DJ Butler has written a bang-up series with Witchy Eye. Set in an alternative American History that features a refreshing female heroine, multiple dialects, a mishmash of villains and a plethora of magic systems, Butler keeps a straight arrow plot through it all.
He discusses that among the importance of a strong civics education, how his children have inspired his work, how it does (and doesn’t) fit into the young adult category, and what advice he would give writers in this Q and A.
1) I’ve read you talk about the limitations of the education system. I spent 15 years as an ELA specialist in that system. So I hear you. I think most of your frustration centers around a lack of Financial Literacy classes. Is that correct and can you expand on this further?
Well, I happen to teach a kind of financial literacy course for adults, so that might be the gripe I articulate most often. As a university student myself, I thought there were subjects that seemed to me fundamental but that had not been required subjects in high school: economics and philosophy, in particular, which I regard as essential tools for critical thinking. At this point, looking at the idiocy that people spread on social media, and hearing some of the things my own children bring home from school (this past year I had one child each in high school, middle school, and elementary), I actually fear that our civics education has been entirely corrupted or destroyed. Related to that, I fear that our kids aren’t being taught enough respect for history. Knowledge of our past and origin and a sense of existing in a community that has an existence backward and forward in time, with obligations both to the deceased and to the unborn, seems to be replaced with a preening belief in self.
2) How can it benefit writers to see themselves as start-ups? How can they prevent themselves from running out of money and will before getting somewhere?
Every writer IS a small business, whether she knows it or not. Thinking clearly about that fact will help the writer make better decisions. On the specific point you ask, a startup usually begins with a pile of cash from investors and aims to try to find a product that it can repeatably and scaleably get to investors to generate positive cash flow before that pile is exhausted. This, translated into the world of most writers, is “don’t quit your day job.” There are other ways to arrange cash flow to sustain you while you write, of course — many are supported by a partner while they write.
Think about the startup’s other priorities. You as a beginning writer is a startup, so you are trying to 1) build a profitable product that customers will buy and 2) reach a sustainably large pool of customers through a profitable distribution channel. The way startups do this is by experimentation. You should consider experimenting with your writing, and you DEFINITELY should be experimenting with your distribution channels, trying to find cost-effective ways to reach lots of readers. A good experiment is one that fails or succeeds quickly, so that you quickly get actionable data. Writing novels does NOT mean being an employee of a publisher, it means being an inventor on the search for customers.
Another point writers should think about is metrics. Peter Drucker taught business managers long ago that whatever they regularly measured would be produced in larger quantities. So what are you measuring in your writing business, in terms of productivity? Profitability? Customer reach?
And there’s more to say, about brand, and about the responsibility of choosing good joint venture partners (every agent or publisher or editor is a joint venture partner), and so on. This is a huge subject.
3) It strikes me that the Witchy Eye series isn’t put in the Young Adult bag. This is for one reason only (and understand I don’t agree with the reasoning but it is how publishing tends to run labeling), the main protagonist is fifteen years old. That should automatically put you in the Young Adult section. Has that ever come up? Has anyone in publishing, readers etc… ever mentioned it?
That’s an interesting question. Baen does suggest to librarians and others that it is a crossover YA story, which is not wrong, because 1) the central character is a young woman, and 2) her inner journeys are the inner journeys of a YA story: finding her place in the world, coming to terms with the legacy of her parents, struggling with love (of various sorts).
I think the reason why it makes sense to primarily think of the books as Epic Fantasy (with YA overtones, as they also have Alternate History overtones and Fairy Tale overtones) is that the books are big, sprawling, multi-POV, multi-generational stories about magic and the gods. I have had one YA reviewer, for instance, whose review started with the admission that the book was very challenging.
Having said that, my son read WITCHY EYE when he was 13. So when parents ask “is this suitable for young adults?”, I say “you won’t be offended by the content, but be aware that the writing can be challenging.” By “challenging” I mean that I don’t pull punches on vocabulary, I use dialect, the narrative is dense and allusive to much real-world history, religion, and culture, and I include whole paragraphs on untranslated non-English language.
4) There is a lot going on in this series to say the least. Without spoiling anything… you have alternative history, magic, religions, necromancy, real state(territory) names, changed names, a female protagonist who isn’t your typical Cinderella clean her up and boy isn’t she a looker… but instead sarcastic, not polished, doesn’t fit into social norms or dress up as a boy to get things done… I could keep going here… point being how did you come up with all these different things to put into one novel and second, what was your process for keeping it all straight. I was surprised at how coherent and streamlined it remained as you get deeper into the plot. What was the process to ensure that continuity with all the players on the board, places, identities etc… without it becoming a trainwreck? Just this question about it feels like an incoherent trainwreck.
