Holiday Guest Author: Barbara Friend Ish

This holiday season, I’ve decided to promote some of my writer friends and ask some of the questions that folks ask me. Today’s guest/victim is:

Barbara Friend Ish 


First, a little something about Barbara.

     Writer, publisher, slave of cats: Barbara Friend Ish is Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, and Wild-Eyed Visionary for Mercury Retrograde Press, which publishes Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Interstitial novels and novellas: a small press dedicated to unconventional authors and works that might undeservedly slip through the cracks at bigger houses. After earning a Bachelor’s in English from Rice University, Barbara divided her time between working with small groups of entrepreneurs who didn’t know any better than to start their own companies and swimming against the current of the publishing industry, eventually co-founding Be Mused, an author services company devoted to helping authors and small publishers develop books. She founded Mercury Retrograde Press in 2007. She is insufferably proud of the authors with whom she works, including multi-award-nominated Edward Morris, author of the transgressionist althistory series There Was a Crooked Man; Zachary Steele, whose debut novel Anointed: The Passion of Timmy Christ, CEO was considered for the 2010 Sidewise Award; and talented fantasists Leona Wisoker and Larissa N. Niec.

Books edited by Barbara have been covered by Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Locus Magazine, The Midwest Book Review, SciFiDimensions, American Freethought, Baby Got Books, SFScope, SFSignal, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, January Magazine and Green Man Review. She has been featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and on Baby Got Books and SF Signal, and has appeared at The Atlanta Book Show, RavenCon, Faerie Escape: Atlanta and Opus Fest.

Barbara’s debut novel, The Shadow of the Sun, is scheduled for release in February 2011. The first volume of the fantasy series The Way of the Gods, The Shadow of the Sun tells the story of a defrocked wizard, his quest for redemption, and his struggle against the evil in his soul.

For the past 22 years Barbara has been married to her one true love, one of the very first ColdWar-era Soviet émigrés. Together they have ridden the roller coasters of multiple start-up businesses (his and hers) and the raising of two children. Current projects include a garden entirely bereft of nutritional value and a search for the perfect bottle of champagne.

Born in Chicago, at various times in her life Barbara has called Philadelphia, Houston, New Jersey, and Atlanta home. She currently resides in Atlanta, GA, with her husband, her daughter, and two high-maintenance cats. Barbara is qualified to speak about writing and publishing, creativity and overcoming creative blocks. She has opinions on a plethora of other topics as well.


Let’s get started:

At what age did you start writing or know that you wanted to write?

I’m irresistibly hard-wired for story. When I figured out that books were made by people (instead of just manifesting magically from whatever mysterious source also provided television and shampoo, I suppose) I knew I wanted to make them. The first time I had the magical experience of  “falling into” a story as a writer I was nine years old, in the midst of one of those “draw a picture and write a story” exercises they give in elementary school. I was immediately so immersed that I forgot to finish the assignment.

I’m not entirely sure what that says about me as a writer.


Where do your ideas come from?

Mostly from things that are mysterious to me, which I want to figure out. The fantasy series I’m working on right now arose from a question that flitted through my head one day: If the gods of ancient myth were real, where did they come from? Once I have a question, I start doing research. Eventually my brain gets so full of bits of idea that they coalesce into something big enough to support a story.


Do you base your characters on people you know or know of? Family or celebrities?

Not even a little bit. They are all figments of my imagination. My day-to-day involves conflicts between my imaginary friends; that’s not weird, right?


Do you plot out your stories or just make it up as you go?

For first drafts, I more or less “seat-of-the-pants” my way through it. The idea I’m pursuing will begin to suggest characters to me; naturally the main character is the one most affected by the story problem I’m constructing. Once I have characters and a problem, the plot of the story arises from the characters’ attempts to solve the problem. I will sit down to write with an idea of where the story starts and what the end-state will be, but it’s all very fluid in the beginning.

For me the first draft is a way of exploring the characters and all the ways the problem affects them, and I mostly follow them around as they develop the tale. Once I have a first draft, and thus a fairly coherent story and character set, then I sit down and plan before I begin developing the version of the story that will go to press. This time I’ll have a firm and fairly detailed plot plan. But because I write the second draft from the ground up, and nothing can tame Writer Brain, surprises will still arise. Eventually I’ll deviate from the plot plan. Sometimes, by the last third of the novel I’m writing all the planned plot points but they mean completely different things from what I expected.

I find planning extremely useful, particularly when I’m writing a story that has a lot of moving parts. But I think it’s important to accept it when one’s instinctive Writer Brain knows better.

Shadow front cover RGB

Do you listen to music while you write and if so, what do you listen too?

