Interview With Author Mark Cain

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

My name is Mark Cain. I’m a writer living just west of Austin, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. I’ve written eight novels, six of them part of a humorous fantasy series called CIRCLES IN HELL.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

The setting for most of the stories in my series is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno.

There is, however, a real-life component to most of them. In life, Steve, the protagonist of books one through five, hated home improvement projects. He was also terrible at them. Because my version of Hell emphasizes psychological over physical torment, his punishment is to do Mr. Fixit projects for eternity. My own personal distaste for handyman projects was the inspiration for Steve’s highly-personalized damnation.

Oh, I also had a career as a manager, and you will see in all of my books many examples of management techniques running amok. You know, nonsensical personnel evaluations, work orders, management retreats, brainstorming exercises, and so forth. I find this funny, as well as revenge of sorts against these so-called best practices.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

I’m an ENTP on the Myers-Briggs scale. The N in this stands for intuitive (over its alternative – S — for sensing). N versus S: it’s a spectrum, and I don’t have any S in my profile. I’m all intuition (well, mostly). That means I’m an idea machine. Creativity comes naturally to me, like breathing.

How do you deal with creative block?

I don’t really get it, but like anyone else, I can lose forward momentum. When that happens, I just rely on my writing discipline/routine to get me through.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Losing sight of your audience is a big one. That’s true no matter what you write, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short pieces, long pieces, etc. If you want to communicate, you have to write to and for your audience. You have to connect with them.

Not properly pacing a book is another mistake. These days, few readers will forgive a book that stalls for long periods or digresses, disrupting the narrative flow. There are probably numerous reasons for the impatience of modern readers, reasons I won’t go into here, but a book needs to maintain a certain momentum. I’ve read many writers who are quite capable, but they sabotage themselves by letting their books stall.

A corollary to this is not being willing to be a ruthless editor of your own stuff. I recently wrote a hysterical scene for my soon-to-be-released novella, SAINT PETER TAKES A HOLIDAY, but I cut it out because it disrupted the flow of the story.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

They need to fit the genre and your particular books, obviously. I write bright comedies about Hell. Most people who write about Hell tell dark stories. Even the comedies tend to be dark. Since my books are not like that, I need covers that help communicate at a glance what the reader can expect. I opted for a cartoonish quality with the designs, using bright, often primary colors. Find a designer that “gets” you, communicate precisely what you have in mind, and don’t settle. Don’t accept the final product until you’re satisfied.

Titles are a form of writing. They are also marketing. Create titles that help sell your books.

And make sure titles and covers are consonant with each other. If the two don’t reinforce each other in some way, you’ve done something wrong.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I’m one of those masochistic writers who reads all my reviews. I can get one hundred great ones, but it’s the negative ones I obsess over. (Yes, I realize that’s not healthy.) Intellectually, though I understand that not every book is going to be liked by every person. This is especially true in comedy, which is so subjective. Usually, when I get upset with the negative stuff, I stop reading reviews for a while. Then, when I come back to my books’ online presence, I always find that I’ve picked up many more positive reviews than negative ones.

How has your creation process improved over time?

I’m much more disciplined. I don’t write every day, but when working on a project, I write a minimum of 1000 words a day, five days a week. I then kick over to editing. When I’m on a roll, I work on two projects at a time, like drafting one book as I edit the next. Right now, I’m reviewing an audiobook for the seventh installment in my series while I’m drafting the eighth. Since I am an independent author, I’m responsible for all aspects of production. I’ve gotten very good at juggling the roles of writer, editor, art director, marketer, and so forth.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

Best: finally finding a measure of success with my writing.

Worst: trying for so many years, without achieving that success.

Most surprising: finding that success after those decades of failure.

What continues to surprise me is how popular and enduring this series is. I wrote what I though was a very good book, not part of the series, back in 2007, yet it hardly sold anything. A few years later, I started my comedy series. The first book on its own did nothing. Not until the second book, A COLD DAY IN HELL, was published, did the series take off.

To this day, I still don’t know why the series suddenly became popular. I’ve speculated that it was the “series” effect, or that I had three books in the series come out within four months of each other (long story), but I really don’t know what it was. Over the years, I’ve sworn by search engine optimization (SEO) or some other solution-du-jour, but the continuing success has been a mystery, a happy surprise.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

Over the years, I’ve done some soul searching on this. I would have to say it’s a balance of the two, because while I want to satisfy myself, at the end of the day I want my stuff to be read. My readers like CIRCLES IN HELL and its characters, and so I’ve tried to make the series open-ended, like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. But I can’t keep writing about Steve forever. Now, I’m having other protagonists. I’m using different perspectives, first person or third person limited or third person omniscient. I even have an upcoming book that will be done in epistolary style. By experimenting with different characters and writing techniques, I provide myself a measure of personal and professional satisfaction while, I hope, at the same time entertaining my readers and keeping the series alive and vibrant.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

A negative one, generally, or so it seems to me. When my emotions get involved in the creative process, the tend to be destructive. Self-doubt, anger, etc., sap my energy and undermine my discipline as a writer.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

Yes. When I’m trying to describe a scene, I’ll often write down the five senses and try to “populate” them. What do things look like? Smell like? Feel like? Etc. If I’m stuck on plot ideas, I do brainstorming exercises.

What are your plans for future books?

Within the series, I’m now trying to give my readers stories on a regular basis. I’ve started to alternate novellas with novels, attempting to produce one every three months. I could never do a full novel, even a short one as my books tend to be, in three months, but I think I can manage a shorter tale followed by a longer one. Rinse and repeat.

The novella, SAINT PETER TAKES A HOLIDAY, OR IT’S ABOUT time, is the first of four planned. They will be complete stories, but my intention is to interconnect them with the fourth novella. In this way, someone could read a single novella and be completely satisfied, yet if that person gets through all four, the books will appear to “lock” together.

THE LEAGUE OF UNUSUAL DENIZENS is the next novel in the series, and I hope to have it out in mid-January. We’ll see.

I’ve already mentioned the upcoming book in epistolary style.

Beyond that, I’ve considered starting another series, one which I’ll just vaguely describe here as urban mythology. We’ll see if I have the energy to pursue that idea!

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself

Let’s see. Probably the quirkiest thing about me is that I play the tuba. I perform the introductory themes on all of my audiobooks. On YouTube, you can hear me solo on Rubber Duckie as part of a brass quintet.

The rest is pretty dull, I’m afraid. I’m a foodie and a wine, beer and coffee snob. I like to travel, but I’m really a homebody. Life-long exerciser who is getting bored with it. I’m married and have an adult son. I’m a neat freak. Yep, pretty normal. I’d go with the tuba bit, if I were you.


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