7 Questions With New York Times and U.S.A. Today Bestselling Author K.A. Riley
K.A. Riley is the author of the Young Adult Dystopian Conspiracy Chronicles (a nine-part series beginning with the novel, Recruitment) and the YA Fantasy Seeker’s World series. Riley is also a New York Times and U.S.A. Today best-selling author under a top-secret pen-name. Riley enjoys world-building, playground-making, intense character development, and, occasionally, rolling around on the floor with her dog.
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Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I plot. Extensively. I do this because I feel like I owe it to the characters in my novels. They’re real to me. I know that sounds slightly delusional, but if a writer doesn’t believe in his or her creations, why should anyone else? So I tend to be careful about what happens and when. I don’t even start writing until I have a complete, detailed outline. I consider myself ready to write only when I know the first and last line of each chapter!
Plotting like this also means a TON of research. For Recruitment, I researched everything from mountain flora and fauna to bird anatomy to advanced military weaponry and Panic Rooms. Before I even think about plot, I need to know the color of everyone’s clothes, the air temperature of every environment they wind up in, and the evolution of the various romantic and even adversarial relationships that are going to occur. It’s only after days and sometimes even weeks of research and note-taking that I feel remotely ready to start talking plot.
In order to develop a plot, I first need to listen to my characters. In my mind, they’re not just puppets on strings or creations who exist to do my bidding. They’re alive. They think, love, fret, and fear. I feel like I owe it to them and to my readers to be as meticulous as possible when helping them to lay out their lives.
This has been especially true with Recruitment and with the entirety of the Conspiracy Chronicles as they’ve gone on. It’s a nine-book series—basically, three sequential trilogies—so I need to know not just the story arc for one book but for the entire series. Along the way, I’ve come to know Kress and her friends quite well! With all the places they go, the people they meet, and the adventures they barely manage to survive, I need to have a solid-as-stone grasp on every aspect of their environment.
While I admire the heck out of those who are able to wing it and fly by the seat of their pants, I can’t imagine doing that, myself. Just the thought of it gives me the shakes and an uncontrollable eye-twitch!
What’s your definition of the first draft?
There’s a great quote by Hemingway that goes, “The first draft of anything is sh*t.” (I tend to avoid profanity in my writing, but I’m feeling moderately frisky at the moment.)
Anyway, he’s right. I’ve heard from bestselling authors who lament that with every single first draft they write, they go through a phase of, “This is horrible, this will never be good, this will destroy my career.” Yet somehow, they muscle through.
Writers have to remember that writing isn’t the act of typing words; it’s the act of taking a sketch and crafting it into something that speaks to their audience. So the first draft is that rough sketch: What happens? When? To whom? Great, now that’s sorted out. Time to shade and color and improve upon what’s there.
Shifting the writer as artist metaphor for a second, I guess I could also think of myself as a sculptor with the first draft being my ugly lump of clay. I mold it, poke it, slap and whack at it, and hope that at some point it starts to look like something remotely recognizable.
Over time, I think I’ve come to embrace rather than fear those early stages of grotesque imperfection. Instead, as I’m doodling my first sketch or molding the goopy, amorphous clay in those early stages, I try to focus on its potential.
Staying positive in those early stages keeps me motivated, it keeps me balanced, and it keeps me from launching myself in a fit of despondent angst from the top of a tall building onto rotating helicopter blades.
What are some common stereotypes related to the genre(s) you’re writing in?
The first assumption or stereotype is that the readers of YA fantasy and dystopian fiction are a uniform bunch of people. The reality, I’ve found, is that my readers—male and female—come in all shapes, sizes, ages, backgrounds, religions, political viewpoints, sexual orientations, and from all walks of life.
Second, when I say, “YA,” a lot of people figure it’s exclusively meant for thirteen to nineteen-year-old girls or something. And, of course, that is a large and important part of my readership. But I write for a much broader and deeper audience than that. The themes I explore—love, war, fantasy, alternate worlds, the nature of dreams—these are things that appeal to more than just young adults. The “YA” category is important, of course; it identifies a work where the protagonists are likely to be teenagers.
And yes—teenagers and young adults have their own set of questions, issues, tribulations, and triumphs. But it’s not like all that goes away the second you turn twenty. Underneath the dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and super-powered surface, that is largely what Recruitment is really about. I love this genre, not because it’s limited and exclusive, but because it’s the age when we’re building the foundation of who we’re going to be for the rest of our lives.
A third common stereotype making the rounds is that YA isn’t “real” literature. That’s also a crock, especially if you define “literature” as “compelling, memorable writing that touches your soul and makes a difference in your life.” Yes, there’s a definite place in writer heaven for the Shakespeares, Faulkners, Morrisons, and Atwoods. But heaven is a big place, and I’m sure there’s plenty of room as well for the Collinses, Roths, Olivers, and yes—even the K.A. Rileys of the writing world!
What should readers expect from your next novel?
The next book out in the nine-part Conspiracy Chronicles is Synthesis. With the same core characters returning from The Resistance Trilogy, Synthesis follows Survival and Sacrifice and ends the middle section (The Emergents Trilogy) of the three-trilogy series.
In Synthesis (due out February 19), Kress and her Conspiracy finally find themselves in Washington, D.C., the home of President Krug and the seat of the powerful politicians and the army responsible for the terrible tragedies being wreaked on the nation. Starting out from an underground bunker, Kress and Company prepare for their last, all-out war that will either save the nation or else see it finally and irreversibly destroyed.
Accompanied by their assembled allies of Survivalists, the Unkindness, and the Insubordinates, our heroes will reunite with old friends and make some mind-blowing discoveries (about themselves, their nation, and even about the nature of their actual universe!) as they battle against impossible odds.
Synthesis is meant to provide a better and more complete ground-level look at what goes on in the life of the Emergents. It’s not all death, chases, escapes, dystopian wastelands, futuristic techno-humanism, superpowered heroics, insane discoveries, epic battles, tragic deaths, effusive glory, and ignominious defeats. (Although Synthesis has ALL of that!)
The goal in this book is to allow relationships between characters to grow and develop as Kress, Brohn, Cardyn, Rain, Manthy, and the other extended members of the Conspiracy do simple things like hike along a river in the middle of the night through a series of abandoned suburbs on their way to the nation’s capitol. Or search for a rebel hideout somewhere in the heart of the city. Or get a look behind the curtain when they spy on what’s left of the country’s politicians and puppet masters. Or try to figure out how their four small armies can accomplish what none of them would have a chance in heck of accomplishing alone.
Synthesis is about bringing all this together, rolling it up with the action and environments of this dystopian world, popping it all into the ol’ creative oven, and digging in to what comes out.
Then, with The Resistance Trilogy and The Emergents Trilogy complete, I’m prepared to begin work on The Transcendent Trilogy, the last three books of the ennealogy.
What’s the best way for authors to approach self-promotion?
First, write a quality book. That’s it.
But, for the sake of depth and clarity, I’ll elaborate:
When I first began writing, algorithms were different. Promotion sort of just…happened. Visibility was easy, and an advertising budget beyond getting your books out regularly wasn’t a requirement. But nowadays, things have changed. My advice to authors is experiment with a limited budget. Figure out what works for you and your brand, because what works great for a Romance author won’t necessarily work for YA, and vice versa. It’s a complicated business and one that requires a lot of time.
The most important thing?
Write so readers will have something to share and enjoy. Word of mouth is invaluable (and free!).
As for the more formal avenues of promotion, I have a website, blog, and newsletter. Having ebooks, audiobooks, and paperbacks available aids in a more diversified portfolio for purposes of promotion. Book giveaways, contests for signed paperbacks, and such can be helpful as well in getting the word out about who you are and what you do.
Is there anything you learned from reader reviews?
Simply put, I learn EVERYTHING from reader reviews! Sure, my copy editors, proofreaders, book promoters, cover designers, brand managers, and supportive friends and family all have something to contribute, and I couldn’t do this without any of them. But the readers are really who it’s all about. That’s why I write. So, when reader reviews come in, I take them seriously and treat each of them—no matter how glowingly positive or soul-crushingly negative—as important and worthy of my attention.
The wonderful feedback I got from Recruitment led me to keep certain things going in Render and Rebellion, books two and three of The Resistance Trilogy. Other feedback helped certain elements of The Conspiracy Chronicles evolve in better, more fulfilling ways. Some plot threads happen organically. Others, I’ve planned out. But many of the directions the characters wind up going has a lot to do with reader response. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the attachment many readers have to certain characters. Someone like Manthy, for example, began as kind of a secondary character. Almost an after-thought. But readers kept asking about her and commenting about her until she wound up becoming a central figure in the stories.
Now that I’m finishing up The Emergents Trilogy and beginning The Transcendent Trilogy, I’ve accumulated dozens of pages of notes—all from readers—about things that are working and things they’d like to see happen going forward. It’s not that I’m a slave to reviewers. As the saying goes, “Try to please all and you end up pleasing none.” But I’ll never be dismissive of anyone who took the time to sit down and share their thoughts, and I’ll always take the praise and accolades as a chance to keep the best parts of my work moving in a positive trajectory.
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And check out Lost in Amber: An Out Of This World Paranormal Romance if enjoy girl power, adventure & a toe-curling love story.
She just wanted to mope over her breakup but the universe had other plans for Zoey Mills.
Read the full blurb here.