Sometimes. My favorite way to write is in quiet, but I live in civilization and that’s not always possible. When I do write to music, it has to be entirely instrumental and not distracting. I listen to a lot of modernist cello, especially Zoe Keating and Hildur Gudnadottir, and modernist classical e.g. the Kronos Quartet.

But I find other kinds of music useful during the walking-around-thinking part of story development. Here I use playlists that draw on a lot of different genres, including traditional (e.g. Celtic) and all the flavors of rock. In this setting, lyrics can be useful springboards into thinking about my characters and their situations, in much the same way a song that speaks to you seems to be about your own life.


Can you tell about your experiences working with publishers? Any juicy or painful experiences?

I am a publisher, and I’m here to subvert this question. I’ve been in the industry in one way or another for a long time, and it has been in a state of ongoing, world-shaking change for nearly two decades. That’s not going to end anytime soon. It’s confusing—but it offers writers more freedom than ever before. Publishers can offer real value to writers, but writers no longer need blindly accept whatever publisher is willing to take them on. In my experience the most important factor in a writer’s publishing life is not who publishes their work, but whether they make a good match.

Most publishing houses are businesses. They have to make payroll and pay rent. That means most publishers, particularly the big ones, can’t afford to put artistic sensibilities at the top of their priority lists; they must expect the writers they work with to approach what they do as guild craftspeople, not artists. Guild craftspeople show up for work every day and make what can be sold, in a timely fashion and without a lot of fuss. Have you ever seen a furniture maker experience creative block? It doesn’t happen, because they know what their market wants and show up every day to create it. For writers who aren’t wired to work that way, who want to pursue personal visions without regard for the imperatives of turning a profit, working under contract with a publisher is almost guaranteed to be a painful experience.

Naturally, the publishing house I run was founded as a way out of this mindset. But putting art first creates other problems, which I am still working to solve. Ultimately, the only way a writer will have a satisfying publishing experience is by figuring out what she wants out of her publishing life and choosing the appropriate publishing path. Happy publishing experiences, like happy marriages, arise from good matches in fundamental values and styles.

There are other ways to land in unhappy publishing situations, of course. There are quite a number of people operating in the publishing arena, whether as agents, publishers, or editors, who are either not interested in providing or not equipped to actually render the services for which writers engage them. Writers can protect themselves by checking up on the reputations of their potential publishing partners. (I’m including agents and editors here.) If a writer encounters someone who wants to work with her in any of these areas, doing the research—and being realistic—can save her much pain. (“Being realistic”? Here I mean taking off the rose-colored glasses. If people are complaining about somebody in the field, there’s probably something there, and you will probably not have a happy experience where others did not.)

Publishers have much to offer writers. But self-publishing is a truly viable option. Among other things, this means there is no reason for a writer to settle for a publisher that is not a good match for her own needs. If you handle your own publishing or choose a small press, an agent is probably not necessary early in your career, either.


Do you have a routine when you write?

To call it a routine might be overselling it. I have practices that make it easier and/or more fun. I am at my best in my study, at the desk that my daughter made just the right height by creating risers painted like planets for the legs. I like to wear a particular light jacket, weather permitting. Because I only wear this jacket at home, wearing it means I am—how can I say this without sounding nutty?—sort of invisible. This is important to my neurotic writer brain, because the sense that people are watching makes me self-conscious and thus unable to create.

I love to drink coffee or tea when I write, but I am learning to keep hydrated, so I keep it down to about a cup or so a day now. And sometimes, when I’m really in the groove, I light up some incense for atmosphere.


Who were your inspirations?

Like many genre writers, I had a life-altering encounter with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as a kid. I still carry with me memories of what it was like to read those books before my innocent reader-eye was spoiled by working in the craft, and it helps me think about the experiences I want to create for my own readers. Other early inspirations included Roger Zelazny, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, and all of world myth. Today I’m inspired by writers who are re-imagining genre for this century, whose works are informed by the way our society is growing into true respect and inclusion for all.


What book do you read over and over the most?

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Every time I read it, I take away something new about the universal phenomena of story and what they mean to humans. And it is one of my favorite tools for thinking about whatever story I’m working on.


Is there a book or book series that you recommend to people?

I never stop recommending Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen. It never got the attention it deserved, and it’s out of print now, but you can still buy it used. For writers to whom plot doesn’t come easily, it’s a godsend.



What genre do you prefer to write?  To read?

I prefer to write speculative fiction, which is a catch-all term that includes fantasy, science fiction, horror, and works less easily classified. My ideas and works frequently blur the lines between genres, so I like that umbrella term.

As I reader, I mostly divide my time between spec fic and nonfiction. I’m constantly reading in a variety of disciplines as background for the fiction I write, and I also devour books on business and media as well as the craft of storytelling in all its forms.


Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?  And why?