At its heart, this is a story about three children trying to connect with their dead parents and their parents’ legacy. Those three children, as it happens, are modeled a little bit on my own three children. My older daughter’s eyes dilate at different rates, and I called her my Witchy-Eyed child from a very young age; my second daughter has dramatically curly hair; and my son has slightly mismatched ears (one was pressed against the side of his head in utero and never fully relaxed). The basic impetus for the setting is that I wanted to put the story in America, the land I love, and I wanted it to have a Brothers Grimm-ish feel, so that meant America before industrialization, and it also meant that I reorganized America as an elective empire, somewhat like the Holy Roman Empire.
The other ingredients that go into the stew, then, are the ingredients that go into America, including the languages (so far, the books contain German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Hebrew, Catalan, Latin, Igbo, and Ojibwe), the cultures, some of the individuals, the geography, and the religions. The Bible, in particular, plays a big role in the books, because it plays a big role in America. Many Americans have thought of themselves, and indeed many Americans still do think of themselves, as living within the Biblical epic, which means that you can’t tell a true story of America without reckoning with the Bible in an intimate way, and the Witchy War does—its characters get their religion, their history, their language, their culture, and even their magic from the Bible.
America is so big, there’s no way to systematically research it in time to write these books in one lifetime. So I am constantly reading, and pouring what I can into my writing. But a great way to think about these stories is as the Epic Fantasy of the Old, Weird America.
I have a sort of index to the books, but it’s incomplete and lags far behind the actual writing. Really, the way I keep it straight is that I reread the books myself, as I’m writing. Also, I have a good memory, and I use the searchable pdf files of the existing books to check my memory. Having said that, there will be inevitable mistakes, because I have chosen a large undertaking, so all I can do is beg the indulgence of my readers.
5) Having had experience with large and indie publishing companies, what would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Big publishers have money to pay advances and marketing, but only put that money behind a few writers. They offer good editing and often have great covers and layout, but your share is generally smaller. They get you into physical bookstores, but may be wedded to archaic and lumbering processes. Smaller publishers can be more nimble, but don’t have the reach and are sometimes very amateur. Smaller publishers can be tied up in the ego of one or two owners; big publishers these days are in a peculiar place politically, which you may or may not find agreeable.
I have been happy with all my publishers. I should say in particular that I am profoundly grateful to Toni Weisskopf and Baen Books for helping the Witchy War reach an audience that appreciates it. I think that in the future, most working writers will have multiple publishers and will also self-publish some work.
6) If there is anything you’ve ever wanted to express or say that you never had a chance…. because you weren’t asked the right question or just didn’t have the right platform… here’s your opportunity… whatever it is to whomever…. shoot..
I have one piece of advice to young writers, which I don’t give often, but which I try to model. Don’t use politics to sell books. Don’t try to create division among people or increase divisions in order to make money — that’s wicked. If you come by your political controversies naturally, and people who agree with your buy your books, that’s something else. But don’t stir up anger for money.
I’m a novelist living in the Rocky Mountain west. My training is in law, and I worked as a securities lawyer at a major international firm and inhouse at two multinational semiconductor manufacturers before setting up in solo practice. I’m a consultant and corporate trainer, teaching business acumen to employees of world-class companies.
I am a lover of language and languages, a guitarist and self-recorder, and a serious reader. I am married to a powerful and clever woman (also a novelist) and we have three devious children, but they don’t appear much in this blog (they do recur with some frequency in my social media posts). This blog, with all its meandering and changes of pace, is about writing.
I have been writing fiction since 2010. I write speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, space opera, steampunk, cyberpunk, superhero, alternate history, dystopian fiction, horror and related genres) for all audiences. I have written and am writing novels for middle grade, young adult and adult readers. I’m published by Knopf (The Kidnap Plot), WordFire Press(City of the Saints, Rock Band Fights Evil, The Buza System), and Baen (Witchy Eye).
I was also Acquisitions Editor at WordFire, from 2016 to 2018.
I tweet: @DavidJohnButler. I’m on Goodreads (somewhat passively), and you can reach me at email@example.com.
I am represented by Deborah Warren of East/West Literary.
My writing group is the Story Monkeys: Platte Clark, Michael Dalzen, Erik Holmes and Eric Patten. I perform semi-improvised interactive theater at sci-fi and fantasy conventions with the Space Balrogs: Holli Anderson, James Wymore, Jason King, Craig Nybo, and David J. West.
My wife Emily is also a novelist, and sometimes she and I work on projects together. Learn more about her and her writing at emilywritesbooks.com.