In my fifth SPFBO author interview I spoke with Joanna Maciejewska the author of the Pacts Arcane and Otherwise series, book 1 By the Pact is her entrant into the competition.
- Hi Joanna, tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to write?
Hello, nice to meet you all. My name is Joanna. I grew up in Poland, and after college I moved to Ireland. I stayed there for over 8 years, but then winds of adventure and romance carried me overseas to the US. Since then, I’ve already bounced from Arizona to Virginia, so it seems that I’m a bit of a nomad… who loves to spend all her time at home, among her books, writing, and video games.
I think writing was always a part of me. I learned to read very early, and I always entertained myself with weaving stories (growing up in a communist Poland meant little access to other entertainment) and creating rhymes. Then, as a teen, I discovered fantasy and science fiction and wanted to write my own stories, so it seemed like a natural outlet for my creativity.
At the same time, there are two people to whom I should give credit to when it comes to inspiring me. The first one is Piotr Schmidtke, a friend who was the first person to publish my stories on an online platform. The love he gave my writing over twenty years ago (and still generously gives it) likely put me on that path for good. The second one is Inq So, my husband, who encouraged me to write in a second language. Without him, I’d likely never have tried writing in English.
- What appeals to you most about the fantasy genre?
As a reader, I love the sense of wonder that is inherent to the genre. I want to experience the magic and the adventure without the risk of being eaten by a dragon, losing my limb in an epic battle, or having to commit to one world for longer than it takes to read a book or a series.
As a writer, I’m fascinated by how different worlds and settings can affect humans and their culture, and how people might make different choices in such circumstances… while at the same time all the things that make us human, good and bad, still remain.
- Tell us a little bit about your latest project and the challenges you’ve faced putting it all together?
I always chuckle at such questions, because I tend to work on many things at the same time, so it’s hard not to ask “which latest project?”. But let’s focus on Pacts Arcane and Otherwise, my epic fantasy series, which gets the most of my attention at the moment. Before I first started writing By the Pact, I had a bout of feeling uncreative, and my husband said, “let’s play video games and get inspired”. I spent two weeks playing Skyrim again, and thinking not only about what I loved in the game, but also about elements of fantasy, epic fantasy in particular. In most classics, there’s always the great evil to conquer in order to save the world, and that got me thinking: what if you had to free the great evil to save the world? I combined it with a few other ideas that seemed to go well together, and the story slowly took shape.
The biggest challenge for me is always writing itself: English is my second language, so there are times I struggle to find the right sentence structure or words to convey what I want to say. That also makes me a rather slow writer.
Another challenge was the story as a whole. It’s an epic fantasy with many characters involved and many interwoven plots spanning four books, so I have to keep track of all of them. Particularly in book 3, Shadows over Kaighal which I’m finishing at the moment, characters move around quite a lot within a limited time span, so I had to make sure they are at the right places at the right time. I ended up making a spreadsheet to keep track of their whereabouts.
- What type of characters do you like to write the most and how much of yourself do you put into them?
I like characters who act smart. I’m that person who you would see yelling at the tv when characters ignore the knowledge they already have, and in the past, repetitive unreasonable behaviors of protagonists made me abandon books, so I try to avoid it in my own writing. I love good banter too, so my characters tend to have a lot of witty exchanges. I suppose many of my characters have a titbit of my personality, and in general, I try to model them after how real people behave. Sometimes I have fun with it too: one of the projects I’m working on is a contemporary fantasy series set in Dublin altered by a magical war, and I thought it would be fun to make the main character an immigrant from Poland. This way, I could draw from my own experiences and add the authenticity to how she perceives Dublin. At the same time, even though we share some of the background, she isn’t me, and I’m not sure if I’d make the same choices she makes.
- For any wannabe writers out there what’s the most useful thing you’ve learned?