I’m definitely a long-form writer. Most of the stories that appeal to me as a writer go beyond normal novel length, so I tend towards ultra-thick novels and series. This is because I’m a born synthesist: I love putting ideas together and figuring out how large systems work. And unlike many writers who tend toward the big ideas as the basis for their work, I am equally fascinated by deep, strange characters. Putting these things together yields books of, well, unusual size.


What are you working on now?

This area of my life in is always divided into at least two functions: creating and publishing. On the creative side, I’m working on The Heart of Darkness, the sequel to The Shadow of the Sun. It is doorstop-sized fantasy, the second of a series, which is what happens when ideas are too big for one book. On the publishing side, I’m in the process of developing a fairly radical new publishing model that I hope will address the problems of publishing art-first writers in today’s chaotic market. We’ll begin testing it next year.

Barbara Friend Ish 2015

Is Writer’s Block ever a problem for you?  If so, how do you deal with it.

In my experience, writer’s block means one of two things: either there’s something wrong with the story, or there’s something (probably depression) wrong with the writer. If my problem is psychological, I have to look at my life away from the keyboard. Because I wear a bunch of different hats, it’s far too easy for me to take on too much and burn myself out.

If that’s not the case, then there’s a problem with the story. Writer Brain is nonverbal, but knows all. If there’s a flaw in my plot or a gap in a character’s motivation, Writer Brain will simply halt all production. Then it’s my job to figure out what the problem is.

My method for this is analysis. I chart plot and character arcs against a variety of models; I read literary criticism. I’m a complete geek, but it works for me.


What 3 things do you feel every aspiring writer should know?

  1. There is no universal authority that anoints good writers and rejects bad ones. If a particular {reader/publisher/agent} doesn’t respond positively to your work, it doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad. It may just be that you haven’t found the right market yet. (If it is bad, however, no one with whom you have a personal relationship is likely to tell you so. And anyone in your personal life who is willing to volunteer that sort of information is likely to be doing so out of a destructive impulse, whether conscious or not.)
  2. Every writer and every work, without exception, needs a professional editor. Your {mother/aunt/friend} who is a {teacher/paralegal/aspiring writer} does not count. If you are self-publishing, pay a professional to do this. If you are considering selling your work to a publisher, be sure their process includes having an editor work with you before publication.
  3. Always follow the submission guidelines. Every outlet has their own, and they are not arbitrary. Failing to follow the submission guidelines marks a writer as (a) too dim to understand them (b) too precious to work with or (c) both.



How do you use social media in regards to your writing?

I use social media to keep in touch with and share things with friends and fans. I find it offputting when people use social media as an advertising medium. That doesn’t mean I don’t share news about my work with my friends and fans; evidently they want to know how the sequel to the book they liked is progressing, when I’ve released a novel, when I’ve written a blog post, where they can read an interview with me, etc. They’re pretty excited about contests that might get them cool stuff, particularly when the contest itself is fun. But most of us don’t want to be socially connected with people who spend all their bandwidth trying to sell us something or—heaven forfend—get us to spam/give up our friends as advertising fodder, and it would make me feel weird and dirty to try.

If you want to learn how to use social media as a professional artist, go read Tara Hunt’s The Whuffie Factor.



Do you read reviews of your books?  If so, have you ever engaged a reviewer over comments they’ve made?

I do. These days it is a very common idea that reading one’s own reviews can only be destructive; I don’t think that’s true. We write stories in order to create experiences that affect our readers; reviews are frequently a window into the effect our work has. They can be hard to read, and sometimes just plain wrong; but if we can muster the discipline to analyze how our work is being received, we may learn ways to improve our craft, our marketing efforts, or both.

Naturally, every writer has to maintain his own mental health practices, and some simply can’t tolerate reading reviews. Others can’t restrain the impulse to fight with reviewers they think are wrong, or lash out when they feel hurt by what they’ve read. Anybody in these categories should stay away from their own reviews (and, incidentally, from googling themselves). There is never anything good a writer can accomplish by arguing with readers about their own work, irrespective of the venue in which the fight goes down. Winning such a fight makes a writer a bully; losing makes him, at best, a fool. I’ve seen writers do irreparable damage to their reputations that way.

However, under certain circumstances I think it’s not only all right but appropriate to respond to reviews. In particular, if a reader-blogger goes to the trouble to review your work, a “thank you” note is a nice gesture, whether or not you agree with all of their conclusions. (Unless, of course, the blogger in question is explicitly opposed to being in contact with writers. Some are.) Reader-bloggers are almost always unpaid for their work, and they represent one of the most important avenues of book discovery (i.e., how readers find new books). They can be powerful allies—and getting a “thank you” often really matters to them.


Thanks Barbara. To learn more about her, click below: