, I want to take him up to age 17, where the series will end once and for all. But that could be anywhere from 60 to 100 stories total. I’m at #21 now, and I would need at least 40 more to accomplish what I want. It’s going to get a lot darker as time goes on. More than anything, I want to show him struggling through his teenage years, falling in love, getting his heart broken – all that real-life, gut-wrenching stuff. But, y’know…with monsters.

WVW: Having written a few magazine columns over the years, I know how hard it can be to sustain a series, and you’ve been writing Peter a long time now. How do you keep the series fresh, both for readers and yourself?

DP: I really, really love the PETER stories. Especially Dill. Dill alone makes the stories fun and enjoyable to write. I love the other characters, too, but writing Dill is like getting to watch a favorite TV show - I never really know what's going to come out of his mouth. And if have a fun villain to write, especially one with snarky dialogue or moral ambiguity, that's icing on the cake.

In my first attempts at writing books years and years ago, I wrote a lot of 'serious' books. Not much humor. At its heart, the PETER books are as much comedies as they are horror, and that's why they stay enjoyable for me. If I'm smiling while I'm writing, I'm having a great time - and I think that translates over to my readers. The adult horror novel I wrote? Very little humor. It was a slog to get through.

Also, I really wanted to write a werewolf novel, a vampire novel, a ghost novel, a zombie novel, etc. ALL the classic monsters. When I approach one of those classic stories, I usually just think, "What's the most badass scene I can think of with this villain? And how can I tweak it so it's slightly different from all the other versions I've seen or read?" For example, story #20 is PETER AND THE DEMON. Dill gets possessed. The touchstone for all possession movies is, of course, THE EXORCIST. I wanted to do something along those lines, minus the horrific language and sexual material. So...who's the exorcist in my version? I thought of a Father Merrin/Max von Sydow character - but the exorcist is always a guy (a priest, naturally). Often an old one, at that. We already have Grandfather. Two old men is boring. "What if it were a nun?" I thought, and from there I had to come up with why a nun is doing the exorcism. Then we were off to the races with an exorcism story that, I think, is fairly different from other stuff out there. And it's quite possibly the scariest story I've written so far in the series.

Also, taking an off-the-wall idea and running with it is a way to keep things fresh. For instance, #21 PETER AND THE ORGAN GRINDER has a monkey rodeo as an integral part. That's the kind of thing that makes me excited to write more.