I think the two most useful things are: embrace “good enough” and learn to move on. I think many beginner writers get stuck in making their first novel perfect, revising, altering and polishing it… and wasting years with little progress. While it’s important to revise and edit, there’s only so much you can learn from the same novel, and sometimes being close to it makes you unable to see its flaws, perhaps even the fatal ones that might make the project unsalvageable. Distance and perspective of another book and then another and another not only helps to see the first project for what it is, but it also gives you tools to go back and fix it if you still love it or believe in it.
That isn’t to say that anyone should settle for mediocre or unpolished projects, but I think it’s important to know when to stop. It’s better to have 10 good books or 5 very good books than 1 near-perfect book that will be ready as soon as you make those final changes—especially that which you consider your best book and what your agent, publisher, or reader considers the best might be very different.
Besides, looking realistically, if you want to be a writer, you have to have more than one story to tell. And if you want to make a living as a writer, you have to, well, write more and faster. It doesn’t necessarily mean a book in a month, but trust me, you won’t have 10 years per book.
- What writing tricks do you utilise to hit your deadlines and keep your stories on track?
I try to avoid setting deadlines. If I could, I’d make sure that I have everything ready before I even have to set one, which really translates to setting generously distant deadlines that account for “everything that could go wrong” and not taking on more than I can handle. Other than that, it’s just the discipline and knowing which tasks to prioritize. That’s why I always deliver my freelance projects before the deadline and—so far—release my books on time, but not always win NaNoWriMo or respond to an email.
- Are you a plotter or a pantser (make it up as you go)?
I consider myself a plotter as I don’t feel entirely comfortable not having any idea of where I’m going. At the same time, I don’t really outline: my plotting consists of the general idea of the plot and key things that have to happen. I fill the rest in as I develop the setting, the characters, and the story, and then while I write, some things naturally fall into place… or out of place. I suppose that puts me somewhere in between the hardcore plotters who write detailed outlines of each chapter and true pantsers who need as little as “there is a person in a room” to start writing.
- What plans do you have for the future? A new series or perhaps a dip into other genres?
I plan to finish Pacts Arcane and Otherwise series first. It’s meant to be four books with possible continuation or spinoffs in the future. Book 2, Scars of Stone, will be released on July 10th, 2021, and I’m wrapping up book 3 for a 2022 release. After book 4 is done, I’ll likely focus on my contemporary fantasy set in Ireland, since I’ve already made progress on the first three books in that series. Beyond that? Anything is possible! I have some other fantasy series in the works, and I also have a several ideas for science fiction books. There might be a few fantasy and science fiction romances along the way too… In short, I’m too slow of a writer for the amount of the ideas I have.
- With the world the way it is at the moment what sort of tales do you prefer? Ones with heroes where good triumphs over evil or ones that take a darker approach?
In general, regardless of the current state of the real world, I prefer my books to be on the brighter side, but as a reader, I don’t shy away from darker themes, as long as there’s at least a glimmer of hope or a satisfying conclusion—not necessary a happy ending, but a fitting one. Darkness for the sake of shocking the reader doesn’t appeal to me.
As a writer, though, it seems I’m incapable of writing darker fiction. In the end there’s always some banter or friendship. I might have once written a novel that you could summarize with “everybody dies at the end”, but when I was thinking about a possible sequel, it turned out hardly anyone actually died.
- What’s better, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or Star Wars?
Now that’s an interesting question. Am I allowed to say none? Having grown up in Poland, in the times of political and social changes, I wasn’t as exposed to Western pop-culture as much as people actually living in it. Because of that, I’ve read Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series (waiting for the author to finish writing each book) before I discovered Tolkien. I watched Star Wars quite late in my life and I enjoyed it but didn’t get hooked. And while I also enjoyed Harry Potter, it first released in Poland when I was approaching my 20th birthday and I’ve already read speculative fiction broadly and voraciously, so it didn’t have that formative effect on me. So, in the end, none of these franchises enchanted me enough to side with one.
Instead, my vote would go to The Witcher, based solely on the fact that I’ve read the whole saga at least a dozen times in my late teens and early twenties.
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